Friday, December 09, 2016

The Month That Was - November 2016

Because I have spent most of my life in and around Ann Arbor most of my friends are Liberal. They are all going insane right now. It's very hard for someone who is generally apolitical to understand why they are at such an emotional extreme. Also, I am older than most of them and I don't see current events as anything so out of the ordinary or, frankly, anything that hasn't been done before. (Younger people think everything is happening for the first time.) I would suggest that in my lifetime we have had more sociopathic, dysfunctional presidents than sane, well-adjusted ones, so I suppose have a stronger sense of perspective. I do hope to get my friends back sometime soon.

Half this month was about travel. I took my longest trip in many years -- a full two weeks out west in Vegas and up the California Coast. Back home it was time to pack up the deck and bring the potted plants in for the winter to come. I am now going to work and coming home in darkness. In a month the days will start getting longer again, but warmth will not return for quite a while. I had better test-start the snowblower.

[Travel] Great Circles
[Books] Book Look: Skippy Dies

[Travel] Great Circles

Travel is always in a circle, even if a flat, there-and-back circle. There were a few circles in this trip for me. The first stop was to be Vegas (of course) where I would twice run in a circle. First in a 5K circle followed the next day by a half-marathon circle. After that, there would a huge week long circle through the State of California including a run up the Pacific Coast Highway.

The running was all under the guise of the Rock and Roll Marathon Series. This outfit blows into the bigger cities throughout the course of the year, setting up multi-day events of varying lengths with consumer expos and a big name headliner concert. It really becomes quite a spectacle. In the case of this event in Vegas, there was a four-day on-going expo at the convention center which is where you had to pick up your race credentials. There was a 5k on Saturday night up at the north end of the strip near the SLS Casino. The Half-Marathon was Sunday night starting at the far south end of the Strip down by the famous sign. (There was also a 10K and a Full Marathon on Sunday night in which I did not participate.)

So locations were spread all over, and if you know Vegas you know no matter how much you work to minimize walking, you'll still be doing a lot of walking. I tried to use the monorail and rideshare as much as possible but it helped little; partially because even using the monorail or ride share your final destinations are often a kilometer or two from where you are dropped, but primarily because I picked a central location so I ended up travelling everywhere -- even the closest monorail was about a half mile walk away. Dumb move for a vet like me.

I stayed at Elara - a Hilton timeshare club that is attached to the Miracle Mile Shops in Planet Hollywood. It is a terrific property, often overlooked because it is considered off-strip, yet is a closer to LV Blvd. than many On-Strip properties. You just get to and from it by walking through the Miracle Mile Mall attached to Planet Hollywood. I highly recommend it if you aren't getting comped somewhere special. It's usually inexpensive and the rooms, while not suites, a very comfortable and up to date. Nice pool, Starbucks and a bar in the lobby. Top notch service from the get go, and not once did I get hit up to take a timeshare pitch.

Like I said I was doing my best to save wear and tear on the feet. But I failed. Between meeting up with friends for dinner and standing in line at the expo my poor high-arched feet were toast. My strategy was to cruise the 5k on Saturday so I would be able to handle the Half on Sunday. I cruised the 5K alright, but by the time the race started on Sunday -- which in itself involved a good 75 minutes of standing around waiting and watching the feature entertainment, Snoop Dogg (astonishingly profane to my old fuddy-duddy ears), my feet and ankles were cooked. By mile five in the Half I was not really enjoying myself. I forced myself to walk for a few seconds at each water stations but that did no real good, in fact it probably made it worse. In the end I hobbled all the way through -- finishing but with an abysmal time.

There was much partying going on after the finish, but it was all I could do to stagger back to my room and take off my shoes and put my feet up. Still, I came away with three medals: One for each race and one for the bonus Remix Challenge medal for completing two races in the weekend. The following day, as you can guess, was involved a massage and a stretch in the cold plunge pool at Caesars.

