Posts Tagged ‘you are here’

Skipping Through Schiphol

Friday, June 24th, 2011

No blog posts these past few days for a variety of reasons. Scant free time, for one thing, for between work sessions and social gatherings after, well, Amsterdam, like gas, expands to fill the available space. Besides, much of those doings were cloaked in, if not exactly secrecy, discretion; I could tell you, but then I’d have to hit you with a large pillow. And that would be weird.

The biggest problem was that I shifted hotels, and while the new place was much more centrally located (and much closer, crucially,  to the Holland Casino in Max Eueweplein), it had — henceforth and forever the benchmark, by definition — the world’s sketchiest internet. I’m not saying that the wireless signal was weak; I’m saying that sometimes it would spontaneously deconstruct, taking my whole computer with it, necessitating an entire system reboot. I could barely upload a tweet, much less a picture. I decided to wait and post later, rather than look in the hotel mirror and watch my own head explode.

So now I’m in the British Airways lounge at Schiphol Airport, which is pronounced “ski-pole,” not “she-pole,” which makes no sense to me, since every other word in Dutch seems to come fraught with a mind-numbing and phlegm-inducing collection of guttural “ch” sounds. Don’t get me wrong: I love Holland and the Dutch and everything about them, but their language reminds me of a question I was asked once after a trip to Wales. “Now that you’ve been there,” someone said, “do you find the Welsh language pleasing to the ear?”

“Well, yeah,” I replied, “compared to Klingon.”

With work (and attendant socializing) completed, I was determined to make my way to the Holland Casino and see if I couldn’t iron out a few slackjaws over a friendly game of no-limit Texas hold’em. I’d been there before, and I’d kind of gotten crushed, for the Dutch play their poker fast and hard, and they’d gone through me like the proverbial freight train through the wind. “The thing you must understand about the Dutch,” I’d been told at the time, “is that we are all either farmers or pirates.” Well, okay, then.

Still, I’m a different player now. Thanks to my ongoing transformation under the tutelage of Decide to Play Great Poker, I enter every game I play feeling like finally, at last, I really know what I’m doing. Both globally — my goal for a given game — and locally — my play of every betting street on every hand — my default state of mind now is “dialed in.” That’s a consummation devoutly to be wished. (And always the standard disclaimer: though I’m co-author of the book, all the great conceptual stuff — the transformational stuff — is Annie Duke’s, not mine.)

Anyway, the details of the session don’t matter much, except for this: I had my choice of games, a small one against weak players, or a larger one against some weak players but also several very good ones. In past I’d have chosen the smaller game, seeking the softer target with the attendant lower risk of “getting hurt too bad.” This time I went for the big game, and even though I knew it was a tough lineup, I also knew I could beat it. All I had to do was play as tough as they played. And now I can.

You know, I don’t want to beat the dead horse of this, but the more I think about the impact of Decide on my game, I’m aware that it’s less about the lines of play I’ve learned than about the underlying confidence I’ve acquired. And the larger point is this: You can do something for a long, long time, think you’re really pretty good at it, and then suddenly, if the circumstances are right, experience a whole order of magnitude’s growth. It’s worth keeping in mind. Life is long. When we think we’re stuck, or plateaued, probably we’re not as stuck or plateaued as we think.

But don’t think I spent all my free time at the poker table. I walked Amsterdam, and walked and walked and walked it. Something about the city — so flat, so small, so full of the Dutch  — I could (and did) stroll around for hours. Yes, yes, yes, I saw the Red Light District and the coffeeshops (holding each at appropriately anthropological arm’s length) but that’s not really the point. It’s not even the point that the Dutch are so mellow (except for the pirates). It’s that I feel so mellow when I’m among them. Is tranquility infectious? It in Amsterdam, at least for me.

Okay, pictures, then out. I’ve got a plane home to catch.

More later, -jv

What Do You Think of This?

Monday, May 30th, 2011

I’m writing my memoir. It’s called BUT IT’S FUNNY IN RUSSIAN: A WRITER’S ADVENTURES IN TEACHING OVERSEAS. I’m posting the first chapter here, and I’m interested to know what you think. Do I sound snarky? Sincere? Is this a book you’d invest time and coin in? I welcome your comments here, or via email through the link you’ll find on this page. Tyty. -jv

ONE: MR. NEEDY

The story starts with a job I couldn’t hold.

