Sunday, January 19, 2014

Where Was I When I Read That?: Paper Towns by John Green

Dolphins in the desert? Yes. Just like all the residencies of those famous or formerly famous singers who want stability of a sort. A couple months here, a couple months there. A chance not only to remind audiences of who they are and the power they can still bring to their songs, but also to figure out what they want to do next, albums they can record, maybe even a national tour if the ticket sales from their residencies make that seem possible.

The dolphins don't have that kind of option in a residency. They're here to stay, or at least for as long as the Mirage keeps Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat. Because nothing's permanent here. That goes for life itself, of course, but here, things seem to disappear faster. Restaurants open and then close. Two apartments I always saw lights on in at night when I walked the dogs are off. Those people are gone. Even the couple that lived in an upstairs apartment with a perpetually watchful dog at the window, who was here before the holidays, is gone. The blinds of that apartment are open slightly, revealing nothing inside.

That's why here, you hold onto what's permanent to you, what lasts in your mind and your heart, even though it may be gone. Fortunately, Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat has always remained, even before my family and I moved to Las Vegas in September 2012, when we were anticipating moving there and kept up on everything Las Vegas from the Santa Clarita Valley in Southern California. According to, it opened in 1990. I don't know if the dolphins have been there since the beginning, but that's where this story begins.

Before last March 23, my sister's birthday, my mom signed her up for a program at the Dolphin Habitat called Painting with the Dolphins. During our nine years' existence in Southern California, she also swam with the dolphins at Sea World in San Diego. This program was also pricey, but it would be worth it for her since she loves dolphins.

Being that the first hotel we visited in Las Vegas at the start of our first trip in 2007 was the Mirage, home to the Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat, we voted in the 2009 elections in a trailer behind the Mirage. And when American Idol came to the Beatles Love theater at the Mirage for live broadcasts last February, we went to the show featuring performances by the guys competing. So the Mirage has essentially been our home casino, even though we visit sporadically. It made sense not only for Meridith to be able to paint with the dolphins, but for it to be at the Mirage. It's one of many things we know intimately in Las Vegas.

After you pass the ticket booth at the Secret Garden, and before you get to the ticket-taker podium just before the entrance, you walk past a winding garden path, with uniform bushes taller than you. Once you get in, you have the souvenir store right next to you, the public seating for the dolphin shows at the main pool behind you, rising bleachers. Behind that main pool is a holding pool for dolphins in need of care, or baby dolphins not yet ready for public viewing, and in the back, facing the entrance to the Secret Garden, is a second, smaller pool, where the painting sessions are held and where the dolphins are just to play around, to throw balls around and play with other toys they're given. Just after the main pool, across from the snack bar, is a winding path down to the basement area, with large windows where you can watch the dolphins underwater. Every part of this place is interesting, making you wonder not only how they planned this, but how they maintain it in the midst of the desert.

As could be seen in my first entry in this series, about Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, I bring a book with me everywhere. And the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat was no exception. This time, it was Paper Towns by John Green, who I got hooked on after reading The Fault in Our Stars. I haven't read all of his books yet, as I don't like to bombard myself with so many titles from the same author as once. It's why I read the Nero Wolfe series, and the Alphabet Mysteries by Sue Grafton book by book, one at a time from the Green Valley Library. Yes, it would stand to reason that if I like an author enough, I should inhale everything else they have, but there are also other books to read. There's always a mix I have that doesn't favor just one author. Many authors.

Paper Towns is immediately my kind of novel because it takes place in Central Florida, and being a Florida native, I'm automatically interested in anything to do with Florida. I especially appreciate a novel that can gradually reveal its offerings over a day if necessary, which is the case with many novels I read while I'm out somewhere. That day at the Dolphin Habitat was different, though. We had gotten there earlier because Meridith's time to paint with the dolphins was at 12:30 p.m. There's that and 3:30 p.m., and those are the only times to do so in a given day.

I definitely would not miss what Meridith was experiencing, so the book stayed with me, closed. We went into a small room just off that tiny holding pool for the dolphins, where Meridith and another person got an orientation of what painting with the dolphins would be like. She chose her paints, and I made sure to take lots of photos during the process.

Mom, Dad and I then went to the second pool to grab a spot right at the mini curving wall that surrounds the pool. Those who work for the Dolphin Habitat don't make Painting with Dolphins as much a show as the one in the main pool with leaping dolphins and all of that, but people gather just the same. Not just the families of those painting with the dolphins, but other tourists. It's a nice, curious crowd.

The paintbrushes that the dolphins use are attached to a pacifier that the dolphin holds in its mouth, with the paintbrush sticking out and they move the brush up and down and side to side. Meridith well remembers the name of the dolphin she painted with, but I don't. Cosmo comes to mind, but I think I've just got The Jetsons on the brain, after Cosmo Spacely. I think the dolphin's name was stronger than that.

