by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & espite prodding from President Bush, most Americans aren't using their stimulus checks as prescribed. They're not buying new TVs or flying to Hawaii. Instead, they're paying down debts. Or filling their tanks at $4 a gallon. Or socking it away for a rainy day (of which there'll no doubt be many).

Not me. I wanted to invest. I wanted to stimulate my economy. I'm not rich, but when you're paying more for everything, $600 just isn't going to cut it.

Of course, one could "invest" it in the stock market, but that seems like a crapshoot these days. On a whim, I put $500 in the market two years ago and now, after steady declines, I might be able to afford dinner and a movie with what's left.

In recent weeks, I consulted the business pages looking for a little guidance, but financial advisors all seem to say the same thing: Be practical. The headline of a New York Times story read, "Economy Can Wait; Stimulate Your Savings."

"What should you do with your stimulus check?" the reporter asked. "Spend it, as human nature and Congress intend? Or take a few minutes to reflect upon the rising cost of gas and energy, the likely pinch of expenses yet to come -- or bills begging to be paid -- and save it?"

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he answer came to me while killing time on a Blackjack computer game. I'll put my check on the table, grow it hand by hand, make my fortune. The odds aren't half bad. I practiced for days and then, last weekend, I went to Northern Quest Casino to change my life, fulfilling the best of all American dreams -- free money.

My wallet bulged with a wad of bills as I boarded a shuttle from the parking lot to the casino. There were two other people on board and I wondered if they had the same plan. I strode confidently inside and found a $5-minimum-bet table. I cashed in the first $100 and laid down a fiver.

Slowly, I started building my stack on several good hands. A tipsy player to my left showered me with praise. "Nice work," he said a little bitterly. Another player -- a 30-something man with unkempt hair -- plopped into an empty seat and cashed in his last $20 bill. He wasn't playing for fun; he was playing to win just like me. But after five or six hands, he was done, and my luck had changed, too. My pile shrank and I began to gently chastise the dealers. They seemed genuinely disappointed as they took my money, but take it they did.

I pulled out two more $20 bills (no sense in rushing it) and played a few more hands. When a new dealer came to the table, I got a bad feeling and picked up my chips. I moved to another table and sat next to a white-haired gentleman who was all business, playing two hands at once. I felt desperation start to grow inside me as I lost all my chips.

I took a walk through the casino. I reassured myself. You win some, you lose some, then you win some more. It's a cycle. If I quit now, I wouldn't reach the next winning stage. I knew what I had to do: I pulled out $60 and sat at a third table.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & his time, indeed, my luck was different. I got Blackjack several times in a dozen hands. My $60 grew to $100, then to $120, then to $180. Soon I had $230. I started placing bigger and bigger bets and they started paying off. After three hours, I was still going strong. Then, just as quickly, my luck turned. I started negotiating with myself -- not about how much I had to win, but how much I could bear to lose. More specifically, how much could I blow before my fianc & eacute;e would murder me? I decided losing $100 was my limit and, after the fourth hour, I reached it.

I cashed out and headed for the door. I consoled myself with several thoughts. It wasn't my money, I said. You can't win if you don't bet. Without risk, there's no reward. The clich & eacute;s came easily, and soon I was smiling. In the end, as I reached my car, I felt like a red-blooded American. I had stimulated the economy.

Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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