It was the late 1980s and I was writing for a situation comedy called Charles in Charge, not the original network show but its reincarnated syndicated cousin, starring the estimable Scott Baio as a college student-slash-nanny to three problematic tweens. I had scored big with a freelance episode called “Dorm Warnings,” in which Charles gets fed up with family life and moves into a college dormitory with his buddy, Buddy (the somewhat less estimable Willie Aames), and hilarity – as it so often does in sitcoms of a certain ilk – ensues. I’d also written an episode called “May The Best Man Lose,” which featured, as God is my witness, a dunk tank. On the basis of these twin triumphs, I was offered a six-week contract as a staff writer for the rump end of the 1987 season, running from late October until the Christmas wrap. This was my first staff job on a TV show and I was agog at the pay: $2,000 a week, which was big money in 1987 dollars and not chump change even today. (more…)

Another Albuquerque Excerpt

5          HOW MANY SOLIPSISTS

If your father walked out on you when you were eight years old, how much of him would you remember? Of Woody I remembered much. The way he always smelled of Old Spice and the panatelas he smoked. The hand magic he could do, like making a quarter disappear (and then not giving it back, to teach me a lesson in credulity). The frequent, unexplained absences, which I realized long after the fact were either undercover stints on the snuke or time in jail. And then the final big disappearance, which he made worse, I think, by perpetrating the false hope of his imminent return. This he did with a string of postcards that, as a sort of running gag, bore portmanteau photographs of that mythical western critter, the jackalope, all furry haunches and grafted antlers. They often contained handwritten riddles like –

Q: How many solipsists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Who wants to know?

– and were all signed the same way, “Yours, Woody.” Not “love,” note. My father could lie the creases off a co-ed’s culottes, but the useful fiction of affection escaped him. He knew he couldn’t sell it, so he didn’t try. Nor had I any illusions. My mother and I were never more than appendages in his life, of that we were sure. And appendages break. The postcard flow dwindled over time, then petered altogether out.

Later, when I started on the snuke, word of his adventures occasionally reached me by roundabout means. I’d meet a grifter who knew a grifter who’d worked a government grants thing with him, or a Jake who’d note a resemblance and say, “You’re not that son of a bitch’s son, are you?” I often wondered if word of my exploits ever reached him. Was he proud that his son had followed in his roguish footsteps? Or could he not give a rat’s ass? I tried to track him down once, just for drill, but apart from the aggrieved screeds of several women who’d discovered themselves to be his coetaneous wives, I didn’t get close. When you’re a master of the vanishing act, it’s no trick to stay lost. As to how he’d found me, I didn’t bother to wonder. The way I’d been lighting up the media with my name and picture, I was practically on MapQuest.

“Ouch, shit!” That’s me savaging my thumb with a hammer instead of hitting the little wooden dowels that connect the kickboard bracket of the Reåd shelving system to the left and right support struts. And that’s because I’m thinking more about my father than about hammers and dowels – and lying to Allie with my silence, which is making me edgier than I let on.

I don’t know why I didn’t just come right out and tell her. Maybe I thought she wouldn’t believe me, would just tab the revelation as “intrigue for the sake of intrigue.” Or if she did believe me, what then? She’s supposed to welcome my biggest inspiration and worst influence with open arms, just when we’re clinging to so frail a valence of normalcy? She didn’t know my father. Okay, hell, I didn’t know my father, either, but it seemed unlikely that he’d pack a whole big mess of normal in his Gladstone. That’s not how he rolled.

Plus let’s not forget he was wearing a dress.

But the alternative, I realized as I sucked the sting out of my thumb, was to deny Allie critical information about the goings-on inside my head. Not quite in the class of an alcoholic sneaking a drink, but sneakiness of a sort just the same. I figured if I was so unwilling to clue in my beloved to the sudden strange appearance of my own flesh and blood, this in itself was a sign that I’d better come clean.

So I did. I was really afraid she’d see it as a setup of some kind, another Hoverlander effort to scrub Operation Citizen, but all she said was, “We’ll have to invite him to dinner.”

