Pipe Dream

The seeds of my writing future were undeniably sowed my 10th grade year, when I was found out that I had Ms. Gautreau for English. She would become more than just my teacher. She would become my lifelong mentor, guiding me through a dream that would culminate with the publication of my first book 23 years later. She is to whom that book is dedicated.

If I were to pinpoint the exact demarcation point separating me from my bullies, it would during that same year. Though a huge growth spurt certainly helped, I really owe it to her. To put it succinctly, Ms. Gautreau epitomized everything that a teacher should be. From an instructional standpoint, her lessons were always engaging and inspiring. However, far more important than any lesson she ever taught me, was the fact that she helped me discover myself…and never stopped believing in me. By extension, I learned the value of believing in myself. And the power of creativity.

From the moment on, every decision, thought, and sacrifice made was built around a dream that I never, ever gave up on. Even when everyone else seemed to try and convince me otherwise.

Up until my 10th great year, I really had no idea what I really wanted to do with my life. My grandmother had always been my biggest influence, but she was determined that her first grandchild was destined for Harvard. As a not-so-subtle hint, she bought me a Harvard sweatshirt when I was 10. Though I was far from being the smartest kid, I was at least smart enough to know that I wasn’t Harvard material.

By the time I got to high school, my GPA (hindered mostly by poor math and science skills) obliterated any outside chance that I could get into Harvard – or any Ivy League school for that matter. I was horrible at math and science and only slightly above average in the other subjects.

Once I realized that I wanted to be a writer, it didn’t take long for me to receive my first rejection letter: from my school’s literary magazine, of which Ms. Gautreau was the advisor. Though the rejection letter was signed by a student, it was clearly written under the gentle guidance of Ms. Gautreau: “You and the others who submitted are among a special folk that carry with them the guts to take a chance and put your talents to the test…we have to sigh and set some pieces aside. Unfortunately, your work was among these. However, don’t stew over this minor pitfall. Writing is an art that can provide inner sanctum for a lifetime. It is a personal experience and sometimes is meant to reward you and not to satisfy others.”

Even her rejections are inspirational!

Fortunately, due to encouraging words of wisdom such as this, these early setbacks did nothing to rattle my resolve. My thick skin was already beginning to form.

Meanwhile, my grandmother, who had spent 50 years as a Ford Motor Company secretary, had a grandiose vision that her grandson would use his Harvard degree to become an engineer at her beloved hometown company. My grandmother’s influence was so deeply felt, it felt as though my fate was sealed: I was going to be an engineer, despite my disinterest and – more importantly – lackluster skill in all areas remotely related to that particular field.

“It’s just a matter of mind over matter,” my Grandma always told me. “If you put your mind to it, you can excel in anything you put your mind to.” Though she was referring specifically to math and science, she was right: putting my mind to something against all odds no doubt contributed to my eventual “success” as a writer.

To further prepare me for a career as an engineer, my grandmother signed me up for high school engineering workshops at a Ford engineering facility on Saturday mornings. Aside from having to wake up early on Saturday mornings, these workshops did nothing to inspire me (unless you count being inspired to do anything but engineering). I was completely bored, disinterested … and confused.

“Mind over matter,” my Grandma reminded me.

And my mind was made up. Engineering did not matter to me.

Yet, despite this minor detail, my grandmother continued to believe that somehow, against all scientific reason, I could train my mind to both like and excel in math and science. If that were the case, it wouldn’t have been a matter of science. It would have been magic.

Ms. Gautreau taught me the meaning of finding your true self and then using it to follow a dream with every ounce of your heart, mind, and soul. Her unbridled faith in my ability to succeed as a writer and filmmaker has kept me focused on my dream every step away and through every pitfall along my path. Despite a cavalcade of wholesale life changes I have encountered in my life, there has always been one constant: my dream…and the teacher who made it all possible.

I would go on to have Ms. Gautreau for the remainder of my high school years, including creative writing and film studies. In fact, it was in her creative writing class that I began writing my first screenplay – an adaptation of Robert Newton Peck’s Soup on Ice; a gift from my grandma from when I was little. She encouraged me to contact the author for permission. He not only wrote me back, but gave me the greenlight to write it.

This went far better than my correspondence with an Oscar-nominated screenwriter from Michigan who basically told me that it would be a waste of my time to even try.

This sort of cynicism prepared me for my encounter with another high school role model – a certain newspaper columnist and future best-selling author of whose program I interned on in college. One day after his show, I followed him back to his office and awkwardly mumbled:

“I just wanted to tell you that you are one of the reasons I got into writing.”

“I’m sorry,” he said in response.

“You have been a great influence.”

“If you will excuse me, I have work to do.”

I should point out that he never even looked at me during this conversation. I supposed I expected the author of cheesy, new-age books to treat you like a decent human being. But then again, I was only a lowly intern on his radio program.

But Ms. Gautreau prepared me to turn the other cheek against setbacks such as these. She taught me the true meaning resilience.

In addition to my writing career, I would be remiss to point out how much Ms. Gautreau has greatly influenced my teaching, as well. Though I can never come even close to reaching her level of greatness, I strive to do everything in my power to emulate her teaching style, with the sole mission of encouraging my own students to latch on to dreams of their own…and never let go.

When I was her student, she frequently gave me press clippings from various magazines and newspapers (New York Times and The New Yorker in particular) that pertained to writing, film, or baseball. I have saved every single one of them, stored in the same box as all of my writing from her classes. Now, yellowed and tattered, they comfort me like a tattered security blanket. She still sends me clippings till this day, along with a steady stream of e-mailed articles. The epitome of life-long learning.

Every year during the holidays, Ms. Gautreau and I get together to watch an Oscar contending film, usually followed by dinner. And with each visit, my creative juices are recharged and I walk away feeling like I can conquer the world.

Though Ms. Gautreau is now happily “retired”, she certainly hasn’t quit teaching. She currently teaches writing courses for senior citizens who realize that it’s never too late to discover their voice. And of course, there is no doubt her influence will continue to live on in the hearts of every student she has ever inspired. I hope that in my own small way, her legacy lives on through my own teaching (despite the limitations my dream puts on it). I remember how disappointed I was when she retired the year before I did my student teaching. Initially, I felt like I missed out on a golden opportunity to truly become the young Padawan to her Yoda. But I later realized, the power of her force everything was already buried deep within my soul. As it always will be. There was nothing left to learn.

I can actually pinpoint the precise moment when my dream truly set sail. And it all comes down to a blue notebook. My holy grail. Like most English teachers, Ms. Gautreau required students to keep a journal. Several times a week, we would either have to respond to a specific prompt, or write wherever our pubescent muse took us. Our notebooks would be turned at the end of each quarter for feedback. I didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, I probably wasn’t even consciously thinking about it. But when I got my notebook back the first go around, the margins were filled with numerous brief, witty comments that outweighed the A+ I earned. Even though many of her comments were usually one or two words, this written “conversation” provided the spark of inspiration I so desperately needed. And it made me feel excited about writing in a way that I had never felt before.

Suddenly, life was full of possibility.

“By wanting desperately to become a successful Hollywood filmmaker, I put myself at great risk. I believe in myself, however. I know I can do it, but it will be no easy road. While pursuing my dream, I look for inspiration wherever I go. I get most of my inspiration from Ms. Gautreau…I have never been told that I can’t make it, but I have been told that it is just a pipedream and that I have no big chance (not because of lack of talent, but because of the odds). Well, I’ll show them. Somebody has to make movies, right? Why can’t I be one of them? Life is all about taking risks. It is those risks that happiness is most commonly found.”

I went to say:

“I love to write because it allows me to escape the chaos of everyday life and relax. I take pride in my writing and if someone else doesn’t like it, I don’t get mad. I just work to improve it until it is as good as I can get it. I prefer to write light hearted comedy-dramas that make people good. I find that combining tears with laughter works good in any film. To me, making a person feel good about life is the best cure for anything. To me, literature is the best way to relax, whether you’re reading it, or writing it.”

The true impetus and value of this notebook came to light after Ms. Gautreau’s father passed mid-way through the year. While attending a viewing at the funeral home, she introduced me to her family with great enthusiasm:

“So you’re the one with the journal!,” one of her family members proclaimed.

I felt like a superstar!

As it turned out, Ms. Gautreau had shared my notebook with her family in the hospital’s waiting room. It was a tremendous feeling and it was at that moment that I knew right then where my destiny lay.

As Ms. Gautreau told my hometown paper, The Dearborn Press & Guide in an article that came out after I published my first book, “His journal was magic to read…I can still remember the delight and the wonderful quirky observations he would make about life and the wonderful, unique ways of articulating his ideas.

“He had this dead-on, droll sense of humor,” she continued. “He would always spot the absurdity of life. He was always the guy who was willing to go out there and take a chance, take a risk. But at the same time I think he was very honest in his own heart.”

Meanwhile on the homefront, my dream wasn’t exactly a greeted with open arms. The general consensus of my family toward my dream fell along the lines of: “It’s just a hobby,” (Bobby’s Hobby!) or “it’s only a pipe-dream.” It wasn’t so much that they didn’t support me. They just didn’t encourage me. Or is there any difference? But let me get one thing straight: I couldn’t ask more loving, generous parents and am extremely grateful for all they have done for me and all they continue to do. In some ways, their ambivalence toward my dream only added more fuel to the fire. And made me want to prove them wrong.

In the meantime, I just had to accept that “Bobby’s Hobby” was never going to be taken seriously. And with Ms. Gautreau’s guiding light, I was determined to prove their doubts wrongs (and for over 20 years, they were right). Even though it took that long, I never once doubted that it was only a matter of time. Just how much time was a whole other matter. Sometimes, I wonder how long I would have stuck with it if I knew how long it would actually take. I certainly never would guessed it would take as long as it did. And the longer it took, the harder it was going to be to turn back. You don’t put that much time into something, only to turn around with your tail between your legs.

Fortunately, there were always enough clues (contests, optioned scripts, publication of short stories, etc.) along the way that I was at least on the right track. That I wasn’t time on something I had no business trying to get involved with. As long as I kept trying, there was always going to be a chance – or at least more of a chance than somebody who never tried at all.

It all came down to one basic principle: my dream was never a matter of if…it was always a matter of when. No matter how many setbacks. It was this mindset that allowed me to freely sacrifice so much of my free time and social life over the years. My dream always lay ahead like a lighthouse beacon surrounded by a dark, stormy sea. I just had to follow one simple rule: “Never give up.” It’s no surprise that my daughter learned to say “Daddy doesn’t give up” at the age of two. My dream is that my children will follow their own dreams just as daddy did, despite the frustration that is bound to result.

From the time my dream was hatched in Ms. Gautreau’s classroom, I have done everything in my power protect it at all costs. I have directed most of my prayers toward it. In fact, every major decision has revolved around my dream, including my decision to become a teacher. After toiling around in the media business after college, I couldn’t resist the allure of summers off and frequent breaks. I even spend my planning period writing, rather than grading or making copies because it is when I know I will be at my creative peak for the day.

Though I never once considered throwing in the towel, I would often wonder if I was doing enough. Or I would ask myself why was I still in Michigan, rather than Hollywood? A decision I still regret from time to time.

Before my first marriage, whenever I felt the urge to follow my heart to Hollywood, I convinced myself that I could still make my dream come true…from the comfort of my parents’ couch. And since I stayed home for college, my parents had grave concerns that I would spend his weekend nights sitting at home on the couch writing. Not only were they were worried I would be single forever, they were worried I would be single and sitting on their couch forever.

“Writing my life away” some might say.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have any friends (that was so elementary school). It was just that I was under the spell of my dream. Though I could certainly see understand their concern, it was ultimately through writing that I fell in love (which in turn, ultimately made my dream come true).

Flashforward to Y2K: I was on the cusp of receiving my English degree and working part time at Ford Motor Company in public relations.

However, with graduation looming, I was at a crossroads in my life. Since it was clear that Ford would not be offering me full time employment anytime soon, it was time to get serious about my future. So, I decided to apply to the top graduate film programs and cast my fate to the wind. If, by some miracle, I got into one of the top programs, my decision would be made for me.

But life had other plans.

For my final spring break, I headed to Hollywood to take some film workshops, including Robert Mckee’s famous Story seminar. Little did I know my own personal Hollywood story was in the making.

My trip began with a fateful encounter with one of my childhood heroes while waiting at the gate for my flight. I spotted a man sitting across from me whom I was pretty sure was legendary Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson.

“Is that Sparky Anderson?” I stuttered to the gate attendant.

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied. Now that I knew for sure, I headed over to my boyhood idol, trying to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before congratulating him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

He shook my hand and I returned to my seat, where I waited to board. I might as well have been on Cloud 9. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. Sparky was seated in first class, already asleep and I realized that I just had the rare privilege of seeing a Hall of Fame coach in repose.

When I finally located my seat, I scribbled in my journal: “My trip’s off to a good start already. Perhaps it’s an omen.”

