Why I Quit Gambling

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I’ve bet on the Kentucky Derby every year since I was 18 years old (the legal age for betting on horse races). Usually, by this time of year, I’m ankle-deep in research and racing forms. I’m looking for value, I’m looking for edges. I’m reading as many articles as I can about every horse, just to see if something is mentioned that makes me reconsider a bet. I once hit a 24/1 shot at the Belmont Stakes because an article mentioned the horse’s high red blood count. That horse was Ruler on Ice. This year, I don’t even know the names of the horses running. Today is the Kentucky Derby. I’ll be doing anything but visiting the OTB or tvg.com. This will disappoint some friends as much as it disappoints me. We won’t be sharing the camaraderie of the gamble -- wherein we tease that each other’s horse is a donkey; or upon losing a bet that our horse, no matter their prior record, is a “real piece a shit;” nor will we accuse each other of desperately “whistling in a canyon” just before the race bell; and we definitely won’t, as was the rare case with Ruler on Ice, be sharing in victory. I won’t even be hosting a Derby Party.

I feel embarrassed to say I have a gambling problem because I have friends that struggle with addiction -- alcohol, heroin, etc. To put something as seemingly trivial as gambling in the same boat as chemical dependency feels wrong, like I’m cheapening their struggles. Do I really have the balls to say, “You might be shooting junk into your body, but I’ll stand at a roulette table until I’m completely broke.” Even the DSM-IV, released in 1994, classified gambling problems under “impulse control disorders not elsewhere classified” alongside things like compulsive hair-pulling, kleptomania, and pyromania. It wasn’t until the DSM-V, released in 2013, that gambling problems were categorized within Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders.

Of course, it’s not really up to me to tell you how a gambling problem is, or should be, classified. I can only tell you what it feels like on my end.

I can tell you that while writing the first paragraph of this essay I kept thinking, “What’s the harm, really, if I just take a peek at the names of the horses?” I can tell you winning a bet doesn’t feel as good as simply playing. In fact, winning can often feel disappointing. Yes, there is the initial thrill of hitting a big bet -- but, the crash comes quick to the tune of a little nagging voice saying, “I should have bet more.” I can tell you it feels like you can learn from this voice, that betting more the next time is the solution. I can tell you betting more is never enough. I can tell you that I could make the biggest bet of my life, with all cash on hand, hit big, and still think, “Why didn’t I sell my car first?” I can tell you my options were always one of two: leaving a gambling establishment with no money, or near nothing; or winning and returning the next day to blow it all. I can tell you that while losing is frustrating and depressing, in many ways it’s better -- because it produces a logical reason to keep playing: to get even. And I can tell you what it felt like the first, and only time, I went to Las Vegas.

It was last July 2016. I was there because my dad and stepmom were renewing their vows at a famous Elvis Chapel (which is really fun, by the way). The lore of Vegas exists in the minds of all gamblers. It’s our Xanadu, our Emerald City. With glitz and plastic charm the city exists without time nor logic, only the elusive Bacchanalia that come from the promise of winning big. In Vegas the electricity I always felt in my knees when entering a casino or OTB was amplified. There it swelled to frenzy. Every snap of a card, every shuffled stack of checks, every slot bell was a siren song. One night, watching Jersey Boys on stage, as I sat in the audience with my family, I felt the weight of the chips in my pocket. I checked often to be sure they hadn’t fallen out, that a hole hadn’t developed as I sat there. With a hand on my thigh I felt the ridges of the chips through my pant leg. I counted them in my head. Fidgeting with them. The One Ring, calling. While I enjoyed the show, my attention was split between the performance and forming a strategy on how to get to the roulette table closest to the venue doors. I thought, the show will end and I'll make a beeline to the table and make two quick bets on RED32 -- one of only two numbers I played ever since they hit it a decade before. No one will mind, I thought. I’ll be quick.

