Friday, August 4, 2017

A Placeholder for a New Place

I don't want to lose all this to inactivity, though I don't think I've been away for that long. So consider this a placeholder for when I likely get back to writing more regularly on here.

What's prevented me from doing so was our urgent quest to move out of Las Vegas, which began to happen when my father got a computer/business education teaching position at a high school near where we're going to live, in Ventura. Then finding an apartment was full of desperation, near-tears, and utter frustration because housing in Ventura is limited. The city does not want to expand willy-nilly, and so Oxnard, next door, is expanding rapidly in response. But Ventura is where we want to be, because Dad wants to retire near the beach, and he has a scant few years before he does. What better time to start? Plus, to us, there's more to do in Ventura than there is in Oxnard, although we'll be going to Oxnard because they have an elegant-looking shopping center that features The Container Store and Whole Foods, and I've heard a lot about that Whole Foods from my parents, when they went out there last February for one of Dad's job interviews (the second one, which was over the phone, is the one that scored him the job).

So I sit here on this Friday night, at 11:52 p.m., 8 minutes until the unfortunate series finale of @Midnight, which I had planned to watch come hell or high water, since the DVRs have to go back to Cox early enough tomorrow. I wasn't going to miss this.

We move out on Sunday, since that's what our movers had available and can't budge it. We'll stay at a hotel in Ventura until Wednesday, when our new apartment becomes available. We'll have our two dogs with us, which is fine, but likely without their cages, since we put them in their trunk in their various pieces and found there would only be a tiny bit of space for the clothes we'll wear for the three days we'll be waiting to get the apartment, and that still wouldn't be enough. If we took only that tiny space, then there would be absolutely no room for toiletries.

But the dogs are good sports. Our eldest, Tigger, when he was much younger, granted, traveled with us five days cross-country from South Florida to Southern California in 2003. Kitty, slightly younger than Tigger (12 years old to his 14), was with us when we moved from Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, to Las Vegas in 2012. They know the routine, not to mention the five times we moved in four years from Las Vegas to Henderson, and then through two different apartment complexes in Henderson, although they're both on the same street in Henderson.

It only gets busier tomorrow because we have to be sure everything is done to the letter before the movers come to pack and load everything in the truck on Sunday. Afterward, I might well sleep for a week, and then get started looking for a job in Ventura. After everything we've been through to get to this point, I know for sure that finding a job in Ventura will be vastly easier.

But for now, @Midnight and then a little sleep, and hopefully a shower sometime tomorrow so I don't feel crummy when we leave Las Vegas for good (leaving Las Vegas for good can only make me feel elated, though I plan to write a few novels set in Las Vegas, based on my time here. There's a lot to write about, with all I experienced in the city). And then it all ramps up and doesn't stop until we get to La Quinta Inn late Sunday night. And then we wait. But for the water pressure in the shower at La Quinta Inn, I'll be happy to do it.

More to come later, as a returning California resident.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Westgate Book Exchange

I was only at the Westgate Book Exchange, on West Charleston Boulevard, next to M&M Soul Food Cafe, once, which may explain why it's gone now. We went to West Charleston here in Las Vegas to try M&M Soul Food Cafe, and when we left, I drifted next door to Westgate. I am always pulled to stores that have extensive book collections, including the Goodwill in downtown Ventura, which I count as half a bookstore because of the huge wall of books it has near the register.

This one had rows upon rows of well-organized paperbacks, and there's even a photo on its old Yelp listing showing exactly that. I loved how whoever ran this shop had the mysteries organized so well, and while I don't read them often, I always want to find something markedly different when I'm in the mood. Hence this one that I'm reading right now which came from the Westgate Book Exchange: Flamingo Fatale: A Trailer Park Mystery by Jimmie Ruth Evans.

In our first year in Las Vegas, we lived in a mobile home park way down the street from Sam's Town, and though that's not quite the same as the trailers featured in this mystery, I know the atmosphere. I know the people. I know how loud the irritable, battling Lundys got toward each other diagonal from us. They didn't even have to be in their screened-in patio, and you could hear them. But they were history. They had been there since 1992, when Valley Vista All-Ages Mobile Home Park opened. It's under new ownership now, a different name, but I'll bet that the Lundys are still there, still sore at each other, still sitting in that screened-in patio on those rare quiet nights, looking over their tiny kingdom.

