I've been out of town with the family for a week, hence the lack of posts. I should be back up to my normal level, or at least what it has been lately, within a couple of days.
We drove to Montana, a place I had never been before, to go skiing. It is a gorgeous drive. You know, people joke about North Dakota being flat and boring, at least till you get out West and hit the Badlands, but I thought it was pretty. When the land is flat, the sky is big, and on a clear blue day the sky coming down all around you is a sight worth driving to see, I think. Maybe that gets old if you have to drive the same road over and over again. I certainly don't get excited anymore about the path through Illinois and Indiana that we travel a few times a year going back and forth from Minnesota to our extended families in southern Ohio. But North Dakota was pretty: snowless this year, golden-brown and grassy.
And of course there is a moment when you are driving along, minding your own business and gazing at the grasslands, when you go around a turn and the wide, particolored Painted Canyon opens up before you, carved down below the grasses, the weird alien landscape of the Badlands. Welcome to the West, it seems to say. "Wow!" said all the kids. We took a little detour there into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, stopped at the visitors center (which has a tiny little T.R. museum, plus a petrified tree stump you can touch and examine, and a short historical movie about Roosevelt and the Badlands). Then we decided that we had a little extra time, not long enough to drive the whole scenic loop in the park, but long enough to drive in a little wa us and then turn around and drive out. So we paid our National Parks vehicle fee and went in, where we saw bison and prairie dogs up close. It was a very worthwhile half hour.
We skied at Moonlight Basin, a resort in western Montana about an hour and a half outside Bozeman. Moonlight Basin is adjacent to the ENORMOUS ski area of Big Sky, and in fact one can ski from one to the the other; there are two lifts that you can access with lift tickets from either side, and it is possible to buy a shared lift ticket that allows you access to all the lifts on both resorts, which is apparently the lift pass that gets you the most acreage of any lift ticket in the U.S., though not as much as Whistler in Canada, according to my husband, who memorizes ski area statistics as if he were training to appear on All-Skiing Jeopardy.
The five- eight-, and eleven-year-old all took at least some lessons, and I took a half-day lesson too, at the start of the week, to get back into the feel of the skis. My five-year-old daughter was the star this week: she went from barely being able to form a wedge to skiing black-diamond tree runs. It was so exciting to accompany her for a couple of hours on her all-day lesson (day 3) and watch her following her instructor, a cheerful young woman from North Dakota who spent most of her time skiing backwards so she could watch my daughter from below, around the little moguls that were starting to form in a clearing of the tree glade. "Hockey stop against the bump!" the instructor would call out, and my little girl in her pink helmet and pink coat and pink mittens would *swoosh* around one mogul and stop, her skis throwing a little spray of sparkly snow into the air. "Do it again! Hockey stop against the bump!" and she would turn the other direction and swoosh to another stop. And I, who had last entered a mogul field several years previously when skiing with Mark and he accidentally sent me into one (I had to climb out of it), listened and watched and then figured that if my five-year-old could do it, I could too.
The big boys are better than I am by now, but they want to ski with me at least a little bit anyway. ("Why, when I am so slow?" I asked the 11-year-old on the lift. "I have my reasons," he replied mysteriously.) I spent some time with Mark and each of the others, and then he and the big boys went off together. One of the days they bought the all-mountain pass and skied over at Big Sky. Even though the eight-year-old crashes a lot and the eleven-year-old is naturally cautious, they both have a way of carrying themselves on their skis -- natural and easy, at home. I enjoy skiing, but I only feel the way they look once in a while, when I happen to carve a few turns in a row just right, usually when I am trying to ski down to the base in a hurry to pick up a child from a lesson in two minutes, and so I am not thinking about how I am doing but only trying to go fast. The boys look like skiers. They are following their dad and loving every minute.