But the very best news was my NFL bets. Yes, it's been years since I talked about football gambling but I still do it whenever I'm in Vegas. For the first few years I had some regular success use some advanced metrics to pick winners. There were about six straight years in row where I came up ahead. Then everything changed in 2011 or 2012. Suddenly I was losing each year regularly. It was the same for picks that were made by the website I use to get my stats. I think the last four straight years have been losers for me (and them). It was so consistent it was as if the world of gamblers suddenly decided to account for advance stats and adjusted the lines appropriately. But I am tough to deter. This year instead of betting all the games that my system suggested, I just doubled down on what I thought were the best bets and I went six for six. I laid out $600 and walked away with $1300. That, my friends, is how it's done. This topic probably deserves greater discussion but not now. I'll just say that I did no more gambling this trip because for once I wanted to come back home ahead.

Next began the road trip. In a rented Malibu I headed for the Cali coast with the plan to use the travel day to get as far as San Luis Obispo, then from there up the PCH to points north. The drive from Vegas to the coast north of LA is about as ugly as it gets. You head out of Vegas past Primm which is a strange place. From the middle of the dry scrub desert there is suddenly a gaudy commercial outpost with a couple of casino hotels, some outlet stores, gas station and fast food. Then as soon as it appears it is gone again and you are back to dusty, desert scrub. The point of Primm is that it is just across the border from CA into Nevada. So if you're a dedicated gambler in Southern California, Primm is the first place you can hit to get your fix. Places like this are fascinating -- these little dedicated commercial villages that spring up, become insanely profitable, then vigorously protect themselves and their quasi-monopolies from outsiders. (Another place like this is Breezewood, PA where they have found a way to successfully bottleneck a healthy portion of interstate traffic through their rest stops.)

Once into California it doesn't get prettier. Going north to south in California is a highway game, but east to west is far trickier. Vegas to LA directly is straightforward, but Vegas to anywhere north or south often involves lonely two-lane highways angling back and forth like a ship tacking into the wind. You pass through Barstow and Bakersfield often on two-lane roads. This is the ugly side of California. A native Californian I know called it the armpit. It's oil wells and agribusiness and grey, run-down little cities. As you cruise west you eventually hit wine country around Paso Robles, where there are a number of tasting rooms. At that point you can head directly to Cambria on the coast. In my case I took a brief southerly detour to spend the night in San Luis Obispo because I needed an extra stay in a HIlton hotel to keep my award status up. Like I said, it was a travel day.

The next morning I hopped on the PCH which really doesn't hit the coast like in the movies until Cambria. But from there all the way up to Monterey the PCH was my pathway and it is as least as beautiful as advertised. In this case the pictures in all the magazines don't lie. The highway winds all up and down the coast, etched into bluffs hundreds of feet above the water, you see what are some of the most dramatic shorelines you can imagine. The coastline integrated tightly with all my stops.

First stop was Hearst Castle the seat of the Hearst Communications empire of the early 20th century. William Randolph Hearst -- the inspiration for Citizen Kane -- has a legacy that can still generate a strong emotional response among many today. He had no peer in communications in his day and he seemingly had no sense of fiduciary responsibility to the truth (you can see echoes of this situation in the Facebook fake news debate) and so had many enemies. But those whom he didn't cross, or didn't cross him, seemed to be quite loyal to him. His employees stayed on for decades at a time. And the limeliters whom he invited to weekend in his Castle with him spoke glowingly. Even the current staff of the castle all seem to be dedicated to him, or at least a positive view of his memory.

The castle itself is one of those monuments the rich often build. Like the Ringling home in Sarasota (but larger) or possibly even something like Graceland. They serve double purpose as symbols of achievement and also attractions in themselves that allow benevolent rich fellows to share their hospitality with acquaintances while also being held in awe.

Inside, the castle simply an old school mansion writ large, though the lovely furnishings were somewhat despoiled by the somewhat jarring Christmas walmart-ugly decorations. The grounds are the real star and they are a remarkable place to wander. Gardens and opulent pools all around, views featuring the coastline in the distance. We were told there are even remnants of the private zoo Hearst used to keep in the form of Zebras that graze among the cattle on the pastures (it is a working ranch after all). I saw no Zebras, but I did see why Hearst chose the locale. The switchback road from the visitor's center to the Castle is cleverly designed to highlight a different view of the structure at every turn. It's a remarkable place filled with fascinating stories. Well worth a visit.

