Yeah, That Word, the One with the Dashes in the Middle

I don’t usually think about swear words very much.  When I was growing up, we usually called it cursing or “dirty words,” although back when I was a chat host on AOL, we referred to such language as “profanity and vulgarity” or just a “violation of the Terms of Service.”  I had an old aunt who referred to such talk as “blue.”  But my favorite description of all time is the one used by Lillian Gilbreth in Cheaper by the Dozen.  She referred to strong language as “Eskimo.”  I don’t think you can say that today, lest it cast unwarranted aspersions upon the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.

Back in my Orthodox Jewish elementary school, swearing was an expellable offense.  Word was that one of our fourth grade cohorts may have disappeared from our class for just such a reason.  I don’t recall ever being tempted to let loose with an unbecoming epithet in my childhood or teenage days.  Such language was all too familiar to me because, well, Dad, and the Bronx, and um, need I say more?  And if my parents started one of their epic screaming arguments, well, that’s all she wrote, my friend.  May as well stuff cotton in your ears and call it a night.

It seems crazy to me now, but in my early working days, I had not one, but two jobs in which the boss and another employee would regularly go at it in a darned good imitation of my folks.  This was before I understood what the word “harassment” really meant.

Thanks to working for a government agency where we keep it clean, and thanks to the FCC and its infamous seven-second delay, I pretty much keep the seamier side of the English language out of my life.  When I venture onto Netflix or pay to see an R-rated movie, well, it’s not like I don’t know what I’m getting myself into.

Then came President Donald Trump.  Apparently, the man is a legendary pottymouth from Queens.  The rumors of his colorful language that swirled about his candidacy have only proliferated since his election.  I’m concerned that this is a bad influence on children and, well, the rest of us, too.  However, I’m not at all certain of which came first, the chicken or the egg.  Does the president’s choice of words give the public permission to follow suit?  Or has such language already entered the mainstream to the extent that we should expect to hear it and read it everywhere, including in the White House?

I have always loved words.  I have the utmost respect and admiration for dictionaries.  I am fascinated by etymology.  I enjoy word games, crossword puzzles and, especially, Scrabble.  In that respect, I owe a debt to our filthy-mouthed politicians and our squeamish media outlets.  For much to my delight, I now find word puzzles appearing in the news almost daily, and not in the works of Will Shortz either.

Take the title of an article that was posted by sfgate.com, one of the Bay Area’s favorite news sources, on the fourth of this month.  The headline reads “Trump reportedly said ‘f—k’ several times during a meeting with Nancy Pelosi, and later apologized.”

I was excited.  How could I rest until I had solved this word puzzle?  The possibilities seem endless.  Based on my disillusionment with our president’s performance, however, I think the offending word was likely “fink” (think Michael Cohen), or perhaps “funk” (think of the president’s popularity numbers).  It has occurred to me that the words “folk” and “fork” would also fit, although I doubt that Trump’s intellect rises to that level of erudition.

The problem, of course, is that we have no rules for playing this game.  For example, does the pair of dashes published online indicate that exactly two letters must be inserted to solve this puzzle?  Or could the dashes be a mere indication that some unknown number of letters are missing and must be supplied by the solver?  In the latter case, which would permit the insertion of three or more letters, the number of possibilities expand to something approaching the infinite.  Among the likely candidates are “flask” (the president clearly needs one in his hip pocket these days), “flack” (think Sarah Huckabee Sanders), “flak” (self-explanatory) and, my favorite, “firetruck” (we’ll have to talk to Melania about that one).  Even the word “frisk” has been suggested to me, but we may have to wait to see whether the House pursues impeachment proceedings for that one.

Oh, but it gets worse.  And I mean much worse.  As if the media’s Trumpian word puzzles weren’t enough to leave us scratching our collective heads, Pennsylvania newspaper The Morning Call recently reported that newly-elected member of the House of Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) publicly suggested that Trump won’t serve as president much longer, as Congress plans to “impeach the m———–.”

