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Regional Champion

(This is part one of a three-part series. Part two is here.)

When I was in the seventh grade, I participated in our school spelling bee. It wasn’t as though I had some sort of far-reaching ambition and aspiration to ultimately become famous worldwide for my ability to spell on a whim words like conflagration and psychosomatic and even (gasp!) onomatopoeia, delighting and amazing late night talk show hosts and state fair goers alike. Rather, everyone in the school was absolutely required to participate. If you were in an English class—and everyone was—that meant you were automatically a player in the spelling bee.

Our big statewide newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman, sponsored an annual state spelling bee. I suppose it was once someone at the paper’s brilliant marketing idea to host and organize this massive event under the auspices that they would be generating gravitas and recognition for what was known at that time as “America’s Frontier Lake State,” while secretly in smoky back-room handshake deals they were in fact conspiring to raise their own profile to more efficiently hawk their wares to a drooling, unsuspecting public. They could feign that it was their vision to encourage literacy in Oklahoma, which if it were true was the worst strategy ever conceived and by no means in their best interests. In fact, had they accomplished such a mission, in so doing they would actually have cost themselves readership, as those with greater than a fifth grade education at the time could easily spot typos, misspellings and absolute blitzkriegs on good grammatical sense throughout their “newspaper.” (I honestly haven’t “read” it in some time; I assume it’s probably much better today.)

Anyway, it was our school administration’s brilliant plan to ferret out our own spelling Cinderella story for the Oklahoman by requiring the English teachers in each of our three grades (sixth, seventh and eighth) to conduct a spelling bee in every English class, a dragnet campaign from which none of us closet wordophiles would be able to escape. Had I suspected then what the true end of this competition held in store for me, I would likely have spelled bus as b-u-s-(dramatic pause)-s. But I didn’t. The top winners from each class would participate in a second round spell-off, held in the form of a schoolwide assembly in the auditorium.

“Hey, nerds! We know how much you love being put on display in front of the entire school! So this is your opportunity to remind all of the other kids that you think you’re smarter than they are—never mind that you wear your big brother’s hand-me-downs from C.R. Anthony’s and have psoriasis and dandruff and halitosis and couldn’t make a layup even if you were the only person on the court and we gave you an oversized basket and a Nerf basketball and a mini-trampoline. Today, you’re the stars!

Thank you, Vice Principal Cruella De Vil.

The winner of the schoolwide competition would then be forced—excuse me, honored—to represent our fine academic institution at the regional contest. Of course I have no idea how the other schools at regionals fielded their own spelling gladiators. (As I said, I was in the seventh grade. That means I was twelve. So you’ll forgive me being hazy on such details.)

I handily dispatched every kid in my English class. I didn’t mean to. It just kind of…happened. (You know, on account of English is my mother tongue and all.) It certainly didn’t hurt that in those days I had a photographic memory and could quite literally picture in my mind words that I had read before, including telling you on what page I had seen them and even where it was on that page. (I have long since lost that freakish ability, my photographic memory replaced by the far-less-useful pornographic memory, in which although I can recall vivid details of every significant event in my life, I can’t remember what anyone was wearing.)

By the time I made it onto the stage in that schoolwide assembly, I found myself surrounded by the kids I considered to be the best and brightest in our entire district. I was fortunate enough to actually attend a school where many of these kids were not nerds; in fact, most were attractive and popular, and several were even athletic as well. It was an honor to find my pasty self esteemed in their company. I was astonished at the rapid pace at which many of these children whom I knew to be brilliant seemed to flub what I reasoned to be not particularly complicated words. (Today I understand why some of my acquaintances from childhood probably considered me to be cocky. At the time, I honestly didn’t know any better. I genuinely couldn’t believe they didn’t know how to spell these words.)

The competition went quickly, and I can hardly remember it, it was a such a whirlwind. One specific detail I do remember happened repeatedly. It went like this: The judge would read aloud my next challenge word, followed immediately by murmurings from the student crowd, things like “Is that even a real word?” and “Impossible!” and “Oh, that’s it! He’s done-for now.” And then I would spell. And the self-satisfied teacher (from whom I had not learned that word, by the way) would beam, “Correct!” Followed by an audible gasp from the crowd. It was honestly like some Disney movie where the entire school starts out against the underdog and then gradually rallies to his side, cheering him on once they realize he is their brightest hope, their unassailable champion. For just a brief, glimmering moment, I felt accepted. I felt…dare I say it? Popular. And perhaps most importantly, I won.

