Recent Work By Richard Cox




From August 16 – 20, Erika Rae, Megan DiLullo, and Slade Ham joined me in Tulsa, Oklahoma to film a documentary about the evolving state of literature and the arts. We also spent a lot of time goofing around like children.

In this short clip, we try to recall TNB authors from memory and struggle to pronounce their names properly. We hope you won’t be too offended if we missed yours. We were very tired. Plus, I was driving, so you can’t blame me.

The literary world needs more essays written by men who are disenchanted with the behavior of women. Perhaps it’s only my experience, but it seems as if publishing is rife with memoirs and self-help books and online rants about how men won’t commit and can’t communicate and how chivalry has gone the way of the Dodo, whereas similarly-themed works from the male point of view are proportionally scarce.

The line at airport security snakes back and forth like a mountain switchback. I figure the wait will consume at least fifteen minutes. I haven’t flown in a while and I don’t realize these days you have to strip naked and stand spread-eagled in front of the Star Trek transporter. To fight the boredom I look around at my fellow travelers, a varied lot that has conspired to be in this place at this time, bound together by our common desire to fly out of Tulsa on a Thursday morning in July.

In Greek mythology, the Gorgon is a terrifying creature, so ugly it turns those who look upon it to stone. “Gorgon,” in fact, is derived from the Greek word gorgós, which in English means “dreadful.” Synonyms for “dreadful” include: horrible, terrible, awful, frightful, and appalling…among others.

It’s easy to find references to Greek mythology in modern life. The Oedipus complex as described by Sigmund Freud. Terms like “Achilles heel” and “Herculean task.” The concept of Pandora’s Box. Even an ancient sea creature, the Kraken, has recently been released as a powerful, 94-proof, dark-colored elixir that brings out the fun in certain social situations where writers are involved.

But the Gorgon to which I’m referring, the dreadful monster that for years frightened anyone who dared look up on it, was the golf swing of my long-time friend, Brian Weir. In 1996, when I was first introduced to its complete form, all my own muscles seized up, and I could no longer properly hit the ball…almost as if I had turned to stone. Brian lives in southern California, far away from Oklahoma, so twice a year for a decade the two of us met on golf vacations, enjoying the artistry of many picturesque courses, even if our own games didn’t quite measure up to the beauty of the locations.

On each of these trips I would bring along a video camera to document the experience, footage that never failed to amuse us later. Over time I developed a sizable library of squirrely shots and pushed putts and missed opportunities, but mainly these recordings languished away in magnetic tape obscurity, only emerging when the two of us met again to relive the glory.

Then, in 2005, I saw in ad in Golf Digest, a golf publication that reaches an estimated six million readers per month.

“Do you have the World’s Worst Swing?” asked the ad. “Or know someone who does? If so, make a video and send it to us. You could win six free lessons from Dean Reinmuth, one the top golf instructors in the country.”

The contest was also sponsored by the Golf Channel, which planned to film and broadcast six free lessons awarded to the “winner.” And that’s when an idea occurred to me, an idea that is and probably always will be the best practical joke it’s possible for me to play on anyone.

Until that time I’d dabbled in linear video editing, like hooking VCRs together with cables, but I’d never edited on a computer. I purchased a Windows-based software app and taught myself how to use it over a period of days, painstakingly capturing hours of analog footage in real time. I assembled a collection of the best (or rather, worst) shots, often laughing so hard that I had to stop and compose myself. Then I purchased a microphone and attempted to record voiceover for my two-minute, eighteen-second video. This consumed even more hours, not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because I couldn’t go ten seconds without laughing again.

I completed the video two days before the deadline. I watched it again and again and again, supremely confident that, upon viewing, the selection committee at Golf Digest and the Golf Channel would immediately select Brian as the winner. But I also guessed there would be thousands of other submissions, and the chances of them even watching the video were small. Not to mention I was forced to overnight the DVD just to get it there on time.

Then I waited. Every day I would think about the video, and what might happen if my plan worked. To understand the true significance of the joke, you have to know Brian. We met at Texas A&M University. He was a member of the Corps of Cadets, and was commissioned into the military directly after graduation. He served the Air Force for several years, attended Army Ranger school, and reached the rank of Major. He went on to serve local law enforcement in Southern California and is now a sergeant. He is a tough, proud man who does not respond well to ridicule. Of course, we always joke around with each other, but those are private matters. This joke, if it was realized, would be played out on a national scale. Every time I thought about it, it made me laugh.

