It’s password management turtles all the way down

Since I mentioned password management in passing yesterday I recall a question I haven’t seen answered yet: how do you manage your password management passwords?

My setup is this: as advocated by, eg Bruce Schneier and Troy Hunt (but not, apparently, by Florêncio et al 2014, although I’ve only read the abstract and some of the press) I use a password manager, which stores huge long random passwords for all the sites I use and is in turn password protected.

While I’ve been doing this for several years, a few flaws have emerged:

  1. Google passwords. You have no idea how often you need to enter a Google password on an Android phone until… you do. And you’ll be reminded for every new device and then every password change, even if you’re a Heartbleed-level-or-greater password changer. It’s very very difficult to survive setting your Google password to F]U8NScS+RP7eL5)v=gj7f*/bX~$&` or even F]U8NScS+R frankly as an Android user. (Especially since if you have two factor turned on, the way you authenticate to an Android phone involves entering your password twice.)
  2. shared passwords, often required in business in particular but also in (cough) personal households, and not handled by most password managers in a model other “a password database for you” and “a password database for you and your boss” and so on for potentially combinatorial values of “you and [colleague]“

There are some services that attempt to solve that second point within an organisation, eg, Lastpass Enterprise but even allowing for that, let us enumerate the password manager passwords that a hypothetical individual called Mary currently has:

  1. personal password manager password
  2. work password manager password
  3. household password manager password
  4. volunteer organisation password manager password

And at the point where this hypothetical individual is remembering four separate extremely complex and secure passwords it’s beginning to look like the promised land of “the last password you’ll ever need” is, well, turtles all the way down.

It’s 2014 and the Internet is still atomising my household

Here’s some electronic things my household owns collectively:

  • our main camera
  • our television
  • our games consoles
  • our Kindle and Nexus tablet

Here’s the services I use almost daily that do not have any notion of collectively owned content or multiple publishers wanting to manage a single account:

  • Flickr
  • Google Play, or any other Google service
  • Xbox Live (to the extent I’ve explored it)

And this is epically frustrating, because here’s some use cases that these websites don’t handle well.

  • we share parenting of our children. We would like to be able to play one or both of them Frozen or Cars or whatever without both owning a copy from a streamable service or someone needing to leave a logged in Android device with a known password in the house at all times.
  • we both take photographs on our main camera. We sometimes can’t remember who took which one and in any case, it’s always me who post-processes them. We would like to be able to publish them on a photo sharing website and maybe sometimes attribute authorship (if one of us is especially proud of a shot and actually remembers taking it) and sometimes not!
  • we read the same books because I read them first and Andrew reads some subset of them on my recommendation, and we’d like to do that without both buying a copy.
  • we listen to the same music because Andrew listens to it first and I listen to some subset of it on his recommendation, and we’d like to do that without both buying a copy.

I mean, it’s disgusting really. One day we could even do the ultimate in simple gross violation of normal and healthy relationship boundaries some day and want to play each other’s saved games.

Right now we do pretty much what everyone does to some degree, as far as I can tell, which is to have a shared Amazon account and a shared Flickr account and still buy movies on optical discs for now even though five minutes of unskippable sections at the start are annoying and put our music on a fileserver and awkwardly manage our photos on a USB hard drive that can get plugged into different laptops and really not stream much stuff at all. Maybe one day we’ll have some kind of dedicated device that is logged into someone’s Google account and streams movies that are always bought through that account, or something like that.

Now traditionally when I make this point, someone will show up and say “yes, my dear, but something extremely complicated is going on here, much too complex and subtle for your delicate sensibilities, called making money through an advertising revenue model requiring demographic information and the entire world will go bankrupt if we allowed multiple people to share accounts even for content they produced in any recognised way, so don’t worry your pretty little head about it and let your husband buy the clicky button things from now on.”

To which I answer: this blog is (to the best of my knowledge) not owned by any of Yahoo!, Google or Microsoft and does not especially care about their revenue models. Moreover, if your comment boils down to “please try and see this from the side of the websites” I will replace your comment with the one from the previous paragraph, sexist content and all. (Also don’t explain to me that one can share passwords in various ways. I know. I do those things.)

I will concede one point: households don’t have continuity in the way that individuals do. My household will split into at least three and perhaps four someday. This is pretty much impossible to model in the present intellectual property+licencing rights model as far as I can tell.

And all the same, I’m annoyed that the software world is really hostile to the (very normal) way I live my life and is (surprise!) set up for a world in which each of the four people in my house sits in their own room with their own TV + gaming system + speakers + phone/tablet + ereader interacting with content they purchased entirely separately, and in many cases, in duplicate (possibly) maximising your revenue since whichever unfortunate day someone came up with the idea of an “account” on a computer system.

First ecosystem to fix this gets to sell me Frozen or something.

Late September

I can never remember weather emotionally once it’s passed. What’s summer like? I’m only remembering now that we’ve had a few days above 30°C. And memories of August, which was very wet, have all faded like dust. I guess we got rained on? I can’t access the feeling.

Two weekends ago was my niece C’s first birthday party, involving picnic rugs on the sunny grass at Jubilee Park with the harbour glinting at us. Steph had made jars of chocolate crackles, biscuits and rocky road, decorated with ribbons. It’s taken me three decades but I finally appreciate an understated consistent aesthetic approach to things. Unfortunately, that’s about a decade after my house filled up with whatever. C had a platonic kid birthday party, involving one crying jag (when the cake came out and she wasn’t allowed to eat it) and one messy face (covered in cake). V has his own social life now: Andrew took him to a friend’s fifth birthday party.

During the following week I had a couple of lunches, going to uni on the Monday and with Chally on Tuesday. I try and go to uni once a month or so now, although I am not sure how much longer anyone there will eat together once Jette’s postdoc winds up and Yasaman submits her PhD. It was a long run of having a social research group there but it may be in terminal decline now.

