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.