Chris Wright

Are American Workers Really Opposed to Socialism?

At a time when the American population is radicalizing, when popular movements are coalescing around “radical” demands—Medicare for All, the abolition of ICE, tuition-free college, in general the demand to make society livable for everyone—it can be useful to draw collective inspiration from the past. Irruptions of the popular will have on innumerable occasions reshaped history, remade the terrain of class struggle such that the ruling class was, at least for a moment, thrown on the defensive and forced to retreat. Especially when pundits and politicians are insisting on the virtues of centrism and the essential conservatism of Americans, it is important to remember just how false these shibboleths are, particularly in a time of economic stagnation and acute social discontent.

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Do Addicts Have Free Will?

Recently, the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry sent me a paper by a Dr. Richard Rosenthal, which contained what the author allowed was an "overwrought" scenario. A young crack addict has been given a choice. A man is holding a pipe in front of her and a gun to her head. Have a smoke, he says, and I pull the trigger. The addict responds: “Do I at least get to take a really big hit?”

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The Truth About Workaholics

You're sitting at your desk, scrolling through the Alcoholics Anonymous website, when your boss walks up behind you. Not the best career move you'll ever make, perhaps.  But let's say you're looking at the Workaholics Anonymous site instead, the section about how even when you're not in the office you're still toiling away. What then? Does your boss give you a talking to, or does he give you a raise?

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Chained to the Desk: How Workaholism Can Kill You

You're sitting at your desk, scrolling through the Alcoholics Anonymous website, when your boss walks up behind you. Not the best career move you'll ever make, perhaps.  But let's say you're looking at the Workaholics Anonymous site instead, the section about how even when you're not in the office you're still toiling away. What then? Does your boss give you a talking to, or does he give you a raise?

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How Gambling Can Kill You Faster Than Drug Abuse or Alcoholism

Of all the destructive habits in the world, gambling would seem to be one of the more benign. It doesn't blow out your liver. It won’t make your nose cave in. Even after the most appalling run of bad luck, you can be reasonably sure that you won't be carted away, having expired with a mouth full of vomit. No harm done. It's only money.

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The Ultimate TV Candidacy

On Sept. 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon faced off in the first televised presidential debate. What they said was secondary to how they looked and behaved: Kennedy was charming, tan and wore makeup that pleased the camera; Nixon was underweight, pale and refused powder that could have covered a five o�clock shadow.

As a result, those who watched the debate on TV picked Kennedy the winner by a mile. Radio listeners, in contrast, picked Nixon, believing he had done a better job responding to questions.

�The Great Debates marked television's grand entrance into presidential politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic,� Erika Tyner Allen wrote for the Museum of Broadcast Communications. �Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard.�

Forty-two years later, it has come to this: Rupert Murdoch and FOX's cable channel, FX, are bringing to television American Candidate, an American Idol-like game/talent show in which 100 political hopefuls will strut their stuff in an attempt to be picked by couch potatoes nationwide to run for president (apply here).

It is, perhaps, the ultimate merger of popular culture and politics. Audience members and at-home viewers, voting by telephone and Internet, will reduce the number of "candidates" each week. The public will pick the winner from the final three, and the results will be broadcast live from the the Mall in Washington, D.C., in July, 2004. Buoyed by the publicity, the winner will presumably be encouraged to run as a third party candidate.

Surprisingly, the United States wasn�t the first country to propose such an idea. A Buenos Aires television channel beat Murdoch by a couple of weeks when, in early September, it announced the launch of The People�s Candidate, a reality TV show that will not only put its winner up as a congressional candidate in 2003, but will also launch a new political party.

According to the BBC, �About 800 people have already auditioned for [The People�s Candidate], including pensioners, transvestites and the unemployed. The search is already underway as judges whittle the hopefuls down to 16 who will appear on the show.�

It's enough to make one laugh for Argentina, much less cry -- but just remember a U.S. network is in on it, too. You could read many things into this: Is it a sure sign of the apocalypse? A natural extension of the Survivor and American Idol-ized global phenomenon? A wonderful, Marxian chance for the proletariat to rise to prominence (although the elite still control the airwaves, so that wouldn�t go too far)? Or is it merely another step in the evolution of the political campaign?

After all, turning the U.S. presidential race into a long, contrived television program would require fewer adjustments than one might think. Campaigns are already so structured that, much like �reality TV,� they are hardly �real� at all. Networks have cut back their coverage of national party conventions because nothing unscripted happens. Only C-SPAN stays tuned.

Remember the 2000 Republican convention, in which organizers paraded members of minority groups across the stage as a sea of white faces looked up from the crowd, all the while keeping far-right, controversial figures such as Texas Rep. Tom DeLay out of sight? That wasn�t reality -- that was sleight of hand, a bag of tricks.

The Democrats pulled their own tricks during Al Gore�s nominating convention. Bring in Bill and Hillary on the first night, then get �em out the door. Bring in the religious senator Joe Lieberman two nights later to wipe the moral slate clean. Don�t let America be distracted by scandals, real and purported; make it clear that Gore is �his own man.� Still not convinced? Cue up the movie directed by MTV-video-director-turned-film-director Spike Jonze that shows off Gore�s adventurous side and portrays him as a kind, honest family man: the anti-Clinton.

Conventions and other campaign events may be �real,� and they may be �news events,� but they are also manufactured as a commercial product designed to convey a specific message. When things aren�t so neatly controlled, when something such as an unchecked microphone is on, chaos can ensue. Consider George W. Bush�s near-legendary flub at a campaign event when he called a New York Times reporter a �major league asshole,� and everyone heard. Clearly this �backstage� moment was the last thing Bush wanted; it helped temporarily stall his campaign and diverted attention from his message.

