An Ode to my Long Black Coat

February 14, 2011

Long Black Coat, how do I love thee?

You’re puffy with feathers,
And run from my neck past my knees.
You keep me warm while coaching,
When the rink is below 25 degrees.

You’re big and you’re shapeless,
Like a sleeping bag.
Your only bit of decoration,
Is that North Face tag.

I know you make me look
Twenty pounds heavier than I am.
As I skate down the ice,
I look as wide as the Zam.

You’re so bulky and cumbersome,
I can’t demonstrate a thing.
But the frostbite alternative,
Would certainly sting.

We’ve been together,
For at least seven years.
You’re starting to show your age,
And this brings me to tears.

How will I ever replace you,
What will I do?
I get more concerned,
With every feather you lose.

I’ve worn other jackets,
They just don’t compare.
I need to find your twin,
The question is, where?

I’ve searched the web,
And you seem discontinued.
If I don’t find something soon,
I’ll just have to coach in the —–!

***

Apologies for the disturbing imagery at the conclusion of this otherwise beautiful poem.

Turns out North Face still makes something similar. The stitching is slightly different and it isn’t as ridiculously long. I ordered it online, here, but I just haven’t been able to bring myself to “take it for a spin.”

BTW, lots of great new “skater quotes” in the column over to the right. Thanks to everyone who has been giving me these 🙂

Charlie Brown: The Skater

December 26, 2009

Every holiday season, I re-watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and every year it both warms and breaks my heart. I can’t help it: I love Charlie Brown’s existential woe, his thwarted attempts to direct the Christmas play, his pitiful little tree, and the way his friends pull together at the end to make it all nice.

Of course, I especially like how the whole thing starts with a wintry skating scene. The Peanuts Gang does an impressive synchro-esque splice right at the beginning. Though Snoopy doesn’t have on a pair of skates, he manages a gorgeous spread eagle (or should I say spread beagle?) After a weaving round of crack the whip, Linus’ blanket somehow gets wrapped around Charlie Brown and flings him into a tree trunk. A pile of snow proceeds to plop on his head. Good grief, I just can’t get enough.

So, naturally, I was thrilled when Charlie Brown himself contacted me a few weeks ago for skating lessons. Turns out he has decided to try and make it to the upcoming Olympics. This has presented me with a dilemma: knowing that Charlie Brown isn’t exactly overflowing with self-confidence, I don’t want to be too discouraging…but.

Well, here’s the first draft of my response.

Dear Mr. Brown,

Thank you for contacting me about my coaching services. I am a big fan of yours. As per your request, I have analyzed the skating footage from the opening scene of your iconic holiday special in order to assess your stated goal of making it to the upcoming Winter Games.

The news is mixed. First, let me say that your ability to skate (and even stand up) amid snowflakes the size of baseballs is impressive and demonstrates a great deal of balance. Second, I have noticed that you are a simple man with simple needs, in terms of equipment. Most competitive skaters these days transport their skates in bags specially designed for optimal performance. Many of these bags even have wheels that put on their own laser light show. Your method of carrying your brown skates old-school style with the laces knotted and looped over your shoulder is unconventional yet refreshing. I presume that since you have no guards over your blades, they are in pretty shoddy condition. I like this: it shows that you are not a diva.

Your costume choices are…interesting. The hat with earflaps is an excellent pick, especially considering that it will be pretty cold up in Vancouver. Your yellow shirt, on the other hand, is a bit problematic: you may want to switch out those zig zags for something with softer lines in a color scheme more flattering to your skin tone.

Your musical selection, by Vince Guaraldi, as rendered by Schroeder, is to be commended.

Now to the skating. Your ability to bellyflop then spin on your stomach with that much momentum tells me that you are more aerodynamic than the size of your head might otherwise suggest. Of course, it is more ideal to rotate in a vertical position, but this is something we can work on.

Granted, in skating, as in life, it’s not always about how much you fall, but your willingness to keep getting up. Unfortunately, I noticed that after you careened into the tree, your recovery was inconspicuously absent from the film.

Before this event, I did spot a few split-seconds of competent gliding on your part. Truthfully, though, you would need many more hours of practice, in fact perhaps thousands of hours of practice, in order to make your Olympic dreams come true. This means that you’ll have to give up your extra-curricular activities, namely your role as the unappreciated Director of the Christmas Play. With all the work we would need to do, you simply don’t have time to be out looking for the most pathetic Christmas tree you can find.

Most importantly, Charlie, you’ll have to make some serious changes in your attitude. Your constant claims of depression and bellyaching about the meaning of Christmas will have to cease immediately. Likewise, statements such as, “Good grief, everything I do turns into a disaster” and “Everything I touch gets ruined,” are not indicative of a gold-medal mentality. Furthermore, you’ll have to wipe that worried look off your face; judges prefer smiles. I urge you to discontinue your use of Lucy’s psychiatric services despite her convenient location right in your path and her bargain price of 5 cents. Instead, I can recommend a few excellent sports psychologists.

This brings me to your mother: I can’t understand a word she is saying! And when I telephoned your teacher to see if we could “tweak” your school schedule in order to get some clear, mid-day ice time, I couldn’t understand her either.

Finally, to make it in this sport, you’ll need to abandon your anti-commercialism stance, as you will probably need corporate sponsorship in order to afford my fees. The good news is that right now several companies happen to be looking for a new athlete for endorsements.

Minor detail: the U.S. National Championships start in about two weeks and you have unfortunately missed all of the qualifying events. However, your association with the legendary, late Charles Schulz could hold some sway with United States Figure Skating.

In all, I think your chances of making it to the Olympics are slim, but I’d hate to say that your goal is impossible. If nothing else, I’m sure your skating career will not pan out any worse than your attempts at becoming a kicker for the NFL. (Again, Lucy’s services might not have been the wisest choice.)

There is some extremely exciting news in all this: while your skating talents are really only mediocre, some of your friends I saw skating on the tape look to have great promise. In fact, Snoopy seems like he could be a real podium climber. If he does not already have another coach, please have him contact me so that we can start training immediately.

