Monday, June 05, 2006


In Which We Have Much Closure...

Goodness, what a full few days. Lotsa closure this week.

Let's start in reverse order:

The phone rang early the other evening and it was my old pal Officer Peltz, the Police Area Representative for my neighborhood watch group.

"So," he says, "I guess you been reading the papers."

"No, actually, I'm a little behind," I said. "What's up?"

"Friday morning out on the nature trail over in Yahtzeeville," he said, referring to 120 some miles of walking and biking trails that criss-cross our county (in fact, the local access point is less than a quarter-mile from the Magazine Mansion). "Two 6th grade girls were out riding bikes--first day of summer vacation--and some scumbag jumped out of the bushes and exposed himself."

I was thinking, Oh God, but my mouth went dry and I couldn't say it.

"They tried to get away from him and he got hold of one girl's bike, but some guy was coming the other direction and he had a mobile phone. Called 911. Scumbag took off into the woods. Girls were crying and what-not, but they caught a good look at the guy. At his face, I mean. Young guy, long wavy hair. Acne scars."

He paused to see if I would say something, but I didn't.

"Well, you know we all work together in the county, so when we got the call, soon as I heard the description, I remembered the guy you saw a month back. The one you thought was checking out the girls across the street. I still had the info you gave me."

Here he took a long pause. "I never ran the plate. I should have. But I kept the information and I told the boys over in Yahtzeeville to look for a black Volkswagen with the license tag you gave me."

He paused again, but I was too numb to speak.

"We picked him up today at his mom's house. One of the girls and the guy who called 911 ID'ed him. Confiscated his computer, stuff like that. Sick fucker. He gave it up. Even with a guilty plea, he's off the streets for a long time."

"Oh thank God you got him," I said, finally finding my voice.

"Yeah, well, the papers are making it sound like I caught him single-handed. I told them our neighborhood watch people saw him acting suspicious, but, well, you know I'm retiring end of the year, and they're running with that. Going out with a bang, like that."

"Well, good job. I'm glad you got him," I said sincerely.

He sighed. "Yeah, well, I called to tell you you're a goddamn pain in my ass--"

"Oh, thanks!" I said. "You know, I get that a lot."

"I bet you do. Anyway, I should have listened. I know, wrong. I admit it. If you hadn’t spotted this shitbag, I don't know what ...I think he'd still be, you know..."

"Well, sir, I appreciate that," I said, and I meant it. "My dad says only truly great men have the balls to admit mistakes. And I'm sorry I'm such a pain."

"Yeah, well," he harrumped. "Okay then. Good deal. Thanks."

He was about to hang up when one more thought struck me.

"Wait! Officer Z! Did the guy say anything about the dog?"

"Dog?" he asked.

"Yeah, remember, the girls in my neighborhood. Their dog disappeared just a couple days after I saw the guy. Dog's still missing. The girls are really upset. It's been a long time."

"No idea," he said. "But I'll pass it along to guys in Yahtzeeville. If he did get rid of the dog so he could get at the girls, he probably killed it, you know."

"You ever lose a pet, Officer Z?"

"Yeah, I hear ya. Better to know they're dead for certain than to wonder. I'll try to find out. Least I can do."

And so ended the most amazing phone call of the year.

Moving on back through the week...

Even more closure, as Thomas finished first grade and wrapped up his all-too-short baseball season in splendid style. He smacked a triple into the outfield, as seen here in this ridiculously large photo...


...made ridiculously large so that you can see the ball--see it up there in the air, looking all, you know, ball-like?--because I'm sure you've never seen a baseball hit before ever.

With both video camera batteries dead as doornails, I brought along my digital voice recorder, thinking it would be fun to send my parents a radio broadcast of the game. The play-by-play runs to two hours, but I'll spare you that and give you the last two minutes. Two of the most exciting minutes of my life--in a public place, anyway.

Exciting, not just because these kids are still young enough that their first instinct is to duck when a spinning white bullet comes at them, but exciting also because it was game-ender, and not just any doinky old pop-up that you could catch by closing your eyes and sticking out your glove (which, to be honest, is exactly how all of the catches in this league have been made this season); no, this was a line drive, and Thomas didn't duck from it, but got in its way. If he had missed it, it would have smashed him in the teeth (and he was already playing injured, having been smacked in the eye by a pitch two innings earlier).

Um, so anyway, I was a little proud and excited about this. As you might gather from this little clip.

I guess that's it.

Oh all right, if you must know:

The word I went out on in the County level of the Spelling Bee was "convertible."

Happy now?

No, of course you're not, because I didn't tell you that I finally grabbed all five of my remaindered books and found a comfy chair and sat down and signed them all. Then, instead of putting them back on the remaindered table, I put two back where they belong--in the Health/Sexuality section. The other three went front and center, right on the New Arrivals table, accidentally dislodging Jim Belushi's Real Men Don't Apologize.

Given the title, I didn't think he'd mind.

Or at least expect me to express any regret over it.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, June 02, 2006


In Which I Have a Bee in My Bonnet...

