'membering · Skiing · Writing

New Skier Blues

I do not downhill ski. My whole acquaintance with skiing was a brief familiarity through watching it on TV and going “downhill” on cross-country skis as a child. However all that was about to change as my new sweetie and I buckled into our seats on an airplane bound for Calgary. Greg was an avid skier and wanted me to try it. At Banff.

We arrived on the slopes of Lake Louise after a day of skiing at Sunshine. I had had lessons, Greg and his sister Susan had gone to ski the double black diamond runs they loved so much. I had mastered the art of sliding precariously down the bunny run snowplowing like mad all the way. But my time had come. After lunch, we were to do the green run down Lake Louise. The long green run all the way down the mountain.

Greg, Susan and I got in the gondola and up we went up and up and up. My ears popped but I was quite relaxed. I had no idea what I was about to try and was enjoying my oblivion. No one told me that I could go down in the gondola as well as up. The top of the green run (what did green mean?!) was nasty. Steep and narrow. I didn’t really know how to stop except by falling over. So once they coaxed me over the “edge” fall is what I did, in almost every possible configuration. Did anyone mention how hard it is to get up without ankles?

Greg and Susan helped me slowly fall my way down the mountain. Gradually I learned how to turn, although it was still a terrifying exercise. What do you mean, point my skis downhill? What if I can’t get them pointed sideways again? One memorable moment came as I was skiing across the mountain (something I did much of) and noticed a nice friendly knoll that I could ski up onto. Skiing up anything was heaven as far as I was concerned since I didn’t have to go down and so I went for it. Suddenly there was a shriek from behind me and, in a flurry of snow, Greg arrived. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” he yelled. I gestured at the friendly little hill and opened my mouth to explain when, in the same breath he said ‘DON’T YOU REALIZE THAT WAY WILL TAKE YOU TO THE WOMEN’S DOWNHILL RUN? YOU DON’T WANT TO GO THERE”. Oh. I said. Not really knowing what the “women’s downhill run” was, but assuming that whatever it was, was worse than what I was on. Sigh. I was going to have to point my skis downhill again after all.

I got to the bottom with snow everywhere, after having left the top some 3 hours previous. Greg and Susan and I were all together and I said “That was GREAT let’s do it AGAIN!” Suddenly we all got caught up in the moment. Greg said the gondola would close at 4 so if we were going to do it we’d better be quick about it and suddenly we were running that ungainly ski-booted run across to the gondola. Made it! We were sitting in the car going up and up and up and I was wondering (silently) what I’d just done?

We started off down the green run again (I still didn’t know one could go down the gondola) only  it was 3 hours later, I was 3 hours tireder, and despite having learned a lot, I still didn’t know enough. Gradually I realized that while I was still having fun, I was having less fun than I had had the first time down. Somewhat later I noticed ski patrol skiing behind us, back and forth. After a while they skied up to Greg and I listened to their conversation. “Do you need any help?” they asked. “No I think we are okay” answered Greg “after all we are more than half way down by now aren’t we?”. As it turned out, we weren’t. We were only just about a quarter of the way down and the ski patrol wanted us OFF the mountain. Normally for Greg and Susan that wouldn’t have been a problem, they could just point their skis down and go. For me, however, the picture was somewhat different.

A few more ungainly turns, my quads and calves complained, and the ski patrol person came up to me. “How are you doing?” he asked. “I’m FINE” I answered, somewhat belligerently. I didn’t need any help. Except … I did, and I was starting to realize it. I was skied out, my brain knew (more or less) what to do but my legs had long ago stopped taking orders from my brain and were in the process of inventing entirely new ways to ski most of which involved falling. “Just so you know, in case you want some help, there is a ski patrol hut a couple of turns further down, and lots of people there who are willing to help you” said the friendly ski patrol person. Part of me wanted to drape my body over theirs right then and there, but the other part of me wanted to prove to all these people that I was JUST FINE and could do it without ANY HELP.

Two turns later and the part of me that realized I needed help was in ascendance. It was starting to get dark and my legs were dangerously close to revolting altogether. There were a cluster of people with red ski patrol jackets standing around a hut and as I appeared several of them started towards me. The first one to reach me, put his arm around me and helped me ski the last few yards. A sled appeared and it became clear that it was for me. I lay down, and was competently and professionally bundled up with much friendly banter.

One of the ski patrol proceeded to pull me  headfirst down the mountain. I could see the tops of trees go by and Greg, skiing back and forth behind us. The speed was terrifying but there was nothing I could do except relax and enjoy the ride. When we got to the bottom I disentangled myself and when I could stand I gave the woman who had just pulled me down a big hug. She deserved it!

On our third and last day of skiing Greg and I went up to the top of Lake Louise and skied the long green run all the way to the bottom. I significantly improved upon my time, and I did it without any help. Yes. I’m just FINE. 🙂




Can it ever be perfect? Can I make a sentence/paragraph/page turn in such a way as to allow me the writer to feel that sense of wonder – did I do that? – a wonder not to be marred later by a re-reading and the more often than not inevitable realization that something could have been improved upon.

