Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Genius of William Steig: Updated!

My dear friend Colleen's comment below reminded me that, in anticipation of tomorrow's bee, I should post some illustrations from William Steig's brilliant 1970 book, The Bad Speller. Of course, having packed up half my house to move to Canada, I can't find my (original!) copy for the life of me. I post this one illustration I found on the web (send 'em if you got 'em!), but can also share the caption to my favorite illustration (I'll get it up here somehow): "MIGH, O MIGH, IZ SHE SERPRYZD TWO SEA A FLOUR OV SUTCH GRATE SIGHS." (Just imagine what William Steig would do with that. . .).

Trivia Question: With what word did the priceless Rebecca Sealfons win the 1997 National Spelling Bee? (hint: it's a word near and dear to me . . . )

See you tomorrow for the bee, prime time!

UPDATE: Monday, June 5, 2005

The answer to that Trivia Question was "euonym" (hence its proximity to my name. . .). Col, no idea what Rebecca missed the year before. Enlighten us, please (though I wish I could post your priceless imitation of her. . . hmmm. . .).

As it happens, I was looking for something else I couldn't find, but happened upon my copy of Steig's The Bad Speller, and have scanned some of my favorites. I'd like to dedicate these to my cherished Jennifer. Mysse yew, gerrlphrennd!

Funny, as I am scanning and uploading these, my daughter (just finishing kindergarten) is reading the book. She has been taught to write this year according to a system called "invented spelling," in which the children are encouraged to spell any way they hear, or choose to transliterate the word: in the beginning of the year, they focus on getting the first sound of the word right, then the last sound, and then send them off to first grade to muddle about with the tricky middle. I'm not sure what I think of it pedagogically, but I can't deny my daughter loves to write, and, at the very least, was not discouraged from writing by worrying how to spell. (As good a plug as any, I suppose.) She comes home with "books" in which every student has contributed a page with their own invented, Steigian spelling; they're a riot.

Monday, May 29, 2006

If all the year were playing holidays. . .

To sport would be as tedious as to work. . . A line from one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, Henry IV, Pt. I, the soliloquy in which the prodigal Prince Hal discloses his intention to "throw off" his "loose behavior" (quaffing pints of sack at the Boar's Head in Eastcheap) and "redeem" himself both to his father, Henry IV, and to the people of England. In a striking instance of early modern PR, Hal proclaims: "so much shall I falsify men's hopes,/And like bright metal on a sullen ground,/My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,/Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes/Than that which hath no foil to set it off." I once had a student gloss this soliloquy on a final exam as "Shakespeare is trying to tell us he needs a vacation." Gotta love it (i.e., good try, but not quite).

This weekend I saw the Chicago Shakespeare Theater perform parts one and two of Henry IV, in a six-hour acting (and viewing) marathon. The actor playing Hal was cast in the Anakin Skywalker mold (of the Star Wars prequels), and delivered these lines angrily, with self-contempt -- an interesting performance choice, as the passage demonstrates Hal's self-interest and calculation, and usually invites more seductive, self-satisfied, even unctuous, line readings.

In first reading the play I was myself seduced by Hal, and particularly by the figurative language pervading the play, or words relating to currency and coinage. After all, the currency of the crown (a kind of coin) is counterfeit, what with Henry IV having stolen the throne from Mortimer. Hal repays his father's debts, as well as those of his surrogate father-figure, Falstaff, and attempts to tender some legitimacy to the throne; "redeem" itself is from the Latin redemere, to repay. It's a fascinating play about the nature of royalty written during Europe's economic transition to capitalism. But it is also evocative of the current US administration: by promoting his reformed alcoholism and born-again Christianity, our own president created a "foil" to set himself off, and thus, like Hal, made "offense a skill"; with W's success in his campaign, we the people were tendered the first MBA president. (Whither legimitacy, you might ask?).

