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.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Poker All Night, Sleeping 'Til Noon, and My First All-In Bet

THIS IS THE SECOND of my two days off, and boy, was it nice out. Gently breezy, bright sky, cool air . . . finally some fall weather to enjoy. Of course, had I not gone to sleep last night at four in the morning, I might have had a few hours more to savor, but, alas, last night's poker game ran juuuuust a little late. And I have another game scheduled for tonight, this one a tournament. In poker-ese, this is a no-limit hold'em tournament, $40 buy-in for T1000 in chips, no rebuys, no add-ons, blinds start at 10-15, 30-minute rounds, top four spots pay. If this is gibberish to you, then read on and learn, as this will be the first of many posts in which I detail my slow assimilation into the hold'em Borg collective.

As you have no doubt noticed, the form of poker known as Texas hold'em has seized the imagination of the nation. I mentioned in a previous post how I began playing poker again, but I tried seven-card stud in my first casino excursions. What poker I had played before that had either been stud or some wildcard variation of it, so I stuck to my most comfortable game. I liked it enough to set aside some money for a bankroll and buy an introductory book, so I could play that instead of the cash-draining table games (e.g., blackjack, craps) that ultimately keep the casino's lights lit and Siegfried and Roy awash in chest-waxing dough. When I eventually visited the local casinos in Connecticut and Atlantic City, though, I noticed more and more people playing a different poker game than mine. I also saw printouts of tournament schedules, most of them not for seven-card stud, but for this hold'em game.

Ah, "this hold'em game." From Southwest obscurity, to late-night ESPN2 reruns, to Travel Channel novelty, to new national obsession in apartment kitchens, on fraternity pool tables, and across the Internet. Two cards in the hole, five on the board, best five-card hand takes it. And it is the no-limit style of hold'em that has commanded the most interest among the new generation of players. You can bet your entire pile of chips at any time, which can either propel you toward a commanding lead in money, or send you slinking toward the parking lot stone broke.

As 2003 drew to a close, I could tell that hold'em was edging out stud in popularity. The World Poker Tour program, and the victory in the annual World Series of Poker of Chris Moneymaker — an amateur who won his entry via an Internet poker site —sparked a groundswell of popularity among a horde of poker virgins. After a decade during which many Las Vegas casinos closed their poker rooms amid declining interest, people invaded those that remained to play that game they saw on TV. They also swarmed over the gambling sections of chain bookstores, seeking out the previously obscure texts on the game. Like that scene in Ghostbusters where Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd cite various eldritch tomes to diagnose Sigourney Weaver's haunting, you would hear new players name-check poker-lit luminaries like Sklansky's Theory of Poker and Jones's Winning Low-Limit Hold'em. (And these books often remained more spoken about than actually digested, much to the emolument of professional poker players.)

In addition to offering actual live poker, the Internet allowed new players to start or join games via sites such as Craigslist or, both of which I trolled for new games. Rick's group wasn't meeting as often because one of the regulars dropped out, reducing the odds of getting the minimum number of players. And describing Foxwoods and Atlantic City as "local" casinos glosses over the reality of 5 total hours in the car for trips that were essentially freshman-year classes on the game, with a rather unforgiving grading system. Coming home after getting busted as a beginner was a bit of a sting. I wanted to learn more locally and more cheaply if I could.

So I searched for nearby, inexpensive dealer's-choice and seven-card stud . . . initially, not hold'em. This limited my options, as most of the ads were for hold'em games. I had purchased the dominant introductory text to Texas hold'em, the second edition of Lee Jones's Winning Low-Limit Hold'em, and I had been watching the World Poker Tour, but these could only take me so far as tutorials without live play. Despite feeling more comfortable with stud, I would need to begin learning hold'em too. I was still a stud beginner, and there are enough significant differences between stud and hold'em to make scaling two learning curves a bit of a challenge.

So you can imagine how I did when I first played hold'em. I found a game in Manhattan not too far from my company. I played in a dealer's-choice game in January 2004, and three of the players had an ongoing no-limit hold'em game at their office, to which they invited me. The dealer's-choice game was fairly lousy for a variety of reasons, so I only played there once and took the guys up on their invitation.

Now, let's back up for a moment. I am not a hugely extroverted person. Shy, you might say. Not usually the first to try new things. My first trip to Las Vegas in 2001 was a huge break from routine, and perhaps opened the first crack in my usual withdrawn self. Also, over the course of the next couple of years, I began to see my friends less and less often, due to increased family and work responsibilities on both my part and theirs. When I made contact with Rick again in 2003, it was in the midst of a social drought. I was happy to have a new social circle, especially one that allowed me to host gatherings like game nights. So I was poised to make the next jump when it arose: looking for a poker game on the Internet.

I was understandably nervous the first time I did this at the Manhattan dealer's choice game. Think about it. I was going to a strange apartment, alone, with more money than I usually carried around (admittedly just a few $20s, but the people on the other end of the ad didn't know I wasn't packing a mighty roll). I had called the hostess at her request after answering the email, which was as much a security move for her as it was for me. Still, this was unknown territory, and definitely a huge break from my usual social shell.

Fortunately, the destination did not involve a rag full of chloroform and a date with Malaysian organ thieves. And when I got the invite to the hold'em game, I had already played with these guys for a few hours, so I felt a little more secure. Nonetheless, I did feel nervous as I walked through an evening snow flurry over to their office a week or so later . . . passing, oddly enough, the New York Friars' Club on their street. Their company, a firm that managed back-office computer and software solutions for hedge funds, was based in a nondescript office building in Midtown. They had commandeered a conference room for the game, and upon being introduced around, we settled in.

Poker games are usually defined by the initial betting commitment and how many chips you can buy. For this game, the initial bet was a dollar, and you could buy up to $40 in chips to start. As I know now, this is a terribly small amount of money for a no-limit game, especially one with only six players like this one. Between the blinds (compulsory starting bets that two players post each hand) and any abortive starting hands you then have to toss, you could be pissing away $3 or $4 each time the deal goes 'round the table, and that's if you're doing what good players do and tossing the vast majority of your initial two-card starts. Still, you're going to lose a good tenth of your starting $40 just sitting there for a full revolution while you wait for a decent chance to play. And this is no limit. If you do commit to a hand, you could easily get a third to a half of your stack into the pot before the showdown . . . with a loss leaving you crippled in terms of getting back out of the hole, unless you buy back up to the starting amount.

So I just sat there, folded most of the cards I was dealt, and tried not to get too involved in mediocre hands. Even these abortive hands were inexorably eating up my pile of chips. One advantage I had was that I was just as much of a new player to them as they were to me, so they had no real read on my skills. When I eventually did get a pair of 10s, therefore, my raise got attention and respect. All but one player folded.

The next three cards in hold'em are dealt face up. This is called the flop. (Two more are dealt out, one by one, to finish the hand, with rounds of betting after each.) In my case, the flop contained a King, normally a disquieting sight. But it also revealed a 10, giving me three of a kind. My opponent, Chris, was first to act, and — deciding he wanted to win it right there — bet about a third of his remaining chips. The other players got excited, partly because (as I would later learn) Chris had a way of either folding or betting heavily, even on a single pair. They were also eager to see what I, the new guy, would do when confronted with this aggression.

