Sunday, March 12, 2017

False Summits and Frozen Tears in the Green Mountains

A thick wire. A pulley. A row of 40-foot-tall metal posts aligned in the direction of the sky, all hoisting their load on steep angles up a mountain. And, a bench for two.

Ski lifts are precarious things.

As I sat in that bench, being levitated up the steepest incline I’ve ever been on in my decades of going up and down the snow, sitting next to a 9-year-old who has a fear of heights, I took solace knowing that this particular ski lift had been around for longer than I had. It was born in 1963. And it had worked reliably every winter since, taking skiers to the top of the 3,640 foot Madonna Mountain.

Longevity in such endeavors brings some level of solace. Though I also feared that, maybe, the lift's age would betray us on that day.

This shot gives a sense of the view,
and the steep incline of the Madonna 1 double chair.
I am not exaggerating in saying that the most notable ski lift at Smugglers' Notch – the Madonna 1 double chair – is also the scariest and most breathtaking ski lift I’ve ever been on.

We’d long talked about taking the family to this mountain, which is often cited as one of the best family ski destinations in the east. It's also more affordable than some other Vermont resorts, with a focus on skiing and teaching, and less so on high-speed gondolas and unnecessary amenities. Smuggs seemed a good fit for us. And not just for the skiing.

My sister Amy lives in the shadow of the peaks that are home to this and other famous ski hills, like Stowe and Jay. From her yard, she can literally see the trails at Smuggs cutting down the north side of the central spine of the Green Mountains. She has urged us and our other siblings to come visit during the winter season for many years.

We always wanted to, but weren’t ready to do so as a skiing family – as evidenced here. In the past two ski seasons, that changed. As evidenced here, and here. (Gosh, you’d think I’m a ski blogger. But I’m not, I swear).

This year, we finally did it.

My other sister and my mother organized the trip as a way for all of us to celebrate Amy’s birthday milestone. I’m not saying what milestone because she is my younger sister. And its mere mention will likely make everyone involved feel old.

In all, five of us Ruddy siblings, our spouses, our offspring, and our parents gathered in a few well-appointed suites near the slopes of Smuggler’s Notch for a long weekend of skiing, eating, and being together. Like the age thing, I’m not saying exactly the number of people in the suites, because we were likely over the fire code, which is typical most places we go. But it was plenty of room. And it was loads of fun.

It was also really freaking cold.

So cold, in fact, that the planned day of skiing – the Saturday of our weekend visit – didn’t happen because the temperatures were quite low, and this mythical thing known as the “wind-chill” claimed it was close to zero Kelvin.

On that day, we found an indoor pool for the kids, went antiquing, met a local artist, took a fun shopping jaunt to Stowe, and then enjoyed some adult beverages … and did a puzzle (Don’t ask).

The next day we skied. And despite warnings about the “wind-chill” again, the sun shone brightly and everyone who wanted to ski did so to their heart's content, or there about.

Most of our time was spent on the lower, tamer Morse Mountain, a more manageable array of lifts and slopes that has helped make Smuggs so well-known as a family place. It’s mostly winding Greens and wide groomers, and it held our interest until it didn’t.

As we skied Morse as a family – our kids, a few cousins, an aunt and uncle included – there was another thing drawing our attention: the looming peak of Madonna Mountain that was never far from our sight.

At the tail end of a good day, we all set out for the lifts that would take us to the summit of Madonna. It would prove to be the summit of our trip as well.

As we hurtled our way toward the sky, up and up on Madonna 1, I convinced my whimpering daughter to just look sideways at the trees. That’s because every other direction you could turn your eye – down, up, or behind us at the shrinking landscape of Vermont – could give you instant heart palpitations.
She chose, instead, to simply close her eyes. Also a smart choice.

Because there was something else about the Madonna 1 lift. Despite several false peaks that convinced the frightened passengers that the end was near (in a good way), it kept going, and going, and going.

The last of many false summits before
the actual summit of Madonna Mountain
Shielding her eyes, however, didn’t stop her from hearing the exclamations from the people in the chair in front of us as they arrived at every false summit, yelling “Oh My God!” when they reached the top of the latest precipice and saw that many hundreds of feet of ascension still waited ahead.

Have I mentioned yet that my daughter inherited her fear of heights from her father?

On the lift that day I may have told her that crying was no use, because her tears would freeze before they hit the ground. It was the phobia talking. 
 
