Categotry Archives: Know When to Fold ‘Em

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Free (Market) Fallin’

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Know When to Fold 'Em, Tags: , ,

Who doesn’t love Tom Petty?

I realize that what I’m about to discuss is not a glib and lighthearted topic for most of you out there. Largely because of the reasons I discussed here six months ago, involving retirement accounts and how you have been told to invest them all in the stock market and that the market always and only goes up. Last Friday, when the market plunged over 530 points the day after losing 357 points, NPR’s lead for the radio story was “Well, it’s a bad day to check your retirement account.” The ubiquitous penetration of market investment into these long-term “savings” instruments has only gotten more intricate since 2008. And it’s created a perverse incentive wherein most of the working core of society cares much more about the fate of corporate America and its top dogs than they should, because they see their ability to retire as wrapped up in the success of these multi-billionaires and their ventures.

It’s arguably an even more insidious and effective scheme than student-loan debt convincing a generation of young Americans to sell out rather than pursue their passions. At every stage of life, there’s now an American financial instrument guaranteed to make you prioritize the needs of the big corporation above those of your own moral compass or even personal financial fate. It’s all quite clever.

I happen to not have much in a retirement account, having cashed out what I could long ago and still trying to find a way to get the rest out before the alleged earliest date I can collect, currently slated as 20 February 2039. And no more than 5% of it was ever in stocks, and it certainly hasn’t been there in quite a while. Just as full disclosure of my own positions, which is good practice for anyone posting about the market, with or without giving advice.

Here’s the thing. People always try to explain what’s going on with the market and why things are happening or not. And most financial experts will tell you that the daily effort to attribute major swings in the market to one or maybe two key news events that day are only slightly more accurate than tea leaves. The market is complex, varied, over-leveraged, and unpredictable. To say “the market went down today on China fears” is not the same as saying a baseball team won because their star homered twice and the pitcher threw a shutout. It’s a little more like saying that the team won because 34,000 fans showed up. Like, yes, the fans may have helped the team win. But as the Orioles proved in April, you don’t need fans at all to win a home game.

But to the extent that what now seems by all measures to become at least a three-day slow-crash of the market can be attributed to any one thing, I think it’s best described as a giant tantrum. China, as they say, is just a red herring. Get it?

To the extent that there’s been a recovery in the United States economy in the last seven years, it’s been driven by an enormous transfer of wealth from the bottom 95% of Americans to the top 5%. The bailout was a giant metaphor for this kind of response to the Great Recession, but while income has stagnated and real employment has lagged, corporations have soared by cutting costs (wages, mostly), increasing productivity (longer hours and worse working conditions, mostly), and raking in financial incentives from the government (zero interest, mostly). While the stock market has been transformed to make us believe that it is a leading indicator of the health of the economy writ large, it is no such thing. It is an indicator of exactly what it indexes: the health and profitability of the largest and most successful corporations in society. And while an effort has been made to close the loop on this circular reasoning and make us all “shareholders” so we all feel (and are!) invested in the outcome of these corporations, most of us make most of our money from actual salaries rather than whatever extra we have to give back to companies. So our actual economic health derives from our own bottom line and not the company’s.

The problem with zero interest is that it all but guarantees that we all see the world through this corporate-driven lens rather than one of personal economic rebuilding. When I was growing up, I was taught to save and not to invest in the market. Because interest was around 5% and, as Albert Einstein allegedly used to say, “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.” As long as there have been financial instruments and economies, there’s been an assumption money saved will pay off over time. Which is why it’s so bizarre that people have described our present economy as recovering and healthy when you haven’t been able to conjure more than 1% interest from a savings account anywhere in approaching a decade. Despite what your state’s pension fund tells you, the stock market is not a savings account. It only feels that way because you are buying the rhetoric about the market’s unending meteoric rise and you can’t really stomach the idea of “making” 0.1% when inflation feels like it’s 25% on most everything you buy (except, perhaps, these days, gas).

So we’ve had a zero-interest world for a long time, simultaneously convincing the public that the stock market is the only viable place for their money and convincing corporations they don’t need to work to make money, because endless amounts of it are available free at the window. No wonder the corporate economy is booming! Any business can functionally print money for itself, just like the Federal Reserve itself. What’s not to love?

Well, the end of that reality is what’s not to love. Enter the tantrum.

Sure, China’s growth is only 7%. I guess that’s heartbreaking for people who felt that the country of over a billion people was going to generate better-than-Madoff returns forever. But analysts are, believe it or not, smarter than that. This has been foreseen. The skyrocketing growth that comes with a neo-industrial-revolution was never going to go on forever.

But the market really believes that free money, zero interest, can be the new reality forever. And they’re trying to take the Fed and new Chair Janet Yellen hostage.

I think that most market movers are making a play. They believe that if they can get the Dow Jones below 15,000 by the Fed meeting, she and her fellow Fed voters will have no choice but to promise to keep the free money flowing for the next year or so.

And before you think that my eye on the market is too heavily influenced by my own experience playing poker, I’ll counter with this: is there a difference? One of them is speculative gambling, a world of bluffs, calls, wins, losses, huge swings of money, the ability to read and predict the actions of others and react accordingly. The other is played in a casino with a deck of cards.

The market is bluffing, kids. They’re going all-in on free money.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s possible that the entire pyramid scheme of the market, the illusion of the recovery, the enormous success of corporations and their big-money backers, is 100% dependent on 0% interest. It’s possible that this is only a semi-bluff, that they’re trying to manipulate the market so interest rates stay at rock-bottom, but they really are terrified to find out their worth in a world of even 0.5% interest. After all, the reasonable valuation for the Dow Jones is probably closer to 12,000 than 18,000. Unless, as I’ve observed before, you believe that not only has the economy recovered, but it’s the best economy that has ever been in this country by about 10-15%. Even the happiest true believers in this economy don’t believe that.

Regardless of which, I think it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the market touches 18,000 again for a very long time. I humbly suggest you factor that into your own financial planning. The one exception will be if this stunt works and Yellen and friends capitulate and promise in September to leave the rate at zero indefinitely. Then the market will be at 19k by Christmas.

YellenPetty

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It’s 2015 and You are Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , , , , ,

There’s a lot going on. There always is. Despite the efforts of various media outlets, phone applications, and the narrative brain to confine your existence to a narrow set of coherent and perfectly tailored activities/perceptions, reality is a cacophony of wills battling for your attention and interest. I can’t consolidate today. But I feel compelled to document. My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy… and like clouds, the thoughts can blow away. The Internet, as long as electricity works, is some sort of vault with which we can offer solidity to the clouds. That’s even how it’s described.

Barack Obama is suddenly the President he said he was going to be, at least a bit, in a lot of different fields. This is both exciting and sad. I have been one of the more anti-Obama leftists out there, frustrated as anyone about his drone strikes and his corporatist policies and his total ignoring of the plight of anyone who looks like him or the environment or poverty. And yet, every other day, there’s a news story about Obama suddenly talking about the prison-industrial complex, or opening an embassy in Cuba, or openly celebrating gay marriage. The 2008 Candidate, who disappeared for six or seven years, is suddenly back on the scene. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that it’s not having to win any more elections that is the direct cause of this change of (return to?) heart. I’m not sure anything could more concretely underline what’s wrong with the American electoral system than that someone feels they have to sell out for six years in order to sneak in a few good policies at the end. I still hold out hope that he’s going to commute every death sentence in the nation on January 19, 2017.

I have moved three times in the last twelve months. This one is mostly just sad, or exhausting and frustrating. All three were summer moves, in New Orleans, though the first one started in Jersey, where it wasn’t much less humid than here. Okay, it was a bit less humid. Every time I move, I say I’m going to get rid of all my stuff. I never do. I hate how American I am, deep down, in many ways. I can only say that moving frequently is good for me, so I don’t build up too much complacency about my acquisitions.

Returning to Berkeley was not as hard as I feared. I expressed a lot of trepidation about flying back to Berkeley, by myself, to spend a few days. The context of the trip was of course magical, but I still expected to feel a lot of angst and sadness. There was really very little. The place is still incredibly haunted, but I was more heartwarmed by seeing all the old great restaurants and little quirks that make Berkeley what it is. This was all only augmented by happening to start reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius right before the trip, which I feel like is nearly impossible to follow without a deep understanding of the Bay Area. It’s easy to forget that there are places where people unironically embed poetry into the sidewalk, where a meditation center is available as an AirBNB, where a guy like Ben Brandzel could be raised in context. Remembering that is nice.

Being without the Internet is both immensely frustrating and kind of good. This new apartment is great in a lot of ways, including that we get to have our rabbit, Brownie (quickly becoming a Facebook mini-celebrity) and that it’s walking distance to all the great stuff on Magazine Street. But it’s expensive, something we justified in part by the claim that Internet is included. This claim was greatly exaggerated, at least so far. Internet works about 30% of the time and will go out for days on end. I am not great at standing up to landlords, though we’ve been grousing a bit. But in the meantime, I’ve both gone without writing posts I was really excited about and read more than I would have otherwise. I guess it makes it about a push. The Internet, like so many things, is a tool that takes on a life of its own if you let it. It’s just a tool. It’s just a tool. How you use a tool is what determines its value.

I mostly eat when other people are around. It’s not that I completely starve when I’m alone, but I can regulate my food intake much better when there aren’t social pressures to eat with someone. Alex has been back in Jersey for a couple weeks and I find that my eating patterns have settled back to a more comfortable minimalism for me. Given that I gained 50 pounds between 2010 and 2015, I prefer the self-regulation level, which has brought 10-15 pounds off that high-water mark. I’m not looking for 2010 weights, which were depressively skeletal, but I also have no business being 170 pounds.

I’m not sure any news story has made me happier in years than Ashley Madison getting hacked. It’s hard to think of a business more pernicious or predatory of human emotions, nor people who more thoroughly deserve the searing light of publicity. I hope it all gets published in a wiki-style searchable index.

