Thursday, April 30, 2009

Iron man

Caught a preview of Jim Toback's new Mike Tyson documentary the other night, which I recommend. The story is told through Tyson's own words in interviews shot over several days, plus photographs and archival footage.

Tyson comes across as deeply thoughtful, which will not surprise anyone who's paid attention to him beyond headlines and sound bites. He discusses his own life without a hint of artifice, exploring his own experiences and lessons learned with a moving, riveting clarity.

He's a sympathetic character, more victim than aggressor. A childhood asthmatic and bullying victim later betrayed by many around him after the death of his early mentor and guardian, the fight trainer Cus D'Amato, Tyson has struggled in the face of constant exploitation.

Even his most notorious public moments, namely his conviction for sexual assault (he maintains his innocence) and his biting Evander Holyfield's ear in the ring, seem less extreme as Tyson offers his side of the story.

The Mike Tyson of today is quiet and philosophical, yearning and self-aware, focused on living a worthwhile life after all the users and sensationalism have fallen away.

Tyson opens tomorrow. Here's the trailer:

Monday, April 27, 2009


Did you ever notice that mother and male start with the same letter, and so do father and female?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Never a cross word

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending what I believe was Chicago's first-ever public crossword puzzle tournament, held at Marbles the Brain Store in River North.

If "crossword tournament" sounds slightly odd, it's because most people consider solving crossword puzzles a solitary pursuit, an armchair pastime, a battle of wits between the constructor and solver, a chance to learn new words or sharpen their skills. And indeed it is all those things.

At first blush, competing in a quiet pleasure activity might sound slightly odd, akin to competitive napping, movie-watching or flower-smelling. But since current New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT) in 1978, the first major crossword tournament since the 1930s, enthusiasts have gathered each year to compete in a format not unlike an open golf tournament. Anyone can enter, everyone plays the same course, and the best score wins. Thus has the competitive offshoot of the crossword experience evolved.

Most people know about crossword tournaments, if at all, from the hit documentary "Wordplay." An entertaining look at the 2005 ACPT, the movie also profiled the New York Times crossword and its many adherents: beloved guru Will Shortz, puzzle constructors such as anagramming punster Merl Reagle, celebrity enthusiasts like Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls and Mike Mussina, and the elite solvers who vie for the tournament title.

"Wordplay" was released in Chicago on my birthday, which I appreciated. A friend took me to see it after we warmed up with a game of Scrabble, dropping a bingo or two on the board (using all seven tiles, which earns a 50 point bonus) before taking in the enjoyable movie. Good birthday.

As you know if you've seen "Wordplay," the best solvers can finish a crossword puzzle faster than the person who wrote it. They're not even looking at their pencils as they write because they're working ahead, reading other clues. An elite solver can finish a puzzle of ordinary difficulty in well under two minutes. If that sounds easy, try it some time.

It happens that some crossword savants live in the greater Chicago area. This weekend's tournament was run by Amy Reynaldo, author of How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle and the 9th-place finisher in the 2009 ACPT, and Bob Petitto, a 20-year ACPT veteran and member of the National Puzzlers League.

I attended with my buddy John Cunningham, not just a good solver but a puzzle constructor in his own right. Also in attendance was Kent Brody, an attorney from Wilmette whom I recently met in Brooklyn during my first visit to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, along with a number of ace solvers I'd never met before. Twenty-some people participated, plus spectators.

It turns out we were all playing for second place, as ACPT superstar Anne Erdmann made the trip from Champaign, Illinois. Anne finished 8th at this year's Brooklyn tournament in a field of almost 700. She is some kind of crossword puzzle solver. The amazing kind.

To say she was the Tiger Woods of the Chicago tournament actually understates the case. Woods is the world's best, but he averages one or two of the possible four major titles a year, and on any given weekend he can be beaten. Last week at the Masters, for example, Chad Campbell, Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera were tied in the lead after 72 holes, with Woods a few strokes behind.

