That One Time I Was In A Boy Band

This is a story about the best decision I ever made in my entire life.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The plan was to impress all of the girls, because impressing the girls was a thing that we were very bad at, and to have any hope of pulling it off we’d need a plan.  Since we were making a plan, we decided to go big.  Huge even.  We were going to impress all the girls so much that they were going to scream out our names with excitement when we were done.  We were five of the best friends a Middle School had ever seen, and for one night we were going to be a Boy Band.

The venue was the Iowa Show Choir Festival.  It was some competition between all of the High Schools in the area for some trophy I didn’t fully understand.  All of the schools performed in the day, and four were selected to go again for a championship round.  Between the two rounds there were exhibition acts to keep the crowd excited, and that’s what I signed us up for.  It was the perfect venue, because all of the girls from school were going to be there.  Half of them were in the choir, and the other half wanted to be supportive of their friends.  It was also the perfect venue because every guy that would make fun of us for being in a Boy Band was going to miss it, because they weren’t going to show up to a Show Choir Festival.  This was the pinnacle of directed advertising.

We’d never been a Boy Band before, so it was going to take some effort.  I was in it, of course, and I had most of the ideas to get the ball rolling.  We had Braum, a six-foot giant of a lanky kid who was shy but was willing to try anything once (especially after I peer pressured him into it).  I sold him the concept by telling him that he’d be the tall, dark, and mysterious member of the band.  There was Shannon, a really good singer who loved to ham it up and be the center of attention.  He was going to be the hype man, the guy just behind the lead singer that was going to get everyone to their feet (Justin Timberlake).  There was Randel, another soft-spoken guy who was far more attractive than anyone in Middle School had the right to be.  He was going to be the loveable cute one.  Finally, there was Drew, the popular guy who could sing, dance, and make the ladies swoon.  He was going to be the highlight, the main guy.  I’m not sure what I brought to all of this.  Maybe I was the manager.

The plan was simple.  We were going to do an *NSYNC song because they were way more popular than anyone else.  Also, their music videos provided all of the choreography we’d ever need.  We were going to record MTV all day with one of those 8 hour VHS tapes and hit the two times that they showed music videos.  When we got back from school, we were going to fast forward to the song of choice and learn that choreography.  Drew’s uncle had a karaoke side business, and with a quick drive over we had the background music to whatever we needed on cassette tape.  After much deliberation, we decided on the perfect song: Dirty Pop.

Dirty Pop was ideal for a few reasons.  The video had the most choreography, it was the shortest of their songs, and for an event like this it was the second best *NSYNC song, only behind Tearin’ Up My Heart.  It was fast, it was catchy, it had plenty of room to let us goof around, and it was perfect.  Tearin’ Up My Heart didn’t have all those things.  It was slightly longer, it didn’t show much choreography at all, and even though it was the better song to show off to, we didn’t have the tools between the five of us to choreograph anything or make up another gimmick.  It was beyond our grasp, so we went with Dirty Pop and set to it.

We had three weeks to get ready, and maybe with more effort we could have had a better looking product going into the concert.  Braum was about a beat late with every motion and would forget unless he was directly watching Shannon that we placed directly in front of him.  Shannon was a great dancer, but he liked to improvise between beats sometimes, which was gawkily echoed by Braum a half second later.  Shannon also forgot to put the pretend microphone (a naked Barbie doll) in front of his face about half of the time.  I thought I was doing amazingly well, but had a habit of frowning, furrowing my brow, and concentrating way too hard on the motions.  It gave the impression that I was constipated and being tortured to dance.  Randel was perfect.  He and Braum had agreed to participate as long as they didn’t have to really sing.  This left Shannon and I to be backup singers, or Drew and I while Shannon was doing his part.  Drew was great, but would often stop dancing in order to sing, breaking our symmetry and causing some infighting within the group.  Drew ultimately won out because he couldn’t breathe enough while doing the dance moves to his full ability.

On a good run through, three of us would do the choreography passably well and only one singer would forget that it’s their turn to shine.  So we kept practicing.  What did it matter if we were perfect?  The fact that we did it would be the talk of the town, and it would be so surprising that we’d do ‘well’ no matter the level or our performance.  We were going to hit them with Shock and Awe, and the rest really didn’t matter as long as we kept up the act for 3 minutes.

Three weeks we worked.  We’d gotten *NSYNC looking outfits (Good Will versions of what they wore in the Dirty Pop video).  We had the song down as good as it was going to get, which might as well have been perfect as far as we cared.  We’d adopted the motto “Sloppy is our style!”

