I could start off by saying I was a shy kid and I liked books more than people and my dad was a rough oilfield man and blah blah blah, woe is me, and now I’m a writer and everything is all better.

The reality is I was shy and I’m not sure why, because inside I felt I could soar as high as the sky if only someone would pay attention to me.

Like in the sixth grade I could stand in my back yard and make fifty straight free throws, but I was barely five feet tall and my feet were already bigger than my dad’s and I didn’t move around very well. Which is why on the playground no one passed the basketball to me and when they finally did I was so surprised I didn’t know what to do with it. Six years later I would make fifteen three-pointers in a single game on the way to 51 total points, but obviously in the sixth grade no one knew that.

On many sunset evenings I would run pass patterns in the front yard and my dad would throw the football to me over and over until I never let it hit the ground. “If you can touch it you can catch it,” he would say. But at school I was short and slow on my clown feet and no one would throw me the ball. The only time they did I scored a touchdown, but somehow no one ever remembered that.

If I had known it was possible I would have sold my soul to be Keith. Keith was the fastest human in our school and possibly the entire city of elementary schools, and like Superman he could score a touchdown every time he touched the ball. He could pour shots into the hoop like Magic Johnson. He could destroy you in kickball, in foursquare, in anything. All I wanted in the world was to be like him.

The situation was different in the classroom. In there I was dominant, or rather co-dominant along with my friend Kevin. It didn’t matter what subject it was, the two of us always finished projects first and tests first and read the assigned chapter first and then sat around wondering what was taking everyone else so long. If there had been teams to pick, we would have been captains, and if there had been a ball to hog, it would have been ours. If you scored lower than the 99th percentile in any subject on the CAT test, you melted from the scorching shame.

I wanted to believe I had a leg up on Kevin because we made the same grades but I was more social than him. Or not so much social as wanted to be social. I was shy but I didn’t want to be shy. Kevin was a vastly different animal. He didn’t listen to music. He didn’t like girls. I had a huge crush on this girl named Gigi ever since I saw her on the cafeteria stage dancing to Billy Joel. She had brown hair and green eyes and put her hands on her side-thrust hips when she talked to you. She had attitude. I knew she wanted to go around with me but that attitude was intimidating so I never asked her. Still, I talked to her every day while Kevin read the extra credit chapter. When I asked him why didn’t he listen to music or talk to girls, he would say, “A Jedi craves not these things.”

As much as I wanted it, I knew I didn’t really have a leg up on Kevin. He was just as smart as me. For that matter, Keith’s grades were almost as good as ours. And even though we were all close friends, along with Jason and Butch and plenty of others in the neighborhood, there was an unspoken pecking order. Keith, being both smart and athletic, was unquestionably at the top. Jason lived in Country Club so he had votes for second place, as did Butch, who was friends with all the girls and whose parents were cool enough to own a Datsun 280ZX. Kevin and I were a bit lower, but to be honest everything below Keith was kind of hazy, and one big victory could propel any of us skyward. And finally in the middle of the sixth grade I found my chance: the Spelling Bee.

One of my mom’s favorite stories is how I took to reading at an early age. I was prone to picking up books and trying to figure out what they meant and learned my ABCs when I was three. By the time I started kindergarten I was already reading, or so the story goes, and my mom always gets a twinkle in her eye when she tells that part.

So it was understood by everyone in our class that I would win the school Spelling Bee. It wasn’t in doubt. The bigger question was if I would win the city and regional competitions and go onto the national finals. I was that good.

Every afternoon, in the days leading up to the Bee, my mom picked up Words of the Champions and grilled me for hours. We spent little time with the first round words because I could spell those in my sleep. The grunt work was in the second round words, and third round words were for heavy lifters. School Bees, we understood, rarely made it to the third round words, but we studied them anyway. The word we loved the most was dirigisme, which I’ve never forgotten how to spell, though I never knew what it meant until just this year.

On the day of the school Spelling Bee, everyone congratulated me ahead of time. Keith especially had little doubt. “You got this, man,” he would say. He knew what a star looked like because he was always that guy on the field. But today was my day and that cafeteria stage was my field, my court, my 18th hole green.

My mom and I suffered through a mostly contentious relationship back then. It was rare to see her smile, but this day was different. She knew how much work we had put in and was ready to see it pay off. There were maybe thirty of us kids who filed on stage and found our chairs. I looked out at the crowd, seventy-five parents and teachers, and found my mom among them. She smiled. I knew this time, finally, I would make her proud. I couldn’t wait for the Bee to begin.

Especially when the emcee of the event announced that this year’s competition would consist of only first round words. I never found out why. But as murmurs and whispers passed over the crowd, I became even more confident. First round words were for babies.

As I said I was a shy kid, so when it was my turn to approach the microphone my heart was galloping in my chest. But the training paid off. I easily knew how to spell that first word and plenty of words after, and gradually the number of kids on the stage dwindled. Every time someone made a mistake, the emcee would ring a bell, like the kind you touch when you’re waiting at a counter.

Ding!

That tinny ring was the sound of death.

