Nine Days, or Wound Care for the Clueless

scrabble-cat

Sumi, my first Scrabble partner at last week’s tournament.  I think his name is supposed to sound Japanese, although to me it just sounds litigious.

Monday

It rained most of last night and it’s still raining.  The Cosumnes River is expected to overflow (again) by Wednesday if this keeps up.  The weather people say this will go on all week.

My second day out of work.  I am missing a big conference that I organized.  Tomorrow, I am supposed to train staff over in the Napa Valley, but I have sent a subordinate in my place.  I try not to think about work too much, instead concentrating on what I can do to help my wife.

It’s a lot easier not having to apply those bandages every couple of hours.  The disposable Depends are very convenient and I thank God for them.  Unfortunately, my wife’s feet are starting to swell.  I send an email to her doctor but receive no response.

My wife’s cousin comes to visit, bringing along larger pairs of Crocs and some slippers that make it more comfortable for my wife to walk around.  More importantly, however, she is going to help my wife learn to inject insulin.  At the hospital, they found that her diabetes is out of control and that this was the likely cause of her infection.  We’ve both been on oral blood sugar lowering medication for some time, but we had no idea it had gotten this bad.  I just had my own A1C read a few days ago and was still within a reasonable range.

Typically, my wife checks her blood sugar only once in a while.  I don’t do it at all.  Sharps of any kind freak me out.  I have had nightmares about syringes and needles since childhood.  So now we have two types of insulin on hand for my wife, slow acting for bedtime and fast acting for before meals.  Now she gets to check her blood sugar and inject insulin throughout the day.  I pinch myself but am unable to wake up from my nightmare.

While my wife is getting an injection lesson, I head out to do the errands.  Gas up the car, visit two supermarkets, pick up mail from the post office, return a large load of items to Walmart.  My nieces had gone shopping to pick up some supplies for my wife on the day she was discharged from the hospital.  Unfortunately, most of what they bought turned out to be unneeded or didn’t work for us.

The rain continues to fall and we wonder if the power will go out when the winds pick up.  Insulin, I have learned, must be refrigerated.

I drive around town with the wipers going, getting wet at every stop.  My wife usually does most of the driving, which suits me fine.  I have never enjoyed driving and have never been very good at it.  For decades, this was an embarrassment to my father, who had a long career as a driver education teacher.  My reluctance to drive was something of a family joke in my younger years.  Eventually, I got over it to some extent, even driving across country by myself on one occasion.  But when I think of the number of auto accidents I have had over the years, and the fact that my wife (who has been driving longer than I have) has never had an accident, I am glad that she does most of the driving.  So to head out in the rain, among drivers who are not used to inclement weather and are hydroplaning speed demons, is right on the very edge of my comfort zone.  My limited driving experience in the area inevitably results in a wrong turn that finds me in a part of town with which I am unfamiliar.  I turn around, stop and map every stop on my phone after that.

But I am in luck today.  My niece has called me for help in applying for a job online.  Cantaloupes are on sale for a dollar each at Sprouts.  I find a handicapped spot directly in front of the Walmart entrance, along with a conveniently located shopping cart to haul in all the returns.  I lean against the cart in the lobby, my jacket dripping, while the clerk takes forever to remove each item from the cart and then from their bags, scanning everything individually and issuing red stickers from his handheld point of sale device.  Then, of course, I still have to stand in line at the customer service counter and then wait while the clerk examines each item yet again.

Then it’s back out in the rain.

 

Sunday

8:30 am.  We wake up to the phone ringing.  It’s my wife’s doctor, calling a bit early.  We relate our woes, letting her know that we have only one bandage left, enough for one wound dressing change.  She suggests that we come into the clinic, open until 12:30 pm, no appointment necessary.  The nurse will check the incisions for signs of infection and will supply us with bandages.

Up and at ‘em.  Shower, clean and dry the incisions, apply the last bandage.  Out the door and head across town.  We’ve been to the clinic several times, as this is where I typically have my blood drawn.  We park in our usual place and start searching around for the clinic.  Most of the departments that we pass are dark and empty, befitting a Sunday morning.  We walk and walk, quite slowly, with my poor wife holding onto the wall.  We had no idea that we had parked at the wrong end of the complex.

We stop to rest on a bench, get a drink of water.  Elevator up to the third floor.  Walk some more.  We arrive at the clinic, check in, sit and wait.  Eventually, we are called, only to be told that we were supposed to have an appointment (despite what the doctor told us), that they have no supplies at that location and that there was no one to check the incisions.  Go to the emergency room, they tell us.

Understandably, my wife is angry.  We hoof it all the way back to the car.  We have a folded bedsheet in the car’s hatchback that we use as a liner.  I pull it out so that my wife has something soft to sit on.  I drive to the hospital.  Another car zips into the last available parking space in the emergency room lot.  A man relaxes in the car, cigarette dangling out of his month.  We wait for someone to leave so that we can park.  We spy a Staxi abandoned in the parking lot.  I grab it and give my wife a push across the lot and into the emergency room.  We wait in one line, then another line, then sit and wait to be called.  We contemplate a second emergency room copay in a week.

A nurse takes us in back, checks my wife’s blood pressure and send us back out to the waiting room until an exam room becomes available.  When we are finally called, I try not to be rattled by the moans and groans of the occupants of the other bays.  One woman yells out in pain every few minutes.  We are visited by a doctor, a nurse, a patient care technician.  They agree to hunt around for the bandage size we need.  Their initial search turns up empty, and they agree to check the fourth floor.  A few minutes later and, voilà, a tech shows up with a grand total of four bandages.  We could just purchase them online, we realize, at a price of $83 for eight bandages.  One such package would last us a day or so.

