Tag Archives: travel

With a Song in My Heart: G is for…

“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – Elton John, 1973.

A song that for its performer was the hope of remaining himself as his star rose ever higher, for me has a more literal meaning in that it summons recollections of the by turns pitted asphalt and by other turns smooth concrete curves of Interstate 75, the artery by which thousands of Canadian snowbirds flock each year from their wintry, igloo-bedecked homeland (at least if you believe the propaganda) the seventeen hundred miles to the palm trees and orange groves of Florida.  Cast a glance out the window on the southbound lane and you’ll no doubt spot dozens of minivans or sedans crammed to bursting with holiday gear and restless kids kicking the backs of the parents’ seats.  It’s a rite of passage for families in this part of the world, as it was for my family, at least once a year, usually over Easter.  Though my parents shared the driving, my father’s heaping piles of mixtapes were the music of choice, with this particular tune conjuring a visceral image of an empty road just after sunrise, bellies full of the “kids eat free!” breakfast from the exit ramp Days Inn, and the trees and mountains of Tennessee blurring into streaks of green beyond the cold glass.

What lay beyond the Yellow Brick Road?  My grandmother’s winter home in Englewood, on the Gulf Coast just a few miles south of Sarasota.  It was, and probably still is, a sleepy community of retirees who live in converted mobile homes built on trail-like roads that wind their way between tiny ponds.  The waterfowl that lend their names to the streets flock lazily amidst the bulrushes and the tall marsh grasses, eager for a crumb of bread from a passerby.  A mile from my Nana’s old place on Mallard Drive was Englewood Beach, where I spent hours combing the surf for shark’s teeth and curious seashells and got my first severe sunburn – never again would I fail to apply sunscreen to the backs of my knees.  There was also the shopping plaza with a Beall’s, a Publix (home of my favorite yogurt) and an Eckerd Drugs.  An innocent’s perception of Oz, but more than enough to seem like a slice of paradise.

Getting there was a dervish of anticipation and scrupulous attention paid to each detail of the voyage.  It’s interesting that I have almost no memory of the return trips, except perhaps the resignation that pervaded the last night in Emerald City with the long road that beckoned beyond dawn’s first light, and the envy of those who could stay behind.  The southbound adventure, on the other hand, is replete with trivia; loading up the Griswold-mobile in the bleakness of the cold Ontario morning on day one, the dry stretch down to the Ambassador Bridge crossing at Detroit, the transition into the wide-eyed novelty of the UNITED STATES.  Woohoo!  Gallons instead of litres.  Miles instead of kilometres.  Bright red-and-blue highway signs instead of our modest old white ones.  Amoco and Chevron and Exxon stations instead of Petro-Canadas, Shells and Essos.  Billboards every hundred yards announcing how far you were from the next McDonald’s, or how much John Q. Lawyer could win for you if you were injured in a workplace accident.  It was all waiting past Exit 83, Next Right.

Even the most mundane aspects became objects of fascination to a young brain determined to soak it all up.  Counting down the mile markers to the state lines and noting how quickly Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee would slip by, versus the endless slogs through Ohio and worst of all, Georgia.  No offense to Georgians, but when you’re eight or nine and it’s not your final destination, man does it take forever, especially that Atlanta bypass.  Endless curiosity about the varying quality of the highway rest areas, depending on the state:  some full-fledged, full-service stopovers, others little more than a turnout, porta-potty and lone rotting picnic bench.  An almost OCD-like need to collect paper directories from the Days Inns, memorize their locations nationwide and wonder why we didn’t have any back home (we do now, not that I’ve stayed at one since).  Dinners at the Cracker Barrel and trying without success to conquer the jump-a-tee puzzle placed at each table before diving into something accompanied by biscuits and sausage gravy, to my mother’s chagrin.  My sister’s innocent query, as we passed through the Bible Belt, of what was with the all the pictures of the guy hanging on the post.