I always say that I’m not really afraid of heights. I’m just afraid of falling. It’s an admittedly bad cliché of a joke I’ve told far too often. It’s also a fear I’ve faced on many occasions: zip-lining in Estes Park, rock climbing in the Adirondacks, every time I go up a building more than ten stories.

Well, suffice it to say, I faced my fear again that day. My daughter faced her fear as well. And, as indicated by the typing of these words, we both survived.

When we finally reached the summit, part of me wanted to kiss the snowy ground. But it was one of those wind-blown, fairly exposed summits that never lets you forget exactly how high up in the sky you are. Kissing was not in order. Skiing down was.
 
That's my, "Oh crap, how are we ever going to get down" face.
So that’s what we did: my frightened daughter, my wife, my other kids and me – after an obligatory family photo, of course – made our way down the entire 2000 feet vertical drop. And it was one of the best runs we have ever skied together.

Safely going up and then getting down Madonna Mountain was certainly a highlight of our first annual ski vacation to Smugglers Notch. One of many highlights, in fact.

And, yes, I know that “first annual” isn’t actually a thing according to the rules of grammar.

But I think it’s safe to say we are going to hit the repeat button on this winter trip to Vermont as annually as we can.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bye, Bye Bunny Hill; Hello Headaches

For the parent who skis, there are few things more liberating than having your youngest child – just 6 years old – get comfortable enough on skis to finally get off the darn bunny hill.

For the parent who skis, there are few things more frightening than having your young children hurtling down a mountain as you chase after them yelling, “Slow down! TURN! TURN!”

We’ve been skiing as a family quite often in recent years. Some of the adventures were blogworthy. One was even publishable. Yet, for all that time, we’ve always been tethered to the bunny hill by at least one of the kids – a fact that can put a real damper on a family day on the slopes.

It was mostly our fault. Scratch that. It was entirely our fault. We only went skiing a few times a year since our youngest was born, and we often went to places where the leap from the bunny to the big hill was too much for a novice, pre-school skier to handle.

I’d always look wistfully at parents who could take all their kids up the mountain together and think, someday that will be us.

Slowly, we made progress.

A few years back, our oldest daughter joined us on the big hill -- as did our second oldest two years ago, quite famously. Our third daughter made the jump at age 7, at the tail end of last season. As we entered this winter’s ski season, our hope was to get the boy up the chairlift and onto the big hill.

It seemed quite the goal. On previous trips, he’d earned himself the nickname jelly legs, because he appeared to enjoy falling, and was perfectly content to snowplow through his lesson and then drink hot cocoa will the rest of us tag-teamed babysitting duties between runs.  

Yes. We had to get him off the bunny hill. For our own skiing sanity.

And, just one day into our ski season, it happened.

“Hooray!” The crowd cheered.

Something clicked with the boy. He’s no longer called jelly legs.

Now I just call him the blur.

It might well have been the most horrifying day I’ve ever spent on a mountain.

Before we get too worked up, please know that everyone is fine. Nobody got hurt, other than typical falls and one strawberry on my eldest daughter’s chin from her wandering too far into the terrain park. That worked out as a good thing, since she got to tell friends nonchalantly that she got injured on a jump in the terrain park, letting them fill in the gaps imagining her doing a backscratcher or 360 or some other oddly-named heroics. Maybe it was more like a face plant – but I’ll never say anything.  The important thing is that we all walked away from our day skiing.

But, for a spell, I wasn’t so sure.

The world's least photogenic family (most of them) on top
of a mountain. For the record, the sun was in our eyes.
The first indication of trouble occurred when I was filling out the boy’s paperwork for his lesson. We decided that day to go to Labrador Mountain, one of four ski hills within 30 minutes of our house. We chose Lab because of a good day there at the end of last season, with our older kids and their friends all enjoying free reign of the park’s manageable blues, and even testing their abilities on a few black diamonds.

Like most hills near us, Lab offers a decent lesson package for younger kids, with a combined two hour lesson and lift ticket for less than the price many hills charge for the lift ticket alone.

I should have known from the moment I filled out the paperwork for the lesson that he was going to push the envelope that day. He stood next to me as I read the form’s questions out loud.

Name? … He answered the question as I wrote.

Address?  … He answered.

Parent’s Cell Phone? … He stared blankly as I filled it in.

Number to call in case of an emergency? … “9-1-1” he replied.

“No, buddy,” I corrected through a smirk. “They mean like Nana, or another cell phone.”

He shrugged. Let’s hope no one has to call 9-1-1 today, I thought.

