Collecting Playing Cards

Nearly everybody finds something to collect within their life. For some, it is an investment in worth, consolidating items of value as a security measure. For others, it fulfills the goals of completing sets or items in a list for display or self-satisfaction. Still, others collect and store items that connect or remind them of a history that provides a sense of identity. However, most of us build collections out of a combination of all three of these reasons – value, achievement and history. For me, I find these reasons behind my main collection of playing cards.

Both of my parents grew up in rural upstate New York where the family game of choice was Pinochle. At weekend gatherings on my grandfather’s farm, a small group of his friends and family would gather around the dinner table, partnered in two teams, to prove their worth in serious games of Pinochle. Children were not allowed to join in until they could prove capable of playing at an adult level. My parents brought the game down with them to Florida to play with their friends on occasion. Pinochle combined both the concepts of laying down sets of cards as in Poker and winning tricks as in Bridge, building scores through both methods. What is particularly special about Pinochle is that the game uses a special deck of just the Ten through Ace of each suit doubled. A Pinochle deck will also include Nines for use in a game variation. Because of this, it often was difficult while I was growing up to find a normal deck of fifty-two cards in our closet to play the children games of War and Rummy with visiting friends. This led me to start buying my own deck of cards for these instances. This is how I came to notice that playing cards were often sold as souvenirs at tourist locations and started me on a path of collecting decks.

This collection has not demonstrated much in the way of being an investment. I have a few decks that may have some historical value, but playing card decks have not been known to be that rare lost attic treasure like baseball cards or comic books. Among my decks, I have Bicycle decks from the Los Angeles and Atlanta Olympic Games, a double set of Air Force One Ronald Reagan cards, a tenth anniversary M*A*S*H double deck, and a Kennedy Kards political satire deck from the JFK era. Despite the historical significance behind these decks, I have no illusions that these have any significant monetary value behind them, but I cherish having them in my collection.

In general, I would buy or receive decks during my travels or attendance at events, but as friends and colleagues began to learn of my collection, they would get me decks on their travels. This got me close to completing representative sets, which would lead me to the Internet seeking a missing deck in a set. It was last year that I finally able to complete a representative set of souvenir decks from each of the fifty US states and the District of Columbia. I may not have visited every state yet, but I now have at least one deck of playing cards from each one. It may be a little more difficult to find a deck from each European country.

However, most of my decks have become a symbol of where I have been, what I have accomplished and what I hope to accomplish. The decks I have from the Los Angeles Olympics remind me of being able to be at the LA Coliseum during those games. Souvenir decks from European countries, famous art museums, and US National Parks remind me of the places I have seen and experienced, as well as places I have yet to visit. Magic decks and science decks demonstrate the knowledge I have gained. Decks with special face card characters and non-standard card decks ground me in the history of multiple cultures. Playing cards represent the evolution of gamesmanship in humanity, and I am fascinated by the history behind the games. I have almost one thousand decks in my collection from five continents. There is still plenty of space on my shelves to cross that thousand mark barrier.

A New Year

The holidays and bowl games are behind us, and 2014 is fully upon us. So, as I do a quick audit of the past year, I wonder how was my 2013? Well, in the debit column, after a couple hundred resumes uploaded and positions applied for, a few phone interviews and attendance at several networking events, I am still unemployed with my unemployment benefits about to expire. My medical insurance and covering of my deductible for one medical procedure that confirmed I was perfectly healthy took up one third of my basic expenditures last year. A discarded newspaper that swept up into my radiator grill as I was going through the Sepulveda Pass on the 405 Freeway was all it took to cook my car’s engine and leave me without personal transportation for two weeks while a rebuilt engine was installed. My base savings account has definitely taken a hit. However, in the credit column, my retirement accounts are solid and have grown, my home is secure with good equity and a healthy emergency investment account is still at my disposal. My somewhat regular bike and walk schedule through the year trimmed thirteen pounds from my weight. I kept busy donating my time to a worthy education non-profit organization, 826LA, by volunteering as an afterschool tutor for 1-5 grade school students twice a week during the school year and a month long summer camp. The rest of my time was focused on promoting my novel by the expansion of my social media presence and by re-releasing it through AuthorHouse to increase the distribution outlets through which it would be available

One part of my promotional campaign was to connect with fellow independent authors, many of whom were reaching out to me. I began to buy and read from the selection of self-published works being presented to me over Twitter and several author websites. After reading, I would write an honest review and post it on Amazon, Goodreads and Shelfari, then announce the review on Twitter so the author would be aware. I realized that in the current online environment of book retailing a growing number of broadly and honestly received reader reviews were important to elevate a book to the recommendation level on Amazon and other online booksellers, and hoped that some of my fellow indie authors would find time to read and honestly review my book to add to my count. I was able to read 22 indie books in 2013, ranging from several murder mysteries, some character relationship dramas, a few sci-fi and fantasy opuses and some historical romances. There were flaws and issues with some of the works, but in general, I was impressed with the creativity and passion within many of the books I read. It makes one realize that the art of storytelling and emotional revelation is not limited to a few master writers in history, but appears to be an integral part of our collective DNA.

So where does this leave me for 2014? Basically, I have the strong hope that I have built a good promotional foundation for my book as more readers discover it. The job market appears to be improving, but maybe I will have time to focus on my next book. I feel the assistance I have provided to the students in the 826LA program will give them the foundation to be major contributors within their generation. And I hope I am prepared for the new challenges that are always around the corner no matter what year we are in.

Volunteering for 826LA

This week is Spring Break. Students have the week off from the public school system, and I have a week off from a volunteer mission I began two months ago. Late in January, I was walking up to pick up dinner from my favorite neighborhood Chinese take-out and passed by what appeared to be a new store next door. Outside the new storefront, a young woman was writing up a request for volunteers on a chalkboard two-sided sign. It turned out that the “new store” was in actuality the new location for an 826LA tutor center. As I discovered, the 826 organization, founded in San Francisco, have started up volunteer centers in cities across the country to provide free afterschool tutoring, in-school tutoring and projects, and field trip/workshops focusing on literary creativity for students. Los Angeles is the only city to have two locations and one had just moved into my neighborhood. For me, education is a core tenet in my charitable activities. It is a basic foundation for growth, discovery and success. Based on my current time availability, I signed up as a volunteer, making myself available on Tuesdays and Thursdays for three hours to provide afterschool tutoring to elementary students at the local center.

The basic procedure for the afterschool tutoring is to focus on the student completing his/her homework first, then to encourage the student to find something to read and/or write a story. A theme or project is posted on a blackboard to give the students direction on what to write, but if a student wants to write in another direction, he/she is not discouraged in doing so. The key is to encourage creative writing in general. When a student writes a story, he/she takes it to the coordinator for approval. If approved (based on whether the tutor has directed and corrected grammar and spelling errors), the effort is announced to the entire group, and the student puts the paper in a publishing box and gets to ring a bell to celebratory applause. The stories are collected over a period of time and published in a small volume that is sold in the volunteer center storefronts to support the programs of 826LA. Whenever a book is published, a book party is held at the center with the student authors reading their stories to fellow students, tutors and parents. Last week, we held one for the newest book of stories, “A Fireplace with Cold Fire in It,” focused mainly on Denver, whose central zip code is 80206.

Of course, the ideal is better than the reality. The student/tutor ratio could be 5 to 1 on some days with the students coming from different schools and grades, so a tutor often has to shift from first grade spelling to fifth grade social studies on to third grade math. Many students would rather be playing than doing homework and are easily distracted, so it might take the full three hours just to get a student to complete homework. I would not doubt that a few of the parents who take advantage of the free tutoring for their children are seeking an extra three hours of free daycare, but they are definitely in the minority. Like any job, volunteering is challenging work, but the rewards are different. Yes, it is heartening to see the light in a student’s eyes when they get it or to feel the joy when you have made a difference in someone else’s life. However, there is a selfish satisfaction in knowing that in a small way, I am improving the social and environmental structure around me that will improve my life and society in general.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.

Biking Along the Venice Beach Boardwalk – Part 2

In my previous posting, I had described my fairly regular bike ride to Venice Beach up to the central Windward Plaza. The trip continues…

Beyond the main plaza, the bike path wavers near the boardwalk north until it reaches a unique attraction, the Venice Beach Freakshow housed within an extended patio building. On weekends and in season, a loud speaker announces in barker fashion the various wonders visitors will see for a nominal admission price. Occasionally, I have seen a fire-eater performing on the patio to bring customers in to see the show. This freak show is currently the focus of a new AMC reality program, so it is attracting more tourists to the boardwalk. I must admit that as of this writing, I have not tuned in to see the series. Nor have I stopped on my bike rides to see the show itself.

At this point, the bike path snakes outward and around a series of grassy palm tree patches. Visitors and homeless alike gather on these knolls to view the waves coming in to the shore. My goal is reached when the bike path slides back to within a foot or two of the boardwalk, two short blocks away from the Santa Monica border. I get off my bike and walk it across the short sand strip to the red-stripped “no vendor” entry area on the boardwalk. Then I cross the pedestrian traffic to a small store called N’ice Cream on the north side of Thornton Court. The store sells gelatos and sorbets, made fresh every morning in their main shop on Abbott Kinney Boulevard, just blocks away. I choose one of the four fat-free sorbet flavors of the day and get two scoops in a cup. I enjoy the watermelon flavor when available and thought the champagne flavor during New Years was very creative. I take my cup and sit in one of their chairs to enjoy the broad variety of visitors walking along the boardwalk.

I mentioned the “red-stripped” no vendor area on the beach side of the walk. This provides an open entry area to the beach within the marked spots all along the beach side of the boardwalk where artists, musicians and small vendors can license a position to set up a canopy and pitch small souvenirs and artwork to visitors. At N’ice Cream, these spots are taken up by an artist selling colorful framed paintings, a small vendor selling marijuana design t-shirts, and Tom the photographer selling a small selection of 8×10 souvenir prints of Venice. It has only been a few cold and quiet weekdays when I have noticed their spots to be empty.

It is during this time of people watching that I realize just how famous worldwide this stretch of beach and storefronts truly is. I have heard just about every language and accent pass by me – German, Japanese, Spanish and more. Winter appears to be the season for European tourists, while summer is perfect for Aussie tourists. However, the bohemian flavor of Venice attracts a broader flavor of travelers, those seeking to explore the wilder side of human nature and enjoy the starving street performers populating the boardwalk. I was amused recently by one nattily dressed pedestrian who was walking his dog down the boardwalk. The dog was leashed per the law, but the man had trained the dog to carry the other end of the leash in his mouth, scolding the eager pup whenever the leash was dropped. A dog walking himself! I just had to shake my head.

Having finished my sorbet, I toss my cup into the ice cream cone-designed trash bin and walk my bike back over to the bike path. It’s time to head home by backtracking my trail and re-navigating the bike path with fellow bikers, Segway renters, skaters and seagulls. The bike path is posted as being for bikes only, no pedestrians, but many visitors find the concrete path to be a lovely walk on the beach without the sand or crowds. There would be no issue passing a group of walkers going single file along the right side, but many tend to bunch into conversation groups or pair up as couples holding hands in double wide formation. If they are called out for being on and blocking the bicycle lane, they have no problem glaring back or giving out a not-so-mild invective even as they stand on the large white bike icon painted regularly along the trail. All I can say is that it is just part of the challenge and experience of keeping fit and enjoying this world famous location.

