Sunday, March 29, 2009

Alone time

"Call me back, or not, I don't really have anything to say, I'm just giving you the driving-home-from-work call."

Since getting a cell phone, especially since moving to Cali and away from being able to hop in the car for a quick weekend mini-vacay, the driving-home-from-work-call has become a near-daily event. For a long time, the free long-distance of my Sprint [somebody pay me] cell phone plan allowed me to maintain close relationships with dozens of people at a bargain rate. Along with e-mail, it's why I got the ball rolling on our grad school reunions.

But during the last couple years, the purpose of the call really started to devolve. The opportunity to catch up with someone I hadn't spoken to in months and get updates about a new job or kid or pregnancy or vacation, had become an autonomic exercise in giving running commentaries on the traffic I was stuck in, making a joke about something immature (if I was talking to a guy), talking about sports or leaving a voicemail with literally no point.

Seriously when I think about it (I was going to write "analyze" rather than "think about" but that's sooooo over-labeling the actual neural activity), whatthefuck? I don't have anything to say? Then why the hell am I on the phone so often?

Well, I'm not anymore. A few months ago atfter talking to one of my former students about how much unplugging from her phone, the Internet, e-mail, texting, Facebook and IM was therapeutic to her during her winter break I got envious. I realized that I had so little time alone anymore. When you live with two roommates whom you like hanging out with, there's not much time to yourself—two of us are usually at home. I work in a very collaborative office, which is also a good thing, but obviously that means it's not a very isoalted, clean-room setting.

So since then I ceased the clockwork like routine of get in my car, plug in my headset, decide who to call (usually Scott, Bill, Erin, Monika or Courtney), find their name in my address book and press "call", then started the 24-minute drive home. Often, it was a great time to ask about how jobs were going, how the home improvement projects were coming along, were there any new dates or discuss/argue about politics. I truly valued the calls, but at the same time there were just as many voicemails left that contained the words "I'm just giving you the driving-home-from-work call."

In the ensuing six or seven weeks I've transformed what is the bane for so many in the City of Angels—the sluggish traffic—into my own private Idaho, er, quiet isolation.

Having lived alone for four years (and LOVED it), I saw this as my chance to get back to listening to music. Like really listening to it (well, closely enough but still paying attention to the road of course. I've made this drive more than 1,000 times, it's cool.).

So far it's been excellent. I listen to more NPR and my CDs. And maybe more importantly I get a chance to decompress physically after working. I've cut back a wee bit on my at-home drinking b/c the edge of the day dissipates with every traffic signal. While I used to rue the fact that there were about 30 traffic signals on my seven-mile commute, now I almost take a small joy when I see that I've gotta stop. Maybe it's one more song I get to listen to. Maybe it's one more tension from work that gets killed by the recycled air in my car. Maybe it's one more second of anticipation of dinner or Lost that massages that crink in my neck. I dunno. But it's been soooo worth it so far.

The challenge is not to let this commute-cell-phone-call diet lead to a loss of contact with my friends. That 9:30 to 10 p.m. Eastern Time window is a good time to call when you live in California. And I don't Facebook or Twitter.

It's amazing (and largely awesome) that we live in an era in which staying in touch with people has never been easier. But I worry that we're sacrificing something. Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own that "the hard is what makes it great." He's not entirely wrong. A friend recently revealed to me that since becoming Facebook friends with someone they actually communicate less. Sure it's easier than ever to know what little joys/frustrations/wonders we have (Mike ... loves his new jeans ... is happy that the Sparklett's water guy changed the cooler today so he didn't have to ... wants to know if he was as unreliable as a teen as his students are), but do you remember what your friends' voices sound like? Can you tell by the typeface they choose to create an emoticon what they're really feeling, the way you can tell by a verbal pause that they just withheld something important in an anecdote? [OK, enough anti-twitter/facebook rant.]

So if you read this and haven't heard from me in a while, that's gonna change. My co-worker Laura writes letters (by hand!) to her friends every week. I think I should do that. Watch the mail.


I've been addicted to this of late.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

24 hours in Vegas (take that Jack Bauer)

Monday, March 23 11:30 a.m. Wake-up in my room at The Stratosphere Hotel after having gotten about six hours of crappy sleep (never slept more than two hours straight). The wee hours before going to sleep were spent playing Pai Gow Poker and Black Jack.

1 p.m. Former college roommate Bill and I meet up with college roommate Bill's friend Andy and Andy's friend Casey at their hotel, The Circus Circus, for lunch buffet and to gameplan for our first full day in Vegas. We eat at the Circus Circus buffet, which was well-stocked with lukewarm, wet, rubbery scrambled eggs (that didn't even taste like eggs), silver dollar pancakes that had edges that were hard like hockey pucks, a cappucino machine that dispensed very light brown water (though to be fair, there was one that dispensed really crappy cappucinos).

