Monday, July 31, 2006

Learning and admiring

Some of the boys. The chap in the straw hat is the strongest player in our Sunday group and one of the best amateur players in the park. He is unflappable -- a natural-born killer on the chess board.

My chess education continued under a blazing sun Sunday in Manhattan's Washington Square. All the tables in the shade were snapped up by the Scrabble players and some lucky fellow chess enthusiasts.
So, we basted in our own sweat, as if the competition wasn't heated enough.
And I learned.
The upshot of today's lesson was that a situation that seems like a threat isn't always a threat -- at least not an immediate one. Circumspection usually bears this out, once my instinct to react in a knee-jerk fashion is overcome.
So, panic often is for naught.
Overreaction often is for naught.
As the Japanese say, tomorrow's wind blows tomorrow.
My first karate teacher is fond of saying that chess and karate are almost identical. By extension, chess and life are almost identical.
I'm beginning to understand just what he means.

Maya, right, and her mother

After four hours of chess, I had dinner and a few beers at my friend Shiki-san's Japanese restaurant in the East Village. And I was in luck: Shiki's former wife's mother was there.
Maya and her mother are from Nepal, near Kathmandu.
Maya and Shiki-san are no longer married but they're on excellent terms. So, Maya is a waitress/hostess at the restaurant on Sundays, and she occasionally brings her wonderful mom, who has been in the States for a few months now and will be returning to Nepal soon.
In person, I've never seen Maya's mother in Western clothes, though I've seen photos of her in slacks and a shirt.
Usually, she wears traditional Nepali clothing.
A devout Buddhist, she often sits at a corner table and fingers her prayer beads as if she were taking on all the burdens of the world.
And maybe she is.
Her face lights up a room. She's the personification of Kannon and the Earth Mother and all that's beautiful.
People like her draw out the best in others in spite of ourselves.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Battle in the park

Chalk artist creating a masterpiece Sunday on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a few blocks north of Washington Square in Greenwich Village.

On Sunday afternoon, I went to war.
Armed with chess set and clock to time the games, I set out for Washington Square in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
This park is one of a couple of chess hot spots in Manhattan where casual players, serious students and $3-a-game hustlers gather on fine weekend days like ants at a cookout.

To get to the battlefield -- picnic tables set up at intervals along the park's perimeter -- I first had to make it through no-man's land. For decades, Washington Square has had a well-deserved reputation as an open-air drug market. If you're walking by yourself, you're almost guaranteed to be offered an illicit pharmacopia by a legion of shady characters (some of them undoubtedly undercover cops) who call the park their office.

I soon found a game in progress at a table beneath some trees. I asked the lone spectator if he wanted to play, and within two minutes we were locked in combat.
My opponent, Dan, a spry retiree, played at about the same level as I. I won a game and lost two closely contested ones before Dan had to take off.
A University of Virginia student, also named Dan, had been kibbitzing and asked to take his place.
I lost to Dan II but not without a good fight. On two occasions I was within one move of pouncing upon him for checkmate and could practically taste victory before he exploited a weakness in my strategy and put me on the defensive.

Dan II had to leave and Dave, an impish, elderly Hasidic man who had watched our game, asked if he could sit in. Dave asked if I wanted to play blitz chess -- each player has five minutes and whoever runs out of time first loses, provided there isn't a checkmate beforehand.
Dave won the first game when I ran out of time, but otherwise it was a close contest.
The second game, he dismembered me. I knew I was making blunders even as my hands went to move the pieces, but Dave's skill and control of the board were such that he was forcing me to make precisely the moves I knew I shouldn't make.
I felt like a marionette.
Our game attracted a single spectator who promptly left after Dave capitalized on one of my errors with devastating effect.

After this win, Dave opened his wallet and pulled out a wad of chess puzzles he had clipped from a newspaper. He asked if he could work some of them out using my set and proceeded to solve them with legerdemain the likes of which I couldn't follow.
It was like watching a computer in action. Or like watching Mr. Spock from "Star Trek."

He asked if I wanted to play one last game. Seven moves and less than two minues later it was over. "OK," he said, "time for me to go to the bathroom."
Yeah, probably to wipe the stink of such lousy competition off his hands.

As he was leaving, he said over his shoulder in a prophetic tone, "You'll make it."

