Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Art of Losing

I couldn't believe the subject line when the email showed up in my work inbox last Tuesday: "Creative Writing Contest!"  For quite some time, I've been casually searching for writing competitions--preferably those offering prize money.  I've had no such luck, though, as I have yet to find a single contest that's looking for the kind of random, pointless fare that I've been serving up on a regular basis on this blog (I guess that also helps explain the skimpy ad revenue thus far).  That's why I was so surprised when an incredible opportunity found me--and at work, of all places!

A few weeks ago, a coworker hobbled into the office on crutches, sporting a pair of walking casts on his first day back from a vacation in the Dominican Republic.  Not surprisingly, everyone asked him what had happened, but all he would offer were vague, dismissive responses about how he had fractured both heels.  He seemed extremely reluctant to provide any details about his injuries, avoiding questions to the point that the meeting became downright awkward.

I've known the guy (we'll call him "Chris") for years--we actually had some classes together in college before we ended up working together, and I'd seen him act this way once before.  In 2009, he and I drove down to Iowa State for a work recruiting event that included a golf outing.  It had been raining all morning, and course was still wet when we started golfing in the afternoon.

I was paired with a recruiter from another company, Chris was paired with an ISU professor, and Chris and I each got to drive a golf cart.  On a fairly steep downhill slope, Chris tried to turn to the right, lost control of the cart, and it rolled onto its side, spilling clubs, golf balls, tees--and its passengers--everywhere.  No one was seriously injured, but the professor who'd been riding shotgun had a bad cut on his hand and needed to see a doctor.

After we flipped the cart upright, Chris drove the injured professor back to the clubhouse, where he then drove himself to the emergency room for some stitches.  Needless to say, our group of four (now a group of three) was the last to finish golfing that day, and walking into the clubhouse at the end of the round was a mighty awkward experience.  Clearly, news of the incident had spread quickly, and Chris and I found a seat in the corner while everyone in the room turned, stared, and whispered as we sat down.  Chris had driven us down to Ames in his car that morning, but he let me drive on the way back to Minneapolis.

When we returned to work the next day, Chris tried to swear me to secrecy about the cart-rolling incident.  He was clearly embarrassed about what had happened, even though the crash was an honest mistake (and a mistake that I had almost made earlier that same day with my cart).  When a few people on the ISU recruiting team eventually found out, Chris wouldn't divulge any details and was constantly trying to change the subject, not unlike his response to his Dominican injuries--a sign that there was an interesting story behind his walking casts.

Here's where the writing contest comes in: after hearing how evasive Chris acted when asked about his fractured heels, the finance director issued a challenge to our group: since Chris wouldn't tell anyone what really happened, we'd have a creative writing contest and fill in the missing facts ourselves, with the top entries to be revealed at yesterday's staff meeting and a prize going to the author of the winning selection.

My storyline immediately took shape: Chris fractured his heels in the golf cart accident at Iowa State back in 2009.  He'd spent the last few years hiding his injuries, too embarrassed to tell anyone that he'd been hurt.  I would spend the majority of my story recapping the details of the cart crash, then tack on some ridiculous ending, explaining how Chris had re-aggravated the injury doing something boring and mundane in the Dominican Republic. I couldn't lose--even if I somehow didn't win the contest, I'd still get to humiliate Chris in front of thirty people with a story that I knew he never wanted to see go public.

In the office last Friday,  I spent most of the morning crafting my entry for the contest.  I even cobbled together some delightfully amateur, photo-shopped images of crashed golf carts with Chris's head-shot from the company directory strategically inserted in the foreground.  Going into the staff meeting yesterday afternoon, I couldn't imagine a scenario where I wouldn't bringing home the prize...until I heard the rules for the contest.

Ten people had submitted entries for the competition, and they had narrowed the pack down to three finalists.  Normally I would like those odds, except that the selection panel consisted of just one person: Chris himself.  Sure enough, I was shut out.  The only "recognition" my story received--if you can even call it that--was a PowerPoint slide that included the titles of the ten entries, sans authors.  To add insult to injury, they'd even changed the title of my story!

The three semi-finalist submissions were read aloud at the staff meeting, and I was utterly disappointed with the quality.  A winner was selected by vote, and it was all I could do to fight back the vomit trying to creep up my throat. My story had a certain universal appeal that would have been voted the champion by any objective panel; the winner of this contest had written a pathetic story loaded with lame, politically correct office- and finance-based humor that only the thirty finance people in the room would find amusing.

I saw one last shot at redemption when the finance director announced that all of the submissions would be distributed via email later in the day.  Even if Chris had snubbed my entry, my story would go public, and the staff meeting audience would realize that they'd been deprived of the opportunity to vote for the real winner.

But disappointment struck again.  What that original email gaveth in hope, a second email tooketh away.  The finance director sent out a message saying that he was scrapping the plan to send out the stories, showing Chris some mercy for being a good sport about the whole situation.

And so a perfectly good story went untold, and I'm now officially 0-for-1 in writing competitions.  But didn't Dr. Seuss get shot down like seventy times before making it big?  My golf court story was short on rhymes, but it was infinitely more entertaining than anything Doc Seuss ever penned. Note to self: in the next contest, don't try to publicly humiliate the person judging your entry...

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