Thursday, April 12, 2018

Transitioning

These last few weeks, I’ve felt a bit like the tiny crocuses outside the living room window –  alternately basking in the warm spring sunshine and huddling against the stubborn winter cold. My first peek out the window in the morning now is as likely to reveal a giant flock of robins hopping around the yard like an army of wind-up toys as it is a fresh coating of snow.

During these transitional days, I am often as indecisive as the seasons, still enjoying winter’s last thrills, even as I look forward to and prepare for spring – whenever it might arrive.

On those warm-sun days, if I have the time, I weigh the options – an outing with the dog or one more trip to the ski hill for fast turns down quiet groomers?

When the day warrants time only for a quick outing, I’ve traded in forays through the forest by cross-country ski for slow runs on backroad routes I haven’t traveled much since November. I try to identify the birdsong floating through a landscape that was recently winter-quiet and to remember where I usually spot the first wildflowers – often escaped from some long-ago garden.

On longer treks, when the sun beckons the dog and I to climb higher on still-snowy trails, I can’t help but think ahead to summer adventures. Which tall peaks, now still blanketed in snow, will we hike during the green months?

The kids have had their bikes out the last few weeks, as the afternoons stretch longer between school ending and the sun setting. They ride over mud and snow, skid out on the ice, remember the exhilaration of flying downhill on something other than skis – and think about summer rides to come.

The ski gear is still out, in case we are inspired for one more day on the slopes. The ski boots by the big radiator near the front door join a jumble of muck boots and sneakers, flipflops and soccer cleats – any of them potentially required on any given day now.

We’ve lugged the sleds and snowshoes back into the garage, but haven’t yet hauled them upstairs to their warm-weather storage, lest there’s one more good snowstorm that merits their use before spring really settles in. Experience tells us that snowstorm could come as late as Memorial Day – or not again until next fall.

Some days I am impatient for the seasons to get on with their shuffle, for sunshine to prevail over lingering flurries. On other days, I remind myself any snowflakes falling now won’t last long in the strengthening light and lengthening days.

This, the dog knows – or, more likely, she just doesn’t care. She takes pleasure in whatever she finds, running gleefully along dirty roads, traipsing through puddles and scampering hopelessly after the chittering red squirrels. She stares intently through the windows at the newly arrived birds hopping around the yard. She laps happily in the recently-thawed stream near our driveway, trots mindlessly through the mud, and then – as if it’s the best thing in the world – rolls gleefully in any big-enough patch of snow she can find.

Perhaps she remembers that snow will soon disappear. Spring is coming. Next week, maybe, or the week after that. Whenever it gets here, we’ll be ready.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the April 13, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Adventuring

Our group must have looked quite the spectacle from the tram cars: a gaggle of the littlest ski racers making their way down the mountain’s toughest trail. A few of our crew ripped right down D.J.’s Tramline, not the least bit phased by the rock drops and snowy bumps as high as the skiers who were maneuvering around them. Others struggled – more with their own nerves than with the technicality of the skiing. These are, after all, Cannon kids; they’ll ski just about anything.

After the descent, as we stood between the tram car docks waiting for a ride back to the summit, I had the kids look up at the trail they’d just skied: strewn with boulders and exceedingly steep in some areas. Whether they’d been the anxious ones or the confident skiers moments before, they all seemed to puff up just a little bit gazing back up the mountain.

That was my first time down Tramline, too, and it was, until Saturday, the only trail on the mountain I hadn’t skied. At least the only one on the trail map.

That trail map has changed a good bit since the days when I was one of the littlest ski racers here. Maybe it’s because I lived (and skied) away during college and for several years after that, or because I’ve been exploring the mountain with my own kids as they have grown and progressed in their skiing prowess, or because I coach with a guy who knows every nook and cranny here – on the trail map and off – whatever the reason, I find joy in this adventuring.

Last Wednesday my kids had a rare snow day from school, and we spent a good chunk of it at Cannon, arriving to find snow so deep it was hard to open the car doors (and we later had to dig said car out of the unplowed spot we’d parked in early that morning). We made one run down a wide-open trail before the kids dragged me into the woods, and we spent the rest of the day exploring.

