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  • This post is dedicated to my friends AW and SR. I was inspired by Jaga's stories of his various childhood ordeals.

    ***

    I got there three times. By the third time, the librarians administering the written test seemed a bit jaded. It was as though we were all gathered together in the knowledge that I was going to make it to the State Geography Bee once again, and that once I got there, I'd fail.

    Certain things had prepared me for this. For example, I was brought in as the closer to clinch the Northern California All-Star elimination game. Warming up, I could tell something was wrong. My arms felt loose and rubbery. On good pitching days your arm feels tight. Almost immediately, my fingers still white with rosin, I served up a leisurely fastball and then watched it sail miles beyond the limits of the park.

    Alex Trebek hosts the National Geography Bee. It was important to me to have my intelligence put on trial by Alex Trebek. Even if I got the questions wrong in Washington DC, on the other side of the country, I assumed that everybody -- winners and losers alike -- met up later to pop bottles of Martinelli's and discuss the alluvial properties of estuaries. This was my last chance. By the following year, I'd be too old for the Bee.

    I remember the question that sent me and my family back home: "What animal is used by a variety of different peoples in Africa for wool, as a pack animal, and to provide transportation?"

    If you've ever experienced stage fright, you know that the most amazing effects happen inside the brain. You are not only completely and totally wrong, about everything, but you don't realize it. Everything you're saying seems correct until you hear yourself, at which point you realize it is like the stuff Alice says when she falls into Wonderland. "Do cats eat bats?" and all that.

    It was obvious to me what animal was used for wool and transportation. Sheep. I said it quietly. The moderator asked me to speak up. To this day, I believe he just couldn't accept that any California county would send a representative who would actually answer "Sheep." So I yelled it. SHEEP!

    "No," he said finally, staring at me, his eyes big with pity. "No. A camel. The correct answer is a camel."

    ***

    That was twenty years ago, but I continue to have the same dream. It's me and a group of other geographically-minded people, from Africa and every other place in the world. It is dawn. The sheep are saddled and ready. We leap up upon them, and ride, and ride, down a long highway, going to Washington. I am gripping the sheep's neck tightly, knotting the wool around my knuckles, feeling it slip a little from the lanolin.

    I don't know what is waiting at the end of that highway, but I know a little more about the answers we're all looking for.

    I know they have to be phrased in the form of a question.
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