A Simple Truth

Ryan just asked me to train him to master Xbox games.  Apparently Ryan and his girlfriend together with  Shannon and his girlfriend dueled earlier tonight, shooting Nazis, Russian terrorists, and possibly zombies.  Ryan did not fare very well, dying repeatedly again and again before his lady-love.  Coming home, he sought out a master . . .

This is probably the single greatest moment of my life. For this and that reason alone, I think I might burst into tears.

Double Down

Pat and I just returned from Vegas with Mom and Dad, where we attended the International Home Builder’s Convention, losing ourselves in several warehouses of collected wood, tools, and chalk-stained jeans.  The weather was less than ideal for a vacation.  For our first day, Sin City drowned in rain and yet emerged all the dirtier the next morning to abscond with our money and weakened consciences.  With twenty-five bucks a pop, Dad consulted his stock broker before sitting down to eat at the buffet each morning and to lose fifty bucks at the tables later in the evening.

Luckily the rain stopped the following morning, providing clear skies for an afternoon on the fairways.   I gracefully threw in the towel after the first hole, gradually relearning the game for the remaining seventeen while Dad and Pat battled for longest straightest drive.  Still, the course was beautiful and fun, offering a fantastic view of the entire valley which stretched out like the bowl of an immense crater. White-capped peaks newly blanketed by the week-long snow storms rose behind the Strip like a scene from a fantasy novel.

The scenery inspired me.

Texting Shannon on the golf course:  “The peaks remind me of LotR [Lord of the Rings] and the peaks of Middle Earth.”

His response:  “Gay.  Nerd.”

The following story details Dad’s success and frustrations at the blackjack tables for those three days, proving that distraction can ruin even the best strategies.

The girl began talking before she sat down at the blackjack table, her mouth a sewage pump of vulgar chatter and cigarette smoke.  My father sighed at this new distraction and promptly lost two more hands as the girl removed her coat and nearly fell out of her dress, allowing her chest to hover over the table.  Card-counting was not an exact science, and Dad never claimed the proficiency of an MIT grad or Dustin Hoffman.  He simply kept track of the face cards and played accordingly.  Still focus was the key, and the presence of Vegas Strip Barbie and her plastic chest bouncing off the green felt like soccer balls did not help.  Moreover the girl could not simply talk; she expected a conversation, hurling questions between hands, which he politely dismissed with a grunt.

“At that table over there, they wouldn’t talk to me, just hit on me hand after hand after hand after hand like I was some cheap whore down at the Rio, where Clyde and Eddy always take me Saturday and Thursdays.  One guy grabbed my leg too after complimenting me on my dress like I was going to give him the time of day.  Men are always hitting on me at the blackjack tables, never poker or craps, just blackjack.  Guess these card-counters don’t get any back home, eh?  Are you going to hit on me?”

“No ma’am,” he sighed.

“Well, why not?  Not a queer, are ya?  Guys are usually jumping all over me.  One grabbed my ass near the roulette wheel.  Bold but I was flattered nonetheless.  We had a wild night then . . .”

He should be accustomed to distractions by now.  This town wielded every advantage to cheat and rob you from the one cent slots through the boutique shops — forty bucks for a cup of gelato.  The casino boss at the Bellagio warned him of that earlier.  Three hundred dollars on the table, in fifteen minutes he had tripled his bets.  The cards looked favorable too when the pit boss sidled over and began making introductions:  How are you doing, sir?  Where you from?  Do you play golf?  What’s your handicap?  Lousy weather, isn’t it?  What’s Maryland like?

Two, three, four hands lost.  The dealer scooped away sixty bucks before the pit boss waddled off to the poker tables, careening other players from the money train with a handshake and a smile.  In such a position, I imagine that a more anti-social player might have fared better, eschewing all courtesy and polite conversation, never lifting his eyes from the table, delving into habits forged from long hours in solitude (reading comics or writing blogs for example).  Still few can count cards or possess the courage to toss to the table  hard earned wages, funds I might spent investing at the local Borders or Best Buy.