But I wasn't planning to bash Bush in this post, much as I'd like to dock his allowance (especially as, due to his selection for the Treasury Dept., the American dollar continues the slip against the Canadian). Rather, I wanted to keep the ball rolling here on the blog, and, what with this being a holiday weekend (and my daughter's sixth birthday yesterday), I haven't had a spare thought (or minute; or dime! kids parties are pretty costly . . .). I have noticed -- and am grateful -- that many of you have starting looking at older posts, such as my piece on the recent spelling bee movie, Akeelah and the Bee. So: if you are interested in the cultural politics of spelling -- or live in or near one of the cities enjoying the national tour of the Broadway musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee -- or are a fan of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, coming up this week, and televised on ESPN (a must-see!) -- I hope you'll allow me to be so tedious as to play holiday and promote myself by tendering a link to a piece I published on the Broadway production:

(Sorry to make you cut and paste, but I haven't figured out how to do links in this yet.) Also, I plan to blog extensively on the national bee, so stay tuned: as Hal would say, I shall hereafter be more myself, and pay the debt I never promised. . . (in writing this blog).

On a more serious note -- indeed recognizing the holiday at hand -- my warmest thoughts go out to those with family members in war zones throughout the world, and to those families who have lost loved ones to war. Peace.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Soul search: thoughts on the American Idol finale.

Yes, you can put "thoughts" and "American Idol" in the same sentence (or fragment). I think you have to, to make sense of the following surprise: I was abundantly entertained by tonight's finale, despite the fact that I knew its inevitable conclusion. Who didn't? Taylor Hicks outperformed Kat on the critical night, and I think Kat's supporters -- of which I was one, from the start -- soured on her prissy displays of self-entitlement, fits of indelicacy oddly intensified by her indisputable beauty (show some class, princess!). In years past -- I've been watching since season two, the year of the Clay-Ruben match-up -- the preening shlock fests that led to the final disclosure, whether expected (Fantasia) or uncertain (Ruben), were stultifying tests of the audience's patience -- an insult to viewers who had invested so much time, so many phone calls, so many text messages.

Tonight? Crikey, where to start? Paris Bennett scatting with Al Jarreau? Elliot Yamin playing Bono Vox to R & B queen Mary J. Blige? Toni Braxton? Dionne Warwick? PRINCE???!!! (I can't help myself, I gotta say it: yowza!).

As I realized how thoroughly I was enjoying myself, I began to wonder what guided these particular programming choices and whether they might undermine the inevitable conclusion and Taylor Hicks' claim to the crown. No doubt Hicks is immensely likable: that dude loves to sing, and audiences love to reward that kind of commitment. But the kind of intensity Taylor Hicks displays, through his Joe Cocker spasms and quad-burning squats, is not going to lead to CD sales. That is, let's be exact here: people may have wanted to watch Taylor perform his spastic minstrel act -- but will they want only to listen to him? I doubt it.

But the producers of the finale did Hicks no favors by sending out the first string of America's "Soul Patrol," in performers such as Mary J. Blige and Prince (hot!). The effect would have been the same had Kat been destined to win and they had programmed Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, or even Kelly Clarkson (if she would've shown up). Indeed the (delightful) wonder was how spectacularly the other finalists performed with the genuine articles with whom they were blessed to sing -- that Paris scat with Jarreau? The hottest! But the "wow, is she the real deal or what" kind of performance that undercut the eventual winner.

Every season of American Idol has sent home some prizes who deserved to win, Chris Daughtry being this year's most startling exit. And American Idol is, most fundamentally, a TV show (duh) -- such abrupt departures add to the tension and drama, and keep us tuned in. What I find most interesting about this year's finale, though, is the sudden full court press with performers of color. The first show of the final twelve blessed us with the brilliance of Stevie Wonder, whose Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life are sheer sonic genius, and whose degree of difficulty immediately sorted out the wheat from the chaff among this season's performers. Since season one, though, contestants have been trying (painfully) to summon the trills and melisma of Mariah Carey, while the program itself was pretty white bread, showing itself most out of step when it would assign its winners the kinds of songs that only play well in elevators. The singles they assigned Taylor and Kat this year fall squarely into that category (and no doubt Kat lost when she went so sharp on hers: did you see when the camera panned on her mother, who knew? Ouch).

