Developing Appreciation for Las Vegas
I’m no fun. I know that.
I’m funny but by my own standards. I’m afraid to actually ask people if I’m funny in case I find out the truth and I’m not. Like the old proverb says, “ignorance is funny bliss.”
But I’m no fun. At least not anymore. I used to be fun. It was a prerequisite for acceptance into San Diego State University — an STD would fulfill the requirement, too. The Office of Registrar figured out that 1-in-4 students graduated with one; they might as well get ahead of the process.
You see? You didn’t need to know that. That paragraph results from thinking myself funny and no fun — because I’m not.
I wake up at five in the morning every day. That means I don’t drink much because it interferes with my sleep, and when my sleep is not good, I don’t wake up to write at five in the morning. And if I don’t wake up at five to write, I don’t write because I’m working or spending time with my family the rest of the day.
I am a homebody that travels. I sometimes think I travel to miss my house and routines, so I never take them for granted.
When I come back home, I’m delighted to be back. I can’t express how excited I am to know where the colander is, use the remote without fearing a deadly disease, and sleep covered in sheets that anyone else has not used.
Las Vegas is not the destination for a confessed no-fun person. It is not the city for someone who is not a girls-gone-wild type of guy.
I went to Las Vegas to attend the biggest in-person convention since the economy reopened with some of my colleagues. At work, I’m surrounded by true-blue road warriors. They love getting on the road every week. They are old-school and believe all meetings need to happen face-to-face, even if the numbers don’t support that.
My trip started with an awkward interaction coming out of SFO.
Do all extroverts do this? We see an opening to start a conversation, and we take it even when the opening is a lie?
A man sat to me with his tray of sushi. I had just eaten lunch from the only sushi bar in the terminal, and I recognized the plate. I immediately shouted to the man, “isn’t that sushi amazing?”
But it wasn’t amazing, and I knew that. It wasn’t terrible. The rice was cold, but at least the fish didn’t seem to be of dubious quality. As the words left me, I felt awful. Why would I even say that?
I tried to recover by telling him about my friend who says that the sushi at the Miami Airport is one of the best he has ever had.
My row companion was not impressed by either of my stories. Instead, he had an annoyed expression letting me know that he was ready for me to shut up and for him to finish his average grade ahi nigiri.
I arrived in Las Vegas, and the temperature was so hot it would make the devil shout, “holy hell!”
I am convinced people in Las Vegas don’t need grills during summer as they can just set ribs in their backyard, and four hours later, they are falling-off-the-bone tender.
I kept my mask on as I walked through the airport and my hotel. As I mentioned, it was the largest convention the city had since the pandemic started.
Vaccine compliance in Vegas was in the high 60s. But those are not typically the people you run into at the hotels. I left my mask on, and as I was walking towards the elevator, people were pulling to the side to look at the freak wearing a gaiter.
Someone shouted, “didn’t you read Fauci’s leaked emails? Masks don’t protect you from Covid.”
And I responded, “it’s not for Covid. I’m afraid of herpes.”
I made it to my room, left my bags, and went for a walk. That’s the beauty of photography as a hobby. It gives you an excuse, almost a mandate, to get out hunt for frames.
I walked back to my hotel to meet with my work friends who I hadn’t seen in a while.
It is an opportunity for me to see the world through the lenses of other States since all my coworkers come from different places like Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Texas.
Like Barack Obama said on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, “Americans live in different universes of information.”
Barack is right. I never hear more about what Gavin Newsom has been up to than when I’m with my friend from Texas. Texans are obsessed with Newsom.
We had a great time talking and laughing over dinner, and as we made our way from the Venetian to Encore for a drink, we had an opportunity to people-watch, or like Mark Normand says, “it’s not people-watching. It’s people-judging.”
After a few drinks, someone decided we should gamble. Most of us didn’t know how to gamble, and the thought of losing $25 a second seemed hard to swallow.
So we decided to go to Old Vegas, where the hands are cheaper.
I had not been to Old Vegas in close to 20 years, and I was surprised to see all their changes. A large digital display was installed over Freemont St. The display is used for advertising and shows. Also, if you are lucky, now and then, you will see a happy tourist’s face whizzed by on a zipline.
Why did someone decide that gambling and ziplining go together will forever escape me? But then again, so most things.
I’m not a big gambler, but I learned a rule of thumb from my mother-in-law. I get myself $100, I have a good time, and when the money runs out, I look for something else to do.
When I pull my money from the ATM, I already know that the money is lost. It is not meant to be doubled; it is intended to buy an experience. Usually, we don’t obsess with getting our money back after an experience or imagine demanding your cash from your barista after you finish your coffee.
So we sat down at a blackjack table, and we played for a while. We talked and drank.
People say the only way to beat the house is by drinking more value in comped drinks than the money you lose. I didn’t attempt to beat the house, but I had a few beers.
After an hour, I was happy to know my colleagues were ready to leave because I was bored. So as we were discussing our plans to go, the dealer was reshuffling the deck.
To move things along, I decided to go all-in. All-in is a term from poker, but it seemed appropriate for blackjack as I put all the money I had left, and then I went to work convincing everyone else to do the same.
I told everybody to live a little, take a risk, throw caution to the wind. I convinced three out of four of my friends. The only person I couldn’t convince got a blackjack off the gate — a clean queen and ace.
The rest of us weren’t so lucky. I started my hand with a two, which is the worst card you can get. I held at a 16. Most of my colleagues had something in the mid-teens.
The dealer had a 13 and had to hit again, and as she did, she busted. Everybody on the table was a winner, which rarely happens in Las Vegas.
