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Over-the-hill orthographers shine at the monthly Mile End Spelling Bee

“Take a chance, folks. You have nothing to lose but your dignity.”

From the small stage of Mile-End’s Le Cagibi café, Sherwin Tjia directed these encouraging words at the colourful assortment of people filling the room. The crowd was gathered to participate in the inaugural Monthly Mile-End Spelling Bee, a charmingly nostalgic event meant to give over-the-hill prodigies a second chance to shine.

Though I began the evening with absolutely no intention of competing, I found myself impulsively overcome by the desire to make up for a childhood spelling bee career thwarted – before its inception – by a classic case of stage fright. That, and I don’t value my dignity very highly to begin with. Throwing caution to the wind, I added my name at the last minute to the dozen-long list of hopeful spelling bee champs.

Tjia was the evening’s organizer and its emcee. A former McGill Daily columnist, he is now the brains behind Perpetual Emotion Machine Productions, a team that arranges a variety of weird and wonderful happenings around Montreal.

“I like to create strange events that are participatory and slightly experimental,” Tjia explains, “so that people aren’t just watching a show, but creating it.” The unpredictable nature of these “shows” is, for Tjia, the best part. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” he told the crowd, before officially commencing the evening. “I run these events to [find out].”

Feeling a bit like a guinea pig, but in a delightful way, I began to size up the competition. To my left was a man wearing a (rather tight) yellow t-shirt that read: “Newsday Spelling Bee Champ.” Later introducing himself as Joseph, he told me that it was a souvenir from a bee he won in the first grade. “But I lost at the next level,” he recalled, not without a hint of wistfulness. “The word was ‘bigot.’”

Also contending was a woman, somewhat older than the rest of us, who inexplicably went by the name “Shira Shakira” – and did a bit of a jig when she introduced herself to the audience.

Besides having unusually mature contestants, this bee was also more forgiving than the traditional sort: we were allowed two strikes before being eliminated, and were given a series of coupons to help forestall humiliation. “We hate to see you fail,” said Tjia. One such coupon permitted the bearer to skip a difficult word, provided that they immediately bought the host a drink. But as the competition wore on, old-fashioned stalling turned out to be the most popular tactic. At one point, Shira Shakira requested the etymology of a word three times before Tjia finally insisted that she “just spell it already.”

When my turn arrived, I realized with sudden embarrassment that my hands were trembling. But it was hard to remain nervous for long. The room was filled with an over-the-top yet Infectious camaraderie, as contestants vigourously clapped and cheered each other on. I began to get pretty absorbed in the game, even a bit competitive. In the end, I was eliminated after botching the word “tourniquet,” but was genuinely glad when Joseph emerged as the evening’s champion. Perhaps now he can finally put the “bigot” incident to rest.

Those who regret missing the first bee are in luck as Tjia intends for it to be a monthly occasion. Perpetual Emotion Machine Productions is also holding several other events in the next couple of months, including a Love Letter Readings Open Mic Night and a Slowdance Night.

“I’ve discovered that people have a hunger for strange events,” says Tjia. “But they also like the familiar, so I try to incorporate facets of both.” He hopes that the resulting shows are welcoming rather than isolating, and judging by the Spelling Bee, he has achieved success – that’s double C, double S.

Perpetual Emotion Machine can be found online at, just like the rest of us.