With the form was complete and him registered for the next lesson, we had some time to kill. So we went out to warm up on the bunny hill. After about two minutes, it became painfully obvious to me and the guy running the tow rope up the slight incline of a beginner hill that my boy was ready for more of a challenge. Even before the lesson, my wife – who had taken a few runs with the girls already -- decided he was ready, and bravely took him up the lift herself. I didn’t agree. But who am I to stand in the way of progress.

Not that I was vindicated or anything, but they struggled mightily to make it back down the mountain. She said he fell more than thirty times. They almost missed the damn lesson. Luckily, they didn’t.

I, for one, was glad he was back in the hands of professionals.  And, as lessons always do, his time in ski school gave me and my wife a chance to actually ski together.

As we tackled the more challenging trials with the girls, the boy’s instructor decided, too, that he was ready to go up the lift.

With that, the cork was popped. He was officially off the little hill. After the lesson, he never looked back – not even to see me trying to catch him.

As the day wore on, our whole family went up and down the mountain many times. And I began to envy the moms and dads who had kids stuck on the bunny hill. Because, despite our son’s willingness and ability to handle the harder parts of the hill, he still had a problem with control. And with speed. And with stopping.

He’s pretty much like that old cartoon of the Tasmanian Devil, except on skis – a whirling dervish of down jacket and snow. His only way to slow down is to crash. And every time he speeds down the mountain, over a bend and out of sight, we know we’ll find him in a heap, bouncing up as we near to gather his skis and go some more.


Thank goodness for helmets.
It’s a bit much for a worrisome dad to take. Let's just say that I’m a much more reserved skier than my son. At one point, I even told my wife I had to take a break because my nerves couldn’t handle watching him barreling down the hill like a pint-sized, out-of-control snow plow.

But then, the most harrowing thing I saw involved another child of mine. The girls can never let the baby of the family have all the attention.

In a mental lapse brought on by a day of exertion, I decided to take my daughters down one particularly steep black diamond – one they both swore they’d been down the year before.

They were mistaken. As was I.

About a third of the way down, the incline became too much for them to handle, so much so that our 8 year-old gave up on the notion of turns and slowing down altogether. She shot down the hill dangerously fast, passing expert slalom skiers and the local downhill team in training.

I stopped and stood helplessly, yelling “Slow down! Slow Down.”

She didn’t. She went even faster.

I looked away. I actually averted my eyes. Then I consciously decided that wasn’t the responsible thing to do. So a trained my eyes on the disappearing dot that was my daughter.

To say I was terrified would be an understatement. I was sure it was going to end poorly. Her life actually flashed before my eyes.

Within seconds – which felt like years – she was at the bottom of the hill. I was sure she was going to shoot out across the parking lot and into the hills in the distance. But she didn’t. She slowed. She regained control. And then she stopped.

I’ve never been so delighted to so a child of mine not in motion.

When my other daughter and I finally made it to the bottom of the hill, I hugged her and asked her how it felt to go that fast.

She said, "It was terrifying."

Needless to say, between the boy and his sister, by the end of our day skiing, I was ready for a glass of wine. And a therapist.

In hindsight, it was a perfect day on the mountain.

The boy made it off the bunny hill. Which means freedom.

Then again, the boy made it off the bunny hill. And that might just be more than I can take.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A dog, and the family who loved her

A lump formed in my throat as I stood in the darkened hallway outside my office, a phone to my ear, listening to a comforting veterinarian walk me through the options my wife and I had left. It was a dishearteningly short list.

“I’m sorry you have to deal with this, and so close to the holidays,” she offered kindly.

“Yep,” was all I could muster without a torrent of tears being released.

I’m not one to wish days away, but like many, I just want this year to end.

Days. What a strange unit of measure. All equal in duration, but different in size, content, even in light and darkness. Passing like pages in a book. Some remembered well, others forgotten.

I remember the day 14 years ago when we went to a little house in Northern Virginia to pick up our puppy. Feels like yesterday. It was the first time we met her. A white mutt with black spots, billed as an Aussie Sheppard mix, rescued from West Virginia, where they had more dogs than people willing to raise them, and brought to Washington, D.C., where young couples waited to adopt pets as a toe in the water before having kids.

She was the first addition to our new family. And, as I said to friends at the time, she filled holes in my heart I didn’t know I had.

I remember, in the first days having her in our home, laying on the floor with her on my chest, playing and smiling as she nibbled my hands, nipped at my face, and licked everything in sight.

