March 15, 2013 11:17 pm

The Diary: Aleksandar Hemon

Invoking childhood memories while skiing with the family, passing on the love of the sport, discovering the same focus and exhilaration in writing
An illustration by Toby Whitebread depicting the adventures of skiing©Toby Whitebread

One of the advantages of being a writer is a rather flexible schedule. Also, the fact that everything pools into the experience reservoir from which one gets thoughts and energy, which might (or might not) combine into a fruitful idea. Hence I feel perfectly justified in going with my wife Teri and our daughters Ella (5) and Esther (16 months) to Colorado for two weeks of skiing. We are staying in Frisco, a former mining town at 9,000ft/2,700m, which is happily encircled by ski resorts: Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Loveland, Arapahoe Basin, Keystone, Vail – all within 30 minutes by car. I’ve been checking weather and snow reports for Frisco, Denver (90 miles away) and Vail for weeks now. Even when it snowed in Chicago I was giddily happy in expectation of our ski trip.

. . .

I grew up skiing. My family had a cabin in Jahorina, one of the mountains near Sarajevo where competitions were held for the 1984 Winter Olympics (which I completely missed, but that’s a different story). In addition to many weekends and holidays, my sister Kristina and I would spend our entire month-long winter break skiing (and partying). There is therefore a nostalgic aspect to my skiing obsession – to speed down the hill, dizzy with high altitude, is not only to invoke the corporal exhilarations of my youth (the lactic acid burning in your quads, the shaving wind on your face, the obedient knees ploughing the fresh powder), but also to confirm the consensus among my family: we were never happier than when we were in the mountains.

Ella started skiing three years ago, when she was barely two and a half. We were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and we put her in a skiing class; within a couple of days, she was getting on the lift and going downhill. This time, after getting a little bored on an easy run in Copper Mountain, she suggests that we venture among the trees. A responsible father that I am, I firmly say no, but then, the proud father that I am, thinks: “Why the hell not?” and into the woods we go.

She is, of course, brilliantly controlling her speed and turns among the trees, enjoying what I enjoy in skiing – the continuous, fast flow of decision-making. Every once in a while she gets stuck in deep powder but extricates herself, sometimes with my help but often without it, never crying or whining. She is still in kindergarten but I’m continuously in awe of her strength and determination, even if they make for demanding parenthood.

. . .

Back in the early 1970s my father used to take my sister and me skiing. In those days, your shoes had to be laced up, and your skis were wooden with wire bindings and steel edges, to which your fingers – and, at least once, your tongue – stuck. No runs were groomed and there was still no evidence of climate change; or it could be that I was so small that snow always seemed very deep. Kristina and I were always cold, always begging our mother to protect us from our father’s relentless skiing enthusiasm. He had no compunction about skiing in fog and blizzard and was as unyielding as our toes were insensate with cold. Thus I hated skiing, but we kept doing it. And then, a few years later – suddenly, unexpectedly – I became a good skier and acquired a passion for skiing that has been approaching trance ever since.

Not quite as unyielding as my father, I’ve pushed Ella to ski even when she was not excited about it, convinced that she’d end up loving it as I had. The day may have arrived: skiing among the trees, Ella yelps and screeches with joy and excitement; she feels good about doing it and is focused in a way that is rarely seen among five-year-olds.

At one point, following her through the woods, I fall so as not to run into her. She confidently says: “Tata, this might be a little too steep for you!” thereby confirming my heading downhill on the slope of life. And for the first time – and perhaps much too early – it occurs to me that our skiing among the trees is something Ella shall always remember. Many years from now (I hope), when I am no longer around, she will tell someone how she used to ski with her father when she was a kid. And she will make tricky turns among the trees, recalling us being happy and wind-chilled in Copper Mountain. I do not need an afterlife beyond that.

. . .

Over the two weeks in Frisco we watched television only once, on Oscars night. It was a massive mistake. Although wireless internet was woefully available, so I cannot claim to having been perfectly protected from the banalities of the world – I tweeted pictures of mountain ranges – the Oscars pageant was hurtfully insulting to my intelligence, later restored by skiing.

The glitzy, vacuous chumminess of all those present, obliviously floating at the high celebrity altitude: actors acting actors while receiving acting awards; Seth McFarlane – a boy in the body of an asshole – and his spectacular charmlessness coupled with casual bigotry; the teleprompted self-regard of the entitlement machinery, totally incapable and unwilling to deal in any serious way with this complicated country and its ethical responsibilities. Watching the Oscars as MC-ed by the young McFarlane I realised that, whenever accidentally stumbling into self-doubt, the US retreats/returns into the mindset of a mean adolescent boy. The fiascos of the Bush years, extending deep into the Obama reign, show the consequences of that mindset.

It snowed all night before our last day, and it was still snowing when I hit the slopes of Copper Mountain, the top of which is at nearly 13,000ft/ 4,000m. After two weeks of skiing, I am finally acclimatised to the altitude but skiing in knee-deep powder still requires stopping every once in a while to catch my breath. It is early morning and there is nobody on the run that I take. The silence of snow is overwhelming, ruptured only by the distant booming of avalanche cannons. I don’t ski out of bounds and have no interest in pristine wilderness, nor do I care about experiencing soundless peace.

What skiing does for me is not unlike what writing does: everything is intensified to the point of lucid exhilaration, which allows for the sensation (or illusion) of total presence in the world. The effect is related to the continuous flow of decision-making: because each decision has to be made within a particular moment, soon to vanish into another moment, one is possessed by adrenalised focus, so aware of all the surrounding conditions and circumstances that the gap between mind and body fully collapses, thereby establishing an indelible hereness, simultaneous perfect connection and absolute disconnection from the world. The mind gets clear, briefly, the thinking apparatus is reset. This is, I believe, what other people go to monasteries or writers’ retreats for. I prefer fresh powder.

‘The Book of My Lives’ (Picador), by Aleksandar Hemon, has just been published

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