Sunday, January 26, 2014

Entry - 1.26.14

When I moved north to the Hudson Valley, I experienced something that I had not before: continuous snow cover for months at a time.  In fact, commonly, snowfall is so regular and temperatures so consistently low that I’ve run out of places to deposit snow while shoveling the driveway, the banks eventually reaching chest height at the end of the season.  Rather than thinking them a curse, I relish these snow-filled winters.  As A child, I had always loved winter and the activities that came with it: sledding, skating, hiking, building snow forts and, of course, the traditional snowball fight.  On Long Island, you learned to savor the snow because, even though we had our major storms, the plows cleared the streets quickly and the temperatures moderated by the nearby ocean wouldn’t tolerate snow cover for more than a week or two at most.  So, once settled in our new home up north, I was pleased to find that snow was more than a transient visitor but a stalwart companion who demanded respect and attention.


Considering this introduction, you may be surprised to learn that, prior to my move north, I had never skied.  As a youth, the only skiing that would have interested me would have been downhill skiing, and Long Island was far too flat for that.  In high school, I remember some kids taking weekend bus trips to northern ski resorts, but financially that was out of my reach and I was a little too “unformed” to participate in organized social activities.  When I came to the Hudson Valley two decades ago, I noticed that a lot of people cross country skied and wondered if I would enjoy participating in this activity, a less exhilarating cousin of the downhill.


I wanted to give it a try but was reluctant to invest a lot of money in equipment, lest I discovered that skiing was not for me.  So I found myself one weekend at the local Ski Haus, explaining to a polite yet unenthusiastic salesman that I wanted to buy an affordable, bare-bones, off-the-shelf set of skis, just to get my toe into the water, so to speak.  He responded that it wasn’t that simple, that the skier’s height, weight and, obviously, shoe size had to be taken into consideration, and he began gathering data.  When he finished, the salesman crossed his arms on his chest, looked at me dubiously and announced that he would go into the backroom and see what they had in stock.  He vanished through a curtained doorway, and, for quite a while, I heard rattlings, crashes and smothered curses before he reappeared with a mismatched set of equipment pieced together from an assortment of clearance merchandise.  The salesman calculated the optimum pole length for someone of my height and cut the poles accordingly.  He rang up my purchase, and, though still more than I had intended on spending, the price seemed reasonable to me.  I paid and exited the store ready to begin skiing.

From the first time I went out, I knew that in cross country skiing I had discovered a fantastic activity that would provide me with pleasure for years to come.  Even though I was awkward as hell, stumbling regularly, meandering off track now and then and falling into the snow a couple of times on every outing, I loved the feeling of nearly effortless gliding and appreciated that I was getting a moderate aerobic workout too.  A little self-conscious at the beginning, I obsessed about getting out of the way of experienced skiers, choosing unpopular routes and stepping off track at the first sight of a companion.  I learned that, if I got out late and the temperature was too high, snow adhered to my skis, forming thick, hard clumps which made gliding impossible.  Additionally, I discovered that I was stressing muscles not commonly employed during normal activity.  So, initially, certain muscles, particularly the adductor group of the inner thighs, were crossbow taut and burned dully a few days after a weekend of skiing.  But I slowly improved, becoming more comfortable and confident on the skis, until I no longer considered myself a novice.

After about a decade and a half of experience, I am still using the same mismatched set of equipment and will get out skiing on any day I’m off from work when the conditions are right.  Commonly, I wake up before sunrise and, while still a little groggy, consider whether I want to go out today or not.  My bed is warm, and the house is cold, the thermostat having been turned low during the night hours.  There is a strong temptation to roll over and go back to sleep (after all, I’ve gotten up at 5:30 all week; I deserve it), but there is a voice within that reminds me that only through exertion can the exceptional be accomplished.  I reluctantly throw the blankets back, stumble out of bed and head for the bathroom for my morning’s ablutions.  I like to get out of the house by 7:00, though in recent years I don’t always make it out quite that early.  I load my equipment into the car, barely able to see in the pre-dawn light, and pick up my breakfast on the way to a nearby State Park at which the authorities permit skiing on their golf course during the winter months.  I eat in the car in the parking lot, while the light turns from slate gray to aqua and the windows cloud over from my breath and body heat.  I save my coffee for last, savoring every sip as I admire the winter landscape.  Believe it or not, I’m not always the first skier out in the morning; commonly there will be a car or two in the lot when I arrive.  Breakfast completed, I emerge from the car to find out what conditions will be like that day.  If I’ve made a good choice, the temperature should be well below freezing (but not bone chilling) and, even more importantly, the winds should not be too steady or intense.  I click into my skis (always a struggle), take my poles in hand and am off.

