The Scrabble Dictionary Has Gone Crazy

Over the years, as family and friends became aware of my Scrabble obsession, they’d occasionally ask me questions about the game and its rules.  Among the most common of these has been “Why are foreign words allowed in Scrabble?  I thought we were playing in English!”

The simple answer is “they’re not.”  Look at the instructions on the inside of the box and one of the things you’ll notice is a clarification that words that must begin with a capital letter and words in foreign languages are not permitted.

Well, sort of.

For a long time, I thought I had this explanation down pat.  Just because a word may begin or often begins with a capital letter doesn’t exclude it from Scrabble if there is also another meaning of the word that does not require it to start with a capital.  For example, it is true that “Jack” (with a capital J) is a personal name.  However, one can also jack up one’s car to change a tire or draw the jack of clubs from a deck of cards.  Neither of these uses of the word “jack” requires a capital letter, and the word is therefore acceptable in Scrabble.  (I won’t even start getting into the compound uses of the word, such as jackrabbit, jack o’ lantern, jack in the box, jack cheese and even the archaic jackanapes.)

Foreign words, I’d explain, are not acceptable in Scrabble if the exact same thing has an English equivalent.  For example, gato and caballo are not acceptable, because these Spanish words have the English equivalent of “cat” and “horse.”  However, if a foreign word has no equivalent in English, and the word has therefore been widely incorporated into the English language, then its use is permissible in Scrabble.  One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the word “taco.”  Sure, it’s a Spanish word, but there is no other way to precisely describe the concept using an English word.  Thus, “taco” has been adopted into the English language; most people know exactly what you mean when you say you’re going out for tacos.  The word “taco” has been found in the Scrabble dictionary for years.

Another example is the French word eau.  Yes, it is the equivalent of the English word “water” and one might therefore expect that it would be impermissible in Scrabble.  However, it is used to describe fragrances such as eau de cologne and eau de toilette, as well as a type of brandy known as eau de vie.  And, yes, in Scrabble it is pluralized with an X, just as it is in French.  While some will argue that one can just say “cologne” or “toilet water,” aficionados of Chanel and others of that ilk are quite familiar with the complete phrase.  Thus, the powers that be saw fit to include it in the Scrabble lexicon.

But that was then.  Ever since the latest version of the Scrabble dictionary went into use in tournament play in March, all bets are off.  There no longer seems to be any rhyme or reason for the scores of foreign words that have now squeezed themselves into the pages of the Scrabble dictionary.

The official reason for this, I am told, is that these foreign words may be found in more than one of the major dictionaries of the English language.  Supposedly, if it’s good enough to get into standard English dictionaries, it’s good enough to be permissible in Scrabble.

I beg to differ.

In my opinion, which counts for exactly nothing, just because one prefers to use a foreign word rather than its English equivalent doesn’t justify its inclusion in the Scrabble dictionary.

Lately, I have found myself particularly frustrated with the many Yiddish words that have found their way into the Scrabble dictionary.  This is somewhat ironic, as I have more than a passing familiarity with that wonderful language due to my eastern European, Jewish heritage.  I rejoice in the fact that Leo Rosten and others have published books celebrating the Yiddish language.  But that doesn’t mean that they belong in the Scrabble dictionary when they have clear English equivalents, just because other dictionaries have chosen to include them.

For example, kvetch has been in the Scrabble lexicon for a while, when it just means to complain, bitch or bellyache.  Now, with the new Scrabble dictionary, even the Yiddish word zeda and some of its derivatives are permissible.  It just means “grandfather” or “grandpa.”

Perhaps I just need to stop kvetching and recognize that Scrabble has gone multicultural.  Just don’t ask me why, if foreign words are now permissible in Scrabble, gato and caballo will get challenged off the board.  I have no idea how to answer that one anymore.

Except, that is, to say that the Scrabble dictionary has gone crazy.

Tournament update:  I have been losing games left and right by huge margins, but I also had a few big wins.  My record currently stands at 8 wins and 6 losses, which has moved me down to the bottom half of the pack.  My spread is somewhere around -160, which effectively exposes me as the rank amateur that I am.  I have to keep reminding myself that I enjoy spending a lot of money for superior players to beat up on me for five days.  Oy vey.  (Oy is good in Scrabble, vey is not.  Yet.)

Who Goes First?

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The playing venue at the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship

RENO, NEVADA

Which player goes first in a game of Scrabble?  As with so many things in life, I shouldn’t think it would matter, as long as someone goes first.  While I can’t imagine an “after you, my dear Alphonse” type impasse, as far as I’m concerned, if you want to go first, just go already!  Are we going to sit here all day?  I’m not about to have a philosophical discussion of who should play first.

