Sunday, November 2, 2014

Magazines Hunt Me

I always know exactly what books I want to read. I allow for some surprises, like bumping into actor Danny Aiello's memoir at the Green Valley Library yesterday, but like reviewing Empire of Sin by Gary Krist for BookBrowse, which I waited months to read, there's very little I don't know about books either coming out or that have come out that I want.

It's different with magazines. Back in Southern California, I subscribed to The New Yorker because John Boston, the historical face of The Signal newspaper in the Santa Clarita Valley, where I interned, subscribed to it. I considered him a friend and mentor, and still do, and so I wanted to read what he read. But I let that subscription expire this past September because it didn't fit me anymore. I wanted writing that encompassed all 50 states, not just everything from a New York City perspective. I wanted to read writers from Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Florida, varied perspectives that I could get to know.

On my 30th birthday, my family and I went to McCarran International so I could walk through the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum there, a small set of exhibits spread throughout the airport, accessible by all except for those exhibits in the gate areas of the airport.

I walked through the exhibits, reading all the historical information about the formation of aviation in Las Vegas, but what interested me more were the shops in the airport, including a stunningly detailed newsstand, with magazines from everywhere. I looked at them all, glancing over the glossy fashion magazines, and honing in on the ones about travel, particularly National Geographic Traveler, which truly spans the world. I'm interested in Japan and Sweden and China, I want to visit all the presidential libraries in the nation (save for Reagan's and Nixon's, both of which I went to when I lived in Southern California, Reagan's numerous times for the gently mountainous view from the replica of the South Lawn of the White House), I want to visit Florida to see how my old haunts have changed, to travel throughout New Mexico, and to visit New Orleans. So a magazine that lets me see the sights of the world from my beloved reading recliner without having to spend hours on the Internet is my kind of magazine.

However, I haven't subscribed to it yet because I haven't found new issues anywhere I usually go, including Target, where I last found it, and Smith's supermarket, where I think I once found it. I want to read one or two more before I decide whether to subscribe, but so far it's hard to do that. It's easier with The Sondheim Review, a quarterly magazine devoted to one of my heroes, quite possibly the Zeus of the musical theater, which I've been eyeing for some time. There are two archival issues, one from Spring 1999 about Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski starring in an L.A. concert production of Sweeney Todd, and another from Fall 1998 with Carol Burnett and director Eric D. Schaeffer discussing the revised version of Putting It Together, which was also staged in L.A. I'll use those to decide whether to subscribe to The Sondheim Review, though chances are I might very well do so anyway after reading both issues, since the entire magazine is devoted to Sondheim, after all.

For others, I'm not yet sure. Saveur magazine changed editors-in-chiefs and I worry that the quality will decline dramatically. New Mexico Magazine might very well stay with me, but I hope that they cover the same yearly events in different ways. Of course, considering that it's been around since 1923, they've figured out different ways, but I just hope that the same high quality I've been getting so far remains.

Generally, outside of these experiences, I like to let the magazines hunt me. I know what I like to read, I have some ideas of what I want to read, but I'm not as dogged as I am with books. That's why, at Target today while the dogs were being groomed, my disappointment in not finding the latest issue of National Geographic Traveler mostly faded when I found a quarterly magazine called American Road, all about America's two-lane highways and the sights and sounds and experiences they offer. Trains and planes, sure. That's what National Geographic Traveler is for. While I haven't read all of the Autumn 2014 issue of American Road yet, I get the sense that it goes deep into the United States, what I've hoped to find in some magazine. I can't travel widely right now, but I can certainly read about it and it feels like this might be my gateway into learning so much more about the entire United States, beyond the books I check out, because no doubt American Road keeps track of what's happening today. I might subscribe.

Never too many magazines, though. I don't need Time or Newsweek or anything else with news that seems to change by the hour but pretends that it changes by the week. I want magazines with articles to really consider, and these feel like the greatest possibilities. I wouldn't be surprised if another one hunts me down at another Target or even at that airport newsstand whenever we visit again. I'd consider it just like these ones.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hype: Commerce's Noisy Weapon Against Looking Inward - One Reader's Perspective

In late July, Edan Lepucki, author of the dystopian California, was on The Colbert Report, promoting it, and also calling attention to Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark.

A few nights later, at the end of his show, Colbert held up Sweetness #9, saying good night to the audience and then going back to reading it. As a reviewer for BookBrowse, I receive from the owner of the site a list of books to choose from for review, and Sweetness #9 was on that list, in fact on the same night that I had seen Colbert hold up that book (I hadn't seen the Lepucki interview). I was curious about it, because of the cover of a torn-open sugar packet spilling out pink crystals, so I looked it up on Amazon and was immediately taken by the potential of the story of a chemical flavorist wracked with guilt over his perceived part in the creation and marketing and gigantic success of Sweetness #9, an artificial sweetener on the level of Sweet'N Low. I decided to review it. I had been swept up by the hype, of which Colbert was one cog in that machine.

After I received it from the publisher, I read up to page 173 and stopped. The premise was fascinating, especially in how the artificial sweetener industry works, not entirely openly revealed, but just enough to make one wonder about exactly how these flavorists create these sweeteners and flavors. What's the process? What ingredients are used? All of this will likely never be fully revealed, because it's a very secretive industry. But in the hands of the shaky David Leveraux, the flavorist of the story, it becomes less and less interesting as the pages go on because it's constant hand-wringing, constant worry, constant whining. Is his son's inability to speak verbs caused by his constant ingestion of Sweetness #9? What about his wife's malaise? It's hard to get fully inside the story, to become more interested in it because Leveraux doesn't move emotionally. The same notes, the same tone.

