2018 Word Cup Scrabble – Day 3

BURBANK

Playing room at the 2018 Word Cup Scrabble Championship (Burbank Airport Marriott Convention Center).

Lately, I’ve been receiving a lot of junk calls on my mobile phone. I no longer answer if I don’t recognize the number, but sometimes, if I’m not paying attention, I get caught unaware. There’s the robocall offering me an expense paid trip to a resort (“Congratulations, winner!”). Click! There are the calls urging me to support a particular candidate or cause. And then there’s my favorite, the one where I am asked to subscribe to an asset management service. “Actually, I have no assets to manage,” is my standard reply. “Would you like to provide me with some? Hello? Hello?”

Being of a certain age, I also get calls offering retirement planning services. This always gives me a good laugh. They simply don’t understand that, here in the real world, a lot of us will never be able to retire, no matter what we do. They don’t want to know that some of us have to continue working until they carry us out on a stretcher. I thought about those calls this week while perusing the New York Times on my phone and running across an article about how we should begin active retirement planning activities at least five years before our planned date of retirement. For example, it went on, if you earn $140,000 per year. . . . At that point, I closed the article and moved on. Who the heck do they think we are? Are only rich people supposed to be reading the Times? Talk about being out of touch with reality! I spent decades earning less than $10 an hour. Come on, who earns $140K? Doctors? Drug dealers? Wall Street types and CEOs? Perhaps I need to look for a newspaper that caters to the rest of us.

While I enjoy working, I must admit to more than a bit of jealousy directed toward many of my fellow Scrabblers who are now retired and have enough money to allow them to roam the United States and Canada, competing in Scrabble tournaments across the continent. It seems like a lovely life, and is one I shall never be able to enjoy. I should be grateful that I am able to make it to two or three tournaments each year.

The director of the Word Cup Scrabble Tournament in which I am currently competing likes to start out his events by reminding the participants to keep their cell phones on, volume up and set “to the most obnoxious ringtone possible.” Everyone laughs, but we get the message. No one wants his or her concentration to be interrupted mid-game by a raucous cell phone going off. It happens anyway at least once during the tournament. It’s easy to forget to put your phone back on vibrate after lunch.

The prejudice against ringing cell phones is pretty much universal, but I never cease to be amazed by some of the other things that annoy my fellow competitors. There certainly are a lot of quirks and peculiarities in our little Scrabble world. One player insists on the game clock being positioned to the right of the board, another refuses to use a particular style of tile or rack, another insists on announcing both her score and the running total after each turn (technically a violation of the rules), while yet another uses the board as a work area, changing her play several times during her turn (a really big violation). You can complain to the director if you’re really that annoyed with an obnoxious opponent, but usually I grin and bear it. “We aim to please,” I say with a forced grin. Um, whatever. Life’s too short.

Although I try to be easygoing, there is one behavior that unreasonably sets my teeth on edge: Competitors who like to justify their own weirdness by saying “after all, it’s just a game.” Grrrr! Why are you spending all this time and money to be here if you truly believe that? Sigh.

My performance today was largely a repeat of Saturday.  Seemingly stuck in a Ground Hog Day-style time warp, I again won all my games in the morning and completely pooped out in the afternoon. Weird, as I don’t consider myself a morning person.

I remain stuck in ninth place, but as my wife reminds me, it could be a whole lot worse. Still, I am annoyed with myself for throwing some games away due to sheer stupidity.

Game 1: My opponent started out with the X (COAX for 26 points), but then drew nothing but trash for the rest of the game. I had everything, including both blanks, which I used to bingo with LOOSEST for 77 pt and SNORTED for 65. I felt badly for my poor opponent, who is extremely kind and directs lovely Scrabble tournaments in her home. Win: 380-286.

Game 2: This was a very even game marked by a fight to the finish. My opponent and I were neck-and-neck until the third-to-last turn. Each of us bingoed just once, both with naturals and both with B words: BLONDIES for me (80 points) and BETTIES for her (81 points). BETTIES is a phony, but I was afraid to challenge it despite my doubts. After all, how does one express the plural of apple brown betty? At the end, my rack was GENORT?, with the question mark representing a blank. The only bingo I could find was TONGERS, which I knew as a study list word (TONERS + G). The only problem was that, by then, the board was blocked up and there was no place to play it. I was surprised that I noticed that I could play rhe 6-letter TONGER on the triple word line, hooking the R for RHO and preserving the blank in my rack. It only netted me 24 points, but it turned out to be the right play. My opponent unsuccessfully challenged the word, losing her turn and allowing me to play out and collect an additional 14 points from her rack. Win: 370-309.

Game 3: My last game before lunch was against a very old lady who has beaten me soundly at past tournaments. Fortunately for me, the luck of the draw was on my side and I had both blanks, which I used for ROSTERS (68 pt) and SLAINTE (77 pt). The latter I was able to play on the triple word line by hooking the T to WIT. I was pleased with myself for finding a bingo that contained the necessary T as the sixth letter (and for being able to explain to my opponent after the game that the word is an Irish toast). I also knew that it does not take an S, alleviating any concern about my opponent coming back by tripling a word in both directions. She had one excellent play with JANE for 60 points, playing the J on a triple letter score both horizontally and vertically. Win: 427-347.

Game 4: I thoroughly enjoyed going out to lunch with my wife instead of taking a nap. Upon my return, however, my good luck from the morning immediately went south. My first opponent of the afternoon humbled me early in the game with back-to-back bingos, VARIATES for 76 points and MISPLACE for 86 points. I got off just one bingo, PILLAGE for 73 points, courtesy of a blank. I managed to keep fairly close in score to my opponent by tripling first the X and then an F in both directions. But I got stupid and lost a turn after challenging my opponent’s play of WEBERS, a technical term that only a retired engineer would know. I had the Z and the X, while my opponent had the Q and the J. With a blank apiece, the game was fairly even overall, resulting in a recount that still left me the loser by seven points. Loss: 399-496.

