Wednesday, March 27, 2013

To See American Beauty or Not to See American Beauty?

Today at Century 18 at Sam's Town, American Beauty was playing at 2 and 7:30, part of Cinemark's Classic Series. I was thinking of going because even though I accidentally bought it twice over for my DVD collection (I couldn't cancel my Amazon order for Paramount's release of it on DVD by the time I found the original edition I used to have at the Goatfeathers Too antique shop in Boulder City), I hadn't seen it in a movie theater since 2000, and I wanted to see how it played to me at one now. But suppose, say, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory appears next month as part of the series. I'd much rather see that since I've never seen it in a movie theater.

But then, while walking Kitty before my family and I went out, before I was going to ask them to drop me off at Sam's Town, I met Nick, one of my neighbors down the street, on my side of the street. He was walking to his car parked next to the curb in front of his house and he asked me if I knew who was letting their dog crap on the empty lot next to his. Sometimes he crosses over to the lot to walk to his car and steps right in it and he hates that. I told him it wasn't me, showing the bag I have to pick up our dogs' business, but I knew what he was talking about because it annoys me, too. I sometimes walk Tigger and Kitty on those empty lots because of that space, because I can pick up more easily there, but then there's other dogs' efforts left behind.

I learned that he's a plumber who lives here, but is based in Southern California, convenient because the rest of his family lives in Los Angeles, in West Covina, in San Pedro, so whenever he has a job in L.A., he stays with them. Las Vegas is getting a new mega-resort called Resorts World Las Vegas that needs all kinds of construction people, including plumbers, and he's on the list. There's positions open for 400 plumbers, but 800 have signed up for the chance to be hired. He wants it because it would let him spend more time here. He still has the work in Southern California, so he's covered either way. He and his wife have lived here for eight years, his grandmother having bought that particular property 10-12 years ago, and they like it. His wife works at Vons, and it seems to be an easy existence. The work is there, family is there, and he likes his work. That's all you can really ask for in life and maintain total peace of mind, if not for the dog crap. He wants to find who's been doing it and plans to go to the owners of this mobile home park to tell them what's been going on, that things are not well-managed, that the front office expects everyone to pull weeds around their property, but doesn't do their part, with empty lots overgrown with weeds. Plus, if you're renting, it should be the park's responsibility to pull those weeds. That's what you'd think Maintenance is there for.

Nick had to get going and invited me over for a beer or wine some time, though I drink neither, but I'd be glad to talk with him some more some other time. After he left, I thought that yes, I could go see American Beauty, but I would only see the same people that I always see whenever I go to Sam's Town. Then the movie would be over and since Mom and Dad and Meridith would be out, I'd walk home since there's nothing else I can think of doing there. I decided instead that I'd watch American Beauty on DVD some time in the next few weeks. I wanted to go out into Las Vegas and see other people, especially the tourists here on spring break. I like them because they're pumping money into our local economy. Tourism is our main industry, and we need it.

It turns out that I chose well. On the way to the Walmart next to one of the taxiways and runways at McCarran, we drove past one of the runways seen clearly there, and as we were, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 was landing. One of the things we did on my birthday was park at the McCarran observation lot so I could watch another Virgin Atlantic 747 land. It was incredible seeing it come in to land, but to see it land as we were driving by it? That was totally unexpected and in fact, I noticed across the way at the international terminal that there was no 747 there. And then suddenly, there it was behind us, next to us. The speed of driving makes it even more awe-inspiring.

Then came visits to the Flamingo and Ellis Island and the Tropicana. The Flamingo looks decrepit, and some of the fixtures there look like they've been there since it opened in 1946. Not worth visiting again.

The Tropicana was fine, but too much white decoration in walls and tile and furniture. They're going for a South Beach look in Florida, which is fine, but I can't stand there not being contrasts.

At Ellis Island, the first paragraph of what may be my first novel hit me, and I hurriedly typed it into my cell phone. I began research for it fully last night, and I'm excited about it, and interested to see where it goes. It combines so many of my interests, though the challenge here will be making my interest organic to my main character and not merely making him my mouthpiece. I like the first paragraph, but I have to play with the introduction of the narrator after the explanation that opens my novel.

And to think that if I had gone to see American Beauty, I would have missed out on all of this.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Help Me, Nick Hornby. Do You Have a Minute, Michael Dirda? What Does It All Mean, Michiko Kakutani?

For 14 years, I've written movies and DVD reviews, and now write much less than I used to. When I was a member of the Online Film Critics Society, I began to notice that movies all year round felt like a hamster wheel, with Hollywood's embarrassments in January, the big-budget blockbusters (or "blockbusters," if they flopped) in the summer, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth for Oscars in the fall and winter. Over and over.