This is also what I determined in a brief review I wrote to the owner of BookBrowse to explain why I wasn't going to review the book (we're given that option because as she says, if we're struggling through the book, it's likely that our readers will too). It didn't take me long to determine why I had fallen under the spell of the hype, besides seeing it on Colbert: It was the copy describing the book, making me wonder why the copywriters in charge of those descriptions don't write the books themselves, because they are clearly better writers. I understand hype's place in commerce, because otherwise, Dan Brown would not have become wildly popular, and there wouldn't be a third Robert Langdon movie on the way, again directed by Ron Howard, again starring Tom Hanks, this time based on Inferno. That is but one example (lots of fast-food examples come to mind), but it also made me take stock yet again in what I like, what I like to read. I hate hype, because I experienced it way too much in my years of writing movie reviews, and as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, especially during awards season. In fact, awards season hype was what made me take stock then. I had just finished writing my share of What If They Lived?, and I decided I was tired of the hamster wheel feeling of movie release schedules, knowing exactly what kind of movies would be released in January (Hollywood's embarrassments), in the summer (Are you ready for some budgeeeeeeet?!), and the last three months of the year (They will commit seppuku if it means they have a great chance of winning an Oscar). After 13 years, I was done reviewing movies.

I've also come to realize that if I'm having trouble coming up with a clear opinion about a book, then it's the book. If I love a book, or am disappointed with it, then I should be able to know right away either what's so right about it, or what's gone so wrong with it. When I wrote to the owner of BookBrowse, I was having exactly that trouble, and she blessedly boiled it down to this: Interesting premise, flat characters. Exactly. Literary pretensions might have been at play here, being that based on the New York Times review I had read of Sweetness #9, Clark, being such a lover of Vonnegut, might have been striving to emulate him, which would make more sense to that reviewer, since I haven't read Vonnegut extensively. I've read many of his speeches, but that's been about it so far. Not even Slaughterhouse-Five. Not yet.

What to do this time? Before I had received Sweetness #9, I picked another book for review from another list, Internal Medicine by Terrence Holt, being that the first book I reviewed for BookBrowse was the medically-based Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. I chose Internal Medicine to see now where I am as a reviewer, also because what seems to be Holt's sensitivity toward the grueling nature of humanity that one sees as a doctor, particularly Holt's experiences.

So it was time to go back to that kind of desire, unencumbered by hype. I should pick what I'm interested in and let nothing else sway me. Explore as I wish to explore, taking in new experiences as I bump into them, which happens often on Amazon when I'm pre-ordering books by favorite authors and find other books I just have to read.

In fact, that's what happened three months ago, with Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist. The book that I pre-ordered has been lost to time, and looking at my Amazon pre-orders, I wouldn't be able to identify which one was the catalyst. But it led to Empire of Sin, lighting up my interest in New Orleans again. It comes out October 28th, and I didn't pre-order it on the off-chance that maybe, just maybe, the owner of BookBrowse would have a place for it in one of her upcoming issues, and maybe it would appear on the review list I would receive after having given up on Sweetness #9, despite Internal Medicine still being in the pipeline for me to review. I'm trusted enough now to juggle two reviews at a time, which is fairly easy, with each review being up to 600 words. That is, until I start writing, of course. But with luck, I come up with the framework for the review while I'm reading, or even before, though I adjust as necessary if it doesn't match the book, or write an entirely new opening.

I have a thus far vaguely-defined interest in New Orleans, first stemming from the disappointment at the end of summer 2003 when my family and I moved cross-country from South Florida to Southern California in five days. We drove through Alabama, and Mississippi, and Louisiana, all the states you'd expect to hit in such a route, but there was no time to visit New Orleans. Not with two dogs and two birds in the car with us, not with my dad having to start his new job teaching business education at La Mesa Junior High in the Santa Clarita Valley not long after we got there. This was before Katrina, so it's all the more disappointing.

If I eventually visit, I want to try a beignet and visit Bourbon Street, but I want to explore more than that, such as the houses in New Orleans, the plant life, and naturally, the music and the charismatic personalities. Until that day comes, I seek out all I can about New Orleans in books, about its history, novels about it, short stories, anything. I've read some of Walker Percy's works, including The Moviegoer, but I haven't gotten through A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. To be fair, perhaps I should try it again. Maybe enough time has passed since the last aborted reading.

Empire of Sin fits right into that line of exploration, and I kept eyeing it for three months, hoping that the owner of BookBrowse was thinking the same way I was. Other books got in the way and it disappeared, until late last Thursday afternoon. Another review list dropped in my e-mail, to fill the Sweetness #9 hole. This was the first list in which after I looked at the first title, I didn't need to look at the rest. It was Empire of Sin.

Empire of Sin is all mine, decided by me, without any hype. I would like to write many more book reviews than I do now, and I suspect that if the workload grows, I'll be subjected to even more hype by the publishing industry. The only thing to do is hold strong against it, to remember what interests me, what I want to read about, what I would like to learn about. Interestingly enough, Empire of Sin will be the third Louisiana-based book I'll be reviewing, after Five Days at Memorial and What the River Washed Away by Muriel Mharie Macleod. That must be saying something indeed.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Another Bowling League? No, Thank You.

Last year, soon after the school year began, Dad, Meridith and I joined a school district bowling league at Sam's Town in Las Vegas, the core of the league made up of retired school district employees, including those who ran, and still run, the league. In fact, one of its members has been at the center of power of the league for 20 years, giving me hope that people, outside of devoted natives, do live here longer than a couple of years.

The before-the-holidays feast we had included the best lasagna I've ever had, and therefore it was worth it for that. But it went on too long. It stretched from the beginning of the school year to near the end, in late May, which I learned from other league bowlers is way too long for a typical league. There were many weeks when it felt like it, when sitting there, waiting for my turn to bowl felt like waiting at a bus stop for the bus to finally show up.