Now this is enough to give a cruciverbalist apoplexy.  Starts with M?  I mean, shoot and tarnation, that’s not much of a clue!

At first, I thought perhaps the word was “macroeconomist.”  Nah, can’t be.  Obviously, it’s something that’s not very nice.  After all, opinion writer Molly Roberts pointed out in The Washiington Post that the mystery word means “somewhat more unpleasant than ‘unpleasant’ can convey.”  Hmm.  Perhaps the word is “meconium,” that is, if Tlaib’s intention was to equate the president with baby poop.  Clearly there are too many dashes there to indicate “moron.”  “Mephistopheles” is a nice long “M” word.  Could she be referring to the Prez as a devil?  I thought for a moment that the word might be “Malvolio,” which means “ill will,” but I really can’t see Trump as having much familiarity with the Bard.  Perhaps Tlaib is a smart cookie whose intent was to use an epithet that is far beyond Trump’s vocabulary.

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that Tlaib called the Donald a “miscreant.”  Admittedly, this isn’t a very nice way to refer to the leader of the free world.

Oh, fiddlesticks!  I guess its better than being referred to as a “mugwump” or a “milquetoast.”

 

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SiriusXM? Yes! Well, Maybe . . .

I’ve been having an on-again, off-again love affair with SiriusXM satellite radio for more than a decade.  I first discovered XM when several of its channels appeared under the AOL Radio menu back before XM’s 2008 merger with Sirius.  I was enchanted that there was a way for me to listen to all ‘70s music or all ‘80s music (the good stuff, as far as I was concerned) for free.

Alas, nothing good lasts, and this was no exception.  This was a trial, or an enticement, or whatever you choose to call it.  XM soon dropped off the menu, and then AOL itself slowly disappeared not long after, once piece at a time, like the Cheshire cat.  About the time that only the smile remained, we purchased a new car that came with a trial subscription to Sirius.  I had seen its dog logo around, which, with a wrinkled brow, I associated with Howard Stern.

Nevertheless, we soon figured out how to tune the radio buttons to SiriusXM and I was delighted to find the same stations I had enjoyed on AOL, plus more.  Country?  Oldies?  Classic rock?  Whatever I was in the mood for seemed to be available.  I pulled a bucket seat up to the smorgasbord.

When the free trial ended, however, we did not subscribe.  As fun as this was, we weren’t about to actually pay for it.  After all, by this time we had iPods loaded with our favorite music that we could plug right into the dashboard anytime we headed out on the road.

Later, SiriusXM started sending us promotion after promotion in the mail.  Most of these we threw in the trash, as they became nearly as ubiquitous as the AOL diskettes of a previous era.  I suppose it pays to never give up, however.  One day, SiriusXM called to offer us some free months of service.  Free?  We’ll take that, thank you.  At that time, we lived out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, where we able to pull in few radio stations.  The timing was perfect, as we began to tire of the same music over and over from our iPods.

At one point, while my parents were visiting us, the service went out for some reason.  I explained to my father that I just had to call a toll-free number and have them send a signal to the satellite.  He seemed amazed.  Back in the day, he told me, when you had to fix a car radio it was terribly hard work because you had to dismantle most of the dashboard to get at it.

After enjoying a few months of free service, we called to request an extension because I was out of work again and, sure enough, they gave us two more months free.  Eventually, we ran out of luck.  At one point, we nearly paid for service, but canceled immediately when we couldn’t seem to get access on all our devices.

However, it soon became apparent that we were spending a bit too much on iTunes in an effort to refresh the music on our phones.  Every time I heard a song that struck my fancy, I’d add it to my wish list, which became quite lengthy.  When SiriusXM sent us an offer with a reasonable rate for an entire year, we jumped at the chance.

I must say that my addiction can be a bit embarrassing.  Why does it seem that every time my boss drops by my cubicle to talk to me, I have the ear buds in and I’m bopping away to the beat?

