Prompt text: Start your scene with this line: “Her laugh broke the silence.”

Author’s note: I recognize I’m ending this in a different place than were I started.  I think if I took this where it felt like it should go, it would turn into a whole chapter.  I just took the prompt, started the chapter and ended the scene where I thought I needed to.  For all I know, I may revisit this later.

Her laugh broke the silence.

For the first time in what felt like hours, I let out an exhale and laughed a little myself.  I held out my hand, which Hazel took in her own to try and pull herself up from the roller rink floor.  And because I was even less practiced on skates than she was, I promptly lost my balance and went down on my ass.  This time, we both cracked up.

As first dates went, this one had been a good one.  I had no idea what to expect of Hazel, having never actually met her before.  The friend who had set us up told me only a few details.  Brown hair, near shoulder length, straight.  Very friendly smile.  “But I promise you this,” Nancy told me over the phone.  “You’ll know her when you hear her.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, genuinely confused.

“You just don’t hear many people like her around here,” Nancy replied.  She knew I was scared shitless about being set up, and was having entirely too much fun at my discomfort.

“Ok,” I said.  “I don’t know what you mean by that, but ok.”  I heard anxiety creep into my voice.

“Oh would you relax,” she chastised.  “You’re gonna be fine.”  I sighed, and I think she took my concerns more seriously.  “Look,” she said more gently.  “You’re a terrific guy, and she’s a wonderful woman.  The worst that can happen is y’all don’t click, have a nice night out and that’s the end of it.”

I swallowed hard.  “I…I know you’re right.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Believing it.”

I stood outside of the coffee shop, pacing back and forth.  The pacing did nothing to dispel the nervous energy I had, but it did more to that end than standing still.  My fears about arriving late had gotten the better of me, and I wound up arriving more than half an hour early with nothing to do but stew in my own nervousness.  I had already wandered through the record store and the vintage clothing store next door, trying to kill time.

Twice.

In my head, my nervousness had ratcheted up what I referred to as the “Hamster Wheel of DOOM” in my head so fast I swore I could smell it smoking.  Will you stop with this bullshit! I told myself.  It’s just coffee!

I know, but what is she likes me?  Hell, what if I like her?

Then you like her.  You have fun, maybe you guys go somewhere else. What’s the big deal?

I just…I don’t know how to handle that…I mean what do I say? What do I do? What if she’s really awesome and I feel stupid around here and

Out of the darkness of my psyche, I heard Nancy bark at me, firmly but compassionately, “For God’s sake, stop naming the kids!!!” Then as if she were there to see the chagrin on my face, I heard her more gently. “It’s just coffee.  Breathe.”

It’s just coffee.  Right.  Breathe.  Breathing is good.

Just as I’d calmed down enough that I no longer felt like pacing, a black sedan pulled into the parking lot and parked.  The driver’s side door opened, and a woman got out of the car.  She locked the car and began walking towards the coffee shop.  Then she saw me and changed course, heading directly towards me.  I swallowed and could feel my heart start hammering in my chest.  I closed my eyes for a second and heard Nancy’s voice one more time.

Stop naming the kids.

And then Nancy’s voice was replaced with one unlike any I’d ever heard outside of a movie.

“Is this Alonzo?”

I smiled, though it felt somewhat unnatural. Like my face was made of molder plastic and I was trying to shape it in a way different from how it had originally been cast.  “Yes…you must be Hazel.”

She laughed.  “Oh aye, and who else would it be?” The Scottish brogue was unmistakeable.  And then the smile Nancy had told me about shone like a spotlight.  Or in my anxiety ridden head, more like headlights from an on coming car.  And I was the deer about to be roadkill.

But there were worse ways to go.

“….raight aboot the hats.”

I shook myself out of my stupor.  “Beg pardon?”

“I sayd, Nancy were raight aboot how I’d know ya.  She said ya fancied hats more than most men yer age.” She held her hand out and I shook it delicately.  I’d completely forgotten I’d told Nancy I would wear my straw Panama to make me easy to find.  “Well, more than most men not ridin’ horses or herdin’ coos.  Isnae what you Texans do?”

I laughed despite myself.  “Not all of us.”

“Yer not all cowboys then?” She crossed her arms in mock skepticism.  The twinkle in her eyes told me she was having me on, and I was happy to let her do so.

“Technically as a Mexican, the term should be caballero or maybe gaucho,” I replied.

“Oh, hablas español?” Hazel asked.  Hesitantly, she continued, “Estoy tomando clases para aprender español ahora.”

“Uh, no,” I said sheepishly.  “You’ve probably heard about a third of my full Spanish vocabulary I could use properly.”

“Oh,” Hazel said.  She paused, and then brightened up.  “Awright.  We’ll go in then?”

I turned towards the coffee shop and proceeded to stumble upon the curb.  I regained my balance, terrified to turn around. Instead, I strode purposefully towards the door and then held it open for her.

Hazel walked past me, and as she reached the door whispered, “Guid recovray.”

Without even thinking about it, I replied, “I am, as ever, a picture of grace in motion.”

That elicited a bemused giggle from Hazel and for the first time since I’d gotten there, I smiled.

Prompt text: A character arrives at work to find their chair missing. What happened to it?

“The hell is this horseshit?”

Chuck had never been taught the concept of an “inside voice” as a child.  Consequently everyone in the department knew what he thought on any topic, whether engaged in conversation with him directly or trying to work despite the loudness in a cube four rows away.  I had already been in the office a while, and seen what the new office policy had wrought.  I had no doubts about how Chuck would handle the change, and he hadn’t disappointed me.

I made sure I’d saved the worksheet I had open, lest the tech gods smite my hubris.  Then I made my way down to Chuck’s office.  The door stood wide open, and by the shadow cast upon it I could tell Chuck was standing near it.  He was probably looking around his office for signs he was the victim of some kind of practical joke.  As I walked up behind him, he turned towards me.  Incredulously, he asked, “Who in the hell took my GODDAMN CHAIR?!?!”

I peered past Chuck into the office.  It was one of the smaller offices on our floor, about 15 feet square.  When he’d first moved in, facilities had given Chuck the option to have the walls painted one of three colors.  He chose red.  If there’d been a survey of the department, we would have selected maybe blue or beige.  Something more soothing in the hopes he’d be less high strung.  Sadly, our input was never solicited.

Chuck’s desk sat on the right side, perpendicular to the door and the outside window on the opposite side.  Where Chuck’s office chair would normally be, a balance ball stood.  It was about two and half feet in height, and the PVC plastic is was made from had a high sheen reflecting the office fluorescent lighting.  It was clearly very new.  To the credit of whoever selected it, the shade of red the balance ball was matched the walls perfectly.

“You remember when you filed a complaint with facilities that you needed a new chair?” I asked.  “Back when I was complaining that mine was hurting my back?”

“Well, yeah.” Chuck’s tone had dropped as his confusion increased.

“And they had those ergonomic experts come in and study how we sat and worked? They watched you, me and the contractor we brought on to help with the end of quarter rush,” I went on.

Chuck’s annoyance resurfaced as he failed to make the connection I was leading him to.  “Yeah yeah yeah, I remember all that crap, what’s that got to do with my goddamn chair going missing?”

I sighed.  “That’s your new chair, Chuck.”

“Oh, fuck that!” I knew he was pissed if he was dropping f-bombs loud enough for anyone to hear.  Chuck didn’t stand on ceremony for anyone in the office, but he broke out the heavy vulgarities only when pushed to his limits.

“No, Chuck, I’m serious,” I went on.  “I’ve been here for an hour, it was the first email I opened.”  I crossed my arms, bemused at how much the situation appeared to have tripped all of Chuck’s triggers.  “Some new special ergonomic program.  They’ll order a special chair if they need to.  But they want us to try the balance balls first and work on our posture while we’re working.”  As I thought back about the last hour, a realization dawned on me.  “To be honest, I’ve found it be pretty comfortable.”

“I don’t give a crap what you think of it,” Chuck replied.  He angrily tossed his laptop bag onto his desk.  “I’m gonna go have a talk with those hippie dippy assholes down in HR, and I’m gonna get me a goddamn chair to work in.”

I couldn’t contain a smirk, which I knew agitated Chuck even more.  “Come on, Chuck.  You haven’t even given it a try yet!”

“Damn right I haven’t, and I’m not gonna.” He brushed past me and down the aisle, muttering the whole way.  “Goddamn HR jackasses…no clue how an office should be run.  I’ve gotta work here, today…how the hell am I gonna get anything done with furniture out of a goddamn pre-school?”

I watched him go.  Once I was certain he was out of earshot, I said out loud to no one in particular, “You do that, Chuck.” I walked back to my desk shaking my head.  “Sure you’re gonna go over great with that attitude and vocabulary.”

Prompt text: Describe a memorable event, positive or negative, and how it felt to you, but do not name the feeling. Instead, tell how it felt in your body (damp hands, metallic taste, tight throat, wobbly knees, etc.).

Author’s note: Another easy one.

T – 7 hours: Get out of bed at Fred’s.  I’m staying at a friend of my father’s because family occupies every spare room at the house.  I’m tired, restless, antsy.  I don’t feel like I’ve slept a wink all night, even though I’d turned in fairly early.  Nine hours of sleep feels about as effective as one.  I feel a slight tightness in my throat, that I worry might be the start of an allergy attack.  Not something I need today.

T – 6 hours: I go to get a much needed haircut.  Yes, it would normally be a bad idea to get a haircut on the morning of such an important event.  This is how much implicit trust I have in my barber.  He’s been cutting the hair of my father and brothers since we moved to Fort Worth.  There’s no reason why this day would be any different.  The fast food breakfast I wolfed down on my way to the barber shop sits in my stomach like a lump of lead.  The tightness in my throat has started to migrate ever so slightly down my trachea.  I wonder now if it’s not allergies but if I’m getting sick, which only makes my stomach churn around the lump in my stomach. Breathe, breathe, breathe.  A moment of relief when A.C., the barber, tells me it’s on the house today.  His gift to me.  I smile stupidly as I leave to head to my parent’s house.

T – 3 hours: I start thinking maybe I should start getting ready.  Mom and Pop come in from having run errands and I find out that they lost a working headlamp on their car.  A truck ahead of them on the freeway rolled over a rock, kicking it up and back, fracturing the lamp.  I start to get antsy, but Pop’s already called Enterprise to rent a car for the night.  I go ahead and get into my tux.  The tightness in my throat has now migrated into a circle of pressure resting on/in my chest.  It feels like someone has set barbell plates on my chest, about 25-35 pounds, and I can’t get them off.  It’s not physically difficult to breath, but I still feel every ounce of that weight on my chest.  I get my brothers into the car and we go to Enterprise.

T – 2 hours: I am now starting to actively freak out.  Everybody and their dog is waiting for a car at Enterprise.  Despite the fact that the three of us are in tuxes and obviously have an important event soon, the counter staff is indifferent.  The plate on my chest has just added 10 pounds of pressure.  I look at my watch and call Pop to apprise him of the situation.  “Well, forget about it then, we’ll just drive it with the bad headlight tonight and hopefully we won’t get a ticket.  Come on home, and we’ll head to the church.”

T – 1 hour 45 minutes: I see the flashing red and blue lights in my rear view, and start to slide over to the right side of Granbury Road.  It’s only when I see the cop is slowing down with me that I realize he’s pulling me over.  The weight on my chest now feels like somebody’s dropped a six-year-old onto my chest.  It is now starting to get difficult to breathe.  Astonishingly, even though I normally sweat like a fiend because I always seem to run about 2-3 degrees hotter in body temp than everyone else, my forehead is completely dry.  I suspect my hands may feel vaguely like dead fish, however.  My stomach is turning over like a pinwheel in a stiff wind.  I roll down the window, handing over my license and registration.  The officer seeing three young men in tuxes actually asks if we’re in a hurry.  I repress the urge to be flip, and calmly reply that we were on our way to a wedding by way of my parent’s house.  I apologize for the speeding, as I didn’t realize how fast I was going.  In as much as a Mexican can look pale and nervous, I figure that’s the impression I’m giving off in spades.  The officer doesn’t even run the license.  He just urges us to be more careful, so that we get to our destination safely.

