Chillin' with Daddy

Travel East
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Chillin' with Daddy 1104

It was the coldest weekend of the season in New England. Muffin wanted to ski. And Mommy was nowhere in sight. One father's struggles with bulging luggage, cowering mercury and the dietary requirements of the American 6-year-old.

There is skiing out-of-bounds,

heliskiing, skiing across Antarctica and skiing down Mt. Everest. But there is no ski trip as daunting as the first time that dad takes a 6-year-old for a ski weekend, just the two of them, all by themselves.

My wife said, "It will be a good experience."

For my wife. I could see that she wanted to get the spoiled, demanding pest-me-out of the house. Also she may have been looking for some relief from Muffin, our kindergarten-aged daughter. A ski trip would give Mrs. O'Rourke two days with just an infant, a toddler and a hyperkinetic Brittany spaniel, which counts as peace and quiet where we live.

However, I am not one of those modern fathers who people refer to as "one of those modern fathers." I was 50 before Muffin was born. I was the only prospective dad in the birthing class in a coat and tie (and carrying a pocket flask). During birthing itself I gripped my wife's hand, stared at my shoes and said helpful things such as, "Would a box of chocolates and some movie magazines make you feel better?" I'm sometimes left to watch the children, but only for as long as it takes my wife to rush into the dry cleaner's. Even then, I suspect, the key chain remote is used on the door locks, lest I forgetfully wander over to Agway to look at new snowblowers. I'm useless with the kids.

"Oh, come on," said my wife. "You're the one who got them on the chairlift before I got them on the potty."

True, I believe kids should start skiing as soon as possible. It's good for them. Skiing is a sport and we're always told how good sports are for children. But skiing is a sport without the belligerence, without the excessively aggressive competitive behavior of coaches yelling, "Get that girl's dad off the playing field!" Skiing teaches important life lessons. A lot of life is spent falling on your butt. And skiing encourages the right attitude toward nature. Once kids have lost control and slammed into enough firs, pines and birches, they'll never turn into tree-hugging eco-twerps when they get to college.

And yet..."I don't even know what to pack," I said.

"Daddy," said Muffin, "don't worry. I packed everything." And she meant it-all her winter clothes; an international congress of Barbies; all their winter clothes; china and silverware for doll teas; gowns and tiaras for princess dress-up; 2,000 Crayolas, some in colors only visible to bees; her dance class tutu; enough Steifs, Gunds and Beanie Babies to allow me to check every box on the Life List in Peterson's Field Guide to the Stuffed Animals; and a four-pound bag of leftover Halloween candy that I thought I'd hidden for my own delectation. My wife had spent all week squeezing this stuff into the supposedly grossly oversized SUV we own. It was either take Muffin skiing or blow Saturday and Sunday unpacking the Suburban.

Having decided to go, there was no question about where. Everyone in New England (and my wife, a thorough person, called everyone in New England to check) agrees that when you feel like leaving your children outside in the snow, Smugglers' Notch is the place to do it.



Smugglers' is 30 miles from Burlington, Vt., and provides shuttle buses so you can get there by airplane or Amtrak. Or you can get there the way I did, with a 6-year-old schooling herself in the fine points of back-seat driving. "What's that word, Daddy? Is that the special word you have to use when you get behind a big truck?" Some friends of ours who have a lot of children-I'm not even sure how many-and who may possess more procreational than supervisory skills, said, "Smuggs is great! You can open the car doors on Friday afternoon and not see the kids again until Sunday evening."

The Smuggrs' brochure describes a 5,400-square-foot daycare center accepting tots as young as 6 weeks (for moms trying to shake those postpartum blues by catching some air in the halfpipe). The facility has "radiant floor heating," "giant fish tanks in every room," "developmentally appropriate toys" and a "one-way viewing mirror for parents." I now feel inadequate as a housing provider.

Smugglers' has various 9 a.m.-to-4 p.m. ski and snowboard day camps for kids from 3 to 14. Science and nature lessons are included in the camp programs and, says the brochure, "If you'd like, your youngsters...can even keep up with their schoolwork while vacationing by joining our Wednesday evening study hall supervised by certified teachers." I should have thought to pack the phonics work sheets Muffin brings home from kindergarten, which, frankly, are beyond me.

