The House Always Wins

BXP52482“I mean, really… I don’t understand how people develop gambling addictions.” I said simultaneously pulling the lever on a noisy, flashing slot machine and taking a sip of my free cocktail inside the casino of the MGM Grand. “Seriously, who would want to throw their hard-earned money away on a game where the deck is stacked so strongly against them?”

“It makes only good sense to me to play a little with some money that you don’t mind losing, have a little fun while doing it… and if you happen to win… all the better… and if you lose, oh well. It was expected.” I continued to chatter on while mindlessly pushing the minimum bet button on another machine. “It’s all about having fun without losing control, ya know?”

Thus, Lee and I continued on this way, sipping rum and tequila, hopping from machine to machine, casino to casino placing minimum bets and watching our money go up and down. We won some, we lost some. Playing conservatively was fun because we got to continue gambling and enjoying free adult beverages without feeling like complete degenerates on the verge of losing the house, the car, the boat or the very shirts off our backs.

Energized from the free-flowing booze, neon lights and Billboard Hot 100 music pumping overhead, we carried on, never giving a single thought to the 21 straight hours we’d been awake. I was feeling pretty good, enjoying the Vegas vibe and feeling rather prideful that I apparently had the keen ability to “gamble” without falling prey to its fabled, seductive qualities.

And then I saw it.

There in the distance—like a shimmering oasis in the desert—standing high above the other slots and table games was THE machine. The Sex and The City slot with its fluid pink neon and sparkling diamond marquee called to me. “Ooo!” I shrieked “I HAVE to play that machine. It’s fate!” (I was obviously not yet aware that these machines were ALL OVER Vegas. I saw it as a sign that I’d spotted it at all and thought it MUST be the only one.)

I slid into the luxurious, leather seat and pushed a fresh 10 dollar bill into the slot. The minimum bet was a quarter… which I tried and had no luck. So I increased my bet to 50 cents—increasing my odds either way. Still I had no luck. So I took a big chance by betting a full dollar and Ding! Ding! Ding! I hit some sort of “win” because the numbers in my balance kept flying up, up and up right along with my excitement and adrenaline. Mr. Big was talking sweet to me now!

Before I knew it I had turned that $10 into $85. Now I realize that’s a small win for all you real life gamblers out there, but it’s a BIG Win for this Vegas virgin. For it was then that a peculiar thing began to happen. A massive struggle started to take place in my brain. The ”sensible” part of me thought: “You just turned $10 into $85 dollars by sitting on your @$$ and pushing a button!! CASH OUT, CASH OUT, CASH OUT and take the money! You made a PROFIT tonight. See the cashier, gather your winnings and put it in your wallet now! You’re AHEAD!!”

But the “other” part of me… the part that was dizzy from adrenaline and blinded by the blinking lights and Mr. Big’s sweet nothings in my ear thought things like: “But what if you kept going and made MORE? What if you’re sitting here and on some sort of hot streak! Keep going! Imagine if that $85 were $400!?!”

I allowed myself to free fall blissfully and carelessly into the world of What-If. And I pushed the button again. And I lost a little. And I pushed the button again. And I lost a little more. And I pushed the button again. And I lost a little more. It was at this point that I set a limit for myself. Fifty dollars. I would NOT allow myself to dip below $50. Fifty dollars was still a nice profit considering.

Until I GOT to fifty dollars. And I didn’t want to stop. $50 wasn’t good enough anymore. I once had $85. I HAD to get back to $85. I COULD get there again. All I needed was a little more luck. So I pushed on and kept playing and kept losing. I dipped below my own “red line” and now there was no going back. A ritual had begun to develop in the ORDER in which I placed my bets. I felt a little queasy when my balance fell to $20.

“I can get it back! I can get it back!” One side of my brain started chanting as I frantically continued pushing the buttons. “You HAD $85 at one time you miserable loser! GET OUT NOW!”  the other side shouted back. And then I knew. This was exactly how “IT” happened. “It” being the reason why otherwise sensible people quote: “Throw their hard-earned money away on games where the deck is stacked so strongly against them.” The house is SUPPOSED to win. This whole grown-up playground here in the middle of an otherwise giant, vacant sandbox is DESIGNED to win.