I grew up skiing this mountain, although we were weekend commuters, so too far away to make it on a snow day from school. Back then, there were no glades. Sure, there were a few secret stashes off the saddle between Cannon and Mittersill, and once the latter area closed and the forest grew back up around trails and lift lines, there were some hidden spots there, too. But certainly nothing on the trail map.

Now Cannon lists 22 glades on its trail map, ranging from short, beginner woods runs to long, tight, tricky tree skiing. Wednesday we headed to the top to ski the glades there, then over to Mittersill to ski more glades, and finally ended the day on the old Tuckerbrook trail, cut back in the 1930s and maintained, often clandestinely, in the decades since.

This is the one off-piste trail I remember from my own childhood. Skiing it is a rite of passage. Tuckerbrook is not a particularly hard trail, but it is an adventure. You have to hike to reach the entrance, it’s not groomed, and there’s a long traverse out at the bottom. You also need to line up a lift back to the base area, as the trail spits skiers onto a dead end back road a couple of miles from any ski lift.

Although a few others had been in there by the time we reached Tuckerbrook Wednesday, it was some of the best skiing we had all day. As grateful as I am for the manmade snow that allows some consistency to ski season, there is nothing like the real stuff – and that’s what you find on Tuckerbrook and in the glades.

So it was fun to continue the adventuring last weekend, both for my kids and their ski groups and for the young skiers I help to coach. My youngest daughter took another trip down Tuckerbrook. My oldest skied a different unmapped trail. Our group snuck through woods so tight branches smacked our legs and cheeks as we made our way to hidden glades, turning around trees and rocks, finding soft snow everywhere we went.

I don’t know about the kids, but I ended the weekend tired – and fulfilled. And grateful that, on a mountain with as many secret stashes as there are named trails, there are plenty more adventures to chase.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the March 23, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Race Mom Jitters

It is a rare occasion that I get to devote an entire day to watching my kids ski race. Based on my physical reaction to being Race Day Mom last weekend, that’s probably a good thing.

I’d taken the day off from coaching the littlest racers at Cannon to spend the day rooting for my son and his friends at the U12 State Finals at Cranmore. Most of the day, all was just peachy. The sun was out. The snow was soft. I chatted with other parents at the finish area, cheering as kids we knew came down the course and through the finish.

(Photo cred: Josh Lawton)
About two racers before my son’s bib number, though, my heart rate quickened. My shoulders tensed. I had to focus on taking even breaths. By the time I saw Owen push out of the start at the top of the hill, I felt like I was going to vomit. Or cry. Possibly both.

For the 49 seconds it took him to get through the course, I was a disaster. And then he pushed through the finish, and everything returned to normal.

This is how it is for me every time one of my children is in a race course and I am at the finish.

I can’t explain why the mere act of watching my children do something they love causes such acute angst. There is no logic behind it. I am not overly concerned with how well or poorly they will do compared to the field. Nor am I particularly worried about them being injured.

And this is not a new sport to me. I grew up ski racing. I’ve coached young racers and soon-to-be racers for several years. I’m familiar with race day nerves from a competitor’s perspective, but I was never the kid puking off the side of the trail before first run. Likewise, I never felt overly nervous for the kids I coach as I doled out pep talks at the start or high fives at the finish.

Although I’ve coached and watched my kids play other sports – soccer, baseball, basketball – those competitions don’t inspire anything like the anxiety I experience during ski races. The one exception there, perhaps, is the few times my kids have been involved in penalty kick shootouts during soccer games.

Maybe, then, it is that sense that my child is up there alone.

Perhaps at its core this nearly paralyzing, and thankfully only momentary, anxiety I feel on race days is simply motherly instinct. My son is facing a challenge on his own, and there’s nothing I can do to help him. My daughter, who wakes up full of nerves every race day, has to overcome her own anxiety to push off from the start and charge hard through a course, and there’s nothing I can do but stand idly by and watch.

There are no timeouts, no teammates to rely on mid-race, no direct opponent to deke around or win the ball from. During that short race run, it is just the racer and the course – and the potential for both heartbreak and triumph.

