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The Curious Habits of Man: Essays and Effluence

The Curious Habits of Man: Essays and Effluence

by Brian Kenneth Swain

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What is the one true secret to weight loss?
What is the correct way to make a grilled cheese sandwich? Is the designated hitter rule the salvation of baseball or its undoing? Is it rational to be an optimist?
And-the question that haunts us all-
should toilet paper unwind over the top of the roll or from underneath?

In his first collection of essays,


What is the one true secret to weight loss?
What is the correct way to make a grilled cheese sandwich? Is the designated hitter rule the salvation of baseball or its undoing? Is it rational to be an optimist?
And-the question that haunts us all-
should toilet paper unwind over the top of the roll or from underneath?

In his first collection of essays, author
Brian Kenneth Swain tackles hundreds of life's questions while exploring a vast array of subjects-from tubas to two year-olds, from field goals to child labor laws, and from high school shop class to the worst round of golf ever played. With an acerbic wit and an honest approach,
Swain shares his perspective on such pivotal matters as how to ski without losing a limb or your self-esteem, how to correctly prepare and consume lobster according to Maine standards, and whether marketing ploys hypnotically convince consumers to replace perfectly functioning items without a second thought. Swain encourages a kind of tongue-in-cheek thinking that prompts us to take a second look at the world around us.

The Curious Habits of Man shares an amusing glimpse at life as one man contemplates many of our greatest-and smallest-questions.

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iUniverse, Incorporated
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Essays and Effluence

By Brian Kenneth Swain

iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2013 Brian Kenneth Swain
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4759-9663-0



A Day on the Mountain


Why Skiing Is an Especially Apt Metaphor for Life Itself

What do you get when you combine the annoyance of golf, the vast expense of scuba, and the bodily risk of skydiving? That's right—skiing, a pastime whose origins are lost to antiquity, but which, in all likelihood, involved some Swiss or Austrian misanthrope—let's agree to call him Gunther—living high on a mountain, who awakens one day to discover he is snowed in by a couple feet of fresh powder from the previous night's storm, and on the very day he had meant to go into the village at the base of the mountain for his semi-annual consignment of groceries. Well, shucks, our antiquarian hero says to himself, looks like the only way I'm going to make it into town today is if I strap a couple pieces of wood to my feet, rub a little goose grease on the bottoms to slick them up a bit, and slide down on top of all that snow. And so, for the moment neglecting to consider how he is going to make his way back up the hill with all those groceries, Gunther deftly navigates his way down the mountain and into the village, to the astonishment of his fellow citizens, who stop and stare in awe at the grace and speed with which he makes his way down the village's main street. And thus (at least for the purposes of this discussion) skiing is born.

Fast forward a few hundred years and you will find at your typical modern ski resort not socially-challenged mountaineers, but half-hour queues, hundred-dollar lift passes, and eight-dollar cardboard hamburgers. But, like a first-time skier staring over the precipice of a double-black diamond, I am getting rather far ahead of myself here. I mean to explain all of the nuances of the sport in good time, but first a bit of backstory is required so that you understand the context for what might otherwise come across as an unnecessarily negative exposition into what is, admittedly, a wildly popular pastime.

It will not be news to those who have participated in a sport of any kind that the earlier in life one begins said participation, the better at it one tends to be throughout the remainder of one's life, most especially if that early start is augmented with some quality instruction, and if, of course, the individual is amenable to that instruction. All of which is a long and obtusely structured way of suggesting that I achieved none of these objectives, at least as far as skiing goes. The fact that I grew up in Maine probably counts for something in all of this. Goodness knows, I came of age no stranger to snow, though all of the terrain on which its copious quantities lay during my upbringing was unremarkably flat.

I not only grew up in Maine, but also lived in the same house for my entire memorable childhood. Our family was on the decidedly lower end of the economic scale, and we didn't engage in any of the sorts of recreation that required one to actually pay money. In fact, upon reflection, it still astounds me that I managed to grow up in Maine without once doing any of the things that people travel great distances and spend enormous sums to come from other parts of the world to do. Oddly enough, I do not even recall having any friends in school who were skiers. I include this apparent biographical digression only to help explain why it is that I took up skiing at such a relatively late age.

It was only when I got to college, at the lofty age of twenty-four, that I first had the opportunity to give skiing a try. Once I mustered the verve to strap on a pair of boards and hit the slopes, I quickly discovered a few things, the lessons of which I mean to impart in the paragraphs that follow. If you have never skied and are keen to give it a try, these insights will serve you well.

The very first thing you need to know is that skiing is expensive. If there existed a sliding scale that compared the prices of the various athletic and recreational activities available to the average American, skiing would easily reside in the upper decile. In fact, there are two related but distinct components that comprise the overall budget for ski gear. The first has to do with the skiing itself, meaning the equipment needed to make one's way from the top to the bottom of the mountain. The second tranche of expense has less to do with skiing per se, and more to do with surviving the abysmally cold temperatures during which most skiing takes place. Into the former category fall three primary items—skis, bindings, and boots. Bindings, for the uninitiated, are the items used to connect the former to the latter, and whose secondary but equally important function is to facilitate the separation of you from your skis in the event of a spill, on which topic more and copious details will soon follow. Without getting too deeply into the recondite technological details here, suffice it to say that a respectable set of new ski equipment can easily set you back in excess of a thousand dollars, though it can be had for a good deal less through judicious shopping and a willingness to own something other than the current year's equipment.

