Cassius was trying to be diplomatic.
I’d been showing him one of my more impressive recent bruises. It happened a week or so ago during a Cherokees game at Icy O’Briens ( as I like to call the artist formerly known as the Icehouse; now officially renamed the O’Brien’s Group Arena). I’d gone into a corner to battle for a puck against the glass, in our offensive end. Fishing for the puck with my stick, with an opponent trying to protect it, I went in fast. Normally when your stick hits the wall, in that situation, it will deflect right or left, depending on the angle, but somehow my stick went dead straight and then got caught against the defender’s skate or something. I’m still not sure. All I know is my stick ‘stuck’ and therefore didn’t ‘give’ when my stomach hit it, perfectly, of course, in the gap between the chest armour and the padded shorts.** It was painful but ok: I wasn’t exactly impaled, and damn, but did all those endless ab workouts finally pay off or what? (shifts eyes)
So now I had a perfect imprint of the rectangular end of my stick and a surrounding deep bruise on my stomach. And Cassius, with all the wisdom of a seven-year-old, who has seen a bit of life, said to me: ‘Nicko, you know, you keep playing ice hockey and you keep getting hurt and I’m just thinking maybe you should try not to get hurt and maybe you should stop?’
Even better, he started to list my historic wounds. ‘There was that time you hit the wall really hard, and there was your knee, and there was your wrist…’
I laughed, no idea he’d been quietly cataloging my hockey carnage, but then thinking it must be pretty interesting at his age, to see a supposedly responsible adult regularly return home limping or wincing or bruised from what’s supposed to be ‘fun’.
But stop hockey because of the bruises? I picked at my food and drank some wine and tried to work out how to reply.
Because I’m pretty sure when I stop playing it will be because I get sick of not being very good, or having no real prospect of improving (deep down, I’m a competitive bastard and don’t like being mediocre), not because of bruises, unless I’m unlucky enough to finally snap a leg or a collarbone or something, as I’ve witnessed more times than I’d prefer during training or games. (It’s still striking, to me, that in the very first ever nickdoeshockey blog, I declared that I would aim to play until I inevitably really hurt myself, whether that was in a week, or two months, or maybe more. Five years later …)
Anyway, what to say to Cassius? He’s has been trying to get the hang of bike riding lately and it’s been tough to convince him on the risk versus reward ratio. When you’re struggling to learn how to balance a bike, and to conceive that going faster makes that easier, there are mental hurdles to jump.
I’ve fallen off bikes in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of situations. Without even pausing for thought, I can reel off: learning on my sister’s Malvern Star that was too big for me and had fixed pedals so you couldn’t glide, couldn’t stop pedaling; a bus almost taking me out riding home from Camberwell, and me choosing to veer, at high speed, into a parked car rather than get wiped by the bigger bus (that one hurt); trying to ride my old Repco down some bark steps in a park in Mount Waverley and making it all the way to the third bottom step before I got out of sync and bounced hard; getting a wire across the stomach from a fence I hadn’t noticed, in front of the entire family of a primary school girl I had a crush on; mountain biking in the bush gone wrong (repeat: by more than a few times). And so on.
But damn, I still love riding bikes.
Just as I love a glass of wine, or whisky, even though I know they’re bad for me. And just as people love bacon and processed meat, even though the World Health Organisation has now forcefully stated that they can lead to cancer. Not to mention the peril of smoking or heavier drugs.
Every day, in all sorts of ways, we all run risks, we take chances, we make choices, that pit personal health or safety against a wish for pleasure, need, money or other goals. The risks of breathing through apparatus underwater for the reward of hanging out with amazing creatures like manta rays … the risk of financial uncertainty through chasing the reward of a creative life … the risk of death in a plane crash versus the reward of flying to Europe … the risk of your heart, for the reward of love … pouring money into a poker machine to risk losing the rent versus a long shot to win big. This weekend and on Tuesday, Australians will pour ignorant millions into backing racehorses most of us have no idea about, dreaming of a collect and bragging rights.
… The risk of hurting yourself in physical exercise for the reward of overall health. This morning, I had to cross one of Melbourne’s most bizarre and intense road intersections, by foot. It’s the one near the Yarra River where Docklands turns into South Melbourne. You know: that little Lorimer Street-Montague Street-Johnson-Street-Wurundjeri Way-Princes Freeway onramp/offramp-West Gate Freeway onramp-offramp crossroad, with massive freeway overpasses overhead. Near South Wharf. I had to walk from the Port Melbourne side to South Wharf, which involves a lot of endless waiting for red men to turn into briefly flashing green men for disjointed crossings. Or you can wait until the little man turns green and just run for it, and see how far you can get before the mountain of traffic closes down all routes, and you’re marooned on a traffic island somewhere in the middle.
It is a lot like that scene in the excellent film, Bowfinger, where Eddie Murphy’s character has to cross an LA freeway for a movie shot.
So, there I was, and the green man turned green. I broke into a loping run, not exactly sprinting but moving fast enough to cover the whole intersection, a dozen or so lanes in eight separate chunks, south to north. Then feeling bold, to cross the six or eight lanes east to west.
And I stopped and reflected that I’m so glad I’m fit enough to run an obstacle course like that, without thinking about it; without having to worry about getting puffed or my legs not being ready to work on demand. Sure, I could be fitter, a lot fitter, but hockey and my wider life allows me the luxury of having confidence in my body for everyday/nothing moments like that.
This is not something anybody should take for granted. I watched a kid in a wheelchair struggle around a ‘walkathon’ at his primary school yesterday. Closer to home, my dad is in a bad way at the moment and struggles to leave his chair, let alone leave the house. Everything’s a battle. Watching him wrestle with the absolute basics, I feel thankful for my mostly working body.
And so to my fading stomach bruise and who knows what new bruises or strains are to come when I play a social game of hockey tomorrow night, or next turn out in my black and yellow colours for the Cherokees.
And I finally knew what to say to Cassius. I said: ‘Cass, the thing is, I just have so much fun playing hockey, that it’s worth a few bruises. Let me ask you something, would you rather, in your life, have awesome fun which means a few bruises, or be totally safe, never in danger, and therefore never have a bruise … but also, therefore, not have any fun?
‘For me, it’s easy. I choose the fun.’
He thought about it, shrugged, noticed his Star Wars Lego and that was that. He tossed up another of life’s big questions: who was the cooler bad guy: Darth Vader or Darth Maul? This took less deep thought. I’m on Vader.
** Postscript: I read once that Gordie Howe, Mr Hockey, perfected this move (the hard stick off the boards) if opponents tried to slam him into the wall. He would brace, but leave the end of his stick out behind him, so they ran into that, instead of his back. Trust me, it hurts.