And always, there was the road, and Elton John singing about what lay beyond it.  It was a perfectly prophetic number for where we were going, even if the end of the journey wasn’t anything life-changing or evolutionary – truly, how many family vacations are?  Still, the song itself is about a return to simplicity, leaving the penthouse behind and going back to the plough.  The fact that I recall with clarity such minutiae from these yearly adventures – moreso than what we did once we actually got there – speaks to the notion that you can find great joy in that simplicity, that fancying it up with expensive hotel rooms, front row seats and $500 rounds of golf doesn’t necessarily make for lasting memories.  Maybe you just need a reasonably reliable car, a loving family, and a yellow brick road.

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A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part I

mickeytowels

It’s hardly a huge revelation, but for those of you who read me regularly who may have chanced to wonder why August was a bit quiet here at the cracker factory, it’s because I decamped southward for a well-earned week of play at Walt Disney World and left all my cyber paraphernalia back at home – going “off the grid” as it were.  My better half and I hemmed and hawed for months about whether we were going to scrape together the scratch to celebrate the expansion of our family at our favorite vacation spot, deciding finally that we’d rather take our son now while he’s still full of childlike wonder and before life turns him into a cynical bastard like his father.  It was a huge deal for him – first time on a plane, first time voyaging abroad with his new mom and dad, first time away from his new home for more than a couple of nights.  Yet any worry on our part was unneeded; he ate it up, as any kid should.  It helped, too, that he had an expert pair of guides.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to Disney World – it’s probably somewhere in the high teens and the odyssey began right around the time Epcot first opened in 1982.  Almost half the pictures of my childhood that I’ve managed to hang onto were taken on the hallowed grounds of Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the thousands of acres of swamp that old Walt bought up for a song with a bunch of shell companies and subsequently transformed into a veritable Garden of Eden of family entertainment – and it does feel that way at times, like a universe removed from the cold reality of your life back home.  The misanthropes of the world deride it for predictable reasons – price, crowds, kitsch, a jaded perception of the Walt Disney Company as a greedy capitalist predator feasting on the willing yet innocent souls of impressionable children.  Without descending too deeply into cliché, it’s worth asking those folks if they can name many other places in this world where you can truly let yourself be a big kid (deeply a propos for myself as height sometimes makes fitting into the seats on rides a bit of an exercise in figuring out how squishable one can be.)  Also, as the title of this post suggests, I think it’s a place every writer owes it to themselves to experience.  There are other theme parks, to be sure, but going to Disney isn’t so much about waiting in long lines for a bunch of rides as it is immersing yourself in a story that is taking shape around you.  The commitment to the story is what elevates Disney far above the pretenders to the throne.

Day One saw us arrive late in the afternoon, checking in at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort.  This is the fourth on-property resort my wife and I have stayed at since we began voyaging here together about six years ago, after Port Orleans Riverside, Saratoga Springs and Old Key West, and the first for us to have more of a focus on der kinders.  Obviously you can save a few quid by choosing a non-Disney hotel nearby instead, but doing so robs you of not only the convenience and flexibility of the free (i.e. buried in the cost of your park ticket) Disney buses that run back and forth between their resorts and the parks at a constant clip, but of the sense that you are completely immersed in Walt’s world.  Being at Disney is not simply being a passive tourist, it’s diving into this realm of the fantastic, and why would you want to remove yourself from it each night to go sleep in a pre-fab Howard Johnson ten miles down the road?

aofa

Art of Animation is probably the most colorful of the resorts, and boasts four “worlds” of its own, each based on a Disney animated film:  The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Finding Nemo and Cars.  Larger-than-life-size 3-D depictions of the characters await around each corner; Mater and Doc Hudson were there to greet us each time we returned to our suite after an exhausting/exhilarating day.  (Is “exhilazausting” a word?  Because that’s the most apt descriptor I can come up with.)  Anyway, after picking up our passes and with our luggage still in transition, it was park time.  And onto the aforementioned Disney buses, whose spiel I can recite pretty well verbatim at this point.  “Hello everyone, and welcome aboard the Walt Disney World Transportation System.  We’re on our way to Disney’s Hollywood Studios.”