I know the Christmas decorations, how elaborate some of the neighbors got, and especially before, at Halloween, when one mobile home made it positively atmospheric. Not just the usual cobwebs and the fake bats, but dry ice fog for that night, with an almost-supernatural tinge.

So this mystery is definitely for me, but this is the first time that I've opened it since I bought it, an eventually futile attempt to read a great deal of what I have that's not part of my permanent book collection before we move. We're looking to move with as little as possible, not just for cost, but because Ventura has so much to offer for us, from antique stores to the bookstores I will most certainly frequent. Right now, I have a yen for world-class pianist Oscar Levant's books, but I don't want to search for them online. I've done so much of that in the past four years and had so many books shipped to me, simply because the only available bookstore nearby was Barnes & Noble on Stephanie here in Henderson, and my absolutely local library (located on the same side of the street as my apartment complex, though about 15-20 minutes to walk there) doesn't offer much that's truly adventurous, and certainly not that.

I want to browse those bookstores, seeking nothing in particular, but keeping Levant's books in the back of my mind on the off chance that I happen upon them. I want to give my money to the town, to support these businesses so they'll stay open. Salzer's, which has its music store on the left side of the turnpike, and its DVD rental store on the right side of the turnpike, has been open since the '70s, and in its current location since 1985, at least the video store side. Its owner, Jim Salzer, looks like if Derek Jacobi had spent his entire life in Southern California. That's where I want to be, in person, always in person. I'll rent from them once in a while, surely, and browse as often as I intend to haunt those bookstores.

Mostly, I carry over my experiences. I'm hoping for bookcases as well-organized as those that were at the Westgate Book Exchange, but a cozier atmosphere. I want to disappear into those lined-up books again, only emerging when I've found what I think will suit me. I think about G.W. Bookstore in Palm Springs, when we visited in October 2006, staying at what was then Hotel Zoso (now a Hard Rock Hotel), for the California Business Education Association conference for my dad. I remember walking in and finding a Vintage International Edition copy of The Remains of the Day from October 1993, when the movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson was released. I looked at the receipt I still have from G.W. Bookstore, an otherwise blank receipt, without the name of the bookstore, and I find that I bought it on October 9, 2006. I remember that the owner of the bookstore looked like he lived there, and it wouldn't have surprised me. I want to live like that.

Since Westgate closed, a few other independent-minded bookstores deep in the Las Vegas Valley have also closed. This is not a reader's town, I know, but it's still disappointing, given all the possibilities for when people are forced indoors by the horrid heat such as we're dealing with right now. Libraries should be even more open at this time of year, and some are, I've seen, but still not enough. This should be a storyteller's town, too, where people gather to tell their stories from places they've lived. Perhaps contests. Perhaps not. But just to gather around and fill this desert with memories of other places, other experiences, other excitements, other anything. I never had the ambition to try to establish anything like that here given all that we'd lived through in these four years, these four hard years that have seemed so long and yet, just the other day, I was thinking about when we first got here, and the next minute, here I am. Four years older. Surprised at the speed now.

Unfortunately, most of the stories I've seen here take on the same themes, in gambling, in drinking, never much in wonder, in creativity, in eccentricity. The Electric Daisy Carnival, which is happening this weekend, is the place for it, but I'll wait for the YouTube clips, and finish watching the documentary Under the Electric Sky, about the 2013 Electric Daisy Carnival, which I saw from my mobile home, at least the lighting being tested a few nights before it started. Huge beams of light flashing on and off and on and off and in different colors, and waving around, and it was like a promise that here you will find the freedom you seek, the life you've always wanted but never had the courage to go for. You can have it there, at least for three nights. It means many things to me, and I love the at times ethereal music, but I couldn't go out there as those hundreds of thousands of brave souls are doing at this very moment, trekking out to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway while it's well over 100 degrees today, and set to get even worse during the weekend, with 112 degrees and 113 degrees. Even in the dark, it'll still be 95 degrees. I don't envy them that, but I look forward to seeing how it turned out in photos and in videos.

No, my life now is in these bookstores, these libraries. I will be more mindful of my collection because there will likely be times I head there on my new bicycle (hopefully to work as well, which I plan to after I buy it in Ventura), and can't carry as much with me as a car trunk can. It establishes priorities, though. What do I want the most right now? Besides everything? What do I want to read right now? What's important enough for me to shoulder in the bag I'll be carrying with me while riding? Not many 900-page epics, I'm sure.

