Whistler skiing, Invisibilia, and Oliver Sacks’s farewell

by Rob Tiller

The new boots, after day one at Whistler

The new boots, after day one at Whistler

Early Friday morning we flew to Dallas, where we changed planes and continued on to Vancouver, where we got a car and drove to Whistler to do some skiing. The flying part of the trip was uneventful, though sitting in an economy seat for seven hours takes its toll. It’s good to have some uninterrupted time to read, listen, and think, but in the last couple of hours my bottom started to ache and my legs wanted to move.

The traffic getting out of Vancouver was terrible. With only brief prior exposure, I’d thought of Vancouver as a friendly and modern mid-size city, all of which it may be, but the traffic was more like Sao Paulo. We watched traffic lights change two and three times to progress one block. It took an hour and a half to get clear of the city, which was especially frustrating after a long flight.

The coastal road north to Whistler was curvaceous and lovely, wooded with evergreens and islands to the east. It would have been an excellent stretch of road to drive with Clara. We finally made it to Whistler Village in late afternoon, and checked in and got the key code to our condo in the upper village. We dropped our gear, picked our bunks, and went out to rent necessary equipment. I’d bought my own boots, newly purchased, but needed to rent skis and poles. By the time this got done, we were very tired and hungry, and ate at the first place we could find.

Skiing on Saturday was, ultimately, fun, though I was disappointed at first. It hadn’t snowed for some weeks, and the coverage was not good — almost nonexistent at the lower lower elevations. Higher up, there was snow, but a lot of it was very hard. Still, we found areas of good snow, and enjoyed the long runs and varied terrain. Gabe led the way, and I raised my game just by trying to keep up. The vistas were stunningly beautiful.

During the trip out, I listened more to a marvelous podcast called Invisibilia. It’s an NPR-based show with a style that resembles Serial in tone and mindset, anchored by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, two very smart, funny, curious women. Each episode takes on a question or oddity of human psychology or behavior. Without seeming either overly technical or overly simplistic, it manages the neat trick of being at once entertaining and thought-provoking.

The episode I listened to en route was about categories. We all have to have lots of them, and usually give them no thought. But as the show pointed out, it would be a huge problem if every time we saw a couch, we had to figure out what it was for, whether it was potentially dangerous, etc. It’s a very good thing that we recognize couches, not to mention other categories of furniture.

Much of the show concerned gender categories, and specifically a transgender person who reported the experience of switching between male and female orientations often. It focused mainly on the challenges this presented to the individual in terms of relationships and emotions, but it also pointed up how the male-female categorization affects the way we interact with the world.

I was also thinking about Oliver Sacks, who revealed in an op-ed piece in the NY Times this week that he will soon die of liver cancer. Sacks, a distinguished neurologist, has written many fascinating books and articles about psychological oddities. Now 81, he noted that he’s written 5 books since he turned 65. I was saddened to hear he wouldn’t be with us much longer, but also inspired by the courage and calmness with which he addressed the subject of dying.

He wrote:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to say the same when the time comes.