Lost in Las Vegas

photo 3This morning from the 39th floor of a Las Vegas hotel room I watched the sun rise over the mountains. Impervious to the sweeping humanity below them, these mountains are the area’s only static feature and serve as a boundary to the manic development. Without their silent enforcement, who knows how big Las Vegas could get? No way will this city stop itself.

You don’t spend much time in your room, luxurious though it is. You spend lots of time walking through the hotel. This is because the exits are few and far between; if it weren’t for fire safety, there probably wouldn’t be any. Reaching one of these secret outlets requires a winding trek past Baccarat and Black Jack tables; past acres of glowing slot machines; past Chanel, Cartier, Hermes, Gucci, Rolex; past sleek bars and stylish restaurants; past dazzling chandeliers, color-changing waterfalls, giant silk flowers, colossal glass balloons, massive mosaics. Stunned by the cumulative effect of these displays, you wander for hours, lost in time, for there are no clocks in these hotels and no windows. Light and temperature, meticulously controlled, are designed to make your body forget itself.

photo 1In an effort to keep guests inside at all costs, many hotels have joined forces and created connecting passageways. These escalators and skywalks are so effortless, so discreet, that you usually unaware of the transition. How did you get from the Encore to the Venetian, from the Palazzo to Caesar’s Palace? At last, exhausted by the journey, the visual stimulation, the constant campaign of music, you stumble into a lounge or restaurant and blearily eye the menu. By then you are inured to the exorbitant prices and scarcely bother to look at them.

What did you expect? This is, after all, Las Vegas. If you think a hotel that charges $370 a night should not charge another $20 for WiFi, you have a point, but so what? Money reigns supreme here. To suggest it has a limit amounts to blasphemy. If you cannot get into the spirit of spending, you need to leave the premises. Nothing personal—you just don’t belong.

I had not been to this city in fifteen years. Previously, I recall being charmed by the clever use of faux materials. This time the sets were alarmingly real. As I walked across miles of Italian marble, I began to understand the extent of the riches involved and it made me queasy.

Many people loathe Las Vegas. It is a reckless, heedless city. It stands for all the wrong things. One day this city will run out of water—the one thing it does not have a surfeit of—and nature will be the big winner.

The mountains are out there waiting.

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First, Do No Harm

Memory. It’s a tricky thing. I’m not talking so much about our short-term memories: where are my keys? what did I come in this room for? I’m referring to long-term recollections, those shape-shifting phantoms that cannot be validated. When I get together with my sisters, we will inevitably discuss an event from our past, each of us spackling in what we remember until a revised sketch emerges. Our memories of these episodes are often incompatible, which should no longer surprise us, but does. At last, reluctantly, we allow these collaborative versions, figuring the truth is in there somewhere.

In the beginning of her book CAT’S EYE, Margaret Atwood compares time to “…a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of the other. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that…”  What a perfect description of memory: a still, fecund pond with murky green water. In near constant succession, images float into view, displacing those around them before sinking back down. Because none of us sees the world the same way, my pictures do not look like your pictures, and what is real for me is not real for you. Each one of us is walking around with a cache of fluid memories from which we derive our identity. Who we are is what we remember.

It’s a flimsy arrangement for sure, and little wonder so many of us flock to therapy, desperate for clues to ourselves. The blurred, random images that represent our lives are not sufficient; we want verification, confirmation, something more solid to stand on than the squishy bottom of a pond. Surely a trained professional knows more about us than we know, can tell us what is wrong with our pictures and lead us out of the mire.

I recently watched a video about the fragility of our minds and how easily our memories can be corrupted, either by natural causes, like stress and aging, or by the intervention of others, specifically therapists. In some cases, I can see the value of dislodging troubling memories; indeed we probably all have painful memories we wish we could break free of. Good therapists are born healers, and I have talked to several people who are endlessly grateful for the treatment they received. Other folks have told me that therapy did not help them at all, and some even regret their sessions, claiming that therapy only made them feel worse. One woman told me she felt lost afterward, unrecognizable to others and a stranger to herself.