In formal Scrabble clubs, such as the one to which I belonged when I resided in Fresno, who goes first is generally determined by drawing tiles.  Each player sticks his or her hand into the tile bag and draws out one tile.  Whoever has the tile closest to A goes first (with the blank tile trumping all).

In nearly every tournament that I’ve attended, the prevailing rule has been different than at club.  The usual “draw one tile” procedure is used for the first game, after which players are supposed to take turns going first to keep things even.  So when your opponent sits down across from you, the first question is always “how many firsts do you have?”  One is not expected to remember how many times one has gone first.  The tally sheets have indicators for “1st” and “2nd” next to each game, and you are expected to circle the appropriate indicator.  So when the inevitable question arises, each player starts counting down the little circles on his or her tally sheet.

“Well, I’ve had five firsts,” my opponent announces.

“I’ve had six, so you’re first,” I’ll say.

To my surprise, I learned that none of this applies at the North American Scrabble Championship.  That is because “who goes first,” along with every other little detail, is already decided for you ahead of time by the tournament organizers.  Some may not care for such regimentation, but I absolutely love it.  This is by far the best organized event I have attended in my seven years on the tournament scene.  I am seriously impressed.

Before the start of each game, the players check the postings on the bulletin board for their divisions.  Listed is the name and number of the player whom you are playing next, the number of the table you are to sit at and which player will go first.  It’s amazing.  You need to have attended some of the woefully disorganized little tournaments I have attended to appreciate how incredible it is that this giant tournament is organized down to the last detail.  I credit the hard work of the extensive staff.

At a lesser tournament, even the matter of where to play can be contested.  For example:

“We’re next.  Come on over here.”

(whining) “Well, I haven’t played on my own board all tournament.  Can we play at my table?”

Whatever.

At the North American Scrabble Championship, there is none of this.  I have encountered no whining, no arguments, no pettiness or cattiness.

There aren’t even any worries about equipment.  Each division’s leader and assistant, dressed in referee stripes for easy identification, walks around during the game to ensure that each table has plenty of challenge slips.  Your pen ran out of ink?  You need a tissue?  Just call over one of the Stripers and ask.  Oh, and if you start coughing, which may disturb the concentration of the players, the division leader or assistant will visit you with a cough drop in hand.

A bit Orwellian?  Perhaps.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.  If only every tournament could be like this.  Now I understand why people travel the country to attend this one year after year.  One of my opponents told me that this is his ninth consecutive year of attendance.  I had to bite my tongue to hold myself back from asking if he’s rich.  Reno is only a two and a half hour drive from my home in Sacramento, but how on earth can anyone expect me to lay out the kind of money necessary to attend next year’s tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana?  Not unless I win the lottery between now and then.

So, you may ask, how did I do on the first day of the tournament?  Not nearly as well as I should have.  I finished the day with four wins and three losses.

My first game was with a snot-nosed kid who could not have been more than 12 or 13 years old.  I cast no aspersions upon his personality by so characterizing him.  In fact, he was a very polite young man who shook my hand both before and after the game.  I am merely remarking on the fact that he kept blowing and wiping his nose throughout the game, repeatedly dropping and retrieving a tissue.  The game was a squeaker; I ended up winning by four points.  I was surprised when the young man did not request a recount.  Perhaps he had never done one before.

After winning each of my first three games by a whisker, I then proceeded to lose my next three games by more than one hundred points each.  There goes my spread, down the drain.  I managed to win my last game of the day, although only by seven points.  My opponent then requested a recount.  It turned out that I had cheated myself out of a point and he had given himself four points too many.  So I ended up winning by 12.

I began the tournament as the sixth seed out of 48.  After Round 1, I was in 21st place.  After Round 2, I was in twelfth place.  After Round 3, I was in sixth place, back up to seed.  Then I lost the three games and dropped down to 30th place.

As we have a March Madness style bracket contest going on, I think I owe an apology to the thirty or so players who saw I was seeded sixth and selected me for their brackets.  Sorry!

The Scrabble Rules

RENO, NEVADA

The big day is tomorrow — the start of the 2015 North American Scrabble Championship.  We have arrived in town and unpacked.  I have registered and obtained my name tag.  I have prepared my vegan sandwiches for lunch.

Now, if I can only avoid letting my nerves get the better of me.

One of the annoying, but totally necessary, things about tournament Scrabble is that there are a lot of rules.  I don’t mean the rules printed inside the cover of the Scrabble box.  Special rules that are necessary to maintain some type of semblance of order when you have 300 super-competitive people playing in one giant room.  If you’re interested, you can see a condensed set of tournament rules here.  Then there is the Code of Conduct, which I can succinctly summarize as “Be polite.  Don’t be an ass.  No cheating.”