Smugglers' has a sort of indoor amusement park, the Fun Zone, and two teen centers with music, dancing, snacks and so forth to distract teens from doing what, undistracted, teens are all too likely to do. There is an immense indoor pool flanked by a pair of big hot tubs. And Smugglers' provides-here's a sampling from just one page of the brochure-"Ice Skating, Tube Sliding, Snowshoeing, Self-Guided Nature Trail, Village Bonfires with Hot Chocolate...Family Fun Races...Family Karaoke..."

"Honey," I asked my wife, "do we ever have 'Family Karaoke'?"

"Well," she said, "there was the time you came home from the Sons of Hibernia St. Patrick's Day lunch and sang Danny Boy, but it scared the children."

There is, of course, also skiing at Smugglers' Notch-27 miles of it on 72 trails spread across Morse, Madonna and Sterling mountains. The vertical rise on Madonna is 2,610 feet, about as much as you can get east of the Rockies unless you continue east to the Alps. And there is some Forget-the-Family fun to be had in 40 acres of steep glades-shaving with tree bark and getting your hairpiece styled by low-hanging limbs-and on a black-diamond called The Black Hole, which looks, in the photograph, to have a pitch of somewhat more than 90 degrees.

Not that I was to experience any of this personally. My skiing with Muffin was constrained, although not by Muffin. We experienced a Fahrenheit problem, or perhaps I should use the more downwardly expansive Kelvin scale. We left home on a merely frigid January Friday. Within an hour, the worst cold snap of the season had commenced. By the time we reached Smugglers' Notch, superconductivity was occurring in zinc and lead.

"Let's go skiing right now!" said Muffin as we undertook the desperate Roald Amundsen expedition 10 yards from the car to the Smugglers' lodge.

"No," I said, listening to the capillaries in my nose expand and crack.

Muffin's sigh formed into a snowcone on her face. I noticed the small grocery store in the Smugglers' lodge. "I know what we'll do!" I said in that voice of borderline-hysterical false enthusiasm that presidential candidates at political rallies have borrowed from frantic parents, "We'll go grocery shopping instead!"

Muffin pondered this alternative while I collected lift passes and condo keys.

"If I can choose the breakfast cereals," said Muffin. She filled the cart with boxes of Snicker Chex, Marshmallow Krispies, Puffed Oreos, Tootsiepop Flakes and Cream of Jelly Beans while I added more substantive items such as Tater Tots, cola, steak and, as a last minute sop to nutrition, two carrots.

Thankfully, someone had left the ski condo thermostat turned up to April in Paris. Muffin changed all the Barbies into spring outfits. I puzzled over the carrots. Are they supposed to be grilled or fried? "I know a secret," said Muffin. "You don't like carrots either." We settled on steak with a side of breakfast cereal.

Muffin was enthralled by our accommodations. "There's a TV in my bedroom!" We try to limit TV-watching at home, with the predictable result that Muffin is fascinated by anything that comes on television. I turned it on immediately because I'm the other parent. You know what I mean. In any given mother/father pair, there's one parent who dispenses common sense, wisdom, discipline and fresh vegetables. I'm the other parent.

At bedtime, I admit I finessed the tooth-brushing argument. It isn't like she's not going to get another set of teeth. I managed to find every one of the 30 stuffed animals she asked for by name. I arranged them on the coversto her specifications. "Can I sleep in your bed, Daddy?" I moved the zoo.

I can no more get a child to go to bed and stay in bed than I can get a child to brush her teeth. Like most people who are useless with the kids, I tried logic-a cogent and well-reasoned argument about the probable exertions of the morrow and our need for plentiful rest. "Do you understand?" I asked.

"Yes. It means you have to go to bed too, Daddy."

"I, um..."

"Really, Daddy."

And so, at the unaccustomed hour of 8:30, wholly sober and with a Ty giraffe wedged into my left kidney, I lay down for the night.



The morning was bright and still. But when I looked at the outdoor thermometer the mercury was huddled into a tiny, withered pinprick at the base of the thermometer bulb.

"Muffin," I said, "I'm not sure we're going to be able to go skiing today..."

There is crying that calls for a hug. And there is crying that calls for a scolding. And then there is crying that calls for dad to change the world and master the very elements of the universe. Only a wimp of a dad wouldn't try.

"You know how much you like your blue ski parka and your pink ski parka and your yellow ski parka?" I said. "And how much you like your Hello Kitty sweater and your Power Puff Girls sweater and your My Little Pony sweater? And your fleece with the snowflakes on it and your red snow pants and your green snow pants and your snow pants with the purple stripes?"

Muffin nodded.

"Well, good news!" I said. "Today you get to wear all of them!"

