The social calendar is as barren as our front lawn; the early-setting sun is making everybody sleepy far too early; only a steady infusion of hot tea can keep me warm until April.
Still, something compels me to throw off the down quilt at 6 a.m., pull on my robe and dash downstairs each morning. It’s a small beacon of pleasure in this otherwise bleak season, the size of a pack of cigarettes and every bit as guilty.
Within six minutes, Mr. Coffee is humming and sighing in my ear and I am getting ready to pummel my brother-in-law. Not physically – he lives 4,000 miles away, in Switzerland – but with words. More specifically, Words With Friends.
For the uninitiated, Words With Friends is a wildly popular pseudo-Scrabble game made by Zynga for smart phones. You can start games with individual friends and play them from anywhere. They’ve changed the point values of the letters and rearranged the locations of the double- and triple-word spaces just enough to avoid legal hot water with Hasbro. I splurged $1.99 for the version without the ads for Zynga’s other games, which include annoying characters that look like Bratz dolls.
Unlike regulation Scrabble, which requires a lost turn if you try to play a word that isn’t a word, WWF is more forgiving. It simply calls you on the bullshit word and makes you try again, without losing a turn. So you can fearlessly push the etymology envelope, and the game can easily devolve into a rugby-ized version of Scrabble. We’ve learned about many words that we never knew were words – such as qi, suq, qat, and za. Don’t ask me what they mean…we play them without looking them up.
WWF is so addictive that Alec Baldwin got kicked off a plane because he could not stop playing. I am addicted as well, and my ever-growing list of competitors and fellow addicts now includes my book group friend Amy, brothers-in-law Tom and Rich, mother-in-law Lois, cousin Lorraine, husband Bob and four of my six children – Rachel, Ryan, Ben and John. People whom I haven’t seen in years, and acquaintances of acquaintances, are trying to hook up with me for some WWF play via Facebook.
It certainly has brought out a side of everyone that I hadn’t seen. My sister in law Linda confides that mild-mannered Tom stays up late studying his growing list of WWF boards and dreaming up strategies for destroying his mother and me. “He’s taking too much childish pleasure in his winning streak,” she emailed before encouraging me to “please take him down a notch.”
And Lorraine…my sweet cousin, the one I played hide-and-seek with around the old neighborhood? As “Little Carmela,” (her user name for WWF) she is as scary as a Soprano. Despite having many years writing for a living, I constantly lose to my daughter Rachel, who works in a biotech lab…go figure. And my saintly husband Bob, after cheerfully doing the dishes after dinner, retires to the couch, where I soon hear the familiar tinkling music that heralds that a WWF word has been played.
“Was that the game against me?” I ask plaintively. “I just (expletive) you!,” he chuckles triumphantly.
Our 13-year-old son, John, who asks many questions about spelling when he’s writing a paper for school, seems to have no trouble coming up with words like “bowery,” “qi,” and “jeed.” After getting trounced by him a few times I have decided not to cut him any more breaks.
As we speak I am trying to recover from a blow struck by mother-in-law Lois, who just pulled ahead of me. She too is a rabid competitor, not above playing words like “weewee” in order to score a few shameless points. This game was so close that she only had to play the word “tea” to pull ahead. What’s frustrating is that I have enough for a “bingo” (a 30-point bonus for using all of your seven letters) but no place to put it. I have a blank tile so I can play “slanted” or even “insulted” if I can find the right place on the board to play it.
So I fume, and in my frustration at the game with Lois and my continued losing streak I strike back at John, my youngest competitor. When the chance to play a bingo – the word “vinifera” – against John presents itself, I don’t hesitate. I remind myself that he played the word “jeed,” so he is not as helpless as he looks.
But, with 52 ill-gotten points now added to my score, I feel like the Cowardly Lion, chasing Toto and yelling, “Well, I’ll get you, Peewee!” But then, I haven’t felt any shame in this game for weeks. Shame evaporated when the word “dildo” cropped up in a game against my older son.
While I am thoroughly addicted, with 12 ongoing games and counting, I’ve resisted taking my addiction to the next level. Zynga will offer you the “zipless” experience (you Erica Jong fans will know what I mean) of being paired with a stranger for some anonymous WWF acrobatics. So far I have resisted. So far.