dhs

Formerly known as Disney-MGM, Hollywood Studios is the odd step-child of the four parks.  As I understand it, the park was originally intended to be a “half-day” experience and a few rethinks occurred during its development and construction, resulting in what can seem at times like only a partially formed vision, even if the atmosphere does succeed in replicating to almost museum-like accuracy the golden era of Tinseltown as it probably never truly was.  As a dedicated movie fan I am of course partial to anything old Hollywood, so I love the clapperboards and the old fonts and directors’ chairs you find sprinkled throughout the shops on the main drag leading up to the replica of the famous Chinese Theater that houses The Great Movie Ride.  This is the one element of DHS that hasn’t changed since it first opened over 20 years ago.  A slow-moving vehicle with a live guide takes you through recreations of classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca, before you’re held up in 1920’s Chicago (with James Cagney peering at you ominously) and your guide is replaced by a gangster named “Mugsy.”  Greed becomes Mugsy’s undoing, however, as he gets zapped by a cursed gem in Raiders of the Lost Ark and your original guide returns to shepherd you safely through Alien and The Wizard of Oz.  I’ve done the ride enough to not be surprised at the same story playing through each time; what is interesting is seeing how deeply into the roles the performers are willing to go.  If you’re unlucky, you get a bored Mugsy who can barely be bothered to mumble the lines; if you’re as fortunate as we were this last time, Mugsy reaches for the rafters and the experience is that much more memorable, even if you already know how it’s going to end.

The Great Movie Ride is a bit of a relic of the old Disney World, where all the rides proceeded at a stately pace suitable for grandma and grandpa.  Ensuing generations have insisted on “faster and more intense,” and DHS has responded with a trifecta of high speed, high thrill attractions.  First up for us was Star Tours, the Star Wars-themed simulator that foreshadowed for years Disney’s eventual purchase of Lucasfilm.  The old version, where a first-time droid pilot named Captain Rex (voiced by Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman) accidentally veers you through a field of comets before stumbling into an attack on the Death Star, had long been a favorite of mine even if the storyline had grown a bit stale.  The 3-D upgrade has an animatronic C-3PO mistakenly take the captain’s chair and lead you through different world experiences (racing snowspeeders on Hoth, pursuing podracers on Tatooine, etc.) while Imperial forces chase you down in pursuit of a “Rebel spy” onboard your ship – one of your fellow riders selected at random.  (We rode Star Tours four times during our entire visit with our son crestfallen that he was never chosen to be the Rebel spy.  Maybe next time.)  The West Wing fan in me was tickled, of course, to hear Allison Janney as the voice of “Aly San San,” the flight attendant droid reminding you not to smoke or take flash pictures during your space voyage.  Original trilogy purists might be a little miffed at the emphasis on the prequels (and the appearance of Jar Jar during the Naboo sequence) but when you’re hearing your kid laughing hysterically at the pit droid chirping in angry bot-speak at Threepio for having broken his ship, that all goes away.  Bouncing around with hyperspace and blaster bolts flying at you and John Williams’ music pounding in your ears is as close as anyone who doesn’t get cast in Episode VII is going to come to being in the movie itself.  You’re not an observer, you’re part of it.

