Adventures in Self-Awareness

I want to emphasize something before I tell this next story — I change jokes all the time to make them funnier, but I NEVER change things that actually happened to me in order to sharpen the humor. I tell true stories as well as I can tell them but I keep them true, in all details, to the very best of my ability as far as my memory will serve me. The Starbucks barista yesterday who wrote down my name as “Danny” really did finish off her self-congratulatory rant about how she couldn’t stand people who weren’t careful to spell other people’s names right, by turning to me and asking, “Can I get you anything else, Danny?” If I were reading it on somebody else’s blog I would suspect them of adding the last sentence just to make the ending be perfect…but she really did add that all by herself. And I never “improve” true stories, because otherwise, when life DOES give you a perfect ending, nobody will believe it was really true.

I emphasize that because today I sat amongst a group of stereotypically obnoxious parents-of-child-athletes and not one, but TWO of the obnoxious gentlement provided me with perfect endings, in a single episode — and I don’t want people think I made it up.

Sally wanted to go see her eight-grader friends play volleyball at our local middle school this afternoon. I had to do some work on my laptop anyway and figured I could do that while sitting on the top row of gym bleachers as easily as I could do it at home; so I agreed to take her and her friends Colleen and Paderick (who, as you can tell from those names, are very proud of their Iranian heritage). I myself didn’t know any of the kids who were playing, nor any of their parents, and so I simply sat down at the first convenient empty spot and started to type.

Unbeknownst to me, I had chosen to sit in the de facto visitors’ section. And the parents who were travelling with today’s visiting team (which out of pity shall remain nameless on this blog), were, shall we say, enthusiastically verbal. Mostly they were yelling encouragement to their daughters, which is an activity I wholeheartedly support. One gentleman in particular, though, had a lot to say about the officiating, even though if memory serves I thought, every single time, that the linesmen had gotten the calls right. As he is going to be a recurring character, let’s give him a name — say, “Ralph the Mouth.”

Unfortunately their daughters were not very good at volleyball and were behind 7-0 before getting their first chance to serve, and let’s just say they never seriously threatened to extend the set to three games. The first game came and went quickly, and while the visitors made a little better showing in the second game, still it was 16-9 before long. I wasn’t exactly engaged in the game but I did feel kind of sorry for the team in blue, and when they would get one of their rare good plays I went ahead and cheered for them, secure in the knowledge that I would not offend Sally since she was being very careful to stay at the other end of the gymn lest anyone thing she had come to the game with her dad.

And then we got the first and only real volleyball play of the day (it was eighth grade, after all) — one of the Fort Settlement players, late in a particularly long point, foresaw that one of the visitors was going to try a quick tip over the net, leaped in front of her, timed her leap just right, and actually got a perfect block. This drew an appreciative roar from the admiring throngs on the home end of the bleacher…but then the head linesman disqualified the point on some technicality or other from the rulebook.

Now I know very little about volleyball and certainly know nothing about the rules for eighth-grade girls. But there’s something I’ve seen often enough to recognize it — it’s when a coach who knows the rules very well, sees a referee invoke a rule wrongly, and he tries to remind the official of what the rule is, but the official (this is particularly common in middle-school athletics) doesn’t know what the rule is and is too stubborn to admit it, and the coach just can’t believe that it’s not a mere misunderstanding that can surely be straightened out if he can just explain it clearly enough…ai-ya, you feel sorry for the guy, but you just want to say, “Dude, if they were really good at this, don’t you think they’d be officiating at some higher level, like, you know, high school junior varsity?”

In this case, the Fort Settlement coach spent at least five full minutes trying to enlighten the head linesman, going so far as to pantomime himself from one side of the court to the other in personal demonstrations of how the position rules are altered in the case of certain sequences of passing…I had no idea what he was talking about since I couldn’t hear him and know practically nothing about the rules, but I was kind of amused by his naivete as regards human nature. He was so obviously not going to accomplish anything, bless his heart. But the Parents Of Visitors around me were in a bad mood already (which I could understand, as seeing your kids get their butts kicked tends to do that), and they were definitely Not Amused. They began yelling at the coach to shut up and sit down. Ralph the Mouth in particular — you know, the gentleman who had been the most vocal critic of the officials up to that point — was particularly incensed by the delay and particularly non-decibel-challenged in his advice. The gentleman just to my left, whom I’ll call Buster, chose to wax philosophic: “What’s the big deal? It’s just one point, in one set, and you’re ahead anyway. Just let it go, for God’s sake! Let it go! It’s just ONE POINT!”

And it was about that time, to my immense (but carefully private) amusement that Ralph the Mouth hollered, setting a record for volume in the process, “Come on, Coach, shut up and sit down and stop setting such a bad example for the kids!!”

I stopped trying to think about Black-Scholes derivatives and turned my full attention to relishing the situation. The merest glance at Ralph the Mouth was sufficient to assure myself that irony was the furthest thing from his mind. I was curious to see whether he could top himself — and a moment later he suddenly pointed at a tie-bedecked gentleman at the other end of the gym and asked his wife, “Hey, isn’t that their principal?” Not waiting for a response, he answered his own question: “I think it is. Why doesn’t he stop that idiot? Can’t he see his coach is an embarassment to their school? He should go make his coach sit down. In fact I think I’ll go talk to him.”

