Archives for category: Reflections

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

 

 

 

 

I turned off the television following a re-broadcast of “Schindler’s List.”  Though I’ve seen it several times over the years it always leaves me speechless for a while.

“That wasn’t much fun,” I finally said to my wife, Katie.

“There’s more to art than just enjoyment,” she sagely responded.

“I know,” I said, like a petulant child. “But who aims to torture the audience?”

We smiled at each other and said, at the same moment:  “Iris.”

 

*****

During a visit to Rhinecliff, NY last summer, our friends, Donna and Rick, invited us to join them to see an opera at Bard, the local college, where a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall anchors a scenic campus.  Though fond of classical music, I’d never attended an opera in person.  When I heard about the evening, I assumed we’d be seeing one of the anchors of the repertoire, something by Puccini or Verdi or Mozart.  Boy, was I surprised!

 

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“Who?” I said.

“Mascagni is the composer,” said Katie.

“I’ve never heard of him,” I said.

“I’m sure the opera will be enjoyable,” she said.  “After all, it’s a summer college presentation called ‘Iris.’  It’s probably a comedy.”

“That’s true,” I agreed.  Mascagni, I speculated, was probably a pop sensation in the 1890’s.  We shared a great dinner with Donna and Rick and then drove to campus. After admiring the beautiful setting and building, we filed inside.  We found our seats, the lights dimmed and the orchestra commenced an overture both melodic and romantic.

“This will be nice,” I thought.

Suddenly, the melody stopped and a discordant murmur issued from the strings.  The curtain lifted to reveal two performers, a man and a woman, dressed in rags. They appeared distraught, thrashing and wailing while hidden figures above them atop a wall ripped pieces of paper and dropped them, like confetti, on the performer’s heads.  For several moments this activity held my interest. Unfortunately, it continued for twenty minutes.

Katie and I looked at each other and fought the urge to laugh, as though we were Mary Richards at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.  (If you’ve never seen it, go to YouTube).  The “action,” if that is the right word, never changed much over the next two hours. Rags and debris, cries and moans, deaths and dismemberments.

Occasionally, the music swelled with snippets of melody, but they never lasted long.  What kept us in our seats was the expectation that relief must be on the way.   A happy ending must be just around the corner.  But, no, Mascagni had different ideas.

At intermission, during which a sizable portion of the audience departed, I read the detailed program notes. Mascagni, it turns out, had early success.  His opera, “Cavalleria Rusticana,” remains a beloved favorite to this day.  But he came to believe applause during his operas was insulting and intrusive.  Therefore, he constructed his later works to minimize the possibility of adulation.  Each time the music in “Iris” built towards conventional beauty, Mascagni brought it down with a crash.  Any time a singer appeared to be on the verge of an ovation, he or she retreated offstage to be replaced by a scene both ugly and sad.

“How did ‘Iris’ become popular?” I wondered.

It didn’t, is the answer provided by the program.  Its most recent revival was in the 1930’s in Europe when, perhaps, discordance seemed de rigeur.  Personally, I will be surprised if “Iris” is revived again in this millennium.

As to Mascagni, he was confident his new ascetic aesthetic would become popular.  He felt “purity” was a virtue greater than “beauty.”  It’s not up to me to declare he’s wrong.  Time has told the tale.  Mascagni’s contemporaries, like Puccini and Verdi, are still famous and beloved.  Beyond his youthful “popular” works, Mascagni is forgotten.

 

*****

 

Following the opera, Rick and Donna took us to an on-campus tavern and performance space.  A rock band played loudly while a mostly college-age crowd danced and drank.  Normally, this is not my scene and I would seek a fast exit.  But this time, I enjoyed watching everyone have fun.  The mood was festive.

“Sorry about the opera,” said Rick. “We had no idea.”

“No problem,” I said.  “I suffered for two hours but gained a memory to last a lifetime.”

 

 

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DISILLUSIONMENT

 

 

I wistfully recall my excitement when I visited Washington, DC on a fifth grade trip. We took a bus to the Capitol and walked as a group through its marble hallways.  Legislator’s offices were heralded on both sides by imposing wooden doors. To me the doors signaled power, purpose and prestige.  A flag or motto indicated which state’s representative was behind each door.  The vast enterprise of American democracy impressed me so much!  We were hushed and uncharacteristically well behaved for twenty or so eleven-year-olds.  When a door opened and a middle-aged man emerged, adrenaline swept through me.

