I view the weekend with mixed anticipation and dread. It's nerve-wracking. It's exhilarating. It's fun. It changed my life. I mean, who knew?
It was time for my annual haircut. Well, almost annual. I went last June before my high school reunion. (And with "Wordplay" festivities coming up, I'll probably need to put Ron on retainer.) Anyway, I caught Ron up on my movie news. I decided to go a little shorter than usual, but eschewed anything radical. As Ron wielded his magic blow-dryer, he estimated I was probably about 10% gray, not bad for my age. I'm still reluctant to do anything about covering it. Sigh. My hair came out really nice, and managed to stay that way for most of the weekend. Several people asked how I got it to flip, and it was all natural (guided by Ron's blow drying). It will soon have a mind of its own, and turn into frizz.
After a haircut, I traditionally stop at Ess-a-Bagel nearby. Their bagels are almost always hot and fresh, so I don't bother specially asking for a hot one. This time, I should have since my bagel was on the well-done side and seemed hard. It was not unfresh, but not wonderful either.
I had a checklist of things to do before the tournament, but got very lazy. Laundry could be postponed; I had enough of all the essentials. And I could defuzz Friday morning. That turned out to be a bad idea.
Leslie and Mike were planning on the 1:07 train so that was my aim. If I didn't make it, I'd try for 2:07. There's really no rush to get up there (I was scheduled for the 5:30 Cru dinner), but it's good to have maximum lobby schmoozing time.
I got up early, but managed to waste enough time that making the train became iffy. My luggage was a bit unwieldy; maybe I shouldn't have brought the laptop. I figured the subway would be fastest, and took the crosstown bus to Lexington, and that subway to Grand Central. I exited near the stairs instead of the escalator. Huffing and puffing, I reached the terminal at 12:58. Whew. The track was on the lower level and I walked most of the platform without seeing them inside the train. I ended up riding by myself, which was not bad as I had iPod, books, magazines and puzzles for amusement (I always bring enough for a 97-hour ride). I used the return on the ticket left over from Westport. Exiting at Stamford (more huffing and puffing up stairs), I didn't see them or anyone I knew. I waited a bit, peered down the stairs again and there they were, along with Mark.
There was no way I was walking to the hotel with all that stuff, but Mark said I could put my duffel on his wheely suitcase. Then he complained the whole way how heavy it was. Walking the familiar route to the hotel, we joked about "crossing the Atlantic (avenue)" and I noticed my legs felt funny. My slip had crept down almost all the way, and there was nothing else to do but pull it off. The elastic has seen better days.
Climbing up the familiar path, we entered the Marriott. I immediately saw some Creadon/O'Malley family members I had met at Sundance. They had come once again to support Patrick and Christine. What a warm bunch! In the lobby, Trip said he'd already been interviewed by CBS News, but no press was awaiting me. I checked in and asked for my usual room by the elevator (there are 2 lines of possible rooms I like), and got it after the trainee working the desk was guided by her supervisor.
I arrived in the familiar room I've had for the last several years (that line of rooms, anyway), and noticed they'd changed the toiletries for "spa" items. No mouthwash either, which I was counting on (I did have Binaca). The soap was a fancy citrus aloe. Since I'm allergic to menthol eucalyptus and most bath oil-type products, I did not want to chance using the soap and breaking out in red, swollen hives (I had brought allergy medicine just in case, but still). That would be just lovely, both for my tournament performance and for the "Wordplay" publicity pictures scheduled. The soap they used to have was fine.
I called downstairs, and was told they also had cucumber, watermelon and other fancy-sounding soaps. "Don't you have just plain soap? Are you telling me I need to buy my own soap?" They put me on hold, switched me around, called back... and still the problem was not resolved. I was just about ready to go to the mall drugstore for soap (and demand some sort of refund), when someone arrived with a pile of soap. Among the fancily packaged herbal brands was plain old Marriott soap. I took 2 facial and 2 bath bars. Happy ending to THAT hassle. (I ended up using 2 of the bars, and took the others home, to be used next year in case this happens again).
