Posts Tagged ‘killer poker’

The Albuquerque Turkey: Excerpt

The Albuquerque Turkey
by John Vorhaus

1      BOY

It all started with a dog, a biggish one loping down the sidewalk with that weird canter that some dogs have, the front legs syncopating and the rear legs slewing sidewise in tandem. He must’ve been running from something specific, because even while scampering forward he looked back, which resulted in him not seeing, and therefore barreling into, me. He hit me square in the knees and knocked me to the ground. This startled us equally, and for a second we both sat still, locked eye to eye down there at dog level.

I vibe dogs. I do. Or let’s say that I prize them: their unconditional love is a love you can trust. I’d rolled with one or two in my time, but the highly migratory life of a con artist didn’t really lend itself to long-term canine commitments, so I mostly just admired dogs from afar. Up close, this one was tough to admire, a mixed bag of black Lab and unknown provenance. One ear stood up like a German shepherd’s. The other… wasn’t there. Looking at the bitten-off stub, I couldn’t help wondering how a dog’s ear tastes to another dog. He bore other wounds as well, evidence of many fights – maybe not fair fights, for I thought I detected a human hand in some of his scars and mars. I saw it also in his eyes. He feared me. That made me sad. I reached out a hand to comfort him, and he flipped over in submission position, manifesting what every dog dreads and hopes when it submits: dread that it will be kicked; hope it’ll be scratched. I opted to scratch, and immediately made a (man’s best) friend.

“Get up, boy,” I said as I stood. “I’m not the boss of you.” The dog – in my mind I was already calling him Boy – obediently rose to his feet. I didn’t know if he was that well trained or just felt like following my lead. He wore no collar, only a weathered, knotted rope that trailed away to a frayed end. Something told me this was a dog in transition, and that whoever had been the boss of him was boss no more. Probably if I wanted to I could keep him, the thought of which tickled me. I pictured me presenting him to my girlfriend, Allie, who had lately shown such determination that we be normal. “Look what followed me home,” I’d tell her. “Can we keep it?” If that didn’t say normal, I don’t know what would.

First, though, there was the matter of making sure I was right. I mean, I couldn’t just kidnap him – dognap him – so I started back in the direction he’d come, determined to take a stab, at least, at finding his owner. The dog cowered, reluctant to follow. “It’s okay,” I said, “I got your back.” He still wouldn’t budge, so I knelt, rubbed his grizzled muzzle for a moment, then took the scraggly end of the rope and walked him down the street. I could tell he still wasn’t too keen on the idea, but now he was a dog on a leash, and they have no free will.

I had just turned the corner when I heard the first shouts.

I thought they came from the courtyard of some garden apartments just down the street, but with the way the sound bounced around off those Santa Fe adobe walls, I couldn’t be sure. There was a pickup truck parked in front of the courtyard, and its whole grungy aspect seemed linked to the courtyard noises. Bald tires, primer spots and dents, cracked windshield; a trailer trash ride, or I’m no judge of trucks. The tailgate was missing, and I could see in the cargo bed a litter of empty cans, both beer and oil, plus fast food wrappers and crumpled cigarette packs.

And, tethered to a tie-down, a severed rope, mate to the noose around Boy’s neck.

Boy recognized the truck. He whimpered fearfully as we approached, causing a picture to form in my mind: Enraged driver pulls up to the curb, anger burning so hot that he upsets his dog, who strains against his restraint – and snaps the tired line! Dog is off and running, but driver doesn’t care. All his anger’s focused on whoever’s in that courtyard.

More shouts now, and I could hear two voices, no, three: a man and a woman exchanging heated words, and a little girl playing hapless and ineffectual peacemaker. To me it added up to domestic dispute.

Boy wanted to leave and, boy, so did I. After all, there’s two kinds of problems in this world, right? My problem and not my problem. But there was a lot going on in my head. There was Allie’s need for the two of us to be citizens (and did not, in some sense, citizen equal Samaritan?) and also Boy, for if I left things like they were, he’d likely end up tied back up in that truck, the thought of which grieved me deeply. The kicker was the little girl’s voice. I could see the black hole of human trauma forming in the center of her universe. I knew that Allie came from such a troubled vortex, where mom and dad never got along and routinely inflicted horrible damage on anyone within range. I couldn’t go back in time and salve Allie’s pain. It was likewise probably too late to save the little girl from hers – these things start young – but maybe I could douse the present blaze.

And just perhaps talk my way into a dog.