Man, she was a licker. Some dog whisperer theorized it was due to losing her mother too young. For us, it was just who she was. We trained her eventually, though that too was a bit of a fiasco. Sit. Heel. Stay. We even broke her of the habit of jumping up on visitors. But she never stopped licking people. She could control the urge with us. But the second someone else came in the house with shorts on, she’d lick their legs like it was her religion.

“Sydney, Stop!” Visitors would yell. I’d laugh, wondering when people would learn to wear pants when they came over.

I remember well those puppy training classes my wife and I took her to in her first year. She was young for canine school, and just so darned excited to be around other dogs; she could hardly contain herself. As graduation day neared, we were certain she was going to be held back. Whether there would be a diploma for Sydney was the source of much anxiety. On the day of the final exam, my wife led her around the little obedience course, as the other dogs and owners watched. Our distractible little puppy didn’t earn bonus points for staying focused, as she wiggled and wagged around the room while my wife pleaded, “C’mon girl.” But she did graduate. Diploma and all. Yippie, we said. We were proud. She was a good girl. Of course, the class was as much about training us as it was about training her, the instructor mentioned as we left, deflating our pride just a hair.

But she was trained and ready to become a friend to our first child. And she did, such that our daughter’s first word wasn’t “mama” or “dada,” but “puppy.”

Our pup was patient and curious, kind and gentle; no matter how often she had her tail pulled or was climbed upon.

And, the years and the kids kept piling on. Through it all, she remained our excitable pup.

I remember when, after one of the later kids came along, I decided to start running each morning to get rid of my sympathy weight. Sydney ran with me. She loved it, and it helped keep her nails trimmed. Those were good days.

I remember so many times playing with her in the yard, how she’d run full sprint, and her back legs would hop as she slowed down. And in the snow, and on the beach, and taking her with us on our family walks around the neighborhood. The truth is, I was a crappy owner and didn’t do those things enough, always too busy with the hectic demands of everyday life. My wife was far better, always doting on her, and thinking of her, and including her in our plans. She came to be my wife’s constant companion, the two of them sharing the home office day after day. Those days meld together more than we wish they did now.

There were bad days, too. Like the first time she got sprayed by a skunk. I found myself at the store at 1 a.m. buying a conveyer belt full of tomato juice and douche. “Gonna clean up Gotham,” was the bad joke in my head as I slunk through the checkout line. That was one of several late night washings, which always seemed to happen when the air was cold and the water stung my hands. I can only imagine how she felt. She hated baths. Especially cold ones in the middle of the night. We’d both sooner forget those.
 
Then there was the time we falsely accused her of pooping on the bed. The cat did it, we later learned. And then in more recent days, when she hobbled instead of galloped, when she stopped going up the stairs to avoid falling down them, when we started carrying her places – to her bed, to go outside, to the vet.

When I think of the days with her, I’ll likely remember today, too, though I wish I didn’t.
 
I’d rather remember her curled up at my feet as I wrote a dumb blog post, or graded papers, with her head draped on my foot, and her warmth and love constantly within reach. Or how she sprawled out on the floor, like super dog, with her hind legs straight behind and her front legs reaching forward. Or how excited she'd get when anyone said "wanna go for a walk" and grabbed her leash, or when we'd grill steak and she knew I'd slip some trimmings in her bowl.
 
It’s hard to lose a dog. It’s hard because, except for the rare vacations where we’d board her in the kennel, she was there for it all, waiting at the door as new babies came home, sharing the floor as they started to crawl, running behind them as they learned to ride bikes, eating their snowballs out of the air.
 
For fourteen years, she was a part of us. My kids don’t know a world without her. 

Sydney was such a good girl. She was a good dog. She was a part of our family. Now, just days before Christmas, she’s gone.
 
And we’re gonna miss her. Every day, for always.
 

Sydney

 1/26/2002 - 12/22/2016


 
 
 
 
 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

My Obligatory Post-Election Letter To My Kids

Apparently, you’re not allowed to have a dad blog if you don’t write a letter to your kids about the election of Donald Trump.

So here goes.

My Dearest children;

(I actually never call them “dearest,” like there are less dear offspring somewhere else).

Starting over.

Dear kids;

Dear is such a weird word and so formal sounding. This is hard.

Third time’s the charm.

Hey Kids;

“Ah hem.”

Sorry.

Let’s just start with how sorry I am.