Best,

Jocelyn Jane Cox

                                                                  ***

Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays! If you have any advice on this letter or any suggestions I can pass along to him, please click on “comments,” below.  🙂

If you haven’t already seen it, check out my article on page 30 of this month’s Skating Magazine. It’s about sibling ice dance teams. I know: it’s shocking that I’d report on that subject…

Traffic Solutions

April 9, 2009

stoplight214877523

In last April’s installment, The Traffic Issue (click here), I wrote about an ever-present and perilous issue in Figure Skating Town: crowded freestyle sessions. For those of you who have witnessed or experienced everyday practice sessions in one of the thousands of ice rinks across the country, you know that chaos is the name of the game and that skaters collide often. It’s a challenging situation since every skater out there is practicing something different, and therefore carving out a unique path. There is rhyme and reason to what each skater is doing, but no guarantee it won’t crash them into someone else.  

Well, at the encouragement of many of you, I contacted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to see if they could help us develop new ways of controlling freestyle traffic. Their report, which I was hoping to present at U.S. Figure Skating’s Annual Governing Council meeting in May, is finally finished. The problem is that I don’t think it’s actually very helpful at all. It proves what most of us already know: that this skating thing is completely unique…and, scary as it may be sometimes, we already have a pretty good thing going. 

Here are just a few of their wayward recommendations:

  • Paint two solid yellow lines down the middle of the ice surface. This will separate traffic traveling in opposite directions and prohibit passing. 
  • Install beeping devises in each skater, so that when they are backing up, others will know.
  • Have all skaters wear hats with rearview mirrors so they can see behind them.
  • Outfit each skater with GPS wristwatches, so that they can identify the best route to their next element.    
  • Install stoplights at the blue lines.
  • Hire local policemen to enforce rink traffic laws.
  • Open a skating traffic school and require each skater to obtain a permit before skating on a freestyle session. This would include obstacle courses, methods of parallel parking along the barriers, and learning which skaters have the right of way.
  • Provide each skater with gloves featuring turn signals. These blinking lights will let other skaters know which way they are planning to turn.
  • Give every skater a horn they can honk incessantly when traffic is not moving to their satisfaction. This will save their vocal chords.

Okay, so here are the only recommendations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that I can really endorse:

  • Outfit every skater with a full suit of foam rubber to serve as bumpers if they crash into one another or the barriers.
  • Have the brakes checked regularly.
  • Coaches should wear neon orange construction suits so they can be better seen by oncoming traffic. (After all, coaching is a construction project of sorts…)  

Finally, here are a few of my recommendations, based on my own studies of rink traffic:

  • Open your eyes.
  • Look around.
  • Pay attention.
  • Be polite. 

These may sound pretty obvious, but we all know these skills are not always, eh hem… fully utilized. Hey, forget those fancy, US government traffic scientists – maybe I will present my own concepts at Governing Council after all…

Anyway, happy rink travels.

Julianne and Alissa, November 2008

Julianne and Alissa, November 2008

I don’t know which was more sweet – Alissa Czisny’s dreamy, flawless Short Program at this year’s Nationals or her and coach Julianne Berlin’s emotional reactions upon finding out that she’d won the title after the Long Program. I just re-watched both and cried for the second time.

It’s easy to get mesmerized by Czisny’s soft interpretation of The Swan in the Short and, in turn, hypnotized by her Long Program to Doctor Zhivago. She is the epitome of grace and elegance. In addition to her famously competent spins and her excellent jumps, there is a quietness to her knees and an effortlessness to her turns. She is, in my opinion, a skater’s skater. 

Besides, amid a sea of little girls, she is a woman. At 22, of course she is a baby in the grand scheme of things, but she is 5-7 years older than her closest American competitors. To me, the longevity of Czisny’s career is a victory in and of itself in the same way it was for Michelle Kwan.

With all the injuries these girls withstand in this era of infinite triple jumps, all the travel, and all the pressure, it’s becoming more and more difficult to get to the top and to stay there. Czisny’s been competing and succeeding internationally, at either the Junior or Senior level for about eight years. She’s had her share of ups and downs, she’s persevered. And there she was in Cleveland, shyly weeping in the Kiss and Cry, what seemed to be tears of relief and joy when she realized she’d won. And her longtime coach right at her side, was equally moved. Uh oh, my eyes are welling up again…

Czisny has been training with Julianne Berlin for 12 years, since Czisny was 10 years old, a fact that I think makes this story all the more heartwarming. Czisny has, by her own admission, struggled with nerves (who hasn’t in this sport?) and, while watching, I couldn’t help wondering how Berlin has helped her through this along the way. I contacted Julianne after Nationals and she was kind enough to answer all kinds of questions about that winning moment, team teaching with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano, and their strategy as they lead up to Worlds at the end of this month.

Berlin lives in Huntington Woods, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and coaches at the Detroit Skating Club. She has been coaching for 26 years, since she was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has been married for 13 years and has two boys, ages 10 and 12.

Jocelyn Jane Cox: So what was Alissa like, growing up?

Julianne Berlin: The main thing I remember about Alissa is that she has always been so neat, so on-time and so organized. She is very precise, from her hair, to her skating dresses. We are very similar in that way. Also, ever since she was little, whenever I first walk into the rink, she has always given me the cutest smile. Even if I’m not working with her that day, she’ll look up from what she’s doing with a smile that seems to say, “I’m so happy you’re here.” She takes a moment to make that connection.

JJC: What do you admire most about Alissa?

JB: I admire her dedication, her discipline and her determination to never give up. Whenever she hasn’t done as well as she wanted at a competition, she has tried to learn from it. She has a good attitude and keeps working hard. Even now, if she finishes everything she has to do, and there are eight minutes left in the session, I have to force her to get off early. She does go on vacation once a year but she is so driven that I have to encourage her to pamper herself, like to just go get a massage, or get her nails done.

JJC: What has it been like to watch her develop as a skater and a person?

Alissa and Julianne at her first International in Slovenia where she won, in 2001

Alissa and Julianne at her first International, Triglav Trophy, in Slovenia where she won, in 2001.