So burned out was I by the length of that league that I refused to join the next one that Dad and Meridith decided to join, this time at Wildfire Lanes here in Henderson, the only bowling alley close enough to our home, connected to Wildfire Casino, with Wildfire Grill nestled within. It was enough for me to show up with Mom at the beginning of this particular league to watch them bowl, and for two more times after, and then that was enough. We went again recently when Mom learned that Meridith's teammate was not going to be there (that teammate spent more time gabbing with other players she obviously knew than being a teammate), but that's been it.

Tomorrow is the last day of this league. After this, Dad and Meridith plan to bowl again, this time with one of them bowling with the security guard at Wildfire, who bowled with Dad as a substitute a few Tuesdays back, who we like a lot. He's an easygoing guy, friendly all around, always up for anything. For a moment, I actually considered joining this new league if it meant bowling with him, but I don't want to. I'm now far enough removed from that school district bowling league that it doesn't affect me like it did immediately after to turn me off from joining that next league. But I don't feel desire enough to be part of another league. Pulling on bowling shoes again, watching the hook of my ball, even though it's an unsanctioned league and therefore played purely for fun, it doesn't appeal to me like it did before. In fact, the last time I was in a league before that school district bowling league was when I was 9 years old, bowling every Saturday morning at Don Carter Lanes in Tamarac, Florida, after Mom and Dad had bowled there in their league the Friday night before.

I'm not as passionate about bowling as Meridith is, as interested as Dad is. Meridith wants to improve her game, and has been to a regional PBA pro at the lanes at Sunset Station, also in Henderson, twice on separate Sunday mornings, and it's helped. But I don't have that drive. Given the choice between bowling and reading, I'd rather read.

Now, if there was such a thing as a Galaga league or a tournament, I'm there. I love playing Galaga, and I especially love playing it at the arcade in the food court at the Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas in Primm. But no arcade of any kind in this valley can sustain that, not even the Pinball Hall of Fame on Tropicana, because there's only one Galaga machine there. If there was, I'd be there, every week, trying mightily to boost my score and my ability to make it past Stage 52 on fewer quarters.

This comes to mind because I'm not sure yet if Mom and I are going to be at the final session of their league tomorrow. All I know tomorrow, while waiting on word of various jobs at different schools nearby and a little further, is that I'm going to the Green Valley Library in the morning to volunteer as I usually do. If we go, we go. I've been through the last session of a bowling league, and once was enough, but maybe it's better at Wildfire. Nevertheless, if the security guard at Wildfire joins Dad on his team, I'll go more often. I always have books with me, and there's a digital jukebox with all my favorites on it, from Sting to Annie Lennox to Phil Collins to Sade to Elton John. I like watching more than bowling now. Bowling means focusing on one frame at a time, in that very moment, and then waiting for your turn, not always being able to notice everything around you. Watching, I can notice everything around me, and wander sometimes to the arcade in the back to see the Dance Dance Revolution machine back there, the one that's serving as inspiration for a novel I want to write, though not set in either Henderson or Las Vegas. I've got plenty of other potential works set in one or the other.

Being at Wildfire is a nice change from Sam's Town because at Sam's Town, you have to take the escalator into what is essentially the basement of the casino, where the entire bowling alley is, whereas at Wildfire, you just walk into it from the casino or from the back of the property from that parking lot. There's three different entrances. Plus, with far fewer lanes at Wildfire than at Sam's Town, yeah it puts more financial pressure on the company to bring in a lot of people, but it genuinely feels like a neighborhood bowling alley. These are the people you might also see at the Smith's supermarket across the street from Wildfire, in that opposite shopping center, or at the Smith's on North Green Valley Parkway. The people here actually live here. It helps, not least because there's no trek to Sam's Town from our home, and it saves a lot of time.

So maybe tomorrow. Or maybe next time. Either way, I like experiencing bowling this way now. And if I ever feel like bowling, or if Meridith asks on days outside the league, I can. I don't need to do it every week.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Syndication, Without the Hype

It's that time of year again!

If you watch this new series, you're never going to think of TV the same way again! If you watch that new series, your bald spot will fill in and your libido will return and beg your forgiveness for leaving like it did.

Watch that channel's new lineup on Tuesday nights, and you'll never be bored with your life ever again! EVER! Weren't you listening? They said "Ever!"

Over and over, the same demands for your time and attention, the same kind of clips expressing the deeply-plumbed drama of each new series, the same attractive people you'd never find in your local supermarket, the same promise that the new series that might have snagged your interest will be premiering on this date and time, and continue in that time slot, at least until the ratings of the second episode don't meet the network's insanely high expectations. Bye bye attractive people! Bye bye attempted intense drama that just felt cloying instead of intriguing!

What to do? What to watch? What else to do with your time?

I've been collared by that hype, too. Madam Secretary on CBS automatically got me because of my love of presidential history, real and fictional. I like the outcast aspect of Scorpion, also on CBS, with those geniuses of various stripes that are expected to save Los Angeles International Airport from total disaster, and if you've seen the over 2-minute trailer, they do. But I hope they'll be more than that.

No, ABC, I'm not interested in How to Get Away with Murder. I'm curious about your sitcom Cristela because I like how Cristela Alonzo eschews a handheld microphone in her stand-up act, bringing her closer to the audience, which might be what she intended. Yes, that's enough for me to consider watching a new series. It doesn't take much.

Still, I'm weary from all the commercials. Yes, it's that time of year, and I know it's to be expected, and yes, it's definitely better than campaign ads. So much better. Subtlety is a foreign word to network television, but do they not want me to watch their shows? At times, it gets to the point where I'm hoping for an extra erectile dysfunction commercial in place of another commercial for Katherine Heigl's new series on NBC, whatever it's called.