But first I had to put some breakfast into her. Muffin's interest in sugary cereals seemed to have palled. "Would you like an egg?" I asked.

"Daddy, eggs are baby chicks except all runny."

"Now that you mention it, I don't think I want an egg either." I made numerous other suggestions. "Tell mom you had cheese toast with tomato and a PowerBar," I said. There's nothing really so wrong about a Baby Ruth and a microwaved pizza pocket for breakfast. I mean, as opposed to going out in the cold on an empty stomach.

Fully dressed, with balaclava, two hats and triple mittens, Muffin resembled a Volkswagen Beetle under a down-filled car cover.

At the Smugglers' Notch lodge we were met by ski instructor Brian Churchill, or B.C., as he's called. B.C. had brought along his 20-year-old daughter, Jessica, also a ski instructor. "Just for the fun of it," said B.C. "She loves kids, and it's great to get out of the house on a beautiful day." The temperature was minus 15 degrees. B.C. and Jessica had already taken a run from the top of Madonna. Though I live in New Hampshire, hardly the tropics, I'm forced to confess that Vermonters have a greater tolerance for... for lots of things. Do I even need to mention Howard Dean?

"Is Muffin going to be OK outside?" I asked.

"Well, I see you've got her dressed," said B.C. "We'll just keep an eye on her." Which was not going to be easy since no part of Muffin was visible.

We stuck to the lower trails, out of deference to the weather rather than Muffin's ability. She's been on skis for two years now, parallels when she wants to and can get down anything. She has a roof truss of a snowplow that lets her descend icy steeps at the speed of waffle syrup. That said, her stance resembles a frog on Popsicle sticks. Or it did until she'd taken two runs with B.C. and Jessica. Suddenly she was standing up straight-to the extent that posture could be detected inside her ball of clothes. Her skis were coming together. Her body was facing, orn. I turned it on immediately because I'm the other parent. You know what I mean. In any given mother/father pair, there's one parent who dispenses common sense, wisdom, discipline and fresh vegetables. I'm the other parent.

At bedtime, I admit I finessed the tooth-brushing argument. It isn't like she's not going to get another set of teeth. I managed to find every one of the 30 stuffed animals she asked for by name. I arranged them on the coversto her specifications. "Can I sleep in your bed, Daddy?" I moved the zoo.

I can no more get a child to go to bed and stay in bed than I can get a child to brush her teeth. Like most people who are useless with the kids, I tried logic-a cogent and well-reasoned argument about the probable exertions of the morrow and our need for plentiful rest. "Do you understand?" I asked.

"Yes. It means you have to go to bed too, Daddy."

"I, um..."

"Really, Daddy."

And so, at the unaccustomed hour of 8:30, wholly sober and with a Ty giraffe wedged into my left kidney, I lay down for the night.



The morning was bright and still. But when I looked at the outdoor thermometer the mercury was huddled into a tiny, withered pinprick at the base of the thermometer bulb.

"Muffin," I said, "I'm not sure we're going to be able to go skiing today..."

There is crying that calls for a hug. And there is crying that calls for a scolding. And then there is crying that calls for dad to change the world and master the very elements of the universe. Only a wimp of a dad wouldn't try.

"You know how much you like your blue ski parka and your pink ski parka and your yellow ski parka?" I said. "And how much you like your Hello Kitty sweater and your Power Puff Girls sweater and your My Little Pony sweater? And your fleece with the snowflakes on it and your red snow pants and your green snow pants and your snow pants with the purple stripes?"

Muffin nodded.

"Well, good news!" I said. "Today you get to wear all of them!"

But first I had to put some breakfast into her. Muffin's interest in sugary cereals seemed to have palled. "Would you like an egg?" I asked.

"Daddy, eggs are baby chicks except all runny."

"Now that you mention it, I don't think I want an egg either." I made numerous other suggestions. "Tell mom you had cheese toast with tomato and a PowerBar," I said. There's nothing really so wrong about a Baby Ruth and a microwaved pizza pocket for breakfast. I mean, as opposed to going out in the cold on an empty stomach.

Fully dressed, with balaclava, two hats and triple mittens, Muffin resembled a Volkswagen Beetle under a down-filled car cover.

