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.

 

 

“Americanese”

From the Washington Post this morning (March 21, 2017):

Trump didn’t lie, Jeffrey Lord says on CNN. He just speaks a different language — ‘Americanese.’

What an outright admission of Trump sending “dog whistles” to his base of supporters. When I read this this morning, I thought of other “Americanese” expressions that Trump has been spouting:

“Make America Great Again” = Remove the brown people, give more money and power to the white people.

“Obama Wiretap” = You can’t trust those people.

“No Russian Influence” = Have more borscht, comrade.

“Largest inaugural crowd in history!” = In the history of ME, that is!

“Drain the swamp!” = Keep the poor white trash in the swamp, and hire my Goldman Sachs buddies into the White House!

“Build that wall!” = You don’ wanna know what’s happening behind these doors.

“Fake News!” = Bastards who keep figuring me out and exposing me.

“Dishonest Press” = (See “Fake News”)

“People are saying…” = Alex Jones and Infowars, Breitbart and Steve Bannon, Fox and Friends, a random plug-ugly toad, Richard Spencer, and a host of pimply adolescent boys, all tell me that…

“Alternate Facts” = Stuff “people are saying” to Trump.

The day after the inauguration, I wrote the post “Cautiously Optimistic,” in which I posited that I do not expect Trump to change, I consider him inadequate for the job, therefore, if I am right, he will fail at the job, and so if he is inevitably going to fail, he needs to fail fast so we can recover from this quickly. The “optimistic” part was that we have the US Constitution and the balance of power, we have true patriots on both sides of the aisle, we have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and particularly the First Amendment. These are so ingrained in the American psyche that Americans across the political spectrum treat the constitution almost as Holy Scripture. Our whole society was founded on the idea of rejecting tyranny, so America just naturally spits tyranny out like baseball players spit out sunflower seed shells.

It’s been two months, and, so far, I have been right. Trump tries to doctor up his Muslim Ban in an executive order, and Federal Judges see through it and issue stays. Trump tries to control which media organizations get access, and it doesn’t matter, because his executive branch is a fountain of leaks. On top of this, Trump has remained Trump. He falsely accused Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, and then did not back off when it was clear from his own agencies that this was completely false. He called U. S. District Judge James Robart a “so-called judge” in a tweet, when Judge Robart issued a stay on his travel ban. Federal Judges have been using Trump’s own comments as reasons to nullify his travel ban. In other words, Trump’s inability to filter himself combined with his  xenophobic tendencies toward Muslims provided enough ammo for the judges to shoot him down.

His incompetency at the job is showing. And throughout the campaign, and now into his presidency, he has demonstrated that he will not admit mistakes, and will not learn from his mistakes. This latter issue is a real problem. Everyone who walks into the Oval Office does so with zero experience at being president, and there is no job like it anywhere else in the world. Therefore, a new president will not know things, and will make mistakes. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs. Clinton had the White House travel office. Bush Senior had “read my lips,” and Junior had his security missteps that possibly could have allowed 9/11. Presidents usually learn, and eventually avoid rookie mistakes. Except Trump. He is just not teachable.

Combine this inability to be taught with his continual lying, and you get a disaster, and that’s what we have now. The FBI is investigating his campaign for illegal ties to Russia and Russian influence in general; Trump greets this Russian aggression not as an attack on the US, but as a Democratic Party attack on him. His insane insistence that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower had his mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway idiot-splaining to us that hey, microwave ovens can watch us, and TVs can listen in on us! And, Trump actually joked with Angela Merkel that “As far as wiretapping I guess by this past administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps.” Merkel (and America) was not amused.

Now one of his enablers is saying his lying is really just speaking “Americanese.” He is speaking a language that his true American followers can understand, but which the un-American “elites” cannot. Trump is creating newspeak. He is lying to his followers, and they swallow the lies like Large Mouths swallow the bass plugs they fish with out there in the swamps. He has the audacity to call lies “Americanese.”

Two months in and this is happening. This is unsustainable. I’ve been telling my friends that I have the “under” on Trump lasting two years as President. What this means is that I believe he will be out of office before (or “under”) January 20, 2019. The way things are going, my prediction is looking pretty good. As I said before, since it is inevitable, the sooner the better.

