Opinion » John Rember

Putting Tracks in the Deep Stuff

Skiing and meta-skiing

by

John Rember

Every five years, the college I graduated from in 1972 asks me to update my address, occupation, marital status and interests. This data, and that of my classmates, is then published in book form. It's a good read, mainly because the editors also ask for a brief autobiographical essay. Some excerpts from my 40th anniversary entry:

"This winter I was a co-winner of a backcountry Powder 8 competition, on a pair of $30 skis I bought at a local thrift shop, against a field of athletic 25-year-olds on state-of-the-art equipment. I felt like Ray Kurzweil on a resveratrol jag."

And: "In the same competition, Julie won the prize for Most Graceful Turns. We both got T-shirts, but hers was the more graceful."

And: "My current work-in-progress is A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World, a book on the inability of science, ethics or philosophy to influence public policy, and on the consequent collapse of industrial civilization. I'm on number 85, and can see the finish line, in more ways than one."

And, finally: "I'm not unhappy to be in my 60s, even though I can read actuarial tables as well as anybody. Forty years from graduation is a good spot to recognize that soon enough, we will all rest with kings and councilors. But we can consciously shape--at least in the microcosm--the days we have left, and their effects on the people we love."

I doubt I impressed my fellow autobiographers. Their lives are a bigger part of a bigger world than mine will ever be. They've taken companies public, held cabinet posts, developed lifesaving drugs, become CNN analysts and partners in D.C. law firms. They've commanded task forces, run universities and directed international charities. They've founded free clinics in Africa, thought in think tanks and will neither confirm nor deny that they've worked for national security agencies.

I could spend the rest of my life trying to become as important as the least of them, but still wouldn't catch up. I do have my powder contest T-shirt, but that doesn't amount to much, if we're comparing first prizes.

At times I feel they live in one world, and I live in another. Those worlds briefly touched during our college years, only to whirl off in opposite directions, headed for far galaxies.

Of course, there's just one world, Earth, and it and its sun orbit a giant black hole at the center of this galaxy, once every 250,000 years. Even us prizewinners are stuck here, with this atmosphere, these oceans, these 7 billion other humans. Lots of things we took for granted during the last galactic orbit aren't going to make it for even a tiny fraction of the next one. There are many finish lines ahead.

Rather than two worlds, it's more accurate to say there are two types of people. Not Republican or Democrat. Not Liberal or Conservative. They are simply Insiders or Outsiders. It's a bad situation because Insiders can do something about the world economy, a chaos-ridden climate, the general decay of the rule of law, iatrogenic disease, disappearing soil, polluted water supplies and pillaged natural resources--but they cannot see that any of these is a problem. Outsiders can see that they're problems, but being on the Outside, they can't do anything about them.

Being an Insider causes a grandiose blindness. I have no doubt that the citizens of Rome, circa 409 C.E., were certain that their Emperor and their Senate and their Laws would last forever, as would their city. It was only barbarians who could imagine an end to all these things, and imagine they did.

I suppose that's why I inflict upon my classmates actuarial tables and councilors and kings. Because no matter how unaware and pampered you are at the center of things, humans and human institutions are terribly mortal, Ray Kurzweil and the Eternal City notwithstanding. And death, regardless of what you think happens after it, represents a radical change in perspective. Inside becomes Outside. The lichen-stained tombstones of the mighty remind us how little power can be exerted by what lies in the grave.

I've been surprised and disappointed by how many of my classmates didn't write anything for the 40th anniversary book. It's occurred to me they might be even further Outside than I am, and that because of their perspective they know something I don't. Maybe they know that pushing raw and dark perceptions onto lives rawer and darker than one's own might afflict the comfortable but doesn't always comfort the afflicted.

Still, I persist. And I hope it doesn't irritate my Insider classmates to hear that the value of our lives, once all is said and done, lies in relationships and the small kindnesses that distinguish them. Maybe they're old enough to see, even from where they sit, that power and privilege, plans and ambitions, awards and honors don't always benefit marriages or friendships or life with the kids.

So, back to the powder slopes. By the time you read this, I hope they exist, because right now they all look like sagebrush farms. I hope I'll have cleared the driveway of 5-foot drifts, and struggled up through soft snow to the wind-curled tops of mountains. I hope I'll be training for the next Powder 8 contest, which wasn't held last year because we didn't get enough snow. I hope I'll have found, in Julie's graceful turns, joy and meaning enough to get up in the mornings, start the coffee, put our skis on top of the car, drive to Copper Mountain and climb up far enough to see what the world looks like from the margins.