Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Las Vegas/Thanksgiving Correlation

I don't like to gamble.  I am not one of the "lucky ones."  
I don't like casinos much.  Mainly because of the cigarette smoke. Take away that and the attractive waitresses bringing you drinks, and then they become very much like the video game arcades I used to frequent as a kid.  Even the losing of lots and lots of money a quarter at a time is the same.  
I visited my parents for Thanksgiving this week.  While there, they took me to the casino run by the Choctaw indian tribe.  It's located in Pocola, Oklahoma, across the border from where my folks live near Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  
This is something that they do when I visit them.  They like to gamble.  They like going to the casino.  They have players' cards that they insert into the machines to get points for things like free meals, free play on the machine, and even bigger prizes like trips to Mexico or the Caribbean.  Mom was telling me that they were about to have their cards upgraded to Silver, which she was excited about.  
At one point during our excursion to the casino, my mom hit a jackpot on one of the penny machines.  Since slot-machines became just like video games, its become affordable to offer penny bets to the customers.  She won forty or fifty dollars with one tap of the button.  She cashed out immediately and converted her winnings into cash.  She handed me twenty-five dollars.  
"What's this for?"  I asked.  
"To gamble with.   Go on."  She waved her hand around to encompass all the glittering, beeping, chiming and flashing around us.  
"If you give me this money, I'm going to stick it in my pocket and keep it."  I extended my hand with the money in it back to her.  "I'll probably be the only one of us to walk out of here ahead.  f you want the chance to give it all back to the casino later on, then you better take it back now."  
My mom gave me a little smirk she uses when she thinks I'm being funny.  She let me keep the money though.  Later, when we left, I was the only one of the three of us who came out ahead.  
I've only gambled a couple of times or so in my life.  The first time was at the end of my tenure working at a 7-11 in Woodland Hills, California, after I moved back to the state.  One of the other employees had sold beer to someone without checking their ID.  County ATF agents were outside in the parking lot.  After a long battle, the owner eventually lost his license and was forced by Southland Corporation to sell his franchise.  By the time the store changed ownership, the boss only had me and two other people working for him, just enough to keep the store open with no one taking any breaks or days off.  For that, the boss took us all to Vegas for the weekend to thank us.  
It was my first time in Vegas, and everyone told me that I "had to" gamble.  How could I go to Vegas and not gamble?  The best advice I got was to set aside a small amount of money to gamble with.  Once that was gone, I was supposed to stop and walk away from the tables.  I could set my winnings aside or put it back into the same pocket, but I wasn't supposed to use anything but what was in that bank.  
Not having gambled before, it was hard to get started.  Though I knew the rules, I didn't trust my skill at any of the variations of poker.  Craps seemed to many rules.  I tried playing a bit of black-jack, but the dealer was this mean old lady that had no patient for a newbie.  She was the one that taught me, by slapping her hand down hard on the table, that I wasn't supposed to bend the cards up to look at them.  I'd seen people do that all the time in the movies, though.  
I finally settled on roulette.  I found a table near the cashiers' window.  I was the only one playing.  I bought my chips and started putting them on the numbers, rows or corners.  
I lost my money pretty steadily.  There would be some small jackpots that would bring my total amount back up, but for the most part the two hundred dollars I bought crept its way down. 
It was when I was at my last fifty dollars that something clicked in my head.  On an impulse, I took my last remaining chips and put them all down on one number.  Black-22. I braced myself for the dealer's final call, ready to leave and spend the afternoon walking up and down the strip.  
At first I thought I'd hear the dealer wrong.  Then I saw him push what I thought was a mountain of chips toward my little stack.  My fifty bucks had turned  into seventeen hundred and fifty with one drop of the ball.  
"Wanna let it ride?"  
"No!"  I pulled the stack from the board.  I borrowed one of the chip racks the dealer had and went straight to the cashiers' window behind me.  I took the cash and when straight to my room.  I spread it out on my bed.  I counted it.  I then put it in an envelope I pulled from the writing desk.  I stuffed the envelope into a seam in my trunk.  And then, because I thought this is what winners did, I put on my shorts and went to the swimming pool on the sixth floor.  I sat in a reclining lawn chair under and umbrella, sipping a drink brought to me by one of the attractive waitresses.  
