May 30, 2009

Spelling Bee

Catherine Wagner at the SPD spelling bee held at Crown Point Press gallery Monday, May 18, 2009

Catherine Wagner at the SPD spelling bee held at Crown Point Press gallery Monday, May 18, 2009

When I was a schoolboy I competed in the National Spelling Bee, and got to represent New York State in the finals in Washington DC. Wow, that was a thrill, but the trauma of losing—well, I came in 9th—has stayed with me for many years and I would never go to see Spellbound or any of the movies or books that have focused on the sport. I was still in shock I think! And this from an event that occurred when LBJ was president and the Vietnam war was still on. Whenever I would stumble across the word I spelled wrong, say in a book or whatever, I would break out in a cold sweat and my face would grow red like a wound. (The word was “eponym.” There! I’ve said it!)

Thus when three years ago, Laura Moriarty of Small Press Distribution in Berkeley called me and asked me to participate in a charity spelling bee, I hung up on her. When she called back, I had to query myself, is this fate, or am I getting a second chance at therapy, by reliving the awful sequence of shame, and now with my adult skills, I might be able to realize that losing a spelling bee isn’t that awful.

(I think I felt I was letting down my mom and dad—and my school—et cetera. Of course everyone was great about it, but that just made it worse.)

So in 2007 I participated in the “Bee In” that SPD holds every year down at Crown Point Press on Hawthorne Lane. A whole line of us all went down on one word—apodyopsis—the condition in which one is sexually stimulated by medical procedure. Well, of course I had often been subject to this feeling—just didn’t know the Greeks had a word for it! I felt better because so many of us screwed it up, including my idol George Lakoff.

The winner that year was the editor and novelist Charlie Anders (Choir Boy), a radiant and gracious presence. And the following year, 2008, by some fluke I won! And I remember thinking that my mom and dad would be proud of me—isn’t that crazy? (They are both dead now God bless them!) So this year, 2009, last week, I walked into Crown Point Press without as much emotional baggage as in previous years–and I lost. But you know something, I’m OK, even though I lost to a beautiful and articulate novelist, prizewinning Sylvia Brownrigg, whom I feel must have been implanted perhaps by Korean War scientists with knowledge of every word ever coined entered into her computer chip like mind!

Greil Marcus: "It's hello, goodbye, it's push then it's crash/ But we're all gonna make it at the million dollar bash."

Greil Marcus: “It’s hello, goodbye, it’s push then it’s crash/ But we’re all gonna make it at the million dollar bash.”

I think there must be two sorts of people, one sort cares about spelling more than we should, and the other sort, for whom it comes low on a list of priorities. On Monday I saw the most brilliant minds in the Bay Area leave the competition early. Stephen Elliott added an extra letter to “origin.” Lyn Hejinian, the smartest person I know, stumbled on “questionnaire.” Greil Marcus spelled “assassination” wrong—twice—each time in a puzzlingly bizarre way. We all had to wear silly bee headbands I can’t describe properly, but the picture on top in which the artist Catherine Wagner is standing to spell out her word gives an idea of how surreal the event was. Perhaps you can see the bobbing bee-antenna things best if you look for the silver blobs popping out of Joshua Clover’s white hair right in front of me.

On Monday we contestants all sat facing an audience and facing the rear wall of the gallery, on which were hung three new prints by Sweden’s premier artist Karin “Mamma” Andersson. They kept me going with their strange unclassifiable light.

Karin "Mamma" Andersson during recent visit to San Francisco

Karin “Mamma” Andersson during recent visit to San Francisco

If I had a dollar for every time I felt shame about “eponym” I would have enough money to buy all three of Mamma Andersson’s prints and hang them in my apartment to remind myself what a fun time I had losing the other night to the incomparable Sylvia Brownrigg. Oh yes—this year’s word was “mizzenmast,” which I spelled with only one “z,” the way that I still think is right.

Best speller ever, Sylvia Brownrig, winner and still champion!

Best speller ever, Sylvia Brownrig, winner and still champion!

Comments (19)

  • Quantum Leap says:

    This world has too man Homer Simpsons and not enough Homers!

  • Quantum Leap says:

    Remember that to spell assassination you must go through 2 asses! Does that say anything?

  • Quantum Leap says:

    Spelling Bee- Sport? Hmmm. Very curious. I guess football, baseball, the 100m dash will one day be subjects like math, science, grammar, etc. Anyway, people must understand that spelling bee contestants all suffer from a common disease. There’s no name for it yet but I’ll give it a good whack- “CCD, Compulsive Cognitive Disorder”. So now that we know what these pathetic people are suffering from we can begin to address the symptoms and get to the root of the problem. I mean you must admit that for a person to almost break out in hives some decades after a misspelled word form an elementary school spelling bee is quite pathetic!!

    Moreover even more comical than above is how these pathetic ‘spelling’ (CCD sufferers) people refer to their disease as a sign of ‘brilliance.’ Ha, ha, ha! Well obviously they don’t know they suffer from a compulsive cognitive disorder? This disorder happens when the part of the brain, creative in origin, lacks development. The brain then makes up for this lack of creative energy by stimulating, or giving extra push, to the part of the brain responsible for spelling. The result is a systemic over transfer of creative neurons into a part of the brain which normally only accepts logic or linear function neurons. The result is similar to autism where you have individuals with tremendously heightened focus on singular tasks.

