I’m not sure when somebody officially becomes a TV junkie … but I suspect that one symptom might be when you realize there’s a 2-hour Lost finale on Thursday followed by 6 hours of spelling bee coverage on Friday, and start plotting ways to evict the rest of your family from the house for 24 hours so you can watch all the festivities in peace.
Short of that, the next best thing is TiVo, which became my most valuable possession over the weekend. I’ll leave all of the Lost references aside for now – because that show deserves its own post someday (seriously … what the heck is going on there?) – in order to focus all my attention on the 81st annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, from the Independence Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC.
As you can imagine, this is a long one, so we'll get right to it. Lights, camera, laptop … action!
We pick up the action in Round 5, where 45 spellers remain. All times are from the West Coast broadcast, and all photos are from Reuters and the NSB website.
9:04 AM: As usual, our head pronouncer is Dr Jacques Bailly, who seems in an unusually chipper mood as the festivities get underway. He welcomes the first contestant of the broadcast, the fittingly-named So-Young Chung, with a cheerful “Howdy, So-Young”, and also greets second speller Samia Nawaz by name. Several of the first spellers reply with a “Hi, Dr Bailly”, and the whole morning feels like a big orthographic lovefest.
9:08: Here’s my girl! Before the contest, Momo and I each picked three spellers, with the winner of our wager determined by whoever’s speller advanced the furthest. I’m casting my fate with 13-year-old Tia Thomas of Coarsegold, CA (a one-horse town about 30 minutes from Yosemite National Park), who happens to be a 5-time NSB participant. Momo’s big gun is Matthew Evans, the only other 5-time participant in this year’s group.
It promises to be a clash of the titans in prime time – and as Tia breezes through mcleod (a combination hoe and rake), I feel very confident in my selection.
9:20: Finally - our first 1st Erin Andrews appearance! Holy cow, she looks good. I’d say she’s bringing sexy back to the Bee, only I’m not sure if the Bee ever had sexy to begin with. She introduces a taped segment about the pre-Bee picnic and barbecue – imagine a pre-race pasta feed with carnival games and sing-a-longs, and you get the idea.
Afterward, Andrews marvels at how “calm and collective” these kids are. She’s not actually nervous about covering the Bee, is she? There’s no way she could find these bookish grade-schoolers nearly as threatening as some lecherous college quarterback. Unless she has a thing for good spellers, in which case, um … on second thought, I’d better not say.
9:22 - 9:38: The Canadian Massacre! Seven straight Canadian spellers are bounced from the competition, including 13-year-old Anqi Dong, last year’s 8th place finisher from Saskatchewan, who misses hooley (an Irish party).
I’ve made fun (and at the same time, been paranoid) of the Great White Northern Invasion of our Bee in the past couple of years, but once 14-year-old Grace Tsai trips on cinerea (gray matter of nerve tissue), there are no more Canadians in this year’s competition. And we’re still in the first hour of the telecast!
Future historians might mark these 16 minutes as a very dark period in US-Canadian relations. I’m sure the Maple Leaf Project is already plotting its retaliatory measures for 2009. This is the kind of thing that can escalate.
9:42: The Bee is an absolute buzzsaw right now: 14-year-old Arushi Jauhari misses biedermeier (humdrum, artistically limited), making her the 9th straight contestant eliminated in Round 5.
There’s just no polite way to say it: to this point, the contest has been a bloodbath. Since the start of the broadcast, 13 of the first 21 spellers have been eliminated. So much for the kinder, gentler Jacques Bailly. At this rate, there won’t be any spellers left for prime time.
9:46: 13-year-old Matt Gabriele stops the bleeding by nailing pericope (a passage used for a sermon), and everyone omits a brief sigh of relief. It’s like when a batter breaks up a no-hitter, and the rest of his teammates immediately think, “Hey – this pitcher is hittable after all!” Or maybe that’s just what it’s like to me.
10:04: The prettiest voice of the competition belongs to 12-year-old Sade Dunbar of Jamaica, whose accent is almost melodic as she correctly spells flageolet (a small flute). Sade is also the most polite contestant in the group, capping every one of her questions with please, and her responses with thank you: “Could I have the form of speech please, Dr Bailly? Thank you, Dr Bailly.”