Just a few miles further up the coast is the elephant seal rookery. It's a pull off with a lengthy wooden boardwalk overlooking the rocky beach. I expected at best to get a glimpse or two of an elephant seal wallowing in the ocean, but I was wrong. It is covered in elephant seals. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them. About ninety-five percent of them are just lying on the beach side by side like sardines -- two-ton sardines. I don't know how the ocean has enough fish to support them all. Like many protected species the population is booming -- to the point of potential problems. It's remarkable sight, though, to see that teeming mass of life on the beach.

From there, my stop for the next two days was Big Sur. Near Big Sur the PCH turns inland enough to get you out of range of the ocean. Instead you wander through a heavily wooded State Park (or two, I could never figure out where the parks start and end), in the midst of which are the little pockets of inns and general stores which constitute Big Sur. It was hard for me to get a clear grip on Big Sur. It seems to be a rustic outpost, but with selective attractions for the bourgeois. For example, you can't get a cell phone connection if your life depended on it, and my hotel had no TVs. But they did have wi-fi, up-to-the-minute quasi-modernist styling, and a broad selection of wines available on the honor system. My suspicion is Big Sur is attempting to be the vision of the untethered life the Northern California upper-middle class has in it's head. None of the gauche cell phones and TVs and fast food, but all the more tasteful comforts in a deep woods setting. Sort of the ultimate Portlandia get away.

That was snarky. I do not mean to suggest Big Sur is not worth seeing. It is. Purposefully positioned or not, the beauty is undeniable. I stayed at Glen Oaks Inn (recommended), where there is a stunningly beautiful, if short, wooded trail pretty much right outside the door. There is remarkable hiking in the area -- for example, there an iconic hike that takes you along the beach to a waterfall the seems to emerge from nowhere out of a cliff and empties into the ocean -- but sadly my options were limited. Since Spring there have been apocalyptic wildfires in the Big Sur area. The main State Park (Pfeiffer) has been closed for the bulk of the season. I suppose in some sense this worked out for me as it kept occupancy low and rates within reason, but I would have preferred to bag a well known trail or two.

Instead I ventured to the next State Park north (Andrew Molera) where I was able to take a breathtaking 9-ish mile route high into the bluffs, overlooking the ocean from on high. It was a very cool hike, featuring a brief wade across an ice cold stream, a plunge into a ravine to a very remote and unknown beach requiring a short dash through a fog of sand fleas, and a look into an oak forest grove so thick it was dark as night at Noon. When I pulled into the park the "ranger" (in quotes because, though he had a ranger hat, he was clearly a gnarly surfer dude) told me it was pretty flat the whole way. It was not. Not remotely. It went from sea level to well over 1000 ft, twice. Gnarly Surfer Dude must have been having a flashback.

In the course of the hike it became fairly clear that the California State Park system is in a bit of disrepair. Apart from hiring gnarly surfer dudes as rangers, they charge you extra (beyond the $10 admission) for park maps -- Gnarly Surfer Dude suggested I just take a photo of the map on the kiosk at the trailhead, but the Park system was once step ahead of him and put the map behind a grate and under dull glass so it was barely readable. Joke's on me, I guess. The ice cold stream annoyed quite a number of other hikers I passed. "Why don't they just arrange a rock path through it?" was the main question. Good question. And the markers out on the trail are unreadable in the unusual instances when they aren't mangled on the ground. CA State Parks needs an intervention.

I enjoyed Big Sur. It seems the bourgeois, untethered-lite lifestyle suits me. There were a couple of good spots to grab a craft beer and a burger. Big Sur Taphouse served me one of the best burgers I have ever had. I think two nights was good. If better hiking was available, I'd have probably wanted three. But after that I would be seeking out a tether. Not so for the next destination: Carmel-by-the-Sea.

