An odd geologic formation known as “Duck on a Rock” at the Grand Canyon.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA
We were arguing over the meaning of the word oe.
It was the last day of the Scrabble tournament. I did fairly well on Friday and Saturday, and now it’s down to the final three games on Sunday morning.
I’m fueled up, having had my Cheerios, banana and almond milk in our hotel room. Water? Check. Long rack? Check. Pens? Check. Score sheets? Check.
After sitting atop the leader board in my division for part of the day yesterday, I dropped down to second place late. I have to win all three games today to finish in first. No pressure. Hey, I tell myself, I’ll be “in the money” even if I lose them all. After all, there are cash prizes down to sixth place.
I lose the first game to an old lady from Israel. By a lot. I wreck my spread by leaving an open S on the board at the end, allowing my opponent to bingo out. She chastises me for failing to engage in defensive blocking. Not wishing to be thrown out of the tournament right before the end, I do not utter any of the Scrabble-acceptable words that I feel would be appropriate in that situation. I square the tiles, mumble “good luck” and quickly leave the room. What I really want to do is scream.
Trounced by the blue hairs again. “Trounced” isn’t even the right word. Crumpled up like a used candy wrapper is more like it. Hemingway was right about grace under pressure. I start burping up Cheerios.
Next, I have to play the woman who’s been sitting in the number one position for the last few games. That is, since I’ve been unceremoniously knocked off my throne. Okay, I figure, I must be in third now. But I’ll probably lose to her, go down to fourth, and then finish up in either third or fifth. That depends on with whom I am paired for the final “king of the hill” round.
I return from the rest room and find myself standing in the aisle at my opponent’s table. Her previous opponent is conducting a “post mortem” (commenting on what went wrong and right during the game), marking up her tally sheet, slowly gathering her belongings before she finally moves on and I get to sit down.
I ask my opponent where she’s from. (It’s polite to be friendly to your opponent, even though you want to place a curse on her rack, her tiles, and her mother’s teapot. Easy there, cowboy. She wants the same for you, don’t you know.)
Florida, she tells me, near Fort Lauderdale. I tell her about my grandparents, my aunt and my wife’s friend, all who hail from the area. We figure out who goes first and shake the tile bag. That’s when she asks if I would mind if she runs to the rest room.
“Of course, go right ahead,” I say. Some things you don’t mess with, regardless of the fate you might wish on your opponent. You don’t want anyone peeing in their pants. Not to mention that such a thing would be horrible karma. Next time it will be me who is doing the pee-pee dance and begging pardon of someone sitting across the table.
“I might be a little while,” she warns me.
“That’s fine,” I reply. “Take your time.” What do I care? More time to relax. If I’m just going to lose to this shark, there’s no point in rushing it.
I close my eyes for a minute and remember yesterday, when I, too, had to use the rest room between rounds and took a bit longer than might be expected. As I exited the rest room, here comes the director. “Your opponent was worried about you,” he said. Can you believe that the director was actually headed to the men’s room to track me down in a stall? I had to bite my tongue to avoid blurting out “my opponent doesn’t give a shit about me!” (Shit being the operative word when you have the kind of GI problems that I do.). On second thought, I should have said, “Oh, sorry, director, I was busy jacking off!” Grrrr!
I open my eyes and the chair across the table from me remains empty. All around me, I hear tile bags being shaken and word scores being announced. Here comes the director.
“Who’s your opponent?” I tell him. Then I fill him in on the details. “She went to the rest room. She said she might be a little bit.”
The director starts my opponent’s clock and tells me to neutralize it when she shows up. About a minute later, she does. Here comes the director.
It’s not like she should have been surprised. The rule about starting your clock if you’re late was posted in the tournament flyer. “Didn’t you tell him I was in the rest room?” asks my opponent accusingly the moment Mr. Director leaves the table. I tell her I did. “Why didn’t you tell him I’d be a while?” Now she’s just sounding whiny. I assure her that I relayed the message and that, as far as I’m concerned, she can take as long a rest room break as she likes. I don’t tell her that I’ve been there.
Phoenix, about 7 or 8 years ago. Same director. I was having a particularly bad GI day and ended up stuck in the rest room between games. The director started the clock in my absence; upon my return, I found myself left with just ten minutes to play a 25-minute game. I was so angry that I rushed through the game on pure adrenaline, practically throwing my tiles onto the board the moment my opponent hit the clock. I won, too, to the surprise of the elderly gentleman from L.A. sitting across the table from me.
