There's a great old episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph Kramden is entered to compete on a Name That Tune-type game show and has to bone up on his music knowledge to prepare for the show. He enlists Ed Norton to come to the apartment and play sheet music on a piano, and Ralph practices being able to name the song, artist, writer, and composer. Ed, being a quirky character, has to play a little piece before every single song as a warm-up. Ralph gets annoyed quickly with this, but he's running through the songs with ease, and his confidence swells with every tune. Well, Ralph finally makes it to the show, smiling, cocky, rarin' to go, and then as the first song is played, you can see the blood rush away from his face as he recognizes the tune as that annoying little piece Ed had to play before every song. Ralph had failed to learn about that little piece because he completely overlooked it, focusing instead on the songs that were there on paper. It never occurred to him that the annoying little piece--which, BTW, was "Swannee River"--could possibly be one of the songs on the show. It's a wonderful lesson on confidence, overconfidence, preparation, and the pitfalls of assuming that you're totally ready for anything.
It's a lesson that I thought I had learned throughout my years, because I get the feeling that the ratio of times in my life that I felt that I was going into something ready to dominate and excel compared to the number of times that the event went all wrong and I looked like a damn fool is a very high ratio. There's going into a new grammar school thinking that I was going to be the cool dude because I was from a hardscrabble part of town and they were just a bunch of nerds; they turned out to be rich nerds who knew how to manipulate any situation so that I always seemed uncouth and beneath them. There's going to parties as a kid thinking I was going to dance and show off and be the man; but others were always much better at dancing and showing off, and I usually chose to be a wallflower and not risk embarrassment. There's going on various dates and social outings thinking that I was going to dazzle the women with my intelligence and charm; that almost never worked out for whatever reasons. (Maybe I'm not nearly as smart and charming as I think I am. Thank goodness my fiancee has been fooled into loving me anyway, or I might still be on Craigslist getting taken advantage of by fat sluts.) The point is, I feel that my life has been a series of lessons on not getting too confident about any upcoming event or contest no matter how good I feel about it.
Chalk up another painful lesson for me. Guess I still haven't learned.
I had been looking forward to the ESPN Zone Sports Spelling Bee literally from the moment that I won it last year. It was such an intoxicating feeling to walk into a competition that I felt like I had a right to be in--unlike, say, trying to pick up a hot chick at a bar or applying for a job that I'm not qualified for, which are events that are not very fun because of the underlying feeling of shooting for something that's out of my range--and actually winning the thing. I couldn't wait to come back this year and repeat the feat. When I e-mailed my registration, I wrote an extra little note at the end: "Make sure my trophy is nice and shiny." And I felt even better about my chances this year because there were several Chicago-area sports names that I would have been eliminated on if I got them last year, and I did some studying in an attempt to be prepared for them. I took the day off work this past Thursday because I didn't want to be tired after working all day and go to ESPN Zone and defend my title while trying to stay awake. I had taken some online tests last weekend to brush up on some of the popular hard-to-spell sports names nationally. I wound up typing "Krzyzewski" about ten times. So Thursday, I spent an hour or so researching the web sites of the Chicago Fire (soccer), the Chicago Sky (women's basketball), and the Chicago Blackhawks (hockey). I figured that I knew the names of all the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, and Bulls, because those teams compete in sports in which I play fantasy versions, and it's imperative that I know how to spell baseball, basketball, and football names so that I know who I'm drafting and acquiring in trades. So I wrote down names from the Blackhawks, Sky, and Fire that may trip me up because I was unfamiliar with them, and I stuffed the piece of paper into my pocket as I left for ESPN Zone supremely confident. It was names from those other fringe sports that would have knocked me out last year, and that's why I chose to study them this year. But apparently I didn't study them hard enough.
My friend "Drew" decided to attend the contest this year since he works downtown and it wouldn't be a big deal to check me out after work. He even texted me hard names as a way to quiz me, and I knew them all. Byfuglien. Hjalmarsson. Brouwer. Antti Niemi. Cuauhtemoc Blanco. You name it, if it was a Chicago sports star with a difficult name, I had studied it and felt that I knew it. When I arrived, I looked for him briefly, but he wasn't there yet. I then went to the sign-in table where a couple were just ahead of me receiving their placards. That meant that if I had arrived a minute earlier, I would have been ahead of them in order. (Remember that for later.) Drew arrived shortly after that. It was about 6:05. The lady at the table told me to come back to that same area just before 6:30 so that the director of the event could give us contestants the rules. I decided to sit with Drew up front in leather reclining chairs that he requested just so he could be in the front row for my coronation. He ordered food and I ordered a Coke from a comely black waitress. Drew and I shot the shit for about twenty minutes, then when the waitress asked if I wanted to order food, I made a show out of taking one last sip of Coke, grabbing my placard, saying, "Maybe later, I got some business to take care of," and running off as if I were O.J. sprinting for my plane. I got to the entrance area and saw the aforementioned couple and several male geeks standing around with placards around their necks looking for all the world like they were attending DragonCon. One guy was a brotha and was wearing a Blackhawks T-shirt with Jonathan Toews's name on the back, and I made a mental note to amuse myself if Toews's name came up in the competition. I actually heard one dude tell another dude, "He won it two years ago, and he won it last year," pointing at me. Obviously, the man who won in 2008 was here, but I didn't acknowledge being pointed at because I didn't want to seem too geeky. I just coolly stared at a TV screen pretending to watch something. We had been standing around for about ten minutes before the comely black waitress approached me from the left, tapped me softly on the elbow, flashed a billion-dollar smile and said, "Good luck." I thanked her and smiled back, then wondered how big of a tip she expected just because she pretended to care about how I did in this silly-ass competition.
