Research Diaries: Entry 1

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Kind of funny how coincidences work out… no sooner do I sit down to finally reflect on my recent experience digging up the history of some bridge in my hometown than a blogger I follow does kinda sorta the same thing. I guess we both hopped on the zeitgeist.

I recently embarked on a personal project, the kind of thing that indie filmmakers like to pretend also leads to unexpected love, a heartwarming cast of quirky characters to fill in the margins and some kind of personal revelation about the small yet fulfilling pleasures life holds. It also makes for great blog fodder, which I suppose is a good consolation prize in case that other stuff doesn’t work out. Stupid reality.

There’s this bridge near by grandmother’s house. It spans one of Toronto’s many ravines, has a wooden deck and is pedestrian-only. I’ve always enjoyed biking over it for the earthy clatter my wheels make passing over the beams, and passing under it for the view of its gently curving support trusses on tapered concrete pillars.

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About a month ago, I started wondering about it. When was it built? Why is it pedestrian-only? It occurred to me that with a topography of ravines, valleys and creeks, Toronto is more likely than most cities to have bridges. A relatively high number of builders, architects, developers and politicians are going to point to where a bridge currently isn’t, declare “No, this will not do,” and start putting one there. What this winds up meaning is that Toronto, for my money, contains a huge number of small, humble bridges and a relatively small number of world-class megaprojects. No Golden Gates or Brooklyns for us; maybe the Bloor Viaduct qualifies. Invisible bridges that get the job done, sans muss and lacking fuss.

So, my grandmother’s bridge. Glen Cedar bridge. I figured there had to be a story behind it, and when you want to look up civic history in Toronto, there’s really only one place to go: the Toronto Archives.

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You want a hardcover book of City Council minutes from the 1970s that’s thicker than your thigh? The Archives has that. Fancy a banker’s box of historic Toronto postcards from the 1930s? They’ve got that too. How about a view into a filing system that looks like the inspiration for Indiana Jones? Archives.

I’ve visited a few times now, and learned the following: this kind of research is hard. In my mind, a bridge represents a fairly significant investment. City Council has incredibly fractious debates over them. Of course, back when Glen Cedar was built in 1912 (I found out that much), record-keeping was a bit more… haphazard. What is now Toronto was several independent towns, each with its own governance structure and rules about records. Few of them have a handy document entitled “Everything you need to know about that bridge a developer is building in a part of town nobody lives in.” Following the annexation of these town into modern-day Toronto, records were invariably collected, mis-filed, moved, and perhaps most distressingly, lost and destroyed.

A senior archivist took pity on me that first day, showing me the ropes of this kind of research. You don’t dive in; you nibble around the edges. Look at historic maps, many of which show a street grid that has either changed over time or was only hypothetical and never actually existed. Search for historic street names in the vicinity; at one point, he showed me a multi-volume set of Township of North York historic by-laws. Spanning over a century. He recommended I search for ones related to bridge repairs and maintenance; maybe I’d find some mention of the bridge there.

Yeah. Maybe in a century’s worth of research. In the meantime, I’m learning an incredible amount about topics I never expected to find: massive folios containing detailed development plans for far-flung parts of the city, timelines of when various townships coalesced into modern-day T.O. The fact that streetcars used to be called “civic cars,” and that proximity to them was considered a plus in real estate advertisements.

I’ll be keeping a research diary here on Inspiared. Even if most of what I find is completely unrelated to that damned bridge, it’s entirely engrossing, and I can’t wait to get back there. As it stands, I can only schedule it in every other Friday afternoon, so this promises to be a slow-cooker of a project. Because when all you’ve got to go on is a gorgeous, undated landscape architect’s plan for the neighbourhood that clearly didn’t pan out as documented, you take any semblance of a clue you can find.

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~Mike!

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Why I’m Not A Teacher – Yet

Michael Spiar, Publishing Certificate, B.A. (Hons.), B.Ed.

My work in the publishing business has been pretty satisfying on the whole. Yeah, I’ve got my misgivings. Yes, I thought I’d be farther ahead by now, and no, I’m not giving up just yet. I have expanded my career search to include marketing, communications, et cetera… anything that involves shaping and crafting a message strategically. I know I have more to offer this line of work, and it’s with no small amount of pride and stubbornness that I keep it up. I like the potential.