I did not disappoint. Using the three fateful words that were even then echoing through the poker world from a new wave of newbies, and were slowly becoming a metaphor in the broader world, I looked at Chris and said, "I'm all in."

The other guys cheered. Chris slumped back and crossed his arms, recalculating his chances. Even with my inexperience, I figured him for just a pair of Kings, maybe with an Ace as his second hole card, a hand the hold'em world calls Big Slick — a strong starting hand. He had a number of ways to improve and beat my three of a kind. After a surprisingly long minute, he called my bet and flipped up Big Slick. There were 12 cards that could give him a better hand than mine, and he figured for the amount of money he could win, the cash he placed in the pot next to the Ace and the King was a good price for the potential profit.

The betting now over, we looked at the dealer to decide our fates. He dealt out the turn and the river with an agonizing pause between each.

Neither of the two cards helped Chris in the slightest.

My three 10s held up.

Handshakes and backslaps showered upon me. Chris said, "Nice hand." I would later understand this to be a standard face-saving response on taking a serious hit at the table (especially against long odds or from a weak player), but in his case he was sincere.

Others would enjoy his money that night. I was, after all, a beginner, and the other players' experience eventually took its toll on my chips. In the short term, I booked the night as a loss. In retrospect, though, despite my continued study and play of seven-card stud, this night can be seen as my beginning of the end as a stud player.

Whereas a skilled stud player can slowly bleed an opponent of all of his chips, only in a no-limit game can you eliminate a player in one hand. Stud might be the death of a thousand cuts, but in no-limit, with a single card your foe's head can roll to a stop at your feet.

In my next post — in addition to far fewer violent metaphors — I will detail how my apartment became the center of "the Westwood game."

Monday, October 24, 2005

How Our Enemies Will Defeat Us

I JUST LOVE THIS. I put on the Jets–Falcons game, and just before New York's first possession, I start to do some dishes. While I washed, the Jets somehow screwed up their first snap, in a way I don't know yet, and BOOM—the Falcons have the ball. Oh, I am happy this is a Monday game, which guarantees I will fall asleep before the bitter end. And now, just as I have been typing this, Testaverde lost the ball on a sack, which fell into the hands of a Falcon. Challenge is in and review is pending. Just a gay night out with Gang Green.

Verdict: Fumble. Atlanta ball.

God, I'm glad I don't bet on sports.

I have a short week ahead of me. Thursday and Friday are mine to enjoy. I am tempted to take a trip to Atlantic City, grab a cheap motel room somewhere along the White Horse Turnpike, and sleep over instead of packing two long drives into one day.

My parents were enthusiastic about the idea, especially the sleepover part. They worry when I take long drives. I am inclined to agree with their overprotectiveness in this specific situation. Nearly 3 hours on the road both ways, the second trip after anywhere from 3 to 6 hours of poker. And that drive doesn't get any more fun if it's a losing session. At least in Las Vegas, I have a shorter drive (or even walk) back to the hotel or a restaurant after a loss. From either AC or Foxwoods, I have a goodly stretch to meditate on the situation.

I am not committed to the idea of a trip. I have few vacation days left. I had hoped these days in October would allow me to enjoy the fall weather. But now it seems like we will get some more rain this week, as a result of Hurricane Wilma. Interestingly, in the 2 weeks or so since Wilma was named, I haven't heard a single Flintstones joke. People are no doubt sensitive about extreme-weather humor after the ravages of Katrina.

There will be no jokes about the name of the storm that just made tropical storm status. After running through the regular roster of names, we are now burdening the otherwise innocent Greek alphabet with the names of our kill-storms. So sometime later this month, we may have Hurricane Alpha ravaging what intact coastline we still have somewhere on the continent.

At this point, you really wonder if paranoid conspiracy theorists are too far off the mark when they mutter breathlessly about the weapon designs of electricity genius and madman Nikola Tesla. He claimed to have developed machines that could start earthquakes and influence the weather. All this with late–19th Century technology, not computers or even radar. Is this what we were trying to destroy 3 years ago at Tora Bora — not merely the al Qaeda leadership, but also a subterranean trove of whirring, Victorian-era weather gadgets, poised to spread drought across our nation's breadbasket, drive floodwaters into our river valleys, and plunge our cities into darkness with massive blackouts?

No, far too obvious The enemy will surely use far more subtle means, like causing Vinny Testaverde to fumble for a third time just now and drop a ball virtually into the arms of a fleet-footed defender for another touchdown. Make the day following Monday Night Football into a second Monday, and demoralize a nation. Or at least the Jets fans in it.

Lucky it's a short week.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Pine Box in My Bedroom

HALF OF THE WEEKEND is done, and so far it's been a good one to stay in and clean. Or at least to stay in; I am sure other folks with the same assessment of yesterday's grim skies and steadily increasing rain found a variety of activities to keep them from getting flashbacks to our early-October monsoon season. It's just that in my case, cleanup is the order of the day.

Some weeks ago, I tore up my bedroom closet, dumping a mound of clothing I no longer need in a mound in the center of the rug. I have not yet gotten around to transferring this mound to one of the local clothing-drop boxes. I feel a wave of shame each time I have to maneuver around this heap, crouching there like a textile blob lazily digesting its last victim.

One factor that has kept me from advancing on this foe is the general formlessness of my recent weekends. If I get up late on Saturday, that virtually guarantees that I will do the same on Sunday, because my internal clock will be tricked out and I won't go to sleep until midnight on Saturday night. And it's not because I've gone out and done something either. I'll drift off to bed, but that's a very different act than going to sleep.

I have come to believe that the most dangerous item in my bedroom is my nightstand. That rotten heap of IKEA pine had cost me more hours of sleep, and helped me pack on more calories, than the Internet and my refrigerator combined. And the Internet is a goddamn black hole when it comes to productivity or sleep schedules. Maybe this is why I haven't gotten a wireless router for my computer. Bringing this beast into the bedroom — even if it serves in the additional role of warming my lap in the colder months — would make me more of an insomniac than the protagonist of Fight Club. And I'm sorry to report that I don't have Helena Bonham Carter to frolic with as a consolation prize.

Be it a work night or the middle of a week off, the danger is always there, lurking next to my bed. I drag my droopy ass into the bedroom, decorate the vicinity of the laundry basket with my clothes, set the alarm clock for some wildly optimistic target hour, and crawl between the sheets. There, resting on the nightstand, will be a book, a magazine, even an old diary, all of which I have been too lazy to replace on whatever shelf it might call home.

I glance at the clock. Still 15 minutes to the half hour. Time enough for a couple of pages. I prop myself up on my left elbow, like a Roman grazing at an all-day feast, and start reading. Hm. Grazing. Sounds like a good idea. The poker players left about a third of the Oreos, or maybe there's some cheese in the vegetable crisper, and I do have some crackers . . . So I shuffle out to the kitchen, array some junk on a plate, and return, balancing the plate on the edge of the bed because there are too many fucking books on the nightstand to fit it there.

This will have eaten up the time I allotted to read, so I make a new bargain with myself to kill the lights in another 15 minutes. I read and munch, waking up fully in the process so I don't miss a page or route a cookie into a lung. I invariably become engrossed in the reading material. Top of the hour comes and goes. I then begin the mental calculus to determine the relation between the reduced period of sleep I face, which train I will be able to get as a result, and how early in the afternoon I will begin to nod off at work. This is an inexact science, fatally tainted by observer bias, that makes intelligent design look like heliocentricity.

