It was the winter of those first stutter-stepped Olympics, the ones in Lillehammer, the ones that put the Winter Games permanently out of sync with election years. We were down in the basement, hard at work, but my mom would call us up to the den when the figure skating came on.
My mom loves it when the little girls in the sparkly dresses wipe out. “Ooooooh!” she yells. “There she goes! Fell on her ass! That’s it! It’s all over now!” Then when they get hysterical in what I now know is called the kiss-and-cry area, she softens. “She’s gonna need therapy now, man. She’s gonna need therapy bad.”
It was in this environment of unbridled Schadenfruede that we unformed teens were constructing our great machine. It makes subsequent events seem more karmic than coincidental to know that its birth was concurrent with innocent dreams skidding fleshily to their demise across unforgiving ice, to the perverse glee of strangers watching on tape delay halfway around the world.
The winter of ’94. The early nineties were giving way to the mid-nineties. Sitcoms that would change sitcoms forever were in development. Newt Gingrich was plotting Bill Clinton’s disastrous midterm. Athletes from all over the world were chasing glory in Lillehammer, Norway. I was chasing glory on Long Island’s North Shore.
I was in the basement with my neighbor, friend and science-competition teammate, Josh. I had known Josh since before memory. We were born five days apart. Our moms met in playgroup, and when we moved to the suburbs we moved to their street. For six years of junior high and high school, I boarded the school bus every morning at 44 Oakwood Crescent, Josh at number 5. Together we traversed our Long Island town to the brick buildings where we trod the honors track, taking our notes and tonguing our braces.
We joined the school newspaper together, then the science team. In the basement that winter we were building a machine out of household objects that met the following conditions: if you dropped a marble in one end, it popped a balloon at the other. You got points for each energy transfer you made–electrical, mechanical, chemical or heat. You lost points each time you had to touch your machine to restart something that didn’t work. If you got the most points, you won the gold medal, and that’s what we wanted, for we, too, were Olympians–Science Olympians.
Science Olympiad was–and still is–a national science competition. Not quite as sober as the Westinghouse (now the Intel) Science Talent Search, in which we later competed (complicated graphs, trapezoidal display boards, suits from the Macy’s Juniors department, pinchy shoes) nor as touchy-feely as Odyssey of the Mind (tripped-out name, “spontaneous” problem-solving, performance art component) Science Olympiad was a true Olympics comprised of many events–many nerds, one dream.
There was the classic drop-an-egg-from-five-stories challenge. There was a paper-airplane competition. There were mousetrap cars and toothpick bridges. There were insects, rocks and plant cells to identify, complex constructions of Legos to disassemble and reassemble in speed trials. There were regional, state and national levels of competition, individual medals and team trophies. Just as in the real Olympics, there were experimental events and old standbys. Training was grueling, but winning was transcendent.
The machine was our team’s entry in a new event, “Mission: Possible,” which in either great wisdom or sadism encouraged teenaged nerds to build Rube Goldberg devices. We worked on it in my basement for the whole winter, and it achieved a baroque and precarious beauty.
Built within an imaginary cube of certain dimensions on a piece of plywood of specified area and thickness, the machine, like a human body, contained multitudes in a prescribed space. As we added to it, it grew not upwards and outwards but inwards. We raided my younger brother’s building toys, making Frankensteins of Lego, Lincoln Logs, erector sets plastic and metal. There were funnels of sand emptying slowly onto scales, tipping them towards the completion of electrical circuits that turned on light bulbs that melted wax that held up weights that when released tilted seesaws that completed still other circuits. Rigging it up to set off took forever, as we connected each wire, tilted each seesaw and stood each domino on end, knowing that a fraction of an inch of misalignment would bring the whole thing skidding to a dismal finish not unlike the ones met by less fortunate skaters.
When we unveiled the machine at Regionals, people came over to our station and gawked. Kids would take one look at our machine, go back to their machines and hang their heads. We stood there, trying to look modest and serious, rummaging in our toolbox, adjusting little things that didn’t need adjusting.
Not everyone had used the full-sized sheet of plywood we were allotted. Not everyone had a little brother with such a deep toy closet. They sent the marble down a ramp, it landed on a lever that pulled a string that yanked the balloon into the waiting pin, and it was over before it began. Some had barely half a dozen energy transfers. Fucking amateurs. Had they built this during three study halls? Had they not read the rules? Did they not understand how points were awarded? We had spent the entirety of the Winter Olympics building this machine, until the wee hours, when Greg Gumbel signed off and Josh sprinted two blocks home down the icy street to sleep inadequately before our 7:30 a.m. newspaper meeting. We crammed action transfers into every cubic inch of negative space until our machine, when unraveled, would easily rival the small intestine in unexpected length. If this were figure skating, then our machine would be an attempt at a quadruple Axel, while our competitors played it safe with double toe loops.
