Heck on Wheels

I don’t do requests. I’m not a lounge singer. My wife came home yesterday afternoon and told me that she and her lunch date had decided on the subject of my next blog post. My first reaction was to simply refuse. On principle. I’m not a trained seal.

What wife number two [not her real name] and her friend decided was that it would be fun for me to write a post about my adventures on rollerblades. Adventures. That’s one word for it. They thought it would be entertaining for me to describe my several serious accidents on the blades, how and why I crashed, who witnessed the crashes, details of the injuries I suffered and the medical attention I received. Perhaps go into some detail about the lingering impact, physical and emotional.

“Why did you two think that would be funny?” I asked.

“You know,” she said, “ Old guys trying to behave like young guys, trying to hold onto their physical vitality through risky physical activities.”

I almost choked on my Viagra pill.

Women appear to like stories that show men to be pathetic and injured.

I started on the blades about ten years ago. I was feeling old. After a certain age, you start to do things less and less well. Your athletic skills and abilities decline. So, I thought, it would be a good idea to start something new – so I could feel like I was actually getting better at something, rather than steadily worse. Rollerblading looked like fun.

Roller blading is terrifying – for me and for those with whom I share the bike path. It doesn’t take much effort to go really fast. Too fast, really. Going too fast isn’t so bad if there is some way, quickly, to slow down or stop, when one’s life and safety requires it. You cannot stop on roller blades. If you stop skating, and just glide for a while, you’ll eventually slow down and stop, unless you start going down hill.  Blades come with a rubber “brake” on the back of one or both skates. No one knows why. A cruel joke.

You have to accept that you simply cannot stop. You have to be prepared to bail out – jump off the path. You can try to run on the grass, but running on roller blades is really hard and, if you’re going too fast [as you will be], you’ll find yourself rolling. Or sliding. Neither is pleasant. Sliding on grass doesn’t seem like it would be too bad, until you do it. Heat builds up pretty quickly. You burn and scrape your hip and thigh and fill the raw flesh with dirt and grass and weeds and pebbles. It is painful to wear pants thereafter.

Well, this is fun so far.

I’d lost control a few times, but had always managed to get off the asphalt path and onto the relatively soft ground. Until one Sunday afternoon. I was going sort of down hill on a part of the path I’d been on many times, when I suddenly found my legs up and my face heading down. I had time to say to myself, “Holy fuck, I’m going to land on my face.” I didn’t have time to think – did I really want my last thoughts on this earth to include the expression “Holy fuck”?

I did land on my face – sort of the upper right side. I was wearing a helmet, so I didn’t knock my stupid self right out. I smashed my glasses, scraped up my forehead, nose and chin. I scraped up my shoulder and ground up my right knee and shin [I haven’t been able to work with hamburger since]. I did not break anything.  I lay there a while. It was a beautiful day and the ground was warm. I located my glasses and got up, tried to survey the damage. Without a mirror, I couldn’t see much of it. Forehead wounds bleed like crazy – something I have learned the hard way on several occasions – so there was a lot of blood. I was about eight kilometres from home so, glasses in hand, I bladed down the path. My pathfellows were horrified – I looked, I suppose, like a big rolling zombie, the undead on wheels.

When I got in the door at home, I called to my wife to warn her that the sight of me might make her vomit. I checked the mirror. I was a mess. My eye was blackened and swollen by this time and there was much raw flesh and caked blood and sweaty dirt.  The kids were fascinated. They ran out and got their friends so they could all have a look. Finally, I was cool. Or simply a gross spectacle.

One positive thing that came out of this incident was that it added new motivation for my decision to quit drinking. I love my nose. Grinding it forcefully into the pavement gave me a glimpse of what I was bound to look like if I kept up with the booze. The nose gives one away. While you may be functioning just fine and concealing your drinking problem for years – the nose is a beacon of truth. When it is red bulbous and veiny it shouts out to the whole world, “Hey. Look. I’m an old drunk. I’m probably pissed right now.” My red raw and scabby nose injury was a preview of what lay ahead.

A few years later, I was tooling up the path, feeling great, when a dog on a leash jumped across the lane and bit me on the back of the knee. It was a little dog – he had to jump up, as well as over, to get me. The owner was on a bike. He was immediately apologetic. I was immediately abusive. I called him a fucking asshole. Hardly fair. I didn’t stop. Like I mentioned, you can’t stop on rollerblades. The next person I met on the path was obviously the wife of the guy on the bike with the dog. As I whizzed by, she asked if I was alright. “No. I’m not.” I was not being gracious.

