My Year of Fear

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Skiing pt. 1: I am Lord Empress of all snow

on February 10, 2012

Spoiler alert: I skied and it was awesome. The story of how I got there is slightly more complicated.

So skiing is on my list. I’m afraid of skiing because it’s a great way to kill yourself, though in fairness the odds do seem to be higher if you’re a celebrity. But I don’t know anyone who skis, or at least I don’t know I know them, much like Republicans or snake handlers, so instead I very sensibly joined a MeetUp group so I could spend an entire weekend with seven utter strangers, only half of whom were of a similar gender to me. I figured this was also a great way to tackle my omnipresent fear of talking to, sleeping with, and spending a minimum of 48 consecutive hours with people I’ve never laid eyes on. I’m a multi-tasker.

The trip got off to a bit of a rough start. The organizer, who had promised to rain hellfire upon us if we were late to the meeting point, was nearly an hour late, so we all just stood around awkwardly pretending to like one another. Conversation was grim. At one point, the guy next to me looked around at the group and announced, apropos of absolutely nothing: “I looked up our hotel online. It has bedbugs.” Crickets encircled us.

Someone else gamely tried to change the subject by saying something like, “Boy, we’re all so brave to go on a trip with strangers! I mean, you could all be serial killers!”

I then opted to tell this hilarious joke: “Well, I don’t know about all of you, but *I* certainly am!” The crickets were thankfully drowned out by the heavy volume of tumbleweeds blowing past.

But we made it to the hotel, four hours away, with only a maximum of friction. The plan was to get up early the next morning and be at the ski place (skiing center? ski emporium? whatever) in time to either get in a full day, or in my case, take a group skiing lesson at 10:00 a.m.

All the girls went in the same car together in the morning. Against my explicit advice, they made me the navigator, which is about the equivalent of being in a horror movie and going down to the basement during the city-wide power outage to investigate that strange noise. But I was overruled and told it would be fine because one girl had an iPhone with GPS and could give us turn-by-turn navigation. My position as navigator would be primarily a figurehead. I agreed on those grounds.

And that’s certainly how it started out. But as the iPhone girl, in consultation with her iPhone, told us it was about a half hour’s drive and confidently gave us directions while we were in town, I relaxed and stopped paying close attention, since after all, I was only a figurehead. But the girls in the back and the driver got kind of chit-chatty, and I began to notice that we had passed a sign that said “7 Miles” about 35 minutes ago. When I finally asked what the iPhone said we should do, it was discovered that there was no service in a mountain range and probably hadn’t been any for at least a half an hour. Of course I got the blame for this.

It was here I realized that I tend to exist in an authority perception warp field. If someone seems sure of themselves, I will simply assume they must know what they’re doing, even if all reality and evidence is screaming otherwise. Here are three facts I was aware of:

  • The sign said the turnoff was in seven miles.
  • I was told it was about a half hour drive, and I knew we still had to get up the mountain.
  • The fucking sign said seven goddamn miles. I mean, I was actually willing to convince myself that driving seven miles along a highway could take 40 minutes because someone told me they knew what they were doing. This is a problem.


  • So although I’m crossing one fear off the list, I obviously have to add “confronting authority” and “being willing to ask pertinent questions at the appropriate time” and “believing I might actually know what I’m talking about and saying so” to the list. So I’m down one fear but up three. Not so great for my stats, but fantastic for the ever-winding journey toward self-knowledge or some junk.

    But we got there. Sadly, we got there WAY too late for the 10:00 a.m. group lesson, so I had to wait for the 1:00 p.m. lesson if I wanted a pro to show me what to do and help prevent me from accidentally hurling myself into a tree. But I had the equipment and the lift ticket and was already taking naturally to skiing, as evidenced by my hunched posture and frequent ass-plants on flat ground. However, I was determined to not waste a half a half a day, so as my group was dispersing and they asked me what I was going to do until lunch, I told them: I’m going up the mountain.

    And by mountain, of course, I mean the bunny slope (marked by a green circle). Even I am not quite so foolish as to try an intermediate slope (blue square) or advanced slope (black diamond, double black diamond, or even the dreaded plaid hexagon) on my first day. And even if I were so foolish, which I certainly am not, and which I certainly did not learn by trying to go on the blue slope and being sent right back to the kiddie table in shame, is that a beginner’s lift ticket does not even allow you to do anything above green. Safety first.

    As I announced my plan to go up the mountain without any training or idea of what I was doing, it just so happened that at that exact moment, a guy with a record player was walking behind me and was so shocked when he heard what I said that he tripped, causing the needle to scratch all the way across the record, which startled everyone in the group, turning their full attention to me.

