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A reality check in reverse
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Forsyth County News
There is an old joke about the woman who always wore shoes that were two sizes too small. When asked why she said, “Because it feels so good when I take them off.”

I’ve often wished that every American, particularly the young, could have the opportunity to spend time abroad. It’s not only because new experiences are broadening and exciting. The contrasts also provide new perspectives on “home” and, in particular, often lead to greater appreciation of what otherwise is taken for granted.

But it is possible to get a reality check without crossing international borders. Few experiences can do this better than a trip to Las Vegas, the American Dream in the extreme. And as in the shoe joke, it feels so good when you get home to reality.

My wife, Beverly, and I just spent two days in Vegas, as a waystop on a journey elsewhere. It hasn’t changed much since our last visit, half a dozen years ago. Everything is still exaggerated and overwhelming, particularly if the strip becomes the center of the universe while you are in town.

The first thing we noticed upon arrival was that the current economic recession seemed to have vanished. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which tracks economic activity in Vegas, shows substantial declines in the last year and a half, but these are almost invisible to the visitor.

That is particularly true on weekends, when it is hard to walk down the street for the crush of people, and any time of day when traffic brings the flow on the strip to frequent standstills.

Prices also seem to negate any thought of economic downturn. Good seats for top shows go for $150-$170 at the box office, and much more through scalpers. And the shows are full. With the exception of average room rates, everything is expensive. Food prices in good restaurants are high, as are the prices of the myriad buffets offered. But interestingly, quality is generally good and, in one sense, value is also high.

The skyline is cluttered with cranes, completing new high rise buildings. Some of the new facilities are incredibly large and will add substantial capacity to that which already exists. Again, not a sign of economic slowdown, at least not yet.

Interestingly, although the number of visitors was down for 2008 (and the monthly figures through May of this year show a continuing declining trend), total visitor revenue figures for 2008 were actually up over 2007, seeming to indicate that the city is becoming more expensive rather than less.

I’m not sure why so many people come to Las Vegas. Some may hope they can beat the odds and strike it rich at the tables, offsetting economic woes at home. Good luck.

Some may just be looking for a brief escape from their everyday existence. Many may just be looking for fun. The excesses one encounters in Vegas are different from anything else that this nation has to offer.

As previously mentioned, we found food prices high. But, in one sense, value was also high. That is, if you want to eat as much as your body can tolerate. Some of the all-you-can-eat buffets have incredible arrays of food. Portions in most restaurants, like everything in the city, are oversized.

It would seem that food is a major attraction for many of the people who visit. You can see the aftermath, walking down the streets and through the casinos. Although Las Vegas may have lost ground by “head count,” any measure by total poundage would have to be climbing spectacularly.

We couldn’t believe the number of grossly overweight people we saw in the city. But this may be more a national trend than a characteristic of Las Vegas. We were intrigued to see the number and variety of tattoos and body piercings that a stroll around town presents. That’s a show in itself.

Everywhere you turn, things are presented on a colossal scale. The size of many of the casinos has to be seen to be believed ... thousands of hotel rooms, acres of floor space dedicated to taking your money, hundreds of shops, dozens of bars and restaurants, numerous theaters, various types of amusements, animated lobby shows and, wherever you walk, the constant sound of the slot machines. You can spend hours exploring a single casino without scratching the surface.

Then there is the external view. The architecture of most of the casinos presents themes on enormous scales. Fountains, towers, roller coasters, pirate ships, statues and bright neon lights abound, all designed to create a fantasy world and lure in anyone with the temerity to try to stroll by. And everywhere you turn is more “hype” per unit of space than exists anywhere else.

There was an aspect of Vegas that is different. As you walk down the street, dozens of people are handing out cards, each containing a picture of a girl, a telephone number and a price. Las Vegas also sells sex, and in a state where brothels are legal, that should come as no surprise.

And then there are the shows. And I’m not referring to those with strong sexual content, although they are there too.
We saw two shows. One was a family style show noteworthy for the variety of acts and the incredible talent of the performers.

But the second was something that can be found only in Las Vegas. It was KA, one of the several Circque de Soleil shows being offered here. It was presented in a theater that could only happen in Vegas. Specially built for the show at an estimated cost of $165 million (yes, for this one show) the theater design is integral to the action.

Despite the high ticket prices, the show was sold out, as it is for almost every performance. Nowhere else but in La Vegas would you find something as elaborate as different and as impressive. It’s unreal, but in a marvelously exhilarating way. It is a type of monument to man’s ingenuity.

Las Vegas is overwhelming. It provides an escape from reality into a dream world of image, money, imagination and fantasy. But sooner or later, reality must return.

For those who live here, it takes on a different form, as the “behind the scenes” realty is very different from the façade. But for those of us who go home, it may stimulate creativity and energy as one addresses the more mundane tasks of daily life. It’s good to escape from time to time, but only if one returns with renewed vitality and, hopefully, with a pocketbook that has not been lightened excessively.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at