Throughout the remainder of my Vegas vacation I would learn to love blackjack —  winning some and losing some. I would toss around phrases like “Bad Mojo” and “Good Juju” as though I had used them all my life. I would play swim-up blackjack at the pool with a bunch of rowdy kids from LA… later drying off my chips from a winning turn at a table that had “good vibes” and spend much of my wedding night parked on a stool in New York, New York playing video blackjack.

In case you’re wondering… I eventually walked away from the Sex and The City slot with $45 that first night… a bit more wary of the allure of friendly wagering and with a bit of an adjusted attitude and a healthier appreciation toward the seductive qualities of that twinkling oasis in the desert… And I absolutely cannot wait to board the next nonstop flight back out there.

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The Miserable

the miserablePlans to dine at the charming French bistro had been made since the trip was set into motion over 2 months ago. Lee’s friend is a chef who’s vacationed on Hilton Head Island since childhood, and he’d given the place his trained culinary stamp of approval long before our hotel was ever booked.

But there were simply too many things to see and do on our last day at the beach and I had waited too long to eat and was feeling weak and nauseated. I needed some crackers and Sprite STAT to settle my stomach or else I feared I would not be able to enjoy the epicurean delights of the wonderful little estlablishment where we had just been seated.

I looked up at the waiter with great desperation and even greater embarrassment as I asked him to bring me those items as soon as he could…. “I want to enjoy this wonderful food, but my stomach is a little off I’m afraid… perhaps some crackers or rolls and a Sprite will help me feel better. The menu looks amazing! I interjected a little over-dramatically so as to compensate for my poor form as I removed my silverware from the elegantly-folded napkin.

As I mowed through the French bread and sucked on the Sprite like my plane was going down and it was indeed my final meal, we began looking around the restaurant and noticing how much older the other patrons were. We were easily the youngest people in the place by a robust 40-year age gap. Small tables of white-haired octogenarian couplets dotted the entire space. The men all were impeccably dressed in tidy sweater vests and the women carefully wrapped in fancy scarves secured with decorative pendants. They sipped their wine or coffee, making sour faces and taking infant-sized bites of their food.

The place was small and quiet and the interactions of our fellow diners were easy to see and hear what with our youthful, 30-something eyes and ears and whatnot. And every table (TRUST ME — we kept track) had some sort of a complaint to register. It was too cold, they didn’t like their souffle, the table was placed in too conspicuous of a spot (I am not making this up), they wanted to be seated by a window, parking was too far, they couldn’t understand the French waitress’s English, the lovely young lady at the next table was eating her bread too fast… blah, blah, blah… blah, blah.

With each grievance filed, Lee and I would exchange glances that quickly evolved from wide-eyed stares to stifled snickering and silently-mouthed OMG’s. We knew we were  in an area largely populated by white, wealthy, retirees with an obsession for golf — but had not yet encountered such a situation as this. Needless to say, we felt a bit out of our element amidst the disgruntled frosty-haired, Cadillac-Lincoln-Buick Bunch.

“I don’t want to be like THAT when I get old!” I declared to Lee after our entrees arrived.

“Like what?” he said, drawing out the “uuut” in what with a cheshire grin, goading me.

“You know… All ‘irritated’ and ‘grumpy’ and ‘complain-ey’ and ‘demanding’ and full of ‘special needs’ and ‘specific requests’ and what-have-you” I said in return with great animation, abusing the use of air quotes the entire time and completely ignorant as to the reasoning behind his ever-growing curious smile.

You don’t? he asked slightly sarcastically, raising one eyebrow and directing his gaze toward the empty bread basket and trail of crumbs that led all the way across the table and stopped… immediately in front of my plate. “Oh, by the way… Here comes our waiter… do you need another Sprite?

Damn.” I said aloud as the irony of what had just transpired hit me right between the eyes. “It’s too late. It’s already happened. I am apparently already one of ‘those’ people. And as soon as we get back I should trade in my sporty little Pontiac for a boat-sized Buick and hit the links. By the way… don’t you think it IS a little cold in here?”