“Could it be?” I wondered.  “Could I be just steps from a real-life senator?”   My classmates craned their necks.

“That was an aide to a committee,” the tour guide announced.

“Oh, just an aide,” I told myself, unimpressed.

Still, the aura of being in our seat of government was awesome.

 

*****

 

Fast-forward fifty years.  If I were to take a word association test, I would associate “Congressman” with “narcissist,” “crook” and “hypocrite.”  The personality traits “craven,” “obnoxious” and “needy” come to mind.  Of course, it’s unfair to paint with such a broad brush, just as it was naïve to perceive total greatness half a century ago.   But the aura is long gone.

For me, the first cracks occurred with the election of Nixon and the subsequent secret bombing campaigns. Attending a Quaker school during the Vietnam era compounded the daily drip of skepticism I received at home. My father snarled, “Good for nothing” or worse in response to mentions of politicians in the news.  He was even-handed in his distaste.  It mattered little whether Democrat or Republican, just as it mattered little what denomination a religious leader represented. The man called out hypocrisy when he saw it, and he perceived it everywhere.

The Watergate hearings of 1973 probably finished off whatever confidence I had had in individual politicians.  At least, I felt, the process vindicated our system.  It wasn’t fast or easy, but a reasonable amount of the truth eventually came out, and some of the bad guys were punished.

 

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Political focus dimmed during my prime working and child-rearing years in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  Following the bumbled election of 2000 I reluctantly tuned in again.  I realized I had no respect for our president whatsoever and succeeded in never hearing him speak for longer than it took to reach the remote.

When the Iraq debacle was ginned up, I resurrected my father’s reflexive disgust.  “Liar, idiot,” I said to the television, and anyone within earshot, whenever the evil vice-president or arrogant Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld appeared. I noted how smoothly their messaging evolved from “We will be greeted as liberators” to Rumsfeld’s formulation: “Iraq will be a long, slow slog.”

The night in 2003 we commenced “Shock and Awe,” my eleven-year-old son, Sam, and I were in our basement kicking a soccer ball, as was our wont.  CNN murmured in the background.  Their ubiquitous “Breaking News” noise (something they used sparingly compared to present-day constancy) alerted us to pay attention: flares, fireballs and bombs lit the sky over Baghdad.

Commentators excitedly speculated about our chance to hit Saddam Hussein directly and end the war in just one day. I was extremely doubtful there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  I believed our motivation was nothing besides Lesser Bush’s desire to outdo his father who’d refrained from sacking Baghdad in 1991.  I take credit for declaring IMMEDIATELY the only beneficiaries of the fiasco would be the mullahs in Tehran and the likes of Lockheed Martin, who produced military hardware.

Yet, I’ll admit to considering Dick Cheney’s formulation here:  “the one-percent rule.”  For him, it meant, if there was even a one percent chance Iraq had nuclear weapons, we had to eliminate them.  For me, it meant, maybe, just maybe, there is a one percent chance our military could actually succeed in changing Iraq’s regime.   I would have been pleased enough with that result, I suppose, despite my lingering sense that we were simply making Iran great again.

After a few months, it was clear to anyone with a brain (not to Fox watchers, in other words) that total, one hundred percent cynicism was warranted. My one percent of hopefulness was gone.

 

*****

 

And so we come to another round of warfare as distraction in 2018.  Shall we call it Desert Stormy?  Once again, we have a clown who declares:  “Mission Accomplished” when any objective observer knows Syria is mission impossible.  Though I harbor some hope in the ingenuity of individual humans, I question the sanity of anyone who aspires to political office.  The dishonesty and fecklessness of our “leaders” is displayed daily on cable TV.  I’m sorry to believe the ideals I felt as a child, however naively, will not exist for today’s youth.  Sad.

