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You CAN Win for Losing

The Wasif

Back in the eighth grade, I won my junior high school’s spelling bee and got to represent my town at the regional spelling bee, sponsored by the Patriot Ledger newspaper.  To me, I may not have been the best representative because I had actually lost the spelling bee first, before winning it.

Sitting closest to the door (for ease of escape in the event of one of those spelling bee riots you hear about all the time), to the teacher’s left, I was given the word first.  “Doctrine,” she said.  This was ironic because I had recently spent four months that year obsessing on this very same word.

Six months prior, I was Bar Mitzvahed, a day when a Jewish boy becomes a man in every way except for body hair, hormones, bank account, sexual exploits, first and so on.  (I’m not sure exactly how the manhood myth actually started, but it probably had to do with the fact that everyone only lived til they turned twenty.)

On that day, I had to recite one particular passage from the prayer book.  It read (and haunts me to this day) — “Behold, a good doctrine has been given you, my Torah.”  I spent waaaaaaay too long discussing the proper intonation needed for the excerpt. Was I addressing the Torah as in “Hey, Torah, how’s it goin’? Oh, before I forget. . . I’m giving you a good doctrine”?  Or is it the Torah, in fact, that is the doctrine of which I am referring?

The guy with whom I was Bar Mitzvahed and I went over this again and again and could not come up with a consensus.  The rabbi contributed his two cents by explaining he didn’t understand the question and couldn’t give me an accurate answer. (Thanks for the wisdom, your Holiness.)

I found it hard to believe no one had posed the question to him before. You’re saying I’m the only one literate enough to notice the ambiguity of that sentence?  Or perhaps I was the only one crazy enough to care. It’s like the 2% of nutbags who choose cumquat as a vegetable beginning with “c” instead of carrot.

Yes, I saw the word “doctrine” in my sleep. That word was right there in front of me for months!  And yet. . .

When the moderator read the word to me, I was all at once dancing gleefully inside at my good fortune, and weeping because I couldn’t remember exactly how it was spelled.  It was either one way (the correct way) or the other. My heart beat faster. Time was ticking. So I took my shot and spelled it as “doctor” and then “-ine,” i.e. the wrong way.

“No,” she said succinctly, and I exhaled. My heart returned to its normal pace and I sat back to watch the other participants as a spectator. (Have you ever watched a spelling bee as a spectator? It’s as boring as watching. . . no, wait, I’m mistaken. Nothing is as boring as watching a spelling bee as a spectator. Add the humiliation of defeat to that and you’ve got my situation.)

Now, I knew there were only two ways this word could be spelled and there were five more people in line to attempt to spell it.  To. . . this. . . day, I have absolutely zero idea how every single one of those people failed to spell the word correctly.  No fewer than two of them spelled it the exact same way I did, like it was some sort of trick the teacher was pulling on them and they said, “We’re not falling for it.  We know Andy spelled it right, but not with the conviction I’m going to spell it.”  And three of them spelled completely different words, I think.

“Sheesh, wasn’t anyone listening to me?” I thought.

The teacher (no doubt, silently dying inside) shrugged and looked back to me, “Well, I guess you’re back in.”

Seriously?  “Well, okay.  It’s d-o-c-t-r-i-n-e,” I rattled off quickly.  And from there, I was a house afire nailing word after word and watching as my competitors crumbled at the feet of my reborn brilliance.  I even walked out of the room throwing random words back at the teacher, thus earning me the world’s first spelling bee taunting penalty.

It was then that I realized that the most tragic issue in America during the mid-80s was not drugs, the Cold War, nor New Coke, but it was the failure of the school system to properly teach the spelling of the word “doctrine.”  Remember, this was before spellcheck when we actually had to know how to spell words.

Anyway, this was years before New England Patriots hero Tom Brady became famous by leading a game-winning drive against the Raiders in the playoffs after fumbling the ball away.  Due to a technicality, he got a second chance.  There’s nothing wrong with that, come to think of it.  Legends are made on second chances!

Of course, there are second chances that never develop into anything memorable as well. And so for the next few weeks, I studied the booklet of potential words and arrived at the Regionals with my mother and best friend William there to support me.

This bee was far less eventful – Round One: “anklet.” I thought, are you serious? “A-n-k-l-e-t,” I said, and returned to my chair to pray all the other entrants had a massive collective panic attack and withdrew. (I always thought a spelling bee contestant should treat a correctly spelled word like a touchdown and act accordingly, with a dance, a little shimmy, or spiking the inhaler of the kid next to you.)

