Sunday, April 23, 2017

Back to a Musical Hobby

Last Monday, the first day back after spring break for the Clark County School District, I looked at my pile of vacation days and, since I'm leaving at the end of the year, I decided to take the remaining Fridays of the school year off. That's 7 of them.

Then, in the middle of last week, I thought, "Well, why not Mondays, too?" That way, I'd have a four-day weekend. Therefore, with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday being the days I'd work, I'd have three days on, four days off. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday would therefore be "Saturday-Saturday-Saturday-Sunday" and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday would be "Monday-Thursday-Friday," likely the only time in my career that I'll be able to do this.

I thought about starting the Mondays off at the beginning of May, but then, you know what? It doesn't matter anyway. Teachers at my school are already counting down to the end of the school year, there's the hassle of the SBAC testing, and in submitting my letter of resignation about two months ago, I've already been replaced. My successor has been hired and is ready for next school year, so I'm old hat. And I can't be sure that these vacation days will transfer to my next job, being that there's a slim chance I'll be part of another public school district. That's way down on my list of jobs I want. I want to be a member of a staff this time, not just working with one person all day.

So taking off Mondays, too, begins tomorrow, the last week of the month. And tomorrow is also the end of my first four-day weekend. In this first weekend, I've finally been able to read a book again in one sitting, the first time in many months (The Calamity Cafe by Gayle Leeson, which was so-so). Then I did it again today with There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT, & Many Others by William Daniels. Oh, I want to do this again and again and again with the weeks remaining in which I'll have these four-day weekends, but I can't do it all the time. I have another book to review for BookBrowse, I have to update my resume and scan my letters of recommendation from librarians and my former newspaper editor (This week, I'm also going to contact the first reporter I interned for at The Signal, what with all the tapes I transcribed for him, and ask for a letter of recommendation from him as well), and update my profile on EDJOIN, which educational institutions across the country look at, especially ones in California. Since we're going to be living in Ventura, those are the libraries that I want seeing my information and resume and recommendation letters.

There are also a few movies I want to catch up on, though I've grown restless with those in favor of reading. I have to dig through the many DVDs I've bought sight unseen and pull out what I want to watch this very moment. And it has to be something that really interests me, else I'll be restless again.

But one thing I finally have time for again is a hobby I started when I saw The Cosmopolitan on the Strip going downhill before Deutsche Bank sold it to the Blackstone Group, which has a reputation for buying up properties, revamping them, and selling them off again. That's what's happened to my beloved Cosmopolitan. The digital art, sculptures, paintings, murals, and music were all important in creating a unique, inspiring experience that made you want to explore more of what they had all over, wanting to see that intricate spaceship sculpture by Kris Kuksi on the 3rd floor, after the secret pizza place, down the hall, next to the piano, before those conference rooms, and wanting to go to the Art-O-Mat vending machines to see what different artists there were from across the country with different pieces of block art being sold.

I found out on a visit a few months ago that the art has become an afterthought, most of the flatscreen TVs used for the digital art are gone (save for the ones at the blackjack, roulette, and craps tables, which are used to show football and basketball games), and my dear playlist had changed over to what you hear on FM radio all the time.

So, I'm creating a playlist which, to me, represents the Old Cosmopolitan on the Strip. I listen to KUNV, the University of Nevada Las Vegas's radio station, which Mom has on during the day. Sometimes I hear a piece during the smooth jazz hours that I want to use.

But mainly, I get my titles from the Music Choice Channels on Cox Cable, particularly the Sounds of the Season channel which, when there isn't a holiday like St. Patrick's Day or Mardi Gras or Christmas, they play "The Pulse," which is all dance music, chillwave, dubstep, and other types of electronic music.

So far, I have 10 titles, six from Music Choice, two from M83 (one from their "Oblivion" soundtrack), "Roses" by The Chainsmokers, and my latest favorite, "Walk with Me" by Wamdue Project. I wish I could describe this kind of music better, but all of it recalls for me the Cosmopolitan I happily walked through, imagining owning it all, and keeping it exactly like this. In creating this playlist, I'm also imagining on what floors these songs would have fit, such as what would have worked on the casino floor, what would have worked in the hallway leading to the Wicked Spoon buffet, just before Rose. Rabbit. Lie., what would have sounded right on the shopping/restaurant floor, and what would have worked for the convention hall spaces.

Strangely enough, the last two times I went to Green Valley Ranch, which, to me, is Henderson's only palace, I walked through their vastly remodeled lobby. In the wide, semi-carpeted hallway with the doors looking out on the pool area, leading to the lobby, I heard exactly the playlist I heard at The Cosmopolitan, which makes me think, and even hope, that whoever programmed The Cosmopolitan now works at Green Valley Ranch, that my musical heart and soul lives on.

Even after I move back to Southern California, I'm keeping this playlist with me to also remember the parts of Las Vegas I need for the novel or two, and a play, that I want to write that are set here. Despite the hell many times over that I've been through here, none of these works will rant about Las Vegas nor rail against it. That doesn't fit my characters. There may be a gripe or two in the play, but as for the novels, my characters just exist here, and at the end of one, simply leave, never to return, which is what I'll be doing, too.

