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The Last Shrine: first chapter.

            The sun bore down; bright and hot, glaring as it had every day of Skander’s life. He shielded his eyes and squinted as a red-tailed hawk traced a lazy circle through the desert sky. It dove, and Skander imagined himself as its prey, heart beating fast in terror, or possibly, unaware, calmly nibbling a morsel of foliage in its last moments on this beautiful spring day. The young cleric lost the bird among the sharp rocks that towered above his home; the small shrine known as Sundial Spring. Here in the lee of the bare mountains, Skander had lived out the last ten years of his life, tending to the needs of the trickle of worshippers who bothered to make the laborious climb from the cool river valley below.

He exhaled slowly as he turned from the mountains, his eyes settling thirstily on the shimmering blue waters of the spring. Their impassive surface sent a dancing reflection playing against the bright limestone columns that surrounded the pool. Six pillars remained of the colonnade that had once bounded the spring. Skander searched his memory. Had he ever read when the columns were erected? Perhaps they had once seemed impressive, but today they seemed pitifully dwarfed by the massive blades of amber-hued sandstone that towered behind. The highest spire cast its long shadow into the town below, tracing the curve of the Sossin River as it meandered through the valley. Sundial Spring was dedicated to the mountain god Anak, whose heavy-browed, black-bearded visage scowled out from carvings on every stone surface, but Skander saw the god’s true monument in the rocks themselves.

The cleric tugged uncomfortably at the woolen vestments that clung doggedly to his body in several chafing, sweaty places. There were many places in the vast realm of Batarrna where clergy of the mountain gods snuggled cozily in their icy eyries, grateful for such warm vestments. Sundial Springs of the boiling Near South was not one of them. Perhaps Anak, omnisciently aware of the impractical choice of garments, would understand if Skander only dipped his toes in the waters. He leaned over for the thousandth time to see if he could see the submerged cavern that led into the underworld. If he dove in, he could finally glimpse the water’s source. Skander frowned at his own blasphemy, blanching at the dread, statue scowl of the Bone Breaker. The god brandished his fearsome halberd in a threatening pose. “Forbidden!” the cleric shouted; voice gravelly in his best impression of Bishop Gustav. “For the gods have fixed their canon ‘gainst it!” Skander smiled, fondly missing the old man, and a bit in the hopes that he would not look mad if someone saw him talking to himself.

“Skander!”.

The cleric’s heart jolted. It was the first voice he had heard in three days. Making a conscious effort to calm himself, he turned and saw Bodrick, a shepherd who tended a small flock in the nearby hills. Bodrick was running, panting. Skander had run with the shepherd many times over the years, if he was breathless, he must truly have come here at a dead sprint. The cleric watched him approaching. Bodrick was flushed with the run, and as Skander saw his friend’s fit, athletic form, he felt the usual flare of jealousy, his mind drifting to his own failings in that regard. He ran a self-conscious hand over his bulging middle.

“Hey, Skander,” Bodrick breathed, holding a hand out as if to ask for a moment. Even Bodrick’s clothing gave Skander a pang of envy. The shepherd wore a loose practical tunic with short sleeves, perfect for a life in the desert hills. He took off his dingy short-brimmed cap and wiped his brow.

“Who’s minding your sheep, boy?” Skander hoped his face looked impassive. On the one hand, he knew it took very little to break up the monotony of a shepherd’s days, but on the other, he had to admit to a mild nibble of curiosity. Nonetheless, calling Bodrick ‘boy’ was ridiculous. Skander was slightly the taller of the two young men, and the gods knew he was much heavier, but as far as the cleric had ever been able to learn, they were only weeks apart in age. He couldn’t resist the awkward jab though. The last time they had seen each other, perhaps several months ago, they had wrestled. Despite Skander’s size, Bodrick had thrown him and pinned him quickly. Not such a big deal really, but of course Seleriya had been there watching. Skander felt a whirl in his stomach and a rush of blood to his face just remembering the way her beautiful green eyes had flashed with laughter to see him floundering on the ground.

“Macey’s got them,” answered Bodrick. There wasn’t a trace of wind in his speech. Skander marveled that he could have recovered so quickly from the run. “Ever since she scared that big Merino, the rest just fall in line. She’ll be fine. Look at this.” The shepherd fumbled for something in his belt pouch.

From what he could see, the small object Bodrick found was a stone. “A stone, Bodrick? Your pastures are practically desert. I’m sure that’s not the first stone you’ve found.” He couldn’t help teasing a bit more but immediately felt he had gone too far. Since the shepherd’s father had died, he and his mother lived in poverty, eking out a living from a small plot of the least productive land in the valley. He was ashamed of using it against his friend and promised himself he wouldn’t do it again.

Bodrick came closer and seemed to brush aside the barb, or at least not to let it diminish the proud grin on his wide-featured face. He held out a thick, callused palm. In the middle of his hand was a hunk of rock that even Skander’s untrained eye could see was more than a mundane pebble. It was green; the subdued glassy green of jade, and its smooth surface was pitted with craters like the surface of the Great Moon seen through a scope. “It’s not natural rock,” said Bodrick. “I think its manmade. You know? Like something left over from mining…” He accented his final word, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

Skander began to see where his friend was going with this. “Mining? You mean like…”

Bodrick cut him off excitedly. “It has to be from the mines! When I asked him about the legend, my father told me that if there were mines in these mountains, there would be slag left. And he’d never seen any sign of it.” The shepherd shook the stone between two fingers, smiling. “Well, I think I found it. This has got to be it. Right?”

Skander was genuinely surprised to hear anyone over the age of eleven saying such things. He knew the myth of Enderion’s Delving. Of course, he did, just as every person in North Bend Valley knew it. He remembered asking Bishop Gustav years ago and receiving a similarly dismissive answer. The legend claimed that centuries ago the last of the Lonely Kings had drawn valknite from the ground here, refined it, and turned it into the enchanted weapons that had unified an empire. As an adult and a scholar, Skander knew the stories for a fantasy. He had read many of the histories of the early imperial conquests. Enderion hadn’t needed magical rocks to unify the Batarrnan realm. The great king had updated his army’s weaponry, crafted new echelon formations, and adopted innovative methods of conscription, all to brilliant tactical effect. Skander agreed with the historians, that was how you won wars, not with mystical stones. He felt the same thrill he always did when dredging up facts and figures from his learning. Skander’s pride left him feeling of magnanimous. He knew valknite was a figment of the folk imagination, but he decided to humor Bodrick.

Skander held out his hand and was surprised to see a flicker of hesitation before his friend placed the stone in his outstretched hand. Whatever the truth of the stone, the cleric saw that Bodrick believed it held power. Skander turned it over, feeling the smooth and rough surfaces alternately slide pleasurably against his skin, then lightly abrade his soft fingers. The color was unique and called to mind the volcanic stones that were common in the Near South; but those were red, brown, even glassy black, never green. He tried to affect a scholarly frown of concentration for his friend’s benefit. “It is strange, Bodrick. Like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Skander meant it. “But that mine is just a silly legend.”

Now Bodrick smiled, a strange, confident smile that Skander hadn’t seen before. Without speaking, he held out his hand. Bodrick’s lips were an inscrutable grimace, but his eyes danced mischievously. Now Skander felt a slight reluctance as he handed back the nugget. He watched as Bodrick drew out a worn piece of leather attached to a cord. The cleric watched as the shepherd nocked the stone into what he realized was a sling. “See that little hollow near the top of the spire?” Bodrick asked.

He was gesturing back in the direction of the sun and Skander had to squint as he followed the pointing finger. The sun made his eyes water as he strained to force himself to look. At the highest point of the formation known as Twelvespike, the gnomon of the sundial that cast its shadow over North Bend, he could just make out an indentation. It was hard to gauge from here how big it was. “I see it,” he said, careful not to say anything stupid. “But that must be 300 feet up,” he added. He knew next to nothing about slings, but he could guess what Bodrick had in mind and it seemed like an impossible shot. Many times, he had watched Bodrick sling with deadly accuracy, training on improvised targets and even hitting the occasional predator that troubled his flock; but at this distance, with such an oddly shaped bullet? He sensed an opportunity. “Why don’t you let me put a few flinders on it?” Skander said and winced, realizing that once again he had forgotten his friend’s situation. He wondered if Bodrick had a single coin to his name, much less anything to bet.

Bodrick answered with a wicked smile and a violent, lightning-like underhand spin of the sling. The smooth, practiced motion was a blur that Skander tried and failed to follow, but the puff of rock dust a second later was clear enough. The cleric felt a thrill seeing that the impact was right in the center of the target and felt a cheer burst from him despite how wrong Bodrick had just proven him. Instead of griping, he slapped Bodrick’s outstretched hand hard. Without thinking, Skander followed through and caught the shepherd’s hand again on the reverse, the way they had done as children. “Astral,” he heard himself congratulate, a strange feeling of pride for his friend swelling inside him. “So, we’ve established that I know nothing about slings, which we already knew. What of it?”

Bodrick shook his head. “No, you were right ‘mano. I could never make that shot. Straight up? With a stone shaped like that?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Skander noticed for the first time that a few dark hairs were poking through and felt another wave of nonsensical jealousy. “Maybe with the smoothest rock from the river. Maybe on my best day. But maybe not even then,” Bodrick continued.

