Tropical Landscape with Skaters

I may be the only person in Florida, or the southeast, or even the whole US, who researches eighteenth-century British literature and also plays ice hockey. Last semester, I taught Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Jane Austen, then a few hours later played the sport that inspired the joke: “I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out.” Johnson, at least, might have approved. The essayist and literary critic liked to box and wrestle and once wrote that “much happiness is gained, and … much misery escaped, by frequent and violent agitation of the body.”

Sports were my family’s religion. Two or more Pearls unoccupied in a backyard would always find a ball or rock or anything and start some kind of game to test their strength and skill. My dad and uncles opened a store in Vermont, Pearl’s Sports, then a skate shop, Pearl’s Skate Shop—both with apostrophes on the wrong side of the “s.” The whole family came to my hockey games, even my grandmother, “Gammy,” who shouted from beginning to end: “Let’s go, boys!” “Get him!” And to the refs: “Oh, come on, you’re blind, that’s the worst call I’ve ever seen in my life!”

Then I found books and ideas and all the other things liberal arts majors talk about late at night in their dorm rooms. It felt like a change of identity, or an enlargement, or a division that had to be reconciled. I met my future wife, an English major, who said, “I thought you were a jock.” Now I’m an academic surrounded by people who view sports as “problematic,” “culturally interesting,” and not at all the sort of activity normal intellectuals engage in. “Isn’t it violent?” “How is there ice in Miami?”

I tell them it’s a thrill of physical consequence just to dig into the ice with my skates—a reminder, after a day of reading and writing, that I still have a body and that it still has weight and strength. I think of a line by the philosopher Michel Serres: “If you ever played team sports … you will be familiar with the personal state in which your body suddenly becomes angelic and succeeds in everything it undertakes … the craziest plans were effortlessly successful, precise gestures, subtle movements, delicate and always accurate decisions—life lived a metre off the ground, in a state of levitation.” In his book about sports and aesthetics, In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht calls this “getting lost in focused intensity,” “a concentrated openness for something unexpected to happen.” It’s all that and more. There’s a physical rapport with others. You play hockey with teammates, passing back and forth, learning each other’s styles and habits, enacting complex patterns of movement together up and down the ice. It’s a kind of intimacy; we call it “chemistry.”

Of course, sports leagues for adults are often less lyrical than farcical. We play in a dimly lit rink in front of no one but a few bored girlfriends who rarely look up from their phones. The teams have off-color names such as “Harambros,” “the Puck Offs,” and with no explanation, without even a definite article, “Naked Punishers,” who maybe get naked, then punish, or punish others who are naked, or just punish nakedness in the abstract. And still it gets over-competitive. There’s always someone who wants to “give 110 percent” and “make real heads-up plays” and “put the team on his back” and “go out there and win a championship.” One guy on the Poutine Puckers obsesses over stats and calls the league office whenever the teenaged scorekeeper forgets to record an assist. A dentist on the Cavity Fillers got kicked out for fighting and whined, literally whined, to the referees, his voice bending upward as he stamped on the ice.

That’s why I prefer to play “pick up”—an informal game with no refs, no fixed teams, no keeping score—over playing in a league. There’s less defense, more finesse. Sports, this way, are above all sportive, embodying what the sociologist Roger Caillois called “paidia”: a basic instinct to play involving joy, freedom, disorder, and exuberance. It’s what Johnson meant by the happiness of violent agitation. The opposite of paidia, “ludus,” entails rules and goals, official outcomes. My dad, implicitly a proponent of the latter, used to sit me down, look me in the eye, and say: “Whether you think you can or you can’t … [long pause for effect] …you’re right.” And: “Does practice make perfect? […more pausing…] No, perfect practice makes perfect.” He meant well, but it didn’t.

