Monday, March 7, 2011

Steve Vs. Skiing

Before this past weekend, I had never gone skiing.  While I have had the opportunity to in the past, I haven't followed through because of a fundamental lack of interest.  I was (and continue to be) about as interested in skiing as I am in contracting the ebola virus.

Okay, that's a bit hyperbolic, but there's an element of truth to it.  There is certainly a school of thought that states that I should try it to find out if I like it or not.  While I understand where the students of this school are coming from, it still doesn't address that underlying disinterest.  I'm not interested in skiing, in the same way that I'm not interested in sky diving, spelunking, or reading Ayn Rand.  I understand basic elements of all of these things and much of what they entail, and that is precisely what makes me want to turn the page.

However, there is one small, nagging thing that kept me from completely turning the page on skiing.  And that small, nagging thing was my wife.  I know, I know, it's horrible to say such things.  But, she is small and she has been nagging me about skiing for over a decade.  You see, she likes skiing.  She's been doing it since she was a child.  She hasn't gone much in the years we've shared together because we didn't have the time, the money or, on certain occasions, I was holding her back.  And during our conversations on the subject, I would profess my lack of interest quite firmly.  Yet, years ago in a moment of weakness, instead of reinforcing my feelings, I made the mistake of promising to try it once.  Just once.  Thus the nagging began, and rightfully so.  I left the door the slightest bit ajar, and Amy kept trying to kick it wide open at every chance she got.

You see, we keep our promises.  With one glaring exception we hold each other to our word.  This glaring exception involves the purchase of a wedding dress long after a more casual affair had been agreed upon.  The compromise in that case was that she got to have the wedding dress, and I got to complain about it for the rest of our natural lives together.  I think we'd agree that this compromise worked out well for both of us.  Aside from this one instance, though, we do actually follow through.  And so I finally did this past weekend with my promise to ski.

This is how I found myself at Mt. Ellen, Vermont this past weekend, taking my first skiing lesson.  A lesson given by one of the strangest teachers I've ever met.  I want to take a moment and discuss how important it is to have a teacher that's a good fit.  While there are some excellent teachers out there in their respective fields, not all good teachers are right for you.  Teaching styles and personalities don't always jive.  I found this out the hard way in college, and I urge you to always keep in mind that it's okay to find a new teacher if the one you've got just isn't working for you...provided another teacher in available.  Which there wasn't in my case.  I was given a pretty lousy hand, in fact.

While I will not post his name or go into any physical description, I will tell you that my skiing instructor was just not a good fit for me.  He was really into Eastern philosophy, had his own vocabulary for things that were a complete mystery to me (and the seasoned skiers I quoted them to), and was just not someone who I could really meet on any level.  There was a lot of discussion about "going with the flow" and how snow was just another form of water.  There was not a lot of discussion on more academic things like how to slow yourself down or even how to walk uphill while wearing skis.  These things I learned more from watching and overhearing other instructors teach five-year-olds about ten minutes before my own lesson was over.  I heard them talking about "making a pizza" and seeing the kids' skis turn toward one another, making a wedge that resembled a slice of pizza.  I mimicked these lessons fairly successfully and was pretty happy with the progress I made in that least ten minutes.  Turns out I understand "making a pizza" but don't understand "going with the flow."

The other thing that I really felt held me back was that I was not issued ski poles.  I was told that I didn't get them due to my neophyte status.  Apparently folks are apt to use the poles as a crutch and develop bad habits if given them straight away.  While I understand this, there is one academic thing that poles assist in where I really could have used their help: getting up after falling.  Suffice it to say that I fell a lot, and the poles certainly would have been a useful tool in leveraging my increasingly heavy body into an upright position from relatively flat ground.  It turns out that repeatedly pulling yourself up from a prone position with skis attached to your feet can be quite taxing.  Though amusing at first, it got old fast and I can't help but think that having the poles could have prevented some of the falls in the first place, and made recovering from them a little easier.

These two factors and a couple of others that I won't get into made the two hour lesson among the longest two hours of my life.  Time has flown by faster while watching a Terrence Malick flick (I don't care which one — any of them).  The difference is that watching a Terrence Malick flick is more mentally exhausting, and repeatedly picking yourself up from a ski slope for two hours is more physically exhausting.  It took just two hours to completely use up the vast majority of energy I had that day, and I came out smiling not because I'd successfully learned to ski, but because it was over.  In fact, I think it's fair to say that I did not actually learn to ski at all.  I never made it onto the lifts, because I was unable to stay upright for any real period of time.

