Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Broken Hearts

I find I am still drawn to the photos of grieving people in Newtown.  I tell myself to stop. It feels voyeuristic and masochistic and additionally twisted in a way I can't quite name.  Still... I want to see their faces.

This is not a tragedy we will ever understand...20 children, 6 school personnel, and 1 mother gunned down by a young man who seemed fully ready and armed to do 100 times the damage he did last Friday morning in Connecticut.  But for upper middle class Americans like me, this might be the closest we ever come to "feeling the pain" of completely tragic and utterly senseless death. 

A mother dressed in a burqa in the middle of a cluster of dessert huts in Afghanistan holding the dead body of her child or husband or brother...?  I'm not sure I really get that.

A mother in line at a Kenyan UN food distribution center with three starving children by her side.  I see it.  I know it's real. But it is so far from my reality that...well, my heart forgets to break sometimes. 

My heart forgets to break over the 9+ civilians killed every single day in Afghanistan since the United States and the Taliban pitched that country into violent chaos over ten years ago. 

My heart forgets to break over the 15 people per minute who die in this world of starvation.  Not an unpredictable, uncontrollable act of personal or institutional violence, but an unfair distribution of food resources in the world.

I see it.  I hear it.  I forget to grieve. 

But these people in Newtown...they are suburbanites like I am.  They work, they play, they teach their children, they dream about the future...just like I do. 

And just like they do...

And just like they do...

May our broken hearts bleed compassionately and fiercely toward a real commitment to making all the world a safer and saner and better place for humans to live and love and laugh and dream. 


Friday, December 14, 2012

Crying and Praying

My plan for writing today was to mock the all-consuming consumer frenzy and the accompanying email marketing hilarity we enjoy compliments Christmas. 

Nothing changes a plan for light-hearted self-mockery like a tragedy. So I come to you with one of many, I'm sure, sad reflections on this day at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. 

I thought I might tell you a little bit about Sandy Hook by doing what every good reporter in the country has been doing since about 10 AM this morning - googling the school's webpage.  Here's what I got:

 Newton Public Schools
Due to an extremely high service demand as a result of the events that have occured today, this website is temporarily being redirected to this page rather than the school system's usual home page.
To help deal with the events of today, there will be a memorial mass this evening at 7:00pm at St. Rose Church.
More information will be provided as it becomes available.
So I took a break to pace and cry and pound my fists heavenward with the prayer I sometimes say:  "WTF God?!!"  
I have children.  They attended an elementary school three-quarters of a mile from our front door.  It never occurred to me to imagine they might be victims of a mass murder while they were there.  My sister is an elementary school teacher.  I did not pray for her safety today.  I never do.  My daughter-in-law currently substitutes in elementary school.  She was in a kindergarten class today. I did not petition the Almighty to send angels to surround her and keep her from harm in my quiet moments of conversation with God this morning. 
Twenty children are not supposed to die at school.  Six adults who spend their days sitting on floors reading books aloud and opening milk cartons that confound small fingers and nurturing the wide open minds of little people who adore them should not be killed on the job. 
I was shopping when the news broke this morning.  The NPR reporters who arrived early on the story could not suppress their emotions.  When one of those reporters re-told his conversation with a parent from the school, he started crying as he said, "The father told me the children were lead out of the school one class at a time by police officers.  They were told to hold hands and close their eyes until they got out of the building." 
It was then that I pulled into a parking lot, turned off the radio, and sobbed. Nothing on my list seemed at all worth doing.  I drove directly home.  I parked the car and walked to my children's old elementary school...just to remind myself how completely innocent children and teachers are.
See it? 
The kids who died in Newtown today, we will know by name soon.  Their pictures and their stories and their grieving families will surely be front page news for days and days. I am already starting to imagine's not hard.
There are, quite likely, pictures of them sitting on Santa's knee on the refrigerators in their houses. Wrapped gifts for them are probably already under Christmas trees.  Holiday cards with their smiling faces are being delivered this very day to friends and family far and wide...
All I can do is cry and pray my befuddled prayer. 
Could we all agree on one thing, dang it? 
Our children and our teachers should be safe at school...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Leaving Las Vegas

I could write a book about six days worth of people-watching in Las Vegas.

The place is a literal jackpot of stories being carried around on the weary and wide-eyed faces of travelers, transients, and old-timers.  The tales are told in their strides and their stumbles, in the way they dress and drink and gamble and grouse.  For a person who spends her days creating characters and scenes and motives, it has been stimulating to say the least.