Next up: Regionals beckon.

Have you ever had a moment where you were THAT GUY? What happened? Did you feel worthy or deserving? Do you know the legitimate medical reason why it’s at those moments that our bladder feels most full?

The Pickup Criterion (2 of 2)

(Today’s post is part two of a two-part story. Part one is here.)

When we left Ken’s house, he leisurely drove us…directly to a supermarket. Although it was one I had seen before from the road, I had never been inside. Honestly, I never really even paid attention to it. It was kind of an upscale place on the edge of one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a smoker over on one side of the building. I pointed and said, “Hey! That looks like one of your smokers.”

It was a big, black and rusty metal, barrel-looking thing, welded onto a trailer frame, with a smokestack and a metal wraparound frame on top so you could cover it with an awning.

He said simply, “Yeah.”

When we parked and got out, Ken stood for a moment and looked around, like he was thinking about something. It was a lovely evening out, pleasant and warm. About 100 yards from where we were standing was the community’s city hall, police department and fire station. Two firemen were standing over a grill out in front of their station, flipping burgers, visiting casually.

I followed Ken into the market like an obedient dog—directly to the meats. He found the department manager and chatted him up for a minute, asking him a few questions about some mutual acquaintance of theirs. The manager said, “Well, he isn’t here right now. And, tell ya the truth, I haven’t seen him around in a while.”

Ken thanked him and said goodbye, then turned to me as we were walking out and kind of half-whispered, “That’s all I had to hear.”

As we climbed back into my truck, I said, “Sorry we missed your friend.”

He popped it into Reverse and said, “Not me,” as he backed us up directly to the smoker. He got it close and left it running. I joined him, a little disoriented, as he got out and slipped to the back of the truck. He grinned broadly as he set down his toolbox. “Looks like I guessed right on the hitch.”

I was confused. “Uh…What exactly are we doing here?”

“You were right. This is my smoker. But the guy who was smoking meat here hasn’t paid me for more than six months. He hasn’t been returning my calls, and he’s never here when I come to check up on him.” Gesturing toward the market, he continued, “I’m betting he probably owes them money, too, which means they’re gonna want to hang on to my smoker until they can get their money. But we’re not gonna let that happen…right?”

“Right?” I whispered weakly.

A Master lock was on the smoker. Because I’m an idiot, I asked, “Do you have the key?”

He opened his toolbox and said, “Sort of,” and produced a hammer. (It turns out there were maybe five things in that toolbox. I imagined it to also contain a single credit card—for jimmying a door lock—a slim jim, and probably a firearm. Maybe a Taser or a hand grenade.) Motioning his head toward the firemen, he said, “Kind of keep an eye on those guys for me, would ya?” And he went to work.

Did you ever see that old commercial on TV where they shoot through the center of a Master lock with a rifle, and it just stays locked? Let me tell you: That’s a preposterous scenario. The center’s not where the latch is. Here’s the precise moment I realized that fact…

Ken lopped up the side of the lock with a hammer. Whang!!! Nothing. Again, harder. WHANG!!! I peed. (But just a little, not so much that you’d notice).

He hit it again and again, louder and louder each time. He looked up at me with a big grin. “Man, this is a tough one!”

“So I guess you’ve, uh…done this before?” I whispered.

“I’ve had a lot of smokers over the years,” he said—as though that passed for some kind of answer—and he took another swing. And that was the one that snapped the lock. He kicked the chocks out from under the tires, attached it quickly to the hitch, and we were off. About seven hours’ worth of terror for me elapsed in less than two minutes.

When we were a few miles from the market and it was clear we had made not just a clean getaway—but more like pristine one—it was Ken who finally broke the awkward silence. “Does it smell like pee in here?”

Not exactly answering, I offered, “You know what? It’s such a nice night, we should roll down the windows.”

I had just taken part in my first repo job. I knew I was in the family now, and all that that implied. Once you’re in the family, you can never get out. The only way I was ever leaving that engagement or my impending nuptials was in a body bag.

(Today’s post is part two of a two-part story. Part one is here.)

