Wherein I help to end smoking at the Prague Hilton…

It sounds like something out of an inspirational book, or an article on the power of social media, but it just happened to me in the last 24 hours…

The European Poker Tour is being held at the Prague Hilton, which is a wonderful hotel on the edge of Prague. It’s a 10-15 minute walk into the main town square (Christmas markets, huge trees, hot apple cider, etc). The Charles River runs immediately alongside the property. Inside the hotel is all modern chic, with an 8-story atrium in the middle, wonderful appointments, great rooms and comfortable beds. The tournament is literally in the basement of the hotel, and there’s good cheap sushi a 5-minute walk away. What else could you want?

Well, no smoking. You see, the Czech Republic hasn’t really caught up with the rest of the world on the smoking situation – there are no laws against indoor smoking. So this has been the last venue in the EPT where there’s smoking in the public areas of the hotel. So of course, everybody smokes, and it gets into the hallways, the rooms, your clothes, etc.

Last night, I finally got fed up and sent out this tweet:

My tweet to the Hilton

My tweet to the Hilton

Within a few minutes, I saw this:

Their tweet back

Their tweet back

And I thought “Sure – this is an auto-reply from Hilton. That’s the last I’ll hear about it.” Which it was, right up until I got back to my room after breakfast this morning. There was a note under my door “Dear Mr. Jones, please contact the duty manager at the hotel at your earliest convenience to discuss the comment you made on twitter.”


I mean, it’s kinda cool that they responded so quickly – I just wish the language they used wasn’t so “go to the principal’s office”. And it’s a little unnerving that they stalked me into their registration database, but what did I expect, right?

So this morning I go down and meet the hotel manager. He explains that they allow smoking because “Your people requested it.” “My people?!?! PokerStars!?!?!” Then I thought… well, we were here first in 2007, and I bet the guy who brokered the whole deal for us (a chain smoker) wanted to permit smoking, and they’ve just been doing it ever since – nobody bothered to say anything. Manager continues “We have events in here all the time where the organizers ask us to prohibit smoking in the public areas, so we do.” “Easy as that?” “Easy as that.”

I walked over to the PokerStars staff office and explained this to event manager extraordinaire Victoria “Tid” Sinclair. Tid put an email on the wires, and within a couple of hours had permission of the senior EPT management to take the request to the hotel management. The next time I came out of my room, I noticed something. I couldn’t smell cigarette smoke. I walked down the halls not really believing what was happening.

Got out to the atrium, and where there had been hordes of people smoking, constantly, every time I’ve been here, there were a few people milling around – the smokers were outside. Sure enough – two discreet but unmistakable “No Smoking” signs were posted in the main lobby of the atrium.

Even my colleagues who smoke say that the situation is far better and the newly pregnant receptionist at the cash games was particularly pleased. So I tweeted:

All better

All better

I mean, one tweet. Who knew?

The apocalypse is upon us

And it just don’t come no better than a bear…  –Steven Fromholz

Those of you who know my recent history in North Carolina know that when I moved to Asheville in 2008, I was sure I would see a bear. I mean, Asheville sits smack in the middle of a huge forested area of western North Carolina that is home to hundreds (thousands?) of black bears. We sit virtually in the shadow of Mount Mitchell (the highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi), which is basically bear heaven. Surely I’d see bears everywhere.

Now to be fair,  I’ve seen (in the wild) whale sharks, tiger sharks, shoals of hammerhead sharks, elephants, lions, and cape buffalo (one very bad-ass animal). So maybe it shouldn’t be a big deal, but there’s something about the idea that bears are living right among us that makes me really happy. So I just wanted to see one.

Fast forward three years, until I returned to the Isle of Man. I’d attend poker games, and everybody had a story about the bear they saw (including the cub that came in through Kenny’s dog-door to steal the tub of dry dog food). Tom and Brandi came across a big bear while walking their dogs at the base of Mt. Pisgah. Lisa’s friend Richard had bears in his back yard every other day it seemed like. And I won’t begin to talk about the video that Lisa took after I’d moved back to IoM – two bear cubs wrestling in the back yard of our house.

But never once did I see one.

So here I am up in Ashe County, three hours away at our family cabin. I’m headed into town for groceries, getting near Sturgills (less than two miles from the house), and there, by the side of the road, is a juvenile black bear – maybe a year old. Now bears are actually substantially more rare up here than they are down Asheville way (why, I don’t know). But there he was. Briefly. He took one look at me and my Prius, and he bounded up into the bushes. Of course, I pulled over just past where he’d been and jumped out. As I jumped out, he bounded up into the bushes again. That is, I think his curiosity got the better of him and he wanted to get a better look at whatever that big white thing was. Then either he lost his nerve, or his mama told him in no uncertain terms to get his ursine ass back up the hill into the safety of the bushes.

