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A Farewell To Charms

Channeling Hemingway, Seacrest and Simmons during a weekend as an RPD judge

HOUSTON - I'm in my talent-judging prime: old and experienced enough to think I know everything, while still possessing just the right amount of youthful ignorance to prevent me from fully recognizing how inherently ridiculous that notion truly is.

Needless to say, then, the Rockets came to the right place when approaching me with the opportunity to help judge this past weekend's Rockets Power Dancer auditions. With my mindset and experience (I've judged this competition two of the past three years, only missing the 2010 edition because I was in Las Vegas covering Summer League – I know, I know… priorities) I now believe myself capable of being able to separate the cheerleader chaff from the wheat in five seconds or fewer. My eye for true talent is just that keen and finely tuned. Or so I'd like to believe, anyway.

Misguided as I may be about my judging skills, however, I am under no such delusions concerning my ability to properly cover this event; for it is one thing to sit down and grade the gyrating dancers in front of you, quite another to convey that experience in a creative, compelling and (hopefully) entertaining way. While re-reading my running diary (Copyright, Bill Simmons – All rights reserved) of the 2009 auditions, I was somewhat shocked to realize it was chock full of references ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to "Labyrinth" to the Ludovico technique made famous in A Clockwork Orange. Do those talking points, in and of themselves, make for compelling content? Of course not. But surely they at least made the story unique and perhaps, in so doing, helped capture the spirit of the event in a way which compelled the reader to carry on, if for no other reason than to see what might be lurking around the next corner.

All of which is my typically long-winded way of letting you know that while my judging conceit was alive and well heading into the weekend, so too was the practically paralyzing fear of creative failure that is well-known by writers the world over. After all, what good does it do me to enter the prime judging years of my life if my capacity for creativity is already on a steep, downward trajectory leading me straight into the bland, nondescript and apathetic abyss that is home to the likes of Harlequin romance novelists, Hollywood screenwriters churning out the 182nd sequel of the summer, and anyone who had anything to do with Season 1 of "The Killing"?

Seriously, that was the primary thought circulating my mind as I took my seat at the judges' table Saturday morning. It should surprise you not at all then to find out that shortly thereafter my salvation was found in the form of …

10:53 AM – ... Margaritas. Or, at least, the mere mention of them. Seems one of my fellow judges enjoyed a couple of those wonderful tequila-based beverages the night before and now she's regaling me with tales of the experience. This proceeds to get the grey matter in my mind churning to the point that I've now developed a worst case scenario plan of action if I'm unable to generate anything fresh or new after two days and three rounds worth of competition. The plan calls for nothing more than putting on my WWHD (What Would Hemingway DO?) bracelet before proceeding to get blitzed out of my mind while exploring the raw world of cheerleading and extolling the virtue, valor and honor of those who compete. That's right; cheerleaders are the new bullfighters – right down to their prominent and powerful use of the color red and the subtle movements necessary to best the beasts before them.

Anyway, somehow this thought serves to ease my anxiety (while no doubt simultaneously providing profound insight into the inner-workings of a troubled mind).

11:00 AM – As the assembled young women begin to learn the round one routine, I am struck by the undeniable reality of their youth – and the fast-fading, irrevocable erosion of mine. Gone are the days of this being a peer-to-peer exercise; they are fresh-faced, well-toned, scantily clad pictures of spring in full bloom, while I approach middle age with the mind-bending speed and alacrity of a Justin Verlander fastball. I am reminded of the classic cradle-robbing quote from Wooderson in the movie Dazed and Confused: "I get older, they stay the same age." And, yes, I can confirm that relating to Wooderson in any way, shape or form, however momentarily, does in fact increase one's desire to drink oneself into oblivion. Just in case you were curious.

(By the way, if you ever find yourself wondering what a character like Wooderson would be up to 20 years later, simply head to Bravo and turn on "The Millionaire Matchmaker." Have you seen this show? It's built around a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in setting up impossible-to-please millionaire men with the women of their dreams. Unable to successfully navigate dating life on their own, these down on their luck dudes (sarcasm implied), most of whom seem to be in their mid-50s, head to the agency bemoaning their inability to find the lifelong love and commitment they crave, all while describing their ideal mate thusly: a Harvard-educated Mother Theresa in her mid-20s who just wrapped up a Playboy Playmate of the Month cover shoot. You'll be shocked to know that things often – at least in the one episode I could stomach watching – end poorly. Highest of high comedy.)

11:18 AM – FOX Sports Houston's Patti Smith interviews me on camera to get my take on life as an RPD judge. Naturally, I knock it out of the park by setting a cliché-per-minute (henceforth to be known as CPM) record, unleashing a torrent of talent competition buzzwords like "total package," "charisma," and "it-factor." Pretty sure I even got a "you can't describe it, but you know it when you see it" in there. Randy Jackson would be so proud.

This also seems a good time to point out that the sabermetric society will have failed us if we don't have nightly CPM tracking for announcers in all sports by this Fall at the latest. We all want better sports broadcasting so isn't it long past time we developed and used metrics that can help us raise the bar? I'm demanding Daryl Morey make this the focus of a workshop at the next Sloan Conference.

