I figured it I wrote about my adventures smoking, drinking, gambling, listening to loud nihilistic music, meditating on dead bodies and basically having a Very Gothy Midlife Crisis, it would be a pretty good way to torpedo my career as a YA author before even getting it off the ground. Maybe it can serve as a cautionary tale.
With regard to the smoking, I used to be a hardcore smoker, back when it was cheap and most people did it. I really miss the impromptu friendships that sprang up in smoking sections, where I’d have seven-minute conversations with my fellow addicts. Giving it up was difficult, and I spent the last several years of my addiction chomping on extra-strength nicotine gum day and night. I’m fortunate in that alcohol and drugs never really held any attraction for me, aside from caffeine and nicotine. I’m still proudly addicted to caffeine.
So I bought an actual pack of cigarettes during my 48 hours in Las Vegas. Menthol ones, because it’s going to be outlawed soon and I wanted to give it one last try. At first they tasted horrible and nasty, and then, within a few hours, I was craving them. I smoked half of my pack, which was ridiculously expensive, and shared the rest with other smokers. Then I had a headache for the next couple of days while it passed out of my system. Horrible stuff. If I were already dying a rapid death due to something else I’d resume in a heartbeat.
With regard to the drinking, I had a vodka cocktail on night one and it gave me a headache so I switched to plain water for the second night and had a much better time. With regard to the gambling, I set myself a firm budget of forty bucks, and I piddled around playing nickel and quarter video poker while smoking some of my foul cigarettes. The two activities go together like peanut butter and jelly. I’m not much of a gambler, though, so why did I return to Vegas? Lots of reasons, but there’s a story involved.
I haven’t really written much about my friend who recently passed away. I’ve been grieving harder than I’ve ever done it before, but I haven’t been able to really write about it because he was a private person and because there are all kinds of legal and family issues that I don’t understand yet am trying to respect.
He liked to throw parties. I was one of the people helping him do so, because I have event planning skills. I missed his last party because I impulsively decided to fly to Las Vegas to see Nine Inch Nails instead. He understood, and when NIN announced tour dates in San Francisco, I bought him a ticket. Then he went and inconsiderately died way before his time, and I never got to see NIN with him, and I’ll never attend another one of his parties again. Damn.
In my quest to move along with my grief so that I’m less emotionally volatile and nihilistic, I’ve been indulging in lots of live music. Particularly the emotionally volatile and nihilistic kind, and Nine Inch Nails does that better than anyone. I couldn’t really afford to indulge in two more NIN concerts, unless I thought of it as therapy. A targeted, focused Good Weekend to counterbalance any emotional angst I should experience at the concert on Monday. Or the concert on Tuesday – a second date got announced, and I figured I’d make it four shows in a row. Loud emotional music, flashing lights, thousands of people all yelling together. To me that’s better than a couple hundred thousand hours of psychotherapy.
Then there’s the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. I fell in love with this wacky place. My thirteen-year-old self would have been in awe. I had a very strong urge to visit it one more time, and to take loads of pictures – which I did. They’re all posted on Facebook. Maybe I’ll eventually put them here, when I’m less lazy. It smells like sandalwood, and cigarettes, and alcohol, and it’s full of weird rock and roll memorabalia. Kind of like the Haight-Ashbury but with less communism. Freddie Mercury’s jacket is enshrined there, and Brian Setzer’s guitar, and Prince’s shirt, and Elton’s sequin jumpsuit, and Bowie’s knitted suit, and the gun that Elvis’ doctor used to carry while guarding Elvis’ pill stash. The walls are decorated with signs that say things like “Gabba Gabba Hey!” and the t-shirts say things like “Rock and Roll is My Religion.”
Having never been to Las Vegas in the winter before, I was pleased to find it was actually a normal, San Francisco-like temperature. So the next day, after way too much breakfast at Caesar’s, I decided to walk all the way to ancient Egypt at the other end of the strip. I passed through Paris and New York along the way. I stopped at the Bellagio to watch an impressive fountain show synchronized to Celine Dion belting out the Titanic song. I watched some cute showgirls with pasties stuck to their boobies pose for photo ops with tourists. I checked out the fashions at Versace (yeah, that’s a Showgirls reference).
It’s kind of hard to explain this, but buildings cheer me up. That’s part of why I choose to live in San Francisco. Buildings that are fussy and ornate and full of architectural details can keep me amused for long periods of time, and Las Vegas is mostly made of eye-catching architectural details. So I spent hours walking around, enjoying carpet patterns and window fixtures and pretending I lived in a high tech city in the far, far future. One that was amalgamating the history of architecture’s greatest hits for high volume tourism, because a lot of us humans dig architectural details.
