by Jesse Singal
So you are a neurotic person who wants to learn how to ski. Not “neurotic” in the infuriatingly loose sense in which normal, highly functioning people use it (“Okay, like, I hate to be noo-rot-tick, but I really think we should leave this party to get to the other party because my friends are at the other party and might leave it soon.”), but actually neurotic, sometimes cripplingly so: Your brain doesn’t work like other people’s brains. Your thoughts are often sputtering satellites orbiting singularities of infinite worry. Sometimes when you get a call and see that it’s your mom you’re sure that when you pick up she’ll be crying since someone close to you has died.
You’ve known you’re neurotic for a long time; it has stuck with you and you’ve internalized it. Every new experience you consider — Capoeira or Nepalese food or yoga or, as it happens, skiing — is accompanied by a series of questions that would never arise in the head of a normal person. What if you try some Capoeira move (do they have “moves” in Capoeira?) and seriously injure yourself and you never walk quite the same again and what’s left of your 20s is shuffled away in an endless series of physical therapy appointments? Or what if you order some choyala that’s too spicy at the Nepalese place and you keep asking for water after water and all the waiters and patrons — many of whom will be attractive women out on dates with people who effortlessly inhale spicy food like it’s Gatorade and they’ve just run a marathon — look at you and shake their heads at how uncultured and inexperienced and just overall soft you are? Your head is a machine built primarily to weave disaster movies out of life.
But despite all this, for whatever reason, you decide to learn how to ski. Here’s how to make it work; here’s what will happen and how it might change you.
1. It’s your first day and you arrive for your first lesson at the foot of a little “bunny slope,” as they call it, the actual, adjacent big-kids mountain safely out of sight somewhere. At first they’ll teach you to make a slice of pizza (or pie or whatever), to keep your skis parallel when you want to go fast or turn and to slow down by pointing them toward each other. Spoiler alert: This isn’t actually how you ski. But that’s okay. For now, this is how you, the neophyte, should ski. Practice making pizza.
Since you’ll be on the little bunny slopes at first, your perpetually jittery brain won’t, for the most part, shoot liquid mortal terror into your veins. Not yet. Instead, the heavy self-consciousness that has dogged you since puberty will leap onto your back like a starving deranged primate. There you’ll be, on a slope that’s really more of a plane, trying to get this unwieldy body of yours — top-heavy, limbs shooting out in every direction like pine boughs, your center of gravity somehow located 20 feet above you and to your right — to turn and glide, turn and glide, to make pizza. And all the while you’ll be surrounded by two-year-olds far more adept than you, their tiny simple brains concerned with nothing more pressing than the source of their next juice box. What must you look like? What must the ski instructors think of you? They are probably really hot, though it’s hard to tell under all the poofy ski clothes and goggles. Also, you’re older than all of them now! When did that happen?
You can’t worry about any of this. You need to let it go. Focus. Look: You’re doing it. You haven’t fallen in a few minutes.
2. Now it’s on to actual slopes — green circles, which are for beginners. Here a tsunami of crappy childhood memories related to fear and paralysis and exclusion will flood your consciousness. For example: Do you remember the time the kids in your neighborhood were climbing that tree near your house? They found one of the highest branches and jumped off of it into a pile of leaves, over and over, an endless routine on an endless Saturday, screaming and laughing each time like it was their first time ever climbing a tree, their first time ever crashing into a pile of leaves. What did you do? You climbed to the top, thinking it would be fine. But when you got there, when you stood up on that branch, palm against the reassuring solidness of the trunk, you looked down and saw catastrophe, saw demise, saw injury and grief. So heavy for a six year old. You couldn’t move. You just stood there.
“Get my mom,” you called down, voice higher and quicker than usual. And they did, but you’re positive they never looked at you the same after that. In lonely moments you imagine them, these kids you haven’t seen in almost two decades, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in thronged bars in Boston and New York and Philly and DC, clucking and laughing at your childhood cowardice. Which makes no sense.
So now here you are, fresh off the chairlift (How safe can those things be, really? How often does the state of Vermont inspect them? What was that weird grinding vibration you felt on the way up?), facing your first solo run down a green circle. And it’s the same shit as always, the same inability to not be afraid, to be normal. Even this looks pretty steep. How are you possibly going to get down? Won’t one of the expert skiers, still riding the momentum he picked up during his triple-black-diamond adventures two thousand feet up the mountain, slam into you when you make one of your clumsy, ultra-wide turns, concussing both of you in the process? Or what if one of your crappy rental skis comes off while you’re headed straight toward the trees at the edge of the trail? Or what if, once you’re back in the lift line, you take off one of your gloves to check to see if anyone has called or texted you (nope) and somehow lose it, and then your only choices are to ski with one glove or to shell out an asinine $70 for a new pair from the lodge?
These are all things that could happen. But the whole point of skiing is that you’ll never get half-decent at it just standing there immobile at the top of the trail worrying about everything. Just go. I can’t promise you you’ll be fine — only a charlatan could promise you that — but I think you probably will be.
3. You’ll always think you are going to lose a toe or foot to frostbite because your feet have been numb for hours. That’s just how ski boots work. You’re not going to lose a toe or foot to frostbite.
4. When you inevitably wipe out under a heavily trafficked chairlift and some teenage snowboarders gliding by overhead laugh at you or spit on you or yell something stupid at you, ignore them. They are assholes. Ignoring assholes has never been a strong suit for you, has it?
5. Now it’s a year or two later on the blue squares, the intermediate trails, and two things happen: First, you have your first spectacular, blooper-reel falls; and second, despite those wipeouts, in your belly you sense the germ of something promising that could possibly explain this whole skiing thing.
You feel a little bit like a skier now. No more pizza for you. You keep your skis parallel most of the time. You “hockey stop” by swooping your parallel skis from 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock in half a second, coming to a rest almost immediately and kicking up a satisfying little cloud of powder that hangs there for a second refracting the low winter sunlight and making it seem like you know what you’re doing.
None of this is easy, of course. Before each run you still find yourself taking a deep breath, trying desperately to chase from your head gruesome visions of bone pulverization and tendon evaporization. They flee for a bit, but like rabbits staking out a garden as soon as you divert your attention they return to feast.
Still, you go a little faster. You were skiing too slowly on the green circles for your falls to be anything but gentle chest-bumps with clumsiness. Now, actual speed brings actual falls. The worst comes when you’re headed down an unfamiliar trail and you hit a crest you didn’t realize was a crest and suddenly the downward grade goes from moderate to severely moderate and instead of adapting on the fly like an expert skier you freak out and flail like the intermediate skier you are. You turn too abruptly to the right and your skis cross and now you’ve lost all control and for a moment you’re going backward, then your skis uncross and the left one is up in the air and the right one is on the ground and you’re headed across the trail, toward the trees. A few more seconds of this off-balance one-legged skiing, this drunken-pelican skiing, before you slam your left ski down, overcompensate rightward, and fall hard on your right shoulder. At the moment of impact there’s a brutal crunch and festively hued spots firework onto your vision. When the powder clears your skis are off, one lodged into the mountainside like a shank, the other gliding gently to a rest a few feet away. Your poles, still attached to you by your wrist straps, are splayed out in front of you, a less-than sign of failure: You are less than this mountain.
“You all right, dude?” says a skier who flawlessly hockey-stops a few feet from you, someone for whom this trail is easy like breathing.
Are you all right? You stand up gingerly and think about it. Surprisingly, you only obsess about catastrophic injuries for a few seconds, because the answer comes quick as you brush a sheen of icy snow from the front of your jacket and retrieve your orphaned skis: Yeah, you’re all right. You’ll be sore tomorrow and you’ll have ugly blotchy bruises for awhile, but you’re all right.
You ski the rest of the way down, cautiously but crisply, and you find yourself grinning maniacally in the lift line. You’re all right, dude. You’re all right. This, it turns out, happens fairly frequently: Horrible-seeming falls don’t turn out to be all that horrible once you’re upright again.
There’s something to this, some reason you suddenly decided, sitting alone in your biohazard kitchen while your roommates partied elsewhere a year or two ago, to start skiing, but it isn’t quite fully formed yet, and in your head a formidable entrenched counter-neuroinsurgency is frantically trying to prevent it from spreading. Just leave it alone for a bit. Just focus on getting down the mountain.
6. The sign by the lodge promises Refreshments. But for the mountain’s owners to display photos of thick hot creamy broth laden with clam and potato to very hungry, very cold people who have already paid an eye-bulging amount for the privilege of skiing, and to then attempt to charge them $9 for a thimbleful of it, isn’t just a ripoff — it’s a betrayal.