The day of the concert arrived.  We’d watched all of the schools go, including ours.  We hadn’t told anyone about what we were going to do.  We didn’t want to build it up at all, because shock was going to carry us a long way, or at least that was the plan.  During lunch, the runners of this festival got us up on stage while the auditorium was cleared out.  We did a full run-through.  We learned that monitors are speakers on the ground that let you hear yourself (we decided that full singing volume was the right choice), and that headset microphones were a thing (we’ll take three for our five man band, please).  Naked Barbie was on the sideline cheering us on.  We felt really really really good about it.

The afternoon went by and it was time for the exhibition songs.  We all went up to stage left where the master of ceremonies was.  He gave us a few words of encouragement before we went on.  The air was electric, my hands were shaking with nerves.  We all couldn’t believe what was about to happen.  Out in the crowd were at least 10 different schools worth of choirs and choir fans.  Our school was front stage left, and we were going to pander to those girls like crazy.  Our spirits couldn’t have been higher.

And then we all heard an electric synthesizer on some kind of weird organ setting.  We looked on stage and there was a High School senior, smiling at the crowd and playing an introduction to a song we knew all too well.  It was the introduction to Tearing Up My Heart, the *NSYNC song that we had agreed would be perfect if it wasn’t impossible.  Another High School senior hopped on stage behind a xylophone, and another hopped into a drum kit.  They played an instrumental round of the introduction as the last two members of their band moseyed and then in perfect 5-man harmony the High School senior group launched into the lyrics, still playing their instruments.  When they got to the end of the introduction with a resounding, “With or without you”, the group all muted their instruments and vocals.  Each snagged the nearest carry microphone from the closest stand and they all swaggered into the famous ‘*NSYNC 5’ formation.  Despite their being no sound coming from the stage, the auditorium was thunderous.  Every last middle and high school girl in the county was on their feet and shrieking at the top of their lungs.  The five seniors just looked at each other smiling.  One looked at his watch, a funny gag about how long the screaming went.  It didn’t die down, it just kept going.  I couldn’t believe it.  That was OUR screaming!

They didn’t bother to wait for the cacophony to die.  One hit a button on a nearby tech device and the karaoke version of the song launched over the house speakers at full intensity.  The five of them launched into the choreography of the video without a hitch, five mirrored figures in perfect unison.  The screaming raised in pitch and intensity.  One of them stepped forward and launched into the first solo.  The rest all pandered to the crowd valiantly, and then the five were back in unison while in five note harmony.  One mind in five bodies.  They pointed at the girls. They winked.  They did their choreography.  The two main singers did a great job hyping up everyone as they played the entire room, bounding over the stage like they owned the entire room.  The other three started to do a series of flips during the instrumental bridges, the most intense being a guy jumping off his friend’s knee, doing a backflip, and landing before sinking into the splits.  Out in the auditorium, the mob was melting into Chernobyl.

I looked at my squad.  We were deflated and defeated.  They were so much better.  They looked better. They sounded better.  They did flips.  Most importantly, their performance caught the audience with complete shock and awe.  It was the perfect setup, and we had to follow it.  It was going to be a disaster.

I felt bereaved.  Braum was visually pale.  Drew looked conquered and upset.  Shannon took turns saying to each of us “That’s just not fair”, repeating it to our squad members a second time each.  Randel didn’t say anything.  He was so nervous coming up here that I’m not sure that it was registering to him that another group had just beaten us to the punch.

The music cut out before the song was done, right before the last chorus refrain.  Exclamations of “What?!” and other shouted disappointment bellowed from the auditorium.  The five seniors looked at each other confused, and then they all smiled and pointed at each other as if some unspoken idea had occurred to them all simultaneously.  This was my cue, my chance to save everything.  I huddled up my group and told them the one thing we could do to fix everything.

On stage, the five seniors had all taken spots behind various instruments (electric piano/organ, xylophone, drums, bass guitar, and tambourine), and they played the song live on their instruments while singing.  Ear piercing shrill echoed through the building to the point it was hard to hear the band.  They finished, they bowed, and the auditorium was a cannonade of excitement.

Before the screaming could die down, the master of ceremonies went and congratulated the seniors.  Then announced our group.

“Okay everybody, let’s hear it for N*Posters!”  Clapping erupted, but no one walked on stage.  “I said, ‘up next we have N*Posters!’”  The master of ceremonies looked confused, and pointedly looked to stage left.  He found us all sitting in the bleachers, blending in with crowd.  He made eye contact with me.  I simply folded my hands in mock prayer and shook my head back in forth, a look of pure fear on my face.