“Not a good idea,” I said.

“What, you don’t think he’ll like me?”

“Did you not hear the part about the dress?”

“So he’s trans. I’m not gonna hold that against him.”

“He’s not trans.”

“How do you know?”

How indeed? After all, after all these years, my dad could not have been much more than a shadow in my mind, the sum of my recollections and his reputation. Still, there are some things you know in your gut. I didn’t know Woody, but I knew him. Or let’s say that if the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, then the apple can learn much about the tree just by considering itself. Had I come to town looking for me, so garish a lady costume would not be transvestite plumage.

It would be camouflage.

Because the thing is, when most people look at you, they don’t really see you at all. They judge a book by its cover absolutely. Grifters know this, which is why you so often meet them in costumes of one sort or another. Business suits. Coveralls with nametags. Uniforms. Whatever helps them sell what they want you to buy. Most people looking at my dad in a dress would reach the cursory conclusion I’d first reached: this is one serious frump. Then they’d look away, which would be exactly his goal. How do you hide in plain sight? You thwart the urge to seek.

From this I surmised that Woody was being sought. Not so huge a leap. Even from my dim and distant childhood, I could remember instances of him working very hard to deflect the attention of one irate mark or another, which need will arise from time to time when a grift slides sideways. One whole summer he never ventured out of the house without carefully cloaking himself in the fatigues and demeanor of a disabled Vietnam veteran, right on down to the shrapnel limp and loud colloquies with the voices in his head. I thought it was cool: Daddy plays dress-up. But the strategy was sound, for whoever might be after him would take one look at the post-traumatic stress victim, think, well that sad casualty’s not him, and turn their searching eye elsewhere.

“So we’ve got dad on the lam,” I said. “From whom and for what we currently have no clue, but he’s working the shade and fade damn hard.”

“Why is he even on the street at all?” asked Allie. “Wouldn’t it be safer just to lie low?”

“Safer, sure, but a trap of a different sort. You know this, honey. Once you lose your freedom of movement, you lose your options. Holing up just puts you in a hole.”

“True,” she nodded. She settled down onto the living room couch and I paced nearby, each of us doing what a grifter does when presented with a puzzle like this, mentally teasing the pieces into place. Presently, Allie said, “Since he’s not lying low, he must really want to see you.”

“Not want. Stronger than want.”

“How so?”

“We’ve been estranged forever. Now he gets wind of me on the six o’clock news or wherever, and maybe this sparks some father/son nostalgia in his mind. He can’t know how I’ll react to seeing him. If he has the time, he tests the water first. Email, phone call, maybe a jackalope postcard.”

“What kind of postcard?”

“Nothing. Never mind. All I’m saying is, no test, ergo, no time.”

“Does he know how good you are?”

“Let’s say he does.”

“Then he needs help.”

“And rates me as the Red Cross.”

“So, how do you feel about that?”

“Allie, I don’t know. I know I’m supposed to be carrying all these abandonment resentments, and maybe I do and just don’t know it. But knowing what I know about him and about me, I figure that to hate him is to hate me. As far as I can tell, we’re chips off the same block.” Boy ambled in from the kitchen and taunted me with the tennis ball in his mouth. This particular slobbery brand of tug-of-war, where Boy chomped his ball in a death grip and Allie or I tried to pry it free, had emerged as one of his favorite games. He’d play it as long as our patience would last. He usually won, too, since the only way to get the ball out was misdirection, and Boy’s elemental brain did not respond too quickly to trickery. He was like a certain stripe of mook: too dumb to fool. I grabbed the ball and yanked to no particular avail. We growled at each other. It was fun. “Part of me is flattered,” I said. “My dad was always kind of legendary, you know? I mean, highly regarded in his circles. The two words you mostly heard were ‘creative’ and ‘fearless.’ I guess if he’s coming to me for help…”

“Then that’s acceptance.”

“Acceptance, yeah. But trouble, too.” Allie’s arched eyebrow encouraged me to continue. No doubt she’d already formed her own hypothesis about what kind of trouble a runaway Hoverlander could cause, but she wanted to hear it from me. “We’re supposed to be going straight, right? I have no idea what direction Woody is headed, but I’ll bet my bankroll that straight isn’t it.”