JB: Being with her for so long, it’s almost like watching your own child. I know everying thing about her– her highs and her lows. I would move the moon for this girl. She has always been lovely and well brought-up — kind, respectful, and polite, almost as if she’s from the 1950’s. She has the manner of a soft-spoken princess, not a diva at all.

Alissa is very capable. I have always known that she was very talented, but she was kind of a late bloomer. Over the years, she has always given more than 100 percent, so she deserves everything she’s gotten. It think her story is kind of like the American Dream.

JJC: Tell us what’s different about this year. What changes have you made?

JB: Well, working with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano has been really positive. In 2007, when she was third at Nationals, we were talking to Linda and Brian at an alumni breakfast. We all really hit it off, so I suggested that Alissa go out and work with them. I feel like the luckiest coach in the world to be working with Linda. I feel like she’s mentoring me and that all of my up and coming students will benefit from what I’m learning from her. Even though she’s out in California, we are team teaching, and we really see things eye to eye. Brian is a great influence on Alissa – they are more like friends, talking about what it’s like to compete, etc.

The fact that we’re working together is almost eerie: I remember watching Linda Leaver with Brian Boitano at either the Olympics or at Worlds one year and noticing the bond that they had. To this day, they are like family to each other. I wanted that with my students, too. They have both had a really positive effect on Alissa.

The other difference is that we got Alissa out of her hinge boots and into Jacksons. Alissa has always been in tune with her equipment, her body and her balance, and things just weren’t working. She originally started in the hinge boot in 2004 because she had fluid on her ankle, and they did help correct that and also helped to make her ankles stronger, but, at a certain point, I don’t think they helped with her overall technique and her progress. In the last few months, she has been feeling really good in her skates – the sharpening, the mounting, the fit.

The other thing is that we started training earlier this year, in June. She has competed every month since then. In 2007, she did the Champions on Ice tour. This was kind of a setback for the following season, because she didn’t get to start training early enough.

JJC: So it seems like you’re a fan of team coaching. Tell me how this has worked for you.

JB: I have always known that was something I had to do because of my two boys. My own kids would always come first, and if something happened, I wanted my students to be with coaches who were also knowledgeable and who they were comfortable with.

When I first started assistant coaching in Detroit, both Alissa and her twin sister Amber, (who was also a great national competitor) were both working with Diana Ronayne. I was young and pregnant and helping out. Then, Diana moved to the Broadmoor. After that, we worked for a long time with Theresa McKendry.

I think that the more you can expose your skaters to good people, the better they can be. Alissa has worked with lots of different coaches and choreographers such as David Wilson, Yuka Sato, Lori Nichol and others. She has worked with ballet teachers, trainers and psychologists. Through this, I gain a lot, and my other students are going to get better as well. I am her manager, I am in charge, but I pick who I think would be helpful to her. Right now, we have assembled a perfect, customized team for her. I didn’t realize until recently that Linda Leaver did the same thing with Brian Boitano.

I used to have other coaches travel with my students to competitions. At a certain point, I noticed that I needed to travel with Alissa to provide a sense of stability. I am someone she can trust, and count on. I am always there for her, unconditionally, whether she’s in 9th place or 1st place, it doesn’t matter.

JJC: What were you thinking while she was skating the Short Program at Nationals?

JB: Well, of course I practically have a heart attack every time she skates! I’m always wanting her to show the world what she can do, and what she shows me every day in practice. During the short, she did that. Whether or not she lands all of her triples or not, I think she’s the most beautiful skater in the world. There is something special about her. She’s got a lot of heart and you can almost feel the struggle. No matter what she gets at Nationals, she always gets called to do a lot of shows. She is a feminine skater, a woman, and I think that really showed.

JJC: What about when she was skating the Long?

JB: I was beside myself – there was so much pressure. I couldn’t stand by the boards, I was walking around, pacing. She had two errors. She’s human.

JJC: What about when you found out that she won?

JB: I thought she really deserved it. It was her time. I am glad that she was so far ahead in the short.

JJC: What advice would you give to coaches to help skaters persevere through disappointments?

JB: I treat every event as a learning experience. We keep strategizing and we keep developing goals. I always try to find the positives, first. For example, maybe you didn’t land the triple lutz but you did do a great combination.

And again, I think keeping skaters inspired comes back to variety. Bringing different people to the table keeps things fresh. And, Alissa still has fun working with her sister Amber, once per week on spins. They have always done that together.

Keeping the skater healthy is also obviously important, so we do a lot of off-ice training, and incorporate rest and recovery.

JJC: What is your mentality and Alissa’s mentality as you now get ready for Worlds?

JB: She is clearly at her best. She has been struggling with performance anxiety for a long time but we are getting cleaner and the nature of the mistakes has changed. Competing at Four Continents was a really fast turnaround, but we felt it was important because that’s the rink where the Olympics will be.

Leading up to Worlds, we are continuing to improve her consistency. In the long, we are considering adding one more triple in order to give her more of a buffer.

JJC: Thank you so much, Julianne. All the best to Alissa and to you.

                                                                   ***

Did you see Alissa’s performance at Nationals? Were you also touched by it? Click on comment, below…

Thanks to everyone who commented last week.

Review: Champion Cords

December 9, 2008

dec-4-08-001

I’m finding that there are millions of different ways to explain skating techniques and millions of ways to try and verbally convince skaters to change their positions and habits. For example, I think I’ve come up with at least 45,000 ways of describing appropriate skating posture, involving eagles, giraffes, trees, prairie dogs, toboggans, starfish, pita bread (bad) versus a slice of bread (good), walls, arrows, guards at Buckingham Palace, and the list goes on…

I’ve even managed to plug good old Starbucks in the posture discussion. I’ll say something to my student like: “Don’t you stand straight and look up in order to place your order of… <Depending on the season, I insert hot chocolate or frappaccino, here, both of which are more advisable and kid-friendly than the Double Tall 74-Shot latte I’m currently drinking>?” I continue: “Don’t you look up at the sign while you’re walking toward the barista? If you can walk without looking at the floor, then you can skate without looking at the ice. That’s all we’re asking for, here.”

