February 2006 Archives

Risky Business
February 27, 2006 8:42 PM | Posted in: ,

You don't stop taking risks because you get old,
You get old because you stop taking risks.

T-shirt in Lake Tahoe ski rental shop

This is what the LORD says:
"Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.
But you said, 'We will not walk in it.'

Jeremiah 6:16 (NIV)
It's a mystery as to how the tree limb came to rest in that odd position, sneaking out of the snow at a 15° angle, perhaps three feet of exposed wood and who knows how much buried. Another six inches of snow would have safely covered it; six inches less would have made it more obvious. The limb was stripped of bark, smooth and as big around as a man's leg...the part of the leg just below the knee joint. The upper part of the tibia, to be more anatomically specific, because sometimes specificity matters.
I suppose that we all undertake activities that others might consider to be risky, and we mentally chide them for being so timid. Perhaps we've done those activities so often and so successfully that they are no longer risky in any practical sense or we simply don't view them as dangerous. Or we've grown comfortable with the "worst case scenario." 

Only thing is, the worst case scenario is something that, well, happens to someone else.
Tom and I had been skiing together for the better part of a decade. He's a better skier than me -- unlike him, I have no natural athletic ability -- but not by much, and we've been able to keep one another challenged but not humiliated. (You guys may understand that better than the girls.) 

Over the past few years we've developed a fondness for skiing between the groomed runs, which, if you've spent any time on a ski slope you'll understand to mean "through the trees." We're not fast in absolute terms, but we are quick and [generally] precise, the latter being measured by some arbitrary scale that involves the avoidance of contact with immovable objects. We both enjoy the thrill of picking out a line through a forest and improvising when that line proves to be impractical. The trees are usually much less crowded -- sometimes, our tracks are the only evidence of human intrusion -- and a bit less noisy (we would confess to being skiers of the shouting persuasion). 

And so it was that on our first morning of skiing at Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Mountain Resort we naturally gravitated (clumsy pun intended) to the line of trees separating two intermediate runs named Liz's and Jackpot (the latter actually has an exclamation point but that's too cute to type), and another line separating Liz's from a black diamond run called Express Line. 

After three runs, we were getting warmed up (meaning that I was growing accustomed to falling) and also getting our bearings on a mountain which was completely new to us. (As a parenthetical note of self-defense, let me say that my propensity for falling is not my fault, not really. In its natural pose, my right foot makes a 45° angle to whichever direction I'm facing, and I couldn't stand straight and touch my knees together if my life depended on it. These peculiarities are simply symptoms of the way my bones developed as I grew up, and, frankly, it's amazing that I can ski [or run or bike] at all. Just wanted you to know that.) The sky was that deep blue color you can see only at 10,000 feet of altitude; the snow was packed and occasionally icy, with the last deposit more than a week old. It made for fast and sometimes tricky maneuvering.
Does God have an opinion about our risky activities? Are we exercising faith or are we failing to use the intelligence He blessed us with when we undertake potentially dangerous business? Is it OK to pray for safety before setting out on such things? How should we react when the answer to such prayers is "no"?
Tom and I alternate leading ski runs. It's generally easier for the one following, if only because fewer decisions are required. We're close enough in ability that if I see that he can make a certain turn or clear a certain obstacle, I'm confident that I can as well...all other things being equal. Sometimes the leader can warn the follower about a potential hazard, but that's rare. We try not to follow so closely as to lose escape routes. 

I'm leading the fourth run down the mountain, and I'm beginning to exercise a bit more command over that wayward right ski that often seems to have a mind of its own. Sure, I've fallen four times already, but all but one came in the middle of groomed runs, not in the trees. Anyway, like I said, I'm leading...but Tom's not following. He wants to follow, but the newness of the runs has caused us to periodically lose contact. At one point, I see him on the other side of Liz's; he's in the trees, but not the same ones I'm in. I yell at him, he slows up and we regroup. This scene plays out a couple of times. It's not our usual mode, although it's also not a problem. 

The run named Liz's winds to the left but if you keep going straight, you find yourself in a steep chute called Sky Canyon. It's smooth and icy...and for some reason, we've never noticed that we've missed the bottom part of Liz's and instead ended up on a black diamond run. Did I mention that the trail signs at Heavenly are sometimes confusing? But that's neither here nor there. What's relevant is that on this particular run I'm approaching the end of the trees on the right side of Liz's, and I've already decided to pull up once I'm in the clear to contemplate continuing onto Sky Canyon. 

As I approach the open area, I spot no obstacles that serve as a warning to slow down, so I keep my ski tips pointed downhill. Just as I'm starting to relax and prepare to turn to the left and start slowing up, I see a tree limb inexplicably coming up from the shaded snow, the thick broken end pointed left and rising to a level approximately even with the ankle of my boot. I reacted -- twitched, spasmed, whatever -- and somehow willed my left ski tip up over the limb at the last second. I instantly realized I had dodged a bullet, so to speak, and my heart was pounding as I came to a stop some twenty yards away and down to the left. I turned around to see if Tom had stayed on my trail, or if he was again improvising somewhere else.
The Heavenly ski area is a monster: 4,800 acres spanning two states (Nevada and California); a max top-bottom descent of more than 5 miles; 92 runs and 30 lifts; 7 on-mountain lodges. More than a million people ski at Heavenly each year, and its lifts can carry more than 50,000 people per hour to the tops of its peaks. 

