When babies learn to walk, they fall often and laugh. They laugh because they understand instinctively that their falls are middle points in their adventure toward being upright humans. This period is the most exciting for a baby, because it promises freedom and independence of a real sort. Unfortunately once the baby has learned to walk and fully master his/her gait, then s/he forgets the entire process, which is indeed the most important lesson in human development. So much of what humans need philosophically to develop into really capable adults is found in the lessons learned during learning to walk.
And so with a bit of pain on my right hip and muscle aches all-over, I joyfully share with you the lessons learned during my skiing adventure in Oberwiesenthal, on the German-Czech border.
The last time I went skiing was 27 years ago, when I was still in high school. My school organized a yearly skiing trip and I took part all three years I was there. By the third time I was able to ski the intermediate slope in Mount Vernon, New Jersey without falling. I attribute that to youth and the fact that I was very athletically involved back then with soccer, baseball, tennis especially. 27 years later I had hoped that my experience from 27 years ago might have been saved in my nervous system’s hard drive and I would be able to go down the slope again with minimal difficulty. For some reason, my hosts also had the idea that I was an experienced skier. I made it very clear, and so Marius, the 13-year old son of the family accompanied me to what they called Die blaue Piste. Well a so-called blue slope is for beginners with some experience, which I have very little of…But before we continue, let me begin at the beginning of the adventure!
Of course, not having skied in Europe before and not having skied in 27 years, I forgot the whole ski gear thing, and assumed I could rent everything. Lucky enough for me but very unfortunate for her, Kati, the mother of my host family had gotten hurt a bit when she accidentally skied through a half-pipe meant for freestyle skiers and snowboarders. When she came flying out of the halfpipe and landed (thankfully safely) she had no sense of her surroundings and ended up being braked by a flagpole. In any case she was out for the rest of the weekend, when I showed up, after having slipped climbing the bus to the sky resort (not a good sign)! So I had ski pants! I figured I would do fine with my artificial fur coat if I wore three layers underneath. That seemed to have worked (mostly) and my insulated street gloves for the most part seemed like they would do the trick! So I went to the ski shop and rented skis and boots. Well, I was sweating heavily after the 15 minutes it took to get into those astronaut boots. They were so heavy I thought I was about to get on the space-shuttle for a moonwalk. Anyway, now I had gear!
Martin, the wonderful man of the family, got our lift tickets and I was off to my adventure. The first trek to the blue slope meant a chair lift. It did not seem too difficult! I watched three people at a time get in position as the chair came behind them. As I got closer I noticed there was a miniature slope that one had to slide down to get to the platform of the chair lift. There was also a traffic light that flickered between red and green to signal when each group of three had to slide down the little slope. Off I went with Marius, my 13-year old companion-guide and we slid down. I wobbled a bit when I hit the landing but I managed to stay on my feet and sat on the coming chair-lift. “Easy enough”, I felt! The ride up the slope felt vaguely familiar and then I arrived on top. I put my skis to the snow and stood up. I then slid a couple of meters and was immediately down on my right side. I could not believe how little balance I had!
Marius came and helped me up. That was an adventure unto itself. It looked like one of those comedy routines by Abbott and Costello. I don’t know how long it took me before I was up on my feet/skis again. I got a terrible panic when I saw how steep the slope was. I don’t remember ever skiing so steep a slope voluntarily except for when my high school buddies enticed me to ski down an expert slope when I thought I would surely die. I survived that one, but was not sure I wanted to voluntarily take that chance at 45 years of age. Hatians have a saying: Zo gran moun pa pran (more or less, adult bones do not heal)! That crossed my mind more than once. Well my wonderful and patient 13-year old teacher-guide convinced me I could do it and so I turned my skis downward against the mountain and started down the mountain. It seemed as if I went from 0 to 60 miles and hour (90 Km/h) in two seconds, then my rigidly stiff body went straight forward in front of my skis and I ate a mouthful of snow. Marius tried to explain to me the concept of skiing in quasi figure-8 curves, perpendicular to the slope, but my mind was elsewhere. And so it took about one hour and about 40 falls to ski down a slope that takes everyone else about 5 minutes. When I finally got down, I was happy that I made it to some semblance of terra ferma, when I slipped one more time as I was getting in line for the crotch-lift (that is what I call the damn thing)! Martin, sweet Martin (the dad of my host family) had a good laugh at my expense, knowing the extreme humility that I felt, saying: “you should see the state you are in, Maestro”! I could not help but laugh with him! He helped me up for the next phase of my terrific adventure.
So there we were in line for the crotch-lift. It seemed easy enough, watching the people before me. Grab the tow–lift as it comes from behind and stick it between your legs! It then pulls you up the slope. Looked simple enough! The nice Czech gentleman operating the mechanism saw me slip as I approached the mechanism and muttered something in a heavily Czech-accented German and signaled me to approach. He grabbed the lift as it approached and helped me adjust it between my legs. A sudden jerk made my heart almost come out of my mouth and I felt myself dragged upward. My instinct was to sit, which took my skies off-line and I found myself suddenly on my ass again in the embankment on the side of the slope, being dragged ungracefully upward as I imagined many laughing onlookers enjoying my comedy routine. Martin abandoned his lift and came to my side and helped me up. I felt badly! They did not come here to babysit me, but to enjoy a day of skiing. And it was the last day because we would return early due to Kati’s little accident. She could not move well and we were not sure if everything was OK (she is recovering very well, so you don’t worry). I therefore told Martin I would wait by the lift and he should go and enjoying skiing. That wonderful, sweet man looked me in the eyes and said: “we should not quit after a setback but rather after a victory!” He was preaching my own philosophy to me (or his, which coincided with mine)! We headed back to the lift and this time I stayed on my skis and made it up the hill. But of course I removed the lift from between my legs a little too early and did not make it over the little bump at the top of the slope. So my skis slid backwards and I was eating snow again.
