General 4-11-2004

The Column: The Potato Eaters

Jean Sramek is our newest columnist; she will be doing "Letters from a Writer" once a month. She is an essayist and playwright from Duluth.

Jean Sramek

The next person to bitch about how long and snowy this winter has been gets snapped with a rubber band.

Normally, there’s no reason to snap someone with a rubber band. Okay, wait. Not true. There’s always a reason to snap someone with a rubber band. But especially when it comes to winter: deep and sustained snow is good for the gardens and the ecosystem; this phenomenon the scientists call “snow” happens every year and only the extremely absent-minded or improperly medicated should be surprised by this; and for the love of God, can’t intelligent people find something else to talk about besides the weather.

This year, my urge to snap the hapless has been particularly strong. Like many who live here, I enjoy cross-country skiing, and the skiing is a lot better when you have snow. This winter was long, snowy, and gloriously normal. I have skied a lot. It is the first year I’ve started to feel truly comfortable in the fresh-faced happily athletic Outdoorsy costume worn by so many of my friends.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no sloth. Besides skiing, I bicycle, lift weights, and spend a fair amount of time outside. But the Outdoorsy Gal persona is something that has never quite fit right and which, unlike my depressed Creative Artist persona, has been a bitch to accessorize. I wear outdoorsy, but I have to remind myself to put it on before I leave the house. I’m me, me is not Outdoorsy Gal except in costume, and yet recently I did something I swore I would never, ever do: ski in a race.

A few years ago I was working on a comic opera, the cast of which included a 9th grade boy who also happened to be on the high school Nordic ski team coached by my husband. The kid would go to ski practice afternoons, rehearsals at night. He had natural abilities in both snow and show, and in spite of the tough schedule he was enjoying himself. At the beginning of next year’s ski season, my husband came home and said to me accusingly, “Well, I hope you’re happy. The kid decided to drop off the ski team so he can be in [utter disdain here] one-acts.” While my husband pouted, I replied cheerfully, “He quit the team for theatre? That’s so great!” At a social event soon afterwards, I made it into a full-on Creative Artist faux pas in front of sports parents (“But this is one-acts. Skiing is just sports. …”)

There are people who would rather have their children be on some team instead of in the school play. For these people, skiing and other athletic activities are a way of life. These people, given $75 in U.S. currency, will piss it away on the entry fee for the Vasaloppet instead of on tickets to a play at Jeune Lune. These people exercise to the exclusion of nearly all other activities. These people wear colors other than black. I do outside stuff because it’s fun, and I work out at the gym because it’s good for me, and I like skiing because it is peaceful and centering and I can do it alone. To me, a race means paying good money to take away the very element of skiing that I like the most—solitude—and add the element that I like the least–other people.

But I sucked it up last month and drove to Thunder Bay and skied in this race, coerced by my Outdoorsy Gal friend Anne and a dozen or so of her ilk. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun. At the start, I made a beeline for the back of the pack (“Good strategy,” Anne and ilk said later, “Then you get to pass people and psych yourself up”; “Strategy, my ass,” I thought, “I just wanted to get away from all the bright colors and, frankly, all of you”) but I had good, clean, competitive fun. I know what my finish time was and where I placed in my age category. I’d also be lying if I denied that it was refreshing to be judged by a time and a time alone, instead of waiting for the review of the show to come out in the newspaper the next day.

We race, and we hang out. I look deep into the eyes of those who love skiing more than they love art, read Outside and Silent Sports instead of novels, and have a schedule for training but not rehearsal. I like them, but I don’t get them. Deep in their eyes, it’s shallow—pure and clean and not infested with itchy intuition like us Creative Artists. An Outdoorsy Guy thinks it’s freaky that I can’t go on this camping trip because I have a script to finish; I think it’s rude of him to be in a nylon tent in the Quetico instead of in the audience for my show. They are employed in the fields of natural sciences and mathematics and geography, and they have a vague understanding of what I do for a living. More vague than my own, I mean. They devour bowls of pasta, bowls of potatoes, bowls of pasta with potatoes mixed in it. When I make my sarcastic little observations about how I’m sick of hearing about the Atkins diet and hey, this is kind of an anti-Atkins diet … they don’t join in and try to out-clever me. They just blink, laugh politely, and then go back to eating potatoes and talking about fluorinated waxes. Their deal is to carbo-load and then race well; my deal is to be clever, pretend I don’t care what my time was in the race, and then write about it later.

See how versatile I am. I own skis and a thesaurus. I know who Bill Koch is and who Dorothy Parker is. I am so Creative of an Artist that I can complain both about people who hate snow and people who love it too much. Note to universe: snap away.

Photo Brian Peterson