Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Story Club, Pt. I

Selection I: Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain”

My friend John and I have decided to start what amounts to a very small reading club. Each week one of us will chose a story or short prose selection. We’ll both read it, and the next week post our thoughts. The stories will be chosen more or less at random; the intention is not to pick things near and dear to both of our arts so much as exercise our critical muscles. Since we’ll also post the stories we’re going to be reading on our blog in advance, anyone else who wants to contribute may do so. And if there are any stories or prose selections that you want to read, send them in, and we’ll do so.

This week’s story is “The Chain.” It’s from Tobias Wolff’s collection The Night In Question.

The story opens with a man and the daughter playing outside. A large dog from a nearby house runs towards the man’s daughter, aiming, it seems, to hurt her. The dog seizes the girl by the shoulder, shaking her from side to side. The man manages to prevent serious bodily harm being done to his daughter by biting the dog through the ear.

Back home, the man considers taking action against the dog’s owners, but is told he can’t; despite almost killing the girl, the dog was in fact tethered to a chain (just a very long one). The man's cousin, hearing this, volunteers to kill the dog and the man eventually agrees. The act sets in motion a chain of interactions which eventually lead to a death.

* * *

I thought the best parts of “The Chain” were in the section leading up to the murder of the dog. Once the dog is killed, the story starts to sag under the weight of its rather mundane ideas. (A chain connects us all. One act ramifies outward in unforeseen ways. If a butterfly flaps its wings in China, a wombat in Peru gets sick....) The story reminded me, in an odd way, of Pulp Fiction, or Go—some movie in which a number of disparate characters are all implicated because of things the other one’s do. Except this is not as good.

There were a few nice moments:

-The semicolon (instead of the word ‘but’) in this sentence: “He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming.”

-“He knew it was trite to marvel at the way time could stretch and stall.”

- A small technical thing I noticed and will probably steal: the ‘open dialogue technique’ used at the start. After the opening dog attack scene, the protagonist describes what’s happened. But for two paragraphs, we, the reader, have no idea who he’s talking to.

-I loved the description of his cousin: “his cousin had an exacting irritable sense of justice, and a ready store of loyal outrage that Gold had drawn on since they were boys.” That may be the best sentence in the whole story: “an exacting irritable sense of justice” perfectly captures a certain type of person.

-The small detail, in the conversation between Gold and his cousin, when the cousin, “shoved the naugahyde ottoman with his foot until it was facing Gold, then sat on it and leaned forward, so close their knees were touching.” Great sentence, great moment. Also, Gold has naugahyde, not real leather—that’s how it should be.

-To build drama, the cousin refuses to “poison or glass....” (sic?) the dog because “that’s chickenshit. I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.” I had problems with this: I thought it was done because the writer wanted it that way, not because it was true. It seems like a small lie to me. If for some reason I had to kill a neighbor’s dog, poison seems like by far the best way. And I don’t know that anyone would care that much about being thought a coward in that context; killing someone’s pet is already incredibly cowardly.

-The buildup to Gold deciding to have his cousin kill the dog.... First, the casual anti-Semitisim at his work. Then his own sense of being passive, his worry that the anti-Semitic stereotypes which trap (chain) him are, in some way, accurate. The fistfight he watches outside his store. The visit to the dog owner’s neighborhood, where he encounters their wealth as a barrier, protecting them from justice. (“The deep thunk of the brass knocker against the great green door, the glittering chandelier in the foyer, the Cinderella sweep of the staircase with its monumental newel post and gleaming rail—all this would tell you that the law was among friends here.”)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Enigma Lichens

This is from "The Spider Man and Other Stories" a review in the Dec 4 New York Review of Books.  The book being reviewed is Dry Storeroom I: The Secret Life of The Natural History Museum.  It's about...uhm...the secret life of a Natural History Museum (the British one in this case).
Lichens fungi and algae are referred to as cryptogams, which literally means "hidden marriage"--a reference to their means of reproduction, which long remained a mystery to botanists.  During World War II, a misunderstanding about the meaning of this term led to a breakthrough of the greatest military importance.  Geoffrey Tandy was the museum's "seaweed man."  He only ever published two scientific papers, a lack of productivity that seems to have been owing to a hidden marriage of his own, for Tandy shouldered the burden of running two families in tandem.