I moved toward the courtyard. Boy resisted, but I patted his head in reassurance, trying to communicate that whatever I planned to sell, it wasn’t him out. I guess I got my point across, for he fell more comfortably in step beside me. I paused to gather myself before entering the courtyard. I didn’t know what, specifically, I was about to walk into, but it didn’t much matter. A top grifter gets good at improvising successfully across a wide variety of situations.

Even ones with guns.

I didn’t see the gun at first, just the man at the base of a short set of steps, looking dirty as his pickup truck in tired jeans and sneakers, a stained tank top, and a polyester cap with some kind of racing logo. The woman stood on the top step with the girl tucked in behind her. They wore matching mother/daughter flower print shifts. In other circumstances you’d say they looked cute. Now they just looked scared, but the mother was playing the defiance card hard – a card I could tell she didn’t really hold, but that’s what they call bluffing.

“Andy, now, clear out,” she said. “You know you’re not allowed here. The judge – ”

“Screw the judge,” said Andy. “I want Sophie. I want my little girl.”

“No, Andy. Not when you’ve been drinking and God knows what else.”

“Oh, and you’re such a saint?” Andy practically vibrated with rage.

“That’s not the point. I have custody.” The way she said custody damn near broke my heart. Like it had magic power, but I knew it would cast the opposite spell.

It did. It brought the gun up, a Browning MK II Hi Power. Some of them have hair triggers. Andy leveled it at – as I gathered from context – his ex-wife and child. “Sophie,” Andy told the girl, his voice gone cold, “go get in the truck. I swear if you don’t, I’ll shoot you both right now.”

The moment froze. I was afraid to speak. I didn’t want to spook Andy, not while he had the gun up. I guess Boy felt the same way. I could sense him repressing a growl. Then… the girl moved. She disengaged herself from her mother’s clutching hands and edged warily down the stairs. I knew what she was walking into, could foresee it in an instant. Let’s say she survived the next hour, day, week, month, year. Let’s say she made it all the way into womanhood. Where would that find her? Turning tricks at a truck stop? Up in some spike house with a needle in her arm? Living with a man who beat her just like daddy did? Talk about your human sacrifice. It may have been the bravest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

I couldn’t let it stand.

“Hey, mister,” I piped up, applying my most innocent bystander gloss, “do you know whose dog this is?” Three heads swiveled toward me. The gun swiveled, too, but I ignored it, for part of running a good con is shaping the reality around you. Or denying it, as the case may be. By disregarding the gun, I momentarily neutralized it, for what kind of fool doesn’t see the obvious? It’s destabilizing to people. They don’t know how to react, so mostly they just do nothing, which buys you some time to make your next move. At that point I don’t know if I felt supremely courageous or just dumb-ass dumb. Both, probably. But one thing you learn on the razzle is that once a con starts, the worst thing you can do is break it off. Then you’re just twisting in the wind. “Because, um, I found her down the street and she seems to be lost.”

“Ain’t a she,” said Andy.

“No? I didn’t look.” I bent down to check out Boy’s underside. “Hey, you’re right, it’s a boy. Anyway, used to be.” I smiled broadly and started walking Boy forward.

Andy aimed the gun. “Stop,” he said.

“Oh, look, I’m not trying to get in the middle of a thing here. I’m just trying to return this dog. Is he yours?”

“Just let him go.”

Well, I thought I knew what would happen if I did that. Boy would take off running, and probably none of us would ever see him again. I weighed my own selfishness – I wanted that dog – against his need and safety, and dropped the rope. Boy surprised me. He plopped down at my feet, content, apparently, to let me run the show to whatever outcome I could achieve. You gotta love that about dogs. When they trust you, they trust you all the way.

“Now clear out,” said Andy.

Here’s where my play got dicey. Make or break time. “Hang on,” I said, bleeding avid enthusiasm into my voice. “What kind of gun is that?”


“Because it looks like a 1980s Hi Power. Is it?”

“The hell should I know?”

I squinted at the gun, straining to see detail, which I didn’t really need to do, since one of the many things you learn about in my line of work is guns, in detail. “Ambidextrous thumb safeties, nylon grip, three-dot sights. Yep, that’s a Mark II. Bet it’s got the throated barrel and everything.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“The thing is,” I said, “I’m kind of a collector. Any chance I could buy it off you?” This was the heart of my play, based explicitly on what the mother had said about drinking and God knows what else. I knew what else. Crank. Crystal meth. I could see it in Andy’s dilated pupils, his scrunge-brown teeth, and his generally tweaky demeanor. A guy like that’s not likely to be long on cash, and addiction is a voice that never shuts up. He might could want to quell it for a while. Very slowly, again not to spook him, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my bankroll.

