The Free World

People won’t be people when they hear this sound… On my headphones, my pregame music is shrieking and thumping. On the street, I’m weaving my bag and stick through the crowds. Late, as usual, and trying to hurry while at the same time not spearing any grandmas nor high-sticking any small children. Despite my reckless way of walking, I get a lot of friendly stares on the way to hockey, sometimes waves and thumbs-ups too, as though everyone in my neighborhood knows the backstory and wants me to stick with it. Probably I just look funny.

Today, though, if anyone is waving I’m not seeing it. I’m not seeing anything. I’m thinking, that toxic, obsessive kind of thinking that just goes in circles and never reaches any end. There’s too much on my mind. Career things, money things, friend things, family things- life, currently, is a mire of unrealized plans, unfulfilled obligations, and unwelcome complications. Not that I have it worse than anyone else. Life whacks us all upside the head sometimes. It’s not special. Neither is it easy.

I read somewhere, long ago in the pages of some utterly forgettable self-help book on an utterly forgettable end-table in an utterly forgettable living room, that the best way to understand stress is to imagine that your brain is like a computer with two kinds of memory. There’s the long-term stuff that you store away on a sort of cerebral hard drive and only call up when necessary, and then there’s the ongoing processes that take up psychic RAM. The more things you have taking up RAM at once- that is, the more works-in-progress, the more mid-stage projects and open questions- the more stress you experience. I don’t know if that’s true (like I said, I don’t think it was a credible book), but days like this I can feel the whirr and clicking in my head, my brain desperately trying to trace thirty threads of thought at once, on the verge of overheating.

Like I said, it’s not special. The other women trickle into the dressing room in twos and threes from 5:15 until 6, and at that time of day everyone’s mind is running hot. Some women come in from work in sleek dresses and tasteful jewelry, abuzz with office politics, others come in old jeans from home with family dramas on the mind. Not everyone is stressed out every day, of course, but people being people there’s always something- a promotion waiting, a boss overbearing, a young child needing, a elderly parent demanding. Pre-hockey conversation is full of oh my Gods and I can’t believes and I don’t even knows.

But taking off clothes is like taking off yourself. Slip out of the dress and hang your office up on the wall. Leave your domestic duties crumpled under the bench with your jeans. Drop your boss, your mother, your girlfriend in the bottom of the bag with the cell phone. Getting dressed for hockey is putting on a new self. Pull the bulk of the pants around your hips and ask, hey, whose playing in that tournament in fall? Tighten your skates and complain about the guy on your co-ed team who tries to start fights like he’s being scouted or something. Strap on your elbow pads and argue, no no no, you were dark last time and we got our asses kicked, you two need to be separated. Pick up your stick and think about the last time you scored, stare at the curve and pray, silently, do that again.

We come into that room as businesswomen, teachers, artists, mothers, wives, and daughters. We leave as hockey players.

***

It takes a minute to adjust to the ice. Sure, you can just walk onto the ice and start playing, but do that and you know your first few shifts are going to be terrible. Better to circle for a while, getting your legs stretched, your stride up to speed, your aim set. Shot number one is always weak, but then two, three, four and, oh yes, there’s the lift. The first crossover is always wobbly, but two, three four, and hey, there’s the edge. And then, once you’ve got your body ready, there’s the territory. You need to feel the rink, the number of paces it takes to get from blue line to blue line, from board to board, from the corner to the slot. A hockey rink is not like the normal Earth. It’s a different realm. I think of it as the frozen world.

Every sport is its own world, for a playing field is nothing more or less than an invented geography. It has its bounds, and everything that happens within those bounds is governed by particular rules, an invented physics, an invented culture. Playing the game is giving yourself up to a whole different kind of place and a whole other way of being, and depending on the game, the feeling is different. There are grassy green worlds, lit up by sun and filled with people in T-shirts, jogging  lightly between plays. There are polished wooden worlds, filled with the squeak of shoes on varnish, smelling of sweat and rubber.

Hockey, with its curious mix of high technology and aggressive physicality, is a bit like a dystopian world, where everyone is heavily armored and thrown together in a tight space to battle, clubs in hand, at incredible speeds over a very small object. Seen from the ice, the arena, with its bright white boards scarred black, its steamy glass, and its shiny, crackly silver roof has the feeling of a 1970s future gone to seed, like 2001 after the money ran out. Like Alien, without the aliens.

A hockey rink is an excellent place to reinvent yourself.

