My partner says that much like Jimmy Fallon in Fever Pitch there are two seasons of Perry. There is the multi-faceted Perry of April through November and then there is the single-minded ski Perry who reigns supreme from December through March. Clearly, a little of ski-Perry pervades the non-ski Perry as it is September 7th and I’m already writing and fantasizing about skiing. Skiing for me is the ultimate, the end-all-be-all. Roland Barthes (1975) described this kind of sporting pleasure in two ways. There is plaisir, or the pleasing affirmation of self that comes from participating in or watching sport. And then there is jouissance, the sort of orgasmic transcendence that takes the self beyond its ordinary being (Andrews, 2007). When I think of jouissance I immediately think about skiing deep, light, fluffy powder. I guess for me it’s sort of an extended jouissance. It’s that feeling that is only supposed to last an instant, but when the snow is right and the turns feel effortless, skiing feels like the world’s longest, best, ummm, well, you see where I’m going.
While I would love to sit here and write about deep powder skiing what I am really interested in is why skiing enables me to achieve jouissance. I should be specific here. I am not a traditional alpine skier. I am a telemarker. One of the few who can say that I don’t just ride a lift and ski down (although more often than not, I do); I strap on synthetic seal skins and ski up the mountain before I give in to gravity and ski down. There is a saying among tele skiers, “earn your turns” that makes us feel special, somehow more hardcore, more committed, more fit and therefore more legitimate than those lazy alpine skiers. I wonder, just where does this get us?
Really, when I look at myself and my tele buddies, I begin to see that through our telemarking we are attempting to define ourselves outside of the traditional upper-class European, white skier. We are trying to cling to the ‘purity’ of the sport. Rather than trying to prove our worth through fancier jackets, the latest synthetic fiber, or the best battery powered heated ski boots; we are trying to eschew corporate resort skiing in favor of wild backcountry adventures. Yet really, we are no different. We work in our offices, hospitals and the like so we can afford to live the ski lifestyle replete with weekend flights from east coast cities to Vancouver, Denver, Salt Lake City and if we’re lucky, the Alps. We attempt to look like we don’t care how old our ski pants are, but the duct tape patch is just as much a status symbol as is the Patagonia label. We are no better or worse than the Bogner clad ski bunnies, we just want everyone to know we are not of the same ilk despite clearly being of the same class.
But away from the clothing and back to what matters: the skiing. What I find most interesting is that for me skiing jouissance can only come from telemarking, rather than skiing alpine or snowboarding. I’m starting to realize that because it’s the method that requires the most work from me, telemarking feels like the most pleasurable. It seems as though the work ethic has traveled from my professional and academic life to the slopes. Whereas recreation and sport once represented an escape from the seemingly never-ending demands of research and writing, it now seems to have commodified sport and recreation in such a way that what was once pleasurable can now only be described as plaisir if the participant is achieving something – be it a goal, a win or a target heart rate.
I think that in my attempts to achieve ‘real’ skiing or be more hardcore than those resort skiers what I am really doing is attempting to escape the alienation, the inhumanity, the control and restraint that I am not even always conscious that I’m experiencing when I ski at Jackson Hole, Whistler or even the Santa Fe Ski Basin. Don’t get me wrong. I ski at all of those places and I love them, but I feel better about myself somehow when I’m skiing the backcountry, earning my turns.
In the end though whether at Vail or skiing the backcountry of Teton Pass, on alpine gear, a board, or fat tele boards, we are all on the mountain for the same thing. We are trying, desperately at times, to reconnect with nature. As Marx said, we are attempting to bridge the gap between man and nature through which we reproduce our own existence. It is our conscious or unconscious aim to mitigate the alienation we feel from our working lives with the jouissance and plaisir in our sporting and recreational lives. Even though I may believe that skiing the backcountry is a more authentic skiing experience than skiing the resort, sometimes I think that through my attempts to be so hardcore I forget what pleasure really is. Perhaps I attempt to live the “pleasure is pain” ethos and although I achieve momentary jouissance I miss out, or perhaps more accurately, misconstrue plaisir. I’m making a commitment to myself that this year I will ski for fun. I think I just might even strap on my old snowboard a time or two this year. It’s certainly easier than teleing. I won’t have to/get to perform hundreds, if not thousands, of lunges on my way down the mountain, but I just might rediscover what pleasure really is. Hopefully after reading this blog you’ll reconsider why it is you jog or cycle or ski and maybe next time you go out, you’ll leave your watch and your heart rate monitor behind and you’ll ride or run or ski just for the sheer plaisir and pleasure of play.