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.


Scrabble Poem for the New Millennium by G. C. Waldrep

G.C. Waldrep is one of our most acclaimed and accomplished poets; his poems have won awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets, and have appeared in Harper’s, Poetry, Ploughshares, Seneca Review, among many other venues. He is the author of the volumes Goldbeater’s Skin, Disclamor (not my misspelling, but the actual title), and Archicembalo. His latest work, a brilliant collaborative effort with John Gallaher called Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, is available (as are his other works) on Amazon: . Waldrep is a professor at Bucknell.

Waldrep wrote Scrabble Poem for the New Millennium on 01/01/2001 after an evening of playing the game with friends at Yaddo, perhaps the most prestigious writer’s colony in the world. The poem first appeared in the literary journal West Branch, which Waldrep now edits. Check it out at (A short story by Roxane Gay, a rated NASPA player, appears in the latest issue.)

Waldrep loves playing Scrabble: “Nobody locally will play Scrabble with me, because I have the word list more or less memorized, AND I challenge frequently.  So I have to wait until I get to Yaddo, where other people horsewhip me.”  He claims that strategy eludes him.

Scrabble Poem for the New Millennium

(after Tranströmer)

We have no arguments over the timing; we are decorous

men and women and we place our tiles carefully on the board

so as to take full advantage of each double-

and triple-word square for words like LEMONY, like ADZ

which may be spelled with or without the final e.

Outside the snow has stopped except for the clumps

that fall from the branches of the hemlocks and white pines

barely moving in the night breeze, a blaze of powder

in the path lamps.  There is an unspoken question between us

and we leave it that way, collectively, rotating the board

when necessary to accommodate our neighbor’s

limitation of perspective.  One has brought a bottle of champagne,

one a tin of homemade fudge.  One has lit the fire,

dry birch logs from another season that catch quickly

and send sparks caroming up the flue.  In the same way

there is a great unsolved love in our lives.

It is all very pleasant.  At midnight an explosion

rocks its way into our bodies so completely the deaf poet,

alone in her room, feels it and turns her face

toward the glass.  Thunder, I say.  No, fireworks

though the hemlocks and white pines block the display.

Getting sleepy now in these last maneuvers, the two-

and three-letter words.  The hour that kept us has passed.

We rinse the glasses in cold water at the sink,

waiting for this moment to acquiesce into others more

or less like it.  The clock ticks unchallenged, a kind of music.

And the evening and the morning were the second day.

            (for Darra Keeton)


Interview with Geoff Thevenot

Geoff Thevenot burst onto the Scrabble scene in 2003. After a mere three years of playing he found himself competing for first place in the United States Scrabble Open championship in Phoenix, Arizona. As of this writing, Geoff is the sixth highest rated active player using the Collins (international Scrabble) dictionary in the United States. He has represented the US in the last three World Scrabble Championships.  Geoff is an excellent speller; he’s won the Austin Chronicle spelling bee numerous times.  He is an accomplished musician, a knowledgeable and insightful sports fan, and a very good writer. You can find his blog, Scrambled and Unscrambled, at

Can you tell us how you came to play Scrabble?

Geoff: I’m a member of the Word Freak generation. I read the book in 2002 and realized, oh yeah, I *have* to do this – don’t think I had much choice in the matter. I’d played only a little bit of Scrabble before then, but I did spelling bees as a kid and had played some word games online and enjoyed them, so it’s easy to see why competitive Scrabble would have appealed to me. I was living in the Oklahoma City area at the time – I sent a message to the email address for a club there, but I might have had the wrong address as I got no reply. So I found a cheap copy of the Hasbro Scrabble CD-ROM and started playing the computer. I’d also read about the word study program LeXpert in Word Freak, so I downloaded that and got to work. I would say I studied for about six months before I came to a Scrabble club for the first time.

I was considering moving to Austin at the time, as there was less and less keeping me in OKC and I had family in Austin. That timetable was shortened considerably by a tornado – yes, really – that hit the town where I was living in May 2003. I and my stuff were unharmed, but my apartment complex was condemned afterward, so I ended up staying in a nearby hotel as a guest of FEMA with all my earthly possessions jammed into the room. At that point, I figured I might as well just move. Scrabble did play a part in the decision – I’d researched the Austin club and knew I’d start playing there whenever I arrived. In June, I moved down here and started playing in club, and my first tournament was in Houston over Labor Day weekend. That was about ten years ago, and I’m still going at it.