Still, despite all the various tricks I pull out of my (wool) hat, I can’t always get my messages across. Sometimes, I’m downright stumped. I’ll scratch my head and wonder how on earth I can get such and such skater to straighten her free leg. I mean, she knows what “straight” is, she knows what I mean by “locked”…she even knows she should be emulating spaghetti noodles before they go into the pot rather than afterwards. And, she can straighten her leg while standing at the boards. Then, out on the ice: Bent! Loose! Limp as a cooked noodle!

Well, I asked the universe for a solution and it recently came to me: Champion Cords invented by coach Sheila Thelan. These are basically bungee type cords that attach skaters’ hands to their feet. These cords create tension and resistance that help the skaters to be more aware of their limbs and torso. Thelan, of Minnesota, got the idea in 2003 while teaching a student who was struggling with her axel. She wanted to tie the skater’s left hand and left foot together so that she would move as a unit. She found some bungee cord in the rink and did just that. The results were immediate.  

dec-4-08-003The cords are easily attached to the laces with a hook, then looped around the bottom of the skate and hooked again to keep it secure. Champion Cords offers a few different types of hooks, including the Triple Hook and the S-Hook. I have tried both and have found the S hook to be a little easier to work with, once your hands are cold. On the other end of the cord, there is a loop that just fits around the wrist like a bracelet. 

Before trying them out on my students, I took them for a test run, myself. It was a strange sensation for the first few strokes, to be connected to these strings. Though there was no Gepetto in the rafters, I felt like a marionette. After stroking around for a while and doing a few basic exercises, I started to notice a few things. For one, my arms were getting quite tired: it was taking a surprising amount of strength to hold them up. (Oh the gym, the gym, that dreaded and oft-avoided destination.) I could imagine that this challenge would also benefit my students. Second, I noted that I was stretching my limbs and my neck a bit longer than usual. Aha! I felt like the “starfish on skates” I’m always blabbering about. Finally, I experienced a heightened awareness of how I was positioning my body and, as a result, an overall sense of deliberateness. It was a very cool feeling.

I was even inspired to try a spiral, something I haven’t dared to attempt in public for several years. I’m not going to say that the cords helped me get my leg to Sasha or Nancy elevation, or anything, but the tension created a sense of security and a bit more balance. I think I looked pretty decent, for such a long hiatus. (The plexiglass wouldn’t lie, would it? )

marionette8413211In fact, these are all the things I noticed in my students when I proceeded to rig them up with cords for stroking, for pulls, for spirals, etc. Suddenly, shoulders were back, arms were straight, and legs were lifted higher. At first, they giggled and skated a bit hesitantly, just like I did. And, by the way, almost every single one of them commented (unprompted by me, I swear) that they felt like a marionette or a puppet. I could see that they were experiencing that increased awareness in their limbs and shoulders. Then, when I took the cords off, this awareness seemed to stick. I’m not saying the lesson is miraculously long-lasting, or anything, but we’re aiming for muscle-memory, here, and these cords are an extremely helpful tool. They’re like flashcards in the game of memorization. 

Since I teach mostly moves and dance, this is what I have used them for, so far. But each set of cords purchased on the Champion Cords website comes with an instructional DVD featuring skaters wearing the cords (either on just one side of the body or both) for jumps and spins. I can imagine that the tension of these cords would help to create similar awareness and alignment for these as well. The DVD also demonstrates an alternative way to use the cords to assist with posture: looping the cords around both wrists so that it’s behind the shoulder blades. This helps skaters feel that line and horizontal stretch.

Anyway, I’ll keep using this new contraption. I’m interested to see what results I can get from here (though I’ll probably also keep racking my brain for new analogies.) The kids have enjoyed using them, so it’s a nice breath of fresh air in my teaching regimen. 

I recommend these for you or your skaters. They are endorsed by the PSA and lots of coaches: Frank Carroll, Audrey Weisiger and Paul Wylie have used and applauded them. ‘Tis the season of gift giving and I for one am swinging toward the more practical rather than the frivolous end of the spectrum. These are a great pick. Click here to learn more and to purchase.

                                                                ***

What about you? Have you tried Champion Cords? Are you an actual marionette by trade, birth, or profession? If so, remember that imitation is the best form of flattery. Finally, if you are the one person in the world who looks down at his feet when ordering at Starbucks, and you’re planning to poke a hole in that brilliant posture analogy of mine, please don’t click on Comment below. All others: you are very welcome to do so.

turkey_sm

In these increasingly troubled economic times, I think rather than compulsively purchasing new items it’s important to take stock of everything we already own and consider whether or not we’re allowing each of our possessions to fulfill their maximum potential.

For example, we invest a lot of money into our figure skates. Has a regular person (i.e. non-skater) ever asked you how much skates cost? Did you have to pick her up off the floor or rush her to the ER to get her jaw re-attached after you told her? 

I’m not saying we should stop buying the things, I think we should just get as much use out of them as possible. We should be inspired by Tom Hanks in that movie, Cast Away, where he’s stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. A bunch of Fed Ex boxes drift ashore and lo and behold one box contains…ice skates. My mother recently caught this movie on TV and reminded me of the scene where he has a toothache: he uses the skate blade for a little impromptu self-dentistry. Horrifying! And brilliant. This is exactly what I’m talking about, here: we need to think outside the rink.

So here are some other suggested alternative uses for figure skates…

Self Defense: Who needs mace, pepper spray or a karate class when you have your skates at the ready? Potential attackers will be surprised, I guarantee. 

Butter Knives: This is a no-brainer. We’ve been using dull skates for this purpose for years. And it’s a fact: butter officially makes everything better.

Whittling Tool: Just think how easily you could take care of your entire Christmas list (and especially if you use your skates to also chop down the tree). What boyfriend hasn’t always wanted a tiny wooden owl figurine? What grandmother doesn’t want a nice skull and crossbones? And don’t be too hard on yourself here: remember that beauty is often in the imperfections.  

Turkey Carvers: In many households across the country, carving the turkey on Thanksgiving is a coveted role. Who can deny you this honor after you get your skates freshly sharpened? Stand up in the dining room with them on your hands then perform a dramatic, so-fast-it’s-blurry knife show á la Edward Scissorhands.