Game 5: I couldn’t manage a bingo in this game, which never bodes well. My opponent, by contrast, laid down DETAILS for 69 points and ORIENTER for 68 points. My only decent play was ROQUES for 55 points, which my opponent successfully challenged. This may have given me the win had I not gone stupid again. I put down a parallel play on the wrong side of an existing word, forgetting that the blank on the board was an E. That created the phony LE (duh!) and that was it for me. Loss: 328-351.

Game 6: My next opponent was a pleasant young man who strategically outplayed me and who deserved the win. We each had a single bingo, he with WINCERS for 70 points and me with TINNERS for 68. But he was able to triple the J in both directions for 48 points and finished up with several excellent parallel plays. Loss: 381-330.

Game 7: My last game of the day was against an opponent whom I have competed against several times before and who is famous for her phonies. (In the first game I ever played against her, about ten years ago, she bamboozled me with the phony bingo GEFILTE.). This time proved to be no exception. I started out fairly strong with VIAND for 26 pt and FLAWED for 33 pt, after which my opponent drew a blank and bingoed with TAENIAS for 73 points. Several turns later, I drew the other blank and bingoed with STOURIE for 74 points. My opponent then got away with the phony OUVRE, which I recognized as misspelled about ten seconds too late. There was an open J in a triple line, so to block the spot, I played JARK, which my opponent challenged off the board (although only after I had my hand in the tile bag; I should have called for the director). This was one of several times throughout the tournament that I inadvertently played a word that is acceptable in the “other” Scrabble dictionary (Collins) but not in ours. As I have played with the British Collins and SOWPODS dictionaries online for years, code switching has started to become a problem. I may well be approaching the point when I will need to switch over to playing Collins in tournaments. I scored ten points or fewer on each of my last five turns of the game, making for a tight ending. I was just 12 points ahead when my opponent played out, but she exceeded her time by three seconds, netting me an extra ten points. Win: 376-354.

Tomorrow is the last full day of the tournament and I will need to pick up several wins to have any chance of a prize on Wednesday. I realize that this is not likely. The competition here is just too good.

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2018 Word Cup Scrabble – Day 2

BURBANK

On a neighboring board today, I noticed that a competitor had played the word COQUIS. I had never seen the word, but he said that the coqui is a type of frog. Of course, I had to look it up. Indeed, the amphibian is native to Puerto Rico. I always find it interesting when I learn new words at a Scrabble tournament.

The severe heat in Los Angeles is relatively unusual; temperatures of 110F and above are much more common at home up north in Sacramento. It’s as if we came down here and brought the heat with us.

When we got back in our car after going out to lunch on Friday, we were surprised to see the digital thermometer on the dashboard read 122F. It sure felt like it though. Just walking from the rear parking lot around to the front of the restaurant felt like an oven or furnace. The worst part is that the relatively mild temperatures here mean that not everyone has air conditioning in their homes. This can be deadly for the elderly or disabled. The hotel desk clerk handed out bottles of water and urged us to drink aplenty. He didn’t have to ask us twice.

The demand for electricity is enormous when it’s this hot, and the strain on the power grid may result in blackouts. While we have not lost power here, we did lose A/C for a couple of hours today. My wife was glad that we brought along her big fan.

In the playing room at the Marriott Convention Center next door, the air conditioning continued unabated as we played the day’s games in the coolness.

Today, I did worse than yesterday, losing to a series of lower rated players and winning just three games. I dropped down further to eighth place.

Game 1: My opponent drew the Z, but I had the J, Q and X. Unfortunately, the blanks stayed away from me. My opponent played a single bingo (WESTERNS for 72 points) while I had none. Each of us had a 50+ point non-bingo, mine courtesy of tripling the J in both directions. I struggled throughout the game and was lucky to lose by just 18 points. Loss: 360-388.

Game 2: I went second and started out by bingoing with ARANEID for 63 pt. My opponent bingoed right back with the phony MENTORER, which I challenged off. He never did get a bingo down on the board all game. I later had a second bingo with TANSIES, also for 63 points. I was surprised when my opponent called “hold,” as this is a basic list word, TISANE + S. Ultimately, he did not challenge, although he did unsuccessfully challenge my play of ESPY (on the triple, hooking the S to U-less Q word TRANQ) right at the end of the game. My favorite play of the game was BARONY for 33 points. I had never played the word before and was surprised to find it in my rack. It’s nice when things go your way. Win: 410-299.

Game 3: My opponent drew the bag and wiped the floor with me while I contended with a steady diet of vowels. She played just one bingo, HELPING for 85 points, courtesy of a blank. My best word of the game scored just 28 points. Sometimes you just spin your wheels and pray that the game will be over soon. Loss: 245-386.

I followed the same lunchtime pattern as yesterday, napping for 90 minutes and bringing a slapped-together sandwich back to the playing room.

Game 4: I should have lost this game, winning on a fluke. Both my opponent and I had our problems, with each of us exchanging tiles twice. She had one bingo (a great vowel dump, ENTITIES, for 68 points) to my two (PARTING for 71 pt and TENDERS for 67 pt). I drew the Q, held it for several turns with nowhere on the board to play it off, and finally threw it back in the bag to avoid further jeopardizing my bingo opportunities. Toward the end, I inadvertently played a phony (ZATI for 33 points), which is acceptable in the Collins dictionary that my online tourney group uses. My opponent was later quite upset with herself for failing to challenge the play. (Could that be why she stormed off without squaring the tiles at the end of the game?). Still, we were just three points apart after turn 16. Then a funny thing happened. Remember the Q that I had exchanged earlier? It’s baaaack! Only this time, a triple letter square was open and I held a blank, allowing me to play QI while tripling the Q in both directions for 61 points. Win: 402-342.

Game 5: Next, I had to play the division’s top seed, so I felt that a loss was inevitable. Also, I have played this gentleman before at Berkeley, and know what it’s like for him to drag me through the mud. I guess I should be grateful that I lost by only 39 points. Still, I would have liked to have done better, considering that I drew both blanks. They enabled me to bingo with ENTRUST for 70 pt and NOTARIES for 64 pt. My opponent was unable to bingo at all, which did not stop him from winning (the guy is really good). Undeterred, he played XI with the X tripled in both directions for 50 points. He pulled ahead of me about halfway through the game and I was unable to come back. At the end, in desperation, I laid down the only play I could find that would use the open triple. Unfortunately, VOIP is good only in the other dictionary. I was not as lucky as I had been in the previous game, my opponent swiftly challenging it off the board. Loss: 373-412.