And here it is so far, with its working title: The Old Cosmopolitan Las Vegas fantasy playlist.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Bridge to Southern California

In the next few months, my family and I will be moving back to Southern California, from Las Vegas, though not to Santa Clarita, where we lived for nine years before we moved to Las Vegas. This time, it's Ventura, where the beach life is less crowded than, say, San Diego, which works for my father, who wants to retire at or near the beach. Based on the prices we've seen for beach houses and even condos on the beach, it'll probably be near the beach, particularly one street my parents found near Ventura College, with beautiful gardens in the front yard so many of the houses, and a Little Free Library at one of them. One of the comforting things my parents found out in Ventura was that one of the employees at the Welcome Center in downtown said that she's a third-generation Venturan. Historical longevity. That's what I seek. Another thing is that the owners of the house with the Little Free Library, in a profile online about it said that they've lived in that house for 44 years, and no one has taken pictures of it. But with the Little Free Library, people stop by all the time to see it.

44 years. After living in an area where one of the biggest stories last year, broadcast live at 2 in the morning, was the implosion of the Riviera, I need to know that I'm following the many who have lived faithfully in one place. Perhaps I can find my place there, too. I'm looking forward to it, but I'm cautious. I have some minute hopes, but I'm leaving them to the side until I see more, until I learn more, until I experience more.

However, this doesn't count only for Ventura. It counts for the whole of Southern California, which I had for nine years, but didn't really think as fondly of it as I do now. First, I was in my 20s during those nine years, so I didn't know a whole hell of a lot back then. What was I to think when I was busy attending classes at College of the Canyons, interning (and then being an editor for a time) at the Signal newspaper, and at first being bored by the usual Friday errands of going to the Pavilions supermarket and then Sprouts, and on Sundays delivering empty bottles to the Target in Golden Valley for the CRV money back. It turns out, after four years in Las Vegas, that those were among the most stable times we had.

When we moved from South Florida to Southern California in 2003, we went sharply from one world to another. Different coasts, immensely different lives, overwhelming freeways. There was no bridge from one to the other, no transition to make it easier to know and get used to. Same with going from Southern California to Las Vegas. Each region keeps to itself.

There is, however, some small part of the Las Vegas valley that gives to those who are leaving. Maybe it's something that was meant to be eventually discovered, something that has always been in our subconscious. So yes, I know about coffee, as I am part of a coffee-drinking family. Not to an extreme degree, but me, I'm a hardcore tea drinker. French vanilla iced coffee from McDonald's, sure. Something every once in a while from Starbucks, yeah. But not a Starbucks devotee. Not a household with a constantly burbling coffee machine, or even a Keurig. I have at least 100 teabags in one of the kitchen cabinets, but nothing coffee-related. That would be my mom, who has Trader Joe's Instant Coffee Packets in the cabinet. I have a hint of coffee in my daily memories, but not total, undying devotion.

And yet, as is said, it's never too late. It wasn't Starbucks that did it, nor a certain variety that McDonald's introduced, nor what any other coffee place in Las Vegas has. It was an unassuming counter at the 99 Ranch Market on Maryland Parkway, an Asian market that caters to all different cultures there, and at that particular counter, they were offering Vietnamese iced coffee, which according to some hasty research, either a dark French roast is used, or a Vietnamese-grown French roast. Combined with sweetened condensed milk, it is my new promised land. Besides books, it's what I live for, although I don't pursue it often here because we don't live near 99 Ranch Market, and there's no other places like that vegetarian counter near me.

We went this past Saturday because we were thinking about where to eat out, and Seafood City, the Filipino supermarket across the street from 99 Ranch came to mind, especially its Jollibee fried chicken joint, which is far better than KFC can ever hope to be now. So we ate there, and then came a visit to Goodwill because my mom wanted to see if there were any tea light holders, as we're into those fake tea lights, battery-powered or otherwise. Turns out that Goodwill had a 50% off the entire store sale on April Fool's Day, so we took advantage of that for sure, even though we're moving in the coming months. Yet all that we got will fit nicely into our new household.

99 Ranch Market came after, and this was my second time having that Vietnamese iced coffee, second time in two weeks. I'm a slow learner, and it took my sister to introduce me to it. Some can meditate sitting cross-legged in total silence, but I can't. This coffee is my meditation, my calm, my zen. I've actually gone back on my diet faithfully so I can have the coffee a few more times before we go.

And yet, this is a strange city. At the same time it's kicking you in the stomach, making you double over in all kinds of pain, be it having to live in an apartment complex with more batshit crazy neighbors, or a school district that's hard to work in, it actually recognizes what you're going through, though not often enough. It only gives you a little bit of relief at an instance and then ignores you the rest of the time. I think in this case, perhaps knowing we're leaving, it threw up its hands and gave me something I can take with me to Southern California, a bridge to Southern California as it were. Because after my first time of having that Vietnamese iced coffee, I began doing research on where I could find Vietnamese iced coffee in Southern California, and found a few places, although I will not go to Rosemead. And someone told me that the Westminster area of Orange County has Vietnamese iced coffee on practically every corner. I'm there.

