Bathroom fears

Texas’ legislature is currently in special session to consider, among other things, a bill to protect you from going to a public toilet next to someone who was not born into the gender graphically depicted on the bathroom door through which you and they have recently passed.

You know. Stick-figure-in-a-dress or stick-figure-in-pants. It’s universal.

[Confession: I did violate this once, in Austin. I had just finished a long drive during which I had consumed a very large soft drink. When I pulled up at the hotel where I was going to a meeting, I dashed into the lobby, found the restrooms and, in my haste, took a wrong turn. I thought it unusual that there were no urinals, but hey, it was Austin. I entered a stall, took care of my business, and was washing my hands when I noticed vending machines on the wall behind me. I thought it highly unusual that they would sell feminine products in the mens’ room. Then, the “Ah-hah!” moment. Sheepishly (actually, gazelleishly) I dashed out, looked at the door behind me and confirmed my fears, then looked around to see if anyone had observed me. If this incident is the cause of the current brouhaha at the Capitol, I deeply apologize to all my fellow Texans.]

That little story, by the way, brings to approximately three the number of confirmed cases of bathroom-gender-jumping. I don’t think it matters to the crusaders that it’s almost always inadvertent. People like me must be stopped, through every available civil and criminal means.

The mere possibility that something like this could happen makes some legislators want to station armed guards at every bathroom door to check birth certificates and compare them to, uh, equipment. I can’t see those jobs getting a flood of applicants, but protecting the God-given bathroom privacy of every red-blooded, single-gendered American is worth a lot. This sudden, overwhelming threat to bathroom privacy has even kept the Texas Senate from dealing with less important issues, like funding public schools.

What could be worse than being at the urinal and some lady in a red dress comes and stands next to you? What if he/she doesn’t know that guys in that position don’t talk to each other? What if he/she doesn’t know guys don’t look at each other, either? Especially not at each other’s, uh, equipment? You’d hope it’s one of those restrooms where they frame today’s sports page over the urinal, so you could just read and avoid looking at him/her. But it could get ugly. And if it’s a lifestyle page, you better check and make sure you’re in the right restroom.

If you’re a woman, what greater nightmare could there be than to have a woman dressed like a dude, or a dude dressed like a woman, enter the stall next to you? (Okay, it could be worse. They could be wearing the same dress as you.) If you’re in a stall, you might not see them, but most of the time the door has enough of a crack that you get a glimpse as they pass. Either way, you can see their shoes, and women can tell a lot from shoes. Oh sure, they’d close and latch the stall door, but then you’d just sit there and imagine what he/she is doing in there! If you can’t imagine it, just stand on the toilet seat and look over the partition! You’ll probably be deeply offended! Him/her too!

Of course, in some scenarios, the offenders may actually be in the bathroom of their birth gender, which has been changed, and thus in compliance with the proposed law although their appearance indicates otherwise. They’re the true targets of this law. We don’t want them in the restroom of their new gender. We want them in the restroom of their original gender. But what if their dress and appearance matches the stick-figure on the bathroom door, but their equipment is not original? This cannot be determined by a superficial glance. We may all have to start carrying our birth certificates at all times.

In any case, just thinking about these horrors has a few lawmakers, and everyone else in their echo chamber, in a complete tizzy, unable to think about anything else.

I have LONG considered public restrooms extremely scary places. In movies, all kinds of bad stuff happens in public restrooms. Guys are always getting knifed, shot or beat up, threatened, blackmailed or otherwise mistreated in there. Sometimes they walk in on a drug deal, or catch James Bond peeling off his rubber face, or the Mission Impossible force is in there tunneling into the Vatican or something like that.

When it comes to bathroom business, like Superman I prefer a fortress of solitude. In fact, the series of doors that slam shut behind Maxwell Smart as he enters his office while the opening credits roll strikes me as just about right. My first choice is to take care of that business at my house. Only the direst emergency can force me into a public stall, and when it does, I enter in abject terror.

