Sunday, November 13, 2005


The Ever-Traveling Camel

My personal skating journey

When we were kids, my sister and I had two friends named Jan and Julie who were so close that we called each other cousins. They were the children of my mom's best friend from high school, and our families pivoted around each other like chess pieces on the often boring board of our Bakersfield, California existences.

In the summer of '73 (I was seven), we all went roller skating for the first time at Rollerama. Saturday afternoon public session. Jan and I, the older siblings, were both naturals, while Julie and my sister Lynn clutched the railings the whole time. We all started lessons because Jan and I wanted to. Lynn and Julie were forced, really. My sister was already doing ballet and tap, so no one but my mom thought it was necessary for her to take on yet another extracurricular activity. I think the tacit purpose for our new hobby was to give our parents more free time.

I still remember all those dances I learned during my first few months of skating in Saturday morning classes: the Chase Waltz, the Skater's March, the Highland Schottische, the Siesta Tango; and the rainbow of 45rpm records, each garish color signifying a different tempo. In no time, it seems, we were all in "Junior Club," lording it over the rink in a bratty way we'd never have gotten away with at home, learning how to do jumps and spins, and arranging our first private lessons.

My coach, Buzz, was also the owner of the rink, and he was a Dick Button on roller skates. From the exact same era, and with comparable credentials, he even skated with that very masculine and efficient, bent-arm, quick-stroke style that you see in the clips of Button's championship programs. He was great with me and he could see I liked it, so he pushed me pretty quickly, and I skated my first Regionals in '75. In '76, I made it to Nationals in Fort Worth, Texas, where I made it to finals holding second, then wiped the floor with my butt and ended up seventh.

The next year, I won the Juvenile Boys Singles Southwest Pacific Regional Championship, garnering a pre-teen fifteen minutes of fame. Preparations for Nationals were amped up a notch that year because I wasn't the only skater from the rink going as I had been the year before. We joined up with the skaters and coaches from a sister rink in Northern California in a caravan and took a slow, sight-seeing drive cross-country to Texas. It was the first time I'd traveled without a parental unit, which made me feel extremely grown-up, and the first time I'd taken a real road trip--which got me hooked for life (though the current price of gas keeps that hobby under wraps for now).

At Nationals, I did a lot more growing up than I did good skating, and I didn't even make it to the finals. During the next two years, I didn't even make it out of Regionals, though I skated my heart out, and continued getting better all the time. I just couldn't become consistent no matter how much I practiced, and I still have a problem with consistency, to tell you the truth. It has to do with being emotionally balanced, which I certainly wasn't back then, but I did train as if I were getting ready for the Olympics. Skating was my life, and the textures, sounds and stories of skating dominate my childhood memories. I'll be peppering my reports with many of these entertaining tidbits.

As I got older and better, I harbored fantasies that I'd be able to switch to ice and actually make the Olympic possibility a reality, but the circumstances were never right--the money was never there, or I failed to make a good impression when the right people were around--and finally, after spiraling slowly out into the wonders of teenagedom, I quit skating at fourteen, the summer before I started high school.

I didn't admit to myself that I was going to quit until I failed to enter myself in Regionals, but I kept practicing anyway. I'd been toying with a double axel for the past year, landing only one with a nasty cheat on the end of it in several months of trial and error. Buzz's son Kevin, who won several National titles and now owns the rink, I believe, was training for Nationals himself that summer, and would give me tips on my double axel as he skated by on his way to landing perfect triples.

One muggy afternoon, we were alone in the rink with the swamp coolers blowing like jet engines. He started yelling out advice, then made smaller and smaller circles around me while I tried again and again, and stuck with me until I finally landed one. It was perfect, with effortless lift, a firm center and a low wrap (I usually had a high, rather wild wrap, like Midori Ito), and the landing was one of those solid landings that sends a synergistic reverberation through your entire web of nerves, muscles, thoughts and emotions. Kevin was the only one to see it, but it wouldn't have mattered if no one had, because it was imprinted on my very being, and since then it has become a touchstone memory for the perfect fusion of ecstatic energy and perfect control. The entire meaning of the universe seems to be wrapped up in the confident execution of a jump like that, and though it's impossible to put to words, once it happens to you, you know it, and you treasure it.

That may sound like a mere trick of poetics, but it's not. Whenever I feel up against a wall, or unable to accomplish a seemingly impossible task, I dream of the perfect double axel. Every time I feel like I'm too far out on a limb, whether financially, physically or emotionally, I dream of the perfect double axel. When I feel boxed in and unable to express my true talents, I dream of the perfect double axel. Last year, I had cancer, and during the first few months of a grueling treatment, I constantly dreamed of the perfect double axel. In fact, the dream of the perfect double axel was one of the primary things that kept me in touch with life itself during the first, touch-and-go part of that particular ordeal.

I'm better now, but I still dream of the perfect double axel, with eyes both opened and closed. Watching figure skaters do jumps and spins on television, no matter how vicarious, continuously renews the feeling of elation that perfect double axel gave me all those years ago, and because of that, I'm rather addicted to it in the way that ex high-school quarterbacks can't pull themselves away from Monday Night Football. But it is also a form of devotion, or prayer, if you like. I watch it with a devout eye for precision and subtle nuance in the same way a theology student pores over sacred texts to drink up their deeper resonances.

My favorite skater of all-time is Lucinda Ruh, because her spinning describes the essence of spirituality that figure skating holds. She's a living, multidimensional mandala when she spins. But many skaters have left lasting impressions on me, and I'll be writing about all of them in the months to come.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Plato's Garage, which was a personal and journalistic testament to human creativity and power through the lens of the automobile. This blog is my way of using figure skating as a focusing device through which to see the world. And viewed this way, it sparkles.

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Your story is an inspiration to all of us that skated artistically in the 1970's and 1980's....and while time has passed and we may not be skating anymore, it always has remained a part of us.

Please continue your blog so that you can readers can learn of your journey. Best of luck!

Don't ever stop dreaming of that double axel!!!
I figure skated for about 13 years and remember my prefect double axel. It was my only one and I quit skating not too long after that. I wanted to see the movie Threesome and my mom didn't want me to so she said I could when I landed the double axel. I worked my butt off and, like you, it just seemed to all click and the lift and landing were glorious. There was nothing like it. One 10yr old skater saw me and was like "was that just a..." and I smiled. My coach wasn't there, my mom wasn't there but I knew it happened. To this day I haven't seen threesome though.
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