Cold words, warm hearts

It’s official. My sons are more successful than I am. Three weeks ago, they made a song parody, and it’s had more than 49,000 views on YouTube. Granted, most of those have been me, clicking on it to see the latest count, but still…

I’m even more proud of them because it’s a parody of a song from the movie Frozen; a project like that took a significant amount of effort from them because, well, it’s from the movie Frozen.

Their mother forced all of us to watch it – something she probably regrets to this day. We weren’t very receptive to doing so, and we made our feelings known the whole time she was trying to enjoy the movie.

Also, we still use the songs to torture each other. Whenever someone says a phrase that matches one of the song titles from that movie, the others immediately break into that song. You might think that wouldn’t happen very often, but you’d be surprised how common the phrase “Let it go” is. It’s especially common in a house filled with grudge-holders – like ours…

“Remember that time you ate the last bit of Lucky Charms and put the box back in the pantry, you jerk?”

“That was five years ago; let it go….”

“Let it go! Let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore! Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door!”

I have to admit, with respect to that last quote, the singer rarely gets that far before having something thrown at him. Bonus points, though, if he can get all the way through, “The cold never bothered me, anyway!” before someone forcefully shuts his mouth.

So yeah, that one’s pretty common. Less common, however, is “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” – it’s just not a phrase you hear uttered around here, so we have to take liberties with that one, and sing it anytime anyone asks anything that sounds like it: “Do you want to _____?”

That’s what happened when Chris was working a storefront popcorn booth with his Boy Scout troop, and one of them half-heartedly asked a potential customer, “Do you wanna buy some popcorn?” Inspiration hit, and he brought it home with him. Matthew jumped onboard, being a Cub Scout who also needs to sell popcorn.

They work well together.

They work well together.

For one thing, the question was worthy of parody, because they’re not supposed to ask it to begin with. Selling popcorn is a fundraiser, and they’re supposed to express it as such. They know their popcorn is pricey, and can’t compete as popcorn alone. What they are selling, is the opportunity to help Scouts pay for the cool things they do. The popcorn should be considered incidental, a gift the donor gets in return for their support. It’s like selling someone a $20,000 key chain, then giving them a small car as a gift.

So the question is supposed to be, “Would you like to support Scouts by buying some popcorn?” Not that that isn’t a particularly loaded question, but it’s more accurate in its representation of the transaction.

For that reason, “Do you wanna buy some popcorn?” was a funny question to them. Plus, it fit the meter of the song. So they got to thinking about other lyrics, and it wasn’t long before they had pulled in a certain columnist who lives under the same roof, to act as a consultant on their parody. Soon, we had a full verse of lyrics, and I told them I’d like to record the song for uploading.

That’s when Chris remembered he doesn’t like to sing in public. He’s more of a comedian, so we gave him a punchline to deliver in his own inimitable style, after Matthew had sung the parody in his. And a 52-second fundraising parody video was born. I uploaded it to YouTube, included the URLs for people to support them by ordering popcorn, and shared the link on Facebook, generating a couple hundred hits and a couple of sales.

The next day, I sent the link to Bryan Wendell, a nationally known Scouting blogger, and he asked if he could share it on his blog, Bryan on Scouting. I told him that would be fine, then watched as the hit count grew. That evening, the boys were thrilled to watch the count increase every time we refreshed the page.

Bryan’s blog has about 5000 subscribers, so I expected the views to get to maybe 3000 or so. The next morning, it had surpassed 20,000 – and the boys were ecstatic. Of course, most of the people watching it were involved in Scouting, so they already had bought popcorn from their own sons.

By the time the video reached 48,000 views, the number of orders had increased by a whopping three, ensuring the boys would learn something I already knew from experience – someone can do something creative and/or funny, and people might like it, but it doesn’t mean people will buy whatever that someone is selling. Still they’ve managed to sell more popcorn than I have books. But the boys enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame, and I managed to shield them from the other downside of receiving a lot of attention online – haters.

Because the trolls came out in force. That second day, I was shocked to read the comments and see that some viewers had posted hateful comments about the boys. I tried to remember the Scout Law – a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent – but it’s hard to maintain that level of civility when someone has written vile things about your young sons. Fortunately, despite my lack of YouTube posting and moderating experience, I figured out how to delete readers’ comments.

One thing that can’t be deleted, is the “Dislike” counter. Why is it even there? Does it serve any practical purpose? Why should anyone care if some random troll out there claims to dislike a video? One commenter alluded to this – and to the mean voice behind the door in the video, telling the Cub Scout to go away – with this show of solidarity: “The people clicking Dislike are the same ones who would chase them away.”

"Take that, kid!"

“Take that, kid!”

An indignant troll saw that and said, “No, I clicked Dislke because I didn’t like it.” Fine, then. Don’t like it; nobody’s forbidding you from feeling that way. But don’t actively Dislike it! These are kids; if you really don’t like something they’ve done, the best way to provide feedback without causing undue hurt feelings, is to focus on something constructive. Don’t feel like going to that trouble? Then just. Move. On.

Look, I know the option is there to rate something, but that doesn’t mean we have to do so. Some opinions simply aren’t vital. If someone doesn’t like my kids’ video, that’s fine, but why tell them that? Why not just ignore it, move along, and forget it? If that person were facing my kids in person, you know they wouldn’t dare say to their faces, “Hey, I don’t like your video.”

Or would they? Surely they wouldn’t tell a kid in person that they dislike something the kid just worked hard to create, would they? If they would, I hope they stay off social media, and instead focus on the search for their lost heart.

Obviously, no Bain Waves reader would do such a thing. In fact, let’s be honest – after eight months of silence, any given Bain Waves reader is probably thinking, “Do I know this guy, let alone his kids?”

But if you remember me, and you’re up for it, then here’s your chance to further my shame. Make my sons even more successful than I’ve been, and order some popcorn! Please?

[Warning: Here’s where I get solicitous; there is no more fun to be had, but I’ll be grateful if you keep reading.]

Most of the money goes toward the boys’ activities, so their Pack and Troop can do fun things like taking them to Charleston, SC to spend a weekend onboard the USS Yorktown; providing them with Pinewood Derby kits, so they can carve and paint a car to race against their friends’ cars; paying for them to go to summer camp and work on merit badges that translate into lifelong skills; or even helping them earn scholarships (Matthew is about $200 shy of triggering one that will earn more money each year for the next nine years).

I’m not one to ignore the elephant in the blog; yes, I know there are some politics at play in any transaction with Scouts. I think everyone knows where I stand, but if not, I’m happy to answer any questions or discuss this in an entry that isn’t focused on my kids. Tomorrow, maybe?

If you’ve read this far, thanks. If you want to help out, you can buy from Chris, the co-creator with a pop-up cameo at the end, by going to his page, or you can buy from Matthew, the singer, by going to his page, or heck, you can buy one item from each!

If you buy something, please let me know, and I’ll add your name to a drawing for one of my books.

And if you don’t buy something, that’s fine, too. Thanks for reading, and for watching their video. But if you don’t like it please just don’t tell them….

Posted in Family, Music, Parenting, The Kids, The Wife | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Straight to the point

Hello. Remember me? I don’t blame you, which is the reason for the first of five precursory comments:

1 – Yes, I know it’s been nearly 11 months since my last post. I’d apologize, but I can’t imagine my lack of presence in your feed has been particularly painful to you. Moving on, though, I’m going to try to write more entries, soon. I hope.

2 – I usually try to be funny with my entries. Not so much with this one. It’s just me, waxing philosophical. Although I guess it qualifies as a rant, even if not as a funny one.