At the ’94 States we had triple the points of the second-place team. We took home the gold and spent the rest of the winter expanding the machine to even more epic proportions, giving absolutely no thought at all to how we would get it on the plane to Nationals that spring in Tucson.
Competition occurred in three phases. Regionals in January, States the next month, and Nationals in May.
The medals at Regionals were dinky, the size of quarters. I’d take them home by the handful and fling them on my shelf with indifference. The quarry I sought was weightier.
Regionals were held on Saturdays at local colleges to which we high-achievers would never deign apply. We inevitably swept. States were in Syracuse in the dead of upstate New York winter, a long bus ride away. One year we stayed overnight in a motel, swam in the pool, saw who already had underarm hair.
I was once photographed after a Science Olympiad medal ceremony, grinning metal-mouthed and squinting spectacled, the word “Harvard” on my sweatshirt just visible under my medals. A glimpse of underarm hair in the motel Jacuzzi was the most sexual experience I’d have until my parents finally sent me to a sleepaway camp especially for freaks.
States were intense because only the top two teams went to Nationals, and you didn’t want to go into Nationals the number-two team, you wanted to go into Nationals as the reigning champions of New York State, motherfucker! Otherwise you’d just be the bitches of those stuck-up kids from the fancy host school in Syracuse with all its lockers in a three-story atrium. No way, man, we were from Long Island, and that was practically New York City. If you let those upstate kids beat you then you didn’t deserve to live in the greater metropolitan area.
Nationals were always held on the campus of a large state university. This year they were at the University of Arizona, in the desert, about as far from Long Island as you could get.
In ’94, I had a lot to prove. Olympic gold had thus far eluded me. The previous year at Nationals, my own dreams had ended in disaster. The “Mission: Possible” machine was only my second-most important event. What I was really known for was identifying rocks, minerals and fossils, which I did as part of a two-person team with my partner, Aaron, a Boy Scout, trumpet prodigy and all-around genius of the eighth grade.
You’d get forty seconds with each specimen. We were a well-oiled machine in our own right.
“Diopside,” I’d say.
“No way,” he’d say. “Look at the cleavage. That shit is totally peridot.”
In a living argument for democracy, it was through debate that the truth often emerged. We hashed out our differences in ferocious whispers, so the other teams wouldn’t hear us and copy our answers.
You rotated through the event in stations. “Sandstone or kaolinite?”
“Those clasts are visible, dude, it’s sandstone.”
“Gabbro or granite?”
“It’s ferric, not felsic. We’re going with gabbro.”
“Now, that‘s a brachiopod.”
“No argument there.”
States the previous year, ’93, had unfortunately coincided with Aaron’s bar mitzvah, and I competed alone. It turned out that I was not an individual performer. I was like a pairs skater performing without her partner, flinging herself into arms that weren’t there, falling headfirst onto the ice. While Aaron was busy proving his manhood to the congregation of Temple Beth Israel, I choked and didn’t place. This debacle replayed in my memory not unlike a particularly spectacular skid in the long program. By the next year, I had demons to exorcise. It was a redemption thing.
In ’93 we’d merely been on the rise. We went to the Nationals in Colorado, medaled barely. There were a few individual successes, but mainly there was a sense of unfulfilled potential. By ’94 we were a more mature team, a more focused team, a more experienced team. Your first Olympiad is all bright lights, blaring music, the chatter of unfamiliar languages–or at least accents. You’re on a college campus, strange maps, strange rooms, more official officials than they’ve got at home.
In Long Island no one is entirely white or American; everyone is from some formerly marginalized minority group that now marginalizes other minority groups. The science teachers give you your lab orders in a lilt unique to the region. Everyone in Long Island talks like a stereotypically flamboyantly gay man, even if they’re a middle-aged woman. Especially if they’re a middle-aged woman. Then suddenly you’re in the Eastern Colorado desert, where bigger, brawnier, more American men than you’ve ever seen are clicking antique stopwatches over you, barking, “Pencils DOWN!” No matter what anyone says, it’s not enough just to be there. Unless you leave with gold around your neck, you leave hungry.
