Although I’ve been a jock all my life, I’ve never taken to any sport that involves balancing on blades, wheels or pieces of wood. My attempts at water skiing resembled a newborn fawn gawkily rocking for a second — only to fall, face first, into the water.
At top speed, it feels roughly like cement.
Although I did succeed in limping my way around a roller-skating rink in my teens, I’d rather walk through fire than slide on ice skates. I come from a tribe of long-legged, short-waisted people, whose high center of gravity make blade-involved sports as palatable as eating sushi from a gas station, and just as likely to land me in the emergency room. Thankfully, growing up in the Midwest allowed me the safety of gentle sledding.
But one day, 20 years into our marriage, something possessed my wife Amy and I to consider a cross-country skiing trip. Maybe it was the need to shake things up, to try to find each other after many years of raising our kids, a chance to create some sparks again between us. But why light a candle when you can set fire to your house?
When we looked at images of skiing sites online, I imagined the photos that would be taken of me. This is Phil on skis. This is Phil in the ditch, skis up. This is Phil, doing the splits. This is Phil, unable to stand up. Ever again.
To keep my manliness intact, I agreed to go. After all, I still love the feeling of beginner’s mind, when everything is new and strange and wonderful. And I supposed being so close to causing one’s own death, one might feel alive? Driving to Chapin Forest Reservation in Kirtland, Amy promised there would be a fire and hot chocolate at the end of it, which I presumed I would sip while in two leg casts. The things we do for love.
But the people selling us the boots and skis couldn’t have been more pleasant at selling what was the equivalent of a loaded gun to a toddler. I strapped on the boots and waddled to get the skis. The bearded purveyor took one look at me and handed me skis so thin you could slice your finger on them. He evidently mistook me for someone who knew how to handle them.
Skiing, it turns out, is like getting married. Everyone is thrilled to see you do it, but once the wedding bells go quiet and the reception ends, you have to figure out most of it on your own. Despite the advice that elders offer, until you’re in the middle of it, you don’t know what to hear. Like a kid who insists on doing things the hard way, a lot of us fall on our faces rather than ask for help. Luckily, Amy, who hails from the hilly Northeast, was a pro, and guided me through the prospect of standing up on my two splinters of wood. It turns out that the poles come in handy.
After getting the hang of shuffling my skis back and forth, something like skiing seemed to take place. Until, that is, we came to the practice hill. It was no more than a light slope, but it felt a little more like Everest when I had to ski down it.
Here’s the thing: It was actually fun. I’m sure I looked ridiculous, a middle-aged man gliding a few miles an hour, bending his aching knees into a squat to keep from pitching headfirst into the snow.
And there she was, the woman I married, the flush on her cheek rising, like she was a teenager again in New England, and I, still an old Midwesterner, hustled to keep up.
It’s more work than it looks, pulling yourself with your arms and staying upright. Amazingly, I only tasted snow a couple of times, though I often felt that feeling when you lean back too far and then begin helicoptering your arms wildly, trying desperately to stay upright and not slide into a ditch or a tree.
In our marriage metaphor, this is what happens when you have your first arguments and think the world is ending, but it only turns out that though you love each other, you passionately disagree about how to load the dishwater.
Somewhere, a half hour into our journey, tired and sweaty, I had the odd feeling that we’d been skiing a slight incline for a while. It gradually dawned on me that could only mean one thing: we’d have to ski down. I knew that pointing my skis inward, in the shape of a pizza slice, would slow me down.
Suddenly, that little bit of advice was the only thing between me and groin surgery — as we descended, Amy ahead of me sure-footed and leaning in, and I holding onto dear life, squatting and doing the pizza with my skis. Until, in the descent, terror turned into a kind of delight.
And it occurred to me, somewhere in the middle of this flying, that this is like our long love, with its initially deceptive ease, followed by tricky balancings and exhausting labors, followed by inevitable pain and then unexpected and gratifying pleasures, a life that goes by so quickly, sometimes we can barely see it happening — until, where the hill cedes to gentle earth, we meet again.