Virginia Beach
Virginia Beach TK Fotoshop/gettyimages.com

Two things. One, this post will not go into the Rob Lowe's current Twitter scandal ("Rob Lowe deletes tweet saying Elizabeth Warren would redefine the term Commander in ‘Chief'"), and, two, it will not begin with the part that he plays in the post. It will instead open with a trip my family took to Virginia Beach in the summer of 1980.

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The trip was made in a new van that my Uncle David (or, in Shona, Sekuru David) purchased in Moscow, Idaho, where he was studying to be a mining engineer. He and his family drove across the US, picked up my family in Sharptown, Maryland, and we all headed south. It was a short, all-American adventure. We crossed the long Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. We stayed at a hotel near Linkhorn Bay. We ran into and out of the warm Atlantic. My mother at one point lost her wedding ring in the ocean's waves. But my father, who walked into the ocean an hour after the ring slipped from his wife's ring finger, found it by sitting on it. This miracle has been recounted numerous times at family events.

At another point, my mother became upset when she caught me playing pinball with my uncle in a game arcade near the hotel. She thought I was gambling. And when I tried to explain that there was no chance of winning money from a pinball machine, she was certain I was trying to pull a fast one on her. The machine looked and behaved exactly like a slot machine. She looked at all of the lurid lights, the silver balls, the excitable bumpers, the flashy flippers, and immediately pulled me out of the arcade, as her brother laughed (I will never forgive that laugh, Sekuru David).

What was imprinted on my soul that summer day was this profound question: Why did Tracy (my mother) hate gambling so much? Why was it for her one of the major evils of the world?


Years later, I found myself staying at a luxury hotel in Botswana, the Gaborone Sun. The hotel's cable system replayed seven movies, one of which, Oxford Blues, starred Rob Lowe. (I wrote about this experience here.) Near the beginning of the film, Rob Lowe, who is a valet at a hotel in Vegas, sells his young and beautiful body to a world-weary middle-aged woman. But the money he receives for the hot sex is not enough to pay for his goal: entering Oxford University. What to do? The middle-aged woman, who is still recovering from the fucking, recommends he try his luck in the hotel's casino. There is a chance that the $1000 he earned from her could become $10,000. A moment later, both are standing at a roulette table. The chips are down. The wheel turns once, and Lowe wins. The wheel turns a second time, and Lowe wins again. The wheel turns one more time, and Lowe wins big. He leaves the casino with the money he needs to attend Oxford.

Each time I watched this scene in my hotel room in the Gaborone Sun (and I watched it many, many times), the fuck-boy's dumb luck never failed to pull at something deep within me. It was like a witching rod. A dowser's stick that came alive only over this part of the movie. All I knew was that this mysterious pull-force on my soul had something to do with the wedding ring found in the Atlantic Ocean by my father's bum and my mother's antipathy for gambling.

In 2000, I finally got my hands on a copy of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. It contained nearly 1000 pages of the great philosopher's own notes and fragments he collected from other books. One of these fragments caught my eye almost immediately. It's in the small section titled "Prostitution, Gambling." It is a note by Alain (Emile Auguste Chartier), an early 20th-century French philosopher and journalist. It describes the "basic principle... of gambling" as consisting "in this: that each round is independent of the one preceding it." For Alain, an addiction to gambling is explained by the absence of history, and therefore the future, at the roulette table, or the slot machines. A casino in a state of perfection floods every round into eternity. There is no yesterday. There is only the now, the moment, the pull, the throw, roll of the ball, the tumble of the dice, the spin of the wheels, the result. The end.

But why was the gambler drawn to an erasure of this kind? It's so brutal and shuts down the defining processes of life, processes that go all the way down to the microscopic level. Even bacteria have a sense of history (as tiny as it is). The roulette wheel has none. What kind of desire is this? Each roll of the wheel being "independent of the one preceding it"? Admittedly, this fragment helped me explain a part of the scene in Oxford Blues. Lowe wants to attend the ancient university not because it's prestigious but because a famous British socialite is one of its students. He has seen her in the papers. She is, to use the words of Guy, a fantasy, an "image in a magazine." Lowe can easily gamble his hard-earned cash because the future (a working-class American guy seducing a snobby British bird) is highly improbable. Here, the future and the past become pretty much the same. Why not just throw the dice, or spin the wheel?

Despite arriving at this solution, I knew there was something more going on at that roulette table scene in Oxford Blues. The fantasy explained Lowe's dumb luck but not my mother's strong negative feels about gambling.

Two weeks ago I discovered the answer to it all in a book by Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time. In one of the book's two difficult chapters, Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist, explains, by using cards (of course), a novel idea about time. We experience it not because it is built into the entire universe. But because it is only a small part of it that happens to have the variable of time. For the most part, the vast universe is indifferent to this variable, which is closely linked to the second law of thermodynamics—heat flows in one direction, from hot to cold, from low entropy to high entropy. This law is not universal in the universe, but particular. And particular to us. The only reason we experience the direction of time is that we can recognize one of the many configurations of the early universe. By sheer chance, this configuration includes, at a macro-level, the variable of time, which only emerges from a-temporal and non-spatial micro-states. Rovelli correctly believes that the universe does not have to have time, which is only perceived and experienced by us and our kind (bacteria, trees, slugs) because we are ignorant of the rest of the reality.

With this in mind, I began wondering if gambling, with its artificial (or imposed) absence of the variable of time (the past), is not what lures the gambler? Was this not the pull of the witch's stick I felt while watching Oxford Blues? I concluded it was. The gambler at the roulette table is filled with the feeling of restarting (or even redirecting) the universe. The universe, or the part we humans find ourselves locked in, is set. The fantasy in the magazine will never materialize. Lowe will never hold the British socialite in his arms. But if the universe began again, if another order was initiated with renewed (revised) variables, it might open a passage for a time-trapped desire to flow. I also realized why my mother found gambling to be so iniquitous. She was a Christian. She deeply felt that opening another universe (the lure of gambling) was nothing but a negation of the one that is. The one initiated by God.