People I know now, people who don’t even know I was once an Olympian, they think I don’t know what it means to be hungry, to want to leave a pint of blood on the floor of some little room in some backwater town you’ve never seen before and to which you’ll never return, all for the privilege of chasing glory on the world stage. They think, maybe, on a good day or night, that I have some talent or wit or charm, but they don’t know that I once had–and will always have–some warped but definite form of what they rightfully call the killer instinct. It lived and breathed in me like a monster for much of the mid-nineties, until I finished puberty and discovered sex, art and controlled substances, later than many of my peers.
So I know. I understand. I’m speaking, of course, of the ugly incident that preceded the ’94 Olympiads of both science and sport. The cruel clubbing of Nancy’s knee. The strange logic of the estranged husband of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan’s teammate and likely gold medal rival. Jeff Gilooly’s sick but misguidedly romantic decision to hire two men to find Harding’s fellow Olympian in the practice rink and whack her with a tire iron.
I momentarily understood why Tonya Harding did what she did, mean-spirited and poorly planned and clumsy as it was. She wanted to win. But when you watch the video on YouTube, and Kerrigan folds and keens, “Why? Why?” you realize that Harding was no Olympian, just a common thug. An Olympian would never chase a medal made questionable by the absence of her greatest rival. An Olympian would never doubt whether she could beat anyone. An Olympian would welcome any opponent, invite any challenge, and narrow her eyes not with menace but with certainty as she said, “Bring it,” or nothing at all.
It made the story all the more compelling that Kerrigan was prissy and fancy and Harding was a thick-thighed tomboy who drank beer, drove a pickup and somehow made sucking on her asthma inhaler look depraved. It turned out that neither of these American archetypes—the virgin, the slut—was much of an Olympian. Kerrigan doubled her opening toe loop, Harding blubbered on the ice when she broke a skate lace, and then they both got beat by a teenaged Ukranian in a fluffy pink costume who several years later wrapped her SUV around a Connecticut tree.
There was a lesson there for the nascent Olympian. If you watch the long programs from the 1994 Olympics you will see that there is—as there can only ever be—one champion. Though Kerrigan hit everything after the triple she doubled there was no fire in her eyes, only a roller coaster of panic and relief. Some say she never recovered from the shock, the malice of the practice-rink assault. The unhinged Harding duly unraveled like her skate lace, but the Ukranian hit every triple in her program and then threw in an extra one, at the end, right in front of the judges.
There is a sadistic pleasure to be found in watching Kerrigan get beat. She skated in a lot of white dresses, little wedding gowns. The dress she was wearing when she got clubbed was white and so was the Olympic long program outfit. It was tasteful, for figure skating, tasteful as the Ukranian’s dress was tacky. It was the kind of outfit that begs for a bloodstain, or at least a silver.
Like Kerrigan, ‘94 would be my last Olympiad. The next year I’d age out of Division B, into Division C. The age groupings were based on an archaic version of schooling in which ninth grade was still considered junior high. Division C was far more competitive, and for whatever reason, our high school team could never place. There were too many other extracurriculars with a greater chance of gaining you admission to the Ivies, and the focus just wasn’t the same. I knew this wouldn’t go on forever, and when I ascended to the den, pliers in hand, to watch the Americans go down in Lillehammer, I knew I didn’t want to go out like them.
By the spring of ’94, the bar mitzvahs of all key team members were duly documented and safely shelved in their respective family rooms. This turned out to be an important ingredient in our winning formula. On a team encompassing seventh through ninth graders on the North Shore of Long Island, you get a lot of bar mitzvahs.
There is no conflict more emblematic of the dueling priorities of the young, privileged and academically gifted than that of Science Olympiad vs. bar mitzvah. Bar and bat mitzvahs were scheduled even further in advance than Olympiad tournaments, and impossible to reschedule. A lesser holiday in Judaism’s lunar calendar might have been ignorable, but the bar mitzvah took precedence even over outstanding academic achievement.
For reasons manifold and complex and still very much at issue in America in the next millennium, Jews and Asians remain overrepresented on competitive science teams. The Asian kids didn’t take off as many holidays, but sometimes they just up and moved back to Japan. That was how we lost Yoshifumi Kobayashi, our ace in the hole on Mousetrap Vehicle. After Fumi’s dad got transferred back to Tokyo, no one else could build a car out of a mousetrap and two vinyl LPs that ever went as far, or as fast.
We come home from States aclank with hardware and we leave for Nationals afeather with hope. Our team is whole and complete and on its way to Tucson. No coming-of-age ritual or Japanese business transfer is shortening our roster now.