Judge Not Lest Ye Be… Messy

SCSSA crumpled Wendy’s bag on the floor of the front passenger’s side, a coffee-soaked napkin in the cup holder resting innocently atop sticky, stray coins mingled with toothpicks and straw wrappers and a Starbucks pastry wrapper pinned beneath the snow brush on the floor of the backseat told me all that I needed to know.

As someone who thrives on neatness and order, I used to be quite judgmental of people with messy cars. And let me be a bit more specific by stating that when I say “used to be” I mean like… a month ago.

But climbing into my driver’s seat yesterday morning to the aforementioned scene caused me to realize that I am, indeed, one of THOSE people. That’s right. I, myself, am hereby (or at least for the time being) a Messy Car Person.

In my past life, I wondered how on earth it was possible for people to ride around in vehicles with muddy floor mats, cluttered backseats, unidentifiable schmutz on the interior and random cheerios strewn haphazardly about or ground deeply into the carpet.

I marveled at others’ abilities to travel from A to B all the while overlooking such sins as dirty clothes, fast food wrappers, wrinkled bits of note paper and empty beverage cups. I mean, it’s a CAR… not a closet or a kitchen or a GARBAGE CAN! Thus, it is with great humiliation and shame that I admit… I now stand among them.

HOW did this happen? You might ask. Someone once so fussy has now just given up!? Am I merely a modern version of Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout who would not take the garbage out? Well. It’s not quite that simple. Or maybe it is. I’m not sure. What I DO know is that I got busy. VERY busy.

I know I’ve already touched on this but I started a new job that occupies me greatly with its lengthy commute and wicked learning curve. (Not that I’m complaining… because I honestly LOVE IT!) And I started taking a class. That has actual homework. So apparently I went from having oodles of time for the luxury of tossing out the trash… to not… having that luxury.

That’s it. That’s all I got. It’s the only excuse I can come up with. Busyness. I don’t want to admit that I’m lazy or dirty or slovenly. I think I’m just busy at the moment. At least I hope that’s all it is. Hopefully it is a fleeting thing and one day, when life begins to flatten out, I’ll be Little Miss Clean Car again — looking down my perfect little nose with great disgust in heavy judgment of the Messy Car People once more.

And all will be right with the world.

Responsible Non-Parenting?

Biologically speaking I’ve not been dealt the winningest hand when it comes to reproduction. I’ve known for many years that children are most likely not in the cards for me. And even though it has, at times, been a bitter pill to swallow… I’m coming to terms with it as time goes by.

I’ve begun to think of myself as a non-parent, both now and for always. So it caught me by surprise to be recently asked by my physician whether or not I plan to have children anytime soon. Looking ahead to a wedding and a marriage, I suppose it was a perfectly reasonable question to answer.

But before I answered his question, I asked one of my own. “Look. I am staring straight down the barrel of 38.” I said very matter-of-factly as though he wasn’t already aware of my “advanced age” as he sat there staring at my crow’s feet with my chart and entire medical history in his lap. “At what age does it become irresponsible for me to have a child, Doc? How old is too old?”

He looked at me, slightly taken aback by my inquiry. After a brief, awkward pause he launched into a mini-sermon about how many “less than ideal” mothers are out there raising children. Some of which are very young, very immature or who lack the proper resources to care for a child. And if I am even questioning my age as a potential concern — then I am exactly the type of “responsible” person who should be having children if I wished to do so.

But you see that’s just it. I’m not sure whether or not I “wish to do so.” Biology aside, I’ve considered myself a non-parent for so long that I’ve become rather attached to the lifestyle. You know the one. It includes (but is not limited to) sleeping in, watching what I want on TV, eating meals that are not square, taking trips whenever and wherever I want to and having exorbitant amounts of “ME” time during which to ponder potential world domination.

I have watched as my friends disappear—one after the next—into the matrix of motherhood. I stand at the edge watching them dissolve into the mystical world of two a.m. feedings, car seats, play dates, Sippy cups, Cheerio containers, sleep deprivation and constant sitter hunting. And it scares the crap out of me.