I unpacked and was ready to go down and schmooze. I don't remember many details of this schmoozing, other than telling various people they were in Joe Bower's funny "Women of the ACPT" calendar linked from the NYT forum. The lobby got so crowded with people checking in that they added a velvet rope line. People arrived sopping wet from the rain; we came just in time. I registered and got my folder. In it was a puzzle whose theme turned out to be past champs' first names. Neat. Soon it was time to go into Allie's for the Cru dinner. I had signed up for 5:30 and am glad I did, as the later people apparently had such slow service they're still waiting for their entrees.
While eating, I wanted to consult the contestant list and found I didn't have my folder. I flew out of there, hoping I had left it in the ladies' room, and found it on the registration table. Luckily I'd jotted down someone's E-mail address on one of the handouts, so I knew the folder was definitely mine. Back inside, my chicken eventually arrived. Mike A. came by with a story of meeting someone who knew me on a plane (crosswords had come up); it was a guy I worked with at Equitable in the '70s. Patrick and Christine came over, looking great, adorable daughters in tow. They told me the movie was screened for 200 random people, and I'd gone over well. Nerd power! The restaurant was filled with Cru but I didn't table-hop.
Milling around in the lobby again, someone pointed out my "granny slip" (though it was NOT from Nana) was showing. Darn, it was creeping down again. I went back to the room and hoped a safety pin would hold it up. By now, everyone was entering the ballroom. It was packed! I hadn't prearranged a trivia team, and the first people I approached already had teams. I saw Fraz (I remembered his fun con trivia games), and he was booked, too. But wait! He came back later and said his original people had fallen through. We rounded up Mark and Merl (hey, judges technically aren't A players. And there was another team with Ray Hamel and Stanley - talk about ringers!).
The qualifying test was such that we figured some teams would get them all. Most of our guesses were right and our 38 turned out to be tied for first! So it was up to the stage with Ken Jennings. When he announced the trigonometry category, I thought he was kidding. Yikes, I remembered nothing from math 30 years ago, but managed to ring in here and there. We thought we were getting killed by the other team (with recent "Jeopardy!" champ King Frivolity), but actually lost by a slim margin.
Back to our seats for Sudoku. I had no illusions of doing well on this, and commiserated with the woman next to me. I managed to finish 2 grids (though I found a mistake partway through and hoped my correction was valid). The finalists were all young-guy WPC veterans who decided among themselves to split the prize money. Nice, considering they were all (I think) starving students. Chatting with my neighbor, I learned she and her husband had driven up from NC, and he and her father were competing. Her father, a nice Jewish older man from Miami, came over briefly. Later it came out that he was unattached and my matchmaking wheels started turning. I told the woman how my mother was not acclimating well to widowhood, and maybe...
Then it was time for the wine and cheese. I stood on a long line for mediocre cheese, a few raw vegetables, and pieces of fruit. The food at these things is underwhelming. I mingled around a bit, and found blog commenter Howard and various others. Sarah Bagby has married since her last tournament. I talked a long time with King Frivolity - about "Jeopardy!" I think. Games were going on in the ballroom, but for the last few years I've avoided after-hours play entirely, opting instead for sleep. It makes things less fun, but I can play at NPL cons when there's no pressured competition involved.
I went back up, checked E-mail (I thought the hotel was supposed to now be all wireless, but you still have to use a cable), and VERY briefly checked blogs. I did some puzzles (I like to stay fluid during tournament weekends). I was not happy with the state of my face. I had defuzzed that morning, left it on too long, and the upper lip area was sore and bleeding. Not good when photos were to be taken! I showered and went to bed but not to sleep. This always happens. I set the alarm for 8:30. Or thought I did. I never pushed the knob to Auto. Luckily, I also got a wake-up call. And I was up anyway. Nervous energy.
