Friday, June 30, 2006

Make Way for Ducats

I MIGHT JUST BE the nerdiest person you know. No, seriously, even if you can look around your dwelling from a Star Wars poster to a rack of action figures and then down to a stack of comic-book longboxes, I've got you beat:
  1. I asked of my parents, and received, Microsoft Excel 2004 for Mac for my birthday;
  2. I spent this Friday night setting up a consolidated group of financial sheets, including a check register and my poker results, the latter I typed in from the incompatible-with-Excel Word table in which I had been listing my wins and losses.
The eventual plan is to include my retirement-fund totals and contributions, and sum everything up on a final worksheet. I know precisely three Excel formulae, but that should be all I need. I actually got a Barnes & Noble gift card from Jen and Steve, which I now believe might best be invested in an Excel how-to book.

To step back a bit, you may recall my Word classes back in December. I really would have preferred to take Excel or Photoshop, the former a tool used by all of the managers at my workplace, the latter a key tool of my profession but not a package I know well. I figured if I at least got Excel at home, I could become familiar with the basics. What helps is the ability to copy or emulate functional formulae from existing spreadsheets and apply them in a new document. This is how I taught myself the absolute basics of HTML. So if every week I'm in Excel tabulating the slow drip of my bank account to my landlord and creditors, or racking up the odd win on the poker sheet, I ought to get more comfortable with the program, and eventually slide it onto my resume. Hell, why not? Should I crank the job hunt up again, I doubt it's gonna be for the sorts of positions in which candidates are pitted against one another in a spreadsheet-creating duel to the death. I think I only win that sort of contest if I use a sledgehammer on the other applicants' CPUs or metacarpals.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Odometer Still Rolling

I SURVIVED TURNING THIRTY-SEVEN yesterday, on the fourth day of a four-day weekend. With a disappointing raise in a performance review the previous Thursday, and an approaching birthday, as I reached Friday it seemed like the wisest decision I had made in some weeks to take this chunk of time off.

The actual birthday I spent with my parents, and at home, doing precisely nothing constructive. Thirty-seven's not much of a milestone year, though making it through another year, and maybe learning one or two things in the course of it, is surely reason enough to be happy. I probably won't know if I really learned anything until 5 or 10 years down the line, when I call upon some obscure fact or skill, and realize I picked it up sometime between 36 and 37.

As to the performance review, that's a topic to address when I am more awake. I did adjust my 401(k) contribution to a larger percentage, so if my current line of thinking leads where it might, I can reach the maximum amount of retirement cash I can stash earlier in the year.

As for the rest, I intend to live this next year as closely as I can to the philosophy embraced in my post entitled "I'm Not in the Happiness Business." I've had LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" running through my head all weekend, probably from it being part of an iPod workout mix, and among the many armor-piercing rhymes in that song, the following couplet sums it up for me:
I'm gonna take this itty-bitty world by storm,
And I'm just gettin' warm!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Fighting for Every Square Inch of This Kitchen

IN WARFARE, TERRITORY IS critical. Control the right stretch of land or sea, and you will increase your chances of victory. Anyone who rents an apartment will recognize this dictum. Encroaching clutter along the borders of an otherwise secured, clean room can quickly flare up in multiple salients, pinning down your efforts and encouraging rubbish to gather along other fronts. Soon you've got open rebellion: stacks of paperbacks tumbling from unstable IKEA shelves, towers of pint soup containers massing for a mad dash to the kitchen floor, dark muttering among the previously docile socks in the laundry basket.

So when you have the chance to secure permanently a slice of turf long thought unassailable, you take it.

Such an opportunity appeared this afternoon in my kitchen. I had removed a wire dish rack temporarily to scour the Rubbermaid drip guard beneath. While this piece rested in the tub with a cap-full of Pine Sol dissolving the built-up scum, I went shopping. Upon my return, I stacked some bagged fresh vegetables between the sink and the wooden rack holding my dinner plates —

— when I noticed that the space wherein said veggies were resting had not existed mere hours before.

I then made the final, crucial connection. The only reason I have the drying rack is because, as one resident, I rarely build up such a huge mound of dirty dishes that I need to resort to the energy and water hog that is my dishwasher. However, the dishwasher is, in essence, a two-tier dish rack. All I would need to do is wash a dish, throw it in there to dry, and luxuriate in the extra space that the old rack had occupied.

Yes, this sounds like a microscopic victory in the vast world of trouble in which we strive. But one of the two problems I have with my current apartment is the layout of the kitchen. The cabinets do not admit boxes over a certain height, and what counterspace there is, one tends to cast into shadow while working because the light is above but behind the main prep space. To liberate another couple of square feet, even with the shameful fact that it took me almost 7 years to realize my mistake, is a wonderful pre-birthday gift. The next one I'd like to unwrap in something considerably less than a near-decade.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Purgatory's Extreme Makeover

EVEN AFTER THE ROMAN Catholic Church moved to decommission the concept of Limbo some time ago, most people of driving age know that its less desirable relative, Purgatory, is still open for business, if only in its earthly representation. For no force mundane or magical could conceivably banish the flatline-inducing stasis of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Except, perhaps, the DMV itself.

I don't know how things are in your state, but here in New Jersey, we are undergoing a switch to digital licenses. What with the national pubococcygeus muscle clenching over identity theft and crazed terrorists teeming across our borders, New Jersey has mandated that anyone with a conventional license due for renewal had to come in for a new, digitally shot photo license. Gone are the days where enterprising college students, like one guy I eventually roomed with in junior year, could hang a blue cloth, get some vinyl stick-on letters and poster board, and shoot New Jersey "licenses" for their booze-jonesing buddies. Applicants also have to bring a sheaf of identifying documents that prove that they are legitimately themselves. In principle, this provides confirmation in depth. In practice, with the recent scandal over false Hudson County documents being apparently available to anyone with folding green, and before that, the discovery of a document forgery ring operating out of the Wayne, NJ DMV parking lot, whether this actually works in the age of Photoshop is dubious at best.