Biking Along the Venice Beach Boardwalk – Part 1

I have been lucky to travel and see many amazing places in the US and Europe, but my recent unemployment has reminded me of an old truism – one often forgets to visit the wonders in one’s own backyard. Shortly after I had purchased my townhome on the westside of Los Angeles over a decade ago, I purchased a bike to enjoy an occasional ride to the beach, but I allowed my job to turn that occasion into an annual or biennial event on the Fourth of July or Labor Day weekend. When I was laid off over a year ago, I suddenly had extra time on my hands which I used to write and publish a novel as well as get myself into better shape by riding my bike two or three times a week down to Venice Beach. Just off the boardwalk, a concrete, two-way bike path snakes it way from Washington Boulevard to the Santa Monica pier and beyond towards Malibu. I found that I could head down Venice Boulevard straight to the bike path, turn and bike up to the northern end of the Venice boardwalk, take a pause and head back home all within an hour. Add an extra half hour and I could add the Santa Monica Pier to the round trip.

The boardwalk basically begins at Venice Boulevard North on the south side. The pedestrian strip does extend farther south to Washington Boulevard, but the adjoining buildings are all residential, out of sync with the eclectic vibe from the stores and sights to the north. A stark indication of this vibe is the first store at the Venice corner, a medical marijuana dispensary whose clerks come out into the boardwalk in green scrubs announcing, “The doctor is in.” The bike path at this location is separated from the boardwalk by a city parking lot. During mild weekdays in the winter, parking is a reasonable five dollars and readily available. Film and TV crews will often take up half the lot during these off season periods. During mild weekends in the winter, the parking rate doubles as traffic backs up on Venice. When the weather really warms up, the lot full sign pops up and the backup traffic is forced to turn around and find a way out of the jam. I wave to them as I navigate my bike through the traffic into the lot to the bike path entryway on the other side.

As I bike north on the path, I catch glimpses of the open-air gym of Muscle Beach, the handball and basketball courts, and the children’s playground grouped north of the parking lot. The bike path curves in just past the police station and then curves back north between Windward Plaza and the skateboard park. This is the busiest area of Venice Beach as Windward Plaza is the beach side’s extension of the open area plaza signifying the central entry point to Venice Beach and its boardwalk. Next to the skateboard park, a modern art sculpture of five iron bars stands vigil over two flat-top concrete cones and a couple of concrete walls painted over with graffiti art. Navigating through the pedestrian crosswalk and skateboarders can be tricky at this point even during light off-season days.

Past this point, the bike path curves in toward the boardwalk, turning back north to snake along in close proximity. Near this point in the boardwalk, there is an open air restaurant with a faded red-and-white canopy over the eating area that extends over the entry of a small independent bookstore, Small World Books. I pitched them to carry my book in their store as a local author, but the owner let me know that the store is too small to carry unknown books on consignment. One day, I hope to sell enough books to entice them to stock a few copies of Legacy Discovered on their shelves.

To be continued…

Valentine’s Day

It is Valentine’s Day and for the second year in a row, I have not been able to carry out a personal tradition of mine to celebrate the day. When I first graduated from college, I got a job driving a messenger route for a title insurance office. I got to know many of the receptionists and representatives in the escrow offices well on my route, so on Valentine’s Day, I would buy a couple of dozen carnations and hand out single carnations to the women along the route. When I finally found a job with ABC Television and later transitioned into the publicity department, I carried the tradition over to my female co-workers in the office. Every year, I would bring in two or three dozen carnations in mixed colors and allow each woman to choose one from the batch as I brought them around. The only year I knowingly passed on my tradition while working for ABC and Disney ABC was in 1994 when Valentine’s Day came less than a month after the Northridge earthquake. Instead, I sent all of the women a message that instead of flowers that year, a donation was being made to the Los Angeles Food Bank to assist victims of the disaster.

I truly believe that a little act of acknowledgement makes a bigger difference than a grandiose display. It does not create a heavy sense of gratitude debt or imply a hidden agenda. It simply says I notice you make a difference, a message spread evenly to all of my female co-workers. As for my fellow male compatriots, there never were any jealous reactions – either in not receiving their own acknowledgement or in the momentary interest I presented to each woman. Instead, I helped represent the male side of the staff, gave a lift to the female side of the staff and helped raise a more pleasant interactive atmosphere to all members of the staff.

However, this will be the second year that I have not had a job on Valentine’s Day, so there has not been a group to distribute flowers. Instead, I have had to be content sending out a virtual acknowledgement to my Facebook friends. Still, the message is the same in acknowledging that they make a difference in my life.

eHarmony – The Business of Online Dating

In August, I had a friend who felt I was “too good a person” not to have found a partner in my life and pretty much strong-armed me to join eHarmony. I completed the complex personality questionnaire with her at my shoulder and then balked at paying the sixty dollar monthly subscription fee, considering my current employment situation. After all, the ads do promise that I can see my matches for free. However, what was available to be seen was just words, the descriptive answers in the member’s profile, as photos are blocked as well as the ability to communicate with the matched members. Even though eHarmony’s advertising is not very upfront about this, it seemed reasonable in order to justify the subscription fee for full membership. Then some of the women reached out to me, sending me a smile or a selection of five questions to initiate contact. I felt it was only proper to respond, but discovered that no communication included responses. Naively, I expected at the time that these paying members would receive some indication that I would not be able to respond at the time since I was not a paying member.

During the next few weeks, I kept receiving daily notifications of new matches, averaging five to seven a day. Then, I received a promotional e-mail offering a three-month-for-one deal. I signed up for the deal and started to go through the 100+ matches I had already accumulated. I felt compelled to start by responding to the women who had reached out to me with initial five questions. This led to five meet-and-greet dates over the next several weeks, providing me with a couple of new Facebook friends, but the “One” was not in these dates. Among the initial group of women who had reached out to me, I was disappointed that the guided communication with the most promising match suddenly stopped in process without reaching the meet-and-greet stage. I was still getting the daily five to seven new matches during this time and now had well over 200 matches. It was time for me to choose from this group and reach out to a few of these matches. There was no way that I could even consider sending a smile to every match in the ever growing pool, but I suddenly had no luck in getting any response from the few I chose to send a smile or an initial set of five questions.

After getting several new matches from profiles that had not been active for over a month, plus a few that were obviously phony, I realized that a portion of my matches were with non-paying members who would never be able to communicate with me. I also realized that no profile contained any indication to a paying member on whether that profile was open to communication or not. I went back to the profile of the promising match that suddenly ended and realized that all of her communication to me occurred during the Labor Day weekend which had been promoted as a free communication period for all members. As soon as the promotion ended, her communication ended with me. This meant she was likely a non-paying member, perhaps a new member signing up for a free trial. Even though I was now paying for the service of finding and connecting with women, I was cut off from completing a connection with a very positive match because she was not a paying member and we could not complete the guided communication over a three day free weekend.

What I began to wonder was what percentage of my matches were members who had just signed up for free or had gone inactive. There was no way to determine this, but the sudden inability to get any responses from my initial communications made it seem likely that this percentage was substantial. I felt like I was part of a roulette game which had been partially rigged by the House. There was no way I could put a chip on every number on the table, but many of the numbers were already foregone losers. The point is I was paying expressly for a service that was being undercut by the business model. I was paying more to be an ad for eHarmony than to find that special connection. I truly suspect that the best ratio of paying communicable matches was when I first joined for free and decreased gradually up to the time my three month reduced fee subscription ended. Since I determined not to extend my subscription, I wanted to be sure that my profile would not be used to bait-and-switch another trial member. I changed my membership settings to not receive any more new matches and then added in the additional information section of my profile for my current matches that I was no longer a paying subscriber able to communicate or respond to any initial outreach. I did add that if anyone wanted to know more about me, I could be found by searching for Legacy Discovered on Amazon.com. If I was being used to promote eHarmony to others, I felt I should be able to put in a little self-promotion of my own.