Monday, February 1, 2010

Leaving Las Vegas

Q. How are the movie Avatar and the city of Las Vegas the same?

A. Both make me feel like crap.

Don’t get me wrong—as a movie, I thought Avatar was excellent. The underlying story is an old one about an underequipped, overpowered people taking on and defeating a much larger, much stronger enemy. It was Rocky and the Maccabees and the USA Olympic hockey team from 1980 all rolled into one. James Cameron took a tried-and-true winner of a story line and spent $500 million to make it visually stunning as well. The film worked for me on every level. It was gripping—as I watched it the world went away, replaced by a distant moon of a distant planet and a struggle for the very soul of the world. It chewed me up and spit me out a few hours later with tears in my eyes…

…And an unsettled feeling I couldn’t quite make sense of.

And now, two weeks later, here is that feeling again. It hit me in the first few hours in Vegas. We landed at midnight and took a taxi to the hotel, driving down the Strip that was lit up like daylight and crawling with thousands of people on a Thursday night.

The next morning I took my daughter, Isabel, out into the town. We were at the Riviera, on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, and we got on the bus and went to Mandalay Bay, a few miles to the south. We then went to the aquarium and walked through several of the newer and larger casino complexes. The scope of the places was amazing. Many of the newest casino resorts in Las Vegas cost over $1 billion to create. Many of the buildings are spectacular—or at least aspire to spectacular-ness. The scale of things is just enormous. The buildings are huge, the appointments are luxurious, the shows are awesome. It is a city of superlatives.

And yet, as I left on an early morning flight yesterday, I had the same empty, guilty feeling I had after watching Avatar. I think I know what is at the root of this reaction. Both the city of Las Vegas and the movie Avatar have been “built” using vast amounts of resources. And the money laid out for them was spent, in the end, for one purpose: to make money by entertaining me. These edifices were constructed to give me a few hours or a few days of entertainment. And that knowledge makes me feel like crap. Ten percent of adult Americans who want work can’t find it. A hundred and fifty thousand Haitians died in the earthquake and now more are dying due to lack of medical care. Millions die every year because they can’t get clean water to drink.

I am not so naïve to think that life and the world are a zero-sum game, with every dollar spent making (or watching) a movie or building (or gambling in) a casino translating into a dollar taken away from the needy of the world. I know it is far more complex than that. But it is my brain that knows this fact.

My heart, on the other hand, is simple and my heart is dumb and it feels sad and guilty and dirty and wrong for enjoying things like Avatar and Las Vegas.


  1. Play hard, work hard, be fair, treat people right, and be mindful of all the people who are less fortunate than you, and do your part to help when ever you can.

    From wikipedia:

    "In the 1990s Tom Cochrane took his family to West Africa where he helped to raise awareness and money for the World Vision famine relief organization. That experience shaped his next album Mad Mad World which contained "Life Is a Highway".

    The song was Cochrane's only Top 40 hit in the United States.

  2. The nicest stranger I met in my four days in Vegas was the taxi driver who took me from the airport to the hotel. He was friendly and kind to me and my daughter. I didn't get his name, but he was a jazz bassist with a couple of regular gigs and he was from Buffalo originally.

  3. Ditto same feelings in same scenarios. I called it "sin", because it felt dark and empty, or the people's eyes were dark and empty? Dunno. Certainly not making a mass judgment here, just tryin to discern a general feeling.