My plan was to "Beat Vegas."  To return home and tell everyone that I had gotten away with over seventeen hundred dollars.  That was more than any of my acquaintances at the time had told me they'd won.  
But while I was sitting there, I started thinking to myself that maybe this was an indication of something.  Maybe I was a "lucky person."  I had known "lucky people" before.  There was one of my high school friends, for instance.  Whenever we played Dungeon & Dragons, he would roll 100's more than anyone else had a right to.  I remember creating characters in the original Traveller, where he rolled three sets of triple-sixes for the character attributes.  He was so consistently lucky, that other people playing with us would insist that he use their dice to make his rolls.  It made no difference.  We used to joke about taking him to Vegas.  
I only stayed by the poolside for a couple of hours, if that.  I eventually got back to my room and pulled out the envelope I had hidden in my trunk and made my way back to the roulette table.  
If anything, I lost the money faster that I had the first time.  There were no little wins to pull my total back up.  Only a straight decline.  Even worse, by the time I lost all the money in my gambling pocket, I started using the "real money" in my other pocket, the money intended to buy food, see shows and stuff.  Before I knew it, I was down to my last twenty bucks.  
Hoping that lightening could strike twice, I put the entire twenty on Black-22.  After the ball clicked and clacked about, it ended up on some red number.  Don't remember which.  I stood up to leave.  I held on to the edge of the table, feeling a bit light-headed as I realized what I had done.  
"Wanna place another bet?"  
"No..."  I shook my head and straightened up.  "You've got all my money."  
"How about picking another number."  The dealer shrugged.  "Just for shits and grins."  
I picked a number at random.  Can't remember which one.  I held my index finger on it as the ball rattled about the wheel.  
It came up.  The number I had picked with my finger had come up.  I looked up at the dealer, who looked back at me with a look too innocent for Vegas.  I walked away feeling like I'd been had.  
I think the biggest draw to gambling is the feeling that you're one of the "lucky ones."  That you are in some way blessed, set apart from the rest of us "normal" people.  It's a sign of providence.  An symbol of God's Love.  Proof that the universe holds you in a special place.  That the rules of physics change for your benefit.  
I think being thankful, in the way we are supposed to be during Thanksgiving, is like being one of the "lucky ones," except for one thing: We recognize that the things we are thankful for are ours because of some wild stroke of luck.  We hit Black-22 and received this bounty.  And because we know that, because we are aware that we can lose it just as easily, we don't go back to the table to risk it all again.  
Driving home from the casino, I listened as my folks talked about what they should have done.  Maybe if they had played the Playboy machine, maybe if they had quit Call of the Wild a little bit sooner.  They talked about my brother and how, when he played, he always seemed to hit "them big jackpots."  
"Yeah, Phil, he did that a lot," Mom said from the backseat.  "He's a lucky one, you brother."  
I nodded.  My brother and I were lucky, though not in the way she meant it.  My sisters, too.  My folks are one of the jackpots I've won in life.  
Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Habit as an Article of Faith

I am very much a creature of habit.  
During the week, I'm up at 4:30 AM.  I write a page in my journal by hand.  I work on whatever writing project I've scheduled for myself after that.  I don't stop until I get at least two pages done, or a 1,000 words, or until I absolutely have to stop in order to get ready for work on time, whichever comes last.  
I always pack a green or spinach salad with my lunch, along with some frozen vegetables to heat up in the microwave in the lunchroom.  
Friday night I watch my two favorite shows on TV, The Big Bang Theory and Elementary, online.  
Every other payday I order pizza to pick-up on the way home.  
Every Sunday I do laundry.  
People say that change is good, but I don't think they really mean it.  I think most people would like certain things to go on forever, if only because they don't like changing the habits they've gotten into.  
