The first time I water skied was on a camping trip with my friend Lylas and her family. The sun was out, the lake was glassy, and the wind wasn’t hurricane force. The stage was perfectly set for success. It will be fun, I told myself. You can do this. One by one, the other kids took their turns, gracefully gliding across Canyon Lake. I’d never seen such an amazing feat on water.
Then, it was my turn. As a preteen, I was 85 pounds sopping wet and under five feet tall. The skis looked like redwoods under my feet, and felt as heavy. It was scary. It was awkward. It was a one-way ticket to the Land of Humiliation.
“You’ll do great,” Lylas said. “Just hold onto the rope, and sit down in the water until the forward motion of the boat pulls you up.” Being a future teacher, she adeptly explained what to do once I was in a standing position. It all made sense. Of course, because the theories of physics always make sense.
I took several deep breaths. Soon, I would be famous throughout the Central Texas Hill Country for my solo performance of Swan Lake, on skis.
I gave the signal that I was ready. The boat started moving. Visions of being a world-class skier flashed through my mind, as my head went past my feet when the boat took off. I looked like one of those plastic drinking birds from the 1970s. You'd push the bird's beak into a glass of water, let go, and then the darn thing would rock a few times before it swung forward for another drink. I understood how that bird worked more than I understood how to keep my legs strong on those skis.
I tried again. I was up, I was up, I was...down. My beak hit the water, and the buoyancy of my life vest rocked me back to the upright position. I made four attempts, and was ready to throw in the waterlogged towel. But with such a great cheering section, it was hard to give up.
I grabbed the rope and prayed to the One who walked on water. The boat started forward again. Finally, I was standing. It was exhilarating. I looked around at the towering trees bordering the water's edge. It was beautiful. Four seconds, five seconds, six seconds. Suddenly, I got nervous. I don’t know why. I was probably looking ahead to the future, wondering what would happen when I was ready to stop, rather than enjoying present time. Future-pondering is my hobby.
Being nervous, I let go of the rope, which was a crucial part of staying vertical. My six seconds as an Olympic hopeful was over. I never skied again.
I was 33. No longer a kid, I was sure I could tackle my wet Goliath. Different lake, different people, different decade. Not much taller, but different weight. Maybe that will help; I was probably too light last time. This will give me more leverage, I convinced myself. I was confident. Time has a way of smearing a milky film over embarrassments of the past, making it difficult to clearly remember the details. Otherwise, none of us would ever visit a public restroom again for fear of dragging toilet paper behind us as it stuck to our shoes.
Before it was my turn to ski, my friends Captain and Rosebud gave me a refresher course. I paid attention, took notes, and opened a PowerPoint presentation, complete with diagrams, in my head. I was woman, and I would roar.
My knees were bent, as the boat pulled forward. As it went faster, I rose above the surface. It was going to happen; I could feel it. They were cheering me on. I was Queen of the Deep.
At 3.2 seconds, mine was the shortest reign over Poseidon in the history of all water sports. It was the drinking-bird phenomenon all over again. But, as an added thrill, I clung tightly to the rope as I bulleted beneath the surface at full speed, gallons of lake water irritating my nostrils and throat. I heard distant, muffled screams of "Let go of the rope!" Yet, my grasp on the rope was stronger than my grasp on reality.
After what seemed like hours, the boat and my skiing career came to an abrupt halt.
As I crawled onto the boat like a shell-shocked amphibian, I was greeted with shouts of "Are you okay? Oh my gosh, what were you doing?" And my favorite, "Why didn't you let go of the rope?" What my so-called friends and loving husband didn’t ask was, "Want to try again?"
There is no failure so complete as that which is deemed so unanimously. Perhaps it was the ultimate embarrassment for them also, as there was no cone of invisibility on the lake that day; talk in town would be of the cruel captain who dragged some lady around Lake Livingston for an hour or so.
The only reward for my courage was that my sinuses were clearer than ever; for weeks, if someone whispered in my ear, the sound of their voice came out of my nose.
I have never attempted to ski again. Nor will I ever. That’s right; I gave up. My humiliation cup has a “Do Not Fill Above This Line” mark on it, and lake water has surpassed that mark.
But I’m determined to not pass along my lack of persistence to my son, Cowboy. When he was younger, I prodded him to try new things regularly. Zip lining, rock wall climbing, jumping off diving boards, roller coasters. And the list goes on.
A few days ago, he tried wakeboarding for the first time.
As we drove up to the facility, Flash saw a man wakeboarding around the man-made lake, jumping ramps as he skied with a line attached to a cable overhead. “Look, Cowboy, that’s what you’re going to do. Doesn’t that look fun?”
Knowing my son has more fear than he did as a child, I turned and asked, “Do you want to do that, Cowboy?”
He shook his head no, profusely.
Yeah, I don’t blame you, I thought. Your love for the water doesn’t dial down the scary. “Well, I won’t make you do it, but just think about it for a little while, okay? There will be people to help you.”
He nodded, but I could tell his answer wasn’t changing.
As we got out of the car, tropical-storm-force winds were blowing, the sun was covered by clouds, and the water looked cold. Horrible conditions for success. But when we pointed out the beginner line, and he saw other kids getting in line, his courage grew. He was beaming, geared up with a helmet and life vest, as he waited for his turn.
His enthusiastic instructor got into the water with him. He explained to Cowboy to lean back, keep his knees bent, and hold onto the rope with his arms straight; the line pulling him would bring him to a standing position.
I had to leave the scene momentarily to find a paper bag to breathe into; the flashbacks were strong.
When I returned, Cowboy was ready to go. The line started, and history repeated as he demonstrated the drinking-bird performance perfectly. “Yeah, he gets that from me,” I told my friend Coco. I could feel his pain.
Then, he came back to the pier and tried again. I saw the hypocrisy in my yelling, “Keep your knees bent, lean back, keep your arms straight.” But those who can’t do, coach from the sidelines.
I quickly shut up, and let him learn from his instructor, the Master of the Water Universe.
Again, on his second, third, and fourth attempts, Cowboy was the bird.
But we cheered him on, “You’re doing great, Cowboy. Good trying. You can do this.”
He was undaunted. He wasn’t dragging himself onto the pier with a shell-shocked look. Instead, he wanted to try the kneeboard.
Starting in the belly-down position, he kept his arms straight as he skimmed across to the end of the line and back. Then, he progressed to being on his knees. His balance was getting better. And he was enjoying it.
Then, the Master suggested going to a longer line with a faster take-off to try the wakeboard again. Cowboy’s legs held stronger, and his arms were straight. He stayed up a little longer than before, then dunked. But we saw the difference. His perseverance was paying off.
After a few more attempts, which far surpassed my total attempts of all time, Cowboy went back to the kneeboard and rode quite well.
But what he enjoyed the most that day was bulleting through the water, without any apparatus below him. He clung to the rope as the line dragged him to the end of the cable and back. What a novel idea - being dragged through the water at top speed with no ski or board. But he’s a smarter sportsman than I; he held his head out of the water to prevent irrigation. He repeated this for the next hour, getting back in line over and over.
At the end of the day, I asked him, “Cowboy, do you want to come back here and try riding the wakeboard again?”
I expected him to say no. Why try the harder stuff when you can speed across a lake without a board?
“Yes,” he said, as he nodded and his eyes glimmered.
He is up to the task, without an inkling of giving up. I put my arm around Cowboy and said, “That’s great, babe. I’m so proud of you,” as my admiration for him grew deeper than all the lakes in Texas.