Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas with not a whole lot of writing done, but with fresh insights (can there be stale insights?), four books read, and a new pair of shoes—pink satin Ralph Lauren sandals bought on sale at Macy’s in the Fashion Show Mall.  One insight—Scrabble fulfills a social as well as an intellectual function. Duh. I felt lonely in the hotel with Marty playing and my friends far away.  I could have gone to the Riviera to chat, but that was across town and, besides, I would have had to explain why I’m in Vegas and not playing Scrabble.

The social function of Scrabble was made clear yet again in the Facebook comments during and following the Nationals. Women wrote about how great it was seeing old friends and making new ones; men mainly kvetched about how poorly they were doing or bragged about how well the tournament was going for them. Very often they bragged one day then kvetched the other.  Of course, women kvetch, but on FB at least they do it in a genteel and pleasing manner.  And men rarely post things like “So many new friends! I “heart” Scrabble.”

            Another insight: not playing in the Nationals yet following the Nationals is kind of a Rorschach test that reinforces the fact that there are people you (or at least I) dislike. There were people I was rooting for, especially in the division I would have been playing in—I’m glad they both finished in the top six. (The fact that I wasn’t playing did make it easier to be generous of spirit.) There were people I was rooting against. These included anyone under thirty; people who had previously whomped me (why does spell-checker not accept “whomped”? Fuck you, spell-checker) by getting all of the good tiles and then walked away smugly and silently; individuals who say things like “Whew. Almost lost that one” at the end of a game; and players who berate their bad luck during a game by muttering “unbelievable.” (I’ve been guilty of the last one, so I guess I must not like myself.)

            As for the books I read….One was a novel called The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine that has to do with dogs, romance, and urban living.  (Though not about romance among dogs.) It’s very readable in terms of plot, but the point of view is all over the place. I reread Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which wasn’t quite as dazzling the second time around.  Also—a very depressing but well written book of short stories with the great title The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men by Adam Prince. And, finally, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, by an author whose first name is Bich but is pronounced Bic and whose last name I don’t remember and am too lazy to look up.  It’s an engaging memoir about growing up Vietnamese-American in Michigan.

            Speaking of books, I’m waiting for someone to write a novel about Scrabble. I haven’t read Dawn Tripp’s Game of Secrets (not to be confused with Game of Thrones), but I have it on my nightstand. I don’t think it has much to do with tournaments, though.  I would love to see a novel about Scrabble tournaments, especially the Nationals. So many interesting things happen—people fall in love, make friends, make enemies, learn important truths about themselves. All this in addition to winning and losing and making great plays and blundering and cheating and swearing

            The novel could then be turned into a movie, kind of like Qwerty but with more realistic Scrabble depictions. I liked Qwerty, once I got over the fact that it’s not so much a movie about Scrabble, but rather a film that uses Scrabble to reveal character and provide a mechanism to move along the plot.  The characters are likeable, the actors don’t overact, and it’s refreshing to see a woman (even though she is under thirty) do so well in the Scrabble world.

            Yes, I’m aware of the film’s flaws. The finalists in the big Scrabble tournament play obvious phonies, including three and four letter phonies. They rarely bingo. And, most egregiously, they use the blank for no extra points. Also, the television “commentators” who are analyzing the game make a big deal of the importance of defense in Scrabble. Moments later we are shown very open boards with ample triple-triples opportunities.

            Maybe I’ll write a novel about Scrabble—about competition, the complex nature of human interactions, and the perplexity and wonderfulness of words.  If I’m offered enough money, I’ll do the screenplay as well.  The movie would star Bette Midler as me—the way I am now.  The younger me would be played by Ellen Barkin.  The character based on Marty would be played by Harrison Ford. The younger Marty would be played by Harrison Ford with youth-enhancing make-up.

             Players who don’t follow the rules or who beat me too often in real life would be played by the following: Steve Buscemi, Camilla Parker-Bowles, Danny DeVito, Snooki, Rosie O’Donnell, the guy who played the Russian villain on the television drama 24, and the shark on Jaws.

In the movie I would win most of my games. Closeups would reveal a pair of youthful, perfectly manicured hands putting down bingo after fabulous bingo: outbitch, bagworm, quetzal, reradiate. Of course, Marty would bingo as well: atonies, retinas, banters.

Hey, it’s my movie.





It seems odd to be in Las Vegas and not playing in the Nationals, to sleep in as my husband rushes out the door for Day 1, to read a pleasurable novel about New Yorkers and their dogs instead of studying my high probability six-to-make-eights.It feels strange to feel relaxed instead of anxious.

I made the decision not to play several months ago.  I knew I had to write a paper for the Baltic Studies conference in Estonia in June and that I wanted to spend time in Helsinki sightseeing as well.  I knew that my autumn semester would be busy: new classes, new committees, paper and essay deadlines.  In between the conference and the beginning of school in mid-August, I was hoping to accomplish the following: finish my memoir about love and Scrabble, continue walking three to five miles a day, get over my fear of flying through the process of systematic desensitization, prepare for classes, clean out my closets, and learn Finnish.

 And because I take Scrabble seriously—last year I studied for the Nationals and did quite well—I did not want to be put in the position of wondering whether OUTGNAW is valid (it is), whether HIC takes an s (it doesn’t), and what my mnemonic is for ORGIES (HOT MONOGLOT PORN.) 

I could have just stayed home in Charleston, but I get lonely without someone to argue with.

Also, I haven’t been to Vegas since I was in sixth grade; I wanted to see how much it had changed. I was twelve when my parents decided to take a cross-country trip from Chicago to California. My memories of Sin City are vivid and glamorous. My parents chose to spring for a hotel room instead of camping in our flimsy tent. The hotel room had a color television. My parents left my sister and me in the hotel room with the color television while they went out gambling. I remember jumping up and down on the big hotel bed the minute they left and then watching some forbidden show on the wonderful TV. 

I can visualize the Las Vegas of my sixth-grade trip: a long street with brightly colored lights forming pictures of palm trees, flamingos, and an Aladdin’s lamp. I see my father driving past the long street with brightly colored lights, my sister asking, “Dad, are you and mom going to see some strippers?” My father ignored the question.

I walked down Las Vegas Boulevard yesterday.  It seems the city has shifted in the past forty-five years or so, though the hotel concierge reassured me that the “old town” still exists just a few miles away.  This “new” Las Vegas was frightening; monolithic buildings connected by walkways, people walking around looking dazed or anxious or sad, huge billboards of Donnie and Marie. There were smaller, sadder billboards for entertainers I thought were dead, such as Rich Little and Dion.

Cigarette smoke mingling with gasoline fumes was the prevailing smell on the streets.  The 110-degree temperature didn’t do much to enhance the quality of the Las Vegas air.

I don’t belong here, I said to myself. I don’t drink and I don’t gamble.  I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Arc de Triumphe, the real one, not the one with Gordon Ramsay’s larger-than-life face super-imposed on it.  I’ve been to Venice and even to Luxor, Egypt. 

Maybe I should gamble. Maybe I’d like Vegas more.  But I just don’t think Vegas is a good place to BEGIN gambling.  I couldn’t even get in through the door of one of the casinos. It was one of those revolving doors and was revolving too slowly for my taste, so I gave it a little push, which stopped it from going anywhere.  A girl who couldn’t have been more than seven informed me sternly that I didn’t need to DO anything, that it revolved on its OWN.  Once inside I was confused by all of the machines. I wasn’t sure whether I could just put money in or whether I had to get special coins. I was too embarrassed to ask.

I did get some good writing done today, but it was slow going at first. I sat around the hotel room of our very elegant hotel, drinking coffee, looking at the planes landing, amazed at their grace and precision and the fact that not one of them crashed. I got up to sharpen some pencils but then realized that I write on a computer.  I spent an hour reworking two sentences.

What made me think that putting words down on paper in a coherent and interesting manner was easier than playing Scrabble?