T – 1 hour: We’re at the church.  My next youngest brother says, “Just say the word, man…I’ll get you out of here…you’ll be farming pigs in Mexico and your name will be Luis.  No one will know who you are. We’ll bring you American newspapers once a month.”  I laugh, the first time that day the pressure in my chest has lifted even slightly.  It then settles back in and throws on another ten pounds when I find out we’re short a bridesmaid and she’s running late.  Spend the next 20-30 minutes pacing in the sacristy and wondering what the hell else can go wrong.  I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t actively WILL myself to breathe I’d probably pass out or asphyxiate outright.  NOW I’m starting to sweat a little, even though the sacristy is fairly cool.  The monsignor comes in and makes a weak, passing effort to comfort me.  All I can think about is how in the hell the man has a combover on the bridge of his nose.  I haven’t eaten in six hours, but I don’t crave food so much as for my stomach to just stop spinning.

T – 15 minutes: I can hear the music playing in the church itself, some slight murmur of the crowd that’s arrived.  In my head, I wonder if farming pigs would really be that bad? Am I really doing this? After 5 years together, are we really getting married? Do I sound like Darth Vader, I must be wheezing so bad from trying to force air into my chest and who the hell set this elephant on top of my chest that’s a damn inconvenient place to put and elephant.

T – 1 minute: I hear the cue that tells me I’m supposed to walk out and suddenly breathing is absolutely impossible.  I step out into the church and take my place at the front.  The place seems like it’s going to explode with people, even as I know I see empty pews on the far sides on both sides of the church.  The bride and groom’s parties are all smiling at me, trying to calm me down and reassure me.  Which might have worked if I didn’t register the fact that the parties are unbalanced, the one running late STILL isn’t there OMG, THIS IS SO FUCKED, WHAT THE HELL AM I….

There’s a loud clap as my youngest brother throws the latch on the front door of the church.  He pulls the door open, and a physical impossibility occurs because I know this church faces east and at this time of day the sun should be on the west side.  But the bride steps into the door, looking herself like a deer caught in headlights her eyes are open so wide.  Anime characters don’t show this much white in their eyes.  And yet, with the burst of light into the church, she looks absolutely radiant.  She is in that moment every bit the woman I fell in love with and has never looked better.

And for the first time in what feels like an eternity, I take in a deep breath.  And it comes as easily as a feather on the wind.

Prompt text: This is one of Fool’s suggested prompts from last year, and it is simply “the worst childhood memory.” Interpret as you will.

Author note: I don’t know if this constitutes the worst, but it is easily one of the first that came to mind.

“What should I get next Dad?”

“I don’t know, son.  How about you grab another one of those Roman candles, and we’ll shoot that next,” Pop replied.

“Can I light it?”

“Sure, but you need to be extra careful.”

I ran back to the car as fast as my legs would carry me.

I think I was six or seven years old at the time.  It was Fourth of July week, and I was trying to make the most of my time out of school.  We were on the road to the Hueco Club, a private country club on the far northeast corner of El Paso.  Pop had access to it through work.  The Club had a big swimming pool, softball fields, playground and I thought maybe a golf course (but I could be wrong on that last).  We’d go out there and knock ourselves out in the pool during the hottest days of the summer.

Because the Club was located outside the city limits, it was also a prime location to go to to set off fireworks.  The stands were set up all along Montana Avenue on the way to Hueco Club Boulevard.  The road from Montana to the front gate of the Club was maybe half to three quarter’s of a mile, with absolutely nothing on either side except desert sand and tumbleweeds.  In the run-up to the Fourth, a lot of families would go out to the stands, buy the big variety boxes, and then while away a couple of hours sending pyrotechnics skyward.

This summer day was no different, and I loved seeing all the explosions from the different types of fireworks.  I think I liked these ones that looked like tiny silver flying saucers best.  They’d spin off the empty beer can Pop would set them up on like flaming frisbees, sparks shooting every which way.

It didn’t happen this particular night, but I do have recollections of being out there one night and Pop getting nailed in the ankle by something called a Texas Twister gone horribly wrong.  Pop had a bout with polio in his youth, and as a result he can walk but not very well.  So when the thing fell off the “launchpad” and landed pointed towards Pop, he tried to get away as fast as he could but that wasn’t nearly fast enough.  Shot straight into his ankle like a torpedo and then ricocheted off.  His foot swelled up like a watermelon for days.

This particular night would be a different mishap.  I went to get the Roman candle like I’d be instructed and ran back quickly.  Pop had just set off a couple of bottle rockets and was on the ground getting the beer can set back up and anchored.  I leaned over to hand him the Roman candle and as I recall it (as best I can 30 years later), he turned towards me not realizing I was so close or bent over to hand it to him.

With a lit punk in his hand.

I remember feeling a burst of pain like the first time you touch something hot that you don’t realize is scalding.  Under those circumstances, you snatch your hand back and the residual heat from the burn just throbs in your hand.  If you’re lucky you don’t have blisters or scars from that sort of thing.

In this case, the punk caught me right at the corner of my eye by my nose.  I don’t recall if it was right or left, but there’s a small bump on the corner of my right eye that isn’t on the same corner of my left.  That makes me think it was the right eye I was millimeters away from losing.

After the shock of the initial burn subsided, it was a searing sensation that remained and I found it near impossible to open that eye at all.  I was absolutely bawling, freaking out, certain that I’d lost my eye or that it was horribly damaged and would have to come out.  Pop was staying calm as he could under the circumstances.  I remember he had my mom come over and grab me and drive me back to the club itself to try washing the eye out.

I don’t remember how loud I was crying, but I’ve got to think I was an absolute banshee of pain and fear.  The cold water rinse made it possible for me to open my eye ever so slightly, but the pain really was overwhelming.  We washed it out as much as we could.

I honestly don’t remember if it was an emergency room visit that night or in to see the doctor the next morning.  I remember a gauze eye-patch and medicated drops that were antiseptic and hand a pain killer in them as well.  Hell, now that I think about it, maybe it really did touch the eyeball or there was residual damage because of the heat.  Either one is possible, under the circumstances.

To this day, I don’t bat an eye about anything involving gore or blood in most movies.  Violent acts don’t phase me a whit.  But if it has something to do with an eyeball?  Yeah, my stomach gets a little flip-floppy.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the snakes in the Well of the Souls was the stuff of nightmares for me.  But almost as bad was seeing Toht with that red hot poker in his hands in Marion Ravenwood’s bar in Nepal.  He was bringing it towards her face and in my mind, it was headed straight for her eyes.  And that scared the crap out of me.

I imagine we all have things that we did or that happened to us as kids that make us question just how the hell it is we’re still alive.  And then there are the stories that we always hear about the kids that weren’t so lucky.  I remember one friend from grade school who moved away and we heard the next year that he had gotten killed just crossing the street hit by a car coming too fast.  Hell, I still remember his name.  Pretty sure that was Mike Bebberniss.

The punk was mine, and I don’t think it would have killed me but I think I’m very lucky that I can read this post right now with both my eyes through corrective lenses.  Sometimes a millimeter or two is the difference between horrible disfigurement and just a story for a blog.

To hell with football.  Life is the game of inches.

“As Wolverine, Jackman’s elemental sex-magick and unpretentious way of wrapping his eyebrows around a line was revelatory; as I wrote a couple of years ago, in the last few decades I can only think of a few actors who’ve taken the reins of their genre roles with as much assurance: Christopher Reeve as Superman, Russell Crowe as Maximus, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Mel Gibson as Mad Max, and maybe Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn when he’s not singing weepy little songs about his elf ho. It’s a wee little fantasy pinnacle, apparently occupied by an inordinate number of Australians.”

Alexandra DuPont, DVD Journal

I don’t know if Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey in The Green Mile constitutes a “genre role”.  I do think in terms of taking the reins of a role with such complete assurance, he definitely fits the bill.

I remember thinking that it was sort of right to cast him in the role when it was first announced.  I had read all chapters of The Green Mile when Stephen King first published it serially in 1996.  It was, as a matter of fact, the last thing King published that I ever read in whole (I started Dark Tower IV, but never got more than 1/3 of the way in).

A couple of years later, I endured Michael Bay’s Armageddon (the movie that spawned my contempt for all things Bay through five simple words: animal crackers in the underpants).  And then I remember seeing on Ain’t It Cool that Harry Knowles had heard or read somewhere that the actor who I just knew as “Bear” from Armageddon was going to be playing John Coffey.

While not a fan of Armageddon, I was happy to have him in the role.  Physically he fit the character and whatever else I thought of the movie, I liked his performance.  He had such great natural charisma.  Michael Clarke Duncan could make you smile just by doing the same, and strike fear in you with that deep booming voice of his that might only be rivaled by James Earl Jones.  And I was secretly thankful they didn’t opt for stunt casting with someone like Shaquille O’Neal (perhaps the only reason we should be thankful for the existence of the movies Kazam and Steel).

It wasn’t until I actually saw the finished product that I realized there simply wasn’t another actor anywhere who could have played the gentle giant that Coffey was on the written page.  The story of a man brought to death row in a 1930s southern prison broke my heart when it first came out, and then ripped it out a second time when I saw the movie three years later.

I make no bones about my being a tie-dyed in the wool, commie, pinko, hippie liberal.  The death penalty is something that I find morally abhorrent for a number of different reasons, the risks of convicting an innocent man being primary among them and one I fear we’ve already seen occur more than once in this state.  If ever there was a dramatic argument against the death penalty to be made, I think it was made in a way that was far more relatable in The Green Mile than it was in Dead Man Walking.  They’re both powerful stories, but there’s something about how Green Mile touched me that made it the stronger argument.  I don’t think there’s any question that’s due to what Duncan brought to the film as Coffey.

When I saw that Duncan had died of a heart attack this past Monday, all I could think was that is too wrong and too young for him to go.  There’s an underlying question in Green Mile that asks about the punishment one man can receive for killing something so inherently good in this world.  I owe a lot to Michael Clarke Duncan for making me understand and feel that inherent wrongness in a way I’d never be able to express on my own.

RIP.

Write about someone who is hiding.

“Oh shit!”

“What?” I asked, looking up.  “You ok?”

“For now, but we need to get out of here,” Sylvie hissed.

“What’s the problem?”

Sylvie sighed.  “You see that blonde that just walked in?”

I half turned to my right, feigning looking up at the TV over the bar and then stealing a glance at the front door.  Two women had just entered the bar.  One was wearing a white tank top and black jeans.  She had very closely cropped hair, blonde with a purple streak off center left.  The tank top showed off an elaborate half-sleeve tattoo, with colors that popped even in the low light of the bar.  From my current distance, I could make out what looked like a small nose piercing, maybe a silver ring.

“Semi-butch cut with the purple streak and the heavy ink on one side?” I asked.  I turned when she didn’t respond and found Sylvie had disappeared.  The bar was fairly empty, as it was still early on a Saturday night.  I looked around and found Sylvie half-dancing with a group of three other women on the floor near the DJ stand.  She seemed to be not so much dancing and moving as much as she needed to to keep one other person between her and the door.

I walked over to the group and started dancing near Sylvie, repeating my description of the suspect individual to her.

Sylvie nodded.  “That’s the one.  Her name is Karina.  I need to get out of here before she sees me.”

“Why, she an ex?”

Sylvie shook her head. “Naw, we just made out pretty heavily in this bar last week?”

I laughed. “It still kills me that you get so much more action than I do, you know that? So what’s the problem?”

Sylvie suddenly moved behind the DJ stand, I turned and saw Karina had been looking in our direction but was now turned away.  She moved to the bar, and attempted to get the bartender’s attention.

I moved over to lean against the wall with Sylvie.  “I repeat…what’s the damage?”

Looking sheepish, Sylvie paused before answering.  “I might have given her a number that wasn’t mine.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake…”

“Now will you help me get out of here?”

I stopped to consider our options.  Karina now had a drink and seemed to be surveying the population of the bar.  If the woman she came in with was with Karina, that woman was nowhere to be seen.  “Ok,” I told Sylvie.  “Keep an eye out…when I distract her, you try to get around and out the door behind her.  I’ll meet you outside.”

Sylvie nodded, peeking around the corner of the DJ stand as much as she could.  The bar seemed to be filling up, which would make my job a little easier.  I made my way through the increasing crowd and towards Karina.  When I was close enough to be heard over the music from the dance floor, I leaned in towards her and said, “Nice ink!”

