Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Rough Start

So, skiing. Though I've lived the majority of my life in Colorado, I had never done it. I was the New Yorker who has never been to the theater, the Hawaiian who has never been surfing... pick your analogy. For a long time, it had seemed too expensive, and then I just sort of kept coasting that way on inertia. But now, on my trip to Steamboat Springs, I was going to give it a try.

(I have to briefly derail the story for a moment here, because I'm about to use the words "my husband" here on the blog for the first time. It's a big deal to me for many reasons, not the least of which is the role he's eventually going to play when -- a few days/posts from now -- I reach the end of this story.)

In advance of our trip, my husband had found what seemed like the ideal package for my first ski experience. For around $60-$80 more than the price of a three-day lift ticket, I'd get equipment rental and three days of ski lessons -- five hours a day, minus a lunch break -- with guaranteed results. (Or your continued lessons are free until you're skiing green runs.)

If we'd ever actually talked about him just teaching me himself, the conversation was so brief I've already forgotten it. That's the stuff that cliche spousal meltdowns are made of, right? One person yelling, "Why can't you just listen and do what I'm telling you?!" and the other yelling back, "Why can't you explain it right?!" Except the less rational version of that, with more insults. So even though my husband has been skiing for more than 25 years, and apparently took to it like an expert in half a day, it just seemed like a Bad Idea.

In retrospect, I was getting instruction from my husband (and also my friend) from the moment I was putting my ski boots on. Which I'll just come right out and admit, I was completely unable to do without help. Oh, push there to loosen the strap? Thank you. Oh, don't tuck anything inside the boot? Okay, got it.

And let me start by noting that even before click into a ski, walking in ski boots is the first awkward moment where you wonder how anybody ever put this whole idea together in the first place. The slow-motion kaiju walk it forces you into isn't so bad, but stairs are kind of ridiculous. Going up is manageable, but going down makes you choose between an awkward sideways shuffle or a forward-facing serial trust fall exercise. And though you'd love to cling to a handrail with a crushing death grip, you can't -- because you're carrying skis and poles.

Over the next two days, I'd learn more about teaching than about skiing. As in, what makes a bad teacher. By the end of "Skiing, Day 3," I'd come to believe that teaching is maybe only 10% what you know, and 90% being able to explain it as many different ways as possible, until you find the one that connects with your student. If you only know 2 or 3 ways, and #4 is the one that would have worked, then the whole enterprise is a failure

I slowly made my way to the level 1 flag, for the group of people who had "never ever" skied before. There I joined four other newbies and one instructor to head to a small hill just off the main slope. Hill is a generous word here; there's more slope to my driveway. But it did run a couple hundred feet. Not that any of us could stay upright for that long.

And not that we even started with that. First, it was all about making sure your boots were on properly (but I'd already been taught that), getting your skis on and off, and leaning forward. Always leaning forward. Always. In the long run, I'd come to think of this as Bad Lesson #1, the first example of what would be the recurring theme of my ski lesson experience: the words used by the instructor to describe a thing did not remotely match the way my mind perceived the feeling when I finally (finally!) got it right.

I kind of understand the intent here, because a person in skis for the first time has about as much sense of balance as a newborn deer. And generally speaking, the moment a newbie leans back even a millimeter immediately precedes the moment he's splayed out on the ground. So sure, always lean forward seems like good advice to start with.

From there, we moved into the two basic positions, parallel and wedge... or as my instructor was unafraid to acknowledge everyone calls them, "french fry" and "pizza." (As South Park has made famous, if you french fry when you're suppose to pizza, you're gonna have a bad time.) This was what I'd later come to think of as Bad Lesson #2, as my instructor really failed to lay out what constitutes an effective wedge in explicit terms. You know how you sometimes cut a slice of pizza in half for a toddler? That's the kind of pizza that was apparently good enough.

For this little hill, it was. After a few trips up the magic carpet and down at a slow creep, most of the group seemed able to stay upright most of the time. So we moved on to turning. My instructor characterized it as applying pressure to one foot or the other. I'm going to characterize it as Bad Lesson #3, because it was delivered without logic or context -- an abstract mental picture of monkey toeing objects that in no way explained the bass-ackwardness of "right to go left, left to go right."

