Sunday, November 26, 2006

Holy Scrabble, Batman!
Prelude to a tournament

I close my eyes and it is two weeks ago or probably more by now, but it is a clear memory. A Tuesday night. I am recoving from a cold which was made worse by a 12-hour plane ride, climate and time zone change. Suddenly I am sweating profusely and sleeping all day. I am jet lagged and trying to keep North American hours because I have a Scrabble tournament in Toronto coming up, and I'll be damned if all the studying I did on that eliptical machine is going to waste now that I am in Tel Aviv.

Tuesday. I take a cab from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and visit Lori, who is on the mend after breast cancer took one breast and several lymph nodes. So how is my childhood friend?

"My parents survived the Holocaust. How can I complain?"

That's how she is. And so I schlep around after her as we go from her fabulous bakery/restaurant La Cuisine in Talpiyot, carpooling the young'uns and going to the mall to exchange a few things before heading to see her mum, back to her apartment and then to a great new burger joint in the German Colony. We are caught up. We have had two meals during the course of the day (and I've sampled some of her delicious delicacies) and things are the way they have always been for us.

Back in the burger shack we are sucking the sauce off the barbecue chicken wings and still gabbing when I realize that it's late and I'm probably going to miss the first Scrabble match-up of the Sam Orbaum club. It's drizzling and Jerusalem is cold cold cold on this night. Winter-like. People tool around in heavy coats, hats and scarves. Cars are skidding on the winding paths that pass for thoroughfares. Not a good night to cross, even at a crosswalk.

We venture out and in no time Lori drops me at Scrabble. I race up the stairs and there it is -- the land that time forgot: the Sam Orbaum Scrabble club. At least sixty people sitting at their boards, dropping words down, hitting timers and recording plays. It's an important night: qualifiers for an upcoming tournament.

And just as in the region's politics and religions, there is a rift in Israel's anglo Scrabble society concerning which is the appropriate word list to use. Jerusalem plays the North American TWL while Tel Aviv favours SOWPODS, which is used outside North America. This night there is a tension in the air. There are so many new words since the new TWL list came out last March. Every bad play or challenge can be blamed on the new word list. Who will survive and see the Finals? Who by AGGADAH; who by KEFFIYAH. Who shall survive the cut; who shall go down with FEEB and DEF. In this city that is holy to three major monotheistic religions it's all up to the tile gods tonight.

I get in two games and win them both. The club director opts to have a piece of me while simultaneously playing someone else. This happens at the Jerusalem club. I don't feel I have the director's full attention when I open with YILL and he challenges. A new word, perhaps? No. A short while later I make room for DOOMY and again he challenges my play. New, nu? No. I had an unfair advantage because we three were Canadians, all talking about things Toronto, Guelph and Hamilton. Maybe we were not really focused on the game. But hey, I will take my wins.

The bummer of the night was that my friend Wendy Orbaum did not win any of her games and thus was not going to qualify in the upcoming tournament. Heartbreak! I gave her several boxes of Lori's cookies so that she and her three daughters could console themselves at home. In coming days I would receive an email from Wendy, who described the cookies at ACGIMORS (you figure that one out), and she wished me a good tournament in Toronto.

It was still drizzling and chilly when I caught a cab back to Tel Aviv. But when I arrived at the hotel on the beachfront by midnight, it was warm and balmy out.

Several hours later, Marty drove me to the airport, and I was on a Continental flight from the Holy Land to Newark.

I am now in the plane with several of Marty's colleagues and friends. Next to me a resident of Dallas named Mario with whom I would snooze and bond over the next twelve hours. A wonderful travel companion.

Mario's family came to the States from the West Bank after the intifada and now have established ten successful hispanic supermarkets in Texas. We talked about the Palestinian and Israeli situation and then our banter turned to the political situation in the States. After those ten minutes were over, we mostly gabbed about parenthood, music, marriage and life in general. He watched some Arab-language movies on his laptop and I worked my word lists.

It was a day flight and the territory we covered was beautiful -- desert regions that soon turned to Greece and its idyllic islands, hilly Turkey, frosty mountains in Italy, verdant Eastern Europe, a greyer Western Europe, bucolic Ireland, Iceland, rugged Labrador, Maine and then nothing but cloud cover for hours to come after being spoiled by perfectly clear skies until now. With around half an hour left to landing we realized we were in a holding pattern over the Catskills. The pilot came on a few times to update us and people were a bit uneasy about not being able to land right away.

But things really got uncomfortable when the pilot came back on and announced with regret in his voice that due to heavy headwinds we had to stop for a refuelling in Stewart Field in Newburgh, NY: It was the safe thing to do. Some of us know that this is a ten-minute flight to Newark. But others were really freaked out by this news. I was okay until I realized that the booze had been locked up and stowed away.

Not only did we need fuel but the wings needed oil. That's another maintenance crew and another truck. Poor Mario was going to miss his connection back to Texas.

Nonetheless, an hour behind schedule we landed in Newark and was I ever happy to touch down and grab my luggage. It was only around 6:30 p.m. but my body thought it was after midnight. I stepped outside and waited for the cab. The night air was more humid and heavier than I'd felt for a few days, but it was also a bit milder. Thirteen hours of plane air expelled from my lungs. I went home in a daze and slept with my windows wide open. I received a voice mail from Mario that he had taken a later flight and was okay. That's all I recall, other than I might have let my daughters tend to me a little bit.

The next morning the sky looked threatening. I knew I had to get Miriam ready for our car at 3:30 p.m. which would get us back to Newark and to our Toronto-bound plane for our 5:15 flight. She had her stuff ready and I had thought through what I was going to bring.

I did my usual domestic goddess drudgery: I drove Yona to school and then cooked all kinds of goodies for the weekend. We have a houseguest -- an actor from Toronto who is opening in a New York City production soon. And Marty would be back by then, too.

There was no point in wearing clean clothes. I threw on my plane clothes. I'd clean up when I got to Toronto.

Meantime, I made a banana bread, veal stew, and sauteed chicken livers in carmelized onions. A little olive oil and flour never hurt sweat pants and a tee shirt. Just in time to pick up Miriam from school and finish packing. Meantime, the sky has gone from grey to bitter angry. Tumultuous clouds are racing across the sky like sheep from a hungry wolf. The trees are swaying and the wind is swirling the leaves into mini-tornados.

We have a one-hour delay. This is our reprieve to get our stuff packed up just right for the trip. Because at this point we are in denial. We know this flight will go and that the minute we take off we will be up and out of this storm.

At the airport we discover that there is a two-hour delay. There is practically no line at security and it is eerily quiet. We stroll down to the end of the terminal, to the Presidents Club for a snack. Hordes of agitated, disappointed and angry people crowd at the gates. But inside the club it's quite different. The bartenders look very happy. Their tip jars are full of greenbacks and some foreign currency, too. It's festive. The board is flashing with delays and cancellations. There are audible thunderstorms outside. It clears; then there is fog as the night turns the sky black. We see limited numbers of planes taking off and landing outside the club. But no one is really paying attention in here.

The airline representatives are processing everyone as quickly as they can. One man who missed his trans-Atlantic flight is being rerouted through Minnesota. A Calgarian is heading back home and cancelling a business trip to Orange County. On the other hand, the TO flight is apparently still a go. We can probably make the last flight out if the storm clears.

Meantime we grab a seat and friendly up to a gent from Edinburgh. Miriam is fascinated by all things Scottish and the two of them are engrossed in conversation about everything from film to mankind. His name is Ged and he is a neighbour of J.K. Rowling. Ged plies me with two glasses of chablis from the Continental Cellars and Miriam is drinking soft drinks, eating little packets of cheese and an apple. She goes off to work on her sketchbook, and Ged and I talk about life events. The recent loss of our mothers (we are the same age). Kids. Divorce. Disjointed lives. Travel. The joy of meeting new people. The joy of finding happiness again. Hours pass and Ged's flight is ready to leave. We say our good byes. He hands us his business card and invites us to call him when we come to Scotland for the Fringe Festival, which apparently we have been coaxed into doing, thanks to the chablis. A big, full frontal hug and kiss from our new old friend and he disappears.

Meantime a group of five guys in their mid-forties have gravitated into our area. They are showing off pictures of their kids and wives to each other. We soon learn that they were eavesdropping in on our conversation with Ged. They are high school buddies from New Jersey -- now scattered -- who get together every year and have an ingathering of exiles. This year they are off to Dublin to see churches, do some sight seeing, drink some real Irish beer. But mostly they are going to Dublin to see Bruce Springsteen.

I carefully looked them over. We told them that I was going to Toronto to play Scrabble. Miriam rolled her eyes, but the redhead from the west coast was fascinated. A pregnant pause as I contemplate my next move and reach into my carry-on for my board and tiles. I utter:

"Hey, hundred bucks -- all of you against me. I'll take you all on. Say, twenty bucks each. How about it?"