I Still Have Her Meds

My wife has been gone for six months now. Conscious magical thinking has turned into internalized magical thinking. Early on, it was as if she was just in the other room, or was on vacation and would walk back into the house at any time. I knew this was not correct, of course, but the feelings were still there. As I write this, I know that six months is still “early on” but things do morph. One of those things is that it no longer feels that she is on vacation, or just around the corner. It feels like she never left, but just isn’t here.

It is so embedded in me that she is part of my soul that when I watch a movie, it is as if we are both watching the movie, instead of just me. Or that the room should be in a certain way because she likes it that way. Or that she will need her clothes. I just don’t want to be final about this. It is less conscious now than it was at the beginning that she is really gone.

Back when Jenny still had her transplant, one thing that became a ritual before we left on any trip was to be sure she had her medicines. When you have a transplant, the drugs you have are the drugs you need, and you cannot screw it up. And, they are not off-the-shelf. We once went to Canada, and Jenny didn’t bring a key medication with her, and it was a big problem to get her covered. So, we put in a requirement that before every trip, no matter what, we had her meds. We can get anything else on the road, but meds are sacrosanct.

The medication list for Jenny was extensive – thyroid meds, stomach meds, prednisone, and a whole litany of anti-rejection meds. The horrible thing is that these same meds ended up killing the kidney they were supposed to protect. Once your kidneys go, your life is not normal ever again – even with a transplant.  After years of being on these meds, her adrenal glands were burnt out. As a result, she was on a litany of drugs even after the transplant failed. They were awful, but they were required. Therefore, even after the loss of the kidney, her meds were first on the list of things to bring, always.

Jenny had a pink pill box she had since I first met her. It is a box that has four compartments per day, with sliding covers that opened allowing access to each compartment. Since she had AM and PM meds, each day’s slots contained two sets of AM and PM meds. Every two weeks she spent some time filling it up with the correct dosages for each slot. I still have the box, and it has the remaining dosages.

I also have one unopened package of Creon, an expensive medication that we regularly fought with our insurance company to cover properly. We have bottles of heparin, which is used in dialysis to thin the blood so that it does not clot during treatment. Jenny has a rolling med/dialysis cabinet with the jars right there, at the ready, along with alcohol wipes, some needles, and some paper barriers, at the ready. We have bottles of “binders,” which are drugs she took to reduce phosphorus, since dialysis does not remove phosphorus from the blood.

Within a week after Jenny passed away, we removed all the dialysis equipment and supplies from the house. The unit picked up her machines, the dialysis chair, and the boxes of dialysate, and cartridges, and fluid warmers, drain tubes, and all the rest. I knew I had to remove it asap and try to reduce the reminders as much as possible, this for my son’s sake, since nightly dialysis was so much a part of our lives. Having the dialysis machine in the living room gathering dust awaiting a person who would never return – no, that was not an option.

But for some reason, the medications were different. These were such a lifeline, in a different way than the dialysis machine was. We could always go to the unit or the hospital and dialyze if needed, but the meds were joined at her hip. To not have them was risking illness or death. Jenny has been on overnight trips without her dialysis machine, but never without her medications.

On her night stand was the unopened package of Creon. The bottle was in the pharmacy bag, the bag stapled shut. A few days ago, I happened to glance over at it, and I realized: I need to let go of this. The insane feeling of “this needs to be here, because she needs it” is hard to not feel. It’s involuntary. Looking at the rows of heparin bottles – they were a life line. They were part of her survival kit. Now, they are all scaffolding to save a life that is no longer in need of saving. It’s like looking at an eggshell from a bird that has hatched. Or like listening to an alarm blaring out from a building that has already been evacuated. The alarm is for no one – or rather, for a person who has already escaped.

Yes, I still have her clothes, too, and shoes and glasses and make-up, but they are not the same. These are things I can donate or give away to friends and family. These are completely different from her medications. If I got rid of all that stuff, and she walked back into my life tomorrow, we could always go and get more at the store. But if she walked in tomorrow and those meds weren’t there, she wouldn’t be able to stay. I know that that is crazy, but it’s true. I also know that it is not true.