So I, along with thousands of my fellow Garden Staters, waited until this, the last weekend of the month, to patronize our neighborhood DMV office. I motored up to the Wyckoff office, because I've had fairly painless experiences there in the past, as trips to the DMV go. I got up early for a Saturday, shaved (ordinarily something I neglect over a weekend, but I didn't want to look like I'd been rousted from the drunk tank on my license for the next 4 years), and trekked out. In a plastic folder next to me rested what a Gestapo agent might call my "papers." I probably overplanned: passport, SS card, birth certificate, and a recent power bill to prove address. A fat stack of hundreds and a Browning Hi-Power and I could've been a CIA drug courier cooling his heels between runs and identities.

Wyckoff's DMV is a storefront in a short strip mall just off one of the town's main streets, bordering a dead shopping center. The view from the office is therefore bleak, offering only asphalt, an abandoned Walgreen's and the shell of a grocery store. Nevertheless, the surrounding area is pure suburbs, unlike some of the grittier offices in the state. By the time I arrived, three guys had already lined up outside the door. I became number 4, put on my iPod, and waited. As I listened to music and watched the line grow steadily longer, I was amused to see late-arriving employees of the DMV tapping on the glass to be admitted by those who had gotten in earlier. I guess New Jersey doesn't trust all of its personnel to have access to the machinery necessary to produce state documents.

The wait itself was as pleasant as this sort of experience can get. We were all under the awning of the strip mall, and therefore safe from the threatening rain clouds gathering overhead. Even those in line who lit up cigarettes walked well away from the rest of us to smoke. Evidently they knew the law well: 25 feet from the entrance of a public establishment.

At 8:00, an employee opened up and directed us into two lines: registrations/plates and licenses. This made me first! Wyckoff has a concierge up front to help folks ensure they have all of the proper documentation. This is where the operation began to distinguish itself from the stereotype. I showed the woman up front my materials, and she routed me right up to the window.

There, I was actually greeted pleasantly by a guy just finishing the setup of his station. I surrendered my old license and my documentation, and when I asked to what organization I needed to address the check, he told me right up front, no "I've gotta do this a million times a day" attitude or anything.

One humorous snag to the process came when he tried to ring open the register to stash the check. First, it wouldn't open. He quickly fetched a tiny key, manipulated it awkwardly with his meaty hand, then couldn't get the register to stop beeping in protest when he tried to start it up. He carefully removed the cover, called over one of his mates to determine which setting a hidden switch had to occupy, found it, and then realized the drawer was locked! Apologizing through this as he had through the whole preceding tapdance, he once again fiddled with the key, got the drawer open, and finally dropped my check beneath the completely empty cash rack. "There's not even anything in here to steal!" he said in exasperation.

This comedy done, he had me sit down for my official state portrait. (Having seen a photo on the wall of our plutocrat in chief, Jon Corzine, I amused myself by imagining this, or an office like it, is where he had to have the shot taken.) The picture was displayed on a small LCD screen next to the camera, and the first snap was the keeper. He then stamped my application and began working on the next one while the machine finished the card. Unlike the old days, when someone deft with the ways of a laminating gadget would have to compose the Polaroid, signature card, and everything else over the course of what felt like an hour, my license was ready in 3 minutes tops. Total time in the joint: 15 minutes. All in all, far better than some of the standing-still deathmarches at the Bergenfield or Lodi offices.

What surprised me is that they returned my old license, with a cancellation hole punched in it, along with the new one. So now I can look at them both and compare the stretch of 4 years on my visage. I had gotten the 2002 license in a whirlwind of document-acquisition: From the DMV, I went with my new license and support papers to the county seat, where I applied for a passport — an ID exacta, you might say. I have both licenses in front of me now. The smile on the 2006 license is better, not quite as phony. My temples are still white, as in the 2002 model, but the top is more salt-and-pepper in today's. In both, I am wearing a black Russell T-shirt. Some things never change. The '06 also has a smaller, watermark-like version of the main portrait in the bottom right corner, like my very own Mini-Me.

So now I'm legal as hell for all manner of road mayhem. The days when I had to produce a license for liquor-store patronage are long since past, and I don't go to the sorts of bars or clubs where the management has to be vigilant about underage drinkers. I let the sideburns — in hue, partway between those of Reed Richards and Paulie Walnuts — do the age-checking for me. Other than verifying a financial transaction or signing up for a casino comp card, my two digital doppelgängers — or maybe one doppelgänger and one homonculus – will rest in their dark leather prison, freezing me in time for another 4 years.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

How I Boosted My SAT
(Swearword Acquisition Total)

NOBODY IS BORN WITH their vocabulary, just the potential for one. We begin learning it at birth. Whether through listening to one's elders, reading, taking in audio or visual media, or eventually, in school, word by word our storehouse of text fills. I have not gotten so old and feebleminded that I can't remember exactly where I picked up certain words. I have been batting around a post on that topic, which would also give you some insight into what sort of stimuli influenced me early on. The story behind one word, however, is funny . . . and a bit perilous.

I believe in freedom of expression, but I also have a sense of tact. Merely because one can use a given word or phrase, it doesn't mean one should. This applies most strongly to profanity. Expletives are a seasoning, not the main dish, and one has to prepare the menu with the diners in mind. Fan I may be of such curse-laden fare as Scarface or The Sopranos, it doesn't mean that I am going to quote these works in every context. People look at you a little strange if you get your Deadwood on and, say, greet the father of the bride with a hearty, "Congratulations, cocksucker!"

Among grownups of reason, with whom the ground has been prepared carefully, I nevertheless believe one can broach any topic and discuss it rationally. It is in this spirit, then, that we proceed.

I am going to tell you how I first heard, and learned the meaning of, the word cunt.

