Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pits and Peaks

Reader warning: It seems prudent for me to mention, before you start reading, that Bill has completely approved the following message.

Diesel Liesel let us down once again. Once bitten, twice shy, you would think; but apparently when we go somewhere new, she still can surprise us with her shattering betrayals. This weekend, as we were on our way to go skiing in the Alps, she set us off on a literal road to nowhere, with promises of happy endings just around every corner. But around the last corner, fewer than 20 kilometers from Pra-Loup, was a road marked "Fermé."

This just proves yet once again that when you're dealing with a German, you'd do well to listen to Reagan's dictum: "Trust, but verify."

You can blame Liesel, I suppose, but I really could only blame me. And, at least a little bit, the recently fired navigator, Bill. I had driven her straight into a mountain pass in the Alps, past literally thirty different signs that might have suggested this was a bad idea. Before we started following Liesel, Bill had been navigating with his usual fair-minded approach: "You could go this way, sure. But you could also go this other way." If I started querying him about his reasoning for one way, the other, or either, he would then come up with yet another possible route.

Relentlessly positive, eager to pretend anything can work, and willing to consider literally any possibility, Bill makes a great adventurer, but a crummy navigator. He finds it impossible to decide among a wild goose chase, a flight of fancy, and an actual road that might lead somewhere in a reasonable amount of time.

(In that spirit: here's a fun game for you folks out there in Internet-world: go below to the comments section, and post your favorite story of the time Bill's enthusiasm nearly got you killed -- either in the wilderness, or even on a walk to the supermarket. I'll just give you a few suggestions to get you started: Thunderstorm on the top of Mt. Washington? Senior Week Snowstorm in the Whites? Hypothermia in the Smokies?)

Being somebody who really likes clear answers to practical questions, I quickly became frustrated by his diffident, all-roads-probably-lead-pretty-much-to-Rome-eventually approach. So I decided to fire him as navigator, and follow instead the most certain-sounding voice in the car. Liesel's.

To be honest, Bill seemed just as happy as I was to have someone decide on a route. So as we drove on and on, our desire to follow the car's lead would outweigh anything as rational as our attending to French road signs.

If you've ever driven in France, you know that their signs don't trifle. In general, French people don't get all overcautious about driving. So if there is a sign posted advising you not to take a turn at any speed above 70 kph, that's probably literally the fastest even Mario Andretti would take it. We also particularly enjoy the French falling rocks signs, usually found next to piles of actual fallen rocks.

But we ignored them all, and tuned in instead to Liesel's counsel. We drove deeper and deeper into the only bleak-looking area of the entire Alpine wonderland; it looked like the place Heidi might have moved had she been kicked out of her cozy bucolic farmhouse and taken up residence in a Tyrolean Motorhome Park, right next to a guy who makes his living boiling up crystal meth from decongestant.

Some of the signs we passed indicated "Verglass Frequent," which means that the road gets icy a lot. As we drove higher and higher into the mountains, these signs multiplied, then their multiples had little frozen babies. The temperature was hovering between 1.5 and 4 degrees Celcius, prime icemaking conditions, but we hadn't yet slid off any of the cliffs. Yet.

Then one sign remarked, strangely, "Do not attempt to drive this road without special equipment." We wondered aloud whether Liesel possessed such equipment, but pressed on, undeterred. We then even ignored the lit-up ones warning that two passes were closed. We were momentarily confused, but then we were cheered by all the cars, even buses zooming at us from the other direction; certainly the closed passes couldn't be on our road, we reasoned, if all those cars kept coming from somewhere else. So we went forward, heedless of all warnings, until it was impossible to continue to do so. Until the whole damn road was "Fermé." Covered over in snow.

There is some sort of life lesson buried here, but I'm still trying to decipher it. Fill me in if you figure it out first. Below, I'll take just a few stabs at the truth.

As generations of our much more sensible ancestors might point out to us, (if they were still alive, of course, and spoke English) it's completely pathetic that we rely on our car to tell us how to get places. A number of our Swiss and/or German ancestors knew a thing or two about mountain passes in the Alps, but apparently we have lost their Gnostic mountain knowledge, and must learn everything ourselves through trial and error. On days like this, it's clear to me that Bill and I sometimes just straight up copeless as a couple. Everything that should be easy becomes somehow impossible for us to achieve.

