Steeps and self

OK, today is just another day in life. A nice glass of Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, and I feel calm. I love wines from Argentina, my father’s homeland. Malbec is the wine equivalent of the craft beer IPA to me.[1] Most can’t fathom these intense tastes but I can. I am genetically programmed to favor intense flavors, and that’s a good thing I guess. I feel the same about life, yet the way I define intensity is different from most. For the anhedonic amongst us, it means jumping off cliffs or diving headlong out of airplanes. I’m not like that at all. That is quite intense indeed. Yet, I don’t need that extra rush to feel alive. I feel alive with normal human interactions, for thankfully I’m not anhedonic.

My life is much simpler than an anhedonic’s in that I experience pleasure from normal activities. A good wine does it for me, as does a good meal with the right mix of vegetables, spices, and proteins. I also find pleasure in a good hike or a simple trip down a cruiser skiing. I don’t need any extra push like diving off a cliff to feel alive. I am alive and life provides enough intensity for me to feel it. Yet, skiing has done something special for me. It has actually pushed me in ways I’ve never been pushed before. However, my approach to life has made it a lot less intense than what is seen in those awesome Warren Miller films. Let me explain.

Skiing is a special sport. It requires quite some time to master. Recently, a young sage who may have been drunk at the time put it well; snowboarding is hard to learn but easy to master, whereas skiing is easy to learn but hard to master. I first learned to ski (took lessons) when I was 18 and went skiing very sporadically since then, taking many years off until skiing again. Recently, when my son was 10, we started skiing again, but this time with quite some intensity. Indeed, I remember the time we were at Camelback resort in Pennsylvania, and my son was taking a lesson. He was a fourth grader in the 4th and 5th grade PA skiing program. Unlike optimistic parents, I was expecting him to hate it. At the scheduled end of the lesson, I along with the other parents waited for our children’s return. My son, contrary to my expectation though, emerged stoked. He wanted to ski more. I, noticing his excitement, immediately obliged. We did a couple of more runs down the bunny slope before retiring for the day, and then returned the next week and the next until the season was over. It was love at first ski for my son. I eagerly participated, as his happiness is always mine.

Since that time, we have advanced rapidly. Over the past three years, he has had his share of lessons at various resorts in Pennsylvania and New England. I advanced in parallel, although without lessons; my son actually shares what he learns in his lessons with me, being an informal instructor for me. I have really struggled to keep up with him, but I made huge strides too; he is certainly a far better than skier than I am, even though he is obviously much younger. First, afraid of anything that looked mildly steep, I dared not ski down even the tamest steep. With time, though, I started skiing everything. I now am not afraid of pretty much anything. Although still learning, I have overcome my fear of the steep. What a wonderful feeling it is. I am actually feeling exhilarated. I never thought I would, but I do.

I recall when my fear first left me. My son and I were skiing in Brettonwoods, NH, just below Mount Washington. We were going down one of the green trails, Range View, that has quite a steep start, at least for my level at the time. Fearing the worst, I avoided the start and took an alternative route to the main slope instead. I loved the slope though, as it was wide and gave me the cruising experience I craved. My son told me, however, to follow him as he went down the start of the slope, and I did. After conquering that steep start, I was hooked forever. Indeed, I began to ski everything no matter how steep it was. I learned to control my speed and to feel comfortable standing still on any ledge. That made skiing fun for me. Feeling in control was what I sought, and achieving control made skiing a pleasure I wanted to do over and over again, rather than a chore I just wanted to end.

Learning to ski a steep slope is the ultimate experience of psychological adaptation. Initially, I feared the slope, feeling disequilibrium when I stood on its apex. Heights are not our friends, as we can hurt ourselves easily, particularly when on human-made tools like skis that are designed to propel us forward at high speeds. However, learning to control ourselves down steep slopes helps us to experience equilibrium where there was once disequilibrium. Disequilibrium occurs when we are afraid to fall, equilibrium occurs when we realize we can maintain control on a steep. I learned that this year.

