How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Family Ski Trips

When the wife decides family ski trips are now important

It’s time to come out of the closet (or, more aptly, the ski locker).

I DO NOT ski anymore, not even cross-country (though my wife is now threatening me with snow shoes).

Backstory: My first downhill ski experience occurred in the Alps just before my 40th birthday. (Helpful hint: If you want to teach an unathletic philosophy major how to become an enthusiastic skier, begin WELL before he’s a cautious, 39-year-old lawyer with a history of back and neck pain.) I was presenting at a conference in Waidring, Austria, where each of the five days began with a morning talk, paused for a short (7-hour) ski break, and ended with an evening workshop. To pass the time, my wife and I signed up for ski lessons.

Debbie, who had skied in her youth, took to the slopes like a duck to water. I, on the other hand, was like a duck to duck sauce (meaning: the connection is fatal to the duck). After three  days of ski lessons, Debbie was exhilarated. I, meanwhile, found the experience a mix of anxiety interrupted by terror, and physical discomfort punctuated by injury. (If you’re thinking, what more could one ask for in a sport? — you may as well stop reading here.)

Fast-forward two years. We’re a family of five and, living in snowbound Massachusetts – in upscale, professional, we-want-what’s-best-for-our-kids-plus-a-diversified-portfolio Newton – my wife concludes it’s important we start taking family ski trips so our son and daughters learn this upwardly-mobile skill called “alpine skiing.”

During the prior years I had managed to hide my growing dread of skiing, even cross-country skiing, which was such a politically-correct sport that I could be banned from several social groups just by criticizing it. (In liberal Newton, it would be like insulting the Kennedy’s.)

But now I had to hide my dread from my entire family. So I put on a happy face (Wow, kids, isn’t skiing FUN!), checked the terms of our health insurance for out-of-state injury (Wow, kids, isn’t skiing DANGEROUS!), maxed out the credit cards (Wow, kids, isn’t skiing EXPENSIVE!), and prepared, like any good Jewish husband, to suck it up for the good of the family.

The next four years were brutal. We’d go on ski trips with friends to Sunday River (usually over Christmas, when the Jews and Asians owned the mountains). I’d take lessons in the morning, ski green trails and easy blues in the afternoon, and try like hell to suppress my terror.

For my 45th birthday friends got me skis. (Thanks again.) Since I would have to keep skiing, I decided I’d do only what felt safe. So I stayed on the easy slopes (It’s okay, family, you take the lift. I’ll take this rope tow up the bunny hill and hang with the five-year-olds.) I repeated beginner lessons. And I hoped that one day everything would come together: my skis would be miraculously parallel; I’d slow down without using a wedge; I’d hockey stop, showering my family with snow!

It didn’t happen.

Then suddenly, just before one vacation, I developed a knee problem – torn meniscus – and had to forgo skiing. My family and friends were sympathetic. I shrugged stoically – a trouper hiding his disappointment – while inwardly I was gleeful. I COULDN’T SKI! I had no choice but to do what I’d hungered for: lie around indoors reading, doing crosswords and watching TV.

The next year my knee was okay, but my back was acting up. Not enough to avoid skiing entirely, but enough to ski only two of three days and take off the day in-between. I LOVED that slice of heaven.

Next trip I caught a cold the day we left. Milking it for all it was worth, I gamely helped my family into their ski gear, photographed their leave-taking, but stayed indoors to nurse myself back to health. We all expressed the hope that I’d recover quickly enough to spend at least one day on the slopes. I didn’t… and haven’t since.

For on that day I was hit by an earthshaking question: Why am I doing this to myself? (Actually, the epiphanic inquiry was: Why the hell have I put up with this crap? But I’m too polite to say that here.) I looked at my past years and realized I was nuts. Skiing was not my cup of tea, nor even my spoon of castor oil. It wasn’t serious family time, and never would be: since the rest of my family were far better skiers, our paths would cross only at lunch (overpriced soup gulped while standing, because other skiers had “saved” tables by tossing down extra gear at 8 a.m.).

And, in many ways, the main goal had been accomplished: my kids were skiers. They could handle the slopes. They needn’t worry that a future date, fiancé or in-law would invite them on a ski trip and they’d need to make excuses (like their dad). In short, they were REAL Americans, assimilated in the best sense.

But what to do about dad?

I realized it was time to confess that I’d never liked this reckless European pastime and now actively dreaded it. I added that I’d be happy to attend family vacations as a non-skier – far happier, indeed – and use the time to engage in the three Rs: reading, relaxing and writing. (Well, they sound like three Rs.) From then on I added as much exercise as I could (one Christmas I ran 40 minutes through Bethel, Maine, in bitter cold, to prove I wasn’t just avoiding physical exertion). I hiked, drove, dined and shopped with other non-skiers; I discovered a great gem store at Sunday River and started a rock collection.  And I reinserted creative writing into my busy life (this essay was begun during my final ski trip).

My family and friends eventually accepted this. Still, living in New England, I continue to draw questions from acquaintances and buttinskis. So I’ve developed different approaches to explain why I’m not on the slopes.

Sometimes I say I suffered a ski injury and hope they don’t pry. (The injury, if I had to come clean, was to my pride. But, hey, sometimes those injuries are the slowest to heal and the hardest to live with.) Other times I try cuteness: I’m nordically challenged; I’ve shushed my shushing; the dog ate my ski pass.

But these days I mostly tell the truth: I HATE SKIING.

Wow, that feels great!

Howard Zaharoff
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