It feels true, though. These medications were her lifeline, and now they are acting like a lifeline for me – a lifeline with no one on the end, because she’s the bird that flew away, leaving the nest and the broken egg shell behind, in unopened packages and nice neat rows of jars.

This last weekend, I started cleaning out the room. I got a bag out to put her meds in so I can take them to the pharmacy for disposal. I put in the bag the unopened package of Creon. I’m going to keep her pillbox.

 

A Rant on Airline Travel

[Ed. Note: I wrote this while on a flight home from Milwaukee five years ago today, back when I returned to consulting for a living. Business consulting means you must travel to clients since they will not come to you. Clients want you to come to them, but generally will not foot the bill for anything other than Economy-Class tickets. “Economy” in this case does not mean only financial economy, it also means economy in space, comfort, and dignity. With cheapness comes pain. I edited it slightly, and added some comments after.]

March 1, 2012

I am writing this on a United 757 winging our way from Denver to Portland, which is where I will get the connector to Bend.

On this trip, we were late out of Bend because of snow, I had to traverse TSA with its full body scan, had to endure a cramped window seat at the back of the plane and a cramped aisle seat on the next flight. I paid $25 to check my bag, which did not make the connection, and even though United swore they would courier me the bag that evening, I had to return to the airport to get my bag… and then no one was there. Luckily, I dialed enough numbers to find a guy in operations who came up to open the baggage office. An actual quote from a United employee at the airport was “we are slow, but friendly.”

I am now sitting in an aisle seat on a full plane, with a friendly, yet large, man on the middle seat. I am large, too, so I am listing to port as I write this, my left shoulder being hit every time someone walks by, including the flight attendants.

My first flight today was overbooked, and the gate agent was annoyed because I showed up “last minute”. I tried to get a seat assigned last night, but was unable to. I tried to get a seat assigned at the ticket counter, but the agent said to go to the gate. But, to the gate agent, it was “last minute”.

I would have been bumped, except one nice soul accepted the $400 bribe, and agreed to take a bus(!) from Milwaukee to O’hare to catch a new plane (a bus because the agent didn’t trust that the flight to ORD would make it on time).

Almost every time I fly United it is a pain in the ass.

But this is not a rant against United. Rather, it is a rant against the demise of American air travel. It used to be that flight time was an ideal time to to get work done – open the laptop or notebook and go head’s-down for some uninterrupted work. Flying was never fully comfortable for me, but it was generally less crowded and less cramped.

It is impossible for me to do anything but sit stoically and endure the flights (although I can at least type this out on my iPhone.) And it is too bad.

There is a better way to do this. Hell, if I could, I’d pull a John Madden and get a custom bus. But, really, I would say that if we abolish the TSA and allow people to get onto a plane without being electronically strip searched and carrying what they want, that would be a great start.

Then, if the airlines stop nickel and dime-ing people that would help. It is cheap and petty that United charges $25 per checked bag and $8 for a snack. United has sucked for a long time, but the cure for them is to provide first class service from employees who give a damn. If they do that then they could charge the premium they seem to think they are entitled to and cut the crap.

What we need is a premium version of Southwest. 

The upshot for me is that flying is now like entering a wormhole with nothing to do but turn off until you get to where you are going. From a business perspective that means I must charge clients for travel, since travel is now an opportunity loss. From a personal perspective it means that flying is awful.


Some thoughts, five years on:

I have probably logged more airline miles than at least 98% of Americans. There was a time in the late ’90s that I flew twice a day between Burbank and San Jose, and I did that for months. Virtually all my travel was business travel, and most of that was when I was with KPMG Consulting. When you do something like this for as long as this, you develop a level of skill that you don’t know you have until you realize other people don’t have it. You learn how to pack quickly and efficiently: to roll your clothes, not to fold them, and toss out the “packing squares.” You learn how and when to get to the airport. You learn that trying to carry everything on the plane is stupid. There is no need to be afraid of claiming baggage, and life is so much better when you have only one carry-on, except on airlines like Alaska, where you can gate-check your bag. You learn to carry snacks and to carry a filtered water-bottle. You also learn to fly in your suit – if your suit is comfortable (which all suits should be), it is better than jeans and cheap running shoes, and everyone treats you like royalty. This is, as Helen Reddy said, “wisdom born of pain.”