Little did I know how much of an omen it truly was.

The workshops I was attending were on opposing weekends, leaving me with plenty of time to be a tourist and ponder whether I should roll the dice and move out west, or remain in my comfort zone back in Michigan.

And then came March 7, 2000.

The rain-soaked day (in fact, almost my entire trip was rain-soaked. I quickly learned that L.A. had a rainy season) began with a dream tour of The Price is Right, which had been arranged through a family friend of Ms. Gautreau (even though I would have much preferred if this contact was able to place my scripts in the right hands, this was a close second).

I should probably point out that I had a rather unhealthy obsession with this show … due in part to the fact that I had come to associate this show with being unhealthy, accompanied by chicken soup with crackers, chamomile tea and gag-inducing cold and cough syrup. And standing there, on the set, it was as though I walked right through my television set, just as I dreamed of in a fever-induced daydream. As I wrote in my journal, it was as though “I had stepped foot on sacred ground.”

I was taken aback by how small the studio was. It was as though I was standing on a miniature replica of the set – not the actual set itself. There was no way it could possibly be this small. But it was. Even the Holy Grail itself – the Plinko! board seemed too small to be real, not to mention the Showcase Showdown wheel. I asked her if I could give the wheel a test drive, but was told that CBS has a strict policy against spinning the wheel unless it was during game time. Beggars can’t be choosers. Years later, I got to attend a taping of the show – just a couple of years before Bob Barker retired. Since I was in attendance as a guest of a CBS employee, I would not be permitted to have a chance to “Come on down!,” but both experiences were the next best thing.

As magical as my Price is Right encounter was, it would pale in comparison to what happened next. After the tour, I debated whether or not to head to Universal Studios on the account off the damp weather, before ultimately deciding that a little rain wasn’t going to hurt me. So, I took a $80 cab ride (which caught me totally off guard). Though I immediately regretted by decision, it would turn out to be the best $80 I ever spent.

It was a rain-soaked day (I quickly learned that L.A. has a rainy season) and debated whether or not to head to Universal Studios, before ultimately deciding that a little rain wasn’t going to hurt me. So, I took a $80 cab ride (which caught me totally off

guard). Though I immediately regretted by decision, it would turn out to be the best $80 I ever spent.

After wandering the park for awhile in a melancholy daze, I spotted an attractive girl who also appeared to be by her lonesome on the Terminator ride. I lost sight of her and then later spotted her entering the E.T. ride. We were both eating peanut M & M’s. So, I followed her in (making me a quasi-stalker). As fate would have it, we would ride together. We struck up a conversation and I learned she was an exchange student from Ukraine, living in Mississippi. Twenty minutes later, we were going our separate ways, with contact info in hand.

We became pen pals. At first, we started writing one another. First monthly. Then weekly. Then daily. E-mails soon became instant messages. Perhaps most importantly, she had read all of my scripts, showing more interest in my writing than anyone ever had in my life with the exception of one special teacher. Before we knew what hit us, we had fallen in love…through writing. Before long, our love blossomed until it was too big for even distance to contain us. Just over a year later, I headed to Ukraine with an engagement ring in my pocket. (You can read all about it in Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine. Or…wait for the movie)

Following the most amazing, magically surreal experience of my life, in which every moment felt like a cool indie rom-com, I immediately got to work on a semi-autobiographical screenplay based on this experience, in the cold, dark shadow of 9/11.

A few years later, I optioned the script to a producer (for a whopping $1.00). My dream was finally coming true!

But then it didn’t.

Following extensive, excruciating re-writes, the script became more and more fictionalized, but I was willing to go along with whatever changes the producer suggested. But then the producer suggested that the location of the script get changed to Asia, on the account of potential Asian investors that he had waiting in the wings. Because nothing says Ukraine like Asia. Perhaps if I were willing to change the title to Love & Sake

Fortunately, the producer abandoned the project and the option expired. My script was an orphan again. And I was devastated. The rug had been completely pulled out from under me. Though I had fallen to my lowest point, I wasn’t willing to give up the ghost. Drawing upon the wisdom of the bestselling self-help book Who Moved My Cheese, I … moved my cheese and set screenwriting aside and try my hand at prose.

At first, I felt like I was abandoning my dream. But then I realized my end goal remained the same. I was just seeking an alternate route; I would have to enter Hollywood through the backdoor.

No longer bound by the constraints of screenplay structure, writing prose was an incredibly liberating experience. I was therefore able to go back to the original draft of my script and resurrect previously cut scenes. Furthermore, the script was essentially a skeleton outline, so all I had to do was add meat to the bones. The biggest challenge was to learn how to write prose that didn’t read like the sparse choppiness of a script. By the same token, the brevity of screenwriting also came in handy. It was just a matter of finding the proper balance. Over time, I got into the groove. And thus, beget a book.

Sadly, around the time I was completing my book, my marriage had begun to unravel. And I would be in denial if I didn’t admit that my writing had a lot to do with it. If you marry a writer, know that writing will be your spouse’s mistress. Perhaps, the best advice I could give any writer is not to marry. It only ends up hurting people.

During the last couple of years of my marriage, there was a lot of pressure to stop writing. To abandon a dream that clearly wasn’t ever going to happen. And at one point, I did. For the sake of my marriage. And I had never been more miserable in my life. I never felt more incomplete. I felt like an addict without a fix. When I’m writing, I never feel more alive. A literal high. In fact, I usually feel more awake and energized on the heels of a late-night writing session than I do on a full night’s sleep. So, once I lost that lifeline, I unraveled.

Dear God, did I unravel.

Asking somebody to give up on something you put in so many years and sacrifice into is just about the most selfish thing you can ask someone to do for them. Quitting would mean everything was all for naught. It would have been one thing if I lost all faith in myself. But my faith never wavered. Yet, I wanted to do what I could to spare my marriage. Consequentially, it destroyed it.

Though broken, I wasn’t completely beaten. And then I started writing again, but did so secretly. I was a closeted writer. A painful, daily reminder that the person who once shared in my dream – who I fell in love because of her support of my dream – had forsaken me.  After holding on as long as I could, I pulled the plug after eight years of marriage. And just like that, I was left with an unpublished book about a love story that no longer existed in reality.

The craziest thing about this was the fact that my divorce – as tragic and painful as it was – wasn’t my lowest point. It was the period when I had stopped writing.

When I first fell in love, I wondered if my Hollywood dream was only a ruse by fate to lead me to my soul mate on that fateful, rainy day at Universal Studios. I now realize that falling in love was actually part of fate’s grand plan that would lead to the book that would later make my dream finally come true. With no shortage of sacrifice, pain, and tears from two people, who once upon a time promised live happily ever after.

Five years later, my book was published. And as exhilarating and magical the experienced has been, I would be remiss to ignore the bittersweet melancholy that has accompanied me on this journey. On one hand, with every revision, I got to re-live my life’s most amazing experience over and over again. It is as close to time travel as I will ever get. It is why I prefer writing memoir more than fiction. At the same time, these memories are soaked in regret when I think about how it all ended. And though I take comfort in the knowledge that this life-altering experience will live on forever in the pages of my book, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the regret of not sharing in this experience with her by my side. No matter how many book signings I have done and no matter how many copies I will ultimately sell, there will always be a deep, melancholy hole in my heart.

When the time came to write a dedication, the choice was simple: I knew I couldn’t dedicate it to my ex-wife. And I certainly wasn’t going to dedicate a book about my ex to my second wife. So, it was only fitting I would dedicate it to Ms. Gautreau – the person who most made this publication possible.

. In an e-mail to her, I wrote:

“I never even had to deliberate my decision to dedicate the book to you. And seeing your name on the dedication page was almost equal to the feeling of holding the book itself for the first time.”

I sent her the first copy of my book along with the invite to my book launch (which fell on the eve of her 70th birthday). And here is what she wrote:

Dear Bob,

Who knew that that shared room with your grandfather and my father in residence at Oakwood Hospital would lead to such connections?

To find your book in the mail after returning from Japan was pure delight.

The dedication gave me a thrill shiver and goose bumps.

I never anticipated such an experience.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

This old gal is very touched and pleased!

Looking forward to seeing you soon.

All the very best to you and yours,

Anne

Consequentially, one of the most joyous moments of my life was being able to introduce Ms. Gautreau to the packed house at my book’s launch party. That very moment was the culmination of every ounce of sweat, blood, and tears shed over the past 20 years, going all the way back to the moment that an awkward, directionless boy first entered that 10th grade classroom, only to exit with laser beam focus.

The next day, Ms. Gautreau wrote this on a Facebook post:

“Bob, you were surrounded by autograph seekers after our launch; so I want to let you know how touched I was by your remarks. I felt as though I were going to burst into tears when you offered your kind remarks to me. Your reading was the best. I have attended a helluva lot of readings over the years. Yours hit all the right notes. The audience was enchanted and enthralled, tickled and touched. If I had ever had a son, I would have wanted him to be exactly like you. I marvel at your keen-quirky mind, your self-discipline, your willingness to be a risk taker, and your sheer determination. BRAVO! Also, it thrilled me to be inside a NEW independent bookstore. It tickled me to see a younger couple risk starting a new publishing company. It delighted me to see people scrambling to find copies of your book down on the first floor. Finally, I hope lots and lots and lots and lots of people realize that your novel would make great Christmas gifts. ALL THE VERY BEST TO YOU FOR A GREAT SUCCESS!”

With a constant bombardment of words such as those, Ms. Gautreau’s influence will always be felt through the deepest reaches of my soul every time I put pen to paper. Or, fingers to keyboard. I know she will always have my back. For example, out of the blue, I recently received this message (all in CAPS):

I HAVE ALWAYS ADMIRED HOW YOU CAN PUT YOUR HEAD DOWN AND TARGET YOUR WRITING OBJECTIVES.

Words of encouragement such as those go a long way and they serve as a reminder of what I need to be doing more often with my students.

No matter how much further my success carries me and no matter how many setbacks I must endure, every brick of my future will be built upon the foundation that my former teacher lay down for me.

I will conclude with a message she wrote in a Christmas card a few years ago On the envelope to the card were two rubber stamped Shakespeare quotes: “This above all; this thine own self be true.” Along with “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

Inside the card, in her own magical handwriting:

“Continue to create. It’s significant energy, important to counterbalance the forces devoted to destruction on the planet. The creative process is necessary, meritorious and precious.”

All the best, Anne.”

Published in:

Four Foxes, One Hound blog

I Need Juice

There is nothing that makes me cringe more than the thought of a needle entering my vein. A needle in the flesh is at least tolerable – though certainly no picnic. But at least it doesn’t make me pass out like a needle in the vein. It makes me woozy just thinking about it.

Ever since I was 12, simple blood tests have either caused me to pass out…or, at least come very close to it. I’m talking a small vial of blood here. Not a gallon. Or, a pint. I realize that this means it’s mostly psychological. If not entirely.

As a result, I have never even considered donating to a blood bank. No amount of guilt or pressure or promise of cookies can change my mind. Sure, passing out is nothing compared to somebody in desperate need for my blood. Call me selfish, but they’re going to have find it elsewhere.

The worst-case scenario is when I have to fast the night before blood is drawn. This is due to my low blood sugar. In fact, I have passed out (or, at least have come close to passing out) from low blood sugar on numerous occasions. And no needles were involved whatsoever.

Whenever my doctor prescribes a blood test, I cringe, putting it off for as long as possible. I just recently went for a cholesterol check ordered by my doctor… a decade ago! And even after all of these fears, my worst fear was imagined: I passed out. My only line of defense is bringing a granola bar and juice along with me (sometimes settling for the shitty canned orange that every doctor’s office seems to keep in stock).

Before the needle is inserted, I make sure the items are open and ready to go the very second the needle leaves my vein – especially when fasting is involved.

I have also found another strategy that works during the act of blood renewal. I simply ask the nurse to talk to me the entire time to keep me distracted (though, I learned to always clarify that this does not mean talking about the actual act of drawing blood, which has happened on more than on occasion).

My low blood sugar issues are always worse in the morning – especially between the time of breakfast and lunch. This is my danger zone. Aka, grey zone. It is not only crucial l that I eat breakfast first thing in the morning, but I need to have a second breakfast, usually in the form of a granola bar. I will never understand people who never eat breakfast.

It is essential that I always keep emergency granola bars on me at all times – in my computer bag, glovebox, etc. (However, I usually end up eating them in non-emergency situations).

Fortunately, passing out has become less of an issue for me in more recent years.  But at its peak during my teenage years, I lost count of how many times I made the mistake of not having breakfast before my shower, only to be overcome with shades of gray, at which point I would scramble out of the shower, just barely managing to put a towel on, mustering whatever energy I had left to yell out: “I NEED JUICE!”, at which point I would crawl toward my bedroom, with my kibbles & bits exposed through my loosely wrapped towel and lie in bed, too close to the brink of passing out to care, waiting for my mom to bring me a glass of orange juice. With barely enough strength to sit up, I would gulp down my juice until I would break into a cold sweat and color filled my world once again, accompanied by a cold sweat.