“I guess that was them, well done N*Posters, let’s give them another hand!”

It is the best decision I ever made in my entire life.

Ice Bucket Killjoys

Today is Friday, the day I talk about the issues.  Today’s issue is that there are people out there being killjoys about the Ice Bucket Challenge.  In case you’ve been living in such a way that you could find this obscure blog but miss the social phenomenon that has taken over every form of social media and the news, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a fun publicity stunt designed to raise a lot of money and awareness about ALS research.  The idea is that if you get challenged by someone, you have to send $100 to ALS research.  If you don’t have $100 or don’t want to send $100, you can instead dump a bucket of ice water on your head and send only $10 instead.  Then you chain letter 3 other folks and make them do it.  It seems that most folks opted for the ice bucket and then sent the $100 anyway.  As a publicity stunt it worked wonders!  Celebrities got involved, the public got involved, and for the month of August it was all the rage.  There were more than 739,000 new charitable donors and raised $41.8 million dollars in the space of one month (double what they got last year).

Of course, we can’t have a giant phenomenon where millions have a good time, lots of disposable income is pushed to a good cause, awareness of the terrible disease is increased, a readily replenishable resource is used, and people are temporarily discomforted for the amusement of others without the killjoys raising their voices in protest.  The killjoys are a group of folks that have to be outrageously upset about something that doesn’t impact their lives in the slightest bit.  They are obstinate gadflies who just want to poo-poo whatever it is that their pretentious ire is aimed at.  I’m not sure if it is out of spite, out of jealousy, out of a need for attention, or out of a dark soul that bemoans goodness and joy in any form, but the killjoys are here to talk bad about the Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC).  It’s just so easy to sit there, doing nothing, and complain about something while other people are out doing something.

The first thing that the killjoys latch onto is that the IBC is “wasting water”.  I’m not sure what to say about that, because the idea is really stupid.  These folks are acting as if the Conservation of Mass was not in effect, that once the water is dumped out it is gone forever.  The Earth has 321 million cubic miles of water, and even if the water from these IBCs did disappear from the universe, we’d be fine.  Of course, the water does not disappear, it rejoins the water cycle.

Maybe these folks aren’t scientifically illiterate and are more concerned that we are taking water and dumping it on the ground.  The USGA predicts that 2.08 billion gallons of water are used to irrigate all the golf courses in the US every day.  To put that in perspective, that is everyone in the United States doing the IBC with a 6 gallon bucket every single day.  Not for charity, but so that a few well-off suburban dads (mostly) can enjoy their really green playground that poor people aren’t welcome to.  Granted, most of that water for the nation’s golf courses is pulled from ponds, lakes, and it isn’t sanitized.  But that doesn’t stop Americans from dumping sanitized water on the ground all the time.  The typical American household has a sprinkler system that uses 265 gallons of water per hour.  They should only go for 15 minutes, which is literally taking sanitized drinking water and dumping it on the ground at the rate of 66 gallons every day, about 200 every week with 3 days of sprinkling.  That is, if they aren’t overwatering (which is a widespread practice).  If wasting water really offends you, start the campaign for outlawing lawn watering.

How about just dumping water down the drain?  A typical load of dishes uses 20 gallons of water if you do the dishes by hand and leave that pesky faucet on, 10 gallons of water if you are using a modern dishwasher.  3-ish gallons per toilet flush if your toilet isn’t new, 1.6 gallons per flush if it is.  A full bath can be about 40 gallons of water, a shower is 5-ish gallons per minute (Americans average a 50 gallon shower).  I haven’t even talked about washing the car, cooking food, actually drinking water, laundry, or many other water intensive activities.  A nice little water-conservative family of 4 living in suburbia USA uses about 280 gallons of water a day, 1,960 a week, and 8.4K gallons a month.  It’d be such a shame if 6 gallons of water went to a charity event.

Really, if ‘wasting’ water bothers you that much, you could instead do a charity of your own where you donate $88 dollars to buy someone with an older toilet (3-5 gallons per flush) a high efficiency toilet and another $29 on a WaterSense shower head (2 gallons per minute as opposed to the average of 8).  You’ll save about 42 gallons of water per person that uses that bathroom exclusively.  It would require effort, though, and that’s why I don’t expect the killjoys to take this idea and run with it.  It’s a shame, because I’ve got a great plan to kick-start this charity.  Let’s have folks dump 42 gallons of ice water on their heads to show how much water could be saved a day with just a donation of $117 dollars.  That’d definitely raise awareness!  Or have an Office Space moment where people take baseball bats to the old toilet.  I bet all sorts of people would watch toilet destruction videos.  Of course…then the killjoys will say that everyone is being wasteful and over-burdening already full landfills.  They just have to be offended by something.