It looks like I’m in deep.  First, SiriusXM brought back its all Billy Joel show on Channel 30 (yep, the same one that used to be on Channel 18 before they once again shuffled the numbers like a satellite deck of cards), a favorite that I’ve discussed in this space before.  It brings me back to 1970s Saturdays hanging out in my parents’ rec room, burning up my Dad’s old turntable.  Memories: Explaining references in “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” to my younger sisters.  Memories:  Flipping my father’s car radio on and finding “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” while Dad ran into a convenience store on a freezing cold night to buy me a half-gallon of milk before dropping me off at the college dorm.  Memories:  Referencing the lyrics to “Allentown” in a college term paper and scanning the liner notes to The Nylon Curtain album in an effort to properly footnote the source.  Thank you, SiriusXM, for reminding me of so many places I’ve been in what now seems like another life.

Oh, well (hanging head here), it gets even worse.  I was flipping through the SiriusXM channels when I ran across an all-1940s show.  Now, I don’t claim to be old enough to know this music firsthand, but it reminds me of the big band numbers introduced to me by my father while I was growing up.  Later, after college, I worked the night shift and listened to the sounds of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s on Radio WNEW-AM (eleven three-oh in New Yooooork!) into the wee hours.  I was thrilled when a familiar Glenn Miller Orchestra tune came on, but most of what I was hearing was new to me.  And here it is again on Sirius XM Channel 73!  Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Benny Goodman, even Sinatra.  I have a tendency to get stuck here for several days before I sheepishly creep my way back to BJ the DJ.

We won’t talk about my foray into Sirius XM’s Christmas music stations during the holidays.  (Anyone else here remember “Daddy, Please Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas?”)

But, alas, I am a truly fickle music fan, and it never takes more than a week or two before I start longing for the crazy, eclectic collection of tunes on my phone.  I begin to crave Melissa Etheridge, Lee Brice, The Manhattan Transfer, Bob Seeger, George Strait, Pink Floyd and The Boss, one right after another… with maybe a little Joe Jackson, Katy Perry, John Lennon, Little Big Town and The Waitresses thrown in for good measure.

In the end, the category list and all those numbered channels on SiriusXM can never substitute for my own carefully curated playlist culled from the past sixty or so years of popular music.  And, let’s face it, my SiriusXM subscription won’t last forever.  Who knows whether I’ll be willing to pay to renew?

Um, what’s that you say?  Three free months?

Well, now you’re talkin’.

 

The Notebook

Notebook

My wife and I visited my parents shortly before Thanksgiving.  “I don’t want to make you sad,” was how my mother opened a conversation at breakfast one morning.  I knew what was coming.

My father just turned 85 and my mother will be doing likewise about three months from now.  Dad is nonchalant about getting older; his philosophy has always been that “it’s better than the alternative.”  My mother, on the other hand, seems a bit obsessed about her funeral arrangements.

Mom has a notebook detailing her last wishes, and on this occasion, she wished to inform me that she has updated it.  And also that she’s made a second copy in case something happens to the first.  It’s starting to feel a little creepy.

Now, I know that many will find my mother’s initiative admirable.  I would tend to agree if her instructions had something to do with, say, disposition of her assets (she says she doesn’t have a will) or even what type of casket to use or what music to play at her funeral.

No such luck.

My mother doesn’t care about any of that stuff.  She says that no one but immediate family would attend her funeral anyway, so there’s no sense in spending money for a lot of worthless nonsense.

Mom’s funeral notebooks are primarily devoted to the minutia of how to have her body transported from California to her family burial plot in New York City.  I’m talking about which airline to use, which funeral home to call on this end, which funeral home to call in New York, how to contact the cemetery to have them open a gravesite.

Sigh.

When I try to make sense of this, I remind myself that there is plenty of precedent going back millennia.  After all, the Children of Israel honored Joseph’s wishes to bring his bones up from Egypt to be buried in the Promised Land.  And that involved forty years of wandering in the desert, not making a reservation with United.  But still.  Is this really necessary, parents of mine?  Yes, I know, Mom, you want to be buried next to your mother.  I get it.  Um, I think.  Uh, why exactly do you insist on staying in California if you wish to spend eternity in New York?

