All that glitters….

Las Vegas marks itself out by nothingness. All the negative descriptions that can generally be used in labeling a city apply to it, for its absence of consistency actually makes its existence doubtful: no man’s land, waste ground, non-place, ghost town, urban simulacrum, nowhere city, etc. For us it is Zeropolis, the non-city which is the very first city, just as zero is the very first number. The nothing that counts, the nothingness of neon.”  -Bruce Begout, Zeropolis

I have recently returned from a couple of days in Sin City.   If you enjoy going to  Las Vegas on vacation, you may want to skip my column this week.

I know many folks who go to Las Vegas and love the place.   While I do not count myself as one of them,  this was my second trip there in as many years.  The first time was to witness the marriage of two very dear friends  last March.  This time,  it was a spur of the moment decision to take my twenty-one year old son on a Spring Break trip.  I figured it was the perfect place to take someone who likes playing Blackjack, beer, and buffets.   Besides, it’s March and we still have snow up to our necks here in the woods.  The sunshine and bare sidewalks waiting for me there seduced me.

We stayed at the Stratosphere, the tall hotel that reminds me of something from the cartoon The Jetson’s.  This seems appropriate since Area 51 isn’t too far away.  On our first morning there, we took the elevator to the 109th floor of the hotel to check out the view from the observation deck.  The city of Las Vegas is rimmed with desert and red rock.   With the exception of the subtropical landscaping on the Strip and a couple of golf courses,  there is very little green space.  I know, because I looked for it from high above the city.   Water is scarce in Las Vegas and it shows.  I learned that 85% of the water the city uses comes from Lake Mead by way of the Colorado River.  One lake and a river is all that the residents of Las Vegas can depend upon for drinking water and toilets that flush properly.    Later, we walked down the Strip and saw hotel after hotel with man-made ponds, fake waterfalls and fountains galore.   Minnesota girls used to 10,000 lakes and snowdrifts in March that will help to replenish all of those lakes notice things like this, I suppose.

Almost everything that is illegal in Minnesota is legal in Las Vegas.   Gambling,  prostitution,  smoking in buildings, public drunkeness…you name it.    During a bus ride,  I struck up a conversation with a resident who had moved there because Chicago, his hometown, has become too dangerous a place to raise his children.  We talked about the recent random killings of several young people near where he grew up and how this contributed to his decision to leave the place where he was raised.  He said, “Here, my kids can play outside with their friends and I don’t have to worry about them in our neighborhood.  But you know what’s crazy?  About three people are hit by cars  every week here on the Strip.  You’d think people would be more careful, wouldn’t you?”  He looked out the window and shrugged. Young men from Chicago who’ve attended too many funerals notice things like this, I suppose.

Three blocks off the Strip in any direction there are abandoned or burned out buildings,  structural corpses from an economy that tanked after the housing bubble burst.   However, walk down Las Vegas Blvd. and each hotel is taller and more grand than the one before it.  It’s hard to square the false opulence of Caesar’s Palace with the homeless man who was digging in the trashcan at the bus stop right in front of the hotel.  The one with all of his possessions in a shopping cart with a bad wheel.  It’s also difficult to understand how a city with so many signs lit 24 hours a day also has an airport where at one gate, it was  impossible to find a single working  electrical outlet to charge a cell phone.  It is a place where every hotel has a 24 hour all-you-can eat buffet with lines of  people waiting to pay 30 dollars  a plate and  over half of the school age children in the city go to school hungry every morning (  Educators who have tried to teach students with rumbling stomachs notice things like this, I suppose.

Women are big business in Las Vegas.  Walk down the strip and on each corner,  people employed by this “service industry” push small cards with photos of large breasted women at passersby.   Flyers advertising the services of “Asian Women Delivered to Your Hotel Anytime” can be found piled up outside of Walgreen’s and Taco Bell.   Mothers of Asian daughters about the same age as the young women in the ads notice things like this, I suppose.