But knowing how to do it does not make it fun or easy. I am blessed now in that I don’t have to travel weekly anymore. I am wise enough to know that airlines are not going to change. Unless you pony up for a higher class, your ride will get worse. If there is a choice of driving or flying, I will rent a huge car with Sirius XM and drive. When self-driving cars come along, I will use a car much more often.

We are human, and we can never replace being with each other in person. And we cannot bring Paris to our front door. At least for now, we are stuck with the airlines.

However, traveling for work has become less and less necessary. The capability to do quality work remotely has only gotten better since 2012. Mobile networks are better, mobile phone technology is better, coverage is better. I literally can do my job anywhere there is cell coverage and electricity, which is most of the United States and much of the world. I have worked in parks with chipmunks at my feet, in cafes in London, and, yes, at the beach (Note: if you are at the beach, just enjoy the beach. Just because you can work there doesn’t mean you should). I currently work on the edge of a national forest. Who needs to fly?

Airlines will not get better. The only incentive they have is to pack more and more people into larger and larger planes. Technology will save us from this mess, not the airlines. Thank God for technology that lets me opt out of seat 37E.

Dialysis Blood

My wife’s kidneys failed when she was a teenager, and therefore she was getting hemodialysis for a good part of her life. The kidneys filter the blood to remove excess fluid and a wide variety of toxins. Hemodialysis replicates some of the kidney’s function when a person’s kidneys fail. In hemodialysis, your blood is cycled through an artificial kidney, which means that you have blood taken out, cleaned, and returned back in. Therefore, at any given time during treatment you have about half a liter of blood in tubes, outside of the body.

Access to the blood usually comes in two ways: via a chest catheter, or via needles. The needles are inserted into a surgically prepared fistula, which is a vein looped back into an artery. The blood is taken from the arterial side, cleaned, and returned back via the veinous side. The blood is cycled through over a period of hours, and during a dialysis treatment, quite a lot of fluid is removed from the body, anywhere from one to four liters, sometimes more. A person on dialysis loses anywhere from two to ten pounds during treatment.

A person on dialysis (my wife liked the term “dialyser” instead of “dialysis patient”) has this done anywhere from three to six times per week, for as many as four to eight hours per treatment. Usually, things go well. But, when you do anything at least one hundred fifty times per year, things sometimes happen. And when things happen on dialysis, they usually involve blood.

People don’t like seeing blood. They especially don’t like seeing blood on themselves. Some people faint when they see it, some people get queasy. If they cut a finger, or get a bloody nose, the blood-soaked bandage or rag or towel can freak them out. Blood is not an everyday event for most people.

That’s not true with dialysis people. Dialysis in a way is like controlled bleeding – you bleed into a tube, and you get it back. So, every single treatment they are seeing their blood in a tube. And when they are done, there’s at least a little blood when they pull their needles. Because the needles have direct access to the bloodstream, they have to hold the bandages against their access points for a good five to ten minutes just to ensure they don’t bleed out. Then they tape up a bandage and it stays there for a few hours.

When anomalies happen, they can be quite dramatic. And by dramatic, I mean lots of blood. They are dramatic, but as dialysers and their support people find out pretty quickly, dramatic doesn’t usually mean dangerous. Not usually.

My wife started home hemodialysis in 2008, and I trained to be her caregiver. As a caregiver, my job was to support her, to help set up the machine, to monitor progress, to help her start and end treatment, and to aid in emergency situations. Jenny was a pro at this. By the time we started dialysis at home, she had already had about fifteen years of hemodialysis experience. I wasn’t such a pro.