Walking in the rain in New Orleans in the summer is no big deal. I remember the one year I lived in DC, suddenly rain was not a hard deterrent to being outside. New Orleans is the first place where the rain has been sufficiently warm to replicate that experience. It was highly unintuitive to start out on a walk two nights ago into a burgeoning thunderstorm, but I felt reassured and ready. And I wasn’t disappointed. Remarkably, tons of people were out in the rain, equally unhurried. Yet another way this is a seriously liberating place to live.

Patience is an incredibly easy lesson to forget, but it’s at the center of everything. This is a lesson I had to learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget when playing poker semi-professionally. And it’s still at he heart of poker, and every competitive game out there. The fun and even more forgettable thing about patience is that it actually can slow time down, which makes you feel like you’re living longer. This is mostly just a note-to-self that I’m sharing with everybody. Yoga and meditation are kind of the embodiment of patience, that unhurried slowing of intention and desire and replacing it with the ticking of each second, slowly. Time is extremely perceptual. Everything in Western society pushes us to rush through things, push for a future that may never come, go go go go go at a busy and overwhelmed pace. This is a life-destructive, time-destructive force. As much as we can layer our lives with the opposite, with patience, with milking a second’s worth of time out of every second, the more whole we will tend to feel.

I have a lot more thoughts, all of which at one point could possibly have merited a whole post on their own. But this format, a little more like the days of Introspection, is fitting for now. And now I have to go get ready to have a day at work.

Life hack:  thinking about death makes you feel more alive.  Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet.  It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

Life hack: thinking about death makes you feel more alive. Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet. It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

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Revisionist History

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Call and Response, Know When to Fold 'Em, Metablogging, Primary Sources, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Think of the past as a mirror...

Think of the past as a mirror…

From time to time during the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve added new categories for indexing the various kinds of posts one sees on this page. I’ve long eschewed the notion of a specialized blogging pursuit, such as focusing only on the Mariners or on my statistical analyses of the flaws of the stock market or on periodic stints of writing a weekdaily webcomic. It’s likely that choosing any one of these as a singular path would yield greater readership, or at least more strangers reading since they could come to that page specifically for one pursuit or interest. Instead, StoreyTelling ends up being about all of these things and a lot more and really only offers the category/tag clicks as a way of sorting out the kind of content a given reader might be most interested in.

The problem with that, of course, is that the nature of my interests and their specificity can change over time and these categories can then fail to be fully representative of their content. I think the best example of this phenomenon is in the Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading category, which has come to include everything from actual voting in American political campaigns to any major story covered by the news to individual myopia to the plight of others to any matter of international concern. This broad brush isn’t all that surprising given that I probably think every one of my posts is political in some way (small-p political) and I have been known to say that all art is political. What exactly politics means is contextual and thus that category is my third most-used, behind Duck and Cover (740 posts, almost all of which are just blog-displays of the comic) and A Day in the Life (621 posts, as my default for just about any written post). But it also means that the category starts to lose its meaning when it discusses such a wide range of topics.

The solution to this would seem to be to subdivide the categories, to try to divide international relations from American politics from commentaries on more tangentially political issues. I guess this is why categories and tags exist as separate entities, though I’ve only used them interchangeably herein. The problem is that any effort to recategorize past posts interferes with one of the cardinal rules of this whole project for me: namely, to not revise or edit past posts. Now, it’s certainly debatable to what extent adding or dropping or specifying categories/tags is really changing the context of a post, and it’s a question I struggle with. Categories like Strangers on a Train or It’s the Stupid Economy were created after a few posts in those directions made it clear that such a unique category was necessary, or at least a good idea. But then the question immediately arises of whether to back-categorize other posts that fall into the genre but predate the actual creation of that category. Does this somehow interfere with the nature of this blog as a time capsule of the person I was in the past, of my perspective, or the authenticity of those observations? Or does it just make it easier for people to find posts they might like?

I think, as is so often the case, the purposes of this blog for myself and for others wind up at a bit of cross-purposes. If this blog were primarily/only for readers, it would likely be trivial to just go back and try to recategorize. Granted that scouring 1,384 posts (though half are just D&Cs, so maybe we can exclude those) for possible re-examination of content through the lens of later-created categories is a big project. But it might be fun to go through everything and re-examine, as I periodically attempt to do anyway. This, after all, gives me the opportunity to use this blog as one of the tools that I prefer it to be, as an educator about where I’ve been, where I’m going, and hopefully how I can screw things up less in the future. But once I’ve altered those categories, I’m saying something just a little bit different from what I said at the time. And then it seems an easy addition to fix typos. And then it’s all too easy to start trying to justify taking out that particularly immature statement, or that awkward phrase, and soon we’ve lost the document’s integrity altogether.

Now, look, I know the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. That said, I also know that almost every road to evil or mistakes is paved in sequential tiny jumps that each make sense in the micro-view and end up becoming a horrible leap downward in the macro-view. I’ve periodically discussed this under the ungainly appellation of the A to B, B to C, C to D Problem. No one would ever go from A to D directly and to consider D from the vantage of A would be absurd. But A to B is just enough of a little compromise/sacrifice/change/jump. And then from the new vantage of B, once adjusted, C doesn’t look nearly so far away as it did before – it’s just as far as A! And so on.

I honestly think it’s hard to explain anything we find regrettable in human history that was caused by sentient thought that doesn’t conform to some version of this progression. This is part of why I don’t really believe that there are evil people. There are a whole bunch of fallible, possibly selfish, but largely well-intentioned people who get caught on these roads and make little hops all the way to really disastrous decisions.

In any case, I care a lot about the integrity of this body of work, combined with the previous blog and even the Waltham Weeklies and other saved documents before that. Because as long as I leave them untouched, they aren’t subject to the kind of revisionist history that our memory naturally is. I have a pretty darn good memory as these things go, with multiple distinct and powerful memories from before my fourth birthday, which I’m told is relatively rare.* But as debates like those sparked in my family about whether I saw E.T. or Tron first prove, my memory is imperfect, or my parent’s memories are. I firmly remember a certain order of events and my parents recall another. And these memories are important for us in shaping our view of the past on which we base our notion of both the present and the future. But there is a truth of the matter. The memory is serving a different purpose than the absolute truth about what happened. And I have a bit of a bias toward the truth as I think it’s a little more stable and informative.

That said, there’s really no way to make memories conform wholly to the truth, or at least not to be damaged by the end results. Obvious example: my marriage. How I felt about my marriage before Emily cheated on me and left me is wholly different than how I felt about it afterwards. But the fact of the experience at the time remains unchanged. In memory, there is no possible way to recall a particular anniversary dinner or a shared moment or some sacrifice she made for me outside of the context of her ultimate betrayal. There is no possible way for me to just envision that pure memory without the tarnish that time and subsequent events put on it. And yet, the actual event was the pure version, without the eventual damage of future events. As a temporal extant being who must constantly remember the past through the new lens of the ever-changing present, that event is fundamentally lost to me, its context forever altered. But with this blog, I can at least read my actual reporting on the event from the precise time it happened and get the most accurate possible rendition of how I truly felt about it at the time, unspoiled by the knowledge of the future.

I think, for what it’s worth, this is what makes betrayal, especially romantic betrayal, so fundamentally devastating. Because it takes all your good memories, all the little buoys of confidence and hope that get us through the tough days, and spoils them. No matter what the actual content of their validity was at the time, they are not only lost, but actively ruined, turned against you to now be little taunts of what you didn’t have. Even if you, in a sense did have them, at the time. This is why I was able to seriously say things like maybe it would have been better had I died in the October 2009 car accident (scroll down to the italicized postscript in that post) after Emily left me – because then I would have died with all those good times intact and unspoiled in perpetuity. As the Smiths put it, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” This is not just about the joy of a particular moment; it is about the knowledge that this moment will never be so great in the long-term future as it feels right now. The course of events will destroy it.

Now, there is no illusion that this blog, merely by existing here as unaltered testament to the daily updates of a temporally changing being, can actually capture and preserve that magic wholly in a way that is meaningfully useful to combat the damage of, say, betrayal or loss. Because even in reading about the past, no matter how pure or unadulterated the past’s testimony is, the overly introspective ruminative person (that’s me!) will find clues that were never there.

Prime, recent example: in looking for a particular nugget of past testimony in my blog sometime last week, I started reading various posts from the past, as I often do. It’s like getting to hang out with my past self, a close but sometimes annoying friend. And then I discovered, to my absolute horror, that my post about my plans for the summer of 2010 was entitled, by my own choosing, April Come She Will. In the context of my choice at the time, it was innocuous. The post was dated 6 April and I talked about the inevitability of April and how the month often troubles me. But in the context of how that summer unfolded, well, here are the lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song which shares a title with that post:

April, come she will
when streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay
resting in my arms again
June, she’ll change her tune
in restless walks, she’ll prowl the night
July, she will fly
and give no warning to her flight
August, die she must
the autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September, I remember
a love once new has now grown old

Now, I don’t need to go through a full blow-by-blow of the events of those months in 2010 to demonstrate just how chilling this discovery was to me. After all, you can go read the archives of those months on this page! Isn’t that the whole point? Suffice it to say that this could be a chronicle of the critical months that ended my marriage, down to July being the time of betrayal after an unhappy and searching June for Emily in Liberia, yielding to her cruel indifference in August and everything being over in September. I mean, this could’ve been a poem I wrote about the experience. And I know that this is about a trivial love affair that starts in that same April and is over by summer’s end and I know that I’ve been listening to this song since I was thirteen, but this is exactly the kind of experience that prompted me to spend a fevered day in senior year running around telling all of my friends that we have the key but we just don’t know how to use it. And when they asked me what the hell I was talking about, I just said, in hushed reverent and slightly goggle-eyed tones, that it was “the key“.

