Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Fortunes Won and Lost on Every Deal

AROUND THIS TIME NEXT month, I will be deeply sick. Sick of mind, not of body, though the physical side effects of the mental trauma are usually fatigue, loss of muscle tone, and weight gain. My condition will not be unique. Millions of people suffer it yearly. They learn too late that the cure of the malady is, tragically, further exposure to its cause.

I speak, of course, of LVWS: Las Vegas Withdrawal Syndrome.

Just before the NFL Conference Championship playoffs in January, I will make my eighth trip to Las Vegas. I've stayed at two hotels in the previous seven trips: the fabulous mid-Strip Flamingo for the first three, and the venerable yet dazzling Golden Nugget in the Downtown area of the city. The Nugget will be my home away from home again this time.

I was unprepared for what I would encounter on my first trip in June of 2001. Friends of mine had been out there earlier that year, and I knew one or two former coworkers who had gotten married or had family there. My own interest in gambling developed locally. I had made my first gambling trip to a casino (Foxwoods, in Connecticut) in September 2000. Though I didn't know how to play most of the games, I was still fascinated by the whole operation: the dealers throwing out cards or counting chips with accurate flair; the players crowding around the roulette wheels or craps tables and by turns celebrating or scowling; the massive wall of TV screens and LED horse listings in the race book, and the hordes of hard-bitten men squinting at Daily Racing Forms; and over everything, the electronic warbling of thousands of slot machines. I played a few games, lost, and headed back home, lighter in wallet but intrigued.

By next March, I had taught myself the basics of blackjack. This was just before the current poker boom, when blackjack was still the most well-known casino game. I returned to Foxwoods, found a relatively inexpensive blackjack table, and with the help of a matronly dealer who must have had a soft spot for newbies, I won $362.50. (Yes, I remember the exact number. As you will learn in this blog, I have a memory like a fly strip: adhesive and incriminating.)

It was a fateful day. A crushing loss that afternoon might have sent me home with a sour taste for any wagering more significant than a box on a Super Bowl grid, never to set foot in a casino again. Instead, I returned home exultant and already planning my next outing . . . on which, a month later, as if to rub things in, I won another $125.

Hell, I was a goddamn expert, now.

By now, my thoughts were turning to Las Vegas. Though on my third trip gravity and probability had reasserted themselves and I had made a donation to the kindly Mashantucket Pequot tribe, I felt pulled to give Sin City a try. Not just for blackjack — if anything, I went into the plan figuring I would leave a good chunk of my money out there — but for the entire experience. The neon . . . the Elvises . . . the wild gaming action . . . the Rat Pack . . . I figured I had to do it at least once before I died. And it had been nearly 6 years since my last significant out-of-town vacation. I was due.

In the waning weeks of winter 2001, I resarched my Vegas options. I snagged the latest Fodor's guide and read up on the newsgroup alt.vacation.las-vegas (which was a lot less choked with spam than it is nowadays), but by far my most useful and hilarious resource was Cheapo Vegas. From all of this — and from a sense of history — I decided on the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. It offered a huge amount of reasonably priced rooms, one of the best pool areas in Vegas, a real-live zoo with penguins, and two historical bullet points:

1. The modern Las Vegas Strip was founded here by Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, and
2. Part of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas transpired here.

The Mafia and the Good Doctor. How could I miss?

And so it was that in June of 2001, I stepped off a Continental jet into the vaulting expanse of the terminal at McCarran International Airport and found myself surrounded by two groups of travelers: those gloomily waiting to depart, and those plopped down in front of the scores of slot machines in the terminal.

Yes, slots in the actual terminal.


I made a fine first effort to blend tourism and gambling that first trip. I played blackjack up and down the Strip. I floated idly in the Flamingo's gorgeous pool complex. I assaulted the town's buffets like a wall of angry Mongols shattering a city gate. I drove my rental car out to Hoover Dam and joined a tour group in burrowing deep into its concrete recesses. And more than anything, I confronted the simple brutality of Vegas heat in June as I trod the roasting sidewalks from one hotel to another.

The contact high lasted for at least 2 weeks following my return. The addiction? Still going strong.

The $350 I lost while in town was of little consequence compared to the fun I had. When George Clooney refers to Las Vegas as "America's Playground" in Ocean's Eleven, he is not merely bullshitting Matt Damon. Though the free food and rooms are not as liberally dispensed as they were when the Mob openly ran the town, you can still sit back and be pampered in more refined ways: spa service, gourmet restaurants, artfully designed casinos, hot cocktail waitresses (oh, damn, I did say refined, didn't I?), and increasingly plush accommodations as the town's hoteliers try to outdo one another. These days, you can go to a property like Wynn Las Vegas or Mandalay Bay or the Venetian and have a diverse Las Vegas weekend without ever leaving the joint.

I always rent a car, though, because I like to get out and drive around the town. Last time, I snagged the car at the airport, which allowed me a glory roll down the Las Vegas Strip. Even in the daylight, it's stunning. Of course, I made the same trip once night fell, to recharge my batteries by digging the millions of feet of neon signage glowing in the hot desert night.

When someone says the word vacation to me, I automatically think Las Vegas. When a coworker mentions that he or she has plans to visit the city, I immediately feel envious, then ask where he or she will stay, so I can follow up when they return and learn what that hotel is like. When the first snow falls in New Jersey, I begin thinking of my western escape route to the city in the desert. I have made reservations during snowstorms before. As if it really takes that much.

I will undoubtedly have more to share as the day draws near for departure. I know I won't be sleeping that night, so where better to listen to the minutes tick away?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Santa Delayed 30 Minutes by Fog Conditions

I AWOKE THIS MORNING to a heavy mist outside my window. This is not what Bing Crosby imagined in the song "White Christmas." Personally, I was a little disappointed I would not be making my morning commute. The air temperature and humidity were just right to engender a thick, swirling, mysterious fog over the wetlands through which both my train and bus routes pass. If there were more snow on the ground, the Meadowlands and most golf courses in the area (which my train also passes) would be transformed into the sort of tableaux from which I could easily imagine mailed warriors to ride forth on battle-crazed steeds, the clash of armor and the thudding of hoofbeats driving them to a blood frenzy. In grim reality, all I would probably see is a couple of intrepid atheists hitting the links, and a lone Department of the Interior employee floating in a canoe somewhere in the swampy confines of Secaucus to test the waters for PCBs.

Have I mentioned how much I hate reality?

Christmas was a calm holiday for me. I live very close to my parents, so I had a short commute compared to those who have to traverse states or time zones to see their loved ones. I sometimes feel a little guilty, because my folks — both long retired and now nearing or in their 70s — don't explicitly need anything, so it's tough to get them to give any sort of signal on what I can get them for Christmas. Plus they hate to see me spend money on them to begin with. I've tried unsuccessfully for the past three years to take them out for their anniversary, even on their 40th. I am thankful that they are happy with a simple life, however.

Our Christmases are small affairs, not as formal as in past years. We are no longer religious. Our closest relatives are dead. What remaining family we do have is distant physically and/or emotionally. I am single. It has occurred to me over the past few years that my being there seems to be the best present my parents could receive. Their other needs are managed or manageable. Personally, I find the idea of having to travel further than a state line to return to my parents unthinkable. I've always been here, except for the necessary separation of college, which was overcome with a bus ticket. Were I not in attendance, I doubt they would actually decorate the house. It is a humbling thought, but a heartwarming one, to know that I play such a role in their holiday plans.

I've had up Christmases and down ones, but of late I have tried to be aware of the fact that this holiday has powerful magic for many people, deep beneath the one-day sales and shiny wrapping paper and bows and credit card debt. Not just the experience of religious renewal for Christians celebrating the birth of their Messiah. It's always someone's first Christmas, whether literally as an infant, or as a slightly older child just putting together his or her first memories of this holiday, or for a couple who just met that year, or who are spending their first married Yule together, or even — more tragically — for someone enduring a first Christmas without a parent, a spouse, or a child. These are all delicate, formative experiences. My relation to the holiday may have changed, and I may not partake in all of its trappings, but it will be precious to someone, and I will do my best to treat it as such.

I hope all of you have added to your stores of delightful and loving holiday memories this Christmas, and that the bright gift of a new year is one you ardently seek to unwrap a short week from today.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Roar of the Discount, The Smell of the Sale

BY SOME MIRACLE OF grace — which I call Amazon — my holiday shopping is done. The closest I have been to a mall in the past week was 5:00 this morning, when I grabbed a post-poker breakfast at a diner on Route 4 across from the upscale Riverside Square Mall. As I munched my way through a bacon-and-egg sandwich, I watched a Sysco food-service truck unload its wares into the dormant precincts of the Cheesecake Factory, McCormick & Schmick, and the other restaurants that fringe the outer edge of the shopping center. The lot was otherwise empty. Soon, very soon, I knew, this would change radically. I felt lucky not to have to join the Christmas Eve scrum.

This was a long week, but my reward is a 4-day weekend beginning today. I was very busy at work this week, still catching up from the days I burnt at the Word class, during which I was lucky enough to get a ton of new work. Coupled with this, one of our designers had last week off. As a delightful cherry on this sundae of stress, the other two designers — both Queens residents — had the NYC transit strike to overcome. I was largely unaffected by the work stoppage (more New Yorkers on the PATH than usual) so I was able to get in and keep things moving while my teammates struggled with cabs or long walks to get to the office.

I was nearly caught up in the transit snarl myself. On Friday, my usual NJ Transit train was cancelled, and the subsequent one was delayed 30 minutes. When this second announcement came over the station speakers, I decided my best option was to snag a bus. I was banking on light traffic due to it being a pre-holiday Friday, a bet that paid off. Had the strike still been in effect, I would have had a walk from the 41st street Bus Terminal to, by coincidence, the Port Authority's old building at 15th. Not as long as the distance some of my coworkers had to hoof over the course of the week, and it wouldn't have killed me, but I was happy to have the subways running to avoid adding yet more of a delay to my arrival.

By the end of the day, I had placed what remaining jobs I had in my inbox in some sort of order. I had loaded my new backpack (one of my Christmas gifts from my parents) with the many items from Amazon I had ordered. We had been given early release at 3:00, but I ended up leaving at my usual time, just to get some more stuff moved forward in light of my being out an extra day (we all get Monday off, and I took Tuesday). I had been trying to pin down this last paid-time-off day for 2 weeks, but work had caused it to skitter away each time. Now it was mine.

