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Friday, December 24, 2010

Let it (gasp!) Snow.

My salute to the season must include a reflection of the white stuff because “The Holidays Thing” means only congested shops and too much food in our household.  We’re not the organized religion types but admire those who do indulge, whatever their proclivities. It also signals less light and the onset of our collective Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as S.A.D. when our family takes turns sitting in front of a light every morning to soak in rays we sadly, literally and figuratively, miss.

The diminishing light of day that comes with this season at one time in my life meant only one thing to a former paramour and I -- the attendant arrival of snow.  Our lives at that time, while others might have been building families or resume points or businesses, were consumed by our days on the slope. It commenced with short weekend trips in late fall to Stratton, Vermont; then Christmas week in Stowe, followed a late winter trip north to Canada and the season closed with an extended Spring visit out West or to Europe. On average, we spent at least 40 to 50 days a season in ski gear. While I spent many days on the slope during those years, I never became an expert skier; at best I was an emerging intermediate. 

My companion in those days approached skiing as a sport, I as a leisure time activity. This meant that for every hour we spent skiing together, we spent two skiing apart. He chose the slopes to challenge, I chose the slopes to daydream in a silence that only comes from a wide lonesome white trail surrounded by trees glistening in soft sunlight and the crisp clack of ski blades as you swayed from side to side.  It was hypnotic and peaceful and achieving a particular grace that drove me forward. 

This blissful state was like dancing alone to music only you can hear. I have had the good fortune to ski on some of the most beautiful mountains in the world under the most glorious conditions and for that I am eternally grateful.  But snow is a fickle mistress for she can change and alter her character in an instant and she is inconstant and can be cruel.

Not for the faint of heart.

The best example of her range of character was demonstrated by two remarkable experiences.  The first took place in Zermatt, Switzerland. Zermatt is a village high in the Swiss Alps at the foot of Switzerland’s highest Mountains and borders Italy.  If you take the bullet train or funicular railway followed by a gondola ride, which runs up and through the magnificent Matterhorn, you can actually ski into Italy for lunch and you need to carry your passport to get back into Switzerland.

Ya, Der Matterhorn is Incredible.
The village itself was something you might expect to see in Shirley Temple’s Heidi or imagine when reading The Snow Queen or at some imagined fabulous display from childhood at FAO Scwarz. Quaint chalet homes dot the base of the mountain, milk and food carts are wheeled around town, stores carry cuckoo clocks and watches, and the local residents speak German. When I vacationed there, the only mode of transportation was sleigh or foot. No cars or combustible engines of any sort were permitted. The old fashioned train from Bern (with two transfers) took you right into the center of this timeless village where a sleigh from the hotel loaded with blankets carried you off in style to your hotel. Today there are a few electric cars, which ferry visitors to the base of the slopes.

On this particular late morning, I had gotten completely turned around and found myself alone at the top of a double diamond trail. For the ski novitiate, that means an advanced expert trail. I was not at that point particularly thrilled by the actual ski conditions of Zermatt since it included Glacier warnings and snow that had the consistency of large pebbles made of ice. When you were a relatively flat-footed skier, (i.e. not advanced enough to consistently ski on edges) skiing down these trails was akin to riding in a little red wagon on an unpaved country road – yeah, not so much fun.  But there were stretches in wide basins of hard packed powder and the scenery was breathtaking.  Anyway, there I was alone on this expert trail marked with double diamonds because of the steep moguls, which dotted its descent. These moguls, or sharp crested hills, were taller than I and covered in ice. I inched slowly over to the tree line and noticed as I stretched my neck out precariously out and over the first cliff, were a slew of small white crosses dotting the hillside all along the tree line. Hmm. What the hell??