I am pleased to say that cheating, or attempts thereat, is extremely rare among we Scrabble people.  I can’t understand why anyone would want to cheat, but I’m told that, occasionally, we run across someone who wishes to win at any cost.  This is my ninth year playing competitive Scrabble, and I am grateful that I have yet to run across such an individual.

And yet, we engage in certain elaborate rituals to show everyone that we are not cheating.  For example, before the start of the day’s first game, as well as after each game, the 100 tiles are arranged face up on the board (typically 25 in each corner of the board) to show one’s opponent that no tiles are missing.  If there is any question that the correct number of each letter is present, either player may request a “distribution,” which involves counting out the tiles to ensure that there are nine As, two Bs, three Cs, four Ds, 12 Es, etc.

To pick letters to place on your rack, one must draw tiles out of the tile bag.  The rule is that you are supposed to show that you are choosing tiles at random, not looking in the tile bag first.  This is done by holding the tile bag up at shoulder level and looking away from the bag while drawing out the number of tiles needed.  This may seem like a pain, but after a while, you do it automatically and without a thought.  For decrepit old people like myself, by the end of the day (we’re talking about playing Scrabble for eight hours), we’re lucky if we can still lift our arms. (And after a five-day tournament, we’re stiff as boards and chowing down naproxen and ibuprofen like candy.)  Scrabble is supposedly a mental pursuit, not a physical one, but there are still times when I am convinced that it is a young person’s game.

Even the particular set of tiles you use can become an issue.  For tournament play, the tiles are supposed to be perfectly smooth, so that when you stick your hand in the bag and your head is turned the other way, you can’t feel what letter you’re touching.  Attempting to discern your letters in this manner is known as “brailling.”  Most modern sets of tiles are smooth enough to be “unbrailleable,” but I have witnessed at least one heated argument over the matter.

I’m telling you, the little things get tournament players riled up beyond all reason.

After a game is over, if the scores were really close (within ten points of each other), either player has the right to request a “recount.”  This involves going back to the beginning of the game, recounting the value of each play, comparing it to what was written on the score sheets and making adjustments as necessary.  Your opponent is likely to be seriously pissed off if you ask to do this.  However, at one tournament, I gained several points in correction by doing this, with the end result being that the score had been a tie.  My opponent, who believed he had won, was steaming mad.

Then there are rules about “designating blanks” (when you play a blank tile, you must immediately declare what letter it is supposed to represent and write it on the score slip that gets turned into the director) and about the precise ritual that must be followed in case of a challenge.  And there are rules about what happens when a player makes a mistake by drawing too many tiles out of the bag.  And there are rules about dozens of other things, some of which I don’t even know and would have to look up.

So, in the morning, I will do my best not to break any rules and not to be trounced too badly by my eager and esteemed opponents.

Wish me luck.  (I am going to need it.)

Scrabble Dreams

The dreams have started.

I always know when a big Scrabble tournament is coming up because the words, the tiles, the thrill and frustration of competition seep into my waking thoughts and invade my dreams.

On Friday, I head to Reno to compete in the North American Scrabble Championship.  In the Scrabble world, it’s the annual blowout shindig, the place where the big girls and boys come out to play.  It’s my first rodeo, and I am by no means certain of being able to hang on for eight seconds.  I just pray that my face doesn’t get stomped on by the bull.

For five straight days, 295 of us will fight tooth and nail to hold onto our positions and maybe even move up a few spots.  If the lesser tournaments I have attended are any indication, the competition will be intense.  There will be blood, sweat and tears.  There will be curses muttered under the breath and hearts a-pounding when just the right tiles leap out of the letter bag for that elusive triple-triple.  I will kick myself for making stupid mistakes.  I will lose games I should have won.  I will win games I should have lost.  And a couple of dozen times, I will grit my teeth and say “good game” to my smiling opponent when I really want to punch a hole in the wall and tear my freakin’ hair out.  Just like on the old ABC Wide World of Sports shows we watched on Saturday afternoons as kids, there will be the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

The field is broken into four divisions, based on one’s rating, determined by performance in past tournaments.  I will be playing in the bottom division, which means that I’m really not very good.  However, I am all the way at the top of my division, seeded fifth out of a field of 45.  This means that I have nowhere to go but down.  Everyone will want a piece of me to pull up their own ratings, dragging me down into the pit in the process.  True, I could have opted to “play up” (compete in the next higher division), where I’d be at the very bottom and would have nowhere to go but up.  Passing up that opportunity, however, gives me the opportunity to maybe stay at the top of my own division and earn some prize money.  Or not.  A couple of mistakes, a few losses to lower rated players, and I could easily drop like a rock from fifth to 25th position, or even worse.  It happens all the time.  It’s a gamble, perhaps fitting for an event being held in downtown Reno.