After that it was off to where story truly takes center stage – The Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror.  It scared the bejesus out of me the first time I rode it, about 15 years ago, and as it happens to be my wife’s favorite I’ve had to endure it several times since.  The showpiece is a thirteen-story sudden drop, with the car being pulled down faster than gravity (resulting in a momentary weightless feeling between plunges).  With a stomach that has never cared for having the ground disappear beneath it, I always feel a shot of trepidation looking up at the ginormous, creaky old tower as we walk towards it and assume our place in the queue.  You’d think that after having been on it nine or ten times you could steel yourself against what’s coming, but damn if it doesn’t still get to me.  Firstly, the drop pattern is randomized so you can’t predict it.  But what really amps the queasiness and the dread is the pre-show theatrics, including the waiting area itself; an old 1920’s hotel lobby, its furniture rotting under decades of dust and decay, framed by the stale scent of abandonment.  Chills seize your spine as you step from 115-degree Florida humidity into the dank, air-conditioned alcove, tightening the mood and the sphincter.  Then the lights go dark and on comes Rod Serling (voiced by an impersonator) to introduce tonight’s adventure with all the eerie trappings of that episode with the weird-looking pig mask people that made you shake under the covers when you were a kid.  You’re loaded into your car, and up you go into the black void, and like the best storytellers, they make you wait, drawing out the tension to unbearable lengths until despite this being your tenth time your fingers carve into the safety bar in horrified anticipation of that inevitable fall.  And fall you do, and against your better judgement and the rules of decorum you hear a wail erupt from your lips as the car plummets and bounces up again for another drop.  It’s somewhat cathartic, in fact, and as the car withdraws into the safety of the unloading area you feel a blush color your cheeks and the relief of the sensation of ground once more.  And as you exit through the gift shop you feel a bit sheepish at how worked up you got and how ashen you look on the ride photograph, and force a stiff upper lip lest you show weakness to your slightly-more-freaked-out son.

Contrast this to the Rockin’ Roller Coaster, where there’s no time for anticipation – you just GO.  The setup is that Aerosmith is late for a gig and they don’t want to leave their fans behind, so you’re loaded into a “super stretch” limo and propelled on a 90-second race through downtown L.A. to meet them.  The ride is unique in that unlike your typical roller coaster where you s-l-o-w-l-y chug up an interminable hill to get to the good part, here you only get a five-second countdown and a warning to keep your head back before the vehicle blasts out of the gate, hitting 60 miles per hour in 2 seconds and careening headlong into an upside-down loop that slams you against your seat with 4 G’s while Steven Tyler wails “Sweet Emotion.”  Neon roadsigns fly by as you curve into a corkscrew and round a series of tight bends before screeching to a halt at the big show (i.e. another gift shop).  As an approximation of the power and rush that is rock & roll (as well as a bit of the sense of never quite knowing exactly where you’re going), it fits the bill quite nicely – not that I’ve ever stood on stage at an Aerosmith or any other major rock concert, mind you.  I find it fascinating, though, how my response to this ride has evolved from my first experience on it (wheezing, never-gonna-do-it-again terror, as I recall) to now (giddy bring-it-on joy), as opposed to Tower of Terror, which still freaks me out every time.  I have to come back to the concept of story.  Every aspect of the Tower, even down to the costumes of the ride attendants, is designed to unnerve you (the screams you hear coming from it as you stroll the nearby boulevard are solid proof), whereas Rockin’ Roller Coaster is about inviting you to take a brief taste of the lifelong party that I’m assuming is Aerosmith’s existence.  Both thrill rides, but wildly different thrills and emotional impacts, and the story makes the difference.

We closed the first night with Disney’s Fantasmic, a show that combines live performers and images projected onto plumes of water spray in an exploration of the imagination of Mickey Mouse.  What begins as a lush and pleasant journey turns sinister as the Disney villains assert their power and wrack the little fella’s mind with nightmares, before Mickey manages to fight back in the name of all that is good and pure.  This is a fairly common plot with the shows throughout the parks, whether the theme is dreams, wishes, magic or what-have-you – everything starts out sweetly and then the bad guys turn up to wreck the fun briefly in advance of the triumphant, reaffirming conclusion.  While focused mainly on dazzling your senses, there is a message underlying it all; the power and importance of belief, the same resonant moral that has mature adults clapping desperately to revive Tinkerbell.  This is why my eyes tend to glaze over a bit when wags attack Disney for what they perceive as an attempt to homogenize culture, to filter everything through Mickey and Donald and Goofy.  It’s not so.  What you’re being asked to believe in and to imagine is not their product.  Rather they’re showing you what their imaginations have wrought and challenging you to open yourself to the possibilities of your own.  Yes, it’s amazing and wonderful and unbelievable and having a billion-dollar profit margin certainly helps, but when you go back to the beginning you find the same simple origin:  someone who had to have thought it up.  As a writer I find the message encouraging, daring to conceive the characters I’ve created as coming to life in front of me and thousands of others in this way and perhaps someday being as widely known as Mickey and Donald and Goofy.  Is that realistic, asks the cynical bastard lurking in the pessimistic corner of my brain?  Who cares.  For the moment my mind is convinced that it is, and that’s creative rocket fuel.