It wasn’t long before my family made light of my distress mantra:

“I NEED JUICE”

In fact, even worse than being made fun of, my parents thought I was only doing it for attention, like my incessant sleep talking, or the time I woke up in the middle of the night with all of the lights on in my room and my bed positioned perfectly in the center of my room (moved from against the wall). For what it’s worth, I solemnly swear in this non-fiction essay that this is all truth (it’s not even in the semi-fiction category contained in this collection) Till this day, I maintain it was a supernatural encounter.

There are two specific fainting spells that stand out the most: one time, I collapsed on the bathroom floor after taking a shower. When my mother saw me passed out on the floor, she passed out, too, resulting in a minor neck injury that took months to recover from. Of course, nobody believed me that I passed out for real. They thought I was only faking it and was covering up my guilt by lying.

And then came a much more public incident in 7th grade: in church; on Easter Sunday. Jesus ascended. And I descended). What didn’t help matters was that my entire breakfast consisted of Easter candy. During the homily, I began to feel woozy and thought I was going to vomit. En route to the restroom, I was overcome by a swirling, gray vortex before I collapsed in the vestibule in front of countless parishioners and a smattering of classmates. When I came to, I was in the arms of a large bald man, who happened to be the father of a classmate.

On the heels of this holy encounter, my doctor sent me for a four-hour glucose tolerance test to determine my blood sugar level. This test consisted of not only fasting the night before, but consuming mass amounts of an orange-flavored glucose-syrup each hour of the test. I passed out during the first round, thus prematurely ending the test. The needle wasn’t even out of my arm yet. I woke up to the pungent smell or ammonia in my nostrils. At least I finally had a diagnosis: I was hyperglycemic.

So, at least I had diagnosed medical reason now, it didn’t stop my family of poking fun of “I NEED JUICE!” Even till this day.  But as long as there is no shortage of granola bars and juice on this planet, I know that in the end, I’m always going to be okay.

The Righteous Brother

When I was in middle school, my father nicknamed me “the righteous brother”. And it was not a compliment. Nor was he referring to one-half of the famous singing duo of “Unchained Melody” fame. And it was certainly not a way to earn any street cred. Some might see this as a compliment. It was in reference to my annoying and judgmental tendency to preach morality to my two younger sisters. I was also a tattletale. And though I prided myself back then on my high horse of morality, I would be amiss to say that I didn’t have an ulterior motive: getting my little sisters in trouble.

It was bad enough that I had to endure getting made fun of my peers. But my own family? Though I later learned to embrace being the black sheep of my family, at the time, I just needed to accepted for who I was. And that wasn’t always the case.

Of course, being a “righteous brother” had its upsides: by the time I got to high school, I didn’t have a curfew like other classmates because I was always home early enough not to warrant one (fewer friends = less time for late-night hijinks). In truth, my straight-laced “righteous” behavior had less to do with morality and more to do with being afraid to get in trouble.

I was, for lack of a better word, a pussy.

My cowardice emerged at a very early age. There is even photographic evidence to prove it. Exhibit A: I was just short of turning one and I’m being held in the arms of a clown at my hometown Memorial Day parade. The look of abject terror on my face says it all. In fact, it is a look that suggests something much more sinister (though, on second thought – in my defense – who wouldn’t be afraid?)

Exhibit B: This same look of fear is duplicated over several photos taken on the lap of Santa and the Easter Bunny. Santa is scary enough. The Easter Bunny’s soul-piercing black eyes and inanimate expression is even more frightening. Most kids grow out of this by the time they are five or six. I was still showing fear well beyond that (and , on a semi-related note, the fact I still believed at the age of 12 tell you all you need to know).

Exhibit C: I am just shy of three. My hands are held tightly over my ears as tears stream down my face. The source of such abject terror? … a kite, flown by my dad in the parking lot of the church behind our house. I was scared of the flapping sound it made in the wind.

As I got older, my phobias increased, extending to lighting matches, bees, basements, and routine blood tests (of which even the smallest amount has caused me to pass out).

Despite living the life of a certified wuss, there are a few scattered moments where the righteous brother showed signs of unrighteousness. Grant, it was often accidental. Some could write volumes about such rebellious behavior. I just need a few pages. Although these instances are far and few between, it is my hope that sharing them could perhaps earn the slightest modicum of street cred (of which the first step is to probably avoid using such pompous words as “modicum”):

 

Tearing it Up

Lying to cover up a crime is the oldest trick in the book. However, when you are raised Catholic, lying to get yourself out of trouble only leads to a downward spiral of endless guilt. I learned this lesson in the first grade after intentionally stomping all over a classmate’s steno notebook when nobody was looking. I didn’t even know whose notebook it was, yet, for forces beyond my control, I noticed it on the floor and felt compelled to destroy it. Mutilate it. Tear it to shreds. After the crime was discovered, the victim was brought to tears. She was one of the best students in the class and her destroyed notebook meant page after page of lost work. As much as my conscience was dictating me to do otherwise, I remained mute, even when the teacher pulled each of us into the hall one by one in an attempt at coaxing a confession out of them. I feigned ignorance. But inside, I was already burning in hell. It was my first “crime”. And even though more crimes were yet to come, I still feel guilty about it till this day. Once a Catholic …

 

Playing in the Street

When I was five, I told my two-year-old sister to stand in the middle of the street. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing any better… nor was it a matter of me attempting to kill her (at least, I’m pretty sure I made sure no cars were coming) . My motivation was to get her in trouble. All it managed was to get me in trouble. Within seconds of her entering the street, my parents had burst out the front door and scooped up my sister out of harm’s way, as my grandparents watched from the porch. I remember the wooden brush against my ass. I remember crying. I remember my grandfather being so upset by my scolding, that he and my grandma left. Though I don’t condone hitting a child with a wooden brush, a hand, or any other object for that matter, I certainly don’t condone telling a toddler to stand in the middle of a street. Having small children of my own makes this episode even more cringe-worthy. This incident also sparked my first grounding – one week without friends, which was not that difficult for somebody with no friends.

 

Hoser

It was one of those hot, glorious dog days of summer. I was playing in the front yard with a hose, when I spotted our neighbor Mr. K. approaching down the street in his car. For reasons I will never be able to fully decipher, I had the sudden impulse to spray him with a hose right through the open window of his passing vehicle. I managed to time it so that the point of impact of the hose coincided with the arrival of his friendly wave.

Upon impact, he quickly slammed on his brakes and started scolding me.

“What in the hell did you do that for?!” he said, wiping the water off his face with a handkerchief.

I stood there like a helpless mute, hose still in hand.

My mother ran out to see what was going on. She apologized, took me inside, and proceeded to scold me even further. I had no ill feelings toward the man whatsoever, yet, I felt compelled to spray him with a hose.

 

“Do me, Baby!”

If you are struggling to seem cool, don’t try to gain your classmates’ respect by telling them that your sister’s Cricket doll says “Do me, baby.” Even if you are telling them this because you think it will make you cool, even though a.) it won’t and b.) you don’t even know what “do me” means. For those that don’t know who Cricket is, Cricket was similar in concept to Teddy Ruxpin. For those who don’t know who Cricket or Teddy Ruxpin is, they are both animatronic dolls that play cassette tapes inserted into their ass – like Chuck E Cheese characters on a smaller scale. As the tapes play, their eyes and mouths are programmed to move along with it. Neither one them – or anything of their ilk – say “Do me, baby.” This led to my first and only time that I was punished in school. And it resulted in me getting a stern warning from Mr. Brusco – our cigar-chomping principal. I also had to write a note for my parents that said: “Today in school, I told my classmates that my sister’s Cricket doll said “’Do me, baby.’” It will not happen again. And I am sorry.”

I kept my promise. And Cricket still lives at my parents.

High Balls, Wrestling, & Jell-O

 

For a span roughly around the ages of 5-10, I would frequently goad my cousin Tony into wrestling matches at holiday functions at my grandparents’ house. To paint a better picture of this matchup: I was a skinny, weak toothpick and Tony was…well, beyond “husky”. Without fail, Tony would agree to wrestle, only to then promptly pummel me. Like clockwork, I would scream for help, at which point Tony would get scolded. The frequency that this scenario played itself out was on par with Charlie Brown, Lucy, and a football. I would promise not cry for help, yet sure enough, I did. Every time.

One time, around the age of 10, I found a new way to get Tony into trouble. A new “football” so to speak. While standing at the pop and booze table, I convinced Tony to let me make him a high ball “just like Grandpa.” Though we were accustomed to “Jr. Highballs” (Squirt and cherry juice), I decided to add a splash of whiskey to Tony’s drink (not mine). When he were caught, everyone immediately blamed Tony. Nothing he could say could convince them that innocent Bobby had anything to do with it.

However, I would later get my due punishment when I decided it was a good idea to fling a spoonful of Jell-O and Cool Whip at Tony’s face. Somehow, only I found the humor in this.

 

Take this Gift and Shove It

It’s probably not a good idea to show your appreciation for a Christmas gift from your beloved Godmother by shoving it onto the floor because it was only a sweater when you were hoping for a toy. What a prick.

 

911

If I could impart any wisdom to my children, it would be to avoid “friends” who think it’s a good idea to prank call the police. Notice the quotation marks I used on “friends”. True friends don’t put all the blame on you, even though you were the unwilling accomplice who actually tried to talk them out of their stupid little prank. In the end, the police showed up and promptly escorted me back home, where I was issued a prompt warning. I didn’t even attempt to explain my role in the situation, out of fear that my “friends” would retaliate. In other words, I was less afraid of getting in trouble with the law than I was facing retribution of my “friends.” The only other time I would ever get in trouble with the law (aside from the occasional speeding or parking ticket) was being interrogated by the FBI for being a possible terrorist suspect following a late-night film scouting expedition on an industrial island in Detroit.

 

Sucker Slap

After enduring several years of bullying, the time had come to take a stance. However, my stance consisted of a half-assed, weak slap (or, more specifically, a mild graze) across my bully’s cheek while he was chomping on his bologna sandwich in the school cafeteria. His immediate reaction was to laugh, then continue eating his sandwich as though nothing happened. The dozen or so witnesses also laughed. Adding insult to injury, this incident prompted even more teasing by my bully. At least I tried.

 

 

The Righteous Brother: (Hoser)

It was one of those hot, glorious dog days of summer. I was playing in the front yard with a hose, when I spotted our neighbor Mr. Kay approaching down the street in his car. For reasons I will never be able to fully decipher, I had the sudden impulse to spray him with a hose right through the open window of his passing vehicle. I managed to time it so that the point of impact of the hose coincided with the arrival of his friendly wave.

Upon impact, he quickly slammed on his brakes and started scolding me.

“What in the hell did you do that for?!” he said, wiping the water off his face with a handkerchief.

I stood there like a helpless mute, hose still in hand.

My mother ran out to see what was going on. She apologized, took me inside, and proceeded to scold me even further. I had no ill feelings toward the man whatsoever, yet, I felt compelled to spray him with a hose.

It never happened again.

The Righteous Brother: (Playing in the Street)

When I was five, I told my two-year-old sister to stand in the middle of the street. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing any better. In fact, my motivation was to get her in trouble. All it managed was to get me in trouble. I like to think that I was at least humane enough to make sure there were no cars coming – but I’m not entirely sure. What I do remember were my parents running out the door and grabbing my sister from harm’s way, as my visiting grandparents watched from the porch. I remember the wooden brush against my ass. I remember crying. I remember my grandfather being so upset by my scolding, that he and my grandma left. Though I don’t condone hitting a child with a wooden brush, a hand, or any other object for that matter, I certainly don’t condone telling a toddler to stand in the middle of a street. Having a two-year-old of my own makes this episode even more cringe-worthy. This incident also sparked my first grounding – one week without friends, which was not that difficult for somebody with no friends.

The Righteous Brother: (“Do Me, Baby”)

c-cricket.1LIf you are making an effort to seem cool, don’t tell your classmates that your sister’s Cricket doll says “Do me, baby.” Even if you are telling them this because you think it will make you cool, even though a.) it won’t and b.) you don’t even know what “do me” means. For those that don’t know who Cricket is, Cricket was similar in concept to Teddy Ruxpin. For those who don’t know who Cricket or Teddy Ruxpin is, they are both animatronic dolls that play cassette tapes inserted into their ass – like Chuck E Cheese characters on a smaller scale. As the tapes play, their eyes and mouths are programmed to move along with it. Neither one them – or anything of their ilk – say “Do me, baby.” This led to my first and only time that I was punished in school. And it resulted in me getting a stern warning from Mr. Brusco – our cigar-chomping principal. I also had to write a note for my parents that said: “Today in school, I told my classmates that my sister’s Cricket doll said “’Do me, baby.’” It will not happen again. And I am sorry.” It never happened again.