3 – This started with me visiting a political thread, but this post is not meant to be political. In the interest of full disclosure, I disagree with the comment I am about to quote — at least, inasmuch as I understand it — but I swear to you, that is not the reason for my rant. No, my reason is grammatical only, and I swear to you, if my idealogical freaking twin had written a passage in the same revolting lack of grammatical constructs, I would have reacted the same way.

4 – I do not know the person who posted what I’m about to quote. I did not engage with that person. I do not wish to make fun of that person. I see their quote only as an example. If they should ever happen upon this blog entry and recognize their own words, it will be by coincidence only, and they should realize I’ve done nothing to identify them; therefore, it would probably be in their best interest to let the matter drop, rather than identify themselves and bring on their own ridicule via pursuing the matter further.

5 – I am good friends with the person on whose Facebook page this quote appeared. In the interest of keeping her clear of guilt and free of blame, I did not tell her of my plan to copy and paste said quote. I hope she can forgive me, because I hope that third person realizes our mutual friend had nothing to do with this blog entry.

Okay, I think that about does it. So without further ado, I’m going to quote a comment from a Facebook thread about Kansas HB2453, which among other things, allows business-owners to refuse service or employment to gay people if doing so “would be contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.” The owner of the Facebook profile in question, was against said bill. Multiple people shared opinions on the subject, and with the exception of the name “joe” (which I changed), one person wrote the following:

“to play devils advocate a little when did the rights of the straight people become secondary to those of the gays since we are talking about equality i am all for live and let live but if i disagree with how someone lives it does not make me a bigot we are so worried with making sure the minority gets theirs what about the middle class who is slowly shrinking can i get a bill for that or can i get my equal rights or do i just lay here and continue to take it and i agree with joe it is a Free country don’t like it don’t live there if you do then by all means live and let live means letting something you don’t like or agree with be what it will be”

Now, let me ask you — what the hell does that mean? Can someone diagram that sentence for me? No. No, you can’t, because it’s not a damned sentence! It’s a series of poorly written clauses, smushed together into one ghastly run-on jumble of words, paying no heed to the customarily accepted rules of grammar. How can anyone read this shit? It makes no sense!

Just for kicks, I checked out the Facebook page of the person who “wrote” that. Their other posts were similar — no capitalization nor punctuation. Why? Why must this be? Is it the inevitable result of texting? Or is it just epic laziness? (But I repeat myself.)

Regardless of the reason it exists, it shouldn’t. We must act quickly and decisively, squelching this behavior and demanding that its perpetrators learn basic grammar. If not, our very language stands to crumble apart.

Honestly, can you understand what that passage says? I mean, we all get the idea, but come on! If this type of writing continues to go unchecked, the English language will devolve into multiple, mutually incomprehensible dialects.

I’ve been on this soapbox before, and most people laugh it off as nonsense. But dammit, we have grammar for a reason. I’m not talking the differences between there, their, and they’re — yes, mistakes like that bother me, but I’m willing to overlook them if I can understand what the person means. In the case of the above quote, I understand nothing.

Seriously, I can’t tell what that person is saying, because I can’t tell where one “sentence” ends and another begins. I can’t even tell whether the person is asking a question, making an exclamation, or stating a fact. And this makes me wonder, does that person feel the same way when reading grammatically correct sentences? Do we have a failure to communicate here?

Laugh if you must, but do one thing for me first, if you will. Scroll back up to that dreadful quote, stand up, and clear your throat. (Okay, I realize those were three things, but they are all steps in the one thing — as is the following, the most vital of the steps.) Without previewing the quote, read it aloud. Go ahead, jump right in and just try to express the verbal nuances with your voice. I’ll wait.

Couldn’t do it, could you? Neither could I. Nor will I ever be able to. In fact, I bet its author wouldn’t be able to do it. Which is why we have to do something about it.

We owe it to ourselves and to our progeny, not to mention to our very language, to correct these linguistic atrocities with extreme prejudice. Correct them, educate those who would commit them, and do everything we can to reduce their chances of recidivism.

So say I, the guy who wouldn’t even engage with the person who wrote that shit, and who hoped that person would never stumble across this blog entry.

Okay, clearly, this is going to take some work. You first….

Posted in Education, Life and How to Live It, Politics, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

March sadness

A few nights ago, I dropped my son off for an overnight event, and on my way home, traffic came to a stop in the highway just outside a coliseum where the teams in a well-known college basketball rivalry had just finished a game. One of them had won, apparently.

Even though the game had just let out, the traffic jam didn’t seem to be due to traffic leaving the parking lot and entering the highway. This felt more like an accident – a suspicion that was confirmed when a police car sped by on the shoulder.

Normally I don’t text while driving, but technically, I wasn’t driving – I was parked on a road where I should have been driving. So I broke out the phone and texted my wife, asking if she could look up the location of the accident and text it back to me, so I could decide whether I needed to take an upcoming exit. Soon she texted back that she couldn’t find any information, and suggested that maybe there wasn’t an accident, that maybe the traffic was due to all those ______ students celebrating their team’s victory. I took the next exit and figured she was right.

That intro not only serves to get 200 words out of the way when I don’t have a lot to write on a topic but still need to get paid for writing a lot, it also illustrates the point I hope to eventually make – that when your team wins a big game, you can pretty much get away with doing whatever you want.

At the very least, people believe that. Kim thought it possible that fans of the winning team had shut down a highway in celebration, and let’s be honest – it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. Ever been on Franklin   Street after Carolina wins the big one? Wait, forget I asked – let’s stick with situations that happen more frequently.

It’s also worth noting that a team doesn’t even have to win to rationalize crazed behavior. I’m writing this on the eve of the Superbowl, and I can guarantee you three things about tomorrow: 1) fans in the winning city will do something destructive in exuberance; 2) fans in the losing city will do something destructive in frustration; and 3) utility employees in both cities have spent the past week hoping their water systems can handle the frenzy of halftime flushes.

But this is pro football, right? Surely college basketball fans have a little more decorum? Tell that to the Cameron Crazies. Sure, any game is going to have its share of catcalls against the opposing team, but come on – those fans aren’t crazy, they’re just mean. Their chants go beyond showing support for their team, to verbally attacking their opponents over issues that have nothing to do with the game. For a group who will undoubtedly remind the rest of us that their education is far superior to ours, they sure seem to forget some of the basic good sportsmanship lessons that are typically taught in kindergarten.

I'm sure they're just trying to encourage him.

I’m sure they’re just trying to encourage him.

How else can you describe a group who would chant, “How’s your grandma?” to an opposing player whose grandmother just passed away? Or would make light of an athlete’s sexual abuse allegations? Yep, nothing funnier than rape, is there, you crazy kids? I guess money can buy an education, but it can’t buy any class.

It’s also interesting that, for a group of dedicated fans, we hear nothing from them during football season. Why aren’t there any Wade Wackies to go along with the Cameron Crazies? Because despite their faults, at least they live by a code – the team has to have a winning season before the fans can start acting like jerks.

And as long as I’m feeling magnanimous, I might as well acknowledge one other small positive point about the Crazies – at least they don’t break anything more than the boundaries of good taste. Some fans overturn cars, burn public property, and/or maim animals in celebration. The worst the Crazies do after winning the big game is go back to their lab and maybe break an Erlenmeyer flask, or toss a 20-sided die out the window. As for the rowdier fans, they justify it by saying it’s all in the name of supporting a winning team, so that must make it okay.

I know I’m taking things too seriously – after all, you’re reading someone who thinks it’s cheating when the fans behind the backboard try to distract whoever’s trying to shoot a free throw. Hey, it’s interfering with the players. Just like Jeff Maier in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series. The umps pretty much had to rule it a homer for Derek Cheater, because if they had called it for the fan interference it truly was, that kid wouldn’t have made it out of Yankee Stadium alive – he’d probably still be there today, maybe right next to Jimmy Hoffa.