I used to be excited about DVDs, wanting to celebrate the impressive scope of Acorn Media's releases, all the British TV series that get a chance here in the United States because of them. But then I began reading a lot more often, and realized where I belong. I still review DVDs, but only those that truly interest me now, and even then, it isn't a whole lot. Some movies, not as many, some TV series like That '70s Show, but not as often as I used to collect TV series for reviews. I still want Westerns, and about two months ago, I bought a Western TV collection, released by Mill Creek Entertainment, at Fry's near Town Square Las Vegas. That's what I want to see. I also want old movies and presidential DVDs, and old TV shows too, such as the '50s TV collection that was released by Film Chest, and included a wonderful episode of The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, with Boris Karloff as one of her guest stars. They haven't released another collection like that since. I'm very picky, and there may come the day when I end my DVD reviews for good. I want to write book reviews now. It's where I belong. I love reading, and I love the thought of receiving books for review. In fact, it has become a reality for me over the past two weeks, though on a small scale, because that's where I need to start. Yes, I have all this experience writing those reviews, but that's not enough. Movies and DVD reviews are vastly different from book reviews. When I wrote those reviews, I knew I wasn't the snarky type, that I couldn't write as irreverently as John Irving Bloom, who took on the persona of Joe Bob Briggs, wildly in love with B movies, horror movies, and slasher movies. I loved that. I knew I could be funny once in a while in my reviews, depending on the movie or the TV series, but I couldn't do it all the time, though I did my best to make my reviews fun to read.

I spent most of last weekend contacting all the book review sites I could find, asking to write for them, telling them of my experiences in writing reviews, and writing book reviews for a time in 2005 for Valley Scene Magazine (a little-more-than-weekly publication distributed throughout the Simi, San Fernando, and Conejo valleys of Southern California), as well as including my resume. Only Boekie's Book Reviews responded, and even the creator of the site, Vanessa, was unsure, because it seemed like I leaned more toward adult novels and nonfiction. But I told her of being an impatient fan of novelists Stacey Ballis, Sarah Pekkanen, and Barbara O'Neal, thereby covering women's literature, and that I've read a wide selection of YA novels, and she accepted me.

I've written two reviews already, one for That Time I Joined the Circus by J.J. Howard, and the other for Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Right now, I'm reading The Wanderer by Robyn Carr for a review, the first of her new Thunder Point series, which at first seems like a tenuous spinoff of her Virgin River series. I finished Whispering Rock, the third in the Virgin River series, last night, so I'm on a Robyn Carr kick right now, and fortunately, Vanessa had The Wanderer available for me.

Despite sometimes wanting to spend less time on the computer, there's no chance of that now. I'm unfortunately entering book reviewing at a time when, if possible, reviewers receive e-reader copies of these books, digital copies. I was reticent at first because I like to have a physical copy as often as possible. So far, no physical copies, but I can't deny the convenience of this. I keep a running Notepad file for each book, taking notes as I read the .pdf file that Vanessa converts for me from the e-reader copy. I still want physical copies, and there are a few publications I want to apply to once I've written a lot more reviews and gained more experience and figured out what my niche is in book reviewing and how I want to write them, but this is fine. Plus, I have all my music on this computer, and ambient and space music to be found on the Internet, so this could work out well. You know, when I'm not working in the school district.

However, that first time with That Time I Joined the Circus was nerve-wracking. First, I hadn't reviewed books since 2005, as mentioned above. Second, I need to figure out who I am all over again. When I began writing movie reviews, I worshipped Roger Ebert like any other aspiring film critic does. I wanted not so much to be like him, but to do what he did, in being at all these screenings and reviewing all these movies. I wanted it as a full-time job, to be paid to watch movies, of course, and to have my thoughts about each movies published. That's as basic as it gets, but I thought that movies would never cease to interest me. And yet, books have been there since I was 2. I have a longer love affair with them, which now feels more like a happy marriage. This is where I belong.

But I don't know what kind of writer I am with these yet. Having reached my third review, I am a little more comfortable, but not by much, and I fear writing the same thoughts over and over. So I need to seek guidance and wisdom. I originally bought The Complete Polysyllabic Spree and More Baths Less Talking, two collections of Nick Hornby's monthly books column for McSweeney's The Believer, because I was in awe of how much he loved books. But now, these collections come in handy because I want to know how he approaches books. Before all this, I've never had to think about how a book works. I just let their joyful waves wash over me, especially with my favorite books, such as The Loop by Joe Coomer, which I'm rereading. Now I'm thinking about how Robyn Carr's descriptions of Thunder Point, Oregon a little after the beginning of The Wanderer feel more obligatory rather than a novelist interested in her new surroundings. I've never done it that extensively before. I've also never before noted where a book finally comes to life, such as with Hank Cooper's playful banter with Gina the waitress at the diner in The Wanderer.

