Thursday, July 29, 2010

Give me the money

In late spring of 1998 I was at a friend's house for a party. He had just returned from The Bahamas or Puerto Rico or some other Caribbean island destinations. While he was down there he spent some time in one of the casinos and became enamored with blackjack. It was all he could talk about. Eventually he went digging through his things and came up with an old blanket, a deck of cards, and some plastic poker chips. He used a magic marker to draw a makeshift blackjack layout on the blanket, draped it over a coffee table and before long was dealing cards to me and a couple of other guys. He was only using a single deck, and dealing all the way to the end of it. I was able to count into it, and bet more when the situation was favorable for the player. He recognized this commented that he should probably be using more than one deck.

There was another party the next week, and this time he was a bit more well prepared. He had 4 decks of cards laying sideways inside a tissue box, and big glass ball that acted as a sort of weight to push them forward as he dealt them out. He ended up making a little bit of money that night. What surprised me was how many people were playing. They were lining up waiting for a spot. Every seemed to be really enjoying it.I couldn't ignore what I saw as a relatively lucrative opportunity. The closest casino was 500 miles away in Atlantic City. This was an untapped market.

Over the summer, I hopped on the internet and found a casino supply wholesale company. I ordered a professional layout, 144 decks of cards, custom made chips with my initials on them, a "shoe" for holding and dealing 6 decks of cards at once, a discard holder, a chip tray.... the whole deal. Upon returning to school in the fall, I built the table and set up shop in the corner of my fraternity house's living room. There were parties there twice a week. The table was an instant hit.

My routine became fairly simple. I would stop by the grocery store and pick up a few cases of beer and some ice and stock the cooler that I kept beneath the table. Anyone playing would not have to leave to get another drink or bother with an annoying keg line. Generally, I would show up at the party around 8, deal until about 12, then close up shop and party until 2. At first, the table limits were $2 minimum to $25 max. After a few months I had built up a big enough bankroll that I could now allow up to a $100 max bet. Word got out and the guys with more money started showing up. There weren't that many rich kids at my school, so most of these guys were hustlers of some sort... usually drug dealers. By winter break, my average weekly profit had grown to about 2 grand. There were some nights when I lost and would have to shut down because the players had won everything that I had on me at the time. I realized that it behooved me to have more money to bank with so that I wouldn't have to close down if the players went on a good run early. It made good sense mathematically. The longer they played, the greater chance of they had of losing. This same mentality also encouraged me to deal later into the night, which had an added benefit since the players would be more tired and drunk, and make bad decisions. As it turns out it was me that was making the worst decisions.

One night the game broke at about 2 am. I took a small loss on the night, but I was pretty happy because I had been down big early. I packed up the chips and cards and headed out the back door to my car. I popped the hatchback and placed the gear in my trunk. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a pump action shotgun slide moving forward...


The barrel was cold, and I flinched when it was pressed against the base of my skull.

"Hand it over," were the only words spoken by my assailant.

"Ok," I said. "Its in my pocket. I don't have a gun... just...don't shoot me."

I reached into my pocket and produced the roll of bills. He took it. I left my hands up. I thought I heard at least one or maybe two other voices whispering. And as quick as they were there... they were gone. I heard their car pull away down the alley. I stood still. I had no desire to run after them or catch a glimpse of my attackers. I just wanted them to be gone.

They got away with about $2500 that night. At first I was sick about it, but then I realized it could have been a lot worse. They could have followed me home, killed me, and taken everything. I stopped dealing the game. I hardly told anyone about the hold-up. First of all I didn't want to freak anybody out. We had a very nice fun crowd of co-eds that visited the house regularly and I knew word of an armed robbery would scare them away. Further, there was no point in making it known. I didn't want the cops getting wind of it, since I was guilty of a punishable crime myself. Also, I didn't want to give anyone else the idea to rip me off. The fact is... I was arrogant and stupid. I should have known better than to walk around with that kind of money. There were hundreds of different people that knew about it, and I wasn't exactly discrete about my success. I learned a valuable lesson that evening.

I would love to end this post right here by writing, "I don't deal blackjack games anymore." But eventually I started the game again. This time it was under more secure conditions. The game was moved to its own room and you had to know somebody to get in. There was some big guys that acted as security and we bought a safe to keep the money locked up. I would just drop by during the day whenever I needed to take money out.