I like Sade a lot. Even though I didn’t pick her, she’s my sentimental favorite now.
10:06: An extended bio of Momo’s other pick, Kavya Shivashenkar, and her precocious 6-year-old sister, Vanya. Apparently Vanya’s an amazing speller also. Don’t ever agree to play Scrabble with the Shivashenkar kids. Kavya breezes through krummholz (a stunted alpine forest) looking poised for a championship run this evening. In fact, she’s beginning to scare me a bit.
11:14: My other pick for the contest is 13-year-old Justin Song, whom I explained to Momo this way: “I have no idea who he is, but he’s from a town called Carmel Valley, so I should cheer for him.” Since then, I’ve discovered two things: 1) Justin’s hometown is in a different part of California than mine (Do any other states have two towns with the same name?), and 2) This kid was a perfect choice for me.
Justin’s laid-back style exudes California mellow: his flat affect, slow speech, and chilled-out surfer drawl make him sound waterlogged from too many hours in the ocean. Or, as my friend described him in an e-mail to me in the middle of the competition: “He’s the Asian Jeff Spicoli.” As Justin correctly spells duroc (a large red hog) to move on to the next round, I’m thinking that my picking this kid was like some kind of eHarmony match.
(By the way, isn’t Duroc the name of Lord Farquaad's kingdom in Shrek? Shockingly, Dr Bailly makes no mention of this.)
11:44: The turning point of the contest: Matthew Evans, Momo’s number one pick, goes down! He looks defeated even before he slowly attempts the spelling of secernent (something that secretes) – and gives the judges a crestfallen look before he hears the cruel “ding” of failure.
Even though this is great news for me, I can’t help feeling devastated for the guy. That’s the thing about this contest – even when you want a kid to go out, it’s still a heartbreaking thing to watch.
(Actually, Momo wrote about this moment much better than I did – go check it out, then come back.)
12:17 PM: More heartbreak: Sade Dunbar, my new favorite Jamaican middle-schooler, misses hidradenitis (inflammation of a sweat gland – what’s up with all the glandular terms this year?), and is the last speller eliminated before the prime time broadcast.
12:19: However, there’s no doubt that our sister act will be in the finals. As Kavya correctly spells allotriophagy (a craving for eating unnatural substances), ESPN gives us a split split-screen shot of Vanya watching and spelling along. Have they mentioned yet that Vanya’s a good speller, too? I think I remember them mentioning that.
Big sister Kavya is looking strong – which means she’s now my biggest threat to carry Momo to victory. It also means we’ll probably see about 30 more shots of her little sister in prime time, where 12 finalists will duke it out over on ABC later tonight.
8:00PM: We’re live in prime time! But first we have to sit through some cutesy little opening skit featuring host Tom Bergeron trying to spell a word. Could we just get to the real spellers, please?
8:01: A new twist this year: for the final rounds, the spellers’ families are seated onstage across from the contestants. This seems wrong to me, like the parents are stealing a bit of the spotlight away from the kids. On the plus side, we get to watch Kavya’s adorable sister Vanya for 2 more hours! Did you know she’s a very good speller?
8:08: 14-year old Austin Pineda is seemingly trying to pull to the correct letters for tralatitious (passed along from generation to generation) out of his hair, which he continuously twirls with a single finger throughout his questions, and during his attempt to spell the word. It doesn’t work – one speller down.
8:12: Erin Andrews interviews the Shivashankar sisters. Kavya says she wants to get through the first prime time round to settle her nerves. Vanya just stands there looking adorable – and in case we’ve forgotten, Erin reminds us that Vanya’s an excellent speller, too!
8:28: You know how hockey and baseball players grow those playoff beards, partly out of superstition, and partly to intimidate the competition? I’m thinking that’s what 12-year-old Sidharth Chand is doing by sporting a mustache for the NSB. He probably hasn’t shaved since his regional bee.
Sidharth’s got the goods, too – he aces tautological (marked my meaningless repetition) to cruise into the next round.
8:39: A Tia Thomas profile: She’s read the dictionary 7 times. She can speak German, French, Italian, and Spanish. Her brother likes to wear a Darth Vader mask. It’s doesn’t quite match the Vanya level of cute sibling stories, but it’s OK. Tia looks cool and collected, nailing brankursine (a prickly European herb) to advance.
