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?”

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.

NYC: I Heart New York or The Post Vacation Funk, Part 2

On July 1, 2011 I wrote an entry called The Post Vacation Funk after returning to real life from an 8-day trip up and down the New England Coast with my then-boyfriend. It turns out it was a popular post and actually garnered me a spot on the WordPress home page, in the Freshly Pressed section… which ending up catapulting me OUT of my funk because I was getting almost 3,000 hits a day for 5 days!

Unfortunately while the Freshly Pressed lightning has yet to strike again… The Post Vacation Funk has struck full force leaving me void of words and cursing the cursor on my computer as I struggle to cobble together an entry for you faithful readers to (hopefully) enjoy.

Therefore… I have decided to compromise by borrowing my previous post and tailoring it to the city that never sleeps

I just returned from a 4-day get-a-way to New York City with my fiance… and it was A-MAZ-ING. However… it is now official. I am in the midst of a full-fledged, hard-core, post-vacation funk. And I am here to tell you that the fabled funk is very real and I would argue that it is an inevitable occurrence in the life of any vacationer.

All the fun you’ve been planning for, saving for and laid awake with great night-before-Christmas anticipation for … is over. The photos are now in your camera instead of the brochure and the t-shirt is hanging in the closet.

Mind you, the funk does not occur overnight. Rather it seeps into your conscience slowly and before you know it you are completely mired in it. Suddenly you find yourself knee-deep in the reality that you are neither: A. Independently wealthy, or B. Free from the obscenity that is Responsibility … with a capital “R.”

When you first arrive home—a weary traveler surrounded by the familiar sights, scents and sounds of your “stuff”—you can’t help but experience Dorothy’s “There’s No Place Like Home”  feeling and sleeping in your own bed (on the memory foam that still remembers you) is blissful.

The next day comes and whether at home or the office, it is a flurry of activity. You’re answering emails, returning calls and taking care of household chores with that rested, happy glow that only a true getaway can provide. You’re still sportin’ the amped-up attitude that comes from spending 4 invigorating days in a lively, noisy, pulsing city, surrounded by millions of people and you are recounting the details of your adventure to anyone who will listen.

People expect that you will not exactly be “at the top of your game” since your head is most likely still in the clouds (or on top of the Empire State Building, or on a sunny bench in Central Park, or at the comedy club or that really cool pizzeria you found and are determined is owned and operated by one of the Five Families) and minor errors and gaffs are swiftly forgiven.

Day three brings with it the bi!@# that is reality. The alarm sounds for the second time since you’ve been back and you suddenly remember that this was why you went on vacation in the first place … to escape that d@mn alarm and the daily grind that follows it.

Day four is the same as the third only worse. The alarm clock hits you like a punch in the face reminding you that yesterday was not a fluke or a joke or a drill or even a bad dream. YOU. ARE. NOW. HOME. And it is only Wednesday. This is when you begin to play a sadistic little game with yourself that I like to call: “Where Were You Exactly One Week Ago (or Two in this case) Today?” And a word to the wise about playing this game: The non-vacation version of you will always wind up the loser.

By the way… exactly TWO weeks ago today… we were having authentic New York bagels in Brooklyn (complete with lox) … but whatever. I’m not playing.

By day five you understand your fate, but you do not necessarily like it. Anger builds. You can’t stop playing the “Where Were You Exactly One Week Ago (or Two in this case) Today?” game every time you open the empty refrigerator, notice a heaping pile of laundry, encounter a pair of tall, sad, suede boots lying lifeless on the floor or reach into your purse in search of a pen only to grab your NY Metrocard instead.

It is at this point that you begin to entertain wild imaginings about how you might achieve the life of a full-time vacationer. What if I just disappeared?  What might be the consequences of that?  How much DO those people who serve over-priced cocktails, take tickets for the boat ride to the Statue of Liberty or sell I Heart NY t-shirts on the sidewalk actually make? Is it hard to learn how to make hand-rolled bagels like the guy behind the counter at that quaint little bakery on the Lower East Side? Is it too late to get a degree in Recreation or Hospitality and Tourism Management? Am I too old to become a bike messenger?

They say that there are five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally Acceptance. They are not necessarily experienced in order. The bereaved might vacillate between the five for several weeks or months languishing for a time at one stage or another. So far I think I have experienced all of them and it has yet to be two full weeks.

Hopefully by the time I post this, I will have quietly accepted my life just the way it is. It’s either that or you will likely find me behind a counter in a hairnet and apron, serving kosher pickles to tourists.

