Between the Ears


With a pair of used Rollerblade Lightnings that cost me 50 bucks and a hockey stick bought at a local Target Store, I like to go out to the concrete tennis courts at a small park in my Austin neighborhood. I dribble around a yellow rubber ball (especially high-impact yet without bounce, to mimic a puck), occasionally winding up for what’s left of my slapshot. A whack at the ball, then the clank of the thing against the chain-link. To realize again what I learned early in my own ice-hockey-playing days up in Rhode Island—a slapshot is surely more theater than anything else, devoid of much accuracy, but what a solid rush to the overall explosion of it, anyway.

Usually nobody is at the courts. Or I time it so I will be there when I know I won’t have to make my apologies to people who show up with tennis rackets, telling them, “I’m just leaving, really.” After all, the courts are there for that game and not the indulgence of a skating baby-boomer in old chinos and an old dress shirt; I wear “long clothes” to ward off the reportedly ravaging harmful rays. Weekdays in the late afternoon, when I can slip away from my job at the University of Texas, are good, before most everybody else gets off from work. And in the autumn, Sunday afternoons are perfect because everybody is watching football—better, of course, when the Cowboys are on. I skate, and skate.

Not that I was easily won over to the pastime. As somebody who had played on at least one championship ice-hockey squad (OK, it was only the Harvard East Yard team that won the freshman intramural league title in 1966), I had been living in Texas for 15 years and I certainly didn’t want to reduce myself to that kind of skating. Naturally, I had seen the whole rise of the phenomenon. For a while it seemed to be just the usual sight of a couple of teenage girls who had rented old roller-rink-style skates, those front-and-rear-axle standbys and not in-lines. They might be gigglingly wobbling past the street circus of vendors and panhandlers on Austin’s so-called “Drag,” the commercial strip facing the university. Then, within a few years, everybody seemed to be on the new in-lines, with one kid showing up to one of my own classes wearing blades one day—he claimed they were better than a bicycle for competing with the ten-minute in-between-classes rush at a place as massive as U.T. But I didn’t give in.

Actually, for some reason I never as much as brought my hockey skates to Texas. I suppose I could have given it a go at the indoor rink that used to be smack in the middle of the cavernous Northcross Shopping Mall. There, I must admit, I would sometimes be shopping, and more than once I stopped to leisurely inhale that almost holy refrigeration smell from the frozen oval, powerful enough to transport me back to my own kidhood. (Was there ever anything better than the sheer adventure of scrimmage at the local rink at one AM on Sunday morning, when I was in boys’ school in Rhode Island and the ice was cheap to rent in those strange hours?) To be very frank, I kept my skates in a closet at my sister’s house in Rhode Island; the high point of my athletic year was definitely flying up to New England during the winter semester break and skating with my old buddies from college. One of them lived in a woodsy Boston suburb with a pond that was favorably mentioned by Thoreau in his catalog of ponds in Walden, and our hockey was always a wonderful little party involving wives and kids too. In short, I know I was more than a purist about the whole thing.

But then I bought that pair of secondhand Lightnings. No sooner did I lace them on than it seemed that, yes, I knew learning how to survive on them was going to be easy. As people had assured me, it was the same basic motion as that of ice skating. The in-line configuration of the wheels worked like a real blade, as opposed to those roller-rink antiques that offered only a couple of little clumsy wagons on your feet. I did have to learn new kinds of stops, because plastic wheels on terra firma don’t gracefully skid sideways for braking as does sharpened steel across ice. Also, I had to get used to the disconcerting rumble if the pavement turned rough, plus pumping hard to ascend even the slightest incline, which reminded me of what I had never really dwelled on before: All ponds are level. Still, it wasn’t bad. In truth, it was damn good. And after three consecutive afternoons of not being able to log enough of it, sore muscles part of the fun, I wondered, as you do after the fact, why I had been so stubborn and foolish to postpone sampling it for as long as I had.

Because now, as I said, I skate. And skate.

Sometimes grade-school kids show up with sticks and skates, and I pass around a ball with them. Sometimes people in cars just linger at the stop sign beyond the courts and the park’s grass to stare at me, an oddity. Once a guy about 25, solid as a linebacker, stood off on the other side of the courts’ chain-link backstop watching me. Alone that day, I continued with my dribbling and slapping, smiling once when I rolled by the big-muscled specimen wearing what looked like weight-lifter’s tights. And I forgot about him—until 10 minutes later I noticed that he remained there, watching me; the guy was slowly nodding. On the next loop around I stopped to chat with him. I offered another one of my set apologies (I realize I must look weird indeed indulging in such “play”), saying that it was fine exercise, easy on the knees too when you get to be my age. But age didn’t appear to be an issue with him. As it turned out, the guy tried to recruit me for a loosely organized roller-hockey league he participated in on Tuesday nights up under the new Highway 183 overpass/interchange far north in the city. Despite my assurances that I (gray-haired) was well beyond competitive play, adding that I needed only one real tumble for the entire kit of fragile good health to crumple at my age, it made no impression on him. He asked me where I had played hockey, and I talked about Rhode Island and Massachusetts; he nodded some more. He somehow produced a wallet from those tights, and I somehow happened to have a ball-point pen in the pocket of my baggy chinos for him to write on somebody else’s business card he took from his wallet. He jotted down the time on Tuesday evenings when he met with his compatriots for the competition, drew a little map with an indication, marked by a bona fide “X,” of the exact location for the games. Serious as ever, he simply said before leaving, “Think about it, man—you might change your mind. We’ll be there.”