The Righteous Brother: (Prologue)

You know you are a goody two-shoes when even your own father nicknames you “the righteous brother”. Some might see this as a compliment. But coming from my father, it wasn’t. Nor was he referring to one-half of the famous singing duo of “Unchained Melody” fame. It was in reference to my annoying and judgmental tendency to preach morality to my two younger sisters. I was also a tattletale, driven more by the desire to get my sisters in trouble, than by any moral cause.

I hated my nickname. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being perceived as righteous. It was the fact that I knew that I was being made fun of for it – by my own family! It’s not that I didn’t earn it. Case in point: I was the kid who didn’t have a curfew simply because I was always home early enough not to warrant one. In truth, my straight-laced “righteous” behavior had less to do with morality and more to do with being a (sounds like) wussy – an affliction that didn’t exactly help my cause as a bullied youth. I made myself an easy target.

My cowardice emerged at a very early age. There is even photographic evidence to prove it. Exhibit A: I was just short of turning one and I’m being held in the arms of a clown at my hometown Memorial Day parade. The look of abject terror on my face says it all. In fact, it is a look that suggests something much more sinister. Then again, who wouldn’t be afraid?

Exhibit B: This same look of fear is duplicated over several photos taken on the lap of Santa and the Easter Bunny. Santa is scary enough. The Easter Bunny’s frozen, inanimate expression is even more frightening. However, I was still showing fear well past the age of five.

Exhibit C: I am just shy of three. My hands are held tightly over my ears as tears stream down my face. The source of such terror? … a kite, flown by my dad in the parking lot of the church behind our house. I was scared of the flapping sound it made in the wind.

As I got older, my phobias increased, extending to lighting matches, bees, dark basements, and routine blood tests – the latter of which makes sense considering how many times I passed out from them.

Despite the heaping evidence that I was a complete and utter wuss, there are a few scattered moments where the righteous brother showed signs of unrighteousness – many of which were accidental. Many people – especially other writers – could write volumes about such rebellious behavior. I can simply draw up a few blog posts. Although these instances are far and few between, it is my hope that sharing them could perhaps earn the slightest modicum of street cred (of which the first step is to probably avoid using such pompous words as “modicum”).

Stay tuned for the details …

Lovable Loser

I am not an athlete. I never was and never will be. Don’t get me wrong: I love sports and it’s certainly not for a lack of trying that stunted my athletic prowess. “Natural” athletes are born with two balls between their legs and one ball in hand the moment they climb out of the womb. However, having a father with absolutely no interest in sports doesn’t bode well for one’s athletic development. My mother at least watched sports from time to time (despite not being an athlete herself), but she certainly didn’t teach me how to play sports. Then again, nobody taught my two younger sisters and that didn’t stop them. Being short for my age certainly didn’t help. Nor was being the last in my class to reach puberty.

I never stood a chance.

Like most kids, my sports “career” began in elementary school gym class. It didn’t take long for me – or anyone else for that matter – to realize that I wasn’t a natural born athlete … nor was I one in training. Aside from being a loser at sports, I quickly came to learn, losing doesn’t always have to do with keeping score. I also learned that losing is simply giving up. And nobody could ever accuse me of doing that.

In elementary school, however, one thing I certainly didn’t win at was being cool. There are several ways for a boy in elementary school to elude popularity. I somehow mastered all of them. Take for example, my decision to sport a Sea-Monkey necklace (a small, plastic globe hanging from a string filled with actual live Sea-Monkeys).

My low threshold for pain also didn’t help matters. I would respond to the smallest of scrapes with the intensity one would expect from a broken arm. One of my earliest memories was at the ripe age of two when I fell off of my tricycle, scraping both of my knees. I screamed and cried for hours. I could never cope with the sight of blood. Even till this day, I have a tendency to pass out during even routine blood tests. I fear needles even more so than blood itself.

However, I was also teased about many things beyond my control. Like the ears that were too big for my abnormally small head. Or my inability to properly pronounce the following sounds: ‘r’, ‘f’ ‘s’ and ‘th’. As much as I loved to read, reading aloud always meant enduring mocks and chuckles from my classmates.

As a result, the school speech therapist would pop into my classroom on a weekly basis and gleefully announce for all to hear: “I’m here to take Bobby for speech therapy.” And away I would go, as my classmates snickered. Fortunately, the therapy paid off and I learned to speak properly. But the price I paid was constant teasing and embarrassment, which probably necessitated the need for a different type of therapy.

If there was one thing I was a champion of in my early childhood days, it was reading by my lonesome. So much so, I got to cash in numerous Book-It awards at Pizza Hut after accumulating the required stars over and over again. This counted for something, at least. Not with my peers, but with my teachers, parents…and Pizza Hut.

Perhaps the one thing that hurt my cause the most was constantly being picked last in gym class. Even a student with a missing limb got picked before I did. Of course, being small for my age had a lot to do with it, but one of the most athletic boys in my class was actually shorter than me. Since math might be the one thing I’m worse at than sports, I was unable to calculate that my Sea-Monkey necklace + getting picked last in class = my face shoved into dog shit in the 4th grade. But by then, it was already too late. Besides, when your gym teacher makes fun in unison with your classmates, you really don’t stand much of a chance. Unless, one doesn’t consider a jock-friendly gym teacher shaking his head in disbelief at your physical education deficiencies an act of teasing.

My lack of athletic ability certainly wasn’t for lack of trying – at least on my parents part. Bless their hearts, they tried, beginning with the blue and yellow Huffy I received for my 7th birthday. However, the gift I was most excited about that year was a Smurf record. In fact, I showed no interest in riding my bike for several weeks – mostly out of fear. Training wheels did little to ease my trepidation. Once I got the hang of the whole training wheel business, they stayed on for over two years. Of course, this prompted only further teasing by my schoolmates. And it came as no surprise. I always lagged behind my classmates – in terms of height, puberty, and refusing to believe that Santa was a myth until I was 12 (I stopped believing in the Easter Bunny a couple of years prior to that). Eventually, I battled my demons and the training wheels came off. By then, my bike and I became inseparable – when I wasn’t falling off it by crashing into a giant rock and landing on my tailbone … or, flipping over the handlebars.

Naturally, gym class was ground zero for my bullies. At least during team sports like dodgeball, I could sort of slip between the cracks and hide out of view. However, solo acts like chin-ups and robe climbing were the worst. It were as though a spotlight was shining on me on a stage of failure of shame as my legs dangled helplessly beneath me.

As though gym class weren’t cruel enough to endure, my parents – in an attempt to “normalize” me – signed me up for recreational sports, beginning with seemingly benign swimming lessons. Of all my early childhood sporting endeavors, swimming lessons were the least traumatic because they didn’t directly involve competition. What I did have to worry about, however, was drowning. It wasn’t because I couldn’t swim, but rather the fear of being drowned by my classmates. From the beginning, I proved to be a at least a “decent” swimmer. Translation: I could stay afloat without drowning. Even to this day, I aesthetically resemble a drowning rat when I swim with way too much unnecessary flopping and splashing around. But I can at least get safely from point A to point B, assuming calm weather conditions. Fortunately, I have no traumatic memories from swim lessons. What was traumatic, on the other hand, were the constant deep-end dunkings I endured after the lesson was over during open swim time. If anything ever drowned, it was my dignity.

Next came soccer and T-ball. Both sports were intended to supplement my athletic development. Both experiments failed miserably. There are two things I remember most from my short-lived soccer career: the taste of my plastic water bottle and the freshly cut orange slices brought in by somebody’s mom that always awaited us when we got off the field. The true highlight of my illustrious soccer career was being known as the weird little boy who stood in the middle of the field during the game, staring incessantly at his digital, water-proof Casio wristwatch, counting down until the game was over so he could be put out of his misery. Obsessive watch-staring was one of the countless reasons I am pretty convinced that I had undiagnosed OCD as a child. This watch-staring habit got so out of hand at school that my teacher actually had to call my parents about it, who then took my watch away. Now, instead of being the weirdo who stood in the middle of the soccer field constantly staring at my watch, I was the weirdo who stood in the middle of the field starting at the skin on my wrist where the watch used to be. I lasted one season. (As a side note, my daughter also lasted one season following a very similar experience. The apple doesn’t…).

I certainly didn’t fare much better in T-ball, either. The problem (well one of many) with t-ball was that I tended to make more contact with the tee, than the ball itself. And I was deathly afraid of the ball when I was in the field – even when it wasn’t hit anywhere close to me. I also had a tendency to run to the wrong base. Or I would run when I wasn’t supposed to, or run when I shouldn’t have been. I lasted three seasons, but showed no signs of progress, aside from an ego no longer just bruised … but turned to mush.

The next fiasco in my sporting career was a brief foray into gymnastics, which lasted even less time than my soccer career. Gymnastics – which requires great coordination, skill, and strength in order to dangle and balance up above – made perfect sense for a clumsy and uncoordinated kid afraid of heights. I lasted only a few sessions. Fortunately, I was smart enough to stay tight-lipped about this particular athletic endeavor to avoid further teasing.

Outside of gym class, gymnastics was my last attempt at athletics until middle school – unless bouncing around on a pogo stick, or rolling on a kick scooter counts. Neither one of these endeavors did anything to improve my popularity. So I naturally progressed to trying my hand at skateboarding, which was almost impossible to avoid as a child of the 80’s. Sensing an opportunity to improve my social standing, I begged my parents for a skateboard of my own. Granted, I should have had the foresight to realize that my lack of coordination was probably not a good fit for skateboarding, but I was willing to look beyond that if it meant any chance to be seen as “cool.” Of course, it was important to get a legitimate, authentic wooden skateboard like all the cool kids and pros used. But my parents bought me a cheapo, blue plastic skateboard that was about ½ the width of the bulky, “cool” skateboards. Not only was I teased for it, but I never quite got the hang of the whole balancing component required to navigate a skateboard, wiping out endlessly to the tune of several minor, but irritating scrapes and bruises. My skateboard suffered the biggest injury – having a large chunk of plastic broken off the tip, which I attempted to duct tape back together. After a few weeks, I used my skateboard for the sole purpose of rolling down the driveway in the sitting position.

When I was in first grade, I became a Cub Scout – the hopeful first step of turning into a man (or, at least, a Boy Scout). Aside from the fact that most of my fellow Scouts were also my bullies, my mother became a den leader, which added even more fodder for my pack to tease me about. It also gave my mother the opportunity to protect me like a, well, little cub.

One of the highlights of being a Cub Scout was the annual Pine Wood Derby race, which blessed me with the opportunity to race against other human beings in races where there were clear last place finishers. Prior to the Pine Wood Derby, the only racing experience I had involved my Sea-Monkey racetrack. Preparation for the Pine Wood Derby entailed conceptualizing, then carving out a wooden car made of pine that would then be raced on a downhill track. Unlike Sea-Monkeys, each car was unique and a clear winner was crowned. My dad helped me throughout the process, which meant he did just about all the work himself, since a.) I had no idea what I was doing and b.) he had no patience to teach me useful skills as carpentry, or anything else involving tools for that matter. My main contribution to the task at hand was adding the head of Stratos from my He-Man action figure collection. Sure enough, my car came in dead last. I would never get a chance to redeem myself. After that year, in the face of constant teasing, my mother and I both quit. I was simply not destined to become a Boy Scout. Me and my dad had one other, lightning bottle foray into miniature transportation This time, it involved a model helicopter that my dad spent weeks building form a kit. Instead of Stratos, he selected a Bo Duke action figure from the Dukes of Hazzard to be its pilot. On its inaugural flight, my dad managed to crash the helicopter directly into the curb in the parking lot of my middle school (which, in hindsight, seems par for the course for the Dukes of Hazzard). It shattered into a million little pieces. And poor Bo was found face down amidst the scattered debris, about 20 feet away from impact. Just like that, the helicopter experiment was over as quickly as it had begun.

My next phase of losing was also my worst: middle school, where the bullying and teasing reached an all-time high. It was also during this period that I gave recreational sports another chance and joined a basketball league – the highlight of which was scoring a whopping two points in a game – the only points I scored all season. My sports activities were supplemented with band and a brief foray into musical theater as a leading man, in a musical entitled Miracle on Angel St. After two hellish years, it was time to start high school, whether I was ready or not.

The combination of my short and scrawny stature and being in the marching band was not exactly a winning combination for an incoming high school freshman. My athletic ability and overall whiteness was so awful, I could barely march in step. On the first day of marching band camp, I overheard an upper classman proclaim: “Look how little he is!” It is a bit discouraging when you aren’t even safe from getting picked on in marching band. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I found a “home” amongst my band mates and suddenly, I didn’t feel like such an outcast anymore. Or, at least not the only outcast. I was now surrounded by my own kind. Sure, we were still outnumbered. But we had each other. During my sophomore year, I branched out into the parallel world of vocal music, joining an all male glee club – the highlight of which was singing a solo in Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time”. The group was called Movement. It didn’t take much creativity for others to quickly add ‘Bowel’ in front of it, which is what we quickly became known as. With one foot in the world of both instrumental and vocal music, I flirted again with musical theater, where I was cast as a chorus member of Oklahoma. However, I quit when I was unable to keep up with the requisite choreography that musicals demand.