See, it’s not our job to play the game; it’s our job to watch. And cheer. And avoid overreacting. If we are to retain our humanity, we really need to act a little more human.

Maybe it would help if we pretended every game is golf – you never see golf fans acting up. (For the purpose of this argument, we’ll go ahead and leave John Daly out of the category of “fans.”) Next year, our state is going to host both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens; do you think Pinehurst is concerned about unruly fans?

Golf fans don’t even get excited when they applaud; they have the quiet clap down to a tee (no pun intended). Can you imagine if they instead acted like other sports fans? What if a Webb Simpson fan leaned over the green and just gave the ball a little push toward the cup? Or stood behind the flag and waved his arms, trying to throw off Geoff Ogilvy’s putt? Ever seen anyone with “Rory McIlroy” painted on his otherwise bare chest, singing, “Go to hell, Graeme McDowell”? Or has an Angel Cabrera fan ever set a Prius on fire because it had a Phil Mickelson sticker on it?

I admit there have been some concerns in recent years about drunken golf fans acting up, but come on – it’s nowhere near the level of ardor displayed by fans of other sports. The game was invented by the Scots; it ought to be the most barbaric of them all, yet fans manage to keep their cool. Maybe the rest of us should take a lesson from that.

So let’s get out there and enjoy the March Madness, but let’s not make it literal. Let’s try to compartmentalize a little, before we’re all put in time-out. Watch. Enjoy. Cheer. Maybe even talk some smack. But for sports’ sake, let’s behave out there.

[Originally published in the March/April issue of Midtown.]

Posted in Bain's Beat, Sports | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Stupid little Cupid

Does Valentine’s Day make you feel insecure? Are you jealous of your friends and family members who have “perfect” relationships, and wondering why you and your significant other can’t live in that same paradise? Too often, it seems as if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but sometimes all it takes is a little closer inspection to see that the grass hasn’t fared so well over there.

Bad dates.

Bad dates.

I asked some readers to share their “brown grass” stories, and tell me about the times when Cupid’s arrow missed its mark. Some of them were all too happy to describe the dating disasters and relationship wrecks they’ve survived, fortunate enough to learn and love again.

So next time you’re wondering if you could do better, remember these anecdotes, and think about what’s out there. Then think about what you have. So what if he watches a little too much football? Who cares if she snorts when she laughs? At least they don’t go to higher levels of awkward, shocking, or downright crazy, like some of these folks did….

Going so low

The dating disaster that sticks out the most in my mind was when my date for the prom took me home early, so he could go back to the prom by himself.

At least he was honest

One of my girlfriends asked me to try speed dating with her. One guy I met had some trouble with English, but I got his message loud and clear. He kept stating, “Want to marry woman, and make babies” over and over again. Needless to say, I was not hooked.

Hope he wasn’t too incensed about the issue

I was on a first date as a 20-year-old college student with a slightly older guy. After dinner, where we had been at a comfortable distance from each other (across the table), we were out on the deck of the restaurant looking out at the view. I caught a whiff of something that to me seemed rather pungent and nauseating. I looked at him quizzically and asked, “Do you smell bug spray?” He said he didn’t smell anything.

The conversation continued, and the smell only grew stronger. Finally I asked again if he smelled it (I described it alternately as bug spray or “something really toxic”). Finally he leaned forward to expose his neck and asked me to see if it was his cologne. This was my first experience with patchouli!

Apparently I had scored myself a first date with a reforming hippie who was holding onto the last vestiges of counterculture – in a very big, very smelly way! I realized I had inadvertently insulted him, and the remainder of the date offered no opportunity to recover (for me or for him) so needless to say, it was both a first and a last date.

Brett, if you’re still out there, I’d like to apologize and introduce you to my little friend, Gucci by Gucci.

Fool me twice, you’re insane

I was new to Raleigh, and didn’t know a soul other than the people at my office. An old friend came to visit, and invited a friend of his to come over for a party I was throwing – she lived in the area and was equally lacking of a social life. We had fun together, so I later asked her out. The date went well, and I said I’d call her the following week. Apparently, that wasn’t soon enough, because the next morning, I was awakened by her knocking on my apartment door.

She’d shown up without calling first, with the makings of a full steak dinner and a bunch of board games. A blizzard was closing in, and she apparently wanted to get snowed in with me – after one date. She grilled up the steak and opened a bottle of wine. She ate a salad, since she was a vegetarian. It was still early in the day, so I didn’t want to drink wine, but she had some. I kept dropping hints that she shouldn’t have too much, because she’d need to drive home before the snow started falling, but she ignored me. She spent the night on my couch, and the next morning I told her I had to go to the office, just to get her to leave.

I foolishly asked her out again, but we had an honest discussion about boundaries and surprise visits. She told me she wouldn’t dream of dropping in with steak and wine again. Apparently, she drew a fine line between “dropping in” and “dropping by” because a couple nights later, I walked outside to find a card from her, taped to my door. The card’s printed message was cute, but her handwritten note inside was not – she was angrily telling me off for not having called her for two days. (It’s important to note that we hadn’t committed to anything long-term, and I hadn’t called her that frequently prior to this.)

So, after I’d asked her not to come over unannounced to make me lunch, she came over unannounced to leave me hate mail. I broke up with her by phone, then spent the next few weeks avoiding my apartment as much as possible, keeping the blinds down when I was there, and feeling thankful that she didn’t know where I worked.

Next time, ask about the Primaries

I wanted to talk about our slow-moving relationship, and was really looking forward to getting “the conversation” out of the way. We went to a nice restaurant and we were chatting for a while about our weeks, etc. when there was a break in the conversation. I jumped in.

(This is all paraphrased since my recording device was on the blink.)

Me: “I have a question for you. It’s about us.”

Him [looking a bit nervous]: “Okay.”

Me: “The pace of this relationship… How does it seem to you?”

Him: “Slow. It seems slow. Though I’m not sure what determines the pace. How does it seem to you?”

Me: “It seems slow, and I’m not sure what determines it in general, but in this case, I think it’s you.”

Him: “Well, I have a bad habit. If I think something has a lot of potential, I over-think everything and in this case, I was afraid to rush things so I guess I’m doing the opposite. I’ve had bad experiences in the past with rushing things.”

Me: “Okay, that makes sense. It just seems like we keep having our second date over and over again. I think it’s strange that we’ve gone out as many times as we have and we’ve never even made out. I’ll admit that I don’t know what you’re looking for. Are you looking for a long-term relationship?”

Him: “Yes, I am. And if you had asked me two months ago what I was looking for in a woman, my answer would have described you.”

(Now I was thinking, “He’s head-over-heels and scared… I didn’t expect this and I can’t say that I feel the same way.”)

At this point, he rambled a little bit about these past experiences, blah, blah, blah. And then he thanked me for bringing this all up because he totally agrees with me that it’s moving slowly. We were at a restaurant near his house, so at this point, I’m thinking, Okay, I guess we’ll go home and finally make out. I’m not exactly sure if I’m looking forward to it.

We talked about a few other things, and I started feeling really good about the conversation. Then I said, “I have one more question for you.”

Him: “Yes, the answer is yes.”

Me: “It’s not a yes-or-no question… What are you answering ‘Yes’ to?”

Him: “I’ll just let you ask what you were going to ask.”

Me: “No, really, I need to know what you’re answering.”

Him: “You were going to ask if I voted for George Bush.”

I’m no longer seeing him.