I’ve come to appreciate the “family” restroom — a one-fixture facility with a locking door. If forced into a multi-stall situation, you just hope no one comes in. If someone is already in there, you have a little bit of an upper hand in that you can choose your stall, and you know he’s nervous about you. But if you go in alone, get started and then someone comes in — all you can do is pray it’s not Liam Neeson thinking you kidnapped his daughter. But it probably is.

In that situation, no matter what’s going on inside me (and it must be bad or I would not be in there) I will go completely silent. I’ve even been known to lift my feet so if he looks under the stall doors he will think no one is in there. If I have to, I can hold that for an hour, until he takes care of his business, washes his hands, dries them, checks his hair and leaves. Thinking you’re about to die is a wonderful motivator.

[A word here about those self-flushing toilets. They’re evil. Once in Dallas, I had to duck into a restroom and change from casual clothes into a suit and tie. I stepped into the only stall, hung my suit on the hook, and began to get out of my casual clothes. To get socks and shoes off, of course, I had to sit down. When I stood up, it flushed. About this time, a guy comes in. He sees there’s only one stall and from his anguished gasp, I can tell he is in trouble. I hurry, and this does not help. I get the pants on, but I have to sit down again to put on the socks and shoes on. Sitting, standing, I trigger probably three or four more flushes while he’s dancing just outside the door, whining. I can see his feet hopping. Finally, he gives up and leaves. I hope he found what he was looking for.]

I won’t even go into the thinness of the toilet paper, the lack of working soap dispensers or the near-impossibility of trying to get your hands in front of the little electronic eye that turns the water on. And those noisy, supersonic hand dryers — who thought of that? If I see the hand dryer is made by Boeing I just wipe my hands on my pants and go.

By far the closest thing I’ve had to “fun” in a public restroom was in a museum in Denver where the sinks, triggered by hand motion, start singing “Row, row, row your boat.” There are three sinks, so you can theoretically flit from sink to sink forever, creating your own little choral round. I’m sure it’s cost them thousands of gallons of water.

I think society will eventually move away from communal bathrooms and go with all stalls and open seating, with no stick-figures on the doors. I’m already at home in that scenario, what with my Austin experience. But if I see a pair of heels come clicking in, I’m lifting my feet.

If it really is a woman, chances are she’ll be chatty. And the guys who wear heels? Scary.

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Maybe this is how America becomes great again

Donald Trump may end up being one of the best things that’s ever happened to the United States of America.

Please note, I didn’t say he’d end up as one of the best presidents ever. I believe he’s possibly the least qualified and most poorly prepared person to ever hold that office — although in 230-plus years, we’re bound to have had a few who were in his league.

No, I’m not going to rant or recite a long list of bad moves I think he’s made. You can get that from lots of other sources. I’d rather project what may happen if he continues as he has begun.

I can, for instance, cite examples of people I know personally, who have completed the requirements for citizenship just since Trump was elected. One friend came here as a refugee and despite working to support four children, studied and passed the test — a test I’m sure many lifelong U.S. citizens would struggle with.

The other, a Hispanic woman, had lived here “without papers” for years, finding a niche, working and getting by. But the threat of being deported caused her to take action, and now she’s a citizen.

I suspect this scenario is playing out quietly all over this country. While demonstrators march and political passions are stirred over “sanctuary cities” bills, border walls and proposed travel bans, many who have been living in the shadows are taking the steps necessary to stay here. These new citizens will continue to work and raise their families in this country.

I suspect they will vote, too.

In fact, I predict that in the wake of Trump’s election, a great number of citizens who have ignored politics all their lives will become voters. Some of those currently in power are working to deny the vote to as many as possible, but I don’t think they will succeed.

The United States has long had a poor voter turnout compared to most other countries. Trump’s election may change that. I hope Americans finally realize we cannot afford ignorance and apathy when it comes to politics.