Lest you think I've been watching too much TV lately, you should know that the main TV in my household is in the living room, which is also where the VCR (for a few select movies I have that still haven't been released on DVD) and DVD player are. It's where I watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory on CBS, hence the commercials for Madam Secretary and Scorpion, and where Mom, Dad, and Meridith watch the latest episodes of America's Got Talent, hence the commercials for Heigl's new thing. Even if you fast-forward, as I do since I Tivo those reruns, you still can't avoid them. Viola Davis is still there on ABC, introducing her course of "How to Get Away with Murder." Come to think of it, why is ABC on? Oh yeah, the news. It's not me. My dad prefers the local ABC station for the news.

I know this happens every year, and it's the same with the movie industry with awards season coming up. I lived through that when I wrote movie reviews, as a member of the Online Film Critics Society, receiving advance DVD screeners in order to vote in our awards. I was so taken by that in my early years as a member, and totally gave up at the end. It wasn't fun anymore, because it was the same cycle. Only the movies changed, but then, come awards season, they really didn't change that much. So I've always been aware of hype, even though I'm not deep in it anymore.

Syndicated TV shows engage in my favorite kind of hype: Not much. The shows that are purchased for syndication were popular or somewhat popular enough to merit syndication and so the only effort that the stations airing these syndicated shows need to make is to let viewers know that these shows are coming. The commercials aren't as frequent. Viewers may know about those shows already, and if they're huge fans and don't have them on DVD, or they do and are just too lazy to pull out the DVDs (as I am most of the time with The Big Bang Theory, despite owning six seasons), then advertising is moot. Even new viewers might already know about the shows, but either haven't had time to watch them or didn't think of them until now. Melissa McCarthy & Billy Gardell introducing the upcoming arrival of Mike & Molly on FX is useful, but doesn't need commercial after commercial because people already know about it.

My favorite piece of syndication advertising happened in 2004 or 2005, when my family and I lived in the Santa Clarita Valley, in Saugus after a year in Valencia, and I attended classes at College of the Canyons. Early on, I took the #4 bus from College of the Canyons to the transfer station on McBean Parkway in Valencia. For some reason early on, though I haven't been able to pinpoint it, I always walked from the transfer station to a bus stop across from the entrance to the transfer station, in front of the back section of the parking garage for the Valencia Town Center mall. Either it was because I naively didn't think that the #7 bus (which goes from Six Flags Magic Mountain to Seco Canyon Road & Bouquet Canyon Road in Saugus, my streets) stopped at the transfer station, or I wanted to get away from the occasional noise of the transfer station and have a spot to myself. I can't be sure which one it was. Perhaps it was both on a given day.

To my right at that bus stop was a poster behind glass, lit from behind when the sun had set just enough. It was for The X-Files on KCAL 9, Friday nights at 8 or 9 p.m. It was the logo, and Mulder and Scully, and that was it.

I was impressed that KCAL 9 remembered that people live in the Santa Clarita Valley, enough to advertise The X-Files. Despite being located 30 minutes north of Los Angeles, it's so isolated by mountains and freeways that if ever there was an earthquake even more violent than Northridge in 1994, it would be cut off from everything. No access to anywhere or from anywhere. It's also isolated by crowding in on you during the week, reminding you of not much happening there. You work, you shop, you go home, that's it. That's a healthy majority of life anyway, but it's not a city with much else to offer, unless you're part of the community that likes this kind of living, and that community is there. Not my kind of living. No matter what I did there, from those COC classes, to working at The Signal, the exclusive newspaper of the Santa Clarita Valley, to seeing 4th of July fireworks from the parking lot of Pavilions supermarket, it still felt isolated.

Yet, on late Friday afternoons and evenings, a crack always opened up in the valley, encouraging you to go nuts if you wanted, explore whatever you wanted, walk the paseos from Valencia at sunset, bike to Stevenson Ranch, do whatever you wanted that made you feel more alive than you usually do during the week. It wasn't only because the week was over, not only that relief sometimes. It felt like a freer valley, perhaps because others had gone to Los Angeles for the evening or Anaheim or Burbank, or wherever else they went, to get out of the valley. Therefore, the valley was mine in a way. I'll write about it in more detail some other time, but that's why I loved late Friday afternoons at 3:50, after my cinema class at COC, because the campus was mine. Very few people were there around that time, and if I could have had its library like that for the entire weekend, I would have ran right for it. I loved the quiet of the campus then. I could do anything.

KCAL 9 might have figured that Friday nights were when geeks would be home, and they would probably watch. To me, it was one of many options, even going so far as to explore the entire universe in an evening if so inclined. The valley just felt that possible, even, surprisingly, that exciting. But only that late afternoon and evening. Saturday was always back to normal.

I loved that poster, that advertising because it became part of Friday, for the months that it was there. Even when I'd see it on a Tuesday, I knew it would fit right in again at the end of the week. That was all the advertising The X-Files needed in Santa Clarita. No hype. Just part of the fabric of the valley. Syndication is nice like that.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Where Am I? Am I Here?

When my family and I went to the Whitney Library on East Tropicana Avenue every Sunday in Las Vegas, when we lived near there nearly two years ago, I always stopped in at the art gallery just off the entrance, which was also where the library's restrooms were. The library was in a somewhat dicey location (though dicey enough for the cops to visit often enough that I always jokingly thought they were avid readers come to pick up another stack of books), and to me, as dingy as the library felt over the year that we visited, as much as it seemed more an escape from the area rather than an adventure into it, the art gallery saved it. There were paintings, and there were 3D graphics on display, and there were photos from various contests.