What I was talking about, then, was that PLB had told me a story in the midst of our relationship about her father’s first marriage and how his first wife had gone crazy on their wedding night and had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t handle the commitment or the situation and basically disappeared and that it broke her father’s heart and made him kind of a sad, distant person. We were doing a close reading of either Conrad or Kafka in AP English and something in the work triggered the memory of this story and I came to see it as a parable, a warning she was giving me, that had about as much truth-content as her average statement. (Full disclosure: I have no idea whatsoever if this story was entirely true, entirely made up, or some mixture.) At that moment, I felt that this was the one glaring clue she had given me that she was in over her head, was crazy, and that our relationship was doomed.

Now, talk about your revisionist history! It’s probably just as nuts to believe that this was her deliberate warning as it is to believe that I knew the next six months of my life would mirror a Simon & Garfunkel song on 6 April 2010. But doggone it, this stuff gives me the shivers. You can call it irrational pattern-seeking if you want, you can call it confirmation bias, you can call it the deliberate and willful search for something that isn’t there. But I will never be able to see these things without the feeling that there is a deeper code to be cracked in all of this, that things are more embedded that we can imagine. Or, to quote the Doctor Who episode I saw last night:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
-The Doctor, Doctor Who, Season 3 of the new reboot, “Blink” episode

How else to explain that I actively try to send my past self psychic messages about the outcome of certain hands at the poker table to be received by my previous self? Or that I sometimes feel I receive those messages? I rarely trust these messages, especially when they are about subpar hands, but the messages of certain strong feelings have a scarily remarkable track-record of being right. And this practice definitely predates poker and probably goes back to a deeply embedded series of beliefs that most people would consider “magical thinking” to be polite and “crazy” to be realistic. And, mind you, no one has been less successfully psychic than me. I still dated PLB, still married Emily, still hired Baia. No wonder I’m obsessed with trying to beat the future.

No, this isn’t all just about having some perfect script of the past to serve as a blueprint for some mosaic of the future, though that’s not none of it either. But the preservation of the perfections, oddities, insights, and tribulations of the unadorned past still feels like the single most meaningful aspect of the project of blogging. And why it will probably be just a little bit harder for you to navigate to the type of content you personally most want to see. As though I didn’t make it hard enough by calling a category that most would label simply Music as “All the Poets Became Rock Stars”. Or by choosing, it would appear, nine categories for this post. Maybe, future self, I just want you to read it. (But not “Read it and Weep”. That’s the Books category.)


*Which reminds me, as a total sidenote, that it just occurred to me how crazy it is that I remember seeing both E.T. and Tron in theaters at a little younger than 2.5 years old. These may even predate my near-drowning experience in swim class that I have always classified as my earliest memory. I’m sure my Dad can weigh in, especially after he rebutted my Ms. Pac Man-post‘s discussion of those two movies with the following:

“The first point about Tron was that it was a DISNEY movie. I grew up loving the Walt Disney movies, the color (not black & white), the animation (though not all were animated). My first drive-in movie (in Carson City) was to see a re-release of Dumbo. I saw Bambi (alone in a matinee) on a big screen one block away from the White House in 1957 in Washington. I loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in Carson), Another film at the drive-in was Old Yeller, about when I got my dog “Jamie”. Pinnochio and Cinderella were seen several times, my mother loved Fantasia, so I endured that movie (once), but I found the Bald Mountain sequence very scary (like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz).

The 70’s and early 80’s were a bad time for movies. Bigger theaters were broken up to create small rooms with small screens (for small audiences). Then they started building “multi-screen” places (not really real theaters), like where ET was shown, out on south Mooney (in Visalia). I generally hated the “small room” mall type movie experience. I loved (best) the movie “Palaces”, like the Grand Lake in Oakland, or the older (depression, WPA mural, type theaters, like the Kimo in Albuquerque and the old original movie house in downtown Visalia. [Note: In many cities in the US West the only place the WPA Arts Project was visible was in the murals painted on the walls (for free) by WPA artists. Often, this WPA art was both the biggest art (and the best) anywhere in town. In time, most WPA movie murals were painted over. Now, most WPA era movie theaters are torn down, converted, or closed. There seem to be NO articles about the movie murals on the web, just modern day full wall posters that date (in concept) from the WPA Art period that still was very alive in the 1950’s.]

Anyway, Mom and I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, in San Jose (actually in a theater in Sunnyvale or Mountain View) the first time you were “babysat” while living in San Jose. Raiders (July 1981) was not as scary as Star Wars (Darth Vader), but still had a few scary (for children) scenes. I can’t recall any other movie that your mother and I saw until I took you to Tron (Mom, then as now, was not interested and didn’t go). I worked for cable (afternoons, evenings and nights). We bought the RCA discs, mostly Disney movies (Mary Poppins, Dumbo) and Seseme Street and Muppets. Had the (new) Disney Channel on TV.

So, Tron was a DISNEY MOVIE, playing at an old WPA real theater downtown, that had a balcony (just to be safe).

I re-saw Fantasia in an old WPA theater in Berkeley (California Theater, about 1971, before it was broken up), because “everyone else” in the group wanted to see it. It was crowded, so we ended up in the balcony seating. The Night on Bald Mountain scene wasn’t nearly as scary sitting ABOVE Bald Mountain.

We sat in the balcony, in Visalia (at the Visalia Fox Theater), when we went and saw Tron. It was the furthest left re-screen configuration, based on the left side entrance to the balcony seating. The theater was old and fairly shabby then, not impressive. I don’t think I ever went back. Also, for a “cherished” Disney film experience I found Tron very boring and I was very worried you didn’t (wouldn’t) like it, and might not ever want to go to another “real movie” again. I guess I was wrong.

Anyway, Mom had heard good things about ET from other parents. She thought it might be a better movie “for kids”, maybe you, more exciting, better plot. I was more concerned about the “alien” (sci-fi), Star Wars angle. I almost said, after the failure of Tron, “let’s not go.” But “Disney had failed me,” so why not try something new, out in a new theater on Mooney. On Mooney, we sat on the floor (floor level seating), the theater was crowded, unlike an almost empty Tron theater experience. The whole thing WAS scary, even for me.”

-E-Mail from Donald Clayton, 8 December 2014

I love my Dad. You can see I come by this obsession with the past, memory, and context pretty honestly.

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Password Protection and Self-Defeating Security

Categories: A Day in the Life, Know When to Fold 'Em, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

This country has a bit of a problem with a false sense of security.

This just in!  The US has been torturing people!

This just in! The US has been torturing people!

So-called revelations have been abounding this week over the extent and nature of some specific acts of torture enacted by the CIA during the Bush administration on behalf of the United States. The torture ranged from breaking limbs to making people pass out to threatening sexual violence against them and their families to threatening death to actually killing them. The country appears to be taking this as news, which itself is kind of news to me, but I guess when I can be chattily accosted by a fellow tournament player about how we “finally got some of those Democrats out” and “it’s crazy how many Socialists are still in government,” it’s pretty clear I have no fingers at all on the pulse of America. His unironic earnestness about what he assumed would be my shared opinion that Mary Landrieu, champion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, Big Energy, and all-around moderate conservative is a Socialist convinced me that I would actually give him a heart attack (he was of a certain vulnerable age) if I declared, honestly, that I am an actual Socialist the likes of which would make Bernie Sanders blush.

No one is really making much of a connection today between the CIA torture stories and the other news that I can only imagine they are trying to displace, namely the matter of the police slaughtering the unarmed (usually Black men) in our society. The connection seems obvious to me, but then the links between various instances of institutional violence always seem pretty clear and traceable from my vantage. We are a people become so obsessed with danger and threats that we have come to see everything as a threat. Or, far more to the point, everyone as a threat. With the increasingly vague excuse of PTSD from 9/11, we trot out our fear like some sort of endless warrant for the abuse and summary execution of anyone we find remotely disconcerting. So quickly forgetting that this is a narrative as old as nations themselves, that fear of the damage from the last war or major attack brought popular support to Hitler’s expansion, Stalin’s purges, Napoleon’s conquests, Robespierre’s terror, and probably every other significant abrogation of rights and life in history. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and dehumanization are not the products of a society that feels comfortable or stable in itself. They are the products of a society desperate to establish a sense of security through any, preferably rabid, means necessary.

This is an already rutted road in my writing, the discussion of how fear can galvanize evil and how absurd our fears truly are. Even how a different kind of fear motivates our binary lose-lose party system. It’s hard to say how much is a product of American exceptionalism specifically as I have come to believe that no one nation has ever been so good at convincing people of its nobility while spreading iniquity. Or how much of it is just the innate exceptionalism that comes with being a temporal being stuck in a single place in the world, adopting the loyalties and perspectives so tightly bound to the country of one’s origin and rearing. Maybe German exceptionalism and Soviet exceptionalism and French exceptionalism and even Mongol exceptionalism or Hunnic exceptionalism (and certainly Roman exceptionalism) fueled all the atrocities of days gone by. Maybe we aren’t special at all, even in our ability to make ourselves feel more special than the rules of history and power.

But there is perhaps a lighter-hearted metaphor to be found mired in the literal torture and killing our country’s authorities daily enact on the alleged behalf of our safety. One that has also graced the news lately, with head-shaking denotations of the obvious incompetence it implies. Namely, the failure of several institutions to keep passwords in any way safe from hacking, often in the hilarious form of passwords being stored in easy-to-find files named “password”.

You can read all about the story, which was everywhere last week, here, for example.

The problem made most people immediately hit their heads into walls and rush to take part in the bashing of Sony, its IT department, and other gleeful pilings-on so common in our tear-down culture. But no one seemed to raise the issue that seemed more obvious to me, which itself is an issue I’ve been meaning to blog about already anyway. Which is that our current system of Internet security and its attendant passwords are completely unusable by people. They are decently well designed, I suppose, for computers, but as I learn a little bit more each day in the poker world, humans are not computers.

To do most anything on the Internet these days, you need a login for the specific site on which you will be doing that thing. Every site has a different requirement for username protocols, including especially the fact that each login must be unique for that site. And most every site has a different set of requirements for the length, diversity, and criteria of passwords which are handed out. For a clear example, some sites require that a symbol (any key other than a recognizable letter or number) be used at least once in the password, while many others disallow any use of such symbols in passwords. Many sites cap the password length at 12 characters while others require 12 characters as a minimum.

