It was a warm and sunny September day in Wisconsin and the branches of the trees had not yet begin to shed their leafy skin. The only clue to the impending autumn – or should I say fall? – was a case of the sniffles. My hay fever, I’d learned, was not limited to spring time in Perth after all. Judging by the stillness of the trees there was no breeze to speak of, and the surface of the lake was smooth like glass.
Outside it was a quiet afternoon, and inside the cabin was no different. The girls were all off on their own in separate nooks and crannies, spending their downtime as they saw fit. Anita, with a cup of coffee in hand, typed away at her work on the bulky laptop. The Nug immersed herself in her Kindle. Rachel was sleeping like it was going out of style. I wondered, not for the first time, whether it could be good for someone to sleep 16 hours a day.
Emma appeared with a glint in her eyes that would become all too familiar over the coming years.
“Let’s go out on the lake! You have to go skiing!” she said with a huge grin.
I felt the familiar dread in the pit of my stomach. I had never gone water skiing before, nor in fact any kind of skiing. I had barely mastered ice-skating, and hadn’t the faintest clue how I’d balance out on the water.
Paul, future father-in-law and eternal good host, was willing to take us out on the water. Despite my weak protests, I was all too aware that in the interest of being a good guest I would have to go along with this. We were at an impasse, host vs. guest. I went into the bedroom and changed into my boardies.
Out on the dock I helped Emma turn the winch to lower the boat into the water. Paul hopped aboard, got the engine started and began carefully easing the boat to a proper launch position. Emma and I hopped aboard and secured our vests. As we set out Emma talked me through what I’d need to do. Lean back, bend your knees a little, keep you arms straight. I strapped my feet into the ill-fitting skis and Emma assured me not to worry. Before I knew it I was overboard, holding the rope and sitting in the water with the eternal shrug of the flotation vest.
After an exchange of thumbs-up, Paul hit the throttle and the boat pulled away. I watched for a second or two of detached horror as the snaking rope drew taut. Microseconds later I was upside down underwater. I didn’t even register what had happened. I floated to the surface and groped feebly for the skis which had been flung in different directions. I tried to wipe the water from my eyes, but it felt as though it had got under the eyelids and into the brain. I was off to a good start.
A few minutes later I was ready for take two. The boat pulled away and the rope jerked forward almost wrenching my arms from their sockets. I held on somehow, but the momentum threw me forward. My legs dragged behind me and water sprayed into my face, eyes and mouth until I remembered to let go of the rope.
It takes a while to get the boat back into place each time, so even after struggling to put the skis back on underwater I had plenty of time to think. A lifetime of failures bubbled up into my thoughts. I remembered the shame of failing my first driving test, my nerves over-riding my skills. A cycle of negative thoughts. I felt like I was disappointing Emma and Paul and wasting everyone’s time.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” I yelled as the boat approached.
“I’ll get you up there,” Paul said with unwavering certainty, as if his willpower alone could make it happen. I wished I had that confidence.
Dejected after another attempt or two that had me thrown mercilessly into the drink, I declared once more that I couldn’t do it. I had an unfortunate habit of giving up when something was difficult. Even as a kid it was always a matter of either being naturally good at something, or something being hard and not worth doing. Emma called out words of encouragement and said it was always hard the first time.
I climbed back into the boat and Emma jumped in to have a turn. Paul explained that the boat wasn’t really fast enough which made it extra difficult for a first-timer. I shuddered at the thought of hitting the water with more force than I already had. Emma called out that she was ready and Paul got us moving. I looked back in awe as Emma effortlessly lifted herself out of the water and stood gliding across the lake. It seemed so simple, so beautiful.
Once Emma had her fill of skiing, she let go of the rope and sat in the water while Paul slowed the boat and brought it around. She floated patiently for a moment before paddling towards us. Paul gave me a few more tips and talked me through the process again. I still didn’t think I could do it, and it must have shown on my face.
“I’ll get you up there,” said Paul, with steely determination. He said it with absolute certainty. A Clint Eastwood level of authority.
Emma climbed back into the boat and I hopped overboard. I paddled out once more and took my place and waited for the boat to set forth. I braced myself and watched the rope in front of me. The force threw me forward but I resisted. I managed to get the skis to stay straight and not dip under the water. Leaning back in a kind of crouch, I lifted my legs and suddenly I was up. I was doing it. I’d cleared the hurdle and I was water skiing!
The moment I realised I’d succeeded I lost my balance and tumbled into the water over and over. The whole thing lasted perhaps three seconds.
I choked and coughed and spluttered. I knew I was ready to call it a day. The afternoon sun was low in the sky and the others sensed it too, though they both wanted me to keep trying. Paul knew he could make it happen. I wondered whether it was an American thing, that certainty, that never-say-die attitude.
I couldn’t wait to get back to the cabin, to shower and try to forget the whole episode. My failure taunted me, my mind projected my insecurity senselessly on to the others. I imagined judgement. I imagined disappointment. Negative thoughts. Why couldn’t I just let go and have fun?
I can see it all now. I can see that it was only me letting myself down. I see that I’ve sabotaged myself, made things too hard, taken things too seriously, feared imaginary demons. I see that the value is in the attempt, not necessarily the goal.
Oh, to be back at Half Moon Lake! Oh, for the chance to do it all again with the right frame of mind!