The extra time at work over the course of this week and the classes last week disrupted my efforts to eat right and hit the gym. I managed to go Monday and today, but the rest of the week was a mess. I feel like I lost a lot of the progress I had been making. But I also know it was working, which gives me confidence to keep going. It was damn tough to ignore all the Christmas baskets of food — junk food, however well intentioned – flooding into the office. And I had to attend a pizza lunch thrown by my boss as a thank-you for besting the transit difficulties. Courtesy slices they may be, they're still simple carbs and unhealthy fat that had me falling asleep at my desk. So you can see why a diner McMuffin was not too much of a reach after hitting bottom this week.

The gym will be closed tomorrow, but I get to hit it Monday and Tuesday without having to breast huge crowds or wake up early. (Hell, 90% of the county will jam the malls again on December 26. The gym won't be crowded until Resolution Day, aka January 2.) More importantly, I reassessed the workout I had adopted and decided to go with a different one. I think we'll be doing without the squats in the future. I know serious bodybuilders worship squats with fanaticism not normally seen outside the fan base of the Cincinnati Bengals. How they deal with walking around stiff-legged like a Thorazine-dulled golem for the next 2 days is apparently a secret I have not yet divined.

One idea from the forums I did pick up was writing up a goal sheet. Actually setting positive goals down on a piece of paper has helped some of these folks achieve them with greater efficiency. I have a whiteboard on the inside of my apartment's front door upon which I can record meditations, but I am sure if I just let myself write, I can come up with things I want to achieve in 2006 outside the realm of fitness that would benefit from being right in front of my face.

I had set a goal, back at the beginning of December, of getting down to 230 by January 15. I was as low as 235 before the week I took the classes. That's now about 3 weeks away, so I don't think it's entirely unachievable. I will actually try to attend the gym and eat rationally and let the number descend as it might. It's more important to me right now to ingrain the habits I need to adopt. Weight loss hopefully will follow, at a reasonable pace and over the longer term.

All right, there are actually a couple of chores I need to do (it is Saturday, after all). More soon.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Evolution's Bones Showing Through the Skin

SOMETIMES, WE GET ABRUPT reminders of our simian roots. We are only a few million years into this form in evolutionary terms, a mere spit in the broad ocean of genetic trial and error. Maybe I was in the frame of mind to notice such links because I took in King Kong this weekend, which I enjoyed greatly. I found myself wondering, during the film, how much work the filmmakers had done with primatologists and in observing gorilla behavior to get the big guy's movements and actions correct. (I subsequently learned that Andy Serkis, who did the motion-capture work for Kong, went on his own to Africa to study gorillas directly.)

So assuming my primitive primate radar was twitching today, I regarded the following scene in those terms.

I boarded the train this evening at nearly the last minute. It was also short a car, so I didn't find seats until I reached the front car. There, I sat down next to a red-haired woman who was reading a book. She took notice of me as I stashed my coat and a loaf of bread on the luggage rack. Natural red hair, glasses, freckles. Nice outfit. Boots were a plus. I took all this in at a glance, then dug my own book out of my bag and awaited our departure.

As I read, I noticed her playing with her hair. With a sideways glance, I saw her twirling the fingers of her right hand through the longish red hair as she continued to read. I didn't read anything into this. I have read that, if a woman does this during conversation, it indicates interest. I don't know if this opinion came from someone with any sort of psychological degree — or, perhaps more pertinently, an actual woman — and besides, we weren't talking, so I didn't invest the theory with too much credence in this case.

I focused back on my book, but couldn't help noticing she was still twirling a skein of hair in her fingers. Perhaps she was trying to work out a knot? Not having had hair that long since about 1991, I don't have too much immediate experience with the problem. Only she seemed to have some serious knotting, if this was how long she needed to disentangle it.

I also noticed she was chewing a nail or a cuticle now and again. I watched her hand once, and noticed she wore her nails man-short, and had a half-healed nick on one knuckle. Now she struck me as someone who had a lot of nervous energy. Maybe she felt caged in. Perhaps she didn't like her job, or was somehow unsettled with her home life, and this tension was spilling out via these behaviors. Animals in close confinement will exhibit stereotypy — repeated behavior or motions — when they are understimulated. Parrots, for instance, will pull out their own feathers when in unexciting environments. Again, I'm no psych major, but this is what crossed my mind when I noticed the repetition of her hair and finger motions. And true to the pattern, she returned to her hair play after she finished with her nail, or cuticle, or whichever (I couldn't see directly because her hair curtained her face, and I didn't want to make her feel self-conscious).

This lasted for a good 15 minutes. The only people with hair this tangled are Rastafarians and Rob Zombie. I made as much of a sideways study as I could, not being able to read because I could see her fingers twirling, twirling through what wasn't even to my side enough to be considered peripheral vision.

This is what I learned:
  • She was pulling out individual strands of hair;
  • Some of them she smoothed out with her other hand, studied, then dropped;
  • Some of them she brought up to her mouth and chewed on — whether it was root first, I'm not sure.
The term trichotillomania is not one to be used — or, as you can see, spelled — lightly. I first encountered the word in a print interview with director John Waters, where he and the writer discussed various psychological disorders. In this case, the term describes obsessive pulling out of one's own hair, be it scalp hair, facial hair, or other (:::shudder:::). I began to wonder if this was a mild case of that problem. She had a full head of hair, no question . . . no bald spots or missing eyebrows. But she was definitely eating something that she was taking from her head.

At this point, the mental image I had was of two primates preening each other and crunching down on any found bugs. It crossed my mind to move, but insofar as she seemed fairly clean — and let's face it, not hard on the eyes — I decided not to make her feel any more self-conscious than she already did by gathering my stuff and taking another seat.

On the other hand, she might not have even known she was really doing it. She was still balancing a book on her knees as she preened. Maybe this behavior had settled so far into the background of her consciousness that she did it without regard for public space or needing to divert a lot of attention to it.

Either way, I hope she was just unkinking some knots and was not grappling with any deeper conditions, other than those that, in times of idleness, might peek through any of our refined fronts and give a window across millions of years to a time when instinct and impulse were all that ruled us.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Well Done, Thou Good and Faithful Server!

SOMETIMES, MACHINES CAN BE overzealous in their efforts to fulfill the goals that fragile humans set for them. Such primitive artificial intelligences as spellcheckers, grammar checkers, spam guards, and Young Republicans can be easily confused by nuances of meaning, shades of irony, or simple soundalikes. One of my coworkers seemed amazed that a spellchecker could be fooled by a homonym. Although I will run important documents through a spellcheck at least once, I will feel better if I print it out, sit down with a sharp colored pencil, and dig in for spelling, grammar, and punctuation, as the copyeditor I once was.

There can be humor in these attempts on the part of these machines to save us from ourselves. Such an incident occurred today. Our email server at work will delete emails or attachments if:
  • The email has a suspiciously short header;
  • The email has an attachment over 1 MB in size; or
  • The attachment has a short or adult-oriented filename.
That last parameter snagged a file one of the out-of-house editors sent me for a newsletter. But first, a digression. . . .

I know full well that, by seeding this blog with certain keywords, I could get more search hits and visits. When someone visits my blog from a listing resulting from a search, the URL or the page of origin will include the search term(s). I found this out when I noticed people visiting this entry because they were searching for details on the financial-news anchorwoman I mention in passing therein. An alarming number of these searches concern her legs. Don't look at me — I have to share this half of the species with these specimens. My whole point is that I would consider this sort of deliberate seeding, whether in bogus paragraphs or invisible text or metatags, to be dirty pool.

With that background, I hope you'll be able to follow along when I describe the incident.

When our email server finds an objectionable item, it simply deletes it. It doesn't alert the potential recipient to the deletion. In fact, what happens is you see an email flash in the Inbox pane of Outlook, then disappear instantly. Very frustrating. So the only way I knew something happened was that the editor followed up and asked if I had gotten the file. She forwarded a copy of the text of the original message.

I spotted the problem instantly. The file — a photo of a healthcare professional that she wanted to run in the newsletter — was named after the person depicted. This person shared the same last name as a current adult actress whose initials are JJ; the last name is the same as the cantankerous editor of The Daily Bugle of comics fame. (Now you see why I digressed. I'm gonna get hits the old-fashioned way — I'll eaaaaaaarn them — not by splashing the moniker of a siliconed ho all over the place.) The email server, seeing this, figured it was a naughty JPEG and dutifully canned it.

Next came the delicate explanation to the editor of why her file got deleted. As broadly as I could without either sounding like a smut freak or having this email get deleted as well, I offered some reasons why her attachment might have been eaten. My suggestion was that she simply rename the file, which she did, and the problem was solved.

I can understand why the company doesn't want enticingly entitled viruses and spyware sneaking into the office network. It's just humorous to see how the system can become overzealous. On the plus side, if I want a day free of irritating emails, maybe I can add my own name to the server's reject list. My luck, it'll get crossed with the direct deposit system, and my paychecks will be cast into the trackless wastes of Spam Hell. . . .

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Two Days I Can't Get Back

THE WORD WENT FORTH at my place of work: All must learn Word. Yes, somehow some of us had escaped using the dominant word processing software of the last 10 years and needed to be schooled. We were all scheduled to take a 2-day Word tutorial at a Midtown computer-learning center. I was told a couple of weeks ago that this Tuesday and Wednesday, it would be my turn.

I initially offered a protest — or at least the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow — because I have used Word for years, as a copyeditor and on both sides of the manuscript-to-typesetter publishing process. My father had a good point, though, about how one should never refuse when one's company offers the opportunity to train on some new software or system. Besides, I was led to believe that these Word classes would teach the editors (and at least acquaint the managers and designers) how to style text for the new XML method of crafting newsletters. So I relented.

One of the editors with whom I work took the classes before I did. She reported, unfortunately, that the course material had nothing to do with the new production process. In fact, the most sophisticated new technique she learned was . . . mail merging. Among other topics covered were applying paragraph styles to text — something the editors already do hundreds of times every day. My hopes for learning a new skill with the jaunty stiff upper lip my father had advised were dwindling.

Tuesday rolled around, and I headed back to Midtown, coincidentally one year to the day after the company threw open the doors of its new office to the troops. I realized that no matter how the classes actually went, I would still have the chance to see Manhattan's tourist district in full Christmas splendor. Huge wreaths and tree ornaments adorned corporate lobbies. Santas and Salvation Army volunteers chimed bells and played Christmas carols on radios placed discreetly next to their change cauldrons. Toys R Us bags from the giant outlet on the edge of Times Square were in abundance, clasped in heavily gloved hands due to the subzero cold. I also got to see the tree in Rockefeller Center. Although its true beauty is only truly realized at night, I still marveled at the size of this massive conifer. Between the tree and the folks ice-skating on the rink in its shadow, I felt much in the holiday mood.