Now compare the politicians with the participants on Survivor, who knowingly perform for the camera while trying to �keep it real.� Many events are contrived, and the final product is a carefully constructed, heavily edited, 44-minute packaging of three days� worth of �news,� designed to typecast players to focus the audience�s attention on �storylines� deemed interesting by the producers. The producers sometimes even re-arrange the order of events �for dramatic purposes� -- to manufacture discord and create a narrative that isn�t really there. And we call this reality? (To his credit, Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett has said from the beginning that �reality TV� is a misnomer for his show -- that �unscripted drama� is more apt. He�s right.)

The presidential debates are not much better. The execution is just as tight, down to the exact room temperature, the height of the lecterns or seats, the overly negotiated rules regarding the questions and answers, and the carefully chosen audience members for the so-called �town meeting� debates. When then-President Bush famously glanced at his watch 10 years ago during a debate with Clinton, it may have been the most spontaneous debate moment recorded on film that year.

There�s a reason why lawyers and campaign advisers argue over format. If the rules of the 2000 debates, for example, had been looser -- had the events been more �real� -- there could have been at least two doozies. In the first debate, Gore erroneously stated that he had traveled to Texas in 1998 with the head of the federal disaster agency to view flood damage. Bush was fairly sure at the time that this was incorrect. In a more free-flowing format, he might have called Gore on it. Now that would have been interesting.

Similarly, in the third debate, Bush was asked a question about affirmative action and gave a meandering reply that revealed no depth of knowledge on his part as to the meaning of the concept. Gore asked Bush if he agreed with what the Supreme Court has said about the legality of affirmative action, and Bush was trapped. He looked to moderator Jim Lehrer for help, and since the rules stated that candidates could not ask questions of each other, Lehrer moved on to another question. But the immediate impression was that Bush had no idea what the Supreme Court had said about affirmative action and needed Lehrer to bail him out. If Bush were forced to answer the question, the confrontation might have kicked up a few more Nielsen points.

Political parties don�t want us to think about structure (though we do nonetheless). They want us to see it as pure reality, to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. But this simply illuminates that politics and campaigning is already a show, no more perfectly �real� than an episode of, say, The Mole. American Candidate, then, may simply be an inevitable step in the process.

And it might not be such a bad idea. Imagine if the 2004 pool of Democratic contenders appeared on ABC each week (the network that most needs a hit) with Clinton-adviser-turned-journalist George Stephanopoulos. They could debate the issues and take part in challenges: Persuade a foreign head of state to side with the United States on invading Iraq! Find Cheney�s hidden lair! Get the country out of an economic slump and deliver a tax cut -- all without destroying Social Security! An impartial group like The League of Women Voters could serve as �judges� and Democratic voters nationwide as the �jury,� voting off one candidate each week.

In theory it could make the whole process far more democratic, but this type of �reality� show would sap too much power from the political establishment. (In a 2000 Republican version of such a show, John McCain might have actually bested Bush.)

True, the whole concept seems more suited for a Saturday Night Live skit than the real world, but Murdoch is likely to see it through in one form or another. And you can bet that on American Candidate, no presidential wannabe will be caught on camera with an unattractive five o�clock shadow.

Chris Wright, an editor and writer in the Washington, D.C., area, is pursuing a master's degree in communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University. He previously wrote about Gary Condit and the news narrative and has reported extensively on Survivor.

Predicting 9-11

When the first plane struck the World Trade Center at 8:48 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, President Bush was in Florida, lecturing a classroom of second-graders about the importance of reading skills. What was meant to be a run-of-the-mill photo op produced one of the more telling photographs of that awful day.

In it, White House chief of staff Andrew Card is bending down to deliver the news that a second plane had thundered into the second tower. You can see the shock, the dread, on Bush's face. And who can blame him? America had just been wrenched from a sunny weekday morning into a cataclysmic war, and it seemed no one was prepared for such an event -- not the CIA, not the FBI, not the State Department, and certainly not the president himself.

"I'm trying to absorb that knowledge," Bush said, recalling the moment in a recent Newsweek interview. "I'm the commander in chief, and the country has just come under attack."

Not everybody, however, was as flabbergasted by the news as the president. In fact, there were a few Americans who responded to the terrorist attacks with a resounding "Told you so."

In June 2000, Lynne Palmer, a 69-year-old Las Vegas resident, published her Astrological Almanac for 2001 (Star Bright Publishers). On page 95 of the book, buried among advice on the best days to go to the movies and worst days to lend people money, Palmer had written, in an odd combination of the obvious and the prophetic: "Avoid terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001."

Palmer wasn't the only astrologer to see trouble brewing in the fall of 2001. Apparently, the sky has been heaving with a confluence of terrible portents lately -- a Perfect Storm of clashing, menacing astrological signs. But no one had divined upcoming events with the acuity of the Dolly Parton�haired author of Is Your Name Lucky for You? (Star Bright Publishers, 1999) and Astro-Guide to Nutrition and Vitamins (American Federation of Astrologers, 1993). "Only one person predicted the date of the attacks, and that was Lynne Palmer," says veteran astrologer Robert Hand, a relatively highbrow practitioner of the art. "I don't know how she did it. Things looked chaotic, but I could not have foreseen September 11. I looked and looked and I don't know how anyone could have predicted it to the day."

Palmer, meanwhile, remains unfazed by her astrological coup. "There are certain planets that rule certain things," she says, "and those planets were in alignment." In fact, Palmer didn't even know the attacks had occurred until a friend told her. "I don't look at the news much," she says. "My friend called me. I looked in my [2001] almanac and I had it. I make all sorts of predictions and I forget about them. But I had 'Watch for danger falling from above,' 'Avoid fire.' It was eerie."

