This Is Your Brain

cf4b27e118fb68f80db165ebc7d7dad3I don’t know about you, but I never really think about my brain. Honestly, I tend to take that organ for granted, much the same way I do all of those other essential body parts I can’t really see. It’s like I accept that in theory they are there, doing whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing. But I can’t really imagine myself with, like, a liver of my own.

It’s kind of like when I was having my third baby and a helpful delivery nurse pushed a full-length mirror over to the foot of the bed where the whole pushing drama was playing out. Imagine my dismay when I saw what my pelvic floor looked like during the ordeal. Like, this wasn’t some stranger’s perineum I was watching on some “How to Have a Baby” video. It was my poor bottom pulsing like The Little Rascals mweep mwomp cake as the baby kept taking three steps forward and one step back down the birth canal. Needless to say, my horror threw off any big efforts I had been making up to that point to get the baby’s big damn head out of me. When the fourth baby came a few years later, I banned all mirrors from the delivery room and kept the birth process the mystery it really needed to be.

I’ve always thought about my brain more as my noggin or my noodle. I make grand pronouncements, like that I’m going to “blow my brains out” if something horrendous occurs – like, say, a certain candidate is elected president – or that I’m officially “brain dead” after folding yoga pants for six hours. I recently yelled at my son to please use his brain when he thought playing lacrosse in the kitchen was a good idea.

But I’ve never really wrapped my alleged brain around the fact that nestled in the warmth of my skull sits one of those things you can find if you search for images of “brain” on the internet. One of those weird, bulbous, spongy-looking things that might be more interesting as a tabletop curio than something actually living inside you. It might make a nice paperweight.

It turns out though that I actually do have one of those things because I hurt it a couple of weeks ago and ever since it has been making its presence known. I’m almost at the point where I’d like to tell my brain, “Enough already. I get it. You’re mad and I’ll try to make better decisions in the future.” That thing can be so bossy.

It’s kind of funny, actually, because the cause of the injury could be in a way pinned to my lack of brains, or that maybe I should have really utilized said brain before I decided to ski down that wooded trail.

But we’d been having such a great day – me and my friend Susan and our three sons – that it just seemed right to say, “Sure” when the boys suggested we detour off the nice wide trails we’d been skiing down all day and do a run through the woods.

Actually, that’s a lie. What the boys really said was, “We’re gonna go through the woods,” and I said, “Susan, let’s do it.”

And Susan tried to be the voice of reason. She tried to say, “Why don’t we just meet them at the bottom?”


But I was feeling cocky. I haven’t fallen skiing in years and even though I am totally not the greatest skier, I’ve gotten much better than I used to be. If the trail isn’t too steep I can ski kinda straight down, with minimal turning. I don’t need to go back and forth across the whole width of the trail to make my way down any more. But some turning is still required. This here is the rub.

So, in theory, I could handle skiing through the woods. But the reality of skiing through the woods, or at least the trail that we descended onto, was much different. My son and his friend set off, one after the other, and I followed behind and quickly learned two things after about ten feet of skiing: #1 there was absolutely no wiggle room and #2 there was also no escape hatch. I was committed.

Where there was about a three-foot path to maneuver down through the trees I needed, like, five. I needed to do a little back-and-forth. I didn’t even have enough room to bring my ski tips together and try to snow plow, which I quickly tried to do to slow things down.

And then I saw the tree. Well, it was really two trees ahead in the distance that needed to be circumvented to continue along the trail. In retrospect, what I really should have been using my brain for at that moment was to quickly develop a strategy for the upcoming maneuver. I should have been thinking how I needed to kinda veer to the right a little and then quickly cut to the left to get around the trees. But honestly, as I watched the white bark of the birch tree come closer and closer, the only thing my brain could do as I bared down on the obstacle was scream, “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE LIKE SONNY BONO!”

The next few seconds are kind of blurry. I think in an effort to make friends with the tree and show it I meant it no harm, I tried to sort of hug it as I went past. But then either the tree got pissed and shoved me or the effort threw whatever semblance of balance I’d maintained down the trail completely off, I don’t really know. What I do know is that time suddenly went all Matrix on me as I started to fall backwards. I had about a hundred thoughts all at once:

“Oh my God, I’m falling.”

“I always loved Sonny and Cher.”

“This is going to hurt.”

“What is the name of that other famous person who died skiing?”

“I haven’t fallen skiing in years.”

“Where should we go for dinner?”

“Was it Natalie?”

“I hope people can’t see me from the ski lift.”

“You know, Liam Neeson’s wife?” 

