Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Desire, Long After a Meal

As a Las Vegas resident, it was often difficult to get to absolutely everything that the city offered in food, at least that which interested me. There'd be that long stretch of summer in which practically hibernating in one's apartment with the air conditioning running 24/7 was critical, at least until 9 or 10 p.m., when you'd strategize about what to put in the cart at Smith's or Vons that wasn't so critical in refrigeration, and then try to get deli last so that it wouldn't be so affected by how warm it still was outside. Ice cream you'd have to rush home, and forget doing that during the day because it would immediately melt. It's why we never bought cans of shaving cream during the day, and then even when we were looking toward summer, we'd stockpile them so we wouldn't have to buy them as often. Otherwise, they would have exploded when bringing them from Target to the car. And in winter, sure you could stay out a little longer if you were bundled up enough, but the desert cold is still uncomfortable enough to make one laser-focus enough on what's already known. In most cases, it would be a long, pilgrimage drive to IKEA with the heater on full blast in the car.

So based on the weather in Las Vegas, and how hard it was to live there most of the time, in apartment living and in work, options were comparatively limited, but no less interesting or reliable. Vietnamese iced coffee came from the VeggiEAT Express counter in the small food court at 99 Ranch Market on Maryland Parkway, near Ross and Goodwill further down, which backed right into the Boulevard Mall on the same property. Although I've heard since we moved that VeggiEAT Xpress closed at 99 Ranch Market, I worshipped it. Every time I went there, I knew I was getting heavenly Vietnamese iced coffee and always the warning when I ordered it without ice that it would be too sweet. I didn't care! We went to 99 Ranch Market once a month, maybe twice, and I wasn't wasting the chance. I knew I could go there and it would always be excellent.

And then there was roast pork from #1 Hawaiian BBQ on Eastern Avenue, which was next to the street that was the main artery to the Walmart shopping center, next to the back of one of the runways at McCarran International. This particular Walmart was one of three options for us. There was the one on Marks Street in Henderson, a slightly sprawling shopping center, which always had the Sunset Station hotel tower in full view, as well as a 99 Cents Only store further down to the right that had more books than I've ever seen at any other 99 Cents Only store, in Santa Clarita and in Ventura. I think it was because this store, as well as the Whitney Library on Tropicana and the main Clark County Library on Flamingo, was attuned to people's needs during the summer. Being that we couldn't go out much, if at all, during those torturous hours, they knew what people might want and they supplied it. I got the sense that more people read in Henderson, even in Vegas, than they seem to here.

There was also the one on East Serene Avenue, which had a Wienerschnitzel nearby, an Office Max next door, and a Home Depot on the far right end of the property. That one was the more serious of the Walmart Supercenters in Las Vegas. It didn't loom like the one on Marks did, and in fact, I have an idea for a novel set in that one. And it didn't have the momentary distraction of planes taking off next to you at the McCarran one while you got out of your car and locked up before going inside. You simply joined the subdued herd and went in to get whatever you wanted. That was the domestic game, though. If one Walmart didn't have what you were looking for, you went to the next one, and then the next one, and always kept track of which Walmart had what, in case you didn't want to spend too much time in one.

Anyway, about the roast pork, I knew that was the ultimate for me. They did it well there and it was the only place I'd swear by for roast pork. Same with Capriotti's Sandwich Shop and their Bobbie, with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and mayo. Once in a while, I'd drift to the Slaw Be Jo (roast beef, provolone cheese, cole slaw, Russian dressing and mayo), but 90% of the time, the Bobbie was for me. I love Jimmy John's here in Ventura because they don't show off like Jersey Mike's does, and their sandwiches are often better, but I still miss my Bobbie. However, I never want to go back to Las Vegas, for anything, so the Bobbie will remain a fond memory.

It's different in Ventura and its relatively nearby environs within the county. Take tomorrow, when I have to go to the Ventura County Community College District office in Camarillo for a test for an Office Assistant position. The office is on East Daily Drive, and about a block or two from it is an intimate strip mall that contains Basil & Mint Vietnamese Cafe. Now, when we moved to Ventura, I swore by the Vietnamese iced coffee at Pholicious, which has since been renamed Pho & Tea, in the food court at the Pacific View Mall. But the first time I had to go to that district office for a test for another job I didn't get, we discovered that strip mall, that Vietnamese restaurant, and I was curious. Could they possibly have Vietnamese iced coffee? And what was it like?

