Archives for category: Travel

Madame Lily Devalier always asked “Where are you?” in a way that insinuated that there were only two places on earth one could be: New Orleans and somewhere ridiculous. — Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis 4

One of my first memories of New Orleans is reading the Tom Robbins novel, Jitterbug Perfume— but ‘memory’ is not the right word. Maybe ‘encounter’ is better. Or ‘introduction’. Considering that I’m talking about a Robbins novel about immortality, Pan and perfume, I’m tempted to use ‘preface’, ‘prologue’ or ‘preamble’. Robbins took me through the streets of New Orleans accompanied by a mysterious Jamaican beet salesman and his helmet of swarming bees. His name was Bingo Pajama. And ever since reading that book, I’ve wanted to visit this enchanting city.

Thirty years later, we did. 2015 marked the tenth anniversary of my brain injury and this year I made up my mind against returning to Las Vegas. I wanted to travel someplace new, some place I had never seen before. After considering a number of possible new destinations– including some overseas– we narrowed the field of possible destinations to the Florida Keys and New Orleans. I decided for New Orleans. I’m so very glad that I did. We had a fantastic time.

Once more, Farmboy and Princess joined Whirl and me for the trip. We stayed at the historic Roosevelt Hotel. Originally built in 1893 as the Hotel Grunewald, the hotel has seen a great deal of New Orleans’ history. The Grunewald was sold in 1923. New owners renamed it the Roosevelt Hotel in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s efforts building the Panama Canal had tremendous financial benefits for the city. In 2005, the hotel was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and closed indefinitely. During the closure, the hotel was sold, underwent complete renovations and modernizations. Much of the public areas– notably the lobby and the Sazerac Bar– were restored to the look of grand days of the hotel in the 30s and 40s. The Roosevelt Hotel reopened in 2009.

We began by listing things we wanted to see. We talked to friends and relatives for suggestions. Whirl works with a museum curator who is a New Orleans native. Through that contact, we received an extensive summary and advice. It was a start. By the end of a week or so the list had grown. By the time we landed in Louisiana, it looked something like this:

FOOD AND DRINK

  • Acme Oyster House
  • Antoine’s
  • Bennachin
  • Brennan’s
  • Broussard’s
  • Cafe Du Monde
  • Central Grocery and Deli
  • Clancy’s
  • Commander’s Palace
  • Domenica
  • Emeril’s
  • Fiorella’s Cafe
  • Galatoire’s
  • Gumbo Shop
  • Jacques-Imo’s Café
  • PJ’s Coffee
  • Parkway Bakery & Tavern
  • Sazerac Bar
  • Slim Goodies Diner
  • Verti Marte
  • Wink’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery

CULTURE

  • Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium
  • Audubon Park
  • Backstreet Cultural Museum
  • Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World
  • Buckner Mansion
  • Crescent City Books
  • French Market
  • French Quarter
  • Garden District
  • Pearl River Eco-Tours
  • Holt Cemetery
  • Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church
  • Jackson Square
  • Krewe du Vieux
  • Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
  • Langlois Culinary Crossroads
  • Leonidas
  • Magazine Street
  • Maple Leaf Bar
  • Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo
  • Ogden Museum of Southern Art
  • St. Charles Street Car
  • St. Louis Cathedral
  • St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
  • The Moon Walk

MUSIC

  • Blue Nile
  • Frenchmen Street
  • Hi-Ho Lounge
  • Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar
  • Preservation Hall
  • Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro
  • d.b.a.

ACCOMMODATIONS

  • The Roosevelt Hotel

Twenty-one restaurants. Twenty-five cultural attractions. Seven music venues. One hotel. Four nights. Five days. It was pretty obvious we weren’t going to get to everything on the list. And we didn’t. But we did manage to do quite a bit while we were there and came away from the trip thinking we’d really managed to see something of the city.

Buckner Mansion 2

While it had been our intention to visit some venues for music, we never did quite make that work exactly that way. But what I can say is that music– live music– was everywhere. From the street musicians in the French Quarter, to different two- and three-piece bands in the hotel lounge every night to the piano player to the jazz three-piece at Commander’s Palace during brunch. Music was everywhere you went. And as much as I would have liked to seek it out explicitly, it still found me.

We arrived mid-morning on Wednesday to clear skies. It was apparent looking out the window that we were somewhere new. Even in winter, with much of the greenery gone, this was a different place. I thought maybe I had seen the Mississippi snaking along. I was wrong. It was one of any number of rivers and streams flowing through the area. We were out of the airport and quickly on our way to the Roosevelt. Checked in and looking for lunch. Off to the French Quarter.

While the hotel is not directly in the French Quarter, it is only a block away on the south side of Canal Street. We found New Orleans quite walkable. So we walked into the quarter looking for The Gumbo Shop— and right into Bourbon Street cliché. For the six blocks we walked along, I felt that perhaps we had made a horrible mistake in coming here. This was kitch and commercialism and no more interesting than any tired bar with dollar shots and tight t-shirts. Then we turned onto St. Peter Street and into a period film production underway outside Preservation Hall. A half block away from Bourbon and the entire vibe changed. It was a whole different place. And it was fantastic.

Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis 3The Gumbo Shop served as our entry into what became really an eating tour of New Orleans. I mentioned that we did a lot while we were here but we ate even more. And every meal was fantastic, starting with this one and the one immediately after. Coincidental to our trip, Princess’ parents were in town for a conference and had made arrangements for the six of us to have dinner at Clancy’s that evening. So with that in mind, we took the remaining couple hours of the afternoon to explore. We headed down St. Peter Street, took a left and discovered rows of fortune tellers and artists lined up. Whirl went to have her tarot read. Princess joined her. I turned around and suddenly realized I was standing in Jackson Square right in front of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France. That’s right. Sober, and with a belly full of gumbo I’d bumbled into the one Crescent City location I absolutely wanted to see– and I’d done it on accident.

While Whirl had her cards read, Farmboy and I went inside, and then wandered around Pirate and Pere Antoine Alleys beside the cathedral, eventually making our way across Decatur to the overlook of the river and the square. Princess and Whirl caught up with us after a while and we set back across the quarter exploring the shops along the way. I made a note of Cafe Du Monde for café au lait, beignets. For later.

Clancy’s with Princess’ parents meant more fantastic food and wine (baby drum with muddy waters sauce and shrimp, sweetbreads, bread pudding) after a long, slow cab ride from the hotel to the Audubon neighborhood. Our driver took us down St. Charles Avenue and we spent most of the trip admiring the antebellum mansions. We returned the next day, this time on the St. Charles streetcar to visit Magazine Street, take a guided tour of the Garden District before continuing on to the Carrollton Historic District for afternoon drinks at the Maple Leaf Bar and another fantastic dinner at Jacques-Imo’s (paneed rabbit with shrimp and tasso pasta, alligator cheesecake, fried boudin balls).

We wrapped up the evening with cocktails at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt. The four of us spent a couple hours talking with Andy, Andrew and Benji behind the bar. They made many delicious cocktails and capped off a great anniversary day with a flourish. Returning the Sazerac to its 1940s glory was one of the goals of the post-Katrina restoration work done on the hotel. Art deco decor, huge African walnut bar and the associated theater of serving absinthe.

