Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Month That Was - November 2015

A fair amount of travel this month, and the griping that goes with it. I have a ton of photos, but I need to run them through editing. I'll post a link to smugmug when they are ready.

I set my fiction project aside for the entire month. I finally got the plotting complete and now I need to work on an outline. It is important, periodically, to set the damn thing aside for relatively lengthy periods now and then so you can re-approach it with a clear head. But now it's time to get back to it. Outline is the next big step, then rough draft. After that, things get easier because editing is orders of magnitude more easy than getting that first draft done. Anyway, I have no self imposed deadline yet, but I can't risk completely losing momentum.

And my phone is acting up. It periodically gets thigh-blisteringly hot and the battery drains wicked fast. Not all the time. Maybe once every couple of months, but my experience with such things tells me it's just a matter of time. This might be the end of Windows phone for me. There are too many apps I can't get access to. Although I like my Windows phone a lot, I would not recommend it to anyone else and that suggests I should not replace it with another. More later.

During the holiday slow down, I plan to binge Fargo season 2 (I've got them all DVR'd). Expect commentary next month.

[Travel] SoCal, Better and Worse
[Travel] Vegas and Utah as Usual
[Rant] Half of Life is Showing Up

[Travel] SoCal, Better and Worse

I truly dislike L.A. I know there is a core constituency of that city that thinks it is something special. Sorry -- I don't see it. It is immensely inconvenient and remarkably unwelcoming to visitors. I'm sure there are some lovely areas by the beaches and some shiny neighborhoods in the rich areas and so forth, but the bulk of what I have seen is dumpy looking. And lord knows you better be ready to sit in your car for endless intervals.

A perfect example is LAX. I had to pick up Kate there and, apart from it being a zoo, which many airports are, it seems designed specifically to assure that you can't get where you need to go. I stopped to pick up my passenger and sure enough it turns out I was in no parking zone. But rather than simply signal me to move on, the lowlife parking cop wrote me a ticket. Now I have been thru my fair share of airports and I know that while the traffic cops can be hostile bastards, they don't drop the hammer on you immediately, presumably because they are aware how totally confusing airports are. Not in L.A. Before you even realize you are double parked you are written up for $70.

It gets worse. You have to pay the ticket in 21 days or the fees start. But at least they are nice enough to offer you a way to pay online, right? Yeah, except a week passes and they still have not logged your ticket into the system (even though they claim it will only take 24 hours). So you try to pay online everyday for a week and you can't. Then you finally call to find out what the hell is going on, and they ask for your ticket information, then they key it into the system on the spot and then tell you can go pay online now. So essentially you have just had to inform the city of L.A. that they gave you a parking ticket just be sure that you can pay it in time to not accumulate any fines. It's really just an administrative version of "stop hitting yourself!"

Yes, I know: it's not about the rules it's about the revenue. But that episode pretty much defines the L.A. attitude for me. Whether it's not understanding the toll roads or a hotel that allows its parking lot to fill with non-guests so you have to pay for valet, you either know the tricks of L.A. life or you pay. No quarter is given.

There's a reason Joe Bob Briggs always referred to it as "El Lay." Because you're certain to get screwed.

And yet, an hour and a half south and you are into Orange County which is just splendid. The young folks I know there refer to it derisively as a "bubble," but they will come to appreciate bubbles. Everything is clean and fresh and new and the roads are wide and not too badly packed, except at the freeway entrances. You can roll down the coastal highway and find all sorts of character filled towns -- San Juan de Capistrano with it's mission and funky shops and restaurants along the railroad; San Clemente with its lovely beach and pier; Dana Point with it's active waterfront and high-end neighborhoods. If you wanted to, you could follow the highway even further south, down past Torrey Pines and La Jolla and into San Diego, a city which puts L.A. to shame.

I was in L.A. for work, but once the weekend hit I was off to Orange County for some delightful times with Kate and Anna. We stayed at the St.Regis which is usually one of the most beautiful resorts in the world, but unfortunately was under somewhat extreme construction -- check in was in a tent, the pool/spa was closed, they were down to a couple of restaurants, etc. Still, the room was beautiful, and we did have access to the seaside dining available to local members where we had a memorable night time meal with the ocean waves in the background.

Of course the highlight of the trip was a killer hike through Aliso and Wood Canyons County Park. I take the blame for it being killer. I misjudged the distance, and I misjudged the severity of the climb, despite the fact that the destination was called Top of the World. You would think that would have been a clue. The total hike was about ten miles, whereas I was expecting less than half that. There was mile stretch that was steep enough to require hand over hand up the rocks at some point. We made it to the highest point which was supposed to dump us out on the road, but we ended up in a school parking lot and had to ask some of the locals where we were. I think we actually started a fight between a couple when they disagreed about how we should get to where we wanted to go. I also think Kate entertained notions have killed me when I turned down a ride to our destination. Eventually making it to Top or the World, we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views from the mountains to the sea. Also, we were blessed in that the rest of the way was downhill although it was very long, and for the last couple of miles I heard about my poor sense of distance with undisguised hostility.

