Million Dollar Girl
Version Date: October 11, 2008
“I’m ready,” she said.
Miller took a quick look around. He saw no students or faculty he recognized. Soon Gina’s suitcase was safely hidden in the trunk and Gina was sitting next to him as they hurried toward the airport.
As the plane took off, the sky was overcast, but in a short time they climbed through the fog and mist and broke out on top of the clouds. The morning sun was bright when not filtered through a layer of heavy moisture. Sitting next to the window, Gina pulled down the shade halfway.
Miller checked over the rental car and hotel reservations, to be sure he had handy all the paperwork he needed. He put away the airline information. Gina pulled out of her purse a somewhat wrinkled paperback novel, Betrayal: A Love Story, and began to read. Miller changed to the in-flight magazine and both sat seemingly engrossed, not talking, until the peanuts and sodas began to make their rounds. Both passengers looked up to attend to the coming snacks.
Gina glanced out the window and noticed that the cloud cover was gone and that she could see the ground.
“Oh, look. You can see mountains. And little roads.”
Miller leaned over toward Gina to look out the window. A subtle but not unaffecting charge of perfume rising from Gina distracted him momentarily. This was the first time he noticed that she was wearing a short cotton blouse with frilly ruffles and low-cut jeans. Her hair was up for the convenience of travel, although a carefully liberated ringlet hung down in front of each ear. He looked out. “Yeah,” was all he said. His only thought about the scenery was, “Little roads, little people.”
“And the mountains?”
“Uh huh,” he said, casually putting his hand on her leg as if to support himself as he leaned over a little farther. Gina turned her head from the window to look at him. She gave him a wry smile.
Miller sat back in his seat and began to read the same article again. Gina watched the engine pod on the wing bounce when the airplane hit a patch of turbulence. She turned to Miller. “The world is a very hazy place, isn’t it?”
“Look at how hazy all the mountains are in the distance. Up close, it looks like clear day, like we can see clearly, but it’s really hazy if you think about it.”
When the aircraft began to descend, the roads came into more prominence. Most were still unpaved. Except for an occasional structure, no houses or other buildings were visible.
“Look at all the roads in the middle of nowhere,” Gina said.
“And they go nowhere,” Miller said. He was feeling like a man who was going somewhere.
“Who drives on them, I wonder?”
The background roar in the cabin of the airliner was loud enough to muffle the words somewhat, so that Gina thought Miller had said, “Nobody.” The roads did appear to be deserted, so Gina let the conversation drop. She returned to her book.
It was not long before a house appeared here and there among the scrub brush and the brown hills and valleys. Then a small tract of houses, then dozens of houses seemed to pop up, connected by wider roads. Soon the land was divided into squares by roads crossing each other, many paved, some not. The ground began shyly to show a little green here and there. Eventually, a golf course was visible, then tracts of nice houses, turning into larger neighborhoods with lawns and more established trees. The houses had won and the vacant land receded. It was as if civilization had suddenly sprung into being, as if the desert had bloomed with people and houses and cars.
The aircraft made a turn. A whining motor sounded as the flaps were set. Next, there was the thump, bump of the landing gear lowering. Soon the plane was on the ground, the engines screaming as the thrust reversers helped slow it to taxi speed.
And so, telling himself that he was being guided by reason, the professor who taught the need for a careful discernment of reality entered a city where appearance is more important than reality—no, where appearance is reality. His companion, on the other hand, also thought of herself as having a reasonable view in mind. She had come along, she had said, to have fun. To relax in the sun, to eat some good food, and to see a show.
Las Vegas is, indeed, an icon, a testament to the power of appearance. The hotels of the strip are filled with synthetic marble, phony façades, imitation bronze statues, fake jewels, artificial flowers. Visitors know that the walls of the hotel are not really made from ancient, weathered stone, but even knowing that, the effect is the same. The sense of amazement and the enjoyment of beauty one would gain from walking up to an ancient European building is perfectly reproduced by walking up to the artificial façade of the hotel. The false stonework evokes genuine feelings.
There is an old debate about art. Those who like to tweak art collectors are fond of asking, “What’s the difference between a $50 million original Van Gough and a $50 print of the same painting, if you cannot tell the difference from six feet away?” Is the aesthetic response different? If not, why not create museums filled with inexpensive copies so that people everywhere can enjoy them? Would people visit a museum filled with copies?
If there is somehow a difference between the original and the copy, how does that difference change if the original is discovered to be a fake? Is it no longer beautiful? No longer valuable? Is the value of art only in an expensive name? Or is the enjoyment painted there on the surface of the canvass, only millimeters thick, and capable of being copied at will both by those who print reproductions of originals and those who counterfeit the artist’s style?
