As readers may recall, when offered a weekend father-son bonding trip anywhere within a few hour plane ride my younger son chose Vancouver. My older kid, nearly sixteen, was inclined to pass on the opportunity altogether—no way to Santa Fe, hell no to San Francisco… Portland, Seattle or Phoenix? He sooner have snot in Kleenex.
Finally, given his interest in both gambling (at least in our parentally questionable ventures to the Santa Anita Race Track) and good food, I proposed Las Vegas. He was all in. As for me, Las Vegas ranks somewhere just below dental work and just above exploratory surgery.
The drunken woman on the airport shuttle singing, “You must have been a beautiful baby” set the tone right off the bat.
With no offense meant to those who love Las Vegas, through psychologist eyes it seemed like a vast holding pen built to drain humans of life spirit, or perhaps a collective waiting room for some super-sized Rehab (with gambling, over-eating, smoking, drinking and sex-addiction pervasively, and rather heartbreakingly, gripping wide swaths of the crowds).
The cab driver taking us from the airport asked me when I’d last been there, at which point I remembered that it had been sixteen years—stopping for the night with Andy, five months pregnant and not wanting to fly, on our way to Sundance. Thus this was Nate’s second trip to Sin City. In the first instance I’d played craps and won, now I was older and had no interest whatsoever in gambling, preferring to set a responsible example for my kid. I was also clearer on, and sadder about, the cruel exploitation of unwary humans in these P.T. Barnum-inspired greed cultivating sucker opportunities, particularly the powerful use of intermittent reinforcement to engender addictive behaviors. In many a casino you could hardly make your way out when trying—no windows, no clocks, every corner circling back upon itself back to the blinking lights and sounding bells of pyrrhic victory.
In the lucid dream of life, Las Vegas is, arguably, my nightmare: people everywhere walking along with two foot tall drinks, smoking it up or sitting in sad trances at slot machines. Nate stared out at the vast sea of slot machines, as we passed our eleventh Starbucks and entered our eleventh casino, observing that it was pretty much Castle Arcade for grown-ups. I suggested that a cynical view was of a lot of nicely decorated trash bins into which you could put your money. He felt that this was simply true, and not cynical. We watched people gamble, guessing on if they would crap out or make their number, learning how easy it is to lose without actually losing. We made up stories about strangers, guessing things about their lives.
Neither of us are too keen on lots of crowds, noise and wackiness—and so we would wander around, from pyramid to cheesy Camelot to fake New York and on to fake Paris, Venice and the like… and then need to retreat to our hotel room for quiet time watching basketball or playing text-twist on the laptop. Okay, we’re nerds.
We started to play a game in which we won a pretend million but had to spend it in Vegas—quickly realizing how tacky everything was, we dropped the upgrade to a suite and started to secretly think about who we would give the money to. Our leading contender ended up being the wistful Italian waitress, working on a fake Venetian street when she was actually from Milan. She had followed her mom to this god-forsaken desert who herself had come there because of a man: “Men, always trouble” she said.
We also liked one of our cab drivers, a transplant from Kingston Jamaica, who told Nate that he was too old for Blue Man Group but too young for Love—but appreciated how much taller he was than myself. Nate thought it was cool that I was happy to be short and let him be tall, feeling that some dads would be “pissed about that.”
Another driver told us about “The Mansion,” a secret palazzo behind walls where high rollers committed to gambling a minimum of four hours per day at a minimum bet of $5,000 per hand. He’d only taken one fare past those walls in sixteen years, and also talked about how all the locals denied gambling, but many of his fellow drivers would go straight from getting paid to the casinos. He clearly struggled to make an honest living and felt blessed not to have the gambling bug. We wanted to give him our pretend money too.
Nate liked the fact that several people thought he might be twenty-one, especially when he was dressed nice and we sat eating gourmet food high above the lights of the strip. We watched the full moon rise through the sweeping atelier windows of the restaurant and I suddenly felt sick—sick to be eating rich food and unsure how I would handle my entrée when my neurotic mind reeled with the question of if I might have gotten a bad snail. My mind went to my dad, in his assisted living and I wondered if thirty years from now my son would be eating some nice meal with his son when this very meal would be his own haunting memory. But I told my kid what I was actually thinking and feeling and that was just the ticket—again and again, I find honesty and authenticity, even about our weaknesses, proves a healing and connecting path. I felt better and really enjoyed the rest of the over-the-top meal at a place Nate had scoped out, and which he really loved, joining him in savoring every flavor and texture, this was where he found his bliss in Vegas.
I had paid little attention to the calendar, other than to line things up with spring break, and thus it was a bit ironic to be in the desert, facing the Luxor, as Jews on Passover. Whatever other religious resonance, for both of us it was a good time (like building pyramids must have been), but we were more than ready to make our Exodus.
The last morning I went down to the Starbucks at 8:30. This was the parents with young kids time of day and I met the most grounding and nice parents… folks who used to live in LA, and deal with the movie biz, but who got out of Dodge and went back east for a different life. Chatting and looking at their lovely child, I felt grounded once again, and alive, like after they cut through the upside-down ship at the end of The Poseidon Adventure (not the remake, but the Ernest Borgnine/Shelley Winters classic).
Perhaps we might dedicate today to leaving our comfort zones, be it in Vegas, or in the exploration of our feelings and our insecurities—in the service of closer relationships with each other, with Carlos and with all our collective children.
p.s. As I write this post Nate’s cracking up with a friend watching The Hangover for the third or fourth time—enjoying it all the more for having walked the strip and stood in several of the landmark locations that stood as backdrop for outrageous comedy… and no doubt glad to be back home.