Didn’t we used to teach kids it was their civic duty to be informed and go to the polls to elect our leaders? That those who enjoy the blessings of this country have a responsibility to take part in the political process? If that definition of “citizenship” makes a comeback — if 70, 80 or 90 percent of American citizens voted — elections would start to look very different.

I’ll also predict that many of the laws we’ve come to take for granted will be strengthened by the assault they’re currently under. I think Americans want the environment protected. I think we want curbs on pollution, clean energy and reasonable restraints on corporate greed. I think we want the poor and the elderly among us to have access to decent health care.

I won’t be surprised if in the next few years it becomes law that presidential candidates must release their tax returns. And if a future Congress wants to put reasonable restraints on the president’s lavish travel expenses, I’m okay with that, too. Those who campaign on cutting the federal budget should first balance the budget for their office.

Our current president has made attacking the media a sport. I predict the people of the United States will at some point come to agree with Thomas Jefferson, who said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

It may be a few years away, but I think Americans’ respect for the free press will revive. The press must earn it, but I believe they will — by continuing to do their job. Telling people the truth doesn’t make you popular in the short term, but they eventually appreciate you for it.

I believe most Americans want healthy school lunches, and they want public funding to stay in public schools. I believe most Americans want leaders who will work with each other, not just constantly attack each other while nothing gets done.

I think Americans want straight answers at press conferences and real leadership from our leaders. I think Americans want to respect their government, not listen to so-called “leaders” who tear it down without having the faintest idea what they’re talking about. I think we want to respect our neighbors, too — and to once again be respected by them as an ally who keeps its promises and holds up the light of freedom in a dark world.

Rather than running around beating our chests about how great America is, I think most Americans would prefer to prove that by our actions.

The United States of America is built on ideals that are bigger than any one person. Attack those ideals long enough, and hard enough, and Americans will return to them, stronger than ever. We’ve learned that lesson, over and over, throughout our history.

So Donald Trump may actually play a key role in “making America great again” — though perhaps not exactly in the way he may have imagined.

It starts with all of us learning what made America great in the first place.

 

This essay thing

Essay writing consists largely of people’s observations as they discover what others have known all along.

That doesn’t invalidate the craft. I can, for example, now place my daughter’s take on parenthood next to mine — written when she was a baby, leading us for the first time through experiences she is now having. I’m delighted to read hers, as are, no doubt, the thousand or so who follow her blog.

Observing and sharing are the soul of essay writing, whatever its form. And wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey, our observations are at least valid, almost always a launching pad for a reader’s own memories, and at best fresh and unique.

This process does not stop, by the way, until the journey stops. We are, all of us, constantly winding our way into places we’ve never been.

My wife and I have, for example, only in the last few years discovered what it’s like to take care of elderly parents. To liquidate the homes we grew up in, to sell, keep, throw away or otherwise disburse the accoutrements of our young lives. It’s hard, and even though it’s universal, that does not make our thoughts as we go through it any less valid. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see something others missed.

I recently traversed the Cascades for the first time, gasping at the beauty of the sheer, snow-laden cliffs and the gushing rivers. Is this, I wondered, why they call them the “cascades”? Am I the first to wonder that?

I also learned how quickly the climate can change. One minute you’re watching Bavarian dancers around a maypole in sunny Leavenworth, and scarcely an hour later you’re in a blizzard at Stevens Pass. A sign says the Pacific Crest Trail is just ahead, and snowplows have piled up the winter’s precipitation alongside a highway that was clear just a few miles back.

It’s nothing the Donner Party didn’t already know, but it was news to me.

I am, at 61, just now developing a taste for coffee — thanks, probably, to having a son-in-law from Costa Rica and two children who did tours of duty as baristas. We visited a coffee plantation in Costa Rica two summers ago and all I could enjoy was the aroma. If we went back now I would be sampling and savoring — albeit still with cream and sugar.

