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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Cilia Than You Can Imagine

BERKELEY

It’s amazing the things that stick with you from your schooldays.  I remember seventh grade science as a horror for many reasons.  Among them were the fact that my mother was teaching more or less the same curriculum in another school a few miles away, the fact that my mother had worked with my teacher and knew him quite well, the fact that my teacher was a mean old so-and-so, the fact that I came close to having a nervous breakdown that year, and the fact that I had no interest at all in the subject matter and never bothered studying for the class.  Science just wasn’t my thing.  In that regard, I favored my father, the English major, far more than my mother, the biologist.

Accordingly, I am shocked that I still remember the unicellular microorganisms that we learned about in that class, more than 45 years ago.  There was the amoeba, pretty much the basic model, just a blob with a nucleus.  Never mind that drinking the water in Mexico could introduce a few million of those critters into your system, resulting in the ghastliest case of Montezuma’s revenge imaginable.

Then there was the euglena, which has a whiplike tail called a flagellum that it uses for locomotion.  And finally, there was the paramecium that contained all kinds of anatomical structures that I never could remember.  The only ones that have stuck with me are the vacuole and the weird hairlike structures, the cilia, that surround the organism on all sides.

I found myself thinking back to seventh grade science class while attending a Scrabble tournament in the Bay Area this past weekend.  Allow me to start by saying that Leesa is truly the hostess with the mostess.  This was the fourth tournament that I have attended at her home in Berkeley in 2017.  Most of the tournaments that she hosts are one-day events on Sundays.  For the Memorial Day holiday, however, she held a two-day event followed by a “late bird” on Monday.  Although I did not attend the extra Monday session, I learned quite a bit over the weekend.

By the way, “vacuole” is a seven-letter word, a rack-clearing “bingo” that nets the player an additional 50 points.  But it was those paramecium hairs that have gotten me into some interesting spots during games lately.  Keep in mind that “cilia” is a valuable “vowel dump” in that it allows a player to clear two Is and an A off his or her rack.

So last weekend, I played in a one-day tournament in San José (a six-hour round-trip, thanks to traffic on Interstate 680), where I was paired with host John Karris for the final game.  The guy is good.  He grabbed a blank out of the bag late and bingoed out with “ciliates.”  I assume those are critters that, like our hairy friend the paramecium, are blessed with cilia.  Then, in Berkeley this past weekend, I had plunked down “cilia,” whereupon my esteemed opponent attempted to bingo by hooking an S to my play.  Challenge!  Off the board it went.

I guess it pays to know your Latin.  “Cilia” is already a plural and, hence, does not take an S.  The singular, in case you’re interested in such trivia, is “cilium.”  After I won that challenge, my opponent sheepishly admitted that she had erred, that “cilia” actually takes an E hook (“ciliae”).  No!  It doesn’t!  Granted, adding an E to the end of certain nouns is a way to make them plural in Latin.  And while “ciliae” has a certain ring to it, it comes back down to the concept that one cannot pluralize a word that is already a plural.

I was not so lucky when it came to other plays.  One of my opponents started our game right off with a bingo, “beetier.”  I thought it plausible, so accepted it and struggled to make headway against my opponent’s 72-point lead.  Just call me stupid right now, shall we?  Let’s just say that there are a lot of words with “-ier” suffixes that are permissible in Scrabble.  Among my favorites (although not a bingo) is “eelier,” which gets rid of three Es and and I.

If a particular comestible tasting of grapes can be “grapy,” “grapier” or “grapiest,” why can’t a food tasting of beets be “beety,” “beetier” or “beetiest?”  To make things worse, some veggies and fruits only take you half the way.  Does that taste like onions to you?  The Scrabble dictionary says it’s definitely “oniony,” but cannot be “onionier” or “onioniest.”  Oh, you think that’s bad?  Well, what’s good for the goose apparently is not good for the gander, at least when it comes to garlic.  Forget the onions and grab yourself a K, as the Scrabble dictionary allows “garlicky,” “garlickier” and “garlickiest.”