The nurse recounts how his wife had a similar incision and drainage due to an infection.  She used large size Depends rather than expensive bandages, he tells us.  Another alternative, he suggests, would be to use sterile gauze pads.  He asks me to glove up and try it out.  The first set of disposable gloves doesn’t begin to fit my distended hands.  He then exchanges them for a larger size that I am just barely able to pull on.  I soon realize that this exercise is for naught, as the nurse intends to apply the gauze himself.  To do so, he uses a large quantity of medical tape, crisscrossing the gauze in every direction.  This is going to be a doozy to remove later, I think, and I am right.  I found myself trying to release her from all that tape quickly when she needed to hit the toilet.  It was a painful experience for her, and I amazed that I managed to avoid pulling her skin off with the tape.

Next stop is Walgreen’s for a box of Depends.

 

Saturday night

9:30 on a Saturday night.  I’m calling around to the few pharmacies that are still open to try to find sterile bandages that are the right size to cover my wife’s surgical wound.  No one has heard of this type of bandage.  No one has another brand in this size.

At discharge this afternoon, the hospital gave my wife seven bandages to take home.  They did not tell us that this supply would not even get us through the night, never mind for the next couple of weeks.

Nor did they show me how to apply said bandages to my wife, nor did they explain how to clean the incisions.  I get to figure this out by myself.  Yay!

I call Kaiser for help, listen to inane recordings (I can now tell you quite a bit about their women’s hot flash and menopause clinic, as well as about their weight loss meal replacement program) and get transferred to three different people before I finally get disconnected while on hold.  I think:  Is this what socialized medicine is like in the rest of the world?

Kaiser calls back, apologizes for the disconnection.  Can we talk to your wife to make sure that we have permission to talk to you?  HIPAA (or “HIPAApotamus,” as one of the hospital nurses put it yesterday) has got to be one of the most annoying laws ever passed by Congress.  The nurse attempts to troubleshoot, seemingly aghast that, in all her years of service, she has never been asked such a question.  She suggests we return to the hospital floor from which my wife was discharged to ask for more.  (They had told us that we were given all the bandages they had.)  She suggests checking a medical supply store.  (On a Saturday night?)  We settle on a telephone appointment with a doctor in the morning.  By happy serendipity, it’s my wife’s regular doctor.

My wife points out that we have nothing to complain about, reminding me that we just talked to a health care professional on a Saturday night and will have a consultation with her doctor on a Sunday morning.  I step down from my high horse.

 

Thursday

My wife has been in the hospital all week.  I have been attending mandatory offsite training all week.  This turns out to be quite a combination.

I arrive at the training site across town an hour early to avoid traffic.  I dump my grits packets into my bowl and head to the break room to apply boiling hot water.  Then back to the training classroom, where I have some Earth Balance vegan margarine stashed in my bag for application to said grits.

I text a good morning to my wife.  She has had a bad night in the hospital, vomiting due to medication being pushed on her when she hadn’t eaten anything.  I can’t say that I blame her.  The so-called food there looks and smells positively disgusting.

When the trainer sends us on a break at 10:30, I check my phone and find that my wife has texted.  She has to have surgery tonight.  I try not to panic.  What kind of surgery??  She does not respond.

Lunchtime, I text my mother-in-law.  “Mom, are you coming???”  Yes, she says, along with my sister-in-law and my niece.  When class lets out at 4, I inform the trainer that I will not be present tomorrow for the last day of training due to my wife’s surgery.  She tells me I can make it up later.  I head straight for the hospital, where I learn the nature of the surgery and the plans to do it between 6 and 7 pm.  My wife’s family shows up, but when 8:00 arrives and still no surgery, they are ready to leave.  They have a 90-minute drive home and have to work tomorrow.  They disappear.  High-ho, the merry-o, the cheese stands alone.

The surgeon has been delayed, we are informed.  The previous procedure has taken much longer than expected.  The surgeon has to rest a little before performing the next one.

At 10 pm, orderlies arrive with a gurney to take my wife off to pre-op, all the way across in the other hospital building.  They walk fast and I can’t keep up with them.  It’s okay; I have a general idea of where I am going.  Turn right, turn left, turn right.  I am used to this part now.  Head outside.  Cross a bridge, then a roadway, then back inside near the emergency room.  Turn right, walk through a long ward, turn left, turn right.  Now I am lost and at the mercy of signs directing me to the appropriate elevator.  I make it to the surgical waiting room.  There is one other person there.  High overhead, near the ceiling, the TV is on.  I am unable to locate a remote to shut off the noise.

I check my phone periodically, but leave it off as much as possible, as it is quickly running out of charge.  I do not want to have a dead phone if I have to contact someone fast.  I should have had the forethought to take my niece’s phone charger, left back in the other hospital building, plugged into my wife’s IV pole.

Midnight.  I don’t know what to do with myself.  I have been up since 5:00 this morning and try not to fall asleep.  I try to ignore the idiotic drivel on the TV.  I walk down the hall, walk back.  I flip through the magazines.  TimeNational Geographic.  Most of them about a year old.

There is a cart full of books and I peruse the titles.  Mostly Reader’s Digest condensed novels (which I refuse to read as a matter of principle) and paperback romances.  I settle for one of the few other items, a legal thriller by Brad Meltzer, The First Counsel.  I move to the other side of the room and read the first couple of chapters.  Some guy is dating the president’s daughter and they go tearing up D.C. on a Saturday night in an ultimately successful effort to shake the Secret Service detail.  A lot of reckless (but not wreckless) driving is involved.  Also a visit to a gay bar and a drop-off of a big stack of cash in a manila envelope out in a remote area.  Poorly written and boring, I think.  I set the book aside.

About the time that Jimmy Kimmel appears on the tube, the phone rings at the deserted information desk in the corner of the surgery waiting room.  My sole companion rushes to pick it up.  He listens for a moment, then starts yelling.  Something about that he should have been informed earlier that they were going to transfer his wife elsewhere.  He slams down the receiver and storms off toward the elevators.