And yet, for as committed as I am to finding my place in the world of well-paid professionals, I’m reluctant to put my B.Ed. – the very degree that specializes me for work in a fairly stable, benefits-laden industry that promises regular raises and one of the most powerful pension plans in the country – to use. Or at least, I was reluctant. My self-imposed, semi-arbitrary deadline to make it or break it in my chosen field before falling back on my plan B is fast approaching, and I find that as I hoped all those years ago, many of my misgivings have faded or vanished.

People are often surprised to discover I went to teacher’s college. It’s not that they can’t picture me as a teacher, but they scratch their heads as to why on earth I’ve taken a pass on it in favor of grunt work in the publishing industry. After getting over their initial surprise, they muse that school board politics are a thing best avoided and wonder at the well-known fact that teaching has one of the highest burnout rates for new staff. Add to that an increasingly litigious society that actively handcuffs teachers’ abilities to enforce rules, educate their students and, you know, do their job, and almost without my participating in the conversation, coworkers more or less rationalize my decision for me.

And they’re not wrong. I did what’s known as a concurrent B.Ed. program, meaning that instead of completing my undergrad and following it up with a year of teacher’s college, I did three years’ of teacher’s college at the same time as my undergrad, which mean three years’ worth of exposure to the dysfunction and pressure that exist in school boards. I don’t know a single person, even the wonderful teachers I worked with in that time, who looked forward to that aspect of the job.

But that’s not why I didn’t go into teaching. Handy excuse, though, for those times I don’t feel like getting into the real one.

It’s Not that I Don’t Like Teaching

One thing hasn’t changed: I like to teach. As in, the specific act of effectively communicating information to others and guiding them from one stage to another. I have continued to teach skiing (going on 14 years), I began tutoring on the side recently, and standing in front of a classroom connecting with my students was the most reliably enjoyable part of my time as a student teacher. I like seeing my students learn, grow, develop confidence and smile when they get a new concept, and (no false modesty here) I’m quite good and shepherding that process along. But enjoying teaching and wanting to be a bona fide teacher are two different things, and that was the most valuable lesson I learned from my time there.

I applied to teacher’s college – heck, I applied to university in the first place – for no good reason I could articulate at the time. It had more to do with logic and practicality than anything else; I was good at English, so I applied to English programs. I knew that I liked to teach thanks to my weekend work as a ski instructor, so I applied to teaching programs. I was fairly certain I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I knew I needed to have some kind of work available to me coming out of university. It was a plan B for an as-yet nonexistent plan A. I had a safety net for a show that didn’t exist.

Accomplishment and Camaraderie

I picked up ski instructing the way most teenagers fall into lifeguarding – it was a natural extension of age, skills and desire for some pocket change. I found some extra inspiration in the fact that it’s hard to get out to the slopes regularly, and the most reliable way of doing so was to keep up with Snowhawks, my ski school. I was too old to remain a student, so what other option did I have? Two attempts at my certification (I passed the teaching portion on the first try, but my skiing wasn’t up to snuff) and I was ready to teach as of March Break, 2000.

I still remember how proud I was to finally wear the Snowhawks uniform. It wasn’t hero worship exactly, but as an adolescent you tend to build up a mythology around those who wear the (in retrospect) horrifically ugly uniforms that make up the elite class of “instructor.”

In some ways, it was a fortunate that I didn’t get to teach until March. Spring skiing is some of the best, with warm weather, sunny skies and soft snow. My class was just the right size, about six kids, all a few years younger than me. They clicked as a group, they clicked with me, and they were in that sweet spot of just good enough to handle the hard hills and just weak enough that I still had a lot to teach them, and one kid had a particular issue that took all week to correct – when he finally got the hang of it, every single one of us in the group felt the accomplishment as keenly as he did. On the last day of the program, all the groups gathered in the chalet to hand out awards. I couldn’t stop grinning as I announced my groups winner of the Most Improved trophy, and the rest of the class pounded their table and kept on cheering as he came up to claim it.