“Thank God I’m wearing a helmet.”

“You really can get anything at Costco.”


That last second, when the back of my ski helmet connected with the pretty hard trail, is really what I remember the most. The feeling of my helmet smashing onto the ground and how my whole head and neck seemed to reverberate was incredibly vivid, as was my final and competing thoughts: “Wow, that really hurt,” and “I can’t believe anyone would ski without a helmet.”

Everything else is kind of a blur.

I guess I must have just laid there in a jumbled mass on the ground for a few beats before trying to sit up and assess the situation and honestly at that point, I was much more concerned about my 50yo lady knees than my head. When I pushed myself up on my elbows to see what had happened to the lower half of my body, I found that somehow my legs were wrapped around my old friend the birch tree with my knees bent inwards and my skis jutting out from either side of my body.

I was trying to use the tip of my ski pole to pop the ski off my boot when Susan and her oldest son came upon my situation and tried to help out, which was a challenge since they are snowboarders and had no idea how ski bindings work. So it was kind of comical, them trying to push and press different parts of my boots to try to get skis off me and me becoming increasingly panicked as my knees really started to hurt.

“Why don’t we just do this?” Susan asked while lifting my whole leg up in an effort to reposition the skis around the tree when suddenly, miraculously, the ski just popped off.

From there, I’m not too sure how I ended up back on my feet and skiing the final 10 or so yards out of the woods and back onto the regular old ski trail. As I emerged, wobbly and a little more humble than when I’d entered, the other two boys stood waiting and started to cheer.

“What happened to you?” they asked and I had to tell them the whole grim story while we waited for Susan and her son to clip back into their boards and make their way out of the woods.

And then I decided to pretty much forget about the whole ordeal. We continued to ski for the rest of the afternoon and when all three boys decided they’d had enough and were ready to call it a day, Susan and I took the gondola up to the top of the mountain for a final long run before calling it quits. We pulled out our phones at the top to take pictures of how beautiful the trees looked, drooping under the weight of so much snow and framed by the late afternoon Vermont sky. I congratulated myself for making the effort to take that final run and as we flew down the (nice and easy) trail, I could see other snowy mountains off in the distance and patches of darkly colored lakes scattered far below and thought, “Oh, this is why people like to ski.”

Buoyed by the brush with nature’s greatness and my newfound love for skiing, Susan and I decided to keep the momentum going once we got to the bottom and headed to the bar at the lodge to get a beer and rub elbows with all our fellow helmet-headed skiers.

The music was loud and the tap beer cold and hoppy and we chatted with the people around us at the bar and even though I could feel my head hurting a little, I did what I do best which is to ignore red flags and just hope they go away and stop trying to interrupt all the fun.

We took the last shuttle back down to the condo and made dinner while the boys went for a swim in the pool and later we all played cards around the big wooden table. I went to bed that night thinking more about how great the weekend had been – how the boys spent way more time with us than I’d ever hoped to imagine and how that was all about to change – than my head. We’d Googled “concussion symptoms” earlier in the night and I had Susan examine my pupils for any dire signs but as I had not lost consciousness nor was I vomiting, figured I’d feel better in the morning.

Which, alas, I did not. In fact, my head felt that much worse and I also woke to discover that the front and back of my neck was stiff with whiplash.

“Susan,” I said as we sat on the couch waiting for CBS Sunday Morning to come on while the boys squeezed in a little more skiing, “I don’t think I can ignore my head any more.”

We decided I should call the urgent care place at the base of the mountain and explain the situation and see if they could just diagnose me over the phone. A very nice nurse named Wilma took the call and listened to my tale of woe and then very kindly explained that it was indeed difficult to make these kinds of diagnoses based on here say.

“You really should come in,” she said.

So, not for the first time, Susan found herself driving me to an emergency room in search of professional care. I got to meet Wilma, who gave me a look-see, and then later I was examined by a resident and finally a doctor, both of whom were wearing ski boots which I found interesting. It’s like they’d made a quick stop to perform some medical exams between runs.

At any rate, all concurred that – based on what I told them and their observations – that I’d sustained a mild concussion after my brush with the tree and we all agreed the helmet – while not a magic shield against all injury – did indeed prevent anything worse from occurring (unlike poor Natasha Richardson).

I was told to kind of chill out for a couple of days and especially avoid staring at my phone or computer or watching any TV, which I mostly did (I did, however, read two books but honestly that didn’t really seem to hurt my head as much as when I tried to sneak in a few minutes of Facebook).