I wish the Westgate Book Exchange was still around, so I could see it at least one more time. But maybe, in light of these lifestyle changes, it's probably better that it isn't. I would dive into it again and come out with more than I should have before moving. At first, I will miss those days, but this is teaching me to relax with it. It will be there, but just be sure to visit often so it stays open. I will gladly support all the bookstores and libraries in Ventura. It's a start, on the way to knowing more about the town.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Real Energy of Las Vegas

It was only 100 degrees here in Las Vegas today, yet the sun and the heat were boring down like the 112-113 degrees it will be in the next few days. Not only does this hellish weather obviously not meant for those who grew up with ocean breezes sap one's energy and sometimes will to live (even with enough water and Gatorade to keep the body cool, it's still exhausting), but it also plays havoc with one's memory. You try to remember other summers here and think that something in particular happened last summer, but it could very well have been two summers ago.

I think about Sunset Park, just before the back end of McCarran International Airport, across from a McDonald's and Egg Works, where, even if it's breakfast time, they'll offer you cocktails or beer without hesitation. It works for those who have been deep into Las Vegas for far longer than we've lived here, who might even be functioning alcoholics, but not for us. Never for us. It's one thing about this valley that we've never forgotten, to scoff at it sometimes, to laugh about it, and also to see even further that this isn't our place. This will never be our place.

I've been to almost all the casinos on the Strip. I've seen so many of them change. The Cosmopolitan that I loved was destroyed by new ownership, changed to represent bland cool, as those powers that be see it. The biggest news coming from that resort lately is that they're expanding the convenience store on the first floor. The playlist heard throughout the casino and upstairs through two floors sounds like nothing more than what you would find on your daily FM station.

I've also seen the conservatory and botanical gardens at the Bellagio, way off the lobby, become less than it used to be, with what looks like budget cuts. The lavish holiday displays they used to do with such beautiful flowers wasn't as awe-inspiring last year as it has been in every year past. Part of the result, most likely, of MGM Resorts charging for parking, even residents. Because by charging for parking, expectations are raised. If we have to pay $10 and over to park in the garage, then we damn well better be treated to an unforgettable experience. Seriously. This is not only our time now, this is our money. And yet, when we went to Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage (also run by MGM), during the time that Clark County School District teachers and employees were admitted for free as part of Teacher Appreciation Week, it was the same kind of feeling. We had been there so many times and there were many guides lining the dolphin pools and in the zoo. Even with the cold, sometimes-driving rain that demanded an audience, that chased many guests away, there were fewer guides than there should have been. The dolphin pool at the far end, near the entrance to the zoo part, was closed off for remodeling. Remodeling remodeling? Or just because they can't feature both at once, with budget cuts again? We don't know. But it no longer feels like those who run Las Vegas get it. People are coming from across the country and around the world for experiences that they can't get where they live. To close down and tear down the pirate ships at Treasure Island for more shopping is not what it's about. The crowds that are coming in for the Electric Daisy Carnival this weekend know what it's about. They're coming to gather for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that represents who they are, what they believe in the sanctity and spirituality of their music, of their lifestyles, to be with people who are as ethereal as they are, as free and light and energetic. Like the Carnivals in years past, this will be an experience they likely can't get where they're from. That's what Vegas was about for at least our first two years. True, it could be that with every bad experience we had with apartment complexes and the school district, in hard living and jobs that were hard on us by dint of the complete disorganization and uncaring natures that populated the district, that it colors the rest of our time here. But lately, it feels like Vegas thinks it's obligated now only to give just enough, but not continually interesting experiences anymore.

It's always been hard to find those experiences here, even beneath the stress of bad apartment complex management and unnecessarily taxing jobs (I can't be entirely sure, but I hope back in Southern California, especially the area we're moving to, that people are actually willing to work together and not stomp on each other just to get to the imaginary top of the heap where they believe they'll have a better view and far more benefits). And when you do find them, you're never sure how long to hold on to them because there may be an experience equal to that not too long after, or maybe that's it.

