Monday, February 27, 2012

Lost in Las Vegas

Many people are born gamblers. They love the thrill of the chase, the anxiety of waiting to find out their results, the power of debilitating defeat and the ecstasy of the winning score.

I am not one of these people.

As a youngster, I went on a lot of vacations to Las Vegas. My grandma, a slot machine gambler, and my mother, an indoor mall and buffet lover, were the biggest Vegas-heads you've seen in your life. We went at least once a year - usually more than that - when I was between the ages of two and eleven.

Every trip began the same way. My grandma packed a lunch in a plastic container. Usually it contained white rice and spam (Japanese delicacies) among other "breakfast" foods. For her and my mom there was a container of coffee so they could survive the just over four hour drive from North Orange County to Clark County (home of the glittering wasteland that is Las Vegas).

On the drive, my grandma would always freak out at a certain point. As we approached this giant thermometer on the side of the road that told us how extremely hot the arid desert was, she would almost burst a lung trying to get us all to bet five dollars on our guess at the temperature.

I never bet.

"Just five dollars!" she said.

I refused.

"If you win, I'll give you five dollars!"

I knew how a bet worked. I was just not willing to risk five hard-earned bucks (my allowance was just five dollars a week) on a silly bet on temperature. Even if I won, I knew the pay off wasn't worth the risk.

Our trips to Las Vegas were interminably repetitive. In the day we would go to Circus Circus or Excalibur so I could do my own form of gambling, playing the carnival games in an indoor environment and securing us about two dozen new stuffed animals to take home and pile on my bed.

After that we'd go to perhaps Caesar's Palace or the Venetian to check out the shopping. I loved that they had indoor skylight. Because being outside in Las Vegas is like sitting in a steam room without the soothing effects of moisture, having an indoor blue sky lightly dotted with puffy clouds is a happy alternative. We'd sit down for gelato or take photos by a fountain, maybe even ride a gondola. The indoors felt like the outdoors in Las Vegas and it was grand.

Fattening buffet time would persist for an hour and then be followed by the parting of ways. My grandma, the only gambler in our three-person group, would depart for an evening of indeterminate length at the slots. By night's end she would have lost an unreasonable amount of money, claiming she had won at some point in the night and then lost track of time because she forgot to wear a watch (and casinos are notorious for not having clocks anywhere), leading her to continue to play and eventual come out in the red.

I knew I never wanted to lose track of time or get distracted by the desire to win. But then I did.

The ball-rolling camel race game at Circus Circus.
One day at Circus Circus, my grandma, mom and I were doing our rounds, playing (I must warn you now that I do not know what any of these games are called) the ball-rolling horse race games, the throw the ping-pong ball into a bowl floating on water game, the hit the balloon with a dart game and the list goes on.

After playing the let the metal ball fall into the slot game (kind of like the Japanese game Pachinko, but less mind-numbing), somehow I got distracted. Maybe I had gotten so excited from winning the game that I was busy hugging my stuffed animal prizes. Maybe the place was so loud with other demented children that I hadn't heard my mom and grandma say they were going to another booth and I'd missed them asking me to follow them.

Whatever it was, I got lost.

I was rarely lost as a child. If I was ever separated from a guardian for a time, it was because I was with another guardian who was looking out for me. No one ever left me alone in public.

But on that fateful day one summer afternoon in Las Vegas, I was one of the smallest children lost in an adult-sized playpen.

I started crying and running past people's legs. People looked at me and wondered what was wrong, but no one helped. My panic attack multiplied tenfold when I hadn't found them after about 30 seconds (in toddler time this felt more like 15 minutes).

Eventually I saw my mom and ran to her. I hugged her legs and cried.

I never wanted to take chances when I was little. It was not among my interests to get so caught up in the game that I forgot about what was going on around me.

But I did. That day, when I sat at the game booth and my grandma and mom unwittingly walked away from me, thinking I was skipping behind them teddy bear in tow, I had it reinforced for me that it's not worth it to let your mind get distracted by stupid things.

Maybe it was too metaphorical for a little three or four year old, but years later I figured out the key to my destruction that day and my subsequent attachment to stability. The benefits, you see, are never worth the losses.

When I was lost, I thought about how even the greatest ecstasies of life - at that time winning a toy - are not worth the potential for being distracted from reality. Because I had let myself think more about my teddy bear, I'd lost track of what actually mattered - my family.

It's subliminally colored every single important life-long decision I've ever made. My decision not to drink, not to smoke, not to do drugs, etc. - all based on the premise that what I do now might distract me from what matters. A little pleasure now is not worth the guilt or the loss down the line.

It may be silly to ascribe such meaning to one event in childhood. Who ever thought that being lost for all of one minute could guide a child onto a path to becoming a prudish young adult who does not partake in the "joys of college life" that her peers are so enthusiastic about.

But that is what happened. And I don't regret it for a second. Because aside from learning more about my own values, I learned what really matters most to me - not some mythical place filled with hallucinations and grandeur (I still love Las Vegas, don't get me wrong), but the here and the now, the reality of my life and my family.

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