How did YOU know you were “in” with your in-laws? Was it a rite of passage? Or just something boring like a wedding? Did you honestly think that your adorable little padlock would protect your stuff? (That’s so cute.)

The Pickup Criterion

(Today’s post is part one of a two-part story. Part two is here.)

When Kendra and I first met, I was 19 years old, and she was 16. We dated for two and half years before marrying in 1991. (I used to like to tell people we had to get married ‘cause she got me in trouble—never mind that our first child would not arrive for six more years.) I had a GMC S-15 pickup, with an extended bed and a big V-6, which was an important criterion her dad was looking for in a potential mate for his eldest daughter. Evidently he had a lot of items that required towing and hauling, so a nice, sensible boy with a truck (and of course good parents) was just the ticket.

When I was younger, my mom had given me the excellent advice that when you’re considering seriously dating someone, a girl you think you might marry, you need to get to know her family intimately well. Because if she’s close to her family, you’re not just marrying her, you’re marrying all of them. My family was of the opinion that you don’t want to marry someone who’s not close to their family. Now, just to be clear, your mileage may vary. If your spouse’s family revels, for example, in getting hopped up on crack and moonshine and hunting endangered species with large, illegal artillery, probably it’s better if you guys maintain some healthy distance from those folks. (Just sayin’.) But my mom’s wisdom was spot-on for me.

I enjoyed hanging with Kendra’s family almost from the very start, from her mom’s perky exuberance and can-do attitude, to her dad’s viciously sarcastic sense of humor, to her tiny 8-year-old sister’s ability to plow through a dozen tacos in a single sitting—not unlike a commercial woodchipper, albeit one with long, blond hair and blue eyes. Kendra’s family and I were made for each other. And anyway, once I had fallen for Kendra, I had it baaaaad, and there was no turning back. Even so, I cannot lie: the fact that her dad owned at least four smokers and was himself an impresario of the occasional smoked meats extravaganza was a definite bonus.

I had already proposed to Kendra months earlier (as romantically as a clueless, inept 20-year-old boy knows how in an evening at the Olive Garden), and she had already foolishly accepted, when came what would become known to me as “the call.” Ken asked if I could come over and bring the truck. There was something he needed to go pick up. I said, “Of course.” And why wouldn’t I? (I had already made out with his firstborn, so it seemed a more than reasonable exchange.)

So I topped off the tank and headed over. ‘Cause that’s the type of sweet, innocent boy that I was in those days. When I arrived at the house, he had me park in the driveway as he shuffled around in the garage, looking for something. I innocently, dutifully obeyed and offered to help. “That’s okay. I’ve got it,” he said, as he came out carrying two trailer hitches and a toolbox.

He went to work attaching one of the hitches as I looked on, innocently. “So, what are we going to pick up?” I asked, rather innocently. He responded, perhaps not as innocently as would have made me most comfortable, “Oh, it’s a surprise.”

When he finished attaching one hitch after just a few minutes, he said, somewhat mysteriously, “We’re gonna take this other hitch, just in case. I’m not 100% sure the one I put on is the right size.” And he set the toolbox and the spare hitch on the floor in the cab. I started to climb in on the driver’s side, and he asked, “Hey, do you mind if I drive this time?” Of course I didn’t, so I tossed him the keys and walked around to the other side. And off we drove. Innocently.

(Today’s post is part one of a two-part story. Part two is here.)

If you’re married, what was your courtship like? What did you “bring to the party” that made you worthy of your beloved? How did you know they were “the one”? (Or “the two,” as my pastor is fond of saying.) Why do you think trailer hitches always have to be so flippin’ complicated?

Laser Eyes (Part 2 of 2)

(This is Part 2 of a 2-part story. Part 1 is here.)

The day of the procedure, you have to have someone there to drive you home, either because your eyesight’s not at 100% until your corneas can heal over (which takes a few days), or because they give you Valium to mellow you out for your time in the chair, or I guess possibly because, you know, they’ve blinded you. So Kendra went with me. It was mid-afternoon, and several other people were also there, sitting around in the big, executive-looking waiting room, either to have their own eyes blasted or to drive their groggy loved ones home. We checked in, then strolled casually to some comfy chairs, each of us selecting a magazine to peruse while we waited.

