Wednesday, July 12, 2006

LC Goes To the Casino

So I'm sitting in the casino, reading Marva Dawn...

Maybe I should back up.

I have a day job, in human services. As part of my job, I am occasionally called upon to pack up a bunch of promotional materials and displays and go on the road to area health fairs, "expos" and the like. I recently found myself at such an event.

If a sign of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result, then all of us in the "helping" business seem to suffer from the same delusion -- that poor/needy people will make an effort to drive to some centralized location to be visually harangued about how poor or needy they are.

On this day's particular manifestation of this illness, the venue was a casino. Now, if your goal in life in a given 24 hours is to anesthetize yourself at a one-armed bandit and/or an all-you-can-eat buffet table, what are the odds that you're going to want to spend an hour of that time wandering around an auditorium being reminded that you're old and disabled, and don't take very good proactive care of yourself, and are going to die really soon, so you'd better get your affairs in order?

Needless to say, it was a slow day for the presenters, apart from the usual freebie vultures who descend in the first hour or so of such events to scoop up promotional gimmes. I was situated next to a medical supply equipment dealer, and by early afternoon one representative was tooling up and down the aisles in a motorized scooter while his coworker was lounging feet-up in an adaptive upholstered armchair. A couple of organizations -- organizations chronically short of funds for important services -- were trying to give away boxes and boxes of donated Reader's Digest Condensed Books and, in a particularly ironic twist of fate, fancy-schmancy high-end cookbooks (as opposed to, say, Fun With Commodity Cheese.) There's a kind of faddishness to a lot of human-service activities, and one of the current kicks is to get people reading more, to help preserve their mental faculties as they age and to wean them from hours spent in zombie-like thrall to mindless television programming. (Speaking of which...what is with the scary chick on Rock Star: Supernova? The general consensus in my living room is that she's the Girl Most Likely To Sacrifice Goats To Satan on the Full Moon. But anyway.) So these people were desperate to unload books that they would otherwise have to pack them up again and schlep back to the office.

I had a few people stop at my display...but they all lived somewhere else, so I had to refer them to services in their own counties. Then the visitors pretty much disappeared altogether. I listened to the endless ding-ding-ding of the machines on the gaming floor next door. I took pity on a fellow presenter and took one of her cookbooks, and learned how to make strawberry tiramisu and peppered strawberries and strawberry souffle'. I watched the fellow in the scooter; his booth companion told me of the times their company has been called to deliver emergency oxygen tanks to elderly patrons at the casino who, despite imminent suffocation, refuse to leave their favorite slot machines.

This tale depressed me. Casinos depress me. Now,I'm not a gambling legalist; I know people perfectly able to go there with their $15 or $20, gamble with their chump change until it's gone and then happily belly up to the buffet and call it a splendid day. That's just not my idea of a good time, unless I were with a very ironic friend who'd help me laugh at the absurdity of it all. But most of the people I see at casinos don't look like people having a good time. They look grim, as if they've just shown up for a day of hard work, and they are so seemingly obsessed with winning the big jackpot that they seem to ignore whatever other enjoyments there are to be had at the resort. I always feel sorry for the Native American cultural center near the casino, which makes a gallant effort to attact casino visitors to its facility and events. The granite-faced gamblers don't give a damn; they wouldn't know the difference between Anishnabe and wasabi, nor do they want to.

So it was almost supernaturally ironic to be sitting in the midst of this Vanity Fair reading Marva Dawn, a scathing critic of pop culture. The book in question is Truly the Community, her meditation on Paul's letter to the Romans and his appeal to a way of living and being together that preserves and celebrates our God-given uniqueness as individuals even as it binds us into a truly mutually caring, mutually accountable community of believers. Riffing on a Greek term used by Paul in his epistle, related to our word hilarity, Dawn also speaks at length about the hilarity of a well-lived Christian life -- not the mindless giddiness we currently associate with that word, but a deeper, more subtle joy and enthusiasm for living grounded in knowing who God is and who we are as the people of God.

It seems to me that this hilarity, as Dawn describes it, is the exact opposite of the joylessness I saw in the plodding lines of gamblers and in the dispirited ranks of the professional helpers assembled in the casino auditorium. But unfortunately, it's also an hilarity that seems to be missing from much of the Church as well. So often we do not respect the broad diversity in our midst, nor do we always take seriously the idea of forging real community among ourselves, or grounding ourselves in values other than personal acquisition and entertainment and trying to live up to some constantly shifting societal standard of normalcy.

I wasn't entirely enamored of Dawn's book, for reasons I'll get into in another post. But it gave me pause to think that perhaps whether we're in line for our Player's Club passes or "doing church," we're all missing the mark in a way that, to one degree or another, diminishes our quality of life. You can almost bet on it.


P.S. (an after-thought) said...

I've heard the same sort of descriptions of people in the casino near where I live. I've only been there for catered dinners, but I've walked through the gaming area, and yes, the people wouldn't be described as looking like they are having fun. And I'm too chicken to even try the games. Next time I'll have to go to the cultural center.

Quotidian Grace said...

I have the same impression of casino crowds that you do. Can't imagine who thought it was a good idea to set you up at a "fair" at the casino! At least you had a good book to read!

Purechristianithink said...

I always feel more secure when I have reading material readily available. And I'm with you on the casino scene-bleh.

Rainbow Pastor said...

Brilliant post, LC!

I have to confess a guilty secret here--our church runs bingos. Not the Wednesday-night-in-the-social-hall bingos, but working six hours in a bingo hall, licenced by the city, earning enough money to pay the rent, the pastor's salary and the phone bill. I try to justify it by saying that if we weren't there, someone else would be, and we do need the financial infusion. But that's pretty defensive, and I know it...

Anyway, I have seen that same expression on the bingo player's faces. This is not fun, this is Important Work. They have a variety of dabbers (they use different colours for different games, or days of the week, or something, it varies from player to player), they have the photos of their kids or pets, some of them even have lucky stuffed animal mascots they bring with them. It all seems like a lot more work than fun.

We're working on ways to get away from bingo, BTW--it's harmed this congregation in the past, and we resisted getting involved again. We'll be getting out as soon as we can. It sits uneasily on my Methodist underpinnings. Can you tell?

Bad Alice said...

Hate casinos--loud, crowded, grim. Like the buffet at the Bellagio.