Sunday, January 29, 2006

Las Vegas 1/06: Escape from the New York Area

FEW DAYS ARE AS difficult to jump-start as the first workday after a trip to Las Vegas. In my case, I failed. A night-arriving flight delayed by an hour, plus further waiting on the Garden State Parkway due to a single-lane construction obstruction, resulted in my arriving home from Newark Airport well past my normal bedtime. Factor in a three–time zone lag and you can see why I called in for another vacation day Wednesday morning. I went back to sleep and didn't arise until noon. It's just as well that I didn't remember any dreams, because they would have been of Las Vegas and thus plunge me further into a funk.

But you don't want to read about my grinding readjustment to 9-to-5 responsibility. So let's go back to Thursday, January 19. You are getting sleepy . . . you are heading to Newark in a limousine . . . the sun is edging over the Manhattan skyline . . . 99¢ shrimp cocktails are dancing in your head. . . .

Thursday morning began with a quick, bleary trip to the bagel store for Diet Cokes and one last classic Tri-State Area bagel before descending into the Vegas Valley. For a destination now known for fine dining and star chefs, it is damned tough to get decent bagels or pizza in Vegas. Bugsy Siegel and Sam Giancana are gettin' no props on those counts. Local food thus secured, I returned home and made a last check of my list before 5:30 rolled around, and with it the car from Air Brook.

My dad used to volunteer transport to and from Newark, but he is no longer comfortable on the roads that early, so I have been using the large local car service Air Brook. The cost is well worth avoiding the hassle of driving to, and parking at, the labyrinthine expanse of Newark Airport. Basically, my vacation starts the minute I walk out the door. And on occasion — including this one — it starts in a stretch limo. When you book with Air Brook, you usually get a driver with a Lincoln Town Car, which is plenty. Sometimes, though, the guy who catches the job has a stretch. Not that I had any objections. I just found it mildly ridiculous to be floating around in the back of this spacious sled. Hell, the driver was probably happy to have just some pudgy shlub with only two pieces of luggage instead of a gaggle of drunken prom-goers who might hurl cheap canapés and Popov all over the leather seats.

With no January weather extremes to fight, we arrived at Newark swiftly. I dropped my one piece of checked luggage off at the curb and cruised through the sparse security line with no trouble save keeping my beltless pants up — the belt, along with the keys and all other metal, was in a plastic bag in my backpack. I have flown eight round-trip flights since 9/11, and not once have I been detained for a more thorough search. I guess I just blend in. Or, I am able to read the sign that says, in effect, "Don't walk through the metal detector with metal, jackass," a feat somehow beyond quite a few of my fellow flyers. We've only been on Condition Vermillion or Chartreuse or whatever for four years, so I can see how some may only slowly be awakening to it.

Getting onboard was likewise trouble free. I spent most of the time before takeoff hoping I would have a row to myself. The January flights out to Las Vegas have tended to be sparsely filled. In this hope, I was rewarded — in fact, much of the back of the plane was empty, and the flight crew asked for volunteers to fill in some of the seats to redistribute the plane's weight for takeoff. I assume this means we would fly in circles if all of us suddenly moved to one side in midair, but I had no desire to test this bold aerodynamic theory. Once they relocated, we were shortly in the air.

A word on in-flight "entertainment." Not once have I sampled the movie offered during the flights I have taken. All of them have been craptacular, and that's even before the films are edited for content or length. The stock disclaimer they slap on the movies amuses me: "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been edited for content and length and reformatted for home viewing," or some such claptrap. If they really want me to view one of these offerings, the notice would read,
This film has been modified from its original version. To this threadbare romantic comedy, we have added three lightsaber duels, a dinosaur fight, a clown chasing coeds with a chainsaw, TV's Peter Griffin, and Dracula. In addition, the groovy granny and the wisdom-laden-minority characters will now be played by Lenny and Carl from The Simpsons. The soundtrack will feature "Yakity Sax" from the Benny Hill Show during car chases — of which there are seven — "Powerhouse" by Raymond Scott, and various college fight songs performed on kazoo. Thank you for flying Continental, where we hate light romantic comedies too.
Now you're talking. The film offered this time, In Her Shoes — which sounds like either where Imelda Marcos sank most of her pin money or where a foot fetishist might do his dirty sinful business — featured the Joker-like Cameron Diaz, New Age retread Shirley MacLaine, and one of the aforementioned groovy grannies who, inexplicably, was wearing a World Poker Tour baseball cap. This communicates to me that the only way an cinematic senior can be relevant to a 20- or 30-something cast (and viewership) is if she adopts their trends, fashions, and obsessions, rather than being valuable for their decades of wisdom or experience. Not sure about your grandmothers, but my maternal grandmother would have excoriated this depiction with several zesty four-letter words, then disappeared for bingo at the K of C in a cloud of Benson & Hedges smoke. I don't know how director Curtis Hanson goes from L.A. Confidential to this crap, short of owing the Mob a large sum of 'scarole, but such is Hollowwood.

Fortunately, an iPod stuffed with downloaded WFMU programming and a backpack groaning with crossword puzzles and poker books helped me escape the film's clutches. The flight itself was uneventful and steady. As we descended below the cloud deck, I could feel my pulse accelerating. Soon, I knew we would cross the Grand Canyon, cast a shadow on the green-blue expanse of Lake Mead, traverse the last miles of scrub-dotted russet sandstone and desert, crest the mountains ringing the valley, and — as grids of recent housing developments gave way to the unmistakable backdrop that is the Las Vegas Strip — shudder to a rolling stop on the tarmac of McCarran Airport. This we did with merciful delicacy, and two minutes early to boot. I slid over to the window seat to watch the hotels glide by as we taxied: the gleaming Mandalay Bay, the ominous black-glass Luxor pyramid, the candylike fairytale towers of Excalibur . . . all the way to the white spire of the Stratosphere capping the Strip, and beyond, the low cluster of older properties guarding Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas. It was there that I was staying. It is there that we shall travel in our next post.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

