What is culture? I’ve been reading some of those old anthropology books that try to define people, and places, and why we are, and whether we can choose who we are, and where we come from, and whether culture is in our bodies or our minds, whether it is alone or in a group that we live and move and have our being.
God knows! (Does he?). But here is the image that came to me: we live ski slopes.
When I was a little girl, my family went to the ski slopes of Vermont. Several months prior, grandma drove us to the hillshore of Olentangy River, to one of the little parks with a hill sloping towards the brambles and the water. “Here,” she said.
I was all bundled in my green and purple snow suit, the hood tightly tied around my face. She set me on skis and pushed me down. I coasted three feet in the sloggy snow and stumbled, falling face-first.
Then we went to a nearby ski resort. Ohio is a flattish place, and Mad River had one modestly proud hill, plump and low, with short little runs like arms down the side. I took the lift to the top of the Big Easy, and pointed my skis down the hill.
And flew, and flew, straighter, straighter, until the instructor caught me and stopped me from hitting the big mahogany lodge.
“Snowplow!” she said. And I learned to turn my feet together, knockkneed, to a snowplow, a pizza slice, a piece of cold white pie. And I learned to plow sideways across the hill, and then turn quickly, jerkily, hoping not to fall over, and then to slug back towards the first side of the hill. And I learned to avoid the deep drift by the trees, and I learned to line my skis up at the marker and take the lift back up again, swinging my skis and clacking them together, slicing them across each other to take off the slush, and watching the snow melt off the tops, left clean and damply shining just as I got to the top of the hill to do it again.
So every March we packed our suitcases and sleeping bags, and little packets of dehydrated Lipton’s Onion soup and Meijer Hot Cocoa Mix. Grandma shopped for Meijer cheerios, and Meijer oatmeal, and we made sandwiches with baloney and american cheese and white bread which I smushed into the center, and then peeled the crusts off of, and then smushed them flat again, getting crumbs all over my damp and slouchy snowsuit, and ate, and ate cheetos and cookies, and went out again, sorelegged, for an afternoon on the slushy hills, propping myself upright like a cripple on my ski poles when I got tired.
We drove miles and miles, past the Great Lakes and across the Pennsylvania Hills, stopping at a small white house in New Jersey for the night, where Shelly Yount had longer hair than I, of which I was jealous, and I slept in the bottom bunk with Mama, and trying not to wiggle, and wishing she would sleep so I could read my book under the covers.
And we drove, and we drove, on Sunday, not going to church but listening to the preachers on the AM radio in Grandma’s Volkswagen Van, and Grandpa and Grandma would listen seriously and then they would joke, saying, look, we’re pretty much in church, we’re still religious. The van smelled like cleanliness and mustiness and car headaches. I pulled my gloves on and off and read the magazines that Grandma had brought along, along with her box of books – In the Zoo, Where is my Mother? – Black Beauty – and picture books for the babies. It’s best to ride in Grandma’s care, because she gives you cookies and Diet Coke. My brother had to sit back in mom and dad’s van, with the little one in a car seat and the others fighting over seats and travel toys. I pulled out my Klutz travel book and looked for license plates, and watched road signs, and watched the mile markers – pass – pass – pass – and the low grey roads, the high prickly hills, the slags of granite, the hills.
And we got to Rutland, and we stopped to buy food – so much food – bags and bags, Mom and Grandma. And grandpa plays caroms with us in the car while we wait, and then we pile all-in and keep going.
And then we turn towards the condo we had rented, past the Red Rob Inn and the light house, a stop light, a hill, a turn, snow all crusted into the roadside ditches and across the edges of the flat small town. And we know we’re here, as we drive past the pretty distant adults in snow boots, clonking into the nearest bar.
But we weren’t the bar type – we were a family. We got up early in the morning and put on our snow socks and long underwear and snowpants and I tied the snaps together, and pulled on my jacket, and put on a hat and gloves. And in my pocket I put a packet of tissues and a baggie of gorp – peanuts, MnMs, raisins, sometimes banana flats, tasteless and stale and vaguely sweet.
And we ate oatmeal and drank juice, and we put on our ski boots and clonked out to the car, clapping our feet together at the door to knock off the snow. And we drove, frosty-breathed, in the slow warming car to the lodge, to the enormous parking lot. And we took out our skis, and carried them slipping and heavy to the hill. And I was sent off to lessons, and the little ones to daycare, and Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa and Aunt Rebecca and Uncle Alan, and Aunt Dawn and Uncle Vaughn, and Aunt Ouen and Uncle Lath, and Aunt Jan and Uncle B, and Aunt Joan all gathered — and the baby cousins sat unhappily too.
And what else? At the ski lesson the next day, some absurdly browned white man with windwrinkled cheeks smile through his reflective sunglasses, and we stand seriously, and he tells corny jokes. And he shows us how to plant and turn, plant and turn, and we learn to go faster and faster, on the black diamonds, and we soar down the hill and even into the wooded fusion zones.