Mirror: The only obstacle here is access… Mirror mirror on my foot, who’s the most flexible of them all?

Juggling: Let’s face it, that act with the bowling pins and the torches is getting really old. Granted, you’ll have to get a second pair so that your show includes three skates, but maybe shops could start selling skates individually for this purpose.

Shoes: Boots this expensive should get some serious mileage. Slap some guards on the bottom and you’re ready for all sorts of terrain. In fact, I see a huge opportunity for the guard industry. There are already illuminated styles perfect for the disco, but what about guards with cleats? Stilettos? Soles rugged enough for hiking? Hey look, stock prices for blade guards just went up .0004 points. See? We’re onto something.

Icee Shavors: Kids love this icy treat and we could all use a little extra practice on our snowplow stops. With a just few different types of flavoring and some cardboard cups, you can get a good side business going and give the snack bar a run for its money.

Getaway Vehicles: As long as there’s enough ice, you can escape any situation, literally or figuratively, with these gems on your feet. See turkey above.

                                                   ***

What did I miss? Please contribute by clicking on Comments below.

And I know, I know, ’tis the season to be thankful, but I have a few very specific pet peeves to gripe about. Click on Cusp of Greatness here.

Very Taxing

April 15, 2008

FYI, Here are the coaching expenses my accountant considered either “excessive” or not necessarily “essential” enough to deduct. For the record, I do not agree, but I am deferring to her expertise.

Coffee:  $75,432.21
Donuts:  $1,643.07
Mittens:  $928.53
Long Johns Composed of Hi-Tech Fibers:  $4,631.82
Scarves in Every Color of the Rainbow and   Some Colors that Haven’t Been Officially Inducted:  $22,967.58
Deep Tissue Massages:  $43,722.71
Psychoanalysis to Examine Long-held Guilt Regarding  Donuts:  $35,226.68
Speech Therapy to Rehabilitate Vocal Chords Damaged by Instructing Skaters over Loud Rink Music:  $19,863.53
Cosmetic Surgery and Botox for Deformed Feet:  $14,649.99
Special Eyeglasses Designed to Decrease Glare from Rink Florescent Lights:  $4,555.62
Office Supplies Decorated with Polka Dots Including Travel  Expenses Across Country to Track Them Down:  $12,761.74
Movie-Going for Music Research Including Popcorn with Extra “Butter” for Nourishment:  $52,433.88

FYI, here are the expenses my accountant considered to be perfectly valid:

Gas Mileage from Rink to Rink:   $4,655,627.41
Weekly Skating Blog:   $0.00

I have developed sudden-onset carpal tunnel syndrome from writing my check to the Internal Revenue Service, but as soon as this clears up, I will get to work on the next CSOM installment, which will be about Kristi’s dancing skills, or Sasha’s flexibility, or something else of skating significance.

                                                                 ***

Incidentally, this winter I was compelled to write a memo to my older brother. Read a copy of it by clicking on Cusp of Greatness in the column over to the right.

Rental Skate Riff

February 12, 2008

3244508orangerental.jpg

There are many different parts and pieces to an ice rink. There’s the Zamboni, the ice itself, the receptionists, the skate guards, the janitorial staff, the administrative staff and, of course, the coaches. I’ve thought long and hard about (and written about) the pros and cons of my particular role but I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s one rink job far more difficult and underappreciated than the rest: the job of the Rental Skate.

I’ve been working alongside Rental Skates for years, and I’ll admit it, I’ve never taken much notice. Well, that’s not true. I have noticed them and I’ve laughed. I’ve ridiculed. Okay, the full truth: I have been downright disrespectful, maybe even discriminatory.

One day, a child in my beginner class tugged on my coat sleeve. “Teacher?” she said (I’ve long stopped hoping for them to try and pronounce my name). “Teacher, my skates are broken.” I looked down. Her Rental Skates weren’t actually broken but they were in sorry shape. The buckles were undone, the tongues were wagging, and they were foaming at the mouth. It looked as if they had been run over by a car. “Oh, my,” I said to the little girl, trying to disguise my horror. I am ashamed to write that I did not feel empathy for this feeble footwear…I felt disgust.

“Where is your mother?” I asked. I certainly wasn’t going to bend down and touch them. Besides, performing triage right now would take time away from the other students. “She’s over there.” The little girl pointed her mitten toward the lobby at the other end of the rink, which might as well have been 100 miles away. I told her to wave, which she did, vigorously, but no one made any motions to come over. I considered sending this skater back out to the rental desk alone, but I knew that wasn’t particularly responsible, so I yelled out to the rest of the class, “Okay, try some dips!”

I sighed. I took off my own mittens (the coach version of rolling up the sleeves) and got down on bended knee. I first tried to stuff the plastic tongue back into the left skate without knocking the child over, but it seemed to have lockjaw. So I had her sit down, and I took the skate off her foot in order to deal with it more directly. I didn’t mean to be rough with the skate, but I was in a hurry. Despite being rushed, I did notice that the blue plastic was covered in lacerations. Out of curiosity, I quickly turned the boot over and ran my finger along the blade. It was sharp, yet, not in right direction; the bumpy nicks almost made it seem as if the toe pick extended along the whole length.

I finally got the tongue properly reinserted and had her push her foot back inside. I fiddled with the ski boot-style buckles, explaining while I did so that the skate should really be hugging her ankle and should feel a bit tighter than her sneakers. Then I started to address her other foot, except, wait…something was amiss. This one looked exactly the same and I don’t just mean that it had many similar injuries (which it did), but it was “exactly the same” in that it was also a left skate. Now I stood up and waved my arms wildly toward the lobby as if I were stranded on a highway. Help! S.O.S! Come now! Eventually, a mother stood, gathered up her coat, her toddler, and another kid in a stroller, then started making the trek toward the rink door. 

The situation was quickly rectified. We all said “woops!” chuckling, and moved on. But ever since then, I’ve been paying closer attention. What I’ve discovered has changed my perspective and I hope it will change yours, as well. What I’m asking, here, is to consider, really consider the plight of the Rental Skate.

