Ski racing has been my greatest teacher, which makes me wonder how I learn. Losing was tough, but the most crushing moments were the ones at the start, when I lost before I even started -- and there were a lot of them. The clock judges a ski race, but the real judge is at the start. Can I bring the best that I have when I'm scared? Am I willing to risk embarrassment and loss of face? Can I have fun in that moment? Can I make it work for me? Can I be excited that the primal rush of chemicals surge through my body? Can I realize that I have the switch that can interpret that rush as making me more alive -- the best possible form of myself -- or alternately, the one that sneaks to the corner to vomit, looking for a way to escape. My victories at skiing -- when I won the battle before I even started were the most formative, especially since I'd lost that battle so many times.
School never prepared me for that moment. As a youngster, I was pretty good at math, and by pretty good, I mean that I kicked some major ass at math baseball in fourth grade. No one could match my speed at simple multiplication table flash cards. By senior year, the bell curve had knocked me over, though; Calculus was the one AP credit that I brought with me to college. I don't do much math anymore. Most of my days are spent writing or speaking -- communicating in some form, but I made it through most of my schooling without an idea of how best to communicate. My junior year English teacher implored me to read Orwell's essays during the summer. I read them and remember that he went to India, and that he'd been a newspaper journalist, but I missed the vehicle of writing, which I mistakenly called style at the time.
Faulkner insulted Hemingway saying: "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
I remember high school classmates saying that one English teacher preferred Hemingway style of short words and short sentences, which seemed an arbitrary choice at the time. I didn't come to appreciate or understand it until, as an adult, I read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Okay, maybe it is about style, but it's also about clarity, effectively trying to get out of the way of the message.
I never took a ski lesson, but I started racing at six, so every day was a lesson. From six on, we skied as a group, we watched each other and we interacted with the coach. I learn visually. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to talk technique and tactics, but the best thing for me is to follow someone better than me. That way my body can just follow his or her movements without forcing me to think about what I'm doing. I'm disappointed that I didn't really get a chance to follow someone when I was learning how to write or speak. Imitation is the greatest form of flattering and learning. In retrospect, that was my fault as much as that of any of my teachers, but maybe if we'd done a bit more in public, maybe I could have copied a few of my classmates, who would have been a far smaller jump than to Orwell.
Last weekend I skied with an old ski racing buddy (we realized that we hadn't skied together in almost thirty years), his wife and my wife. After so many turns on the equipment that we grew up on, my buddy was trying to reconfigure his skiing to take full advantage of the new equipment, which incidentally is far better than the old stuff. He and I talked skiing on the hill.
At one point I let slip my theory on skiing in close proximity to my wife, "Skiing is a really simple sport... if you do it well." My comment might have been a mistake. My wife has only skied about ten times in her life. Though she is surprisingly good, she'd only recently allowed me to ski with her and offer a few tips, but I wish that someone had told me that when I was learning to write and speak.
In skiing, fewer moving parts are better. One superfluous move forces you to recover from that move before you can make the next turn. When every move has a purpose there are fewer moves. A golf swing is the same. Simple is easier to repeat. The first time that I saw myself ski on video at thirteen was a traumatic moment because my vision of myself didn't match the one on the screen. I'm grateful for my public learning because it prepared me for my greatest victories -- the ones that I had before I ever stepped into the start. It's taken me a long time to figure out that simple is the goal. Maybe now that I know it, I can win at the start by knowing where I want to go. Thanks also to you for reading. You've made my efforts public.