As counter-intuitive as it may, at first, seem, the sartorial expense associated with skiing can easily surpass that of the equipment, particularly if you're the fashion-conscious sort. It's actually surprising how many people will scrimp on gear, but then break the bank buying the down jackets, pants, socks, thermal underwear, hats, helmets, gloves, scarves, face masks, backpacks, and endless other accoutrements that are (possibly) necessary in order to survive a day on a fourteen-thousand-foot mountain. But the critical thing to keep in mind about these decisions is not so much the fashion element, though this is frequently the bigger driver of cost. Rather, the principal concern should be the efficacy of one's purchases. How warm will that five-hundred-dollar jacket keep you when you're sitting on a stuck chair lift, in a twenty-knot wind, fifty feet up in the air, for fifteen minutes on a cold, cloudy day? Will your socks slide down and bunch up in the toes of your ski boot? Will your mask fog up just as you're approaching a bump at high speed? Unfortunately, the answers to many of these critical questions are unknowable until you've committed to the purchase and are actually out there on the slopes freezing to death and cursing the salesman back at Sun & Ski who assured you that this was the finest jacket money could buy because of its synthetic Argentinian beaver-skin lining and state-of-the-art solar-cell rear panels, or whatever. Suffice it to say that judicious research and active solicitation of the opinions of knowledgeable friends can save you from some very pricey and frustrating mistakes down the road.

Having outfitted yourself appropriately, your sense of anticipation will, no doubt, have risen to a fever pitch as you try to sleep the night before your impending assault on the mountain. Once the big day arrives, the first thing you will notice about the skiing experience is that it takes a rather extraordinary amount of time and effort to actually transport all that clothing and gear you've spent the past few weeks buying. Assuming, though, that with a good deal of creative packing you've managed to fit it all into (or on top of) the car, the next significant challenge for any new skier is getting from the car in the parking lot to the point where you're in a position to actually join a lift line.

Getting from the car to the lift is sufficiently challenging to almost qualify as a sport in its own right. It goes something like this: You pull into your parking spot, daunted perhaps for just a moment by the sound of the tires crunching and squeaking on the hard-packed snow. Understand that by this point you've typically been riding in the car for a good long while after having stopped at McDonald's™ and quaffed a couple of Egg McMuffins™ and a quart or so of coffee. You're comfortable, warm, and likely half asleep. When you reluctantly push open the car door, the first sensation that hits you is the biting cold and rarified air of what is already a pretty high-up place, even at the altitude of the parking lot. You grudgingly step from the car, remove your ungainly skis from either the roof rack or back of the car, taking care in the rapidly growing cold not to ding the cars around you (or your own) with those freshly sharpened edges. You then proceed to spend five minutes or so zipping up, buttoning down, tying together, and generally ensconcing yourself in all the clothing you purchased in preparation for this adventure, but which you did not wear in the car on the ride up. At some point, as you're wrapping yourself in layer upon layer, it will occur to you that you at last understand why that little boy in A Christmas Story couldn't get back up once he'd fallen over into the snow bank near his house. The first sobering lesson the new skier discovers at this point is that it is a challenging thing indeed to walk across an icy parking lot wrapped in several layers of winter survival gear while carrying skis, boots, poles, and a backpack. The second insightful thing you learn is that skiing has, as one of its more charming attributes, the very real possibility of your becoming completely exhausted before even beginning the actual sport.

Having made your way safely into the lodge, you now discover two new and daunting obstacles. The first is that you must get your boots on. The seasoned skier will make this look easy. If, on the other hand, you are an infrequent skier or totally new, this will be the moment when you get your first inkling of how the rest of the day is going to go. Assuming you were prescient enough to have brought with you the same socks you wore when you tried on your boots back at the shop, you should be okay. If not, you may well end up with boots that are too tight or too loose. Without belaboring the point, suffice it to say that you can expect to spend ten minutes or so getting the boots to slide on, figuring out the byzantine clipping mechanism that holds them closed, and finding the precise sweet spot at which the ski pants and boot tops will meet without pinching your ankles, cutting off circulation to your feet, or allowing snow to get inside. If, once you've got everything jammed into place, it turns out you have gotten boots a size too small, or put on one too many pairs of socks, you can look forward to poor circulation in your toes all day and a resulting case of frozen lower extremities.

But let's say, just for laughs, that you've managed to get your boots on with a minimum of invective, there isn't too much pain, and you aren't sweating that profusely yet, despite having put forth all this effort while wearing a full ensemble of Arctic clothing that precludes nearly all joint flexure—and all in an eighty-degree ski lodge. When you first stand, you will notice an interesting and slightly awkward sensation. Your boots have been designed so as to force you to bend your knees slightly forward all the time, whether you want them to bend or not. For now, this is merely fascinating. It will be a couple of hours before it starts getting irritating. At long last, the time has come to exit the lodge, step into line, and buy your first lift pass.

