Friday, April 27, 2007

Ann Arbor, MI

I'm heading to Ann Arbor today for my son's graduation tomorrow from the University of Michigan. I graduated from the U of M myself 31 years ago. Like most people who went to college in Ann Arbor, I loved it and I have loved going back to visit in the years since. There are lots of things to love: the beautiful campus, the big old "M" in the middle of the Diag (which I can't help but be sentimental about now), the view from the steps of Rackham, that amazing football stadium and the games that go on within, the way it's easier to get around on foot than by car, and the meandering students who, despite their ubiquitous cell phones and different hair and clothes, somehow seem to be having the same political, theatrical and course distribution conversations we had in the 70s. Ann Arbor has never failed to take me back in time; I always feel like I'm 20 when I'm there. Or I always have up until now. Is it possible that I'll feel 20 at my own 22-year-old son's graduation? Or will I end up feeling like two people - both my own 20-year-old self and my kid's proud parent? I can't wait to find out.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Those Still Snickering Blackjack Gods

I lost last week. Twice. In a row. I know this isn't an unusual blackjack phenomenon, but I haven't lost at all in such a long time that I was astonished. And the last time I lost twice in a row was last November. I got so used to winning that I forgot losing was actually a possibility. I was starting to think my hard and fast rule about leaving the casino once my money was doubled might no longer be necessary, especially since it kept driving me out of casinos before I really wanted to quit playing (and probably, I told myself, before I made as much as I could have). I play for fun, but there's no reason to leave money on the table, right? After all the winning I've been doing lately, I was feeling quite invincible. When I walked into the casino the night of Loss #1 last week, I'd decided that I would keep playing even after my money was doubled if that again happened fast.

Well, as every blackjack player knows, the minute you press, the cards usually turn against you. Evidently, even thinking about loosening your discipline is as discernible to the blackjack gods as betting a bigger stack of chips on the next hand. I watched in incredulity as my chips stash diminished instead of growing. I had to invoke my stop loss rules instead of my gain rules. That night and the next. Adding insult to injury, my birthday was last week. I suppose I should take the incredible run of big wins in early April to be the birthday present - the timing in blackjack is often off. Double down on 11 and the chances are decent that you'll get a 2 or a 4 before the 10 you wanted ends up making the dealer's hand. Hit your 12 and the 10 is practically an inevitability. And speaking of the evil 4, watch it fail to bust time after time after time when it's the dealer's up card, despite its (in my opinion, undeserved) reputation as a player-friendly card.

Anyway, it's very interesting to have a hobby that can also be a sickness. I've realized that most of the people I chat with while I'm playing believe about a third of what I say. Gamblers are liars, I guess, or at least exaggerators. Everyone's heard the story about the guy who turned $100 into $80,000 at a blackjack table. (If you stand around craps tables, you can hear it there too, appropriately amended.) No one's actually seen this guy, of course, because he's either apocryphal or the enticing creation of some casino marketing guru, but dealers and players alike will solemnly swear to have talked to someone who did see him perform this marvelous feat not three weeks ago. (As if. In a game where the odds are at absolute best about 51-52/49-48 in favor of the house, that $100 would have to be the currency equivalent of Jack's magical beanstalk beans to have turned itself into $80,000 in one session.)

But I'm actually not a liar or even, where blackjack is concerned, an exaggerator. It was very weird to recognize that people were nodding sagely and not believing it for a minute when I mentioned that I've never had to dig into my pocket beyond the original $100 I risked on 2/9/05 and the second $100 I had to pony up on 3/1/05, after the original winnings went away on 2/28. So weird, in fact, that I've quit mentioning it. But it's true. I like to play, but I figure I'd rather know immediately if what I consider a fun pastime is costing me real money. Since we moved here, I've kept track on a spreadsheet of what I risk, what I win and what I lose. Without fail, I log my results the minute I get home. I even had one of our crack financial advisers review the spreadsheet to make sure I was calculating correctly. And my net return has been positive since 3/1/05. It's been as low as 75 bucks and as high as $6,326.50, but it hasn't fallen below zero. Honestly.

Even in the face of two consecutive losses, which irritate me sorely, I think having spent $200 of my own money to play a game I like an average of once or twice a week for over two years is a pretty good use of funds. Take that, blackjack gods! (With all due respect, of course.)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Animal Kingdom

My resident Mr. Science has been watching TiVo'd episodes of Planet Earth this morning. Nature is so brutal. It's incredibly beautiful, too, especially when filmed in high definition and watched on a fancy flat-screen TV, but I'm always struck as much by the violence as the beauty. Animals seem to be chasing and killing one another pretty much all the time. Seals capture and eat penguins, wolves chase and eat caribou, males fight to the death over females, and so forth. Basically, animals who want to remain fed, put, and in existence are obliged to maul other animals. This raises - and answers - interesting questions about territoriality, aggression and war in the human animal. It's not hard to see parallels to our own brutality, despite the veneer of civilization we've layered over it. Practically every action in the animal world is a strong argument in favor of the theory of evolution and the essential sameness of animal instincts. In fact, I'm wondering how the creationism folks - not a crowd characterized by pacifism - explain the undeniable human tendencies toward territoriality, war-mongering and other aggressive behaviors and policies. At least animals have survival rather than political supremacy and religious intolerance on their minds. Or is that what we're up to, too?