I'm very happy I got to OC, since if I had to end my trip after L.A. it would have been infuriating. I'm good with Southern Cal, but there's going to have to be some kind of massive incentive for me to set foot in L.A. again. For me, SoCal begins south of L.A.

[Travel] Vegas and Utah as Usual

Once again, on Thanksgiving I found myself in Vegas and Southern Utah, which is about as typical a Thanksgiving as I have ever had.

I started out at The Cromwell, which is located right in the center of the strip -- corner of Flamingo and LV Blvd. -- and features and a bit of a gaudy, New Orleans whorehouse chic style. Great location of course, I'm told the pool scene is where it's at, but I'm no scenester and at 50 degrees a pool doesn't really interest me. Cromwell itself is fine; a cut above the properties on either side (Flamingo and Bally's) and more intimate than the behemoths across the street (Bellagio and Caesars). I see no special reason to pick it over something else, but I also see no reason to dismiss it.

Food was big this time around as there were lots of new restaurants to try -- all of which were excellent. The real stand outs were Lago in Bellagio: creative Italian style small dishes, under the name of Julian Serrano whose titular restaurant at Aria is also one of my favorites; and Yardbird at Venetian: advertised as Southern comfort food but it is really well prepared and there is a careful focus on quality. I'm not a crazy fried chicken guy, but I had the fried chicken and it was my favorite meal of the trip. Brined for 27 hours, evidently. Not heavy or greasy at all. The crust seemed like a mix of breading and batter and was not overly salted or spiced. It was just perfect. Made we want to try brining chicken at home. Definitely, on the list for a return.

Another new twist this trip was my first experience with Uber. You can't get Uber to or from McCarran Airport, but everywhere else Uber is available. Uber is, in fact, fairly new to Vegas and is engaged in a war (which they should inevitably win) for airport access [edit: you can now, hooray], as such there are still some glitches to work out. Most of the major properties have Uber waiting areas, but they seem to be located in odd and awkward places -- I don't know if this is just what they had available or a they're throwing a bone to the cabbies. Anyway, I took two Uber trips. The first was to pick up a rental car for my run to Utah. This guy was 10 minutes later than predicted and did not speak much English. He did not know how to get to the rental car center, but just followed his GPS, which was fine. I made it OK, probably saved a couple of bucks over a cab. The second trip was a run from the Strip to Downtown. This guy had previously been a cabbie for 18 years; now he was Ubering in a big shiny Mercedes sedan. Obviously with so much experience he had no need for GPS. He was wearing a stifling amount of cologne and offered me advice on the best strip clubs to visit (this is not an unusual experience for a single guy).

I'm glad Uber is around in Vegas and it will be even better when they get airport access and they get a more experienced cadre of drivers. Their app (at least for Windows Phone) could use some work. It doesn't seem to want you to input your location by the name of the place. It'll take it, but it may guess very badly at what you mean. When I entered "McCarran Rental Car Center" it came back with some place near San Francisco, so requesting a ride can be a little tricky, but obviously, paying is much more convenient and they don't seem to take the long way to increase the fare, which is a favorite game of Vegas cabbies. There is currently a debate as to whether you should tip your Uber driver. Some believe it is a bad precedent and counter to the dead simple transportation model. Other feel if you would tip a cabbie you should tip your Uber driver. I'm agnostic on this topic, but for the record, I tipped the cologne-smelling guy, but the not the late guy. That puts me in the position of having tipped a local in a big Mercedes, but not an immigrant in Nissan Sentra. Hmmm.

As always, when Thanksgiving proper comes around I get out of town. This in itself can be an interesting experience. By Thursday night, the whole appears to be driving into Vegas. It' as if folks wolf down an early dinner with their annoying relatives, hop in the car and head for Sin City. As I go in the opposite direction I laugh at all the cars crawling in at songle digit speeds. In this case I headed up to the Red Mountain Resort in St. George Utah. There are few hiking destinations more appealing than the red rock regions of Utah. Most notable are the National Parks -- Zion, Bryce, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands are considered the big 5 -- but there are also many state parks the feature smaller scale but no less delightful features. Just on the outskirts of Vegas proper is Red Rock Canyon where I have passed a morning or two in my time. Head north out of Vegas on I-15 for 45 minutes and you'll come to Valley of Fire where I have both hiked and run a brutal half-marathon. Another hour or so north from there you clip the northwest corner of Arizona and cross into Utah where you have a hidden gem, Snow Canyon State Park.

St. George is as outdoorsy as any community. There are wide bike paths connecting the major hubs, outfitters and activewear outlets seem to do a robust business, and the parking in Snow Canyon fills up by noon. Snow Canyon is criss-crossed with trails over a wide variety of geology -- sand dunes to huge rocky outcrops. Its main attraction is something called Lava Tubes; remnants of ancient volcanoes which have left behind cave like tunnels that can be explored. They look deep and scary but it's really not a major deal to lower yourself into them and have a look around in the darkness. In a separate area of the park you can scramble down the red rocks into a canyon and make your way to a series of petroglyphs, then scramble back up the other side to a view of St. George and the surrounding areas from on high. It's all good fresh air in the lungs and more than a little sweat on the back.

