Laughlin Adventure

In the last years of their shared life, my parents often went to Laughlin, Nevada. In fact, that was the destination of the last trip they took together. On the way home, my mother felt ill, and she died nine months later.

My mother loved to play the penny slots, and when she could no longer go to a casino, my brother bought her a slot machine. She kept a bucket of quarters by the machine, and even though she only won her own money back, she spent many happy hours in her own private casino.

I never understood her fascination for the game. It seemed boring to me because there was no real challenge except to keep playing as long as you could before your allotted money ran out.

I’d never been to Laughlin, and since I needed an escape from my failure to find a place to live, last weekend I headed to Nevada to the hotel where my parents always stayed. I treated myself to a prime rib and crab buffet dinner, then wandered the riverwalk that connected the casinos, which were strung along the Colorado River. An advertisement for a jet boat trip to Lake Havasu caught my eye, so the next morning when the ticket kiosk opened, I went to buy a ticket, but they were sold out. Determined to get out on the water, I went to get a ticket for a more localized boat tour, but I got there too early to buy a ticket.

So I hopped on a water taxi, paid for an all day pass, and didn’t get off again for five hours. If I hadn’t been kicked off when the boat needed to stop for refueling, I might be there still. There was something so soothing about being on the water, feeling the power of the engine beneath my feet, the rocking of the waves, the surge of speed when the boat accelerated.

It seemed like a carnival tour, watching all the activity of the vacationing hordes. People riding jet skis, sunbathing on a minuscule beach, wading in a roped off area. People excited about eating, shopping, playing.

Most entertaining of all was Captain Joel, the taxi driver, who had a kind word, a joke, a flirtatious tease, or a witty comment for each of his passengers. He kept a bag of gold fish crackers to feed the birds who met the boat. If he was late handing them their treat, they hopped aboard and helped themselves. One perky fellow named Black Jack even attempted to steer the boat, but as Captain Joel admitted after we almost ended up on the rocks, he hadn’t yet trained Black Jack to steer properly.

At one port, striped bass were waiting for their treat, jumping out of the water to catch the orange crackers. It seemed cannibalistic to me to feed fish to fish, but Captain Joel assured me the crackers were whales, so the fish were nibbling on mammals.

Captain Joel had been a park ranger when he was young, flipflopping between Alaska and the Everglades. After seeing every bit of the USA and Canada between those two far points, he is now a world traveler. The most fascinating story he told was about his visit to the Galapagos Islands. Apparently there is a barrel there where people drop addressed but unstamped post cards for other tourists to pick up and hand deliver when they get back home, a tradition begun in the nineteenth century when sailors would leave their mail for homebound ships in the hopes the letters would get to their destination. Captain Joel hand delivered four such postcards to people in Huntington Beach, who were amazed both by the post card and the delivery system.

When I had to leave the boat, I went to the casino to do a bit of gambling in my mother’s honor. At first, it was as boring as I remembered, then I got into the swing of it, enjoying the energy of the place, enjoying the whir of the spinning icons in the machine, enjoying even more when I won. At one point, my twenty-dollar seed money grew to about a hundred dollars. I considered taking the money, but decided that the tribute to my mother was about playing the game, not necessarily winning, so I used the money to play the maximum bet instead of just the few pennies at a time I had been playing. I enjoyed feeling like a high roller, felt, in some way, my mother’s presence. And then an old lady came and hung over me. Wouldn’t go away. And I lost the illusion of my mother’s presence. The old woman sat on the stool next to mine and asked me to teach her to play. Although she was there with her daughter and son-in-law, she seemed lonely, chattering on and on about her dead husband, her new hair style, her family, so I tried not to resent the intrusion and helped her. Weirdly, she started to win and I began losing. And continued to lose. I was actually glad to zero out because then I had an excuse to leave without being rude. I wandered around the casino for a while. I didn’t want to go back to my room and do the things I always do — read or use the computer — so I went back to play again. Again, I started winning, and again, the old woman came to play and chatter next to me, and again I lost.

So I went out and took a couple more circuits on a boat taxi, then went to bed.

The drive back was hard — not just the unremitting heat, but the feeling of foolishly losing all that money.

Now that I have some perspective on the experience, I am glad I spent the money. All I truly lost was my original stake, and since it allowed me to play and to channel my mother for five or six hours, it was money well spent. I also feel as if I have a greater understanding of my mother, which was priceless.

Another weekend is coming up, and again I need to escape. I considered going back to Laughlin, but I don’t think I could handle that long drive in the heat. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same. The experience was profound, a once-in-a-lifetime gift of connection, wealth, feeling free. Being.

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

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Let It Ride — The Philosophy of Luck

luckWe do not all see the same story even if we watch the same movie or read the same book because we each bring our own feelings and philosophies and perceptions to the experience. I’ve always known this, of course, but now that the internet allows everyone to be a critic, it’s becoming a lot more obvious.

For example, professional critics panned the movie Let It Ride, calling it disjointed and only sporadically funny. The screenwriter herself didn’t like it, and had her name removed in favor of a pseudonym. Nonprofessional critics — those who posted reviews on the Internet Movie Data Base — generally liked the movie. In fact, the majority thought it was one of the all-time most underrated films. Even people who hated it didn’t have much bad to say about it other than it was simplistic and predictable.

In their reviews, the nonprofessionals talked about the great cast, the humor, the gambling. They talked about it being a feel-good film and mentioned how great it was to see an underdog win. And they said fans of thoroughbred racing would love the film, calling it the best horse racing comedy ever.