 

 


HOME SECOND HOME

 

 

Upon arrival at my daughter, Kelly’s new second home, I encounter scenic mountain views, fresh air, and initially, solitude. I hear rustling leaves, chirping birds and the burbling of a babbling brook. The hubbub surrounding her primary home in Brooklyn recedes. So, too, does the effect on my lower back of the as-good-as-possible three-hour drive. But is this purely paradise? Not exactly — within twenty-four hours, Kelly introduces me to the pool man, the pest man, the tree man, the lawn care man, the general maintenance man, the generator repairman and the tractor repairman. (Apologies for the anachronistic-seeming gender designations, but it is what it is.) All these men knew Kelly would be arriving, except for the last two; they came in response to the maintenance man’s call informing them that repairs were needed. Rest assured, they all have their hands out for payment.

 

*****

 

My wife and I once owned a second home. For added degree of difficulty it was in Costa Rica, a Spanish-speaking country 2,800 miles south of our then-New Jersey home. How we came to own such a property is a long story. In brief, an opportunity arose in 2003 to obtain something special. For the price of a garage in northern Jersey, we bought an acre lot atop a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Every time we thought about our acquisition, the part of the brain devoted to happy things fired neurons. We planned to build a house. We interviewed builders. We contemplated sunsets.

By early 2004 our project commenced. We’d hired a husband-wife team who’d moved to Costa Rica from California a decade earlier, herein referred to as “Tim” and “Lisa.” Tim was the builder and Lisa the designer, decorator and landscaper. We embraced several of her dream concepts that no one had before, namely: an interior garden to separate the living room from the master bedroom; a waterfall in the family room; and, a roof line that appeared to be floating above clerestory windows.

When Tim faxed photographs of the cleared lot before we even owned the property, we were thrilled.  We wondered how he had achieved this feat.   Was it pure trespassing?   Was it bribery of local officials? We chose to consider it extreme efficiency. Things are a little looser than in New Jersey, to say the least.

Each month, roughly in conjunction with the timing of our wire transfers, Tim sent photographic updates. To my surprise, construction proceeded on time and on budget. The story of our house in Playa Hermosa is NOT a horror story about being ripped off in a real estate scam. (Luckily, we turned down opportunities to invest in, among other things, a marina “guaranteed to be completed by 2005” which still does not exist. We also turned down a share of a teak plantation that might break even by 2040).

Our experience of second home ownership, initially so exciting, is a litany of little irritants, the “death by a thousand cuts,” that gradually erodes enthusiasm.  It is said: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Indeed, once completed, our house could have appeared on the cover of “Architectural Digest.” But it contained plumbing and electrical systems seemingly completed by trial and error.

The infinity pool, achingly beautiful as it led one’s eyes straight to the ocean beyond, leaked in myriad ways. Was it the plumbing? Cracks in the liner? In the tile? The pool man suggested the daily loss of a foot of water might indicate we were in a “special evaporation zone.” In eighteen months of ownership, the mystery never resolved.

We received a faxed picture of mold forming under the roof during the rainy season. “$1,000 should do the removal,” wrote our property manager. Another email told us about the irrigation system prone to being run over by the lawnmower. “Don’t worry,” wrote the manager. “It’s only a few hundred…every few months.” The front gate, a wrought-iron creation by a local artist, looked beautiful. If only it operated without repair for more than a few months at a time.

And the staff, oh, the staff. It included: one property manager, two rental agents; a succession of lawn companies; a “weed man;” two pool-related teams, one to maintain the water quality and one for structural matters; a “gate man;” a cleaning crew; and, an irrigation manager. If only it included an irritation manager.

 

*****

 

For a year or so, we experienced our adventure as originally planned. We visited often, hosted friends and family, and reveled in how different it was from our humdrum existences at home. But the sheer weight of aggravation and complication wore us down. To defray costs we occasionally rented the house to strangers.   After damages wrought by a large percentage of such people my outlook soured. For years afterwards, I referred to tenants as “a lower form of humanity.” Only time and large security deposits eventually restored my mood.

We put the house on the market and sold in October 2006 for a windfall profit. What geniuses we appeared to be! The worldwide real estate market sputtered to a standstill shortly thereafter. But we weren’t clairvoyant, just exhausted.

Kelly is still in the glow of new second home ownership. We hope it never wanes. But experience sometimes outweighs hope. For my part, I now enjoy visiting OTHER people’s second homes.