Most of the time things went well, but there were a few times when things went hairy. One time I was downstairs when Jenny was running, and my son ran to me screaming “Mommy needs you, she’s bleeding!” When I got to the room, there was a lot of blood, and Jenny had a bloody towel jammed on her arm, and it was soaking through and dripping, and she couldn’t get to new towels to put on top. I was freaked. She was not – she was cussing pissed.

“Get those paper towels. Put them over this. Help me press down. Harder!” And then, she was fine. The bleeding stopped, we swapped out the bloody mess with clean bandages. And there was blood on the carpet, on the chair, on her clothes. I still have the chair, and there are still blood stains on it. Not big ones – but they are there. She lost about a pint of blood all told, which is doable, but when it is spread all over, it’s dramatic!

Jenny put her own needles in. The process is to push a needle into the access point – the fistula – and you know you have it right when blood pops into the attached tube. You then let the tube fill, attach a syringe with saline, get rid of the air, and then push the saline into the tube. Then, do all this again with the second needle. The dialysis lines are later attached to the tubes.

One time Jenny developed an aneurysm, a bubble-like swelling, on the blood vessel in her fistula. As a result, she’d have to push through the aneurysm to get into the actual fistula properly. The aneurysm made it difficult to find the real vein. The result was that the access would gush blood from the aneurysm as she was poking the needle in trying to find the right access. As usual, she was all business. My God she was brave! I admit to being flustered, but for her, she had no choice. It was dialyze or die, and in this case the hospital was not an option. So, blood was pouring out as she stuck herself. My job was to keep the blood from dripping and to quickly put bandages on it when she found the vein. And to swap out bandages during treatment, because the aneurysm didn’t quite fully stop bleeding until after the treatment was done – several hours. This is obviously unsustainable, and yes we did indeed take a trip to her vascular surgeon to get it fixed up.

You go onto dialysis when you lose your kidney function. But really, dialysis is not about kidneys, it is about blood. It is about what the kidneys do, which is to clean the blood. Everything you do in dialysis is about your blood; it’s never about your kidneys. As a result, blood is the key component of daily life in dialysis. People on hemodialysis get used to blood. If they see some blood oozing from an access, they don’t freak out, they just deal with it. If a needle pops out, it’s not good, but, you deal with it. You can’t stand there getting queazy when blood is dripping down because that is what is dangerous: freaking out.

This post was prompted because someone posted a picture of one of their bleeding incidents on Facebook, complete with spilled blood and soaked bandage, and when I saw it, I thought “what a dialysis picture!” On any other forum, there would have been cries for deletion, for violation of rules, etc., but for dialysis people, it was a picture of something that happens all the time.

And then a few days later, someone else posted that someone in their dialysis unit died during treatment because their access was covered with a blanket and no one noticed the venous needle dislodged and that the patient had bled out. That made me extremely sad, and angry, because dialysis is hard enough without having to worry about bleeding out. But that worry is the price of the life dialysis gives.

The functions the kidneys provide are not meant to be exposed. The kidneys are located deep in your body and are not easily accessed. You have two kidneys: in technology terms, it’s a redundant system. You can live on 10% to 15% of your total kidney function. When you lose your kidneys, you are replacing that nice and protected functioning with pulling the blood out of the body and into the room. You are going from a safe situation over to one which has serious risks. It’s no wonder that events will happen, and it’s no wonder that people will get inured to them. People on dialysis are in a similar situation to soldiers at war. Their lives are constantly on the line. For dialysis people, they are in that situation for years, many times for the rest of their lives. The term “dialysis warrior” is used a lot in the dialysis forums, and indeed they are warriors, except the enemy is not an external force, but the failure of their own body.

And as in war, blood plays a big part, to the point where a pint of blood soaking the carpet is not that big a deal in the overall scheme of things. She was alive! And no little blood spill was going to change that.

 

 

Denied!

Recently, the NPR show Planet Money had an episode about Edward Thorp, the man who invented blackjack card counting. Thorp is a mathematician, and he saw blackjack as an interesting problem to analyze as opposed to a way to get rich quick. At the time he discovered card counting, the established idea was that there could not possibly be a “system” that would beat blackjack. The odds are what they are, the payouts are what they are, and the casino has a baked-in winning edge of about 1/2%, meaning they take fifty cents out of every hundred dollars wagered, no matter what.