My Mind Is a Scratching Post

I WANT A CAT. I have had encounters with cats recently that have convinced me of this, including one in my head. To wit:
  • I have become a fan of Tien Mao's Little Read Book, a fine blog of words and gorgeous photos. A frequent subject of these photos is his cat, Mortimer. An Abyssinian, Mortimer is wonderfully photogenic. The camera, as the cliché goes, loves this cat. This was my first sight of Mort, which I found when I tracked back from one of Tien's posts on NYC pizza blog Slice. You can see why I was smitten.
  • My parents have been flirting with the idea of getting a cat themselves. They bought a book on cat care, which I have perused while at their house. While waiting to sleep, I have contemplated what furniture might need to be moved, which plants would have to go (nearly all of them), what delicate pas de deux I would have to enact with the landlord, to make my home ready for a fine feline companion.
  • On the forums of poker-book publisher Two Plus Two, there was a recent thread by a longtime poster in Las Vegas about how a friendly cat — possibly an escaped pet — approached him outside his place, nuzzled his leg, then jumped up onto his shoulders. He fed it and let it back out to take care of its business, but has not seen it since.
  • There is an absolutely darling calico living downstairs, in the apartment to the left of the vestibule. If I am lucky, this thin young cat will dart up to the windowsill, watch me approach, dash into the next room over, jump up onto that sill, and crane his or her head to track my final entry into the building. It is tremendously endearing, especially seeing as I have never actually met this cat.
  • I had a dream on Sunday night in which cats figured prominently. (So maybe I do have something in common with William S. Burroughs.) I was in my childhood bedroom on the second floor of my parents' house (in which they still live). The bed was over next to the window facing the backyard, which chronologically places this dream somewhere around 1980-1983. Looking down at the yard, I saw two cats walking around. One was black, young, and thin; the other was a tortoiseshell. That one suddenly looked up at me — not the window, but dead-on at me — turned, tensed up, and jumped two stories up, to cling to the window screen with his claws. Strangely for a tortoiseshell, he had an all-white underbody. He clung there looking at me for several seconds, claws tense on the wire, then detached himself and dropped, without harm, to the yard.
  • Tonight, while walking home from the train station, I spotted a distinctive silhouette in a third-story window of my building. Sure enough, it was the dark shape of a cat sitting on the windowsill, surveying the parking lot. I couldn't see any movement, but I was sure his or her head was swiveling to follow my progress like a whiskered security camera.
I've got cats on the mind, apparently! Or do they have me on their mind? Hard to tell. They usually don't answer any direct questions. Or when they do, they express it in cat, which takes a discerning eye and heart to decipher. Perhaps they are telling me I have such senses waiting to be tested on a cat of my own.

I have broached this topic with some folks who either own cats, know my place, or both. I am hesitant to make the jump. My apartment — 2½ rooms, bath, galley kitchen — is not huge. I wasn't kidding about having to pare down my plant collection; many of them appeared in my parents' cat book on a list of greenery toxic to felines. But most of all, I am out of the house from 7:30 to 6:30. Eleven hours. I hate to leave an animal alone for so long. If I worked at home, or didn't need to burn an extra 2 hours a day on transit, sure, I could understand it. It seems like too slender an amount of time in which to develop a relationship with a cat, keep it occupied, play with it to help release its energy, and the like. And of course, I am technically allergic to cats.

Yet I have been told that cats will amuse themselves, even over longish periods like this; that this doesn't necessarily make them difficult to housebreak or manage, as long as they have toys and scratching materials. By eliminating most of the plants, I would have plenty of room for either its litterbox or its food (which I know to keep plenty distant). And I say "technically allergic" because I eventually get used to the dander of cats I encounter regularly, to the point where I don't even pop antihistamines before visiting their houses. So some of these barriers might be overcome.

I can almost see it slinking around my furniture, curving its sleek body against my couch, the corner of the kitchen, anywhere it might want to leave its scent. There is a spot on my desk where a cat might like to jump, to observe the cursor moving across the screen of this very computer as I type. I have a basket, not unlike the one in which Mort appears in the photo-link I cite earlier, which for now I use for gym clothes, but which I could imagine a crafty cat nationalizing for the great and glorious cause of its cat dreams.

Perhaps such a cat is dreaming right now, of walking around a modest suburban yard with one of its companions, and looking up to spot a teenage boy peering down from a high window. High, yes, but not too high for a dreaming cat to reach with one mighty jump. Effortlessly it arcs up, to clutch the screen and get a closer look at a face it somehow knows, even without recognizing it, will someday greet it each evening with a smile.

Maybe 2006 is the year in which I help both of us achieve our dreams.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Fuzzy Vision Leads to Clearer Future

HAD A BIT OF a scare over the weekend. My mother developed a minor physical symptom that, in showing up this way, may end up preventing fatal consequences. The funny thing is, if I ask her one more time if she and my father want me to postpone the Las Vegas trip to be close to home, she might actually kill me.

Yesterday afternoon, the vision in my mother's right eye changed. It blurred in the lower section, so that part of her visual field disappeared. It went on and off for a half hour, then stopped altogether. She called me about an hour after this happened to let me know she had contacted her ophthalmologist to arrange an ASAP visit. Her father had suffered a detached retina in his middle age, and she wanted to rule that out.

I, however, wanted to rule out another cause, the one that had struck her mother: a stroke. Loss of sensation or vision on one side is a marker for an ongoing stroke. Plus she is at risk: overweight, a lifelong smoker, and a moderate drinker; on anticholesterol medication; and the daughter of a stroke victim. Her speech over the phone sounded perfectly clear, though, and she said she didn't feel numb or weak on either side. So all we could do at this point is determine whether the eye guy would see her that day or today.

It turned out to be this morning. I waited anxiously until 11:30, then called home. I punched through their call-waiting on the third attempt. My mother said it was Hollenhorst plaque, and that although the visual distortion hadn't recurred, she wanted to make an appointment to get her carotid arteries scanned. It turns out someone in the Elks Ladies Auxiliary had this done, so she felt speaking to this former patient would throw a lot more light on her condition.

While I was speaking to her, I was skimming the page to which I linked above — and feeling more and more nervous. The gist I picked up is that this sort of thing doesn't happen unless a patient has some sort of major blockage somewhere, and that my mother was incredibly lucky it wasn't a larger embolus or a cerebral vessel that was occluded. I asked her if she wanted me to email the article, and she asked, "Is it going to upset me?" To which I had to answer in the positive. If she wasn't going out of her way to upset herself before she had the test done, who was I to disrupt that?