He can’t take her anywhere – especially to a Fancy Feast

So I am out on a second date with this older, rather prominent attorney. We are at an annual party that one of my neighbors throws. Huge deal – Elizabeth goes all out with the food, most of which she prepares herself, and has strategically placed hors d’oeuvres around the inside and outside of the house. It’s getting dark and they have hired a Mariachi band to come down the street, down their driveway and up the deck to perform for 20 minutes or so. My date and I are sitting on the brick partition going down the driveway and I take a handful of a snack mix sitting beside me. Well, it is awful, and literally starts to expand in my mouth. I’m trying to pretend that everything is okay, but my date looks at me and realizes that I am about to throw up so he hands me a handkerchief (yes, that’s how old he is) and I spit it into the hankie. About that time a girl that I have only met once or twice comes over and says, “Hey, _______, I hope you remember me. Did you just eat cat food?”

Is it because his bouncer made you feel uncomfortable?

I decided to do some online dating, and had talked to this guy on the phone a few times. He seemed really nice, and we had matched interests. He had been an attorney before moving to Portland, and now was a pig farmer (not my usual draw). I was trying to stay open-minded.

One day he called mid-afternoon and asked if I wanted to go for a drive. Since I had only met him in person once at the street market, I passed, because it was still too early. He mentioned he needed to drive around Portland for some money pick-ups. He then confessed he had another job in Portland that he’d hesitated to tell me about, since it seemed to be a deal-breaker to a lot of women.

He owned about 20 adult entertainer dancing locations across northern Oregon – the ones that are little houses with the “peek-a-boo” style of watching. He said he used to date the dancers but he doesn’t anymore, and doesn’t like to mix business with pleasure, but his girlfriends had trouble with the drama and late night calls of the dancers.

That was the last bit of conversation we had.

“Your what?”

Some friends of mine had set me up on a date with a really nice guy. He picked me up and we went downtown for some dinner. It was really fun, but a little bit after dinner he casually brought up that he and his girlfriend had not been doing very well. I ended up excusing myself to the restroom, and texting one of my girlfriends, “he has a girlfriend!”  When I returned I told him I was ready to go, and when he dropped me off, he asked if there was anything wrong. I simply mentioned I don’t date guys with girlfriends, and he should take care.


I met a woman at a Raleigh meetup. After a few weeks we became intimate, and she was curious to know if I’m dating anyone else. I said, “No; what about you?”  She said, “Except for my husband, no.”

I thought we were pretty close and exclusive, so I giggled a little at this thought – I’m not married, but my girlfriend is….

I like her a lot, so we remain friends.

No introductions necessary

In high school, I had been interested in this girl (we’ll call her L) for a while, but lost interest after some time. That was about the time she became interested in me, apparently, so she asked me out. I agreed, figuring maybe I would be able to rekindle my interest in her.

She told her best friend (we’ll call her A) about it, suggesting she invite along her boyfriend and we make it a double date (an element of which I was unaware). We had a hard time agreeing on what movie to go see, and finally settled on The Polar Express, with her strong interest to go see it and my fairly mild apathy.

I showed up at the theater, having been dropped off by my sister, to see L and A there, along with A’s boyfriend. And A’s brother. And A’s parents. Seems that A had completely misunderstood what was going on, and had invited her whole family along, not realizing L and I were on a date.

Pretty awkward already, but it gets worse: I was able to quickly identify A’s brother and parents because A is an ex-girlfriend of mine.

Try to keep your stories straight

My cousin was on a group dinner date with five couples – some married, some not. The topic of “Do people actually consummate on the wedding night?” comes up. Stories, laughter, drinking. One guy starts telling about him and his wife in the back of the limo on their wedding night, all over each other. You can tell his wife’s not happy this is coming out. He keeps going. She’s stone-faced. He finishes, red-cheeked and laughing, then looks at her. The table is quiet. She says, “That must have been your first wife.”

People didn’t even wait for the check. The moral? Get married…once.

No wonder he ordered the foot-long

I called a guy I’d met in a bar, and we had a brief but pleasant conversation, setting up a date for the weekend – the ever-safe dinner and drinks. Somewhere around when the appetizer arrived and I was halfway through my first drink, Joey hit me with an unusual bit of flattery: “You’ve got really nice feet.”  I stopped chewing and glanced down under the table at my French-manicured, sandal-clad toes. “They’re almost perfect – the way your toes go in order like steps.”

I laughed a little (albeit uncomfortably) and acknowledged this strange compliment with a “Thanks.” Then he asked, “Do you ever paint them red or pink?”

“What? My toes?” I said, taken aback. I couldn’t believe we were still talking about my feet! “Yeah,” he said, “I mean, I like the French manicure and everything, but I really like pinks and reds on toes best. French manicures are really more for hands.”

I had no idea how to respond, so I took another healthy sip from my drink, and said, “Well, yeah… sometimes I paint them red, but I’m not really a pink kind of girl.” I was pretty confused… I couldn’t figure out what the heck was up with this guy, so I tried to change the subject.

He later brought it back up by asking, out of the blue, if I enjoy foot massages. I said sure, from my pedicurist, but other than that, I really don’t indulge in them. His response: “I’d love to give you a foot massage.”

By this point, the waiter had finally arrived with my second drink and the entrée. I promptly began digging in just to avoid any more feet talk, when Joey said, “Well, would you like that?”

I said, “I’m sorry… what?” He said, “If I gave you a foot massage… would you like that?” Another healthy swallow from the martini glass, and I leaned across the table conspiratorially and said, “You do know it sounds like you have a foot fetish, right?”  And he said, like it was the most perfectly normal thing to be discussing on a first date, “Yes.”

Shocked, I think I finished half my drink. He then proceeded to tell me that he probably wasn’t the first foot fetishist I’d met. In fact, he felt quite sure that at least one of my previous boyfriends must have had a foot fetish. I’m not really sure why I bothered, but I argued this point with him, explaining that I had never had any boyfriend who willing offered himself up as my foot masseuse. He said, “How about one who liked licking your toes? Or sucking them?”

I said, “Eww… no!” He said, “Well, if not a boyfriend, what about a male relative?” I almost choked on my food then, and washed it down with the rest of my drink.

To top this fine evening off, he offered to suck and lick my toes that very evening if I was willing. The only thing I was willing to do at that point was flag down the waiter and ask him to bring the check as quickly as possible.

What, you don’t like having him write poetry about you?

First, there was the guy whose dinner conversation consisted of asking if I fart when I do yoga and if any of my ex-boyfriends were “hung.” Then there was the dude with a chronic ear condition who took us to a hibachi grill, held his hands over his ears the entire time, and said he’d commit suicide if his ears continued to bother him. And of course, there was the boy who wiped snot all over his hand just before serving himself from the pizza we ordered to share. And here I thought anchovies were my least favorite topping!

Honestly though, I think this last story is my absolute favorite. I’d had a lovely date with a guy who runs in similar art circles, so when he mentioned he could use a new harmonica, I gave him one that I had since I never use it. Through the wonders of Facebook, I found out that less than two hours later, he’d driven to his ex-girlfriend’s house and given her my harmonica as “a present.”

But that’s really not the best part – it’s what came after that. He was so mortified that he’d been caught that he left an old ratty guitar on my front porch “in repayment” along with a note that said I am fresh air during the pollen season and a great person to be stuck beside in traffic during the red light of his life.

After that last guy, I swore off dating, indefinitely. Then, the very next weekend… I met my future husband.

Now, after reading about their love lives, don’t you feel better about yours? Happy Valentine’s Day!

[Portions originally published in the January/February issue of Midtown.]

Posted in Bain's Beat, Holidays | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The blew-one-cold banquet

It was the most solemn moment of the night, probably moreso than the ceremonial crossing of the bridge that would eventually end the night’s activities. Even the Tiger Cubs were paying attention now, and their patience had already been tested (and failed, I might add). For now, each candidate’s trueness of spirit was to be tried in flame. And no six-year-old boy can look away when there’s a promise of fire on the church altar.

