This week my work took me to a multiple-day, national meeting in Las Vegas. And, unlike the work meetings we’ve had there in previous years, this time we stayed on the Strip.
I hadn’t been to the Las Vegas Strip in over a decade. We went down in 2004 so that I could compete in my first grappling tournament. The city was just at the end of its campaign to brand itself as a family destination, and later that year Las Vegas would overhaul its marketing strategy to introduce the famous (and dishonest) slogan, “What happens here, stays here.”
In 2004, everyone knew that you could let your hair down at night. But during the day, it was the kind of place that you could walk around in with your family to see the tigers, the fountains, and the pirates.
Then we went to the cactus gardens.
I won’t pretend that the Strip was a lovely place in 2004. We actually went home a day early because we were sick of cigarette smoke and pornographic litter on the sidewalks. But it was still a nice enough place that I unapologetically brought a whole family down to stay in affordable rooms and watch me lose my first tournament.
What a difference a decade makes!
As I re-entered the Strip again, eleven years into its new image, it was sickening. I’ve never been anywhere less agreeable than today’s Las Vegas Strip. It was gross. And it celebrated and congratulated itself on being as gross as it could be. I could only think of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s careful warning to Luke: “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
I got by for most of the trip by keeping my blinders on, reading a bunch, and re-watching the old mini-series Centennial (a childhood favorite). I also took my normal precaution of throwing away the TV remote control batteries as soon as I walked in the hotel room.
But then things got tough when my work division went out for a social evening together. This was not an optional evening, of course. It was part of what I call “mandatory fun.”
We had a dinner together and then went to a show. It was a nice gesture from our leadership, who were hoping to reward us for a lot of hard work and give us a chance to relax and have fun together. But the show was terrible. It might probably have been tame by local standards. But it was raunchy.
As a father of a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old, I’m very familiar with the standards of the Mormon Church and the way that we teach them to our youth. We teach them to stand up for what they believe in, to be true to themselves, and not to be afraid of being different. In the church pamphlet, For the Strength of Youth, young people are taught:
You are responsible for the choices you make. God is mindful of you and will help you make good choices, even if your family and friends use their agency in ways that are not right. Have the moral courage to stand firm in obeying God’s will, even if you have to stand alone. As you do this, you set an example for others to follow.
As an adult, that seems like sensible and easy advice. But it’s also easy to forget how challenging it really is for a teenager to be different than their peers or to walk away from something that their peers are doing. Life is actually pretty benign this way as an adult. I have a lot of control over where I go and whom I’m with. I don’t often find myself surprised in an environment where the activities don’t line up with my values. I never have to display any moral courage this way, so I’ve forgotten how hard it actually is to do so.
It was horrible. I can’t remember a time I’ve felt so uncomfortable and so unsure of myself. Not wanting to offend anyone, I decided I’d stick it out but just not watch. I put my head in my hands and focused on the ground. This was a bit like saying I smoked but “didn’t inhale,” and it felt completely hollow.
The show got progressively worse and, within just a couple minutes of when it began, I realized I had to go. I put an image of Wendy in my mind’s eye, and I stood up and walked out. Before I was out of the hallway, a coworker had texted, “Wait for me!”
We got a cab to the hotel and talked the whole time about this tough decision and what it might mean tomorrow. We were both worried that we’d offended people and that we’d have strained relationships the next day. But when we got back to the hotel, he ended the conversation saying: “I’m glad we left. It was the right thing to do. And I’ll live with whatever consequence.”
When I got to the room, I called Wendy. I was crying. I was embarrassed and stressed out. I felt like everyone would think I was self-righteous. Except for the people who know me well; they would think I’m a hypocrite. Plus my boss had bought these tickets and it felt rude to disrespect the well-intentioned gesture.
Wendy was just lovely. She was kind and supportive and grateful. And she was just completely, passionately loving. Her reaction reminded me of Linda Burton’s statement at LDS General Conference that “a husband is never more attractive to his wife than when he is serving in his God-given role as a worthy priesthood holder.”
I was nervous the next morning when we gathered for breakfast. I hoped that no one would be irritated with me and that I hadn’t put distance between me and my friends. But it was just the opposite.
Right when I arrived, people immediately sought me out and thanked me. A few others had left after we did. And some others confided that they wished they had left. And my boss was the best of all. She pulled me aside to apologize. She hadn’t known that the show would be like that, and was immediately embarrassed when it was. She wanted people to know that it was OK to leave the show and felt like our example freed up the others to go.
Last Sunday, I overheard someone giving a talk in a different Mormon congregation. He was talking about a recent trip to Las Vegas and how bad it had been. I never could have anticipated how this week would turn out for me in that same place. As I flew home to Boise, I was grateful that I’d managed to stand for something and surprised at how difficult it had been to do so. I was committed to being braver in the future. And I was sincerely thankful that it had actually all ended up being so positive in the end.
In retrospect, it seems like such a silly thing. Of course I didn’t have to stay. Why would I even hesitate? But that’s the thing about those decisions: they all seem so easy when we’re not in the middle of them. I learned a lot about that. I hope it’s made me a better person and that I can apply it to tougher decisions in the future.
But more than anything, especially on Father’s Day, it reminded me of how strong and brave my kids are and how much it takes for them to stand up for their convictions in environments over which they have so much less control.
No matter how old it makes me sound to say so, this is a pretty amazing generation of young people. Maybe the best that’s ever been.