Saturday of the tournament is a REALLY long and stressful day. I always wonder how I'm going to get through it, and why I keep doing it. And how I keep doing it. I planned to wear my red dress for the "Wordplay" photos later, and just put it on for the entire day. Nametag, check. Folder, check. I was trying something new - wearing glasses. Now I never, ever appear in public with glasses on. They are strictly for use at home where no one sees me, so I never bothered to get nice frames. But here vision was at stake, and even with the best prescription, it is easier to look back and forth and see little numbers (it's the numbers, not the clues that are the problem) with reading glasses than monovision, bifocal, astigmatic contacts. I was practically out the door when I remembered I needed to clean my glasses. OK, clean glasses, check. Time to go do it.
I've sat in the extreme left side of the ballroom for a number of years because it's the lightest. However, my usual spot didn't seem all that light. I wandered around and found Nancy, who said she was in a very bright spot in the back right. It indeed seemed good. We settled in, only to be kicked out while they put up the dividers. Janet and I ended up outside by the back doors, and Helene asked us to keep people out. This occupied much time, as everyone wanted to get in and secure seats. At least I got to greet a lot of people. Helene wanted to get back in herself and we said, "Sorry, they're setting up, not yet!"
Finally they were ready and we burst in, only to find our "saved" tilted chairs had been righted. We did get the seats we wanted, and I saved my traditional seat for Francis, alerting the judges to direct him to the right side of the room since he'd undoubtedly look in our usual former spot. He arrived, as well as Jeffurry, his usual seatmate Marilyn (they both had portable lights, a great idea I'll have to get in case I'm stranded in a dark spot in the future) and Kiran at the end of the row (who asked if I'd mind - no problem). The ballroom was at maximum capacity. Only one clock was up, but it was near us so that wasn't a problem (besides, I had my own timer); maybe the other clock was being saved in case they needed an overflow room?
The intros were made, and I found myself getting nervous as usual. I set my timer to run backward; I hadn't thought of this all the other years and it was always confusing to reconcile minutes forward with the minutes backward on the official clock (remember, small number = BAD, large number = GOOD, lots of time left). Man, this is stressful. Why do I go through this?
Puzzle 1 - under 3, yay. I made the judge write the time in front of me. Gotta train them right away. Puzzle 2 - not so easy, hands were up before me (well, one hand - Stella's), but not bad. Puzzle 3 - ahead of Francis, but it turned out Trip was earlier. Francis used to use me as a "pace car" but we've pretty much evened up and we pace each other. Kiran was right in there, and Nancy not far behind. I didn't have any panic moments where I had to guess at a crossing and I made sure I understood all theme entries, but you never know. After my allergy med-fueled careless errors in 2 puzzles of 2 years ago, I don't assume I'm clean.
I was originally scheduled for "Wordplay" photos during lunch, but switched to the afternoon so I could eat with Steve. We went to the mall, noticing there were a lot fewer restaurants than previously, and ended up back at Sbarro's. A slice of pizza will always do, but nothing special. He brought me up to date on my Montreal cousins (his brother and my cousin are best friends), including the fact that my young cousin has a popular blog. I couldn't find it by Googling, so I'll have to get the URL. We left mental bread crumbs on how we had arrived, so we could retrace our steps and not be roaming the mall forever.
Afternoon. Puzzle 5 was looming as judges were introduced. Puzzle 4 - Francis and some others finished ahead of me. I always stay in my seat and do more puzzles after turning mine in. After shooing away a photographer (glasses, you know), Helene came and pulled me back. I thought it might be to pose for the photog, but she said a high school classmate was outside asking for me. It was Terry, who lives nearby. He lived near me growing up and I'd known him since elementary school, and saw him at the June reunion. I met his wife Polly, and after the round was over, brought them inside to meet Will. I encouraged them to come back later, and possibly tomorrow.