Invariably this whole process ends up tacking another half hour onto the day, which over the course of a week turns into a formidable sleep deficit. Coupled with the late Thursday poker nights, it guarantees that Saturday morning will begin around 9:00. I was able to get to the gym early last week for three days, but I'm not making that effort any easier. It's also pitch dark now at that time in the morning. That walk out to the car in my gym clothes is a lot colder, and I do it under a sky full of stars or slinking dark clouds.

So more than the tangle of discarded apparel on my bedroom floor, the nightstand is now Public Enemy Number 1.

I struck the first blow this morning by clearing off all of the books. There were nearly a dozen! The real challenge now is to keep it clear. Currently it holds my answering machine, my portable phone cradle, and a heavy glass goblet I found in the city that I cleaned and filled with pens in case I wanted to record diary entries before sleeping. Now that I am doing that sort of thing here, that last item is no longer needed, and I can relegate any dead pens to the trash. (I wouldn't dream of bringing the live ones back to work. I call them my 401(p).)

The drawers are holding nothing of great significance. Some photos, possibly a large-size blank book, and dust. If I can find something else to fill the surface, I will prevent it from becoming the town's largest private library again, to say nothing of its only all-night buffet. Candles are not an option — the idea is I need to sleep, not use them to guide my way through yet another time-devouring book, and the odds of them casting their sensuous shadows on any other activity in that room are jack-shit to 1. I could buy a low-light plant like an aspidistra or sansevieria (aka a snake plant), because that corner only gets a little sun through my curtains during the day. My great fear is somehow flailing about in my sleep and knocking it on the floor. Then I would get to step out of bed into a pile of cold dirt. I doubt my boss would buy that as an excuse for a sick day.

So I am open to ideas on what to place there to keep it from stealing my sleep night after night. If it didn't have to support the phone, I'd just relocate it across the room or right next to my front door. (I just checked, and it would fit nicely. Not a bad place to stack my necessities for work or on a day trip. . . .) Anything to keep me from filling its drawers with stolen hours of sleep. At this rate, I am going to hibernate through January to catch up on my purloined slumber.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Why It Is Wise to Ask for a Second Take


A director. A screenwriter. Even a bit of a technology nut.

You released a film in the 70s. Piece of science fiction film. Inspired by old serials and obscuro Kurosawa.

Scorned by the critics. Reviled by hard-sf authors.

Viewed by tens of millions.

In this film is a character.

Faceless. Clad in black. A master of mystic powers. An unmatched pilot.

His name became shorthand for ultimate evil.

And in the first sequel, you shocked the world by making him the father of the films' protagonist.

Even when you had his son help gain this character's redemption in the third (and technically final) film, it didn't detract from the growing popularity and fascination a generation of filmgoers would have with this enduring screen villain.

Say you have returned to this series after a long absence from the craft.

You are rich beyond the dreams of all of your student-film days, and you want to complete this saga by telling the story of how this villain was once a hero, and how he became evil.

Nobody has said "no" to you for a very long time, and your early efforts in this regard show it.

Your dialogue in the first and second new films is wooden, and your direction invests it with no new life.

You elect to introduce this enduring villain as a child, to show his pure beginnings. All the fans see is an irritating kid reading terrible lines from a rusty filmmaker in need of a script doctor.

But the fans return for the second film.

The eventual villain is a young adult.

Your characterization is not subtle.

He is loud when he should be menacing . . . whiny when he should be manipulative . . . creepy when he should be seductive.

Both the actor and, yes, your dialogue are to blame.

But the fans return for the final film.

Because this film will feature the turn to evil.

This film will show him turn against his friends, his lover, and his teachings.

This film will show The Duel.

He will enter this film a man, and leave it a scarred, cybernetic monster.

You're under juuuust a little pressure.

You have this one last chance to depict how a defender of peace and justice, a loving husband, and a devoted friend becomes the agent of a despot's rule . . . the destroyer of a democratic order . . . and the betrayer of of his fellow warriors.

You almost succeed.

Everyone went into this film wanting to see the moment when this man disappeared into forbidding black armor and robes, from which he would not emerge until just before his death.

Everyone wanted to hear, for the first time since 1983, the deep, resonant rasp of his voice, echoing through that nightmarish mask.

So given all of this, when it comes time for you to record his moment of ultimate despair and regret at the evil he has embraced, wouldn't you ask for just one more take if all you had to work with was this?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Cursed Corner of Chelsea

AHHHH . . . NOW THIS IS what fall is all about. I woke up yesterday morning to find an unfamiliar phenomenon streaming through my bedroom window. Investigating further, I was panicked to notice the sky had turned this bizarre shade of . . . could that be blue? Yes, the rains had receded, the clouds had thinned from forbidding armories of floodwaters to benign wisps, and new hope dawned in my battle against terminal mildew. I have been enjoying bracing winds and cool, dry air ever since.

The past week —10 days? Month? — of rain did claim one casualty that I know of. Close to my workplace is the Chelsea Market building, a converted Nabisco factory that also houses cable television studios. The main promenade holds a variety of bakeries, restaurants, and specialty shops. Here, unlike some other areas in the neighborhood, you will find tourist groups, enticed by a variety of tasty desserts and produce. It's also popular with the working stiffs in the offices above and in the buildings surrounding the area. So it gets constant foot traffic, which contributed to the wet floors therein this week.

I walked over to the Market to grab some end-of-the-week brain sugar when I encountered the unfortunate victim of these slippery conditions. A man was lying flat out on the floor, his shopping bags scattered about him, holding his lower right forearm and wincing. His friends and at least one Market security employee were gathered around him, diverting traffic to either side. This led me to believe that this had just happened, because he was lying perpendicular to the hallway.

I felt that queasy pang in my stomach that I always feel when I come across an injured party. I have been exceptionally lucky in that I have never broken a bone. My worst injury was a sprained ankle and strained ligament on my left pinky toe in 1988. I came down on the edge of my foot full force, and — had I struck it at even a slightly different angle or fallen with my arms in any different position — I could have snapped that ligament, and broken part of my foot or a wrist. As it was, I just toddled around for most of a week on crutches with an ACE bandage and a pronounced grimace. So when I see someone like this poor guy, I feel this odd empathy because I figure I have been unnaturally fortunate and, once again, avoided this sort of injury.

With his needs being attended, I kept walking — very carefully, so as not to necessitate another ambulance from St. Vincent's down the street — and thought back to a few months before, when I witnessed most of another mishap just outside the Market. That time, I was waiting to cross over to the Market's side of the street, not looking at the actual road, and I heard a jarring double bump. The second I couldn't identify, but the first sounded all too much like a car striking someone. I looked over to see a man flying away from the bumper of the car that had hit him, then roll and sprawl in the crosswalk. I deduced that the second bump I had heard was the man's cup of coffee flying out of his hand and hitting the car's windshield, which was bathed entirely in light sweet Starbucks.