About two weeks after I mailed the disc, I received a phone call. I looked down and saw it was Brian. I answered, trying to hold my expectations in check. But Brian and I don’t speak on the phone often, and I got that feeling, you know the one.

“What the hell did you do?” were the first words out of his mouth.

“What do you mean?”

“Some chick just called me. She said she works for the Golf Channel. Apparently I’ve been chosen as one of ten semifinalists for a contest to find the World’s Worst Golf Swing. And then she gave me the link to a video. A video you made. She laughed at me, man.”

So did I. I couldn’t help it. Someone had actually watched the video! They even put it on the Internet!

“They’re going to call back and interview me in a couple of days,” he said. “You’re an asshole.”

I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.

“I hope you know paybacks are a bitch,” was his answer.

But after the interview, Brian’s position changed. Apparently he’d impressed them over the phone. Had made everyone laugh. “I’d be on television,” he said. “They’d buy me a new set of clubs. I would get lessons from this famous dude. Did you know he used to coach Phil Mickelson?”

Readers and viewers were asked to visit a web site, check out the videos, and vote on their favorites. Or they could watch a special episode of “Golf Channel Academy” and call in their votes. Brian explained how they were going to include some of the submitted footage on the show. I salivated at the thought of a scene from my video being shown on national television. At the time, the Golf Channel boasted more than sixty million subscribers. I told everyone I knew to watch it. So did Brian.

My DVR was ready. If only a few seconds of my footage was shown, I’d be happy. So imagine my astonishment when “Golf Channel Academy” opened with my video, with no introduction and no voice over (other than my own) for almost two minutes. I was floored. I was ecstatic. After the video, Kelly Tilghman remarked, “The guy who did that voice over deserves an Emmy.”

Hahahahahahaha!!!!11 I said to anyone who would listen. The only thing better than this would be if Brian actually won the contest.

A few weeks later, a crew from Golf Digest visited Brian in California, and I flew out to watch. They brought a high speed camera to capture his swing. This is the camera used to make those fold-out, frame-by-frame pictures of golf professionals. Only the most notable golfers in the world get this treatment. Brian was asked to hit into a net, and the photographer pointed out a patch where the net had been repaired.

“We filmed Retief Goosen last week,” he said. Goosen is one of the best players in the world and has won two U.S. Open Championships. “He hit the ball so hard it tore the net.”

By now Brian was basking in the glow of his possible upcoming fame. He swung as hard as he could. He hit the ground so far behind the ball that the club bounced over the ball. A complete whiff. And the impact with the ground sent a chunk of sod into the net, where it stuck, coincidentally, on the patch created by Retief Goosen.

“Let’s see Retief do that,” Brian remarked.

Every day this was just getting better.

Finally, the day of the selection show arrived. The field of contestants had been narrowed to three, and the Golf Channel planned to announce the winner on the air. All three swings were terrible, but Brian and I couldn’t imagine the others would win. He is a born entertainer. I think he could do standup if he put his mind to it. The combination of my video editing and his comedy couldn’t be beat. Golf Channel invited us both to Orlando, and we managed to play Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s famous Florida course. We made friends with the other nominees. But would Brian win? Would it really happen?

It did.

Brian’s six lessons were filmed outside of San Diego, shown nationally on the Golf Channel, and I was invited to be on the final show with him. He was awarded a new set of clubs. He was recognized in airports, in restaurants, and especially on the golf course. His game improved dramatically.

And his swing, frame-by-frame, was featured in the pages of Golf Digest. Twice.

A few years later, after it was all over, Brian told me he was getting married again. In Hawaii. He’d sent me the raw footage from the various Golf Channel episodes, and I kept meaning to make a compilation video for him, but I never got around to it. So, as a surprise, I put together a new video, with old footage and new, and called ahead to the hotel. I set it to music and arranged for it to be shown at a reception before the ceremony.

One more final jab, you know?

As I said before, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to play a better practical joke on someone. It’s one thing to poke fun at your buddy’s golf swing in private, but to bring it to the attention of a national audience…that was sublime.

If you’d like, you can view the original video and the encore presentation below. The second link is on Facebook, so if you can’t see it, send me a friend request and I’ll hook you up. I’ve also included links to a few pictures.

But be careful. Watch these videos at your peril. His old swing could easily turn yours to stone.