I just never expected this generally heartless valley to offer anything like that, to offer a bridge like this, to get me into learning at least a little more about my new area right away. Not as much as when I studied Henderson, because with all I read about Henderson, I thought it was going to be nice, going to be community-oriented, and it was nothing like that. Whatever I find about Ventura will be when I'm there, when I'm tooling around on my new bicycle. I know about CJ's Barbecue, I know about Andria's Seafood Restaurant at Ventura Harbor Village, I know about Ventura Harbor Village itself, and Salzer's music and video stores, and a few more things, but I'm only digging insofar as the job I want and where we're going to live. Everything else can come after.

I appreciate what the Las Vegas Valley has done in this, in making Vietnamese iced coffee my new heaven, in giving me something to look to in our next place. But once I cross that bridge to there, I'm burning it. I'm never coming back to Nevada for anything, nor do I want to. I hope Las Vegas understands at least that. I think it will.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Word Search Reduction

Each word, one at a time. Anchovies. Basil. Chorizo. Mozzarella. Sausage.

These are some of the words thought of by this particular, nameless word search creator, for this puzzle titled "Pizza Toppings", in a little, squat, thick black book of 300 word search puzzles, bought at the developing ruins of the only closing Kmart thus far in Nevada, here in Henderson, across from the shopping center where we bring our dogs to be groomed, as we did this morning, and then went to Kmart while they were being groomed.

Just like boiling pork bones for broth for tonkotsu ramen, word search puzzles reduce a wide range of topics to their essence through single words that describe them. In a puzzle about classical music, it's "alto," "canon," "cadenza," "chorus," "clarinet," "rubato," "scale," "score," and so on. Of course, these words have been chosen for this word search puzzle, but a number of factors could factor into it. For example, a puzzle about dance mentions the bunny hop, the butterfly, the can-can, the jitterbug, the jive, and the pas de deux, among others. It could be that the puzzle creator came up with these words ahead of time, and either through quick research, or a love of dance, came up with these words. We never know who word puzzle creators are, or what their interests are, not like New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, or the writers for Jeopardy!, whose biographies are on the official website and interviews with a few of them can always be found online. You get a sense of who Will Shortz is and what his interests run to. Same with the Jeopardy! writers.

I don't know if one person came up with all the puzzles for this book, titled "Amazing Wordsearch." I don't know where their loyalties lie in this topic. I don't know if in the drinks puzzle, they love egg nog or they love claret, or they love both equally. I do know that a word search puzzle isn't just about searching for the words. The puzzle about birds of California, apropos for me now, lists the smew, the merlin, the chukar, the dunlin, the gadwell. Obviously they're birds, but what kind of birds are they? Such spellings as smew would make me curious enough to find out exactly what they are, while being amused at such unique spellings.

There's even a puzzle about governors of Florida, my home state. There's Jeb Bush, and Charlie Crist, and Lawton Chiles, who was known as Walkin' Lawton for the walk-throughout-the-state campaigns that he undertook. I look at the names, and the few I recognize, where was I in Florida and who was I when they were in office? These puzzles, read slowly enough for names and places and activities and types of music trigger memories, too. It makes a word puzzle even more interesting, beyond wondering who's behind all of it. Whoever it is, or if it was a small staff, they know how to choose interesting topics 300 times over, and actually have the words relate to the topic, instead of how other word puzzle books include words that don't even relate to the topic.

This is also the sturdiest word search puzzle book I've come across. The covers are made of thicker paper and the pages are slightly thicker than your average word puzzle book as well. This is not the kind of word puzzle book to simply start and roll with all the way through. This is a word puzzle book for a road trip, even one or two or more coming up in the next few months to Ventura, California to see about jobs and where to live.

The last trip we took from Nevada to California, we stopped at the Grewal Travel Center rest stop in Baker, and I bought two Big Hero 6 word search puzzle books, one of which I finished about an hour and a half before we got to the Mission Valley Resort near-hovel in San Diego. Then, when we were in Ventura, I bought a hidden-word word puzzle book at a Walgreens there.

This time, I have this one. This is all I need for word search puzzles on the next trip and perhaps the ones after that, because I don't think I'll get all 300 done. I always have books with me too, after all. But it'll also be perfect for the room at La Quinta Inn, when the TV's on and there's nothing on TV, although that may not be entirely true, now that I rediscovered the Los Angeles PBS station on the last trip, and how vastly better that is than the Las Vegas PBS station I've had for four years. If a PBS station is reflective of its area, then Las Vegas sucks by that alone! Not to say that L.A. is ever-phenomenal, what with the freeway traffic and the vapid part of the population, but it's still more interesting.

For sure, I can go back to that rack at the Grewal Travel Center, look at the puzzle books they have, and then leave them alone. I have this now. I have wordy creativity. And nothing repeats.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Four Taxing Years for Roast Pork

Factor in the rush to get to a mobile home park set back from the heart of Las Vegas for a teaching job, my father's teaching job, beginning very soon, from a house-looking condo in Saugus, California, in the Santa Clarita Valley that went for $430,000 when purchased in 2004, and left behind for a little under $200,000 in 2012, just to leave.