Game 6: Against a much lower rated player, I bingoed early with TANNERS for 70 points, then immediately drew the X and was able to lay down AXITE on the triple word score for 60 points. I just had everything this game, and my poor opponent hardly stood a chance. After dumping a couple of Is with RADII, I drew both blanks and used them to bingo with FAILURE for 60 points. Then I promptly drew the Z and used it for ZAIRE (48 pt). I felt badly for my opponent, such a nice lady from the local Los Angeles area. Win: 414-251.

Game 7: After that big win, I had to be brought down a notch, a task accomplished with aplomb by my last opponent of the day. Like many other opponents I’ve faced, she managed to pull it off without a single bingo. I bingoed early with BRAISED for 76 points, the only rack-clearing play I had all game. My only other decent play of the game scored 39 points, while my opponent came up with plays scoring 51, 33, 33 and 35 points. It may also have helped that she drew the J, X, Q, Z and both blanks. Nevertheless, she played well and deserved the win. Loss: 314-390.

This left me at four losses and three wins for the day, bringing me to 8-6 for the tournament so far. My playing leaves a lot to be desired, and I anticipate being pulled still farther down in the standings tomorrow. I could make a lot of excuses, but I think it comes down to insufficient word study and making a lot of poor decisions over the board. I definitely need to do better at balancing my rack between vowels and consonants as well as not waiting so long to exchange racks full of junk. Will I ever learn?

2018 Word Cup Scrabble – Day 1

BURBANK

The anticipation surrounding a big Scrabble tournament is almost palpable. Meeting old friends from all over the United States and Canada, catching up on the latest news, reliving highlights of tournaments of days gone by.

“Where do I know you from?”

“Have we played each other before?”

“I know! Reno back in 2007. Right?”

And there is something else. Before the first day action starts, anything seems possible. Your scorecard is blank, a tabula rasa. There is still the possibility of going undefeated. You’re not yet chasing a spread that has fallen off a cliff into triple digit negative numbers. Everyone is still a winner. Maybe this will be the year when you show ‘em how it’s done. It could happen, right? Perhaps you will draw all the blanks and the esses, bingo with a QU word, find the elusive triple-triple. And surely you will remember all those word lists you studied and your brain will be firing on all cylinders, making anagram magic, rack after rack after rack.

Meanwhile, you banish from your mind all thoughts of racks full of vowels, struggles with unplayable vees, phony bingos being challenged off the board. All that was history from another time and another place. But not here. No, here you’re a veritable tile whisperer who will make the board sparkle and your opponents gasp.

Everyone crowds around the pairings posted in the lobby, scanning down the list to find opponent names, table numbers, ratings.

The morning announcements are made, the rattle of tile bags being shaken resounds through the hall, and the first game is underway.

This tournament consists of 88 competitors split into three divisions by rating. I am at the very top of the bottom division, seeded third of 26. That means everyone is going to want a piece of me, to supplant my position. All but two of my opponents will be lower rated than myself, meaning that any loss will drag my rating down into the dumper.

We played three games in the morning and four in the afternoon.

Game 1: My opponent struggles along and fails to bingo at all. I bingo twice, first with the natural YIELDER for 108 points and then, with the aid of a blank, ASTERIA for 85. YIELDER was the only bingo I could find on my rack and it almost didn’t make it onto the board for want of a hook. Just in time, my opponent played ALL, allowing me to hook the Y for ALLY and to bingo on the double-double. I wasn’t totally sure that YIELDERS is an acceptable word, but I checked later and it’s fine. As for ASTERIA, it’s a “list word.” One of the first word lists that most serious players study is SATIRE (and it’s wonderful when a word on this list shows up in your rack). I knew that SATIRE + A is ARISTAE, ASTERIA, ATRESIA. I hooked the S to DAK at the bottom of the board for a triple. Again, I wasn’t sure whether DAK takes an S, but it does. My only lame-brained move of the game was challenging my opponent’s play of AJI and losing a turn. Win: 425-320.

Game 2: After a fine start in the first game, I sat across the board from an opponent whom I have played several times before. I never forget his name, as it is the same as my Dad’s. We played a very tight, relatively low-scoring game. Again, my opponent was unable to get off a bingo, with his highest scoring word being worth 42 points. I laid down just one bingo, ENTASIA, for 63 pt. This is another very basic list word (TISANE + A), so I was surprised when my opponent challenged it. What may have turned the game in my favor was my play of PURFLE on the triple for 33 pt about three-quarters of the way through the game. Still, my opponent kept slogging away and I nearly lost. When he played out the last three tiles on his rack, he collected an extra ten points from my remaining tiles, leaving me ahead by a mere seven points. Win: 345-338.

Game 3: My opponent went first, laying down JAM. I was able to hook an S and bingo with REMIXES, with the X on a triple letter score, for 97 points. That was my sole bingo of the game. My opponent came up with PAUSING for 70 points, which was her sole bingo (she adroitly hooked the G off her own play of AGO for AGOG). I drew the Q and a U out of the bag together, and was able to play QUOTED on the double word for 38 pt. I surely had the better draw with the Q, X and Z, making it tough on my opponent. Win: 383-313.

At lunch, I was undefeated and I headed up to my hotel room for a nap during the hour and 45 minute hiatus. I should have known that trouble was coming in the afternoon.

Refreshed, on my way out the door, I assembled a quick sandwich to munch on in between games.

Game 4: My first game of the afternoon was against an opponent whom I had not seen in many years. Renowned for her closed board style, I resolved to open the board at every opportunity. I got lucky and completely drew the bag, bingoing with REQUEST for 93 pt (which nearly didn’t make it onto the board, as I found the E-hook to AGE for AGEE at the very last minute) and TENDING for 71 points with the aid of a blank. My opponent used her blank for her one and only bingo, RETIRED for 65 pt. I had my highest spread of the day at 179 pt. Win: 441-262.

Now at 4-0 for the day, I should have known that pride cometh before a fall.