I don't watch a ton of TV, especially sports and contests of skill. But tonight, just after putting the kids to bed, I switched the set on and there was the National Spelling Bee, broadcast live, somewhere in the 8th or 9th round.

When I first heard it was going to be televised live on ABC tonight, I made my usual smart-ass remarks about watching another boring sport. And I should know: when I lived in England, it seemed like every time I turned on the telly, I was watching some marathon snooker tournament, or the World Series of darts, or even skeet-shooting. I learned to cope with these programs by drinking heavily. Now here was the American equivalent, I joked.

Except that when I actually turned on the TV, the moment I saw one of the lil guys standing in front of their parents, a huge live audience, and a viewing public of millions, trying to remember how to spell a word they will never use again in their lives, I had nothing but admiration for these kids. I watched the rest of it with rapt attention and no small amount of awe. I mean, I work with words everyday and am considered to have an above-average vocabulary, but these kids were fielding words I never even knew existed. Every time some young man or woman stepped to the mic and asked for his or her word to be repeated, I would shout at the TV to pronounce it one more time for me (luckily, some of the kids heard me and they were pronounced again). Surely some of these words had to be made up, or the judges were using the wrong dictionary. I mean "dghaisa"? "Kalanchoe"? "Ursprache"?

And yet, these kids knew them. And when little Kerry Close won tonight, I found myself cheering like she was my own daughter.

Her Lovely Self regarded me with her usual look of pity and amusement. "How is it you can't stand to watch the Super Bowl, but you can watch this?"

I thought for a moment as I watched the look of sheer jubilation and relief on the winner's face. It was a look I recognized. "Well," I finally said to my wife. "I never played in the Super Bowl."

I did, however, compete in the National Spelling Bee. Or I guess, to be more precise, I should say I made it to the playoffs.

I was in 6th grade when I competed in the District Division of the National Spelling Bee. I was living in the Midwest at the time, and our district consisted of several schools, which meant I was up against roughly 40 other 6th, 7th and 8th graders. In the five or six years that the district had participated, the 8th graders had always dominated, which made sense, seeing as they were older and knew more words. Once or twice a 7th grader won or was a runner-up, which was not bad, because back then they got to go to the county finals (you could send two spellers from each district to participate in the county, and two from the county division could go to state finals).

I easily won my class eliminations, but my spot in the district bee was challenged almost immediately by a teacher I will call Mr. F, because F stands for so many words I wanted to call him. Mr. F had taken an almost instant disliking to me the moment I entered the school where he taught. He thought I was too big for britches, he thought I had a smart mouth. He accused me of taunting the bigger kids into attacking me (like the fellow my Big Brother stuffed in a garbage can) so that they would get in trouble for beating the piss out of me (let's just think about the logic of that for a moment).

Anyway, Mr. F was out to get me, and here he saw an opportunity to trip me up. He went to the principal and complained that I was not old enough to participate because I was only 10--the age of a 5th grader (I may have mentioned a time or two that I started kindergarten at 4 and just kept going up a grade each year, making me the youngest kid in class--by a year or more--for my entire academic career). The Bee was for older students, he insisted, and I would just embarrass the school (and myself) because I was too young to compete with the big boys, such as his son Brent, who was the 8th grade champion and the winner of last year's district bee as a 7th grader.

I didn't find this out til much later, but the dispute went all the way to the state judges, who went to the rulebook and saw that the participants were restricted by grade level, not by age. If I was smart enough and mature enough to handle the workload of a 6th grader, I was smart enough and mature enough to participate in the Bee.

And the Bee was a big deal in our little section of Kansas, let me tell you. On the day of the event, the school gym was packed with kids and parents from all across the district. Even my own father left work early so he could watch me, which made me both secretly pleased and scared. This was during a long period of my childhood where he thought I was lazy and not of much account, so his coming meant he thought I had achieved something of value. But I was also scared because, well, the odds were pretty high that I would lose--no sixth graders ever won, or even ever made it to the final round--and I didn't want to fail in front of him and cement his opinion of me.

In a few moments, though, it didn't matter. The two judges from some distant town (a neutral one that had no interest in who won or lost in our district) had arrived with their dictionaries and shushed the crowd so that we could begin. Right then, I found myself focused only on the words, watching them appear in my head, even as the crowd faded to nothing in my mind.

The first hour was a blur. More than half the sixth graders from the other districts were eliminated in the first round, on their first and only word. And then I got my first word--


I remember sweat trickling down my back as I spelled it, but the first hurdle was over.

I'd love to tell you I remember every word I was given, but I don't. All I remember is that, in the next hour, the 40-some students were whittled down to 6 kids, including three from our school--me, an 8th grader named Kim (who had been a runner-up last year) and her classmate Brent, Mr. F's son and the defending champ. I remembered well when he won last year, on the word "ambidextrous." When his victory was announced, he bounded into the stands and slapped five with his classmates, who all cheered and taunted the losers, including poor Kim, who was left standing by herself in the empty row of chairs, no one congratulating her on making it to the county bee as a runner-up.

This year, Brent looked on track to win again. But then he got the word "mollify." He started to spell it:

"M-A...I mean O! I mean O! M-O-L-L-I-F-Y." he blurted.