These things seem more than a little arbitrary, don’t you think?  When it comes to citrus fruits, for example, you’re in the clear when it comes to the superlatives of “orange,” “lemon” or “lime.”  My favorite grapefruit is feeling left out of the citrus pantheon.

But that’s quite okay.  I’d probably have to tear my hair out if one of my opponents were to try to extend the word “grapefruit” into the 14-letter phony “grapefruitiest.”

 

Just Google It: An Essay on Self-Reliance

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, among my favorite words in the French language is la débrouillardisme and its adjective form, débroubillard(e).  While I do not believe that there is any English word that exactly captures the nuances of the term, the closest translation that I’ve encountered is “resourcefulness.”  The word also has a certain patina of what, back in my college days, was termed “gettin’ over on the man” and what (even earlier, as a kid) adults called “pulling a fast one.”  The implication is one of knowing how to get things done, particularly in terms of which back channels must be traversed and whose palms must be greased.  But the French word also contains an element of the concept of “cleverness,” somewhere between knowing how to spin straw into gold and knowing how to trick people into doing what you want.  It’s no wonder that “il/elle est très débrouillard(e)” is among the highest of compliments that a French person can bestow.

I also think of the term as bearing elements of “self-reliance,” as in “he can take care of himself.”  That presents a fine line between the admirable trait (in terms of the Protestant work ethic, anyway) of not needing to depend on anyone else and the (arguably) more questionable trait of “being a sharpie” who obtains advantages for him/herself at the expense of others.

I thought about this concept today because of Google, and because of the U.S. presidential debates that I’ve been watching on TV recently.

Painted with the broadest of brush strokes, I’ve heard it expressed that the Republicans are the party of laissez-faire economics and rugged individualism.  The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth (and its closely associated phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”), with its implication that “any kid can grow up to be president, just look at old Abe Lincoln who was born in a log cabin,” is alive and well in America.  The GOP has a reputation as being “the party of business” that rewards the rich with tax breaks that aid them in retaining their wealth.  The party also has a reputation of favoring a reduced role of government, with the underlying philosophy that most of us have deep wells of fortitude upon which one can draw to reach the nirvana that is self-reliance.  Don’t mess around with the economy and things will find their own level as people make decisions based on self-interest.  Coddling Americans with government largesse encourages sloth and leads to every type of weakness, from the personal to the national.

The Democratic Party philosophy appears to embody a decidedly different world view that includes awareness of society’s troubles, from poverty to mental illness to drugs (what I like to term “the three Hs”:  homelessness, Haldol and heroin).  My fellow Democrats like to be proactive rather than reactive.  Rather than closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, we believe in spending money on things like education, social justice and prevention rather than prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.  We believe that those who “can” have a duty to society to give their all.  But we also know that there will always be those who “cannot” and must be supported rather than left to be trampled on by the herd, to suffer and to die in desperation.  “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  Deut. 15:11  We may admire self-reliance, but it is wrong to disrespect those who, for whatever reason, lack that ability.  It takes all kinds to make a well-rounded society, and everyone has something to contribute.  We all agree on the need to care for the children, but too many of us fail to see that there are those among us who will always be children and must be taken care of regardless of their chronological age.

The stresses of modern American life put the lie to the ideal of self-reliance and expose the Horatio Alger myth for what it is.  I think of Donald Trump, whom I believe is rightly admired for his many successes, but who may not have been able to achieve them had he not been preceded by his millionaire real estate developer father, Fred.  While Trump may see himself as a modern-day Lincoln (I suspect that The Donald is a legend in his own mind), he was definitely not born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.  Nor was he raised in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was.