Heavenly also has a fully-equipped medical clinic complete with x-ray machines at its base. The clinic is associated with South Lake Tahoe's Barton Memorial Hospital, and it has its own television ad campaign. Something along the lines of "we hope you don't need us, but if you do..."
I turned and looked back uphill just in time to see Tom left leg slam into the protruding limb. His momentum lofted him headlong while the limb sent him into a 360° flip. His skis flew off somewhere around the 90° point. He hit the ground -- not hard, thanks to his forward momentum -- and he slid down toward the point where I was standing. He was clutching his leg even as he slid to a stop. I yelled, pointlessly but without thinking, bounced off my skis and ran to him.
There's no point in laboring through the rest of the day and the week. My friend had sustained a compression fracture of his tibia. In effect, the bone had been driven up, past the knee into the femur, which sheared off one side of the tibia, and sent a fracture line all the way across it. The laceration of the tree limb against his skin was not serious but it had the unexpected and unwelcome effect of delaying the necessary surgery until it heals, which will be another week. In the meantime, he has to live with a broken leg, and the understanding that he will likely never ski again. 

It was his only fall of the day.
This shouldn't be about me, but I can't help it. There are so many "what ifs?" Some of them I couldn't control -- What if he'd been just 12" higher or lower on the trail than I was? What if he'd been closer and had seen what I did to avoid the limb? But some of them still haunt me, justified or not. Here's the biggie: What if I'd had the presence of mind to yell out a warning to him?
Skiing is an inherently dangerous sport. You have to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that fact before you can even rent a pair of skis. At times it seemed as if half of South Lake Tahoe was wearing a cast, a brace, a bandage. The emergency clinic had five injuries before 9:00 a.m. on that Wednesday. Theoretically, the mountain doesn't open until 9:00 a.m. In the global scheme of things, a broken leg is not a matter of life and death. 

But, I gotta tell you, it sure seemed like it at the time. Still does, for that matter. That was Tom's last ski run...and mine, too.

Going to the Big Dance
February 18, 2006 11:26 AM | Posted in:

Tonight's our public debut in the wacky world of ballroom dancing as we're attending our first dance sponsored by the Permian Basin Ballroom Dance Society. 

This is a formal affair, or as formal as it gets in Midland, Texas, US of A. We understand that there may be a few guys wearing tuxes, and some women in formals, although coat and tie are the nominal requirements for the men. MLB has a new dress and shoes (Say, why is it that whenever we get involved in things like this, the invariable outcome is significant enhancement to her wardrobe, with accompanying significant depletion of our bank account?) while I have, well, neither, not that I'm interested in having the former or need the latter. In fact, I'm fixing to pull out the 20+ year old suit, which may well be back in style...somewhere. 

Anyhow, we're a little nervous about the prospect, although we're encouraged that our dance instructor will be there and she's promised to provide little tips (such as, "this is a rumba" or "this is a mambo" or "never, ever do that again!"), and a few of our other beginner classmates will also be present. We've been assured that knowing the basics is plenty good enough to feel at home, but, of course, seeing is believing. At the very least, the band is supposed to be excellent and so we'll enjoy the music. 

Now, all we have to do is go back through seven instructional DVDs for last minute practice. T - A - NGOoooo, T - A - NGOoooo

Book Review: "Plainsong"
February 9, 2006 5:49 PM | Posted in:

One of the biggest surprises last Christmas actually arrived a few days afterward, when an unexpected A-to-Z logo'd box arrived in my mailbox, small and mysterious and completely without context. Surely I'd remember if I had ordered something from Amazon...?

Inside was a slim volume accompanied by a gift receipt. The volume was Plainsong by Kent Haruf, and it was a gift from my blogger pal in PA, Jim of Serotoninrain fame. Quite unexpected, and very much appreciated, it was.

I vaguely remembered Jim's review of the book, and to say that he liked it would be a crass understatement. But Jim's, well...you know...a sensitive guy, and I wasn't sure that the book would have a similar appeal for me.

I finally finished the other two books I had started and read Plainsong over a period of a couple of days. It's right at 300 pages but it should read faster than that...only Haruf's writing often requires that you read passages more than once, not because they're incomprehensible the first time around but because they're exquisite and fascinating and once just isn't enough.

Jim describes the book better than me; read his review. I didn't like the ending; it feels unfinished, too many issues left unresolved, and I suppose this is intentional given that Haruf continues with the characters in Eventide, which Jim also reviews here. Haruf's habit of omitting all quotes to indicate dialog borders on cuteness and takes some getting used to. But I have to tell you that the scenes with Victoria, a pregnant teen and the two aging, never-married rancher brothers she moves in with after she's evicted from her home are among the most moving and true-ringing passages that you'll ever lay eyes on. Those chapters alone make the book worth the modest investment.

I've already thanked Jim privately for the thoughtfulness of the surprise, but I want to also acknowledge his generosity publicly, and give a plug for a book that he feels strongly about. As a complete, standalone work, it didn't "exalt me" (as the New York Times quote on the cover seemed to promise), but the brilliant and moving passages were more than sufficient to make it memorable.

I feel the need to point out that Plainsong is not a book for children or those who are easily offended by "strong language and adult situations." Some might also be dismayed by the realities of life on a working ranch.

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