Funny. For someone complicit with Allie in getting off the razzle, I still kept my cash in a grifter’s roll, big bills out the outside, small bills within. I held the roll lengthwise, between my thumb and first finger, so that Andy could see its Ben Franklin veneer. “I think I have a grand here,” I lied easily. “If that’s not enough, we could hit my ATM.”

Andy licked his lips, imperfectly processing my offer. “Maybe I’ll just take it,” he said.

Oops. I hadn’t considered that. “Sure, yeah, whatever,” I vamped. “You could do that. But what kind of example does that set for your little girl?” This was pure bafflegab – nonsense – and I knew it, but that didn’t halt my improv. “Look,” I continued, “like I said, I’m not trying to get in the middle of a thing, but it looks like you guys have a problem. If you take my money by force, the problem gets worse. If you start shooting, it gets way worse, right?” I looked at the mother for confirmation, silently encouraging her to nod, which she did. “On the other hand, you sell me your gun, you’ve got a little scratch, you can take your girl out for ice cream, come back later, everybody’s calm, you can all work out your business.” I knew he’d take take your girl out for ice cream to mean go score, and hoped his need was such that he’d opt for the line of least resistance.

He seemed to be leaning that way. I could see him mentally converting a thousand dollars into chunks of scud. “What’s in it for you?” he asked.

“I told you, I’m a collector. I’ve got the Mark I and the Mark III, but the Mark II, boy, those are rare.” (Well, measured in millions.) I dared a step forward, arm outstretched, dangling my bankroll like bait. “What do you say? Deal?”

The ladies and I held our breath. Maybe Boy did, too.

“I’m keeping the bullets,” said Andy at last.

“That’s fine,” I said. “Who collects bullets?”

Then, so slowly it made my teeth ache, Andy lowered the gun, pressed the slide release, and dropped the magazine into his hand. Still manifesting my goofy enthusiasm, I strode over and made the exchange, then stepped back quickly before he could change his mind. “Oh, man,” I said, “wait’ll the guys in the gun club see this.”

The next sound you hear will be Andy saying, “What the fuck?” when he finds out what a grifter’s roll is.

“What the fuck?” said Andy. He threw down the roll and took a menacing step toward me.

“Funny thing, though,” I said, raising the gun, “didn’t you chamber a round?” Andy stopped. I let my voice go hard. “Go on, get out of here.” He turned back to grab Sophie, but, “Oh, no,” I said. “No.” Then he looked at his dog. “Not him, either,” I said. “Get.”

Andy got.

Was there a round in the chamber? Did it matter? You can bluff with the best hand, too.

The truck rumbled off. I’d memorized the license plate, and would soon be dropping a dime, for there’s no way that guy wasn’t holding. Meantime, I encouraged Sophie and her mother to clear out to a shelter somewhere, which they thought was a pretty damn good idea. We agreed that Boy would stay with me.

So happy ending, right? Sure, except for one thing. Completely unbeknownst to us, someone in one of the adjacent apartments had cell-phone videoed the whole thing through a window. It was on YouTube by dusk.

It didn’t really matter that thousands of people saw Radar Hoverlander in action.

But it sure as hell mattered that one person did.

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Enough to Make a Man go Meatless

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

In fairness, the beef was not the problem. It’s what was in the beef that was the problem, and no, I’m not talking about unwanted critters of the e. coli persuasion. I’m talking about ingredients – stuff put in there by the chef on purpose. Actually just one ingredient caused all the trouble… well, two if you count my ego.

We had just arrived in Las Vegas, Maxx and I, to celebrate her birthday. This is not a picture of the two of us.

We had made our way to the Skybox, one of the new restaurants at one of the new resorts in Las Vegas, the Aria. The following menu item caught my eye: “Firecracker Burger: 8 oz patty blended with Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, rated the world hottest chili pepper in 2007.” Well, I had never heard of that pepper, but I’d also never heard of a pepper I couldn’t handily defeat, even at the cost of a few extra napkins to sop up the inevitable sweat on my head. So, of course, I gave it a try.

Here’s the “before” picture. So far, all is well.

You want to know how hot this pepper is? Twelve hours later, it makes my head sweat just to think about it. There in the moment, I knew from the first bite that I had a tiger by the tail. The heat from the thing instantly made my lips go numb (the body’s natural reaction to searing pain, I suppose). My tongue swelled up. The roof of my mouth seemed painted with fire, and that fire traveled all the way down my throat to my belly, where it bloomed.

Are we having fun yet?

Folks, I generally consider hot foods to be my manna-nirvana. And generally scoff at what others find hot. When I order buffalo wings at my local joint, for example, I challenge the prep chef to make them too hot too eat, and he always fails. I once drank a bottle of Tabasco sauce on a bet. I love hot food. I think there’s something wrong with my system. (I know there’s something wrong with my brain.) But hot food and I just agree with each other.