But why consign finalists such hokey schlock, and program such dynamic jazz, soul, and R & B performers for the finale? Remember, we endured whole weeks dedicated to Kenny Rogers and Barry Manilow (although I admit the latter scored brilliant arrangements for the performers). We might give the producers credit for tuning in, finally, to the dominant chord in contemporary music and (again, finally) getting some soul; I certainly give them high props for the entertainment value of the finale itself, so good as to render its conclusion irrelevant.

Overall, the peculiarity of the programming this year makes the goofy song-fest worthy of thought, for whatever funhouse mirror the show holds up to race, commerce, and popular music in our culture. I admit I feel out of my element in this (and, as in most things, I am probably overthinking the whole thing). So I dropped a note on the show to the TV critic at Slate, Troy Patterson, who is dynamite: such snappy prose, such astute observations. I hope he, or Jody Rosen, a sound music critic, writes on what I have observed -- but if you have a theory or related observation, I'd love to see it here.

A Post-Script: I have heard back from the talented Troy, who informs me that he will not be writing on the show (and dreads such an assignment in the future; I can't blame him). But many of you are here because of Slate, which featured me today in their edition of "Today's Blogs." I noticed the formatting didn't always translate in the link, in which case, go to the home page of the site (by clicking on "Jardinière" above). Regardless, welcome, and thanks for coming.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

It's not just about Jesus, friends: it's in the CODE.

Do you do Sudoku? Who doesn't these days? Sudoku has replaced time-honored newspaper pastimes and become a daily fix for legions of broadsheet readers. If you think about it, the pleasures of Sudoku are not far removed from those of the Crossword and the Daily Jumble; Sudoku merely trades letters for numbers. Whatever diversion you indulge in, each puzzle promises as the end of your effort one delightfully satisfying solution (huzzah!).

Reuters has an article out in which the author, Arthur Spiegelman, tries to account for the astonishing success of Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code [
_davinci_success_dc_4]. While the article notes the role that Doubleday's marketing push may have played (e.g., "They sent out 10,000 advance copies of the book to booksellers, critics, media and advertising people -- a gigantic number for such an undertaking"), Spiegelman otherwise parrots criticism already in circulation, analyses which center on the religio-historical claims advanced by the novel’s plot (i.e., that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, and has living human heirs).

Allow me some leeway to sound litsy-critsy, and suggest that critics have been reading Brown's novel too literally -- at the level of plot -- and yet not literally -- at the level of the letter -- enough. For, like the Crossword and the Daily Jumble, what do codes and ciphers do but challenge readers with an alphabetical riddle, to yield one final, incontrovertible, and again satisfying solution? The Da Vinci Code is literary Sudoku, a novel that poses a series of puzzles and prints their solutions on the next page, to legions of readers' vast satisfaction.

Holy Scrabble, Batman, you say, but can we dispense entirely with delicious conspiracy theories? Not entirely, my young crimson squire.

The "controversy" surrounding The Da Vinci Code concerns the alleged existence of a centuries-old, world-wide cover-up of the facts of Jesus Christ's life and death. For many, the fictive claim that Jesus procreated amounts to sacrilege, if not heresy, and threatens the spiritual bedrock of the Christian church. As Spiegelman reports, Nick Owchar, deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, sees in the claim potential reason for the book's appeal, musing that "The book challenges the familiar story of Jesus's life but . . . also challenges ideas that for a vast number of Americans are a familiar part of their faith [,] and people enjoy toying with things that are subversive." No doubt readers enjoy novels in which the narrative departs from -- is both based on and "toys with" -- the artifacts of the everyday, as the latter serve as "familiar" touchstones from which the reader may venture into escapist fiction.

We need go no further than today's front pages, however, to entertain conspiracies and cover-ups that threaten the security of Western ideals. Uranium in Niger? No. Saddam Hussein's links to al Qaeda? Nope. Weapons of mass destruction? Sorry. Once we grant that playing word games is central to the experience of reading The Da Vinci Code, we can attribute its conspicuous success to the fact that it not only solves the series of speciously knotty problems it poses, but also administers a mental salve to Americans fatigued from deciphering U.S. foreign policy (huzzah!).