“I’d like to see you do it again.” Skander meant it. He pictured himself accompanying Bodrick to the games this coming harvest season. The shepherd was unlettered and naïve, perhaps he could use a friend if he went to compete, a more educated, sophisticated person to help him avoid the pitfalls of the city. A realization cut Skander’s reverie short. “Voids,” he cursed. “Too bad you wasted it on target practice. We’ll never find it in all those rocks.”

Bodrick’s expression was another Skander had never seen. For a few awkward seconds, he watched his friend’s face, looking for some hint. Then Bodrick seemed to make a decision. “Skander,” the shepherd said. “That’s where it gets really weird.” Without explaining further, he strode uphill leaving the cleric to follow. He hadn’t gone far when he bent to the ground and picked up what appeared to be the same stone from the broken jumble of sandstone talus that littered the slope.

Skander felt his eyes widen. “What the?”

“I know,” answered Bodrick. “I’ve been shooting it all day. The first few times I kind of accidentally found it again, but then I realized I seemed to know just where to look. I never find the normal stones I shoot. You’re right, my pastures are filled with stones, but every week I walk down to the river and find more of the smooth, round ones that are best for bullets. This is…” Bodrick paused as if unsure whether to say more. “It’s a little scary,” he finally admitted. “And you haven’t even seen what the stones do to the things I hit. You think it’s easy to make a cloud of rock dust we can see from three hundred feet away?”

Skander felt an odd, boyish thrill. He couldn’t contain his excitement anymore. “Could it be valknite?” he asked aloud, letting the words linger.

He had meant the question rhetorically, but Bodrick surprised him by answering. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You would know better than me but wasn’t valknite a shiny metal. Like silver or something?”

The cleric was flattered as he always was when his friends came to him with such questions. He focused. Pages turned in his mind like a book in his hands. Yes, there it was in an illustration he had seen; a metallic sheen like silver twig coins. He had seen precious few silver coins in this backward region, but those he had were imprinted in his mind as well. Skander’s mental eye rarely failed him. He smiled as he realized they needed more information. “There’s only one way to be sure. Let’s go to the library.” As usual, the thought of heading into the book collection brought a broad smile to his face. Without waiting for Bodrick’s reply, he whirled and walked toward the three-story building attached to the shrine.

Bishop Gustav’s small library was a calming place for Skander; his favorite part of a small world. He had no other words for it. Since he had come to live with the bishop, and he had very few memories of the time before, the cleric had whiled away many happy hours among its shelves. He knew the tomes and scrolls lining its walls like friends- perhaps better than he knew he friends- but somehow there were always new possibilities for exploration.

Skander stood at the entrance to the library, an intricate series of columns, doors, and hanging panels that formed a maze of sorts. It had been a long time since Skander had thought about the path he needed to tread to get through, but now he looked at Bodrick. Something about the shepherd’s appearance troubled him. “You’re filthy. Scrape your boots here.”

“Really?” Bodrick said with a raised eyebrow.

Skander felt annoyance. “Yes, really. I know you’re not much for reading, but this place is as holy as the waters outside.” Canonically speaking that was not true, but it felt right.

“Fine,” grumbled Bodrick. “But quit brushing at me like my mother. Next thing you’ll be licking your hand and smoothing my cowlick in place.” He stamped his boots and brushed his tunic, knocking a cloud of grime and dust.

Skander watched in fascination as the warm air leaving the library lifted the dust, gently dragging it and wafting it away. The cleric remembered Gustav’s explanation that the elaborate labyrinth served to bring cooling air into the main chamber of the library. The room was lit by an ancient six-foot-high stained-glass window. Its ornate panes told a visual story of the legend of Bimmuk the shepherd. During the day, the images cascaded onto the worktables from the window. As an acolyte, Skander had often traced the projections into his copybook, laboring over Bimmuk’s battle with the mole dragon. He winced remembering the raps on the knuckles when Gustav had seen him wasting paper. The brilliant windows should have filled the library with air heated by the desert sun, but in some way, the builders had created the maze at the doors so that warm air would filter out and cool mountain air could get in. Gustav had called it an ingenious feat of ancient engineering, but as Skander watched the dust gather up and leave as if on its own, he suspected there was some glamer of minor magic on the building.

“There, your fussiness. Am I presentable?” Bodrick performed a mocking bow.

“It will do.” Skander moved over the worn flagstones toward the shelves. His instincts guided him to the southeastern wall, to a stack just below the great window. He passed over the reflected image of Bimmuk loosing a sling bullet and for the first time felt a glimmer of recognition. He said nothing about it to Bodrick, staying focused on the task at hand. “I thought I saw something here once.” He ran his hand gently over the books, calmed by their familiar feel, passing the thick leather spines of Tridorio’s Great Trees of the Northwest, The Uses of Ever Blessed Cinnabar, and Fifty Beasts of the Dryptic Deeps. It was exactly where he expected. The book was a broad tome of light tan hide: The Tales of the Lonely Kings. Wrinkling his nose at a musty smell both acrid and faintly pleasant, Skander pulled the volume down. He couldn’t make out what animal the hide cover had come from, but it bore large, black spots and was worn through to the leather in several places. The fine hairs edging the title were green with age. A sensation of deep time made the cleric woozy as he wondered just how old this book was; a hundred years, two hundred? He gingerly opened the cover and thumbed through the pages with a sense of purpose, sensing rather than actively remembering what page he was looking for.

“Here.” He held the heavy book out to Bodrick, hoping his friend wouldn’t see the slight quiver he felt in his arm muscles. The page was an illustration; a drawing of a bulbous blue nugget of brilliant blue with a caption that read: valknite in victorious sunlight, middle latitudes. What in the dark, black void did victorious mean? “It’s blue not silver, but it still doesn’t look like our stone.” He felt a surge of disappointment, but a lingering doubt nagged at him. Skander never forgot a picture. So, where had he gotten the idea that it was silver?

“So, it’s not valknite,” said Bodrick. Skander heard annoyance. “What is it? Ore? Something else?”

The cleric knew Bodrick had little time for books and the things written in them, but he found himself frustrated with the shepherd’s impatience. “Give me a second.” He ran his finger over the lines below the drawing. Skander had a sudden flashback to a long-ago session with Bishop Gustav, making his way through Zalanday’s painfully translated version of the epic of Dressik. There was a poem covering the bottom half of the page. He felt a revulsion. What was wrong with prose? “I can’t get anything from this,” he complained.

“Yeah, me either,” said Bodrick flatly. Skander noticed he hadn’t even looked at the page.

It was hard to strike a thoughtful pose with three wispy, nearly translucent blond hairs on his chin, but Skander made the gesture anyway. He turned a broad page, gently, attempting not to crack the dry leaf. “Maybe there’s more, something about slag, or mining,” he murmured. He found another illustration, a black and white copy of an engraving depicting a trapezoidal building with a cavernous opening. Men in heavy leather aprons busied themselves around the building. There was a caption: Of the extraction of the Godsmetal from the sully earth. Skander sighed in frustration. Beneath the drawing were more lines of verse. He read the first line four times without getting any sense of the meaning. “Who wrote this damn thing?” he grumbled. The cleric felt Bodrick pacing behind him. It wasn’t doing anything to help his concentration. “Can you sit down or something?”

“Did you find it? Is it slag? Is it ore?”

Skander fought the impulse to shove Bodrick into a chair. “I don’t know. Give me a few hours and I might be able to puzzle out this page.”

“Hours? Forget it. If it’s slag, there was a furnace.”

“I didn’t exactly say it was…”

“If there was a furnace, there was a mine. Let’s go find it,” he said beaming. Bodrick’s voice had gotten much louder, his eyes were wide with excitement. He looked ten years younger.

The shepherd was heading out the door by the time Skander had carefully closed the book. He left it on the table with a sharp regret not to have placed it back on the shelf. The cleric promised to finish reading later. “Wait for me!” he called out, tracing his usual quick path through the maze. He emerged into the morning sun, blinking. Bodrick was nowhere to be seen. Skander toward the hills. Was the shepherd that much faster than he was?

An echoing voice gave him his answer. “Voids, Skander! How do you get out of this damned thing?”

Skander laughed to himself as he retraced his steps. In the gloomy labyrinth, dazzled as his eyes were, he strained to find Bodrick facing the wrong direction, his face six inches from an enameled wooden panel. Skander reached out to help him.

“I know you’re not trying to hold my hand,” said the shepherd suddenly, startling Skander with a rapid about face.

“Of course not,” lied Skander. Bodrick had just looked so childlike for a second. “Follow me.” He led the way through a quick series of turns.”

“I swear I followed your path exactly,” complained Bodrick.

Skander ignored him. “Where should we go?” he asked. He hoped to salve Bodrick’s pride with the admission of his own ignorance.

The shepherd studied the hills and Skander admired the way his cool gaze projected authority and knowledge. “I found the stone… there. At the north end of my fields.” He pointed to his hardscrabble plot. “It must have washed down from the mountains somewhere above. What do you think?”

Skander tried not to smile. There was nothing he could offer Bodrick by way of advice about this landscape. The shepherd knew every inch for ten miles in every direction, while Skander spent most of the sunny days in his library. Of course, that had taught him a bit about water and gravity. “I think the stone probably came down, yeah.”

“I’d say Twelvespike Arroyo is the most likely place.”

Skander followed his gaze to a small canyon that opened high above them in the mountains. Above it stood the massive plinth of Twelvespike. The formation got its name from the shadow it cast down on the town, but Skander had always seen in it the finger of Anak, pointing ominously toward the town of North Bend. He frowned, realizing what Bodrick had in mind.