So we shuffle back to our resort and to our Cars-themed bedroom, having logged 2000 miles of air travel and what feels like an equivalent in walking, happy to see our luggage there safe and sound as expected, and ready to settle in to rest up for the adventure ahead.  Because we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

To Be Continued…

Seven tips for improving your next flight

Flying metal tube of doom!

An uncounted number of stand-up comedians, both the successful and the ones who continue to toil away on the circuit to scattershot laughs, have worked the quirks and foibles of air travel into their routine at least once in their career, for the simple reason that it’s a universal experience that no one has less than a strong opinion about.  The old saying about how God would have given men wings if he had been meant to fly encapsulates the concept that the sky will never be our natural home – why else would we have to design and build these garish winged steel cylinders to get us above the clouds?  It seems too, of late, that fiscal austerity has conspired to make the experience as miserable as possible for the vast majority of passengers.  Even those of us who are just old enough to remember getting a full meal with actual metal cutlery on Wardair can cringe at stories about airlines reducing leg room yet again to cram in three more rows of chairs.  Airline advertising to the contrary, getting there isn’t half the fun, it’s just something you have to endure.  But as passengers, we make it worse for ourselves.  Expecting that the trend is not likely to change on the airline’s side in the near future, there are still a few things that could be adjusted to make the trip moderately more enjoyable, and none of them require the airline doing a blessed thing.  It’s just a question of some additional personal responsibility:

  1. Pre-boarding.  When the gate attendant advises that passengers with small children or those requiring special assistance in getting onboard the aircraft can come up first, why does it seem like everyone else in the damn departure lounge assumes they can as well?  Unless you are carrying three screaming terrors or are so elderly you can barely stand, wait for your turn.  What perplexes me most is that there’s no prize for getting on first – you don’t get to leave earlier and you certainly don’t get a lapdance from the stewardess or even an extra bag of peanuts.  You are trading in a precious few more minutes in the wide open lounge with its ready access to expansive, clean washrooms for the claustrophobia of the passenger cabin and the smelly steamer-trunk sized toilet.  Just chill and stand up when they call you.
  2. The “fresh air vents” above the seats.  I have opened these exactly twice during my history of air travel.  Both times I have come down with horrendous, hacking coughs and colds.  The problem is that when the outside temperature up above the clouds is about -40, real “fresh air” would freeze the plane.  So the dirty secret – pun intended – is that this so-called fresh air is just recycled cabin air, which means you’re inhaling every filthy little germ that has had the temerity to sneak through security to make the journey with you.  You are basically asking to get sick by opening these things.  If you don’t know the person you’re sitting next to, do them a solid and keep your vent closed, no matter how much you want to feel any semblance of breeze on your face.  Their lungs will thank you, and so will yours.
  3. On the subject of germs, personal hygiene.  I don’t care if you think you’re one of those people who can get away with bathing every other day.  You’re about to inflict your natural odor on dozens of strangers who, stunningly enough, won’t find it as sexy as you think your partner does.  When you know you’re going to be flying within the next six hours, please, shower, slap on that Speed Stick and keep your arms at your sides at all times.
  4. Reclining seats.  I have noted above the progressive decrease in the amount of leg room available on each flight, and while you at five-foot-two may see nothing wrong with kicking back after the seatbelt sign has been turned off, the gentleman behind you who exceeds six feet (eg. me) doesn’t relish feeling like the proverbial sardine for the next three and a half hours.  The very least you can do is ask.  I might be in a good mood and have absolutely no problem with it.  But if you just arbitrarily decide to force your seat back into my face without asking, I reserve the right to shove it back upright with equal discourtesy, and you shouldn’t act shocked.  And let’s be honest, these aren’t exactly La-Z-Boys – the amount of extra comfort you’ll achieve by reclining those three entire inches is infinitesimal at best, particularly when it compares to my level of frustration at having your seat back under my nose for the whole flight.  Stay vertical and keep the peace.
  5. Freaking out audibly at every little bump.  I get that it can be a little unnerving, but let’s just try to accept that air is mobile and constantly changing and the same forces that give us the rain we need to grow things for us to eat and keep our lawns green are what cause our planes to rattle around sometimes.  There are thousands of flights all over the world every single day and the media’s propensity to hype the hell out of the odd one that goes wrong has led average people to believe that they have something like a one in three chance of actually surviving a flight through rough weather.  The airline has nothing to gain by killing two hundred of its customers, so they don’t fly through this stuff if they don’t think they can make it.  Just pretend you’re on a roller coaster.
  6. Clapping when the flight lands.  This has made me roll my eyes since my very first flight.  I get that it’s ostensibly a way to thank the pilots, but the clapping always sounds like it’s less out of gratitude and more out of white-knuckled relief – like it’s somehow a God-ordained miracle that the plane arrived safely, and the same thing didn’t actually happen twelve hundred more times across the world that very same day.  I know this isn’t likely to change, but while we’re on the subject of the end of the flight, can we perhaps not all jump up at once the instant the seatbelt sign is off and perhaps just file out in a little more orderly fashion – again, recognizing that between Customs and the wait for your bags you still won’t get out of the airport any faster?
  7. Complaining and acting as though the airline has engaged in a massive conspiracy specifically to screw you.  We are all in the same damn flying metal tube of doom, brah, and what’s happening to you is happening to all of us.  None of us are getting where we want to go any faster or any more comfortably.  I was flying home from Calgary once and what was meant to be a short stop in Edmonton turned into a two-hour stay on the tarmac while a thunderstorm moved overhead (ground crews aren’t allowed out if there’s risk of lightning).  While we sat there, hot, frustrated and increasingly impatient, the drunken douchebag next to me felt it necessary, every five minutes or so, to exclaim with great erudition and wit, “Get this f—in’ thing in the air!”  Hearing this, the pilots sprang to action and revved up the engine and… well, no, they didn’t do anything other than continue to wait for safety clearance, as they would have had this assbutt remained silent – the only difference would have been a much calmer, more congenial atmosphere in the cabin – manna for some very tired and upset passengers.  You’re not being funny, or any kind of hero by expressing what we might be thinking.  You’re just being a dick, and as I think the Emperor Constantine once observed, no one likes flying with a dick that isn’t theirs.

So there you have it – seven easy tips that will cost you absolutely nothing, require the airline crew to expend zero effort, and may result in a much more pleasant trip for all involved.  What the airlines themselves can do to ameliorate the trip is a much longer list, and is more of a pipe dream in terms of it possibly happening in my lifetime.  But there is one thing – during the safety presentation, I think we can agree that at this point we all basically understand the general principles of how to operate a seatbelt, right?

We can’t stop here, this is bat country

Las Vegas - little fear, some loathing.

I’ll admit I’ve wanted to use that line for the title of a post for a long time.  Then it occurred to me that it might be best applied to a review of the locale it is describing, and thus a new category is born.  The reality of life and limited vacation days mean that my better half and I don’t get to see as much of the world as we’d like, so we treasure our infrequent voyages abroad and try to pack as much sightseeing into them as we can while setting aside sufficient downtime – no point coming back from holiday feeling more tired than when you left.  Las Vegas, which we visited four years ago, is obviously not a place to lounge around (unless it’s a specific type of “lounge” we’re referring to).  If New York is the city that never sleeps, Vegas is the city that can’t sleep because it’s on a perpetual crack high.  In Hannibal, Agent Starling comments about a letter from Dr. Lecter postmarked Las Vegas that it must be from a remailing service, as Vegas is the last place the cultured killer would ever be.  There is however a culture here; it’s the culture of affluenza in the backyard of the one percent, oozing wealth and fortune and gobs of excess at every turn.