As it turns out, if I must compare Vietnamese iced coffees between the present and the past, the iced coffee at Basil & Mint is worlds better than the iced coffee at the VeggiEAT Xpress counter at 99 Ranch. After the second or third time, I learned from my favorite waiter there that they make the iced coffee every morning, using Cafe du Monde coffee from New Orleans and condensed milk of course, and it's the coffee that makes it because of the chicory. Now, I could buy the coffee and the condensed milk and try to make it myself, but I prefer to anticipate it. I don't need it all the time, and I know, having been to Basil & Mint four times, that there is absolutely no chance I could be disappointed by it in the future because the owner of the restaurant is entrenched in Camarillo, as his cousin owns Bigstraw Boba on Verdugo Way, in that leafy shopping center, near the Old New York Deli & Bakery. And there, at Basil & Mint, I always get a Vietnamese iced coffee right when I arrive, and then another, to go, on the way out. That's my tradition there.

I also think about the sandwich I had from Westridge Market in Ojai a few weeks ago, when my mom, my sister and I went up there for the day. It was a baguette sandwich, from Boars Head, an Italian sub, as they called it, with Genoa salami, pepperoni, capocollo, lettuce, tomato, their deli dressing, red onion, and provolone cheese. I'm not into Italian subs, and I only try a bit if someone else in my family gets it, but this was the most perfect sandwich I had ever had. I didn't know much about baguettes before this, but I think it is the perfect sandwich bread because it requires the sandwich maker to be subtle, not to overload it, to offer flavors not often considered, and to meet the demands of the bread. It all has to work together and not spring apart because there's too much between the baguette slices.

I won't ever forget that sandwich and I'll hope to have it again the next time we go to Ojai, if we don't end up at Ojai Pizza Company again, or even Bonnie Lu's, a country cafe that has pico de gallo that I swear was made by fairies. I've never tasted other pico de gallo so fresh like theirs is. That sandwich taught me that it's not enough to simply make a sandwich. You have to think about the bread and you have to think about the ingredients you want to combine. My other favorite breads for a sandwich is straight rye and marble rye. I can't imagine any other kinds for a sandwich and the only time I make an exception is for a standard peanut butter and jelly sandwich with whatever bread we have in the house, which is usually wheat bread. But even with that simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that baguette sandwich still looms in my memory.

I know it's the consistent weather here that allows for such ongoing desire to have what one loves in food. The second best Vietnamese iced coffee, to me, is at Boba Smoothies in what they call the Rose Shopping Center on North Rose Avenue in Oxnard, that strip of stores facing, yes, a Walmart. In fact, we go to that Walmart because our own, much smaller Walmart, doesn't have everything we need, although our own Walmart is still our go-to for disposable razors, toilet paper and paper towels, and I hope they stock Producers Egg Nog this year, although they don't stock much else of the Producers brand anymore, which is still around. It helps that we have it across the street from us, along with Trader Joe's, and our apartment complex is located directly behind the Ralphs supermarket.

That particular Vietnamese iced coffee from Boba Smoothies is sharp and involving like Vietnamese iced coffee should be, whereas the one at Pho & Tea in the Pacific View Mall is sometimes drowned out by the condensed milk they overuse. Even at the Pho & Tea at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks, where the prices are higher, there's still the risk of getting the same kind of Vietnamese iced coffee as at the Pacific View Mall, namely because the same company owns both malls, and it's the same owner for both locations.

There's a contrast to all this, of course. Last night, we had takeout wings from Wing Stop, and I decided on an order split between their Louisiana Rub and garlic Parmesan, instead of all garlic Parmesan like I usually get. I'm not fond of Wing Stop. It gets boring and the only reason I got a different order than usual was just to see what the Louisiana Rub was like nowadays. Not out of genuine curiosity, but just something different to look at and get it over with. After I finished, it all disappeared from my mind. No further thoughts like the Boar's Head baguette sandwich from Westridge Market in Ojai, no anticipation for it again like the Vietnamese iced coffee from Basil & Mint. Wings don't interest me much, which is probably it. Give me pork, give me turkey. In fact, with turkey, it always interests me how different places roast it, what they use. We don't cook a whole turkey for Thanksgiving. We generally order a roasted turkey breast and it looks like this time it will be from Sprouts, provided my father orders it by the end of the week, which is what he wants, but man, we're getting down to the wire on that. Even so, I never get tired of turkey because of the different ways that I can find it. And I think I know why all this continually fascinates me.

