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Some thoughts on Las Vegas

On my drive home from the airport yesterday, and in between naps today, I’ve been thinking about Las Vegas. This was my first visit, and while I couldn’t have enjoyed myself much more, I found the city itself to be profoundly disturbing. This may take a bit of a meander, but bear with me.

America sells itself as a place for dreamers, where anyone, regardless of the factors of their birth, can be anything. I think in reality, it is a land of disillusioned dreamers. The vast majority of people in the middle class have given up their dreams for the stability of a 9 to 5 job. They work away the prime years of their youth, always looking forward to retirement, a magical time when they’ll be able to do whatever it is they’ve always wanted to do.

I’ve often thought that this represents a sort of a little brother phenomenon to the attitude many Christians hold toward life in general. I’m not sure they’re related, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The worker endures working life because he knows he will eventually be able to retire (unless he is unlucky and dies first). The Christian (not all, but many) endures this life in anticipation of the eternal reward of heaven.

Even when I was a Christian, I don’t think I ever looked at life that way. I always had the sense that life was temporary, and precious, and that I should try and make the most of it. I haven’t given up on my dreams. In second grade, I showed up for career day wearing one of my dad’s white dress shirts as a lab coat. I (maybe foolishly) still believe that I can do anything I want to. I think this makes the people who have given up their childhood aspirations feel very uncomfortable.

In my everyday interactions, I have often found myself disappointed that the first thing almost everyone asks is “what do you do for a living?”, followed immediately with “do you have any kids?” as if those two pieces of information are the defining factors of a person’s life. They get suspicious when you say that no, you don’t have any kids, and that you’re still working toward achieving your dreams.

So what does any of this have to do with Las Vegas? Well, it strikes me that, in an America full of disillusioned dreamers enduring their lives rather than living them, escapism is king. There are bars on corners in every town in this country whose very existence depends on this fact. Take every bar, and party, and beer ad, and shopping mall, and tourist trap, and golf course that serve this purpose, put them in a pot and boil them down to their concentrated essence, and there you have Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is a shrine to the temporary; an artifice of opulence built and torn down and rebuilt, over and over again to satisfy the whims of the escapist market. It is not a place where those drawn to history and permanence can feel at ease. As a person who has spent my life seeking connection to the past, tattooing ancient art on my body, relishing the feeling of touching thousand year old artifacts, delving into genealogy, I felt completely disconnected from reality. It was almost like existing outside of time, and not in a good way.

All of this was set off even more in contrast to TAM 6. I think it’s safe to say that the crowd in attendance were all in some way still holding onto their dreams, if not directly living them. I don’t think anyone asked me all weekend what I do for a living, or if I have any kids. I can’t tell you how very refreshing I found that.

I had a wonderful time and met a lot of great people. Thanks for the memories. Hopefully we can make some more next year.

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40 Comments

  1. I’ve noticed the same thing… Maybe that’s why I don’t fit into regular society so well. I had one of those regular 9-5 office jobs once, and it lasted only a couple of months. People need dreams, and they need to chase those dreams. I recently went to a high school reunion, and while the most common questions by far were “What do you do for a living?” and “do you have any kids?” I was the one who had everyone buying me drinks and prying me for one more story.

    No one really cares about your kids or your latest raise. Now, if you have a story that starts with “so there I was, in Greece, on the island of Lesbos, having sex in a Greek Orthodox church, when the priest walks in…” people care about that. Also, you’ve got free drinks all weekend, no matter how it ends.

    Live every day like it’s your last, people. One day, it will be.

  2. Well said. It’s a marriage of convienience that the protestant work ethic serves capitalism so intrinsically.

    However, as you alluded to, having a generation of wage-slaves does not reflect a system capable of sustaining itself, as we have adapted our capitalism to reward not work, but investment.

    Of course, you have to have the money to invest. If not, then you’re sold the bill of goods about how hard work can be another ticket out of wage-slavery. It’s not.

    As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Only in America can you see a sign that says ‘If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?’ “.

    Sorry for letting my latent Marxist tendancies, I know how risky it can be to reveal an ideologically-charged political stance on a skeptic blog (I think we’ve all seen the flame-wars on Bad Astronomy attacking Phil for being some devilish mis-construction of a ‘liberal’). But I just met with one of my old professors. I’m a little charged up right now (and still miffed that I couldn’t afford to go to TAM).

  3. Live every day like it’s your last, people. One day, it will be.

    Well said Rystefn. That is the sort of thing I need to have tattooed on my hand so I would be forced to remember it.

  4. Sometimes I feel like responding to “What do you do?” with a line paraphrased from Clerks: I think it’s important to have a job that means something. That’s why I manually masturbate caged animals for artificial insemination.”