And we go through the deep snow in the woods, slicing from underneath, and it’s not packed or slushy, it hides roots and rocks, and I can’t see my skis in front of me, just their rupture of the perfect twigspecked snow. And we turn right and left, and clomp into a tree, dodging saplings.
And what else – the jumps, the enormous metal poles that hold up the lifts, the early crust and late slush, the moguls in diamond shape all down the forbidding black diamond hills, all mounds of snow with ice in between, and every path its own.
And after the lesson and the lunch, we go again to the hill, this time with parents, aunts and uncles, you take this route, we’ll take that one, and meet at the bottom, flying and poling, almost run over by some high college students, dodging the children and lazeabouts.
And at the bottom we gather and go up again, waving our skis over the treetops and straining to look backwards, into the valley and across the mountains, snow and trees as far as we can see, and peering below us to see if we recognize anyone (and I’m always and everywhere looking for Sandy).
And day and day. And evenings by the fire playing games, listening to the adults talk. Reading quietly after the little ones are put to bed and staying awake late, and listening.
And what do I mean to say by all this? I meant to say simply, that we all ski. We move along a given landscape, the slope, and find for ourselves the tools to use it, the skis, and perhaps there is another slope across the mountain, and perhaps you can use sport skis or disabled ski chairs or snowboards, or perhaps you end up towed down the hill in a toboggan, but it is still skiing.
And perhaps you go alone, or with friends or family. Perhaps you were trained or perhaps you just learned, plowing faster and faster towards the closening lodge.
And of course, different people ski in different ways, children flying down the hill and college students laughing and swerving in to each other, and the English tourists come with their fine skis and funny accents and matching outfits. Some turn by pole-plant precisely, and others go without poles, some fall themselves clumsy, some jump and swivel backwards, others rush up the steepest hills to fly off the other side into the open fall, or watch the distance between themselves and the children, or gather their friends together to fly all at once, some keep distance and ski the empty hills alone, and others go in a cluster or follow their teacher like ducks in a row. And some compete and some work together, and some fall, and some – even the experienced – stay in a snowplow, tensed for the fearful fall, all the way down the diamonds and the flattest hills.
And we find ourselves in limitations – our own bodies, the shape of a human, the tendons and knees adjusting to these strange foot-clamps and absurdly long flattened toes. The wind bites our faces, the chill sneaks into the seams of our clothes, the hunger curls in our stomach, and the thirst, and the tiredness lazily bats at our heads. And the thrill of the wind pushes past our ears and into our jackets, and we soar straight, lifting the poles out from behind us.
And of course we do what we’re supposed to do, we adjust to the people around us, we smile and make small talk, and don’t do all the things you oughtn’t do on the slopes – take a nap, or eat a picnic, or toke up, or bring your laptop and get some work done overlooking the valley. No redoing your hair or streaking or doing cartwheels here, unless you’re fifteen and slouching, with long stringy hair like a girl and your feet strapped to a snowboard.
And we are on a hill, a geographical thing, with constraints, a slope we adjust ourselves to if we don’t want to fall, and it’s bounded by brush and trees, and drops off into frozen streams and access roads. And you have to plan your route around what you see in front of you, the rises and falls, the curve of groomed snow, the falling flakes, the cuts in the snow in front of you, the place where someone knocked a chunk out of the hill, the large round ski lift poles. So you can see that we choose and respond, accommodate and express ourselves. And this culture – this way of being – it is our minds, and our technology, and our bodies in culture, and our friends, and it is more than that, some whole thing altogether.
But how did we get here? By Grandma’s van and the grunting ski lift, of course, but also by the midde class, the sunny fields and industry of the midwest, Mom’s public high school ski club and Grandma’s protestant work ethic, Grandpa’s organization-man career in the flush of the 1950s, and Dad’s early software innovation, by a move from the farm to the suburbs and then out to the world, by interstate highway and minivan, going as pastor and prayer leader, by peace and prosperity, by neoliberal economics and private property, through exclusivity and $50/day lift tickets, sharing store-brand food and dinner duties, by striving and seeking and saving, by dutiful education and continuous charity, by rationalizations and defenses, by gifts of God and man.
And where are we going? Down the hill, to the future, a girl telling stories to a laptop late in the Texas night, a woman in Upickastan keeping empire for the government, a man moderating policy in DC, a woman helping disabled children and church choirs, a mother grieving and re-creating, a father falling and re-sorting, a grandfather with heart pains and carpentry skills, a grandmother saving dehydrated baby food and 1980s Windex for the next depression (we’ve been waiting and planning here). And here’s our uncle flush with electronics and the American dream, our aunt making eggrolls for her Cambodian family, a cousin working at Golden Corral and another dreaming of modeling, brothers in the mountains and building birdhouses, in politics and in our hearts, a young woman feeding chicks to wounded eagles, and the latest of all, a little girl prancing around Ohio — around the hard November countryside with a glowing plastic tiara on her head.