Aside from this musical misstep, music – like writing – made me feel at home. It made me feel wanted. This isn’t to suggest that high school was smooth sailing – especially outside the band room doors. The losing continued – in both sports and Solo & Ensemble competitions. Among the ways I lost: my favorite Casio watch was stolen out of my gym locker. Later, in that same locker room, somebody decided it would be funny to take my underwear and then put it in the urinal before proceeding to piss on it. The cream of the crop was when someone heaved a basketball over the gymnasium balcony, resulting in a direct hit to my skull. It not only knocked me off my feet, but I saw stars for the first time in my life … or were they birds? At least, I knew I could always retreat to the safe confines of the band room, with my tail between my legs.

Things began to look up in the summer of 10th grade when I magically grew several inches and finally hit puberty. At least I could no longer be considered short. I was still a dork, but a proud band dork. At that point, I began feeling comfortable in my own dork skin. However, despite being taller, my athletic skill did not grow along with me. In gym class, I consistently finished second to last in the 2-mile run. The kid who finished last weighed 300 pounds and had a bum ankle.

During my sophomore year of high school, I decided to do something about it by asking for a weight set for Christmas. Technically, they were very strong rubber bands, but still a major “upgrade” from the five-pound dumbbells I had previously worked out with. The time had come to finally put some meat on my bones. Incidentally, that same Christmas, I also received Michael Jackson’s Dangerous CD, which I worked out to vigorously. I can’t say I got any stronger – or more “dangerous” – but I certainly felt so mentally. After a few months, most of the rubber bands had either snapped, or were on the verge of snapping. Putting safety first, I quit.

Ten years later, I would give weightlifting another shot in the months leading up to my wedding (which also eventually ended with a loss). Only this time, instead of rubber bands, I lifted actual, iron weights. My athletic, Asian friend Tzu volunteered to be my personal trainer and (much-needed) spotter. Buoyed by Tzu’s intense Karate Kid-style mentoring, I got into the best shape of my life. My bodybuilding regimen was also aided with whey protein shakes, which gave me the worst, most foul-smelling gas of my life.

Back to high school: on the heels of my weightlifting experiment, combined with puberty, I was brimming with false confidence and decided to try out for sports. My first attempt was at basketball – both literally and figuratively, I actually thought I had a shot, but I was cut in the first round – and quite likely, the first to be cut, too. Next up, was baseball, but I completely whiffed once again, not making it past the first round of cuts. The only consolation prize was when the baseball coach gave me a firm pat on the back and said with a straight face: “At least you tried, son. At least you tried.”

Realizing I could never compete with my peers, I started playing pick-up basketball at my church, where I learned that I sucked just as much against overweight 40-year-olds as I did against people my own age.

When I started college, I stumbled upon a job in athletics at the university field house. My primary duty was ID checker. Yet again, I was on the outside, looking in. Although not in my job description, I was also required to clean out the men’s locker room the morning after hockey tournaments. Aside from having to deal with some of the nastiest odors known to man, I was forced to clean up various trash, tobacco spit wads, shit smears, and unidentifiable solids and fluids off both the floors and walls. The only saving grace this job afforded was the school volleyball team. From my vantage point behind the ID desk, I could sit back and watched 20 spandexed, long-legged athletic chicks working out. One even became “just a friend”. This almost made up for everything else.

My next job was more directly related to athletics: I became a little league coach. I had come full circle, back to my roots and quickly realized that I was as inept at coaching little league as I was in playing it, guiding my team to an 0-10 record. Those poor little kids never stood a chance.

The following summer, I formed my own co-ed softball team, which I guided to three straight, pitiful losing seasons before ultimately disbanding it. I would take three years off before joining a new team – a co-ed work team. The losing continued for several years, before ultimately leading to my singular moment of athletic greatness. Until then, there was still a lot of losing left to accomplish.

Fortunately, there is one athletic skill I can vaguely lay claim to: relatively the blinding speed of a chipmunk. I learned early on that I could usually run faster than most of my bullies – until I got tired and they caught up to me, or, at least until I tripped on a small pebble or twig, or was consumed by panic. When they did catch up to me, I would simply drop to the ground and curl into a ball – like an animal playing dead.

Unfortunately, my speed has not served me nearly as well in my athletic endeavors as I would have hoped. Take softball, for instance. When playing the outfield, I completely lack the ability to judge fly balls. I either overrun a ball, or stop short of it, watching it drop right in front of me (or, more often than not, far away from me). My blazing speed is rendered completely useless as a result. Another hindrance to my speed is my fear of the ball … even after all of these years. I’m even afraid of the ball when I’m running to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits. I firmly believe that softball leagues should require batters to wear helmets. I’ve considered wearing one to alleviate this phobia, but then I would look like an idiot. Or, more accurately, more of one.

As is clearly evident by now, I suck at team sports. And as far as one-on-one sports are concerned, I have an under .200 winning percentage. Only a small handful of those losses were pretty damn close. Sometimes, my losing was so frustrating and unbearable, I would purposely lose (not that it took much effort or fakery … it just expedited things). Throwing in the towel allowed me to get out of my misery sooner. Sometimes, I would even go as far as to fake an injury just to get out of losing.

It’s bad enough I lose at sports on a regular basis when I’m actually playing them. But it’s another thing to directly contribute to your favorite professional teams’ losing – even in the midst of championship runs. A certified professional loser. Yet, despite the losses, I continue to keep rooting for my teams, as much as I do myself. Win or lose. Rain or shine.

I decided to become a faithful Pistons fan following their second of back-to-back championship runs (1989-1990), just in time for a decade of losing and mediocrity. This period also coincided with the infamous “teal” era, when the Pistons switched their uniforms from their classic red, white and blue to a puke-ish teal, begging the question: what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg?

Shortly after switching back to their classic red, white, and blue uniforms, the Pistons returned to glory with a championship in 2004. In 2005, they were making another run at it. After falling behind the Spurs 0-2 on the road in the Finals, the Pistons won two straight home games and had a chance to take the series lead with game 5 at home. The day of the game, a friend called to inform me that he had an extra ticket. I didn’t hesitate. After a tense, back and forth game, the Pistons found themselves up by three with just a few seconds left. With time running out, all the Pistons had to do was guard the three-point line at all costs. Instead, Rasheed Wallace decided to leave his man open by doubling up another player. Well, his “man” was the best three-point threat on the floor: Robert Horry, who promptly received the ball before throwing up a game-tying three-pointer. Overtime. Loss.

I won’t even mention the Lions (ahem 0-16).

Then there’s my number one team – the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately (and even more so … understandably) for me, the year I decided to jump on the Tigers’ bandwagon was 1990. They would go on to become the losingest team of the 90’s. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter when (if) they finally did win. I knew it was only a matter of time. And I turned out to be right. But only after enduring the 2003 season, in which they fell one game short of the worst record of all time (53-119).

In 2006, the Tigers had a magical, World-Series bound season and a sparkling home record. I went to over a dozen games that season. They won two of them. In fact, it got to the point that my friends and family pleaded with me not to go to any more games. I even became a semi-regular on a sports talk radio, where the hosts begged me to stay away. Incidentally, the Tigers’ best stretch took place during the six weeks I was out of the country. Mercifully, my bad karma must have been out of their range.

Incidentally, despite my losing record, the Tigers were also one of the best home teams in all of baseball. Earlier in the season, I turned down a chance to go to a game because of a cold. The Tigers ended up winning 7-6 in come-from-behind fashion in what was definitely one of the highlights and turning points of the season.

But that was nothing compared to what happened at the end of the season. Going into the final weekend of the season against the last-place Royals, the Tigers led the division over the late-surging Twins by a couple of games. No matter what the Twins did, all the Tigers had to do was win one of those three games to clinch the division. Otherwise, they would have to settle for the postseason Wild Card spot. One win would end in a tie. They lost the first two games. It all came down to the final game of the season. When my friend Mike asked me months before if I wanted to go to the last game. I almost turned it down thinking it would be meaningless. Now it meant everything.

The Tigers had two ways in which to clinch it. The first way placed them directly in control of their own destiny: all they had to do was win. If they were to lose, the Twins simply had to lose, too. And I would be there to witness the first division championship at Comerica Park. The Tigers scored early and built up a seemingly safe 6-0 lead. They were well on their way … and then they weren’t. The Royals tied it late in the game and it went into extra innings. The out-of-town scoreboard indicated that the Twins already won, so now it was do or die. We lost. Instead of a champagne-soaked celebration, we were drenched in tears and heartbreak. It wasn’t so much the loss that hurt. It was the way we lost. Like the Pistons’ finals loss, this one still stings. And always will.

Fortunately, the Tigers still made the playoffs that year as the American League Wild Card team, propelling themselves all the way to the World Series, which they proceeded to lose in five games to the Cardinals. I was miraculously at the one game they won … for what it’s worth. Somehow, this only added salt to the wound.

The following season, I missed Justin Verlander’s first non-hitter by one day – the day before my birthday. I went to the game the day after. A loss.

Even my one legitimate shot at catching a home run ball was a loss. It was a Tigers spring training game down in Lakeland, Florida. I was sitting out on the grassy berm in left field in prime home run territory. Tigers’ third baseman Brandon Inge lifted a fly ball that headed right toward me. At first, I couldn’t believe it – not so much because of the odds, but because of my inability to judge fly balls. Next thing I knew, the ball landed directly in front of me on the blanket I was sitting on. If it had been any closer, it would have landed in my lap. The problem was, I had just returned from the concession stand. In one hand was a hot dog; in the other, a beer. I froze. Meanwhile, a fan behind me dove directly onto my blanket, simultaneously snatching the ball and spilling my beer. Since catching a home run ball is equivalent to lightning striking twice, that was probably my one and only shot – not to mention the one thing I had control over, unlike the outcome of the game. And I blew it.

Then there was my visit to my dream stadium: Fenway Park. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. Despite their pleas, I forced my family to sit in the pouring rain for three hours and would have waited all night if I had to. I was certain the game would be played, but the weather gods had other plans. The game was called. And I haven’t been back since.

Now back to my “real” world of sports – where I have at least some control over the outcome. And despite various degrees of failure, I continue to try my hand at other athletic endeavors. And every now and then, I’m prone to brief flashes of athletic competence, but it never takes me long to come back to earth. Despite my failings, nothing has stopped me from attempting: curling, ice-skating, bowling, bocce ball, putt-putt, bean-bag toss, lawn darts, horse shoes, badminton, Frisbee, volleyball and, last, but not least, Wallyball (which aesthetically resembles the white-padded cell of an insane asylum). However, in Wallyball, the walls don’t have pads. They are made of concrete. And they hurt. As for the game itself, Wallyball is volleyball inside a racquetball court – the bumper bowling of volleyball.

Considering the Whitman Sampler world of sports that I traveled through with negligible results, I consider myself extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to avoid any serious injuries, aside from mental anguish (knock on wood). However, speaking of knocking wood, the closest I ever came to a broken bone was a deep bone bruise on my foot caused by a piece of wood, during an innocent game of kickball. It was field day at the high school where I was teaching at the time. A solid block of wood was used for home plate. The ball was rolled to me, but rather than kicking the ball, the top of my foot got all wood. The pain was so intense, I passed out. There’s nothing like getting a stupid, fluke injury in front of a bunch of high school students. They have a tendency to find more humor in situations like this than they do compassion or concern. When I woke up, the first thing I noticed were the number of smiling faces surrounding me, accompanied by various chuckles. I also felt the intense pain surging through the top of my foot. I thought for sure it was broken, but X-rays proved it was nothing more than a deep bone bruise.

Furthermore on the injury front, two of my three most “serious” injuries have involved balls hit in the air. The first one happened back in high school when my dad was tossing me pop-ups, encouraging me “stop being afraid of the ball!” His advice backfired when I attempted to catch it with my nose, rather than my glove. Blood everywhere. Fortunately, my nose wasn’t broken, but my confidence certainly was. And I’m pretty sure it led directly to nasal-septum surgery a few years later. As I indicated earlier, I’m still afraid of the ball. And I still can’t judge balls in the air very well.

My most recent injury happened on my work softball team. It was the last game of a long, losing season. There were two outs. I was playing first base – a position I’m actually halfway decent at on the account that it mercifully doesn’t involve many fly balls or grounders. It’s also a position that pretty much renders my speed (my only athletic asset) irrelevant. Well, with two outs, what should have been the final out hit a routine pop-up (for me, nothing is routine). I thought I was in position to catch it, which would have ended the game and our season with a win. Instead, the ball landed right in front of me, ricocheted off the hard dirt, before upper-cutting me directly on the chin. Like the earlier basketball shot to my head, I saw both stars and birds, accompanied by the ringing of discordant bells. I landed in the ER with a mild concussion. At times, I can still hear the ringing. Oh, and I should probably mention that we lost the game, finishing our season with a 1-19 record. I missed the one game we won.