World’s Worst Swing Submission Video

World’s Worst Swing Encore

Golf Digest Table of Contents

Golf Digest foldout

Brian and Richard on set


When I was sixteen, I became the dishwasher at a barbecue restaurant in Corpus Christi, a hot, humid city on the Coastal Bend of Texas. I almost didn’t get the job because the manager of the place, Gary, didn’t like me. Gary was a short, grizzled fellow in his 40s who ran his restaurant with a smoker’s voice and an iron fist. I was a skinny kid from the suburbs, apparently naïve, and he didn’t think I knew how to work.

The restaurant was a rectangular building made of painted concrete blocks and a flat roof. Attached to the building proper was a “pit room,” which was a fenced-in area covered by a slanted roof made of corrugated steel. A screen was pinned between the top of the fence and the roof to keep bugs out. There were three cylindrical barbecue pits, ten feet tall and six feet in diameter, which had been made from sections of oil pipeline. Each had three doors: Behind the bottom door was the fire, and behind the top two were grates where we cooked racks of pork ribs and whole beef briskets. The briskets and ribs continuously rained liquid fat upon the fire, causing it to flare on occasion, so you had to pay close attention to the air supply to make sure you didn’t burn what you were cooking.

The only reason I got the job at all was because of the restaurant owner, Kenny. Kenny was Gary’s younger brother. He was more financially successful than Gary and fancied himself as a privileged guy. My family wasn’t exactly rolling in money, but we were closer to the middle class than Gary or the rest of the employees there, and Kenny seemed to like that about me. I think he enjoyed having a “college boy” around, which is what they all took to calling me after I graduated from high school the next year.

For six hours a day on weekdays, and eight on the weekends, I stood in front of a stainless steel sink with an overhead water sprayer in my hand and cleaned dishes and pots and pans. When I wasn’t at the sink, my job was to separate tiny chunks of beef from long strips of leftover brisket fat. These tiny chunks eventually added up to a plastic tub of flesh that we mixed with barbecue sauce and called “chopped beef.” Being so intimate with the fat, this was the most tender meat in the brisket and tasted wonderful on a sandwich bun. It was the second most popular item we sold. But that meat sat on a table, unrefrigerated and uncovered, for hours, and no one who worked there would eat it.

Once a week, each of the barbecue pits had to be cleaned, because the constant rain of fat and grease coated the grates and the interior circumference of the pit. The way we cleaned the pits was to set them on fire. Literally. We removed the meat, opened all three doors, and started a big fire. The fire fueled itself on the caked-on grease and would climb all the way to the top of the pit. As the fire grew we shut first the bottom and then the middle door, leaving the top door open until we could see flames licking at the top. Then we’d shut that door with a long gardening tool that looked like a straightened hoe. As the fire raged inside, flames ten feet high, the air hole at the very bottom would hiss as oxygen was sucked through it. That was the sound of the fire breathing.

Eventually we’d suffocate the fire and allow the pit to cool slightly, and then it was the dishwasher’s job to climb inside and scrape loosened grease off the walls. I was the dishwasher, so that meant me. As you can imagine, it was massively hot in there. Hot and nasty. When I emerged from the pit, the only surface of my body not entirely black were the whites of my eyes. Even after fifteen minutes scrubbing with soap in the filthy kitchen bathroom, I could only begin to find the pink skin of my arms and face.

Eventually, after a couple of years, I worked my way up to the Head Cook job. This was much easier. Mainly you stood in the pit room and listened to music. Or smoked weed if that was your thing. Or you fantasized about which of the serving line girls you wanted to sleep with. I was still a virgin, but I nevertheless imagined that Brenda, she of the giant D-cup breasts, would one day saunter into the pit room and seduce me. She was thirteen years my senior, and the stories about her exploits with older men at the restaurant became my imaginary porn. There was no Internet back then and my family didn’t subscribe to Cinemax, so what else was I supposed to do?

In the morning, the cook on duty would take briskets, forty or fifty of them, out of the walk-in freezer and load them into one of the pits. Then he would take a natural gas “torch” and use it to start a new fire. The torch was a half-inch natural gas line with a metal fitting on the end. It took forever to light a fire this way, like thirty minutes on a good day. We didn’t have kindling, after all. Just mesquite logs.