Last weekend was one of the weekends we mark in our calendar as “Free weekend”, but that really means “Don’t leave the suburb.” And we didn’t. On the Saturday evening, V had a farewell party with his daycare friend J, who is going to stay with family while her mother is travelling for a while. It was the perfect evening party with children: a warm spring evening at a park with — even before the daylight savings transition yesterday — long evening light. And sparkling wine too. On Sunday we met V’s friend M at the park for them to play, which wasn’t as magical because it didn’t involve heaps of other adults and sparkling wine, but the two kids had a fair amount of fun.

This weekend though, is a long weekend, and the daylight savings transition, so magical in that now we are entering the long generous daytime of the continual holiday. Friends who have emigrated to the northern hemisphere tell me that the winter holidays (Christmas and so on) make all kinds of emotional sense there: if there has to be a winter solstice, it might as well involve a celebration. Here, we just have to grit our teeth through winter, and then summer is both long bright days and many days off and then at the end of April, prepare ourselves to face the darkness once more.

A short theory of under-committing to things

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, and I keep being tempted to start my own. Except, yikes, I need to do hours for four years or something?

Sumana Harihareswara suggested to me that maybe I should start aggressively small and uncommitted like Leonard Richardson’s podcast: when I feel like it, in whatever style I choose. And that was close, but I’ve realised the closest fit for my personal style is to aim high, but to limit my run. This doesn’t always work out as I’d hoped, but it still seems like a good model. Do four ‘casts (say). And then done. No promises when or if I’ll be back.

I wish more things in my life could be structured that way.

Late August and early September

I see Andrew and I had our fifteen anniversary (as a couple, not as spouses) in August and I think managed not to remark on it to each other at all. Happy times. Not very surprising when that was just a week out from his flu recovery. We’ve always largely ignored that anniversary, although it would make sense to mark it since it’s the only event of any significance in our household that occurs in the second half of the year. Instead, we pack it all into the first half with both children born in January, Andrew in February and me in April, followed by our wedding anniversary in May. Andrew and I usually take each other to a joint birthday lunch in March or April, and then we have a family lunch at the pub where our wedding reception was each May and then we’re done partying for the year, evidently.

We had a couple of very quiet weekends after we got back which was good from the point of view of recovering but had the usual effect on me: once I haven’t done anything socially for a few weeks I wonder if I have any friends. We went to the aquarium with V’s friend A (everyone I talk about has the initial A) and A’s family; they commented that it was the fastest aquarium trip they’d ever done, with V hauling A from exhibit to exhibit. “Look here! Look here!”

I was really cranky about it though, because we decided to buy an annual pass — like most tourist things in Sydney, you only need to go three times for an annual pass to be cheaper, and their passes also include Wildlife World — and their system couldn’t be more contemptuous. We bought the pass online and showed up at the aquarium to find that the queue to have our photo taken and cards printed was over half an hour long and for that matter really poorly managed, as it was also being fed through a side door by people who’d been sold passes at the ticket counter as well as the main entrance by people who’d bought them online. And the queue was in a gift shop, so that’s delightful to wait in with children, especially V who is very tactile and would love to shake everything, stroke everything else, and swing off the remainder.

Not recommended. I had to go through half the aquarium before I calmed down, and that was only in the underwater tunnels beneath the sharks which mostly made me wish I was using SCUBA. Partly because a dive site might have 12 people, but the underwater tunnels were packed with 100 or more, but mostly because being underwater is really calming. It was easy at that moment to forget all the difficult aspects of diving: the early mornings, the seasickness, the wetsuits.

I don’t think I’m done with diving forever.

The following weekend was V’s school’s BBQ for the incoming kindergarten group, which was sweet. The kindergarten classes have just hatched chickens in incubators, so while I am dubious about this practice (I am not sure the creation of fifteen chickens, presumably to be short-lived and perhaps not even used for food, is justified by the educational outcomes) the whole day was chicken themed with chicken crafts and so on. V was very excited and left his craft chicken with the real chicks so they could admire it.

We had a lot of trouble and worry trying to organise someone to look after V when I was in labour with A. (Scheduled births made a lot more sense to me with my second pregnancy, especially when A was three weeks overdue, stretching the time for which we needed 24/7 on-call carers for V to six entire continuous weeks over Christmas and New Year.) So in late August I remembered to reach out to our friends Ben and Anna, whose second child was due, to offer at least “call us if you’re stuck”. Sure enough at the end of August Anna went into labour on an evening when their promised child carer had taken off to the snow at short notice (!!!). Andrew got to try and be the big damn hero in this case, driving across Sydney in the middle of the night, because it makes more sense for me to stay here with the baby than for him to. But in the event he only arrived at the hospital as Ben and Anna’s baby was being born. It would have been very handy for them if it had taken longer or there’d been an emergency though, so not wasted effort.

Last weekend V was to watch Star Wars for the first time with his friend A, but as Andrew predicted, the early sequence with characters walking the desert for twenty minutes completely lost them. They watched The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course instead, which was a cultural experience for us all. I was only familiar with the Steve Irwin phenomenon by cultural osmosis while he was alive. The movie is a good type of bad movie, with Irwin doing his own stunts (mostly falling out of dinghies constantly), unsubtle editing together of crocodile scenes and Irwin scenes to make it look like they might be in the same vicinity, and his educational pieces to camera set incongruously in a plot featuring fish-out-of-water CIA agents, Magda Szubanski as a crocodile-shooting station owner and David Wenham as a fisheries employee.

Finally, yesterday we went to visit Ben and Anna, and their child G and to meet new baby H. This was a nicely symmetrical visit, as we took A out to them in her first few weeks as well. H is still the dusky rose colour that newborn A was, and very sleepy. I held him, but didn’t miss having a newborn baby. Without hormones, I think they aren’t a lot of fun before they smile, although they are sweet in their own way. V had a very good time playing with G for hours, from drawing in chalk, staging a concert, and making sandcastles on the beach.