I find a supreme irony in the fact that both Trump and Sanders are native New Yorkers, the former from Queens and the latter from Brooklyn.  One was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while the other was born to impoverished immigrants who sought a better life in America.  I suppose it’s no wonder that Sanders seems to have an appreciation for the suffering and hope of those who risk everything to escape death in places like Syria, while Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims out of the country.  I think it’s clear that we have two different world views going on here, each propounded by a man who achieved success through his own vision of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” la débrouillardisme.

This is where I have to mention Google.  It seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “Why don’t you Google it?”  After hearing this phrase roll off the tongue of coworkers, my wife and my teenage niece, the profoundness of its ubiquity struck me when I heard it from my octogenarian father not too long ago.  The essence is that if you don’t know, it’s no big deal.  You can just Google it.

Over the centuries, the United States has progressed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and, finally, to an information economy.  Despite the importance of information, however, no one much cares what we have stored up in our brains anymore.  Why commit anything to memory when you can just Google it?

Among the arguments in favor of search engines is that they are capable of storing exponentially more information than any person could ever hope to know.  I imagine that today’s grade school students must find it insufferable to have to memorize anything (from multiplication facts to state capitals to spelling words) when you can just Google it.

Is this what has come of self-reliance?  Have we truly moved on from Nike’s age of “just do it” to the age of “just Google it?”  One could argue that we no longer rely on the self, but instead rely on computer databases (and hope to God that they are accurate).  Speaking of accuracy, I suppose there is no comparison.  The human mind is subject to the vagaries of recollection and the ravages of time, but zeroes and ones (like diamonds) are forever.

There are those who argue that the knowledge economy transcends the memorization of yesterday.  Computers spew and vomit out data nonstop; the value-added individual is he or she who can interpret what it all means.  How important is it really that a presidential candidate at a debate botches the name of a world leader, a quotation or a statistic?  We all know that CNN, Fox News and the New York Times will be fact checking every statement.  So there really isn’t any need for a dog to bark at the lies and misstatements of the candidates, as so colorfully recounted by Hillary Clinton recently.  We have the news media to do the barking for us.  And think of all the money we save on vet bills!

In his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we are obligated to decide things for ourselves rather than rely on the views and opinions of others.  He praises nonconformity, at least in the sense it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  After all, who’s to say that we’re not right and everyone else is wrong?

I suppose Emerson’s ideals could be said to have influenced the self-reliant types who head off into the Alaskan wilderness to live the life of a resourceful hermit.  And yet, the French ideal of la débrouillardisme is not about separating ourselves from our fellow man, but learning to succeed in spite of him.  It’s all about being Dickens’ Artful Dodger, knowing how to turn the tricks of the trade to your advantage, how to smooth talk others into giving you what you want, how to execute what Trump refers to as “the art of the deal.”

While it’s fine to admire the clever among us, and to refine our methods of dreaming and scheming, it would be well to remember that we are not dealing with a level playing field here.  Many of us are disadvantaged right out of the gate, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, who face every variety of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, and including those with mental and physical disabilities, and including those who were raised in abject poverty that weighs one down with a gravitational force that precludes pulling one’s self up by even the strongest of bootstraps.

While those of us who “can” pursue our self-reliant ways, we must never forget to proffer the assistance needed by those who “might” with the aid of additional resources, and we must never forget to provide for those who “cannot” under any circumstances.

So I say to all the presidential candidates of both parties:  Know this for certain, that the day will come when you will require an answer that neither Google nor Siri can provide.  For as King David taught us centuries ago, in time even the mighty shall fall.  And it is then that those of former greatness shall gain personal knowledge of what it is like for those of us who live without help and without hope.

 

Doin’ the Circûmflex Dance

One of my favorite cartoons of all time (which I discovered several years ago in Jonathan Fenby’s excellent France on the Brink) depicts a harried teacher before a French grammar class composed of teenage hoodlums.  In an apparent effort to help her students relate to the rather dry lesson, she writes the following conjugation on the blackboard:

nous brûlons une voiture
vous brûlez une voiture
ils brûlent une voiture
ells brûlent une voiture

“We burn a car, you burn a car, they burn a car . . .”