I’m glad that my parents no longer have to deal with the winter weather that they so dislike, but really, why would an octogenarian elect to reside nearly 3,000 miles away from his or her final resting place of choice?  To me, it’s simple.  I have resided in California for nearly a quarter of a century, and here I will be buried.  If California is good enough for me to live in, it’s certainly a good enough location for my headstone.  I doubt that I will ever move anywhere else, but if I do, then just bury my carcass there in the local cemetery, please.  Don’t even think of transporting my decomposing corpse on a final plane ride to a location thousands of miles away.  That’s both insane and insulting.

As for my parents, they made New York their home for the first sixty years of their lives.  In my opinion, if they want to spend eternity there, then they had no business moving to California.  I think my uncle got it right.  He lived down the street from us in New York, and at the age of 92, he’s still there.

What’s even crazier is that Mom has mentioned more than once that, were she terminally ill, she would attempt to travel to New York City so that she could breathe her last in close proximity to the cemetery.

There just isn’t a lot I can say when Mom starts in with this kind of talk and her notebooks.  Yes, I assure her, I’ll honor your final wishes.  Yes, I know it’s paid for.  Yes, I’m glad that you have informed my sisters (since they will likely be doing most of the heavy lifting anyway).

Arguably, my father goes to the opposite extreme.  When Dad is asked about his final wishes, he often says something about stuffing his body into a sack and throwing it in the river.

Maybe he’s on to something.

 

When Wildfire Comes to Town

And still the Camp Fire burns in Butte County, California. Four days after walls of flame that seemed to appear out of nowhere roared through the community of Paradise, destroying homes, melting cars and even burning residents alive, the fire remains only 25% contained.

I live near Sacramento, 90 miles south of the inferno, a safe distance from the scenes of tragedy, but close enough to be reminded just by stepping outside. The persistent smoke that has blanketed the area has made the air dangerous to breathe. The local fire department has begun distributing face masks free of charge.

Smoke blankets the area on Saturday. Photo taken on Interstate 80 heading west into Sacramento County.

The sun glowed an eerie iridescent orange as the sky became covered by smoke on Saturday in Placer County, east of Sacramento.

 

Some of the evacuation shelters are now full. Many taking refuge there are elderly, disabled or both. Free food and clothes are being distributed in the Wal-Mart parking lot in nearby Chico, while houses of worship, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and generous volunteers all assist in providing for the immediate needs of the displaced. Everyone is doing his or her part.

It is so encouraging to see a community come together in a time of crisis. And yet I wonder about who will see to the long-term needs of those wandering about like dazed zombies, having narrowly escaped the conflagration with only a car or a pet, or in some cases, with only the clothes on their backs. What of the victims six months down the road? Think about it. Who can afford to buy a new trailer? Who happens to have a down payment on a new home just hanging around waiting to be spent? What happens to the victims when the spinning news cycle moves on and everyone forgets?

And what of the homeless in our area who were lucky enough to be outside the fire zone, who were not burnt out but who have resorted to living on the streets for years as a result of a variety of other unfortunate circumstances? Where is the community outpouring of support for these people?

Homelessness is an equal opportunity scourge and we need to take a no-fault approach just the same as we do with auto liability insurance. The love that I see expressed in so many ways toward the victims of the Camp Fire warms my heart. Now we need to extend it to all those in need. Not just at Christmas and when wildfire comes to town.

We Are Squirrel Hill

I feel the need to say something about the horrific mass murder at Etz Chaim synagogue in Pittsburgh that occurred during Shabbat services yesterday.  Unfortunately, anything I could possibly say will necessarily be inconsequential and, quite possibly, both insipid and stupid.  I simply don’t have the words to make it better.  All over the world, our hearts go out to the families left behind, to the congregants and to the community at large.  But thoughts and prayers, lovely as they are, don’t seem nearly enough.  Neither does the condemnation of the accused and his actions, as voiced by President Trump.