Writing this is half giving the lie to a recent complaint of mine, which is that I don’t really have a social circle! We are lucky to have a reasonable amount of social contact, although some of it would drop off if V had his own friends and could visit them under his own steam. I think two things are going on: the first is that we don’t have a circle, as in, people who know each other. I think that’s probably tough to overcome now unless we primarily make friends in our workplaces. Which brings me to the other problem, which is me working from home. While Andrew could socialise mostly with friends from work, although it would mean his circle would be comprised almost entirely of men and would talk about nothing but Google projects (this is a common condition among people who work there), the entire concept is moot for me. I’m planning to try co-working next year when V is in school and I’m working more days, and seeing how I feel then about the need to have more adults in my life. In the meantime, I will try and value all of my one on one friendships at their full value!

Skiing, August 2014: day 5

Andrew had, as near as we could tell, pretty typical flu-like symptoms: fever, pain, respiratory symptoms. This makes this the third time in seven years he’s been sick like that, two times in years when he had a flu vaccine. (The first time of the three was the reason he started having flu vaccines.) So not the best of of luck. In a way, however, he felt comforted that it explained aspects of his snowboarding he’d been unhappy about earlier in the week. Had something fundamental about his body changed since 2008? No. He was getting ill.

He’d been a bit of a hero over the previous days, bringing V to his ski lessons and so on, but on the Friday we needed to pack for the trip home, so I lost five minutes of my lesson dropping off V myself. I told my instructor A I’d been planning to go up Merritts but couldn’t now that Andrew was ill, and she agreed that I could be up there at this point, it simply was too long on a chairlift for our one hour lesson for her to take me. So we did one last lesson on Friday Flat and agreed that I would do a lesson next year in which she would take me down a blue (intermediate) run, because of course she would come back and I would come back &c. (Ski lesson version of Before Sunrise, and, spoilers, the Julie Delpy character didn’t make it to their rendezous.) It does become an intense shared endeavour, rather like a theatre performance or something, and the break-up is just as sudden. I later looked her up in the top-to-bottom race that she was hoping to win the following day and didn’t find her name at all; I don’t even know her surname.

I went up to the apartment to help Andrew pack up and lug the bags out of the room; thankfully the owners were storing them for us until the evening. Andrew was determined that I would ski Merritts, and was doing basically OK, so we lugged our gear and our baby down, installed him in the lounge of the Thredbo Alpine Hotel, and I returned his sadly underused performance snowboarding gear, and set off up Merritts.

It didn’t begin promisingly. Merritts is its own little peak and there’s two ways to reach the base of it, the fast Gunbarrel chairlift from Friday Flat or the Merritts chairlift from Valley Terminal. Being at Valley Terminal, I headed for the Merritts lift, which turned out to be old and ricketty. I had to take my skis off and hold them to ride it, no mean feat when they were 155cm long, and it was so old it didn’t have a pull down bar but a flimsy chain that I had to pull across and work out how to fasten while being lifted into the air and holding my skis and poles under one arm. So I was already a bit uncertain. I enjoyed the terrible terrain below me with all kinds of things poking out of the uneven snow, and wondered if it was indeed a ski run. (Yes, it’s the advanced run The Schuss, and I didn’t see a single soul on it on either the way up or the way down.)

Merritts itself has a fast chairlift The Cruiser running up it. I was accustomed to the ludicrous hot and lengthy queues at Friday Flat and The Cruiser didn’t have them, so I was zooming on it before I had a chance to get oriented. It was fast enough I was very worried about getting off, but of course it slowed for dismount, if only at the last possible second. I didn’t fall there. And then there was only one way down; on skis.

This turned out to be really tough for me. Merritts’ beginners runs are at the other end of beginners difficulty from Friday Flat, so they were like the toughest bit of Friday Flat only for about a solid kilometre of unrelenting slope rather than ten metres. (Tough is relative of course, but even so.) I talked myself down the first bit but then chose — it turns out — the slightly harder Squatters Run for the first half rather than Walkabout and arrived at the top of a bit that was steep enough I couldn’t see over it and despaired. I ended up removing my skis, prompting a children’s instructor to come over and point out the escape hatch traverse back to the Gunbarrel Express to me before zooming off with her teeny intermediate skiers, trudging over to and down the steep part (which was only a few metres high, and probably serves as a brief test of intermediate sloped terrain for borderline intermediate skiers) and fixing my skis on.

But of course by then my confidence was pretty shot. I could at least now see clear down Walkabout and knew what I was in for. I prepared myself to just get down it, no need to fret about parallel turns but to stick to A’s Italian-style snowplow turns and take it at my own speed and so on. But I fell twice on two consecutive turns, and the slope was steep enough that the experience was reminiscent of New Zealand all those years ago. Stand up. Try to get in skis. Fail. Knock snow out of my boots. And around. I probably spent ten minutes or more on each of those two turns, all the while crying and heating up. (Thredbo is a pretty hot resort, at around freezing or a bit above.) And I had several hundred metres to go. Eventually I convinced myself to go even more slowly and carefully and just get down and have done it, and I did: several more hundred metres without falling.

I feel just fine about this now and it’s easy to explain what went wrong. It’s just hard to do a new run at the edge of your ability without an instructor or better partner to prepare you for the tricky bits, identify what technique your fear is causing you to forget, to help you knock your boots clear of snow and pull you up from falls. If I’d had time and energy for even one more run I probably would have been slightly better. If Andrew (who is a better snowboarder than I am skier by dint of about two weeks practice if nothing else) had been there, he could have done a run ahead of me and told me which bits to brace for and hung out with me if I’d taken my skis off and had a sulk at the side. If I’d gone up for two consecutive days I’m sure I’d be going down both Walkabout and Squatters Run and enjoying it and beginning to contemplate the intermediate runs. But I didn’t have two days, I had about 90 minutes, and so that was my one run up there.

