We are five: Dad, Mom, daughter, son, son’s friend. The kids have reached the age where they would rather be boiled in oil than be seen in company with their parents, so on this ski lift, with seats three across, all three of them pile into the chair ahead of us, leaving Mr. and Mrs. Straggler to take in a single.
The single is a young lady of six or seven, wearing a pink ski suit and a helmet with one of those 1960s slightly-weird flower designs. Her name, she tells us, is Katy. I explain to Katy that I am an occasional and incompetent skier, liable to take a fall when disembarking from the first ski lift of the day, so she should steer away from me. Katy bestows a withering glance on my ski poles (she, of course, having none). “I never fall,” she announces, with that invincible self-possession that peaks at around Katy’s age and declines through life thereafter.
In the event I disembark smoothly, and commence a day of skiing. The skill quickly comes back, though it’s been a year since our last family ski trip. Skiing is one of those pastimes — like ten-pin bowling or skeet shooting, but unlike swimming or tennis — that is pleasurable even at a low level of ability. A sedentary and ill-coordinated person, I can ski for pleasure, but swim only for survival.
The late founder of this magazine skied for close to half a century, and of course wrote eloquently about it. One of the first columns of his that I read — it dates from November 1975 — was in praise of the book We Learned to Ski, by Harold Evans et al. I was not a skier at the time and had no interest in the subject, but could not resist the Master’s prose, nor help admiring a man who had already been skiing for twenty-one years yet was still a keen reader of skiing textbooks. (Of those prior to the Evans book, Bill had no high opinion: “What is … ignored in textbooks on skiing is usable material on how to ski …”) I have never read a ski book nor taken a lesson. I suppose I should do the one or the other, or both, but it hardly seems worthwhile for such occasional outings. And then, something about old dogs and new tricks.
Our family ski trips are, like the rest of our lives, conducted on a modest suburban scale. A friend boasts of having been helicoptered to the summit of a peak in the Andes, to ski down for hours through long miles of virgin powder. I have no such boasts. These busy northeastern resorts are all I know, and I am happy with them. The ingenuity and efficiency with which they cater to time-starved suburbanites is comforting evidence that a civilized mass society is possible. I get the same consolation from supermarkets, which I can walk around happily for hours, and courts of law, and the cheery clamor of events at my kids’ schools.
Having skimped on my preparatory exercises in the weeks before our trip, my leg muscles are protesting uncomfortably by late afternoon. The kids have long since gone to explore the further trails — the ones furthest from Dad and Mom, that is. I apologize to Mrs. Straggler and head for the dining hall, to settle with a book and a cup of hot chocolate.
The place is half empty, the lunchtime crowd long gone. I select one of the less messy tables and take out my book. It is Lionel Tiger’s Optimism: The Biology of Hope:
How does one develop, on one hand, a healthy skepticism about the possible outcome of events and, on the other, an openness to what Peter Berger has called a “rumor of angels”?
A young woman comes to wipe my table. Her name tag bears a common Hungarian surname. Guessing she is an H-2B (that is, bearer of a seasonal guest worker visa) I offer her a greeting in that language, of which I know a few tourist’s phrases. She is delighted, and favors me with a stream of animated Hungarian. Of course I can’t understand a word.
We switch to English. She is indeed an H-2B, a student from Transylvania. I passed through that region once, a couple of decades before Miss Nagy was born, and we trade Transylvanian reminiscences till she is called back to the serving counter. For a while I sit there sunk in memories of my Wanderjahre while savoring the glow that a man — any man, even an incurably married old guy — gets from the attentions, however brief and accidental, of a pretty young woman. Do they have skiing in the Carpathians nowadays, I wonder? I forgot to ask. Back to my book.
An hour later, sufficiently recuperated, I go back out to find my family. It is dark now. Only two trails are floodlit, the others have closed. There are few skiers, and I soon spot my wife, the only one on her trail. Why don’t people like night skiing? I find it magical.
Husband and wife ski together under the crystalline Catskills sky. I indulge myself in fantasies of being a Finnish defender in the Winter War of 1939-40, when peasants on wooden skis fought Stalin’s army to a draw. (“We have won just enough land to bury our dead,” muttered a Soviet commander at the war’s end.)
Later, heading back home, we pull into a McDonald’s for supper. An eclipse of the moon has begun as advertised, so we stop in the parking lot to watch it. I make my customary joke about how a great dog is eating the moon, and we should bang pots and pans and let off firecrackers to scare it away. Mrs Straggler, who takes this as demeaning to her native land, clicks her tongue in annoyance. The kids grimace at the staleness of parent humor.
The great shadow advances. We watch in silence for a minute or two, even the kids. The outcome of this event, at least, is not in doubt, is foreordained by huge mathematical equations, leaving no room for skepticism. After some interval precisely known to those who know, the shadow will pass, and all will be well, all will be as before. A rumor of angels.