11:23 AM – As I take my seat following the interview, my omnipresent, shape-shifting paranoia comes rushing back with a vengeance. The question now dogging me: at what point does my increased association with the Rockets Power Dancers (awkward host of RPD World, showing up at prep classes, and now serving as a judge) officially become a career killer, morphing me into either a soulless, puff piece producing automaton or a poor man's version of Ryan Seacrest (Right now you're wondering if there's actually a difference between those two things. I'll say this much: you're not wrong for asking)? On cue, one of my co-workers asks me if I intentionally wore my shoes with teal laces to go with my teal dress shirt. Very well, then. Ryan Seacrest it is.

11:40 AM – Round 1 is underway. The dancers come out in groups of five and have approximately 30 seconds to perform the choreographed routine to the music. If they forget any of the moves they're allowed to freestyle in an effort to show the judges everything they've got. This is far and away my favorite part of the first round proceedings. You never know what you're going to see. An early highlight: one of the participants gets down on the floor right in front of me and proceeds to pull off a breakdancing move reminiscent of watching a sea turtle bust out of its shell; only if it were forced to do so upside down and with a broken neck. Confused? Well multiply that by 1,000 and you'll understand how I feel. I don't know whether to stand up and applaud or call an exorcist.

11:47 AM – The judging process is strangely intense once you get into the rhythm of it all. As soon as one group finishes the next is ushered in, meaning there's precious little time to waste in terms of scoring or taking notes. The whole process is a picture of modern efficiency with volunteers walking by to collect your score sheets after every round.

In an attempt to be polite I try to at least turn around to thank them each time they walk past but sometimes all the furious scoring and scribbling makes that an impossibility. On those occasions the best I can do is just hold the paper near my head with one hand while I continue to write with the other. Every once in awhile the exchange finds the paper brushing by my cheek or neck, which of course is all it takes to make me consider the possibility of paper cuts. They're certainly not the most pleasant of injuries but neither are they anywhere close to the worst. Unless … what if you were unfortunate enough to sustain one on your eyeball? Tell me the mere thought of something so awful doesn't make you cringe. In related news, you'll probably not be surprised to hear I've spent the last month of my life watching way more episodes of Dexter, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones than any human being should ever be allowed.

11:55 AM – Being a veteran of the judging process can be helpful in many ways. Once you've done this a time or two there's no denying the fact you start to recognize the sought-after attributes of a future RPD in very short order. One thing that never gets any easier, however: watching someone freeze when their moment arrives. It comes with the territory, of course; anyone who's ever chosen to perform on a stage or a court has horror stories of moments they'd love to forget. The hope is that those tales someday become tools to help foster improvement and growth. But that all takes place in the future. Right here in the inescapable present there is nothing but pain – for both the crestfallen participant and the powerless judges unable to find the right words to say in such moments.

1:30 PM – Round 1 is over, lunch has been eaten and while the remaining dancers are still scattered enjoying a bit of a break, several of the judges, myself included, are now milling about, taking turns shooting hoops on the basketball court which has served as the stage for this weekend's competition. I'm taking aim at one of the baskets along the sideline, repeatedly practicing the Dream Shake from the left block.

Like so many kids growing up in Clutch City back in the day, that was my shot. There was nothing better than going to a new playground where no one knew me, draining that first baseline turnaround while everyone decried what they thought was my apparent good fortune, then proceeding to knock down three more in succession. Such were the highlights of my athletics exploits. But I wasn't just pumped for myself during those moments, I was also proud to be repping the Rockets with the shot Hakeem "taught" me. You can imagine, then, my dismay when someone saw me practicing the moves of my youth and commented that I was pulling a...let's just call him that dude in Dallas. Heresy, I tell you. Clearly a 5-part summer series on the intricacies of the Dream Shake is in order to remind the world where and from whom that shot originates.

2:55 PM – Round 2 is in full swing. One of the judges sitting next to me whispers, "Extra points for boots" in response to the knee-highs one of the participants is wearing. Nothing truly noteworthy there; that is, except for the fact I misheard him when he said the word "boots." I then proceed to spend the next 30 seconds giggling like a 12-year-old. So much for my air of superiority. Though, to be fair, that probably vanished the moment someone pointed out my teal-colored shoelaces.

Sunday 1:41 PM – Day 2 and Round 3 are now upon us. After starting with more than 200 wannabe RPD Saturday morning, we're now down to approximately 60 competitors. By this point, everyone can dance and everyone looks good so this final cut will be by far the toughest made this weekend.

Sunday 2:00 PM – The dancers have to perform two different routines this time, one of which requires some serious booty shaking. No, really, that's the move: you know the one I'm talking about; the one in which it appears as if a 6.0 earthquake is working its way up, around and through the person's posterior. For the life of me, I will never figure out how women do this (Can men even do it? Is it physiologically possible?). It's like the dancing equivalent of the Euro step or a step-back fadeaway 3 off a killer crossover; no matter how many times I see it, I'm always amazed.

Sunday 3:35 PM – The finalists have been chosen! After two days and three rounds, 28 young women are left to vie for 18 available spots (the squad's four captains – Ginger, Ebony, Christie and Kristen – are already on the team) as the selection process now winds toward its ultimate conclusion which will take place the evening of July 20 at the House of Blues.

That means my work here is done. An enormous thank you to Susie Boudwin and all the Rockets staff who worked so hard to put on a great event and, most importantly, help me survive another year (paper cut free!). Because of them, I didn't have to find inspiration in a bottle and American Idol has not yet called to inquire about my availability as a roving reporter. So life is good.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have an entire generation to educate about the origins of the Dream Shake …