Eventually there were only four or five of us left. I was one. Kevin was one. Keith was one. Every time I answered another word correctly, Keith would give a knowing nod, silently cheering me on. Upon each visit to the microphone I had become more emboldened and was beginning to enjoy the home stretch. My victory lap. This is what it feels like to not be scared all the time, I thought. Finally. Because even though I had always been too shy to ever tell anyone, I knew one day I would overcome my fear and show my real self to the world. This day was the first step. The next could be the city Spelling Bee, and who knew what might happen after that?

I approached the microphone. I could see my mom in the audience. My heart was no longer galloping. The emcee read a word and I knew it immediately, another baby word. She read the word to me and somehow I thought of green stalks reaching toward the sky, of cobs spilling forth from them, I thought of that darkish yellow color you see in the 64-pack of crayons, the one with the sharpener in the back. The word rhymed with haze and blaze and faze and raze, but I wasn’t about to be fooled, because no word in the Bee could possibly be that easy. After all those hours of studying there was no way I would be presented with a word of only four letters, so rather than be outsmarted I confidently spelled the word I saw in my head, a word with five letters, a word like this:

D-A-I-Z-E

I was already walking back to my seat when I heard the sound, the death sound.

Ding!

I looked into the crowd and found my mother and the look of anguish was almost too much to take. I left the stage and lurched toward a seat below, my head swimming, fuzzy, barely able to see anything because I was in a daze.

Daze.

Daze.

Daze.

It only occurred to me later that I could have asked for a definition because “daze” is a homophone that shares its sound with the word “days.” Had I asked for a definition I would have immediately known how to spell it, because of course I knew what “daze” meant. I don’t know what the hell I thought “daize” was. All I know is I was too confident and too proud, I was looking to run before I first caught the ball, so I heard “daze” and I thought “maize” and I did not win the Spelling Bee.

My mom was gracious and consoled me even though I didn’t win. My friends were kind enough about it. Everyone was kind. But I knew, like they all knew, that I had blown my chance to win, had blown my chance to climb higher in the pecking order, and it was a bitter pill I could not swallow for a long time afterward.

I don’t remember what the winning word was, or how he fared in the city Bee, but I do remember Keith looking at me with a half grin on his face, almost embarrassed to be the last man standing in this long walk, the winner again, and me barely able to see him, my head lost in a white, shapeless daze.

* * *

P.S. Here’s a school photo of us. This is from second grade, not sixth, so we’re all a bit younger and shorter and perhaps more awkward. But at least you get the idea.


I’m being forced to play kickball. That’s right, forced. As in “have to” as in “no way around it” as in “do you really want to be out of a job in this economy?” Let me explain. My office is having a team-building activity (their motto: “You WILL have fun!”) and, in this case, team-building means a game of kickball (my motto: “I haven’t felt this nauseous since middle school P.E. class.”).

Here’s the problem: I am not an athlete. I don’t shoot hoops or sink putts or run around a football field trying to grab a yellow flag from someone’s Umbros. I’ve never asked someone to “play a little one-on-one” or “shoot the 8-ball,” and I’ve never, to the best of my knowledge, uttered a sentence that contained the word “pigskin.” Hell, I don’t even watch sports on TV, unless of course, you count professional wrestling as a sport, which sadly, most people do not, choosing instead to think of it as a gigantic pimple on the butt of the TV screen, not unlike late night infomercials, and the dancing old man in those Six Flags commercials.

Bottom line: I’m just not a sports person. What’s more, there’s not a whole lot I can do to change that. You see, Sportsessence (a term derived from the Latin phrase Ix-nay on Sitting on your ass-nay and watching TV-nay) is actually a hereditable trait, much like handedness, tongue curling, and the ability to see a 3-D image in those posters of multi-colored, mish-mashed waviness. There are, however, plenty of people out there who have managed to inherit Sportessence. These are the folks who go jogging at 5 AM on a Saturday, and do things like participate in intramural sports for no reason other than, get ready for this one, THEY ENJOY IT! These are the same people who use that ridiculous piece of exercise equipment at the gym. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s where you sit down on the little seat, place your outer thighs against the sweaty pads and then spread your legs obscenely far apart, thereby feeling, not only “the burn,” but also quite the draft. These are the folks who, back when they were teeny, tiny cells, actually camped outside the Gene Dispensing Factory (at 5 AM on a Saturday) to ensure they received the coveted Sportessence gene.

I missed out on getting that gene. Probably because I was in the next building over, the Klutz Cafe, watching sitcoms and eating a pastrami sandwich. But Rob, you say, surely you learned some athletic skill after all those years of playing catch with your father! Ha ha! While my dad and I have certainly had our share of beautiful bonding moments (“And that, Son, is how you make an Egg Cream!”), “playing catch” was not one of them. Not that I blame him in any way. The complete lack of any and all athletic ability whatsoever among members of the Bloom family dates all the way back to 1896 when Stavros J. Bloom attempted to compete in the first Olympic games. Taken from Bloom family records, here is the actual transcript of a conversation held between Stavros and his track coach in April of 1896:

“Please-a pick-a me for the team-a, Coach!” Stavros said.

The coach frowned. “Your shoes are on backwards.”