I know I’m am not the only frazzled parent standing at the finish line. I’ve watched friends stare at the course stone-faced as their children come through, or bouncing with nervous excitement, or muttering some encouraging phrase repeatedly for their child’s entire run. Normally reasonable people, we get a little wonky during races.

My kids are just at the start of their ski racing experience. Maybe the more races they’re in, the more times I stand at the bottom and watch, the easier it will get. For now, though, I remind myself to breathe, cheer as loudly as I can, and know that this feeling, too, shall pass – as soon as my kid crosses the finish.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the March 9, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

What happened to Winter?

The driveway this winter has progressed through a somewhat regular and recurring rotation of fresh snow, slushy post-rain puddles, and the thick ice that forms when temps drop from well above freezing to well below. There is no consistency to winter anymore, it seems.

Missing snowier days...
We survived the deep freeze of Christmas week, whose brutal cold sapped our energy and made our fingers and toes ache. By the end of those two frigid weeks, even the most outdoor-loving of my outdoor-loving kids was content to stay inside when he could.

The January Thaw came twice – both the week before my birthday and the week after. I don’t remember all the specific weather details, but somewhere in there, between the rain and thawing, it snowed enough that we had to shovel the roof, brush off the car, and plow the driveway several times.

The first week of February, I let my kids skip school one day to ski a foot of new powder. When I tossed that idea out to my husband, feeling a bit guilty about the missing-school part, he was immediately on board (although, sadly, he still had to go to work). We only get so many powder days in a winter – or a lifetime – after all. The kids dragged me through every puffy-with-new-snow glade they could find, and we stayed out well into the afternoon.

I guess it was good we had that day, because this Tuesday I wore my rain pants and muck boots to the mountain for my coaching gig. Out of a small vacation week group, I had only two intrepid 7-year-olds join me for a morning of slushy-icy runs and wet chairlift rides. As we went in for our mid-morning break, I wrung the water out of my sopping mittens.

The kids didn’t seem to mind. They chatted happily on the chairlift, practiced the rainy day drills I assigned them, and skimmed cheerfully through slushy puddles to get from one place to the next.

The last three years, we’ve had similarly wacky winter weather during the two weeks of February break that are traditionally the busiest ski weeks of the season. Last year, for the first week, when out-of-state skiers are on vacation, we had fresh snow and beautiful weather. The New Hampshire kids got rain and ice the following week, but they didn’t batt an annoyed eyelash.

I have a photograph, somewhere, of my crew from two years ago standing in a deep puddle at the top of a chairlift. They gleefully slid through that puddle – and another one at the bottom of another lift – every run that day.

I’m glad the kids go with the flow, and I try to match their enthusiasm for skiing in the rain. But maybe they don’t mind because it’s such a regular occurrence in their young skiing lives.

I can remember only a handful of rainy ski days in my entire childhood. Tuesday one of the other coaches, a guy who’s on the hill six days a week, said it was his eleventh day this season skiing in the rain. Rain ponchos and serious rain pants – like the kind fishermen wear – have been added to many a ski coach’s wardrobe.

My own kids, like the good New Englanders they are, will ski in just about any kind of weather: howling wind, 40 below, sleet, snow, ice, sunshine. But like me, they are dismayed by the recurring winter thaws that no longer stick to a few days of January.

“This is sad,” my 9-year-old proclaimed Wednesday morning, as she exited the house jacketless and looked out on the snow-less field and the mud bog of our driveway.

All I could do was agree – and hope for another swing toward winter before spring sets in for good.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the February 23, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dance of the Groomers

I can see them when I sit at the living room window on winter evenings, or when I go out to take one last peek at the sky before bedtime, checking the stars, sniffing hopefully for the scent of snow about to fall, looking to the mountain for the groomers in their nighttime dance.

We've come a long way since this old Tucker Sno-Cat!
Sometimes there is only one on our side of the mountain, a solitary light moving slowly along. Often we can see two or three, and on rare occasions all four snowcats, working their different parts of the mountain, moving along trails disguised by night’s darkness. The bright lights seem synchronized in their slow up-and-down, to-and-fro motions, although surely the snowcat drivers can’t see each other as they work, cleaning up the day’s mess of bumps and ruts and uncovered ice, planting neat rows of corduroy as they go.  

