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January 18, 2001

Dear World:

I realize I've been gone awhile, but I was out having fun. I went on a ski trip, got converted to snowblading, and with encouragement from friends between wine bottles number 1 and 2, I invented eXtreme Chess. And then it was back to work, work, sad sad work.

Ellis Island, October 1993
Today's unrelated photograph is from Ellis Island, New York (or is it New Jersey? They're always fighting over it), October 1993.

Most people who work in Virginia took a four-day holiday last weekend, whereas elsewhere in the country the norm seems to be a three-day holiday in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There's a story behind how Virginia does it this way, and as far as I can tell it goes like this:

MLK got rubbed old Virginny's establishment the wrong way, natch, so when the federal government instituted MLK Day, this fine Southern state said, fine, I'll see your MLK and raise it with a Confederate general or two. When that caused an outcry, an extra day was set aside for local heroes. So Friday is Lee-Jackson Day or something, and the federal govmint can have its stinking Monday. (Respect state rights, dammit.) So that's how we had a four-day break from mind-numbing work, apparently, because the Virginia legislature is still fighting the Civil War. Eh, we take our days off any which way we can, so.

Around a fireplace in the cabin on a ski trip these are the things one talks about. Right? Before we moved on to other things we wrapped this topic up by trying to top Virginia's original idea of a joint holiday. How about a David Duke-Frederick Douglass Appreciation Day? Or an Anne Frank-Leni Riefenstahl Memorial Day? The possibilities are endless.

The cabin, by the way, was great. Just three miles (4.5 km) off the Penna Turnpike, it was very comfortable. In the summer the road noise would be problem, I can tell, but for winter fun it was perfect. Four double beds (two in two bedrooms and two in a large loft area), fireplace stocked with wood (plus regular heating), bathroom, kitchen, for $21.20 per person per night? Sign me up whenever I'm itching to go skiing. Unbeatable.

You do have to drive 15 miles (about 23 km) to the state parks and the two resorts (Hidden Valley and Seven Springs) nearby, which was no big deal. The first day a bunch of us went cross-country skiing and I was happy to discover that the requisite glide is not something you lose over the years. The next day snowboarding was a bust, though (the learning curve is very steep when you're trying it for the first time anyway, and the hard surface made it worse; you need powder and a long gentle slope to get used to the feel of the thing). I thought having messed around with a skateboard would help but I was wrong. A snowboard is a lot bigger, and the day was consequently spent trying to stay on my feet and failing consistently. Turns were just hopeless.

Then I went and rented the famed snowblades and I was saved. I was delivered. It seems these things started off as short training skis and went through a number of changes in the past decade. It's not like the idea is fresh (at a Norwegian exhibit here in Washington last year I saw a pair of ancient ones in a glass case, complete with an ensemble of Arctic fur and leather; it was before the age of Gore-Tex, I can assure you), but the design has been evolving rapidly lately. At some point a few years back someone made ski boots that had these "skates" built in, and that was but one in a long line failed models, hampered by sluggishness. Then a company must have thought of keeping the short size but increasing the width and changing the shape slightly, ending up with what are roughly mini-snowboards for each foot. In fact the official name now is "skiboards," but snowblade (actually a trademark, just like Rollerblades instead of "in-line skates") has stuck. A third, less popular name is "snowskate."

Whatever you call them, though, they're a lot of fun. I'm not a very experienced downhill skier and I loved the newfound feeling of control. They don't go fast initially, but if you don't pay attention, you'll find yourself zooming down just like other skiers. When that happens, at first it seems they're harder to slow down with (less surface area to work with compared to traditional skis), but if you remember the "skate" in the name and execute a series of left and right plow cuts in rapid succession you'll do fine. I mean, I did, and I'm not very good when it comes to this sort of thing. I wanted to find the inventor and kiss him. Or her. Preferably her. Anyway.

Nights at the cabin, when not eating/drinking and discussing our favorite literary, filmic, or political subjects, degenerated into playing games -- and those too are supplied. Two guys among us are old friends who've been on many a camping trip just the two of them, and it was obvious. Backgammon had become a tradition for them during those long nights, with its attendant lingo. Every game was a challenge -- except they pronounced it Schallanjche in a faux French accent. At one point one night I caught them facing each other, one holding the board, across the fire like two stubborn mountain goats sputtering at one another, "Sch--" "Schhhh--" (and then in unison) "Schallllannnnjche!!!!" And with that they started yet another game.