Blackjack is an easy game. You and the dealer get two cards. You see the dealer’s top card, but not the “hole,” or face-down, card. Cards are valued as their numeric value; face cards count as ten; and an Ace can either be one or eleven, your choice. A Queen and a Nine are nineteen, a Three and a Four are seven, an Ace and a Six can either be seven or seventeen. An Ace and a Ten or face card is special: It’s a blackjack, and it pays you 1 1/2 times your wager.

Your job is to take your cards and get as close as you dare to 21, without going over (called breaking or busting). The way you do that is to ask for cards from the dealer when it’s your turn (called hitting), as many as you want, until you feel satisfied with your hand, or until you break by going over 21. So, if you are dealt a six and a four, making ten, you want to hit to get get closer to 21. If you hit and are dealt an eight, say, you have eighteen, and the odds are at this point that you will break if you hit again, so you elect to stay or stand. All players are playing against the dealer, not each other, and when all the players have played their hands, the dealer plays his. Dealers have no choice in what they do. Different casinos have slightly different rules, but the dealer always follows whatever the rules are. In most casinos, dealers must play until they get to 17 or better, or bust.  If the dealer busts, every player who didn’t bust wins. If the dealer gets between seventeen and twenty-one, each player who has a higher value than the dealer wins. If there is a tie, (called a push) it’s a tie and you keep your bet.

The casino edge varies based on their rules, but it is usually around 1/2%. Edward Thorp realized that this winning percentage was based on discrete hands, considered only as a single hand dealt from a full deck. What really happens is that in real life, the odds of who wins the hand depend on which cards have already been played from the deck. In other words, how a hand plays out is not the same hand to hand, but changes as the dealer plays multiple hands from the same shuffled deck.

For example, if you are playing blackjack with three players and a dealer in a single-deck game, you may have three or four hands between shuffles. When you play the first hand, all the cards played are now out of the deck. Therefore, these cards are no longer available for the remaining hands, changing the absolute odds of the game. If in the first hand lots of “tens” (10, J, Q, and K) and aces are played, these cards are no longer available for the subsequent hands. This lowers the odds for the player, and increases them for the dealer, because the dealer does better if there are more low cards and less aces available to make blackjack for a player. Card counting is the art of tracking which cards have been dealt, thus telling you what cards are left. By doing that, you can recognize the times when the remaining cards are in your favor, and therefore are more likely to win. To take advantage of this, you place a higher bet: two, three, even ten times more than your base wager. Therefore, when you win, you win more. Casinos quickly realized that they were wrong, that card counting was real, and got to the point where they were banning card counters and mixing up the rules to make card counting virtually ineffective.

My father was a mathematician working in the aerospace industry back when Thorp made these discoveries. Back in the ’60s, the only computers available were in huge companies and the US government. There were no personal computers back then. But, he was working in a lab where he had access to a huge mainframe computer, and so he developed a program that calculated the actual odds of blackjack in different betting scenarios and use cases, and he ran the program during “slack” time on his company’s computer. Overall, he simulated over one billion hands. Using the result he was able to validate Thorp and come up with a “basic game” of blackjack: when to hit, when to stay, etc., and the data was used as a basis of his first blackjack card counting system.

Because, yes, my father was Jerry L. Patterson, notorious in the blackjack community back in the day. I introduced him here last month. He wrote a book called “Blackjack: A Winner’s Handbook” in 1979, soon after casino gambling became legal in New Jersey. He started giving blackjack seminars and started to develop and market other systems for blackjack and other casino games. He did well over the years. Some of his systems seemed to teeter on the mystical, upsetting the pure math blackjack crowd. He was even called the “Witchdoctor of Blackjack” by one prominent hard-core card counting guru. My father is in his eighties now, and retired from the gaming business.