This didn't mean that I couldn't get upset though, and I spent the better part of the day steeling myself against any potential next step. Surgery on a woman with compromised lungs and a balky heart. The sheer wrongness of surgery that required a major artery to be laid open like a bio-class earthworm. A stroke before she got to the OR. My father and I helping with rehab. Or worse.

And then there was the trip to Vegas. When she called with the diagnosis, she repeated strenuously that she didn't want this in any way to change my plans. I began to wonder how well I could fake being in Vegas while secretly monitoring the situation from New Jersey. For a poker player, I am a lousy liar, so I expected this plan would fail spectacularly — perhaps in a Twilight Zone–like twist, my parents would run me over accidentally while on the way back from the doctor with a clean bill of health.

Most of all, if I stayed home from Las Vegas, my mother would actually feel like there was something terribly wrong. If I pursued my business as usual, she could do the same, regardless of what the doc told her.

I spoke to her again on the homebound train before it left Hoboken. By then, my mom had gotten in touch with the woman who had had this surgery done. The surgeon apparently did this procedure day in and day out, like some specialists do tons of prostate or ACL jobs. This she found very reassuring. Her tone was very positive, and she said she basically wanted to find out the problem, have it removed or extracted or whatever, and move on.

She credited her experience with breast cancer as helping with this attitude. When she got that diagnosis back in early 1991 — during my final semester of college — her overwhelming emotion was not fear, or powerlessness, but anger. If she got through the diagnosis, surgery, and rehabilitation of that experience, she said today, she could face anything. And in addition, this minor condition may serve as an early warning of some cardiovascular condition that could have made its presence known in a lot more fatal way.

I have to say that this conversation was the first point today at which I stopped worrying. Once again, she exhorted me not to worry about her or my father (who no doubt dug into the Internet as I did to decipher what the hell Hollenhorst plaque was), to enjoy Las Vegas, and not to think about the next step. This time, I silently agreed with her.

So that is how things stand. My mom will see her family doctor late this week, bring up the name of the vascular specialist she got, and take it from there. My orders are to go to Las Vegas and loot the locals in the name of the family honor and her — and her parents' — reputations as jubilant degenerate card players. What sort of son would disobey?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Alone Amidst the Electrons

I GO THROUGH PERIODS of my life where I feel like regressing technologically 40 or 50 years, particularly when it comes to writing utensils. I'm not saying I want to live in such a lost age permanently. I get an occasional pang of loss that can only be filled by a typewritten page or a letter scratched into existence via a fountain pen.

Such a spasm will take a predictable course:
  1. I will buy, or unearth from the depths of accumulated crap in my apartment, a fountain pen. Usually one of the Parker cheapies that takes an ink cartridge.
  2. In the same spend-or-rummage fashion, I will locate an ink cartridge and load up the pen.
  3. I will use the pen for a few days until it leaks all over (a) the paper, (b) my index finger and thumb, (c) my pants, or (d) all of the above.
  4. I will replace the pen where I found it in the tides of detritus in my apartment and grumpily steal a pen from work.
I feel myself getting pulled into that direction again. Not sure, in the limited amount of time I have before the Las Vegas trip, how I will slake this particular yen. I do own a manual typewriter, a Smith-Corona I snagged at the town rummage sale a few summers ago for a ten-spot. It is a portable model, packed into a mini-suitcase for easy transit. I wonder what the reaction would be at the Newark Airport security checkpoint when I cracked the case open. I could tell a dense guard it was a vintage laptop. And what would the tourist in the next room over from me at the Golden Nugget make of the tap-tap-tap-swear-erase-tap-tap coming from beyond his wall? A whole crop of youngsters exists that has never heard even one of those fusion typewriter-word processors from the Eighties.

I had an electric typewriter for the first couple of months of college. Although Boston College was progressive enough to have an Apple Store on campus, I had dragged my Sears typewriter up the Eastern Seaboard to school for my paper-writing needs. I had used a computer word processor before, via my battered Commodore 64 and the GEOS operating system software. Considering that I had to use a small color television for the monitor, finding space for it in the cinderblock mausoleum of a dorm room would have required a degree in engineering, not English.

I eventually caved and bought a Macintosh SE. BC offered discounts on Mac packages, and a number of folks on my dorm floor had them. I don't recall how I broached the topic with my parents, but somehow I made it plain that my lowly typewriter was far inferior to the combination of a Mac and and Imagewriter II. These two items soon made a home on my tiny dorm desk; the typewriter sulked in the closet until May.

Even then, though, I would attempt class note-taking with a fountain pen now and again, with the results I listed previously. A skipping, leaky pen was a liability in keeping up with fast-talking professors. So such fits were limited.

My occasional urge to use a typewriter, despite the total dominance of laser printers and email, still resurfaces. Before I bought the Smith-Corona, I spotted an IBM Selectric from my car while passing a garage sale. I snapped it up for a dollar, but found when I returned home that it didn't work. Getting it fixed would have exceeded the price ceiling I set on impulse buys, so I deadlifted the dud into the Dumpster outside my building.

When I saw the blue-grey Smith-Corona Super Sterling grinning up at me with its white keys at the rummage sale, I was smitten. Sitting in its travel case, it looked like an Enigma code machine. It exuded a musty scent of machine oil and platen rubber. The dealer said the machine was functional and would only set me back $10. I walked home for a Hamilton and a few sheets of paper. It typed; the bell still emitted a satisfying "ding" near the end of a line; so I paid and lugged it home.

For a stretch after that, I actually kept a typewritten diary. This required a trip to Staples for a suitable ribbon — all the local typewriter shops are gone the way of the fedora and the Automat — as the one included was light and tended not to spool. Mine was probably the first typewriter ribbon sold at that Staples that summer. I don't recall what distraction pulled me away from it, but I ceased after a couple of months. Possibly my horrid typing skills did me in. One tends to forget how infinitely indulgent of mistakes computers are. Perfection is but a backspace away — in my case, tens of thousands of backspaces. (My boss, who sits on the other side of my sound-porous cube wall, once complimented me on my rapid typing; I told her my delete key deserved the credit) In contrast, the Smith-Corona was an unforgiving iron taskmaster. Pages of that diary look like redacted scripts for some hastily rewritten sitcom, without the humor (just like real sitcoms).

