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.

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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.

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.