Eerie, yes, but not unique. Following September 11, stargazers all over the country pored through their prior predictions to see if they, too, had foreseen America's so-called New War. Hand was one of the astrologers who came up trumps. In an article posted in the August edition of the Mountain Astrologer online magazine, Hand wrote a long, lyrical essay foretelling "restrictions on our freedom of movement," the "ruthless energy of change," and "unrest in the Middle East."

Though Hand's dates were not as specific as Palmer's -- he saw strife occurring between August 5, 2001, and May 26, 2002 -- his predictions were nonetheless chillingly prescient: "Things pass away and then something new comes into being. We have times when things seem to reach a period of stability and permanence; then there is a period of decay, when they begin to break down and go wrong.... It is as though we were driving down a well-defined road with a clear objective, and either something we did not anticipate is forcing us onto another road or the road itself is being transformed."

In April 2001, on the same site, astrologer Jim Shawvan wrote of "something sudden" about to occur, "a surprise attack, a terrorist bombing." He continued, "Civil wars and conflicts in the Third World often build up slowly, with many warning signs; however, when the only remaining superpower is attacked, the preferred approach seems to be terrorist action with no warning." Shawvan also wrote that "[Bush] may judge it necessary to threaten or even use force in Afghanistan or Pakistan or both."

In the simplest terms, Shawvan reached his conclusions by observing the overwhelming presence of Mars -- the planet of conflict and strife -- in astrological charts he had drawn up for Bush. There was also, he says, a Mars line going through a map of Afghanistan. With this knowledge in hand, he deduced that there'd be the potential for America to go to war with Afghanistan. In an earlier interview, Shawvan called his predictions "purely an intellectual exercise." He added, "You use your knowledge of the facts and then put things together."

Such a commonsensical approach to astrology is surprisingly common. Indeed, many astrologers view themselves as more aligned with sociologists and historians than with psychics and mediums. "This is not closing your eyes and seeing things," says Hand, who also named Afghanistan as a potential point of international conflict. "I specifically named Afghanistan based on historical probability. You have to know something about the world."

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, the astrological publisher Llewellyn Booksellers published Civilization Attacked: September 11, 2001 & Beyond, in which a selection of America's top-shelf astrologers weighed in on such topics as "The psychology of terrorism" and "The long-range effects of September 11, 2001." One of the more remarkable aspects of the book is an accompanying blurb from its publisher, Carl Llewellyn Weschcke, who wrote that astrology is "the one science that can analyze time to bring understanding about the antecedents of the event, about the people involved in carrying it out, and the forecasts helpful to decisions that must be made."

The "science" claim notwithstanding, most astrologers will readily admit that making predictions based on planetary movements is essentially an intuitive pursuit. "Astrology is not a science," says Hand. "It's a craft. It has no solid foundation. We don't have a theoretical structure from which we make our predictions. We really don't know what causes these influences. We don't know that at all."

Indeed, despite the intellectual veneer afforded the practice by the likes of Shawvan and Hand, astrology relies to a great extent on the kind of symbolism that used to get medieval Gnostics hot under their burlap collars. "Here's a little bit of weirdness," says Hand, his voice rising in pitch. "The World Trade Center was opened when Saturn was in Gemini. It collapsed when Saturn was in Gemini. And what does the World Trade Center look like? What did it look like? A gigantic Gemini glyph! That fits into the category of one of those ooh-ooh-ooh moments."

The most significant ooh-ooh-ooh moment for many astrologers in the months preceding September 11 came when they noticed a relatively rare opposing alignment of two fundamentally opposed planets: Pluto and Saturn -- the planet of wrenching change and the planet of adamantine continuity. As Hand points out, the last time such an opposition occurred, the Soviets were embroiled in a bloody conflict in Afghanistan. "They stand like two opponents facing off against each other," he wrote in his Mountain Astrologer essay. "The medieval astrologers referred to the opposition as the aspect of perfect or complete hostility. They regarded it as the worst possible aspect between two bodies."

In the introduction to Civilization Attacked, astrologer Stephanie Clement wrote, "Throughout this book, the authors make frequent mention of Saturn and Pluto and their relation in the sky right now. They are in opposite parts of the heavens, very close to 180 degrees apart.... Together, Saturn and Pluto reflect qualities of cruelty, a tendency towards violence, and fanatical adherence to one's principles. This is not a fun combination."

Quite. Yet it's easy to say such things with the benefit of hindsight. The fact is, any practitioner of mundane astrology -- which entails the study of societal forces -- worth his or her salt should have spotted the danger before the events of September 11 took place. Yet only a handful actually did this -- at least publicly. One astrologer who did was Doug Riemer, a practitioner of Indian, or Vedic, astrology. In a newsletter he sent out at the end of August, Riemer wrote, "There may be some religious fanaticism.... Mideast stuff? I see 9/10�9/14 as being really bizarre.... Although everyone should use care in their activities during the entire month, this 4 day period is exceptional. To avoid problems, stay alert to your environment and avoid risky situations."

Like Shawvan, Riemer based his predictions largely on the looming presence of Mars. "In the latter part of August, Mars -- the planet of war, desire, anger, sex, all these worldly things -- moved into the sign of Sagittarius," he explains. "Mars went into the sign of Sagittarius in Jupiter. Jupiter is religion and philosophy. At the same time, Mars crossed one of the eclipse points of the moon. Eclipse points are very frightening. When you have all this come together, it leads to a righteous, seething anger. It can create craziness and fanaticism. I remember looking at this and thinking, 'Wait a minute. Something terrible is going to happen.' "

Despite the accuracy of his predictions, Riemer admits to being disappointed that he didn't call the exact date of the attacks. "My mistake was saying the 10th to the 14th," he says. "Because each planet has its own day of the week, and Mars's day is Tuesday. I missed that, otherwise I'd have said Tuesday morning."

