A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It's your word against mine

Me: We should do Scrabble lunches every once in a while, now that we're in the same neck of the woods, and all.
P1: Scrabble lunches are an excellent idea, as soon as I remember I'll bring my board into my office. I also need to get a copy of the new dictionary next time I do an Amazon order, so I can drop "chillax" and "vlog" on your ass. :)
Okay.  It’s time I came clean with all of you.  I have a secret addiction.  It tends to manifest late at night, but it can sneak into other parts of my day, as well.  Sometimes it steals my focus.  Often, I try to resist, but I still succumb -- if only a little -- practically every day.  Terrible as it sounds, I’ve been addicted since the age of seven or eight… and it was my own father who led me down this path.
I’m talking, of course, about my Scrabble habit.
That’s right, Scrabble® -- that Hasbro board game with the little tiles that have letters and numbers on them.  More specifically, that game with one hundred tiles, including twelve E’s, nine A’s, nine I’s, eight O’s, four U’s, and (thankfully) only one Q.  Yes, I could tell you the frequencies of the other twenty letters (plus two blanks).  I could also tell you all their point values, and in which valid two-letter words each letter appears (fore or aft), as sanctioned by the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.  I could offer up the words that include the Q without requiring the presence of a pesky U.  I could even tell you what “QAID” actually means, although that, of course, is irrelevant1.
I realize that being addicted to Scrabble probably isn’t as damaging as being addicted to methamphetamines.  Nor is it as heart-rending as being addicted to love or as irritating as being addicted to Farmville.  Nonetheless, I do find myself wondering whether there’s any way I can honestly justify the time and mental energy I waste on shuffling around my letters looking for a way to get the K onto the triple letter score, or (having found the obvious bingo) checking to make sure there isn’t a better bingo.  Should I really have felt such a heady surge of glee last week when I decorated a triple-word-score with the word SHITLESS?
I started my obsession so early in life that I’m not entirely sure how I slipped into it.  My family had an old-school version of the game, with folding cardboard board and plastic tiles, and I suppose my parents played occasionally.  At some point, maybe on a rainy Saturday when my sister was old enough to reasonably participate in the game -- and I blatantly wasn’t -- we sat down to play as a foursome.  Someone must have told me the rules. Make words.  They have to be connected to one another. They have to be correctly spelled.  You can’t accidentally create additional combinations such as “GJ” or “ZULUQBASKETRY”.  Mommy and Daddy know way more words than you do.  So does Sarah.  You will lose.  Badly.
Looking back, I’m not sure why an activity that demanded skills I (like most seven-year-olds) patently lacked (a vast vocabulary, strong strategic powers, the ability to spell one’s way out of a paper bag, and a penchant for sitting still for more than fifteen seconds) held such immediate appeal to me.  My big sister soon lost interest in the game.  My mother, who was always busy doing more than her share of the chores and childcare, seemed happy to back out.  So I played with Daddy.  And played.  And played.
My father took the game seriously.  Dad takes ALL games seriously, including bridge, backyard croquet, and Fictionary.  Thus, even though he was taking on a fifty-pound scabby-kneed opponent, he played to win.  Without a doubt, the scores in our first head-to-head game – and in the next, and the next, and the one after that – were something like 295 to 112, or 347 to 86.  Peculiarly, I was unfazed. 
Although playing Scrabble with Dad was largely a silent experience, it could be an intensely emotional one.  Dad brooked very little of the kind of table-talk that gave any hint as to what letters we held.  However, he didn’t have even the vaguest approximation of a poker face – or a Scrabble face – and he knew it.  A bad draw from the bag left him tearing his Einstein-esque hair and muttering the sort of imprecations that greatly improved my stock of short, efficient, valid Scrabble plays.  A rack with bingo-potential set him madly shuffling.  When he plonked down something really superb, his joy was so palpable it practically skipped around the board singing show tunes. Dad was often so amused by weird or salacious combinations of tiles that he sat there giggling at his letters – and scribbled them down to show me later.
My father did (somewhat grudgingly) allow me free access to the dictionary, so that I could check my spelling – but only until I was old enough to occasionally (but increasingly) beat him.  From the start, I was sternly told that I was not permitted to go fishing through the dictionary, searching for likely possibilities.  Nor was I allowed to read the dictionary and memorize useful words in my free time.  That’s right -- my own parent forbade me to increase my vocabulary, because he didn’t want me to best him at a board game.  The fact that he needed to forbid such behavior at all highlights the fact that I was not only a hopelessly odd child, but also already an addict.
That was more than thirty years ago.  These days, no one can stop me from reading the dictionary, should I choose to do so. I don’t… mostly.  But the fifth edition came out last month.  I hear it includes DA. GI. PO. and TE2. 
Me: If you manage to play "chillax" I'll give you an automatic win.  I guess I could remember to bring my board.  And my pathetic old dictionary
P1: Naw, your board gets plenty of use at your house, mine not so much. It'll be more useful here at work. And your pathetic old dictionary was a gift from me, as I recall, so a little more treasuring is perhaps in order!