7. Now it’s a few years later and you can do most of the trails on this mountain. And with less cognitive energy expended on the task of not dying, you drift toward an area that has always made you profoundly uncomfortable: self-help-ish, meaning-of-the-good-life-type philosophizing.
Because face it: These slopes are littered with cheap, flatfooted metaphors. But are they really cheap and flatfooted, or are they waypoints that could help steer you on your endless halting journey toward something like normalcy?
You’re exactly halfway between 20 and 40, now, and you feel your two selves warring. Twenty-year-old you wants to cast aside these metaphors like gaudy designer clothes. They fit too well, are too stylish; their easy answers can’t possibly offer anything like truth. But 40-year-old you is tired of trying on clothes that don’t fit, tired of hating on everything, and realizes that at some point fucked-up people need to figure out ways to thrive a little bit here and there.
And there’s something to this mountain and to the process of endlessly going up and down it. For example (and maybe this is a stretch): Are you going to ski (live) down the mountain (life) with crisp, quick turns (confidently and with direction), or are you going to ski (live) down the mountain (life) fearfully (fearfully), failing to turn as often as you should, simply edging down on the side of your skis, plowing off what little snow there is over the unforgiving ice beneath, ruining things for whoever is behind you (being a burden on your friends and family)?
Okay, so that was a bit clumsy, but after a particularly satisfying run, when you’re able to go ten, even 15 minutes without an intrusive thought jamming itself into your consciousness, when all your brainpower is attuned to the visceral, to the immediate, to the present, after you slam into a satisfying crunchy stop at the bottom of the slope, you can’t resist this weird welling you feel, lame and Hallmark-y but very much there nonetheless. Pride has never lit easily in you, its flames have always licked weakly upward for a second or two before being snuffed out by something or other. But here, layer over layer over layer over icy sweat over skin, you can’t help it: You’re proud of yourself, proud that someone like you made it down a trail like that so easily. And sure, there are those same malevolent energies still swirling somewhere in your brain, manifesting themselves as a small little hateful man slow-clapping and saying “Congratulations!” in a shrill, venomously sarcastic voice, but you know what? Fuck him.
8. And now it’s a few years later again and you’re up on the mountain with your friend Greg, a lanky chain-smoking snowboarding maniac. Greg’s from California and won’t shut up about Lake Tahoe and how this Vermont shit doesn’t compare to it (“Dude, in Tahoe, it would be 45 degrees right now and it woulda dumped 16 inches of fresh powder on us last night.”). You’re good, now, ready to attack terrain that would have been off-limits just a couple years ago: moguls and glades and off-trail woods. But Greg is better than you, and you keep chasing him into the woods against your better judgment. This is progress: five years ago you would have taken the easy way down, would have imagined the thwack of your head against a tree trunk rather than the potential triumph of escaping the woods unscathed.
You’re less resistant to the metaphors than you used to be. You’re still neurotic and fucked up, you still jerk awake in the middle of the night terrified for no reason, you still secretly believe people hate you, but some part of you is getting a little sappy and you find to your surprise that you like it, you welcome it after so many years of unrelenting cynicism.
When skiing moguls and woods you really can’t let the fear get to you, because the key in both instances is an endless procession of quick, precise turns. If you’re scared, if you slow down too much, you can’t turn fast enough and you end up just sorta standing there motionless, unsure what to do next.
You’re a little jealous of Greg, who barrels through the pines like an avalanche, who never seems to consider the fact that it really is dangerous to weave between trees spaced just a few feet apart, to zoom through the woods snapping twigs off boughs like a psychotic landscaper. You’re jealous of him in the same way you’re jealous of people who can approach women at bars, jealous of people who have elevator pitches, jealous of people who can morph themselves into the proper shape for any social or professional occasion. But you’re not as jealous as you used to be, you’re finding increasingly that you can appreciate them for who they are and Greg for who he is and even you for you who are.
For now, the key thing is to get through these fucking trees. Get through these trees and then figure out a way to handle whatever comes next.
Previously by this writer: Can ‘Diablo 3’ Point Us Toward A Grand Unified Theory of Nerdrage?
Jesse Singal is contributing writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast and a master in public affairs candidate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. You should send him an email filled with vitriol and/or encouragement at this address. Photo by Jesslee Cuizon.