This was the Arrow of Light ceremony, possibly the high point of each year’s Blue and Gold Banquet. The banquet is a celebration of the February birthdate of Scouting, and in most Cub Scout packs, it’s traditionally the time when senior Webelos graduate from the Cub Scout pack and “bridge” into the Boy Scout troop of their choice.

This is an important turning point in a Scout’s life, as he is leaving a program that’s administered and overseen by adults, and is suddenly expected to take part in a largely participant-run organization. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like they go completely Lord of the Flies. But still — solemn.

The boys will have adorned and customized their own arrows, which the Cubmaster will then “test” individually to determine whether the boy who made each one is ready to bridge into Boy Scouts. To test the arrows, the Cubmaster quickly passes each one over a candle flame — if the boy is worthy, the shaft of his arrow will ignite in a brief-but-brilliant flash, indicating that the Great Spirit of Scouting has deemed that boy ready to move on. (Hint: After the boys decorate their arrows, they give them to their den leader for “safekeeping” — as well as any secret chemical enhancement he wishes to provide in order to stack the odds — until the night of the Blue and Gold. As a result, the Great Spirit has yet to reject any Webelos….)

This might sound hokey to you. That’s okay. To the target demographic — 6- to 11-year-old boys, blissfully unaware of BSA politics — it’s cool as all get-out. And frankly, it’s pretty cool to this overgrown kid, too. This particular ceremony was somewhat meaningful, too, as I had one son about to bridge out of Cub Scouts, and one who was in his first year — part of Tiger Cubs. I was Den Leader to him and eight other frisky Tigers, and had been Assistant Cubmaster, Cubmaster, and Service Coordinator to the Pack during his big brother’s five-year tenure as a Cub Scout.

I’d wanted to be there for each of them, for every step of their journey, to make sure they got maximum enjoyment and minimal negative exposure, and the best way to do that was to volunteer. So in essence, one phase of my volunteer career would come to an end as Christopher crossed the bridge later that night, even as a second phase was gearing up with the semi-culmination of Matthew’s Tiger year. So, yeah — solemn.

And quiet. The noise of dinner had died down, the boys having feasted on Hawaiian fare to match the “Aloha” theme before trudging up the hallway from the dining hall to the church sanctuary. The leaders thought the stillness and reverence of that great room would contribute to the solemnity of the upcoming ceremony. It took some convincing to get the Tiger Cubs to agree, but they finally began to settle down, as did the other three dens — Wolves, Bears, and first-year Webelos.

As a parent of one of the Arrow of Light candidates, I was invited to stand with them in line on the altar steps as they awaited the ceremony. I reminded the Tigers that they were in the frontmost pew, where everyone in the crowded sanctuary could see them, and begged them to behave accordingly. I left the Assistant Den Leader in charge, sitting with other Tiger Akelas (aka parents) in the second pew back, as I joined Christopher at the front of the church.

The Cubmaster stood behind the candle on the altar and explained that each candidate was to approach alone, presenting his arrow for the test. They mounted the stairs and the first of them prepared to hand over his arrow, probably a little scared that it might not ignite and a little scared that it might just blow up in his face. As all eyes settled on the first of the Webelos, a hushed awe fell over the sanctuary.

And in that moment of anticipatory silence, one of my Tigers — those sweet little cherubs in the frontmost pew — decided to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, if ya know what I’m sayin’. He blew one cold, as we used to say. Floated an air biscuit. Stepped on a duck. Unleashed a barking spider. Gave a Jersey salute. Played taps. Launched a mouse on a Harley. Tooted his own horn.

Moments before impact....

Moments before impact….

In other words, he farted. Hard. On a wooden pew. You know how that goes — farting on wood creates an amplification effect; he might as well have had the microphone in his pants. I mean, this kid didn’t just break wind; he shattered it into a million noisy pieces.

And he was in my den. I was mortified. I nearly snapped my neck as I jerked my head up in bug-eyed reaction — and immediately knew which kid it was. I know what you’re thinking, but I’m happy to report it wasn’t Matthew, who was sitting on the near end of the pew, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the candle and waiting in wonder for the first arrow to be tested. Nope, this was the kid in the exact middle of the group of nine. I could tell, because the reaction spread out from this kid’s central spot, like ripples from a stone dropped in water.

I watched helplessly as the pew full of first-grade boys began to giggle in concentric pairs, growing louder and louder until the reaction reached the ends of the pew and continued on to other pews — until it became obvious that everyone in the church had heard that kid’s Hawaiian dinner popping up to say “Aloha.”

Everyone, that is, except Matthew. I’ll never know how he stayed oblivious not only to the initial report, but to the building chaos that ensued. He never turned his head toward the rest of his den or the rest of the sanctuary, instead staying focused on that evidently hypnotic candle on the altar.

Meanwhile, even the parents were trying desperately not to react. I saw one Mom in the second pew cover her mouth and look at the floor, her head shaking silently with repressed laughter. For a split second I doubted my initial assessment, and thought maybe she was the culprit — then I realized she was as much a victim as the rest of us. I vowed in that moment to not make eye contact with another adult in that sanctuary for at least two minutes — especially Christopher’s Assistant Den Leader, with whom I’d shared many a sophomoric barb over the past five years, and who happened to be standing right next to me.

The Cubmaster, meanwhile, did the best thing to defuse the situation (even as the Tigers did their best to diffuse the situation) — he moved ahead with the ceremony, took the arrow from the first candidate, and loudly announced that he would now hold the arrow over the flame to test that boy’s worthiness. That brought all the attention home to him, and the matter quickly settled.

Other than one arrow that nearly caught the church on fire, the rest of the evening passed without incident. Each of the Webelos was deemed worthy, and eventually crossed the bridge to be greeted by the representatives of the troop he had elected to join. We put the matter behind us, so to speak, and brought another Blue and Gold Banquet to a close.

That was one year ago, and I’ve been hoping everyone would forget the incident. Matthew and his den mates have been working hard toward their Wolf badges, a tougher accomplishment than the Tiger badge. They’re a year older, and ostensibly more mature. So I wasn’t too concerned heading into this year’s Blue and Gold, which we held last night.

After a more neutral dinner of hot dogs with macaroni and cheese, we again headed to the sanctuary, where I discovered that our den had been assigned to the back pews in the group — and that those pews had soft, sound-dampening cushions on top of the hard, amplifying wood. As a further safeguard, we separated some of the boys and had them sit with their parents across our pews, rather than the boys in one pew with their parents in pews behind them. All was well.

But damn if it didn’t happen again. It wasn’t the same kid, but it was still one from my den. And it wasn’t the most solemn/quiet moment, but it didn’t need to be — this kid made up for the ambient noise by boosting his own volume up to an 11. It also didn’t matter that the pew was cushioned, as he was sitting on his dad’s lap. I have no idea how he got that kind of volume out of those circumstances, but he did.

And this year, I was right in the midst of it. I’m not related to any of last night’s Arrow of Light candidates, so there was no need for me to be at the altar. Instead, I was sitting with my den, ostensibly keeping them under control. Mostly, I was zoning out, thinking about mortgages, unpaid bills, and other fun stuff while I waited for the ceremony to start.

The blue bomber in our den brought me abruptly back to reality with his flatulent announcement, and my head again conspired against my neck in a whiplash-inducing turn. For a brief moment, I made eye contact with the dad at the other end of my pew. His eyes were wide in panic and he incredulously mouthed, “Again? Really?”

“Who was that?” I mouthed back.

He nodded toward the pew in front of us as he put his arm around his own son, stealthily bringing his hand around to muffle the laughter that was starting to flow. I looked at the spot where he’d nodded and could tell he was correct — one of the Wolves was giggling with pride as he delightedly squirmed on the lap of his rather red-faced father. And once again, those giggles were contagious.

