By Macile Dietrick
I was bawling. My dad was yelling at me: the canyon-like enclosure of the Sierra mountains amplified his voice to a terrible roar. I pulled my knitted purple cap over my ears, but it was no insulation against the fire of his words, the cold sting of his disappointment.
Your technique is wrong, he was saying. How many times do I have to tell you? Pay attention. You’re not trying.
My father is an expert skier, and this was not the first time I had neglected his instruction. As he expressed his frustration, I felt the pangs of failure and shame pulse through me. At seven years old, I was seriously considering the possibility that the world might end.
He continued to reprimand me, and I began to wonder what would happen if my goggles filled up completely with tears. It would be like skiing in a fish bowl.
Then I had what I thought to be a stroke of brilliance. The only way to avoid failure was to avoid scrutiny, and to avoid scrutiny I had to avoid the critical gaze of my overseer: Dad.
So when he slipped down the hill, I didn’t wait for him to get to the bottom where he could observe me do the slow, wide “S” turns I had practiced—I darted right after him, tracing the contours in the snow sculpted by his all-mountain skis with my own hand-me-down skis.
I was flying; I was skiing swifter than I had ever skied before. I was intoxicated with the thrill, mesmerized by the glittering trail of snow in front of me. I didn’t look up. Abruptly, my dad stopped, but I was still hurdling towards him.
If you had been watching from afar, our collision would have appeared comical: so perfectly ridiculous and unrealistic, the kind of crash featured in a Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny cartoon. A little girl traveling with the velocity of a bullet ramming into a full-grown man, knocking him off his feet, and literally snowballing down the hill.
I dented his ski pole with my head.
After a moment, I began to feel the throb in my forehead. But more painful than that, I felt the heat of embarrassment flush over my face. I felt the eyes of my father looking down at me. I felt my own eyes well up with tears.
I waited for the yelling to start again, the anger, the disappointment. But it didn’t come.
Instead, he laughed. It was a loud, resonant laugh, not of ridicule, but of pure joy and amusement. It was contagious.
When I laughed, the embarrassment disappeared. My brilliant plan had failed miserably, but so what? I had dreaded humiliation so much that I missed how enjoyable skiing and other endeavors could be, both the triumphs and the wipeouts.
Nine years later, I don’t take things so seriously. Nine years later, I laugh at my embarrassing crashes and learn from my failures. Nine years later, I proudly carry with me the dented ski pole—and a helmet.