Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If You Ain't First, You're Last.*


This is the University of Virginia.
We have a polo team.
What of it, bitches?  
*Today's title comes from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which, I promise, does tie into today's post.

Twenty years ago today, I packed all my worldly possessions into a minivan and, along with my parents, traveled 162 miles to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to begin my first year of college. I was tremendously excited about the prospect of being around hundreds of good-looking girls on my own and starting my life for real.



I hadn't been feeling well that week, but I didn't want to tell my parents because my mom had an endearing habit of dragging me to the pediatrician if I so much as sneezed, and I was worried that whatever it was I had would derail my August 24 departure. I kept telling myself that it was just a cold. I had taken a bunch of Sudafed during the week, thinking that it would dry my ears out, and I could go on my merry way. I was wrong.

We made it to Charlottesville late that morning and I got checked into Tuttle Dorm, a rectangular monstrosity of architecture that I recently learned has been scheduled for demolition. I met a few of my dorm-mates, all of whom seemed to really have their shit together, and I met my resident assistant, a serious, studious engineering student. He seemed incredibly adult and mature, although looking back, I attribute this to the fact that he had a mustache. At around 3:00 p.m., I bid my parents farewell and just like that, I was on my own for the very first time.

But let's not forget about my ear, because it will become important later.


So, along with my roommate (whom I knew from high school), and 12 million bacteria sloshing around my ear canal, I set out to explore our new home. We attended something called Field Fest. In theory, this event was designed to facilitate meeting your shiny new classmates, but in reality, it was a lot of me standing around, too freaked out to talk to anyone other than my roommate, and thinking about comic books. Don't you wish you knew me back then?

Later, we also went to a giant cookout, where we saw a little known folksy-jazzy-rock outfit called the Dave Matthews Band. In my infinite wisdom, I clearly remember thinking that "these guys won't be around very long." (Note: Now that I think about it, the DMB show might have been the next day, but it makes for a better narrative this way, don't you think?). Either way, I have zero ability as a purveyor of musical talent.

As the evening wore on, I began to realize two things. First, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything. I had graduated from high school with 47 other people. There were approximately 2,300 people in my first-year class. Virtually all of us had been academic superstars and/or varsity athletes (usually both). I was but a very small fish in a very big pond. I was also growing increasingly certain that all my classmates had already bonded with one another for life, and that everyone but me was hooking up.

And second, I really wasn't feeling very good. I hadn't had a drop of alcohol (which, of course, was illegal for someone my age -- wink, wink), but I was feeling woozy, disoriented and a little dizzy, and my ear was starting to really starting to ache.

At around 10:00, my roommate and I decided to pay a visit to another high-school classmate of ours, who was living in another set of dorms. As we visited with her, we learned that one of her hallmates had been an actress or a model before graduating high school. I remember thinking something along the lines of "sweet sassy molassy! There are models running all over this place!"

At some point, we met the model, a pretty, unassuming girl named Leslie, who earned the distinction of being the very first girl I officially met in college. (OK, she might have been the 2nd or 3rd, but again, it's all about narrative, people!)

I'd like to say that I fought the good fight, and that I dazzled her with my charms.

Because 14 years later, she went on to appear in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

However, like Shawshank, my freshman year in college was no fairy-tale world. I did not dazzle her that night (in fact, I never saw her again). I didn't really dazzle anyone those first few months in college, including girls, professors, my parents, people in general....

But I digress.

By about 11:00, I knew I needed to get back to my dorm to get some rest. I stumbled back to my room, sick, tired, alone, and feeling stupid. I got in bed, but I had a hard time sleeping. So far, college had pretty much sucked.

And then, around 2:00 in the morning, my eardrum blew out.

In my life, I've had a fish hook caught in my arm, I've experienced a herniated disk in my neck, and I've shattered my wrist six ways to Sunday. But there is nothing to match the mind-blowing pain of your eardrum rupturing. I touched my hand to my ear, which was now bleeding profusely.