Maybe I should relax and not think so much about Las Vegas.   Maybe I should stop trying so hard to make sense of all of this and just appreciate Las Vegas for what it is – a cheap vacation with a lot of sunshine and plenty of entertainment.  A week or so of escapism for consenting adults and a great setting for movies about hangovers and bridesmaids.  Maybe I should stop hatin’ on a place nobody forced me to visit twice.  Maybe I need to loosen up, live a little.  Not be such an old Fun Sucker.  However, I’m haunted by the ironies and left trying to understand Las Vegas.  All that it is, and all that it isn’t.

We came home to Minnesota on a typical March day.   Driving north, we passed by Lake Mille Lacs and my son noticed that the ice houses were all off the lake. I noticed the vastness of that inland sea with the sun sparkling on top of it and thought about all the water underneath the ice.  I thought about Lake Superior to the east and Leech Lake and Big Winnie, too.  All of that water just there for the taking. We kept driving toward home and turned off 169 onto Sugar Lake Road.   It was in the mid 30’s, and the branches of the huge pines along the road were still heavy with the seven inches of snow we received the previous weekend.   Nothing I saw on the Las Vegas strip, no building or casino or fake city scape compared to the grandeur of those trees on that day along that road.  Humans build cities, after all.

Home.  God’s Country.

This, I understand.   That other glittery place?  Not so much.

‘Tis a Blessing….

“Trouble hates nothing as much as a smile.”

An Irish Proverb

When is the last time you laughed?

I don’t mean just a polite snicker or a giggle or even a fairly hearty guffaw?  I mean a real, honest to goodness laugh?  The kind that makes tears run down your cheeks and your belly ache?  Hopefully, it wasn’t in church.  And if it was, I hope you were sitting with people like the ones I’m related to.  Get more than three of us in a church pew, and you can bet someone is going to start.

The last time I had a really good laugh was with the nurse who was inserting an IV in my arm.   I was telling her about the bout of food poisoning of Biblical proportions that had made my visit necessary.   Now, most normal people would not be able to find the situation I had endured funny,  and for several days afterward,  neither did I.    But as I started to explain my sad predicament and the fact that it happened during a three hour-long  flight to Las Vegas  she  looked at me completely horrified and then she began to laugh.   And then (because I’m sure that this sort of reaction is highly frowned upon in the nursing world),  she became even more horrified by her reaction and apologized.   And that, my friends, is when I started to laugh.  Over the complete and total ick factor of having repeatedly barfed into an airplane toilet.  Over the irony of  suspicious, tepid 24 hour buffets in Las Vegas and the fact that I got sick before my plane ever left the ground in Minneapolis.  And mostly,  because of the completely ludicrous turn of events my already pretty ridiculous life had taken.  What else can you do but laugh, really?

When I tell you that there are no Atheists in airplane johns at 35,000 feet, you can take it to the bank.  I’m pretty sure I saw St. Peter somewhere over Salt Lake City.

It’s good to laugh. In fact, sometimes it’s the only logical reaction to the challenges Life throws us.   No matter how cruddy something is, eventually I find some humor in the situation.   I am sure it’s due to the Irish blood that runs through my veins.  When my grandfather passed away, his elderly sisters came for the wake.   I remember seeing them huddled near the casket like squat, pink-scalped hamsters in polyester pantsuits  having a good laugh over something.  Lord knows what. I’m pretty sure they were,  as my very non-Irish grandmother used to say, “three sheets to the wind” before they showed up.  I learned that day that when you’re Irish, grief works as well as anything else does as an excuse to lighten up.

So, please.  The next time you think you’re having a bad day…..try to find some humor in it.   It won’t make the bad thing go away (sometimes only an IV will do that), but at least whatever it is won’t seem quite so dreadful.   And if that doesn’t work, you can always think of the queasy middle-aged Irishwoman  on a plane bound for Vegas last Sunday evening. The one on her knees in the throes of a turbulent penance.  A Come to Jesus meeting in the season of Lent.

I’m pretty sure there’s an old Irishman in Heaven with his head thrown back having a good howl at my expense about now.