If you happen to live inside Bill's head, you might see any of our perceived difficulties with practical matters simply as my over-reactions to the necessary messiness of living. Inside Bill's head, there are mountains to reach, dammit, and no amount of difficulty, stress, or human suffering can get in the way of his noble quest to their heights.

Living, as I do, in my own head, I tend to see our copelessness as his fault, at least at first. Eventually I come round to seeing everything as my fault as well, but perhaps only for marrying his sweet self in the first place.

If there were some third, uninterested party somehow involved in every stupid detail of our marriage who could referee this issue, perhaps we could get to the bottom of things. Unfortunately for the truth, but fortunately for us, this is not the case. As anybody who knows us would attest, there is no way either of us could handle the truth. Our heads might explode.

As is the case in every other marriage I have ever known, no matter how deep the love that binds the parties together, each person is locked in his or her own perspective. Perhaps the most perfect of partners learn eventually to read one another's minds, and never suffer the inevitable disappointments and misunderstandings to which the rest of us fall prey. But I am quite certain that we are not the only couple who -- while still remaining deeply in love -- also remain completely opaque to one another on at least a few key issues.

Oddly enough for a couple who has chosen to spend an entire year traveling overseas, travel is one of our (few?) key issues. If you weren't me, you would think that it would be fairly simple to make a hotel reservation then go skiing in the French Alps for the weekend. Or at least if that doesn't seem simple, it might seem romantic, or cool in some way.

When you hear the phrase "Station du Ski," perhaps you picture a dashingly thin French person shusshing down a mountainside in a cleverly belted one-piece snowsuit. He or she may not be smoking at the time, but has just finished doing so, or is just about to light up. A carafe of wine has been consumed by this rakish figure at lunch, and another carafe or three will disappear at dinner. There will be a romantic assignation at some point, perhaps over a hot fire or a pot of fondue. The skier may not do anything as obvious as, say, smiling to indicate the massive pleasure being taken in the holiday. But pleasure will be taken nonetheless.

Skiing in the French Alps was not to be so, at least for us. At least for me. Apparently when Bill and I take a little weekend family ski vacation, we first drive three hours north, then come to the end of a road (a mountain pass, closed because of meters and meters of snow blocking it) and then go back the way we came. Then we drive way, way west, before driving north again.

On our trip, there is a fair amount of nasty bickering (and not just in the backseat) and a few roadside potty stops, without actual potties. Our wrong turn makes the trip take five hours, and I forgot the snacks, so we all get insanely hungry before arriving at the hotel we booked, which seems to be located at the wrong end of the resort. We eat decent pizza and lukewarm lasagna for dinner at the restaurant that nobody else is so foolish to chose, while "The Simpsons" plays, dubbed in French, on a television hanging from the ceiling.

On our trip, rather than all the romance and the mystery, there is only drama about driving the last few meters of the road, which really was verglass, and which Liesel found quite challenging. Then the anti-drama of parking, and unpacking everything in the places where I will be able to find it later, when somebody whines, "Mom, where's my hat /underpants /American Girl book /water/ toothbrush/ backpack/ snood?"

At night, the heat is turned up so high that none of us can breathe, much less sleep, and Abigail has an awful nightmare about her parents turning into murderous mice and attacking her. She wakes me up and spends the rest of the night clinging to my neck, trying her damndest not to go back to sleep. She certainly was effective in preventing me from doing so.

All this, and we haven't yet rented skiis.

I'm writing about our ski trip here, and all the minor perils that befell us on our way. In retrospect, all this can be narrated in such a way that it might sound funny to those of you who weren't there. Who weren't living in either of our heads. And weren't so unlucky to be our children.

But really what I want to write about is how Bill has a really hard time putting up with me in January. To tell the truth, I can barely put up with myself. My January grouchiness makes all the usual issues (planning, travel, practicalities, transitions, and the rest of it, which we don't do so easily in the best of circumstances) suddenly a whole lot more challenging. For both of us. And since we are now each other's only daily companions…. Well, perhaps you get the picture.

