Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On Snowshoes and Going Sideways

I can remove summiting Everest from my bucket list now, like it was ever even there. Not because I accomplished the feat. Rather because any notion that I could make it to the top of that mountain, or many less-daunting peaks, perished on a rather tame wintry hike up a hill outside of Cazenovia, N.Y., this past weekend. If I ever tried a real mountain, it would certainly be the last thing I did.

So a dream I never had died. And that wasn’t the worst thing to happen that day.

A few years ago, I got this notion in my head that I wanted – no, needed – a pair of snowshoes. One Christmas morning soon thereafter, a pair arrived under the tree with my name on them. I felt whole again.

Since then, I’ve used the snowshoes a handful of times, usually just goofing around in the yard after a big snow, or occasionally in the really deep stuff up north in the Snow Belt where my parents live. Nothing too vigorous.

This weekend, experiencing the cabin fever that sets in after the coldest January in memory, trapped indoors with a house full of children, I decided to change that. I decided I was going to really go snowshoeing. Not lets-take-the-kids kind of snowshoeing. But real snowshoeing.

Why not, right? I had the shoes. I could use the exercise. I needed to get out of the house. And there was snow on the ground.

Luckily, my brother, who lives a short drive away, had a similar notion, as did a friend of his. So on a cold and windy, but partly-sunny Sunday, we met at his farm to set out across a field and into the adjoining woods to follow a looping trail through the foothills of Caz.

We crossed the field, traversing through snow not quite as deep as expected, or hoped. But there was enough. In places, ripples and drifts formed, swallowing all evidence of brush and weeds whole, and allowing us to levitate above it all. Other places, the wind left the earth bare, and the metal spikes on our shoes would hit the hard ground, as the ice and dirt crumbled underneath.

The first thing I noticed was how god-damned cold my fingers got as we trudged along that open field with a fierce winter wind blowing across our path. I wore a thin pair of high-tech gloves, which until that moment had performed admirably on the many cold days I’ve spent fishing for steelhead, building snow forts, or shoveling my driveway. They were no match for a cold breeze across a field on an 18 degree day, the wind stripping away the feeling in my fingers, as my hands were exposed, wrapped around ski pole handles. The gloves were losing the battle. And each of the fingers on my right hand knew it.

I didn’t say a word, though, not wanting to be the first to admit the elements were getting the better of me. It’s a guy thing. And I realized that once an extremity like a finger gets really cold, there is no way they’ll warm back up on their own. You have to do something to warm them up. I chose to pull my fingers out of my glove’s fingers, remaining in the glove itself, and wrap them in a fist within the palm of the glove. Not an easy task as I held onto a ski pole, squeezing the handle between my thumb and newly-made fist.

The next thing to get really stinking cold was my thumb.

But the cold turned out to be only the first challenge. Once we turned deeper into the woods, the wind relented and my fingers regained their feeling. Unfortunately, turning into the woods meant turning toward the hills.

The ascent had begun.

I say ascent like it was an actual ascent. Which it was, technically, but only in that we were going up a hill. By all measures it was a tame ascent.

Somehow, when I imagined snowshoeing, I thought it would be flat – like the pictures I’ve seen of the North Pole. Now I was following two others up a steady climb with expensive tennis rackets attached to my boots.

A few minutes in and my heart was pounding; I was losing my breath and falling behind. I just kept my head down, as the other two broke the trail, and I stepped where they stepped. The hill kept going, my heart kept pounding, and they didn’t slow.

I work out a bit. Not as much as I should, nor as much as I used to, but enough to know when I’m pushing my limits. And this tame ascent up a foothill was doing it. I placed each step in the foot print left by the guys before me, digging my spikes at times into packed snow and other times into a soft, deep impression of powder.

I thought about the people who do actually push their limits to the point where they summit real mountains. Days on end of this sort of thing, with less and less oxygen, and real “climbing” interspersed.  And that would just get you to base camp. I knew I could never be one of them. Not any time soon. Likely, not ever. And I’m okay with that. I’ve got four kids, after all. Why risk it?

Yet, was I risking it now?

With my heart pounding away, short on breath, miles from an actual road, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry what could happen to a guy my age under duress like this. And I knew that if I keeled over right there in the woods of Cazenovia, on a foothill, not even John Krakauer could turn my demise into a manly sounding adventure. Maybe a short story, but not terribly manly.

My thoughts kept returning to real mountain climbers. Why do they put their lives at stake to summit such formidable peaks? I know, I know. Because it’s there. But, really why? Don’t they have kids? Or families? Or friends they’d like to sit on a beach with? Or someone they want to grow old with?