When the blog phenomenon began to bloom, I had a crotchety idea of somehow keeping a typewritten blog. Not one made from a typewriter font like Schmutz — I figured I would actually type pages, scan them, and post them for folks to click and read at full size. Naturally, the content on such a blog would show up in none of the usual search options (although I suppose it could be syndicated if there was a title or even a date to be propagated via RSS, etc.). Aside from being a nifty gimmick, unless it was a known throwback like Andy Rooney or a crazed fancier of moribund tech, I can't see a blog like that thriving in today's interconnected, content-multipurposing world.

Still, it's a devilish thought. I do occasionally hear the Smith-Corona whispering to me at night, like the hallucinated bug-typewriters in the movie of Naked Lunch — itself a gem of typewriter fetishism. I let it out now and again to breathe 21st Century air. Typical of a Fifties refugee, it asks for a cigarette. I usually have to run a few pages of typing through it to take the edge off its jones, but I do sit a Mohegan Sun ashtray next to it, so it feels slightly at home, dislocated from its era and alone amidst the electrons.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Bear Emerges from Hibernation

THOUGH I AM MORE of a cynical centrist politically, I subscribe to The Wall Street Journal. Back in 2000, I chanced upon an item about Anheuser-Busch splitting its stock and posting good earnings, which led me to snag 50 shares prior to the split date. Based on the results, I decided to subscribe to see if I could spot any other decent opportunities. As a side effect, I got a closer view of the dotcom rise and fall and the whole Enron disaster that followed.

I read the opinion pages, though I don't always agree with them. This morning, there was a riveting piece by Sergei Ivanov, Russia's deputy prime minister and minister of defense. I don't have a subscription to the reputedly excellent online Journal, but if you do, check it out on It carries the attention-getting title, "Russia Must Be Strong."

Some time ago, in a discussion with friends about current and past communist states, I was overruled when I said we might have concern over a resurgent Russia. They believed China was the greater threat. In light of recent events — its military overtures toward Taiwan, its aggressive stance over the collision between our plane and theirs some years ago, its omnivorous drive to build up its economy and access natural resources — I concede their point. But this article suggests that Russia might bear not only scrutiny, but comparison to a certain Western nation.

Here are some quotes and points from Ivanov's article:
We have seen a steady trend pointing at a broader scope of use of military force recently, not least because more challenges to national security have emerged. Chief among them is interference in Russia's internal affairs by foreign states — either directly or through structures that they support — and the attempts of some countries, coalitions, and extremist terrorists organizations to develop or gain access to weapons of mass destruction.

The primary task for the armed forces is to prevent conventional and nuclear aggression against Russia. Hence our firm commitment to the principle of pre-emption. We define pre-emption not only as a capability to deliver strikes on terrorist groups but as other measures designed to prevent a threat from emerging long before there is a need to confront it.
As a child of the 1980s, I get twitchy when I hear about Russia looking to strike out at perceived threats. I don't doubt that it felt that way to old-line hawks now in their closing years in the Beltway and salted away, Nixon-like, in exclusive condominiums across suburbia. But this is really Russia following President Bush's example. Bush made it clear after 9/11 that he was going to act against terrorists in any country, with that nation's assistance or not. which was the government's rationale in its (justifiable) operation in unseating the Taliban and killing or capturing leading al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, and has been the continuing justification for our war in Iraq. So the Administration can't really get in a swivet over Putin working to strike potential terrorists like those who hit the school in Beslan and the opera house in Moscow in (to cite the article) "some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the club of former Soviet republics, and the regions around them." [italics mine]

After mentioning the need to upgrade the aging Soviet war machine, Ivanov asks, "What would a modern fighting force look like?" Observers on the train would have seen me zero in on the paper at this point: "Our best option is a mobile force in which the air, and probably space, component will be a decisive factor in success. What is also clear is that the winner in a future war will be capable of forming an integrated, real-time intelligence picture. . . ."

The space part arrested my attention. The second sentence of that quote may suggest that the space component represents satellite assets, which is nothing new for any major power. However, when Ivanov begins ticking off the priorities of the "Military Development Plan for 2006-2010" (oh, those Russians and their five-year plans!), I wondered: "The first is to maintain and develop a strategic deterrent capability minimally sufficient for guaranteed repulsion of contemporary and future military threats." He then lists two nuclear ballistic missiles that have ranges of about 7,200 miles and a new type of nuclear-missile sub. "And this is just the top of the list. Needless to say, these are not aimed at any particular target. We have always honored our commitments . . . including those . . . on reductions and limitations of strategic offensive weapons."

Considering the range of the missiles in question, this could also be the space component Ivanov cited. I doubt these will be needed for killing well-masqueraded Chechen rebels in their lairs. Of local threats on whom these missiles might be needed, I come up with China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Iran. Especially Iran, which has just broken the seals on its Natanz nuclear-research lab in the same sort of bird North Korea flipped us by turning off the IAEA cameras at Yongbyon and firing up the works to produce plutonium.

I will editorially interject (for what else is a blog?) and say that this is the second Axis of Evil power to take steps that could lead to crafting and perfecting a nuclear weapon. No, the second one isn't Iraq. What's more, Iran — swimming in petroleum — hasn't had to resort to bribery and smuggling to get the resources it needs as North Korea has, or as Iraq was suspected of doing. It can flat-out fucking buy triggers and centrifuges and yellowcake. I do not believe that we should have invaded, or should contemplate invading, Iran or North Korea, even after their intentions became plain. However, if we had exercised the effort and invested the money we used in the entire Iraq misadventure, from the Niger-memo forgery through this day, we could have convinced at least one of these powers to return to negotiations, or erected a cordon sanitaire around them, to deny their access to the dangerous tools of nuclear-weapons design. (We could also have hired a damn good hitman to take out that traitorous fuck A.Q. Khan and his network once and for all. Beatrix Kiddo, please pick up the red courtesy phone.)

I also point out that the Bush Administration has chafed against the test bans recently, desiring to advance work on the small "bunker buster" nukes, even as we're dismantling and decommissioning older weapons. So Russia's not the only one taking stock of what sort of nuclear weapons it might need to face what it considers its potential opponents.