Ah, the C-bomb. I do not use this word. I barely even use the word tits, not even in the expressions "tits up" or "ripped to the tits." I can think of no more demeaning objectification of women than to use cunt, even if it does, like fuck or shit, originate centuries ago when the mincemeat pie that is English was still cooling on the great green windowsill of Britain. Believe me, I'll use the shit out of fuck a million times before I enter the launch code on the C-bomb. On those very few occasions when I have become infuriated enough to utter it — even among men — I have regretted it. Even in my private journal it does not appear. I have never heard it at my poker game, which is a sausage-fest and does get its share of earthy guy talk. As wide as my reading has been lo these many years, when I ran across it several times in the first 20 pages of Tropic of Cancer, I had to force myself to continue. It is never used in the South Park movie, which otherwise rode its R-rating straight through the Seven Dirty Words.

But I had to learn it somewhere.

This is how.

The year was 1981. I was in sixth grade. As a way of allowing students to decide what language they would take, my junior high school had kids take a sampler quarter each of French and Spanish. The second semester was devoted to Communicative Arts, which we had in addition to Art class, and which could best be described as applied art, versus the general art teaching we got in Art class (e.g., two weeks in clay sculpture, two weeks making a giant version of some common item with cardboard, two weeks of stamping inked potatoes on oak tag, etc.).

One day in this class, two of my classmates began snickering among themselves. By this time, I was known as a "good" kid, someone who wouldn't get into trouble, who was not only smart but fairly geeky (this was right after the summer of The Empire Strikes Back, and I still hadn't calmed down). So the more rowdy kids liked to try and tempt me into trouble. I therefore recognized this sort of snicker when it emanated my way.

This time, they tried to gauge how many swears I knew. The class was poorly supervised, so you could talk at leisure and whisper "bad words" without being caught. I did know fuck (which, as a young child, I thought I had coined) and shit (which, around the same time, I employed on an even younger kid one day at the park, which got me a stern talking-to and what today we would call a "time out"). I also knew a range of euphimisms and double entendres, a phrase that, unlike most of my classmates, I could actually spell even before the sampler of French earlier that year.

I had much to learn, however. "James," asked one of them with a leer, "do you know what a cunt is?"

I had no idea, but from the way the kid asked, and the reaction from the kid next to him, I knew it wasn't clean.

"No, what is it?"

"Maybe you should ask Miss [whatever the teacher's name was]," the second one said. I knew that was a bad idea.

"I don't think so. What is it?"

"It's a unit of electricity," said the first kid, joining the second one in a fit of snickers.

Now, as foul as this word is, that is a pretty funny line for a sixth grader, I have to give him that. Replace the underscored terms in the following sentences with our mot du jour:

"The sockets in Europe are all screwed up. All my plugs are for 110 volts, and they need 220 volts to work."

"The new hydroelectric plant is expected to bring 6 megawatts of power to over 120,000 homes in the Valley."

"Remember, it's not the volts that kill you, it's the amps!"

No way was I asking Teach the definition of this word. So what was my brilliant idea for researching this lexicographic dilemma, in the days before Merriam-Webster online and Wikipedia?

Simple. I asked my mother.

I never had a sit-down with my parents to get the scoop on "the birds and the bees," but neither had I made any mention to that point that I knew the basics. (A surprisingly frank book on the topic was on the anatomy shelf in the children's stacks of my town library, which described the entire process.) However, they had not raised me with any extreme prudery, aside from sending me to bed before the more adult fare came on WHT. I was even allowed to listen to the soundtrack of Hair, which if you recall, is by no means all as radio friendly as "Age of Aquarius" or "Good Morning Starshine." In fact, when the term fellatio was used in the song "Sodomy," I asked my mom what both of those words meant, and she said it was something that happened during the act of love. (The latter one might say a bit much about my parents.) So I had had blue language defined for me in the past. Just . . . nothing this explosive.

So I walked into the kitchen that afternoon after school and asked, "Mom, what is a cunt?"

She paused in her preparation of dinner, and to her credit didn't instantly feed me a hunk of Ivory Soap or drive me to church for penance, as some of my friends' parents would have. "Where did you hear that?" she asked evenly.

"Some kids at school asked me if I knew what it was, and that I should ask the teacher."

"It's a term for a woman's sex organs. If anyone else at school asks you if you know any other words like this, ask me first and I'll tell you, okay?"


Now, see what she did here. She didn't threaten me with dire consequences if she ever heard me say it again. She didn't ask me to squeal on whoever said it at school, or for the name of the teacher in whose class I heard it, so she could call the principal and demand some sort of redress. She defined it calmly, and in asking me to direct future inquiries along these lines to her, expressed her desire not to hear that I've been using this language myself.

After this initial exposure, I'm fairly certain that I didn't hear the word again until high school, when I saw one of George Carlin's cable specials. I guarantee you that I laughed, as did my parents, who watched along with me.

How might my approach to the word have been different had I been punished on the spot? Would I have reacted against this by placing it in heavier rotation? Would I have objectified women with other terms, in my actions, in my relationships with them? It's tough to say if that might have been a turning point in my development. All I can say is, even as other curse words slowly made it into my rotation as needed among friends and even with my parents, this one has stayed pretty firmly locked up.

At least until Ann Coulter becomes secretary of state.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

This Program Was Brought to You By Lung Cancer

WHERE WERE YOU WHEN you first learned that The Flintstones used to be sponsored by Winston cigarettes? In the middle of Fred's get-rich-quick schemes and Wilma's concomitant exasperation over same, viewers during the show's initial airing could watch various Bedrock residents extol the virtues of Winstons. Fred even sang the Winston jingle to help hammer it into the viewer's mind. Naturally, with the ban on TV cigarette advertising and the move of The Flintstones into kiddie-rerun timeslots across the country, my generation of cartoon viewers never knew what sort of an earner Fred and Barney were for the tobacco industry. So when I eventually found out about this old campaign, it was not unlike watching the Easter Bunny shill for crack.