I was intending to go back to Andrew and work through that line of thought and feel better that way. On my trip back down the slow and creaky Merritts chair I realised that it had a halfway station labelled “Friday Flat” and I could get off there and return to a slope I knew for a final run. So I did that. Unfortunately, that meant entering at the intersection of Sundowner, which is a beginners run, and High Noon, which decidedly isn’t, and having High Noon’s exiting riders fly around and past me, some of them falling themselves. So even though it was fairly flat and well within my ability (I should try Sundowners next time), I fell again and had to have another little chat with myself again about focussing on basics and ignoring parallel turns and taking it at my own speed and etc. I did then make it to the Friday Flats lift for one last run down that, which I tried to enjoy but wasn’t in the right mood for. So I had to have forced pride that I’d picked myself up and tried and tried, even if I wasn’t feeling it.

I feel good about it looking back though.

And then it was time to head back to Andrew, check in, and begin the flurry of things needed to get us home. I returned my skis, and headed over to V’s class to pick him up and return his skis, and smile through V’s own reports of the joys of Merritts where he’d also been that day. (“I went up the mountain on the fast chairlift Mama. And I wasn’t scared.” Thank goodness I didn’t run into his group.) Andrew went up to the apartment to help the owners drive our bags down.

We’d figured the bus back would be easier, because V would be exhausted, and it went into the night, meaning both children would be asleep. This was true as far as it went, but no doubt it was not any fun for Andrew to sit up for seven hours trying not to melt from the inside out. Everything about ski holidays is utterly fixed and unchangeable, including our accommodation and bus tickets, or I might have been tempted to stay another day.

We had a very complicated plan once we got back to Sydney centered around the problem that taxis will not take A without an infant carseat, and that taxis with infant carseats are like hen’s teeth. One of us was going to taxi back to our house, pick up a car share car, fit our carseats for both children to it, drive back to the unlucky parent waiting with two exhausted children in the midnight chill, and drive us all home, at which point we’d put the kids in bed, remove the carseats, return the car and fall into bed. We’d completely forgotten that we were arriving home on a Friday night, and that commuter buses were still running at midnight. So instead we merely hauled our bewildered four year old, who has almost never been out of the house after 8pm, onto a bus, home, and into bed.

The aftermath was substantial for Andrew. He recovered in bed all weekend and into the following week, returning to work only on the Thursday. He still however kindly reflected that he was glad that he’d had a bad week at the snow rather than me, as otherwise we would have viewed the enterprise as thoroughly cursed. Which is fair. But hopefully some year soon I can report that we went to the snow and enjoyed a run in each other’s company and a hot chocolate to wrap up.

Skiing, August 2014: mid-week

As I expected, I woke up on my second day of skiing, Tuesday, very sore and stiff. As I expected, V did not. We grumpily trudged through our morning.

There was an annoying timing issue at this point: my expensive and timed down to the minute private lessons were to begin at 8:30 on Tuesday through Friday (because 8:30am lessons are significantly cheaper), and that was the earliest possible drop-off time for V at his ski school. I didn’t want to waste ten minutes of my lesson on his drop off. So Andrew gathered up himself and the baby solely in order to do V’s drop off and then go back up the mountain to chill out with her.

Because I’d switched lesson times after Monday, B was not my instructor for the remainder of the week. My instructor was A, a young Italian ski racer and instructor. A and I didn’t start off great with her evicing some skepticism that I was ready for the Giddy Up run, if I’d fallen up there. Her students, she reported, do not fall. She took me up there, I presumably embarrassingly fell off the end of the chair lift and she very cautiously took me down the steeper bit of Giddy Up with a critical eye.

We did better from there, because she agreed that I was the right level for that run. She then wanted me to tell her how I’d learned to turn, and discovered that her suspicions were right: I’d been taught the “Australian way”.

A brief digression into skiing technique: as a beginner skier, I skied with the front tips of my skis close together and the back ends far apart, called a snow plow, or a “triangle” at the kids’ school. This let me go very slowly, because it’s easy to turn both skis inwards and brake by dragging the inner edges of them both along the snow. The “Australian style” of turning (which I also learned in New Zealand in 1998, and which is also shown in the beginner ski school videos I’d watched, is that I turned by pressing the inner edge of ski which was to be the outside of the turn (my left ski when turning right and vice versa) harder into the snow than the other ski.

The “Italian style” turn that A preferred involved shifting weight throughout my body instead. Specifically, she wanted me to do nothing consciously with my feet, but instead always ski with my shoulder dropped down the mountain and my hips tilted up the mountain, with my upper body driving my weight into the lower ski. (Later in the week, she had me actually stepping my uphill ski up off the snow a lot, to prove I wasn’t bearing excess weight on it.) To turn, I was to slide my hips over the downhill ski and my shoulder over the uphill ski, which caused me to turn and restore the original weight distribution only I’d be pointing in the other direction.

“OK,” I thought. “But I really hope I’m not switching instructors every day this week.” Sometimes it’s best to learn one technique well than several poorly, even if it’s not the single best one. (Oddly, learning to breastfeed has this problem: every lactation consultant seems to have their own slightly incompatible technique.)

However, since A was assigned to me for the remaining four days, and the technique worked well, this worked out. Specifically, it resulted in quite fast and very controlled turns, which is great because the slower the turn, the more chance I had to point straight downhill and lose control of my speed and fall over. At the end of the week, A triumphed that I hadn’t fallen in her lesson and suggested we might be at Merritts (the advanced beginners area and early intermediate area, higher up the mountain) at the end of the week.