Months later, I was leaving the house in the afternoon, having stopped by to hang out in between classes. I was on my way back to campus when a really clean-cut preppy looking guy walked straight up to me, in broad daylight, and pointed a .22 at my face. "Gimme the money!" Again, I didn't hesitate. I reached into my pocket and gave him the $12 I had in my pocket. It was obvious from the look on his face he was disappointed with the amount, but it seemed he realized his error... and didn't wish to further risk a long prison sentence over $12. He looked around like we was confused. Then he kneed me in the stomach and bolted down the street.

Getting kneed in the stomach really really effing hurts. I couldn't breathe for almost a minute. I made a decision right there, no more blackjack game. Turns out the guy tried to hold up the Citgo station down the street 10 minutes later. He screwed up and got his face all over the surveillance video and was arrested a few days later. I found out he was 16 years old, a local dropout.

I don't deal blackjack games anymore.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ball game

In late August 1998, I packed a few things into my Volkswagen Golf: a duffel bag of clothes, a few CDs and books, and enough money for gas and food to get me from San Diego to Radford, VA. I had about a week before the start of classes at RU, and I planned on making the trek in about 3 or 4 days. I decided to kick off the trip by spending the night in Las Vegas and having a little fun before heading back to school for the fall of my senior year. The next day I would then head down into Arizona and hook up with Interstate 40 in Kingman Arizona, which would take me across nearly the whole of the country en route to Virginia.

I got to Vegas before sundown. I had barely dropped my bag on the bed before I headed off to the MGM Grand. I had an extra $200 that I figured I could afford to lose gambling...and within 20 minutes I had done exactly that. I was shocked at how briefly it lasted. I thought that because I dealt a blackjack game and knew how to count cards that I would automatically win. Turns out it doesn't work that way. Oh well, I got a few drinks out of it at least. After 10 minutes I didn't care. I was 21 years old and reveling in the new freedom to do such things without the worry of using a fake ID. With no more money, I sat in the sports book for a little while and pretended I was sweating a game just to score a few more scotches and beers. But, I knew I had to be on the road early, so I was back in my cheap hotel room before 11. I woke up at about 5 am, and hit the road just before dawn.

US93 brings you over the Colorado river into Arizona by way of the Hoover Dam. This was not the first time I had driven my car over the Dam and I was somewhat surprised by the slow pace of the traffic. I had not expected to run into this many tourists so early in the morning. By the time I made my way up into the hills on the Arizona side, the sun was blaring and the temperature was well above 100 degrees. I cranked the air conditioner on full blast since my shirt was already sticking to me. I was annoyed. Finally the traffic broke and I sped off, eager to get some road behind me. The highway leading down through the hills is two lanes, windy and has some rather steep hills and valleys. At one point, I found myself stuck behind a slow moving 18-wheeler. Passing is allowed, so I pulled into the oncoming lane and saw that it was clear. Just as I was about to overtake him, I noticed that he was speeding up. I heard him down-shift and his engine revved. I looked up and could see that the driver was in the midst of a full on road-rage episode. He was flipping me off and mouthing F bombs. My mouth just dropped open. We crested the top a small hill and started heading downhill. His massive inertia moved him forward faster than my little Volkswagen could muster. I looked down at my speedometer and we were going over 100 mph. When I looked back up at the road, it was too late. I felt the blood leave my face.

Another 18 wheeler was heading straight at me...lights flashing and horn blaring. It was also traveling very fast and heading downhill having just crested a small hill of its own. I glanced back up at the trucker and he was still going nuts. My eyes did the math and quickly gave me the sobering answer. I would not have time to brake and get behind the mad man before the other truck closed the distance. I could not swerve off the road either. It was hundreds of feet down on either side and protected by guard rails. I turned off my AC to free up some horsepower, down-shifted into 3rd gear, and pegged my motor. Too late. I simply wasn't going to make it.

And then.... I felt complete relaxation. The kind when you truly know that there is no point in worrying about what is going to happen, because it is clear, and there is nothing you can do about it. In that split second of my remaining life, I felt truly at peace.

"Ball Game," I said to myself.

I had recalled that phrase from a story my father had told me... about an incident when he had nearly died in traffic accident and uttered those words... a casual acceptance of his fate.