During our previous visit here for the initial consultation, they had led us into a maze directly behind the waiting room, a kind of hodge-podge of doctor’s examining rooms and tiny negotiating rooms like they sometimes have at car dealerships. But today, when my time came, a young woman took me to a completely different part of the complex. This place was in a storefront-type building in a strip mall, so the entire front was a wide tinted glass wall that faced the parking lot. She led me down what was more or less a long hallway, the wall of windows immediately on my right. So they could regulate the temperature along that wall, the windows were covered floor to ceiling with copper-colored metal shades.

Where the hallway ended, we turned left and passed a couple of restrooms. She took me into a large, dark room where there were three or four permanently reclined chairs, the kind you lie in at the dentist. She directed me to a chair, then brought me a couple of Valiums and some water in a tiny Dixie cup, the same kind you’d use in the bathroom to swish after brushing when you were a kid. She said I’d need to wait for it to kick in, checked her watch, and promised she’d come back to get me in a few minutes. She left, and I lay back and closed my eyes.

I drifted there for several minutes, ruminating lazily about all those tiny details I’d be able to make out now, things I might have been missing before, and gradually it also dawned on me that my bladder was approaching its full holding capacity. You know what it’s like when you’re lying in bed and you realize you need to go; once you’ve had just that initial thought, you’re past the point of no return. When the girl returned a few minutes later, I sat up and asked her if I could use the restroom before we went back. She looked…concerned. “Uh, number one or number two?”

I chuckled. “One.”

Still she looked perplexed. “Do you think you could hold it until after?”

I chuckled again. “Not bloody likely.”

She furrowed her brow, contemplating. “Okay. Do you remember where it was? We passed it coming in.”

“Sure,” I said, dropping my feet to the floor, which seemed much spongier now than when we came in.

She lunged at me and slipped her arm under my armpit. “Whoa. A little wobbly. Do you need me to get you some help?”

I played it cool. “I’m fline. Smeally.” Outwardly, I was being polite, but inside I was thinking, Seriously? I’ve been going to the bathroom myself now for like, what? Three hundred years? And also, Wow. Her face is kind of melty.

In spite of my stubbornness, she insisted on helping me back out into the hall. As soon as I saw the men’s room there at the corner, I knew I’d be fine. I walked towards the door. And overshot. Badly. Although I managed to get my hand up to keep myself from falling—at first, anyway—in so doing I grabbed a handful of metal blinds. I then promptly raked down them as I crumpled to my knees there at the windows. And this in full sight of all the terrified people down the hallway in the waiting room.

Try to imagine the sound of dragging your hand ceiling to floor across metal blinds pressed against glass in a long hallway. This sound was not unlike that. You’d probably imagine this to be a very loud, very dramatic kind of noise. And you’d be right. Every face cranked towards me, wrenched in horror. I can only imagine their thoughts, What in the world’s going on back there?!?

The girl helped me up and wrangled me into the men’s room. “Are you sure you’re going to be all right? I can get somebody, a guy, to come help you.”

“Scromningulaind,” I assured her, waving her off dismissively. “Nit’s vend.”

She slipped out and closed the door, I think unconvinced. I placed a hand on the wall and conducted my business. In my memory, I had perfect aim, successfully navigated and with no undue overspray. Of course, for all I know, it was into a trash can or a sink or a drain in the floor or against the wall. But I’m sure it was fine. I finished up, I think put everything away and closed up, washed what I’m pretty sure were my hands, and staggered back out into the hall.

She was waiting there for me and helped me into another dark room, where I lay into yet another dentist chair. A doctor I couldn’t see gave me some instructions, which I obediently followed. Honestly, at that point, they could have handed me a gun, Jason-Bourne-style, and told me to shoot a hooded guy in the corner and I would absolutely have done it. (For all I know, they did.)

The actual procedure was kind of a blur, dark, with lots of popping noises and weird lights. The only part I remember vividly is that when they fired the laser into my eye, it looked like my eyeball filled with gray ashes—from the inside. That was the only moment I was frightened about losing my eyesight. But I was also very drowsy, so the feeling passed quickly.

I don’t remember leaving that day. I don’t remember whatever instructions they gave to me. What I do remember was awakening the next morning in my own bed, rolling over, and seeing my alarm clock—clearly—for perhaps the first time in my life. I cried a little. It was the best money I ever spent on myself.