8:42: I love Rose Sloan! She bursts into a 1,000-watt smile after hearing the word alcarraza (an earthenware jug), which is clearly a word she’s studied before. After each correct spelling, she laughs and jumps for joy. She may not win, but there’s no question which contestant is having the most fun.
8:44: 13-year-old Sameer Mishra’s debut on the national stage is a memorable one, as shocked giggles ripple through Independence Ballroom in reaction to his assigned word. Sameer repeats what he heard with a slow, puzzled tone: “numbnut?” The giggles turn to astonished laughs.
It’s only after Dr Bailly pronounces the word more clearly that Sameer happily announces, “Oh – NUMNAH!”, and then with perfect comedic timing says, “That’s a relief.” He correctly spells the word (a pad placed under a saddle to prevent chafing), and sits back down with a relieved smile.
(Funny sidenote: Based on the definition, what do you suppose a numnah is used for? To prevent numb nuts, of course!)
8:50: Returning from a commercial break, Erin Andrews interviews Sameer, asking what he was thinking when he heard his last word. That’s exactly what a 13-year-old boy needs: to be questioned by the world’s hottest reporter about numbnuts on live national television. Even though I love her, I’m thinking that Andrews might be too sexy for this Bee.
9:04: Duuuuude! Justin Song misses satyagraha (a Gandhian method of achieving reform), and takes a seat alongside his parents onstage. 20 minutes later, a pizza delivery man enters the ballroom asking who ordered the pepperoni with extra cheese.
(OK, I made that last sentence up – but it wouldn’t have shocked me.)
9:13 – 9:31: We’ve established our Murderer’s Row of spellers: for several rounds, Sameer, Kavya, and Sidharth follow one another to the mic, ask a few perfunctory questions, then correctly spell their words without hesitation. Meanwhile, spellers all around them are dropping. Once Rose misses sheitel (a wig worn by married Jewish women), only 5 spellers remain as the tension mounts. Fortunately, my girl Tia is also hanging tough.
9:41: Kavya’s the first to crack: She stumbles on ecrase (crushed or flattened, pertaining to fabrics or leather), which is a terrible mistake for her. On the other hand, in a related story … I win! It’s the agony and the ecstasy of the National Spelling Bee.
Honestly, I’d like to feel happy … but Kavya looks so emotionally ecrase as she sits with her father that I can barely celebrate. She’s obviously disappointed. On the plus side, Vegas oddsmakers have her as the favorite for the 2009 Bee; sister Vanya is listed at 5:1 for the 2011 contest.
9:44: 14-year-old Scott Remer trips over thymele (an ancient Greek altar), and we’re down to our final 3 - including Tia, who carried me to a hard-earned (OK, I didn’t earn it myself … but I was very nervous) victory over Momo. She’s made it this far – why not cheer for her to go all the way? OK, I’ll do it – go Tia!
Meanwhile, we’ve moved onto the championship words – in case you thought they were all easy up to this point.
9:58: AAGH! Tia’s the first to falter in the championship round, looking confused for the first time all night while considering opificer (skilled worker; artisan). She misses the word – and just like that, her 5-year odyssey through the Bee is over. I’m going to miss her next year – and not just because I’ll need someone to topple Kavya again. She seems like a really great girl.
Go well into the world, Tia. Thanks for the memories.
10:05: Sidharth uses perfect French inflection to pronounce introvable (impossible to find), followed immediately by Sameer using an exaggerated phony accent to pronounce esclandre (an incident that causes scandal). In addition to spelling their words correctly, these two are doing an Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison routine on us. God, I love the Bee.
10:07: Sidharth blinks first, missing prosopopoeia (a figure of speech in which an absent person is present), leaving the door open for Sameer to claim victory.
10:08: Sameer correctly spells guerdon (a reward), and wins the title! His guerdon for the victory is $30,000 and set of encyclopedias, plus the opportunity to tell his numbnut story on The Tonight Show one of these days.
Meanwhile, I have to wait a whole year to tell another Bee story – not to mention, at least seven months for a new Lost episode. What the heck am I going to do with my summer?
At least I know the next 4 weeks are spoken for - beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
(See previous installments in sidebar at right)