It was then that I make an indelible mental link between teaching, accomplishment and camaraderie.

Of my first full season teaching with Snowhawks on their regular eight-week program in 2001, my strongest memories are the times I bonded with the students more than anything I taught them. I remember that they got better at skiing, but I also did card tricks for them at lunch. I convinced the more gullible of them that I knew Harry Potter. As the season drew to a close, I started to teach them some of the tricks, and completely failed to anticipate that a few of them would be really upset that I didn’t actually do magic. I remember one girl in particular, the light in her eyes fading, her smile crumbling to a frown, and the sense of betrayal in her voice as she said “Wait, you don’t actually know Harry Potter!” just before she burst into tears. She never quite forgave me.

Back in those days, Snowhawks was a younger, smaller school that could get away with being gloriously disorganized. Of course , I wouldn’t have thought in those terms as a 16-year-old. The school simply was. On the first day, I remember piling off of the Coach bus, helping kids find their skis from under the bus and walking them to the lineup. The school directors, Mitch, Heather, Ian and Sheryl would march around, yelling instructions to get the ball rolling. If you’re in grades 5 to 7, come back here at 12:45 for afternoon lessons – you have the morning to free ski! Grades 3 to 4, stay here. How do you ski? Parallel, wedge? You stand over there, you over there. Are you fast, slow? Go over there.

Instructors were called to a morning huddle to figure out who would take which class. You? Take the intermediates. Suzanna, go for the novices. No, not those ones, the other ones. See the kid with the blue coat? That group. Mike, you take the other novices. No, not them, them. Yeah, them. And off we went.

It was precisely because of this system that I managed to get almost the exact same kids every year. Talk about accomplishment and camaraderie – as I moved up and taught older and more advanced kids, so did Zoe, Tamar, Ben, Michael, Max, Carly, Katrina, Elysa and others get older and better. As we came to a new first day every year, we’d reunite again, and then they’d go pester a director to demand that they get me as their instructor. For five years I had virtually identical classes – I don’t know anyone else who made that kind of connection with their kids over such a long period of time. Some of them became instructors and worked with me. One of them still does. She’s still short, so at least some things stay the same. Nowadays, the directors organize classes long before the first day, and we arrive at the hill with attendance sheets in tow. The serendipity I encountered is unlikely to occur for anyone again.

Those first five years were magical in that way, comfortable and consistent even as my kids grew up and ultimately apart. I can honestly say I’ve never quite recaptured that feeling, but then again, how often does life hand you such perfect circumstances? I still find days where the conditions are great, the kids are loving it, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

But What’s the Point?

Nothing like school to suck the life out of a topic, eh? And teacher’s college certainly does that. By the time I was in my last year of university, ready to graduate with my B.A. and B.Ed., I had more or less checked out. Some of that had to do with the fact that I started off the year undergoing a pretty major change (finally making my exit from a particular closet), and I just couldn’t find put school on the same level of priority I once had. I skipped a lot of classes, started handing in assignments late. Still got decent grades, though, which only contributed to my malaise. How inspired can you be by classes where it’s possible to get a B on a midterm when you 1) forgot you had a midterm that day, 2) nearly skipped the class because of 1, and 3) didn’t study anyway? I picked the English program because I have an innate talent for pulling an essay together out of thin air, but that doesn’t mean I have an inflated sense of importance about it.

Similarly, the teaching side of my education didn’t exactly get my blood pumping. If anything, I dreaded it. Every Friday I went into my host school to teach for a day. As with skiing, I liked the act of teaching – being in front of a class, working with a class, interacting with a class and improving a class. But every week, starting on Monday and going until Friday morning, I became more and more tense. A pit in my stomach. Tingling nerves, hairs on end. And it got worse and worse and worse all week until finally I was physically teaching. Then it made sense, for a fleeting moment. I had the weekend off. The stress began again.

Host teachers would always assure us that teaching got a lot more fun once you graduate teacher’s college. Your plans are judged much less harshly. No more endless reflective journals that get marked by obscure criteria, perfectly capable of giving you a C for “not learning enough” from a recent experience.

What got me, though, was having to make lesson plans. Not because of the work involved, or because I’m allergic to planning. It’s because I had to pick some curriculum criteria to address through my plan. Have you ever read curriculum criteria? Students will “use stated and implied ideas in texts to make inferences and construct meaning.” (Teacher prompts may include “What do you think will happen based on what the author has told you so far?” “What is the author suggesting ’between the lines’?”) I’d stare at my computer screen, struggling to make sense of it. It’s not that I couldn’t make a connection – I’m Mr. Essay, after all, and making thematic links is my bag – but that it felt so meaningless. Only when I was up with the class, actually dealing with the material, did it make emotional sense.

Teacher’s college itself is… unfortunate. Doesn’t it say something when every teacher you speak to has the same negative experience of the program designed to train them for their job? It’s an artificial environment, filled with incredibly capable, well-intentioned individuals who try to make you into good teachers by studying classroom management scenarios and gender theory. They run exercises designed to train you in classroom diversity. They try to teach you a concrete skill (namely, teaching) through abstract learning. Would you send a budding carpenter to hit the books? No, you throw him in the deep end with a mentor and teach him to swim on the fly.

(Heh. Carpenters swimming on the fly. Talk about mixed metaphors…)

One exercise had us standing in a circle while the professor called out statements. If that statement applied to us, we were to take a step forward for a moment, then back. And we’d learn about diversity amongst our selves and be prepared for more of the same in our eventual careers. “I am an immigrant.” Some of us stepped in, and back. “I am religious.” Repeat. “I am a member of a sexual minority.” While technically out, I wasn’t looking for excuses to volunteer the information yet – so I stayed back. If anyone else was of a sexual minority, they didn’t admit it either. Funny, given the statistics that one in 10 will be. “I am an educator.” Here was my time to make a statement. Everyone else stepped forward. I did not.

After, the professor asked me (kindly) if was up to explaining my self-exclusion to the class. I was. I explained how I wasn’t enjoying the program. That I wasn’t sure if teaching was for me. That I liked the act of teaching, but spent so much time stressing out about how to plan my lessons and what to do that wasn’t sure if I was actually “educating” my students instead of simply teaching curriculum. My professor thanked me and smiled, reminiscing that a former student of hers had, upon graduating with her B.Ed., announced that she was going to go and make boots for a living.

Consolidation

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to parse my answer to the educator question. Much of the time, when people ask me, I give the true answer that I simply wanted to try publishing, that teaching was always a plan B. It’s not the whole truth, but it sounds a lot less melodramatic than “Woe, I knowest not what I doth teach!” Which is how I think I sound, not matter how matter-of-fact I say it. I feel like I ought to deliver that rationale mid-swoon, eyes closed, with the back of one hand to my forehead.

What bugged me, and what I finally came to realize before I graduated, was that school is supposed to prepare kids for the real world. Right? Teach them math and language so they can apply it out there. But school is the most artificial place of them all. Thanks to an overly litigious society and incredible leniency demanded by parents, teachers aren’t allowed to be tough. They aren’t allowed to innovate. They’re required to give their students endless chances to hand in, let alone do well on, assignments before finally being allowed to give a zero mark. Teachers can’t hold students back a grade unless their parents consent. Where on earth are these kids supposed to learn and prepare for the reality of workplace politics, sink-or-swim jobs, bullying bosses and, you know, consequences?

Moreover, when had I ever encountered any of that? I can write that previous paragraph now, but back in 2007? Let’s see: I still lived at home. I’d worked for day camps and a ski school. I never had to earn money to live, to survive. I had no idea what it was like to need a job, to truly work, to get by. I hadn’t faced much real-world adversity. My grandmother always used to say my sister and I were spoiled, and we couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. We didn’t ask for anything, we didn’t expect to be showered with money, we always volunteered to help our parents, our friends always had more and better toys than we did… how were we spoiled, exactly? It’s only now that I’m beginning to see what she was talking about.

Back in 2007, all I knew, on some instinctual level, was that I hadn’t lived. Not really. I didn’t have any major successes, nor any failures. I hadn’t gotten an internship, then a job, then a better job, then lost that job, then returned to the old job after a five-month unemployment period, and started trying to freelance, then started a blog.