Anne is so good at crosswords that, in the Chicago tournament field, she was effectively unbeatable unless she made enough careless errors to give it away. A more apt metaphor would be that Anne was the fastest runner in a footrace, or perhaps she was Tiger Woods taking on a bunch of talented 8th graders who'd only been playing golf for a few years.

Like its older cousin, the Chicago tournament consisted of a series of rounds in which everyone simultaneously worked on the same crossword puzzle, but our local version was more streamlined. The ACPT's elaborate, computer-scored format awards points for correct words and letters, plus bonuses for speed and complete accuracy. In Chicago, the first correct finisher in each of three rounds became a finalist, and the first correct finalist would be the winner.

The puzzles in the Chicago event consisted of unpublished New York Times crosswords, specifically the Monday through Thursday puzzles from this week's newspaper, generously provided by Will Shortz. (If you need a hint, email me.) Apparently Mr. Shortz only provides advance puzzles to tournaments that are charity events; in our case, proceeds benefited the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

As you may know, the New York Times crossword puzzle is easiest on Monday and gets progressively more difficult throughout the week until the dreaded Saturday grid, which the actor Paul Sorvino calls "the bitch mother of all crosswords." The Sunday puzzle is larger but averages Thursday-plus in difficulty. It plays to a wider audience and includes easy, medium and difficult clues so there's something for everyone.

The Chicago tournament was just a bite-size version of the hotel ballroom full of people at the ACPT, but still, the field was tough. Knowing there were speedsters like Anne in the room, my strategy was to flat-out sprint through the grid. I figured spending the time to check my work could take me out of the running for a finals spot. In fact, I mostly just used the Down clues, only looking at Across clues when I wasn't fairly sure of an answer. I've done my share of crosswords and I was pretty confident that on a Monday or Tuesday puzzle my first guess would generally be good.

The bet-it-all strategy worked. I finished the first puzzle in 4:25, which was good enough for second place. Luckily for me Anne, who'd finished about a minute ahead of me, made a careless error, so my correct solution earned me a finals spot. On the Tuesday puzzle I finished third behind Anne and Kent Brody, who would have become a finalist in that round if Anne hadn't still been eligible. The unfortunate timing of her error cost him the second spot.

Before the third round, Amy Reynaldo announced that its puzzle was particularly tricky for a Wednesday, and that only by correctly following its unusual instructions would a solution be considered complete. Knowing I was already a finalist, I saw no point in racing through that puzzle, preferring to make sure I had it right. I finished in fifth place in six or seven minutes, catching an error at the last minute only by virtue of the fact that I wasn't rushing. A young guy named Jonathon Brown earned the last seat in the finals.

During the break after the third round, the room was rearranged into rows of seats with three tables at the front of the room for the finalists. Everyone reëntered, the staff distributed the Thursday puzzle to finalists and audience alike, and we were off and running.

As easily as I'd coasted through the first three puzzles, I struggled through the Thursday puzzle from the get-go. I started off on the wrong foot, filling in unfortunately plausible wrong answers and one pretty stupid guess, and eventually had to erase what felt like a square foot of pencil lead. I generally find Thursday puzzles pretty straightforward—I prefer the tough Friday and Saturday NYT puzzles, badass that I am, and usually skip the easier ones altogether—but in this case I never got out of second gear.

After what felt like forever, I eventually got it all sorted out and completed the grid in a distant third place on the clock. It turned out that Jonathon Brown's solution had a few mistakes, so just as I'd backed into the finals thanks to someone else's error, I backed into a second place finish the same way. Despite my slowness, turning in the second correct solution was good for the silver medal. Anne won it and deserved to.

Finishing the tournament error-free was a moral victory after being punched in the face by that last puzzle; coming in second was a happy surprise. Even making the finals was a bit of a fluke, but that's the way the game is played.

I knew I wasn't the toughest solver in the room and I was content that the best player won. For that matter, even though I enjoy the novelty of the tournament experience and was humbled to do well, competing in a frantic race through the grid strikes me as kind of a silly way to do crosswords. I didn't even get to read some of the clues until after the tournament was over.