I take after dad in a number of ways, one of which is that I have a good feel for numbers. When I was younger, I decided to try out card counting and some of the other techniques. I quickly found out that it would be difficult to make a serious living as a pro blackjack player, and even if I could, it is a lot of work to get really good at the techniques and stay on top of the casino counter-measures to these techniques. I also know the odds well enough to know that if you screw up even a little, you will lose fast. Casinos only seem friendly; their real job is to suck you dry if they can, and they are good at it.

I visited dad a while back and thought it might be a fun thing for him to review his books and training materials and come up with a retrospective of his best systems in a new book – but alas, the copyrights belong to the publishers. But recently I thought, well maybe I could do it, be a sort of “Patterson plays Patterson” and take two or three of his best systems, learn them, and then see how they do now, now that casino gambling has spread far and wide across this land. He has systems for blackjack, craps, and roulette, and really, the games haven’t changed that much, so theoretically, the techniques should still have value with maybe a few tweaks. It also gives me an excuse to go to Reno and Vegas – with the bonus of being able to write off the trips as research. Then, I could put together a book about the experience. Win or lose, there’s a story here.

Well, I decided to run this idea by dad. “No way!” he cried. “That’s a terrible idea! There’s no way you can make money at it, and the casinos are wise to it now, and anyway it’s hard to learn it, and there are much better things to do with your time!”

I must admit, I was taken aback. He was adamant about it! I reminded him that casinos are not that savvy – remember Phil Ivey cleaning the clock of the Borgata. Remember that there are many more casinos everywhere, with varying levels of maturity. And, I told him, it would be fun!

“No way!”

We discussed this for a full forty-five minutes. He never wavered. I told him “but dad! You already gave me the first chapter! ‘The Book They Didn’t Want Written!  Patterson denies his own son!” It was all falling on deaf ears.

I tried to peel off which were his favorite systems. His legacy is his craps system, but he said “no, they’ll toss you out! They know about it now!” I told him, well, if they toss me out, at least I can’t lose any money.

Oh well, I tried. But, you know, I’m going to do this over the next few months. It is just too juicy not to. I don’t really have to ask him, because, you know… I have his books.

I’ll keep you posted.

 

We See Dead People

When I was a teenager, we had a neighbor next door who lived in the same house since the mid-1930s. She had a sister who was a pack rat, and subscribed to magazines and news papers, and never threw them away. Rather, she put them in the garage. After fifty years of this, the garage was full. Since my neighbor’s sister passed away, my neighbor asked me if I would clean out the garage for her for a sum, and said I could keep whatever I found in the garage.

The house was a nice thirties-style California house, two stories, with stucco and a Spanish tile roof, and three huge avocado trees in the backyard. The garage was detached, and was just big enough for a decent sized DeSoto if it weren’t for the fact that it was fully stuffed with newspapers and magazines. Over the next week, I attacked the garage.

The garage was a time machine. When I opened the garage door, I was confronted with stacks and stacks of relatively recent newspapers. Most of what I found was, at least to me, just a bunch of papers, and so I recycled virtually all them. However, I hit pay dirt when I got to the 1930s and ’40s, which was about 80% into the garage. I found dozens of copies of magazines like GQ, Look, Liberty, Life, and others. I kept a lot of them, and sold a number to used book stores in Hollywood.

The magazines I really prized, and the ones I still have today, were from the ’30s: The first few years of “Look” magazine, and a pile of “Motion Picture” and “Photoplay” mags. These magazines were so beautiful! The colors of the covers were so rich, with pictures of the stars, like Deanna Durbin, Olivia De Havilland, Delores Del Rio, Sonia Henny, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. I fell in love with the glamor that was 1930s Hollywood. All the stars were dressed to the nines. They all drove huge Duesenbergs, Cords, and Lincolns, and smoked Lucky Strikes (with the green pack), or Camels, or Chesterfields. They all smiled, and when they were not smiling, they were fighting over some man. It was a walk into a world that was vivid and alive before me, but which no longer existed.

I have a box set of movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first few movies were from the years 1929 through 1937: “Broadway Melody,” “Grand Hotel,” “Mutiny on the Bounty,”and “The Life of Emile Zola.” “Broadway Melody” was the first sound picture to win Best Picture. It won the Oscar eighty-seven years ago.