Another ten minutes passed before Drew came back there wondering what was the hold-up, but at that same moment, the director walked through and I shooed Drew away thinking we were about to start. But it was yet another five minutes (and a walk-through the opposite direction by the director, who recognized me from last year and said "Welcome back") before he finally gathered all 16 of us competitors in a fire-escape hallway and ran down the rules. He had the 2008 winner and me raise our hands and take sparse applause for being past champs back for more. I had the most arrogant smirk on my face as he ran down the rules because I knew the rules and I was just waiting for the show to begin so that I could show off the skills that I had been harnessing for 365 days. It was a complete turnaround from last year, when I didn't know what I had gotten myself into and I just hoped before the contest started that I didn't embarrass myself by going out on the first name. I did a mock "Ooh" when the director told us that two extra prizes had been added for the grand prize winner, a year's supply of Powerade and a signed Luol Deng jersey. I wondered how I would cash in that many Powerade coupons at the store, especially since I don't have a car. The director finished his instructions and lined us up down in front, just like last year. I didn't even look at Drew presumably sitting in his seat right up front. I was the focused gladiator, ready for the war to commence, with no fear of losing. I even rubbed the trophy as I passed by before the contest began. I figured I was gaining a companion for the trophy from last year. I imagined them sitting side by side on top of my TV like twins. I had but one concern, and it was a bit irrational: I worried that I might go too fast on a name trying to show off, and I would put a letter accidentally in the wrong place. Never did I think they would give me a name that I didn't know.
The director told us right before the show began that there was a film crew there, which was not the case last year. They were from some local website, not a real news crew. We were told who the cameraman and interviewer were literally seconds after I saw them talking and noticed how incredibly ill-fitting the interviewer's dress was, way too tight for her age and too low-cut for her drooping breasts, and I wondered who the fuck they were. Then it was time to do it. As was the case last year, the guy who won in 2008 went first, because remember, the order was determined by who showed up first. The director told him that to make things a little more fair, he was to pick a number between 1 and 27, and the director would start reading names from that number so as to thwart any complaints about certain names being harder than others. This way, it was a totally random deal as to who got what name. The 2008 champ said, "It doesn't matter. We'll start with 1." My first name was Derrek Lee. I may have gotten him last year, too. I don't remember who my second name was. A blonde standing in front of me, half of the couple that arrived seconds before I did, asked me about the prizes that I received last year. I remembered standing behind a chatty blonde last year, too. I wondered if it was the same one. I was cool, calm, collected. Then the third round began.
This is a good spot to point out to those of you who aren't sports fans that the Chicago Blackhawks are smack dab in the middle of the Stanley Cup Finals, and the city has hockey fever like never before. In fact, the 2008 winner was decked in a Hawks jersey and cap, in addition to the black dude with the Toews shirt. So it should have come as no surprise that the list for the third round seemed to be all Blackhawks. Those hockey names are really good for spelling bees, you know. Our friend the 2008 winner was again given the choice of what number to pick so that the moderator could maybe start in a more random place. He again chose to start right at 1. It truly didn't matter to him. I don't remember if there were four or five people ahead of me at this point, but I do remember that all of the names in that round up to my turn were Blackhawks. Remember, I wrote down several of the more difficult Hawks names and glanced at the list on the train before I arrived. I looked at the Hawks roster online. Whether I spelled it right or wrong, if I received the name of a current Hawk, Sky or Fire, my eyes had seen the name earlier that very day. I recognized the name I got as another Blackhawk, but not as a difficult one that I had written down. The name was Brian Bickell. Now, I'm no hockey fan, despite the shaggy beard that I'm currently sporting in support of the Hawks' playoffs. (It's a tradition that teams in the hockey playoffs don't shave until they're eliminated or win the whole thing; certain loser fans with no lives, like me, chose to follow the tradition as if we're on the team.) So I didn't know who this Bickell guy was. And as a result, I had overlooked studying the one name that isn't difficult at all if you know the player, but it is difficult if you don't know him because there are several plausible spellings of Bickell. The first one that popped into my mind was Bickle, like Travis Bickle, the DeNiro character in Taxi Driver. So I start spelling the part of the name that I know is right, the B-I-C-K part. Then I pause, and my eyes widen as the realization washes over me that, uh oh, I actually don't know this guy's name and I'm gonna have to guess. I hate guessing in a spelling bee. What's the odds of being right on a guess in a spelling bee? The world stopped spinning as I pushed out the L-E from my voice box with a questionable inflection. The whistle blew. The yellow flag went up in the air. I had been eliminated. And my little insulated world imploded.