Drinking water isn’t a precious resource in the United States.  At my current rate in New York, where everything is expensive, I can get a gallon of water out of my tap for less than a penny.  We have plenty of infrastructure that lets us convert absurd amounts of water to be safe enough to drink.  6 gallons here or there doesn’t really matter.  That’s 6 cents worth of water.  The ice costs 25 times more than the water.

The second complaint I keep seeing is that there are lots of people without drinking water, and the IBC is affecting them in some way that…um… well the killjoys never seem to finish their thought.  It’s the same thinking that an American child needs to finish their vegetables because there are starving children in China.  The thoughts aren’t related.  I’m not sure why this complaint is a thing.  Are they mad because we dumped that readily accessible resource on the ground rather than boxing it up and sending it UPS over to some unspecified thirsty individual?  Are the killjoys mad that thirsty people without access to drinking water weren’t given a plane ticket so they could come over to participate in the fun?  What is the complaint?  You might as well get mad at those kids in Alaska for throwing snowballs at each other and wasting the snow when there are kids in Hawaii that have never even seen a snowflake.  One place has the resource in droves and the other doesn’t.

I can tell you what the complaint is: Inequality exists in the world.  Inequality in the world is a very serious topic and one that troubles me often, but saying that the IBC is making it worse isn’t valid in the slightest.  It’s tragic that people don’t have access to clean drinking water, but that isn’t affected by the IBC.  Wasting water here won’t hurt or help folks over there.  Preserving water over here won’t hurt or help folks over there.  Locking up 6 gallons of water in a shrine to be revered and honored for generations to come won’t hurt or help folks over there.  Really, the “we’re wasting water when there are people that don’t have water” argument is really dumb because any resource could be used here.  If it was the “Eat 5 Poptarts” challenge, killjoys would be mad about wasting food from a place with an overabundant supply of food.  If we did a “stay awake all night” challenge, folks would be mad because insomniacs everywhere can’t get enough sleep.  Some people just refuse to let a good thing go by uncriticized because they have to be offended.  They need to be offended.

Yes, inequality exists in the world, and one of the best ways to combat that is through charityCharities like the IBC are great to combat inequality.  If you want to talk about inequality, let’s talk about the tens of thousands of individuals suffering from ALS that could greatly benefit from some very expensive research.  If you want to talk about inequality, let’s talk about people in the richest nation on earth using their iPhones and internet connections to help redistribute $41,000,000 of their throw-away change to help people that have it worse off than themselves.

Are there valid criticism of the IBC?  Actually…yes there are.  Some folks don’t like it because ALS research is sometimes done with detriment to animals.  Some folks question where the money would be going to (does it go to actual research or some CEO of a research lab?).  Some folks think that ALS is hogging all of the charitable giving (the numbers haven’t come in on this yet, so I can’t say if it is true or not, but my feeling is that the IBC generated extra giving without cannibalizing a large percentage of donations).  These folks I can tolerate, because they’ve put thought into what they are doing as opposed to throwing an immature hissy fit/temper tantrum in order to gain attention for themselves (my favorite one so far calling the IBC a Satanic Ritual).

What has the Ice Bucket Challenge done right?  More than raising $41 million for charity, it briefly made charity cool again.  For a while, people were talking about charity and giving.  They were excited about giving.  That hasn’t been a common conversation in years.  My wife and I talked about how we’d been slacking off on our giving to our charities of choice and how it would be nice to start that up again (my favorite is Heifer Project International).  The IBC brought with it a spirit of generosity that’s been sorely lacking.  It showed that we are very capable of addressing social issues if we want to.

Final thoughts?  I have a few.  I don’t have any data to back this up other than my gut feeling, but charitable people tend to be really excited about folks being generous.  It doesn’t really matter what the good cause is, charitable people are excited that other people are putting their money into the cause they care about.  If you ever find a charitable person, ask them, and they will tell you all about their charity of choice because it matters to them.  That’s why I think the killjoys really don’t have a leg to stand on, because I don’t think they give to any charities.  They don’t have a dog in this fight.  I have trouble seeing someone with a charitable heart donating hundreds of dollars to one charity and mocking and jeering someone else for donating to something else they care about.  I have trouble seeing a charitable someone missing the point so completely while saying “you’re giving to ALS?  Well I give to cancer research, and they didn’t need a stupid gimmick, so I’m better than you.”  Charitable people don’t talk like that.  Killjoys do…except for that part where they give to something else.  It really just sounds like an excuse to remain selfish.