I have a few friends who swear by Carmel as heaven on earth (to most people it is primarily famous for once having Clint Eastwood as mayor) so it has been on my list for a while. It lives up to the hype. Carmel's downtown consists of about eight square blocks of shops and restaurants all very high style. There are lots of little places like this peppered throughout the country. From Kennebunk to Palm Beach to La Jolla. Carmel comes in for a lot of attention because it is the closest one to the billionaires of Silicon Valley. It also has a couple of distinguishing features. First, it's a beautiful walk about 8 blocks to the beach. The beach itself is the closest thing I have found to a Florida beach in California. It is broad with minimal rock outcrops. The sand is far too coarse to be Gulf sand and the temperature is far too cold to be the Sunshine State, but the sunsets are a match. Second, they are big into wine (as you might expect from a Northern California region). I believe there are over a dozen tasting rooms just in that small downtown area. My wine aficionado days ended years ago, but it would be nirvana or serious vinophiles, or great for anyone who just wants an excuse to get hammered in the most classy way possible.

The thing that stood out to me most about Carmel, though, was the food. Every dish I ate was mouthwatering. Fresh ingredients, perfectly prepared. I've eaten at an awful lot of good restaurants around the country, but I have never had such consistently high quality meals. I could be snarky again about the motivation of the high-end tech-rich gourmands that Carmel caters to, but if it results in food this good, I'll just keep quiet and be grateful.

Carmel is one of a handful of cities on the Monterey Peninsula, Monterey proper being the largest. There are two ways to get to Monterey from Carmel. The direct route up the highway which will take you about 20 minutes tops, or the wallow along the coast route called 17 Mile Drive. I of course took 17 Mile Drive. It costs $10 to enter 17 Mile Drive from Carmel, although it seems to me that you could probably enter from just about anywhere else for free. A weirdness I don't understand, but what did I know? 17 Mile Drive skates along the coast, striking a path between the water and some high-tone golf courses for the bulk of its length, including a run right through the heart of Pebble Beach. It is certainly lovely, but by this time I was completely jaded by the PCH, against which it was no match. The views are a good deal less dramatic.

Monterey is a nice, upper middle class suburb of the type you will find just about everywhere. The commercial centers are Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row, both intentional developed as shopping/social centers along the water and connected by a walking path. Very nice, but not really memorable.

I had one more stop before I left California, but I was coming to some conclusions. I have never felt comfortable in California. I have had good times and seen beautiful things, but to me there is always a sense of intensity to it. I have never sensed the famed free and easy California lifestyle that is supposedly prevalent. Not in northern or southern CA. From San Diego to Napa Valley to Palm Springs to Lake Tahoe, while I have had wonderful times, I have never felt completely at ease the way I do when I hit the Florida Gulf, or Vegas, for that matter. I can't figure it out and have no explanation, but there it is.

Probably the most comfortable place I have been in CA is Death Valley, but that doesn't really count. It's more of a single attraction. It was to be my stop over point before returning to Vegas and this time I sequestered a room at the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn. But let me step back. This was the longest driving leg of the trip, about 8 hours all said and done. It was another tack-into-the-wind style route designed by Google, but it worked. Took me through some very interesting little towns along the way -- ramshackle towns left over from mining booms with two or three figure populations who eek out a living in a lightly visited convenience store or hope some new mining concern will come along and generate some work.

Death Valley itself, as you can surmise, is in a desert -- the Mojave to be exact. At each of the three or four oasis within the park boundaries there are settlement/tourist areas. The largest of these is Furnace Creek. In Furnace Creek there is a large, motel-level complex called the Furnace Creek Ranch. Attached is a bar, a couple of restaurants, a family style pool, and a golf course (of all things). I have stayed there before and it is serviceable and convenient, especially good for families.

