Non-matter of the day: chairlift etiquette.
The other day I was conversing with a friend as we rode a quad chair on a six-minute ride, and we got into some remarks about business generally, and ski business in particular. We were not talking loudly, but about halfway up a woman said, "It sounds like you guys are working."
This was a curious ice breaker, and neither of us knew quite what to say. Was this person implying that we should not be working, or at least not working in her presence? Or was she telling us to shut up and let her enjoy a spiritual communion with the beautiful morning view of the mountains? Or was she just a chatter looking for an opening?
It was hard to respond.
"No, I don't think we're working," I said. Which rather deadened the subject until we got near the top.
"Well, did you get anything resolved?" she asked.
"Everything's resolved when we ski off onto the snow," I told her, more confused by what I was saying than by what she had said. I think no one was clear about anything. But, you know, the best difference between a chairlift ride and a three-hour airline flight is that the lift ends fast and clean.
I am in constant terror of the first bit of conversation on an airplane, dating to a flight from Tokyo to New York following the 1998 Winter Olympics. Our plane took off, and before it had leveled off at cruising altitude, the woman beside me asked what had to be the most frightening question a person could hear on Minute 14 of a 12-hour flight.
"Do you have any pets?"
Aiyeee, not the dreaded pet question!
Because we all know that when people ask you a question like this, they don't want to talk about your pet, they want to tell you about their pets. I briefly considered parying her assault by describing, in graphic detail, a humongous fur ball burped up by my Maine Coon cat Pink Floyd that time he ate a cricket, and how it got ground in with a nasty 5-inch dreadlock that nearly strangled him getting the brute out.
Alas, my polite nature restrained me from attempting a gross-out. My mistake, for by Minute 42 of a 12-hour flight, the woman had taken out two film cannisters to let me glimpse at the locks of her pooches' fur, which she carried with her around the world.
Anyway, on a chairlift, no matter how bad it gets, the conversation is over quickly, another blessing of high-speed chairs. Although every rule has its exceptions. Many years ago, my wife got onto a chairlift at Aspen with a man who was silent. At first. This was one of those old blue-painted double chairs with no safety bar or foot rest, and being somewhat nervous about heights, my wife was just trying to endure. Midway up, over the highest point of the ride, she heard a low, steady voice from the man beside her.
"Do you ever think of falling out of one of these things?"
"Do you ever think about jumping out?"
Now, she was freaked. Terrified. Either this guy was a sadistic prankster or a true nutbar in the midst of a compulsive breakdown that might end . . . well, who knew? The ride ended. They skied away, she with a lifetime memory.
Related to poisoned conversations are the solipsistic cellphone users. You know the kind. There are the quiet cellphoners, who sort of turn away and mutter privately to their party, and then there are the solipsists who, somewhere in their sense of themselves, really do believe their drama is impressive enough to include us in it.
A friend once called me on her cellphone, and after about 10 minutes she confessed: "I've got to go. I'm on a chairlift alone and don't want to look like a jerk when I get off."
Would there were such humility among cellphonists these days? This season alone, I have borne silent witness to a tearful teenage breakup or threat to breakup, an argument over college applications ("I'll do them next week!"), half a dozen assorted lunch and dinner plans, and one guy speaking to his 6-month-old daughter in her crib. I won't even attempt to describe that one, but the fellow gave us a kind of apologetic chuckle when he folded up his phone.
Well, cellphones are not as bad as smoking. I confess right up front that before I gave up the tobacco habit some 25 years ago, one of my favorite places for a smoke was on the chair ride after a run. If you can't understand this, I can't explain it. But what seems somewhat troubling these days is that the only people who smoke on chairlifts are kids. I suppose that of the combination -- age, smoking, and skiing -- one element has to drop off eventually.
So a belated, decades-overdue apology from me this morning to all those whose pure mountain air was fouled by my unfiltered Camels. I was in mind of this the other day when a guy in his 20s began a ride with me, proceeded to light up a smoke, and then got out his cellphone. I had hit the combo!
What unfolded was a tableu of pre-post-modern American realism as the kid, apparently talking to his buddy, laced the air with F-bombs as he blew out blue plumes of smoke, punctuating each drag by spitting over the rail of the chair. A real charmer. I will refrain from telling you what his feet were attached to.
Like bus and airline rides, the chairlift brings us into a sometimes uncomfortably intimate space to share with strangers. And somehow I am hearing Andy Rooney delivering this line: "I suppose we should just think a little bit about how we act."