Me: Right.  I'll go home and fondle the dictionary this evening, lovingly caressing ZA and QI in your honor.  I'm writing a blog post about Scrabble.  Can't believe it's taken me this long.
Like all good addicts, I tell myself that it’s No Big Deal.  I can quit.  I can stop whenever I want.  Right after this next move.  Or, you know, the end of this game…
There have been periods in my life when I’ve been forced by circumstances to go cold-turkey – such as when the U.S. Peace Corps sent me to Jamaica.  Jamaica, of course, is officially an English-speaking nation, but in the rural hills, where I was working with kids on school gardens, only patois was spoken, and even basic literacy was limited.  No one seemed likely to be familiar with common terms such as QWERTY3 and LEZ4.  I went through withdrawal.
I’m not sure how or why I saw a notice about a National Jamaican Scrabble Championship – it must have been when I was in Kingston on Peace Corps business – but, perhaps inevitably, I rode three different chicken-crowded buses to get to Spanishtown, the nearest site in which I could compete. I was eliminated in the second round, in a tie-breaker game against an elderly woman whose husband had been knocked out in round one.  They were a charming couple.  They were retired teachers.  They raised goats.  They invited me, the utterly-out-of-place white 22-year-old, to their home for a meal.  I felt mothered, and fathered, and delightfully Scrabbled.  It was wonderful.  But they lived too far away for regular games.
I found only one other Scrabble partner in my two and a half years overseas.  He also lived too far away, but I rode my bike to his village, anyhow, over (I seem to recall) several mountains.  He was Nigerian.  He was twenty-eight years old, dazzlingly brilliant, and spoke five languages better than I spoke one.  The Scrabble was great.
All this was pre-internet (or, for the quibblers among you, it was prior to the era in which I personally had useful access to the internet, in which “useful” is taken to mean “Scrabble”).  The Age of Information changed everything.  Back in the early 80’s, Dad and I thought we were pretty cool to upgrade to a Deluxe Edition, complete with a smooth-spinning plastic turntable.  In the ‘00s, any fool could play on a computer – or, for that matter, against a computer.
I went through a phase (centered around a desperate stage of PhD procrastination) when, yeah, I’ll admit it – I used the internet for the perverse pleasures that it offered. I could play with strangers – although I declined to do so.  I could play with androids!  Oh, what the heck, yes, yes! 
What can I say -- it was free.  It was at my fingertips.  It was also demoralizing.  Not so much because the computer was able to shoot moves at me with a speed that gloated, “Your clunky synapses can never match my microprocessors.”  Not so much because I almost always lost, either. After all, I’d chosen to play at the hardest possible setting; I could have set the darned program to “moron” and enjoyed victory after victory.  I just… well… I found that I kind of prefer the real thing.  You know – doing it with a human. 
What?  Real live interaction? It hardly seems possible that agonizing over whether to risk using up all ones vowels for an extra eight points, or obsessively seeking the elusive double-triple-word-score-bingo can be a stepping-stone toward any sort of functional social behavior.  And yet…sorting back through my life, I start to see a pattern.  I’m beginning to suspect that for decades, I’ve been using Scrabble not only as a delightful math-meets-English-meets-strategy decadent brain-stretcher, but also for exactly this nefarious and unspeakable purpose: human connection.
It started with Dad, of course.  My father has always been an intellectual to the core. Small-talk bores the crap out of him, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly -- or even gracefully.  He was never one of those “let’s-toss-a-ball-around” dads, or a “let’s-work-on-a-building-project” dad.  He was more of a “let’s-analyze-the-political-situation-in-Iran” dad, which can be tough to connect with, if one happens to be four years old.  Thus, by the time I reached second or third grade, I was desperately eager to find some way to bond with Daddy.  And then I found it.  Brows furrowed and tiles clicking, we bonded. 
Decades later, I’m pretty sure that Scrabble was the excuse whereby I first invited over a guy (I’ll call him Player One) I’d met backstage among the other extras in Julius Caesar.  At least, I think this is the case, but there’s so much friendship under the bridge that – twelve years of hikes, bike rides, ski trips, and international family vacations later -- it’s hard to recall.  Still, our mutual addiction is undeniable.  Case in point: Player One was dubious as to his tolerance for babies, and openly displayed his trepidation when I told him, back in ’05, that I was incubating TWO such creatures.  Nonetheless, on more than one occasion he willingly sat across from me at a card table while I not only held twin babies, but actually nursed both squirming creatures simultaneously, locking them in place with my elbows while I shuffled my tiles.  Because – Scrabble.
I felt a bit better about the relative depths of my depravity when I read a book (borrowed from Player One, of course) entitled “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players”.  These twitchy, basement-dwelling psychiatric cases were nothing at all like me, right?  Right? 
Meanwhile, my recurring Scrabble itch also made me reach out, six or seven years ago, to a buddy from junior high.  We hadn’t spoken in years – but there he was, shuffling his tiles on Facebook!  Well, technically, we still haven’t spoken in (even more) years, but these days he’s not only my most frequent Scrabble opponent, he’s also my most frequent mountain-time-insomniac online chat friend – and my blog editor. He knows way too much about everything, so I can’t talk smack about him. 