Have you ever been high in public? What happened? Were authorities involved? When you write “gray,” do you spell it with an “a” or with an “e”? (I anguished over that decision today.)

Laser Eyes (Part 1 of 2)

(Today is part one of a two-part story. Part 2 is here.)

I’ve had poor eyesight for as long as I can remember. Primarily farsightedness. My mom took me to get glasses when I was in the third grade. I wore them for exactly one day and then never put them on again. Finally, when I was 16, although my eyesight was decent enough that I passed my driver’s exam, I couldn’t deny that I really couldn’t see safely at night. So I caved and got contact lenses. (That’s a story perhaps I’ll tell you another time.)

When Kenny, our first child, was about to be born, Kendra convinced me that I couldn’t risk not being able to see at his birth, particularly if he came in the middle of the night and I didn’t have time to get my contacts in before we’d have to leave the house. So I went and got glasses again. I spent a lot of money and selected very carefully. But later, when I saw the pictures from the hospital, I just couldn’t stand how I looked with them on. I think the problem is that if I wear glasses large enough to offset my nose, it looks like I’m trying to be all Hollywood. And if I wear glasses that are “cool” and the appropriate, “normal” size for the rest of my face, it’s impossible not to notice that they could fit handily into either one of my cavernous nostrils. Although that might make for convenient storage and quick access, it’s hardly practical. More importantly, it’s ugly.

So, still burdened by contacts and my backup ugly glasses, one day at work I was discussing my dilemma with a friend who told me about Lasik, laser surgery for your eyes. He had had it done, and he said (and this is an exact quote): “It’s the best money I ever spent on myself.” I didn’t need a lot of convincing. This was some twelve years ago, when Lasik was still pretty expensive—something like $1600 per eye—not like today, where you can have it done in the back of a van that comes to where you work, and if you bring in a Dr. Pepper can, you get a 10% discount. But after some research (and seriously begging Kendra), we set it up. And this is where our story begins…

Now, I don’t know whether you’re familiar with Lasik, but if you actually listen to what happens during the procedure, although the assistant tries to make it all sound routine, my consultation went something like this:

ASSISTANT: The Doctor has performed this procedure more than 38,000 times over the last 22 years…with-an-82%-success-rate.

ME: Excuse me? What? What was that last part?

ASSISTANT: Nothing. Here’s how it works: Using a highly precise scalpel, in an in-office procedure, The Doctor will make a minuscule, half-moon shaped incision…directly-onto-the-cornea-of-your-eye.

ME: I’m sorry. Did you say…

ASSISTANT: Then with another very precise instrument, The Doctor will open the flap he’s created…exposing-the-inside-of-your-eyeball-where-it’s-possible-although-not-likely-and-anyway-we-have-a-really-good-success-rate-and-it-almost-never-happens-that-infection-could-be-introduced-and-you-could-lose-your-sight.

ME: Uh…

ASSISTANT: Then The Doctor…blasts-a-loud-banging-super-high-intensity-laser-directly-into-your-eye-burning-away-living-tissue-and-kind-of-carving-it-into-a-shape-he-likes-and-thinks-will-probably-help-you-see.

ME: A…

ASSISTANT: Finally, The Doctor…blasts-the-dead-flesh-out-with-a-shot-of-air-and-lays-the-flap-back-over-and-because-the-surface-of-your-eye-is-basically-aqueous-it-uh-more-or-less-heals-itself.

ME: So what I hear you saying is that…

ASSISTANT: Do you have any questions?

ME: This “Doctor”: He’s like a real doctor, right?

ASSISTANT: Real enough. He’s got like a plaque in his office and everything.

ME: Um… Can I get a Valium beforehand?

ASSISTANT: We wouldn’t have it any other way.

ME: Do I need to sign anything? Like a waiver or something?

ASSISTANT: (laughing) Oh, my God. That’s hilarious! YES! Like, a bajillionty forms! I’ve heard it’s less trouble to do a house closing on a haunted mansion that’s a portal into hell and where serial murders were committed.

ME: Let’s light this candle.

Coming on Friday: The Actual Procedure…

Have you ever had a procedure done that the staff acted was like a completely simple, normal thing, but was actually terrifying? Have you ever had a procedure performed that was against your better judgment, but your vanity wouldn’t let you off the hook? Which do you think is better: Taco Bell or Taco Bueno? Justify your answer.

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