    For example think about a person who hears a Mozart symphony, miraculously hums every piece of it without missing a beat, but then doesn’t have the faintest clue that he just re-transmitted an entire symphony!! In essence the entire brain, or an abnormally large amount of it’s energy, focuses entirely on a single task at the cost of any other cognitive focus. Q. The result? A. A person who can play Mozart, not understand a single note, and who can’t tie their shoes.

    Spellers! You’re suffering from a neurological disorder, okay? Get off your high horses and start the healing process!

    As far as the SFMOMA, the stuff you have in there is pure WALL FURNITURE- nothing more!!! So just call it that, okay?!!! Look, outside of a Jackson Pollack piece or two, stop calling the crap you have up there art, okay? IT’S WALL FURNITURE. So if you’re smart you should just put prices on all that wall furniture ranging between $50.00 to $1000.00, move it out, and replace it with more crap! Who knows you may accidentally end up with some real art in there one day.

  • antonito de camborio says:

    Correction – antonito el camborio

    catchu later caucasoid puto..

  • antonito de camborio says:

    caucasoid puto is so meany…i love my doxies chilito y pudlo…c h i m o l e …ya me fui…

  • hey hey caucasoid puto…relax ese…

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    you come across like a caucasoid puto…jr why you are so angry? pleese esplain puto…

    i am so escair of you…

  • John Ryskamp says:

    No, I don’t troll “prestigious” forums. I write on this one, don’t I? Anyway, SFMOMA should simply be closed. Its curators are art world fashion victims and its collection would make one pretty good although not sensational private collection. A ridiculous, boring place. When will it go bankrupt and be converted into public housing? Not soon enough! Complete bunch of DOGS.

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    Kevin…no, he’s not a clown, just an important romantic oaf!

  • Kevin Killian says:

    Mr. Ryskamp, sorry that you’ve been laid off, but you have laid the digital version of a paper trail on yourself for years, and a child could see you’ve been a troll in many of the most prestigious forums in the world. Maybe you could open a new school?

  • John Ryskamp says:

    I am not a mediocrity and I can’t imagine what gave you that idea.

    That statement gives me that idea. Can’t wait til YOU’RE laid off. You’re useless. What a clown!

  • Kevin Killian says:

    John Ryskamp, I am not a mediocrity and I can’t imagine what gave you that idea. How preposterous.

    Amu, thanks, wow, that buzzed bee sounds intense! I share your torment.

    Kate, the funny thing is I don’t remember the word I won on during rhe 2008 spelling bee. Isn’t that silly, and yet the words I lost out on will forever be burnished in my mind. Human nature? Catholic guilt? Capricorn self-loathing? I bet that the wonderful writer Thea Hillman, who came in second to me that marvelous year, still knows the word in question; I’ll see if I can find out.

  • What was your winning word in 2008?

  • Kevin, I’m so glad to know someone else is as much of a freak about spelling as I am. I am still tormented by my second-place finish at the 2007 Buzzed Bee ( It probably pleases me more than it should to know that there are at least two distinct arts-related spelling bees annually in SF, reaching fairly different segments of the scene.

  • John Ryskamp says:

    Why are you such a mediocrity, and why is the MOMA so mediocre. Its exhibits are anemic. So what if nothing is going on in the art world. Then do a historical show. 2008 was the 100th anniversary of Cubism. Did MOMA do anything about it? No. MOMA doesn’t have a very good collection anyway. If you don’t stop being art world fashion victims and do some interesting shows, people will simply drop their membership.

  • I was at this Spelling Bee, and I have to say who knew? but it was the most thrilling sporting event ever. I was on the edge of my (front row) seat and with my companions on either side of me tried to spell out ahead of time every word, we were agonized when we or they missed, and one of us had a constant line to google via the iPhone so we could find out immediately what possible alternative spellings were. Here’s some video of bobbling antennae:

    Also also, deep in my heart I still believe you threw the game in order to be gentlemanly, but it’s very indecorous of me to say that here.

  • Julian Myers says:

    That is strange alright. You expect that mistakes will emerge largely from the English language’s disjunct between enunciation and written language (the quadruple ‘s’ in assassination, perhaps).

    But this speaks to the strangeness of the bee: What is being tested, alongside spelling, is recitation, in a rather public setting at that. Brilliant writers might excel at the one and not the other. Give me slides or guitar and I’m fine; put antennae on me and I’m done for.

  • Kevin Killian says:

    Hi Julian, well, it wasn’t so bizarre I guess, but he stood up and spelled “a-s-s-a-s-s-i-n-t-i-o-n.” People in the audience gasped, since his omission of the final “a” seemed so marked. The judge–Penny Cooper–in fact broke protocol and asked GM to spell the word again. Again he gave us the exact same letters. Well, that is a strange way to mis-spell the word, isn’t it? But the puzzling thing is that how Greil Marcus, of all people, could misspell “assassination” at all, after having used the word surely dozens of times in his brilliant studies of The Basement Tapes and The Manchurian Candidate and “Lipstick Traces.” It as if he had spelled “s-i-t-u-t-i-o-n.” Uncharacteristic. What can I say, he’s a mastermind, but the spelling bee as an institution proves that Homer nods. I mean the one from “Open the Door, Homer.”

  • Julian Myers says:

    Kevin, this is the most surreal thing I’ve read in a long time.

    I am dying to know in which puzzlingly bizarre way Greil Marcus spelled ‘assassination.’

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