“What do you say? You up for a bit of a hike?”

Skander wasn’t, not even remotely. It wasn’t quite noon, and he was boiling already, standing here on flat ground. The thought of trudging into the mountains made him queasy. Skander looked at Bodrick; hale and healthy, rocking on the balls of his feet like a player about to run onto a ballcourt. He would be damned if he would let his friend know how little he wanted to climb into the mountains. Skander breathed deeply and summoned a smile from the depths. “Lead the way!” he commanded. His hoped his false enthusiasm was convincing.

Cox Peak April, 2020

                The idea for the expedition began with a family trip out into the desert to climb around Kilbourne Hole. I’d visited Kilbourne before, and this time we decided to do as the Romans do and bring a gun (bb that is) to shoot at targets on the crater rim. We did a little scrambling into the maar, followed animal tracks, and plinked at the remains of bottles left by other visitors (I would never bring my own garbage to litter such a cool site, but what’s the harm of using what others have left).

                I always get lost driving through this part of the desert. We have a recreational atlas, but it’s hard to tell which little red lines are roads, which are arroyos, and even if I can follow the road, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where I am. Lots of wrong turns and backtracks are unavoidable. Landmarks aren’t super helpful. On this trip, I drove around much of the rim of Hunts Hole before realizing that it wasn’t Kilbourne. Like I said, I’ve been there before, but one maar looks pretty much the same as the next.

                It was getting close to dusk as we headed home. I decided to take the shorter route to state road 9, the paved road that follows the Mexican border between Columbus and Sunland Park. That was when I noticed the three volcanic mounts that form a weird signpost between the East and West Potrillo Mountains. They really stand out in contrast to the flat landscape around. The two smaller mountains are Mount Riley and the prosaically named Point 5872. I feel bad for 5872 and would like to volunteer to name it after myself. The tallest of the trio is Cox Peak at 5936. As we drove between the north ridge of the East Potrillos and the three volcanoes, my son and I took one look and decided we would be back.

                We’re on lockdown, so we don’t have a whole lot of structure in our schedule. That left us able to come back just a bit more than a week later. I’m not good at leaving early for hikes, so we didn’t even leave the house until after noon. Sticking to the paved roads, we still took more than an hour to get to route 9. I had planned to follow our exact route from the earlier trip, but instead I thought it might be fun to get a good look at the East Potrillo mountains. So, we took a county road that follows their eastern slope. Aside from a few jeep trails that die at the foot of the ridge- probably remains of mining operations of varying degrees of success- there seemed to be no human presence at all in the mountains. On a whim, we took one of the trails and found just what I had expected, a pile of scree and a scar from some extraction. When we tried to explore a bit, we were immediately covered in aggressive flies and retreated quickly. I hoped the hike to Cox Peak would be more pleasant.

                Hopping back in the truck, we swung back through the mountain gap, then followed a packed earth road clockwise around the volcano base. I took a few wrong turns trying to find the trailhead. All I had was an odometer reading, and with our unplanned diversion to the Potrillos, I was left guessing. Both turns led to a place where it looked possible (just) to climb the mountain, but I kept going. The road we wanted led into the basin between the three mountains. It looked like the setting for an unimaginative painting of the Mesozoic.

We parked at the end of a bumpy track. The only way I could see where the “road” ended there was that other people had left circles of stones from old campfires. There was also a slightly higher concentration of spent shell casings. Looking up the slopes of Cox I could see no obvious way to climb up. I would have paid better attention to my topographical map, but there was absolutely no cell service, so we were on our own. I had googled the mountain and found another hiker’s description of climbing Cox. He talked about following a scree trail up the slope. As we hiked over the rolling foothills, we could see tongues of broken rock dipping down from the peak like lava in a child’s drawing, so we chose one and followed it upward. It was rough going. The rocks shifted treacherously under our feet, with a sound like stacking dinner plates. They were at least three or four deep, leaving caverns under our feet that seemed like perfect hiding places for snakes. I just had to tell myself that any rattlers napping in the rocks would be happy to let me pass over them peacefully and hope that was true. Aside from fence and tree lizards, we saw no living creatures as we climbed.

                Three quarters of the way up the slope, the climb got even steeper. I began to slip from time to time. I felt a bit woozy, either from a bit of fatigue, the altitude gain, or maybe from the sharp grade playing hell with my equilibrium. We slowed down a lot. I should mention at this point how impressed I was with my son’s performance. He followed behind me, moving only slightly slower than I was. I was impressed. At nine, if he’s keeping up with me, it won’t be many years before he’s the one leading the way.

                But today, I was the first to reach an outcropping of rocks that we had seen from the base. I climbed up to a flat, comfortable resting spot and watched him make his laborious way up after me. I ate a Snickers bar, nibbled on homemade trail mix, and wished I was a bit higher up. From the north side of the slope, I couldn’t quite see over the two mountains to the north. Our views would have to wait. When my son caught up, we hung out a bit longer. The late start had me watching the time carefully, but I figured as long we started heading down by 5:30, there would be plenty of time before sunset. I really don’t like being out in the desert after dark, especially off-trail.

After getting our breath, we made the final push to the summit, which turned out not to be the actual highest point of the mountain. So, we trudged along the ridge, following piles of deer scat and came to a large rock cairn with a metal pole sticking out like a flagpole. Inside the cairn we found a climbers’ log in a protective glass jar. I fished it out and took the helpfully provided pencil to write our names along with a comment about how the coronavirus couldn’t get us up here. Hardy har, I know, but I was tired.

                From the true summit, we really could see everywhere. To the west we could pick out both the Big and Little Florida Mountains. They’re still a bit of a mystery to me, but I know they have introduced Ibex climbing in their heights, so I plan to hike there sometime soon. Between us and the Floridas is the north south oriented field of the West Potrillo Mountains. Mountains are a bit of a misnomer for that range. Especially from high up, they look more like a scattered field of modest cinder cones. As far as I know, they are an active area of volcanic activity. We could conceivably have a lava bursting forth from the earth less than fifty miles from Las Cruces at any time. As far as I can tell, that would mostly be cool, not dangerous. Of course, if the magma beneath our feet boiled enough groundwater to create another maar like Kilbourne, that would be a lot more exciting.

                South of us, we could see far into Mexico, but I haven’t learned that landscape yet aside from being able to pick out the aptly named Tres Hermanas mountains south of Columbus. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of picking our way down the same broken slope we had just climbed, so I decided to get creative. From the summit, I could make out that the mountain had a much more gently sloping ridge down and to the west, so we walked that way. The way was still unfriendly to my middle-aged knees, but we had an easier time of it. I zigzagged down the talus and only had a few slips along the way. At one point, I took a little video of my climb and of course that was when I had my most dramatic stumble. I got a hilarious movie from the perspective of my phone as it tumbled down the rocks and into a hole. Otherwise, it wasn’t long before we were working our way across the gentle grade of the open desert. Of course, that was when the one blemish on our successful mission happened. My son had fallen behind me, and he suddenly became very distressed when he realized he had left his camera somewhere. The sun was headed down, time was short, and we weren’t following a trail. So, I had no idea where to start looking for it. I had to make a hard decision to leave it and that was hard on him. I felt like a terrible dad, but the fact is that he might as well have dropped it into the ocean. I’ve heard stories about people finding things like rifles just sitting against a tree a hundred years after someone misplaced them in the desert. It was crappy, but we had to leave it. Overall, it was a successful adventure, but it was unpleasant to leave it on such a note. Not only did the camera cost a little bit of money, but there were pictures of my recently deceased mother on it. I hated to leave the day on a down note, but there it was.

Does anyone else love the End Times?

I used to think that an obsession with post-apocalyptic and disaster fiction was weird. I thought it was a niche, slightly dirty fascination, something that should never be a topic of conversation among decent company. It was a bit like how I felt about liking Star Wars so much. I thought it was just me. Now every other dad I see at Cub Scouts is wearing a Rebel Alliance insignia on his tee shirt. Where were those guys in seventh grade?

                My first introduction to the genre was actually a bizarre relic, a coloring book from the 1979 movie Meteor. I don’t know where I came by such a strange thing, but it may have been a yard sale. The idea of the world being destroyed by meteors appealed to me, not in a nihilistic way, but just the idea that such a terrible thing could happen. I had a nascent death instinct I suppose. It didn’t hurt that one of the locations in the movie was clearly the DC metro, with its honeycomb concrete blocks prominently featured in one of the film stills in the coloring book. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen Meteor, and I think I’ll leave it that way. It was right in the midst of Sean Connery’s bizarre sci-fi phase along with Zardoz and Highlander. There were other hints of the apocalyptic in my childhood. Thundarr the Barbarian took place in a ruined world far into the future and I loved it, especially the opening sequence that showed the end times.

I really hit my stride with a slew of eighties nuclear holocaust movies. My parents let me see The Day After on primetime TV in 1983. Yeah, if you know I was born in 1977 you can do the math. I was six. It was terrifying and upsetting, but I was hooked. I can still picture the image of John Lithgow and friends watching the missiles take off from a football game. Somehow, I also managed to watch an airing of Threads, another nuclear war movie, similar in almost every way except that it takes place in the United Kingdom. I don’t remember which of the movies I watched first, but the impact was huge. Famously, Ronald Reagan was heavily moved by The Day After too. Apparently, it took a movie to get our Hollywood president to understand the threat and start working on disarmament. That seems a bit silly, but I’ve also heard that John F Kennedy’s forceful response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was heavily influenced by his recent reading of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. These are human beings. It’s scary to think how they can be nudged so randomly, but it’s reality.