People immediately rushed over to assist the guy, who, incredibly, was rising to his feet. They tried to convince him to let them carry him along, but he declined and began walking slowly to the opposite curb. I assume he still went to the hospital to get checked out for internal bleeding or whatever scuffs and bumps he sustained in the impact, but regardless, the Force was with him — the same hit could easily have broken multiple bones in a different, less lucky adult, or even flat-out killed a child. And again, I had that terrible sympathetic feeling in my gut . . . it could have been me in that crosswalk . . . and on top of that, the poor bastard lost his coffee!

If you want to dilate the definition of "corner" a touch, you can count the incident that occurred in my office earlier in the week as well. I was looking down the long axis of our roomy workspace while talking to a coworker, when I saw two paramedics wheeling a stretcher around the corner on the opposite side of the office. I then saw the certified CPR person tear ass down in the same direction. Something dire was up. The ambient noise in the place took on that hushed murmur that accompanies some sort of tragic incident — everyone wants to talk about it, but nobody wants to be heard asking for information — but still, a few folks headed down to check out the problem. I wanted to trip them. Nosy fuckers. If someone is in distress, the only people he or she wants to see are medics, not snoopy gossipmongers.

It turned out that one of the executives, who had suffered a heart attack some months earlier (which was news to me!), had felt ill, and an ambulance was summoned as a precaution. I didn't get the full scoop on what the follow-up was, not wanting to look ghoulish, so I don't know his current status. I did think to myself, how terrible it would be to die at work? Some folks have no choice, like military and peacetime uniformed personnel. But if I had a choice, the last place I would elect as the final stage for my life on earth would be my current workplace. How terribly lonely would that be, dropping helplessly into the infinite void, looking up at that same wretched ceiling, computer still bleeping at you to keep working, while all of your loved ones are minding their daily business at home or in other workplaces, far from your fading grasp?

So clearly it's not even safe inside my building. The only option seems to be telecommuting. At least I might be able to drag myself onto the couch here if I saw the Reaper through the peeper. In lieu of flowers, just arrange my houseplants decoratively about me. Short of all this, I will simply walk carefully and consciously in the city, especially in my cursed corner of Chelsea.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Tree-Bowered Streets, Brownstones, and 35,000 Dachshunds

TO CONTINUE MY PREVIOUS line of thought, Chelsea represented quite a change of scenery for me once my company moved just about 9 months ago today. I had been in the area a few times for the WFMU Record Fair, which is held at the Metropolitan Pavilion on W. 18th Street. I had noted the differences on my previous, twice-yearly visits to the hall, but now, I was immersed in them.

One immediate difference was the dogs! Seemingly hundreds of them. My area of Midtown did have some residential space, but Chelsea's streets are lined with gorgeous old brownstones and peppered with new condo developments. Families, singletons, and those lucky enough to labor at home. And with these folks came companion animals, at least six or seven of which I would encounter while walking to and from the PATH station.

The only critters I ever saw in Midtown were Seeing Eye dogs and an NYPD bomb-sniffer, with a police horse (or its capacious scat) for occasional color. Here, however, I was treated to a comparative parade. Mostly smaller dogs. Dachshunds still rank as the most frequent, followed by Chihuahuas. This confuses me. You pay a couple of Gs a month, or in the high six figures if you're buying, to obtain housing in a peaceful neighborhood of the greatest city in the world. fully aware that a metropolis this size carries the risk of infestation, and you buy a dog that —through sleep-blurred or hungover eyes — looks like a rat? But still they come, tethered on delicate leashes, shivering in the cold morning air (cold for them being a relative state — we're talking summer), bug-eyed Peter Lorre dogs sniffing hyperactively at the pavement six inches below.

Sometimes I witness an amusing tug-of-war between these dainty little hounds and their dainty little owners. One one side is the dog, perhaps a miniature pinscher or a Chihuahua, in any case weighing less than even a child's bowling ball, stretching the leash taut in an effort to keep sniffing one particular spot of vegetation, legs at a 45º angle to the ground. On the other is the owner, a gym-toned, close-shaven man gently trying to coax his dog into picking up the pace. We're talking about a dog that even I, in my desuetude, could snatch up and take 95 yards for a touchdown. No matter — the owner doesn't want to aggravate his faithful hound by taking him for a drag.

Even more surprising are my encounters with people walking huge dogs. We all know that real New York apartments are not as roomy as Jerry Seinfeld's or Elaine Benes's . . . more like Crazy Joe Davola's. Are these creatures sleeping on Murphy beds like Thirties gumshoes? Crashing on the couch like leftover party guests? When I do actuall spot one of these monstrous canines, I become obsessed. I once walked two blocks out of my way to follow a man escorting an Irish wolfhound. I stood on a corner amid falling snow to observe a Great Dane loping along with his tiny female owner, wondering if she might simply hop on its back and spur it along like a stallion. The most hilarious sight was another wolfhound-sized dog being led along with some far tinier dog, which at one point parked itself directly below the larger animal, as though it sought shelter from the morning sun. I assumed it picked up this trick during a rainstorm — an instinct that might have served it well during this past week.

With my observation of the higher dog population in my new work environment, came the sheer sense of peace as compared to the bustle of Midtown. 14th Street was lively, surely, being one of the few two-way crosstown roads in Manhattan. But walk two blocks uptown and you're in a quieter realm. True, when I first came to the area the trees were bare of their sound-deadening leaves, and the horns of Seventh or Eighth Street weren't too far away. But you could sit on the stoop of one of these brownstones and relax for a spell. You didn't have clouds of tourists wandering by in confused knots, or yelling into cellphones. You never had protesters chanting and being herded into sawhorse pens by irate cops, or masses of teens shrieking beneath the windows of MTV's Times Square studio.

It is New York on hold . . . New York slooooower, sleepier, more at tune with a normal pace of life.

One powerful incentive to being in south Chelsea is the proximity to Greenwich Village. Even in the bitter winter we faced, I tried to sneak out for short expeditions into the upper fringe of the Village. Only the imminent crystallization of my finger blood forced me back under cover. Oh, that and the paycheck. I would wander, at my rarely seen slow walking pace, among tiny hair salons, corner bookstores, pet-need shops, amusingly named gay bars, and tempting confectioners.

Another fine feature is a little strip of water I like to call the Hudson River. I am lucky to live on a coastal part of the United States, but with the Hudson rolling by a mere 30 minutes from my home, I have become more of a river person than a beach one. (Or as we say in New Jersey, the Shore.) I had a fantastic view of the Hudson from my southwest-corner window at the Midtown office, which represented the only reason I regretted leaving that site. From 36 stories up, in a corner that in a sane universe would have gone to a ranking officer, I could see from the Statue of Liberty to middle Edgewater, New Jersey, and all the way out to Garrett Mountain and the twists of Route 46 as they passed the Route 3 intersection. But I also had a front-and-center seat on all the river's doings. Whitecaps in the windy prelude to hurricane arrivals. Ice floes inching down from Canada in the dead of winter. The brooding flattop of the USS Intrepid. Our nation's naval might in grey steel during Fleet Week. Cruise ships departing for tropical climes, or returning with a tired but happy contingent of passengers.