I never knew who made the Vietnamese iced coffee at VeggiEAT Express at 99 Ranch Market, since it was always already in containers in that glass door refrigerator on the wall behind the register. It had likely been a while since we'd been there and I just wanted it. With the roast pork at #1 Hawaiian BBQ, I sometimes thought about when they might have put it in the oven to roast, what might have been done to it beforehand, but that was it. Once I got my order, I didn't care any more about the methods to my dear madness.

Here, I know. I can imagine them making the Vietnamese iced coffee at Basil & Mint after the waiter told me all about it. I can imagine the care that went into it, because I can taste it. I don't know who made the Italian sub that I bought at Westridge Market, but it's clear that they love sandwiches. In fact, that sandwich is what shifted my list of my favorite foods. My top two are quesadillas and nachos. My third used to be Fettucine Alfredo, but that one sandwich is what put sandwiches at #3, knocking Fettucine Alfredo to #4, if I even still go for it. I know it was also the setting at Westridge, when we found a table nestled behind a sharp "U" shape of bushes outside the store, that looked out at those majestic Ojai mountains that always make me think, "Who the hell needs TV?" For that lunch with my mom and my sister, there was also deviled eggs and orange milk that Meridith had wanted to try from a glass bottle in that refrigerated section. She and my mom had had sushi, but all that mattered to me was that sandwich.

Here, within food, it's also the people. Here are people in Ventura County who care. In Camarillo, the rest of the Basil & Mint Cafe menu, besides the Vietnamese iced coffee, is phenomenal. I love their sandwiches there, especially their pork offering, and I can sense the dedication from the kitchen, the pride in their work. Here in Ventura, there are good people. The ones at Jimmy John's are not only fast, but they know exactly what's wanted in each sandwich. They must glance at that order receipt right away and then commit it to memory in a split second.

Oh, and CJ's Barbecue in this Ralphs shopping center! I nearly forgot about the rib tips and the black-eyed peas there! Pork rib tips, which was already a plus with me, and they do some magic to those, too, but it's clear that whoever does it has been fascinated and completely in love with barbecue for years. And their deep, rich, salty flavoring for their black-eye peas makes it my favorite side.

See, we're not a demonstrative town. We won't hype anything up like Los Angeles hypes things up all the time, from movie premieres, to expensive Apple store openings, to whatever else requires media coverage. You have to look for what might interest you and then decide, on your own, what's worth your time. There are no outside influences, and that's what I like here. And when you find it, you hold onto it. I don't know who actually makes the ham and cheese croissants, for another example, that Master's Donuts sells across the street from me, but they're the best I've had in Ventura County. If it's actually the ones who run the store, more power to them. I'm not entirely sure because when we ordered one of their enormous donuts in order to thank the movers that we had on the morning we moved from Via Ventura to Island View Apartments, behind Ralphs, it was a croissant box that looked like a shipment box, from somewhere deeper in Southern California. So maybe they do order the ham and cheese croissants to sell in the shop. Even so, they know quality. They're aware of what's wonderful, what would raise their profile even more than it already is.

It's also like Luna Grill, which is in the Vons shopping center, which I worshipped when we lived nearby at Via Ventura. I haven't been there in a long time since there's been other, closer (and not so close) distractions, but besides their gyros quesadilla being one of the best quesadillas I've ever had, they have baklava wedges that I swore by. In that small kitchen, though, they definitely don't make those. They come from Baklava King in Santee, in San Diego County. And this is another example of people here caring, of wanting what matches the quality of what they already serve. Someone probably fielded offers from different bakeries that make baklava, and decided which one would be best for Luna Grill. And it is indeed as if they made it themselves.

It'll be the same with Thanksgiving. Yes, we're likely having the roasted turkey breast from Sprouts, and the cornbread stuffing from the Trader Joe's box, and the cranberry sauce from the Trader Joe's jar (the best I've had in so long), and probably green bean casserole and the usual candied yams, as well as pumpkin pie, wherever that might be coming from (I haven't decided yet, although I did like the pumpkin pie we got last year from Vallarta Supermarket in Oxnard, which came from the Jessie Lord Bakery in Torrance, but I might want to try a different one), and very possibly apple pie, too. But I will still read up on how others are celebrating Thanksgiving, what they like, because there is always an interesting combination of flavors to be found in any Thanksgiving feast and actually, despite quesadillas, nachos, and sandwiches being my favorite foods, my favorite meal is a Thanksgiving feast. Not even an hour and a half at Golden Corral (which had its grand opening in Oxnard today, so we'll be going soon) can top that. And there again, I wonder about all those who make this possible. The knowledge. The passion. The care. That's what it means here in Ventura, and I'm glad to have it.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Trial and Error at Ventura Harbor Village

Two weeks ago, my father and I went downstairs to the elections department in the lower plaza of the Ventura County Government Center in Ventura (conveniently down the street from where we live) so he could register to permanently vote by mail.

