Thursday, August 25, 2011

Three and Out

Our team assembled for our first round matches that started at 11 pm on Monday night. The league had set up two gigantic rooms full of pool tables – one for the tournament, and one for the pay-to-play mini-tournaments.


In the mini-tournament room, a dozen or so vendors had set up booths selling cues, t-shirts, accessories, instructional systems, etc. One guy had set up a table with a radar system, inviting players to try their luck at beating the fastest break speed of the day. Three shots for $5.


The main tournament hall was packed with throngs of players from the US, Canada and Japan. The elegant trophies were on display – very tempting prizes indeed.


In each round of play, the first team to win 3 matches wins the round. We would have to win four rounds to get into the money, eight rounds to get into the sweet sixteen, and four additional rounds to win it all - twelve grueling rounds total.

Our first set of matches was with a team called Eagles from Lansdale, PA. We were assigned to table number 13. I’m not superstitious, but we lost. I didn’t play. The tournament is a double-elimination format, so the loss pushed us into the loser’s bracket. We didn’t play badly, just not well enough.

We trudged back to the hotel, dejected. By then it was 4 am. Our next match was scheduled for 11 pm on Tuesday night, so everybody slept late and didn’t get too crazy during the day, trying to conserve energy and stay focused. One more loss, and we would be out of the tournament.

At 11 pm, we faced a team from Abilene, TX called Crazy 8’s. Their team captain was a tiny, skinny woman who had an incredibly smooth, powerful stroke. But she played one of our aces, and he beat her. Then, our team captain put me up against one of their low-skill players. I have to say, in all fairness and honesty, that I sucked. I’m a naturally high-strung guy normally, but that night I was shaking from head to toe. The combination of first-match nerves and Parkinson’s disease was causing me to suffer from uncontrollable spasmodic twitching. About two-thirds of my brain shut down. It looked like there were 100 balls on the table, and I was unable to calculate a shooting pattern. She beat me in two games, but our team went on to win that round anyway.

Once again, we went back to the hotel at 4 am. However, this time it was with a combination of elation and dread, because our next match was at 9 am, only 5 hours away. A couple of guys didn’t even bother going to sleep – they just walked the length of the Strip all night.

At 9 am, we played a team from Richmond, VA called 6-Pack. My team captain put me up against a player of equal strength. But this time, the first-match nerves were gone. I played extremely well, moving the cue ball around the table confidently, and beat him easily. Our team captain is a smoker, and the tournament is a non-smoking event. When our team captain played, he was desperately craving a cigarette, and it was obvious that it affected his game. He made one stupid error that cost him his match, infuriating one of our other players. We eventually beat them around 1 pm, and moved on to our third round, which was at 2 pm - only one hour later.

At 2 pm, we played a team from Crescent, PA who call themselves Fuego Pelota (flaming ball). If we won, we would move into the money and win $1,000 for the team. Fuego Pelota won the first two matches, so our backs were against the wall. Worse, our earlier victories had come with a price. The league monitors the matches carefully, reviewing the skill rankings of every player. If it appears that a player is winning too easily against an equally skilled (or higher skilled) opponent, that player will be raised in rank. The league chose to raise two of our players. One of our aces was raised to the point where we would be unable to play him, because there’s a limit to how many skill points we can play.

We put up a player who won, and then our team captain played. He had to win four games to beat his opponent, and he won the first three handily. In the fourth game, he had a simple, short cut shot on the 8-ball to win the match, but his nicotine craving had reached crisis proportions, and he missed the shot. His opponent came back strong and won four games straight to eliminate us from the tournament. It was a shame, because I was scheduled to play the final match of the round, against an equally skilled opponent. Unlike my first match, I was actually looking forward to it.

It's a Dry Heat

Because of the time zone difference between Las Vegas and my home in Florida, our entire pool team went to bed by 10:30 on Saturday night. All except for the one I’ll call Gordon, who stayed up until 4:15 am playing Texas Hold ‘Em.

The pool tournament takes place in the Riviera hotel, across the street from where we’re staying. The opening round was scheduled for 9:30 pm on Sunday, so we had all day to goof around.