That was the high point of my daylight hours for the past two days. I have no problem with the school, the helpful and poised instructor who tutored us in various features of Word deemed important by our bosses, or the course materials. What did frustrate me was the lack of direct, personal concern in my career development that the entire undertaking represented. My boss flat out signed the four designers up for this class. I found out that everyone else in my particular class had been tested to gauge their proficiency at Word. Were there some folks who had placed out of the requirement to go to these classes, as I did decades ago with Spanish via an AP exam score that mollified the Boston College registrar? I could easily have joined them.

What's more, the version of Word used in the class is not the one I and my fellow Mac-head designers employ. Word for the Mac has not progressed since 2001, whereas Word for Windows — or at least the version now being placed on the PCs in the office — is up to 2003. This rendered much of what the teacher demonstrated useless to us except if we sit down at a PC for some reason (gun barrel to temple, perhaps). Sure, it's good to know this stuff, and we were given course books and online support we can call upon should we want to practice, but we were expecting something that would apply to us, specifically for the crafting and tagging of XML files. Although Word 2003 does support XML, it remained unaddressed in the course.

Now, there are a couple of software packages that I would like to learn. I know almost nothing about Excel. My bosses use this all the time. Not knowing it leaves me ignorant and less qualified to ascend to a management position. Also, for a graphic designer, I am seriously undereducated in the practical use of Adobe Photoshop. I took a course devoted to Illustrator and Photoshop in the fall of 2001 at the School of Visual Arts, which is in fact fairly close by my current workplace. At the time, though, all I knew is I was spending each Monday night way too close to Ground Zero than I would have preferred, and coming home at 11:00 after a 3-hour class in the city and a 90-minute bus ride that stopped approximately 284 times between the Port Authority and my destination. I skipped out on the last two classes, never telling my boss that I had missed part of the Photoshop half of the course.

Now, these are two topics on which I would love some formal education. But I was not consulted on what I might want to learn. I understand that the company wants us all on the same skill level. But most of the people in the class these past two days needed no introduction to the Word skills our intrepid instructor demonstrated for us. I actually began to feel like someone else should have been given the opportunity to call upon her assistance, someone for whom this information would have opened a door to a first, or better, job . . . not to a crowd that was finishing the exercises in half the allotted time, if that, and splitting the remaining time between answering work email and computer solitaire.

I flat out said in my post-class evaluation questionnaire that I wanted to be given more of a voice in determining the training that would best benefit me and the company. I don't know who will read this. If it goes to the instructor's bosses, they will at least also read that I thought she did a fine job and that the course materials and examples were very helpful. But not to me. And that sure wasn't her fault.

Hopefully, somewhere out there is a midlevel publishing executive who just spent two very confusing days learning the basics of Photoshop. I need to bump into that person on the train and exchange notes.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Winter Knocks Twice, Then Kicks in Door

IT'S NOT NICE TO ignore Mother Nature. Last week, she twice requested our attention by way of a snowfall. Like toothsome icing, it sweetened our area with a white frost, which endured due to near- or sub-freezing temperatures for the past few days.

But this was insufficient to rivet our attention. We had had enough of weather extremes. Hurricanes into the Greek alphabet. Devastation along the Gulf Coast. Ridiculous heat in autumn. No, we were quite content to have a proper late fall for a change . . . bare trees stark against gray skies, yellowing grass on varsity football fields, winds finding cracks in the caulking. December would usher winter in at a reasonable pace.

Nature, as she usually does, follows a different schedule. When I awoke Friday morning, even with my lenses out and my glasses somewhere on the nightstand I could see fat flakes fluttering down. From what had settled on the trees and fence bordering my apartment complex, it looked like it had indeed started shortly after midnight, when the previous night's poker game had broken up.

Not unexpected. I had set aside street clothes for today so I didn't get my work pants all salty. I got my act in gear, dug my heavier gloves out, and set out for the train station.

Outside, the snow was exerting its usual eerie sound-deadening effect. Aside from the hiss of billions of flakes settling on cars and parking lot, road noise was muted. I wondered at the contrast from a week earlier. This is how quickly seasons can change. Even if we saw this snow melt in a day, there was no denying that autumn was over. There was no taking this back.

As usual, the sidewalks leading to the bus and train stops were not as well plowed as the roads, so I walked up the streets, snagged a bagel and Diet Coke from the bagel joint (note to self: travel back in time and establish a bagel and breakfast spot catty-corner from a busy transit hub, then semi-retire at 45 and run the joint from Vegas), and trudged over to the station. Here, too, little had been done to clear the still-falling snow, so I had to take care to avoid stumbling on the rise from tracks to platform. Under my deployed umbrella, I waited for the 8:05.

And waited.

A crackling speaker on a lamp jarred everyone there to attention, and said that the 8:05 had been cancelled. Next train: 8:20.

Shit. If I'd have known that, I'd have slept for an extra half hour! With no choice but to wait — the buses would be barely moving across the crash-choked highways of New Jersey — I took a seat in the station building, which used to be the ticket office before machines rendered it obsolete. Unlike some of this line's stops, which have been converted to gift shops or closed outright, this one was left open and provided with climate control and restrooms (thank God). Seemed like a good time to assimilate my bagel, which I tore into.

Shortly thereafter, some guy came in and began talking to himself. Not a street person or anything — he just walked in and began bitching about the weather, with all of us sort of on the other side of the conversation. Not wanting any part of this futile discussion, I buried myself in the Wall Street Journal and hoped his string would eventually run out before someone replied and kept him going. No such luck; he immediately got a cellphone call, which he proceeded to conduct AT FULL VOLUME while pacing around the echoing confines of the ticket office.

I will suppress the rant on cellphone etiquette that you surely have read or even written elsewhere. I decided to stare at him as he walked around. Whether he got the hint or not, he eventually walked outside with the call . . . but because he stood under the eaves to avoid the snow, it offered little sonic protection from his braying.

I looked at the guy sitting next to me and asked, referring to his initial, untargeted complaint, "Who was he talking to?"

"I don't think his phone was even on," he replied. This caused me to spit Diet Coke on my paper.

Eventually, the train did appear, at around 8:30. I had since gone back outside, as the dickhead had returned to the interior and resumed his rant. I had no reason to let some specimen like this elevate my blood pressure, so I decided to exit and appreciate the snowfall. Work was gonna get done one way or the other. I knew the snow in the city was surely being churned into a foul grey slush by vehicles and pedestrians alike, so aside from watching it fall on Chelsea from one of the north-facing offices of someone who quailed in the face of harsh weather, I would have little chance to enjoy its beauty.

Between the late arrival of the train itself, and the slow progress across snow-swept Bergen and Hudson Counties, I didn't get into work until 10:00. The last two blocks, from the PATH station to my building, were, as I suspected, a slushy slog, made worse by the switch of the snow over to rain. I squared my shoulders, cued up The Power and the Glory: The Original Music & Voices of NFL Films on my iPod, and let the gladiatorial fanfare of Sam Spence's orchestra fuel my plunge through the defenses of slow-moving pedestrians and corner puddles of slushy water and toward the end zone of my cube.

The most amusing aspect of the day came around noon. I noticed more light in the office, so I walked over to the northern end of the office. Blue skies had assumed dominion over the snowcapped city, the sun even now melting rooftops full of snow. Century-old brick and years-old steel glittered alike under the melt. It was like someone had grafted an early-spring day onto this late-fall storm.

Fickle bitch, that Mother Nature.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Orange Heroin, or The Smack Chip

DORITOS. LIVES THERE ANOTHER snack chip so addictive, so dangerous, so foul to the breath and waistline and yet so easy to engulf in great, faux-cheese-dusted handfuls?

Doritos were my downfall last night, at a poker gathering with my usual players. I had eaten properly all day, and had allowed myself the luxury of two slices of pizza out of the pie ordered for the festivities. Within the context of my activity level and food intake, this was no problem.

Then the host's wife came home, bearing snack chips. Among them, the foul saffron-hued deceivers themselves.

A bowl was placed at my end of the table, along with a heap of Fritos, glistening there like Howard Hughes's canola-fried toenails. The familiar waft of chemically processed cheese analogue sweet-talked its way into my nostrils. My Doritos life flashed before my eyes:

I am in third grade. I am sitting in the living room of my parents' house, chubby ass ensconced on mid-70s-era mustard shag. I am reading a book on chess (Chess the Easy Way, by Reuben Fine), a childhood interest of mine. I have taken this book out of the Montvale library numerous times. It pleases my young mind somehow — not necessarily the content, but the red cover, the print, the renderings of the pieces on the board. On the coffee table next to the book is a Corelle bowl, white with a stripe of small green flowers around the outside, from a line of crockery that tens of thousands of postgrads would inherit from their parents upon finding their first new apartment. The bowl is filled with Doritos, heavily spiced and fried, crunchy, yet sadly not infinite. Each handful brings me closer to the point when I will have to wheedle my way into a refill. . . .

I am in freshman year of college, fall semester. I am reclining on my dorm room bed, my small, static-laced TV propped up on a dresser and the focus of my attention this evening. I am waiting for the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first new Trek show in decades. After spending part of the previous summer watching the original show to make fun of it, I have unwittingly fallen into being a fan. As the final commercial finishes, I rip open a huge bag of Doritos and await the opening narration. . . .

October 3, 1995. Lunch hour. I am joining an entire nation in hanging on every word of Judge Lance Ito, who is speaking to the foreman of the jury appointed to weigh the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson. Unlike millions who are riveted to this spectacle their TVs, I am sitting in my black Corolla in the Mahwah parking lot of my employer and listening to the proceedings on the radio. Eschewing a nutritious lunch for convenience and comfort, I am grazing from an open bag of Doritos that sits on the passenger seat. I punctuate Ito's instructions with echoing crunches and frequent sips from the 20-oz. bottle of Diet Coke at the ready in the cupholder. Months of tension and speculation on the part of armchair attorneys and talking heads will climax in moments. I stop feeding my face only when I hear the words, "We the jury. . . ."

Saturday night? Sunday morning? It's not the next day until you sleep. So it's still some random Saturday in 2000. I have just gotten home from my pal Tony's, where he and Felix and I have been enacting mayhem on Tony's PlayStation. This is way too much stimulation even for my adult brain, so on the way home I have snagged a bottle of Diet Sprite and a bag of Doritos. Some folks like sleeping pills, some prefer warm milk, others a stiff shot of Nyquil. I have chosen to wind back down with a book, Ramie's Lane Closure Ambrosia show of drum & bass on WFMU, and a hand-to-mouth conveyance of "cheese" and calories until I drop off or run out of chips. . . .

