Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ice House

This week has been both excruciating and exhilarating: My older son had another concussion playing ice hockey, and I read a short story in a bar in the East Village.

There is no finish line when it comes to raising children. My older son has been playing ice hockey for four years. He's almost 13 and believe it or not, ice hockey has been good to him. Yes, there's been a lot that's been rough: He's had practices and games that start at 5:45 Saturday mornings. He's gotten into fights with opponents; some of what's gone on in the locker room sounds pretty brutal. He has had his stick stolen. A few weeks ago, his helmet fell apart minutes before a game. His coaches have yelled at him and benched him. He's been coached by volatile Russian Olympic athletes, middle-aged suburban Dads, and good-looking, young construction workers. He has missed shots, defended the goal, scored on the goal. He has been slammed multiple times against the boards; he has thrown punches and been punched back; he checks and get checked (hockey talk for "pushing.") He has gotten more than his share of penalties. "He likes to mix it up," one of the Dads said the other day, and I've gotten used to looking up at the scoreboard and seeing my son's number and the two-minute count-down until he gets out of the penalty box. He has fallen, gotten back up, and stayed in the game. Hockey makes him sweat, beats him up and wears him down. He loves it. But he keeps banging his head and this week, the pediatrician said that the third concussion should be the last one, and that he shouldn't even think about playing football in the fall. "I don't know what your family dynamic is but I think you need to go home and talk about this with Mom and Dad," the doctor said. "What do you think?" he asked, looking at me.

Here's what I think: I don't particularly like ice hockey. It's violent and the professional players make a show of beating up on each other. I never watched it as a kid and my brother never played it; my husband was a lifeguard and a great swimmer but never played a sport that required a helmet. I couldn't have told you the difference between the Rangers and the Devils until a few years ago. I used to get the NHL and the NFL confused. I didn't know that ice skates had to be sharpened regularly, or that the screws fell out of helmets. I didn't know that pre-adolescent boys could push each other around, trip each other with sticks, and race around with sharp blades on their feet and survive. I didn't know that sweaty gloves and shinguards can cause rashes that don't go away for months. I didn't know that a battered goalie's net on the driveway, two cheap wooden sticks and a plastic puck could provide hours of activity for my son and his friends.

I did learn to keep a ski jacket in my car, even in summer, because an ice rink is always cold, especialy when you have shorts and flip-flops on. I did learn to appreciate what ice hockey had to offer: The lessons of team-work; the value of being forced to listen to a coach's pre-game lecture and expectations; the thrill of hanging out with kids who love to skate backwards; the tranquilizing benefits of a sport that's so tiring it takes the edge off my son's pre-adolescent mood swings and turns them into something he can sleep off.

I came to appreciate ice hockey as a sport our older son loved (and our younger son wanted no part of), which is the same thing as saying I viewed hockey as a mixed blessing and necessary evil: A great way to keep our son fit, an excellent outlet for a pre-adolescent's testosterone surges, and an activity that provided a healthy winter weekend alternative to X-box and "Family Guy."

But our pediatrician says no more. On Monday, my son had a constant headache. He said he felt "withdrawn." He looked exhausted. The pediatrician warned us of damage that can come 30, 40 years down the line. He warned us of an inability to fully concentrate. He warned us of memory problems and bleeding in the brain. Our pediatrician played football in college and had to stop because of knee trouble. "A bum knee is something you can live with," he said. "You don't want to live with a bum brain." No, you don't. So what now? What does our older son do with his down time now? How many sports don't involve physical contact? How many pre-adolescent boys don't want to push someone around? I don't know how this is going to pan out. I just know our oldest boy is going to need something new and physical to do. The pediatrician suggested tennis and golf, but then again, he's a fiftysomething doctor and probably doesn't have the urge to slam into people.

The one bit of good news the week brought is that I did get up the nerve to read out loud to a small audience Monday night. Tim O'Mara organizes We Three Productions, which puts on poetry and prose readings every other Monday night in the Library Lounge at the Telephone Bar ( in the East Village. On Monday, he had four writers read their work. I shared the podium with Aja Monet, a gorgeous young poet from Sarah Lawrence; Pascal Escriout,a really funny French chef who is writing a one-man show; and John Reed, a writing instructor and fellow Columbia MFA, who read two sonnets and some provocative new fiction. We all stood up and happily read our stuff; it took about an hour. In the audience were my husband, my Mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, my husband's aunt, her boyfriend, three of my closest friends and an old friend from way back, who brought her boyfriend.

My story was 44 pages long, but I had been warned to keep my reading to 13 minutes, so I spent most of the day Monday taking my older son to the pediatrician, emailing my husband about our son's head and mood, and cutting my story way, way down. My story is called "The Pope's Risotto" and it is about a therapist who is thinking about becoming a prostitute. The story is completely inappropriate for children, so of course, my older son snuck a copy of it off my desk. Because of his concussion, he wasn't supposed to study, read or play video games; the pediatrician told him to rest his brain and watch TV. My son read the story anyway. He said he loved it; maybe that was just his concussion talking but still, I was thrilled. I suspect my son gets high off hockey, I know I get high off writing. If I couldn't write, I don't know what I'd do. I suspect my son is in the same predicament.

Tomorrow he goes back to school but today, we were both home, circling each other. I was trying to get ready for the classes I teach Thursday and Friday; my son was playing with our dog, and watching TV. At one point, he lay down on the floor of my office and started to bark like a dog. His friend texted him and tried to console him by saying he would just have to get used to playing "whimpy sports." Finally, our housekeeper arrived and drove him to see "Taken." While they were gone, I made "end of the day chicken." (It's the end of the day, so let's make chicken with whatever's on hand.) I defrosted chicken parts, sprinkled them with salt, pepper and Emeril's poultry rub, and then covered them with olive oil and a handful of Parmesan cheese. While the chicken cooked, I put up some rice and ran upstairs to write. The rice burned but my husband and kids loved the chicken; the meal reminded me that it is possible to cook your way out of a bad mood. Sometimes you can write your way out of a bad mood too. Here's hoping my son writes his way out of his.

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