Breaking the Ice
And with them come winter sports: sledding, skiing, tobogganing, and ice-skating. Of those, the distinct lack of subfreezing temperatures in San Francisco makes that last activity the only actionable one within city limits.
But I don't skate. Never have. Every year, a friend will chirp, "Let's go to an ice rink!" and then I have to fumble for my excuses as to why I can’t go.
I've avoided the ice ever since childhood when I experienced what I refer to simply as The Unpleasant Incident. There was nobody around to tell me what happened, and all of my memories from that evening are still frames. I was building up my speed across the snow before slamming my feet on an icy patch in hopes of gliding all the way over a field on two feet. Or at least, that had been the plan. From there I have a snapshot of me limping home through the woods, another of telling my parents that I tripped and scraped myself, one more of me throwing up in the bathroom, and then an extremely deep sleep.
The next morning I woke up with a giant scab covering the upper-right quadrant of my face. My parents were obviously aghast, but I kept reassuring them that it looked worse than it was. It healed up over the next month and didn't have any lasting effects (that I know of) but it freaked me out. No more ice, I decided, especially when I got a little older and realized what could’ve happened to me. I kept that pledge for about 20 years.
In retrospect, that was kind of a stupid promise.
It’s time to start the healing. This year, I've had an itch for traditional Christmas trappings – wreaths from Not Just Flowers, caroling at Grace Cathedral, reindeer feeding at the San Francisco Zoo – and so I decided that my self-imposed exile from the cold stuff had gone on for long enough.
Time to learn to skate.
I spread the word that I was ready to put my wobbly feet in a rink. Soon a friend mentioned that he had a connection to a three-time gold-medal-winning figure skater, and maybe he'd give me a quick lesson. Well, okay!
I met Angelo D'Agostino at the Union Square ice rink. I was nervous as I approached, then saw a crowd of small children expertly gliding around and felt a bit silly.
Angelo had an immediate calming effect. He was upbeat and all smiles when he asked, “Did you ever skate as a kid?"
"No," I responded.
"Oh, where'd you grow up?" he asked.
"New England," I replied.
"And you never skated?" he asked, surprised.
That took me back to The Unpleasant Incident. I could feel a heavy heartbeat. "Nope," I said, and fumbled to change the subject. "I rollerbladed in college."
Angelo laughed and asked, "Did you have the neon-colored rollerblades? That's what I had.” Suddenly I was laughing with him, and my heart rate was calm again.
"Remember to put your hands in front of you, like they're on a table," Angelo suggested. We weren't on the ice yet. I was just hobbling toward the rink, two knives strapped to the bottom of my feet.
I took a delicate step onto the slippery surface. And another. My hands gripped the wall as if it was an armrest at a horror film.
So far, so good. Angelo held one arm as I tried to propel myself forward, my ankles repelling each other like magnets until I was nearly in a split.
I regrouped my limbs, put my hands out like they were on a table, and tried again. Success: I was able to move forward a couple inches! I nudged my heel into the ice and I slid forward a bit farther. Somehow, I was skating.
An eight-year-old girl whizzed past me. "Good grief, what a show off," I thought, during which time she’d nearly rounded the rink and passed me again.
I noticed that some skaters were built for speed and others for robustness. A teenager bulldozed his way across the rink, slamming into the Plexiglas wall and bouncing off in a new direction without slowing down.
Meanwhile, I was slowly getting better. "If you feel like you're going to fall, don't let yourself lean back," said Angelo as we cruised at a slow speed around the perimeter. "Make your center of gravity low."
He tucked himself down into a squat. I curled into a fetal position.
For all my nervousness, I was actually steadily improving. Angleo showed me how to lean in order to steer, and to shift my rib cage horizontally to the side so I could balance on one leg (for a fraction of a second).
Stopping presented an extra challenge. I could never do it on rollerblades, and I wasn't very good at it on ice. Angelo tried to show me how to let one blade drag slightly in order to slow down, but I never really figured it out. I think, deep down, I felt bad about potentially messing up the smooth ice.
Next came a lesson in skating backwards – an area where I had the most room for improvement. "Make commas on the ice," Angelo instructed, swinging his feet in a chain of tight arcs. I wiggled from side to side, slicing a series of ever-expanding parentheses.
The eight-year-old watched us, nonplussed.
"Are you learning stuff?" her mother asked her.
"No," she said. "I'm eavesdropping."
"Careful," Angelo smiled as we wrapped up our lesson. "Now you know just enough to be dangerous."
"Oh, I was already pretty hazardous before," I responded. It's true that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but spending time on the rink actually made me feel safer. I knew more about how to handle myself, but more importantly, I was getting used to thinking about The Unpleasant Incident. And the more I thought about it, the less the memory troubled me – so long as I wasn’t moving too quickly.
I cruised around the rink for another half hour at low speed, trying out fancy tricks like stopping and steering. It felt good to be mastering my fear, and I hadn't fallen over once.
A few days later, I returned to Union Square for a theme night: Drag Queens on Ice. This time, I happily strapped on my skates and clomped right out onto the rink.
I was feeling good about my skill level, and it felt even better to be surrounded by a crowd of drag celebs. A Sister of Perpetual Indulgence flew by, followed by Anna Conda, whom I’d last seen toasting her campaign for district six supervisor at The Eagle.
Anna, by the way, was tearing it up. I was like, "Holy geez, who knew Anna Conda was an accomplished skater?" When I told her how fantastic she was, she looked a little shy.
"I just started!" she said.
Well! Okay. That was encouraging. A few lessons and some regular practice were apparently all it took to get her spinning around in leg warmers. I headed back around for another lap, my confidence redoubled.
That's when it happened: my first fall. A real splat, face first, arms splayed – the position I imagine I took in that icy field when I was 12. It turned out that falling was necessary to break the bad spell, though. My hard thunk onto the ice was a shock – but then I stood up, brushed myself off, and kept going.
I noticed that everyone else fell too. Strangers crashed into each other, adults and kids alike slammed into the wall, and a line of drag queens all slipped to the ground in unison, laughing uproariously.
Simply put, falling is an integral part of the fun of ice-skating.
I skidded around the rink a few more times, then hung up my skates and took off for the Hyatt on the Embarcadero. Every few hours, the hotel cranks up snow machines in the atrium near Eclipse, and I was meeting my friend Michael there.
I found him just as the first fake flakes began to fall. They're not exactly snow – more like a sudsy fluff. My legs ached from my enthusiastic tumbles and laps around the rink, and I needed to sit down for a bit.
We hung around under the snow machines, suds collecting in our hair as we sipped hot apple cider. There was a massive glowing tree to our left and huge sheets of white Christmas lights to our right. It really felt like Christmas.
I remembered that there was another ice rink set up just a block away on the Embarcadero. I asked Michael, "Hey, wanna do something really fun?"
There are three great ice rinks in San Francisco. Around Christmas, there are temporary ones at Union Square and the Embarcadero, and there's a year-round rink at the Yerba Buena Center. Expect to spend $10 to $15 for access and skate rentals. If you need a few lessons, get in touch with Angelo D'Agostino at DNATraining.org or
for instruction that runs $45 for a half hour. Or you can improve your game by just showing up at a rink when it’s quiet and shimmying out onto the ice. You'll pick it up in no time.