Yes, I finished the bowl. No, I don't regret it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Sleeping Like a Jock in Econ 101

MY TWO-DAY STREAK of insomnia broke last night. I avoided taking a nap over the course of the afternoon after I posted yesterday's entry, for fear that this might further disrupt my circadian rhythm (irregular at best). By about 5:30, my mother called, to update me on some medical goings-on, and to reiterate the plan she and my dad had to dine out. She asked if I wanted to accompany them, and I eagerly accepted. Since going on a small-but-frequent-meal eating plan, I have barely had any meals out. I knew an evening meal, particularly the chicken parmigiana I knew they had at the place they were going, would knock me out. So I hit the town with my parents, gorged (at least by recent standards), and by 9:00 was slouching around the apartment like a drunk ape. This time, I fell right to sleep. Delicious.

I didn't take any sort of heat at work over taking the day off. I am fortunate enough not to have needed large blocks of sick time, and for planned absences, I always give a couple of weeks' notice and ensure that my work will move forward without me. I did get a couple of more jobs in while I was gone, which Murphy's Law could have predicted. No matter. Staying busy is important, what with management's occasional snooping about to determine how much we are accomplishing.

I was sad to miss the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. I have never been there live, but when I worked in Midtown, the blocks surrounding Radio City Music Hall would pick up a distinct vibe on the day the lights were to be lit. Couples and families, either from other districts of the metropolis, or from out of town, would fill the streets, decked in their holiday regalia. Children there for their first viewing would be in abundance. Regardless of the weather, the holiday spirit would fill the streets.

There's not as much of a Christmas feel in Chelsea yet, or at least none that I could sense. I recall some lit windows from last year. Some of the retailers may also decorate their storefronts, though none so grandly as Macy's. Starbucks has of course filled their outlet in our building with holiday ads and knick-knacks. Our department usually stages a Secret Santa around this time, but the organizer is at home, awaiting her own nativity scene in the closing days of her pregnancy. Also, there's no good place for us to set up our tree as we had in the last building (right next to my desk, actually). I don't participate in Secret Santa (mutual ignorance of what I and my coworkers might want), and most of the holiday confections folks brought in for the occasion in the past are things I am trying not to eat. So it remains to be seen whether our company will decorate or otherwise denote the presence of the holiday season.

One way in which they used to do so was a bonus. The first year I was there, 1999, the company was evidently flush with enough cash to hand out two American Express traveler's checks: a $25 one at Thanksgiving, and a $50 one at the end of the year. This was in addition to a lush Christmas party in the revolving restaurant and club atop the Midtown Mariott Marquis. Two years later, the dot-com crash and 9/11 combined to make that year's party the last. I won't hold out hope for this year, despite rosier economic news from the bigwigs. Employment, it seems, might be the better reason to be cheerful.

I can't believe we've been in the new digs for two weeks short of a year. It went by alarmingly fast. I intend to make better use of the fantastic resource that is my location — near the Village and close to the PATH for easy escape — when I have the chance to stay later than usual. Even just for extended afternoon walks under the crisp winter sky. The commute home is going to take an hour one way or the other. I can slow down the rest of my day when I need to. And I should.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Inexplicable Insomnia

FOR THE PAST TWO nights, I have been plagued by an unprecedented streak of insomnia. This never happens to me. I can stay up late when I need to, and then fall asleep like a corpse when the night finally ends. Sometimes, after poker night, when I pull down a good win, I get too excited to sleep. In those cases, I just run out my string either by cleaning up or futzing around on the Internet. But otherwise, even in Las Vegas, I can usually expect some shuteye after I actually shut my eyes.

Well, I was doing that for a damn long time Sunday night, after Chinese food with my parents and a bit of the late-day Jets game, and it just wasn't happening. I usually sleep with earplugs in, due to my noisy upstairs neighbors (they evidently don't believe in following the part of the lease that mandates rugs). I only had one cup of tea with dinner, which was made without MSG. Still, I just lay there, flopping around, looking for the magic body position that would plunge me into slumber. This on a night before what I had planned to be a workout morning.

The last time I can remember seeing my clock that night was midnight or so. I did eventually drift off. But even then. I kept waking up. Not because of any memorable nightmares or excessive street noise. Mysterious and irritating.

My original wake-up time of 4:00 wasn't gonna cut it anymore. When it buzzed in the next morning, I reset it for 6:30 and, thankfully, slept right through to that moment. I went with a plain whole wheat bagel and Diet Coke for breakfast and managed to survive the day somehow.

I got into bed last night around 9:45, after taking some time to cook food for the week. I had avoided caffeine in the afternoon so I might have a better chance of getting right to sleep that night. No dice. Again, I kept tossing and turning, listening to my breathing, with no visit from the Sandman in sight.

Between last night and Sunday night, I don't think I got more than 8 decent hours of sleep. This presented a risk. Cold season is well underway. Flu season is slinking about the periphery of the area. At least two people at a poker game on Sunday were getting over colds. By Tuesday morning, I hadn't exercised in three days (working out boosts the immune system). Plus, two of my teammates at work were fighting on-and-off colds or chest infections and, inexplicably, placed the importance of their jobs over their health.

This is insanity. Work will give you health insurance if you are lucky, but not your actual health. No job is worth your wellness, and no job will give it back to you after it fails. Even though I only have three days left this year, I took one of them today to steer clear of disease and to ensure a proper amount of sleep tonight. I'm not a Howard Hughes–type by any stretch, shuffling around with tissue boxes on my feet and bathing every surface with Lysol. But as I've gotten older, I have become less tolerant of those who don't take care of themselves and in fact share their illnesses with others out of a stubborn sense of duty. I had a subordinate at a previous job who boasted about never having taken a sick day at one of the other two jobs she held in addition to the one we had in common. She would often come to the office hacking like a malfunctioning diesel engine. This was not one of the factors that contributed to her eventual dismissal, but it was definitely something I did not miss when the next cold season arrived without her heralding its approach with a cacophony of coughs.

I have actually taken the opportunity to get over to the gym. It felt good to go through my program again. I lost a little strength in two of the exercises, but in most of the others I either met or beat my recorded reps and/or weight from last time. I enjoyed a thick protein shake while writing this, purple and frosty from the frozen blueberries I added. I anticipate collapsing like a drunk midget by the end of the day.

I have conceived of one mildly productive duty to undertake while here, however: booking my next trip to Las Vegas. I owe you, the faithful Schizohedron reader, my take on the Neon Havens. I shall not keep you long.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Grim Tromp of Athletic Shoes to the Gym

I ANTICIPATE AN AMUSING scene tomorrow at the gym I attend. Before all the soccer moms and muscleheads clot the highways of my corner of New Jersey this Black Friday, many of them will remember that they have gym memberships. In a fit of guilt, they will stretch on suddenly snug T-shirts and Spandex shorts, dig to the nether reaches of their closets for the $250 cross-trainers they snagged at Sports Authority in a fit of optimism-via-credit card debt, empty them of any resident mice, shiver their way to the car, and pull up to the gym, effulgent in their desire to drop the 4,000 calories they consumed during the Lions and Cowboys games with but a mere 15 minutes on the elliptical trainer.

Well, if nothing else, it'll bring out the chicks.

Okay, okay, stop throwing the eggs. I will join them tomorrow, but I don't feel an ounce (har) of guilt about my Thanksgiving dinner today. I got to spend the day eating homecooked food with the two people most important to me. That's a benefit no stack of iron or Stairmaster is going to bestow.

This is because my underlying eating plan has been working. I have indeed been eating better. True, I have occasionally eaten things in the past 2 weeks that aren't exactly nutrient packed. I did have some potato chips on Tuesday night, which due to the holiday became "Thursday" poker night. They tasted exceptionally salty. I largely have avoided processed foods and especially bagged snacks, so the salt and pseudo-flavors in the chips were brash and brassy.

I put on one of my older belts today prior to heading out to my parents' place. I noticed that I had to cinch it all the way to the end of the holes. I took it off and examined the notches, then re-cinched it to represent my fattest weight (probably from this summer). I had a good couple of fingers' worth of play between the belt and my actual pants. Not bad. All of this was from not eating crap. No entire bags of Doritos, or late-afternoon treks to the bakery across the street for a hunka hunka burning crumb cake. I haven't been lifting or even doing cardio every day. When I do get past this beginner workout and into a more active phase, which could even be 20 minutes of cardio on days when I am not lifting, I should continue to see results.

Over the course of the two past weeks, I have concluded that poor nutrition sabotaged any true efforts to lose weight I made in the past 5 years. I began going to a gym regularly in 2000. Well, as regularly as my motivation and depression over failing to get anywhere with it would allow. During none of this time did I give any deep thought to how I should be eating. I am trying not to feel like I have wasted all of that time and money, but the best antidote for that sort of regret is to enact a plan that I know will work.

So that's where I will be tomorrow, getting myself in tune for a more dedicated program, taking things slowly but not without attention to detail and care for my beginner's body — for I am really a beginner in light of the past 5 years — and realizing that one dinner with my parents will not upset a carefully laid and enacted plan of attack.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Twenty Long Years on Tatooine

I JUST RE-WATCHED Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I have actually been going backwards through the new trilogy, having rented Revenge of the Sith when it recently came out on DVD, followed by watching the magnificent first volume of the Clone Wars animated series ahead of the release of the second volume.