Round Two comes around: “veinless.” Now, before you scoff and say how easy it is, when I heard the word, I immediately considered that the word “vein” is a homophone. Was it referring to the veins in the human body? A weather vane? I could eliminate that it was vain, as in conceited. But I still had to narrow down the two options.

Can you use it in a sentence? I asked.

Something without veins is veinless.”

Can you give me the definition?

The definition of veinless is ‘without veins,’ or ‘lacking veins’.” (Gee, thanks.)

Can you give me the origin of the word?

The word comes from the Latin.”  (Of course it did. Why wouldn’t it?)

Can you spell the first couple of letters for me?

“No.”

How about a different sentence?

“No.”

Can you — ?

Just spell the damn word, kid!”

I took my shot. I mean, we didn’t have a weather vane on our roof at home and my mother never once referred to our house as vaneless.

V-e-i-n-l-e-s-s.

“Correct.”

Again, dancing inside my head, spiking inhaler.

Then a couple of people got eliminated (ha! idiots!) and it came around to me again. Round Three!

Now, I don’t know if I’ve blocked it out, but I cannot, for the life of me, remember what my third word was. I do remember asking all the previous questions in the hopes they would admire my thoroughness and just give me a pass to the next round, but when they didn’t, I did not even approach its correct spelling.

A big relief as order had been restored to the universe. And with that, spell check came along and further destroyed my ability to spell.

 

So it just goes to show that you can win for losing. But in the end, it was my ultimate failure which paved the way for Tom Brady to be remembered as the greatest second chance artist in history.

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Customs Ordered

My recent trip to Toronto (or “Tronno” as the locals say) reminded me of the time I was almost deported. . . from America. . . despite my American citizenship and residency.

Okay, a little backstory here — when I was younger, I decided to come out of my mother’s womb while she was living in Canada, a decision I never felt would cause a problem. Then, we moved to my mother’s hometown of Boston, I grew taller, my voice changed, and I went off to college where I wanted to spend a semester traveling abroad during my senior year. I was off to Spain!

As it was my first time out of the country as an adult, I sought the advice of my father who had spent about six months out of the year traversing the friendly skies during my youth (with better-than-even odds it wasn’t because of me).

On the surface, listening to him seemed reasonable, but here was a man who always puts forth some odd theories — he believes the healthiest food for you is fried food because it kills off the bacteria; he feels sugar cane is the best for your teeth; and whenever he needs to diet, he eats nothing but a head of lettuce for one day.  So. . . this is whom I was listening to.

Anyway, he had this silly idea that it would be safer to travel abroad on a Canadian passport than on an American one.  This was to Europe, more specifically Spain and France, mind you.  He was afraid that if a terrorist would target my airplane, they would scream, “We are taking over this plane and going to crash it into a mountain killing all of you in the name of Allah!!!! . . . Now, if all the Canadians can please show us your passports, we would be happy to equip with parachutes so you can float to safety before we destroy the infidel Americans.” Seemed reasonable.

So far, so good. Four months of gorging myself on paella and tortilla and not one inquisition on my nationality. . . until I returned.

After four months in Spain, a layover at Heathrow Airport in London, and about 20 hours of total traveling, I stood in Boston’s Logan Airport, its international terminal, and watched my entire plane clear customs, a passenger roster that included our state’s governor, as I was asked to remain.

I saw my parents come to the glass window, wondering why their son was not with the rest of the plane. They waved to me and I waved back.  But that was the extent of our contact as Customs Guy #1 was busy grilling me.

“Where were you born?”

“Canada.”

“Where do you live now?”

“Sharon. Twenty-five miles from here.”

“Where are your parents from?”

(Uh oh, I gulped. I saw where this was going.) “Well, my mom’s from Boston. . .”

“And your dad?”

Yeah, about that. . . He was uh, kinda born in. . . “uh, Egypt.”

(This was post-2500 B.C. so any mention of the Middle East raised red flags.)

Customs Guy #1 bore down on me. “Okay, lemme get this straight. You were born in Canada, raised in America, and your father’s from Egypt?”

(Gee, since you put it that way, I don’t see how that makes any sense either.) I was too tired for sarcasm and didn’t think that would help my cause so I just replied, “Yes.”

Was this case so unique? I couldn’t believe I was the only Canadian-born Bostonian he’d ever seen?  He’s a customs officer, for crissakes. But he just scratched his head and said, “Stay right there. I’m going to get my supervisor.”

A few minutes went by and Customs Guy #1 returns with a taller gentleman, Customs Guy #2. (I think they ranked them according to height.)