 

 

 

 

 


ELECTION NIGHTMARE

A number of readers have expressed surprise the election has not figured prominently in my writing. The reason, I suppose, is the subject is like a slog through a swamp, and the prospect of voluntarily wallowing in the muck for several hours is not appealing. Nonetheless, since I find myself awake at 4 a.m. with despairing thoughts bouncing through my head like ping-pong balls (a much more enjoyable subject) this blog post is not actually voluntary. I hope it will prove cathartic.

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*****

In the words of Richard Nixon, let me be perfectly clear. I don’t “like” Hillary Clinton. It’s not that she’s ever done anything to me personally. And, of course, I’ve never shared a meal or a conversation with her. She might be “likable enough,” as Obama once conceded.

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The problem is her shell, though hardened as an understandable reaction to thirty or forty years of attacks, presents as a lawyerly dissembling that disturbs me. Something is off. Something is amiss. When the circus that defines the Clinton’s comes to town, I find it exhausting. Oh, how I’m going to miss “no-drama Obama.”

But what I feel towards her opponent is an emotion so far from the blandness of “not liking” as to be irreducible to words. After “detest” and “loathe” and “abhor” I’m not sure what else I can conjure.   The language needs something stronger to express the feeling of despair, of embarrassment, of shame that he engenders.

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I am not a low information voter. Unlike many Americans, not only do I know that each state has two senators, but also I know the names of ours in North Carolina. Faceless factotums (lackeys) they may be, but Burr and Tillis they are.

I’m not ignorant like some coal miners who believe the charlatan when he says he’ll bring the jobs back. Anyone capable of deductive reasoning and/or of resisting fraudulent come-ons knows it is plentiful and cheap natural gas, not “Obama’s war on coal” that has consigned their careers to the slagheap of history.

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I’m not ignorant like some assembly line workers who believe the charlatan when he says their industries will return. Clearly it is the inexorable march of technology, not governmental policy that is primarily responsible for the elimination of their positions.

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It’s not so much contempt as pity and sadness that I feel for those who can be so deluded, who can be manipulated to vote against their own interests. Sure, lowering corporate tax rates will help the working poor. Haha. Very funny.

I reserve my contempt for those who live behind country club gates yet perceive themselves to be under siege. I despise the ones who enjoy social security, Medicare benefits, mortgage-interest deductions, corporate and government pensions yet cheer and aspire to the avoidance of taxes. Even worse in my estimation are the forty-year-olds, the parents of young children, who have daughters, who profess to want “change” above all, and will vote for a pig, a misogynist, a groper.

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I’m among the segment of voters, said to be between two and six percent, who believe the environment is the most important issue. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, the earth is special, it’s unique and it’s all we have. Caring for it, preserving it, restoring it is vital.

America should be and could be leading the way in resolving this issue. Clean, inexpensive, sustainable power should be a win-win for society, even for all of mankind. Creating profits and jobs while improving the environment are not mutually exclusive concepts.

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Republicans breathe air. They drink water. Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts. How did this issue become partisan? For some reason, probably after significant focus-group polling of low information voters, the same group of propagandists who denied cigarettes are unhealthful has been busy mucking up the truth. Their candidate professes to believe climate change is a hoax. On this rare matter, I take him at his word. He wants to eliminate regulations; he will withdraw from the Paris Accords just entered into by 190 nations.

To those who choose to ignore the scientific consensus I can only ask: Do you ever look at a sunset? Do you listen to a bird sing? Do you appreciate the majesty of a large tree, other than as an obstacle on a golf course?

*****

If I did not care about the environment in particular, the issues of education, basic human decency, women’s choice, gay equality, efforts to promote gun safety… all of these would be sufficient to make me vote for Hillary Clinton. The alternative is too appalling. (Again, I’ve failed to find a word strong enough to express my disappointment if she loses).   And if she happens to be impeached for whatever sins she has committed, real or imagined I’m okay with that. No problem! What the country might truly enjoy, and what might help me sleep again, would be several years of Tim Kaine, whoever he is.


