Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Library for Wandering

I have here two lists, written on ramen noodle sticky notes (yes, really. I got them for cheap at the Box Lunch store at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks). One is of three books I had intended to check out from the Ventura College library when I go there next, such as another academic analysis of Don Quixote titled Don Quixote: The Knight of La Mancha, and Peanuts and Philosophy, part of the publisher Open Court's series of pop culture and philosophy books.

The other list takes up three and a quarter ramen sticky notes, and are other pop culture and philosophy titles from the same publisher available at the college library that I thought I might also be interested in, such as The Princess Bride and Philosophy, Monty Python and Philosophy, Facebook and Philosophy, and 12 others.

I realized that this is all wrong.

I checked out Futurama and Philosophy from that list, and couldn't get through it. Some of the essays were thin as it is, but I realized that this isn't the way I want to learn about various approaches to philosophy. I already have a stringent, though wide-ranging, list of books I want to read from the Ventura County public libraries. They're all holds that I pick up at the Hill Road Library, which is convenient for that, but not so much for browsing. I'd do that at the E.P. Foster library downtown, but despite being curious about their separate science fiction section, I haven't been there for a while because I know what I want to read at the moment.

In my pursuit of science fiction, I thought I'd simply look it up in the Ventura College library catalog and go page by page, checking out every single book over time that has even the slightest whiff of science fiction. The first one was The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, apparently an enormous presence in Chinese science fiction.

Huge mistake.

I can't dive in like this. I need to start small. I need short stories. I need anthologies. I need to find out what within science fiction interests me and pursue that, while occasionally stopping in for those that don't quite interest me, but might still be worth a read. I can't be going into (currently) heavy novels like that one and just expect to fall in easily. I need time to know what feels right for me. And I have two anthologies, one that I bought from The Open Book at The Oaks mall, and the other Infinite Stars, an anthology of space opera and military science fiction that I checked out from the Hill Road Library, a copy sent to me from the Ojai Library. I'll start with those, finish the latest issue of Asimov's that I bought at Ralph's last month, and go from there.

Being that my Ventura County library stacks are already well-planned, I shouldn't be doing the same at the Ventura College library. I need at least one library that I can simply wander, and I should be taking advantage of this particular library being open again for a new semester, open to me. Yet, I did notice that there's a science fiction and fantasy essay collection from Ursula K. Le Guin called The Language of the Night in the college library that I want to seek out. And in the philosophy realm, I have been curious about Epicurus for a long time, and the college also has a few books about him. That's where I should be going.

But as to the other three slots available on my card, I need to feel free. Just take it all in. Examine the stacks closely. Find out what I spark to that I may never have considered before. Yes, I want to read Robert A. Caro's epic biography series about Lyndon Baines Johnson, and I know that the college library has all the volumes available. I bought the first volume from Calico Cat Books before I was able to get a college library card, so I need to read that first. So maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to start on those soon enough. But I should be going in again without a plan, like it was the first time after I had plucked The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See off the top of the Leisure Reading stacks, after waiting for months to read it (I had it on hold at the Henderson Libraries, and then we moved). I had no idea what the rest of the library contained, no idea what else I wanted to read, and I simply wandered. I need to do more of that. This is one library that requires that kind of time, to tour my mind through these stacks and just be. Just let go and be carried by the books.

Besides, this is the first time anywhere that I've lived that I've had access to a college library. Despite my feverish love for the formidable Lied Library at UNLV, we didn't live near enough to it to go all that often, and in fact, we didn't. The usual traffic from Henderson to Maryland Parkway, plus the seemingly permanent construction zones along the drive, as well as the campus charging for visitor parking, didn't make it worth it. This one just takes a short bus ride. That's it. And once off the bus, you face the library building dead on. Pure convenience.

It's time to start truly living in these stacks. I can't wait to feel at home again by this.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sondheim Through Time

On Sunday, January 26, 2014, my family and I, two years into living in Las Vegas, with three years to go, went to the Stratosphere for free admission to the Stratosphere Tower, being offered to Nevada residents for that day. We had gotten there in the early afternoon, bypassing the long, snaking line of tourists waiting to pay to get in, with the intent of staying at least through the early evening, to see a Las Vegas sunset from that vantage point and how everything begins to come alive from that point. Knowing that, I decided to bring along the biography Stephen Sondheim: A Life by Meryle Secrest, writing about one of my heroes.

Today is Sunday, January 14, 2018, 12 days shy of it being four years since I started reading that biography (I remember this because my Goodreads account, on my Currently Reading shelf, still has the listing for that biography all the way on the bottom, with that date, the oldest listing I have on that shelf). Not that the biography was bad from where I stopped (All told, I read about 30 pages while we were in the Stratosphere Tower, distracted by the 360-degree view), but since then, it's been for lack of trying, distracted by other books, wanting to stretch out what I don't know yet about Sondheim, watching Six by Sondheim countless times, as well as DVDs of two productions of Company, the original staging of Into the Woods as well as the movie, Sondheim: The Birthday Concert and a few others. It's a lot more fun to see his work in action, which has been the distraction. But still, I want to know how he came up with all those musical treasures. I've given this long weekend over to reading about some of my favorite people, and books by some of my favorite people: Phil Collins, through his memoir Not Dead Yet; this Sondheim biography (I have Sondheim's own two books, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, and I might delve into those afterward), Armistead Maupin's memoir Logical Family, and possibly The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard by David A. Goodman and Uncommon Type: Some Stories, Tom Hanks' first book, all short stories centered on typewriters.