Unlike the ephemeral arts – music, cooking – writing lingers, lurking, to shame us into that embarrassed realization that what at first blush seemed wonderful – nay marvelous – is in fact only mediocre or ordinary. That sentence that seemed so sharp and well crafted seems clunky and rough, an approximation of a thought rather than the crystallization of one.

Writing is a fierce mistress and an unforgiving one. So why write?


Enter the Dragon

…… Los Angeles, California, 1976

For me, the movie starts with a black man

Leaping into an orbit of badges, tiny moons

Catching the sheen of his perfect black afro.

Arc kicks, karate chops, and thirty cops

On their backs. It starts with the swagger,

The cool lean into the leather front seat

Of the black and white he takes off in.

Deep hallelujahs of moviegoers drown

Out the wah wah guitar. Salt & butter

High-fives, Right on, brother! And Daddy

Glowing so bright he can light the screen

All by himself. This is how it goes down.

Friday night and my father drives us

Home from the late show, two heroes

Cadillacking across King Boulevard.

In the car’s dark cab, we jab and clutch,

Jim Kelly and Bruce Lee with popcorn

Breath, and almost miss the lights flashing

In the cracked side mirror. I know what’s

Under the seat, but when the uniforms

Approach from the rear quarter panel,

When the fat one leans so far into my father’s

Window I can smell his long day’s work,

When my father-this John Henry of a man-

Hides his hammer, doesn’t buck, tucks away

His baritone, license and registration shaking as if

Showing a bathroom pass to a grade school

Principal, I learn the difference between cinema

And city, between the moviehouse cheers

Of old men and the silence that gets us home.

-John Murillo

From Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010). Used by permission.

John Murillo is the current Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. A graduate of New York University’s MFA program in creative writing, he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, the New York Times, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is a two-time Larry Neal Writers Award winner, a former instructor with DCWritersCorps, and the author of the poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie.

Murillo appeared on the panel Aqui Estamos: A Sampling of Poetry from the Inaugural Acentos Poetry Festival during Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2010.

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Lost in the ‘burbs of Philadelphia

It was the spring of 1991. I had spent two years in Washington DC as a grad student immersed in the Deaf world of Gallaudet University. I was looking forward to finishing my studies and starting work as a sign language interpreter. The last hurdle was to find myself a 3-month internship.  After a number of false starts I managed to line up a possible position with an agency that contracted interpreters in Philadelphia. They were keen to have me come work for them, all they wanted was a chance to meet me and cement the deal. So on a sunny Friday I took the train from D.C. to Philly. Having never been there before, I decided to splurge and stay at (where else) but the famous Hershey Hotel!

Saturday morning dawned, a beautiful sunny day. This was before the days of Google map, and I  only had the address to the agency’s office – somewhere out in the ‘burbs of Philly. So down to the concierge I went. After a somewhat protracted discussion with him I set off for the subway, to take a train and then a bus; eventually I was unceremoniously dumped out onto a sidewalk to make my way to the office. It was lunchtime.

After the interview was over, I set off again to catch the bus-train-subway back to downtown Philly.  I got to the road and hit my first major snag. I couldn’t remember what side of the street I had disembarked onto, and hence, didn’t know which side I should wait on to catch the bus. Did I mention I am directionally impaired? I made my best guess, however, and waited. Eventually a bus came along and on it I got.

The bus wandered all over hells half acre before I decided it maybe wasn’t going the way I needed it to go. I got up and asked the driver (not, as it happened, for the first time during this trip) and he confirmed my suspicions, I was not going the right way. So next stop, out I got and crossed the street to wait. Time passed.  Eventually I got on another bus. By this time I was getting fairly stressed. I had no idea where I was, no idea whether I was even on the original bus route I had taken to get out and no idea how to get back to the hotel. I sat down on a seat near the front. The bus was full of commuters, and no one looked particularly friendly. Eventually I got up my nerve, and turned to the gentleman sitting next to me. “Excuse me, I was wondering if you know how to get back downtown?” However, what was a bad trip quickly became worse. It seemed the young man I had addressed was developmentally delayed, and my talking to him threw him into a complete tizzy. As I stammered out my apologies, the man and his companion moved away from me and I was left with people eyeing me out of the corners of their eyes.  And I still didn’t know where I was or how to get home!

The bus continued to jolt along, people came and went and still no hint of a highrise or even a city anywhere. Miles upon miles of nothing but houses. I had to do something. So I got up and squeezed my way to the front. Surely the bus driver wouldn’t mind answering my question – after all it was part of his job. “Excuse me, sir but can you tell me how to get back to downtown Philadelphia?” I asked. The answer though was a stunner: “muhmmh mu n L” was what it sounded like. “Excuse me?” I repeated, and he did, exactly as he had the first time. I thought about asking again and decided it was hopeless. I’d just go sit down and see where I ended up. On and on we went.

