Sunday, August 26, 2018

Feel the fear and do it anyway

I have been listening to THE MOTH radio shows as a podcast for years, and always fantasized about going up on stage myself. You memorize a five-minute story and tell it, without notes, in front of an audience, and get scored by judges. 

If you win the "story slam," as it is called, your prize is $10,000. (I am joking. You got so excited!) 

Your prize is bragging rights. If you win 10 slams, you go on to the Grand Slam competition as a master. And if you win a Grand Slam, you become a minor celebrity among people who listen to podcasts. 

Ah. The dream. 

Each slam has a theme, and this week's in Los Angeles was "destiny." I decided that was general enough that I could cram my pre-memorized story into it. 

Tuesday night after work I blazed across town to Silver Lake, which is an Olde English phrase meaning "no parking, no how."

By the time I got upstairs it was standing-room only. That was fine. I needed to stand. My stomach was doing that dance your stomach does when it knows you are about to do something which might get it killed. 

I found the sign-up table. Forced my hand to write my name down. O.K., I thought. You are really doing this. 

I stood in the back. The emcee began. I almost bolted. I told myself if I ran I would regret it, and if I have learned anything in 57 years, it is that regret is harder to bear than failure.

Still, I sidled closer to the exit. You know. It was so crowded. 

The first name was announced! It wasn't mine. A young woman went up and talked about a cruise or something. She had a nice laugh line, a nice closing moment, didn't sense it, and went on for an unnecessary minute before fizzling out to polite applause.

The emcee held out the canvas bag of names for her from which to choose the next speaker. He read it. 

"Next up is George Waters."

Oh.       Sh*t. 

So I did as they had instructed. I walked up and waited alongside the stage while they tallied cruise girl's votes. Two minutes of my legs screaming "Run!" and my brain saying "Regret!" Then they called me on, to more polite applause.

When I was 25, I helped my dad maintain these apartments he owned. One of our tenants hanged himself. He popped the ceiling hatch to the attic and put a 2x4 across the opening, to which he tied a cord. 

The 2x4 he used was my board. It was a piece of scrap lumber I kept around the units for help with odd jobs. It was unmistakably mine; it had screwdriver markings on it I had made a few months before. I probably tossed it in the ivy next to the storeroom, and he found it, and he put it to use. 

It's a 10 minute story, a predictably surreal experience for me, funny in parts, self-deprecating, but I had to cut it down to five minutes, which left me only with "poignant." 

Now, the MOTH can do poignant, but not about a dead Latvian tenant from 30 years ago. It didn't fly. 

I rushed it, true, because at five minutes they give you "the flute" (a musical warning), but it just didn't work as narrative. With 10 minutes I could have killed. I have rehearsed 10 minutes in my head for a year or two now. It kills. 

Ten minutes is not the gig. 

More polite applause, and I got what turned out to be the lowest scores of the night, low 8's. Winners get mid-9's. 

I immediately ordered a $6.00 Coke and watched the rest of the show, relieved I had not bailed, philosophical about the mounting high scores which piled up after me.

Gavin bailed. They called Gavin's name, but he was nowhere to be found. We all began to chant his name. I turned to the guy next to me and said, "You could be Gavin. They wouldn't know." He smiled but declined. 

I was no Gavin, at least, poor guy. I felt bulletproof.

The winner was a lady who basically crashed an Australian wedding reception. She was good, relatable, funny, triumphant. Even better, she was good in five minutes. 

As I shot a picture of the scoreboard for posterity, a guy passed me and said "good story" or something. It was very noisy. The winner was whooping with her possé on stage. So he may have been digging deeper. I like to imagine he said, "Wasn't there more to it than that? I sensed a whole missing chunk about the cop who interviewed you and an adorable 1950s TV set and the Berlin Wall."

Or it might have been "Good story."

I joined everyone filing downstairs and out into the night. An old guy who had told a story which might have won three minutes in but took an unselfaware turn toward the child molesty and creeped everyone out was standing on the sidewalk. 

"Great story," I told him as I passed. 

"Thanks," he said.

It's just what you do.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Face to face with a specialist

When you have a tooth that hurts, you probably do what I do—notify the dentist swiftly; within two years, tops. Time is of the essence, because the longer you wait, the longer you get to not be at the dentist. 

I went in last week because my gums seemed irritated, kind of inflamed, like I get when I accidentally go on Twitter. They did not see any gum problems, but they did identify that the tooth in question needed further investigation by...specialists. 