This Bhut Jolokia burger, though, it didn’t just disagree with me. It vehemently opposed me and violently argued with me. It wrestled me to the floor and pinned me there. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was defeated. I fought my way through half the burger and then, as the saying goes, “stick a fork in it, it won.” Viz:

Fortunately, life in Las Vegas is not all heartburn heaven and thunderstruck intestines. There’s also poker, and a whole damn lot of it, plus shops, restaurants (with saner menus one hopes), and tomorrow’s highlight event, a visit to the Pinball Hall of Fame. It’s nice to have a respite in so crazy a place before returning to Managua (so crazy a place) to spend the next month there working on The Blue Door. That’s a tropical place, Managua. They have plenty of hot food. People gawk at what I eat and call tame. But now I know I’ve met my match. Bhut Jolokia, my (sweat drenched) hat is off to you. You are the boss of me.

More later, -jv

In fairness, the beef was not the problem. It’s what was in the beef that was the problem, and no, I’m not talking about unwanted critters of the e. coli persuasion. I’m talking about ingredients – stuff put in there by the chef on purpose. Actually just one ingredient caused all the trouble… well, two if you count my ego.

Maxx and I were dining at the Skybox, one of the new restaurants at one of the new resorts in Las Vegas, the Aria. The following menu item caught my eye: “Firecracker Burger: 8 oz patty blended with Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, rated the world hottest chili pepper in 2007.” Well, I had never heard of that pepper, but I’d also never heard of a pepper I couldn’t handily defeat, even at the cost of a few extra napkins to sop up the inevitable sweat on my head. So, of course, I gave it a try.

Here’s the “before” picture. So far, all is well.

You want to know how hot this pepper is? Twelve hours later, it makes my head sweat just to think about it. There in the moment, I knew from the first bite that I had a tiger by the tail. The heat from the thing instantly made my lips go numb (the body’s natural reaction to searing pain, I suppose). My tongue swelled up. The roof of my mouth seemed painted with fire, and that fire traveled all the way down my throat to my belly, where it bloomed.

Are we having fun yet?

Folks, I generally consider hot foods to be my manna-nirvana. And generally scoff at what others find hot. When I order buffalo wings at my local joint, for example, I challenge the prep chef to make them too hot too eat, and he always fails. I once drank a bottle of Tabasco sauce on a bet. I love hot food. I think there’s something wrong with my system. (I know there’s something wrong with my brain.) But hot food and I just agree with each other.

This Bhut Jolokia burger, though, it didn’t just disagree with me. It vehemently opposed me and violently argued with me. It wrestled me to the floor and pinned me there. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was defeated. I fought my way through half the burger and then, as the saying goes, “stick a fork in it, it won.” Viz:

For No Reason I Can Think Of

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

… I woke up early this morning thinking about an essay I wrote in 1995 on the organization of the brain. Since I’m a digital pack rat of the first water, it was a matter of mere moments to dredge the essay from the depths of my hard drive archive. To glimpse what was on my mind about my mind some fifteen years ago, just click here.

More later, -jv

The Boss of the Brain

Back in 1995, I spent a semester at Northwestern University as a guest lecturer. One weekend, I drove across Illinois to play poker at a riverboat casino in Iowa. There, killing time in a motel room, I wrote the essay you’ll find below.


Friends accuse me of sourcing information far too cavalierly. They say I don’t really bother learning anything completely, just enough of a concept to twist it and mold it and somehow make it my own. I cop to this. I even go a step further, using bogus bibliographies to make up sources rather than going to the trouble of actually finding them. And yes it’s true, do prefer to do research in my mind as opposed to a library[1]. And when I grasp information, I grasp it lightly, absorbing only enough to get me going on thoughts of my own. Call me a dilettante; I prefer the term “synthesist.”

For example, just now, here in this motel in Dubuque, Iowa (where, for reasons far too arcane to go into here, I was “guest of the day,”) I caught a psychology program on the local PBS station. Had the Spice Channel been free, it might have been a far different story. As it was, I caught a snippet of a presentation on how the brain is organized. Since a snippet is all I caught, I’m a little short on detail, but I gather that this model has the brain divided into various resource centers which are swapped into and out of consciousness as needed, much the way computer programs are swapped in and out of random access memory.

Was this the presentation of a valid theory? Speculation? Or pure metaphorical nonsense? I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. A theory like this needn’t be the slightest bit true to be worthy of contemplation, not to me.

I’ll try anything on for size.