As I collected my winnings, I remembered how much fun I had throughout the day walking, taking pictures, hanging out with my work friends, and having a catered experience.
I remembered an important lesson of traveling and life. Places are fun if we bring our fun with us. Like Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “wherever you go, there you are.”
Ultimately, it is up to us to make the best of all situations and locales.
But I don’t like Vegas.
There! I said it!!
I don’t like Vegas!!!
I don’t know why. Walking through the strip feels like walking through a frat boy’s dark and wet dreams. It feels just as moist. I hate the pit in my stomach when I see people drunkenly stumbling over themselves in lobbies before the all-you-can-eat buffets.
Somehow I end up in Vegas a lot for work. The city organizations and convention committees unanimously decide to choose to encourage event attendance. “Come to our convention, learn about the cutting edge technology in our field and then go bananas in the city of excess because what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Except for herpes, that shit stays with you forever… oh, and divorce.”
But Vegas was there to teach me a lesson: that I can enjoy any experience, any city with a tweak to my thinking. The decision was up to me.
Is Vegas a larger metaphorical simile for life and our attitude towards it?
When I stepped out of my head, I realized one thing: the tastemakers in sin city have spent exorbitant amounts of money and time curating some of the best experiences in the world, and they are all in one strip or not too far from it.
So what if I have to stand behind a Spiderman knock-off on my walk to watch The Beatles Love at The Mirage — who is so busy fighting crime that he doesn’t have time to exercise or sow the hole near his butt.
That’s life! You choose the hues of your experience by actively including the tastes you want in your sampling menu while moving your attention away from the things you don’t want to see, like the flyers of suspicious strip clubs that serve breakfast all day.
One of such experiences was simply walking through the Cosmopolitan and choosing to spend my time in front of their art instead of their blackjack tables.
Then going to Zuma and eating Omakase style. Probably the best meal I have ever had; bites of gastronomical sensuality exploding in bursts and squirts inside my mouth. Isn’t that art? The artifact that hijacks our attention and anchors us to the present moment, whether it comes from a painting or a meal.
Maybe you are like me. You are running a typewriter in the background, and you are jotting down all the material you will bring back to your desk — to that dark corner in your house when you explain the world away with your keystrokes.
Then you are out in the world, and there is an experience so sublime that you can’t help but turn off the recorder and say, “I’m going to hate not being able to talk about this, but the transcription of this moment is now less important than this moment itself. “
That is what art is for me.
The escape I experience through that which is beautiful, or thought-provoking, or transcendental like slurping Ramen at David Chang’s Momofuku under the watchful eyes of David Choe’s mural.
My childhood best friend visited Las Vegas from Colombia a week after I was there. We texted back and forth, talking about our time there. I sent him a picture I took from the bottom of a long set of stairs at Fashion Show Mall, and without me knowing or prompting him, he sent me a picture of the same stairs but from the top.
There was a hashtag at the top of the stairs that I didn’t see, “#thefutureiscolorful.” And in that exchange, I learned that our communities, our art, and our recording and telling of it are a gateway of connection to those around us, even if they are thousands of miles away.
It also taught me that the future and life are also colorful — only if I choose it to be so.
Speaking up or speaking my mind is part of that colorful experience.
A right that I cherish and almost venerate.
People my age and younger born in this country might disagree with me. They didn’t see the things I saw back in Colombia. Maybe that’s what is different. Perhaps that’s why you can be derisively mocked if you say freedom of speech must be vigilantly protected, even if that means that the crazy people get to express all their unadulterated thoughts.
Even a small swing in the opposite direction is a loss to our society. But freedom of speech to my generation is not enough. It is insufficient. It is inadequate. It needs to come with riches, too, or forget about it. We need to subdue those that don’t think like us because clearly if they don’t think like us, they are dumb as nails.
But here I am, saying it, speaking up. Even though at times it makes me nervous. Because I still remember those things I saw back in Colombia, like the charismatic political satirist gunned down in Bogotá. He was 38 years old when he was killed — just one year older than I am now.
I remember when my neighbor and his son were kidnapped and held in captivity for four years because he was a local politician. I heard the news of my confirmation godfather waiting at a carwash when he was confused for a cartel leader and massacred accordingly. He was just a husband in his mid-forties who left a four-year-old daughter behind.
Or when I heard of my cousin who devoted his life to being a Christian missionary in a remote part of the country where I never went to and getting shot because religion was seen as trespass by the godless guerrillas.
Or the fate my favorite professor: Alfredo Correa de Andreis. I was planning to take his class before he was killed. After hearing him speak the first time, I went to every public lecture he gave. He wasn’t afraid of speaking up. He spoke against the injustice of our government. He spoke up and defended those displaced by the country’s violence, and he was the victim of imprisonment under false evidence — under a bastardized Colombian version of the Patriot Act.
Shortly after his release, he was killed on an afternoon walking home by two shots from a sicario who probably got paid very little to commit such a crime.
The first shot, which came before the one that silenced him forever, severed his finger. The finger with which he defended people and accused their oppressors. I have come to see it as a symbol, like a giant fuck-you from the universe, a karmic middle finger, and eternal mockery to an intelligent man who made it his life mission to advocate for those in need.
Maybe speaking up will get me canceled.
But that doesn’t matter.
What matters is art. It always has. It always will, even if it is not seen. Even if it is canceled. Even if we attempt to silence it.
You would think the art pertains to Las Vegas, or murals, or food, or photography, or gambling. But it does not. It is about the only art that matters: living.
Because living is a fucking art, and our lives are our only goddamn masterpiece. But we are only living if we are speaking our minds.