Listen, this story could go on and on. I could tell you about the bad cold/sinus thing that then manifested itself and caused even greater pressure on my already sore brain. I could tell you about how I was so good, lying in my dark bedroom for a few days, and then how I decided I was really over the whole thing and tried to go back to my old life, Facebook and all. And how, after 10 days of headaches, I took myself to my local emergency room the other day to get myself a CAT scan and finally diagnose either the internal bleeding or spinal meningitis I was pretty sure was festering within my skull.

Instead, the friendly nurse practitioner who assessed my images assured me that my brain looked good and showed no signs of bleeding and that meningitis is not some cunning villain, laying quietly in wait to be diagnosed. It really makes its presence knows to its victim, she told me. It doesn’t just wait for you to go to an emergency room to say hello.

So, that’s kind of where I am right now. I don’t really have a tidy ending to this whole, long story except to say, “Brains are important, kids. Don’t take yours for granted.” When your brain tells you that maybe something you’re considering doing is dangerous, you should really pay attention. And for the love of Pete, don’t even think about not wearing a helmet when you’re doing something risky.

Your brain will thank you.

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How Not to Be a Jerk

thejerkI can’t say I was really happy yesterday morning when I got in my cold car around 7:30 to drive an hour and 45 minutes north to go skiing.

In fact, when I saw my girlfriend later that morning on line to take the gondola up to the top of the mountain, I told her that the only thing that could make the day any better was if there was going to be some kind of math involved. “Are we doing any word problems later?” I joked as we inched our way up to the front of the endless line.

My 12-year-old son, on the other hand, was practically giddy.

I heard him hop right out of bed when his alarm went off at 6:30 and then he poked his head inside my room to see if I was getting up.

“A few more minutes, buddy,” I told him, probably not in my cheeriest voice.

When I finally lumbered downstairs 15 minutes later for coffee, he was sitting on a stool at our island eating the toast slathered with peanut butter that he’d made himself and already dressed in warm layers for his day on the slopes. The night before, while I sat on the couch and watched “How to Get Away With Murder” and pretended the following day wasn’t happening, he was busy packing up all his ski gear in a backpack and laying out his clothes for the next day. He even put my skis and boots in the back of our SUV.

I am a reluctant skier. I came to the sport later in life and never found it very natural to strap sticks to the bottom of my feet and shoot down a mountain. It ain’t right.

But my ex-husband was passionate about the sport and back in the day, I really wanted to be the kind of girlfriend who was up for anything. You know, the Cool Girl. The one who, according to Amazing Amy in Gone Girl, “is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.”

But I don’t think I ever totally fooled him. For one thing, I’m a scaredy cat and not a really good sport. I’m sure I didn’t make things easy. But God bless him, he was patient with me. He helped me put  my boots on and carried my skis and poles around. He followed me down the mountain and reminded me to bend my knees, lean forward and not swing my arms around. In fact, to this day, I still hear his voice in my head as I make my way down a mountain and adjust accordingly.

When our kids were old enough to hit the slopes, he’d get them all ready for a day in ski school – stuffing little bodies clad in pajamas and turtlenecks (this was before all the fancy long johns came along) into bibbed snow pants and putting all the right socks and boots and gloves on all of those little hands and feet – and wrangle them over to their lessons. Then later, he’d take them out himself, showing them the proper way to get on and off a chairlift and skiing backwards down the mountain as they followed behind, their little skis making a “pizza slice” as they plowed their way through the snow.

A couple of times he even took the older three kids away for the long President’s Weekend to ski with his sister and her kids while I stayed home – secretly relieved – to take care of our little guy. While I sat on the couch, watching movie after movie and drinking red wine, they mastered moguls and learned to ski through wooded glades and by the time I got back out on the slopes with them a few years later, found myself once again the slowest and most remedial skier in the pack.

So when my marriage was finally ending, I joked that at least I’d never have to ski again. “It’s the silver lining,” I’d like to tell people.

Except my kids missed it. While I saw it as one giant, expensive hassle that resulted in staring down a steep, icy slope with frozen toes, they grew up thinking that nothing could be more fun. And because we’d taken them away on a bunch of ski trips over the years, they also associated it with cozy nights sitting on the floor with their cousins playing Spit and Rummy and splashing around an indoor pool.

While I was going through my divorce, my girlfriend offered me her condo in Stratton, VT for a weekend to take the kids skiing and I saw it as an opportunity to prove to myself that I could do things like that by myself, even though I still had a 6-year-old to manage. The trip started badly when I discovered, after I’d gone and rented all four of them equipment from a local ski place, that our fairly new SUV didn’t have the proper bars on top to clip on our old ski rack. I’d have to shove them inside along with all our bags and helmets and groceries I’d bought for the long weekend.

