Monday, July 18, 2005

I Know Who the Half-Blood Prince Is

What a weekend! I finished reading the latest installment in J.K. Rowling's 6th Harry Potter book last night at 11:30 p.m. As the release of the book drew closer last week, I had passed idle moments wondering, "Should I savor the book or tear through it?" I wavered back and forth, weighing the benefits. I could tear through it and then savor it. I could re-read the other six first. In the end, of course, I devoured it, just as I suspected I probably would. I wanted to know what happened and I wanted to know as soon as possible. I also didn't want to find out what happened accidentally from someone else who had already finished it.

But let me take you back to last Friday, July 15 at about 11:15 p.m. Doc and I were sitting in the lodge, watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and I was debating whether I should go get my copy from Borders at 12:01 a.m. or wait until about 8:00 a.m. and get a copy from Walmart. I finally asked Doc, "Should I stay or should I go." He said, go, so I went. I dashed upstairs to change my shirt (I had spilled a little salsa on it) and looked in my closet for something clean. I saw my black velvet skirt hanging in the closet and became inspired. Or lost my mind; I'm not sure which. So I dressed up in velvet from head to toe, put in long, dangly earrings, strappy sandles, and completed the outfit with a bejeweled, black velvet handbag.

I drove over to the local Borders and found the place packed...with people mostly wearning t-shirts and shorts. Ah, well. At least I wasn't wearning a witch's hat or Harry Potter glasses. I convinced myself that it was possible for people to think that I may have just stopped in after the opera or something. I know, I know: velvet in July? But the reasoning gave me the courage to get through the door.

There was so much activity in the store and there were probably about 300 people. They were having contests and face-painting. As I moved through the store, I caught a sob in my throat. I don't know why, but whenever I'm in a crowd and I am faced with emotion en masse, especially when it is positive, I cry. I just get this wave of energy and it's almost too much. So I choke up, especially at concerts, ball games, and parades. If anyone has a good explanation for this reaction, I tell you, I'd be interested in hearing it.

I got to watch as the store workers brought the boxes of books out on large carts from the back of the store; all of them marked with the warning "Do not open until July 16, 2005." I witnessed the cashiers line up at all six cash registers and watched them watch the clock. When it was 12:01 a.m., all six of them threw an arm in the air and yelled, "Next in line!" The first customer was a girl of about 10 years old. Those that followed were ages 7-70, all colors, and economically diverse. It was wonderful to behold.

But, my feet started to hurt standing there. I was number 808 and I had plenty of time until my number was called to line up. So, I wandered back towards the end of the line and found a nice leather armchair in the mythology and sociology section. I was glancing through the titles near my chair and I cam across the book Fairy Island. It is a picture book created by a mother and daughter team. They captured images of five or six fairy homes on Fairy Island. It was delightful, especially the fairies' shoes. They were so tiny and one pair was made out of peanut shells! All the materials, for the most part, were found in nature and everything was in miniature. There was a cute series of letters from a grandmother to her granddaughter about stumbling upon these little homes while studing the local plant life.

It was quite a lovely way to spend a hour in the middle of the night. I flipped through the book, examined the pictures, and read some of the text. The long line passed right by my seat and I had a front row view of those who had just cued up. I was able to people-watch as well as fairy-watch. I finished the book and was replacing it on the shelf when I heard the announcement saying that those with line numbers 700-800 should gather in Art and Architecture. I got up and wandered over. I was 808, but I figured it couldn't be too much longer; the store was emptying and there was a dip in the energy of the place.

About twenty minutes later, I found myself much closer to the cash registers. There was a fun couple of black ladies behind me, probably in there 30's or 40's. One of them was obviously there to accompany her friend who was interested in buying the book, but had no interest at all in Harry Potter. They discussed the merits of Aretha Franklin, while wondering how many times they had purchased copies of the song "Respect." But they decided that she was so good, it didn't really matter. They debated the coolness of the titles of several African-American novel titles. The winner was Caught 'em Slippin'. At one point, the HP fan, commented on my earrings, asking me if I made them myself. I hadn't. The disinterested lady wondered aloud if she could just pay for her Aretha albums at the cafe, since she wasn't interested in buying the Harry Potter book.

Shortly before I was next in line, the fan was talking about how they were getting closer and wasn't it great! The other agreed half-heartedly and said, "You did read the other Harry Potter books, didn't you?" The fan paused and said nothing, obviously busted. Her friend rolled her eyes and said, "Your cool factor just slipped 20 points, you know that don't you?"