For me, the point was always to make friends and have fun. Here in Miami, a city of immigrants, I play with people I’d never meet otherwise: boat pilots, musicians, firefighters, ER doctors, people less fluent in English than in Spanish, Russian, French, Swedish, even Slovakian. There’s the guy with an ankle monitor who plays Metallica in the locker room, only Metallica; the Cuban goalie, an influencer, who yells, “Baby, yeah!”—always in that order—after a good save; the Russian oligarch, whose bodyguard drives him in a white Bentley and watches in the corner with his arms folded.

People think of Miami as a city of Cubans, but there are Hatians, Columbians, Venezuelans—and Russians. “Da, da, da,” they tell me, or “Nyet, nyet, nyet.” A couple years ago, I played on a Russian team called “Gungsters,” which would’ve been “Gangsters,” except for a typo on the order form for the jerseys. My idea, to call us “The Russian Hackers,” was met with blinking silence. After winning the league, our captain, “a very legitimate businessman,” handed $200 in cash to each of us in the locker room. Another time, after a loss, he turned to me and said, with unnerving coldness, “Djeesun, plee hkhkardur” (“Jason, play harder”). That team went bust after the 2016 election when half the players went home with no warning. There was an argument on the team’s WhatsApp—it looked like an argument; it was in Russian—and then nothing.

On Fridays, I skate with a group of ex-NHLers, older players I remember from childhood, and there I am, in real life, getting hooked and slashed by the likes of 90s hockey stars such as Darius Kasparaitis, Vladimir Malakhov, and Valeri Zelepukin. The passing is beautiful, always fluid and creative. Whenever someone gets selfish and tries to do it alone, Kasparaitis, one of the game’s greatest villains, gives voice to its highest virtue—playing together—and starts chanting, in a tone usually reserved for opposing goalies, “Sel-fish! Sel-fish! Sel-fish!”

Sometimes I get the question “What do you teach?” and my reply—“eighteenth-century Bri…”—elicits the raised eyebrow of someone who doesn’t believe me, not unlike the response of colleagues who learn I play hockey. It’s the old cliché of nerds and jocks, enshrined in the phrase “student-athlete,” which betrays our distrust that anyone could be both. And yet I know professors who box and climb, who play tennis, softball, and basketball. My colleague Devoney Looser, a leading authority on Austen, plays roller derby as “Stone Cold Jane Austen.” She describes this sport as “equal parts Gothic-costumed theater and sadomasochistic spectacle, accompanied by deafeningly loud heavy-metal music.” At Brigham Young University, there’s an all-female intramural flag-football team with professors who teach Law, Physics, English, Chemistry, History, and Statistics. Denise Stephens, a physicist, said: “You can be a professor. You can play football. You can be a mom.”

You can learn something, too. Steven Connor, another English professor, puts it this way in his A Philosophy of Sport: “Sport … provides an opportunity … to learn from the body possibilities of reach, speed and extension that it might not have allowed itself to conceive.” In A Treatise on Skating, the first such manual in English, published in 1772, Robert Jones declared that “the antients paid the highest regard to all those exercises which contributed to strength and activity; the faculties of the mind generally improving with those of the body.” And skating, he thought, was “an excellent preservative against the gout.”

Which brings me to bodily limits. I’ve broken my left ankle, two teeth, one rib, a finger, two bones in my hand that never fully healed after two surgeries, and my nose—twice. Even in my prime, I was too slow and weak to play at an elite level. Now I complain about a bad back and make old-man sounds getting up from chairs. Johnson wrote that “we shall all by degrees certainly be old; and therefore we ought to inquire what provision can be made against that time of distress?” One answer is good books, of which I have plenty. Someday, the life of the mind will have to be enough. For now, I’ll keep living the very different, but not incompatible, lives of the mind and body.

Jason Pearl is an associate professor of English at Florida International University. He is author of Utopian Geographies and the Early English Novel  and book reviews editor at Digital Defoe. His nonacademic writing has appeared or will appear in the Atlantic, Times Literary Supplement, Public Books, Public Domain Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Review, The Millions, LensCultureGastronomica, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed.

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