Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Let's avoid the face plant

During my young and relatively uneventful childhood, my family was close with another family a block or so away. They had a boy a year younger than me, and from early in toddler-hood we were often paired up to do those typical childhood things together. As it is often said, we shared a playpen together from an early age. It was for the most part a marriage of convenience, a place where I could be dumped off by my parents or he could be dumped off by his on errand days. I haven't seen him in perhaps 25 years, but I recall, quite frankly, being much cooler than him. Now, please understand that this isn't saying much. From our parents' perspective, he was perhaps a less with-it Bart Simpson while I was a slightly more with-it Milhouse. In other words, to his parents I was the good son that the neighbor family never had. And I had no problem with this, because they owned a boat.

Each year I was invited to join them on their annual summer vacation to the family cottage in Cape Cod. It was during these excursions that I had my first crush, on the older sister who looked like a shorter, slightly less slender Valerie Bertinelli. Back then I would have easily placed money on the fact that (let's just call her) Valerie and I were destined for marriage. Not quite sure why it didn't pan out that way, but it seemed logical at the time. Nice Jewish girl, educated, worldly, and she could water-ski like a pro.

You're probably wondering where I'm going with this. I'm not quite sure I know yet, but hang on for the ride.

Valerie could slalom, jump wakes, and looked really good in a wetsuit (granted I was about 15 years old, so a pound of mashed potatoes would have looked really good in a wetsuit). She spent many days teaching her younger brother and me to ski. I recall struggling unsuccessfully to stand up on my skis numerous times each afternoon, only to immediately be yanked forward by the thrust of the boat and force-fed a jellyfish. Then one day it happened.

Easy now, this is not an end-of-innocence-with-my-buddy's-older-sister story from the pages of Hustler, it's about skiing. Sorry to disappoint, but remember my Milhouse point above and understand that anything about Valerie from this point forward would be a lie. If you're still with me, let's continue.

If you've ever water-skied, especially in the ocean, you know the experience. You float aimlessly in the water, warily scanning the surface for shark fins while attempting to keep the points of your skis skyward, waiting for the boat to maneuver into position. You give the driver a feeble thumbs up, and the engine roars. Rope goes taught, and your arms are yanked forward as if you're taking a pair of pit bulls for a walk and they just spied a squirrel. You focus all your effort on keeping those skis pointed forward rather than having one sucked under and ripping your shin off just below the knee, when suddenly you're standing. For the next 1.2 seconds, as you travel forward towards the churning from the boat's propeller blade, the water is as smooth as glass. The change in pressure on the tow rope causes it to go briefly and completely slack. at that very moment your brain must make a choice. You know how Wile E. Coyote soars of a cliff and hangs still in the air up to the moment he realizes he's about to plummet? It's kind of like that. Because in that next millisecond the rope is going to go taught again and you're either going to be ready to ski or you're going to be chewing jellyfish again. I distinctly remember my first time standing up. It was so amazing a feeling that I immediately panicked and did a face plant with extra flailing. But the next time it was easy.

Once you're up, the real tipping point occurs when you are no longer being pulled by the boat, and instead you take control. You can hang back and relax as the boat guides you. You can zip back and forth across the wake and do tricks. You can smile for the bikini babes in the passing boat without giving a moment's thought to the fact that your bathing suit really needs to be adjusted from all the dragging.

I recall that Valerie's brother didn't quite have the same experience I had. He managed to get up on skis as well, but found it impossible to stand up straight. His back remained completely bent forward and his arms over his head life jacket at his ears, as he was dragged through the Cape Cod Canal like an an upside down letter J. He never quite reached that tipping point. That night while I helped the dad get the boat cleaned up and the life jackets hung to dry, I beamed with excitement over my accomplishments while the brother sulked in a corner, pissed off with his mediocre performance and sore back.

So that's my ancedote. And why am I bringing it up? I'm not sure. But for some reason it popped into my head while watching last night's election. For the past decade we've been pulled by the rope, our heads down hoping we don't get dragged under. And we've gotten really pissed off about it. As of last night, we're standing up straight at last. Now we just need to avoid the face plant.

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