And that’s when I sat down and started to cry in the family room with my daughters looking on. But in the first of what would be many times when the kids would rally around me, the girls assured me we’d be able to fit everything inside our truck and even though we were probably pretty squished on the five-hour drive north that Thursday night, not one kid complained.

We were up bright-and-early the next morning to catch the 8:15 shuttle from the condo complex to the mountain, standing outside with all of our bags and equipment in the freezing January air, when after a while, one of the maintenance guys drove by and told us that the shuttle did not run on weekdays. So we shoved everything back into our truck and headed over to the mountain and when we pulled into the lot, saw that the shuttle bus was loading passengers to take them to the lodge.

We made a mad scramble to get all the skis and poles, helmets and bags out and over to the shuttle and I ushered all of the kids up the steps and into the back. It was the kind of bus that I imagined was also used to shuttle migrant workers around to jobs, with a big, open back where passengers stood and held onto poles.

The kids and I pushed our way into the bus that was mostly filled with silver-haired retirees, who were probably taking advantage of the smaller crowds and cheaper pricing of weekday skiing. I ordered all of the kids to hold onto something and started counting heads.

One was missing.

“Where’s Nick?” I shouted, and the three older kids just stared back at me.

“He’s over here,” came an unfamiliar voice from the back of the bus, very near the opening where I could barely make out trees rushing by as we headed towards the mountain. And then I saw my 6-year-old standing really close to that gaping opening.

“Can you grab him?” I yelled to the nice woman who’d alerted me to his whereabouts and she yanked him away from the opening and held him by the shoulders until we pulled up to the ski lodge.

I bought lift tickets and clipped them to everyone’s ski jackets, wrapping the long sticker onto the wire and thinking how easy it had looked when the kids’ dad had put our tickets on us all those years. The little guy went to ski school and the other kids and I spent the day going up and down the mountain.

But in the end, it wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. Something was missing. And maybe it was the expense of it all or that teenagers had no interest in going anywhere with just me, but we never went again.

I’ve gone a couple of times with girlfriends since then and took my youngest to learn how to snowboard at a place about two hours from here, and I waited in the lodge while he took a lesson with some friends.

But he’s been dying to do it again. And it’s not enough that his dad is taking him away for a weekend to ski this month. He needed to go skiing with me.

So when a couple of families in town were heading to a mountain in New Jersey to ski on Sunday, he was all over it. Initially I said I’d take him but just hang around the lodge while he skied with his buddies because A: I don’t really need to ski and B: I’m not the richest cat right now. I’d rather spend that $65 on a manicure and a pedicure or when the kids and I go to Hong Kong next month.

“Why don’t you see if Dad wants to go skiing with you, dude?” I suggested.

But he looked at me with those big blue eyes of his and said, “But Mom, it can be our thing.”

“I’ve never even seen you ski,” he added.


I mean, who around here even wants to do anything with me any more? Pretty much nobody. And soon, this kid won’t want to either, as evidenced by his actions last summer. 

And for as much as I complain about skiing, there’s really no better family activity. Nothing beats having a teenager trapped next to you on a chairlift on a long ride up a mountain or laughing over dinner at night on who fell during what run or who was the last to the bottom of the trail (usually me).

So that is how I found myself on Sunday standing on a line akin to one you’d find waiting for Space Mountain on Good Friday to rent the kid a snowboard for the day. We stored our bags in lockers and made our way outside and I marveled for not the first time at how easy my ex had made all of it look. And after a rocky first run that found my son on his butt more than standing upright on his board, he quickly found his rhythm and we had a great day. Even though he had two buddies to fool around in the terrain park and see who could catch the most air, he also wanted his mom as part of the pack.

After one run we stopped at the bottom to take some pictures of our group with our phones and I asked my friends if they’d take one of my son and me. As we stood with our arms around each other’s waist and our helmets touching, he said, “I really like seeing you ski, Mom,” and I cursed myself for being such a dick earlier that day. For even considering not doing something that would bring him so much joy.

Sometimes, it pays not to be a ... errr ... jerk.

Sometimes, it pays not to be a … errr … jerk.

It’s like those old MasterCard commercials, in which I’d tally up the costs of our ski day – the lift tickets, equipment rental, $4 slices of pizza, my lost beauty sleep – and then tell you, in no uncertain terms, that the end result was truly priceless.

(And look, there was even some math involved.)

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