One of the things you’re known for is your phenomenal word knowledge. Are you just naturally gifted when it comes to recall/recognition/spelling or do you study a lot? Or both?

Geoff: It’s both. Remembering how words are spelled has always come naturally to me; part of that is rote memory, but a lot of it is being able to recognize and (maybe) intuit linguistic patterns too. So I definitely had a head start when I got to Scrabble, but especially in the early years I was studying a lot as well. A big motivator early on was the sheer size of the task. When I read in Word Freak that there were players who knew a hundred thousand words or more, well, that sort of mountainous, crazy quest was just what I was looking for at the time, for many reasons, and doing it less than fully wouldn’t have been appealing. Better get started now, because this might take a while!

I don’t study as much now as I did then, and when I do it’s often goofy, low-utility words that are just fun to learn and unscramble. Just kind of swimming around the ocean of words, picking up whatever I might stumble on. A certain amount of review is needed from time to time, of course, but reviewing familiar words is much less fun to me than learning less familiar ones. But yes, I still try to do at least some anagramming every day. By now, it’s too ingrained a habit not to.

I know this may sound trite, but do you have favorite words? Favorite anagrams?

Hmm, well…I appreciate the aesthetics of words quite a bit, even apart from their dictionary definitions (though I do know a lot of those) – the patterns and linguistic history and, I don’t know, flavor of different words. Light-sounding words, dark-sounding ones, Saxon ones, Latin ones, Asian ones, African ones, pretty ones, ugly ones, old ones, new ones, formalities, slang, profanity, you name it. Which is a roundabout way of saying I don’t have favorites in quite that sense, because there are so many astonishing words out there, each in their own way, that it would be impossible to pick from them. But I’ll name ten off the top of my head I like the flavor of: CUBEB, YRNEH#, JYMOLD#, IXODID, KILLCOW#, EPENDYMA, SELDSEEN#, BAHUVRIHI, CHAUDFROID#, KWASHIORKOR. (Safe to say I haven’t played the last three on that list in a game.)

NOTE: The # after a word signifies that it’s a Collins (international) word. DM

Why do you prefer to play with the Collins dictionary?

The biggest broad reason is that I’d like to see us join the rest of the world – there are so many vibrant scenes outside North America, filled with players just like us, and yet there’s this wall and it doesn’t make sense to me. But more selfishly, yes, there are many reasons I like Collins better. I’d say that everything in TWL Scrabble that attracted me to the game is even more present in Collins. Scrabble as played in TWL tournaments is much more dynamic and volatile than Scrabble at the kitchen table; Collins ratchets that up yet another notch or two. The strangeness of many of the Collins words is a feature, not a bug – when I started playing Scrabble, I noticed how many little bits of interesting information and trivia I was picking up just by reading the OSPD at lunchtime. Collins takes that experience to new heights as well, particularly in learning about English usage in other countries and other times in history.

Having played a whole lot of both TWL and Collins, I can vouch that there’s still plenty of strategic interest in Collins, counter to what some people here have asserted – I don’t approach the two games any differently. You think about all the same things in either one. It’s just that in Collins, you tend to have more options, and so does your opponent. The trucks get stuck in the mud a little less often; it’s a matter of taste, but games with the sort of flow I enjoy best tend to happen more often in Collins. TWL is a fine game, I still play it sometimes, and if it was the only game on offer, I’d have been fully content – but I want it all!

Lastly, getting to travel and meet and play excellent players from around the world has been very rewarding. And I wouldn’t have had those opportunities if I hadn’t cracked open the big book.

What do you remember from your first tournament?