Naturally, those in my cohort remember how widespread print and billboard ads for smokes were even after the TV ban consigned the tapdancing packs of Old Gold and stop-action, square-dancing Luckies to the dark dungeons of the Internets. For our parents, however, especially when they were still kids, cig ads were ubiquitous. It was just another product. And even if sneaking reports linking emphysema and lung cancer to smoking were beginning to lead manufacturers to claim their products were "easier on the throat" or "endorsed by doctors," they also recruited actors and sports figures to stump for their "favorite" cigarettes.

Thanks to the robed acolytes tending the helium-cooled vaults at The Internet Archive, this era of freewheeling death-dealing has been preserved for latter-day eyes not reddened by a roomful of smoke. Let's take a look at one such example of a brand's ads, in this case, Camels. Yes, a manly, unfiltered smoke that hits the lungs like a carcinogenic brick. Would you walk a mile for a Camel? Or just collapse, gasping, after 40 yards? Let's ask the following satchel of whores pitchfolks. Note that the audio cuts out and then desynchronizes after we move into the sports figures' ads, so my identification of the various wheezing luminaries is handicapped by my gaping ignorance of long-gone baseballers. That said, I give you the following filmstrip of Camel clips, rendered — like a chest X-ray — in glorious black and white.

(Have the A/V kid open a new browser window here, give him a wedgie, then view the first commercial. Pause it and come on back when it's over for my observations; there are many of them. Commercials and observations. Oh, you know what I mean!)

Who better to endorse the mildness of a cigarette than an opera singer? Marguerite Piazza, a featured vocalist on Sid Caesar's pioneering Your Show of Shows, takes some time from the tomfoolery to warble about their "rich flavor" and a "mildness that agrees with [her] throat." You'll hear a lot about cigarettes' flavor in the upcoming pieces. Do individual brands really taste differently? As someone who has only ever smoked one or two cigars in a good year, I merely assumed that all cigarettes tasted like they smelled, except perhaps for menthol ones, which I always assumed were steeped in vats with those Christmas tree auto de-stinkers.

IMDB lists Piazza as still alive, though the Jungle Room details a late-life battle with aggressive facial skin cancer. Hmmmmmm.

Next up, "Mister Versatility," Buddy Rogers, whose many talents are caricatured in hydrocephilac cartoons before we speak to him, "backstage," butt in hand, about his undying (har) loyalty to Camel cigarettes. "I like a cigarette that agrees with my throat," he intones, as a monolithic pack of Camels, cigs arrayed like titan organ pipes, is shown arising from the Arctic Circle, like a tobacco-based palace for Santa Claus. The viewer is exhorted to try Camels for 30 days (I can hear the zero coughing from the smoldering Camel), and then — if this month of mainlining unfiltered nicotine isn't enough to sink the hook in — is introduced to a siren I've come to call "Tina T-Zone." Undetected for millennia by medical luminaries from Galen to Leonard McCoy, the T-Zone serves the role of "telling you how mild and good-tasting Camels are." This sexy shorthair blows an inviting plume of smoke that all but has a cartoon hand at the end gesturing the viewer in for a better look at her T, if not her A.

I do admit, though, that I am a sucker for the practical stop-motion special effects used at the end of the ad.

"What cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?" You only have to walk outside a hospital these days to be reminded of how many otherwise responsible, learned medical professionals smoke. But it's still shocking to see print or, worse, TV ads in which people representing the medical profession are extolling the virtues of any cigarette, to say nothing of a single brand. Charming images of physicians in an operating theater, or walking toward their Godfather–looking sedans with the traditional black bag for a housecall, are blown away by the sight of some Kildare lighting up in his fucking office! Imagine going in for a sitdown with your doc and having him fire up a smoke while telling you to lose weight. Any doctors who actually earned money representing or defending the tobacco industry for these ads should get the same treatment the Syndicate did in The X-Files, just get dry-gulched in an abandoned hangar by a ring of flamethrower-wielding cancer victims.

The next two ads feature baseball players. The message here is that if a strapping 6-foot-2 war hero or a star pitcher can play a whole game and still suck down a nail or ten afterwards, so can Mister and Missus Cold War. Why, these players have even stopped chewing tobacco! These aren't the 1870s! Only Stalin spits on floors! Wake up to the smoke that rules the world: Camel!

We're back to Hollywood for the next shill, actor and singer Dick Haymes, who spontaneously vents to a hapless D-girl about his busy schedule. While this five-time divorcee and drunk is griping about the scarce free time his records, movies, and other sources of alimony dough are leaving him, he whips out — from a pocket of possibly the ugliest vest in human history — a pack of Camels. He, too, is followed by the exhortation to take the 30-Day Camel Challenge, and a reappearance of toothsome smoke-kitten Tina T-Zone.

(Fun fact: Dick died of lung cancer in 1980. Hmmmmmmm.)

Would television reruns be complete without an appearance by a Gabor sister? Hell no! What does Eva Gabor do after hamming it up in a chintzy costume drama? Flunkies flock in to whisk away her tiara, proffer a sheaf of smokes, and light 'er up. Heaven forfend Mrs. Green Acres has to spend an erg digging out her own pack of Camels. I guarantee you, those billions of Camels the ads keep claiming are being smoked — these guys are digging them out of a rolled-up shirt sleeve or a plaid flannel pocket, and they could lay out the crewcutted pencilneck who fires one up for Eva with one shot.

"Led'z go zomevere vhere ve gan be gomvtable," she beckons, as she changes into a bustier and eases onto a fainting couch in the only funeral home in America with a full-length mirror. Like the others, she blathers about how easy Camels are on her throat. Then it's back to the Dirty 30 taking a drag on a Camel, and Tina T-Zone giving you the nicotine eye.

Marguerite Piazza is back for more after Eva's husky parting plea to try Camels. Unlike Gabor, Piazza actually does her own work around the place, indulging in a little ikebana before lighting up. Behavioralist psychology at work: Complete a household task, smoke a butt. Unlike those bonbons, ladies, Camels will keep you thin, as thin as an opera singer, so when the time comes, you can just slip right into that iron lung. And once again, Tina T-Zone blows you a toxic hello. (Conveniently, after the "pack after pack, week after week" adds up to "decade after decade," the T-Zone also indicates the tissue an oncologist will eventually excise.)