Pearl River Swamp 3Friday morning came early. We booked a swamp tour along the Pearl River and the Honey Island Swamp to the north of the city. For hours we slid along among the bones of the swamp– winter had pulled back much of the greenery, revealing the structure of the environment in a way that we would never have seen at other times of the year. And while wildlife was comparatively scarce, we did see herons, kingfishers, egrets, turtles, osprey, wild pigs and a raccoon. Most striking were the artifacts left in the swamp from Katrina. We cruised past shrimp boats from the gulf that had been lifted by the storm for over ten miles to be left, wrecked among the oak and cypress. A small hut still hung up in the branches ten years later.

Lunch was New Orleans staples: the muffaletta sandwich from Central Grocery followed by café au lait and beignets at Cafe Du Monde for dessert. (Told you we’d be back!) We waddled across the street for a second visit to St. Louis Cathedral before touring the The Presbytère. The Presbytère is part of the Louisiana State Museum and holds two permanent exhibits. “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” documents the disaster, the aftermath and ongoing recovery. “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” offers a window into the annual celebration rituals of Mardi Gras– parade floats, costumes, and glimpses into the secretive social club society from which modern-day Mardi Gras krewes evolved. Both were powerful, informative exhibits and well worth the time we spent in them, providing context and structure to the act of walking through living history.

When the museum closed, we found ourselves once more on Jackson Square and explored more of the French Quarter on our way back to the hotel. Princess collected at least half a dozen different samples in her attempt to discover the perfect praline. Whirl found some decorations for our kitchen back home. I had a tummy ache. That night was another great dinner. This time at the John Besh restaurant, Dominica in the Roosevelt Hotel (paneed pork chop with paprika aioli & pickled carrots, sweetbreads, roasted cauliflower, gianduja budino). By this point you’re likely detecting a theme. There were a number of bridal parties in the restaurant and we learned from our waiters that it was quite popular to get married in the church across the street and have receptions in the Roosevelt.

Audubon Insectarium 4

Saturday was filled with more culture, starting with a visit to the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. This was more than appropriate given the amount of work Whirl does in the Insects department at the Field Museum. Several of her coworkers encouraged her to visit the Insectarium. Once she knew of it, there was no way we were going to miss it. The museum did not disappoint. Fantastic displays and an engaging staff marked this as one of the highlights of the trip. Farmboy commented that this was his very favorite item on the list.

We walked north along the Moon Walk to the bustling French Market. It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to try a French Fry po-boy sandwich. I found one along with some delicious beer, fried pickles and fried chicken at Fiorella’s Cafe. For dessert– and, as it turned out, dinner– buttermilk drops from Wink’s Bakery.

Immaculate Conception Church 7We hustled across the French Quarter to tour the Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church that afternoon. I am so very glad we did. It is one of the most singularly beautiful churches I have ever seen. A volunteer from the parish took us through the building and up into the choir balcony before the afternoon mass. I shot what I could, quickly and quietly, to try and capture the grandeur of the building. It was very clear to me why this church is such a popular wedding location.

You may be asking, “But why did you skip dinner Saturday night?” Simple answer: Krewe du Vieux. The first parade of the Mardi Gras season was Saturday night and we did not want to miss it. I know, the sacrifices we make for satire. Krewe du Vieux is the only krewe allowed to parade through the French Quarter. All floats are small, drawn by hand or mule. All the music is from live bands.

“With its theme ‘Krewe du Vieux Begs for Change,’ the group pondered a city, state and nation wrestling with transitions everywhere. What it found were confusing education mandates (with teachers of dubious moral character), dysfunctional city services, a bankrupting health care system, and legalized gay marriage (’50 States of Gay’) and marijuana (‘Toke of the Town’) sweeping the nation.” —David Lee Simmons

We met Art and Emily at the parade and spent the time before the arrival talking and joking around with them: comparing notes. It was also while we were waiting for the parade to begin that we learned of Winter Storm Linus– our flights back home Sunday night had been canceled. The storm was dumping nineteen inches of snow on the city. All flights into anywhere in the Midwest were grounded for the next twenty-four hours. But by this point in our trip we knew there were much worse places in the world to be stranded. Everyone we met knew it too.

After the parade we retired back to the hotel and tried to contact the airlines to look into alternate flights. That was fruitless. The best we managed was to arrange for a response at some ambiguous time later that evening– two hours or more. So it was back to Sazerac Bar. It was going to be a long night. Airline robots honored their promise and called us back with new travel arrangements. They were diligent calling us every ninety minutes or so starting at about 1:00 AM until 6:30 AM Sunday morning. Made for a good night’s sleep.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 2

We were booked on an early morning flight Monday through Charlotte, NC. Princess and Farmboy were booked on an even earlier flight through Miami. Whirl and I decided to stay put at the Roosevelt. Princess and Farmboy decided to book a room at a hotel by the airport. And with those arrangements made we thought of things to do on our extra day in New Orleans, Superbowl Sunday.

With a bit of “positive mental attitude” the concierge arranged a reservation for the four of us for the Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace. It proved to be the highlight meal of the trip: turtle soup, commander’s salad, cochon de lait eggs Benedict, pecan crusted gulf fish, black angus sirloin and egg, sugarcane & black pepper bacon, buttermilk biscuits, creole bread pudding soufflé, southern style pecan pie. It was delicious. Service was excellent. A three-piece band moved throughout the restaurant playing requests: trumpet, banjo, stand-up bass. After the meal we spent some more time in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 before making our way back down St. Charles Avenue and the hotel.

A brief detour to the casino on Canal and we were spent. Filled, content, happy and sleepy. We said our farewells. Princess and Farmboy headed for the airport hotel. Whirl and I settled into the lounge at the Roosevelt to watch the football game. The hotel had set up a couple televisions in the lounge and a small group of twenty people or so watched it together. By the time the third quarter began, we retired up to our room, watched the exciting finale, packed and turned in. Morning would come early and I was uncertain exactly what to expect for the leg home.

But as it turned out, everything went perfectly. No delays. No complications. We were home from a wonderful, fulfilling– and very filling– trip to the Big Easy.

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House on the Rock 1

Occasionally you experience something that defies explanation, an experience so surreal, so otherworldly, that you walk away from it with a single vaguely formed question repeating in your mind. What the hell? Alex Jordan’s House on the Rock is such an experience. I’ve thought about visiting ever since my friend, Temper, described it to me in 1996. I read Neil Gaiman‘s novel, American Gods, in 2002 and Gaiman uses the House on the Rock as a setting for one of the many memorable scenes in that story — if you haven’t read American Gods, stop reading this drivel and correct your oversight. I’m serious. It’s that good. Go on. I’ll wait.

Okay, you’ve finished the book. Good. See, I told you. Now do you understand why I wanted to go visit? What I can’t explain is why it took me eighteen years to finally act on my desire. It’s not that far away– 200 miles northwest of Chicago. This past Labor Day weekend, we finally went to celebrate Whirl’s birthday. Princess, Farmboy, Whirl and I planned a long weekend in Madison with a tour of the house as the main event.

I’ll write more about our tour of the house a little later. The trip’s undercard deserves some attention, too.

On the way out of town we stopped in Antioch, Illinois. This is Farmboy’s hometown. His mom still lives in the house where he grew up. As we passed through town, Farmboy guided us through his childhood: his high school, his first job, the shaky island out in the middle of the lake that served as a bar. Whirl sublimely summarized the visit: “Look! We’re watching Farmboy’s origin story!”

