Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Sound Of One Hand Playing

Mostly what I remember is the arm of the couch in my parents' basement. It was covered in short brown faux fur, and it was where I sat as I laid out endless games of Klonkide solitaire. This was the game I was taught by my mother, and I watched over her shoulder for many years, kibitzing about the red three on the black four until she finally hushed me and sent me away. As a middle child and a bit of a misanthrope, I took comfort in the endless repetition and patterns of the game. The summer that I spent waiting for my high school sweetheart to finish her day's work and I could go and pick her up, I sat there on that couch and played all those red threes on black fours. I flipped and dealt and flipped and dealt and every so often I came up a winner. All cards turned over. Never satisfied, I shuffled the deck and started over again. The next one would be the last.
Years later, when I discovered that my mother had solitaire on the computer she used to run her bookkeeping business, I used most any opportunity to sit down in front of that machine and play until my eyes got sore and my clicking finger got weak. There was still a huge advantage to not having to manipulate the physical deck of cards, which only exacerbated my interest in that one more game. It was about this time that a childhood friend of mine discovered my compulsive interest in solitaire. This was the guy for whom everything was a bet, a wager to see who could win this or that innocuous challenge. He wanted to sign me up for a trip to Vegas where I could beat the odds and bring home beaucoup bucks. I believe at the time he was even offering to stake me, seeing me as a good bet. I had put in the hours, after all.
That never happened. But when I did get my own computer, I found Freecell and didn't look back. Sure, I spent a few anxious moments exploring the time sink of Minesweeper  , but if I was going to play an obscure game of mild chance, I was going to go with a classic. Or at least one that gave me a reminder of those afternoons spent staring at the arm of the couch in the basement.
Now I am running Windows 10. Microsoft has seen fit to include their deluxe assortment of electronic versions of that arm of the couch. Now, much to my wife's periodic dismay, I can be found in those odd hours of the day that can't contain work or real enthusiasm staring at the various permutations of fifty-two cards. Some of them are face up, some of them face down. The trick is to unravel the knot that keeps them that way. I am bringing order to chaos. No wonder I enjoy solitaire so very much.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Won Loss

We have as yet to reach halftime in this, the 2016 professional football season here in the lower forty-eight. That has not stopped the rush to judgement that is every spectator's right, informed or not. There are teams rushing about for trades and deals to shore up their injury or talent-depleted ranks. There are so many coaches on the proverbial "hot seat" that decorum prohibits listing them here. In terms of the National Football League, I suppose this makes a modicum of sense. These aren't just grown men playing a game, these are grown men playing a game for a living. Many college teams allow a grace period, one they refer to politely as "a rebuilding year." This happens when a prodigy or two passes through and moves on via graduation or an opportunity to go and play a game for a living. It also happens when a coach transcends the earthly bounds of the college ranks and finds himself in the heady and somewhat more fractious world of professional football. If you're a professional, that "rebuilding year" takes place on the fly. Winning is everything and everything is important right now.
Which brings me to the part of this essay in which I am grateful that this mindset does not exist everywhere in all facets of our lives. This is the part where I hope my younger brother hasn't switched off because of that first paragraph about football, but if he stuck with me this far, the reward would be this: The lesson we take away from this is not how sports imitate life outside of sports, but rather how pleased I am that we all seem to get more than that one chance. Everyone has a bad day, and even when happenstance drops a string of them in your path, it is nice not to have to look over your shoulder, fearing that always dreaded "vote of confidence from the owner." And maybe we can take solace in the idea that this is not a peculiarly American concept either. When your job is winning games and you don't win, it probably means that you are on your way out as soon as you start losing. As a teacher, I know that there is a point at which the test scores of my students might figure into my continued employment, but not in the same way having a group that fails to score touchdowns will put me on the dole. Circumstances for most of us who are not putting on a weekly show of just how clever we are allow us to find excuses and ways to beg for more time.
And yet we all struggle with that "what have you done for me lately" mentality because it is 2016, and we are not getting any younger and the universe is expanding and the sun will go supernova before we know it and if we don't have that trophy in our case before the next meeting we will have to make some changes. The goal, as Billy Beane put it in Moneyball, is to win that last game. If you don't, the rest of the season doesn't really matter.
And we all start over again from the beginning.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Watch Out For The Wires

1 the system of ropes, cables, or chains employed to support a ship's masts ( standing rigging ) and to control or set the yards and sails ( running rigging ).