As it happened, the morning of December 24, 1989 was my shift. Residents of Texas and other areas of the south may remember 1989 as one of the coldest Decembers on record. The low that morning at Corpus Christi International Airport was 15 degrees, which was actually two degrees warmer than the previous morning. The palm trees were not happy. It was so cold the thermostat in my truck’s coolant system froze stuck on the way to the restaurant, causing the engine to overheat. So I was late to work and already pissed off when I got there. I had no patience to watch a feeble natural gas flame ignite eight mesquite logs, especially not when Brenda stepped into the pit room and asked if I would help her carry a pot of barbecue sauce into the kitchen.

I never worried about the burgeoning fire. It was 15 degrees outside, so I figured if anything the logs would take longer than normal to ignite. Brenda and the other girls were inside, and I was happy to chat them up about whatever. The restaurant wasn’t scheduled to open for another two hours, so Gary the crotchety manager was still at home in bed. Everything was good.

This is why, when we heard someone banging on the front door, I didn’t immediately understand what was happening. Even when he yelled, “The pit room is on fire!” my brain didn’t want to make the connection. I’d only been inside for five minutes, maybe ten. Nowhere near enough time for a fire to start.

Still, I took off for the back door. My heart begin to hammer in my chest. What if the pit was on fire? It was fully loaded with briskets. Hundreds of dollars worth of briskets.

I reached, the door, yanked it open, and what I saw was a monster.

Flames were pouring out of all three open doors. The pit was ten feet tall, remember, and the slanted roof was only another three or four feet higher. The flames from the top door had already burned a hole in the corrugated steel. From my vantage point, the open doors blocked me from most of the heat, but I knew what I had to do–get those doors closed. If I didn’t, the whole pit room would burn down. Maybe the entire restaurant.

I found the hoe-like tool and approached the pit. The heat was immense. Overwhelming. Even protected by the steel doors I could hardly approach it. And my efforts to close the doors were futile. They wouldn’t move. When I pushed on them, the fire pushed back. It was a live thing, that fire. It roared at me.

This angle was never going to work, so foolishly I decided to try another tactic. I walked around pit #3 and approached the burning pit head on. This was a big mistake. Without the doors to protect me, I was exposed to the full force of the fire, which immediately flash-burned all the exposed skin on my body. It was like standing on the surface of the Sun. I retreated. I stood back and watched flames consume the briskets, watched the fire climb through the hole in the roof. I imagined the entire restaurant would burn to the ground, all because I had stupidly left an open flame unattended.

Eventually the fire department arrived and sprayed water everywhere. When they were gone, the pit still stood strong, but the briskets were a charred, soaking mess. They were lost. The 80-quart plastic ice chest, the one we stored cooked briskets in, was melted like candle wax. I was devastated.

Gary arrived a few minutes later, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he sent me home. But somehow he didn’t. A few minutes later, the owner, Kenny showed up. He pulled me aside and told me not to worry. The fire wasn’t negligence on my part, he said, because I’d been inside helping the girls. He called my mistake a “hustling error.” Which was partly true and partly not, so I still felt terrible.

Later that evening, after the restaurant closed, we held a Secret Santa Christmas party. I was in a sour mood and not interested in exchanging presents. All I wanted was to go home. But eventually someone handed me a wrapped box, which I reluctantly opened. What I found inside finally made me smile.

It was a toy fire truck.

After I finished college and moved to Tulsa, I drove my girlfriend to Corpus to show her where I had grown up. I was especially excited to take her by the restaurant, since I had told her many horror stories about that place. But as we approached the parking lot, I could see something was wrong. Where the building should have been, there was just a pile of ground-up asphalt

We went somewhere else to eat, and after we ordered, I pulled the waitress aside and asked her if she knew what had happened to the barbecue restaurant.

She nodded gravely, as if I were inquiring about the dead.

“Yeah,” she said. “It burned down.”

On May 19, 1993, I reported to work for my first real job…or more precisely the first one I held after graduating from university. Prior to that I had worked three years as an electronics salesperson at Sears while attending Texas A&M, and before that I toiled in the pit room of a barbecue restaurant for three other years. Unlike a lot of my friends, I didn’t enjoy bouncing from one job to the next, so as far as teenage employees were concerned I was about as loyal as they come.

Outrage

By Richard Cox

Rants

In a little while I have to go outside and haul six giant lawn bags from my back yard to the street. The bags are full of leaves and some pruned tree branches and they aren’t all that heavy, but that doesn’t make me dread it any less. It’s fairly downhill from my back yard to the street. There is a strip of grass all the way to the curb, so I don’t really have to carry them. I could just drag them down there. Tomorrow morning the bags will be magically whisked away to raked leaf heaven, and still I’d rather complain about having to move them forty feet to the curb than actually do it.

