Game of Cards // Chapter Excerpt

“It’s basic logic.” Cedric explained. “The key to blackjack is being able to remember.” He was sitting with Adrian at one of the small circular tables in the casino. She was distracted by his white silicone and gold watch, flashing as he shuffled the cards.

Pop music hummed through large speakers in the ceiling and Adrian heard the occasional eruption of excited voices all around her. Cedric wore a ghost white tee. She noticed it fell loosely, yet fitted enough to reveal the clean outline of large rounded shoulders and a defined upper chest.

“After the deal, if the remaining deck has more ten and ace cards, you have a higher statistical advantage of winning,” said Cedric. She half-consciously replayed in her mind the way he said statistical, kind of like—focus, Adrian.

“You gotta count the cards as they’re played.” He continued. Adrian said nothing, only nodding occasionally, careful not to betray her projected confidence. He sat close, she could have easily reached out and touch his extended knee under the table.

“Don’t forget the count value of previous hands, it tells you about the cards that are left in the pile for the next rounds.” Cedric paused to let the information process. He dealt two cards face up to her, a four of diamonds and a six of spades, and then dealt himself a king of spades and another card face down.

“Double down?” Adrian asked after the deal. “If I double my bet I’d have a good chance of getting ten or eleven, right?”

“Well, d’you remember the cards played in our last hand?”

Adrian looked at him coolly, wordlessly shifting the expectation on him to answer his question.

“Remember, all cards below six are worth one positive point and all cards ten and above are worth one negative—”

“Yeah, I know, I know, you said that.”

“Okay, so,” He lifted up his arm to scratch the back of his neck. She could smell his deodorant. “Keep doing the math in your head. It gets easier, I promise. You jus’ need to keep adding, subtracting, or,” he paused, adopting an increasingly instructive tone, “if the card is a seven, eight, or nine—”

“Don’t add or subtract anything.”

“Right. So, when do you have the advantage?”

“When the point count is positive.”

He smiled, “Because…?”

“‘Cause there’s a higher amount of ten or ace cards that could be dealt,” she blinked thoughtfully a few times, “and I’m more likely to win.”

“Oh, you’re good.”

Adrian felt a warm sensation run through her.

“Alright,” Cedric said quickly, filling the silence when she didn’t say anything, “so is your count positive or negative?”

“Definitely positive.”

“Double down.” He said, and handed her another card.

Adrian nodded slowly. “I think I’m getting it.” She rested her elbow on the table and delicately reached over to take the card from Cedric.

She never anticipated enjoying blackjack, or, she had to admit, the time spent with Cedric Davis. He was charming and well kept, always in thick denim jeans and spotless white tees. His coarse hairline was shaved along the edges, accentuating perfectly straight lines against the dark skin. 

They practiced in the casino to simulate the feel of an actual game of blackjack. Cedric began by dealing one card at a time face up on the table, starting the count after each card was dealt for the entire deck. He paused occasionally in the processes to ask Adrain the count. They practiced at different speeds. If she was able to count the entire deck correctly, Cedric dealt the cards a little faster. Eventually, Cedric stopped counting. He’d pause and ask for the count, she’d write it down, note where he stopped, then they’d go through the deck at the end to check her accuracy. Soon she was able to score one hundred percent after every deal, regardless of dealing speed.

A few weeks later, Adrian was increasingly astonished that she was consistently winning hands in the casino. She was meticulous in her strategy: only taking carefully calculated risks and killing the excitement of every win. Where pathological gamblers lost themselves in the hazy whims of luck, she remained unshakable, grounded in the laws of card counting and self-control.

This wasn’t a gambling game, this was a game of logic, this was knowing when to close and how to maintain an extremely high threshold against pressure. She learned the timing of a perfect night: when to bid low or take even money, and when to go home. Onlookers booed her decisions to cash out on a winning streak, but she wasn’t there for fun and taking chances. Luck had never been on her side.

Cedric was right, the key to blackjack was basic logic, but it was also emotional extraction, she realized, which was another well-developed skill. She drained all feeling out of the experience—the lights, the excited voices, the low, omnipresent music—everything was shut out. She made a point not to make friends with anyone who worked there and didn’t accept any favors or incentives, she played the game.

And if I can’t win, she told herself, I won’t play.

Feature: Frank Gehry, an Outlier of Modern Architecture

“You can’t ignore history; you can’t escape it even if you want to. You might as well know where you come from, and you might as well know that everything has been done in some shape or form.” – Frank Gehry

Architecture as an art form can easily be overshadowed by the stringency of function. Yet everything about architect Frank Gehry challenges this status quo. His building designs are a testament to his philosophy. He wasn’t afraid to bend the rules—or the angles of his buildings.