Sheepishly, I knocked on the R.A.'s door and explained that I needed to get some medical attention. Keep in mind that the dude had been an R.A. for all of about 12 hours.

This was his reaction:


"ARE YOU F*CKING KIDDING ME?"

A very sad-faced Me replied, "No. No, I'm not."

So we borrowed someone's car, and my R.A. had to drive me to the University of Virginia Hospital, the place where they didn't believe I hadn't been drinking.

The good doctors and nurses checked me out, flooded me with antibiotics and sent me home. I felt like dog crap for a couple more days, and I could barely hear for the next week, but eventually, I recovered. And my ear infection certainly didn't stop me from acting like a total idiot during my first week (including one incident reciting sports statistics to impress someone). Or during the rest of that year. I thank my lucky stars that there was no Internet in 1991.

It took me a while, but I finally found my footing in college. I joined the staff of The Cavalier Daily, U.Va.'s daily student newspaper, made a bunch of lifelong friends and figured out that I really did like this writing thing. And by my second year, I really started to figure out how college worked.

So it all ended well. And whenever I feel clueless or lost, I think about the night of August 24, 1991, and take solace in the fact that I've come a long way since then and that I'm not THAT guy. Anymore.

Mostly.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

10 Observations About My Trip To Florida & Disney World

I just got back from a whirlwind Florida vacation with Team Kazzie. It was a really good time. No Secret Service protection on this trip, but somehow we managed to muddle our way through. We went to the beach, played miniature golf, ate good food, saw family and friends, and spent three fantastic days at Disney World.

I made my first Disney trip almost 30 years ago, when my parents took my sister and me to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Sea World. And except for a day trip my wife and I made to Epcot before we had kids, I hadn't been back since then. Needless to say, you look at things a bit differently when you're 30 years older. Here are some observations about Disney and vacations generally that I probably missed in 1982.

1. The people at Walt Disney World are dead f-cking serious about you and your brood having a good time, and they are really, really good at their job. No matter how many people suffer, YOU WILL ENJOY YOURSELVES. Nothing is left to chance. I want to know why Disney isn't running this country.

2. When your destination is 1,400 miles away, your child will throw up on his booster seat after you've driven 1,399.95 miles. Yes, this actually happened. Within view of our destination.

3. I could not help but picture the Disney cast members' personal lives and problems. I imagine this is due to the fact that 90 percent of their job is to look really, really happy, and we all know no one is that happy. As I watched Tinkerbell lead the Main Street Electrical Parade toward Cinderella's Castle (and truth be told, she nails the role as Tinkerbell), I couldn't help but wonder if she has a secret addiction, like eating dryer sheets.

4. Amtrak was decidedly unamused with a Mr. Schaffer, who, from what I can gather, deposited his vehicle in front of the Sanford, Florida train station for carriage aboard the Lorton, Virginia-bound Auto Train and then promptly vanished. It was, to say the least, a little creepy.

5. My wife and I are officially cheap. On our first night at our Disney hotel, I went to the grocery store at midnight and bought bagels, frozen pancakes, veggie sausage, a gallon of milk, peanut butter, and jelly. We knocked out six meals in our hotel room. Stay classy, Kazzies! By not having to eat these meals at Disney, I think we saved approximately $6,000.

6. To the one person aboard the full Downtown Disney shuttle late Thursday night who offered his seat to my wife and two small children, who were basically asleep on their feet -- thank you. To all the other able-bodied adults, I saw you trying to avoid eye contact with us. Oh, and this quote from A Few Good Men seems applicable here: "Private Santiago is dead because he had no code. Because he had no honor. And God was watching."

7. My favorite barbecue joint in the world, a place in Naples, Florida, is no longer my favorite. You said the smoked beef was brisket. IT WAS NOT BRISKET. IT WAS BARELY STEAK-UMM. And the baby back ribs get a C+. Maybe. On the plus side, I have a new favorite sandwich place: Pastrami Dan's in Naples.

8. Rain at Disney is awesome. Get yourself one of these kick-ass Disney ponchos, and I say BRING IT ON! No heat, no lines, no problems.