Between Episodes I and II, I wrote the following speculation over what Obi-Wan Kenobi might have done between his parting with Darth Vader and his appearance in Episode IV. (At the time, we were still going on the "Anakin falls into lava during his final duel with Obi-Wan" theory in circulation since the late 70s.) By way of showing you, the faithful Schizohedron reader, just how deeply the depths of my geekdom reach, I inflicted the following on my friends way back in the comparatively idyllic year 2000:

Our first introduction to Obi-Wan Kenobi was in 1977, when he appeared in Star Wars. Yet we soon found out that this was really "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," and that prior to this film, Obi-Wan withdrew from the public after Anakin Skywalker fathered Luke and Leia, fell to the Dark Side, and became Darth Vader. Assuming all this happens in the as-yet-unnamed Episode III, that leaves a fairly large stretch of time before "Ben" Kenobi rescues Luke in Episode IV. How did Obi-Wan spend those twenty-odd years?
  • Failed business venture #1: Obi-Wan's Taco Hut
  • Hoping he successfully hit "CTRL+ALT+DEL" on those two blabby droids Anakin had
  • Saying, "He betrayed and murdered your father" in front of a mirror until it looks convincing
  • Becoming confused over seeing, "DON'T GO TO THE DEATH STAR" floating in his Alpha-Bits
  • Failed business venture #2: Jundland Wastes Hotel and Casino ("Loosest Slots in the Outer Rim!")
  • Operating methadone clinic for Tusken Raiders
  • "Calibrating" his "lightsaber"
  • Writing column for "Crazy Old Hermit Monthly"
  • Failed business venture #3: Off-track betting for podraces (muscled out by Jabba's goons)
  • Getting really sick of postcards saying, "Told you so, I did" from Dagobah
  • Thinking obsessively, "LAVA!! I knocked him into LAVA!! Who survives fucking LAVA???"
  • Failed business venture #4: Country Ben's Rotisserie Jawa Shack
  • Seeing Qui-Gon Jinn getting saber-skewered for 2000th time in dream; screaming self awake
  • Writing, "Wander into desert to save AS's kid" years in advance on calendar; wondering why
Have a great Thanksgiving, folks, and enjoy the weekend!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Shocking Weekend Display of Discipline

BY SOME WONDROUS MIRACLE of will, I actually levered my scabrous bulk out of the bed before 7 a.m. today. No, I didn't then settle down on the couch (or, worse, the toilet) for another couple of hours in dreamland. If I can get my gym clothes on before the urge to set the alarm forward another 15 minutes, I am guaranteed to get to the club, where I can then fall asleep in the sauna.

Which is not to say there aren't potential speed bumps between my parking lot and the gym. Said bump today was the first frost of fall, beautifully (if obstructively) encrusting my windows and even the painted surfaces of my car. My scraper, oddly enough, was in my apartment. I'm not sure how it got up here. My theory is that, when I cleaned out my last car prior to selling it, I took the scraper up with a mass of other assorted crap. I know I had been giving it to the smokers in my poker game to prop open the back door and eliminate the ned for me to buzz them in after they satisfied their addictions.

With no scraper save my pathetically ineffective driver's license, I simply sat in the car for 5 minutes with the defrost settings blasting, and thought about the workout I had ahead of me. This would complete my first of six weeks at this beginner level. Once again, my legs were smarting from the last one. Not my quadriceps again. The second time through for squats actually went a little easer. This time it was my calves. I had done seated calf lifts the first time because the gear I needed to do them standing was in use. (Imagine standing on the edge of a step and levering yourself up and down out of boredom or as a stretch, and that's the motion. Oh, and while holding weights.) I was able to use the right setup the second time I visited, and good gravy, did my calves ever feel it. I was walking slowly and making turns in the office with uncharacteristically delicate care. Perhaps this is why I posed such a tempting target to the drive-by haberdasher — he may have sensed I couldn't escape and thus might help him make the week's nut.

With the last workout on Wednesday, though, I figured the actual muscles might be able to bear the abuse, despite the lingering pain. I don't have a full handle on the exact process by which a muscle heals after exercise and the physical symptoms at each stage. All I know is hurt/no-hurt. The worst thing that might happen is I would cut the second set short by a few reps. I could also reduce the weight and finish out the set that way. Vee haff vays of making you lifft.

I also thought about the week in terms of nutrition. The only deviation from my eating plan was the Thursday night dinner at my parents' house. This points to a recurrent snag in my plan. I eat dinner there on Sunday nights. My mother enjoys cooking for three people on those occasions, and it's always good and usually abundant enough for leftovers. I have to find a diplomatic way to let them know I may not be eager to join them when they're eating certain things. Thanksgiving is only once a year, and I believe my gym is actually open that day, so I can anticipate the food siege to come. (Mmmmmm . . . food siege . . . calls to mind catapults flinging pumpkin pies over castle walls and directly into Homer's gaping maw.) But it's the recurring date I have there that I will need to integrate into my menu. I got off to a good start, though, so tomorrow's dinner should not impact what, otherwise, has been a flawless first week of careful eating.

At length, the frost melted on my car enough to make it street legal, so I tooled through the clear, chill town and into the parking lot of the gym. My workout went smoothly, even the squats, which are second on the list, so it makes the rest of the exercises something of a downhill jog. But the last item on the list was the dreaded standing calf raises.

The correct machine was not being used (this is why I go early!) so I glanced at my list of exercises for the right weight and began the first set of 20. By the 15th lift, I was really grimacing. I did hit 20, though, and after about a minute's rest, I started the final set of exercise for the day.

This time, when I hit 15, I hit the wall. ¡No más! as Roberto Duran might say. I unracked the weight and staggered over to my sheet to record my reps. There, I noticed that I was only supposed to have done two sets of 12, not 20.

If my calves still didn't feel like freshly tenderized meat, I woulda pimp-walked out of that gym.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Drive-By Haberdasher Strikes Again!

DO I EXUDE SOME sort of pheromone that attracts these types? In case you're joining us late, back in October I detailed my encounter with an Italian man trying to peddle clothing from his van.

Well, evidently he has a regular beat. I was walking along the very same street this evening, just one block west, when I hear, "Sir! Sir!" from the street. I recognized the accent, and just to confirm my suspicion, looked up. Sure enough, it was the same guy in the same van!

I stopped and let him speak. In the same unsteady tone as the first time, he says, "Lincoln . . . Tunnel."

Tonight was dinner with the parents, and I was not missing tacos. Quoth I: "We've been through this before. You have suits to sell in the back, right?"

I think I stunned him off the track of his usual spiel, so I gave him a cursory left-right-left set of directions to the tunnel to allow him a face-saving and literal answer to his question, and then just kept on walking.

What are the odds against running into this guy again? Do you think he actually sells a lot of suits this way? I thought the days of the pushcart vendor were long over, gone the way of the wandering ragpicker and knife sharpener. Evidently the tradition still lives on, updated to the Gasoline Age.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Chocolate for Breakfast and Other Weight Loss Tips

OKAY, NOT STRICTLY CHOCOLATE. I didn't fill a bowl with M&Ms and Yoo-Hoo and chase it down with a Swiss Miss stirred with a Toblerone bar. (That happened before I woke up.) Rather, I am describing the mini-meal I had before going to the gym for my weightlifting routine. This time, I left sufficient minutes between eating and lifting to avoid the same nausea I felt on Monday. However, I also made sure I ate something I would want to retain: a homemade chocolate protein bar.

If you have visited the health-bar section of your local supermarket or drugstore, you have seen enough slabs of compressed nutrients to build a road to Iceland — which would then be devoured by invading Vikings. Many of these are crap. High fructose corn syrup, poor balances of nutrients, insufficient fiber, and the like.

The website I visited,, has a message board forum on which one popular thread listed home recipes for protein bars. The advantage with this is that you know exactly what goes into each bar, so at the end of the day, you can rely on them to be of a certain nutritional level.

So I made the following recipe:

3 cups Quaker oatmeal
8 scoops chocolate protein powder
2 cups skim milk
1 package Jello fat free/sugar free chocolate pudding mix
1 tbsp peanut butter

Mix, pour into a glass dish, refrigerate or freeze, then cut up. I will say that fridge-only bars stay fairly mushy, and that a couple of hours in the freezer before cutting them up and returning them to the icebox is a good idea. But I had one of the slabs this morning before motoring off to the gym, and it was a chewy chocolate dream.

I did more or less the same routine as on Monday, except that I was able to do the work on the proper machines. I got there at opening (5:00 a.m.!) to have full access to all machines, because last time I had to substitute one shoulder machine for another due to a guy doing innumerable bench presses on the one I needed. Now, had I hit that Mega Millions score, I would be calling contractors to design a house with a gym. Not to be. Not yet anyway.

Recovering from the infamous squats was somewhat easier this time. I have no idea when I will begin putting actual weight on the bar during the squats. This early part of the routine is supposed to last 6 weeks. Maybe by week 24. At any rate, I got through all of the exercises as well or a little better than on Monday. The degree of difficulty I am having with some of them lets me know that my previous workout routines simply were not sufficient to grow and maintain muscle and burn fat.

Tomorrow, I plan to get 20 or 30 minutes of cardiovascular work in. According to some of the real muscleheads on the aforementioned message board, cardio somehow interferes with muscle growth. I suspect this is in the case of athletes who follow days of lifting with a 10K run. This is not me. The only way I am traveling 10K on my feet is if I put on in-line skates and someone tows me behind their car. I need the endurance training and heart-healthy benefits, and what I do isn't so intense from a tear-down-the-trapezius sense that I will reverse what minuscule gains I have made merely from watching a half hour of Wakeup Call on CNBC while flapping my thighs on the elliptical trainer. That's a good 400 calories I can drop there.

So if you see a maroon Toyota with a maroon of a driver slowly wending its way toward the town gym early tomorrow morning, you know it's me, reversing the sins of the past. If you then see me steer toward the bagel store on the corner, kindly shoot out one of my tires.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Quad Damage Really Does Hurt!

NO, UNFORTUNATELY, THIS IS not a discussion of any of the various versions of Quake. It's one of the beneficial, if painful, byproducts of the first day of my new exercise regimen. For a maiden flight, it went well, but I am particularly excited by the success of the accompanying eating plan. I nearly had a mishap, however, with the first meal . . . a Technicolor, three-dimensional mishap. if you get my drift.

The gym program I had adopted featured some exercises that are new to me, the most formidable of these being the squat. This specifically targets the four quadricep muscles across the top of the thigh. It is considered a "core" exercise because it forces your lower legs and back (and the associated ligaments and tendons) to complement the quad motion by enforcing stability, which leads to greater overall body strength than a machine (with a single axis of motion that isolates your quads) might foster.

Basically, you rest the barbell across and behind your shoulders, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, and then come back up to near-standing. If you've ever seen an illustration of the proper way to lift a box, you've seen the upward half of a squat.

As I'm already carrying extra weight I don't normally force through that range of motion (unless I lift boxes in my sleep, the way dreaming dogs sometimes run), I did my first quads with no actual weight plates on the bar. The program called for two sets of 12 repetitions. The first 12 took effort but not strain. About nine reps into the second set, I reeeeeeally had to push to stand up. Upon racking the bar after the 12th rep, I knew that stairs were not going to be a pleasant experience that day. But I was proud to have completed the exercise.

The initial 6 weeks of the program call for a full-body workout of about nine exercises, most of which I completed. I managed to crank out 40 abdominal crunches in two sets, which was more than I thought I could do. The only exercise I fell short on was the bench press, another key aspect of many weight-training programs. I suspect it's because I did a half-weight practice set of 12 reps before the two sets at full weight. One is encouraged to do such a practice set to get blood flowing to "cold" muscles before tucking into the "working" sets that you execute at full weight (or beyond if you're a real psycho). I stalled out at rep 10 of the second set. I wasn't disappointed, as I considered this day an experimental run to find the appropriate weights at which I could begin the program.