The best teachers are the ones that manage to put their personal, passionate stamp on a classroom. Back then, I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what my stamp would be. And I knew it.

What business did I have running a classroom, preparing these kids for out there, when I hadn’t experienced any of it myself?

The Future

I’m still not quite ready to go back to teaching, though it has little to do with a crisis of confidence. It’s just that I’m not sure if teaching is what I want to do for a living. If there was a Venn diagram comparing teaching and publishing, the common ground would be “communication, collaboration and achievement.” Sounds a lot like “accomplishment and camaraderie,” no? Seems like vague criteria, but then again, companies do employ Communication Officers, do they not? Marketers? Public Relations staff? People whose job it is to take stock of their audience and craft a message accordingly?

I’m not done exploring the world outside of the school system yet, but I’m a lot better prepared to go back into it if need be. I can’t say that my real-world experience will directly affect my lesson plans, at least in so many words. But my experience has changed me, which will change how I teach. It will change the nature of my classroom, should I ever get one. And, with a little bit of luck, it will change my kids. For the better.

~Mike!

I’m Lovin’ It?

It’s a thing that, at some point, everyone comes up against – that moment when something you love becomes some kind of burden and you just want to quit. This applies to hobbies, jobs, work, relationships… everything.

I’ve certainly come across it before in my own life long before now, but I guess it has a weird poignancy due to a semi-arbitrary decision I made a little over six years ago. In June 2007, I graduated university with a BA in English and a BEd. Teacher’s college was always a plan B, a fallback, though I had no idea what Plan A was. I spent almost my entire undergraduate life preparing for my second-place career, not know what first was. Finally, a little before I graduated, I figured it out: publishing! I gave myself seven years to make it happen, figuring that five was a bit too short (everyone needs time to put in their grunt work and escape a dead end or two) and 10 was just irresponsible (how long do I want to earn peanuts, exactly?), so seven seemed like a good compromise.

Well, it’s a little over a year until my deadline comes to pass, but a lot has happened in that time. I got married, acquired a mortgage, and have absolutely put in my grunt work. I’m still not where I’d like to be monetarily, and I’m just now branching out into freelancing and real networking, but I’ve got to consider: at what point do I stop going for a ‘job I love’ and just do it for the money? After all, how many of us truly find a job we love, that is fulfilling and perfect? How much of that is a myth, anyway?

A lifetime of television shows and feel-good dramas have taught us that following your passion is a kind of purity. A heart followed is a heart fulfilled, surely. Except for the times that it’s not. A recent episode of How I Met Your Mother encapsulated this nicely, when Lily, who loves her husband and child, confessed that sometimes she wants nothing more than to up and leave them. This isn’t a damning admission, but rather a statement of fact: nothing is pure.

I remember in high school when a student I respected a great deal, Eugenia, said she was thinking of stepping down as President of the Music Council (think Student Council, only more specific). She just wasn’t enjoying it, she said. At the time I couldn’t relate – after all, you just put your head down, ignore the distractions and push through, right? Why would anyone consider quitting? It wasn’t long until I had my answer, when just a couple of years later I realized I didn’t want to teach skiing anymore.

The short version is that I had gone about three season in a row of only hitting the slopes for training and teaching purposes – no recreational time. I took a day to visit Blue Mountain by myself, the first time I had ever gone skiing alone, just to find out if I still liked it. Verdict: yes! Since then I’ve made sure to go out for fun at least a couple of times a season, but even so I’ve still been tempted to just drop the whole enterprise a handful of times. I often describe myself as passionate about skiing (and teaching it), and that I love it, and I’ve learned to just ignore those moments when part of me asks why I bother anymore.

So what about my actual career, the writing slash publishing slash editing one? Well, I like a lot of it. I find satisfaction in aspects of it and frustration in others. Clearly, my passion hasn’t provided the financial dividends I’d hoped for, and maybe it’s time to consider selling out a bit and take a job that pays the bills and leaves me freer to spend my free time as I’d like (such as, oh, taking a ski trip instead of staying in Ontario, the skiing world’s armpit).

