The phone rang the other night. It was a call to play the Leopold Mozart Concerto in just 2 weeks time. As I listened to the details of the concert my first thought was, “Huh, I wonder where my piccolo trumpet is?” Obviously, I haven’t been playing much piccolo trumpet lately, but I am in reasonably good shape. Still, I would be a fool to have absolutely no concern for how quickly I could get into good piccolo trumpet shape. To compound the problem, I am going to be out of town for 5 of the 14 days I have to get ready, and, as I’m sure you know, practicing in a hotel is certainly not one of the keys to great performance preparation!
In the end, though, I decided to go ahead and play the concert. I have never gotten a chance to perform the Mozart, so I figured I should take the opportunity while I have it. I have put together a plan for preparation that I think should leave me in good shape for the concert — including some good tips for hotel practicing — and I’ll be discussing all of that over the next few days. For now, though, I am going to head to that hotel bed and get a little rest. Until tomorrow…
It is 6:30 in the morning. The wind is hard in my face and my body is shivering. Tears run from both eyes as I sit blinking in the bow of our speeding boat. No one is speaking, for we are in route.
Not ten minutes prior I was sleeping comfortably in bed. Then, in a blur, I was awakened, dressed, and now somehow find myself here, galloping across the cool morning water of the lake. The sleeping world surrounds me. I yearn for the comfort and warmth of my bed, a bed that is likely still warm without me. Through my tear-soaked eyes, the only sign of life I see is the occasional duck scurrying to evade our determined craft. But we have no time to stop for ducks right now, for we are in route.
I look back at my father. He sits behind the wheel, relaxed, determined, happy. He sees the world with a kind of boyish joy, and he smiles. He points to the ducks flying low across the water. He points to the sun, rising now over the hills, filling the clouds with color like a balloon with air: slowly, steadily. I close my eyes against the wind, shivering. I know the air is not truly cold, but my body is less convinced. I listen. The only sounds are the whoosh of the air and the roar of the engine. I ponder the sounds I would hear if we were still: the call of the Bob White Quail so common in these hills, the water lapping at the shore, and the overwhelming silence of a sunrise at the lake. These sounds will eventually be replaced by those of jet-skis and fishing boats, pontoon boats and ski boats, the sounds of the lake on a hot Texas Summer afternoon. The water will be rough and chaotic, and it will be hard to find a good place to even throw a rope in the water, much less ski. If you do manage to find space to ski, you will find water that has been churned up randomly in all directions. Waves of all sizes and shapes will bombard you. Your legs will be giant shock absorbers, protecting you from the onslaught of the hammering waves. Yet now, in this stunning dawn, the water lies still, its surface marred only by the slight morning breeze. If we were looking for a good place to ski we would simply throttle back, throw out a rope, grab a ski, and go. But we are not looking for a good place to ski. We are looking for a great place to ski. We are looking for the smooth water.
If you have never felt it, then you can’t possibly know. The feeling of skiing across glass-smooth water is like nothing else. The ski glides perfectly smoothly; there is no bobbing and it makes no sound. No chatter. No hum. There is no sense of texture on the surface below. There is only smoothness. The ski dodges and turns at your every whim in a lake with no surface, a lake with no sound. It is a beautiful thing. It is this sensation we are seeking, that is what pushes us forward: the feeling of gliding across emptiness. The water we are riding over now is nothing in comparison. It is adequate, sure, but it pales against that which we seek. In this water the ski would vibrate subtly, driven to dance by the light wind-blown ripples on the surface. The chatter would not be severe. Quite the contrary, it would be very subtle. But that feeling of soaring across emptiness is gone with the least hint of texture on the surface. The skiing here is good, but we are not looking for good, we are looking for magical. Yes, we are in route, in route to smooth water.
The tentative sun pokes its head through the clouds a bit more boldly now, but the landscape is still firmly in the clutches of the cool grey dawn. Thoughts ring slowly in my mind. I do think of the smooth water ahead, but mostly I think of the cold wind in my face. I think of my shuddering body and my watery eyes. I wonder what kind of maniac would be racing across the lake at this hour simply to find a good place to ski. We pass another boat. Their rope is out and a skier bobs in the water, the tips of the skis pointing defiantly skyward. In a flash the boat is gone behind us. I look back behind in time to see the skier rise in the opposite direction. He bounces around briefly on our passing wake, then settles into what must be a very pleasant morning ski. I look at the water we are passing. It is nice, a far cry from truly smooth water, but water that would provide fine skiing nonetheless, certainly the best skiing to be had on this part of the lake all day. In just a couple of hours this area will be riddled with boats and wind, and the water below will be unrecognizable. Most anyone else would throttle back and ski. They would begin enjoying their day, but not us. We are in route.
I sit in the front of the boat, a shivering heap of towels. I dread getting in the water, but I know I will be done being cold once I ski, or at least soon after I begin skiing. I think enviously of the skier behind: no more shivering, no more watery eyes. I dream about carving a line across the water. I wish that I could be awake and alive in this dawning day, but it is difficult to awaken to the world when you only think enviously of the bed behind. I look again at my Dad. He is enjoying the day, taking it all in. He is living with a kind of vibrant enthusiasm. Why don’t I feel that way? I begin to think that perhaps I would have been happier if he had simply allowed me to sleep. We could have left the house a full hour later and still enjoyed good skiing. But as soon as the thought enters my mind, a reply is waiting: he isn’t looking for good; he is looking for great.