Game 5: I drew two Us in my initial rack, which I immediately dumped courtesy of ULU, inadvertently setting my opponent up for a series of high-scoring plays. She bingoed first with CLEATED for 68 pt, then with the clever vowel dump LAITIES for 75 points. My opponent drew the J and the X, leaving me with the Q and the Z, and us with a blank apiece. I used mine with an S for a non-bingo Hail Mary play near the end of the game. It fell flat (SIZED for 58 pt), handing me my first loss of the tournament. Loss: 374-426.

Once you lose the Big Mo, it can be hard to bounce back. I suspect that psychology tells you that you’ll just lose again, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Game 6: This was a hard-fought game, with my opponent and me each laying down two bingos. Mine were RANDIEST for 70 pt and BEANIER (using a blank) for 86 pt. Hers were SKATING for 77 pt (using a blank) and, all the way at the end of the game, VETOING for 83 pt. The latter she played on the triple word score, hooking an I to FUND. I had completely forgotten about the word FUNDI! Even placing the X on a triple letter score in both directions for 52 points couldn’t help me out of this one. My opponent simply played better than I did, and her win was well deserved. Loss: 389-415.

Everyone is tired by the time we get to the last game of the day. Fortunately, I’d had a nap at lunchtime.

Game 7: My opponent and I each had a single bingo apiece, he early on with VARIOUS (using a blank) fir 70 pt and me with the low-scoring natural STRAINED for 60 pt at the end of the game. My opponent drew the J, X and Z, while I had the Q. He performed well, with two 40-point plays. I somehow eked out a small 15-point win, which seems unlikely in hindsight. Win: 351-336.

I finished the first day of competition at 5-2, with my standing having dropped to sixth place.

When I returned to our hotel room, my wife was napping. I joined her, and we proceeded to sleep right through the evening reception before waking for a late dinner at Denny’s across the street.

Tomorrow, I will be facing opponents with ratings closer to my own, setting me up for a tough day of competition.

Atlantic City Fake-Out

BURBANK

After two nights at my parents’ home in the Central Valley, we headed south and have now arrived in Burbank, site of Word Cup 8, Word Game Players’ Organization 2018 national Scrabble tournament. Starting Saturday, five glorious days of Scrabble competition!

We had planned to meet my parents for dinner in Fresno on Tuesday evening. We had suggested DiCicco’s, an Italian restaurant that is a favorite of my wife’s and where gluten-free, vegan entrées are available. My mother rejected this choice, saying she doesn’t like DiCicco’s. We settled for Sizzler, where I can go to town on the salad bar and assemble my own guaco tacos. However, Mom called us while we were on the road to say that Dad wanted to go to DiCicco’s and that she was staying home because she had so much cooking and cleaning to do and because she was tired.

When we asked Dad about this at dinner, he told us that Mom said she “doesn’t want to schlep around in the heat.” (It’s been over 100F the last few days.)

“You don’t have to schlep around in the heat,” he told her. “I’ll drive you.” Vintage Dad.

We enjoyed a feast on the Fourth. Due to the excessive heat, we decided to forgo barbecuing in favor of cooking and eating indoors in the air conditioning. Mom outdid herself, cooking fresh beets to make a batch of borscht for me. She said there were beautiful cabbages in the supermarket, so she made cole slaw, including a separate vegan batch for yours truly. I always know I’ll be coddled with homemade food at Mom’s. Meanwhile, the meat-eaters chowed down on hot dogs and I brought my own gluten-free vegan Beyond Burgers.

No visit to my parents is complete without two things: A tour of Mom’s garden and an argument about something or other. Mom is proud of her purple-blue lilies of the Nile that wave lazily in the breeze near the front door, her crepe myrtle, her overloaded peach trees and her many pots of tomato plants. The pots are arranged on two large tables in the back yard close to the house, one of which I recognized as my old study table from law school days, once so buried in books and papers that I’d have had to conduct an excavation in order to find my typewriter.

Dad was disappointed that he was out of beer. Mom complained about Dad’s foul mouth and his predilection for sitting alone on a folding chair in near the patio, mumbling obscenities that appear directed at no one in particular. Mom says Dad is losing it. He’ll turn 85 in November and we’re starting to think about a celebration. Of course, we’ll have to do it all over again in March when Mom turns 85.

Mom started carrying on about how my pants are too tight and they’re cutting off my circulation and I’m going to end up with my legs amputated. We were glad for the opportunity to take off into town to do some errands. On the way back, we stopped in a convenience store and I picked up a large pale ale for Dad. He was thrilled and later praised my choice as he sipped at the creamy head with his hot dogs and potato salad (which is funny, as I am clueless — I don’t drink and pretty much guessed).

As the sun began to lower in the sky, I joined my parents on folding chairs in the driveway to enjoy the cool evening breeze and watch the neighbors set off sparklers and even a few rockets. Soon, the fireworks display was eclipsed by the nightly star show. The thousand points of light visible in my parents’ rural area began with the appearance of Venus, the evening star, followed by a slow reveal of the Big Dipper.

Mom had something on her mind. She wants to take a trip to Atlantic City, she announced. First problem: Dad doesn’t want to go. I told her I would take her. “What do you mean you’ll take me?” she challenged. We’ll go on a plane, I said, to Newark or Philadelphia, then we’ll rent a car. “He’s going to take me to Atlantic City and he’s going to pay for it!” she crowed to my father. She loves to get his goat.

“I’m finally in a position where I can afford to pay for it,” I said. She quickly snapped back “I’m in a better position than you are to pay for it!” No objections from this corner.

Mom began waxing nostalgic about how wide and beautiful the Atlantic City boardwalk is, how descending just a few stair steps takes one to the sand, how much more beautiful the Atlantic Ocean is than the Pacific. She declared a wish to visit the two new casinos (the Hard Rock and the Ocean Resort) that recently opened on the boardwalk and even said she wants to gamble there. What? Mom hates gambling!