For years now, I've fallen into a pit -- sometimes a great big one, sometimes just a little roadside dip -- every winter. Just after the holidays (which always seem to me, to come way too soon) and until the middle of March, I moon about, I want to be asleep more than I want to be awake, and I am irritable and impossible to please, even beyond my usual baseline level of cranky. The first few years this would surprise me every time. By now, it's just wallpaper. Really really awful wallpaper, sometimes even the yellow kind you end up wanting to tear off the wall.

They call this little pit a seasonal depression, and I know all the usual tricks to heave myself back out of the depths. (No need to fill me in in the comments section about Prozac or light therapy or the like; save it for good stories about dangerous things Bill has done.) But when you're inside one of these things, it's difficult to look up at the world and imagine that it's the same friendly place it was when you were back on solid ground. It doesn't matter how quickly you recognize what is going on, or how quickly you intellectualize it all. From the bottom of a pit that your brain makes for you to sit in for awhile, it's easier to believe that it is the world, rather than you, that is all wrong.

To best illustrate how I feel these days: when I see French people I don't know, with their habitually frowny-faces, they suddenly seem accurate, rather than ridiculous.

A better person -- by which I mean a person not viewing life from the vantage point of her little pit -- might really have enjoyed a nice trip to the Alps with her family. As it was, I was a little too gripped with my bizarrely amped-up variety of fears and irritations. When it snowed on Sunday morning, I was afraid to drive the car. Even when I pumped the brakes like crazy, Liesel continued to slide, and slide, and slide down the hill next to the hotel. Anticipating the many, many hills I would have to descend, then ascend (precious few of them equipped with anything like a guard rail) I froze and even cried. Suddenly, this all seemed like a huge disaster, and everybody else's fault. And since Bill was the human being sitting closest to me, it seemed particularly to be his.

(Of course, if you know Bill, it really sort of was. A more reasonable person might have seen that I was not in any shape to be driving around the mountains, and found me a nice cozy place to spend the next two months. But when it comes to Bill and mountains, there is nothing he will not do to get closer to their tops.

He simply can't pass by a mountain range without developing an insane desire to get to the top of one, regardless of the cost and regardless of what anyone else wants. I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't been in the car when we got to that road that was "Fermé," he would have tried just to drive through the snowy pass. If the kids hadn't been there, he probably would have just have pulled the suitcases out and tried to walk it.)

All the French drivers zipped around me up and down the hills, the back ends of their cars nonchalantly slipping out to the sides. I suddenly hated them all. Bill tried to talk "reason," but it was quite clear to me (from my view down there in the pit) that all he wanted to do was to get to the mountain so that he could find other ways to endanger our children.

Like skiing, for example, or gondolas or pommel lifts or trails that led down to a huge variety of places for them to get lost or fly off cliffs. This cruel man wanted to take my only two children skiing, for god's sake. Once I got where we were going, I was so tense and angry I was sort of out of my mind. I finally pulled the car into an open space (free of cars, but full of slippery snow) and put down my head and sobbed.

This is what I believe is called, in parenting, "setting a really great example" for one's children. The only upside was that for once, instead of sitting there like bumps on a log, they couldn't wait to get out of the car. Terrified -- presumably of me -- they even made the unprecedented offer to carry their own stuff.

Truth be told, I had really only come with them, rather than staying back in the hot hotel room to read, because I had imagined that the resort would have a big lodge with a roaring fire. After helping to get them to the mountain, with their skiis on, I could pull off my wet boots and stick my toes up on a plush ottoman and read my new book all morning. Bill said he would ski with both girls and then we could meet up for lunch, after which I could go back to my reading. This imaginary day sounded sort of like heaven for somebody who needed a little solitude to clear her head, and to stop being asked to find other people's mittens.

As it turned out, the area where I ended up was more like an outdoor mall than a lodge. No fires, no big open room to sit in, no anonymous nowhere to sit. You could go into a café, certainly, and set up shop, but for some reason I didn't feel right about taking up a table for three hours. We discovered much later that the lodge was actually halfway up the mountain -- and had I clued into this fact, I could have purchased a "walker" pass, ridden the gondola up, and sat in a heated solarium overlooking the lift all day long. Which is what the other (non-crazy) non-skiing French mothers would do.

