Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part six. Find the table of contents here.
What's should the response to chaos be? When everything in the world is new or unusual or mixed-up or confusing, how should people respond?
I'd already decided, in light of the fact that there was absolutely nothing in the world that was under my control, to quit smoking -- making that decision in the rambunctious atmosphere of Union Station. Now, I stood in my dorm room, after dark, in strange city, surrounded by strange people who pronounced the word "dragon" in strange ways, and pondered how to deal with this increased level of chaos.
Rip said the word "dragon" it with a few too many syllables, or almost-too-many syllables, stretching it out as though saying each letter in turn, pronouncing the word "d-r-a-g-o-n." It's a method of pronunciation that actually makes sense. Try it yourself. Think of word, any word. Maybe the word could be 'word.' Now, spell the word, slowly:
Now, spell it more quickly:
w o r d
The quicker you spell it, the more the word sounds like what you're spelling; or, maybe, the more what you're spelling sounds like a word. So things sound like how they're spelled, but ordinarily they're not pronounced like how they're spelled. Rip did that, though: he pronounced the word "dragon," and only that word, as though he was spelling it at medium speed. I would not run across anyone pronouncing a word like that for a long time -- not until I saw the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, in fact, and had to endure hour after hour of characters pronouncing "Sauron" with the same exaggerated pronunciation that Rip had once used, years earlier, in saying dragon: d-r-a-g-o-n. In fact, when I first saw the first of those movies, and a character said "S-a-u-r-o-n," I immediately thought of Rip, and what I thought was "I wonder what Rip is doing these days, and whether he ever married Dragon?"
I assumed, even back then, that Rip would want to marry Dragon because he pronounced her name in that respectful (and elaborate) way and he talked about her a lot. I gathered that Rip was not dating Dragon, but that he wanted to date Dragon or had in the past and figured he would in the future, and I still believe that about Rip, that he wanted to date Dragon and eventually would date Dragon.
I don't know if Rip ever did date or marry Dragon because -- spoiler alert! -- I almost never spoke to Rip again after I left Washington and I never saw him again, despite promises to do so, vague plans to have a reunion or to visit each other (and Carlos, who will come up soon) and talk. Perhaps, if e-mail and Facebook and the like had existed back then, we might have kept in touch more than we did - -but probably not, because whether or not Facebook existed, I remained me and I am not a "keep in touch" kind of person. But maybe I will look Rip up on Facebook one of these days and if I do, I will ask him if he married Dragon and if I was right that he wanted to.
I myself had a girlfriend at the time, a girlfriend of sorts. We would never be very seriously in a relationship, in part because we only very rarely, as it turned out, spent time in the same city as each other. We had begun dating a year before. One of our first dates was on a Superbowl Sunday, when I brought her to my Mom's and watched the Superbowl with her and my sister and my brother Matt and Mom. That's how I know we had been going out a year by the time that I went to Washington - -measuring time by Superbowls. That's also how I know what year I went to Washington -- because of Superbowls.
I was, by the time I went to Washington, a Buffalo Bills fan, a team I came to like entirely by happenstance. I had never paid much attention to football as a kid. I was unathletic and bookish and quiet; kids who are overweight and wear glasses and have lazy eye and who like to read comic books rarely spend a lot of time playing sports, although I suppose it could be argued which leads to the other -- whether it is the bookishness and glasses and pudginess (later to be actual fat, and later still to be very lean) that leads to the lack of interest in sports, or whether it is the lack of interest in sports that leads to the love of reading and obesity.
Somewhere around the late 1980s, I got more interested in football, as a result of the Green Bay Packers' doing slightly better. Football is hard to escape in Wisconsin. The Green Bay Packers are prominent parts of life in Wisconsin and eventually, football and the Packers seep into your blood even if you don't want them to do so or don't care one way or the other whether you want them to do so or not. Before the late 1980s, my involvement in and memories of football were very limited. I remember playing football, a lot, with friends at school or with my brothers and my dad in my backyard. We had neighborhood-wide games sometimes in the park, games with rules like "all-time quarterback" and limiting the number of "blitzes," and requiring people to yell "blitz" when they did blitz -- blitzing being rushing before you counted the proper number of bananas.