So now I'm running a "pat head, rub tummy" scenario nested inside another "pat head, rub tummy" scenario. I'm constantly having to tell myself that the whole steering thing works backwards, and just when I'm starting to get any kind of leverage for this pressure thing, I remember I'm supposed to always be leaning forward like someone is holding me by the suspender straps. Nonsensical as it all felt, it actually didn't take too long before I went down the hill a half dozen times, turning, without falling over.

All of that took just shy of two hours. So we all broke for lunch, after which we met up at a separate, steeper hill. And this is when everything immediately fell apart.

This second hill was more than twice as steep. And shorter. And it ended at barrier right before the sidewalk fronting all the restaurants and shops at the ski resort -- so no margin for error. And hilariously, incongruously, this was "the kids' hill." It seems that most people who are ever going to learn to ski in their lives do it before they've reached the double digits in age. There were literally a hundred children -- most, I'd wager, 5 to 7 years old -- swarming over every last bit of this hill. They were criss-crossing any path you'd think to go down, cutting in line at the magic carpet, plopping down in the snow right in the line of fire. Everywhere.

Of course, you're required to be the adult in this situation. Losing control and smacking into a fellow adult student is embarrassing but forgivable. Mowing down a half dozen first graders, and then getting mad at them for cutting in front of you at the magic carpet line, would be monstrous. So at the slightest hint of trouble, good manners demands that you wipe out on purpose, then wait patiently behind 30 kids for the chance to wipe out on purpose again.

It took about 15 minutes and maybe 3 "runs" in these conditions for our instructor to rightly conclude that we weren't ready to ski in this kind of environment. So he decided to take us all back to the first hill. Which was good in theory, except that it was no longer possible to learn anything there either. No real control was required to stay upright there. My group and I had reached a perfectly terrible level of skiing ability -- unable to improve in any way, yet a total menace to everyone around us.

After an hour wasted on the little hill, my instructor finally seemed to note that 3:00 (and the end of the lesson) was fast approaching-- and he was supposed to have had us all on a slope somewhere by this point. So he decided to take us to Preview, a 3-chair lift that carried you up just a few hundred yards so that you could ski down the very tail end of the mountain.

By this point in time, I was kinda-sorta able to control my speed through a dizzying series of the widest, longest turns you could imagine. And a lot of experimentation. In violation of everything the instructor had drilled into me, it really seemed as though leaning back was the right thing to exert some small measure of control. I was "unlearning" Bad Lesson #1. In reality, I believe I was actually properly squatting over the skis for the first time. But it felt to my body and mind as though I was leaning way back. So it was "cheating." But it worked! But it was probably a bad habit that was going to get in the way of some future lesson. But it worked!

I did get manage to get down this short Preview run with only three or four falls (half of them deliberate, as an alternative to whacking some hapless skier). On a chart, I'd put this experience much closer to sliding down the mountain than skiing down it. But was I maybe starting to get the hang of it a bit? I mean, I'd even managed twice to stop in desperation, by violently contorting myself into what my instructor proudly praised as my first hockey stops. (Thanks. I totally meant to do that, of course.) Hmm... maybe I should try this little Preview hill again, to really cement the feeling of starting to get it.

Nope. 3:00 has come. The Preview lift, meant specifically for lessons like this, has closed. My time with the instructor has come to a close as well.

I met back up with my husband and friends, and we returned to our condo for games and beer. My husband seemed to have had a good time that day, doing multiple runs all over the more advanced parts of the mountain. Which had always been the plan: to not have him chained to me, fighting frustration as I tried to get my act together. So at least he'd had fun.

Many people asked: was I aching all over, just as they'd said I would? No, I replied. The one place I hurt most was my right hand, where I'd once made a foolish effort to catch myself instead of just taking a fall as I'd done dozens of other times throughout the day. I didn't hurt, I replied, because I never actually did any skiing all day. It was a joke, but a sort of gallows humor kind of joke. And nestled in it, the truth that I really hadn't actually done it right all day long.

But the instructor had said I was ready to come back to the "2" group the next day, and progress forward. Surely the next day would go better, right?

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