It wasn’t a bolt out of the blue, alas — she’d been terribly ill for many months — but all of us in the Style Invitational community were struck painfully to hear of the death on Tuesday of the peerless Mae Scanlan, everyone’s favorite Loser. She was 87.
Update: A memorial service will be held on Saturday, March 2, at 11 a.m. at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Bethesda, Md.
To readers of The Style Invitational as well as several other publications here and in Britain, Mae is most renowned for her poetry, as a master in the tricky genre of light verse, the source of many — though by no means all — of her 334 blots of Invite ink since 1995. Unlike much of less form-dependent poetry, light verse places much more emphasis on flawless, “perfect” rhyme and strict meter, on clever wordplay; and, of course, on humor. In her hundreds of poems — everything from limericks to multi-verse portraits and elaborate song parodies -- it’s virtually impossible to find a line among her more than 1,000 published poems that doesn’t scan perfectly, a word whose accents are stretched, a rhyme that slants. Her creative, funny spellings to create rhymes would have made Ogden Nash an ardent fan.
But Mae didn’t let her perfect adherence to structure -- and ever-present wit and humor — keep her work from expressing depth and emotion. Make no mistake, she was a poet.
Mae’s 334 Invite inks are all the more impressive when you realize that she faced a higher standard than most Losers: Mae got all that ink — in The Style Invitational, mind you — without “playing blue”: no sex humor, no off-color double-entendres. Mae told me that her entries all had to pass her “minister test”: On Sunday morning she’d be heading to church, and she didn’t want her name on anything in that morning’s paper that she’d be embarrassed to have her minister read.
I was about to launch into a lengthy recounting of Mae’s Renaissance Woman accomplishments -- as a writer, a professional photographer (and author of two photography books of Washington, D.C.),as a pianist who entertained nursing home residents with old-timey music for more than 20 years; as a published songwriter; as the first U.S. winner of the humor contest of Britain’s venerable Spectator magazine; an expert on baseball, and a passionate Nats fan. But I’m out of time and space, and I still need to mention Mae’s most memorable and important quality -- her unfailing graciousness and generosity to so many of us in her wide orbit of friends. People love Mae. (I’m not going to use the past tense.)
When years of cancer and other issues repeatedly brought her into medical offices, Mae would keep her mind and soul strong — as well as those of others — by writing personalized poems for the doctors and nurses. In fact, her oncologist would “assign” her to write them for her next visit, as therapy, and she complied to the very end.
I want to include at least a few examples of Mae’s classic Invite ink, but I also want to share what was sent to me yesterday by Melissa Balmain,the editor of the journal Light:
“Mae is irreplaceable—not just one of the wittiest poets ever born, but also one of the kindest and most generous of humans. I feel incredibly lucky that, back in ’09, I was asked to profile her for Light (then in the hands of founding editor John Mella). This led to Mae becoming one of my dearest friends, and an inspiration in everything I do. In the last email I got from her directly, a couple of days before surgery, she wrote, “All I want to do is relax, and maybe write a poem or two (truly!) but the docs won’t let me; I have to go have more tests tomorrow -- yikes. I know enough about internal medicine to fetch myself a degree when this is over.” That was straight-up Mae, always crackling with humor, ideas, and—despite everything—optimism. I miss her so much already.”
Here’s a very small, almost random sampling of Mae’s Invite ink, followed by a poem that she wrote just for me on my birthday in 2017. It's one of my most treasured possessions.
Mae loved to do parodies of old-timey songs, like this one of “For Me and My Gal,” in which she juxtaposes the dark fears of today against the jaunty tune of the 1942 standard:
I’m apprehensive ... for me and my land.
My fear’s extensive for me and my land.
Our next president’s showing
He is vulgar, unknowing,
And the danger is growing;
Flames of hatred are fanned.
But there’s an answer: The answer is us.
We’ll cure the cancer — just get on the bus,
And someday the tide is going to turn, and things will turn out grand,
With new hope for me and my land.
Or this one:
(To “Paper Doll”)
“I’m gonna build a big high wall to keep the bad guys out
Between the U.S.A. and Mexico;
And then the rapists and the thugs, with their babies and their drugs,
Will have to find another place to go.
When they come to the border I’ll be waiting;
Just wait and see how I the tide will stem.
My wall will be so thick that they can’t even sneak a peek,
And that way we won’t have to deal with them.”
Poems based on articles in The Post; here, its endorsement of Adrian Fenty for mayor:
Cropp and Fenty, Fenty and Cropp,
One’s gonna rise, and one’s gonna drop.
Linda and Adrian, Adrian, Linda,
One’s through the doorway, one’s out the winda.
Twelfth of September, voters aplenty
Are making a choice. We’re betting on Fenty.