Add in that frustrating struggle to apply to be a substitute anything in the Clark County School District, how many months and phone calls and resubmitting documents that were correct the first time, before finally being accepted in January of 2013.

There was that terrible first job at that elementary school closer to the gloomy heart of Las Vegas, that poorer heart than what the Strip lets on.

That vicious elementary school librarian who clearly hated her job and lashed out at anyone with even the slightest notion of being happy in a library, including students, not too different from the full-time job there is now, as an aide to the same kind of elementary school librarian.

Remember to pile on that first apartment in Henderson, a year after the mobile home park in Vegas. The neighbors upstairs who smoked inside, and the neighbors next door who smoked inside, and the smoke that came through the vents, and the front office that claimed they couldn't do anything about it, or wouldn't. People are free to do whatever they want inside their apartments, they said. Who cares about the health of those affected by it? It could have been one of the things that led to the cancer that Dad has now nearly fought off entirely.

Remember the second apartment, going south on Green Valley Parkway, billing itself a "country club" when it was obviously nothing of the sort. That first apartment there with the noisy kids from upstairs screaming around on the grass in front of our windows, who used our car as a scooter ramp and scratched it up. Another front office that wouldn't do anything about it except offer us another unit, a bungalow, almost directly across the street from that current apartment.

The bungalow. Drafty. Terrible that winter. Badly-installed, trash-quality carpet that got too dirty too fast. Leaks all over the place, including from the overhead air-conditioning unit next to the washer and dryer. 11 leaks. All the maintenance guys that trooped through denied that anything was wrong, even the 11th time. And then the air conditioning broke down the night before the hottest day of the year, and it took them hours to fix it enough the next morning, into the afternoon.

The apartment now. The same complex as that secondhand smoke apartment. The front of the complex now, although the back was better because you couldn't hear the Green Valley Parkway traffic at all, only see it from a distance.

It's not much better here now. The upstairs neighbors who stomp around, and we can hear them in surround sound down here. Maybe they're pissed that the apartment we took, the woman upstairs hoped that her granddaughter could move in below her with her great-grandson.

Oh, the great-grandson, the tyke, who the grandmother and others in the family have turned into a little asshole just like them. The most this complex did this time was replace their worn flooring so that less noise could be heard from down here. It only made all that noise much clearer.

The shitty jobs. That first full-time year for me at that elementary school near Tropicana and Boulder with the psychotic principal who would scream at the staff about anything, even the most innocent thing. The same principal who screwed with my dad's payroll after he, a resource room teacher, and I left that school and he moved on to teaching again in high school for the first time in 30 years. People in Las Vegas cause only headaches, strife, and much undue stress.

I was a resource room aide at that elementary school. I'm a library aide at this elementary school here in Henderson, which I always wanted to be. But I burned out of this job back in September, the beginning of my second year there. If I had been working with an infinitely better, vastly more dedicated, highly qualified elementary school librarian, I would have burned out a year or two later, and gracefully.

I can't see hawking Charlotte's Web for the rest of my career. I want to go higher the next time. I know now, completely, what kind of libraries are home.

After all this, with one foot out Nevada's door, pointing to California, were these four years worth it to reach the one thing that was as close to heaven as I will ever get here (The Cosmopolitan, formerly my favorite hotel-casino on the Strip, would have been that, if it had kept the open, welcoming, cool artistic vibe it fostered for five years before it was sold off)?

At #1 Hawaiian Barbecue on South Eastern Avenue, across from Walmart, all next to the back end of McCarran International Airport, I've always been a menu wanderer. BBQ mix one time, with beef, short ribs, and chicken; the Chicken Lover plate another time with chicken katsu, BBQ chicken and mochiko chicken. I did try the Hawaiian BBQ beef plate another time, and I think loco moco was what I had the first time we went there, not that I hadn't had enough of it already with L&L Hawaiian Barbecue near that mobile home park that first year.

I never felt as attached to anything as my mother and sister are to ahi poke, and seaweed salad for Mom. I always went with whatever struck me in the moment.

Yesterday, I zeroed in on roast pork. Compared to how hard they push chicken katsu and and the barbecue offerings, it seemed like an out-of-the-way menu item, and I always like walking quietly past the rush.

Loco moco has gravy all over it, which is fine. That's just one element and there's no element of it that rises above another. The hamburger steak, the eggs, the rice, they all work together.

In Hawaiian culture, it seems, brown gravy goes over roast pork, too. You can use the rice to soak it up, along with any juices from the roast pork. But, to me, not that much gravy is necessary. To me, it feels like an insult to Hawaii to insist that, in much the same way it would be to jump behind the grill at a Benihana and insist to the chefs that "I've got this." This is Hawaii. This is who they are. I respect that. But, I suppose, being in Las Vegas, and hours and thousands of miles by plane from Hawaii, it shouldn't be as much of a factor.

In other words, the roast pork at #1 Hawaiian Barbecue is a revelation. I've since learned that the crust of a roast pork is the crackling, but to me, this wasn't so much crackling. Perhaps because there was so much brown gravy all over it, it softened the crispness of the crackling. Even so, there is a romantic confluence of flavors in the crackling alone that is merely the introduction to beautiful, beautiful pork, beautifully colored, beautifully roasted in the oven, to the exact point where you just have to touch the meat with a fork and it separates into heavenly layers.