At that point I was next in line, but that exchange just maid me joyous. Here are complete strangers talking about their cool factor! How fun! I was so glad to find that other people talked about it too. I felt connected, like, if we had been stuck on line together longer, we would definately have become friends. But it was 1:15 a.m. and I was bushed. I purchased my copy, thanked the cashier, and held the new book to my chest as I went out to my car.

Sometimes, I feel like I am an observer of life. Even when I'm having fun, I'm watching as an outsider. I am in the audience. I am an anthropologist. I don't know if that is because I am shy at heart or if it is because I am a reader and I read life rather than live it most of the time. Maybe I want to see and not be seen. I feel like a small child, sometimes, finding out the rules of a giant complicated game of Calvin Ball a few at a time. But every now and then, the rules click and I can step out onto the playing field and throw myself into the game. The moment becomes itself and I lose myself.

On this night, I was observing intentionally. I wanted to bear witness. It was the first time that I think I consciously and voluntarily participated in something as a witness. But I found myself stepping in as a participant every now and then. To me, art is anything that brings us together as friends. A painting, or a poem, or a song is successful when it connects with the observer and transfers an emotion or idea completely. And here is a marvelous book that not only connects author to reader, but reader to reader. And we are all so different from each other in appearance and background. But that night, we were all students at Hogwarts, gathered in Flourish and Blott's, anticipating the next school term.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Stalking Authors

Ever since I learned to read, I haven't been able to stop. It is something I do daily, read books that is. From very early on I would connect with an author and I would begin to seek out everything he or she had written. First it was Beverly Cleary, then Judy Blume. Eventually, I wandered over to the Sci-Fi Fantasy aisle and discovered Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga (Magician: Apprentice, Magician Master, Silverthorn, A Darkness at Sethanon) and David Edding's Belgariad Saga. With David Edding's books, I picked up the series as he was still in the process of writing it. I anxiously awaited each installment. Other authors followed: Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Roger Zelazny, Loren Estleman. But most recently, I have been stalking J.K. Rowlings.

I am completely absorbed by the Harry Potter stories. I began reading the first one after the second one was released. I have read and re-read, both on paper and on tape, all of the first five books. I know them inside and out and I cannot wait for the Half-Blood Prince to be released at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow morning. The best thing about this feeling is that it is the first time that millions of other people are as excited as I am about the release of a book. Always before, I have felt alone in my anticipation. I'm sure there are other people who are looking for John Irving's next book, but no one's throwing any parties, that I know of.

It is so rare that a book flicks a switch in so many people at the same time, and I just want to be a part of it.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Playing Poker with Jesus

I've been sitting here playing Poker Superstars Deluxe on my laptop, which is pretty good, as far as PC poker goes. You get to play against the Superstars of Poker, as the name suggests. However I must register my outrage at the exclusion of Phil Gordon: adventurer traveler, poker professional, TV Personality, and my personal hero/TV boyfriend. At any rate, it is kind of fun to imagine you are playing against the likes of Gus Hansen and Howard Lederer. The thing that differentiates it from other PC poker games is that playing against an imaginary player is fun, but playing against an imaginary celebrity is exciting. Or at least it has an edge over playing against the likes of Min and Derek and Marty.

But, I was playing it tonight after about two or three weeks of playing it for an hour or two almost daily. Shawn turned on the Red Green Show and my attention started to drift. I'm playing hands when I shouldn't be or I'm folding when I shouldn't. At one point I drew Big Slick-suited and I started to pay attention. I really threw myself into the hand, thinking, "Maybe if I imagine hard enough, I'll enjoy this as much as I do the face-to-face games." I mean, not to throw myself a pity party or anything, but I can't round up a regular game to save my life! Nor have I been successful at horning in on anyone else's regular game. I realize your poker posse is a tight knit group, but, come on! I'm funny, I don't drink, I don't talk too much at first and especially not much when I'm playing. Yeah, I know what you're saying: desparate much?

So, anyway, I threw myself into the PC game as much as I do when playing in one of the rare live games I get to participate in. I imagined I was sitting there with the Superstars and I was really playing. I was trying to bluff, trying to read them (they have no tells, I mean, they just sit there!), trying to change up my style. Finally, I just gave up. It doesn't really matter how much I throw into the game mentally; I'm playing against a bunch of ones and zeros. I have to tell you, it kind of bummed me out. Here I had a regular game and it just fizzled out on me.