A couple weekends ago, as I drove back up Three Mile Hill toward the mountain for an evening function, I watched one cat crawl up Middle Ravine (perhaps) and another down what I figured to be Skyline on Mittersill. I smiled at the glow of cat lights moving on the mountain I know, have known for as long as I have known anything, but only by day.

What do the trails look like in the dark, bereft of the skiers who congregate there for their daily bread, their freedom, a few hours of joy – all during daylight hours? The groomers know. They know a landscape apart from the one so familiar to so many: the same contours from a different perspective.

In mountains, as in life, perspective is critical – and constantly shifting. Have you ever looked at a familiar mountain from a different angle and not been able to name it? Or climbed to the top to see it up close, rather from the distance of town? Or considered a problem from a different potential solution, a sentence with a different twist, an opinion from someone else’s point-of-view?

Fluid and quiet from afar, I know the snowcats are noisy when close, that the hard blades of their tracks churn through the snow and ice as they move. Leaving well-swept snow in their wake, they are a juxtaposition of power and grace.

A couple of Sunday mornings ago, the temperature dropped after the trails had been groomed, creating a solid, slippery, and unsafe surface. Back up the mountain the groomers went to refurbish the trails. From below, the little ski racers I coach on weekends watched wide-eyed as the cats moved along familiar trails, fixing them up just for us.

Some evenings, my own children look for the snowcats during dinner, gazing from the dining room table, out through the early dark of winter, toward a light or two or three moving along the mountain. In the mornings, when the sky is pre-dawn slate, just lightening to peach along the mountains’ silhouette, we can usually spot a groomer putting on the finishing touches, making one last pass before the skiers arrive.

The cats leave the snow ready for edges to carve, for skiers to find their Zen moments – in short, quick turns or fast, sweeping ones across the fall line. A day’s worth of skiers marks the once-smooth canvas into countless cuts and divots, slices and ruts, leaving it muddled and choppy. And as night falls, the groomers take to the mountain again, and we watch their dance from afar.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the February 9, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Birthday Parties

Throwing birthday parties is not my forte. Don’t get me wrong – I love birthdays and celebrating them. I enjoy a candle-bedecked cake as much as the next person, and for years I made the kids whatever shape they wanted, although the unicorn nearly did me in. But in this Pinterest-savvy world, I am like the anti-Pinterest. I don’t do well with themed decorations and clever party games and perfectly assembled goodie bags for every guest.

Some parents don’t think twice about hosting a houseful of kids hyped up on sugar and toting noise-makers, but the thought of such a scene puts me on the edge of an anxiety attack. Maybe if we could spread the birthday planning out a bit, it would be OK. But all three of our kids have birthdays within a month, which ups the party planning anxiety.

When my oldest two children were in kindergarten, we threw them a birthday party. The invitee list included the kids’ entire school class – all 12 of them – plus a few other friends. We planned an outside party, because at the mere thought of 15 children under the age of 7 running around my house I felt a colossal headache coming on.

An outside party in January can be tough to pull off, but we went for it anyway. We told the kids to bring sleds. I filled plastic spray bottles with colored water for making snow art. My husband built a fire in the backyard fire pit. He mixed cocoa for the kids and added a little shot of courage to the parents’ mugs. We all stood outside and watched the kids tumble around in the snow.

All was well – until it was time to go inside for cupcakes and presents. That headache I’d felt waiting to attack arrived quickly. Fifteen small kids – and many of their parents – in one living room is noisy. Add the excitement of wrapped presents and the promise of cake, and the noise becomes pure chaos. But the noise was just the tip of the birthday iceberg.

At one point, I glanced over to the window seat table and saw one little girl with a bowl full of nuts sitting next to another little girl who has a severe nut allergy. We quickly separated the two and breathed a sigh of relief. A few minutes later, I looked out that picture window to see one of the more intrepid 5-year-olds down by the (now extinguished) fire pit, hacking away at a log with the hatchet we’d inadvertently left unattended.

It’s a wonder no one went into anaphylactic shock or lost a finger at that birthday party.

