Cook: What happens at the rink stays at the rink

We went ice-skating the other day, which is really to say we went ice-falling.

"Dad, please help us," both kids begged, clutching onto my arms and legs.

"But who's going to help me?" I begged, clutching back.

On airplanes, they tell you to secure your own mask before helping others. On skating rinks, they tell you nothing. We were a desperate bunch, clinging and colliding onto and into one another, looking like the inside of an atom, except with scarves. The more we clung, the less we skated.

It felt very survivalist.

"You're doing great," my wife said. She's the skater of the bunch. (And the liar.)

Moments earlier, before we had stepped onto the ice, everything seemed so nostalgic and wintry. We had walked into the Get Skates Here tent at Ross's Landing, and for a split second, the Tennessee River was Lake Wobegon, and we were all Dorothy Hamill.

Then, they handed me some skates. Later, I would recognize this moment for what it was: a premonition. Each pair of skates is numbered on the heel. Mine?


"How appropriate," my wife said softly.

In the NHL, someone body-checks you into the wall; at Ross's Landing, I just checked myself. The kids and I had cartoon legs, spinning and sliding frantically and helplessly -- like Wile E. Coyote when he goes over the cliff -- as we went from vertical to horizontal. Skating wasn't just hard on the rump; it was a real bruiser to the ego.

"We shall never speak of this day again," my boy -- the athletic one -- said.

For $2, you can rent something called a skate buddy. I asked for Katarina Witt. Instead, they brought out this contraption that looks like a walker, sort of what you see at retirement homes.

The skate buddy is supposed to be for kids. Supposed to. (I highly recommend them.)

"Try turning your heels inward, and toes outward," one man suggested.

He'd come out of nowhere, in a guardian angel kind of way, as I struggled against the wall.

"You know, like a pigeon," he said.

I looked hard at my feet, hoping they were listening. Slowly, they repositioned themselves into a V, and I started walking in an outward-kind of way, like Chaplin used to.

Well now.

Would you look at that.

It worked.

"I'm skating," I said out loud.

This precious moment of not-falling gave me time to think. Skates are such paradoxical things, anyway. We trade our perfectly good shoes -- with all their cushion and support -- and walk out onto all that hard ice wearing boots that aren't really boots at all. More like boots balanced on top of a metal eyelash.

And we expect it to hold us up.

Maybe that's life. Each day, we depend and rely on the small things to keep us standing. Our lives, hinging on the tiny, eyelash moments. A phone call from a friend. A bedtime story with your kid. A good report from the doctor. The taste of a cold beer during a ...

"Look out," someone shouted.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her coming. She had a desperate look, one I recognized all too well.

"Move," she said.

"Can't," I replied.

At such slow speeds, it was more of a bump than a collision. The same thing would happen over and over: strangers bumping and colliding into one another.

"Excuse me," we'd say to one another. "Sorry about that."

Well now.

Would you look at that.

Ice-skating began to seem a lot like community-building. I skated and slid into strangers, and they into me. About to fall, I'd instinctively thrust out an arm, hoping for something to grab hold. More than once, a stranger responded, saving me. When I could, which wasn't often, I'd return the favor.

It was giggly and vulnerable and challenging. It felt like we were all in this together as the ice, like life, sent us sliding this way and that.

Besides Riverbend, can you name a time when so many of us jostle and bump into one another, laughing all the while? This rink is good for our civic heart.

Skating, an act of compassion and community. Thy ice-skater as thyself.

"Next year, we want to expand the rink," one employee told me. "Make it about 75 percent bigger."

Wonderful. Can't wait.

Will you also do something about those skate buddies?

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfree or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.