I thought of this recently while watching World Cup speed skating from Stavanger, Norway on TV. The announcer described the demeanor of one of the Dutch competitors as one of “barely suppressed rage.” Uh-huh, I thought. I get it. The secret I know is that its application is not limited to physical pursuits. I’ve seen how it works with mental ones, too.
But here, at the Grand Canyon, I know that losing just one minute off the clock would have little effect on my first-place opponent. What did not occur to me until later is that having the director start your clock in your absence presents a psychological disadvantage. It may not have been a serious psych-out in this case, but I do think my opponent’s nerves were rattled. I kept the major bingo lanes shut down and generally played in a more defensive style, having been schooled in spades in the previous game. My opponent is behind and begins grasping at straws. She plunks down the phony OUTWRINGS, which I promptly challenge off. I managed to pull off a win.
I head back to the rest room while waiting for the pairings for the final match of the tournament to be posted. The loo is disgusting, as always. A lot of these guys seem to have chosen Scrabble over archery as their chosen pastime simply because they can’t shoot straight. I step my shoes into a puddle of sticky pee as I approach the urinal. I see guys turn around and walk out as soon as they finish their business. “Wash your hands, pig!” is what I’m thinking. Some of my fellow Scrabblers don’t appear to be fully socialized. I wonder if they have mama issues.
In the playing room, there is a hubbub of conversation as we wait. There is talk of flights and airports and shuttles. I mention that we drove all the way from northern California and had a tire blow out on Interstate 40 in the middle of the desert. “You’re hardcore!” opines one of my fellow players. I roll my eyes, but I guess I am. A lot of us move heaven and earth and spend thousands of dollars per year just to play this silly game.
Someone alludes to “the incident.” The word the director used in telling us about it during the pre-games announcement that morning.
If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, you may not appreciate just how remote a location it is. This place is truly in the middle of nowhere. I suppose that helps to preserve its natural beauty. But for those of us who have no interest in camping and who generally prefer to experience the great outdoors through works of spectacular photography, the nine-building Maswik Lodge is just a bit out of our comfort zones. My wife’s attitude has understandably deteriorated from mildly annoyed to frustrated to truly pissed off in the last three days. She can work from wherever we are (have laptop, will travel), but depends upon having a reliable internet connection at all times. Unfortunately, the connectivity up here is a joke. Uploads and downloads proceed at a snail’s pace. Email sent first thing in the morning doesn’t arrive until evening. My wife’s work is backed up as it is, and she is about ready to tear her hair out. “If you come to a tournament here again, you’re going by yourself!” she informs me.
It doesn’t help that the food here, well, just plain sucks. Served cafeteria style, you take a tray and walk around to the various food stations. As a vegan, I have the privilege of standing in one line for a baked potato, in another for some black beans, and in a third for a Tepa burger on a gluten-free bun. By the time you make it to the cashier’s station, most of your food is cold. Visitors get to pay premium prices for the privilege of queuing up like cattle for cold food. And then they don’t even get your order right. “This is the weirdest looking veggie burger I have ever seen,” is my first thought upon applying mustard to a grey-looking patty that strikes me as what airline food must look like in a Communist country. I take one bite and spit it out. Let’s just say that the taste of dead animal flesh is unmistakable. I get up and look for a manager, who is already fumbling his way through an apology to another dissatisfied customer. When it’s my turn, he explains that he’s been having a lot of problems with his interns from Thailand. Apparently, they don’t know the difference between a Tepa burger and a turkey burger. Then the manager is summoned to the table next to mine to take a complaint from one of my fellow Scrabble players. She had ordered a Cuban and was served a Reuben. Not that there’s a language barrier or anything.
And then there is the cold. And the dark. At around 7,000 feet in elevation, it gets bloody cold here in the November night. Granted, it’s not exactly sunny and 75 in northern California this time of year, but temps down in the 20s are a bit out of our league. The slightest breeze carries a bitter bite that chills you right through. As for the darkness, the dozens of miles between the park and the nearest city lights render the nights pitch black. Walking down the road from the main building to one’s accommodations, you can barely see the hand in front of your face. We use the flashlight function on our iPhones to see where to step. Others, however, are not so lucky. I suppose disaster was inevitable. Two Scrabblers, walking back to their rooms in the thick blackness. One woman misses the curb and falls. Her face gets pretty scraped up. Her companion bends down to help her, and she falls, too. Breaks her collar bone. Has to be airlifted out to a hospital in Flagstaff. The director tells us he will visit our unfortunate colleague in the hospital on his way home to Phoenix.