This year my major accomplishment in skiing was to conquer my fear of the steeps. I did that and feel much more comfortable now than ever before. I couldn’t wait to hit the slopes each weekend and cannot wait to do it again next year. Indeed, if I had the funds, I’d go to my father’s native Argentina now and ski the Andes; it’s winter down there when it’s summer here. I was, however also quite fortunate this year, at the end of the season, to meet a very giving instructor who began to teach me to ski the right way. Bored out of his mind one Saturday morning late PA season, he found an eager student and gave me a nearly three hour private lesson. It was amazing, but ironically instead of feeling better about my skiing, I now I feel like a beginner again, albeit a beginner with some skills. He immediately observed all of my flaws, flaws seen in individuals creating their own skiing styles. That’s what happens when one eschews instruction. Well, I want to ski the right way. Therefore, I am currently learning to meld what I learned from my benevolent with what I learned on my own recently into a higher level skier. Actually, I was invited by this caring instructor to teach this coming winter, and I plan to do so.

I am a natural teacher, and in teaching I’ve encountered pretty much all there is to encounter. Thus, I have quite a bit of teaching wisdom, although more so in the classroom than on the slopes. If I want to be a great ski instructor too, I have to achieve the same state on the slopes, though. Well, the more one skis, the more diverse one’s skiing experience. The more terrain one traverses, the more efficient one becomes at skiing. One must adapt to all circumstances to become an excellent skier, just as one must experience different students asking different questions to become an exceptional instructor. I’m committed to both and will try anything that will make me a better instructor. Indeed, as developmental psychologist Jean Piaget once said, life is adaptation. I plan to continue adapting. I’ve moved from pizza to fries in multiple circumstances on the slopes, and that has been a gift that enhanced my real self, not just in skiing but in life in general. Self is ever in flux. Today’s self is not the same as the self in one year’s time, one month, one week, or from day to day. Yet, experiences such as conquering the steeps and learning to ski on edges, have brought me closer to the state I hope to achieve. Self is about adapting, the self today is a mere point on the road to the ultimate self. That self, although achievable, is an ever distant goal. Each day is one day closer yet one day further from the hilt. Our target changes as we progress. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I’ll sure continue having fun on the road.


[1] By the way, I do know that IPAs are old, not a craft beer fad.

The End of a Semester

Students can’t wait for it. For professors, it means more work. We have to grade papers and final exams. However, that’s nothing compared to the pain of deciding upon a student’s final grade. Obviously, we are all different. For some professors, there is no issue failing a student who deserves an F. For me, it’s never easy. I think of the money the student spends (or future money in a loan), the pain of having to take the course again, and of course the awkwardness of telling the student that she isn’t good enough to pass the course when she comes into my office to complain about her grade. It’s of course made harder if she tries hard but she just can’t do it.

We’ve all been there, my faculty colleagues and I. We all experience the same dread. Perhaps some of us are better at it than others; that’s what heterogeneity means. Still, and perhaps sadly, we all develop thick skin in the end. Time seems to create scars. These scars harden and allow us to not feel. That’s a good thing in that it helps us to be more objective. Subjectivity is a sad reality for the novice.

I feel great empathy for my students. Yet, I am no novice. However, my empathy makes me sad when it comes to not allowing students to move forward. Obviously, it is the student’s own fault. As a student, I never faced the same problem as I always studied harder and did the best possible to not allow myself to fail. Indeed, failure was never even remotely possible for me. That’s how I got where I am today.

This is truly a difficult time. However, with the end of each semester comes the start of a new semester and a new set of students. I told my stats students this recently. I let them know that teaching has it’s positive and negative facets. On the positive side, one gets a new group of students each semester. Thus, teaching never grows stale, like a loaf of bread in a dry cupboard. On the negative side, one’s relationship with the present group of students ends. Professors are always in a state of renewal. One group comes, one group goes, and another group comes. This cycle is ever repeating until we finally retire and go off and die. Odd is life; it’s like a wave of ebbs and flows.

Well, this is the choice I made for my career, and I love it. I am happy when my students do well, and I feel the extreme pain of each student who doesn’t make the grade. Like a judge, I sentence students to repeat courses, and that really hurts. However, it is good pain as I know in the long run they will learn from it and become better people. Yet, it still hurts. That’s what it’s like to be a good professor. I take my work seriously.