While we waited for his application to be processed, I got to talking again with the delightful bearded guy behind the counter and the subject came around to Ojai, where he had grown up. I told him that whenever we went to Ojai, namely my mom, my sister and I lately, we always go to Ojai Pizza Company, which my mom loves for the pizza and which I love for their iced tea, which comes from Peerless Coffee & Tea in Oakland. I love the Ojai Library for its wood-paneled reading room atmosphere, and that iced tea matches the atmosphere, although I can't bring it there because they don't allow it in there, or any other food or drink. But while I do drink it, I imagine myself in the library in it, no matter if we're in Ojai Pizza Company or eating at the beautiful park nearby.

The elections guy told me that his favorite thing at Ojai Pizza Company is a calzone with pepperoni, pineapple and extra black olives. It appealed to me because I love calzones, empanadas, any foodstuff that's enclosed. Even McDonald's apple pie once in a great while. Then I raved to him about the pico de gallo that comes with the quesadilla and possibly more at Bonnie Lu's Country Cafe, also in Ojai, about how that pico de gallo is not only the freshest I've ever tasted, but it had to have been made by some means of a magical alchemy or by fairies themselves in the kitchen. There's no other explanation for how spiritually incredible that pico de gallo is, and obviously I've never forgotten it.

But even as we talked about that pico de gallo, and how he told me, shockingly, that he's never had it, I was thinking about his calzone recommendation. We haven't been to Ojai Pizza Company, or even Ojai itself, since before the sheer fright of the Thomas Fire that also bore down on Ojai. We figured to let time pass after the fire for everything to get back to normal in Ojai, including the water supply (for my iced tea), before we ventured back there. But life got in the way. Me and my sister's constant job hunting. My father ending up in the hospital again owing to a kidney infection and a severely low white blood cell count. Him gradually recovering from that eight-day stay and getting back on chemotherapy. More job hunting. Looking to live somewhere else in Ventura, namely the apartments behind Ralphs. Us exploring in full what might be available there and eventually finding the unit that's right for us, with about 30 square feet more than our current apartment, and slightly more space to work with, including more walls than we imagined, which means more spots to hang pictures, based on the mirror-image apartment we walked through on the second floor of the building across from our new apartment, which showed us what we will have. The apartment complex is still under construction, with so many interiors still to be done, but ours should be ready by mid-July.

So much to do. So little time to return to our favorite haunts, including the Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks, which I consider the best mall in Southern California. But we want to try as soon as possible before things get really busy, before we move again, before we essentially start living a new life in which Mom has said that the only reason she'll move again is to the beach if we ever have that opportunity, most likely by winning the lottery. Otherwise, this is the place, not least because it's her castle, as she said, along with an apartment number that matches her birthday, the first time the number of an apartment is for her. It's always been for the rest of us.

Thus, at that counter, I thought about that calzone. It appealed to me since I love black olives, any kind of olives really, a genetic gift from my mother. I could go for that at Ojai Pizza Company. Or maybe not. We haven't been to Ojai since last October or November. It will be easy to cover ground at the Ojai Library again since I'll look at the new releases, which are better than what the E.P. Foster Library in downtown Ventura offers, and certainly better than what my local Hill Road Library has. I'll look at the expansive back wall of novels since there's always something there that pops out to me. But a pepperoni, pineapple, and black olive calzone? I've tried the pizza at Ojai Pizza Company, but I've grown attached to the vegetarian sandwich they have there, which is zucchini, mushroom, red onion, roasted bell pepper, black olive, and tomato. I don't ask for any extras. I love it just the way it is. So would it be worth trying that calzone, risking it being just ok, despite my love of calzones? Probably not, because of how long it's been since we were there. If we go to Ojai soon, and then again before the end of the year, then maybe I'll try the calzone. That would be the better plan.