We drove much of the trip on two-lane highways through the cornfields of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, eventually stopping for lunch in Delavan, Wisconsin. Lunch was nothing spectacular, and sadly it was only after we’d moved on that curiosity caused me to look for information about the town. That’s when I learned about the circuses. At its height between 1847 and 1894, Delavan served as the winter home to 26 circus companies. P.T. Barnum‘s “Greatest Show on Earth” was founded in Delavan in 1874. There’s a life-size sculpture of a giraffe downtown, an elephant buried in the middle of the lake, and a graveyard with circus-themed markers.

Wisconsin Capitol 2Saturday afternoon we spent at Capitol Square and the Taste of Madison. And after some various negotiations ended up walking down Williamson Street to the Weary Traveler Freehouse for dinner. At this point, the name certainly fit us and the dinner was delicious.

When we arrived back at the hotel that evening, we formulated a plan for Sunday. We agreed upon a departure time that would get us to the House on the Rock shortly after opening. Farmboy estimated five to six hours to tour the house, leaving us with sufficient time to make the drive to New Glarus to visit the brewery and maybe see some of the Wilhelm Tell Festival. While we didn’t make it to the festival, we did enjoy some delicious beer at the brewery. When I walked out onto the courtyard I was immediately struck with a sense of familiarity. It wasn’t the same and I don’t mean to compare one to the other, but there was enough similar– the trip, the architecture, the sunshine, the beer– that as I stepped into the New Glarus beer garden, memories of my spontaneous visit to Kloster Andechs flooded back to me. Similarly to how the Benedictines of Andechs limit their distribution, the brewers at New Glarus do not distribute outside the state of Wisconsin. I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to learn we loaded up with sufficient supplies before departing.

I’ll cease with the preludes and incidental attractions and get on with the main event: the House on the Rock. The House on the Rock is a complex of architecturally unique rooms, galleries, streetscapes, and gardens originally designed by Alex Jordan. It opened as an attraction in 1960. Jordon continued to develop and expand the attraction for nearly thirty years. In 1988, one year before his death, Jordan sold the House to Art and Karen Donaldson. Since that time, the Donaldson family has maintained and further developed it, adding new collections and exhibits.

For a number of reasons, Alex Jordan and his house invite comparison to Frank Lloyd Wright and his Taliesin estate just down the road. One creation myth for the House on the Rock describes Jordan as a student dismissed from the Taliesin school and the house as architectural parody of Wright’s distinctive style. The myth is just that, a myth. It never happened. But it’s a good story. Maybe that’s what’s important.

House on the Rock 3

While the House on the Rock does seem to refer to Wright’s Prairie School aesthetic of horizontal lines, environmental integration, and craftsmanship, the majority is a maze of tacky rooms and macabre galleries. Highlights include the World’s largest indoor carousel (You knew that already from reading the novel, I know. Just checking.). There are rooms full of musical instruments that play automatically, a 200 foot model of a whale fighting a squid, a reconstruction of a 20th century main street, Japanese gardens, antique doll collections, airplanes, clocks, accordions and elaborate firearms. Instead of Wright’s restraint, the house is a monument to disorganization and mania. When we emerged mid-afternoon, I described my experience as a hellride from Roger Zelazny‘s Amber chronicles. It wasn’t until I cracked open my paperback copy of American Gods upon my return home that I noticed Gaiman’s dedication. It reads: “For absent friends – Kathy Acker and Roger Zelazny and all points in between.”

The house felt like a visit inside of dreamscape. Collections are dusty, erratically lit, haphazardly organized, and often without label. Shadow has no need for curators. Some items are real antiques, but many more are elaborate replicas or fantasies created from whole cloth by Jordan and his successors. It is impossible to tell what is real from what is ephemeral. And yet I can’t help but wonder if that was the point all along. I do not want to call it a museum; I didn’t learn anything. Instead I experienced everything: fear, awe, psychosis, disassociation, wonder.

Dodger Stadium 2

So it’s been nine years. For nine years, I’ve been thinking and writing and whining about cracking my head open. That can’t be good, right? To be fixated on something for that length of time. Nine years. No matter how unfortunate. No matter how traumatic. No matter how life-altering, nine years is a long time. But that’s what is has been. Short recap: nine years ago, Whirl goes out of town to visit her cousin dying of brain cancer and I step out in front of a guy on a bicycle racing a red light. I get knocked on my ass and land in a coma for ten days. Whirl and my family get calls from the Chicago Police and race across the country. I spend the next several months in hospitals, therapy and other dark rooms putting my life back together. I was lucky. By all accounts I should be dead. But I’m not.

The first year back on my feet, my friends and I took a trip to Las Vegas in part to celebrate. We’ve repeated that anniversary trip a number of times since then. The last two years met some some logistical and financial complications and we didn’t go. But this year we succeeded in our return. We put together a two-city tour: first to Los Angeles to take in the NHL Stadium Series game between the Ducks and the Kings at Dodger Stadium and then on to Las Vegas.

It was a small group, this year, four of us: Whirl, Farmboy, Princess and me. While in California, we stayed with Tom and Lisa in Palmdale. So that increased the number to six for the first leg of the tour. Plus Molly. I would be remiss if I failed to mention Tom and Lisa’s delightful pet cocker spaniel. Don’t be fooled by my practiced disposition of indifference, I loved this dog. She was so sweet and friendly and made me happy just to be in the same room with her. Wonderful, wonderful dog.

Defensive Zone Faceoff

In Los Angeles, we attended the most surreal hockey game I’ve ever seen. I can wrap my head around hockey outdoors. I can even wrap my head around hockey in a baseball stadium given that the calendar says January 25th. It’s the fans in shorts playing sandlot volleyball and the thermometer that reads 75°F that take the story into the land of the slightly bizarre. Other than not wanting to see the league-leading Ducks gain another two points in the Western Conference, I did not have a particularly strong loyalty to either team playing. I came to the game because I like to watch hockey, the timing worked out with the the rest of the trip and Tom and Lisa are LA Kings fans. So that made me a marginal Kings fan for the day. (Just to get the painful part over with quickly, the Kings were shut out 3-0 by the Ducks and the game never really went their way from the beginning.)

The USC band marched out. The crowd heavily weighted in support of the Kings booed– the Kings fan standing next to us clarified that this was a UCLA crowd. Legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully introduced the teams. And this time the crowd roared louder. And then there was the strut. Wayne Gretzky emerged from the cloud of smoke stridently pacing his way to the ice for the ceremonial puck drop. Gretzky’s relationship with the NHL has been strained recently, mostly to do with the financial troubles surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes. A settlement was reached in December and Gretzky’s appearance at the game in Los Angeles was seen by many as the the symbol that the ship had been set to right. Did Gretzky ever own that walk!

KISS 2

To underline the strangeness of the evening with eyeliner and whiteface, KISS played two short sets. This is after you take in the skateboards and yoga circles and inline skate park. KISS opened with the curious choice “Lick It Up” and included the three songs I expected them to play: “Dr. Love”, “Rock and Roll All Nite”, and “Shout It Out Loud”. Whirl was particularly amused by the fact that the band was shuttled onto the field with golf carts– stark contrast, indeed, to The Great One.