I'd rather kick back on the couch or my commuter train with a difficult Saturday puzzle, take my time, dodge the traps in the tricky clues, make a breakthrough or two and eventually feel the satisfaction of cracking the thing wide open. The ideal solving experience is being pushed to the limit but emerging triumphant. Many solvers agree, remembering the first time they finished a Wednesday or a Friday unassisted as fondly as a golfer recalls a hole in one.

That to me is what it's about, enjoying a nice tough solve without using Google or a dictionary. I choose not to use any outside help, not that there's anything wrong with that. As Will Shortz says, quoting his NYT predecessor Will Weng, "It's your puzzle; solve it any way you want."

But I suppose they'd have a hard time setting up a tournament that way. What would they give prizes for, "most leisurely"?

Speaking of which, the first-place prize was a $50 Marbles gift certificate; second and third place were good for $25. Prizes also went to the eight non-finalists who'd correctly completed the Wednesday puzzle and to the participant with the best handwriting (I love that one), who each got to pick an item from a table full of Marbles merchandise. Congratulations to Anne, Jonathon, and for that matter everyone else who participated.

More meaningful than the competitive element was the camaraderie with the other participants. I enjoyed talking about solving experiences, crossword blogs and constructing resources with a room full of simpatico spirits, many of whom knew a lot more about crossword puzzles than I do. As a group, crossword enthusiasts tend to be smart, curious, well-informed, laid-back people whose company I thoroughly enjoy. That was certainly the case this weekend.

I hung around after the tournament, chatting with the staff and fellow participants and browsing Marbles' very cool assortment of brainy toys, games and puzzles. I ended up putting my winnings toward a couple of word games and an elegant brain-teaser puzzle with two interlocking metal parts.

Thanks to Amy Reynaldo, Bob Petitto and the Marbles staff for organizing such a fun afternoon of competitive cruciverbalism, and to Will for the puzzles. Everyone had a terrific time and I was happy to get a little midwestern taste of what has been mostly an Atlantic seaboard phenomenon.

p.s. Speaking of puzzle blogs, Amy writes a popular site breaking down the New York Times and other crosswords. You can find her take on the Chicago tournament here, along with comment posts from participants including yours truly.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Touch 'em all

As last baseball season headed into the home stretch, the Chicago White Sox tied a major league record by hitting home runs in four consecutive at-bats. They became just the sixth team ever to pull off the memorable feat.

Those back-to-back-to-back-to-back shots, along with further deep-drive dramatics as the season drew to a close, were all the excuse I needed to wax profound on the interesting (to me, anyway) subject of historic home runs.

In a thundering coda to the homer-happy close of their 2008 season, the ChiSox have resumed their stylish slugging. When Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye went deep back-to-back yesterday, it was the 300th career home run for each player and an elegant way for two exemplary major leaguers to mark the milestone. Teammate Carlos Quentin chipped in 2 HR of his own in a White Sox victory. Keep hitting them, boys.

Sadly, bad things also came in twos yesterday with the untimely passing of a pair of beloved ballyard figures, colorful Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark "the Bird" Fidrych and longtime Philadelphia Phillies and NFL Films announcer Harry Kalas. Rest in peace.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Every move that she makes

"Dunt, dun-a-nunt, dun-a-nunt."

If you know the tune to that phrase, you'll be happy to hear that A Chorus Line returns to Chicago this week. Indisputably among the greatest musicals of all time, it recently wrapped up its successful revival on Broadway and now hits the road.

I'm not even a big musical theater guy but I've liked A Chorus Line ever since New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois became the first high school in the nation to perform it while I was a student there. Landing the show was a coup and New Trier rose to the occasion, staging a high-quality production complete with costumes flown in from Broadway.

With alums like Rock Hudson, Ann-Margret, Charlton Heston, Ralph Bellamy and Bruce Dern (and more recently, Charlotte Ross, Lili Taylor, Rainn Wilson, Carlos Bernard, Virginia Madsen, Jim True-Frost, Adam Baldwin and my old pal Hal Sparks), our school's theater department had earned a considerable reputation. In my day the talent pool remained deep, some nurturing aspirations with voice lessons, advanced dance training and professional credentials.