On the plane, our coach, Mr. Fish, makes the boys wear jackets and the girls wear dresses. He treats us like a sports team. He calls us affectionately by our last names and makes us t-shirts that say “Nerds R Us,” emblazoned with a fearsome nerd astride a motorcycle he drew himself. We believe in his belief in us because he has already done something we thought was impossible: he has made us feel cool.
The weather is clear and our flight to Tucson is direct, but I get a bad feeling when we hand the machine over at the check-in counter. It’s boxed up as oversized luggage and just barely fits through the space. Suddenly, all our markered-on instructions, FRAGILE, THIS END UP, HIGHLY FRAGILE, look puny and plaintive, and I realize that once that box disappears through those black rubber flaps anything can happen to it.
In Tucson, we unpack our machines and study materials in the dorms of the University of Arizona. I claim a top bunk and begin affixing motivational slogans to the cinderblock walls, playing an inspirational mix tape made by Science Olympian emeriti on auto-reverse in my yellow Sony Sports Walkman.
There is a swap meet after the opening ceremony, but we don’t have anything to swap. We’ve never even heard of a swap meet, and are stumped until someone gets the brilliant idea to raid the condom dispensers in the dorm bathrooms. This is par for the course on academic competition overnights. Many of us also participate in a history competition. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., the condom-balloon making got out of hand. There were rumblings of severe consequences for whoever used them to mold and freeze some obscene popsicles in the motel mini-fridges, but the culprits were never caught and so from this we learned: when in doubt, to the condom machines.
This being the early nineties and our early adolescence, sex is a distant and, we’ve been told repeatedly in health class, conceivably deadly possibility. Condoms are both political statements and talismans of biological potentialities wholly unrepresented in the Bio Process Lab event, for which one of our solid performers sits dutifully and virginally cramming. The idea that AIDS might not immediately kill you is just taking hold. The idea that we might one day have even the minutest chance of catching it hasn’t yet. We make stick-on labels for all the condoms that say, “New York says Safe Sex” and divvy them up.
At the swap meet we are a huge hit. Within minutes, our condoms are all gone and our arms are overflowing with vials of Mississippi River water, Kentucky bluegrass seed, key chains that say, “Missouri: The Show-Me State.” Kids come running over to us from all directions. We are recognizable because we are wearing our “Nerds R Us” shirts and are also wearing, at Fish’s behest, bedsheet togas and wreaths of ivy filched from the campus landscape.
“Y’all got any condoms?” drawl kids from all over the country. “We heard you New Yorkers got condoms.”
Josh toils in solitude on the machine while I run wild through the swap meet, chatting up a fellow competitor from Alabama who will later send me his yearbook photo in the mail, and a neat, loose-leaf letter politely inquiring after my post-Olympiad life. He has an accent unlike any I’ve ever heard before and he doesn’t know what a bar mitzvah is. I am duly intrigued.
We go to bed hyper. The head of the Olympiad Committee is, unbelievably, named Gerald Putz, and when he took the podium for the official welcome, the entire stadium of thirteen and fourteen-year-old science freaks chanted, “Putz! Putz! Putz!” until he finally leaned in and shouted, “It’s Pewtz!” This caused the stadium to erupt in several minutes of hysterical laughter, which later, lying in our bunks, we can touch off again at any moment simply by whispering, “It’s Pewtz!”
We are flying high, but before we retreat to our gender-segregated hallways, Josh worriedly tells me that things with the machine are “not good.”
“We’ve got all day tomorrow,” I reassure him. “How bad can it be?”
But the next day we are inner tubing down a river canyon (Mr. Fish is young and highly active and always schedules fun activities on our trips) and at night there is some kind of event in a fake Old Western town. Shortly after we arrive in the fake Old Western town, me and my rock-identification partner Aaron and a Mormon seventh grader already known for his good looks and heavy-lidded stoner stare take off into the desert and hike up a mountain.
This just happens. We hop a fence on some kind of unspoken dare and just keep walking. It’s never discussed when or if we should turn back, or where we might be going. There is nothing around for miles, not a road or another fake Old Western town, only sand and cactus and dry, brown mountains. At some point I may have said, “I bet the sunset looks pretty cool from up there.” Next thing I knew it was pink sky all around and Aaron and the seventh-grade Mormon are telling me that one of the great pleasures of rock climbing is peeing from a height, and if I want to straddle the crevice between two boulders they’ll turn their backs. When we come back three hours later the Arizona state troopers are prowling outside the gates of the fake Western town, their flashlights throwing yellow circles on the darkened scrub.