A had a rare and excellent quality in a physical teacher, which was that for every mistake I was to make throughout the week, she had a diagnosis. To be fair, it was almost always “lean further forward” or “your weight is on the wrong ski again” (especially, for some reason, when my right ski was the downhill one) but even so. Many a person has tried to teach me physical skills but has not brought relentless and flawless debugging skills to the party.

She was, I think, in her early twenties, her first time in Australia, and seemed to be naively charmed by all the lifties greeting her in terrible Italian. There are very many Italian instructors in Thredbo this year! Everyone is being kind and trying to learn Italian and speak it with us! If she had any inkling that there might be any special effort being made to speak Italian with smiley small young blonde winners of the women’s section of the instructors’ race, she didn’t hint at it.

But she probably knew it. The incredibly slow chairlifts meant we had a lot of chances to talk during the week, partly about travel and partly about the many, many things she disapproved of on the snow. For example, people who don’t wear helmets (one time she split a helmet in half in a racing crash), people who ski with babies strapped to them, and, especially, snowboarders. On the first day with her, she side-eyed the snowboarders joining us on our lift chair and asked them pointedly if they knew how to get off the chairlift. I pointed out that I didn’t know how to get off the chairlift and she ignored me while continuing to glare daggers at the snowboarders. (Sure enough I fell and they didn’t. She said nothing.) On the second day, I had my first fall in her class when I heard an “uuuuuh-oh” from behind and a snowboarder knocked my skis out from under me (I was fine, I fell up the hill on my side and slightly bruised my hip) and it’s possible she killed him with her brain. On the last day, I think one of her final piece of advice to me was “steer clear of them.”

I was still confined to Friday Flat, the beginners area, mid-week, on Wednesday progressing to the slightly steeper main area. But after my first day with A, it was my first ever time on the snow that I would happily just circle around. Ski down. Ride lift up. Ski down. Ride lift up. And of course, this kind of practice is necessary to progress, so I was extra thrilled that it wasn’t ski down, nurse injuries, cry, ride back up.

I also solved the chairlift issue after my Tuesday lesson on my own. The trick with dismounting chairlifts is that you need to get your weight above your skis, because that’s the general trick to not falling over when skiing. However, I’m very tall, and while I’m fairly strong in an absolute sense for an untrained woman, I’m not strong for my height or weight. Together, this means that getting my weight above my feet takes me appreciably longer than it takes most people and during this time, I figured I was falling over, especially since the ground beneath chairlifts at the dismount point is close enough to the seat to allow three year olds to get off comfortably.

So, I simply waited half a second longer than most people. Chairlifts all have a short slope leading down from the dismount point, and I would wait until the chair was a little way over the slope, and get off then, meaning I was basically dropping down into a standing position rather than forcing myself upright into one. This was a touch tricky; once I waited long enough that I actually had to jump down very slightly. But it worked and I didn’t once fall again, nor did I ever fail to actually get off and have to go round embarrassingly. (Presumably with increased skiing ability and faith in my skiing ability, I would be able to get off at the normal disembark point too, but I never tested again.)

So on early Tuesday afternoon, I headed up to Andrew comfortably smug at my ability to stand up and slide around on skis. He said he was feeling a bit tired, and we planned out that he would “only” do the Village Trail, Thredbo’s easy but long run at 5km. He didn’t start quite at the top but took the slower Snowgums chairlift most of the way up it (spying a wombat on the way) and came down. He was feeling a bit ill from something he’d eaten and figured it wasn’t the day for a lesson and a short outing was fine. We gathered up V, fed him a donut, and came back for the evening.

On the Wednesday, Andrew was becoming feverish and decided to take the day off. In a selfish way, this was good as I was able to double my practice time, but I was sad for him. He saved energy to do one beginners run with V, who at this point had turned into a child-shaped snow-bullet and left Andrew fallen in the snow half way down Friday Flat. Andrew was worried that he’d inexplicably become a bad snowboarder but (spoilers!) he was in the early stages of getting quite ill.

It was on Wednesday, I think, that A decided that I should start turning parallel rather than in a snowplow, and instructed me to drag up uphill heel with a turn so that the skis turned together. This caused, I’m pretty sure, my first self-inflicted fall under her instruction. No more mention of parallel turns was made for a little while.

Shortly after that, I felt that I was doing a particularly dodgy turn, hurriedly managing to shove my legs back under me before I fell over. A observed this and I waited to be told how to avoid it ever happening again. “Yessssss,” she crowed. “That turn, that turn parallel.” I had been wondering how on earth skis turned parallel, it seemed like it would involve impossible stresses on my knees and ankles to pull two skis around together while both bore my weight. But no. The mechanism is, essentially, to have so much weight on the downhill-side ski (or when turning, the ski that is about to be downhill-side) that the uphill ski can just be yanked around smoothly; thus, the exercise later in the week of stomping my uphill ski in the snow to check how little weight it was bearing. So that was pleasing, considering that A described it as something that was very hard to predict, taking some skiers a few days and some years.

Thursday was another fine day of skiing and gradual improvements as I linked parallel turns on the flatter part of Friday Flat (which is, in its entirety, very flat by the standards of skiing) and another day of Andrew ceding all his snow time to me. Perhaps, I said on Wednesday, this fever just needs a day to blow itself out, but it wasn’t true. On Thursday morning I was planning that I would try Merritts on Friday. By Thursday evening, Andrew was on a continuous loop of paracetamol and ibuprofen to manage the fever and pain, and we were very worried about packing and getting everything down the mountain. I said, very sadly, that probably on the Friday I should just do my lesson, have a celebratory run down the slope to acknowledge how far I’d come, and call it a week, rather than leave him alone for the day to handle packing and look after A while barely able to walk.