This injury paralleled my unraveling personal life at the time, which reached rock bottom when my wife and I separated, leading to our eventual divorce. I was never more consumed by losing than I was during that summer.

Shortly after that summer, however, things began to turn around. By the time the next season came around, I was in a new, healthy and far more fulfilling relationship (with a former state champion of track and field!), compounded by the discovery that I was going to be a father. My daughter was due in late August, coinciding with the end of what had turned out to be a fantastic, turn-around season for the softball team.

We ended the season tied for first, which meant having to play a one-game play-off for the championship on a chilly, rain-soaked autumn night. The game was a doozy, going back and forth all game long. Of course, I was conditioned to accept that a loss was always lurking around the corner. I was especially thinking this as I headed up to the plate with the bases loaded in our final at bat, down by one with two outs. After years of folding under pressure, there was no greater choke opportunity than that very moment.

The fate of our entire season was now entirely up to me. Moments certainly don’t get more pressurized than that. To compound matters, I wasn’t having my best game at the plate to begin with. And I wasn’t expecting it to change now. I wouldn’t have expected things to be any different if I were swinging a hot bat. For starters, it was a brisk, autumn night. Any contact the bat made to the ball felt like a lightning bolt through my arm.

As I stood at the plate, I suddenly felt something change within me. Perhaps it was seeing a glimpse of the new life that awaited me as a father. Perhaps I had simply willed myself to refuse to lose anymore. Perhaps it was all the feel-good sports movies I watched over the years. Whatever it was, I suddenly had a clarity I never experienced before in sports. I knew exactly what I had to do. And nothing was going to stop me. I stepped into the pitch and swung, sending the ball sailing to right-center, splitting two fielders, who looked up to see the ball heading toward the fence. The ball continued sailing through the night sky, before arcing down and slamming down at the base of the fence. I had never come close to hitting a ball like this. It is important to note that in this particular league, balls hit over the fence constitute as outs. It would have been my luck to knock one out of the park and lose. But fate was on my side for once. And just like that, it was game over. We were champions. My one moment of athletic glory! Even though it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, I will never forget that feeling.

That same night, just hours after our thrilling victory, my wife went into labor. The next day, I was a father … and I’ve been winning ever since. Professionally, the game-winning hit, combined with the birth of my daughter mirrored my arrival as a published writer. Backing up a bit, if there is anything I have lost more consistently at than any sport or game, it’s my writing. As any writer knows, there are always more “losses” than “wins” (thinking plainly in terms of rejection vs. publications). Despite my losses in my attempts at writing, there have always been signs that I should keep pushing forward. However, one can take only so many semi-finalist awards to begin feeling like you were “always the bridesmaid.”

Over the years, I have come to view each and every rejection as both a loss and a victory. It’s a loss for obvious reasons. It’s a win because it’s proof that I have not given up – that I have not lost my passion, my desire, my lifeblood after years of putting everything I have into a dream that has eluded me for so long. Somehow, that championship-winning hit was the catalyst to a consistent stream of publishing, which ultimately lead to the publication of my first book. Now, every rejection and every publication are a both a testament and a monument to my lifelong commitment of never giving up no matter how many losses are racked up.

Even though I still have an overall losing record – and probably always will – the fact that I continue playing, makes me a champion – even if it’s in a league all to myself. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bringing my Mitt

I fell in love for the first time in the 8th grade. However, it wasn’t with another human being. I fell hopelessly, endlessly, passionately, and head over heels with the great American pastime: b-a-s-e-b-a-l-l. Infatuation quickly morphed into a full-blown love affair, the flames of which have never extinguished even all these years later.

More specifically, I fell in love with my hometown team: the Detroit Tigers – on the cusp of their lowest point in franchise history. It was only fitting that my path would cross with the Tigers during this time. A match made in heaven.

Like the Tigers, I also endured a lot of downtrodden losing in my own personal life – beginning with the constant stream of bullying I endured and ranging in everything from my dating life, to the eventual never ending stream of rejections that I confronted on almost a daily basis (first with my peers, later with dating and – most notably – my writing career).

Like any good marriage, I have stuck with my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

My first exposure to the game actually took place several years before my passion soared into full-flight when my parents signed me up for recreational tee-ball. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that I would become a much better fan than I ever was going to be a player. The bullying from my opponents and my teammates certainly didn’t matter. Being afraid of the ball didn’t help matters. Nor did running to the wrong base (e.g. running from home to third … on a strikeout). Sure, I was only a beginner. But I was still running to third at the end of the season, too. At least I wasn’t running on strikeouts anymore.

Somehow, my failed tee-ball experiment managed to plant a seed deep within my subconscious, years before it would eventually blossoming into fandom, of which there are several different levels: fanatics, moderates, and bandwagon. Overall, I’d say I’m in the moderate category, with a sprinkling of superstitions that occasionally push me into the realm of fanatic. I can certainly never be accused of being a bandwagon fan, which is attested by my unwavering devotion to my hometown team, no matter how bad they may be. And for most of my formative years, there was no shortage of bad.

I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that was conducive to becoming a sports fan. My mother at least watched baseball on TV every now and then, as I begged to watch reruns of Facts of Life or Diff’rent Strokes. My father, on the other hand, did nothing to foster my skill or passion for the game. Unlike most little boys, my father doesn’t give a shit about sports. In fact, he goes out of his way to make it known any chance he gets, going so far as to make fun of others who love sports. My dad was a late-70’s burnout. Sports didn’t quite fit the mold of the mid-70’s burnout that he was (missing the hippy wagon by a few years, he didn’t have a cause to fight for. But there was still plenty of weed to smoke).

When I finally went to my first Tigers game, it wasn’t with my father, but rather with my Grandma’s longtime boyfriend, Chuck (who was like a third grandfather to me). At the time, I had no more than a fleeting interest in the game, with excitement measured only by hot dogs, nachos, and Cracker Jack, as opposed to base hits, home runs, and stolen bases. Chuck had season tickets to old Tiger Stadium (lower-deck, third base side, a few rows back from the Tigers’ dugout – which would have been paradise for a “real” fan) and took me to several games each summer throughout my youth. Beyond that, I never tuned into games at home and never had any idea – or interest – in what their record was (which during that time, was a blessing). In fact, I barely paid attention to the score while watching it live.

But things were about to change.

During the spring of my 8th grade year, I made a conscious decision to become a devoted follower of the Tigers. The seed had finally taken root, making me a late-bloomer in both sports and puberty. Perhaps subconsciously, I figured if I liked sports, than my peers would like me. But that wasn’t quite how it worked out. In the meantime, I started watching baseball on a regular basis. There was no turning back. My theory was that I simply saw enough reruns of Facts of Life to last a lifetime. And one can only take so much of Mr. Drummond … let alone Mrs. Garret. It was time for something new. It was time to become a man.

I remember that first Opening Day as a christened-fan. My school had a half-day. My mom prepared egg salad sandwiches, which I ate while I read the season preview in the Detroit News like a true sports fan with game time less than an hour away. My baseball journey was about to take full flight.

Unfortunately, it was 1990. At that point in time, there was plenty of space left on the bandwagon, which was not only empty – but running on fumes. By the end of the decade, the The Tigers had amassed more losses than any other team. Things didn’t get much better at the turn of the century, either. In fact, rock bottom hit in 2003 when the Tigers fell short of setting the all-time loss record by one game (53-119). Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, taking jabs from family and friends for my blind devotion, and watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter if – when – they finally did win. And if you are an eternal optimist like myself… life was always a matter of when.

Despite the losing, nothing dampened my enthusiasm for my beloved team – the tell-tale sign of true love. Of course, I wanted them to win more than anything, but I knew that it was only a matter of time. I just had to be patient. With each passing year, I continued to echo this refrain, truly meaning it, in the face of all logic, reason, and Vegas odds.

Despite the endless losing, I became instantly obsessed with absorbing every detail and intricacy of the game: the sights, the smells, the sounds, the box scores, the standings, the endless parade of stats – in short, anything and everything about the American pastime, which was now my pastime, even though I still couldn’t play it worth a lick. It was during that summer, I also got my first big-boy glove, which I promptly oiled up and placed under the tires of my parents’ Dodge mini-van in order to break it in. That fall, it became the subject of an essay I wrote in English class entitled “My Most Prized Possession.” An essay that simultaneously showcased my passion, overshadowed by delusions of grandeur:

“When I look at my mitt, I feel hope that someday, I will be the greatest baseball player ever. It seems to hold a bit of magic that allows me to feel like a real ballplayer.”

The essay optimistically concludes with this nugget:

“One more thing. My mother told me when I entered high school that I would make the baseball team my senior year. I laughed at this comment. But as I look at my mitt, I wonder. And hope…”

Although that seemingly magical glove was de-commissioned a long time ago, I still have it safely packed away in a box full of childhood memories. To this day, it still remains one of my most-prized possessions – a symbol of never giving up. It still smells of oil … from that long ago summer. As I sometimes do with my old security blanket, I often take it out for a dose of instant nostalgia.

Countless summer afternoons were spent adorning my prized glove on one hand and bouncing a tennis ball off of the orange brick of my house with the other, as I waited for the Detroit News to arrive so I could devour into the sports. For a kid with few friends, this was often the highlight of my day. Despite my lack of skill, I somehow managed to magically catch every ball into my sun-warmed, oil-soaked glove, much like I used to magically make every shot I made on my basketball hoop.

When I got bored of tossing a tennis ball against the wall, I would simply hop on my blue and yellow Huffy and take a bag filled with baseballs to my neighborhood park, proceeding to hit them one after another with my Louisville Slugger, before gathering them all up and doing it all over again from the opposite side of the field. It didn’t matter that I was doing it alone. I was enjoying every second of it.

At ever fair climate family gathering, I would ask my countless Italian cousins “Did you bring your mitt?” Usually, they did not. But of course, I did. And I never lost hope that someday, they would bring theirs. I still get teased about this till this day. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, her funeral was held at the church just down the street from the house. On the grounds of a church was a baseball diamond. While standing in the parking lot with some of my cousins, overlooking the now weed-strewn field and mourning my grandmother’s passing, I asked – in a moment of levity – “Did anyone bring their mitt?” We all laughed. Some things never die. And for the record, I always keep my mitt in my trunk. Just in case.

By the time I was a high school, I somehow found the confidence to try out for my high school’s JV team. I knew I didn’t have a realistic shot, but I had recently taught myself how to throw a decent side-arm pitch, so, I figured what the hell? In the end, I failed. Though coaches admire heart, most have no need for a pitcher with zero velocity in combination with the uncanny ability of being able to consistently toss a meatball over the heart of the plate. In the end, I failed. My years of “training” did little to help – other than preparing me to lose. At least the coach thanked me for trying out. I took that for what it was worth. The fact that the baseball coach acknowledged my existence was a victory in itself. That was the end of my high school athletic career … and it hadn’t even started. One thing was clear: I was always going to be a much better fan than I ever was a player. But I could live with that.

Three summers later, I formed a co-ed softball team through my church. I bought a brand new glove, my first pair of cleats, my first cup, and my first non-wood bat. The glove has held up well over the years (despite the invisible hole in it that I maintain is the cause of all of my errors). The lack of contact of ball into glove is probably the reason why it has lasted so long. As far as the bat, it turned out to be an absolute lemon – taking me from suck to super suck. Not that it would have really mattered which bat I used; the results would have more than likely been the same. But others attested to the fact that my bat sucked, proving I was even a loser at selecting a bat.

Somehow, against all odds, I eventually turned out to be a fairly consistent hitter – certainly, not in terms of power numbers, but I could at least get on base with a steady stream of singles. My deficiency as a player was more in the realm of my complete lack of ability to judge fly balls. Hence why I was a natural fit for right field, where the balls was least likely to go – unless it was a left-handed hitter … or a crafty right-handed one who knew how to hit the opposite way once they realized I was a weak link (it usually didn’t take much time). Whenever a ball was hit my way, I would either :overrun it, or stop short of it, watching the ball drop right in front of me – or, more often than not, far away from me. My inability to judge even the most routine fly ball rendered my decent speed completely useless.

Another hindrance to my speed is the fact that I’m still afraid of the ball … even after all of these years. I’m even afraid of the ball when I’m running to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits – once again, neutralizing my adequate speed.

As far as my team itself, it was doomed from the start. Each week, I scrambled to find enough players to field a team – especially female ones. The females that were on my team had little to no interest in playing softball (and the ones who did play had little to know skill). Our men (with the exception of me), on the other hand, were adequate. But suffice to say, I guided my team to three straight, pitiful losing seasons. And thanks to my Gold Glove talent, even my Grandmother paid an unfortunate price. It was bad enough my family came to watch such an awful mockery of the game. Making it worse was when the third baseman threw a ball to me, while I was stationed at first base during pre-game warm-ups. In usual fashion, the ball got past me, only to ricochet directly into my Grandma’s leg. What began as a major bruise later required minor surgery.