The suburban landscape of ticky-tacky houses slowly changed to shop fronts and slightly larger streets, but still no indication of downtown. Finally, the bus turned into a roundabout, and everyone around me began to get ready to get off. This was the end of the ride. I sat there feeling more and more panicked, when one of the people getting off – a well dressed business man – turned to me and said two words “follow me”. So I did. Off the bus, across a median through some doors and towards a turnstile. It would seem we were going down into a subway system. The man asked if I had what I needed for the fare, I said yes, so we continued on and down the stairs. The last thing he said to me as he disappeared down the platform was “you want to get onto that train”. I looked to my left, and indeed there was a train there with all its doors open, and NO ONE on it. So. I popped on, and sat down expectantly, waiting for the doors to close. But no. It was not to be that easy. The train sat, and I sat, and the train sat … and … well the only thing that kept me there was the full and certain knowledge that I didn’t have anywhere else to go or anyone else to ask. After what seemed like hours but probably wasn’t, people started to trickle in. Finally I wasn’t the only person sitting on the train!  Even later, the doors chimed a warning, closed, and we were off!!!

My train was moving, I was presumably headed in the right direction and maybe at some point I was going to get home? I started watching the stops and reading the subway map and eventually figured out where I was and that, by deduction, I knew where I needed to be! For the first time in hours my stomach unknotted itself somewhat and I relaxed. Commuters came and went and then, finally, it was my station. I got off, only to find myself, yet again, completely disoriented. I still didn’t recognize anything! And yet I knew that I was at the right station – 15th Street Station. And firmly fixed in my head was the intersection I needed to get to – JFK and Broad. People washed around me as I stood, an agony of indecision. There were any number of exits I could take, but which one would take me the right way?  Ah ha! I spotted a policeman, and to a damsel in distress such as I, he looked a mighty fine sight. “Excuse me, sir but can you tell me how to get to the corner of JFK and Broad?” I asked in my best Canadian girl accent. He gave me an odd, longish look and then (without saying a word) simply turned and, as he looked, I looked up and there, written on the wall in letters at least six feet high were the words “JFK and Broad Street, exit to right” with (even) an arrow! Heh.

So off I went, and after wandering through a dingy tunnel I emerged blinking, feeling mole-like, into the dim and rapidly dimmer light of the early evening. So there I was. But where was there? I was on a sidewalk of two huge streets with cars and people streaming by in every direction. And which direction was I to go? My hotel was not visible and I didn’t have a clue (again) which way to go. So off I wandered, down a street that was first a boulevard then an avenue and gradually became just a street. It was getting really dark now, and cold and to top it all off it had started to rain. Finally I saw a store that was lit up – and again I plunged in to get directions. This time though, the patrons and owner of the pharmacy were thoroughly helpful, told me (at length) how I was going the wrong way, got me turned around and finally on the right road to the hotel.

I got back to my hotel well after 8, starving, drenched and tired to the bone. The final straw to the day was the discovery that there was no hot water and that warm bath I was promising myself just wasn’t going to happen.

Later on, the agency that hired me for my internship told me that the mere fact that I got there on just their address alone was enough to qualify me for the job! However, I never did tell them about the struggles I had had getting back!


A writing challenge

While I was an undergraduate at Mount Allison University in Sackville NB, I took a Poetry course from Dr. Albert Furtwangler. My chief memory of the class as a whole was the enthusiasm with which I approached the class and my concomitant lack of preparation. It was a seminar class and while I rarely – if ever – actually read the material before coming to class, I certainly participated most enthusiastically when discussing it. One of the particular poems discussed in this class was a poem called “The Red Wheelbarrow”.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

–          William Carlos Williams

I was incensed by this poem! Enraged almost. It was just not so. The reason for my outrage revolved specifically around the phrase ‘a red wheelbarrow/glazed with rain water’. No wheelbarrow of my acquaintance was a) red or b) so pristine as to let water glaze it. Generally wheelbarrows were mucky things, rusty, dented with a wobbly wheel. They sit outside collecting rainwater and rusting until they are needed to shovel muck and move mud. As a farmers child I KNEW what wheelbarrows really looked like.

And so the germ of an idea came to me. I would write a real poem about a farm. A poem incorporating the dirty barn, the manure gutter, spider webs, feral cats and farting cows, a poem that did not whitewash the world, but showed it as it was. As this idea began to take hold my idea became grander in scope. I would write this poem – this reality poem before reality TV was even a blip in the eyes of TV producers everywhere – and it would be a sonnet! And so, I did.


The cows bellow, it’s late, they want their food.

The calf bawls, butting his milk-bucket, hoping

He will get more milk. Slowly, a new mood

Settles. The cows fed, the calf stops crashing

Against the wooden stall. Still, the cats,

Prowling, hungry, wait for the foaming milk,

Too many grey, lean shapes. The farmer’s mouse-trap,

Barns will always have many of their ilk.

The long legs grip the milk-bucket, the head,

Pressed against the cow’s flank, as the warm

Milk sizzles in. Or is delightedly

Squirted towards a kitten’s sleeping form.

Home surrounds the milker, as the scent

Of the barns lulls him, and he is content.

So. Didn’t I just do exactly what W.C. Williams did in The Red Wheelbarrow?  Isn’t mine just as romanticized an image of the barn as his is of the wheelbarrow? You tell me.