Now I am alone.  Just me and the year-old mags and the romance novels and Jimmy.  At one in the morning, I get the bright idea to use the info desk phone to call the recovery room and see if I can find out anything about what’s become of my wife.  After all, the phone number is right there, laminated for all to see.  Sure enough, they tell me my wife is in recovery and that I can come down.  They give me directions, which are either lamentably poor, or perhaps I am just a dunderhead who can’t follow directions.  I try several wrong doors and hallways before I find the right place and knock on the big double doors.  A staff member comes out to get me.  I ask why they hadn’t called the surgical waiting room and I am told that my wife just came out of surgery a few minutes before.  She looks pretty good for just having been cut, I think.  The anesthesia has not made her sick.  A doctor comes by and gives me the rundown.  My wife asks for water, and it is a while before I can get anyone to bring some.  We are told that she can be wheeled back to her hospital room in about half an hour.  It is now two in the morning and I have been up for 21 hours.  My wife tells me to go home and get some sleep.

I head back out the surgery area and down the elevator, only to realize that I am in an unfamiliar location, likely way on the opposite side of the hospital from where I am parked.  I find a hospital map that appears to confirm my suspicions.  I sit down on a bench for a few minutes before I begin my hike.

After navigating a number of corridors, I regain my bearings.  I sit down by a deserted Starbucks coffee station and call my parents.  Mom said to call and let her know how the surgery went, regardless of the hour.  I tell her all about it.  I confess that I hope I can keep my eyes open long enough to get home.

When I arrive at the final door out to the parking lot, it will not open.  “Oh, come on,” I mutter to myself.  This is supposed to be an automatic door.  Who am I going to be able to find to help me at 2 a.m.?  I notice a sign:  “In emergency, push to open.”  Oh, man, I don’t want to do that, I think.  Alarms and crap are going to go off.

But they cooperate.  I am shocked when the doors fly apart and I am outside in the damp, night air, just a few feet from my waiting vehicle.

 

Wednesday

This is my wife’s second hospital stay of our married life.  Last time was nine years ago, when we lived in Fresno and she landed at St. Agnes Hospital (referred to locally as “St. Agony” or “St. Anguish”) after contracting a virulent strain of flu.  They stuck her in the quarantine ward, fearing that it was the dreaded H1N1, which it turned out not to be.  I’m hoping that the script is more or less the same this time, complete with a prompt discharge, some pills to take home and a rapid recovery.  But I know that this time is different.  I can feel it.

The quarantine ward at Saint A’s was annoying for visitors, who were required to don a gown, hat and gloves (an outfit you can really sweat in).  For the patient, however, it was nice and quiet.  The 1 West building at Kaiser Hospital in Sacramento could be described as the diametric opposite.  Daytime and nighttime blend into a haze of 24-hour alarms, beeping IVs, patients yelling, nurses and patient care technicians coming and going.  Always someone talking and some machine going off, demanding attention.

Across the hall, a homeless man with apparent mental issues is giving every staff member a hard time.  He raises his voice, argues with everyone, complains about everything and uses the F-word in place of every comma and period.  Tonight, he is griping vociferously that the staff had promised to put a second dinner tray, cornbread chicken, aside for him.  Now he’s hungry again and he wants it.  Unfortunately, the staff can’t seem to locate it.  He makes his anger known repeatedly and loudly.  It is past dinnertime and the staff attempt to placate him by offering whatever leftover trays they can find.  No chicken, but he can have fish.  Oh, but he doesn’t want fish.  After ten minutes of arguing, he tells them to just bring him everything they have.  When his food arrives, he wants salt.  He’s not supposed to have salt.  He starts yelling, finally accepts some Mrs. Dash.  My wife informs me that, earlier in the day, he had become violent, throwing an applesauce so hard that it caromed across the corridor and into her room.

Days later, after my wife comes home and I find myself struggling to clean the incisions and apply bandages, she asks me if I’d rather that she return to the hospital.  I stutter, not knowing how to respond.  No, I do not want you to still be in that hellhole where it’s impossible to get a moment’s peace and quiet, not to mention a few hours of sleep.  Yes, I want you to go back to the hospital where there are people who know what the hell they are doing.  I am so afraid of the incisions getting infected due to my incompetence.  Maybe I’m selfish because I’m lonely here without you and I’m so glad you’re home.  Maybe I’m selfish because this is so much work and I’d rather someone else do it.  Either way, I’m a terrible husband.

Eventually, hospital staff and the home health nurse tell me I’m doing a fine job.  Talk about dumb luck.

Tuesday

The trainer starts today’s class with an ice breaker.  Everyone is supposed to stand up and tell one thing that’s happened within the past 24 hours for which he or she is grateful.  We hear stories of good news at work, good grades reported by grandchildren, sports victories.  When it’s my turn, I say “I don’t usually drive, so I’m grateful that I was able to find this place today with only one wrong turn.”

I expected that my wife was going to give me a ride all week.  I did not expect that she would end up sick in the hospital.

I leave the house at a quarter after six, having mapped the location on my phone.  I try to remember my landmarks.  Go past the 80 freeway, past Grand Avenue and turn left on Arcade.  Get on the Capitol City Expressway and stay in the far right lane.  Get off at the 160 freeway and then off again at Canterbury.  Turn right on Leisure Lane, right on Slobe, left on Commercial, right on Lathrop.  Yes, I am grateful for having found this place without getting lost.

After class, I head back to the hospital.  I have mapped it, but I find myself in the wrong lane by the mall and have to find a place to turn around.  I won’t make that mistake again, I think.

I know from yesterday’s experience that there is no place to park anywhere near the out building where my wife’s hospital bed is located.  I also know that I don’t want to have to do that big outdoor walk over the bridge again.  So I park near the medical office building, which is connected to the main hospital, but not to the building where my wife is.  It’s got to be the better part of a mile walk over there, I think.  I’ll just have to walk slowly and do the best I can.  Follow the signs.  Too bad Google Maps won’t help me with the inside of hospitals.