To their credit, my fellow students stepped it up with A Chorus Line, blowing the roof off the place to a huge ovation. Granted, the audience consisted primarily of proud parents and easily impressed teenagers (including myself), but I still remember how flat-out excellent I thought it was. A Chorus Line was then in the midst of its record-setting original Broadway run and I bet the big kids would have liked our version.

As opening night at New Trier approached, controversy swirled around the number "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three," more commonly known by its familiar refrain, "Tits and Ass." The song was deemed inappropriate for a high school production and removed from the show. After a major hue and cry about artistic blah-de-blah, it was reinserted with the new lyrics "Swerves and Curves." Predictably, the tempest in a teapot had a Heisenberg effect as thousands of local schoolchildren, most of whom never would have seen the show either way, ended up talking for weeks about tits and ass.

Broadway In Chicago's presentation of A Chorus Line previews tomorrow evening at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, opens Wednesday and runs through May 3.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tributosaurus becomes XTC

XTC is the greatest rock band most people have never heard of. As their fans well know, the pride of Swindon, England stopped touring early in their career after leader Andy Partridge suffered a bad bout of stage fright (or, some say, a more general disinclination to spend his life on the road playing muddier, noisier versions of his intricate compositions).

Thus, few of us ever got to see XTC play live, which became even harder to do after they eventually broke up altogether. This weekend, though, we'll finally have a chance... sort of. Tributosaurus, a high-quality team of music savants dedicated to staging live recreations of the greatest rock acts of all time, tackles the XTC catalog tomorrow evening at the Park West.

It kicks off their new Signature Series, in which they'll remount the biggest and best shows from their impressive ongoing run.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Taste the flavor

A fun promotion from Flavorpill:

There's no quicker way to send winter packing than a bite of sweet, ripe mango. Inspired by the golden "king of fruits," Flavorpill joined forces with Absolut to bring you an exclusive mix of music with a tropical flavor. So savor some sunshine with these fresh cuts, and enjoy the all-natural taste of the tropics.

Listen to or download Flavorpill's Absolutly Essential Music Mix at

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Don't Dress for Dinner

Marc Camoletti, the late French playwright best known in the U.S. for the racy Broadway comedy Boeing-Boeing, also wrote a big Paris hit called Pyjama pour Six. Translated into English as Don't Dress for Dinner, the spirited farce played London's West End for seven years and toured several countries and American cities.

It's in Chicago now, playing the Royal George Theatre in a sparkling new version that's drawn enthusiastic crowds and widespread critical raves. It's an Equity production with an accomplished cast; Jeffrey Donovan (at right above) recently starred opposite Angelina Jolie in Clint Eastwood's movie Changeling, and castmates Spencer Kayden (Urinetown) and Mark Harelik (The Light in the Piazza) and director John Tillinger are Broadway veterans.

With Boeing-Boeing having played Broadway to popular acclaim and won two 2008 Tony Awards, the repeatedly extended Don't Dress for Dinner has all the earmarks of a New York transfer. Sure enough, producer Robyn Goodman (Avenue Q) is reportedly raising money for a Broadway run.

Time's running out, but you can still catch it locally before it closes at the Royal George on April 12. My Flavorpill preview is here.

p.s. As for not dressing for dinner, I usually don't either, but then I've also been known to have Cinnamon Toast Crunch for dinner, so don't model your behavior on me.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Another announcement

I'm not gay, but you could have fooled a lot of people. In fact, I did.

Yesterday was April Fool's Day. I wanted to mark the occasion by posting a prank first thing in the morning and maybe fooling a few friends before they realized it was April 1, put two and two together, said "you got me" and moved on.

I did likewise a year ago on the first April Fool's Day after I started this site, announcing that after six months I'd had my fill of blogging and was calling it quits (Enough is enough, 4-1-2008). Within twenty minutes a friend of mine called out the prank in a blog comment post, cutting short the effectiveness of the hoax but giving rise to an essay the next day about memorable pranks (Pranks for the memories, 4-2-2008).

