Pastimes in Real Time The COVID-19 Chronicles: Puzzles, games & margaritas

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This is one of a series of first-person accounts of how COVID-19 and shelter-in-place orders around Monterey Bay are affecting us all. If you would like to share your thoughts about living under the sheltering sky send your essay to us at

By Jeana Jett

Our Scrabble board took up permanent residence at the far end of the dining table on March 18, just a day after the shelter-in-place order came down.  We play every day around 4 p.m. We are seeing significant improvement in our scores since discovering Scrabble’s secret weapon, a cheat sheet of the 107 permissible two-letter words as obscure as ef, qi and jo.

The other guest at the table is the laptop, truly a Scrabble no-no. Our customized rule when we test a seemingly outlandish, self-serving word is to ask: “Is ixnay a Scrabble word?” Upon consulting the online Scrabble dictionary, we both learn that “Yes, ixnay is in the Scrabble dictionary.”  Or, as we learned, “No, vour is not a Scrabble word.”

This adaptive practice preserves accumulated points, minimizes the necessity to challenge words and the associated penalties, and wards off competition only until seven tiles remain. The mezcal margaritas assuage the results of the final score and we both cherish the newly acquired vocabulary words.

The life lessons in Scrabble are well-documented, my personal favorite being that you rarely have the tiles you need when you need them, so you must figure out how to make the most of what you have.

With all this time on our hands, we have refined our Scrabble skills,  and we’ve learned that our friends are also immersed in puzzles and games.


In Seaside, for instance, dissectologists convene in a spare room where they settle into the art of bringing order to 1,000 pieces of chaos, a jigsaw puzzle.

Over the years, my friends Stella and Michael have engineered this space with a made-for-large-puzzles plywood top and now it is being used more often.

The top overhangs a card table and is painted black for high quality viewing. For back safety, this table can be elevated so that puzzle-solvers can stand and stretch legs during the weeklong jigsaw adventure.  The multi-dimensional light and magnifying glass complete the serious sheltering-at-home set-up. What is hard to find these days are the jigsaw puzzles Michael and Stella enjoy the most — puzzles that depict places they have visited, and puzzles they can affix puzzle glue, frame, and ultimately gift to others.

During these times of close quarters, Michael and Stella say they are blessed with having long ago worked out their differing puzzle strategies. He follows the picture on the box, and she relies on shapes, colors and sizes. But their shared philosophy about working jigsaw puzzles sees them through the moment:

“You may think (a puzzle) is easy, but it usually is not,” according to my brother-in-law Lee.

The “ah-ha” moment comes with the insertion of the last piece—a two-week journey into mental freedom, even as physical freedom is curtailed.


A few blocks away, the Lynn family — a mommy, a daddy, a six-year-old and an 8-year-old — are on the fourth day of a continuous game of Monopoly.

Me: “Tell me what you boys are learning by playing Monopoly.”

Gleeful 6-year-old: “How to buy things!”

Pensive 8-year-old: “How not to lose everything like Daddy does.”

The 8-year-old understands that there are strategies to playing Monopoly, but he just can’t figure them out to settle on what feels comfortable.

Mommy takes over the conversation. She explains that Daddy’s strategy involves leveraging all his assets and going for broke. This likely elucidates why Mommy appoints the 6-year-old as her personal Monopoly game assistant.

The 8-year-old ponders out loud: “Could Daddy really go to jail?”


In a community off Highway 68, a friend’s family clears the dishes from the dining table in order to set up a game of either Spoons or Aggravation. On this day, four of the family members agree to play Spoons, and they are confident that they can overcome adult sister/sister-in-law/aunt Shawna, who is widely considered the “family serial cheater”.

According to family lore no participant is safe from Shawna’s domination. Shawna is and always has been an aggressive, cut-throat competitor.

Spoons, a fast-moving card game, encourages sneakiness until the loser is left without a spoon. Right up Shawna’s alley. Today, players are being bombarded and injured by randomly flying metal spoons.

Most of the how-to-play videos for Spoons thoughtfully feature plasticware.


Meanwhile, as my world has shrunk — temporarily, I hope — I am at peace with what I have. And my Scrabble vocabulary.

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