This particular Sunday is time travel in memory at its most head-snapping. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon today finishing Not Dead Yet on the patio of our apartment here in Ventura, in unseasonably warm weather. On weekends, when we're not out, Dad tends to watch marathons of The Golden Girls and while a great deal of it is well-written, I get sick of hearing it all the time. So to the patio I went, unfolding the sole brown lawn chair we have out there.

And yet, on that Sunday in 2014, I had a jacket on, even inside the tower because we were planning to go outside, to where some of the tower's main attractions were, namely Insanity, which dangles riders out over the Strip while furiously spinning around, and X-Scream, which plummets riders to the edge of its tiny track, and then rises up and pushes them back, doing it a few times. Next to the exit of Insanity is the best view of some of the rundown apartment buildings surrounding the tower. By that time, we had moved twice already, from the Valley Vista All-Age Mobile Home Park on Cabana Drive in Las Vegas, to the Pacific Islands Apartment complex in Henderson, all the way in the back, blessedly removed from traffic noise, but cursed by heavy smokers in the apartments above us and next to us, which seeped into our apartment. The complex did nothing about it because "everyone has the right to do whatever they want to do in their own apartment." However, after the remodels they did of the apartments as they became vacant, which surely cost them a pretty penny, I wonder how they feel about that now.

I started reading Stephen Sondheim: A Life when we had found seats in front of one section of this view, in the distance the screams of those bungee-jumping from the top of the tower (we got near to that area, too, and watched the process over and over and over. The ones who set up those were jumping were impressively precise. This wasn't a careless, cigar smoke-filled attraction. There were real lives involved in this and those employees were aware).

The view was overlooking Dad's school then, Fremont Middle, and this is where we would be for a while. Because of the offer, and the visitors in that long line coming up here, the tower was crowded, so you get seats where you can find them. And this was good enough. I was paying attention to what I was reading about Sondheim's childhood, about the indeed separate lives of his parents, but not as attentive as a fawning fan should be. Of course, it was the view, one that's impossible to see anywhere else like this in Las Vegas. I didn't imagine myself as Godzilla, stomping all over the city. I hadn't gotten to that point yet, when living in that valley became harder. I was just amazed at how far the concrete horizon spread. It didn't feel as crowded as Los Angeles looks from a similar height, but it was insistent. Bring in the tourists, let them leave, but try to pen in at least some of the residents because a great deal of them will still get away. As it was for us.

This Sunday, in 2018, I began rereading the beginning of the biography on our first patio, on the left side of our apartment (the one on the right side of our apartment gets too dirty too quickly, with pigeon feathers from those nesting in the crevices that the roof line of these apartments offers, as well as the pigeon shit that falls onto the patio from up there. This complex is none too quick to try to rectify the apparent health problem that could result from that), a corner view that faces part of Telephone Road, as well as a view of those walking on the sidewalk across the street, in front of the Peppertree Condominiums. When the temperature is as warm as it was today, and the wind is wispy and just a little bit talkative, it's perfect. Yesterday had the best weather we've had in five months of living here, and today was just a bonus.

It's quite a distance from trying to grab seats wherever they became available in the Stratosphere Tower. This town is much quieter than Las Vegas could ever hope to be in certain parts, so besides why I started the Sondheim biography this weekend, it's also the perfect atmosphere for it. I can concentrate here. I'm not distracted by any such view, nor any potentially drunken souls (none of that either where I live), nor any constant clamor to buy souvenirs (I had my fair share even while living in Las Vegas. I had two t-shirts listing the names of all the casinos on and off the Strip, myriad sets of playing cards, and I still have my Cosmopolitan t-shirt from before the faceless new owner, the Blackstone Group, killed off its confident, artsy spirit). Sure, walking around the inside floor of the Tower and outside where those rides are is not exactly the best place to be reading a significant biography of Sondheim. I know that. But for that many hours, usually seeing what there is to see in less than an hour and then picking out what I like the most to spend more time with, it just seemed reasonable to bring a book in case there was a stretch of time that I wanted to say that I had read a little something in the Stratosphere Tower. I might well have been the first person to bring a book there, knowing the tourist value of the place. That always worked better at Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage, where it became my tradition to bring Paper Towns by John Green with me to read (I wasn't as into the place as Meridith was because of the dolphins, but I loved that relaxed atmosphere that encouraged visitors to sit a while if they wanted and worry about nothing), but here, why not have the chance to sit in front of one of the windows offering that expansive view, read for a bit, and have that view to look at for a while. I think it could elevate a great many novels.