And then I’ll make it my own.

I start by assuming that there’s such a thing as master consciousness, the “I” of the brain. To extend the computer metaphor to my own liking, I declare that the I is not the central processing unit of the computer but rather the person selecting which program to run when. The end user, if you will.

You wake up in the morning. Your  teeth are all mungy. The sense-resource sends this message to your brain’s central clearing house. The I then invokes various physical programs… “get up…” “go to the bathroom…” etc., slotting them into the working part of the brain as necessary. This makes sense on the face of it. Why retain in an active file on how to brush your teeth at any moment other than the actual time you need it?

So there’s a whole class of information we might label “how-to programs.” How to ride a bus, how to shake a hand, how to type or bounce a soccer ball off your head or catch a frisbee or feed a dog or start an arson fire. We don’t use them except when we need them. But obviously there’s more to the brain than how to do things. There are also memories, available upon demand, but only on demand. In a moment I’m going to ask you to recall something. Until the instant that you see the words, you won’t have the picture in your mind; however, once you read the words, you can’t help but have the picture in your mind. Ready? Here we go.

Think of your first kiss.

Boom, there it is.

I’m in seventh grade, playing spin-the-bottle in Sue Coon’s father’s den. Her father has a gun rack, and I look at it as I kiss her. The irony is not lost on me.

Seems to me that the brain is a good-news bad-news situation. The good news is that there’s all this information (maybe all the information we’ve ever encountered) stored inside, but it stays inside unless we have the proper triggers. Would you have thought of your first kiss just now if I hadn’t brought it up? I wouldn’t. I’m doing my damndest not to think of the Spice Channel.

Okay, there’s how-to programming, and there’s memory programming, and hey look, the two swap files. My how-to file on how to rewire a lamp, for example, contains memory of the time I tried to do the job without unplugging the lamp first. Ouch!

Now it seems that this loose coalition of brain resources is nested: memories within how-tos and… feelings within memories.

When I thought of Sue Coon just now and that fabulous first kiss, the memory came attached to a warm, fuzzy feeling. A whole slew of feelings, actually: fondness for the girl; regret that I have no idea where on the planet she might be now; a sense of loss at the years gone by; a certain smug satisfaction in knowing so much more now; plus hints and fragments of other feelings that flesh out the memory like chocolate hops or cumin round out the taste of a microbrewed beer.

So here’s the “feelings” center of the brain, a rowdy, wild-west region that doesn’t respond to the conscious control of the I, but introduces itself unbidden. You see someone attractive walking down the street, you say “woo doll!” The I may have no intention of saying “woo doll!” It just spills out. And if the I’s spouse is walking with the I, the I would be well served to keep this particular “woo doll!” to I’tself.

Do you like football? Can’t stand the sport myself. Too much sense memory of getting clobbered into mush in neighborhood sandlot games. But lots of people like football, and they cheer when their team scores. Does that cheer come consciously bidden? Does the I send an instruction to the cheering section of the brain? I don’t know. Like I said, I only caught a snippet of the show.

So let’s fudge the question. Let’s say that feelings come to us both bidden and unbidden. If I look out the window now, I see a bright sunny day. I feel regret that I’m not out there enjoying the day. But I feel satisfaction that I’m in here writing. Which of these feelings is consciously controlled? Either? Neither? Both? And how do they relate to the I of the brain? Are those thoughts “me?” Or are they just “part of me?” And if they’re “part of me” who is the whole me, and where is he to be found?

How-to, memories, feelings… now we’ve stumbled on ideas. I understand that some people think in pictures, but I personally think in words. When I’m having an idea, when I’m “formulating a thought,” that thought takes shape as a sentence, or a sentence fragment, or a word. So some part of my brain is constantly processing language. I formulate the thought, “Have another cup of coffee,” as exactly those words. But I don’t formulate the thought, “Drink from the cup,” as words. I just do that. Somewhere along the line between thought and action, the linguistic instruction breaks down. Where? Don’t ask me. I’m making this shit up as I go along.

I seem mostly to think in words when I’m contemplating the future. “I’ll  drive downtown this afternoon and pick up a video. After that I’ll stop at the store and get some food for dinner.” If I don’t formulate these thoughts as words, I simply don’t have them. There’s no picture in my brain of the future except a picture painted of words.

But there are no words attached to the past. Those events all come to me as pictures. The shock of Sue Coon’s lips. The shock of that plugged-in lamp. Think about how your memories come to you. Same as mine? Different? What can we draw from that?