Visualize a bear right there

Visualize a bear right there

My first thought, you know, was “C’mon out and let me get a better look at you! I’ve got my camera right here!” But look where I was standing – a major thoroughfare through the county and up into Virginia. There are houses just a hundred yards in either direction. And more guns in those houses than I really want to think about.

So I chuckled and thought, “You know what – you just head back on up that hill and into the forest; you’ll be way safer up there and your mama will be a lot happier about it.” I’d seen him, I knew he was there, and that was plenty.

Anyway, I got to see my bear, and then he was gone to somewhere way safer and more out of the way. Kinda like catch-and-release bear sighting. Just wished I coulda got a picture first.

But he looked kinda like this

But he looked kinda like this

I met some heroes yesterday

Most of you are aware that a few days ago was the 70th anniversary of D-Day – the Allied landing at Normandy during WWII. I happened to see a tweet from the city of Asheville that a bunch of D-Day veterans had taken a bus trip up to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. They were returning yesterday afternoon, and the city asked people to show up and welcome them home. Those of you who know me know that I’m a left-leaning war-mistrusting type whose attitudes toward American military activity overseas were largely shaped by Vietnam. And I’m definitely not the flag-waving anthem-singing type.

But I thought I needed to go down and see these guys – they probably won’t be around for the 80th anniversary (even if I am).

Bus arrives

Bus arrives

I guess there were maybe a hundred people waiting at the steps of the county registrar. Lot of Boy Scouts, Army Reserve, motorcycle groups, American flags being waved. It’s not my normal crowd, but these aren’t normal men that were showing up on the bus.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Asheville – exactly the sort of weather you’d want for a such an event. It woulda been nice if the whole town had turned out, but it was only because of a random tweet that I even knew about it.

First interesting thing… the buses pull up and people start cheering. Some guy in the middle of the crowd starts chanting ‘U-S-A! U-S-A!” I thought, “Oh man – I might have to leave.” Guess what – nobody else picked it up, and he quit pretty damn quickly. Any jingoism that was present was well hidden. The men started coming off the bus, along with one or two helpers for each. Lot of walkers, wheelchairs, and oxygen tanks were being deployed. But man, the crowd went wild.

D-Day vet steps off the bus

D-Day vet steps off the bus

The vets made their way (walking, pushing, being pushed) through the crowd, and however far they went, somebody would come up to them, say a couple of words, and let them move on.


After I got a few pictures, I put the camera away and went up to as many as I could reach. It’s one of the few times where I found myself at a loss for words. So I’d shake their hand, look them in the eye, and say “Thank you.” Invariably, they’d look me right back in the eye, and say “Thank you.”

Two more heroes

Two more heroes

This is where our language comes up a bit short. They were saying thank you to me for coming out to meet their bus. I was saying thank you to them for storming a beach while a powerful army tried to kill them, while their friends died in every possible awful way around them, so that, well, so that western democracy as we understand it could continue for another while longer.

Dday soldier 04

I’m sure they were very tired; relatives and friends were whisking them away, aided by what looked like half the Asheville police department (many of whom stopped to shake the vets’ hands). But even the ones who looked awfully tired would smile at every person who approached them, and say “thank you”.

I’ve not gotten to meet many real heroes in my life, so I’m glad I took a few minutes out of my day to meet the last of a dying breed of true American heroes.

Dday soldier 05

Why I run

Yeah, I do a lot of running these days. I’ve got a plan to get in 500 miles in the interval between the 2014 D.C. Half Marathon (which I finished in 2:35:something) and the 2015 one. That’s about ten miles a week and I’m ahead of my pace right now. People say, “So you must really love running.” This is a reasonable question because (1) I do it a lot, and (2) I talk about it a fair amount, and (3) a lot of people really enjoy running.

Actually, I don’t really enjoy it.

I dread having a long run waiting in front of me today, and only slightly less tomorrow. I find all kinds of ways to put it off, though knowing in the back of my mind that I really will, somehow, get it done. And if other things (meal times, other plans) suffer, then so be it. So I usually force myself to just get the run over with so it doesn’t completely destroy the rest of my day, evening, whatever.

Lot of runners, they’ll tell you that they get a “runner’s high” – and there’s a physiological basis for that. Running (any significant exercise) releases endorphins, and they’re basically a happy drug. More endorphins released, the better you feel. Many of my running and exercise-happy friends say that they feel out-of-sorts, depressed, anxious when they don’t get their regular exercise. I don’t know if there’s an endorphin withdrawal effect, but that’s what is sounds like to me.

I just wish I got it.

But what I do know is that I love two things about running:

  1. What it makes me feel like afterward, and ongoing, and
  2. The membership it gives me into The Club

As to the first, if you’ve seen me in the last 18 months or so, and knew me before, you know about the difference. But you may not know the entire difference. For that, I present here two pictures: one of me in 1997, the other in 2013.