My right side mirror touched the side of the truck as I pulled closer to it. My car buffeted and my steering wheel shook...a result of the hurricane force wind generated by the closing speed of the huge trucks. My windshield cracked. It took me a moment to realize that I wasn't dead. I had passed between them in the center of the road. I took my foot off the gas. The crazy trucker sped down to highway, horn still blaring, as I shifted into neutral and eventually drifted to a stop at a turnout on the side of the road. For another minute or so I still felt strangely calm. The radio was playing Midnight Oil. My coffee was still in the cupholder. A Burger King wrapper lay in the passenger seat next to me.

Then the adrenaline hit me all at once. My muscles tensed and cramped. I opened the drivers side door and emptied the contents of my stomach onto the dirt. It was another 10 minutes before my heart settled down enough, and I regained my thought process. I checked the car for damage. The plastic on the outside of the right side mirror was scuffed. The windshield had a small crack in it. Everything else seemed fine.

I popped in a book on CD. It was "The Lord of the Rings." It was a good one too... with multiple actors doing the different voices and good sound effects. I listened to it for the next two days, finishing it somewhere around Knoxville.

I don't pass 18 wheelers anymore.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ailments. How I got fat. Recoveries. How I got skinny. Aging. How I got hurt.

I don't really remember what month it was, but the year was 2003. I was living in a condo in Carmel Valley with my friends Lee and Kent. Lee had recently been laid off from his job at a data storage company and had decided to venture into business for himself. Lee's initial business idea was to sell brushed aluminum picture frames that he had modified with a bit of hardware so that they created a sort of 3-D montage. Some us wrinkled our foreheads wondering how this was going to be a viable source of income. But he kept at other designs and found a niche designing and manufacturing decorative waterfalls... the kind that you see in the lobbies of restaurants or as accent pieces in living rooms, or elevator alcoves in hotels... etc.

One afternoon I was helping him move one of his very first waterfalls. It was this Goliath creation, that was almost more like an 8 ft tall fish tank. Just as I bent down to begin to lift one end from the bed of his truck... something moved in my lower back. Its hard to describe other than to say it felt like I had been shot. Every nerve and muscle from my neck down to my ankles tensed up and I nearly collapsed, unable to even support my own weight, which was about 170 lbs. at the time. Lee helped me hobble back to the front seat of his car where I sort of crumpled into a pile, and bit down on a rolled up towel to quiet the blood-curdling screams. When I finally got to the ER, x-rays would show that there had been movement of the vertebrae in my lower spine. Basically one of the higher vertebrae had slipped out of place and downward, impinging on the dense network of nerves that attached to muscles throughout my back and legs. They doctor went on to say that this appeared to be the result of a inherited genetic condition where the spinal canal in my lumbar lower vertebrae was smaller than it should be, exacerbating the impingement of the nerves. Lack of exercise had allowed the muscles in the area to become weak, which would normally hold the bone and cartilage in place, but some of the heavy lifting had put enough stress on the spine to move things around a bit. I was immobile for days, while I lay in traction. Traction is a process where a harness is attached to your torso, and another to your hips. Tension is applied to pull the two harness in opposite directions. This tension increases over the course of the treatment. In essence, it stretches you apart, not unlike a medieval torture device called "The Rack". They loaded me up on muscle relaxers and pain meds, and I was able to walk again. Then came the tricky part. There wasn't any real rehab that could be done, because the area was so weak and unstable that even the gentlest movements could cause it to happen all over again. Basically I had to "take it easy" until the ligaments and supporting tissues had time to heal and tighten back up.

So take it easy I did. I basically stopped exercising all together. It wasn't like I really could have anyways, since the radiating pain was basically there every day. I did what I could with lumbar supports while I was driving and sitting. Since I was mostly sedentary anyways, I started playing lots of poker. It fulfilled my need for competition without any physical strain. My eating habits suffered and I gained weight. Over the next few years I ballooned up to 205 lbs and went from a 32 waist to a 38. I was fat and lazy. Much of the pain in my back had subsided, but the habits stayed. Taking good care of health had fallen from the list of priorities. My life had become a sort of mundane routine that I had accepted. Conditions at my job had become intolerable, as the union that represented me was at odds with the company. A full on standoff came about and the tension level that I had to endure every day left me emotionally exhausted when I got home.