Karina looked at me with a mixture of bemusement and contempt.  “You know you’re in the wrong bar to use that line? This is a gay bar,” she replied.  “I’m not interested in being part of a threesome with your wife-girlfriend-mistress or whoever.”

I nodded, focused on the tattoos.  It really was impressive artwork, with vibrant inking and very clear lines.  The image itself was a mixture of more abstract artwork with a few more readily discernible images cleverly hidden within.  “I apologize,” I said.  “I imagine you get a lot of that kind of shit.  I’m not on the make, I swear.”

Karina crossed her arms, skepticism radiating from her face.

I shrugged.  “I’m a lesbro,” I replied.  She cocked an eyebrow curiously.  “You know…like a fag hag in reverse?”

That got her laughing, and her demeanor changed considerably.  She seemed considerably more relaxed.  I figured it was a good time to maintain the momentum of the deception.  “My friend I came with disappeared into the bathroom a while back…I’m wondering if she fell in or something.”  I raised a hand towards the bartender, getting his attention.  I ordered a shot, and looked to Karina.  She shook her head, holding up her glass.

The bartender poured the shot, and took my $20.  While he turned to make change, I turned towards Karina and raised the shot glass.  “Cheers,” I said.  She clinked her glass against mine.  As I went to throw the shot back, I saw Sylvie moving discreetly behind Karina along the far wall, headed for the exit.

I swallowed the shot of alcohol, coughing slightly as the burn of the whisky hit the back of my throat.  “Anyway, I was getting tired of waiting for her,” I wheezed.  “I saw the ink on your arm and figured I’d ask about it.”

Karina eyed me as though she were evaluating something before taking a sip from her own drink.  “Thank you,” she offered.  “It took a lot of time to get it all just right, but I trust my artist.”

“Well you’d kinda have to wouldn’t you?” I asked.  “I mean, all that time and money? Never mind the permanence if it goes wrong somehow.”  As I said these words, I saw Sylvie slip out the door of the bar and into the night.

Karina nodded.  “Yeah, but it’s all worth it when you get it done right.” She cocked her head towards me slightly.  “You have any ink?”

I shook my head no.  “I don’t know that I’d be comfortable with something that permanent,” I said honestly.  “And I’d have a hard time coming up with an image I’d want on my body for life.  Visually, I’m not that imaginative.”

Karina nodded.  “More a man with words, I take it?  Writer?”

I laughed.  “I’d like to be, but I’m a long way from making that happen.”

Karina smiled, then finished off her drink.  As she did, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket.  Pulling it out, I found a text from Sylvie.  “2nd and San Jacinto” was all it said.

“Looks like she left without me,” I told Karina.  “Guess I should just head on home, then.”  I offered my hand. To my surprise, she shook it.  “It was good talking with you,” I said honestly.  “Thanks for letting me ogle your arm.”

As I stepped past Karina towards the front door, I heard call behind me.  “Tell Sylvie I said hello.”  I continued forward and out of the bar as though I had heard nothing.  Sylvie was waiting a few blocks away at the intersection she’d texted me.

“Thanks, man…I was sure I was busted.”

I nodded. “Where to now?” I asked.

Sylvie shrugged.  “There’s a new bar over on 5th.  Want to check it out?”

“Sure, just do me a favor?” I asked as we started walking.

“What’s that?”

“Next time you give someone a fake number, you may want to give her a fake name as well.”

A drunk man sits down next to you, decides you’re his buddy, and starts confessing “the truth.” Write about what “the truth” is.

(Author’s note: any resemblance between character(s) in this story and real people I might be related to/friends with is purely coincidental.  Truly.)

“YA know what the truth is?”

Oh Christ, this is gonna be fun.  How’d I wind up being the one he wanted to talk to.  Maybe if I just sit here and don’t do anything for a while, he’ll leave me alone.

“The TRUTH….is that women…” He’s pausing…don’t puke don’t puke don’t puke… “Women….they’ll just break your fucking heart.”

Oh jeez, if I’d known I was gonna spend the evening being chatted up by the philosopher king, I would have groomed myself a bit more.

“You’ll be nice to them….” Ok, REALLY don’t care for the hand on my shoulder. “You give them things…and then they’ll break your heart because they’re into some…ASSHOLE.”

Genius.  Really.

From the kitchen, Kent called out, “Doing ok in there, Junior?”

“I’m fine. Jus…jus explaining the ways of the world to my lil friend here.”

Oh, we’re FRIENDS now are we?  Such privilege.

Junior let out a loud belch.  “Wait…mebbe I spok too soon…”

I’m outta here.

Kent came into the living room where Junior was laid out on the floor, one arm draped across his eyes.  “How much did I drink?” Junior asked.

Kent bent down and pulled on one of Junior’s arms, getting him into an upright position.  Junior grimaced, and Kent stepped back warily.  “You gonna be sick?”  Junior considered the question a moment before nodding very slowly.

“Ok,” Kent sighed.  “Let’s get you into the bathroom.”  As he helped Junior stagger to his feet, the white and black shorthair sprinted between their legs, almost tripping Junior.

“Dammit, Pixel, watch it!” Kent yelped.

“Leave my lil buddy alone!” Junior replied.  Gingerly the two men walked down the hall to the bathroom.

Hell, if he fell, it’s not like he’d feel it.

You are waiting for a bus. A public phone starts ringing and you answer it. Write down your conversation.

I changed it up slightly, given that public phones/payphones hardly exist anymore.

The sun beat down on me as I stood waiting for the shuttle bus.  The heat radiated off the sidewalk, and in the back of my head I realized I knew vaguely what a pizza must feel like in a brick oven.  Even in the shade of the entryway to the hotel, Las Vegas was always oppressively hot in the middle of a summer day.  Looking up the driveway, I didn’t see anything like the shuttle making it’s way forward.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Cuebas,” the valet attendant said.  “It’ll be here soon.”

I nodded, and looked back down at the book I’d brought with me to read.  It was a long ride out to Hoover Dam from this far off the Strip.  I was questioning the wisdom of eating light for breakfast before my tour when I heard a familiar electronic trilling sound.  Reflexively I pulled my phone out of my pocket, but the display showed I had no incoming call.

I looked around, trying to isolate the source of the noise.  Next to the shuttle stop, a trash can stood.  As I looked around it, I found a phone identical to mine.  It continued its insistent trilling for three more rings before it fell silent.  I looked up for the valet attendant to give him the phone for lost and found when it began ringing again.  Without really thinking about it, I opened it and picked up the call.  “Hi,” I started to say, “this…”

“This is bullshit is what this is!” the gruff voice on the other end barked.  “The fuck you’re doing, screening your calls?”

“I’m not,” I said quickly.  “This isn’t my phone. Do you know who’s phone this is? I found it in front of the Orleans by the shuttle stop.”

“Yeah, you’re fucking funny.  Put Gregg on the fucking phone.” The voice was raspy, from what sounded like a lifetime of smoking.  His accent sounded vaguely northeastern to me.

“I’m serious, this isn’t my phone, and the owner isn’t here,” I replied, looking around.  For some reason, the valet attendant still had returned.  “I was gonna turn this in, but the valet’s not here.  I’m just waiting for a tour bus.”

“No shit?”

I laughed.  “No shit.”

“Huh,” the stranger muttered.  There was a pause, and I was about to ask if he might know how I could get the phone back to it’s owner when he spoke again.  “You know anything about baseball?”

“Um…a little.”

“Yankees are playing the Orioles in 20 minutes, who you like?”

The question confused me for a minute.  “Uh…I don’t know…who’s at home?”

“Yankees.  They got Nova on the mound, he’s going against that kid from Taiwan, Chen.”

“Well,” I said reluctantly, wondering how I got into this conversation and where my bus was. “I don’t know enough about either team or pitcher, really…”

“Yeah, yeah, but if you had to pick someone, who would you pick?”

“Yankees, I guess,” I replied.

There was a pause.  “You don’t sound sure.”

“Well of course I don’t sound sure, I told you I don’t know anything about any of them!” I tried to watch my tone, but the conversation had veered into the absurd.

The stranger clucked his tongue, as though he were thinking.  I thought I heard a long exhale, and mentally I pictured him in a white sleeveless t-shirt, with grey hair on his arms and a stub of a cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

“Yeah, you don’t have faith in the Yanks,” he said finally.  “Confidentially, neither do I, but it’s hard to pick against them, ya know whud I mean?”

“Not really,” I said quietly.  I began considering the virtues of hanging up and then powering the phone off.

My bus finally made the turn into the driveway off in the distance.  I was about to excuse myself and just leave it on the valet stand when the guy on the other end said, “All right, you convinced me.  Tell Gregg I want 500 on the O’s.”

“Dollars?” I yelped. That I had no clue who Gregg was was the last thing on my mind.

The stranger laughed.  “Yeah, dollars.  You ain’t in Mexico, I don’t think the book’s gonna take pesos from ya.”

“I don’t have $500 and I have no clue who Gregg is and I really have to go.  My bus is here,” I said hurriedly.

“Ok, just tell Gregg $500 on the O’s if he can get it in before the first pitch.  Tell him Vinnie said if it hits to give you 20%. You know, finders fee and all that.”

Before I could once again note I had no clue who Gregg was, the line disconnected.  The bus pulled up and the driver opened the door.  “Can you wait one second,” I asked.  “I found this here and I need to give it to the valet for lost & found.” The driver nodded, and I ran for the stand.  The valet was still missing.  Uncertain what to do, I left it on the stand.  At the last second, I pulled one of the valet tickets off the pad and turned it over.  I scribbled a note on the back.

FOUND BY SHUTTLE STOP TRASH CAN. TELL GREGG IF HE CLAIMS IT VINNIE WANTS $500 ON THE ORIOLES. IF IT HITS, 20% GOES TO ROOM 442.

I slipped the ticket under the phone and ran back to the shuttle.  Idly I wondered if my phone would be able to give me updates on the Yankees game.

List five things that annoy you. Then pick one and write a short scene from the perspective of someone who loves that annoying thing.

machismo
stinginess/cheapness
hypocrisy
loudness
tardiness


As Aaron reached to ring the doorbell, Myles checked his watch.  The display read back 2:45 PM.  Behind the door, he could hear the muffled sounds of laughter and cheers, and possibly the game on the TV just below that.  Myles smiled even as Aaron shook his head.  The two of them had been friends for long enough that Aaron knew exactly what Myles was up to.

“Myles! Aaron!” Jennifer cried out enthusiastically.  “We didn’t think you two were gonna make it!”  She quickly leaned forward to give Myles a hug, listing a bit drunkenly as she did so.  Myles could smell the beer practically oozing out of Jennifer’s pores.  He held the hug longer than was probably proper, prompting Aaron to shake his head in disbelief.  Eventually Jennifer broke the hug, and turned to give Aaron one that was considerably shorter.  “Come on, Texas just scored.  We’re gonna do shots to celebrate.”

The two men followed Jennifer into the crowded living room.  People were sitting on every available piece of furniture as well as several spots on the floor.  Jennifer delicately made her way towards the kitchen, trying to avoid stepping on anyone in her inebriated state.  On the large flat screen TV mounted on the wall, Texas had just kicked off to Oklahoma for a touchback.  Across the bottom of the screen, the chyron showed a seven point Texas lead.

“Yeah, sorry we’re late,” Myles told Jennifer as they entered the kitchen.  Jennifer opened the fridge to pull out a pitcher and then set to pouring from it into small glasses arranged on a tray.  “I had some car problems.  I was gonna grab something at the store to bring and share for the game, but we were so behind…”  Aaron coughed audibly, prompting a stare from Myles.

“Don’t worry about it,” Jennifer replied perkily.  “You’re here in time for shots and the rest of the second half.  That’s what counts!”  Her technique filling the glasses was severely impaired.  The tray probably had as much alcohol pooled around the bottom of the glasses as the glasses themselves held.  Satisfied that each glass had enough in it, she turned and offered the tray to Aaron and Myles.  They each took a glass.  “There’s leftover food on the counter, help yourselves to whatever you want,” she told the guys.  She set about to passing shots around in the living room.

When he was certain Jennifer could no longer hear, Aaron turned and slapped Myles shoulder.  “You’re such a fucking tool,” he chastised.