It’s common among people my age to drink coffee, but for me it’s new and kind of exciting. When coffee gets old I may have to investigate beer…

Also, I only recently learned that the word “peninsula” comes from the same linguistic root as a certain part of the male anatomy. Perhaps most of you knew that all along — but it was somewhat of a shock to me. Now there’s an entire geographic feature that I will never be able to look upon quite the same way again.

Florida! Please! Show some modesty!

On a tamer note, I and my bride (who knew about the geographical thing all along and took it in stride) are just two years into the grandparent experience, in which many of our contemporaries have been immersed for years. We are constantly sharing what we believe to be unique, awesome, wonderful observations with them — and as they politely smile and nod we realize they’ve been there, done that, and have a whole closet full of t-shirts.

Never mind. We’re going to keep on marveling at the wonderfulness. It’s fresh for somebody.

Man on a mission

Three-year-old boys wake up every morning and begin a search-and-uh-oh-I-need-to-be-rescued mission.

People my age were not designed to have one of these — it’s a privilege mostly reserved for the young and energetic, who can get onto and off of the floor without so much groaning, popping and creaking. But like medicine, in measured doses, it will cure whatever ails you.

Three-year-old boys are high-energy dynamos, dominoes waiting to be knocked over. They live life at 90 miles an hour and narrate every step. They devour reality, but seldom actually live in it. While you and I see them as small people, they see themselves as the largest, most powerful creatures on the planet.

They’re Iron Man, Captain America, Superman and Batman rolled into one. They can fly — just listen to the jet sounds — and when they run they make their own whooshing Ninja noises. There’s nothing they can’t climb, outrun or conquer. They learn something new every minute, and make up twice as much.

God built them close to the ground so that when they fall, it rarely results in injury. Although they sometimes cry — particularly if Mom’s around — for the most part they just inventory the boo-boos, pop back up and continue the mission.

If I fell, just once, the way ours falls 20 times a day, they’d take me to the ER, and from there to a nursing home.

Three-year-old boys eat a lot, and the feeding process leaves so much debris behind that you wonder if anything actually made its way into their digestive tract. Then they exercise their new-found ability to go to the bathroom and it’s confirmed that yes, some did. Quite a bit, actually.

Three-year-old boys bounce back and forth between inexpressible delight and unfathomable sorrow, sometimes only seconds apart. When you get down on the floor with them, delight kicks in. They will dash through the house and attack you from behind a hundred times in a row, and have no doubt that you’re really surprised, every time.

Wrestling is a sacrament, pillows are made to be tossed, and low pieces of furniture like chairs, couches, beds and tables are designed to be climbed upon and leapt off of.

Couch cushions, Mom’s purse, your toolbox, their toy box, food — it’s there to be deconstructed, unloaded, taken apart, examined, tasted, tossed. If you happen to have a soft bed, a trampoline or some other space you can safely toss a three-year-old into or onto, you can do that almost infinitely and he will never get tired of it.

But at three, more and more often, things seize their attention and hold it. The toy they’ve had for months suddenly becomes something else in their imagination and it’s the coolest thing ever. A book that was just an object to toss around is discovered to have actual writing and pictures. A stuffed animal gets a name, and a role, and becomes a constant companion.

Three-year-old boys are, above all, interactive. You read, sing and talk with them, not to them. They’re not interested in being entertained, but in entertaining. They don’t want to watch you do stuff, they want to help you. They want a job. They mimic you so perfectly it’s scary.

Three-year-old boys can get grouchy when they get tired, but if you promise them they can play in the bathtub — with rubber ducks and Miss Piggy and Elmo — they’ll gladly let you coax them into getting clean and ready for bed.

And if, by chance, you find that calm story about sleepy bears, and you read it often enough, and slowly enough, sometimes three-year-old boys will yawn a time or two and go right to sleep on your lap. Once they go, they’re gone, because they sleep just as hard as they play.

The only thing you can do at that point is rock them as long as you can, soaking up all the love, the joy, the energy, feeling the heat they’ve built up during the day dissipate into the atmosphere. Then you take them to their bed, kiss them on the cheek and bid them softly to have dreams as sweet as being awake was.

And you wonder who learned more that day, you or him.

Yeah. Everybody ought to have one of these.

The well-watered times

Some people thought it was the end of the world. I thought it was the center.

There was a lot to love about my West Texas hometown. Beautiful sunsets, fields of cotton as far as the eye could see, clouds sailing overhead like great fleets of ships — as well as a beautiful old theater, a big swimming pool, a bustling square. I grew up believing we had the best schools, the best basketball teams, the prettiest girls, the nicest people, the happiest dogs, the best Mexican food.

About the only thing we didn’t have was a lot of rain.

I don’t think I ever saw an issue of the newspaper that didn’t have a weather- or farm-related story. When we had a big rain, happy little frogs splashed across the top of the front page. In church, every prayer invoked the blessing of rain on our crops.

I never understood the songs about rainy days being bad days. Rain made us want to dance in the street — and we probably would have, except for the way most of us were raised to look upon dancing.

Rain was the stuff of life, a reminder that God did care for us — some years more than others. When He wanted to, he could shower blessings down on us, in soaking waves of sweet water from heaven.

Rain saved the crops, filled playa lakes, recharged the aquifer, baptized everything clean. After a big rain, I would make little boats and sail them in the wide gutter in front of the church across the street, then chase them as they joined tributaries, flowing down to the park where they fed a small lake that seemed like an ocean to me.

That, of course, was a long time ago. After more than 30 years living near Fort Worth, the West Texas rains of my childhood are just a vivid memory. But a love of rain is in my DNA.

For a couple of decades, we’ve made our home on not-quite-three acres west of Azle. Some years, dry winters coughed their way into dry springs, as we wondered if anything was going to leaf out, or if it was all just going to burn down to dirt in the summer sun.

Other years, the rain came in great cloud-borne buckets, and there were floods. I took pictures of guys canoeing into their garages, seeing what they could salvage off the top shelves. I remember standing on an old bridge, watching big round bales of hay take float, feeling them bump as they bounced underneath me on their way into the lake.

I guess I’ve learned not to get too down in the dry times or too high in the wet times. But I still believe, like the old water park commercial, that “good times are wet times” — and this year is one I’ll savor for a long, long time.

Every flower, every blade of grass, every tree on our place has all the water it needs right now. The irises put on a show this spring, and the azaleas, the Carolina jessamine and all the flower pots dazzled with color. Vinca and Asian jasmine have filled in every bare spot, trees are lush and the English ivy is climbing the walls.

For awhile, I thought my new redbud tree had missed the party.

I planted it in late winter, carefully placing it in just the right spot, mulching it and watering it thoroughly. But while all the other redbuds, all over town, were in glorious display, mine still hadn’t leafed out.

I thought about ripping it out of the ground and taking it back to the nursery. Instead, I stopped by one day, told the owner what was, or wasn’t, going on, and asked her what to do. She told me not to give up on it. Scratch the bark and see if it’s green inside. Water it, she said. Give it time.

She was right. First one bud, then another popped out and leaves began to unfold. It didn’t bloom this spring, but it’s put on a foot of new growth and big broad leaves that shimmer in the dappled sunlight. I can’t wait for next spring to see it join in the chorus of blooms.

It will always remind me of the well-watered times. And next spring, if I need to water it, I will.image

Huntsville’s terrible beauty

Huntsville is pretty in the spring. It’s green and hilly, skirting the edge of the piney woods of east Texas. Yesterday I saw the first bluebonnets of the year, a burst of color alongside a city street. Wisps of redbud splayed across my path as I walked a wooded trail, and the smell of dogwood was enough at times to make me semi-drunk.

There’s history in the air, too. Sam Houston is buried here and although he died in 1863, his footprints are everywhere — from the university that bears his name, a grand monument in a storied old cemetery, a 15-acre museum and grounds to an enormous concrete statue on I-45 south of town. The general who won the battle of San Jacinto and served Texas as president, governor and U.S. Senator shares a birthday with the state he loved and led. Texas turned 180 years old yesterday. Big Sam would have been 223.