And thus is the difference between the game of chess and the art of chess.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Yet another beautiful day in Paradise

Hot as hell today here in New Joisey, with temperatures expected to approach 100. This is the part of summer I like least.

I've been waiting for a kidney stone to pass the last few days. (I'm sure you're glad I've shared that with you.)
I get kidney stones fairly frequently. They're a symptom of my parathyroid cancer. Usually, they're nothing more than a minor annoyance, although this one is a little larger than usual and has excelled at making its presence felt night and day. If it's true that this, too, shall pass (and it is), I'm eagerly awaiting it.

Much more significantly, a friend of mine from the karate dojo, a native of Lebanon, went back to his country for a three-week holiday. He left last Tuesday and was probably somewhere over the Atlantic when the shit hit the fan in the south of the country as Israel began its retaliatory strikes against Hezbollah strongholds. Among the targets was the airport in Beirut.
We're all hoping his plane was diverted elsewhere, and that he's on his way back to the States.
Before he left last week, he tantalized us with descriptions of Lebanon's beautiful beaches and compared the summertime water temperature to that of a Jacuzzi, even at night.
He was so looking forward to spending the next few weeks on the beach with his fiancee, whom he left behind in Lebanon when he came here to work.
His family still lives in Lebanon -- in Beirut, if memory serves. I'm sure he's agonizing at this very moment over how to ensure their safety in the face of this madness. I'm sure that if he was given the opportunity to fly back to the U.S., he turned it down until his family's safety is secured.

Up until now, the situation in the Middle East has been rather abstract for me. I had no ties to the region. I didn't know anyone living there, nor anyone in the U.S. military who is serving there.
A friend's vacation plans changed that in an instant.
And hopefully, this, too, shall pass.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

We are what we speak

My mentor and first karate teacher, who I've known and admired for a dozen years, always says that when we open our mouths we tell people who we are, wittingly or unwittingly. He says that even when we tell others who we think they are, we reveal our own personality in the process.
As it is with speech, so it is with karate, writing, painting and any other means of self-expression.
That includes chess.
I've been playing chess for 35 years. More accurately, I should say that I have known the rules of the game for three and a half decades, although my abilities have improved but modestly over that span due to lack of diligent study and constant practice.
I tend to get wrapped up in details while overlooking the big picture, which includes threats arising from areas just outside my narrow focus.
I'm quick to attack but slow to analyze the dangers of impetuosity.
I don't assess risks effectively, often coming out on the short end of the stick when pieces are exchanged.
My moves take into consideration only the immediate future, rather than the long term.
When I lose badly, especially through carelessness, it can cast a pall over the rest of my day. When I defeat a tough opponent, the elation that follows infuses my day.
Yes, we truly manifest ourselves in everything -- everything -- we do.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Overheard at a bar last night

Honest to goodness, I overheard the following conversation last night at my local tavern, where I go occasionally to enjoy a pint and play darts.
It was about 9:30. I was sitting at the bar by myself. In walked these two girls. Both looked to be about 21 or 22.
They sat down alongside me.
And here's how it went (of course, I forget the exact words, but this is a faithful reconstruction):

Bartender: Hello, girls.
Girl 1: Hi.
Girl 2: Hi, N---.
Bartender: What'll you have tonight?
Girl 1: Can I have a bottle of Miller Lite?
Girl 2: Do you have any non-alcoholoic, fruity-type drinks?
Bartender, incredulously: What, did you stop drinking?
Girl 2: No, it's just that I totaled my car last weekend. I wasn't drinking or anything, but I was text-messaging [on her cellphone] and when I looked up, I saw that I was gonna rear-end this stopped car ...
Bartender: What?
Girl 2: ... and so I swerved to miss it and then I hit this tree and my car bounced off and then I slammed into another tree in the front yard of this house.
Bartender: You're kidding! You're lucky you didn't slam into the house! Were you hurt?
Girl 2: No, but my friend wasn't wearing his seat belt and his head bounced off my windshield and he got a concussion and bit a hole in his lower lip.
Bartender: Jaysus [it's an Irish pub] ...
Girl 2: And now I'm kinda scared, so that's why I want a fruit drink. You know, my airbags never went off. Do you think I should sue?


And now, my friends, you know precisely why it is that the more people I meet, the more I love my cats.