Wow, Atlantic City. Such memories. I am a bit too young to remember the pre-gambling era, when the place was a honeymoon mecca and a family beach vacation destination. I do remember my grandparents taking a trip there when I was a kid and bringing one of my sisters a maroon sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo “Greetings from Atlantic City NJ!” Later, when I graduated from college and began working, I often hopped on a tour bus headed for Atlantic City early Sunday morning. Following a three-hour trip, I’d alight on the boardwalk, take a long walk down to the Playboy (getting a kick out of the cocktail waitresses with their little bunny tails) and Caesar’s, eat lunch at a cheap buffet, then head back to Bally’s or the Claridge to drop a hard-earned C-note into the slot machines (one quarter at a time) or on the money wheel before hauling my tired butt back onto the bus to snore away the hours as the driver slogged northward through the Garden State Parkway toll plazas, snaillike in the Sunday night traffic.

Mom asked me whether we would stay in a hotel or somewhere else. “Of course a hotel,” I replied, “not a bungalow.” Mom noted that we won’t need cooking facilities because we’ll eat out. “Then we can just stay in a hotel,” I responded. She loves rubbing it into Dad’s face. I heard him mumble some prime obscenities under his breath.

About this time, my wife, who had been working on her laptop in the kitchen, came out and sat down in a folding chair next to me. She began checking airfares and reading them off.

Second problem: My mother is yanking my chain. (What else is new?). She has no intention of traveling across the country (or even to the grocery store) without my father. She just likes to goad him about how she doesn’t need to depend on him.

I think I’ll call Mom’s bluff on this one and see how deep a hole she is willing to dig. Upon my return from Los Angeles, I intend to call her up to let her know that I have to reserve vacation dates at work and that I need to buy airline tickets now if we’re going in August.

She’s not going anywhere, of course. And if Mom did commit to going to Atlantic City, I’m sure that Dad would suddenly agree to go. I have no intention of going with the two of them. If Mom needs accompaniment because she doesn’t want to go alone, that’s different. Even so, I can just see Dad “unexpectedly” showing up at the airport, or at the door of Mom’s hotel room, or on a bench on the boardwalk just as we happen to be walking by. Because that’s how it is in my family. Cloak and dagger tactics, spite and bile are coin of the realm.

But what if Mom’s for real? What if, by some freakish hand of fate, she decides to show Dad up well and good and actually go? I probably would have a better chance of winning the lottery. Still, Mom is unpredictable, a trait she takes advantage of to the fullest. What will I do if she calls my bluff?

I’m not bluffing. I’ll go.

Commuters Singing Badly

I like to sing.  A lot.  I’m also terrible at it.  Apparently, I’m in good company, which explains the plethora of awful karaoke out there.

I’ve cultivated my love of singing since childhood, where I had ample opportunity in my Orthodox Jewish yeshiva to learn a variety of niggunim, the traditional Hebrew melodies.  Later, I sang in the chorus in public school for six years or so, and then for one year in college before I finally gave it up to focus on other things (writing, mostly).

It’s wonderful that, at least back then, the schools allowed budding warblers to pretend that they might one day end up the next Billy Joel or Madonna (my New York bias is showing here).  These days, many school districts lack funding for anything but the bare basics and have had to cut music programs left and right.  Also, I don’t know what the equivalent of the general chorus or the concert choir would be in the age of rap.  (Do high school music teachers dare to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the 21st century?)

I think singing appeals to me so much because it is an act of sheer joy.  Warbling is visceral, inherited from the birds, enhanced with human language and stylized with poetry.  It is hard-wired into our genes.

One thing that’s great about singing in church or synagogue is that no one cares how good or bad you are.  It doesn’t matter if you harmonize perfectly, can barely hold on to the melody or sing completely out of tune.  It’s all about participation and community and you get an A for effort.

My singing voice has a catch in it that can be particularly grating to the ear when I start out by accurately hitting a note and then, inexplicably, screechingly launch off a tangent into the stratosphere.  It’s almost as if, even though I’m an old guy now, my voice is still changing like a twelve year old’s.

You can understand why I enjoy singing in relatively private spaces, where I can laugh at myself and not raise any eyebrows.  Outside of religious services, I am reluctant to sing in public for fear of being judged.  “He thinks he’s so good, but he’s terrible!”  I can read the amused or disgusted expressions on faces when my voice cracks, as it always does at some point.

So I start out every day by singing in the shower, while I’m getting dressed for work and in the car tooling down the freeway.  And if I’ve unwittingly allowed a note or two to escape when I have my headphones on at work and I’m really into the music, please don’t tell me about it.  I don’t want to know.

I have certain favorite tunes that I can never sing often enough, many of them Hebrew melodies from the days of my youth (such as “Oseh Shalom,” familiar stalwart of the Friday night synagogue service).  But if my iTunes library is pouring forth from my car speakers, there’s no telling what I might tackle, from Katy Perry to Toby Keith to John Lennon to Taylor Swift.  With my windows rolled up and either the heat or the AC on, depending on the season, I get to have my own private karaoke session, no mike required, all the way down Interstate 5 to downtown Sacramento.  James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” has nothing on me.

This works great most of the time, and it starts my workday on a cheerful note.  But, like any routine that you don’t pay too much attention to, it’s easy to make a mistake and fail to notice until it’s too late.  This happened on my way home from work a couple of weeks ago.

One recent evening, the weather was perfect.  Sunny and 75, just like in the Joe Nichols song.  I had my music on and the window down, as I enjoyed the warm breeze.  What I forgot, however, was that I was bound to have an audience.  Stopped at a traffic light next to a pickup truck, the passenger said “Not bad!,” nodded his head and gave me a thumbs up.  Busted!  Oh God, this was embarrassing.  It would have been bad enough if I had been singing George Strait or The Bee Gees or even Michael Jackson.  But no, he had to catch me while I was belting out an impassioned plea for love along with Linda Davis.  (It’s an oldie, so you’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of her.)

This was a long light, so the man decided to strike up a conversation with me.  He told me his name and asked me mine.  He told me that he does tattoos (not a surprise, as every visible inch of his skin was covered in ink) and asked if I knew anyone who wanted one.  “No, sorry,” I sheepishly responded.  “I just got one,” I lied, feeling stupid and trying to sound legit.  I didn’t bother to mention that the Jewish faith doesn’t approve of tattoos, or that asking an old guy in a corporate white shirt and tie who just got caught singing Linda Davis whether he knows anyone who wants a tattoo is probably barking up the wrong tree.