Miriam was dumbstruck and more than a little embarrassed. The guys all looked at each other and gave that "why the heck not" look.

"Just let me check the board first and see what's going on with our flight."

While they refuelled their beer steins I hopped over to see that our flight had been removed from the board. Nine o'clock and we were cancelled. I checked at the desk. Cancelled, indeed, and more bad news: We were placed on a flight at 8:30 p.m. the next night. That would give me seven forfeits in my tournament. Completely, utterly unacceptable!!

I stood and tried to make the gentleman behind the counter understand that I knew, from much personal experience, that the morning flight would be wide open, but he was not open to listening. I was royally pissed and now I was sweating again, the last gasp of my cold. The smell of fried onions wafted from my clothes.

"I want a refund."

Done. I called the tournament director and left a message informing him that I was cancelling. I called my friends in Toronto and told them not to come out to the airport to get me.

Five minutes later, I realized the error of my way. Why the hell would I refund my trip and cancel my tournament? Did I not study enough? Was I not ready? I'd been through a refuelling, a bad cold and twenty-four hours in the air, no change of clothing, and now this?

I gathered my wits and went back to the counter. The man was gone and there was a new person at the desk. I pled my case and asked her to reinstate my ticket and wipe out the whole refund incident. I explained that I needed to be in Toronto by the morning. She was masterful in making it happen. Of course, as I had suspected, the morning flight was wide open.

"Just make sure you show up, because that plane will have your luggage on it and will not leave without you," she warned.

We said our sad good byes to our new friends who were a bit disappointed. Next, what to do? Go home for a few hours and come back at 5 a.m.? All the hotels were sold out. We cabbed back home and got up at 4:30 a.m. The weather behaved. I threw on the sweats and we headed out to the airport where we changed our seats up to the bulkhead.

A completely uneventful flight. We dozed off and then suddenly, we were on the ground in Toronto.

All I wanted to do was to get our stuff, race up to my friend's house for a quick shower and to burn my clothes outside in a pire. At the luggage carousel Miriam noticed a bad thing: The only ones waiting for luggage were those who were bumped from the night before. The smell of fried onions followed me to the baggage counter where we all filled out claim forms. We were assured that the luggage would be on the next plane and might even be airborne as we were standing there. Fine. Let's go. Clock is running down.

Within minutes my friend arrived with the car and I drove her to work, then continued to Earl Bales Park in North York where I arrived with scant minutes before my first game at 10:30 a.m. I was finally here. Phew. Deep breaths. An air of anticipation. Miriam sat around and waited for my best friend to come by and rescue her from this den of nerds. But meantime she got to see some of the Scrabblers from the circuit and it was not totally unpleasant for her.

I will save the Scrabble commentary for another post.

Let me just say that after a day of fighting hard in the tournament and struggling to keep my head up, we raced up to Thornhill to my girlfriend's. I forgot that I was jet lagged; that I smelled like a goat; that the luggage still had not arrived; that it was my girlfriend's birthday and I wanted to fete her. But the road to hell is paved with good intention. I would party with the best of them tonight, I thought.

By 8:30 p.m., after a good shower, I was really getting pissed. The luggage was somewhere in Toronto being dropped off to us weary travelers wherever we were. My friend's husband gave me some sweats to wear. I looked like a wooly bear and could not fit into my jacket. One last time I eased myself into my sweats, now smelling like the collision of stale McDonald's french fry oil and a sulfur plant disaster, and borrowed a tank top from my friend. We were about to head to the store when I realized something, and I told everyone to stand back: I was going to call Continental's lost luggage claims department.

Because I am a gamer, I will not reveal to you my method (you will have to find your own), however, I will inform you that by 8:45 p.m. Continental was springing for a lost clothing compensation spree for Miriam and me. It started at Old Navy and ended at the Loblaws Super Store. So you know we are good sports and did not take advantage. Three pairs of slacks; one blouse; one sweater; two sports bras. Total: Somewhere around $150, US funds, not including taxes.

With Miriam at a friend's in the neighbourhood for the night, there was still a birthday to celebrate. Donning my new jeans and sweater, I dozed off in the chair during the big outing with my best friend. Underwhelmed by my festive spirit, she took me home and went back to the bar while I dragged my sorry bones into bed and crashed hard. At around 1 a.m. I heard the doorbell: Bing bong. Continental calling, luggage in hand.

For the most part I decided to do the right thing and only wear my new duds for the next couple of days, out of principal.

Next: How the games went.

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