Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Casinos Part 2: What We Brought Back From Vegas

With all the controversy over the local casino deal, I took it upon myself to go out and do some first-hand “research.” Stop 1 was Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, and the Sarah McLachlan concert. Stop 2: Las Vegas, the Strip, and the Grand Canyon.

What I brought back: Two geodes, that I’m still waiting to crack open, and a bottle of mesquite honey, purchased at a roadside store on the bus trip to the Grand Canyon that luckily didn’t crack open and survived the trip home in my checked bag. And of course, the experience.

Our traveling companions remarked that on their first trip to Vegas, they came to see two things: Cher and the Grand Canyon, and they were equally impressive. I found this hard to believe, but by the end of the trip, having seen the Grand Canyon from the Sky Walk, looking down 4,000 feet to the canyon floor below, and the Strip lit up at night from a rooftop lounge, I can now say the same thing: both spectacular, one man-made and the other an example of nature showing off what it can do. Water is a powerful agent. If water was added to rock-paper-scissors, it would win every time.

Another study in contrasts, seeing the Canyon, carved into the landscape over the past 6 million or 70 million years (there is some debate on this topic currently), and the city of Las Vegas, founded just over 100 years ago, owing its tenuous existence as a desert oasis to distant snow melt and the ebb and flow of the Colorado River. Right now, it’s mostly ebb, though. After seeing the water level in Lake Mead, 110 feet below its normal level, I expected dire warnings at the hotel about re-using towels and limiting showers. But, there was no mention of it. No worries, they wouldn’t want to bother their paying guests about such a tiny detail such as a fundamental, vital natural resource required to sustain life.  And, while I needed shorts at the Grand Canyon, I was ever so grateful that I packed along fleece and sweaters for my time indoors, where it was kept ridiculously chilly. I went outside a few times just to warm up, but otherwise I could have stayed indoors the entire trip. Similar to Minneapolis-St. Paul, they’ve built skywalks between buildings, making it so that people would never have to go outside. Just the way they like it! The better to keep their audience captive at the slots.

However, on the resort map, they show a jogging path. So, I don my new running shoes and venture out in the morning dry heat, which is only at the blow dryer level; it will reach blow torch by the afternoon. The jogging path turns out to be the concrete walkway circling the complex of pools. There is one other jogger. The same thought bubble is floating above our heads: “They said it was a jogging path!”

We take it all in – the Strip, the casinos, the fountains at the Bellagio. We see Penn and Teller. Magical. Poof! They make some more of my money disappear. Las Vegas is Disney for adults, its variously-themed resorts dwarfing the international pavilions of Epcot. If Times Square and Hollywood had a baby, a love child, it would be Las Vegas, with a dash of Provincetown pageantry and New Orleans carnival thrown in. It’s so over the top, it can’t look down.

I am fascinated by this strange place. I pick up one of the local weeklies, Vegas Seven, and find a column called “Ask a Native,” by James P. Reza, describing the Las Vegas culture as “open and unfettered,” where they “openly accommodate, celebrate and enable human nature in its good and bad forms” and “generally don’t try to legislate or regulate what Ivory Tower East Coasters see as ‘bad behavior.’ Mr. Reza goes on to call Las Vegas “the best city right now, particularly for those who have the desire to carve their own path, to create something from whole cloth, to pursue an idea to its end with very few of the institutional and social roadblocks that plague other more established cities. Nobody here needs permission. We just do.” 

Well, Boston is never going to be Las Vegas. We are probably one of those East Coast Ivory Towers. We are unlikely to allow free range human nature or promote bad behavior. Legalize prostitution? We just got rid of our blue laws. Just for the record, while prostitution is permitted in the state of Nevada, it is specifically prohibited in a few counties, including Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. That didn’t seem to stop the guys handing out calling cards to passersby on the street advertising their “private dancers.”

So, if Boston is not a hotbed of “bad behavior,” we are at least forward thinking in ways that others are not, or not as evolved. The “shot heard round the world” was fired in the suburbs of Concord and/or Lexington (almost as much controversy about that as there is about the age of the Grand Canyon). We were the first state to recognize gay marriage, and recently legalized medical marijuana use. Our revolutions have been those born of social justice.

I wonder - if we can’t be Las Vegas, what can we learn from it?
What are the best ideas we can bring back and apply here?