Not that it’s about money.  On the contrary, it’s about proving just how good you are.  The real prize money is in Division 1, where the top players in the world compete for many thousands of dollars.  Down here in the cheap seats, however, the only real money involved is the hundreds of dollars we had to lay out for transportation, food, entry fees, equipment and accommodations at the host hotel for at least five nights.  I know perfectly well I’ll never see any of that money back.  Tournament Scrabble is an expensive hobby.  Case in point:  I haven’t even left home yet and just spent over $400 for a new board and timer.  These were far from impulse purchases; they were necessary to compete in the tournament.  My old timer finally died on me, and no amount of cleaning and fresh batteries would encourage it to come back to life.  As for my old beat-up board, it is rectangular — fine for playing in a local club, but a definite no-no for officially sanctioned tournaments.  One must have a round board that swivels so that the opponents can easily turn it around to face them when it’s their turn to play.  Many players spend heaps of money to have customized boards made for them.  I settled for ordering a standard model from an online purveyor.  You want a case to protect your board from being banged up in transit?  That’s extra.  You want wheels on that case so you can pull it behind you while lugging it through hotel lobbies instead of lifting 20 pounds of dead weight?  That’s extra, too.

Fortunately, I have collected enough racks and sets of tiles over the years that I didn’t have to lay out any money there.  I should mention that each competitor must bring a full set of equipment; failure to have everything needed at hand at the start of the game may result in a forfeit.  And, of course, one must have one’s own supply of score sheets.  I was low, which meant a trip to the copy shop and, you guessed it, more money down the drain.

And I thought golfers spent a lot of money on their little obsession.  I only wish there a way I could take a deduction from my income taxes for this stuff.

There are many theories about what makes a good Scrabble player.  Some say you must have superior verbal skills, while others insist it’s all about mathematics.  Some say you must have “board vision,” while others believe the key is in balancing your rack between vowels and consonants.  Some say you must have memorized word lists, while others insist it’s mostly luck.

All of them are right.

I do not possess a photographic memory, nor do I have the time or energy to spend hours each day studying endless columns and pages of words.  My practice consists mostly of playing a lot of word games.  For more than a decade, I have participated in an ongoing Scrabble tournament with opponents from around the world, conducted entirely over email.  I play Scrabble online in realtime on a site called ISC (www.isc.ro).  I play endless games of Words with Friends on my phone when I should be doing other things.

And, yes, I’ve even dabbled some in memorizing some of the “must know” lists of “bingo stems,” those six-letter combinations that, with the addition of one additional letter, will create a rack-clearing “bingo” that rewards me with a 50-point bonus.  There are hundreds of such word lists, and I claim familiarity with only a few.  There are mnemonics, funky little phrases to jog one’s memory as to which letters go with which bingo stems.  Phrases like “Old MVP jogs with a crutch” to remember the bingos that can be made out of the tiles in SENIOR or “Prez got caught having Monica” to remind you of what you can do with TOILES.

I’m not a fanatic, and believe me, there are many who are.  Hard-driving competitors who own shoe boxes full of annotated index cards, dog-eared word books scribbled in pencil three ways to Sunday, special computer programs that feature Scrabble puzzles and warn you when you’re falling behind in your studying.

Does any of this really help you win?  Sometimes it does.  Other times, not so much.  Most of us are not mental giants like Nigel Richards, who recently won the French Scrabble championship without speaking a word of French — by spending nine weeks memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary.  We try to get a good night’s sleep, eat a decent breakfast and hope that the ol’ grey matter is firing on all cylinders.  As for me, I silently pray a lot when I’m seated at the board.  I pray that God will jog my memory to recall the right mnemonic for the right word list for the tiles that happen to be on the board and on my rack at that very moment.  I expect that I will miss a lot of the obscure words that I never had time to study.  And yet, I hope that I don’t blunder by missing the opportunity to play a high-scoring word that I’ve been over many times.  In Scrabble, as in life, sometimes you can’t recognize the gem that is staring you right in the face.

For amateurs such as myself, much of the battle lies in fighting the tyranny of the timer.  Each player starts with 25 minutes on the clock. Go over your time and you pay the penalty of 10 points for every minute or portion thereof.  This means that memorizing a few word lists doesn’t do you a lot of good unless you can instantaneously recall them.  If you don’t have a list down cold as ice, it probably won’t help you in the clutch.