The hockey game itself had a little bit of everything but not a lot of anything. There was a short-lived fight (two punches and a fall), an Anze Kopitar penalty shot (missed) and a shutout (for the Ducks). But that was quite alright with me. I enjoyed the spectacle of the whole thing. I brought my camera and took some photographs, but after the first period I just put it away and soaked in the entire experience. That’s what I try to do on these anniversary trips– to turn off thinking about things and just enjoy where I am and who I’m with. So I did.

The exit from Dodgers Stadium provided another bit of amusement we carried with us through the remainder of the trip. The mood of the crowd was much more mellow than any other sports audience I’ve been a part of. It would be easy to chalk this up to Southern California sun-soaked stereotypes, and maybe I should just do that rather than try and analyze it too deeply. But two things happened in short succession as we were making our way out of the parking lot. For setup, the parking lot did not have much in the way of traffic control. People drove pretty much wherever they wanted in whatever order they wanted to get to one of the various exit points out of Chavez Ravine.

And at one point as we were about to turn onto one of the main arterial streets away from the stadium, a guy appeared in front of us, oblivious to the fact that he had stopped all traffic from exiting. We sat for a few moments before tapping the horn. No movement. So Farmboy laid on the horn longer to secure his attention. The fan slowly turned and blinked. Farmboy suggested the fan move out of the way. Fan responded in a mystified, lyrical tenor, “But I’m on the phone …?”

Farmboy accepted the fan’s right to talk on the phone, but pointed out many other places out of the way of traffic, where the conversation could continue that would not impede traffic.

“But I’m talking to my friend …?” came the fan’s bewildered rejoinder. The car erupted with laughter. The catch-phrase earned its place in our vocabulary.

But I’m on the phone. I’m talking to my friend.

Moments later, as we attempted to circumnavigate Phone-a-Friend, a van full of Anaheim Ducks fans cut us off from the right. Girls were hanging out the side window, one in particular must have thought herself quite clever with this taunt.

“Hee-e-eey, Kiiiiiings fa-aans! I saw a-aall the goa-a-aals!”

I don’t think I stopped laughing for five minutes. We might have been halfway back to Palmdale before I finally was able to collect my composure. This was a very far cry from the abuse I’m used to seeing Packers fans take at Soldier Field or Red Wings fans suffer at the United Center. Cardinals fans get more shit at Wrigley Field. It was hilarious. Sweet, peaceful, hilarious.

One final anecdote from Los Angeles: Farmboy’s iPhone navigation app was normally quite good at delivering directions. I mean, Siri wasn’t quite at the Scarlett Johansson level of engagement, but she did fine. Except for one street. She could pronounce all the Spanish street names in and around Los Angeles. She had no problem with expressways and bypasses. She pronounced French names like “Versailles” appropriately. But Valberg Street threw her and I have no idea why. She had to spell out. Really fast. Every time: Turn left at VEE AY ELL BEE EE ARR GEE street. What’s up with that?

The next day we said goodbye to our wonderful hosts, Tom and Lisa, and headed northeast across the desert to Las Vegas. Along the way, Whirl kept us entertained and informed with trivia surrounding Zzyzx Road. At breakfast, Farmboy explained that any of life’s problems can be overcome through the careful use of one or more of these three simple skills he learned in wrestling:

  • Takedown
  • Stall
  • Escape

Before we dropped off the rental car at McCarren Airport we had lunch at In-N-Out Burger on Tropicana Avenue. Tom had given us some suggestions to try from the not-so-secret In-N-Out Burger menu, and while we waited for our food, we considered what had become of Maggie. Maggie had left her calling card on the picnic bench outside the In-N-Out and appeared to be in some distress. The photograph showed her missing both shirt and shoes– and pants! Hard luck all over, I suppose. Over the next several days in Las Vegas we speculated on Maggie’s story. Was she living across the street at Golden Palm Casino Resort? Was the limousine parked outside In-N-Out waiting on her arrival or that of her friends? Every day, usually over breakfast, the four of us expanded upon the scope of our conjecture about a day in Maggie’s life, taking clues from the people, places and exchanges we witnessed during our visit.

How To Dismantle a PhotobombThis year we stayed at the Mirage. We’ve been to the Mirage several times on previous trips: to play poker and pai gow, to have dinner, to see LOVE. And most notoriously I cajoled several friends into joining me to see the erupting volcano. Let’s just say my associates were not impressed and they remind me of that fact in a myriad of friendly ways and at any opportunity.

This year the highlights tended to revolve around food. We took advantage of the wide variety of restaurants in Las Vegas. We revisited Hash House A Go Go for a delicious breakfast on Monday. Tuesday night we traveled to the MGM Grand and had dinner at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House before attending the evening performance of Cirque du Soleil’s .

I should pause here and say something about Tuesday night. I’m struggling with how to describe it, exactly. I can’t condemn it as a bad evening. It wasn’t. I had a great time. But it was troubling for me. Tuesday night seemed off-center in a couple of ways and writing this now from the perspective of looking back at the whole trip highlights the differences. It was a good meal, but not the best. That came later. It was a good show, but flawed by very difficult circumstances. I’ll start there and work back to dinner.

I’ve wanted to see Kà since 2007. I’ve attended three other Cirque shows on previous trips and a combination of poor planning and bad luck have kept me from seeing Kà. My interest in Kà piqued when I saw an episode of “Really Big Things” that featured the mechanics of the 360 degree rotating stage. The stage is as much an element of the show as the actors and there are 86 of those. The stage does not have a permanent floor; it has several moving platforms that appear to float. Action takes place on the shifting positions of the stage, sometimes horizontal, sometimes at an angle, sometimes vertical. The Los Angeles Times, when describing the show, said it “may well be the most lavish production in the history of Western theater [and] is surely the most technologically advanced.”

So I was really looking forward to seeing it this year. What I was not prepared for was the repercussions of the tragedy that struck the production last summer, when Sarah Guyard-Guillot fell to her death during a performance. It was the first– and only– death from an accident onstage in Cirque’s 30-year history. As a result of the death, the production has struggled with how to handle the show’s final battle scene. It’s not a scene that can be cut wholesale from the show; it is the climax. Guyard-Guillot played the show’s female protagonist. She figured prominently in that final scene. The compromise approach taken by Cirque was to present the final scene not with live actors, but with a projection of an earlier recording of the battle onto the vertical surface of the stage. That stylistic change was jarring to say the least. Other alternative approaches the troupe has tried included rewriting the scene from a battle to a wedding, to re-blocking it from a vertical orientation to a more traditional horizontal one, and training an entirely new troupe of actors. As a result, Kà is very much in a state of flux.

I think the original reason for the trip colors my reaction. For me, the annual retreat is a celebration that I am still around. That I’ve overcome something bizarre and unexpected and managed to hang on– even thrive in the aftermath. When things don’t work out that way, I feel it. With the run-up to the Olympics, I’ve noticed a number of stories resurface that have parallels to my own– all except for the ending– Michael Schumacher, Chelone Miller, Sarah Burke to name only a very few.

And now this has taken a rather darker tone than I had intended. Let me see if I can rescue it, because the message I want to leave about the trip is quite positive. I felt loved. I felt relaxed. I felt unburdened by worry and despair. I laughed a lot.