Lee in September of 2013

Lee in September of 2013

Lee in August of 1997 (on left)

Lee in August of 1997 (on left)

As you can see, these are two very different guys (some of my PokerStars colleagues basically refused to believe that the “before” picture was me). Since starting to run seriously, I have removed myself from the “pre-diabetic” club (an A1C test conclusively showed that my blood glucose is well into the “normal” range), dropped 30 pounds (the before/after pair above reflect more like a 65-70 pound difference), and weaned myself from anti-cholesterol statins (untreated cholesterol is also within the normal range). My sleep apnea is basically gone.

In short, I’m living a completely different life. I know I won’t live forever, but I want to get full value for the time I’m here. I’ve seen what it’s like for people who care for themselves into their later years, and those who don’t – the difference in quality of life is startling. I’ve got kids in their early 30′s and late 20′s. I’ve got nieces and nephews starting into college. I’ve got teen and tweener friends who play Words With Friends with me. And somewhere out there is a cutie-pie (a girl, until proven otherwise), probably not even born yet, who is waiting for my son and daughter-in-law to bring her home and call her their own.

Now who’s gonna take that little girl trout fishing and show her a Lester Flatt G-run?

That means I gotta stay in good shape – there’s folks counting on me. I figure I’m good for another 30 years if I do everything right and the cards fall right. Course, being a poker player, I know I can’t control how the cards fall, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to knock myself out of the game.

Now the other reason I run – The Club? Yeah, that’s the people who have pretty much bought into the situation I’ve described above. They know that we all lose the battle with time, but you can surrender early, or you can put up your best fight and maximize the value of the time that you’re given. When I’m out running and I pass other runners, we often give each other a nod, a thumbs-up, some kind of acknowledgment. Particularly those of us of a certain age, we recognize each other. Maybe we like being out here, maybe we don’t. But we are, in fact, out burning through the soles of our running shoes.

The sign in the gym says “It means doing what you know you have to do, even when you don’t want to do it.”

It’s the people who, when you whine about the 16k waiting for you the next morning, nod with understanding. They’ve been there, and they will be there again. They know how frustrating it is when your IT band gives out, or a knee hobbles you. And they’re not surprised when you describe giving a high-five to a random runner you crossed paths with in a distant city.

So for me, it’s not the “runner’s high”. In fact, you might call it the “runners’ hi”. The look in the eye of a fellow warrior, fighting a losing battle, but never for a moment considering surrender.

So I run so I can keep running, and I run because I like the people I meet out there.

That’s why I run.

Spanish lessons pay off

Without going into the gory details: my wife is living in the basement of our house in Asheville (with no kitchen), I’m living in the Isle of Man, and we’re building a second (two-unit) house on our property for rental. Once it’s done (in the next week or two) Lisa’s going to move into one of the units so she has a real kitchen and shower and stuff. I’m back here visiting and we’d just been out for dinner. We got home and the crew that was working on sanding/finishing the floors in the new place was still there at 8:00 PM. They’d gotten to the house around 9:00 this morning.

Now, it might seem a bit weird or presumptuous to think that they would speak Spanish. But I’d seen them earlier and every physical aspect of them said “Latino”. And as we got closer to the house, we could hear loud Mexican music coming from a radio and they were all singing along. In Spanish. Anyway…

I said, “Those guys gotta be hungry,” so I went over to the new house and poked my head in (careful not to step in on the newly stained floor)…

“Hola amigos – necesitais comida?”

Team leader comes over (he’s in some kind of special booties). In perfect (though accented) English,

“… I mean… nah, man, we’re fine.”

He’s trying to be polite, but one of the other workers comes up behind him and the look in his eyes has “hungry” written all over it (takes one to know one).

Me: “Look – y’all been here all day and into the evening. Let me go get you some food from McDonald’s or Bojangles or something.”

Team lead turns to other guy, “Quieres Bojangles?” I’m not exactly sure what the answer was (it was too fast) but it was clearly in the affirmative. “Cuantos trabajadores – cuatro?” “Cinco.” “Muy bien.”  Five minute drive over to Bojangles and got the “Tailgate box” – enough food for five hungry workers, a gallon of iced tea, and probably some leftovers. Furthermore, I told the manager that I was feeding some guys that had spent the whole holiday working at my house. “I’m putting some extra food in the boxes.”

Get back to the house, poke my head in. “Tengo su cena.” Team leader comes up and says, “Thanks so much – you can just put it outside the door there.” So I do and head back down the basement. Few minutes later, I see the guys standing on the walkway into the house, eating chicken and biscuits.

Could I have done it in English? Of course. But it was way more rewarding in Spanish, for sure. I mean, there’s not much to my Spanish – it’s first or second year high school equivalent. But I was able to convey a couple of thoughts in their native language and that felt like a million bucks.