Thursday I also had the frustrating experience of my rental skis disappearing during my after-lesson meal, so I trudged sadly around the rental places sorting it out and believing I’d be out a few hundred dollars in loss fees. I ran into my first day instructor, B, during this, and she enquired how I was doing and we had a nice chat in the midst of my frustration, and in the end the rental place told me that they usually recover the skis and, honestly, probably wouldn’t bill me if they didn’t. But it was annoying all the same, not least for costing me an hour of skiing while I sorted out replacements.

Skiing, August 2014: Day 1

When I left you last, we’d just stumbled off a bus and onto a minibus overloaded with children and luggage and ski gear and hauled it all up a steep driveway and two flights of stairs on an icy day and fallen into bed in bad moods.

One useful thing I did before falling into bed was watching through some of the earlier ski school lessons on Youtube. Video cheat sheets; new since I was last skiing. So after the second slighter hell which was helping V get down the stairs and the driveway in the morning, while carrying his and my gear, with neither of us very steady in ski boots and both of us tired and grumpy, I dropped him off at his all day ski lesson and then worked through the very first steps of the ski lesson from the videos on my own, namely putting my skis on and off, pushing myself along on the flat, and doing the teeniest of snow plow stops, all in the area which is notionally a milling around stop for people who’ve just shown up.

As with snowboarding, I’d decided to go all-in with skiing and have a private lesson every day, beginning with two hours on the first day. I duly met my first instructor, B, at 9:30 and explained my skiing background. She didn’t seem completely convinced by my attitude of being uniquely cursed to never be upright on the snow and looked at me critically while I stood in skis. “We’ll see how much you remember, I guess,” she said. “You seem to have reasonable balance!”

So we walked (ski-walked? ski-trudged?) over to the beginnerest of beginner slopes, and I got on the magic carpet up the slope while B skated up it at about twice the carpet’s exceptionally slow speed. (Skiers can move on the flat with a skating motion, and instructors get bored easily and do it up beginners slopes too.) Magic carpets, also new since I was skiing last, although I’ve been on one as a snowboarder. Like every method of getting snow sports people around bar maybe gondolas, they are somewhat easier to use as a skier. So far so good, and B had me snowplow gently down the slope once and then work on turning down it. Other than needing to repeatedly use my poles to get started again since it was a very gentle slope, I did fine, much to my surprise and probably not to hers. The second time up the magic carpet I smiled into the snowy trees, smiling being new to me and snow sports.

After that, B said that I was ready for the chair lift and the real beginners slopes (as in, things that actually sloped). I thus fell for the first time getting off the chair lift, got up, and headed for a second magic carpet called “The Burrow”, which goes through a perspex tunnel over a creek. It was fairly magical in a more direct sense of the metaphor and I enjoyed it a lot over the next few days before I got kicked up to Friday Flat proper.

The easiest beginners run is called “Giddy Up” and begins with its steepest part (steep being relative of course), so for the first day my goal was mostly to get down that bit and into the wider, shallower bit to actually work on skills. B had a whole patter for this about not being scared because if I gained speed, I knew how to control it. This didn’t stop me leaning back a few times and promptly flying over backwards for my trouble. Because I was slamming the back of my helmet hard into the snow every time I fell like this, I gave myself a firm mental talking to, including invoking the name of Natasha Richardson, about leaning forward. B meanwhile decided that because of my height, leaning forward at the right angle was actually fairly scary for me (an equivalent angle means my head and torso come way further forward in horizontal distance) and decided to focus on having me shove my shins against the front of my boots instead.

And so we proceeded down the slope three or four times. I even got off the chairlift without falling one sole precious time. But the whole thing was exhilarating and deeply satisfying because I had stayed upright! On snow! And moved down it at a slow speed! B advised me that I could do a sort of circuit, up to Giddy Up, down, up the magic carpet at its base that the children use (leading to a slope somewhere between the first slope and Giddy Up) to work on turns and around.

At the end of the lesson I was happy but extremely tired and hungry (and extremely glad I hadn’t signed up for a 3 hour lesson as I’d considered), so I staggered slowly into the cafeteria and had one of my chocolatey meals for the week and surfed on my phone and felt happy and rang Andrew to bubble at him. I then steeled myself to leave the nest and do Giddy Up by myself, other than falling off the bloody chairlift it went well.

Andrew came down to swap the baby over and get his snowboarding feet under him. He walked a little way up the hill, came down, and then went down Giddy Up. He seemed happy and the plan was for him to do a group lesson after that, so I headed up to the apartment with A to chill out for the afternoon. Andrew’s week then, unfortunately, started in the direction it was to continue as well, with him not being able to find the group class meeting point. Instead he texted that he’d gone up the Gunbarrel chairlift and had gone down High Noon and found it a bit challenging. No wonder, I replied, when it’s one of the hardest intermediate runs at Thredbo (and isn’t short either). I felt proud of him in his ambitious innocence and imagined us doing a run together at the end of the week, although my ambitions didn’t rise to High Noon.

I headed down again to get V from his lesson, and we all came back via a hot chocolate, and for Andrew and me, to the early onset of sore muscles and stiffness that made us dread the morning. But not, happily, nearly as much as I’d dread a snowboarding morning, although I still felt like perhaps some bad experiences were coming.

Skiing, August 2014: the journey is not the destination

Aside from having a memory that I twice successfully skied nearly half a lifetime ago, there were two things I’d been told about skiing that tempted me back. One is that it is somewhat easier to learn on carved skis, but the other bigger consideration is that being tall is apparently essentially a complete disadvantage in snowboarding, where holding your centre of gravity pretty much above the board at all times is the key skill. In skiing, this is not so. I asked a few people, and someone I know who is quite good at both agreed that with my snowboarding skill level, I really wouldn’t be losing a lot by switching to skiing.

