“One in a million, nineteen thousand seven hundred twenty one” All I could see were the odds, and I almost missed the obvious.
I had seen the advertisement a month earlier but never was one for competition. In high school, my six foot, one thirty frame wasn’t made for the beating it took during hell week in the dog days of summer 1977. Football tryouts for my newly opening high school seemed a formidable but attainable goal. My goal was only to try out. I was fooling nobody, especially myself. I figured a start up sports program at a newly opening high school would let almost anyone with four limbs at the very least, try out. The two feeder schools to the shiny new Bonanza High School were the oldest, richest and strongest sports powerhouses in the valley at the time. Recruiters figured they’d at least net the fallout from the noteworthy neighbors which, incidentally, included the soon-to-be star of the Atlanta Falcons and then Bonanza High ’78 grad, Gerald Riggs, thankyouverymuch. That last piece of trivia notwithstanding, my intimidation level was eased. Just make it through the tryouts, don’t make the team.
I made it through the first four days of hell week. After having crossed the halfway point of tryouts, I was satisfied to drop out. I had achieved my own goal, had enough bruises already just from practices and was so exhausted each night when I arrived home, I skipped dinners mom had kept warm only to drop into bed fully clothed and filthy to awake in exactly the same pose.
Tennis was not much different. Less physical, yes, but I soon realized my motor skills were scarcely precise enough to drive a car much less swing a racket at a moving object. I pitifully made the first cuts, but as with football, I didn’t want or need to finish. I could be an excellent athletic supporter.
Why I set my competitive sights so low in high school has been an ongoing discovery for me. Bullied and not well built physically, a late bloomer in all respects, I abhorred those who were showboats. I had friends from all walks—geeks to athletes and every subgenre in between. But despite their builds, looks, beauty or other socially valued attributes of the high school age, they were pretty genuine people. I guess in hindsight, I valued in others that which I didn’t yet possess for myself. In psychotherapy, we call that “cannibalism” as cannibals would only kill and consume those whose traits they admired. The reverse was true for me as well: I hated those who would dare flaunt an adolescent confidence.
Later in school, having been elected president of the student body by a narrow margin, I found it hard to believe I had achieved such a feat for something I “was” to the students who voted, but rather persuading myself that my victory was because of things I “did,” like having the best signs (my father was an artist,) politically befriending key players of all social genres and getting the teachers to think well of me.
This advertisement in the fall 2004 (or thereabouts) issue of the Las Vegas Weekly wasn’t for a game of sport, per se, but a competition for which I had prepared all of my youth.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll just enter.
I might even succeed at it.
The headline read: “Fado’s Irish Pub at Green Valley Ranch Hosts the First Ever Las Vegas Adult Spelling Bee Championship”
Now, you must understand. I was the original Grammar Nazi. My enthusiasm for language, spelling, grammar and my love of diagramming entire sentences– breaking them down into their smallest denominators–was bathroom entertainment for me. Word searches, Reader’s Digests and dictionaries were adolescent pornography I read into the night.
In elementary school, the weekly spelling tests were a bore. Always the first to finish, I would not only spell the word, but write its definition in the margin. Classmates hated me. Teachers loved me and I loved it when they did, so they unwittingly fed the cycle of reinforcement, and my enthusiasm for wordsmithing grew.
Early on, I began collecting dictionaries. Dictionaries of obscure, preposterous words, dictionaries of euphemisms for being drunk, dictionaries of words that did not yet exist, but should. I had a huge collection. I only have a few left now as I lost track of most of my possessions when I was using drugs and didn’t really care so much where my books went as where my drugs were.
High school term research papers were often begun the night before and always received the top grade in the class. In my undergraduate program Speech 101 class, a core freshman course, I remember a stunning Norwegian with big Nordic breasts who expressed great interest in seeing me outside of the classroom environment. But getting lucky waned in importance to getting their, they’re and there correct. Proofreading her speeches was agony. There was no hope for a future with someone still having trouble at this stage of the game (and she didn’t shave her armpits or legs, either.)