Earlier I went to the grocery store and they were out of local honey. All they had in stock was a slick national brand harvested in a faraway place, and for all I know it’s not even honey but high fructose corn syrup with glue in it, the product of an evil, shadowy agribusiness scientist whose entire purpose on this planet is to genetically engineer foods that are addictive and make me fat when I eat too much of them. As you can tell I’m pissed off about the honey. About the store being stocked full of 3.8 million food items I might want to buy but being out of the kind of honey I definitely want to buy. The nerve.

On the way to the store the streets were packed with cars and trucks and SUVs. There were too many to count. Where the hell are all these people going? There are twenty four hours in a day. We don’t all have to take the same two hours out of every day and jump on the road together, do we? The guy in front of me was driving a giant pickup truck, red and shinier than a brand new Porsche, and it should be clear to anyone who cares that he’s never hauled so much as a screwdriver in the bed of that thing. There is a cover over the bed, for heaven’s sake. How dare he have the opinion that a pickup truck is nice-looking and might be purchased for any reason other than pure utility?

And even when the roads are empty, like late at night or in the middle of nowhere, I’m always too far away from where I want to be. Last year I drove to Wichita Falls on a storm chasing expedition, and when the chase turned out to be a bust, I was five hours from home. Five hours! So on the way back, in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, I got a bit of a lead foot. Maybe it was my choice to drive all the way to Texas but that doesn’t mean I should have to spend five hours on an empty highway going home. Somewhere between the Red River and Lawton I reached 135 miles an hour before I decided I was being an idiot. What’s the big rush to get home? So I can sit there and sulk about not seeing a tornado?

But I have every right to sulk. When I storm chase I connect my laptop into one of the power outlets in my car and hook it to a GPS receiver that is plugged into the other power outlet. Then I use a wireless card to connect my laptop to the Internet. Software on my computer overlays weather radar with a road map, it tells me how fast the storms are going and how fast I’m going and allows me to plot an intercept course. It tells me if storms are rotating and if they are producing hail. The software does everything but drive me to the damned storms, but then I cross the Red River and that’s when I find out my phone carrier doesn’t offer rural data service in northwest Texas. So I have to actually look for the storms, like out my window, and I have to place a phone call to someone and ask them to look at the radar. I mean I’m in the middle of nowhere and I have this little flatscreen computer phone that makes it possible for me to call anyone in the world, but that’s not enough. There is no data service out here for the love of God.

My car is smart enough to talk to my iPod and pipes all my playlists into a fancy display on the dash, but the menus take too long to navigate. I guess it’s my fault because I had the nerve to load 4,000 songs on there. 4,000 songs that I’m totally bored with. Hundreds of thousands of hours of blood and sweat tears by musicians I’ve never met and I can’t find a single song on the damned iPod that I want to listen to.

And while I’m driving back I can’t decide if I’m hot or cold. I tinker with the interior climate of the car by individual degrees. And the road is too bumpy. I look out on the prairie and I imagine people trying to cross the land on horses or in wagons, with no smooth asphalt, unimaginable discomfort caused by life-threatening conditions in the Old West, and I’m frustrated because the only restaurant on the turnpike is McDonald’s.

This weekend I’ll play golf and probably shoot a pretty good score, but I’ll be upset whenever any shot doesn’t go exactly where I want. I’ve only been playing for twenty-five years. Why haven’t I figured this out yet? It’s not rocket science.

And speaking of rocket science, why haven’t we sent a man to Mars by now? This is 2010. We were supposed to find that big black alien rectangle by Jupiter nine years ago, but the reality is we haven’t even traveled to the closest planet yet. We’re supposed to be flying around in DeLoreans propelled by fusion engines that run on trash, not arguing over where to dig up more fossil fuels. And if you really want to piss me off, ask me why there is no such thing as a real lightsaber.

How come everything isn’t exactly as I want it? Whose fault is this?

I’m outraged!

Aren’t you?

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.

Wounded Tiger

By Richard Cox

The Feed

 

10:04 P.M. February 18.

