Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"I don't think I'll go back. It's gotten too commercial. It used to be about the grammar..."

2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee Running Diary:

7:55: We're coming at you live from our luxurious apartment on the York campus. This year's Bee features Carrie and I, a Chinese take-out menu, and a fully stocked bar (Dubonnet, Cork Gin, red wine, soju, Genesee beer, some leftover Long Island Iced Tea mix--mmmmm--and Strongbow). For tonight's festivities, I'm going with beer topped with soju, while Carrie sticks with Strongbow, her old standby.

7:57: Admittedly, our Bee drinking game rules are somewhat amorphous, in large part because:

a. I can't find the ones we used last year;
b. I don't recall the ones we used being all that good anyway; and
c. it's fun to make them up as you go along (this resulted in the '07 fan favorite--a mid-show audible called by Carrie--"drink every time you have the unhealthy urge to punch one of the kids in the face.")

Here's the plan for this year. We've conducted a turbo draft for the final 12 spellers, with each of us getting six. If my kid spells the word right, Carrie drinks. If they miss, I drink. (One wrinkle that could be added if we had more than two players would be doleing out drinks. So, if my kid hits, I'd have 3 drinks to assign--2 to Taylor, 1 to Carrie, etc.--just like "Kings"...aka the greatest drinking game ever.)

Picking first (then 4th and 5th, then 8th and 9th...) I have: Kavya Shivashankar (from Kansas, and my pick to win it all); Catherine "Cat' Cojocaru (Minnesota); Samia Nawaz (Arkansas); Tia Thomas (California), Austin Pineda (California), and Kyle Mou (Illinois).

Carrie, selecting 2nd and 3rd (then 6th and 7th...) has: Sidharth Chand (from Michigan, her first pick--largely by virtue of the fact that he's a Bob Marley fan, which is, truth be told, fairly cool for a 12 year old from Bloomfield Hills); Sameer Mishra (Indiana); Rose Sloan (Illinois); Jahnavi Iyer (Pennsylvania); Justin Song (California); and Scott Remer (Ohio).

Our initial rules state that a drink must be taken if a speller:

-has facial hair
-faints (although collapsing from dizziness would also, arguably, qualify--meaning LOC isn't required per se)
-manages to crack up the audience
-triggers the red light of dread (kids have 150 seconds to spell the word, after two minutes, they are no longer allowed to ask questions--at that point, the red light comes on)
-looks old enough to drive
-is sponsored by a newspaper with a mockable name (thing Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Other rules include taking a drink if announcers say something completely idiotic, as tonight's coverage is brought to us by the execrable (yeah, I know what it means) team of Mike and Mike. Sample projected dialogue:

Announcer (to speller): your word is [something odd sounding]
Mike Greenberg: Boy, Mike, that's a real tough one.
Mike Golic: yeah, I think I picked that up from a stewardess in Albuquerque.
Golic and Greenberg: [laugh like Animal]
Me: [banging my head off our coffee table]

Last year, we had a "drink if the speller is wearing glasses," but this almost resulted in alcohol poisoning, so we'll give it a miss this time around. (The Vegas line on the winner wearing glasses, incidentally, is EVEN. Hmmmm.)

If one of our spellers makes it to the final two, the other person has to take three drinks. And whoever doesn't have the person that wins the title has to finish their drink.

7:58: for the record, I'm betting on a girl winner (bet $20 to win $40), without glasses (bet $15 to win $25.71), and a championship winning word of more than 8.5 letters (bet $15 to win $25).

7:59: This is the 81st year of the Bee. Prior to 1925, the powers that be decided that--because having but one competition with a limited number of participants would unfairly exclude other, equally capable (but not invited) kids--the best way to determine the strongest speller in the nation was to hold several different sanctioned national bees, with an assortment of voters meeting up annually to determine which adolescent had spelled with the most vim and vigour. The "'Fracas'/'Foulard' controversy (and ensuing riots) of 1924 took care of this once and for all and it was decided that, for the well-being of the country, only one title would be awarded. (Get it, Taylor?)

Apparently, from 1943-1945, the Bee wasn't contested due to the war which...what? I mean, I totally get that the Stanley Cup wasn't awarded in WWI and WWII (and that MLB went ahead with replacement players), but that's because the actual players were serving overseas. The same, of course, isn't true of the Bee. Did the Nazis steal all our difficult words?