I have been a Scrabble poseur for enough years now, have spent enough time faking it, that there are a few word lists I could probably recite in my sleep.  This may have something to do with the dreams.

Like last night, for instance.  In my dream, my clocking was running down and I was behind in the score.  I had almost no time left and I was sweating out my final rack, my chance to “bingo out” and win or, conversely, to choke and lose.  I knew there was a seven-letter word in my rack somewhere.  I could positively feel it in my guts.  But, try as I may, I could not come up with it.

And then I woke up, drenched in sweat, heart pounding.

It wasn’t even a particularly creative dream, as that very situation has, at one time or another, happened to most of us who travel from state to state like nomads and lay out our hard-earned money to play this silly game.

And sometimes, the right word comes to you just in the nick of time and, just like that, you go from zero to hero faster than you can say “82 and out.”

Or not.

Later, of course, you will look up your rack online and find out that there were at least three viable bingos in your rack, any one of which would have won you the game, but you, lacking the grace under pressure so touted by Hemingway, couldn’t come up with a single one.

And you’ll wonder why a loser like you bothers to play this game at all.

And then you’ll go home, and like an addict hooked on horse, you’ll try to stay away but you’ll need another fix, and when you start shaking with the DTs, you’ll slide that credit card out of your wallet and dial up the hotel for reservations for the next tournament on the circuit.  And as the weeks wind down to the big day, you’ll find yourself stealing glances at word lists on your phone when you should be working and wracking your brain because you can’t remember the anagram for TOILETS.

(It’s LITOTES.)

Greek Intervention, MTV Style

Paging Howie Mandel… You’re needed in Brussels!

The leaders of Europe spent the entire weekend playing the Euro version of “Deal or No Deal.”  When the moneymen couldn’t decide on whether and how to bail out bankrupt Greece, the heads of state took over, although they fared no better by Sunday night.

Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is there, playing the prodigal son and offering to return to the fold by allowing the European Union to tighten the screws by imposing ever more stringent austerity measures to obtain the billions of euros necessary to prevent the Greek banking system from collapsing.  This repentant attitude is a total about face from Tsipras’ position just a week ago, when at his urging, the Greek people voted “no” to increased austerity, even if it means leaving the Eurozone and returning to the drachma.

So, Alex, what’s in your case?  Looks like you’ve pulled all the high dollar amounts off the board before you even got to Brussels.  Is that a phone I hear ringing?  Uh-oh, Howie is telling you that the banker, sitting up there in his booth, has slashed his offer yet again.

The two Jimmies (Fallon and Kimmel) and whoever it is that replaced David Letterman must be having a field day with this stuff.  I don’t watch late night television (all right, you got me, I don’t watch TV at all), so someone please tell me if I’m right.

So Europe is twisting itself up into more knots than a pretzel in a German biergarten in order to keep Greece in the family and thereby to continue the charade that the European Union is indestructible.  The clownish shenanigans in Brussels remind me of those intervention shows that they used to air on MTV back when I wasted my time on such things.

Can’t you just see it?  The family gathers in Brussels, each member with a somber look on his or her face, awaiting the arrival of the bad boy, at which point they intend to pounce.  The idea is to convince him to give up his wicked ways and go to rehab or else be expelled from the family, with no hope of further assistance of any kind.  As I recall, after much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, the addict would realize that he or she has been ambushed and is now effectively trapped.

Oh, Mr. Tsipras — The limo is waiting at the curb to take you the airport.  Next stop:  Rehab.

The question, of course, is whether Greece is so far gone that it may no longer even be capable of being rehabilitated.  A third bailout in five years?  Where does it end?  Greece says it needs well over 50 billion euro (that’s a lot of zeroes) just to keep its banks going, but European finance ministers estimate that it will need a good 80 billion euro to prevent its economy from disintegrating.  Something tells me this rehabilitation will fail.  Either Greece will escape the rehab center in the middle of the night, or it will dry out and then go looking for another fix the second it graduates from the program.

In many respects, Greece reminds me of a rebellious teenager.  I remember once seeing a meme online that went something like this:  “Teenagers!  Tired of being hassled by your parents?  Get out now while you still know everything, get a job and pay your own bills!”  Hmm, come to think of it, I may have seen this on a greeting card at a truck stop on the I-5 in Santa Nella.

Greece proved its rebelliousness, much to the ire of European leaders, by putting further austerity to a vote of its populace.  Europe was not amused when 61% of Greeks backed their fearless leader’s resolve to go it alone if necessary rather than subject itself to another parade of horribles.  With the store shelves going empty, gas tanks going dry and only 60 euros per person per day available at ATMs (the banks have been shuttered for two weeks), many Greeks can’t blame Tsipras for backpedaling, begging for debt relief in return for more austerity.

