Monday, June 29, 2009

40 Minutes Without Scratching

Four or five years ago, on a visit to Daytona Beach, we got sucked into one of those timeshare condominium sales pitches. We weren’t in the market to buy a week in a timeshare, but the price was too good to pass up, cheaper than a beat-up used car. This is because the condominium was in an older building that had been converted from a beachfront motel. On either side there are brand-new high-rise condominium complexes where units were selling for 5 times the price. We decided to buy right on the spot, for the simple reason that we never intended to stay there.


Our logic was that our cheap condominium was worth exactly as much as the expensive condominiums next door, when you traded it on the timeshare network. That is, if we wanted a week in a 5-star resort, we could trade our shabby little condo for it just as easily as the residents of the high-rise next door. And so we have. In all the time we’ve owned it, we’ve never used our week in Daytona - we’ve always traded it for a week somewhere else.

Because we don’t live far from Daytona Beach, we sometimes drive over on a weekend to hang out at the beach and use the pool or the hot tub, which is a privilege afforded to the owners. Another privilege afforded to the owners is the ability to rent a unit for a weekend, when one is available, at about a third the cost that other guests must pay. So on Father’s Day weekend (June 20th and 21st), my wife rented a unit for us to relax under the sun.

The weekend prior to that, I did a little yard work. In Florida, yard work is brutally hot and relentless. Plants grow like they’re on steroids. I worked up a soaking sweat and somehow pulled something in my back. It didn’t hurt right away; it took a few days, but by Father’s Day weekend, it felt like I had fought off a gang of hoodlums and still had a switchblade embedded in my spine.

I hobbled down to the beach on Saturday morning, plopped heavily into a beach chair, and quickly realized that the switchblade wasn’t going to leave me alone. I’d be much more comfortable floating in the water. So I took off my t-shirt and slathered on some sunblock, and made a stupid rookie mistake. Anxious to alleviate my pain, I got right into the water without letting the sunblock set up.

So a day later, I had a switchblade in my back, and my skin was on fire.

A week later, the fire had gone out, but the switchblade had only worked its way in deeper. I can sit for long periods, or stand fairly comfortably. But that transition from sitting to standing is an agonizing exercise. I’ve seen a chiropractor 3 times without much relief, so he ordered an MRI today to check whether I’ve somehow ruptured a disk.

When I got to the radiology lab, the technician told me that I would have to lie motionless for 40 minutes. Suddenly, I realized what intense torture I was in for. This is because my skin has just begun to peel, and it itches, quite fiercely. I’ve been scratching all day.

I was laid out on a movable table, which was then inserted beneath the imaging unit – a gigantic cylinder weighing several tons, positioned half an inch in front of my nose. The technician told me to lie perfectly still, and left the room. The unit began to thrum and hum and chatter, like the intro to a Pink Floyd song. It didn’t go well with the soft rock and cool jazz they pumped in to relax the patients. The smell of ozone filled the air.

Within 5 minutes, it felt like I was covered with ants. Somehow, I endured the 40-minute torture, except for the last minute or so, when the technician shut off the machine, but announced over the PA that he just wanted “a quick look at the pictures” before he came back into the room to release me. That minute lasted forever. I think I lost my mind temporarily. I was free to scratch, but because of the confining imaging unit, I couldn’t reach where it itched.

Strangely, once he extracted me from the imaging unit and I sat up, the knifelike pain in my lower back pretty much took precedence over the itch, and I didn’t feel the need to scratch at all. Tomorrow I’ll find out how much longer I’ll have to live with this.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More on My Commute

I’ve written before about my commute to work, which takes me through a part of the city that nearly overloads my visual cortex. It’s full of the usual visual pollution that often plagues urban environments, but interspersed between the tacky neon beer signs and pathetic, oversized inflatable objects that sprout in automobile dealership lots, you can find some unusual, stimulating things worth seeing.

For example, here’s a hand-painted sign for a bar:


I’d stop in for a drink after work, but I don’t have a pair of pink leather assless chaps.

In another previous post, I showed this building, which boasts a flying saucer on the roof:


Less than a block away from Hank’s bar is another flying saucer, which has been parked in the liquor store parking lot for months.


It holds four aliens seated in comfort, arranged so that they can play bridge on the long journey from Alpha Centauri.


But by far the strangest thing on my commute so far is this bungalow with a hollow tree out in front.


Wait, what’s that in the trunk? OH-MY-GOD.


I’ll bet the neighborhood kids don’t stop there on Halloween.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


As I’ve mentioned before, my new office is located in a rather old building. When it rains hard, you’ll find wastebaskets set out in odd places to catch the dripping water. There’s a maintenance guy who fixes things every week, but it’s a never-ending job.

Along with age comes vermin. About a week ago, I opened my desk drawer and fished around for a ballpoint pen, only to disturb a cockroach. I uttered a startled yelp, and he scampered around frantically until I ended his misery with a crushing blow.