He didn’t really add much to the conversation but did proceed with, “Why did you travel outside the country on a Canadian passport?” (Oooo, now I could see why this guy was promoted.)

“I don’t have an American passport,” I said.

I had stumped the panel. (Don Pardo, tell him what he’s won!) Customs Guy #2 told me to wait as well.  Then he walked away.

More passage of time. I turned to my parents and shrugged.  (I didn’t do any of that overly dramatic stuff like putting my hand on the glass for them to touch the other side.

And now he returned with Customs Guy #3. I checked to see how many customs officers remained at their stations to screen other travelers. It was beginning to look like I was a codex and they needed all available men in solving the riddle inside me.

“So you’re from Canada, but live in America?” 

“Yes, sir.” (We were gonna rehearse from Act One again, apparently.)

“We’ve never run across anything like this before.”

I did say “Canada,” right?  Not Mars!  You’ve never come across a, dare I say, foreign-born citizen living in America before? “Give us your free, your poor, your huddled Canuck masses. . .” That doesn’t ring a bell? In all your time in customs officer training and then your subsequent internship and residency program — I have no idea what it takes to become a customs officer — this has never come up?  Boston is literally a one hour flight from Canada.  You have more of a chance seeing one of us than someone from that far off land of Philadelphia.”  Oh, in my head, I was having some fun with this.

He finally offered up a resolution. . . as they had run out of customs supervisors to bring over. “We’re going to have to order you back to Canada.

Really? I shrugged. What’s another two hours of flying? I thought. I could visit my cousins, and live with them.

Or . . .

There’s an “or?” Where does the “or” come from and why not mention it first assuming it’s better than the first option. (I was betting against, “Or we could throw you on a spit and serve you to the natives.”) Otherwise, why bring it up?

“Or you could pay $100.”

Seems kind of arbitrary to pull a penalty out on a situation they’d never heard of before. . .  Meh. Whatever. Works for me. “See that man over there, the Middle Eastern Gene Wilder?” I said, pointing at my father.  “Go see him.  He’ll pay.  He’s the reason I’m standing here in the first place.”

So at the end of that entire adventure, I learned that US Customs is like all other American businesses — an office filled with lots of redundancies all making it up as they go along in the effort to earn an extra buck or two. I’m sure those three officers each got $33 out of it (with the tallest guy getting $34) toward a nice dinner at Legal Seafood, a local tradition, once they got off their shifts.

It was a win-win.  Except for my father who was out $100.  But he paid for a good lesson. . . a lesson you think he might have learned while accruing hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles each year. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that a head of lettuce is much less expensive than a nice dinner at Legal Seafood.

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Because You Just Never Know

Pole Position

I grew up playing those video games — Intellivision, Nintendo, Colecovision, and the Ataris 26-, 52-, and (gasp!) 7800 — many that required the steering wheel accessory, like “Pole Position” or “Spy Hunter.” So I was pretty good at avoiding real obstacles on an imaginary road. My mother would tell me how it was a complete waste of my time, detrimental to my overall development. She was right, until. . .

I moved to Los Angeles out of college. My time there did not begin well.  I bought a used Audi GT before making the journey and it had a horrible habit of shutting off at the most inopportune moments, such as while driving.

Every mechanic I brought it to in Boston said, “We don’t know why it’s doing this, but a new fuel pump relay should fix it.” And I got a new fuel pump relay. . . and another. . . and a third.

Other than that, the car was fine, until. . .

During my third week in Los Angeles, the brakes began to squeak. It’s that warning mechanism brakes have that tell you if you don’t replace the brake pads soon, your car will most likely send you hurtling off a cliff at the most inopportune moments, such as while driving. And no one, especially me, wanted that.

Well, I was new in town and unfamiliar with any place to bring it (and there was no Yelp! back then), though I had been to the mall once and remembered passing a Midas Brake Specialists shop next to it. These people not only knew brakes, they were specialists! It said so in the sign. So I had my answer.

Even as a young adult, I’d already had the oil changed several times before, so I knew what to expect — you bring your car in, they take care of the oil, you bring it home. Easy peasy. I figured brakes were the same. That was a big leap of faith.

At that time, I had no job, so I could block off an entire day, though I didn’t expect it to take quite so long. I got there at 8 a.m. and I waited. . .  and waited. . . and waited.

Just after 4 o’clock, the “technician,” a Native American guy with a long, braided pony-tail who stood about five-feet zero, informed me the work was completed and offered to test drive my vehicle with me to see what a great job he’d done.

I thought, “Wow! that’s super service.  Usually, they just fix it and give it to you,” as he took his position in the passenger seat. (I realize he was probably as curious as I was to see if he had done the job right.)