Applying those experiences to your daily life, trying to make it better by remembering the sheer joy you felt during them, that's hard to do because what's been awful in air conditioning units breaking down, indifferent administrations in schools, smokers all around you with the smoke seeping into your apartment (our first year in Henderson), maintenance personnel that doesn't bother fixing anything you ask the front office to look into, upstairs neighbors that are noisier than humanly possible, completely pounds you into the ground. You're just trying not to wonder what the hell that loud bang was upstairs. Probably that little kid running into the kitchen again and deliberately not seeing the cabinets yet again. I'm just guessing on that one, but it's been that way over and over.

Really, all you can do is remember those experiences in passing, during an idle moment. Something to smile about before you have to get serious again in order to make it through the next day. And now that it's summer, with this goddamn heat? Those memories only get one cool in just being able to think about something else for a while, not to mention dunking one's head in cold water like Jean Smart at the beginning of that season of 24.

But I digress in an alarming fashion. Summer is indeed here, though not too much longer ahead of our move to Ventura, and I've been thinking about the real energy of Las Vegas that I saw only once but have never forgotten.

I think it was two summers ago. We had stopped at that McDonald's at Sunset Park, below McCarran's flight path, to the effect that I could see the treads on the tires of a Southwest 737 about to land. It was well into the evening, almost into the night, and it was a relief that the heat was finally laying off. A little bit.

I don't remember what we had gone in for. Not ice cream, because we would have had that right away. I think it was something Meridith wanted, or maybe Mom wanted it. Or, no, maybe it was something that Dad was getting for lunch for the next day, after his daily stint teaching summer school. Or breakfast, maybe. Maybe he was getting his sausage biscuit for the morning.

Either way, I know we were there for something. And I was looking out the side door, which faced the basketball courts at Sunset Park. They were packed more than I've seen any local basketball courts packed back in Florida, and in Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles, where we had lived for nine years before moving to Las Vegas.

Summer hell here drives everyone inside. You don't play basketball under a napalm sun. You don't do anything. You find shade. You find water. You find a TV and you park yourself there practically all day, in air conditioning that works. Fortunately, in this apartment, it does, and it's running well right now.

At night, well, just watch out. Every street in Henderson, in the local enough parts of Las Vegas are packed. People need to get out. They need to go grocery shopping, they need a beer somewhere that isn't their living room, they need dinner out. And some need basketball.

Those guys I saw playing through that side door, at the exact time the 2015 NBA Finals we're going on, were phenomenal. You could have taken those guys on those courts, in those exact teams, transferred them to the NBA intact, and you would have had players on the level of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and others. Or, if there was money to be made in broadcasting streetball, you could have created a brand-new league right then and there. There was blocking that clearly had been planned in the air-conditioned confines of where they were living while they were waiting. They wanted these games badly, being cooped up all day, they were ravenous for it. They could taste it. And when it was time, they were there! They were alive! They were giving it everything they had and still more than that.

Two of the guys from the court came in while we were waiting for our order, and they were dressed for it. They had the shorts, the shoes, and they looked like the kind who hadn't quit after their first game. They looked like they could go four games before a break.

That's the way of this valley, though. You have to find the one thing that drives you and burrow into it deeply so that perhaps you aren't so affected by everything else that might tick you off or make things harder for you here. It's easy if you have a job that feeds right into the various industries that fuel Las Vegas. For example, when my family and I lived at Green Valley Country Club, one of our neighbors was Dave Browne, one half of The Black Donnelly's Dublin, who are on Facebook, and who perform fairly regularly at the Ri Ra Irish Pub at the Mirage, when they aren't touring the rest of the United States in such places as Newport Beach, California, Costa Mesa, California, Middleton, Delaware, and Lake Havasu City, Arizona, to name a few. He and his wife have Las Vegas as their home base and he travels from there and returns. When you've got your guitar, and you're damn good at it (even to the extent of making a Guinness World Record...look it up), you don't have to worry as much about the interior matters of Las Vegas.

But tonight, I'm thinking about those basketball players at Sunset Park. The temperature's only going to get worse in the next few days, but I've no doubt that they'll be out there after dark, playing hard, playing passionately, playing for that one moment that they've waited for, planned for, and thought about all day. To me, they are the real energy of Las Vegas, but seldom found. I want to find that more regularly in Ventura. It probably won't be as out loud as that, but just to know it through its booksellers, through the food at those diners we've heard a lot about, through the strawberry fields in nearby Oxnard, I want to be surrounded by it. Once every few months is not enough, despite its sheer inspiration.

