Sometimes juxtaposition accidentally provides enlightenment. We flew to Las Vegas late last month, to visit a friend who had fled the madness of Silicon Valley. It was an exciting trip, what with actual CSI techs blocking access to his street late one night and the pool deck of the Cosmopolitan going up in flames while we were two blocks away at Caesars Palace.
What wasn’t exciting was the gaming. I love Nevada’s number-one pastime; I always have. One Christmas when the family was visiting my sister in Orange County, California, we piled into the car and drove to Las Vegas. I wasn’t 21 yet, but I looked old enough, and I won $40 on a video poker machine. I have suspected ever since that the casinos have some way of identifying newcomers, and intentionally letting them win so they’ll always come back in search of that first-time rush.
My best friend in high school and college did both his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Nevada at Reno, and I visited him often. There were times I was so unlucky at the tables, I would have to borrow bridge fare to get back home.
I know that the very best one can do at the gaming tables is break even. But that presumes that you win something during your time there, and then lose it again; that at some point during the 24 to 48 hours you’re gambling that you’re actually ahead. During this most recent visit, with the exception of about ten minutes when I first started playing blackjack at a casino downtown on Fremont Street, I was never, ever ahead. And for the very first time, it just wasn’t fun.
So what’s the juxtaposition? Not long before I left for Las Vegas, I’d been asked by my gym trainer – a lad of only 22, which seems unbearably young – what it was like to grow up in the Sixties. As I later posted on Facebook, it took me a while to formulate an answer, but I finally told him that here, in Silicon Valley, the best word I could come up with was “cushy.”
The valley’s economy was roaring even then, thanks to electronics and defense, so I only remember one or two people that I would consider poor. I was in junior high school before any of my friends’ parents got divorced. The houses on television (The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, The Partridge Family) all looked like ours – suburban ranch houses with room to roam. Scholastic Weekly fed us right-wing propaganda about the domino theory and why we were in Vietnam War, and only one or two older brothers of my classmates were fighting there (one died). When Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, I knew it was bad, sad, and important, but I didn’t understand the political ramifications until much, much later. All of the uproar of the Sixties just didn’t seem to touch us as kids.
But this cocoon of cushiness overshadowed an eventual, bitter realization: that among all this cushiness, my siblings and I were being verbally and emotionally abused. I’m sure most of you are tired of hearing about my dysfunctional family, but no more tired than I am of trying to process and move beyond it. I still hope to come to ultimate terms with it before I die (barring that, I’m hoping for reincarnation). Even as I explained to my trainer my view of life in the Sixties, I realized that while it seemed idyllic, its underside was actually just the opposite.
Enter Las Vegas.
I can’t help but think of it as the urban equivalent of a dysfunctional family. It entices you with flashing, colorful lights, with visions of potential wealth and glory. It adorns itself with the glitter of Disneyland, agglomerating fantasies and nostalgia galore for those who yearn for Venice or Paris, for ancient Rome or Egypt, or some other magical place. It plies you with liquor and fine dining, with entertainment, with scantily clad women (what this does for women, I have no idea).
Like a domineering parent, it tells you that you’re lucky to be there, and that you should be having the time of your life. But at the same time, at the gaming tables, you’re getting beat up and humiliated and frustrated and abused. And it’s confusing, even to a rational adult, because everywhere you turn in Vegas, everything is fabulous. That’s what they call it: fabulous Las Vegas.
But the etymological root of fabulous is fable. And fables are just stories. Fiction. Lies. Just as those comfortable suburban homes on television were lies; just as the demands for familial devotion and obedience were built on lies.
Another juxtaposition: this trainer of mine is desperately trying to bring balance to my diet, to educate me on the sins of sugar and sodium, and the pleasures of protein and vegetables. I am learning to go without the things I love, like cereal and carbonated soda. And I’m wondering if the next time I go to see my friend in Las Vegas, I can finally forgo the gaming that I used to enjoy too much.