The topic of discussion was surely trivial. What bothered me was the note of criticism in my wife's voice as she suggested that I should make hanging my towel on the new towel rack a priority.
"Hang it wherever you want, but you're walking right by the towel rack. I'm just trying to make your life easier," she said with the same gentle smile she reserves for small children and house pets.
Easier? I'd already draped my towel over the corner of our bedroom door—long an acceptable place to hang wet towels. While I shared my wife's view of the utility of the new towel rack and praised her self-reliance when she installed it herself, I wasn't quite ready to change my old habits.
At any other time of year, I'd have taken my wife's advice without argument. Rarely do we quarrel about such mundane matters. But when I brushed off her suggested relocation of my towel, I saw her gentle smile fade. She tried to hide it, but I could see her frustration. And that's when I snapped.
"Don't look at me that way," I barked. "Do you have any idea what I'm dealing with right now? Don't you know it's..."
Vexed to the point of sputtering, I knew I'd made a tactical mistake before the words were out of her mouth: "Best Of?" she finished my sentence for me. The gentle smile returned: "Believe me, my love, I know it's Best Of."
Only veterans of the Advocate's annual readers' poll are likely to use the term "Best Of" that way. And my wife is surely a veteran, one who has endured vicariously 17 years of Best Ofs. For legions of Advocate staffers and likely most of the people they know, the term "Best Of" is truncated slang not just for the readers' poll itself, but the time of year—from late January until mid-April—when Best Of becomes an overwhelming force in all our lives. Best Of is more than a poll, more than a publishing enterprise, more than a coveted award; it's a season, a sensibility, a state of mind.
"Can I ask you one favor?" my wife said when she saw my anger fade away.
"Anything," I replied, suddenly feeling chipper again thanks to her backhanded validation.
"Tell me, please, that the minute you're done with Best Of, you'll start using the new towel rack."
Each year for the last 17 years, the effort required to get the Best of the Valley readers' poll edition out the door has nearly broken me. And I am not alone. Each year, when the staff is done with the Best Of issue, we assure each other that we'll find ways to make the process easier, less time-consuming next year. But it never gets easier. With more than 170 categories, the act of compiling an accurate list of addresses, phone numbers and websites for all the first-, second- and third-place winners is an arduous undertaking by itself—and that's just the beginning of the process.
Inevitably, there comes a point every year when I begin to resent the project, not because I fail to see its value, but because Best Of seems to take more resources, more time, more energy, more care than we can afford to give to any other project during the year.
Such resentment, thankfully, passes quickly, particularly as we begin to meet with winners and I am reminded of how important Best of the Valley awards are to readers and recipients alike. Winning an award can be profoundly important to the success of a business, just as seeing the award logo in a store or restaurant window can be profoundly important to readers when they're choosing where to shop or eat.
Best Of 2012 has been the hardest one in my tenure, mainly because we've tried to change the look and feel of what was an already popular and successful annual feature. As a staff, we embraced the opportunity to change things up—making the Best Of more visual and less text-heavy—with a mix of enthusiasm and trepidation; we were excited to do something new, but a little afraid of trying to fix something that really wasn't broken.
Even now, as this year's Best of the Valley guide goes to press and we prepare to insert it into this issue of the Advocate, I feel a flutter of nerves, wondering how our efforts will be received. I guess I'm not the hard-bitten newspaperman I thought I was.
Something tells me that when I stop feeling the butterflies, it'll be time to do something else for a living.
The Valley Advocate's readers' poll is one of the oldest of its kind, and for more than three decades it's served as a guide to much of what's worthwhile and worthy in the region. For all the pain we may suffer in producing it, we also feel plenty of pride.