(This post brought to you by the near-deliriousness of vicious summer heat, even with enough water, enough Gatorade, and trying to hide out deep enough in the coolest recesses of a Henderson apartment.)

Monday, May 15, 2017

14,000 things to be happy about. by Barbara Ann Kipfer

Saturday was a banner day for this book lover at the Deseret Industries Thrift Store on East Flamingo Road, not so much for this book lover who's moving in a few months.

Therefore, I found four Indiana Jones novels to join The Peril at Delphi, which I hadn't started yet, but I knew I wanted to read more after this one. I also found Not Quite Dead Enough by Rex Stout, one of the Nero Wolfe series, and Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. At the same time I found the Heinlein book, I was also holding James Herriott's Dog Stories, but the paperback copy looked deeply aged, and to me, it's the kind of book to possibly bump into at one of the three bookstores in downtown Ventura. Either that or the library there.

I had also spotted a fat paperback called 14,000 things to be happy about. by Barbara Ann Kipfer. I flipped through it, found various things that have made Kipfer happy in a list on one page after another, 14,000 in all obviously. An amusing idea, but not much use to me, it would seem.

Then today happened. We went back to the thrift store because Dad had found a blue desk he wanted, but hadn't been very vocal about it until yesterday. That's what determined that we would go back today, and after Dad got home from work (I'm free, by the way, practically finished at Cox Elementary as its library aide. I cashed in the rest of my vacation days and my personal days, and the only day I have to show up again is the last day of school for students and support staff. I will use these coming weeks wisely in reading, writing, and movies I've wanted to see for a long time, as well as preemptively throwing things out, donating others, and arranging the rest for packing when it comes time), we went back.

14,000 things to be happy about. stuck in my mind when we got there and I went looking for it after we found out that the blue desk was gone, another desk in its place. Items at Deseret Industries pass through Las Vegas quicker than people do. Fortunately, the book was in the same place that I put it back, and I looked closer at that. Kipfer's introduction essentially states that this book is a product of 20 years of first writing down in a "tiny spiral notebook" things that made her happy, through larger notebooks and finally to personal computers, from sixth grade to 1990, when this book was published.

I flipped the pages again, looking at what had made her happy in very few words: A white-gold sunrise. Late Sunday breakfast. Loud radios. Night lights. Eating the right food. And still more. 13,994 more.

In my permanent book collection is a copy of The Best of McSweeney's Internet Tendency, which is to me today what Andy Rooney was to me when I was 11. Andy Rooney taught me that you can write about anything so long as you make it interesting enough. Woodworking, the interior design of fast-food restaurants, his experiences in World War II all were fascinating to me because he made them interesting to read. The Best of McSweeney's Internet Tendency touts on the cover "On the Implausibility of the Death Star Trash Compactor" and "Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition)", which teaches me that you can go even further, twisting a famous work to another perspective to make people laugh and also say "Hey, I never thought of it like that!"

So I bought 14,000 things to be happy about., surprisingly the only book I bought at Deseret Industries today, but I couldn't find anything else I wanted as badly as the Indiana Jones novels, the Nero Wolfe novel, the Heinlein novel, and the first volume of Dwight D. Eisenhower's memoir of his White House years, from 1953 to 1956. Plus, looking over the paperback shelves again, I saw that I cleaned them out of all the Indiana Jones novels they had.

The Best of McSweeney's Internet Tendency is my Bible, for inspiration on how I should approach my work, thinking about other ways in which a story can be told or which a blog post can be written, looking for the way that suits me. In that vein, 14,000 things to be happy about. will be my second Bible. Sure it's one person's epic list of what makes them happy, but many of these things make me happy, too. But for me, it's not about reading the list and being happy about those things. Whenever I look through this book, it will be to find something to write about, most likely for this blog. For example, overdue library books. I don't know why that makes Barbara Ann Kipfer happy, but I can write about my experience with them as a public library patron, and also working at Cox Elementary, where overdue books weren't such a factor, so long as students returned them some time, preferably before the end of the year, although with the librarian I worked with, it became an unnecessary federal case every time. After all, most returned their books so that they could get more, which was the policy there.

Or railroad stations. There's the one in San Juan Capistrano that you walk past to reach that dirt road with those small houses lined up at the side, acting as either souvenir stores, tea houses, or historical societies. With those overhanging trees across the road, it's where part of my soul lives. I could write about that some time, too.

