“Mortified” is a word that people use to mean “embarrassed,” humiliated, or “offended.” The word’s Latin root “mort” denotes “death.”
In late Middle English, “mortifying the flesh” meant to “put to death” or “subdue by self-denial.” Monks eating only bread and drinking only water deadened their appetites, mastered them.
“Why all the etymology?” you ask. “I don’t give a rat’s rip.”
During the seventh grade, I went snow skiing for the first time, and I was mortified.
My best friend Hunter and his family were members at Brentwood Hills Church of Christ, and the youth minister, Robbie, was planning one of those high adrenaline, minimal sleep road trips to Beech Mountain in North Carolina. For some reason, kids love riding on a bus through the night, eating beef jerky and Laffy Taffy, and griping about each other’s farts. Why they spend their parents’ money on this particular form of misery is a mystery akin to childbirth and love.
My parents wrote a check for $70 or $80 and filled out the waiver form. I packed the L.L. Bean shell I was so proud of and borrowed ski pants and gloves from the McInteers, who owned such things. They were a Vail and Breckinridge family, and we also knew lake, camping, and RV-and-National-Park families. Ours was a Florida panhandle family. We adore fresh Mahi Mahi and crab cakes.
Along with dozens of other bright-eyed children, I boarded the coach. Seven hours later, we arrived at Beech Mountain and rented equipment.
At this point I experienced a phenomenon that I has recurred on every subsequent trip to the slopes. As novice skiers stumble and stump around trying to find their balance and get a feel for the ridiculous strips of carbon fiber clamped to their feet, the know-it-alls try to convince them that there’s really nothing to it. They offer unhelpful and irritating snippets of advice, such as, “Just try to trust yourself.”
Oh, yes, trust myself. Obviously, my lack of experience is undermining my confidence. If only I weren’t such a pathetic, insecure carp. Or, perhaps, I’m unsteady and nervous for good reason: This. Is. Unnatural.
Why don’t you wrap a cat in packing tape and see how it reacts? Would you say, “Hurry up!” to a newborn colt learning how to stand for the first time?
Eventually, these perky volunteer instructors lose interest and glide down the bunny slope to the ski lift, no doubt reassuring themselves that the novices were stubborn and unteachable.
Abandoned by my former friends, I traversed the bunny slope as fast as a ninety-year-old man with a walker—left pole, right ski, right pole, left ski.
Robbie came to a stop beside me in a spray of fake snow, tiny balls of ice like flavorless Dippin’ Dots.
“Need some help?” he asked.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said. “I’ve never been skiing before.”
Rather than offer canned advice, he did his best to show me the rudiments, which consisted of tipping my weight back and forth onto each ski. If I started going too fast, I could angle the tips inward in a maneuver called a “snow plow,” which broadcasted to everyone, “Hey, look over here! I’m awkward!”
At worst, I could just crash myself to a stop. This is messy and, without true powder, painful. Five-year-olds in insulated cover-alls and funky hats would stop and ask, “Are you okay?”
Well, I guess that depends on what you mean by “okay.” No bones are broken, but I’ve felt like a twelve-year-old who wets his bed for the last hour.
We took the lift up to a blue, and this set the stage for one of the most mortifying experiences of my life.
When you lack all confidence in a certain area, whether it is reading aloud or shooting free throws, no amount of encouragement or even natural ability can make up for a mere thirty minutes of experience.
Robbie began explaining how to dismount from the lift, and I felt panic turn over in my stomach. The same visceral tremor also occurs when you have a bout of diarrhea. Another episode makes impact and starts the egg timer counting down from sixty seconds. You’re on the interstate out of sight of the next exit. You begin to sweat and make deals with God.
I already got made fun of at school, so the last thing I needed was to cause a six-person pile-up in front of a crowd, which is exactly what happened.
Despite Robbie’s warning to keep the tips of my skis up, put them down all at once, and let my momentum carry me forward, I did a face plant in the center lane. He escaped unscathed, for which I was thankful, but the next three gondolas on the lift were not so lucky.
As they crested the hill, people had either too little time to react or nowhere else to go. When I fell, I started building the sandwich. I was the bottom half of the bun, and every new stranger added another layer of meat, cheese, and veggies.
At the bottom of this open-faced sandwich, I could hear people cursing the idiot who had caused this fiasco. At least it was warm.
Someone finally stopped the lift, which gave each layer a chance to peel him or herself off the pile and march off in a fury.
Of course, as with any accident, people rubber-necked, trying to see what had happened, who was responsible. Soon, I was the only one left in the snow. “Hey, look over here! I’m the jerk polluting your ski slopes and ruining your day!”
To escape the spotlight and a modicum of mortification, I picked up all my gear and walked over to where Robbie was standing with a huge grin on his face. At least he had waited for me.
We took a moment for me to find my nerves, then I put my clown costume back on Robbie waited patiently for me to tumble down my first blue fifteen feet at a time. If you’re going to mortify yourself in front of a crowd and trip half a dozen strangers, it helps to have a friend.