One thing I learned early is that I am not a gambler, at least not when it comes to betting money. I still remember my first wager at eight years old. My mother and I had gone, just the two of us, to New Jersey for a summer internship. My siblings stayed home with other relatives.
I think of that as the summer of babysitters. I had four different women responsible for watching me while my mother worked. On the weekends my mother and I would visit New England’s tourist attractions, from old Philadelphia to the Statue off Liberty, to a three day trip to Maine for 4th of July fireworks viewed from a rocky shore.
One such weekend we had gone with one of her fellow interns to see an orchestra. We had a small picnic outside before the show started in a green park overrun by black squirrels. The intern offered me, an avowed cheese lover, a taste of Brie. I found the taste so revolting I spit it out on the grass.
“That’s disgusting!” I declared. “I bet the squirrels won’t even eat it!” Quite unexpectedly, my mom’s coworker wanted to take me up on that bet, and she wanted us to put money on the line. Mom advised me not to gamble more than I was wiling to lose, so I set the amount at ten cents. I distinctly remember my betting partner being disappointed by the seemingly low stakes.
We shook on the wager, and mom held onto our dimes as we went to the orchestra. While ten cents felt like nothing to the adult grad student who’d gotten me into this mess, ten cents was the absolute most I can bear to part with. To me, the stakes weren’t just high: they were the highest. I spent the entire performance fretting over how the squirrels were reacting to pieces of Brie.
After the orchestra, we returned to the picnic grounds to see who won the wager. The squirrels had completely neglected the Brie, favoring just about any other crumb available. I had won the bet. And I still felt awful. I was relieved not to lose my dime, but found no joy in winning hers either. I mostly felt sick.
There was no rush to be found, in taking the risk or in being rewarded. There was only anxiety, pessimism, and regret. I won the bet but still hated the experience of gambling. In all the years since then, I’ve played one lotto ticket, and been to one casino. A friend gave me a bucket of quarters and set me in front of as slot machine. After losing fifty cents in a row, I decided I’d rather keep the coins than risk them.
There are places I’ve taken risks and rolled the dice. My best friend and I were avid hitch hikers, and I’ve taken more rides with strangers than I can count. I’ve eaten questionable foods, joined pyramid schemes, and dated a lot of men. Those were all gambles I was willing to take and while some did cost me money, none of them created that sick pit in my stomach that betting cash does.