Our president, like many others, says that gun control is not the answer, despite the fact that the same high-powered weapons of war used by our military are readily accessible to anyone with a little cash.  In fact, some believe that more guns is the answer, suggesting that this tragedy could have been avoided by an armed security guard posted at the door to the synagogue.  As it is, the falling rate of participation in organized worship, combined with competition from other synagogues in the area, has necessitated renting space at Etz Chaim to three different congregations (all of which were conducting services at the time of the murders).  Considering what it takes to make operating the building viable in today’s world, where would the money come from to hire an armed guard?  The necessity of that expense may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a financial stress sufficient to close the building entirely, to cause it to be sold to buyers intending to use it for other purposes, leaving three congregations without a place of worship.  Indeed, most small congregations are unable to bear such an expense.  Then there’s the dampening effect on the spirit resulting from our admission that, no, we can no longer fling open the doors of our religious sanctuary to all who wish to worship God, and that, yes, we recognize that we live in a world of such madness that families worshipping together is no longer a safe act, that our Constitution’s first amendment is being held hostage by its second.

What I fear most is complacency, the acceptance born of numbness, the sentiment that “oh, it happened again,” followed by shoulder shrugging amidst the conclusion that the horrors of mass murder, whether motivated by hate or otherwise, are an unavoidable consequence of a free society.  It is out of self-preservation that most of us choose to think of more pleasant things, else how could we go on tending to the needs of our jobs, families and communities?  I know.  I was deeply affected by the Sandy Hook massacre of innocents, and yet here I am still writing, six years later.  Our very sanity would be in peril unless we put such nightmares out of our minds.  And soon enough we forget, at least until the next one occurs, and the next one, and the one after that. Except for the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the family members and friends.  They are the ones who are never able to forget.  The rest of us, however, throw up our hands and move on.  So is it really any wonder that bigots, racists, and assorted demented individuals continue to shoot up synagogues, mosques, churches, schools, workplaces, and music concerts?  There are days when I think that the primary reason they do it is because they can.

The answer, of course, is to make it so that they can’t.  When there are little children present who do not know right from wrong, we remove all dangerous objects from their reach.  The time has come to wake up and acknowledge that we no longer live in a rational society, that there are many children among us who, left to their own folly, will surely hurt themselves and others.  Congress needs to open its eyes and act in loco parentis and remove legal access to guns once and for all.  Otherwise, we can just forget about freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion in a world where printing political cartoons in a newspaper gets your newsroom shot up, where speaking out on the issues leaves you riddled with bullets, and where attending Shabbat services to worship our Creator and fellowship with our communities ends in a bloodbath.  Before you vote in the midterms nine days from now, think about which candidates favor gun control and which candidates support the gun lobby and the prospect of more and more mass murders.

And so today, just as many carried signs and wore buttons announcing “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” three years ago, instead of murmuring thanks that it wasn’t our community that suffered this tragedy, instead of burying our heads in the sand, instead of hoping that we’re not next, we need to loudly announce “We are Squirrel Hill.”

For I am reasonably certain that if I lived in Pittsburgh instead of in California, I would have been present at one of the services at Etz Chaim on Saturday morning.  And I might not be here to write this.

 

 

The Rules

I graduated from college nearly forty years ago.  So it was with a bit of trepidation that, late last month, I began a Saturday morning Spanish course at Sacramento City College.

Honestly, I thought it would be over before it began.  Even one four-credit course is costly, once you consider tuition, books, parking permit, supplies, and gasoline at $3.16 per gallon.  My hope was that perhaps my employer would pay for it.  Keep in mind that I work for the state government, where red tape is the name of the game.  I was surprised and grateful when I was able to obtain the proper signatures and the paperwork went through.  If I get through successfully, I plan to make the expense well worth the taxpayers’ while.  I hope that this will be the start of an adventure in the Spanish language that leads to certification, enabling me to assist with Spanish interpretation and translation whenever needed.  And I look forward to never again being flummoxed when I answer the phone at my desk and the voice at the other end begins to plaintively ask me for help en español.