Best of all is the wry caption:  “And don’t forget the circumflex!”

I remembered this today when I read about the new rules and words developed by the Académie Française, the nearly 400 year old body that protects the integrity of the French language and determines how words are spelled in the French dictionary.  Among those changes, to take effect in schoolbooks next academic year, is the removal of the circumflex (the little hat- or roof-shaped accent) from words in which it has heretofore appeared over a U or I.  So brûler in the teacher’s lesson above will become bruler and entraîner (“to practice”) will become entrainer.

Quite a ruckus has been raised on social media by French speakers who are appalled at the mangling of their language and their perceived betrayal by the organization that exists to protect it.  The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe (“I am circumflex”) has been trending on Twitter among those expressing their indignation.  This, of course, is a play on “Je Suis Charlie,” the defiant phrase carried on signs and worn on clothing following the murders at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last year.

As you can see, the French get rather touchy about their language.  Granted, the circumflex doesn’t totally change the pronunciation of a word the way the acute accent or cedilla does (changing a short E to a long E and changing a C from the K sound to the S sound, respectively).  Some believe the accent is pretty much useless, a relic of Old French adopted to indicate locations where the letter S had been omitted (for example, bête, the word for “beast” gained its circumflex when it lost its S in the transition to modern French).  And the circumflex will not be completely disappearing; it will still appear where it always has on the vowels A, E and O, as well as on words in which its absence would change the meaning (such as sur, “on top of,” versus sûr, meaning “sure”).  But it is still a matter of pride for the French.

As if the disappearing circumflex weren’t bad enough, the Académie Française also saw fit to change the correct spelling of a few words — oh, about 2,400 in all.  For example, oignon, the word for “onion,” becomes ognon.  And it’s not only the circumflex that will be seen less often.  Fewer hyphens will be around, too.  Compound words like porte-monnaie (change purse) and week-end will lose their hyphens.

I had to laugh when I heard about week-end.  That, of course, is a prime example of “franglais,” the slang Frenchification of English words and phrases that so many of the French detest.  And although there is a perfectly good phrase for “weekend” in French (fin de semaine), the Académie Française has apparently capitulated to the unstoppable waves of popular culture that have been beating against the shores of French linguistics for decades.  Now, the French can not only use the English word “weekend” knowing it is officially sanctioned, but French kids can even spell it just the way it’s spelled in English without getting points marked off their papers.

I have to wonder about grand-mère, the French word for “grandmother.”  Back in the Stone Age, when I was in school, it was spelled grand’mère, with, of all things, an apostrophe.  By the time I arrived in college, the apostrophe had been replaced by a hyphen.  Could it be that the French will now be able to address their grannies without the need of punctuation?

Something tells me the grandmothers of French aren’t going to like this one bit.  But they can look on the bright side.  At least they won’t be losing a circumflex.

 

 

Trump and Bump and the Political Potty (Mouth)

Yesterday, I wrote about media outlets that are too squeamish to make references to bodily functions, including even words like “pee” that have made their ways into everyday conversation.  Newspapers with “family” sensibilities and radio and television stations fearing censure and fines from the FCC are finding it more and more difficult to operate within strictures that defy the realities of the world about which they are reporting.

Once we get beyond the popularity of slang references to urination and defecation, we get into the territory of what were once known as “cuss words,” many of which refer to genitalia or sexual functions.  I should mention that these words referred to those subjects at one time, although today they have largely divested themselves of those meanings, being used primarily for emphasis or to indicate anger or surprise.

I vaguely recall reading that a major American newspaper vowed never to print one of those vulgar words in its pages until such time as the president of the United States used them publicly.  It wasn’t long until that very situation occurred and the paper had to eat humble pie.