Our trip didn’t begin promisingly. First there was the usual agony of planning a holiday. We had thought to return to New Zealand, but I decided I didn’t want to deal with pumping for A in a daycare and so we’d have to switch off caring for her. There’s essentially no on-snow accommodation in New Zealand; I imagined the experience for the person sitting with the baby in a crowded snow cafeteria all day with a shudder. And the difficulty getting V onto a bus up a mountain each day and entertaining him for an hour in each direction. Then we considered Perisher where we’d been before, but it was ludicrously expensive. So we settled on Thredbo, which is also far from cheap but has more beds and is also a genuine village in its own right. Important, I thought, if I once again got too injured to continue and wanted to do something else with my time. I was tired from planning long before we left.

Even less promisingly, the morning before we left, V woke up and was sick. To be precise: he was sick on the baby, setting a new record for contagious behaviour from my children even exceeding the time A stuck her snotty finger up Val’s nose in the US. We didn’t have the food we’d planned to take and we didn’t have snow clothes. So we waited a while and took a pale and tired V for clothes and generally considered the following day with fear.

V was bewildered and annoyed to get up before the sun, something I think we’ve never got him to do before, and especially since we then hustled him onto a city bus, and marched him across Central and onto a coach. (We can’t easily take a taxi with a baby under one year old, something that also caused a lot of problems on my US trip.) He was then annoyed that we had promised him the very interesting experience that the coach would have a toilet and it didn’t, which was nothing to our reaction to the prospect a seven hour coach trip on a coach without a toilet. Meanwhile, I contemplated the joy of seven hours on a coach where all but three of the seats didn’t have enough leg room for me. (About every two years I have the brilliant idea of taking buses places instead of driving, and each time I board only to remember that I don’t actually fit on them. Oh.)

It all worked out though; the bus made a few loo breaks, and V was well enough to not be miserable but sick enough to spend most of the trip asleep or staring dreamily out the window rather than, as we’d feared, spending the whole trip in perpetual whine-motion. A still isn’t crawling, so she spent the trip strapped to me or Andrew mostly happily except for occasional annoyed screeches. Towards the end of the trip, I was the one climbing the walls, squashed into the bus and nauseous from the bus’s heating level and A’s body heat.

The agony was not over: we were disgorged from the bus with two little kids and two giant and heavy suitcases, went briefly to see the tobogganing and then went to pick up all the gear — two sets of skis, a snowboard, three sets of boots, my stocks, three helmets — with a tired V who was very keen to ski and who believed that we were going to get off the bus and immediately all ski down a mountain together.

I have to hand it to Thredbo: their hire gear places are frighteningly efficient, with 8 separate “stations” each staffed by multiple people who sit you down, pop your feed on sizing guides, stand you up, eyeball you for ski length, strap everything together, tinker with it, and send you on your way.

Even so, it was tough. V had a small tantrum that we weren’t getting him stocks, believing it’s not possible to ski without them (only very advanced children are allowed to use them in the children’s ski school), and a very long epic tantrum as we painfully loaded all our luggage and gear onto a minibus packed with other skiers. Once we had fought all our stuff back out of the minibus, we had to slowly leapfrog it up a steep driveway and steps to the apartment we were staying in while V cried that his skis were so very very heavy, can’t you carry them Mama please? What, with a 20kg suitcase, my skis and stocks, and the baby strapped to my front? (Various adults who saw this trainwreck in action would make sad pitying noises before they saw the baby. After that, they’d just squeak and flap in alarm.) The owners of the accommodation were horrified and helpful once they’d discovered all this and helped us into the flat where we used the very last of our energy for sorting out the following morning’s piles of stuff.

Actually, no, I tell a lie, I used the very last of my energy walking several hundred metres down the hill and back up in the icy dark to buy additional groceries, but this was actually a blessed emotional getaway. (And Thredbo is actually quite warm, it was probably only roughly freezing.)

It’s not a destination designed to be reached on public transport, that much was clear.

We set our phone alarms for the distressing time of 7am, and in our last tragic act, failed to check how to set the thermostats properly before going to sleep, leaving them on MAX and sweltering all night. And so it began. Not entirely as it was to continue, you’ll be pleased to hear.

Snowboarding intermission: 2003, 2006, 2008

I suppose it’s just possible I have enough loyal fans to actually remember my snowboarding epics, but it’s unlikely.

The distance between 1998 and 2003 doesn’t seem so long now of course, but at the time, it was about a quarter of my life, and encompassed university. (Which is why I didn’t follow up skiing; I couldn’t have remotely afforded to. I am not sure how I paid for the 2003 trip during my honours year, but possibly Andrew, who was working by then, paid for some of mine.) My memory of the fun of skiing at the very end was intact, but the certainty was gone.

I did some research online and the conclusion I came to was this: skiing is easier to learn, but requires a much longer period of refinement over more difficult terrain. Snowboarding is harder to learn, but once you know how to do it, you apply essentially the same skills to harder and harder terrain. Given that I’d skied successfully for a grand total of about a minute, it seemed worth saying goodbye to the four days of sunk cost and starting with the once-off investment of pain required for snowboarding.

And that theory worked basically OK… for Andrew, who began snowboarding with me in 2003 and who now snowboards at an upper intermediate skill level.

In 2003, we went to Perisher with several friends, staying down in Jindabyne and hauling up to the Skitube and the snow at 8am each morning, other people’s hangovers be damned. (I cannot fathom how hangovers and snowsports go together so closely.) It was the first time Andrew had ever so much as seen snow in his life, hopping out of the tube into the sunlight with his board under his arm. (I’ll give snowboarding this: it’s a lot easier to carry one board around than skis and stocks.) We practised a teeny tiny bit on a very flat part and then enrolled in group lessons.

