The other side of the mountain

Snow_on_the_Fischer_Ranger_96_Ti_SkisWhen I made plans to join my son in Colorado for a ski weekend, I envisioned days of swooshing gracefully down mountain slopes celebrated by nightly dips in the hot tub to soothe happily sore muscles. After all, I told myself, I’m in pretty good shape, I have great athletic endurance, and I’m not afraid to try new things. I might need a little practice to start, but how hard could it be? After all, I had done this before. I even bought a cute new ski jacket to seal the deal.

Did I mention that my “I had done this before” event occurred in 1994? In Michigan, where the highest elevation is 850 feet and the longest vertical drop is 240 feet? I mean, the technique is the same even if you’re skiing in the Colorado Rockies at elevations approaching 13,000 feet, right?

Okay, I’m not a complete idiot. I signed up for a half-day lesson for our first day on the slopes. My son took his snowboard and went off to enjoy the nearly 100 inches of snow base that graced the mountain while I headed to the bunny hill with my instructor Scott and two other guys. My fellow instructees were young enough to be my kids, and I determined that I would NOT be the prissy old lady who was afraid to engage with the mountain.

And I wasn’t. Of the three of us, I was the first one to accomplish all the tasks Scott set forth. I put my skis on. I took them off. I put them on again. I took them off again. I could get in and out of those suckers in a flash.

I sidestepped back and forth. I duck-walked up the hill. I side-stepped up the hill. I snowplowed forward. I mastered the magic carpet conveyor (okay, I fell once when I lost my balance, but I came up laughing) and took the ski lift like a champ. My movements were a little less confident skiing down the bunny hill, but I got it done. I even took my first real fall with aplomb, happy to have gotten it over with. When my lesson was over, I knew I just needed one thing: practice. Lots of it.

I stayed on the bunny hill for a while longer, and then my son and I ended the day together on a green (easy) run. It was a lot higher and a whole lot scarier looking down from the top than it had seemed looking up from the bottom, but I got it done. My future was looking bright, and it wasn’t from the glare off the snow.

Day two started pretty much as I had imagined. We took the lift to a green run, and once again, it seemed a lot scarier from the top. Besides, a little of my confidence had leaked out overnight, but I still made it down in an upright stance. In any case, I just knew that by the end of the day I’d have it mastered. Practice, practice, practice. Green runs were my friend.

At that point, we decided to hop on a different lift to take us to some green runs on another peak to avoid the crowds at our original lift. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so my son navigated the resort map and directed us accordingly. We hopped on the lift and went up. And up and up and up and up.

By the time we got off, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain. It. Was. Gorgeous. Blue skies, snow covered peaks, views for miles. It was breathtaking.

So was the sign that showed we were at the top of a BLUE (intermediate) run. You know, the ones for people who have skied for more than one day–and it was one of the more challenging blue runs, at that. My heart started racing and my breath came faster and faster. There was no way I was going to be able to get down that mountain. I was still wobbly and tentative on the easy green runs; this one was steeper and faster, and all I could think of was Sonny Bono. Holy crap.

Unfortunately, there was no other way to get down. My son coaxed, cajoled, goaded, and shamed me. He tried everything to get me to point my skis down the mountain and let go. I just couldn’t. Finally I convinced him to go without me and I’d figure it out. I didn’t want the pressure of disappointing him to add to my fear.

Finally, inch by inch, I started down the mountain. I had to do it; I wasn’t going to let the mountain win. I did it my way, though. The skis were too fast, and I just wasn’t ready. Remember that side-step I said I perfected during my lesson? It works going downhill, too. It took me two and a half hours, but I made it down that mountain, side-step by side-step. In my own way, I conquered that mountain.

I’m not proud of the fear that held me back, but I am proud that I found a way to make it down the mountain without assistance. I knew I wasn’t ready, so I had to engineer a different kind of solution. Did it deter me forever from skiing? Not a chance. I thought about little else for the first week after I came home. I’m not going to be that prissy old lady who is afraid to engage with the mountain.