Making accurate predictions is all well and good, but beyond reading their horoscopes in the newspapers every now and then, do Americans actually take any notice of this stuff? "Well, I have one client who called me a week before the catastrophe," says Riemer. "She told me she was flying from Washington, DC, to New Orleans and I said, 'Okay, but get home before the 10th.' She called me that Tuesday morning and said, 'Thank God I didn't stay until the 11th!' She thought I'd saved her life. Certainly, she'd have been stuck in Washington having a horrible time. Astrology is not just knowing about life, it's planning the life, taking advantage of opportunity, and overcoming challenge."

He adds, "It would have been helpful if someone in government had taken notice of some of these predictions."

Fat chance. Not since the astrology-loving Nancy Reagan inhabited the White House have astrologers had the luxury of having a president who took them seriously. "We deal with individual people who study our stuff," says Hand. "We can give those people ways of making things work better in their lives. But when we make predictions for public events, we have no impact. We can't say, 'This is going to happen, so we should do this now.' No one pays any attention. People don't give a damn. So we can only say, 'Okay, here comes the shit about to hit the wall.' More importantly, not only do people not listen, when we get it right they explain it away afterwards. Well, this current opposition [of Saturn and Pluto] will be hard to explain away."

Such frustration is commonplace among astrologists. "I've had clients ignore my advice for 44 years; you get used to it," says Palmer. "People are afraid to look at this stuff. It's scary. But fear attracts fear. We have to raise our consciousness and see what we can do to rise above these bad aspects. But people aren't looking. They're in denial."

Nonetheless, says Riemer, widespread dismissal of the astrologer's work does not make that work any less important. "For an astrologer to say, 'Don't bother telling because no one's going to listen' -- that's self-defeating," he says. "I think we have a duty and a responsibility to publish our predictions. We should keep information available. Because, and I'm serious about this, there is a huge train wreck coming. The train is about to come off the tracks."

Well, of course we don't want to hear predictions like that. It's unsettling enough to think that there may be a cosmic equivalent of the TV Guide ("Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., Chris Wright goes out and gets drunk [repeat]"), let alone that there's a train wreck a-coming. "Americans hate fate," says Riemer. "Well, there is fate in genetics -- you were fated to have a certain height, certain skills. And you were fated to have free will. Astrology indicates free will, it unveils hidden karmas."

Fair enough, but who really wants to discover that his or her hidden karma involves a date with an errant 747? After all, it's one thing to fret about an impending catastrophe, but it's another thing entirely to be told that the catastrophe is bearing down upon us, preordained and inescapable. This objection, astrologers insist, reflects a fundamental misreading of the relationship between astrology and determinism.

"What people who don't study astrology don't understand," says Hand, "is that there is a bivalence involved. There are two possibilities -- one good, one bad. Astrology helps us understand what must be done now to face the future. A lot of people believe that astrology can show that everything is preordained, and I don't believe that. There is indeterminacy everywhere, in physics, everywhere. Will is indeterminate. That there will be a certain crisis on a certain date might be determined, but how we handle it is not. If change was not possible, then astrology would be pointless."

Indeterminacy could very well be the only bright spot at the end of our collective tunnel, because if our astrologers have got it right, we're in for a very grim few years indeed.

"In late April, early May [2002]," says Doug Riemer, "the sign of Taurus (material things), Saturn (restriction), Mars (war), and Rahu (fanaticism) all come together. It's a terrible combination, and I think there is going to be incredible violence unless we resolve things now. We have a choice, we fix things now or we have a major war in the spring and it's going to be horrible. All astrologers are worried about this. Enlightened beings are very concerned about the next five or six years. This is a very sensitive period."

Lynne Palmer's predictions are equally dismal. "The New York chart has some rough aspects coming up, scary ones," she says. "New York City has to be very careful of more air crashes and sleeping terrorists. And charts for the US have very bad, very deep problems, very bad. The aspect of Saturn and Pluto are coming back next year, even worse than now. The really rough period is going to be from February 2003 going into 2005. Pluto is ascending. Pluto rules missiles. We could have a nuclear attack or germ warfare."

Until that happens, though, there's the business of everyday life to take care of. Palmer, for instance, recommends that Americans use caution when having pedicures next year. Early 2002 seems to be a particularly bad patch. "Do not," Palmer writes in her almanac for the year, "cut ingrown toenails on the following dates: January 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 ..."

Chris Wright can be reached at

Tales of a Gambling Addict

I am an addict.

It's not easy to say these words. I -- am -- an -- addict. A screw-up. A sucker. A sicko. I cannot be trusted. I need help. I cannot help myself.

These were a few of the topics kicked around recently when my wife and my father came at me with a sort of mini-intervention -- like a surprise party, but with self-help books instead of balloons. There were cups of tea involved, a lot of whys and how could yous. There was talk of "healing" and "support." It would have been laughable if it weren't so final.

See, I didn't want to stop. Didn't even want to think about it. But I didn't have much choice in the matter. I'm an addict, and addicts don't choose.

I used to feel a certain amount of pride in being a gambler. I imagined it gave my life a touch of glamour, a bit of danger. And I loved it. Some of the happiest nights of my life have been spent in Reno and Vegas and Deadwood, South Dakota. I have visited ratty two-table shanties and wandered the glistening halls of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. I have dreamed of shooting craps in Monte Carlo, a martini in hand, a mountain of multicolored chips before me. I would register massive shifts in fortune with a cocked eyebrow. Maybe I would draw a crowd.

Even penny-ante games get me going -- the rounds of cribbage, gin, and liar's poker at my local bar. I have gambled on soccer matches, horse races, card cuts, coin tosses, and games of pool. I once bet on who could hold a lit match the longest. The game doesn't matter, nor the venue, nor the stake. What matters is the chase, pitting myself against the unfathomable forces of luck. It's almost a spiritual thing.

My office contains a little of shrine to gambling. I have ashtrays and cocktail trays emblazoned with hearts and diamonds, clubs and spades. I have an antique roulette wheel. A mug with a picture of a guy chasing a donkey: I LOST MY ASS IN VEGAS. A key ring that says CRAZY FOR CRAPS. I have Bakelite chips, novelty playing cards, and dice, dice, dice. One Christmas, my mother-in-law bought me a book, The Quotable Gambler. I already owned it. Gambling isn't just a passion, it's part of who I am. It's me.

Despite all this, the gambling never felt out of control. At least not until I started playing scratch tickets. That was when I set out on the road to feckless, lolloping loserdom. That was when I started jerking my friends around -- standing them up because I'd lost all my money, or borrowing cash, or cadging drinks. That was when I started lying to my wife. Scratch tickets ate up the rent money and earned me a reputation as a flake. Scratch tickets had me banging my head against walls, gurgling with remorse. Scratch tickets.

Monte Carlo seems a long way off now. I'm a scratcher, and there's not much glamour in that. Ever see James Bond huddled in the corner of a 7-Eleven, working away at a Bonus Millions? Omar Sharif nicking the surface of a Set for Life? Did Fyodor Dostoyevsky sneak out in the middle of the night to procure a bundle of Rubles Galore? Of course not. Scratch tickets are a mug's game. And I am the mug.

There's a hierarchy in the gaming world -- a gambler's caste system. People who play poker look down on people who play blackjack who look down on people who go to the track who look down on people who play slots who look down on people who play Keno who look down on people who play scratch tickets who look down on ... bingo players? Perhaps. As a scratch addict, I'm pretty much at the bottom of the heap. Hey, Grandma, why don't you play a real game?

But as David Nibert points out in his recent book Hitting the Lottery Jackpot: State Governments and the Taxing of Dreams (Monthly Review Press, 2000), scratch tickets are a particularly insidious game. They are lovely to look at, they are easily accessible, they allow rapid-fire betting, and, as Nibert writes, they offer people with limited prospects "a new opportunity for individual economic advancement."

The most dangerous thing about these tickets, though, is that they don't really feel like gambling. They certainly don't feel like the life-crushers they can become. In fact, you're doing a good thing by playing them. State lotteries dole out billions a year in aid to local cities and towns. Buy a loaf of bread and a Winning Streak, and a bridge gets fixed. No smoky casino to go to, no grim-faced bookie. How bad could it be?

Actually, pretty bad. The one- and two-dollar tickets have given way to three- and five-dollar tickets, which in turn have given way to the mighty 10-bucker. Scratch tickets, regardless of their shiny, just-a-bit-of-fun veneer, are high-stakes gambling. At $10 a pop, you could be down $100 in the space of a cigarette. I, of all people, should know.

The day before I was so lovingly shanghaied by my family, I'd hit rock bottom with my habit. At least I hope so. Any lower and I'd taste oil. It was a Friday afternoon. I was scratching, as I often do on Friday afternoons, flush with the spoils of direct deposit, eager to escape the stresses and responsibilities the work week. I'd had bad gambling bouts before. I'd bitched my way through spells of deplorable luck. But this one was different. Something snapped.

I was playing the $10 Spectaculars, and losing at a rat-a-tat rate. I wasn't having fun. This wasn't a "bit of a flutter." Word was that the Spectaculars offered the best odds ever of getting a big hit. My reasoning -- if you can call it that -- was that before I quit these damn things for good, I'd have one last shot at getting back the thousands of dollars I'd squandered in the past. I wanted closure. And once I started, I couldn't stop. I was having what the experts call a "manic episode." I couldn't stop.

I'd say the $200 mark was the point where common sense and desire finally parted company. I took out another hundred, then another. I couldn't have been any less in control if I'd swallowed a fistful of acid and washed it down with a bottle of tequila. My head had been shot from a cannon. My will was a wet rag snagged on the bumper of a bus. I was heading straight for Brokesville and there wasn't a thing I could do about it.

Looking back on that episode now is like trying to watch a tennis match through a keyhole. The picture's blurry and incomplete. I know that I was hot-faced, fizzing. I know I fumbled the last crinkly 10-spot from my pocket and handed it over to the guy behind the counter. I know the guy was bald. My last 10 bucks. But imagine -- imagine! -- if I had scored. I could have had a happy ending. I handed the money over. I remember that.

It was an ending all right, but not a happy one. Broke, I called my dad and asked for a loan. I said something about needing to pay off some debts. I promised I'd pay him back. I all but begged him to lend me the money. I all but wept. When he said no, I slammed down the phone. I called him back. I slammed down the phone. I called him back. I told him I needed help. I said it: I am an addict.

Aren't I?

I am now the owner of a Gamblers Anonymous handbook, a little yellow pamphlet with that "God grant me the serenity" poem printed on the cover. "How can you tell whether you are a compulsive gambler?" the handbook asks. It goes on to list 20 questions: "Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?" -- yes -- "Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?" -- yes -- "Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone?" -- hell, yes. If you answer in the affirmative to seven of the 20 questions, you are probably a compulsive gambler. My score is 15.

Okay, so how did I get to this point?

Since that spectacularly grim day, I've done some research. Turns out, the path I took to addiction is a well-worn one. If you were to chart the route to compulsive gambling, it might go something like this:

* The Joy Luck Club. You tee-hee your way through a few bucks here and there. Win a little, lose a little -- no big deal.

* The Bait. About 50 percent of problem gamblers report getting a big win early on in their gambling careers. Tee-hees turn to knee-trembling oh-jeezes.

* The Bite. Eager to relive the rush of that early win, Gambler starts laying bigger bets with more frequency. Losses are brushed aside in anticipation of the next delicious hit.

* Momentum. As losses begin to accumulate, Gambler stops playing to recapture past glory and starts playing catch-up. Anticipation gives way to a creeping sense of desperation.

* Free Fall. Ever-larger bets are placed in an effort to recoup losses. When the all-important wins fail to materialize, Gambler responds with self-loathing, anger, and manic determination.

* The Monster. The habit grows to unmanageable proportions. Gambler starts borrowing from friends and family, devising elaborate lies to cover up losses. Gambler rationalizes. Can stop any time.

* The Felon. Unable to wring any more money from friends, family, and colleagues, Gambler engages in fraud, theft, and other illegal acts. Borrows from loan sharks.

* The Bust. Gambler's relationships start to break down. Loved ones lay down ultimatums, or just pack up and leave. Lonely and racked with guilt, Gambler gets sick, depressed.

* Endgame. Gambler gets caught cheating or stealing. Facing prison, divorce, and perhaps broken legs, Gambler hits rock bottom, considers ending it all. Twenty percent of card-carrying problem gamblers say they have attempted suicide.

I cringe when I think how closely this model applies to my story -- right down to the early hit ($1000 on a $2 ticket). The discovery that I'm not alone should be comforting. It isn't. The fact that my sky-lowering drama is so run-of-the-mill, so predictable, is somehow even more demeaning.

At the same time, I'm grateful that I stopped when I did (edging into the "Monster" stage). There are gamblers out there who make my habit look like a penchant for coin collecting: the guy who stole money from his daughter's piggy bank; the guy who went to the racetrack on the day his wife died of cancer; the guy who stole $300,000 from his law firm, got caught, and killed himself on the eve of his son's 11th birthday. There is some comfort in the thought that I wasn't that bad.

On the other hand, I was pretty bad.

The scariest moment of my brush with ruin came when I began to entertain thoughts of committing a crime. I wasn't about to rob a bank, mug an old lady, or start giving hand jobs at my local bus terminal, but I had eyed a thick stack of Spectaculars at a convenience store, and I had thought how nice it would be if I could only ... It was the if that saved me. That and a big fat yellow streak.

When people associate addiction with crime, they tend to think of sweat-slick crackheads lifting Pampers from Stop & Shops, cankerous junkies pulling blades in gloomy alleyways, or bloated alcos kicking the crap out of each other in parking lots. But hard-line gamblers are as likely to resort to crime as any drug addict. In fact, given the limitless amounts of money that can be poured into their addiction, they may be even more so.

Forty-seven percent of people in Gamblers Anonymous (GA), for instance, say that they have engaged in fraud or theft. Thirty-two percent of prison inmates acknowledge having a gambling problem. David Nibert, citing a nationwide study on state-sponsored gambling, writes that "states with lotteries had a rate of property crimes about 3 percent higher than states without, a statistically significant finding." Yet it's unlikely that someone who discovers his car missing or her house burgled will spit out, "Damn scratch addicts!"

Part of this misconception stems from the fact that many people have trouble thinking of gambling as an addiction at all. It's something you do, not something you take. A recent study at Harvard Medical School, however, found that a gambler's brain responds to a bet in much the same way a drug user's responds to a line of coke. The hormones released during a gambling bout produce a real chemical high. But you don't have to be a neurologist to know this. All you need is to have slapped down a 10-spot on an all-or-nothing Spectacular.

But where's the buzz in that? How could I possibly get a kick out of frittering my money away? Questions like these point to another error non-gamblers make when trying to understand people like me. The true gambler gets a rush just from laying down a bet, or even thinking of laying down a bet. And perversely, or maybe inevitably, losing makes winning all the more enjoyable.

The tail end of a losing streak is a place of great possibility. For all the sobbing and whining, the loser knows this -- at least on a subconscious level. You know that by unloading a boatload of cash you are setting yourself up for the most delirious rush a gambler can experience. And you know that the longer a losing streak lasts, the bigger the rush will be when the streak breaks.

There's an old saying among gamblers: "The biggest bet I ever made was my last two dollars." The eye-popping, heart-stopping action doesn't come when the shipping magnate slaps down a hundred thou on the spin of a roulette wheel; it comes when some poor slob hands over the dregs of a stake on a lousy ace-high. To come from behind, to pull yourself back from the brink of ruin -- that is pure rocket fuel.

Herein lies the gambler's Catch-22: if you quit in the midst of a losing streak, you're denying yourself the Big Bang that comes when you finally break out of it. And if you're on a winning streak -- well, what kind of idiot stops in the middle of a winning streak? Couple this dilemma with the physical addiction of gambling, and it's clear why, according to some estimates, as many as 92 percent of addicts suffer at least one relapse.

But not me. I'm stopping.

However, I am planning one last ritual.

I will go into my back yard, take a dollar bill from my pocket, and set it on fire. As I watch the bill burn, I'll say a few words for all the money I've spent on gambling in the last few years. Ashes to ashes, scratch to scratch. This private ceremony, I hope, will help me break the spell once and for all.

For me, the hardest part of quitting has been coming to terms with a single, simple fact: the money I've lost is money I've lost. It's not money I've yet to win back. It's not money I've invested. I haven't been putting good luck aside on the layaway plan. There will be no redress, no redeeming hit. This is a most excruciating thing to do, to let go of hope like that. It's the hardest part.

About a month after I stopped gambling, my wife and I went to see a movie. I didn't try to wriggle out of paying for the tickets. I bought the candy and the soda. I remember thinking, "That's a bloody stupid thing to be proud of." Anyway, it was a far cry from the Thames-side penthouse I'd hoped to own, or the round-the-world trip I'd hoped to go on. Then, as the lights dimmed and the movie started, my wife gave my hand a little squeeze. I will never win the $4 million jackpot. I will never go to Monte Carlo. There are other things to hope for.

Chris Wright can be reached at

The Proper Use of Improper Language

Few childhood memories are more poignant than the songs our mothers sang to soothe us to sleep: "Rock-a-Bye Baby," "Hush Little Darling," "Old Granny Grunt." Old Granny who? If you've never heard this particular lullaby, that's because my great-aunt Nelly composed it.

"Oowhh," Nelly would warble as her kids lay huddled in bed, "old Granny Grunt's got a great big. . ." I can't bring myself to complete the line here. Suffice it to say, old Granny Grunt did not have a great big punt, runt, or blunt. What old Granny Grunt had was a great big C-word. She also had, as the end of the rhyme attested, "a mouth like a coal man's arsehole."

And so did Nelly.

In the course of my life, I have consorted with some horrible types, but never have I heard language of the sort that flew from Nelly's mouth. She was a thesaurus of obscenity, a fountainhead of smut. And she looked the part: her bristly, thickset legs splayed when she sat; her mouth was prominent and wet, packed with a snarl of yellow teeth. And she sounded worse than she looked. She had a voice that called to mind Michael Caine being force-fed kitty litter. Her laughter sounded like a pit bull being clubbed to death.

Needless to say, we tended to avoid Nelly's company. When we were out with my mother, it was not unusual to be yanked violently into a shop doorway. This usually meant that Nelly had been spotted. In the event that she spotted us back, the entire block would reverberate with Nelly's standard greeting: "Oi, you old scratch-[C-word]!"

If my mother was put off by Nelly, I was mortified by her. I remember she accosted me once as I made my way into the bathroom. "Going for a wank?" she said. I'd never heard this synonym for masturbation before. Indeed, I'd never heard of masturbation. I was a kid. I was going pee-pee.

It's important to note here that Nelly wasn't a child molester, at least not to my knowledge. She simply lacked a social filter. She was an etiquette half-wit.

Dear Miss Manners,

My husband says it's bad form to scream the C-word at the top of one's lungs along a busy street; I think this is perfectly acceptable. Who is right?

Nelly is not around anymore; she died of cancer -- the other C-word -- decades ago. Yet I still can't walk down London's North End Road without casting a wary eye about for her. I've often wondered why, all these years later, she still holds such mythical stature for me. In a family that has boasted thieves, thugs, and swindlers galore, it's puzzling that Nelly should stand out as the grimmest of the lot.

For starters, I'm no prude about swearing. Who can afford to be these days? Even Nelly's relentless innuendo seems pretty tame by today's standards. If I can smile at visions of the president wanking into a sink, why shudder at the memory of the mere word slithering off Nelly's tongue? To answer this, I believe, requires asking a more fundamental question: what does it mean to swear?

Essentially, the word "shit" is no more offensive than the word "feces." They both describe the same matter. But when was the last time you heard anyone say, "Oh, feces, I stubbed my toe"? What distinguishes "feces" from "shit" is that the latter has been deemed a dirty word. And while this distinction may be arbitrary, it's by no means immaterial. Every form of expression has a function, and profanity is no exception. It exists because we need it.

Swear words allow us a quick and easy way to add emphasis. "It's cold," for instance, doesn't carry nearly as much weight as "It's effing cold." Swear words can be used to convey attitude. To say "He effed my wife" says a lot more about the speaker's mood than "He had sex with my wife." And we all know the efficacy of a well-aimed "motherfff" in a tricky traffic situation.

Like it or not, profanity is a vital part of human interaction. Swear words are the Swiss Army Knives of speech. They can express surprise, skepticism, amusement, grief, joy. They can be used to tickle, shock, fluster, titillate, or put at ease.

Mostly, of course, we swear when we are pissed off. We swear to show contempt -- to hurt or humiliate. When George W. called a reporter "a major-league asshole" recently, he knew these words out-sneered "This guy's a major-league ninny." And when we're truly mad, when we really want to pack a punch, we pull out the big guns. We go for the C-word.

But swearing isn't always used for effect. A good "Shit!" can abate the pain of a stubbed toe, whether anyone's listening or not. Indeed, more than any other form of speech, swear words have power in and of themselves. There are many more people these days who chant "shit-shit-shit-shit" than "Hail Mary, full of grace." Dirty words are the true modern-day mantra.

This, I think, goes to the heart of Nelly's power to appall.

It's not so much that she swore, nor that she swore so often, nor even that she swore so often in front of her own kids. What made Nelly so dreadful was the way she swore. She bandied swear words about with happy abandon. She used the C-word as if it were "candy," or "clown," or "cauliflower." In doing so, she divested the word of its power. She took something profane and made it innocuous -- a kind of anti-blasphemy. She had no respect for profanity. That was her transgression.