In late 2006, I decided to make a change and left Channel 10 to take a job at a new division of Qualcomm as a Satellite Engineer. Shortly afterwards I went through a tough break-up. The stress from changing careers and the depression from the personal issues took a physical toll on me. I lost my appetite and could barely eat. This persisted for weeks. I started to exercise again. The endorphins and associated euphoria I felt after a long run was the only thing that I really looked forward to I would run for miles and miles on the treadmill or Eliptical trainer. I lost 40 lbs in less than two months. I started strength training and with the missing weight was able to build up my back muscles in hopes of preventing a recurrence of the injury that started the whole thing. My endurance and stamina increased. I began jogging more regularly. I took up tennis. Fitness became a part of my regular daily routine. By the late part of 2007, I had dropped nearly 60 lbs of fat and gained about 20 lbs of muscle, staying right around 157 lbs with about 9-10% body fat. At 30 years old I was in the best shape of my life... less than one year after being in the worst shape of my life.

In 2008, I ran in a 10k at Camp Pendleton. Somewhere in the middle of the course I tweaked my knee. By the end of the race it was throbbing. I stayed off it for weeks before trying to jog again. A few miles in I began to feel the pressure build up. I stayed off it for a long time... before very slowly starting to integrate jogging back into my fitness routine... but I was always cognizant of the problems my right knee seemed to give me when I ran long distances. In 2010, I ran in the San Diego Rock n Roll Half Marathon. Around mile 2 I started feeling the pressure in the knee... much earlier than usual. By mile 7 I could not continue and had to drop out. The swelling was worse than it had ever been and I could see the pocket of fluid that had built up on the outside part of me knee. The pain subsided in a day or so, but there is a lingering tenderness there even now that is new. I don't generally have any problems when playing tennis or soccer, but I feel small twinges of stiffness from time to time. I had x-rays taken the other day, which might not show anything at all. Its likely I will need an MRI to see if there is any damage to the ligament or muscles in the knee. If so, its likely I will undergo a common arthroscopic surgery to repair the ligament or clean the cartilage. I have been told the recovery time is short and that I should be back out playing sports in a couple of months. Friends that have had the surgery say that their knees felt better than ever afterwards.

Next on the docket is the localized pain that I am feeling in my lower back. It is far different from the pain associated with the injury 7 years ago. There is a persisting an acute pain on a specific point on my spine. I can feel it on the bone itself. Of course the orthopedist will only "treat one injury at a time" so as to get paid for the most office visits. Same for the radiology and why I have to pay for x-rays in cases where its very likely an MRI will be needed. It could be lots of different things... so no freaking out just yet.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Tell me why am I so elusive
When it's clear I should be straight?
Why do I reveal so much when
It would seem to be too late?

Do I recognize each opportunity
And watch as it passes me by?
Am I so frightened of failure
That it's just easier not to try?

Do I just stand there frozen
With a path before me so clear?
Do I just turn and walk away
To find my way back here?

Can I make myself forget?
Can I fill the void so fast?
Can I find a way to move ahead
Before I've reconciled the past?

Can I let it all stay broken
Possessing tools to make repairs?
Can I turn away from all of it
And pretend that I don't care?

Can I accept this as it happened
Make amends, then leave it be?
Have I the strength to crush it
And dispose of the debris?

Will I see things for what they are
Or will it remain a mystery?
Will I wallow down in the mire
Or can I wash this off of me?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Either way

So scared to lose
That I refused to play
I never meant to choose
To throw the time away
I've only me to blame
And now I must decide
To either quit the game
Or cast my fears aside
If I can find my balls
If I can lose my pride
If I can climb the wall
That holds me inside
Will I feel so free?
Will I find my voice?
Will I see it's me
That really has a choice?
I'll take a chance on me
Cause even if I fall
Its a better place to be
Than back behind the wall
And now I clearly see
Why I have to try
But Mother did it need to be
So high?

Two rights don't make a wrong
I thought I could belong.
No one said that I'm no good.
But maybe someone should.
I did not mean to bury it.
But it happened, I admit.
When you walked away that day
I wish that you had stayed

But I'll see you either way
I'll see you either way.

And now I'm up so high
I can't see the ground
And if I want to fly
The only way is down
But what I didn't know
until I got up here
is that what's down below
was never all that clear.
What's done is done
And now with no regret
I turn towards the sun
and become a silhouette
I move towards the ledge
And take one last breath
And as I cross the edge
I lose my fear of death
And while I descend
At such velocity
I feel my soul transcend
The animosity
And so I set it free
All the fear inside
And while it exits me
I feel
So high.

Two rights don't make a wrong
I thought I could belong.
No one said that I'm no good.
But maybe someone should.
I did not mean to bury it.
But it happened, I admit.
When you walked away that day
I wish that you had stayed

But I'll see you either way
I'll see you either way.