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Frank Gehry is widely regarded as one of the most influential and revered figures in modern architecture, and I am fascinated to understand why. Innovation isn’t always met with widespread acceptance and accolade—especially during an artist’s lifetime—which is why I am intrigued by Gehry and the story behind his success.

My curiosity surfaced as a result of reading The Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, who explains successful people like Gehry “appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience.” Yet, Gladwell argues, they don’t. “They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy,” he explains.

“Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are.”

I’m beginning to deconstruct, like Gladwell did with Bill Gates and others, the reason behind Gehry’s rising-from-nothing story.

Gehry was born Ephraim Owen Goldberg in Toronto on February 28, 1929 to immigrant Jewish parents, Sadie Thelma Caplanski and Irving Goldberg. [1] When Gehry was eight, his family moved to Timmins—a small mining town 428 miles north of Toronto—for his father’s business ventures distributing slot machines. In addition to bullying received by Polish children with anti-Semitic notions, Gehry recalls his emotionally unravelling father referring to him as “stupid” and “a day dreamer.” Irving doubted his son possessed any practical abilities to function in the world, abused him physically on occasion, and was seemingly convinced the boy would amount to very little. [1]

Gehry’s start in life and later outcome suggests yet another story of triumph against all odds, but there were key factors making this possible. Gladwell emphasizes:

“People don’t rise from nothing….It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

Unlike his father, Gehry’s mother believed in her son’s potential and pushed him as a child. She wanted to expose him to the culture she felt deprived of in her youth and brought him to museums and classical music events while they lived in Toronto. He also had grandparents in Toronto that “gave him the sense that the world was rich in possibility.” [1] Such a world was created through hours spent building small cities out of wooden blocks with his grandmother and through studying the Talmud with his grandfather, which taught him the importance of curiosity and critical thinking.

Due to his father’s failing health, the family moved to Los Angeles when Gehry was eighteen. This redefined everything—leading Gehry towards the right kinds of failures and eventual successes that brought him to where he is now.

I’m focusing on Gehry’s childhood because I believe we truly are products of our time. As a young adult, Gehry was uncertain of his career direction. He remembers asking himself, “What do I like? Where was I? What made me excited?” He then explains, “I remembered art, that I loved going to museums and I loved looking at paintings, loved listening to music. Those things came from my mother, who took me to concerts and museums. I remembered Grandma and the blocks, and just on a hunch, I tried some architecture classes.” [2]

Gehry’s decision could not have been more timely. He began his career while “Los Angeles was in the middle of a post-war housing boom, and the work of pioneering modernists like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler were an exciting part of the city’s architectural scene.” [2] The distinctive asymmetrical designs celebrating Gehry’s aesthetic philosophy would’ve been meaningless without the starkly contrasting geometric forms of these predecessors.

We’re all waiting for a lucky break, hoping we were born at the right point in time, trying to fall back on the right kind of internalized support from our childhood, and trusting we failed at the right things.

When we worry we’ve missed choice opportunities or fear we aren’t good enough to live up to the opportunities when they finally come our way, we must keep in mind that it takes a very unique combination of timing, upbringing, location, and cultivated talent for every past story of success.

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success—the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history—with a society that provides opportunities for all.” – M. Gladwell

References

[1] Goldberger, Paul. (2015). Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2] “Biography and Video Interview of Frank Gehry at Academy of Achievement”. achievement.org. Retrieved 10-15-17. 

Image source

Featured Image and video trailer: Copyright © 2017 MasterClass / Frank Gehry Teaches Design and Architecture

Frank Gehry Walt Disney Concert Hall: Photograph – Kurgusal. Sketch – Gehry Partners.

The Power of Habit and Alcoholics Anonymous

“the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change.”
― Charles Duhigg

Another recommended read: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Multiple sections deserve coverage, but among numerous insights, Charles Duhigg uses Alcoholics Anonymous as a tested example of cultivating powerful lasting change. Researchers have been studying AA for years to uncover the reasons underlying its success.

“AA, in essence, is a giant machine for changing habit loops. And though the habits associated with alcoholism are extreme, the lessons AA provides demonstrate how almost any habit—even the most obstinate—can be changed.”

This section of Duhigg’s book correlates with the Boston AA chapter in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so I’ve included some quotes in italics to keep it interesting.