From Chelsea, however, I can gaze on this mighty waterway at eye level, on a more human scale. It's only a couple of blocks through the Meatpacking District and across the West Side Highway to get to the bike and walking path that edges the Hudson. Amid cyclists and, yes, more dogs, I can sit and watch sailboats cut lazy paths along the water . . . barges pulling loads to upper New York . . . NY Waterway shuttles buzzing across the river in six minutes flat (my friends and I timed it once . . . a story for another time) . . . yachts cruising along with their retired owners at the wheel, themselves taking in the grand vista of the river and skyline.

And from this location I can turn around and view New York as well: the rusting but soon-to-be-populated High Line, the remaining factory space that has not been gentrified or demolished, the trees of condo residents fringing the tops of their buildings or their balconies. . . . It is this view, from several blocks south, that made me feel something I had never contemplated. In 2000, when I took a Gotham Writers' Workshop class, I regarded this vista before disappearing into a school for three hours of training. And as I looked at the apartment buildings, the century-old brick and the water towers, the trees and the cobbled streets, I felt for the first time that I wanted to live there — to sell my car, scavenge the fee for a realtor, and move into this wonderful neighborhood full time.

This, for me, is the true difference between Midtown and Chelsea, for me. No matter how many times I was there, regardless of spectacle or occasion, Midtown always felt like a transit region, not a place where I would stay fixed . . . a conduit that I would traverse, even though it was surrounded by residential regions. Chelsea, however, felt like a home, tugging at my heart and whispering in my ear to rent a van and relocate. I didn't took it seriously, and in all likelihood never will, if only for the reason of my not wanting to give up my car (to say nothing of the near-impossibility of finding an affordable apartment without a roommate on my salary!) . . . but I could feel that pull, which has called out to so many thousands of out-of-towners with dreams of making it in the Big Town.

I have returned to that spot on the river, and just looked at New York, to see if I still had that same feeling. Sometimes I have. It has encouraged me, because it tells me I am still capable of change and growth. Just the antidote for someone who is otherwise locked up in an office for a third of any given day.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Like Blood Through a Great Asphalt Heart

I BEGAN WORKING IN New York City for the first time in Midtown. After I was there for over five years, the company decided to quit its digs there and decamp for Chelsea. The change in scenery was striking and continues to fascinate me.

Here on the Web, I am writing for an audience global in scope albeit minuscule in size. But nobody — anywhere — needs a long introduction to Times Square, the Crossroads of the World. Between June 1999 and December 2004, I traversed this lively intersection at least once a day. I took the bus to work from New Jersey, into the Truman-era vault that is the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The bus-station district, once called Hell's Kitchen but now increasingly being referred to as "Clinton" (what's next, renaming the Jersey Devil "Flappy, Your Winged Half-Goat Pal"?), was undergoing a spasm of redevelopment during that stretch. Aging parking garages and three-story rows of seedy hat shops and porn parlors were kissing the wrecking ball, to yield up pricey land for office complexes and high-rise hotels. If I chose to walk east on 42nd Street, I could see the results of Mayor Giuliani and his various police paladins on either side: rejuvenated multi-screen, movie palaces, restaurants, above-board tourist shops (i.e., not constantly "GOING OUT OF BUSINESS"), and various maws by which visitors could feed the throbbing Disney monster.

Then, the expanse of Times Square. Always active, swarming with life, except for early in the morning, when I had to come in before 6:00 a.m. to work on my tight-deadline twice-monthly newsletter. I would pass the Nasdaq Marketsite when they were broadcasting live on CNBC. I often fancied that one of my bosses, scarfing bran or chugging coffee by TV light, might see me over Brad Goode or Liz Claman's shoulder as I trudged along to the office.

But most of the time, I crossed Times Square in morning light or early evening. Early in the day, commuters flowed through this storied intersection like blood through a great asphalt heart. They emerged from subway entrances, reoriented themselves without looking up from the pavement, and continued onward. Some clustered around the coffee carts stationed on corners, clutching dollars and eyeballing sticky sweetness behind the Plexiglas, or lined up outside Starbucks when the queue snaked out the door. But aside from these folks, everyone was in rapid motion, ever conscious of the desk, the chair, the overstuffed inbox, the balky computer, the dreaded meeting, or even the nerve-wracking interview that awaited them at the end of all those rapidfire steps.

For the return trip, the steel-and-stone arena was far more chaotic. True, commuters were streaming back through Times Square, slower, weary, thinking of home or dinner or family. But they were joined by many thousands of tourists, all proceeding at their own pace, gawking, photographing, chattering among themselves in any number of foreign tongues, clutching retail bags and wearing NYC garb. You could always tell a tourist during rush hour, because he or she was the only one who wasn't heading toward a mass-transit terminal at high velocity or who was stopping you to ask a question.

Sometimes I did need to evade them. On some occasions, I chose to transit between my office and the bus station along Sixth Avenue, cutting across 41st Street around the block-wide footprint of the Verizon tower. It was still Bell Atlantic when I began working in the city, a year away from the colossal rebranding that erased another piece of historical communications nomenclature. I took this route most often on Wednesdays, traditionally matinee day in Manhattan, when buses of tourists would render the cross streets impassable with dazzled theatergoers. I wasn't ungrateful for the money they brought in, especially after 9/11, when many struggling shows and even restaurants in the Theater District died for want of patrons. So although I sometimes needed to get through their masses more swiftly, I didn't hate them.

I crossed this great nexus for half of a decade until my company moved us 30 blocks south to Chelsea. The differences, which I will cover in my next post, were like night and day.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Where Are My Ark-Building Plans?

THIS WAS THE WETTEST Saturday in recent memory. Hell, it was one of the wettest days in weeks. We've been creeping up on drought conditions for some time now, with any rain that swept through the area either brief in duration or too swift to soak the ground and fill the thirsty reservoirs.

Not yesterday. The rain began falling before dawn. It woke me up at one point early in the morning, no mean feat as I sleep with earplugs to block out the clomping of my upstairs neighbors. When my alarm went off, I could hear it running over the sides of the gutters and splattering on the mud below. Passing cars hissed by on the soaked thoroughfare beyond my complex. It was gonna be a rainy one, I could tell. All of the humidity and fog of the previous week was finally returning to earth.

The past week was very much like a cool August rather than the whip-crack brilliance of early October. Monday through Thursday saw fog cover the area through the morning commute, lifting only to be replaced by humidity and temperatures in the mid-70s.

I felt robbed. I had planned to get off the train one station early once the kinder autumn weather came in, walking several blocks through the north Village with crisp air pricking at my skin . . . passing eclectic restaurants closed and lifeless except for food deliveries rising in teetering stacks outside their basement doors . . . watching doctors and nurses flow wearily into St. Vincent's clutching bundles of folders and coffee . . . dodging giggling children and their stoic, Central European nannies as they clustered outside their school . . . noting the miniskirts and dressy T-shirts of work-bound women giving way to snug sweaters and enticing knee-high boots . . . feeling the rays of the young Sun on my face before hiding from it in my brick bunker of an office for eight hours.

These pleasures will have to wait for some time. Next week will play host to heavenly deluges, or at minimum gray, troubled skies holding water at the unsteady ready, like a flight of B-29s crossing the Channel with the factories of Hitler's empire in their sights. Not to say I don't like rain. I miss having a top-floor apartment or bedroom, in which I could hear storms pattering and pounding away as though I were outside in a tent. Yesterday's rain was close to ideal from that standpoint . . . cool air blowing away the hated summer heat that had returned unbidden last week, soaking deluges blowing against my apartment, winds refreshing my apartment as I crouched in front of this computer. The only thing missing was thunder and lightning . . . and maybe someone to share the storm, watching the bedroom curtains blow in and the candles gutter as we snuggled closer for warmth.