I got in touch with the columnist, Mr. Reza, to get his thoughts and advice on the concept of a Boston casino. He has been covering the Vegas scene for twenty years. He fills me in on the business model, the role of the high rollers, or “whales” (giving a whole new meaning to the term “whale-watching”), their expectations, and what it takes to draw in this highly coveted audience, in terms of infrastructure, relationships, and amenities. It is all about the experience. The high rollers are an important part of the equation. Does it work without the high rollers? If the customer base is going to be limited to the local populace, then revenues will ebb and flow with local paychecks. Either way, a casino will have an impact on the region, both financially and socially. There is no denying that gambling has a dark side.

At the end of our conversation, I asked him if maybe the best thing we could take away from Las Vegas might be ideological, simply being less risk averse and taking those leaps of faith, and going “all in.” He noted that the city attracts risk takers. As a possible example of this, I pointed out that the band Imagine Dragons started out in Las Vegas. At their concert at the Worcester DCU Center in March, lead singer Dan Reynolds noted that they’d made a conscious decision about five years ago to devote themselves to their music full-time. So, while so many of us hedge our bets, and pride ourselves on our diversified portfolios and prudent risk management, here is a look at what can happen when someone goes “all in.” What we miss risking, we risk missing.

After walking the Strip, I had some ideas of what I would like to see in our Boston casino. As a low roller, a minnow amongst whales, no one is going to cater to my wish list, but here it is:
  • Make it a unique destination that truly transports people. Capitalize on who we are, where we are, and what we want to be.
  • Create a place for art and philanthropy, by building partnerships with local community organizations, and incorporating art, drawing from our vast pool of local talent and their treasures, or borrowing some of the great masterpieces from the local museums.
  • Have a couple of slot machines whose proceeds go to various selected charities.
  • Put in an actual jogging path, with a soft surface. Better yet, make it a miniature replica of the Boston Marathon. 
  • Keep most of the casinos smoke-free. 
  • Offer clams casino. While there were a surprising number of seafood dishes on the menus in Vegas, I never did find clams casino, and even if I had, I’m not sure I’d want those well-traveled clams. We have clams, so why not clams casino!
  • Create a wedding destination for same-sex marriages. Yes, Provincetown is the ideal location, but imagine schlepping your extended family to the outermost tip of the Cape. A Boston-area venue would be just so much more convenient.
After talking to Mr. Reza, from a business standpoint, we have two, maybe three options:
  • If we simply want to maximize revenue, then build a high-end casino resort destination that will attract the high rollers and provide the “experience” they are looking for – a world-class resort with gourmet dining, gambling, nightlife, and other things, some less savory, and turn a blind eye to its darker side.
  • If we can’t draw in the high rollers, then the business model changes dramatically. The high rollers represent an important share of the revenue. Without them, we are back to depending on the local/regional populace for revenue, with profits ebbing and flowing with the local economy and the available disposable income.
  • Take the gambling out of the picture entirely, and build a first-class resort that hosts events, conventions, and shows, and attracts travelers from across the world with world-class shopping, dining, and nightlife. Expect lower revenues, though.
Whether high end or not, a casino will have a major impact on the region. Some lives will be changed dramatically for the worse by the new temptation in their backyard. At least Las Vegas is a six-hour flight away. And what happens in Vegas mostly stays in Vegas. There is no doubt that “if we build it, they will come.” But, who “they” will be, will depend entirely on what we build, and who we build it for. We need to decide: What do we want?

P.S. There’s a rumor that Elton John and Cher are returning to Caesars Palace in 2015. You just might see me back there! 

Next stop: The Races!


It was purely by chance that we wound up going on this whirlwind casino tour in July, as prior to this, I had never even stepped foot in one. Susan had a conference in Vegas, and I decided to tag along, and maybe find a nice quiet place to write. Now, looking for a nice quiet place to write in Vegas is about the same as looking for a little alone time in Times Square on New Year’s Eve! The miracle is that I actually found it in the course of my wanderings at the Four Seasons, which is appended to Mandalay Bay, where we were staying. So, thank you to the kind and gracious staff at the Four Seasons for your patience and hospitality in welcoming in this interloper from the hotel next door. Truly, an oasis of calm!

An update on what we brought back – the mesquite honey is all gone, it was absolutely delicious. For some strange reason, the geodes remain unbroken mysteries. And, I brought back one last thing: the inspiration for my Halloween costume: a Venetian gondolier. I have the blue and white striped sweater already, and now just have to add the paddle, hat, and red neck scarf. O-sole-mio!

Happy Halloween!

Post Script:

Also this week, Imagine Dragons just released the single, “I Bet My Life.” You can find it on iTunes, YouTube, etc. What - or who - would you bet your life on?