Counting bananas was how we allowed the quarterback time to throw, and the games were almost always all-passing games. We were doing the sandlot run-and-shoot, the spread offense, decades before those things would catch on in the higher levels of sports. Because of that, and because nobody wanted to be a blocker, the person rushing the quarterback had to count, and to not just count 1-2-3-4 but count by bananas, or Mississippis, or one-thousands:
one one thousand two one thousand three one thousand...
and it was a prized skill to be able to slur those words together and have them be intelligible but fast. A person who could count one banana two banana by saying onebnntwobnn and still have everyone on the field agree that he was saying banana even though it was compressed, was a person to be feared and respected.
Despite playing lots of football, though, I only started to like it when I was 18 or 19, and even then did not follow it anywhere near as closely as I do now. My interest in football arose around the time that I started making bets on the Superbowl -- betting against my brother Matt, or people at work. Never betting much, but betting, anyway, and finding a reason to watch the game because of that bet.
In 1991, my brother Matt and I began what would be a long-running (7 or 8 years) series of bets on the Superbowl, picking teams and betting $50 plus a team jersey. That was a considerable amount of money, seeing as how I worked, in that year, for almost no money. In 1991, I had moved out of my parent's house and was living in Milwaukee and if I earned $4000 that year I would be surprised. I worked for part of the year at a gas station before quitting, then worked nowhere until one day in June when I had no money. None. (That would be one of two times in my adult life that I had absolutely no money to draw on, not a single penny to do or buy anything with. While frightening and discouraging it was not as frightening and discouraging as the second time that I would find myself with no money whatsover, the second time that happened being only four months after I got married.)
I rectified the no-money situation in 1991 by going to work at a Subway restaurant where I earned about $2.35 per hour, so the Superbowl bet represented almost a week's worth of pay for me. Add in the jersey, and it was likely to be two weeks' pay.
I bring this all up to explain why I was a Buffalo Bills' fan, something which may seem extraneous right now but my being a Buffalo Bills' fan would result in a memorable evening in Washington, so it will become pertinent eventually. Plus, I always feel the need to justify the fact that I am a fan of the Buffalo Bills even though I live in Wisconsin and have never lived in Buffalo -- have only been to Buffalo once, on my honeymoon, in fact.
People, upon hearing that I am a Bills fan, generally all say the same thing: Oh, are you from Buffalo? To which I say no, and they appear confused and ask why I like the Bills, and I explain it to them (as I will here, in a moment.) I find that kind of confusing, the idea that I'm supposed to like only the football team from my state. Why should I feel greater loyalty to the Packers than to any other football team? I don't live in Green Bay, and I probably spent more of my life living closer to the Chicago Bears' stadium than to the Packers'. But because I'm from Wisconsin, people think that I must always, and only, be a fan of the Green Bay Packers. I do like the Packers and root for them and follow them, but not only them, and people question that and find it odd.
Sports are entertainment but they're a weird form of entertainment. Only in sports does geographic proximity demand loyalty or presume loyalty. Oh, you're from San Francisco? You must like the 49ers. Or you like the Celtics? Are you from Boston? Nobody assumes that I must like Harrison Ford's acting simply because he's from Wisconsin. If you say that you enjoyed John Grisham's books, would you expect the next question to be Are you from Mississippi?
But I'm from Wisconsin, and in the sports world that chains me to the Packers and requires an explanation of why I like the Buffalo Bills so much that on my honeymoon I detoured to go see their stadium. This that explanation:
The first year we made our Superbowl bet, Matt and I, was the Superbowl in which the Giants played the Buffalo Bills. Matt took the Giants, so I took the Bills, about whom I knew nothing. I watched that Superbowl by myself, sitting in my roommate's chair in our apartment watching it on his TV because that was better than the group TV in the living room.