I suspect I’m a bit late to the game in accepting the fact that virtually any career I pick will have more headaches than I’d like it to – I mean, if my hobbies (which I “love”) stress me out sometimes, then what hope do I have for a career that I “love”?

Probably the same chance as everyone else, actually. I’ll find something enjoy about virtually anything, something that convinces me to push past the inevitable moments of doubt I’ll find in any endeavor. That’s life.

Oh, and Eugenia pushed through her doubt and stayed on as president. To the best of my knowledge, she was glad to have done so.

I’m lovin’ it.

~Mike!

Some Stories

– The music room in my old high school had a couple of side rooms to practice in. A few of us were killing time in one of them one day and we put a sign on the door (the only door, mind you) saying, “Please use other door.” A slightly loopy classmate knocked to come in, and we shouted at her to read the sign. She fell for it.

– My first ‘job’ after graduating university was an internship at a downtown book publisher. I spent a lot of my time dealing with this one bike courier we nicknamed Johnny Anger. Nice enough person, but as often as not he’d come out of the elevator muttering and swearing to himself, and we knew to just let him be. He’d collect or deliver the package and leave without exchanging a word with any of us. This was fine by everyone. One day he was especially agitated. He came in, almost upgrading from a mutter to full-blown audibility, and to this day I appreciate his restraint in waiting to re-enter the elevator and for the doors to close before releasing a long, loud, echoing “FFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” in the company of his own solitude in the elevator shaft. Oh, Johnny Anger. I miss you.

– The first time I lent out my old skis to a friend, they broke. He felt terrible. I couldn’t stop laughing. Then we realized he still had to make it down the hill. He felt less bad. I kept on laughing.

– Waking up from a concussion is a very cool experience; I mean, I could feel my various brain functions rebooting at different speeds. I was all, “situational awareness at 5%…10%…15%… and rising” and “motor function at 5%…10%… still 10%… yeah, we’ll camp out at 10% for bit” and “spinny vision at 100%…90%…85%… and dropping.” Regrettably, my sense of humour was low on the priority list of mental faculties to re-engage, so I spent most of my time telling the campers I was in charge of how I felt totally OK instead of opening with, “Upon reflection, I have decided that the bike jump isn’t safe after all.” Eh, who am I kidding? They wouldn’t have gotten the joke anyway.

~Mike!

Air Shows and iPhone Cameras, Together at Last

I like air shows.

I also like the camera on my iPhone (4S, if you’re wondering), mainly for the serendipity of it all. For instance, let’s say that the Snowbirds (Canada’s military aerobatic team) are doing a fly-over and you, spur of the moment, decide you want a picture. It takes a second to unlock the phone. Another second to open the camera app. Another two or three seconds until the camera itself is fired up. By this point, the planes have traveled quite some distance and the shot you originally wanted to take is long gone. You point your phone skyward (+1 second) and wait for it to focus (+1.5 seconds). You hit the shutter button. Then, being a phone more than a camera, it takes another while (+2 seconds) to actually take the picture while you track your hand to keep the formation in the frame. It finally snaps. The planes are gone. A second of waiting. Is it blurry? Is it streaky?

Nah, it’s perfect:

Snowbirds in 9 Line Abreast formation

~Mike!

So You Want to Buy New Skis

I like to think of myself as a conversational generalist. That is to say, I know a little about a lot of things, maximizing the chance that I can go at least a minute or two with someone before things become awkwardly silent, plus I get to ask what I hope are intelligent questions in lieu of making a genuine contribution to esoteric conversations. For this reason, I was mildly surprised to realize recently that, despite being a ski instructor of 13-going-on-14-years, I knew virtually nothing about ski equipment.

It’s actually pretty common. Most people who buy their boots, boards and bindings haven’t the foggiest idea what the difference is between brands like Atomic and K2, are afraid to try anything from Volkl over not knowing how to pronounce the name, and don’t quite realize that skis aren’t like clothes. Every model comes in one design only – colour-coordination is not an option. To quote a friend of mine when I drew this fact to his attention: “There are different kinds of skis?”

