Friday, December 20, 2013

Gliding along: Skating alone

Along about Monday or Tuesday, L.L. Bean is going to deliver a pair of hockey skates right to my front door. Are they a Christmas present for my new grandson? Nah... He's too young. They're for me. And don't go saying, "He's too old." I can still cut a neat line in the ice, given a sharp edge. They've opened a new skating rink in Springfield and I find myself without a pair of skates.

This story is complicated. Emotionally, that is... It's about aging and fleeting dreams. Sound familiar? But it's also about my relationship with my father and being the odd-man-out. And about that one materialistic item we have always wanted all our lives. For some, that might be a Mercedes or a Porsche. For others, it might be an extended cruise or maybe even something as simple as a dog. For me it's always been a decent pair of hockey skates.

I've been a life long skater, from when I was a kid living in an apartment in Woodhaven, Queens, next to a little used side street where we would play roller hockey on skates with four steel wheels. We played from after school until dinner time, stopping every-now-and-then to let a car pass through. We dreamed we were playing for the N.Y. Rangers and, daily, crushed the hated Bruins. All the other kids had Union skates, the popular brand. I had J.C. Higgins, the Sears brand my father bought for me. They differed in one easily noticeable aspect, the wheels were rounded at the edges. No matter, we all skated until we wore them out and they had to be replaced.

Those J.C. Higgins skates, and perhaps the J.C. Higgins hand-me-down bicycle I used all the way through high school, cast me as an outsider - something that would stay with me all my life. There... I've traced it all the way back to its origins.

One year, when the old man asked us kids what  we wanted for Christmas, I told him ice skates, hockey skates in particular. I doubt I was able to hide my disappointment when I opened the box I was sure would fulfill my dreams and found a pair of figure skates.

"The salesman told me it's easier to learn how to ice skate on figure skates," he said. "Besides, you can still play hockey in those."

Ever been struck on the side of the foot with a frozen puck traveling about 100 miles per hour? In a pair of figure skates?

Again, as we played pond hockey on the frozen-over Saw Mill River, I would play not offense, not defense, but outsider. Even the competition took pity on me when I would limp off the ice with a throbbing foot.

It took me years to realize this, but the old man must have gotten a deal on those skates. I don't want to say he was cheap. But, he was always on the lookout for a bargain.

Years later, when I was in college and he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told him I wanted a pair of hockey skates. Colby was a big hockey school, and besides having one of the best teams in the country at the time, the rink was available for recreational skating in lieu of regular gym class. And so I got the skates. They may not have been top of the line, but I was satisfied with them. After all, I wasn't going to play varsity hockey. But there was inter-fraternity hockey. And I figured I was good enough for that.

Fraternity activities are not exactly for outsiders. If it seems surprising that I was in a fraternity at all, consider that, as far as fraternities at Colby went, mine was the ultimate outsider. But, we could play hockey with the big boys, because we had a goalie that could stop anything that came his way. He was also an outsider. That may have given him the "show me your best shot" attitude that a goaltender needs. The varsity coach kept trying to recruit him, but he preferred to play Bridge with the chair of the English department and a couple other members of the faculty.

My brothers on the team were mostly from New England, and had played organized hockey all the while I was playing roller hockey and pond hockey. They came equipped with big overstuffed hockey gloves and all the proper padding. I rolled up some newspapers and taped them around my shins, under my pants. They had regulation sticks and the same CCM Tackaberry skates the players on varsity wore. I had my old, under-sized stick from when I was a kid. Let's face it, I looked about as far-out as Billie Pilgrim in Slaughter House Five. They never put me on the ice. Not once. Not even in the closing minutes of a 10-0 game.

Would no one have pity on on the poor boy? Fuck, no...

I left school after sophomore year and enlisted in the Coast Guard - the best decision I ever made in a life full of spontaneous, bad choices... When I returned to Colby, four years later, I still had my old skates, and would skate before class in the deserted rink just for exercise. I had a stick and a puck and would shoot around just for the heck of it. A guy who had been in my Latin class in my freshman year had also dropped out and returned. He had played defense on the freshman team. We would skate together sometimes, but he was fond of sneaking up behind me as I was gliding along and stealing the puck. I preferred to skate alone.

Well, anyway... I've lost track of my old skates. I picture them rusting in the basement of my old house in New York. I skated a few times while I was in law school. We used to pay a buck to watch the Rangers practice at Skateland, just a couple miles from my house. We'd snag some tickets from scalpers outside Madison Square Garden, every-now-and then, and regularly attended Long Island Ducks games in the Comack Arena. Ah, the Eastern Hockey league... The world of "Slap Shot," the hockey nerd's cult movie... When the Islanders joined the NHL, I carried season tickets for a couple years, until the kids started coming along.

