Tenacity is the Key to Arm-Wrestling a Giant

I’ve mentioned once or twice the life-changing trip I was lucky enough to make when I was sixteen, a student ambassadorship program called People-to-People. It was a mashed together group of about thirty of us Californian kids with another gaggle of maybe a dozen Texas teenagers, and all in all we traveled across six countries around Western Europe: England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. We were escorted by several chauffeurs who were part of the program, a couple tour guides, and our mainstay coach driver: Bjorn.

Bjorn was a big Austrian guy. Stout, dense with muscle beneath the padding, tall, and I’m sure his damn bones were heavier than a normal man’s. As a rambunctious sixteen-year-old, I knew a trophy when I saw one. So while going about our way in the U.K. (rhyme like that deserves a song, I think), I challenged him to an arm-wrestling match. His reply? A big, jovial smile and a bellowed, “Heh-heh-heh. No.”

Was that enough of a signal for me? Of course not. So for weeks, literal weeks, I pestered him. We saw the Louvre, the Palace at Versaille, the famous Dutch windmills and fields of tulips, Bonn, Germany, and so many other sights, and every step of the way I’m bugging Bjorn: “How about now, big guy?” “Aw, what? Scared of me? Weird, but probably good.” “Come on, I’ll make it quick. I promise.”

I carry on so much, so loudly and consistently, that over the course of the trip it becomes a point of interest for the rest of my travelmates. But every time, his answer is the same: “Heh-heh-heh. No.”

Finally, we’re at a hotel in Switzerland for our last night celebrating with a big old dinner and dance in fancy clothes. It was great! We had food, friends, music, some memories we’re already reminiscing over, and others being made that night to last a lifetime.

It was only missing one thing…

So I found Bjorn sitting by himself enjoying a book in the hotel’s rather sparse lobby. I approach, confident yet almost pleading, and ask again. “Bjorn. Man. It’s our last day. Can I finally crush you in an arm-wrestling match?” Around me is a small group of friends who’d heard I was going to pester him again. He looks from me, to the others, to his book. With a short sigh, he fits in the bookmark and sets it down, then with a big, beaming smile says, “Okay.”

You’d think he told us we’d won the lottery. We explode with excitement, and my buddy Peter runs off to grab a camera (phones didn’t have reliable cameras by default, back then – Christ that ages me some). We find a suitable table, a ring of spectators encircles us, Peter starts rolling the camera, Bjorn and I clasp hands and set our elbows, and with a nod show we’re ready. We get someone to referee, and they wave the flag (<ahem> napkin <ahem>) for us to start.

Immediately, I lean in full-bore. I’ve talked this up for weeks and poked the bear, I would not be made a fool of so easily now. So I throw my full weight and strength and strain into beating Bjorn. I will not let up, I will not give in, I will not allow myself to lose. And to my utter astonishment, I’m actually holding my own. Obviously I’m not demolishing him, but I’m actually being competitive. Our clasped hands are wavering at high noon, neither side able to gain ground, but also not losing it. This is amazing!

Then I see his face…

He…he was so calm, it was like he was holding the door open for a nice lady rather than arm-wrestling for life and honor.

So I ask him, my voice straining as I blink away the sweat, “Bjorn, are you even trying?”

His response? “Heh-heh-heh. No.”

At which point, he slams my hand back onto the table so quickly and with such absolute power he might as well have thrown me out the window.

If someone only tells you stories about times where they win, it’s an almost sure mark of insecurity and they’re almost certainly lying. With that understanding in place, let me tell you with utmost confidence that Bjorn kicked my ass that night. And you know what? It was awesome.

Circus Throws and the Value of Perception

Being a kid in high school means being an idiot, or at least it did in my case. You do dumb stuff, and you’re supposed to. Most will say that it’s because it’s for the experience of growing and becoming wiser, but that’s only about half of it. The main reason is because, if you survive it, you should come out of it with some funny stories to tell people later. Yes, of course, you should learn from them too, but they should also be good at parties.

This one was sort of a lesson in what happens when you give power to those who aren’t ready for it, kind of like teaching an unstable person forbidden martial arts. You’re arming them with an ability they aren’t otherwise fit to use. Such was the case when some poor idiot taught two other poor idiots how to perform what they called a “circus lift.”

Basically, you grab your left wrist with your right hand while standing opposite someone else doing the same, and then you each grab the other persons right wrist with your open left hand. What you should have between you when you’re done is basically a net of your arms. We were told – unwisely, as time would show – is that you can toss willing participants really, really high when you have them sit on your newfound arm-net. Just bend with the knees, count to three, and launch them.

And you know what? It works. It really, really works.

My buddy Peter and I became a regular sideshow attraction most lunch periods by the Senior Steps, taking volunteers and hucking them up into the air. We got good at it and an eensy, teensy bit famous for it. So it just became what we did for a few weeks. Then we had That Day happen. You know the one, the one that earns those capital letters, and the fateful dun-dun-duuuun piano bass.