Imagine that, basically, you are a knife for hire. You are worn by people who don’t really know how to correctly use you. Though you exist in the name of fun, you unintentionally harm beginner skaters on a regular basis, and get directly blamed for broken bones, sprains, and an unfathomable number of bruises. Every day, you participate in what are basically demolition derbies. You slam into the boards, you crash into other Rental Skates and every lap includes a number of near-misses that would make professional stunt men close their eyes. This has left you scarred.

But you really weren’t all that handsome to begin with. Maybe you are the tan-ish variety, the same color as paper bags, and striped red at the heel in the same manner as your cousin, the Rental Bowling Shoe. Or you are an elder figure skate, circa 1943, and you are graying and sagging with age. If you are the newest version, you are off-white with black trimmings. You are composed of extra-stiff plastic that is also somewhat shiny, so that you kind of look like a little white Darth Vader. But really, most of you are that weird color of blue plastic, not quite Smurf and not quite Blue Man Group, some indefinable shade in between. However you started out, you’re getting uglier by the session. Unfortunately, “plastic” surgery is not an option, or it’s never been offered, anyway.

Too often, you are forced to work in environments not included in your job description: the metal bleachers, the cement on the other side of the rink, even the parking lot. You are not provided with the protective gear, a.k.a. blade guards, that are always used in the private sector. You have no health insurance and the doctors assigned to your care have very little training. Mainly, you suffer from neglect, your ailments unnoticed or unreported. Instead of getting a bath, you get occasionally sprayed with noxious, aerosol “perfume”. At the end of the day, you are thrown into a heap and haphazardly sorted.

Though everything you do is a team effort, you sometimes get separated from your partner and re-matched with a Rental Skate of a different size or, as highlighted above, with your exact twin. You are basically abused, misunderstood and considered inferior to the other privately-owned skates in the rink. And you’ve seen how well those other white and black skates are treated. They are handled lovingly and gently wiped off. They are regularly taken for check-ups. They don’t hang upside-down on a hook all night, but are tucked into their own individual bags. Some of them even have fuzzy slippers and their own stuffed animals (Stink-eez!) designed to help them smell better.          

Imagine that your life is very very long. And that you work for its entirety, with no hope for retirement. You’ve never experienced anything like respect, or appreciation, or even, (until now) sympathy. The worst part is that, thanks to all of the above challenges and hardships, you’re not even very good at what you do.

In fact, the only pride you can take in your job is that you are an effective middleman. After wearing you, many decide to procure their own skates, those other ones. And, wait a second, when you think of it in this light, you, oh, Rental Skate, are truly a hero…you may be regularly dismissed, degraded, and quite smelly, but you are like a bridge, the best kind of bridge, because you lead to something better. It is with you that many dreams begin.  

                                                                      ***

While working on this installment, a few people shared some funny Rental Skate stories…

One rink manager told me that people don’t really steal the skates that much anymore but… “We had that problem when we first opened up. There were a few creative ways. The most common was to bring a ratty pair of shoes, give those in exchange for rentals and put on your real shoes from your bag. We had a few weird ones. In one instance, a woman claimed that the rentals were actually hers, stolen from her by one of our employees. Another time, one guy, an adult, asked to buy a specific pair of rentals, as they fit him so well. I explained that I couldn’t do that. Two weeks or so later the skates were gone. I saw them on the guy a month later at public session, painted an awful brown color. You can’t make this stuff up.”

A man whose family has run a skate shop and rental window at another local rink since 1960 told me that when the kids hand over the skates, sometimes he’ll, as a joke, hand back only one shoe in return then go about his business, pretending not to notice. One little kid, who seemed like he was probably only about three years old, looked a his one shoe for a moment and then, with perfect aim, threw it right at this man’s head!

Thanks for reading. I’m sure you have some good stories as well. Please contribute to this Rental Skate Riff by clicking on “comment” below. 

                                                                        ***

To read my icenetwork interview with the Gilles Family, click:

http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080207&content_id=43520&vkey=ice_news

 Also notice that I’ve added some Interesting Links, over there, under “Pages” in the right hand column. Enjoy.

4162626igloo.jpg

Well, the holidays are over. I don’t know about you, but I’m experiencing a bout of post-holiday blues; my cozy, pajamas-on-the-couch vacation is behind me and the long, cold winter stretches out ahead.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: coaching skating is a great gig, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do (well, besides cashing lottery checks and even if I did win, I’d probably still teach lessons). But the temperature of this profession from November through March can be more than a little problematic. Of course, in the summer, it’s a downright godsend, but that’s light years away, at this point, and not the focus of this discussion.

Allow me to clarify that there is a gigantic difference between skating in a cold environment and coaching in a cold environment. Even when you glide around with your students, you rarely generate enough body heat to have a real effect. The temperature is usually tolerable for the first hour or so, but once you get three or four hours in, you inevitably start to feel like an underdressed Eskimo.   

There are times, at the end of a workday, when I’m so cold I can hardly think, or I can only think about lasagna…diving into a large vat of it. There are times when my hands, my feet, and my face have gone beyond frozen to a scary state of numb. My shivering probably makes me look blurry to my students, as if I’m one big hummingbird wing. After my last lesson, I rush into my car and put the heat on full blast only to rediscover that it always starts off as an arctic wind far colder than air conditioning. While I wait for it to heat up, I worry that the violent chattering of my teeth could result in a jaw sprain or a cracked tooth. I wonder: when exactly does “hypothermia” set in?

A few years ago, I tried to comfort myself by making a list of careers that must be colder than ours. This is all I could come up with: 1. the foreman of an ice cream factory, 2. a roofer specializing in igloos,  3. a busker who plays guitar on Mt. Everest. Composing this list did not make me feel any warmer. In hindsight, perhaps burning it would have…

It could be that I’m particularly wimpy. I’m open to this theory because I am wimpy in many ways, however, I did grow up in Wisconsin in the years before global warming. (See prior installment – my father transformed our driveway into a rink with the simple spray of a garden hose.) In my formative years, on the rare days when I was not at an ice rink, I spent many an hour helping my brother construct sophisticated snow forts and extra-plump snowmen. I helped (okay lackadaisically, but still) my father shovel the driveway and helped my mother shovel our car out from various snowdrifts. So I’m no stranger to the cold.