My mother (along with just about everyone else) tells me that it is different when it’s your own and I’m sure that it is. But perhaps it is not only more “responsible” of me, but truly best for all concerned parties if I were to stay right where I am—on the outside of the Mommy Matrix—wrapped up in my down comforter with the remote, some travel guides and a really, really good bottle of wine.

Breaking Bread (or Beignets) in New Orleans

Technology has, undoubtedly, shrunken our world. Day after day, year after year our world grows smaller and smaller as the opportunity for simultaneous, spontaneous and continuous interaction grows larger and larger. It is no longer an accomplishment of note to be “in touch” with others all over the globe 24/7.

But I believe that no matter the amount of unbroken digital and virtual contact we may have at any given time — it will never replace the genuine sense of community and closeness that can only be derived from the good, old-fashioned practice that is the breaking of bread.

A little over a week ago I had the rare privilege of contacting someone who has—over the course of the last year—become a close virtual friend. I “met” Paige here on WordPress when we both began blogging around the same time last summer. Our stories almost mirrored one another in a way that only happens once in a great while… and a kinship was formed.

Lee and I made a rather snappy decision to head south to New Orleans one day and with my bag already hastily packed with the most humidity-friendly garments I could find… I was emailing her the very next. She called me when I was somewhere between Montgomery and Mobile and we made plans to meet for lunch in the French Quarter the day after next.

I was still absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the very unique Crescent City when I heard a small voice behind me calling out my name. Pictures can only do so much to help identify a person and in a Sunday afternoon crowd in Jackson Square… it can be a little tricky to spot a pixelated pal. It was Paige and her boyfriend Caleb and although we had never before met in person, I felt like I already knew her.

We picked up our conversation wherever we’d left off when last communicating online but bits of disbelief lingered about the fact that we were actually, literally sitting across from one another and speaking rather than typing our thoughts. Although our afternoon together was too short, I was infinitely grateful that the stars had aligned just so for that brief period of time.

And I was reminded that yes, technology HAS made it possible to sit behind this computer of mine for hours on end and connect with wonderful people all over the world… But it is also possible to occasionally get out from behind my monitor and keyboard and hop in the car or board a plane and meet those same wonderful people face-to-face.

Thank you Paige and Caleb for showing us a wonderful time in your fabulous city!  You can check out her blog at: http://sideoftheleaf.wordpress.com/

Rats, Lies and Capybaras

I like to think that I can spot a phony when I see one or smell a sham a mile away. However, drawn in by his lopsided, glossy, poster board and magic marker sign containing lofty promises of pure zoological freakdom, I somehow failed to do so.

Handing over my money to the toothless, mulleted man, I walked halfway into the dimly-lit tent and spotted the object of my search. It was then and there—partially down the pathway, blocking traffic—I stopped dead in my tracks, turned swiftly on my heels and called him out.

“Excuse me!” I shouted backwards toward the way I’d come. “This is NOT a RAT. It is a CAPYBARA! I just saw one of these on the National Geographic channel! Your sign is a big, fat lie.” I declared with an air of superiority that I A. knew what a capybara actually WAS and B. at the notion of exposing him for the liar that he obviously was.

“No ma’am,” he said with a hillbilly drawl. “I ain’t lyin’. I told ya’ll it’d be like watchin’ the National Geographic channel LIIIIIIVE!” he hollered back with extra enthusiastic emphasis placed on the long “I” in ‘live’ for full effect.

I’d been duped. I’d fallen prey to the circus sideshow sales pitch and been fooled. I had drunk the Kool-Aid and was now exactly $3 poorer than I was before ever stepping foot in the place. But before I go on and on about my deep disappointment upon feeling cheated, let me take you back to the beginning…

It was a hot, summer night in southern Ohio and four of us gals on a weekend-warrior-retreat had decided to leave our wilderness cabin and check out the nearest municipality. Logan, Ohio (population 7,152) is the county seat of Hocking County — an area rich with natural and geological wonders that draws tourists from all over the country who come to explore beautiful Hocking Hills State Park.