The latest contest, before we moved to Henderson, I think involved young photographers. There was this one photo, amidst a train and the Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, that I've never forgotten, so much so that I took a photo of it on my cell phone and transferred it to my flash drive. I wrote down the photographer's name and tried to find him online, but no luck. No information. That name is now lost to whatever landfill took in that sheet of paper after I threw it away. I wish I had it now, because that photo embodies the life I like to have. It would seem to be part of a river, but being that a river is generally wider, it looks more like a stream, with slanted banks of grass on both sides (less so on the right, with more bushes without anywhere to sit), and thin-trunk trees on both sides of the stream, leaning into the sky, creating an effect that looks like an A at the far end of it, without the bar that makes it an A.

I thought about this photo on Tuesday while I was talking with the security guard at the Green Valley Library, where I still volunteer twice a week, also on Fridays. I expressed to him my amazement that here we are in the desert, there further down is the Strip with all its casinos and all the reasons that people come to visit, there are all the plants to see all around us, and yet, we think of other places, other things. We don't really study this valley, really get into it, or at least I haven't to a great extent yet.

We talked about his desire to visit his native Philippines again, to go fishing there, to buy an RV and travel around the country, to visit Oregon and the massive redwoods there. Here we were, standing in the lobby of the Green Valley Library, a few people passing by at a time, probably from different states as well, and yet in conversation, we were in the Philippines, where he told me how big the fish are in the rivers, in Oregon, where I could imagine those redwoods, in that RV, me telling him about the cross-country trip we took in five days when we moved from South Florida to Southern California in 2003, and my regret that even though we drove through Louisiana, we couldn't stop in New Orleans because we had two dogs and two birds in the car, and Dad had to get to the Santa Clarita Valley to begin his teaching job at La Mesa Junior High. This was two years before Hurricane Katrina.

I also told him how I wanted to travel throughout New Mexico because of The Secret of Everything by Barbara O'Neal, how evocative she makes it in that novel that makes me want to see it for myself. And yet, we also drove through New Mexico, briefly, during that cross-country trip, and I knew nothing about it then. I don't think I remember anything from that stretch.

To think of other states, other places, instead of right where you are, instead of looking up at that big night sky and connecting it a few miles down to the Strip, it must be all that desert, all that space. The ghosts of the past, the good and the bad, can have immediate room and board there, and while wandering one's own piece of landscape, be it an apartment complex or a sidewalk on the Strip in between a barrage of delights, they come. They remind. They ask you where you are, where you have been, why you are here, out of all the other places you could live in.

Or maybe it's the license plates. Montana, North Carolina, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Arkansas. Southern Nevada, particularly Las Vegas, seems to be the one spot in the nation where you can see all those states on license plates, as well as those who moved here from elsewhere, and then leave again. The transience is staggering. But man, it fits what I've always called this region: America's Waiting Room. Most people here don't necessarily wait, because you can't. You have to do something right away. But they do take time. They move here from whatever didn't suit them, and they spend the first year figuring out if this area is for them, be it in Las Vegas or Henderson. There's the disturbingly barren Pahrump, and Laughlin too, but it takes a special kind of hardened soul to live in either of those places. Clark County is where a great many of the resources are, so the majority live here. Laughlin is considered part of Clark County, but not in the way that we know Clark County. If you want to shop for groceries or do any other kind of shopping there, you have to drive over the border into Bullhead City, Arizona. The traffic over that bridge is terrific.

We did the same thing. We figured out if Las Vegas fit us, and with the high renters' insurance and car insurance, and the dangerous neighborhood we lived in (though it could hardly be considered a neighborhood in the traditional sense because of how everyone shrinks away into their own world there for their own safety), it didn't. We needed to be somewhere else. And now, for nearly a year, we're here in Henderson.

It's not that Henderson lacks interesting sights. Downtown Henderson, also known as Water Street, is one of my dearly favorite places in all of Nevada. Not only is City Hall there, and the surrounding benches and subtle trees that make it so peaceful, but the Henderson Convention Center is the smallest convention center I've ever seen, and perfect for Henderson, because unlike its neighbor down the street, it doesn't strive to be as big and loud. It's a break from Las Vegas, certainly, but less so than when Ventura, Anaheim, Burbank, even Palmdale were breaks from the empty monotony of the Santa Clarita Valley. It's more like recharging for the next experience.

I think it's an overall combination of the above. I do like it here, and I especially love nighttime when I'm walking the dogs, how the stars sparkle even more down here in our part of this apartment complex, where there's some light, but not as much in other sections. I've never seen a sky this big in Florida and California. I don't think of myself as a mere speck in the universe when I look up, but rather where I can go in this sky that gives weighty pause. Not only under it, but through it, at least in my imagination. What can I explore? What can I write about? What can I write about that would be inspired by this sky? There's so much that's possible, and even with the summer's rentless heat (being landlocked, it's much hotter), I don't mind it because of those moments at night when I look up and just float. I've looked up at those enormously, shapely clouds at night whenever they drop by, and I want to write exactly like those clouds are. I will some day.