As to those Chechen insurgents and the steps Russia might take in defending itself, Ivanov says:
The second priority is the development of conventional forces — high-alert units in the army, air force, navy, and airborne force, manned only by professional soldiers, that will form the backbone of deployable task forces. . . . All this explains the need for rearmament, new military acquisitons, . . . R&D . . . and the optimization of the national defense industry to find a balance between the commitment to arm the Russian military and an opportunity to export arms to countries not subject to U.N. sanctions.
It's understandable that Russia wants to use some of its newfound oil wealth to reconstruct its crumbling, demoralized military, particularly its equivalent of our Special Forces, the Spetsnatz, the "high-alert units" to which I assume Ivanov's referring. Interesting to see, though, that it wants to continue its historic role in the international arms trade. The Soviets gave away millions of its iconic AK-47s to Third World revolutionaries and licensed the production of it and other weapons to its client states in Eastern Europe. Now it wants to come up with new, attractive defense gear — sold, of course, only to those states not on the UN's shitlist. Again, nothing we're not doing, nor the Belgians with their FN-FAL rifle, nor the Israelis with the Uzi. War sells.

Ivanov closes by citing Russia's desire to use its professionally trained troops to assist in peacekeeping work and to resume theater-level combat exercises in its sphere of influence. At this point I wondered if Russia would return to giving grand May Day parades of its latest missiles and sharpest soldiers, while Putin gazed down from the Kremlin wall. Perhaps this closing sentence might guide us: "Russia deserves a fighting force of the 21st century, a force that will look into the future but will at the same time continue its glorious military tradition."

If we are lucky, and if someday have more deft leadership and diplomatic representation than we currently field, perhaps we can come to some new partnership with a resurgent Russia as its neighbor to the south, China, becomes a greater economic threat; or perhaps as a way to leverage Iran and North Korea into understanding the error of their ways. But as I said, I am a product of the 1980s, and part of me wonders if Russia will get itchy to use its shiny new military in ways other than defensive and counterterrorist. To cite and modernize the old Chekhov axiom, you can't put a loaded Kalashnikov on stage unless you intend for it to be fired.

At whom, and by whom, should receive the attention of our more clairvoyant foreign-policy sages. Or, as they used to be called, Kremlinologists.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Selfish Sunday

ORDINARILY, I EAT DINNER at my parents' house each Sunday night. They live only one town over, so it's a simple commute, even if it's snowing. During the past 2 weeks, though, I've been over there repeatedly, both for Christmas and New Year's Day, and the subsequent rounds of leftovers, plus a random taco night thrown in for good measure. I needed some time for myself, and this weekend, I took it.

Yesterday was spent doing chores: setting up folders for 2006 paperwork, getting the dry cleaning I thought I would be able to pick up last Monday (it was closed for New Year's Day), doing some shopping, and cleaning here and there. Not a lot of heavy lifting, except at the gym, where I got a good session in. My gym "week" starts on a Saturday with back and bicep exercises, followed by shoulder and thigh work Sunday. Monday is aerobic-machine day, followed by legs on Tuesday and chest/triceps on Wednesday. I am thinking about making Friday night an aerobic night, and leaving Thursday — poker night – wide open so I can get enough sleep on Wednesday night.

I continued my progress today with my shoulders (which comprise about 4 grams of muscle tissue connecting my arms to my torso) and the pair of machines that target the outer and inner thigh muscles. Neither of these displays the user in the most favorable light. Sweatpants are a wise idea. Both groups of exercises went well. The gym continues to be more full than normal for that time and day. I wasn't held up by large clots of resolution-minded folks, though. Many of them are beginners, and therefore use the XpressLine circuit of exercise machines, which I don't rely upon for most of my workouts.

At 1 p.m. today, the Giants were due to face off against the Carolina Panthers. This went ill. They were stomped like radioactive roaches. Enough said about that.

As weekends go — especially the recent holiday weekends – my nutrition was stellar these past two days. I was also able to cook some food for next week's lunches and dinners. For lunch tomorrow, I have whole-wheat penne rigate and steamed broccoli, to which I'll add a small can of tuna. Dinner tomorrow, and lunch or dinner for the next two days, will be baked chicken teriyaki (with roasted sesame seeds and a few dashes of crushed red pepper) over short-grain brown rice. I had one of the four servings I made of that tonight. Excellent. I am looking forward to coupling solid exercise with these sorts of meals again. I fell off the wagon during the holidays, under the constant onslaught of free junk food from the vendors and dinner at my parents'. I also want to get as much progress done before Las Vegas, where — I am realistic enough to know — forward motion toward fitness will be stalled.

I had planned to hit a food store today, but after preparing so much ready-made food, I didn't feel like I needed any more actual rations. I've got plenty of breakfast stuff, too, and I can buy fruit or salad greens in the city. Besides, I didn't want to be tempted by some of the snacky-type crap I knew I might find at the store. I wanted to get a firm start this weekend. I have also designated a specific time to cheat: The 27th of every month (the date of my birthday) will be a food free-fire zone. I picked this idea up from the documentation for my George Foreman Grill, and why would a jovial shmoo like George Foreman lie?

All right. I'll hit the hay soon, because the holiday season also played havoc with my sleep schedule. I am becoming more catlike in that I find I need a solid 8 hours each night. If I manage to polish off 9 tonight, so much the better. Next week is gonna be a deathmarch of five full workdays leading up to a 3-day weekend, followed by two days of absolute insanity prior to the Vegas trip. I have a few fires to put out before I leave my desk for 4 straight workdays. I do know if I go into it with a good workout schedule and decent eating, I'll feel far more positive and in control of things. Being able to mount the steps out of the PATH station without panting will be a bonus as well. Wish me luck.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Naming the Degenerates

AS SHOCKING AS THIS may seem to someone who knows me and my poor grasp of math, I have become the poker-night cashier, responsible for selling players chips, taking the money for the house, and cashing folks out as they leave or at the end of the night. I am actually quite good at this, and I have developed a solid reputation of trust as a result. Part of this is because I always cash myself out last, with the understanding that if there is any unexplained discrepancy, I will make it good out of my own pocket. It shows the players I have a personal stake in making sure everyone gets a fair count of chips and/or cash.