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.  For starters, I knew I’d be bidding adíos to lazy Saturday mornings sleeping late.  (Or “sleeping in,” as most people say in California.  I hate that phrase.  Is sleeping in an alternative to sleeping out, as in camping in the backyard?  Even after all these years in California, my first reaction upon hearing the phrase “sleeping in” is always “sleeping in what?”  My PJs?  My skivvies? Hmmm.)

More than hauling myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. after a week of early rising for work, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what college is like in the new millennium.  I fully expected to see my fellow students arrive in class with their mini-laptops.  That doesn’t faze me.  While I am far removed from the Twitter and Snapchat generation, and lack the depth of tech savvy of my younger peers, I feel confident enough to hold my own in a Spanish class with my old school looseleaf notebook and hard copy textbook.  I planned to study, study, study to pull off that coveted A and make my employer proud.

Surely class participation, tests and homework couldn’t be that different than it was in the 1970s, right?  Pay attention in class, copy down what the professor writes on the board, memorize all the stuff you need to know for the tests — surely the rules haven’t changed that much even since my elementary school days.

Let’s just say that I was in for a bit of a surprise.

First, there was the syllabus presented by the professor on the first day of class.  It was 30 pages long.

One of the pages of the syllabus informs students that a loss of class participation points will result from any of the following in-class responses to questions from the professor:

  • I don’t have the textbook
  • I did not get that far.
  • I did not do that one.
  • Can I do a different one?
  • I did not understand the assignment.
  • The library did not have an available textbook copy.
  • Incoherent/unrelated/random answer.
  • Answers in English/failure to use Spanish.
  • “I don’t know.”
  • I am trying to connect to the eBook.

The last time I recall trying any of these was in sixth grade.  Why is the professor doing this?  Surely no one who has made it to college would stoop to such depths?  This professor must just be trying to show that she’s strict, I decided.  There are always some teachers who like to lay down the law on the first day, right?  Surely such grade school style micromanagement is unnecessary at this stage of education.

During the second class session, I was sadly disappointed.  Nearly every one of the excuses listed in the syllabus was uttered by someone in the class.  With twenty years of teaching experience, clearly this professor knew exactly what she was facing.

What really surprised me, however, was the list of rules I found posted on the wall when I sat down at a study carrel during the class break:

PANTHER PRIDE

Keep your voices down.

Do not sit on the tables.

No sharing chairs!  Only one person per chair.

Offensive language and bullying is unacceptable.

I was shocked that the college has to call out potty mouths and, um, bullies?  Like on an elementary school playground?  So, like, should I expect a fellow student to shake me down for my lunch money or kick me in the balls?  Whoops, I don’t think you can say “balls.”  Sounds like offensive language to me.  And, um, sharing chairs?  I don’t even want to know!

My junior high school was known as the Panthers, and the similarities are not lost on me.

Just when I thought I’d seen it all, fate conspired to play “Can you top this?” during Saturday’s class.  It was rather warm in the building, and the professor had kept the door propped open to allow air to circulate.  About halfway through class, a skinny young man strolled into the classroom and sat down two desks away from me.  He was wearing no shoes and no shirt.  Kenny Chesney notwithstanding, all of us immediately knew that there was indeed a problem.

“You’re not in this class,” the professor said calmly.  That’s when I noticed that the young man was holding his T-shirt.  It looked filthy.  His body began jerking and shaking as he struggled to put on the shirt.  “Yeah, I am,” he responded.  “I’m late.”

It was fairly obvious that this kid was tweaking.  When he finally got the shirt on, he jumped up out of his seat and ran out of the room.  The professor had to stop the class to call campus security.  I suppose we were all lucky that he didn’t have a weapon.

Welcome to college in 2018.

 

 

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.