Their brotherhood shone especially during Pictionary sessions. For those who don't know, this is a game where you break into two-person teams and race against the clock trying to get your partner to guess a word (or name, action description, and so on) by drawing a picture or pictures. An hourglass keeps the time. You have one minute to convey words and concepts such as "Polo," "Tying the Knot," "Peru," and so forth. Wisely, we did not team up based on spousal ties, because the game gets quite intense. And drawing well is by no means a plus. There I was, trying to put together elaborate pictorial representations while the Schallanjche dudes (who are great snowboarders and overall swell people by the way), after a few rudimentary scribbles would be guessing correctly things like "Eliminating Taxes." Grrr. Needless to say they finished ahead (and launched into another backgammon Schallanjche while we fought for second place, which my team unexpectedly won).

Ellis Island, October 1993

Monday was rainy and the slopes had been icing up Sunday anyway, so we decided to use the half day by going to Pittsburgh for lunch. I'd forgotten how close it was. We went to that one restaurant we always go to, with a great view of the city. It's called Grandview Saloon (1212 Grandview Avenue, on the South Side's cliff edge); there are a few other ones nearby, but whenever we're there we're just a tad too scruffy for those finer establishments. And Grandview's portions are huge. They had a TV suspended from the ceiling, showing a tennis match. I believe one of the players was the famously vixenesque Anna Kournikova; that's usually the case when you notice the spectators are sweating more profusely than the players.

Since we were already south of the city (and having seen the construction on the Penna Turnpike on the way in) we decided to take the alternate route back to DC, through West Virginia and Maryland. Other than a detour to see the Morgantown monorail, we stayed on the interstate. As night fell and we approached Cumberland, Maryland from the west, with everyone else in the car asleep, I saw two things within 15 miles of each other that made me wonder whether I too was asleep and in fact dreaming. The first was an actual lighthouse, with a green beam illuminating the countryside. Now Cumberland is nowhere near an ocean, so I started when I saw that, but then chuckled to myself when I crested the hill and realized it was part of a (what else in America) a church. Something called the "World Lighthouse Worshippers Headquarters," I think, didn't write it down. A bit later, a bowl-shaped skeleton loomed in the distance; turns out it's the frame of a ship under construction. The sign said, "Noah's Ark is being rebuilt here!" I swear I'm not making these up. Some interesting people must live around those Maryland panhandle hills.

I was expecting traffic jams as we got close to the city, with everyone returning from wherever they'd fled to, but the highway was surprisingly empty. We found a radio station that was broadcasting MLK's "I have a dream" speech in its entirety. As I listened to it, the "Rodney King beating/American flag burning into an X" montage Spike Lee juxtaposed with MLK's speech for the opening scene of Malcolm X was stuck in my head, though.


OK, I did say I invented eXtreme Chess over the weekend, didn't I? That came about when I remembered (out loud, unfortunately, so people once again made fun of my sponge-like brain) a comic strip where a sadistic king was playing chess using actual humans on a gigantic chessboard. When a knight would capture a pawn during the game, for example, he would actually kill the soldier playing the part, and so on. Maybe it was Conan, though I'm not a big reader of comic books, so I really have no clue. From there we somehow got to talking about eXtreme Sports, and about the snowboarder who died while filming one of those Mountain Dew commercials (he jumps off a plane, rides the skies with his board, shares his drink with some geese, that series; he burned to the ground during one of the takes, it turns out). So, by free associating, eXtreme Chess was born. It's "open source," so just like the ball game in A Separate Peace, I'll put it out there for all. Do what you want with it, and feel free to come up with new rules.

You start with all the known rules of standard chess, and come up with more. Here's what I have so far:

¶ A pawn that makes it all the way to the eighth row becomes a SuperPawn. It can then move like the bishop, and it can move like the knight, though it can take on only one of these traits within a given move.

¶ An unmoved castle can unleash a knight. The knight appears on an adjacent square of the player's choosing. Only one of the two castles belonging to each player has this power, and the player has to designate one (secretly, but in a way that can be proven later, such as a sticker on the base) before the game begins. The inspiration for this rule was the Russian Matryoshka doll, so prominently featured in the opening credits of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As many of you know, this doll has another one inside it, which has another one inside it, and so on.

¶ An unmoved King can mate with any pawn (this is done in regular Chess capture style, the same way a spider mates with and then eats the other one) and thus spawn a new Bishop. The Bishop appears on the square the King vacated to make his spawning move.

¶ If the King mates with the superpawn (for this the superpawn would have to come back to the King, obviously; see previous rule), a Queen is born. This move can only be executed after the original Queen has been captured. Since the new Queen will be a young one (a princess, if you will) she's expected to be extra springy, so in addition to her traditional powers, she'll be able to move like the knight as well. Think Zhang Zyi's fickle Jen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, if you will.

Remember to drink before you play...

Ellis Island, October 1993


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The current banner photo appeared briefly on the journal menu page last month. A non-watercolor version can be seen in an October entry (18th). It was taken in Ouranopouli, Greece, on October 3, 2000.

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