We pulled out of the carport and continued down the side street. Three rights around the block, that’s all. I applied the brakes at the first stop sign. (Have you ever pushed the pedal down to the floorboard? No, of course, you haven’t. The pedal is not supposed to go that far.)

“Uh, it’s a little loose.”

“Oh, that is because they are new brakes,” he says sheepishly in an effort to hide his idiocy.  And what did I know? I’d only been driving a couple of years and never had the privilege of owning “new brakes.”

I took the right, another right, and a third right to bring me back to the front.  The same situation as I pushed down all the way, but the car stopped, so I paid the fee and hopped in to head home.

It was now 4:30 and the shop was closing for the day. I was very tired from my day watching bad daytime talk shows and telenovelas on tv in the waiting room anyway and wanted to do some writing, so I wasn’t thinking, “Take it back and fix it. I’ll wait.”

Onto the main drag, I turned just as rush hour was getting thicker.  A red light stopped me up ahead.  I pushed my pedal down to the floorboard to activate the “new brakes” and the car stopped as it had previously.

With my foot still on the brake, my car started to roll forward a little. Then the light turned green and the car in front of me took off. I accelerated briefly, then it dawned on me, “Did I take my foot off the brake causing it to roll forward or. . . did the car just start to roll by itself?”

Letting the pace car in front of me get some distance, I decided to test the brakes.  Yep, I was right.  I hate when I’m right.  Especially when it’s about MY DRIVING WITHOUT BRAKES!!!

Okay, stay calm.  How bad could it be?  It’s an Audi. Worst case scenario, I cause a huge pile-up at an intersection; at least my car will hold up well. (Actually, the worst case scenario has me running over several bystanders, a lady with a baby carriage, and slamming into a fire hydrant spraying water everywhere causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.)

Remarkably, I am less scared than angry.  A few thoughts go through my head, including one that has me intentionally causing as much damage as possible so I could sue Midas for every nickel and then forcing the entire staff to work on my estate. But that seemed like a lot of work. I didn’t want to go through all that, as I needed to find a day job.

And then it entered my head — I’d been here before. . . virtually. The hours I spent playing “Pole Position” was a practical application that prepared me for this.  Ha! Mom, I was right! Of course, then my mother’s favorite phrase came into my head — “You could be right, dead right.” Damn you, Mom! Get out of my head. Now is not the time!

Nevertheless, this would be my greatest challenge, my real life Pole Position. If I made it home, I’d have a story to tell. If not, and. . . well, there was always that lawsuit. No one could tell the exact moment I realized the brakes failed, right?

Oh, sure, I could have turned around and gone back to Midas, but where’s the fun in that? (Plus, turning around was not going to be easy.)

Okay, I had to think. Remember my training! I quickly went over the landscape in my head.  It was one right turn (which I could do because this was Los Angeles whose “right on red” law is its greatest cultural contribution), then five lights, across two main roads, and one left turn, which would be the trickiest part.

It was Mission: Impossible. Should I fail, any knowledge would be disavowed. But seriously, in the event I had to abort, I could always gently guide the car into some place that wouldn’t get me nor anyone else injured. . . theoretically.

Back to the road in front of me — I figured since I couldn’t stop, I would have to drive real slow and speed up just enough to keep my momentum.  That way, I would never have to slam on the brakes.  I just had to pray for green lights.

Amazingly, I made them all, including the busiest street at the top of the hill. (The hill was great because it stopped all my momentum.)

Now my mind wandered ahead to the left turn.  What if on-coming traffic was too steady and I couldn’t make it?  I figured out plans B and C just in case.  (Plan B was that I would try the next left hand turn onto another side street, and Plan C was I would soil my pants.) I worried that I had run out of luck.

But huzzah, like the Red Sea underneath the hand of Moses, the southbound traffic parted just enough allowing me the perfect opportunity to make the turn!

Giving it a little gas to crawl onto the driveway, which leveled downward slightly, I yanked up on the emergency brake as I lightly tapped the back of the carport.  Luckily my roommate wasn’t home, otherwise his car would’ve been my wall.  And there it was.  I made it home alive! A real life video game, with potential real life consequences.

Oh, and the next day, I had the car towed back to Midas at their expense, rented a car at their expense, and had them put WORKING brakes in the car at their expense. A lawsuit might have eliminated the need for a job, however, but I let them off the hook as no harm, no foul.

So when you see your kids spending hours in front of the television playing video games – yes, they may be on the freeway to obesity, but they are inevitably setting themselves up with survival skills.

Oh, and never go to Midas.