It could be that the rinks I teach at are particularly chilly. You know how, when you come in from the cold, your face sometimes burns for a few moments? One night, when I came home from teaching at an outdoor rink, my face didn’t stop burning. I looked into the mirror to discover that my skin had become disturbingly splotchy and it stayed that way for hours. Those of you who know me are aware that I have an abnormal affection for polka dots – but not on my face! A call to my doctor the next day confirmed that I was probably going to live, but that I had contracted the very first stages of frostbite. I know a few coaches who have gotten more advanced frostbite in their toes, and this does not sound like a pleasant experience.

The temperature of indoor rinks varies. Ice surfaces apparently need to be somewhere between 24 to 28 degrees and the air is usually somewhere in the 50’s. Though, recently, at one of the rinks I teach at, an adult skater brought in a digital thermometer, just for kicks, and let’s just say that the reading was…well below the 50’s. It suddenly made perfect sense how, about a month ago, the ice pack I was using to nurse a shoulder injury was more frozen (rock solid!) at the end of my workday than at the beginning. Similarly, this New Year’s Eve, the rink nicely chilled a bottle of champagne I had tucked in my bag for later consumption.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most commonly uttered phrases in my work life is, “It’s so cold.” We coaches say this to each other as if it’s a revelation, as if it’s something new, as if we haven’t already mentioned it to each other four times that day and 65 times that week. Hearing the heartfelt, “I know,” in response, as your co-worker burrows further into her scarf, is comforting: at least we’re in this together. 

During the ice cuts, we purchase more coffee or tea, we blow on our hands (or run them under the hot water in the restroom.) We sit in the lobby commiserating and fantasizing. Our eyes gloss over as we talk about things like electric blankets, and heated vests. One of my friends enjoyed the benefits of this latter invention until it busted. The other day, someone was regaling us with a tale about a rink somewhere in Massachusetts where there are a series of heating panels installed behind the benches for the benefit of the coaches, which sounds to me like nirvana. My latest hair brain idea is to develop and bring into fashion a sort of “nose cozy,” perhaps knit in a variety of styles: an orange beak, a pink snout, or a red homage to Rudolph. What do you think?    

All of us have already devoted a lot of cognitive energy (and funds) to combating the cold.

Of course, the most important survival mechanism is strategic layering. For me, this starts with a layer of long johns and ends with a ball-gown length down-feather coat. It’s kind of a like a sleeping bag with arms. Of course, every time I want to demonstrate something, I have to hike it up to my waist like a bride walking through a puddle so that my students can actually see my feet and legs. The middle layers consist of a combination of fleece, wool, gore-tex…and, on the advice of a friend, I have recently discovered the thermal power of cashmere. I’ve always owned a few cashmere sweaters, but I’ve made the mistake of saving them for special occasions (a.k.a., when they could actually be seen, silly me). I didn’t realize, until now, that this luxuriously soft material is also quite practical. Snowpants are also a key ingredient. The few times I’ve tried to cut corners and teach just in my jeans, I might as well have been naked.

What you have to remember is to put on your skates before you apply your final layers because the bulk factor can make it difficult to bend forward. In fact, not being able to reach your feet is a good way of gauging whether or not you have enough layers on. Of course, once I have all my gear in place, I look about as large as a Kodiak bear. In the summer, it is common for skating parents who observe us coaches arriving at the rink in our shorts, to marvel at all the weight we’ve lost. Of course, in actuality, it’s just that they’re not used to seeing us in less than 44 layers.

Hats are a given, though your hair will pay the price, as it will look perpetually smooshed. I’ve found that mittens definitely trump gloves; it’s optimal for the fingers to huddle together. And, on the most extreme days, if you supplement with one of those handwarming pouches, it’s as if your fingers have all gathered around a virtual campfire. The downside with mittens is that they severely affect your dexterity: you have to take them off in order to write anything down or to play a CD. They also impact your ability to give your student the “peace sign”, the “okay sign”, or the “do two more sign” with your fingers. Fortunately, you can still give an effective thumbs-up, or thumbs-down, whichever the situation calls for. 

One thing that has helped me survive morning teaching (but just barely – see the installment entitled Morning Madness) is my own personal space heater, which is about the size of an eight-inch cube. Lots of fellow coaches have invested in these. The problem, which we have learned the hard way, is that you can only plug so many of them into a power strip before you blow a fuse.  

Sometimes, the only thing that will thaw you out this time of year is a long, scalding shower or a very hot dinner. For this reason, last week I implemented Project S.O.U.P..  I made three different kinds and I’m happy to report that my freezer is now stocked with 17 servings of liquid heat. Next, I’m going to purchase some boot covers, which many claim to be lifesavers, or toe savers, at least. All these methods will surely help with the winter blahs, but I know, as we dig deep into February, I’ll need to employ more extreme tactics. Specifically, I’ll have no choice but to board a plane to visit my oldest and dearest skating friend. She now lives in Puerto Rico.

                                                                       ***

If anyone has any other useful ideas or remedies on the topic of temperature, whether serious or facetious, please bring forth by clicking on “comment” below. And, I implore you, if I show up at the rink one day wearing a bank-robber style face mask or some kind of cashmere beak, please intervene. 

So the day I’m posting this missive, it is 65 degrees in New York. January 8. Go figure. 

Ha! A special thanks to Commenter #8 who has provided us with a link to a knitting website that includes an actual nosewarmer! That is just not something you see everyday… 

Stuff

December 18, 2007

4264299house.jpg

It’s no secret: we Americans are obsessive consumers. We are, on the whole, wasteful and thoughtless. Thanks to our materialism, our landfills are overflowing. Earth’s atmosphere and waterways are becoming noxious, nasty wrecks. And what are we doing about this? Holiday shopping.

I confess that I am a primary culprit. A few weeks ago, my mother and I visited a store called “The Christmas Tree Shop” which sounds like it could be a quaint little mom-and-pop nook on any small town’s Main Street. In fact, it is a warehouse-sized chain, offering aisle upon mile-long aisle of holiday kitsch. Name a household item – cookie jar, doormat, toilet paper – and you can find it there with a picture of Santa ho-ho-ho-ing across it. The sight of all this junk and the rate at which people were buying it sickened me. I crossed my arms and shook my head in distaste. After a few moments, however, I managed to calm down and acclimate to my surroundings: I found an empty cart and started filling it. 