Youth Revisited

Before dinner, we’d spent the entirety of Tuesday afternoon at the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame Pinball Museum reliving our youth. We carried around buckets of quarters and played dozens of pinball machines. The museum houses hundreds of machines from the 1950s to the 1990s. And the vast majority of them work. They’re playable. For a quarter. Some of the newer ones cost fifty cents. But still, twenty dollars goes a very long way here. Princess, Farmboy and I spent quite a bit of time looking at old Williams machines, scouring the painted credits for names of Midway Games coworkers who had started in pinball. We found a lot! In fact, a huge percentage of the machines were manufactured by various Chicago companies. Here’s a short list of the major manufacturers represented at the museum:

  • Bally
  • Chicago Coin
  • Chicago Dynamic
  • D. Gottlieb & Co.
  • Midway
  • Stern
  • Williams

Not all of the games at the museum were pinball. There were a few stand-up video game arcade consoles and other arcade oddities. By far the most interesting game we played was Chicago Coin’s Las Vegas Shuffle: a combination of shuffleboard, bowling, skeeball and tic-tac-toe played with a mirror. It was made in 1973 by Chicago Dynamic Industries in (you guessed it) Chicago, Illinois.

We did some gambling, of course. I tried my hand at craps a number of times. I discovered that part of the remodeled Margaritaville restaurant in the Tropicana has been expanded into a gambling parlor, complete with dealers in flower print shirts and a fulltime soundtrack provided by Jimmy Buffett & friends. They also offered $5 craps and blackjack all the time. Farmboy finally found a slot machine that he liked, Goldfish, by our friends at WMS. We also played pai gow poker and spent an inordinate amount of time jumping from one big multi-cabinet machine we couldn’t figure out to another. The highlight of that late night romp through the Venetian being the discovery of IGT’s “Batman: The Dark Knight“.

2007 Bodega Arteca 'Atteca Armas'The highlight of the entire trip was Wednesday night. We had been talking about ideas for what to do on the night of January 29th, the actual anniversary date of the injury. Farmboy had stated he wanted to get a steak at some point during the trip and Tom Colicchio had just opened his second steak house at the Mirage in late 2013, Heritage Steak. We could not have asked for a better experience. The meal was the evening. By that I mean that dinner lasted deliciously from 7 until well past 10 in the evening. Everything was exquisite. The atmosphere was intimate. Farzad, our waiter, was fantastic. He genuinely appeared to enjoy hanging out with us as much as we did with him. We talked to Kate, the sommelier, more than once and gave here a muddled confusion of requests for wine. (I don’t know much about wine, but I can tell you that I was rather confused about what Whirl and Princess were requesting.) Kate persevered and came through with some excellent bottles for us. Speaking of Whirl, she’s been anxious to try beef for some time. So she decided to give it a try this night. She ordered a fillet and about wept. The meal was just so much fun. At the conclusion of the meal, Kate joined us for a glass of port and the chef, Anthony Zappola, came out to speak with us for a few minutes.

I know we’re not high rollers. I know we’re not, in the big scheme of things, particularly noteworthy, but everyone at Heritage Steak made us feel comfortable, welcome, special. I’ll never forget it.

Elgin Tower Coal FurnaceWhirl and I had our 15th wedding anniversary this week on Thursday. As we were talking about what we might want to do to celebrate, the logistics of a mid-week anniversary complicated things. So we put off making a decision until the day was upon us. Whereupon we put it off again. “Let’s do something this weekend.”

And now it’s Saturday and we still don’t have anything planned. We’d tossed a few ideas around. Go out to dinner somewhere, go to a show, or a concert or a movie. (I remember at one point earlier in the year we’d talked about going to Lollapalooza for our anniversary, but tickets sold out before we could get our acts together.)

“What about Elgin?” Whirl suggested.

Elgin.

Now hold on a minute. Don’t give up on me just yet. You see, Elgin isn’t quite as bad an idea as it might appear on first look. When we took stock of ways we’ve commemorated our anniversary in the past, we realized we have had similar celebrations before. In 2005, the year I got hurt, we spent our anniversary in Springfield, Illinois. Another year we rented a car and headed generally north. We ended up spending the weekend in Cedarburg, Wisconsin and attended the Oazukee County Fair. A couple years before that we took a similar trip to Michigan– although that trip was in a Mustang convertible. And there’s always the year I was laid off on our anniversary and no new job lined up, so we spent the entire day away from the job search at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Several years we’ve just spent the day together the two of us exploring some part of the city– often somewhere along the lakefront.

Okay, maybe Elgin is still a bad idea. But it’s not an uncharacteristic idea. Not for us, anyway. And why I argue that it’s not a bad choice is because all of those other simple days together were really very fun. We have a lot of fun together when we do these simple things. We just hang out and see where the day takes us.

So today we took the Metra Milwaukee District West out to the end of the line in Elgin. Whirl wanted me to see the Elgin Tower where she had visited a possible nest site two years ago. But beyond that we didn’t have much in the way of plans. We didn’t need them.

Historic Downtown ElginWe took the 12:30 from Union Station and arrived in Elgin at 1:45. On the way out we’d picked out a couple of other things that would be worth exploring. There’s a downtown historic district and also a historic residential district with a number of Sears kit homes still extant. A walking tour along the Fox River– and if all else failed there’s the Grand Victoria Casino that I was pretty sure would be happy to take our money.

We never made it to the casino. We didn’t want to. Our first stop was the 15-story art deco Elgin Tower Building, originally the Home Banks Building, built in 1929 shortly before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. Other than the assistant building manager we were the only ones there. He gave us a tour of several of the floors. On the twelfth floor we saw one of the peregrine falcons from the 2011 visit streak away off to the north. He excitedly showed us the Internet cafe now converted into the ETC Speakeasy in the newly renovated technology center inside the building. Our guide pointed out the new chairs, books and tables in the library before offering up my favorite moment: the active coal furnace in the basement.

Nothing quite says happy anniversary like riding a manual control elevator into the darkened basement of a 85-year old building to see a coal furnace.

We emerged unscathed, thanked our makeshift guide and headed out. Where we ran across the second surprise of the day an arts festival in historic downtown Elgin, Art & Soul on the Fox. Over 80 artists, and live music ran for several blocks in the downtown area. So we took our time and explored the various booths and stalls until we got hungry.

Elgin Historic HomeOur third pleasant surprise was Al’s Cafe. Right in the middle of the arts festival with lots of outdoor seating, delicious burgers, delicious beer and delicious homemade ice cream malts. I know this because I tried all three. In fact I was filled with nostalgia, given the time of year and the availability of Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. This was a favorite summertime beer of mine when I lived in Tübingen. Historically, I have not had much luck finding it Stateside. Al’s Cafe had it. So I had it. And it was good.

Whirl picked up a fused Falcon Ridge lodi zinfindel wine bottle from Patricia Donnelly as a memento before we continued on our walking tour of the town. In another bit of serendipity, it turned out that Donnelly was an interested reader of Whirl’s Peregrine Falcon Journal. This came out when they discussed Whirl’s choice of bottles and talked about seeing one of the pair on the tower earlier that afternoon.

Afterwards, we took in some of the historic homes, learned about the floods and a bit of the history of Elgin. You may be aware of the Elgin Watch Company, a a major US watch maker from 1864 until its closure in 1968. But something you probably weren’t aware of– and certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve ever heard– is the freshwater pearl rush in Elgin in the early 1900s. At a time when the average daily wage was $2, a typical pearl taken from the clams in the Fox river were going for $25. And exceptional specimens might demand $100 to $150.