I know photos would do it more justice, but I wonder: Having bowed down to the revelatory temple that is this roast pork, was it worth these four years to get to the point where I had this roast pork? Does it make up for the Lundys, who were diagonal from us in the mobile home park, fighting all the time loudly enough for a block of the mobile homes around us to hear it? Does it lessen the sheer number of police that always showed up in the complex of the noisy-kid apartment and the bungalow? Does it make up for The Cosmopolitan truly becoming a shell of its former self? In other words, does it make all the crap that we went through bearable in hindsight, even forgivable?

It doesn't. Not by a mile, not by infinity. This is not a friendly city for anyone. This is where people who can't make it anywhere else go. This is where those who would be fired within a week at any other school district in the country can reign supreme here. This is where various services can be neglectful in their individual missions, and nothing of consequence will come of it. The neighbors you do know in passing you would not want to know any further because they're making so much goddamn noise upstairs, and it seems impossible that they actually sleep. It's where apartment complexes can also be neglectful, and unscrupulous, and lie to your face, and nothing will happen to them either. No real apologies from them. No consequences either.

If it hadn't been here in Las Vegas, I probably would have found this roast pork in another form somewhere else. But I wouldn't have found it like this. I might have eaten it somewhere else, found it good, and then moved on without giving it a second thought. But after four years of these hardships and so much neglect, being knocked around left and right by so much shit in a given week, to find this even after all of that is incredible. To even recognize something as phenomenal as this after four years of shit stew gives me hope that I can recover all of my true self after we leave Las Vegas. And, as Sheryl Crow sings, "And I won't be back. No, no. No I won't be back." I've listened to that song for years, since it's on my favorite album, "Tuesday Night Music Club," but only in the past year have I fully understood it. And related to it.

It's because of The Cosmopolitan and The Wynn that I've become more interested in architecture and interior design. I appreciate that. I loved seeing Jeff Bridges, one of my heroes, live at Santa Fe Station one year. I'll never forget that. I'll also never forget Lied Library at UNLV and the Boulder City Library, two libraries I would live in if I could. And especially not the Pinball Hall of Fame, with its extremely rare Pinball Circus prototype machine, one of only two in the world, the other residing overseas, which is partly an inspiration for a novel I want to write.

But whenever I got home from these experiences, back to the mobile home park, or the secondhand smoke apartment, or the bungalow, I'd think to myself, "This is all there is?" Walking around The Cosmopolitan and The Wynn, seeing such inspiring elegance, or walking amongst the stacks of Lied Library and the Boulder City Library, and knowing that that's where I belong for the rest of my life, it was hard to land back at home and feel nothing of any of it then. None of it carried over to my daily life. It was still a grind. The feeling like a balloon blowing up inside me when I was at The Cosmopolitan and The Wynn, and even at Green Valley Ranch (which I call Henderson's only palace), never was there at work, nor even at my local library, where I still volunteer after three years. Was it that I couldn't make it happen in those places like I could at The Cosmopolitan or Lied Library? Or is it that where I lived and worked each day could not possibly compare to those sights?

However, the roast pork from #1 Hawaiian Barbecue stays with me. It's been two days and it's still on my mind, and it will always be on my mind. Not always as big as it is now. There are other things to do in my life after all, including more writing, and definitely more reading, including poems, which I discovered are a tonic for when you're in between books and get frustrated at not every book working from the start after you've finished a really great one. I've discovered that I get cranky afterward.

I want to know all about the different ways of roast pork, how it tastes elsewhere, certainly what recipe would work for me if I decide to make it at home one day. Not here, but after we move. Perhaps the roast pork is a culmination of everything I've loved in Las Vegas, while still loathing the entire city and the entire valley. Maybe it has all led up to this. But what an awful path to get here. Nevertheless, this is what I'll take with me from Las Vegas. Like that slice of pumpkin pie I had at Six Flags Magic Mountain on the day of free admission for the Holiday Toy Drive many years ago that I'm still searching for elsewhere, this will be with me as strongly as that.

It's not all that I'm taking with me of Las Vegas. There's a book of short stories I want to write that's set in Las Vegas proper, and a novel that goes between Henderson and Las Vegas. I'm sketching out the preliminary emotions for all the stories here, as well as research I need, so I can still write it from where I go next, and still be able to recall those feelings, at least the good ones I had in the places I liked. I believe, though, that you can only write about the Las Vegas you lived, either as a tourist or a resident. I'm sick of those journalists who swoop into Las Vegas for two or three nights, make blanket statements and assumptions about the city that are supposed to stretch backwards and forwards, and then leave. Make statements and assumptions in your moments, and only your moments. Don't speak for everyone. Me, anything I write about Las Vegas in the future, all fiction, will be set between 2012 and wherever I stop in 2017. Well, maybe not, because I don't like what Las Vegas is becoming with the corporations on the Strip now charging residents for parking, and how the quality of many places on the Strip have precipitously fallen. So probably 2012 to about August 2016, before The Cosmopolitan as I knew it ended. But that's all. I won't write about Las Vegas in the 1950s, I won't write about Las Vegas a year or two before I got here. Only when I got here, only based on what I experienced, what I knew every day.