In the midst of this is Red Mountain Resort a nice destination spa which is not surprisingly dedicated to physical activity. It is a full on resort in that you generally get a package that includes meals and a number of fitness classes and some other services. Then on top of that they offer longer hiking and biking trips, rock climbing, rappelling, etc., for fees. It's a nice place, but it does have its quirks.

I should note that my criticisms come from my days as a spa snob, but it is not in the same class as a high-end destination spa such as Miraval. The gym is so-so -- equipment is somewhat limited. The classes are fine but fairly standard stuff you could get at any gym at home. The dinners are nicely prepared but rather bland; lunch and breakfast are buffet style and rather industrial. Alcoholic beverages are extra cost, which is to be expected, but certain soft drinks are also extra -- lemonade is free, but $2 for a can of diet coke (why?). Also three meals means three meals, snacks not included. The spa facility itself is not really high end. There is a nice sitting/relaxation room, but the locker room is just a small room, with lockers and little steam room -- again, like what you would see and your gym at home. But you know what the weirdest thing was to me? There were no Do Not Disturb signs for your door. I know that sounds like a silly little thing to be concerned about, especially when you are up and hiking before housekeeping even starts in the morning, but it threw me a bit. I'm very used to hanging that sign on the door and leaving the tv on while I'm away in an effort to make people think someone is in the room and wants to be left alone. Also, on the last day when I was bugging out back to Vegas I wanted to sleep in a little later and sure enough, housekeeping knocked and woke me up. Anyway, like I said, it's minor but weird.

None of this is to discourage you because, while it isn't up to Miraval or Canyon Ranch standards, it's still very nice with strong, friendly service from the staff. It's also a screaming good deal -- not much more expensive than a standard hotel. You, not being snooty and opinionated like me, and not having eaten astounding food in Las Vegas just a couple days before, would no doubt enjoy yourself immensely.

But back to Vegas I went, mostly to reckon with my football bets which as of early Sunday were looking abysmal. FWIW, the Packers spot-on imitation a dead skunk on Thanksgiving assured I wouldn't come away ahead. Sunday it was shaping up to be a bloodbath when the Patriots disintegrated. Literally the last play of the week had the Ravens winning for me and I ended up with tolerable losses -- maybe a couple hundred dollars overall, but you can drop that on dinner and drinks in Vegas, or in ten minutes of blackjack so...tolerable.

Thus continues my personal Thanksgiving tradition. The last touch of ebullience for 2015. Winter is upon us. This will have to hold me for a while.

[Rant] Half of Life is Showing Up

There's been quite a bit of negative commentary lately about the giving out of medals for participation. Many of the more righteous folks in the world believe that medals are only the elite; that it's just another example of how we coddle ourselves and try to shield ourselves from the cold truth of the hard world, thereby weakening us in the long run. Often this narrative is couched in for-the-children style rhetoric.

I'm distrustful of all narratives and this is no exception. I have a certain sympathy for it in that I think it is sourced from a desire to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. The world is competitive and likely always will be. No institution, whether for work or play, private or public, will ever be without a hierarchy. This hierarchy may be subtle or gross, explicit or implicit, but there will always be differences in status. Homo sapiens are status seekers and evaluators from deep in our genes and that is not going to change. The only truly status-less organizations are weird hippie communes and they don't last long because that is simply not our nature. So raising your kids or trying to live your life as if you don't have to compete is foolish -- worse, it simply provides greater advantage to those who are prepared and willing to compete.

That said, there's nothing wrong with encouraging participation, we do it in lots of different ways. For an example, take running races of the sort I do many times a year. If you sign up for a race you get a t-shirt. It's yours to keep even if you don't show up. If you finish the race you get a medal -- you can think of this as a participation medal (although technically you could start and not finish and not get the medal). If you are one of the top finishers, either overall or in your age group, you get prizes. I honestly don't see a problem with this. There is still differentiation between the elite and the folks who just made it through. I guarantee you nobody is looking down at their 5K finisher's medal and thinking "Now the Kenyans will fear me!"

Participation is of value. We acknowledge it in many ways. Where I work, you get gifts on your 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, etc., anniversary. Nobody asks about your performance; you may have been just good enough not to get fired, but you stuck around and made your contribution. It counts. Even in sports there are participation rewards. Everybody on the high school football team can wear a letterman jacket, even if you never played a down.

In fact , I would argue -- especially in the case of children -- that rewarding them for participation in something they do not, and likely will not, excel in is a good policy. Despite the fact that I am far from a natural athlete and I will never be anything more than mediocre, I enjoy all these races and fitness challenges I take on. I would have been out a lot of pleasure in my life had I been conditioned to believe there was no point unless I won. And besides, aren't we supposed to be learning that it's OK to fail. There's another thing I wish I had embraced earlier in life -- being unafraid to fail. Doesn't rewarding folks for the attempt encourage them to not fear failure.

So you see, all this medals-should-be-for-winners-only stuff is quite overwrought. Yes, we should acknowledge that victory is the goal and reward excellence, but we do that, so what's the harm in acknowledging participation, also? Look at it this way: if others didn't participate, how would you know you won?