My Wife’s Birthday

May 10th is my wife’s birthday. She would have been fifty-four. She died on August thirty-first of last year. It’s hard to imagine that it’s been only eight months, and yet it seems like a lifetime ago.

Jenny’s birthday has always been a celebration for me, another year of her winning against Death. She was given a fifty-fifty chance of making it to twenty, let alone fifty-three. To me, every year was an accomplishment. She was more bitter-sweet about it: despite the fact that she was fighting her illnesses and disabilities every day, she felt she should have accomplished more, as if navigating the challenges of dialysis and all that it entailed wasn’t enough. That’s the problem with disability: all the effort that a person would usually spend working to achieve their dreams and aspirations is instead put into dealing with one more goddamned day.

It seems that in the minds of most people, when they think of disabled people, they immediately think about wheelchairs and crutches. In fact, if you Google “Disabled Person” (as I just did) and click on “Images,” virtually all the images are of people in wheelchairs, with a few people on crutches just for lagniappe. But there are other disabilities that are incredibly challenging, and end-stage renal disease, or ESRD, is definitely one of them. Even Jenny rebelled against the idea that she was disabled. In her heart she knew she was physically disabled, but she rebelled against acknowledging it, as if acknowledging it would give it power. It took me years to convince her to get a disabled placard because it would wipe her out to walk into buildings from a regular parking spot.

Jenny had an analogy that she used to describe how she could ration what little energy she had. She heard the analogy from someone else, and it resonated with her to the point where it became her way of explaining to people just how much effort it took just to live life. She said to imagine you have a stack of spoons – say twenty or twenty-five. Each day, you start with a stack of spoons to spend for the day. That’s your allotment of spoons. For every action you do, you take away a spoon. An “action” in this context is not to “walk the dogs” or “go to the movies.” No, it is more granular than that. An action is to: get out of bed. Take away one spoon. Brush your teeth. One more spoon. Walk to the living room. One more spoon. Each little thing would use a spoon, until some time in the day, you are out of spoons, and literally exhausted. Exhausted as in devoid of all energy. Exhausted as in tears, and then being too tired even to cry. It is easy as a healthy person, even an out-of-shape healthy person, to not consider that doing these little things can wipe anyone out. But it is true, and the amount of pure will that Jenny had to get through each day is astounding to me, and there were times she pushed beyond her spoons because she had to.

The analogy of the spoons made it clear to me what she was dealing with. This type of disability is so invisible that even living with her, I didn’t always see her struggling with her spoons. But she did struggle, every day.

Looking back on the last few months of her life, it becomes obvious that she was struggling badly. In the midst of it, we were both optimistic. We were planning on her getting set up for a transplant, and she was actively researching why it was she was so tired, and why she was in so much pain. We treated it like it was a temporary set-back. Temporary, even though she was on the transplant list for eleven years. Now I look back, and I see what was really happening that seems obvious to me now: her body was breaking down. It was breaking down after forty years of fighting kidney disease. Her soul was vibrant and willing and steeling herself forward, but the load became too great. We went to a concert last July, and she could only stay for a few songs, even though the artist was her favorite. She couldn’t go to the Sisters Rodeo in June or the Quilt Show in July because she was too tired. She missed a horse show she sponsored because she was in the hospital sick with something no one could figure out. To the very end she was looking to find out what was going on. What was going on was her body was giving out. She died of heart failure.

I have been missing her every day, virtually every moment of the last eight months. Not in a hang-dog, head down, constantly weeping sort of way, but in a more, well, just present sort of way. I’d see a movie, and know she’d have loved it. I’d watch a movie she saw many times, and I can hear her admonishment: “What, that movie again?” Every David Bowie song. A beautiful day. How our dog C.K. Dexter Haven is doing. My son. Her friends.  It is heart-breaking, but it is not devastating – except for when it is. Thankfully that is not as often as it was in the first few months. But her ghost is there in many ways. Not literally, but in things that I know she’d love and that I’d like to tell her, and in routines that are no longer routines. I went out of town on business to Las Vegas in March for the first time since she passed away and the routine is to call her every night, except, of course, now I can’t. I wanted to tell her about how things were going and all the usual things you say to your wife when you call home during a business trip. It was a hole that could not be filled. Of course I called my son and told him about the dancing waters at the Wynn and the gondolas and the perpetual sunset at the Venetian, which is great, but not the same. I recently started a job at a company I knew she would have loved. I missed her then, for sure, because I really wanted to tell her how things were going. Since I couldn’t call her, I instead took a walk out in the beautiful evening, and told her by talking to the sky. It helped.