It was the same at Ventura Harbor Village yesterday. The trial the past two times we were there is that the arcade hadn't fixed my beloved Galaga machine, only beloved because Galaga's on it, not necessarily the machine itself. The second-to-last time we were there, the image was all stretched out, and I couldn't even see the ship to determine where I was at the bottom of the screen, to try to dodge the aliens' weapons. I could see what I fired, but I was moving left to right and right to left blindly. Then the last time we went, the machine was off, out of order, and I left a note on an index card on the machine, from the perspective of the aliens and the fighter, imploring the arcade to fix it because, "Have you seen Wreck-It Ralph? Do you know what happens to arcade games that are out of order and are then not fixed? Help us!"

After eating at Andria's Seafood Restaurant, which my mom loves for their homemade tartar sauce and cocktail sauce (it was my parents' 36th wedding anniversary and Mom saw that as the best place to celebrate. She was right), Meridith and I stopped at the arcade on the way to Coastal Cone for ice cream to see if the Galaga machine was fixed. It was fixed as best as could be. I could see the fighter, although where you look to see how many lives you have left, you could only see the tip of the nose of the fighter. If this was the arcade at Sam's Town in Las Vegas, or at Sunset Station in Henderson, or the arcade at The Orleans in Vegas, I would have complained. But this is Ventura, a small town. I'm grateful just to have a working machine, although I haven't been back to Golf 'n Stuff on Walker Street near where we live lately to see if that Galaga machine is still there. Those are the only two that I know I have. That's good enough for me. But I need to know that they're working, that they're still there. And this one was, though I didn't go for it right away, not only because we were going to have ice cream, but I found three credits someone had left in the Pirates of the Caribbean pinball machine, and I wasn't going to give up that opportunity.

The errors came with what I had at Andria's and at Coastal Cone. I didn't have to think long and hard about what I was going to have at Andria's. Clam chowder. I love clam chowder and Andria's clam chowder is nice enough. Having fresh clams in it makes a wonderful difference of course. But the error in this latest visit was that I ordered a piece of Andria's fish, which they don't list specifically as they do their cod and halibut. The fish was fine, but it turns out I didn't need a piece of fried fish alongside my clam chowder. The clam chowder had been enough, and Meridith shared some of her fries with me. She likes their fries there, since she can dip them in tartar sauce to block out some of the potato taste (she doesn't like potatoes, but there are certain kinds of fries she likes), but gives me the more mealy ones. Of course, there are potatoes too in the chowder, but to me, the fries at Andria's are the best in Ventura, just like the fries at Raising Cane's were, and most likely still are, the best in the Las Vegas Valley. Next time, it's just clam chowder for me and if Meridith happens to order anything with fries again (this time it was calamari and it was much better calamari than the last time we went), I'll have a few. I don't need a big piece of fried fish alongside the sanctity of Andria's clam chowder.

Then there was the error at Coastal Cone. I had been looking at their menu online the two nights before we went, wondering what to order. On May 31st, we had gone to Baskin-Robbins in the 99 Cents Only shopping center on South Victoria for their $1.50 scoops, which they do every 31st in a month. I had a scoop of butter pecan there, and a scoop of Mom's Makin' Cookies, which turned out to be one of their best flavors. Brown sugar-flavored ice cream, chocolate chip cookie pieces, chocolate flavored chips and a cookie dough batter ribbon. The butter pecan there? I forgot how utterly bland it was and was forcefully reminded this time. I needed butter pecan back, especially the Thrifty version that's offered at Coastal Cone. To me, that's the best one.

But then I saw on the menu on Coastal Cone's website that they had a 1950's Malt, which is vanilla ice cream, double malted milk, and Hershey's syrup. I love malts, and this sounded perfect. But vanilla? With how infrequently we visit Coastal Cone, I wasn't going to waste $8.50 on vanilla (the prices went up at Coastal Cone and at Andria's, likely because whoever owns the Ventura Harbor Village property raised the rents). And I've also returned to my love of brownies (not excessively, since I'm losing weight pretty well right now, not least because of all the stress I've been going through in the past year and a half, and Dad's latest hospital stay helped me drop a few pounds immediately), so there was also a chocolate walnut brownie ice cream flavor there. Perfect! I'd get more of a texture of something despite ice cream being blended into an almost-liquid. Some blended-up walnuts, brownie pieces. It sounded good! Yes!

