I was talking to Randy Hilfman, champion of last month's spelling bee. We had both survived the first two rounds of this month's bee without any mishaps, but the competition seemed tougher this time. Randy said he'd be surprised if he survived without missing a word—contestants get three strikes before they're out. I said, offhandedly, we'd probably meet in the fourth (and final) round. For Randy, the exchange was yet another exercise in being right. But I had just tempted fate.
The greatest thing about spelling bees is the education they provide. I somehow managed to attend four years of college without learning anything about the wily sarmatier, "tiger weasel of Eastern Europe." My eventual defeat arrived in the form of "gyascutus"—according to Britannica Online, "an imaginary, large, four-legged beast with legs on one side longer than the other, for walking on hillsides." A whooping crowd of language lovers packed Re-bar, groaning in sympathy at the arcane words with startling definitions.
The Seattle Spelling Bee is also a lesson in the anthropology of stage fright. Voices trembled, hands drifted from hips to front pockets to back pockets and back to hips. There was even a forehead wipe from the unflappable Randy Hilfman. Contestants tended to turn sideways and face the hosts rather than basking in the glare of the crowd—frumpy non-actors like me seldom invite such public scrutiny. I began my third-round collapse with my hands in my pockets, but removed them in an effort to appear suave and casual. My arms dangled at my sides like drying tiger weasel skins as I flubbed word after word.
After my elimination, a brave few combined to give Randy Hilfman his best challenge yet. Hilfman misspelled "cheirogaleus" (a type of lemur) in the third round, but earned the night's biggest ovation by nailing "rijsttafel" (literally "rice table," a Dutch word for an Indonesian meal). The champion retained his belt, but the intrepid Lena Barouh and Lauren Mahon tied for second place in a grueling four-way spell-off. Alas, a media monolith usurped The Stranger's runner-up position—Lena is a freelancer for the Seattle Times and Lauren is an advertising copywriter for the selfsame paper.