Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Month That Was - November 2013

The Month That Was - November 2013: Well here we are. Dug in for winter again. I have been busy with writing projects, one of which is agonizingly close to fruition. Details below. And, of course, with November comes Thanksgiving and with Thanksgiving comes Vegas. Details below also.

Around the house I made a minor run at textured painting, which was moderately successful. I've also started seriously drawing up plans to remodel the master bath, which I hope to get done in 2014, and I have a couple more painting projects that I hope to get done over the winter.

No book reviews this month. I've been catching up on Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford Mysteries for my distraction. I feel I bit of an affinity because they are set in and around the Florida Gulf islands, where I have spent a fair amount of enjoyable time. They're pretty well written with a solid formula and a nicely drawn lead and sidekick. White is a skilled outdoorsman with a scientific bent so he tends to fill the books with some interesting discursions on related topics. I had actually started reading this series from the beginning many years ago, but at one point they seemed to get gratuitously violent so I stopped. I have now picked up later in the series and the violence has taken a back seat. More about this when I catch up to the latest release.

In fact, short shrift on everything. Just a trip report and summary of my upcoming Kindle release. I have, since just before Thanksgiving, been at war with a terrible chest cold, which I am beginning to suspect must be some sort of mutant alien virus because it's been truly brutal and resistant to my common terrestrial immune system. It completely disrupted my vacation and is causing me to want nothing more than to crawl under the covers and disappear. More than usual.

[Books, Basho] Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now
[Travel, Vegas] Spanning the Country, Being Thankful

[Books, Basho] Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now

Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now: As I've been hinting, what's coming next for me writing-wise is very esoteric. Back in 17th century Japan, a great poet named Matsuo Basho went on a journey north from Edo(Tokyo) and documented his travels and punctuated them with poems, what we would call Haiku. The book, entitled The Narrow Road to the Interior, became a huge sensation and has survived through the years as a seminal classic of Japanese literature.

Basho is almost certainly Japan's greatest poet. Most folks who read Narrow Road…, which in the U.S. is probably students and academics, tend to focus on it as a collection of poetry. The problem is that poetry loses nearly everything in translation. Even the shortest poems are deeply dependent on myriad subtleties of language, otherwise, they'd be prose. One could even argue that a working knowledge of Japanese would be insufficient, you would have to be near-native in your understanding of the language. So for me, with no knowledge of Japanese, reading the poetry is not particularly compelling. For exapmle: Basho is famous for writing what is considered one of the most perfect and exemplary Haiku (although this did not appear in Narrow Road...) about the sound a frog makes when jumping in a pond. To read the Haiku and see what I mean about translation look at this page. It contains 30 translations (thousands probably exist) and you can see how different they are, and how none of them truly capture anything that would considered an eternal work of art.

Basho was curmudgeonly character. An aging bachelor at the time he wrote Narrow Road..., in between the poetry he gives hints of uncertainty about the purpose of his journey and clearly has a growing concern with mortality -- remind you of anyone you know? As I read Narrow Road..., I read a travelogue of a man who was riddled with self-doubt, who was unsure of whether he felt compelled to travel to seek answers or escape questions. These are feelings I know intimately.

So in the popular spirit of re-writes of classics, I decided ol' Basho deserved one. The story becomes Basho's Inward Road and I focused on fleshing out Basho fears and emotional turmoil. I added doses of irony and humor, colored some characters, and colloquialized the language. The end result is, I think, something Basho would recognize -- one aging bachelor to another.

So now I am in the process of getting it setup for Kindle. It will be Kindle only unless I come to find there is a massive market for rewritten 17th century Japanese travelogues. It is short, barely novella length, so I'm thinking of a $1.99 price. I still need cover art. And I need to get the formatting right, which I don't remember being as hard as it's turning out to be. So it's not available just yet. If I can get everything sorted, I hope it will be by the end of the year.

Like I said, it's esoteric. But as esoteric as it is, I think it's worth reading. Obviously, it draws on my own feelings, but those cannot be unique, can they? So maybe, just maybe there is a small audience out there. That is the blessing of Kindle. If you are moved to write something, you can just write it and go. If nobody buys it, oh well. You live to fight and write another day. And something good could happen. From small things...

So with any luck, a link and maybe a quote next month.

[Travel, Vegas] Spanning the Country, Being Thankful

Spanning the Country, Being Thankful: I suppose I have just experienced a recurring nightmare of many travelers because the day before I left for Vegas I was struck with a devastating cold or flu or ebola or something. But flights were set and reservations past their cancel date so I was going to have to tough it out. At least I can confidently state that the beds at Cosmopolitan are very accomodating when you are alternately shivering and sweating through night. I had hoped to hit a couple of poker tourneys but given that I could only concentrate for a minute or two before needing a nap, it didn't seem like a good idea.

