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Sucker punches, epic losses and desperate prayers
by Andrew Kiraly | posted April 30, 2014
Perhaps lazily, perhaps cynically, I tend to imagine the collective Las Vegas tourist experience as some unremarkable tapioca smoothie of midlist peccadilloes involving a little too much to drink, a little too much to eat, and a little too much gambling, topped with a flimsy halo of overstimulation — calibrated, regulated, test-tube misadventure for a bovine mass sensibility. Yeah, like I said, cynical. Maybe it’s from bumper-nosing down the Strip one too many times, despairing upon hearing the warrior-bro warble of “Vegas, baby!,” or maybe it’s the attitudinal residue of living among the gleaming gears and pistons behind the Sin City fantasia, knowing what an admirably efficient machine it is. How can the fun be real when it’s so scripted, calculated, engineered?
 
Well, of course the fun is real. (That's the TL;DR takeaway, tourists: We can manage your experience, but we can never own your fun!) Also real is the pain, the dismay, the fear, the uncertainty — those elements of the Vegas tourist experience that aren’t accounted for in the brochure. That’s why I love me a good Vegas tourist story that breaks the buffet-stuffed trope of merely a little too much. And there are some good ones in the Quora thread, “What are some of your best and worst experiences in Las Vegas?” (Note: These quotes are airlifted raw and real straight from Quora, so mentally insert your own [sics].)
 
There’s the cinematic dance club sucker-punch that comes out of nowhere: 
So I was at the front of the dance floor with my crew, grooving to the music and having fun. Out of nowhere, this big motherf**ker ran up and slugged me in the face. Uppercut straight to the jaw. He hit me so hard I was knocked off my feet. I flew backwards and hit the boards at the bottom of the DJ booth. I imagine that while floating through the air from the punch, for a split second I looked like Brad Pitt in Snatch. 
(Rumble ensues? Not so fast. It has a surprising denouement.) There’s a, well, actually, kinda nerdily cute (!) story about a tourist who methodically loses money at the every hotel-casino on the Strip for Just So I Could Say fodder: 
I entered each casino, walked around and took a few pictures, getting an idea of which casinos would be worth revisiting with my girlfriend.  And then, in each and every casino I put a dollar into a slot machine.  If Iost, I left.  If I won, I put the winnings back into a machine.  In key casinos I played a hand or two of blackjack.
 
I worked my way from the Mandalay Bay to the Stratosphere tower.  It took about seven hours.  The pedometer I borrowed from my girlfriend reported that it required 17.8 miles of walking (28.6 km).
Others have down-and-outer stories that go from dim to dark:
I won't go as far as saying that I ever went to bed hungry, but I didn't always have enough to eat. Many a nights I found myself on my knees or in the prone position asking to be taken away. To have my existence come to an end. I wanted so bad to stop the hurting, the suffering I was going through but more importantly the suffering I was causing. I asked my Heavenly Father to deliver me, and he did.
There are others — about improbable strip-club wineries, $100 cab rides for a mere 20 feet, even suicides. I draw your attention to the thread not as huffy counterprogramming to the slick Vegas of glossy mag ads and LCD monoliths beaming sushi, sex and oblivion through pleasure. Rather, it’s a reminder that Vegas can promise fun, but the ludic principle bears, always, the seeds of entropy: That fun may also contain life

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Bucket city
by Andrew Kiraly | posted March 27, 2014
This sounds like a story premise that might bubble up in a screenwriting class brainstorming session: As one of her final wishes, a dying woman asks her daughter to take her to Las Vegas. Imagining how that might play out, you can envision something like Leaving Las Vegas crossed with Terms of Endearment
 
But it’s not just a screenplay idea; it really happened: Chicago Park District employee Beverly Ballard took time off from her job to travel with her mother, who was dying of congestive heart failure, on a bucket-list trip to Las Vegas. What happened after that, though, is less fitting for the silver screen than perhaps a human-resources manager training DVD — hardly flashy or dramatic, but this micro-saga nonetheless makes for a striking reminder of all the baggage those two words Las Vegas carry in the world. 
 
Ballard had taken the trip with her mother to Vegas under the auspices of the Family Medical Leave Act, which protects employees’ jobs while they take unpaid time off to deal with their medical issues, care for immediate family with medical issues, or care for a newborn. After her trip, the Chicago Park District fired Ballard for too many unauthorized absences; she sued the district and was eventually victorious in appeals court. As told by this human resources policy website — where the case is analyzed as a cautionary tale against knee-jerk firings — the court determined that the destination didn’t matter. What mattered was that Ballard was taking care of her mother during the trip.
The appeals court agreed with the trial court. It looked at the FMLA instructions — i.e., the language of the statute and the regulations implementing it — and noted that they talk in terms of "care" of a family member, not "treatment" of a family member. 
In hard-to-argue-with language, the appeals court cut to the chase:
 