The minutes pass slowly by as I sit huddled in the bow. We go under the bridge that signals the beginning of the Colorado River and I know we are getting close. I look at that water below. It has the same rippled surface as the water we have been driving over all morning. My heart sinks. I hadn’t allowed myself to think it, but there was always the very real chance that we wouldn’t find the smooth water, the glassy water. The wind might be too strong or coming from the wrong direction; someone else may have beaten us to the mirror smooth water and replaced it with a heavily churned version of itself, like a distorted funhouse mirror. I tuck my head more deeply into the towels and consider the possibility of going through all of this only to find water no better than that flowing beneath our boathouse, a good half hour behind us. I look again at the water and begin to feel desperate, or maybe simply angry. I certainly didn’t need to be dragged out of bed at 6:30am to find 8:30am skiing conditions.
I wrap another towel around me, peering from my cocoon at the twisting water ahead. We round bend after bend, each of them holding the promise of the water we seek, each of them delivering disappointment at every turn. My heart sinks further still. Wherever we go, the water remains unchanged. I droop lower in my seat and close my eyes, listening to the drone of the engine. Suddenly, I hear the pitch of the engine begin to drop. I feel the weight of the boat as it settles gradually deeper in the water. There is no mistaking the sound and feeling. We are stopping. It is time to ski. I hold my eyes closed out of anticipation and fear. I am sure that when I open them I will see the same rippled surface that we have been skimming over for the last 40 minutes. I sit perfectly still, not wanting to experience the inevitable.
“It’s now or never,” calls my Dad. “What’s the matter, are you too sleepy to ski?”
I sit frozen for just a moment longer, then, like a diver soaring off the board, I open my eyes and gaze at the world around. A light mist sits on top of the water, unmoving, yet not stagnant. On one side of the boat is a giant pasture where a few cows are grazing on the dew-bitten grass. There is the occasional call of an unseen Mockingbird that breaks the stranglehold of silence on this peerless dawn. I look finally at the water below, and I see what I dared not believe. Stretching in front of us for as far as the eye can see and disappearing around a distant bend is a lake of glass: smooth, untouched, unblemished water.
I rise quickly and stiffly, towels falling everywhere. I grab my ski and life jacket and quickly disappear into the water. A rope is out. My ski is on. I am perched at the end of 75 feet of man’s finest nylon, my gloved hands wrapped around the spongy handle. I give a signal and hear the power pour from the engine. I wait patiently for the ski to plane, then dart instantly outside the wake. It is there. The sensation. All the magic man could desire. I am floating across nothing, yet I do not fall. I lean hard to the outside and then cut quickly, low now, my shoulder almost grazing the water, and in that instant my mind takes a picture, a picture to be stored forever, something to reference later in life, the kind of image you can conjure when you can’t see the good times because you are surrounded by the bad, when you can’t hold yourself together against the weight of the world, when you are sure that your heart can endure no more, or at a time when you simply need to go back to being young, enjoying a magical moment with your father.
That picture was snapped in my mind 20 years ago, and it still remains as vivid now as that day on the water: the molten glass water filled with the color of the rising sun, the mirror image of the boat powering through the water, the pasture and the cows forming the perfect backdrop. And in the center of it all sits the beaming figure of my Dad, his whole face draped in a smile that could melt stone, the face of a man who has found, at least for a moment, all the happiness that the world allows.
It has been 13 years since my Dad passed away, and as I sit here, with two children of my own whom he never met, I wonder about his impact. I wonder what he would think of my kids, and I wonder how I can possibly explain him to them. What did he teach me? What imprint did he leave? For all of my life I would have answered those questions in a manner different from what I think today. My previous answers were valid to be sure: he introduced me to music and to playing the trumpet; he instilled in me the need to work hard, the need to focus. But it occurs to me now that the single most valuable thing he taught me was not to be found in this list. No, what he taught me was much too imbedded, too much a part of my being to see it clearly. What he taught me can be seen in the image in my mind, in the story above. He taught me to pursue greatness, whatever the cost, whatever the risk. He taught me that the true magic in life often lies outside your comfort zone; that if you want to experience the best, you have to be willing to go the extra mile, to take chances, and to make sacrifices. He taught me that simply being good was merely that: simple, common.
As I sit turning that life-image over and over in my mind, I keep coming back to his beaming face. I think about why he was so happy, so content. He had chased greatness that day and found it. Yes, it was only water skiing. Nothing profound changed in the world. No lives were saved, no wars ended, but still he had found it. He had discovered greatness in the least likely of places. He pursued greatness in everything he did, and he instilled that same trait in most people he touched, whether they were students, colleagues, or family. He would not settle for the merely good, but pushed forward to that which was great, knowing full well that the only experiences in life that are really worthwhile lie far up the river, around countless bends, past vast stretches of monotonous hopelessness to where the smooth water lies, smoking in the dawn.
This article is written in loving memory of my father, Cecil Morris, who passed away on this date in 1993.