But also, looking at these things in this book, I can also wonder why these things make Kipfer happy, perhaps even what they were since I don't know what many of them are, and I can also reach as far back in my memory as I can for some of them.

I'm not sure if I'll use the book title to mark these posts, but if you find more than the usual number of posts per month in this blog, you'll know why.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Tradition Ends, Interrupted

I should have remembered, from when the darkening clouds threatened rain in Pembroke Pines, Florida on the day that we set out to move cross-country to Valencia, California in 2003, which took five days with two dogs and two birds and therefore, sadly, no time for New Orleans, even though we did pass through Louisiana and were most likely close enough in our route.

I should have also remembered when we moved from Saugus, California, also in the Santa Clarita Valley, and that early morning, there were those same clouds, before we moved to Las Vegas.

When we do move from Las Vegas in the coming months, back to Southern California, I don't think those same clouds will be there, because we'll be reaching the extreme heat of summer by then, and there are generally no clouds in sight during that immense hell. Yet, the city we're moving from, and really any city or town we've moved from, seems to sense that we're on our way out, that our daily attention is on what we have to do in errands and eating and working, but in the back of our minds, we're already driving out of here, to where the weather's more reasonable, to where we hope our lives will be more reasonable.

Yesterday, we did go to Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage. Locals are also being charged for parking now. At the end, it was $10 for four hours, but that hardly mattered. This was for Meridith, who loves dolphins, and has loved all the times we've gone there, especially when she had the chance to paint with dolphins for her birthday and has never forgotten Maverick, the dolphin she painted with, even going so far on this likely final visit to ask where he was. While the trainer gamely tried to say that he was isolated for the time being, she and my mom could read between the lines that it was breeding time, and so Maverick would likely find it more fun than performing for the tourists.

This time, however, a little over 60 degrees of cold met us and despite not finding anything on the weather websites I visit, or hearing about it on the news, it did rain. It drizzled at first, and then later on, when Mom and Dad decided to go back inside the Mirage, it was raining steadily. I thought I could get away with my Jungle Book t-shirt and my heaviest blue jacket, but no luck. Even in the stands at one of those tables, the wind blew some of the rain in and it was impossible for me to finish out my tradition of reading Paper Towns by John Green while there. I only made it to page 68. A valiant effort in the cold, but still too cold to read.

I'm not disappointed that this likely final visit was shorter than the others. We began at the Mirage as tourists in 2007. It was the first casino we went to after we checked into America's Best Value Inn on Tropicana and headed out to the Strip. The Carnegie Deli there was the first time we ate on the Strip. After we moved to Las Vegas, trailers in the back of the Mirage was where we first voted in Nevada. When American Idol had a live broadcast in the Beatles Love theater at the Mirage, we were there. And the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat has always been there in between. So it's appropriate that the Mirage was the final casino we visited before we moved. We've come full circle at our home casino. I'm glad for that.

I'm also not disappointed that I didn't finish my tradition. I don't know if by the weather the city was objecting to our leaving, that, to Meridith, it was showing that the dolphins were sad that she's leaving, because the city doesn't really care like that. But maybe it was getting the rain aspect of our moving out of the way nonchalantly, dismissively. "Oh, here you go. Here's what you've been through every time. Now you can leave and someone else will replace you where you're living and we'll be none the wiser and it won't matter." It doesn't seem to anyway.

It appears, though, that MGM Resorts charging for parking is not a positive move for them. There were far less trainers there yesterday than there had been during past visits, and sure, it might have been because of the rain, but I shouldn't think that would matter. Even at Bellagio, before the corporation began charging for parking, people were aware of the plan to the extent that Bellagio cut down the budget for the gardens and conservatory that people walk through to see the Christmas decorations or the Chinese New Year decorations and the last time we went, before paid parking began, it was clear that they had to scale back that budget because the profits just weren't there like they had been before.