                I saw Wargames and loved it. It dealt with the threat of nuclear war in a serious, but ultimately much cheerier way. I think my passion for these movies was rooted in the same impulse that makes people watch slasher movies, or supernatural thrillers like The Exorcist. I had no interest in those. When I was a young child, the jump scares, blood, and general terror were too much for me in those movies. Then when I got older, I found I had no capacity to be afraid of the supernatural. I didn’t believe in it at all, and what’s scary about that? What I did like was things like Jaws, which took a perfectly natural threat and made it terrifyingly real. Are great white sharks likely to hunt and kill large numbers of people? Of course not. But are they really out there? Yes, unlike the devil and Captain Howdy, yes, they are.

                Alien invasions may not be likely, but they do fit into a rational world view. I saw the fifties version of War of the Worlds, read the H.G. Wells book, and devoured the entire White Mountains series by John Christopher the instant I discovered the books. I can still smell or almost taste the vinyl of school bus seats when I picture those books, read over the course of a week in fifth grade. Having my fear button pushed must have been part of the fascination, but I think I just liked to imagine the effects on terrible events on my world. There was always a part of me yearning to actually see the tornado when we did drills in elementary school.

                In my pre-teen years, I started catching late night showings of Red Dawn and I was hooked there too. One of my friends, who shall remain nameless, criticized the film because he couldn’t see why if the Russians invaded we would only resist with one helicopter. What movie was that guy watching? There was a whole scenario fleshed out in the movie, with the cities that got hit with nukes, the map of the battle lines, and which allies the United States had in World War III described in detail. The deliciously tantalizing, nightmare scenario was exactly the kind of horror movie that appealed to me. And here we come to another thing about horror rooted in reality. I began thinking about my own plan for what I would do in such a scenario. My best friend and I had an idiotic scheme to hide out in the thick woods between the 495 cloverleaf and launch raids on Soviet troops. Many of these disaster porn movies lead a mind to the same question, what would I do?

                It wasn’t all so rational though. I repeatedly poured over the opening pages of the sourcebooks for roleplaying games like Shadowrun, Rifts, and After the Bomb. Palladium’s After the Bomb dealt with viruses run amok, nuclear war, and genetic mutation, which are at least science-adjacent concepts, so they fit my theory of being fascinated with horrific things rooted in science. But Shadowrun involved the reappearance of magic, dragons, elves and trolls. Rifts involved the tearing open of trans-dimensional space and the infestation of earth by a million different kinds of alien being. Neither is grounded in anything like reality. When I think about it deeper though, what I loved about those books was the aspects of their settings that dealt with the ramifications of catastrophe. How many people would die? What cities would survive? How would the political map of the world change? Yes, the cause of apocalypse was silly, but the authors had put some thought into the effects of their silliness. The question that most fascinated me after “what would I do” was simply “what would happen?”

                When I grew up, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t the only one who loved post-apocalyptic scenarios. I loved Stephen King’s novel The Stand and was surprised to learn that according to him it was the most popular of his novels for fans. I started talking to more people who shared my weird obsession. It was a bit like learning that everyone had really liked Judge Reinhold. Anyone? It was really obvious by the time Walking Dead became such a huge hit. I think when other properties try to market the idea of zombies, they are totally missing the point. It’s the apocalypse that transfixes viewers, not the stupid monsters.

                This post started out as a lead-in to writing about living through a minor apocalypse we’re seeing now in 2020, and the reading I’m doing in response, but I think I’ll let that grow into a second article to post later this week. For now, I’ll let it suffice to write about how strange it is to learn that I’m not the only one. But isn’t that what this era is about in a lot of ways? I may be part of a larger phenomenon, and it feels like it, but maybe I can just find other weirdos because we’re all so connected. Anyway, I have to go, that Judge Reinhold message board isn’t going to post on itself.

A Proposal for Modest Revolution: A Proportional Electoral College

                The electoral college is an unpopular beast. After the 2016 election I had moments of frustration, wondering why we give such disproportionate voting influence to the worst among us. But the problems with the system are not that it helps one party win. Obviously only one half of the partisan divide would think that is a problem. The simplistic objection is that the electoral college produces a different result than the popular vote. That objection ignores the fact that no one ever said it was supposed to match the results of the popular vote. We don’t elect our presidents directly, we never have elected our presidents directly, and the founding fathers didn’t want us to.

                It is precisely the point of our federal system that we don’t just put things up to a popular vote. Particularly, the bicameral system of our legislative branch was created to make a compromise between the powerful, populous states, and the smaller ones. The fact that each state, per the compromise struck between the Virginia and New Jersey plans, gets two senators no matter its size, means that mathematically, the inhabitants of those states get more per capita power in government.

                That is no accident. It is a conscious feature of a system where sovereignty derives from the states. It is also designed to prevent presidential candidates from ignoring the populations of those smaller states. This is the motive for the electoral college. It has become fashionable to blame the motives of southern slaveholders for the system. The argument derives from the fact that southerners gained voting power by the apportionment system that multiplied the slave population by 3/5 when determining the population of states. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, leaving this as an historical footnote. The argument seems to be aimed at creating guilt by association despite the lack of any logical connection between the two ideas. It is the kind of argument that only helps when one is preaching to the choir.

                Similarly, the mention (I won’t dignify it by calling it an argument) of the 1876 election brings no logical argument against the electoral college. An electoral tie was only broken when Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the south. This was a terrible result and it doomed the promise of Reconstruction to miserable failure, but it has no connection to the electoral college. It speaks of dreadful corruption in the latter years of the nineteenth century, and of the moral cowardice of the Republicans, but only damns the college by association. Only someone who hasn’t been paying close attention or is already convinced would agree that this bolsters arguments against the electoral college.

                So how does the college work? Each state gets a number of electoral votes that equals its number of congressmen. Basically, we hold a general election in the state and whoever wins that election is given all the votes in the state. The only exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska. They use a modified system where the general determines who gets the two votes based on the senators. Then an election in each congressional district decides who gets the vote for that district. In theory this should break up the winner take all approach of the other 48 states, but in these two limited cases, the effect is more or less the same.

                The electoral college as it stands is a system where the votes of smaller states count for more than they otherwise would. That was the intent. It is a feature not a bug. Where I see the problem is in an entirely unintended effect. With even the slimmest margin giving all the votes to one candidate, the candidates have no incentive to campaign in states they are guaranteed to win or lose. Conservatives in California, and Liberals in Georgia have no incentive to vote in presidential elections. All of the campaigning is concentrated in a few battleground states. Since these states are all or nothing, and most of the states aren’t significantly in play, candidates focus on getting more turnout in contested states. They tack farther and farther to the extremes of their parties every year. Winner take all systems also discourage third party candidates who have no chance on garnering any electoral votes whatsoever. This is how you get Trump and Sanders. Do you want to get Trump and Sanders?

                So, what could we do to change this short of abandoning the electoral college and relegating the less populated states to irrelevance? Let’s consider two ideas. First, we could have all the states adopt the Maine/Nebraska model. This would produce a situation where even in large, purple states, candidates can earn partial credit for winning in at least some of the congressional districts. The only bonus for winning the overall by a slim margin would be the two votes for the senators.

As an example, let’s see how this would have changed the 2016 election in Florida. The actual result was that 49.0% went for Trump with 47.8% going for Clinton. The winner by 1.2% took all 29 votes for the state. What would happen under the Maine/Nebraska system? Unfortunately, voting results were tallied by counties, not by congressional districts, so I’ll have to use the results in the elections for representatives. I admit that could introduce problems if the personality of the candidate was an issue, but it should indicate how a district leans. There are 27 congressional districts in Florida. 18 of these went red and 11 blue. Thus, using the congressional elections as a proxy, Trump would get 2 for the overall win and 18 for the districts, leaving 11 electors for Clinton. Trump still wins, but the result is a lot more proportional. This already feels a lot fairer, but the problem is that it leaves us in a situation where there is very little incentive to campaign in the middle. Each candidate would be best left to play to a few battleground districts, and we have the same problem on a state scale that we had at the national level. There is also the problem that districts are gerrymandered to often quite unjust results.

Which leaves us with my second idea. What if we took the overall vote, then allocated the electors based on the percentages? Applying the 2016 results, we would now award 14 votes to both Trump and Clinton. Rounding would be necessary, but I can’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be done based on the standard rules we all learned in grade school. We round Trump down from 14.239 to 14 and Clinton up from 13.862 to 14. I also can’t see any reason why we should treat the two senator votes differently, but if a state so chose, they could certainly do so. One major difference in the Florida case would be that Gary Johnson would have garnered one electoral vote. I certainly didn’t think he was a strong candidate, but at least this system could open the door a crack to a candidate from a third party. I can’t see how that could be anything but healthy.

One of the healthiest results though would be to give an incentive for the major party candidates to campaign everywhere. For example, under the system I am proposing, Trump would have picked up 17 of California’s 55 districts. He did this despite the largest margin of defeat since 1936. How would his campaign have changed if he had seen even the possibility of picking up a few more of them? Would he have hammered away about a wall if he seen even a glimmer of catching a few more California voters? This system would have to force candidates to tack toward the middle, toward reasonable policies that appeal to a broad cross section, and away from the lunatic fringes that have become so loud in 2020.

