Saturday, May 31, 2008

The 2nd Most Awesome Lobster Roll in Maine

Mark picked up a magazine today that had a story on where to find the best lobster rolls in New England. The article was horribly written, but still we decided to follow the author's advice on where to get the best piece of bread stuffed with a half pound of lobster.

The number one place was too far away, so we decided to have lunch today at the number two spot, a place called The Fish Shack in Rockport, Mass.

If this was #2, I can't wait to try #1. Di-lish.

Tomorrow we're trying another lobster roll at this place:

We're going to get one roll to share there, then we're going to head further north to Wicasset, Maine, where the allegedly #1 lobster roll in Maine can be found at Red's Eats.

We shall see, my friends. We shall see.

Also today, we swung by the President's compound in Kenebunkport. The guard out front looked at me funny when I took a picture. We saw a lot of black cars in the driveway. Secret Service. Shh.

Pie in the Sky, Weeks 5 & 6

For a slideshow with larger images go here.

See earlier slideshows of weeks 3 & 4 and weeks 1 & 2.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Cancer on the road

One of the big question marks on this trip was how I'd be able to continue my monthly chemotherapy while on the road for two or three months.

It's difficult enough at home to make sure the doctor's office communicates with the mail-order pharmacy people and that the drugs then get delivered to my house. During Pie in the Sky, I'd not only have those regular hassles but need to arrange for weekly blood draws, with results faxed back to Seattle, and for my monthly dosage of chemo drugs to be mailed someplace where I'd be able to take delivery.

I spent quite a bit of time talking all this through with my doctors and pharmacist. The oncologist's office gave me weeks' worth of blood-lab slips that could be completed at any lab and faxed back. We'd talk by phone on certain dates and I'd report on my activities and condition; I could even go through the "squeeze my finger, stand on one foot" routine if that would help. Caremark, my doctor suggested, might be able to send me a triple-order of Temodar -- enough to cover all our time on the road -- to avoid the long-distance mail coordination. OK, great.

But then just before we left Seattle Caremark said it couldn't do that after all. The drugs are too expensive -- several thousand bucks per five-day dose -- and what if the drugs got lost or Dr. Spence wanted to change my standard 300 mg/day prescription?

So, fine, I left Seattle with one course of drugs, which I began taking in Los Angeles after dinner at Kaye and Val's. No problemo.

Weeks on the road came and went. I skipped one blood draw, which I'm supposed to get every week, but by our third week out -- two weeks after the chemo -- it was time to look for a lab.

Michelle and I were at a Starbucks in Savannah, Ga., one morning when we saw a bunch of 20-somethings wearing scrubs walk in to get some coffee. Michelle asked them whether there was a blood lab around and they directed us down the street to a little strip mall. I checked in at the front desk and waited with another dozen or so people for my name to be called. Half an hour later the woman called me up to the window.

"Where is this again," she asked. Seattle, I said. Dr. Spence asked that the lab slip be faxed back to his office; the number is right here.

"Well," she said, "we don't have an account with anyone there. The only one we have is an OB/GYN." I assured her my doctor wasn't a gynecologist and she sent me back to sit down. After another 20 minutes, just as I was ready to give up and find a real hospital, they miraculously solved the bookkeeping snafu and called me in for the blood draw. One down.

A week later, in Atlantic City, we resolved to stay away from mom-and-pop blood shops. Instead, we walked down to the big Atlantic City Medical Center, Frank Sinatra Wing -- "Taking You Well Into the Future" -- and looked forward to some professional medical care.

I don't know why it should be so difficult to get a blood draw. Inside the front door a guard directed us to the second floor, where another guard gave me a visitor's pass allowing me to walk 20 feet across a small atrium to a receptionist who walked me around the corner to a larger walk-in reception room. There we waited another 15 or 20 minutes to be called to a desk where a woman loudly asked for and recorded a lot of unnecessary personal information, including my Social Security number and employment status, while a second clerk grumbled aloud about having to wait to take her lunch break. It was 12:15.

Eventually it was my turn and the grumbly clerk walked Michelle and me through a maze of halls to another office with a small waiting room and two staff ladies. "Take a seat," one of them said. "We won't be able to get to you until 1 o'clock."

Really? I said. Another 45 minutes just for a blood draw?

"Blood draw? This is endoscopy," she said. Without even knowing that that meant sticking a long tube down my throat, I knew it sounded like a procedure I didn't want or need. Argh. Finally we dismissed our grumbly, lame-ass tour guide and found the blood lab ourselves, where the phlebotomist poked my arm and sent us on our way. Sheesh.

Even then, I spent a full day playing phone tag with Jennifer, the nurse practitioner in Dr. Spence's office, before an assistant told me Jennifer had sent the prescription into Caremark. And then I spent a good half-hour on the phone with Caremark re-explaining the road trip thing and arranging to have the drugs delivered the following day -- last Friday -- to Ronelle and Aunt Chickie's house in New Jersey.

But when we got to Chck's on Friday night, no drugs. I checked my e-mail to find an urgent message from my sister Michele. She had driven by our house and noticed a package on my porch. The idiots sent the drugs to my home address!

