December 24th, 2005

Skating on thin ice

In other seasons, it’s just a pond. A small and nondescript one at that, subject to some sort of algae-like scum in summer, and with a row of ducks on the side. It’s located in the park where I frequently walk, so I get a good look at it in all seasons.

In the last two weeks, since it’s gotten so cold, it’s been transformed into a classic winter scene–frozen, with skaters. They’re here when the slanted winter light dazzles as it reflects off the snow, they’re here when it’s cloudy and a blizzard threatens.

These skaters aren’t twirling dancing couples, or even singletons practicing their jumps. They’re all men and boys–sometimes, very very tiny boys–playing ice hockey. That’s what skating is really about in New England–playing a beloved and rough game, playing it hard, and playing it young.

You hear it before you see it–the echoing “thwack” of the puck being hit, and the indescribable scrunching sound of ice being thrown up by skates digging in for a sudden stop. They’ve brought two netted goals and placed them on each side of the ice, and I realize that this pond is perfect for this purpose, since by accident (or design?) it’s almost the exact size and shape of a hockey rink.

It’s been cold lately, very cold, but today it’s warmer. Each day I’ve noticed–with some trepidation–a large sign by the pond that says, “Warning: Thin Ice!” The sign is on a post staked into the ground. There’s a nail on the post, and hanging from it is a buoy with a long rope attached. If you fall in, the means to rescue you is right at hand–if the rescuers know what they’re doing, and if they’re very quick about it. There’s danger here, and the danger is real.

I used to skate on ponds, too, when I was young. The pond of my youth was much bigger, and the borough park department used to come and test the ice and put up a sign–a red ball– signifying it was okay to skate. When it wasn’t, it was strictly forbidden, although every now and then you’d see a lone skater or two tempting fate.

But here, people seem less apt to rely on others to tell them what’s safe and what’s not. They figure they can get out of any jam. Sometimes they’re even right.

This morning I’d been awakened, as I sometimes am these days, by a phone call from my mother. She was agitated and anxious. I’d gone to bed very very late, and was hoping to sleep longer, but no dice. Her caregiver wasn’t there yet, she said, and the agency phone didn’t answer.

But it was still a minute before her caretaker was even due to arrive; my mother is an expert at anticipatory anxiety, and as she’s gotten older (in fact, very old) it’s only gotten worse. And I’m trying to be more of an expert in patience, a hard lesson to learn.

So I tried to be gentle as I told her to wait, to wait a full half-hour, actually, and see if the woman wasn’t just delayed. And I tried to reassure her that I had all the emergency numbers to call (she actually had them, too, but couldn’t find them), and that in fact she is not helpless, even when alone.

I mentally ran through all the possibilities, including my going over there myself if the agency couldn’t find a substitute. My mother called me one more time, eighteen minutes later. Again, I told her to wait out the full half-hour (twelve minutes more!), and then to call me and I’d fix things if no one arrived.

I’m not sure how it was that I chose a half-hour, but it turned out to be a good choice: the woman arrived twenty-six minutes late. I could hear the relief in my mother’s voice when she phoned me to tell me the wonderful news: rescue! Rescue for her–and for me.

Sometimes we want that perfect assurance, that red ball that says there’s no risk, all is well, everything is safe. But we know that’s not going to be happening. So it’s good to have the buoy and the rope close at hand, just in case, and to try to learn how to use them.

6 Responses to “Skating on thin ice”

  1. Ymarsakar Says:

    Anyway, I always found it amusing on several levels. One was how we assume that our world is the same everywhere – ignoring the signs because if it was *really* dangerous then you wouldn’t be allowed. I also found it amusing the mix the Germans had in personal responsibility (ski there if you want – we told you) along with their govt control. It also highlighted how we were quite the opposite of them in where we had govt control and personal responsibility.

    That interesting dynamic is because Germans believe in duty as their prime virtue while Americans believe liberty is the prime virtue.

    Thus, the government feels that they have to protect people’s freedom, by keeping them alive. And people feel that people should be free to die or live by their own actions.

    The German government dictates what duty people have, and people then has to exercise that duty themselves. This is one of the reasons why German bureacracy is so efficient. Socialism still provides unemployment, but the German culture is relatively unchanged. They will never be great again, simply because they no longer know how to sacrifice, and duty without sacrifice is a weak and shadowy remnant of its previous greatness.

  2. Asher Abrams Says:

    All the best to you and your mom. Having an aging parent can be a real challenge. Sounds like you’re dealing with it as well as anyone could.

  3. Paul Says:

    Shades of Currier and Ives ?

  4. strcpy Says:

    Stories like this remind me of something some Germans I worked with once told me.

    They were snow skiers and went to several different places around here (being in the deep south, not too many to choose from). They alwasy laughed about our signage – whole areas roped off and made so it was nearly impossible to get to. According to them in Germany you got a sign like “Danger: Trees” which meant “Really thick forest, you die if you go ski there”. They had always wondered why so many Americans die on thier slopes (going over clifs, hitting trees, etc) – their conclusion was that they didn’t understand the difference. It wasn’t roped off so the sign must mean a tree here or there, or a small clif that might be fun to go over – not imminent death.

    I’m not a skier, nor have I ever been to Germany so I can’t speak to how accurate this was. They had no reason to lie. Nor were they particularly anti-american as far as I could tell, they seemed to like it here (I also got an earful about stupid Germans also).

    Anyway, I always found it amusing on several levels. One was how we assume that our world is the same everywhere – ignoring the signs because if it was *really* dangerous then you wouldn’t be allowed. I also found it amusing the mix the Germans had in personal responsibility (ski there if you want – we told you) along with their govt control. It also highlighted how we were quite the opposite of them in where we had govt control and personal responsibility.

    Plus (with the parent story) it seems odd that anyone can go on a frozen pond, in Tennessee it never freezes for more than a few days at a time. It would terrify my to go out on a forzen lake or pond, it’s beaten into our heads to *never* do that least you die. Even though I’ve seen it in TV and movies since I was born, it still looks strange.

  5. cokaygne Says:

    About playing hockey on a pond: Thanks for the memories. We used to stuff newspapers under our blue jeans (we called them dungarees) for pads. Kid who lived closest to the pond had to shovel the night’s accumulation of snow to the side to mark the approximate boundaries of the rink. If the snow got slushy and froze, thereby ruining the skating surface, we would wait for a thaw and refreeze. We had a blazing fire going on the shore. Sometimes the ice would break and one or two kids would fall in. Our pond was shallow so the kid who fell in could walk to shore by breaking the ice ahead of him. At that point we would probably all go home and maybe the kid(s) who fell in would try to dry off before the fire. In those innocent/naive days no one knew that getting your clothes wet on a freezing day was dangerous. Also, our school custodian would spray water on the school playground to make a safer skating rink. However, they wouldn’t let us play hockey there because it would interfere with girls who wanted to do figure skating. Both figure skaters and hockey players were convinced that the other activity ruined the ice. Sometimes a girl or two might skate on the other side of the pond where we played hockey. They might even come over to the fire to warm themselves. Mostly we ignored the girls except to impress them by humiliating one another.

  6. Sigmund, Carl and Alfred Says:

    Ah, the ties that bind. One way or another, they bind- no matter how thin the ice.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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