I think that if you charge for parking, people have heightened expectations of why they're there. They want to have a good time with what they're paying, and the casino had better deliver. I suspect they're not delivering like they once did because they don't have the profit to back it up now, and so people are probably leaving disappointed at having paid however much they did for parking and whatever else they paid for, and getting a ho-hum experience. So they've either gone to other casinos that do charge for parking but might hold up their end of the bargain (ironic word, I know), or they're avoiding Las Vegas entirely and traveling throughout other cities, like Orlando maybe. They want to be tourists in cities where those cities appreciate tourists, not try to drain them dry and leave them wondering just why the hell they came there in the first place. That's for the residents, like us, though in our defense, Santa Clarita was no longer feasible, and we couldn't go back to Florida, because of the hurricane insurance and the hurricanes, in that order. We were trying to make a home here, even putting to the side for a time what bothered us about the place, although those problems gradually came as the years went on, and then they hit full-force later on.

The one highlight of our visit, however, was being in the underground viewing area, and seeing the rain from underneath the surface of the water in the pools. After Mom and Dad went back to the Mirage, Meridith and I went down there, and spent a little while watching the dolphins, especially hoping to capture video of a dolphin leaping out of the water and diving back in, creating a vortex in the water so Mom could see it (we did). Only after we could see the rain subsiding by less drops on the surface did we go back up and back to the Mirage. I'm glad to have at least seen the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat one more time. To me, it was the most relaxing place in Las Vegas and I appreciate it for having done that every time. Not so much this time, I know, but it was worth it all the other times. It was a sanctuary, an escape from the difficulty of living here, and it sought to remind you of that at every moment. I appreciate that. And it sends me back to Southern California a little gentler than I have been here, but not by much. I'll leave it to Southern California to smooth out the rest.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The End of a Tradition

This Sunday will likely mark our final visit to Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage, ahead of moving back to Southern California. It will also be the first and only time we'll pay for parking on the Strip, which I still maintain was a huge mistake, considering that that's where the majority of tourists in Las Vegas go, and it doesn't pay to be greedy about where or how long they park their cars.

This visit is once again courtesy of the Clark County School District, which has on its Teacher Appreciation Week page coupons for various activities, including free admission for a teacher and a guest at the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. As with the last two times, the people at the ticket booths only care that you have a CCSD ID and my dad, a high school teacher, does, as well as me and Meridith. So we four will have no trouble getting in.

I think this is mainly for Meridith, who loves dolphins, but it's also for the rest of us because it's quite possibly the most relaxing spot in Las Vegas, the one place I've found here that is complete peace. I like seeing the dolphins, and even glancing at the tigers and other animals in the Secret Garden section in the back, but I love just sitting at a table in the shade, preferably near one of the dolphin pools, reading. And I've done that in all the times we've been there. In fact, this post follows a tradition I started in 2014, which you can read here.

Briefly, back then, I read The Fault in Our Stars, which got me hooked on reading John Green's other novels, and Paper Towns followed, on the day that we were celebrating Meridith's birthday at the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, in which she got to paint with the dolphins. Of course, I was there to see that, but in the other blank times during the day, I was reading Paper Towns, sitting exactly where I wanted to sit, reading in one of my favorite places in Las Vegas.

The next time we went there, I brought Paper Towns with me again, and I think by that time, I had my own copy. That next time was before the movie was released in July 2015, and of course I saw that in theaters. And I like the movie as equally as the book.

So here we are again. As is my tradition, I will bring Paper Towns with me again. And just like those other times, I'll probably read it cover to cover yet again. Thinking back to those other times with Paper Towns at one of those tables near a dolphin pool in the shade, I realize that my experiences at the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, with that near-spiritual peace, with Paper Towns, was rare stability in this valley. It wasn't just an hour, or an hour and a half, or two hours. It was the entire day. And in fact, it's why we plan to get there before 10 a.m. when they open. They're open from then until 5 p.m. and we're going to be there the entire time. It's one of the few places here that has meant so much to us, and certainly one of the flew consistently reliable places. I don't know yet how the rest of the Mirage might have changed (we considered it our home casino, what with all we had done there before we moved to Las Vegas and afterward, which can be found in that previous linked post), but I'm absolutely sure that the atmosphere of the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat has not changed. It'll be a proper farewell for us. And my copy of Paper Towns will always bear these many happy visits.

Friday, April 28, 2017

My Sacramento Regret

It was early February 2006. I know this because Action!, the satirical, raunchy Hollywood comedy series starring Jay Mohr was being released on DVD by Sony late that month. I was still reviewing DVDs then, and while my dad and I were driving to Sacramento, Mom told me on the phone from Santa Clarita that it had arrived, amidst other talk, such as telling her about the open-air truck loaded down with carrots that had passed us in the right lane.