If Nelly had any lasting effect on me, it's an aversion to the C-word. But I don't actively think about her anymore. Don't really want to. The other day, though, I was reminded of my kooky, potty-mouthed great-aunt. I was driving and a car cut me off. Worse, the driver extended an arm out the window and prodded the air with his middle finger. My response felt perfectly appropriate under the circumstances. It just felt right: "Cunt!"

Chris Wright can be reached at

The Crying Game

The first man I ever saw cry was Bryan West. A large, violent guy from a large, violent family, Bryan had just found out that his brother had received an eight-year prison term for armed robbery. This, apparently, was more upsetting than the time the same brother had beaten him with a plank. Bryan had dazzled us kids by remaining tear-free after his planking, but now there he was, squatting on this little patch of grass, a twine of snot running from nose to knee.For us, the idea that a bruiser like Bryan could be reduced to the status of crybaby was unthinkable. Indeed, his sniveling threw us for such a loop that we could barely muster the enthusiasm to taunt him for it. And when we did, Bryan didn't bother to beat us up.After Bryan there was Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Though not quite a real man, Ingalls was a real weeper. In every episode, it seemed, the sturdy frontiersman would descend into a vale of sniffles. There was no snot, mind you, just a spangling semicircle of tears, often accompanied by a soft smile. This was the puzzling part: Mr. Ingalls didn't wait until he got a soccer ball in the groin; he cried when something good happened. I didn't get it.In the intervening years I have learned that Bryan West and Mr. Ingalls were demonstrating two distinct forms of crying: the bad kind and the good kind. The bad kind of crying is exhausting, depressing, even humiliating -- that is, it's real. The second kind, the fake kind, is far more rewarding. In fact, ever since I discovered the benefits of a good, Mr. Ingalls-style blubber, I have been addicted.Not that I am a weepy guy. Assaulted with images of global calamity, frustrated and disappointed by my personal life, I remain dry-eyed for months on end. Am I heartless? Too macho? I don't think so. Some socially conscious Victorian novelist -- George Eliot, I believe -- summed it up for me: if we could hear every bird and squirrel in the woods, she wrote, we'd go mad. By the same measure, if we cried at everything that was worth crying over, we'd all be walking around with faces that looked like huge cold sores.Which is why we need movies. Or why I need movies. Every now and then, when the world is too much with me, I'll get myself horribly hung-over, settle down with a good weepie, and let it all out. It might sound harsh, but there's nothing like a dose of Sense and Sensibility to assuage the horror of an earthquake or a plane crash -- not to mention a bad day at the office. The point is, bottled-up grief must be uncorked by artifice for it to prompt the good kind of tears -- the cleansing, phony kind. I'm not picky. Babe: Pig in the City will do the job. I have blubbed over episodes of Family Ties, boo-hooed over AT&T ads.A friend of mine thinks this is dumb. I'm being manipulated, he says. Well, fiction is manipulation. If sobbing over Shadowlands is dumb, then so is the entire Western tradition. Aristotle was not above getting lachrymose over the occasional Euripides sob story. Shakespeare was a notorious tearjerker ("Speak of me as . . . one that lov'd not wisely but too well"). As tragedians and schlock merchants alike have long understood, fake crying is good for you. It's called catharsis.I couldn't have known what catharsis was, or even pronounced it, the first time I remember experiencing it. It was around the same time that Bryan's brother went away. Someone had stolen my new bike, possibly Bryan. I was distraught, yet I didn't cry. My stoic fa?ade lasted until the moment one of the bigger kids, Martin White, offered to help me look for it. This kind act was all it took to bring me to my knees.The emotive potential of this scenario -- the good deed in bad times -- has not been lost on Hollywood. The movies' most accomplished version of Martin White is Oskar Schindler, the softhearted industrialist of Schindler's List. To this day I cannot look at big old Liam Neeson staggering around going, "I could have done more!" without an attack of the hiccuping sobs.In the real world, of course, such antidotes to evil as Oskar Schindler and Martin White are rare. In the real world, horror usually prevails. A little more than 10 years ago, I spent an entire day in front of the tube, watching grimly, but utterly dry-eyed, as the atrocities of Tiananmen Square unfolded. Later that night, Terms of Endearment came on. By the time a terminally ill Debra Winger turned to her son and said, "I know you love me," I was juddering like a jackhammer.I don't know whether Terms of Endearment is the best weepie ever made or simply taps into the emotions I felt that day, but I blubber every time I see it. In fact, these days, because I anticipate Winger's illness, I cry in the happy bits as well as the sad bits. But I rarely watch that film now. For all its potency, Winger's death still leaves a residue of angst. For me, the best kind of tears -- the Mr. Ingalls-like smiley kind, the truly cathartic there-there kind -- flow from feel-good flicks: When Harry Met Sally, As Good as It Gets.Recently I rented Jerry Maguire. I'd had a terrible week, and I was set for a good psychic enema. Indeed, I'd already welled up at a couple of semi-weepy moments early in the film, and as it neared its climax -- where Tom Cruise rushes home to estranged wife Ren�e Zellweger and declares his true love -- I felt months of pent-up sorrow rising within me. I leaned forward. Cruise fixed Zellweger with a woeful stare. She spun about; more stares. His eyes filled up, her lip quivered, then, then, then . . . my wife walked into the room: "I'm sorry, I can't take Tom Cruise seriously."Pop.Cruise's "You complete me" sounded as contrived and silly as it is. Zellweger's "You had me at `hello' " was eclipsed by a cloud of irony. I was left with emotional blue balls. That was a month ago, and I haven't been myself since. But I think it's going to be okay. Tonight I'm going down to the video store, I'm renting It's a Wonderful Life, and I'm going to rid myself of the Chechnya crisis once and for all.Chris Wright can be reached at

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