I looked back to my own pew, where his dad’s hand wasn’t enough to stifle the laughter now streaming from the mouth of the kid at the other end. The kid next to him was giggling uncontrollably, and next to him, Matthew looked undecided.

There’s no way he could have stayed oblivious this time, but he was loyal to the last, bless his heart. He knew he shouldn’t laugh, and he obviously didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help grinning as he looked to me for direction. For help. For an example. And in that moment, I failed him miserably as I started to laugh.

I bit my tongue — hard — and tried desperately to conjur memories of all the times I’ve had a beloved pet die. It didn’t work; I had lost, and the laughter just had to come out. I managed to keep it inaudible, but suddenly I had a whole lot of empathy for that mom from last year as I pretty much mimicked her actions, clamping my hand over my mouth and resolutely staring at the floor as my body was racked with convulsions for a minute or two.

When I looked up again, Kim was staring at me, silently shaking her head. I couldn’t tell if she was shaking it in disgust, dismay, or disbelief, but she was definitely dissing me some way. In that instant, I was transported more than 35 years to a point in my past, sent there to relive the sins of a five-hour drive that I’d helped to make miserable for my sister.

My family had spent the weekend at the West Virginia home of the oldest sibling, and two of my brothers, one of my sisters, and I were riding home with my parents. It was a long, lonely stretch of two-lane highway through the mountains, without promise of a rest area or gas station. My sister had had diarrhea, and was complaining that every noise my brothers and I made was upsetting her stomach again, causing her to have to find a bathroom. In typical younger-brother style, we decided to torment her.

We’d recently watched The Sound of Music together, and my older brother and I took turns singing the parody songs he’d made up, with original SoM lyrics changed to scatological themes. One of them in particular rose to the surface of my memory — my brother singing, “How do you solve a problem like a huge fart? How do you hold it in when you’re in church?”

Returning to the present, I knew in that moment that this was karma, farting all over me. Here I was — the would-be stalwart leader of these boys, expected to build their character and set good examples — reduced in front of them and my own peers to a quivering mass of adolescent giggles over a little boy’s flatulence.

I also knew in that moment that next year, my den will be lucky if they let us sit anywhere near the sanctuary during the ceremonies. I doubt we’ll get past the narthex, but here’s hoping. If they let us back in, I’m sure we can avoid a third consecutive year of disrupting the ceremony.

As they say, knock on wood….

Posted in Bathroom Humor, The Kids | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

High score

Tuesday marked our 20th wedding anniversary. I took Kim to Chili’s for dinner. Yep, last of the red-hot lovers here. Can’t help wondering if she wants her baby back, baby back, baby back….

Hey, big spender....

Hey, big spender….

Honestly, though, she didn’t mind. It was one of her suggestions, in fact. We’re used to cheaping out on our anniversary, because it comes right after some expensive holidays. We went all out on the boys this year, and that was sort of our gift to each other. But however you look at it, we’re flat broke right now, so Chili’s it was.

And gifts are right out of the question. A few months ago, I looked up the “official” 20th wedding anniversary gift — the traditional one is china, the modern one is platinum. I find it hard to believe they couldn’t come up with something better than china, considering most couples get that for wedding gifts and never use it again over the next 20 years — except on special occasions or when they want to throw it at each other. And platinum is the other end of the spectrum; I thought that stuff costs more than gold, whatever it is.

Which left me with the option of making her something. I planned to; in fact, I planned it for a while. I did one thing for her a couple years ago, marking the 20th anniversary of our first date — it was a series of blog entries telling our love story. She said she enjoyed reading them, but sometimes marriage is about sparing each other’s feelings.

Regardless, I’d set a precedent, and now I had to come up with something to mark our wedding anniversary. I was going to create a slideshow of memories, a multimedia sensation sure to bring tears to her eyes. Planned to set it to music — George Harrison’s “What Is Life” (which, by the way, was a track on his multi-platinum “All Things Must Pass” album).

Because nothing says "romance" like a hippie with gnomes.

Because nothing says “romance” like a hippie with gnomes.

I even started checking on locations of her stored photos and images, thinking out what I was going to include, the clever “score”- and “twenty”-related captions I was going to provide, and the automated glitz I would add to each. And then I ran out of time.

I wanted to work on it over Christmas break, but had a project looming. I planned to take today off, but still had some work to do on that project. All things considered, I’m sure she’d rather have me staying employed than making slideshows, but I still felt bad.

There just isn’t enough time anymore, for anything, ever. There’s work, school, Scouts, kids, pets, finances, band rehearsals, applications, articles, blogs … the list goes on. And then it hit me — that is life. And it’s love. And it’s everything that’s made up the past score of my existence. It doesn’t have to be smooth or well-executed; it just has to be sincere.

So I put something together, tossing in some favorite photos and quotes from our life together, including a family shot that she hadn’t seen yet. I finished it after dinner, and showed it to her on my laptop with a dying screen. She said she liked it, but sometimes marriage is about sparing each other’s feelings.

As far as my worries about time, they’re gone now, because I got to thinking — we have all the time in the world. Good thing, too. I’m going to need it to come up with something for our 25th anniversary, because I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to afford the silver.

Posted in Holidays, The Wife | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Testing my limits

It was the most devastating phone call I’ve ever received, and certainly not something a 16-year-old kid is prepared to face. Yet on that long-ago Saturday morning, all across the county where I grew up and went to school, hundreds of kids my age were receiving similar calls. Some of us used it as a wake-up call; I guess we were the lucky ones….

I found out later that the two mutual friends who called me, had first argued over the privilege of not being the one to say the actual words, not having to tell me what had happened to my best friend, Mike. They said he’d gone out joyriding with Damon the night before, that they’d been drinking for most of the night. About a mile from Mike’s house, Damon had lost control of the car and smashed into a retaining wall while doing 70. He managed to get out of the car before the police arrived, his arm a little sore.

And Mike? Jovial fat kid, class clown, friend to all, best friend to me? Mike hadn’t felt a thing, which was merciful. Mike had died instantly from the impact.

His mother had no family left, having been divorced before the accident. When I went to see her in that big, empty house, I promised her (and myself) that I would never drink and drive. She reminded me of that a year and a half later, as I headed off to college with a scholarship named in Mike’s honor.

Just don't.

Just don’t.

Two summers later, I met her for lunch. She seemed happy to see me, and was relieved to hear that I’d kept my promise so far. I asked if she’d kept up with Damon, and her voice became bitter as she told me no, but his mother had brought her cookies at Christmas for the last several years – and that if it happened again, she might just have to say a thing or two about cookies, sons, and uneven trades.

Whether by fate, choice, or the inexorable march of time, that was the last time I saw Mike’s mom. I graduated, got a job, and moved away permanently – but I’ve never forgotten my promise. It hasn’t been easy to keep.

The secret of my success

I’m not here to preach temperance; I have no problem with alcohol itself. I’ve told many a secret to a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, that I haven’t even told my wife – and I don’t judge anyone else who chooses to imbibe. Where I have a problem is with people who drive afterward. One thing I’ve observed is, people either don’t understand – or refuse to acknowledge – the sliding scale that begins the moment alcohol touches our lips.

The paradox is, once alcohol enters your system, your judgment is questionable. It might be impaired – and if you have impaired judgment, then you can’t adequately judge whether you’re impaired. Given that, you also won’t be able to judge whether you’re fit to drive – if your judgment is impaired, how can you really tell? That’s the conundrum I discussed with three police officers several weeks ago, as I sat behind the wheel and they sat behind me, watching me drive drunk.

The road worrier.

The road worrier.

By then, I had blown a 0.10, and I was no longer nervous having them look over my shoulder as I tried to negotiate the turns and stops on the laptop display in front of me. They watched me miss the obvious cues, and Senior Officer Pete Manukas shook his head and said, “We’d call you slow.”