“What are you looking for?” we ask.
“You,” they say.
Fish is the kind of angry that’s scarier because there’s no yelling. All he says is, “Get on the bus.”
What if he benches us? “He won’t bench us,” says Aaron with uncharacteristic calm. “He’ll ask us, ‘what was it like out there?'”
Fish does neither. We go to bed, chagrined. We do not yell “Putz” into the darkness, and we wake up with our eyes on the prize.
Game Day is brilliantly sunny, but this is no omen, it’s the desert. We set up our homeroom in the usual way. Danielle DeSalvo, our team manager (and future spirit coordinator of an NHL hockey team) draws a big chart on the board to keep track of all the events. Danielle has been made manager since she is now in tenth grade and ineligible to compete.
Danielle DeSalvo is a goddess among nerds. She does all the science stuff but she is also popular. She has a baseball-player boyfriend and miles of blond hair and three younger sisters with more miles of blond hair. She is nice to everyone and gives us all nicknames. She calls me “Weiner-Steiner.” Danielle taught me everything I knew about Picture This, a now-defunct science Pictionary event our team had a lock on in the early years. She taught me how to draw and guess “nuclear fission” in four seconds.
Everyone takes a desk and lays out their required books and supplies, snacks and good luck charms. We huddle up for the team chant, a ritual that predates my tenure. It’s strangely poignant and I find my eyes watering before I get to the end.
“If you think you’re the best, you are the best, and you are the best. So good luck, and have fun, Love, Ashish.”
Ashish Tapadia is one of the Science Olympiad elders. He aged out of Division B competition before the team’s glory days, but he left us with this Zen koan, which we now solemnly write on the boards of our homerooms and repeat to ourselves before events. The second repetition of “you are the best” has its own rhythm. The cadence slows down and each word is punctuated separately, so it sounds like, “You. Are. The best.”
I’m carefully copying down my schedule and marking x’s on the campus map when Fish tells me he’s thrown me into a fourth event. It’s some kind of combination science-trivia obstacle course we’ve never heard of or prepared for, something that’s only offered at the national level of competition.
“Don’t worry about it, Weinstein,” he says, “we just need a body there.” I dutifully mark another “x” on my map and mentally postpone my first energy snack.
Mission: Possible is early. A big gymnasium has been cordoned off with tape.
This is not like States. Our machine does not stand out. No one is gaping. Some of the other machines are just as complicated as ours, but were built to withstand the journey. Next to these machines, ours looks insane. It is more densely packed and less sturdy than all the others by a factor of many. Everything is hanging by a thread. There is an alarming amount of hastily-applied electrical tape. Still, looking around, if our machine was actually working, it looks like we’d have a pretty good edge on the competition.
But it’s not working. Whatever quick fixes Josh has been attempting while I’ve been meeting exotically non-Semitic boys and wandering the desert with them have not been successful. All of the usual trouble spots–the funnel, the seesaw, the row of dominoes—are troublesome, and several other previously untroubled components have decompensated as well.
In the allotted pre-competition tinkering time, we can barely get past our first few action transfers. Then if we skip one, something breaks further down the line. It’s like in the Olympics when the favorite takes a tumble during warm-ups and the crowd gasps. When she gets up her face is a mask but her eyes are spooked, and you know she’s going down for real.
There’s nothing more depressing than when the gold-medal hopeful loses because she skated too cautiously, when she comes off the ice and Scott Hamilton says, “but was it enough?” Better to fall trying to be the first woman to land a quad in international competition, I say, than to play it safe and lose the gold by a hair to someone who skates a little more freely simply because she doesn’t care as much.
With this machine, there was never any danger of us holding back. Caution of any kind never entered into it. A kind of madness took over, until we had connected the plastic marble ramps to the Tinkertoys and rigged the miniature ziplines and the tiny wrecking balls, till the wind-up bird pecked the button that lit the bulb that melted the wax that dropped the weight that knocked over the first domino and they all clattered prone like dead soldiers sacrificing themselves to the simple task of pushing the lever that lifted the pin that popped the balloon. It was some kind of metaphor for the universe and monument to our hormonally-deranged minds, this kinetic outcome of hours of underaged labor.
We mad teenaged scientists built something beautiful, but what we built no longer exists. The machine we built and all the precious man-hours that went into its fragile complexity are back on the sedimentary bedrock of New York State. The plane ride has done to our machine what the tire iron did to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. Not even what it did to her knee–what it did to her heart.
In 1994 there was no Science Olympiad online forum, and consequently we were not privy to such machine-saving knowledge as this more recent nugget:
Consider transportation. The more complicated your mechanical transfers, the more prone they are to becoming misaligned during the movement to and from competition. It is a disheartening experience to have weeks’ [sic] worth of building and fine-tuning go sour at competition because a part became unnoticeably misaligned. Believe me, I speak from experience.
Without the collective wisdom of the internet, the ignorance and hubris of youth can have disastrous consequences.
The judges come over, clipboards, bifocals, buns. The stopwatch clicks. The marble drops.
What happens after that is almost too painful to recount. Nothing works. Nothing is connected. Sputtering, puttering halts. Utter and spectacular collapse. We quickly exceed our three allotted but heavily penalized interventions and are summarily DQ’d. We’ll only get participation points, not any points for placing, not even last.
We walk shell-shocked out of the gymnasium into the relentless sun, drop to the curb and sit, elbows on knees, heads in hands. Tears are shed. Shoulders are awkwardly patted. No one else will ever understand what we’ve just lost in there.
But soon we get to our feet and wipe our eyes. I’ve got the random obstacle course thing in an hour and Josh, who has a hand in nearly every building event, is due at Trajectory. He and the other Josh have built a catapult that can hurl a projectile any size between a golf ball and a basketball any distance between three and twenty feet. This machine is simpler, and its PVC-pipe and plywood construction have arrived in Tuscon unscathed.
In four more years, both Joshes will be ensconced in Cambridge at the neighboring bastions of Harvard and MIT, barely an hour north on I-95 of the slightly artsier but equally expensive destiny awaiting me in Providence. But today they fling for the gold against the nation’s best other flingers. As Josh and I scurry off in opposite directions, I think of the trajectory machine’s comforting boing as it hurled projectile after projectile the length of the chemistry classroom we practiced in, hitting the target. All those afternoons of “Yesssss,” the hissing battle cry of the nerd that heralds perfect scores on math tests and satisfying science projects, have got to count for something.
I show up a little early for the obstacle course to check out the situation. You get a science trivia question and then have to complete a task. Every year there’s some asinine event thrown in, Fish says, by a lobby of teachers from schools where they stack the science team with athletes. Heady discussions about the meaning of an olympics of science notwithstanding, these events pop up on a trial basis, still counting towards overall scores but making a mockery of the nobler goals of knowledge, study, building. We could just not enter in protest, but the participation points will help our overall team score.
Fish has already checked out the tasks and assigned me to the lawn-jart throwing leg. Lawn jarts are some kind of archaic lawn game involving giant darts with weights at the ends. It’s kind of like horseshoes, but the flight is less predictable and the target is miniscule.
I watch a few teams run the course, and each one gets hung up with the jarts, throwing jart after jart, missing wildly, collecting them and starting again, the kid growing increasingly panicked. It appears that the whole race focuses down to the lawn jarts, as it makes or breaks the time. The jarts are so hard that the judges have instituted a mandatory cutoff time. If you don’t hit the target within two minutes, you move on anyway. I’m like, “Fuck.” But then I’m like, “Okay.”
In ninth grade, I was at the peak of my hypercompetitive nerdiness. I had a viselike grip on my anxiety and emotion, the ability to override fear with the certainty that I could perform. I had access to the quiet place athletes call the Zone and artists call the Flow, where everything is coherent and time is an illusion.
The failure of the machine is past, gone, and the future is now, and this is where I belong, and I am going to beat all those other motherfucking nerds and I am going to fucking win this, not for God (I don’t believe in him) nor for country (I already passionately hate the American empire and haven’t stood for the Pledge of Allegiance since the first day of Operation Desert Shield in the fifth grade) nor for Weber Junior High School (the only thing I hate more than God or country). I am going to do it because I motherfucking can.
The rest of our team assembles and we take our places on the course. Eric Westerman nails his trivia, vaults his hurdle. The official near me nods, clicks his stopwatch and reads me my question. It’s easy and I answer–something about shark cartilage. Duh. I pick up the jart, let fly and hit the bull’s eye on the very first try.
There is a long moment during which we all just stare—me, my teammates, the officials. This task, which has taken all the other teams multiple minutes to complete, has registered on our time as two seconds.
Our collective disbelief is broken by a whoop and time starts again. I take off running and tag the next member of my team. The next two tasks go off without a hitch and our team high-fives, flails, group-hugs.
We return to the homeroom giddy and breathless, telling anyone who’ll listen, “The jart! The jart! We only used ONE JART!” A first-place finish in this unexpected event will raise our score in the team competition, and mitigate some of the damage of the Mission: Impossible failure. With the jart’s true flight our hopes have been resurrected.
Other cautiously good news trickles in. There are the usual stories of amazing machines, brilliant strategies we never thought to attempt, envy mixed with awe. “Either that kid has an engineering degree or his dad built that for sure.” “They must have used like a jewelry workshop or something, they even hollowed out the toothpicks.” In some events, like bridge-building, strength-to-weight ratio is a deciding factor, and like mountaineers, we are tortured by unshaved extra ounces and the infinite possibilities for their diminishment.
It’s almost time for Rocks. Aaron and I gather our materials. Magnifying glasses, notebooks, charts. It doesn’t need to be said that the team is counting on us. Aside from my solo choke at the ’93 States, we are on a meteoric rise, a championship run. The only question is how far it goes.
The geology building at the University of Arizona is huge and new and aggressively climate-controlled. We wait in the frigid hallway for the previous group to finish. They exit silently. They won’t talk until we’re well out of earshot, lest we pick up a clue about the samples inside.
We’ve studied every sample on the list, even the most arcane fossil, even the most difficult-to-differentiate minerals. We don’t just know samples, but mineralogy, the processes by which rocks are formed, how to tell what kinds of rocks the rocks were before, millions of years before they became the rocks they are.
We love rocks. We write poems about rocks. Sometimes we sit under the lab tables of our practice room and just hold rocks in our hands.
The laboratory door opens. I reach into my pocket and clutch my stash of lucky ones. There’s the consolation fool’s gold Fish gave me after I bombed last year at States, and the ones we collected together in the woods, the quartz my mom says has energy, and the one I just found out there, in the desert. Aaron and I share a long gaze and a quick nod before the official leads us inside. If we were skaters, we’d be on center ice now.
The lab where our event is held is pleasing to my eye. At age fourteen, already harboring what will one day become an obsessive hatred of kitsch, I am offended by the peeling posters and achievement platitudes that adorn the halls and walls of high schools. This lab is empty of any inflection but its lab-ness, black tabletops, steel stools. It’s a blank slate, a quiet place, and the desert sun pours in, pure and bright.
We are not supposed to talk yet, but we both look down and smile. The first sample is a big red chunk of hematite, rusty iron ore, an abundant mineral in New York State and burgundy as fresh-spilled blood. We know what this rock is. We know what all the rocks are.
We fill out our answer sheet and listen to the instructions, which we know by heart. The event official is, like all geology guys, rock-like in some way himself. He is eternal, lanky, hardy. He appears to be made of something distinctly not animal or vegetable, something grainy and mineral. He says, “begin.”
I don’t remember the actual hour we spent identifying the several dozen rocks, minerals and fossils that comprised the 1994 National Science Olympiad Division B Rocks, Minerals & Fossils event. It may have been one of the finest hours I’ve ever spent, but it was only mine to live, not necessarily to keep. I remember a few things. I remember being sure. I remember being clear. I remember feeling no pain, or fear, or confusion. I remember a perfect harmony between myself and another human being. Most of all, I remember that all-too-elusive feeling of being right. Not thinking or hoping I might be right, but knowing I was.
When the stopwatch clicks on the final station, we put down our answer sheets as instructed and walk out. Outside the building, we exchange a sharp high-five, one that doesn’t miss like so many attempted by nerds. We are pleased, but not surprised. We knew that barring bar mitzvah, injury or perhaps the distraction of recently-tightened braces, this was always possible. We have caught up with the dream we started chasing two long years ago.
Scott Hamilton would not question this performance. He would say, “You can’t question that performance!” He would not say, “But was it enough?” He would say, “That just might have done it, and they know it.”
There are no fireworks at a date with destiny. The sky does not open up, choirs of angels do not sing. Destiny is a quiet place. The world around you is plenty enough to see and hear, smell, touch and taste, now that the noise and fog of your own longing lie silenced.
Our machines remain in the possession of the judges, in case of contested results. All those hours of construction and testing, all those household objects, 8 ½ by 11″ sheets of paper, toothpicks, pieces of Styrofoam, tennis balls, basketballs, little brothers’ Tinker toys, sacrificed eggs. Everything we hauled across the country, everything we failed to keep safe and whole. Egg dropped, mousetrap sprung, projectiles flung, rocks and bugs identified, experiments completed. The chips are down, the jarts are thrown. Now we wait for Putz to take the podium, to tell us who the champions are.