One night, however, when I left early, and the host had to manage the cash box himself, it came up short. As a result, he decided to mark down any incoming cash for buy-ins. I had no problem with this — in fact, after a temporary miscount at my place one night (I miscounted one player's chips, which resulted in his getting an extra $20), I had thought of doing it too. So the next time we got together, I tallied the chip sales and the $5 we all kick in to the host to cover beer, chips, etc. The box counted down correctly to the last cent. Granted, having a big list of repeat buy-ins and the fins going to the house was not going to look good if the local constabulary decided to pay a visit, but it wasn't gonna tell them much more than the $1,000 or so in the box would. (Maybe we should invest in a casino drop box?)

Last game, I arrived after the first group of players started. When I went to buy chips (a measure of their trust was that I was trusted to do this on my own), I noted that the host had listed a name next to each buy-in. Interesting. I recorded my own name and amount, reflexively counted the money already in the box, and noticed a difference. Because of the names, I realized the host had omitted a buy-in, so I added the name and the amounts matched exactly. Useful.

So when I was called upon to take care of new players and the inevitable string of rebuys for busted-out folks, I continued to note the names. It was a busy night, and I eventually filled one side of the pad. At that point, I thought to take a look at the names themselves, and realized the importance of the list. I could make notes on why names were recurring — either due to getting screwed by the Poker Gods on all-in confrontations, or playing way too many hands — and use this information to guide my own play.

It also made me realize how easily some of the wealthier players lose track of how often they reload. One guy, a stock trader with boatloads of cash whose maniacal betting alternately costs or wins him four or five buy-ins per night, mentioned casually when he handed me a $50 for a new stack of chips that he was in for $170 so far. I knew before I looked at the list that he was low, even with the Grant in my hand. He disbelieved my revised estimate of $215 until I totaled the numbers next to the five instances of his name on the list and read the result to him. Sharp enough to contemplate the details of the next day's market trades, as he has said after making big bets to scare potential callers with an air of nonchalance, yet not able to track sums of cash that, apparently, are insignificant to him. Not a problem from which I currently suffer, alas.

I don't know if the host continued the list after I left, but I would love to see one for an entire night, especially when we have two tables of players. It would help me steer clear of the folks who only appear once and couple this with skill, or bet into those who rebuy six or seven times with greater confidence. As poker author Roy West noted, "There is no substitute for knowledge of your opponents!" And in war, there is no weapon like information.

All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

AS I WRITE THIS, I am playing a play-money poker tournament on PokerRoom. You may have seen the amusing ad they're running, in which two knights are wailing on each other with medieval weapons, until one warrior starts and brandishes a chainsaw, whereupon his opponent cowers and says, "I fold!" To this former Dungeons & Dragons player and current poker (and chainsaw) aficionado, it's a hilarious clip.

One major difference between myself and the other players in my regular game is that I don't play for real money online. In fact, I might be the only one who doesn't. My options would be limited if I decided to take the plunge, as the majority of the poker sites run on Windows. PokerRoom and a few others owned by its parent company run in Java, which lets Mac users play there. I have read about some Mac users running the Windows poker software via VirtualPC, but others describe it as slow or unstable — and the last thing I need when there is real cash on the line is a flaky connection.

Another factor that has restrained my dive into the world of online poker is the possibility of collusion. Three or four guys playing on the same table with cellphones and headsets could clobber any hapless clowns who sat down. The major sites all claim to have software algorithms that can detect betting patterns suggestive of collusion. The other players in my game have no worries about this. Most of them either play low-limit cash games like our Thursday gathering or large, multi-table tournaments with scores or hundreds of players, at which collusion would only be a factor if two or more acquainted players lucked out by getting seated at the final table. Not likely.

I can tell that I am missing out on a lot of experience, relative to the other players, by only playing in meatspace. I play about once per week in the regular game. I don't go to Atlantic City more than about once every two or three months (especially not this autumn, with gas hitting $3.25 per gallon!). Vegas is only twice a year. I do notice, however, that when I play every day, as I do in Vegas, I get perceptibly better over time — particularly when I play often in the same poker room. Playing online a couple of days a week would help me see more hands and continue to build my skill between the usual Thursday study groups in applied probability.

Although it's tough to judge how I might do from play-money performance, I have run the $1,000 in fugazy cash that PokerRoom starts you with up past $10,000 by playing in single-table tournaments. Called sit 'n' goes or SnGs in poker lingo — when 10 players fill the table, the tourney begins — they feature rapidly escalating blinds and a distribution of prize money ranging from winner takes all to 50%/30%/20%. So anywhere from seven to nine players get bupkis. These also can be found with low entry fees, starting at $5 to play with an extra charge to the house of 50¢. Some players will play four or six SnGs at once, hoping to hit the money spots in a couple each time they do so. (The computer setups for these multitable players tend to look like daytrading desks or air traffic control stations, sometimes with just as much stress.)

At fake-money SnGs, the first question usually is how many players will go all in on the first hand. Because it costs nothing to lose, you'll often see two, three, or even six players at these tables push all of their cyber-chips into the center to rack up a huge early lead. Usually only one of these loons will start with a pair. I've only ever joined in this salmon-spawn once, with two Aces in the hole, which — as will happen when you take pocket rockets up against five or six other hands — went down in flames.

Once the dust settles from this display of plumage, I play basic, ABC poker, following a strategy sheet I snagged from the Two Plus Two poker forums (Two Plus Two publishes seminal poker texts.) This sheet was composed by a habitué of the bulletin board specifically devoted to SnG play. Whether it's a measure of my opponents' caliber, the fact that it's free to play, or the method I follow, I find I get close to or into the pay spots fairly frequently. I do find that the battle once in the payout structure does get fierce, in contrast to the goofy all-in fest at the outset.

Some months ago, I set myself a goal that if I were able to win six SnGs in a row, I would consider depositing some money and playing with real moolah. I hit that goal almost immediately after I set it. Not trusting my sample size, I decided to see if I could hit $10,000 without busting out and reloading my fake-cash account. I crossed that threshold last month. So now I really have to wonder: Do I want an immediate form of financial gratification and entertainment to be this near and accessible?