But first, the Duhigg habit loop. He breaks it down into three simple steps: “there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”

habit-loop

“Normally a gifted cynic, with a keen bullshit-antenna, Gately needed over a year to pinpoint the ways in which he feels like Boston AA really is actually sub-rosa dogmatic. You’re not supposed to pick up any sort of altering Substance, of course; that goes without saying; but the Fellowship’s official line is that if you do slip or drift or fuck up or forget and go Out There for a night and absorb a Substance and get all your Disease’s triggers pulled again they want you to know they not only invite but urge you to come on back to meetings as quickly as possible.”

Habits cannot be eradicated, according to Duhigg, but they can be replaced by identifying our daily cues, routines, and rewards. “Habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted,” he explains.

“when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it—how can you pray to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?—but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told.”

At its core, the “old guys” know, there is more to habit formation. Duhiggs explains researchers at the Alcohol Research Group in California interviewed individuals in AA and noticed a pattern. “Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold. The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.”

Researchers worked to approach this secret ingredient more objectively. “It was belief itself that made a difference,” Duhiggs explains. “Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives.” Similar studies correlated. “Belief seems critical,” said Tonigan, a University of New Mexico researcher. “You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better.”

“If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs—and becomes automatic—it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable.”

Another key element: belief emerges with the help of a group.

“Identify means empathize. Identifying, unless you’ve got a stake in Comparing, isn’t very hard to do, here. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own…”

“that makes AA so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.”

“You have to want to take the suggestions, want to abide by the traditions of anonymity, humility, surrender to the Group conscience. If you don’t obey, nobody will kick you out. They won’t have to. You’ll end up kicking yourself out, if you steer by your own sick will.”

Duhiggs goes to great lengths explaining a simple truth: we all possess the power to transform through habit. Deliberate effort eventually becomes automated response—it’s a matter of repetition, conviction, and support—just like fully comprehending Infinite Jest will eventually feel automatic after hours of reading, right? TBD on that.

Featured image (book cover design) and Habit Loop illustrations by Anton Ioukhnovets. Copyright © 2012 by Charles Duhigg. 

The Book of Joy: Ambition versus Stress and Anxiety

I recently finished The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World featuring a dialogue led by Douglas Abrams with the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu. The focus was on the topic of joy in the face of life’s challenges. Instead of a writing a review (although I’d recommend the read), I’m highlighting a topic touched on by the two men in conversation: stress and anxiety.

“Stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition,” claims the Dalai Lama. “When we don’t fulfill  that expectation or achieve that ambition,” he explains, “we experience frustration. Right from the beginning, it is a self-centered attitude.”

It’s precarious to be unrealistic about objective reality. “When we have a clear picture about our own capacity, we can be realistic about our effort,” the Dalai Lama says. “But unrealistic effort only brings disaster. So, in many cases our stress is caused by our expectations and our ambition.” It is better to focus on presence of mind.

The decentering effect is the result of a rational shift from unrealistic expectations and discrete self-identity to identifying as one of seven billion humans—nothing special. The Dalai Lama articulates, “I have tried to make people aware that the ultimate source of happiness is simply a healthy body and a warm heart.”

This typically contradicts American thinking. In The Courage to Be Yourself: E.E. Cummings on Art, Life, and Being Unafraid to Feel, Maria Papinova writes, “Every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs.” She goes on to define a “Pavlovian system” as learned conformity, “in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.”

Papinova also cites the poet Laura Riding, who writes in the exquisite letters to an eight-year-old girl about being oneself, “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

I’m trying to resolve these conflicting viewpoints. If fighting for the true self is to be the quintessential lifelong pursuit, then what could too much ambition possibly look like? Abrams points out that, to someone raised in America, “ambition is a virtue in and of itself: the marriage of initiative and persistence.”

“The getting and grasping that we see as our major ambition in modern life,” Abrams continues, “might be misguided. Perhaps it is a question of priorities,” he offers. “What is it that is really worth pursuing? What is it we truly need?”

It’s all much simpler than we think.

Life is a barrage of paradoxes. I have no doubt that we are creatures of conformity, products of the “Pavlovian system.” This is, as the Dalai Lama would say, a realistic picture of our human capacity. What is most important, then, is not to work against the current of conformity (inevitably falling victim to the stress and anxiety of our expectations and ambitions), but to live ensuring that the current flows the right way.

We are agents of exceptional human change by accepting ourselves as unexceptional humans capable of change. There is no such thing as a true self—there is only a collective humanness that we experience every moment of our lives. Humans have the capacity to redirect the current of conformity, but we can’t do it alone.