The judges were about to disqualify him when Mr. F, a big and imposing fellow, raised his voice to the judges and insisted that Brent be allowed to stay. It was obvious he knew the word; he had simply misspoken, Mr, F argued.

This caused a murmur in the crowd. I mean EVERYONE knew there were no take-backs in the spelling bee. If you said the wrong letter, that was it. You were out. You can bet Mr. F would have made sure I was physically thrown from the room if I had made a similar gaffe.

But in the end, the judges decided to let it pass and allow Brent to stay in. Kim spelled her word correctly. I spelled mine.


By the 10th or 11th round, it was down to Brent, Kim, some 7th grader from the next town over, and yours truly.

Brent got out next, and I'm pleased to report it was his own bone-headedness that caused it. Especially because he got what seemed like an easy word.

"Heart," he heard one of the judges say.

Brent smiled. "Heart--H-E-A-R-T--heart," he rattled off.

But the judge hadn't actually said "heart." The word she had given him was "hart." The male deer, not the blood-pumping organ. Brent had failed to ask for a definition of the word. And boy, was it a righteous failure; even Mr. F couldn't contest it.

Two rounds later, the 7th grader got out on "onomatopoeia," which I remember, because if I'd gotten the word, I'd have spelled it wrong too.

And just like that, it was down to Kim and me, the only 6th grader (and 10-year-old) to make the finals.

It went back and forth for a while. It seemed we were suddenly getting easier words, but I kept bracing myself for the poison dart, the unexpected toughie that would throw one of us off.

Kim got it first: "garniture."

She stood silent for a second, then asked for a definition to buy her some time. I didn't know what to hope for. I had never heard of the word before, and to win the bee, I had to correctly spell the word she got wrong and then spell a new one. I was as likely to get it wrong as she was.

And then, she got it wrong, spelling it with an "m" instead of an "n."

I figured I had nothing to lose. If I got it wrong, we'd just go round again. So I just took a stab--G-A-R-N-I-T-U-R-E.

"Correct," the judge said, and suddenly there was a mighty gasp from the 6th graders. If I got the next word right...

"MM, if you correctly spell the next word, you will win. Are you ready?" one of the judges asked. I nodded. My mouth suddenly seemed too dry to speak.

"Canopy," I heard the judge say.

Oh my God, I've won! I thought. Canopy was easy!

"Canopy," I said. "C-"

Then I stopped.

"Is it too late to ask for a definition of the word?" I begged the judges.

"Yes!" blurted Mr. F from the stands. But the judges ignored him. One of them looked at me.

"We can give you the definition, but you will still have to begin spelling the word with the letter C. Do you understand?" I nodded.

Then she read from the dictionary: "'A thin piece of bread or cracker served as an appetizer.'"

I closed my eyes. "Excuse me," I said. "Is it pronounced 'can-o-pee' or 'can-ah-pay'?"

The judges looked at each other, then puzzled over the pronunciation section of the dictionary. Finally, one of them looked up. "Yes, it could be pronounced 'can-ah-pay.'"

"Canape," I said, pronouncing it just as I'd heard my mother pronounce it hundreds of times when we'd had people over for Christmas partied. "C-A-N-A-P-E. Canape."

It was almost 30 years ago, but the moment the judges smiled and said "Correct!" simultaneously remains as clear to me as if it happened yesterday, and ranks among the top 10 greatest moments of my life. I had never won anything before, certainly nothing like this.

My classmates all stood in the stands and cheered, hands up, ready for the celebratory back-slapping and giving each other fives.

Instead--and I don't know what possessed me, because I was a pretty cocky, ill-mannered smart-ass kid--I turned to Kim, the runner-up for the second year straight, and offered her my hand.

"Good game," I said, which was what we always said after baseball games and didn't really fit in this context, but it was the only thing I could think of. But it was that moment that people remembered more than me being the first 10-year-old to win the district bee. Even Mr. F told me how surprised he was to discover what good sportsmanship I displayed. My dad commented on it as well. My stock had risen ever so slightly in his books.

The rest of the afternoon was an impromptu party of cheering and hollering and the presentation of trophies. And somewhere in there, a guy from the county paper showed up, and, sadly, immortalized the moment for all time.


Incidentally, I placed 4th in the County Bee, going out on a word so simple I can't bring myself to tell you what it was. As third runner-up, I was an alternate to go to the State Bee if the winner and the other two runners-up suffered some kind of mass catastrophic accident, which I'm ashamed to say I sort of hoped for. This was a farming community, after all. Lots of dangers could befall kids when they were around threshers and combines and animals with long horns. But nothing happened and so that was the short life and death of my Spelling Bee career.

But I've never forgotten that moment of relief and pride and satisfaction and exhaustion, when I realized I had beaten everyone else. The look I had on my face then had to have to been similar to what young Kerry Close felt tonight, with those beaming eyes, that radiant smile. That memory will stay with her forever. And even when she's old and can't spell so well anymore, I hope she'll think back on this day and, for a brief time anyway, smile that smile of pure incandescence.



Way to spell, kiddo.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?