Ah, ’tis true. The Irish’ll save us all in the end.

Just go sit on the potty. You’ll feel better. Really.

Last week, on one of the daytime talk shows, four mothers of those toddlers in tiaras were talking about all the valuable skills their tiny, bedazzled daughters were acquiring by competing in “glitz”  beauty pageants.   They explained how “go-go juice” (a concoction of Mountain Dew plus sugar?) kept their daughters from falling asleep while they were having their fake eyelashes glued on and how Pixie Stix were used as bribery.  They espoused the virtues of a product called  “Butt Paste”  to keep  bikini bottoms from riding up on their toddlers’ small butt cheeks during  swimwear competitions.  One mom defended her daughter’s participation in pageants by comparing it to ballet.  Um…really? Not so much.

I’m not judging.  Okay, maybe I am.  It’s kind of hard not to when the words “toddler” and “swimwear competition” are uttered in the same sentence.

Ever since the first Cave Woman cleaned up her Cave Kitchen, waddled out behind a boulder, gave a hearty yell and pushed the very first Cave Baby out, women have tried to do all the right things where their kids are concerned.  And every mother who has ever raised a child to adulthood is left with the same nagging question once her children are grown and gone:

Was I a good enough mother?

Only our kids can answer that question.  And often, even they don’t know the answer until they are parents themselves because childhood is a fun house mirror that distorts the memories we have of the woman who knew us first and loved us best.

I talked to a young, first time mom last week.  She is bright and capable and when I asked if she had any pictures of her seven month old (dumb question, right?) she whipped out her cell phone with lightening speed and scrolled through about twenty pictures of him.   I did the whole “oohh….ah….GREAT BABY!!” thing as she beamed with pride.  We talked about her having recently returned to work full-time.  She was ambivalent about this decision even though she likes her job, has good child care, and a partner who has the flexibility in his own career to be home part-time with their precious boy.  As we visited, I was reminded of my own guilt years ago for wanting,  no…needing, a chunk of life separate from my babies.  I left our encounter feeling sad that she felt the need to defend her choice to another mother.

And now I am also wishing I’d told her this.  It really doesn’t matter.

Really.  It doesn’t.  Her child will make it, and so will she. I wish I’d told her that it was going to be hard work either way.

I wish I’d told her this…

Work to teach him that the world was not created to meet every one of his needs, wants, or desires and neither were you. Make him wait. Let him get frustrated occasionally. This is good practice for life.  Teach him to be independent.  Work not to fixate on every sniffle and sneeze or bowel movement or whether or not he’s getting enough breast milk or broccoli. Don’t write his term papers or do his science projects and don’t lie for him if his homework isn’t done on time. Let him get dirty but make him clean the bathroom he messed up.   It will be a lot of work, and you won’t get a paycheck or a pat on the back.  But trust me… these things matter.

Teach him.  Touch him.  Talk to him. Tell him you love him. Tell him when you’ve screwed up.  Laugh with him.  Be silly.  Lighten up.  These things matter more than whether or not you work outside the home.  It’s okay not to be there every second of his life.  Just make sure that you are truly present when you’re present.   Not so much for him as for you.  My grandmother always said, “the first one lives through anything” whenever someone had their first child.  I wish I’d told my young friend that, too.  Ask for help when you think you can’t do the job for one more second.  Build a community of women who are doing what you’re doing and share the joys and the burdens that come along with young children.

The older I get, the less I know for sure.  But I know this.  I worked outside the home and I loved my kids fiercely.  Achingly.  With abandon.  Even when I didn’t particularly like them on a given day or when they didn’t like  me or my rules or the evening meal I’d cooked.  And I think they knew this then and that they still trust that it’s true. At least I hope so.

I also hope that I’m never invited to be a guest on a day time talk show for telling my kids to go to the bathroom when they told me they had a stomach ache or because I made them go outside once a day for some  fresh air when it was 20 below zero or for using the bar of  Ivory soap when one of them called me a “big bag of poop” that one time.   I think the statute of limitations for less than stellar early mothering  practices starts when they leave for college.   But you never know.  One of them is still pretty mad about the soap. I could still get that call.