Perhaps the roast pork, in the final few times I'll inevitably have it again, and in memory, will be a conduit to all this. Back in California, I can think about that roast pork (which, if we don't go back to #1 Hawaiian Barbecue before my birthday, if we're still here by then, will be my birthday dinner) and immediately be reminded of all the good experiences I did have here, that I can use for my own work.

Over the next weeks, I may delve into those experiences, as it feels like the time for reflection before departure. Even though I'm definitely less happy than when my family and I moved here, I am grateful for the experience I've had at work and volunteering at my local library that has gotten me to the point where I do qualify for at least one library position where we're going next. But what else have I gotten out of these four years that has nothing to do with the continuous problems we deal with here? That's what I really want to examine closely. You know, before relying on masterful roast pork as a gateway to it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Freedom of a Deadline (Sometimes)

I don't miss writing on deadline. Newsrooms, to me, are ulcer farms. I still shudder when I remember being the interim editor of the weekend Escape section at The Signal, Santa Clarita, California's exclusive newspaper. I was ultimately in charge of five issues for five weeks.

I generally began planning each issue on Friday, the day that each one before was published, thinking of ideas for articles I could write in-house (without outside research, since I didn't have a car), starting my next From My Netflix Queue column (reviewing whatever I watched that came from my Netflix queue), studying the AP newswires for entertainment, travel, and other categories, looking for articles interesting enough to me to put on the pages. I'm proud of the work I did for those five weeks, and the extensive work I did as an intern at the paper and then associate editor of the Escape section that led up to that. But if I was offered a chance to do all that again, I would much prefer to spend my days reorganizing thousands of fallen books in a library hit by an earthquake. It's easier.

However, I do miss the atmosphere in which such writing takes place, writing a column or a story on the fly, figuring out right then and there different angles for each just in case you feel like your original idea isn't working. And then, when you're done, adding and taking out and putting back in as you're editing. Would you believe that there's greater freedom in that than how I write right now?

When I took journalism classes at College of the Canyons in Valencia, California (also part of the Santa Clarita Valley) in 2004 or 2005, one of the first classes required was taught by Paul Bond, a reporter for The Hollywood Reporter. Up to that point, I had been an intern at the satellite office of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Weston, and had written countless movie reviews for the Teentime pages in the back of the Sentinel's now-defunct weekend Showtime section. In this class, I loved being taught by someone who, when he was done with the class, dashed off to The Hollywood Reporter offices to get started on his work. What he taught, he lived, side by side.

We sat at banks of computers, the monitors and keyboards under glass tabletops. And he would give us sample news stories to write up, usually set on our campus. One assignment was about a suspicious package found in the M building, the media building, our building. Police were called in. The building was locked down. Write about it.

We were taught the inverted pyramid and the general length of a news article of that kind. It was up to us to determine what details the reader should know first. I don't remember all that I wrote, but I think the article started off with someone like, "A suspicious package found on the third floor of the M building yesterday prompted school officials to..."

Dare I say it, I enjoyed writing that article, taking the facts given to us and incorporating them into a hard news piece. No time for flourishes, or overly descriptive reactions to the scene. Just tell the reader what happened, what they need to know.

These days, I'm burdened with what I want to write. Good burdens, but laced with indecision about what to focus on, the result being that not much gets done. But it will. The ideas keep coming, and I've got to focus on one soon and see it through, for my own continued attempted sanity.

Despite the company of such luminaries as the great John Boston, the soul of The Signal, when I was there, my favorite newsroom was at College of the Canyons, for the Canyon Call newspaper, where I was a staff writer. You were allowed to make mistakes, as long as they were cleaned up by deadline.

To this day, I'm still trying to figure out what "News Feature Story" won me the second place 2006 SoCal Conference Mail-In Award from the Journalism Association of Community Colleges. For a time, the award hung on the wall next to the entrance to the newsroom, but some time after leaving the paper, I decided that it was mine, despite being part of the history of the paper, and took it down and took it away with me. It sits in my closet, where a few issues of the Canyon Call may also sit, but I think that bag mainly has the issues of the Escape section I oversaw.

My favorite article that I wrote was a feature on the men's golf team led by Gary Peterson, also the cinema teacher at College of the Canyons. I walked clear across campus, to where they were practicing, interviewed Peterson (who was also my cinema teacher at the time), and a few members of the team. I think I touched upon their dedication, what they hoped to achieve this season, what they looked to improve upon from last season, you know, your typical sports article. It remains the first and only sports article I wrote. But I liked going out there, taking in that atmosphere, watching their furrowed concentration, and just the peacefulness surrounding them. I wanted to write about nothing but that! Only that! If I could have made a career writing about the peacefulness of certain places, I would have stayed in journalism.

In that newsroom, I had space to explore. I had time to think. Lots of it if I wanted. Oh, I have that today, but it's a different feeling. It's easier when you're in your 20s, mulling over this or that, thinking about how to write something, all the while the sun begins to set through the windows and you realize it's time to get home, but just a few more minutes. Just a few minutes to explore this line of thinking, see where it takes me, see if it works for me, and change it if it doesn't. And then go down that path.