There is never a time when you want to meet a specialist. People who are special at things are trouble. My dentist made a point of not saying what the specialists specialized in. She is a professional.

Turns out they specialized in root canal. Root canal. Like Love Canal in the '70's, root canal is a phrase nobody wants to hear. I did not know anything about it except that, like videos of orcas eating penguins, it is supposed to be horrible. 

The specialist office was pristine, though. All black marble and dark wood, to make you think they like you. They put me in a standing position biting down on a rubber thingy and they ran an X-ray machine around my head to get a 3D image. I felt like airport security had suspected my head of something, and had singled it out for extra screening. 

The 3D made it clear—I needed a root canal. 

I always pictured a root canal being a canal they dig under your roots, like an open trench, a lot of gore. Much like that time I was sure "Gremlins 2" would surpass the quality of the original, I was wrong. It didn't even hurt.

My tooth had a crown on it, so they had to drill down through that (dude was changing drill bits like Will Rogers doing rope tricks.) They cleaned out the infection, and filled the gaps with plastic of some kind (and I was glad, because at least it wasn't going into the ocean), and then topped that off with a temporary filling. 

There was smoke. I had smoke coming out of my mouth. Nobody acted like that was unusual, so I didn't either.

They could have totally screwed up, and accidentally set my tooth on fire, but I'll never know. This is what being raised to be polite gets you. 

I still have to go back to my dentist in a few weeks and get this filling ground out so they can put in a permanent one. I am not sure why the specialists are not authorized to put in a permanent one. Maybe it's a union thing. 

So the upshot is, I advise everyone to get a root canal, mainly so you have an instant conversation starter, like women who have been through childbirth. 

Somebody will overhear you and be all, "Oh, you had a root canal? Mine took five hours. They burned through three drills, they ran out of that plastic filler and had to use Spackle, a hygienist died!"

"Did smoke come out of your mouth?"

"Smoke? Are you nuts? What kind of animals worked on you?"

The oddest part of the whole thing was the big screen TV on the wall showing a home remodeling channel during the whole procedure, I guess to take your mind off things. I couldn't hear it, but it is a little bizarre to watch people fix up kitchens through a haze of your own oral smoke. 

Bizarre seems to be the new normal these days, though, just in general. I guess it's time my mouth got with the times. 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A birthday celebration on the surface of the sun

Parents, it is said, will do anything for their kids, even traveling to the surface of the sun for their amusement. And when I say the surface of the sun, I mean Buena Park in August. 

We were finally finding time for my college-age daughter's birthday, an entire season late, and Knott's Berry Farm was her desire. I have fond childhood memories of Knott's, but none of them involves the sensation of stepping fully clothed into a sauna. 

Maybe my parents took us in the off-season, I have no idea, but I don't remember heat. I do remember the old western style jail, which had a mannequin inside and a speaker, apparently, through which he would talk to you. 

Some actor was upstairs in the building opposite, probably, in sight of the jail, and he would comment based on your looks. My dad, who even in the height of the hippie 1960s had a crew cut, got asked, "Hey, did you fall asleep in the barber chair?" 

It was funny because when you peer into a fake Old West jail and see a mannequin in there, you don't expect him to talk, and especially don't expect him to criticize your choices. 

An actor with a mic and total freedom is a dangerous thing. They probably phased him out in the '70's. Imagine what that mannequin would say today at some guy peering in. 

"Whoa, nice cap. 'Make America Great Again?' Hey, can you spring me out of here? I'm a Cabinet member."

It was already warm, so we began the day on the rafting ride, which I really think they should rename Who Wants To Walk Around All Day With Wet Underwear Rapids. But don't go by me. I think the Statue of Liberty should be renamed the Statue of Just A Suggestion. 

We went on Voyage to the Iron Reef, which is described on the Web site as a "spectacular 4-D interactive ride," and I wished yet again that a science consultant would come and remind copy writers just how many Ds are actually possible. 

You are supposedly in a submarine blasting giant squids and other critters for points so that at the end you can compare your skill with your friends and family members in an effort to sow harmony.

It was fun, but the nonstop blasting was pretty painful on the old trigger finger after awhile, and as the ride ended, a voice came over the speakers which I could have sworn said, "Remain seated until the suffering comes to a stop." 

Turns out it actually said "submarine," but the other is not a bad motto for life, really. 

