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January 15, 2010

Twenty Six Dollars of Plastic

It is colder than you'd expected. The sunshine can be deceptive, at this time of year. You see the blue sky pouring brightly down on the world, with the light streaming through the living room window and casting warm, hazy pools onto the hardwood and thick woolen rugs. At times, after long days inside, you're even tempted to lay down and feel your skin warmed by a distant star, an animal absorbed in the simple pleasures of the moment. A creature of familiar comforts.

But the air is a shock: a bright, electric stab of sharp arctic chill that fills your warm lungs like a flood of twisting waters. Your bronchioles spasm involuntarily in response, suddenly stolen from a more temperate world and delivered to this new and relentlessly aggressive reality. They rebel for a moment or two, sending you coughing and gasping for breath, near-doubling over as your body collapses on itself and then, adjusting, acquiesces and falls into line, and - liberated - allows you to stand tall in these strange and acute angles of late afternoon sunlight in January. You reach up and adjust the cap on your head. A baseball cap. Good move, in retrospect.

The children pull their thick fleece hats down over their ears. This is evolution: one generation learns from the mistakes of the last, changing to adapt to new circumstances while their forefathers fall by the wayside — teeth chattering, blue-eared, waiting for the wolves to come and the cycle of nature to complete.

"Get the sleds," your wife commands. You nod, silently. Your nod says: you are the alpha male, and will assert your dominance by carrying these heavy vehicles. It says: you do not need to lift your voice, as your actions will speak for you. It says: you are too strong and virile to be bothered by the cold, and that you will work as you must to serve your family. You can only presume your wife understands these unspoken truths, and her own unspoken response is a breathless tribute to the towering majesty of your masculinity. And so you lift the tailgate, and pull the sleds free.

They are slender blades of molded plastic, designed with artisinal care by skilled hands in some far corner of the world. Three of them, bent and warped into obtuse convolutions of arc and intent: speed. The graceful, graceless, screaming and squealing sensation of small bodies floating over the snow at terrific velocity, tiny tender packages of flesh and glee half an inch above an ocean of shimmering crystalline, hurtling towards...

Yes, well. That's the question, isn't it. Fast, loud and entirely out of control, and all we can do is equip them as best we can to navigate the twists on the hill and survive whatever collisions may result. Good fun for all.

It is in this spirit that you are deemed catcher in the rye: a lone body stationed back from the foot of the incline, carefully positioned to provide maximum coverage and ensure that child and backstop do not meet. Somewhere far above you, in the dizzying heights at hill's top where you can only presume the air tastes cleaner and the sun shines just a bit more warmly, your wife and children stand ready, surveying the subtle shades of contour and color that define the descending landscape before them. Mapping out the journey ahead. Strategies are hatched. Fears soothed. Mittens tightened around thin and eager wrists.

And then: the sleds are laid down carefully on the snow, one next to one next to one, missiles targeting some distant field. And the cargo loads, and across the thin air and through the joyous cries of other children you imagine you can hear the excitement in the voices of your own — asking questions, listening carefully, preparing for this moment of infinite uncertainty before their mother drops down slightly behind them and at last: they are free. 

It is a maiden voyage for them all, this season. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be the maiden voyage of a lifetime, as they are young and children have memories like fish: fleeting and fluid, blending recollections of what was with stories they've been told and scenes of other lives they've watched onscreen. They know what sledding is supposed to be. But this sensation - this sudden acceleration as the earth drops away beneath them and the world begins to blur at the edges and bitter air cuts sharply at the sliver of exposed flesh between their warm hats and high-zippered coats, whipping against them in great flailing torrents of savage motion and kinetics, and still faster they go as their small fists grip the die-cut handles like the hand of a loving father as life slips into new gear and it feels like nothing so much as flight, and unbidden their laughter rises like the slow curl of breath into the air on a January day like this, reaching higher and higher before dissipating into pale blue sky - is like first breath.

You wait for them, with open arms.


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