How lucky that Mich happened to drive by. She FedExed the package to New Jersey, nice sister, but it didn't arrive until Monday morning. That meant another day of kicking everyone's butt there in the Wii Championship of the World and eating another meal of ziti and chicken parmigiana. So maybe the late delivery wasn't such a disaster after all, but still.

Fortunately, the drugs themselves have gone down pretty easy. Tonight's dose will be my fifth and final of this course. I've been tired as usual -- I slept in the car yesterday and took a nice nap today at Nauset Beach here on Cape Cod (above) -- but otherwise feel pretty good.

Who knows where we'll be when it's time to run the medical gauntlet again.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Next stop: Cape Cod

Two days at the Foxwoods behind us, and we're ready to move on. After battling with the rocks and the suck-out artists tonite, I ended up $1. I can take a hint.

Here's our plan for tomorrow: We're meeting the OTHER Nicolosis for lunch at (drumroll please) Mystic Pizza -- the OTHER location. My cousin Alison started to try explain to me about the restaurant and the movie on the phone today, and I was all, hello? We've had lunch there two days in a row! Why not make it three?

After that we're headed to Cape Cod, where we will camp for the night and perhaps two nights, if it's not too buggy -- at this place:
That'll give us time to check out Martha's Vinyard and all the coolness and richness down there.

This likely means we will miss a Freda rebound visit -- she's in Mass. visiting with Bro. #2, but she is leaving Saturday. If all falls into place, we may be able to meet Steve and Sandy somewhere for a late lunch on Saturday. Then we're headed up the coast to Kennebunkport and other points Maine ...

The Dreaded Error 99

Imagine my dismay, when I pushed the shutter on my relatively new, relatively expensive Canon D20 the other day, only to have it refuse to take a picture and flash at me instead "Error 99."

For days, this is all the camera has done, Error 99, Error 99. It has completely refused to take photos.

I went online to research the error, only to find that it apparently plagues this very tony line of Canon cameras. The ins and outs of Error 99 are posted on all the top discussion boards, discussions going back for years.

Unfortunately, the fix usually comes down to "send the camera in for repairs." How annoying. This was supposed to be a "rugged" camera, and it turns out lots of people have it for just months before it starts Error 99ing them.

Some of the posts on Error 99 said that the problem was a broken shutter mechanism, and I had gotten to the point of researching how to replace that, which looked pretty intense.

After trying all the recommended fixes and failing to fix it, I finally broke down yesterday afternoon and bought a portable camera, the new Canon SD1100IS.
Wouldn't you know it. I tried the recommended fixes one last time last night, and they worked.


For anyone researching the error 99 problem, I repeated these recommended steps three times before it worked: I removed and completely recharged the battery, removed the data card and removed the lens. Then insert JUST the battery, try to take a picture. If that works (it didn't for me) try inserting the CF card. If it doesn't work at this point, it's probably the card. Then put the lens back on. If it doesn't work at this point, it could be dirty contact points.

The time it finally worked I was holding the camera upside down and slowing down the shutter to try and see if there was something obvioulsy wrong with the shutter mechanism. That's when it started working. WHY it worked is a complete mystery.

Why Canon hasn't issued some kind of recall on something that seems so common in their cameras is an even bigger mystery. Doesn't seem like Canon DSLR buyers should have to expect to shell out $200 on a repair just two years after buying such a pricey item. Or is it just me?


Here's the new commercial for the portable Guitar Hero. The device doesn't look that great, but the commercial Rocks the House

I think this is the guy from the Real Men of Genius campaign, which was incredibly genius.

(... A quick trip to YouTube ... )

Actually, it looks like a different guy, but same genius concept.

A slice of heaven

When we mentioned to Ronelle that we might stay in Mystic, Conn., since it's close to the giant Foxwoods Casino, she endorsed the idea, saying it's pretty there on the water. Yeah, and great pizza, I said. She laughed at the play on "Mystic Pizza," the movie, but said she wasn't sure that the film really was about this same Mystic.

Is it ever! The movie and the pizza joint that inspired it have practically taken over the town.

Well, that's an overstatement. It's still a quaint, picturesque little shipbuilding village on Connecticut's south shore, but Mystic Pizza the restaurant is a mini-shrine to "Mystic Pizza" the movie, which is 20 years old now, and in our short stay here we've seen several people out front taking pictures of the joint.

Cute story about the film's genesis. Amy Jones, an aspiring screenwriter, was summering here in Mystic in the mid-1980s and used to eat at the little pizza place. Back in LA, inspired by the lilt of the restaurant's name and the mix of tourists and locals, she set her story there and sold the film (take notes, Gina!).

Another story, in Mystic Country magazine, told of how an 18-year-old kid, a local, got the gig of location scout. She went to the Mystic Hilton, where the production crew was staying, and asked the manager where the movie people were. "He said, 'I can't tell you that,'" the woman, Bailey Pryor, told the magazine. "Then I put $5 on the table and he said, 'Room 103.' It was the best five bucks I ever spent." Pryor went on to become a documentary filmmaker herself.

Inside the restaurant, photos from the film shoot and of the stars line the walls ("Mystic Pizza" was Julia Roberts' first movie), and the flick plays nonstop on big TVs around the room. They still do a pretty good business on the "Slice of Heaven" t-shirts that the waitresses still wear.