After she posted my review of Eleanor & Park, Vanessa told me by e-mail that she Tweeted my review to Rainbow Rowell, who replied, "This is a gorgeous, insightful review. Thank you so much." I don't write reviews to please filmmakers and authors, though that is a bonus when that happens. But to get that so early is surprising because that was only my second review. I was still nervous when I wrote that review. I'm less nervous with my forthcoming review of The Wanderer because I wrote the first paragraph even before I started reading it on the computer, since I've been reading Robyn Carr's novels long before this one. In fact, I'm picking up A Virgin River Christmas, the fourth in the Virgin River series, at the library tomorrow. I always feel more confident if I've written a paragraph or I have some idea of where a review might go based on the plot of the novel I'm going to review, or what I know of the author based on past novels. I'm more nervous if I have nothing before I start, trying to remember that something will come up while I read.

I want to do this. I know I already am, but I mean more often. I'd like to also write for Booklist Online, which is overseen by the American Library Association. And Bookpage, the free publication I spotted every time I was at the Valencia Library in Santa Clarita, has reviews as well. I'd be glad to write for "The Costco Connection," but I think the book buyers for the company handle that. And maybe Amazon one day. The sheer number of books they receive must be enormous. I want to do all that, but I first need to figure out who I am as a book reviewer, and what kind of book reviewer I want to be. I hope Nick Hornby can help, as well as Michael Dirda, who also writes out of such a great love for books. Michiko Kakutani strikes me as more mysterious, more severe, foreboding even. But she really knows what she writes, so I'm going to read a lot more of her reviews.

And then there's Janet Maslin, who used to be the film critic for the New York Times from 1977 to 1999, and then became a book reviewer. I'd like to find her first book review and she how she developed her style for book reviews. What was her transition like?

I'm enjoying The Wanderer, which helps. I know bad reviews may come, but I've written my fair share over the years. I know as I write more book reviews, I'll feel more comfortable and begin to write in a style that works for me. It doesn't make me less nervous, though. Hence seeking guidance from those who do this. Inspiration, style, and wisdom, and the extent to which these reviewers know the genres that they review. I know there's a lot of the latter as well. Janet Maslin does that with mystery novels. Her knowledge is apparent in those reviews. I hope to do this well, because I'd like to do this for as many years as I've reviewed movies and DVDs, and still more years than that. I'm home here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Directors Are It For Me

In my review of the Ray-Romano-on-the-road documentary 95 Miles to Go, I go into two-paragraph detail about my sole interest at a taping of the fourth-to-final episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, that sole interest being director Gary Halvorson. While the rest of the audience likely watched the actors, I watched Halvorson at his monitors, watching the scene, seeing how it played, thinking of what might need to be improved in certain lines, and what emphasis should follow in the next scene. Between scenes, while the rest of the audience likely turned their attention to the warm-up comic or chatted with whoever they were with, I watched Halvorson conferring with the actors on how to play the scene. I specifically remember deep into the taping, the actors on the kitchen set way on the other side of the soundstage, and I could see only Brad Garrett's head moving around.

Directors have always interested me, more than actors, possibly even more than screenwriters. On a sitcom, the executive producers are king and the director is a hired hand, but the director is still in charge of making the taping successful, giving producers and writers what they want, and adding in a bit of his or her own flair. Soon enough, depending on the sitcom, they become a trusted member of the production, such as director Pamela Fryman is with How I Met Your Mother and director James Widdoes (who played fraternity president Robert Hoover in Animal House) is with Two and a Half Men. How do they stay organized? How much advice do they give during rehearsals? Do they keep things loose enough so that the actors feel relaxed enough before taping day, or do they have a set list that they want to follow, that they know how they want the "A" story and "B" story of the episode to be told? It's why in the third and fourth season DVD sets of That '70s Show (reviews here and here), the audio commentaries that series director David Trainer did solo were vastly disappointing because he offered no insight into his directing style, or a typical day on the set of the show, from what he has to do when he walks into work to when he leaves. Nothing.

