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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.
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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