RECENT IMPROVEMENTS

 

The election season shows the value and even the NECESSITY of such technological advances as the DVR and, in its absence, the humble mute button.

 

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Thanks to them I have not yet endured the entirety of a single political advertisement. I began to ponder what other developments in the last quarter century have improved my life.

 

The first two I thought of are in the realm of food, namely: seedless grapes and watermelons. I’ve found the latter may represent a sacrifice in terms of sweetness but, overall, still an improvement.

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GPS devices strike me as wonderful products, helpful without a downside. In a low-tech sort of way, “Post-it” notes are helpful.

 

Unknown-2.jpeg At the other end of the spectrum are personal computers. A related development that strikes me, at least, as ambivalent, is the smart phone. Do they make life better? Or is constant connectedness a scourge?   Doubtless they are convenient, but they are also intrusive and dangerous when viewed in the context of distracted drivers or pedestrians.

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I can’t think of a downside in caller I.D., unless one misses the frisson of suspense in picking up a telephone “unprotected.” For me, Facebook and its ilk are in the “mixed blessing” department. I recognize the joy of those who “stay in touch” with their thousand closest friends. I even succumb myself every week or two just for a peek. But at the risk of sounding like a hopeless curmudgeon, after five or ten minutes the vapidity sends my finger to the “X” button. Still, I admit it’s an easy way to KIT.

 

Doubtless there are thousands of other developments, big and small, that were barely imaginable when I was a child, that now improve my life. I’ve not even touched on the realms of medicine, science or transportation.   Some readers may view hover boards as modern miracles. How about mountain bikes? High-end tennis strings? Yoga pants?

 

I invite readers to weigh in on the most important developments they enjoy. But for the next two weeks, I’m satisfied to have my mute button and a DVR.

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As of this week, we are homeless.  This is not in the desperate sense that we are living in a box under an overpass, but we no longer own a home.  We sold it several days ago and are living in a room at a friend’s inn for the next several months while our new townhome is constructed.  We chose to live at the inn because it allows us the total flexibility we need in terms of moving out.

 

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This wrinkle on the American Dream appeals to me.  Essentially, in the highway of modern life, we are parked temporarily on the shoulder.  My wife, Katie, is skeptical, but I strive to point out the myriad ways in which this brief break from responsibility is refreshing.  Much of the enjoyment, for me, is due to the absence of bills, including, but not limited to, the following:  water, sewer, electric, gas, trash, maintenance, landscaping, mortgage, taxes, insurance and homeowner’s association.

Selling this concept to Katie took a positive turn when she looked around our graciously appointed temporary home, and noted:  “If this bedroom were in Manhattan, we’d be paying thousands of additional dollars each month.”  Indeed, big city dwellers would look at our present situation as the lap of luxury.  Still, I admit, in many ways, it isn’t easy to give up that big, high-ceilinged slice of suburbia.

 

*****

 

We’d bought our house in Chapel Hill in early 2007.  Coming from New Jersey, North Carolina real estate appeared to be half-priced.  The prevailing mentality at the time was: “the more house you buy, the more money you’ll make whenever you choose to sell.”  While that may still (or once again) apply in locations like Manhattan or San Francisco, one is ill advised in much of the country to invest in a single family home with an eye towards making a hefty profit.  At present, a house is a place to live, not a gushing oil well.

 

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Marketing our home turned out to be challenging.  While the local market is “hot,” the golf community containing our former home is decidedly cool.  Whether or not related, demographics, the economy, and the decline of Tiger Woods have curtailed the cohort of buyers clamoring to hear the thwack of clubs in close proximity.

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Also, as the sensation of the reality show, “Tiny Homes,” attests, enthusiasm for six bedroom homes is in decline.

th-2.jpeg   We gradually changed our listing from six to five to four (!) bedrooms to garner more traffic.  Two of our bedrooms became “Flex study” and “Flex bonus room,” respectively.

The biggest factor in selling a home, as every real estate agent repeats, is price.  Following an exhaustive study of the local market our Realtor originally established a price that made complete sense – about ten years ago.  After only a month, and virtually no showings, we agreed to lower the price substantially.  After another month, we lowered it again and, as noted above, began to lower our bedroom count.  We could not affect the square footage and other attributes, however.  One prospective buyer noted, in what may be a first in real estate history:  “House has too many bathrooms.”