I learned that myself after I was promoted at work.  I found myself working longer hours.  I had to get in earlier on certain days, which mean skipping my writing sessions.  I had to work later into the evening, which meant skipping the gym.  
I used to be in the habit of going to the gym every day of the week except Friday.  I had a routine that lasted an hour.  One half hour on the weight machines followed by a half hour of cardio.  These days, I'm lucky if I get a half hour of cardio in every other day.  And even when I do have time for what was my normal routine I don't feel up to it.  My new routine has become my new habit.  The inertia has already set it.  
This week, I was listening to an interview on the radio.  It was of an Israeli soldier who was a member of a group of ex-soldiers called "Breaking the Silence."  These soldiers are of the shared opinion that the manner in which the Israeli government handles the occupied territories, including the manner in which the soldiers are taught to behave while dealing with the populace, is helping to perpetuate the cycle of violence.  The soldiers feel they have to project an aura of having power over the populace because these people hate them.  The projection of this aura causes the Palestinian populace to resent and hate the Israeli soldiers.  The wheel turns.  The situation becomes habitual.  
You really learn how important your habits are to you when you travel and stay in someone else's home for a few days.  Even if they are family, the longer you've lived on your own, the more difficult it is to feel normal anyplace but at home.  One of the first things I do when I go to visit my parents, as I am this week for Thanksgiving, is go to the store and get some of the things my habits tell me I need to have.  Bagged greens and spinach for salad.  Whole grain bread.  Nonfat yogurt.  One of the coolest moments this visit was when I saw, in the frozen foods section of the local Walmart, my favorite veggie burgers.  Here!  In Arkansas!  Where across the aisle they proudly serve a thousand different varieties of processed meat.  They had never had them before.  I bought a pack.  I will eat them all by the time I leave for home.  I will be that much more comfortable because of them, even if they don't have the low-fat mayonnaise I usually put on the bun.  
One of my favorite moments in writing a story is the scene where the hero's resolve is tested.  There's a story creation program that I've used called Dramatica Pro that refers to moment as whether or not the character will Change or Remain Steadfast.  I like to think of it as the moment when the character will Remain Faithful or Take a Leap of Faith.  
It's the moment when the character has to decide to keep the habits of the past, or set them aside to try things a new way.  
One of the easiest examples I can think of is from the original Star Wars movie.  It's the scene when Luke is flying down the armored canyon of the Death Star.  We all know the scene, right?  Darth Vader is right behind him.  He's trying to get a lock on the exhaust port.  He's planning on using the same skills he developed flying back on Tatooine, when he'd tag womp rats in his T-16.  Just then, he hears the voice of Obi-wan Kenobi.  
"Use the Force, Luke."  
Or, in other words...
"It's time to start a new habit of doing things, Luke."  
Luke has a choice of Remaining Faithful to the ways he has been taught, or to take a Leap of Faith and try it in a new and untried way.  
Moments like this in stories are more strongly linked to the theme of the story, rather than the actual objective.  If Luke ignores Ghost Obi-wan and uses his inherent skill to launch his proton torpedos into the exhaust port and destroy the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance will still win the battle, but may end up losing the war.  Think of the confrontations between Luke and Darth Vader in the subsequent movies if Luke ISN'T a True Believer in The Force.  
One of the things I've notice in my own stories after encountering this Leap of Faith/Remain Faithful moment was that I very often write about characters that have to take leaps of faith.  The old ways of doing things are not working.  It's time to try something different.  The irony in this is that, in my personal life, I tend to be a Keep the Faith type of person.  If I've been treated unfairly at work, I don't change my work habits.  I lower my head and keep doing my best.  I tell myself that how I work is not a reflection of how I get treated.  It comes from someplace else.  
Other people might get a new job.  I do my job just as well, even better, to show the world what I think of as the truth. 
Is this telling me something about myself as a writer?  As a person?  Does knowing this about myself mean I should do something about it?  
