Honeymoon in Vegas: Perception versus reality, a year on

I once lived in Seoul, which was ultimately a two-year experience that will forever remain in my soul. (Pun intended.) I kept meticulous notes of my experiences there, which were filled with so many “wtf” moments. A year into my life there, I had the best of intentions to consolidate my scattered napkins and notepads to capture my reflections in writing. But, I didn’t get around to it…

And here I am now, a calendar year into my latest foreign adventure. Along with Miami, Las Vegas is as foreign as a domestic US destination gets. I couldn’t have pictured it: approaching mid-career and middle-age, and the closest I’ve been to settling into a life and career—and doing so (of all places) in Las Vegas. This was one of the most unpredictable moves I could have envisioned years back. So here I am, a year on with a brand new start, living in Sin/Sim City.

And counter-intuitively, it’s all making sense.

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In a car-based city, my commute is a two-block walk amongst offices that reside in converted 1960s houses, and I live right at the edge of one of the coolest neighborhoods around. The people I know have roots in what is one of the most temporary-feeling cities created; they went to local high schools and their driving factor is to improve the community that has provided their opportunities, thereby making those roots even further entrenched.

I’ve paradoxically entered politics by having left the Beltway, to a white-collar job in what I’ve dubbed a blue-collar town without the smoke stacks. And, it feels like I’ve moved overseas, where there’s eternal sunshine, improbably exaggerated architecture, and a pervasively spoken foreign language. My best friends have jobs and academic backgrounds both similar to DC (attorneys, bureaucrats, IT, MBAs) and diametrically opposed to what I knew (pilot, Broadway producer, musician, and of course gaming).

Non sequitur alert: Downtown Las Vegas is spectacular. I live a block from Fremont East, where in typical Vegas fashion, change happens in a blink. Effectively each time I choose a different direction to walk home, I notice a new development. I love seeing people just TRY. Trying to implement their dreams, often acting before thinking. Because, space and permissions are there, the only obstacle being the cash. And this brings me to another oft-overlooked phenomenon: that this place is a societal laboratory.

As I have a passion for education, some of my favorite experiences have been visits to institutions of secondary and tertiary education. On a recent visit to Nevada State College, a remarkably new yet established university that grants 4-year degrees, the place felt like a lab. There was a topographical display formed by exquisite lighting and shifting sands. All the staff know each other, across departments and roles. It’s run like a start-up. How cool is that, a start-up university?! And a viable one, at that.

One of the glaring (perceived) weaknesses of this society is the much-maligned Clark County School District. While education is hotly debated the world over, the urgency of education issues in Southern Nevada is acute and palpable. What’s been impressive to me, though, is the magnet schools phenomenon here. Where traditional schooling might be lacking in comparison to the top school districts in the nation, it seems that this vacuum is being filled with tangible and germane programs like aviation, STEM, biotech, and culinary arts. The kids who have the guidance and motivation might end up being more prepared for life and career than the products of stodgy East Coast schooling.

So, with this consolidation of reflections, I hope to redeem what I failed to do in Korea so many years ago, and perhaps in the meantime exposing my audience to how marvelous things are here, and how far a departure from perception living in Las Vegas can be. In a town boasting artifice, it’s a place where you are afforded the space to be more real than anywhere else. Come see for yourself.