I can't help thinking about other cities, other towns, other landscapes because this is what Southern Nevada has become, what it might always have been. People come from all over the country, as tourists and as residents, and they're always welcome. Some of them leave too quickly for my liking, but that's the nature of this region. People figure out where they want to be, if it's here, and if so, they stay here, or they go elsewhere. But in a way, I think Southern Nevada provides a rest for them, like a waiting room does. We won't be entirely disappointed if they leave, maybe just a little bit or more if we know them well enough in the time that they're here, but we want them to know what they truly want, what would make them truly happy. It's a hard valley, not only in weather, but in making our lives work here, but that's what life is. It embodies life in that way, but it also gives us options to turn away from the hardships for a while, to indulge in our individual pleasures, and they certainly can be found here, or they can arrive by mail. Our bases here may be solid when we arrive, or shaky, but we work at them to whatever we desire and hope that it works. Sometimes it works, and so we stay, or it's so unworkable that we have to go somewhere else that works for us. It's not the kind of region you can go to and feel at home right away, unlike other historically-laden areas or neighborhoods that have been around for decades. You have to work at it, and yourself, from the start. I remember a tenant further down, where I walk the dogs, who seemed to be the only one who lived in an apartment that's near the end of our parking lot, facing Green Valley Parkway, which is still further down (we're set far enough back from the traffic that we can't hear it, and it's wonderful). I saw him a few times, always when he was walking into his apartment in the evening. Now, he's gone. Last night, I saw that the lights in the apartment were on, a ladder in the middle of the living room, the maintenance guys having left everything as is. Maybe one or two of them were coming back later in the night to do more work, but more likely, they just left it for the next day.

That guy's gone. He's wherever he wanted to be next, wherever he felt life would be better. I wonder where he's living now, if he thinks about what he left behind here, if he thinks about that apartment being empty, if he figures that that apartment is still empty, or even if he cares about it at all anymore. Probably not, because he didn't like whatever was here for him, whatever he was while he was here, and he moved on.

Things change more quickly here than anywhere else I've lived. That's not just the Strip talking, but all the people moving in and out. Possibly there are less vacancies in our apartment complex than there have been in the last two months (the upstairs apartment on the right, in the building directly across from our front door, has new occupants), but consider that one side of our apartment building, the side containing my window and my sister's window, was painted a milk chocolate shade of brown to see what color the owners of the complex might want to paint the entire property next. I think it should be left the off-white it always has been. Sure parts of it look aged with the dirt that's there, from wind and occasional rain, and sprinklers at ground level, but the way it is now shows that this property lasts. It's not trying to cover up something unsavory. It has been here, and no matter how many people move in and out, it will still be here, still decently maintained. It tries in the midst of constant upheaval.

Ultimately, I think that's why, even though there's much to see here, and much to do, I think about the photo of that stream with those trees over it, wanting to be on the bank of it, just sitting there, looking at and listening to that burbling water, and developing an interest in rivers that I'll pursue with books that I can find on the subject. It's not that I don't want to be here. I am here and I like it here.

It's not that I read about New Mexico and Florida and am working on a few writing projects set in the parts of California I lived in and visited (I also have a few writing projects set in Vegas and here) because I want to be in those places instead of here. I like it here, and besides, I'm not widely-traveled, not least because I don't have that kind of money, and I'm not sure I'd spend it on that first and foremost if I did.

It's because with all the relative instability I see around me, with people moving in and out, with different license plates seen all the time, with the face of the apartment probably changing (it's the first time that something's changed while I've lived somewhere. Usually it happens after we leave), I need stability from elsewhere. I take some of it from downtown Henderson, and from the elegant, quietly ritzy sections of the hotel lobby at Green Valley Ranch, and sections near the rooms, but I also take it from what I've known before, what I still want to know, what I want to explore more. I only think of other places to shield myself more against the transience, to not be as surprised and somewhat disheartened by it. It helps, and even so, the variety of people here also helps, especially those I help when I volunteer at the Green Valley Library. Where else can I help a new medical career arrival from Kentucky, a retired Air Force officer, a Paris enthusiast, and a seasoned traveler who wanted the huge books of maps, likely to plan out the next leg of his trip, Henderson being a stop along the way? There's that too which ironically produces stability, interesting people you come across who you want to know more about, and probably won't, which is where imagination comes in. It's where writing comes in. I'm here, and yet I'm everywhere.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Walmart vs. Smith's in Books

Four months ago, Mom and Meridith went for a haircut at a Supercuts in the Eastern Commons shopping center in Henderson, which has the Smith's supermarket as its anchor. So Dad and I decided to go to that Smith's for a few things, and after picking up bagged mixed salad, flour tortillas (for me, because I wanted to see if there was any brand good enough at it. This one was just ok), and juice, Dad went to wherever else he goes in a Smith's, and I went to the books, to see if they had anything interesting.

Books in supermarkets lean toward romance novels in small towns, some sci-fi novels outside of the usual suspects such as Star Trek, and, at least in the West, a good selection of Westerns, namely from William W. Johnstone. And there are mystery novels in sometimes whimsical settings, such as diners, coming mainly from Berkeley Prime Crime and Obsidian.

At this visit to Smith's, I indeed found one mystery novel set in a diner, called A Second Helping of Murder by Christine Wegner, which turned out to have been the second in Wegner's Comfort Food Mystery series, but I was intrigued enough by it that I didn't care that I was starting with the second novel. I wanted to read it, and I bought it, not waiting to see if the Henderson Libraries have a copy, because they usually don't, being a much smaller system than the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. Some titles you can count on being there right away, like the latest, most widely publicized book and DVD releases, but books like this one either enter the system later, or not at all.

Then, about two months ago, before the Smith's on East Sunset Road, also here in Henderson, started undergoing a massive remodel, I went to the book section there and found Murder on Bamboo Lane by Naomi Hirahara, the first in her Officer Ellie Rush Mystery series. While it does take place in Los Angeles, with Ellie patrolling various streets on her bicycle, and while I never want to see Los Angeles again in person after nine too-long years in Southern California, I'm curious to see how it's covered by people who live there, who clearly like it better than I ever did. So I bought this one too.

This is about the average for Smith's: Every couple of months, there's a book that interests me enough to buy it, but never the hardcovers. I won't spend $19 for whatever's on the bestseller list or whatever's been highly publicized. I know that my local library will likely have those books, or chances are that I had already pre-ordered that book on Amazon and it's within an order that includes four or five other books at a shot. Amazon's not bad when you know what you want right away.