The fact is that quite a few U.S. presidents have demonstrated their fondness for profanity.  Harry Truman, LBJ, Clinton, both Bushes and, yes, President Obama, are among them.  Some would argue that use of this type of language constitutes decidedly unpresidential conduct and is inappropriate for anyone supposedly serving as a role model for today’s youth.  Whether the leader of the free world is expected to fulfill that function in the 21st century remains a subject for debate.

I must admit that I was a bit taken aback by an article published over the holiday weekend by Phil Bump, a Washington Post political columnist whom I admire and respect.  The purpose of the piece was to point out that presidential candidate Donald Trump has a potty mouth, as clearly demonstrated by some of his very colorful tweets.  It’s true:  The man loves his expletives.  If nothing else, they certainly attract attention.  The problem, as I learned in writing class many years ago, is that the expletive tends to be all the reader sees.  The shock value of such words tends to completely supersede and blot out any point the writer may have been attempting to make.

I’m not surprised that Trump likes to cuss, but I was terribly disappointed with the subterfuge to which Bump had to resort in order to present Trump’s Bluest Hits of Twitter without violating the arcane and laughably out-of-date rules set forth by his newspaper.  The plan involved asking readers to solve a type of cryptogram in order to figure out the particular vulgarities used by Trump without the paper having to actually print those words.

“For kicks,” writes Bump in explaining his scheme, “we’ve changed the four swear words we looked at into names.  The word beginning with an F is “Frank.”  The one beginning with an S is “Sam.”  The three-letter word starting with A becomes “Alex,” and the longer, seven-letter variant thereof, “Alexander.”

Bump then coyly quotes some of Trump’s rants on Twitter, substituting the proposed words above for the profanity actually used.  WTF?

“Before we continue,” writes Bump, “we will demurely note that The Washington Post tends not to use a lot of cussing on its pages.”  No, really?  I mean, gosh darn, you could have fooled me.  He then goes on to state, seemingly by way of distancing himself from his own folly, that “We are not 10, but if any 10-year-olds read this, their innocent sensibilities will be spared (in case there is some 10-year-old who doesn’t know the f-word).”

I believe that this last sentence, particularly the parenthetical portion, is designed to point out Bump’s awareness of how utterly ridiculous are the rules by which news writers and columnists are bound.  Surely it is no surprise to anyone that a demagogue, a self-styled man of the people such as Trump, would speak using the same type of language that (most of) the rest of us do.

That the news media ignore the facts of the modern world, instead opting to sing “la la la la” while sticking their fingers in their ears, is a demonstration of how out of touch they are with reality.

As for you, Phil Bump, quit playing cryptogram games and insist on telling it like it is.  If the Post won’t print it, tell them to go Frank themselves.

 

I Gotta, Um, Er, You Know, GO!

My coworkers and I had a grand old time and a lot of laughs at our recent holiday luncheon.  The highlight of the afternoon was the annual gift exchange.  The emcee would pull a name out of a hat and call the lucky person up front to select a wrapped gift from a very full table.  Alternatively, if you coveted a gift previously selected by someone else, you could “steal” the gift away.  The gifts of alcohol were extremely popular, so it was a good thing that there was a rule that a gift could be stolen only twice.

To add to the hilarity, the emcee started out by informing us that anyone who decided to steal had to either sing a holiday song or tell a joke.  If this was supposed to deter the predilection for stealing bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and champagne, it wasn’t very successful.  It was a great rule, however, as the terrible singing and even worse jokes resulted in roars of laughter.

My favorite joke of the day, which the teller admitted she borrowed from her young son, referred to the streets of downtown Sacramento that are named with the letters of the alphabet.

Q: Why is it so hard living on O Street?  A:  Because you have to go a block to P.

What is funny about this joke, of course, is the double entendre reference to urination.  You can’t really go wrong with a joke on this subject.  Peeing is always funny, and comedians have been milking the topic for generations.