I am trying to maintain a solid workout schedule. To succeed, I need to eat right and sleep at least 8 hours a night. I do not want poker to intrude on any of these activities. I have occasionally pulled late nights on Thursdays — I define a poker night that runs past midnight as "late" — and either my play or the subsequent workday has suffered as a result. If I skip a week of poker to attend to real life, I don't feel like I am losing money, which is a recurrent complaint among some folks who actually play online poker as a living. When they fold laundry for an hour, they think to themselves, "That's $40 I lost while doing that." You didn't lose anything, fool; you lived your life, the only one you'll ever have!! I've never been that sort of player, and I would hate to have any job, to say nothing of a hobby like poker, be so dominant a factor in my life that I feel guilty attending to other activities instead. In sum, I am trying to figure out whether the benefits in money and experience can justify the reallocation of time.

From what I hear about the quality of poker play online, I might be thinking about this more deeply than anyone in the short history of online gambling.

(P.S. I took third prize in the aforementioned tourney. Hmmmmm. . . .)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Is This Train Haunted?

I HAD AN ODD, potentially embarrassing encounter on the homebound train this evening. The first major shift in the train seating pattern occurs at the Wood-Ridge station, when the first group of riders disembarks and the folks stuck standing since they got on at Seacaucus get to sit down. It was at this point that someone decided to take the aisle seat next to me (I always sit next to the window).

Out the corner of my eye, I was convinced I knew the person. I don't think with the corner of my eye, though, so I tried to steal a full-on view so I could rule it out or face up to it. This is because I haven't seen the person I thought this might be for 8 years or so, a streak I have no desire to break.

Rewind for a briefing. This person was one of the few fellow graduates of mine with whom I remained in touch. He and I met in freshman year as next-door neighbors, then roomed together in junior year. He was the first acquaintance of mine to own a stereo component with a CD player in it, and he had scores of discs, which at the time — 1987 — were still novelties in long, tree-killing boxes. In expanding his collection to well over 300 over the first year of college alone, he also became the first peer of mine to face down immense credit-card debt. But his parents were loaded and he worked for his father, so his pain was minimal.

The reason I broke off contact with him was his eventual wife, whom he met in sophomore year. She was an expert psychological manipulator, in addition to being seriously troubled herself, and through a combination of sex and guilt, she latched onto him hard. They did break up a couple of times after college, though he eventually did return to her. It says something about how close I was to this couple that, not only did I get a detailed description of one of the breakups from both parties, the woman invited me up to college (she was a year behind us) for a weekend. I am almost certain that had I taken her up on this, I would have been a little more than a crying towel for her. I made excuses, gritted my teeth, and stayed the hell away. I knew how she had treated him, and I had no desire to wreck the friendship between him and me or to let her get into my head the way she had drilled into his.

They eventually reconciled. They had a lot in common: Both came from wealthy backgrounds, both had stressful childhoods (he lost a sister to a wrenching battle with leukemia and wrestled with his parents' divorce, she was adopted but was very much not adjusted to the fact), both were virulently racist. They married in 1995, at a time when I had finally found a girlfriend of my own, and was paying little attention to them as a result.

The marriage, like the relationship that led into it, was rocky. The bride's level of manipulation via guilt and, now, compulsive shopping rose to new heights. It was sad to see. The guy had the demeanor of a golden retriever, but she took advantage of it and fell back on her psychological diagnoses when he called her on her bullshit. She was seeing a therapist for a genuine condition, but she never failed to remind her husband of it when she crossed the line from gentle nagging to overt harassment. An example would be when we all went to Williams-Sonoma, and she filled a basket to the rim with junk, unneeded gimcracks and foodstuffs that she bought just to spite him. When he asked why she needed so many pieces of oven ware, she said, "Baking season's coming." He confirmed to me, later, that this was the first he had heard of her interest in such things. One hundred and sixty dollars of aggravation went on his credit card that day.

Perhaps worse, she antagonized and repulsed his other close male friends. She turned him against two of the other four guys in his wedding party besides myself and a guy whose residence in Germany probably spared him such direct assault. I forget precisely the excuses she used, but she convinced him they were no longer worth his time. I think I escaped this fate because I didn't live down there and thus wasn't on the scene all the time. Maybe she had some special fate cued up for me that I didn't allow her the time to enact.

This is because, in the late Nineties, I cut them off. It made me sick to see him so ill treated, and yet to have her speaking to me on the phone, by herself, as though nothing was wrong at all. I decided after one visit to make it the last. I hated to hear their racist ravings, their constant sniping at each other, and especially her hectoring him about how her AOL addiction was caused by her medication and job. When I moved again in 1999, I gave instructions to my parents not to disseminate my phone number to either one of them if they called. I have neither seen nor heard from this couple since.

And now it looked like the guy was sitting right next to me.

On the surface, his presence in Bergen County made no sense. The last I knew, he was living in the same mammoth condo development as his mother in Somerset County, a good hour down 287. Also, he worked at his father's business, which was based both there and way out in western New Jersey. Unless he had left his chosen field, he would have no reason to move up to Bergen and away from his remaining family. This, of course, presumed a divorce, as his wife would surely never allow such a move away from her own chosen position of maximum grief and frustration with her job, his family, and the community. But I wasn't sure it was him, and I was still angling for a better glimpse of his face, let alone his ringfinger.

I could see his features more clearly on a second look. Glasses were similar, as was the hair and profile. I suspected his hairline should have been higher, based on the last time I saw him and how his father's hair eventually went. But I also noticed he was reading Car and Driver. The college guy was also an avid car fanatic. Yet I lived with this guy for 9 months, so it was difficult to believe he had sat down without noticing me. I hadn't changed all that much, aside from having more gray hair and a little less of it overall.

I remembered a sure test. The guy I knew had a fairly unsettling way of clearing his throat and nasal passages periodically. Not as comical as Felix Unger, but actually fairly gross. Over 25 minutes, he would surely make the noise I had learned to dread while living and — worse —eating around him.

I heard nothing save a few common coughs.

When the train neared my stop, I got up to retrieve my coat. He stood. I still averted my eyes, for fear of being recognized, although I was convinced it wasn't him. From the position of the train door, I looked back. Definitely wasn't him.