It’s around 10 o’clock on Thursday night, about twelve hours before Tiger Woods is scheduled to give a highly controlled statement to the press about “transgressions” against his family, and I’m wondering how to feel. Some of you may remember I wrote about Tiger’s minor “traffic accident” on this site a few days after it happened. This evening I read that post, two-and-half months old now, and one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

One of the great tragedies of childhood was my inability to harness the forces of witchcraft. It wasn’t for lack of trying. You have no idea how many times I stared at my homework and wiggled my nose, hoping to cause math problems to magically solve themselves, how many times I urged the kitchen dishes to become spontaneously clean with a snap of my finger. For years I was convinced the problem had to do with sound effects, or more specifically a lack of them. On “Bewitched,” whenever someone cast a spell, it was invariably accompanied by the sound of a harp or a bell or both. My spells were devastatingly silent.

Let’s talk about book reviews on Amazon.com.

I’ve published two novels, both of which have been reviewed around twenty times each on Amazon, and I’ll be the first to admit that most of those reviews were written by people I know. The reason I know this is because I asked them to write the reviews. In some cases I begged. The idea being that perhaps I could somehow influence the purchasing decision of the odd person who happened across one of my novels online.

A few weeks ago I was watching Planet of the Apes, the original version, circa 1968, for the first time in many years. It’s a movie you can only enjoy fully one time because of the famous concluding scene, the Big Surprise. I was streaming it on Netflix and only half-watching, at least until the point where our confused astronauts encounter a tribe of wild humans. One of those humans turns out to be a woman who eventually becomes Nova. Like all the wild humans, Nova can’t speak, and mainly she’s there to look pretty.

I’m so ashamed. I only made it three days.

Three days before I ended up on TMZ.com.

When the news first broke, I was watching a college football game with my dad. A network news anchor looked gravely into the camera and explained how Tiger Woods had been involved in an automobile accident and his condition on the scene had been described as serious. I don’t know about the world at large, or for readers of The Nervous Breakdown, but for sports (and particularly golf) fans, this was big news. Obviously you’re concerned for the guy’s safety, but when you find out he’s okay and learn a few details about the accident, questions begin to arise.

But why? As I wrote in an earlier TNB blog, I don’t know Tiger Woods any more than I know my neighbors who live two doors down. I’m not interested in their daily drama, so why would I be interested in the personal life of a famous golfer I’ve never met?

I’m completely interested to see him dominate the sport of golf like no one else, to use his swing as a model for my own (I still have some work to do there). As a sports fan and a serious golfer, I have every reason to be impressed with his miracle victory in the 2008 U.S. Open (hobbled by a bum knee), or winning the 2007 PGA Championship less than two miles from my house.

But why would I care about him running over a fire hydrant, other than he’s not seriously hurt?

And yet I was.

My first thoughts were that he either a) wandered out of the house on sleep medication, or b) had gotten into a fight with his wife. How or why else would a person who wasn’t drunk run into a fire hydrant right next to his own driveway? At 2:30 in the morning?

But I was determined not to care. Even as people texted me gossip from smut web sites, I refused to go looking for those details myself.

If you ask anyone if they approve of the methods used by today’s paparazzi, they will invariably say “no.” The worst of these photographers are dirtier scum than email spammers. They jump from behind trees and frighten actresses, and then sell these pictures to magazines that write stories about how Jen still isn’t over Brad. They’ll follow any minor celebrity hoping to see a misstep that can be sold for cash.

But they’re only able to earn a living doing that kind of shit because we as consumers buy their goods.

And even if you don’t buy trash magazines, you probably still watch television and read news on the Internet. Tiger’s story is on every network, on every news web site. They cover stories like this because that’s what sells advertising. It’s what we want to see.

Look at this photo, by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images:

All this for a guy who hit a fire hydrant and a tree with his SUV.

But oh, he’s the best golfer of all time and is worth close to a billion dollars. And won’t tell us how or why the accident occurred. Further, this extra attention is directed at Tiger largely because of his squeaky-clean public persona. It’s like we want to see him fail, since we’ve never seen it happen before. Is that because we’re happy to know he’s a flawed human being, or because jealousy drives us to enjoy his suffering?

Let’s say for a moment the worst rumors are true: He angered his wife, she attacked him in some way, and even chased the SUV with a golf club as he tried to flee the scene. All he’s done since then is blame the accident on himself and ask for privacy.

Isn’t that what any of us would do? In fact wouldn’t most wives appreciate a husband who protected her in that way, even if she was pissed at him for something else?

He is Tiger Woods, however, so people want the details. But why? Why does it matter? How will the lives of golf fans or casual observers be any different tomorrow if he were to offer us a few sordid morsels?