The advance marketing push Spiegelman mentions took place in February of 2003, after President Bush's State of the Union speech that year (in which he made several of the claims, since disputed, above). Doubleday issued The Da Vinci Code on March 18. The United States invaded Iraq on March 20. __The Da Vinci Code’s reign atop the New York Times Best Sellers list coincides, nearly to the day, with the U.S. occupation of Iraq.__ Why did it succeed? Because The Da Vinci Code delivers the clarity and resolution the President and his henchmen claim to offer, but deny.

Who hasn’t scratched their head over some of these brainteasers from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld?

¶ "I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable than the past. I think the past was not predictable when it started."

¶ I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said, but I know what I think, and, well, I assume it's what I said."

Hmm. Let me see if I can work that one out in the margin. And those anacronymic WMDs, Secretary Rumsfeld, what about them?

¶ "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."

¶ "There's another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Simply because you do not have evidence that something does exist does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn't exist."

I see. But if, like me, you were still confused by the Secretary's position on empiricism, he clarified with the following treatise on epistemology:

¶ "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

Ahh, yes. A modern-day Socrates.

You might say that reading these quotes is not unlike reading the chapters of Dan Brown's novel. Short and pithy (in their own way), each chapter in The Da Vinci Code ends with a mini-cliffhanger, leaving you wanting more information, and pushing you to reach the conclusion. The press conferences in which Rumsfeld issues these puzzlers are sadly ongoing, however, making for a never-ending serial in which the arch-villain of the story (Osama bin Laden) is never caught, and the whodunnit (who got us into this war, and why?) never solved. It is too much to desire a conclusion in which we see President Bush praying over the tomb of last soldier killed, just as we see Tom Hanks kneeling over the inverted Pyramid at the Louvre (in the marketing photo from the upcoming movie).

Instead, we puzzle out the President's own Daily Jumble:

¶ "The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein, and his willingness to terrorize himself."

¶ "I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace."

¶ "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

So dark the con of man, indeed.

Critics such as Laura Miller (at Salon) have described The Da Vinci Code as "cheesy," by which (I think) she means that the novel panders to an unsophisticated readership by using stale and shopworn literary techniques. As Dan Brown acknowledged in the pseudo-memoir he presented as his deposition in his UK plagiarism trial, The Da Vinci Code does not aspire to be great literature. Brown's confessed delight for codes and ciphering underscores his pedestrian aim merely to write a ripping read. Like the piece of pulp fiction in which they appear, the novel's codes offer unrefined readers both the illusion of a literary challenge -- the chance to play codebreaker (or "symbologist"), and try out solutions in the margins of their mind -- and the comforting security of explanation. We are promised no such comfort or resolution from our cryptic US President: "I'm the commander — see, I don't need to explain — I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president."

In writing a book whose plot challenges ideas that Christianity holds sacred, Dan Brown (a religious man himself, as I understand) countenanced the primacy of faith in Western culture, effectively giving it some good PR. After all, Jesus himself knew the value of controversy for good publicity, and while Brown may be guilty of hackneyed prose, I doubt that many of his Christian readers felt their beliefs were shaken by his book, and many may have found them reaffirmed. That's the interesting thing about being a "cheesy" writer of pulp fiction. Nobody gets hurt.

But if we weigh the imagined effects of Brown's sacrilegious plot against the alarming prospect that the US President claims to act on God's will -- "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job" -- it is not implausible to trace the appeal of Dan Brown’s novel about religious codes to the faith-laced mystifications of President Bush, as the escapist pleasures offered by the one divert Americans from the tragedies accruing from the other. The novel's recent paperback release, together with the Sony film (directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, each Hollywood symbols for reassuring sincerity), promise that The Da Vinci Code will remain indefinitely, like the occupation of Iraq, in the American public consciousness. God help us -- Dan Brown can't -- if the latter does not yield a satisfactory resolution.

On Housecleaning.

Now that the real estate market has gone completely soft, it seemed like a good time to try to sell our house (_not_). Fortunately, I am frequently distracted from my panic by having to clean our house -- a house with two young children and their sprawling detritus -- any time an agent phones up to show the place. As I plow our worldly goods into the nearest closet, I am reminded of this old New Yorker cartoon: an oldy (I should say a moldy), but a goody, which also invokes this site's mission statement. Experiencing CHAOS (Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome)? Don't clean! Compost!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Going anywhere nice this year?