I wound up at the Luxor, where I found the Titanic again. There was an exhibit devoted to it, and since Ms. Dion’s warbling was still ringing in my head (not to worry, Nine Inch Nails would soon take care of that little problem), I bought myself a ticket and gawped at mockups of the promenade deck, and a first class cabin, and a steerage cabin, and the famous staircase, interspersed with actual Titanic relics, most notably a chunk of bulkhead bigger than a garage door. I snagged a Titanic poster to hang in my bathroom – which is small and strangely compact and resembles a boat bathroom, so I have it painted blue and decorated with nautical and tropical type things, and a poster of a looming doomed ocean liner fits beautifully.
I loved the Titanic movie. Not for the dumb love story, for the … cough … architectural details, because James Cameron got all the wallpaper and stuff just right.
Then there’s the shipwreck porn aspect. Not sure if I’ve told this story here before, but repetition hasn’t stopped me from being redundant in the past and it probably won’t in the future, repeatedly. When I was a little kid I had nightmares about shipwrecks. My parents assumed it was due to overexposure to the Arizona Memorial, which was nearby, or possibly from viewing 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. As I got older my terror morphed into weird fascination, some of which makes its way into my stories. I’ll sit through terrible movies that include shipwreck porn, and as for good movies (like Das Boot) or high budget movies (like Titanic), I sit in rapt attention, fascinated and terrified by the immenseness of the ocean. And yeah, I still do have nightmares about shipwrecks. Fastforward to age thirty-five, when I’m learning about my biological father for the first time … he was an engineer, on board a submarine.
There was another exhibit next to the Titanic thing. It was called Bodies. It consisted of cadavers, coated in plastic. Actual cadavers, plus parts of them – gallbladders and livers and hearts and spleens and anuses and testes and colons and lungs. Some were posed in lifelike positions. One was sliced up like a deli salami.
I have a little bit of anatomical knowledge associated with my job, handling exhibits such as raw medical imaging and summarizing medical experts’ opinions and the like. I’m fascinated by biology. So I bought a twofer ticket, Titanic and Bodies, because why not, and the Bodies actually made a very deep and lasting impression. We’re made of meat. Sometimes the meat malfunctions and sprouts tumors and polyps and grows in odd ways. We age and fall apart. That is the nature of meat. If we can provide a little value to our fellow meat citizens after our shelf life has expired, we are fine meat indeed, but ultimately we’re all just little party snacks in the greater scheme of things. All the elaboration – the art, the love, the appreciation architectural details, the shipwreck fascinations, the nicotine addictions, the volatile emotional music – that’s our real value. Our physical bodies break down fast but the residue we create in the form of memories and fountain shows and window fittings and blog posts and movies and novels last a while, and they are what bring us together.
Death followed me for the rest of the weekend, in a removed and artistic and meditative way. Nine Inch Nails performed an amazing set that included “Dead Souls,” one of my favorites. The show poster was a postapocalyptic Vegas with ravens perched on a slot machine; I’m getting my copy framed. Everywhere I looked there were people decorated with skull t-shirts and patches and tattoos. The casino had a section of Walking Dead slot machines, and the walls of my room were graced with portraits of the late Janis, and the late Bowie.
I returned home to the ill-fated concert, and found people to correspond to my spare tickets. The next night was cold and rainy, and I found a nice seat in a little group of fans quietly filming songs on our phones. I made a couple of my own souvenir videos. And I bought the night’s event poster – a skull.
I guess some people might find grief relief in nature, while others might turn to church. I found it in a crowd of goths with black eyeliner, and also in a bunch of people who courageously donated their meat to an anatomical exhibit to help others contemplate their own meatlike nature.
And in Trent Reznor, mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails. He said he wouldn’t let me fall apart, years ago in a song lyric, and he kept his promise.
I suppose a lot of people would end an essay like this with some kind of vow to be a better person, to eat more vegetables and be nicer to people and be all spiritual, but this is a story about me being an anti-role model, so I’ll just leave that part out. I survived my 48-hours of decadent badness with associated alcohol and tobacco and gambling and scary music, and came out a much better person for it, although I wouldn’t recommend the alcohol and tobacco and gambling parts as they weren’t nearly as much fun as the music.
I do recommend good clean dark nihilistic gloomy scary art, if you're the sort of person who is fascinated by it. It's excellent emotional rehearsal for dealing with the real thing. It is cathartic. It can bond you to other people who have been there and know what it's like. It can heal your soul.