It's not quite this bad yet, but it's close.

It’s not quite this bad yet, but it’s close.

The result is something any even rudimentary Internet user is familiar with – the accumulation of a wide range of relatively diverse passwords. While one could get away with having a few variations on one basic theme as a default password, many stipulations make this practice of streamlining the variance in password requirements impossible. Many sites, especially academic e-mail addresses and an increasing number of more trivial sites, require periodic changing of one’s password and, more perniciously, the banishment of any past precise password after change. Rutgers required this every 3-6 months. Additionally, routine hacks at various retailers and larger threats like the Heartbleed virus render whole swaths of traditionally used username/password combinations void, or at least vulnerable. And thus end-users are constantly barraged by requests or requirements that they change their passwords at various sites while leaving the login screen and username unchanged.

This last bit is important because, in my experience, the only prayer a human actually has of remembering all the various username/password combinations for all their various sites is to have some sort of visual cue or trigger that one associates with that particular page. If I see the logo of a particular bank every time I’m typing some combination, I’m more likely to remember that when logging in as opposed to looking at my GMail login screen. But if I have to change these passwords, then my memory is actually working against me because I have multiple memories of multiple username/password combinations for the same site, meaning that chaos ensues and I end up not remembering my password.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t the additional “safety” feature of locking the account to most anything one is attempting to log in to after 3-5 failed attempts at memory. Something that I have triggered at almost every password-change-mandatory site ever, often multiple times. Which then requires the creation of a (wait for it) even newer unique never-before-at-that site password after one has copy/pasted the string of ridiculous alphanumerics generated by the corrective e-mail prompted by the little “Forgot Password” clicky.

There are basically three ways around this conundrum of modern living that do not involve avoiding the creation of Internet logins:
(1) Store a list of passwords somewhere.
(2) Have your browser memorize your passwords and keep them for you.
(3) Never log out.

The problems with all of these should be obvious. (1) is exactly what Sony did, the problem being that the computer was the easiest place to store the passwords since paper is a dying medium. And paper is vulnerable to loss, oversight, destruction, and theft, making a computer seem theoretically more secure, even if it is hackable. Is it more absurd to travel with one’s little piece of paper or to e-mail or text oneself information? All of these are vulnerable. Only one’s memory is truly secure, but that’s faulty, and I guess isn’t secure either if someone is willing to torture the few passwords you remember out of you.

(3) is impractical, though many people try this for a period of time. But both (2) and (3) have the fatal flaw that anyone successfully hacking your machine can not only steal your password, but could immediately change it and log you out, basically locking you out of that account forever. Which may seem far-fetched until you realize that the entire point of having a password system in the first place is to prevent just that outcome. So either they’re hacking you or they aren’t. Either you have to fear your password getting taken over and this leading to some level of identity theft via login, or it’s all overblown, in which case 1234 or password should suffice.

Granted, some sophisticated systems do prompt you via text or some other more direct means than the Internet if you suddenly change your password and your confirmation e-mail address, which is good. But there’s still a lot of damage that can be done pretty quickly there, especially if the account is for your bank holdings or a particularly high-profile Twitter feed. Thus, the entire process of having Internet passwords becomes a quixotic paradox much like voting. The only time it really matters, it can’t possibly matter. Unless you have the most sophisticated memory for passwords ever.

But then I got a password for CounterWallet so I could hold MepCoin, as discussed in my weekly podcast‘s 131st episode. And that was just a string of random, unmemorizable consecutive words that I was told would never be retrievable ever again if lost, stolen, damaged, or forgotten. Which required that I write it down somewhere, which pretty much had to be somewhere electronic to be really permanent in any way, which makes it perfectly vulnerable to hacking. And while I may have a mere one million MepCoin attached to it (real world value: $0 at the moment), people use this to store things like BitCoin and DogeCoin and things that are theoretically supposed to supplant the mighty dollar someday. Which just mandated that I fall into a basic security trap that proves the totally illusory nature of security.

I am tempted here to pivot to a rant against privacy, but passwords may be the last bastion where privacy actually seems to serve a reasonable purpose. In that, without privacy of passwords at a minimum, all bank information for everyone would become public, and we can’t exactly just trust each other. This is the rare instance where a total symmetry of information rewards the worst actors, not the best, and that seems problematic. Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t have private property unequally held at all (told you I’d make Bernie Sanders blush), but we should probably at least have the right to correctly identify our electronic correspondence with others as actually being from us.

In the meantime, it’s pretty clear that our false sense of security is the biggest thing keeping us unsafe. It’s bad enough to torture our alleged enemies into hating us all the more (or for the first time). But to truly believe our own lies about this stuff is as bad as posting our eponymous file called passwords publicly for all to see. We’re just making total fools of ourselves, as anyone outside the self-delusional exceptionalism we embrace can plainly see.

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Fear Factor

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Know When to Fold 'Em, Telling Stories, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season.  To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time.  It's mostly just here to symbolize fear.  And because I had an excuse to use it.

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season. To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time. It’s mostly just here to symbolize fear. And because I had an excuse to use it.

I am continually discovering how much of my life is fueled by fear.

I’ve ridiculed fear a lot in this blog lately, most especially in criticizing what motivates voters and pointing out how silly it is for Americans to fear ebola and/or terrorism. This is not the kind of fear that I will be talking about in this post, though I suppose I’m using the same word because it’s in some ways the same concept and all fear is related. Fear may not even be the right word for what this post will attempt to address, as some may favor “anxiety” or even “trepidation” for what I plan to illustrate. But I’m going with fear because it’s visceral and, I think, more honest.

The problem goes a little like this. Early on in my educational career, somewhere between grade-skipping and re-aligning with my “age-appropriate” grade level, I started getting disillusioned (again) with schooling. And so I started to test limits and see how long I could put things off and still get excellent grades. I had a lot of stellar and challenging teachers in my high school, but I also had a few who I noted seemed to be doing it “for the money” on their teacher evaluations and who just seemed to be priming themselves for limit-testing. I got in the habit of starting papers the night before they were due, then sometimes during a free period earlier in the day in the computer lab. In college, these habits only accelerated. Many people were studying and buying books and refusing to start new Risk games with me at 2 AM the day before major assignment deadlines, but I had already planned to start that work at 5 AM, which seemed like enough time for another Risk session. And then there were the world-class slackers around me who’d already gotten an extension on the assignment for two weeks and wouldn’t even begin to plan to make that deadline.

I knew these slackers. They were friends of mine, many of my closest. But I knew that I could not be like them, for down that path would lie utter ruin. As tenuous as my relationship with deadlines and my respect for assignments was, it was governed by an absolute an inalienable rule: meet the deadline. No extensions, no lateness, no excuses. Because I knew that as soon as I breached this rule even once, I would open a Pandora’s box of new rules to flout and test, new games to play with professors, and ultimately the whole unstable mass of unstarted papers would get the best of me. I was good at toeing the line right up to the deadline, but I couldn’t imagine keeping track of an entire semester’s worth of work that would have to be done in that nebbish period between the conclusion of classes and the advent of finals. And I did have to keep my scholarship to stay at Brandeis.

Enter fear, stage right. The only way I could convince myself of the ironclad power of the deadline, the thing that forced me to put the Risk box away and stop playing my thirtieth straight warmup game of Tetris, was fear of failing. And this was mostly, if not entirely an exercise of powerful self-delusion. I knew, I knew deep down that my professors would happily grant me extensions should I simply fall asleep while trying to construct a paper, would fail to mark me down a bit for an assignment handed in 36 hours late. But I convinced myself, come hell or high water, that even a minute’s lateness in the paper’s submission would bring failure. Not just of the assignment, mind you, or even the class, but of my entire life. I would lose my scholarship, my admission to college, possibly even retroactively lose my high school diploma simply because one assignment came in a few minutes late. I had myself completely certain that this was true.

And it was only once that terror had really sunk in, sometimes less than two hours prior to a deadline, only once I really feared the failure and felt it was a real and foreseeable possibility, that I could begin working.

This worked great for late high school in securing the scholarship. It worked remarkably well for keeping the scholarship throughout Brandeis and graduating college with solid marks. But I have increasingly come to believe that it may not actually be a great lesson to inculcate in life, especially early on. It’s probably not a healthy way to exist.

I can line up a lot of pros and cons, though, for a fair hearing of this approach. Solidly on the pro side are three completed novels of 90,000 words or more, all written in a period of four months each or less (if we don’t count the pre-deadline few chapters of American Dream On written in the six years before I got serious about the project). While these novels haven’t really gone anywhere yet and some would argue they need substantial revision (ever my nemesis, conceptually), the mere fact of being able to write that diligently and profusely is a singular testament to my fear of the mighty Deadline. I stuck a dart in the calendar (stuck, not threw, mind you) for each of the projects and beat the self-imposed D-Day every time. This probably shouldn’t have been possible, but after completing two full-scale term-length research paper assignments in excess of twenty pages when starting each of them the night before during my last two years of college, the novels were easy. I had so many days to work on them!

The con side, however, is littered with remnants of my non-deadlined motivation. It’s not that I haven’t been a good worker during my various day jobs, nor that I’m unable to motivate myself to do various projects and other things when the fancy arises. But I have trained myself to require a state of fear in order to feel really ready to do things. If I can’t conjure a sufficiently dire consequence, real or imagined, I find it extremely hard to get together the necessary energy to complete a task. And while this mostly or often applies to major tasks, it probably realistically has bled into even the most mundane of assignments. Chores are already damnably difficult for me since I find daily maintenance of existence (including and especially eating) to be saddeningly distracting from the greater concerns of the life of the mind. But without fear of some sort of backlash or feeling of failure, they get even more distant from my desire. Same goes for even menial daily chores, even when I don’t have a day job. I start each day with a to-do list, but then find I have to gin up some fear in myself to really get much traction.