That was not the first birthday party we’d hosted, but it was the last one with more than six kids in our house at one time. After that, we did a couple of years of small celebrations, with the kids picking a few friends to join them on a special outing of their choosing. One year, in an effort to go big, but not in my own house, I coughed up a couple hundred bucks and had a party at a big gym. The next year we had a family birthday weekend in Boston instead. I figured that cost about the same as renting a party place. Plus, birthday dinner at Quincy Market was a fun novelty.

The last couple of years, we’ve stuck to birthday treats shared with classmates at school and low-key family dinners. The kids don’t seem to mind – or even notice. Maybe it’s because they’re a bit older now – two reached, by their own definition, pre-teen status this week, whatever that means – and they realize the value of quality celebrating over quantity. Or maybe it’s because with so many local family members, the birthday dinner becomes a big, intergenerational bash – just as much party, not as much stress.

This week we gathered all the people who love my kids best into our home. There were a few presents, and only one adorable 5-year-old. We ordered take-out pizza. The cakes were of standard size and shape. There was no theme, no goodie bags, and certainly no hatchets involved.

It was just the right kind of birthday party.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the January 12, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

January Thaw

For about three years running when I was a kid, I wanted to have an ice-skating party for my birthday, which falls this month. Each year, winter would start off all frosty and lovely. The ice would freeze smooth on the pond just down the road. The invitations would go out. And then the January Thaw would arrive, just in time to turn the pond to slush and ruin my plans.

Drip...drip...drip...
This year, winter has started off with a combination of lots of fluffy snow and brutally cold days. Several days over the holiday vacation week, I felt as if I were wearing a corset as I zipped into my coach’s jacket, so tightly packed were the layers of polypro and down beneath.

So when I snuck out for a few runs early this week, it was blissful to ski without being hunched up against the cold and wearing so many layers that I could barely move. Those runs were beautiful. A bit of fresh, soft snow, great cover on all the trails, and a temperature right around freezing.

That moment of bliss, I’m afraid, preceded this year’s January Thaw.

As I write this column, it is still solidly winter. The trees are dressed in lacy white. The field is fully covered. The mountain peaks at the edge of my view are snowy. But the forecast looks warm and wet for the end of the week. By the time anyone reads this column, we’ll know how bad it is. I won’t even utter that four-letter word that begins with R; it’s dirtier than the mud it causes. Alas, I’m afraid it’s coming.

The January Thaw is a bit of an ambiguous concept. There’s no exact date for the dreaded phenomenon, and some years it doesn’t even happen – or it comes in December or February or, the worst, multiple times over the course of a winter. The Farmer’s Almanac, that bastion of long-range weather prediction that meteorologists urge us not to believe because the science is vague, or, perhaps, non-existent, describes The Thaw thusly:

“Small ‘blips’ in the overall pattern reveal noticeable fluctuations that can be observed from year to year. These blips are called singularities in weather lingo. Indian Summer, a period of unseasonably warm weather that usually appears in mid-October, is one such blip. The January Thaw is another.”

I will say that I much prefer the other singularity – Indian Summer – to this one. The Almanac goes on to say the January Thaw typically sees temperatures an average of 10 degrees higher than the previous week. Well, this is one heck of a thaw. By week’s end, temps are forecast to be in the mid-40s – above zero. That’s about a 70-degree change from a week prior!

If I can find any solace in this weather “blip,” it is that it will be brief – and in the fact that it has been happening (though perhaps not as dramatically) for far longer than I have been lamenting it.

Some years ago, my mother gave the kids a book called “Ollie’s Ski Trip,” written in 1907 by Swedish author Elsa Beskow. Young Ollie loves winter – and snow, skating, sledding, skiing – and is thrilled to meet Jack Frost, but dismayed by the occasional early arrival of winter’s “cleaning lady,” Mrs. Thaw, who forgets when she is supposed to set to work and sometimes tries to melt Jack Frost’s handiwork before spring arrives.

Whenever Ollie noticed hints that Mrs. Thaw was at work, he’d chant, “Mrs. Thaw, Mrs. Thaw, Please don’t sweep our snow away! Come again some other day!”

If only it were so easy to control the weather. Here’s hoping Jack Frost follows close on Mrs. Thaw’s heals this January, and there’s plenty of winter still to come.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the January 12, 2018 issue of the Littleton Record.