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Cruising for a bruising

She'd gotten from zero to 50 in one piece -- so clearly the next step in life was not to step at all, but rather to roll gracefully ahead in a new pair of skates.

April 24, 2006|Emily Green

MANY years ago, my friend Maria Djurkovic phoned and said that she could not come to dinner. Her father had climbed up a tree and fallen. It sounded like a very George Djurkovic thing to do: He was the Czech-born set designer whose credits ranged from "The Benny Hill Show" to "The Great McGonagall."

I put it down to his being foreign -- and artistic. Only recently did I realize that it was probably nothing to do with either thing, but a question of age. Even those of us who haven't walked out of the smoldering ruins of Eastern Europe after World War II to become legendary art directors in British cinema can at some awkward point find ourselves up a tree.

Or, in my case, in a mid-Wilshire outlet of a Big 5 Sporting Goods store buying a pair of Rollerblades.

It was one month exactly past my 50th birthday. For reasons that I do not understand, in those 30 days I wanted to do all the other things I'd done in my youth. I'd taken up smoking again (and quit again), spent a week visiting wineries, eaten with abandon in restaurants until my credit card exploded, and become involved in an unlikely flirtation. This weekend, I wanted to skate.

As I rationalized it, I would skate everywhere that I presently cycle. I would skate to my hairdresser, skate to my video store, skate to my local school. No more locking up the bike and worrying about thieves.

It turns out that skates have changed since I last strapped on a pair sometime in the 1960s. They're Rollerblades now, with wheels arranged in one cruel line, with only one brake, at the rear of the left foot. The people who sell them to you also encourage you to invest in all manner of protective gear. I put this down to them being Generation Y wimps, but I bought pads for my elbows, wrists and knees anyway.

I got home just in time to inaugurate the new skates with a sunset glide up and down the block. Donning all the padding was a tussle, so I chose to effect the transformation from 50-year-old gardener to roller queen inside the house. This made getting outside a challenge.

I wriggled out the door on my rear, then across the porch and down the stoop before hauling myself upright on the coyote bush, where I managed to stand long enough to yell for help. Luckily, it was cocktail hour and three old-timers were sitting on the front porch next door. The nondrinker among them came over to extract me from the shrub.

The thing that must be said for the predicament is that no matter how ridiculous I might have appeared, I was in too much pain to care. Nothing is quite so cruel to old feet as a home inside a new pair of Rollerblades. Picture your feet curled up as you try to balance on a ruler. Everything cramps in an effort to hold you upright. For some reason, the pain settles in the shin.

However, I was determined to roll, or roller, before succumbing to the agony. My neighbor propelled me to the street before giving me a wicked push and standing back to watch. "Fall into the grass," he called.

I obliged with a controlled dive. A person in a car pulled over to see if I was injured. I waved the driver away, telling him not to worry. I crawled to a street tree, pulled myself up and managed to skate another block before again falling into the grass and begging my neighbor to rip the skates from my feet.

The next day I went at it again, unsupervised. As I'd mastered the art of falling forward, this turned into the day of falling backward.

This proved an entirely different order of capitulation. Somehow the rolling motion as my feet slipped out from beneath me boosted the trajectory and force, meaning that I landed harder. The grass was in front of me, sidewalk below, so this time I landed on concrete. The impact on the buttock was the least of it -- it was the forefinger jabbing into pavement and the jolt to the neck and the head as my entire weight came crashing down. I felt as if my eyeballs had tried to bounce out of their sockets.

A full day later, my right eye still feels as if whatever connects it to the brain has been pulled on -- hard. My finger is merely bruised, not broken. I may have cracked a filling as my jaw clacked. My bottom has a bruise the size of a giant grapefruit on the left cheek.

Counting the cost -- $140 for skates and pads, plus unknown totals awaiting in dental and chiropractic fees -- it occurs to me that all of human folly can be divined in accident statistics. This much I learned from 20 minutes of living dangerously, and I wonder if up his tree, George Djurkovic didn't realize it too: When we're young, we climb trees and skate to find what we can do. As we age, we climb trees and skate to learn what we are no longer capable of doing.

The Rollerblades now mock me from a heap by the door. Their message: I may indeed one day learn to skate, or I may choose to turn 51. It's up to me.

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