If there is any justice, the fall weather for which I yearn will merely be deferred to later in the month, and I will still have some weeks of true autumn to enjoy. I have a couple of days off planned later in October — and some more stashed in case the fall calls me outside — so I am hoping with no small effort that this autumn has merely taken a sick day and will be back in the office soon, energized and vibrant, to get its vital work done.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Index of Poker Posts

BECAUSE BLOGGER DOESN'T OFFER the ability to tag posts — or at least I don't think it does — I figured I would tack up a permanent post in which I will list future blog entries that have any significant poker content. Because that's what the kids seem to want. This won't be a poker blog per se — that role is ably served by Iggy at Guinness and Poker and Pauly at Tao of Poker, among the many others to whom they link. But in case you're looking for a one-stop list of my card exploits, this entry will list them and itself be linked among my poker links. Dig in.

Edumacation of a Poker Player, 10/8/05

• Poker All Night, Sleeping 'Til Noon, and My First All-In Bet, 10/28/05

• All the Cool Kids Are Doing It, 1/7/06

• Naming the Degenerates, 1/7/06

• Las Vegas 1/06: Shuffle Up and Deal, 2/7/06

• My Regular Poker Game: Genesis, 3/5/06

Edumacation of a Poker Player

IT'S HIGH TIME I talked poker. You may have noticed I tend not to post updates on Thursday nights. Well, Thursdays are poker nights. Late evenings, those. Scraping past midnight in most cases. If someone else hosts, then I'll probably be dragging my ass back in here at oneish. With a little fortune and the right blend of skill (both on my part and that of my opponents), I might be dragging in a little cash, too.

Let's backtrack. I had been going to local casinos, and Las Vegas, for a couple of years before trying poker for the first time as an adult. Blackjack and occasionally craps, but never poker. I perceived poker as an impossible realm of braniac bluffers who could quote the odds of your making a hand merely by observing how you sipped your beer. In childhood, I had played for pennies or plastic chips with my mother and her mother, but not at all since maybe third grade. And we certainly never played the current rage, Texas hold'em. That game was still the province of craggy cowboys and desert rats cloistered in the air-conditioned neon temples of Las Vegas. The World Poker Tour was still decades off when I played my last childhood hand of five-card draw.

One day in the spring of 2003, a former coworker, Rick, accidentally cc'd me on an internal work email. I hadn't seen him in some months, so I took the opportunity to reestablish contact with him. I recalled his mentioning that he played poker with his friends, and I asked him if he was looking for any new players. It turned out that his gang was discussing the next game, so my query was well timed. He was happy to have a new player, as were his pals when he broached the topic with them.

I soon found myself at Rick's apartment with three of his friends, two from a previous job, one from way back, all of them toting small change for the game. Yes, it was literally a nickel-dime game, and I, too, clutched some rolls of coins in my nervous grip for the evening's combat. Ante was a thin dime, max raise was a fat quarter, and we played a crazy variety of wild card games where a single card could turn two pair into a royal flush or back again. I had worried that I would be diving into a shark pond in a steak swimsuit, but this was far more of a friendly game, where bullshitting about work and life was as much the reason to meet up as the chance to snag some wee coin for the night. Luck took way more of a role than all of this slit-eyed bluffing you see on the televised poker shows now. I soon got over my nervousness over losing (and what was I really gonna lose, like $10?) and somehow throwing the cards off the table while dealing, and settled in for a fun evening.

By some miracle, I walked away with $4.30 in profit . . . and a yen for a rematch.

It just so happened that this game occurred about a month before my annual trip to Las Vegas. I knew they had poker games out there, though I realized I wouldn't find too many tables where Chase the Ace or Pass the Trash were being dealt. Their loss. Most of the games played at Rick's were based on seven-card stud, so I figured I would give it a try amid the usual casino games I intended to play while baking in the June Vegas heat. I picked up a copy of Poker for Dummies and began studying.

I have a massive Word document in which I track my poker wins and losses. The first date is 6/18/03, and the record shows I plunked down $100 at the disturbing medieval pile that is the Excalibur Casino to play $1 to $5 spread-limit seven-card stud. Spread limit indicates that you can wager any amount between a buck and five bucks if you are the first to bet in a pot. If the action gets hot as the hand progresses, it more or less becomes a true limit game, as optimistic potential winners just toss in $5 chips for their bets and raises. My record shows that I lost $31 in that virgin game of casino poker.

It also lists that I popped my cherry with a royal flush.

I probably played for an hour or 90 minutes before it came, trying to bet only on decent starting hands, or what I thought at the time were decent starting hands. I was probably folding more than anyone else at the table. Although low-limit stud tables have a reputation for being "tight" — that is, few players betting initially, and even then only on high pairs, three of a kind, or three cards that could make a solid straight or flush — I was playing tighter than a clam's ass. No sense in giving it all away that quickly. My journal from the time records that I pulled in a couple of wins, including a full house that narrowly beat someone else's full house (I have since been on the opposite side of that equation, so the karmic debt I incurred was settled).

I think my journal entry from the day best captures the moment:
And then it happened. Down cards came A 10 club, first upcard a J suited [also a club]. Three to a royal. I get some chips out, not too many so I don't scare folks out of the pot. Fourth card blank [i.e., didn't improve my hand]. Fifth: K clubs. My hands start shaking. Sixth is another blank. I keep betting. Final card is down. I lift it. Queen of fucking clubs. A royal flush in my first trip to a public poker room. My hands are vibrating as I bet out. Nobody raises, but I don't care — I've got the nuts of the nuts. I am the last to show down, and to the shock and surprise of the table, I flip up a club royal, and say, just as stunned and w/ my heart thumping, "Holy shit!"

Out of this incredible feat, I got the sizable pot, an Excalibur Poker Room hat, and a spin on the bonus wheel that picked me up another $20.
And, of course, I knew I would be back for more.

Further adventures in the empire of felt and chips to come.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Boots on the Ground and on My Mind

I HAVE JUST COMPLETED Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, his account of life as a U.S. Marine in general, and his experiences in Desert Shield/Storm in particular. Riveting stuff. They say you never leave the Corps, and in some ways, he never left the Persian Gulf, either.

I was in senior year of college during the first Gulf War, and a friend of mine, Rich, was in his third year at West Point. Army's football team played at my college in the season during the Desert Shield build-up. Hundreds of cadets came up via bus to cheer on their colleagues in cleats.

The usual Saturday tailgate broke all size records this time, it seemed, and folks welcomed the cadets with incredible generosity. Anywhere you walked through the parking lots or dorm commons surrounding the stadium, boys in gray were being fed and liquored up by tailgaters, cheered on by visiting parents, or flirted with by blushing Big East chickadees in love with a uniform. Keep in mind that few civilians stateside were able to get a true picture of the strength of the Republican Guard in Iraq, so for all we knew, the first couple hundred thousand troops would only be the initial wave of a Vietnam-like commitment, and potentially the military academies would be tapped for their cadets should the main line of boots be cut down. So these guys were being given a hopefully unnecessary sendoff for a war we all hoped they would not be called upon to fight.