Martin was right there to help me up. Then he instructed me to hold on to the tip ends of both of his ski-poles as I ski down the slope in a snow-plow! He would ski behind me holding the other ends of the poles to help me keep my balance. I made it down the hill without falling, but Martin told me that I had no control of my left ski because I went down the entire time leaning on my left. We went up again and this time concentrated on standing up straight on my skis with my knees just barely bent. I had better balance! We went up a third time and this time we tried to concentrate on shifting my body-weight to help bring the skis on their edges so to facilitage a curve. We fell once but I got the idea. I decided on a pause and so we went up one last time so we could come down to the little lodge where I could go in, warm-up again and have a warm drink. This time I mastered my balance and used the principle Martin taught me of leaning on the edges to turn. I was able to go from one side of the slope, turn and go to the other side. I felt my skis slow down each time I got to the edges, and Martin behind me kept instructing to go all the way to the edge on each side. I was able to do that all the way to the lodge and came to a clean stop. I decided on a half-hour break while Martin and the three young boys went up the hill to enjoy some uninterrupted fun. What I just experienced was enough of a victory for one day. Even though Martin would be back in a half-hour, I had no illusion of being able to go down the slope alone. I was happy enough to break my sugar-restriction (my homeopath feels I should avoid sugar-cane and milk products) and ordered a hot chocolate. I figured this was an emergency as I felt that my gloves and three layers did not keep the snow from turning my hands to useemly colors.
After a half hour that seemed closer to an hour, Marius, my very patient and unusually empathic 13-year old junior teacher came to keep me company. We shared some French Fries (pomme frites) and talked about blondes (his current love interest is blonde). It was a touching moment and I thought about my son, Christopher, with whom I would love to have such a moment. Martin came back soon after and invited me up to the high slope. I was done with skiing for the day and declined politely and said he should go and enjoy the slopes and I would meet him at the street after he was done. Marius decided to stay behind with me. Just when Martin left, Marius informed me that we still had time for at least one more run down the shorter slopes where Martin had been instructing me. I was not in the mood, but it is not possible to resist the extreme blue of this sweet young boy’s eyes. His smile was full of excitement and we had bonded in a way. I figured one more series of falls will not hurt my pride any more than it had. We skied down from the lodge to the crotch-lift and low and behold I made it down without falling. It must have been a good minute on my skis and I did not fall. I curved side to side on the slope as Martin had instructed while holding me up with the ski-poles. I was like a baby who took a few steps for the first time. Now I was excited to get back up the slope.
We went to the lift and in my excitement, I misjudged the strong first pull and ended up at the side of the embankment again. “Scheiße”, the German expletive shouted out of my mouth like the yelp of a dog experiencing sudden pain! I was not expecting this setback. Marius, like Martin before, abandoned his lift and came to my rescue. He helped me up and we got back on the lift. This time I stayed securely on, but as I grabbed the pole, my cloth gloves (not made for skying) stuck to it. It looked like toffee as I pulled each finger away from the iced-up metal pole. I had thoughts of the Jim Carrey-Jeff Daniels movie, Dumb and Dumber, in which two bona fide idiots stuck their tongue to the base of a frozen ski-lift tower. But then I banished those negative thoughts and concentrated on the jubilation from a few minutes before when I made it down to the lift from the lodge. We arrived at the top and I misjudged the release of the lift again and brushed the snow with my lips, but did not eat any this time. Marius cheered me on as I got up. I fell a few times on the way down but Martin’s teaching was definitely catching on.
Those falls were not so terrible. They hurt a bit since I was already sore from my earlier 40 falls, but toward the end, I was able to go from one side of the slope to the next and made it down again from where the lodge was all the way back to the lift. As we approached the lift one more time, it was nearing 4:00 pm and the attendant told us it was the last time we could go up. The crotch-lift was no longer a problem. I wanted to make it down that hill and finish my day with a solid victory. This time I judged the release correctly and glided to the edge gracefully. I was about to go down when Marius pulled out his pocket camera and said: “Ich nehme auf dieses mal!” (I am filming this time)! Don’t put a camera to a tenor’s face. No way I was going to fall this time.
I began my glide down beautifully. I headed left to the edge of the slope and began my right turn. But for some reason the right turn always felt precarious. I made the curve too tightly and fell sharply on my righ shoulder. It stung (That is the fall above)! But I was determined. I got up, took my ski-hat back, brushed myself up and turned my skis downslope. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I figure a film is worth a million…(Thanks Marius for filming this!)
So the lesson is obvious, right? My ski adventure reminded me what it might have felt like to learn to walk as a baby. I love babies! They have so much potential because they approach life in such a pure manner. I began the day in Oberwiesenthal as an adult and part-way through the day I regained the innocent, adventurous childlike abandon that produced my success!
In truth, my journey from baritone to tenor has been very much like that. There comes a point when you just give in to something very insecure. It is there that the field of pure potentiality begins (I think I am quoting Deepak Chopra! Definitely time to finish this story!). So much is possible when there is no expectation. Only discovery and the joy that comes with surprising rewards!
If you have never skied, dear Reader, I recommend it highly because it will take you to the edge of insecurity, but just as we try to provide in our Kashu-do (歌手道) studios, it is important to be in a situation that guarantees as much of a safe environment as possible (Kati’s halfpipe flying flagpole routine, aside). So make sure you go to a safe establishment and I hope you find a team of teachers like Martin and Marius.
A better team is not to be found!