Summer's on the way, or at least I think it is. Here in Chicago, you can never be sure, until one day it's suddenly 90 degrees with 95% humidity. But with summer comes travel, and there is a spate of travel journalism out this year on "lit travel," or tours to sites featured in novels and (just as often) movies. The travel section in the NYTimes ran a number of pieces this past Sunday, joining the Chicago Sun-Times and the glossy monthly Travel and Leisure ("the Europe issue"). The articles are timed, and tied in, with the release of The Da Vinci Code movie next week, as travel companies have capitalized on the book's astonishing success by arranging excursions to its locations throughout Europe.

These articles reminded me that when I thought it'd be a good idea to visit the country whose literature I was studying, I chose to go to Oxford, England - versus, say, Cambridge or London - because of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Well, because of the ITV series shown on PBS in the States in the fall of 1981, when I had just started high school in New Haven, CT. If you've seen the first couple of Brideshead programs, you know that Oxford University looks positively resplendent in them. Coming from a small rural town in CT (called Oxford!), I emotionally flunked the transition to the venerated, historic prep school I had entered, and no doubt saw in Brideshead's Oxford what I wished my new (old) school would be -- ancient, serene, romantic, welcoming (and ooh, nice buttresses!).

Fast-forward to June 1994, groggy from an overnight flight to Gatwick but eager to be romanced by Oxford sandstone, I was appalled as the airport shuttle bus turned off the A4 and headed into what the highway signs told us was "Oxford." Grubby news agents. Graffiti. A McDonald's ensconced in a mock-Tudor house. What is this, Medieval Times? My heart sank and, Bodleian Library bedamned, I wondered if I'd made a dreadful mistake.

What the travel pieces hint at (but don't develop, probably because it's too litsy-critsy: my bad) is that people go to such places not only to witness the sites for themselves, but also to walk in the characters' footsteps: that is, to become a part of the fictions that originally, but only imaginatively, transported them. Surely, lit travel answers the vain hope that a good book we're reading will never end; and travel itself meets our need to escape occasionally from (at least) the geographical boundaries of our hum-drum lives. But by physically manifesting the space(s) of fiction, lit travel takes literary identification, the way we cathect with our favorite novels' protagonists, beyond the realm of imagination and to a space where fact and fiction might happily -- or hopefully -- coexist. Those pilgrims tracing Robert Langdon's path aren't looking just to cross the Mona Lisa off their lifetime "to do" list; they are looking to play "symbologist" themselves and to see what other clues Leonardo's painting might yield them.

As the article in Travel and Leisure points out, Dan Brown's acolytes stand to be disappointed, as a notice posted in Paris's l'eglise St. Sulpice coolly disputes the claims of a "recent best-selling novel" it refuses, wryly, to name. In this particular case, I suspect that such a reality check will do little to extinguish visitors' zeal, as Brown's book prepares devotees to expect signs of a cover-up, and so to question the authority of a modest plaque. In other cases, such as the Harry Potter tours of England, operations go out of their way, Star Trek convention-style, to ensure that visitors' expectations are met (Herbology and Potions, Dragon-slaying classes? Sign me up!).

As I learned, it's a couple of miles from the A4 exit to downtown Oxford, and my anxiety ebbed once the shuttle bus crossed the Magdalen Bridge and I finally saw the sandstone spires, some charming (and freakish!) medieval gargoyles, and Christ Church's venerable dome, Old Tom. But like a lot of freshmen accustomed to seeing the university they chose depicted in the photos of sleek college brochures, I wasn't prepared to see Oxford's ancient colleges housing ATMs and Pizza Express. In seeing (and reading!) Brideshead Revisited, I had identified with Charles Ryder, so awkward and unsure upon arriving at Oxford but soon put at ease (ok, in an alcoholic haze) by the captivating, if insipid, Sebastian Flyte (once again I have to say: ooh, nice buttresses!). I didn't take to high school much better, but as we know, I eventually found my own romance in Oxford, and now that I've cathected to the city in my own way, I realize it's a pretty sweet place to visit the in-laws, Tudor McDonald's notwithstanding. It's astonishing to me, really, to think of the turns my life took because I was enchanted by the televised sight of Old Tom and the comely face of Anthony Andrews. . .