I thought the little badger-faced terrier had just pinched me. It wasn’t till I got home that I could see, with the help of a hand mirror, that the little bastard had left a wound that looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to me. Everyone talks about how clean a dog’s mouth is. Don’t believe it. That thing infected like I’d been gnawed on by a sewer rat. My doctor reprimanded me for not stopping and getting the name of the dog owners so that tests could be done on it, which I believe entails the severing of the dog’s  head, though I could be wrong. I have the misfortune of having perhaps the only doctor in the city who has, in fact, lost a patient to rabies, so he’s nervous about things like this. I avoided the full-blown rabies treatment. Narrowly.

Two weeks later, I was smiling at a couple of joggers coming towards me and hit a crack in the pavement that threw me down. I hit another crack in the pavement with my knee – opening up a nice gash that would obviously need to be stitched. Getting stitched is rare in rollerworld – there usually isn’t anything to stitch together – it’s all ground up. So, this was a rare injury.

I got myself up and prepared to roll on home, but the joggers insisted that I would “bleed out” if I did that. Fine. They called a cab for me to get me to the hospital. Yes, I was every cabbie’s dream fare – a sweaty fat guy who’s bleeding and has no money. At least I was sober.

At the hospital, they asked me when I had my last tetanus shot. Don’t you hate that? Who can remember the last time they had a tetanus shot? Well, I was lucky to be able to say “Two weeks ago, when the dog bit me.”

I rolled relatively safely for a couple of years, only going down at slow speeds or finding myself able to bail out without injury. I bladed in fear, of course. That’s the best way.

Last summer, I was lumbering along the familiar trail, over some familiar cracks and weeds in the path that I’d navigated successfully countless times. Not this time. I caught the front wheel of the right skate just as my left leg was fully extended back. Now both legs were extended, fully, back behind me. I was flying. My arms straight out in front of me, I looked briefly like Superman, still wearing Clark Kent’s glasses. I didn’t fly for long. I landed on my chest and arms. I believe that the sports term is “lay out”. I bounced once and slid a bit and stopped, face down on the path. I had not damaged my face  – my sober nose was safe. I lay there a moment, then rolled off the path into the weeds and wondered for a while what I had done to myself. I thought perhaps I had shattered my rib cage, if one can do that. Perhaps I’ll just lie here forever. Then I heard frantic footsteps. Two women who had been out for a peaceful walk ran to me, no doubt wondering what they would do with so large and sweaty a corpse as mine. “Let’s hope he doesn’t need CPR, we’ll never get him rolled over.”

I didn’t want to be a worry, so I got up. Breathing was somewhat difficult, what with the crushed rib cage. I was a little unsteady on my feet which, remember, still had wheels on them. “I’m okay,” I squeaked. “I’ll just catch my breath. I’ll be fine. I don’t think I’ve broken anything.” Right at that point, of course, I was feeling like I’d broken everything. “I’m not far from home.” I was at least eight kilometres from home. “I”ll be fine.” Unless I die.

I just wanted them to leave me to suffer in peace. It was humiliating to be this big old fat  guy who can’t keep himself safe on the freakin bike path.

One of the women pointed, horrified, at my elbow. I wouldn’t say blood was pouring from it. “Streaming,” would be more accurate.

Once they were certain I was going to survive, one of the women said, repeatedly, “You scared the shit out of me. You scared the shit out of me.”

I apologized.

Last year, I got some new blades. I love them. I went the whole summer and autumn without a single mishap of any kind.

I’m getting better at this. Just like I predicted. It’s very satisfying.

The Hard Way

One of my favourite bits is the “Boy, did I learn that the hard way” bit. The best example is from Woody the bartender on Cheers. You must remember Cheers. It wasn’t that long ago. Really.

Woody is behind the bar, so typical of a bartender, talking to a customer. He uses the word “irregardless”. Someone in the bar, I forget whom, corrects him, tells him that the word he’s looking for is “regardless” and that “irregardless” isn’t even an actual word.

Woody: Really? I thought it was one of those situations where both words meant the same thing. Like flammable and inflammable.
Boy, did I learn that the hard way.

The heavy lifting of this gag is done in the listener’s head. You don’t imagine anything specific, necessarily. Your mind doesn’t immediately go to any particular instance from among the many ways that one can learn the hard way that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. In fact, leaving all of the possibilities in play is funnier than imagining the details of any particular hard way of learning this lesson.

So, imagine that Woody had said this instead:

Woody: … Like flammable and inflammable. I learned about those two words one night when a buddy and me were getting ready to smoke up next to this big red tank. The tank had printed on it, in big letters, ‘INFLAMMABLE’. My buddy said, ‘Geez Woody, you think this is safe?’ Well, yeah, I said. I’d be worried if it said ‘FLAMMABLE’ – that would mean that an open flame could spark a conflagration – of epic proportions, considering the size of this tank. But, buddy, see, it says INflammable. That means ‘NOT flammable’. Obviously. Pass me the bong and the matches. Then, KaBoom. Man. It turns out that inflammable means the same thing as flammable. I wish there’d been an easier way to learn that.