Three years later, I waved the white flag on my softball experiment, deservingly putting it – and myself – out of its collective misery.

Despite my failings on the field, I could always hang my hat on my one true position – being a mere spectator. Even my dad eventually came around to the fact that his son wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps of being an anti-sports fan. In 1993, he acknowledged this fact by taking his me to the holiest of holy days for a baseball fan: Opening Day in Detroit – an unofficial holiday. I remember that day so vividly – the sights, the smells, the sounds. It has become one of those memories that feels as immediate now as it did then – no matter how much time continues to pass by.

Every game I have gone to since – in some form or another – takes me back to that one, magical day.

We sat in the massive sun and booze-soaked centerfield bleacher section at old Tiger Stadium, which had originally opened in 1912 on the same day the Titanic sunk.

Any true Tigers fan knows that the bleachers – despite their distance from most of the action – were the place to be. After all, this was the place where I saw my first real boobies flashed directly behind us (they were the only boobs I would see for the next several years). As for the game itself, the Tigers beat the Oakland Athletics 20-4 and went on to have their only winning season in an almost a 20-year span (a short-lived success … the losing resumed the following year … and several years after that).

I’ll always remember Opening Days with my dad – especially the first one. The tradition lasted about six or seven years and I have gone to several other Opening Days since, but none of them have matched – nor, ever will – the memory of the first one. But there were come close second. Following a strike-shortened season in 1994 that wiped out the World Series, irate fans protested by littering the field with magnet schedules – most of which were flung from the bleacher section where we sat.

Another vivid memory in my infancy as a baseball fan involved my entire family and took place at historic Fenway Park, which, like the now long-gone Tiger Stadium, opened its doors in 1912. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. It was rained out. Despite the torrential downpour, I remained determined that the game would be played eventually, forcing my family to endure sitting in the pouring rain for over three hours before the game was finally called. I can still see the falling rain through the hazy lights of the hallowed ballpark. Seared into my memory more than any actual game would have been.

 

As disappointing as it was that the game was canceled, I can at least say I was once inside hollowed Fenway. Hopefully, I can actually see a game there, before Fenway joins the formerly departed Tiger Stadium.

Though I missed out on Fenway, I was fortunate enough to be at both the last game at Tiger Stadium and the first one at their new home, Comerica Park. I remember both games as vividly as any of life’s most profound moments – and as clearly as that first Opening Day. In many ways, the transition between the two stadiums represented, in my mind, the divide between childhood and adulthood. My past and future. And the promise of better days ahead.

The people I have attended games with over the years serve as a sort of timeline, or snapshot, of my social life at the time. Over the years, friends have come and gone, just like the players on the team, or each passing season. One of the joys of the game is the social dimension that the sport provides – more so than other, far more fast-paced sports like football, basketball, or hockey, which demands constant attention. Baseball moves at a leisurely pace, allowing for conversation with friends and family in a way that the other sports simply can’t provide. At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years. They are the timeline to our lives.

It is only fitting that I would have a chance encounter with Tigers’ legendary manager Sparky Anderson while waiting at the gate before my fateful flight to L.A. in pursuit of my Hollywood dream, that ultimately led to my memoir Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine.

I spotted a white-haired man sitting in front of me that struck an uncanny resemblance to Sparky. I couldn’t believe my own eyes, so I approached the gate attendant:

“Is that Sparky Anderson?”

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied with a smile. I debated whether I should leave the old man alone, but couldn’t resist. I approached, struggling to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before I congratulated him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

I thanked him, before clumsily returning to my seat, where I waited to board. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. He was sitting in first class, already asleep and I realized that I just had the rare privilege of seeing a Hall of Fame coach in repose.

 

 

When I finally found my seat, I wrote in my journal: “My trip’s off to a good start already. Perhaps it’s an omen.” How little did I know how much of an omen it truly was.

Naturally, I informed my best friend Mike about my engagement to the person who would become my wife during at a Tigers’ game shortly upon my return from Ukraine in Septemeber 2001.

The following season, I took my wife to her first baseball game.

Eight years later, it was a game when I told Mike about the end of my marriage. Despite all of life’s changes, the stadium remained constant. The game remained constant. And sadly, so did the losing.

And then came 2006. Following years of torture, my beloved Tigers finally turned things around. They not only had their first winning season since 1993, but they somehow put together a dream season that catapulted them all the way to the World Series, where they proceeded to lose in six games. They have been competitive ever since.

Incidentally, the Tigers’ turnaround mirrors my own professional and personal turnaround in life in a myriad of ways. Just as the Tigers are no longer losers, I am no longer bullied, nor teased for being such a diehard fan, as I was during all the losing. My loyalty has finally paid off . In fact, the bandwagon is now overflowing. And I am its merry driver.

Throughout the years, I have made it a habit to write while a Tigers game plays in the background, finding my own ebbs and flows running concurrently along with the game itself. Much like the Tigers, year after year passed with my writing career seemingly going nowhere. Sure, there may been the occasional winning streak amongst the losin, poking through the gray clouds of my writing life. But it was always fleeting.

Suddenly, once the Tigers figured out how to win, somehow, so did I, as a steady stream of publishing followed. But like the Tigers, I am still searching in vain for the grand prize.

The ebb and flow of both the game and life were further echoed in the dissolution of my stormy first marriage, which paved the way for a new one, ultimately leading to the birth of my beautiful little girl. In fact, her birth coincided with a 12-game winning streak late in the season that propelled the Tigers into the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2006. She’s been their good luck charm ever since . A year later, they were back in the World Series.

From the time she was born, my daughter has been immersed in Tigers baseball: from the pink pennant that was hung in her room before she was even born, to various onesies and other clothing items and toys bearing the old English ‘D”, it was no surprise that she quickly learned to associate that logo with daddy. She literally called it “Daddy” for the first two years of her life. Furthermore, the only TV she was exposed to for the first year of her life was Tiger games, which ensured that she got a much earlier jump on the game than her father. In fact, she was indoctrinated with Tigers baseball before she was baptized into the Catholic faith that defines me nearly as much as my faith in the game of baseball. In fact, after seeing me play softball, she believed I played for the Tigers (she also believed that I am Grover from Sesame Street). If only I could have kept both of these illusions alive in her mind forever.

The following season, just following her first birthday, I took her to her first game. My legacy of baseball fandom was officially moving on to the next generation. Taking my child to a baseball game was a moment I had dreamt of for years. And now, the time had finally come. My parents were there, as well, making everything so very “circle of life.” The Tigers lost, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was, my little girl was experiencing her first baseball game – one of which I’m certain will be many. Of course, being only one-year-old meant she had no concept of what was happening on the field. However, I was strongly encouraged by the fact that she sat perfectly patient for nearly the entire game. We were certain that we would have to get up numerous times to occupy her. We were wrong. Now with a son, as well, the future is certainly looking bright. I look forward to all the games I will be taking her to in the future. I look forward to taking her to her first Opening Day. I am so grateful that I now have a permanent baseball companion – even though she doesn’t know it yet. She will someday and I hope she will feel the same way. As will my son, who will hopeful.

Despite all the changes my life has faced, the one constant has been my love for baseball. That is one of the few things I know will never change. Sure, in any relationship, there are always going to be ups and downs. The relationships that thrive are the ones that realize that even when the ups are outnumbered, they are still far worth it. In fact, getting through the downs make the ups so much sweeter. Baseball is no different, which is why in the baseball diamond of life, I will always bring my mitt. What I’ll never do, however, is become the type of fan who actually takes their mitt to a game. Now, that would just be plain crazy … unless, of course, my children asked me to.

 

 

 

 

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Sea-Monkey Necklace

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Looking back, there are no shortage of reasons why I was bullied. I’m not saying I deserved it. However, I certainly didn’t help my cause.

My elementary school social standing left much to be desired, to say the least. I was a nerd and a dork (labels I now look back at with pride). Back then, however, pride wasn’t even in my vocabulary. When you are small for your age and picked last in gym class (even picked after sloths and paraplegics), there really isn’t much hope. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when even other nerds pick on you. When you’re a nerd trying to climb the social ladder, surrounding yourself with other nerds doesn’t exactly help your cause. So you compensate by shunning your own people, while simultaneously feeling yourself gravitating toward them as the only possible source of friendship. A perpetual catch-22.

I often fancy myself building a time machine, so I could tell my childhood self a thing or two. I would begin with this sensible piece of advice: “don’t start out the school year sporting a Sea-Monkey necklace.” For those (unfortunate) few in the dark about Sea-Monkeys, they are a hybrid form of slickly-packaged brine shrimp that hatch instantly after adding water and are most commonly found in the science section at Toys ‘R Us, next to Magic Rocks and Ant Farms (two other early childhood hobbies that did nothing to boost my popularity). Invented (or, more accurately “marketed”) in 1957 by Harold von Brauhut (one year before Milton Levine put ant farms on the map), Sea-Monkeys roughly resemble enlarged sperm, growing to about 1-2 inches in length and certainly look nothing like the way they are portrayed on their packaging – gigantic sperm cross-pollinated with long-limbed, mythical creatures with a long, dragon-like tail and three horns coming out of their heads. A mix of mermaid and fetus would also be accurate. But never, at any point, would ‘monkey’ be an accurate description.

According to their packaging, “Sea-Monkeys are a true miracle of nature. They exist in suspended animation inside their tiny eggs” until water is added, making them “real life time travelers asleep in biological time capsules for their strange journey into the future!”

The cherry on top is the fact that “anyone can get perfect results without any knowledge of chemistry or biology” which was perfect for a scientifically-challenged youth like myself. (Speaking of science…fun fact: NASA once flew Sea-Monkeys to outer space to test gravity’s effect on animals born in a gravity-free environment? The result? They grew bigger…and faster).

Like legions of other boys, I first discovered Sea-Monkeys advertised on the back of comic books, or in the Johnson-Smith Company catalog – a company specializing in novelty and gag gifts like fake poop and snapping gum. How could one resist “becoming the owner of the most fantastic pets to ever live and breathe”?! In fact, you are guaranteed (Sea-Monkeys come with no shortage of ‘guarantees’) to “have more fun with them than any aquatic creature you’ve ever owned…Unlike make-believe toys, pet Sea-Monkeys are really alive and are always ready and eager to put on a show!”

And how!

My first experience with Sea-Monkeys was in the first grade, when I received a deluxe Sea-Monkey kit for Christmas. It was love at first. Of course, I naturally assumed that they would just like how they look on their package, so my excitement was understandable. Despite my initial disappointment, my interest in Sea-Monkeys never waned. Perhaps, I was just hopeful that someday, they would live long enough to grow into the image of them depicted on the packaging. Part of me still believes.

Included in my starter kit was the traditional, plastic aquarium. It also comes with three small, color-coded, numbered packets: Packet #1: “Sea-Monkey Water Purifier.” Packet #2: “Sea-Monkey Instant Life” (the eggs). Packet #3: “Sea-Monkey Growth Food”, including a double-sided spoon for feeding purposes: one side for baby Sea-Monkeys; the other for adults. The packet of food is so small, it begs the question: what happens when it runs out? I quickly learned that Sea-Monkeys usually don’t outlive their food supply. And if by some rare miracle that they did, they do, replacement food could be ordered through their catalog.

One way to keep them alive longer was to make use of the included “Sea-Monkey Million-Bubble Air Pump”, which allows fresh oxygen to be manually pumped into the water. It can also be used to suck up feces, corpses of fallen Sea-Monkey comrades, and other debris.

Everyone remembers their first Sea-Monkey experiment. Eager to hatch my new pets, I filled up the tank and added the “Water Purifier,” only to suffer through what every Sea-Monkey fan can relate to: the 24-hour waiting period before the eggs could be added. The wait to bring new life into the world was excruciating.

When the time finally came to add the “Instant Life” packet to the water (spilling at least a quarter of the contents onto the counter), at which point I was required to stir with a spoon for a full minute, setting forth in motion the miracle of life. After mixing my Sea-Monkey cocktail, I peered into the tank, but failed to locate any sign of life through the murky water filled with various debris and particles. The legitimacy of the whole ordeal was brought into question. My dad promptly suggested that I hold the tank up to the window and into the light. Lo and behold, I noticed a hundred or so tiny, swimming specks, which were even more evident when seen through the numerous bubble magnifying glasses on the side of the tank. After a few days, I no longer needed to find them through the magnifying glass.

Within a couple of weeks, Sea-Monkeys grow to about ½ inch in size. Before long, up to ¾ in length…well on their way to becoming the human-esque caricatures on the package! Hope quickly faded into disappointment once I realized they weren’t going to grow any larger, nor come close to the package’s deceptive playful, carefree depiction in any size, shape, or form. In fairness, they did have long tails and horns on their heads, but it still begged the question: at what point does false advertising come into play?