So to you killjoys of the world, I offer you your own challenge.  You don’t have to dump water on your head or anything.  Just give a little bit of your spending cash to any charity you think is worthy.  $50 should do it.  If you are so offended by the inequality in the world that the IBC highlighted for you, I suggest giving to Heifer Project International.  If you were made aware of people without clean drinking water because of the IBC, I suggest giving to water.org.  I think the simple act of giving will change your heart a bit.  I wouldn’t put your money where your mouth is because I think that bragging about your charity is really just a self-promotional bit of advertising that still helps the cause but robs you of any personal growth you could have enjoyed.  It’s the difference between saying you care about something and proving it.  What will the challenge prove?  Not a whole lot, no one will really know that you did it, but I think it’ll change you for the better.  And if it doesn’t, you can tell me all about it and I’ll apologize to you personally for ruining the good name of killjoys everywhere.

The Next Dimension

There were many bikini-clad college ladies at the lake that day, and they had their choices of many muscled, intelligent, and dangerous college men.  We all knew what was at stake.  We were at a private lake about a half hour away from the nearest town, and we were there for the entire weekend.  It was a summer bash where everyone was expected to make poor decisions and the probability of winding up with a girlfriend/boyfriend was pretty high.  It was a very exclusive party; the organizers only invited the social elite.  Everyone there was beautiful and well connected.  I’m not sure how I was invited; perhaps the Post Office got their Steve’s mixed up.  I was a Freshman in college, socially awkward, and I only knew three of the other guys at the party.  I was out of my element, sure, but I had a few things going for me: I looked good in a swimsuit, I had a good sense of humor, and I was a great story-teller with a fresh audience.  Still, the guys outnumbered the girls about 2 to 1, so I had to play this right.

 

I knew I had stiff competition from Al.  Al was a beautiful man, a lumberjack with bronzed muscles shining like Adonis in the sun.  He was extremely charming, quick to joke, amazing conversationalist, had a contagious laugh, knew everything about popular music and culture, and was dressed like he belonged in a Sexy Fireman Calendar.  But on top of all that, the thing that made Al irresistible is that he was a bad boy.  He rode a motorcycle, smoked cigarettes, had a reputation of sweeping ladies of their feet, and rebelled against authority at every turn.  The man was charisma incarnate.  I once saw Al walk into a liquor store with no money, charm the lady behind the counter to loan him $10, and then walk out of the liquor store with a six-pack and two dollars.    That was normal for Al.  (He did go back the next day to give her $10.  She gave him her number.)

 

The parents were all at the lake before we arrived.  It was normal for them to get the party started and then leave before sunset.  They acted as a social catalyst, getting all of their children talking to each other before they gracefully bowed out and left us to our own devices.  We were young, scantily clad, well aware of the desirability of those around us, guaranteed privacy late into the night, and we had enough beer to float a boat.

This probably sounds like a stupid idea to you, because you are intelligent.  This sounds like lighting a flare over a powder keg.  I didn’t understand why they did it at the time, but a couple of theories have surfaced.  My best theory is that this is how the powerful and wealthy elite of the county kept their circle small.  By throwing all of their children into this Petri Dish and adding significant stimulant, the rich and powerful were guaranteeing that their sons and daughters would wind up with someone else that was the offspring of someone rich and powerful. They kept all of the undesirables out of the genetic pool while exposing their offspring to the best breeding the county had to offer.  We’d all form the tightest of social bonds.  Their daughters would inspire desire, upon which I’d develop friendship that could never be betrayed because my heart would always remember that it desired them at one point.  Their sons I’d learn to respect and admire as we all competed for the affections of the same women.  We’d all be a group, our own society, and no outsider could break in because we were already so close.  We were the up-and-coming elite.  Our parents’ legacy would continue through us, but only if our parents thrust us into the fire to forge these kinds of alliances.

 

That’s just a theory.  Maybe our parents were stupid.