Right now, I'm reviewing the fifth and sixth seasons, and the sixth season set has two audio commentaries from Trainer that I hope are better. Many of these sitcom directors probably think that no one would be interested in how they work and so they might do what Trainer does, in just recounting what happens in the episode as it's happening. They're dead wrong. There's a lot of value and wisdom to be had from their experiences. It's why I think preeminent sitcom director James Burrows should write a memoir, but knowing his style of directing (head down, walking the floor, listening to the dialogue and calling out "Cut!" in the middle of a scene, before the punchline is reached, if it's not working for him. He'll even kick a camera a few inches to get the right angle while he's walking), and how reserved he appears to be about his work, that's never going to happen. He seems like he prefers to let his work speak for itself. Disappointing for those like me interested in all kinds of directors, but understandable coming from him.

At that taping, I never stopped watching Halvorson. The actors would seem to have more work to do than him, but he has his fair share of work too. And it was interesting watching him watch the monitors and then call out "Cut!" and go to the actors. My biggest disappointment about the experience was that I wanted to get his autograph on the two-page program we were given for the episode, but those pages at Warner Bros. were real bitches. I didn't want Romano's autograph or Garrett's or anyone else in the cast. Just Halvorson's. Contrast that with today when audiences at The Big Bang Theory get posters and TV Guide issues and t-shirts and figurines regularly autographed. I think maybe it's the attitude of each production. Perhaps the Chuck Lorre productions are more open and more appreciative of having an audience, and not so dismissive.

Halvorson was involved with Everybody Loves Raymond long before the end, directing, for example, the two-part episode set in Italy. But he does have the distinction of directing not only that series finale, but also the series finale of Roseanne, which isn't saying much because of how that final season turned out, but it's still notable. I can't speak to whether he had the same rapport with the cast of Roseanne that he seemed to have with the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond, but whoever was in charge of choosing directors on Roseanne, be it her or one of the other executive producers, they must have liked Halvorson enough to ask him to direct the series finale. I always wondered about that process of choosing directors for sitcoms, what goes into it. I know that every pilot season, James Burrows gets a mountain of scripts to choose from, being that famous for his work, and that every pilot he directs has a much bigger chance of being ordered to series. He's rich enough now from his stakes in Cheers and Friends that he doesn't have to work anymore if he doesn't want to. He could retire, but he doesn't, and every pilot he chooses to direct is simply out of love for the work. The sitcom world is lucky to still have him, the Yoda to all of them.

It was different when we went to a taping of three episodes of the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament a few years ago. The director there is Kevin McCarthy who has directed well over 900 episodes from 1994 to today. He was sitting in the control room above the audience seating. I never saw him. He had no need to go to the stage, because he had John Lauderdale, the stage manager, to relay instructions as necessary. When done right, there's little editing needed on Jeopardy!, though I could be wrong. But as I saw it, McCarthy kept track of the cameras and commanded when to cut to whichever camera, thereby doing the editing while taping the episode. It seems likely because operation of the game board is heavily regimented, and Michele Lee Hampton, who is the operator, has to work quickly and efficiently so that the clues are seen right away.

I read in an interview that Corwin did that he watches every episode three times in editing to get everything the way he and the producers want it. There's a lot more shots involved in Wheel of Fortune it seems, and on the official website, there's a video interview to be found with him when the show taped in Las Vegas in which he says that at home, in the studio, he's in a control room, but on location, he's in a mobile unit parked near the theater, calling out camera switches to the technical director sitting next to him.

This brings me to later today, what I hoped to see, but probably won't, based on Corwin's insight. Mom, Dad, Meridith and I are going to American Idol's final broadcast in Las Vegas, the second live show here, in which the remaining guys will be competing. It's in the Beatles Love theater at the Mirage, and we've never been to an American Idol taping before. Even though the Santa Clarita Valley is merely 30 minutes north of Los Angeles, "merely" is a misnomer. If you want to go to Downtown Disney in Anaheim, or IKEA in Burbank, or drive through Beverly Hills, or go to Ventura Harbor Village in Ventura, you have to make a day of it. You have to leave early enough in the day so you at least have a few hours where you want to be, and don't expect to get back to Santa Clarita until after dark.

We couldn't go to a regular taping of American Idol at CBS Television City anyway, since it was always the middle of the week. The school day ended at 3:10 p.m. at La Mesa, where Dad worked, but he usually wouldn't be out of work until 3:30 or 3:40. Far too late to get there, and it wouldn't have been worth the trip anyway, not after that treatment at Everybody Loves Raymond. That's not to say that the audience coordinators at Idol would have been as short with those who had come to see the show, but in Hollywood, you can never be sure of such a thing. In Hollywood, hope is for the weak.

