Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Next Time Around

In the wee hours on Friday morning, we sat outside and watched the Geminid meteor shower. It was a little cold (high 30s), but we wrapped up in blankets, lit the charcoal grill for some radiant heat, stretched out in our zero gravity deck chairs by the pool, and gazed upward. The chairs are positioned so our backs are to the Strip, some 20 miles to the north. To the south, the sky was dark and littered with twinkling stars. I quickly picked out Orion's Belt, the only constellation I can always find. Even before I could find the North Star and the few other constellations I can identify, a meteor shot through the sky.

I've meteor-watched before, but until we moved to the desert (land of incredibly clear night skies), meteor-watching was more a matter of "Was that one? I think I just saw one." Now, there's no mistaking them. I wouldn't say the sky was exactly alight with meteors, but we saw 20 or 30 of them in the space of a couple hours. Each one was beautiful and thrilling - and there's something so intriguing and romantic about the fact that we're only now seeing something that actually happened billions of years ago.

Glaciers in Alaska, meteors, the way cacti get all fat with stored water after it rains, geology, black holes, the space-time continuum - if there is a next life, I think I'll study science instead of liberal arts. I wasn't very interested in science when I was in high school and college in this life, although I did take not one, but two physiology courses at Michigan, the first one to fulfill a distribution requirement, the second because the first was just wonderful. But I am fascinated by science now, from giddy astrophysics to humble biology. It all has an orderliness, a sequential, consequential logic, but also a sort of explanatory magic.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Risks & Rewards

I played blackjack this week with a table-full of hard-core gamblers who considered me a lightweight because I have rules about when I leave based on how much I've won or lost. Apparently, discipline is not the hallmark of self-described "real gamblers." The two men and two women I joined at the table are people I've played with before. I like them because they play well and aggressively, they mind their own business, and they don't complain constantly (as if the cards or the dealer or the casino were on a personal crusade to separate them from their money or as if they were chained against their will to the table). I can't say they ever seem to be having a wonderful time, but they aren't the pictures of misery you sometimes find at blackjack tables, especially on late weekday afternoons at local casinos.

I had a nice run of luck and was within $100 of doubling my money within 40 minutes. The guy to my right noticed me counting my chips during the shuffle and asked if I was ahead. I nodded, then told him I always leave when I've doubled my money. He was astonished and his exclamations prompted a table-wide discussion of how bizarre it is to have a financial goal and to leave when you reach it. They demanded to know if I had similar rules on the downside and were amazed to learn that I do. Each had a story of giving back significant winnings. The stories were confusing, but the motives for continuing to play as big stacks of chips went away included the conviction that the good luck would return (notwithstanding temporary setbacks), the need to catch up with large overall losses (kind of a "we'll make up our losses with volume" theory), and the belief that there was nothing more compelling to do.

I thought it would be tactless to say I don't have overall losses, but I did say that, like them, I could play again the next day if I didn't feel finished and that I wasn't usually up for marathon playing anyway (it's not that challenging a game and, after a while, the house advantage gets tiresome). These statements struck them as crazy. They told me I wasn't a real gambler and we all laughed. When I made that last $100, colored up my chips and prepared to leave, they shook their heads in bewilderment that was, as far as I could tell, not at all tinged with envy. If anything, they pitied me.

I think it's interesting that they consider discipline and limits to be signs of lack of authenticity where gambling is concerned. Could this also be the reason so many people are so risk-averse? Taking the right risks is the foundation of progress and success in every arena, but it's certainly a gamble - and not a particularly good one if you approach it pell-mell, without planning ahead and thinking about consequences. But there's no requirement that you approach it pell-mell. Discipline and limits aren't anathema to the real deal; they're what make intelligent risk-taking possible.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

All That Glitters

My neighborhood is alight with holiday decorations. This isn't unusual: the people around here decorate, Vegas-style, for everything from Christmas to Veteran's Day. There is barely a day throughout the year when facades and front yards aren't resplendent with lights, flags so large they could be used as tarps to cover the houses altogether, and, inexplicably, giant inflatable holiday-appropriate figures. Turkeys, ghosts, pumpkins, Cupids, drum and fife corps, penguins, Santas complete with reindeer and sleighs, snowmen, etc. For one three-week period that seemed to last forever and was tied, as far as I could tell, to no widely recognized holiday, an enormous inflated Scooby-Doo stood sentry in front of a house five or six away from ours. In a community where there are rules about what you can park on the street and what your driveway has to look like, this seemed untoward. Especially as Scooby-Doo's posture crumpled sadly due to partial deflation, I considered calling the property management company to complain, but the thought of dealing with them was more offensive than having to tolerate Scoob.

I don't understand the impulse to decorate the outside of one's home. I suppose it could be the outward expression of irrepressible high spirits caused by holidays, but to me it has a show-offy quality, sort of a "Look how far we went!" vibe. Even if it's about giving one's neighbors something to enjoyable to look at as they pass by versus making them green with envy (or nausea), it seems very external to me. Most people here don't even decorate their houses themselves; they hire services to do it. (It's hilarious to watch crowds of these service people swarm all over houses in the weeks leading up to major holidays, then repeat the performance again in the days after as they dismantle everything.) I'd be willing to bet these people also send those Christmas cards printed with their names and in envelopes with computer-generated labels for both the mailing and return addresses - not a shred of personal sentiment anywhere to be found, unless you consider the DNA in the saliva used to lick the envelope to be personal sentiment.

I think the holidays are about what goes on inside the house, not what's hanging from its rafters. Family and friends, good food and thoughtful gifts, cozy sweaters and college football bowl games - those are the things that spell irrepressible high holiday spirits to me. My house may be one of the few non-players in the neighborhood parade of holiday glitz, but it's glowing inside. I certainly hope the same is true of the decorated houses.