I woke up at 5 am on Sunday, and I just hung out in the casino playing Blackjack until my team members started to wake up. Some of us went to one of the famous “all you can eat” buffets, and I ate so much, I didn’t feel hungry for the rest of the day. Say what you will about the quality, it’s a great deal.

Later that morning, we found out that our team would not compete until 11 pm on Monday, which meant we had all day Sunday and most of the day on Monday to goof around as well.

On Sunday, my good friend (who I’ll call Wilbur) arrived to lend moral support. He’s the guy who taught me the game of pool. He’s an expert, and was looking forward to playing in some of the mini-tournaments run by the league, that pay cash prizes. Unfortunately, he was shut out because the league only admits league members into the mini-tournaments, and Wilbur no longer plays in the league. Nonetheless, we shot a lot of pool in a practice room set up for that purpose with large windows overlooking the Riviera swimming pool.


At one point, we ventured out to see the sights. But in August, the most noticeable characteristic of Las Vegas is the unrelenting, blistering, furnace-like heat. People say it’s a dry heat, but I wasn’t dry. Every crevice of my body was dribbling sweat. Wilbur and I were appalled by the way it sucked the life out of us. One of my teammates took a scooter tour of Red Rock Canyon, and he described the experience with the words, “like a blow dryer in your face.”

I’m convinced that Las Vegas is owned by cab drivers. They have a cheesy monorail system, but it’s expensive, and it only runs to a few destinations on the Strip. It doesn’t go to the airport. There are buses running up and down the Strip, but they’re expensive, crowded, and infrequent. They don’t go to the airport either. Taxis charge you 13 times a mile.





At one point, we went up to the top of the Stratosphere tower, a Las Vegas landmark, and according to a cab driver, the tallest structure west of the Mississippi river – although I don’t believe it. The view is a massive testament to urban sprawl.



I realize that vacation pictures can be boring. It’s even worse when someone shows you pictures that they took of famous sights you’ve already seen. So I was trying to think of a simple way to bring some new life to familiar images. I brought a rubber glove with me, and had Wilbur take a few shots with me putting on the rubber glove in incongruous circumstances. Instead of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas,” perhaps the motto of this town should be, “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”





Saturday, August 20, 2011

Off to a Flying Stop

It’s time for the National Championship 8-ball tournament in Las Vegas. I’ve been anticipating this day with nervous excitement all week long. Unfortunately, that same excitement causes my Parkinson’s symptoms to act up, so my hand has been fluttering like a butterfly for days.

Halfway to the airport this morning, I realized that I had forgotten to pack my migraine medication. If I develop a migraine during the tournament, I’ll be unable to play, so I’m facing a hassle getting the prescription transferred from my pharmacy in Florida.

We took off on a clear, bright morning, weaving through puffy cumulus clouds.


Over Texas, I noticed these odd “crop circles,” created by circular irrigation systems.


Soon they were everywhere, stretching to the horizon.


Eventually, the land became more arid and mountainous.


After landing at the Las Vegas airport, we collected our bags and our pool cues from baggage claim. Pool cues have to be checked as baggage, because they’re classified as potential weapons. We then split a couple of cabs to our hotel. The league is putting us up at one of the worst hotels in Las Vegas – Circus Circus.


It was built in 1968, and by Las Vegas standards, it’s pretty lame. For example, the swimming pool is tiny and adjacent to a parking lot full of RVs. Worse, it’s packed with little kids. By comparison, the pool at the Riviera across the street is huge, and packed with nubile women in bikinis. Sorry, no pictures.

We were met at the hotel by our league operator, who delivered some aggravating news. It was 10:30 am Las Vegas time, but we wouldn’t be able to check in to the hotel until 3 pm. We would have to find some way to occupy ourselves for four and a half hours. Our team captain and I wandered around in the furnace-like heat, ducking into the noisy casinos when it got too oppressive.

Finally, weary and drained, we got our room keys. I’m rooming with another player from our team, who I’ll call George. George isn’t exactly a Rhodes scholar. We opened our luggage, and George said, “I don’t own a pair of flip-flops. This isn’t my suitcase.”

