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Opinion In search of clarity and fresh air, roller skating into the new year

(Al Drago/Getty Images)
5 min

My New Year’s resolution has eight wheels.

Eight wheels, steel bearings and lavender suede boots, plus black rubber toe stops for braking that I haven’t quite figured out how to use.

Yes, reader: In 2023, I’m getting really into roller skating.

Why? This hobby is not, as any acquaintance of mine would tell you, an obvious fit. I am the opposite of athletic; one could go so far as to call me incurably clumsy. My job is writing, which mostly involves sitting down. And yet I’m envisioning this new commitment as a gift to myself.

It’s a tangible one — my new skates are adorable. I feel 100 percent more whimsical (and the same percentage more wobbly) whenever I tie them on. But as a New Year’s resolution, the quest to get better at roller skating is also an attempt to reorient myself. Skating is a pushback at modern life — an attempt to regain my concentration before it slips even further from my grasp.

This (somewhat) post-pandemic year was supposed to be the “great offlining,” the period in which we finally stepped away from our computers, logged off Zoom and went outside. Surely we had learned from our languishing and screen fatigue. This year, we had quietly quit and focused on what mattered.

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Instead, the past months have seen further attempts to invite us back online, or inside, and keep us there. Inflation and a looming recession have made the pursuit of leisure feel like a risky prospect. And whether it is Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse overtures or the can’t-look-away train wreck of Elon Musk’s Twitter, the call of a virtual world has gotten louder and more insistent — and more effective after our years of habituation.

Skating is a break from all that. A novice touches grass — or more specifically, hardwood or pavement — constantly. Attempting to stay upright, you really can disconnect — are forced to, in fact. It’s not possible to focus on a podcast or news blast when I’m trying to make sure that my knees are bent correctly or the angle of my wheels is just so. I can’t stop mid-slide to compose a perfect Instagram post or shoot off a quick tweet, because a) I’m still figuring out how to stop and b) a break in my attention means I’m likely to fall on my face.

Fitness apps do a terrible job at registering my slow attempts at bubbling as either steps or heart-rate increases. There’s no data to send in: you tie on the boots and move your body through space, always reminded of the physicality of it all; you practice and fall and retrace your steps and, slowly, get better. Roller skating is analog — there is no leader board, no Peloton instructor barking at me from across the room. My purple boots turn me into a Luddite teen and … it feels good.

Of course, as a teenager, I would have thought that wearing knee pads and a helmet to skate was weird. Now, it’s not at all. There are several more inches between me and the ground, which somehow looks significantly harder these days. My head, which I treated abominably in my youth (I once concussed myself attempting to throw a rock over a fence. No further questions, please.), is now my primary asset and source of employment.

A slip and fall backward is considerably more risky now than it was then, and also more likely. (My center of gravity is much more elusive these days.) As for the rest of me, I can see an orthopedic surgeon in my mind’s eye, rubbing his hands together as he watches me lace up my skates.

And yet? The eight wheels still sparkle with undimmed allure.

Clearly, I’m a few steps (glides?) behind the times. Inline skates were invented in the 1700s, and quads — four wheels, two pairs set side by side — in 1863. Skating reached a pop-culture peak in the roller-disco era of the 1970s and ’80s, before surging back into popularity during the pandemic as the ideal socially-distanced fitness activity. By the summer of 2020, there was a worldwide skate shortage, which has (mostly) since eased.

Still, Angela Tanner, the assistant executive director of the Roller Skating Association International, was enthusiastic about my belated leap onto the bandwagon: “I think there’s this perception that roller skating has exploded, but roller skating never really stopped,” she said. She pointed out that it’s always been the stuff of kids’ parties and strobe-light dances, a staple of nostalgic Americana. “It’s just as you get older, you forget about it.”

She’s right.

It’s possible that I was skate-pilled during the pandemic, watching TikTok jammers twirl in parking lots and glide down empty roads — headphones on, sun shining down, seemingly without a care in the world. But even those skaters gestured toward an anti-modern freedom of mind and body that I would love to get back — a state of deep flow divorced from the way we live now.

I remember skating as a child, aimlessly cruising around the neighborhood and the feeling of going downhill: knees bent, gaining speed, thrilling to the rumble of the pavement and nothing else. When was the last time I had a mind that clear?

In 2023, that clarity is the goal. And I encourage you to join me in this pursuit — on wheels or off.