 

I arrived late, because I didn’t know where the location was.  This story happened before smart phones, before GPS, and before any kind of printable internet map.  I was given directions such as “go to the Smith’s old place, take a left, past the tracks, right after the Barn House (you’ll know the one I’m talking about), keep going, and then left on the dirt road before the cow fields.”  It’s a skill that MidWesterners have, giving directions using no street names, and I’m decent at finding my way around, even when I don’t know who the Smith’s are, but I needed a guide this time, and that guide was Al.  Al rode his motorcycle, and as we came onto the property he revved his engine and nodded at the ladies.  He wore gigantic sunglasses (very stylish in the 90’s), so every single one of the girls thought he was nodding at them.  He then popped a wheelie and stood on his bike, balancing it perfectly, and slowly wheeled toward where the girls were stationed.  It was a great move signifying his mastery over the motorcycle, control, care, grace, and he had to flex his arms to maintain the wheelie.  I drove to where the cars were parked and gave myself a pep speech, because I was obviously outmatched.

 

Al’s parents were not the social elite.  His father worked developing construction equipment and his mother was big into New Age trends.  Despite his pedigree, the designers of this experiment understood what Al was: an unstoppable charisma.  Al would become something big in this county with or without the help of the “Old Money”.  They needed to draft him to their side to ensure that Al would stand with their children as opposed to against them.  Al was critical to their children’s success.

 

I wound my way down to the party, which was in full swing.  I maintained a constant flex of my abs while walking; it’s something I used to do when I was younger, shallower, and much better looking.  It may sound desperate, but I knew what I was up against.  I was up against Al.  Al already knew everyone here.  I sort of knew everyone here, I went to elementary school with some of these kids, and I knew their parents from long ago, but I hadn’t kept in touch.  The girls I knew in elementary school were now women.  Beautiful women.  Some of them sort of remembered me (I was a rather boisterous class clown, hard to miss), but I was never really close friends with any of them…

 

… except Gabrielle.  While walking to the beach where everyone was gathering, I got my first good look at the ladies.  One stood out in particular.  Tan, thin, the scoliosis stance that super-swimsuit models tend to favor, designer flip flops, freshly painted pink finger and toenails, impractical sunglasses, radiant smile, calculated hair that looks like she put in three hours of effort to make it look like she put in no effort, tactical make-up, and she was very good looking.  It took me about ten seconds of absent-minded staring to finally pull myself together and wonder, is that Gabrielle?  Gabrielle was a girl who liked soccer, could run decently fast, had a list of funny jokes, and enjoyed the same games I did.  We spent many hours together when our parents had parties, and I considered her a good friend.  She was pretty much everything I was looking for as a 2nd grader.  Now that I was older and much more shallow, she was ‘interesting’.  Love-at-first-sight isn’t something I believe in.  I actually preferred ladies to be witty, snarky, intelligent, able to navigate an interesting conversation, able to tell a story, full of new and brilliant ideas, hopes, dreams, and determination.  That isn’t something you can tell by first-sight.  So maybe what I was looking for wasn’t so shallow, but that doesn’t mean that “keen-interest-at-first-sight” wasn’t a factor for me in my college days.  There was only one problem with Gabrielle standing there on the beach, and that was how she was making googily eyes at Al while casually touching his bicep.

 

The party got underway.  I introduced myself to all of the parents, giving the fathers a firm handshake and nodding respectfully at the mothers.  Word had gotten around that I taught ball-room dance, and so many of them demanded a demonstration.  I was happy to oblige, knowing that treating the mothers to a quick dance was high-elite diplomacy.  The mothers would then introduce me to their daughters, or if I miscalculated whose mother they were, I’d get introduced to their son.  The sons weren’t ever impressed by the dance, but the ladies saw from afar.  They saw that I knew how to dance, that I could make their mothers laugh and smile, and that wherever I went people were happy.

 

It’s important to note that I wasn’t letting on with my internal rivalry with Al.  Al was my friend, after all.  It’s just that I didn’t like feeling inferior to him.  I was here because Al invited me, not because I belonged.  The ladies flocked around Al as their knees became weak and their eyes became soft.  The “Old Money” all complimented Al on his start-up business and were impressed by his decision to skip college and just start being successful by owning a company that employed fifty men.  A deep and dark part of me just wanted to show that I was on the same tier as Al.  For once I wouldn’t be known as “Al’s friend”, but as “Steve, the guy worth knowing on his own”.  So the performance there on the beach was not an act to fool people into thinking I was a fun person.  That was the genuine me.  I just always felt in the back of my head that I was losing some unspoken popularity contest.

