‘That is basically Stacey’s Super Bowl’

Stacey Gross News Writer

I love a lot of things.

I love the organic smell of wet, fluffy topsoil.

And every single dog on Earth.

I love the way snickerdoodles are rough on the outside, but soft and warm on the inside, when they’ve just exited the oven.

I love that feeling just before you fall asleep, when you close your eyes for the last time, and you know it, and every muscle in your body just melts.

More than anything, though, I love words.

I’ve sort of built a whole life around words.

And, while I can be a pretty quiet person in the flesh, my internal monologue is incessant, and cacophonous. Every single thing that comes into my conscious awareness gets narrated, ya’ll. And, when my girls were babies, our entire life got narrated. Like, I walked through the grocery store telling them what we were doing while they stared at the ceiling and drooled into the trench between chin one and chin two.

I think that’s why June added seven “items” to her Christmas list this year, and Harper knows that blue and green are “similar” because they’re cool colors as opposed to warm. Without even intending it, I’ve raised a couple of vocabulary hounds in my own image.

So, I was super stoked on Thursday when I exited an 8 a.m. appointment thinking that I could wander down to the spelling bee at Beaty to cover it and not worry about being a few minutes late.

Surprise surprise, when I got in my car to see that I had a text from Mr. Ferry.

“You are a judge. Be there ASAP.” That was at 8:19 a.m.

At 8:39, he put out another feeler.

“Holy crap, I’m in North Warren,” I texted back at 8:54 a.m. “I’ll be right there.”

Poor Betsy. My little hatchback had been rode hard all week and now I was pushing her to the limit to get to the spelling bee on time. She was a good little hatchback. I’m going to miss her. We got there just in time, as her final act of dutiful service to my unmanageable life, and I rushed in, taking my judge’s seat flustered, but present.

Earlier this week I’d been talking with Chief Mineweaser, who along with Chief Deppen, was one of my fellow judges. “I should have known you’d get yourself involved in this one,” he said as I pulled myself together and tried to remember the rules. I flunked out of two spelling bees in Beaty. I’d hung on for a while, though, both times. I’d done respectably well, too, but spelling bees are like Jeopardy. I know every answer easy peasy in my living room. But knowing the answer while you’re staring down Trebek is a whole different world. The pressure to perform was always what did me in. I wish I could remember which words I missed. I’d make a point of using them excessively today.

“This is basically Stacey’s Superbowl,” I heard Mineweaser whisper to Deppen as the action got underway.

He was absolutely correct.

During our prior conversation I’d revealed that I get a little wound up about some spelling action. I’m full nerd, okay? Jeopardy, spelling bees. Sometimes I just pick a subject and spend a week reading peer-reviewed scientific research on it.

I’m not sorry.

But I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for a good, old-timey spelling bee. Not only do you get to hear fun words that people really need to use more regularly, but you get to test your ability to spell them correctly too. And what’s fun about spontaneous spelling is that it reflects not rote memorization, but a playful affection for the mechanics of language. No one commits the spelling of the word “xylorimba” to memory. Good spellers have a sort of relationship with the music of language. The sounds and implications of particular sets of letters in particular patterns. We know that “coelacanth “ starts with “coe-“ because something about the shape that word asked our tongues and lips to make the first time we encountered it, the sound of “o” and “e” coming together to form an entirely new vowel all its own, felt as good to us as a shot of cocaine feels to a long-term research rat.

I mean, I’m assuming. But why else would it keep pushing the “drugs” lever instead of the “food” lever until it drops dead from exhaustion and heart palpitations if cocaine didn’t feel amazing, right?

I know that there’s a bit of controversy over whether the whole “sapiophile” phenomena represents a legitimate genre of sub-identity or merely a convenient label with which to express a preference otherwise difficult to articulate. But it’s absolutely true that, for some of us, there’s quite literally a neurological pleasure response to things like unexpected pronunciations and complex Latinates. The best moments in any spelling bee are watching those playful moments when a person is clearly struggling over the possibility and likelihood that an “e” might be imitating an “i,” and the anticipation hanging on the edge of the guess.

I need you to understand that there is a narrow list of things that I do really, really well, and zero percent of them are necessarily marketable skills, taken separately, nor are any of them really something to be particularly proud of. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the ability to spell and define words like “nunnery” and “quemadero” on command cannot make up for the fact that I can barely do simple math in my head, or carry on an out-loud conversation of any sensical nature with a stranger when I’m at all uncomfortable around them.

And I’m uncomfortable around every single one of them, all of the time.

I mean, being a good unassisted speller, in terms of real-world, grownup marketability is of negligible value today. It’s like canning. Or darning. Or every single weird, folksy thing that hipsters take pride in doing well, and on the regular.

Wearing suspenders unironically, for instance. Being fluent in 1920’s south Boston slang. Riding penny farthings. It’s all so unnecessary.

And that’s the appeal.

So Mineweaser was dead on. I get as jacked up for a spelling bee as every other American gets for Superbowl Sunday. And I’m really, really proud of that fact.

As proud as an unrepentant hipster darning socks in suspenders on a penny farthing.

That’s super proud, if you aren’t familiar with hipsters.

Like, kind of smugly proud.

It’s annoying.

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