I did manage to spend a couple of hours on Fremont St. where I hadn't been since all the hubbub started a couple of years ago. Very impressed with all the new stuff, especially the Fremont East area. Very cool that they've found a way to improve without trying to morph into The Strip Lite. If anything it's starting to remind me of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter (or it will with a few more good restaurants) which is very cool. But even though it's all a lot of fun to visit for a night, I'm pretty sure when push comes to shove, I will still bed down on The Strip.

Even a sick boy has to eat. I tried Heritage Steak and was disappointed. On the suggestion of the server I ordered Kobe Skirt with a tabasco-pepper rub, and while the flavor wasn't bad, the rub completely overpowered the meat. On the other hand, the brussel sprouts with bacon and maple syrup were killer. I have now had less than amazing steaks at both Heritage and Gordon Ramsay. The best steak I have ever had in Vegas was the Chateaubriand at Botero.

For burgers, however, I'm down with Gordon Ramsay. I stopped by BurGR for lunch and the Euroburger was as good as it gets. Perfectly cooked. Tasted better than the steak he made me last year.

So, before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend madness I decided to decamp and drag my phlegm infested head to Laughlin, because….well, I'd never been there, and why not? Most people who are used to Vegas will think Laughlin is a dump. It is. But in a different light, it is totally surreal.

First, if you think you have seen folks playing slots in Vegas, you have no idea. The people here don't just play the slots, the drive the machines with a relentless ferocity. There is almost a hostile intensity to the background din of the machines. For these people, slots are not a fling at gaming, they are a calling, an eternal battle. They have grown old, fat, and toothless waging this war and, still, there is no let up. Their only allies are cigarettes and cheap beer. It's a remarkable thing to see. This being the holiday season, the casino had planted carollers on the gambling floor, singing beautiful harmonies to celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Savior, but you couldn't hear them over the din and even if you could I guarantee none of the slot zombie warriors would have broken discipline and looked up. Talk about a thankless job. Surreal.

I stayed at the Aquarius, a building whose infrastructure is a good 70% cigarette smoke. Absolutely everything smells like smoke. I suppose my non-smoking room technically didn't but the phlegm in my head was imbued with it as soon as I checked in -- there was no escape. One thing Laughlin has going for it is the Riverwalk, which backs up to all the riverside casinos. It's not a particularly attractive riverwalk, you get to see the service entrances to many of the casinos and in at least one case you walk by doors that open directly on to people's rooms, but the Riverwalk has air -- relatively fresh air -- and you need that as often as possible.

Now, along the riverwalk there are apparently a number of stray cats. And people will occasionally leave food out for them. That's nice, but the cats have to scarf down as much as possible as quickly as possible because the skunks come out soon after and chase them off. It was a very disconcerting feeling to be walking along the riverwalk in the dark of night and suddenly realize that you are surrounded by skunks. Several less than 10 yards away. During the day families happily recreate all up and down the river, but the night time belongs to the skunks. Fear them. Respect them. Actually, even more disconcerting is realizing that other people are gingerly approaching the skunks trying to get good close ups of the for their phone. Surreal.

Meanwhile across the street at a severely downscale shopping mall there is a Bikini's Sports Bar, where, as you can guess, all the servers are bikini-clad girls. This is as close as it gets to a gentlemen's club in Laughlin, which is not very close. The bikini girls here were not the ones you might see at Treasures. They are not even the ones you might see out in Pahrump. They are the ones you would see in WalMart, if WalMart had that sort of section. That is to say, they were in dire need of a professional overhaul of their fitness routines. Yikes. Surreal.

I honestly can't think of a good reason to visit Laughlin. I'm guessing the payouts must be pretty good or the slot zombie warriors would find another battlefront. A quick survey of the JoB machines around town suggests they generally run 8/5 with a few 9/5s, but my search was not comprehensive. There is no fine dining. There are no must see sights, in fact there are virtually no sites at all. Correction: I can think of one legitimate reason to visit and that would be to see Don Laughlin's classic auto collection. It's free and it's got serious collector cars. If you are into classic autos it's probably worth a visit, but just as a day trip from Vegas. I think place is best left to chain-smoking slot zombies.

Headed back towards Vegas, but keeping with my theme of being on the outskirts, I settled in for a couple of nights at the Hilton in Lake Las Vegas. Now I am sure this is the slowest time of year for the area -- the week after Thanksgiving -- but talk about a post-apocalypse landscape. It's like they built this lovely, manicured, country club setting and it's all a show piece; no one actually uses it. The one casino is shut down. The “village" had a few shops open and a couple of restaurants. Obviously, it picks up during warm weather season for water sports, but I understand why hoteliers are wanting to bug out. There are no customers.