I’m sorry that our country just did what it did, electing a man to the presidency of the United States of America who bullies, belittles and threatens people. All the rules banning those sorts of things still apply in our house, and everywhere else. So knock it off, in advance.

I’m sorry that our country just put in the highest office a man who has treated women poorly his entire life, focusing only on their physical attributes, bragging about kissing and grabbing them without permission, and habitually trading his wives in for younger versions every few years. Other Americans accepting this behavior does not mean you ever should. Ever, from anybody. As importantly, all those things I told you about how smart, important and capable you are still hold true. And, despite this one election, you can all still aspire to be president. Though I don’t know if our family could handle that level of scrutiny, if you know what I mean. You can also be scientists, or teachers, or economists, or parents of great kids, or lawyers. You should know, however, there are more people in law school right now than there are lawyers. That's something people warn you before you plunk down a hundred K to become one. No one knows if it's true. Either way, please, don’t hesitate to dream big and do big things. I know you all can and will.

I’m sorry, too, that there’s a good chance all the good things we’ve done as a country in recent years -- like expanding access to healthcare, granting basic rights to the LGBTQ community, standing up for marginalized people, and protecting the environment – are about to be undone. Sorry that you’ll have to do these things all over again.

On the environment: I’m very sorry about that. All that stuff you’ve heard people say at school about protecting the planet, it’s still the goal in this house. Yes, we still have to recycle and turn the lights off when we leave the room. And we shouldn’t run the water when brushing our teeth. And yes, we still have to brush our teeth. That was never even on the table. Despite what you see and hear over the next few years, it is still up to all of us to protect the planet. Period.

Oh, and I’m sorry about the Electoral College, though that’s not even my generation’s fault. It was Alexander Hamilton’s generation. In what can now be considered a great bit of irony, he saw the Electoral College as a protection against the people electing someone who was unfit and unqualified for the job. Funny, right? I’ve been telling you, A. Ham wasn’t nearly as great as Hamilton the Musical (or “Play dot Ham”) makes him seem. Maybe now you’ll believe me. As one of you said to me and mom the morning after, “Why do we even have the Electoral College? Why can’t we just leave it up to the people?” Amen to that.

Also sorry for the random dad joke about Hamilton I squeezed into the last paragraph. I have an affliction.

Finally, I’m sorry that these results made you all so sad. I can tell you that the saddest part for me was seeing how sad it made you. Mom and I believed in the other candidate and thought that our country would make us proud by electing her. We were wrong about that. But we were not wrong to believe. And while I know this hurts, you always have to be willing to believe.

And now, dearest children, I am going to tell you why I am hopeful.

Yes, hopeful.

I am hopeful because of you. All of you are funny, and talented, and so darn insightful. All of you know how important it is to be nice to each other – even if you’re not always nice to each other, at least you know you’re supposed to be. All of you are capable of making this world a better, more inclusive, more loving place.

I’m also hopeful because I know your friends, and they are nice too, and smart, and compassionate. I saw how they reacted when that awful tragedy happened in Orlando. And, on that darkest of days, you’re friends' actions made my heart sing, and believe, and hope again.

A gesture by my daughter and her friends
that gave me faith and hope after Orlando
You and all your friends know there will be a woman president in your lifetimes, and they also know – I sense -- that this particular man should never have been. And I take solace knowing that he would not have been if this election had been left up to people under the age of 30, or even just middle schoolers. If kids could have voted, the outcome would have been different, because they know a bully when they see one, and they know what to do with bullies. So there is hope in the future and the people who will shape it.

I am also hopeful and proud, and you should be too, that we live in a town that voted for her and not him; in a county that voted for her and not him; and in a state that voted for her and not him. We didn’t vote for him. Nor did the people around us.

But it will be up to us to fix it. So you're not getting off the hook that easily.

Finally, I am hopeful because we have to be. Your mom and I have dealt with a lot of stuff in our lives, as have your grandparents. And no matter what, we all keep moving forward together. We keep hoping that tomorrow will be better than today. Some days it won’t be. But we will still hope. And I know you will to.

Sincerely,

Your dearest father

a.k.a. Dad


So there it is: My official letter to my kids, which I am apparently sharing with the world – or at least the 27 people who will visit this blog.

For those who don’t appreciate that fact that I tried to make my kids smile a bit while writing this, I realize it's "too soon" for many. But you should know that I come from a long line of people who try to use humor to deal with life’s great disappointments. Emphasis on try.

I also come from a long line of people who often fail when trying to make people laugh at inopportune times.

And this, if nothing else, is an inopportune time.