At the Smugglers' Notch lodge we were met by ski instructor Brian Churchill, or B.C., as he's called. B.C. had brought along his 20-year-old daughter, Jessica, also a ski instructor. "Just for the fun of it," said B.C. "She loves kids, and it's great to get out of the house on a beautiful day." The temperature was minus 15 degrees. B.C. and Jessica had already taken a run from the top of Madonna. Though I live in New Hampshire, hardly the tropics, I'm forced to confess that Vermonters have a greater tolerance for... for lots of things. Do I even need to mention Howard Dean?

"Is Muffin going to be OK outside?" I asked.

"Well, I see you've got her dressed," said B.C. "We'll just keep an eye on her." Which was not going to be easy since no part of Muffin was visible.

We stuck to the lower trails, out of deference to the weather rather than Muffin's ability. She's been on skis for two years now, parallels when she wants to and can get down anything. She has a roof truss of a snowplow that lets her descend icy steeps at the speed of waffle syrup. That said, her stance resembles a frog on Popsicle sticks. Or it did until she'd taken two runs with B.C. and Jessica. Suddenly she was standing up straight-to the extent that posture could be detected inside her ball of clothes. Her skis were coming together. Her body was facing, or maybe her parkas were facing-anyway, something was facing down the fall line. I couldn't hear what B.C. and Jessica were saying to her and, what with all the layers of Thinsulate and Polartec over her ears, I doubt Muffin could hear it either. I think she was just doing that thing children do-imitating the behavior of anyone who is not their mom or dad.

"Muffin is doing great with Jessica," B.C. said. "You and I could go off and ski the big mountain." But I'd been so worried about Muffin getting cold that I hadn't noticed I was getting cold myself-physically and mentally slowing down, exhibiting increasing clumsiness and irritability, becoming drowsy and unreasonable. It's remarkable how the symptoms of hypothermia resemble the symptoms of middle age. Maybe I wasn't cold; maybe I was just 56.

"Let's go get some hot chocolate," I said.

A small voice from deep within swaths of colorful fabric said, "Daddy, could I have ice cream instead? I'm too hot."

By the time I got Muffin disinterred from her ski gear, it was noon. Muffin is beginning to read, so I let her peruse the lunch menu on her own. "I want to eat dirt," she said, causing me to review all my shortcomings as a parent and wonder whether free weekend psychological counseling for children was among the well-known array of social services available in Vermont. But there it was on the bill of fare: "Dirt," a dessert made from chocolate ice cream and fudge with green sprinkles on top and a generous helping of Gummi worms. That was all Muffin wanted to eat. Of course it's important that children have a balanced diet, and they need help with this. So I ate Muffin's burger for her.

After lunch we skied a few more runs. But I was sure I could detect signs of frostbite: the telltale pale, hard cold surface and lack of feeling. "Daddy, that's my ski boot," said Muffin.

"I think it's time to quit," I said. "And," I quickly added, "go to the Fun Zone!" Six is an age when the word fun still conjures the prospect of-what else to call it?-fun, rather than the prospect of a hangover or of a huge Visa bill incurred in a place full of people in big mouse and duck costumes.

The Fun Zone was an inflatable structure, of the kind used for indoor tennis, somehow being kept at room temperature. Smugglers' Notch must have been recycling wasted heat, maybe from back home, where the presidential primaries were underway. The floor was all soft rubber mats, and spread around was every manner of plastic blow-up slidey, hidey, bouncy thing. There was skeeball, bumper pool, a miniature golf course and a jukebox, all free (jukebox heavy on the Raffi). The basketball court was supplied with soft foam basketballs. The treadmill-style climbing wall was of the lowest, slowest, least fall-offable kind. A volleyball game-net suitably low and poles padded-was underway using a cushy orb the size of that newly discovered planet, Sedra. Ten or a dozen kids spiked at the same time.

Like every other child in the place, Muffin began to play on everything at once, frequently interrupting herself, like every other child in the place, to squeal, "Look at me!" With the Fun Zone's clear lines of sight and absence of hard edges, parents could, for once, hear "Look at me!" squealed without squealing in terror themselves.

It was the opposite of Bad Boys' Island in Pinocchio. As the afternoon went by, instead of growing ears and a tail, Muffin grew increasingly good-natured. So much so that she actually agreed to leave when I said it was time for dinner. Although that may have had to do with the entree I offered, which will be left to the imagination, for fear my wife will read this.

The next morning the temperature had risen a little, a degree or two, but enough that the complete plot of Jack London's To Build a Fire didn't run through my mind as I tried to start the car. B.C. and Jessica again performed an exorcism on Muffin's ski technique. Gone were the pigeon toes and Quasimodo hunch. Muffin was car

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