I wonder often how universal this kind of sensation is. Putting it into print like this, it looks kind of horrifying. It doesn’t feel that awful, not nearly as much as I’m making it sound. It is often quite routine. I really want to sweep the kitchen. It’s a simple task that I really don’t mind that much. It needs to be done. I just have to start thinking about people who will be upset with me if I don’t, then exaggerate their reaction and try to truly picture something farcically awful that will ensue from my failing to sweep the kitchen. If I can do it without seeing through the ruse, then the kitchen gets swept, quickly and quite well. If not, then I have to wrestle with the guilt of not being able to generate enough faked fear to make it happen.

The only hint I have that this kind of anxiety might be underwriting a lot of our daily actions as humans is the ubiquity of a certain kind of dream. A recent discussion of this prompted some disambiguation about the word “nightmare”, which I never use to refer to the state of a bad dream, having always used that two-word phrase instead. Whereas “nightmare” for me usually conveys a real-life scenario that went appallingly poorly, such as “When cops started seeing people as target practice rather than those in need of protection, it was a nightmare.”

Whatever word you use, you’ve had this dream or one of its variants. I promise.

The setting is a school that is familiar to you or a school-like setting. You either find yourself unable to find the classroom or recall even basic details about the class. You may, if lucky, be seated at a desk in the proper classroom. But you are about to be served with a final exam or assignment. And you have no earthly idea what the content covered is or will be. You are almost always pretty sure that you dropped the class, or possibly that you never signed up for it at all. But it is clear from the situation that there will be no mercy. Your entire semester/year/life depends on this situation and you are utterly doomed to fail.

Not only has every American I have ever discussed this with had this dream, but it is the most universal dream people older than 18 seem to have and is shockingly diverse in its manifestations. It tends to stick with people for decades after they have left their last academic setting, though encounters with an academic-type environment can reinvigorate its duration or frequency. And it often has additional cousin dreams in various similar forms and settings, such as having to give a speech in a debate round on which one does not know the topic or can’t find the room (for former debaters – I’ve had this one at least monthly for years), having missed an assignment to photograph someone’s wedding (recently discussed with a professional photographer friend), or forgetting to invite people to a major event which one has been planning (for, naturally, event planners). So diverse and common and frequent is this dream that it is a trope. And so gripping is its nightmarish hold on the imagination that it can make a ridiculous peril all too real. It is always an enormous relief to remember that I had a college diploma in hand after waking from one of these dreams about, say, my junior year in high school. But it usually takes far too many minutes of consciousness for me to even remember such facts in the face of how certain I was that I was about to fail out of the step prior to college.

Is there something about our educational system that naturally engenders this kind of terror? Surely my generation and everyone after were raised on a steady mantra of the necessity of education in securing a future. And thus probably the converse became just as true for us, that failure in any educational pursuit would spell futurelessness. But I feel like this dream transcends generational barriers. And is it really about academics and that world, per se? Or is it about a larger wider fear that lurks behind the judgment found preeminently, but by no means uniquely, in classroom settings?

Whatever its source, it actually seems to be an incredibly valuable asset in playing poker. Not in motivating me to register for a tournament by a deadline or even get to the tournament at the start (I was actually the last person to register in the tournament I won in Mississippi in August, starting two full hours after the tourney began, as well as being about that late to my first major-tourney cash at Foxwoods last October). But in keeping me afraid of the consequences of losing the tournament, of not making money. I have found that a major question separating the tournaments where I really succeed from those where I fail to cash or do kinda meh is whether or not I feel truly afraid of failing. If the consequences of not cashing seem dire, whether or not they truly are (after all, you should never risk a dime that you can’t afford to lose or even spend recreationally), then it seems to motivate the very best and most patient play.

This actually contravenes a known and popular poker adage, namely that “scared money never wins”. But I think there’s a difference between fear of risk and fear of failure. Fear of risk would have also prevented me from buying into the tournament in the first place, and especially from delaying the start of a 20-page paper till less than 24 hours prior to its deadline. If I flop a set, I know that all my chips are going to be at risk that hand, pretty much regardless. If I were playing risk-averse or scared-money, then this probably wouldn’t be my perspective. But fearing failure, fearing having to come back with no money to show for my initial outlay, that is supremely motivating. I have never been so scared of failing a tournament as I was of the satellite and especially the main event in Baton Rouge. And I don’t think I’ve ever played a longer stretch of continuously excellent poker.

Which is not to ignore the factor that luck has, of course, in all of this. I only really got lucky once in the satellite and once (actually after the cash line) in the main event. Other than winning one coin-flip, which is the kind of minimum luck necessary to place in a tournament’s ranks. But luck probably has a bigger role than we’d like to admit in grading and education too. Indeed, a longer meditation on how pretty much all of modern life amounts to some kind of gambling is stewing in the back of my mind.

So I can harness the incredible power of fake fear (the fear has to almost immediately evaporate after I actually don’t cash in a tournament; otherwise I would be tormented for days by guilt and self-loathing… which rarely happens) to make myself do incredible things. But this seems to be a problematic source of renewable energy. It’s hard to muster for the small stuff. It’s exhausting to endure (I can’t imagine I’d love a heart-rate printout of my collegiate papers, let alone my deeper tournament runs). And there’s probably a good question to be asked about just whether it’s a reasonably good way to motivate oneself in principle. Is all this self-inflicted anxiety shortening my lifespan? Making me a generally less agreeable person? Just going to devolve so that I can’t even make myself eat without truly fearing starvation?

More importantly, is it too late to reverse course? When I’ve mostly done things for fear of my life collapsing, isn’t it awfully hard to regularly get going for the sake of, y’know, just because? Have I already trapped myself in this game? It almost seems the greatest thing I truly have to fear is a lack of fake fear itself.

by

Tournament Time

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Know When to Fold 'Em, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

My poker face at rest, early in my most recent tournament at the Belle of Baton Rouge last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Mid-States Poker Tour.

My poker face at rest, early in my most recent tournament at the Belle of Baton Rouge last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Mid-States Poker Tour.

I love tournaments.

I already talked a couple months back about how I love competition for its own sake, the thrills of the rise and fall of one’s prospect and the possibility of winning something. And I’ve even meditated extensively on the early morning joy heading into a debate tournament as I did most every Friday for five years recently and four years when in college as a competitor, let alone five years in 8th-12th grade prior to that. But having just completed a grueling 19-hour tournament over the course of two days in Baton Rouge this past weekend, I’ve come to a new appreciation about how all tournaments are in some ways the same, and specifically how debate and poker tournaments correlate as environments that has made my transition from debate coach to poker player rather smooth.

I was always impressed at the universality I found in ardently pursued extracurricular activities in college between myself and friends of mine who did ostensibly different things. My friend Ariel was in an elite a cappella group at Brandeis, Alisha in band management at Harvard, Fish in the Student PIRG at UC-San Diego. In all instances and more, it was clear that high school days of doing twenty extracurriculars to pursue all possible interests (and build a college-bound resume) was infeasible. People had, generally, one thing that they did. After an early dabbling in Model UN, the Socialist club, the literary magazine, and the non-drinking club, I quickly consolidated my energies into debate … and the rest is history. But as I would discuss the intricacies of these activities with the friends pursuing them, commonalities with debate quickly became apparent, even where there was not an overtly competitive aspect.

Each group had its own vocabulary and nomenclature. Each had its individual intrigues and romantic entanglements. Each had power struggles and leadership dynamics. Every group had a “that guy,” with the possible exception of the a cappella group which selected in part on popularity, almost like a frat. And each, in its way, brought people together to accomplish great and unlikely feats as only collections of highly motivated and talented groups can consistently do.

Nowhere were these parallels more apparent than in an extensive discussion I had mid-college with Ariel about an a cappella competition her group had attended. While there was no direct clash and engagement as in debate, the similarities of group and individual dynamic in the midst of the intensity of a struggle to win a subjectively judged event were uncannily striking to both of us. There were similar personalities in each of our stories, similar interactions between individual and larger team, similar qualms with the nature of judging and reputation, and remarkably familiar highs and lows and eventual triumphs.

Poker is not a subjectively judged event, but it effectively simulates one in the chance that the better hand will lose on the flop, turn, or river. While the strict outcomes are more like a sport, and indeed a sport without umpires or referees to add some human error, the fact that a person can win a hand they were 8% to win when the chips went in the middle is notably akin to a subjective or even seemingly corrupt declaration by a fallible human judge. And it incites equally pleased and sportsmanlike reactions from the losers. The most frequent expression of frustrated disbelief is to pound on the table once, eliciting an incongruous knocking sound from what appears only to be green felt (there is a harder surface beneath that is rarely reached except in the most angered moments), but berating rants are also not uncommon. As in the debate world, losing competitors are only too happy to tell someone who has just knocked them out of the tournament how vastly inferior a competitor they are, how stupid they have demonstrated themselves to be.

There are brazen jerks in both events. Maybe there are everywhere in the world, but intensely competitive environments have been known to elicit the absolute worst behavior in many an otherwise intelligent or even possibly kind individual. I have had countless run-ins with such people in debate, often getting in preachy arguments with them about how it is possible to both compete well and respect the dignity of one’s opponents without resorting to shady tactics or condescension. And heard the defenses of and from such people that they can be nice humans but ruthless debaters and that we should view this Jekyll/Hyde hybrid as perfectly acceptable. There is an arc of this argument that includes the notion that being intimidating, ruthless, and attempting to extricate tears from one’s opposition actually makes one a better debater in some way, that mercy or even respect are weaknesses that are to be stamped out by those who wish to be the best. No matter how vehemently I disagree with this perspective, there are certainly kindreds in the poker world who craft the image of an asshole in order to induce folds or angry calls at their desired discretion. The fundamental idea being that both debate and poker rely on calm, rational judgment, and this becomes abridged when someone feels personally threatened or a righteous desire to suddenly beat their purported villain/rival all at once.

What makes poker viscerally distinct from debate, however, in these kinds of interactions, is the enforced ongoing physical proximity to those one may deeply dislike. I never had to sit next to a debate rival for eight straight hours as I recently did next to a relatively well-known pro and world-class egotist last Friday. I’ll refrain from including his name, but several articles I recently found about his participation in this tournament alone described him as a “polarizing figure,” which may be the ultimate euphemism. Among other things, the individual displayed extensive racism and sexism in brash tones, as well as bad-naturedly making fun of me repeatedly both in person and on Facebook (he commented on a video the tournament took of one of my hands). He tried to engage everyone at the table in a discussion of how Michael Brown deserved to die in Ferguson (I know I moved to the South, but … Jesus) and went on to describe a sales clerk at a store he’d encountered who he deemed “too stupid to live.” This nestled amongst stories of his extramarital affairs and other disrespectful interactions with women. Nowhere had I been so proximate to certain self-loving and unsavory people capable of such disrespect to their fellow human than in the debate world. But at least there they’d just be across GA, not literally rubbing elbows with you. Finishing off his knockout (someone else got most of his chips two hands prior) was among the most satisfying aspects of that tournament.

All these events have reputational considerations that deeply impact the results, or at least the journey toward the results. Almost any regularly meeting competitive event has the cool kids and the people who are respected as the best and then the vastly greater number of people trying to knock on the door and establish themselves. This is the nature of most every gathering of people in modern Western culture – a ladder is either built-in or implied in most every workplace, school environment, club, or pastime. It has been a satisfying journey to come in as an unknown and consistently cash in over half the big tournaments I’ve played, especially when I don’t rebuy my entry into tournaments as many pros consistently do. If I get knocked out, I’m out, partially a product of my smaller semi-pro bankroll, but also increasingly a deliberate choice to maintain a serious do-or-die mentality throughout the tournament. I’m sure this has a negative impact on my stomach’s stability and heart-rate, but also I think makes it possible to play a 5.5-hour satellite, then a 10-hour day one, then come back two days later and ride out the 3.5 additional hours to a $2k cash placement as 15th of 115 runners in a “main event” tournament, all without busting out once at any point.

It is that elimination nature of a tournament, combined with the fact that you literally have a chance of winning until the moment of being knocked out, that makes both tournament formats so excitingly engaging, so palpitation-inducing and thrilling. No one managed to get debate on TV, despite C-SPAN’s offers around the time of my graduation, but poker’s a fairly well-established, if culty and heavily edited, spectator sport. My favorite part of each event is the advanced strategics. The careful calculation of the psychological state of the opposition and what move will elicit the worst response from them, while playing to one’s own advantages. Obviously making it over the money line (called the “bubble” in poker tourneys, just as the line for breaking is known in debate) was my favorite single moment of the tournament, swinging the event from a potential $270 loss (I never would have paid the full $1,100 entry fee at this stage in my budding career, but thank goodness for satellites) to at least a $1400 profit. But close behind and by far my favorite play was a 7,000-chip river-bet against a steely calm player who reminded me greatly of my friend Russ in the third hour of the main event. It was designed to look like a frustrated bluff on a missed flush-draw, a calculated over-bet of the pot that would have left either myself or my opponent, if he called and lost, with almost no reasonable chips to play with but was still not an all-in. I actually had a set of 4’s which I was 90% sure was good, but also thought the bet could be strong enough to get him off a slightly better set since the turn had been a queen and the river an ace. I had checked the rainbow flop (including my set), then bet hard on the turn that brought a second heart and the queen. The guy “tanked” (thinking hard for a long period of time) for over five whole minutes, a veritable eternity in poker (that’s a whole PMR!) before calling with an inferior hand and the probable assumption I was bluffing. I turned over the fours and asked if he had a set (the 10% chance at that point had diminished, but he could reasonably have a set of 6’s and basically take my tournament chances with it) and he angrily mucked. I watched him bleed out his remaining stack as I secured my near-double-up, talking to himself frustratedly and busting out an hour later. Not only was that hand the turning point in setting me up to run toward the money (I’d really just tread water up to that point), but after his departure, a couple neighbors confided that he was one of the best pro cash players in Baton Rouge. I felt that little jolt of pride that comes with overcoming someone with a better reputation, so familiar from my early coaching days at Rutgers.

I’m still not sure I have what it takes to do this professionally. But it’s become increasingly clear that the shape, structure, and payouts of tournaments are vastly more to my style and liking than the hourly grind of the cash game. There’s vastly more strategy in the former environment, where the playing field is somewhat leveled (entirely so if one isolates the ability to rebuy entry) and survival is the primary object. The latter brings looser and crazier play, which can both be an advantage for the patient strategist, but leads to wilder variance in a world governed by probability rather than fixed outcomes. Of course, New Orleans has almost infinitely more opportunity to play cash than tournaments, so being a full-time tournament player would require precisely the kind of journeyman travel that Alex got me to give up by leaving the debate world in the first place. The long-term nature of the “circuit” as both traveling weekendly tours are called, with its repeat players and uneasy camaraderie punctuated by vicious eliminations, is perhaps the greatest parallel between these two similar universes.

But I have found enough consistent success, at least a few months in, to feel that my self-evaluation of my ability to hack it in this world is not overblown. That I have the general skillset to hang with even the long-term professionals. I still probably want to supplement this lifestyle with a health-insurance-offering employment of some sort, preferably one that works against the capitalist structure or at least helps people somehow. But approaching a half-year of this experiment, I feel grateful (on Thanksgiving!) to have found another competitive environment where I can find periodic success and consistent outlet for the competitive strategic parts of my brain that constantly pressure me for release. And perhaps I owe no small amount of this ability to being forged in the nerve-wracking fires of fourteen years of competitive debate in one role or another.

by

Diary of a Mariners Fan, Circa September 2014

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Know When to Fold 'Em, Let's Go M's, Tags: , , ,

I wear a Mariners jacket frequently in the cold cold poker rooms I’ve been trying to turn into my office of late. Sometimes I wear a matching hat that attests to my fandom. When I was nearing the money-bubble of the tournament I wound up winning last month in Biloxi, Alex and I were admiring custom card-protectors that an independent vendor was selling. We decided to get a Mariners one if I cashed. But then Alex snuck off and got me the M’s one anyway and plopped it on my table for good luck. Worked pretty well. Now I bring it with me everywhere, even though I’ve now had a bad week that’s starting to make me question the whole project as only poker slumps can so routinely do.

With all this adornment and living in Louisiana now, I frequently get mistaken for a tourist from the northwest. Maybe I always have been, in a way, though my sense of home is receding more and more every day having now added another major region of the US to my list of lived locales. An Atlanta tourist on my left yesterday asked if I lived here and I said I just moved and he said I bet I can say from where and I said you’d be wrong. I’ve actually never lived in Seattle, never been there for more than a week at a stretch, if even that. Probably four days is my longest consecutive stint. People can’t really imagine what someone who hadn’t lived there would be doing with all this Mariners gear, though my interest was of course initially local. I explain “I lived in Oregon when I was growing up and got into sports.” And then people often ask about what it was like to be in Oregon in my teens or twenties and by the time I get to the Bay Area or Jersey on my corrective list, their eyes are glazed from all the movement.

People want to relate to people in a poker room, make a connection. The practice can be almost as solitary as writing sometimes, the struggles with one’s own discipline just as intense. Other people help as a distraction or a buffer, a way of making the idea of sitting at a table with strangers and trying to take their money more pleasant and palatable. And so many people in New Orleans are tourists and hoping to say that they know what your hometown is like too, that they have a past experience that connects with yours. But unless they are Cubs fans, they probably don’t, at least not when it comes to my jacket and card-protector.

In 2001, weeks after September 11th, I holed up with one of my best friends, a Yankees fan (Russ), to watch Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The Mariners were down 2-1 but had just crushed the Evil Empire 14-3. It wasn’t totally PC to call the team the Evil Empire in the wake of them losing the city’s two tallest buildings the month prior. But after setting an American League record for wins (116) that season after consecutively losing Hall-of-Fame-caliber super-stars Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson in three straight seasons, it seemed like the M’s had finally found a way to outwit the perennial favorites, who were sitting on a paltry 95 wins by comparison. The matchup pitted Paul Abbott against Roger Clemens, the back-burners of the rotation for each team that year despite Clemens’ reputation.

The game was a nail-biter to end all nail-biters. Both pitchers escaped danger, gave way to bullpens that did the same. No one scored till the 8th. The M’s scratched a run, Bret Boone belting a homer, Russ threw something, and with the Mariners bullpen that year, it looked like we were bound to tie the series in Yankee Stadium and shades of 1995 were coming back. In 1995, the first year the M’s ever made the playoffs, they lost the first two games of a series with the Yankees only to win 3 in a row, including an 11th inning comeback in the decisive Game 5. Dropping the first two to the Yankees, even at home, was nothing.

And then, at the start of the bottom of the 8th, Lou Piniella went to the bullpen. I couldn’t believe that he was touching his left arm. A smile started to curl on the side of Russ’ face. He was going to get Arthur Rhodes to pitch the 8th.

I love Arthur Rhodes. He’s one of my favorite Mariners of all-time. But that year, he was struggling mightily down the stretch. You could just tell something was wrong with him, every fan could see it. It was the weight of the series with the Yankees or the magnitude of events unfolding in the country that had pushed the ALCS back to October 21st. It was the cold. It was something. And everyone involved with the Mariners knew there was a problem, except for dear Sweet Lou. He blithely stood by his veteran lefty and let the chips fall where they may.

The chips fell in the outfield seats. Bernie Williams clocked a 3-2 pitch out of the Stadium and my yelling at the television since Rhodes had been brought in died down. There was nothing to do anymore but watch.

By the time Kaz Sasaki, record-setter that year for saves by a Mariner, gave up a home-run to Alfonso Soriano, it seemed like I had known the script the whole time. From the moment Lou tapped his left arm or maybe even from the 116th win or maybe from the time the towers fell. This was a Yankees year. You can’t fight destiny. I silently departed Russ’ dorm and he silently let me go, both of us knowing that had the outcome been the opposite we would have been screaming at each other. He’s a sore loser; I’m a sore winner. We are both quiet and contemplative the other way, him seeing winning as his natural state and me the opposite. A lifetime of rooting for baseball franchises with these outcomes.

Game 5 in the series was a formality. The Yankees scored 4 in the 3rd and won by 9. The Mariners have not played a playoff game since.

October 22, 2001.

Two nights ago, I watched the Angels put that kind of a beat-down on Seattle. I made myself watch every inning, every pitch, even when we were down 5-0 early, then 7-0, then 8-0. An 8-1 loss. The M’s are chasing Kansas City for the second wild-card and Oakland for the first wild-card and sort of Detroit, who is winning the AL Central, in case they drop into the wild card. Oakland was off, but Detroit broke a 6-6 tie with 2 in the 9th and won. Kansas City was down 3-0 for most of the game and down 3-2 in the ninth when they used a wild pitch and an infield single to beat the Minnesota closer and win. After spending all summer tempting fans into believing that this could be the year that 13 years of suffering and the memory of Arthur Rhodes end, it looked like one bad night in mid-September was gonna wreck it.

And then there was yesterday.

Yesterday, the M’s were down 2-0 and unable to get any runs. They were getting shut down by another middling starter as they so often do, the bats just refusing to connect with the ball, Seattle looking lost and frustrated. I was deciding how much longer I could watch this series in Anaheim, a matchup with baseball’s best team this year, a series the Mariners desperately need to win if they are to stay in the race. And then, the Angels somewhat inexplicably pulled their pitcher.

It was only the 5th inning.

Walk. Hit by a pitch on an 0-2 count. Bunt that was initially ruled safe at first but overturned on replay. Double, 2-2. Double, 3-2. Pitching change. Strikeout. Double, 4-2. Intentional walk. Groundout.

Okay! This we can work with. The M’s new pitcher, a replacement for Roenis Elias, who had gone down with an injury (because why not?), went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 5th. Hoping for a little insurance in the 6th…

Single. Double. Single, 5-2. Hit by pitch. Fly out. Single, 6-2. Pitching change. Sacrifice fly, 7-2. Single and a misfired throw to third, 9-2. Single, 10-2. Pitching change. Double. Lineout.

10-2. Holy cow.

The Mariners won 13-2.

Kansas City lost. Oakland lost. Detroit lost.

And suddenly, the Mariners were 1 game out of one playoff spot, 2 games out of a better one, and had remembered how to bat.

That was last night. There are twelve games left in the season.

The Yankees will not be making the playoffs this year. Their biggest star from last year is now a Mariner, though Ichiro Suzuki is still a Yankee. The Mariners have five more games against the best team in baseball. Who they just beat, 13-2. Who fatefully collapsed in 1995 to save baseball in Seattle, leading to the playoffs and the ALCS and eventually blowing up the Kingdome.

Twelve games to decide the fate of thirteen years. Even if the playoffs now can just be one game. A one-game wild card “series” to determine who has the right to play for some real October baseball. Twelve games.

All I can do for now is grab the card-protector, put on the jacket, play my best, and be home for gametime. 9:10 Central. Let’s go M’s.

I know this is stressful, Roenis.  The runs are coming.

I know this is stressful, Roenis. The runs are coming.


NB: This post confused events in the 2001 ALCS with those in the 2000 ALCS, as clarified and corrected in the subsequent post. This original post remains unedited, however, save for this note.

by

For the Love of the Game

Categories: A Day in the Life, Know When to Fold 'Em, Let's Go M's, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , , ,

Me, a little after midnight on the Sunday/Monday border, after winning Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Me, a little after midnight on the Sunday/Monday border, after winning Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi.

I like competing. I like games. I like situations that produce winners and losers with high regularity. I like this stuff a lot.

But why?

After I posted about my first-ever tournament win of a large poker tournament on Facebook Monday (I won Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship, though the prize money ended in a 5-way chop for just under $5k apiece), old friend and Rutgers debater David Reiss queried about how I could reconcile a love of gambling with my political views about equality and the unimportance of wealth. It’s a good question and one that I wrestle with a lot as I try to embark on a run at playing poker more or less full-time.

My first run at a response was this:

“It’s complicated, and probably not entirely resolved like any of the myriad compromises innate to living in this society. A thumbnail sketch is probably that money is pretty much always zero-sum and thus any pay is coming out of someone’s pocket and at least poker is upfront about that fact as opposed to cloaking it. 90-95% of the people who play poker regularly, especially tournaments, can afford to lose what they’re playing with. There are definitely exceptions and I definitely feel bad about that. But I’ve made money off of student loan debt most recently, as well as donations that people intended to go directly to the poor/homeless, so I don’t think you can make money in this world as structured without it carrying some burden of guilt.

And I don’t think it’s a mystery how I feel about competitive strategics being the main basis of how well one does as far as a professional use of time.”

I could certainly write a treatise on the first and primary paragraph of that comment and probably will at some point – the challenges of being a human being in a society structured like modern America and aspiring to do good and not feel guilty all the time are things I explore with regularity internally and, when people will listen, externally. But this post is mostly going to tackle how for-granted I take the latter statement, the love of strategy and competition for their own sake and how competition seems to be its own reward.

There are plenty of semi-rabid type-A people for whom competition as its own reward seems like the obvious order of things. And while I certainly spent much of my youth being a Very Serious Person and extreme grade-skipping had a huge impact of my world-view of myself relative to others, I think I managed pretty well to avoid being a type-A bulldog. I was known during my collegiate debate career as one of the least competitive-driven and forceful people of the top tier of debaters on the circuit, the one far less likely to make novices cry in a round and even less likely to gloat over said outcome, which was seen as a near-virtuous norm for most of my rivals. I still wanted to win, I just didn’t want to make other people feel bad about me winning and I also valued things like discourse and people enjoying the round.

But for a believer in equality, I still get an awful lot of utility out of winning things. To the point that I can look at my middle twenties, between graduating college in mid-2002 and starting coaching college debate in mid-2009, as this kind of desert where I was constantly craving competitive outlets. I took my adult-league kickball team far too seriously in the Bay Area for a couple years, played online video games for vastly more time than I should have, and made a reputation for myself at poker night with friends or game night with the Garin family as the sorest winner and the trashiest talker. Just as Emily was craving the approval of grades, I was constantly seeking ways of winning things or at least riding the roller-coaster of winning and losing that competition breeds. Coaching RUDU felt like this sweet relief, partially for the intellectuality of APDA, but certainly partly just to be on the weekly run of W’s and L’s.

One outlet for this competitive angst that was a constant during that part of my life and dates back to the late 80’s is, of course, my love of baseball. And specifically the Seattle Mariners, another kind of irrational output of energy and emotion and competitive spirit for me. I have wrestled with this part of my personality a lot. Being a sports fan is kind of an objective waste of time in about twenty different ways. These teams are chosen more or less arbitrarily, have no innate value, and the presence of sports in our society puts jocks on a pedestal above those who probably objectively deserve more respect and takes massive amounts of resources away from nobler pursuits. But I absolutely adore baseball and the Mariners and I don’t know how to stop. There is real beauty in the game, there is real love in my heart for the symbols and pageantry and presence of the Mariners and all they represent, their history and their struggles and their logo, and I can’t really justify it any more than I could explain to you why I like cucumbers but not pickles. And I feel bad for it, sometimes, especially when I think about what baseballs are made out of, but I can’t help it. I truly deeply love the Mariners and baseball and will probably never stop watching, no matter how socially dubious the impact of sports is on our society.

I mean, sure. Sports are a place where diversity is celebrated, especially baseball as probably the truly most diverse sport, and ideally and eventually sports should replace wars, and there is a social outlet and recreational outlet for people and I guess sports-consciousness fights obesity in theory, though probably not in practice. I guess it’s not like holding on to some sort of love of weaponry or slaughterhouses, quite. But all of those are probably pretty flimsy justifications in the face of cities who fund huge stadiums for millionaires to cavort in but won’t build more housing for their homeless.

Now obviously being a Mariners fan since 2001 has been heartbreaking (as though 2001 itself weren’t heartbreaking enough, when the M’s set an American League record for wins and then couldn’t even make the World Series) and this leads to another aspect of competition that bears questioning. Why voluntarily put so much emotional energy into the hands of something out of one’s control? And why invest so much time into observing something that will result in upsetting you at least 40% of the time and often, with the M’s, closer to 60% of the time? Isn’t that definitively crazy? I know “fan” is short for “fanatic”, which sort of implies some instability, but why put so much of your mood in the hands of something so iffy? Is it just because everyone else is doing it?

I thought about this a bit in that mid-twenties period and really even experimented with letting go of baseball fandom and the Mariners a bit more, even while still wearing M’s jackets and hats more days than not. It didn’t take. I still wanted to watch most of their games, even in the down seasons, still followed their players like they were friends of mine. And it’s not like I was raised on this from an early age. My Dad gets a little competitive when playing Risk, but both of my parents kind of blinked at me when I told them I wanted to play Little League. They carried this “Sports?? Really?” look around for about a year or so, while still being supportive of my interest, until they’d gone to enough games to kind of fall in love with baseball along with me. I went out and found and chose this all on my own and now it’s just deeply embedded.

I don’t think this post ends with a neat little bow, some tie-in conclusion that explains it all or offers up just the right balance of reflection and thought-provocation. Truth is, I got nothing. I feel like competitive outlets are somewhere between water and food in my daily priority list, but I have no idea why. And I know that a lot of what I most loved about debate, both as a competitor and a coach, is found in poker as well, which is the strategic aspect. The constant intellectual stimulation, the dynamism of all these different personalities and perspectives vying for the same goals and taking different routes to it, and trying to outsmart everyone and get as much control of the situation as possible. This is found in good board games as well, in most of the competitive outlets I have. It’s entirely absent in baseball, of course, except vicariously. Real players and managers get to enjoy the game on that level, but the rest of us can only watch. Then again, despite my clear preference for intellectual pursuits to athletic ones, I still mostly wanted to be a major leaguer from early Little League to late high school. The competitive drive is deeply ingrained and fierce.

Obviously, if I can keep winning tournaments at poker, this monstrous competitive drive within will be sufficiently quenched that I don’t need to keep finding more things to feed it with. That said, one of my first thoughts upon winning and internalizing how much money had been at stake was that I could now seriously consider flying to Seattle if the Mariners make the playoffs this season for the first time in 13 years.

Maybe it’s all just a form of love. If I’ve learned anything in three and a half decades on Earth, it’s that love is the most irrational thing of all.

by

Elegy for AC

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Hypothetically Speaking, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Tags: , , , , ,

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

The first month I lived in New Jersey, Fish and I went to see Counting Crows play at the Borgata and then stayed up most all of the night playing poker. I wrote about it here, at the time. The month I moved away, we did the same thing. It’s just one of those things. Like the only PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans on Earth outside of the southern US being in Highland Park, New Jersey when I moved there and closing the month I move to New Orleans. It’s enough to make you a solipsist, or at least to be very focused with one’s own life, something Counting Crows shows always have a way of doing, as I’ve talked about recently in the wake of a just earlier show.

There’s a theory I have sometimes, that I think about more than I’d care to, about life as Contract Bridge. It’s a version of solipsism and probably something that just missed inclusion in The Best of All Possible Worlds but might even make a decent sequel if that book were up for that sort of thing. In any event, the idea doesn’t necessitate solipsism, though it certainly implies it or a warped expanded kind of meta-solipsism. The idea is that there are a million of each of us out there, living on parallel worlds, and we’re all basically playing our own individual video games of our own lives, but it’s being scored and at the end you get compared to the other versions of yourself out there. I use this notion to both berate and reassure myself, the idea that there is a Storey Clayton abroad in some far-flung galaxy who took exactly the opportunities I had and is a renowned and well-regarded author with several books that are even now changing his society. Or hell, just a Storey Clayton who was able to not have a marriage taken from him. That would be neat. It’s not always a way of lamenting my fate, it’s at least half the time a way of trying to kick my own rear into gear and remind myself how much potential and opportunity I’ve truly had, which only occasionally slips into a reminder of how pathetically I’ve squandered it.

The circumstances of August 2009 were so vastly different than June 2014 that they don’t even seem like the same planet. But we kept making references to the earlier time, overlooking things like spending the day seeing “500 Days of Summer” earlier that weekend, how significant I found that movie at the time without being able to envision any portends of my own impending doom (reason: there weren’t any portends). We didn’t wait as long in line this time and weren’t quite as close, but the show itself was so much better for the lack of accompanying bands going crazy. The Toad opener was awesome, especially being able to get to see “Something’s Always Wrong”, Fish’s old them song, live with him. And “Windmills” again, which always kills me. The lead singer of Toad kept referencing how crazy it was that the band had broken up 16 years ago and you could feel this kind of reference to the idea that Counting Crows had been together the whole time and what could have been for him and then. You got the feeling that the decade and a half felt like a wasted blur to him. I haven’t seen their VH1 special (if applicable) and don’t know what demons, chemical or otherwise, he may have spent the last few years wrestling with, but I could really relate to the implied sentiment. Of course, one goes to Counting Crows shows to relate with what’s on stage, whether it works or not. That’s just what you do. Hearing him say “We’re hear to sing songs about sad people so you don’t have to,” made me boggle that I’d never heard Adam Duritz drop a line like that.

It would be a fitting epigraph for half my own fiction. Or maybe all of it. There’s always more novels to come.

Fish had sort of promised Madeleine and/or himself that we wouldn’t stay out quite as late this time, but we’d gotten a hotel room in anticipation of breaking that pledge and break it we did. Fish had perhaps his best night of his life on the poker table and then I went to show him Revel before they close it. For the uninformed, it’s a casino that was built to be high-end, 1% style that started building in 2008, which is every bit the disaster you’d expect it to be. By the time they opened it in 2012, it was already bleeding money from every drain. The state owns it now, functionally, and is probably shutting it down in September unless they can find someone to buy it. It’s one of the most beautiful places to gamble I’ve ever seen (I’ve been seeing a lot lately) and the poker room was perhaps my favorite, a place where I always made money and spent one really fun weekend when they’d just opened sipping luxury coffee and scooping some pretty big pots. The poker room closed a while ago, shortly after I cashed in a tournament there, but the rest of the floor is still really beautiful if you can avoid eye contact with the suicidally depressed employees. Revel convinced thousands of people with great casino jobs in NJ and Philly to quit to come to the only place anyone was supposed to be playing after 2012. But the place was bankrupt less than a year after opening and it’s almost all over. We put five bucks on three numbers of a roulette wheel, hit one of them, played a couple more rounds, and walked away with even more of the state of New Jersey’s money.

Then we ran out to the beach to watch the sun rise and take in all the things people feel on beaches when it’s way past bedtime. (Yes, CC played “A Long December,” and there’s all that baggage out there too.) The sands of time, the tides of time, the significance of half a decade spent in a state that I’ve always hated (and it’s grown on me, but only in terms of a few people and really just RUDU, to be honest… even Rutgers as a whole did next to nothing to endear me to the institution), a state that’s made me suffer more concretely than any other by a long shot. The relief and exultation I feel to be leaving the physical state of New Jersey, even despite missing RUDU and access to Philly and AC, is constantly palpable even now, a month and a half after departure. I don’t really believe in curses, but I do believe that significance is infused in time and space, even if it’s only in how we think it makes us feel. Good God.

Since getting here to New Orleans (and playing poker a lot, which is my trial job for now… so far, so good, and yes, I’m monitoring it closely so don’t panic), a lot of people have been talking about Atlantic City like it’s in hospice care. And to be sure, casinos are drying up left and right. Not just Revel, but Alex’s favorite, Showboat, itself something New Orleans themed in New Jersey, is slated to close in September, even though it’s still turning a profit. Pennsylvania just passed NJ as second state in the country for gambling revenues and explains a lot of why AC is falling apart… the Philadelphia market and I-95 corridor now have alternatives that don’t require burning as much $3.50 a gallon gas. Honestly, I just tell people these days that the Mob couldn’t shut down competition forever and I think that explains AC’s demise as much as anything. There’s a lot of grand metaphors to be made about how much America has turned to gambling in the last decade as a balm for its problems and I should honestly be the last to complain given my new attempted livelihood and its enabling, but it does feel like the habit of a country in decline. But then we’ve always been a nation of get-rich-quick and when the bootstraps snap in our hands, I guess the craps table looks as enticing as anything else.

Before I left, a lot of people expressed concern at the proverbial crosshairs I was putting myself into by moving to New Orleans, what with the crime and especially the flooding and the hurricanes. I hastened to point out to them that in the time I lived in New Jersey, New Brunswick got hit with two hurricanes while New Orleans experienced zero. Yes, the specter of Katrina looms large over everything here, but the larger point is that you can spend your whole life running from certain things and planning for certain others. You don’t have any more control over your life than you do over how those dice land. It sure feels like you do because you threw them, but really you’re just facing a series of decisions with very limited information and the best of hopes and intentions but no real power. It should be liberating in a way, though it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of doing the best with the very limited control you do have. You need to savor what you’ve got. But in the end, it’s the sun and the tides and the seven billion other people who are running this show, not you.

I’ve been struggling with how to write about the past and the present now that I’m ensconced, sort of, in New Orleans. It’s complicated by the fact that the move still isn’t settled here and I don’t know how to talk about that and am not sure I really even want to, at least for now. But there were so many experiences along the way that I was too busy and overwhelmed to discuss, the move (never ever use All-in-One Moving, ever, people), the trip to Orlando and the Georgia beaches where we watched a sea turtle lay eggs and crawl back to the water, everything that’s happened in the city of the fleur-de-lis. And maybe these are best discussed in reflection. One sure as heck doesn’t know how to describe waiting eight hours in a line for an amusement park ride while that’s happening. But it feels crazy to be posting a Counting Crows setlist five weeks in arrears. Or it would if I didn’t spend every morning singing “Cover Up the Sun” to myself in anticipation of the new album now less than a month away.

I will probably never again visit an Atlantic City that looks like the one I spent a decent amount of time in during my five-year tenure in New Jersey. But that’s okay, change is the only constant. All these “New”s are attached to these cities and states to remind us of that. Someday maybe I’ll take a tour of only the olds, hit Mexico and Jersey and Brunswick and York and Orleans. All places, save Mexico I guess, trumped by their newer bigger better counterparts. Before we all hit the tables and gambled away our fortunes. You do remember that’s what happened in 2008, don’t you?

This underwater city seems like as good a place as any to hole up for now. If the apocalypse hit, everyone would help each other out. They’ve done it before. That’s enough change for me today.

God, I didn’t even really talk about the show as much as I wanted. That’s what happens when you let it sit for five weeks. It was a short but powerful set. And they even played Mr. Jones, sparing me the ability to rant about one-song-fans for another few months, though I tell you the rant is pretty sweet. I sure wasn’t expecting that, but I was expecting “Potter” somehow right after “Earthquake Driver”, which I want to put on the record would be the Crows’ biggest hit in years and years on the charts if they release it as a single. Instead, it seems like they’re releasing the 9-minute “Palisades Park” first, which seems to show that now 50-year-old Duritz likes his current touring regimen and is done with big-time fame, even if they did just sign with Capitol. The song does sound like a stream-of-consciousness hybrid of his favorite themes of the last few years. Ah well, we all just want to be understood. That’s what this particular video game/life is about.

Counting Crows
28 June 2014
The Borgata – Atlantic City, New Jersey
with Toad the Wet Sprocket

Round Here (Palisades Park alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Richard Manuel is Dead
Mr. Jones
Colorblind
Start Again
Omaha
Earthquake Driver
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
A Long December
Cover Up the Sun
Hanginaround

Palisades Park
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain