Reporter's Notebook: A domino star is born

If you know me, it's likely not for my level of dexterity.

Rewind to Wednesday, when I was tasked with stacking dominoes and Jenga tiles — fast.

The white 80-by-120-foot Fun Zone tent, which houses an assortment of games and a stage, was a site of sugar-induced mayhem. The "minute to win it" contest required participants to create vertical piles of blocks. This posed quite a challenge for some younger entrants, seeing as their constructions rose above the tops of their heads.

Children sank their teeth into sandbox projects, posed for pictures at the behest of doting parents, dabbled with Lego blocks and drenched each other. Beckoning her son urgently to the domino table, a mother said, "Come on — now!" The blond toddler, keeping his distance, shook his head and mumbled through trembling lips, "No."

I knew exactly how he felt.

What I couldn't fathom, though, was how I ended up in a sea of squealing children and cheering families. Recalling my editor's request to cover the domino contest firsthand, I decided to go all in, even against tots.

"Move along, there's nothing to see here," I mentally screamed at the loose crowd that gathered.

When a staff member signaled the start of our 60 seconds, I gritted my teeth and got to work. The aromas rising from the OC Fair's fried, calorified goodness faded as I focused on the game ahead of me.

Using two dominoes to bear the weight of others, I moved deftly (or as deftly as I could) from right to left, picking and dropping, and picking and dropping some more. You get the idea.

Every time my burgeoning tower teetered, I resembled an annoyed parent whose breath whooshed out a "No," willing it to behave itself.

Gritting my teeth in frenzied concentration, I realized that my young friends had exhausted the last tiles — some of which read "Describe your first kiss," "Blow in someone's ear," and my favorite, "If you could have anything, what would it be?" And so I did the only thing I could: I stopped.

When a red headband-toting judge said, "Hmm" and eyed our handiwork, my heart pounded a staccato beat. My bragging rights were on the chopping block, after all.

And then it happened.

The result was a three-way tie.

So much for not embarrassing myself, I muttered under my breath. I should have stayed in line with the 4-year-olds.

My competitors, Jude Timbre, 11, and Rachel Sanga, 10 — cousins from Los Angeles — were split on whether it was unfair to be pitted against someone who is more than a decade older.

I've never played such games before, though, I exclaimed in my defense.

"I know," Jude snickered.

The adults, thankfully, were a lot nicer.

AJ Boutin, 42, of Irvine, was accompanied by 2-year-old DJ and 3-year-old Lauren, who walked off stage with second-place ribbons in the next match.

"I want them to win a lot more than they know," he said with a grin. "No, but seriously, I just like watching their faces — their smiles."

As for my ribbon?

I returned it for reuse. I hope a toddler somewhere crawled into bed that night, clutching his prize tightly.

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