That’s exactly what I did. And the worst thing happened: RED32 hit twice in a row. The adrenaline surged. I hit peak excitement. I wanted to keep playing. I forgot I was there with family and my future wife. It was just me for a moment, and when my family objected to me playing more, I snapped: “For fuck’s sake, I haven’t told anyone what to do, or what not to do, so why can’t I just do what I feel like for once?!” I was impervious to reason. The crash was coming. The frenzy. My family went off to the SkyVue Wheel (the height of which legitimately terrifies me, which was a convenient excuse not to join them), and I found a blackjack table. I sat next to couple from New Zealand who told me they love Americans, that we’re all so nice. They smoked cigarettes as we chatted, my chip stack ever-shrinking. By the time I got a text message that my family was off the SkyVue, I was sitting on a garden wall waiting. I’d lost everything won at the roulette table.

Over the course of three days, I spent every spare moment, between family activities, gambling. When it was time to move on to a new activity my mind whispered, "Just one more bet." When I lost that bet, it meant the next one was a sure thing; when I won, it was a sign to continue. When I was up, I increased my bets. When I was down I bet even bigger. When I was tapped, I hit the ATM. The closest I came to clarity was as I sat on a stool at the $15-per-hand swim-up blackjack table at Caesar’s. There I asked myself, "How much can you possibly win? What kind of a streak would you have to go on to break even?" The path to that end was improbable -- impossible. But, as I sat there thinking this -- knowing that I could never win back what I lost -- my hands continued to push the chips forward.

By the end of the trip, I'd gambled every penny I had. The second leg of our trip was in California. My parents were meeting my girlfriend’s parents for the first time and I was broke. My dad, knowing me well, saw something was wrong and I told him I’d lost all my money in Las Vegas. He bailed me out. What’s worse, our parents were meeting for the first time because they knew, two months later, Julie would propose to me and surprise me with a wedding. And there I was, a selfish heel, under the influence of some ridiculous compulsion.

At Thanksgiving a few months later I played poker with my closest friends -- my family. Some people will tell you that poker “isn’t gambling. It’s a skill game.” It’s both. To say it isn’t gambling is misleading because no matter how good you are at playing odds or reading opponents, you’re still making wagers. You’re still reaching into your own pocket with the risk of losing what you take out. That night I had moments of playing well, but not many. I dipped into my pocket repeatedly, long into the wee hours, until nothing was left. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I remember the feeling. Me against the chips. My opponents could have been ghosts. All I knew was I had to keep playing. I needed the chips back.

A few times in this article I’ve mentioned that what I lost “wasn’t a lot of money.” This is because I didn’t have much to begin with. What scares me is this: if losing a few thousand doesn’t bother me, why would more? It wouldn’t. Being married, knowing what we share, who knows how quickly I may delve into that pot? As much as I know I wouldn’t consciously betray or steal from someone I love, I also know how deep desperation can run in moments when the urge requires me to act outside responsibility. It’s better not to put myself in that position.My goal is to never gamble again.

In the months since being in Las Vegas, I’ve developed a strong interest in tabletop gaming and designing. I haven’t looked to see if there is any documented connection between gambling addiction and tabletop gaming, but it’s clear enough: the new interest satisfies the prior. I enjoy playing games and the only thing I lose is the cost of the game itself. You could count time as a resource lost, but one of the nicest things about tabletop gaming is it's social. It brings people, sometimes strangers or very new friends, together to share an experience. In that sense, it echoes my love of cinema, making time a pleasantly spent coin. Playing and designing games has satisfied my creative needs, and helped redirect the urge to wager into something far less damaging.

Today is the real test. I just Googled “Kentucky Derby Post Time,” because I want to know for the sake of this article what time the race goes off. As the site loaded, and last year’s race video played automatically, I felt a tingle. I felt my posture change. I felt the swell of anxiety and the whisper of, “What’s one bet?” I got the information I wanted and closed the browser tab. Today’s race goes off at 6:34 ET.

