4th November 2012. The last day of half term. The date of the New York Marathon, cancelled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. And the date of the World Scrabble Championships in London.
As a language obsessive and smart-alec, I should like Scrabble far more than I do. I should be really good at it, what with my desire never to be lost for words no matter how odd the situation. But I'm not. I play Scrabble only occasionally, on endless wet summer weekends or when the conversation runs dry at Christmas and the visitors are wondering what we might do next. And when I play I usually don't win, which, I have been told, is down to my lack of encyclopaedic knowledge of those useful two-letter words which look neologistic but actually reside in dictionaries.
When I joined Facebook, years ago, I discovered Words With Friends - an app a bit like Scrabble or a crossword, which allows you to play word games against known or unknown opposition through the miracles of the internet. Someone sent me an invitation to join in, saying I was probably just the sort of person who'd enjoy it. I didn't even try. It's simply not my thing, and I know that some of my Facebook friends were disappointed and surprised...
And I can see why this was so. Anyone who knows me will know that I like scoring points with words. I love a good debate. I love the satisfaction of the last word, or of using just the right term to define just what I mean. I love winning, too - I'm happy to admit that my sense of competition is alive and well. But words are more than accumulated points, whether this is the point-scores of an argument or the winning of a game played on a board. What matters about words is what they mean - not the score value contributed by their accumulated letters, and whether you've timed your utterances carefully enough to say certain things at certain pre-timed moment, like putting a ten-point letter on a triple word score square.
Words with friends. What do we do each day, but share our words with friends? It's not about keeping score. The words don't have to be big, and their placement doesn't have to be clever. It's less strategy, more honesty, whether it's social networking or face to face. What matters about words is what they mean, and what matters about the words placed between friends is meaning what you say, or what you write. It's not the score per word that calculates that you are winning, it's the value that you mean what you have said. That if you've said you'll help someone, you do it; that you don't just say you care as a way of scoring lots of friendship points.
We are all so busy, nowadays: so much of what it takes to make a friendship insinuates itself into the little time left over from what we have to do. It's the two-second message tapped out prestissimo on a phone screen in a coffee break, the Twitter #ff or the Facebook 'like'... the meaning somehow found in a time when the very word 'friend' is being devalued through its application to almost every person you have met. Scrabble teaches us to make words and place them through a strategy in order to win by scoring points. Life shows us that we can build friendships with our words, and what they mean, and bringing that meaning to a 3D life beyond a wood or plastic tile...
People say that when difficult times come along, you discover for real who your friends are. It's times like that when you discover who's simply scoring points. It's times like that when you learn whose words have meaning beyond a counter on a board. And it's times like that when you can appreciate that, even though there's overwhelming darkness, your version of Words With Friends makes it obvious that you're winning. And no victory - even at the World Championships of Winning Ways With Words - can be sweeter than that.
And maybe friendship really is just exactly like Scrabble. You say what matters, when it matters: you make your friend feel better, just exactly when they need it. You make each other laugh. And cry. And care. And if the secret to winning at Scrabble lies in those unusual two-letter words, then maybe the secrets of friendship lies in the hidden contexts of those tiny things you say to one another - the jokes that only you two know, the secret codes you build of acronyms, initials or emoticons. The codes you build as emblems of the narrative that runs between you.
The stories told between you are what make your words as friends make sense.