Monday, January 23, 2012

All spelled out for you

All week in schools across Van Wert County and all over the region, dozens of students have stood with sweaty palms and quivering stomachs awaiting their word. Yes it’s spelling bee time again. A time where ordinary middle school-aged kids memorize the spelling of rare and obtuse words in hopes they have memorized the words that will become their word when the day of the bee comes along.
As a good student in school, I enjoyed the challenge of the spelling bee -- and the competition. As a fifth grader, I wanted to show up the older kids. As a sixth and seventh grader, I wanted to uphold my reputation. Then as an eighth grader, I wanted to get it all over with. Can you guess which year I didn’t win?
Full disclosure: I won the spelling bee for my age group at my school three times out of four years. I never won the county spelling bee, but I had three good showings. That fourth year I must have blocked from my memory. I only remember missing a word during the school competition and the expression on the pronouncer’s face when the three-time defending champion blew the spelling of an easy word. I always lost on easy words, not the ones that nobody should be able to spell. I lost one year by misspelling a three-letter word and another year it was a four-letter word. (No, not any of those words that you just thought of.)
I remember sitting alone in my bedroom with a small booklet containing the official word list of the spelling bee. These books were put out by the national sponsor of the event. The cover was orange with cartoonish bees all over it. Inside, the words were listed in columns and in groups of ten. The book itself was divided into three sections: Easy, Intermediate, and Advanced. Let me tell you right now that the words in that Advanced section are all made up. That’s my theory anyway. At one time the sponsor made up a whole new section of words like smaragdine, hydrophyte, maculature, xanthosis, and chiaroscurist. Yes, those are spelling bee words. Those are winning words from the national competition over the years. The winning word is not the word the second place speller missed. The winning word is the word the winner spells after he or she has correctly spelled the word the other kid messed up. When we played H-O-R-S-E with a basketball on the playground, we would call this “proving it.” In a spelling bee, the winning round only serves to prolong the agony. After all, isn’t it silly to think that in round after round of spelling that anyone would have to “prove it” by spelling another word for no apparent reason?
Anyway, I learned the Easy spelling bee words without a lot of difficulty. There were a few tricky ones, but that section wasn’t too bad. My goal was to learn all of the words in the Intermediate section. There were some toughies there. Each year I could spell roughly 80 percent of that section, and I stood a chance at getting lucky on the remaining 20 percent. Close enough.
In a twist of fate, I began my career I was a radio broadcaster where the spelling of a word doesn’t really matter. You just have to pronounce it correctly. Now, as a newspaper editor, I have to become a walking Spell Check. But in newspapers, we can pronounce it wrong provided we spell it correctly. I’ve made the trip from one end of the spectrum to another.
But does good spelling really matter? In an age where texting and online communication seem to have a unique shorthand language that defies everything I learned in the spelling bee book, people laugh at the need to spell correctly. As a writer, I have never needed to spell chiaroscurist (aside from earlier in this column), but if I do it will be spelled correctly. It is important. Just don’t ask me how to pronounce it.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Which day is the proper day?

We’re just starting to exit one of the most awkward times of year. We all have a task to do, but there is no consensus as to when it should be done. As a result the end comes, not in one huge wave of silence, but in a slow fade.
I thought of this the other day as I watched crews take down the Christmas decorations in downtown Van Wert. It was after New Year’s Day, but then again, these were not private decorations. Workers were on the municipality’s schedule. But what about the rest of us? When should the tree come down? The lights on the house? The giant inflatable Santas? What is proper etiquette?
There are some people who will take down the tree on Dec. 26. Maybe it’s getting dried-out or it’s just in the way, so the decorations hit the storage boxes the morning after the big day and the tree is in flames by noon. Even folks with artificial trees can be in the Day After Club. It is more understandable years ago to get it out of the way, but the majority of people still have Christmas celebrations after Dec. 25 has been marked off the calendar. Why not leave the centerpiece of the interior decorations up until after you’ve finished the last of the leftovers from the last Christmas dinner?
On the other side of the coin, there are certain houses that leave decorations up far too long. You know who you are. Drive by a few houses on a warm April evening and check to see if any of them still have strands of icicle lights tacked to the roofline. They probably won’t be on, but they will be there just the same. Of course there are a few people who leave lights up year-round, calling them Valentine’s Day lights or July 4th lights, or Labor Day lights or Halloween lights. These people are special cases who have probably invented a way to change the color of the lights from green and blue to pink and red for February and then swapping hues for each successive holiday. These people have their own issues. We’ll leave them alone. But somewhere in the middle of the Day After Club and the Up Until April Fellowship is the proper answer.
As I did my research, I discovered some traditions of which I was unaware. Who knew that it all had to do with that long Christmas carol that is the holiday equivalent to “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall?” That’s right. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was the original guide for un-hauling out the holly. Today most people do not understand what the 12 days of Christmas are. While there is debate over some of the customs and about how to count days, for the most part, the days begin Dec. 26 (the First Day of Christmas) and conclude with Jan. 6 (the Twelfth Day of Christmas, or Epiphany). In any case, Twelfth Night, which is actually the evening of Jan. 5 is when Christmas decorations are to be taken down, according to custom. To top it off, if you leave your decorations up after Twelfth Night, the tradition states that you will have bad luck. I guess the bad luck could be having dozens of motorists driving by your lighted home and laughing at you. My research mentioned things like crops failing, spring not returning, and “mischief in the house.”
This being January 6, if you haven’t cleared out the stockings and the mistletoe and the “Dear Santa, I can explain...” coffee mug, it looks like you are in for a period of mischief in the house. My suggestion is to “fall back” a few hours for Christmas Saving Time and get it done. Hurry. The neighbors are laughing at you.