In the U.S. we have always called the sorts of people who provide elaborate forms of assistance at ski resorts "Lodge Moms," which we pronounced with a harsh Long Island accent as "Laaahdge Maaahms." Lodge Moms exist solely as life-support for their skiing children and husbands. They make little sandwiches, they buckle a variety of buckles and keep all the stuff together, and sit and read a romance novel in the short intervals between which they are needed. They sit around in their Mom Jeans (high waist, bigger in the thigh than in the calf) and their fair-isle sweaters and make themselves useful. They are the winter equivalent of Soccer Moms, only more wealthy. I have never aspired to be a Lodge Mom, and we have always made ruthless fun of them. If you are a Lodge Mom, and offended by this description of the way you spend your miserable Saturdays, I can't even apologize. I am so not sorry.

Probably in France, the mothers sitting in the lodges (far up the hills) were much more well-dressed. They certainly weren't sitting there waiting to be needed, but rather were enjoying a nice smoke and a snifter of brandy with their morning coffees.

But for me, the displaced super-grouchy American weirdo? I spent the day as a sort of pissed-off Lodge Mom without a Lodge. I just hovered off to the side and watched the kids zip up and down the little bunny slope. The temperature was just above zero, with no wind at all down at the bottom of the hill, so it didn't feel cold. I found ways to make myself useful -- mainly fetching gloves and holding extra layers and zipping up people and carrying skis. Later in the morning, I found an empty chair outside and sat for an hour or so with my cup of coffee, then I brought them all a tablet of chocolate to share. When I got there, they didn't want any.

One of my family-of-origin's unofficial mottos might be this: if you can't be happy, you might as well be useful. So while I hadn't been able to cobble together much of a day for myself, I threw myself into the project of being a decent Sherpa for the away team.

Sherpa, I said. I was so not a Lodge Mom.

In the afternoon, driven ostensibly by his desire to get Grace on a more challenging trail, but more accurately by his craving for greater and greater heights, Bill took Gracie up the big lift to the white fields far above the treeline. This made me incredibly nervous, since the green trails looked a whol lot harder than anything Grace had skiied in the past, and there was no all-green path leading down from the top. I also was pretty sure that if he turned his head for a minute, he would lose her. Based on some of his experiences on the unmarked tops of mountains, (some of you may recall his Getting Lost in the Rahwahs Story, Summer 1989) I had no real faith that he would not in fact lose himself. They ignored my stupid anxiety the best they could, and went anyway.

Thinking presumably of the corollary to my self-abnegation, they made a great call. If they weren't going to be useful, at least they could have fun.

I stood in my now-sopping boots and watched Abigail take endless runs up and down the pommel lift, then down the slope-that-was-barely-a-slope. She appeared to love this activity, and never lost her enthusiasm for it the whole day. She cheerfully ignored my suggestions -- both that she learn to grab for the lift herself (rather than stand like a sheep and be helped on by the attendant) and that she try the slightly longer lift to the slightly slope-ier slope. Nothing doing. She was the only kid who spent the entire day on that lift, happy as a clam, just doing her little thing over and over and over.

When Bill and Grace came back, he had her totally exhausted, and himself completely exhilarated. He was so high, in fact, that I pressed him to go off and ski by himself for the rest of the afternoon. Resigned to my chosen role as Sherpa, I would drive and fetch and watch and make myself useful. He hesitated for the usual length of time, perhaps realizing that if he ditched me with the kids, he would only have to pay later on. (Bill is gradually wising up to my winter-depression antics.) But the call of the mountain was too strong. Neither wind nor rain nor threat of massive lightning storms, avalanches or potential civil unrest will keep Bill from his appointed rounds at the tops of tall mountains.

We made a plan, and he was off, while I stayed firmly planted in my own little grouchy ditch. Not for the first time, the surrounding geography perfectly matched our own emotional landscape. Bill flying high through crystal white Elysian fields. Me with my soggy socks, standing there weighed down by everybody's extra coats.

Splitting up proved to be a good idea for everyone involved. For instead of stupidly battling it out over which parent could be the most self-sacrificing, we could just focus on one thing at a time. For me, this was watching the girls zip up and down the hill. For Bill, it was to ride a variety of particularly steep and (actually) dangerous lifts, schusshing through endless powder and acting for all the world like that dashing French person of your imagination. His favorite lift was completely covered in warning signs, and yanked him straight up a particularly vertiginous cliff at a 60° grade.