But I have to confess, one of the most interesting characters I found myself watching this week was me.

I have always maintained travel brings out the purest of our natures:  Are you flexible, patient, organized, open to new things?  Easily intimidated, uncomfortable out of a routine, impossibly befuddled with the kind of plan-ahead task that adequately covers packing a bag?  A trip - any trip - will magnify these qualities.

There was nothing new for me on that front this week.  I am still hopelessly lost in front of an open suitcase, barely able to discern up from down in unfamiliar physical surroundings, and fearlessly committed to embracing my own brand of adventure on the road...which never involves daring or danger, but often involves ice cream.

This week, I was taken aback by the evidence that alcohol was top on my tourist's culinary exploration itinerary - not ice cream.  I have had drinks over the last six days made with everything from pear puree to rose water - applejack brandy to red bell pepper.  The beverages have been presented steaming hot, over ice, up, and frozen.  Garnished with a plastic lid, a 1/2 inch diameter straw, a lime, Thai basil, a pepper slice. Some have cost $20...and one was free (yay us for staying at a roulette table long enough to get a drink!).

Observation: Alcohol is like ice cream to me when it's presented in venues that are bright, glittery, colorful, intriguingly themed, and open 'round the clock. Which is to say, if it's shiny - I'm in. You can count on me to wander into any place and try almost anything if it's sparkly.  And, oh my...the bars are sparkly here.

The most telling adventure of the week, though, has been the gambling. It is not presented in a sparkly way.  In fact, every casino looks like a health class poster on depravity. They are dingy and filled with cigarette smoke and often dotted with barely dressed young girls dancing on tables...although very few patrons bother to notice any of that.

People in these places are all hovering over stacks of chips that are moved to and fro across felted greenscapes.  They are sweating over cards, blowing on dice, or holding their breaths while a little white ball spins around the outer edge of what becomes an actual wheel of fortune - or misfortune.  I made myself stop to observe and play - all in the name of research. Here's what I learned...

I am not a card counter or an odds analyzer.  I'm more of a lucky number, bet large/win large kind of gambler. It's embarrassing when $50 is gone in 5 minutes, but not at all surprising when I think about who I am outside of a casino. 

I live life a little on the woo woo edge.  I embrace the mystery of the universe, the presence of God, the ultimate goodness of people.  Almost every day, for me, is a lucky number.  I am moody and unpredictable and perhaps a bit fickle.  No surprise that I am a person who bets on lucky numbers rather than proven odds.  The outcome is less calculable, but the excitement is more real. 

I am also easily bored.  Small bets and small wins are just not the way I walk through my days.  I support the underdog, almost always. I wait until near calamity is on the line before I look up at a deadline. I try new recipes when company is coming. I buy shoes online without knowing if they are comfortable (c'mon, admit it, shoe shopping is SO boring). 

Observation: I am turning this button from a slot machine into my life's motto.

If you know me, you are nodding your head right now.  Spin/ReBet: The Story of Jan.

Does this make me the most coveted/dangerous/likely addicted gambler in LasVegas? Probably.

Thank God I married the "I'm making a spreadsheet to predict the best roulette wagers" guy.  And thankfully, he rarely leaves my side.

Todo esta bien. 

Leaving Las Vegas.

Now...time to turn toward Bethlehem. 


Thursday, December 6, 2012

What Happens in Vegas

It's called a Love Unit...and I was so taken with it, I didn't even get a photo to share.

It's an $18 martini made with - oh, I don't know - fresh red bell pepper juice and Thai basil?  It was delicious.  I had two.  They were cocktails number 3 and 4 of the day.  And it was only 6 pm.  I think I stopped at drink number 5, which was a 20-ounce rum laced slurpee with a big, fat straw.  Oh, oops...I'm forgetting the shared hot saki nightcap I had over two $20 sushi rolls...

Does it bother me that I spent more money hitting the refresh button on a low Vegas buzz yesterday than many of the world's families have to spend on food for a month?  Well...yes. Did that stop me from convincing myself it was fun anyway? Apparently not.

Nor did I have trouble finding myself a great bargain on a dress that is 100% sequins (can you say 100% frivolous?).  I talked myself into believing the dress was a must-have steal, even though I bought it at a store I would consider a place for unusual indulgence if I'd been at home.

But I'm not home.  I'm walking past stores like Gucci and Chanel and Armani and Fendi.  White House/Black Market and Anthropologie feel a bit like the Walmarts of the strip in Las Vegas.

It appears I have completely surrendered to the insanity of it all.