Why I would be shy to reestablish contact with him alone, if he was alone, was a mystery I tried to unravel as I walked home. If he was split up from his wife, reacquainting myself with him wouldn't hurt. I guess I was afraid that he might still have been hitched to this unsavory woman, and that I would be pulled back into the drama with them. Frankly, if they need me that badly, they can write me checks as though I was a couples therapist. If, of course, there's anything left in the budget after the purchases for this year's baking season.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Little Prick Sends Me to the Hospital

I AM, AT HEART, a frustrated comedian. Shy of the stage and the potential catcalls from the pit, I have never attempted to entertain a live audience with what, in a talented person, might pass as wit. But I do occasionally craft a good line. And when I do, if the time is not ripe for delivery, I will file it away. I save it, and wait, patiently and over years if necessary.

Case in point. Through a friend, I met a woman who worked at a tissue bank. At the time, she was primarily engaged in harvesting skin. A line formed in my head after we parted, and I stored it carefully. When I met her next, I immediately asked her, "So how's life in the skin trade?"

Yes, this is what killed vaudeville. Well, that and television.

As has been much trumpeted, we are in cold and flu season. The latter concerns me more than the former, because whereas a cold will cost me at most two days of work and productivity, the flu will take out a good five. I can't afford that. And even if I could, I have no real desire to feel that miserable for a week. So I have been getting flu shots for the past several years.

Last year I had to wait on the sidelines because someone pulled a Kramer on the vaccine samples and dropped a Junior Mint or something in the mix. This year, however, I was determined to visit the doctor before my trip to Las Vegas and get immunized.

And that's how the line developed.

I'd never actually use it. No sense in angering a man who has access to scalpels. But I thought of it shortly after I was denied a shot last year, through no fault of my harried and therefore slightly perfunctory primary care physician. And it went into a pigeon hole like a piece of mail in a 1930s hotel.

In my mind's eye, I saw myself sitting on the white paper in the office, looking up to greet him as he entered. He would say, "So you're here for a flu shot, huh?"

And I would rejoin, "Yeah, I needed a little prick, and I thought of you!"

And sure as dawn follows night, that little prick would put me in the hospital.

Of course, this never happened. What really happened is that, on the timely prompting of my parents, I took advantage of an open, sans-appointment flu-shot clinic that my local hospital presented this evening. I bailed early on work to get a jump on any potential line, and got there a little after 5:00 . . . only to find no line whatsoever. This was in stark contrast to the monstrous line that snaked around the Shop Rite offering shots back in 2004, where my parents waited for hours for a simple 15-second inoculation procedure. Not this time. In, out, 10 minutes, $25, done. Didn't even have to feed the toll gate to escape the parking lot.

So knowing my luck, I will dodge the flu, only to get tuberculosis from the airline pillow on the way out to Vegas. Call me a month from now and I'll cough you up a nice mushroom.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Skeleton of 2006: Can These Bones Live?

IF THIS POST IS any indication of how swiftly I will adapt to writing the correct year where appropriate, I might actually set a record this time around. I should write all of my rent checks now while I'm on a hot streak.

I had a fine New Year's last night, and actually managed to visit two friends' houses for the occasion. Afternoon was spend visiting some of the gang at Bill's condo in Hoboken, and I swung over to Rick and Amy's for BBQ (not grilled food, I'm talking slow-smoked ribs and pulled pork), boardgames (Bang! and Puerto Rico), and the turn of the year. I prefer going to a friend's place than some bar or, gods help us, Times Square. My predominant concern at the latter venue would be where I would be able to find a usable bathroom. It would tend to detract from the experience. I'm also not that much of a drinker, so I don't necessarily need someplace where I can crash for the night. So I've never been a big fan of, says celebrating at the bar or restaurant of a hotel, then pitching in on a block of rooms for recovery and a decadently late breakfast via room service. (I can get that without the hangover any day I want in Las Vegas!)

I haven't been a big resolution guy either, so when the topic didn't come up last night, I was relieved. I just heard an interesting quote from Bethany Ryker, the DJ on WFMU right now. She said, "One person's resolution is another person's anti-resolution." Could that be true? Someone says he will quit smoking, while a tobacco lobbyist in Trenton vows to fight all legislation banning smoking in public places in New Jersey? A woman decides to get in shape, when on the other side of the country, a young guy tallies up the financial and physical cost of the steroids he has shot for the past year, and resolves to kick them out of his life?

In the field of other people's resolutions, I expect the gym to be packed solid tomorrow. Technically today was the first day of 2006 that they were open, but I didn't get over there, after getting home late last night and going straight over to my parents' house for lunch after awakening and showering. I can go when I like tomorrow, because I have the day off. I will need the time, because I want to figure out what I'm going to do for my shoulders. I used to have a routine for them, but I can't find it, and the one I snagged from the Internet isn't going to be suitable for me. So I'll put something together on the fly and see if I feel like I've hit the whole group.

I do want to write up some positive goals for the year, though. There are ways I could improve that don't need to be enshrined in some sort of holy resolution, made sacred only through their breach. Dr. Alan Schoonmaker, poker writer and psychologist, writes in his most recent column about using the SMART system for setting goals: they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based. I have a number of areas for improvement that could fit those criteria. Having a written sheet, as described in this post on, and referring to it for guidance and focus, makes a ton of sense. This will be tomorrow's task. The result will guide my next few weeks.

Above all, I want to feel that there is some purpose to what I do. At work, I am down in the trenches all day, seeing little of the grand strategy that might guide me forward, and any gains I make are due to me darting out under the wire to secure them at my own risk and impulse. Losing weight is its own goal in terms of quality of life and health, but what good is a doubled lifespan if you have no way to flesh it out with meaning? I wish I could see my friends more often, but I know they often fact the same schedule pressures I do, and free weekends fill up rapidly with chores, family obligations, and alone time. Yet I believe that if I have done nothing else, if I still have brought joy or humor or comfort to my friends at some point, I have lived well and usefully. Above and beyond this, I hope to set my life in some order and, once that is done, achieve rather than exist.

Have a safe and fine 2006, and many thanks to Bill, Amy, and Rick for their hospitality last night.