When I was 8 years old, I loved watching my third-grade teacher draw curly brackets on the chalkboard. She made them perfectly every time: even, rounded and symmetrical.
At home, I practiced making brackets, but I never learned to make them like she did. Even now, my brackets look like different-sized snakes that have eaten something pointy.
That teacher gave me an appreciation for effortless genius, and I recently had occasion to admire it again.
I'd reported to a bloodmobile that appeared to be a miniature version of the real thing, with only four beds and three workers.
It was like a one-room schoolhouse with tourniquets.
I immediately was taken to a cubicle for initial assessment. Of course, as an efficient person myself, I had my Rapid Pass, and the assessment was a matter of checking my temperature, iron level and blood pressure.
The phlebotomist handled these details while also trouble-shooting why her phone wasn't playing music. In the same movement, she removed the thermometer from my mouth, told me my iron and blood pressure were fine and put down her phone, now sending REO Speedwagon through the room.
We both moved to the donation area. This operation didn't hand off donors to the next worker. It was like a restaurant where the person who takes your order also cooks the food, brings it to the table, runs the cash register and washes the dishes.
As other blood donors know, each donation requires the worker to confirm the donor's name and birthdate several times, then apply stickers to a pack of pint bags and a bonus flight of tubes. It's a tedious process; attaching widgets to gadgets on an assembly line all day would be more stimulating.
But this woman did it like a third-grade teacher making brackets. She peeled away stickers two at a time, pressing them onto the proper places with the confidence of a postal worker stamping packages. When she got to the tubes, she applied each sticker loosely, then went back down the line to smooth each one down -- shmoop-shmoop-shmoop-shmoop-shmoop.
It was a beautiful thing to watch. She scrunched the empty sticker paper into a tight ball and slammed it into a wastebasket 5 feet away. I actually gasped.
Given these preliminaries, I had high hopes for the main show. I've donated blood for years, since my daughters were preschoolers who went to the Red Cross child-care room. Most blood-services workers are great.
Occasionally, I've had someone who wields the needle like a person trying to kill a bug, and who continues trying to kill the bug long after I'm willing -- pleading, really -- to let the bug and me live.
But those experiences have been rare. On the one occasion I went from feeling fine to feeling not that great to being willing to die right there in front of everyone in mere seconds, the workers leaped to put my head down and my feet up and to tell me to keep my eyes open. Keeping your eyes open is exactly right, by the way. It isn't intuitive, but it works.
Anyway, I saw how this woman might make her mark, and I watched with interest as she swabbed my inner arm with a clear liquid. The last time I gave, the antiseptic was applied in two parts and the colors were orange and red.
"A clear liquid," I observed.
"Yup," she said. "Now's the time to look away if you look away." I do and I did, but I was almost too late. My blood was flowing into the bag.
"Whoa! That was amazing!" I told her.
She smiled modestly.
"I mean, I mean," I explained. "That was amazing."
The clear liquid, whatever it is, may eliminate the "sting" part of the "stick and a sting" warning I've heard so often. But the liquid didn't account for the complete lack of a stick.
"Let us know if you begin to feel funny," the woman said.
I felt fine. Fine, and awed, and humbled. It's not often a person is in the presence of a master. There was third grade, and now last week.
Write to Margo Bartlett at firstname.lastname@example.org.