    But in all seriousness, I am still caught in the same bind that carr2d2 describes. I know that what I am currently doing is NOT what I want to do. I know that I cannot imagine doing this or anything like it for another 40+ years. I guess when I imagine a more nearly ideal situation I see myself writing or doing something that I can do on my own time…but I also don’t think I can pay the bills with it, and I certainly can’t imagine being competitive enough to fight for the limited number of dollars out there in that field.

    Really, it isn’t always a matter of giving up on dreams or giving in entirely. And I don’t envision it as Some Canadian Skeptic puts it, as some form of Capitalism crushing individuals in pursuit of whatever it is big-C Capitalism pursues. I think that, plain and simple, whether you’re in an agrarian Communist co-op or a capitalist technocracy, there are things that will get in the way of your dreams that you don’t want to deal with, and either you work through them, get stuck working in them, or give it up.

    Maybe you’ll spend your day subsistence farming because you need something to eat. Or maybe you’ll spend it doing some IT stuff on a computer…because you need something to eat. Maybe you’ll be one of the few who has the right mix of perseverance, foresight, and timing to know just which obstacles need crossing to find that dream. But the odds ain’t great wherever you live.

    So I can understand why some people essentially slave themselves out for slightly increased comfort in lieu of chasing improbability…I’m still not sure which side of that fence I’ll end up on. Frankly, I, like most people, never know what’s best for me until it’s not best for me anymore.

  5. I loathed everything about Vegas except for TAM and the sandwich I had at the Peppermill last night. It was an exorbitantly large sandwich, but I had missed lunch and was able to do it justice.

    Next time, I’m going to have to bring hallucinogens and do TAM the gonzo way. We were watching Michael Shermer’s PowerPoint presentation when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying, “Holy Jesus, what are these goddamn text dumps,” and then the lecture hall was full of flying Pigasi, swooping and diving around the audience, and a voice was screaming, “We can’t stop here, this is Rand country!”

    Etc.

  6. MarlowePI – That answer will cost you at least one drink. LoL

    Imrryr – That’s why it’s the tagline to my blog. It’s been something of a catchphrase for me for a solid decade and change.

  7. expatria – i couldn’t agree more. although i do know which side of that fence i’ll end up on. i’ve had enough nervous breakdowns in the course of my working life that i know my sanity is not sustainable in any long term way doing construction work. i’d rather make half the money doing something important.
    i’m on the verge of a pretty amazing compromise: sometime this year, when somebody retires, i’ll be getting a job in my trade at my university. they’ve told me that i’ll be able to take time out for day classes, and after 12 months i get free tuition. if it wasn’t for this opportunity, i would have been looking at quitting altogether in the next year. hopefully it works out the way it seems it’s going to.

  8. My questions to the Two Dreaded Questions, in reverse order: “Two, and I wipe butts.”

    How’s THAT for a conversation stopper?

    (Actually I only wipe one butt now, so it’s not entirely accurate.)

    ANYWAY. I hear you on this frustration, carr2d2. Even having the requisite two children (since 1.4 is a little unwieldy), and even having chosen to be home with them at this point in their lives, those two questions exasperate me no end. Once I’ve answered the first with “I’m a stay at home mom,” the kid question is already answered and it’s just assumed by all too many people that my brain has turned to mush and there’s no point in asking me anything else that’s not related to coupons, minivans, or my favorite brand of peanut butter. (Skippy Creamy.)

    I find myself answering somewhat defensively, “I’m mostly a stay at home mom, but …” and then I finish up with something that feels more real. And face it, as much as I love being home with my kids, I would never be one of those women with six or eight or ten kids because I would have killed myself dead before I got pregnant that many times. I love them, but they are not all that I am. I write, I think, and I’m a damn good piano player if you like that kind of thing. But I feel like once the kid card has been played, I’m playing catch-up the rest of the time to prove that I have a brain at all, much less one that’s good for anything.

    Sigh. I would freakin’ LOVE it if somebody asked me “What do you enjoy doing?”

  9. I’d rather people ask me what I do for a living than “Who’s your father?”

    re work. Not everyone gets to be Einstein. The vast majority of people are working jobs which if they don’t outright hate, certainly wouldn’t turn up if they didn’t get paid. And if you take the whole of humanity alive today into account, they’re the lucky ones.

    If you’re able to comment on a blog, you’re not really entitled to complain about anything. If you were a 9 year old living in a slum in Bangalore working 12 hour days, six days a week for $1 a day, you’d have a point.

    Who ever said life was going to be an easy ride were everyone gets to do meaningful and profound stuff everyday? If that were the case who’d wash the dishes and pick up the rubbish?

    We can’t all be special. The point is to sqeeze the most enjoyment out of the life you have. All this “I’m an actor but I wait tables while I’m waiting for my real life to begin” BS makes me want to puke. Starting living now.

