Skiing and Skating

This week's Postcards from the Chorus features Michael Grade, Director of Finance & Operations at the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

It was still dark. But by the soft gold light emanating from the street lamps, I could see the town had been blanketed in fresh snow. Giddy with anticipation, I bused over to the trailhead with my brand new Rossignols. OMG! My luck couldn’t have been any better!

The snow cat was warming up. Heaven!

It was January of 1986. The cold war was drawing to a close, but I was just beginning a plum three-year assignment as a desk-bound warrior at a listening post in Bavaria, then West Germany, after learning Russian (both standard and military usage) for almost two and a half years. Language ran deep in my family–multiple cases of total immersion in German, multiple graduate degrees in French, professorships in Spanish and Portuguese.

The bread-and-butter work of a transcriber was practice artillery fire missions, essentially a minutes-long rapid fire blast of 2- or 3-digit numbers. Occasionally, we got lucky and intercepted the Russians as they drove the former East German countryside. They’d shout into their radios, “Why aren’t you in Dubistdieruhburg?” or “We passed through Pandachantenfurt two hours ago.” (Well, I could have sworn that’s what I heard. They didn’t enunciate as beautifully as the Girls do.)

The snow cat pulled away, chugging, belching smoke, and a minute or two later, the calm returned, a small meadow, nestled among the trees, with a fresh trail arcing across it, disappearing around a beckoning bend. Not a sound, everything muffled by several days’ accumulation of wintery pillow-y whiteness.

I snapped into the bindings, settled the straps on my wrists, and started off.

1986, just three years before Reagan proclaimed “Tear down this wall” and 27 years before the Girls would join Tempelhof Broadcast. Now, 30 years later, some are contemplating building a new wall. Hello? Once in Germany, I wasted no time in getting off the Kaserne (post). Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a pair of towns inauspiciously joined in 1936 for an Olympic bid, but stunningly situated at the foot of the Alps, was a logical destination for this outdoor enthusiast. Check out this actual postcard sent home in the spring of 1986:

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I bought a pair of cross-country skis, “on the economy” as the G.I.s used to say, for 90 Deutsche Marks, the equivalent of about forty dollars. I found out about a trail that wound its way up a valley east of town toward Klais and onward to Mittenwald (Germany’s violin-making capital).

In the “kick zone,” underneath the bindings, the skis had fish scales, to grip the snow. In the tracks, parallel grooves just inches apart, you put your weight on one ski to push off and glide on the other. Classic. Simple. Pure.

On up I went, freshly groomed snow, brand new skis, fresh air, a classic gurgling brook below and steep canyon walls above, beautifully caked spruce everywhere. Striding and gliding around corners, pushing up the inclines and occasionally gliding down again, chest heaving. Peaceful. Clean. Silent. The kind of “Ruhe” to which one longs to escape, from a hectic world of deadlines, meetings, piles of homework, and AP tests.

A new job, drought, ultra-running, El Nino, lovely partner, daughter, new job, countless travels, new job, passing of a father (allow me to throw in a quick thank you here to Ginsberg, Glass, and the Girls for those “Blues”), teenage daughter, separation, new job…Change!

It’s late December 2015, the west coast of Canada (Vancouver) is experiencing an epic winter. Familiar, as I was, from a gnarly trail running escape to “North Van” in 2012, I knew it was an easy trip. I cleared the calendar, packed up the gear, and headed north for a week of skiing on heaps of snow at the Whistler Olympic Park. Priceless.

Between ’86 and ’16, I had switched over to the originally controversial, but now widely accepted style, of cross-country skiing called skating. Imagine the graceful lines of ice-skating on snow. Bengt Herman Nilsson, chairman of the FIS Cross-Country Committee in the ‘80s, noted “…when three to four skiers in a row race with forceful skating steps, they remind me of exotic butterflies fluttering in the wind.” Let's be clear, I'm nowhere near THAT graceful! But feel free to check out some clips of skating here:




During this trip, I tried something new, night skiing. The winds of the day had calmed, the crowds of day skiers were heading home in long lines snaking out of the parking lots of the Whistler/Blackcomb resort, no doubt reminiscing about daring maneuvers in the half pipe. The staff at the Passiv Haus (a super eco-friendly structure purpose built as the headquarters for the 2010 Austrian Olympic team and recently converted into the cross country center) was tidying up for the night. The temperature was dropping. The lights on the all but empty loop around Lost Lake were flickering on.

Again, I snapped in. This time, no fish scales, just smooth bottoms waxed tip to tail. Off I skated, left, right, left, on firm snow, picking up speed with little effort, knees bending to maintain balance as weight shifted side to side. The trail dipped into and out of pools of off-white glow every hundred yards or so, each one drawing you in from the darkness. Power and peace. Rise and fall. Heaving chest. Embracing the moment fully.

These utterly immersive experiences, separated by time, but similar in so many ways, remind me of how much I enjoy our concerts. The long hours of preparation slip away. A sense of pop-up, organic urgency takes over. Pace, tone, movement, and expression thoroughly, convincingly, confidently convey the serenity or the drama of emotional torment. Whether a classic or unconventional work, the Girls convey their understanding and their joy in taking on the responsibility of dealing with it professionally. They look, unflinching at their audience, asking us to ask ourselves if we get it, if we’re ready to embrace the questions asked, as they have.

What is the same for you, and what is different? What will be the same 30 years from now? What will be different? Will more walls come down? What role will you play? How will your passion get the exercise it needs?

A few words of thanks in closing. I’m grateful for having had the chance to work with Melanie for the past 4+ years. Together with the board, artistic leadership, staff, and faculty, Melanie has created a “strength in numbers” that rivals that of the Warriors and a behind the scenes production/staging that rivals Otte’s. My colleagues, who are all committed to a vibrant and thriving program, work with a sense of urgency, juggling many responsibilities. It’s a pleasure to be in their presence. Melanie, you’ll be missed.

With echoes of Finlandia still reverberating off the walls of our beautiful renovated hall, I’m looking forward to winter again. After all, the cross country world championships are in Lahti next year. How do you say “homestay” in Finnish?


Michael Grade Director of Finance & Operations San Francisco Girls Chorus