The girl continued to prattle, her voice disappearing into the ambient noise of the casino: the clang of the one-armed bandits, shouts from the roulette wheel, the dull monotony of Sinatra songs echoing over the loudspeakers.  The dealer had at least a nine.  Dad absently fingered his jack and seven.

“Hit me.”

Four of spades.  Twenty-one.  Dealer flipped over an ace.  The rest of the table grumbled.

“Why’d you do that?”  The guy at the other end of the table growled, sucking on a fat cigar like a mob boss.  His comb-over and long pale fingers suggested computer programmer.

“Huh?”  Dad turned.

“You stole my card.  I needed that four.”

“Look buddy,” Dad asserted.  “I had a soft hand.  You had to assume the dealer had a ten and then nineteen.  My seven wasn’t going to cut it.  I’m not playing you, buddy.  I’m playing him.”

The guy twirled his cigar in his mouth, scowling as he sipped at his drink.

“So what are you a card-counter now?”

“All blackjack players count cards,” the girl whined.  “Except me, never done it.  Can’t really keep track of anything after a few drinks.  Anyone want to buy me a whiskey sour?”

Dad picks up his chips and leaves, flicking a ten to the dealer who nods with a sympathetic wink that says: “Wish I could do what you’re doing now, sir.”

The girl shifted over beside the angry would-be-mob-boss, who leaned back further in his seat, gratified by the added attention.  His right arm fluttered behind his chair, uncertain whether his new admirer might react to a grab.  His left hand confidently tossed a blue chip into the ring, costing him a hundred dollars and subsequently his arm-candy as the dealer flipped the hidden king.

My Brother Mike Is A Jackass

by Shannon Murphey

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but my brother, Mike, who styles himself here on this blog as Murph is really in truth a jackass.  It’s truly funny how nowadays essential information like this can be hidden or deleted among the wires and all the other ego-pandering junk on the internet.  By the end of the year, after reading this drivel, he might have you believing himself to be Mother Theresa or Spiderman, but trust me, in reality he wouldn’t stretch out a finger to help anyone, much less a half-dead Indian orphan or the even pope.  Nor can he shoot webs out his wrists.  He’s just a jackass.

Just last week he refused to help me clean out the kitty-litter, claiming he is allergic to the cats and ran from the room sneezing in that melodramatic way of his.  I was stuck with the job, while he snuck downstairs to play COD or Puzzle Quest.  Then for Christmas, while everyone else got cool T-shirts that read “Double Tap” or “Zombie Killer” with shotguns in place of the ‘L’s,’ that jackass got me an “I’m with Stupid” T-shirt with the arrow pointing up.  Hahaha.  Everyone got a big kick out of that one.  Just you wait Mike.  I’ll beat you down so hard, your legs will come shooting out your ears.  Who’ll look stupid then, huh?  I’ll give you hint: the correct answer lies between the letters ‘T’ and ‘V,’  you jackass.

Today was the final straw, that loser who never had a girlfriend, not even ONE while I’ve had at least a dozen (how does that make you feel, ya queer?), had the nerve to talk trash after I beat him in Mario Tennis on the Wii.  He won a single match and you would have thought he was Andre Agasi or something.  Hey, jackass, swinging the Wii-mote doesn’t make you an athlete.  If you work up a sweat from pulling your fat rear from the Lazy Boy and flapping your arms, then you should try walking up the stairs every once in a while.  When you get to the top, I’ll throw on my steel-toed boots and show you my impression of Gerard Butler in 300.

This is Sparta, ya Jackass!

Now some of you family counselors or psychiatrists might argue about family dynamics or some other hippie-shrink bullcrap that Oprah shovels out every afternoon. You want family dynamics?  Charley Keaton’s brother taught him how to skin deer when he was twelve.  Kevin Kramer’s bro taught him how to build a potato gun when he was six.  The guys would spend their summer nights laughing, driving around the neighborhood, skinning animals they’d hit while launching taters at tractor trailers.  Havin’ a frickin’ awesome time like brothers are supposed to do.  The only thing Mike taught me was growing up to be an outta-work bum blows chunks.  If he ever learned how to build a potato gun, he’d probably use it on himself.  Death by starchy french fry is more than you deserve, ya jackass.

