Some things get better with age. Wine, yes, though when I drank I didn’t give a damn about vintage. Cheese, beyond a certain point. Jeans. A pair of well-worn Levis trumps new ones every time. Older trees produce higher quality fruit. Pearls grow more luminous the more they’re worn; the skin’s natural oils gently lubricate the delicate nacre. Leather. And probably sex, though this is complicated. Maturity brings bodily acceptance and emotional trust, not to mention expertise, but, ah, for the days of feral pleasure with some pretty, wild boy.
Vocabulary expands with age. Or should, if we read anything at all. A few years back, a student asked the meaning of ambivalent. Another student piped up: “Isn’t ambivalent something like ambiguous?” We spent the entire class coming up with examples, using ambiguous and ambivalent in sentences: “The professor felt ambivalent about giving the student a B, but the otherwise well-written paper had an ambiguous ending” and “The student felt ambivalent about the grade he was given because the teacher’s instructions were ambiguous.”
My vocabulary has increased over the years. Definitely. (Or, as my students mistakenly write, defiantly.) In addition to habitual reading and writing, I also study lists of words for Scrabble competitions, high probability combinations of seven and eight letters: nidates, oolites, arsenite, antrorse. I try to use these in conversation in goofy ways so that I remember them: “Excuse me, honey, can you pass me the arsenite?” and “Ooh, I like your new oolites!”
One of the problems with aging, however, is that at some point we begin to forget the words it’s taken a lifetime to acquire.
This happened to me over the weekend at the Dallas Open Scrabble tournament. I had ADELMRS on my rack. I knew there was something in that combination of letters because I know the mnemonic for ALDERS—FIRS THORNS PRICKLED TWO BUMS. I sat there shuffling my tiles until my head hurt. I consoled myself that it was Game 18 out of 20 and that MEDLARS is not a common word. A medlar, according to Dictionary.com, is “a small tree, the fruit of which resembles a crab apple and is not edible until the early stages of decay.”
I felt very crabby at the moment and was probably in the early stages of a precipitous mental decay, but maybe I was still “edible.”
I didn’t have a great tournament, but it was nothing compared to what my husband experienced. I lose at Scrabble all the time, but Marty, well, Marty does not. He’s come in second at the Dallas Open twice. Last year he scored 702 points in a game, a feat that got him into the 700 Club for the third time. (Note: This 700 Club is not to be confused with Pat Robertson’s evangelic dog and pony show that explains phenomena such as Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment for decadent life styles.)
Anything can happen in an open tournament. The highest rated Scrabblers play the lower seeds in the first three games. It’s kind of like March Madness. There can be upsets. There can be Scrabble Cinderellas.
For example, at the first New Orleans Open just two months ago Scott Hawkins beat Joel Sherman, winner of both the World Scrabble Championship and the National Scrabble Championship. Joel is known as G.I. Joel in Scrabble circles; the G.I. stands for gastrointestinal and refers to Sherman’s tendency to burp (and make other sounds) during games. Scott Hawkins sometimes burps, though it’s usually when he’s had too much beer. He’s a good-looking scalawag who sometimes plays at our club in Charleston. I once gave him valuable advice about dating women who didn’t have whiskey for breakfast, counsel he ignored for the most part.
Anyway, according to witnesses, Scott crawled into the hotel at six am, took a two hour nap, then got up, still hung-over, and gulped down some coffee before staggering over to the table where he was to play Sherman. Where he was to play and to beat Joel Sherman. Of course, he picked great tiles. “I got everything,” Scott told me.
Nothing quite that dramatic happened to Marty. No intoxicated hussy got all the tiles. He lost his first three games. He forgot some words. He didn’t see GELATING/LEGATING in his first match. He forgot that PAVIN, a variant of pavane, an old-fashioned dance, takes an –s front hook to form SPAVIN, a bone growth in the hooves of horses. (Spavin comes from the Old French espavain, which means swelling.) I knew that PAVIN takes an –s. Marty taught me that years ago, and so I played it in Game Number 15, the last game of the second day. I won by hooking a seventy-six point bingo ending with an –s onto PAVIN.
The word that best describes my feelings about beating my husband at the Dallas Open is ambivalent. I was elated at first, ready to jump out of my chair and do a series of fist pumps. Ninety five percent of the time when we play at home or at the club, Marty wins. Then I felt guilty, as if I had done something terribly wrong, had upset the natural order of the universe. Then I felt sad because Scrabble means so much more to Marty than it does to me and he was having a bad tournament. And then I was worried because Marty forgetting SPAVIN is so unlike him.
Perhaps he was tired. Our mattress at home is too soft for his hard, sports-ravaged body. Perhaps he was worried about his father, who’s recently been diagnosed with cancer. Although the prognosis is good, doctors will have to remove a kidney. Perhaps the fact that Marty is also playing international Scrabble, which uses another, bigger dictionary, threw him off his game. There are 90,000 words in the North American dictionary; international Scrabble adds another 30,000.
I decided to treat Marty to dinner at the Crazy Buffet. We sat there and ate egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken and won ton soup and analyzed our games and then when the waitress brought the fortune cookies Marty broke open his and began to laugh.
His fortune read: “Perhaps you should take up another hobby.”