But there are still plenty of Greeks who are burning up Facebook and Twitter urging Tsipras to stick to his guns, walk out of the Brussels talks and return home to Athens, come what may.  How far will this teenager go?  It’s possible that he may be willing to go couch surfing or even live on the street to avoid being told what to do.  Maybe this teen will end up hungry and cold, but at least it will be on his own terms.

The problem is that the parents are fighting with each other and can’t seem to decide what to do about their wayward child.  Meanwhile, the teen is milking the situation for all it is worth, doing his own thing even as he knows that his days under his parents’ roof are numbered.

My bet is that, despite Teen Greece’s open defiance of last week, its current contrite posture will win the day.  Looks like the teen has decided not to go homeless after all.

All that remains to be seen is whether he can follow through with his promise to abide by Mother Europe’s rules.

Greece is the Word

Greek flag

Had I the slightest bit of artistic talent, I would have headed up this post with a cartoon that looked something like this:  Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and German leader Angela Merkel would be sitting across a table from each other.  Tsipras would have an enormous goblet of Greek olives before him, which he would be slowly sharing with Merkel.  The caption would read “Two for you, one for me!”  In the next pane, Merkel would take the single olive off of Tspiras’ plate and move it to her own.

If you’ve been following the shenanigans in Greece over the past few weeks, you probably understand to what I refer.  If not, I’ll make it incredibly simple by stating that Greece is billions of euro in debt to Europe and that it has approximately zero chance of ever paying it back.

The complicated part is the politics.  Greece is broke and missed an important payment deadline at the end of June.  Should the nation’s creditors put up with this and risk setting a precedent that their loans need not be repaid?  Or should Europe refuse to extend yet another bailout to Greece, causing the nation to leave the Eurozone, quit the euro and return to its former currency, the drachma?  Perhaps that would send a message to other profligate European nations… but perhaps it would be the wrong message.  Perhaps European nations with struggling economies (think Italy, Spain, Portugal) will figure that defaulting on their obligations wouldn’t be so bad; after all, they can just go back to the lira, the peseta, the escudo.  And there, of course, goes the whole European Union.  A Greek exit from the euro, which the media has of late been referring to as a “Grexit” (eye roll here), could potentially pave the way for the whole idea of a united Europe to come tumbling down like a house of cards.  Perhaps the real lesson for Europe here is that their union is built upon the sand, not upon a rock as they would have the world believe.

It’s not as if the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and other creditors don’t have any compassion.  They offered to lend Greece more money in exchange for “austerity.”  Now, it’s not as if Greece hasn’t already been up to its eyeballs in austerity.  To even get this far, it had to cut pensions, raise taxes and lay off government employees.  This, of course, created a lot of problems, not the least of which is that the people are sick of it.  More than a quarter of working age Greeks are already unemployed.  With the country’s stagnant economy, that has little likelihood of changing anytime soon.  As for elderly citizens on fixed incomes, let’s make it even more difficult for them to survive, by golly!  That’s right — acceding to Europe’s demands would involve slashing pensions by another 40%.

Of course, Rome… er, Greece, wasn’t built in a day.  Sure, taxes have been raised, but reports are that they’re not collected particularly vigorously.  And the government is by far the largest employer in the nation.  As is common in Europe, employees receive six weeks of paid vacation annually.  And then you can retire — at age 38, with a full pension.  Must be nice, eh?  And it’s not like you need to move to Florida or Palm Springs or Costa Rica to enjoy your retirement.  That’s because you already live at the sun-kissed intersection of the Mediterranean and the blue Aegean.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some want Greece to pay dearly for its perceived economic profligacy.  Drive those spendthrifts to their knees and make them pay dearly for their sins!  Germany is seen as being the standard bearer for this camp, with Merkel being backed by Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem.

But it’s not as if Greece was about to give up without a fight.  For a while, it seemed that Greece could hold all of Europe hostage with the threat of causing its precious union to come apart at the seams.  You want to hold it together?  Bail us out!  Again.  (And again, and again.)  Europe wasn’t about to put up with this.  So Greece had to prove that its threat was real.  Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, asked the Greek parliament to put the matter to a vote of the people.  Should we cave in to austerity measures that are worse than what we have already experienced?  Or should we tell Europe to go to hell?  You know, do the Grexit thing and merrily go it alone?  Tsipras argued the latter and his parliament agreed.  The vote was slated for last Sunday.

