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THE 42ND FLOOR

When I became a man, St. Paul wrote, "I put childish things behind me." Some think of Paul as a visionary. That may be true, but I'll bet he was a real dullard at parties. The key to adulthood, I'd argue, is rediscovering all those childish things you put away and playing with them again-- and this time without those pesky parents watching over you.

Problem is, there aren't enough childish games for adults. Golf is popular. So is bowling. Neither one excites me. Golf is the most absurd sport ever invented-- with the possible exception of curling. You hit the ball, you chase the ball. Hit, chase, hit, chase. When I was growing up, this game was called "having no one else to play with." I enjoy bowling more, only because I have the build for it (low to the ground). But the idea of smashing a bunch of defenseless pins makes me wince. If you get seven out of ten, it's considered a failure. In baseball, you can miss seven out of ten and still make $1.75 billion.

My sport of choice is dek hockey, where grown men play without skates (and without the "c" in "deck"). It's just like ice hockey, with a regulationsize rink, dasher boards, and referees, except you don't need as much time or money or sense.

Dek hockey games combine a 30minute aerobic workout with sticks and swearing--Jane Fonda meets Attila the Hun. I can survive (barely) the aerobic part, and I'm quite facile at swearing. But swinging sticks? No. While "low to the ground" makes me a model bowler, it also puts my noggin in the direct orbit of taller gentlemen in mid-swing. Many's the time I skillfully stopped a slapshot follow-through using nothing more than my left temple. Even the emergency room doctors called the swelling impressive.

Actually, I'm over-selling myself. I am not good at the aerobic part. At 3S, I rank as one of the elder participants of the sport. When I first started to play dek hockey again (after a few decades on the disabled list), I'd act as if I weren't really dying from over- exertion. After all, that's why (I thought) I played every week--to get in shape, to regain my youthful physique. ("I have the body of a 20-year-old," Groucho Marx is rumored to have said, "but I have to give it back because I'm getting it all wrinkled.") Now all pretense of fitness is gone. I crawl back to the bench and collapse when my shift is over. The other players ignore my distress as they step over me. From my vantage point, I can see vultures circling overhead.

Most galling of all, many of my teammates smoke cigarettes and drink beer after the game. You can do that when you're 20; your body is endlessly obedient. These guys think nothing of a two-hour practice at midnight. Afterwards, they'll slam down a few beers, catch a nap before work, and get up and do it again. Me? I sip warm milk as I do the crossword, pad up to bed no later than 11 p.m. A little Geritol, some Tommy Dorsey on the Victrola, Ma in her kerchief and I in my cap, and we're asleep by 11:23.

That's what makes hockey so frustrating--and so enticing. I wasn't always this old. I peaked in 1975, but I can still remember it like yesterday, playing three-hour games in the blazing sun or sub-zero cold, taking breaks only when someone lost an eye or injured a reproductive organ. The score

would be something like 17-14, and we wouldn't stop until Joey Marsip's mom called him for dinner--and then we only quit because he owned the nets. I remember how my body responded then. My vision was better, my reactions quicker, my breathing easier. I could take a pass in full stride, plot my fake around the defenseman, even pick a corner of the net to shoot at. Of course, things rarely went as planned, but the fact that my brain and body had any sense of synergy is amazing to me now. These days I carefully set the alarm for 6 a.m., full of the good intention to jog a few miles hefore a healthy breakfast. But then the alarm sounds, and my body (well, my hand) slams it off and says, "Nobody tells me when to wake up! " Another day, another chance at youthful fitness lost.

Or is it?

When I drag my iron-poor blood and bones onto the de(c)k twice a week, is it youthful fitness I'm after? No, not really. I just want a chance to play. What seems like corporeal punishment may really be a spiritual exercise--a chance to reconnect my whole, imperfect self. As betrayed by my body as I feel, there are those rare moments when everything goes magically right. My arthritic joints and myopic eyes occasionally combine to remind me of what I once had--and the young defenseman, startled by my re-found prowess, is caught off-guard and out of position. Suddenly I'm breaking in on the goalie alone, me and my retro-body, and it's like hearing a favorite song after 20 years and I still know all the words. At full stride I dribble the puck, waiting for the goalie to lean one way or the other. I pick a spot to shoot: just below the crossbar, right above his glove. I drag my stick for a second, gathering momentum for the shot, then snap the puck away in a single motion.

And after that, nothing matters. If he makes the save, good for him. If the shot goes wide, well maybe next time. It's not the goal that counts (though that would be nice), but the chance to shoot--to reclaim, if only for a second, the sense of my body acting as it once had, and still can: a holy and united sum of its years.--Mark Collins


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