I never did look over at Drew.
I selected a cap from the collection of caps and T-shirts that were available as prizes for the also-rans after they got knocked out. Then, because to walk to my seat next to Drew would have been impossible thanks to the show going on right in the path that I would have to take, I stood in the back, lurking in the shadows as if waiting for another chance to enter, and I watched the rest of the competition. I swear before God, there wasn't a name that I heard that I didn't know and wouldn't have gotten correct, except for, of course, the name I got. Not in the entire fucking contest was there read another name that I didn't know. It didn't end much later after I lost because the list was so hard that people were getting eliminated very quickly. Maybe ten minutes after I got knocked out, some guy put an O in the name of Bears safety Al Afalava, the 2008 winner nailed Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly, and the sordid affair was over. The shaking of the winner's hand by me had to endure a horrible five-minute interview of the new champ by the whore in the tight black dress. I nervously laughed as I shook his hand and said, "Those damn hockey names!" He laughed back and tossed me some kind of compliment. I didn't hear it because I was looking at this guy with his thick glasses and shaggy hair and slovenly clothes, who was entry #1 last year and this year because it meant so much to him to win this thing that he showed up twice before anyone else, and I was thinking, "My God. It's like I have a twin!" I then sat next to Drew, who just shook his head and smiled and asked, like a child whose hero had missed the game-winning shot and had let everyone down, "Brian Bickell?" The waitress came back and said, "I'm sorry. You better come back and win it next year!" I promised that I would and ordered dinner, then turned to my left to see the champ take the recliner next to me, trophy still shining in his hand. I mostly ignored him and watched the NBA Finals Game 1 with Drew. We left at halftime.
Since then, I've been reeling. I'm gonna say this big shpiel and then try to let it go. It was, by any rational observer's viewpoint, a perfect storm of coincidences and situations that led me to get this one name that I didn't know in a contest where EVERY OTHER FUCKING NAME was a name I knew. I left my house a little earlier than I did last year because last year, I was running in the door right at 6:30 and I almost missed the damn thing. Also, I took a different route that avoided all the traffic that slowed me down last year. That's why I was there at 6:05 and not at some other time. Any other time, I would not have been the #8 competitor. The route that I took had me going down the stairs to the subway, where I came across a friend from high school that I hadn't seen since 1995. The five minutes that we spent chatting and exchanging numbers may have caused me to miss an earlier train, which would have gotten me to ESPN Zone earlier than the two people who were registering right as I got there. If I had been really cool and not registered the moment I arrived, I would have gotten a different number. In the actual contest, if someone other than the 2008 winner would have been contestant #1, perhaps they choose a different word to start on than #1. If the guy has the slightest bit of creativity and chooses ANY OTHER NUMBER than #1, I don't get that name. If the list isn't created with that name in that position, I don't get that name. And, of course, if I don't overlook that name while studying, then I don't have a shitload of excuses to whine about.
I was fine in the direct aftermath of the spelling bee. Sitting there with Drew, eating and watching some hoops, ignoring the guy next to me who stole my title...I felt fine, no big deal. But as soon as I got ready to leave, it started to bother me. I received a certificate for a game card in addition to the cap. I gave the certificate to Drew. I looked at the cap and noticed that it had the apparel company's name across the front. The company was Champion. I figured that I used to be a champion, but today I wasn't. I left the cap. I also left the placard, which I kept last year. You know, when I won. No point in keeping it to commemorate this year. I got downstairs to take the subway home, and found myself standing against a big brick wall. I nearly turned around and banged my head off the wall. I was absolutely crushed. Who takes a day off and studies for a sports spelling bee and then LOSES on a name that he looked at and didn't bother to study? What kind of world-class loser does that? It could only be me, the one and only Planet Dre. This year of frustration and self-doubt and self-loathing that I'm about to go through before next year's contest, I wonder: Did the guy who won in 2008 and this year but lost to me last year go through this in the days and weeks and months after he lost? If so, then I guess the only solace I can take is that he stepped up and took his title back. He ignored anyone in his life trying to give him perspective, telling him not to worry about losing because you can't win 'em all and it's just a silly spelling bee, and he came back and took what he thought was rightfully his.
In 2011, once again it will be my turn. Toews, Byfuglien, Swannee River, and any other word they wanna throw at me. I will own them all. Unless I'm living in Memphis with my wife. As important as it is, it's not quite that important.