You get the most interesting thoughts when you mourn someone you love. About a month ago I was just tired of it. Just freaking tired of it. I thought “okay, okay, okay! I get it! I get it. May I please have her back now?” And I tell you, at the time it seemed a reasonable thing to ask. I forget that it is permanent some times. Joan Didion was spot-on when she called the first year of widowhood “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

I’ve come to terms with her body’s death. Her life was shorter than it would have been sans kidney failure, but her life was an incredible achievement. She was Dialysis Girl, and she lived beyond all odds to fifty-three! I feel happy that she is no longer in pain, and no longer struggling. I’d love to have her here physically, but not at the cost of her continued decline, pain, and exhaustion. As much as I want her back, I know I’m being selfish. She is out there somewhere, I believe, free of the burden of so many years of a shortage of spoons.

Today is her birthday, and she would have been fifty-four. It is her first birthday without her. Being without her is not easy, but it is easy to celebrate her wonderful life, which we will do, later today. Happy birthday, my love.

Suicide and Zankou Chicken

Zankou Chicken is an Armenian-style fast food restaurant in the Los Angeles area. I lived a block away when the first Zankou on Sunset Boulevard opened in 1982, and I was so ready for something different to eat in the neighborhood that I kept and eye on the restaurant when it was being built. Finally, on opening day, I went in and ordered a half-chicken plate. I had to be the first non-Armenian to eat there. The chicken is rotisserie chicken, and it was served with pita bread, pickled turnip, hummus, and… garlic paste. My God – there is nothing like Zankou garlic paste. I ate there every day for a week, and I evangelized it to everyone I knew. And even today, there are only two reasons to visit LA other than to see family: Zankou Chicken, and Tommy’s Burgers. There are a few other things worth seeing in LA, but these two are the only real reasons to go.

In addition to rotisserie chicken, Zankou has some other spectacular specialties: Various kabobs, felafel, beef tri-tip shawerma, chicken tarna, and pita-bread sandwiches containing the above.

Sharwerma and tarna are cooked on vertical spits, and the cooks carve off portions for each order. The greek “gyro” is also cooked on a vertical spit, but a gyro is nothing like these two. Shawerma ends up as beautifully cooked meat, tender and spiced wonderfully, and it is served with hummus, tahini, tomatoes, pita, lettuce, and pickled turnips. It is delicious. Tarna is basically the same thing, only made with chicken. In fact, the Hollywood store had it on the menu as “chicken shawerma” for years before they went to tarna. I have no idea why they changed the name.

Chicken tarna is heavenly. It is proof of the divine. I am not overstating this.

I moved away from Hollywood, and was therefore not able to get to Zankou as often as I used to. After a few month’s deprivation, I was able to find a way to get back to the old neighborhood and get some chicken tarna. I’m not sure why, but I was in a gloomy mood that day, and was thinking Deep Thoughts. I sat down, and opened up the container to eat, and took the first bite. It was so good. And I thought so myself, “You know, if someone came to me and told me they were considering ending their life, I would give them this: chicken tarna. This alone is reason to live.” No matter how awful the world is, no matter how evil humankind can be, no matter what problems a person may have, there is one thing that makes it all worthwhile: chicken tarna. It is proof that there is still one perfect thing. It is, as I said above, proof of the divine. There is a God.

This happened about twenty-five years ago, and I was serious. I really thought that I could save a person by just serving them up some Zankou. That I could convey the absolute truth that there is at least one good thing in the world that makes life worth living.