I had to get as close to Meridith's side as possible because I had the phone camera and wanted to take as many pictures as possible. There was the photo taken of Meridith with the dolphin, as provided by the program, along with the dolphin's painting, but it's always nice to capture the entire experience as it's happening. And Meridith had quite the experience because before they left that room, they had to take off their shoes and socks and roll up their pants before they headed out there. Then at the edge of the pool, Meridith kneeled on a towel, met her dolphin, and the person in charge of that painting session explained to Meridith the dolphin's personality and what it could do in paint, and then the dolphin began painting.

I loved watching this. Meridith, being hugely into dolphins, loved swimming with them in San Diego, and she was a rocket ready to go off at the dolphin painting. Being that close to a dolphin was big enough for her.

Now, since it was her birthday, she could do anything she wanted. And that was most likely the highlight of her entire day. But we ended up spending the entire day at the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, from 11:30 a.m. or so, to when it closed at 5 p.m. We went down to the basement level to look at the dolphins underwater a few times, and visited the Secret Garden with its panthers and leopards, and I think there were either a few monkeys or apes. My only mission for the day was deciding whether or not to buy The Living Sea IMAX film on DVD, upon seeing that it was narrated by Meryl Streep, one of my favorite actresses, with songs and music by Sting, one of my favorite singers. It would seem to be a no-brainer, but the price was $15 or $16, so I needed some time to think about it. It never left my mind, though, throughout most of the day.

What I loved most about the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat was that sense of being nowhere else. Sure, the Mirage hotel loomed above, with the Beatles Love banner, but that didn't matter. There were the trees in the Secret Garden, all the bushes, and low-hanging leaves that made you think you couldn't possibly be in Las Vegas, but were in a truly different world. I'm sure that was the intended effect because it worked on me. Of course I knew that I was in Las Vegas, because I was living there. That's unavoidable. But within the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, I wondered why I would want to be anywhere else. And I didn't mind that we spent the entire day there, because we just sat at one of the tables near the snack bar and in front of the souvenir store for hours. And those hours didn't matter. It was enough to just sit there and relax. And what better place to read Paper Towns by John Green, to get so completely into that Central Florida world, to hope that high school senior Quentin Jacobsen soon finds Margo Roth Spiegelman, his childhood friend and next-door neighbor, who he's been in love with forever. I had always hoped that in some novel, an author would really use Florida, really get into it, and not just reference certain points and move on. John Green is that author. He knows streets and sunsets and buildings in Central Florida. I've always hoped that someone would see poetry in my home state and Green gets it right.

But it's also the circumstances while reading a book, where you are, what you're doing. It was cool on Meridith's birthday, but not too cold. We had jackets with us and had to use them while we were in the shade for a time, facing the second pool, but at that table in front of the souvenir store, no need. And those people working at the Dolphin Habitat really got to know Meridith and us too. They were genuinely surprised that anyone would stay for the entire day because people go to see what they want and then they move on. But when Meridith explained that she really loves dolphins, they understood. It makes no sense to rush when you're a resident, not when a hefty price was paid for Painting with Dolphins. It cost a lot, but it was worth it for her.

And it was one of those days that just made sense. Where else was there to be? Why not really get to know a place? And we did. I got to know every inch of the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, and thinking about Paper Towns today, which inspired this second installment in the series, made me put it on hold on my library card to read it again. Maybe to recapture some of that time, to make more vivid some memories I have of that day, but also to read it to pay close attention to how Green portrays Florida, since I'll be using it for the beginning of one of my novels in time to come.

It could have been Paper Towns itself that also contributed to the effect of the day, and parts of it certainly did, but I think it was the day itself, a day perfect for reading, where you don't have anywhere else to be, where you could do anything you wanted, even mounting an adventure within the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, whatever it may be. But reading and being in those surroundings was enough for me. I hope for more reading days like that one.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Where Was I When I Read That?: A Potential Series

One feature I'd like to add to my blog in the coming weeks is "Where Was I When I Read That?" I was looking through the "mystery series" section of my Goodreads account to see when I read Fonduing Fathers, the previous White House Chef Mystery novel by Julie Hyzy, and if I had marked Hyzy as one of my favorite authors, so I could add the latest novel, Home of the Braised, to my "Currently Reading" section and mark it accordingly.

Just now, while writing this, I reached Fonduing Fathers and discovered that I indeed marked her as one of my "favorite authors," making her part of that section. But on the second page of the "mystery series" section while searching for that one, I spotted Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough, his prequel to the entire Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout, which tells of how Archie Goodwin, while an ex-security guard, met Nero Wolfe, based on the bits of insight dropped by Stout through his novels. I started it on May 11, 2013, a Saturday, and finished it the next day. I remember that Saturday well, because it was one of the days of the San Gennaro Feast on Blue Diamond Road in Las Vegas, held in a large swath of parking lot in a shopping center containing a decrepit looking Sears, for one, and a Fuddrucker's nearby. We went not only to see what Italian food there was, but I wanted to meet Lena Prima, the daughter of the great Louis Prima, who, besides being an excellent trumpeter and singer, was the voice of King Louie in The Jungle Book. I wanted to ask Lena if it was true that her father and Phil Harris actually recorded "I Wanna Be Like You" separately due to schedules that could never meet. It seems impossible that they could have, since the call-and-response between them toward the end of the song is so immediate, but apparently, it's true. The editing of that song is flawless.