I’ve climbed a few real mountains in my day. In the Adirondacks, and in the Rockies. I know the joy of summiting, and seeing the world around you. But there was little or no risk there. Just accomplishment. I’d never truly risk death for that thrill. Even if I had the stamina. Which I clearly don’t. I just wouldn’t do it. I’ve got other responsibilities. Does that make me less of a man? Or more of one?

Leave it to me to have all these dumb thoughts on a stupid little snowshoeing climb.

This was no mountain, after all. And yet it kept going up and we kept climbing, and stepping, and breathing for what felt like a long time. When the path would level off, I’d pick up my eyes only to see more hill in front of us. It was tough. At least, it was tougher than I’d expected when I set out that day for a mid-winter adventure.

Luckily, the ascent ended before I did.

I felt more relief than thrill.

The rest of the loop trail was flat, and even downhill at times. I can do downhill snowshoeing. It’s fun. Maybe I could still make it to the North Pole someday. Maybe.

As the hike ended, we check the GPS on my brother’s fancy watch to see how far we’d traveled. Just a few miles. I thought it would say farther. You just can’t trust GPS. And at most, I figured we climbed all of about 400 vertical feet. Still, it was a solid workout, dragging tennis rackets two miles across snowy hills. And I was glad we did it.

We parted ways, agreeing to do it again soon – maybe farther, but flatter next time. And maybe closer to a road, in case something went terribly wrong.

It was a good day and a good workout. It got me out of the house, and away from our hectic world for a bit. And just when I thought my sacrifice to the snow god was complete for the day, more was demanded of me.

Driving back from my snowshoeing adventure, my car’s tires simply grew tired of holding the road. Rounding one particular corner of packed powder on a rural route in the hills outside Cazenovia, my Subaru turned sideways.

I’ve fish tailed plenty before, and know how to correct it. This time it didn’t work. The car stayed sideways, and kept right on going at the speed I’d entered the curve.

There’s a moment when you’re sliding sideways in a car that you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. And I didn’t. Had I time to think, I would have decided it cruel to let me survive the woods, only to finish me off like this. But I didn’t think that much. I just braced for impact. And it came.

Just so there’s no suspense, I am absolutely fine. Walked away. Could’ve snowshoed away, if I felt like it. The car didn’t do as well. A big tree off the road stopped our progress with conviction. I knew right then the Subaru would soon be headed for the car heap.

Apparently, anyone who willingly embarks on a snow-filled escapade on a freezing January day deserves a lesson in the true power and danger of snow and ice. Message received.

Or maybe there was another lesson there.

Maybe I won't ever make it anywhere near Everest. But I will find other adventures. It seems we have to.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lessons on Skiing from the Slog at Tog