You'd think civilization would have tamed some of our innate killer instinct as well as given us intellectual bases for it. But while the killer instinct has evidently been preserved pretty much intact in humans, civilization seems to have instead made it possible for us to maintain survival and even domination without keeping the necessary skills honed. Animal societies don't last long if they aren't for the most part lithe, fit and clever enough to outwit their prey and their predators. Human societies presumably have to be lithe, fit and clever to develop into powers and super-powers in the first place, but civilization allows things like money and technology, weaponry and rhetoric, to substitute for animals' ever-sharp skills. Presumably, there's a vanguard in every human society with sharply honed survival skills, but human societies in general seem to get awfully fat, happy and oblivious. If animals were as complacent as civilized humans have evolved to be, they'd never survive.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Not So Impersonal After All

Perhaps it's a coincidence, perhaps not, but within 36 hours of writing this, I got my first request for a complete Suit Yourself essay via my website. Talk about your instant gratification! I'm especially tickled that this particular race was won by a terrific person from my favorite of the places I worked during my business career - and someone I hadn't been in touch with for years. She was actually alerted to my goings-on by another colleague and friend from those days who ran across my website while online one afternoon.

Despite my persistent suspicion that cyberspace is the personal connectivity equivalent of a black hole, sucking in emails, personal contact, responsiveness and even proper grammar and diction like so much space debris, apparently a website has the ability to reach someone - several someones, actually - from one's past and prompt a reconnection where, in the normal course, one would in all likelihood never have occurred. I'm still appalled by the poorly conceived, written and presented "information" on too many websites, and by the total silence that greets use of too many of their brightly worded "Contact Us!" forms. I still have too many emails apparently barred by corporate firewalls that I have to decide whether to follow up on or just forget about. (Are they
really being screened by firewalls or is that just the excuse du jour for the unresponsive?) I still think the blizzard of emails blanketing the world smothers too much in the way of actual human interaction. Email is too easy to send without thinking first about whether you really need to communicate with each recipient. It's also too easy to ignore without feeling like the piece of garbage you'd feel like if a person actually spoke to you and you did the in-person equivalent of leaving the communication unacknowledged and unanswered.

But this whole reconnection experience is refreshing. That my website - my shadowy and easy-to-ignore cyberspace alter ego, if you will - has put me
back in touch with some people I like very much and have missed without even knowing I missed them has sweetened my souring attitude considerably.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Let's Grow Up

Stripped of the political, misogynistic and fear-induced folderol in which it will no doubt find itself swathed, this book evidently makes a point that should not get lost. To be fair, I should clarify that I have read only the linked article and not the book itself. Judging from the storm of defensive, self-serving "I'm highly educated and how could anything be more important than my family" rhetoric in the reviews of the book on Amazon, maybe it does actually put down stay-at-home moms. If it does, it shouldn't; the whole point of feminism, as I've said before*, is that women are complete human beings with the right to make whatever choices we deem best for ourselves. And we should be supporting rather than denigrating one another.

That said, however, there is no excuse for any grown woman to assume financial servitude. Self-respect, self-esteem and self-confidence are essential to leading a happy, productive and contributory life - and they cannot flourish in the absence of personal financial responsibility and autonomy. Why anyone would want to abdicate one of the best features of adulthood - self-direction - is beyond me. Working to support oneself is incredibly satisfying. The knowledge that one can do so is incredibly liberating, as is taking personal financial responsibility. Choosing to be wholly dependent on someone else financially is choosing to be a child. I couldn't agree more that this is an unacceptable choice for any able-minded person over 18. Man or woman, working or not.

*Quite a bit, actually. Read the feminism posts if you're interested.

Monday, April 9, 2007


I admit it: I haven't made as much progress as I should have since I wrote this. I still watch the steadily increasing number of daily hits to my website with a sense of unrequited contribution. I remind myself that I often visit websites and even click around on them without communicating with their author(s). I further remind myself that far too often when one does communicate with a website, one hears only deafening silence in return (making the effort both wasteful and futile). I further further remind myself that the point of a website is to put information out into the world and inspire steadily increasing traffic, which mine is doing.

Notwithstanding all these reminders, I continue to be a bit crestfallen by how little I get in the way of return communication prompted by my site. There are definitely things to be grateful for, and I am very grateful for them. People are ordering my books. A few brave souls have asked questions, really good questions, for the Q&A. I've even received a few emails thanking me for some website feature and telling me how useful it was. Maybe this is enough and I just need to manage my expectations better.