I don't have an answer to that yet.  There are times when you need to Keep the Faith, such as when I started waking up earlier each day in order to make sure I got my writing in after my promotion.  There are times when you have to try something different, such as coming up with a way to get my exercise schedule back to what it was before the promotion screwed it up.  
It all depends on the habits you want to keep. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Peeking out of my Political Foxhole

OK.  It's been almost a week.  I'm thinking by this time, it should be pretty safe to peek out over the edge of the political fox-hole I dug for myself to see if the shooting as actually stopped.  
Normally, I like politics.  I became interested in politics, and the process of electing our leaders, when I was about thirteen years old.  It was then, right before the next general election, that I found my dad's sample ballot sitting on the end table by the sofa.  I flipped through it and read the propositions and the candidate statements, then checked off the ones I would have voted for with a pencil that was close at hand.  I set it back down and went on to the kitchen, not thinking much more about it.  
Later that same day, walking through the living room again, I ran into my dad.  He was sitting on the couch and noticed me coming into the room.  
"Come here for second," he said to me.  "I want to talk to you."  
"What did I do now?" I thought at I sat down on the opposite end of the sofa.  
"Are you the one that marked up the sample ballot I had here?"  He nodded when I admitted that I had.  He flipped open the ballot and pointed to the mark I made next to some candidate's name.  "I wanted to know why you voted for this guy."  
It went on like that for a couple of hours as I recall.  Every candidate.  Every issue.  Why did I select that person or take that position?  And my questions, short and to the point at first, designed more to end the grilling I felt I was getting, didn't seem to satisfy my dad at first.  Questions that started, "But don't you think...?" or "Did you ever consider...
?" would follow my answers.  My use of the most common teenager response of a shrug with "I dunno," only caused my dad to straighten up, lean toward me and point to the ballot and say, "What you mean, 'you don't know?'  If you did this in the voting booth, it would count!"  
There came a point when something happened in my brain.  Or maybe it was in my gut.  It was an emotional thing, for sure.  It was a sort of resentment.  A kind of anger.  This was America, right?  Even if I was "just a kid," I had the right to my own opinion.  Even if I couldn't vote yet, when I could exercise that privilege, I could vote however I wanted, right?  
This feeling came out when my dad asked me why I had voted on one of the propositions on the ballot that year.  It was one of the first public smoking regulations.  It established a law that restaurants had to provide smoking and non-smoking designated areas for their clients.  I had voted in favor of the proposition.  
"But aren't you trying to tell people what to do?" my dad asked.  He didn't smoke at the time, having quit when I was six or so.  "Don't they have a right to live the way they want?"  
"Sure they do," I answered back, getting fired up.  "But I have a right to live the way I want, too.  If they want to smoke in their home it's the same if I don't smoke in my home.  But if they smoke in a restaurant, then I'm being made to smoke whether I want to or not.  I'm not saying they have to quit smoking if they don't want to.  I AM saying that they ought to do it away from me so I can be the non-smoker I want to be."  
"I think this law does more than just that.  I think it's too much of a burden on people running a business.  I think it's telling people how to live their lives."  
I took a deep breath.  I looked my dad right in the eyes and said.  "I don't think so.  I think it's just being fair to people who want to be healthy."  
There was a pause.  My dad seemed to be watching me.   Finally, he took a breath of his own and said...  "Ok."  
"Yeah.  Ok."  He shrugged.  He set the sample ballot back on the table.  "That's it.  You can go do whatever you were going to do."
I got to my feet but I didn't leave right away.  I didn't get it.  What was the point?
"I'm...  Not in trouble or anything?"  
"Naw..."  He looked up and saw the confusion on my face.  "I was just surprised at some of the choices you made.  They were things that I wouldn't have chosen, and I wondered how you came up with them.  I wanted to make sure you were thinking for yourself and not just repeating what other people had told you."  He shrugged.  "Now I'm sure."  
We had other political "discussions" over the years, my dad and I.  Some of them longer and more heated.  I remember another one, when I was a grown man visiting my folks for some holiday.  My dad bought some wine for us on the way home from the airport.  We sat up until three or four in the morning, finishing off the way and trying to solve the political problems of the world.  We finally went to bed after my dad said, "I can't remember what the hell we're arguing about, but I know I'm Right!"  
"Well...  I KNOW, I'm RIGHT, TOO!"  
"Well then...  That's all there is ta'say about it."  We laughed and went to bed.  
You can't seem to have political discussions like that these days.  People are angrier.  They can't accept that your opinion is different that yours.  More than that...  If your opinion is different, then you are a threat.  You are someone that will destroy this country if the government follows your belief.  
They refuse to believe that you came to your beliefs by thinking for yourself.  They are certain you are being fed propaganda by "someone else."  
And it doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum you are.  I've had friends on Facebook from the left and the right threaten to un-friend someone for not believing the way they do, or for expressing their political opinion in same manner they've been doing.  I could only shake my head and log off.
Thomas Jefferson once said, "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as a cause for withdrawing from a friend."  Then again, he never had to deal with friends ranting online about how wrong you were for expressing the opinion you did.  
Right before the election, I heard a term that describes pretty aptly the political environment this country is experiencing.  A Cold Civil War.  The only thing we're not doing is getting out guns and shooting at each other.  And like the Cold War it's name after, it will probably take some wall, emotional or spiritual, to come falling down before we can get back to where it's Ok to say, "this is what I think..." without having someone scream at you.  
Those are the reasons I decided to keep my mouth shut this election season.  As much as I wanted to talk about the political race, as much as I wanted to do as I've done with my dad and other friends over the years, sharpen my ideas on the whetstone of other thinking people's opinion, I kept my mouth shut.  I am not going to withhold myself any longer, though.  The feeling I had when I was thirteen talking with my dad is back.  I am kinda resentful.  I'm a bit angry.  This is America, and I have the right to believe what I believe and express it.  
And so, finally, with the understanding that THE ELECTION IS OVER AND MY OPINION WILL NO LONGER AFFECT THE OUTCOME WHATSOEVER, OK?  I am going to tell everyone what my choice was.  
I voted for Obama.  
There.  If you want to check to see if I came by this decision through my own thought and consideration, be my guest.  I was raised to deal with things like that.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Setting up a Schedule

I decided that the best way of getting more short stories published was to treat my writing as more as a business. At my “real job” I have goals set for me by the company administration. I translate these goals into specific tasks the people that report to me have to do. I track progress, I have an eye on the “bottom line.”

For my writing, I’ve given myself a production schedule. Monday through Friday, I work on whatever writing project is before me. Saturday, I write my blog entry and upload it. Sunday is Submission Day. Whatever story I have ready to go is sent out. Every Sunday I am scheduled to make at least one submission.

I’ve sent out two stories in the last two weeks this way. That’s better than what I’ve done in the previous two months (or more). One of the stories already came back from the editor I sent it to. I need to look at that as part of the process.

At least I already know I’ll have a story available for submission this coming Sunday.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

A Conspiracy of My Very Own

I think conspiracies are like fortune cookies.  Whether or not you see the truth in them depends on what you believe and how willing you are to see connections between things that may just be random chance.   
There are, of course, BIG conspiracy theories.  Theories that try to answer questions like, "Who Really shot JFK?" or "How DID they fake the Moon Landings?"  The most recent one I heard about concerned the presidential election in Ohio in 2004.  The man who was George Bush's "IT Guru" also owned the company that counted the votes in Ohio that year.  An "unexpected" voting surge won the state for the Republican candidate and the presidency with it.  And like any good conspiracy theory, this one persists and evolves with the times.  Just yesterday, someone filed a lawsuit in Ohio, claiming that the company tagged to count the votes this year in Ohio has a link to a Romney owned company.  
Remember, just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.
Conspiracies are reasonable.  Like Greek oracles, they touch on things you "know" and ask you to fill in the blanks.  Because they come from what you believe in, they just make sense.  Of course, the government is spying on us.  All the time.  You're a fool if you don't think they're watching us right now. 
And the media is always, always, ALWAYS bending over backwards to show the "other" candidate, the one you don't support, in a better light.  It's obvious, isn't it?  
The most insidious conspiracies are the smaller ones.  The ones we live with every day.  The things everyone just "knows" that tell us what we should and shouldn't do.
One of the employees I work with, a guy from Iran, told me the other day he wishes he'd been born an American.  When I asked him why, he said, "Because things would be so much better for me.  Even if I came here ten years ago, and my English got better, I could own my own company and do real well.  Every day I thank to God that I'm here, but it would be so much better if I been born here."  
I wanted to tell him that it didn't matter.  Even if he was born someplace else, even if his English wasn't all that great, he could do something about it.  Improve his English.  Work hard.  Forget about what might have been or what could have been.  I wanted to say those things, but I didn't.  
Because what he said was so reasonable.  They way he said it just made sense.  If he had been born here, his time here would be easier.  He would fit in better.  The fact that the new business start-up rate for immigrants jumped fifty percent last year notwithstanding, the idea that the obstacles of not speaking well, of being different, are too hard to overcome is be a persistent one.  
Only if you believe in them, though.  
Someone else I know decided to challenge a another reasonable belief.  He was a member of my Japanese study group.  Like me, he had an interest in Japanese culture and language.  Particularly in Japanese Pop Culture and Entertainment.  His dream was to live in Japan and work promoting Japanese movies and singers to the rest of the world.  He tried finding a Japanese company that would hire him from overseas, but didn't have any luck.  
So, he moved to Japan.  He quit his job.  He packed up his things.  He bought a plane ticket and he went.  He told me, at the last meeting of our group he attended, that he realized he couldn't make his dream come true from this far away.  To live and work in Japan, he had to Be in Japan.  The reasonable advice that said to not give up a good job at times like this, or to wait until he had something in hand before he left, was no longer to be believed.  So, he left.  
Scary.  But, in a good way.  
J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, calls it the "Tyranny of Reasonable Voices."  The "good" advice that keeps you from "getting hurt," or from "risking too much."  It's a conspiracy that is all around us.  And it's one where we are one of the conspirators.  
I try think of myself as a guerrilla fighting against normalcy.  I have a persona that is one part Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and one part Lou, the curmudgeonly  station manager from the old Mary Tyler Moore show that was played by Ed Asner.  I present myself as someone who is not completely married to the idea of being "normal."  Of having "normal" dreams, entirely willing to play along with what is reasonable and safe.  I get up early in the morning and craft my strange worlds and create the people that inhabit them, then fling them out, as often as I can, like Johnny Appleseed, hoping they'll sprout and grow for everyone to pluck something tasty from.  
As I get older, I wonder if I'm not more of a court jester in Normalcy's court.  I say my strange things, and I point out normalcy foibles, but deep down I'm loyal to the King of Reason, and I won't stray too far from court, lest the real outlaws, the true guerillas fighting against the Tyranny of Reason might capture me and hold me hostage.  
I want my own conspiracy.  A new one.  A conspiracy of my very own.  I want to gather the people that think like me and conspire to create a new world for ourselves.  We'll have our own secret handshake.  We'll put our symbols on the currency of our country or spray paint  them on alley walls.  We'll organize ourselves online, the way all good conspiracies do.  
We'll call ourselves "The Friends of Abby Normal."  Anyone that's seen Young Frankenstein should get that.  We'll work to make abnormal the new normal.  We'll try to do something unreasonable every day.  We'll recall that our being here in the first place is probably the most unreasonable event that ever occurred in the first place.  
And if we fail, we'll fix it and try it again.  The things we've done can be fixed.  The things we haven't can only live on in our regrets.  
And we will swear to not participate in any conspiracy that tries to give us reasonable advice about how to deal with our dreams.  We'll quit our jobs and fly off to a foreign country before we do that.  
But DON'T tell any normal person about it.  We'll keep it secret, just between you and me.  
Because it's a conspiracy, remember?