There was no turning back according to the map in fanny sack. This was it. So, I daintily removed my skis, hoisted them over my shoulder and spent the next two hours slipping, falling and sliding down the trail and crying and muttering under my breath in anticipation of my final life encounter with Herr Peepercorn. Herr P is a character from Thomas Mann’s, The Magic Mountain, (An amazing book requiring the patience of Job but well worth it…) the embodiment of Tragedy and Dionysian or our dark experiences of the world, both representing God and not.  For Hans, the protagonist in the novel, it is his final encounter, his choice to be healed or not. For me, what were these white crosses but markings of those who had died making this same journey as I in years past? Great, I thought, I’m going to die alone in the Alps with the miniature Nazis (the rudest little ones in the world) who spent the morning skiing across my skis while I stood on the lift lines, mocking my choice to ski on their mountain. Ju? Ya, Ju. 

As I made my way to the bottom of the trail, a fellow skier appeared and took pity on me. He picked up my skies and carried them down the trail, assisting as best he could in broken English and once safely on level ground pointed out a lovely chalet in the distance where he assured me, I could find some nice vino to calm my nerves.  I put my skies back on and skated across an ice-covered plain to one of the lovely chalet restaurants that dot the mountainside where I had some fresh pasta and half a bottle of red wine. My descent back to the village over a long bumpy uncomfortable stretch was completed in record time.  I kept my knees bent, my head tucked into my shoulders and shoulders forward. I made it to town, removed my skies, hiked back to my elegant hotel where I crawled under the down quilt in my sleigh bed in the fancy cherry paneled suite and did not move until it was time to dress for dinner. My conclusion: Only Nazis could love that mountain.

On the other hand, snow could provide a very different kind of oblivion, one that provided a state of bliss never experienced before or experienced again. It was a rare moment of self-submission when I allowed myself to trust in the unknown.  I was all-alone, skiing down a deep wide bowl in Aspen in late February. There is nothing like skiing in the West. It was a long and wide beginners trail and I just wanted to relax after a long day of challenges.  The trail was deserted in the low, late, afternoon sun, which flattened the landscape. That wonderful whoosh of my skis moving side to side against the silent gentle powder was glorious; the languid swaying side to side, like dancing. I was never a great athlete, but the forgiving nature of Western snow and the shear majesty of the trails emboldens the most timid of athletes.

Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen will spoil you for life.
All at one the sky was filled with snow.  I was unable to see even six inches in front of my nose. But rather than panic, a voice inside told me to press on.  I was experiencing my first white-out. I had been told about these experiences. It was extraordinary as each shimmering flake fell in and out of my field of vision and unending layers upon layers of magical frozen crystals fell from above, one replacing the next. It was all I could see.

There was no sound but a joy unlike any I had experienced before came from deep within.  I felt like I was being embraced in some Pantheistic rapture, smitten with a reckless abandon, sure I was safe in the fickle frozen arms of nature. It may have lasted three minutes or twenty. I don’t know, but it was a singular moment of perfect happiness. 

So, bring it on and let it snow.
And Happy Holidays to you and yours, no matter how you choose to celebrate.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Civility and Discourse

Sadly, not true for everyone. 

It’s Thursday and I’m back in a Special Ed self-contained Language Arts classroom starting my day off with three adorable ten-year-old children who struggle in varying degrees with reading.  It is fascinating to see words being read accurately but not being retained or processed, as though each had wings, which lift them off of the page once uttered. 

Recall always needs to be prompted, even when it is factual information on three or four pages with pictures and no more than four or five sentences on each page. What is it about these young minds that have inhibited their abilities to use their short-term memory skills effectively? 

There are many theories as to why particular children may suffer with this processing deficiency and there are no quick fixes. To work as a teacher with these children requires great patience, compassion and understanding.  It requires most of all, a great ability to listen.   There is little nuance, little passion in their renderings, no matter how remarkable the content.  I am saddened for their loss, for what they may never understand about words. 

Later today we will be playing a board game called FACT OR OPINION.  We have played it before.  I made a chart distinguishing the characteristics of facts from opinions to scaffold learning.  Sometimes they remember to refer to it, and sometimes not.  The children are eager to please and often call out an answer without reflecting. They are conditioned to treat learning as a competitive, as a race.  It’s hard not to fall into that trap but I try to encourage them by asking not only for their answers but their reasons as well.  This helps to slow them down to deliberate and consider. 