I know that's not what Las Vegas is for, for pretty much everyone who comes to visit. In fact, it's not even what it's for for most of those residents. But for me, it was just to have a moment of artistic accomplishment in front of me in the way of that biography, to read about how someone else did it. I don't have the same ambitions as Sondheim, although I do want to write a few plays, but my admiration for him is boundless.

And here, in Ventura, it feels like a universe away from Las Vegas, and that's how I like it. There's more time in this town to simply be, to explore whatever you feel like in books, in being on the beach, in strolling downtown, whatever you can think of. Vegas always threw everything at you, all at once. It wasn't as frenetic as Los Angeles, but if it wasn't work you were worrying about, it was the weather (it was frigid that January, hence the jacket), or when to go food shopping (especially in the summer at 110 degrees, when you had to go as late into the night as possible so the milk would last until you could get it home), or the cigarette-smoking neighbors on their patio whose smoke always drifted right to where you could walk out into the rest of the neighborhood, and so much else. This town is better for the rest of Sondheim. I can read about his life more seriously here.

Perhaps one of the reasons I hadn't read much of the Sondheim biography that Sunday in 2014 is because it was the one time in what became five years in Las Vegas that the city felt completely calm to me. I could look at it from above and feel like maybe, just maybe, I could manage to live here. Of course, that was before the cigarette smoke in our apartment got worse, and before we moved a few more times within Henderson. But for that one day, it was possible, although I do think it was the first time I had seen any city from such a height, 1,149 feet up. It even made Las Vegas seem reasonable. Seem. The reality never matches it. It's at least better here.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Forge of Empires Conflict

Being in between jobs right now, I get on the computer every morning. I check my e-mail, log onto Facebook for a little bit (I don't fall into the Black Hole of Lost Time, though), check various job listings, apply for any that look possible (at this point, I don't look to have an overwhelmingly desirable feeling about them, but that there's something in each of the jobs that would interest me, such as doing back-office work at an Ethan Allen location, owing to an interest in interior design and wanting to see people have the home design they may have dreamed of for years), search the library catalog for any books I meant to search for the previous night, or that still remain in my bookmarks on Chrome that I still have to hock the Ventura Library District to buy. Oh, and of course my own writing, novels that I'm researching, picture book ideas I'm looking to expand, poems I'm trying (I don't know how much of an interest I have in poetry yet).

So why would I want to spend even more time on the computer? Why, when I have so many books I want to read, and one DVD binder with movies and TV series I haven't watched yet (I want to try the Canadian series L.A. Complex again, which aired in 2012 on The CW, and which seems appropriate now that I'm in Southern California again. I also have the entire run of As Time Goes By, because of Judi Dench, but I want to get beyond the third episode already, actually take time for it)? Besides that DVD binder, I also have a few DVDs scattered between my bedroom area (actually the dining room area of this apartment, but because the apartment smaller than what we came from, without a third bedroom, we converted it into my bedroom) and my bookcases that I want to watch, too.

And then I stumbled onto Forge of Empires.

No, this story isn't going to end the way you think it might.

I haven't spent obsessive hours upon hours and days upon days playing it, starting from the Stone Age and working hard so I can travel through time this way. In fact, I haven't even signed up for an account yet. I just sit there at the front page, reading the information they have for potential new users, their blog announcing updates, and watching the citizens in the shadow of the castle on the front page go about their work. I've only done this since last weekend, the kid with his nose pressed against the window of the toy store, though I'm not wide-eyed, nor wishing for this or that, or that I could go inside and have everything that I want.

I remember FarmVille and Mafia Wars on Facebook. I don't remember exactly why I started playing them, but I think a few Facebook friends were playing Mafia Wars and I traded with them on various items and whatever else was involved there. I've long since forgotten. But I remember that you had to wait for energy to be replenished, with a countdown clock indicating when you'd have more of it. As to FarmVille, my old farm is still active, right down to the 2010 New Year's ball drop pole I put on that farm. I still go in every now and then to play with it, when it all actually loads properly.

So I imagine that Forge of Empires also has the same clocks there, that you have to wait before various things are replenished. I see also that it's a SimCity type of game, spanning the Stone Age, then the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Middle Ages, the Colonial Age, and the Industrial Age. I like that kind of historical bent. But still I sit in front of its homepage. Still no account created. Why?

This morning, I realized why. Even while being attracted by the graphics, the possibility of seeing right in front of my eyes what these various ages might have looked like, and to build a city and make it work, I'm a writer. I'm working on creating my own worlds through novels I hope to see published some day. I'm already seeing to the lives of my characters, who are also seeing to my life in that sometimes I'm simply transcribing what they say, as it has happened to countless other writers.

But it's not only that. Looking at the front page of Forge of Empires, and the graphics, and indeed some of the YouTube videos that have been posted about the game, such as the tutorials and the time-lapse footage, they only serve to strengthen my interest in reading historical novels. Just like watching The Lion in Winter recently made me seek out novels about the English monarchy, Forge of Empires does the same in other ages. I went looking for Steven Saylor's series of Roman novels featuring Gordianus the Finder. I'm thinking about novels set in the 1930s, my favorite historical period to study. I'm wondering about the 1890s. I remember the musical 1776, and David McCullough's 1776 comes to mind, which I still haven't read.