OK, here we go. The dreaded Puzzle 5 was by Byron Walden; that day's Byron in the NYT had KILLED me, taking about 15 minutes. I stared at parts of it forever. As I age, I can't hope to beat the young whippersnappers in a speed race (last year I had no mistakes but was 10 minutes behind the lead, finishing 11th). The place I can shine is on a really hard puzzle. Puzzle 5 turned out to be a REALLY, really hard puzzle, but I managed. I knew a sitcom actress immediately from her show in the clue, and with just a B, I correctly guessed the author of the quote. Painstakingly, the puzzle fell, with the center holding out. I guessed on 2 related words in the quote, corrected a wrong month abbreviation, realized what animal they were going for, and was DONE. 17 left. There was not a lot of activity in the room of judges picking up papers. Katherine had 2 minutes on me (so did Trip, but with an error, it turned out), but I was second. Francis finished quite a bit later. Jeffurry didn't finish, as did several other B's (and even A's) who all said they had NEVER not finished a tournament puzzle. We heard later that something like 30 people were correct and complete; I could check this on the results, but will leave it as an exercise for the reader.
As usual, Puzzle 6 was a Maura. I was in the second tier, but fast enough. Post-round, they were taking a picture with all the former champions. I'm so proud to be in this group. I talked to Daniel Pratt, back for the first time since 1980. Turns out his skills have gotten a bit rusty (it's hard out there for a pimp - I mean, crossword contestant!), though he's more a Scrabble guy. Turns out that now-60s former champs John McNeill and Doug have not gotten rusty, and did quite well. John never really lost his speed, but has had past problems with accuracy. We waited and waited, and finally everyone (plus Will) was assembled for a historic photo.
I was scheduled for a 5:20 "Wordplay" photo but asked Jon to switch his 5:40 with me, as I needed time to make myself presentable. I ran upstairs, put on contacts, and attempted to cover the unfortunate depilatory accident with makeup. It didn't help. At least my hair was good. There was food and a table set up outside, but I didn't want to risk spilling something on my dress, so held that for later. I was greeted inside by the photographer, who had come by during the round saying she was my "personal photographer" as I shooed her away, not wanting the world to see my glasses. They had me twist and turn various ways. Needless to say, I'm not used to modeling and hope I wasn't too stiff. They asked us to bring a prop, and I brought one of my dozen stuffed lambs, who looked very cute in a little white dress. At one point, I was asked to show my hands and I thought she meant the lamb's hands, and started rolling up her little sleeves.
Several "Wordplay" posters were spread out in the room, and I was asked to sign them. One mock-up had my head on another woman, dressed in a white pants outfit. I never wear pants, so it didn't look at all like me (plus she had a much better figure). The poster version of Trip had on a long tie. It will be so weird when the real poster comes out, assuming they make one with us as well as the original one with just Will. Back outside, I had a turkey wrap and some salad, and talked with Al and Merl. The IFC people were there too, very excited about the movie.
Next door, the judges were getting their dinner.
Soon it was time for the reception. Even though I had just eaten, I found room for 2 hot dogs (but 1 roll). I started a pretzel but it was too salty. There were no utensils, but I managed to scoop things up with the roll. I was getting more and more excited about seeing the movie with this audience. There was a row of "VIP" seats reserved for us, and SWAG! A "Wordplay" T-shirt. The one on my seat was a Medium; bleh. They switched it for an XL! There are definite perks to being a movie star. The place was getting packed. I saw Terry and Polly come in (sorry, Will). Patrick introduced the film, and gave special thanks to Doug, Roger, Scott and Zack, who were unfortunately cut (man, that would have upset me - I had told Doug he should have learned to twirl the baton). Finally it started. The sound wasn't ideal but not as bad as I feared. Jon was seeing the movie for the first time, and seemed to appreciate his segment (which I find very moving). Tears came to my eyes AGAIN as I heard my story.
Still more photos were needed, and we were pulled out one by one during the movie (except Jon, since he hadn't seen it before). Unfortunately, I was summoned around Puzzle 5 and didn't get back until the finals were underway, so I missed the tournament crowd reacting to scenes of the tournament crowd. Oh well, such is life as a movie star. Up in the photo room, they had me twirl a black pole substituting for a baton (luckily, I could do this), stand behind a desk and pretend to do a puzzle, and various other poses. This does not come naturally for me. They assured me they could airbrush out my blotches. They used another body before, so maybe they can just use another face, LOL.