Is it possible to have such a system? Of course. The primaries essentially function this way. A win in a state isn’t absolute. That is where the similarity ends though. The delegates aren’t awarded in the proportional way I propose and the process is more like the Maine/Nebraska system. It seems to produce candidates who skew toward the extremes. Still, the biggest problem for adopting such a system is that the state legislatures decide how to allocate electors. That is laid out directly in Article II of the constitution. So, any sweeping change would either have to be done by appealing directly and individually to the states, which would take forever, or through the amendment process. There are already proposals afoot to pass amendments abolishing the electoral college. Why not get the ball rolling on something that would produce a leveling effect and a widening of democracy instead of allowing the population centers to place a stranglehold on government?

I’m certainly in.

Congaree National Park in Winter: Probably Not a Great Idea.

First off, I want to apologize for not posting for a few weeks. As I mentioned in a few past articles, I was dealing with the last stages of my mother’s cancer. She passed at the beginning of February and I just couldn’t write, both psychologically and because of all the business I had to attend to. I’m back now though and I promise I’m up off the mat for good.

                For several of the early years of my legal career, I rode the circuit across the rural hinterlands of Virginia, hopping from court to court like an up and coming Abraham Lincoln. I had no choice but to resort extensively to Apple Maps to find some of the courthouses, jurisdictions that might have had a thousand people in the whole county. I used to discover strange, relic cabins, fossils of an older America and have the strange recurring thought that there was someone whose whole life was this forgotten corner of the country, yard strewn with plastic riding toys and old cars. Winding my way down the narrow country lanes of South Carolina, being led mysteriously and inscrutably toward Congaree National Park, I was reminded of those days. I also asked myself the old question after each seemingly quixotic turn: how could this possibly be the best way to get anywhere?

                It was raining steadily, and the other question I had to ask myself was whether there was any point in visiting Congaree in the winter, during a heavy rain. The park is no longer called Congaree Swamp; the area is technically a bottomland floodplain, but it’s still low-lying, wet, and untraversable when it floods. This was not an ideal time for a visit.

                We knew better. My son and I listen to Parklandia, a podcast about a couple who travel the country in an RV, trying to visit all the national parks. When I googled what the guys look like, I found a picture of them standing by the entry sign to Congaree National Park. My son and I got a picture at the same place. On a side note, as we were listening a few days ago, he asked me out of the blue whether the guys were brothers. I said no. Then he asked why, if they’re not brothers, do they hang out together all the time. I’m a lawyer, I know when I’m being led. I considered ways of phrasing it. He had gotten upset at the same-sex kiss in Star Wars. I don’t know why. Maybe it just upends his ordering of the world? But I couldn’t think of anything clever, so I just told him, “They’re gay, dude.” He quietly reflected on that. Anyway, the Parklandia guys told us not to go to Congaree in winter, but the fact is that this was the time we had to be there. After my mother’s funeral, my son, myself, and my brother were taking a long road trip back toward New Mexico. I have a lifelong goal of visiting every national park and have to take the opportunities I can get. Who knew when we’d be in South Carolina again?

                So, we arrived at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center in a constant, driving, chill rain. Apart from a departing bus full of kids on a field trip, we were the only ones there. In the center, we learned right off that most of the trails were flooded and inaccessible. Oddly enough, the Congaree River was actually below flood level. It was the smaller Cedar Creek that was inundating the park today. But the boardwalk was still above water, so we were happy to hike that. I love boardwalks. They allow you to move through a forest without disturbing anything, and especially to get close to wetlands, which are full of life. Back in Virginia, my favorite park to visit is Huntley Meadows, which has a several mile-long boardwalk that traverses a floodplain teeming with snakes, waterfowl, beavers, and turtles. Congaree is a very different environment. Huntley Meadows is an open waterway with no tree cover in the wetlands. This forest is completely covered in huge trees. In fact, Congaree has the largest concentration of record-breaking trees (called Champion Trees I learned) in the eastern United States. The highest loblolly pine, sweetgum, cherrybark oak, and lots of others are here. For centuries, it was just too difficult for loggers to get to the timber here because of the wet conditions. By the time the technology was developed to manage the terrain, the Sierra Club was in full force, stepping in to save the forest from destruction.

                What I really wanted to do in Congaree was rent a canoe and explore the forest up close. Unfortunately, the park hasn’t set up anything to allow rentals, so the only option would be to own a canoe, or to somehow rent in Columbia (about 20 miles away) and transport to the park. We didn’t have the time or means to do that, so we were stuck with only the portions of the park covered by trails. I would really like to put out a call for the park service to set up canoe rentals. This could be more manageable for people of modest means, and it’s really the only way to properly see the forest. (Cue the sound of me stepping off my very small soapbox).

                We settled for the trails. Even in the rain, which was heavy enough to obscure my vision as it dripped into my eyes, the forest was beautiful. Little stands of palmetto crept up heroically from the water. I was surprised not to see cypress knees, which are my mental image of a southern swamp. The rain shut down most of the wildlife. A few of the smaller birds braved the weather, as did a surprisingly large concentration of cardinals. The bright red stood out in the bluish grey that dominated the rainy forest. The little birds were active, hopping around the smaller trees. I think they’re less troubled by rain, as they can get protection under leaves. Sadly, we did poorly at identifying them. Aside from a few flashes of yellow, they seemed to be the ubiquitous LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) that I can never differentiate: warblers, creepers, wrens? Who knows?

                Our path came to an end at Weston Lake, which was supposedly the home of an adult alligator. We looked but saw no sign. His Mesozoic brain, more clever than our Cenozoic ones, had him denning up in the rain and cold. At the lake, there were two dead ends. One was a viewing platform at the edge of the clearing. We did spot a few mallards soldiering on in the rain, but nothing else. The other dead end was a continuance of the boardwalk. My son and I splashed on a bit into the forest, hopping over some shallow flooding, but found that the wooden path disappeared underwater. It looked like the unnatural boundary on a video game map. Or maybe we needed to find a magic item that allows underwater breathing, or a crank that opens a sluice gate. I considered equipping Dracula’s Rib then kneeling for thirty seconds, but instead we hurried back to the car. The rain was getting into our poorly waterproofed clothes, and it was getting colder. We’ll be back someday when I level up.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I’ve had an idea in my head for weeks that it would be fun to go see a movie by myself. When I was younger, that would have seemed incredibly depressing. I would have felt like a loser at the movies alone, and I suppose that might have been how it looked. But somehow as you get older, any time you get alone is so precious that it shifts. Going to the movies alone means you get to choose exactly what to watch, and why did I ever care who was with me? You don’t talk to the people you’re with at the movies (if you’re a civilized person that is, I’ve seen it done).

                But my friends have been incredible during this hard time. In the month that I’ve been home helping my mother in her last days, I’ve hardly had a single night go by without heroic efforts and invitations from my crew. So, the movie idea has gone by the wayside. Then, Monday night, I suddenly found myself alone. I decided to go down to the ancient, relic movie theater at University Mall across from George Mason. It’s amazing that it still exists, like a tuatara or a coelacanth clinging to a weird ecological niche after all the larger, more promising venues have gone extinct. I know the theater almost closed a few years back. I even donated a bit to keep it in business, which is not a thing I do. But here we are in 2020 and the theater that looked doomed in 1989 is still there, still holding Rocky Horror Picture Show nights every Saturday. (I’ve never been, which seems like an omission now).

                It’s a second run theater. So, my choices were limited. I had already seen Star Wars, so my first impulse was to see The Joker. A friend of mine counseled me that it might be too intense for someone dealing with the kind of issues of morbidity and fate that I have in my real life. So that left A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the Mr. Rogers movie. I walked out to the car and stopped. It’s only a mile to the movies, and the rain had finally lulled for the first time all day, so I ran to the mall. Now I had combined exercise with eating a bucket of popcorn by myself; virtue and vice in harmony.

                I was the only person in the theater, which isn’t surprising for a 9:40 showing of a second run movie. The movie opens with a sequence where Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) runs through the usual opening of the show and right there I remembered why I had liked the show. There are a lot of deep psychological and emotional reasons to like Mr. Rogers, but the thing that captured my attention when I was little was the ritual aspect of the show. He walks in the door the same way, puts on his sweater the same way, and changes his shoes the same way every day. Maybe I had a particularly chaotic childhood, but I think all kids like that kind of routine. Life is a confusing babble of unpredictable input for little brains and I think they crave a bit of repetition. Why do you think kids always watch movies so many times?

                There was also something about Mr. Rogers’ routine that reminded me of my grandfather (who I lived with as a small child) coming home from work every day. They even looked a little alike. The movie plays on the expectation of routine by jarring the viewer with a photograph of a man with a black eye and a bloody nose. The photo pops out of a picture board that otherwise has Lady Aberlin and King Friday behind its doors. I could not understand the format of the movie at first. Was this a run through of the show? Was it a standard biopic and the opening would run into a flashback? It was unclear for the first thirty minutes how the story of Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys from The Americans) would connect to Mr. Rogers at all. Soon though, it dawned on me that the movie wasn’t really about Mr. Rogers. At least not in the sense of a narrative about his life.