First of all, I’d like to apologize to everyone within earshot – and eyeshot – of the beginner hill at Toggenburg Mountain on a particular Sunday a few weeks ago. We brought our family there, and we were a total mess. Sorry.
Your only consolation is to know it was harder to live than to watch.
You’ve heard the expression “herding cats.” If you attached rented skis to each cat and made it so the felines can scream and yell verbal insults at the cat handlers, you’d have a sense of what our winter adventure was like. It was supposed to be a fun family outing, but will go down in Ruddy lore as the Great Slog at Tog 2014.
While it appears he just stuck the landing,
he actually wasn't moving. Which is
exactly how we like him when on skis.
At our low point, the ten-year-old sat at the bottom of the bunny hill yelling at me because nobody with any authority was letting her go up the lift to the big hill; the 7-year-old was in a crying heap halfway down said bunny hill, unable to attach one ski due to a faulty binding; the 5-year-old was hanging on to the J-bar wire for dear life, without a parent around to help her master the art of being pulled up a hill; and the 3-year-old, with his skis off, was wandering around the crowded line of people waiting themselves to get dragged up the hill, and he was getting dangerously close to the passing Js that do the actual work of dragging.
“Somebody is going to get hurt,” an older dad said to me with concerned condescension as I scrambled to get the young boy away from the crowd and J-bar contraption.
I then sat the boy next to his screaming sister, and turned and ran in my boots up the ski hill to get the other child into her binding.
When my wife skied up to us, I said through clenched teeth, “WE HAVE TO GO.”
Luckily, no one did get hurt during our day at the hill – at least not physically. The only real casualty was the dream that we could become a skiing family.
My wife and I both like to ski. We aren’t exactly Olympic quality, but we can get down a hill. It’s a hobby we both enjoyed in our younger days.
Yet, once the kids started coming along, we had little time to ski. For a good part of the past decade, my wife’s been either very pregnant, recently pregnant, or nursing whenever the opportunity to ski came along. With our family increasingly laden with young children, skiing just hasn’t happened much in recent years.
Now that the baby of the bunch is 3 years old – meaning he’s old enough to fit into rented skis and to learn how to bomb down a hill – we’ve decided to try and make it the new family hobby. After all, we do live in Upstate New York, where I’m told it snows often. And we have several ski hills within 20 miles.
My wife also has happy visions of us going up lifts and down hills for many years to come.
There’s only one problem: Our kids can’t ski. 
It's not really their fault. They've never been – except the oldest one, who went once a few years back.
We thought we’d found our solution at the closest big hill, Toggenburg, where they offer a great “learn to ski” package: kids get lift tickets, rentals and a 2 hour lesson for about 35 bucks. We figured we could swing that. So we picked a snowy day, and set out to ski as a family.
Our brief, happy, free moment on the lift.
Actually, it wasn't "free." I've owned cars that
cost less than it took to get this shot. But we
were free from our kids ... briefly.
Our problem wasn’t with the snow, or the cold, or all the falling down. Our problem was the math: Two parents who hadn’t skied in a decade and four kids who’d never skied. If we only had two kids with us, it would have worked. But with all four, ay caramba. From the moment we were handed our rented boots until we got back to the van four hours later, it was like we were spinning plates – and doing it badly.
There was a brief time when all was perfect, when the kids were in their ski lessons, being taught by teenage ski savants how to snow plow, and my wife and I were on the lift headed up the mountain, planning to check their progress after a run or two. (We only got two runs in all day). Yes, we could do that part again.
But the part after the lessons ended, where the four screaming, falling, crying, wandering kids were ravaging the bunny hill area, tying up the J-bar line, and yelling at me because I hadn’t taken them skiing enough before, making it my fault that they can’t ski; That part, I don’t think I want to do that ever again.
For the record, there were moments of success. All the kids learned a bit about skiing, and left better skiers than they began – which wasn't hard to do. By the end of their lesson, the two oldest were more or less able to get around the bunny slope on their own, and would have done so if not for one faulty binding and a separate failing attitude. Even the 5 year old went up the J-bar and down the hill on her own once, a huge success as harrowing as it was to watch from afar. And all the kids – except the oldest – claimed to have fun.
So, as bad as it was. We'll probably try it again.    

Though, next time we go, I'm voting we get a sitter for at least half the brood. Or bring some extra hands. We have to keep the math working for us. You just can't teach skiing while running the zone defense. You need man to man.
For now, when the kids ask when we can go again, my answer is "Someday." Until then, this family is going to just stick to ice skating.

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

This Writing Thing May Yet Pay Off…

Up until now, I could tell people I’d never won a single contest, door prize or raffle of any sort. As of today, I can no longer say that.

In mid-December, the Syracuse Media Group, which operates and publishes the Post-Standard, announced the “Go See UNC” Essay Contest. All anyone had to do to enter was write a short essay – 100 to 150 words – on why they should win tickets for one of the premiere games of the season, kicking off the rivalry between ACC royalty North Carolina and ex-Big East stalwart, now-ACC newbie Syracuse.

I happened to be reading the sports scores on when the contest was announced, and promptly wrote an essay. It took me all of ten minutes.

The subject of the essay was easy to devise, because it was the truth. My wife went to UNC for undergrad. And ever since Syracuse’s move to the ACC was announced, we’d talked about trying to get tickets to this year’s first-ever Carolina v. Syracuse ACC rivalry game. With four kids and a finite income, we determined at some point in the Fall that we just couldn’t make it happen.

Then, along came the contest, and this is what I wrote:

Ours is a story of love and basketball. My wife and I met on the concourse of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School in 1997, both there to attend graduate school. That she went to UNC Chapel Hill for undergraduate was the first thing out of her mouth. A Tar Heel to the core. Our first disagreement was whether the Big East or ACC reigned supreme in college basketball. We married four years later, and in the decade since have had four kids. In that time, she’s become as much a Syracuse fan as a Carolina one. And I, too, have learned to root for UNC, when they’re not playing Syracuse. We’ve raised our kids to bleed Orange -- and Carolina Blue. Now, since the ACC vs. Big East debate was finally decided in her favor, I figure the least I could do is take her to the game.

Kind of like publishing a blog that nobody "likes" or comments on, I didn't hear a thing back for the longest time. I figured somebody else outdid me in the essay department. 

Then, this week I got an e-mail saying I was a finalist. Another email came later saying I had won. When I told my wife, she began hooting and hollering and jumping up and down. Apparently, she’d never won anything before either, and really wanted to go to this game.

Of course, there’s only one problem. 