When he does, we are wild with adrenaline and suspense. The chant goes up. “Putz! Putz! Putz!” I open my mouth to join in but find myself swallowing a nervous lump. Putz raises a hand and guillotines the din.
It is then I notice the tables piled high with glittering bounty. There are stacks and stacks of medals and a few really big trophies, some bigger than our underweight seventh graders. In the Olympics they give out medals to the first three finishers, but here the medallions go to the first eight. This creates coronary-inducing suspense as they climb through the numbers. If you’re not eighth, does that mean you’re….seventh? Okay, not fifth, so maybe…fourth? As more medals are given out you realize you did really well or really not. A gambling rush for the pubescent and academically gifted.
Putz starts with Aeronautics and drones alphabetically through the events. Our team wins lots of medals. We are being rewarded for our efforts. We start eyeing one of the really big trophies, the ones for the top-finishing teams. The Honda Corporation is giving out $500 scholarships to all first-place winners, and when we win the obstacle course event I realize I have just won $500 with one well-placed jart. When you win they call the name of your school, and for the first time in my life, the words “Weber Junior High School” are music to my ears.
“Rocks, Minerals and Fossils,” Putz intones. A hush falls. We are not the only ones to place emphasis on this event. Nerds like rocks. Nerds like to identify things. This is rocks, as in cojones, rocks, as in rock, rocks, as in hard as a–.
Last year, when we placed eighth in this event, hearing our names right away was a pleasant surprise and only vague disappointment. What did we know to hope for? It’s never been explicitly said, but as they gather the medals for this, my most important event, I suddenly understand what it is I want. I want them to tell us what I somehow already know. That we are the best. We think we’re the best, and we are the best. That is the secret, to Science Olympiad and to life. There is hard work and there is preparation but being the best goes beyond that. It’s mental, it’s belief, it’s faith without deity. I am not thinking please. I am not thinking God. I am thinking, we are the best.
We are not eighth and we are not seventh. We are not sixth or fifth or (I was worried) fourth. (I have a thing about getting what I consider a “real” medal, as in one that’s given out at the Olympics.) We are third, second, first or ninth, twenty-eighth, thirty-first.
We are not third.
A bizarre panic grips me. What if we are second? I don’t want to be second. I don’t want a silver medal. It’s too sad, and too close, and too almost. Some say “I’ll take it,” but I’d rather not.
But we are not second. The name of a dead Kennedy rings out, and two other kids take their place on the stage. They look disappointed. They must have thought they were the best.
The stage is nearly full. It waits only for its champions.
I know it before he says it. I know it like I knew the rocks, like I know my name.
When I was really little I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast after I saw Mary Lou Retton in the ’84 Olympics. I was captivated by the idea of winning, and standing on the podium, and bowing your head, and shaking the judge’s hand. And it all happens just like that. The team whoops and hollers. Fish picks us up and bear hugs us. We go bounding down the aisle, and when we get to the stage we climb up high and they give us the last medal they have, the one that is only for the best.
I have made for myself a beautiful life, one much more like those few lost hours in the desert than the long nights in the basement. I often feel I’ve escaped something, veering as I did off the honors track and down the road not taken, something predictable and obliterating as an oncoming train. But I also gave something up to live this peaceful aftermath beyond points and scores and rules and regulations. Out here in the great beyond there are journeys and characters and epiphanies, there is meaning and its absence and the meaning of that, but there is no simple win or lose, no sweet taste of victory, measurable in the reassuring weight of ounces.
With the rocks, and the trajectory gold that comes after, the lawn-jart fluke and numerous other solid event finishes, our team ends up placing third overall, hoisting to the skies a trophy of impressive size and going beserk with joy. Fish lets us stay up late playing Ultimate Frisbee on a floodlit field. He exhorts us to raid vending machines, gorge on junk food and ride the sugar high into the night. Other people our age are at this moment discovering hard drugs and unprotected sex at ragers no one on the science team has ever been to, but our desert revelry is unequivocally epic. It’s not that different from when the Mets destroyed an entire commercial airliner after clinching the National League title in Houston. The field is our locker room and the Frisbee is our champagne and our greatest invention, it turns out, is this moment where we have only just now arrived. I can still see the grass, my teammates, the bugs in the cold blue campus lights, and the Frisbee momentarily blocking out their glare as it hovers, spinning. And nowadays, when I am feeling sad or lonely or bereft of glory, I take off all my clothes and put on all my medals, just to feel the cold alloy warm to the temperature of skin.
*Names have been changed to protect the nerdy