And then:  Just as I get out of my car, I hear my name called.  It’s the husband of my wife’s cousin.  Cousin is visiting and hubby decided to take a walk and figure out whether there’s a faster way to get from the car to my wife’s hospital room.  I tell him I need to try to walk inside as much as possible and that I was hoping to find a staff member who would give me a push over there in one of the hospital’s personal transport chairs, known as a Staxi.  “I’ll push you,” he immediately tells me.  “God is good,” I mumble.  We walk to the information desk, he installs me in a Staxi, and in five minutes he has pushed me all the way over to my wife’s room on the other side of the complex.

Late at night, when I leave my wife’s side, I am not so lucky.  There is no cousin’s husband and no staff member to help me.  I get to hoof it solo, slow and steady like the tortoise.

 

Monday

It’s my first day of a pain-in-the-neck weeklong mandatory training class.  You’re supposed to take this class as soon as you’re promoted to manager.  After two years as a manager here (and a couple of decades elsewhere), someone finally figured out that I hadn’t had the class yet.  Busted.

Actually, this is only the first half of a two-week training class.  I am scheduled for the other half at the end of the month.  To make matters worse, we have a statewide conference on the very day that I return to work.  Fortunately, I have set it all up in advance.  Then there are deadlines that I must meet and training trips that I have to take.  The timing is very bad indeed.

I don’t do much driving around town and have no idea how to get to the out-of-the-way neighborhood where the training center is located.  My wife has not been feeling too well, but she is familiar with the lay of the land (having grown up here) and drives me over.  She seemed to be feeling a bit better on Saturday, when we had a big family gathering at a restaurant in honor of my birthday.  Yesterday, she seemed tired, although she woke up with me and cooked some food for me to take to the Scrabble tournament in Berkeley.  This morning, she was upset that I had not woken up early enough and that I might be late to my first day of training due to the traffic.  We just make it in time.

Since my wife was upset with me, I paid attention to how she zigzagged from one side road and freeway to the next to get to the training center.  You know, just in case she were to decide she didn’t want to drive me anymore.  I had no idea how important this would end up being.  I had no idea that she’d be in the hospital for the next week.

When the trainer sends us on our first break of the day, my wife texts to let me know that she was able to schedule an 11 a.m. appointment with her doctor.  Same-day appointments are hard to come by, and even more so with one’s own doctor.  She asks me whether she should go.  Yes, please go, I tell her.  I’ve been telling her that the boil that’s come up on her skin looks infected and needs to be checked.

At lunch, I call her.  She tells me she vomited in the exam room and the doctor said she had a fever and needed to go to the emergency room.  She was on her way there.  I wonder to myself whether she’ll be admitted.

When I don’t hear from her for the rest of the day and she doesn’t show to pick me up, I know what has happened.  I call the hospital, endure the inevitable transfers from person to person, and eventually reach someone in the emergency room who informs me that she is still there.  “She’s on the sicker side,” I’m told, and will be admitted.  Problem:  I am in a distant part of the city with no transportation.  As bad as I am with anything technological, I manage to figure out how to download Uber on my phone.  Soon, a ride to the hospital is headed in my direction.

The driver is very kind, driving around the emergency room parking lot until I find our car.  He even helps me load my belongings into the trunk.  I give him a tip out of the few dollars in cash that I have on me.

I check in with security, receive a stick-on badge and am pointed in the direction of the bay where I find my wife.  Due to the fever and infection, she has been admitted.  They are just about to wheel her over to a hospital room in another building.  “We’re going outside,” the orderly tells her.  “Are you going to be warm enough, or do you need another blanket?”  Outside??!!  You mean these buildings are not connected?  What the heck do they do when it’s pouring down rain?  “This is California,” I’m told when I ask.  “We love the fresh air.”

“Idiots,” I think.  “This would never happen back in New York.”

I can’t keep up with the gurney, despite the fact that the orderly stops several times when I fall way behind.  This is quite a walk.  Head outside.  Down a little path, across a bridge, then into another building to wind around more corridors.  About 30 minutes later, my mother-in-law shows up with her daughter, granddaughter and little great-granddaughter.  My wife is hooked up to an IV, on heavy-duty antibiotics, fluids, insulin.  The family tells me to go home and sleep, they have it under control.

Sleep sounds good to me, but it means that I have to find my way back to the car.  I hadn’t the forethought to leave a trail of bread crumbs, Hansel and Gretl style.  I’m told that I have to go outside and walk over a big bridge to reach the emergency room parking lot where our car is.  Now, I don’t do well walking outdoors.  If there is the slightest bit of wind, I can’t breathe.  My agoraphobia kicks in and I panic.  How the heck am I going to do this???

You have to do it, kid, I tell myself.  You need to be an adult and take care of your sick wife, not make a scene.  “What’s the worst that can happen?” I think.  After all, I’m at a hospital.

I head up over the tall bridge, trying not to hyperventilate.  There’s barely a hint of a breeze, which is very much in my favor.  On the other side, I see the emergency room entrance and a large parking lot.  I wonder whether this is where the Uber driver dropped me off.  And I wonder whether I should go sit in the emergency room for a while to fortify myself for the remainder of this outdoor walk.  No, I tell myself, I must be almost there.  I see the edge of a building, and as I come around the corner, there’s the car.  I made it.

 

Sunday

Berkeley is about 80 miles west of Sacramento via Interstate 80.  Eighty on 80.  This will be my second Scrabble tournament there, my first having been just recently, on New Year’s Day.  I performed very poorly on that occasion, having lost every game.  But I’m a glutton for punishment and I’m back for more.

To me, competitive Scrabble is a lot like playing the video poker machines in Reno, another pastime I enjoy.  It’s not about winning or losing.  It’s about playing the game.

Although I’m not a very good driver and am not good with directions, this is one trip even I can pull off successfully.  The tournament is at the director’s house.  Our homes are each about a mile from the freeway.  Only the long stretch of I-80 stands between me and a good fight over a Scrabble board.