His great moment came when a functionary in the Ministry of War became confused between cryptogamists and cryptographers, and recruited Tandy to the British center for signals intelligence at Bletchley Park, where some of the world's brightest minds were working on cracking the German Enigma Code.  During Tandy's stay at Bletchey Park several sodden notebooks holding vital clues to the German code were recovered from sunken U-boats, but they seemed damaged beyond recovery.  Tandy, however, knew exactly what to do, for the problem was not so different from preserving marine algae.  Obtaining special absorbent papers from the museum, Tandy dried the sodden pages and made them readable, an important contribution to deciphering the Enigma Code.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thoughts On Remodeling

- Home Depot and Lowe's are not, as I had once assumed, more or less the same.  Home Depot is far inferior.  Don't go there, unless you want faucet fixtures that cost 40.00$ more than they should, look terrible, and only work with a certain brand of six-hole sinks manufactured exclusively in Slovenia.

-Instructions for coming up with name for shade of paint: take any noun.  Take any second noun (preferably one that evokes nature) or adjective with non-negative connotation.  Combine.  You have now created the name of a shade of paint.  Sierra frost.  Tuscon villa.  Spring pumpkin.  Tomato stockcar.  All are paint names, somewhere.  I promise you.

-"Trim" refers to floorboards and chair rails.  Oh, and door frames.  Maybe window frames too.  I think it's also a kind of sparrow.  I don't know.  But people like to talk about it.  Generally when they do just nod.  Agree that it should probably be white.

-I think it can also refer to a body shape?

-Toilets are rated according to statistics.  Flush power.  Flush strength.  Slugging percentage--those are the main ones.  It's kind of cool.  

-While it may, in theory, be possible to purchase a toilet for under $100, you should not do so.  Unless, that is, you want some toilet who will never even get past AAA ball.

-We have two new toilets--a Brad Ausmus level toilet, and, for our starting rotation (main bathroom), an Andy Petitte level toilet.  (The Pettite of three years ago, say).  We passed on the Tim Lincecum/Manny Ramirez level ones.  Too pricey.  And why spend all that money on one superstar?  As the Devil Rays showed, it's balance and depth at all positions that wins championships.

-Total number of miles driven between our apartment, our house, Lowe's and Home Depot in last week: 200.  

-Walt Disney makes its own line of paint.  I don't know what to think about that.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Onion Calls The Presidential Race

Kobe Bryant Scores 25 in Holy Shit We Elected A Black President

So funny.  Here's a sample:
....Lakers forward Lamar Odom also chipped in with 16 points and eight boards in the historic 349-162 Electoral College victory over the slumping Clippers, who are clearly missing the presence of former power forward Elton Brand—a Democrat, let alone a black Democrat, winning Indiana for the first time in 44 years? Florida? Ohio? Maybe even North goddamned Carolina? Are you fucking kidding? Is it absolutely confirmed that he won Virginia? Virginia, for crying out loud. Fucking crazy is what that is.
The 2008 league MVP was solid on the defensive end of the court as well, holding Clippers guard Baron Davis to just 12 points and when they called Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida for Obama, basically ensuring victory, that was a moment in which all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or party affiliation had to stand back and say, "Holy shit, this is actually going to happen. Holy shit.... Holy shit. Holy shit! Holy shit!"