1:45 p.m. Before deciding on anything, we beat a direct path up to Andy's and Casey's room to expunge what happened because of the lunch.

2:10 p.m. Wishing the bathroom had a fan or that we at least had a match, we speed from the hotel room after the expungement. I am doubting Andy's claim that the other egg dish was good.

2:30 p.m. Park in the Bill's Casino garage. Bill's is one of the much older places on Vegas Boulevard that looks like it belongs downtown, but cognitive-dissonantly has table limits that belong in the much newer, glitzier, non-shitty casinos. Nevertheless, it's Vegas so people are gambling here. We head north looking for $5-minimum black jack (we'd settle for $10) with enough empty seats so that at least two of us can play together.

3:15-3:45ish p.m. After walking through a few old-school-Vegas casinos (lots of individual light bulbs on their signs, no HD video screens) that forgot they were The Flamingo and The Imperial Palace (how the fuck do they have almost zero $5 tables? wait, b/c people are playing anyway), we arrive at Harrah's. At this point we've given up and see two open seats each at two $10 black jack tables and sit down in pairs—Andy and Casey at one table, Bill and I at the other.

Until about 5 p.m.ish I start out up about $50 through the first few shoes. Bill does not, so he leaves to join Andy and Casey when a seat opens up at their table. I can't leave the good mojo. I continue to do well until the screamer-when-she-wins woman at first base, leaves to use the phone (no cells at the tables under any circumstances). Besides it's fun playing with the guy who has to be at the airport in a few hours and can't stop checking his watch and asking us when we think he should leave. Then my luck turns sour-patch sour. As my nearly $100 in profit turns into a $50 loss, my old sense of idiot-gambling possesses me.

"I'm letting it ride," I say as I push my remaining $50 in red chips into the betting circle. Honestly, I'm unfazed. I've already spent nearly $400 on the trip but have a cash reserve awaiting me in my hotel room. I think I have the roots of a gambling problem. I win the hand. Even for the afternoon.

Rather than do the smart thing and welcome breaking even, I play $25 on the next hand. I lose. I'm now down $25 for the afternoon, which is nothing actually. I should do the smart thing that people who gamble-for-a-little-entertainment do and walk away having spent $25 just to gamble for a little while with some fun people.

"I'm letting it ride again," as I push my remaining $75 into the betting circle as Casey walks up. "I'm an idiot."

I am dealt a face card and a 10, for a 20. The dealer is showing a 5. I stand pat.

"Play to form" I say, hoping that for once in the last few shoes the dealer will have a 10 on her down card when she's got a 5 or 6 showing. Voila! she does. Dealer has to hit a 15 ... (if odds play right and she draws a big card and busts, I'll be up $50).

And the dealt card is ... a ... 10.

"Busted. OK, I'll colour out." I take my chips to the cashier and feel good that my recklessness has not been punished.

9 p.m.ish We arrive at The M Resort, which other college roommate Ben works at, after dinner at Gandhi (the best Indian restaurant in Vegas. GO IF GO).

While walking in we pass by guys 4,400 and 4,401 in the last 30 hours who are dressed "age-inappropriately." As I explained my definition to Bill, it's guys who are wearing clothes that they think they should wear in Vegas, but would otherwise NEVER wear. It's guys in their early 40s wearing fitted, (synthetic fabric perhaps?) button down shirts that often have an embroidered design on a shoulder or on the untucked tail (b/c these shirts MUST not be tucked). If no embroidery, then these shirts have variable width vertical stripes and a muted, unusual colour (like maroon). The shirts must also have almost-starched collars, revealing that the shirt has never been worn and was in fact bought just prior to the trip or perhaps even in town. To go along with the shirts, they need dark denim that again is off-the-rack unblemished (no tiny hem frays, no fading caused by wear at the knees, esp. since now the designer distressed look is thing past).

Granted, I'm wearing a Rilo Kiley t-shirt, an unbutton fitted dress shirt and a sport coat along with my jeans. But this is the same outfit I wore to work the other day on a Saturday. Nevertheless, I worry that to the untrained eye people will think I'm a similar poseur (esp. since I've got the hairline of a guy who dresses age-inappropriately).

9:30 p.m. Ben finally shows up (he got held up at work). We've spent the last half hour noticing that a hot new place like the M, which is going for the luxury vibe, gets the best-looking cocktail waitresses (by a wide margin). None look older than 30, none are bigger than a size 4 (which Ben tells us as the guy in charge of the uniform room, he knows) and all endowed/enhanced.