Before yesterday's visit to my favorite Walmart in the Eastgate shopping center on Marks Street, yes, also in Henderson, I can't remember the last book I bought there. I always visit every book section, seeing what's new in paperback, always avoiding the hardcovers, and usually walking away with nothing because I don't need the latest Jack Reacher novel or its reprints. That series doesn't intrigue me.

Yet, at that Walmart, I noticed The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson, billed as "The First Novel in the Longmire Mystery Series." I know that the TV series on A&E has been around for a while, but I've never watched it. And I've heard of Longmire, but never pursued the series, because I'm usually busy with other mystery series, such as Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout. But here it was. Here was the chance to see what the Longmire series was about from the start. And $5.99 for a hefty paperback is a pretty good price, a far cry from the bevy of Robyn Carr novels I usually bypass every time. So I bought it, and unlike the previously mentioned mystery novels, which still sit in my stacks unread (but I will read them soon enough), I'm going to start reading this one. The bookmark in the first page is proof of that.

(Looking at the back of both A Second Helping of Murder and Murder on Bamboo Lane, I find that both the Obsidian Mystery and Berkeley Prime Crime labels are run by Penguin. Same company, and it figures that The Cold Dish was published by Penguin too. It seems that the only time I have books from different publishers is when I pre-order them from Amazon. Walmart and Smith's seem to be for Penguin books only.)

Whether Walmart or Smith's is better for books is a draw. Smith's at least stocks more less conventional mysteries, while Walmart sticks to the standards, yet lets one like The Cold Dish into its ranks. I expect that in any couple of months, I'll find another paperback novel that interests me, and it'll either be from Walmart or Smith's yet again. But since I already have two from two different Smith's, I hope Walmart picks up the slack. It's not that I don't have enough books already, or that I don't go to Barnes & Noble whenever the mood strikes (I haven't gone lately, though). But during errands for the other parts of your life, it's good to also take care of the main part of your life.

Monday, June 9, 2014

This Is How You Remind Me of What I Really Am

Songs that call forth certain times, certain places. I have three of them:

Wichita Lineman by Glenn Campbell

Photograph by Nickleback (the only song of theirs I have listened to more than once, and still do)

Set Fire to the Rain by Adele

Wichita Lineman reminds me of Florida, the sonic vibrations in the song meant to evoke wind blowing across wires bringing back those long roads seemingly to nowhere, even though we always knew where we were going there. There was an orange juice stand that I swear was halfway between Pembroke Pines and Naples, where we went sometimes to visit Dad's aunt and uncle. I don't remember the name, but I do remember the free orange juice samples, and the seemingly endless cups available.

I also think of Orlando, those roadside shack tourist attractions, and Old Town in Kissimmee, with that candlemaking shop I always stood inside in awe, watching those candlemakers draw forth colors from that wax that somehow was possible after dipping the wick in those different colors numerous times, carving them, and showing off wax rainbows. I do think about Walt Disney World during this song, and that one trip to Universal Studios in 1994, but mostly, while listening to this song, I think of the land of Florida, what was always there when Walt Disney World couldn't always be there. I remember our backyard in Casselberry, running out there through the patio to see the space shuttle take off, so close that you could see the American flag and "USA" on one of the wings. I remember the large tree in front of our house there that I always thought of building a treehouse in, but that didn't happen, not least because I fell out of that tree once. And there was the basketball hoop at the side of the driveway, the only time I had a basketball hoop of my own, but I don't mind it because I spend more time these days watching basketball than playing it. I was never one of those who went on a tour of the Everglades, but I remember the gnarled branches and the small canal, and the mess of leaves and all that was behind our condominium in Coral Springs, and, when walking to Borders back then, seeing that canal with all of nature around it, the fortunate mess it created and not always by litter.

I also think about The Bubble Room in Captiva, that beautifully-kitschy restaurant with bubbles blowing all around and pop culture memorabilia, the toy train running throughout, and incredible cakes I haven't been able to match either in Southern California or here in Nevada. The list goes on, but Wichita Lineman always brings all of Florida back to me.

Photograph was a coincidence when we first visited the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. It was playing on my mp3 player when we were riding up the winding hills to the Library, happy to be away from the nothingness of the Santa Clarita Valley (to do anything interesting there, you have to leave). I was not yet as deep in my love of presidential history, but I was curious to see what a presidential library looked like, what it had about a presidency, and I was especially interested in an entire presidency being summarized in one library. Not every event could be covered at length in the museum, but they made sure Reagan's love of jellybeans was prominently displayed, in the souvenir store in jars you could buy, on the desk in the Oval Office replica, and aboard the old Air Force One.

Photograph is about looking back at the past, wondering if you should have done things differently, and missing all of it. I guess it's the music that gets me thinking about the Reagan Presidential Library, that reaching back, and I think about every single time we've been there. We went once for the museum and the Air Force One exhibit, and every other time, it's always been for the greatest freshly-made potato chips we've ever had at Reagan's Country Cafe, which is one of the two reasons we went back often. The other reason was the view from the South Lawn replica, of those small mountains in the haze, of the building going on in the hills below the Library, unrelated to the Library.

Mostly, whenever I listen to that song, I think of the exhibits in the Library, which are positively primitive compared to the digital upgrades the Library has had, which happened after we moved to Las Vegas. I liked the State Dinners exhibit as it was, the table replica, the place settings, the information about the various State Dinners held in the Reagan White House. I also particularly remember a covered, outdoor exhibit that showed off Nancy Reagan's many dresses, and the fabric and the designs made me wonder how closely she kept tabs on the making of each dress. Probably very closely.