Maybe not the most exciting adventure, but it was a day full of a number of unexpected and pleasant little surprises. I got to spend it with my best friend, and we came home lightly sunburned and happy. And really, that’s what’s important, isn’t it?

Cisco Live! 2013 Orlando

I spent this past week in Orlando at Cisco Live! 2013. The first time I went to this convention, it went by the name Networkers and was held in Denver. That was 1998. I attended Networkers the next year in Vancouver and Whirl came along with me. We tacked a few extra days on at the end to play tourist. A lot of things change in 15 years. The attendance back in the late 90s, at the height of the dot-com boom was still only about 3000 people. Every CCIE proudly wore a leather jacket with their number embroidered on it. I was still wet behind the ears, wide-eyed and naïve.

Now I suppose I’m older. More grizzled. Less impressed by flashy things and more interested in practical knowledge that will improve my work. My boss suggested I go this year. He attended two years ago, and knew that there is real value to be obtained– and that there is some fun to be had as well. So I booked up my class schedule, found a hotel, booked a flight and set off.

I also packed my swimsuit and my Blackhawks sweater. The suit was so I could practice with Team Orlando Masters at the YMCA Aquatic Center on International Drive. The sweater was because game six (and game seven, if necessary) of the Stanley Cup Finals would be played while I was there. And I was glad for both of them. I got two practices in with the Orlando Masters, and on Monday night a made a bunch of new friends at Miller’s Ale house. We turned the beer garden into our own Stanley Cup Finals party. At the end of the night we must have played “Chelsea Dagger” on the jukebox at least nine times in a row.

I attended sessions every day starting around 7:30 and going until about 5:30 or 6:00. Everything from radio frequency specifications and antennae design to the latest features in Cisco’s newest datacenter switches– a monster of a thing that will push 83 terabits/second through the switching fabric. I went to the big customer appreciation event on Wednesday night at Universal Studios– where we closed out the park and had a private, catered party for the 20000 people in attendance. I toured the World of Solutions expo where hundreds of various tech companies had booths set up. It was quite enlightening, nearly ten times the size of my previous visits.

Anyway. that’s enough preamble. Here are a few of the koans of wisdom I gathered from my four days at Cisco Live! 2013.

  • Connecting disconnected things allows those things to communicate (who knew?)
  • Journey without Steve Perry should be called Journey on My Wayward Son
  • Compute is a noun
  • Bathroom inequality is real; I just hadn’t truly experienced it before
  • Resonate (n): superficial consideration of allegedly meaningful propositions
  • EIGRP-OTV is super-cool
  • NX-OS accounting logs can save your bacon
  • 58 seconds can last a lifetime
  • Filling your keynote speech with an over-abundance of buzzwords is a surefire way to clear a room of network engineers; simultaneously offering free food and beer elsewhere multiplies the effect dramatically
  • The Kool-Aid sometimes tastes funny
  • Cafe Tu Tu Tango is wonderful; you should have dinner there

Stephanie at the Mississippi

Whirl has never seen the Mississippi River. This seems like a horrible oversight when you consider the following facts: the Mississippi River forms the western boundary of Illinois for 550 miles; Whirl has lived in Illinois for nearly 18 years. I mean, it’s right there. It’s a huge river. It’s worth going to take a look at for just that reason alone. But, for whatever reason, she’s never travelled anywhere along its length. So when the assignment desk handed out the banding task for the two chicks nesting on top of a grain elevator in Savanna, she jumped at the chance. And then immediately turned around and asked if I wanted to come along and shoot.

So I took a day off from work and we got up early in the morning to catch the train up to Wilmette where we met up with Matt. After a quick stop to get coffee, we were off on a three-hour road trip across the state to Savanna. We travelled for a while through construction season along I-90 before heading off on US highways and quiet, rolling state roads. It reminded me that you don’t need to go particularly far to get completely out of the big city of Chicago. I tend to forget that from time to time, and it’s nice to be reminded every once in a while.

We gathered two more members of the day’s team from the local US Fish and Wildlife office. Eric and his intern, Jamela, joined us and we headed over to the Consolidated Grain and Barge elevator that sits directly on the Mississippi riverbank in Savanna.

As we waited for Jeff from CGB to arrive and provide access, Whirl took in the expanse of the river. The Mississippi is running five feet above normal and has flooded all of the river islands. In April it was running even higher and flooded into the town. Although we learned that the extent of the damage was mostly limited to a few business basements and that the business owners had sworn off FEMA assistance and resolved the damage themselves.

Matt Heads to the Office Jeff arrived and the team got to work. I was on the camera. CGB and US Fish and Wildlife installed a nest box on the elevator in February, 2010. A camera was added in February, 2012. Both of the peregrine adults are unbanded– a fact that has been proved many times by the nest cam– so my photo assignment was just to take some fun pictures and document the area.

Meanwhile:

  • Hard hats? Check!
  • Heavy jackets? Check!
  • Climbing ropes and harnesses? Check!
  • High-tech cardboard box for chick transport? Check!

So while Eric, Jamela and Matt headed up to the roof of the grain elevator, I stood on the riverbank with Whirl and tracked the two adults as they harried the well-intentioned chick-nappers.

Savanna Adult StallsPeregrines are noisy. When they are defending a nest, they are very vocal. They attract attention. Shortly after the trio went up to the roof and stirred them up, we were greeted by about a half dozen neighbors living nearby curious to see what was going on. Everyone we met was very friendly and happy to share their experiences with the birds. The town has really embraced them living there. I like to see that.

It was a cool and cloudy spring day. Matt and Whirl set up the banding table outside under a big shade tree. The banding went quite well. One male, one female. Although I do need to mention that when Matt brought out the needles to draw blood, the small crowd that had gathered around to watch quickly dispersed. I took a few pictures of the process and got a portrait of each chick before returning to try and get a picture of a killdeer in flight– a task that proved too difficult. I settled for a Great Blue Heron in flight. Bigger, slower target. Easier to get. Still a magnificent bird.

Great Blue Heron 3

Matt and Eric returned the chicks to the nest box. The adults calmed down and we headed off to get some lunch. At lunch we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Al, who also works for US Fish and Wildlife in land reclamation. Al took us to Hawg Dawgs, a biker bar with delicious burgers attached to Frank Fritz Finds of American Pickers fame. Over lunch– and for some time after lunch– Al spun story after story about his work, the town, the river, himself, college with Matt and just about anything else you could ask for. Al was great company. After lunch he took us up to Mississippi Palisades State Park north of Savanna. We climbed up onto the river bluff and took in the expanse while dodging huge swarms of flies and mosquitos.

After a quick stop at the flooded boat launch and the gas station to refuel for the trip back, we headed off for home.

It was a very good day.

What's That!?

Before a couple weeks ago I’d never been to Lake Tahoe. To be honest, I’d never really known much about it. I hadn’t given it much thought at all, even after hearing the stories over the years from Whirl and her family. That’s all changed. I can happily state I am a fan of this spectacular place.

The trip was a family reunion. Everyone came from all over the West Coast– and the two of us from the Third Coast– to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Aunt Cynthia and Uncle Dennis. Twenty-three of us all together. Three generations. We spent a week there, at a rental property just outside Squaw Valley and down the road from Truckee. The site was no coincidence. Dennis grew up in Tahoe. He met Cynthia there. The two of them were married in a little church in Squaw Valley. Most of the family, at one point or another, has lived in the area for a time. And everyone– except me– had been there before.