11:15 p.m. After a quick tour and having a couple rounds at the bar, we get open seats at a $10 Pai Gow table. Best thing about playing at a place like M, the bar has Macallan 12 single malt scotch, which when you're gambling costs all of $1 per drink (the tip for the waitress). Those were $8.95 (not a bad price) at the bar. I win like $30-40. I am starting to get that single-minded tunnel vision block-out-everything-but-gambling focus. I pass on a scenery walk through the live-band-bar because I'm chasing the $5 chips.

12 a.m. Tuesday We leave the M and drop off Casey since he's gotta be up in about four hours to catch his shuttle to the airport for his 7ish flight. Andy, Bill and I head back to the Stratosphere, where there's plenty of $5 black jack and $10 Pai Gow. Btw, Bill and I stayed at the Strat for $22 each per night. R U Kidding me?

12:30 a.m. I've started drinking doubles of scotch neat while playing Pai Gow. I drink several while playing for an hour plus; moneywise I'm treading water, but slightly down.

2 a.m. Bill and Andy leave to hang at the bar. I continue playing b/c I want to drink for free and I know there's a run in me. And seriously, what else am I doing in Vegas other than to stay up late and gamble? And finally (!) I hit a big fortune bonus. With each hand in Pai Gow you can lay down a bet as small as $1 per hand that you'll hit a great poker hand. If it pays out and you make the fortune bonus bet, it's payday. I hit a straight flush, which pays 50 to 1. Suddenly, my down $25 becomes up $25. Apologies from here on if the numbers don't add up. Like Kenny said "Don't ever count your money when you're sitting at the table" or when your brain has turned to plasma.

[It's not nearly as good as the night before when a guy we were playing with hit a royal flush at 150 to 1. He had put down $10 on the bet, so he got $1,500. Of course he stood up as he got dealt his hand (he had been helping Andy a little), and the dealer had to order him to sit down b/c standing up and helping another player before you play your own hand is a "form of cheating." After 20 minutes of reviewing video (of the guy stand up for half a second before sitting down as instructed without any resistance) and the dealer enjoying his power trip way too much with repeated admonitions of "I'm here to protect you" and "it's a form of cheating" and other similar cliches, our compatriot is awarded his money. The guy, who we all offered to back up to the gaming commission if he had to appeal the situation, gives each of us $15. The dealer even says: "That's what I like to see. Players helping each other out."]

I cash out my chips and tell the pit boss and dealer that I'm off to bed. I am dying of exhaustion and drunk.

But as I'm leaving I hear the call. I sit down again (the pit boss winks at me) keep playing until about 3 a.m. at which point my eyes start to feel like they're bleeding, my skin smells like smoke and my throat starts tightening up. I'm up about $100.

3 a.m.ish I move to the black jack table and the screw turns the wrong way. Thankfully, for the first time in my life practically, I get up from a cold table and head back to Pai Gow. Of course I have to go upstairs to get $170 of my reserve cash (that had been set aside for TUESDAY only). Oh well. It's technically Tuesday, right? I switch to Irish coffees now.

4 a.m. Back to Pai Gow after the Black Jack disaster. The previous night I met Yin. Yin was a youngish dealer (probably a few years younger than me, but she's Asian and Asian women often are hard to pin down agewise) and I'll admit it, I developed a little crush on her. She was gorgeous and very nice, though less gregarious than the typical dealer one develops a rapport with. Unfortunately, Yin is NOT DEALING Pai Gow right now. It's Quan. I should call her the Cooler. She's a hundred smurf-sized knife cuts. I steadily steadily steadily lose.

Then Yin returns to relieve Quan for 20 minutes. Literally the first hand she deals I win. And for those 20 minutes, I win all but like one hand. I am back, baby! Like a FrankCostanza rising from Arizona. Quan comes back. Literally the first hand she deals, I get a Pai Gow (which means that I had nothing) and the dealer starts blowing me away. Eventually my profits are gone as are all my chips save for like $40. I get up to leave and this time, I insist, I am truly going to bed and cutting my losses.

I check on Bill and Andy who are chillin at the bar. On the way back I see Yin dealing again, this time moved to black jack. No one is playing at her table. I can't bear to see an attractive woman sitting alone at nearly 5 in the a.m., so I hit the ATM (because dammit, I'm not going into the Tuesday stash again, even though it cost me more money b/c of the casino ATM fees) and get $100.

"What are you doing here? I thought you were 'done?'" The pit boss Harold says as I sit down yet again. I play a few hands of black jack and my luck with Yin continues. I win about $100 in her 20-minute substitution shift. I now am for real done. I head to the cage and get cash for my investment. I check in on Bill and Andy and say good night.