It almost didn’t happen.  There were issues of constitutionality and procedural irregularities such as the fact that the people are supposed to be provided at least two weeks of notice prior to a vote, not the one week they received.  But the Greek Supreme Court gave the green light and voting booths were hastily assembled from Athens to Thessaloniki to the isle of Rhodos.  Tspiras went on national TV and radio and urged the people to reject austerity.  Proud Greeks, stand up to Europe!

Photos of the Greek people demonstrating against European oppression appeared around the world.  In the streets and the squares, in front of government buildings and on the islands, large OXI (“No!”) signs seemed to appear everywhere.  There was a significant “yes” faction, too, of course, those who believed that Greece should stick with the euro for better or for worse.

The vote was thought to be a dead heat.  My wife and I were out of town at a Scrabble tournament in Reno, and I followed the action on my iPhone with bated breath.  Rumor was that a “yes” vote would constitute a vote of no confidence in the ruling liberal Syriza party and would leave Tspiras with little choice but to resign.

But Tspiras did not resign.  In fact, he won.  The people agreed with him, with about 61% voting OXI.  Instead, Varoufakis, his finance minister, resigned the next day.  I had to laugh when The Washington Post reported that he lived up to his “bad boy” image when he followed his announcement by walking out of the ministry building and riding off into the sunset on his motorcycle, his wife on the back.

But all that was Sunday and Monday, ancient Greek history.  In the intervening four days, a lot has changed, notably the mood of the nation.  Having your banks shuttered for two weeks, with a daily limit on ATM withdrawals of 60 euros per day, could do it.  (It is estimated that if the banks were to reopen, the ensuing run on deposits combined with virtually nonexistent cash reserves would cause the banks to be out of money in less than an hour.)  Shortages at the supermarkets and empty gas tanks could do it.  Fear of a deep economic depression has a way of engendering another type of depression entirely.  Somewhere around Tuesday, the defiance of the Greeks seemed to wilt along with the abandoned OXI signs.

After asking his people to vote “no” to austerity, Tsipras went right ahead and renewed negotiations with Europe for another bailout in exchange for more austerity measures.  He was quoted as equating his country’s predicament as a choice between “your money or your life.”  He’d have to choose the former, he said.  Clearly, someone forgot to tell him that you’re supposed to give up your life; you need your money for old age.

The Eurogroup is expected to make a decision on the fate of Greece today.  Despite the tenacity of some hard liners, the end result is preordained.  Greece will be bailed out yet again and its people, particularly tens of thousands of poor pensioners, will suffer even more.  The whole charade of the vote, proud defiance and cries of “Oxi!” will have been for naught.  Greece has turned into a joke, and a not very funny one at that.

Greece is not the only one caving in on this, however.  Germany, which has expressed a preference for providing humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of the Greeks rather than offering another fruitless bailout, is on the losing end, too.  In fact, all of Europe loses, as they flush ever more money down the toilet.  It’s a classic no-win situation.  There are only losers.  And I will bet a nickel that, before long, Greece will be right back where it is now, only even more in debt and more beaten down by endless austerity.  Meanwhile, you can support impoverished Greece by purchasing its exports:  Ouzo, olive oil, feta cheese, delicious kalamatas, Greek yogurt.  Oops, maybe not that last one.  Aren’t Oikos and Chabani made right here in the States?

I hope that, one of these days, some creative writer turns the current Greek debacle into a play.  It might be a tragedy or a drama, both forms that the Greeks themselves invented.  On second thought, it should be a musical.  Songs could include “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” performed in front of the Acropolis by Yanis Varoufakis and his biker gang; “Eurozone Dropout,” performed by Angela Merkel; “Look at Me, I’m Alex T,” performed by Tsipras and the Syriza Seven; perhaps finishing up with a resounding rendition of “We’ll Always Be Together” by Jeroen Dijsselbloem and the Moneymen.

Greece is the word, baby.  (Shoo-bop, shoo-bop.)

Bones

Phone Bones

We have been out of town the past couple of weekends, once to Reno and once to visit my parents in the Central Valley.  From the vantage point of a New Yorker who transplanted himself to California 20 years ago, the distinguishing factor of the Golden State is that it has no distinguishing factor.

Even after two decades on the west coast, many notice a trace of a New York accent that lingers in my speech.  When I admit to my roots, I am typically asked where exactly in New York I am from.  It seems that I disappoint them when I don’t announce that I hail from Batavia, Binghamton or Buffalo.

“I was born in Manhattan,” I tell them, and they seem suitably impressed.  I don’t bother mentioning about starting out sharing a single bedroom with two sisters in a roach-infested walk-up in the Bronx.  Nor do I get into my parents’ flight to the leafy suburbs in the mid-sixties.