And of course I think about Air Force One because of my love of aviation, walking through the tight quarters of that Boeing 707, marveling at how many hundreds of thousands of miles that plane had traveled, and also looking at the adjacent exhibit diagonal from the plane which tallied up those miles and pointed out exactly where Reagan went in his eight years.

I of course have my opinions about presidents, about their effectiveness as leaders. But for me, a president is a president is a president and they all interest me no matter their political affiliation, no matter what they've done or didn't do for the country. I think the Reagan Library is what set me off on my lifetime goal of visiting every presidential library in the nation. A few years after that first visit, we went to the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, and I marveled at the stark differences between the Nixon Library and the Reagan Library, namely that the Reagan Library had a lot more wealthy donors and was therefore able to create an essentially theatrical experience of Reagan's presidency, whereas because of the shadow that Nixon left under, his library did not have as many wealthy donors, although they were undoubtedly devoted to him, and so there seemed like a more honest assessment of his presidency, or at least one in progress, being that the Watergate exhibit was being torn down to make way for a more straightfoward, non-biased one, which the previous one had been, mounted by Nixon loyalists. There, I liked the exhibit on Pat Nixon, the gifts sent to the Nixons that were in glass cases, the replica of his desk in his New Jersey office, stacked with books (I once e-mailed someone high up in the Nixon Library, asking for a list of the titles that were on Nixon's desk, but I never got an answer back. I was genuinely curious, always interested in what a president reads). I liked the films they showed about Nixon's life, and the low-key feeling of the entire library, that you could explore whatever you wanted, go back to it twice or three times, and you'd have all the time you needed without being prodded by theatrics. There was also the house Nixon was born in, right on the property, as well as the helicopter that Nixon flew off in from the White House lawn during his final morning as president on that day, also the one used for the same scene in Frost/Nixon.

Set Fire to the Rain is the newest addition to my list of reminder songs, and one that seemed fairly obvious from the start. If you walked through our massive mobile home in Las Vegas on an idle Saturday afternoon (so massive that the air conditioning bill was $300 a month and I hesitate to think about what heating costs were during the winter), there was always a radio on in the second living room that we never used extensively, near my parents' bedroom door, and Sunny 106.5 was always the station, which had, and still has, the habit of playing the same songs over and over throughout the day. When Skyfall the latest James Bond movie, was preparing to come out that November, they played Adele's song constantly when it was released, at least 20 times that day.

Now when I hear Set Fire to the Rain, I think about all of Valley Vista All-Age Mobile Home Park. I think about walking our two dogs at night, past that one streetlight that always winked off, the bulb going but no one replacing it until it was nearly time for us to move out and move on. I remember the bushes I always liked, the tall ones that for some reason reminded me of Boulder City and the Boulder City Library, which I always thought about whenever I saw them. I remember the tiny carport we had, when Dad had to stop the PT Cruiser (and then the Toyota Corolla) just before the stairs leading up to the laundry room, which was our entrance, because the car was right there and it wasn't worth walking around to the front door stairway. We'd walk up to the back door, walk through the laundry room, and there was the media room (where we kept the big-screen TV I owned, the DVD player, the VCR, the collection of DVDs, and not much else, not even a chair or a couch. It was easier to sit on the floor), my room, Meridith's room, and to the left was the kitchen, so it was always easy to bring in groceries. Plus, we always stored water bottles on the floor of the laundry room, another reason why it was easier entering that way.

Hearing that song, I also think about the few times Meridith and I walked around the entire park, and those days when it was cool enough outside that many mobile home front doors were open, and we passed one mobile home just past the clubhouse, and from inside were these incredible cooking smells, not just of dinner being made, but a history there. It smelled like someone was reaching from deep inside their heart and soul and bringing forth what they remembered fondly, what they wanted to recreate in their kitchen. I was so tempted to tell Mom and Dad that we wouldn't be home for dinner, to try to convince those inside that mobile home to invite us over for dinner. I wanted to taste what they clearly loved so much. There wasn't sauce out of a jar or defrosted meat coming from that kitchen. It all smelled fresh. It smelled like a brown sauce with something else, because a red sauce is noticeable right off, but a brown sauce takes time to understand.

I also think about that one mobile home in the back row, which made up the spine of the park, with all the Western decorations, including defunct kerosene lanterns, vases with steer skulls carved into them, statues of howling coyotes, and those beautiful statues of Indian women with baskets, kneeling at the river. I would have been curious to see how they decorated their home on the inside, but I saw from afar once that the couple who lived there were smokers, and I would have stayed on the outside just to ask. Last we went there, when the entrance gate was open because of a party in the clubhouse, all the Western decorations were gone. Things always change quickly after you leave.

And of course I think about the neighbors, the ones next door who were always loudly repairing air conditioning units (not ones connected to our park), and cars and whatever else their skilled hands could repair, as well as the family of neighbors diagonal from us who were always good for screaming at each other outside, but most of the time inside loudly enough that you could hear it. And also the guy I talked to occasionally who worked, and probably still does, as a custodian at the Thomas & Mack Center. When we were there this most recent time, I was tempted to get out of the car and knock on the door to see if he was available for a few minutes, but I surmised that he was likely sleeping, having to go in later that night. I wanted to see how he was doing, what was going on since he left, but maybe it's better that the past as it was remains that way.

I'm sure I'll have more to write about individual aspects of that mobile home park, and in fact, I should write more here anyway. It's been too long, and I always seem to let this blog go on too long without anything new. But this is a good start, the first inspiration I've had in a long time for this blog. With the latest book review for BookBrowse still to edit, and two books to read and review soon, perhaps it'll light a fire in writing more here. I hope so.