I also realize today that I have not thought beyond once about turning the thermostat to 60-degrees if my hotel room feels a bit stuffy.  I have not hesitated to drop a towel used only once onto the marble floor as a message to our lovely housekeeper that I require fresh towels every day.  I have not even tried to find a recycling bin for my daily copy of the New York Times.

I am squandering. My personal resources and the world's. I wish I could tell you I am not goofy with delight over it all. Like a 4-year old at an amusement park, I am running from one thing to the next like there will be no tomorrow to reckon if nothing at all is real in this Las Vegas bubble.

The blue skies inside the hotels are not real...

The volcanoes are not real....

The canals are not real...

The architectural wonders of the world are not real...

The promises of riches are not real...

It is all so phony, I found myself scoffing at a couple posed for a photo yesterday under a palm tree while a bird's song just above their heads perfectly enhanced the scene.  As the pair searched the thick foliage overhead for the source of the noise making bird, I thought: "These silly people haven't figured out it's just a speaker and a birdlike thing in that tree."

Imagine my surprise when the fake feathered friend dropped out of the tree and came my way begging for breadcrumbs...

Reality - at the end of these days in Las Vegas - is sure to come begging, and I will not be able to honestly feign surprise. Real people will still be hungry in this world. Real consequences of wastefulness will still be clear. Real work will have to be done to earn real money.  Real bills will need to be paid.

The brighter side?  The martinis will not cost $18.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Only in Wonderland

 I do feel a bit like I fell down a rabbit hole sometime Sunday night. Into a place that is all at once overwhelming and odd, frightening and fascinating.

I am in Las Vegas.

It's my first trip to the place that isn't apologizing when it proclaims itself to be Sin City. There is no need to be sorry.  Sin - or to express it less emotionally and more precisely...overindulgence - sells.  Quite well.

There is something for everyone here.  It's one outlandish amusement after another...

Dancing fountains at Bellagio
one extravagantly decorated bar after another...

Crystal Bar (3 stories) at Cosmopolitan
one must see variety show after another...

one gigantic 27-foot ceiling-high chocolate waterfall,

At Jean Phillipe inside Bellagio
 or 25-foot tall flower-constructed polar bear,

or spectacular 10-foot high orchid/peony/lily/red rose-laden after another.

It's five sparkly/fountain-adorned/heated/Olympic-sized/cabana-encircled pools per hotel. It's pricey retail malls (inside each hotel) and world-themed restaurants (inside each hotel) and table after table after table of places to toss your money down that rabbit hole (casinos-inside each hotel).

I'm not judging.  People seem to come in swarms to experience the joy of throwing money around in the name of complete sensory overload.  I am one of them this week.  I have already plugged a dollar into a slot machine and lost it in a matter of seconds, as images that I did not understand spun and flashed and clanged in front of me.  I expect to give up another $50-$100 playing my friend's lucky numbers on roulette before I leave town.  I am not going to promise that I won't stop for a cocktail at 7 AM on my way to the cafe for my morning coffee...the bars are open, people are drinking, and I might just want to say I sat down for a $15 morning martini while I was in Vegas.  I have already spent $150 for tickets to a show I know nothing about - just so I can say I went to a show in Las Vegas.

I am caught up in it all - looking for the nearest exit with one eye but at everything my little heart desires with the other.

What's that all about?

I spent most of yesterday wondering if Las Vegas is the snapshot of America people in underdeveloped nations have of our country. The last time my husband was here on business was September 11, 2001. Leaving Las Vegas in a hurry that afternoon, he had a large rear view mirror picture of why someone might think Americans are unfairly squandering the world's resources on wanton self-indulgence.  

I have spent most of today pondering the woman I saw throwing dice at a table this morning as I walked through the casino for my coffee (every destination, it seems, requires a walk through the casino).  She was what I'd call a "church lady"... middle aged, Mary Kay painted, dressed in a Christmas-themed shirt, with a purse hanging over her shoulder.  She was blowing on her dice.  And blowing on her dice.  I got the feeling this was her last throw of luck-or- loss before she got in a cab and went back to her pristine, Jesus-themed life.  I am imagining she was really, really hoping to make the last throw count.  Perhaps to cover her costs in Sin City.

Yep. It's 7 AM in the casino.
Oh, if only it were so easy.  If only our sins of overindulgence against the planet and one another could be erased with a roll of the dice.  If only our eagerness to spend too much and eat too much and live too extravagantly and love too recklessly was always as easy to see and fix and walk away from as it is in Vegas.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas...?