Spelling Bee Reveals Big Emotions

IMG_0548Recently I found myself performing the hallowed duties of judging a local spelling bee.

Sitting in the small auditorium of a local library, my heart suddenly begins racing. The reality of what is occurring is uncomfortably seeping in. The feeling is not unlike a roller coaster pausing at the crest of the first, adrenaline-rushing drop. I guess holding on is my only option.

The room fills with parents, teachers, and siblings. A few grandparents fill out the audience. Nine empty chairs sit before me and three other judges.

The moderator calls the finalists forward. Each takes their respective seat and settles in. A student twists nervously at the ribbon and medal hanging from around his neck. The only thing the contestants share in common is each is different from the other.

When first invited to participate in this event, I failed to appreciate the gravity of the responsibility. I’m told the students and parents have weeks of preparation behind them. Countless hours invested around the kitchen table, the commitment to understanding the intricate rules of spellings beyond memorization. Consider this sit-ups and wind sprints for the mind.

For someone like myself who lives in a world of spellcheck on my laptop and autocorrect on my mobile devices, I feel remarkably ill prepared for my responsibility.

Moments after explaining the rules and offering a few practice words, the competition begins. The only sound in the room is that of the student standing up from their seat. A challenge word is shared in the most articulate manner possible.

Of the nine contestants, no two solve the literal puzzles the same. While one might look directly forward with the intensity of bullfighter, another rocks back and forth and looking to the ceiling tiles while envisioning the spelling.

“Agreeable.”

The words come quickly and without mercy – taking half the field in the first five minutes. And surprisingly, I find myself increasingly nervous. As a contestant might stumble, the moderator looks over to the judges for a decision. Suddenly I’m in the spotlight – one forever tied to the countless hours invested between the student and his family. A moment, in which by the nod of a head, can bring the contestant’s journey to an abrupt end.

“Bedridden.”

Finally, with only two contestants remaining, a head to head battle breaks out – each demonstrating remarkable poise and ability to successfully navigating the circumstances. Much like a prizefight, each took their respective words in stride, thoughtfully answering with enunciating. Neither blinked.

“Filbert.”

The night came down to a word I couldn’t define for all the tea in China. Or after looking up the definition, for all the oval nuts harvested from a hazel tree.

Sitting at the table, the room came alive with sound. There were smiles, hugs, and tears. Parents shook hands, teachers’ embraced students. In the end, the room was filled with love. And while an easy word to spell, love is a hard thing to accomplish.

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Doing Valentine’s Day Right Cost Nothing

Valentine’s Day scares the daylights out of most men.

Speaking as a man, one married for decades to a woman I cannot imagine a life without, the truth is most of us are lucky to keep it together on a day-to-day basis. The added pressure of Valentine’s Day feels like we’re walking onto the field of play during the Super Bowl. Fumbling is not an option.

Marketers know it, too. From the suspicious rise in the cost of a dozen red roses in early February to television commercials suggesting a life-sized teddy bear will solve all of our problems, too many of us are easy prey.

Sparkling diamonds, odiferous flowers, and special offers designed to separate us from the protective constraints of our budget is to play on our greatest fear – failing to communicate how much we love another.

Valentine’s Day is a wonderful opportunity to tell others how much we value them. Truth is, too many of us forget to celebrate the art of romance. Finding and reminding ourselves of the spark that brought us together is essential in a healthy relationship.

Going overboard with material items, however, is a poor substitute for sincerity.

I remember once bringing home an armload of roses only to be greeted with a cold stare from my wife. In the middle of raising our children, spending what dollars we had around on expensive flowers, only showed my insensitivity to our situation at the time. As the lesson settled into my thick head, the flowers felt increasingly more expensive the longer they sat on the kitchen table. I actually felt relieved the day I came home to find them missing in action.

Romance does not really need to be purchased. Rather, romance can be acquired or rekindled with the currency of time, attention, or just hanging out together at local coffee shop. In reality, romance is not measured by what you can purchase with your credit card, but instead what you do with your heart.

I truly find my wife fascinating. While time can sometimes be scarce for us, finding the time to sit down together and share the day’s events is one of the best investments we can make is in each other. Years ago we both signed onto this gig due to combination of overzealous passion and being woefully lacking in understanding what was ahead. But the one thing we learned along the way is how important it is to keep that original flame alive. With all of life’s distractions and interruptions, we’re finding the one constant is the spark between us. And yes, at times, we may appear selfishly protective of our time together, but in the end we recognize this is how we got into this whole thing and we’re not going to let it go.

Which brings me to Valentine’s Day. I won’t be buying an armload of flowers or giant teddy bear. Rather, I’ll be spending time with the one I love.

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Character Served Up Regularly

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You don’t have to meet someone in order to be inspired by his actions.

This thought crossed my mind this week with the passing of a modest man with a remarkable personal story. Clary Milburn, who died this past weekend, left behind a legacy of inspiration and kindness.

Just ask the members of The Galveston County Daily News.

No one ever questioned the man’s magical touch with a pot of boiling water and a fresh catch from the nearby water. One taste of his creations would send one into a moment of suspended disbelief. A master can do such things.  

But there is a little known story about Clary that continues to echo in the hallways of The Daily News.

Once, years before Hurricane Ike showed us what a real flood looks like, our staff was covering one those ordinary rain storms that hit when the tide is high and puts several feet of water over island roads. A couple of our editors had been working hard all day to report the event and had skipped lunch. When they finally caught a break and thought about getting something to eat, they realized they were flooded in at our Teichman Road building. Standing on the entry steps, they saw the front door of Clary’s was open. They slogged on over, went in and sat down at a table. After awhile, a young woman came by. 

“We’re not really open,” she said. “But Clary said he would cook you something as long as it’s something simple, like shrimp and French fries.”

And it was in those moments Mr. Milburn again demonstrated his remarkable kindheartedness and caring soul to those around him.

Soon, big platters of fried shrimp and fries arrived at the table. These two Daily News staffers will swear to this day that those fried shrimp and French fries — cooked by Mr. Milburn himself on day when he wasn’t really open and was trying to deal with a flood — were among the best meals they’ve ever had, anywhere, any time. If you ever enjoyed Mr. Milburn’s special cooking, you can only imagine how wonderful his generosity must’ve tasted to the exhausted staffers. 

The story, like we said, remains legendary throughout the hallways of The Daily News.

And when it came to settle, Mr. Milburn quickly waved off the subject to another day — if that ever came.

What is so wonderful about this story is that there are hundreds more like them being told around the community following his passing. A reputation like his is earned over a lifetime – one genuine gesture, one generous action at a time. And when the time comes, it is the emotional deposits in the lives of those touched which remain behind.

Doing the right thing is easy in most circumstances. The test of true character comes while under stress. In this case, people we trying to find a sliver of normalcy in a world turned upside down by Mother Nature.

And with Milburn Clary, character never tasted so good.

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