I mentioned the incident to our office manager, a no-nonsense German woman, who immediately sent the maintenance guy to me with a can of poison spray. He spritzed around the desk and in the drawers and I figured that was the end of it.

Today, groping for a pen, I discovered another resident, who I dispatched in the same manner. As troubling as this was, moments later I found out he had a roommate in another drawer. Nobody else has this problem, just me. I don’t keep food in my desk, so I can’t understand why these insects are singling me out. My co-workers are highly amused by my cursing, so I’m starting to suspect some kind of office prank.

Nonetheless, I told the office manager about it, and this time she sent the maintenance guy out for some heavy artillery. He came back with a gigantic pump sprayer full of cockroach kryptonite and a cordless electric screwdriver. In about 10 minutes he had disassembled most of my desk and was busily soaking every surface in liquid death.

I have a brother named Dennis in St. Louis who is schizophrenic. He takes medication and is very congenial and friendly, just strange and not really able to care for himself very well. My brother Patrick was looking after him, but Patrick passed away last year. Dennis was left high and dry, and I’m trying to make arrangements for his continuing care by moving him to Florida where I live.

But Florida ranks 48th out of the 50 states in state-funded benefits for mental health. Because he’s not retarded, he doesn’t qualify for group home benefits. Because he’s not elderly, he doesn’t qualify for assisted living benefits. So I’ve been trying to figure out a housing option that he can afford on his meager Social Security.

Thanks to the disastrous housing market, prices are now dirt cheap. But not quite cheap enough. Condominium prices have plunged to record lows, but the association fees are not changing. Even though I could buy him a nice, affordable condominium close to where I live, the association fees would eat up the remainder of his monthly check. He couldn’t afford electricity or food. There are some cheap detached homes available, and they don’t have association fees. But the neighborhoods can be scary or inconveniently located.

Today while browsing online, I found a 3 bedroom, 2 bath foreclosure house in a non-scary, convenient neighborhood, and it's listed at $49,000. It sounds too good to be true, so I stopped by after work to give it a quick look. From the outside, the place is actually very nice. While I was prowling around, one of the neighbors came over and filled me in.

“You’ll have to gut it,” he told me. “The guy who lived there was elderly and he became addicted to morphine. He didn’t maintain the house and eventually he died in there. He had three dogs that he never let outside. They had to shovel it out. It’s full of fleas, cockroaches and rats. The plumbing burst and flooded it once, so the drywall is covered with mold and mildew. Oh, by the way, the roof leaks.” He gave me a hopeful look, because he lives next door to this disgusting wreck.

I figure if I borrowed about $40,000 over the price of the house, I could make it a nice place, and it would be worth more than I put into it on the day the work was finished. But once I do that, the mortgage payment is back up to where Dennis can’t afford it. If I could find him a reliable roommate who could pay about $400 a month, it would work. But where do you find a roommate for a schizophrenic? I’m afraid all I would get are other schizophrenics, or morphine addicts with dogs.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Foregone Conclusion

My pool team qualified in February of last year to play in what’s known as the “Cities” tournament this past weekend. Over 70 of the best teams from all around this part of Florida converged on the local Moose lodge to compete for a chance to go to Las Vegas in August to play in the national team championships. The tournament was set up as a double-elimination format, 5 boards, 16 teams per board. The league sends the winner of each board to Las Vegas, paying for air fare and hotel for the week of competition. It’s a huge prize and an incredible opportunity that everyone covets.

Losers on each board move to the loser’s bracket, where they compete with one another until only one remains. The winner in the winner’s bracket eventually plays the winner from the loser’s bracket. Here’s a simplified double-elimination board, showing only four teams:


The winner of Round 1 moves to the right side winner’s bracket. The loser of Round 1 moves to the left side loser’s bracket. In this example, team L2 won in the loser’s bracket, competed with the victor from the winner’s bracket and eventually won the tournament. In our tournament, winners would have to play 5 rounds, and losers would have to play 6 rounds.

Each team consists of 5 to 8 players. Players are handicapped by the league, and are assigned a skill level from 2 to 7, with 7 being the highest. The handicap is used in a lookup table to determine how many games you must win to beat your opponent. For example, when a 4 plays a 2, the 4 must win 4 games before the 2 wins 2. This is called a “4-2 race.” It’s not always equal to your handicap. For example, when two 5’s play, it’s a 4-4 race.

In competition, each team must put up 5 players to compete against 5 players from the opposing team, but the total skill points may not exceed 23. This prevents teams from playing only top-level players. So players with very low skill levels are valuable, because it leaves the team with “spending power” to play their best players. In a tournament, the first team to win three of the five matches wins the round and moves on through the bracket.

Also, the teams don’t put up all 5 players at once, which is a surprising source of strategy. The two team captains flip a coin, and the winner decides who will “put up” a player first for the first match, and then the teams alternate putting up first. Typically, the team that wins the toss tells the other team to put up first. Putting up first is a strategic disadvantage, because you have to name a player without knowing who the other team will put up. So the team that puts up second can pick a player more likely to beat the player who was put up first. Why am I telling you this? Keep reading.