    According to Epicurus all you need to be happy, once you’re fed, clothed and have a place to sleep, is friends and thought. The rest is just gravy

  10. Las Vegas is like a diamond thong on a transsexual stripper. It’s sparkly and pretty, it distracts your eye from how unusual the surroundings are, and it’s just shiny enough to distract from the fact that you’re about to be fucked.

  11. A continuation of Rystefn’s story:
    Priest: What in gods name are you doing?
    Rystefn: Performing a holy bumptism.
    Priest: Thats not an aspergillum you’re using.
    Rystefn: It aint filled with holy water neither.

  12. LoL… Nice, Johnea13. Inaccurate, of course, but hilarious. Sadly, holy bumptism just doesn’t work in Greek. Not that my Greek is good enough to get me anything but arrested anyway, but that’s neither here nor there, regardless of how relevant it is to the story at hand.

  13. All further TAM’s could be elsewhere as far as I’m concerned. My sister and brother in-law live in Vegas and their company and relaxing nice big house and pool make the trip worth while. My wife made her first Vegas trip the weekend before TAM and decided that it was the hottest and ugliest gravel pit she’d ever seen. We did enjoy dining put and Spamalot however and for me the people and speakers made TAM defiantly not the city.

  14. “Well, it strikes me that, in an America full of disillusioned dreamers enduring their lives rather than living them, escapism is king.”

    Well.

    In the US, we can be anything we want. And yes, it can take a lot of hard work and some 20-year overnight successes to get there.

    We just can’t be everything we want.

  15. I live here. The people seeing Las Vegas as an escape see it completely backwards to how I see things. I saw TAM as an escape from my Las Vegas / college student life. Reading books and talking to people SO MUCH smarter and cooler and funnier than the cocktail waitresses, dealers, strippers, and college students here was my escape. To me the entire world is filled with nightclubs and strip bars and drunk or depressed people, except there may not be as many beautiful, nearly-naked people everywhere (What’s fabulous about Las Vegas is that not only do we make beautiful women, we also import them. Like shrimp.) My escape is to anything like TAM and anything away from drunk people.

    However, I think it’s a great thing Las Vegas exists. If anything, it shoves in my face how much I could dislike those kinds of lifestyles, but that’s just me I don’t see Las Vegas as any kind of bigger escape than I would imagine New York City or Los Angeles or any other big touristy thing in the country being an escape. I think we all have temporary indulgences and that’s all I imagine what Las Vegas is to the majority of people. I don’t think Las Vegas as a whole is an escape for people as much as it a place to indulge themselves in things they don’t get to do in a lot of other places, but I live here and all I see are people living their escapes from real life, so as far as I know their escape IS their life.

    If Las Vegas really is the concentrated essences of escapism then that’s great, if only to give you the idea of an entire city to be profoundly disturbed by. I promise that there are other really cool things here though.

    Maybe I don’t understand what’s so bad about having a dream or something to indulge in if I’m already enjoying life as it is. Or maybe I don’t know how to read that’s not what anyone is talking about.

    Great meeting you guys at TAM!

    Loyal Skepchick minion CJ

  16. interesting thoughts, cj. it’s good to hear the perspective of someone who lives there.

    i am fully aware that my reaction is based on a very limited experience (namely the strip), and i’ll admit to hyperbolizing a bit to tie all the threads together.

    my point is, if more people held onto their dreams, maybe they could attain them, and they wouldn’t need to escape from their lives.

    i see a big difference between seeking out new and different experiences to enrich your life and seeking out those experiences to make your life tolerable. maybe to some that’s just two sides to the same coin, i don’t know.

    i can see where russell sugden is coming from, but i guess i’m not willing to settle for not starving. maybe not everyone can be einstein, but how many people who could have been as good or better than einstein have never had the chance? to me, russell’s argument boils down to the idea that we should be happy with what we have and not strive for anything better.

    i realize that life isn’t fair, and there’s pretty much no good solution to that, but am i the only one who wishes we lived in a world where we could all meet our potential?

    someone needs to beam me into the star trek universe or something :)

  17. I’m right there with you. There’s always someone or something worse off than you, so really, no one in the history of ever has a right to complain about anything, right? Sorry, but we all have a responsibility to strive for the better, whatever that might be to us. No matter how good we might have it compared to someone else, we shouldn’t settle for it. I mean, hat hardworking kid can look around and say “Well, I’m not starving, so why should I try for something better?” Then the starving person says “Well, at least I’m not being tortured, so why should I strive for something better?” When to we end that chain? That’s nihilist talk, and I’ll have none of it, thank you.

  18. “i realize that life isn’t fair, and there’s pretty much no good solution to that, but am i the only one who wishes we lived in a world where we could all meet our potential?”

    No. But nothing of value comes without effort. (Otherwise, I’d be a way famous animator right now.)