I’m an advocate of change, and understand its mechanics. While we all fall into habits and patterns, change can occur in moments when we have the option to choose X over our standard course of action. In doing so, we change a pattern and make the conscious choice to start down a new path.The trick is catching ourselves when the adrenaline runs high. To breathe and use our mind. Today, when the starting bell goes off for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, and I find myself without a ticket in my pocket for the first time in twenty years, it’ll not only be a small victory, but a relief.

Winston Churchill Never Said That (& Other Problems Liberals Have)

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Consider this image for a moment:

It’s a nice sentiment. It furthers the liberal narrative. The problem is, Churchill never said it. It took me 10 seconds to learn this

While I share beliefs* with a majority of left-leaning Americans, I hate being on the side of those willing to overlook truth, or bend truth, just to suit a narrative. 

Even amidst dreams and hope, the left's strongest allies have always been truth and thoughtfulness -- and the strength those values provide. These days, the left is acting no better than the right did during the Obama years, indulging conspiracy theories and half-truths to further a narrative. It is, after all, nicer to believe something that supports an agenda than it is to believe something damaging. But in pushing a narrative one way or another, in the absence of proof, we abandon values. We become no better than those that perpetuated the Obama-Birther claims. Examples like the Churchill quote seem like no big deal, but it in fact damages our collective ability to reason. In constant practice we will become no less zealous than those we bemoan.

Of course, I would love to believe some of the theories going around -- we all would. Trump leaked his own tax return, the travel ban is only a distraction, Trump is intentionally inciting protests to cause “resistance fatigue,” etc. But wanting to believe something for the sake of comfort, narrative, or personal agenda, is dangerous because it makes the next lie easier to believe. While diligence with what we post and share is important, it is equally important to practice diligence in our own ability to perceive, lest we fall into the trap of apophenia.

Consider: how often has Trump opened his mouth (or Twitter) to claim a falsehood just to drive a narrative and to rial up constituents? How can we expect to prevail if we’re no better? You might be thinking, “We have to fight fire with fire.” But, we won’t prevail through hypocrisy. 

Some of you might be saying, “Yeah, but that Churchill meme is just for fun,” or “It helps morale.” Point taken. But, if Churchill didn’t say it, that makes it propaganda -- the strongest cog in the machine of political narrative. No civilization or movement has ever prevailed by standing beholden to propaganda, because the lies propaganda stands on always crumble. Rather, we must stand beholden to the one immutable concept that will maintain good, and ultimately allow us to find foundation and strength in the chaos of the Trump administration.

That concept is truth.

*Individuals should be able to marry who they want and use the bathrooms they deem appropriate; health care should be affordable (or free) for all Americans; college should be free or affordable; in general, fortunate people should help those struggling.

An Open Letter to Friends of the United States of America, from the United States of America

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Dear Fellow Democracies,

You know how sometimes a close friend has a Significant Other you can’t stand? That Significant Other is Donald Trump. That close friend is us, the United States.

I get that you won't wanna hang out for a while, that our SO makes you uncomfortable, that the little things we used to share -- casual drinks, game nights, diplomacy -- are going to have to be put on hold for a while. Unfortunately, we have to let this relationship run its course. I know, I know, it sounds absurd, and we know it won't end well. But, like all before us, we must learn from our own mistakes on our own time. Please, for the next four years (hopefully sooner) ignore the things our SO says and does. I realize this may be difficult considering a lot of what he says and does will have a direct effect on you, and therefore our friendship, but our hands are tied. We’re really really sorry.

I can feel you rolling your eyes. We deserve it. In hindsight, even attempting a relationship with Donald Trump was ill-advised. We should have seen the red flags. I don't know how we didn't.

We can't expect you to understand, but please believe we feel really disillusioned and embarrassed by all this. We're just in a weird spot right now and we need some time to get our shit together, ya know? As for you and us: we’ve been good friends for a long time. I hope you'll still be there when we've come to our senses.