They didn't have to, at least not that phase of things. Rich finished out his West Point years on U.S. turf. He got a little closer during his 5 compulsory years in the service, when he was posted in Egypt, but he never fired a shot in anger. As often happens with well-qualified people, he succeeded himself into a corner . . . and a little less than a year ago, Rich got his marching orders for Iraq, 13 years late but with great reluctance.

Because at this point, he had a wife and a newborn daughter at home.

I'm not writing this post to take a position on the war. What Jarhead made me think about was how Rich — once he returns from his year in Iraq — will relate to civilian life.

I have never been in the military, which actually interrupts a chain of service on the part of my male relatives going back to World War II. My father had no interest in guiding me toward the life, and with my mother remembering what effect Vietnam had on her brother, she did nothing to dissuade him. My eligibility for Selective Service expired this summer, although America would have to be attacked simultaneously by space aliens and underground mole people for the Draft Board to recruit this fat, nearsighted army of one. Short of that, I will not be called upon to serve. So I have no direct frame of reference on life in uniform.

But I have spoken to Rich, though, and reading Jarhead reminds me a lot of his outlook and his stories of military life. There is no doubt that Army life gave Rich discipline, self-esteem, and organizational prowess. When he left the Army and tried to fit into a couple of civilian jobs, I could see his frustration. We used to talk on the commute into the city, and I knew he missed having colleagues who could get a simple task right with one explanation, in an outfit that — though not without its charming little internal insanities — prided itself on getting the job done and finding a way when none existed. I could hear in his voice that he loved the Army and truly missed it.

Rich eventually acted upon his situation and rejoined the Army as a reservist. Amid getting married, he spent weekends and occasional weeks working at Picatinny Arsenal and flying helicopters — one of his specialties. Once, he got down low over a friend's house and kicked up waves on her lake. He was a happy boy. When he was called up, I was worried, but I knew they were selecting a man who had spent a good portion of his life becoming a thinking, careful soldier and a fine comrade. I had the chance to meet two of his classmates when he visited me in senior year of college, and it was clear they shared a bond that could sustain them through the bowels of Hell itself. So I also thought, Rich will survive Iraq and be an example to the men in his command. As cruel as it was to take him away from wife and baby, the Army was picking the right guy.

What I wonder about now is how Rich will reintegrate into the world when he returns. How will his year in Iraq have changed him? I know his wife has been in close contact with other wives from his unit, so she has a support group to deal with his absence. But do they also provide advice when helping to reorient someone who has been in the shit for a year back to normal living, among friends and not potential insurgents packing wads of C4 under their robes?

Anthony Swofford took the Marines, and the Gulf, back with him to the States. Rich will likely do the same with the Army to some degree we cannot yet know. I hope his journey home does not take longer than the plane flight, as it did for my uncle after he returned from Nam.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Drive-By Haberdashery

I AM WORN OUT. I successfully got my ass to the gym in the morning, about 5:30 or so, and did about an hour there before work. Oh, it was bliss. The temptation existed to call in sick and spend another hour there. But I cut it off at 30 on the aerobic gadget and 30 at the shoulder machines. It was still a victory to get out there at that time. The first time is the roughest when trying to switch schedules on my gym routine. If I can grab a decent amount of shuteye tonight, I should hit the mark again tomorrow. Then, I just do that 2,000 times more, and for a follow-up, drop dead.

I want to share an incident from last Thursday. Seems like it was an eventful week for all of the crazy nasal suffering I endured. I decided to eat a hearty lunch that day, because I knew I would be giving dinner short shrift in favor of prepping the apartment for poker night. So I started out for the diner a block away, on 7th Ave. You can get a reliable grilled cheese sandwich or matzoh ball soup there, or both if your tolerance for cholesterol is good. I was leaning toward one of these, or perhaps a nice French toast and bacon. Why should hobbits be the only ones who have second breakfast?

So I'm pacing along — and here a word on my walk. Rotund though I may be, I am a fast walker. Nimble, too, from 6 years of ducking through Manhattan foot traffic. But more than anything, fast. When from point A I spy point B, I am halfway there before you hear me saying, "I'm on my way." If Jerry Seinfeld had to categorize me, I would be dubbed a "darter." I walk like an assassin ten paces from his victim.

So I'm darting down a cool midday Chelsea street, streaking past brownstones and basement-level shops, when a man called out to me. I looked up and saw a shaven-headed guy, no older than early thirties, at the wheel of a dark blue van. He waved me over. From the curbside — no closer — I asked what he wanted.

He made it clear that he was looking for directions to the Lincoln Tunnel. Easy enough. I directed him up the street a bit to the nearest uptown thoroughfare and told him to look for signs to head west around the mid-30s. He thanked me, and I turned to go.

"Sir — Sir!" he called out again. I turned back, and he said, "I work in fashion. I work in Javits Center." This seemed odd. If you actually work at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, you know that you are within walking distance of the Lincoln Tunnel. "I leave New York tonight" — he mimed a plane taking off — "I have Armani suits. . . . "

The upshot seemed to be that he was in town with some sort of trade show, or fashion show, and he had some spare suits to get rid of before he flew back home, and that he wanted to show me them in the hopes of selling them to me. I've never been drive-by haberdashed before. It was certainly very kind to be fitted out for new clothes on the fly like this. But at that moment, I wanted nothing more than a platter of diner grease and a cuppa caffeine.

So I overcame my natural aversion to saying "no" in a direct, conversation-ending way and apologetically said I wasn't really interested, but thanks for the offer.

The enterprising Continental pressed the issue. It must come from being in the rag trade. He said he had a suit in my size (hah — I'm not exactly Big Chief Off-The-Rack), and that he had to get rid of them before he flew home, and the whole spiel again from the top. In his accent, I half-expected him to follow up with, "For your fadder — for your fadder," like Enzo the baker's son in The Godfather outside the hospital with Michael.

So what could I do? I said, "I'm sorry, I'm on lunch, and I am not interested, but thanks."

This convinced him, and, wordlessly and with an expression of mild annoyance, he turned back to the wheel and gunned the van away . . . possibly to the Tunnel, possibly to another ill-tailored, high-velocity fat man.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

A Grave Disturbance in the Paycheck

SO ON THURSDAY, AMID my allergy war, I was trying to get out of the office by 5:00 so I could do some tidying up at home before the poker mutants showed up. At ten to five, my supervisor came over and showed me a list of newsletters. She wanted to know the page counts and onpress dates of all work that went out in September. Apparently, our department head got the impression that the workload across the four people in my group could be done by three people. (This is the sort of math that belongs in 1984 or Office Space.) Our boss had a meeting set for Friday morning to resolve this discrepancy with our department heads, so my supervisor needed these numbers ASAP.

Naturally I complied, but I made just a little noise about it, because I was pissed to be asked to do this at the very end of the day, when I had to get my ass home. My boss had no way of knowing I had a social commitment. I never would have used it as a reason to beg off until Friday morning. What really aggravated me — and why I complained to her — was that this sort of information can be culled and printed from our online database. Being Macintosh users in a sea of PCs, however, the software does not work optimally on our systems, so we are unable to exploit it to the fullest. This is tremendously inconvenient for my supervisor, who frequently has to prepare lists like this and must therefore do it manually.