But there’s something else in the air here. It’s ominous and heavy and a little sickening. It hangs in the heart the way a meal you shouldn’t have eaten hangs in your gut, the foreboding of a price to pay, down the road.

Huntsville is the historic home of the Texas prison system. The place is ringed with sprawling prison campuses surrounded by tall fences topped by razor wire, guard towers at the corners. The names Goree, Ellis, Wynne, Holliday and Byrd are as familiar as city streets. Thousands of local citizens work in that system, and thousands of men are incarcerated behind those walls.

We’ve all seen prisons. They built one in my hometown back in the late 1980s. It’s hard to miss those fences, those towers, as you drive the roads of Texas. Most of them have the same look — clean and modern, well-kept and tightly secure.

But there’s one here that’s really spooky. It’s the Huntsville Unit itself, also known as “The Walls.” Just two blocks off the square, it has a three-foot-thick red brick wall from 15 to 20 feet high all around it — a huge, imposing structure right in the heart of the city. It’s the oldest prison in the system, once centered right here but now comprising more than 100 units scattered throughout the state. Those prisons, state jails and other facilities hold more than 148,000 inmates.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with a budget of more than $3.3 billion, long ago outgrew its headquarters, just across the street from the Walls. That old administration building now houses mostly computers. There’s a convenience store next to it, with gas pumps and a sandwich shop on a busy commercial street. A sign nearby boasts that they will cash those TDC release checks for you.

There are 1,700 inmates at the Walls, mostly docile, middle-aged men who’ve spent the majority of their lives behind bars. Death Row is up north now, at the Ellis Unit, where 253 prisoners currently await execution. When the appeals are exhausted and it’s time for that final act, they bring them to Huntsville — inside the Walls.

The Walls has just eight death row cells, but normally there’s only one inmate there, driven to Huntsville on the morning of the day the sentence will be carried out. He (or she — the state currently has four women awaiting execution) spends the day there, and sometime after 6 p.m. he’s taken to the execution chamber, strapped to a gurney, and in an adjacent booth the executioner does his work. There are separate viewing rooms, and separate ways in and out for the inmate’s family and the victims’ family members who choose to view the execution and hear the murderer’s last words.

This reads like a travelogue, a collection of facts about a place where something happens that most of us would rather not think about. I admit, it was a morbid curiosity that drew me to that old prison. I drove the street around it several times, stopped and took a picture or two. But what struck me more than anything was the peaceful beauty of the place, a quiet residential street with houses, trees and flowers. It’s easy to imagine children playing there — and on the corner, that terrible and terrifying brick wall with the guard tower. The next day, on a visit to the Texas Prison Museum, I learned that the death chamber is in fact directly under that tower.

The museum recounts dramatic events, like the time Bonnie and Clyde busted one of their friends out of prison, or the notorious “Trojan Horse” standoff and escape attempt by Alfredo Carrasco in 1974. A display case memorializes corrections officers killed in the line of duty, and an exhibit contains quotes and portraits of family members of murder victims as well as the murderers, all mournful, all poignant, some biting in criticism of the system, some resigned, some satisfied that justice was done. What they had in common was loss, senseless acts of violence and the state’s quiet but inevitable retribution, played out behind the walls that loom over this beautiful town, even on a spring day amid the dogwoods and redbuds.

It’s a heavy, necessary business, but one most towns are happy to stay out of. Huntsville had no choice.

Reflections on a fall

The barbecue sauce washed right out of my hair, and the leg will be okay in a couple of weeks, really. My college homecoming was nice. Very nice.

Funny, but that campus is where some of the worst embarrassments of my young life took place. It’s like that’s what college was for — learning how to just make an utter fool of yourself, get up, dust off, and go on. I think that was my major.