Along with Senior Officer Chris Bradford, Manukas is a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) with the Raleigh Police Department’s Special Operations Division – specifically, the Crash Reconstruction Unit – and since 2006 has been involved in administering more than 300 standard field sobriety tests (SFSTs), both in enforcement and in training scenarios similar to what they set up for me.

Teaching the detectives

The typical training scenario is a three-day class, where police officers learn to recognize the signs of alcohol and drug impairment. Their trainers do this with the aid of up to eight citizens, who essentially volunteer to get drunk under police supervision, then submit to a range of SFSTs. The volunteers drink in a safe, controlled environment, and must agree to ride home afterward with a designated, sober driver. Lt. Tim Tomczak, also of the Special Operations Division, was kind enough to schedule a special session for me one evening, separate from one of their classes. Manukas and Bradford were on-hand to administer the tests (and provide commentary).

My BP had never been higher.My session started with some measurements – pulse, blood pressure, pupil dilation, and blood alcohol content (BAC) – to ensure I wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol before the test began. (I wasn’t.)

They also let me take their Vericom Response Tester for a spin; it’s a driving simulator composed of a steering wheel and brake/accelerator pedals that work in conjunction with computer software to measure a driver’s response time to certain stimuli.

Almost a videogame!

Almost a videogame!

The computer’s display shows a convincing view through a windshield as the “car” traverses a series of roadways and encounters numerous situations requiring fast reactions on the brake pedal and/or the steering wheel. It took me a while to get the hang of it even before I started drinking, but I managed to give them a baseline measurement for my reaction time.

The truth about breath tests

They determined my BAC with the EC/IR II breath testing instrument, more commonly known as a breathalyzer. That was the first of four times that I blew into it that night, and I learned a few things about it in the process. First, it’s failsafe – so if someone is thinking of claiming a false positive, they shouldn’t waste their time. “The EC/IR II checks its accuracy with an internal gas canister,” Tomczak explained. “And if it’s not able to get an accurate reading from the gas, it disables itself and does not allow the officer to run a breath test.”

Secondly, if someone insists on going down the “false positive” road in hopes that a different test would exonerate them, they should hope again – even though the EC/IR II reading will probably differ from the results of a different test, it will do so on the low side. In other words, the breathalyzer is your best bet. For the most accurate reading, air should be in a sealed container, which it isn’t once it leaves the lungs. “Based on a basic law of chemistry, your actual blood alcohol content can be higher than the breath reading,” said Tomczak. “Whatever you blow on the EC/IR II, it can’t possibly be higher than the actual blood figure. Drawing blood would give equal to or higher results than breath every time.”

Clever individuals might reason that this is okay, as they know an officer won’t draw blood at a traffic stop – if the breath reading or other factors warrant it, the officer places the suspect under arrest and takes them “downtown” to draw blood for the corroborating evidence. This takes time, which allows BAC levels to drop – but that won’t help. A state statute has set an elimination rate – 0.0165 percent per hour – that can be used to calculate previous BAC through retrograde analysis.

You don't want to see this in your driver's side window.Crunching the numbers

Refusing to submit to a breath test won’t help, either – it only guarantees a trip to the lab. “Department policy is, ‘If they refuse, you shall draw blood,’” said Manukas. “The law states that we don’t even need a search warrant, but our policy is that we will apply for one.” Applying for the warrant merely delays the process by 10 minutes, he added.

A suspect also shouldn’t get too excited if their test shows their BAC to be less than 0.08 percent – what Manukas calls, “the illegal limit.” This means it’s illegal for someone to operate a motor vehicle if they have a BAC of 0.08 percent – but it doesn’t mean they’re off the hook if their BAC is lower than that amount. One way is with illegal drugs; those cases are based on impairment rather than a quantitative analysis. But it’s also possible to be impaired without having alcohol or illegal drugs in your system – one way is with the use of certain anti-depressants, whose side effects mimic the effects of alcohol. “One of the most dangerous times is when you first start taking a new medication, and you don’t know how it’s going to affect you,” cautioned Tomczak.

Even if alcohol is the only thing in a suspect’s system, a 0.08 isn’t necessary – a person can be convicted of Driving While Impaired (DWI) at any alcohol level, provided they have appreciably impaired faculties. “Appreciable impairment is determined by the officer’s opinion and tests, based on SFST training,” said Bradford.

That’s where I came in. The reason I volunteered for this session was to determine just how easy it is to get a DWI. As it turns out, it’s very easy…

Consumption assumptions

Once they had my baseline numbers, we were ready to begin the session in earnest. We started with my favorite part – having a police officer serve me drinks. They had told me to bring my choice of 80-proof alcohol plus any mixers I desired.

When would I ever get this chance again?I decided against going the full route with a blender and fruit, so I brought a pint of Jack Daniel’s and some ginger ale. They measured out five ounces of Jack and instructed me to finish it within 45 minutes, whether sipped or slammed, straight, on the rocks or mixed. I poured it over ice in a big Solo cup, added some ginger ale, and set to work on my research.

For the record, five ounces of 80-proof liquor has the same alcohol content as 40 ounces of regular beer – about three bottles and change – or 17 ounces of table wine (a little more than three standard servings). Depending on what type of cocktail you prefer and how heavy-handed your bartender is, it’s possible to get five ounces of liquor in two mixed drinks. If you think 45 minutes is not a reasonable amount of time to finish that much – that it would skew the results – you should know that’s not necessarily the case.

Drinking alcohol quickly won’t always get it into your system quickly. Your body absorbs most of its alcohol via the small intestine, and what you consume with your mouth doesn’t make a beeline for that region. There’s a layover in the stomach, where food and beverages wait for a while in order to be properly digested. Alcohol in the stomach has to wait for the pyloric valve to open before it can enter the small intestine, and sometimes that valve isn’t willing to let the stomach’s visitors go. In fact, there are certain types of food that will “fool” the valve into staying closed, even if you’ve eaten only a small amount. One of those is peanuts – grab a handful of those while you’re waiting for the bartender, and chances are good you won’t feel the effects of your first drink until you’ve ordered a few more.

It’s a misconception that food “absorbs” alcohol, and that eating a lot before drinking will prevent a person from becoming drunk. In reality, it merely delays the absorption of the alcohol into the body. Nothing short of removing the alcohol the way it went in, can prevent it from eventually entering your bloodstream. What this means is, whether you drink five ounces in five minutes or two hours, you’re still going to absorb every drop. You might be thinking that time helps, because time allows the body to get rid of the alcohol, but remember – if the alcohol is still sitting in your stomach, it has to enter your bloodstream before you can get rid of it.

If the pyloric valve stays open and you’re able to absorb the alcohol gradually, then drinking over a longer time can make a difference, as your body eliminates it naturally. But the “one hour per drink” rule of thumb is another myth – even the healthiest liver can’t break down alcohol at that rate. You’ll reach the point of diminishing returns, and if you have five drinks over five hours, you shouldn’t get behind the wheel. In fact, said Tomczak, “It’s hard to find evidence to say one drink will significantly affect your judgment and motor skills; where the numbers get squishy is at two to four drinks.”

He looked jovial in this one moment, but there was no doubting how seriously he takes his job.

He looked jovial in this one moment, but there was no doubting how seriously he takes his job.

Testing, 1-2-3…

I finished my double Jack and Ginger in the prescribed amount of time, and submitted myself for the first round of testing. Having never done such a thing before, I was apprehensive. Even with their blessing, and in a controlled environment, it goes against the natural order to sit there, intentionally getting drunk in front of a tribunal of cops. They made it a little easier by answering questions and making small talk during the 45 minutes between tests, but when it came time to look for my appreciable impairment, they were all business. Manukas measured my BAC and administered two of the physical tests, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that you don’t want to end up on the wrong side of his EC/IR II.