We now arrive at the prestigious Camel Autograph series, a parade of addicted actors pressed into service for their drug of choice. A nighttime skyline transforms, as it might in a tobacco executive's acid trip, into a balustrade of cigarettes, and the Pack of Destiny rotates to reveal . . . Robert Young. That's right, the future Marcus goddamned Welby, MD and Father Knows Best title patriarch. Unlike our other smoky Joes and Josies, Bob can't be troubled to pitch in person for his longtime favorite smoke, letting an 8 x 10" glossy and a catchy jingle do his work. Despite playing a doctor on TV, respiratory failure would eventually call him to the big ER in the sky. (Hmmmmmmm.)

Richard Carlson is the next on the block, attending the screening of one of his many workmanlike productions before the awe-inspiring totem of a tumescent pack of Camels. Smoking in a movie theater. If you did that today, even mid-film cellphone users would help beat you to death.

Scrumpy smoke sorceress Tina T-Zone exhales her lethal love at the end of this one, too. Did you know that some folks sexually fetishize cigarette smoking, and that some websites actually sell access to videos of actresses langourously blowing smoke? It is entirely possible that some lone pervert uses a loop of Tina T-Zone as his, erm, "finishing move."

People, the collection of clips goes on like this. I will leave it to you to explore the remainder and learn for yourselves the degree to which Hollywood and the dukes of sport lent their names out to the merchants of death. Of the remaining pieces, these highlights stand out:
  • Guys packing cartons of Camels in their luggage before a trip (where are they going in 1940s America that doesn't sell cigarettes? Christian Science meeting?).
  • A sport fisherman revealing his lunchbox to be about half full of Camel packs. It's the fifth food group!
  • Someone who is so goddamn addicted to smokes that he has a whole CARTON of butts in his car's glovebox.
  • A guy dropping another whole carton of Camels in a picnic basket! Is he visiting his wife in jail?
  • Another opera singer announcing, "Once a Camel smoker, always a Camel smoker." That would look great on a headstone.
Is it any wonder that my parents were both hooked in their teens??

Thirty years from now, the sort of aggressive cinema smoking shown in films like Casino and Fight Club will seem as taboo as the Flintsones ads do today. I don't possess any moralistic prognosticative powers, and certainly, even at just one or two cigars a year, I'm not immune from the title of hypocrite. Still, with state after state outlawing indoor smoking, and with cigarette advertising in the retreat, one might envision a future in which those few remaining addicts, sheltered together for support in Las Vegas or an Indian casino, unlit butts drooping from their lips, dig frantically through their pockets for a Zippo or a book of matches to get their fix.

If it's Snagglepuss who finally hooks them up with a flame, I don't want to know.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Return to Las Vegas in Sight!

THE POWERS THAT BE at work have realized that our shift in production methods will not occur until after the summer. The ban on extended vacations therefore has been rescinded.

In English, that means: Vegas, baby!!

This greatly reduces the chance that I will go berserk sometime in mid-August. I gave my boss a vague time of when I will go, but I have just booked the trip. There's no going back on the booking, but there's all kinds of going back to Las Vegas!

More, surely, to come. For now, I have local poker planned for tomorrow night, which will, I hope, help with the bankroll for the trip.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Everything in Moderation — Even Poker

I LIKE TO PLAY poker. Hell, I played about an hour's worth of seven-card stud earlier tonight on Full Tilt Poker. Strictly small ball, came out about $2 lighter. During weeks when I don't feel like staying up late at the real-life game, I might peck out about an hour or two online. Though I am eligible for a sign-up bonus for frequent play, $20 of which I in fact cleared tonight, it has taken me 4 months of sporadic play to qualify for less than 10% of it. The bonus actually expires tomorrow, and even though Full Tilt's bonus is one of the more arduous ones to clear fully, I'd probably need 2 years to get through the whole thing at my faint rate of play.

But that suits me fine. In consulting my big-ass poker spreadsheet to make note of the minor hold'em loss from Saturday, I marveled at the fact that the last time I had been to a casino was my trip to Las Vegas in January. I play so often at home, either here or at Danny's in Maywood, that I haven't ventured forth to storm the shoreline carpet joints in Atlantic City or the sylvan environs of Foxwoods in what seems like forever. With gas prices so high, it feels like you're financially in the hole before you place your first bet.

In my group of regular players, however, I am often stunned by the degree to which they are eager to play. Maybe I'm jaundiced by my perspective. The average age of the gang is almost a decade below mine. They have far more free time than me, especially the guys who are in college and are now looking at an open summer. Few of them commute as long as I do, and some don't have a fulltime job. So they can play repeatedly during the week. I suppose I was like this when I roleplayed during college summers or on weekends in my first few years in the workplace, when more of my high school friends were still in the area, single, and/or willing to let the adventure stretch from Friday night to Sunday afternoon in some cases.

Which brings us to G. G is a tall, heavy guy who works in the securities industry. Like many folks in that field, he smokes heavily, bluffs heartily, and is filthy rich. His nights either end way up or way down. When the guys planned a gambling excursion to AC back in April, this guy emailed everyone at 3:30 in the morning before they left, unable to sleep or to think about anything else but getting down to the felt. (Which, in the sense of losing, he and two other guys did, at baccarat, to the combined tune of $4,000. Enjoy those "free" rooms!)

G emailed the poker lunatics this morning about the weekend poker tournaments at Foxwoods. He was trying to get folks to join him to hit the Sunday tourney, which had a buy-in (with fee) of $300. The most I've ever spent on a tournament was $100, at the Plaza, which is a relatively nonthreatening field of players and in which I've made the money one out of three times. Still, there are guys in our circle who would shell out 3 C-notes to give Foxwoods's tourney a try.

What I haven't mentioned is the date he wanted to go: June 18.

Father's Day.