“When we see how little we really need—love and connection—then all the getting and grasping that we thought was so essential to our wellbeing takes its rightful place and no longer becomes the focus or obsession of our lives. We must be conscious of how we live.”

– Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy

Featured image (book cover photograph) copyright © Miranda Penn Turin. 

Feature: Gary Snyder, American Man of Letters

“The more completely the world is allowed to come forward and instruct us (without the interference of ego and opinion), the better we can see our place in the interconnected world of nature.”

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When awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 1974 collection of poetry, Turtle Island, Gary Snyder hoped he might override his “Beat poet” epithet. Yet his personal friendships with other leaders of the movement had forever endeared him as a Beat writer.

In 1951, Snyder graduated from Reed College and began his masters in anthropology. He quit soon after and left from San Francisco to Japan in 1956 to study at the First Zen Institute of Kyoto. During an interview, Snyder explained that “Anthropology was concerned with understanding human nature—but then why go to other people, why not study one’s own nature. So…Zen.”

Two years later, in 1958, he returned to the States and published his first book of poetry, Riprap (1959). “The Zen tradition of Buddhism often defines itself as ‘seeing into one’s own nature,’” Snyder explained, “and its discipline of meditation aims at gaining a clear perception of the self and the external world.” Zen, an echo of the more orthodox Taoist philosophy, was the foundation for Snyder’s work.

Snyder was drawn to poetry; he found his muse in communicating cosmic concepts in a few short lines, paving an ancient understanding that correlated humanity and nature into a meaningful fashion that inspired the readers of a morally deprived post-World War generation.

He called poetry “a riprap [cobbled trail] over the slick rock of metaphysics.” Snyder’s poem “Riprap,” the title his first book was later given, is composed of short words that allow the reader to feel the prick of reality; the simple words themselves are not the pinnacle of meaning. 

In his last edition of Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, Snyder explained how, “the title…celebrates the work of hands, the placing of rock, and my first glimpse of the image of the whole universe as interconnected, interpenetrating, mutually reflecting, and mutually embracing.”

Riprap by Gary Snyder
..
Lay down these words 
Before your mind like rocks. 
  placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
  in space and time: 
Solidity of bark, leaf or wall
  riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way, 
  straying planets, 
These poems, people, 
  lost ponies with 
Draggling saddles —
  and rocky sure-foot trails. 
The worlds like an endless 
  four-dimensional 
Game of Go. 
  ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word 
  a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
  with torment of fire weight 
Crystal and sediment linked hot 
  all change, in thoughts, 
As well as things. 

When describing the inspiration behind his condensed yet distinctly nuanced poetic lines, Snyder said, “I tried writing poems of tough, simple, short words, with the complexity far beneath the surface texture. In part the line was influenced by the five- and seven-character line Chinese poems I’d been reading, which work like sharp blows on the mind.”

Beginning in Snyder’s lifetime, composing poetry in America was a means of openminded imagination and freedom in a country paralyzed by the fear of the unknown. Poetry was especially influential as science (the study of the natural world) began to break down due to its limited ability to manifest the “straying planets” of the unknown—the other biologies or, essentially—the undefined components of reality.

Language and science have limitations. For most Americans who lived through the War and experienced its devastating global impact, the only recourse was an endless round of work, diversion, and consumption of goods and services, which Snyder adamantly tried to escape and denounce throughout his lifetime.

“Riprap” is a loaded, multidimensional indication to both the potential and limitation of words as symbols of deeper understanding. Snyder argues the imagery of language—in this case, poetry—can serve as the stepping stones from which we find the means to understand our interconnected, ever-changing environment and, by consequence, our mysterious selves.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/the-beat-generation/?utm_term=.a319a89ba7a4
In a portrait by Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder relaxes at home. (Allen Ginsberg LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

References:
Almon, Bert. (1977). Buddhism and Energy in the Recent Poetry of Gary Snyder. Mosaic: A Journal for the Comparative Study of Literature and Ideas, Vol. XI, No. 1.

Charters, Ann. (2001). Beat Down Your Soul. “Gary Snyder.” Penguin Putnam Inc.

Snyder, Gary. (1995). “Language Goes Two Ways.” A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds; New and Selected Prose. Counterpoint Publishing.

Snyder, Gary. (1965). Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems. Counterpoint: Publishers Group West.

Tarn, Nathaniel. (1972). From Anthropologist to Informant: A Field Record of Gary Snyder. Alcheringa, issue 4.

Featured Image of Gary Snyder © The Washington Post