Artifice Can Scour Your Soul ’til It Shines Like New

When a simulacrum of Rome shines from across the street and compact, artificial Venice is next door, what persists from the reality I left behind a few days ago is given a renewed heft. If it can keep being heard over the sound of slot machines and background music and the excited hum of thousands of strangers, it must be real. It must be heard.

Heart mural on Las Vegas's Fremont Street

In Las Vegas, I look at the people around me and quickly account for how we are different. This isn’t much of a departure from my usual MO, but it’s heightened here.

They are happy. They are bro packs, intent and at least dimly malevolent, toothy predators in striped, collared shirts, sheep’s clothing. Bachelorette parties and sash-wearing birthday girls, three and five and nine and twelve of them, staggered and staggering across the sidewalk and the casino corridor. People who take the opportunity of being in Las Vegas as a chance to dress like they are somehow acquainted with sex work, or at least a distinctly 70s-flavored version of swinging, all cleavage and embroidered denim jackets with rhinestones and everything short or tight or lavishly embellished or all three. Families with small children, everyone drinking sweet, brightly colored slush of different proofs from strangely similar vessels. They are here to cut loose and see shows and run wild and let their hair down and have what happens here stay here. They want to quote The Hangover and eat a thick steak or a shrimp cocktail and let their woohooooooos echo down the street like thin, waving, fluorescent ribbons, dancing in the sky, evidence that they lived and lived it up and had fun with their boys/girls/various people in their lives.

I take pictures of intersecting architectural lines and contrasts that make me laugh, trying to capture what I noticed at even half the potency it had in person. I try to figure out the stories of the people walking by me. I take pictures of myself reflected in doors and windows, wondering if what’s inside of me is visible on my face. The set of my face is a little melancholy even on ordinary days, though, so I can’t tell if today is different.

It would be inaccurate to say that I have a love of over-the-top artifice, but it’s fair to say that I find it absolutely fascinating. I have seen enough marketing plans and mood boards to be able to get a sense of the feeling a hotel or restaurant is trying to give, the thesis or phrase that powered their plans visible in this lushly striped wallpaper or that ornately cast fake column. This is, of course, a state that makes actually experiencing what the creators intended impossible. But I am an observer, and I feel at least somewhat outside of things most of the time. In Las Vegas, it goes into overdrive; I feel like the child in the crowd in The Emperor’s New Clothes, except I’ve long since learned what happens to that child, telling truth to power. Her sticky remains get washed away with the next rainy day.

But, joyfully unavoidable: I also love lights and neon and glittering strands of crystal drops and unlikely spaces made with conscious opulence. Vegas is for me too, in that way.

These days, though, I walk through an intersection of real and intended. What was once meant to be, among other things, a trip to introduce my significant other to my family is instead a family trip where I have the luxury of a room to myself and the unparalleled sting of one fewer person to text before takeoff and after landing.* I had thoughts and loose plans around what it would be like to mix these two parts of my life that had never touched; instead, I’ve been largely content to go along with my family’s ideas, offering suggestions to bolster their plans more than my own specific ideas. I don’t have many specific ideas right now; I came here feeling almost startled after finding myself sitting on a plane somewhere over the desert, trying to count the steps that led me from my immersive school to seat 8C. For the last three months, I’ve been buried in semi-relocating and then learning and then trying to find a job, all processes that have been at least somewhat frantic, a constant race against a certain idea of self dissolution. I have been absorbed in computer science, heartbreak, and a growing likelihood of real relocation. As such, I had researched no restaurants or attractions. I made no loose itineraries. And, without the usual preamble of thinkery, anticipation, and research I usually go through before a trip, I felt dumped headlong into it.

Really, though, that’s how I feel about most of my life right now. A little startled, a little groggy, and another sprint to try to adjust just enough to get the most out of what I’m doing.

Circus Circus door; faux-surly author

It’s a time of triage, of unpredictable levels of energy and feeling. And it happened that I ended up in one of the weirder places on earth just as I’ve started to feel like I might be happy again someday, with a life gathered in one place, me, my cats, and my stuff all under one roof with a good yearlong lease ahead of us. Sometimes, I can kind of see it.

In this trip, I’ve eaten speakeasy pizza. I bought art from a vending machine. I’ve seen Cirque du Soleil twice.** I’ve drank regrettable slush. I roamed, drunk and alone, through the back hallways of Circus Circus. I walked past a street full of different bands covering different decades of American pop music, all just a half block from each other. I’ve visited multiple make-believe versions of multiple great cities, gazed at gondolas and passed a Colosseum and strolled imaginary, indoor versions of New York streets. And the only money I lost to a machine was when I tried to buy stamps and only succeeded in losing eight quarters.

My regular life right now is about making large decisions. I think often of steering a large ship, something so big that there’s a pregnant pause between spinning the wheel and seeing the bow turn against the horizon. Where shall I be, and what shall I be, and who shall I be with, and what shall I do, and what shall things look like in three and six and twelve months?***  Switching to questions like “Do we want another buffet meal?” and “Do we see the show with the naked people or the acrobatics?” and “Do you think we can fit Hoover Dam and the Neon Museum in one day?”**** are a nice change.

Which I guess is what traveling is for: contrast of a most heightened kind, departure and a return that one hopes brings perspective. Now: to find out what that perspective will be.

*Nothing shows you the stark reality of your life like realizing how many or how few people you have to text from a runway. It’s a quick, sharp accounting like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Whenever it shifts, I end up breathless the first and second time.

**My second-biggest goal for this trip, despite the lack of planning. Seeing more Cirque du Soleil is always a goal of mine. The actual goal of this trip: hanging out with my family. It’s rare that I get to lure them west, that I get to make the easy trip, and it was even better than I thought it would be.

***Your guess may be as good as mine. Maybe it’s better, because maybe you have a better ability to be fanciful than I do right now.

****No. Or we didn’t, anyway, because we like to actually relax on our vacations.

Where Berlin Meets the Pacific Northwest (and has coffee)

Flat whites and fruit tart at St. Oberholz in Berlin

Paris is a place I long for, but Berlin is a place I can more reasonably see myself ending up. To me, it’s like Seattle meets Olympia meets any beautiful, beleaguered city in Europe, which means it combines several things I like very much with a financial feasibility that’s hard for an American to find in a European city.

Let me explain.

In Berlin’s friendliness toward tech and startups, its beautifully and quirkily shod young people, and its abundant coffee shops, I see Seattle.

In its often cash-only economy, its abundant and generous public art, and its stunning parks, I see Olympia (or any college town, really – I originally wrote “Bellingham” up there).

And in its long and difficult history, its resilience, and its centuries of beauty and struggle, I see Europe. It’s something that no American city can possibly have, and it’s something I admire very much.

So it was funny to be in the mood for a coffee and inadvertently end up enjoying flat whites and a fruit tart at the most Seattle-ly place I saw in Europe.*

Saint Oberholz is one of many startup-friendly establishments in Berlin. (You could argue that Berlin itself, or Germany as a whole, is a startup-friendly establishment. And win.) They self-publish a guide to making your own damn Berlin startup, in fact.

I ended up there about a week into my November trip to Europe. And it was there that I realized, surrounded by blue-faced zombies staring into laptops, delicately picking my way across trailing power cords, that I felt more at home there than I had in the previous several days.

I’m still figuring out whether that speaks well of it or not.

Also up in the air: whether I should dedicate my scanty spare time to learning French or German. Feel free to make your case to me in person if you have an opinion on it.


*And that includes the Microsoft store in Berlin – though I later found out that it wasn’t officially sanctioned by Microsoft! I was in an off-brand, third-party Microsoft store in bloody Germany that mimicked the branding perfectly – down to the cheery “Hello!” someone called out in relatively unaccented English when we walked in. The only reason I know it wasn’t officially sanctioned is because, several months later, I had a conversation at a party with someone who has worked in opening stores like that for the last several years – and Germany is an untapped market. Huh.

The Warmest Welcome, the Enduring Oasis

A cup of hot wine at Place de Tertre in Paris

When I am at loose ends with things, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I know Paris is not a sustainable kind of situation for me, or at least not at this point in my financial and professional life, and a sustainable kind of situation is what I need these days. I need to find somewhere that I can plant myself for a year or two, avec mes chats, and spread out a bit. Paris is attainable for only a few days at a time, here and there, when I am both lucky and plan well.

But, even knowing that, I still go there in my mind when things are hard. And they are right now, so there I am.

Because the memory of beautiful days can outweigh the incredibly difficult reality that surrounded said days.

Because readily available vin chaud can feel, over and over, like the world is welcoming you home.

Because sitting, warmed by heaters and overlooking the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, watching the artists pack up and the coat-clad tourists slipping by, waiting for onion soup (the French is implied, of course) and tipping just enough sugar into your hot wine can be enough to obscure (if not actually erase) the 12-hour travel ordeal proceeded it, as well as whatever unfortunate reality prefaced or followed it. Warm and comfortable and on the cusp of an adventure, an hour or a meal can stand out as one of the handful of perfect moments that we get to keep and hold in a life, if we are very lucky indeed.

And so, when things are hard, it’s easy to long for moments like that, because they stand out, independent of context. Were things perfect then? Before or after? No, of course not. But just for that moment, that hour, my needs were met, and things were good, and the future stretched out ahead like infinite possibility – or I could at least pretend that possibility was infinite.

There will always be Paris. And there will always be me. And the only thing to do is to try to recreate that feeling wherever I end up.

It could be vin chaud in Paris. But it can also be just the right dinner from my own kitchen in a clean apartment. Pulling over on the 101 to look out at the seeming infinity of the ocean, knowing I have what I need to get wherever I’m going. Warm arms around me and nowhere else to be. And these are better things to aim for, because although I will have vin chaud in Paris again, it won’t be the moment when I took the picture at the top. So better to aim for a multitude of perfect moments; the inevitable failures will be fewer and easier to take if I’m looking to augment rather than recreate.

Still, these days, the vin chaud is the thing that calls to me. Autumn seeps into my room at night now, and I can feel the equinox approaching. Times are hard, and I am me, and I treated myself to this book this weekend. I just bought brie and a crusty loaf at the grocery store, which I will enjoy by Lake Merritt in the next couple of days. I do what I can, and I try not to envy my past self too badly.

And I trust there will be more perfect moments ahead. Because I am lucky, and because I plan well.