Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Month That Was - November 2010

The Month That Was - November 2010: As I am writing this it is November 30th. I have never started my monthly entry so late. Even when I end up getting things posted a full week into the next month I have always started sooner and been making notes along the way. It's the last day of the month and I got nothing. I can only imagine how late this is going to be. (Answer: Dec. 8th)

Big long trip this month. Phoenix to Vegas to Sedona. Probably my last big trip for a while since the house purchase is well nigh locked in. After that, my posts will be all about domestic goings-on. On the bright side, it should give me a chance to get caught up on my photo galleries over at smugmug. I've uploaded the pics from my August trip Sanibel/Captiva. They are not tagged and titled yet; I have only the two hands. That only leaves me 4 months and 2 vacations behind.

It's cold: 25 degrees (in a couple of months that will be warm). I wake and drive to work in darkness and return home from my windowless office in darkness. Remind me to go on a rant about daylight savings time. Less than a month until the shortest day of the year. If I can survive that long, I'll be able to look forward to seeing another summer. I'll need to find a cheap way to get someplace warm this winter.

And here in front of me sits Misspent Youth, so close and yet so far...

[House and Home] Getting Real Estate
[Travel] Palazzo for the Win
[Health and Fitness]Climbing and Running
[TV] Short Seasons

[House and Home] Getting Real Estate

Getting Real Estate: You know the story: rates are down; prices are down. Will prices come back? Slowly -- will take years. But that's OK for me. Let's say it takes fifteen years to realize another significant gain in housing. In fifteen years I'll be 65 and seriously contemplating retirement, right? (Gawd, I hope not. Maybe from my day job, but not work in general -- but still...) All in all, it was the right time for me to make a major real estate investment. And yes, I am bravely putting this judgment in writing to live forever in the internet's time machine, so you everyone can point and laugh if my investment goes down the toilet.

The housing search took 2 or 3 months. I had a geographic area that I wanted to be in: specifically within about five miles from where I am now. I had a fairly set budget too at first, but when I figured in the inheritance from my father I was able to bump it up another level without impinging horribly on my savings and liquidity.

In the course of all this I encountered for the first time the concept of a short sale. A short sale is effectively a foreclosure that doesn't terribly damage on the credit of a seller. Like foreclosure, it happens when a house is "underwater" -- the value is lower than the amount owed on the mortgage. If you need to get out from under your mortgage at this point you either have to a) cough up the cash difference, or b) default on your loan let the bank foreclose and devastate your credit rating, or c) enter an agreement with the bank to sell for whatever they can get, the bank eats the loss (although it may be considered "income" to you for tax purposes), and you are less worse off credit wise than a foreclosure; generally you'll end up waiting a couple of years before you can get another mortgage, but as long as you don't screw up in the interim, you'll probably be OK. Theoretically, a short sale requires demonstration of hardship, but we all have hardship, don't we? Very strange, the official machinations we go through to save face.

Anyway, I had actually picked out two houses I was interested in, coincidentally right across the street from each other. My number one selection was on the high side as far as listing price. My number two selection was a short sale. So I low balled an offer for the short sale just to see what the bank was willing to sell it for. While that offer was in the price was dropped on my first choice. When I got the response from the bank, I proceeded to negotiate on the first choice knowing that I had short sale house to fall back on. There was some give and take, but we eventually agreed on a price. Then came inspections and approvals and a blizzard of paperwork, although all I really needed to do was copy some statements and sign my name like Colonel Henry Blake. We almost snagged when the inspection turned up some minor issues I wanted fixed or credited for, but we settled on them leaving me their fine John Deere lawn tractor and nearly brand new snow blower instead. Now, unless financing falls through, which it shouldn't, the deal will be closed mid-December.

Sorry for all the boring details.

It's a little scary. I still have to fix up and either sell or rent my condo. I will have a lawn and landscaping and large heating and water and insurance bills and all the evil stuff people are warning me about. But I will also have a big kitchen, and a deck, and a beautiful view of protected land outside my living room window, and an office, and a bar in the basement, and a ton of storage in the garage.