I don't know if G's father is still on the scene, but I know he has at least one child. Presumably he's optimistic about his chances to make it into the money, which would take a number of hours . . . on top of the 4 to 5 hours of transit. He's really going to duck out on his kid when he should be sitting back and get some time bonding with the child on his special day? And what about the other guys in the game — how many of them did he think would just duck out on their dads (most of whom are still alive, with the average age of our group)?

I decided to assume he had merely forgotten what day it was, and replied to all addressees, in a backhanded way of reminding them, that I had Father's Day plans that day.

Focusing on your poker game is one thing. Becoming myopic because of it, now that's a hand to toss in the muck.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Antics in Atlantic City

I MARCHED OUT OF my building early yesterday morning under cloud-white skies and mist. Already, one of my compatriots was waiting: Steve was idling at the back end of my lot. A quick phonecall confirmed that Felix was incoming and eager to shake off a sleep deficit with a stop at Dunkin Donuts. To this we assented, even though I had two bottles of my own chosen heroin, Diet Coke, sweating through a paper bag from the bagel shop in my back seat. Once Dave arrived, we made for Emerson, tanked up on the other major liquid commodity in America, and aimed ourselves at the Paramus jump point into the three-lane hyperspace of the Garden State Parkway.

I've driven down to AC many times, but having two fellow lunatics in the car made the trip far swifter. I almost ran the car off the road twice from laughing. Fortunately, the rain had fulfilled my desire of thinning the shore traffic, so I didn't make the news by causing a 38-car pileup somewhere past the Driscoll Bridge. Perhaps another day.

The game plan was to play blackjack and/or craps. Both Steve and Dave are more familiar with the latter. Felix had practiced blackjack with a friend of his who was an old hand at the game, to the point where he had multiple decks of cards shuffled together and a dealer shoe to make the training feel more real. I was still working through the finer points of the "soft" blackjack hands (i.e., those that have an Ace in them). I was hoping we'd find a $5-minimum craps table at one of the casinos (they tend to go to $10 minimums later in the morning on weekends), ease into things, and then go to blackjack later. You don't have to commit as much cash to each hand at blackjack as you do with craps, so I figured BJ might help us bail out if we had a quick drop at dice.

We made good time getting down there, only stopping once when the coffee and Diet Coke caught up with us. It's actually been quite some time since I've been to AC, because I get my poker jollies locally with the Thursday crew. One striking difference I noticed from the Atlantic City Expressway was a new wind farm just north of the highway. Five giant propellers now towered above the lowlands near the Marina District, sharing the skyline with the bronze-Zippo profile of the Borgata. Any huge piece of energy machinery I get to see up close is a treat. When I was in Los Angeles, one of the highways took me past a thicket of oil pumps, like black bird skeletons sipping the riches of the earth. I've also stood next to the mammoth turbines in the heart of the Hoover Dam, with tens of thousands of gallons of water racing along behind layers of steel forged and joined long before my birth in the midst of the Great Depression.

We decided to start with Resorts, which was actually the first casino to go into Atlantic City back in 1978. Felix had been there a couple of times with his father when he first dipped his toe in the green felt pool. So we pulled into the lot (where I made a note of the parking level, deliberately marking a giant "2" on a receipt to attract the derision of my fellow gamblers) and hit the casino floor.

It was odd to walk into a casino with someone else coming along. Normally I storm in and beeline for the poker room. This time, it was more of a get-our-bearings entry, maybe less so for Felix, who had been here a few more times than I have. I had played at Resorts once before, years ago, when I made a trip up the boardwalk just alternating between blackjack and craps at each place. I recall losing at craps at Resorts to the tune of a couple hundred dollars. We located the table-game pits, and in fact spotted a $5 craps table. Steve decided to take a walk and look around first, leaving Felix and I to dig out our bankrolls and push the greenbacked victims out onto the plank.

A brief craps primer. Craps revolves around the number 7, the most frequent total to come up on two dice. It has different effects at different times in a game. To start, you place your money on the pass line, and the shooter (which can be someone else besides yourself) rolls the dice. If a 7 or an 11 comes up, the bet is paid even money—you win, and roll again. If a 2,3, or 12 is rolled, it's called "craps" and you lose your bet, but you do get to shoot again. Things get interesting when any of the remaining numbers come up. If the roll is 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, or 10, this becomes the point, and the shooter must roll this number before he or she rolls a 7 to win (again, even money). He or she keeps rolling until either of those two events ends his hand.

Now, after that point number is first rolled, you can put down another bet in a space on the craps layout labeled "COME." This functions exactly the same way as the first roll — pays even money on 7 or 11, loses on 2, 3, 12, and sets a point on the other numbers that must be rolled again before a 7 to win — but if that roll is a 7, your first bet is lost. If you do roll a point number on a come bet, the money is moved to a box on the layout with that number in it, and the dealer will pay it off if the number comes up before the point is made or the shooter "sevens out." You can make any number of come bets you want, though most folks only make one or two, giving them two or three numbers in play at any given time.

To encourage even greater gambling madness, the casino allows players to bet on the numbers they've set as points themselves, based on the odds against their being rolled a second time before a 7 comes up. This odds bet is done by placing more chips behind your pass line bet, or giving them to the dealer and telling him or her which bet they should go for. This is where the real money can change hands, because when you hit the numbers with odds bets on them, you get paid for both the number and the odds, which are paid out exactly (unlike a lot of other sucker bets you can make at a craps table in which the house takes a greater-than-equitable piece of the payoff to increase its advantage). The odds against making a 6 or an 8, a 5 or a 9, or a 4 or a 10 are 6:5, 3:2, and 2:1, respectively — and these are the proportions at which your odds bets are paid if the number hits. So if you have a $10 pass line bet with a point of 6, and $25 down as your odds bet, if you hit, you'll get your original $10 back, even money ($10) for winning the point, plus your odds bet, and $30 win on that (30:25 = 6:5) for beating the odds that a 7 would come up before that second 6 is rolled, for a total profit of $40.

It took me one full year as a beginning casino-goer to understand craps well enough to type those three summary paragraphs, so don't feel bad if it makes no sense. And this is only part of what you can do at a craps table! The lesson is to show you how quickly money can change hands at a craps table. You can have three points going at once — say, 4, 5, and 8 — which if you back them all with the maximum odds most casinos allow, will represent an investment (at a $5 table) of $15 for the three points, plus odds bets of $15, $20, and $25 respectively, for a total of $75 working at one time. Win them all and you will profit $135; but if one 7 comes up after that third point is set, you lose it all. It's a fast, exciting game where everyone cheers for a shooter who is hitting numbers and paying his or her fellow players, but no deeper silence pervades a casino as when the dice, unperturbed by the greed and emotion shimmering in the air around them, halt with that evil number pointing skyward . . . a silence always followed by the clicking of chips being stacked by the dealers.

The pit boss greeted Felix and me and asked if we had comp cards. I had no idea if we'd be there long enough to make any comp points, but it never hurts to have your name on the list, in case the casino marketing department decided to send out a cheap-room deal. So we handed over our licenses, waited for the beginning of a roll, and then dropped our bills on the felt to get chips.

I only played craps for about a year before I swung into poker, and I've watched a lot of tables, so I racked my stack of chips with trepidation. This could go either way. The dice have no memory. The hot shooter can turn into an ice cube in one toss. You can go four revolutions around a table with no points being hit. The money I had brought down was my $400 tax return, money that came painlessly out of my paycheck over the past year and without which I would not default on a car payment or starve. I had added another $200 to pad it out past any rough spots. It's not like poker, where you can sit there for hours and play barely any hands. You have action on many rolls at craps, and on every deal in blackjack, and I wanted to come back with at least some. So this weekend's sacrificial cash fell squarely in the category of entertainment expenses — which, seeing as I'm not spending money on a trip to Las Vegas this summer, might as well be spent here. (My poker bankroll, by contrast, is entirely separate from all other sources of cash from which I pay bills or invest for retirement, so what happens there, as they say, stays there.)

I made some small progress through the first couple of shooters. I was playing very conservatively, placing only my pass line bet, no come bets, and only double odds behind the bet, even though the table permitted at least triple. No sense in digging a hole early. The mighty Felix was taking at least one come bet, eventually spreading to two, with double odds behind them. (Another shooter eventually bellied up and bought in for at least $1,500, and was placing black $100 chips on the layout, to our fascination and horror. My guess is that he was sleeping there for free.) When it came time for Dave to roll, he got a hot hand early, making a few points and putting me nearly $100 into the black. I dropped a little of it with my own first roll, though, which immediately followed Felix's.

By this time Steve had come up to the table and bought in. (The table minimum had also been raised from $5 to $10, which becomes notable later.) He was making pass and come bets and backing them with single odds, but he was also making some of the alternate bets the table offers, including an area called the field, which is a loser if a 6, 7, or 8 come up, a winner on all the other numbers (which, by the way, come up less frequently than the first three I listed), but which pays double on the 2 and the 12. He was also making place bets, betting directly on numbers to come up before 7 for a less-than-true-odds payoff. Some shooters only set one point with the dice, then place the 6 and the 8 directly to take advantage of their more common appearance (which can help if your point is the rarest 4 or 10).

Felix had a second hot streak while I was there, at which 8 kept coming up, including the so-called hard 8 (hard numbers are what in Monopoly you'd call doubles: a roll of 2-2 for 4, 3-3 for 6, etc.) Eight is Felix's number, so this drove him into a frenzy, in which he played the hard 8 directly and hit it twice, once for himself, once for the dealers.

I profited from Dave's second hot roll, but after that it was downhill. I still was only betting on two numbers per roll, but a lot of these were low-frequency numbers like 9 or 10, and many got knocked down with 7s. At the higher $10 minimum, my win evaporated and my stake being eaten up. With odds bets behind each point number, that was an investment per roll of $60, so those 7s were expensive. With the whole rest of the day open for a second assault, I called a halt at a loss of $179. The table was kinder to Dave and Steve, who eventually stopped when noon approached and we all realized how damn hungry we were.

We took a stroll up and down the boardwalk, where a light rain came and went and fog obscured the ocean and the tops of the casino towers. Eventually we grabbed some grub from a cheesesteak kiosk. I was eager to keep playing, but I was nervous about losing more to craps. An old poker lesson came to mind: The first loss is the smallest. I wanted to try some blackjack, at which the money would rise or sink at a slower pace, but the guys seemed to want a second go at dice.

When we returned to the casino, I noticed that the poker room (which was more of a nook with six tables cut off from the main flow with velvet rope) was finally in use. A $2/$4 limit table was rolling, and a few seats stood open. I told Steve and Felix to go for round 2 at the craps table, and that I would get my mitts on some cards. To this they readily assented.

(I Shit You Not Moment: WFMU is playing Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" right now. You can't make this up, folks. "Read 'em and weep—the Dead Man's Hand again!")

Two-dollar/four-dollar limit hold'em is just about the cheapest poker game you can find at a casino, and the players' skill tends to be quite low. This one was no exception. Everyone was seeing the flop with everything, few people raised preflop, flop bets meant they either had one pair or an Ace in the hole, and they chased straights or flushes despite turn and river raises. I was the tightest player (i.e., the player who bet least frequently preflop) at the table by a wide margin. Every low-limit stereotype was present: newbies who think they're experts because their pocket Aces held up, oldtimers who lose to said newbies and grumble about how they're not there to have fun but to win, younger guys who play lockstep with the advice in the books and whose cards might as well be face up, the short-buy-in guy who folds everything and then gripes when the flop would have helped him, and the self-dubbed poker Solomon who never shuts up and drops such nuggets as, "I had Aces too, but I knew they wouldn't win, so I folded to you," and "Nothing has lost more money in poker than the concept of pot odds." I was surprised I could actually hear that last one with the guy's head so far up his ass.