 

The party migrated into the lake.  I had formed a conversation with Al, Gabrielle, and two other gals, and three other guys.  We kind of drifted about the pond the way that MidWesterners tend to do on summer days.  The unnamed folks in our group were all interested in each other, but Al was clearly interested in Gabrielle, and she was clearly interested in him.  I just did my best to be friendly and interesting, waiting my time.  I was evaluating Gabrielle, seeing if she was any fun to be around.  She was, and it turns outs that I was to.  I could make Gabrielle laugh, smile, and most importantly, engage with the conversation.  Maybe I had a chance out here, however slim it may be.

 

We drifted to the far side of the lake, and that’s when things changed.  Al nodded to the trees and said “hey, check this out.”  We all started to swim over to the bank.  A steep hill went straight into the lake at this spot.  It was a thirty-foot incline with a flat spot at the top.  Trees were everywhere, but I saw what Al was up to.  A single rope hung down from one of the taller trees.  It was a thick hemp rope, long enough to barely grab from the shore.  It had a small circular wooden platform at the bottom where a person could sit.  This was a rope-swing.

 

The group each took a turn, except for Al.  We would climb the hill, do our best to line up a path that would avoid any trees (not easily done), and then jump.  The swing would go down 30 feet, up thirty feet, and then you had to let go and drop into the water.  Riding the swing back wasn’t a choice, as it would invariably crash a rider into the trees.  I went first, and other folks followed.  Al stayed behind, helping folks onto the swing.  After all, he had built the rope swing.

 

Conversation between the guys shifted to “The Next Dimension”.  Should we show them “The Next Dimension”?  Will the parents get mad if we pull out “The Next Dimension”?  Are we too drunk to pull off “The Next Dimension”?  This unexplained event was generating a lot of hype, until Gabrielle finally asked “What is ‘The Next Dimension’?”

 

That is what Al had been waiting for.  “Here Steve, hold this.”  At the top of this thirty foot hill, there was a tree.  Al monkey-ed his way up the tree quickly and effortlessly, his lumberjack skills displayed for all to see.  He climbed to a rather sturdy branch about fifteen feet off the ground, and walked across it, balancing with his arms outstretched.   He then turned and faced the rope I was holding.

 

No way.

 

I looked down the hill.  Directly below was a very steep drop off, and at the bottom was a collection of sharp pointed sticks and jagged rocks.  If Al missed this, he’d fall about thirty-five feet and then die.  I looked up at Al, holding the edge of the rope.  “Watch this” is all he said, winking at Gabrielle.

 

Al jumped into the air, hands stretched out above his head, thirty-five feet above certain doom.  His body completely horizontal as he crossed the necessary seven feet to even have a chance at grabbing the rope.  His hands grabbed it with ease, his feet planted squarely on the seat.  The rope snapped out of my hand, and I saw Al go.  Careening through the trees faster than I’ve ever seen a swing go, Al was a streak of brilliance.  The swing crested on the other side over the lake just as Al let go.  His feet stayed on the platform as he backflipped off the platform with practiced ease, his arms stretched out to the sides at full length, his legs fully extended with pointed diver’s toes.   At least fifty feet in the air, he rotated backwards once, twice, three times before he slowly raised his arms above his head in a perfect swan dive.

 

The other lake goers didn’t know about this.  They just saw Al comet out of the forest like some kind of aerial champion.  Everyone cheered and yelled.  The swing came all the way back to the top of the hill where I caught it.  That was incredible.

 

I looked over at Gabrielle, to find her already looking at me.  Her breath had been taken away, clearly, it was the hottest thing ever done.  But her eyes were interrogating and playful, her bottom jaw flirtatiously quirked to the side, her smile devious.  “Think you could do that?”  And with her challenge, she took one finger and stroked it alongside my arm.

 

The next thing I knew, I was struggling up a wet tree.  Al had the advantage of two years Lumberjacking and a dry tree.  I had sure determination and ego, and both were wearing out.  I managed it, but it wasn’t graceful.  It was described as “climb-humping” the tree.  I had tree bark stuck on my chest and scratches everywhere.  Gabrielle stood at the top of the cliff of certain death, holding the swing for me, smiling sweetly.  I stood on the sturdy branch, still braced up against the trunk of the tree.

 

This is where I did some thoughtful introspection of the situation.  Gabrielle clearly knew that I liked her.  Despite my clever plan of trying to remain friendly and unflirty, she knew that I was interested.  She pulled one string and I performed masterfully as her puppet.  She wasn’t being cruel though.  She was clearly enjoying that I was going to such lengths to impress her.  She was open to flirtation.  Maybe she was into me.  Maybe she was just caught in that both Al and I were interested in her.  Maybe she was just naturally flirty.  Maybe she was toying with my heart and was ready to crush it at a moment’s notice.  It was hard to tell.  Climbing the tree was probably a bad decision, and I wasn’t thinking straight, but standing on the Branch of Fate (as it was called) did clear my head a bit.