I was the newcomer.

Arc of the Covenant

Which was fun to be. I got to see everything for the first time. Everything about the place was new to me. Certainly parts of it were familiar in a general way to my own experiences in Colorado, but this was someplace new. And nothing I’ve ever experienced can compare to the lake.

I swam in the lake– a little over a mile and a half in 56-degree water. The sun was shining and I’d brought along my wetsuit for just this occasion. It was exhilarating. We swam in the Truckee river, as well. We climbed all over the Squaw Valley ski resort. We went fishing. We cooked giant feasts for everyone for dinner. Played games of all sorts: from dominoes to euchre to Scrabble to ones that were made up on the spot.

Dennis 2One of the most interesting things was just listening to Dennis talk about his life there. Dennis is a builder, as were his father and grandfather. I talked with him at length about the various construction jobs he worked on in the area. From working on the construction of the dam at Stampede Reservoir to the rush of development that accompanied the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and a number of homes along the north and west shores of the lake. I felt like I was visiting his giant backyard.

We took our photography gear with us and tried to capture some of the emotion and character of the place and the family.

It really was a great trip, with wonderful people to a beautiful place. Just what a summer vacation should be, I think.

A team of neurosurgeons out of Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf have completed a comprehensive study on traumatic brain injury in the Asterix comics. I know this because they wrote a paper about it and had it published. The title of their paper is “Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books”. The publisher is the European journal of neurosurgery, Acta Neurochirurgica, the official journal of the European Association of Neurosurgical Societies (EANS). They publish papers on clinical neurosurgery: including diagnostic techniques, operative surgery, postoperative treatment and results.

And on at least one occasion they publish galgenhumor.

I have not read Asterix in twenty years or so. I remember them as being very funny. I first encountered the comic while living in Germany. I mostly read English and German translations. But there was a time when I tried my hand at reading the native French edition of the book as a way of supplementing my French coursework at the Tübinger Volkshochschule. That was funny, too.

(For different reasons. No, je ne veux pas besprechen.)

Now I want to get my hands on this paper. If it is anything like the abstract, I’m sure I’m going to find it hilarious.

Abstract
Background: The goal of the present study was to analyze the epidemiology and specific risk factors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the Asterix illustrated comic books. Among the illustrated literature, TBI is a predominating injury pattern.

Methods: A retrospective analysis of TBI in all 34 Asterix comic books was performed by examining the initial neurological status and signs of TBI. Clinical data were correlated to information regarding the trauma mechanism, the sociocultural background of victims and offenders, and the circumstances of the traumata, to identify specific risk factors.

Results: Seven hundred and four TBIs were identified. The majority of persons involved were adult and male. The major cause of trauma was assault (98.8%). Traumata were classified to be severe in over 50% (GCS 3–8). Different neurological deficits and signs of basal skull fractures were identified. Although over half of head-injury victims had a severe initial impairment of consciousness, no case of death or permanent neurological deficit was found. The largest group of head-injured characters was constituted by Romans (63.9%), while Gauls caused nearly 90% of the TBIs. A helmet had been worn by 70.5% of victims but had been lost in the vast majority of cases (87.7%). In 83% of cases, TBIs were caused under the influence of a doping agent called “the magic potion”.

Conclusions: Although over half of patients had an initially severe impairment of consciousness after TBI, no permanent deficit could be found. Roman nationality, hypoglossal paresis, lost helmet, and ingestion of the magic potion were significantly correlated with severe initial impairment of consciousness (p ≤ 0.05).

Links

Chandelier at CosmopolitanNow that Whirl and I are snowbound at home under the blanket of the 2011 Groundhog Day blizzard, I’ll see if I can’t piece together the threads, fragments, snippets and fabrications into some sort of interesting narrative about our sixth annual trip to Las Vegas. In case you’re curious, we already have have 9 inches of snow, 40-50 mph winds, whiteout conditions, 15-25 foot waves on Lake Michigan, lightning and thunder. Thunder. In a snowstorm. I saw the lightning with my own eyes. The thunder was eerily muffled by the snow. Predictions are for 3″ to 4″ per hour from now until 5 AM Wednesday morning. So, let it snow. I can’t stop it, I might as well appreciate it.

As we have for the past two years, we stayed at the Flamingo in the middle of the Las Vegas strip. This year I started collecting bits of observation about our stay there. We’ve noticed there is something a little peculiar about the music that constantly plays throughout the casinos. A particular songs will repeat with uncanny frequency. The song is often older — 15 or 20 years past its prime — once popular, but not one I would consider a particularly impressive classic. This ad-hoc themesong is recognizably dated. The first song to strike us in this way several years ago was Tom Cochrane‘s “Life Is a Highway“. This year we set about actively looking for the themesong. We came up with three candidate songs:

I was partial to naming the Roxette song as our themesong. The other two had strong arguments supporting them. All three meet the requirements and I personally heard all three of these mostly forgettable melodies at least three times in three different places around the Strip.

The other element I began tracking began with less preparation. I was inspired by a spontaneous conversation that erupted in front of Steamboat and me as we made our way across the casino floor. We were following a group of four girls who were walking in two groups of two. Each of the four women was dressed in the requisite Las Vegas nightclub uniform: the little black dress or its variation the little black miniskirt paired with a shiny silk blouse. Requisite too-high heels and a tiny clutch finish the ensemble. The forward pair were making a path through the mingling crowd, and it was the latter two that we unintentionally overheard. I should correct that statement. One of the two was rather despondant. Her head was down. She did not make eye contact. Her companion, walking beside her and perhaps a halfstep behind, was ostensibly comforting the other woman. The speaking voice was cool, uninflected — almost mechanical — as it chanted.

You’re sexy. You’re beautiful. You’re totally rockin’ that outfit.

It struck me as the sort of ironic environmental commentary one might hear while running around Las Venturas while playing Grand Theft Auto. I bust out laughing. I couldn’t help it. The unsympathetic, detached tone contrasting so vibrantly with the constructed projection of a particular look and persona.

I began to collect a few more snippets of overheard conversation from around the Flamingo. Here they are, ripped of any context and stripped of intentional irony:

  • “Dude, are those Flamingos?”
  • “Rawhide cleavage.”
  • “Well, I guess I can’t see your cleft lip from behind.”

Other random encounters included a long conversation at the craps table about the probabilties and strategies of betting against the shooter, witnessing someone win a $9000 jackpot on a slot machine, and discussing the probable meaning of a typo-laden text message on a woman’s phone. (I agreed, it did seem like her boyfriend was asking her if she wanted a burger and fries even if the text itself looked closer to “gurger nad frips.”)