NYC: Does This Pizza Make Me Look Fat?

Remember the good old days when cameras used film? You took all of your vacation pictures home with you in little black canisters — their contents largely unknown. And when you got around to it, you would drop them off at the nearest photo developing place and get them back within one to three business days.

Ahh yes, the good old days of blissful ignorance when your vacation could not possibly become clouded by some random image of you frozen in time. The picture was snapped and everyone moved merrily on their way.

But now that we live in the digital age and have the opportunity to SEE that random image of ourselves almost frozen in time—that is before we hit the SAVE button—we often recoil at what we see and wish for a do-over. We reposition ourselves in an attempt to look happier, taller, thinner or ironically… more natural than we did in the previous snapshot.

During our trip to New York we took a lot of pictures. After all, New York is a magnificent city with so much worth seeing and remembering and Lee is a wonderful photographer who artistically and diligently documents the events of our travels by taking numerous fun and interesting pics.

Occasionally when he would snap one I would ask to see it before we moved on to the next destination on our “must-see” list. And occasionally I would ask him for a do-over… particularly if I felt that said photograph made my face look fat.

<<< As a side note, other than the scale and my clothing, photos are very revealing to me when it comes to a change in my weight. Oftentimes they are even MORE telling than clothing and if I so much as suspect that the scale is inching in an upward direction I refuse to get on it. So photos can sometimes provide me with that slap-in-the-face “AH-HA moment” (as Oprah would say) … and inspire me to get off my butt and do something about my upward mobility. >>>

OK… back to the story. Lee put up with my requests for do-overs for about a day. But then, in the early part of the second day when I pouted and complained about my ginormous moon face he sighed, put the camera down, looked at me and said something kind of like this: “Joanna. You know you are not fat. And we are in New York. One of the greatest cities in the world not to mention one of the greatest cities to EAT in the world… and you are complaining about your weight. I don’t want you to TALK about or even THINK about your weight until we get home. If you want to worry about it then, that’s your prerogative. But for now… Just enjoy.”

And he was right. I knew he was 100% right. I knew that I was being ridiculous and shallow and that if I really am unhappy with my current weight… Well… Sitting down in front of a gorgeous, large, authentic, New York-style pizza pie from Lombardi’s—the very first and oldest pizzeria in America—was most certainly NOT the time nor place to start worrying about it.

NYC: Hurry Up and Wait… and Like It!

I’m not too sure why people say that New Yorkers are among the most impatient and rude people in the world. I know that mine is just an outsider’s view, but to this outsider, being a New Yorker seems as though it would be a constant exercise in patience.

Immediately upon our arrival to NYC at the Staten Island Ferry—which would carry us swiftly across the New York harbor, depositing us at the southern tip of Manhattan—we waited.

First we waited to board, then we waited to de-board, next we waited in line to purchase unlimited subway passes and then we waited on the platform for the train that would take us to our hotel. We waited to board the subway, to get off the subway, to walk up the stairs to street level… and of course we waited for our turn to cross lest we be run down by a cab, bus or bicycle messenger on a mission.

Welcome to New York City. Home to over 18 million people in the metropolitan area — it is an overwhelming, endless rush of humanity. And believe me everyone is rushing somewhere, everywhere, all the time. Hence, the “hurry up” part. Hurry up to get a place in line. Because this tidal wave of beings can only move as fast as transit and commerce will allow. Transit and commerce (I might add) that are also operated by and reliant upon other human beings. Thus, the “wait” part.

I quickly learned why Lee, my fearless-and-informed tour guide, told me to quote: “… travel light and wear comfortable shoes.” By the time our visit to the Big Apple concluded we had waited in line(s) not only for constant transport around the city, but for coffee, bagels, hot dogs, beer, pizza, pastrami and pickles. We waited in line for events, for elevators, for escalators, for public attractions, for bathrooms, for boats, for shopping, for a cashier, for a good view, for a good picture and even for a bench to sit on and rest from all the waiting.

Perhaps the “impatient” brand that has been seared upon New Yorkers only comes into play when they are, say… forced to deal with thousands of versions of some clueless tourist (like myself) on a daily basis who may or may not know the exact and proper ordering procedure for a pastrami on rye. For they are not afraid to show you their displeasure with your non-new-yorker ignorance.

I can’t blame them. That’s just the way it is. Therefore, you’d better like it. Take your $20 deli sandwich, your $7 slice, your $5 dog or your $12 cocktail and drag your bumbling-photograph-taking-aimlessly-wandering-map-studying @$$ and get out of the way. Quickly. After all… someone else is waiting.