I’m playing with you a little bit here. The thing I really want you to notice is the immense gap separating your memories from the part of your brain that contemplates them. And the huge gap between your linguistic formulation of ideas and the “receiver” that takes that information in. And the overwhelming chasm between your bidden or unbidden feelings and the person who ends up suffering from or thriving under that torrent of emotion. We are many separate people.

What if the brain isn’t loadable programs and an end user? What if it’s more like a royal court. There’s lots of room in that metaphor for lots of advisors, all sorts. Let’s see…

There’s a practical advisor. It tells you to brush your teeth or eat when you’re hungry or run for the bus.

There’s a spiritual advisor. It tells you to believe in God or not to believe in God. It formulates your morality and ethics. It points you to the lucky slot machine.

There’s a historian, the archivist who tends to your memories and makes them available on demand. Fittingly, as this archivist gets older, s/he tends to become more doddering, less reliable. Once I was “guest of the day” at the Comfort Inn in Dubuque. Now why was that again?

There’s the prime minister, planning your day, carrying out orders in your name. S/he goes to work, does a job, picks up Chinese food on the way home. Sometimes your servant is your master; you really didn’t want all that fatty food, did you?

There’s the royal consort, urging you to reproduce.

There’s the queen mother or father, reading ancient edicts from the past. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, you miserable loser. Go sit on your throne till you figure out what you’ve done wrong!”

Maybe there’s a rogue minister with an agenda all his/her own. This minister feeds your habits, keeps them functioning in you. Maybe you’d like to displace this minister. Maybe you’d like to behead this minister. But this is a sinister minister, tricky and insidious, using misdirection and subterfuge to keep you drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, smoking crack, watching the Spice Channel, whatever.

Is there a wizard in your royal court? Is there magic in your mind? Do creative gifts come unbidden? Do you wish you could give the wizard more power — or use more effectively the power the wizard has?

Maybe if we allied the wizard with the historian we could start to get a sense of the patterns of our personal magic. We might see, for example, that we got more “magic,” more raw creativity when we wrote in the morning than in the afternoon. The historian and the wizard compare notes, pass on their findings to the prime minister who sends a suggestion to the monarch: Write in the morning; you do a better job of it then.

Maybe all the ministers communicate with one another, deal and strategize with one another. Suppose your queen mother relentlessly presented you with a picture of yourself as a fat, ineffectual child. She might go to the rogue minister and say, “Make that monarch eat, make that monarch binge; together we can keep that fat, ineffectual, vision of weakness alive.

Maybe they compete. The royal consort and the spiritual advisor are locked in a raging debate. The consort insists that there is no meaning to life but children; it’s the job of the species to reproduce, full stop. The spiritual advisor says no, if we reproduce it’s God’s will. If we don’t, that’s God’s will too.

So what you’re saying is that if I never find love it’s God’s will and I should just accept that? Speaking as the monarch, I find that argument bogus.

But if I’m a weak monarch, or anyway relatively weaker than my spiritual advisor, I buy the argument and I act accordingly. I accept that it’s God’s will for me not to be loved.

But what if… what if… what if the queen mother is secretly in cahoots with the spiritual advisor? What if the queen mother (who wants to keep me weak) is putting words in the spiritual advisor’s mouth? Am I a smart enough monarch to see through all the intrigues and machinations of my court?

Do I have enough awareness?

The monarch is the one who acts. All this information comes into the brain, but there in the brain someone or something sorts the information and makes a judgment, executes a plan. That’s the monarch. That’s the person in charge.

Are you a powerful monarch or a weak one? Do you listen to your advisors, weigh their input and then make a decision in the best interest of the body (politic)? Or are you reflexive, self-indulgent? Do you let your baseness boss you around? Do you yield to old arguments out of habit, precedent?

“I have not, therefore I must not.”

Alternatively, do you rebel against old voices just because you recognize them as old?

“I never have, therefore I will.”

Or do you get trapped between voices unable to decide?

“I have not, but I must, so I will (if I can.)”

The PBS psychologist had a nice little theory, graphically presenting benign, helpful little packets of information flowing to and from the conscious center of the brain. Need to know what 2 + 2 equals? We’re here to help, master. Want to remember what your first college roommate looked like? We have that information at hand. Don’t know how to cross the street? Just open this file labeled “Street, Look Both Ways Before Crossing.”

That’s a pleasant sorting system, but it assumes that the parts of the brain are all in service of the whole. Not sure you can trust that assumption. To take an unfortunate and unpleasant example, a heroin addict’s whole brain is in service to the one part generating the instruction, “Get more heroin.” Other parts… “kick,” or “get a job,” or “find God”… they’re just voices in the storm.