And from now on, I’ll make sure to keep the windows up while I’m driving.

 

Stinkbusters

Ghostbusters

In her recent book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder delves into the subculture of aging Baby Boomers who have been priced out of traditional (“sticks and bricks”) homes and apartments (by layoffs, ageism in the workplace, debt and bankruptcy, underwater mortgages, health challenges and the woeful inadequacy of a monthly Social Security check) and have found new lives wandering the nation and working short-term jobs while living in their “wheel estate” (vans, campers, RVs, old school buses and even compact cars).  In between gigs as seasonal help at Amazon warehouses (ten to twelve hour shifts spent squatting, reaching and walking miles of concrete floors with a hand scanner), working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, and serving as “camp hosts” at remote state and national parks, they alternate between “boondocking” (camping in desert, mountain and wilderness middle-of-nowhere locations, sometimes legally, sometimes not) and “stealth camping” (staying overnight in their rigs at the far reaches of Wal-Mart parking lots, at 24-hour truck stops and gyms, or even on suburban streets).  These kings and queens of the road meet other like-minded souls, forge friendships, form loose-knit clans, trade knowledge, help each other out, share their meager possessions, and follow each other to the desert Southwest in the winter, to the coolness of the woodsy mountains in the summer, and to annual gatherings such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (organized by longtime van dweller, Bob Wells) off Dome Rock Road, on the outskirts of Quartzsite, Arizona.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon on multiple levels.  For one thing, I have more than a passing familiarity with many of the locations described by Bruder.  Having lived and worked in Blythe, California for three years, I am painfully aware of the Podunk nature of Colorado River hamlets such as Ehrenberg, Arizona and the summertime ghost town imitation performed annually by “the Q.”  The former is the place that everyone in Blythe goes to gas up their vehicles at one of the two truck stops, due to petrol prices often running 50 cents or more per gallon less than just across the bridge in California.  The Flying J truck stop there became desert dessert heaven once they acquired a Cinnabon and a Carvel to go along with their Subway sandwich shop.  Even with the cheaper Arizona gas prices, it would still cost me fifty dollars to fill up the gas-guzzling boat of a Mercury I was driving at the time.  I would stand at the pumps watching my iPhone go crazy flipping the time back and forth an hour every few seconds, not quite able to decide whether this border location was in Pacific or Mountain Time.  And I would find it hard to escape the premises without bringing home a cinnamon roll for my wife and a soft serve sundae for myself.

As for Quartzsite, about 20 miles east of Ehrenberg on Interstate 10, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time there.  Bruder failed to mention the Friday night all-you-can-eat fish frys at  The Grubstake on Highway 95 (the restaurant is still there but, alas, the fried fish pig-out is history; they sell it by the piece now).  I have so many fond memories of that place, from the ghost pepper eating contests advertised on the menu to the NASCAR posters on the walls of the loo to the autographed dollar bills on the ceiling of the dining room to drunk coworkers attempting to recover their misspent youth by dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

Bruder did, however, visit Silly Al’s, a pizza parlor and bar where I once witnessed the superannuated karaoke hoedown that she describes.  I never returned, finding the food overpriced and mediocre.  (Let’s be honest:  When it comes to Italian food, it’s hard to satisfy a New York boy).  She also dropped in on Paul Winer, the naked bookseller of Quartzsite (he does wear a knitted codpiece to cover his whoosie-whatsy) who has chatted with me a number of times, has entertained me by demonstrating his boogy-woogy piano skills on the old upright he keeps in the store, and has sold me a number of esoteric tomes that I unearthed like desert gemstones from the towering disorganized stacks representing shelf overflow and covering nearly every square inch of floor space.  Paul’s bare skin resembles old tanned leather, which should come as no surprise considering that 120°F is a perfectly normal temperature at the Q.

As for the locals, we completely ignored the schlocky vendors hawking beads, polished stones and T-shirts, as well as the snowbirds and their cheek-by-jowl RVs crowding the campsites from December through February.  We could reclaim the place for ourselves when the temperatures topped the 100 degree mark in March and the out-of-towners evaporated like snowflakes hitting the desert floor.  For the next eight or nine months, it would just be us desert rats and our native companions, the lizards, rattlesnakes and cacti of the Southwest.

Another thing that fascinates me about the modern-day nomads described by Bruder is the sociological implications thereof.  That these folks often stick together in common cause is no surprise; in some respects, it is no different than the Scrabble subculture that has become so familiar to me.  But the eerie, post-apocalyptic, Cormac McCarthyish wandering from place to place, the living from one Social Security check to the next, the maximum 14-day stays on federal lands, the fear of “the knock” from cops or security guards, it all strikes me as the anti-American dream.  I certainly don’t blame anyone for attempting to eke out what joy and camaraderie is available in survival mode, but my gosh, is this what the United States has come to?  I admire the pride the nomads take in their way of life, even if forced on them rather than freely chosen.  It reminds me that the line between dystopia and utopia can be fuzzy indeed.

The nomads refer to themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”  As Bruder acknowledges, “the H word” has become a loaded term, fraught with some implications that don’t necessarily apply (alcoholism, drug use, mental illness) and some (poverty) that may strike a little too close to home.  It’s as if the road has become the new diaspora.  The dispersed keep in touch via websites, blogs and Facebook pages, accessible courtesy of free wifi available outside Starbucks, truck stops and restaurants.  And a little voice inside of me says “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  I can’t forget how, as a child, I used to tell my parents that I wanted to live in a car.  My mother and father were horrified.  But being able to go anywhere and everywhere at a moment’s notice, with just a touch of the gas pedal, seemed like nirvana to me.  It sure beat taking baths and doing homework.

These days, as I approach the age of sixty, I have to remind myself to be careful what you ask for.  Your dreams might just come true, and they might turn out to be nightmares.  One wrong move, I think, and I, too, could end up living in a van as an alternative to living on the street.  Even worse, the people who Bruder met remind us that not even a wrong move is needed to face this fate.  You can do everything right and still end up with nothing.  The current low unemployment rate notwithstanding, the fickleness of the economy and the realities of growing older are cruel indeed.  “Part-time at Burger King is not enough money to live on,” says one of Bruder’s new road friends.  We are seeing the underside of the leaf we call capitalism, and it is covered in worms.