A Big Pot, A Big Bluff

I play poker online for about an hour a day.  Mostly I play low-stakes hold'em: the games are soft, and it's a relatively painless way of generating some extra income.  It's also incredibly boring.  Low stakes players don't fold much, and you have to hold hands to win pots.  To alleviate the tedium, I've started to mix in a few tables of Pot Limit Omaha.  I used to play a lot of Omaha, but the style I used at the time was conservative to the point of timid.  What I'm doing now yields higher profits, but exposes me to much greater swings of capital.  It involves a lot more bluffing, and a lot more preflop raising.  The result is that the people I play with tend to view me as a loose cannon, and give me action.  Sometimes that's good; when I get big hands, I get paid off.  The problem is that it exposes me to a fair number of bluffs.  People know I often don't have the hands I represent and think they can push me out of pots by big bets.  When I don't have anything at all, folding's no problem.  It's when I have good but not GREAT hands that things get dicey.  (This is a rarely-discussed problem with bluffing a lot.  It become paradoxically much harder to put your opponents on hands. )

For example, yesterday I raised to 7$ from the cuttoff with AsKs5h4d.  The button and small blind called.  Then, the big blind (a very loose player) min-raised to 16$.  All but the small blind called.  The flop came Kh Kc 10c.  The big blind checked to me and I bet 30$ into a nearly 40$ pot.  Everyone folded but the big blind, who called.  The turn came the 9clubs, putting both a straight and a flush on the board.  The big blind lead out into me, for the size of the pot (100$).  I had about 150$ behind, and had to figure out what to do.

Tricky tricky tricky.  On the one hand, my trip kings are now beat by both straight and flushes.  In theory, that means I should fold (I don't have the right pot odds to call in hopes of making a full house on the river).  If I am going to call, I have to shove my stack into the pot; there's no point in calling off 100$ and leaving 50$ behind.  The question is, what does my opponent have?

In hold'em this might be an easy fold.  The problem is that Omaha is not Hold'Em.  When I bet the flop, I'm representing at minimum three kings.  However, it's pretty likely I could have a full house at that point, and my opponent should know that.  The range of hands that I would raise and then call a reraise with preflop includes lots of kings and tens.  Furthermore, I WOULD bet a full house in that spot; I want to get value from a lesser king, first of all, and I know the big blind doesn't respect my bets very much at this point and will call just about any flop bet (at least he has been so far).  There's no reason to check the full house there, and I wouldn't do it.

His lead on the turn represents a made hand.  The question is, would he chase a flush or a straight draw with a pair on the board?  In general, doing so in Omaha, is, as they say, bad cess.  Calling out of position to hit a non-nut hand seems like a pretty poor play, and though my opponent here is loose and aggressive, that doesn't mean he's stupid.  He knows my flop bet represents at least three kings. He can't know if I have a full house or not, but he at least knows it's possible.  The normal line for someone who'd made a straight or flush on that turn would be to check and call, hoping that I wouldn't bet unless I actually had the full house.  There's no point in leading out right there; you can really only get called by better hands.  

I write all this, although thinking back I can now see reasons why a flush might bet there; especially if he puts me on a hand like the one I have.  But, as I noted, the big blind is playing very loose and making a number of large bets.  So far I haven't seen him show many hands (he's been mostly running over the table) but I know he's betting way too often to have real hands every time.  So, after taking time to think, I push all-in.  He insta-calls and I figure: I'm dead.  (Even if I'm wrong, I decide that I have outs to a full house).  And he shows....nothing (Q 10 6 7).  He's drawing mostly dead, and when the river bricks off, I scoop the pot.  

Happy days.  Tough decision though, and one of the reasons I both love and hate Omaha.  

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

At The Courthouse

Well, it's happened.  As of 9:30 AM this morning, we are homeowners.  At least, we are allowed to become homeowners, according to a California Probate Judge.  We still have to sign papers and all sorts of other fun stuff later, but assuming nothing goes horribly awry in the next few days, by Sunday we will have the keys to our first house.  Pretty exciting.

I have already concocted a scheme to turn our backyard into a local pit-fighting arena, for the amusement of the neighborhood youths.  I figure with ticketing and concessions we could essentially get the house to pay for itself in the first year.  My wife is skeptical.

That's the problem with wives.  Mention a backyard to them and they think "I can plant basil."   Or "we can sit outside on the porch and look at the stars."   They don't have the vision to see it as the blood-spattered combat zone it can, and should, become.

We can't move in for about a month, during which time a number of small and medium-sized repairs must be made.  (If any of you want to come install new pipes, send an email).   But after that, our own place....   Very neat.

Adulthood inches ever-closer.