Of course it sounds good before you have it. The ice cream itself is good, when it's ice cream. And I got my malt, a double scoop, but walnut pieces kept getting stuck at the tip of the straw along with fake-tasting brownie pieces as it turned out, and I realized I had squandered my chance at Coastal Cone. I should have gotten two scoops of butter pecan in a cup (I'm not one for cones, unless the cone is something really special, and their fish-shaped waffle cones are smaller in person than they're shown online), and I would have been very happy with that.

I've tried butter pecan in a malt at Coastal Cone before, and for me, it just doesn't work. I need the texture of the ice cream and the pecans located prominently throughout. If it was any other ice cream place, say somewhere in L.A. that basically requires a two-day drive from Ventura (everything is further away here than it was in Santa Clarita, and if we have to make such a drive, then I want the Getty Center or Philippe's French dip sandwiches in downtown L.A., or Langer's Deli well before some ice cream place), then I'll try a malt again at one of those places since I don't care about the ice cream as much as I do at Coastal Cone and also at Ojai Ice Cream, where those ice creams are homemade.

Next time, it's only clam chowder at Andria's and only butter pecan ice cream at Coastal Cone. Galaga works, thankfully, and after Coastal Cone, I played it four times. I know that every kind of ideal one seeks is a process of trial and error. And I have it down at Pho & Tea at the Pacific View Mall, where I always get Vietnamese iced coffee and their pork sausage spring rolls. Next time, I might venture toward a Vietnamese grilled pork sandwich, but I know already that it's good, since I had it when I was first experimenting there, back when it was called Pholicious, when I was looking for what was right for me, besides the Vietnamese iced coffee, which I know is always right, and which is the only coffee I ever drink, to the exclusion of all other coffees. I suppose it's a good record, though, being that I've nearly hit upon what's right for me at Andria's within two years (the year before we moved, and nearly a year that we've lived here in Ventura) and at Coastal Cone. In this town, in this region, it's accessibility, based on how often you get to each place. In Vegas, it was easy. 99 Ranch Market on South Maryland Parkway was almost right there, for my Vietnamese iced coffee, and #1 Hawaiian Barbecue on the outskirts of the Walmart shopping center at the back of McCarran International on South East Avenue was almost right there, for my roast pork, and they could always be had. Here, you take time. You really think about things. After the interesting distractions to be had in Santa Clarita and moreso outside of it, and in Las Vegas, Ventura strips your life down to the bare essentials, and it's scary at times. But here, you really do figure out what matters and what to do next and where to go next. At this point in my life, it feels right, knowing what truly matters while looking for my place here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Tuesdays in Limbo

If you ever visit Ventura, arrive on two different days, for contrast.

I recommend mid-Friday afternoon, to start, because as the day goes on, the town gradually unwinds. By the time you get to 6 p.m. on, before the town begins to close down, there's an unhurried vibe that's especially lovely downtown amidst the restaurants, such as Dargan's Irish Pub and Restaurant, as well as the antique shops and the consignment stores, and certainly the bookstores, too, especially the Calico Cat Bookshop, which you should try before it closes at 5. It's nice just walking down Main Street, to California Street, where the Erle Stanley Gardner building stands stately on the corner. This is where Gardner hashed out the first few drafts for his first Perry Mason novel. Stand here at dusk, looking up at the building, and you feel a sense of history that lingers, which seems rare in Southern California. But it's here for you to look at, to think about, and not just by the plaque next to the side door of that giant concrete dignity.

The same feeling is almost as prevalent at the Pacific View Mall, particularly in the food court. It feels muted, almost defeated, but there's a kind of quiet you'd be hard-pressed to find in very many other malls. Macerich, which also owns The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks, which I consider the best mall in Southern California, seems to leave the Pacific View's second floor to the ravages of time, what with how they don't seem to make an effort to attract new tenants to empty storefronts up there. The Oaks has The Open Book, my favorite bookstore in this region, and for that reason, I was given a $25 gift card to it as one of my recent birthday presents. The Pacific View Mall could use a bookstore, too, because inasmuch as there is the beach in Ventura, and downtown Ventura with various interesting shops (and window displays! I love living in a town whose downtown area has window displays!), and Ventura Harbor with its attached Village, it doesn't take long to cover everything Ventura offers. I like having it that way, without the constant rush and hype of Greater Los Angeles. I lived with the tumult of Las Vegas for five years, and before that, nine years of living 30 minutes north of Los Angeles in Santa Clarita. While there were visits to Anaheim and Pasadena and Buena Park and Van Nuys and Woodland Hills and so on from that, I always flitted between towns. In here and then gone. To IKEA and then gone. To Downtown Disney and then gone. I never knew those towns for themselves, although Buena Park with its heavy ghosts of history continues to fascinate me, and I've recently become interested in Burbank, after going back to my palace temple that is Porto's Cuban Bakery after five years away. Not to live there, or in Buena Park, but just what it is. For example, I had no idea that Warner Bros. Studios is just down the street from Porto's, at least not until this visit. I thought it was further out.