Linguistics class with Dr. Tom in my undergrad program triggered one of my switches of major, as he was also a dictionary collector. Into my graduate program, I remember Dr. Sexton’s Systems Theory class final paper was a 24 page analysis for a maximum 10 page paper. I got a B- for excessive length. My thesis paper “Multicultural Counseling: The Prime Directive?,” was cited in a friend’s book and I was told was/is the thesis paper on file as an example of how they are to be done.
At the time, I was working in our family ad agency and wrote reams of ad copy daily for clients. I had lists of words organized in themes for various client projects. I had every possible reason to believe in my ability to compete and to win a spelling bee.
I had done it once before in 6th grade. And the plot thickens.
But I had misplaced the ad. It resurfaced in the car one afternoon. At some point, everything resurfaced in my car. I was a hoarder, but at least I could spell it correctly. It was 2pm on a Friday I think. The crumpled newsprint with that same headline had made its way to the top of the trash heap I called my back seat. It was as if it wanted to be found. After all, as was noted, the competition was that very night.
I called my friend Henry and my parents and invited them to meet me for dinner at Green Valley Ranch where I might also try my hand at a spelling bee.
In separate cars, we arrived at the Ranch just in time for the early bird dinner menu, presumably to beat the Friday night crowd of diners-turned-gamblers whose well-intentioned paychecks would later undoubtedly find a resting place in the casino coffers after a few strong Irish brews.
The place was already packed. It had opened only recently so I attributed the capacity crowd so early to the fact that it was a Friday and a new, trendy hangout for yuppies of that era. We waited for a table and by some miracle, a fourtop opened to the immediate right of the stage. I recall wondering if one of us looked like some celebrity or a preferred high roller to have been awarded such a prime spot while dozens waited in line.
We sat down, ordered our beers and some indigenous and tasteless Irish fare. Very soon, it didn’t matter, as everything we ate tasted like the last beer we’d downed. I was feeling good. I was also in no condition to spell my own last name.
Crowds gathered, the stage was meticulously populated with podiums and sound systems and semi-celebrity types telling each other what to do.
Three very large beers later, the pub was standing room only. If someone had yelled “fire,” no one would have heard over the crowd. Nor would they have escaped.
The Irishman spoke into the microphone.
“Participants in the Las Vegas Adult Spelling Bee must first complete the paper and pencil preliminary test. The top 24 will proceed to the actual spelling bee.”
If the timely emergence of the lost ad and the procurement of a prime table in a crowd like that wasn’t enough, the fact that my lifetime lucky number was 24 gave me the final push. I was feeling no intimidation. I was feeling dizzy.
I think I heard that 330 people had signed up and had taken the paper preliminary. As they called the top 24 scorers from the crowd, my name was the last.
I snaked my way through the hundreds of observers to check in, the crowd thickened even more, and the competition began.
It was a process of elimination program. If you missed your word, you were out. After all 24 were through, 12 remained, then 6, then three, and finally there were two left standing. I think this was the format, I may be wrong. I was very drunk and I had to pee a bucket but held it.
I’d had more beer that evening than I usually drank in a month, but somehow, I realized I was either going to walk away second best or win the entire thing.
Some of the words others had failed to spell correctly were obscure terms I was recalling from Word Power Reader’s Digest bathroom visits of the past. Despite my floating bladder and brain, I remained alert when it came down to the final round, me versus the other dude whose name I didn’t care to know.
15 minutes of fame is short-lived media publicity or celebrity of an individual or phenomenon.The expression was coined by Andy Warhol, who said in 1968 that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”
I was about to have mine. But I was also about to have my mind completely blown in the process.
This story is not about my lifetime fascination with words. Neither is it about whether I won or lost the spelling bee. Third strike: it’s not even about my 15 minutes of fame.
It’s about taking the chance to take something to the finish line, win or lose, fame or flounder.