And even you and I who challenge ourselves to find higher consciousness have hidden alliances at work in our brains. No one is perfect, obviously, and one way to think about how we’re not perfect is to imagine how parts of our brains might be more interested in serving themselves than in serving their leader, the I.

I love doughnuts. But I have high cholesterol, and have been persuaded (by the royal physician?) that eating those doughnuts is bad for me. I have a standing royal decree in my brain: Don’t Eat Doughnuts. Does that mean I never eat doughnuts?

I ate a doughnut this morning.

Some part of my brain (The court baker? The court jester?) overrode that standing command, overruled the king.

Hey, one doughnut’s not going to kill me, right? That’s the argument they used.

But in the name of closing the gap between who I am and who I want to be, I’d like to keep control over those doughnuts. I want my rulings to stick.

How can I contemplate my mind? How can I see clearly the thing I want to see when the thing doing the viewing and the thing being viewed are one in the same? It’s like the ocean asking what’s water? The answer is at once self-evident and inconceivable.

Yet we try. We struggle. We want better performance from our brains, so we seek systems for understanding them. PBS psychologists give us a glimpse of the fragmentary nature of the thing, and suggest that the part in control, the “I” of the brain, is just one small home page in a vast world wide web.

To that I add the metaphor of the royal court because it allows me to externalize my thinking. It lets me see the players in my brain as representations of archetypes of the outside world. I only do this to make it easier for me to understand what’s going on in there. (I don’t imagine literal royal robes.) If I have to go play poker now because the court jester insists that it’s time to be amused, at least I know why I’m going. That is, I know “a” why I’m going.

For a system as vast and vexing as the human mind, no metaphor can serve in the end. That would be like the ocean, contemplating what’s water, saying, “Well okay, the ocean is like a puddle, only bigger.” Yes it’s true, but is it useful?

Only if the ocean can look in the puddle and see some reflection  of itself. And only if the ocean can turn that information into action.

Do you suffer writer’s block? Do you wish you wrote more hours of the day than you do? Put the problem to your royal court. See who takes what kind of stand on the issue.

Your historian may hold you back by point out your dismal track record; you’ve never been the kind of writer you want to be. What makes you think you’ll get there now?

Your royal consort may be against the whole idea: “If you follow your dreams, where does that leave love?”

That nasty rogue might just want to subvert your effort for no other reason than s/he can. “I’ll show you who has the power in this brain.”

And maybe, deep down in the dungeon of the castle, there’s an ex-advisor who’s long since fallen out of favor. This advisor was a sad and pathetic creature who used to whisper “I’m no good. I don’t deserve.” You locked this advisor in chains in the basement. You put bars on the door and reinforced the walls. You order the royal musicians to play pretty music in your head so that you don’t have to hear this advisor’s plaintive wail.

You’re convinced that you’ve silenced that voice.

But how can you be sure? Maybe the rogue is sneaking down food (doughnuts!) Maybe every time you fail to live up to your expectations as a writer (or artist or athlete or crosser-of-the-street) you’re actually doing it because your advisors are conspiring to keep that little voice of failure alive in your head. How will you deal with that?

Take off the chains, that’s a start. Bring that advisor back into the royal court where you can at least keep an eye on him/her. Listen to that voice, acknowledge it… and then consciously, proactively refuse to yield.

You can’t say no to a voice you can’t hear.

So listen to all your voices. Seek consensus if it suits you, but remember who’s boss. There is only one listener in your head; the rest are just talkers. Let the listener be the decision-maker too, and you’ll end up doing what’s in your best interest.

As an exercise, should you so choose, visit the royal court inside your head and give names to your advisors. Jot them down. Don’t be afraid to paste labels from the real world: Some of the most powerful voices in our heads are our parents’, our friends’, our lovers’. Other voices come from our own expectations of ourselves. For instance, I have one advisor whose job is to do nothing but remind me that I’m supposed to be famous one day. No matter how many times I tell myself that that voice is invalid, old programming, the voice remains. So I acknowledge it. I list it and I listen to it, but I don’t give in.

And if you’re a writer, don’t forget that the characters you create all have their royal courts too. Keep this in mind and your characters will naturally become more interesting and colorful. We imagine that our characters are monolithic wholes, but they’re not, no more than we ourselves are. Everyone, real or imagined, is a coalition, and sometimes the coalition can get very shaky indeed.

[1]Or what passes for a library these days, i.e. a bookstore.

Back in the Soup

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

“Back in the soup” is an expression I’ve often used to describe the exasperation I feel when returning home from overseas work, vacation, or other extended travel. It’s often a function of nothing more than, well, mail: the bills that have piled up, and the checks that, somehow, haven’t arrived. There’s also the laundry to be done, work contacts to re-establish and, of course, work to return to. Whether I’ve been working overseas or just (as now) on vacation, it always seems a little like fantasyland out there, but back here it’s reality. And it can make me feel like I’m, well, “in the soup.”