I have started weight-training programs in the past, but the two key aspects where I was deficient were getting enough sleep and proper nutrition. This is why I made so little progress in the past, I feel. As I mentioned earlier today, I took the first action to correct the nutrition aspect by eating a two-"egg" omelet of Egg Beaters and some cereal with soy milk. The problem here was that I ate all this a little close to the workout itself.

By the time I had returned to the car — walking down the gym stairs, as predicted, with stiff-legged awkwardness not seen since Boris Karloff last glued bolts to his neck — I was feeling a bit queasy. I had read about serious weightlifters who had followed their pre-workout meals with intense exercise just a little too soon, and had been sick as a result. I was afraid of heading down this very road, which I devoutly hoped might end in a bathroom. The real humor in such a result would have been that, once down on my knees, the squats would have denied me the strength to get back up. Lovely scene for the coroner to usher my parents into:

"And this is how we found him, Mr. and Mrs. Schizohedron . . . Yes, I agree, if he had stuck to cookie dough for breakfast, I'm sure this never would have happened. . . . No, we're still trying to figure out the note, but it looks like a menu for the rest of the day. Either he was plotting out a nutrition program, or we're gonna have to call in the Food Forensic Department to decipher it and see if it was suicide or merely death by resistance training. . . ."

I sat for a while and browsed on the computer, the ingredients to my post-workout protein shake waiting for me to integrate, blend, and down them, while my stomach pushed ominously upward. After a shower, and the decision that calling in sick over a self-inflicted dietary wound was not gonna be good for my karma, I got dressed, packed up my prepared food, made the shake, and headed out to the latest train I could conceivably get. I did give my boss a courtesy call to let her know I anticipated a late arrival, and a sketchy reason why.

Sipping the shake — raw oats ground into powder in my coffee grinder, chocolate whey protein, frozen blueberries, and fat-free Stonyfield Farms plain yogurt — actually settled my stomach, and I spent the train ride watching the surprisingly beautiful morning grow sunnier and warmer by the minute. By the time I got into the city, I was digesting confidently, even if my gait was slower than my usual angry–Sith Lord stalk. I did steer clear of anything except water until 10:30 or so, when a slight headache reminded me that, yes, I am a caffeine addict, and I needed a hit.

I tracked what I ate over the course of today, which was easy in that I had already measured out everything that I had brought into the city. I had also been eating carefully parceled-out snacks and greens over the past couple of weeks, so I had a little practice. I am not going to make you read my daily intake with each blog entry, but I figured it would be interesting to show you how the day's feeding schedule broke down. (Plus I may want to return to this post should I succeed in making a difference in my weight and build months or years from now.)

MEAL 1—Pre-Workout
½ cup Egg Beaters, made into an omelet, fried with Pam
2 Weetabix wheat cereal bricks
½ cup soy milk

MEAL 2—Post-Workout (aka "second breakfast")
The following blended into a shake:
½ cup steel-cut oat groats, powdered, raw
1 scoop chocolate whey protein
¾ cup frozen blueberries
1 cup fat-free plain yogurt
½ cup skim milk

2 Ryvita crackers, covered with
1 tbsp each natural peanut butter

MEAL 4—Lunch
4 oz. pork tenderloin
1 cup brown rice
2 cups red-leaf lettuce
2 tbsp Newman's dressing

Same as Meal 3, + ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese

MEAL 6—Dinner
3 oz. can water-packed tuna
1 cup broccoli, steamed
1 tbsp lite mayonnaise
1 tbsp flaxseed oil

Based on an estimate of my lean body weight, if I am going to train with weights, I should be taking in 2812 calories, at a ratio of 40/30/30 of complex carbs, protein, and fats. I subtracted 500 calories from this to foster fat loss, taking the total down to 2312.

Would you believe that the above meals totaled up to 2321?? On my first try, I came within a rounding error of my goal. Not bad! I also came damn close on the ratios: The above split assumes a carb/protein/fat split (in grams) of 241/170/92, and I hit 240/180/74. What I plan to do is to assemble a series of food "modules" for which I know all of these stats, so I can quickly put together meals that I not only like, but that meet my desired calorie count and stats.

So I am going to bed tonight feeling pretty damn happy with myself. I know how to stay on track and how to get back there should I have to improvise or diverge. I wouldn't call them moments of weakness, as the underlying program seems pretty strong. It's not even really a "diet" in the traditional meaning of a program of denial. More like the way I should have been eating, assembled sensibly to keep me feeling full and swimming in nutrients while my body uses up stored fat. Ninety-two grams of fat looks like a lot until you sit down and track its origins, and in my case it's all coming from healthful sources, not off the side of a steak or the fry pits of the local Burger King. With any luck, even if all I do is get a little stronger and only drop a little excess weight, I will decrease my chances of dying of something stupid and avoidable . . . unless my beleaguered leg muscles strangle me in my sleep.

Less a Feast Than a Bucket Brigade of Nutrients

I SPENT LAST NIGHT after dinner cooking lunch and dinner. Chunks of spiced pork roasted fragrantly in my George Foreman Grill. Brown rice steamed on the stove. I portioned cottage cheese and plain yogurt among eight single-serve plastic cups and tossed the original containers. Into two of my many plastic pint cups, scavenged from untold heart-clogging side orders of egg drop soup, I sifted protein powder and ground steel-cut oats . . . these last from a four-pound tub of oats had bought earlier that day from the loose-grains aisle at Whole Foods and pulverized in a coffee grinder for quick absorption when I blend them — raw — into a protein shake. . . .

Why the sudden burst of food-oriented organization? I am making a sincere effort to combine gym attendance and meal distribution to grow muscle and drop fat. For the past 2 weeks, I have brought oatmeal, salads, whole wheat/rye crackers, natural peanut butter, and tuna to work. I have distributed the three large meals I ordinarily eat into five or so smaller meals. This weekend, I researched the proper amount of fat, carbohydrates, and protein I should eat to reduce stored fat and encourage muscle growth in conjunction with regular weightlifting. My previous workouts were not followed up with food in the right combinations of macronutrients (i.e., the three divisions just mentioned, along with vitamins and minerals and water), and I did too much cardiovascular exercise for someone trying to retain muscle.

I have a program downloaded from the forums at to ease into the correct way to build muscle. I had viewed this site a year ago, and was using another beginner workout to distribute lifting weights across different days and body regions (doing splits) to avoid working the same muscles twice in a row. My efforts were subverted by getting discouraged, poor nutrition, and lousy sleep schedules.

So today I've kicked things off on the right foot by eating an Egg Beaters omelet and some whole wheat cereal, along with a ton of water. I was a little nervous about the Egg Beaters. Serious weightlifters consume enormous quantities of egg whites, sometimes raw. I had never eaten Egg Beaters, and I was hoping they wouldn't resemble the jars of egg whites I had seen on the shelf at Whole Foods . . . unappetizing to say the least. I am also not a big fan of the texture of egg whites, which has steered me away from hardboiled eggs and the whites of fried eggs in the past. Fortunately, the Egg Beaters were an inviting, creamy yellow, and they tasted like a blend of maybe one yolk with two or three whites. So far it's stayed down, so I think we've got a winner.

I bought a cooler so I could tote prepared cooked meat into the city, along with dairy like cottage cheese and all manner of leafy green vegetables. The idea here is to avoid running across the street to Chelsea Market to raid the bakeries there, or to follow folks carrying leftover sandwiches or pastries after catered meetings and feed like a lion on grease and starch. And of course, the holidays are coming, with junk food offerings on the home front and at work in the form of thank-you baskets from our vendors. Winter or no, I don't need to gorge like a pre-hibernation bear.

So I am off now to the gym to get this started. If I type with a limp in the next day or so, you know why.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Boots on the Ground Safe and Sound

EXCELLENT NEWS. Rich, the Army major I detailed in this post, has returned to native soil safe and sound. He came back to Fort Dix, NJ earlier this week. His mother, wife, sister, and infant daughter were there to greet him. I can only imagine how happy they all were. No college homecoming of mine could ever equal the feelings of relief they all must have shared.

The war is not over. Keep your thoughts and prayers focused on those who have not returned so that they, too, might excel, survive, and return to their loved ones.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Dizzy Mofo No Mo'

IT'S JUST OVER A week since I went to the doctor for my persistent dizziness. I am happy to report that the condition has cleared itself up. The drug I was given was more of a palliative for the symptoms than a cure for the underlying cause. Amusingly, one of the many warning stickers on the side of the pill bottle was that it could cause dizziness. Had I been seasick, these would have reduced the nausea.

I found a specific exercise on the Internet that — as much as the passage of time — may have helped speed the departure of the vertigo. I basically had to slump sideways on my bed, with my head cocked at a 45º angle, and hold it for 30 seconds, then rise to a sitting position for another 30, then slump to the other side, head cocked in the opposite direction, and so on, for five total slumps on each side. As slumping onto my bed is an inborn reflex, this was an easy therapy to enact. Over the weekend, I only felt dizzy once . . . after I took one of the pills.

I actually had adapted to the vertigo fairly rapidly. I only really noticed it was gone when I walked around. I had grown accustomed to feeling my weight lean out along the edges of my feet as I walked, as though I were on the deck of a gently rolling watercraft. Seeing as much of my volunteer duty at the WFMU Record Fair was going to be walking, I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to complete that part of the shift, even with the adaptation I had made (e.g., not making fast corner turns, not stopping short, etc.).

Turned out not to be necessary. I was feeling a lot better by Friday, and only the pill-induced dizziness kept the weekend from being asymptomatic. I'm going to renew the prescription anyway, just in case I need it on short notice. I've never had any problem on airplanes, but on the off chance it decided to manifest itself on my next trip to Las Vegas, I want to be prepared.

I did take time to vote today. For once, we had some New Jersey elections to share time with the big story across the river. It throws me for a loop that Jersey elects its governor in odd-numbered years. Because of the presidential-election schedule, I associate elections with leap years, not half-assed years like 1997 or 2005. Yet that's what we have here. Fortunately, there is no opportunity for anyone not in a coma to avoid the carpet-bombing ad schedule on the radio and TV here. (As for the dead, they apparently know when to get to the polls.

The results of the New York City mayoral race are not in doubt. Mike Bloomberg could have beaten a nun to death in Times Square in between hits on a crack pipe this morning and still have looked forward to a good 35-point margin of victory. I do not like Bloomberg. I began working in NYC in 1999, after the iron fist of Rudy the G had driven all traces of Dinkins-ism out of the five boroughs. No way in fucking hell would I have taken a job right out of college, in 1991, anywhere in Chelsea, unless I had majored in chemistry and knew how to cook heroin.