And on this particular summer night, as we happened to be passing through, Logan just happened to be having their Annual Washboard Music Festival complete with sweet-and-fatty fair food, face-painting booths, colorful characters peddling their wares, an obnoxious train ride for the young ‘uns and a sampling of carnival games.

Immediately at the front entrance of the street fair, I was confronted by a large sign announcing the presence of the “World’s Largest Rat.” Oh yes, just on the other side of the canvas walls of the shiftiest-looking tent I’d ever seen was a whopping 100-lb. rat… and I HAD to see it.

I’d left my purse at the cabin so I tugged on the arm of one of my girlfriends with all of the gusto of a six-year-old harboring a wicked hankering for some cotton candy. I begged her to not only pay my way, but to go inside WITH me so as not to be alone in my curious-on-the-verge-of-hysterical, idiotic stupor.

She obliged and we wandered in. And you know the rest. But the reason for my great disappointment was that I had SOOOO hoped to see an enormous, 100-lb. RAT, fully outfitted with soft grey fur, a long thick pink tail, shiny black eyes the size of golf balls, a wiggly nose, teeth like a lioness and whiskers the length of a yard stick.

I was NOT expecting to see something that although IN the rodent FAMILY… did not look like anything remotely close to a giant sewer rat capable of terrorizing the subways of Manhattan.

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure who to be more angry with… Myself for being so stupid as to think that this awesome freak of nature would actually be in Logan, OH (population 7,152)… Or Mullet Man who sold me on the idea with his flashy, homemade signs and toothless grin?

Now some of you might be saying: “Joanna, it WAS a giant rodent… to-MA-to, to-MAW-to. Why can’t you just let it go?” But I simply CANNOT let it go, at least not until I’ve told my story and shared with you my much-deserved feelings of deception, anger and disillusionment at the crooked capitalist empire that is the carnival sideshow industry.

And if, per chance, the “World’s Largest Rat” should pay a visit to a small, hick-town community near you… You’ve been warned. Hang on to your money and consider this your cautionary “tail.”

This is a rat.

THIS is a capybara. Note: It is NOT a rat.

Just Won”DER”ing

Yesterday, after spending a day up north to take care of some family business, Lee and I returned to Columbus by way of Amish Country to mix things up. I know, I know… you’re probably wondering: Exactly HOW boring IS your life that Amish Country was a jazzy, new option? And you’re probably right. But that is beside the point because yesterday it WAS a viable option. And it did not disappoint. In fact, it proved to be quite refreshing and entertaining.

While driving 35 MPH across steep and winding roads through half a dozen quaint little burgs with equally quaint names like Sugarcreek, Walnut Creek and Charm—dodging buggies and bicycles the entire way—we made an interesting observation about the local marketing techniques.

Those techniques being the placing of the words: “Der” and “Ye Olde” in front of every, single “Amish” business that we passed. A couple of examples are: “Der Furniture Market” and “Ye Olde Fudge Shoppe.” Now, I’m certain that all of these businesses were not actually owned and operated by Amish people, but for the sake of moving the largest amount of goods possible to Bob and Betty America from North Dakota, this scheme must be proving successful to a degree.

Driving along, windows down and inquisitive stares hidden behind sunglasses, we couldn’t help but wonDER… (and giggle wildly as we did as we did so) Does placing these words in front of every business name in “Amish Country” really increase patronage? If it does, why didn’t we pass Der Burger King, Ye Olde Wal-Marte, Der Dollar General, Ye Olde Marathon Station or Der Dunkin Donuts… just to name a few?

And yes, it IS that fun to place those words in front of every business. Perhaps that’s an indictment on our character or simply a demonstration of the measure of boredom we were feeling during a 3-hour car ride… I really don’t care. We managed to entertain ourselves as we laughed hysterically while throwing it in front of everything we passed. If you don’t believe me — give it a try on your next road trip.

P.S. Initially I feared offending anyone who IS Amish that might come across this post, but then I remembered… If you’re Amish, you’re probably not reading this anyway.