If you live life long enough, life teaches you things. I’ve had some interesting times from 1992 until now. I have lost good friends and beloved family to old age, cancer, sickness, accidents, AIDS, and suicide. I experienced the reality of economic downturns and the fact that sometimes, no matter how good you are, the jobs just aren’t there. I realized that certain types of pain are not superficial. Certain types of pain rip you apart. There are circumstances that can happen that push you to an edge where there are just no options.  When the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and you cannot carry it, but you have to carry it, because there is no other way, it is just cussing hard. And I’ve been in that circumstance, and we as a family have been in that circumstance. And when you know that there’s no one else to blame, and that it is your fault, well, that just adds spice to it.

I was never suicidal, but I could see how people could be. I could see how life could be so burdensome and how things can close in and crush you to the point where suicide could be an option. I’ve been blessed. We’ve been blessed. And I know it. My wife Jenny knew it. It was through her that I realized that life isn’t random. That there is an invisible hand, a divine hand. I am not arguing faith or religion here; all I am saying is that I have seen it. I, however, have felt the turmoil, and I could see how someone could be angry with God, and be just done with it. Jenny used to tell me, “you better be nice to me. God loves me.” And I have to say that when things got rough, I thought of that, and that while He may or may not love me, He sure as hell loves her. And that helped carry me through.

I wish, I wish, that it was as simple as “here, man, have some chicken tarna, and it will all be okay.” I wish it were that simple. It’s not, though. When you are that dark, you can’t see the good. I felt that way a few times, when even chicken tarna wasn’t enough for me. It was nice when I had an answer. Now I don’t. I think the only thing you can do is to at least not make things worse, and to be there and be loving. I think people should be there and be loving all the time, but especially toward those who are in trouble.

Now I know there are resources available for people who need help, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Chicken tarna is not the only thing that is good in the world – there are some really fine people who can really help.

Take care of yourself, and take care of your loved ones. And when you are in LA, get some Zankou Chicken. It can only help.

 

 

Cautiously Optimistic

What a day. I woke up once again wondering how the hell Donald Trump could have been elected to the presidency. It still seems unreal to me that enough people in enough places voted for this guy, enough to edge out a flawed, but much more qualified candidate. Unlike some of the liberal persuasion, I don’t call into question the legitimacy of his election. I have faith in our country and its traditions. I know the vote was fair, even if actors inside and outside the country were trying to influence the outcome.

Once again, I had to confirm to myself: yes, indeed, Donald J. Trump was elected. And today, the added twist: he is to be inaugurated. Oh, Jesus.

A couple of hours later, I witnessed Trump getting sworn in. I am old enough to know now when a moment is a moment for the ages, and the transition of the presidency from Barrack Obama to Donald Trump is one of those moments. The ceremony and the pageantry is a wonderful thing, and I am repeating what every news agency today has said over and over: the peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark of our democracy. And today was an example of how remarkable that is.

I was eager to hear Trump’s speech. I hoped that he would deliver something Trumpy, but inspiring. I hoped that he would broaden his reach and embrace America in full. I hoped he would show some humility. I hoped that the realization that he is now actually the president would inspire some presidential words.

The first three paragraphs found me thinking, “hey! maybe…” But then, oh my! His launch into America as Dystopia made me wonder when he would blurt out “May the odds be ever in your favor!” It was bleak, and frankly, he was not talking about an America I know. He was not talking about a world I know. Once again I realized that I was expecting too much of Trump. How could I be so foolish? Trump doesn’t change.

I saw a pro-Trump friend of mine today. He’s a good guy, and he was happy his man is now sworn in and ready to go. He asked me how I felt about the inauguration. I replied “I am cautiously optimistic.”

I love the term “cautiously optimistic.” It is similar to “trust, but verify.” To me it means, I expect things will go well, but I am not blind to the obstacles. I know it will require vigilance and perhaps an intervention to help circumstances along, but in the end, things will be okay. And that is how I feel about the Trump presidency.

When Trump won the election, it felt as if my heart sank into my gut. There was a moment in the evening where it became clear that he would pull it off. That was a bleak moment for me, because in my heart I believed he was completely inadequate to the task.