Myles looked at Aaron with a practiced look of disbelief.  Aaron couldn’t believe Myles was still trying to sell the act.  “You run this bullshit at every party we go to,” Aaron went on.  “You show up extra late so no one expects you to bring anything for potlucks or to drink.  And so you can try and mack on the drunkest chicks!”  Aaron raised the shot to his lips.  Before drinking he added, “A practice your girlfriend wouldn’t approve of, I might add.”

“Oh that reminds me,” Myles said after downing his shot.  “I’m meeting Zina for dinner after, can you get a ride back home?”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

“No biggie, I can give you a lift if you can’t,” Myles replied.  “I usually show up a little late for dinner anyway.”

Aaron drank his shot disgustedly.  “Course, why would Zina get treated any differently than the rest of us?”

“Is there a problem?” Myles asked.

“I’m pissed we missed the first half because you can’t be bothered to spring for a bag of chips and some guac,” Aaron replied.  “I’m pissed that anytime you invite me to go anywhere, I’m sitting around because you don’t plan and I wind up wasting an hour or more waiting on you to go.”

“All right, man, chill out,” Myles said.  He tried to look reassuringly at Aaron.  “I’ll put more effort to being punctual if it’s that big a deal to you.  Don’t let this harsh your enjoying the game.”

Aaron’s shoulders slumped.  He knew Myles would never put in the extra effort, but there was no point arguing it here.  As he moved to walk past Myles to the living room, something Myles said made him pause.  “Why do you usually show up late for dinner?”

The sheepish grin that Aaron found particularly douchey on Myles came back out.  “If there’s free bread or chips at the place, Zina usually winds up loading up on those, and I don’t wind up having to spend money on dessert.”

Aaron shook his head, muttering “Why am I friends with such a fucking asshole?” under his breath.

 

Take the last line of a poem, story, or book that you love and use it as the first line of your scene.

“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I grimaced slightly at JB’s words, the chips clattering as he raked the pot.  The dealer had begun the process of gathering the mucked cards, pausing to look at me questioningly.  I slumped in my chair, engaged in an internal debate that I already knew the outcome of.  Sitting up just enough to pull my wallet from my back pocket, I opened it and winced slightly and how little I had left.  I pulled the last two hundreds out and tossed them towards her.  I had just enough to cover a cab ride back if my play continued to go poorly.

“See, that’s what I like about Louie,” JB said laughing.  “He takes a shot, but he keeps on coming.”  I’m sure he thought he was saying it as a compliment towards my determination and perseverance.  But as the dealer checked my bills and cut out $200 from the rack of chips in front of her, I saw JBs eyes flick towards the stack being pushed towards me.

If he’d been some sleazy Lothario in a bar coveting my wife, the look in JB’s eyes would have been about the same.  In JB’s mind, the conquest was a foregone conclusion.  I was merely an annoyance that stood in the way of the inevitable.  In time, JB presumed I would be cast aside and easily forgotten.  I watched as JB took a last drag off the foul smelling cigar he’d been working at all night, before snuffing it out in the astray to his left.

I had only a few hours until daylight to figure out a way to keep JB from fucking me over one last time.

So the September Writing Challenge has begun again.  A variety of prompts over the course of the next 30 days, which I need to write at least a short paragraph or two about to try and stay sharp.  Today’s I think is redone from a couple of years ago, but a good one nonetheless.

“You are the boss of writer’s block. Write a memo telling writer’s block that it is fired.”

I think election season inspired my tack on this one.

The unanimous declaration of this bloggerly person,

When in the course of written events, it becomes necessary to dissolve the restrictive bands which has connected him with a Block, and to assume among the powers of the literate, the imaginative and creative station to which the laws of the Muse and of the Muse’s inspiration entitle him, a decent respect to opinions of the Block requires that they should declare the causes which impel them into the separation.

I hold these truths to be self evident, that although not all writers are created equal, I am endowed by my Muse with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are passion, creativity and a distinctive voice. That in order to secure these rights, writers are instituted among artists, deriving their just powers from the inspiration of the Muse. That whenever any form of Writer’s Block becomes destructive to this inspiration, it is the right of the writer to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new creative stream, laying its foundations on the zeal and enthusiasm for the art and organizing its powers in such form, as to the writer shall be most likely to invigorate and renew the creative process. Prudence will dictate that creative patterns long formed shall not be altered for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that writers are more predisposed to suffer, while stagnation is sufferable, than to force the issue by producing when you just don’t have it today. But when a long train of excuses and Blocks, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce him to utter Apathy, it is his right, it is his duty to throw off such a Block, and provide new inspiration for their future creativity.

We, therefore, the writer of this particular blog, in general contempt, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Audience of the World for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good readers of this blog, solemnly publish and declare, that this writer is, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent of Writer’s Block; that they are absolved of all previous indifference to the nature of the craft, and that all personal connection to the state of Block, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as a Free and Independent writer, I have the power to develop characters, outline plots, create dialogue, and elucidate story developments, and to do all other Acts and Chapters which a story may as of a right need. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the support of friends and  the observations of critiques, I do solemnly pledge to this blog my passion, my intellectualism, and the sacred F-bomb (as needed).

And all the posters are merely…well, what exactly.

On one level, I’m glad I haven’t entirely abandoned the exercise that is this blog.  I am still posting occasionally and some of the stuff I’ve posted I’ve been pretty damn happy with.  And then there’s been the odd filler crap like the post immediately below, but hey at least it’s something.  But I still fight with apathy about the blog as a whole, and I’m pretty sure I know why.

Some of this goes back to the anxiety I still struggle with that I talked about at Father’s day.  Even recognizing that I put way too much pressure on myself because of this imagined standard I have to hold myself to that is unrealistically high, that anxiety, that need to live up to an impractical standard still lives and breathes. And that compels a strong tendency to just decide that nothing I write is worth shit in the first place so why bother.  Hence tuning out and going brain dead in video games again.  That moratorium didn’t last that long, which is more than a tad disappointing.

But more than that, the real reason I think I find myself so reluctant to write more came to me out of a place I didn’t really expect.  I’ve been reading the webcomic Hijinks Ensue for a while now, having met the author and buying a t-shirt from him at Dragon’s Lair a few years ago.  As a repository of geek humor, it hits a lot of notes that really resonate with me.

I didn’t expect something Joel wrote that wasn’t directly comic related to hit such a resonant note with me, however.  I also subscribe to his Tumblr, and it was there that he threw up a post about audience expectations and why he does what he does.  The opening is pretty standard fare, him quoting a complaint from a reader and his response to it.  In addressing his reader’s dissatisfaction with a change in the comic’s direction, Joel states an artistic truism more baldly than I think I’ve ever heard it before (emphasis mine).

That’s what happens when you change creative direction. Your mistake is in thinking I am doing something inherently wrong. I might be doing things YOU don’t like, which makes it wrong for YOU. I hope you can understand the difference. My comics are not meant to be love letters to you and your sensibilities. I make comics that I like, that interest ME, and others with similar tastes are invited along for the ride. If our tastes have diverged, don’t take that as a sign that I’ve lost my way.  I’ve simply lost you.

I mean, yeah this should be obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to write regularly.  You should write about the things that interest you, that make you passionate.  And then as you fine tune that message if others come along for the ride, that’s great.  But you have to write for yourself first and being able to do so happily and willingly is what proves empowering enough to tell people who think you’re their trained monkey to sod off.

When I am my own worst critic, though, and feel like everything is shite, I can’t ever be completely happy with my writing and that’s a pretty strong disincentive to keep it going.  It’s weird, but it feels a lot like I’ve taken the mentality that I makes me struggle with dating and transposed it to the writing circle as well.  I feel like everything has to be perfect the moment I put pixels to screen and if it isn’t then I can’t possibly have anything worth saying that anyone would want to read.

That’s a ridiculous amount of pressure to put on myself.  And the fact that I do so probably surprises absolutely no one who knows me personally.

One of the other things that made me put a check on myself mentally recently was getting a random link from my friend Audrey.  She sent me this random link on Twitter, with the comment that it was a long article about Brave that she thought I might find interesting.  I click through and find…the exact essay that prompted me to write my take on Brave several months back.  She laughed apologetically, commenting that that is what she gets for not clicking through when I link things.  But in a sense it made me feel better about what I wrote.  Hell, if it was enough to prompt her to think of this longer (and in my opinion much better written) essay that spurred me in the first place, then clearly I captured a lot of what the original author was conveying and related it back to myself pretty effectively.

I can’t do that sort of thing if I suck completely, I’d think.

Aud hasn’t said if she is going to do the September Writing Challenge this year.  She’s working on editing her own novel, and doesn’t need the distraction.  Every year she had done it previously I said I would do it to the end, and I never quite get there.  I need to hold myself accountable on some level for output regularly to try and push myself past this hangup that I’ve got caught up in my head.

So regardless of whether she does it or no, I’m going to do it on my own regardless.  I’ll probably just go back and take the prompts from the last year or two and redo them in a different take than what I’ve done previously.  It’s a good challenge for me to try and stay regular on this thing, and it’s a damn sight more productive than beating Arkham City for the umpteenth time.

Although it does kick ass being Batman, if only virtually.

So look for that in the next couple of days.  I need to get on track and learn to shout down this voice in my head that tells me I don’t have a voice worth listening to.

Apologies for the Gotye reference but I really didn’t know where else to go with this observation.

Way back when, when I first came to school here in 1990…
Wait…

Jesus, it’s almost a quarter century since I moved to Austin?

Shit. Where was I?

Oh, yeah…

So when I first moved here, I lived in the Taos Coop on 26th & Guadalupe. It is where I met a lot of my first friends in college, as well as my ex-wife. It is a place that I still organize a lot of my college memories around.

See that’s the thing about how my brain works. As I explained it to some friends several days ago, my memories are very relativistic. I connect memories together relative to when they happened in conjunction with other milestones in my life. It makes it easier to pull memories up from the the recesses of my brain, but it does sometimes bring a lot of clutter with it.

I know that as of today, August 23, I will have been in my current group at Apple ten years and 58 days approximately. I know this because I became “official” with them approximately one week prior to my divorce became final. Brea and I went to the courthouse for the final decree exactly one week before my 30th birthday. It was a quarter end week, so I needed a special exception to get the time off from work for the court appearance.

Similarly, I know my brother got married about three months later because I needed another exception to appear in the wedding on the true end of quarter three months later. My parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary the same year I got married which was 5 years from Brea and my first date. Etc, etc, etc.

So for myself, memory is so contextual that when significant portions of what my anchor points are are altered, I feel it maybe a little deeper than most. It’s just one of the ways that I recognize just how much time has passed and how I’m really not getting any younger at all. (yes, I know. Duh.)

Which is sort of what brings me back around to Mr Gatti’s.

Let’s not kid ourselves here. If my 40-year-old self went back in time to talk to the me of more than two decades ago, it would probably be a pretty absurd conversation. Me today would probably couch it in Ricky Bobby terms and let the 18-year-old me know that my frequenting the Gatti’s buffet on the Drag would make the baby Foodie Jesus cry.

But the young me was only concerned with one thing way back when. How full could I get at lunch/dinner for how cheap a price? By that standard, Gatti’s was pretty close to the gold standard. Make of that what you will.

All of which is to provide context for the disconnect that occurred when while driving down to Flying Saucer to chalk up another beer against my plate for 200 beers, I noticed that Mr Gatti’s on MLK and San Antonio was closed.

Like, for good. Irrevocably.

I really can’t explain why this bothers me on any level. I mean beyond being my go-to calorie dump, it’s not like there’s any emotional attachment to Gatti’s nor should there be. It’s just a pizza buffet by a college campus and not even a local one at that.

But it got me to thinking about just how much the Drag has changed since I moved to Austin, and how much had come and gone. When I was still in school, it was tragic when Mad Dog & Beans and Les Amis Cafe closed out. And those were just off the Drag, but there were big parts of the UT fabric.

When I told Brea the Drag Gatti’s was closed, she asked, “Is anything still open on the Drag from when we started school?” I really had to think about it.

The Co-op, though it’s not the same as it was when I first came here. Textbooks has been kicked to such a relatively small part of the business (thank you Amazon.com), it’s more Longhorn paraphernalia and tchotchkes than anything. I imagine if I were still in school it’s nice having that new branch of the credit union there, but Dobie isn’t that much further up Guadalupe.

There’s Texadelphia, and they’ve actually expanded the Drag location which is cool. The Scientologists are still in their space, Xenu be praised. Wooten Barber Shop, which I actually kinda miss. They always gave me a damn good cut. And…

Yeah I think that’s it. There’s the 7-11, Burger King & Jack in the Box. But I’m not really counting chains. Ken’s Donuts is there. Beyond that, it’s not really The Drag anymore.

So much of Austin has evolved and changed since I first came to school here and it flips me out the more I think about it. There’s a lot that I do love about the newer Austin that I appreciate more now as a more mature adult, and wouldn’t have when I first moved here. Sushi would have flipped 18-year-old me out. Now anyplace that has good sushi is on my radar.

I never did bars in college. When I did my underaged binge drinking it was within the confines of Taos. So I never would have found my favorite haunts like BD Riley’s, Gingerman, Black Sheep Lodge, or even the more upscale bars I like like Midnight Cowboy. And dear good, the food I’ve discovered that has turned me to a junior grade foodie (thank you Peché, Takoba, Vespaio and everything in between). There is something about a city that has evolved my tastes.

But the old touchstones still have a place in my memories, and trying to piece the references together with new locations that have no meaning just makes me realize how much time has passed for me in this town. It’s been much more good than bad…but it’s also been a lot, and I’m not a fan of that piece of aging.

No real point to this observation beyond food for thought and reminiscing. Make of that what you will.

This post may wind up a bit all over the place.  At the time this began, I was three beers deep at Flying Saucer, and now that I’m wrapping it up I’m so far past most of the events that some of them are a bit fuzzy.  The only excuse I’ll offer.

Since my personal moment of clarity a couple of months ago, my life has been on a pretty even keel.  Nothing notable either positive of negative to report.  As I noted then, there was a sense of relief that was akin to someone close passing after a long illness.  There’s the unease/guilt of letting go and feeling relief for doing so, combined with a genuine elation at feeling like I could finally move forward.

I’d commented on some of the frustrations I’ve had with my card play last month, and that had gotten heavier in my head of late, making me realize that maybe I hadn’t learned to ease up on myself as much as I thought I had.  After that post, I’d played in a lower stakes tournament I’m a part of up north with a chance to qualify for their season championship if I finished in 2nd place or first.

With the understanding of what I needed to accomplish to achieve a higher goal, I turned my focus inward and tried to play as disciplined poker as I ever have.  I made some risky calls that felt in the moment like reasonable decisions and they paid off.  I made difficult lay downs when I knew I was beat.  I pushed as far as I possible could and worked my way into the money.

And then I finished third.  61 points out of qualifying, which I would have had easily if I’d just moved up one more spot on the ladder.

There was, to put it mildly, some extreme frustration on my part.  “God DAMN it!” may have left my lips more than a couple of times.  Eventually, I jammed my winnings in my pocket and skulked my way out, feeling like I’d blown an opportunity again.  I drove home, steaming a little, feeling that burning across the back of my neck that said I felt embarrassed for not succeeding and went to bed feeling that way.

And then after a good night’s sleep, I looked at what I’d done about a week later and realized I was an idiot.

In the aftermath of that 3rd place finish I vented my frustrations on twitter.  One of my poker buddies, who I think I’ve referred to here as the “Cyclone” (every hand is a roller coaster if he’s involved), offered up some words of encouragement which I was summarily dismissive of:

Chase: good run, aim for Shawn’s FT. I’m not even close, be 1st time in 5 yrs not to make it.

Me: I’m further out than you are. Right now my goal is just to not win the Unlucky prize :-/.

The “Unlucky” prize is 10% of the championship pool that is awarded to the player in the south game who has the most season points without cashing for the year.  At the time I made that comment to Chase, I was certain I was in the running to win that dubious award, or within a point or two of achieving it.  Not exactly a distinction I wanted, but hey at least it’s winning something, right?

God damn, is that a pathetic way to view it reading those words now.

It was that exchange that prompted me to go back and look at the points I’d earned in the north game for the season to see just how much of an opportunity I’d blown for the year.  And it was in looking at the numbers that I had an epiphany and realized just how much I was letting my own personal insecurities beat myself down.

In the last four months of the north game season I’d played a grand total of four times, for buy-ins/add-ons totaling $100.

I’d finished in the money there three of the four times.  I’m +$158 at that game.

Looking back on the results I’ve had in the south game, combined with the north, I’ve made the final table four out of eight times before last night.  I know that I bubbled one of those south final tables (last person eliminated before the money), which meant that if I’d caught just one or two cards here or there, I’d have have been looking at around a .625 cashing percentage.

It’s amazing the things you overlook when you’re beating yourself about the head and shoulders, no?

Last Saturday night I went into the tournament thinking about what I’d said to Chase on Twitter.  “Right now my goal is just not to win the Unlucky prize.”  So to do that, I’d have to finish 5th place out of 29th.  Given what I’d done in my previous eight tournaments, that was more achievable a goal than I would have thought if you’d asked me about those goals a month prior.

So I told myself, “Make every decision the right one.  If they don’t pan out, they don’t pan out.  But if you can make every decision one where you looked at the options you had, and the choice is a reasonable one, you won’t have any regrets.”

I swear on my grandparents’ graves, the very first hand I was dealt in the tournament, I got AxAx in the big blind.  I raised it pre-flop and got no action, but I took that as a very positive sign.  When a level later, I got KhKd and raised it three times the big blind, got a caller and then a ridiculous overshove all-in for 12 times my bet I had to stop and think about it for a minute.

What could he have?

The player in question isn’t a particularly good one.  He has a very bad tendency to over bet strong but not unbeatable hands like AxKx or medium high pairs like JxJx.  I thought there was a better than average chance he had one of those hands.  But there was always the possibility he had aces, which would leave me way behind.

“Make every decision one where you looked at the options you had, and (if) the choice is a reasonable one, you want have any regrets.”

I called.  He flipped over QxQx and bricked out.  Like that, I’m nearly double my starting stack.  I’m in position where if I wanted to be, I could be a serious bully with my chips.

And by god, did I take advantage of it.  I started turning up the heat on everyone on my table.  And it paid off, big time.  It helped that I was catching cards in a big way, but what was also helping me was the fact that in my head I’m thinking about the article my Sensei sent me that I quoted in my Queen of Versailles review.  I stopped playing every hand that I had that was big like it meant everything, and like that…the chips just started flowing my way.

We break down from three tables to two and I’ve got to readjust, get a read on my new table.  Two of the people from my first table made the move with me to the second.  The other seven that are there, I’ve got to completely readjust and get the feel for.  Bide my time, I’ve got the chip stack to be patient.

When I’m running on Saturday with friends, I’ve made the observation that it’s easier for me to pace myself with other people because I know roughly how fast they’re going.  I don’t wind up burning myself out too quickly trying to just be a “runner” without a plan, because I know what my ideal times are per mile and that they’re going within those ranges.  It’s easier to stay within my optimal zone when I have reference points I can draw from.

So I keep reminding myself: marathon, not a sprint. If I want to achieve my goal of not being in the lead for the “Unlucky” prize, I need to be standing high at the end, not the beginning.  Bide my time, make strong plays and be prepared to let go when I know I’m beaten.

Like clockwork, it all came to me.

At one point after we’d been down to two tables almost an hour, a player to my immediate right who I had some misfortunes playing against in the past looked at me.  I’d just raised over his limp (call) for what felt like the umpteenth time that night.  “You know, Enrique…I don’t think I knew how much I hated having you to my left until just now.”

In poker, when someone says something like that, when they’re indirectly calling you an asshole for beating up on them all night?  That’s a good thing.  That’s an unbelievably good thing.  Because you’re under their skin, and you know they’re going to make suboptimal decisions at some point.  And if you have the right hand to make them pay for that…well, it’s like printing your own money.  I didn’t say word one to him when he told me that, but inside my head I’m doing this:

Not unsurprisingly, I knocked him out a few hands later.  I am an absolute poker machine at this point.

We grind down to the final table, last ten players standing.  Redraw for seats at the last table.  I have to make three trips to move all chips over, that’s how hot I’m running.  And again, it’s time to step back a little, reassess and try to be choosy in my moments.  It pays off about four or five hands into the final ten, when Chris raises preflop to about three times the big blind.  I think there’s one caller between him and I and I look down (again) at KsKc.  I raised a bit too big but I wanted to narrow the field and not have anyone get cute behind me.  Two and a half or three times Chris’ bet.

Everyone else gets out of the way, Chris says something to the effect of “This hand plays itself, I think.  There’s only two hands that can beat me.” And shoves all-in, which I snap call.  My kings outlast his QxQx, and once again I’m riding high.

If you know me, you know I’m throwing up a little in my mouth as I write this.  But how ’bout them cowboys, eh?

Grind grind grind for another hour or so.  I chip up a little more after that all-in elimination, and I’m feeling like the cock of the goddamn walk.  I’ve got almost three times the average chip stack, I’ve got a good read on my table and I start thinking about winning this thing.  Sensei’s even sent me a text from the cash table, “Get this shit.”

Hubris, thy name is AcTs.

Pre-flop raise, and a “feel” player calls.  She’s good but she plays more from gut than strategy and I think she’s got a rabbit’s foot jammed somewhere uncomfortable for how often she makes it pay off.  Think one other player calls and we get a flop of KxQx6x that I decide to press with.  I bet about half the pot, not looking at how much she’s got behind.  She shoves for about 25% more and I realize I’ve hung myself out to dry.

I have to call because I feel pot committed, but in my head I’m kicking myself for not being smarter about my aggression.  I’m secretly hoping my ace is still good in allowing me some extra outs, and it is when she shows KxJx for top pair.  But the turn and river brick out, and I lose about a third of my stack.  I lose another 20% a couple of hands later when someone else rivers three of a kind on me to beat my overpaid, and suddenly I’m slightly below average chip stack with six other players and the blinds going up to 5K-10K.  Which means I’ve got slightly more than 12 big bets. Not a good place to be.

In the past, I’ve had a tendency to press too hard in these moments.  I’ve gotten the last of my chips in in marginal situations because I suddenly felt desperate to try and get back ahead.  And I’ve paid a price for it as a result.  I immediately tried to get any thoughts of doing anything like that out of my head.  I looked at who had how much left, and focused on who was behind me.  The goal was to cash.  So I focused on who was in weaker position to prevent me from making that cash happen.

Naturally because these were the people I needed to lose their chips first, I think if memory serves both of the chip stacks lower than mine doubled up before I knew what was happening.  Suddenly, I’m ready to start sweating bullets and just go “full retard” as the master thespian Kurt Lazarus put it.  Held myself in check, nitted it up a bit and then doubled up the get a little bit healthy.  We’re on the bubble now, six players playing for five pay spots.

They say that even the best players need to get a little bit lucky in order to win tournaments, and my luck came at just the right time.  After chipping up a bit to get healthy, I was in the small blind and limped with it folded around to me with KsQs.  The big blind shoved and it felt like the right time to go for it.  I called, and was in decent shape against Ax3x.  I flopped two spades, made the flush on the turn and suddenly the primary goal of cashing was reality.

So now that I’ve gotten what I really wanted out of the game (making the money), what to do next?  Chip stack was in better shape taking out the bubble-boy.  So now I’m trying to angle to work my way up the pay ladder a little.  Felt like I nitted it up too much on a couple of hands, over shoving with aces on one and making a too tight fold preflop on another that a middle ace would have flopped two pair.  But overall I felt good with my play, better when someone else busted and I moved up at least one more pay spot.

Now we’re at four, and I make a battle of the sexes joke as it’s two women and one other man left besides myself.  We pass chips around, and before long the other guy busts and I’m up another slot.  Third place was gravy as far as the payout was concerned given how close I felt I came to bubbling.  So now I’ve got it in my head that I have a shot at winning the damn thing.

Thinking back to my cashes in the north game, the new goal is to get heads up for the win.  My best showing at the north game this year was 3rd, so the final two feels like the right goal to shoot for.  It’s so far after the tourney now, I don’t remember much about how I did wind up getting there.  I do remember getting in a couple of tight spots where I folded and felt good about the decision but not liking it much.  But the patience paid off, and next thing I know it’s me and Kitty locking horns for the win.

Kitty’s a good player, one I’ve always had fun playing with and respected.  I knew no matter how the game turned out, I’d be happy with the results for the night.  I just figured I’d pick my spots, see what happened, and if you’ll pardon the cliche let the chips fall where they may.

Few hands in, I got crazy lucky when we got it all on while she had top pair on the flop, and I went runner-runner to catch the straight.  That suckout was enough to get me even up with Kitty in chips.  We traded the lead back and forth for a bit, and then the hand came that ended it.  I have AhJh on the button, I shove, she calls with Kx9x.  I’m ahead and feeling pretty good.

That good feeling fades a little when the flop comes 8x9x8x.  She’s got 2 pair now and I need one of my 6 outs to move ahead (any Ax or Jx gives me a bigger two pair).  When the burn and turn happens, I move even further behind when Kitty’s Kx pairs up too and she’s looking unbeatable.  Her kings and nines means the only thing that can save me is one of the three aces left in the deck to give me a bigger two pair.  I’ve gone from losing 76% of the time to losing roughly 93% of the time.

I burn and turn the river, and the game’s host (Shawn) says it before the thought registers in my brain.  “Ouch, counterfeited.”

The ace of spades.  My aces and eights over her kings and nines.  I look at Kitty and say honestly, “That’s just dirty, Kitty.  I’m sorry for that.”

She’s a good sport about it.  She just studies the cards for a bit, explaining “I just need to see it all laid out to be sure.”  Eventually, there’s a rueful smile and she holds out her hand to shake.  “Good game, Enrique,” she tells me.  I shake her hand and then let out a long exhale, not realizing just how much I’d been tightening up mentally/physically as the hand ran out.  I had thought I’d be ok with losing the tourney if that’s the way it shook out, but when I started the hand ahead I felt like I had it in my hands and was starting to deflate a little when the king hit the turn.

“Congratulations, Enrique,” Shawn said as he pulled the wad of bills out of his pocket.  He separated the two stacks out, counting out the one and handing the other to Kitty.  He laid the bills down in front of me and told me how much it should be.  I slumped back in my chair and then clapped once loudly.  “That’s how you end a motherfucking streak!” I declared.  The reality had sunk in and damn if it didn’t feel really frakking good.

Earlier that day I’d watched the Olympic men’s soccer gold medal match, cheering for Mexico against Brazil.  Mexico won that match 2-1, and I made the comment that it was a good day for Mexico all around.  “Viva México” never sounds more absurd than when it’s declared by one of the whitest Mexicans on the planet.

I drove home that night, and I think if I could have danced in the car while driving I would have.  I sang along with the tunes on my iPod more than I have in a long time.  What the hell, it was past 1am and I was in a good mood right?

I’ve told people that a lot of my anxieties from my dating life comes from me nitting it up in my personal life (and if you missed it earlier, I’ve linked to a definition of “nit” above so you understand what I mean).  I get too wound up, over think and then paralysis by over analysis takes over.  I’ve made a new personal rule that I’m only allowed to nit it up at the card table.  If I’ve gotten nitty there, I’ve spent my nit allowance for the week.  I think I’m going to wind up being happier in both the card playing and personal aspects of my life if I adhere to that rule.

Meantime, I’m looking more forward to my Vegas trip in November than I already was.  I’m looking to the next tournament this weekend and setting the goals up once again (back-to-back cashes is the initial goal).  And I’m still basking in the glow from winning.  I recognize I’m better than I’ve been giving myself credit for, in cards and in other areas.

My reads are getting better all around.

As the Summer Olympics are on the verge of wrapping up for another 4 years, I find myself idly wondering about something on the tail end of this year’s competitions.

I’m not an Olympic junkie like some of my friends.  I am, as most of you know, a bit of a sports nut.  Most of my allegiances are tied up in college football, with baseball and NFL probably being right behind.  Overall, though, I have a better than average knowledge of most big league professional sports, and a passing knowledge of the minor ones.  Simply put, if it’s an athletic competition, I can probably offer a reasonably informed take on it.

Yesterday after getting in my Saturday morning run, I found myself at Fado to watch the gold medal match for men’s soccer (nee fútbol) between Mexico and Brazil.  I know enough about international fútbol to recognize the two teams as one international powerhouse, and one upper tier competitor.  It’s possible I’m underselling Mexico’s accomplishments out of ignorance but as I recall, Mexico’s national squad has an abysmal record outside of its own hemisphere in international play.  If you’re going to be elite, you have be able to win on the road.  But I digress…

The match was a blast to watch, with the single fastest goal I’ve ever seen scored in a match since I started watching fútbol (29 seconds into the first half, which did mark as a FIFA record for fastest since they started keeping track).  Brazil was on its heels the rest of the match, and despite a goal in extra time in the 2nd half Mexico had the match well in hand.  The decidedly pro-Mexico fan base at the pub became extra vocal when the final whistle blew, making it an even more enjoyable experience to be a part of.

In my mind, I contrast that match against the men’s basketball final that was played this morning between the US and Spain.  The US sent another “Dream Team” of NBA all-stars with the intention of dominating another Olympics.  And for the most part, the script held.  Team USA won out in group play by an average margin of victory of 36 points per game, though that margin is artificially inflated by 70+ point curb stompings of Nigeria and Tunisia.  They beat Lithuania by only five and trailed for a lot of that game.

Elimination rounds for the US went according to Hoyle, and they cruised into a final against Spain where they were pushed to the limit.  It was a one point margin for the US until the 4th when they opened up some breathing room and didn’t let go, finishing with a seven point win.  Spain played solid, never let the game get out of control and if a few more shots for them had fallen, well…who knows.

The point of this post is the question of why it is the rest of the world seems to have made such significant strides in sports that are traditionally considered to be “American” while we struggle so much to close the gap in a sport that is so popular in the rest of the world.  US Soccer was virtually nonexistent as an international entity for almost half a century between its most celebrated win (1-0 over England in the 1950 World Cup tourney) and the 1994 World Cup which the US hosted.

That 1994 team acquitted itself admirably, getting to the knockout round before losing in the round of 16 to Brazil 1-0.  The US followed up that promising showing by laying an absolute egg four years later in Italy, losing all three matches it played in and finishing 32nd out of the 32 teams in the tournament.  There have been some brief flashes of late, including the win against Spain the Confederation Cup semis in 2009.  But they’re still tanked in the mid 20s internationally and I dare say I won’t see a US team ranked in the top 10 in the world in my lifetime.

(To those who would ask, “Why do you care? It’s soccer.” I would say that it’s a sport I find highly entertaining, and it’s my blog dammit, I’ll write what I want.  And if you question whether I know as much about soccer as I’ve written, know that I saw the Spain victory at a now defunct pub in Austin live, and have know about the 1950 win since watching that 1994 US WC team during the tourney.  Bite me.)

I guess it just surprises me the strides other nations have made in terms of mastering US dominated sports while the US has struggled so mightily to match that degree of improvement in “The Beautiful Game” despite what I’d imagine to be a marked disparity in terms of resources available to the respective nations in question.

At this point, I think it would be fair to argue that there are at least a half-dozen countries that could field international teams that would be highly competitive with the best the US could field in baseball.  Off the top of my head, I’d think Japan, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba would give an US born all-star team a serious run for its money.  In addition, I think South Korea would be able to surprise some people, and there’s probably more than a couple of other Latin American teams that would do the same.  Hell, Canada’s gotten competitive lately.

In basketball, the US may rule the roost, but Spain, Lithuania, Russia and Argentina could all put together teams that would be highly competitive.  If you did a round robin tourney with those five and throw in maybe Australia, Brazil and France and I doubt the US comes out of it unbeaten.  They win the championship seven, maybe eight times out of ten but even then it wouldn’t come easy and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of titles they pulled down was less than that.

In hockey, the US is feast or famine in terms of level of competitiveness.  We have as many eighth place finishes in the Olympics in the last twenty years as we do silver medals (two apiece).  No gold since Lake Placid in 1980.

It’s more than fair to point out that for the Olympic competitions that there are some age restrictions for some of the sports that would ostensibly inhibit the US competitiveness in soccer.  Though there is now an outdoor professional league with a decent amount of history at this point (I didn’t realize Major League Soccer was almost twenty years old), it’s not nearly on par with the developmental leagues in other countries.  And the under-18 and under-25 developmental systems can’t even begin to be compared.  The difference between the two seems to be like night and day, with the US being largely in the dark.

I get the argument that the US just isn’t a soccer nation but that just doesn’t seem to wash to me.  World Cup draws big numbers every year in terms of US viewership.  Part of that can certainly be ascribed to the US’s long tradition as a nation of immigrants, no matter what the GOP stance on that issue may be.  We are a melting pot nation.  A large portion of that melting pot comes from constituents that are from fútbol loving nations (Mexico, Latin America and most of Europe) would seem to give the US a built-in base from which to pull from.

I grant that a lot of players with international heritage would and do go home to play for their country of origin.  But you can work around that with the right tools and attitude, fostering a love and pride in the adopted/home nation of the US to rival anything the rest of the world could come up with.  And god knows, there’s a market to be tapped if you did so.  The money is there if you know how to get it.  Lots of eyeballs, lots of people with money in their wallets (granted maybe less so in the current economic environment than in previous years).

But the gap never seems to narrow, and I can’t quite understand why that is.  I’m not trying to figure this out from an “America, fuck yeah!” perspective as much as just from a simple perspective of problem solving.  The playing field internationally is level or at least reasonably competitive in most sports, tilted away from the US in fútbol and towards the US in football.  So what’s holding the US back?

Just random food for thought as the Olympics wrap up.  I’d be curious to what other people think.

Poker is absolutely not about making big hands and collecting the jackpot, and if you keep looking at it that way you simply won’t get better.

If there is a guy in the game who is playing every pot, has a ten thousand dollar stack, and is paying off every bet to the river whenever he hits top pair, then fine. Play the game like a slot machine. No need to wait for a slot attendant, this fellow will dutifully pay your jackpots.

But if there’s no one in the game regularly paying off all the big hands, and this is usually the case now in Las Vegas games and in many other locales, then a slot machine approach won’t go very far.

Ed Miller, Card Player Magazine

The Queen of Versailles is a documentary that has absolutely nothing to do with poker, though Vegas does play a role in the story.  The article linked above is one a friend sent me recently that happened to be stuck in my head when I went into this film.  That “jackpot” mentality is one that seems to pervade the financial industry repeatedly (a new riff on the wisdom of Gordon Gekko, no doubt).  And it provides some insight into where filmmaker Lauren Greenfield may have started with her idea for this film, but could never have predicted where it would end.

David and Jackie Siegel are living the dream in 2007.  David has made himself a billionaire several times over as the owner of the nation’s largest chain of time-share properties.  His wife Jackie, approximately 30 years David’s junior, was a one-time successful model and former beauty queen. Together they have 7 children of their own and adopted an eighth.  Having spent some time traveling, the couple decides to use their fortune to construct their dream home: a 90,000 square foot replica of the Palace of Versailles.

Well…sort of.  There comes a moment where Jackie explains that it was influenced by the Palace, but also by the Paris Las Vegas resort.  The revelation I found to be hysterical for how un-self aware it shows Jackie to be.  And it seems like that is the direction this movie is intending to go: highlighting the largesse of the ultra-rich in America and the foibles they pursue with their resources.

(Yes, I used foibles and largesse in the same sentence.  The title is Queen of Versailles, if I don’t use a certain number of pretentious French words, they might revoke my film snob card.)

The house is about half-finished when the market crashes in 2008.  All of a sudden much of the quick liquid cash that was the foundation of Seigel’s Westgate empire dried up.  And it does so not only while Siegel is building his mini-Versailles, but also as he’s trying to finish paying off the PH Westgate Towers project he’s just opened up in Las Vegas.  Both David and Jackie see many of the dreams they had go up in smoke, and have their lifestyles severely altered.  What had started as a story about the house to end all houses becomes a snapshot of the impact the economic downturn has on two members of the überwealthy that rode the economic highs to fame and fortune.

Schadenfreude.  We has it.

And were that all there were at this point, Queen of Versailles would have been an ordinary, average movie.  But in the interviews and day-to-day life segments Greenfield utilizes to illustrate the downfall, the story becomes something more.  I freely admit to my commie, pinko, hippie liberal leanings and a fairly healthy measure of contempt towards that body of individuals labeled “The 1%” for the most part.  There is not one fiber in my being that wanted to like any of the Siegels, save for maybe the children who didn’t choose this life.  By the end of the movie, there wasn’t any like in me but there was an emotion I found myself unprepared to feel.

Sympathy.  Not full bore pity.  But genuine sympathy.

There’s a lot of emotional ground that gets covered between the open contempt I started with and the sympathy I ended with, and I feel like Greenfield negotiates the story deftly.  It’s pretty obvious the Siegels agreed to the project with a different set of assumptions in mind based on where they were when the filming started.  That Siegel is now suing Greenfield for defamation of character defamation (as noted in this story on the film itself) would certainly give the impression that Siegel either expected the film to be much more flattering or didn’t expect the uglier side of his personality to be put on full display.

Which is surprising given that David, in his limited screen time, seems to be very prone to tunnel vision and more than a touch of narcissism.  Early on he makes the audacious claim that he personally was responsible for getting George W. Bush elected, then plays demure when asked for an explanation.  It may not have been entirely legal, he says. (The explanation is laid out in greater detail here.  News flash: it wasn’t.)  The impression I got was that he liked to convey the image of man with a lot of power to anyone who would be influenced by that.  His schmoozing Miss America contestants feeds that same idea.

But ultimately David fades to the background as he buries himself in trying to find a solution to his financial woes.  That makes the movie all Jackie’s and it’s this transition to focus on her where Greenfield shows the impressions of Jackie aren’t as cut and dried as they’d appear when you first meet her.  Sporting gratuitous amounts of bling, and grossly artificial tan and breast implants that make the tan look authentic, it would be easy to pigeon hole Jackie as the trophy wife ditz who’s just there to be something else David can use to illustrate his wealth.

The more Greenfield reveals of Jackie’s background and personality, however, the less clear cut this stereotype becomes.  As a woman who graduated with a bachelor’s in engineering and worked for IBM for a short while, it becomes evident that Jackie isn’t as superficial as one might presume, or maybe that she wasn’t always that way.  The choices she articulates from her past, combined with the ones she makes throughout the film make her a much more complicated person.  And considerably more human.

By the end of the movie, everyone is a couple of years older and changed considerably by the experience.  The physical passage of time is most evident in the children, but it’s the emotional maturity that the kids display that make you truly appreciate what they’ve all been through.  In a time when much of America is struggling financially, it would be easy to dismiss the Siegel’s experience as “struggles” with full on air quotes.  And I think there’s even some merit to that line of criticism.  But it’s not as easy a conclusion to come to as would have appeared when the movie starts.

When it comes to documentaries, I worship at the holy altar of Errol Morris and Alex Gibney.  Actually, in retrospect I think watching this movie paired with Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest People in the Room would be a classic course on the meaning of hubris.  Greenfield doesn’t merit being in that league…yet.  But if this movie is any indication, she’s got the chops to be in that ballpark pretty quickly.  She’s made a film that gives you a premise, challenges it intellectually and leaves it up to you as the audience to take from it what you feel like the real lesson is.  I’m still picking it apart in my head days later.  That’s a real credit to her work.  I can’t recommend it enough.

In light of the Aurora shootings, it feels a little bit weird to be writing about this movie under any circumstances. Personally, I was exceptionally conflicted given that as much as I loved The Dark Knight, there was very little in the trailers and run-up to this movie that had me really excited.  I had a much bigger, “Wow” feeling about The Avengers, both before and after seeing that movie.  And my attempts to see this at all opening weekend seemed cursed.  Imax was well sold out for Friday/Saturday showings and then I had to cancel the Saturday tickets I’d purchased due to poor planning on my part.  Once the time finally came around for me to see it, did it live up to expectations?

Well…yes.  And yet, there’s a little bit of a no there at the end as well.  Which is apparently enough to encourage the wrath of a million comic book nerds, but what the hell…my email’s been kinda boring of late.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after The Dark Knight left off. (Spoiler if you haven’t seen The Dark Knight) Batman has gone into self-imposed exile with Gotham City believing that he killed Harvey Dent along with two others responsible for helping the Joker kill Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and disfigure Dent.  The city, in the wake of those crimes, passed a sweeping set of laws called “The Dent Act” that has allowed Gotham to unilaterally crack down significantly on organized crime in the city.

In the wake of those events, Gotham is closer to being an ideal urban metropolis than it ever has been while Batman was active.  During these eight years, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become something of an eccentric recluse.  He continues to fund some of the political bigwigs in Gotham, but beyond that his participation in society as a whole is minimal.  He certainly has no time for Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a member of Wayne Enterprises’ board that wants to talk about why Wayne abandoned a green energy endeavor that was on the verge of delivering viable fusion reaction to the world.

Even the entreaties of loyal butler and friend Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine, regal as ever) can’t convince Wayne to rejoin functional society.  Wayne’s grief over Dawes’ death runs that deep.  Wayne believes he’s already done all he can as Batman, and can’t contribute constructively to Gotham’s betterment as an entrepreneur/billionaire philanthropist so really, what’s the point?  He resigns himself to the shadows, brooding and watching which when you think about it is really what Batman does best so maybe he’s still in the zone.

As is the wont of comic books, however, you can’t ever stay out of the game for long.  Two events wind up pulling Wayne back into the cowl.  The first is the unexpected burglary at Wayne Manor by a hired maid, who Wayne comes to identify as a jewel thief/burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway).  The second is the invasion of Gotham City by a shadowy figure known only as Bane (Tom Hardy, who may be chewing the scenery the whole way, I can’t tell because of the damn face mask).  Bane appears to be engaging in illicit affairs with Gotham’s underworld, but to what end only Batman can find out. Read more

I suppose having written once quite regularly for Quirkee.com that it comes as no surprise I like Wes Anderson’s films.  The man has made quirky his stock and trade very successfully over the years.

That said, The Darjeeling Limited left me a little cold when I saw it.  So I wasn’t in a rush to see Moonrise Kingdom.  Hell, I hadn’t even seen the trailer until after I went to watch the movie.  But that quirkiness is what drives Anderson’s appeal to his fans, I think.  As well as feeds his haters.  I happen to be friends with a couple that represents a member from each camp.  They were torn about going to see Moonrise, so I offered to take the bullet for Audrey and go with Casi to check it out.  In the end, Audrey wound up coming along anyway.

I can’t speak for Audrey, but I know I’m definitely glad I went for the ride.

Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gillman) are two children living separate lives on a small island off the New England coast in the 1960s.  By chance, they meet each other briefly at a church recital and become immediately taken with each other.  After a series of letters back and forth, they decide to run off together to be in love…somewhere.

See that’s the thing…there’s not really much of a plan.  Sam only has a rough idea of the path to follow that comes from his experience as a Khaki Scout under the tutelage of his troop leader Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton).  Sam is with the Khaki Scouts because life in his foster home isn’t working out so well, but the other Khaki Scouts don’t know what to do with him either.  So leaving really might have been the best option for Sam.

Suzy wasn’t faring much better in her home life.  The daughter of local attorneys Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), Suzy is frequently finding herself in trouble because of her violent temper.  Her parents have no clue how to deal with her, but then again they’re not exactly accomplished in dealing with each other.  Suzy knows this from her observations of her mother running off every now and again to share a cigarette with the local sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis).

So Suzy and Sam are wandering through the wilderness of a sparsely populated New England island with a limited destination in mind while the rest of the island searches for the lost young lovers.  All with the threat of a ferocious hurricane bearing down on the island (a fact provided by the sparsely used Bob Balaban as an unnamed narrator).

There’s not a whole lot to the plot beyond that, and its seems pretty flimsy on the surface. I had to laugh, as there was one of those someecards floating around Facebook that made me think immediately of this movie as I was watching it:

A guess at its heart Anderson’s story (from a screenplay he wrote with Roman Coppola) isn’t that much more far fetched than Romeo and Juliet. And it has a lot more whimsy than Shakespeare’s opus about young love.  But the thing of it is, as silly and ridiculous as the whole thing is it worked for me on so many levels its frightening.

A big piece of credit for that goes to Hayward and Gillman as Suzy and Sam.  Both actors were 12-years old when they won the roles and there’s this surreal maturity about both of them and the way they play the characters that just sucked me into their characters completely.  Kara Hayward in particular looks a older than she really is, probably in no small part to how she’s made up in the role.  That maturity in appearance and composure makes it easier for me to buy into how utterly bored she is with her existence.  If no one in the house is dealing with her on her level, why stay?

And for me that plays in perfectly with Gillman as Sam.  The kid’s not all there all of the time, and he may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but goddamn if he isn’t earnest in everything he does.  Every action he takes, every choice he makes you believe he thinks it’s honestly the right thing to do and that makes it the perfect reason to do it.  I swear, if he were a younger and they were to do a live action version of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown I’d kill for him to play Linus.  He just has that vibe about him.

What’s interesting is how Sam and Suzy are set up in direct contrast to their respective parental figures and the choices they’ve made as adults.  It’s clear that Suzy’s parents are largely going through the motions with their lives.  The way they recite legal procedure in response to a crisis by rote is symbolic of that.  They’re hung up in the procedure without every questioning the underlying motivation behind what they do.

Which makes the alluded to entanglements between Laura and Captain Sharp poignant and sad.  The nature of their relationship and how far back it goes isn’t ever explicitly stated.  You have to infer it from what’s given, but what is very obvious is it’s a relationship that seems heavy on the regret for the roads not taken by both characters.  The way Willis plays Sharp, he feels very much resigned to his life and ok with it except for those moments when Laura is around.  That makes a scene with Sam and Captain Sharp a lot more affecting for me for what message Sharp is trying to send Sam.

(Unrelated, but it also happens to remind me of a moment at my brother’s 21st birthday party when he was drunk and lecturing his best friend’s youngest brother about the evils of the fairer sex.  But that’s a story for another day :-).)

Bill Murray’s only got a few scenes Walt, but he adds that level of complexity to the Laura/Sharp dynamic that it really needs.  Connect that with a scene with he and Laura in bed recounting the day and the connection between them feels so real to me. There’s a familiarity in a long married couple that’s hard to capture spontaneously on film, I think.  For two actors who haven’t worked that much together, I thought Murray and McDormand nailed it.  They’re masters of their craft in that regard.

Ed Norton’s Scout Master Ward could have really gotten lost in the shuffle with all the other idiosyncratic personalities populating the story.  I think he stands out just enough to make something worthwhile of the role, but just barely.  I think at this point I’m just happy to see him trying again, for the longest time it’s felt to me like he’s really mailing his performances in.

If anyone is underutilized in this movie, it’s Tilda Swinton as Social Services.  Her role comes in late in the movie and it just feels like an artificial plot point to drive the final sequence along.  She can’t really do much with it, and I don’t get why she’s in there but she looks fabulous doing it (as always).  The same could be said for Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, regional Khaki Scouts leader.

The thing that sends me over the top with this movie is Anderson’s direction and sense of style  in the art direction.  He and cinematographer Robert Yeoman give the whole thing a very fairy tale/cartoon feel that’s consistent with most of Anderson’s work.  But here it feels more right than it has in any of  Anderson’s films, maybe going all the way back to Rushmore.  The opening shots in the Bishop house are done from a forced perspective and with the house on a scale that makes all of the people living within feel almost like dolls in a doll house and we’re making them act out this crazy story we’ve come up with.

Part of what made me take notice of that is the Alamo pre-show which showed the Max Fischer Players recreating the MTV Movie Awards nominees from the year Rushmore was released.  That combined with the scenes of Fischer’s stage production of Apocalypse Now from Rushmore made me more cognizant of that whole idea of a child’s view of grown up stories.  The way Rushmore captured that through Max Fischer’s eyes made that movie so much more charming and endearing to me.

Moonrise Kingdom has that same endearing quality in spades for me, and I think that may be why I would probably rank it as my favorite Anderson film.  He reigns in the quirky just a bit and adds some serious pathos to make it feel like grown up ideas are still there under the story being told from a kid’s perspective.  Anything that hits me on that level of meta, I’m buying into for the effort along.  That it actually pulls it off and does it well is a big bonus for me.  Maybe my 2nd or 3rd favorite movie released this year, the more that I think about it.