I must admit that I got quite a kick out of Bruder’s story about her first experience taking a shower at a truck stop, which happened to be at the Pilot off I-10 at the Q (another place I am very, very familiar with, although I’ve never showered there).  She headed up to the register to pay for her shower, carrying soap, shampoo and flip-flops in a plastic bag.  Only then did she learn, to her consternation, that a shower costs $12.  In her case, she got lucky in that a trucker at the next register paid her tab with his rewards card (usable only once every 24 hours), concluding that, heck, he hadn’t had a shower in a week, so what’s waiting one more day.

A few weeks ago, the hot water heater that serves our rented tiny house went kaput.  This meant we had no heat, no gas for cooking, and of course, the delightful experience of taking ice cold showers every day.  This untenable situation was complicated by the fact that we have become accidental subletters.  We had been renting from the owner of the big house in front of the property — that is, until he sold his business and decamped to Arizona with his family.  Now he rents out the big house to two women and, while they are certainly nice enough, we are more or less at their mercy.  Even worse, they were out of town, about nine hours away dealing with a family emergency.  We ended up on the phone, back and forth between the renters down south and the owner in Arizona, trying to figure out who was going to do something about this.  Eventually, the water heater was replaced, but not before engaging in the folly of making three fruitless attempts at finding parts and repairing the old unit.

The first day wasn’t too bad; apparently, there was still some hot water left in the lines, so a lukewarm shower was still possible.  After that:  Ice, ice, baby.  Showering became impossible by anyone other than a member of the Polar Bears Club.  Resigned to realities, I went to work without a shower.

By the end of the day, I realized that I was beginning to give off a faint odor of body sweat.  By the next morning, I was smelling really funky, and I had a big meeting to attend.  Just me, a lawyer and all of my bosses, three levels up.  Just the five of us sitting at a tiny round table while I gave a presentation.  After two days of no shower, my deodorant had decided to give up the ghost.  I tried to keep a straight face and hoped no one would notice (as if!).  Later in the day, I filled in my immediate supervisor about what was going on, just in case one of the higher-ups had something to say.  I sat in my cubicle and stank myself out the rest of the day, trying to stay as far away from people as possible.

My wife texted me at work.  Want to go to a hotel and shower?  Yes! Oh, yes, please.  As I alluded to above, I hated to bathe when I was a kid.  Luckily for me, my parents were usually too preoccupied with other things and rarely forced me to take a shower.  Being unwashed for weeks (um, months sometimes) didn’t bother me a bit.  When my grandparents would come to visit, Grandpa would be appalled.  I would tell him that he must be mistaken, because I couldn’t smell anything.  “You can’t smell yourself!” he would yell.

49er

Well, now even I could smell myself.  This was getting bad.  My wife said she couldn’t stand it anymore.  I thought the hotel was a really great idea, but by the time I got home from work, she had come up with a cheaper alternative.  We could go to the ‘49er Truck Stop and, like Jessica Bruder, shower for $12.  But we had to get there by 6:00, after which the showers were open exclusively to truckers.  That only gave us a few minutes to drive way out to the west end of town.  Neither of us thought we would make it, but to my disappointment, we arrived just in time.  As much as I reeked, stripping down to my bare tokhis in a grimy truck stop was nowhere to be found on my 2018 wish list.  And just like Bruder, we carried in soap, shampoo, even towels.  The truck stop provides a towel, but, eewww, a truck stop towel?

We had to wait about a half hour for a shower to become available.  By that time, it was well after six, but no one seemed to care.  I couldn’t find a place to sit, so I leaned against an electronic pinball machine that was wedged into the corner.  It happened to be Ghostbusters.  Goodness, have we gone retro or what?  That’s the kind of pin I would have gladly loaded a roll of quarters into in my younger days (and probably would have made change to get a second roll of George Washingtons after that).

Wow, what a blast from the past.  I remember seeing the movie in the mid-eighties with a young lady who was home from a Peace Corps assignment in Zaire.  I knew her from college and hoped that perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Africa.  She did, and I never heard from her again.

At the truck stop, I marveled at all the flags and gates and flashing lights on the machine.  Along with the high scores, a message on the LED indicated that the now ubiquitous phrase “You’re toast!” was coined by Bill Murray for the original Ghostbusters movie.  I poked the flippers and was treated to clips from the movie.  “Either I have a monster in my kitchen or I’m completely crazy” and “it’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”

Shower2

Then a shower became available.  My wife asked if we had to pay $24 because two of us needed showers and the clerk asked us whether we needed two shower keys.  One key, just $12.  Good news.  We could each take a shower, one after the other.

The shower room was tiny, but it contained a toilet, sink and a little bench.  Both of us are big people and we barely fit without tripping over each other.  The hot water felt great after a few days without, but the steam was so intense that we had to crack the door open to avoid suffocating.  I could barely fit my fat rear on that bench and my wife had to help me put my socks on.  But, by gosh, I felt clean!  And the next day at work, I didn’t smell like a sewer.

Shower1

Two days later:  Still no hot water at home.  I had to go to work in San Francisco for a couple of days, but I was stinking again.  Back to the truck stop we went.  Another twelve dollars and another shower for two.  I waved to the pinball machine on the way out.  A trucker was pounding the flippers and racking up the points.

Meanwhile, I prayed that maybe, just maybe, we’d have hot water by the time we got back from the City by the Bay.  If not, I knew where we’d end up to de-stink ourselves.

Who ya gonna call?

 

For further reading:

Arlie Russell Hochschild, “In ‘Nomadland’, the Golden Years are the Wander Years,” New York Times (Nov. 17, 2017).

Paruhl Sehgal, “On the Road with the Casualties of the Great Recession,” New York Times (Sept. 19, 2017).

Timothy R. Smith, “’The Last Free Space in America is a Parking Spot’:  On the Road with a New Kind of Workforce,” Washington Post (Oct. 13, 2017).