My skeptical friends sneer and say "you'll never make use of any of these things, you silly bachelor, but you will suffer the costs," but your friends are the biggest impediments to change. It's time for me to find a new way of living and cease the stagnant habits of old. There are experiences I still need to have rather than live my life out on the same template as the last ten or fifteen years. I am going to try to make a home of this place, a place I want to be in, rather than just have it be a place to sleep and watch HBO between work and travel. If I fail? Nothing good comes without failures.

First I need to buy a washer and dryer. And a flat panel for the basement.

And some furniture.

And I need to get the septic tank pumped.

In a while we'll all be nostalgic for a good travel rant.

[Travel] Palazzo for the Win

Palazzo for the Win: This was actually one of my favorite Vegas trips. I won't bore you with the details since you've read my ramblings about Vegas for years now, but the highlight was staying at The Palazzo -- the sister property to The Venetian. The huge suites are nearly as large as the ones in THEhotel. Palazzo and Venetian don't have the cache of the Wynn/Encore sisters next door, but they are just as good and probably a better choice for most people. The rooms are a bit larger and there is a broader array of stuff to do right on the property. The convenience of walking down to Piazza San Marco in the middle of the canal lined shopping mall, and having lunch at Mario Batali's Enoceta, and looking on as the faux renaissance performers fiddle about for the crowd is really a wonderful experience and something you wouldn't get at Wynn/Encore.

The Palazzo also has the best Sports Book in Vegas -- bar none. It's the only one that is more than a bunch of seats facing an odds board and a bank of TVs. There are beds, like you'd find in a high end ultra-lounge. Actual restaurants instead of a snack bar. Outdoor, strip-side seating. A great place to hang out. I'm amazed more Sports Books don't try to keep up.

Between Venetian/Palazzo and Wynn/Encore, you have about half of the best restaurants in Vegas, which is saying something because there are more great restaurants concentrated within a mile along the strip than anywhere else in the world. Recommended in Palazzo: B&B Ristorante (another Batali joint), Lavo (from the folks who brought you Tao).

Exceptional non-Palazzo meal experiences were Botero steakhouse at Encore -- sit outside by the pool, exceptional steaks done in trad, pepper, or Brazilian style; Bartolotta at Wynn -- probably the best and most genuine Italian on the strip; L'Altier -- a Roubochon gem at MGM, world's best (and most expensive) eat-at-the-bar experience; and lunch at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in Caesars, one of my stand-bys.

Palazzo also has its own Canyon Ranch spa, much bigger and nicer than the one in Venetian. Rivals the best of the spas on the strip -- although I still think Qua over at Caesars has the edge due to the awesome roman bath space with cold plunge and warm/hot whirlpools.

Anyway, big thumbs up for Palazzo. It becomes my go-to Vegas property and will likely remain so since development has slowed to a crawl. I was so comfortable there that I never even worked up the desire to walk through City Center -- so it remains unseen. Also missed, due to Palazzo induced lethargy, was the new zip-line down Fremont Street. Guess I'll just have to go back yet again, but I need to go in summer when I can get in some pool time. Haven't done that for years.

[Health and Fitness] Climbing and Running

Climbing and Running: For some reason, I took running to heart this year. I don't know why. I'm not a particularly good runner. And I don't actually enjoy it all that much -- well, there are moments; when my stride is smooth and easy, when it's just me and my running shoes and shorts, with the sun and the summer breeze on my back, when even running in a straight line feels like a dance. That's rare. Usually it's work. Sometimes it's torture. Sometimes each step is struggle and my knees howl with each impact. Sometimes it's bitter cold and I am lugging around an extra 10 lbs. in layering while trying to figure out how to wipe my nose on my sleeve as hygienically as possible.