We went on the Calico Mine ride, which I surely must have gone on as a child but must have blocked. It has so many audio-animatronic miners who do not seem to know whether to grin or grimace at their hard underground labor it's creepy. Plus, if you have seen even one episode of "Westworld," you can't help but keep glancing behind you the whole time. 

Being at an amusement park is generally better than not being at one, but when it is 90 degrees out and muggy, you start to think that maybe "amusement" is meant ironically, until you remember that these people think there are four Ds. 

We rode and spun and debated solutions to the stagecraft of the Mystery Lodge, then finished our day on Ghost Rider, a giant wooden roller coaster designed, apparently, by the adult diaper manufacturers of America. It is good that screaming is considered normal on a roller coaster. Let's just say not everybody on a roller coaster is screaming for the same reason. 

Afterwards we went into the chicken dinner restaurant and I stood directly under the big air conditioning vent until people started to stare. And then a little longer. 

State law requires that after loosening all of your fillings on a wooden roller coaster, you eat fried chicken with boysenberry pie, and so we did. It is surprising, the rejuvenating effects of biscuits the size of your fist. The five pounds of water weight I had lost in the baking sun were soon replaced by five of gravy. 

As we left, we saw the waitstaff singing "Happy birthday" to another table, something my daughter was happy to forego. I am not sure the age at which that little ceremony shifts from charming to horrifying, but it is well before 21. 

Another trip around the sun celebrated, right from its surface. Well, as with most things, who you are with makes all the difference. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Shine it, kick back for awhile

There are certain phrases which, once read, never leave you. A bunch of Shakespeare is like that. Robert Frost. Cheech & Chong. Our brains, which could occupy themselves with stopping you from leaving your eyeglasses in the fridge, instead offer up random lines, like "Dave's not here, man" and "that has made all the difference" and "Shine it, kick back for awhile."

Oh, you don't know that last one? That is because it exists in only one place on Earth. It was written when I handed my 8th grade yearbook to a classmate I thought was cool. He was not bright, a bit of a delinquent, and enviously carefree. I was handing around my yearbook, and I handed it to Jim. 

The standard 8th grade yearbook quote in 1975 (repeated in mine a good dozen times) was "Stay as cool as you are. Have a bitchin summer." 

Side note: It is sad to me that "bitchin" has vanished as completely as Farrah hair. Some words, like "Righteous" are still said ironically these days, but "bitchin" is gone. "Bitchin" was to "cool" as the Stones were to the Beatles. A perfectly valid alternative. To tell someone the concert you went to was "cool" would have been maddeningly vague. But say it was "bitchin"? Well, everybody killed themselves because they were not at that concert. 

I miss bitchin. 

Anyway, Jim handed me back my yearbook, where he had written, "Shine it, kick back for awhile." This was apparently in answer to the implied question, "So what are you going to do, Jim, now that high school looms and it is time, maybe, to get serious about a few things?"

Jim made clear his plan: he was going to shine it, and then, assuming there was time, kick back for awhile. 

"Shine it" in the 1970s, or to "shine something on" was to ignore it, pay the worrisome thing no mind. To "shine someone on" was what we would now call to blow them off. 

Some examples:

"Mrs. Sowin asked me if I finished my English homework, but I shined her on."

"This guy has been on me to pay him back all week. Watch me shine him on."

"Dude, I waited outside 'The Towering Inferno' for, like, an hour. Why did you shine me on?"

It is not like I just got out my yearbook recently, either. This is just a sentence which has been rising up in my mind every few months since the day I first read it. There is a perfection in it, in that it captures Jim in his essence. 

Normally you would write something about the person whose yearbook it is. 

"Had a good time pretending to do the experiments in Chem this year, George. Stay bitchin."

"You are very quiet, George, and I like that. It's not a criticism. See you in German in the fall."

"Jorgé, you are a fast runner but I am faster because you never even see me. Later days."

"Later" was a common alternative to "goodbye." I miss it too.
I do not know what happened to Jim. I don't remember him from high school, but there he is in the yearbook senior year. I expect he did like a lot of guys who, finally freed from studies, excelled in the thing they were interested in, fixing cars, building furniture, flipping houses. 

It is only now, more than 40 years later, that I realize I may have misread the meaning of Jim's yearbook scribble entirely. Perhaps he was not telling me of his own intentions. Maybe he had marked me as the bookish dork I was and tried to intervene in as gentle a way as he could muster. 

"Shine it, kick back for awhile."

Maybe he meant it as advice.

In which case, from what I recall of the summer of '75, it was bitchin. Thanks, dude.