Last time, I had to lug two heavy bags up the host’s steep stairway.  One bag carries my Scrabble board and equipment, the other my food.  There is always plenty of food at a house tournament.  When you’re vegan, however (and gluten-free to boot), you know to bring your own.  I had a hard time pulling those bags up, one at a time, step by step.

I didn’t really know what to expect.  I found out about the New Year’s tournament from a bare mention in an email sent out by another director.  It was our host’s first time directing, and she didn’t publish the particulars in advance.

Now, however, she’s learned by experience.  An email went out to participants with all the details.  Last time, there were an odd number of competitors, and most of us had to have a “bye” (sit out a round).  During my bye, I made the mistake of sitting on my host’s sofa in her living room.  I sunk in and couldn’t get up.  Fortunately, our host is a personal trainer who is strong and extremely physically fit.  She grabbed my arm and pulled with all her might.  She nearly fell over backward, but she got me up.

This time, as soon as I entered, our host informed me that she had set up a playing room downstairs in addition to the upstairs tables.  Would I perhaps like to stay downstairs?  Hmm, and avoid lugging everything up that flight of stairs?  Oh, yes!

The host had warned attendees in advance that she has cats, but that they stay downstairs.  One of her feline friends, an amiable orange tabby, took a liking to me as soon as I sat down and set up my Scrabble board.  After the obligatory scratch of the belly and behind the ears, he decided that I’d do just fine as a Scrabble partner.

And so I started off the tournament with a smile, and even managed to win one game this time around.  I enjoyed munching on the soy meat and potatoes that my wife had prepared that morning.  Happy birthday to me!

I had no idea that I’d spend the rest of the week going back and forth to the hospital.

 

Palabras Con Amigos

no es exit

I know the word “exit” is good in Spanish.  I have the proof:  Here it is on a Spanish sign in a restaurant!  Why won’t the Spanish version of Words With Friends accept it?

I’ve been playing Words With Friends on my phone for a couple of years now.  I usually have about a dozen games in progress at any given time.  Yes, I sneak in turns at work.  Yes, I check my games when I wake up in the middle of the night.  Yes, I play in the car on the way to work in the morning.

Alright, so I’m addicted.  Don’t judge.

Anyone know of a good 12-step group in northern California?

I play in very competitive rated Scrabble tournaments all over the west coast.  On some level, WWF (not the wrestlers) seems like a logical extension.  And yet, many of us Scrabbleheads won’t go near it.  Admittedly, it’s not for purists.  For what I assume must be copyright reasons, the values of many of the WWF tiles are different than those in Scrabble.  Plus, WWF accepts quite a few words that are not legal in Scrabble.  Words like FI and ZEN, for example.  And the “dirty words,” all perfectly acceptable in Scrabble, are no-gos in family-friendly WWF.  Well, except for shit.  I wonder how that one made it through?

Allow me to tell you about my current opponents.  In no particular order, they are:

  • A coworker from three jobs ago
  • A retired lady who used to work for me several years ago
  • One of my wife’s friends
  • A stranger named BigJo who has a Rottweiler avatar
  • Another stranger named 6Griffins
  • Someone named Daphne with whom I play in French
  • A woman named Mely from Argentina with whom I play in Spanish

So I play in three languages.  What’s it to ya?  You already knew I’m a strange one.

At least I speak French, unlike Nigel Richards, who won the Francophone Scrabble Championship in Belgium this year without understanding a word of français.  How is that possible?  He said he did it by memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary.  Go figure.

I didn’t say I speak French well.  But I can get by after having spent my teen years studying French in junior high and high school.  I even visited Paris once and found that I had no problem communicating at all.

Spanish, however, is another story entirely.  Not only do I not speak español, but I haven’t even imitated Nigel by memorizing the Spanish Scrabble dictionary.  Sure, I can order lunch in a Mexican restaurant (the poor employees try so hard not to laugh), I can ask where’s the bathroom and I once told a stranger soy perdido when I needed directions in Laredo, Texas.  I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the labels on cans in the grocery store, at least as far as distinguishing between proteína, grassa and carbohídrato.  I know some of the words to “La Bamba.”

This should give you a pretty good idea of just how very bad I am at my Spanish language WWF games.  One of my first problems was figuring out what to do with that maldito W.  That nasty little critter is worth 10 points in the Spanish game.  That’s because there aren’t any words in the language that use that letter.  Why should there be?  There is no “W” sound in Spanish.

Gradually, I discovered that the W can be used in Spanish to spell some international words that are pretty much the same in every language.  There is won (a monetary unit of Korea, or what does not happen to me at the end of any game played in Spanish) and there is watt (as in a unit of electricity, a thoroughfare here in Sacramento, or watt the hell am I doing playing in a language I don’t know?).  That’s about the sum total of my Spanish W knowledge.  All of my other attempts have bombed out.  I tried web (apparently, the word is la red), I tried war (it’s la guerra), I tried west (nope, it’s oueste).

Actually, that about sums up my strategy for playing Words With Friends in Spanish.  There are no “challenges” like there are in tournament Scrabble, so I can just try one combination of letters after another until I get lucky.  Throw it at the wall and see if it sticks, as they used to say back in the day.  If at first you don’t succeed, try again, try again, try again, grit your teeth, curse, hold yourself back from throwing the phone across the room because it cost $750 and you can’t afford to replace it.

Amazingly, I recently played my first bingo (play using all seven tiles in the rack) in Spanish WWF.  The word was melones.  Actually, I first tried an anagram, lemones, but then I remembered that the Spanish word for “lemon” is actually citrón.  No matter, I got my bonus points!

Of course, I finally got busted.  Mely, good sport as she is, tried to start a conversation with me over Zynga’s chat feature.  In Spanish, of course.  I was able to fake a few sentences before I had to sheepishly admit that no hablo español muy bien, soy gringo.

What really surprises me is that she still keeps playing with me, two Spanish games at a time.  I figured she’d stop at the end of our first few games, but nope, she keeps rematching me.  I guess I had it coming.  Serves me right for trying to be a big shot.