At the other end of the oasis is Furnace Creek Inn, which is as fine a luxury property as I have stayed in, and that's saying something, what with my fetish for expensive hotels. The rooms are smallish and not particularly up to date, but better than many a "classic" hotel I have experienced. The grounds are astonishing. Fifty yards away is some of the harshest and most unforgiving landscape this side of Mars, but cross to the hotel grounds and you are amidst palm trees and a lush flowering garden with falling water. There is a fine restaurant and lounge with comfortable sunset views. Service is top notch. But the big attraction for me is the pool. Spring fed water at 84 degrees year round. It is tiled and was built during a time before lawyers limited the depths to 4 feet and required stairs and handhold and kiddie areas and so forth. It is a joy. Big enough to swim laps, deep enough to dive freely (when no one is looking). I have become convinced that the best way to vacation is to hike or be otherwise active in the morning, then hang by the pool all afternoon. I was able to do that to perfection at Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley.

After two short nights, I completed the circle back to Vegas. I was now 12 days into my trip and to be perfectly honest I was ready to head home, but there is nothing bad with a couple of nights at The Cromwell for less than $100 per night. I dropped the car and took Lyft wherever I needed. I favor Lyft over Uber because the app has the option to tip built into it. If you want to tip your Uber driver, it is a cash affair, which sort of defeats the purpose of the process for me.

I was very tempted to hop into a couple of poker tournaments, but I refrained. I had not touched my six for six football winnings and was still determined to come home up for once. Instead I took a Lyft downtown. Fremont street is becoming more appealing with each passing year -- I may have to send a couple of nights there next time through. I ate at Carson Kitchen which was pure hipster small plate attitude. Food was good, but nothing like what I had back in Carmel.

And that was that. I closed the final great circle back home after two full weeks. Not much more to say (haven't I said enough?). I was another set of memories I have to lean on and another stretch of staying in motion which, after all, is proof of life. I'm still here, still engaged with the world, still running in circles.

[Books] Book Look: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

In this sharply funny, yet ultimately tragic novel, the title character dies in the first chapter. I don't know if it makes structural sense. The rest of the book is conventionally chronological. The first half is prelude to the death and the second half post-mortem. Thus you are set up reading the first half, having Skippy's character built into a sympathetic, somewhat fey adolescent, following his interactions with his rogue's gallery of boarding school chums, watching his episodes of joy and despair, all the while knowing he is going to buy the farm in a donut shop near his school.

There may be good structural reasons for this. It may generate a certain emotional effect that that the author thought important, although for me, I can't see where I would have been struck differently if Skippy's death had been a surprise. No, I choose to think the reason the author did this was because he is Irish and therefore this novel had to be about the past and the dead from the very start.

The setting is one of the premier boys public schools in Ireland, and to a lesser extent its girl's corollary next door. (By "public school" I mean private school for those of us from the U.S.) We are given a full slate of adults and adolescents and follow their journey over the course of the year. The cast is really too large to catalog, but they are wonderfully fleshed out. Murray has quite a talent for drawing a fully functional character in short order. In this task, Murray is brutally honest. The young boys run the gamut from nerdy teacher's pets to sociopathic criminals. The girls next door have well developed instincts for manipulation to guard their ultimate desperation. The adults all have the best of intentions yet they are all insufficient or ineffectual in some way.

What makes this depressive stuff palatable is that Murray never loses his senses of humor and absurdity. In the first half this builds a great sense of identification with the characters and their foibles have an endearing comedic feel to them. Then things go dark after Skippy dies. But even then it's not so dire as to make it unpalatable. There is enormous frustration, anger, and sorrow but never hopelessness. That's a tricky line to toe and, again, Murray is up to the task.

As I pointed out, bubbling under all this is the past -- personal past, institutional past, national past -- it all weighs heavily on the characters and their motivations. Then, naturally, when Skippy dies it dominates the last half the book and essentially doubles down on the pure Irishness of everything. To some extent however, most of the characters manage to escape the past at least in some sense by the end, so perhaps the ending is not so Irish after all.

Murray is a fine stylist, able to build complex characters while using straightforward common English. There is nothing highfalutin' in the prose, although he does occasionally indulge in a bit or over-flowery description. He also dances with tropes -- pedophilia, eating disorders, drugged up kids, detached adults -- but generally he feels true to reality.

Should you read Skippy Dies? Almost certainly yes. It is one of those rare novels that is entertaining and insightful while being eminently approachable. I delighted in it as I think most people would.