And to my delight, he actually rose to his feet, made his way to the base of the bleachers, strode purposefully to the far end of the gym, and with a certain abruptness addressed himself to the gentleman with the tie, over whom he towered by at least six inches. I am no lip-reader, but I presume that he asked, “Are you the principal?” and I definitely saw the principal nod his head and saw his mouth form the words, “Yes, I am.” And sure enough, Ralph the Mouth proceeded, with much gesturing and emphasis, to demand that the principal go intervene in the (still-ongoing) debate between the coach and the head linesman. I could see the expression on the principal’s face getting more and more incredulous, though still carefully polite, and I could see expression on Ralph the Mouth’s face getting more and more frustrated as the principal dealt with him in pretty much exactly the way the head linesman was dealing with the coach. It was like a ballet with dueling, but synchronized, pas de deux on two separate ends of the stage.

Eventually the coach gave up and went back to his seat, and Ralph the Mouth gave up and came back to his, with dissatisfaction on all sides except mine — this was turning out to be much more interesting than your average everyday eighth-grade volleyball game.  Play picked up again, with the score now 16-10. Fort Settlement made it 17-10, and then they served out of bounds to give the visitors a freebie, but then the visitors lost the next point…and about that time Ralph the Mouth realized that the scoreboard now read 18-10 rather than 18-11. Being Ralph the Mouth, he immediately let the world know about it, and the rest of the Parents Of Visitors quickly joined in.

Now I didn’t object to this at all because they were quite right; the scoreboard operator had clearly forgotten to change the score after the Fort Settlement service error. But the people down on the court had all obviously tuned out the Parents Of Visitors long before this point, and the scoreboard didn’t change.

And who was the person who was most miffed by this? Not, as you might have guessed, Ralph the Mouth — no, it was Buster. You remember, Buster the philosopher, who had encouraged the coach to get a sense of perspective and stop obsessing over what was after all “just a single point, in a single set”? The next four or five minutes, I kid you not, went about like this…

BUSTER: IT SHOULD BE ELEVEN!!

[Ten or fifteen seconds go bad without the scoreboard’s changing.]

BUSTER: WHERE’S OUR ELEVENTH POINT?!? YOU FORGOT TO CHANGE THE SCORE!

[Nothing happens.]

BUSTER: HEY! HEY! WHERE’S OUR ELEVENTH POINT??

[The vistors score, and the scoreboard changes to show 18-11.]

BUSTER: THAT SHOULD BE TWELVE! IT SHOULD BE TWELVE!

[Nothing happens.]

BUSTER: TWELVE!!!!!! TWE-E-L-LVE!

[The home team scores. The scoreboard now reads 19-11.]

BUSTER: WHERE’S OUR TWELFTH POINT!?

[Point to the visitors. 19-12.]

BUSTER: THAT’S WRONG! THAT’S WRONG! IT SHOULD BE THIRTEEN!

[Nothing happens.]

BUSTER: YOU FORGOT A POINT! WE SHOULD HAVE THIRTEEN!

[Nothing happens.]

BUSTER: WHERE’S OUR THIRTEENTH POINT?

[Another point for the visitors. 19-13.]

BUSTER: THAT SHOULD BE FOURTEEN! FOURTEEN!

[Nothing happens]

BUSTER [deciding to introduce some variety in his speechmaking, and waving his iPhone about madly]: I HAVE IT ON VIDEO RIGHT HERE!! I’LL PROVE IT!! YOU FORGOT A POINT!!

[Another point for the visitors. 19-14.]

BUSTER [returns to his rhetorical comfort zone]: THAT SHOULD BE FIFTEEN!! FIFTEEN!! WHERE’S OUR FIFTEENTH POINT?

At this point, you have no idea how hard I was having to resist the urge to turn to Buster and say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just one point, in one set. Let it go!!” Or, rather, how hard I would have been having to resist the urge if he hadn’t been so much bigger than I was.

But alas, all good things must come to an end. Fort Settlement called a timeout; and during the timeout the scoreboard was updated to read 19-15, thereby placating Buster; and when the teams returned from the timeout competitive normalcy seemed to be restored; and shortly therafter Fort Settlement made it to 25 and the teams lined up and shook hands and everybody, including myself, began to gather belongings and make for the exits. I hibernated the laptop, put it in its bag, zipped up the zippers, caught Sally’s attention and beckoned her over to me, established that we were all ready to go, and grasped the handle of my laptop bag. And then I happened to look back one last time to the far end of the gym.

And there I saw Ralph the Mouth, having cornered the principal once again in order to renew his philippic in re the coach’s intolerable behavior in talking too long to the head linesman, once again wearing an expression of outrage, gesticulating and grimacing and pointing at the court and then at the benches and then back at the court and then at the principal himself for good measure, setting his Good Example For The Children to the bitter end.

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