If Beverly had sought leave to care for her mother in Chicago, her request would have fallen within the scope of the FMLA. So too if Sarah had lived in Las Vegas instead of with her daughter, and Beverly had requested leave to care for her mother there. Ultimately, other than a concern that a straightforward reading will "open the door to increased FMLA requests," the park district gives us no reason to treat the current scenario differently. Yet even if we credit the park district's policy concern, "desire for what we may consider a more sensible result cannot justify a judicial rewrite [of the FMLA]" [quoting another case].
It’s interesting to consider that Vegas factor — to consider whether Ballard’s employer would have had the same reaction had she requested leave to take her mother to, say, Santa Fe or San Francisco, Baton Rouge or Austin. Almost surely those two words Las Vegas entered the mind of some park district HR functionary and hatched into a burgeoning, stereotypical tableau of excess and overindulgence and hyperstimulation. (Extra credit: Could the trip itself be considered part of the regimen of care? Could a session at the slots be therapeutically distracting? Could a Cirque fantasia or Celine torcher deliver a dose of the medicinally sublime?) If this is a lesson about the power of brand, it’s about how that power can split and arc into a matchless zigzag of unpredictable effects — in this case, an unfortunate firing and a successful lawsuit. 
 
But it isn’t a lesson about that. It’s really a lesson about the importance of separating the content from the package, about not being blinded by the brand, whether that blinding entails a seduction or a repulsion. Tourists come to Las Vegas to overdo it and then tell exaggerated stories of chuckling regret to friends back home. The Chicago Park District overdid it, too, but it doesn’t even have the consolation of a good Vegas story.

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One gallon forward, two gallons back
by By Heidi Kyser | posted March 19, 2014

The national attention on Las Vegas’ water situation, which I noted in January, continues — now with added polarity.

On March 5, “Here & Now,” the live talk program produced by Boston’s NPR news station, presented a show called From Toilet to Tap: City Officials Say Get Used to Drinking Recycled Water. The discussion featured Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water and apparent fan of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Here’s one excerpt from Fishman’s conversation with program host Robin Young:

Las Vegas is one of the most water-smart cities in the country and even one of the most water smart in the world. … They've put in a whole series of things that has really changed the water culture of the Las Vegas metro area. Let's just put the statistic on the table first. Twenty years ago, Las Vegas used 329 gallons of water a day a person. That's more than the typical household in the U.S. uses a day. They are down 20 years later to 219 gallons a day a person. They've saved 110 gallons per person per day.

Contrast that with Eric Holthaus’s recent article for Slate, “The Thirsty West: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Stay in Vegas.” The deck for that story — “Even Sin City’s attempts to conserve water are wasteful” — pretty much says it all. But, in addition, Holthaus specifically calls out Las Vegans’ per-capita water usage:

The driest city in America still uses more water per capita than just about any other city in the country. … For perspective, that goal of 199 gallons per person per day by 2035 is twice California’s current statewide average water consumption. One of the best in the West, San Francisco, uses less than a quarter of the water per person as Vegas—just 49 gallons per person per day.

He says that all the attention given to efficiency improvements in Las Vegas is like “a one-ton man patting himself on the back for losing 400 pounds. Great news, but there’s still a long way to go.”

It seems impossible that both Fishman and Holthaus could be right, and yet, from my perspective as a resident of one of the oldest neighborhoods in the heart of the nation’s driest city, they are. Look no further than my street for proof.

Although we’re not required to (our house was built long before the early-2000s restrictions on lawns), my significant other and I let our front-yard grass die off when we moved in and replaced it with xeriscaping, which is watered with drip irrigation. Permaculture gardens fill two-thirds of our backyard, and the small patch of grass we keep for our dogs is Bermuda, which requires little water. To help offset the water we use in the garden, we take such measures as “bucket and chuck it” — hand-collecting and -carrying dishwater to irrigate gardens. We are perfect examples of Fishman’s argument.

Next door to us lives evidence of Holthaus’s view. When a moving van pulled up there a few years ago, the foreclosed-upon home had been empty so long that all the landscaping except the trees was dead. The lush green lawn turned to dust and the bank (we assume) sent yard workers in to tear out the shrubs. The day I introduced myself to our new neighbors, a middle-aged couple, I asked the man what he planned to do with the blank slate. “Grass,” he said. “We’re from Oregon. We need to be surrounded by green.” In the intervening time, I’ve seen him pour countless gallons of the Colorado River onto that yard — even hand-watering it with a hose almost every day one summer — in a fruitless attempt to grow a lawn.

Downtown is filled with examples of this juxtaposition: Eco-conscious conservers who embrace desert living; and old-school wasters who don’t want the government telling them they can’t have grass. Former SNWA chief Pat Mulroy acknowledged to me in an interview that her own husband belonged to the latter class of individuals. You can charge them all you want for water, she said, and they don’t care; they’ll pay it. Just don’t tell them what to do.

In this sense, it’s a wonder the Authority has been able to persuade its libertarian-leaning constituency to conserve at all — and admirable it’s accomplished as much as it has. Still, as I walk my dogs each morning and spot a sprinkler spraying the sidewalk on every street (often accumulating in streams running down the gutters), I cringe in frustration. When I hear Fishman say, “It’s illegal to let water hit a paved surface in Las Vegas, whether you’re a business or a homeowner,” I want to invite him to my neighborhood and show him the truth. 