Only much later, after we had driven home and had it out with one another, did he tell me this funny story about the final adventure of his afternoon. To spare me another drive to pick him up, he volunteered to hike home across a path set aside for that purpose. Of course he represented this as though he were making a big sacrifice for the family, but anybody who knows Bill will realize that he was really just scheming a way to spend more time communing with the hills.

He started off across a gorgeous Alpine headwall back to the hotel. He left in the early evening, which could be construed as somewhat dangerous. The first sign he saw said "Run Fast," and he panicked immediately, due to our previous experience with road signs. He did in fact start to run, thinking how much it would suck if he proved my anxious worrying right by dying in an avalanche. The next sign he saw, however, said "Touch Your Toes Ten Times." He then immediately realized that his pristinely adventurous hike was just one of those dorky European excer-paths you find everywhere here.

I waited there at the Bunny Hill until the kids were both exhausted. I sherped all their stuff for them, then took them back to the hotel to check out the indoor pool. They liked it, but got a little chilly; it was of course just my luck that the jaccuzi tub was, like the mountain pass, Fermé. We went back to our overheated room, where I sat on the bed and read Prince Caspian to them while they took turns lolling around in a hot bath.

There was, that night, a very cheery dinner, at which everybody ordered something delicious, and Bill got to have the fondue of his 1970's skiing memories. The girls were funny and adorable, and finished their dinners without an argument. I had wicked bad hat-head, and Bill cauterized part of his lip on the fondue skewer, but other than that, the evening was both safe and fun, all at the same time.

We slept late the next day, then drove home along the same roads that had so terrorized me on our trip up, two nights before in the gathering dark. We decided to tell Liesel to shut up, thank you very much, and followed our own wits to get home. The car's thermometer registered just a few degrees below zero, and there were still plenty of those damn verglass signs and little piles of fallen rock, but for some reason, the road home always feel safer to me than any road into the wild.

The kids sat quietly in the backseat for once, either tired out from all the skiing and swimming, or perhaps merely pacified by a few cans of Pringles. Bill and I weren't really talking either. I was still angry about the way that his mountain lust had pushed aside everything in its way. I had been just one more obstacle he had to blast through to get to the top. He -- having finally gotten his way with those luscious powdery hills -- was irritated with me for being such a giant wet blanket, and thus making him feel guilty about his conquest. Weren't we the pair.

On the way home, we drove along the shoulders of the mountains. On the open, sunny sides, we were blasted with full sun like you couldn't believe. This is going to sound ridiculous, but the snow in the fields literally glittered, like diamonds. But then, as we zoomed into the dark side behind each mountain, we were plunged into a deep, unrelenting shadow.

The sunshine was so bright, the sky so very blue. But each time we went back into the shadow, it was as if the sun had never before risen.

This is what it's like to be married sometimes. You find yourself constantly connected to somebody so deeply familiar, but so very different from yourself. You can be there, one minute, in your own bright reality, then dragged just as suddenly into somebody else's dark shadow. Or, you might be enjoying your quiet little patch of darkness, and then find yourself yanked blinkingly into an unfamiliar sky, one far too bright. You want so badly to be together, but there is no middle ground to be found.

I hate to wish away a single day of this year. A year we have set aside for our marriage, for our family, for the mountains and the sunshine. And even to fully feel the weight of the shadows.

But standing down here, in the pit of this year's January, I feel like February still can't come a day too soon.


  1. Lovelovelovelovelove. When I was a kid, June--between school and camp--was the hardest for me. Year after year. But February will come, and March and April after that. Hang in there. And I don't know if you noticed, but you referred to yourself as a French mom. Look (I highlighted the most important word): "Which is what the *other* (non-crazy) non-skiing French mothers would do." Just sayin'. It's a step. Anyway...looking forward to seeing you all this weekend. Perhaps a little puppy-cuddling will help? xoxo

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  3. Launa, dear Launa. Whereforth art thou, Launa? I keep coming back to see what you are up to and eating and reading and doing with yourself - but you haven't come back to blog-land in a while. Just know that you are missed. It's just that I need another tale of your French adventure to keep me in dream-land.

    Seriously, I hope and pray that all is well with you and yours.