Back to this year. I'd been meaning to come up with a good prank idea, but as of Tuesday, the eve of April Fool's Day, I still hadn't spent any time trying to think of one. I mentioned this to the date I'd brought to the opening night of Rent at the Oriental Theater. Perhaps inspired by the subject matter of the play, she suggested that I "out" myself.

Boom! That was it. Plausible, interesting, original, it would fit the bill perfectly. Plus it could be easily expressed in a few short paragraphs before work the next morning (I figured, incorrectly as it turned out, that I could only fool people first thing in the morning before they realized what day it was). I was so content with the last-minute idea that I didn't stop to consider the probably inevitable result that all hell would break loose.

There were two big differences between this year's prank and last year's. First, this year's incendiary topic. Coming out is an intensely personal decision that, despite recent social progress, remains fraught with weighty consequences. It's a hot-button issue likely to provoke strong reactions and one that many people, including me, don't consider a laughing matter.

Second, the Facebook factor. Last spring I wasn't on Facebook yet, so I just posted my 2008 April Fool's Day prank and that was that. Because some of my friends follow the blog via news readers, RSS feeds and the like, they caught on pretty quickly, but the traffic volume was in the usual range (I jokingly tell people that I write this site for literally tens of readers, but it also happens to be true).

Last summer, at the urging of a friend in California who wanted to play Scrabble across the nation, I joined Facebook. I've since learned that it is an efficient way to call attention to things online. So yesterday morning, as I ran out to catch my train, I threw a link onto Facebook. I felt like I'd come up with a pretty good prank and I wanted people to see it. Again, I didn't stop to think that this was pouring gasoline onto the fire.

Facebook-posting a link, incidentally, is no guarantee of high traffic. Just the other day I wrote what I thought was a reasonably enjoyable little essay on poker, but the Facebook link I posted didn't exactly set the world on its ear. Fifteen people or so clicked on it, which is fine. I write the site as much for myself as for others and whoever's interested is welcome to join in.

Maybe it was that I called the blog post "An announcement"; maybe it was that the short excerpt on Facebook included the words "I'm gay"; more likely both. In any case, juicy gossip being more enticing reading than the gambling habits of a gentleman degenerate, within minutes there was a whole lot of clicking going on:

human nature, graphically depicted

Even some non-Facebook types got word thanks to the enthusiastic mass-emailing of various yentas among my fellow alumni of the Northwestern University School of Law. You know who you are.

And boy, did people buy it. As much as I'd like to credit the persuasive power of my "confession," I think my friend's novel prank idea mostly did the trick, that and the fundamental decency of people. We usually believe what we're told, especially by trusted friends. I certainly do; I tend to fall for pranks too. And who comes out when they're not gay?

I'd correctly assumed it would be immediately called out by cynics as an April 1 prank. What I didn't expect was that, even as it was roundly deemed a hoax, people kept chiming in to voice their belief, offering congratulations and support for hours after it was debunked. Last year's prank ended mere moments after it started and I thought this year's would follow suit. I didn't expect it to mislead anyone for more than a few minutes.

I was dumbfounded that so many people continued to believe it amid so much discussion of April 1. Some people even said things like, "Congratulations, and by the way, it's April Fool's Day, so some people might not believe you, but way to go." I was slightly amused but mostly abashed by their insistent gullibility.

That brings me to the emotional angle I'd been too naïve to anticipate. My initial satisfaction at having pulled a successful prank was soon mixed with regret over wasting people's emotional energy. I didn't mean to put one over on people for more time than it took for them to realize it, slap their foreheads, smile and move on (this did occur in most cases). I felt bad about that but decided to hold my silence and let it play out for the rest of the day.