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Oh, so that's how it works
by Andrew Kiraly | posted January 28, 2014

You may read this breezy New York Times story on sports betting as, oh, a decently wrought, workmanlike -- almost perfunctory -- entry in the annual glut of pieces about the wild, zany world of sports betting. But -- and here is a confession of what I sometimes feel is an innate, chromosomal, almost spiritual shortcoming of mine -- for someone (a Las Vegas native, no less! I know! The irony: mordant!) whose understanding of sports, let alone sports betting, is positively paleolithic, for some reason this New York Times article arrived as a bracing revelation of sorts in its very sunny, workmanlike, Wikipedia-ish approach. So thaaaaat's how sports books make their money. I'd been hearing sports bettors toss around terms like "vig" for years, but I never had the nerve to ask:

Avello and his colleagues make the market in a sports betting industry considered to be worth more than $400 billion globally. On paper, it seems straightforward enough: Set a line, or number, that attracts an equal amount of betting money on the favorite and on the underdog and then pocket the “vig” or “juice,” or 10 percent fee for handling the bet. It rarely works out that cleanly, but over the course of a year, the ledger consistently favors the side of the sports books.

And a point spread refers to a range of outcomes on which you could wager. You don't say.

Now, all is quiet on the floor of the Wynn’s sports book. The Broncos just defeated the Patriots, 26-16, easily covering the 5-point spread. The square money had come flowing in on New England and the points.

I guess "point spread" has a more occult ring than "range of outcomes." Oh, and apparently, sometimes complex things can happen to those point spreads as bets come in, almost in some kind of Heisenberg-principle-kind of meta-shift:

Defense decides who wins the money game: the books or the gamblers. When Bogdanovich’s computer beeps on the William Hill trading floor, he knows a big bet has come in that needs to be reviewed and, if necessary, the line moved one way or another.

“There are some professionals that are really good,” he said. “You try to identify them and respect their money and sometimes, you get them working for you. You mentally make notes on who is lining up on which sides.”

Often, the parachute-press treatments of Vegas are either aggressively simplistic or just rife with baldly inaccurate howlers. But in this case, the mainstream media paint-up of a Vegas gambling institution has proved to me to be surprisingly eye-opening. If you're a Las Vegan who has often secretly shrugged amid arcana-laced convos about over/unders, prop bets and point spreads -- and part of me suspects there are quite a few of you (show yourselves, brothers and sisters!) -- this piece might offer a few sturdy guideposts.  


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What Britney means
by Andrew Kiraly | posted January 7, 2014

What?! The manufactured queen of manufactured pop has kicked off a residency in the manufactured fantasia of Las Vegas? Whoa, it's getting all kinds of meta up in here. But before Britney Spears' new gig, "Piece of Me," has even had its proper launch (Jan. 29 at Planet Hollywood), popcult commentators are already huffing brainily about What Britney Means. In one corner, we've got Daniel D'Addario at Salon. He wonders whether the Coming of Britney is less that stereotypical story about Vegas being the go-to site for the slow euthanization of an entertainment career, and more about -- da dum! -- contemporary capitalist child mind-slavery!

One doesn’t want to be a concern-troll when it comes to Spears. But the signals she has consistently sent, from her infamously uncomfortable meet-and-greets on her last tour to her recent interviews, up to and including the wistful “I Am Britney Jean,” indicate a person who’s being kept in the spotlight against her will.

But over at The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky rises to Britney's defense -- as both a woman in possession of her own mind and prospects, and as a committed entertainer, a serious professional dedicated to craft and career, in the storied vein of just-keep-going rockers like ... The Rolling Stones? Okay! Why, to think otherwise implies a sexist double standard!

There's nothing odd, in other words, about what Spears is doing—but there is something odd about the fact that D'Addario thinks it’s odd, or believes she needs help because her show isn't that urgently popular. No one wants to save Keith Richards from making a fool of himself by running through the same hollow motions over and over again four decades on. But folks believe in Richards's authenticity or genius; he's keeping the faith, not just grubbing for money or being somehow forced by his audience and celebrity to keep going.

Whether she's a pop robotrix stuck on perma-play or just a hard-working, unpretentious entertainer grunting in the trenches against the dying of the light, it's making rich fodder for pop commentators. But perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of commentary shows up in the comments section (!) of The Atlantic piece. A commenter identified as "dtechba" writes:

Vegas shows are great for performers who are parents. I am sure there is still a lot of work to putting on a Vegas show but the performer will still get mega more time home with their kids than they would on the road. Last I heard Brittany has young kids so it is great for her and them to try to get some semblence of a normal life. Also, as long as it isn't immoral or illegal what do I care how someone earns their living?

Britney as unwitting champion of Las Vegas as a city where stable and rewarding work contribute to familial harmony? We'll take it!


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