Love always,

The United States of America

Silence: Thoughts on the Film & Religion

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When I see a film by a respected filmmaker, I don’t worry much about craft or narrative. I may notice the photography, and take note of the storytelling choices, but more often I ask a simple question: “What is this filmmaker trying to do?” -- specifically when the intent isn’t very clear. Never has this question led to so many follow-up questions as Martin Scorsese’s Silence. The story follows two Jesuit priests into Japan on their quest to find Father Ferrerra, who is rumored to have apostatized -- abandoned his faith.
Going into the theater I asked the guy at the ticket counter if he’d seen the film, and if he liked it. He said it was “Good,” and “a quick 3 hours.” It was. Another woman, exiting the theater put her hand over her heart and sighed. She said it was beautiful. It was.
So, why didn’t I care about what I was watching? I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t moved.
One of the things I learned about myself after the viewing is I’m not nearly spiritual enough to follow stories of steadfast devotion with the same interest that I follow stories of tangible human qualities -- or even intangible human emotion. With Silence I grasp (or at least accept) the passion of the Jesuit priests, but once they cross the threshold of reason, wherein their devotion becomes damaging not only to themselves, but to the people that follow them, I found only one moral: religion begets madness, begets pain and suffering.
This moral came to me early in the film. Doubting this was Scorsese’s point, I tried to look past my personal views of religion and faith. What else could Scorsese have been saying?
I thought about the title, Silence, and how The Grand Inquisitor forced Padre Rodrigues to watch his followers be tortured. To end the suffering, all Rodrigues had to do was step on the face of Jesus Christ. The Japanese told him to step and their suffering would end. “It’s just a formality,” the Japanese guards repeated. What made it a formality? It would seem the answer is in the title. Devotion doesn’t have to be preached, so long as it’s in your heart. Believe what you want, and keep it quiet. Stop preaching to the people that don’t want it, need it, or understand it. Step on the face of Christ, just for a show, just to end the suffering. The inability of the Jesuit priests to at first undertake this formality has more to do with psychology than devotion.
Or, maybe the film is a commentary on religious missionary work. Maybe Scorsese is asking the ultra-devout to leave people alone, to practice religion personally, and to keep their trap shut about it. This interpretation maybe extends into the practice of mis-preaching doctrine, which leads to violent zealotry. Maybe he’s saying the oral history of religion has led to the violence we now know. Maybe if people were left to interpret on their own, the world would be less horrible. When Scorsese puts the camera high above the Jesuit priests as they embark on their journey, putting us at the perspective of God, is he asking us to judge? When, at this angle, and we cannot tell if the priests are climbing or descending a stairway, is he saying that their path is misguided -- or perhaps, their purpose an illusion?
At one point in the film the Jesuits speak of Truth. They know Truth to be a universal concept. They also know the Lord is Truth, and hence, if they preach the word of the Lord “how can it be anything but Truth?” This circular reasoning is impenetrable. It cannot be argued with for its defense it built into itself, and sadly, this reasoning still exists in the 21st Century. To be clear, Silence is set in the 1600s. Is it possible this is Scorsese's commentary on the ability to reason in the modern world?
Ultimately, my experience with the film echoes the model of religious pitfall -- the psychology around which the entire concept of religion is built: when searching for meaning, if we are determined to find something -- anything -- then something, anything, will be found. It would seem in trying to find meaning in Scorsese’s film, I found concepts, but not intention. I found answers to questions, but not Truth. In religion, Truth is fluid and abstract. There can be no single answer regarding God which leads to varying personal interpretations, dearly held belief, and fervent devotion -- sometimes violent defense. While in smaller groups religion can yield warm inclusivity, it is on the global level where religion paints its ugly boundaries. It’s here where religion tears people apart, divides friends and families, and damages the conceptual soul it postures to protect.
One Truth I found in viewing the film -- stemming from the oft forsaken concept of knowing one’s self in the absence of the supernatural -- is this: religion is not a framework I am willing to enter. I am unable to see the spiritual side of religion; I only see the inner-workings of its psychology. When we search for answers where none exists, we create answers that cannot be disproved (hence the circular reasoning of the Jesuit priests). While many find comfort in this, I do not. Nor do I find comfort in the mechanics of its rituals. I’m off-put by suffering for the abstract, perplexed by begging forgiveness only to be absolved with a few gestures and words, and repulsed by the solipsistic view that any individual, at any time, can invoke the kindness or wrath of a supernatural being. In other words: Martin Scorsese’s Silence, like religion, while important and comforting to many, complex and rich with history, is simply not for me. Afterword: The film ends on a more enlightened note. I feel the concept of religion and God is strengthened by the ending, because it stops being a mission and starts being a personal understanding of faith and spirituality. It could be argued that the title Silence refers to when the Jesuits question their faith because they stop hearing God's voice. Or, perhaps Silence is about the silence of personal practice. I like to think this is Scorsese’s ultimate point.