We showed up for our first round on Friday night, and to my delight, we won easily. Even I won, and I’m usually a useless, throbbing knot of nerves in tournaments. We did have an unpleasant surprise when one of our most reliable players lost a match he should have won. It was a bad sign.

The first round ended around 11:30, and we had to return at 8 a.m. for round 2, so everyone raced home to get some sleep. But after the victory, all I could do was lie there in the dark with my eyes wide open, heart pounding with excitement.

On Saturday morning, I played a gigantic guy named Calvin, who had that kind of effortless strength that makes you wonder if he is trying to actually shatter the cue ball. Unfortunately for him, pool is not a game where strength provides an advantage, and I beat him. In an interesting contrast, one of our players competed against an opponent who had a withered arm. This is what I like about pool – anybody can play. Our ace player lost again in the second round, which concerned us deeply. Despite that loss, we won and moved on to the third round. We all raced home again, because we had to be back at 8 p.m.

During the round, play was disrupted when a woman on one of the teams suffered an epileptic seizure. Paramedics were called and they took her out on a stretcher.

In the third round Saturday night, we played a team composed mostly of older retired people, who have nothing to do all day but practice. They were good. But somehow, we beat them in three straight matches. Our ace player came out of his slump and beat a sharp old coot named Irv. By this time, emotional fatigue was starting to play a role. You could tell that the older people were up past their bedtime, and drained from the excitement. Our ace is a musician with a symphony orchestra, and he told me that he never loses his focus, because he has to concentrate for 3 hours straight to play an opera.

We were told that round 4 would start at 10 a.m. on Sunday, so we all went home again to rest up, thrilled to have made it this far. On Sunday, we played a team with some familiar faces. Lots of players move around the league playing at different locations, or playing on different teams on different nights of the week.

We won the toss, and they put up a 4. We put up a 5, expecting an easy win. But we lost the first match when their player shocked everyone by making a “Hail Mary” kick shot that would have been nearly impossible for the best player in the league, resulting in an easy runout for the victory.

We put up our ace player in the second match, and they countered with an opponent named Trish, who was equally rated, resulting in a 4-4 race. Trish displayed uncanny skill and table savvy, beating him with effortless ease 3 games straight. But she had to win one more game, and the musician got his opera focus in gear, beating her in four straight games for the win. By this time, the hall was deathly quiet, punctuated by occasional shrieks of victory when a team won a match.

Now the strategic aspect of the game came into play. We had played two 5’s, leaving us with 13 points to spend. Our opponents had played a 4 and a 5, leaving 14 points to spend, and it was their turn to put up. They put up a 3, leaving them the option of playing a 7 in later matches. Our team captain decided to play a 3 as well, leaving us the same option. Unfortunately, this strategy meant that our 3 had to win. Otherwise, we would be down 2 matches to 1, and the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. And she lost.

The reason it was a foregone conclusion is because we had to put up in the fourth match. If we put up our 7, they would put up a low-ranked player as a sacrifice, and play their 7 in the last match, in which we would be forced to put up a low-ranked player. If we put up our 3, they'd just play their 7 and end it immediately. Sure enough, we put up our 7, and they put up a 3. Our 7 won easily, and in the last match, we were forced to put up a 3 against their player Mark, who is one of the best players in the league. It was all over quickly. We marched glumly out of the hall, accompanied by shrieks of victory from other teams. Well, there’s always 2010.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pointless Arguments

In the world of politics, there are many times when lawmakers are sucked into arguments they cannot win. These arguments are often so ridiculous that logic is meaningless, patience is fruitless, charm and charisma are useless. The most one can hope for is to curry public favor by trying to appear less intransigent than your opponent. These arguments inevitably end in violence.

In marriage, these arguments happen all the time, but thanks to the binding elements of family life, they more often end in simmering standoffs, like North and South Korea.

Every so often, in rare, sparkling moments, logic prevails. The party who is proved wrong seldom sees the result as a victory for both parties, but treats the result as a loss, a successful attack on their dignity and pride.

My wife and I drove down to Hollywood on Saturday. She’s planning to stay for the week to go SCUBA diving with one of her friends. I could only stay Saturday night. So we made the 4-hour drive in two cars.

I followed her, happy in the knowledge that I didn’t have to pay attention to anything but maintaining visual contact. If we got separated, we had cell phones. Fifteen minutes into the drive, she called me.

“Why are we going so slow?” she demanded. “The speed limit is 70!”

I looked at my speedometer and noticed that we were traveling at 65 miles per hour.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” I responded. “We can go faster if you want.”

“Then why don’t you?” she sputtered.

“I’m following you!” I answered. “You can go as fast as you want! I’ll keep up!”

There was a moment of silence, then that one-word response that all men are familiar with: “FINE!” Click. For you novices, the word “fine” means things are not fine at all.

She sped up to 70 and I sped up as well. There’s no way for me to know what she was thinking, or why she blamed me for slowing her down. When we arrived in Hollywood, we did not discuss it. Because it’s in both our interests, we never will.