I find Bloomberg to be colorless technocrat, a caretaker mayor who continued enough of his predecessor's anticrime measures to meet the second-biggest concern of the city's voters (the first being antiterror measures). Every time I hear him speak, with that petulant spoiled-boss lilt to his voice, I want to push him down a flight of stairs in his Aeron chair. This is the putz who wants to restore — and increase sixfold — the city "commuter tax" on non–NY resident workers. I know I would sleep well knowing that such vital civic practices as NYPD bag searches in the subways and mass arrests of cyclists during the Republican National Convention would receive even more funding from New Jerseyans, folks from Connecticut, and, who knows, maybe even the Amish who come in from Pennsylvania to sell pies at greenmarkets.

He is no Giuliani, which makes some folks very happy, and he is no Ed Koch, which makes others happy, and he is no Fiorello LaGuardia, which proves there is no God. But in my thinking, the big brash sprawl of New York City needs a personality, not a CEO, running things. If you're the mayor of New York and you're not actively hated by some interest group, you're not doing your job.

But of course, I am a spectator in all of this, having deposited my nectar of suffrage on the hive on this side of the Hudson. The amusing thing is that when I approached the rear entrance of our building (yes, near that famous corner), I saw a woman with a NY1 microphone and a cameraman. When I caught her eye, she smiled and asked if I was going to vote. I apologized and said I wasn't a New Yorker. I should have said I would still vote for Fernando "Jorge McGovern" Ferrer. Poor bastard needs a break.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Million Vinyl Discs Descend on Manhattan

THIS IS WHAT USUALLY happens with my blog ideas. I get them while washing the dishes, or in the shower, or loading a dishwasher, or performing some other mundane daily battle against household entropy, and when I finally sit down, they've skeedaddled under the couch . . . possibly because that is one of the few places I won't clean. Still, a broomhandle — or a broomhandled Mauser — can come in handy for flushing them out, and, having done so, I can now proceed.

This weekend I have devoted to volunteering at the mighty WFMU Record and CD Fair, which began last night and ends tomorrow. For those who haven't clicked on my radio links, WFMU is a listener-supported freeform station broadcasting on the air in the New York City and northern New Jersey area at 91.1, in the New Hope, NY region and the Catskills at 90.1 in its WXHD guise, and live to anyone with an Internet connection in a variety of formats. DJs on WFMU program their own shows without station-mandated playlists or corporate interference, and 100% of the funding for operating the station and paying its tiny staff comes from the listeners, via an annual fundraising marathon, station music benefits, and the Record Fair.

Even if the New York radio market wasn't a listener-hostile stew of least-common-denominator pop tripe and management contempt for the listener, WFMU's blend of diverse programming and personalities, plus its informational shows, would still soundly kick ass. The man who taught me my trade as a typesetter and editor turned me on to this station on September 14, 1992. Yes, I remember the date, for it was momentous. It was my first day of work, and Chris indicated the radio on his desk and said, "I listen to this weird college station. If it ever bugs you, let me know and I'll change the channel." Rather than being bugged, I was immediately hooked. I remember, from my early days as a listener, a polka record that actually was recorded somewhere other than Poland, and the first two movements of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana performed on banjo. Six months later, I first contributed to the Marathon.

It wasn't until 1994 that I began listening to WFMU outside work. It's not the strongest radio signal on the air, and pulling in the waves from my workplace and home required either one of the more advanced antennas, or a certain amount of aerial-manipulation kabuki as one strove to isolate the region of best reception. This was just before the Web was widely available, to say nothing of reliable streaming audio or home broadband connections. But the immersion of listening at home and while working led me inevitably to the next step: volunteering.

Online WFMU playlists don't reach far back into the 1990s, if at all, so the exact date in 1997 (if I even have the right year) would have to be confirmed by whoever could tell me what day Kristin Hersh played live on Andy Waltzer's show. WFMU was still housed at the Springdale Avenue location in East Orange, its previous owner, Upsala College, a few years dead, the move to Jersey City about a year away. The station relies on a small army of volunteers, some sporadic, a few permanent and helping daily in some way, to keep the freeform flag flying. In my case, I spent an entirely pleasant day processing Marathon credit card payments and cull duplicate entries from the contributor database. The staff was very friendly and happy to have a listener in and helping out. My first stint at the Marathon, taking phone pledges, soon followed, as did my first duty as a Record Fair volunteer.

These days, I help out in the Fair's A/V Lounge. At the Metropolitan Pavilion, there is a side room that for the first couple of fairs went unused. Then someone at the station had the brilliant idea of showing music-oriented video programming in there, with the added attraction of free coffee. The thought was that folks might want to take a break from the mass mosh that goes on at the record dealers' tables, grab a cup of free joe, and watch some video rarities or a documentary. We've had some excellent programming in the past: You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, a documentary about Joe Broussard and his massive collection of vintage 78s, and the Ramones doc End of the Century. The lounge was packed for that last one.

The other major area I work is security. That sounds more ominous than it is. The dealers begin loading in or arriving as early as 7 a.m. (the doors open at 10 a.m.). I walk around the hall, making sure everyone has their dealer tag, and ensuring nobody goes rummaging through absent dealers' wares. As I was one of the first folks to respond to the request to get there so absurdly early on a weekend, I became one of the go-to guys for this particular volunteer shift.

I enjoy the contrast over the course of the day. When I begin, the hall is virtually empty, with tens of thousands of vinyl records, CDs, 8-tracks, and cassettes slumbering under draped bedsheets on the dealers' tables. I walk around as the dealers stream in, sometimes spotting colleagues they haven't seen since the last local record show, or even since the last WFMU Record Fair. Sometimes several dealers will swarm over one guy's table, burrowing through his stacks to find rarities to snag and offer from their own table to the public, or simply to complete a personal cache of wax. By 8:30, it's getting plenty populated with dealers. Tables are deployed, milk crates are brimming with offerings, TVs for displaying sale videos are running, and small home record players are sometimes poised on top of the racks, for discerning buyers to assess the worth of a find. By 10:30, you wouldn't recognize the place, as the public has poured in and is now digging lustily into the crates, waving singles at dealers, and slumping under the weight of a dozen new acquisitions. By this time, I have shifted to the A/V lounge, where these folks might revive themselves with fresh caffeine and Nabisco-based brain sugar.

I have another shift tomorrow, so I have to hit the hay soon. The only down side to the whole affair is that, with this occurring on a weekend, my work week is destined to go straight downhill after this. Nothing at work can compare with the satisfaction I get from helping out this fantastic radio station.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Masque of the Green, Snot-Ridden Death

A WEEK OR SO ago, I noticed a change in atmosphere on the trains and in my office. No, I didn't cut down my fiber intake. Rather, I could hear one of the more familiar sounds of autumn: coughing. The traditional fall cold was making the rounds.

Soon, at work, I could hear two of my cubemates hacking away, one of them to the point of losing her voice and having difficulty breathing. She actually left early today (I know that feeling) for a doctor's appointment to dope out once and for all what was screwing up her lungs. I tried not to inhale when I was in her presence, but being directly on the other side of her wall, there was little practical that I could do, aside from decent sleep and nutrition.

So far these practices have spared me the current outbreak. When I bring water or tea to my desk, I cover the mug with a lid to prevent cold viruses from dropping in. I wash my hands well, and avoid touching my eyes, which is a major and little-known vector for cold transmission. I have little contact outside of work with people who have children. And although there have been few coughing folks so far on the train, I generally relocate when one sits nearby.

It's really not the common cold that worries me. Nor is it this super bird flu over which Bush is now flapping his feathers. Rather, it's the garden-variety influenza that I am trying to avoid. I get vaccinated every year. I am not immuno-compromised or feeble or in the health care field or anything like that. I am always out — on the train, at work, in a mall. If I have armored my system against the virus du jour, and it doesn't turn me into a sneezing, highly contagious mess, I cannot then pass it along to someone else who is in one of these risk groups, or, even more deadly, an unimmunized senior.

Also, I don't need to tell you that having the flu utterly sucks. Figure on a solid week dead, stuck on your ass with not even the lure of the Internet enough to get you off the couch. No fuckin' way. Twenty-five or thirty bucks to avoid that is cheap as hell. Consider also that I go to casinos and play in a poker game where some of these goons will play with a half-sawn-off leg if it's not their accelerator foot, to say nothing of a cold. Last time I played, the guy immediately to my right was coughing and sniffling, and I couldn't relocate quickly enough. I lucked out in that case. My luck may not last forever.

I didn't even bother to bring up the topic of a flu shot when I went to the doctor on Monday. I suspected that most places besides hospitals hadn't gotten their serum in yet. Sure enough, right on the glass partition in the front where I stood to announce my arrival, there was a sign stating exactly what I suspected: no shots yet. Hospitals in my area have been giving clinics, but most of them are scheduled for midday or early afternoon. Good for suburbanites or seniors, not for me. I actually just checked to see if St. Vincent's, a hospital near me at the junction of Chelsea and the Village, offers shots, but no dice.

With a projected Las Vegas trip in January, coworkers who never take sick days or have kids, and the steel box of contagion in which I ride filling slowly with pathogens from afar, I'd really like to get a shot in sometime soon. I may just have to bite the bullet and take a day off to sneak into the hospital. Either that, or wait until the senior center behind my building offers shots again, then lurch in dressed like Grampa Simpson. I've got the patter down: "I remember before we had flu shots, we had to wear a toad in our overalls, that being the style of the time, real frogs being scarce 'round about then due to the invasion from Canada, which in those days we called Mexico. . . . "

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Curse Strikes Again!

REMEMBER HOW I OBSERVED that I worked adjacent to a star-struck street in Chelsea? Boy, did it ever come true again today. I am going to count this because you could see this from the corner of which I have written.

I take the PATH train to 14th Street to get to work. (Dizziness update: Still there, but I'm no longer panicking about my heart going up like a grenade.) Even as I was mounting the stairs, I could smell smoke on the wind. Being the sort to savor a smoky breeze in the fall, I smiled, imagining how nice it would be to have a fireplace going on a cool autumn morning.

If only that were it! When I finally made it out to the surface, I could hear sirens in the distance, out west — the direction I was headed. Looking down 14th Street, I saw not the fringe of Jersey, but a grey smudge . . . in what seemed to be the vicinity of my building.

I called home to see if my parents had heard anything on the radio. They reported a parking garage was on fire on 15th Street and Ninth Avenue. This is right across the street from where I work! I kept walking, assuming I would know by the throngs of my coworkers if my building had been evacuated as a precaution.