The day after the election I thought, well, let’s give the guy a chance because no one wins if he fails. I thought that his winning might change things. I thought he might move from running his campaign to getting ready for the White House. I thought he would cool his rhetoric a bit and try to broaden his scope. Once again, how foolish of me! He and his followers are some of the poorest winners I ever saw. During the transition period, Trump just stayed Trump, thin skin and everything. He confirmed my opinion of him.

As much as I would like to think he will eventually “grow” into the job, which seems ludicrous to me since the man is seventy years old, and as much as it would be great if he decided to put away the twitter and become “presidential,” I know he is not going to do it. He is consistent in his opinions, and he is consistent in his attitude, and he doesn’t seem to learn anything.

Why then am I cautiously optimistic?

Because, I believe in America. I believe the checks and balances of the three branches of government will prevail in the end. Even though Trump seems to have a stacked deck in that he has a Republican Congress and has the next Supreme Court justice nominee in the queue, he does not have carte blanche. Every member of congress and Justice of the Supreme Court is a patriot, not to mention the members of his own branch, and there is only so far that Trump can go. Trump can propose a lot of things, but he can’t do it alone. Contrary to what Trump says, he does not have a mandate. He did not win the popular vote, and he squeaked by in the Electoral College.

I have friends who liken the “rise of Trump” to the rise of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. It is important to note that despite Trump’s rhetoric in his Inauguration Speech today, American is not in dire straits, as Germany and Italy were. American in 2017 is not 1930’s Germany.

Germany and Italy, and indeed the rest of Europe, do not have the tradition of liberty that we have in America. The closest thing we have to a national religion is the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, most notably the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. It is sacred to us. The secret of the First Amendment is that while some of us might want to shut other  people up, each of us demands and expects to get our First Amendment rights. We do not have the libel laws England has, and we can argue politics and curse the president or mayor all day long without the fear of being locked up. This recognition of our own right to free speech and of the other rights of the constitution are so ingrained in us, it is akin to being in our DNA; they are so much a part of us that we are unconscious of how important they are, or that others in other countries do not have these rights. But they are there, and there is no breaking them.

Yes, it is chilling when Trump talks of “loosening” our libel laws – but he runs up against the congress and the Constitution if he actually tries to do it. It is impossible that the American people will ever accept a law that says that it is libel to criticize a public official. The whole point of the First Amendment is to allow that type of speech to exist.

The machinery of legislation is big and slow. Trump has made lots of promises but he has to “sell” congress and the American People in order to get laws passed. He can’t sign laws that congress doesn’t send to him. His authority to issue executive orders can cause damage, and that is a weak link, but the big things require the legislature and the courts.

I believe after watching this person in action for the last year and a half that he is inadequate for the job. If I am right, it means he will fail and fail big. I think it is inevitable that he will make some seriously policy and legal errors because of his inadequacy. I believe that Congress will do its duty when the time comes and impeach Trump should he need to be impeached. I believe the machinery of government will work to spit out Trump should he really turn toxic.

I also believe that the Press will do its job and tell the truth about what is going on, good and bad. The press’s role will be huge in this presidency. Trump has been extremely hard on the press, but that kind of thing inspires the press. Trump will be covered extremely carefully over the next few weeks and months.

I believe America has the civic immune system to spit out a demagogue like Trump. The Union is bigger than one man. As a result, I am cautiously optimistic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Casino Royale Pain

I am the son of gambling professional Jerry L. Patterson. For thirty years, my father took money from casinos, wrote books on gaming, had a casino gaming news letter, and held clinics on gaming techniques and systems for Black Jack, Craps, and Roulette. He predates the MIT kids who won all that money playing Black Jack, and his technique was better.

Dad was a mathematician. He was not the typical gambler. He never bet the house on a single throw of the dice, and he never got caught up in addictive gambling behavior. He knew math too well to go chasing bad bets. He knew the odds of every game cold.

On every single casino game, the odds are in the casino’s favor. Every single game. How much the game favors the house depends on the game. For example, if you play Black Jack, the house’s edge is about 0.5%, meaning for every $100 you wager, and if you play the game correctly, the house will take fifty cents. Over time, your pockets are empty. Craps is better than that if you know how to play. Keno is awful – they take twenty-five cents from every dollar, and Roulette is pretty bad as well – you lose a nickel on every dollar. But, every game sucks you dry over time.