© 2014 Rosemary A. Schmidt
Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life.” If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact the author. Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Casinos Part 1: Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, and Sarah

With all the controversy over the local casino deal, I took it upon myself to go out and do some first-hand “research.” Stop 1: Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, and the Sarah McLachlan concert.

Having never stepped foot in a casino, I attacked the project with complete relish, ignorance and objectivity. And, actually, if not for the extra set of tickets, the discounted room, and it being one of our dearest friend’s birthday, we probably wouldn’t have made the schlep. But, schlep we did, with gusto.

After a lovely lunch at Junior’s at Foxwoods, we move to the casino floor. The environment I find somewhat disturbing: dark, loud, smoky, over stimulating.  With a cacophony of bells, blings, and beeps, a downright sensory overload. And at the same time, completely cut off from the outside world – no windows, clocks, or TVs. Just aisles of people parked in front of their favorite machines, feeding their hard-earned wages and/or savings into the slots. Suze Orman would have a stroke at the sight of it all. It looks like some of them have been there for days. How can they afford to do this?  I’m mystified. I put in a twenty dollar bill, and bling-bling-bling, within a few minutes, it’s gone. As far as I can tell, the only difference between the slots and a paper shredder is that the slots light up and make noise, and jam much less frequently. On the bright side, I have joined my compatriots in partaking of the free drinks offered on the floor, and cradling a nice little free Bloody Mary, spicy with horseradish, just the way I like it. Heck, maybe I’ll take up smoking, too. The problem is that at this rate, I could go through an entire paycheck by sundown, offset only slightly by the number of free drinks I can down.

If I told you there was a terrorist loose in New England, draining our wealth and exposing our populace to noxious gases, you’d be alarmed. And, we want more of these? For the revenue, I hear. But, if revenues are down, I’d say maybe it’s because all the excess disposable income in the region has been siphoned off the local populace, and at best has perhaps reached steady state, where revenue rises and falls in rhythm with pay checks.

I can at least take solace in the fact that the profits from Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods are going to the Native American tribes. The fact that they’re benefiting from this venture is in some ways perfect payback, poetic justice for all the old bad land deals (Manhattan for beads) and all the other past wrongs, indeed atrocities, committed against the Native Americans in the name of progress and manifest destiny. Of course, no sum of money can ever fully right these wrongs, repair the damage done, or eliminate the suffering experienced at the hands of the white man. But, maybe it can help a little.

I live in Watertown, where our town seal captures the famous exchange of bread and fishes on the banks of the Charles River, which was maybe a more fair exchange, representing the best both worlds had to offer, much the way most partnerships are in the beginning, before the irreconcilable differences emerge. American culture is founded on an always forward-looking perspective, in stark contrast to Native American culture which considers the entire fabric of history, and how past events are still rippling and washing up on distant shores. History is a continuum, and we are one thread, a part of it. Western culture is focused longingly on the great horizon, putting all our stock in the hope and possibility of the future. There is double irony then, that this precise forward-leaning optimism is the same drive that motivates the gambler to take that next spin of the wheel. As a culture, we are obsessed with what’s next. This obsession – and the thrill in the chase – is the psychological motivational driver for gambling. And, of course, there is greed, and the desire to get something for nothing.  But, don’t discount the psychological aspect of it. And there is likely a third factor at play: the experience.

While the slots pay off in monetary terms, a trip to the casino also pays out in another currency: experience.  Case in point, after letting the slots shred a couple more twenty dollar bills, our party made its way to Michael Jordan’s steakhouse for a great dinner, and then on to the show, which provided another study in contrasts. While the casino environment by design tries to make people forget the outside world, Sarah McLachlan gently reminded the audience, while introducing the song, “World on Fire,” that we’re “walking a tightrope these days, with all the chaos in the world,” alluding to the unrest in the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the fighting in Gaza and Israel, beseeching us to “be kind, and be caring.”

This is the Sarah we know and love, the same one who played 20 years ago at a free summer concert at the Hatch Shell in 1994, when she had just broken onto the popular music scene. She was over an hour late, her travel from New York City delayed by weather, but the crowd was shockingly patient, mellow, enjoying their picnic lunches and the perfect summer day. Patience was rewarded by an outstanding performance, with Sarah alternating between playing guitar and piano. Her concert at Mohegan Sun – again, perfect, in terms of both her music and her message, a welcome reminder of the larger world outside and our common humanity.

And it all happened at a casino. So – do we really want more of them? In our back yard? And if so, what would we want our casino to be like? More research is definitely needed.

