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The Wizard of US

Two hours in the immigration line at the O’Hare Airport is enough to drive anyone crazy. Bejing, Singapore, Tokyo – Moscow even – get you through the passport control in a flash, — so fast, in fact, that your jet-lagged self needs to stay awake to keep up with the pace of the authorities.

 

Not so upon landing in Chicago. Idling in line, I try to ignore fuming Swedes behind me, who will most definitely miss their connection. At first I read. Before boarding in London I picked up a book called “Breaking Vegas”, and now am amazed to find out that at some point in the 90s, a Russian student from the MIT Media Lab had figured out a way to beat the odds at blackjack, and won millions in Vegas doing that. “What are the odds of me not knowing this person?” I wonder. The only other Russian I remember at the Media Lab was a shy soft-spoken Muscovite, and I am pretty certain he was far from flush – the word at the Lab was he did not even get paid for inventing Tetris.

The Swedes behind me beginning to lose their cool, I decide to try out my new headsets, and tune into some tracks by the local prodigy Chance the Rapper and his buddy Childish Gambino. I am mostly curious to find out why Gambino’s new album is called “Because the Internet”. I find my answer in the song “Life: The Biggest Troll” where Gambino immortalizes the obvious “Because the Internet, mistakes are forever”. Not sure if he is referring to grammatical mistakes, or just sayin’.

Desperate to distract myself, I look for movies on my iPad. Vegas still on my mind – I am going to CES, after all – I try to watch Ocean’s Eleven but get lost in the plot. Finally, a bored INS officer waves me over, takes my sleepy pic, gets annoyed at me not remembering which finger to press on the fingerprint screen, and then stamps me away to find out that it is snow-storms all over Northern US, and my connection to Vegas won’t take off for another 6 hours.

And so on a snowed-in night in the crowed airport lounge in Chicago, I watch The Wizard of Oz on my iPad. It is the only other movie I have, loaded there at some point by my three year old, and now suddenly so relevant to my experience of the United States. Years ago, when I first arrived here, it was like going from Black and White to Color. My first semester at Harvard, I would walk down the brick road of the Yard, and pinch myself to be sure this is not a dream— me, a kid from Riga’s Secondary School No. 10, a common product of the 80s Soviet Union – now here, at the top of the world, on a full scholarship and so full of dreams. Why is it then that coming back to the US today, after so many years, is like going from Color to Black and White? A run down airport, lines everywhere, a business lounge where you have to pay to get a drink, delays, old planes…. What a stark contrast to my trip to Latvia only a week ago – the whole city sparkling new, renovated, decorated to the Ts for Christmas, clean, welcoming, efficient.

The next day, bleary-eyed from the unfairly long voyage, I am finally at the Vegas Convention Center, entering another Oz. There is the energy and the buzz to this place that is contagious– just like I remember it 15 years ago. It is a magnetic pool of creativity and certain hopefulness, a highway of dreams, that makes me wonder whether nothing has changed after all, and this is still my Emerald City. New toys, old toys – the gadget world is about the same, with most stands trying hard to look like the Apple Store. What surprises me most is not the innovation (no giant leaps here), but the presentation—demos meant to blow you away, with technology clearly bowing to the king of content. The most memorable experience is a giant 3D LG screen that puts you inside a world so magical you stand there, glued to the floor, until the entire demo loop comes to an end. You go from the space to oceans to deserts to the jungle – you catch butterflies and swim with whales and run with lions – you are no longer at an industry convention, looking for scoops: you are in a magical kingdom which will soon be yours.

You take off the glasses and no longer feel like seeing the rest of the stands. Convention hallways look dark and drab – just like Chicago airport the day before – and the dapper suits rushing by are nothing but weatherworn farmers on the sepia streets of Dorothy’s Kansas. My imagination is still reeling with color, and I wonder why would we ever leave our homes when this LG screen enters them.

And then I wonder whether the magic power of the US is still here, in its unrivaled ability to give me this wow – and in the way Hollywood will own my world when these new screens make the reality look drab forever. After all, to truly appreciate the color, you need a dose of black and white.

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