Outlining each procedure that was about to take place, he had his speeches memorized, and I’d bet they never vary by as much as one word each time he gives them in the field. In a flat, all-business tone, he told me exactly what he was about to do and what he expected me to do, and I could tell his steely gaze was taking in every subtle reaction on my face. At the end of each speech, he would ask, “Do you understand everything I just said?” and I knew that was one question a person should consider very carefully before answering, because once they answered in the affirmative, there’d be no going back. In fact, the reply would no doubt be recorded for evidence. Tomczak later explained, “Everything in court depends on the officer. It’s essential to have good notes and video… The Raleigh Police Department prides itself on integrity, and we know we’ve done everything we could, above-board. It’s frustrating sometimes to see someone beat our case, but our attitude is, the officer needs to be well-prepared and have an airtight case. Then it’s up to the courts.”

I answered “Yes, I understand” after hearing how the breath test would work, and proceeded to blow a 0.04 – lower than I expected, considering how tipsy I was already feeling. When I mentioned my surprise and told Manukas I could already tell my judgment was too impaired to drive, he just smiled and told me to wait until I hit 0.08 and see if I felt differently.

He didn't miss anything.

He didn’t miss anything.

Bradford administered the next test, and in this case, he didn’t take in every facial reaction, instead watching only my eyes. This was the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test, one of the three main SFSTs. HGN refers to an involuntary eye jerk that occurs when someone tries to look to the side. Bradford instructed me to keep my head still and follow his finger, which he moved right and left at varying degrees of speed and direction change. His eyes stayed on mine the entire time, and even though I never felt or otherwise detected it, he told me my eyes were jerking with the effort. He also had to remind me several times to not move my head, even though I never felt that I was. During this test, an officer watches for multiple clues – smoothness of motion, distinct jerking at maximum deviation, and angle of onset of jerking – and according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the presence of four or more of those clues between both eyes is an indicator that a suspect likely has reached 0.08 percent BAC. And there’s nothing a suspect can do to prevent their eyes from giving those clues; memorize the backward alphabet and practice touching your nose all you want, but you cannot fake your way out of this one.

They gathered around to watch this one.

They gathered around to watch this one.

Another round

Saving the best tests for last, the officers measured out another five ounces of Jack and started the clock again. After 45 minutes, I excused myself to go to the men’s room, and as I came out and headed back toward the testing station, all three officers watched me walk. One of them quipped that he could tell just from that that I was “already there.” And he was right – I submitted to two breath tests with Manukas, blowing a 0.09 and a 0.10, respectively. By then, my outlook had changed – I felt I was on top of the world, nothing was wrong with my judgment, and I could drive anywhere with no problems. The tests said different.

It was time for the next two from the main SFST battery of three – the Walk-and-Turn and the One-Leg Stand. Manukas placed a length of duct tape on the floor and gave me my orders for the former, asking me before I started if I had understood everything. I shuddered at the implications, answered in the affirmative, and began when I was ready – but no amount of preparation or inner pep talks can help someone successfully complete this test if they are at 0.08 BAC.

No, I wasn't doing ballet; I was trying like hell to keep myself vertical.

No, I wasn’t doing ballet; I was trying like hell to keep myself vertical.

I was to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along the line of duct tape – on the tenth step, I was to turn on one foot and return to my starting point, again walking heel-to-toe. The NHTSA says there are eight indicators of impairment, and if an individual exhibits even two, there’s a 79-percent chance s/he is at 0.08 or above. I believe I gave six. Even with my best concentration, I couldn’t stay on the line or keep my balance. I almost fell multiple times. Had it been a real field test, they should have had cuffs on me before I could make it back to my starting point.

Next, I attempted the One-Leg Stand, raising one foot about six inches off the ground with a straight leg in front of me, and trying to hold that position for as long as I could while Manukas counted out loud by thousands. It’s disconcerting to start a test with no set stopping point, attempting to judge for myself whether I’d gone long enough. At least, that’s what I told myself – that when I finally put my foot down, it was because I thought I’d been standing there long enough, and chose to put it down. Hardly. I felt like I was about to fall over, and by then my foot felt like it must have weighed 75 pounds. But I played it off like I was just impatient, silently congratulating myself for lasting to the count of 18. Then he told me most sober people can leave it up there for well over a count of 30.

According to the NHTSA, 83 percent of subjects who fail at two of the four indicators in the One-Leg Stand Test, are past the illegal limit. When both tests are combined with the HGN Test, officers are accurate 91-94 percent of the time. And, like the HGN Test, you cannot hide the symptoms. These two physical tests are easy for a sober person, but an impaired person will give clues every time – even if they try to cheat the system by practicing. The tests also indicate how well a subject can divide their attention, another indicator – an impaired person will have trouble completing a task that requires them to divide their attention between simple mental and physical parts of that task. And that’s an important thing to test, as divided attention is a necessity for safe driving. Said Manukas, “If you can’t divide your attention while you’re sitting there and I’m talking to you, you’re not gonna be able to divide your attention when you’re doing 60mph.”

And I couldn’t. Remember the driving simulator? They had me try it after my SFSTs, and I failed eight consecutive times. On my worst attempt, I practically tripled my baseline reaction time/distance of 0.72 seconds and 64.33 feet. A lot can happen in those additional 124 feet – just ask my old friend Mike.

How to judge your impaired judgment

Worth remembering!That’s the crux of the matter – the probable outcome when a driver’s reaction time and distance increase due to impaired judgment. At 0.08 BAC, a person’s vision is affected and their judgment is no longer reliable, regardless of whether they believe they can drive a car. Bradford told of a traffic stop where he became suspicious that the driver had been drinking. Her driving had appeared to be fine as she approached – no swerves, etc. – but she was clearly impaired and, as such, was a hazard. He still doesn’t know exactly what her BAC was, because the breathalyzer maxed out at 0.40 – by all rights she should have been comatose or dead, but she was driving a car and unable to comprehend why that was a problem. Manukas reminded me, “Your driving doesn’t have to be bad for you to be convicted; you just have to show appreciable impairment. The offense is ‘Driving While Impaired’, not ‘Driving Was Impaired.’”

In other words, when you’re impaired you might think you’re doing fine, but you’re not. Even if you’re keeping it between the lines, it’s only a matter of time until something happens that requires a reaction many times faster than what a drunk person is capable of. “A lot of people who know it’s bad to drink and drive, fail to realize that when they’re drinking,” said Tomczak.

Why? Because their judgment is impaired, and as he said, most fatalities are the result of judgment issues. And according to the NHTSA, one happens every 52 minutes. That bears repeating – somewhere in the U.S., someone dies at the hands of a drunk driver every 52 minutes. That’s why Tomczak and his colleagues are proud of what they do, and take it seriously. “Unfortunately, a lot of the job of law enforcement is reactive – someone’s already hurt somebody else, so we go get them,” he said. “But a DWI checkpoint is proactive – we get them off the street before they can hurt somebody else.”

But they can’t get all of them off the street. We have to take the onus on ourselves when we drink. The only way to end the fatalities is to stop driving after drinking. Don’t think. Don’t attempt to judge. Just know – if you’ve been drinking, you should not drive. The consequences are too dire. Accept the fact that your judgment is suspect after drinking – commit it to memory, make a mantra of it, and be sure to remind yourself multiple times as you drink, so you won’t convince yourself that you’re fine to drive. As Manukas said, “If you have to ask yourself if you’re okay to drive, then don’t.”

But if you do, I just hope you don’t end up sending cookies to your victim’s loved ones once a year.

[Originally published in the November/December issue of Midtown; photos by Sean Junqueira.]

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