And if it does happen, I will be really glad that the only butt paste I can be accused of using on them was diaper rash ointment.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Maggie’s  jumping days are over.

We have a 102 year old beagle.  She has cataracts and she lost her hearing completely about six months ago.   I read recently that a beagle’s sense of smell is about 10,000 times stronger than a human’s.  This may be why she can still smell a bacon flavored strip that’s been left in her dog dish no matter where she is in the house.  These days,  when she’s not looking to score Beagle Crack, she moves from room to room, looking for new places to rest her weary old bones.

I spent years kicking her little beagle butt off the furniture.  She was the canine equivalent of Goldilocks and I was all Three Bears.  I growled about her hair and her paw prints constantly. Especially in the living room, where I had two new chairs.  I thought they were perfect, and so did the dog.   Every time I walked into the living room, she was in one of them.  For weeks, I tried everything to keep that dog off my chairs.  I purchased sprays with names like Doggy B-GONE!  She would just wait for the smell to be gone.  As soon as it was, she’d be bookin’ it right back to the chairs.  Next,  I tried physical barriers.  She’d push the giant throw pillows off with her nose, do a couple of circles, and plop down.  After that, I tried shame.  When she could still hear, I yelled, jumped around, and clapped a lot.  She’d jump off, stare at me like I was out of my mind, and leave the room.   But as soon as I went downstairs, she’d be back on a chair.   She was quite skilled at listening for the sound of me coming upstairs.  Whenever she heard my foot on the first step,  I’d hear the jingle of dog tags and the soft “Whump!” of four feet hitting the floor.  I’d run up the stairs and look into the living room and she’d be sitting there looking at me at me as if to say, “What??? What’s going on?  Is there a PROBLEM??”

This went on for at least a month.  Finally, in total frustration over the fact that I couldn’t control whether she was on the chairs, I came up with the perfect plan.  Mousetraps!  Under cookie sheets!  Under towels!!  I figured I could scare her without hurting her and she’d finally get the message.

One day, I waited until she was down in the family room.  The plan was to place set mousetraps on a cookie sheet and then very carefully place another cookie sheet on top.  This took some time.  I learned that it is hard to be stealthy where mousetraps are concerned.  And that mousetraps hurt.  A lot.  Next, I hid my Weapons of Beagle Destruction under bath towels.  And then I waited.

My plan went off without a hitch and the stunned look on her face after the snapping and banging ended that day was You-Tube worthy, if I do say so myself.   Mission accomplished.   I had finally outsmarted the beagle!


Maggie avoided the living room entirely for the first  two weeks that the really scary Bang! Rattle! Towel Things were there.  Every so often, she’d walk past the room, peek in worriedly, sigh loudly and then go back to her doggie bed.

I was beside myself with glee!  I’d done it!  I’d won the war!  I began to imagine a life free of dog hair and dog smell and muddy paw prints.  I told anyone who would listen how I’d solved the problem.   One morning, three weeks after setting my WBD,  I figured it was safe to take everything off the chairs.  Then, I sat down on one of them, closed my eyes, and raised my smug, grinning face toward the sunbeam coming through the window next to the chair.  Bliss.

By noon,  Maggie the Beagle was peacefully basking in the sunshine, too.  You have probably already guessed where.

Old habits die hard.  We continue doing things the way we’ve always done them because it’s comfortable. We try too hard to control too much in our lives and ultimately, control very little.   We take for granted gifts both simple and miraculous.  Seeing a sunset.  The way rain smells.  The voices of the people we love.  Legs that work.  The companionship and loyalty of old friends.

These days,  Maggie sleeps in her doggie bed.  Sometimes,  I watch her back legs twitch as she yelps in her sleep, dreaming of younger, sweeter days of running after bunnies for hours and I finally get it.  Whether in dog years or human ones, life’s too short.

An old dog named Maggie taught me that.