Emergency vehicles passed me in haste as I finally reached Eighth Avenue. Nobody was standing outside, aside from the usual cancer cluster sucking down a quick nail before punching in. But the smoke from this distance was black and menacing. Fifteenth and 16th were blocked heading west, and I could see flame licking from some distance structure of unknown use.

From inside the building, I couldn't smell anything — surprising, as the stench (no longer a romantic wood smell, but the acrid tang of combusting gas and tires) was pervasive outside. Possibly everyone on the window side had closed up before heading home Tuesday night. (Yes, I work in a 1930s building with windows you can open. Not that I have an office.) Had they been open, the whole office easily would have smelled of it.

The horrific fact is that dozens of cars were destroyed, and in many cases, their gas tanks were exploding. I am led to understand that, contrary to what Hollywood action films would have you believe, gas tanks are far more stable in car wrecks than they seem on screen. They require a spark or high temperatures to touch off. And the latter was present in spades at this parking garage. It must have been bitter duty for NY1, which is based in the Chelsea Market complex right next door to the fire, to report that many of the news channel's employees, and the company itself, had lost vehicles. Can you imagine sitting at your desk and wondering if your car was still intact? Does insurance even cover such a thing?

So the cursed corner of Chelsea has struck again! I fully expect the follow-up to be a horde of snakes or perhaps a plague of locusts.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Somewhere Between Vertigo and Infarction

I HAVE IN MIND the ideal way I would like to give blood on Halloween. It involves a beautiful vampire and one of my veins, a glimpse of wicked eyes and the rustle of black velvet skirts across a room, ivory white skin, and even whiter fangs pricking my flesh, the whole of eternity mine from beyond the prison of twilight . . . not a dumpy phlebotomist and a length of rubber tied around the crotch of my elbow like William Burroughs harvesting an intact vessel. That's how I ended up after leaving work early while wondering if this fourth day of dizziness meant I was heading toward a heart attack or stroke.

Let's back up. On Thursday morning, when I woke up, I felt bed spins. Not as severe as when I've wrestled unwisely with tequila the night before — and fortunately with far fewer unexplained tattoos — but definitely present. This was before I actually got up out of bed, so it wasn't just getting-up-fast dizziness (to use the medical term). In walking around the apartment, I didn't need to hold onto the walls or anything, but it was just present enough to make me overcompensate on sharp turns. Curious. It persisted over the course of the morning, but eventually faded as the day wore on.

It was back when I awoke on Friday — late, as I stated in my last post — but instead of fading and leaving me asymptomatic, by the time I got to the guy's house for the poker tournament, my heart was beating hard. This is odd. I am not usually going to get this excited over a poker game, even when I am involved in a big hand. My pulse will be up, but in a calm way, if you can imagine this . . . there's an explanation for why my heart is racing, as there would be during planned physical exertion, like aerobics or beating a loud cellphone user to death. I felt dizzy and my heart was going at over 100 beats per minute over . . . what? Forty bucks? This wasn't the usual pregame cold spot I feel in my gut before the first card gets thrown and we're down to business.

This had no explanation.

And it was making me anxious.

I didn't win the tournament, though I did play well enough despite being distracted by the cardiac tapdance I seemed to be hosting. I exited into the refreshingly chilly air and drove home. My pulse did begin to decline after I had been motoring for a while. I was also sporting a headache from the tension of wondering if I was gonna collapse on the table. But my chest and arms were free of pain and I was fully functional, which at least ruled out a preemptive drive to the hospital to get the heart attack or stroke treated.

Now, if you're feeling some vertigo, and getting anxious because your ticker isn't following orders, what do you need on the road to make your night perfect?

That's right, a DUI stop. My first since 1986. As I neared the edge of the host's town, I saw several cars, most of them police vehicles, clustered around the road like arterial plaque. Cops thronged one car as an officer with a Maglite held in high-interrogation stance spoke to the driver. I edged up and waited, catching a sweat in the process.

The strongest thing I had imbibed that night was Diet Coke. I don't like to drink while I'm playing poker, which is tough enough with a clear head. Still, you never know who's going to be asked to go heel-to-toe along the center line, or do the one-legged hop, or whatever balance-reliant maneuvers they direct potential drunks to enact. I had no real faith in my ability to achieve these feats in a way that accurately represented my booze-free status.

The cop waved me up. "Good evening. Have you been drinking tonight?" His colleague began looking around in the back seat with his own flashlight, illuminating a Whole Foods paper bag filled with library books and several other loose tomes scattered over my back seat.

"Nope." Hands on the steering wheel, awaiting orders, feeling sweat crawl coldly down my back.

The lead cop asked the searcher, "Anything?"

"No. We have a backup anyway." He indicated a number of drivers doing the Budweiser ballet next to their idling vehicles.

The cop next to my window passed me a AAA pamphlet on drunk driving. "Go ahead. Be careful, sir."

"Thanks." I slowly departed, rounded the turn at the T-intersection that terminated this road, and exhaled in relief. I did pull over after a few minutes to call the host and tell him to warn the sots at the party to get their heads straight if they were going to drive that night, as some of them had been swilling beer even before sitting to play (and these drunks I couldn't have gotten at my table so I could take their chips? No justice.).

I stayed up 'til 3:00 in the morning, afraid to go to sleep, even after my heart rate wound down to the 70s per minute and the seat from which I browsed the Web was fully free of spins. I was afraid because I had no idea why my heart pulled the trick it had earlier that evening, and I was not sure if I would wake up again.

Saturday and Sunday featured a return of the dizziness, but not of the rapid heartbeat. I went to the gym both days with no problem, no weakness after deliberately working my heart muscle to the levels it had achieved on its own Friday night. I began feeling very tired early on Sunday night, while at my parents' house for dinner, but that could also be put down to the eccentric sleep schedule I had endured the previous three nights, between poker, panicking over my ticker, and a Halloween party Saturday night.

This morning was different. I was still dizzy, which sent me back to sleep for 90 more minutes rather than going to the gym. When I finally got my ass out of bed, it was too late for a decent breakfast, so I showered, dressed, grabbed a bagel and Diet Coke near the train station, and munched while traveling to Hoboken. I felt tired, but again, I ascribed that to the late nights, one proper night of sleep not being enough to reset my schedule.

I still felt quite dizzy when I got to the office, and now it began to scare me. It was a warmer day than the past few, so I was a bit sweaty as I settled in at my desk. I could feel my heart going, not too fast, but it added into the whole sense of not feeling right, and over the course of the first hour, I began to panic. I couldn't focus on work, email (which chose that lovely time to tell me I need a new password and the sysadmin's help to reset it), or even the screen. All I could think of was whether I was gonna have to be taken out of the office like that other gent a couple of weeks ago.

I also thought of my parents. Today is their wedding anniversary (yes, they were married on Halloween). I am their only child. Aside from each other, I am the center of their lives. I was afraid that calling home to inform them of the situation, without their being able to do anything about it, would put one of them in the hospital, to say nothing of myself.

Because that's where I was afraid I might have to go. Call it a runaway mind in the face of medical ignorance, but that's what I thought. Rush home via bus, as the trains would not run north until midafternoon. Pack a bag. Call my doctor and tell him I was driving myself to the emergency room. Sway the nurse with my firm conviction that, despite having none of the symptoms, I felt like I was going to die of some horrible cardiac event, at the tender age of 36, and could I kindly have the Travel Channel on in my room, so I could watch the World Poker Tour while I merged with the infinite?

And amid all of that, somehow tell my parents I was somewhere between vertigo and infarction. That my mind was surely playing tricks on me, that the dizziness keeping my head from being clear was only some sort of inner-ear cock-up, not the beginning of the end . . . just an overactive imagination and a thinly experienced stretch of years filling me with panic and regret and the desire not to die on my parents' anniversary.

I decided I needed to know what was wrong with me, and if I was going into the hospital, it would be the one five minutes from home, not a state line and a tunnel.

I kicked on my cellphone and got the doctor's office. Miraculously, they had a 4:30 slot open. I was going to leave work anyway, doctor or no, so this was a bonus. I returned to my work area, told my immediate boss where I was going and why, and then told the same story to our department head. Not strictly needed, as my boss would handle any workflow but . . . oh, this is embarrassing . . . but she has beautiful green eyes, and when I get sick I get sentimental and vulnerable like an overgrown child and I needed to see something gorgeous and comforting before I headed home.

This comprised a quick subway trip to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and about a 15-minute wait for the next bus back into my area of Bergen County. I have to admit that I began feeling less panicked as I completed each part of the trip. Sitting on the bus, watching the unparalleled West Side roll by across the Hudson under achingly blue skies, cool air blowing up from the vents. I was conscious of my pulse in my lips, but my heart wasn't pounding as it was last Friday. I wasn't having any side effects of being in a jouncing bus while dizzy. I don't get motion sickness (aside from nearly puking when I saw The Blair Witch Project in the theater), but I was a little concerned when I boarded the bus if this would bring out an unforeseen reaction. It did not.

I didn't call my parents until I had an initial diagnosis in hand. The doctor asked me a variety of questions, then checked my pulse and blood pressure and set me up with a medical aide who administered an EKG, my first. I found it poetically just to be wired to an electrical device on Halloween, like Frankenstein's monster. The reads on everything came up normal. The doc didn't even chastise me for being overweight. He did request a blood sample, which brought me to the in-house phlebotomist, and another danger: I have fainted when I have had blood drawn. I informed the specialist about this, and, indicating the ammonia capsules someone had taped to the wall next to the blood station for easy access, said, "You knew I was coming."

Fortunately, I didn't watch the blood actually being drawn, which is what triggered my faint the first time, so after sitting for a few moments, I walked confidently (if a little dizzily) to billing. I got a prescription for anti-vertigo medication (related to Dramamine) and an initial diagnosis, barring anything in the blood test, of benign positional vertigo. My parents took the news better than I had hoped, justifying my decision not to tell them until I, like them, had had my anxiety level dampened with some sort of answer, even a temporary one.

So that's where we stand. I have one of the pills in me, so we'll see how I feel tomorrow morning when I awaken. I don't intend to make a long night of it, though one of the side effects of the drug is drowsiness, which means I should have no trouble dropping off soon. If this turns out to be something temporary, I will have the pills to ride it out. If not, then I can think of about 10 conditions right off the bat that I would like very much not to have to live with.

For now, I need to depart from this truncated Halloween, and dream of sweet green eyes and reanimated behemoths and toothy kisses fluttering along my neck like thirsty moths.