I think, for me, Forge of Empires is best as inspiration to seek out historical novels, biographies, and other non-fiction works so I can venture through those time periods that way. I can't keep staring at a screen more than I usually do in pursuit of what I need in my life (a job) and what I want (to write these novels and other books). Each day is already short enough.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Mandarin Orange Lottery

Ever since my family and I moved back to Southern California and felt we were settled enough in Ventura, Mom and Dad began playing the lottery again. Not to as great an extent as those slot machine players I'd see sitting for hours at the casinos we went to in Las Vegas, nor the poker players who looked like they had been there for days. The important things, like when the Powerball goes above $300 million. Same with Mega Millions. Of course, in response to this, Dad went a little overboard with tickets, playing six sets of numbers on one ticket and a few on another. Understandable, though, just for that slim chance. It's the usual assertion that all it takes is one. I suppose it's worth a try in that way. Thankfully, not all the time.

When we lived in Santa Clarita, Mom loved the scratch-offs. Again, there was a limit. Just a certain amount for the month for scratchoffs, mainly the dollar ones, unless there was something that looked interesting in the slightly higher-priced ones. It's the same here again. Just a scant few dollars a month for scratch-offs, although with Dad's additional interest in it, we've bought a year of those Year of the Dog scratch-offs. In our house, it's been 27 years of the Year of the Dog. So it fits us.

Myself, I only do a scratch-off if presented with one, such as it has been with Year of the Dog. One I did had two $888, but not a third. You need three to get the amount. The latest one netted me $2. Enough for two more of those scratch-offs, but I'm not going to chase down the $888.

However, I will chase down the glory can of mandarin oranges. Sure you can get mandarin oranges anyway, especially canned, but I only like to get them at Ralphs because they're the only ones that are steeped in mandarin orange juice, not light syrup.

I usually get four or so cans every time we go to Ralphs since I like to have it every day. But opening the cans is a gamble, my kind of gamble. Sometimes you get a few whole mandarin orange segments, along with mandarin oranges that look like they were shot to pieces by a gun from Men in Black. I had one can the other week that was nothing but that. Sometimes you'll get the mandarin orange massacre along with a few thinly-sliced pieces of mandarin orange, lopped off from a bigger mandarin orange segment. This is why I like to buy cans with different dates on it. All of them now expire in 2020, but there are some with one January date and others that are two days earlier. It might be different days of production for wherever this is packaged, so I want to see what different days have brought.

The day before yesterday, I hit the jackpot. I opened the can, dumped the mandarin oranges into a small bowl, and every single mandarin orange was plump and whole! No ragged pieces! No thin slices! In the five months we've been there, that we've been shopping at Ralphs (we also go to Vons and Trader Joe's, especially for the latter's new tuna salad, which is a masterpiece, and reminds us of the slightly smoky tuna salad we used to get from Lox Haven in Margate, Florida), I've never gotten a can like this. It gives me hope that this particular Ralphs store, the only one we have in Ventura, will get more.

Of course, I don't get canned mandarin oranges just for the hope of that. They're the only oranges I eat, and the only way I prefer them. The less work I have to do with peeling, the better. And it's always interesting to see the differences between cans. I prefer gambling with 89 cents a can.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Home in Space, Through Time, In the Future, and Within Alternate Histories

I've been thinking about the meaning of home for a few months, ever since moving again. There are parts of Ventura that feel home-like to me, but at this point in my life, I don't think I'll find an overall home I can become attached to. Not that I want to move again, but I don't have the expectations anymore that I used to whenever we moved. I've learned. I'll take whatever comes here. So far it's good. It'll be better when I'm hired somewhere.

However, within that thought process, about places I've been to, places I've lived in, favorite things in my life, I think I hit on something.

The second movie I ever saw, when I was 5, was Jetsons: The Movie.

My favorite childhood movie was Flight of the Navigator.

I am hopelessly devoted to Blade Runner, Tron: Legacy, and Oblivion.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow occupies an important place in my permanent book collection.

Every time my family and I went to Walt Disney World, to the Magic Kingdom, I always spent the day in Tomorrowland, circulating among Space Mountain, the then-Tomorrowland Transit Authority, and Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, as well as the arcade adjacent to the exit of Space Mountain (from the inside) and the entrance (from the outside).

I own nearly the entire run of Red Dwarf on DVD.

There are other examples, like the Nerd Trivia page-a-day calendar I recently mentioned, especially seeking its sci-fi bent. I also realized, paging through one of my DVD binders, that I have the complete series of the cult hit The Middleman, which I loved when it aired on then-ABC Family, and practically wailed over its cancellation.

But the earlier ones, those above, that's what factors into this: Science fiction, even in what some might consider some of these imperfect forms, has always been a beacon in my life, beckoning to me. But I've never really paid attention to it.

Until now.

In seeking a stable home for myself, I know now that it'll be science fiction. Specifically science fiction novels and short stories. My New Year's resolution is to immerse myself completely in them, not only to find my world(s) within them, but also find inspiration in the universes they conjure, hope for me that my own, comparatively earthbound writing, can be as good, as all-encompassing as these works are.