The innocence of writing back then. I didn't know as much as I do now, and even so, it's still not that much. But I know more of who I am as a writer, who I want to be, and it's intimidating. Less so when you're younger. Long before What If They Lived?, my first book, was published, a few fellow writers in the newsroom asked me if I was going to write any books. I told them that I didn't think so. I didn't have any ideas. Well look at me now.

Maybe I should try to recapture that writerly innocence. Not to forget what I already know, but approach it how I did back then, with endless possibilities to explore, and new ways to go if I don't like how it's going. Not to be so intimidated by what I'm writing, but see it as an opportunity to learn more about myself, what I can possibly do. Something like that.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Libraries Shouldn't Be Hidden

I received a copy of FDR's Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance in the mail yesterday, wanting to reread it after having read The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence, author Robert Klara's latest.

I ordered it from Better World Books from Mishawaka, Indiana, through abebooks.com. When it finally came after two weeks, I was going to write to them to complain because I thought I had ordered a paperback copy. But in reading time, and having read a few books after I had ordered it, I forgot what copy I had ordered.

It turns out that Better World Books had listed this as a Former Library Book, and I think I ordered this one because it was the cheapest. But looking at this former library copy, while I am happy to have it to read again, I'm also disappointed. For while this library, whichever one it was, left its Dewey Decimal call number at the bottom of the spine, it completely blacked out its name on the title page under the Palgrave Macmillan name with very heavy permanent black marker. The barcode at the top of the back cover was marked up the same way. All that remains as proof that this came from a library besides the Dewey Decimal number is a stamped date of Mar 22 2010 at the bottom of the back flyleaf, the date the library acquired this book, with $27.00 beneath that. True, all this library thought about at the time was bring this book into its collections. It wasn't thinking about bibliophiles who might receive this book in the future, like me.

This library doesn't necessarily have to advertise. It belongs to a city, or a town, and therefore is only accountable to that place. But leaving clear where the book came from when it discarded it and sent it away would have been free advertising for bibliophiles. I wanted to know where this book came from. Perhaps I would have looked for the library's website and visited it. I would live in libraries if I could, and so this is my way of knowing other libraries outside of where I live. The black marker is so thick that I can't make out any possible letters. It could be considered a lost opportunity for this library, or library system, or it could be that they just want to be left alone. They don't want any outsiders to notice them. If so, I wish they didn't have that attitude. I would have been deferential.

Or it could be some new policy of Better World Books to black out library and town names from former library books. But then, what good would that do them? I would think that any bookseller as substantial as Better World Books would want buyers to see that their books come from so many different places. No, I'm chalking this one up to the library.

While I'm sticking to my local library's own books for the foreseeable future, I hope that the next former library book I buy is more open to me. In turn, I will be more open to it.

LATE SUNDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE (5:47 p.m.): I just found this e-mail in my inbox, sent late this morning:

Hello,

Thank you for your email. We work with many libraries who send their overstocked
books or old editions for us to sell. The libraries then select a local charity or
one of our literacy partners (Books for Africa, Room to Read, and The National
Center for Family Literacy) to receive a portion of the proceeds, in addition to
earning funds for their own programs. Your book came from one of those libraries. We
do ask that these libraries not make any changes to the book, apart from something
like a discard stamp, unfortunately, not all libraries follow these guidelines. I
can assure you that this is not a new policy of ours. Thanks for the support!

Sincerely,

Alexa


It's heartening to know that charities benefit from these books, and good to know that Better World Books is not responsible for this. They're as open as I always thought they were.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

I'm Gonna Read Like It's 1999

After every time my editor at BookBrowse, the book review site I write for, e-mails me a .pdf file of how my latest review is going to appear in the next issue, I take stock of my reading life. What can I read to make my book reviews better? Do I fall back on Michael Dirda, one of my favorite book critics, or the books I have of Nick Hornby's reviews for McSweeney's, or both? What fiction should I be reading to make my reviews more informative? There's no guarantee that what I read in between reviews will directly relate to whatever book I'll read next for a review, but something in those books, or in the act of reading those books, could inspire an opening for a review that ties together the particular book I'm reviewing and what I thought of it, perhaps something about how the plot in that book has been done better elsewhere, and then I have an example. Or just getting better at capturing the atmosphere of a book in so few words. After all, I have a minimum of 600 words, though I prefer to go no further than 620 words. If my editor wants me to add more thoughts, it's easier to add to a small review than it is to try to whittle down a much larger one. I learned that very well when I was new to BookBrowse. Even though I had written movie reviews for 13 years up until then, and had written the occasional book review for a Southern California publication called Valley Scene Magazine, writing book reviews regularly was a bigger challenge, coupled with the worry that the owner of BookBrowse and my editor might think I'm not worth the trouble and then would tell me not to write any more reviews for them. Then where would I be for a writing outlet I could possibly enjoy?