Another disappointing early discovery was the alarming death rate. What started out as a bustling village of around 100 living creatures was quickly cut in half. At first, I wondered if they were sick, but I would later come to realize that this was par for the course. Another week or so later, the Sea-Monkey apocalypse was reduced to a baker’s dozen. The only upside to a smaller population was that I could give them names, such as Muffin, Cupcake, Cheesecake, Biff, Bert, Ernie, and Chet.

I was also able to decipher distinct personalities. Some were playful. Some were moody. Some were social. Some stuck to themselves. Some were horny. In fact, my first lessons in sex-ed were from my Sea-Monkeys. Unlike the efficiency of human mating rituals, Sea-Monkey mating could last for several days (on a side note, like mating, Sea-Monkey bowel movements are also multi-day affairs. A long string of poo appears from their tail, following their producer’s every movement until the laws of physics caused it to break off, joining the debris field down below, awaiting the “Million-Bubble Air Pump”).

Making love “Sea-Monkey style” goes a little something like this: male Sea-Monkeys simply clasp on to the root of the female’s tail, using the “whisker” like graspers under their chins. If the female doesn’t manage to shake him off, the couple swam in connected unison for days on end until the process is over, culminating in the arrival of an egg sack on top of the female’s tail (Although, some females have the ability to produce an egg sack without the help of a male at all!).

On a related note, males are also prone to physical acts of aggressions with their competition (the grasping and thrusting actually resembles human mating far more than actual Sea-Monkey mating). The winner of the fight wins the girl.

Following the formation of the egg sack, the gestation period can last for several days, or even weeks, before new babies appeared. Most never survived. Unlike their parents, who were born into purified water, these babies never stood a chance. Their poor little lungs were forced to withstand too much debris in the form of feces and the rotting carcasses of their fallen brethren.

Over time, adult Sea-Monkeys begin to die off, one-by-one. However, unlike other pets, death is not the end. Sea-Monkeys have the Jesus-like ability to “resurrect”. All that is required a great deal of patience. The secret is to let the water completely evaporate – a process that takes several weeks, making it even more excruciating than the waiting period prior to hatching. When the water is finally completely gone (leaving a nasty, stinking debris field in its wake), you simply add more water and voila! Instant life.

Hallelujah! They are risen! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Despite the illusion that Sea-Monkeys turn into Sea-Zombies, in reality, the babies came from previously unhatched eggs. Sadly, these babies weren’t long for this earth, dying within a couple of days of their short-lived resurrection, making them both a miracle and a let-down in equal measure. Incidentally, just as Sea-Monkeys marked my first experience with sex and reproduction, Sea-Monkeys also marked my first experience with death.

I learned this resurrection trick in the nifty instruction manual included in the package, which went to great lengths to further cement the mystique and endless appeal of the whole Sea-Monkey universe, living up to their “Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys!” marketing moniker.

For example, who knew that Sea-Monkeys loved performing for an audience? Furthermore, they could perform an array of magic tricks. Trick No. 1, as described in the manual is called “Sea-Monkey Hypnotism”, which involves shining a flashlight at their tank in a dark room. As you move the flashlights, the Sea-Monkeys will follow the beam of a light, as though in a trance.

And who doesn’t want to wait in line to see amazing “Acrobatic Sea-Monkeys”, which involves leaving your Sea-Monkeys in a dark room for several minutes, before turning on a bright light.

Then, watch them dance! (aka as twirling and spinning in circles as they adjust to the bright light suddenly forced upon them without warning).

Don’t miss out on the Electric “Sea-Show”! All that is required is a blank wall and a flashlight, resulting in a Sea-Monkey shadow show that not only make your aquatic pets look ginormous … but as close in appearance to the package as they could possible get in terms of both size and shape. Before I discovered the joy of masturbation, this was how I would typically end my night: watching Sea-Monkey shadows swimming by my side. A Sea-Monkey dreamscape!

The manual also makes reference to the “Great Sea-Monkey Baseball Game.” The description reads as follows: “Believe it or not, Sea-Monkeys make great ballplayers! In fact, the United State Government awarded Patent No. 3,853,317 to Harold Braunhut for his invention … that lets them play nine innings of real baseball – hits, runs, errors and all!” You can actually request a copy of the patent itself, along with a “long, detailed articles all about this amazing new aquatic sport!” I never actually requested one, which is odd considering how big of a baseball fan I am. Furthermore, this parent has been pending for at least 30 years. I’m assuming another 30 is quite likely, as everyone awaits not only a patent, but the evolution of the species itself into something capable of playing a human sport—especially once as complex as baseball.

Sea-Monkeys, are indeed, a most playful creature. At the back of the are items that can be mail-ordered and sent directly to your doorstep! One of the items I ordered (for just one dollar! … plus quadruple shipping and handling) were “Sea-Monkey Sea-Diamonds (the Anti-Gravity ‘Toy’)”. They come in a small packet similar to the Growth Food and Instant Life and contained small, plastic pebbles designed to look like diamonds. After dumping them into the water, they begin to float at various levels of suspension. According to the product description, Sea-Monkeys were supposed to have a field day with them, tossing them back and forth like beach balls, playing soccer, or even surfing on them. In reality, the Sea-Monkeys ignore them, coming into contact with them only by accident…sometimes even resulting in their death, crushed beneath a lethal Sea-Diamond.

Other items I ordered throughout the years: Cupid’s-Arrow Mating Powder, Grow-Kwickly Sea-Monkey Growth Stimulator, Red-Magic Sea-Monkey Vitamins, Sea- Medic Sea-Monkey Medicine, and Sea-Monkey Banana Treat (a banana-scented powder… because, what monkeys don’t love bananas?). There is even a mating powder (Cupids Arrow) “for shy Sea-Monkeys afraid of ‘marriage’…this fabulous formula will give them a quick trip ‘to the altar’! Once ‘hooked’, former ‘bachelor’ Sea-Monkeys will fill your tank with oodles of babies – fast.”

I was obsessed. A certified Sea-Monkey junkie. In fact, one can even send away for a “college degree with a real diploma certifying you as a Sea-Monkey scientist…awarded by The Crustacean College of Sea-Monkey Knowledge.” And not just any degree, mind you! But a DLD (Doctor of Denizens of the Deep)! But why stop there? This degree awards you a Fellowship in the Secret Society of Sea-Monkey Scientists “with full authority to discover U.F.O’s (Unknown Forms of Sealife) anywhere in the Galaxy.” All for just $16!

There are several other accessories one can get for their Sea-Monkeys, if so inclined, many of which I owned (or still own). Several alternative aquariums are still offered in the catalog, including a lighted one, the “Electric Ocean-Zoo Showboat”, featuring multi-colored lights, and “Executive Sea-Monkeys for Grown-Ups” (a “gold”-plated tank).

One of the lowlights I experienced with Sea-Monkey accessories was the Sea-Monkey “tequarium” – a vinyl, collapsible tank featuring a desert landscape that promptly leaked out the entire contents of its water once I attempted to pour my Sea-Monkeys into it. After realizing that the tequarium was not fit for Sea-Monkeys, it didn’t stop me from later using it as a domicile for a chameleon and later, a hermit crab – both of which were therefore deprived from their instinctual urge to climb. I later noticed that this item was removed from the catalog in later years.

Another notable Sea-Monkey tragedy occurred when my cousin accidentally knocked the tank over, spilling life onto my bedroom floor. Though I tried in vain to pick up my little buddies off of the floor, I learned that they can’t even five seconds out of water before they perished. I’m guessing their miniscule size might have something to do with this. At least two were squished to death before suffocation could occur.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the moment when I realized that Sea-Monkeys were nothing more than glorified brine shrimp. This fateful discovery was made at a pet shop with my dad, when he pointed out a tank filled with brine shrimp what was being sold not as pets, but as fish food. We bought a bag home, which we promptly put into the tank. Sure, we didn’t have to wait for them to hatch, but all the excitement was gone. I also refused to believe they were the same thing. Within a month, they were all dead and it was back to Toys ‘R Us to buy the real deal – at 20 times the cost of the pet shop. My parents could have refused to pay that much, but they opted to let me keep the illusion real in my mind. It was both a testament to the crack marketing magic of the Sea-Monkey brand, and a testament to my ability to suspend disbelief.

However, there is no greater suspension of disbelief (with the exception of maybe Sea-Monkey baseball) than Sea-Monkeys racing. Yet, sure enough, I was the proud owner of the Sea-Monkey racetrack, which was essentially a chunk of white plastic with a groove running through the middle. At the front of the groove was a little plastic flag, which served as a gate (which I learned could sever a hapless Sea-Monkey in half with if one wasn’t careful). Once you loaded the Sea-Monkeys in front of the gate, it was off to the races! The Sea-Monkeys would charge down the groove until they reached the other end, much akin to sperm through a vaginal canal. Since it was next to impossible to keep track of which Sea-Monkey was which, it was impossible to keep track of who won, taking away any sense of competition. There are several reasons Sea-Monkey racing isn’t exactly a betting sport. So even though there were no clear losers in Sea-Monkey racing, the mere act of participating made me an honorary one.

Last, but certainly not least, was the Sea-Monkey necklace. And by necklace, I don’t mean a medallion resembling a Sea-Monkey. What I mean is, an actual miniature plastic bubble hanging from a red string that you can place a few of your Sea-Monkeys into (suctioned with the “Million Dollar Air Pump”, of course!) and carry around town (or, in my case, school). Despite constant teasing, I naturally convinced myself that they were jealous and/or didn’t know a fashion statement when they saw one. Why the ladies didn’t flock is something I’ll never be able to figure out! Wearing it, I was felt an overwhelming sense of protection. As a result, I kept it on at all times, which in turn prompted even further bullying. It was a vicious cycle. I even attempted to wear it during gym class – the epicenter of bullying. However, my gym teacher wisely asked me to keep it in my locker. This mandate was extended to the swimming pool, as well, sparing my pets from being poisoned by chlorine in the process. At the time, I thought it only made since that we could all swim as one.

My insistence on wearing a Sea-Monkey necklace begs a logical question (well, probably several questions): What kind of parents would send their son to school wearing a necklace filled with Sea-Monkeys? And how is that not child abuse? Come to think of it, my parents certainly didn’t help my cause on several occasions. But, looking back, I am eternally grateful that they didn’t force me to leave my necklace at home, just as I’m grateful that – during that same year – they didn’t talk me out of buying the Beastie Boys “License to Ill” album when they would have preferred that I buy the soundtrack to Grease II (I ended up getting it for Christmas that year, anyway, along with the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing … and later, More Dirty Dancing). But I digress.

By allowing me to wear my Sea-Monkey necklace, they were allowing me to be me, which would pay dividends in the future on my journey to becoming a writer. It should also be noted that countless bouts of writer’s block were worked out while staring at the Sea-Monkeys hypnotically swimming before me my eyes, lulling me into the right solution.

I still have Sea-Monkeys till this day. And I’m astounded by how little anything has changed: the packaging. The tank. The spoon. It was timeless, suspended animation, much like Sea-Monkeys themselves.

Whenever I go into a toy store, I always make it a point to look for Sea-Monkeys and feel a tinge of disappointment when I don’t see them. In fact, I judge a toy store’s worth by whether or not they carry Sea-Monkeys on their shelves. Fortunately, Toys ‘R Us has never let me down. Recently, I noticed a variety of different types of tanks with various themes such as pirates, outer space, and even a pink tank aimed at girls, including a “Friendship Locket” – the feminine equivalent of my necklace. If only I was able to find a female friend during childhood when who shared my passion. Recently, I discovered the necklace now has a companion watch.

When my daughter was two, I hatched her first batch of Sea-Monkeys. She didn’t show much interest – mostly, because I don’t think she ever saw them. As far as my wife, she was clearly denied the joy of Sea-Monkeys as a child. Like Santa, if you aren’t introduced as a small child, it’s really hard to get with the program. Whenever I try to direct her attention to the tank to see a copulating couple, a fist fight, or just simply partake in the sheer joy of watching them frolic about in all their Sea-Monkey glory, she usually ignores me … and by extension – them. What she doesn’t fail to notice, however, is the dirty water, littered with dead carcasses sitting on the windowsill above the sink. “Why don’t you ever change the water?” she often asks. Perhaps listening to her would prolong their lives. Before they started dying off one by one, this particular batch was the most fertile one I had ever had. They were continually mating. But their babies never lived long. Soon, the two survivors were also gone, at which point I began the resurrection process, at which point my wife was even more disgusted by the debris at the bottom of the tank as the water began to evaporate.

Now that my daughter is four, I recently hatched a new batch. She has definitely shown more interest, but I fear she will never fully embrace them like I did at such a young age.

Not only do I still have Sea-Monkeys, but I still have my Sea-Monkey necklace, stored away in a box of childhood memories along with my fake poop and vomit. Every now and then, I consider filling the necklace up, but then quickly remember what it ultimately put me through, all those years ago. Then again, without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And that truly has made all the difference.

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Indiana Voice Journal

Exterminating Angel