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Friday, May. 06, 2005 - 12:04 p.m.

~ Alfred Butts, I love you ~

Mr. Man came into our bedroom the other night to kiss my forehead during a break in his work. I offered my forehead with a tilt, keeping my eyes focused on the tv. I was watching the National Scrabble Championships on ESPN and despite my new boyfriend, TIVO, being more than happy to be all johnny-on-the-spot and pause the show as long as I needed, I could not pull myself away from the turbo-tiling going on in New Orleans. Mr. Man might have taken offense had he not been immediately drawn into the wordy action happening on our thirteen-inch screen. He sank down onto my Rubbermaid footstool that we keep handy in case someone tall -- um, him -- is not around and someone short -- um, me -- needs to reach something high. Together, Mr. Man and I watched the tournament, in complete awe of the multiple bingoes, overlapping, and anagramming.

...jee, jeu, jib, jin, joe, jow, jun, jus...

Scrabble has been a constant in my life. I don't know if I can say that about many things. But Scrabble has always been with me.

My mother loved words and had a fast mind. She encouraged a love of reading in her children. An oft-told story in my family was of a preschool-aged me reading a store sign from the backseat to my mother and grandmother seated in the frontseat of our Volkswagen Beetle, "A-L-E-X-A-N-D-E-R-comma-in-the-air-S." I could read well before I entered kindergarten and by second grade was spending most reading periods at the Level Three table, helping kids who had trouble sounding out, "See Spot run. Run, run, Spot. Run, run to Dick." At annual backyard barbeques, my mother would gather the Kool-aid stained children and pass out dimestore notebooks and Bic ballpoints that left us with blue-tipped fingers for a week. My mother would write a word on a piece of paper, and offer a dollar to the child who could make the most words out of the letters in that one word. The word she rattled off most often? Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilivolcanoconiosis. For years, I would think of dead canaries whenever I would hear that someone had pneumonia and it wasn't until a few years ago that I finally made the connection: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilivolcanoconiosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling fine particles of silica dust. My mother had always just told us kids it was a "miner's disease." (For those following along at home: miners used to keep canaries down in the mines with them since canaries are particularly sensitive to toxic gases like carbon monoxide.) My mother's child, I always won the dollar, regardless of the teens or occasional adult who would join in on the word fun. My words would be written in careful rows and grouped together by first letter.

...faqir/s, qaid/s, qanat/s, qat/s, qindar/s, qindarka/s, qintar/s, qoph/s, qwerty/s, sheqel, sheqalim, tranq/s...

Playing Scrabble with my mother taught me some valuable lessons:

-- I learned what futility felt like and how to approach it with equanimity. I don't think I won a game against my mother until my mid-twenties...and she had a high fever that day.

-- I learned that my mother had married into a family that considered her beneath them and that Scrabble could act as the Great Humbler when my snooty aunts and uncles found themselves flummoxed and floundering in a sea of my mother's calmly-placed, high-scoring words. Up against that same haughty condescension years later during a Scrabble game with my paternal grandmother when she insisted I could not play a word I could not immediately and accurately define (a word that coincidentally not only blocked a move she was about to make but would vault my score way above hers), I refused to concede. "But do you really want to play that way?" my grandmother asked. "We've never required definitions, Grandma. If you are challenging, we'll look it up. I know it is a word. Do you want to challenge?" I replied. "You are just like your mother," I was told. That was the last time I played Scrabble with my grandmother.

-- I learned good sportsmanship and the knack of playing not for the pleasure of beating your opponent but for doing better than you had the last time you had played. My mother never gloated or patronized me. She got excited for me and with me over funny words, words that used hard letters, bingoes (words using all of the seven letters in your tile rack, thus earning you an additional fifty points), and words that fit up snugly against other words.

I was not always a willing Scrabble partner. After the initial thrill of playing a grownup game wore off, I decided that there might be better ways to spend my weekend afternoons -- playing outside, for instance, maybe with friends my own age. My mother offered treats at first to entice her fat daughter to play. "Let's make ice cream sundaes to eat while we play!" she'd say, or she'd set out bowls of candy next to the bowl that held the Scrabble tiles, joking that we had better be careful not to pop a handful of letters in our mouths instead of M+Ms. When food bribes would not do the trick, my mother threatened punishments. It took me years to realize that most of my mother's threats were idle threats and that she rarely could follow-through. Once I could shrug off her promises of punishments, my mother resorted to money. Twenty-five cents for every fifty points I could score. Since I made a dollar an hour babysitting at the time, this was not a bad way to supplement my income. To relax our brains in between hour-long Scrabble games, my mother and I played Boggle, Perquackey, and a game I cannot name but I remember loving -- it was a tall, plastic container that stood on end and held a string of letters and you would turn it and form words based on different guidelines for each side.

My mother mostly played by Scrabble tournament rules, although I did not realize that until many years later when confronted with friends who blithely pulled out regular dictionaries to consult...DURING PLAY!!!...and who accused me of cheating when I would add fifty points to my score after emptying my rack with a seven-letter word. "You can't DO that!" they would laugh at me increduously, amazed that I would be cheating so blatantly.

I play by my mother's rules now when I play with Mr. Man, and until recently, I played the way my mother had played with me. She had restricted her own play to adhere tightly to tournament rules, but she allowed me to occasionally ask her if this was a word, or if there was an e or an i in that word. She would not challenge me, but would quietly shake her head if I played a word that was not allowed or was incorrectly spelled. Mr. Man, not raised on Scrabble, played with me "helping" this way until last year when he decided he was more than ready to be fully responsible for his own play. When we play now, we play as equals and thoroughly enjoy surprising each other and ourselves with good words and word placements.

...cox, dex, gox, kex, lex, lux, oxo, pyx, rax, vox...

I own a regular cardboard Scrabble board, a travel Scrabble board, and a deluxe Scrabble board that rotates and has a raised grid to keep the tiles from skidding off. I own four Scrabble dictionaries and several books on Scrabble wordplay. In high school, I played Solitaire Scrabble, playing both sides of the board fairly. Mr. Man and I rented "Word Wars" and fell in love with sweet G.I. Joel. I'm reading "Word Freak" now as I walk to and from work and I closely follow along as the author describes how he got immersed in the game.

The phrase "Living Room Players" is used a lot in the book and during the tournaments broadcast on television and I wonder where I fall in the spectrum of Scrabble players. While I am not a big-scorer, I utilize a lot of the tricks of the game. I know a handful of interesting two-letter words and use them frequently to place larger words alongside existing words: aa, ae, el, em, en, ex, fa, jo, mi, mu, oe, pi, re, ut, xi. I do my best to balance my rack, ditching letters like Q if I don't have an immediate placement open and keeping vowels mixed in with my consonants. I don't treat Ss or blanks lightly and try to reserve them for bingoes or too-good-to-pass-up high scores. I bingo at least once in almost every game and sometimes twice. So, when the commentator refers to Living Room Players, I cannot exactly fit myself into that slot.

...zarf, zebu, zein, zeks, zerk, zeta, zill, zoea, zonk, zoon, zori, zyme...

Scrabble is definitely in my blood.

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