But as I don't expect to cross the U.S border anytime soon save for my imminent immigration to Ontario, Canada, I'd love to live vicariously through anyone else who is traveling someplace interesting this year, or who frequently relives a good trip from the past. So: going anywhere nice this year? Have you ever been anywhere because of a book or a movie? How did it work out? Happily ever after? Or like a Gothic novel?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Strange Brew: How Starbucks Spelled "Disappointment" at the Box Office

What was Starbucks doing selling a spelling bee movie? For the past month, patrons of the ubiquitous coffee franchise have been served caffeine-spiked hits of film advertising, as thermal cups, coasters, and emporia banners promote the Lions Gate picture Akeelah and the Bee. For Starbucks Entertainment, pushing the film marks the next venture after retailing CDs, the company’s first flash that its repeat (read: addicted) customer base consumes other legal forms of stimulation. From the looks of the Akeelah ad copy, in which obscure, esoteric English words are followed by a dictionary definition and a pitch to see the film, the campaign seeks to attract to the theaters a clientele charmed – or at least not irritated – by Starbucks’ own brand-making flair with language (can you spell venti soy decaffeinated caramel macchiato?). Despite such savvy underwriting and generally favorable, low bar-setting “it’s a family film” notices, the movie opened to a tepid $6.01 million. How did Starbucks kill the buzz?

Certainly, we can acquit the java magnate of robbing its own box office by rounding up some usual suspects, starting with the film’s competition opening weekend. While Akeelah bested Disney’s The Wild, it was out-placed by the civic exercise in witness-bearing, United 93, as well as the latest Robin Williams vehicle, RV. That the latter should excel now, when school’s almost out, suggests that audiences are already ditching the heady stuff to prep for this summer’s blithe entertainments. Also, as many reviewers have observed, Akeelah marks yet another spelling bee theatrical, following the 2002 documentary Spellbound, the Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and the 2005 film adaptation of the novel The Bee Season. Shouldn’t we be just about spelled out?

The fine print there on the Starbucks cup – spelling it like it is, changing the world one word at a time– tells us this isn’t just another quirky spelling bee flick, though, and that Starbucks means to brew something more potent in its corporate alliance with Lions Gate. Where Starbucks touts its commitment to “corporate social responsibility,” Lions Gate is the production company that served us Crash, last year’s heavy roasted message movie. In that film, the road accidents that paralyze LA’s highway system stood for the city’s interracial disrepair. In this film, in which a plucky tween from South Central LA spells her way to the national bee, spelling is the unlikely vehicle for neighborhood rehabilitation. Released on the anniversary of the Rodney King riots, and set in Crenshaw, blocks from the scene of Reginald Denny’s wretched truck stop, Akeelah tries to persuade us we can all get along if only we would brush up on our Latin roots.

Okay, perhaps that’s too cynical, but how can a competition that seeks to crown only one winner teach us the value of community building? And while we’re at it: how many Starbucks are there in South Central Los Angeles? (I checked: there is one, in Compton, opened in a joint venture with Magic Johnson’s Johnson Development Corporation.) While urban renewal depends essentially on commercial investment, Starbucks and Lions Gate send out a mixed message when they ground a fundamentally economic proposition on the observance of correct spelling.

Spelling bee enthusiasts will argue that the contest teaches ideals that foster civic responsibility. Intelligence, perseverance, adherence to high standards – who could dispute the merit of what it takes to spell words like pulchritude and prestidigitation? Akeelah and the Bee reaffirms these values as it rewrites the standard spelling bee drama to speak for the concerns of inner city residents. The single mother (Angela Bassett) indifferent to Akeelah’s initial triumphs is too harried from mollifying the officers who dropped off her gang-obsessed son. Instead of drilling Akeelah (Keke Palmer) straight from the Webster’s, the spelling Svengali who trains the prodigy assigns her readings from Nelson Mandela and W.E.B. DuBois. When that coach (Lawrence Fishburne) suddenly releases her from his tutelage, Akeelah recruits family members, gang bangers, and even her mailman to help her study her copious word list. It is at this point that the filmmakers deserve extra credit for making the spelling bee a shared investment as well as a source of neighborhood pride.