But then it dawned on me: it's playing poker with real people that I really enjoy. There is a certain electricity in the air when everyone in the room is doing mental acrobatics. It's the only chance I get to try to fake out my Dad, who watched over me as a teenager and knows all of my moves. I get to try to stare down my Mom (who rarely does anything wrong in real life) like she's in late for curfew and she's not giving up a thing. Only when Riley calls for a snuggle on the couch does her facade slip and she folds like a tent. My Grandma is her own. Because of her status as matiriarch, I just watch. I don't try any funny business with her. But, just watching is sometimes enough; she's usually got 4-to-a-something and counts on her fingers when looking for a straight. And Shawn, dear Holmes. Sometimes I know and sometimes I think I know, but I'm never sure which is which. I suppose that's what I like so much about him: he's so mysterious.

I'm sure everyone I've mentioned above thinks they've got my number too. And they probably do. But I don't care. After every hand we whoop it up for the winner and debrief our cards. We used to debrief every hand, but ever since we started watching the pros on the World Poker Tour broadcasts and Celebrity Poker Showdown, we've all gotten a bit more savvy and play things a bit closer to the vest. Sometimes, though, we like to brag about our hole cards, especially when we just can't believe everyone folded when we had pocket rockets. Sometimes you just have to crow.

Our main game is No Limit Texas Hold'em played with real ceramic chips and cards from a casino (my deck is from The Palms). Sometimes, we even use a squeegee in the manner of a croupier, dragging our winnings over to our chip stacks. We don't usually have a buy-in; we're all in it for the glory of being the chip leader. Also, no on likes to go home broke.

As I was saying though, we play it for the joy and thrill of letting our chuztpa fly. We are different when playing poker. We get to snap at each other and get away with it. We also try to predict what the others might have and try to read their body language to find tells. Read that last sentence one more time. It's OK. I'll wait. We are messing around with the quantum. It's a bit like trying to communicate telepathically or trying to read the future. (I must admit I've gotten this idea from the TV show Joan of Arcadia: read this recap to see my "scientific source") Here's the quote to save you the effort; I believe it also applies to poker:

Luke says [chess is] just strategy, and a little bit of living in the future. Will doesn't want to hear any more talk about the future. Luke: "That's how it works, Dad. You see four moves ahead, it's empirical. You see five moves ahead, it's still grounded in science. I mean, who knows where the demarcation is? Now, if you see twelve moves ahead, maybe you're crossing over into the psychic phenomenon. And maybe -- maybe that's what a psychic does; she just reads the board of life better than we do."

Sometimes, when I'm having a good night, I feel psychic. I see the cards I want in my mind and they show up. It really is a rush of energy to feel so tuned in to the cards. It's even more wonderful to be able to read the others. It doesn't happen very often for me, but it occurs to one of us at least once or twice during a playing session (about the length of a nap of a toddler).

Most of the time reading tells and bluffing and willing the next card to be a jack are just a shot in the dark. It's mostly just guessing. My Dad taught me how to read some general tells, although I suspect he may be refraining from giving all his secrets away. But when I have busted someone, that is, I can tell from the look on their face what their hand is, I see this flash of humanity. For a brief moment I see them, just as they are. The opposite is also true; my poker buddies have caught me on many occaision and I know what it feels like to be seen.

As a result, we are more than family for a short time. We are buddies. It's an important trust. I guess I see how introducing someone new into the circle is like trying to break in new shoes. And the synergy we experience as a group is much like the synergy I felt when I played trumpet in a brass quintet (my most favorite-sized ensemble for this very reason). And it's so rare that I want to protect and sustain it. I guess I do have a regular poker game after all, if playing whenever you can find the time and are together counts as regular.

For the most part, group events/outings these days wear me out. There is so much posturing and white noise and negativity that I come home from most gatherings quite drained. But I'm always sorry to break up the Miller game. I'm almost never the one to call "last round," and if I lose all of my chips, I volunteer to deal. I just want to be a part of it, to sit at the table and really look at them and hear them and pray with them. That's what it feels like: joyful prayer. We're all hoping for an eight to complete that gut-shot straight draw or one more heart to fill out this flush. All of that hope in the room makes me feel like maybe Jesus (no, not him) is there too. I know that's a strange thing to say, but, how else can you explain all the love and goodwill straining the rafters over our card table? No wonder I'm over Poker Superstars Deluxe.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Midnight at the Oasis

For Matt

Midnight at the oasis
Send your camel to bed
Shadows paintin' our faces
Traces of romance in our heads
Heaven's holdin' a half-moon Shinin' just for us
Let's slip off to a sand dune, real soon
And kick up a little dust

-Maria Muldaur

Our Oasis is a small, verdant valley in central Ohio and we had a chance to return there this past weekend on the ninth anniversary of our meeting. This place, the place where Shawn and I courted, is the most wonderful place I've ever been to. There are trees and bugs and woodland creatures. There are fish and hawks and wild turkeys. And at Midnight, the valley is alive with magic.