 

I took a breather because climbing the tree was hard.  From the Branch of Fate, the collection of sharp sticks and rocks looks more like a churning meat grinder.  To successfully grab that swing, I’d have to fully commit to jumping over certain doom.  Folks in the water were splashing and clapping now.  Some had started chanting “Next Dimension”.  I had somehow become the center of attention for the entire party.  They weren’t taking any more stalling.  One of the guys said to Gabrielle “Do you think he’s going to chicken out?”

And before he had finished the question, I had leapt.

 

I remember the jump very well.  In order to make it to the rope, I had to clear seven feet horizontally, and had about fifteen feet vertically to do that in.    In the air, there was no time to look at the certain doom beneath me, as all five of my senses were focused on that rope swing.  The air was electrically cool against my wet skin as I flew through it.  My muscles were all tense.  My face had the calm of Buddha, with a slight smirk that sparked when I snuck a quick peek at Gabrielle.  My hands brushed against the rope.

 

That’s when everything went horribly wrong.  Gabrielle let go of the swing early, my hands were touching the rope, but I didn’t have a grip.  I didn’t get my hand placement as high on the rope as I wanted.  Al’s previous attempt at ‘The Next Dimension’ had left the rope wet.  The platform for my feet had already started to move away and I could not wrestle my feet onto it.  Instead I just slid down about four feet of rope, my hands clutching for dear life despite the sudden rendering of flesh on my palms.  I looked panicked at the collection of death spears and rock macerators below me when suddenly my view was blocked.  The foot platform had snapped back like a whip and clobbered me in the face.  I was knocked senseless.  All thoughts of death below, the Branch of Fate, my stupid unspoken competition with Al, even thoughts of Gabrielle had been shattered by the platform collision.  Only one thought remained.  “HOLD!”

 

My hands cinched onto the ropeswing.  The foot platform stopped my slide to certain doom, and I choked the ever-loving salvation out of the rope.  My vision had tunneled to mostly stars and black, but I could still barely see, and the moment I knew that I was over water I let go.

 

I did not gracefully soar high into the clouds like Al did.  I looked more like a cat shot out of a canon.  My legs were both higher than my head in some kind of uncontrolled karate kick.  My arms flailed about, all control lost after using every last bit of strength to keep me from dying.  I rotated on three axes like a rag doll, completely out of control.  Where Al had pulled an Olympic 3-rotation swan dive, I had achieved a hideous monkey roll.  My horizontal momentum was impressive; I remember seeing the lake water flashing past as the rotation slowed.  I saw my reflection, as if I was standing in the air horizontally, my arms casually at my side.  And then I fell into my reflection face and belly first.  An audible crack reverberated through the party as I rebounded off of the water tension, which sent me hurtling through the air again spinning like a top.  CRACK!  That time my back had bounced off the water tension, and again I was sent toppling over in a flurried ball of arms and legs.  Another loud crack sounded, but this time the lake had mercy.  The water tension let me in, ending my experiment as a human skipping stone.

 

Under the water I heard laughter.  Maybe it wasn’t real, just some delusional hallucination brought about by facial bludgeoning, but I still heard it.  I remembered thinking “You know, rather than face Gabrielle, you could just die here.  It might be easier.”  I stayed for a good ten seconds to regain my composure, and then kicked to the surface. 

 

I had decided that I wasn’t beaten.

 

I broke through the surface with my hands raised in triumph.  I had succeeded!  I had survived.  I acted like this is what I meant to do.  Clapping erupted, punctuated with the staccato of cheers and laughter.  I looked up the hill and smiled.  Gabrielle was there, holding her hands over her face in a bit of horrified shock.  Her eyes were large and guilty.  I called out to her “you let go a bit early.”

 

I managed to swim to shore.  My face was covered in blood and so were my hands.  I kept my hands and face out of the water to avoid getting any more lake water into my blood stream.  Profuse bleeding was not a good way to impress any of the ladies.

 

I did not end up getting a girlfriend that trip.  At one point, Gabrielle and Al disappeared off into the woods together and I sort of gave up.  Come to think of it, Al disappeared off into the woods with a lot of the girls, which made a lot of the fellas give up.  I still had a lot of fun.