Suburban Macondo

Monday, March 28, 2005

In the Cards?

After losing my Fulbright funding and feeling generally crappy for a while, I decided to get back into the global economy the old-fashioned way: by gambling. Let’s face it—there was no other option. After all, I’m from Connecticut, home of two of the largest and most-profitable casinos in the world. Foxwoods’ slot-machine revenue funded some of my high-school education. My brother-in-law (I feel kind of weird writing that … let’s just call him Cortlandt) is just coming off a spring-break trip to Ireland funded by online poker. He’s a junior in college. And most importantly, the NCAA tournament was about to start. It had to be done.

I could have gone all out and bet on the games individually or put down some green (or blue or orange, depending on the denomination of bolívares) on Carolina to go the whole way. Instead, I decided to go the traditional, no-chance-in-hell-of-winning-anything route. I entered a couple of NCAA office pools.

I know, I know. You can’t win. There’s always too many people, or too many upsets you didn’t see (Vermont beats Syracuse? After that was the annual “First-round upset that people want to happen and throw in their brackets but that never actually happens”?), or too many blown calls and idiotic coaching to actually make you look smart. Despite all this, and despite the frustration of coming in the top five of Baseball America’s pool last year, with some silly first-round picks robbing me of the title (and the cash), I entered two different pools: once again into the BA pool (with one bracket for me and one for my dad and brother), and another with my father-in … er, Gary’s company.

Normally I don’t like having too many brackets, if only because there’s a dilemma on how to fill them in and how to watch the games. There are some options here, none of which are that great: you can spread out the love and change picks for each of the brackets, thus optimizing your chances (or giving yourself the opportunity to lose in various ways), or you can have identical brackets to try to win twice (and eventually crash and burn in the second round and have nothing to look forward to for the rest of the tourney). Or you can keep the same Final Four teams but change around some of the first-round upsets and early exits of the other favored teams.

I decided to spread it out this year, figuring that I needed a better chance to win some money, any money. So in Gary’s pool, I went with upsets, and my Final Four looked like this: Oklahoma State, UNC, Syracuse and Wake Forest. In the BA pool, I went with reason, and it looked like this: Illinois, UNC, Syracuse and Louisville. As you can imagine, I’m out of the suegro’s pool, but still very much in the BA tourney.

It’s funny. There’s another guy in the Baseball America pool named Brad who had the exact same score as me going into Sunday night. He had Illinois, UNC, Louisville … and Kentucky, who was playing Michigan State. With a Kentucky win, the best I could do would be second. With an MSU win, I could tie Brad for first and head straight to the tiebreaker. I’ve never cheered for Sparty and the gang so much in my life.
So now there are four people left in the BA pool, and according to the trusty computer on the BA pool Web site, all Condi's Castoff needs to tie for first is a Louisville win against Illinois. Improbable? Yes. Possible? Fifty percent possible, to be exact. If the Cardinals win, then we tie.

Then it gets interesting. The championship would be between Louisville, a high-scoring team, and UNC or MSU, both high-scoring teams. One would expect a high-scoring game. I did, and do, and put 164 points as my tiebreaker. Brad jotted down 135. For me to win some $620, all I need is a total of 150 points between the two teams. A 76-74 Carolina win, for example. An 80-70 Louisville walk over the Spartans.

That’s all I need. If only there were no Web site for this pool. If only I weren’t a bit obsessive when it comes to thinking about the tourney. If only the Cards would win Saturday night.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Where are you going? Where have you been?

Somewhere way back when this was my blog space. After sitting on the bookcase for more than a month, pinched between a ragged copy of Cien Años de Soledad and a new stack of NCAA tournament brackets, Suburban Macondo is getting dusted off and is starting anew. Let the inane blathering resume.

As most of you know, the past five weeks or so have been pretty tricky for me and Brooke. It started off great; my ex-room partner Greg swung down to Venezuela in the midst of his waiter/adventure-traveler life cycle, and off we went to Angel Falls and Canaima National Park. After seeing some stunning natural treasures and meeting some characters along the way—including Juan Carlos, the tour-package-selling, Chávez-loving, shady manager of Posada Don Carlos in Puerto La Cruz, our jumping-off point for Canaima—we were about to head to the eastern coast when I got the e-mail from Fulbright: Even though I had gone to the Embassy to explain my shift in projects, and even though they’d seemed extremely supportive, they wanted a more in-depth proposal. And they wanted me to have an adviser at the Universidad de los Andes in Mérida. And they wanted everything in a week.

So I went home and took care of it all. I beefed up the proposal, got an adviser and sent it in the day it was due. No problems. We enjoyed more Andean sights with Greg, including some hot springs up in the páramo and the beautiful hamlet of Los Nevados, and when he left I was primed to start my new project.

Then the second e-mail came. No more funding. No more Fulbright. No more.


I didn’t really know what to do. I took care of everything quickly (resigning from the program, telling them how I felt the grants were mishandled, looking for new opportunities), and last week now seems like a blur. It’s better that way. The harder it is to see the details—the harder it is to recall quickly the slights and misunderstandings—the easier it is to forget. And that’s fine by me.

Now I am starting to get sense of my life once again. Cuba in June is becoming a more likely possibility by the day, and although Fulbright now won’t pay for us to stay in a swanky hotel, we’re still heading to Colombia in a couple weeks for 12 days. Let’s be honest: If the guerillas were to take back over in Bogotá, Bush would be talking about the axis of evil of Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela. And we get to hit them all in a matter of weeks.

Aside from looking forward to traveling (we’ll also be heading to Ecuador and Peru during the summer to meet up with my buddy Doug, who recently nearly died after a terrible vomiting/diarrhea bout in his Quechuan village in the Peruvian highlands), I feel like I’m finally honing in on what it is I want out of this place. For the longest time, the grant hung over my head. Since the project I proposed wasn’t working out the way I’d hoped, I had this sense of dread about everything else I was doing, as if I shouldn’t be doing any of it. It’s hard to work that way, let alone be creative.

Now, I have none of that guilt. I began private Spanish classes today to shore up pronunciation and improve my fluency. My teacher is wonderful and has the coolest name I’ve ever heard: Her father, who is an artist but used to be a torero, as in bullfighter, worked on a farm when he was a child and used to lead cows through a nearby valley to their pasture; every day his pants would get wet from the damp morning grass, and to remember a small part of childhood that still made him smile, he named his daughter Rocío del Valle, or Dew of the Valley. She goes by Rocío. Dew.

Inspired by Greg’s insatiable desire to take on new physical challenges, I also joined a pool here in Mérida. It’s funny. I worked as a lifeguard for five years and never really enjoyed swimming laps. I still don’t. I don’t like wearing goggles, I don’t like the way my lungs feel while swimming, and I don’t like feeling like I’m out of shape, which I invariably do while chugging back in forth in a pool. But this pool, and the way I chose it, is typical of my experience in Venezuela. Our friend Katty swims at one of the university pools but told me she was switching to this private pool because it’d be cleaner. Not wanting to swim in a cesspool, and not wanting to have to take an STD test to be able to swim in the ULA pool (by the way, science people: can you transmit an STD in a chlorinated pool? I don’t think so, but maybe that means the pool is so dirty and unchlorinated that anything’s possible. Go in for a workout, come out with the clap.), I went down to the Colegio de Ingenieros and signed up at their pool. Two things: First of all, it’s about 12 yards long, maybe 15 at the most, and secondly, it’s right next to the airport. So for a lazy bum like myself, it’s great. I can rest a ton (that’s like 40 turns in a 500-meter swim) and look at airplanes landing whenever I get bored. Even funnier about the selection of the dinky swimming hole is that the other ULA pool is Olympic-sized. Think about it: 41 laps for a 500, or 10 laps for a 500. I think I’d drown in the Olympic-sized pool during Lap 2. Or at least have contracted chlamydia by Lap 4.

Finally, I’m writing again. It had to happen sometime, and now that the rest of the b.s. is cleared from my mind, I’m ready to move on and work again. The next step after Venezuela isn’t guaranteed and is totally unknown—maybe working at a Costa Rican ecotourism center teaching an after-school conservation program to local kids, maybe working on the book while Brooke acts an artistic liaison (doing whatever artistic liaisons do) to a Central American community of indigenous women. Maybe the States are in the picture, too, but only if we can find the right Latino community with which to work. Hear that, Carrboro? Ah, but that seems far off now. I think I like the distance.