Jessica Bruder’s website:  https://www.jessicabruder.com/

Bob Wells’ blog:  http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/

 

My Uncle, Age 91 and Still Fighting

I’m back!  Big thanks to WordPress happiness engineer Megan, who managed to solve the seemingly intractable technical problems that have left me locked out of this space for months.  Merci, grazie, danke schöen!

I usually speak to my mother on the phone about once a week.  I feel like a terrible son when I tell the truth, which is that it’s more of an obligation than anything else.

To be honest with myself, I must admit that, as an adult, I remain stuck in childhood patterns of behavior when it comes to my parents.  If I don’t call for a couple of weeks, Mom will call and start the conversation with a sarcastic comment such as “Did you forget that you have a mother?”  Now, if I were my sister, who operates with no filter whatsoever, I’d likely respond with “I guess you reminded me, huh?”

As for my father, he hates to talk on the phone.  He’ll answer if my mother happens to be outside or in the shower, or if my parents are sitting on the driveway in folding chairs, enjoying the evening breeze, and he runs into the garage to pick up the ringing 1980 baby blue rotary dial phone.  He will pass the phone to my mother as soon as possible.  “Here, talk to your Mommy,” he will say and rush off the phone.  If my mother answers, she may, at some point in the conversation, cajole him into coming to the phone.  “Talk to your son!”

I don’t have much contact with family members other than my parents, and I like it that way.  I upset my mother when I tell her that I was forced to deal with them while growing up and that I’m happy that I no longer have to do so.  I have two sisters, one in Boston and the other in the Bay Area.  I typically visit or speak on the phone with Boston sister once every year or two or five.  Bay Area sister is much closer at hand and so is more difficult to avoid.  Boston sister will leave me alone, but Bay Area sister doesn’t grant me quite as wide a berth.  I guess I can’t complain, however.  I can expect her to text or call once every two or three months.  Fair enough.

This is not to say that I’m unaware of what is going on in my family.  Far from it.  My mother regularly gives me the low down and the skinny on everyone we know, from our relatives to the neighbors to her dentist.  There is really no news that my sisters could possibly share with me, as I’ve already heard it from Mom.

Occasionally, what I hear from my mother is disconcerting.  Like all families, ours has its dark spots, and the passing decades don’t seem to have caused them to go away.  On last week’s call, my mother was filling me in on the latest regarding my uncle, her late sister’s husband.  Apparently, his second wife, who is not in good health, has suffered a long series of falls.  I’m told she has many bruises on different parts of her body.  My mother mused aloud about whether my uncle hits his wife.  This doesn’t surprise me at all, as throughout my childhood, he and my aunt had a turbulent relationship during which they would batter one another.  My uncle is a little guy, maybe five feet tall, weighing about 95 pounds soaking wet.  My aunt weighed about 300 pounds until she developed cancer.  Despite their physical mismatch, my uncle was able to defend himself amply.  With his diminutive physical profile, he claims to have gained his pugilistic skills early.  And yet, from what I can tell, he was usually the aggressor.

My uncle was constantly getting into fights.  Unconfirmed rumors, whispered or spoken of in code so the children wouldn’t understand, involved arrests and scrapes with the law.  My uncle’s modus operandi involved throwing a punch at the slightest perceived threat, real or imagined.  As this wasn’t discussed openly while I was growing up, I sometimes wondered whether I was imagining it.  That all changed a few years after I graduated from college, when I attended the first wedding of my aunt and uncle’s only son (he is now on his third marriage).  As we were enjoying our salmon en papillote at the reception, my uncle downed a few too many vodkas and took to the floor to perform his signature Russian dance, the kazatsky.  A few minutes later, I observed him starting a fistfight with the father of the bride, right there on the dance floor.  At this point, someone called the cops and my entire family stood up and walked out.  The valet brought the cars before the police showed up (if they ever did).

So I guess I wasn’t imagining things after all.  Throughout my childhood, he and my aunt would engage in horrific screaming matches that would terrify my sisters and myself.  My aunt would yell at full volume to call the police, and my mother would try to calm her down.  These are some memories that I wish I could forget, but these scenes are, unfortunately, etched into my brain.

The thought that my uncle may be repeating this ugly behavior with his second wife, ill as she is, is both sickening and disgusting.  The kicker is that he is 91 years old!  And he is not in the best of health himself.

My uncle and his wife continue to reside in our old neighborhood in New York, although they purchased a home in south Florida several years ago for the purpose of avoiding the icy Northeast winters.  Mom tells me that they have now sold the Florida home because it has become too difficult to make the trip back and forth.  I am guessing that there are health issues that make flying problematic.  For a number of years, they would drive to Virginia in the fall, whereupon they put the car on the auto train and rode in comfort to Orlando.  The last time they did this, however, my uncle took sick on the train, which had to make an unscheduled stop for an ambulance to transport him to a hospital.  I am told that he had a minor heart attack and that a pacemaker had to be installed.  So now they’re done with Florida.

Mom informed me that, instead of selling off the furnishings in their Florida home, or simply selling the home fully furnished, they paid a mover to pack everything up and truck it back to New York.  Now they have two households full of furniture in one house.  What was unloaded by the movers remains in shipping containers, filling their garage, their spare bedroom, and every other room in their house.  My uncle says that his son, who resides in North Carolina, couldn’t come visit even if he were so inclined, as there would be no place for him to stay.

As for my uncle’s wife, she’s back in a convalescent facility again, for what I believe is her fourth or fifth stay.  She is engaged in physical therapy and recovering from her latest “fall.”

I wish there were some way I could tell my mother, without being unbearably rude, that I don’t want to hear the family gossip.  Tell me about your appointments at Kaiser, your trips to the dentist in San José, the trees and flowers you are planting, your latest experience at Red Lobster or the ongoing problems with your multiple lawn mowers.  But I can do without hearing about the bad behavior of my nieces, my sister’s hysterics and my uncle’s domestic violence.

Perhaps ignorance really is bliss.  I realize that pretending that the family drama is not occurring is not going to change anything.  It’s just that I don’t want to hear about it, Mom.

That is, if you want me to keep calling you.