Things like that can assume giant proportions at—to repeat it once more—my age. No, I wasn’t bonkers enough to drive out to some patch of rock-hard asphalt under an elevated six-lane and slam my way through the feverish play of a bunch of guys his age for a couple of hours. But I could take satisfaction in knowing that I still had my “moves”; I realized I had managed to look good enough, upon very careful scrutiny, that for definitely the last time in my life (the only time?) I was athletically recruited. I told guys I work with about it, noisily bragging to them in the corridors of the English Department building, sad to say.

However, here is the best thing, the metaphysical stuff, maybe.

One Saturday afternoon I went again to the park. It was a thoroughly beautiful late-March day, bluebonnet season. The trees dripped the costume-jewelry spangles of first budding, some kids were being guided down the plastic slides by their moms and dads, over by the empty swimming pool that, bafflingly, wouldn’t be filled till Memorial Day. I sat on the bench tugging tight the laces, and I figured I would have one of the two courts for my skating. The other was being used by a bunch of rugged men speaking Spanish; they were guys who seemed to be from a work crew, probably carpenters on a job nearby, and recently I had seen them there late in the day playing volleyball over a net they had brought with them. They themselves had seen me skating before, so the spectacle of my performance had worn off, and I smiled to them, several smiling back. I commenced with my workout, as they continued with their happy, and entirely noncompetitive, game. They must have been right off the job; most of them still wore work clothes, a couple had on straw Stetsons. Now and then they stepped aside from the court to sip from tallboy beer cans, and they had cranked up the sound on a pristinely customized white pickup with chrome moon hubcaps parked on the street—the Austin Norteño station blared bouncy accordions and drums. It was about eighty-five. But a dry, delightful eighty-five, before the soaking heat with humidity would back up from the Gulf later in the spring. There was something entirely right about it all.

So, summoning the English professor in me, here is what I have been thinking. My specific experience in the park that afternoon surely echoed what Vladimir Nabokov (most of us at least know the name of the author from the supposedly racy Lolita) does in his last major work, Ada, written when he was well into old age.

In that novel he creates for the loopy main characters a place to live in that isn’t exactly on the map. It seems a territory that in detail, incident and even language sometimes blends half the memory of the gone Czarist Russia of Nabokov’s happy youth and half the appreciation of the bountiful mid-twentieth-century America where he had ended up living a pleasantly long chunk of his life, after finally having to flee Europe at the start of World War II. Nabokov was maybe telling us that, indeed, often our ideal geography goes beyond a concept as literal as chronology, can also manage to merge locations reportedly thousands of miles apart. Which is to say, the best geography is often all between the ears. And for me that afternoon, I was skating, something I had loved to do with a particular passion since I was six—the airy gliding of it, just the feel of a banana-curved hockey stick in hand again. Yet I wasn’t doing it in a cold rink or bundled up in a parka in the numbing sub-freezing temperatures of a pond out in the New England woods, but in the specialness of a balmy spring day in Austin, where Mexican music boomed and where every time I had to bat back with my stick the volleyball knocked astray onto my court, the guys playing beside me had some fun yelling the internationally ecstatic: “Go-o-o-alll!” The scene itself seemed to encapsulate everything I appreciated about Texas, a state that I had journeyed to for a job because its whole climatological and cultural package had always attracted me. You see, I knew that then I had definitely found my own ideal territory, the old best of both worlds, as they say. And I could slip in and out of it easily enough a couple of afternoons a week.

And how about this? True, I still can’t believe I had been so stubborn as never to even deign to consider any kind of skating in Texas. (Perhaps that was for me, a New Englander, my patriotic defense against the knowledge that I myself would never be a real Texan, with a Texan’s own particular patriotism and innate chauvinistic obsession with everything from chicken-fried steak to heroes like Travis and LBJ.) I not only can’t believe that, but also when I flip through the sports pages in Austin, I surprise myself to see that frequently it is not only to check how the legendary Boston Bruins are doing, which, admittedly, has not always been something to rave about in the past few years. I find myself trying as well to keep up with the progress of the relatively new Dallas team, the Stars.

I can assure you that granting their play in the revamped, hip black-green-and-gold uniforms was disappointing when they first moved down to the state from Minnesota, in time they turned out to be even more of a surprise than the very new Hurricanes of Carolina or the Panthers started up in, of all places, subtropical Miami, who both made it to the NHL finals recently. The Stars—a squad based in often scorching Dallas, where ornamental cactus and undeniable drawling thrive—actually won outright Lord Stanley’s Cup several seasons ago.

I told you this would turn metaphysical.

Peter LaSalle’s novel about Austin, Strange Sunlight, is recommended reading for visitors to the city, according to Frommer’s travel guide.