Okay, I know that Woody wasn’t the dope-smoking type and wouldn’t use an expression like “conflagration of epic proportions”. This is just a rough illustration to demonstrate that a  story about how Woody might actually have learned this valuable lesson in an obviously “hard” way – a story that would surely involve an explosion and fire, property damage, injury, even loss of life – just isn’t as funny as saying “Boy, did I learn that the hard way.”  It can’t be. In any version of the real story, somebody ends up in the morgue or the burns unit. Funny?

Ever since first hearing that bit on Cheers, I’ve assumed it was sort of a standard comedic template: Blahblahblah [assertion of a matter of fact] – pause – “Boy, did I learn that the hard way” – much laughter.  But, you know, I don’t think it is. Google, which tells me everything I know about the world, because I don’t get out of the house very much, especially during the colder months, doesn’t spit out much material when you type in “Boy, did I learn that the hard way”. Okay, like any Google search, it comes up with fifty four thousand things in seven tenths of a second, but mostly the references aren’t funny and aren’t intended to be funny. Yes, I looked at all fifty four thousand. Typically, the expression is  found in “how to”, technical, articles.  “Learned that the hard way” just means making an error that results in your cake collapsing or your car getting bad gas mileage or some other dull thing.  Zzzzz.

So, my Google search suggests that I may be the only person who sees the broader yuks-potential of this particular bit, if used properly. Since hearing Woody’s gag, I’ve tried to use it whenever I can – especially in email correspondence at work. Oh, here’s a flash: When you’re a lawyer and all of your legal opinions appear to be nothing more than elaborate set ups for lame jokes – well, eventually no one takes you seriously and your career stalls. Yes, I learned that one the hard way.

Another thing about this bit is that it allows you to just fire off a list from a single set up. No elaboration, no need for context. Easy. Like Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might just be a redneck” schtick. Everybody knows the punchline and says it along with him. They all feel like they are helping him to be funny. So – interactive, fun and funny. But, most important for me, easy.

So. Let’s try this. I set out a proposition, a matter of fact, a pearl of wisdom. We pause. Then, the next line is – “Boy, did I learn that the hard way.” Say it out loud. Your imagination does the rest. You create your own funny. Magic. Don’t forget to pause. Timing is everything.


Cigarettes are quite addictive.
Boy, did I learn that the hard way.

Jujubes actually have quite a few calories.
Boy, etc.

Those are just warm ups. You get the idea? Did you remember to pause?

Steer with the skid.

[In case you’re worried because you find yourself amused by the car accident that is so obviously implicit in this one – and what that might mean about you – let me assure you, when I learned the skid rule the hard way, no one was injured by your heartlessness. This time. So relax. Still, comedy does stimulate the dark side. You need to get comfortable with that.]

The English Bull Terrier does not make a good pet, especially if you have cats.
Boy, did I …

[See, it’s frightening. Did the cats also learn this the hard way? And where are they now?]

Twenty three is way too young to get married.
Oh boy, did I ever …

Three children is way way way more than two.
Boy …

Saskatchewan matrimonial property law does not require that the spouse who gets the stereo must also take the record club membership.

Columbia Record Club and Financial Collections Agency Inc. both take your record club obligations very seriously – you did get eleven records for a dollar, don’t forget – and they will find you no matter where you move and, unlike the student loans people, are not the least interested to learn that you have no money because you have returned to school.

[note: If you’re not finding these to be funny, remember, this bit requires that you exercise your imagination and your own sense of humour, assuming you have both of those things. You can’t just sit there and be the passive recipient of funny. Try again.]

It is best not to congratulate a woman on her pregnancy if you have not had that pregnancy confirmed by at least a couple of reliable sources.
Boy oh boy …

[Sadly, there are a lot of lessons one must learn the hard way several times.]

Never identify a child as the “grandchild” of the person accompanying that child. Never.

Parents don’t have a sense of humour about their ugly babies.

When your camp-stove has set fire to a tree, turning the knob clockwise makes things worse. Or is it counterclockwise?

[Sometimes you get “the hard way” without learning anything.]

A half-bottle daily scotch habit is simply not sustainable.
Yikes, …

See? These things allow you to turn your personal tragedy, humiliation or social ineptitude into some high-level entertainment for others – without exposing any actual details. And, the best thing: they are laughing with you.