Back at my table, the discussion turns to the pluralization of “vowel twos” (2-letter words consisting solely of vowels) — which words take an S and which don’t. Ae? No, it’s an interjection, an exclamation. Ai? Yes, it’s a three-toed sloth. Oi? No, another interjection (although I know from playing online that ois is perfectly acceptable in the Collins dictionary, used by Scrabble players in most of the world outside the U.S. and Canada). What about oe? Does it take an S? “Yes,” I immediately chime in. “It’s a bird.” I detect a dirty look shot in my direction. “From New Zealand,” I add, authoritatively. A fellow player seems pleased, declaring that she will henceforth think of a bird whene’er she sees the word oe plunked on the board, and will know that it can be pluralized.
“No!” cries the player seated next to me. “It’s a wind!” She jumps up and runs to her travel bag in the corner to rummage for her Scrabble dictionary. Bird or wind, we’ve already established that it takes an S. But her mission is to prove that she’s right and I’m wrong.
She plops back down beside me and riffles the pages, seeking the letter O listings. Oe, she shows me, “a Faeroese whirlwind.” That smug look of victory.
“I stand corrected,” I mumble sheepishly, wondering where on earth I got the idea that an oe is a Kiwi ornithological species.
The final game gets underway and I am desperate to win. I must be in second place after winning the last game, I figure. A victory here could put me in first place and net me a $500 prize. I play defensively again, hoping it pans out just like before. Between the two of us, we manage to block most of the bingo lanes and effectively shut down the board. Neither of us is able to get off a bingo in this low-scoring game. But my opponent is able to lay down QUITS for 61 points, handing her the win.
I am sorely disappointed, my first-place dreams dashed. I try to console myself by thinking that I can probably still take third. Someone had borrowed my clock, and I track it down after the score slip is turned in. I pack up my stuff and walk out into the vestibule to take a look at the leader board. Games are still going on, so I know that what is posted represents the state of the tournament after the penultimate game, not the final. The director has drawn a line across the chart below the sixth-place player, to indicate that the money winners lie above that line. My name appears below that line. In estimating my standing, I didn’t take into account the predation done to my spread in the first game of the day.
I am totally disgusted. I buttonhole the director to thank him for a great tournament and beg off the award ceremony, pleading a very long drive home ahead of me. I grab the handle on my heavy Scrabble bag and pull it through the lobby and out to the curb, where I lean against a wall. I take in the bracing air as I text my wife to tell her I’m done. She tells me she’s in the cafeteria having a sandwich and asks me to join her. But I don’t want to go back in there. No way. When I am upset, I cry. So I ask my wife to come on out whenever she’s done. A few minutes later, she shows up with half a sandwich and fries in a Styrofoam take-out container. We walk to the car and then head south, out of the park, stopping in Tusayan, the first town, for me to stuff my face with baked potatoes, care of the drive-through at Wendy’s.
After a 12-hour drive home, the next day I look up oe in each of the dictionaries in my collection. It takes me a while to find it.
First, I consult my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate with the red cover, a sentimental favorite of mine despite its age. My parents gave it to me around the time I started high school, and today it has a place of honor on my desk at work. Nothing. I then check my employer’s standard, the American Heritage. Still nothing. I suppose oe was deemed a sufficiently esoteric word that it didn’t make the cut in the editing process.
I check my gigantic Random House Webster’s Unabridged, where I do find oe listed — as an interjection meaning “oy.” Well, that’s surely not going to take an S! Next, I go to my Chambers, my British dictionary. OE is listed as an abbreviation for Old English, but that’s it. What am I to make of this phantom word that has somehow made its way into the Scrabble dictionary? It’s a bird! It’s a wind! It’s Superman! Uh, it doesn’t exist?
Finally, I reach for the last dictionary on my bookshelf, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 1997). And lo and behold, there it is, oe in all its glory. It is indeed a Faeroese whirlwind.
I feel stupid, but not as stupid as I do the following day when the tournament results are posted online. Apparently, I ended up in seventh place, just out of the money. However, the woman in sixth place won a $200 cash prize for finishing highest above seed. Due to a rule that players can’t win more than one cash prize, the sixth place award went to the seventh place finisher, yours truly.
And then I feel stupider still when, two days later, my winnings arrive in the mail in the form of a check for $150. The attached note states that it is for “highest place finisher in the lower half.” The director asks that I email him to let him know that the check arrived.
I do so. I don’t mention that I didn’t finish in the lower half.
We were surprised to encounter an elk at the side of the road at Desert View, near the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.