The Bills lost, of course, but it was a close game and an exciting one. The next year, Matt and I decided to bet again, and I took the Bills again - - saying that this year they'd have to win. They didn't.
They made it to the Superbowl the next year, though, the game that I watched with my then-new-girlfriend, and before that game, Matt and I bet again and he said "You almost have to take the Bills now, they're kind of your team," and he was right, and so I did, and so I gave Matt another $50 and a Dallas Cowboys' jersey.
Nearly twelve months later, I was still kind of dating that girl, and I was not far away from betting on the Bills for a fourth time, neither of which I was thinking about that night as I unpacked the rest of my things and tried to avoid thinking about what I'd do the next day if I didn't have an internship. The coordinator had left and I had no internship and did not know what to say to anyone about that, and that was all people were talking about at the time --who are you working for? -- and I didn't feel much like talking about anything, not Laurie or football or D-r-a-g-o-n or anything.
Luckily for me, I suppose, I didn't have to talk much about that, because Rip was very good at talking. He held forth on a variety of subjects, going on and on, as others settled in and we introduced ourselves and met Carlos, who would become part of our Gang of Three there in Washington, and I was able to spend most of my time trying to figure out how, beyond quitting smoking, I would somehow gain control of everything that was going on around me.
I didn't hit on it right away; I didn't hit on what I would do in addition to quitting smoking to regain control until later that night, when I called Laurie to tell her I'd arrived and settled in and was okay. She wasn't much interested in what was going on around me or what I was doing or the details of the trip, as I recall. She had never struck me as very interested in any of the things that I was interested in, and I think we had stayed together for that first year in part out of inertia and in part out of the fact that, if there was no real reason for us to be dating, there was also no real reason for us to not be dating, either: we didn't fight, or even argue, much. We didn't interfere with each other's lives, we didn't have diametrically opposing viewpoints. We just co-existed.
That and we were almost never in the same city together. We'd dated five months before she went home for the summer -- to Green Bay, from Milwaukee-- during which we were dating, I suppose, and then she came back in September to Milwaukee and then a few months later I went to Washington.
There wasn't really any need to break up before I went to Washington, and not any great need to break up when I was there, either, and we never talked about whether we were broken up or not during those times when we were separated. I didn't consider us to be broken up, but I didn't really spend much time thinking about the fact that we were dating, either.
Still, I did call her that first night to tell her I was there and I was okay, trying to distract myself from the fact that I was not okay -- I was feeling helpless and was not sure what would happen next, which is not a comfortable feeling, especially since I'd last felt that way on the day when I'd had no money and had to figure out what to do with my life, not in the grand-scheme-of-things kind of way, but in the I'm-going-to-be-very-hungry-soon kind of way, and since that day I'd tried very hard to not have that feeling that life was getting out of my control, that I didn't know what would happen next. Despite working so hard to get to that point, a point I had reached, I'd then gotten bored and thrown it all out and created all kinds of upheaval, and now here I was, twenty-four hours into that upheaval and not liking it very much.
I wanted to say that to Laurie, who I suppose would have been the person I could say it to, her being my girlfriend and all, but I didn't say it and I don't think she would have been interested in it. Instead, I told her my trip was good and asked how she was and she told me she was fat.
She wasn't. I said so.
"I am," she said. "I need to lose 10 pounds."
I then debated with her about that, pointing out that she was not fat and that in any event losing only 10 pounds would not make a difference. She said it would and I said "Nobody looks different after losing only ten pounds." She insisted she would.
So I said "I'll prove it. I'll lose 10 pounds and you'll see. I won't look any different."
Just like that, I had a second thing to exert control. I weighed 172 the day I left for Washington (I'd weighed myself on the bathroom scale I'd bought when the year before I'd decided to get in shape and did just that, losing 108 pounds.) I told Laurie I'd drop down to 162 and prove to her that I was right and she was wrong and ten pounds would not make any difference in one's appearance.
Then I went back to the room where I decided I'd read for a while, then go to sleep and the next day would see some sights.