I’ve only owned two pairs of skis in my life, and I’ve gotten the same six to seven years of use out of each. Both times, I followed the Ski Buyer’s Standard ApproachTM, which is to describe vaguely how I ski, have the salesman narrow my options down to two, and then to pick one arbitrarily. This year, I wanted to be informed. I wanted to research. I have no idea if my journey from equipment neophyte to equipment literati is universal, but it felt organic to me. So, without further ado, I present the Beginner’s Guide to Buying Skis (Assuming You Have the Time, Money and Interest – If Not, Just Do What the Sales Guy Tells You).

BGBS(AYHTMI-INJDWSGTY) Step One: Test ride

Renting gear at the ski hill itself isn’t much of an option for me – resorts in Ontario don’t typically stock the good stuff. A lot of bigger resorts are surrounded by pro shops, however, and they’re happy to let you take out a pair of demonstration skis for the day. And for a price. In my case, Squire John’s in Collingwood, Ontario, is my shop of choice if only because of its reputation, and the fact that you can put the cost of up to three rentals towards your eventual purchase.

(It was at this point that I reflected on how I’ve kept up my ski instructing largely as a means to fund my few days of recreational skiing, because wow, this is not a cheap sport. In a good season, I get out on my own maybe three times, compared to 10 for professional purposes.)

If you’re lucky, the hill you’re at will have a ‘demo day’ where pro shops set up tents near the chalet and lend out skis for free. The loan is only for an hour or so, but it’s enough to give you a taste.

BGBS(AYHTMI-INJDWSGTY) Step Two: Take notes

The tricky part of this process for me was analyzing the gear instead of my abilities. As skiers, we focus on our bodies and skills – the skis and boots are just the things we put on our feet. Without ever saying so explicitly, the message from instructors is that we affect our skis, not the other way around. I think that’s why, more than any other reason, I simply had no idea what to make of the Head i.Supershape Magnums I took from a demo tent for an hour. I thought they were grippier on ice than my five-year-old Nordica boards (Hot Rod Nitrous model, FYI), but wasn’t sure.

The best thing to do is take notes. How did you ski on the new gear? Was turning easier or harder? How about carving? Even if you’re not sure whether to blame yourself or the skis, write it down. The next time you take out a pair of demos, you’ll start to see patterns emerge, and the differences between models will become apparent. You may just be having a rotten day on the slopes, but you’ll still notice what’s easier and harder to accomplish. Same goes for an awesome day when you can feel you’d do better if it weren’t for the lead weights on your feet.

My first set of notes was vague: “Better on ice than my current skis” was all I could jot down about the Heads. Then I tried the Rossingol Pursuit 18 and Pursuit 16 back to back, and had more to say. “18s are great on ice/cruddy conditions. Very smooth, minimal vibrations. Smooth transition from turn to turn. 16s have smooth transitions but grip less on ice. They vibrate more.” A pair of Fischer World Cup RC skis elicited notes like “Very stable; amazing carved turns. The skis resist making shorter turns; I feel clumsy.”

Rather than focusing on my own skill set, I just paid attention to how I skied that day. Was it easy? Was it hard? Was it fun? Through my notes, the evidence took shape before me. The inescapable verdict was that equipment plays a huge role in performance.

BGBS(AYHTMI-INJDWSGTY) Step Three: Research

Now that I had four different demos under my belt, I figured it was time to educate myself on the ski technology itself. That is to say, what about its construction made me ski the way I did? I had the what, but lacked the why and how.

I thought that the manufacturer websites would be a good place to start, but holy cow was that a mistake. The industry at large has mostly cottoned on to the fact that people don’t do the research I was trying to, and very few websites have useful information. Nordica is the worst offender, using an annoying all-caps font for empty (and tacky) copywriting like “absolutely dripping with cutting-edge technology” and “designed to meet the expectations of the most demanding skiers.” Atomic is similarly unhelpful, with lines like “power, precision and versatility for everywhere in the resort.” Thanks a bunch. I am enlightened.

Rossingol is far and away the best, with descriptions that try very hard to explain who would want to use each model. Rossi provides technical details and really, earnestly wants you to know about how the design would make me feel on the hill, but it still had a regrettable in-crowd vibe with jargon I couldn’t quite grasp. Elan and Fischer both have nifty Product Finder functions that ask you questions to help narrow down their selection, but true insight is hard to come by.