It had rained pretty heavily the night before, and our usual launch pad was the grassy slope next to the Steps. As you could imagine, it was still slick and muddy by the time lunch came around, and that should have given our regularly schedule launches cause for postponement. But this wouldn’t be the Tale of Two Idiots if we did that. So of course we kept throwing people that day. (And in our defense, it should be The Tale of About a Dozen Idiots given how people kept stepping up, despite the slippery conditions.)

It comes to our last throw of the day, and a friend of ours steps up – we’ll call her Ana, for the sake of this. So Ana sheds her backpack, takes a seat, we do our countdown, we launch her, and…well, you know those times you get a feeling? A Bad Feeling? It’s the moment directly after doing some irrevocable that forces you to raise your eyebrow a bit and think, “Uh-oh. That might have been a bad idea.”

Right away, you can see that Ana’s trajectory and mid-air balance are off. She went pretty high, too. The way she hit her arc and is on her way down doesn’t look too promising, but there’s nothing to do but cringe and see how she ultimately sticks the landing.

She does not stick the landing.

What happens is she breaks her damn ankle. It was a loud, pretty sickening cracking sound that I can still hear pretty clearly in my head when I think about it. I remain pretty proud of my instincts, because I didn’t waste any time in acting. It was pretty clear precisely what had happened, and I’m off to the nurse like a lightning bolt. I’ve always been a tall kid, and as a seventeen-year-old Energizer Bunny, I made really good time. I get to the nurse, quickly explain what’s happened, and lead her to the site of the accident.

The only problem is that I didn’t tell anyone I was doing that. So to everyone else, I just threw this girl in the air, heard her ankle break, and Usain-Bolt’d out of the scene like a complete a**hole.

Things wound up alright in the end, and I’m a lot better at communication nowadays.

My Watchmen Experience

You know those days where you can’t do anything wrong? Not like you’re all super righteous and above reproach or anything, but you’ve just woken up on the right side of the bed and things go right. So it may not exactly be a case of “can’t do anything wrong,” but days that are just born good. It doesn’t even have to be anything incredible or momentous, like winning the lottery or saving somebody’s life. No, you have all your homework done ahead of time. You have just enough cash on you for a donut with coffee and a sandwich for lunch. You find that thing you thought you lost. A ton of small, tiny, happy moments that make for a great day.

That’s the kind of day I was having one time as a senior in high school. I couldn’t miss. Woke up easy, had a good hair day so I was feelin’ pretty, got to school early, smoothly hit all green lights when I longboarded to that donut shop, finished the book I was reading that free fifth period, The Works.

“Hmm,” I sighed as I got off the bus that afternoon to walk home, “I think I’m gonna finish reading Watchmen today.”

If you somehow aren’t familiar, Watchmen was a graphic novel written by Alan Moore from the 1980’s. The short version is that it was set in a world wherein the caped-crusader, masked crime fighter phenomenon struck, but in a gritty, noir setting. And when I say gritty, I mean that sh*t was dark. One of the story’s most recognizable characters Rorschach’s – a vigilante type, so named for the psychiatric ink-blot test his mask is designed after – famous speeches goes as follows:

“The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown.

The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘SAVE US!’

And I will look down and whisper ‘No.”

No kidding, when it’s described as an edgy (like unto a razor), harsh take on the costumed heroes, it means it. Near the beginning, there’s a newspaper clipping describing a story wherein one hero catches his cape in a bank’s rotating door during a robbery, so the criminals, reasonably, brutally gun him down. It’s not long into it either when another of the main cast exposits his backstory to reveal his joy at raping his way through Vietnam.

Being an angsty, “edgy” (like unto a butterknife) teenager, it was right up my alley.

To that point, I’d read it in bits and pieces over the course of a couple of weeks, and was about halfway through with it. That speaks both to my traditional, savory reading speed, but also to just how freaking dense of a story Watchmen is. I’d sipped my way through the first half and, feeling full of myself that particularly happy day, decided to gulp down the rest of it that afternoon and evening.

So I got home, unloaded my backpack, sit on the couch with a coffee like a sophisticated individual, and got enthralled with the grimdark story until the sun had gone down…

…then I went to bed early and cried myself to sleep into my pillow.

Emotionally, I can be a bit of a tenderfoot, I admit that wholeheartedly. But Jesus Christ guys, that book did not f**k around, especially for my young, virgin mind (in a literary sense – mind out of the gutter, kids). Children are murdered, dogs get cleavers to the dome, throats get cut, loved ones are betrayed, people explode, heroes question meaning in and of reality – The Works.

I don’t remember clearly, but I may have been a bit out of it the next day, too. That thing took a toll. But if you’ve somehow made it this far into life without seeing either the movie or spin-off HBO show, do yourself a favor, steel yourself, and check it out. This is one of those rare exceptions where the film is perfectly just as good as it’s written counterpart.

Just grab some consolation cookies and a hanky beforehand.