All that might be true, but it does not reflect the movie I see. To me, the movie is a philosophical gem about luck, about recognizing luck when it makes an appearance, trusting the luck and having the courage to go where it takes you.

Trotter (Richard Dreyfuss) lucks into a hot tip on a race. He has a hundred dollars he’d stashed away for such an occasion, but instead of betting the whole thing, he shares it with the friend who gave him the tip, which makes me wonder about the nature of luck. If he hadn’t been so generous, propitiating the gods of chance with his generosity, would his luck have died right there? (Well, obviously, his luck would have been whatever the writer decided it was, but since this is my version of the movie, I tend to believe that originally luck might have given him a small nod, but his generosity made good luck smile on him.)

His friends and friends-for-the-day envied him his luck, but when he offered to pool his money with theirs and bet it all, they backed off. Although they recognized Trotter’s luck, they didn’t trust it. Or perhaps they simply didn’t have the courage to trust it. It’s this lack of follow-through on their part, this variation on the theme, that helps give the movie its depth, and keeps the story from being as simple as it seems.

One thing I especially like about this movie, and what helps earn its appellation of being simplistic, is that there is no third act where everything goes wrong. I hate such third acts, and the lack of one in this movie keeps the story focused on the premise of a guy courageous enough to trust his luck.

The philosophy of luck interests me. I’ve never considered myself lucky, but overall, I’m not sure I’m particularly unlucky, either. I am aware that much of success in life is luck — being in the right place at the right time, perhaps — but what I don’t know is if we can create luck. Lucky people say yes, and of course they would since lucky people seldom see themselves as lucky — they take their largess as their due, as payment for their work, and refuse to see that others have put in at least as much effort without getting the same results. Unlucky people say we can’t create luck — we are either lucky or we aren’t.

Some people don’t believe in luck — either good or bad — because they believe that we decide before we are born into this life what traumas and situations we will have to deal with in order to learn certain lessons. Perhaps that is true, but what do I know? I’m having a hard enough time negotiating the steep rocky path of this life without worrying about what might have come before or what will come after.

To confuse the issue of luck, perhaps there is a different kind of good fortune, a sort of negative luck that makes us lucky even if we don’t seem to be lucky. In one scene of Let It Ride, Trotter is mistakenly arrested before he can bet what he thinks is a hot tip. And the horse loses. So what seems like bad luck is actually good luck.

Considering my interest in the philosophy of luck, it makes sense, then, that I would see the luck theme in Let It Ride, where others would see merely the wonderful comedy, the great cast, or the racing aspects.

So what does this philosophical vision of the movie teach me? Perhaps that luck — and life — should be taken as it comes, we should trust ourselves, and beyond that, we should just let it ride.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Giving Readers a Stake in Your Story

jockeyI don’t like stories about gambling. They set my teeth on edge because of the inevitable slough of despair the character falls into when the addiction gets the better of him. Despite that, Let It Ride is one of my favorite movies, probably because although the story takes place as Hialeah amid the horse racing culture, it is not a movie about gambling. It’s the story of how the forces of the universe align to give Jay Trotter (Richard Dreyfuss) one perfect day, and how he had the courage to accept the gift.

My favorite lines are when Pam (Teri Garr) says, “I don’t know why people have to gamble. Why can’t they just watch the horses run?” Trotter responds, “Without gambling, there is no horse racing.”

I’m with Pam — someday I’d like to go to a racecourse and watch the horses run, but I can also see why there is no horseracing without gambling. First, there would be no income, and second, no one but those directly involved — racecourse owners, horse owners, trainers, and jockeys — would have any stake in the matter. Gambling gives anyone who has the price of a bet a stake in the outcome of the race.

This is similar to writing — if an author doesn’t give readers a stake in the outcome of the story, then there is no reason for anyone to read the book. Since there is no gamble when it comes to a book (well, except for the gamble of whether the reader will enjoy it or whether they will feel cheated for having wasted the money) the stake has to be an emotional one. For example, Kendra, the main character in Mickey Hoffman’s mystery, School of Lies, is a special education teacher in an inner city school. The book’s true-to-life atmosphere is appealing to anyone who enjoys mystery and mayhem, but it’s especially appealing to special education teachers. Special education teachers — or any teacher — who have been in similar schools and situations perhaps wish they could have said the same things or done the same things Kendra did, which gives them a stake in the outcome of her dilemma. Of course, anyone who ever went to high school would also have a stake in the story, if for no other reason than to see the truth of what they suspected — that much intrigue was going on behind the scenes.

For this same reason, a popular main character in many books is a mother juggling home life and career, which immediately gives a large section of the population a stake in the story. You see the same thing dozens of times a day in your sidebar ads — “mother in (the name of your city, which supposedly gives you an added stake in the matter) gets skinny”; “mother discovers secret to youthful skin”; “mother earns a fortune working at home.”

Your choice of characters and their predicament are not the only ways to give readers a stake in the outcome of your story. You can make readers a part of the story by giving your characters characteristics that people can identify. You make readers involved by stirring up their emotions. You show them what is happening instead of explaining every detail, and let their own reactions to the action become part of the story.

Giving people a stake in your story is not exactly the same thing as getting them to bet a bit of cash on a horse race, but getting them to pony up a bit of emotion while reading your story will give them greater winnings in the long run.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+