2 the ropes and wires supporting the structure of an airship, biplane, hang glider, or parachute.

That's the first definition of the word, and while it makes sense that a seagoing chappie like Mister Terrimp would have a fascination with all things nautical, but it's not my guess that he has been crabbing about the ropes, cables or chains supporting a ship's mast. Nor is it likely that he is worried about the wires supporting the structure of an airship. No, the rigging Mister Cheddar is referring to is that much more despicable kind: verb manage or conduct (something) fraudulently so as to produce a result or situation that is advantageous to a particular person.
Usually, it's a sporting event that people get upset about, since elections are so carefully watched and monitored. Like the "Phantom Punch" that Muhammad Ali used to knock out Sonny Liston in 1965, Or maybe it's even further back, like the Fall Classic of 1919, when the Chicago White Sox decided to put the fix in on the World Series, turning their pale hose black for all time. In some ways, rigging is a peculiarly American institution, both from the observing and participating side. It was, or will be, Captain James T. Kirk, from Iowa, who gained fame as a Starfleet cadet by changing the parameters of the No-Win Scenario: The Kobayashi Maru. He changed them so he could win. A born leader.
Which brings us back to Donald T. Krump. His insistence straight along that the process in which he has had so much success, first in the primaries, at the convention, and now in the general election, is rigged against him certainly holds less water than if he had been booted out in the first round or two. Instead, he seems to be experiencing a great deal of success, especially when you believe just how awesome the odds are stacked against him. How can a seventy year old white billionaire expect to get a fair shake in this country? 
I dunno. I guess it must really be rigged

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Saturday Night Dead

If you were to ask Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live since the earth was cooling, just how funny that little play on their title is - get it? Saturday Night Dead? - he would answer in the the less-than-affirmative. Which is probably why he didn't lose a lot of sleep when Donald J. Trumk tweeted, "Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!" Over the course of the past forty-one years, there have been plenty of critics who have announced the demise of the show. Almost as many as have asserted that Alec Baldwin was finished in Hollywood. I haven't watched a live Saturday Night since my bedtime started to necessarily correlate with that of my son's. I can't name the cast or the bandleader. When there are universally recognized funny bits, I knew that I could catch them on Al Gore's Internet or my trusty digital video recorder. Neither of these outlets have been exactly worn out by keeping up with the hilarity that has ensued.
But I don't know if I would trust Donald Trush as my media consultant. He reminds me of  Mikey in those LIFE cereal commercials from way back when. He won't watch it. He hates everything. Of course, at this stage of the game, Mister Truh has good reason to hate everything, since everything is going against the presumptive Republican human being presently. That would explain the scorched earth policy of his campaign. Drug tests for participants in presidential debates?
That's funny. Almost as funny as the time my friend was told that he would have to take a drug test to get his job. His reply? "Great! I know my drugs." His employers were not as amused, but he ended up getting the job. My friend never imagined that the process might be rigged in any way, or that the media was behind any of his struggles. Mister Trup? Not as much. 
What The Trumpinator doesn't fully reckon is the  media's job in the time of great national emergency or presidential elections: to report the utterances, idiotic or otherwise, of those involved. If he didn't want people to make fun of him, he should probably keep his mouth shut.
We should all be so lucky. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Lessons From A Blue Hedgehog

I used to play more video games. Before I became a father and began to feel the evil time-suck that robs all who fall under their spell of their free will and self-determination. Back then I really liked sitting on the couch with my jaw slightly agape, flinching when the movements generated by my thumbs brought unexpected results on the screen. I spent many happy hours trying to beat a particular level or competing for bonus points in a virtual world in which I was a puppetmaster. I knew that at the end of the day, when my eyes were tired and the console was overheated, I knew that tomorrow was another day and the lives I had lost could be mine again just by turning the machine on one more time.
The video game that occupied a great chunk of my life in the early nineties was Sonic The Hedgehog. I  learned a lot of important life lessons from that whirling blue speed demon. Most importantly, he reinforced a foundation principle in my life: Going from right to left as fast as you can is important while picking up as many golden rings as possible. Sonic and I share this work ethic. Depending on your perspective, I am always going from left to right and picking up the odd gold ring and loose change from the street. Sometimes I feel stuck in the rut of one particular level or set of circumstances, which gives me the opportunity to go back and find that one spring or trap door that I may have missed somewhere along the line. In all those runs, I don't know if I ever managed to grab every single one of the rings in front of me. I don't know if anyone ever really gets all the rings in front of them.
I also learned the importance of friends. Going from left to right as fast as you can picking up as many gold rings as possible is a whole lot easier when you have more hands. Having Tails by your side really helps maximize the rings and increases your chances of success. Having a partner in your left to right adventures is invaluable.
And no matter how difficult the boss at the end of the episode is, you will always be able to bounce back if you've got at least one golden ring. Don't go into a fight empty handed. And if you get squashed, remember the reset button.

