Thursday, February 24, 2005


In Which I Take "Taboo" to a Whole New Level...

This will come as a shocker: I love word games. I've written here before about my unabashed ardor for haiku and anagrams. I'm also fond of puns and other such word play.

But word games. Man, I am on them like an umlaut on a German vowel. As a kid, spending summers in our little camp in New England, we didn't do TV. It wasn't that my family was ultra-progressive, it was just that there was no cable or satellite service then. Consequently, the only station we could pick up on the portable black and white TV was an ABC affiliate that seemed to show only weather reports and a locally produced children's show, both of which were hosted by the same person. Everything else was preset to The Static Channel.

So we played a lot of games. Even at a young age, I was way into the word games. Spill N Spell, Boggle, Upwords, Scrabble. And we were competitive! I remember going around grocery stores and bookshops, obsessively counting the numbers of letters in words (seven-letter words for Scrabble, 15-letter words for Spill N Spell) against the day when I could Use All My Letters in one turn and earn the maximum number of points.

Actually, I think I was the only one who did that. And it eventually came to bite me in the ass (or gluteus--SEVEN LETTERS!!), because I started winning these games--against my parents, even--and wouldn't stop. To make it fair, I agreed to a set of stringent handicaps, which included not being allowed to use all my letters in any one word on any turn in any word game. In Scrabble, I was also not allowed to use triple-word score squares. At one point, it was also a requirement that if I played a word or words, I had to use them in a sentence (this because my brother didn't think I should be allowed to play a word if I didn't know what it meant). During one memorable Spill N Spell, this forced me to utter a sentence using the words "defiled" and "virgins." My sentence was: "The Angel of the Lord defiled virgins for a living." I was 8 years old.

While I have no doubt those extra rules played some part in my life choices and ultimate career path, at the time it was a lot to juggle, and eventually we all stopped playing the word games. And then, sometime after college, I got way into them again. Only now it was different: As an adult, I went through a long period of really sucking at them. I had spent so much of my youth hampered by those handicaps that I couldn't shake them, and tended to ignore scoring opportunities that my opponents naturally exploited.

Consequently, when I first met Her Lovely Self's parents, my future mother-in-law, a competitive Scrabble player in her own right, was distinctly unimpressed with my level of play.

But then one night, during my first long weekend with her family, we played Taboo.

I had never heard of this game before, but it was a revelation. I'm sure you all know the rules, but just a quick recap, (in case my brother's reading or something): You play in teams, and take turns drawing a card which contains the "taboo" word, the word you cannot speak. So you have to give clues and phrases using other words so that your team can guess the word. On each card, there is also a list of secondary word you cannot utter because they're too close to the taboo word.

For example, if the taboo word is "orbit" some of the secondary taboo words are things like "rocket" "space" "John Glenn" etc. And you can't say any of them, so you're forced to say words like "elliptical...geosynchronous" or whole phrases like "aging senator I can't name was famous for doing this as part of the Mercury project."

Anyway, it's a great game because it forces to you to be at your articulate best, picking your words carefully and still trying to give good clues. Unfortunately, for me it became the game equivalent of crack.

Not only could I not get enough of this game, but it altered my behavior, which I'll get to in a minute. But my team won every time we played. Which was fine at first. My wife's family is pretty competitive about games. But they're also a very kind, polite, proper bunch. As my Dad once put it, "They wouldn't say 'shit' if they had a mouthful of it."

Consequently, this put a new handicap on my game play. On one of our earliest visits to meet the folks, Her Lovely Self had cautioned me to avoid any salacious words in playing Scrabble with her mother. No defiled virgins on that board, I can tell you. In that sense, my whole weekend was like one giant meta-game of Taboo, choosing my words carefully and making sure I didn't get penalized for saying the wrong thing.

I tried to apply the same restraint to my actual game play, I really did. But it's tough. To win at Taboo, my strategy was to unhook my mental editor and free-associate when a team member started giving clues. Thus, if I'm on your team in a game of Taboo, it's a bit like having someone who has just developed Tourette's Syndrome. Because I just rattle off a string of words and phrases. It's unsettling at first, but I get results, baby. I think the record for my team is about 12 words in one minute.

My wife's family has become used to this tendency, but on that particular weekend, I'm sure they didn't know what to make of me.

Especially in the last game of Taboo that we played that fateful weekend. On my team was my future father-in-law and D, the boyfriend of Her Lovely Self's middle sister. We were playing against the girls, which included Her Lovely Self, her two sisters, and her mother. Four women versus three men. We were the underdogs and the pressure was on me to make up the difference. And we were winning, too, right up until D took his turn giving clues.

He stares for a long time at this one card. Time is running out. I'm rocking in my seat, making impatient "c'mon c'mon" gestures with my hands. Finally, he gives his clue: "I wake up with this every morning."

And I blurt: "An ERECTION!!!"

Game play, all sound, every heartbeat, the very motion of air molecules, it all stopped. This was a polite, proper bunch, remember. Wouldn't say "shit" if I had deposited some right there on the table, although that was the verbal equivalent of what I had done. Her Lovely Self looked positively stricken. They all did: a room full of virgins that I had defiled with my erection.

Thank God for D, because after a few seconds, he couldn't contain himself and collapsed laughing. My future father-in-law followed suit. It took longer for the girls to get over it (in fact, I recall Her Lovely Self's sister fleeing the room, her face beet red). But hey, it broke the ice.

The word, by the way, was "coffee."

From Somewhere on the Masthead


This is the best game EVER. EVER. EVER. Nic gave it to me for my birthday. I've scrapped all of the trappings of the game except for the velvet bag and the letters. I carry it around in my backpack, and Dan and I play every chance we get.

Very funny.
Scrabble and Jotto are some of my favorite games. I've never played Taboo.

Oh nooooooo! Did you really?!

I love that game but haven't played it in years. Back then my sister had turned her whole apartment complex onto that game, and it was such fun to visit there. And you just haven't played Taboo unless you've played it with a brilliant woman made slow but funny by medication (and her husband who was just naturally that way), a lesbian quartet, and a man in a poodle skirt. Ah, good times...
My last game of TABOO was brought to an abrubt end because the host of the party collapsed, laughing hysterically, in the middle of the floor...his hair rubbing on the carpet...his rear straight up in the air. Apparently, my clue for "Kentucky" was what sent him over the edge. But - what was I supposed to do? You couldn't say "state" you couldn't say "bourbon" you couldn't say "wildcat". So I said something like, "In this unionized location brothers often find themselves having feelings for their sisters." What? WHAT?! I got them to say "Kentucky," didn't I?
Scrabble is the BEST game, but Taboo is good also. If you haven't read it already, you should try reading Word Freak.
Oh my GOD, I can't stop literally laughing out loud.

I'm really enjoying reading through all your archives...I think the humor is having a cumulative effect...
More archive browsing today, and I have to say:

If we ever meet, you MUST play Scrabble or Boggle or Taboo with my family. My mother needs a sound beating! She cheats so horribly! >:P

Me, I prefer Pictionary, but nobody ever wants to play with me. ;_;
Oh my. I just hurt myself from trying to contain the laughter.
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