 

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*****

 

When our agent suggested a third, major price reduction, we balked.  It’s not (entirely) about the money (really, it’s not); we just felt if no one looked at our house, no one could possibly fall in love with it.  We needed traffic and some way to distinguish our house from the hundred other homes on the market in our community.  Thinking back to a tried and true New Jersey tactic, I suggested the following to our Realtor:  “Instead of lowering the price, let’s offer the selling agent a $5,000 bonus.”

“Oh, I can’t do that,” said our agent.  “It just feels icky.  Agents might show the house for the wrong reason.”

The reader can insert the most profane response imaginable to cover my thoughts at that moment.  Still, it being North Carolina, I responded politely:  “Well, I’d appreciate if y’all would just give it a little try for a week or two.  Let’s see if some folks’ll actually come out and see the house.”

 

*****

 

During the next two weeks, our house had eight showings, double the number from the two previous MONTHS combined.  Two couples came back for second showings and then fell over each other to schedule third showings on the same day to make offers.

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The passive-aggressive in me could not resist asking our agent:  “Do you think the bonus has had an effect?”

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “I think the price reductions have just finally sunk in.”

Whatever.  Readers can draw their own conclusion.  We contracted to sell to a couple who, I’m informed, prefer our community’s golf course to the one where they presently live.  Also, the gentleman is a toy train buff who will enjoy the 2,680 square foot basement for a major installation.  And what of the $5,000 bonus?  The buyer’s agent chose not to take it due to the “awkwardness.”   Instead, she suggested we use the money to bridge the gap between her customer’s offer and our counter-offer.  I LOVE these classy, unsullied southern real estate agents!

*****

I’ve assured Katie I won’t want to live in a furnished room forever.  After a few months, I’m sure I’ll be ready to ease back into the traffic jam of residential real estate.  But following thirty consecutive years of homeownership, and the recent stresses of selling, I’m happy to take a break.


GAMBLING

 

We didn’t win the Powerball last week. I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this if we had; I’d be meeting with lawyers and accountants and, possibly, plastic surgeons.   The fact that we even played is unusual. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool realist in such matters and never indulge in the awful odds of a lottery. But my wife, Katie, insisted we participate in the vast national hullabaloo and contributed $20 to the cause. Every cell of my body knew we were wasting money, but I have to admit I spent several seconds considering how wonderful it would be to have her tell me “I told you so” for the rest of our lives.

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The trajectory of my gambling career is modest. It reached a peak with my first effort, at about age 18, when I won a then-lordly sum of $50 at roulette in the newly opened Atlantic City. So enthused was I with this windfall that I briefly pondered gambling trips as a regular activity. Over the next several years, however, my one win receded into the mists of memory, never to be repeated. My losing streak now measures fifteen-twenty well-spaced efforts over nearly forty years.28978733

Only once did I approach gambling with a systematic plan to win. When I was in my forties and had some time and cash available, I accompanied Katie on a visit to Atlantic City during the State teacher’s convention, where she marketed an educational book she’d written. Though I spent several hours with her, manning a booth at a book show, I also spent an afternoon at the roulette table. I’d read several articles about the strategy of “doubling up,” and I looked forward to my assured success.

Doubling up involves placing a bet not on a specific number or numbers but on the color black or red. There is nearly a fifty percent chance on each turn of the wheel landing on black or red, except that there are also two green slots on a roulette wheel. The latter afford the casino their near-six percent advantage. For my purposes, however, I viewed my chances on each spin of the wheel as fifty-fifty, and I felt confident that if I lost $20 on the first try, I could move my bet up to $40, then $80, etc. Surely I would win eventually and then start over at $20. After six wins, for instance, I would be ahead by $120. The betting would not be exciting, and would not reward the superstitious selection of family birthdays or “lucky numbers” or any of the other “strategies” that people employ to play roulette. But VICTORY would be mine. Accordingly, when I started, my wallet contained $1,000 in twenty dollar bills.

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Feeling smug as I walked several blocks from the convention center to the casinos, I thought to myself: “How foolish real gamblers are. I might be the only one with enough discipline to make certain I leave with more money than when I arrive.”