Unless you know what you are doing, and you have a system. Mathematics makes assumptions. When calculating the odds of casino games, the assumptions are that the game is random – the cards are shuffled to be random every hand, the dice are thrown randomly each time, and they are balanced properly, and the ball on the roulette wheel is spun in a random manner. Given all this assumed randomness, the odds pan out that the house gets the advantage, and thus the money. It’s these odds and assumptions that pay for all those lights and cheap buffets and complemented rooms in Vegas.

What dad did was discover systems that took advantage of the arbitrage between pure mathematical odds and reality. Math says the cards are randomly shuffled. In reality, they are not. Math says that the roulette ball is spun randomly. In reality, it is not. Math says that the dice randomly fall on the felt. You can play the game so that the dice don’t fall randomly on the felt. Since the games have a narrow house edge, all it takes is a little nudge to get the odds to be in your favor. Card counting in black jack will do that by letting you know if there are lots of tens, or few tens, in the remaining cards. The more tens there are remaining, the better your odds are, so bet big! When the cards are in your favor, the odds are in your favor, and you take advantage of that by increasing your bet.

Dad’s systems give you the advantage over the house by noting (or creating) these anomalies. The casinos consider it cheating. They consider anything cheating that removes their edge. Thankfully, the law does not agree – usually. Which brings me to Phil Ivey.

Last month professional gambler Phil Ivey was ordered by a federal judge to pay back to the Borgata casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey ten million dollars he had won in a casino game called Baccarat. Why? Because the judge found that Ivey had breached his contract with the casino. What was the contract? The New Jersey Casino Control Act, which disallows the use of marked cards at casinos.

Since gaming is part of my life, my ears perked when I heard about this. How could that be?

Ivey discovered that the cards the casino used had a flaw: The card patterns on the edges were not consistent.Thus, if you can get the casino to flip them around, you can find the card in the deck again. Or cards of a certain value. The result is that after a period of play, all the good cards are flipped, and you can see whether the next card to be played is good or bad. Ivey set the game up with the casino so that only one set of cards would be used for days in a private gaming session, only an automatic card shuffler is used, and the dealer would flip any card around that Phil asked to be flipped.

The casino agreed to all these requests. And being a pro, Ivey took them to the cleaners to the tune of ten million dollars.

Edge sorting is what this technique is called. It can only happen if the casino allows it to happen. They use cards with inconsistent patterns. They agree to the demands of the gambler – same cards, flip requested cards around, don’t mess up the order.

But, according to the Federal Judge, asking the casino to do this, then the casino doing it, and then the gamer using the information, is the same as marked cards. And even wilder, he is demanding that all winnings be returned to the casino. Ridiculous.

It is exactly the same as if Ivey had asked the dealer to bend the card in half and place it back in the deck, and the casino complying. Casinos are not dumb. They know the systems, the games that are played. So Borgata should have known what Ivey was up to.

Ivey is planning to appeal. I hope he wins, because if this stands, every time a casino suspects you of using an advantage, like card counting, they can not just ban you, but get the money back. That is just wrong. So, go Phil Ivey!

Why Hillary?

Now that Trump is the official nominee for the GOP, and Clinton will be made official next week, for what it’s worth, here’s my take on all of this.
With Trump winning as presumptive nominee in May, I realized that the only hope was for Hillary to be president. There are reasons Trump inspires a Supreme Court Justice to break protocol and speak out, and a reason a slew of historians by profession feel obligated to put Trump in context as a dangerous anomaly. I have been incredibly vocal against Trump because he is manifestly unqualified for the job. There are so many reasons, I forgot half of them.
As a life-long Libertarian/Republican, Hillary and Slick Willie were always anathema to me – I am not a fan of the Democratic party, and I never voted for a Democrat in my life. Also, many of my Bernie-supporting friends were upset about Hillary’s nomination, and I wondered what any left-wing person would have against Hillary? Especially when compared to Trump. So, I realized, I better revisit this, because if Hillary is the only option, I better reevaluate her. So, I googled things like “what’s so bad about Hillary Clinton” and also “Why Hillary?”
Of course, up popped all the controversies. Vince Foster, Travel Gate, her unelected attempt to push Universal Health Care. All the Bill Clinton controversies – Monica Lewinski, the impeachment, the hair cut that stopped LAX for half a day (ok, I just remembered that – that was not in the Google results). Benghazi. Her waffling on Gay Marriage. Her defense of a rapist in 1978-ish (and oh, how she laughed when she said she could not trust lie detectors). And the email servers.

Two patterns arose.

First Pattern: Most of what she does that pisses people off, she does because she wants to get something done, and she doesn’t care or think about the emotional ramifications, or “optics”, of her actions.

Travelgate. She brought in her own people. She wasn’t thinking about the people that were already there. Seemed heartless. No, I say it was pragmatic, and expedient for her.
The defense of the rapist. Well, she is a lawyer. I heard her interview on the subject. She did what every defense lawyer is bound to do, which is mount the best defense she can for her client – and she went to extraordinary lengths to do that – even flying to New York to work with the one forensics expert who could possibly find the evidence to get her client guilty – and found he could not because the police and the prosecution screwed up the evidence. I thought to myself : Man! I want her for my defense lawyer. She did a great job, and the prosecutor should have been skewered for botching the case. Hillary was laughing at the inadequacy of the so-called “lie detector” not at the victim in the case. She is a wonk, and she is clinical.
The email servers. She didn’t want to fool around with government email servers, which probably didn’t have Blackberry access or even remote access to them, so she set up her own server with her team at her house. She mixed her personal email with her official email – and felt she could manage that. I believe she did it to make her job easier, not to hide what she was doing, or to evade email discovery. And the rules were fuzzy. So why not? I don’t see malicious intent here, only pragmatism. It was a mistake, but not a stupid one. It was an attempt to escape bureaucracy, and bureaucrats hate that. I read the materials, such as I could. The FBI made the right decision not to recommend prosecution in my opinion. But – again, she was not thinking about how it would look to do this, or the emotional impact it would have on those that assume she is doing yet another thing wrong.
So – upshot of the first pattern: I believe she has a touch of something like “Aspergers.” She is a wonk, is clinical, and does not necessarily suffer the emotions of people or think about how things “look.” I get that. I’m actually kind of like that. People assume ill intent when actually she just doesn’t think about or care about their emotional reactions. Such a difference from her husband!
Second Pattern: She has been relentlessly pursued by professionals for over 23 years trying to discredit her, find crimes, remove her from office, etc., etc., etc. She mentioned the “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her and her husband, and guess what? She is and was right. Look at the cussing GOP convention as the latest ridiculous attempt to discredit her. Governor “shut down the bridge!” Christie “prosecuting” Hillary from the podium, spewing discredited accusations, and getting resounding cries of “Guilty!” from the mass of GOP operatives. I thought: She has been hounded by people who know how to hound people for decades, and she is still standing. She’s never been found guilty, she’s never even been prosecuted. And yet her detractors continue to claim she is a lying criminal.
So: She is a wonk with a touch of Aspergers, AND she has lived through an onslaught of slings and arrows flung by the best in the business, basically unscathed. And, she has the skills to do the job – even if I can’t fully support her platform. So, yes, I can live with having her as president. And I think she will do as good a job as any Democratic president could – certainly better than Carter.
And – I want Trump to lose, and lose big. I want every GOP cynical hack who supports this guy to be out of politics when this is over. Look, Trump is not a bad guy in general as far as I can tell. But, just as I would not ask for Trump to operate on my heart or fly my plane, I cannot support him running the country. He has proven through his own actions, stated opinions, and his contradictory policies (stay out of the Middle East but eradicate ISIS, free trade but impose tariffs on China and Mexico, “embrace” LGTBQ but support a ban on gay marriage in his own GOP platform). I want Trump to lose so bad that the entire field of Trumpism is sown with salt, leaving that hate-filled faction of the GOP a barren wasteland, forever fruitless. Trumpism is not Conservatism. It needs to be forever banished. A landslide loss in November will do that.
So, go Hillary!