I’m going back. I’m going to ski the green runs until I can do it with my eyes closed. Then I’m going to the blue run that (almost) won and I’m going to make it mine. And I’m going to take my son with me to make sure he witnesses it.

Here’s what I learned that day:

  1. There’s more than one way to get down a mountain.
  2. If you don’t prepare enough, you won’t get the results you want.
  3. Fear is a big inhibitor. Mental preparation counts as much as the physical.
  4. Keep trying till you get it right.

I’m going to own that mountain, and I’ll let you know when I do.

P.S. For those of you with kids, I also learned that it’s very humbling to let your kids see your limitations, and it’s exhilarating to see your kids conquer something you haven’t.

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Chew on this

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For nearly two years, three tiny Tootsie Rolls have made their home in the console of my car, nestled among a pile of pennies. I can no more bring myself to eat them than to throw them away. Every time I try to do either, I remember.

My son and I were headed east to visit colleges. We’d stopped for lunch at a Panera a couple of hours away from home, where an old man tottered through the restaurant, handing out cheer and Tootsie Rolls. He was just trying to brighten people’s day, making even the grumpiest adults giggle like children when he placed his candy in their hands. I loved it.

When we headed back to our car, I noticed my son carefully place his candies on a ledge outside the restaurant. I scooped them up, afraid that the old man might see, and hopped in the car.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“I’m not going to take candy from someone I don’t know,” explained my son.

Oof. The wind went out of me.

Apparently all those don’t-take-candy-from-strangers harangues when he was a kid actually stuck with him. Mom win, right?

At the same time, I felt sad. Had he missed the joy of the moment? Do we find ourselves in a world where even the smallest gestures of goodwill must be rejected for safety’s sake? Would I have let a seven-year-old take the candy I was so willing to let a seventeen-year-old eat? There was lesson in here somewhere, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

I’m still not sure what it is, actually. There are so many options. Don’t take candy from strangers. Take joy in the small things. Be careful. Be grateful. 

I can’t throw away those three chocolate tidbits because I don’t know which lesson is the right one. Somehow, they both have merit, and neither claims victory over the other. Maybe the lesson is found in the balance.

And so they remain, giving me something to chew on every time I see them.

A scary thought

What better day to talk about fear than Halloween? I’m participating in a training session where, like most group events, we started with an introductory exercise. You’ve probably done this before: pair off and learn enough about your partner to introduce him to the rest of the group. Ideally, you’ll throw in a few interesting tidbits that keep the audience engaged, and often the group leader helps this along by providing a framework for the interview.

This session was no different, but this framework included the following question: What do you fear most?

Being (primarily) a rule follower, I took the question to heart and answered accordingly. Rather than citing heights or snakes or spiders or death like some of my colleagues, however, my answer went pretty deep. What I fear most is looking stupid.

Looking stupid can be the result of a variety of situations. I may have been duped. I may not have known the answer. I may be flat-out wrong. It doesn’t matter why; I just don’t want to feel that blush creep up my neck and onto my cheeks.

Now, I could make an argument that simply admitting this makes me feel stupid. Indeed it does. Somehow there’s a vulnerability aspect tied in here, as well. I have a weakness (many, in fact), and I’m sharing it publicly. I feel pretty silly. *gulp*

So why do it?

To get better, of course. To conquer my fear. To convince myself that even though there may be a scary one or two or several in the bunch, people are people. We all have hopes and fears and dreams and successes and failures. We may look different, have different goals, and view the world from different perspectives, but somewhere at the core we all share whatever it is that makes us inherently human. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we don’t. Every experience has something to teach us, even the ones that make us feel stupid. Take it and run. My guess is that even when you’re wrong, you probably don’t look as stupid as you think.

Remind me of that often, will you?

Happy Halloween.