As my past experience with science fiction indicates, I'm a geek nomad. I've never taken sides between the Jedi and Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever you prefer). I do lean more toward Star Trek than Star Wars, but I will eventually see the new movie. I like going from, say, an issue of Asimov's Science Fiction to Firefly, and then from Firefly to whatever Kim Stanley Robinson has going on lately. To quote from my previous post about the Nerd Trivia calendar:

I think if I was to appear in space-based science fiction, I would be the cargo captain with the rundown, yet still reliable ship who's always ready to be sent anywhere in exchange for a sizable donation to the Help Keep Me Alive Fund. I wouldn't race headlong into danger, or seek out some potentially risky adventure. Just let me drift among the stars, taking in the universe at my own pace (save for when there's cargo to transport).

I don't think it's only the sheer scope of science fiction which seizes me, though. It's not only the wonders that can emerge from thousands of words, making me wonder how someone did all this, made this world simply through words (it's never simple, of course). I realized that it's also the architecture in science fiction that I want to study closely.

When I was a tyke, my parents and I (and then my sister) lived in Casselberry, Florida, so close to Orlando that we went to Walt Disney World every weekend. I was in a stroller and I guess then the castle itself and the buildings made to look like different lands made a deep impression on me, though I didn't know it then.

While five years of living in Las Vegas was hard, there were those days when we went to The Cosmopolitan, the Wynn, the Mirage, the Bellagio, and other hotels, and I loved that elegant interior design and was curious about who had done it, how they planned it, what they enjoyed in their lives that inspired them to decorate as they did. Obviously under the edict of a Steve Wynn, of course, or even someone with lesser power than that, but it was still them. They were the ones who made it happen.

For me, in science fiction, it would be the size of staterooms in starships, how various captains decorate their own quarters, how much room there is for an overcrowded population to live in, say, a futuristic Los Angeles. How are such cities powered? What thought goes into what a starship will contain? Such questions as that will undoubtedly poke at me while I read.

I don't think I'll write about science fiction novels and short stories extensively here. I already write reviews for BookBrowse, and I don't want to do it that way. It'll probably be when the mood strikes me, when I spot a building or transport or some neon-filtered way of life in the far-off future that I want to write about, to wonder about it further.

Whether this portends me one day writing science fiction, I don't know. I have two ideas for short stories, one which involves holograms in a supermarket, and the other an earthbound non-futuristic short story collection set in the outskirts of Las Vegas, in a rundown former motel-turned apartment complex that faces the back end of the McCarran International parking garage, which has got to be the biggest parking garage in Las Vegas. The rest of what I want to write, my ideas list, is not only resolutely earthbound, but doesn't involve science fiction at all. I think for the most part, I just want to absorb everything it offers and apply it to my own work. Just something for me, not always to try to push out to the world. I'll wander and then come in with what I've found that interests me. This blog won't be overtaken by such an adventure. It'll still be different things.

(Postscript at 5:10 p.m.: This whole thing makes more sense now. I just remembered that when I was growing up, I always told my mom that I would build a time machine. In trying moments over the years, she's always asked me, "Where's your time machine?" No wonder the Back to the Future movies are among my favorites, the third one my favorite of the trilogy.)

The Physical Manifestation of Days

Sitting on the second shelf of my smaller bookcase on the left side, the first of three bookcases side-by-side (the biggest one is in the middle and the one on the right is the same size as that smaller bookcase) is the 2018 Zen Page-a-Day Calendar that I've had for three or four years in a row. I believe in everything that Zen represents, though my kind of meditation is reading. There's also a great deal of philosophy in it, which I've begun studying, but a more accessible philosophy that doesn't make you tear your hair out over how dense it is, and even when you try to chip away at it, it doesn't yield. Not the kind of philosophical thought that others write only to show how much they believe they've learned and how smart they think they look. I've also discovered many writers through it that have made it into my infinite reading list. Sometimes I pick them up right then and there and seek out their books, especially those from the Zen masters. Others I look up every once in a while and pick them up from there.

Also, from this past December until just after Christmas, I was thinking about a second page-a-day calendar for my bookcases, namely the 365 Things to Love About Being Southern Page-a-Day Calendar. I'm a Florida native, and I'm always interested in Southern culture, so I thought this would work for me. I remembered that it was at the Go! Calendars store at the Pacific View Mall, and the last time I went, when they were having a 50%-off-everything sale (it was a pop-up store, unfortunately, although with how many storefronts are empty on the second floor, they could use a permanent Go! Calendars store), there were still two calendars available.

But I looked through it again that last time and there wasn't much there that I didn't already know. I appreciated their filmographies of Southern actors, particularly Renee Zellweger, but I already know all her movies. And what I didn't know, such as the famed restaurants in every state, didn't offer anything beyond the names of the restaurants. Not about what they served, not about the barbecue culture within each of those that are barbecue joints, just lists. I don't want just lists. I want to know what those places are like. And I know there's Yelp for that, but I'm not on a computer all the time, though I'm usually on one too much, to write, to look for work right now, to research, and to write. In that calendar, I would want to have the details of a place right in front of me, but on one square page, there's probably not much room for what compilers of that calendar could hope to achieve further.