Just last weekend, I was minding my own business, shooting Nerf arrows at my sister until she cried, when that hobbit-wannabe walked in barefoot and suggested I go read a book.  Yeah right, Frodo Gamgee, why don’t you go get yourself a real job like a construction worker or kickboxer instead of playing boy-toy and apple-polisher to old Will Shakespeare.  I may never bury Caeser or Horatio but I will bury you one day beneath your library.  As a kindness, I might open War and Peace to your favorite page before lighting it on fire and dropping it on your stupid face.  How’s that for sound and fury, ya jackass?

On second thought, maybe I’ve gone too far, said too much.  You’re not such a bad guy.  We’ve had lots of good times together, right?  Remember that time I brought my girlfriend home for dinner and you brought out those old photos of me as a kid, grinning in curls, bows, and blue skirts Mom made me wear for Halloween?  Hahaha . . . and then you posted them on Facebook for the world to see.  Ah, good times.  So many . . . good times.  You know, I think about her now and then as the pain wells in my chest, her laughter nearly ripping my heart in two, but family trumps girlfriends, right?  Of course.  And when I’m done with trumping you with this shovel, the only photogenic spot left on your body will be your pale hairy ass, ya jackass.

“Friday I’m in Love”

Geekdom is crimping CAT-6 cables at eleven o’clock on a Friday night, discussing romance stories with your younger brother only to realize that most your suggested reading involve mutants, Spiderman, and young adult literature by Lloyd Alexander.  After heartily recommending the Black Cauldron for the sixth or seventh time, Shannon stole up to his room with a copy of Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham, leaving me to pen this short post and consider shooting gargoyles online or returning to my collection of fairy tales by George MacDonald.

Geekdom is congratulating each other for defeating Bowser in Super Mario Wii, accompanied by loud cheering, high-fives, and several cycles of “You Da Man!” and “No, you da man!” with your baby sister and her best friend.

Geekdom is finding yourself inspired after several minutes staring at anime figurines unsheathing claymores on your VCR, while Bob and Bing croon Dorothy in Morocco on your television screen. You run upstairs for a cup of chocolate milk before Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.

Geekdom is knowing how lame this must sound to most people and realizing in one instance that you don’t really care.  You dip another cookie into your milk as Costello runs screaming from the room.

Mountains from Molehills

Root WineMost Friday nights, relaxation consumes the pith of my free time.   Others might consider sitting by the heat vents book-in-hand a tad tame, even pathetic (Or in words of my little brother, a soul-crunching waste of my youth), but that’s just how some of us are put together.  There are those with the constitution to drink, carouse, and womanize all night.   If that’s all they’re capable of, God bless them, but some of us need a little bit more: travel, sword fights, damsels in distress, and that’s all before I even picked up my first tome.  With my family even the dullest chores or stagnant afternoons can emerge as a circus act, complete with clowns, lions, and jugglers (Shannon and Charley are still quite upset about that Belleek vase, Mom.).

The angle is the key, the difference between boredom and amusement.  As one of my old teachers and religious advisers reminded me, the value of these idle moments is akin to finding a peep-hole into the girls’ locker room: with the proper perspective and a little imagination, a world of untold riches unfolds before you.

One evening, in preparation for Christmas and the impending snowstorm, Mom and I drove out to the local liquor store and wine emporium.  What Borders and Barnes & Nobles is to me — that is a land of wondrous magic and adventure, from which my siblings often must drag me kicking and screaming, my hands clutching the latest Stephen King for ballast — so is the wine store to Mom.  In our most honest moments, adults revert back to childhood, peeling back the time-encrusted layers of restraint, reserve, and responsibility.  As we walked through the doors, I found her quivering with excitement.

“Okay Murph, we need a few bottles for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the next week or so until New Years.  They say it’s going to get below freezing and I might not be up for leaving the house until 2010.”