                Instead, the film follows the author who wrote a long form article about Mr. Rogers for Esquire magazine. The real author has been changed for the movie, but it’s closely based on reality. I hadn’t expected that. The movie is based on the effect that Rogers had on Vogel. I had expected something much closer to the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which I had recently watched. Clearly that piece was a huge influence, emphasizing some of the same points, such as the intertwined, almost surrogate relationship that Rogers had with Daniel Tiger. This film also includes a sequence where Mr. Rogers ask Vogel to take a moment of silence to “remember the people who made you the way you are” that was taken directly from the documentary. In the background of the restaurant where this scene takes place, I recognized a cameo by Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, from just having seen her in Neighbor.

So, the filmmakers were influenced by the documentary, but the structure is nothing like I expected. I think the prominence and recency of Neighbor probably played into the choice not to make this a traditional biopic. That would have just been dramatizing and rehashing all the same material. It was a good documentary and the job didn’t need to be done a second time. Instead, the film was like a show within a show. For instance, Lloyd’s job is introduced through a sequence that shows how magazines are made, with actual footage form inside a factory, a scene that seemed like something right from the TV show. That was very meta.

I made a note to myself to look up how much of this story was true, mainly because I found the family aspects of the plot to be a bit maudlin. I was relieved to learn that much of the background matched the movie. You can’t help a story being maudlin if it’s real, right? The author really did have an estranged father (Chris Cooper) who had cancer. Of course, this brings up one of my main problems with choosing this movie. How bad could Joker possible have been? I literally left the house where I’m watching my mother go through the last stages of cancer to watch a movie where the protagonist loses first his mother, and then his father to cancer. Nice night out. I’m going to have a talk with my friend.

I left the movie in an odd mood, which I suppose was predictable. It had started raining again of course, but I decided to walk home instead of running. It was a light rain, the kind quiet enough to fall on leaves with a sound like crumpling paper. I didn’t listen to music or podcasts, and I didn’t hurry. I put my hood up and trudged along with a million thoughts going through my head. Yes, the story of the movie had been a bit sappy, but one line from the end stuck in my head. No one wanted to talk about the father’s death and grew really quiet until Mr. Rogers spoke up. He said no one wants to talk about death, but death is human. Nothing human is unmentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable. So, yeah, I’m talking about my mom a bit in this blog even though it’s uncomfortable. I just hope talking about it makes it a bit more manageable.

Pub Quiz Review: Murphy’s Alexandria, VA

Location: Murphy’s Pub on King Street, Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

Regular Time: 8:15 on Tuesdays

Date: 1/28/2020

This was not a new trivia night for me, far from it. I’ve been to Murphy’s about fifty times. It’s the first trivia night I ever went to in the DC area. At one point, my friends and I had a weekly routine of going to Murphy’s every Tuesday night. That was at a very different time in my life. I was recently out of law school. My wife was in residency and I was looking for a job while we lived in my mother’s basement. We only had one child then. So, I know Murphy’s has been doing trivia night for at least ten years. Come to think of it, I was at Murphy’s pub quiz the first time I used a smart phone to look up a baseball score, which seemed like magic. So, what would that have been, 2006? I was looking up the Orioles score so it might have been earlier. In the world of pub quiz, surviving that long is a rarity. These things pop up and wink out like particles in quantum foam.

We had a regular trivia team back then, five of us who showed up every week. Two were a couple who had just started dating. They’re married with a kid, living in Germany now. Number three had a nervous breakdown and left his cushy job to focus on a career playing those weird giant bells that you have to wear Mickey Mouse gloves to ring. Who am I to judge? So, when I decided to make a return to Murphy’s there was only one of the old crew left. I called him up and he was as excited to go back as I was. There were only two of us, but we weren’t in it to win.

I drove down and parked like I was defusing an IED. Each Alexandria signpost has at least four different signs, each of which seems to directly contradict the others. They make the complicated parking in DC seem like an Idiot’s Guide in comparison. I went to law school, practiced law for ten years, and still can’t decipher when and where I can park in Old Town. And do they enforce? Yes, I’ve gotten hefty tickets in the neighborhood before. It’s not Murphy’s fault, but watch out if you decide to go.

King Street is beautiful in winter, decked out in long strings of white lights, and not just for Christmas. The row houses and brick sidewalks are perfectly designed for the season. Actually, the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem was written when the author was inspired by Alexandria in the snow. I once worked in the neighborhood. My mother went to nursing school right down the street. Old Town has always been part of my life. It’s easily my favorite part of Northern Virginia. On a sad note, I noticed that Misha’s, the best coffeeshop in Old Town had gone out of business since I moved.

But nothing had changed at Murphy’s. Trivia is at the same time. It’s still held upstairs in the less popular overflow bar. It’s even the same DJ running the game who was there all those years ago. People always flock to the downstairs, traditional Irish bar, and the steady boom of a bodhram gave a little accompaniment to the night. It’s a fun bar, but upstairs you get a bit more space and quiet for conversation. That’s my scene. A few tips might be in order. Sit near the fire, it’s cold upstairs in winter. Also, if you order a burger (half price during trivia), do not get the actual “Murphy Burger”. It has mozzarella cheese (not necessarily a deal breaker) and a slab of ham. Someone needs to tell Murphy’s that a hamburger does not contain any ham because that slice of lunch meat has no business on a red-blooded American’s burger. Also, avoid the potatoes and ask for normal fries. The potatoes are almost as gross as the slab of ham. But the real thing to watch out for at Murphy’s is the men’s room. If you are male, do not go in last. The rightmost urinal is right next to the door in a very awkward position. If you are female, make sure to avert your gaze as you walk by. The ergonomics are a nightmare.

But enough advice, how did trivia go? Well, we struggled over our team name as usual. We considered something to do with the coronavirus, then decided against it. Of course, when the game began we learned that yet another team had called itself coronavirus and lime, making it the third time I have heard that team name in the last two weeks. We had the good taste to reject any Kobe Bryant-related names out of hand. That seems obvious you say? Who would have the gall to choose one? Well, hang on a minute, there’s one born every minute. We were stymied for a name, and finally went with The Attractive Nuisances. Yes, the name of my blog comes from our most frequent trivia team name.

I’ve complained about volume before in trivia nights, but Murphy’s nailed it with a loud PA, and frankly we were sitting too close. When the DJ spoke, we had to just shut up, but that was a small price to pay for clearly hearing all the questions. (I just realized how incredibly old that makes me sound.) The questions themselves are perfect. They don’t have any particularly specialized rounds, and most of the information is just general knowledge. The idea of themed rounds sounds much better than it is in reality. Give me a random selection anytime.

We played well through the first three rounds (out of a total of 7), and surprised ourselves by remaining in the running at least that far. Then we were suddenly a team of three when a woman plopped herself down and joined our team. Apparently, the team she had started with didn’t like her suggested name “Helicopter Justice”. Yeah…

I didn’t want to get into it, so I smiled and nodded politely when she talked about how much she hated Kobe Bryant because she was a rape counselor. I didn’t mention all the other people on the helicopter, including several children, and I certainly didn’t want to get into a discussion of Kobe’s guilt. The fact is, I think most people saw that for what it was. He’s a dick for cheating on his wife, but the woman who accused him is a gold digger who saw her opportunity and took it. He’s not a rapist.

It wasn’t the best introduction to the team for our new friend, whose name I have already forgotten. She went to Vanderbilt law school… Let’s call her Sara, that sounds about right. Immediately after impressing herself into the Nuisances though, she got a question right about Meryl Streep and the movie First Do No Harm which even in hindsight I have never heard of. So, all was forgiven. We needed the points. We had a team dispute about a question about a muscle that moves a limb inward toward the body. Apparently, that is an adductor. I thought we were saying abductor and I wrote that, then blurred the third letter in case there was a close call on the answer. The proctor called us over and made us choose one or the other. I have to say, he may look like he has read about smiles in books rather than having ever seen one, but that was a good catch. We chose… poorly, and got it wrong. “Sara” lost us a point later by being overconfident that a picture of Kim Novak was Lena Horne, but honestly, I would have never gotten that, so I’ll look the other way. I won’t ding her trivia team WAR for that one. My shining moment was when we were asked what Ron Blomberg did first in a major league game on April 6, 1973. We deliberated for a long time, considering answer like die, pinch hit, or wear a batting helmet until I realized he must have been the first designated hitter. Boom.

Amazingly, when all was said and done, we had calculated a score of 74 points, which seemed high, but not high enough to win. As the DJ announced the final scores, we thought they started too high, and began giving our concession speeches to one another. Then, by two points, we were announced as the winners. Here is the best thing about Murphy’s trivia night, and I hesitate to even tell anyone this. You aren’t playing for a bar tab, and you aren’t playing for just pride of places. At Murphy’s you actually get amazing prizes. (I really shouldn’t be telling you this). For years, my favorite prize they had was a row of tickets to the Orioles right behind the home dugout. I won them a few times and they are the best seats I’ve ever had at a baseball game, much less at Camden Yards. We were close enough that one time when Danny Valencia was checking out a girl in the stands, I yelled “Hey Danny, want me to get her number for you?” and he made a goofy affirmative shrug in response.

Tonight’s prize was arguably better. We got two tickets, center ice, to the Caps. This is no 2013 85-win Oriole team. This is the 2018 Stanley Cup winning Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin just scored his 694th goal to pass Mark Messier in all time goals. This is the first-place team in the Metropolitan Division playing the second place Penguins. The face value of the tickets was more than two hundred dollars each. That’s a real prize. Our walk on player even let us keep the two tickets to ourselves. So, she’s a hero in my book.