It’s the price I pay for travel, of course. I know that, and embrace it. Still, it always takes me a few days to shake off the former routine and establish the new regime. I find myself extensively stalling for time: doing busy work; writing random emails; this blog post. Mostly I’m just reacquainting myself with my desk. But it doesn’t fit right and it doesn’t feel right. I’d just gotten used to a beach chair. But hey, let’s call this what it is: a luxury crisis. If I didn’t get to go to groovy places like the Bahamas, I’d never have the hangover that comes with day one back in the soup.

So let’s bid the Bahamas a fond farewell with a smile and a photo.

It was a great trip, a wonderful battery-recharge, and now it’s on to the next adventure.

Even if that “adventure” is only paying the bills.

More later, -jv

The Magic Land of Alakazam

I was six years old, maybe five, when I went to my first live TV taping, a local TV show called The Magic Land of Alakazam. There were hundreds and hundreds of screaming, unruly kids, and I was in the back row, far off to the side, when they asked for volunteers to join the magician on camera. I stood on my chair and waved my hand like a madman. And I got picked. No one in my family was surprised — nor surprised at my attempts to subvert the magician’s tricks. plus ça change, my friends, plus ça change…

Pure Poetry

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

One of the things I love about my novelist avocation is how the fruits of my research can lead me to such strange corners of the known world. Just now, while searching for the perfect brand of malt liquor to have a character drink (I settled on King Cobra), I came across a brew I’d never heard of, O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock. And I don’t know, something about the name just tickled me. So I dug a little deeper. I found pictures…


Historical accounts…

I used to drink this when I first moved out on my own in Alberta. It was THE “cowboy malt likker” they sold at al the cabarets. My 3 roomies and I drank oceans of this stuff

And, most specially, this review:

Smells of wet socks and vomit, lumberjack shirts, and stale nicotine smoke. Tastes like cardboard and wool. These days when out in the cabin I prefer turpentine.

And that was such poetry that I just had to share it with you.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get back to work. Writing about drinking: It’s the next best thing to doing it.

More later, -jv

Word for the Day

Monday, February 1st, 2010



An unsubstantiated story that makes you freak out. Can you think of examples of panicdotes? I’m starting a collection.

True Fact/Bar Fact, Multiple Choice Edition

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Which of these is not another name for kiwifruit?

A) Yang Tao

B) Chinese Gooseberry

C) Melonette

D) Fruit Potato


Email for answer jvx at

It’s That Cold

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

But it’s not that cold. Okay, it is that cold. Like, it hasn’t been above single digit temperatures all week (and that’s in Fahrenheit — it’s even colder in centigrade). But yesterday when I was out walking in the Big Popsicle that is Moscow, I realized, hey, I’m not even miserable. Yes, it’s cold and yes, I’m cold, but I’m not suffering… I’m just cold. And as I looked around at passers-by, I realized that many of them weren’t wearing hats or gloves. Many carried on cell phone conversations, with bare hands and heads, just as if it were any other — okay, every other — day on the streets of Moscow. They weren’t miserable, either. They were just cold.

This is a huge revelation for me. I thought I HATED the cold. I recall living in Boston and hating winter so much that the cold actually made me angry. That’s one of the reasons I moved to Los Angeles — to put the misery behind me. Well, now I’m in the middle of Moscow’s coldest winter in years (global warming? hah!) and it’s really not that hard to take. I can walk in the cold. I can BE cold. And I’m not unhappy.

Or maybe I’m just numb.

Frankly, it’s too cold to tell.

Also — knock on wood — I seem to be avoiding the treacherous slip-and-falls that have plagued me in the past. The sidewalks are ridiculously slick, but I’ve developed a system for not falling down. I just follow these simple steps.

1. EYES DOWN. Keep intensely focused on each step. This keeps ice patches from taking you by surprise.

2. HANDS OUT. Sure your fingers get cold, but your hands won’t do you any good in your pockets when you’re falling down.

3. LOW CENTER OF GRAVITY. Stay loose and stay low to keep balanced.

4. WATCH FOR DOWNSPOUTS. Where water flows down off rooftops it settles into deadly patches of black ice. Keep your eye on the downspouts and know that the ice is lurking.

Okay, what’s that thing pride goeth before? That’s right… a fall. So I’ll be specially careful going home tonight.

Stay warm, campers; it’s not even February yet.

More later, -jv