Later, when my daughter Rachel was a little girl, I taught her how to ice skate at Skateland, and I would take her to skate every Sunday morning while the rest of the world was taking their kids to church. I understand that Skateland has since been converted to a roller rink. I also switched over to in-line roller skates and kept right on skating with Amy's kids, even after we moved to Ohio. The bike path was perfect for us. But that was a good ten years ago. In the interim, I have been content to watch Division III college hockey over the Internet, dreaming of kicking up a spray of ice as I skate in on the goalie and slip one under his pads.

I've been thinking about that new pair of hockey skates, since I heard they were going to open a rink in Springfield. It came to a head yesterday when we were over at the mall. I found a way to sneak off from Amy and slipped into Dick's. I asked a salesgirl where they kept the ice skates.

"We don't have ice skates," she said.

"How about hockey equipment?" I asked.

She got on her two-way radio. "Do we carry hockey equipment?"

The answer was no.

I was sure Dick's carried a full line of hockey stuff. Then I remembered that was the old Dick's, when it was across the street from the mall. I sunk into a deep state of depression, which was only worsened when I went on the Internet on my smartphone while still in the mall, and made a couple of calls, and determined that ice skates are hard to come by anywhere in southwestern Ohio - two stores in Cincinnati and a couple in Columbus, none of which carried the skates I wanted. I was going to have to order them online without trying them on.

When we got home, I got on a real computer and started bargain hunting, and trying to figure out what size to get - skate shoe sizes differ from regular shoes. L.L. Bean had the best deal, the best reputation for reliability, and someone who could chat with me online about sizing. I placed my order.

Free shipping and 2-3 day delivery... Merry Christmas! At the age of 69 years, I am finally about to get the hockey skates I always wanted. What's next, a pair of gloves, a proper stick..?

I have a friend who always wanted a Henry rifle. Finally, in his 70s, he bought one and mounted it on the wall in his home. He has never fired it.

Could it be time to hang up my skates, after all? No way!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The play's the thing

When I first started writing plays a few years ago, I was immediately impressed by how much easier it seemed than any of the other types of writing I had done. Partly, I thought, it was due to the fact that the director and actors would sort out all the minutia. I, therefore, would not have to write about it. I also began to think of play-writing as a collaborative process - so much would get changed during the early rehearsals, when I realized that certain lines were unspeakable, or important aspects were missing. Only recently, did I come to understand how the creative process of writing a play, for me at least, differs from writing fiction.

It came to me when Marcia Nowik, who was directing two plays for this year's 10-Minute Play festival, asked if I minded her making a suggestion about the staging of my play "Coots." Of course I didn't mind - Marcia has a lifetime of experience in the theater, whereas I had acted in one play and written a half-dozen one-acts. What I said to her was, I would be glad to have her suggestion, as long as it didn't involve moving my writer character from his isolated position on the stage.

"That is my vision for the play," I said.

Once I had said that, I started to wonder what I meant. Here's a shot at it:

When I started to think abut that play, I began by picturing a playwright in the corner of an empty stage, struggling with the inspiration for his next play. You could see the glow of his computer screen and hear him calling to his muse, "Harry... Harry... Harry..." Soon the lights would come up and his characters would arrive on stage and start playing around in his head. They would look at him and talk to him. He would talk back, but never, ever look at them, because they were only in his head. In the end, they would realize that they only existed in his mind. And he would begin to question his own existence. That was my vision for the play.

This play and most of my others, seemed to have arrived as a complete package. I often envisioned the ending, before I had fully mapped out the middle. I knew right from the start who I wanted on stage when the play ended.

In "Bench to Nowhere," for example, I envisioned a bench in front of a market (Tom's... er Bill's...) populated by a cast of characters who would come and go as they interacted with the main character, Dusty. That's how it would start. I also knew from the very beginning, that I wanted all of them on the bench at the end of the play, so that when the bus left without Dusty, they would all be there to share the pain. In a way, that dictated the entire course of the middle of the play. This kind of thinking has pretty much held true for all of my plays.

Writing fiction, for me, is often like going on a trip - you hear this from fiction writers a lot. I get in the car and start driving without knowing where I'm going to end up. Often, writers will tell you, they're driving at night and their headlights don't shine very far down the road. It's an adventurous and fun way to create, and sometimes the results are surprising, and hopefully bring a sense of full-circle kind of satisfaction.

But, driving in the dark is very different from the process of envisioning the stage at the beginning of the play and then again at the end. The closest I have ever heard of a fiction writer coming to this is John Irving, who says he starts every one of his novels by writing the last line first and then working toward it. He claims to have never changed one of those last lines. Maybe that's what I'm doing when I start a play and I just don't know it.

Now that I have more clearly defined the process of play-writing for myself, maybe I can put it down in a few lines.
  • Start by sitting in the audience. 
  • What do you see on stage as the play begins? 
  • What do you see at the end?
  • Now look to your right and then to your left - who do you see?
  • What will it take in the middle of this play to bring you and them a sense of fulfillment?
  • Now, recite the following: Harry... Harry... Harry... 
The Fourth Annual Yellow Springs 10-Minute Play festival will be held on October  24 & 25, 2014. The deadline for script submissions is September 1, 2014. Send scripts via email attachment to