At the edge of the parking lot, I find a set of tracks, two parallel troughs in the snow, established by the passing of several previous skiers.  These tracks of snow packed down to a hard, smooth consistency will serve as guides for my skis, making steering and controlling the skis effortless.  The tracks lead me straight across the golf course, through an open, exposed area dotted with tall evergreens.  After five to ten minutes of skiing my muscles begin to tighten and ache, and I begin to wonder what I’m doing out here.  I know from experience that if I can keep it going, setting a reasonable, steady pace, that I can work through the pain, but, at the moment, this seems an impossibility.  The cold is intense.  Though I am wearing two pairs of socks, my feet, particularly the toes, are stinging with the cold.  My face is exposed, my lips becoming numb and my breath crystalizing in my moustache.  But worst of all are my hands.  Set in a fixed grip on my poles, they feel the cold most of all.  In fact, the pain is so intense that I recognize that if it continues to worsen I will have to capitulate and return to my car.  I promise myself that I will give it another five minutes before deciding what to do.

Just as I am ready to pack it in, the light changes, and I turn to the east to see the sun edging above the cluster of hills that ring the course, casting a golden light on the fairway.  The scenery is instantly infused with color: the snow glimmering with pinks and yellows, shadows transformed to pale cerulean.  I am stunned by with the unfathomable beauty that surrounds me.  At once, I can feel the warmth of the sun along the length of my body, and, though the pain in my extremities has not lessened, I continue skiing further out on the course, knowing that relief will be coming shortly.

From then on, I can focus more on my skiing, setting a pace that is challenging yet not exhausting.  My breathing becomes heavier, my heart rate picking up, but I’m careful not to push myself so hard that this activity becomes unpleasant.  Cross country skiing is, basically, pushing off of one ski and gliding on the other, alternating with every “step” as you would when walking.  When the snow is right and I’m in a good pattern, the gliding becomes protracted resulting in increased speed.  I stop for a moment to catch my breath and look behind me, surprised to find that I’ve crossed the last field in what seems just a few moments.  In the distance, I hear an incredible cacophony, the honking of an enormous flock of Canada Geese.  Sometimes their soundings seem ridiculous and comical, at other times, poignantly melancholy.  This morning it’s definitely the comical, a great chaotic hubbub that reminds me of the unruly crowds that I come across in New York City.  I continue to follow the tracks which lead me further out on the course, and, after another ten minutes, I surmount the crest of a sizeable hillock to see below me the geese, a surprisingly large gathering easily numbering in the hundreds.  The tracks leading right into the center of the group, I am a little concerned; I’ve had encounters with very aggressive geese in the past and worry that the whole flock will turn on me.  But I opt to stay on the tracks and proceed.  As I approach, the group remains calm and unconcerned.  Only a few birds on the periphery take note of me, become a bit agitated and waddle about, jockeying for more advantageous locations.  It’s only when I’m about 30 yards away that the whole flock seems aware of my presence.  At first, a handful of birds take flight, the vast majority apparently intending to hold their ground, and then, as if pre-orchestrated, the entire flock en masse takes to the sky.  For a moment, I feel enswarmed by the geese, their bodies eclipsing the sunlight, the beating of their wings strangely loud, and then they are gone, already passing over the distant woods, their honking already fading.  I stop on my skis and watch in wonder as they depart.

I continue on, reaching the furthest point from my car where a small wooden bridge spans a stream.  Ice encroaches on the stream from its banks, but, at its center, the black water still flows freely, a lazy mist hovering over its surface.  The reddish brambles that line the stream are encased in rime that blazes golden in the early morning light.  Once across the bridge, I veer to my left, choosing to hug the edge of the woods to maximize the distance covered on this outing.  The sun has swung well above the hills now, and I have warmed considerably, my hands and feet no longer in pain.  In fact, my core is so warm that I pop a few buttons on my jacket and pull my scarf away from my neck.  My muscles are loose, and I am in a rhythm, unconscious of any effort.  Every now and then, I come to a hill which is a struggle to climb, the grip of the skis not being secure enough to propel me upwards.  Instead, I anchor my right ski by turning it outwards, use the left to make progress uphill and then bring the right up from behind with a sort of a jerky hopping motion.  It’s slow going to the top, but I am rewarded with a long coast to the bottom of the hill, with me pushing with the poles to gain more speed and extend the ride.


I complete my circuit of the course in about an hour and a half.  When I return to my car, I see the parking lot now holds nearly two dozen vehicles, most of them lined neatly in a single row along the western edge of the lot.  As I clean the snow off my skis before loading them into the car, I watch some of the new arrivals preparing to get out on the course.  Their voices and laughter carry to me.  At this hour, the park which struck me as solemn and austere upon my arrival has been transformed by a merry bustle of activity.  Once I have loaded my equipment into the car and closed the hatchback, I stop a moment, hesitant to leave.  I am warm and comfortable in the morning coolness and am feeling that emotional rush that comes with exercise.  It’s odd how consistently this happens after these outings, but I experience an inexplicable sense of satisfaction, almost jubilation, that lingers for hours.

It occurred to me the last time I was on the course that skiing and painting have a lot in common…at least, for me.  I am often reluctant to go up to my studio.  I resent the isolation, the cutting off from the communal flow of the household, that painting imposes.  I often malinger about the house, enjoying a snack or engaging some poor soul in pointless conversation, in an attempt to delay the start of my efforts.  Eventually I recognize that I’ve wasted enough time and have to get to work.  This is a self-imposed discipline.  I have no deadline to meet, no audience awaiting with bated breath my next creation.  As with skiing, painting is a solitary pursuit, its rewards anchored in experience and health – in this case, mental health.  Once in my studio, I open the window, put a CD in the boombox and prepare my palette, squeezing out dabs of paint from the tubes in a horseshoe pattern and finishing by adding several sizeable globs of white in the center.  Finally, I mix up a potion of linseed oil, turpentine and varnish with which I thin my paints.  I stop at this point to assess my work, noting flaws and areas with which I’m dissatisfied.  I hesitate to begin, feeling like a novice, wondering if I really know how to paint.  At first I struggle, the process seeming arbitrary and artificial, as if I am simply applying paint to a canvas.  But then the image begins to assert its own logic and my labor becomes steady and purposeful.  Once in this mode, I become immersed in my work, my concentration becoming focused and absolute.  Time accelerates.  I am often shocked when a CD comes to an end, thinking I had just put it on five minutes ago.  It’s hard to explain the state that my mind is in.  It’s definitely engaged, tackling problems and assessing results, but it is also on cruise-control, a lot of processes “running in background” without conscious effort.  I feel very energized, at times almost ecstatic, and wonder why I was so hesitant to come up to my studio.  After several hours of work, I arrive at a point in my painting at which, technically, it seems prudent to stop.  As I clean my brushes, I become aware that the room is very cold and my back is aching from hunching over in my seat, leaning into the painting.  If it’s been a good day, as I stretch and twist before the painting, I admire my work, satisfied with my efforts, feeling an emotion somewhat akin to that which I described experiencing after a morning of skiing.  Afterwards, when I’m back among my family, it’s difficult to engage in conversation or focus on entertainment.  My mind, still addressing the painting, needs time to transition.

Wickham - Red Pants - 1998

Maybe because painting is critically important to me, I find parallels to the process in other activities I pursue.  If the season had been summer, I could easily imagine myself writing a very similar entry with hiking or bicycling as the topic.  On the other hand (just to prove that I haven’t lost all perspective), I’ve never been in the middle of a plumbing job or at the end of a day at the office and been inspired to ponder: Gadzooks!  This is a lot like painting!
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