[You could talk smack about me, if it was funny – ed.]
I also play a game or two (or five, or ten) with three other friends – making (for the math challenged) six of us in total.  We’re a mixed bunch.  Some of us have used actual ulus and worn actual qiviut; some have merely used those words to dump awful racks.  Some see me so frequently that they could easily capture my every feature for a police sketch-artist.  Some would probably stride right past me on a crowded sidewalk, oblivious.  We’re all chronically nerdy, of course – that’s a tragic and unavoidable a side effect of being friends with me -- but our background, gender, education, income level, marital status, and occupations vary widely. (Note: friends are always more fun when their genders vary widely). What, then, do we all have in common? 
In answering that, I now realize, I may be able to shed a few more lumens on my own lifelong obsession.
Can I justify the time and energy I spend on a hobby so patently unproductive that it has resulted in my knowing which words can be prefixed with UN- and which with RE-?  Well… maybe.  Because maybe – just maybe – I’ve learned a few things from Scrabble that have nothing to do with how to spell the names of all the Greek and Hebrew letters.
Somewhere along the way, those frustrating little tiles taught me to play like it matters -- but to know in my heart that it doesn’t.  Some of my opponents beat me more often than others.  Some care more than others.  All of us, however, walk a middle ground between self-torturing-angst and don’t-give-a-damn.  We care enough to play with integrity.  We play to win.  We play wholeheartedly.  And yet, conversely, none of us care so much that we sulk, or mope, or give up, or cease to have fun, or put the game ahead of the friendship. All of us know that there’s a lot of luck involved.  Sometimes – in Scrabble, as in life -- the bag gives you UIOOOOA or VVCCJKB.  It sucks.  It’s not fair.  But you can’t take it personally. 
Dad never quite learned this lesson.  He and I don’t play anymore.  Perhaps it’s because now, for him -- suffering from Parkinson’s Disease -- online play would be just too complex a struggle.  But, in truth, I started beating him too often some years ago.  I memorized too much of the dictionary.  I could say that I ruined things, but… it wasn’t really me.
My Scrabble obsession taught me that other people might not understand all my passions -- and that’s okay.  I happily married a not-at-all Scrabble-inclined human being.  Spelling for pleasure makes as much sense to Jay as bashing his toes with a ballpeen hammer for pleasure.  Some of his interests are obtuse to me, too.  We don’t have to have a hive-mind to be a couple.  Indeed – it’s probably for the best that we don’t.
P1: For extra authenticity, make sure no word in the blog post is more than 7 letters long and contains more than 1 'z.' If you need a visual, I saved the scoresheet from that one game where I scored 541.
Me: Seriously?  Oh, by all means send it along.  I mean, a scan or whatever. Because, dork-tastic.
P1: [The next day] It turns out I actually only scored 540 in that game. And I was going to bring the scoresheet in today to scan but I think I left it on the kitchen table this morning. Also, might be worth noting that I had hoped nursing while playing would put you at a competitive disadvantage, but I don't think that worked out. :)
Over the years, Scrabble also taught me to revel in joint high scores, even though the game is not a collaborative one.  Among my cadre of wordsmith-friends, fabulous plays from an opponent are always greeted with genuine kudos, even if that opponent happens to be kicking ass.  MUFTI5.  Nice word!  FISHNET?  Hot damn!  CAZIQUE6?  You just won the Internet! Scrabble taught me that skill matters; knowledge matters; strategy matters; luck matters… but other things matter even more.  Sometimes the standard rules of politeness can be tossed aside (because SHITLESS7 is totally a valid word), but never the rules of kindness.

And, finally, there’s this: Scrabble taught me that no matter how many games you win or lose, ultimately you’re only really ever playing against yourself.  Ever.

1QAID (Arabic: قائد‎ qāʾid) also spelled kaid or caïd: Master or leader. A title in the Norman kingdom of Sicily, applied to palatine officials and members of the curia, usually to those who were Muslims or converts from Islam. (Wikipedia)
2DA. GI. PO. and TE are the four new two-letter words added in the fifth edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.  They are defined, respectively, as “dad”, “a martial arts garment”, “a chamber pot”, and “the musical note ti”.
3QWERTY: The name of your keyboard layout.  Because, obviously. You knew that, right?
4LEZ: A female homosexual. This word achieved the dubious honor of being expurgated from the third edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, along with other lovely terms such as BOOBIE, GOY, TURD, and JISM -- to great hue and cry amongst people even more obsessive and nerdy than myself.
5MUFTI: A mufti (Arabic: مفتي‎ muftī; Turkish: müftü) is an Islamic scholar who is an interpreter or expounder of Islamic law. (Wikipedia)
6CAZIQUE:  A chief or petty king among some tribes of Indians in America. (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913)
7If you don’t know what SHITLESS means, I’m afraid I really can’t help you.