The Hilton is as refined and beautiful a hotel as you can imagine, certainly a match for anything on the Strip except in gaudiness. It used to be called the Ravella, and before that it was a Ritz-Carlton so, yeah, it's high end. In most cities this would be the flagship resort. It's easy to get to, easy to park, easy to walk to whatever activities (if you can find any). Free shuttle to The Strip (MGM). I fail to understand why there isn't more activity out here. If you ever had the notion of staying off-strip and just driving in for the action at night, this strikes me as the place to stay. If you have to bring your kids to Vegas, this is probably the healthiest place for them to stay. It's not that expensive. Certainly not more expensive than, say, Cosmo. And I bet it is rarely booked such that there are spikes in price. For my part, the first night of my stay (Sunday after Thanksgiving) I strongly suspected I was the only one in the hotel. I felt like the Omega Man.

I really hope they make something of Lake Las Vegas. I love the area, and I'm hoping to re-visit in the warm weather to see what's up. As you pull in from Lake Mead Pwky. and look to your left you have a great view of the entire Strip, from Mandalay to Downtown, which is worth it for the photos at sunset.

Oh and it's a short drive to Hoover Dam. I've been coming to Vegas since 2001 and this was my first visit to Hoover Dam. If you don't feel the need to actually walk on the Dam itself, just pull over at the Tillman Plaza and walk along the Memorial Bridge to get your photos. No cost to hit the bridge. A ten-spot to park near at the Dam site. Another tenner if you want to see the visitor's center. Probably about an hour door to door, traffic pending. You needn't give it high priority, but any Vegas regular should probably get there eventually.

Certainly not my best Vegas trip. But not my last either.

Next came part two, starting with a cross country flight to Florida. In Sarasota, a catch up visit with my Mom and younger brother. Sarasota is a great spot, but very hectic in season. As I inch closer to getting a place in Florida, I occasionally waffle to locating there as opposed to points further south -- the Ft. Myers area being my first choice. This whole notion of getting a place is still an embryo. I don't have the exact purpose down -- have ready access to my Mom as she ages, set myself up for retirement, vacation home for the winter, rental property in the mean time -- details have yet to solidify and so I can't really zero in a locale. The ultimate would be Sanibel Island, but that is and will likely forever be out of my price range.

Anyway, by the time the weekend rolled around it was time to decamp again, this time barrelling across the state via Alligator Alley to Ft. Lauderdale to meet Miss Kate. Ft. Lauderdale is not my preferred destination in Florida. In fact, I will take just about anywhere on the Gulf over the Atlantic side. I won't go through the series of reversals of fortune that caused us to end up in Ft. L, but on our only full day we hopped in the car and made a beeline for the Keys.

Then one of the oddest and most infuriating things happened. Heading south on the Florida Turnpike, a toll road, right out of the blue the police shut down the entire freeway. Just made everyone stop dead. Big frustration #1 was that had we been five minutes sooner we would have missed it completely. Frustration #2 came when we realized the stopped traffic dead on the high speed freeway to let a group of what must have been a couple of hundred motorcyclists use the road unimpeded. Near as I could tell these were not public officials or anything of the kind, there were just a huge group of motorcyclists who somehow got the police to reserve a road exclusively for them despite everyone on it having paid for it. I searched the news for references to this event but found nothing. In all it was probably only a twenty minute or so delay but it was truly annoying when we really only had the one day free and, I can't emphasize this enough, we were paying to use that road. And if you thought we were upset, you should have heard the asshat in the BMW SUV next to us laying on his horn, to no good purpose other than to raise the hostility level of everyone around him.

All in all, it took us probably close to two and a half hours to get to Key Largo, when it should have only taken an hour and half-ish. I had hoped for us to do a kayak trip, but the place I wanted to go to could not be found. I located it on the map, used the GPS in my phone, and drove right past exactly where it should have been a couple of times and saw nothing. Grrrr. By this time is was noon so we stopped at the Hilton Key Largo Resort to grab some lunch. And it was so beautiful we decided to just stay there the whole afternoon.

It didn't hurt that Caribbean Watersports was on site, so we got to spend a half hour on a jet ski, before Kate ran it out of gas with her badass hoonage. That was followed up with a parasail along Florida bay, both activities punctuated with Margaritas. The weather was that incredible South Florida winter weather, 80 degrees and a fresh breeze coming off the water. Yeah, this is why folks retire down here.

A nice evening's dinner along Las Olas Blvd. A final morning by the pool. And that was it. It was time to haul myself and my congestion back home, where I was greeted with a leak in the basement and a beeping smoke alarm. Luckily I have perspective. I know that even when things aren't the best, they are still worthwhile. So I won't say it was a bad trip. Too many good things happened. I will say that I can do it better, and I'm sure I will.