Is this necessary? 

I share this because I often wish our public discourse provided leaders who act as I must, who in the course of law making and breaking to consider, reflex and measure their words before they spoke instead of racing to the media microphone to be the first one to respond.  I would also like to know more about their processes of comprehension. Are they good, thorough readers?  How about their staff that must wade through the morass of legislation and paperwork and then advise their bosses?  Have they examined the facts vs. the opinions, which surround the legislation they create and uphold?  

Reading is the most difficult task we master.  It is not hard wired into our brain for our survival. There is no single part of the brain that helps us read.  We must go from learning to speak to learning to apply our language skills to a somewhat arbitrary collection of symbols for which there are more exceptions than rules.  Daunting when you think about it. 

In our home on Sundays we always try to watch The McLaughlin Group.  We used to call it The Yelling Show because this public affairs program, which has been on the air since 1982, features speakers from the left and the right with Dr. John McLaughlin in the middle.  He has a Ph.D. from Columbia, the School of Journalism, not the correspondence school of broadcasting.  He asks questions for which he has an opinion, frequently right of center and allows his panel to go at it.  It is unrehearsed and taped live and that makes for both lively conversation and frequent interruptions.   

If John feels the panelist has not adequately answered the question, he probes further acting as a kind of Socrates to his panelists, in pursuit of what he deems as truth, not necessarily reflecting his opinion per se.  His pronouncements and gravely voice and stentorian tone make for entertaining television.

His most recent participants include on the right, Pat Buchanan and Monica Crowley.  Both are also Ph.D.’s from Columbia.  Pat from the school of Journalism and Monica in International Relations.  Pat was also a presidential candidate in 1992, 1996 and 2000 in case you forgot.  He was also the Director of White House Communication for two years under Reagan and acted as an advisor to Nixon and Ford.  Monica, a Fox News Contributor and Radio Host, began her career as a young advisor to Nixon to whom she sent fan mail as a grad student.  Monica usually wears 6-inch heels and a short skirt. She is a blond and smirks.

On the left is Eleanor Clift, a contributing editor to Newsweek Magazine who covered the White House beat under Clinton as well as Hillary's run for the New York Senate.  Her first husband ( who died ) was the brother of actor Montgomery Clift -- in case any of you like your news delivered with a People Magazine Pop Culture sensibility as I frequently do. 
She worked her way up from the Secretarial pool at Newsweek, the first woman to do so and she is a good sport about the ribbing she frequently receives.  She’s the one in the sensible shoes.  

Most recently Mort Zuckerman is by her side.  Owner of the New York Daily News, Editor in Chief of US News and World Report and known for his philanthropic ways (He recently recommitted to make good the $30 million lost by investment with Mr. Madoff made by his local synagogue --  a mench one might say. ) Though sometimes The engaging Chicago columnist Clarence Page fills in on the left. 

Here’s the thing, first I’ve noticed a change in the timbre of the conversation.  It’s more civilized these days.  The panelists are more polite to one another and there’s more agreement about how to move forward.  I like it.  I need to listen to real conversations and not sound bites.  Now, I’m not suggesting that this single show is the end all.  Frequently the conversations barely scrape the surface but the platitudes and careless words seem to appear less than on other shows --even when I don’t agree and want to smack the smirk off of Monica’s face.  

Second, their two or three end of the year shows are the best conversations on Television.  John will ask for their candidates for the smartest politician or the one who went down in flames or the most original thinker of the year and always concludes with asking for predictions.  Even if you watch for the next two weekends, you’ll get the best without the mud slinging and designed for sound bite responses.  

The Death of Socrates
by Jacques Louis-David 
I hope our county’s leaders take some heed from this little weekly show.  We are in dire need of real conversation, of discussing the facts and moving away from opinion and partisan politics.  We must be able to count on our politicians to be good readers to be able to move forward into our new century with a clear vision for what might be.  

As Socrates said, 
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.” 

In other words, read.