The awesome prizes and the genuinely good chance of winning make Murphy’s my favorite trivia night. A+ all around as usual.

Postscript: We went to the Caps game early on Super Bowl Sunday. They lost a great game 4-3 and we had to watch Penguins fans chanting on the steps of the portrait gallery after the game. Open question- why do some city’s fans behave like that? Can someone enlighten me?

Traveling to the Narcissistic Island Universe of Youth: Part II

As my writing improves in the narrative, a sense of the time period begins to come out of the dry facts. There are a few references to music that have the reek of ancient history. I made my modern self laugh out loud at a description of singing a parody of Sir Mix-A-Lot that went “I like big dogs and I cannot lie” and ended with the line “Lhasa Apso? Maybe if it’s dead”. One of my friends gets revenge on me by “taking back his Psychedelic Furs CD out of spite”. Even the mention of a CD is fossil. Streetfighter 2 probably gets more lines than my mother. I talk constantly about going to Blockbuster’s and watching MTV, both things that lingered on for a few more years and died around the turn of the millennium. It is only through reading my old journal that I can get a proper sense of how important those institutions were to us in 1992. The idea that they would die along with malls would have been difficult to comprehend. Anyone who lived in Northern Virginia in the nineties will remember the Multiplex Cinema in Merrifield. It was the most modern, most elaborate theater in the area. Today it has been bulldozed to make way for the Mosaic Shopping District, an entity I couldn’t have possibly imagined. When I went to Caboose Brewery a few weeks ago, I saw that they had salvaged some numbers from the old Multiplex marquis to make their address. A dominant cultural force of my youth has officially become archaeology. That’s sobering.

This writing is almost thirty years old so there is a bit of problematic language. I use the word “oriental” to refer to someone Asian at one point, but okay, that just wasn’t the rule then. As soon as someone pointed that one out to me, I made the change. I would have thought it was earlier in my life, but the historical record says otherwise. Much less defensibly, I use the F-word one time, and I don’t mean “Fuck”. I wasn’t calling anyone gay that word, I would never have done that, but well into the nineties that was just something people said. We didn’t examine the inherent homophobia of calling a friend that word when we didn’t approve of a friend’s behavior. Nor did we examine why we said something was “gay” when we thought it was lame. It wasn’t until college, when I first started having gay friends, that I realized what an asshole that kind of language made me.

                Some of the picture I unwittingly managed to draw is mirrored in the movie Donnie Darko. It may not be clear from the California footage, but the movie is set in Fairfax, Virginia, the town I grew up in. A few stray shots convey this if you are watching. Donnie wakes up on the golf course near Fairfax High School, there are Virginia plates, and when his father watches football, he watches Doug Williams and the Redskins. The funny way that memory works led me, when reading about watching the Redskins with my father, to picture the Darkos’ living room rather than my own.

                And memory really does work strangely. A painful episode where my mother forced me to go on a blind date with one of her friend’s younger cousin was burned into my memory as being in eighth grade, but there it was in my sophomore year of high school. Other events weren’t just warped, but completely deleted by my memory. One of the things I saw fit to memorialize was just what movies we were watching after those trips to Blockbuster. A few of them (Pure Luck, Permanent Record) left no impression whatsoever. I didn’t recognize the names as movies that exist, and furthermore, when I looked the movies up, even reading a full synopsis didn’t ring a bell. How is that possible? It calls to mind the fact that millions of people remember a Sinbad movie with a genie and swear that Berenstain is spelled with three e’s. Part of it must be the sheer fact of being inundated with TV and movies. It’s shocking how much down time I seem to have had, but I suppose a teenager who was a terrible student really did have a lot of time on his hands. I can’t believe how much school I missed. There isn’t a week that goes by where I’m not talking about staying home “sick”. It was so stupid, but until I met a girl who set me straight in eleventh grade, I would not only miss fifty school days a year but wouldn’t even do my homework when I was there. It’s infuriating to read. I really do think my life would have been completely different if they hadn’t insisted on starting school at 7:00am. To this day I ask myself what the hell they were trying to train me for, the army? No one’s job starts at 7:00. Still, I wish I had toughed it out a bit more.

                On a sadder note, it’s hard to read about the people who are gone: my grandfather, my stepdad, some of the friends I had in high school. It hurt to read my complaints about shopping on Christmas Eve with my stepfather. Yes, it was a drag, I remember that, but what I wouldn’t give to do it again just once. It reminds me of how I always felt when my kids were babies and I was having a hard time of it. I would ask myself how much I would pay twenty years from now to spend an afternoon with my kids as infants. The answer is a huge amount, but it never made it any easier to endure the actual moment. Life is tricky like that. You never enjoy the torture of being with the people love as much as you should. Then they’re gone.

                I couldn’t help but imagine my 1992 journal having a postscript like American Graffiti or some other nostalgic teen movie. This character ended up going to law school, that one died of a drug overdose, this one became a nudist in a gay republican commune in Vermont (true story). I know most of the stories of the characters who were in my life in the early nineties. The sad seems to dominate. Drugs ruined a few lives, laziness a few others. I can’t help but construct a postmortem on each friendship. Some friendships died from catastrophic fractures- a loose, stupid insult or argument- others due to the slow continental drift of life. A smile crosses my face though when I read about friends who I still know. At least three of them are people who I’ve seen in my most recent sojourn in Virginia. One of them introduced me to my wife.

                I’m going to keep going with this project as long as I’m here in Virginia. So, since I had fun writing this little reflection, I’ll probably write again when I finish 1993. Here’s to the dimly remembered, prosaic past.

Traveling to the Narcissistic Island Universe of Youth: Part I

                I’m in the middle of one of the strangest, most quixotic projects of a lifetime of strange quixotic projects. Since June of 1992, I have, with very few breaks in the routine, kept a daily journal chronicling my life. Up until the last decade, I did this in physical, longhand journals. Now they are safely ensconced in a plastic bin in my mother’s basement, protected from the floods and other soakings that have afflicted all the important documents of my life. I’ve had the idea of converting them into digital format for a long time. Now, with time on my hands and nothing much to do while I help my mother through the last stages of cancer, I decided to break ground on the project. It’s mindless, which is a plus in my circumstances, but also strangely escapist, which is an even bigger one.

                So, last week I dove right into 1992. For anyone who’s keeping track, that means I was 14 years old as the chronicle began. As I typed, I couldn’t help reading; processing the words as I wrote. It was strangely reminiscent of writing my master’s thesis. I spent days of that process reading the personal letters of George Washington, Ulysses S Grant, and then William Westmoreland. You delve pretty deeply into a life that way if the writer is prolific enough, and as teenager I was nothing if not prolific.

                Much as I did with the sometimes-insane, always inconsistent orthography of George Washington, I decided to replicate the errors of the original as I copied. My grammar and spellcheck programs revolted, screaming at me and leaving my paragraphs festooned with blue and red, but I kept to it. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. My spelling was solid, with only a few glaring errors. The worst was a constant use of “cause” for because. Why did I do that? I think it was for the same reason that I insisted on using the construction “me and” with plural subjects. Now I had learned not to do that in formal writing as a small child. I clearly remember a stern lesson from my Aunt Hilda, a former elementary school teacher, when I was seven. I knew better, but I had some idea that you should write as you speak. I wouldn’t have phrased it as such, but I was trying to preserve the parole of my vernacular. Nice thought in a way, but it ends up making me sound like a halfwit; not the effect I was going for. One of the most annoying hallmarks of teenagers is a misplaced sense of integrity about things like that.

                Other things were genuine errors. I refused to underline the titles of movies and books. I tried and failed to consistently apply the Oxford comma. That flies in the face of everything I hold sacred to not fix as I type. Strunk and White set me straight in 12th grade. Amazingly, there is one perfectly wielded semicolon in an early passage. It crops up like some Antikythera Mechanism of punctuation. It defies belief that my antediluvian self could manage it, but there it is, deftly introducing an appropriately tangential subordinate clause.

                Overall, my style improves as the book goes on. I think this came from both a lack of experience with writing in general, and a learning curve about what I was trying to do by keeping a journal. I always objected to the term “diary” and with that in mind, I started out not wanting to delve too deeply into my feelings about things. I was going for a chronicle; a dry historical record of events. For some reason I was obsessed with managing episodes as if they were French scenes. I kept listing who was present and who was coming and going. I have no idea why I thought that was so important, but it probably had something to do with absolutely hating to be alone or bored. I took my historical duties too far and learned that you needed to do more than just write what happened. As I go on through that first year, I began to use foreshadowing. I started talking about the relations between the people around me, characterizing them as human beings. My first-person viewpoint starts to bleed into something broader, edging on an actual narrative.

                It isn’t just my writing that matured over the time of this first journal. I was 14 for god’s sake, I was growing and maturing as a human being too. Of course, this is mostly shown in the negative. There were many things I showed about myself as a callow young man that only time would heal. Oddly, the obsession with girls isn’t as obvious as I would have thought. There are a few references to thwarted infatuation, but maybe I was too embarrassed to talk about it much. Friends on the other loom larger than anything else in life. Everything else, school, family, the larger world, takes a distant backseat. My siblings seem to merit personalities, but my parents are handled at some times like forces of nature to be weathered and endured, and at others as instrumentalities fit only to give rides to the mall. They certainly don’t come across as living, breathing human beings. I mention a few actual historical events: the presidential election of 1992, the war in Somalia, but only as a description of what I watched on TV, as if that was the important thing about them. Changing the layout of my room gets multiple lines and more than one entry, while Bill Clinton doesn’t even merit a mention by name. Like all teenagers, I was a narcissistic island universe unto myself.