It's also worth noting that the Bee, in its original form, was insanely easy compared to today's standards, with such less-than-demanding title-winning words between 1932 and 1956 as: knack (which I'm pretty sure my godson Jack can spell right now...and he's 16 months old), deteriorating, intelligible, promiscuous, therapy (!), initials (!!--these last two were back-to-back in '40 and '41, otherwise known in Bee-running circles as "the era where we totally didn't give a shit"), psychiatry (come fucking on), vignette, and condominium. (And a special bonus shout-out to the 1984 competition, which ended--improbably--with Daniel Greenblatt successfully spelling "luge").

8:00: ...and we're off. Except there's no spelling yet, just a moderately uncomfortably musical number.

While I was home for lunch, I witnessed a particularly brutal stretch where four consecutive Canadians were knocked out of the competition (in a three minute stretch, no less) in Round Five (quick aside: was it absolutely vital that they go one after another, organizers? Was that to maximize the cruelty when they eventually flamed out?). This was compounded by afternoon co-host Chris Fowler totally jinxing poor Emily Lafleur from Montreal by pointing out that she was in good shaper with her word--"tonneau"--because it was of French origin, sagely noting "she's from Quebec [pause]...and thus speaks French"--thanks, Chris, but I'm actually not a fucking idiot). When I check later, the news is even worse: three more Canadians miss after I head back to the office--meaning that all seven remaining Canadians were knocked out (again: consecutively) in Round 5. Two more Americans also miss during the stretch, running the streak to nine before Matt Gabriele of Ridgefield, Connecticut nails "pericope." Given that 24 of 45 kids advanced through Round 5, this stretch strikes me as somewhat remarkable, with the odds being 7/15ths to the power of 9 (or, put differently: roughly akin to flipping a coin nine times in a row and having it land on heads every time--a 1 in 512 shot) that that many would miss in a row. I text Taylor--the resident Wasko stats expert--to see if this checks out.

8:02: Great news! Mike and Mike have been bumped for Tom Bergeron and...some other guy. I've never been this (or: at all) happy to see Tom Bergeron in my life!

8:05: Early controversy over bowdlerize/bowdlerise, with Carrie claiming she should get credit for it since Europeans go with S's instead of Z's for their suffixes. Ruling? No. A minute later, Carrie and I both hit on "shamateurism" (the indirect and surreptitious payment of amateur athletes) which I'm fucking positive is not in the OED [Follow up hours later: it actually is], and may well have been culled from the Urban Dictionary. What's next, srsly? Wikidemia? Pwned? Frienvy? (I really could keep going...)

8:07: Kayva, my first pick, is pegged as the favorite by the hosts. Carrie says something unprintable.

8:09: Carrie taps 14-year old Austin Pineda (who, I swear to God, lists "eating confections" as one of his hobbies in the media guide--Austin, you may want to had "living with diabetes" to that list while you're at it) as the "biggest dork in the competition." He promptly adds an extra "L" to "tralatitious" (having been passed along from generation to generation) and is knocked out. Well, then, he can't be that dorky, can he?

8:12: Justin Song nails "aurelian" (A collector and breeder of insects, especially of butterflies and moths). I point out that the media guide mentions that Justin speaks Mandarin. Carrie is completely unimpressed, pointing out that he's Chinese. The fact that he was born in San Diego doesn't faze her. This reminds me of the time, years ago, when my grandma rear ended an Asian driver in the Westmount Mall parking lot. Furious (though at fault), she jumped out the car and shouted "why don't you back to where you came from?" At which point, the man replied "Vancouver?"--...except a little less racist.

8:17: Taylor texts back to ask how the drinking game is going and to say that the probability is way harder than I think and that I'd have to use binomial distribution to calculate it, which no thanks. Show off. Let's just stick with the coin flip analogy.

8:22: Carrie spells two in a row correctly ("hemeralopia,"a visual defect in which the eyes see indistinctly, or not at all, by daylight, but tolerably well by night or artificial light; and "basenji," an African breed of smallish hunting dog, native to the inner Congo regions, which rarely barks). She is totally clobbering me, which begs the question: what was the point in reading all those David Foster Wallace books? Commercial break.