But I can't quite convince myself that the relative silence is OK. I've said before (here and here) that I'm content to write fiction without reinforcement from others and that's true. I am. I have my characters to keep me company and they're often the best company imaginable. (Literally.) Writing material
designed to be useful and helpful to others, though, is a whole different deal. I really do feel in something of a vacuum as I put stuff out there and count on very little but growing daily and monthly page hit numbers to indicate that I'm actually doing something useful and helpful.

My Suit Yourself Essays are a good current example. Only one essay appears on the site in its entirety; all the others are incomplete excerpts. At the bottom of each excerpt is my offer to email the rest of the essay to anyone who asks for it. There's no charge. I explain that I only want to keep track for copyright purposes of where the essays are going. I promise not to use anyone's email for any nefarious (or even mildly annoying) purpose. The essay pages get hit all the time, but in a little over two months, not one person has asked for the rest of an essay. Why is this? Are the excerpts so uninteresting that no one wants to read the rest? Are they so full that no one needs to read the rest? Has no one ever actually read far enough to see the offer about the rest at the bottom of the page? Do people print pages to read later and either never get to them or get to the "If you'd like to read the rest" at the bottom and think, "Ehh, too much trouble?" Are people just clicking randomly and not reading at all? What's going on out there?

Thursday, April 5, 2007


Went to get my eyebrows done today. (No, ye of little faith, it's not the first time since I wrote Eyebrows & Mountains.) The scenery on the drive to my now faraway esthetician had its usual effect on me, but today I noticed more - observationally and psychologically.

I started out cranky today. No particular reason; just a slightly annoying tax bill, a screw-up by the book distributor (nothing unusual there - I'm like a beaten dog with this outfit; since they have yet to get a single thing right on the first try, I now cringingly await fresh disaster every time I have to deal with them), and the inevitable by-Thursday accumulation of crap I'll have to follow up on.
But as I drove north, I felt my mood lighten. This time, I had Schubert's Ninth on the CD player - for my money, the best first movement ever. My eyes filled up with the sights that continue to make me feel as if I'm living on permanent vacation, and just like the drops of washer fluid on my windshield, my crankiness evaporated into the dry, hot air.

I love the blue sky littered with planes glinting in the sun as they take off over the Strip. I love the utterly non-Midwestern names of the streets: Durango, Sunset, Buffalo, Rainbow, Flamingo, Warm Springs, Silverado Ranch, Paradise. I love the roadside gravel, sometimes dark rose-pink, sometimes white pearl, sometimes silver-gray and slate, sometimes a glistening combination of all these colors. I love the office parks with their proliferation of title companies, nutrition centers and coffee shops. I love the giant inflatable duck wearing sunglasses and a self-satisfied expression who sits atop a spa store in a concrete roof square that's probably HVAC-related but makes a great facsimile of a spa, the duck's bright yellow body and orange limbs positioned exactly the way a duck-shaped human would look sitting in a spa enjoying the good life. (All he lacks is a good cigar.) I love the dry, dusty gouged holes in the ground where new housing will go up, and the ugly tract housing that does go up, along the highway. I love the deep, rich colors of the building materials they use out here: a taupe that looks exactly like velvety suede, terracotta, red, golden beige, ivory, matte green, dusty ocean blue. I love the scrubbiness and the lack of green flora. And, most of all, I love the mountains that ring it all, shading from greenish-tan to that Sedona red-brown to the deepest mink and sable, and finally to Mt. Charleston's silver crown of snow (even as it is almost 90 degrees in the valley). Glorious, just glorious.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Adventures in Food

Food innovations amaze me, not least because once they exist, it's impossible to understand what took so long. Sliced bread is the sine qua non, obviously, but there are lots of others - not even counting packaging innovations like ketchup in bottles with the opening at the bottom instead of the top or its ugly cousin, peanut butter and jelly in the same jar. Take salt and pepper potato chips, for instance. So simple, so obvious, such a natural extension of the salty snack repertoire - and so long in coming. I love to think about the mindset of the people who come up with these things. Can't you just see them? "Wait a minute, wait a minute...I've got it! Salt AND pepper!!"

My current favorite such innovation is a product called Zingers To Go, which is a cute box of little packets of green tea flavoring for 16.9 oz. bottles of water. I've always been a big drinker of water, but since I left Chicago - where the water is so delicious it's actually a drink all by itself - I've had to resort to bottled water, which is, frankly, really boring. By the time I get to the 5th or 6th bottle of the day, I'm just quenching thirst, not really enjoying the experience. Well, no longer. The little packets are incredible. You just dump their contents in the bottle, shake 'em up, and you have a light, flavorful drink. No calories, no carbonation, no messy decanting of large pitchers of more interesting water-based beverages into glasses for easy drinking. Antioxidants, too, whatever the hell those are. (Apparently, they're somehow healthy; at any rate, the box touts them excitedly.) My particular favorites are blueberry splash and wild berry chill (I think; I'm out of this one), but peach delight is nice, too. And the little packets are a cool shape - a cylindrical, tube sort of affair that puts me in mind of Pixie Stix and that high-rent sugar you sometimes see in tubes instead of packets. They even have quotations on them (most of them weak, but, still, nice idea).