Hanukkah in Sin City (Looking for the Viva in Las Vegas)

I'm in Las Vegas, an outlandish oasis of man's creation, a war waged between the spirit and the material, set smack dab in the middle of the Nevada desert. Clearly in this place, it's the spirit that's been vanquished.


Las Vegas purports to be about life, about the best things life has to offer. The vigor of youth, the power of money, the scintillation of sex, the promise of impossible abundance. I can't tell you the name of the hotel I'm at, but suffice it to say, it's a big'n. The last time I walked down a hotel hallway this long I was in Moscow. The Hotel Russia. Each of the four walls that make up that Soviet-era monolith is a mile long To get from my hotel room to the restaurant, took me upwards of 45 minutes. This afternoon, the walk from my room to the gym takes me about 35.

Wump, wump, wump... Now there's some ubiquitous nondescript dance music from the mid-'80s playing, the nasty-ass kick drum's booming, rattling rafter and rib cage alike. This afternoon, on my way to the gym, I have to refrain from walking in lockstep with the music lest I appear to be doing some kind of horrible jazz-walk. I keep imagining I'm in a movie, a high-energy opening title sequence: hot bodies, glaring lights, garish paintings, massive sculptures, and everywhere, another ad for Cirque du Soleil or The Blue Man Group. The director of this movie wants to get his audience to feel the aliveness of the place. He wants them to feel that tonight could very well be the night! The night they're gonna score big at the craps tables, the night they're gonna make it with Margot from Minot, the night they're gonna finally stop being afraid to take life by the balls and become the men (and women) they always wished they were.

I'm finally at the gym; it's big, 6000 square feet, as advertised. People are stretching and straining, getting strong for whatever the night holds in store. Towels are proffered, water bottles too. There are receptacles for the dirty towels and the used headphones. The noise and the lights have made me momentarily confused. As the super-fit fitness center concierge looks down at my skinny ankles, I sense his disdain. He frowns as he directs me to throw my used towel into the gaping mouth of a huge sculpture of some unknown Greek god -- instead of the basket that's clearly marked "dirty-towels." I dare not raise a fuss.

Sometimes I feel bad about being on the outside of things, things that make people excited. I wonder what it would feel like to be part of this Vegas scene, part of the crowd of excited Midwesterners and wealthy Middle Easterners that are at home in a place like this. I wish I could be seduced along with everyone else, taken in by this image of life that so many people, with so many great minds have taken the time to create. Unfortunately, and I don't mean to be morose, but all I can think about here is mortality. Death, decay, morbidity. Corpses, graves. I'm sorry, I know that sucks... but it's where my mind goes.

Apropos of the spirit and the material being engaged in perpetual struggle, tonight is the eight and final day of Hanukkah, a holiday which is in essence, about that very thing. And now, as I turn to light all eight candles on my menorah, which rests on the windowsill of my room on the fourteenth floor, something beautiful has happened outside. The sun has pleated itself behind some distant hills, and the sky is awash in bands of blue and gold. The town itself has disappeared and the outline of the horizon, which I hadn't noticed before, appears at this moment immeasurably more grand than a work of the human mind could ever be.

In fact, as the darkness throws a rug on the Las Vegas Strip and a sliver of moon rises, the desert, out to the west, has come to life. It has erased the blight. All is magnificence.

Maybe it's me that failed to see that this place is about life after all.