(I imagine that firms where the Mac platform is dominant — graphic design shops, ad agencies, animation studios, and the like — either have Mac-optimized database software, or don't need such setups to begin with. I dream of being in an office where the tech support treats Mac users as equals instead of retarded cousins. I know they exist. Possibly adjacent to the Land of Chocolate.)

At any rate, the task of assembling the data was easier than I had thought — even while I was burning through tissues at a heroic rate — and when it was done I felt bad for getting flustered and apologized. I don't think she even really noticed it. She was more concerned about the potential of being dismissed. The company is paying for her graduate-school education, and a layoff would cripple her progress for lack of funds. To eliminate someone just before an impending fundamental shift in how we produce our newsletters — and also engage in hand-holding with our techno-scared editors — would spell delays across the board. Plus, my boss splits her newsletter-layout time with management tasks. So either to be laid off, or to survive a layoff, would send her gibbering into a corner with overwork.

We have had to circumvent this before. Two years ago, when the company was wallowing in a downturn and several departments had suffered layoffs, our boss deliberately loaded our desks up with extra work, to make us more busy than we were. This was ultimately to our benefit. Our schedules went straight into the shitter, but we had no layoffs, and my performance reviews didn't reflect the fact that I constantly had to pass work along to others who had free time while my 2-day turnaround job hogged my desk. So we all got a free pass on that.

Since then, however, one of the other divisions of the company took several titles out of our hands (including that tight-deadline title of mine). It stablilized our schedules and workflow, but my supervisor tweaked to the danger: With less to do, we might be perceived as having too many bodies. She is now looking prophetic. Near the beginning of the year, we discussed how we might take some design work back from freelancers, mostly book covers, to keep us busy and save money. I even made one of my last performance-review goals the task of assisting with this initiative. So far, this has not occurred. My supervisor is too overwhelmed with the shit our boss has passed along to her, and our boss herself is less accessible to us and thus can't give us key information to deal with emergencies or start new programs like . . . the book-cover design initiative.

It turns out that this whole page-count dilemma started when a trafficker in our department provided an estimate of how many pages we produced per month that was significantly lower than reality. I helped my supervisor add several hundred more pages to the total, which may or may not mollify our department head. She seemed relieved, though, so at least her stress level is going down . . . except for the part of her that's ripshit pissed at the guy who botched the count.

Yet through this entire process, I felt very calm from an employment standpoint. As I mentioned, I am bored with the position. Would being laid off at this moment be so bad? I spent what parts of Friday weren't taken up with the ongoing allergy attack by thinking about what I would do if I was the one axed.

Sure, nobody wants to be fired, even if it's cloaked under then name layoff — it's an involuntary departure that carries a definite stigma. Somebody didn't want you. Why should we? Better to leave on your own terms, either to a new position or out into the wonderful world of retirement. In my case, I decided I would try to determine why I was the one who was to be laid off, if only to find out from the people who made the decision what I could do in another position to prevent this from happening again. Not that I wouldn't keep things civil — I would also need to negotiate any compensation for unused vacation time, COBRA, use of facilities to research a new job, getting references, etc. I would just expect them to be evasive because it's a sensitive topic, and unlike a lot of bosses, they are not without sympathy. Strictly business, as the Mafia likes to say. Not that this would help me pay rent.

So we will find out how this information will be used next week, and whether it takes us back down to Layoff Terror Level Blue. I have designed a new form on which I can centralize all of this information that my boss sought, so when our managers spaz out and ask questions about this next time, we can shut them up faster. What I really need to work out, though, is whether I want to take the lead in determining my own destiny by setting my sights on another job. If part of me truly didn't care about being laid off, isn't that the sort of dissonance that is only going to make me miserable long term?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

My Favorite Month Arrives to a Chorus of Sneezing

October begins today under blue skies and with gentle breezes wafting through my window. I have waited so long for its arrival. Fall begins in September, true, but you can still get 85º weather for that last week. With October, you know your odds of a cool morning walk to work, or a crisp afternoon adventure on a weekend, are greater.

I had planned to celebrate the arrival of October in this journal last night after work, but my allergies went absolutely crazy during the day. September in these here parts was unnaturally dry, bordering on drought conditions. The goldenrod that ordinarily would have bloomed earlier in the month was therefore held in abeyance. Only in the last 10 days or so have we had good, drenching rain that helped the fall vegetation finish its flowering cycle . . . and with it, the release of the sort of pollen that was supposed to have hit me mid-month.

I knew it was only a matter of time, but I've been sleeping with the windows open nonetheless to give my air conditioner — and my bank account — a rest. On Wednesday, I brought a new box of tissues to work because I was definitely sneezing more. At my worst, I have blown through a half box in a day. I figured I would get hit even harder at my current workplace this season, because — unlike the hermetically sealed office tower that was our former home in Midtown — this office dates from the 1930s, when windows were built to open. So I figured I would be awash in allergens.

D-Day turned out to be Thursday, and I had the unfortunate role as Normandy. I buttressed the beachhead with Claritin and nasal spray, but these defenses were quickly overwhelmed. Reserves in the form of a second Claritin in the evening bought me some time against the invaders, but as the evening wore on — even though I was hiding in a closed, air-conditioned basement for poker night — the inexorable advance of the goldenrod pollen broke through all resistance and established firm encampments across a wide front.

By Friday I was a mess. I had to go into work to get a my 1-day turnaround publication on press. Also, I had heard rumblings from my boss about too little work being assigned to too many people (of which more later), so I felt it was necessary to be present and accounted for. This was no easy task. I was a mess. I put some serious hurt on my tissue box, and I could barely go five minutes without blowing or sneezing or coughing. I have no respect for people who come to work ill because of some misplaced sense of duty (which results in all those around them getting sick and damaging schedules far more than just one person taking a sick day would have), but I assured folks it was just allergies, and that they were in no danger unless they got between me and my remaining Puffs Plus.

I finally bailed a half hour early. I was very tired by this point, having lost sleep the previous night to the allergies on top of an already later-than-usual bedtime due to poker night. I had tried to stay hydrated, what with the flow being constant, to put it delicately, but I just couldn't keep up and I was feeling groggy as a result. So I got my ass to the train station through the treasonously allergen-laden fall afternoon, and by 6:30 I was cranking the damned air conditioner up to blow in only filtered air as I curled up on the couch with pizza and antihistamines.

I woke up today at 10:30. Two days of fighting allergies full on knocked the shit out of me. I do need to get out there to perform various chores, and for the simple reason that it is gorgeous, but I am not looking forward to a third day of wrestling with a nose running like a garden hose all day. Needless to say, I skipped the gym for the past two days, so I feel weaker than usual, but a good hour there is part of today's plan. Early Saturday afternoons there are fairly depopulated, and what with two late nights in two days, I can stay up to about 11:00 tonight and enjoy the weather as this beautiful sky fades into twilight and sexy black.

All right. If I can breathe straight when I return, I'll offer up some more. If not, I will deliver an analytical review of exactly why my current allergic frenzy represents a lucrative opportunity to invest in paper companies that produce tissues. Retire early on my mucus.