Before HBO and cable programming generally, you couldn’t make reference to “peeing” in the media without being accused of vulgarity.  Even today, over-the-air radio and TV stations have to watch it, as the FCC has been known to impose some pretty steep fines for gratuitous mention of bodily functions.  This pressure ultimately sent “shock jocks” such as Howard Stern, who appears to delight in “juvenile” humor about urination and defecation, scurrying to satellite radio.

In this day and age, references to the elimination of human waste are judged to be exceedingly mild, at least in the grand scheme of things.  This makes sense in a world in which many give not a second thought to the use of the most demeaning racist and sexist slurs.  It’s all relative.

For example, in the various places I’ve worked, I can’t recall ever seeing someone raise an eyebrow at an offhand description of an impending rest room break as “I gotta go potty” or “going to pee.”  I admit to stifling a giggle when I see the text abbreviation ggp (“gotta go pee”).  I have been lurking around online long enough to remember when this was a way of informing the mates in your chat room why you were going to be afk (away from keyboard).  At any rate, I now know that you can tell a joke that refers to peeing in front of fifty of your coworkers and no noses will be wrinkled.  And you can guarantee that I will be the first to laugh.

Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years working for a tiny community newspaper in New York.  It was a “family newspaper,” both in the sense that the publication was owned by a family and in the more traditional sense of that phrase, meaning that it was unfailingly “G-rated.”  The idea was that all members of the family, including young kids and Grandma, should be able to read the paper cover to cover without encountering any word or phrase that might be deemed offensive.

I remember how, in my college days, where I was one of the editors of the student newspaper back in the 1970s, we made a big point of thumbing our noses at this standard by taking advantage of the opportunity to print the most flagrant vulgarities in 72-point headline type on the front page.  Protesters (and we protested everything back then) were quite fond of including some very colorful language in their chants, cheers and taunts.  Quoting those was a convenient excuse to cuss in a big black headline.

At the staid, conservative weekly newspaper where I was employed in the composing room, however, our problem was not quoting protesters but how to, um, accurately describe the actions for which some of the local loony toonies routinely found themselves arrested.  Should we print “public exposure” when really what we meant was “public urination?”  I can just see some kid reading the paper when it hit local driveways every Thursday.

“Mom, what’s ‘exposure’ mean?”

“That depends on the context, dear.  Usually it has to do with developing photos, like how much light hits the film.  But it can also mean freezing to death, like when someone dies of exposure.”

Our family newspaper found itself in a pickle when a trucker got arrested for pulling off the road into a subdivision so he could pee in a bottle.  Some kids noticed what the hapless guy was doing.  Indecent exposure?  Or just a garden variety case of ggp?  The guy wasn’t exactly a flasher, but who knows what was in that pea brain of his?  Either way, the paper couldn’t get around mentioning that unmentionable, urination.  Ha-ha!  The joke was on the publishers.  “Serves them right for being such prudes” was my first thought as I gleefully typeset the article.

I very much like the approach that my brother-in-law’s mom always took in regard to this subject.  As an elementary school teacher for years, she was no stranger to kids who casually dropped references to peeing into conversations to see what kind of reaction they would get.  She would always interrupt the kid mid-sentence, interjecting “We all do it!”  Never failed to steal their thunder.

One could argue that, even today, we continue to experience some discomfort at public references to elimination of bodily waste, which may explain the use of such infantilized terms as “peeing” and “pooping.”  Admittedly, the liquid version seems to be a bit more acceptable than the solid one.  Few would be surprised at a fellow employee referring to a “pee break,” but one who was brazen enough to say “I gotta take a dump” would likely be considered vulgar.

Whatever you do, however, be sure to keep the bathroom references off the radio and network TV.  ‘Cuz the FCC’s gonna get you if you don’t watch out!

Devotees of the First Amendment need not apply.  After all, freedom of speech must take a back seat to protecting the delicate ears of our eight and ten year old children.

(Cue laugh track)

 

Ghosts of Scrabble Tournaments Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good old Bob.

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

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

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

We will never forget you, Gigi.

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

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

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