Every night, Ventura gives you space to think, to plan, to possibly even relax. I've never lived in any town before that allows it. But while it's a stringent space of time any other day of the week, Friday nights just gently unravel to whatever you want to do. You could even get the same feeling browsing the magazine racks at the Barnes & Noble on Telephone Road. Even just walking around Ventura Harbor Village before getting ice cream at Coastal Cone has the same effect.

On the flip side, there's Tuesdays in Ventura. Markedly different from Tuesdays with Morrie, in that Morrie was more alive than Ventura is on a Tuesday. This is actually more fascinating to me than Friday nights in Ventura. There is nothing in Ventura on a Friday, and by that I mean that Ventura on a Tuesday is the physical manifestation of being in Limbo. This is where you go if you want a preview of what that might be like, if your religion insists that Limbo is part of the afterlife.

The town is a total blank. There is absolutely no energy you can sense from the cars driving on Telephone, not in Ralphs, not in Walmart, not at the harbor, not at the mall, nowhere! I think of the ghosts that burst through the windows at the ceiling during "Once Upon a December" in the animated Anastasia, but without the dresses or anything else colorful. And this lasts all day! I don't know if this is the town's day for regrouping, but you could go from one end of it to the other and then on to State Route 126 to Santa Clarita without having a sense of what Ventura is.

Maybe it's the town's way of insisting that residents and visitors alike take this one day to add their own spark to the town, to see that spark for themselves, unencumbered by what the town usually offers. You know, do your own thing, find your own bliss, and don't let us bother you. I like that possibility, but it gets disconcerting for those of us who live here. It feels like a possible Twilight Zone episode in which the town disappears beneath your feet.

Ok, so I've gone on and on about that, but Ventura is reliable in that when Wednesday hits, it's back to business as usual. It rises again and covers everything. But I know why this consumes me. Adding to what I mentioned above about flitting in between towns, I've never known one town on its own terms. I've used a town, a city, for the resources it has for what I need, but I've never thought about it on its own. Never any reason to. But here I am, away from the noise of bigger cities, the demands, those expensive experiences that you must have that only benefit those who are selling them. I have my libraries, especially my beloved Ventura College library, and I know where to find my equally beloved Vietnamese iced coffee. That's all I need. And it's new to me to slow down like this, but I think I can get used to it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Life in Pieces

I am not Minnesota like Garrison Keillor,
nor Florida like Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry,
not even New Jersey like Richard Ford.

I am pieces of all the places I lived in
as different as the time zones
in which they sit.

I am the candle store at Old Town in Kissimmee, Florida,
transfixed by one color being sensuously carved into many,
from one long bulk of wax.

I am Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World,
my home whenever I was there all day,
happily lost in the glitter of stars,
and the promise of tomorrow.

I am the view of the twinkling canyon in the night,
from the hilltop parking lot of La Mesa Junior High
in Canyon Country in Santa Clarita,
during some event or recital held there,
able to see it thanks to my father
having to be there for whatever was held inside.

I am The Cosmopolitan on the Las Vegas Strip,
before it was stripped of its creativity and
welcoming light and encouraging art,
digital, music, and otherwise,
when an investment group that did not understand
its pulsing power,
took over and gutted it.

I am that cream-colored hallway to the hotel lobby at
Green Valley Ranch,
elegant, graceful, with music
that made me think that whoever
programmed The Cosmopolitan
had fled there.
I miss pretending to feel wealthy
down that hallway,
all its gently artistic touches
mine. All mine.

Lately I am the library at Ventura College,
lost in the stacks,
but not lost like that,
overjoyed to discover books that I didn't know existed,
that very few there today knows existed.
I cannot easily find or know home
with how many times we've moved,
but the college library is a start
like all the others.

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.