Pretty much everybody has a singular moment marking each realization that they’re not getting any younger: You find a few grey hairs one day or some smile lines, maybe you notice a bald spot, a bartender doesn’t bother to ask for your ID, you realize that you’ll actually be eligible for retirement and social security a few years before you’re scheduled to make the last mortgage payment on your house.
I had mine last year on a ski run, one afternoon when I caught myself actually trying to make good turns. I had been finding grey hairs for a couple years, no problem, made peace with some rather pronounced crow’s feet (although I might say they arrived on my face much earlier than I’d expected), and even started to notice a trend of wanting to sleep more than seven hours a night.
But the skiing was a revelation. For once, I was not trying to go as fast as possible, not straightlining to the bottom with only an occasional half-ass flip of the skis to wash off a little speed. I was trying to turn better. After a couple attempts, it was clear I obviously knew how to do it, because I could feel it when I got close to perfect.
I thought of my friend Mitsu, who used go tele skiing by himself just for a few hours on a Saturday while listening to Harvard Business Review podcasts on his earbuds, making skiing more of a moving meditation than a social event or adrenaline quest, and the conversation we had once when he said he didn’t think as many people were on a lifelong quest for perfection in anything anymore. Also some other shit he said about “the perfect turn” in a different conversation when I was too closed-minded to really hear.
But now I get it. When I learned to ski at age nine, I just wanted to jump off stuff and point my skis downhill in order to achieve the fastest possible velocity I could without crashing. Like you do when you’re nine and you’re focused on one thing: the freedom and thrill of sliding on snow.
Now I guess I’m focused on a different thing—that perfect turn Mitsu was talking about. If I’m lucky, I get one every time I step off a ski lift, between the top and the bottom. If I’m trying really hard, I get two or three, or even four in a row. Although sometimes I get a little overconfident and start going too fast and by that fourth turn, I can’t reel it back in and the turn is ruined by one ski chattering as I come through the turn.
But you get more than one chance, so you get back on the lift and try to do better the next time. And out of the couple dozen turns you make, you get a few that are great, but that one was the most perfect, and you know it, that it was the best one you’ll have all day. It’s like when you’re skipping rocks on a pond for an hour and you get one that skips ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen times, and your jaw drops and you can’t even believe it, and you don’t quite know if it was you or luck, but either way it was perfect.
The perfect turn won’t save the world or win an award, and chances are nobody but you will even notice it, but it’s a second and a half of everything in your private little universe lining up just so, and if you can get that feeling once a week or once a season or once in a lifetime, that’s probably a good enough reason to keep doing something, isn’t it?
It can happen on your expensive once-a-year or once-in-a-lifetime ski vacation in Europe, or your local ski hill with 400 feet of vertical drop on that blue run you’ve done a thousand, no shit, a thousand times. The perfect turn happens on shit-hot expensive new skis and a pair of skis that are on their last season because no ski tech will be able to give them a decent edge after this year, and it happens on snowboards, too (although it seems like it always happened on my toeside, who knows why). When you get one, you know simultaneously it was perfect, but fleeting, because you’ll do better next turn or next run or next weekend, and what is that, more perfect, or perfect-er, than the last one?
Maybe it’s a little thing that, like Mitsu said, represents a lifelong pursuit of perfection. For me, it was a different perspective on something I took for granted, and a realization that most things we consider “growing up” have a tinge of sadness in them, but the search for the perfect turn isn’t sad at all, because it’s a way we’re refining, not a way we’re deteriorating. So maybe it’s the best kind of growing up.