Monday, October 17, 2016

How Much?

Powers of ten. I get that. stacking up zeroes after a digit and counting them makes real-life sense to me in terms of what my world has to offer. Most of the time, however, my life centers on things that don't rise much past that second power. Hundreds of kids. Dozens of choices. Scores that hover somewhere below that cutoff of one thousand. I can imagine things that come in thousands, but they are almost always grouped by those nice safe hundreds.
Way back when I took physics in high school, I was asked to consider things with magnitudes far in excess of that relatively small threshold. Forces of nature that needed to be described, or speeds. Most of my experience with speed kept me well within my comfort zone of ten to the first or second power. Then there was the speed of sound. Three hundred forty meters each second. In a minute? In an hour? Sound has a speedy cousin named light, and it's zipping around at three million meters per second. Powers of ten faster than the noise it made. How can this be? The TV is sitting just a few meters away, but I'm almost certain that the light and the sound are landing on me at the same time. How can this make sense? Only if I can imagine how big a living room I would have to be in for it to make a difference.
NASA likes to deal with the really big numbers. They're kind of showoffs in that way. They would like us to know that there are two trillion observable galaxies in our universe. That's twelve zeroes. Those NASA guys like to pile it on. Since there are seven billion souls on this planet, give or take, we don't currently have enough astronauts to go and visit them, this really feels like one of those science exhibition of cleverness. Not that anyone is sitting around in an office down in Cape Canaveral counting galaxies. They're doing math junk like approximating and estimating. They probably even use computers and junk to help them. If you happen to be a human working on your own, counting to a trillion would take you 31,709 years. By the time you got around to two trillion, a lot of those stars would have winked out, exploding with forces best described by these titanic numbers with units that remind of us of those brainiac physicists who seem to make their hay out of stretching our view of the world in which we live. Our universe.
Back in my neighborhood, I'm still numbering things by the dozens. Cars, people, trash cans. These are the things I can see in my observable universe. That's a close enough look for me.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Believe It

Bill O'Reilly told Donald Tsump that he was lagging behind in the polls with women. That's when Mister Locker Room replied, "I'm not sure I believe it."
Let's take a moment or two to take apart this interaction. First of all, what is Fox News doing lately? With the possible exception of Sean Hannity, who seems to be in his element defending the indefensible, the rest of the crew that Roger Ailes once put together seems to be finding exception with the presumptive Republican nominee. Megyn Kelly took down Mike Huckabee and his amusing tale about sharks and coarse men, and laughed when it was over. At each moment when things seem their most surreal, a new level of surreality is reached. Down is up, up is down, red is gray and yellow white, and we decide which is illusion.
Then there's the theater in which this is all playing out. Shakespeare would have blushed to think that Lady Macbeth and King Lear would show up on the same stage. This is the place where legacies are extended or recreated. I have lost complete track of the substantive points of the campaign, policy measures and suggested reforms, and the rest of the country seems to have slid off this precipice along with me. It was Dwight Moody who suggested that "Character is what you are in the dark." If this is true, who are we under the bright lights of the twenty-four hour news cycle? Are we just watching outtakes from the next season of Game of Thrones?
Or are we merely waiting for this circus to pull up stakes and move on? And what will be left in their wake? The Democratic Process is a strong one, and has certainly suffered its slings and arrows over the history of our great republic, and those that came before. We will continue to fine tune this beast and refine our practices until we can come up with something that resembles political discourse once again.
And from somewhere, far away, I hear a voice say, "I'm not sure I believe it."