The time to meet Lena Prima was when the concert portion of the day was going on, from dusk until well into the evening. There were a few acts before Prima took the stage, and during the second-to-last act, I spotted her at the side of the stage and went to meet her. She told me she had never knew about that story, but figured that it might have been true, and was impressed at my enthusiasm for The Jungle Book. She also autographed the two-disc Jungle Book DVD set I brought with me.

But Archie Meets Nero Wolfe remained closed during the concert. It had the most action when we four were sitting at a table under one of the many tents spread around for people to be able to sit and eat. Dad and Meridith had gone to walk around to see what there was, Mom was resting from the walk from an adjacent parking lot to this point, and I was reading.

I haven't read any of Goldsborough's other Nero Wolfe novels, which continued the series after Stout died, but I want to. I was impressed by this one because of Archie and Nero Wolfe meeting, and also the instant rapport between them, even when Archie was just one of the crew Wolfe employed to look into the kidnapping of the son of a wealthy New York hotel tycoon. Yes, Wolfe can get brusque with Archie at times, but his respect never wavers, and here it forms. There were times while reading at the San Gennaro Feast that I was vaguely aware of where I was. I was deep in the tycoon's mansion, witnessing the crew being assigned their roles, Archie as the chaffeur.

The one time I put down the book was when I went to look to see what I wanted to eat. I found a stand selling sausage and pepper sandwiches and bought one. it was over $6, and I wish it had been cheaper, because I wanted another and another and another. Mom agreed, because even from her one bite, she was amazed at how good it was. The sausage snapped in all the right places, and the red and green peppers were perfectly grilled. The bread should have been more crusty, though. And even though there were other stands selling sausage and pepper sandwiches too, including one that was selling them at a discount at the end of the night, the last night of the feast, in fact, one was enough. We didn't go to the September San Gennaro Feast, and aren't likely to go back to another one, because once was enough. It felt disorganized, and the one major booth selling pasta did not know how to do it well. It was mushy more than it was pasta. And with the prestigious exception of Lena Prima, and Italian singer/tenor Aaron Caruso, whose CD I bought for my mom, who autographed it, and who graciously spent a few minutes chatting with my mom and I, the rest of the concert was worryingly mediocre. There was one woman on before Prima who has never met a song she couldn't murder. Even the quietest, most subtle love song would not stand a chance against her.

But Archie Meets Nero Wolfe remains, every time I look through that list, reminded of the San Gennaro Feast and the time I had with it that day, well-spent time.

My next post in this attempted series will either be about Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby, or The Neon Rain, the first Dave Robicheaux novel by James Lee Burke, which relates to what seems to be our annual visit to Steak 'n Shake at the South Point Hotel Casino Spa on Las Vegas Boulevard South, because one novel I read just before this past Christmas, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski, was with me on that latest visit. In fact, if it is The Neon Rain, I might cover The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow in the same post.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Job Hunting. Life Changing.

I didn't realize that I hadn't posted since November 17. Every time I logged on here in the past month, it was just to keep the account active. I really didn't have much to say. After all, what can be said about job hunting, about trying to change your life for the better, about deciding to write a hell of a lot more this new year than last year? A lot of other people are going through it, too. But it's a challenge. Not in the motivation to find a job, which occupies all my waking thoughts, but in just trying to figure out where I belong, where I can thrive the best. And even then, it's more hope about finding work that not only pays decently enough, but being proud of it every day. And I know many positions that, if I was hired, I'd be proud of my work every single day, because I'd be providing people with something they need, something they want, something to satisfy them, either through work in a supermarket or Trader Joe's, or even the local movie theater. I'm going for everything I can possibly find around me.

And yet it's hard, you know? You worry. You hope you get in somewhere, that someone sees you're good enough to work for them and can help make that business shine. You e-mail different people, fill out different applications, and keep on hoping. You can't stop hoping. As my mom says, you've got to keep plugging away. Something's got to give, something in your favor. I'm hoping that my resume and my pleasant demeanor do that. I'm willing to work. I'm ready to work. My book reviews at BookBrowse, despite being satisfying to me creatively at times, aren't going to pay everything. They're not going to get me the car I eventually need, the health insurance I need, the paychecks I need in order to get some stability that way. But it's part of what I do. Same thing with my writing. I've got a few writing projects I want to start this year, including a short story about a dying pigeon in Boulder City, not to show that Boulder City is a great place to die, but just the peaceful beauty of it, that the pigeon, having lived in Boulder City for his short years, chose a wonderful place to live. And then there's the novel or two I want to work on, as well as a nonfiction book involving Boulder City. But the job search comes first with the writing in between.

So where do I fit in? I want to know. I want to have that relief already that comes with being hired for a job, that you know you're being paid, that you know you can do the work you've been hired today with pride, with satisfaction, with consistent good cheer. I'd have all three for sure. Every day. I just hope it comes soon enough. The sooner the better in order to do good, solid work.