I’d better turn on the SAP function on the TV or start watching Univision or listen closely to the lyrics of all those unintelligible songs, replete with choruses of ¡ay, ay ay! that they pipe into Chevy’s Fresh Mex.

The ultimate irony is that I recently won my first game with Mel en español.

Su idioma es mi idioma.

Tomorrow on A Map of California:  Can a sane person support both Trump and Sanders?

NaBloPoMo 2015 Logonanopoblano2015dark

Ghosts of Scrabble Tournaments Past

In the middle of my fourth day of competing in the North American Scrabble Championship in Reno, I found myself with both blank tiles on my rack at the same time.  Now, everyone loves to draw a blank, because it can stand in for any letter of the alphabet of one’s choosing and vastly increases the likelihood of coming up with a “bingo” (playing all seven tiles on your rack in one go) and scoring an extra 50 points.  In fact, I like to say that those of us who share my predicament of having turned around one day and discovered that we are now “seniors” would never again have to worry about forgetting what we were about to say if we would all just play Scrabble.  It’s the one place in this world where drawing a blank is a good thing.

Drawing both blanks at one time, however, is another story entirely.  Sure, having two wild cards makes it even more likely that you’ll be able to play a bingo.  However, there are only two blanks in the entire game, two wonderful opportunities for an easy bingo that suddenly get cut down to just one opportunity when you have both blanks together.  Not only that, but trying to find a high-scoring word in your rack when you have to mentally fill in two tiles is a lot more difficult than it is with just one blank.  If you’ve never experienced this, you’ll just have to trust me.  You desperately try to think and you shuffle, shuffle, shuffle your tiles around on your rack while your clock ticks down second by second, running out your game time.  Sometimes you just have to give up and play a couple of normal tiles, holding onto the blanks in the hope of drawing better letters to go with them.  Of course, this means that on the next turn, you get to blow your mind all over again.  At least, you think, your opponent has been deprived of the blanks and their high-scoring opportunities.

On this particular occasion, I realized that, thanks to the blanks, I could play the word aubades.  As my heart leapt for joy, I suddenly remembered how I came to know such an unusual word.  It wasn’t from studying word lists, unfortunately.  This is a word that fellow word freak Bob Smith taught me one afternoon about seven or eight years ago at a Scrabble tournament just down the road in Sparks, Nevada.  As was his wont, Bob became fixated on a subject and would go on and on about it, reciting a miniature dissertation.  On that particular day, I just nodded and smiled as he regaled me about this four-vowel word that referred to a song of praise sung to one’s lover at dawn.  (Actually, I believe he said “sung to your lover’s elbow” or some such nonsense.)  It seemed so preposterous at the time that, of course, the word has stuck in my mind ever since.

Alas, Bob has since passed on to that big Scrabble board in the sky, but on that Tuesday in Reno, I silently said “here’s to you, Bob” as I prepared to plunk down my tiles and collect my extra 50 points.  However, I stopped myself just in time to realize that I could score more points if I instead played the far more plebeian word buddies, with the B placed on the triple letter score.  Thanks just the same, Bob.

My fellow Scrabbleheads who schlep around the country to tournaments several times each year are something of a big, extended, dysfunctional family.  Most of us have no contact whatever with each other at any other time — not by email, not by text message, nothing.  Yet when we see each other at the next tournament, it’s always “Boooobbbb!  Good to see ya!”  And we pick up right where we left off, filling each other in on the latest with our jobs, families and health.  It’s just so weird.  And I love it.

It’s not as if we don’t try.  It’s just that, like some kind of online RPG, we just don’t translate to the real world.  I’m talking about you, Ron from Idaho.  I’m still waiting for you to start that Words With Friends game with me.  I’m talking about you, Jennifer from Texas.  I’m still waiting to hear about whether you’re going to send me that Julia Glass novel.  I’m talking about you, Keith from San Diego.  We’re supposed to catch a game online, remember?

Like any family, we celebrate our joys and mourn our sorrows.  There are those who finally retire and can devote more time to Scrabble study and tournament travel.  There are those whose kids follow in their footsteps, like Stefan and his young daughter.  But there are also those who suddenly disappear from among our ranks.  My buddy, Lewis, for instance, with whom I’ve travelled to tournaments in Portland and Phoenix and Reno and San Jose, studying words handwritten on homemade flash cards all the way.  After his divorce, he decided he’d had enough of Scrabble and took up running marathons instead.  Then there’s Paul, who I’m happy to say is still playing after all these years, but whose son and daughter have disappeared from the Scrabble scene.  His daughter, he told me, got married and moved on to other priorities in life.  His son, who was one of the top players in the nation, somehow became disenchanted with the game and simply quit, much to Paul’s dismay.  Perhaps some of these will rejoin us a few years down the road.

Then there are those who are lost to us forever, although fond memories of words played and conversations shared across the board go on and on.  At the North American Scrabble Championship, one of the projection loop screens in the lobby featured the names and photos of fellow Scrabble players whom we have lost in the past year.  Although I did not know any of them personally, there are others who helped to shape my Scrabble playing style and now are no longer with us.

Bob, who taught me aubade, was quite a character, much to the frustration of many of his fellow players.  Obese like myself, he ran headlong into a slew of health problems in his later years.  But I won’t soon forget how, at one tournament in the middle of the summer, he brought a ginormous jar of stuffed olives with him into the playing room.  He must have bought the thing in Costco or some such place.  He had the top off the jar, which only was about a quarter full at that point, and the many flies who managed to get into the room were having a field day.  Bob liked to talk, and the fact that fifty or so other games were going on in the room at the time didn’t seem to deter him one bit.  People were hunched over their boards, trying to concentrate, and ol’ Bob’s voice carried a long way.  Finally, I’d hear someone yell “Bob!!  Be quiet!!”  How embarrassing.  Then there was the time at a January tournament in Reno (still talked about due to the snowstorm that kicked up during the next to last game of the tournament — we barely made it down the mountain on Interstate 80), when I returned from our lunch break to find that Bob would be my next opponent.  Just one problem:  Bob was fast asleep on the floor of the playing room.  Amazingly, the returning competitors simply stepped over him like this was the most normal thing in the world!  Uh, director?  Director!!  Should I start this guy’s clock or maybe, uh, call an ambulance or something?