The shocker -- and I sound exactly like one of the tourists quoted in one of the many newspaper stories framed on the restaurant's walls -- is that the pizza is really good. Like nearly four-glioma good, second on this trip only to the perfection of North Beach Pizza in San Francisco. We're planning on going back for lunch again today.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Nicolosis

We had a nice dinner yesterday with seven of the New Jersey Nicolosi clan, including two second cousins I had never met. It was great to see my Uncle Bernie and Aunt Eve and their daughters Nadine and Marcie, who I haven't seen for years.

It was also cool to see the old basement room where we hung out as kids with our cousins for a few glorious days, sucking up hours and hours of I Dream of Genie, Bewitched, Batman and all of the American TV classics we'd never had a chance to see because we were being deprived of all culture by growing up in Tirrenia, Italy.

Bernie and Eve treated us to an awesome dinner of pasta, incredible bread, calamari, giant salads -- the food just wouldn't stop coming.

Here's a photo of the clan:

We're in an EconoLodge now somewhere in Connecticut, a few hours south of the Foxwoods Casino. ... more to come ...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Four dogs on the fire!

Here on the Jersey shore, where my excellent cousin (and M&M regular) Ronelle lives with her great family, Michelle and I established our Shore cred yesterday as non-Bennies not only by going to the Windmill for a hot dog -- famous here -- but by ordering with the skill of a local:

"Four dogs on the fire!"

"On the fire." That means, to you Bennies, grilled. What's a Benny, you ask? That's a tourist, like someone from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark or New York: Get it: BENNY?

We had a great day yesterday, following Ronelle's official summer kick-off tradition of getting some dogs on the fire and eating them in the car, then driving along Ocean Avenue to check out the Boardwalk and a new development there. Christin, pictured above with Michelle and Ronelle, even broke with tradition by jumping out of the car to throw away our trash (tradition dictates a round of rock-paper-scissors for the duty). And then we met my cousin Rick and his daughter Holley (below with Christin) to see the new Indiana Jones movie (so-so), and then had a terrific seafood dinner at Rooney's, down on the Boardwalk. Awesome day.

And all that was after getting here Friday night in time for a great baked ziti dinner, my favorite, and a night of playing games on Ronelle's new Wii machine with the same group, and also including Holley's brother Ricky and their friend Gary. Fun stuff.

Aunt Chickie, impervious to the passing of time, looks great and is as fun and funny as ever. It's been an awesome stop.

This has all been extra fun for me because this is where my mom lived back in the day when she and her brother Ron (Rick and Ronelle's dad, Chick's late husband) moved here from Southern California. Ronelle pointed out some spots where Mom used to live and hang out.

In longstanding Maher tradition, Rick, Ronelle and I jokingly bickered all day yesterday about who was going to treat for our various outings. I made the mistake of picking up the dinner check, which Ronelle apparently couldn't abide. This morning, as we were having coffee and a bagel and getting ready to leave, she surprised us with our own Wii machine, a gift from the entire Maher clan.

Too much, but I'm sure we'll get a lot of enjoyment out of it. Gina and Franny, you'll love it!

Here's Rick and Ronelle on the Long Branch Boardwalk.

OK then, back on the road this afternoon to visit Michelle's relatives in North Jersey (some real Bennies, I'm guessing). And then, who knows. More open road ahead.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Poker Poem for You

I was up sixty but now I'm down ten
This is my usual poker mantra

When I'm up sixty, I think, get up, get up now!
Leave the table with the money in your pocket!
Buy three pizzas
and three or four cups of coffee
or one tank of gas!
You can get all the way to Park Ridge New Jersey on this

but no, I stay, and my trip kings turns into her ace high flush
and I was up sixty and now I'm down ten.

and no, I don't wonder, how does this happen
It's pure hubris baby.
Hubris and that thing that always happens in the movies,
That thing that makes you yell at the TV screen,
When the protagonist says, I made a million robbing banks and I'm gonna to retire now,
And then DeNiro comes along and says,
one more, man
Just one more
Then you'll have TWO million dollars,
And won't that be a whole lot better?

And that's what it always is at the table
I'm about ready to go and I think:
Well let me win just one more pot
Let's make it an even hundred up,
and then I'll go

And I almost always end up back here,
thinking about how I was up sixty,
and truly, really, absolutely should have left right then.
Instead, I was up sixty,
And now, as you know,
I'm down ten.

Monday, May 19, 2008

You Deserved It, Part 2

I sat down in the $4/8 game at the Commerce Casino and looked over my opponents.

A typical crowd of Los Angeles degenerates (the main Commerce room is pictured above): a couple of young Asian dudes with big chip stacks (probably aggressive players, I noted to myself); a white guy in a baseball jersey to my immediate right, in Seat 8; the middle-aged black dude I’d played with two days before; an old lady with dyed red hair, a chronic table-changer and complainer, who also had made a brief stop at my previous table; some chips at Seat 7 but no player (must be taking a break); and across from me, in Seat 6, a squat, square man with gray hair and a bushy gray mustache, of uncertain Eastern European heritage, possibly Albanian, nursing a small stack of chips, and of a type in looks and, probably, playing style that I’ve encountered a lot at the Commerce.

I hadn’t seen a hand yet but I felt I had a beginning on getting my bearings. I posted behind the button. At the Commerce, as at many casinos, you must put up the equivalent of a big blind, in this case $4, before you are dealt a hand. I could have waited for the blinds to get to me, possibly saving a bet and getting a chance to watch some play for free, but I decided to post. There’s always a lot of action at the Commerce, and I didn’t want my first impression to be as a nit, someone who was going to sit there waiting for big hands, who was afraid to mix it up.

Despite my long losing slide at home this spring, I got to Los Angeles feeling good about my poker game. The recent attaboy conversations with Stahlberg and McCumber had helped, and I was returning to a place where I’d had plenty of success. When we were here last fall I started with a $3/6 game at the Hustler, quickly moved through the $4/8 and “$4/8 kill” levels, and ended up playing $9/18 and, briefly, $20/40 at the Commerce. Profitably. I got out of town about $2,500 to the good.

So, I thought, this was a good place to begin the Pie in the Sky poker tour, to get my game back on track.

My first Commerce game the other day, on April 23, had been a one-rack loser (that’s a rack of 100 $1 chips), but I wasn’t at all concerned. It was a toe back in the water, and the game seemed good to me. A lot of action, a good mix of aggressive and inexperienced players – the kind of table that, with some patience and a few good cards, you might pull down a big win. I had several big hands outdrawn right away and I wasn’t able to stay long enough to make a comeback, but I liked my chances. That night Michelle and I went together to the Hustler and we both won; I more than covered my one-rack loss in the afternoon. That's her at the Hustler, below.

Now, back at the Commerce on Friday afternoon, with more time to play and no worries, I sat down, looked over the cast of degenerates and posted. No cards those first few hands: fold, fold, fold, fold, fold.

And that’s when the hand that gave these posts their headline, “You deserved it,” came about.

It came around to my blinds – first the $4 “big blind” (I forget what happened that hand) and then the $2 small blind. The idea of the blinds is to kick-start some action. When the two face-down hole cards are dealt, the two players to the immediate left of the nominal dealer (the player with the rotating “dealer” button) post the blinds. At that point subsequent players can call the blind $4 bet, raise or fold (but not check, since there’s already a bet out there). When action returns to the small blind, he can fold, complete the bet to $4 or raise. The big blind also has an option to raise his own blind bet if it hasn’t already been raised.

This elaborate scheme ensures that, almost all the time, the pot will be contested and there will be a flop. Although sometimes – rarely at the Commerce – nobody will call the big blind bet. When that happens the small and big blinds are given the option of taking back their involuntary bets – “chopping the blinds,” it’s called in the card rooms – and a new hand is dealt without the casino raking any chips from the uncontested pot.

OK. So I put up my $2 small blind and, as I did so, the missing Seat 7 player returned to the table and posted both his missed blinds – $4, which would be treated exactly like a big blind, with an option to raise when the action got to him, and the $2 small blind, which went into the center of the table and was considered “dead” money (part of the pot, but not available for this player to use as part of a bet or raise).

Now, unexpectedly, the action folded all the way around the table to Seat 7, who could have raised, hoping to steal the blinds. Instead, he asked if we wanted to chop. I thought for a second that he was offering to let the big blind in Seat 1 and me chop our blinds plus his $6, which wouldn’t have made much sense. I looked at the dealer.

“Do you want to chop, sir,” she said to me. “You can all take your money back.”

She’s explaining a chop to me like I’ve never played before, but as far as I’m concerned she’s got the rules wrong. You can’t chop three ways, especially when there’s dead money in the pot. In my mind, this is a situation that calls for folding or playing, but not chopping. Which is what I said. The dealer shrugged.

Mind you, I hadn’t looked at my cards yet, and never do before the action gets to me. In fact, I hate it when players decide whether they’ll chop only after checking their hand. To me, that’s angle-shooting. My feeling is you should always chop or always play, and there have been many times when I’ve agreed to chop only to turn over my cards to see pocket aces or kings; them’s the breaks.

But this was different, I thought. It wasn’t even a legitimate chop situation. So I looked at my hand: Ace-3 of hearts, not a bad hand at a short-handed table, especially when no one has shown any strength at all and the only other two hands are forced to be there; they could be any two cards.

“I raise,” I said, and made it $8 to go.

Immediately, the guy to my right, in the baseball jersey, and the old man across the table, neither of whom was in the pot, both shook their head. The old guy actually wagged his finger at me.

“Don’t do that,” he said in his thick accent. “Is very bad luck.”

I owed nobody an explanation but tried to explain anyway. This isn’t a chop, it’s three-handed, I’m going to play my hand. The old man shook his head again.

Sadly, both players called (I was hoping to maybe steal the pot right there or at least lose one of the players). But brilliantly, the flop came A-8-3. I had two pair.

“Bet,” I said. “I ain’t scared.” A little extra bravado, I thought, might look false and get them both to call. Which it did. The turn was a blank, a duece, I bet again, and was called again by both players. Good little start to my session, I thought to myself. Already more than $50 in this pot and still one more betting round to go.

The river was a 6. A board now of A-8-3-2-6. Well, who knows, I thought, but everybody has kept calling, maybe that last card hit someone somehow, or maybe someone flopped a set and has been slow-playing to teach me a lesson. I’ll just check it down and scoop my little pot.

But when I checked the guy to my left bet! What?!

Seat 7 folded, and I looked around. My opponent was a blank slate. The old guy, not in the hand, was smiling below his bushy mustache.

“I ought to raise,” I said, “but I’ll just call.”

Seat 1 turned over – argh! – the 5-4 of hearts, for a weird, runner-runner straight and a nice pot. How he called the flop bet, or even the pre-flop raise, I couldn’t imagine, but there it was, the well hidden winner trumping my pretty two pair.

“Shoulda chopped,” was all he said.

Now the old guy across from me was actually laughing. “You deserved it,” he said to me. “Very bad luck.”

I guess it was an omen. My aggressive play seemed to mark me as a bully to be taught a lesson, and one with deservedly bad karma to boot. I don’t know if I deserved it – maybe so – but I know I never did recover. In fact I posted my worst loss of the trip so far, $300.

Better sessions were to come.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pie Weeks 3&4

For a slideshow with larger images go here.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

M&M Midge Report

Those "no-see-ums" we encountered in Florida turn out to be Culicoides furens, otherwise known as biting midges. According to this research, the midges are most common in the mangrove swamps and salt marshes of the Florida coast, and only the females bite, mostly at dusk and dawn -- the prime camping time and the exact location for a couple of milky white, Hiassen-esque tourists like Michelle and me to show up at Pennekamp State Park.

Female midges use the blood they suck to produce eggs, with each "blood meal" responsible for between 50 and 110 eggs. So, given my rough estimate of 80 bites on me, and guessing Michelle has about the same, M&M are conservatively responsible for at least 8,000 of these little buggers entering the world.

For that I apologize to the present and future "wimp" campers in Florida, as our friend Donna called us.

A week later, and I'm itchier and buggier than I was when they bit me.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Chez Philip

Just wanted to say a quick thanks to Philip, who gave us his most awesome D.C. apartment to use for the next few days. After 27 days on the road I was starting to feel a little wrung out. What a great thing to be able to unwind and lounge around.

Tonite I made pasta with olive oil and garlic, and we watched Spartacus on his TIVO. Ah.

("I am Spartacus. NO, I am Spartacus!" What a great, cheesy movie. Yes, Laurie, that is the "rapping Spartacus" statue we spotted at the Louvre years ago.)

Philip's apartment is in such a great location, we were able to walk down to the president's house today, and last night walked to a multiplex to see Mamet's latest, Red Belt (total suck, save the money. LAAAME. -2 gliomas.)

So Thanks, Philip, you rock, as always!!

Here's a view from Philip's apartment:

The Sorta Secret Service

So we're walking around inside the beltway today -- strolling up and down The Mall, checking out the Prez' house -- when we notice a bunch of guys in cop-like outfits. The badges on their arms identify them as Secret Service. Well, not-so-secret service, if you're going to dress like that, I'm thinking.

So I walk up to one of the "secret" service guys and ask him "Are you Secret Service?"

"Yes," he says.

Man, now the cat's really out of the bag!

Anyways, I snap a quick picture of him, and he yells "No!"

I'm thinking, uh-oh, maybe I breached some kind of secret security rule. I say "Really, I can't take a picture?"

He says "No, I just don't like to have my picture taken."

I take a closer look at him and behind his giant Tom Cruise bad man sunglasses, he's like, 21.

"No worries," I tell him. "You've got those big sunglasses on. No one will know it's you."

"Okay," he says.

And here he is. Don't tell anyone.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Anybody seen my shaker of salt?

After nearly a week of wasting away down here in Margaritaville, I don't mind saying I was ready to get out of the heat and humidity and the swarms of mosquitoes and get to a place -- Savannah, Ga., our current location -- where Florida is in the rear-view mirror.

Not that it's not beautiful and all, and we definitely had some fun, but the Sunshine State turned out to be one of the bigger busts so far on Pie in the Sky II. In fact Michelle coined a new state motto, which I won't repeat here just now although I can say it refers to a spot where the sun don't shine at all.

After we left New Orleans a week ago Monday we headed for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the seaside towns of Biloxi and Gulfport, for three days of R&R and poker. We had a good time there and even won a few bucks, and we enjoyed talking to the locals about the fortunes of the area. The coast was devastated by Katrina -- it hit there even harder than New Orleans -- but is rebuilding now with a bunch of new casino/resorts and more optimism than seems warranted. This shot was taken from our room at the Isle of Capri, the end of the Biloxi casino stretch, looking west.

"This place can still be bigger than Las Vegas," one old guy, J.B., said to me across the poker table. "We've got everything they've got, plus the beach."

I didn't mention that you might say the same thing about Atlantic City, and it hasn't exactly put The Strip out of business. Plus, as we've seen, one bad storm down here can wipe out years of gambling profits. But old J.B., 83 years and counting, was a sharp operator. Turns out he used to own all the land under the Beau Rivage, Biloxi's big Bellagio-style casino, and he recently turned a fourfold profit on a one-bedroom condo that he bought just before the reconstruction crews came in and that he then resold several months later.

Almost every property on the Gulf Coast not already claimed by a casino was for sale, and many lots that had held houses or small businesses looked abandoned.

The disparity between the fortunes of the big gambling corporations and almost everyone else was pretty apparent.

On Thursday we drove east and south into Florida, taking a really scenic, back-highway route along the water until it got dark, then we headed inland and spent the night in Lake City, before heading south again the next day.

Along the way we noticed that all the new home construction along the water is going even taller, taking no chances with the next storm.

On Friday Michelle drove all the way down the Gulf coast of Florida, then all the way across the state along Alligator Alley (we didn't see any), around Miami and down to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, our first stop in the Florida Keys. We hadn't slept in the Excellent Element since Santa Barbara -- thanks to friends, sponsors, Freda and some roadside fortune along the way -- so we were looking forward to camping out in this lovely spot. Even at the late hour we arrived, though, about midnight, you could break a sweat just sitting there, it was so hot. And we were both stunned by the number and ferocity of the bugs -- mosquitoes and smaller, nearly invisible, bitey things they call no-see-ums.

We made up our bed in the car but didn't really sleep at all. By morning we both had dozens of bites we're still scratching, and we were surprised to find that our campground, dark when we arrived, was less a beach than a tropical jungle. I don't know exactly what I was expecting of the Keys -- lots of blue, lots of white, I suppose -- but Pennekamp park was all green and overgrown and alive. Cool and everything, nature, but swampy.

We decided to skip the snorkel tour, the park's main attraction, and head right for Stop Two, Bahia Honda State Park, in about the middle of the 100-mile-long chain of islands. Much more like what I had imagined. Beautiful green-blue water so shallow and warm and buoyant that you feel like you're in a Corona Beer commercial. Long, inviting beaches. Less jungle growth, more sand and sky.

Even on this day, though, the reality couldn't quite match the postcard. We drove out to the end of the archipelago, to Key West, and both found the little town phony and pretentious and overpriced. We tried snorkeling back at our campground, but my stupid three-week trip beard prevented me from getting a good seal on my mask, so we ended up canceling another coral-snorkeling tour. I still feel bad about that. And by night so many mosquitoes had returned, and the temperature and humidity both stayed so high, that again we couldn't get much sleep in the car.

Although we had the campsite reserved for two more days, we got up on Sunday, Mother's Day, and decided to hightail it out of the Keys, up through Miami (above) and to Jupiter, Fla., for the night. We spent last night in Jacksonville, near the Georgia border, before heading into Savannah this afternoon.

This place didn't really do it for us either. Maybe we're at that three-week trip blues point, or maybe we caught Florida on a bad week.

Tomorrow's a new day. Hilton Head and the Carolinas await.

Ennui and The Bread Lady

What is the meaning of life? What if I die here? Why am I soft in the middle when life is so hard?

So, I'm standing in line at the local bread and sandwich restaurant chain in Jacksonville, Fla, when the server lady comes to me and gives me -- not the welcoming faux smile I'm expecting -- a bitter glare.

I reply with a look of befuddlement, and she happily provides the details.

"Some people," she says.

"Oh?" I say.

"We get the worst customers in here."

All I want, really, is a bear claw. Mark's waiting for me at the Starbucks on the other end of the strip mall, and I haven't had my first sip of coffee for the day.

"I give this lady her tea," the fiftyish woman informs, "and she says to me -- god -- she says 'Is this green tea?'"

I wait.

"The tea is GREEN," the lady says. "I mean, God, what else would it be? Of course it's GREEN tea!"

Ah. I smoothly segue into my need of a bear claw and she nods and obliges. I ask her how long she's been working at the bread place.

"Three years!" she says. "Too long!"

"I was a waitress for five years," I commiserate while she serves it up. "It can get on your nerves."

She tells me she spent hours last night online trying to get into AT&T's online job center but couldn't get in.

"I gotta get out of here," she says.

"You should," I agree. "Good luck with that."

And I walk out with my bear claw, free of all those things. Reminded once again that I have a great job, that I'm not at my job, that I'm so lucky to be drifting from place to place with no deadlines, no place to be, no generic bread place, no AT&T.

Poor bread lady. Lucky, lucky me.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

You Deserved It, Part 1

One thing I've noticed in my long, middling side-career of playing poker is that most gamblers, me included, tend to think that it's bad luck when they lose but terrific skill when they win.

If you're playing well and winning and some donkey makes an obviously ill-timed bluff and your clearly superior hand takes down the pot, you might think to yourself, you deserved it. And you'd be thinking of both yourself and your witless opponent. Running bad, though – let’s say the same donkey makes the same play with his same lousy hand, but somehow catches the miracle river card that gives him the pot – and you think a version of the same thing: You deserved it (meaning, this time, that you deserved to win, although you didn’t).

That a poker player can think both these things without any sense of irony is probably the central delusion that keeps this game running. The one constant so far on our trip across this vast land is that winners are geniuses and losers are unlucky. Just ask them.

As we began this trip a few weeks ago I was deep in a long losing slide. Some of it, despite all the throat-clearing above, really was bad luck. I’ve had this uncanny run of flopping a set – that’s a pair in my hand matching a card on the board for three-of-a-kind – only to lose to two crazy, improbable running cards that make my opponent a straight or flush. I’ve had big pairs lose to smaller ones, and even full houses lose on the end to bigger ones. It can drive you crazy.

I also know, though, that not all bad luck is bad luck. Sometimes, as my brother-in-law Manuel likes to say (though not about poker), “You brought that shit on yourself.”

So back in Seattle I did some hard thinking about my game and made some adjustments. Maybe I’ve allowed myself to get too loose, I thought for a while, so I tightened up, playing fewer hands, taking fewer chances on straight or flush draws, and getting out of the way when another player showed a lot of strength. No help. If anything, the changes marked me as a weak player and I started getting pushed around in hands I ought’ve played much stronger. So I went the other way, raising a bit more liberally, reraising on the come, representing strength even sometimes when I didn’t (yet) have the goods. What the hell, I figured, if the donks can suck out on the end maybe I can too. And in the meantime I’ll pick up a few pots when they fold to my aggression. And if they do call and I make my hand, so much the better. As my poker mentor Mike Stahlberg always coached me, “The less you bet, the more you lose when you win.”

Again, though, no good. The better players figured out what I was doing; the marks didn’t notice, but their hands held up anyway. Session after session I’d get behind and then struggle, usually unsuccessfully, to come back. Occasionally I’d start out strong but inevitably give back my winnings.

I asked my friend David McCumber, pictured above, to clock my game. We’d play together at the Muck, I suggested, and he could give me an honest appraisal afterward if he was able to spot something I was doing wrong. Which he sort of did; he said I’m most effective when I’m aggressive and that I had seemed a little passive the last couple of times we played. But being McCumber, the world’s nicest guy, he wrapped it all up in a bow so pretty it was almost hard to see anything else:

“The last two times I've gotten to play with you you've been a little more passive than usual, which I put down to bad cards,” he said in an email after our game. “Your play is so solid and good that I've tried to model my own game after yours. You'll do very well.”

When we got to Eugene on the first day of Pie in the Sky II, after dinner at Mom’s Michelle and I went over to visit the Stahlbergs, Mike and Karen, pictured below. I explained the dillio to my guru.

“Ever read ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’?,” Mike said. “It sounds like you need a little more Zen in your game. You’ve got to roll with it.”

Good advice, surely. But as we began the trip I didn’t feel Zen. I felt like a baseball player who has tinkered with his swing so much he can’t remember how to hit the ball.

Plus my bankroll was hurting. I keep a separate stash of money for poker, trying not to borrow from it for luxuries like a dinner out or the movies – to say nothing of the essential bills – and also trying not to add to it from the “real money” in my bank account. The poker bankroll goes up and down. It was seriously depleted when I treated myself last July (with major help from my “Team Mark” backers) to an entry in the $10,000 main event at the World Series of Poker. But it went up by several thousand last fall during a successful trip to Los Angeles card rooms, and it fluctuated normally back at home in the couple months after L.A.

This spring, though, as I said, the long slide has taken its toll. I began Pie in the Sky II with a stake of only $1,100 – not enough, really, to play my normal $4/8 game comfortably, let alone to take shots around the country at World Series satellite tournaments, which generally cost several hundred bucks each.

So I left Seattle with biggish goals but conservative expectations: I’d still like to play in the World Series come July. The main event seems ridiculously out of reach, although a smaller event – they have some tournaments with a $1,000 or $1,500 entry – may be doable. Also, you never know, I could enter a satellite for a couple hundred and get lucky.

My plan was to start off playing in my normal low-limit hold 'em games and hope to move up in limits or tourney entries as my bankroll grew around the country.

Coming up: My results so far, including some memorable poker characters across the Southwest and the South -- Walnut, Pleasant, Pro, J.R., Hurricane Hero and Hollywood.

Happy Mother’s Day

I’m not really big into the Hallmark holidays like Mother’s Day, but it’s Sunday morning in the Florida Keys and everyone’s lining up for brunch so I’m thinking of the awesome moms of M&M-ville.

Already on this trip alone we’ve enjoyed the excellent hospitality of Rita and Freda, the original M&M mothers, and had a generous offer (not taken) by Kaye’s cool mom Libby. Visits with more notable mothers to come, including Ronelle and Chicky in New Jersey, Renee in Colorado and, maybe, Janice’s sister Judy in Louiville.

It’s been a few hours now since I started this post (we had no wireless in the Keys). Up the Florida coast, through Miami Beach and now to the little beach town of Juno, near Jupiter, we’ve been accosted by uncounted men and women and little kids selling roses and stuffed animals by the side of the road – or right in the street, when we’ve stopped at an intersection – hoping to snare some last-minute Mother’s Day business.

We’re both tired. Michelle’s sleeping now -- happy for a comfortable, bug-free and air-conditioned Holiday Inn bed after a couple of hot, itchy nights camping at the beach -- and I might catch a nap too. We’ll have more stories and photos to come.

For now, Happy Mother’s Day to our moms and any others who are following along.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Pie Tour, Weeks 1 & 2

For a slideshow with larger images go here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Front-page news

One of the things I've meant to do on this trip is conduct a weekly morning news meeting from all the small-town papers we read across America. I've been having too much fun to write any of that stuff up, although I have been saving some front pages.

Today, though, sitting in our nice Isle of Capri Casino Hotel in Biloxi, Miss., I want to quickly post a front-page item from the Sun Herald, "South Mississippi's Newspaper." (I took the photo of our hotel above from the bridge mentioned in the item below):

Sound Off of the Day
"As I walked acros the new Biloxi/Ocean Springs bridge with my husband and children I saw a beautiful site. No it wasn't the lights dotting the shoreline, the beautiful sunset over the water or even the cool breeze blowing across our faces; although those were breathtaking. It was the presence of the wonderful people we came across, their smiling faces and happy dispositions. Then I realized, maybe there is a place in this world where evil abates and the greater good rules supreme. I now know where that place is -- the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

Monday, May 5, 2008

Why do ...

... when you can overdo. That's one of Michelle's favorite expressions and it could be the official city motto of New Orleans, where it's almost impossible to say when. We've certainly had our fill here, and then some, during the excellent four-day New Orleans leg of Pie in the Sky II.

Oysters (lots of 'em), beignes (lots and lots of 'em), crawfish, music, alcohol, sightseeing, gambling, hanging out with friends, driving around looking for a parking place: We've done a lot of what this cool town has to offer, more than once. Very fun. But two weeks into the big road trip now and, honestly, we're kinda bushed.

Yesterday, Sunday, we spent another nice day at JazzFest. Totally different weather than Friday. Really hot, like 90, with huge crowds, pretty long lines and, still, people slipping around in the mud left over from the Friday and Saturday rains. We heard some good music. I especially liked the Rebirth Brass Band, the Raconteurs (Jack White's other band) and the excellent Neville Brothers set -- with a surprise guest appearance by Carlos Santana -- that closed out the festival to a beautiful sunset.

In honor of JazzFest and one of the big stages set up around the fairgrounds track, I've amended Michelle's expression to: Why do when you can fais do-do? That's funny to me, because I could never remember how to pronounce the Fais Do-Do stage (it's actually like "fay doh-doh," and named after a Cajun dance party). I've always said "fie dew dew," and Michelle teases me for being a know-nothing out-of-towner. So now I've made it official. Why do when you can fie do do.

This morning we played tennis with Freda and Sandyman (why do ...) before packing up and preparing now to hit the road for the next stop, Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., where we hear there's good poker action.

Here are a few stray pics from the past few days.

Michelle at one of her favorite fast-food joints (this one in West Memphis, Ark.).

Entering Tennessee on Thursday morning.

We went to Beale Street, center of the Memphis blues nightlife scene, and both really liked it a lot. They had a big music festival scheduled for this past weekend and the lineup looked so good, including a lot of the acts from JazzFest, that we briefly considered putting off New Orleans and hanging out there instead. We both bought t-shirts from this Tater Reds place, and Michelle also picked up a cool painting from Mr. Red himself.

Memphis is also home to Stax Records, probably my favorite label. Instead of driving out to Graceland we made a short pilgrimage here, where Mavis Staples, Otis Redding, Al Green and many others made their classic recordings. Soulsville, USA! I loved it.

Crossing into Louisiana after a pretty drive south through Mississippi.

Michelle and her mom in the backyard of Freda's comfy home in Kenner, a New Orleans suburb. Freda's been a great host, putting us up for days and putting up with our late hours, constant eating and relentless search for neighbors' wireless connections. Also she cooked up some delicious crawfish etouffee, made her trademark Freda Salad and, just now, fried me up some post-tennis crabcakes. Hard to leave this place.

On Saturday Freda drove us out to a beautiful old plantation on the west bank of the Mississippi, Oak Alley. It was an interesting tour, full of history if a little detail-skatey about the whole slavery thing. The short version: In the early 1700s, some settler planted these 28 oak trees above in two long rows leading up to a little house. In 1836 some really rich dude bought the property, knocked down the house and had his slaves build the gorgeous mansion we toured to tempt his young party-girl wife out to the country from New Orleans. After the Civil War the place was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Some smart cat bought the whole shebang for $50,000 in the 1940s and spent another $60 thousand or so refurbishing it. When his widow died 15 years ago or so a foundation took the place over and now they maintain it by selling tours and doodads.

Also mint juleps, which I had never tried. But I figured how often am I going to be at a real Southern Plantation, with a veranda and a julep at the ready. Nice. I see why they got popular. We bought some bourbon and mint juice and made some more when we got home.

Pretty day yesterday at JazzFest. This was the Gentilly Stage, where we saw the Raconteurs.

The Neville Brothers (with Santana playing the red guitar), at the Acura Stage.

Last night we had dinner with Freda at Deanies, a seafood favorite hereabouts.

This morning's tennis group. Sandy and Freda let Michelle and me win two games before finishing us off 6 games to 2. I was shocked and proud, honestly, that we scored any points at all.

OK, time to go. See you on the Gulf Coast.