(We did enter various contests to try to win tickets to go to the season finales, but never won.)

This time, it's local, the first time American Idol has been in Las Vegas, I think for the past three weeks now, an attempt to goose the ratings, which have been way below what they used to be. Only 13+ million watched last week's episodes, though we'll see if the first live show gives an uptick in the ratings. I should think that with ratings being like that, the production would be grateful for anyone watching the show, not to mention all that they're doing to switch around how it used to be, first with these shows here in my home, but also with that SuperVote that allows you to vote 50 times at once for one contestant or spread out your votes for different contestants. Maybe because of this, the audience coordinators will be friendlier than how I've seen them in the past. Not just the pages at Everybody Loves Raymond, but it felt a little like we all were a hassle at Jeopardy!. Mom said that it was interesting to see how it was done, but if she was ever to go to a taping of Wheel of Fortune, her favorite game show, it would not be at Sony Pictures Studios. The Jeopardy! set looks much smaller in person than it does on TV, and she doesn't want to be surprised by that at Wheel of Fortune. So if Wheel of Fortune comes back to Las Vegas (the last time they were here, we weren't), we'll do everything we possibly can to get tickets because it'll be in an entirely different setting and nothing about the show would be ruined for Mom since we'll be here at home for it.

Mind you, the printout we have for American Idol only guarantees us access to the line to wait to get in. We might not even get in. But I'm not sure if that's even possible because with how low the ratings are, and the fact that it's midweek during a typically slow time of the tourist season (not to mention that residents are working, and those residents who might have been able to come are those who probably just got off work and are dead tired and want to go home to sleep), means that we may very well get in. I've never watched a full season of Idol. I've sat through many episodes, but I can't tell you anything of what happened. I only know about Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry and Ace Young and Justin Guarini because they're Meridith's favorites.

I don't mind waiting in line and then filing into the Beatles Love theater and then sitting through a two-hour live broadcast, because I'm curious about what goes on during the commercials, and what the judges do during performances and during commercials, such as it was with last night's episode when Nicki Minaj had to run to her dressing room to get something and was eager to get offstage before they even cut to commercial. I've read taping reports of past episodes out of curiosity, but I want to see it all for myself. I do wonder if there are camera rehearsals for the audience to sit through before the live broadcast, and that would seem likely because they'd need to gauge the audience, see what angles they want, and whatever else they have to do.

I know that Idol has been directed since 2011 by Gregg Gelfand, and I wonder, if there are camera rehearsals, if he'll be on stage conferring with whoever he needs to in order to be sure that he gets what he needs for the live broadcast. I hope it'll be like that, the same way it was when I watched Gary Halvorson at work. I know that Gelfand will not be in the theater during the live broadcast, but in that mobile unit outside the Mirage, maybe in that parking lot in the back where the early voting trailer was that we went to to vote early in the presidential election last year (in salute to the Mirage being the first hotel-casino we went to the first time we were in Las Vegas in 2007), directing the show from there. I'm curious about how it all works, how it sounds differently compared to watching it on TV, and just all the little things that go into making it happen. Even though I don't care about Idol, I'm interested in the inner workings of any production. I wonder what it takes to make this one work. I hope we get in for that reason.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

This is What You'll Be Eating

Yesterday afternoon, after getting home from work and Vons (the one on East Tropicana Avenue), Meridith showed me the triple cheese enchilada frozen dinner she picked out for me for dinner tonight. Mom wanted something reliable, Stouffer's macaroni and cheese for herself, because she can't risk an upset stomach from anything, being that we're going to the final American Idol broadcast, the second live show, in Las Vegas, at the Beatles Love theater at the Mirage, the remaining guys competing. The taping of three episodes of the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament that we went to a few years ago was fine, but the taping of Two and a Half Men that Mom and Dad went to with a few people Dad knew from work, back when Charlie Sheen was well-entrenched on the show, was a hassle for Mom in climbing stairs since her energy is never at full strength, and Everybody Loves Raymond, the fourth-to-last episode entitled "Sister-in-Law," was the same problem. Wheel of Fortune is Mom's favorite game show, but she said that she'd only go to a taping if they come back here to Las Vegas. We never thought about that for American Idol, in going to a regular taping. When contests were up for tickets to the season finales, we always entered, but never won. So now here is American Idol in Las Vegas, our home, and we're taking that opportunity. We have to arrive in line by 2:30 p.m., ahead of the live broadcast at 5 for the east coast that'll end at 7.