I wanted a calendar that would either give me something new every day or give me another angle to something I already knew. I needed a calendar that's close to me the way the Zen calendar is. And browsing those shelves of page-a-day calendars yet again in that store, I found one:

A Year of Nerd Trivia, newly published. 2018 is the first year of it.

I pulled it out of the box and randomly flipped through some of the pages. The back of the box had already intrigued me, what with a Doctor Who quiz and a quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson about his 14-year-old daughter's emergent geekiness. In the calendar, I had flipped to a "Nerd Lit" page (book recommendations all) for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I'd heard about in passing, but never looked into it. The description didn't interest me a great deal, but times may change.

I decided that this was the calendar for me. I'm more of a geek nomad. I wander between worlds, from Firefly to the Star Trek universe, tiptoeing through Doctor Who and nursing my obsessions with Blade Runner, Tron: Legacy, and Oblivion. I'm not a Jedi nor a Trekkie (or Trekker; whichever one you want). I think if I was to appear in space-based science fiction, I would be the cargo captain with the rundown, yet still reliable ship who's always ready to be sent anywhere in exchange for a sizable donation to the Help Keep Me Alive Fund. I wouldn't race headlong into danger, or seek out some potentially risky adventure. Just let me drift among the stars, taking in the universe at my own pace (save for when there's cargo to transport).

So the Nerd Trivia calendar became my second one at the start of the New Year. The first day had a Lord of the Rings quiz, which I had to look at the answers that at the bottom, upside-down. I didn't know any of them. I'm not against fantasy works; I just have to find room for them. I not only once bought a copy of Game of Thrones from Walmart (giving it up when we moved from Las Vegas back to Southern California), and borrowed a paperback copy from the Ojai Library, but I still haven't read it. I guess maybe I wanted to see, based on the TV series (which I also haven't seen), what all the hype has been about. But that's probably not the best way to approach such a series. There has to be something within it that intrigues you enough to venture forth. I'll look into it again, of course. As to Lord of the Rings, the Goodwill in downtown Ventura had a 50%-off-everything sale two days after Christmas, and I found a shrink-wrapped, unopened set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD (the theatrical cuts) for $4.00. What better time to give it another try? It's not that I didn't like it the first time (I saw the The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters, and was impressed), but I still haven't seen The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

The next day, January 2nd, was a Nerd Lit page for I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Dystopian worldwide epidemics don't interest me, nor do vampires, so I could skip that. But today had trivia about Star Trek: Generations, that the budget for the movie was so tight, the Next Generation crew had to wear the Deep Space Nine uniforms. Jonathan Frakes was wearing Avery Brooks' uniform, and it was too big for him, which is why whenever Frakes is on camera, his sleeves are rolled up.

So even if there's a day that doesn't interest me, like I Am Legend, I know that there'll be something coming up that will. To me, these calendars are the physical manifestation of days. The day ends, I tear off that day, crumple it up and throw it out. But before I do, I hope that I've spent that day well enough, accomplishing at least some of whatever I'm looking to do, be it writing or the currently ever-present job search, or like on New Year's Day night, watching The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin on PBS, the documentary I waited months to see, ever since I heard about it when it was making the film festival circuit.

One day gone, crumpled up. The next day here. I always hope that the Zen calendar will live up to my expectations of it each day, and it usually does. I can be casual with the Nerd Trivia calendar. I'm sure that something interesting will pop up. I'm just hoping that there'll be a Nerd Lit page every week. Only 52, then, sure (51 now), but I'm sure some of these recommendations will lead me to still other books, just by looking them up. Not that I need a calendar for book recommendations, with how much I read as it is, but there's always something I haven't noticed, even as I explore widely.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Important Edibles

About two weeks ago, we went to the Cheesecake Factory at The Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks to pick up slices for each of us for what we thought would be a visit to the beach here in Ventura and having our cheesecake there. But the Thomas Fire and the subsequent smoke blanketing our region made that impossible. So we had our slices at home a day or two later.

At the Cheesecake Factory case, I spotted one called Chris' Outrageous Cheesecake and decided to try that without knowing anything that was in it. When my mom, my sister and I were at the Cheesecake Factory a few weeks before that for dinner, I tried the Adam's Peanut Butter Fudge Ripple Cheesecake, and that was more palatable than the monstrosity I subjected myself to: Chocolate cake, brownie, coconut-pecan frosting, and chocolate chip coconut cheesecake, to crib from the order that the layering is listed on the website. It made me wonder: Why does Chris hate people? What happened to shake that life so badly early on?

Now, I've done bad to myself over the years. In my mid-20s, I devoured tubs of Extreme Moose Tracks ice cream from Ralphs in the middle of the night, while not going to bed until 5 a.m. Yeah, I was an idiot, both to myself and to my health. In that same time period (it may have been because Santa Clarita tended to feel isolating, and what are you supposed to connect with there besides going out of the valley in order to do anything interesting?), I also inhaled so many Dr. Peppers over a span of months, that I had a worrisome caffeine problem. Mainly too much of it. Try sleeping under that condition. No chance. I finally pulled myself out of it after realizing how truly awful all this was.