Good old Bob.

The last time I saw the man, he was in a wheelchair, and I was more than a little shocked when he suddenly discovered he had to use the rest room right now, leapt up and literally ran out of the playing room.

Then there’s Gigi, who was such a wonderful Scrabble player, much higher rated than myself.  One year, we hosted a little Scrabble tournament in Fresno when I lived there (thank you, Lewis) and Gigi drove all the way down from Reno with two friends to play.  After the tournament, many of us hung around for additional games, but Gigi was tired and my wife drove her downtown to her hotel.  The next time I saw her was at the big Labor Day tournament in Portland, Oregon, where she summarily wiped the floor with me.  Again I had both blanks at the same time — I played ptomaine and she still beat me by, oh, a hundred points or so.

We lost poor Gigi the year before last when she traveled to Mexico to play in a tournament hosted by John, another of our Scrabble pals (he now lives year-round in Cabo, lucky duck!).  It was her birthday, and some of her friends had flown down to celebrate with her.  As she was crossing a busy street on foot to join her friends, a speeding car came along.

We will never forget you, Gigi.

Then there’s Al, another character whom many of us referred to as “Doc.”  Of French-Canadian origin (I would try not to laugh when he referred to the Z as the “zed”), he spent part of the year in Reno and part in southern California.  He was a retired ophthalmologist and had an opinion on just about everything.  At one tournament, I became quite peeved with the guy when he came right out and said that my obesity is clearly a sign of mental problems (and then went on and on about it).  Another time, he got my goat by challenging my belief in God and insisting that only a ninny would truck in such claptrap.  On both occasions, I kept quiet even though I so much wanted to say “mind your own business, you old fart!”  Then he beat me to pieces over the board.  The guy was good, what can I say?

Doc and his wife met their demise while driving near their home in Orange County about five or six years ago.  I don’t know the details, but I hear a drunk driver T-boned them.

Scrabble tournaments are happy occasions, reunions even, but we always take time to remember the ghosts of tournaments past who will remain in our memories for as long as we are able to shake the tile bag, hit the clock and mark our score sheets.

Starstruck at the Nationals

At the end of the fourth day of the North American Scrabble Championship (which most of us Scrabbleheads still refer to by its former name, “the Nationals”) in Reno, after I had packed up all of my equipment and was about to leave the playing venue to walk back to the hotel, I noticed a few people gathered around near the door to the lobby.  As I approached, I saw that fellow competitor Stefan Fatsis (famous on the Scrabble scene as the author of the wonderful book Word Freak) and his tween-aged daughter were holding court for a small crowd of admirers and assorted hangers-on.

I had no idea that Fatsis’ daughter was playing in this tournament (in a division higher than my own, I might add).  Sure, I saw the name Chloe Fatsis on the roster.  I stupidly assumed that she was his wife.  Oh, how darling, husband and wife traveling together from the east coast to share the experience of playing in the Nationals.

Um, no.

Actually, Fatsis is married to Melissa Block.  Chloe, no shrinking violet by any means, proudly informed those gathered around that she competed in her first Scrabble tournament at the age of ten and that, at the time, she was still a bit too young for the experience.  That was, what, three years ago?  Should I also mention that she made the playoffs (a feat that neither her dad nor I managed) and that she won $300 in prize money?

As I explained in my last post, we oldsters haven’t the slightest chance against these bright youngsters.

A bit starstruck, I confessed to Fatsis the elder that I had read his book cover to cover three times and that it had a major influence on my decision to join the traveling tournament show that is known as the national Scrabble circus, er, circuit.  I then further embarrassed myself by admitting that my favorite part of Word Freak was Fatsis’ description of finding himself able to make the eight-letter play FEELINGS and then being unable to get the Morris Albert song of that title out of his head.

I’m glad I wasn’t the only gawker awed to be in Fatsis’ presence for a few minutes.  Marvin, a college economics professor who ended up one place ahead of me in the standings, was right there next to me.  He admitted to having 19 wins so far in the tournament and I blurted out that I had the same.  Fatsis very graciously told us that he had never had that many wins at any tournament.

“But you don’t play down in Division 4 like we do,” I added.

“I once played in Division 4 and I never had 19 wins,” he responded.

The man is both humble and kind.  Case closed (if for no other reason than that Chloe announced that she was ready to go for dinner).

I’m just glad that none of those assembled asked for Fatsis’ autograph.  Now that would have been embarrassing.

Of course, if my copy of Word Freak hadn’t been back home in Sacramento sitting on my book shelf, well, you never know.

Oldies But Goodies

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RENO, NEVADA

I haven’t played against Margaret yet, and I want to.

Not Maggie, not Margie, not Peggy.  Margaret.

Goodness, Margaret is such an old lady name.  It reminds me of the secretary in the main office of the high school where my father taught driver education for 30 years, or Dennis the Menace’s girlfriend.  Or Horowitz-Margareten, the brand name on the bright blue label of the huge boxes of matzos that my parents and grandparents purchased at Passover time in the days of my childhood in New York City.

She instantly recognized me and came over to say hi while she was looking for her assigned table on the first day of the North American Scrabble Championship here in Reno.

“We’ve played together before,” she announced.  “I don’t remember where, but it was a long time ago.”

We stared at each other for about three seconds.

“Phoenix!” we shouted at approximately the same time.  When my sisters and I were kids, such an occasion would have called for both of us to yell “Jinx!”