George had picked up the wrong bag at the airport. He quickly panicked, realizing that he faced a week without clean clothing. I found a name tag on the bag with a phone number, and we called it. Luckily, the guy who owned the bag (also named George) was staying at Circus Circus as well. He gratefully came to our room and picked up his bag.

Next we called the airline baggage office. George spoke to a stern woman who threatened to keep his bag unless he brought back the bag he had picked up by mistake. We had to call the other George and ask him to call the baggage office and straighten everything out. Later, another member of our team drove George to the airport so that he could pick up his bag.

The whole day has been exhausting, and I think I’m getting a migraine.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Side Effects

In my last post, I talked about the potential side effects of a drug my neurologist prescribed to control my Parkinson’s symptoms. I didn’t list them all.

My doctor had prescribed a drug called Ropinirol, which is available in two forms: high-dosage timed-release tablets, and low dosage regular tablets. The advantage of the timed-release version is that you only need to take one a day. The regular tablets must be taken three times a day. Naturally, I chose the timed-release tablets.

I've been building my tolerance to the drug by cutting the timed-release tablets in half for a week, and then taking them full strength for a week. But I’ve been dissatisfied with the effectiveness of these timed-release tablets, so I spoke to the neurologist, and he changed the prescription to the 3-a-day regular tablets. The theory is that the drug will enter my system quicker, and enable me to take a fourth tablet per day if needed.

Yesterday morning I took the first one.

I got into my car and started the drive to work. My wife and I had stayed up late watching a bad sci-fi movie called “I Am Number Four,” so I felt like I needed a cup of coffee to start the day. I pulled into 7-Eleven, poured a cup, and got into the line of other caffeine-dependent wage slaves.

Within a few moments, I started to feel queasy, so I glanced at the display of greasy breakfast taquitos spinning on the heated rollers, wondering if some food might settle my stomach. I felt a brief head-rush sensation, as though I had gotten out of bed too fast. And then I opened my eyes and discovered that I was lying on my back looking at the ceiling, with a half a dozen 7-Eleven customers clustered around, eyeballing me curiously. I was drenched in sweat, and I had wet my pants.

A concerned Hispanic man had placed some towels under my head, which apparently had smacked pretty hard on the tile floor. He was urging me to lie still, telling me that someone had called 911. Against his wishes, I sat up and instantly felt nauseous. Someone brought me a bucket, but I had no desire to puke in front of a crowd of onlookers. I stood up, the Hispanic man clutched my arm, and I staggered to the rest room where I dry-retched horribly until the ambulance arrived.

The EMTs strapped me onto a gurney, attached electrodes to my chest, placed an oxygen tube in my nostrils, inserted an IV, and took my vitals while we sped to the hospital, lights and siren blaring.

In the emergency room, their primary concern was to determine if I had experienced a heart attack or stroke. They took an EKG, a chest x-ray, and an MRI of my head (to make sure I hadn’t fractured my skull in the fall). This process took hours, and I was lying in bed in my wet pants the whole time.

The nurse was a soft-spoken older guy named Don. I asked if there was anything he could do about it, and he immediately brought me a hospital gown and then cleaned me up. He was very kind, going about his business with gentle efficiency. But at one point, I was lying on my side, and he was washing my ass. “So, do you have any hobbies?” he asked. It was clearly the funniest moment in an otherwise very unfunny day.

The general consensus was that Ropinirol was to blame. Two potential side effects of the drug are “Nausea” and “Fainting,” so as far as I’m concerned, the culprit has been identified. I’ve been forbidden to take any more of it until I meet with my neurologist on Monday (he’s out of town), and I’ve been forbidden to drive all weekend.

I want to express my gratitude to the unknown Hispanic man who looked after me in the 7-Eleven, the EMTs and Don who washed my ass. I’d also like to thank the producers of “I Am Number Four.” If I hadn’t watched that awful movie, I wouldn’t have stopped for coffee, and this episode might have played out on the Interstate with very different results.