I’m ashamed of myself for following a link to TMZ (an entertainment site I deeply despise) but that doesn’t change the fact that I did it.

Whatever the reason for his accident, no matter which (if any) rumors are true, for me it doesn’t alter my awe of Tiger Woods. He is the best in the world at a sport I love. I didn’t think any less of Stephen King when I learned of his drug and alcohol problems (that actually explained a lot), and if tomorrow Jonathan Franzen were to admit an addiction to Internet porn, I would still purchase every book he ever published. I don’t know these men personally and likely never will, but as long as they don’t intentionally kill anyone I will probably always like them.

But I like myself a little less when I’m forced to admit that I cannot completely ignore the drama in their personal lives. No matter how much I wish it weren’t so, such is the reality of human nature.

The other day I was walking down Market Street, enjoying a rare day of calm winds and clear, sunny skies, when a stranger approached me. His hair was brown and coarse, like horsehair, which he clearly hadn’t washed in weeks. Maybe months. He was short and swarthy and wore a thick, bushy moustache and a black trench coat that was too big for him. I tried to walk around him, delete him from my life, but he swerved to intercept me. This is what always happens. You can’t get away from these guys.

A while back I drove to Texas and attended a high school reunion. Events like these are surreal for most everyone, but as I approached Wichita Falls on a cold and still Friday evening, the intensity of it all was overwhelming—the color of the sky, the emptiness of the prairie, the quiet roar of my tires on interstate asphalt. I felt like I was driving into someone else’s dream. I’d lived in this area for less than three years, and many more years had passed since I’d had contact with anyone I had known there. Hell, I didn’t even graduate high school in Wichita Falls because my family moved to Corpus Christi the summer before my senior year. The only way I’d known about the reunion at all is because I saw something about it on MySpace, and I wasn’t sure I should go since I wasn’t on the alumni list.

But I wanted to go. For a bit of nostalgia, sure, but also because I wondered if anyone would remember me. My family moved seven times before I left for college, and I hadn’t kept in contact with any of my childhood friends. Because of this I had romanticized these short-term friendships, imagined they were more meaningful than they probably were, and I assumed I was missing out on some essential quality of childhood that less-nomadic kids took for granted. I felt impermanent; if no one from those years remembered me, had I actually lived them? Were the memories real? Did the past exist anywhere else besides my own mind?

And of course there was a girl. There’s always a girl.

* * *

Relationships are mostly about geography.

Your childhood friends are the other kids who live on your block. Or you meet them in homeroom, or they play on your little league baseball team. You don’t choose these friends so much as you happen across them. Often you barely have anything in common at all.

As you get older, the schools get bigger, and it’s easier to meet people like yourself. In college you enroll in certain classes, you join certain clubs, you’re invited to certain parties. You aggregate and congregate and build relationships based on shared interests and attitudes instead of coincidence.

But in adulthood your world social world tends to shrink again. You work in this office and live in that apartment building. You pick up friends here and there, at work or at church or on your flag football team, and maybe you don’t realize the best friend you never had lives three blocks away. You both shop at the same grocery store and play the same golf course, but for nothing more than probability, you’ll never meet.

Now think about your very best friends—the few who understand you better than anyone else, the ones you practically share a brain with—and consider the astronomical odds you overcame to even meet them in the first place.

* * *

I wasn’t driving to Wichita Falls completely blind. I’d chatted on Facebook and MySpace with a few people who planned to be there. At the first event, a Friday night football game, the organizer of the reunion recognized me. I hadn’t known her in school, but that evening she smiled at me and made me feel welcome.

Inside the stadium, the night was bright and cold. Fans, thousands of them, were huddled under red and black blankets. I was expecting some kind of fanfare, a whole section of cheering alumni impossible to miss, but it turned out there was only a handful of us. Eventually I found another familiar face, an online friend, and sat next to him. I had known of him in school, but only vaguely. I’m not sure he remembered me.

Only a fraction of the graduating class made it to the game. The girl wasn’t one of them. And if she had been there, I probably wouldn’t have spoken to her. Not only because it was cold and everyone was rooted to their seats, but because I was mortified she wouldn’t remember me. She had been one of the most popular girls in school, and certainly among the most beautiful. I was awkward and painfully shy, my face burned with acne, a kid who appeared in the middle of ninth grade and disappeared before graduation. I knew her peripherally for a couple of years, and then, during my last semester before moving away, we sat next to each other in English class. She was the only pretty girl I’d ever found the courage to speak to, and every day I made her laugh. In my yearbook she wrote how nice it was to finally to get to know me, and thanked me for being so sweet to her. I allowed myself to believe, had I found the courage to ask her out, that she would have said yes.