However inspirational, the problem is that pride doesn’t carry a checkbook, and that as we join Akeelah’s homeys in rooting her on, we lose track of the wager that compelled her to enter her first bee: Akeelah’s school principal believes that sending a student to the national competition would give Crenshaw Middle School the good press it needs to pay for doors on the lavatory stalls. It would have been easy to make this film, and to make this film inspirational, without making an economic pretext explicit. Having made it, though, it is significant that the film does not follow through on it, and there is a good real-world reason for that: public school funding, the kind that subsidizes toilets, never mind English (or Latin!) classes, does not materialize when one student demonstrates her mastery of standard spelling. It is produced and distributed from tax revenues, and, since 2002, awarded (putatively) when a school demonstrates its ability to meet the percentile standards set by federal law.

Last year in the town of Lincoln, Rhode Island, school officials were blindsided by community protests when they canceled their annual spelling bee because the contest did not help their school meet the “success rates” stipulated by the No Child Left Behind Act. When Akeelah and the Bee focuses increasingly on the singular virtues of its winning protagonist – she attempts to throw the final competition because she feels compassion for her wealthy Asian opponent, bullied by his (stereotypically) unfeeling father – it abandons the humbling conceit of the spelling bee as bake sale and retreats from spelling out the greater injustice, that inner city schools have to compete for public funding from a position of economic disadvantage (and you thought the rules of the spelling bee were harsh). In the 1980s, movies such as Stand and Deliver showed how a class from an urban school depleted by Reaganomics could master calculus to buy their ticket out. In this, the naught decade, spelling is the new math, the feel-good formula for rewarding individuals at the expense of the greater community.

Which brings us back to the film ads littering your neighborhood Starbucks. Designed to look like Akeelah’s flash cards, the coasters try to teach you a new word every time you read the movie’s tag line, Changing the world one word at a time. It would be uncharitable to suggest that the cappuccino crowd that frequents Starbucks is insensible to such words of inspiration. Rather, it is more reasonable to suppose that Starbucks’ regulars didn’t care to be lectured over their latte by such a flagrant marketing gimmick.

In truth, selling spelling makes sense for a company looking to vend culture as well as coffee. For just as Starbucks leavens its promotion of “community building” with the stated necessity for “profitability,” its decision to premier in film with Akeelah and the Bee not only cashes in on spelling’s cultural currency, but also capitalizes on the bee’s collusion with capitalism, a system in which the rewards trickle down, slow-drip style, to the less savvy, less fortunate competitors. When Starbucks printed stirring language on its coffee supplies, it primed its clientele to be charmed – or at least not irritated – by the economic status quo, and by a movie whose featured competition tacitly validates its market incentives for fronting film in the first place. That consumers were not roused to reward Akeelah at the box office suggests they have mellowed on the company’s latest commercial blend.

Breaking ground.

I've created this blog to cultivate and display my writing "in-progress," particularly pieces I have written but have not published. Entries will consist chiefly in essays relating to language and culture, though as gardening remains my cherished non-verbal outlet (never mind part of my name), I may from time to time show off my latest garden favorites as well -- you know, to spruce up the place. In fact, as I am soon moving to Kingston, Ontario, to take up a much coveted, and much appreciated, faculty appointment at Queen's University (in the English department), I am especially cherishing my Japanese dogwood this spring, which I raised from a meager slip of a thing and managed to establish in the clay soil of the American midwest. You can see it above, beside Ollie (just 4) and Blythe (nearly 6), whom I am also cultivating to the best of my (meager) ability. I couldn't be prouder of any of them. In my academic work, I specialize in sixteenth and seventeenth-century English language reform, or when English only started to become a prestige language, and when English humanists published the first English dictionaries, grammars, rhetorics, and textbooks (to accompany those familiar bulwarks of English literary prestige, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, et. al.). This work was inspired by my greater interest in depictions of language, its form and its education, and (especially) its representation in contemporary culture. Visitors who happen upon this shabby grove are welcome and encouraged to get a shovel and drop some seed of their own . . . And if you like what you see, by all means please spread the word. Bienvenue.