In a Battle of Wills, the parents don’t have a prayer. But in a Battle of Wits, we have at least a decent shot.
We raised our girls in Minnesota, which is a fantastic place to bring up a family. Minnesota winters have a grip on the national imagination which non-natives cannot shake. Somehow, people have no problem living places where the heat is in the triple-digits for weeks at a time, but they can’t fathom life with snow on the ground. I don’t get it – you can always put on another layer when it’s cold, but when it’s murderously hot outside, there is nothing you can do but sit inside and watch the weather channel.
In other parts of the country, when it snows, it’s a damned nuisance. Traffic snarls, schools are cancelled, and everyone complains. Winter is an annoyance, an interruption. In Minnesota, winters are spectacular. Sometime around the middle of December, the lakes and ponds freeze over in the Twin Cities, and snow that falls at Christmas is still on the ground in March. Minnesotans head to their closets, attics, basements, and garages, and haul out a vast assortment of winter gear. For the next few months, while the rest of the country grumbles about cold weather, we are outside loving winter.
Not far from our home, the City of Minneapolis clears the snow off a large section of a lake, puts up a warming hut, and maintains a public skating rink throughout the winter. Especially on weekends, you can see dozens of Minnesotans out skating. Young lovers, arm in arm; old timers circling with smooth, steady strokes; beginners, wind-milling their arms; and everywhere, people playing pickup hockey games. In the rest of the country, hockey is a highly organized activity, involving rink schedules, coaches, uniforms, rules, drills, and teams. In Minnesota, hockey starts as soon as the ice on the pond is a few inches thick. No schedule, no coach, no uniform, no rules; just a few kids passing the puck around. Minnesotans play hockey the way kids in Indiana play basketball.
As Minnesota parents, we were determined that our daughters would be competent in the full range of winter sports and activities. This involved many hours of putting little girls into snowsuits, lacing up skates, hauling sleds up hills, and finding missing mittens. By far, though, the toughest slog was teaching them to ski. Although Minnesota is mostly flat, there are places for downhill skiing, mostly consisting of bluffs that slope down into river valleys. The vertical drop is rarely more than 350 feet, but there’s enough to work with so that Minnesota has produced more than a handful of top professionals, including the great Lindsay Vonn. None of our girls was going to be in the Olympics, but that wasn’t the point. We just wanted to be sure they could get up and down the hill with confidence. Our go-to ski area was Lutsen, about four hours north of the Twin Cities. It has a vertical drop of more than 800 feet, and beautiful views out over Lake Superior. At least once a year we would drive up for a long weekend, and as long as it wasn’t too cold (a dicey proposition, to be sure), it was a great getaway.
Claire, being the youngest, was the last to learn how to ski. When she was big enough – about four – we put her in a snowsuit and some tiny skis and took her to the smallest, flattest run that Lutsen had. It was called Flapjack, and it consisted of a short rope tow and a smooth, gentle slope, just outside the main chalet. I would follow her up the rope tow, get her set at the top, and then ski backwards in front of her as she learned to snowplow, turn, accelerate, fall down, etc. After an hour or two, Claire had the hang of it, and we went into the chalet for hot chocolate with Francine and the other girls.
Claire was feeling pretty stoked, now that she could ski like the rest of us. So I suggested that we expand her horizons and try some other runs. She was hesitant. She was intimidated by the names of the other runs. Flapjack suited her just fine; Flapjack was an old friend; Flapjack would never hurt her. We mistakenly thought that we could get her past this hurdle by pointing out that, just up the chairlift, there was another run named Big Bunny. Surely, now that she had conquered Flapjack, Claire was ready for the Big Bunny. Not so. In fact, the thought of trying Big Bunny scared her. She was herself little, and a run with the word “Big” in it, even if the thing that was big was a bunny; well, it was too much, especially on her very first day of skiing. Her eyes welled up – tears were imminent. I could see, stretching ahead of me, a long afternoon on Flapjack. Hour after hour, the same rope tow, the same hundred yards of gently sloping ski run. I needed inspiration, and inspiration came.
“Claire,” I said, “What if we go down Little Girl instead? Do you think you could try Little Girl?” In her face I saw courage and determination stir, and the tears subsided. Maybe, she said. Maybe should could try Little Girl. That didn’t sound so scary. And so it was. We finished our French fries and hot chocolate, put on her snowsuit and little skis, and went back out to the slopes. Claire sat next to me on her first chairlift ride ever, and when we reached the top, we got ourselves ready and tackled Little Girl. Claire took it like a champ, and we passed the rest of the afternoon in triumph. By the end of the day, Claire was skiing fearlessly down the green runs, more or less able to keep up with her big sisters. She was a proud girl at the dinner table that night, but the crowning moment was the stunned, wide-eyed look on her face when I said “Claire, I have to tell you something. I made up the name Little Girl. What you were actually skiing on all day was Big Bunny.”