Go Ahead and Let the Fates Decide

                I’m obsessed with injecting randomness into my life. Life in the 21st century is too on-demand. You can choose exactly what to eat, exactly who to talk to, exactly what to listen to or watch. It’s a triumph of capitalism. The ability to do all these things is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but the power it gives us is out of control. We’re like the kid in the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life”, or the Krell in Forbidden Planet. We have powers we have no ability or inclination to control. It’s a great feeling to be ability to do exactly what you want, exactly when we want, but we ignore the corollary. We don’t ever have to do anything we don’t want to do.

                That seems great at first glance, but then think about what life was like before (if you’re old enough to remember that is). How many of the movies, books, music etc. that you loved would you have chosen in a world of perfect access to options? I would probably still be listening to Muppet records and watching Star Wars if I hadn’t been forced to try out other things. (Not that those things aren’t awesome of course.)

Does it matter? Personally, I would hate the idea of being in a cultural rut, rehashing the same old movies and music. As a middle-aged guy, some of the times I feel most alive are when I’m listening to new music, and I would hate to give that up. But I could. I could just listen to Pearl Jam and Nirvana all day and fossilize myself in the nineties if I wanted. Aside from the personal, psychological ramifications, there are broader problems with an on-demand culture. Think about the bubbles people live in online and the damage it causes. When we don’t force ourselves out of our comfort zones and only associate with media outlets and people who share our views, it isn’t just lazy, it’s dangerous.

It’s also completely understandable. A nearly infinite multiplicity of options is paralyzing. I don’t remember where I first read about the study (possibly from Daniel Kahnemann or the Freakonomics gang?) but the Journal of Consumer Psychology published a study in 2015 that showed just that effect. When customers were given more options to choose from in selected jam flavors, they actually bought less. It’s paradoxical, right? You would think that providing more options would make customers happier and make them spend more, but there seems to be a point where analysis fatigue sets in. It’s cognitively challenging to choose from large sets of choices, and humans always default to less cognitively challenging methods when they can. Do you like Trader Joe’s? One of the reasons the chain is so successful is that consumers get a broad, but artificially limited set of choices. The options are high quality and diverse, but purposefully limited. People like this and don’t even know it.

Clearly, we would be similarly paralyzed by trying to choose in this world, so what do we do? Don’t get in a rut. That’s the easy way out. I may be slightly insane, but what I have done is to institute little tricks for embracing randomness. Perhaps my comfort with this lies in years of letting the random charts in Dungeons and Dragons books determine the fate of games. For example, I have a small city library that I go to. It’s small, but there are still obviously more books than I could possibly read in a lifetime. I have a tendency, if un-shepherded, to wander time and again to the history or science books, reading about the same topics over and over again. So, what I did was plug the Dewey Decimal System into a (supposedly) random number generating app. Then I forced myself to choose a book from whatever shelf I rolled up. So, I ended up reading one book about the natural history of cactus, and another about the problems of educating boys and girls in the modern world. Maybe that sounds like hell to you, but it really forced me to branch out into something I would have never chosen otherwise. Anyone thinking it through a bit might notice that there is a big bias in this system. There isn’t an even distribution among books; not even close. There are far more books in the .900s for example, and equally weighting the books by simple number favors books in sections with fewer volumes. Fine, I’ll tweak it a bit. Maybe count the actual number of shelves or something. That would work, but I’d look nuts. Come to think of it, I’ll fit in at the public library then, so I’m good.

Or take this example, one I haven’t actually tried yet. Have you ever gotten together with friends and spent an hour arguing over where to go to dinner or for drinks? I know you have if you’ve ever been in a city like New York or DC with a galaxy of choices. Next time I do this, I’m going to suggest rolling randomly between the people there and letting whoever “wins” choose the night’s activities. I’ll even offer to recuse myself the first time. That way we all just go along with a leader who has been chosen in a way that will hopefully curb resentment. A bit of a veto might be necessary, but only for limited abuse of power situations, such as choosing a Brazilian steakhouse for vegetarians, a strip club for mixed company, or that restaurant from The Freshman where they eat endangered animals. Otherwise you have to stick to the leader’s choices, and I think it would defuse an obnoxious situation.

My other idea is to build an app that randomly selects restaurants for you. It could be pre-populated, or you could populate it yourself with favorites. How many times have I sat there trying to decide what I wanted like an idiot, and then ended up going to Dion’s for the twelfth time in two months? This is a genuine question to my readers? Is that something anyone else would be interested in?

Randomness can backfire though. Lately, my friend Andrew Park and I have instituted a system for karaoke nights. We use the number generator to come up with a random page in the artist-sorted book. Then whoever’s turn it is has to sing a song from that page. The penalty if you don’t sing is of course that you have to do a shot. It’s fun at first, but eventually you realize you aren’t singing anything you really enjoy because the pages have too few options. I think my breaking point was when I had to watch Andrew suffer through singing “Since You’ve Been Gone”. Good blackmail material, but not good for much else.

So, the days of passively receiving the media chosen for us by our betters are over. My kids will never have to watch the Muppet Show every night on the off chance that tonight’s rerun is the Star Wars episode. They will never drop everything they are doing at four o’clock because there is a Godzilla movie playing at the same time every day. They won’t see the one movie playing at a theater like my grandparents did, and they won’t listen to whatever is playing on the radio. That’s the reality, but an embrace of randomness can help us to manage it.

The Curse of Stuff

                They say millennials prioritize experiences over physical products. I don’t know how you could possibly test a statement like that, but it feels right; anyway, it has a certain truthful ring to it. In general, I think it’s a bankrupt concept to try and categorize and characterize generations, but this is one area that nails me at least. Of course, I’m not technically a millennial by even the most lenient definition, which I believe places the cutoff at 1980. (I miss it by three years, and thus am neither Generation X nor Millennial. 1977 is a sort of globular cluster drifting outside the generational galaxy and confounding all attempts at classification). Still, the idea of filling my house with chunks of plastic and glass mortifies me. I have to say I am constantly shocked at the willingness of my parents’ generation to admit to wanting… things. Their parents were thrifty (in the case of my mother) or poor (in the case of my father) and denied them things. When they grew up, they bought them. In large part my desire to avoid clutter is based on having seen it run rampant in the lives of my parents. Trying to clean out the house of a baby boomer who has passed away leaves an impression. Why did they buy these things? I once agreed to help a friend with a consignment business sift through the storage bin of a woman who wanted to downsize. I stood there in horror, looking at piles of junk. Nothing could make me feel sicker than someone’s life adding up to a pile of commemorative teddy bears. I had to beg off the project.

                So, my children receive lots of experiences. We travel manically, attend sporting events, watch musicals, and eat exotic food. Right now, the kids love it. But the other day my wife bought tickets to see Les Misérables for herself and my son; in the third row. When she told him, he said, “okay,” and asked what was for dinner. I was taken aback, but I tried to see the world through his eyes. At nine, he has hiked the cloud forests of Costa Rica, stood within fifty feet of a California Condor on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and cheered on his favorite team at a World Series game. I hate the idea of spoiling a kid with material possessions or luxury, but have I spoiled him with experiences?

                God, I hope not. One of the joys of growing older for me has been the opportunity to see and do new things. I have a firm no video game policy for my children because I believe people should get out in the world and do real things, with real people. But have I overdone it? Should I be denying my son experiences in order to inspire him later in life? I’ve been trying to make him cosmopolitan, to whet his appetite for life by showing him what is out there, but have I run the risk of sating it? The idea that he may grow up bored of life is more terrifying to me than a mausoleum filled with souvenir shot glasses and back scratchers (my grandmother collected those [shudder]).

                We all react to the excesses and prejudices of our parents. I see a cycling between belief systems. For example, our parents (the boomers that is) divorced each other at the drop of a hat. The rates have stabilized as the children of these broken marriages have grown up with the knowledge of the costs of those choices. We choose our values for ourselves in the modern world and I assume this nascent generation born in the 2010s will do so too. But how? They might smoke because we rejected it. They might look at the ubiquity of tattoos today and react with ridicule. Maybe they’ll want to bring back tinsel for Christmas or move to the suburbs in droves.

                Whatever it is, it’s bound to be both unpredictable and revolting. In other words, we’re not going to like the way they react to what we are. Why would we? That’s the point after all. And there’s no way to shape our behavior to avoid it. Whatever we do, they will respond to and reject.

                I’m imaging a visit to a McMansion sometime in the 2050s, the cabinets filled with Hummel figurines, Starting Lineup action figures, and hundreds of boxes of unopened appliances with every imaginable culinary purpose. There goes that shudder again.

                But so far, my son at least seems to be making the right decisions. He piled up gift money from Russian relatives over the holidays. I had a note of how much and had no idea what I might do with it. The stockpile of cash was going to not only most likely be used for more plastic trinkets while at the same time diluted my ability to influence him in doing the things like math practice that earn him stickers. (Those are our family’s currency for rewarding good behavior.) Then he surprised me by suggesting that he use the money to get tickets to a Nets game. He used nearly all of his horde to buy a ticket for himself, and he had a night with his mother all to himself. The Nets came back from behind and beat the Hawks and they got to sit across the court from Kobe Bryant. My son used the remainder of his money to buy a cap. If you ask me, that’s what money is for.