I was there just short of an hour, and though I was down by $5 when I played my last hand to a win and joined Felix and Steve beyond the rope, I know the swing that had led to that minor loss (the woman that got AA in the list above flopped a flush) would have been temporary. I noticed they had opened a slightly more expensive $3/$6 table, and that the player pool looked largely the same. If you can beat 'em at the lower limit, and you've got the roll for it, go and beat 'em at the higher limit. If I could play $5/$10 no limit against some of the players at that table, I would have. At craps, you takes your chances, you places your chips, you makes your rolls, and you win or lose. There is randomness in poker, but over tens of thousands of hands, what will emerge is skill . . . and I don't mean to brag, but I had that table beat on that count.

At the rail, Felix was jubilant. He had more than doubled his buy-in, and Steve had scored a nice win as well. So at least someone avenged themselves on the table for my loss. Steve further stuck it to the house by sliding a token $5 into a slot machine on the way out and coming away $22 richer. We fled to the cashier cage before the thugs came to correct this temporary reversal of the money flow, dashed to the car, and escaped.

Once back on the highway, we got home with no weather or traffic disruptions. We took some time to heap scorn on Bill for choosing not to go, and Felix extracted an admission that at least part of Bill's reneging was related to the early departure. All in all, despite the craps loss, it was a fantastically fun time. I would definitely go down again. Not sure if I'd stick with the craps, because I have seen firsthand how crummy their poker regulars are, and looting them seems a surer bet. Also, I've redone my tax forms so I should no longer get any sort of return (if the Feds want to borrow $$$, I'll do it with a T-bill, not a zero-interest loan), so the "free-money" train that rolls around each April will no longer make a stop here. More important, though, I've finally gone on a casino crusade with my gang. I declined to go on one with the poker regulars because it was just before my mother's surgery back in April, but I should try to get in on the planning for the next one. And beyond that, I can see this as the lure that finally gets a massive group invasion of Las Vegas going. See you at the $2 craps table at the Casino Royale!!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Dodging Raindrops Like Bullets

I DISEMBARKED FROM THE train just in time, it seems. From the station, I could see massive black thunderheads gathering at nearly every corner of the sky. One wan strip of light sky was all that remained of a Thursday afternoon cut short by an impending storm. Ozone hung heavy in the air around the station, where the ground bore slick evidence of a previous soaking.

I made a quick stop in Trader Joe's across the street from my apartment, figuring I wouldn't have long before the heavens opened or the gusting winds knocked out the power and placed any dairy I purchased in jeopardy. On my final jog from the store to my front door, I felt fat drops spatter on my forehead, and lightning caught me with its flash, like a prisoner slinking along a jailhouse wall during a breakout. Now I am ensconced before my computer, unplugged from the wall and the Net for safety, with 1010 WINS in the background, the broadcast so wracked with static it sounds like an ethereal giant is somehow chewing on the signal itself.

Don't get me wrong — I love a good storm. With today bringing the official start of hurricane season, I'm sure we'll get our share of violent weather, which with any fortune will be more of a spectacle than a hazard. As a child, lying in bed on the top story of my parents' house, I enjoyed being lulled to sleep by the unstructured music of rain pattering on the roof, distant rumbles of thunder punctuating the symphony. My parents and I were trapped once in a South Jersey shopping center, when a huge storm swept over us, illuminating the sky and pouring dangerously opaque sheets of rain over the flat landscape. With no real sense of scale and few landmarks of any height down the shore, it seemed to my 10-year-old self like the ground-to-air lightning was a thousand miles tall.

Later, during a college summer, my foolhardy friends and I watched a massive high-atmosphere lightning storm from the deck of a friend's house. We drew our chairs under shelter and watched in awe as lightning burned inside dark, swiftly passing clouds, like thoughts illuminating the neurons of a feverish brain. For what seemed like hours we watched this light show, until the air could support the moisture no longer and drenching rain began to sheet down . . . whereupon we got the hell back into the house.

This rain now engulfing the area is welcome, the weather having switched decisively to heat and humidity after the holiday weekend. Optimally, it will last all day tomorrow and trail off, as light rain, into Saturday, thus keeping potential beachgoers off of the Garden State Parkway. I have a plan to drive two friends, Steve and Dave (aka Felix), to Atlantic City. Dave's had a couple of recent and profitable gambling excursions, and some weeks ago threw this date at the wall to see who might want to come along for a rematch. We had a fourth, the mighty Bill, but his Palpatine-like progress into the Hoboken power structure called him into service for Saturday and he had to back out.

This is a bit of a Costanza-like worlds-are-colliding moment for me. My trips to the local (and distant) gambling emporia, both as a blackjack and craps novice and, later, as a poker padawan, have been solo affairs. I've floated group outings in the past, but time and events conspired against me. This changes Saturday. Neither Steve nor Felix are in my poker circle, so we're looking at the two aforementioned games as our degeneracy of choice (unless we wander into one of the racing books). I haven't played blackjack, formerly my game of choice, since my June 2003 trip to Las Vegas, when Dame Poker ran her green finger across my brow and then laid the tempting bait of a royal flush before my bedazzled eyes. Craps I remember how to play, but I have been reviewing blackjack basic strategy for the past couple of days so I am not staring at two Aces in front of me and saying, "I'm all in" instead of splitting them. (Apropos of my coming date with table gaming, last week at the poker game I kept getting hands — 7 4, 9 2, 8 3 — which would have warranted doubling down at a blackjack table, but which in hold'em were absolute trash.)

So what we're looking for this weekend is a bit of rain to ease the influx of shore-goers, a sudden reawakening of my basic-strategy skills, a benign neglect on the part of the gods of statistical variance, a hot hand when the dice are rattling around in it, and, of course, a boatload of fun. Once all these goals are achieved, and we've slipped back under the wire to the dreary, casino-starved precincts of Bergen County, then — then — the skies can unleash whatever torrents of weather they so desire.