Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Fair-weather Skier Part I

As I lie in bed with a groin injury that prevents me from walking for a time, my friends and enemies question my good sense. Over the past 20 years, I have ruptured one ACL and torn the other, the meniscus in my right knee is rattling around unpleasantly, and I have a bad back as a direct result of the first ACL injury. O.K., as a direct result of my own stupidity and stubborness -- while recovering from the first ACL injury. And yet, as soon as this injury heals, I will be out running, again, and when winter comes, skiing. At my age, shouldn't I know better?

Here's my theory. There are two ways I can be crippled: I can continue to run and ski, and chance becoming physically unable to do either. Or I can stop now, crippled by fear of what may happen. The end result is the same: no running or skiing. Why not wait for the real thing?

Why I run is, maybe, for another post. But I ski because, much to my astonishment, I love it. I, who, despite the misleading impression I may be giving, am not athletic; I, who hate the cold; I, who am miserable getting up early; I, who detest standing in queues; I, who, above all, am chicken; love to ski.

All through my teens and early 20's in Chicago, I resisted skiing. When I lived in New England, I resisted skiing. When I moved back to Chicago, I resisted skiing. Then I got this new boyfriend? And he skied? Well, you know how that is. Chicken, here, didn't want to say she was afraid for fear he'd dump her.

So, one morning in Atlanta, we get up at 5:00 a.m. -- hey! I stay up until 5:00 a.m.; I don't get up at that hour -- and we get in the car to drive to North Carolina. That's right, I learned to ski in North Carolina. Looked at one way, mud has advantages. It helps you to stop. The disadvantage is that it makes you stop kind of fast.

So we're in the car and I'm sulking because I'm scared, both of skiing and of being found hopeless, but I'm sulking discreetly because I don't want to be caught sulking, either. It was a long ride to the ski area, sulking, and there wasn't enough coffee in the world to make it better.

First stop, equipment. Boots. Here's the thing: I have square feet. Literally. 4 x 4. As a child, my mother used to come home in tears after trying all day to buy me shoes. I would be in tears when my father was ordered to take me out and he bought me brown oxfords. All the other little girls had pretty little patent leather shoes with straps across the top. The maid would be in tears because she had to dress me in those brown oxfords. Even if a pretty little patent leather shoe wide enough for my feet had existed, the strap would never have reached across my instep. The arch of my foot was so high, I only made two unconnected halves of a footprint. As I got older, my father became worn out and suggested that I buy boys's shoes. Or why didn't I just wear the boxes? Salesmen cringe when I walk into a shoe shop. My friends will never go shopping with me after the first time. (The first time they don't believe me.) I moved back to the country just so that I wouldn't have to buy shoes ever again.

Anyway, boots. To get them wide enough, they had to be too long. This is not the ideal fitting for control on the slopes.

Next, skis. These days, when modern technology has made skis so easy to turn that you just step onto them, let slip and enjoy the ride, the correct length is somewhere between the height of your mouth and the height of your nose from the floor. When I started skiing, shortly after the wooden models were retired to the museums, you determined your correct ski length by raising your hand straight up in the air and measuring to your fingertips. As the skis were so much longer and so much harder to manoeuvre, this ensured that you stayed in class for the rest of your life, trying to learn to use them. Ski schools have to stay in business, too.

So here I am: booted, after a fashion, and standing on these planks, with sticks in my hands. I couldn't move. Not from fear, although that played a part; I just couldn't figure out how to move my feet, which were now almost two meters long. And heavy. And didn't bend. My boyfriend took one elbow, the guy from the ski shop took the other, together they raised me off the ground, carried me to the ski school, and plopped me down. Boyfriend says he'll be back for lunch and leaves me to it.

I am the only adult in a class of children -- a dozen 4-year-olds and two kids who turn out to be an 11- and 12-year-old sister and brother. Now I am not only terrified, I'm embarrassed.

The instructor separates us into two groups. I'm with the big kids. As the three of us wait for the instructor to sort out the babies, the 12-year-old (boy, of course) looks up at me with a malevolent eye, and demands,

"Is this going to take long?" Like it's my fault we're here.

"Why?" I answer. "You in a hurry?" (You little creep.)

"My father says," he says, "I can't go up there," pointing at the equivalent of Mont Blanc, "until I have a lesson." ('Course it's your fault. Grown-ups are all in league.)

"Shut up, kid." No, I didn't say that. But I thought it.

Finally, the instructor gets back to us and takes us to the top (top! ha ha!) of the nursery slope. I have no memory of how he got me there, because I was still incapable of locomotion on my own. But there I was, at the top, looking down the vast expanse (ten meters?) of baby slope (baby flat?), being instructed to turn my toes in and go! I think he pushed me.

I went.

And I never wanted to stop.

It was unimaginable freedom and lightness. It must be what hangliders search for, or pilots or sky divers. I was flying. No, I was floating. I was floating and flying.

Then you spend the next 30 or 40 or 50 years trying to recapture that feeling.


  1. This is what gymnastics was like for me; it felt like I was defying the laws of physics!