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EILEEN MCNAMARA

Hanging up the ski poles

There is a dirty little secret lurking on those pristine white ski slopes, and all it takes to elicit a spontaneous confessional is opening a book in front of the lodge fireplace.

"Wow, you look comfortable," says a shivering woman en route to an enervating restroom wrestling match with her whimpering toddler's snowsuit snaps and ski boot buckles.

"Gee, that fire looks inviting," says a sad-eyed mom who has come in from the cold gripping the hands of two cranky children and a $10 bill to exchange for the false promise of prepackaged toe warmers.

"Does your family know you are in here?" she demands to know.

Sure. The choice was here or triage.

I gave up pretending this year that I enjoy encasing my feet in hard plastic to ride at outrageous expense to perilous heights in an open, wind-tossed chair in subfreezing temperatures for the express purpose of coming right back down again on a pair of waxed sticks that I cannot control.

It is a great sport, skiing, for somebody else.

The surprise this winter school vacation season was learning how much that "somebody else," the one wearing wind burn and double neck warmers, privately, passionately wanted to be me, the bore with the book. For every accomplished athlete among the maternal skiing ranks and -- thank you, feminism -- there are many, I counted at least two miserable poseurs. It was an unscientific survey. The numbers are probably much higher.

"You have been sitting in here ALL morning," one incredulous mom notes, struggling to disguise her blistering resentment as casual bewilderment.

I assure each envious interloper that it is easy to enjoy what I came to think of as my personal living room, two leather couches, a reading lamp, and a roaring fire tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of the rustic lodge. No lift tickets required, just a willingness to admit defeat and pry torture devices off aching feet.

No one ever did. Women would stumble through the big oak doors, gasping from the exertion or the elevation, their lips chapped, their noses running, their ski gloves soaked from too many close encounters of the "yard sale" kind. They would look longingly at the crackling logs and linger for a moment, then rub their aching calves and head back out to conquer ski runs with such confidence-building names as Last Chance and Know You Don't.

No self-indulgence for them. They had bonding to do with their children, those flashes of lime green snow pants that sail past and then wave from the chair lift while Mom is still limping through her first agonizing run of the day. Ah, family togetherness.

This level of masochism can be explained only by the stubborn myth of the Supermom, that multidimensional female talent who not only earns the bacon and fries it up in a pan, but also figures out how to use the drippings to wax her skis. No such myth attaches to dads; most of them actually seem to like it up there, deprived of adequate oxygen, above the tree line.

It is not that I haven't tried. I have taken beginner ski lessons so often without ever progressing to "advanced beginner" that I should qualify for remedial education status by now. I learned the pizza stop in the last century right alongside my three children, who promptly ditched me to tempt death on black diamond runs while I remained on the bunny slope, trying to avoid flattening the 3-year-olds executing perfect turns in front of me. When you need a kindergartner to talk you across a patch of ice, it is time to hang up the ski poles.

The fireside has its own challenges. It takes a certain skill to anticipate the exact moment between 11:45 a.m. and noon when the blissful silence of the lodge will be broken by the cacophony of ravenous skiers in desperate search of bland chili and watery beef stew. Somebody has to hold the table.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.

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