But none of that was as bad as that slice of Chris's Outrageous Cheesecake. I sat at the dining room table, forking my way through it, appalled at how this one slice of cheesecake completely disrespected the sanctity of cheesecake, and decided right then and there that I need to taste again simply to enjoy it, not to just taste to shovel whatever into my mouth and go back for more and more, unthinking. In other, thinner words, I needed to get back on a diet and fast. Forget all the milk chocolate squares I had indulged in in weeks' and months' past. The worry of job hunting will do that to you. Never mind the one bag of pork rinds my mom, my sister and I shared in one shot back in early November (my love of all things pig knows no bounds, though). Forget the different root beers I had tried, and the egg nogs I had tasted in order to find the best one here (that was necessary, though, because having left Las Vegas, I no longer had the egg nog from Anderson Dairy, which, to me, was the best one there, and that's a local brand). I needed to partition my eating life once and for all. Keep it to more fruits and vegetables for my daily eating, and save the really important things for every now and then, but also know what those really important things are. Keep a list so there's never any doubt.

That list, diet-motivated or not, has varied from place to place, everywhere I've lived. In my teens, living in South Florida, I loved the chicken nachos at Miller's Ale House in Pembroke Pines. Huge portion, and I cleared off the entire platter. Extra cheese and no jalapenos always helped. Come to think of it, I also loved them in Las Vegas because there was a Miller's Ale House at Town Square. It's the one restaurant I've been to where my order has never wavered, from then to now. But those days are done. There's no Miller's Ale House in Southern California. As to boba tea places, such as No. 1 Boba Tea in Las Vegas, I ordered a peanut butter and banana smoothie from the first time we went there, to the last time five years later, no matter if we went to the one in Chinatown in Las Vegas, the newer Galleria at Sunset location in Henderson on Mall Ring Circle, or the one on Eastern, in the massive Target shopping center, which was our go-to-location.

But that's gone, too. I don't lament it because here I am, with so many new experiences, and still more to try. In Oxnard, which is one of the unhappiest cities I've ever been to, I was relieved to find that they have a Vallarta supermarket, so we don't have to schlep to Santa Clarita for one. They have two in Oxnard, and Mom and Dad had gone to the dingier one when they were visiting here, but we were lucky to bump into the much cleaner one last month when Dad was looking for a Fallas bargain clothing store. There, I discovered something that, when I have it, is better than books. Seriously. It's chicharrones which, in this case, are mainly pork fat. I'll have to get the name of this type right next time, but when I had it, I knew that this was paradise. That slice of Chris' Outrageous Cheesecake is what put me back on a diet, but those chicharrones are what keeps me on a diet because I want to be ready for the next time we go to Vallarta.

With this in mind, I've come up with a list of those foods important to me. Not the daily essentials, like bananas. I already know those. But those which I most likely would go to great lengths for if I had to, but fortunately, I don't have to for most of these. Some may require adjustments, as will be noted. But all this is who I am in foodstuffs:

Tillamook medium cheddar cheese.

Kroger blended vanilla yogurt (especially in the large tub from Ralphs. I have given up other yogurts for this one).

Grilled pork sausage spring rolls from Pholicious in the food court of the Pacific View Mall here in Ventura.

Vietnamese iced coffee from Pholicious in the food court of the Pacific View Mall here in Ventura (Vietnamese iced coffee became my lifeblood after my sister introduced me to it at 99 Ranch Market on Maryland Parkway in Las Vegas at VeggiEAT Express in their little food court. The iced coffee at Pholicious isn't as good, but it's good enough. At The Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks, they're opening a Vietnamese place in the food court and I must try the iced coffee there. I hope for it to be like the iced coffee at VeggiEAT Express, but considering my limited options in this part of Southern California, I'm not going to get too choosy).

The ham-and-cheese croissant at Master's Donuts that is not only generously filled, but is also the longest croissant out of all the donut shops I've been to thus far in Ventura.

The carnitas quesadilla at Vallarta (the best quesadilla in the Ventura County area. The runner-up is the cheese quesadilla at La Salsa Fresh Mexican Grill in the food court at The Oaks Mall. My local quesadilla at La Mancha Mexican & Seafood in the food court at the Pacific View Mall is way too heavy, although the basic quesadilla at Snapper Jack's Taco Shack in downtown Ventura is acceptable).