The Strip at night.

Monty Python has a bit where Michael Palin, playing a priest, goes on at length about how “incredibly huge” God is.  Your first sight of Sin City from the runway at McCarran International Airport is misleading – you can see the hotels in the distance, but your mind, accustomed to the size of hotels from your hometown, can’t comprehend the sheer scale.  You think, “oh, well it won’t take that long to walk up and down the Strip.”  That is, until the steroid-enhanced architecture of buildings like the MGM Grand, the Luxor, Caesar’s, the Bellagio and so on along Las Vegas Boulevard puts you in your place.  This is the pinnacle of capitalist triumph, built on inconceivable mountains of debt, what the Egyptian pharaohs might have crafted with their armies of slave labor had they been fond of slot machines, gin and neon.  By any measure of sustainable or even logical urban planning, Las Vegas should not exist – it makes no sense to drop a metropolis in the middle of the desert.  But once it’s there, why not go full tilt – let’s have trucks spew diesel fumes up and down the Strip for twenty-four hours straight carrying ads for gentleman’s clubs, let’s install ubiquitous misters to spray what’s left of the Colorado River on sunburned heads, and let’s run enough air conditioning to sear the ozone layer to a crisp.  Of course, that’s part and parcel of the Vegas allure – that with a few lucky hands at the blackjack table you too can afford your own $500-a-round golf course (or, at the least, not blink at the idea of a $6.50 glass of orange juice).

Taxes and gratuity not included.

There is plenty to loathe about the idea of Las Vegas; the excess, the waste, the glorification of wealth as mankind’s most noble ambition, the destitution of the ones who have bet the house and lost.  However, something about it tempts you to say “the heck with it,” set the moral issues aside and plunge yourself headfirst into the Vegas experience.  You can spend a week there, never set foot near a gaming table and still see something different in every passing minute.  Each hotel has its own custom Cirque de Soleil (or Cirque de Soleil-knockoff) show, and any Beatles fan wandering through won’t want to miss the Mirage’s presentation of LOVE, a collaboration setting the spectacle of Cirque to the timeless music of the Fab Four, which will never sound better than it does blasting remastered from a hundred speakers inside the theatre.  If you want kitsch, the cheesiness of “classic Vegas,” well, there is still the topless girlie show at the Tropicana, the men of “Thunder from Down Under” at Excalibur, and “Sirens of T.I.” at Treasure Island, where the spectacle of a pirate ship sinking before your eyes every half hour has been enhanced with a lot of busty, scantily-dressed women.  If you want something you can safely show the kids, take them to the M&M’s exhibit to say hello to a lifesize Red and Peanut, then wander across Las Vegas Boulevard to watch the dancing fountains at the Bellagio and re-enact the final scene of Ocean’s Eleven.  And speaking of fountains, only in Las Vegas will you turn a corner in a casino and stumble across something like this:

A living statue at the Venetian. See the water pouring out of her fingertips?

Would I go back?  It shames me to admit, in a heartbeat.  Mainly because I feel like I still need to figure Las Vegas out.  I can sneer at its over-the-top opulence in one breath and revel in its eternal party atmosphere in the next, and for me that contradiction is endlessly fascinating.  There is art and joy to be found beneath the layers of gouda and heartbreak; sensory experiences to be relished, regal comforts to be absorbed.  Perhaps the karmic way to do Vegas is to pledge an equivalent amount of reading Shakespeare and doing charity work for every day you decide to spend under the Nevada neon.  Or, at the very least, tell yourself that the allure and seduction of Lady Vegas will not change you nor what you hold dear.  For bat country may be a nice place to visit, but you probably don’t want to leave your soul there.