We visited our best friend, Matt, there and had a chance to catch up, play Monopoly and share a few beers. In fact, we shared enough beer that we all decided it was a fine idea to take a midnight drift in his pedal boat on his pond. So, with the aid of the world's least luminous flashlight, we made our way over to the far shore where the paddle boat was beached. As we were walking, we all took note of the fog on the water and the stars (every single one of them!) up above, framed by the hills and trees.

Matt flipped the boat over, right side up, and began to explain what it was going to take to get us all into the boat. He was going to hold onto the rope at the front and ease the boat down the bank, which slanted into the water at about a 45 degree angle. Then, he told me I would get into the boat first and the boat would naturally ease into the water, where Shawn and he would join me. I was laughing so hard at the very idea of this. Yeah, sure, I'll get in and you'll join me later. It was so ridiculous and frightening. Not that I feared they would abandon me; I trust both of these men to the end of my life. I just imagined myself drifting out into the middle of this pond with no idea how to control it, and then of course, some sea creature would rise from the depths and have me for a midnight snack.

I pulled myself together enough to follow Matt's directions. As the boat and I slid into the water, Matt climbed on board and directed Shawn to hold the rope, all the while warning us that we should be using our "quiet voices" since his brother's family were at home sleeping not 50 yards from us. This was difficult to do, under the circumstances. We first had to calm down from the initial thrill of doing something dangerous in the middle of the night. Then we had to remember everything we learned in school in order to coordinate ourselves so that the damn boat wouldn't sink.

I distinctly remember Matt explaining the very basic steering mechanism to us (Shawn and I were seated in front, Matt on the back) and being struck dumb by it's complexity. Actually, I was so afraid we were going to sink or capsize, I couldn't even comprehend the instructions, which were: Move the lever up to turn right, down to turn left and leave it in the center to go straight. Eventually, we calmed down and were able to steer that boat like champs. Shawn and I would pedal with our hands, since the bow would come out of the water if we leaned back and the rudder would no longer work. Matt would balance in the middle and, yes, I steered. We cruised all around that pound.

Every now and then we'd stop and talk. While we were chatting, Matt saw a shooting star. I looked up in time to see the second one and make a wish. We had to be careful, though; looking up was enough to make the back end of the boat dip under the surface and take on water. I wasn't able to star-gaze as much as I would have liked, but I did get to look at those stars that were lined up with the horizon. It was beautiful: stars crowding around the hilltops, fireflies lighting up the hilltops like so many fairies. It was so quiet and still. I was transported. I wouldn't have been surprised if Gandalf himself had wandered upon us, requesting our services for an errand.

Every time the boat began to drift toward the back corner of the pond, Matt would begin to get nervous, saying he thought he saw some kind of sea creature there the other day when he was feeding the fish. He'd insist that we steer away. We were caught up in the magic and sea creatures existed alongside of those fairies. We wondered more than once: wasn't this the way many horror movies started? A handful of drunk idiots out too late, getting into things they shouldn't be getting into? But this moment was so far from anything horrible; we knew it was just idle fancy. The only thing we really had to dread was disembarking onto the steep bank of the pond.

Eventually, we decided to end our jaunt into the sea and Matt directed us to shore. Well, I thought he wanted us to go near what looked like a boat launch, so I headed right for it. It turns out, where I was headed was covered with large pieces of gravel. Well, I guess it doesn't take a genius to figure out that sharp rocks and plastic are not a good combination. Even though I could steer that thing like a pro, I still had a bit of wisdom to earn when it comes to being a good captain. So, we corrected our course and got out of the boat without incident and made our way back to the house.

Upon returning to the light, we noticed our hands were BLUE. Here it turns out, Matt's Dad had treated the pond for algae with some kind of chemical which dyes your skin blue for two days and counting. We giggled at the state of our hands, and heaved a sigh of relief that we didn't actually fall into the the water! But thinking back, I believe that the fairies had something to do with it. We joined them and their sea creature friends for a frollic at midnight and they marked us Druids, lest we forget our connection to the earth, the sea, the stars, the magic, and them.