  19. “According to Epicurus all you need to be happy, once you’re fed, clothed and have a place to sleep, is friends and thought. The rest is just gravy”

    Gravy makes me happy.

  20. When people ask me what I do, I usually answer “I play a lot of D&D and general artsy, geeky stuff”. If they ask what I do for a living, I answer honestly. My job has never defined me.

    I think it’s also important not to go the other way and think you need to ride freight trains and hitchhike across the world instead of working a 9 to 5. As an atheist and skeptic, I don’t feel like life needs to have a specific purpose, and as long as you’re happy, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. More importantly still, your life doesn’t need to impress other people in order to be worthwhile.

  21. i completely agree, dread polack. not everyone needs to do something groundbreaking.

    but that is important to some of us. personally, i feel compelled to “make a difference”, whatever that means, not out of a need to impress others but out of a genuine desire to make the world better.

    and maybe a little bit of immortality…i don’t know.

    it’s always been important to me to be seen for who i feel i am. the worst thing for me is being misunderstood.

  22. I am not making this up. That was my first job after college:

    That’s why I manually masturbate caged animals for artificial insemination.”

    It was not fulfilling for anyone involved, believe me.

  23. I think it’s also important not to go the other way and think you need to ride freight trains and hitchhike across the world instead of working a 9 to 5.

    I would add the caveat that it’s important not to let other people make you think you need to. If you honestly feel that’s what you need to do with your life, go for it. There are worse occupations a person could fill their life with.

  24. Indeed. That’s what I meant. :) I think you should always do what you WANT to do, whatever that might be. Sometimes it’s hard to keep that in mind.

    I also have to agree with Carrie about being “seen for who i feel i am.” I consider it pretty minor, but it bugs me more than it probably should even when people assume I take drugs because I have dreadlocks, or I’m gay because I’m single. Luckily, I get over it pretty quickly :)

  25. Bug_Girl,

    I am not making this up. That was my first job after college:

    That’s why I manually masturbate caged animals for artificial insemination.”

    It was not fulfilling for anyone involved, believe me.

    Well, surely something was being filled.

  26. I don’t comment here often because I’m intimidated by how smart you people are, but this post inspired me. I work as a graphic artist and web designer for an aerospace co here in Denver. I only work 28 hrs. a week. When I tell people that, I get a surprizing reaction most of the time. People react like they were gut-shot. I suppose it is mostly envy. I have been asked how I scored a killer job like this and I reply that I have been with the same company for over 25 years and have paid my dues. I earned it, by g*d! That response doesn’t seem to help much. Because of all this, I really don’t talk about it much anymore and just live for my own happiness and comfort. If I can afford to work part-time, why not? My boss loves it because I am less a burden on her budget and as long as I get the job done and keep my customers happy, life is good. I would appreciate you guys opinion on this; should I just keep my mouth shut or is it cool for me to tell it straight in social situations?

  27. good for you, denver7m. and you shouldn’t be intimidated…we don’t bite (unless you enjoy that sort of thing ;))
    while you might get tired of people reacting negatively to your success, i’d say the more people hear that you were able to attain something like that, the better.
    i think we (at least the working class people i am often surrounded by) get used to a certain status quo…almost an expectation of disillusionment that becomes part of the social environment, and yes, people entrenched in this sort of culture are initially going to come off as resentful of somebody like you who is living the dream, but i think just knowing that it’s possible to do more with their lives might make a few of them think twice about where they’re at.

  28. denver7m, I think (like with any potentially provocative piece of information) it just depends on your audience. It depends on who I’m talking to, how I explain what I do. Along with being a mostly at-home mom to two kids, I do professional piano work. I am happy to tell people that I love my job and it is very fulfilling, but I don’t generally tell them that I make $25-40 an hour, since that irritates a lot of people. I know that my rates reflect hours upon hours of unpaid practice, travel time, gas and mileage on my car, paying babysitters, and of course the college degree and thousands of hours logged in isolation in front of a keyboard. But everybody else just hears “FORTY DOLLARS AN HOUR?”

    So if you think they can handle hearing that you’ve got your dream job and actually be happy for you, go for it! Otherwise, “I love my job” might be sufficient. ;)

  29. I don’t see how you could keep your mouth shut if people ask you what you do. Honesty seems to be your only real choice. If they look gut-shot with envy, great! I don’t think anyone really resents anyone else for doing what they want, but I’ve always had jobs and hobbies that a lot of people don’t really want to do, so I’ve never had people react negatively to things that I do.

    I once saw Ron Jeremy with Penn Jillette at the Rio here and man, those are two people living the American dream. For those two it’s also probably pretty hard to hide how famous, successful, and joyous they are doing what they do. I don’t think anyone resents them, but what do I know.

    I’m all for bragging about your awesome jobs and hobbies when people ask. It’s the truth!

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