The Six Tunnels to Hoover Dam Turkey Trot just outside of Las Vegas wasn't supposed to be torture. Look at the photos on that site and you will see shiny happy people running in their shorts in the desert morning sun. Um, no. It was 35 at the start of the race, but the killer thing with cold weather running is rarely the temp, but the wind. I'll take a calm 28 degree run over a windy 40 degree run any day. And it was windy on Thanksgivng.

The run starts about a half mile walk from the Hacienda Casino (an establishment whose official motto is "A fun place!" which gets points for succinctness) and goes along a dirt path, a former light rail line, along the coast of Lake Mead to the Hoover Dam where you turn around and retrace your steps back.

As I said it was cold and I wasn't expecting it to be cold, so the day before race featured a visit to Niketown at the Forum Shops to buy some cold weather gear, which was great because I wasn't spending enough money in Vegas as it was.

The race was a bad one for me -- a real struggle. In addition to the freeze-factor, I was fighting a head cold and could barely breathe. Plus, there were a number of hills, including one at the turnaround that nearly made me puke. But I can't complain about the views along Lake Mead; plenty of runners were stopping to pull out their phones and take some shots.

At 12k, it was the second longest race I have ever done and my time was pretty abysmal. I think I came in at right around 10 minute miles. I was just happy to have it over. I honestly felt so bad that I thought of sacking it entirely the night before. But I had already picked up the t-shirt and so not doing the race would have been a scam. Not only that, had I skipped it I would have spent the next few days chastising myself for being such a wuss.

Despite all that, I'll probably do it again next year. The reason: I am an idiot.

The previous weekend was in Phoenix where I did a little race warm up that was much more enjoyable. Of course, it wasn't actually a run, but a climb. Phoenix is an interesting city. Whereas we in the East tend to think of our municipal parks as oases of greenery, in Phoenix the parks are centered around smallish rocky mountains, the most notable of these being Camelback Mountain. It's not a trivial climb, but quite doable if you are in good shape. If you're not in good shape, you'll want to leave yourself a lot of rest time. The total length is a little over a mile, but the elevation gain is nearly 1300 feet. I would guess the split is about 30% trail and 70% scrambling up rocks. Give yourself about an hour for a steady climb. The route will be crowded with everything from families with their Golden Retrievers to fitness lunatics speeding up and down against the clock.

As an urban park, it's not surprising that one of the most daunting aspects of the process is parking. There is a small parking lot that will be full with a line of folks sitting and waiting by 6AM. There is a secondary trail that can be accessed from street parking, but even that fills up by midday when it's busy.

I lucked out with someone clearing out of aspace the instant I arrived. It was a perfect day for a climb. I was in my light jacket and my day hikers. The sun was shining. Everyone was quite friendly. Some of the dogs seemed to have astounding balance considering they lack opposable thumbs. There was the oddity of one group of people taking a smoke break just of the trail, presumably they had had too much fresh air. At the summit, everyone had their phones out taking snaps and emailing them. Amazing 360-degree views of Phoenix/Scottsdale and the desert beyond.

It's probably just my impression, but it seems to me there are endless fitness opportunities out west, with much more variation that back here in Michigan. Working in runs and hikes and bikes and climbs out west is a truly joyous late life discovery for me. Can't get enough of it.

[TV] Short Seasons

Short Seasons: Two critically well-received new shows just closed their first seasons.

By the way, since when did six episodes constitute a season? These shows are really just sequential mini-series. That's cool with me. Take your time, keep the quality up. It's better than hammering out 26 hours of video a year at any cost. TV seasons are like music albums: packaging fodder with gold to benefit producers at the expense of consumers. That these precepts are collapsing is one way in which the world has gotten better in my life. But I digress...

Boardwalk Empire on HBO and The Walking Dead on AMC have both been widely praised. They're good TV shows, but not great. They break no new ground. In fact, I would argue they are both little more than finely crafted cliches.