    “That’s ambitious,” said one person, in the same tone you might use to thank an ex-boyfriend for telling you he probably gave you chlamydia. Everyone seemed worried. I felt my plan was obviously both brilliant and brave, and possibly even bravely brilliant, and was not a little irritated that everyone was waiting for someone else to tell me how awesome I was.

    “Tom, you go with her,” said one girl. Which was odd because the guy she was talking to wasn’t even named Tom until I wrote this just now. “Show her how to ski.”

    “Sure,” said Tom, not at all peeved to a) be volunteered to give a ski lesson to a dumbass and b) have his name changed without anyone even asking him what he might prefer. Tom is a pretty easygoing guy. He showed me how to put on my skis and grip the poles in my hands. I felt like I was getting ready to compete in the Winter Olympics, even though I had to restrain myself from making a good number (14) of pole jokes. I immediately started trying to ski, which at that point was mostly shuffling, and mostly in place because I couldn’t get the hang of friction.

    But as excited as I was to get up the mountain, there was a major obstacle in the way of that goal: the mountain.

    Now, I’ve heard of ski lifts. I understand what they do and what they are. Why they’re necessary, even, or at least desirable. But they are also apparently little rickety tin raisin scoops with no handrails or seat belts that go at Mach 3 and that are pretty much designed to maximally humiliate you at take-off and landing if they’re not able to actively dump you into the ice-hard snow 4,000 feet below you during the journey up the mountain itself, which chairs take you up with all the smoothness and stability of a Tilt-A-Whirl.

    They had to stop the lift for me the first time because I couldn’t shuffle on my Olympic-quality skis fast enough to get to my seat, which was swinging around like Death’s own scythe. Only later did I come to realize how irritating this was to all my fellow skiers. Particularly the ones who didn’t completely suck.

    On the way up, I tried to brief Tom on my status as a skier. “I don’t know anything about skiing,” I told him, as we lurched forward into the gaping maw of Hell. He didn’t reply, oddly. “All I know is that South Park episode about pizza and french fries,” I tried. Nothing. “Pizza! French fries! Pizza! French fries!” I quoted hopefully. He looked at me in silence. “I just told you everything I know about skiing,” I finished. The conversation started trailing off at this point.

    As we began to enter the atmosphere, Tom noticed that I was starting to leave grip marks in the iron seat. “You ok?” he asked. “JUST A BIT OF A FEAR OF HEIGHTS HA HA,” I said. It was a three-day ride to the top, so I knew I’d have to make some small talk, which was fine because short questions were all I was able to manage between terror-induced blackouts.

    And then we stopped. Just stopped. They don’t announce it or have a hostess come by with soft drinks or anything. They just fucking stop with nothing but white sucking vortex surrounding you, probably because some stupid idiot is trying to get on the lift before they’ve so much as taken a first lesson. People can be really inconsiderate.

    After several cosmological eras passed, we eventually started up again and got to the top. There are huge signs on the way saying GET READY and DON’T FUCK THIS UP and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD MAKE SURE YOUR SCARF ISN’T WRAPPED AROUND THE LIFT CHAIR, so I had some warning at least. Tom looked at me and said, “Just stand up when you’re ready to get off.”

    These, I would like to point out in my defense, are not clear instructions.

    Sure, I stood up. Then I fell down. Right in the path of oncoming traffic. I sort of flopped to one side so I wouldn’t get run over. As I lurched to my feet, Tom started leading me toward the toddler slope. “Just follow me,” he said, and skied off.

    I’ve had a recurring nightmare my whole life, where there are soul-sucking, flesh-eating monsters right behind me and for some reason I can’t use my feet to run, and I have to use my arms to drag myself along the ground to escape. Of course it never works and I just wind up sweating and cursing, no more than a couple inches from where I started. Also in the nightmare it’s hard to see.

    This nightmare never made sense to me until I tried to propel myself on skis along a level surface for the first time. My young brain had reached into the future and tried to make me understand what humiliations I was going to be inflicting upon myself this day. I was not, as they say, good at skiing.

    When we got to the downhilly part, Tom said, “Basically you just go on down.” Then he skied about 30 feet and turned to watch me do the same.

    I hate to complain, I really do. But Tom is a teacher, and I kind of feel that as an education professional, he might have offered me something a little more pedagogically sound. But in fairness, he is a math teacher and not a ski instructor, so probably if I had asked him how to calculate the angle of the slope, he would have rocked my world.

    So we can pretty much all see where this is going. I got myself down the mountain 67 inches at a time, which is as fast as you can go when you’re in an uncontrolled vertical roll. Halfway through I looked up and Tom had vanished altogether. I think that’s probably for the best. I wondered what it would take to get the ski ambulance to come up and rescue me from my own stupidity. I still think they would have come if I had asked.