Peerless Coffee & Tea's black tea, from Oakland (I tried this tea at Ojai Pizza Company in downtown Ojai, and it was the first tea that made me want to search for teas that taste like they should be in libraries. This one tasted like a wood-paneled, gently-lived in reading room, like the Ojai Library is to me. However, the Thomas Fire caused the Ojai water supply to shut down entirely at one point, and Mom doesn't trust the water supply to get back to what it was before the fires, so advised me not to go for the tea next time when we're there. The next time we go, it'll have been a while since the fire passed through a section of Ojai, so they might have already settled the water issue, or at least set about making sure it doesn't go off again like that. Even so, after we go to WinCo next where Meridith told me that there's a tea strainer there that would be useful for me, I'm going to order the black tea sampler they have to find out if the other teas are just as good, and to pinpoint the one I loved at Ojai Pizza Company. Or I may just stroll on in next time and ask them the exact name of that particular tea. Based on what the Peerless website offers, I think it's the Peerless Royal Blend, which boasts a "smooth, fragrant aroma and flavor." And yet there's also the Assam, "a strong, dark flavor with a heavy body." Yet this was for iced tea, so it might well be their Organic Tropic Star Classic Black for iced tea. Either way, I know I've found my tea company).

Lean Cuisine's Roasted Garlic White Bean Alfredo (This, with Great Northern beans, is what got me deep into beans. They'd always been on the periphery of my life, because of my mother's love of baked beans, and especially black beans and rice, so I guess the interest was just lying dormant. I love this because of the beans and have set out to see what other beans I might like. I'm not big on baked beans like Mom is, but give me beans as part of other dishes or flavored well enough on their own (even refried beans as it turns out), and I can be occupied for quite a while on this subject alone).

A large order of angel hair pasta with pesto (basil, garlic, olive oil, cheese and nuts) and fresh basil from Presto Pasta in the Vons shopping center right down the street from our apartment (I'm actually starting to get tired of this combination, despite my love of basil, so I may try the pomodoro sauce again, or venture into marinara. I don't know yet).

Producers Dairy Premium Egg Nog from Fresno (I can only find this at our sole Ventura Walmart, but it is the best one because not only is it thick enough like egg nog should be, but the nutmeg appears just enough to show that it's nutmeg, but not enough to start to taste like it was made in a homey arts and crafts store. Trader Joe's egg nog is too thin and tasteless, and Kroger's egg nog remains too expensive here, at $3.50 for a quart, but that one was just so-so).

Hershey's Symphony bar (the creamy milk chocolate kind, not the Hershey's standard that comes in Kisses and such. This is what makes me not have as much of Reese's anything as I have in the past, so I can have this every once in a while instead).

Veggie omelette from Busy Bee Cafe in downtown Ventura (The newest addition to my list. The first time Meridith and I went to the Busy Bee Cafe, it was so-so. Meridith's fried chicken was mostly dry, and the stuffed French toast I had of peanut butter, banana, and strawberries didn't taste all that worth coming back again. But this second time, along with Mom and Dad this time for their first time, this was the right time. Better cooks in the kitchen, for one, and I tried a veggie omelette that had carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, and red and green peppers. It wasn't your typical omelet because they used pieces of all the vegetables, so you got basically a golden-brown sheen of eggs all over the vegetables, which was fine with me. Broccoli and cauliflower done like this is pretty much the only way I can eat them, and I loved how well-browned the cauliflower was, along with the sourdough toast and their home fries, with smaller cubed potatoes than I normally see in other home fries. I know I'll be getting this every time we go. It felt simple and unassuming, and I liked that, too).

It's not as urgent to me as all these, but I'm also looking for a decent chocolate malt (one in which I can taste the malt, too, rather than it being drowned out by overly sweet chocolate ice cream) and a patty melt. Busy Bee Cafe has a patty melt, but after that veggie omelette, it's going to be hard for me to consider anything else (witness the peanut butter and banana smoothie from No. 1 Boba Tea for five years, and the chicken nachos from Miller's Ale House for practically all of my life, though the gap begins now. But come to think of it, there was that gap for nine years in Santa Clarita, too).

I would also like to find great grits that don't come from the Quaker Oats packets I use all the time, besides the crock of it that I liked at Bonnie Lu's Country Cafe in downtown Ojai. However, I suspect that that'll be the ultimate for me. They're not easily found here like that. By the way, the quesadilla at Bonnie Lu's places third on my list, with the exception of their pico de gallo, which is the best I've had anywhere! There are idle nights when I get lost in the reverie of the memory of that pico de gallo! To have tomatoes and onions and cilantro as fresh as what's in there, besides whoever makes it having the power of God to make it like that, I think they must have the Shangri-La of gardens hidden somewhere in Ojai.

So, with the exception of that Lean Cuisine alfredo, all this is why I'm sticking a diet for good. I don't know when we'll go back to the Red Brick Pizza right near our apartment complex, but that California Club salad I had there could surely help me stick to my diet. Despite what it sounds like, the calorie count isn't so bad on that one. They've got salad artists over there who know how to layer salads so that you're not left with a heap of romaine lettuce as you get further into the bowl. I can't wait to have that again.

I don't think I'll be adding to this list as quickly as I would have when I lived in Santa Clarita and Las Vegas (with L.A. being closer to Santa Clarita, as well as Anaheim, Burbank, and Buena Park, and Las Vegas being, well, Las Vegas, with doing things like coming up with a list like this as a distraction against the hard living there), but I know that I can look at this list for here, and be sure that I'll be getting something good every time.