Back inside for the end of the movie. This is my third showing (more or less, since I saw the finals scene an additional time in Sundance, but missed some of the tournament footage here), and I'm not sick of it in the least. The crowd reacted strongly, as was inevitable. Now if everyone sees it, and tells their friends, and their friends tell THEIR friends.... I hope this isn't just a small cult movie, but who knows. I think it's great, but I'm more than a little biased. Patrick spoke briefly afterward. He's on cloud nine, deservedly so.
I schmoozed with various people. The older gentleman from Miami must have liked my performance, since he asked for Mommy's number. Dean said he hadn't been able to find a seat, which made me momentarily guilty my high school friend did, but he did see it in Sundance. Though everyone had segments they liked better than others (the pontificating Ken Burns is not very popular), the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It's rumored IFC wants to cut some of the tournament stuff, which is a shame. I much prefer the tournament footage to the talking heads, but I'm hardly unbiased. And it's not my movie. We have to trust that the filmmakers will make the best movie they can. And hopefully the cut segments will be on the DVD. Wild ride ahead!
I avoided late-night games again, and talked with Judie, Norma and Ed. Those ladies are such a hoot. Norma talked about how she threatened to lie down in the lobby of an uncooperative hotel in Egypt. That would have been something to see! As I was heading up, Doug Heller invited me to join a group in the bar, but I hate bars. Ick, drinking. Plus it was close to midnight and time to wind down for the early start Sunday. I showered, set the alarm (correctly!) for 7:45, arranged a backup wake-up call, checked E-mail, did a puzzle, and actually fell asleep.
Unfortunately, I woke up around 5 and never got back to sleep. I'm always so keyed up at Stamford, with all the stress. My toothpaste cap was missing, apparently discarded with used washcloths during cleaning. I got dressed and headed down. It was too early for results, so I went to my seat and did puzzles. Sunday morning is always nerve-wracking. How did I do? Did I make any unknown errors? If I knew I made errors, how bad was it? Did I have a chance at the finals? All day Saturday I heard about errors and slow times. The rankings seemed shaken, and no one knew where they would be.
Last week, I almost did a blog entry about how frustrating it was to feel like a has-been. Many times people would talk about the top people and even the top women, and fail to include me. I was not being perceived as a force to be reckoned with anymore. While it's true my results since the win have not been stellar (highest was 5th 3 years ago), I was having a hard time gracefully transitioning to elder statesmanhood. I had a discussion with Mimi about this over the weekend, as I admire the way she has moved into this role. She was the champ, and no one can take that away from her. Now she's not the champ, but still pretty darn good for 80 years old. I can barely see at my age.
While no one can take away my having been in 13 finals, and won once (and I also won and was in finals of other tournaments, including 2nd in the U.S. Open), it's now 2006, I'm AARP age, and I'm not always considered a contender. My stated goal was to get back in the top 10, but my real goal was to get back in the top 3. I didn't know if that was possible. While there have been tournaments I didn't train an iota and made the finals, this time I probably trained more than I ever had. I'm not working full-time, got most of my work out of the way a few weeks ago, and just... did a lot of puzzles. Lots of puzzles. Lots and lots of puzzles. I finished about 20 puzzle books (though some were started a while ago), caught up on 1.5 years of Newsday online. There were days I did 20 and days I did 60. I didn't know if it would help. All the training in the world doesn't help when it's the moment of truth and a puzzle is in front of you. All that matters is if you can solve that puzzle.
My hands hurt, and I was worried maybe I overdid it. My hands don't hurt right now. It was worth it. I was 2nd going in to Puzzle 7. Puzzle 7, just one more to go. I needed to be clean. Francis's hand went up ahead of me (so did Kiran's - and Al as well, it turned out), and I raced to complete the lower right corner. I hoped I understood all the theme entries, and handed it in. I raced upstairs to pack and put in my contacts. Vanity triumphed for the finals, but I didn't think I'd have trouble seeing a 15. I called Janet's room, and Joe arranged to put my luggage in the car for the ride home. I thought of working on the Nucky longest puzzle (Longo, longest, hahaha), but training seemed futile at that point.