In the end, I just walked into a ski store and talked to a salesman. Sales staff at pro shops know their stuff, and the guy I talked to was happy to help, even though I said up front I had no plans to buy that day. He was able to bridge the gap between bragging about new technology (as the manufacturers do) and explaining how it actually works. The fact that I went in with my testing notes was huge – doing so put his abstract technical explanations into an experiential context, and I walked away much more informed for my troubles.

Conclusion

I’ll be the first to say that my journey into the world of equipment this season was quite unnecessary. Again, most people on the slopes (even instructors like me) ski and teach just fine without knowing what “rocker technology” is or understanding why some skis handle vibration better than others. And as the salesman told me, there are a ton of skis out there that fit my basic profile, and nine times out of 10 I wouldn’t notice a huge difference between them.

But you know what? I have a new appreciation for where I am as a skier because the boards I rode all came with unique demands and limitations. The Rossi Pursuit 16s are meant for a slightly less technical rider, and they became unstable when I really tried to get a powerful carve going. I felt like a fricking wizard on the 18s, like nothing could stop me, while the Fischer World Cup RCs demanded more edging finesse than I have to offer and left me struggling all day. Any skier who loves the 16s would feel similarly overwhelmed by my 18s. Realizing this made me feel momentarily inadequate, as though being better suited to the 18s than a more stringent model was some kind of slight against me. But you don’t get to the future without owning the present, and come spring (when everything goes on sale, natch), I’ll be the proud owner of my new Pursuit 18s, ready to continue working my way up the gear chain. And I won’t be able to wait for next season.

~Mike!

On Job Interviews

I’ve been in job search mode since early August now, but I can’t pretend my circumstances are dire. Savings are ok and the other half of my marriage is reliably employed, so while it’s no picnic not having a job, I suppose I don’t have that urgency of bills piling up and no way to pay them.

So is it bad that I don’t really get excited anymore when I get interviews? I mean, when you spend four months of your life principally engaged in a job hunt, then finding the perfect opportunity kind of stops being novel. Getting an interview is still cause to prepare carefully, but it loses the “Aha, an opportunity! I must tell everyone I know!” quality of early success. Every aspect of the search becomes commonplace, ho-hum.

I feel guilty for having that reaction, too. I know that I’m very, very lucky to have avoided the practical realities of un-payable bills and a rumbling stomach, but is that an excuse to stop feeling that keen drive to find a job and elation at every opportunity? Or would anyone, dire circumstances or not, feel this way after a long enough period of going through it?

The last time I did a job search, it wasn’t because I needed to – I just really, really, really wanted out of my then-current position. I’d been applying for nearly a year with almost no results, and I experienced the highs and lows very acutely. I was positively giddy over every plum posting, dejected when I never heard a response, and freshly determined to nail it the next time. And I was always frustrated at being stuck.

But now? All of those feelings are there, but somewhat tempered. It’s different, because my job hunt is, frankly, my new job. It’s taken on qualities of the daily grind, the sameness every job has on a day-to-day basis. Interviews are still exciting, but my initial reaction to them is now more akin to “ah, something else to schedule.” Cool opportunities are still cool, but getting my dream job has taken a back seat to getting, well, any job. I only tell people about those postings or upcoming interviews when asked specifically. Otherwise, how’s life? Meh. Job search. You know the drill.

It’s probably just my personality, but I suspect that even with a mountain of bills I couldn’t pay, I’d settle into a take-it-as-it-comes attitude pretty quick. It’s one of my better qualities as an employee, too, I think – I adapt to new circumstances quickly and take curveballs as they come. I bring that sedate, professional sameness to new situations because it’s the best way to handle them rationally.

Still, it makes for some thinking to do when I get a call, as I did this afternoon, for an interview and as a first reaction think to myself, “I’m in the middle of something! They had to call now?”

That being said, it took all of half a second to remember that this particular company was one of my dream postings: Marketing Communications Writer, and at least on paper, I meet virtually all of the job requirements. Maybe I’ll put the champagne on ice after all.

~Mike!