Being very excited, mostly. Tons of nervous energy, even for me (and I’m like that to begin with). I won my first six games, but lost my next two, which meant that I had to play the division leader, who was 8-0, the last three games and win them all. I got the first two, but…here’s where it gets funny. As a tournament virgin, I did not know the proper procedure for taking a restroom break during a game. And sure enough, early in the final game, the urge arrived. I ended up making a bad strategic play late in the game, allowing my opponent to bingo and win. I’m not sure I can blame it on being doubled over with my eyes watering at the time – I was very new to the game and could well have made such a mistake fully relieved – but I’d guess it didn’t help. Oh well, second place. I was riding home with Keith Smith, and early on he asked me whether I was satisfied with my result, to which I replied “hell no”. But not in the sense of being upset or anything like that; I’d enjoyed the weekend intensely and just wanted to do a whole lot more of it and get better at it.

If you could play Scrabble with any person in the world, living or dead, who would be your choice and why?

Some intoxicating woman I have a hopeless crush on who can, on top of these other virtues, give me a good game. I’ll play piano for her during the breaks. There would be wine and everything. Yes, theoretically that could go really well. Er, theoretically. I haven’t simmed it.

Or maybe Nigel Richards, so he can teach me how to play…or Alfred Butts, so I can see his reaction upon looking at a completed Collins board.

In addition to being a top-ranked Scrabble player, you’re also an accomplished musician. Tell us a little about the kind of music you play.

Geoff: Sure! Some quick background: I started playing piano as a kid, then got a guitar at 15 and learned that, picked up bass later…I played in bands with many different styles for many years (although, oddly, I moved to Austin, Live Music Capital of the World, and haven’t joined a band since – more on that in a minute). Fast forwarding to now, I’ve got a modest home studio and over the last couple of years I’ve been making demos of a lot of my original songs. I play all the instruments and sing. The resulting one-man band is called Trembles of Fortune. The style is pretty retro, though it’s not necessarily an attempt to do so – that’s just what I tend to come up with. Some people have said it sounds like Steely Dan in spots (which is a big influence, true). Rock with jazz, soul and progressive influences, maybe? You can hear for yourself: I have a YouTube channel called tremblesoffortune, and the last two years of demos plus some older ones from the 90’s are there. My future plans are to keep refining the songs I have, sharpening my skills, writing more…

Are you any relation to Melchisédech Thevenot, the French scientist, inventor, cartographer, and author of the 1696 bestseller The Art of Swimming? More importantly, tell us again how you pronounce Thevenot.

Geoff: Second question first, it’s TEH-vuh-no. Silent H, silent final T, first E is short. I surely am related to Melchisedech, as there aren’t that many of us, though I don’t know exactly how. If I remember right, he invented the bubble level. That’s a pretty big deal! That guy rocked.

You follow sports. With baseball season around the corner, do you have any predictions concerning AL and NL division contenders?

Geoff: I’d have to say the AL East is the most interesting division, which in recent years it usually hasn’t been – you could just about make a case for the five teams finishing in any order. The Angels with Trout/Pujols/Hamilton could sure be scary in the West…the Central, I don’t know – Detroit again? Probably. Maybe the White Sox. In the NL, I’d love to see Washington pull it off, and I think they’ll at least win their division. Dodgers vs. Giants should be a heck of a storyline throughout the year. I’m always hesitant to pick repeat division winners, but the Reds seem flat-out better than their peers…okay, I’ll pick Tampa Bay over the Dodgers in six. Which means it’ll surely be someone else.

If someone wrote a biography about you, what might the title to be?

Hope I Panic In The Right Direction








Scrabble Poem by Mathematician Mike Keith

Jane McGonigal, in her fascinating book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Books), makes explicit what game players know implicitly: it is the obstacles in a game that make it interesting. The more obstacles, the bigger the challenge, the greater the excitement (one reason there will never be a Candy Land tournament.) Think of the obstacles as restrictions: in Scrabble we’re restricted to seven tiles. We’re also restricted by the word our opponent has played, etc.

Poetry, especially poetry written in traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, also works under a set of restrictions, specifically rhyme scheme and stanza length. For example, sonnets have fourteen lines, villanelles have five tercets followed by a quatrain, etc.  I was surfing the web for Scrabble poems and came upon Mike Keith’s wonderful poem. It’s kind of a double-restriction poem. Keith restricts himself to iambic pentameter and an ABA rhyme scheme. More interestingly, he restricts himself to using one set of Scrabble tiles for each stanza of the poem.

Keith is a mathematician but also, I think, a very good poet. Check out his website:  The poem below reminds me of something Pulitzer Prize winning poet John Ashbery might have written (, if Ashbery wrote in iambic pentameter using an ABA rhyme scheme.


Here’s the poem in normal text with punctuation.  You can see that it’s written in tercets. The three-line stanza isn’t evident in the Scrabble tile poem above because the page would be too wide—tiles take up more space than type!

Through sentient, gauzy flame I view life’s dread,
quixotic, partial joke. We’re vapour-born,
by logic and emotion seen as dead.

Plain cording weds great luxury ornate,
while moon-beams rise to die in Jove’s quick day;
I navigate the puzzle-board of fate.

Wait! Squeeze one hundred labels into jibes,
grip clay and ink to form your topic – rage;
await the vexing mandate of our lives.

I rush on, firm, to raid my aged tools,
but yet I touch an eerie, vain, blank piece,
as oxide grown among life’s quartz-paved jewels.

Once zealous Bartlebooth, a timid knave,
portrayed grief’s calm upon a jigsaw round;
yet now he lies, fixed quiet in his grave.

Just so we daily beam our pain-vexed soul
with fiery craze to aim large, broken core
and quest in vain to find the gaping hole.

Below you’ll find the poet’s notes about the poem:

Who is “Bartlebooth”, you might ask? Ah, this strikes at the very core of the poem. Bartlebooth is the jigsaw-puzzling main character of Georges Perec’s massive constrained novel “La Vie mode d’emploi” (“Life A User’s Manual”). Perec’s novel consists of 100 chapters with one blank (missing), modeled after a Paris apartment building with 100 rooms. The theme of missing things constantly reappears (e.g., Bartlebooth dies as the puzzle he is working on has a single piece-shaped hole.)

Scrabble® has 100 tiles with two blanks, an almost exact replica of the structure of Perec’s novel. Hence the desire to allude to “La Vie” in stanzas 4 (“blank piece”), 5 (Bartlebooth and his puzzles), and 6 (“gaping hole”). “Puzzle-board” of stanza two is also a reference – to the 10×10 knight’s tour involved in Perec’s work.




Greetings from Nerdville

Friends who know me from my most recent incarnation (I typed incarceration by mistake but quickly realized my mistake)—the last fifteen years of my life when I can safely call myself an adult—would probably characterize me as outgoing and outspoken. I blurt what’s on my mind; I tell strangers not to litter, my husband to pay attention to my important musings, and my students to shape up or ship out.

As a girl, however, I was shy, scared of the Italian girls in my neighborhood with their bouffant hairdos and smoldering cigarettes. Bad influences, my grandmother called them. I was fearful of some of the Lithuanian girls as well, the older ones who wore lipstick and knew the meaning of words like douchebag.

I imagine a postcard from my early grade school days—me with my hair in braids and my teeth begging for braces, pasting insect stamps into my Young Adventurer’s Stamp Collector’s Book.  In the background one can detect the faint outlines of a chess set.  Next to the chess set, in bold relief, stands a pile of books including Tell My Why (Sample question: How big is the universe?), Profiles in Courage, and an unabridged Lithuanian-English dictionary.

Greetings from Nerdville, the postcard says.

(Husband intrusion: “Do you know that nerd can also be spelled nurd?” But nerdy can only be spelled nerdy, not nurdy.”)

My nerdiness followed me into high school—I memorized the poetry of Longfellow for fun, stayed up nights reading Tolkien, and almost flunked out of gym—though it was leavened somewhat by participation in drama productions (high school drama productions, not my own—those came later) and occasional use of various illegal substances.

As I’m writing this I’m wondering what the difference is between nerd and geek. Are they interchangeable?  I vaguely remember hearing that geek is more positive than nerd.

When I first met my husband, we asked each other about our ethnic backgrounds.

“I’m half Greek,” Marty told me. What I heard, though, was “I’m half geek.”

“The other half of you must be jock,” I nodded wisely.

I sometimes think if I’d been born twenty years later I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time in school.  These days nerdiness is accepted, if not celebrated (though I suspect that young nerds still have a hard time of it, especially if most of their classmates are non-nerds.) The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular sitcoms on television.  Top celebrity nerds, according to popular entertainment blogs, include such attractive people as Natalie Portman, James Franco, Vigo Mortensen, and the Gyllenhaals. Students come to class wearing t-shirts with slogans like “Ich bin ein nerd,”  “Chaucer is my homeboy,” and “Cogito ergo sum.”  (There should be a comma after the cogito: Cogito, ergo sum. Many people labor under the false assumption that there are no commas in Latin, but this is true only of medieval Latin.  Fun fact: the comma as we know it was adapted from the virgule–a real word because it’s good in Scrabble—a little diagonal slash first used in the middle ages. I learned this from the Wikipedia site for comma,  which includes a little warning: “Not to be confused with coma.”  A lot of my students do confuse comma with coma. A few years ago a student wrote the following: “I was in a comma out of which I painfully emerged.” I was very tempted to respond, “I was once in a question mark and, let me tell you, that was no fun.”)

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this or how it relates to Scrabble, except that the game attracts a lot of nerdy people. Tournament Scrabble players are probably all nerds by definition, though some are nerdier than others. Quite a few are accomplished, attractive, sophisticated nerds. Melissa Routzahn, for example, is a curvaceous blue-eyed blonde who also happens to be an expert on cheese. Lisa Brown has shining hair down to her butt and a wonderful laugh and knows about a thousand languages. There are many more examples. Of course, there are also just plain ol’ weird nerds, mostly guys who won’t look you in the eye and wear high-water pants and short-sleeved shirts with pocket protectors, but I’ll save that topic for another time.









I’ve been thinking of ways to drive my husband crazy. Not the I’ve decided it’s time we had a threesome, so I’m bringing home a cheerleader from school-crazy, but the I need some new creative ways to bother my husband-crazy.

Equilibrium is important in a marriage. If a husband drives a wife more nuts than she does him, or vice-versa, imbalance of the marriage chakras occurs. Imbalance leads to tension, tension to arguments, and before you know it the police are at your door, summoned by angry neighbors.

Lately my husband has been a tiny bit annoying. Oh, he was mostly great during my birthday last week, lavishing me with a fabulous pair of new boots. I picked out the boots, of course; I don’t trust men with the really important decisions in my life. When a huge box arrived from Zappos (if you don’t know about Zappos and their great selection and wonderful return policy, you must go to right now), I thanked Marty profusely.

“What for?” he asked.

“This very thoughtful gift.”

“What gift?”

“These one hundred and forty nine dollar boots.”

“One hundred and forty nine dollar boots? That’s outrageous. I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he spewed.

“I know. What a great price! They were originally over two hundred bucks.”

Marty settled down eventually, and we went out for a nice steak dinner.  But during dinner, Marty craftily shifted the conversation to his upcoming birthday at the end of February and how he was thinking of having a Scrabble tournament in his name and maybe sharing the glory with fellow Scrabbler Sam Smith, whose birthday falls around the same time.

“I could call it the S and M tournament,” he said. “For Sam and Marty.”

“That’s real classy. And where would you hold this S and M Scrabble tournament?”

“At our house. I thought maybe you could make some chili and get some cold cuts and stuff.  I would limit the number of entrants to no more than thirty-six.”

He kept talking about the logistics of the tournament—prize money, advertising, etc. when I had a brilliant idea: I would start to pepper my conversation with unacceptable Scrabble words—words that should be allowed, and that very soon (when the Scrabble dictionary committee comes up with its new list in 2014) will be allowed, but that now are verboten. (By the way, verboten is an acceptable Scrabble word.) Marty is very sensitive to intruder words; he’s afraid they will make their way into his brain like worms from some science fiction movie and nestle there, perhaps mating with the acceptable words.

I was about to say something like “A lot of women like to get bling for their birthdays, but I don’t need bling. I’m not a bling kind of woman” when Marty paused and looked me tenderly and said, “Let’s talk about you. It’s your birthday.”

“Good timing,” I mumbled, but Marty didn’t know what I was talking about.

Another annoying incident occurred on Saturday at Scrabble Club. We have a tradition of celebrating monthly birthdays; we have cake and a prize for the highest scoring word played that day that includes the initials of the birthday person. For example, someone might submit DeMented for Daiva Markelis. Sometimes we have prizes for the word that best describes the personality of the birthday girl or guy; the birthday person is the judge. I was not happy with last year’s selection; people entered words such as slut, grump, grumpy, and, inexplicably— dogears.  Luckily, my friend Mary Maddox submitted ritzy, which won hands down.

It is Marty’s job as Mr. Director to read the words out loud slowly.

He came to the word cagey and looked at me for a long time and then uttered, “Daiva is a cagey Lithuanian.”

Cagey is not going to win,” I announced.

“How about enabler? Daiva is an enabler to her students.”


I was getting exasperated with his examples and thought I’d start making up words and repeating them over and over. Words like wordworm.

Wordworm is an acceptable word, isn’t it?” I was about to ask. “It’s kind of like wormwood, right? Wordworm, wormwood—what’s the difference?”

But then Marty looked at me and uttered the word young.

“My Daiva is always young,” he said and smiled and put his arm around me.

All thoughts of wordworm left my being.






Walking down a snowy street in Linden, Michigan on a Sunday morning helped ease the migraine that had begun to stomp its way into my head in the early hours of the morning. The migraine had taken up full residence at about eight AM and kicked out the nice tenants—the dopamines and the serotonins—as I was about to begin my first game of Scrabble.

Soda can trigger migraines for me, and the day before I had imbibed several cans of Diet Coke and a cup of Orange Crush. Stress doesn’t help. Two days of Scrabble I can take. I wish I had put my foot down and told my husband I needed to rest on the third day. But he insisted I play Scrabble. Okay, maybe he didn’t insist, but he also did not say something soothing such as “Daiva, here’s some money for a massage and some doughnuts. You just relax.”

Games one and two were horrible. I kept seeing those little flashing pyramids and zigzag lines that signify a migraine aura (or an acid trip.) I thought my opponents were placing their V’s upside down and their Z’s sideways.

When I played Cheryl Melvin in game three (or maybe game two or four), she told me she knew all about migraines.

“When I gave up coffee and chocolate, my migraines stopped,” she said in a caring voice.  “You might want to try that.”

I was ready to say something like “This is the worst piece of advice I have heard in my entire life,” but Cheryl looked so sweet and sympathetic. I nodded politely. And then she proceeded to kick my Scrabble ass.

I even threw up twice, once in the middle of a game. I hope my opponent didn’t think I was so disgusted by my poor playing that I had to excuse myself to puke.

That entire day had a Kafkaesque feel to it.

Signals from some alternate universe made themselves known to my achy, breaky  head. (Note: breaky is not a valid Scrabble word.)

For example, my walk down the snowy Linden street came to a stop when I was hypnotized by a sign in a storefront window: “Due to certain circumstances we have chose to close.” Signed: “Me and my girls.”  I looked inside to see a clean and well-appointed diner with a kind of 1950s feel. I stood there and pondered what the certain circumstances might be. Failed health department inspection? Lack of customers? Alien abduction?

The tournament was held at the Loose Senior Citizen Center. I humored myself by thinking of loose senior citizens—grannies and grandpas making out with people other than their spouses. Several people had told me the name of the center was pronounced Loh-see. Yeah, yeah, sure. I thought of the ongoing argument I had with a friend as to how to pronounce the name of the singer Bruce Cockburn. My friend insists it’s Co-burn; I say it the way I see it.

Speaking of cockburn (not a valid Scrabble word—I don’t think), my husband missed a bingo that day that cost him at least fifty dollars.

The word was PENISES.

“It’s because I don’t look for PENISES,” Marty insisted.

“I bet you wouldn’t miss VAGINAS,” I answered.

Going back a day: Saturday was fun. I played fairly well. Marty played well, coming in second. Paul Epstein came in first, as he did on Sunday. Marty didn’t feel too bad about this, as his record against Paul in tournament play is something like 952 wins out of 957 games. Okay, maybe it was more like 13 out of 15, but you get the picture—Marty is Paul’s Scrabble Daddy.

The people who ran the tournament—Jeff Clark, Miki Sutherland, and Dan Stock— were friendly and organized. The players were all very nice (though the guy who counted out the spaces on the board with his finger whenever he had a bingo was a little annoying.)

The highlight of the day, however, was eating at a Middle Eastern restaurant called Taboon, which I think means “forbidden to monkeys” in Arabic. The food was excellent. For starters, the waitress brought out these little white puffy doughy things you could dip in a thick white garlic butter. The company was entertaining. There were about twelve of us, including a few locals. People from the Detroit area are a lot like Chicagoans—down-to-earth and funny—except with less discriminating taste when it comes to sports teams.

We arrived in Linden on Friday a little after noon to play the Early Bird.

Marty was a little annoyed because he had the misfortune to get stuck at a table near the receptionist (it was a business day at the Loose Senior Citizen Center). She spoke in an “I’m talking to old people” voice—slow and loud—to seniors who called to inquire about bingo.

Marty played well despite the noise, and came in second.

Melissa Routzahn, of Crystal Lake, Illinois, won the Early Bird tournament.

However, she also won the Bad Mother of the Week Award, which put a little damper on her Scrabble win. It seems that her lovely young daughter had called that morning to ask whether mom could pick her up from a sleepover. Melissa had conveniently forgotten to tell her children she was on her way to Michigan to play in a series of Scrabble tournaments.  (Fortunately, she had informed her husband about the trip.)

Scrabble will do this to you.



In the Palm of My Hand


On the hour-long ride to Champaign to see my therapist (for mainly non-Scrabble-related issues, though I suppose depression can be Scrabble-related), I put a bottle of opened Vitamin Water Zero, orange flavor, in my fairly new Dooney and Burke purse. I thought I had securely closed the top of the bottle, but apparently I hadn’t. One of the advantages of expensive purses is that they have really good inner linings. This is also their disadvantage. Once the water spilled, it did not quickly permeate the soft leather, but kind of just settled at the bottom, like radioactive waste water at Three Mile Island, sloshing around with my cosmetics and chewing gum and pens.

And iPhone.

I tried to resuscitate the poor thing, giving it my own version of mouth to mouth, wildly turning it on and off, which is the worst thing one can do to a soggy phone. The people at Verizon tried bringing it around, and temporarily succeeded. The phone worked when it was attached to some special wire connected to a computer, but stopped functioning the minute it was removed. I quickly had to face the painful truth—the phone was in a coma, and I would have to pull it off life support.  I also had to decide whether to shell out four hundred bucks for a new phone or wait until February 24th to get my upgrade for a hundred dollars. I decided to wait. I can wait. I am brave, yes, very brave.

At first I took this entire incident as a sign that I spend too much time on the phone. After much theological pondering, I realized I don’t use the phone function all that much.  I prefer face to face conversation, followed by email. What I mainly use the iPhone for is to listen to music, monitor Ebay bids, and, most importantly, study Scrabble words. What would I do now if I couldn’t anagram, couldn’t examine the eight letter OUT words, couldn’t review the four-to-make fives?  My hands began to shake. I felt sweat pouring down my forehead. Everything started to spin.

“What’s wrong?” Marty asked.

He knew about the death of the iPhone and told me I could borrow his primitive Trackphone, which, frankly speaking, I’d be embarrassed to carry around. What would my students think? The little bit of coolness cache I’ve acquired over the years would dissipate in an instant.

“How will I anagram and look up words?” I wailed.

“Well, you have your computer.”

“I’m not going to take my computer for a walk or bring it to a concert or sit on the toilet with it.”

“I can lend you one of my Palm Pilots.”

Carrying around a Palm Pilot is even worse than toting a Trackphone.

Marty has a small army of Palm Pilots. None of them has the phone function because, well, these are the really old Palms, the ones that Moses used to write down notes and commandments from God.

“Why do you need so many?” I’ve asked him. (Marty, not God.)

“It’s better to be on the safe side. A thief might sneak into the house at night specifically looking for old Palm Pilots.”

Marty knows the day is coming when the Scrabble dictionary is updated and he’ll have to cave in and get a fancy phone because the Palms won’t be able to upload the new words. He’s not looking forward to this day.

Marty handed me Palm Pilot as if it were some ancient and valuable scroll that might disintegrate in my hands.

“Be very very careful,” he said.

“Hey, what’s this stick?” I asked.

“It’s a stylus.”

“Wow. You can probably bring this Palm to The Antiques Road Show.”

“Not funny.”

“Where’s the function that lets me know what letters go with a word?”

“The Palm can’t do that.”

“How do I get the words from longest to shortest?”

“I’m afraid you can’t.”

It’s going to be a long two months.





Kabbalah for Dummies

            There are eight ways to spell Kabbalah. In addition to the most common spelling, which is Kabbalah, we have Cabbala, Cabbalah, Cabala, Kabala, Kabbala, Qabalah, and Qabala.  My extensive Google search reveals even more variants, but as these do not appear in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, they are of questionable validity.

           I bring up the Kabbalah (Cabbala, Cabala, Kabala) because anagrams are important in this body of esoteric religious knowledge, compiled/written/invented by Spanish Jews in the 1200s and re-popularized this century by those enlightened seekers of wisdom and truth—Madonna, Demi Moore, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and A-Rod.

            I’m adding my name to this illustrious list.  I believe studying the Kabbalah (Cabbala, Cabbalah, Kabala) will allow me to deepen my knowledge of the mystical forces at work in the universe. According to Wikipedia, “Kabbalah is a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious Ein Sof (no end) and the mortal and finite universe (his creation).”  You never know when this kind of knowledge might come in handy.  You’re at a party and the conversation lags. You can liven things up by telling everyone around you “I will now explain the relationship between an unchanging, eternal and mysterious No End and his creation, which happens to be the mortal and finite universe.”

            Another reason I want to study Kabbala is that I hope it will unlock the secrets of speedy anagramming.  My lack of skill in rearranging words to form other words has been an impediment to my moving up the Scrabble tournament ranks and, more importantly, beating my husband on a regular basis.

            How do I know that anagrams are central to understanding the Kabbalah? Every time I type “history of anagrams” into Google, the Kabbalah is right up there, along with sites for programs such as Anagram Solver, Anagram Maker, and Anagram Finder.

            There’s also a company called Anagram that specializes in “foil balloon manufacturing,” a vital component of our economy. Where would this great country be without foil balloons? Anagram holds a number of important licenses for foil balloon characters, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Miss Kitty, Harry Potter, and My Little Pony. The company’s slogan is “More People Choose Anagram Balloons to Celebrate Life.” When I read this I had the sinking feeling that one of my former Eastern Illinois University students had gotten a job as a slogan writer for Anagram.

           My early perusal of Kabbalah websites hinted at some pretty serious roadblocks to my study of cabbalism. Traditional religious scholars suggest that a knowledge of Hebrew is central to true cabbalistic understanding. They also maintain that being a woman is a disadvantage. However, the Kabbalah Center website ( believes that everyone can benefit from studying Kabbalah: “The word Kabbalah means many different things to many different people.”  (Another one of my former students may be working as a writer for the Kabbalah Center website.)

         I also came upon quite a few books about Kabbalah.  The most intriguing titles were the following: Kabbalah, Science, and the Meaning of Life: Because Your Life Has Meaning by Rav Michael Laitman, Ph.D; Kabbalistic Astrology: And the Meaning of Our Lives by Rav Berg; The Kabbala Book of Sex: And Other Mysteries of the Universe by Yehuda Berg. I was relieved to know that my life has meaning, and I was VERY tempted to order The Kabbala Book of Sex.  (The other mysteries of the universe I’ve already solved.) It was also refreshing to note that Jews—among the greatest writers in the world—are susceptible to questionable subtitles.

        I also seriously considered ordering Kabbalah for Dummies and The Idiot’s Guide to the Kabbalah, but thought “Hey, I can just check these out of the Eastern Illinois University Library.”

        Unfortunately, there was almost nothing about anagrams in the Dummies and Idiot’s books. I feel as if this entire search for the meaning of life and short cuts to anagramming has been a waste of time. (Or a waist of time, as one of my students wrote in an essay.)

        On the other hand, I now know the many alternate spellings of Kabbalah, which might come in handy in a Scrabble game.  Cabbala, Cabbalah, Cabala, Kabala, Kabbala, Qabalah, Qabala.