    But dammit, I tried. I really did. I stood up and fell right back down. I pushed myself forward and fell down. I tried turning slightly and began slaloming down the mountain against my will. The only way I could stop was to fling myself into the loving embrace of gravity. Once I accidentally pointed my skis up the mountain and began skiing backwards like a cartoon character, and I have to say I have a whole new appreciation for how insensitive and not at all funny those cartoons really are. At one point I totally got the hang of it for about three seconds, but then lost my balance, fell backward while still skiing, bounced my skull off the mountain and stood back up in my skis. Then I fell down. I kind of think I should have gotten some kind of award for that one.

    It took me ninety minutes to get back down, arriving as one of those comical snowballs with no head visible and both arms and legs sticking out with skis and poles attached. When I rolled my way back to the lift loading area, I saw a little boy sitting in the snow near his mother, with his hat over his eyes and his snow pants dragging around his ankles. He was crying pitifully and refusing to try again or even stand up because he fell too much and the other kids laughed at him and he got snow in his underpants. I would have sat down right next to him and cried, too, if I didn’t think his helicopter mom would have had me arrested.

    But a little rest and a little lunch makes everything seem brighter. At 1:00 I went back out for my lesson, grimly determined to learn to ski, much the way the Coyote is determined to catch the Road Runner. The way it works, at least at this place, is that all the available instructors will gather and wait for all the students to show up. Then the supervisor will do a quick tally and start assigning instructors to groups of students.

    What I really liked about this system was that it gave me a chance to see all the instructors together in once place, which is a major advantage insofar as every instructor seemed to be hired based primarily on raw physical beauty, much like Hooters employees.

    My instructor was Alex, and there were about 8 of us n00bs in that group. I was a little dismayed when Alex made us start all the way back at learning how to put on our skis, which I had mastered a full two hours previously, and then again several hundred more times down along the mountain as I skied so badly I tripped the safety mechanism on my skis and they went flying off in opposite directions, ironically getting much better speed in the air than strapped to my feet.

    But I’m not a jerk, and besides, I quite frankly spent most of my elementary and secondary education waiting for the rest of the class, so it didn’t bother me to find out that I was much, much better than the rest of the group at putting on my skis, slowly pushing myself across flat land, shuffling onto the practice lift (a moving sidewalk–type thing with a slope of about 2° and that goes slower than your grandma telling stories about the Depression), and then slowly sliding down a nearly level plain they called the practice hill. Being that much better than the others didn’t make any sense to me, given my pre-lunch performance, but my theory at the time, and the story I’m sticking to, was you have to fall a set number of times before you get to be any good at all, and I had definitely already surpassed that number by at least a factor of four.

    And what happened next was pretty amazing. I paid very close attention to what Alex was doing and saying. And I got it. I actually did. I started testing out different ways to hold my body, to use the skis, to feel the snow. Alex started having me go first for each new exercise, and then told everyone to do it like I just did. That’s never happened to me before in the whole of my life. And by the way, I was extremely quite scared to go first, since I was certain I was going to fuck it up and then everyone would know I was just lying that whole time, but I did it anyway and it was just fine. Plus I figured Alex probably knew I was nervous, but also knew a thing or two and could see I was decently competent, and I thought that I should probably trust the guy whose job it is to make sure I know what I’m doing, when he says I know what I’m doing.

    People in the group started asking me where I learned to ski, and I very modestly but with just the appropriately attractive hint of pride told them I was a beginner, too, and we’re all learning together. But then this actual conversation happened:

    Alex: So where did you learn to ski?
    Me: Just here. Now, I mean.
    Alex: This is really your first day?
    Me: Well, um, yeah.
    Alex: You’re really good.
    Me: SNOW I AM YOUR MASTER IN LIFE AND DEATH

    So it was decided, mostly by myself, that I would leave the lesson and spend the rest of the day going up the slope and taking myself back down using my new powers. I managed to get four more runs in that day, and that’s even counting the time when the lift stopped no fewer than eight goddamn times on the way up, and I began to understand exactly why people fling themselves off the top of the Grand Canyon for no apparent reason, and accepted that I, too, am vulnerable to height hypnosis. This is valuable information.

    Day two to follow. This day two includes a blue run, a stunning surprise, and an engagement. Not necessarily in that order.


    One response to “Skiing pt. 1: I am Lord Empress of all snow

    1. Tabor says:

      My first ski experience involved a “friend” putting me on the lift to the top of the mountain not 30 seconds after strapping skis to my feet for the first time in my life. That was a very long and painful day.

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