Shortly after we found out we won, I learned that part of my essay might not be entirely accurate: The part where I say she’s become as much an Orange fan as a Carolina one. The evidence I have for this is that every time she so much as thinks of the game she chants at the top of her lungs: “UUUUU!….NNNNN!….CCCCC!....Go Heels, Go!”

It seems she still harbors more love for the Tar Heels than she’s developed for the Orange over our time here in Central New York. So, on Saturday, at a game for the ages that we never thought we’d get to go see, we will be rooting for different teams.

But, we do agree on this: We both hate Duke.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Worm Hole In My Life

I kicked my legs and, get this, nothing happened. Well, something happened, but not what I had hoped.

The leg kick was supposed to be the thrust needed to start the motion, which would lift my thighs off the ground, followed by my midsection, then my chest as my toes simultaneously returned to the floor, and it would finish in a great climax as my head and arms would raise and return to earth last, completing that famous eighties dance move known as the worm.

I ought to know, I’ve been able to do the worm since I was about 12 years old.

Thirty years later, at a particularly-raucous family holiday party, with a crowd gathered around the living room (mostly my kids), and music blaring, and people chanting stuff like, “Do the Worm, Dad!"

I kicked and nothing.

Instead of propelling my thighs skyward with enough momentum to lift my midsection off the ground, my thighs only flew up a few inches and my “midsection” stayed put. I stared ahead, waiting for the wave to reach my fingertips. It never came.  

“C’mon, Dad, you can do it,” encouraged my daughter who’s seen me do the worm countless times. All right, maybe not countless. She’s seen it about four times, but we weren’t counting.  

“Show ‘em dad!” she hollered, smiling ear to ear.

So I kicked again, even harder. Nothing. 

This is a move I’ve been able to do for the past three decades, whenever the right mix of dance and spirits collided. I’ve even busted it out at a few weddings over the years. I'm that guy.

So, I kicked again. And, just like a broke-down car unable to turnover, this time the kick was less hard.

Maybe it was something I ate? Maybe I failed to properly warm-up, not doing the sprinkler enough before daringly laying my body on the ground and attracting the attention of a living room full of awkward dancers? Or maybe I’m just getting too old to do the worm?

Not too old, as in too mature. But too old, like I physically cannot do it. 

I’ve written about getting older before. Here, here, and here.  Jeez. Maybe I have issues with getting older. It beats the alternative, I know. But it’s still hard.

They say, as you get older, time seems to move faster. I’m wondering if gravity doesn’t have an increased effect too.

I first perfected the worm in the mid-eighties, putting me likely in Junior High – back when doing the worm was first cool. (Yes it was). The worm was just part of my repertoire of popping dance moves. I was OK at this new breakdancing thing. Not great, especially at the spinning floor work. But I could pop – sort of.

I don't have a picture of myself in
parachute pants, thankfully.  This
random moonwalker will have to do.
It all crystalized for me when I watched Michael Jackson do the Moonwalk while singing "Billie Jean" on the Motown 25th anniversary show. That was March 25, 1983. I was eleven. My brothers and I watched it in our living room. That's right; I remember where I was when I first saw the moonwalk. How sad is that?
I’m not much of a Michael Jackson fan, which seems cruel to say, being that he’s dead and all. But I never was. I was just captivated by that one dance move. 

My brothers and I then tried to do it all night and for many days to come, running across the room in our socks and then turning around real quick, hoping our speed would carry us across the floor. It didn’t. At least, not with the effect we were hoping to achieve.  

After much practice, and less ill-conceived attempts, I finally figured it out how to moonwalk. I then learned the moonwalk is the gateway drug to full-on popping. Once you can moonwalk, people expect you to do more. So I learned more moves. The Wave. The Smurf. The Worm. I even had a robot move, but it was pretty weak.

In about 8th grade I went to a dance at a rival Junior High with a few friends. The dance organizers held an impromptu popping competition. I finished second. Of course, there were only two kids who had enough gumption and lacked enough sense to enter the contest. So I also finished last. 

The other guy did a really convincing robot, and when it ended, the applause-o-meter pointed his direction. For the record, he also had more friends there. Which, in itself, is a sad commentary on my life.

As I laid there, recently, on the living room floor over the holidays, with my kids hooting and hollering at me, and my body refusing to cooperate, I thought of that lost dance competition thirty some years ago. What a fitting end to my illustrious popping career. Somebody might actually have to help me up.

So, as the rest of the world marks the start of another year by setting new goals; and beginning new chapters in their lives. I’m grappling with the fact that I can no longer do the worm. 

It’s heavy. As my kids say, "Darn you, gravity!"  

And it is yet more evidence that I am getting old – like I needed that.  

Of course, I can still moonwalk.

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