I've heard it said that in order for an activity to become truly enjoyable, you have to attain a certain level of proficiency at it first.  Gaining that level of proficiency at skiing is not really how I see myself spending my time, though.  Still, I feel like whether or not I attempt to ski again is up in the air.  Personally, I preferred how I spent the hour and a half after my lesson was over: eating lunch then spending some quality time drinking good beer and drawing on cocktail napkins at the lodge bar.   It was easier, more fun, and frankly far cheaper.


  1. I disagree with the last part, because I know an entire class of people for whom it isn't true.

    To every 4-yr old I've ever met, *every* activity is truly enjoyable. This is because they have their eyes wide open. They are discovering the world and love to learn. If a 4-year old girl started playing football (soccer) and every day went home crying saying, "I hate this game because I'm not good at it", I'd definitely have to check her birth certificate.

    In order for an activity to be truly enjoyable, you have to start out desperately wanting to experience it, regardless of how good you are.

  2. Sean,

    I appreciate your input, and totally see where you're coming from.

    Be that as it may, one cannot enjoy walking if they are unable to. It's a simple formula. Hence the level of proficiency. It's all about having the basic tools in your toolbox.

    In order to enjoy the game of catch one has to be proficient enough not to consistently get hit in the face with the ball, and I cannot enjoy skiing if I cannot ski. Etc., etc., etc.

    The more complex a task is, the more time consuming and difficult it becomes to collect the basic tools needed to perform that task. This, I feel, certainly affects one's enjoyment. The more like work it is, the less interest there is likely to be.

    While there is little conceptual difference between a 4-year-old taking on soccer and a 34-year-old taking on skiing, I can assure you that having now been both ages, there is a huge difference in the amount of time it took me to do either.

    At the age of four, I was physically capable of all that soccer required. I needed only to learn the rules. At the age of 34, it turns out, I do not quite have the physical requirements for skiing ironed out. In fact, in order to attain basic mastery, I am required to fight against 34 years of muscle memory built up from doing completely different tasks. Only after overcoming that hurdle and successfully staying upright on skis long enough to qualify as skiing could I really feel that I was enjoying skiing, itself.

    I guess the short version is this: I'm not saying that you need to be Rembrandt to enjoy painting, but I think it's fair to say that painting isn't fun if you're unable to hold a paintbrush.

    Another way of looking at the philosophy above is applying it to rules. You see, closely parallels the philosophy that in order to bend the rules, you must first be able to understand and follow the rules.

    All complex tasks have rules that must be followed and requirements that must be met (reaching a certain level of proficiency). Only after mastering those requirements can you begin to really play with the rules(playing is fun).

    Finally, there's a reason that I put things the way I did in the post above. "I've heard it said..." I don't really think deeply on a practical level. I leave true philosophy to the philosophers. But, if I did have a philosophy, it would be no deeper than this: get my work done, do it to the best of my ability, and be honorable in all things. I can't say I wholly agree or disagree with the statement made in the above post. It's just something I read once, and likely paraphrased poorly. Fact is, it fit in well with the point I was making about how I wanted to spend my time. And all things considered, I really would rather spend my time drawing at the bar waiting for my wife to finish skiing. That really is fun to me, and doesn't cause me unnecessary bruising or days worth of soreness. In fact, I got a lot of work done in that bar on those napkins. All things considered, it was a good day.


  3. My four-year-old complains all the time about doing things he isn't good at. We're not sure if he's insecure; or taking after mom and just liking a good bitch session; or feigning the woe-is-me attitude so he can devote all of his time to MagnaTiles and Legos. I promise you he would *hate* skiing.

  4. Indeed Liz! Interesting. I think my view's been warped by a number of adventurous 4-year olds. I think they've warped all sorts of things actually. =)

    Thanks for your thoughts Steve. Your statement, "I think it's fair to say that painting isn't fun if you're unable to hold a paintbrush" definitely helped me see what you're saying. And good point -- that being excellent at something enables that ability to play with it & bend the rules. Being stuck on the bunny hill forever doesn't sound like much fun, very true.


I welcome all comments, questions, and discussion so long as you keep it civil.