* * *

Social networking sites recognize the problem of geography. Not only can you meet people of like interests, but you find them all over the world. The larger population makes it more likely you might meet a best friend or even a soul mate…at least in theory. The reality is a bit different because online personas don’t always match up with their real world counterparts. Often the qualities you imagined made the two of you so perfect for each other turn out to not really exist, or at least not the way you hoped. And since attraction is fickle, your online friend might be no more of a match than someone you stumbled across by chance in the real world.

And so we’re back to that random encounter, the probability-defying instance where you meet a person that, friend or lover, is the missing piece of the puzzle that is you. It’s not difficult to recognize a person like this. All it takes is a single conversation. And it’s the same where romance is concerned. Love isn’t a look across a room. Lust is a component of love, yes, but if that’s all you’re working with, you’re missing the real magic.

Because of the sheer math involved, we don’t meet these puzzle pieces often. You never know how or when it might happen. And when it comes to love, we often aren’t willing to wait. Circumstances trick us into assigning greater meaning to most of our romantic relationships than what is really there. This may be why friendships often last a lifetime, but marriages don’t fare as well. There isn’t as much pressure to force friendship as there is love. Your biological clock doesn’t care much about your friends. It wants you to find a mate, and the sooner the better.

* * *

I was only sixteen years old when I sat next to the girl in English class, but if she had wanted to get married I probably would have asked her. I couldn’t imagine being drawn to a person more than I was to her. But of course I was too young to understand that a pretty face and a kind smile don’t equal a match. In fact, it was a long, long time before I finally figured this out.

The day after the football game, Saturday, lunch was held in the high school cafeteria. Many more alumni showed up, and I saw plenty of recognizable faces. A guy I played basketball with. A guy who had lived in my neighborhood. Both of these men recognized me, and though they seemed more surprised than pleased to see me, I was nevertheless relieved. Their acknowledgment meant I really had gone to school with these people, that my memories weren’t built from illusion after all. The long hallways and institutional staircases and antiseptic smells were all familiar. These people and this place were my past, and they were real.

And then I saw her. Actually I first noticed her voice. The tone was a little deeper than I remembered, but unmistakable nonetheless. After a moment I made eye contact with her, and I thought her gaze lingered a bit, but maybe I only imagined it. She was as popular as ever. It seemed as though people were lining up to talk to her. I assumed at some point she might be left alone, a tiny window where I could approach her, but it never happened. She was in constant conversation the entire lunch, and even during the mingling period that followed.

One thing I should make clear: I wasn’t there to meet this girl in a romantic way. Far from it. But I couldn’t imagine leaving the reunion without speaking to her, not before I could compare my memories of her to the reality of the woman she had become. As the afternoon wore on, however, doing so became less and less likely. She was never alone, not even for a moment. What could I do? Walk up while she was talking to someone else and wait for them to stop? The past pulled on me like gravity, weighing me down, rooting me to where I stood. Not once during my nearly three years in this school had I asked any girl on a date.

I thought about giving up, walking away, but instead I summoned all the confidence I could muster and approached her. She glanced at me and then continued her conversation with this other person. Seconds ticked by, maybe minutes, and my skin began to crawl. Had I made a mistake? Did she recognize me at all?

Finally, she was free. She smiled the same smile I remembered and extended her hand. I shook with her and introduced myself, watching for recognition to flicker in her eyes the way it had with the other friends I had discovered here.

But no recognition appeared. She didn’t remember me. She even apologized for not remembering.

We talked for a while afterward, close to a half hour, about various political and cultural topics. It was a fine conversation, but we didn’t share similar views on very many things. Eventually we climbed into our cars and drove our separate ways, and that night, when dinner and drinks were served, when tables were cleared to make room for a dance floor, I made no effort to speak to her again.

* * *

I’m not sure I learned anything intellectually by attending the reunion, because what occurred there is pretty much what I expected. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It’s one thing to tell yourself how you should feel about a situation, but something else altogether to live it.

Because while it’s true that reality for each of us exists only in our own minds, the magic of being human are the odd and daily experiences you share with someone else.