So Stavros wasn’t chosen for the team, which truthfully, was probably for the best. Between his clubbed foot, frequent dizzy spells, and rare allergy to Oxygen, Stavros had no business being outdoors, let alone in a sporting event. This would prove to be consistently true for future generations of Blooms as well. Blooms and Sports just don’t mix. Especially during adolescence when you’re short, uncoordinated, and wear glasses with three inch-thick lenses. Welcome to my P.E. class at Rock Lake Middle School in Longwood, Florida.

I was always picked last for teams. Always. It didn’t matter what sport we were playing, either—I was last. The teacher would pick two team captains, guys with names like Travis or Conner or Austin or Colin; guys who were a foot taller than I, with biceps bigger than my thighs. What’s more, these boys had very cleverly made a deal with God (a huuuuuuge sports fan) because they’d already started going through puberty, meaning they had hair in places that I didn’t even have yet. For these guys, P.E. class was the reason they went to school every day, whereas I greeted each class with slightly less enthusiasm than I did a dental cleaning.

So the entire P.E. class would stand in a big group and the captains would pick different students to join their respective teams. Brown. Turner. Palmer. The chosen boys would jog over to their fellow teammates where they’d begin hi-fiving and slapping each other on the back. Young. Morris. Harris.One by one, my fellow classmates would get chosen. Stewart. Miller. Anderson. More names would get called while I stood there, uncalled, watching as the crowd around me got smaller.

“Okay, let’s play!” TravisConnerAustinColin would say.

“Hold up,” the teacher would reply with a snicker. “Nobody picked Robbie Bloom.”

Now while this sort of embarrassing event would actually happen MANY times over the years, there is one incident in particular stands out in my mind. In fact, this particular P.E. class was so awful that it solidly ranks as #2 on my “Horrifyingly Embarrassing, Wishing I Was Anyplace Else In the World, This Can’t Really Be Happening” Scale, coming in just a notch below #1: Performing the Tango in my college Ballroom Dancing class with Mauricio, who, in addition to being a hairy-chested Colombian man with a Village People moustache, was also the teacher.

I was standing alone in the middle of the baseball field, while my classmates stared at me like I had some dreaded disease. And then the debate started.

“C’mon, coach! I had Bloom last time!”

“Well I don’t want him! We won’t stand a chance!”

“Please don’t give me Bloom! He’s useless out there!”

The debate lasted nearly two more minutes before the teacher mercifully assigned me to a team, a decision that was met with mixed reactions (“Ha ha! You got stuck with Bloom!” or “Crap! We might as well not even play now!”).

Thankfully, I was placed in the outfield. This was perfectly fine by me because it meant I could stand all by myself, very, very, very far from the action. Seriously, my classmates were playing baseball and I was a zip code away. Now you’d think this would’ve been a comfortable enough distance to prevent me from suffering any additional humiliation, right? C’mon, that would’ve been a direct violation of the Klutz Code, which clearly states:

“regardless of the distance between the Klutz (referred to herein, henceforth and backwards as “Schmoe”) and the athletic activity taking place, Schmoe will always, without fail, find him/herself involved in a situation where Schmoe is called upon to perform an athletic feat. Naturally, this feat will be accomplished with disastrous results.”

And that’s exactly what happened. You see, in addition to being a big sports fan, God also has a tremendous sense of humor, which explains why, despite the fact that I was so deep into the outfield that I couldn’t even see the actual field without squinting, the ball went sailing through the air (in dramatic slow motion, with the Jaws theme playing) and came directly to me!

Good one, God.

So the ball came right to me and, of course, I didn’t catch it. I didn’t even come close. Instead, the ball landed on the ground and I went chasing after it, listening to the respective cheers and groans from the two teams, until I finally got to the ball and heaved it with all my might, sending it sailing triumphantly through the air… about ten feet before it dropped to the ground.

I ran to the ball and threw it again. It went another ten feet. So I chased it again. And threw again. Only this time I watched in despair as the ball, which now weighed 45 pounds, traveled a measly five feet. Several minutes and nearly a dozen throws later, the ball landed in the vicinity (read: a good quarter mile) of one of my teammates, who quickly scooped it up and threw it effortlessly to home plate—while still finding time to yell out, “Thanks for nothing, Bloom!”

Unfortunately, this type of thing was common as I grew up. However, as I got older, I realized that my lack of Sportsessence was actually OK. I mean, so what if I couldn’t catch a stupid baseball? Who cares if every time I went to bat, the other team chanted “Easy out! Easy out!” while the pitcher instructed his teammates to “Move in closer!” And does it really matter that one time in high school, when teams were chosen for a soccer game, I was picked last—behind Sam Tiffs, the kid with one leg? HELL NO!

Sure, I’ll agree that being good at sports does provide some advantages in life (“And so we made the deal right there on the golf course! 30 million, just like that!”), but c’mon, there are plenty areas of life where athleticism is not a prerequisite for success. Like being a mime, for example.

Besides, that stuff is ancient history. After a lifetime of obsessing over and reliving those moments from my childhood, I’m finally ready to let go of the past and start focusing on the present. Like this stupid office kickball game. And how I’m going to get out of it.