Thanks for Aspen

Ski with the mountain.

Aspen Thx Card 2-24-13

I made this thank-you card for Mom and Dad in 1979. I was 25 years old. They’d taken me to Aspen.

In their 50s and 60s, every year for a string of Februaries, they drove from Dallas to Aspen for an annual doctor-dentist convention, a.k.a., tax write-off ski week. I was in school at Colorado State. For four years in a row they paid for me to join them during the convention’s kick-off weekend. In my 30+ years in Colorado, those Aspen trips have been the only times I’ve lived the high life of a ski tourist.

By my first trip, Mom and Dad had their Aspen routine down. They always stayed in Room 9 of the Holland House, a chalet at the foot of Ajax Mountain. (In the seventies, you could actually stay a week at the foot of Ajax Mountain for less than a million dollars. The Holland House is now gone, converted to timeshares.) The owner, a fit Dutchman named Jack de Pagter, who I later learned had been a member of the French Resistance in World War II, knew Mom and Dad well and treated them like friends.

New to the scene, I was not tuned into ski mania. To me, mornings in Aspen seemed overfocused. Guests at the Holland House were trained to be up and out early so the staff could clean the rooms in time to hit the slopes themselves. Similarly, at the doctor-dentist convention, the lectures began at 7 a.m. and wrapped up at 9 a.m. By then, Dad reported, you couldn’t hear what the speaker was saying because everyone in the audience was latching their ski boots.

Right after breakfast, we’d board the ski bus. Mom and I would slide around on the gentler runs. Mid-afternoon, we’d head to “apres ski” at a bar at the base of the mountain. We’d listen to the country-western band and work through a pitcher of beer. When the slopes closed and Dad joined us, we’d go to the Holland House for afternoon tea. We’d take a nap. In the evening, we’d meet some doctors and spouses for an expense-account dinner served at a candlelit table. Snow fell outside the plate-glass windows of the restaurant and an open-pit fire crackled inside.

Not a bad day.

In Aspen, I came to realize what a heady crowd Dad and Mom hung out with at national and international medical meetings. One night at dinner, the topic turned to Rosalyn Yalow, who had won the Nobel Prize two years earlier for the work she did with Solomon Berson to invent the radioimmunoassay (RIA). Here’s my stab at explaining RIA’s importance to medical research: It made it possible to quantify biologically active substances. For starters, it revolutionized the treatment of diabetes, because clinicians could now measure insulin in the body.

At dinner, I was interested to hear Dad refer to Rosalyn Yalow as Roz and to Solomon Berson as Sol. He personally knew Rosalyn Yalow, a Nobel laureate? (Solomon Berson died in 1972. Because Nobel Prizes aren’t awarded posthumously, he didn’t receive the prize with her in 1977.) Sitting there, I reflected that I was at this table because Dad, a low-income kid from Newark, had aimed high when he was in his 20s (my age). Yalow and Berson and Dad were part of the worldwide cadre of researchers contributing to the effort to cure diabetes. The members of the cadre that I was having dinner with that night were speaking of Yalow with respect, but I also detected a faint rumble of competitiveness. Only so many awards could be given for esteemed work in medical research. One had been awarded to Roz. Wasn’t that wonderful for her.

Dad certainly had that competitiveness. He aimed high even when it was ridiculous to do so and the only person to compete against was himself. Aspen pointed this out. “Come on Seltzer you idiot!” he’d say in Room 9 at the Holland House, battling the cap on an aspirin bottle. And then there was skiing. He must have liked it, because he came back year after year. But you’d never know that, being on the slopes with him. He didn’t trust his skis, which he nicknamed Cocksuc@#r and Motherfuc@#r. And there were other, bigger things he had to watch out for. The mountain could sense he was tense, and it was waiting for him. Once, the chair on the chairlift knocked him flat in front of a long line of doctors and dentists. As he pulled his head out of the snow, he had a grim, faraway look, like he knew this would happen. He’d been waiting for it.

Things got better when Dad acquired a great ski partner. That was Dave, later to become my husband. Mom and Dad met Dave in Aspen the third time I went. Dave had been skiing since he was four. He was an immediate hit. Suddenly all of us had a good ski partner. While Mom and I tooled around on beginner’s and intermediate slopes, Dad and Dave headed up to the advanced. Dave got a kick out of the way Dad yelled at himself. He offered friendly pointers and showed Dad how to ski with the mountain instead of against it. He watched over Dad.

One afternoon when the slopes closed early due to a blizzard, Dad and Dave were the last skiers off the mountain. Before Dad made his halting way down on Cocksu@#er and Motherfu@#er, Dave knotted a red bandanna over Dad’s face to keep it from freezing. He and members of the ski patrol formed a slow wedge behind Dad until he was safely down, muttering to himself under his bandanna.

But even though this card brings back Dad’s sputterings, it also reminds me that it’s good to get out and have active fun with your parents while you can.

Here’s the other side:

aspen thx side 2

I’m keeping the card, Reader. Although I’m not an artist, in the cartoon at the top of this post, I like how I’ve rendered the three of us. This is roughly what we would have looked like near the chairlift at Aspen Highlands 35 years ago. That’s a good memory.

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