Which brings us back to Las Vegas. Aesthetic appreciation and enjoyment are derived from appearance, not reality. American commerce would collapse if the appearance businesses were stopped. Cosmetics, plastic surgery, fancy clothing, even decorative trim and paint are all part of the business of making us look good. We are an aesthetic society. Some fashion models have described themselves as optical illusions because they are transformed from plain Janes without makeup into gorgeous supermodels with makeup—and with computer graphics to trim their thighs, remove their blemishes, and bronze their skin. Is their apparent beauty any less if we know their bodies and their photographs have been doctored? Is our enjoyment of the hotel diminished by knowing that the façade is not ancient stone, or even actual stone, but textured plaster or concrete?
Many people subscribe to that great maxim of self delusion, “Seeing is believing,” making them easy marks for a world of surfaces. Substance may need to be sold at a discount and still have only a few takers, because most people are busy bidding up the price of appearance.
And yet, the enjoyment of a painting or a hotel or a supermodel on a magazine cover is a passing enjoyment. The minute we begin to think about permanence—owning the painting, buying the hotel, marrying the supermodel—suddenly the issue of reality comes in. Fool me for a minute and I will enjoy it. But when I get serious, and think long term, I want something genuine. The longer the time frame, the more important an accurate knowledge of reality becomes, the more crucial it is to find the truth. A lifetime is a pretty long time frame. And eternity is even longer.
It was just after noon when Professor Miller and Gina drove from the airport to the hotel. Even this late in the fall, today the air was warm and the sun shone brightly in a cloudless sky. Gina rolled the window down to enjoy the rush of the breeze. She relaxed with the seat back while Miller struggled somewhat with the idiosyncrasies of an unfamiliar car. The controls, the unfamiliar braking and acceleration, the odd mirrors, all made him feel awkward. The hostile and unforgiving Las Vegas taxi drivers rattled him even more. But the drive was short and they arrived successfully at the valet parking of the hotel.
Their room was not yet ready, so they had some time to kill. Gina said she felt hungry, so they decided on lunch in one of the hotel’s restaurants. They asked for a recommendation. “Through the casino, follow the signs, turn left,” they were told. Indeed, virtually every set of directions in a Las Vegas hotel begins with “Go through the casino,” because the hotels have been cleverly designed in just that way. Restrooms? Go through the casino and turn right. Guest elevators? Through the casino, angle right, then left. Coffee shop? Through the casino to your left. And so on.
It is a planned seduction.
The use of flashing lights to get attention is an old technique. The downtown section of Las Vegas where the old hotels were built still feature the million-light-bulb exteriors that were originally the signs of beckoning to tourists. But now we have become inured to flashing lights, simply because we see them everywhere. The new casinos still make use of thousands of lights, flashing bulbs, vibrant strips of neon, rotating beacons, and so on. But now another old method of charming the traveler has been raised to the next level of power and effectiveness. It is the siren song of sound.
The casino is a cacophony of noises. Each of the new video slot and poker machines provides at frequent intervals a few bars of musical invitation to play when it is sitting unused. When used, each machine produces a musical accompaniment as each card is dealt or each wheel is spun to a stop. Each machine notifies the player (and everyone else within thirty or forty feet) with a happy ding when a coin has been won. Because most payoffs include several coins and because many machines are normally being played and giving frequent payoffs, the result is a constant, multi-channel surround-sound experience of a rapid ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Even more, when a player elects to have actual coins paid out of the machine, they drop quickly but one at a time into a stainless steel bin, resulting in another constant, multi-channel surround-sound experience of chink, chink, chink, chink, chink!
The effect is almost one of giddiness. Everyone appears to be winning piles of money at jet speed. Those who would pass through casually wonder whether they should forget their destination, rush to a machine and begin to scoop up the riches before someone else wins everything.
Added to the mechanical music and percussion of seeming wealth, soft rock or pop music plays in the background, often featuring love songs of varying quality, but seldom only instrumentals. The sound of singing adds a living, human element to the ambience. Laid over the top of all these sounds is the conversational chatter of the players and observers themselves. Where a dozen people are observing a roulette or craps table in operation, an occasional roar of approval or disappointment adds a note of theatricality to the room. To be heard, talkers must raise their voices over the background noise, so that all across the giant rooms conversations, undecipherable, mingle. What is being said, the observer cannot tell, but it seems to be a lively and animated talk.
Thus has the modern casino created an atmosphere—a semblance—of a festive, happy, wealth-granting life to be had by all who play.
It is a generalization drawn from cursory appearances. A close look at many of the slot players reveals an almost hypnotic trance on their faces as they play one round after another, scarcely seeming to check whether they have won or lost. “Zombies pushing coins,” someone has called them. An occasional overheard snippet of conversation reveals that not everyone is winning. “I’ve just lost two hundred dollars,” one woman tells her friends. Whether these people leave town happy or sad depends on why they came. Some people travel here to win something, and some come to lose something. Some come to find a more intense reality, and some come to escape reality. For those whose daily reality is dissatisfying, the world of imagination and appearance has particular charm.
As Miller and Gina passed through the casino toward the restaurant,
the distinctions between reason and rationalization, between reality and
appearance, seemed, well, academic. This state of mind was perfectly agreeable
to both of them.
Go on to Chapter 11
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