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Parallel Universe: How's your winter?

Features
posted: 12/03/2000

The simple way to measure your quality of life.

"How's your winter?"

So goes the standard greeting of the parallel universe. It's a question about quality: Are you enjoying your season? Is skiing being good to you? It's a concept I have not always understood.

Gary Klein is one of the founding fathers of mountain biking. "Riding," he once declared, "is about rhythm and flow. It's the wind in your face and the challenge of hammering up a long hill. It's the reward at the top and the thrill of a high-speed descent. Biking lets you come alive in both body and spirit. After a while the bike disappears beneath you, and you feel as if you're suspended in midair."

A friend of mine says even beginning skiers feel this same sensation, even if only for moments swifter than a camera flash. It's what keeps all of us skiers coming back for more.

It's those other moments, the ones without rhythm and flow, that cause all the trouble.

I have been skiing since I could walk. Looking back, I can see that many of those winters were less fun than they should have been. The voices were always there, whether from the mouths of coaches, parents, and peers or from the harsh critic within: You're doing it wrong. You're such a spaz! Stop sticking your butt out. Bend your knees. Look up. Reach downhill. Hup, hup, hup! And don't forget to do that other thing, too.

Racing didn't help. True, whatever technical skills I have today are built on the solid foundation I acquired through junior and collegiate racing. What racing didn'tgive me was a feeling of confidence. And it absolutely did notexpose me to the experience of skiing as joyful fun.

No, no, not like THAT. You're hopeless. Your pole plant is off. Watch Kate. She knows how to ski. Hike back up and try it again.

I finished last in races. Last. Not always, but often enough. I longed to be one of the facile, fast kids, but my body filled with tension and refused to cooperate. I wasn't afraid of falling; I was afraid of letting go. I fought the hill, slashing against it with my skis. I skittered across the top of ski slopes like a tiny boat being buffeted by big waves. My last coach--a bland dumpling of a woman who once raced with great promise--helped too little and mocked too much. I quit racing. I quit skiing.

A few years later, something drew me back. I became a weekend ski instructor at tiny Ski Sunrise in Southern California. One day the senior instructor in charge of clinics led the newbies into the trees.

Trees?I thought. Why is he taking us in here? I hate skiing through thick snow. It's such a struggle. What if I mess up? I wonder what he wants.

When we were well into the grove of pines, he stopped, looked up at the sky, then out at the vast vista of the Mojave Desert stretching east. He took a deep breath, sighed audibly, and smiled. "Wow," he said. "Isn't this beautiful? Isn't this amazing? Here we are in a beautiful, snowy forest with these funny planks on our feet. Hilarious!" He shook his head in laughing disbelief. "Isn't this great?"

Oh!I thought. Beautiful and amazing, silly and fun. What a concept!

It was the best lesson I ever had.

After that day in the woods, I began to savor the silliness and beauty of skiing. More specifically, I began to notice and be thankful for each ski day's rapturous details, like the vista from a summit, the sound of falling snow, the mere fact of being out there, the feeling of the mountain sliding under the caress of my feet. It may have been as simple as learning to take the focus off myself, but suddenly the skills I had been striving for two decades to master clicked into place. The moment I stopped grasping for them, there they were in my grasp.

Ptor Spricenieks is a onetime engineering student turned world-traveling Zen mountaineer. He radiates an even-keeled, energized peacefulness. Translation: He is one mellow yet magnetic dudde.

"Bliss," Spricenieks says, "is the awareness of just being. There are a lot of different paths you can take. Skiing is powerful medicine to help you make that connection because of the heightened states of awareness it brings out. But you have to really skihere now. You have to really occupy your body andmake the connection with nature. The most effective thing is focusing on your breathing and on no other thoughts. When you're all Zenned out and it's just you and your breath, that's when everything works."

Last winter it happened to me. I felt tickled from the inside out with euphoric delight every time I went out on my skis. It was completely unexpected, like getting upgraded to first class without asking. And it didn't just happen on perfect powder days under cloudless, sunny skies. I got the groove on groomers, through glop, and in flat light, too. The funny thing was I had several injuries, plenty of worries, and far fewer days than usual on my skis.

"How's your winter?" people asked.

"Ohhhh," I said, smiling. The feeling shot through me even when I simply thoughtabout skiing. "It's the craziest thing, but I'm having the most fun I've ever had in my life every single time I ski."

"Ohhhh," replied my friends. "That's so awesome when that happens. That happened to me once, too."

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