Allie mulled this for a moment, then asked, “What’s that stupid thing I’ve heard you say? ‘Make the latest possible decision based on the best available information?’”

“Oh, that’s stupid, is it?”

“A little, yeah. But why don’t we do that? Wait awhile. See what happens. After all, he may not even contact you. Maybe he just wanted you to know he’s out there.”

“Maybe he just wanted a bunk bed.”

I deked Boy with disinterest. He let down his guard, the ball came free in my hand, and I’d won another round of How Dumb is a Dog? This, however, left me holding a soggy tennis ball, so who’s to say who won? I threw the ball and Boy bolted after it with a dog’s abandon, scuttling across the hardwood floor and banging sidelong into the far wall. Then Allie took up the game and I returned to my Reåd. By midnight, I’d wrestled the bookshelf into shape, and it stood upright in the middle of the room. On a handiness scale of ten, I’d rate myself a six; there were pieces left over. But Allie cast approval on my effort. We were just discussing placement options when a knock at the door startled us both.

It was Vic, as nine and a half times out of ten it would be, and he waltzed in with no thought to the hour, for Mirplovian logic held that if he was awake, then everyone was.

“It’s not like I didn’t check the lights,” he said. “My only concern was you two randy rabbits might be screwing, and who wants to see that?” At this point he noticed the bookshelf. “I like it,” he said, appraising it critically. “Very nice. Very conceptual.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“The installation.”

“Vic, it’s a bookshelf.”

“Against the wall it’s a bookshelf. In the middle of the room it’s art. You should drape it. Drapes are big right now.” Then, executing a deft conversational pivot, he said, “Hey, check it out,” and rolled up his left shirt sleeve to reveal on his arm a paisley shaped teardrop with a hole in the middle, like the eye on a curvy sperm.

“Vic,” marveled Allie, “you got ink!”

“Yeah, I did,” he said proudly.

I didn’t bother asking why, for clearly this was the next iteration of his artist presentment. See what I mean about costumes? Meanwhile, I thought I recognized the image, but… “Vic,” I asked, “where’s the rest of it?”

“What rest? That’s it. A yin. Half a yin-yang. Totally conceptual.”

“Hurt that bad, huh?”

“Like a motherfuck. I couldn’t even finish. I thought I was gonna pass out.” He cast an admiring glance at his own shoulder. “It is conceptual, though.”

“It is,” I said. “I’ll grant you that. Have you named it?”

“Named? Ooh, no, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I suggest Half Wit.”

“Ha-ha,” drawled Vic, then pirouetted once again across topics. “By the way, who’s the dude?”

“What dude?”

“The guy across the street. If he’s trying to not be seen, he’s doing a lame-ass job.” Vic snickered. “About as lame as his drag.”

I didn’t bother looking out a window to confirm this, for even a Mirplo at his most conceptual couldn’t conjure a cross-dressing lurker out of thin imagination. Then again, just how off my game was I that Vic caught on to the gaff quicker than I had? This business of going straight had its downside in terms of staying sharp. I turned to Allie. “New information, doll. Now what?”

Before Allie could reply, the doorbell rang. Allie shrugged. “Now?” she said. “Now we answer the door.”

pay too much for signed copies here

More From Maxx

Friday, March 4th, 2011

She’s been in and out of caves all week. Not spelunking, but… oh, hell, I’ll let her tell you.

March 4:  Aurangabad, India

Flew to Mumbai and then to Aurangabad  – the first leg of my tour of India.  Today’s adventure was The Ellora Caves which are a mix of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain cave temples that were built between the 6th and 10th Centuries AD near the ancient Indian village of Ellora.

The caves  were carved out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills at time when Buddhism was declining in India and Hinduism was beginning to assert itself. As time progressed to the 10th Century, local rulers switched allegiance from Shaivism (Hinduism devoted to Shiva) to the Digambara sect of Jainism.

The coexistence of structures from three different religions serve as a symbol of religious tolerance in India. The Ellora Caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

More later, -jv (and Maxx)

JV on CNN

Here’s me being the sage of poker of our time, some time ago.