Frank Lee (in a roundabout way)

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be a better person—less whiny and self-centered, more patient and generous. Happier. I know there are people who sneer at long-term happiness, who question both its possibility and its ethicalness in a world of inevitable suffering and gross inequities.

I have never been a sneerer (a good word, despite what spell check says.) I believe in happiness. I’ve searched for it, very often in the proverbial wrong places—booze, food, sex, online shopping, reality television. I’ve come to the conclusion that surrounding myself with joyous, positive individuals is a good thing. Some of their happiness will rub off, like cat hair on a couch.

One reason I’ve been thinking about happiness is because I called my friend Jeanne Herrick several days ago to wish her a happy 67th birthday.

Jeanne loves books and Northwestern basketball (she teaches at Northwestern) and ice cream and dancing and younger men. She loves her kids and grandkids. She’s not rich, but has enough money to travel and to retire comfortably.

“At sixty-seven I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” she told me.

I met Jeanne in graduate school, a class where we studied the work of the Russian philosopher of language, Mikhail Bakhtin. According to Bakhtin, “Unitary language constitutes the theoretical expression of the historical process of linguistic unification and centralization.” Jeanne and I bonded over a discussion not about dialogism but about whether women could wear makeup and still call themselves feminists. (We came out firmly on the side of YES.) I had just gone through a divorce; I would help see Jeanne through one as well.

Years later, Jeanne was the maid of honor at my wedding to Marty. She was my Best Babe, the Babe of Honor. Ten minutes before the ceremony she locked her keys inside her car while it was still running. We had to call the fire department. There I was, fidgeting with my white satin gloves while Jeanne was flirting with the firemen. I had to laugh. And laughing helped me to relax.

All of this leads me, in a roundabout way, to Frank Lee.

I thought of Frank today because of the “Frank Lee’s birthday is today” reminder on Facebook.  Send him movie tickets. Send him a Starbucks gift, FB suggested.

“Frank died five months ago, you stupid fuck,” I said to Facebook.

And then I realized I hadn’t removed Frank’s blog from my blog roll.

Maybe it’s not bad to be reminded on various social media of people who’ve died, especially when they were people who were kind and smart and funny, gracious winners and congenial losers, players who shook your hand after you’ve won or lost (or tied) and said “Thanks for the game.”

I first met Frank at a Scrabble tournament years ago. I don’t remember where or when. Maybe my first Nationals.  He was wearing a Cat in the Hat kind of hat or maybe a magician kind of hat but one in bright colors. I’m not a great distinguisher of hats. He had a Santa Claus beard and a Santa Claus belly.  He was laughing.

Like my friend Jeanne, Frank had many interests. He knew more about the blues than any person I know.  He followed politics.  And, of course, he loved Scrabble. I foolishly challenged him once when he hooked an S onto AVO.  I was confusing it with AVA, he said, and made a joke about Ava Gardner.

I never ever felt stupid playing Frank.

I don’t know for sure whether Frank was a happy person. I think he was, though.  Happy people make life easier for others—an argument in favor of this sometimes-maligned emotion—and Frank always had a joke or a word of reassurance. Thanks for the game.

I propose a yearly Frank Lee Scrabble tournament.

Everyone must behave well.

And wear funny hats.


Open for Business

So here I sit in the Danville Community College Student Union on an early Sunday morning. I know it’s the Student Union even though no students are present because a large sign announces Student Union in blue neon cursive lettering. And I know it’s early Sunday morning because, well, I’m good at these things.

I’m the self-appointed Scrabble counselor at Marty’s literacy tournament for the Danville Reader’s Route, ready to listen to players’ complaints about bad tiles or egregious plays (“I forgot the i in egregious and my opponent challenged it off the board!”), to advise some of the lower-rated players on strategy (“You need to slow down” or “You need to speed up”), to comfort those in Scrabble distress. “My self-esteem is at an all-time low,” one player told me. I thought of what a student of a fellow teacher once wrote instead of self-esteem: self of steam. The phrase is appropriate for Scrabble.  There are days when I’m firmly on the ground, confident and clear-eyed, finding bingos with ease, smiling at my opponents—in other words, a solid player.  Other days, however, I’m in the clouds, transposing letters, mis-tracking tiles. My stable identity dissipates into a murky self of steam.

To get back to my main idea—I find myself in the position of counselor because if I were to play in today’s tournament there would be an odd number of players (which is different from “a number of odd players”) and there would be byes (or sit-outs), and these make Scrabble players grumpy.  So, I’m taking one for the Scrabble cause. Actually, I don’t feel bad about sitting this one out. I played yesterday. I played well and came in second in the second division from the top (out of five) and won fifty dollars. I would have gotten a prize for high game (545 points) if my husband hadn’t been so democratic (some might say socialistic) and decreed that the high game prize could only be won by someone “out of the money.”

Before Marty got the tournament started this morning, he announced that I’d be sitting out all seven games so that there would be an even number of players. Except he didn’t use the term “sitting out.” He used the term “swing player.” Except he didn’t say “swing player.” He said “swinger.” As in, “Hey everybody, kudos to my wife, Daiva, for being a swinger.”

I shouldn’t be too hard on Marty. He had a serious back operation two and a half weeks ago. Doctors fused his spine (or something like that.) He spent two nights and three days at Rush Hospital in Chicago and suffered greatly.  Of course, I suffered, too. This can’t be denied. I, his tireless wife, SPENT THOSE TWO NIGHTS SLEEPING ON AN UNCOMFORTABLE HOSPITAL SOFA. Of course, Marty suffered more. (But he got morphine for his pain. I got nuthin’. We played Scrabble in the hospital room and Marty, high on morphine, still kicked my butt.) The doctors were ready to let him go home the day after the operation, but then they discovered that although he’d drunk a lot of water he couldn’t pee and the urine in his system was threatening to back up like a clogged up drain. The muscular male nurse said that if Marty didn’t pee, he’d have to stick a catheter up his pee hole. (There must be a scientific term here, but nothing’s coming to me at the moment.)  So, yes, Marty suffered, but I was the one in the bathroom with him, monitoring his flow, quizzing him on Scrabble words in order TO RELAX HIM SO THAT SOMETHING MIGHT COME OUT.

Which it didn’t.

I won’t go into details about the catheterization because my next client is here.  Except to say that Marty found it very very unpleasant.