Nevertheless, another review has come and gone, this time of Night of the Animals by Bill Broun, which I thought was a quiet masterpiece. I received the .pdf file of the final copy of my review from my editor, and here I sit again, thinking of my reading life. Dirda and Hornby have come and gone. I could fall back on that trope, but sitting in front of me is What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy by Jo Walton. I had never heard of Jo Walton until I bumped into her in the Henderson Libraries catalog and found her book. This collection of essays would be good, because as she writes in her introduction, "Reviews are naturally concerned with new books, and are first reactions. Here I'm mostly talking about older books, and these are my thoughts on reading them again."

That's true. Never, to my knowledge has BookBrowse reviewed reissues of classic or older books. It's always either what has recently been published, or what will be published in the next month or two months. Yes, my reviews are always first reactions, but is there possibly a way that I can make my reviews feel as comfortable, as casual, as knowing as writing about rereading older books? I want to read Walton's collection to find out if there's anything I can learn there.

However, after each of my reviews is put in the pipeline for publication, I'm not only thinking of how to improve my own reviews, I'm thinking sharply about what I'm reading right now, what I want to read, what I possibly should read. What I'm reading right now doesn't matter so much at the moment as what I want to read and what I possibly should read. I'm going to work backwards.

What I possibly should read is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two, which the entire world knows is the rehearsal edition script for the enormous play being performed in London's West End right now. I have it right in front of me, and it's due back at the Green Valley Library on Saturday. I can't renew it because despite there being 20 copies in circulation, there are 84 holds behind me.

I like wandering this wizarding world, but I'm not a devoted fan enough to drop everything right now and read it. I could get to it midweek, since I can read 308 pages in a short time, but I don't think I'd want to rush through it like that. I'd want to take time with it. Plus, despite one book review ready for the next issue of BookBrowse, I'm reading the deeply-felt memoir Please Enjoy Your Happiness by Paul Brinkley-Rodgers, and that review is due on the 20th. Two weeks left. Fortunately, I've written the two opening paragraphs, but I still have to finish reading the book. Besides, what I've liked about BookBrowse from the start is that when I review a book, as opposed to reviewing a movie, it's just me and the book. Sure there's the press release about the book from the publicist, tucked in between the front cover and the flyleaf, but all I have to do with that is take it out and pitch it, or use it as a bookmark. I don't need to know what the book's about because I've already read what it's about when I chose it for review. I don't need to read quotes from other authors and reviewers about the book because I'm looking to form my own opinion about it. Whereas with movies, every critic is hyperaware of the summer movie season and awards season. E-mail inboxes are bombarded with press releases about this awards hopeful or that one, and publicists always eagerly ask you if you want to review this one or that one, and to reply to them if you want to attend one of the screenings. That was one of the reasons I got out of movie reviewing. It started to feel like a hamster wheel. Conversely, I've been reading since I was 2. I never want to get out of this.

What I want to read has come in different stages. There's Murder with Macaroni and Cheese, the second Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mystery by A.L. Herbert, one of my new favorite authors. I've been waiting for this one since last year, right after I finished reading Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles, the first one. I also have here William Howard Taft: The President Who Became Chief Justice by Bill Severn, published in 1970. One review on Amazon calls it a "decent high-school bio of Taft,".....".... written for advanced junior high or beginning high school students", but I don't care. In my boundless passion for presidential history, William Howard Taft is my favorite president to study and I'll read everything I can find about him.

That that biography is from 1970 brings up something else. I feel like we're in an age now where the latest headlines, the latest trends, the latest Pokemon to catch on one's phone matters more than history, than slowing down for a little more time to think. It bothers me a little, but it also excites me. It means I own certain things. When I saw a few people at breakfast in the lobby of the La Quinta Inn in Ventura, California that we stayed at a little over a month ago tapping away at their phones, it just meant that there was more of the lobby for me. I get more space to explore. I get more trees, more sky, more opportunity to see where air conditioners are placed around my apartment complex in relation to the apartments they blow into. I also realized that in the rush to know the latest and presumably greatest (for five minutes until the next greatest thing comes along), I get more books.

Related to my desire to write better book reviews (my editor said that this latest review is "one of your best....full of insight....well constructed (no waste of words)," but I disagree. It's not one of my favorites, and I spent most of the time worrying if I was making the right connections in the review, if the whole thing read well, if it all made sense), I got a yen to read essays again. I went to the Henderson Libraries website to look up "Best American Essays" (always my starting point for reading essays), and I found that the 2015 edition was checked out (the 2016 edition comes out in October). I then saw that The Best American Essays 1999 was available from the Paseo Verde library, so I put in a request for that. I see now that as technologically irritating as society can be today, I can wander well into the past and have some of it to myself. I'm sure that The Best American Essays 1999 hasn't been checked out in some time. So I have the space to wander through it as I wish.

It's the same with the 1930s, one of my favorite decades to study. I decided two weeks ago that I also want to read novels from that decade. I'm sure that there are others reading those same novels, but not the majority. I am a minority in literature and I like to keep it that way.

Of course, my assumptions could be wildly incorrect, but even so, would that really matter with so many Pokemon still to catch? After all, they have to be caught before the next insta trend roars in. I don't mind. Keep them coming! I'd much prefer to have the option to renew my library books if necessary. Then others can have them, if they happen to notice them.