Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

I wanted to share this story with you. This column, written by one of my former college professors, was published in The Tuscaloosa News last week. Enjoy:

Where I grew up in Texas, it snowed about as rarely as it does here in Alabama. The first snow I remember fell at Christmastime when I was 9 years old. It happened to be on the same day that my 12-year-old brother and I had planned to go out and find a Christmas tree and cut it down. We didn’t know it would be one of the worst days of our lives.

Our father didn’t like the idea. He didn’t even like to decorate at Christmas. “The simpler the better" was his motto. He particularly didn’t like big trees.

As soon as my brother and I had eaten breakfast, we were ready to set off. Daddy cautioned us, “Don’t go too far, and if it starts to snow, come home immediately. And, no matter what you do, don’t get a big tree. Get a small one that you can carry. NO BIG TREES!"

My brother and I had a different idea. We wanted the biggest tree we could find. There were acres and acres -- miles and miles -- of trees just across the pasture behind our house. We knew we could find the perfect tree. In our minds, that meant not only a tree shaped just right but a huge one.

There was no such tree at the edge of the woods. So we plunged in. We looked at one tree after another -- but one would be too small, another not shaped like a perfect cone, another not covered thickly enough with needles. But we were convinced that within the next hundred yards or so we would discover the exact tree we were hunting.

Around 3 in the afternoon, it began to snow -- slowly at first, and my brother and I barely noticed. By 4, though, the snowflakes were huge -- the size of quarters -- and the tree branches and dead winter grass and fallen leaves were hidden under a white blanket.

It was at about that time that we suddenly saw the tree we had been looking for. It must have been 12 feet tall. We were so impressed that it didn’t even dawn on us that the tree was much too big to fit into our house.

We got out our hatchets and began hacking away. It was a hard job and by the time we had finally got the tree cut down, the sun, hidden behind the snowy clouds, had almost set.

My brother and I grabbed hold of the tree trunk -- and suddenly realized that, with our minds so focused on finding a tree, we had paid no attention to where we were going in search of it.

We set off in what we thought was the most likely direction home. But as the woods got darker, we realized we were lost. We went on for several hours, hoping we soon would figure out where we were. With each step, we were more exhausted and, we feared, more lost.

For the first two or three hours, we continued to drag that big tree behind us. With each step we took, it seemed to get bigger. It certainly got heavier. But the last thing we wanted to do was give it up. It was like a treasure, as valuable to us as a chest of gold and jewels to pirates. We had searched for it so long, and it was the last thing we could think of losing.

Finally -- barely able to carry it any farther and becoming more and more afraid that we could never find our way home and would freeze to death that night in the woods -- my brother and I conferred. We decided to drop the tree. It was a hard decision, but the choice seemed to be between leaving the tree or freezing.

That was around 9 o’clock. By then we were hungry (we hadn’t eaten since early morning), tired and shivering. We continued to walk, probably in circles, hoping that soon we would catch a glimpse of our home in the distance.

In the meantime, around 4:30, when the snowflakes were getting thick, our worried father had begun anxiously watching for us. As the sun was starting to set and light was fading from the gray sky, he decided to set out to find us. Our mother had started praying.

Daddy walked for what must have been miles, but he returned to the house around midnight and told Mother he had seen no sign of us.

It was a short time after that that my brother and I, utterly lost and by now losing hope of ever getting home, suddenly saw a dim, small light flash on in the distance. It must have been at least a mile from us. It could be a barnyard light, we thought, or even, we wished, a light at our home. But if it came from our home, what could it be? The light was too high up to be shining from a window, and our house didn’t have an outdoor light.

Whatever it was, though, it was a light of hope.

We began walking through the deep snow as quickly as we could. We forgot how exhausted we were. We must have walked for an hour, but suddenly we found ourselves at the edge of our pasture. We crawled under the barbed-wire fence. There was the familiar barn in the distance. We began running: past the barn, past the garden -- and then home!

Our father and mother saw us as soon as we ran into the yard. Mother grabbed us and quoted from her favorite song, “I once was lost, but now I’m found," excitedly.

And then we saw what had made the strange light we had seen in the distance, high in the air. Daddy had attached a 150-watt light bulb to the end of a long extension cord, climbed to the top of the big tree in our front yard, tied the bulb to the tip of the highest limb he could reach, 80 feet up, and turned on the light. Mother, in her joy at having my brother and me home, exclaimed that it “was like the light that lighted the world!"

The next day, Daddy went out and bought 100 strings of Christmas lights and wrapped them all around that tree. People who lived in the area said for years afterward that it was the biggest Christmas tree they ever saw.

David Sloan is a professor of journalism at The University of Alabama. Reach him by e-mail at

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Midseason Report

To some it’s crass to write about winnings, but as I set out on this one-year (and possibly more) adventure away from the working world, I vowed to be honest about what it’s like to give it a try and that means complete honesty on my financial success or failure. So here is a month-by-month rundown of my totals so far, compared to where I might be (based on the past couple of years experiences) if I had continued to work at the paper and played poker on the side.

Poker /Job + poker

July $4,985 $4,000
August $9,518 $4,000
September -$145 $4,000
October $3,660 $4,000
November $1,845 $4,000
December $2,995 $4,000

Total $22,858 $24,000

I probably won’t play much poker the rest of this month so the December figure is pretty much set. If you look at the six-month period, four of the months are below what I could expect from continuing on my previous path and only two are above it. Fortunately for me, August was a rocking month or else things would be much worse.

Now let’s luck at a few categories of poker games:

Win/loss traveling:-$895
Win/loss playing in town: +$4,409
Win/loss playing online: +$19,344

Now you can see how skewed the numbers are, and this figure doesn’t even include travel expenses, so overall I’m quite a loser traveling the tournament circuit. But that can’t be uncommon, not when you have hundreds or thousands of people traveling around and putting up $500 or $1,000 a tournament in which only 10 percent or less will cash. Most people will lose a little or a lot and a lucky few will win big. It’s the nature of the beast. So far, I’m in the lose a little category. We’ll see how Tunica goes next month.

I think, overall, this shows that it’s tough to get rich quick at this game unless you get lucky. I’ve felt I’ve played well and thought I was doing really well financially, but when I add up the numbers it’s not any more than I would have made otherwise (but I do get a lot more sleep.) And I’ve avoided that dreaded get-my-ass-kicked month as I’ve been able to stay pretty much even or better at all junctures.

But here’s the thing, I’ve had a ton of fun doing it. I have the freedom to go where I want when I want. I’ve traveled to Vegas (twice, once for almost a solid month), Atlantic City and Foxwoods and those sizeable expenses will result in good deductions when it comes tax time. In non-poker destinations, I’ve gone to Orlando, the Smoky Mountains, Philadelphia, Cooperstown and New York City. I got to work the Tennessee-Florida and Miami-Florida State football games, not to mention five games of my beloved Crimson Tide, and I got to go to Myrtle Beach to do a baseball game. I was able to do all these things in the last six months only because I can keep my head above water at poker. Now, if I can just get a book contract.

Deal or No Deal

Interesting game show coming on NBC this week where a contestant picks a briefcase and by opening other briefcases, eliminates certain dollar amounts from the possible amount in his or her briefcase. The amounts range from a penny to a million dollars. After every few briefcases are opened, a "banker" upstairs offers to buy the briefcase from the contestant for an amount less than the average prize remaining on the board. For example, the average briefcase value might be $120,000 ($600,000 in remaining prizes with five left to be opened), but he only offers $110,000 for the briefcase.

There is nothing particularly interesting about this game show other than the psychology involved and how it resembles some decisions made in poker tournaments. As more briefcases are opened, the average prize remaining often goes up because there are so many low dollar amounts in the cases. As the possible stakes get higher, contestants begin to get the urge to make a decision that is unwise based purely on odds, but which will still provide them with a lot of money. Really, it's like making a deal in a poker tournament. You're the chip leader with only a handful of players remaining and you give up a little bit to split the prize pool. You don't win as much as you could have, but you still come away with a hefty prize.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

On Writing

I admit it. I hate to write. I think of all manner of clever and witty sayings when I'm in my car or in a store, but put me in front of a keyboard and let that cursor blink at me and my brain freezes. (April, I know you know all about it too. Writing leads for newspaper stories is a bitch.)

Now I always found it reasonably easy to write a newspaper story, in general. Most of the information is already there on your reporter's notebook or legal pad, just missing a few creative touches. But when you're writing from scratch, suddenly the art of the word becomes a lot more taxing. Human word processors like Stephen King or Sue Grafton amaze me. How do they write so much in a short amount of time? It's as if their brains are wired differently.

I find it easier to bring reports to you from my travels because I'm writing from my notes. It's like being back in the newsroom. But when I'm sitting here in my chair typing on the laptop, I'm writing from scratch and it becomes much more difficult. So that's one reason I don't write as much from home.

I'm such a procrastinator that I was late with one of my columns recently. It also involved a girl, an illegal substance and a dead car battery, but mostly it was me being lazy and not writing my column several days in advance, as I should do. The column has recently taken on new life, as two of the NY Times regional newspaper group's Louisiana papers picked it up. It now runs in four papers weekly. I suppose I could post my columns on here, but it'd essentially be preaching to the choir. Most involve basic strategy, concepts I'm sure most of the readers here (all four of you) mastered a long, long time ago. Eh, maybe I'll do it anyway, you know, for shits and giggles.