Besides the typical gambling on poker, pai gow and craps, we took in a few new things this time around that we haven’t enjoyed on previous trips. Bitsy and I designed a team jersey for all of us. The jersey included a logo, nicknames and numbers. We all wore them boarding the plane, and from time to time throughout the weekend while in Las Vegas. It was goofy and frivolous, but fun. It also made it very simple to find each other on the casino floor. Hurricane‘s mother, Sibyl, celebrated her birthday with us on Friday. We combined that event with an idea AK and I had had after his trip to Dallas late last year. We went to Tom Colicchio‘s restaurant, craftsteak. Bitsy and I had agreed to try one of the tasting menus. And after a bit of discussion we recruited T. to our plan. With that phalanx in place, we quickly set about convincing the rest of our table to try the same. And as a result we had one of the best meals I have ever had. We enjoyed five different cuts of wagyu beef, delicious appetizers, sides and more than a dozen different deserts. The entire experience lasted almost four hours: from the scotch before dinner to the final cup of coffee at the end. It was an incredible way to spend an evening. Bitsy and I agreed that it would be a fine thing to incorporate into future Las Vegas trips.

niqui, Whirl and I enjoyed fantastic sushi one night. I went to have delicious Thai and Vietnamese food with Bitsy, T., AK and niqui. And I could not pass up the opportunity to return to Hash House A Go Go for breakfast. I failed to finish the crispy hand hammered pork tenderloin benedict even after our waiter challenged me to do so. He’d only served one person that day who had successfully joined the clean plate club with that dish. If I had succeeded, he would have bought my breakfast, and a t-shirt. I didn’t make it.

Las Vegas Gun Range 9

The Flamingo added a brewery to the property since last year: Sin City Brewing Company. Saturday night I proposed to Steamboat that we grab some of their fresh-brewed beer and enjoy them outside for a couple hours. That turned into a makeshift gathering around a firepit and extended far beyond what I had originally intended. Plastic cups, beer from kegs, a fire, outside. It reminded me of a party from twenty years ago. Except with much better beer. And I’m not twenty.

Earlier Saturday I joined Steamboat, AK and T. on their second trip to the Las Vegas Gun Range and Firearm Center. I haven’t been to a range in many years — perhaps I should consider this a special time machine side trip. We fired a number of weapons including a M-16, a Desert Eagle .50ae, a HK MP5, a HK USP Tactical .45 suppressed, a Carl Gustav M/45 SMG, and a 12 gauge semiautomatic tactical shotgun. I was the only one of my friends who had done any shooting of any real significance. They were very excited about the experience and I had as much fun firing rounds as I did shooting photographs of them.

John on Fremont Street Zipline 1Our last night in town we headed down to Fremont street. AK and niqui had never been there, so we showed them around the older casinos, gambled a bit. I hadn’t been downtown for a couple years. Some things had changed — most notably the addition of a zipline running the length of Fremont Street above the pedway. Smokes took the plunge and rode the line before we departed to pack up and come home the next morning.

But on our last night, after encountering more than my fair share, I got to thinking about a potential collective noun for a group of douchebags. Suggestions included: affliction, clot, flush, hemorrhage, purge and smear. We reached agreement on the term: hemorrhage. So there you have it: a hemorrhage of douchebags. Coming to a casino near you.

Preposterous.

They seek him here, they seek him there,
His clothes are loud, but never square.
It will make or break him so he’s got to buy the best,
Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion.

For the second day in a row I’ve had some time to get out and explore this little corner of the City of Angels. Up until today, I’ve spent most of my exploration opportunities in Little Tokyo just to the southwest of me. My last trip out I made an evening’s photowalk on Bunker Hill for a couple hours. But beyond that I’ve pretty much contained myself to Little Tokyo and a couple blocks into the Old Historic Downtown area.

Today I decided to venture further on foot and made my way down Los Angeles Street through the Fashion District. I should have brought my camera with me; I didn’t think to grab it. I’d intended just to go out and find a cafe to get some breakfast and read my book. But I can, at times, become easily distracted and the blocks and blocks of storefronts beckoned me to come explore. So the camera lingered behind at the hotel and I ventured in.

I started the morning at the Lost Souls Cafe. This small cafe tucked back inside an alleyway off 4th Street reminded me a great deal of a couple of my favorite cafes in Chicago: the old Gourmand of Printer’s Row, now closed; and the No Exit Cafe in Roger’s Park. I understand that this place often has live music and sometimes serves as a gallery for local artists working out of the converted lofts in the historic district. This sleepy Sunday morning there were just a handful of people there enjoying a cup of coffee, reading the newspaper or video-chatting on their MacBooks. It’s a rough open-loft space with the mechanical infrastructure of the building exposed: duct work, fire sprinkler systems. Breakfast was nothing particularly spectacular, but certainly sufficient. The coffee was excellent. — I spoke with a couple of patrons who had ordered this big purple milkshake looking drink and learned that was also a house specialty. The Ube shake composed of yams, ice cream and milk and topped with a big dollop of whipped cream. Apparently they’re quite delicious. I may just have to go back and try one before I leave.

I stayed for a while and read my book while sipping my coffee. When finished, I headed out into the warm afternoon with no particular destination in mind. I turned right onto Los Angeles Street and started heading southeast. Soon I was swallowed up in the Fashion District proper. I’m trying to come up with ways of describing this area. The sidewalks are lined with narrow storefronts selling all kinds of suits, handbags, perfume, lingerie and accessories. For blocks and blocks. I just kept walking, guessing what might be in the next shop. I saw suits of every color and design: leather, suede, pinstripe, seersucker, denim. Italian suits with shiny threads. Heavily embroidered shirts and jeans. The sidewalks started out fairly quiet, but the further I moved into the district the more people crowded around. By the time I got to the true heart of the district, Santee Alley, it was shoulder-to-shoulder as far as I could see.

I thought the prices were extremely competitive. Some shops were selling suits with the offer: buy one get two free. Shoes of every kind imaginable. It was a fashion mall that stretched probably eight blocks long and three blocks wide. Right downtown. I’ve never seen anything like it. But I have to say, if you’re looking for west coast style you’ll find it here, and it will not be like any mall you’ve ever visited.

Last night I had dinner at Shabu Shabu House in Little Tokyo. During my last visit to Los Angeles, I mentioned seeing a number of Japanese restaurants advertising shabu shabu to my child bride. We did a little digging to determine what that was all about and learned something about this particular style of Japanese cooking. I didn’t get a chance to try it while I was out here last time but Whirl, Spencer, Templar and I found a place in Chicago offering it, Cocoro Restaurant, and gave it a go back home.

It wasn’t two weeks after I returned from Los Angeles that Kevin Pang did a feature in the Chicago Tribune, “The Chinese guy’s guide to eating in Chinatown”. Toward the end of the article he talks about hot pot cooking and recommends a couple places to try it, one Chinese and one Japanese.

This trip I promised myself that I would give shabu shabu a try out here. Nick Solares wrote a detailed review about Shabu Shabu House for Serious Eats and describes the meal like this:

In Japanese, “shabu shabu” literally translates to “swish swish” and refers to the technique employed in preparing the dish. You take razor thin slices of beef and submerge them into a pot of boiling water—it cooks almost instantly. The beef is accompanied by an assortment of vegetables, noodles, and tofu that are also cooked in the water and served over rice.

I arrived just as the restaurant was opening and there was already a crowd of 50 to 60 people waiting. The restaurant only has 24 seats. I met the owner, Yoshinobu Maruyama. He was quite congenial. I put my name on the list and waited patiently. About 40 minutes later I sat down to eat. The wait was well worth it. Delicious food, fun atmosphere. Maruyama helped me mix the various sauces and get me settled into how to go about eating this dish. It was a great dinner. An excellent finish to a much-needed day of relaxation.

And now I’m off in search of place to watch Game Five of the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s scheduled against Game Two of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics. I may have to put somebody into the boards to get control of the puck– err, TV.