I was the freshman club pledge who had to take to one knee and sing “If I Loved You” to a certain upperclasswoman each time I saw her. I saw her at this homecoming. She still loves me. It’s mutual. You sing that song that many times to someone, you bond.

There was the intramural basketball game after I’d stayed up all night studying and writing a paper. I felt like I was running in waist-deep water while all the other guys were going full speed. At its best, my full speed was slower than theirs. In this game, my best play — before I fouled out in the middle of the second quarter — was stepping aside and letting one of their guys score an own-goal on our end.

Poor sap probably studied all night.

My recurring nightmare — acquired at this very college — was being in a play and not knowing my lines. Any of them. When the curtain rose and the lights went down and the house was full, I was clueless. That never actually happened here, but I was in a couple of plays and the possibility haunted me for years.

In this very building, I remember a great fall. I was in a pickup basketball game I should not have been in. There were two 7-footers and we were running full-court and when most of these guys shot, I was looking at kneecaps. The game was being played somewhere up there above the rim, where I didn’t even know the ZIP code. Then suddenly, as I was loping back downcourt, the other team’s 7-footer got a fast break.

“I can break this up!” I lied to myself. “I can knock the ball away before he raises it to his shoulders, at which point I won’t be able to reach it anymore! I can do this!”

No. No, I couldn’t. I just got in his way. We got tangled and rolled off the court, like a human train wreck. He was the nicest guy in the world, but after we disengaged all those arms and legs (most of which were his) he picked me up by the scruff of the neck (yes, scruff) put his nose about 2 inches from mine and said something to the effect of, “If I get a breakaway, there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m seven feet tall! Just get out of my way!”

I said something to the effect of “Yes, sir.”

How ironic that a fall was one of my chief memories of this building.

My college has a gargantuan airplane hangar that served as our basketball arena when I was there, back in the 70s, and now serves as a recreation center and a venue for numerous other activities. Tonight, it hosted a very nice homecoming/fundraising dinner for 900 or so graduates, families and supporters.

There was a big stage at the front, and after my sister (also a graduate) and I went through the line to get barbecue and tea, I insisted that we go to the front and walk all the way across the room, hoping to spot someone I knew. My wife would have discouraged this, but she wasn’t there. And sure enough, I did see an old friend — at the exact moment I walked into the support leg for one of the giant screens that had been installed on either side of the stage so the vast audience could see the speakers.

Apparently, as I stepped with my left foot, I was almost up against this horizontal, 2-inch square steel bar. So when I moved my right foot forward, it encountered the steel bar with roughly the same velocity that a baseball bat encounters a ball, with my shinbone serving as the ball. With a loaded plate and a styrofoam tea glass filling my hands, and momentum carrying me forward, I executed, for those privileged to be watching, what was undoubtedly one of the greatest falls they’d ever seen.

The first thing that hit the parquet wood floor was my chest. The plate of barbecue kept me from getting a concussion. My hand crushed the tea glass just as it hit the floor. I did a very respectable imitation of a bug hitting a windshield. Dick Van Dyke would have been proud.

I started to just lie there, hoping no one would notice. But when the president of the university runs up to check on you, it brings a crowd. I jumped up and considered pretending nothing had happened. But the spatter pattern was something like a 6-foot, juicy moth would leave. I had to just own it.

Everyone was very nice. I tried to be witty and assured them I was alright and not the least bit litigious. A minute or so later, when the pain really hit my leg, I did make my way to a table to catch my breath. But I went back and got more food, worked the room, and explained to a few old girlfriends why my shirt was covered with iced tea and my hair was full of barbecue sauce.

I leave with one succinct observation, not scientifically verifiable, but accurate to my experience: If you fall on your face in a room with 900 people in it, approximately 11 will laugh, 10 will jump up to help, 5 will immediately start cleaning up and at least 2 will offer you food. The other 872 will not notice.

If this is viral on YouTube tomorrow, I may tweak those numbers a little.

I kinda hope it is. It was spectacular.