5:10 a.m.ish The gaming pit lures me back toward it even though it's not in direct path of the elevators to the room. Yin and Harold (the pit boss) now are actively courting me to keep playing. They wave me to Baccarat (a game I've always avoided for no real reason other than that I love black jack for the action and pai gow b/c it's a slow-paced game). I am beyond tired. Beyond exhausted. Beyond drained. I am a walking corpse. I have no willpower and agree to play.

"What are the rules?" I ask as I sit down. I notice that Yin is shuffling in new cards so I have time to get the run down on the game.

"It's really easy," Yin and Harold say.

"OK, hit me," knowing that I need something easy b/c my brain is mush. I order a coffee, black.

"Well, I could explain it to you, but you won't get it," Harold says.

"How does that jive with being really easy?"

"Well, Mike, there are two bets—player or banker. There's also the tie, but you'll be betting one of those two. That's it." Harold explains. He hands me a piece of paper "explaining" the rules. I am mystified.

"OK, let's do this." I have no idea what I'm doing. But they tell me just say "player" or "banker" before each hand and put my money in the respective circle. What the hell right?

Yin leaves. Her 20-minute relief shift is over. I've got Mai (I think). She starts dealing hands faster than I can keep up really. But she keeps pushing money in my direction, because my ignorance-based bets are winning. After about 15 minutes of barely realizing what's going on I've learned that 10s have no value and neither do face cards and that I'm trying to get 8s and 9s. and I never get to touch the cards. But I don't really understand why on some hands the dealer puts extra cards in some hands and not others. But who cares, I'm up more than $100 in a 15 minutes.

6 a.m. I check on Bill and Andy. They're still chilling at the bar. I go the cages, get my cash and start walking toward the elevators. Yin is dealing Pai Gow. No one is sitting with her. I sit down again. I win more money. I'm hot. Quan returns. The table goes cold immediately. I get up from the chill. I head back to the cages and redeem more chips for cash.

6:30 a.m.ish I return to the baccarat table after Harold twists my arm with a "I thought you were gone." I have no will power, as noted clearly before. While playing I notice that Andy and Bill are playing Pai Gow at the table facing me. Bill gives me the "Holy shit, you're still up and what the fuck are you doing playing baccarat" look. They wave me over. I stick my hand in the air and rub my thumb against my fingers making the universal cash gesture. They get my drift. A few minutes later I've won another $100+.

7 a.m.ish Andy joins me at the Baccarat table. Bill retires. I explain to Andy the basics, which I've finally picked up on. Considering I'm now on my fifth or sixth coffee, I should be able to kinda think, right? We're both winning at first, but then dealer notices that were playing against each other. He's betting banker and I'm betting player or vice versa. Since we're the only two playing we realize that we should sync our bets and win together. We sync up, alternating who gets to choose our bet. We each win another $100+ in about 12 minutes.

7:20 a.m.ish I head to the cages and redeem even more chips. I'm now up probably $300-$400 for the day (when I had been down probably $200 earlier in the night/morning). I walk outside and I've missed the sunrise. I'm disappointed. I don't get the opps to see dawns, but I've missed my once every fouryearsish opportunity.

7:30 a.m. I return to the casino and Andy is playing craps. He's learned in the last year. We both wanted to learn last year but slept through the daily lessons. I watch him for about 20 minutes and pick up quite a bit.

8 a.m. We return to Pai Gow and agree that since we've got to leave for the airport in a couple hours (I'm driving him), it's not worth sleeping. We play for a little while. I make a few bucks and go back to the cages one last time for more profits. Woo-hoo! Take that Vegas!

9 a.m. I have no voice left. The half dozen+ scotches, plus three Irish coffees, plus five coffees have dried me out like the Nevada desert. We head to the IHOP across the street, power down breakfast (much better than the Circus Circus), get Andy's shit from his hotel.

10:25 a.m. Leave for McCarran airport.

10:45 a.m. Drop off Andy at McCarran.

11:15 return to hotel.

11:25 return to hotel room. I had to see if Yin was alone at a table, because if she was, I'm sure that I would have signed on for more gambling.

When I get to the room, I down like four cups of water, use the bathroom, throw lots of water on my face and check in with Bill.

Noon Tuesday. BED.

Ironically, I haven't blogged in nearly a month because of a combination of fatigue, long work hours, a lack of things to say, but mostly fatigue. Since turning 32, I have felt more tired and more unable to get by on less than seven hours of sleep than ever by like a whole order of magnitude. More than my arthritic knees or sharply thinning hair, my lack of energy has felt like the worst part of aging. So I never though that I'd be able to write a blog entry like this at this point in my life.