The two most important lessons I ever learned about “first steps” and conquering fear were “taught” by 8 year-olds in the most unlikely of settings. The first occurred at a little league All-Star game and was the subject of the “bedtime story” in my first book (“The Bunt”)(http://tinyurl.com/kxb5fod). The second occurred at the top of a mountain in Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont. In both instances, the lesson was the same: Once you’ve found the courage to overcome the fear that’s in the first step (http://tinyurl.com/kqy8qu9), it’s all downhill from there!
I wonder how much you remember about the first (and only) ski trip we took as a family – to Smuggler’s Notch in 1997. You were 8 years old at the time. I remember a lot about that trip. I remember we lost our luggage and I spent the first 24 hours going “spider monkey” on every airline representative who had the misfortune of answering the phone – more highly disturbing ”dad fun” for the whole family. I remember it snowing every morning on cue and how beautiful Burlington looked in its majestic white blanket. I remember dropping you and Greg off at the chair lift that first morning and the enthusiasm and anticipation on your faces. I remember heading off to Bunny Slope School with your mom and feeling like I’d be just fine if I spent the entire week there. I remember watching you and Greg speed down the slopes that second day like you’d been skiing your entire lives. I remember cringing later that morning as your mom screamed at our Bunny Slope professor that she was “bored with the speed bump-sized hills we were learning on” and insisting that she/”we” were ready to graduate to the big slopes. I remember feeling much less certain about my skiing acumen than your mom, as I slowly snowplowed down the hill only to hear her bloodcurdling screams behind me as she tore one ligament after another in her first trip down. I remember a bunch of muscle-bound, blonde-haired Big Slope Snow Patrol Dudes whisking her off the slope on a stretcher into the first aide trailer at the bottom of the hill. I remember her spending the rest of the trip on crutches, waiting at the base of the hill in the fireplace-warmed ski lodge for one or more of us to finish our morning runs.
But I also remember that trip for a very different, more positive reason. I remember it for what you taught me about fear. It was the day after mom’s accident, my first trip back up the mountain that had been the scene of the crime. Do you remember? I had just stumbled out of the chair lift with you and your brother and was standing frozen in place like an ice statue at the top of the hill. The bottom looked a long way away. I was terrified. Apparently, it was pretty obvious because you turned to me and quite matter-of-factly said, “Dad, I think it’s time to face your fears!” For an 8-year-old you, likely and properly without a fear in the world, it was just as simple as that. For me, however, filled with a world of fears, not the least of which was that I had seen your mom blow out her knee the day before, it was considerably more complicated. The truth is that I had never done very well when it came to putting things on my feet other than tennis shoes (e.g., ice skates, roller blades, water skis, etc.). In fact, once at a water-skiing outing with several teenage friends, I actually managed to use the back of a surfacing manatee as a ski ramp and went air borne, resulting in one of the wickedest and most embarrassing wipe-outs the lake across from Miami Int’l Airport has ever seen. The fact that it came on the heels of my having earlier dropped the slalom ski, rather than its single-booted colleague, in my first and last attempt at slaloming only heightened my sense of humiliation, while simultaneously embedding a fear of anything ski-related for a lifetime.
But, at the end of the day, you were right. What you were really saying is: “Dad, what’s the worst that can happen if you just allow that ski tip to drift toward the edge of the slope?” Believe me, I thought about that for a moment. There was chance I could get hurt, maybe even tear a ligament (or two), but the truth is, as long as I was careful, that chance was pretty remote, and even if it did happen, I knew plenty of doctors back in Miami who could put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There also was a chance (a much more likely one) that I could fall flat on my face and in the process risk humiliating myself in front of the hundreds of more accomplished skiers that inhabited the slopes that day – not to mention in front of you and Greg. But the truth was: It was far more likely that you guys (and the other skiers) would get a chuckle out of my ineptness and clumsiness – and I was actually okay with that. In fact, I thought it might be good for you and Greg to see me struggle with something that with just two short days of practice and almost no instruction, both of you already could do so well. And so I set out, and I fell, and you laughed; and I got up, and I fell – and you and your brother sped past and told me you’d catch up with me at the bottom of the hill – and off you went, smiling at your still-trying-to-get-it-right-but-no-longer-fearful-about-skiing dad.
I have you to thank for that moment of clarity about fear, Ashley. Because of it and my corresponding decision not to allow fear to keep me in its paralyzing grip, I actually learned how to ski (well, sort of!) that trip and, most importantly, got to spend the days that followed building unforgettable memories exploring the snow-covered trails of Smuggler’s Notch with you and Greg. I’ve drawn on your words countless times since that December morning 17 years ago and it continues to make a difference in my life. I think Franklin Delano Roosevelt and my 8-year-old daughter got it right: “There [truly] is nothing to fear, but fear itself!”
With All My Love,