Ever have one skill that you practiced ceaselessly for hours on end until you perfected it? You have it down cold, but unfortunately, you had never had the opportunity to use it when it mattered? Like a fighter pilot training day after day to become a deadly dogfighter but never going into combat. Always wondering how he would have fared going up against the best of the best.
I have one of those skills. It’s something I learned back in college for an emergency, but thank God, I never needed it. So my talent just sat there, year after year, gathering dust in my brain, unused.
A day out of the office
Let me set the stage. Around noon, I went to a copywriting presentation with Sarah, Bigfish’s bright young copywriter. Another co-worker, Joleen, passed along the information that the former creative director at her old agency, Troy Pottgen now of Narwhal Stories, was going to speak at Workcuity, an interesting office space/community. So Sarah and I signed up for some knowledge and a free lunch (Alright, alright I was there for the free lunch, Sarah was there for the knowledge). Actually, it was a well-attended event and Troy has a great pedigree and gave an excellent talk on practical ways to improve as a copywriter.
So during his presentation, he asked if anyone knew how to say the alphabet backward. Now, I’m somewhat reluctant to speak in public, but I immediately perked up. See, I actually know the alphabet backwards! And as I surveyed the room, I didn’t see anyone else waving their hand. Why, you ask, would I have wasted my time learning my ZYXs, an obviously useless skill? Well, not useless, I would argue, but very situational. See, back in college, people used to say that if the police pulled you over as a suspected drunk driver, one of the field sobriety tests was they would ask you to recite the alphabet backwards. Naturally, most drunks would respond “Backwards? I can’t even do that when I’m sober!” and off to Tent City they would go. Not me. I was a Boy Scout for a year, and our motto was “Always be prepared.”
And was I ever.
During my many years at Arizona State, the school had quite the hedonistic reputation — in fact, my freshman year, ASU had the dubious honor of ranking No. 1 on Playboy’s Top 10 Party School list. And all through college, I was doing my part to help out. If I was at a party, there was a good chance I was drunker than ten Irishmen. Unfortunately, I also drove under the influence a few times — not smashed out of my gourd, mind you, but there were times when I would have blown above a .08. I’m not proud of it, but I was young and felt immortal, and it was definitely a different era. First, the Metro Phoenix area is and has always been a car town, so there wasn’t adequate mass transit. Uber and Lyft didn’t exist. In fact, cell phones didn’t either. You could call a cab from a pay phone, but God knows when it would actually show up and it would cost an arm and leg, so not an option for most college students trying to get home from a night out (I lived 20 miles from the closest hotspot). So people of all ages hit the bars, tried to sober up, then hit the roads. MADD was just starting to make an impact, and in fact, society wasn’t too far removed from the days when cops might pull you over for drinking and send you on your way if you weren’t too hammered and were near your home.
Well, in case I got pulled over, I didn’t want to get arrested, so there was only one thing to do — I learned the alphabet backwards. And not only could I perform it sober, but I could recite it drunk. I figured any chump could learn it sober — but I had to be able to do it under real conditions. Through diligent practice, I got to the point where it didn’t matter how much booze I’d imbibed. I might be seeing triple and not able to walk in a straight line at a party — but I could reel off a flawless rendition of my ZYXs to impress the girls. (Who in hindsight, never seemed to be as impressed as I thought they should be. I’m pretty sure it never once led to me getting lucky).
The moment of truth
Anyway, so today when the call went out for volunteers, I muttered to Sarah that I could do it and she urged me to raise my hand. So I did. It was my moment to shine with my Stupid Human Trick. I’m pretty sure Troy was simply using it as a rhetorical device and wasn’t expecting some dork to pipe up with a ‘Yeah, I can do it!” but by God, I’d been waiting for 30 years for this moment. And he was a good sport and said, “Alright, let’s hear it!”
So, I was a little nervous because I hate talking in front of people (I think the whole suddenness of it didn’t give me time to freak myself out). It suddenly dawned on me I hadn’t even tried reciting it in God knows how long, but I launched into it anyway. And nailed it. I got a nice little cheer from the crowd, and then the presentation went on.
And that was it.
I guess I can die happy now?
You know, I really need to come up with some better goals (and skills).
P.S. The Houseguest was not impressed when I told her about my moment in the spotlight, though she had to rethink her stance after her attempt at reciting her ZYXs failed at V.