Once upon a time I was a pale thin sixth grader with soft wire-rim glasses. The glasses bent hangdog to the curves of my face, and in the discount undercurrent of the times I favored shirts in slicky plastic blends of unfortunate shade. Making glib use of the power to Cloud Men’s Minds, my best sport was Dodgeball. This worked out great as long as I didn’t actually touch the ball.
At the height of my dodgeball prowess, one day the boys on both sides managed to eliminate themselves one by one, Little Indians all, leaving just me and the fearsome Robert facing off alone, the game in the balance. I had dodged often, and thrown not at all.
My subtle mental mask drifted away, and I ended up with the accidental ball in my hands. It might have been a scoop of octopus, for all I wanted it. Robert, a terrible flat-faced Republican-in-training bull of a kid, leaned forward across the line dividing the sides in the gym. (That’s Terrible as in Ivan.)
“Gimme the ball, you dick,” he warned, “or I fuck you up.”
I did the honorable thing. I gave him the ball. It was dodgeball, gentle Reader. Who cared?
About the only other thing I remember from sixth grade, apart from when Edward kissed Regan in Riverside Park (whoo!) and ate too much soup (not the same day), is the district spelling bee. I don’t remember winning the school bee, but I do remember losing the district. My word was “chronological,” which I rendered without the H, and I came in second. (One of our substitute teachers was Gene Simmons, but I’m sorry to say I have no memory of the man in mufti.)
Late last June Pierre and I headed out to Freddy’s Back Room for a barroom spelling bee, an idea whose time is clearly now. The inaugural bee doesn’t quite happen that night, because of this and that; there were other shenanigans in its place, and summer is nothing if not a parade of distraction.
But this past Wednesday night it does happen. I’m not entirely in the mood — it’s one of those WORK = FRAZZLE days — but I answer the call.
It’s harrowing to stand up in front of friends and strangers and spell words. There’s an overbearing dread that you’re about to flash the beans of your utter incompetence at life, that you’re going to expose yourself as a complete fraud. Worse yet, you won’t see it coming. “Fish,” you will say confidently. “F-I-T-S-H. Fish.” And the room will go silent, stricken. Everyone will look at you and think, Fitsh? Geez Louise, wotta maroon. Plus, you know, lose some weight, Brainiac. Sheesh.
Storytelling comedian Josh Reynolds thunk the thing up, and he’s an affable host. Nineteen of us sign up, and the rules are simple:
(1) Pony up a buck to play
(2) Spell your words right, and
(3) Winner takes the pot.
Some of us are funny, some of us are tremulous, some of us are confident, and some of us think the better of the whole escapade just as we get in front of the microphone. It’s a good vibe, in an I-hate-the-dentist way, and we’re all clutching our beers hard, leaving little dents in the pint glasses. I’m beaten to the recounting by other bloggers in the house, and there are pictures that capture the mood over at Jimmy Legs. The words roll on, and as the first round ends for a shake break we’re whittled down from the initial 19 to 3 still standing: Jonathan, Alison, and me.
When we’re back in play Jonathan bites the dictionary on cachinnate, a word that would have taken any of us down. Or me, at least. Alison and I spar back and forth with a series of jab words, tricky to recognize but not all that hard to get right (eclat, moiety, lamasery). Finally Josh, who is running out of words, broadsides her with “eleemosynary,” one of those words you just have to know in order to spell. And I don’t know why I know it, or how, but know it I do. Use it in a sentence? Sure: “Eleemosynary, my dear Watson.”
My words: barbiturate, onomatopoeia, eczema, sanitarium, surveillance, diocese, potpourri, augur, moiety, autochthonous, and the sloppy second on eleemosynary. Pierre thought potpourri was popery, and I wondered if Josh would have accepted auger the tool for augur the omen, which is what he intended. But it didn’t come up.
And for a night I’m top spelling dawg, nineteen clams the richer. Note to self: the spelling bee thing is not a chick-magnet activity, per se. Next time maybe I’ll wear elbow guards, that might help. Black shiny ones.