Next stop: Vegas!


This piece was written this summer after our trip to the local casinos, and seeing Sarah McLachlan in concert there. Thank you, Sarah!

© 2014 Rosemary A. Schmidt
Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life.” If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact the author. Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Getting Lost & Getting Found

We are in Florida, as a family member is having surgery, and so we are driving the strange six-lane highway – with stoplights – between the hotel, strip malls and hospital. It’s what Boston would be if it had all the hills removed, like a sheet whipped out flat and tucked in tight at each corner. Straight and streamlined. While I am usually the first to relinquish the wheel and hand over the driving duties to Susan, I realize that in this instance, I am probably best suited for the job. I am used to getting lost. I’ve been doing it now for over twenty years in Boston. It’s not that I actually get lost, as in “I have no idea where I am,” it’s just that I don’t always arrive at my destination on the first try. With the rapid growth and urban sprawl and development back in my home state of Illinois, I can also easily, routinely take a wrong turn there, too. It’s safe to say that I have been lost, or at least circling, at one time or another, practically everywhere I’ve ever been. It’s like I’ve been everywhere twice, where I meant to go, and where I wound up instead.

So, you may ask, how did this make me the best candidate for driving? What are my credentials? I realized that the others are all used to finding their way to their destination the very first time. If they miss it, they get flustered, but for me, it’s old territory. I’m used to getting lost, and getting unlost. It’s not upsetting, it’s just another day. I have great patience. I know it may take me several attempts to reach my destination. I may even need to circle it a bit, before I home in on my target, and ultimately park. I am the Global Positioning Schmidt.

For those who are not used to being lost, it can be a frustrating and upsetting experience. For me – not so much. No sense getting worked up about it. Yes, here we go again, I’m going to have to find a good place to turn around. Never you mind that “Do Not Enter” sign. Treat it like a puzzle. And take in the sights along the way. “Look,” I say to Susan. “Look at those adorable homes. That’s some real authentic local historical architecture there, we would never have seen had we stayed on the main road.” I like to look for possible shortcuts and scenic routes, too.

So used to getting lost around Boston I am, that there are places I recognize only because I’ve been lost there before. To get out, I carefully trace the same convoluted route that also worked (eventually) for me last time. There are places I go, that I can never find my way back out: Charlestown, JP, Davis Square. From a purely safety standpoint, there are times when the best thing you can do is simply follow the car in front of you and hope and assume they know where they are going. It may not be where you want to go, but better than tying up an entire intersection, getting T-boned, or teeing off your fellow drivers.

A lot of my hard-won experience pre-dates having GPS, but even now, there are still places that GPS can’t find quite right. It sends you the wrong way down a one-way street, or circling a strip mall. The very last resort is to call the destination. That is admitting defeat. But that is what we did in our fruitless search for the restaurant within the sprawling zig-zagging strip mall. GPS had gotten us close, but could not take us to the restaurant. We’d been circling the parking lot for about twenty minutes when we finally broke down and called. “Where are you?” “In front of the Winn-Dixie.” “Oh, keep on driving, we’re at the end of the next strip of stores.” Success!

The lessons of getting lost – and getting found – translate equally well to life. Sometimes a human lifeline is just what you need. You may not reach your destination on the first try. It pays to pay attention. Perseverance pays off.

Are you lost? What do you need to do? Sometimes you need just a little course correction, a nudge of the needle, by just a degree, to get back on track. Maybe you have to stop and check a map, or you need to turn, right or left, or completely around, and make a U-turn to re-trace your steps. Sometimes you just have to let a course play out. It’s possible even to go very far, while sitting still in one place. Not all journeys are physical.

Sometimes you will arrive at your destination, and while the coordinates of the dropped pin are absolutely accurate, you wake up one day and realize you have arrived quite precisely at the entirely wrong place. A line from the Avicii song, “Wake Me Up,” struck a chord with me: “All this time I was finding myself and I didn’t know I was lost.” It’s possible to be following a course in life with perfect precision and accuracy, and yet going in the wrong direction entirely. It’s okay – after all, look at Christopher Columbus, who set out to find a shortcut to China, and landed in the New World. That seemed to work out okay. Even the best planned course, laid out like an old fashioned Triple-A TripTik, can benefit from the hand of luck and fate. Serendipity is as good a guide as any some days.

The best thing we can do is simply be open to all the signs and guides along the way, in navigating our course through life. Travel with eyes open, hearts open. Figure out the puzzle of what you were meant to become. Like a seed that contains all the DNA blueprint for generating a new organism, what if there was a similar design within us for what each of us was meant to become?