The Walking Dead is about a band of survivors coming to terms with a full-on zombie apocalypse. That's a premise that was mercilessly pounded flat by the time Charleton Heston was the last man on Earth, yet suddenly zombies are all the rage. It's hard for me to understand zombies. Most horror creatures represent some sort of primal, archetypal fear. Vampires feeding on humans, especially comely young girls, is a metaphor for the vulnerability inherent in humanity and the risk of self-destruction that accompanies it. Got it. Werewolves represent the sin within us all, the dark animalistic side that we so desperately need to control. Got that too. But what exactly do zombies represent? Dead people come back and eat our flesh. Could it be the sins of the father coming back to devour us? Could it be "survivor's guilt" writ large? Could it be that there are just no moral issues with dispatching animated dead bodies so you can go hog wild with the flame thrower and the railgun and chainsaw without worrying about the censor?

Anyway, the zombie background would be fine provided the human stories were sharp and compelling. They aren't. There is a formulaic ethnic diversity to the survivors, along with the requisite manufactured conflict -- fretting for the children and the helpless; evil racists and wife-abusers; poor misunderstood street punks; people shouting "Do it now!" and "I can't live if you don't go on!" and that sort of dialog.

I think I'm going to bail on future seasons. Maybe if I hear some good reviews I might look in on it, but I don't think they have it in 'em.

Boardwalk Empire held good deal of promise, mostly unfulfilled. I would be curious to know the actual extent of Scorcese's involvement in the process. I think it's probably significant simply because the show suffers from the same shortcomings of all Scorcese's later work. It is oddly cast, the characters are uninvolving, and it brings nothing new to the table either in either substance or style.

Oh, it's not "bad." I honestly don't think Scorcese is capable of "bad" at this point in his life or career. Points of quality and competence are simply habit for him. What's lacking is real inspiration. There are criminal power struggles and whackings. There are compromised and compromising women. Sex and violence are intertwined. Family complicates things. There is loyalty and betrayal. Power is pursued at costs well beyond its benefit. Honestly, story-wise there is nothing here that you haven't seen in hundreds of organized crime films and most of Scorcese's oeuvre. The setting is Atlantic City instead of Lower Manhattan. Name brand crooks are highlighted -- Capone, Luciano, Rothstien, Lansky. At least the window dressing is fresh, if the content is stale.

The story centers around Enoch "Nucky" Thompson who controlled Atlantic City for decades from a behind the scenes position as Treasurer or some such unelected position. He is portrayed by character actor Steve Buscemi, who you probably know from his role as Tony B. on The Sopranos or as Carl Showalter from Fargo or as Shut the F-ck Up Donny from The Big Lebowski. He's a fine actor but it's not clear to me if he can carry a series like this. Although I am dubious about the long term strength of his portrayal of Thompson, I have to say, when he's not on the screen, the show slows to an absolute crawl. (Thanks to DVR technology this is not as excruciating as it could be). His protege, and potential betrayer, Jimmy, (cliche alert: he's tortured by memories of war service) seems like he'd fit in better modeling Gucci on the runway. His mistress is a one note samba of goodhearted dedication in the face of compromise (cliche alert: she's formerly a poor immigrant seamstress just trying to do right by her children). The FBI agent assigned to the case is a borderline psychotic Christian who indulges in the very vices he fights at times of weakness (I don't have to give you the cliche alert on that one, do I?). You get the idea.

Strangely, after all that criticism, I have to admit I'll probably give Boardwalk Empire another season to show what it can do. The reason is that watching TV is just something I do. TV fiction -- dramas, comedies -- not reality. I have done it my entire life and presuming to convince myself that I can or want to stop is delusion. For me, the trick is to find the best TV shows relative to all the others at any given time. For all of its flaws, Boardwalk Empire is objectively better than, say, Lie to Me or Grey's Anatomy or any flavor of Law and Order, or Walking Dead for that matter. I hope Scorcese can pull something out, or that the show gets turned over to someone who can. For now, the age of TV drama as high art continues to recede into the past. Boardwalk Empire will have to do.