***

People have different identities on the ice. It’s true of serious, high-level players and it’s true of women’s shinnists too. There’s the quiet, unassuming ones who barely say a word in the dressing room yet fly through the neutral zone like a screaming id. There’s the snarky, ironical ones who run a constant patter of support and encouragement every moment they have their skates on. Some people put on hockey equipment and suddenly develop a horrible temper, others find a kind of Zen cool. And, where I play, people experiment with identities. One shift they’ll play stay-at-home D, barely crossing the red line, and then on the bench they decide, now I want to score a goal, and the next forward shift will be nothing but shots. We’re newish players, and not very serious, and sometimes, we play hockey like we’re playing dress-up, like kids in a driveway. Last shift I was Mark Messier, next one I want to be Bobby Orr.

Off the ice, I’m a solitary kind of thing, a little bit awkward, a little bit misanthropic maybe, introverted in the extreme. I’m prone to fancy shit, embroideries and embellishments and hyperboles. You can read it now, right? My prose has so many unnecessary dekes and dangles it would give Don Cherry a month of seizures. But on the ice? On the ice I am pure role-player, everything focussed on keeping my position, knowing my place, and supporting the better players on my team. I measure my success not in goals and assists but board-battles won and passes completed, on keeping it in their zone or getting it out of mine. I’m not good individually. I don’t need to be good individually. I just want to be a good part of a team. Everything in my personal character screams mercurial enigmatic Russian, but my hockey personality is all Good Canadian boy, minus the speed, hands, and fighting. A contradiction? No. A blessing. Sports are fictions, about yourself, that you live in real time.

***

It’s not that the frozen world is some kind of paradise, free of cares and troubles. Like every world, it has its different nations and its different tribes, and some of its territories- like my own tranquil shinny time- are largely peaceable, but others are fractious in the extreme and some massively dangerous. But whether your preferred difficulty level is hey man I’m sorry or keep your fucking head up or I will end you, there are always struggles. There are the competitive struggles against opponents and the cooperative struggles with teammates and the deep struggle against yourself that never, ever goes away no matter how long you play or how good you get.

The escapist appeal of hockey isn’t that it’s easy or pleasant. As much as the game will give you plenty of good moments- the satisfaction of advancing skill, the communal hum of true collaboration, the quasi-erotic sensation of muscles fully used, the pure euphoria of winning- it will also give you ten thousand moments of anger, frustration, shame, disappointment, and pain. No religion ever offered the faithful such a bloody, sweaty, stinky heaven- although probably more of us long for such a place than the saints could ever know.

But maybe that’s the deep dark secret of human longings: no one really wants paradise. No one really wants to just hang out all day long in a garden full of righteous people sipping on milk and honey. We don’t want perfect, we just want different. We want places and spaces to be, for a little while, a different kind of person in a different kind of world, somewhere with different rules and different ethics and different measuring sticks of success. We want alternate universes, and finding none, we build them, out of wood and leather and grass, out of lines and balls and nets, out of ice and glass. We play out alternate lives there, sometimes tougher and nastier than the thawed self, sometimes sleeker and flashier, sometimes even simpler and humbler.

Whatever the content of the alternate self, though, having it is a precious thing.

***

When they finally back the Zamboni up to the doors and the old man bang bang bangs on the glass, when it’s really over, the exhaustion hits like like a typhoon, a soggy blast of wind that goes straight through me. Was I gasping before? Have I been flushed and panting this whole time without knowing? Or does it only start now, when the hockey is over, when the clock as struck 7:15 and I start to turn back into a pumpkin? It’s always a bit of a let-down, that moment when I stop being a hockey player and go back to being regular me.

But it’s not all bad. I can’t speak for the others, but I know that when I peel off my dripping shoulder pads and fetid socks and put on my regular, everyday clothes with their regular, everyday burdens again, they feel lighter. I- the real-world I, the actual unfrozen Ellen I have to be 166 hours a week- feel lighter. This hour of escaping my real life has, paradoxically, made me more able to handle real life.

I can’t speak for the others, for all the other rec hockey players out there- and certainly not for the pros, the people who were born and raised in the frozen world and rely on it for all their money and all their identity- but I suspect that many of us, when the papers pile up too high on the desk and our responsibilities are screaming in our ears and the real world is just too much urgent banality to take anymore, we lean back in our chairs and stare at the ceiling and think of the last game we played or the last goal we scored, and feel a residual tension in the muscles, a little extra torque in the wrists, and smile, remembering the other world. The frozen, dystopian, free world, where we’re our other selves.  Where we’re hockey players.