Slack tide: The Unbearable Lightness of Skiing

There’s post-season baseball on TV, mittens in the kids’ bins at pre-school and the crockpot back on the counter. Winter’s definitely on its way.

Naturally, my thoughts turn to skiing — specifically, that I still don’t know how. Sure, I know the lingo, I’ve got the clothes. I mean, I spend a lot of time waiting for my family in the lodge, and I want people to think I deserve all the chicken strips I consume (BTW: they’re especially “sickter” smothered in chili and cheese).

Of course, every year I say I’ll learn. And I may even make a half-assed attempt at it. But earlier this week I discovered something that makes me to want use my whole ass this year. “Shredding” the “pow” of my hard drive, I came across a piece I wrote on just this topic — for my college paper. Apparently, I’ve been actively not learning to ski since 1997. Now, I love procrastinating almost as much as I love a nice chicken-chili-cheddar basket. But 15 years? That’s a third of my life.

And so after throwing myself a pity party — did you get the e-vite? — I finally stepped up and bought a season ski pass (as everyone knows, throwing money at a problem is the first step in solving it).

Silver lining: turns out my old writing holds up pretty well, in my honest opinion. And 15 years later, I’m still at it. Gone pro, even. I think that says something, dedication not being one of my strong suits (just ask my mom).

Let’s go back in time, as I share with you the original column as my 21-year-old self first wrote it (edited only for length).

•••

This past year was a year of many firsts: my first real girlfriend, my first real beard and my first real breakup (she didn’t like the beard). Busy indeed, but at its close I still hadn’t experienced the one thing my friends talked up like it was the feel-good movie of the season.

Well, last weekend, I finally did it. I went skiing, thus breaking my proverbial cherry… not to mention the land speed record for a redheaded undergrad, which I myself set last May on free Ben & Jerry’s day outside the campus bookstore.

Here’s how it went down. The night before, we were sitting around discussing our riskiest feats of death-defiance. Mine involved placing an out-of-town-letter in the local mail slot and eating a light yogurt three days past its expiration date.

Eventually, the subject turned to skiing. While from the way they made it sound, each of my friends had medaled at Lillehammer, despite growing up in the snowy Northeast, I’d never once been skiing. Well, after some cajoling, and several Irish car bombs, the idea of hurtling down a mountain with nothing protecting me but thin slabs of rented fiberglass actually sounded attractive. So it was agreed. The next day, I’d learn to ski; a friend of mine, a former ski instructor — or so he claimed, though I never did check his credentials — would teach me.

When we arrived at the mountain, I was a little disappointed. I’d expected a towering peak high above the clouds, with Sherpas, oxygen tanks, maybe even a white-bearded ascetic offering the meaning of life and $1.50 hot chocolates. But these were the Poconos, in eastern Pennsylvania, not really mountains at all, but a series of eroded plateaus, set out like geological hors d’oeuvres before the more substantial Appalachian Chain. The slope I’d be skiing was a foothill to other foothills. It hardly looked daunting at all. But looks, they say, can be deceiving.

Problems began at the outset, in the rental shop, when I put my left boot on my right foot and vice versa, ignoring the huge L’s and R’s the five-year-old sitting next to me had no problem deciphering. Not to be shown up by a kindergartner, I told her I was Australian, and that’s how we do it Down Under. She also informed me that it was customary to remove one’s shoes first, Australian or not.

Finally shod and skied, my friend/instructor led me to a flat area, where he showed me the most important facet of downhill skiing: stopping. Called the “snowplow” or, for beginners, “pizza,” the maneuver involved bending my knees in a way the human hinge joint hasn’t yet evolved to facilitate. I tried it on a mild decline, and called it good when I managed to stop myself before reaching the cyclone fencing, rather than thanks to it. Next time down, my sadistic friend said, point blank, “Now I’m going to push you down.” And that’s how I’d spend the rest of the afternoon, trying to stand up, a trick I’d only recently perfected on dry land, let alone on snow with two boards lashed to my feet. (Come to think of it, wasn’t that a form of Medieval torture?)

After an hour on a slope that was too small to be designated with a name or skill level, my friend said we were ready for the bunny slope. We stood at the bottom and he remarked it was less steep than the hill we lived on. I said I never walked home wearing skis. He said it was similar to the slope we rode down on cafeteria trays. I said speaking of cafeterias, let’s forget this and go get some onion rings. He said no.

So we rode the chair to the top, where my right ski got stuck, propelling me headlong into the lift operator, who was decidedly less amused than everyone else who saw the big dumb man go boom. First embarrassment complete, I was ready to move on to more spectacular humiliation — starting down the mountain. Assuming my shaky snowplow, I pigeon-toed down maybe 100 yards, and everything was great.

Then it started getting steeper. And steeper. I started moving faster. And faster.

Now, I outweigh my friend by a good 50 lbs., and naturally sped right past him. He started yelling “Pizza! Pizza!” — but he may as well have been auditioning for a Little Caesar’s commercial, because I’d already lost motor control. Then my tips touched. Then I face planted.

Sweet relief. Sure, I’d taken snow up both nostrils, but at least I’d stopped — although the fun just began. See, both skis popped off and the force of the fall sent one erupting 20 feet straight into the air, then javelining back toward earth and me, as I lay sprawled in the white powder. Now, I don’t know what made me roll six inches to the left, but I’m glad I did, because next thing I knew, the ski had speared itself into the exact spot my head had been a split second earlier. Remember that five-year-old from the lodge? She saw the whole thing — laughed so hard she shot mucus from her nose. I tackled the rest of the bunny slope on my butt.

That was my first, and subsequently last ski run of the day, and, most likely my life. I will say this for skiing, though, it certainly was a rush. To quote the classic cult film Ski School: “Taste death, live life.” Well, I did taste death — and snow, and blood — and I emerged mostly intact. But here’s the thing about skiing, and I can only think of one recreational activity this doesn’t apply to: in order to enjoy it, you need to be standing up.

• “Slack Tide” appears every other week in Neighbors. Read more of Geoff’s work at www.geoffkirsch.com.

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