Annual Ritual

Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison
July 22, 2014

Seated across the hall from me a squat woman with grey hair and glasses is playing a purple slot machine flashing images of the "Playboy Hot Zone". I'm sipping on a free cup of coffee. Why have I come all by myself to the casino nearest Madison?

Once again I am making a trip "out of the country" to observe my birthday. Once again this year's definition of "out of the country" is a bit questionable--but it does serve my purposes in recognizing my day. Since the year I turned 17 my ritual has been to "go to another country" on my day. That's my way of celebrating.

To me, observing my birthday this way ensures that some form of travel is never too far in my future. It gives me time to treat myself and time to pause to reflect on the year past and the year to come. I haven't missed a single year since I began. This usually means traveling somewhere I have to show my passport, often traveling somewhere on another continent. Though, there have been a few times when I've had to strain the definition of "being out of" Canada and the U.S..

Previous "letter-of-the-law" ways I've conformed with my ritual with thin time included once when I stepped foot into the nearest consulate and another time when I drove to a point straddling the U.S./Canada border that allowed me to simultaneously be halfway "outside" both countries. This is another year when my schedule doesn't allow me to journey far. This year I've come to an Indian reservation. Specifically, I'm just outside Madison at a casino called "Ho-Chunk Gaming". Tribal lands are technically sovereign nations, right?

Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison
Another aspect of my annual trip is to be able to whisk myself off to somewhere I can spoil myself a little. But, I can't see why anybody would choose to come to the Ho-Chunk casino to indulge themselves in anything other than lighter pockets and free self-serve coffee squirted into a Styrofoam cup. The place is formulaic and unappealing, lacking even the ersatz energy generated in the lamest Las Vegas casino. The only action here tonight is inert seniors facing banks of slots machines. My birthday indulgence was to be playing a few hours of blackjack so was disappointed to find there are no tables here for that. There is a Poker Room. That's not a game I play but peeped my head inside to see what was going on. The room was empty save for casino employees gathered around a card table holding a meeting.

I suppose there might be one bright side to this year's birthday destination: with an increasing number of my birthdays behind me it's strangely nice to be somewhere, even if in a depressing casino, where I might yet be the youngest person in the entire place.

Getting here wasn't that easy. The casino isn't biking or busing distance from Madison so I booked one of the campus Zipcars for a three-hour block. I figured that would allow me to be "briefly off U.S. soil" on my special day. Though, even after the drive here and thoroughly investigating everything on offer throughout this casino I still have a couple hours remaining to carry out the other part of my ritual: a period of quiet introspection. Regardless of where on the planet my birthday passes I always contemplate where I've been this past year, where I am at the moment, and where I plan to go this upcoming year.

Even if my reflection this year is being done over a cup of free casino coffee it still feels right to be maintaining my ritual, to be maintaining myself.