We were going to Sacramento because Dad was a member of the California Business Education Association (CBEA, which he's rejoined ahead of us moving back to California), and the organization was hosting a day for its members at the state capitol, to tour the building, and meet their representatives, to emphasize to them the importance of business education, especially in such a competitive economy as California has. This was the time of Governor Schwarzenegger, and in fact, as we walked past his offices, the door to the outer office was open and I saw straight through there to him in his office, briefly, before we moved on.

While it was impressive to me to see the state capitol, which I had never done in Tallahassee, in my native Florida, I was taken with Sacramento. We were staying at La Quinta Inn, part of Hotel Row near the skyline of downtown Sacramento. Across the way was Restaurant Row, convenient for the weary traveler who doesn't want to venture far on the first night.

Now, I don't remember if this was after what I'm about to tell you, but Dad decided to stay in that night at La Quinta Inn, flipping through the channels, and he had stopped at Crumbs, that Fred Savage sitcom on ABC that centered around the family restaurant, with Savage a Hollywood screenwriter who returns home. I decided to walk the grounds near our room and soon climbed up to the second floor landing, then the third floor landing.

When I reached the third floor landing, I was stopped short by complete peace, which I'd never known in Santa Clarita, and, to me, Los Angeles doesn't have it either.

My view was of the Sacramento skyline towards 10 p.m. And to this day, it's the only city I've been in at that hour that gently encouraged me to relax, to not worry about anything. It seemed to say that whatever you needed to do could wait until morning. Just have tonight all for yourself. I'm not sure I'd want to live in Sacramento, unless it has a strong, sturdy library system (and even then, it gets expensive in that region), but I do want to see it again, even though the Rusty Duck, the wood-paneled, fireplace-crackling restaurant where CBEA members met has long since closed. But I do wonder, idly, if the diner is still there.

So maybe it was the night before the capitol tour and the visit to our state representatives. Dad had learned from a fellow CBEA member about a barbecue joint on the outskirts of Sacramento that was worth it. He likes barbecue, I like barbecue. So let's go.

That night, we set out to find it. We drove over railroad tracks, past sprawling electrical substations, and to an area we circled, drove away from, and drove back to twice, as if we couldn't believe it, and weren't sure.

In an industrial cul-de-sac, past boat parts outside one business on the right, and what may have been a chop shop on the left, or at least a slightly illegitimate car repair business (not a euphemism. It looked somewhat ok), there was the barbecue joint.

Swinging by it and parking for a moment, we could see inside through the door. It was open, but empty, with wooden picnic tables running the length of the room. And there were the white, wide menu boards against the wall above the kitchen. Should we try it? Would it be ok even if no one was eating there?

Dad nixed the idea. And just like any brief Sacramento visitor staying at La Quinta or any other place in Hotel Row, we drove back to Restaurant Row, to what, in memory, has become a nondescript diner.

I had a cheeseburger, which has become lost in the sea of cheeseburgers I've had since then. I don't remember what Dad had. Maybe a salad? That would have been rare. But just like Casa de Fruta in Hollister, the tents of fruits and vegetables and pies and its own small restaurant that we stopped at to pick up a pie, and Hearst Castle, where we toured some of the legendary hilltop property on the way back to Santa Clarita, I still think about that missed-out-on barbecue.

We should have taken a chance. We should have tried it. With that joint being located in such an out-of-the-way place, perhaps the owners were freakishly devoted to barbecue, and that would have made it a religious experience. Or maybe not, but at least we would have tried it.

Maybe it's still there, maybe not. Many an idle moment at work, I've Googled "Sacramento" and "barbecue," hoping to find it, or at least a Yelp page. But that was 2006, before Yelp. Could that joint have even survived in such a location? CJ's Barbecue in Ventura does, because it's part of a cluster of shopping centers down Victoria Avenue. That's easy. It has the social infrastructure.

But this joint, this Sacramento or near-Sacramento joint, 11 years later? A part of me hopes so, so that I can have my chance in years to come.

But it's likely that I'll always be sitting in that car, looking in, and then we drive away again. Again and again. In my imagination, I could proclaim it the very best barbecue I never had. But it will always remain a possibility. What could have been. I wish we had.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Back to a Musical Hobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Bridge to Southern California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Word Search Reduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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