8:23: Carrie, continuing her hot streak, proceeds to sing, word for word, the lyrics to the entire Addams Family theme (appearing in an M&M's ad). What talent!

8:28: Back from the break, I hit on "tautological"--Pertaining to, characterized by, involving, or using tautology; repeating the same word, or the same notion in different words--which is a total grad school word...and I proceed to feel super-smug. Then Carrie gets it, too (she's 4-for-9 at the moment). Son of a...

8:33: We drink because Jahnavi Iyer looks like a licensed driver and has facial fair--the latter being a controversial ruling on Carrie's part, since, I should point out, Jahnavi's actually a girl. No matter. We drink. Carrie gets "caduceus" (The wand carried by an ancient Greek or Roman herald) to close out the round, beating me 5-4 in the process. I drink.

8:36: An unimaginably bad spelling skit with Steve Carrell and Will Ferell. Yikes. Who wrote that? And how untalented to you have to be to make SC and WF look unfunny (insert Talledega Nights, Evan Almighty, or Semi-Pro joke here--ah, but never together!)

8:38: Wait, I've got it! Bewitched.

8:43: Rose lights up like a Christmas tree upon being given yet another word that she's clearly studied before. Worst. Poker. Player. Ever. This prompts Carrie to blurt out "these kids are crazy! And then, a moment later, in case I was at all unclear: "I hope we don't have kids that like spelling!" Gotcha.

8:44: Hilarity ensues when 13-year old Sameer Mishra hears "numnah" (A saddle-cloth or saddle-pad) as "numbnut." (See below.) Good times.

8:53: Hey, it turns out Sidharth Chand goes to Detroit Country Day Middle School, also known as Chris Webber's middle (and high) school. Cool. In a completely unrelated note, sideline reporter Erin Andrews has just broken the story that Chand has accepted $38,000 in illegal bribes from a literary agent...and has tested positive for pot. Ouch. Don't go banner shopping just yet, Country Day.

8:57: After restarting twice (which spellers can do, provided they don't change the order of the letters--a rule so onerous that I have no idea why kids even bother re-trying), Jahnaci Iyer totally nails "Nietzschean" (prone to psychotropic drug use Of, characteristic of, or associated with Nietzsche or his views). Impressive! The kids went 11 for 11 that round. (My rough calculations indicate that, had they used the 1925 word list this year, this competition would last, approximately, thirty-seven years.) Carrie hit one, while I was totally shut out. Goddammit, where's that gin?

9:04: Samia Naswaz, we are told, prides herself on "knowing every detail of the seven Harry Potter books." Don't say that out loud! Rowling will totally sue your ass (see also her pending, groundbreaking suit J.K. Rowling v. The Thoughtsicles of Every Child Ever).

9:15: Kavia's role model (Nupur Lala) is someone I've never heard of. Perhaps a professional speller? I must Wikipedia this one.

9:16: how about that? I was close. Lala was the 1999 Spelling Bee champion, which was chronicled in the excellent 2002 documentary Spellbound. According to Wikipedia, Lala--training, I believe, to be a doctor--was offered a spot on unnamed MTV reality show (does it rhyme with "heel furled"?) , but declined because it would be "too invasive." Hmmm.

19: just spent the last three minutes pondering how a former spelling bee champ would fare on the current season of The Real World (Hollywood). Tentative answer: not well.

9:20: the Bob Marley fan manaes to spell "Ziarat" (which sounds like an impotence drug, but is actually...) I've now missed 21 words in a row...but this always cheers me up (audio isn't even remotely SFW):

9:21: I just miss on "bogatyr" (apparently, a medieval Russian warrior...though the OED doesn't recognize it). Cat Cojocaru misses too--going with "bogateer"-- so she's out. I'm starting to wonder just when the hell our Chinese food is going to be here. I'm going to be smashed...

9:29: yay....food! And I bust out of my slump to spell "huapango" (a fast, rhythmic dance of Mexico, performed by couples) to start Round 11. Samia Nawaz misses...and we're down to six spellers.

