January 15

Greg Kesich: Learning from Las Vegas? Mainers could welcome change

We wouldn’t want the glitzy architecture or the debauchery but couldn’t we be more optimistic?

Poker is a very old game that took off thanks to a simple American innovation.

In the Old World, people played the cards that fate gave them. In America, we added the “draw,” which let players who didn’t like their fate to trade it in for another. Americans love second chances.

This is what I learned in Las Vegas, where I spent Christmas week with my family, indulging in some warmish days in the desert while the rest of you were chipping out after an ice storm. I’d always thought that the city was a pit of evil, a place where the amoral get rich taking advantage of the desperate. It is. But that’s not all that it is.

It’s also a city built on the idea that you can deal yourself another hand and start over – that what’s coming next is going to be better than what’s here now. Living in Portland, where it seems that every proposed change is treated like a threat to our essential character – even if it’s only a vacant lot that’s in danger of changing – that idea is refreshing.

Las Vegas was not my family’s ideal vacation spot. None of us gambles or plays golf or does anything that has to stay in Vegas. (I don’t think.) But it is the home of our 83-year-old Serbian uncle, who has spent the last 10 years in the desert becoming an expert in nutrition, meditation and the vicissitudes of history. Like many Las Vegas residents, he was attracted by affordable rents, not Cirque du Soleil, and he spends his time in the library, not the casinos.

We rented a house at the edge of town, closer to hiking trails than craps tables. Morning walks in the desert, afternoon soaks in the hot tub and home-cooked meals with a lot of talking was as wild as we’d get.

The Vegas that you see on TV is concentrated in one area where everything that people like is taken to its extreme. You like to eat? How about an all-you-can-eat buffet (“Customers over 350 pounds eat free!”)?

You like a cocktail, how about a dozen? You want to get rich without exerting much effort? Probably won’t happen, but you can feel like a millionaire as you throw your money away, surrounded by polished brass and marble.

Every night is Mardi Gras, but Ash Wednesday never comes. All the planes arriving at McCarran Airport are full of appetites ready to be sated.

We took a walk down Fremont Street, a collection of saloons, strip joints and gambling halls that empty hard-partying tourists onto a pedestrian-friendly mall. “It looks like they wanted to build a ‘staggerable’ neighborhood,” my sister said. We drove down the Strip, where four miles of glitzy high-rises were built on what losers dropped inside.

Unlike Portland, which is where it is because a glacier carved out a deep-water harbor, there is no reason for Las Vegas to exist except someone’s desire to change up on fate. The idea that made the city possible was the Hoover Dam just a few miles out of town. It’s a wall of concrete 700 feet tall and 600 feet thick that tamed the Colorado River, making a reliable water supply and cheap electricity possible for what’s now a city of 2 million people. Unlike the casinos on the Strip, it was built to last and has a useful life expectancy of 2,000 years.

So don’t believe the hype. It wasn’t organized crime or libertarian spirit that built Las Vegas – it was big government.

Back at the house, my uncle reflected on the ways of the world. Everything is always changing, and it’s changing for the better he said.

There is still poverty, but even in the poorest countries the poorest people are better off today than they were centuries ago. There is still war, but it’s nothing like what he saw growing up in Europe during World War II. Health care is not evenly distributed, but it’s advancing rapidly and helping people live longer and better lives. There is no reason to believe that all of these trends won’t continue. “This is civilization,” he said. “I believe in progress.”

That’s optimism. I’m glad that Portland doesn’t resemble Las Vegas in any way. But sometimes it would be nice to see the Forest City act a little more like Sin City when it comes to welcoming the future.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: gkesich@pressherald.com

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