This is not a good time to realize that you left your wallet back in the car. Because if that is the case, you now face the unenviable choice of walking back out across the icy parking lot in ski boots or swapping back to the shoes that you had on originally. It's also not a good time to realize that you, in fact, have your wallet on you, but it's in the back pocket of your jeans, which, of course, means that it's under your ski pants and your jacket. If, however, you have managed not to fall prey to any such neophyte faux pas, you will, eventually, make it to the front of the line, where you will make the alarming discovery that purchasing a lift pass for a single day of skiing is, these days, about on par with purchasing an airline ticket. Standard daily rates are now in the seventy-five to one hundred dollar range, depending on which mountain you are visiting. And, to add insult to injury, it's not even like you're really buying a full day of skiing. The lifts typically don't open until 8:30 or 9 a.m., and they're generally closed by 4 p.m. Subtract time for lunch, and you're really paying for five or six hours on the slopes. It also will not help your frame of mind at this point to dwell on the fact that you got up an hour and a half before sunrise and drove three hours for the privilege of laying out all this money.

If you've never skied before, take a moment to read that paragraph on the back of your lift pass, the one with the indecipherably tiny font. It's hard to read for a reason—if people scrutinized it too closely, the popularity of skiing would doubtless suffer. In short, what it says is that skiing is fraught with peril and that if you hurt, maim, or kill yourself, either through your own actions/inactions or the actions/ inactions of others, the resort is not at fault and that neither you nor your designated heirs/survivors may sue the resort, since you were presumably well-warned in advance. And you don't get to check a little box or otherwise acknowledge that you voluntarily accept this state of affairs. The fact that you chose to get in line, pay for the lift pass, and affix it to your person constitutes your acceptance of full responsibility for whatever happens. And finally, the disclaimer says that you can't get your money back if, by 9:30, you've decided the whole thing sucks, you're cold, and you just want to get back in the car and go home.

But you, of course, are made of sterner stuff and have decided to go through with it. After all, you drove all the way out here. You paid for the lift pass. May as well see what the fuss is about. How hard can it be when six-year-old kids are flying past you and effortlessly sliding into the back of the lift line like they were joining the lunch queue at their elementary school cafeteria? Well, pretty hard at first, as you discover the first time you click your boots into the bindings and promptly fall over before you've even had a chance to start moving forward. Every ski resort has a dedicated section—pejoratively known as the bunny slope—where neophytes can begin to get the hang of things without exposing experienced skiers to the hazards of their ineptitude. That's the idea, at any rate. In actual practice, most bunny slopes are nothing but a relatively flat area at the bottom of the hill, that last section between the steeper upper sections and the lift line toward which all skiers regularly return. Which means that what you really have on most bunny slopes is a bunch of horrified, stumbling newbies interspersed with experienced skiers flying through and between them. What could possibly go wrong?

This is as good a spot as any to digress for a moment and remark on an important psychological issue associated with skiing, particularly first-time skiing. It's not so much about putting mistakes behind you, as in golf. Nor is success on the slopes based on a killer competitive instinct like, say, football or basketball. Introductory skiing is primarily about tenacity. Depending on your native level of athleticism, getting to the point where you can credibly get into the lift line and make your way up the mountain can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to several days. In fact, it's difficult to learn much on the bunny slope because they're generally not more than a couple of hundred feet long, so if you do manage to start moving at something faster than walking speed, or even carve out a half-decent turn or two, the whole thing is over almost as soon as it begins and then you're crawling back up the hill on the rope tow or tee bar that serves most beginner slopes.

But, because we're all optimists here, let's fast-forward again and imagine that you've mastered the bunny hill and successfully made it through the lift line and onto the chair lift. During the five to ten minutes it typically takes to get to the top of most mountains, you discover the first pleasant aspect of the sport. Assuming that it is a decent day and you aren't skiing in the middle of a blizzard, you will find that the views from the lift can be spectacular, particularly at the bigger western resorts in Colorado and Utah. In fact, during the lift ride up, you will encounter numerous interesting, sometimes even humorous, sights. You will see skiers below you who make it all look terribly easy, moving with grace and skill like they're auditioning for a Warren Miller documentary. And you will see some making their way feebly down the hill, appearing to know no more about this thing than you do, which is always heartening. You will see occasional pieces of random ski equipment lying in the snow beneath you—a glove here, a pole there—that will make you curious about how they came to be there. You will gaze upward in wonder at many of the hills you will later have an opportunity to ski down. You will see the tops of trees going by your chair, from which you will frequently see hanging all sorts of incongruous items, the two most common of which are Mardi Gras beads and women's underwear. Apparently there is a sub-sport associated with skiing whereby bored people on lifts play a sort-of ring toss game with the tops of the trees and their partners' undergarments. I haven't looked into this too closely yet, but it may make an intriguing essay in its own right. Finally, as you continue upward, you will eventually, inexorably, see, to the horror of every new skier, the station where you must exit the chair.

Excerpted from THE CURIOUS HABITS OF MAN by Brian Kenneth Swain. Copyright © 2013 Brian Kenneth Swain. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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