These four movies are worth watching. It is interesting to see how movies changed during the “Golden Age,” but more importantly, at a time when Hollywood was cranking out movies by the trainload, these were the best of their time, and are really well made, and entertaining.

As I watched these movies, I realized that everyone in them or involved in making them is dead now. Every actor, every extra, all the sound men, all the camera men, the screen writers, the directors, the producers, the caterers, everyone. And yet, here they are, alive, on the screen. You see and hear the actors. You hear the words of the writers, you see the direction of the directors, and the cinematography of the cameramen. They live on, even though they are no longer here in the flesh.

A few years ago I realized that technology has given us a gift that I don’t think people really understand. And that is: we are the first people who can see and hear what generations past really looked like and sounded like. Photography first started in 1839, and sound recording started in 1877, so we have records of people going back to the nineteenth century – all of whom are now dead. But movies with sound came into being in 1927, less than one hundred years ago. While photographs and sound recordings are great, movies bring people to life. It fascinates me that we can see people on the screen, and they are alive! And yet they are no longer with us.

We as human beings naturally put our generation and our era as the pinnacle of times. We know so much. We are dealing with problems no one ever heard of before. The ’70s, the ’60s, the ’30s – oh, it was so much simpler then! So much more innocent! They never had to deal with the problems we have now. How did they ever live without ATM machines or mobile phones? But I don’t believe there ever were innocent times. Humans are brutal and we tend to focus on the good and gloss over the bad when we cast our memories back to those “simpler times.”

When you you look at motion pictures from decades ago – ideally the best ones, but even the worst ones, you are forced to recon with the fact that these people really were alive. They breathed and they lived and they married, and mourned, and lived in fear, and triumph – and you know that these people, these generations now dead, had the same fears and aspirations, and desires, and faults that we have now. We have the benefit of hindsight – we know what happened after these movies were made, and we know what happened to the actors and the players in them, thanks to IMDB and Wikipedia. At the time, we didn’t know how the depression would end. Considering that other countries resorted to fascism and communism to attempt to solve their economic challenges, and given where Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s head was at, we could have easily become a socialist state. No one knew at the time. We do know that they partied and enjoyed their good times when they had them. It seems every generation thinks the old folks were stodgy and that they are the first generation to have fun and stay out all night. But we know that’s not true. We know because we read, but we really know because of the movies. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936 – and it was about people who stayed up all night partying on Broadway:

When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”
It’s early in the morning.
Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.

If you clicked on the link above and saw the Busby Berkeley clip of all those dancers tapping in the movie, you have know know that virtually all of them are no longer with us. But they were alive! And every single one of them had their dreams and aspirations of making it in Hollywood, and every single one of them was flesh and blood. Whatever life they ended up having after this clip, it is over now.

Then we look at something like this, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and marvel at how beautiful and poetic it is, and how alive Fred and Ginger are, and how even then people were desperate, had money problems, were discouraged, were suicidal, and:

There may be teardrops to shed
So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance.

We are human beings and yet we are so quick to forget that there have been human beings for thousands of years before our generation, and that every generation in every country, and on every continent, in every era, in every station of life, lived and loved and bled and hurt and died. And we have documented it now. The previous generations are no longer figments of  history books or snippets of novels about rich people, or books of quotations. We can see them, alive, on the screen, even though they are long dead.

I find it reassuring. I don’t feel alone in my experiences. While whatever we are dealing with now is real and urgent to us, it is comforting to know that other people faced similar and even worse situations and lived – at least in the aggregate. It is reassuring and sometimes frustrating to know that history has echoes. You can look at the fight Humankind has had with ignorance, want, and evil, and be discouraged that we still have to fight ignorance, want, and evil. And yet, while we have had horrific experiences as a species, we are still here, and we have won the major battles, albeit with casualties. We have dodged nuclear war, so far, when the odds were against us. We have become more tolerant over our existence even though there are still deep pockets of intolerance. We are winning the fight to transcend primitive tribalism, even though there are those that are grasping onto it with both hands. We are incrementally better. But we were also pretty damn good back in the day, as well. And now we have the proof we didn’t have before.