Mae also was a wickedly clever punster:
Week 166, 1996, puns on people’s names: Which monarch became so fat and bloated that his castle had to be remodeled to accommodate his corpulence? King Henry Ate, House of Two-Door. (Mae Scanlon, Washington)
Week 1221, the child of any two people: The child of Martin Yan and Christiaan Barnard would find herself between a wok and a heart place.
The child of Scott Joplin and Levi Strauss would go from rags to britches.
Week 1160, redefine a real word: WALLOP: What Trump wants to put between the United States and Mexico.
Other nifty wordplay:
Week 1155, replace the vowels in a show or movie with other vowels:
“The Honeymooners” > “The Hiney Miners”: Adventures of a hospital colonoscopy team
And then there were combinations of song parodies and puns!
Songs about animals:
Unholy Matrimony (To “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”)
A gnu and a fox started dating
And moved to a homestead with views
Where, needless to say, they were mating,
And that’s why we’re stuck with Fox-Gnus.
And my birthday present, which arrived in the mail:
There is no stopping it — sure of that I’m;
It is relentless, the passage of time.
Which brings me around to the subject at hand:
It is Pat’s birthday, so strike up the band,
Shout from the treetops and yell down the hall,
It’s time for a party — come one and come all!
Ply her with presents, and pull out all stops,
Sing Happy Birthday while sipping the schnapps.
Bring on the pretzels, the cake and the drinks;
Here’s to The Empress, the Giver of Inks.
Let’s wish her good fortune, and raise up a toast
To the cleverest soul at The Washington Post.
Pat, may you have the most wonderful day,
And the same goes for twenty-eighteen.
A note on this column’s headline:
I lifted it from a haiku posted by Jesse Frankovich on Tuesday in the Style Invitational Devotees group:
Cherished poet and
Style Invitational star:
Mae, you rest in peace.
SHOOTING FOR THE ’GRAM PRIZE: OUR WEEK 1318 CONTEST
My plan for this week’s Conversational had been to fill the space with the winners of our previous anagram contests. But then I heard about Mae, and so instead, I’ll give you links to where you can find them. We’re looking for the same sort of thing this week in Week 1318. But courtesy of three big-time Losers, I can offer you a few tips below.
These links are to text versions of contest results and can be read without a Post subscription:
The Style Invitational Devotees group on Facebook is big on anagrams; when you join, the Devs will rearrange the letters of your name in what seems like every possible permutation. But I’m sure even most of them are in awe of the long-form anagrams that get ink: How can you possibly take whole paragraphs — and more — of text and make something cogent out of it that uses exactly each letter, no more, no fewer? I asked three Losers who’ve all had amazing long-form anagrams in the Invite to share their MOs:
Jesse Frankovich, currently the Invitational’s most on-fire Loser, first entered the Invite for an anagram contest. He was already a star on the website Anagrammy.com, which has its own competition, the Anagrammy Awards.
“I use Anagram Artist [free download here] for anything longer than 20 letters or so. (The Internet Anagram Server website is okay for names and such, but it bogs down after about 15 letters and doesn’t have any other bells and whistles.) Anagram Artist gives you a chart of the distribution of the letters organized by frequency in English. It also has tools that let you find words that start or end with a certain letter, synonyms, and words by part of speech. Once you get under 25 letters remaining, it will give you lists of full anagrams of the remainder and adjust them on the fly as you add or remove letters.
“When doing a long anagram, it helps to first find key words that use up any problem letters (ones where there are more of them than there should be by frequency), while not using up letters of which there is a relative dearth, and also keeping the vowel percentage near 40 percent That way when you get to the end there is still a decent mix of letters left rather than a bunch of junk (too many C’s or M’s, or too few vowels, etc).
“One drawback is that Anagram Artist only runs on Windows (not on Mac or mobile devices).”
Jesse also recommends the tips in the article “The Art of Long-Form Anagramming Using Anagram Artist” by the late Larry Brash of Anagrammy.
Jon Gearhart, who first caught the Empress’s astonished attention when he anagrammed the entire letter I had sent with his Fir Stink and sent it back to me, tells me that he actually doesn’t use the software: “It is very possible to do long anagrams with nothing more than a simple text editor like Microsoft Notepad or Word. No one used to believe me at Anagrammy that I did all the letter-shuffling in Notepad.”
Jon says he’ll use Anagram Artist “on occasion, but I still like to jostle letters around in Notepad; I get more satisfaction out of noticing words and phrases in things myself.”
In Loserly can’t-help-himself fashion, Jon was suddenly struck by a little inspiration: “I quickly thought of this quote to anagram just for fun:”
Out, damned spot! Out I say! = Tomato soup Sunday? Tide.