Anyway, that's not the reason I'm writing. I have a choice for tonight's dinner, an easy one to make. I also have a frozen turkey lasagna dinner in the freezer, but being that I've happily had spaghetti for the past two nights, I don't want to become tired of pasta, which may well be at the top of my list of favorite foods. There was a choice in the freezer and I made it. I hope that Safeway Select triple cheese enchilada will be decent, because I remember another dinner I had from that brand and it must have been really great because I don't remember exactly what it was. Hopefully it's better here than it was in Santa Clarita. Maybe there's different regulations to meet here, or even less regulations, what with California being so over-regulated.

It got me thinking about the second half of 2nd grade to 5th grade at Riverside Elementary in Coral Springs, Florida. In the cafeteria, the salad bar was available every day if you didn't want what they were serving, and I remember many times overloading my tray with their salad bar offerings. I still do that today at Sweet Tomatoes and any other buffet that has a salad bar. What I was then, I still am now.

I remember that there was Mexican Pizza some Fridays that I always went for. But the days they had baked chicken were the worst. I don't know how they could have called it baked chicken with how greasy it was. It got all over my hands, all over my face, and the napkin in the utensil collection we got, wrapped in plastic, seemed like half-ply. There was no napkin there, just a rumor of one that was quickly dismissed as such. You could not wipe your hands with this napkin and get all the grease off. If you wanted another napkin, if you could get another napkin, you had to get up, go back to the kitchen area and see if you could get another utensil collection. I don't remember them ever having napkins available on the side. I now realize that I probably should have made friends in elementary school as best I could, just so I could get the napkin if they weren't using it.

There was a choice in elementary school lunches. It was this, or this, or the salad bar. But once you made that choice, you got everything that went along with it, including what they were serving on the side, which I've forgotten. Maybe there were fries. Soggy fries at that. I'd count on it, because the macaroni and cheese at Riverside tasted like gasoline. I'm not kidding.

Sometimes I miss that, choosing that one main dish and getting everything that comes with it. Looking at the March elementary school lunch menu on the Broward Schools website, I see that there are a lot more choices than there ever was when I was in school. For example, today, Tuesday, there's beef taco, Latin style black beans over brown rice with salsa, homemade tuna salad with crackers, "Garden Fresh Entree Salads," steamed corn, Capri mixed vegetables (apparently carrots, green beans, squash, and zucchini, according to what I found through Google), green apple juice, and fresh fruit. Choose the taco and you likely get the black beans and brown rice. The homemade tuna salad gets you crackers. And the rest would seem to be up for grabs. If you want the salad, you probably wouldn't want the steamed corn or mixed vegetables with it because you already have vegetables. But perhaps you want the steamed corn with the beef taco and the black beans and rice. The menu doesn't indicate if the corn or vegetables are attached to any of the main entrees. They're not separate from the entree listings because there's so much to list that they couldn't make a space in between. But because other listings in March are separated by a space indicating the entrees at the top and the sides below, I guess you can mix and match if you want. But generally, this is what there is, although the salad bar seems to have been replaced by the pre-made salads. More convenient for the school, less costly, and less messy. However, I'm appreciative of Riverside Elementary instilling in me a love of salad bars.

What really got me thinking about all this was last week when we each received the monthly rewards brochure from Ellis Island Casino & Brewery on Koval Lane, which faces the asses of some casinos on the Strip. In it is when you can get five times the points (Mondays and Fridays this month on video poker, reel and video reel slot machines), six times the points, 10 times the points, and so on. They also tout their cash drawings, and that every Tuesday & Saturday, you can visit any Passport Central Kiosk to print your coupon for a free slice of pizza and an El Beer or an El Root Beer at Metro Pizza inside the casino. There's also coupons for $5 in free play and coupons for free food if you earn 100 points or 150 points by playing. I'm never tempted to play just to rack up points. I'm not going to spend that much money.

I don't know if we'll go to this on Easter Sunday, or even if it'll be noticed by Easter Sunday. But the restaurant inside Ellis Island has something interesting on that day, beginning at 11 a.m. $9.99 gets you the Easter Dinner Special, which is honey baked ham, corn stuffing, baked yams, buttered corn, and pumpkin pie dessert. The pumpkin pie dessert is what worries me because if it was straight pumpkin pie by the slice, then it would say "pumpkin pie." But what does pumpkin pie dessert mean? Mousse? Parfait? Pudding? We've been to the restaurant once before, and I liked the spaghetti there, so I trust that their plans for this menu will go well. They really make an effort for good food and an enjoyable experience that gets you away from the cigarette smoke for a while. You can't beat that.

There's that chance in Las Vegas, just like I had in elementary school, of picking that one entree and getting whatever comes with it. And I'm not talking about substitutions. I mean that you pick that, and you get all of that. You put your taste buds in the hands of the chef and you experience whatever has been on their mind, and you hope it's a great meal. And even if it isn't as great, a few slip-ups here and there, you still get a sense of the personality of the chef that way, perhaps not wanting to go there next time, or maybe you will, because you like the atmosphere and certain other portions of your meal, and maybe the chef was just having an off day. But it doesn't stop you from placing your trust with another chef or even the same chef because you want to see what they can do with the menu they have planned, what they can do with things you like. I think there's a good chance of that Easter menu being done right because it's not something they have to do every day. It's once a year and they can be as elaborate or as low-key as they want, either turning the menu lopsided a bit, doing something different than expected with the same ingredients expected for Easter, or sticking with what works and adding their own comforting touches.

I know that we put our trust in any number of chefs whenever we order off of any menu, but the ultimate trust is here, ordering courses that are entirely up to them. That's when eating becomes most interesting.

Monday, March 4, 2013


Connections come easily in the Las Vegas Valley. A flattened water bottle seen in the dark of midnight while walking Tigger shows a Fresh & Easy logo, and that's got to be from the Fresh & Easy very nearby.

An FYE bag blows past while walking Kitty the next early afternoon. The Boulevard Mall on South Maryland Parkway doesn't have one, so it had to have been from the location at the Galleria at Sunset mall in Henderson, the only one in Southern Nevada, and in fact, the only one in Nevada.

Emotional connections come easy here. You either like Las Vegas, or you hate it, or you like certain parts but hate others, or you're ambivalent about the whole thing, but like to visit to try to dig deeper into what makes you ambivalent about it. In this case, I mean the connections you make that remind you of where things are. Not just the water bottle or the FYE bag, but other things too, such as the Carl's Jr. burger box I found laying in dirt in one of the empty lots where I walk our dogs.

Unlike at Pacific Islands where there's dumpsters everywhere and you don't have to put the garbage out on the curb, but just toss it into one of those dumpsters and see it picked up by the garbage truck later in the week, it's nearly impossible to find a place to throw out litter. For one, I'm not touching that tall Four Loko Alcopop can sitting in front of one of the parking spaces next to the island where Tigger and Kitty also do some of their business. But even if it was, say, the flattened Pepsi cans I found at the intersection of Lane I, across from enormous bushes and willow shrubs that remind me dearly of Boulder City, I couldn't throw them out anyway. The only dumpster we have, this long 30-ton container, is on the other side, on the senior park side, separated by a gate that's locked at night. It should really be our dumpster because I thought they had their own and besides, we're paying for it in our monthly garbage fee. Otherwise, you have your own garbage bin in your carport area, and I'm not throwing out other people's trash in there. I am conscious of my surroundings, but there are just some things you can't do, much as you'd want to keep your home clean. Plus, the heavy wind we have tonight blew everything god knows where, maybe to the tiny apartment complex across the street from the back end of our mobile home park. It's unfortunate that our desert might also be home to so much trash, but we do what we can.

Anyway, getting back to that Carl's Jr. burger box, I think I know where that Carl's Jr. is. It is nearby, a mile from me, on East Bonanza Road. It's a generally rundown area, with a Walgreens and CVS following along on the path to the Strip, whichever path you might choose, and even though I'm not sure exactly where it is, I know that it's in that vicinity. One of these days I'll find it exactly.

When I looked at that Carl's Jr. box, I knew that it came from that particular Carl's Jr., close enough to us. Back in Florida, when I saw a Publix plastic bag, I knew it was from the Publix near Muvico (now Cinemark) Paradise 24 in Davie. If I saw a Winn-Dixie bag, it was from the Winn-Dixie in the shopping center across from Grand Palms, where I lived. It's more of a matter of collecting information about where you are, to make it more familiar to you, like Flamingo Road is to me, having walked nearly its entire length, except for where the Vegas Towers Apartments are, because that's a pretty sad looking spot, although that wasn't my reason for not walking there. I was only going as far as where the Clark County Library was on Flamingo Road. When I got there, I turned into it and left the rest of Flamingo Road to others. All I need are my libraries.

But in order to make those connections for the sake of directions and gaining a sense of home, you need to be interested in where you live, and really like it, soon to love it. I already love Las Vegas and the Las Vegas Valley. It took some adjustment in switching from being a tourist and then reading all about it from Santa Clarita while waiting to get here, to becoming a resident and seeing it all every day. It's not disconcerting in that way, and it's never been disappointing, but here you can see whatever you want, look into certain areas, look for the history of those areas. From Santa Clarita, Las Vegas seemed like it would be home to me and it would definitely be more home to me than Santa Clarita ever was, where I only existed. But after getting here, I had to figure out what I wanted from Las Vegas, what I wanted to find here, which is much bigger than simply reading about it.

I'll give you a more recent example. Early yesterday evening, we finished our load of errands at the Food 4 Less in the shopping center next to Pacific Islands on North Green Valley Parkway in Henderson. I don't know the name of the shopping center, or even if it has a name, but I do know that I can walk out of Pacific Islands, to the McDonald's that backs right up to the railroad tracks, get whatever I want, and go back home in far less time than it would take to get to the Rebel gas station/McDonald's at the beginning of that section of Vegas Valley Drive from our mobile home park. I don't know a great deal of directions in Henderson yet, but it is a start, just like intimately knowing Flamingo Road is a start in knowing the rest of Las Vegas.

After Food 4 Less, we stopped at China Garden, which will inevitably become our regular Chinese restaurant. We've eaten there once and taken out numerous other times, including for Thai tea and slushes, and we'll probably single-handedly keep them in business after we move to Pacific Islands. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that's where we eat on our first night there in September.

We were at China Garden to get a coconut slush (for Dad), a strawberry slush (for Mom), a peach slush (for Meridith), and a pineapple slush (for me), the latter three with tapioca balls. There were a few orders ahead of us and those slushes take time to make, so I stood next to the door, watching a bit of Family Guy high up on the wall at the back of the restaurant, watching these astonishing cooks work magic with strongs flicks of their wrists controlling these huge woks, going from one dish to the next with such knowledgeable ease.

I felt so comfortable there that I felt, yes, this could be my neighborhood. It was nice, quiet, you did your errands and you went on your way. But you could linger, if you wanted. You could walk this shopping center, see if there was anything that interested you, and even if nothing did, just enjoy the gentle peace of it. That seems rare coming from a shopping center, but Henderson is where lots of the true residents are, those who are here for the long haul and aren't only staying a year and then leaving for another state. Henderson is quite spread out, perhaps more than Las Vegas (Lake Las Vegas, with Ravella at Lake Las Vegas, which you have to drive a ways to get to, is considered Henderson, and so is the Railroad Pass casino, outside of Boulder City city limits, on the way to Hoover Dam. I can't believe that that's considered Henderson, what with how far out it is, but there it is), and yet there are pockets of community here. It's not apparent community; there's still a feeling of overall disconnect, but you go where it suits you, go for what interests you, and you find many friendly people. It's apparent what some cities are right when you see them. Henderson isn't one of them. It gradually unfolds to show you what it is and then let you decide what you feel about it. It doesn't want to give everything away all at once, much like the Las Vegas Strip.

As we were ordering the slushies, I picked up two of China Garden's business cards to use as bookmarks. I look at them and I think about that shopping center, that railroad track, and Pacific Islands and I begin to get a sense of where I am there, what street that is, what the intersection is away from that shopping center and Pacific Islands, and even where the Galleria at Sunset mall might be from there. That business card is a connection to that area, that shopping center.

Connections don't only come from people in this valley, not always in the face-to-face sense. Yes, people were responsible for that shopping center I appreciate, for the pineapple slush I liked, for the apartment complex I can't wait to explore more thoroughly after we move (even though the temptation will always be strong to walk over to that wall facing the railroad track, stand there and stare and think and wonder and be inspired), but I mean in the sense that one thing you see leads you to think about what it relates to, and in turn, what it means to you. Every piece I find, every blown bag, every flattened water bottle, every business card, presents more and more of home, in places I've been to, or that I haven't been to but I want to go to, or that I didn't even know about until I saw that particular item and now I want to go there, wherever there is. Through these connections, I build a street, a collection of houses, a shopping center, sidewalks, traffic lights, a city. I see all that, but I don't truly know it until I look that closely at its trash, at what it brings along with it to show off or just to let fly into the wind. I need to see that logo, that card, that piece that lets me know my home better. This is the first time since Florida that I see something new every day. I don't know what it will be, but today I will see something new, something that will make me want to know even more. I'm even fostering that connection with plants, wanting to know exactly what I'm looking at, so I checked out a slew of books about plant life in Southern Nevada. At least one of them has got to know about those shrubs, the trees, those tiny yellow flowers. I need to know. I want to understand. I am home, and I want to be home even more. This is how I do it.