Donald Trump is Rape Culture

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Let's face it, at this point, few American males will be swayed away from voting for Donald Trump. Those GOP members who have opposed Trump, continue to do so -- but, nothing Trump does or says will turn-off his major supporters. Major GOP leaders, who've condemned Trump in the last 24 hours for his now-infamous comments caught on tape, have not specifically denounced him or declared a change in their endorsement. Sure, these men are "outraged" -- but a declaration of outrage is all that's required these days in order to distance one's self from any revolting act, dialog, person, or movement. The ballots they cast in November will not change -- their votes are locked. Where does that leave us? More importantly, where does that leave the future of our country?

In the hands of our nation's women.

Too many male voters in this election have proven themselves to lack dignity, wisdom, and judgment. Our male GOP leaders are either too cowardly, or not as outraged as they claim, to denounce a man who is, by all definition, a fluke of the time. Trump has articulated so many popular rages (read: scapegoats), that he appeals to the unreasonable anger in downtrodden white cowards. As Trump's recent remarks play on the news, these men may sit uncomfortably beside their wives, girlfriends, daughters, and mothers, but will ultimately do nothing different. Most men, sadly, don't change their minds even when they know they should -- or worse, even when they want to. It's a factor of testosterone and culture that I won't go into here.

If an American woman supports Trump's politics, that's one thing. I can't argue with that, because siding with politics and policy (even those I completely disagree with), is what elections are supposed to be about. It's the core of Democracy. But, I'm finding it very hard to understand how a woman can vote for Donald Trump after hearing the remarks he made on tape. He's proven himself to be predatory, sexist, and lacking all respect for women. He's the scumbag that gropes you in the elevator; the man at the bar waiting to slip something in your drink. Donald Trump is rape culture.

Some might be dismissing his remarks as similarly as Trump himself did: that it was just "locker room banter." Fair enough. Men say stupid and thoughtless things sometimes, I get it. Some may cast it off with Christian thinking: that he's troubled and needs to repent. Some may be squirming in their seats, but ultimately willing to forget that he said anything so repulsive. Some might fall under the spell of Trump's deflection: that Bill Clinton has said a lot worse. Some might even note they've heard worse from their brothers or friends.

This kind of placating thought is exactly why we have a culture that breeds men like Donald Trump. Yes, this type of placating thought is mostly harbored by men (the old adage, "boys will be boys"). But, I wouldn't be doing my duty as a writer if I didn't ask this: isn't there some truth to the idea that some women ignore said mentalities, attitudes, and behaviors to such a degree that white male cowards take it as condoned behavior? The truth is, be it out of fear of being shamed for standing up for one's self, or of being physically harmed, there are women who do not stand up.

I understand the problem I'm getting at is bigger than Donald Trump. I also understand these dark corners of our culture have more to do with a lack of personal accountability, not to mention a greater respect for sons than daughters, than it has to do with a lack of opposition. This isn't about blame; this is about duty. In the specific situation of this election, not voting for Donald Trump is a chance, in the face of aforementioned fears, to have a voice. Politics aside, Donald Trump, if elected president -- if not outwardly, than by the nature of his status as leader of the free world -- will function as an endorsement of predatory behavior and a culture of disrespect and rape.