Our ability to remember is what enables us to learn: we need our memories to keep us alive and comforted, and to remind us where we are in this world. There are many therapists out there. The best ones, aware of their extraordinary responsibility, proceed with caution and compassion.

Unconditional Love

The royal baby has arrived!

Imagine being venerated by multitudes from birth, before birth, based solely on bloodline. On loan to his parents, Prince George of Cambridge belongs to Britain.

Nevermind whether he will want to be a monarch, or if he is suited for such a life, this baby is third in line for the throne and a king he will be. Unless of course he commits some royal blasphemy. Then again, Charles married a divorcee, so maybe the monarchy is loosening up.

Most Americans are tolerant of the pomp that attends these royal milestones. Some may criticize the inequities of a class-structured society; some may condemn the patriarchal policies; others may object to the phenomenal wealth and privilege enjoyed by a group of people who are only nominally in charge. But who would deny Queen Elizabeth’s dedication and probity? Who would discount her decades of unstinting service, or her belief in the importance of her destiny?

I think we may be a little jealous of that idealism, that unbreakable faith. Whether we believe in The Queen’s mission or not, she does, and in so doing, she gives the British people something to believe in, a standard to live by, a notion that some things are worth keeping.

Prince George will be swaddled in adoration and courtesy. His upbringing will be a collaborative effort, a painstaking labor of love. He will be groomed for excellence in the hope that one day he will be a man fit to be king.

I’m not sure I’d elect this noble life for myself—the security measures required, the lack of privacy—but there is something to be said for being the object of high expectation. What would the rest of us accomplish with that much encouragement? If we were told each day how fine we were, what kind of people might we be?

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The Problem With Labels

On June 28, 2013 California became the 13th state to allow same sex marriage. This window of opportunity had been opened briefly five years earlier, but Prop 8 slammed it shut, stranding thousands of newlyweds. For five years these legally married couples tread water in a state that no longer allowed their unions. Two days after the Supreme Court’s historic ruling, same sex couples in CA were finally vindicated. Not only could they celebrate the renewed right to marry, they finally had access to genuine marriage, the kind with federal benefits, the kind enjoyed by….what’s the term? Straight couples? That’s a misleading adjective. Heterosexual couples? That’s a mouthful, and overly emphatic, don’t you think? Heterosexual. Homosexual. Why are we defined by our romantic preferences? How is this distinction socially significant, and how can it foster anything but division? That’s the problem with labels.

Take the term “civil union.” Many so-called Christians favor the idea of labeling same sex marriages as civil unions in order to distinguish them from.…real marriages? Why do we need two terms for the same condition? Marriage is a legal bond between two consenting adults. It is not the purview of any religion and cannot be usurped in defense of any religion. Whether you are wed in a place of worship, your own backyard, Las Vegas or city hall, you are legally united. Call it what you want, but call it one thing. For everyone.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on DOMA was not complicated. Legally married same sex couples filed a suit against the federal government on the grounds that they were being denied the benefits accorded other married couples. There are 1,138 federal benefits in all, ranging from tax advantages to pension, health and social security benefits. The Court ruled in favor of the claimants and struck down this key aspect of DOMA, declaring it unconstitutional. This decision was inevitable—life wants balance and is always moving in the direction of equality. The only surprise regarding the Court’s decision was the fact that it was not unanimous. No matter. It is done. It is law.

Given the prevalence of divorce in this country, given the shocking statistics on spousal battery and child abuse, shouldn’t we be looking for healthier examples of domesticity? The same sex parents I’ve met are wonderfully attentive and supportive of their children. Perhaps, having fought so hard for their right to be parents, this is a privilege they do not take lightly. Perhaps there are things to be learned from them. What this country needs are more expressions of love, not malice and vitriol. The Supreme Court has opened a door. This is a time of congratulations and celebrations. This is a chance to revel in our unity.