Truth is, you don’t know how many times you missed one incredible moment in your life. One that was divinely chipped off, polished and set directly in front of you, nudged your way and all but short of doing the chicken dance on your damn nose, did everything possible to get your attention.
Perhaps you do, and right now you sense that recurring and immediate ache that has become the only thing left to fill the tiny but so very important void that lost moment has left in your soul; as if you had missed completing the final line in Tetris, letting the blocks fall on their own as your fingers went suddenly and unexpectedly numb.
Note: There are one million, nineteen thousand, seven hundred twenty one words in the English language.
In my only other spelling bee in the 6th grade, I made it to the final round, having lost on a word I will never, ever, ever forget. Even today, I use the word in variations with my lucky number as my passwords on some accounts. (This is probably not the smartest thing to reveal, I know, but it’s part of the story.)
There in the Irish pub, the three judges called me to the stage to give me my final word. Correctly spelling the given word won me the title. Missing it, by default, gave the championship to the other unnamed contender.
The drunken pause was deafening. The several hundred onlookers, 22 bitter disqualified contestants and strangers who had found a small niche or window to peer from, waited as the center judge spoke me the word:
I was well aware I was drunk, but oblivious to this auditory hallucination I was experiencing at that moment. I briefly shuddered, shook myself into temporary sobriety at the microphone and with a wave of chills that rolled the length of my body, I waited for the judge to give me the actual word…one I could soberly understand and spell.
It’s funny when the beer, the crowd, the pressure and the screaming memory of the 6th grade judge saying, “I’m sorry” converged in that instant, all I could muster was
I’m sure the judges had read through my reaction that they had finally found the word to choke me in my snooty spelling tracks.
“The word is…asph…”
“I KNOW what the word is…I just can’t believe it,” I said. I turned left in time to see my parents and friend with jaws on the table and huge beercan eyes staring back at me in disbelief.
Slowly turning to address the crowd, I softly and briefly thanked Mr. Warhol under my overbrewed breath and into the microphone, I spoke through a smile.
“In 6th grade, I lost a very important spelling bee. Apparently, I have not yet forgiven myself.
I used an “I” instead of a “Y” in this
“Judges, the correct spelling is
It was that One-In-A-Million- Nineteen-Thousand-Seven-Hundred-Twenty-One word moment.
I let the 15 minutes begin and I would like to say I basked in the fame and glory of being crowned and showered with gifts and prizes reserved for the Las Vegas Adult Spelling Bee Champion. The truth is, I had instantly sobered up to the fact that what just happened was much, much bigger than having spelled a word correctly. It was not about having instant redemption from my 6th grade failure. It was not about the cheers and applause of hundreds of strangers I would never see again and who would soon flow out into the casino to lose the rest of their week’s wages that night.
I saw an ad, lost it, and found it the day of the event. Against all odds in a standing room only crowd, I got the only fourtop available stage left.
330 entries boiled down to my lifetime lucky number of 24 finalists.
And a one in a million chance at a word I had vowed to never forget.
The beer helped, but only to drop my defenses and anxieties long enough to see the possibilities before me that night.
Something…someone…invisibly orchestrated the events and turned the odds in my favor. Not for fame, prizes or applause. The purpose was much greater. It helped me to break, once for all, and very persuasively, the low view of myself that I’d held to for all those years.
Setting your sights and hopes low is safe, but ultimately, you never really get to play in the game. Taking leaps when you’re not quite sure of the footing underneath is risky, but I had found it was a helluva lot more fun.
And God came through in the end, as God always does…if you look closely. He asphyxiated the old self talk and breathed life and confidence into this redeemed new man. If I’d been focused on the prize, I’d have missed His process and all the nifty coincidences along the way.
If indeed, all things happen for a reason, then it is equally true that nothing also happens for a reason. I had been the reason God did what He did. Conversely, I’d lived the safe life but believed I had nothing much to show for it.
By the way, the Las Vegas Adult Spelling Bee, such a popular, well attended and raving success that night, has never been held nor heard from since. So until it does again, my fifteen minutes may just last a lifetime.