I would hazard a guess that Margaret is in her early eighties.  She lives in Los Angeles and travels the west coast Scrabble tournament circuit, just as I attempt to do whenever finances allow.  Las Vegas, Reno, Silicon Valley, Portland.

Phoenix.

I have competed in the big February tournament in Arizona on two occasions.  The first time, I drove down from Fresno with a friend (my wife had to work) and was sick with bronchitis the whole time I was there.  A couple of years later, we found ourselves living in the desert just a couple of hours away from Phoenix and I was able to go with my wife.  It’s always an excellent tournament, heavily attended by snowbirds from Canada and the northern states, seeking an excuse to escape the winter weather and enjoy a week or so in the sun.

So it must have been about seven years ago when last I played across the board from Margaret.  I’m amazed that she remembers me, but then again, we Scrabble nerds need to have skills in that area in order to memorize all those lists of words.

I ran into Margaret again this morning as I was lugging my rolling Scrabble bag through the casino, my lunch bag attached by a strap.  I’m just glad that thing has a solid handle by which I can pull it behind me, because it weighs more than 20 pounds, thanks to my heavy wooden Scrabble board.

I was headed across the street to the playing venue and I had nearly made it out the doors of the casino when she greeted me.  At least 20 minutes remained until the director would make the announcements that precede each day of tournament play.  Margaret had plenty of time.  She sat down at a nickel slot machine and began playing.  I wished her luck and headed out into the early morning sunshine.

The reason that I have yet to be paired with Margaret during this tournament likely has something to do with the fact that it is well-attended:  We have more competitors in my division that there are games.  In other words, there are some people in each division whom you will not get to play against.  Margaret is seeded 33rd and I am seeded sixth, so that may be a factor as well.

Instead, I have been paired against a lot of young whippersnappers who play with me in the bottom division only by dint of the fact that this is their first or second tournament and they haven’t established much of a formal rating yet.  This is the next generation, the up and coming Division 1 players of the next few years.  Meanwhile, I get to suffer against their superior Scrabble prowess and their young, agile Scrabble memories.  In my last game today, I was completely blown out of the water by a young man who had just graduated from middle school.  He told me he is 13 years old, lives in Connecticut and is here in Reno with his entire family “because I wouldn’t have been able to get here otherwise.”

Eek.

Okay, so I’m old.  I think we moldy oldies need to stick together.  We need to have our own division and let the youngsters duke it out among themselves.  We don’t stand a shadow of a chance against them.

And there are a lot of us.  I have played tournament games against opponents more than 90 years of age, some of whom have beaten me soundly.  I have sat across the board from seniors using magnifying glasses and special lamps due to visual impairments, who get extra time on the clock due to arthritis that is so bad that they can barely pick up the tiles, who show up in wheelchairs and connected to oxygen tanks.  Scrabble is a game we can play at any age, continuing to show off our word knowledge and mental skills long after our bodies have betrayed us.

This morning I was paired against John, whom I met at the very first Scrabble tournament I ever attended, in Silicon Valley’s Los Gatos.  It was a short one-afternoon event, and John was directing.  It was held at a ratty pizza joint, and I had no idea where I was supposed to sit or what I supposed to do.  I still had to learn the tournament etiquette.  But John was unfazed and showed me much kindness, gently explaining about the pairings, ratings and assorted tournament paraphernalia.  I reminded him of this today, making it a point to let him know that his kindness had much to do with the fact that I was not scared away and have been playing in Scrabble tournaments ever since.  He told me that he remembers that day.

That was the last tournament that John directed.  I remember that he told me he was retiring to Florida that very week.  That was at least eight years ago, and John has been living in a small town in the Tampa Bay area ever since.  His elderly mother was already there, and he shared with me today that he had 22 months with her before she passed away.  He had been laid off from work and decided it would be better to retire to a cheaper area than to be a poor, unemployed job hunter in the mean Silicon Valley job market.  Technology companies routinely recruit at colleges for new, young blood.  The tech industry has no use for oldies like us.

Meanwhile, it turns out that John hates Florida.  Not only does he find the heat and humidity oppressive, but he misses the intellectual stimulation of Silicon Valley and he can’t find any worthy Scrabble opponents around.  To my surprise, he tells me that the stereotypes about Florida retirees only being interested in shuffleboard and endless games of cards is accurate.

I’m guessing that John is not quite 70 years old, but he says that the seniors living in his area only want to pay three- and four-handed Scrabble, don’t really keep score, and prefer to spend more time chatting than playing.  It’s all about the socializing, and it doesn’t really matter whether very many words actually make it off the rack and onto the board.  As a very competitive player, this frustrates John to no end.  He finished me off handily this morning.

I’ll say it again:  We oldies have to form our own league or something.  It’s too bad that we live all over this wide country of ours, in Los Angeles and Florida, in Sacramento and Texas and New York.  Perhaps we can start a club online, like the email tournament in which I have been participating for more than a decade.  I doubt that it’ll ever happen, but it’s a pleasant thought.  I may have a chance of someday improving to John’s level, but I know I’ll never be able to get anywhere near what these young folks are doing.  Surely there has to be a unique place for us in the world of competitive Scrabble.

Margaret finished playing her slot machine and ambled across Virginia Street and the wide plaza to the Reno Ballroom, where our tournament is taking place.  She waved as she walked by.

Tournament Update:  After a great morning in which I had three big wins, I had a disappointing afternoon in which I won a game by 2 points (in a recount, no less), lost the next one by 3 points due to a truly stupid mistake, and then got squashed like a bug by a young’un.  My best play of the tournament is pictured above.  After laying down GRIEVE one spot from the triple line (hoping my opponent didn’t have a D, R or S), I drew both the Q and the U simultaneously and was shocked to find that I could play QUAILED for 122 points!  As if that weren’t enough, my opponent wasn’t familiar with the word and challenged the play, giving me an extra turn.  I followed this up with another bingo, STHENIA, a word I know only from my study of bingo stem lists. If only every game could be like this one!

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!