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.

1 comment:

  1. I hope the dolphins are happy. I'm glad Meridith got to celebrate her birthday with them.