“Things must be really different back there,” is the usual reaction.  I disappoint once again when I say that, no, they’re not.  I’ve long resigned myself to the increasing homogeneity of America.  So much of California reminds me of New Jersey.  The grubby suburbs of Sacramento and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles are not that different than Passaic and Essex Counties in the Garden States.  Newark, California has a lot in common with Newark, New Jersey.

We travel the interstates, taking an exit periodically to fill the gas tank, fill our bellies, use the rest rooms.  Whether we’re in Oregon or Nevada or right here in northern California, the one thing that every convenience store, strip mall and restaurant seems to have in common is the bones.

I refer to the skeletal remains of the once ubiquitous pay phone.

I remember it well.  It was the summer before I went off to college, and my father and I were hitting balls on a tennis court at the local junior high.  I had never been away from home before, was quite immature at the age of 17 and began fretting about how I’d keep in touch.

“There are pay phones everywhere,” my father offered.

Oh, so true during the Carter administration.  In my freshman year, I lived in a dormitory that had one pay phone on each floor, in the elbow that separated the men’s wing from the women’s.  It was considered proper etiquette to answer it if you were nearby when it rang, and then to leave the receiver dangling while you went to bang on the door of whomever the caller requested.  I remember being tickled the day I heard it ring just as I walked by and it was actually for me!

Later, I transferred to a giant state university that was bursting at the seams with baby boomers.  Despite a veritable city of dormitories, there was no room at the inn and I ended up with a couple hundred other students in a decrepit single room occupancy hotel downtown.  There was an old cast iron black telephone in each room.  The phone had no dial (this was before the age of push button phones), as it received incoming calls only.  To place an outgoing call, one would use the pay phone in the lobby.  Alternatively, up on campus one could descend into the basement of the university library, where in a room near the huge bound volumes of obscure academic journals, was a bank of pay phones, complete with little stools on which to perch during one’s phone call.  For some reason, Sunday night seemed to be the time when everyone wanted to call home to Long Island.  After all, everyone was far too busy bar hopping on Friday and Saturday nights.

Somewhere in a dusty album there is a photo of my sister and her young ex-husband, newlyweds on their honeymoon, hugging each other while squeezed into the narrow doorway of a phone booth.

Phone booths!  Remember those?  Clark Kent relied on them to make his transformation into Superman.  The red ones I found throughout London when I visited in the mid-1980s were highly photogenic, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to use them to make a phone call.  “You can dial that yourself,” one operator unhelpfully informed me.  HOW??!!

My parents typically spend their evenings watching television, a habit I have studiously avoided for years.  To make matters worse, they don’t have cable or a satellite dish.  Thus, they receive only a few over-the-air stations from a nearby city.  The trash that they serve up to the public makes me roll my eyes.

And so, on Saturday night, after sitting on folding chairs in the driveway to watch the stars for an hour, my wife and I found ourselves sitting on my parents’ couch, watching the first Terminator movie (1984) with my mother.  My father was in the office watching documentaries about murders on another TV.  As a Californian who endured a term of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, I could not but guffaw at seeing him as a cyborg.  But it was his repeated visits to phone booths that really caused me to belly laugh.  Phone booths that not only had fully functioning phones in them, but also had phone books present (remember those?), so convenient for Arnold to look up the addresses of his next victims.

Pay phones went through slow stages of disrepair and dilapidation before they disappeared altogether.  There were a number of years during which the phone probably still worked, but nothing dangled at the end of the cord where a phone book was supposed to be.  Most pay phones seemed to be of the outdoor variety; where an actual booth still existed, the little shelf beneath the phone that was supposed to house the phone book was always empty.

When I worked as a manager in the court system, I remember making a sign and posting it on the wall of the courthouse lobby to inform visitors that the pay phone did not work and that no money should be inserted therein.  People tried anyway and lost their dimes and quarters.  I don’t know how long it had been since that particular pay phone had ceased functioning, but I do know that picking up the receiver yielded an incessant beeping and nothing more.  It took quite a lot of research, probing and pleading before I was finally able to get that pay phone removed and the empty hole in the wall plastered over.  The challenge was finding out who actually owned the phone.  None of the phone companies who I contacted were willing to take responsibility for it.  Little did I know that there were businesses that actually purchased and serviced pay phones.  I always had a vague idea that “the phone company” took care of it.  Perhaps this was true in the halcyon days before the breakup of Ma Bell.

The advent of the cell phone relegated pay phones to be just another remnant of American social history, along with the vinyl 33⅓ RPM record and the manual typewriter.

But still, like ghosts of the past, the bones remain.