The skiing joke about snowboarders is “sitting on their butts”, partly because beginning snowboarders fall a lot and partly at group lesson time, beginners’ slopes will be arrayed with snowboarders sitting down listening to instructors, spread along the slope inconveniently. (Andrew notes entirely correctly that skiers don’t do this only because it’s not really possible to sit down in them.) And the first day was terrible for me because we were learning to ride heel-side (facing out from the mountain, heel side of the board dug into the snow), and that involved standing up heel-side, and I was just never able to do it. Sit down. Dig board in. Reach down and grab the toe side. Pull up. And boom, back on my butt. As with having to put my skis back on for every turn five years before, this quickly tired me out and I started getting worse. That instructor had a day off the following day and the new instructor — I think a woman — was rather horrified: everyone (except apparently for day #1 guy) knows that some women in particular really struggle with standing up heel-side (because women are, generally, less strong for their height and have somewhat higher centres of gravity) and you get around this by having them get up toe-side (lie or kneel facing the mountain, dig the toe end of the board in, push up with arms), which indeed I could do.

And then my unrevealed snowboarding curse kicked in: I bruise very easily. A couple of days of falling on my butt and I was so badly bruised that I had to sit out the third day because falling over and over on plate-sized bruises was hurting me too much to continue.

It was in 2004 we learned to scuba dive, and for a while that took up a lot of the time and space we had for getting up too early, hauling ourselves into uncomfortable clothing and interacting with our environment in a highly artificial and expensive manner. Even then, Andrew hinted that he’d probably prefer winter sports, but as the person who has the powers of arranging such things in our household, scuba it mostly was. (If you’re wondering what’s happened to it: we haven’t ruled a line under it. It’s just not a kid-friendly activity, I couldn’t dive at all when I was pregnant, and I’d have to pump at the moment to be apart from A for that long, which is impossible on a dive boat. Most likely we will dive again when we happen to be near good dive sites, as in Maui in March 2013, the last time we dived. We probably won’t go back to diving ten or more times a year for a long time, if ever.)

We stumbled into a snow trip in 2006, when André arranged for a number of people to spend a week at his family’s ski lodge in Victoria. I think I grappled again with the idea of switching back to skiing but figured I couldn’t be that far from getting over the hump to learning to snowboard. So we went for lessons again, the last time Andrew and I were still just plausibly at the same level, and I continued to struggle. I bought a private lesson one afternoon with our instructor at Mt Hotham which just about hauled me up to the level of the rest of the group, so that they could cheer when I turned again and again to reach the bottom of the slope. But again, I was ridiculously bruised, my knees and butt an even black-purple, and had to sit out the third day, the day Andrew thoroughly climbed over the snowboarding hump and began to cautiously experiment with intermediate slopes with André’s skier friends. He got his own injury there, falling on his face hard enough to kick his board into the back of his head (if you look at the back of his head, there’s a 4cm hairless vertical scar on it — that’s why), but while he probably narrowly escaped a really nasty head injury there (and has since worn a helmet) cuts on the head aren’t as inhibiting as falling on bruises over and over.

And this was also the time we were heavily into doing yoga, and for months afterwards, I noticed a faint but sharp pain in my ribs when I twisted.

Finally, in 2008, I decided it was do or die, and as part of a bigger pre-kids holiday driving around the south island of New Zealand (recommended: “let me guess… around this corner we will find… a lake and a mountain? I WIN AGAIN!” — it’s the best) we spent five days snowboarding and I took only private lessons. And really, after these I probably can say that I could snowboard, but every inch of progress was hard won. I never once got off a chairlift without falling over embarrassingly. I got badly bruised on the first day, and kept on mostly with the power of the butt and knee armour I hurriedly went out and bought. At least one night I cried about how much I was dreading the next day. And, on the third day, I cracked a rib in the same place that I’d hurt them in 2006. I sat in the medical centre in the ski resort while a very small friendly doctor pressed all over my chest until I screamed, and then offered me some powerful codeine, just in case I wanted to return to the slopes the same day. No.

We had a few rest days then in any case, and escaped from Queenstown down to Te Anau and Milford Sound, me sleeping a lot under the influence of the lesser codeine I’d been prescribed, the doctor preferring that I be very sleepy to being too afraid of pain to cough, although in reality I didn’t find it had a lot of effect on the pain. Returning to Queenstown I did two more days of lessons, my instructor kindly recommending I never join group lessons because I progressed “at a different rate” to most people. The last day the plan was to attack some long and new-to-me runs, but there was a whiteout and it scared me. Instead I linked some turns down a blue run, and my instructor triumphed over my learning to snowboard, and assured me I’d get the hang of chairlifts soon for sure and could progress from there on intermediate slopes. “Tell your next instructor you’re beginning to link turns on blue,” he advised me. Meanwhile, Andrew’s group lesson was making their first forays into the terrain park as upper intermediate or lower advanced boarders. We would occasionally run into him getting off the lifts, as he’d board over to us with a foot free, bend over, strap it in, wave, and take off down an intermediate run.

Which left me in a frustrating half-way point. I could snowboard, but it was agonisingly slow going, rather scary (you have to have your back to the drop a bunch), and not only had I come home with the usual bad bruises and cracked ribs, I also had a painless but severe swelling in my knee for the next couple of weeks that got bad enough that my GP tossed up draining it (and also, since this was close to the time when I was recompressed for suspected decompression illness, suggested I take up chess as my sport of choice).

I clung to my how-to memories of boarding tightly, determined to go back and get the pay-off from all of this, but life — very literally ­— got in the way. The following winter, 2009, I was pregnant with V. The year after that we were lost in a wilderness of childcare-induced illnesses, and then the flurry of projects I committed myself to; finishing my thesis, getting my business going. Andrew started making noises about really wanting to go again last year, but I was again pregnant. And so, before we knew it, it was six winters since I’d snowboarded, and how much of this pain was I going to need to go through again to get it back?

And so, once more the question: should I really be skiing instead?