Beyond duping people -- which is the point of any April Fool's Day prank, but something I still felt increasingly guilty about as the day wore on -- I was taken aback by the vehement anger of a Facebook friend whom I apparently don't know as well as I thought I did. She profanely excoriated me as "puerile. offensive. beyond the pale." and further
wrote, "This post has occupied my entire day. I am an empath. If it's an April Fool's 'joke,' I am de-friending . . . and disseminating. I have been checking this page every half hour." All I can say in response is: Wow.

She has in fact since de-friended me on Facebook, which is probably for the best all the way around. Meanwhile her husband, whom I've never even met, went a step further, viciously cursing me out in a seething email. I consider his behavior more extreme than my own.

For those unclear on the concept, an April Fool's Day prank is an attempt to convince people that something is true. Its goal is not laughter but belief. It is designed to fool people, as the name of the holiday implies. My prank was not an attempt to be funny or make light of gay issues. I can't believe I even have to say this.

Gay friends of mine, actually, thought it was great. One of them, a guy I've had dinner with twice in the past two weeks, posted the following on Facebook: "Either way, this is spectacular. If it's an April Fool's joke, it's an especially good one. And hopefully no one will tell you 'I always thought so!' "

Thank you. Exactly the intended spirit of the prank. Take a lesson from a gay man, easily offended hetero couple.

I didn't anticipate anyone taking offense, but in hindsight, it was the inevitable fallout of my choice of subject matter. I wasn't worried about homophobia in my generally progressive circle of friends, but I probably should have anticipated a well-intentioned sensitivity so highly tuned that it strains to find offense.

I hesitate even to say "some people can't take a joke," which is clearly true in the case of the above two folks, because, again, that might confuse the issue. My stunt wasn't a joke, it was a prank (how about "those who can't take a joke are probably similarly unable to take a prank"?). Still, it's not their fault. Such people exist in the world and by putting it out there for all to see, I asked for it.

Could I have found a less controversial topic? Surely. Was it ill-advised? Possibly. Was it all those terrible things the two achingly empathetic crusaders said it was? I don't think so. Everyone else, gay and straight alike, responded in a way I could relate to, taking it in the intended spirit and chuckling over being fooled.

I mentioned to a friend later in the day that my prank had spiraled out of control. He asked me whether I was concerned that the big reveal, i.e. the explanation contained in today's post, might not be distributed as widely as the initial "news" (as Mark Twain observed, a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on).

That issue hadn't occurred to me, and I'm not concerned about it. If being mistaken for a gay man were a worry of mine, I wouldn't have pranked about it in the first place.

As a group -- and boy am I hesitant to generalize on this topic -- I like the gay people I know at least as much as the heterosexual people. Without a single exception I can think of offhand, they're caring, bright, educated, clever, fun-loving, successful, funny and charitable. I would be proud to take my place among them. Similarly, if you read today's post and still want to think I'm gay, be my guest.

Meanwhile, all pranking aside, the sincerity of people's heartfelt responses was real. I am deeply moved by the dozens of supportive Facebook posts, emails and phone calls I received. It is humbling that so many people care. I'm sorry to have taken you in like that.

On a like note, apologies to anyone who was offended and thanks to the (happily, far more numerous) people who congratulated me on pulling off a memorable hoax.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

An announcement

After many years of keeping this to myself, I have something important to tell you. My own blog is an appropriately personal forum for the following announcement:

I'm gay.

This will come as little surprise to those who have done the math. A single, never married, slightly elegant, highly educated, thirtysomething man who lives alone in an architecturally significant Art Deco building with a widely admired flower garden, reads the New Yorker, completes the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle and covers Broadway in Chicago musicals for an arts website... does that sound like a straight guy to you?

Others of you may find this surprising, particularly the women I've dated and in a few cases nearly married. But at some point, we have to be honest with ourselves. I don't want to go to another high school reunion pretending to be something I'm not.

I rarely write here in such intimate specifics, but it was time to unburden myself. Don't worry, soon enough I'll get back to babbling about Will Ferrell, movie previews, New York City, cultural festivals, Northwestern University, comedy in all its forms and my latest Flavorpill writeups. Meanwhile, I'm excited about starting a whole new life.

Thanks for listening.