Meanwhile, the two-year-old spent a few hours in the slopeside child care center, three of the four days. Skiing trips with the family are a good object lesson in how one must balance the needs of everyone in the family, and how the balancing techniques evolve as families grow, and how each sibling has a different set of experiences by necessity. I never -- never! -- put my firstborn in hourly childcare settings with unfamiliar staff at that age, and he would not have gone happily into them. But when there is an eleven-year-old boy around who really want to ski with Mom and Dad, well -- you know, I just don't want to keep saying no to that until there are no more little babies around. Babies don't keep, I always say, and -- this is important -- neither do eleven-year-old boys who want to ski with both their parents.
But by now, because of that different balancing, the two-year-old has had plenty of experience in hourly childcare settings and with new babysitters and the like, mostly with one or more of his siblings around, and occasionally by himself, and he didn't seem to mind it at all (dropping him off is always touch and go, but Mark is good at waiting till he is enjoying a toy or a story and then sneaking away). So he had fun too, finger painting and eating applesauce and getting taken out in the snow with other children to watch the skiers, and the women on the staff told me that he didn't fuss or worry, and he told me the names of the other children who were there each day (only two or three -- busy season for Moonlight Basin hadn't started yet).
On the last day we picked up the five-year-old from her morning lesson and had lunch together except for Mark -- he slipped away so he could do one good solo run on the steeps up top, from the lift you have to hike to. Then all five of the skiers went for a few runs together. My daughter amazed her big brothers, who could not believe how well she could ski after three and a half days of lessons. She linked her turns smoothly across the slopes, and one time skied right down to my eight-year-old and made him flinch when she executed a perfect hockey stop, on a dime, inches before colliding with him. On these runs, we sent her down first, followed closely by Mark who was keeping an eye on her, then the two boys, and then I would come behind last, a sort of insurance against leaving any children behind. There was one moment, as we came down the shallower runout of a wide groomed intermediate-level slope, when I saw before me three of my children and my husband, crisscrossing each other back and forth across the hill, in their yellow and green and orange and pink coats, and the littlest pink one going just as fast and as smoothly as everyone else, and I wished I had a helmet cam or some other way to keep it going forever. We made this happen, he and I, and it is very good.
The five-year-old and I were going to stop early and go get the toddler, so the younger children wouldn't be overtaxed and the bigger ones could get in a few last black-diamond runs with their dad. As we came down from our last run through the terrain park, my oldest shouted the toddler's name. We turned and there he was in his pudgy little snow suit and hat, toddling toward us as fast as he could in his boots, calling out his brother's name, the child-care teacher following with another little one by the hand. The little ones had been taken out to watch skiers and go for rides on the "magic carpet" (a conveyor belt that takes little beginners a few yards up the bunny hill, with or without skis). He was grinning from ear to ear and jumping with excitement to see his family on skis all around him, and his big brothers and sister gathered around him and cooed and picked him up and cheered.
That was obviously the end of my last run, so the five-year-old and I followed him back to the child-care center, and we took off our skis and gathered him up and went back to the rental condo for bathtime and hot chocolate and animal crackers while we waited for the daredevils to return.
Every family is different. I think, though, that it is good for all families to have some *thing* (many things, really) that helps define an identity as a family. We are a family who skis, among other things. The kids know it and say so, though I occasionally have to suppress the expression of it ("Our family doesn't *like* snowboarders," I overheard the five-year-old loudly announcing to her instructor near the start of a lesson). It doesn't have to be skiing, it could be many other things. And you would think that it was kind of unimportant, just one sport that we all like together, compared to more important values that we want to pass on to our children. But you know, I think it gives us practice -- practice passing on those values. We can see how it works with skiing, how the kids want to do it because we want to do it, how they want to do it well because they want to please us and also because it feels good to do it well for its own sake. We can see how if we are confident (as Mark is), we can teach them easily, and how if we are not so confident (as I am not), teaching them presents more of a challenge; and we can see what kinds of other teachers can help us along the way. We can see how these brothers and sisters encourage and challenge and goad each other, too -- sometimes not so helpfully, but other times cheering each other on with genuine enthusiasm and admiration. As it goes with leaping little jumps and moving on to bigger ones, maybe it will go with the other skills and knowledge and values that we want to share.
And if not, at least when they are young adults, if we want them to visit us we can bribe them with lift tickets.