I think I’m a tad concerned at the number of posts I’ve been putting up lately that fit into the “Get off my lawn!” category I set up.  I don’t know if it’s that I’m really that angry these days, or it’s just that emotion is easier to channel into blog productivity.

Probably a little from column A, a little from column B.  In this case, though, it’s completely justified.

Since the Jerry Sandusky case broke at Penn State last year it seemed to me that every time I thought the news couldn’t get more disgusting, that one man couldn’t possibly be more reprehensible than he already was.  And then the trial started and the evidence was put forth, and I think a little more of my soul and belief in people as a species died a little bit more.  And that level of disgust went double for Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curly and Gary Schultz.  They didn’t commit the acts against those poor kids, but they may as well have for turning “blind” eyes and leaving things unsaid, lest it sully their football program.

And even with Paterno and Spanier I thought I’d reached the lowest levels of cynicism possible where they were concerned. Once again, I’m proven wrong.

There is one instance in the Freeh Commission report where Graham Spanier, the disgraced former Penn State president, said enough is enough. One instance when he slammed down his authoritative fist to protect the welfare of his charges and the reputation of his institution.

It wasn’t against Jerry Sandusky, of course.

It was December 1997 and Spanier was soon to learn that the longtime Penn State defensive coordinator had been accused of molesting a young boy while showering with him in the Penn State locker room, according to the Freeh report. But Spanier wouldn’t stand up to old Jer, because that wouldn’t be the “humane” way of handling it. Or so he wrote in an email.

No, Sandusky got to keep fondling right under Spanier’s nose for years to come.

That was a pardon not shared by star Penn State running back Curtis Enis and professional sports agent Jeff Nalley, who dared violate the document that directed Spanier’s moral compass, the NCAA rulebook.

Enis was immediately declared ineligible, and cited as a stain on Penn State’s so-called “grand experiment” of creating a healthy balance between academics and athletics. The agent, meanwhile, was reported to the NCAA and the local district attorney, banned from ever setting foot on Penn State’s campus (“persona non grata” Spanier declared), charged with a crime and publicly shamed by the president himself so everyone understood the evil and danger he represented.

“He fooled around with the integrity of the university,” Spanier said at the time, according to the Freeh report. “And I won’t stand for that.”

If fooling around with kids in the showers was something Graham Spanier could apparently stand for, then what was Enis and Nalley’s crime against humanity?

They bought a suit.

Let the absolute absurdity of that revelation sink in a bit before you read the rest of the story at the link above.

Be suspected of molesting children on athletic center property? You get pushed into early retirement and still get to hang around with the powers that be.  You still get the cachet that comes with being associated with one of the (then at least) most respected college football programs in the country. You still get the residual benefit of your prior status, which will ultimately help fund your charity organization which also indirectly facilitates your hunting ground for additional victims?

But talk to an agent and let him buy you a suit? When it might possibly be an NCAA infraction and could maybe put restriction on that same football program?  Oh, hell no.  That cannot stand!

There’s a part of me that really wants to just break down and cry reading those words. That wants to throw up knowing that what they describe was/is a reality in this fucked up human’s worldview and that the mother fuckers ACCEPTED THIS as permissible. (Emphasis mine below, the “He” referred to is Spanier.)

“He’d always lean on the Penn State thing,” said one administrator who served alongside Spanier on NCAA committees. “He always made the Penn State part known. Like, ‘Well, we do it within the rules and still win at Penn State, at Penn State football. Why can’t you? Why lower the bar? What’s wrong with you?‘ “

If there is a higher power that believes in justice in the world, those words in bold will either be chiseled into Spanier’s tombstone or spray painted on repeatedly, replaced every time they’re cleaned up again.  They ought to be welded/etched into the base of the Paterno statue at the stadium in Happy Valley, which the board of trustees have said they’re not going to take down at this time.

“You can’t let people stampede you into making a rash decision,” a trustee said. “The statue represents the good that Joe did. It doesn’t represent the bad that he did.”

How can this person say that honestly?  How can they possibly believe it?  It doesn’t matter what was known when they commissioned or installed the piece.  What matters is what we know now, what we know to be true.  That Paterno knew about the allegations against Sandusky and did nothing to stop it.  And that really is the truth, no matter what Paterno’s family may be saying in denial since the Freeh report was published.  From the family statement after the report was released:

With that said, we want to take this opportunity to reiterate that Joe Paterno did not shield Jerry Sandusky from any investigation or review. The 1998 incident was fully and independently investigated by law enforcement officials. The Freeh report confirms this. It is also a matter of record that Joe Paterno promptly and fully reported the 2001 incident to his superiors. It can certainly be asserted that Joe Paterno could have done more. He acknowledged this himself last fall. But to claim that he knowingly, intentionally protected a pedophile is false.

They’ve also asserted that Paterno was “fooled” by Sandusky, as well as the other PSU authorities.  Which begs the question, “If Paterno acknowledged he could have done more about Sandusky, how fooled was he?”  Methinks the only ones being fooled are those so blind they cannot see.  And it’s not just his family:

Paterno’s legacy has been “marred,” in the words of board of trustees chair Karen Peetz. And many are demanding that Penn State remove the statue of its iconic coach.

“To take his shrine down, that would be the most disrespectful thing you could do,” Williams said.

They think it could happen. Not this weekend, as thousands of people descend on State College for the annual arts festival. But maybe before the season kicks off in September.

And if it did?

“It would be worse than November,” said Ashley Patton, who visited the statue with her sister, Taylor, a Penn State sophomore. “For sure.”

November brought mass rioting and demonstrations, mostly by Penn State students, in the wake of Paterno’s firing.

He may be a pedophile enabling now-deceased football coach, but he’s THEIR pedophile-enabling football coach by God.  They’re so much in denial around the campus when the Freeh report was published, the TVs in the student center were flipped to public access.  That all of them were switched at once doesn’t necessarily rule out that a lone random student or students did it in some kind of misguided protest, but it strikes me highly unlikely.

Come to think of it, there’s a lot about Penn State lately that stretches my sense of credulity.

I’ve been lucky over the last 2+ years to mentor a young man through Big Brothers Big Sisters, as most of you know.  It is a responsibility I take very seriously, and the personal rewards I’ve reaped from the experience for how it’s helped shape my worldview go beyond measure.  Christian is a blessing in my life, and I take that blessing very seriously.

Part of the orientation for BBBS goes over the rules regarding visits, and what you spend your time doing.  There are perfectly reasonable guidelines regarding expenses for outings, rules regarding the giving of gifts.  There are parameters regarding overnight visits.  I can’t drink whenever Christian is in my care.  I know what the rules are and I do my earnest best to adhere to those rules, because in the end it’s not just Christian’s trust I have to earn.  It is his family’s, it is our match specialist’s.

If I’ve earned that trust, I damn well plan to do everything in my power to maintain that level of trust.  The first time I missed an outing because work ran long, I was crushed because I’d felt like I’d failed on some level as a mentor.  I got over it in time, but that still hangs in the back of my mind being my own worst judge and all that.  And all of that is just for one person, one kid’s life and faith.

Joe Paterno had a responsibility that exceeds mine by multiple orders of magnitude, and there is no question he shirked it.  If he had any knowledge of what happened with Sandusky and turned away from that responsibility while working with Spanier to bust Curtis Enis’ chops over getting bought a suit when his eligibility to play was coming to an end?

There is no circle of hell cold enough for that person, I’m sorry.

The scary thing is that I can almost understand the arguments in favor of keeping the statue. I recognize how much some people connect their alma maters to their own experience and how the former can shape the latter.  And I can recognize just how fanatical some people can be about their football teams.

But there is one thought that gives me pause and tempers a lot of my enthusiasm for the upcoming football season.  I think it was Bomani Jones who originally pointed out this issue with the whole Sandusky scandal, something I’d never considered until he mentioned it on Twitter.  When Sandusky stepped down as defensive coordinator for PSU, he had up to that point been widely considered the heir apparent for Paterno back in 1996-1998.  He was one of the top coordinators in the country and he produced consistently solid defenses.

When he retired from the game, no one came snooping around to try and talk him out of it?  No one with an open head coaching position or even a coordinator’s position was interested in talking to the man who had been destined to succeed the legend of Happy Valley?  Not one school?

Bullshit.

When Urban Meyer “retired” from UF, he didn’t even last the offseason.  He changed it to “leave of absence” that lasted just the summer, coached one more year, then stepped down for health reasons or whatever the given excuse was.  That lasted all of one season.  Now he’s head at Ohio State.  Bill Snyder built Kansas State up from a joke of a program to a significant team to be reckoned with.  He stepped down as coach in 2005, and when his replacement couldn’t replicate Snyder’s consistency the program turned to…Bill Snyder again.

It’s not just head coaches in college football either.  Coordinators who don’t make the cut to be head coaches wind up being recycled among other big name programs.  They never really go away.  But Jerry Sandusky did, irrevocably.  Given what we know about what Spanier, Curley, Schultz and Paterno knew then, there’s the very real possibility that either 1) PSU gave negative info about Sandusky to other schools to make him look like an unattractive hire and keep his crimes a secret to protect themselves (which is a stomach churning possibility); or 2) that it was an open secret about Sandusky’s crimes and the fraternity of coaches chose to just avoid him without taking action in deference to Paterno (far fetched, but possible and exponentially worse).

There is something about big money college athletics that seems to encourage clouded judgement and poor choices from all those directly connected to it and those that follow it.  There’s a part of me that will wonder with every UT football game if I’m somehow enabling secret goings on that are as bad as what Sandusky did or perhaps far worst.  Either possibility makes me want to hurk.

I know that seems an overdramatic take on the events that unfolded at PSU, but at the same time it feels like people have brushed far too off under the justification of “It’s just a football game.”

It feels more than a tad surreal to read that Jennifer Capriati was inducted into the tennis Hall of Fame today.

Capriati’s first grand slam semi-final, the 1990 French Open, would have occurred right around the time I graduated from high school.  She is four years my junior, and I first became aware of  her because of features Sports Illustrated had run on her before she made the French semis.  I’d had a subscription to SI for several years at that point, and it always struck me odd that there could be professional athletes younger than I was back then.

I’m not a big tennis buff, but I do like watching the majors when they happen.  I’ve actually taken time out to watch some epic matches.  I vaguely remember Jimmy Connors’ octofinals win in 1991 when he went five sets against Aaron Krickstein (don’t give me too much credit, I had to look it up on Wikipedia, although to my credit I did remember it went 5 sets and he had to come back from a mile to win the last set). And I do remember Pete Sampras’ vomiting during his quarters win against Alex Corretja in 1996 (again, thanks Wikipedia).

From the women’s side I don’t remember much in the way of specific matches, unfortunately.  I do remember being horrified when Monica Seles got stabbed courtside, and I think she really got robbed of some of the best years of her career because of some nut job who was able to get past security.  I’ve always been in awe of the Williams sisters, who really should look into movie careers after they’re done playing if they stay in the same shape.  Seriously, Serena looks like she could break a man in two as soon as look at him.

What I do remember of Capriati in my youth was how it always seemed like she was in way over her head as she found her way (or didn’t) as a professional tennis player.  The drug busts didn’t surprise me but I’ve always been enough of a sports fanatic of all types to almost assume to occasional drug bust as a right of passage for all big name jocks.  When Capriati fell of the map in 1993, I really thought that would be the end of her.

When she came back in 1996, I figured it cynically as a money grab.  I don’t recall the details at the time, but I could have sworn she’d had to declare bankruptcy at some point.  I figured she had bills to pay and that’s all there was to the story.

But a funny thing happened on the way to naked cynicism.  Capriati kept playing and she wound up getting pretty damn good.  Older and wiser, she didn’t display a lot of the pure athleticism on the court that I remembered from her first few years, but she played a much more balanced game.  When she came out of virtually nowhere to win the 2001 Australian Open as a 12-seed, I had to admit I was dumbfounded.

That she would come back to win two more grand slams and play some of the best tennis of her career against players almost a decade her junior (Martina Hingis was cream of the crop then, and the Williams sisters were just then becoming the earth-moving tennis forces to be reckoned with) is really a testament to her will and determination to make the most of the talents she had.  I know a lot of people are skeptical or dismissive of professional athletes and their accomplishments, but as a sports junkie I was in awe of how she really took advantage of a second chance at life and pushed it to the absolute max.

Good job, Cap.  I tip a pint to ya.