9. Drinking a gigantic margarita and then immediately riding Mission: Space at Epcot is a surefire way of making yourself really dizzy and nauseated.

10. The greater D.C. Metro area doesn't have a traffic problem. It has an "it's about to implode in on itself" problem.  It took us two hours to travel 26 miles on Saturday. I lived in Arlington, Virginia (a D.C. suburb) for about a year in the mid-1990s, and I would estimate the traffic problem is approximately 1 quintillion times worse now.

So we are home safe and sound. It was a really great vacation. The kids had a ball, and could not have been better behaved. I hope they remember it as well as I know I will.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Indians Win It! The Indians Win It! Oh My God, The Indians Win It!

*Today's blog title comes from Major League: It's Indians radio announcer Harry Doyle losing his mind as catcher Jake Taylor lays down the bunt that scores Willie Mays-Hayes in the one-game playoff against the Yankees.

In August 2001, my future wife and I made a trip to her hometown in southwest Florida to visit her dad and go to her 10-year high school reunion. The trip to Florida was the front end of a two-part vacation, one that we had been looking forward to for a long time.

On the drive down from Virginia, we spent a memorable night in a cesspool of a hotel in Gainesville, Florida. And by "spent the night," I mean that we spent four hours hoping we weren't going to be murdered in our sleep before jumping in our car and hauling ass out of town at 4:00 a.m. like we'd robbed a bank.

We spent time with her old friends, we ate great barbecue, we watched the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico.

And on the night of August 5, 2001, ten years ago today, the three of us decided to watch the Cleveland Indians-Seattle Mariners game on television.

The Mariners jumped all over the Tribe in the early going, and by about the fifth inning, the score was 14-2. My future wife and father-in-law lost interest in the game and bid me goodnight. I was a little annoyed that the Tribe was getting housed so soundly and was too amped up to go to sleep, so I decided to read -- an actual book! Printed on paper! Stephen King's Carrie, if I remember correctly. I kept the game on as background noise.

As I read, I noticed the commentators becoming more animated as the game wore on. I looked up and saw the Indians had started to chip away at the lead. Not in big chunks, mind you, but little bits and pieces, like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank chipping away at the wall in his cell.

The Indians scored three in the 7th, four in the 8th, and tied it with 5 runs in the 9th (with two outs, mind you). It was ridiculous. This wasn't some chump opponent -- the Mariners' record entering that game was 80-30, and they had one of the best bullpens in baseball that season. As each Indian run crossed the plate, I was jumping up and down in the living room and doing that "yess! yesss!" in my best Inside Voice, careful not to make too much noise, because the last thing you want to do in your girlfriend's dad's house late at night is annoy him, especially since he probably wasn't too sure about this short kid with the big mouth dating his daughter. (Just kidding, he liked me).

The game went into extra innings tied at 14, and the Indians won it in the bottom of the 11th when Jolbert Cabrera drove in Kenny Lofton from third. It was and remains the greatest sporting event I have ever witnessed. 

I remember that vacation very well. We spent three great days in her hometown, and then we spent another four terrific days with some family friends at their beach cottage in North Carolina. When we got back home to Virginia, I started a new job that I ended up liking very much.

The September 11 attacks happened a few weeks later.

I think about that vacation often. And I always think about it when I see, read or hear something about September 11.
 
I don't know why that vacation stands out in my mind so well. Was it the game? The barbecue? The reunion?

Or does it stand out because in the neighborhood of my memories, that vacation, complete with unbelievably happy memories, lives right next door to the terrible day of the attacks and those horrific images? Because let me assure you, it makes for some weird mental real estate.

2001 turned out to be a big year for me personally.

I proposed to my girlfriend that November, and we were married the following year. I started writing my first full-length manuscript around that time, too.

With that old manuscript, I took the first steps on what I planned to be my future career.

I was as happy as any person in their 20s had a right to be.

I saw the depths of human depravity.

I've seen some weird things happen in and to our country, not all of it good.  

But on one unbelievable night ten years ago, the game of baseball reminded me that anything is possible.