Not wanting to loiter long on Atlantic City’s less-than-inviting streets, I entered the closest casino. To me, they are interchangeable, with the same garish décor, noise and smoke. In retrospect, I hope I didn’t patronize one of Trump’s but, at the time, it made no difference to me.

I walked past the clanging slots area, where guests deposit their money as fast as possible into machines aptly named “one-armed bandits.”

 

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I continued past the blackjack tables with players deep in concentration, confident beyond reason, in my opinion, that they will outsmart the dealer and the cards. Past the craps table, I continued, amazed at the hopes fixed on players’ faces, most destined to be disappointed. Finally, I found the roulette wheels, a relatively quiet oasis.

I observed several rounds before I traded my cash for $20 chips. $1,000 makes a satisfying pile of chips. I felt like a real “player,” and yet, I knew that I was more than merely playing. I was there to make money.

Three or four people at the table selected their favorite numbers with looks of concentration completely out of proportion to the likelihood their “choice” would be advantageous. In fact, I knew, there was no way to “beat” a roulette wheel except through my strategy, the impersonal, unemotional, but patient doubling up.

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Finally, I waded in. I looked forward to watching my pile of chips grow, however slowly. I put $20 on red. Around and around went the wheel. It landed on black. I lost. No problem.

I put $40 on red. I wondered if house management would eventually tell me to leave the table, after they realized my strategy couldn’t lose. The wheel circled. Black again. Okay.

 

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I put $80 on red. I felt pity for the players around me as their hands hovered in indecision over one number or another. I was free from such mental anguish. Geez, it landed on 00, a green space. “What are the chances?” I said to myself, though I knew they were one in nineteen, and shook my head in commiseration with several other players, losers all. After all, no one’s birthday is 00. The dealer, a young Asian man, wiped away my chips again.

I put $160 on red. “This is going to take longer than I’d hoped, but it’ll come around,” I thought to myself. The wheel landed on black again. Now, several of the people around the table were looking at ME with pity.

I counted out $320 in chips and placed them, with a sigh, on red. Even the dealer broke his stone face and established eye contact with me. He spun the wheel. “Did he think me a fool or a wise man?” I wondered, as the wheel circled. It stopped between two numbers, a red and a black, the needle perched for a long moment between them. It settled, agonizingly, on black.

Having now lost $620, in order to continue my strategy, I would have had to bet $640 on the next spin. I couldn’t do it; my nerve had receded along with my pile of chips. I put one lonely $20 chip on red. Against all rationality, I decided I had to break the losing streak, somehow. Yet, my mind was also torn. If I won with a $20 bet, I’d only earn $20 back in winnings. I’d still be $600 behind. I almost hoped to lose. Such cognitive dissonance! I lost.

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*****

 

Feeling both foolish and, now, morose, I continued up the sequence to $40 and $80, losing again and again. I started over again, at $20, and lost three more times. Only $280 remained from my original $1,000 and the wheel had landed on black eleven times in a row. The chance of that happening, I calculated, was one in 2,048.

Now, I realize the chances of each individual red or black spin, like a coin flip, is one in two. But my mind began to fixate on the CERTAINTY that my “luck” was bound to change. The wheel could not, the now resurgent irrational part of my mind insisted, land on black again. I placed my entire $280 collection of chips on red. The dealer spun. I took a deep breath. I lost again.

A one in 4,096 set of circumstances had occurred to cost me an even $1,000. I refused to look at the dealer or the other players as I trudged out of the casino.   I didn’t know if I felt more stupid or more unlucky. Either was bad. Katie was sympathetic. “Well, at least you had fun,” she said.   “Didn’t you?” she added, hopeful.

I shook my head. “There was nothing fun about it,” I said. I admit now, fifteen years or so later, that I only owned up to having lost $500. When she reads this, she will learn for the first time that the loss was $1,000.

*****

Other than a couple of near instant losses of $10 in slot machines, I am fully reformed. Since I want intelligent analysis to dominate my financial decisions, I don’t gamble. My money is invested in SAFE places, RATIONAL places, LEGITIMATE places, such as the stock market. Hmmmmm.