Life on the level

Laughing in the face of fear doesn't mean you're not a coward
By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  November 18, 2008


Many things frighten me; snakes, clowns, mold, cats, vampires, public speaking, tiny fish . . . all terrifying to me, a grown woman who flaunts her independence but once had a panic attack while snorkeling because what can best be described as a tropical minnow brushed up against her leg.

At the tippity-top of my teetering list of irrational neurosis? Skiing, of course. The mere thought of strapping fiberglass planks onto my feet and playing Zamboni while zooming Mach 18 down a mountain towards an uncertain icy peril makes my stomach twist itself into a cowering mass. I have enough trouble keeping myself upright on slick surfaces in the wintertime, without the added stress of having to pretend I'm enjoying myself.

I did grow up in New England, raised by non-skiing parents who share my skepticism, and possibly my fears. I remember, as a kid, being confused by how happy my friends seemed to be after spending family weekends in Maine or New Hampshire, returning to school on Monday morning with chapped faces and goggle-shaped windburns. Whenever my family went to Maine, we just bought a lot of knock-off crap at outlet stores, ate lobster rolls, and got into petty fights over things like headbands and the correct way to say the word "mischievous."

"Why can't we ski?" I would ask my mom and dad, desperate to be included in this club of yuppie kids who sported brightly-colored puffy jackets with lift tickets dangling from the zippers. My own forest-green knee-length coat with the tan lining paled in comparison to the couture on these fresh-faced preteen ski bunnies. "Caitlin and Jenny and Amy all went skiing this weekend, and they said it's really fun. Can we ski?"

"What the hell do you want to ski for?" Dad would grumble. "Skiing is for chumps with too much money. Let's go sledding."

The old man did crumble, sort of. One Christmas morning, when I was about 10, my brother and I tore down the stairs to discover that Santa had brought us each a pair of skis. "Cross country," Mom said. "So you can do it right in the backyard."

Our backyard abutted conservation land, so we had access to endless forest and meadow that, in the wintertime, transformed into a gleaming wonderland, perfect for cross-country skiing. So I was told. It would take me the better part of an hour just to figure out how to snap my boots into the damned things, and by then, I was so sweaty and frustrated that, rather than hop up and glide blissfully through the snow, my cheeks rosy with excitement, I'd just lie there, skis akimbo, squealing like a pinioned pig. Never did make it into the back yard. Instead, the skis found their way into the mudroom, then, the garage, eventually serving, if I remember correctly, as giant chew toys for the dog.

I shouldn't say that I never went down a hill on skis. My close childhood friends, sisters Georgia and Whitney (both still fervid skiers) lived next door to a graveyard that was situated on a small hill, and those two imps once decided to strap me into a pair of their skis, take me by the hand, and make me "ski" down the hill over gravesites, screaming all the way. This wintry horseplay involved two things that petrified me; skiing, and dead people. More specifically, pissing off the ghosts of the dearly departed by blatantly desecrating their final resting place.

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