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The Right Thing To Do

There is a story in my forthcoming collection, SURVIVAL SKILLS, that involves a rescued greyhound and a troubled woman. Over the course of this story the two learn how to heal each other. I hoped to strike a chord with this piece, to bring awareness to dog racing and the lasting damage this industry inflicts on helpless creatures.

There is no need here to cite the grim statistics, the number of race dogs that are maimed or destroyed. The fact that these animals are kept in cages is more than enough to shame us. Thirty-eight states, acknowledging this abuse, have banned commercial dog racing, which begs the question: Why is it allowed anywhere? Why does anyone have the legal right to profit from this egregious “sport?” I cannot understand why there isn’t a nationwide ban on dog racing, but if we can’t rely on our leaders, we must turn to ourselves to do the right thing.

Public figures wield untold power. They can unify the population or they can further weaken it; they can promote compassion or they can fan aggression. Last week, encouraged by a television show host, thousands of people swarmed Chick-Fil-A’s in support of their COO, a man who has voiced his opposition to marriage equality. The effect was stunning. For equal rights activists and same sex couples it was a disheartening event, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people would have patronized these stores that day had the COO spoken out in favor of allowing every citizen the right to marry and enjoy the benefits that marriage confers.

But mostly I thought about greyhounds. I wondered what would happen to our remaining racetracks if the issue of dog racing inspired similar fervor. What if the next time a greyhound race was scheduled, not a single spectator showed up? Ticket sales: zero.

Now that would be something to cheer about.

2007 A.D.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD the sight of that monstrous mushroom cloud bewildered the citizens of Pompeii. For weeks there had been small quakes and tremors, which were common for the area, and people had gone about their business without much concern. Not until the sky began raining pumice did people take notice.

Too weak to run, the old and sick were buried in their homes. The rest of the townsfolk stumbled in the dark over rising mounds of fiery pumice, blankets tied to their heads. No one knew where to go. Those in houses ran into the streets; those in the streets took cover in buildings; people in boats rowed madly for shore; people on the shore sprang into boats.

Some railed at the gods, others begged for mercy. Exhausted and choking, many gave up and took shelter where they could: slaves and bureaucrats, dogs and dowagers, all crouched together in their last hours on earth. Some managed to reach the city walls and even beyond, and as the falling debris began to let up they must have thought the worst was over.

It wasn’t. The mushroom cloud finally collapsed, sending six surges of ash and searing gases down the mountain. The first surge vaporized the flesh of every living thing in Herculaneum, the fourth surge decimated the people of Pompeii: those who were fleeing, those who were hiding, those who had already suffocated.

In the weeks and months after the eruption, many tunnels were dug into the ruined city. Robbers and treasure hunters risked their lives to take what they could: bronze, lead and marble; tools and trinkets, anything of value. By the time they were excavated centuries later, some of the grandest homes were found empty, their frescoed walls scarred with holes.

In 2007 the US housing market collapsed. Like the eruption of Vesuvius, the destruction  was swift and incomprehensible. There were stages, warnings, but these were largely ignored. The market had faltered before and no lasting harm had come of it. A wily few understood what was happening and stole away in time. The masses were trampled.

Officials issued ominous threats. Our financial institutions were “too big to fail.” For our own good, we had to make a sacrifice, we had to appease them. We did and they weren’t. Our banks turned their backs on us.

For Sale signs are still popping up, in neighborhoods both modest and posh. Formerly desirable developments are now pocked with weeds and stagnant swimming pools. Forced from their homes, crazed citizens are stealing their own countertops, hardware and fixtures before trashing the houses they once loved. Who could have predicted it? Homes selling for a dollar. Cities filing for bankruptcy. Disparate relatives elbowing under one roof. People with six-figure incomes fleeing in the middle of the night.

We are living on precarious turf. There is no telling what stage we are in, how many more surges we can expect. We no longer trust what we are told. We move cautiously, using our own instincts. We give thanks for what we still have.

In Naples, Italy three million people live on the edge of a volcano. They know the danger, they can see it out their windows. How many times a day do they cast their wary eyes on a mountain that might be their undoing?

For the three hundred million people in this country, life is not so different.