After milling around outside, it was time to go in and see if I made it. I sat down, hoping I would need to vacate the seat. Will came over and said he needed to talk to me privately. I had a heart attack as we spoke in a corner. Was he going to warn me I had made a mistake I didn't know about? Was I still in this? Instead, he told the names of some of the finalists in confidence (including an A), and asked if I knew any tidbits about them for the commentators. Will, don't you know you're killing me?? I answered as best I could, referred him to another person who I thought knew one of them better (and saw her walk over, probably wondering what in the world Will wanted), and went back and quietly continued having a heart attack. I did not ask him if I was one of these finalists, and I'm not sure he knew how crazy this made me.
It was all good, though. Not wanting to risk a mistake, Tyler was conservative during the last puzzle and I ended up first going in to the final! Even though I'd been in 13 other finals, this almost never happens. I was (and still am) really proud I could end up on top, in the largest and possibly hardest tournament ever. At my age. After some not-so-great years.
The finalists were led to the basement to wait. We had the B's to keep us company at first, but soon the C's (featuring Ken Jennings - who won!) finished and they went up. I was filled with nervous energy and went to the ladies' room even though I had gone not long before. Matt Gaffney was our chaperon. Finally, it was time.
There's a reason I've been in 14 (now) finals and only won once. I don't do well standing up, and the final puzzles are really hard! This one was... well, Mikey is one of my favorite people, but I'm not too crazy about him now. Geez. I could hardly get started. Hearing the commentary later (handily available online), I see no one else was racing out of the gate either. I slowly, painstakingly, got each corner, but the top left was a bear. I was literally stuck. I knew Tyler had finished (you can't hear specific commentary through the headphones, but you can hear rumbles), and looked over at the clock to see 4 minutes left. My mind was frantically trying to parse the clues, when finally I got FURCOAT and FINALEXAM and was beginning to see the light, when I was tapped that time was up.
It seemed I had a huge chunk missing in the upper left, but there were actually only 7 squares blank or wrong, so it wasn't that bad. Kiran's was a little better. Just another 5 minutes and I would have been done. Or even another 1 minute. Oh well. It's so much harder standing up. Still, I'm really happy with this tournament. I was able to do it one more time. Whether I can continue to stand out among this rabid pack is unknown, but for today I'm not a has-been.
I spoke to a reporter for the Stamford paper who looked like a teenager. PD Wadler, from the old NYT chat, introduced himself and his partner. I remembered he had been on "Jeopardy!" during that time. I found out later Polly had been at the final, but didn't see her at the time. Everyone went outside, and talked some more. Heading back in for the banquet, I was buttonholed by a Hartford reporter and asked Jeffurry to save me a seat. Normally I don't like saved seats and prefer to just sit somewhere randomly, but I didn't know how long I'd be delayed. After I answered the reporter's questions, I urged him NOT to use a headline or lead "What's a..." (you know the drill). He claimed he would NEVER use such a cliche.
Lunch was the usual seafood pasta. Not bad, but you can get much better meals elsewhere for $45. KenJen gave a nice talk on how welcomed he felt. Like Francis says, "Oh! This is where all the people from my home planet went!" I was pulled away from goodbyes with my fellow home planet residents to get in the car and head home. What a weekend!
Since I was conscious and not in need of a whole day in sleep, I was able to work in Westchester. We're not talking crack of dawn; I took the 12:48 train. I had a pillowy soft bagel in Grand Central. Normally I enjoy train rides with my iPod and the other stuff. I had a plastic bag resting on the floor, and noticed toward the end of the ride that it was soaking wet with coffee that another passenger had spilled. Blech. It got through to my paperback (Camryn Manheim's book, which I had to throw out) and magazine (which was almost done anyway), boots, briefcase bag. I cleaned everything once I got there (though I thought I smelled coffee for hours), had a productive day, went for dinner at the local diner, and back on the train.
I must have been conked out most of today. I finally wrote this blog entry, Googled around for tournament news, didn't do much of anything. Taxes loom.