“Right, Mom.”  It was quarter of eight.  The liquor store I reasoned must close sometime around 10PM or so, giving us little more than two hours to finish our shopping.  I just hoped it would be enough.

Meeta Panesar CabernetSeriously the woman can spend hours staring at bottles, divining secrets of pomegranates and flame-burnt oak through green-tinted glass and labels adorned with yellow-tailed kangaroos.  Other customers skirt around her like a small craft around a rocky shoal.   After some five minutes, she begins to sway from side to side, smile to herself and hum Toby Keith, a musical collage of alcohol-related operas sung with a country twang, half-whispered, and off-key.  I leave her to her studies, scurrying off down the aisles to critique the artistry of bottle labels.  Most modern liquor stores are in truth an art gallery in miniature, offering an eclectic collection of landscapes, impressionistic reliefs, and abstract still-lifes with polyhedral grapes.  I spend the next hour or so staring at withered trees swallowed by fog; an Aztec dragon curling around the ornate vine; an antique home or castle sketched in charcoal.   Honestly, these glass-curled portraits are the only method I have for choosing new flavors.  Once home, we quickly drain the bottles of their respective juices, wash the inner chamber, and mount on the shelf for the world to see.

The lagers are even more intriguing: Bad Elf, Bastard Ale, Honeyed Meed, and even CopperDragon – Golden Pippen.  The geek in me giggled, while secretly regretting my utter distaste for beers.  If only the stuff did not taste of swill, I could picture myself with a flagon of ale, pwning fell demons and scale-skinned marauders from unholy lands online.   As Dad would remind me, if you don’t look the part, you’re always forced to prove yourself.  I might not possess the strength to wield a Viking axe — or even possess an axe — but many a bandit might reconsider picking my pocket if I learned to drink like one.

Cardinal Zin WineI find Mom still rooted near the wine racks, deciding.  Somewhere in my subconscious, I imagine her silently communing with the ghosts of Italian wine makers and liver-soaked drunkards of Christmas past.    The spirits convene over smoked gouda, Carr crackers, and a 1986 Mondavi Cab before passing out, leaving my mother to her own frugal judgment.

$17.95.  A Sterling merlot.  Everything else is too expensive.  I add several bottles of my own, feeling quite pleased with the decorative quality of my choices, and  lie about the price.  She’ll thank me later, once the snow begins to pile.

We finally leave, my arms and back laden by several box-loads of wine, beer, and assorted spirits (the drinkable kind).  Cars pile outside the store as families quickly replenish their supplies for a long weekend snowed in with their children.  The nearby bar appears packed, nearly brimming over into the cold night.  The air felt tense and still, as if the evening was just about to exhale.  The flurries began then, showering the car as we crossed bridges, through the woods, and nearly skidded down hills.  At home, the snow had started to cover the asphalt.  Brigid had stayed over a friends house and alcohol safely stowed inside, Mom sent me out to retrieve her.

Shefa Profusion wine bottlesIt’s the small things in life that matter.  Armed with my iPod and a playlist of epic soundtracks, I set off again into the night, snow piling on the roads like powdered sugar.  Oncoming traffic weaved between lanes as the line dividers disappeared; my car fishtailed into the shoulder near the bridges, nearly colliding with a few mailboxes after only a mile.  At one point, I thought I saw a yeti disappear into the trees.  Bree, my sister, nearly groaned when she saw me pull up to her friend’s house.

“Awww . . . I hoped that I could spend the night.  Could you leave me here, and tell Mom that you got stuck?  Or hit a tree or something?”

There are guys who spend their Friday nights bar-hopping around the city, having adventures that they can barely remember in the morning.  Each to their own.  Yet among the grind, chores, and duties of large families, other adventures surface.  It’s not about making excitement routine, as much as discovering the excitement in the routine.  Sometimes all it takes is a slight turn of the head, a blink of the eye, and BOOOM! you’re there.  You don’t even need alcohol . . . though I wouldn’t tell Mom that.

B Frank wine bottle