I think comedian George Carlin puts it best:

“That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff…That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!”

I had a run-in with my own pile of stuff a few months ago, when I attempted to clean out some old boxes in my father’s garage in Wisconsin. What do you think most of these boxes contained? (Well, okay, lots and lots of dolls, a whole sad orphanage of them.) But also: all kinds of skating paraphernalia. Competition T-shirts, bags, programs, trophies, medals, etc.. I had not laid my hands or eyes upon any of these items in more than 20 years.

I was hoping to complete this project within a few hours, but I ended up changing my flight by about half a day so I could make some sense of it all. What did I need to keep? None of it. What did I want to keep and why? Those were difficult questions, indeed.

The thing is, most activities we get mixed up in – cooking, camping, mountain climbing – necessitate a certain amount of equipment. But there’s also all this other corollary stuff, some of which you purchase yourself and much of which you receive as gifts. I have received boatloads of skating-related merchandise over the years. My Christmas tree, for example, has skaters and skater-less skates flying around in every direction, as if on a public session. Of course, these ornaments don’t define me or validate me in any real way, but I admit, as I look across the room at my twinkling tree, that I derive joy from their specificity. I can remember who gave me these ornaments, mostly students, some of whom are long gone to college, and some of whom are growing like trees from one lesson to the next.

And that is what I was so overcome with as I sifted through those ancient boxes in my dad’s garage: memories. I found a tiny Polar Sport jacket, navy blue with red stripes and a Figure Skating Club of Madison patch sewn on the sleeve. I found Inga leggings, in black and turquoise and tan, the fabric of which is thick (and warm) as at least three wool blankets. And I found my red, FSC of Madison skating bag, which has separate compartments for two pairs of skates (freestyle and patch!). It is splattered in bleach from a grocery shopping accident that occurred in the trunk of our car and my mom still feels terrible about.

I remember wanting to own each of these things and thinking that they were all very expensive. I remember the thrill of finally obtaining them. And I remember happily using them. My parents were very generous: I always had pretty much anything I wanted, but I didn’t usually have it right away. There was a sense that all good things come to those who wait, that patience was a virtue, and that the best things in life are those that are earned. As a result, I appreciated what I had.

As I pulled these items out of their boxes, some held no meaning anymore, and others were like portals to the past. They reminded me of a particular rink lobby, a skating friend, or a coach. But, really, how often do we have a chance to (or even want to) revisit the past through these relics? And how much stress is involved in storing and constantly moving them? It occurred to me, as I sat, stressed-out, amid piles on the garage floor, that photographs from those times are equally evocative. And they take up a lot less space! Still, I’m ashamed to report that I couldn’t let go of a lot of it. I repacked many of the boxes and shoved them in the corner. Next time, I’ll try again.

Recently, one of my teenage students came back from Salt Lake City with a Junior Nationals jacket. His club had also given him a National Team jacket. The first day he donned these new acquisitions, he beamed proudly; I recognized that feeling. Most of our students wear jackets from their clubs, or their synchro teams, or various competitions. The fact that you can now purchase competition sweatshirts displaying a printed list of competitors and a little red star by your name is simultaneously ridiculous and fantastic. If I were a young skater today, I would have loved this as much as I would have loved a pink, rhinestoned Zuca bag (the roller bag that brilliantly doubles as a chair) or the new blade guards that give their own laser light show. (These are the current trends that will clog up many garages for years to come…)

The point is that all of these things contribute to a feeling of affiliation or a sense of belonging. Literally and figuratively, we have all “bought in” to this activity. While other sports are also infected with a certain amount of commercialism, I have a hunch that skating is probably pretty high (if not the highest) on this spectrum. And I wonder why this is so.

For one thing, skating takes a crazy amount of practice and, at the competitive level it requires a great deal of sacrifice, in various forms. Maybe that new skating trinket will somehow make up for all those other things – slumber parties, Saturday morning cartoons, prom – we might be missing. (Or maybe it won’t.) Also, as much as our sport is about technical savvy, it’s also about appearances. To a degree, figure skating has always and will always place an emphasis on how you look. At heart, skating is about attractive body lines, effortless landings, and musicality, but if these can’t be achieved, maybe a $1000 dress will somehow make up for inadequacies? (Again, and maybe not.) Maybe there are so many nefarious temptations for kids that parents are willing to spend whatever it takes on positive distractions.  

I was definitely one of those kids who, when the going got tough and I wanted to quit, I kept skating partially because I was excited about the dress that was being sewn for the next competition. For better or worse, I derived as much pleasure from the blade guards I decorated with flowers, or the stuffed smurf I covered with pins collected from competitions, as I did from the act of skating itself. I’m glad I continued to skate throughout my teenage years and eventually reached a place where the movement across ice eclipsed all the paraphernalia; in a weird way though, that paraphernalia, like a lure, helped me get there. And now, here.

So, can there be meaning in “things”? My answer is: definitely, yes. But how much meaning and how many things? I obviously haven’t figured this out, yet. 

As an adult, I have certainly indulged in that panacea known as retail therapy. The problem (or maybe the good thing) is that my Manhattan apartment is approximately the size of a standard business envelope, and there is simply not room for very much stuff. (Hence, the boxes at my father’s house.) All of the news reports lately about global warming and Al Gore’s valiant, Nobel-winning fight to save the environment have alerted me that we all need to slow down our consumption and think about our own “ecological footprints”.

I’m not contemplating (or suggesting) severing all material attachments, just a general downsizing and thoughtfulness. In the meantime, yes, there are some presents to wrap, gifts to distribute: though, this year, mine are slightly more homespun. With a little help from that behemoth Christmas Tree Shop, I got crafty: I made some ornaments and I bet you can guess what kind of footwear I painted on them…

                                                                              ***

So what relics are in your boxes?

Bonus fiction: Check out “Holidays on Ice, Parts 1 and 2” in the column over to the right.