9:31: And, for good measure, here's the best Spelling Bee moment ever:

9:34: After Sameer Mishra gets "nacarat" (A bright orange-red colour) even though he doesn't seem to recognize the word, the co-host--himself evidently a Bee veteran--recommends that, all things being equal, the kids should try to spell the word likes it sounds. That's what I've been trying to do all night, asshole! That's terrible advice.

9:36: During a commercial break, I turn to Game 6 of the Pistons-Celtics series, just in time to see Leon Powe complete a three-point play. Wow. Really??

9:37: this is followed by an ad for Wipe-Out, an American rip-off of Most Extreme Challenge, which was itself essentially a rip-off of the Japanese show Takeshi's Castle. Carrie and I both baffled as to how it took this long to bring it to a major U.S. network. Each episode must cost like $10 to produce.

9:41: On a word I somehow spell correctly ("ecrase," meaning crushed to produce a grained effect), spelling machine (and prohibitive favorite) Kavya Shivashankar miraculously misses. She's out. Dammit. Carrie, helpfully, deadpans in her best Cartman voice: "aww, dude...lame."

9:44: Three left--Tia Thomas, Sameer Mishra, and the nattily dressed Sidharth Chand (who is totally rocking a sweater vest). I'm pulling for Sidharth. The boys are both wearing glasses, while Tia appears optemetrically sound (though there's a reasonable chance that she simply wants to look cool for the cameras and that, up there on stage, she's actually as blind as a bat--whatever, she's single-handedly keeping my bet alive at this point.)

9:48: My concerns that this night couldn't get any worse appear to be unfounded, as we're treated to a prolonged (and agonizing) segment on CNN with #1 Hillary Apologist Lanny Davis, who is advocating a combined ticket. The wrinkle? He's "not sure" who is going to be at the top of said ticket, going so far as to remark: "It's not clear which one will be the nominee." Oh, really?? This is news to me. God, you're such a fucking hack, Davis. You should quit. I mean everything. Not just politics. You know what would be almost as convincing as your asinine "Hillary will be ahead in the popular vote and that's what counts" argument? That, because they think they've discovered water on Mars and we shouldn't proceed with anointing a nominee until we've tallied the hypothetical Martian vote. ("I'd like to see how the Democrats can win in November if they've totally disenfranchised the planet of Mars!" you can shrilly declare.) You and Harold Ickes (who--and, believe me, this is one of the better bad things he's done recently--voted to strip Florida and Michigan of their delegates last August and then completely disengenuously ranted against the decision Saturday night before the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee) ought to be so fucking ashamed of yourselves.

10:01: Tia Thomas--heartbreakingly--goes out in 3rd place, missing on "opificer" ( A person who makes, constructs, or creates something). My pick of a girl winner (and a 20/20 winner) just went up in smoke. Down to two. Come on, championship word over 8.5 letters!

Carrie has both finalists, so I have to take six drinks.

10:03: Carrie hits on "talegil" and I go on a run with french words ("escalandre," "introuvable," plus "kulturkampf"--one of the four German words I know). All of a sudden, we're on fire.

10:07: Closing out Round 15, Sidharth misses "prosopopoeia" (a figure of speech in which an imaginary, absent, or deceased person is represented as speaking or acting)--and then, agonizingly, doesn't know where to go. He's just wandering around the stage. Awwww. Get this poor kid to the green room!

Sameer is one word away from the title...

10:08: ...and he easily navigates "guerdon" (a reward, requital, or recompense) to win it all. I slam my Genesee. Carrie laughs. (Final tally: 10 correctly spelled words for Carrie, 8 for me--we'll downplay the fact that this is out of 52).

10:09: And, just like that, it's over. Because ABC has gone over its allotted time (and God forbid we cut into the ten o'clock news on a slow Friday), we're not treated to the traditional interview with the winner. A shame. We do find out that Sameer wins, along with a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica (God, Scripps must be kicking themselves for hitching themselves to a long-term deal with that sinking ship twenty-five years ago--do you think the EB rep simply sheepishly hands over a DVD off-camera? I'm guessing yes) and a $35,000 college scholarship for his future. By my calculations, when he starts at Harvard in 2014, this will cover, roughly, his first year textbooks....and a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's.

OK. That's it on this end. We're off to watch the rest of Vantage Point.

10:10: ...or maybe I'll just lay down on the floor for a minute...

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