And Kevin Dopart, the Invite’s top-scoring Loser for a seven-year stretch — and the author of the Declaration of Independence anagram that I used as this week’s example — also recommends Larry Brash’s guide. He adds: “Most entries suitable for a newspaper column will be on the shorter side, fewer than 40 letters and most under 25. Jesse notes finding key words early to use up problem letters; I’d emphasize starting with words key to your proposed joke. Add adjectives and adverbs next that you can cannibalize later. For example, start with “POTUS” and “shower,” then trade off “golden” with “pee-pee” and so forth. Then finish off with filler articles, changes in tense, contractions, suitable abbreviations.”
So there you have it. Also useful, I’d wager: an incredibly flexible mind, a lot of patience, and a strong dose of obsessiveness
LOCO-MOTIONS*: THE JOINT LEGISLATION OF WEEK 1314
. *Non-inking headline submitted by both Kevin Dopart and Jeff Contompasis
Our biennial contest to combine the names of congressional freshmen into “joint legislation” based on their names is, I admit, difficult and often tedious to judge. And I know that some of the regular Losers don’t much like doing it. But, believe it or not, I’ve heard from a bunch of people, not contestants, who get a kick out of reading them; they get genuine laughs. And in Washington, where discussions of legislation is workplace talk (and even casual talk) for many in the Wonkforce, it feels like inside humor.
I decided this year not to put out a whole separate version of the results complete with explanations; I just added a few that I thought might be useful (along with ones for the runners-up to get readers in the right frame of mind). I do think that all the name strings are valid (or veryclose) sound representations of the phrase they’re supposed to convey.
I’m really glad, though, that I welcomed explanations by the writers along with their entries — because there were a lot of entries that nooobody would ever have gotten. Often they were not just a ridiculous sound stretch, but the phrase that the writer was getting at (while failing to supply the proper sounds) was some weird construction that nobody would ever say in English.
I’ll quote a few here (I never checked the names of their writers, so if you wrote them, your secret is safe). These might not have been the very largest stretches; if I didn’t get an entry after a bit of thought, and there was no explanation included, I just went on to the next of the 1,000-plus potential laws.
Lee-Levin-Rose >> La Vie En Rose
Pappas-Scott-Braun-Meuser-Case >> Papa’s got brand new suitcase.
Omar-Harder-Lee-Lamb >> Mary Had Little Lamb
Tlaib-Delgado-Van Drew-Trone >> To leave the cat on the throne
Hawley-Golden-San Nicolas >> Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
Shalala-Stauber >> Chalet lost — ah, brr
Much clearer, and pretty funny to boot, were this week’s 33 inking entries (22 in print), with nobody scoring more than two blots apiece and almost everyone getting only one. The four names in the Losers’ Circle of winner and runners-up are familiar to the point of borrring; good thing their humor isn’t. Ironically, both Lose Cannon winner Jeff Contompasis and third-place Duncan Stevens are on record as not enjoying this contest. Thank you both for your compulsiveness, guys.
On the other hand, we have two First Offenders this week — congrats to Virginia Hume Onufer and Noah Friedlander for standing out among the 179 entrants to this contest — as well as at least three people who got ink for the second time. I hadn’t the slightest idea who’d written what until I’d loaded the list onto the Invite page and started looking up names to put in the template’s parentheses.
The unprintable entries, not surprisingly, were there many Harder-Cox, Red-Cox, etc etc etc. They pretty much canceled one another out anyway.
What Doug Dug:
The faves this week of Ace Copy Editor Doug Norwood came from the honorable mentions: Doug singled out Pappas-Torres Small-Pence (Paul Burnham), Pressley-Pence-Right (Joanne Free), Lamb-Garcia as an ice cream flavor (Robyn Carlson), Wild-Lee-Horn-Neguse (Kevin Dopart) and Harder-Hern (John Hutchins)
NEXT LOSER ‘BRUNCH’ — THE EVENING OF FEB. 17. IT’S TRIVIAL!
There’s been a change of plans for the next Loser outing: Instead of the usual noontime brunch, you’re all invited to join in a team trivia game along with dinner at the Ballston (Arlington, Va.) branch of Rustico on Wilson Boulevard. This is because the quizmaster for the night is Loser Jesse Rifkin, who had a similar gig a while back at which Team Loser “mopped up the place,” according to Guardian of the Brunches Elden Carnahan. Dinner (or, as I’d call it, late lunch) is at 5:30; trivia starts at 7. RSVP to Elden on the Losers’ website NRARS.org; click on “Our Social Engorgements.” I have to be at two other things that day, so I’ll have to miss it again — but there’s no way I’ll miss the March 17 brunch buffet at London Curry House in Alexandria.