We are each masters of our own fate, but in some ways we are also like dowsers, following our divining rods, but where to? What are they leading us to? What is calling to you? What does the blueprint for your fully realized life look like?

To add a Biblical verse to things: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts" (Psalm 95). If today you hear your calling – answer it!

This piece was written after our recent trip to Florida, the Sunshine State, and seemed to follow naturally from the previous post, “The Blind Horse,” in thinking about our guides and all our forms of navigation, literal, metaphorical, and philosophical, following Columbus Day. On the topic of guides – His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be in town later this month - check out ticketmaster for local venues.

Coming Next – a three-part series on the local casino debate and gambling!

© 2014 Rosemary A. Schmidt
Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life.” If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact the author. Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted.   

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Blind Horse

One of our family members has established a reputation for taking in and fostering all kinds of wildlife, and as a landscaper, he comes across a lot. It’s not as if he’s working in an office building. Been there, done that. There are a lot of opportunities in his new line of work. And so, as a result, my cousin has come home to find various rescued animals in their home. He’s the kind of guy who stops when there’s a turtle in the road, gets out, picks it up and carries it to the other side. Aside from him being a Yankees fan, you have to love him. They live in a civilized development, and so they can’t tend to every animal he finds, and so he takes them to his sister who has a farm. This tendency apparently runs in the family. Their family. Listening to all these stories, all I can think of are two words: Lysol Wipes!

As we’re talking, they’re recalling the long list of animals that have made the exodus to His Sister’s Farm, including cats, squirrels, birds, and, oh yeah, The Blind Horse. The what? Apparently, someone had a blind horse, which would understandably be difficult to care for, and the horse also wound up at the Sister’s Farm. His sister has horses (of course she does), and what happened is amazing. One of her horses just naturally became its guide, and the blind horse now follows along behind it. Amazing.
If you Google the term, it turns out that this has apparently happened many times before, sometimes with a goat or donkey being the guide, and it’s also a pretty good name for a pub or restaurant. It almost sounds like an urban - or rural - myth, too good to be true. So, it’s nice to find out that it’s real, and not just some made-up magical story.

There is something else about the concept of a blind horse that resonates with people. Here is an animal that is designed and built to run hard, run fast, and run head first, but can’t even see where it is going. I think about it and then I realize - that sounds like me. That sounds like all of us. We probably won’t be lucky enough to wind up at His Sister’s Farm, or to have our own horse-guide. And so we race about, running head-long into things, and each other, head-first. And maybe sometimes heart-first.
What are the options, after all? To not move at all, to pull in all our appendages tortoise-like into our proverbial shells? As long as we are moving, we are bound to make contact, step on someone’s toes, make mistakes, hurt and get hurt. As long as we participate in this human scrum of interaction, we are bound to get hurt. Our mothers were right: “Someone is going to get hurt!”

How do we become less blind? Less hurt? How do we avoid running into each other? How do we fix things when we do? The map of human history has far more monuments to war than to those celebrating the brief and fleeting moments of peace and harmony.
Step one is to recognize that most conflict evolves from a threat to a person’s innate sense of worth or place in the world. Looking through the lens of a psychologist, such as local author Dr. Donna Hicks, who has made a career of studying the role of dignity in conflict resolution, it is all about recognizing and acknowledging how past and present hurts - dignity violations - predispose people to lashing out at others. Looking through a rugby player’s eyes, we’re all playing injured, with some incompletely healed battle wounds.

In terms of seeing the innate worth in others, Brenda Ueland, perhaps the greatest writing coach in modern time, said it best, proclaiming that “the only way to love a person” is “by listening to them, and seeing and believing in the god, in the poet, in them.” And finally, as we say at the end of each yoga practice: “Namaste,” which translates loosely to something like, “The light in me honors the light in you.”
Maybe there are some guides for the blind horses we are, and these guides may go by many names: psychology, philosophy, religion, sport, art, or yoga. We all just have to find our guides. That we could all be so lucky as to be rescued and taken to His Sister’s Farm.

Hicks, Donna. 2011. Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Ueland, Brenda. 1938. If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.

The inspiration for this piece came last fall after listening to family stories and hearing Dr. Donna Hicks give a talk about Dignity at Regis College. Stay tuned for Part 2 on “Getting Lost and Getting Found.” Coming Soon – a three-part series on gambling!

© 2014 Rosemary A. Schmidt
Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life.” If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact the author. Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted.