Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Day Trip I: Cheesesteak and Whips

My son, who has his learner’s permit, needs 60 hours of supervised driving in order to take his driving test. We got a lot of those hours on our cross-country vacation, but he was still short about 20 hours. In order to fill out his driving time we have been taking daytrips on the weekends.

For our first trip, my son mentioned that he had a craving for an authentic Phlly cheesesteak. We have tried most of the famous places like Pat’s and Geno’s, but our favorite South Philly cheesesteak palace is Tony Luke’s on Oregon Street right under I-95. My favorite is their Pork Italian which has sliced pork, mild provolone cheese and either spinach or broccoli rabe. It’s not a traditional ribeye and cheez-wiz sandwich, but it is soooo good.

Not willing to drive a hundred miles just for lunch, I put together a list of activities and festivals to piggy-back on the Tony Luke’s run. We settled on the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire about an hour west of Philly. I roused my family at what is an ungodly hour for them on the weekend and we hit the road about 10 am.

The drive up was a nightmare. An accident in the Harbor Tunnel had I-895 closed for nearly an hour. I-95 in Delaware was stop and go from the Maryland border to the toll plaza. If it weren’t for EZ-Pass, we would have waited even longer. Traffic slowed again from the turnpike rest stop to the split for the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Including a quick coffee and snack break at the rest stop, it took us nearly four hours to go about 100 miles. After our cheesesteaks, we were very late getting to the Renaissance Faire.

On the geek continuum, I am low in RenFaire points, leaning to the SF conventions like Balticon. I went a few times to a local one in high school and went to the Maryland one several years ago. The grounds were much better than the one in Maryland with tons of booths, stages, and food vendors. The number of people in some level of costume approached fifty percent. And there was way more entertainment than we get to in the few hours we had left in the afternoon.

We caught the very funny performance by Don Juan and Miguel, a whip and swordplay act that is played for laughs. The show isn’t listed in the program as explicit, but it is full of plenty of innuendo. The two guys have a hard time keeping a straight face, let alone staying in character as they crack whips and fight with flaming swords. They even have a cameo by “Don Juan’s” real-life daughter who is easy on the eyes and no slouch with a whip herself.

My son bought a Seinfeld-style black puffy shirt and matching jester hat. Normally this would be a frivolous purchase, but he has managed to wear the outfit socially at least one already. The end of the day jousting tournament was just a little too realistic and graphic for my wife, but I thought it was well done. We may even make a return trip.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: We still need a few more daytrips. Anything within about a hundred miles of Columbia, Maryland is fair game.

Monday, August 28, 2006

High School Confidential

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been getting wrapped up in the Every Degrassi Episode Ever Marathon on The N network, which is Nickelodeon’s primetime line-up for kids that have outgrown the tweener fare I made fun of in my Teenage Girl President post. That post, by the way, still gets the occasional comment by deluded underage LostGooglers™ that think I have anything to do with the casting of real shows. A Degrassi overdose made me think of my on-again off-again relationship with television shows about high school and how bad the writers and producers often get it wrong.

Degrassi: The Next Generation. As the name implies, this show is the sequel to the series from the late 80s that was filmed in Canada and became a cult hit on PBS. The new series follows a cast of a dozen or so high school students as they encounter various social problems such as drinking, drugs, sex, bullying, school violence and the like. My wife thinks the subject matter is a little too mature and explicit for the target audience, but it is a lot tamer and less sudsy than other shows in the line-up like South Of Nowhere and Beyond The Break. The Degrassi kids are fairly active sexually, but onscreen it’s mostly lip-locks and knowing glances. It tries to get the high-school experience right, unlike most shows about teenagers.

Welcome Back, Kotter. I was in grade school when this show was in it’s heyday. If you didn’t know the jokes and cut-downs from the latest episode the next morning, you were hopelessly uncool. I could do a pretty good Horshack laugh, which is probably not a good thing. Like all bad TV shows, the class had maybe ten “kids” in it played by actors well into their twenties and beyond that never seemed to graduate or even take any other classes.

Square Pegs. I’ve talked about my love of this show before. Sarah Jessica Parker and her equally nerdy friend keep trying to infiltrate the cool kids, who never seemed all that cool. As an 80s time capsule, the fashion and music need to preserved forever for the day when people doubt that high school kids once wore skinny ties. The plots veered from edgy to hopelessly dopey depending how just how high the writing staff was that week (and I’m not sure which way the correlation goes).

21 Jump Street. This show the Fox Network’s first hit. In it, the undercover narcs were the heroes. Every week they infiltrated some school where the criminal masterminds running the place never compared notes with the school that got busted last week. It was probably less hokey than most Stephen Cannell productions, but it took a lot suspended disbelief just to get through the opening credits. The actors were way too old and the plots seemed like CHiPs leftovers. It did have some good points. Dustin Nguyen was the first Vietnamese actor on television I’m aware of that didn’t wear a karate belt all the time. Peter Deluise was hilarious and Holly Robinson was always easy on the eyes. The show jumped the shark when it tried to emphasize Richard Greico as the heartthrob instead of Johnny Depp.

Head Of The Class. Howard Hessman (aka Johnny Fever from WKRP) was the substitute teacher for four years to the dimmest class of geniuses ever. These kids took five years to graduate, never took a higher level social studies class, and were never in the classroom for the full time between commercial breaks. I liked the show, but my judgment may have been clouded by how hott Robin Givens and Khrystyne Haje were. The stories were sitcom thin and each character was a “type” – nerd, poet, greaser, preppie, etc., but the jokes were occasionally funny. I even think Billy Connolly as Hesseman’s replacement brought some freshness to a show that had gotten stale. Ironically, the most successful people to emerge from the show were Brian Robbins and Dan Schneider who played the tough guy and the chubby slob respectively. These two teamed up to become very successful television and movie producers. Robbins is responsible for Smallville and One Tree Hill and Schneider has had his finger in about anything funny on Nickelodeon.

Freaks and Geeks. My fandom of this show killed it. As far as verisimilitude goes, the writers must have been following me around in the early 80s. While the show, as the title implies, mostly focused on complete and total nerds and barely-escaping-expulsion stoners, the overall social dynamic was real and subtle. I knew real people that were like everyone in the show. Heck, I was a few of them. It realistically depicted a lot of the various cliques that make up a high school and was more nuanced than the silly us-vs-them set-ups in movies like Pretty In Pink. Freaks and Geeks tried to get it right and mostly succeeded, which is what doomed it to cancellation after one season.

I can’t watch the high school soap opera shows now on primetime that are the spiritual descendants of 90210 and the like. The melodrama of The O.C. is just Dynasty on the beach. It’s a big time investment to get involved in these shows and the pay-off is slight. It seems when televison goes back to school, it usually fails.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What other shows about high school get it right and which just miss altogether?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Fountain Fantasy

The fountains at the Bellagio Casino are one of the major attractions on The Strip in Vegas. The fountain show goes off every 15 minutes for a three to five minute show. The fountains are in front of the Bellagio, one of the most elegant casinos on the strip and Caesar’s Palace is visible on the right. The lights on these casinos dim right before the show, so as to best show off the dancing water.

We stayed through two cycles of the show. The first one shown here is set to Frank Sinatra singing “Luck, Be A Lady”, an amazingly appropriate song for Las Vegas. I’m glad I caught this one on video, because the one after it was set to opera music. Pictures from that show are the ones on my Flickr set and used in my Vegas slide show.

I have no idea how many different songs they have for the fountains, but it must be a lot. I’ve been browsing YouTube to check out the dozens of other videos posted of the shows. They have everything from Elvis (“Viva Las Vegas”, of course) to Henry Mancini to patriotic anthems to classical pieces.

The power of water to entrance is amazing and my son in particular has alway loved fountains. Leave it to Vegas to have the most spectacular dancing water show I have ever seen.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Slice Of The Sixties

I have stolen yet another musical related post from Courtney. If you remember, she was the person that triggered my rant on substitute lead singers. This time she went through Pitchfork’s list of the 200 Greatest Songs of 1960s and commented. The 60s are not my strong suit since what I remember of them mostly relates to Sesame Street and Saturday morning cartoons.

My specialties are the Cheesy Hits of the 1970s and the Awesome 80s. Obviously a lot of great music was made in the 60s, so I went through my iPod to see how much of this well reasoned list I had. This list is only representative of my personal tastes and isn’t a good cross section of the decade.

193. Johnny and June Carter Cash: "Jackson"
171. Neil Diamond: "Sweet Caroline"
164. Frank Sinatra: "It Was a Very Good Year"
126. Led Zeppelin: "What Is and What Should Never Be"
105. Simon & Garfunkel: "America"
94. Simon & Garfunkel: "Mrs. Robinson"
84. The Rolling Stones: "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
82. Elvis Presley: "Suspicious Minds"
80. Bob Dylan: "Subterranean Homesick Blues"
75. Simon & Garfunkel: "The Boxer"
73. Bob Dylan: "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"
62. The Rolling Stones: "Street Fighting Man"
58. The Beatles: "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
53. Led Zeppelin: "Whole Lotta Love"
48. David Bowie: "Space Oddity"
47. The Beatles: "Eleanor Rigby"
45. Dusty Springfield: "Son of a Preacher Man"
39. The Rolling Stones: "Sympathy for the Devil"
37. Simon & Garfunkel: "The Sound of Silence"
35. Johnny Cash: "Ring of Fire"
25. The Rolling Stones: "Paint It Black"
22. Marvin Gaye: "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
21. The Beach Boys: "Good Vibrations"
19. The Beatles: "Tomorrow Never Knows"
12. The Rolling Stones: "Gimme Shelter"
11. Led Zeppelin: "Dazed and Confused"
8. Johnny Cash: "Folsom Prison Blues (Live at Folsom Prison)"
7. The Beach Boys: "Wouldn't It Be Nice"
5. The Beatles: "A Day in the Life"
4. Bob Dylan: "Like a Rolling Stone"
1. The Beach Boys: "God Only Knows"

That’s about 30 out of 200, and half of the top 10, so I don’t feel too bad. Most of these are from a few artists that I have the various Greatest Hits and Essential collections of. It also reveals a few holes in my collection. I need some Credence Clearwater Revival, Kinks, and Loretta Lynn to round out my playlists. There are also a lot of good songs on the list that I would like, but I don't feel like buying a whole album to get one song.

The hardest part of buying a hits collection from a vintage artist is selecting which of the many compilations available are the best and most representative. Some artists have more "Best Of" records than studio albums. Even harder is getting good collections of the one-hit wonders and minor artists. It takes awhile to find one without a lot of duplication of artists I already have or songs I can't stand.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: I’m open to suggestions. Let me know what I can buy during my next Personal Spending Day at BigBoxOfBooksAndMusic™ to fill in my historical archives.

Update: Maynard Ferguson, a jazz legend that spent a lot of his later career developing new talent, died yesterday. My observations on a show of his I saw last fall can be found here.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Fast Food Nation

Fast food is justly much maligned. It’s greasy, bland, and high in calories. But when you are traveling, it is sometimes the only option. On these occasions, I invoke Yellojkt’s Rule For Picking A Fast Food Chain:

When choosing between two nationally franchised chains, go to the one that has their closest branch furthest from your house.

For example, the nearest McDonalds is about a mile and a half from my house and the nearest Chick-Fil-A is about three miles from my house. Given a choice between those two, my rule says to eat at the Chick-Fil-A. Since the nearest chain to my house is a McDonalds, the McDonald’s Corollary is:

Never eat at a McDonald’s if you have another choice.

The best part of this rule is that on long distance trips, it allows me to sample some regional chains that I normally don’t get to eat at.

On the second day of our trip, after another unscheduled sidetrip to the Air Force Museum, my wife had a craving for spaghetti mac. We got directions to a Skyline Chili, so we could have the chain version of this regional specialty. Skyline Chili was actually not true fast-food since a waitress took orders and delivered food and payment was made upon leaving, diner style. Still, the architecture and prices screamed franchise. I had my chili with spaghetti “three-way” which doesn’t mean what you think it does. It came smothered in shredded cheddar cheese and was both delicious and filling.

Our other “must-do” fast food was In-N-Out, a California regional chain that has a near cult following. When we picked up our son in Palo Alto, we told him we were having lunch at the first In-N-Out we found. He groaned and rolled his eyes. It seems there was one just off the Stanford campus that he had been to a good half dozen times. We found one on I-5 north of Bakersfield at an exit that seemed to exist just to feed hungry travelers. The In-N-Out was packed with a line out the door. The retro red and white décor is meant to emulate an old time hamburger stand and the very simple limited menu mirrors that aesthetic. My son had learned how to order fries “animal style” which included onions and cheese and who knows what else.

Crossing West Texas is a lot of nothing and eating was a take it or leave it prospect. Fortunately we found a Sonic Drive-Thru in Fort Stockton. My son fell in love with Sonic in Oklahoma last year and there are none near us. Their gimmick twist on the burger place is that it is car service with no indoor dining. You order at a speaker under an awning and the food is brought to you. You even pay at a card swiper built into the speaker. Even though it was noon and the thermometer was flirting with three digits, we were very comfortable eating in the car as a light breeze blew through the rolled down windows.

Our final fast food indulgence was when we found a White Castle just off the highway in Nashville. White Castle has been on my son’s must-eat list since he saw “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” last year (and I hope that is the only craving he took away from that film). We were actually on our way to Rotier’s for dinner, but we stopped to let him have some cheeseburger slyders. Once there, I was intrigued enough to give the Chicken Rings (which strikes me as a very scary concept) a try. They were tasty with a heavy ranch flavor and meat which may have been a chicken at one time, but was now just stringy protein fiber.

So not counting a few stops at Starbucks, we managed to travel fifteen days and only ate fast food a few times. And when we did, they managed to be unique regional variations on America’s contribution to the world culinary experience, the homogenized processed fast food chain. I avoid fast food when I can, but if I’m ever near any of these chains again, I’m making a stop.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What fast food places do you actually like?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Going To Graceland

I was never a big fan of Elvis. I associated him with the cheesy movies my little sister watched on Saturday morning or the guy in the tubby white jumpsuit that played the Hampton Coliseum. Then I visited Graceland and realized that Elvis Aaron Presley was the Original Rock Star. Graceland was the home base for the Elvis Empire, just a few miles from Sun Studios where the history of modern music was written. While Graceland from the outside looks staid and conservative, the inside marks it as the lair of a legend. He lived the lifestyle that modern rock and rap stars can only dream of emulating.

GracelandA shuttle van takes tours up to the front of the house which looks like any McMansion in a reasonably affluent suburb. The living room and dining room which are the most tastefully decorated places in the entire place have stained glass and crystal. The kitchen, where all those peanut butter and banana sandwiches were fried, is a gold tone that doesn’t exist in the most well preserved relic of the sixties.

Then the real eye-popping part of tour begins. The media room has as a centerpiece three vacuum tube era televisions lined up in a custom cabinet so he could watch all three networks at once. The walls and ceiling in the basement pool room matches the furniture. And pictures cannot due justice to the Jungle Room. Dark green carpeting covers the wall and all the furniture is carved from wood. A waterfall is along one wall and weird figurines decorate the furniture.

Graceland is the original celebrity crib. Part of his entourage lived in mobile homes right on the grounds. Elvis had a fleet of golf carts including a converted snowmobile for racing around with his buddies. He built a private racquetball court that now houses hundreds of his gold records and his 70s-era stage costumes.

Beyond the house and grounds, several smaller exhibit areas show off different facets of the Elvis experience. His private jet, named Lisa Marie, has gold plated bathroom fixtures, a board room, and a bed with lap belts to comply with FAA regulations. An entire museum in its own right has lots of his cars, including a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, and, of course, a pink Cadillac.

Heart Attack SandwichThe off-site exhibits are a little scattershot and some seem designed just to lure guests into yet another gift shop. Several restaurants serve food, none of it good. I went with the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich from the 50s-style diner. You could even stay at the adjacent Graceland-run Heartbreak Hotel.

I came away with a newfound respect for The King who created the modern myth of the Rock Star, with both the way he lived and the way he tragically died. Graceland is a musical Mecca that all fans of rock-n-roll and its descendants should visit once in their life.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What is your connection with the American tragedy that was the life and music of Elvis?

For close-ups and descriptions of the pictures used in the movie as well as many others, see the Flickr set.

Update (8/21/06): The Washington Post reviewed two new Elvis bios this weekend. One is by Jerry Schilling who spent a lot of time at Graceland with Elvis. From the review, it seems he has a lot of stories about the place.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Melissa And Friends

Last week was the Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival and I was once again a no-show. Since I first learned about this annual event, I have wanted to go, but I fear it is a dream that will elude me forever. You see, I have a penis, and people with those are not allowed. And even if I wanted to, radical surgery wouldn’t gain me entrance since only “womyn born womyn” meet the eligibility standards. Even if they did change their policy, it’s unlikely that I would attend anyways. Camping in the woods in the August heat with several thousand feminists of the most militant variety is not a vacation I would be able to talk my wife into. So I have to just pout in a sour grapes way.

So instead of seeing Jill Sobule and Lez Zeppelin on the MWF mainstage last Thursday, I did something better. I got over my snit that she overlooked me and went to see Melissa Etheridge in concert at Constitution Hall in DC. I’m not sure that the mostly female audience was even aware of the irony of seeing America’s most famous lesbian musician at a venue that once snubbed African American singer Marion Anderson. Still, the DAR hall is a great place to see a show. Our seats were in a box just behind the floor seating. We had great sightlines to the oddly decorated stage, which consisted of a series of boxes that looked like glowing cubist strawberries.

This was my third time seeing Melissa live. We first saw her as the opening act for the Eagles on their Hell Freezes Over tour. She may have been still in the closet to most people, but she wasn’t fooling any of her fans that surrounded our seats. The second time was a few years ago on her solo (but by no means acoustic) tour. With just a guitar and some backing tracks, she rocked the Warner Theater.

At the DAR, we had to share our box with three other people. When we arrived, the first person was already there. She was very young and this was her second time to see Melissa. She had used her MEIN membership to get tickets to the Madison Square Gardens stand before she knew Melissa was playing DC. We had a fun time chatting and sharing celesbian gossip (Jodie Foster has been married for thirteen years, destroying another one of my dreams). Our final two boxmates were a twenty-something high-strung farmgirl that had just come out and her mother. Everyone complimented her mother on supporting her daughter so much. The mother’s attitude was that at least she didn’t have to worry about any unplanned pregnancies.

Melissa took the stage just five minutes after the nominal start time, surprising many of the attendees still lingering in the lobby, and proceeded to rock for nearly three hours. Melissa’s stage style is very Springsteenesque. She interacts with the audience a lot and likes to tell stories and ramble on. She introduced one song with a poignant story of a girl she had a crush on just after high school. The girl vanished one day because her parents had institutionalized her to keep her from spending too much time with the wrong crowd, meaning Melissa. Melissa also made multiple references to wasting ten years with the wrong person. We all knew whom she was talking about.

Good music is good music and Melissa Etheridge makes some of the best. In recent years she has had to carry a heavy burden as a role model and leader in the lesbian community and as a breast cancer survivor. She also plugs the Al Gore movie that she wrote a song for and (as a Kansas bred liberal) touts biodiesel fuels. Despite all this, she rocks hard and gives her fans what they want.

Melissa has a core group of loyal fans that will follow her everywhere. Judging by my boxmates and the enthusiasm of the audience, a Melissa Etheridge concert is part tent revival and part rite of passage. Melissa accepts that she will never be an arena-headlining superstar, which is fine with me since that lets me see her in great intimate venues. I don’t even mind sharing the men’s room with the women’s lounge refugees. And my wife doesn’t worry about any fellow groupies trying to pick me up. I’m just glad to be counted among Melissa’s great fans and friends.

Monday, August 14, 2006

More Fun With Babelfish

Eiffel Tower

Yellojkt looking for a sidewalk cafe.
As at least some of my readers know, I spend way too much time in the comment section (or Boodle, as the commenters like to call it) of a blog written by Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post. Joel recently went on a long working vacation with his family in France and the first of his humor columns, titled "The Art of Doing Nothing", about the experience was published. It humorously admires the ability of the French to completely relax at the omnipresent sidewalk cafes.

Back when I visited France a few years ago, I loved bistros and the little restauraunts where a single person was chef, maitre d’, waiter, and bottle washer. They have charm that no franchise of Le Madeline will ever capture. I knew just enough French to be able to tell "boeuf" from "poulet" on the very helpful menu boards on the outsides of all Parisian restaurants (a practice I wish us Yanks would emulate more often), but I still had great meal after great meal. I envy the café lifestyle Joel gently mocks.

Anyhoo, us Boodlers are a pretty tight knit bunch, and when a lot of new commenters come out of the woodwork, we get mildly suspicious. The phenomenon is known as a RoveStorm from when Joel was critical of Karl Rove and all sorts of chaos ensued. In a fit of political incorrectness that only an Ugly American like myself can muster, I called the influx of Gallic comments a FrogStorm. I apologigize for the anuran slur. It turns out that Joel’s column had caught the attention of Yahoo France. They had a front page synopsis of the column which made many French speakers seek out the source. Hence, the many new voices on the comments. Some took umbrage, but others got the humor.

The Yahoo column was in French, of course, so I ran it through Babelfish trying to get the gist of it. I have written before about what a complete hash Babelfish makes of anything remotely idiomatic and this was no exception. To make sure that Babelfish is just as incompetent in French as it is in German, I took the quotes from the French article and translated them back into English to see if it would even come close to Joel’s original bon mots.

Joel Achenbach columnYahoo France summaryBabelfish back into English
Sitting in a cafe is one of the main activities in Paris.S'assoir dans un café est une des principales activités à assoir itself in a coffee is one of the principal activities in Paris.
It's what Parisians do instead of working or jogging.S'assoir dans un café (...) c'est ce que font les Parisiens au lieu de travailler ou de faire du is what the Parisian ones instead of working do or to make jogging.
…a Frenchman in a pose so relaxed he might have been modeling for Toulouse-Lautrec. He was doing nothing, and doing it with panache.un Français assis dans une pose si détendue qu'il aurait pu être un modèle pour Toulouse-Lautrec. Il ne faisait rien et le faisait avec panache.a French sitting in an installation if slackened that it could have been a model for Toulouse-Lautrec. It did not do anything and did it with plume.
Or perhaps he was just enjoying the Latin Quarter, a section so old that I am pretty sure its residents still speak in Latin.A moins qu'il ne profite tout simplement du Quartier latin, un quartier si vieux que, je suis sûr, les habitants parlent le latin.A less than it does not benefit quite simply from the Latin Quarter, a district so old that, I am sure, the inhabitants speak Latin.

I am assuming that the person that wrote the Yahoo article did a good job translating Joel into French. Humor is notoriously tone dependent. Let me know if you do know any French and can vouch for the quality of the Yahoo article. As you can tell, even when real French speakers do the first round of translation, a roundtrip through Babelfish is guaranteed to lose all nuance and most meaning from whatever sentence you started with. Someday this stuff will actually work, but that day is not now.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Viva Las Vegas

Hit play to view the video

We only had one night in Las Vegas, and night is definitely the time of day to see Vegas, so we had to pack in as much as we could. My wife and I don't gamble. I find handing my money to complete strangers not a particularly compelling form of entertainment. We weren't in town long enough to catch some shows, so that left touring The Strip.

Our itinerary put us into Vegas on a Friday night which is peak season. The best bargain we could find was The Excalibur, a “family friendly” megacasino (at least by Vegas standards; it prominently features a male revue of Australian strippers called The Thunder From Down Under) that was a bit of a dump. We never talked to a live person from check-in to check-out. The air conditioning was better suited to a Motel 6, and the buffet was no threat to Morrisons.

We walked up to the Bellagio via New York, New York and the M&M superstore which is quite a hike. There we watched two versions of the famed fountain show. We had good views despite the fact that the watershow packs in the bystanders, making the empty streets of the last scene in the Clooney/Pitt Ocean’s Eleven pure Hollywood hokum.

Since it was after 10pm and still over 90 degrees, we picked a different way to catch the rest of bright lights. The Clark County public transit system runs a double decker shuttle bus called The Deuce. We managed to snag seats at the front of the upper level which gave us a great panoramic view of the neon sprawl. The one drawback is that the bus is slooooowwwww. At one point we stood still for over fifteen minutes while the bus driver argued with someone in a wheelchair over something.

We barely made it to Fremont Street in the old downtown in time to catch the last light show for the night. As a draw to the older obsolete casinos, every hour they turn three blocks of covered walkway into a stunning LCD lightshow. There is enough free stuff to watch in Vegas to keep someone busy for several days. We didn't get to Treasure Island or The Mirage or a lot of the other draw-them-in spectacles.

New York claims to be the city that never sleeps, but Las Vegas is the real deal. We didn't get back to our hotel until 1 am and everything was going strong. I wandered around a few casinos the next morning to take pictures and there were people playing poker at 8am in the MGM Grand. I find the excess and gaudiness fascinating, but not compelling. I don’t know if or when I’ll get back to this desert kingdom of vice, but I’m in no rush to clear out the bank account and board the plane. There are a lot of shows to see, but most of them are only-famous-in-Vegas magicians and crap. I would like to see Rita Rudner or Penn and Teller or the new Beatles tribute, but all-in-all, I'd rather see shows on Broadway which is much more convenient to me anyways.

Geek Corner®: I knew I wanted to make a slideshow montage of my Vegas pictures set to “Viva Las Vegas”. I only had enough pictures for a 36 second clip. I used an old version of Easy CD Creator to make the clip which gives a lot of output options. They all look great on my computer, but often look very grainy once on the web. It seems all these sites like YouTube convert the video to Flash animation on their servers, which makes them download faster at a serious cost to quality. I like the resolution of the Google™Videos best, so that’s what I used on the blog. You can see the YouTube version for comparison if you want. Just be careful about catching an Elvis tune cooty. The pictures used in the slideshow can be viewed more leisurely here.

One thing about these video sharing sites, is that you quickly realize that there are no original ideas. "Viva Las Vegas" is the soundtrack to several videos, including this one. Let’s hope the Presley estate never finds out about the rampant piracy.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What brings people to Vegas, the gaudy spectacle, or the opportunity to leave behind more money than they wanted to?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Terrorist In Name Only

Eiffel Tower

Suspected terrorist yellojkt in Paris.
I recently blogged about my family’s trip to Paris which we loved, but I had a very interesting encounter with the still wet behind the ears homeland security bureaucracy on the way back. We had flown Delta to Paris, and through a code-sharing arrangement, the flight back to the US was on Air France.

During the Christmas season in 2003, there was a lot of increased security based on some terrorism threats. As we toured Paris and London, the news was filled with stories of cancelled flights because of suspicious passenger manifests. These were mostly British Airways flights from London to Dulles, so we kept our fingers crossed and hoped for an uneventful return.

Just before our plane landed at Kennedy Airport in New York, the flight attendant came on the intercom and told everybody to have their passports ready as they left the plane. We were not familiar with post-9/11 (I hate that phrase, it sounds to much like “post-apocalypse”) security, but the mumbling from other passengers made us think this was not typical.

As we were de-planing, two guys inside the jetway to the terminal were looking at everyone’s passport and waving them through. As they read mine, one said to the other, “This is the one we’re looking for.” Then to me, “Please follow us.” They didn’t check anyone else after they led me away.

I asked them to let my wife and son follow us and they confusedly agreed. I was led to a small hallway just before the giant customs gateway. I sat there for about five minutes giving confused shrugs to my wife as I tried to convey that I had no idea what was going on.

An FBI agent led me to a small room not big enough for even his desk and computer. He apologized for the inconvenience and made some small talk about increased security. He asked me some very general questions about information on my passport and then said, “This is the important question: Have you ever lived in New York City?”

I replied, “I like to visit New York, but I have never lived there.” He apologized for the inconvenience and let me explain to my family that I was not going to jail. We managed to just barely catch our connecting flight to Baltimore and returned home uneventfully.

I was puzzled because nobody involved seemed aware that I was traveling with relatives of the same surname. Not to mention that my wife’s gender-ambiguous first name would also make her a likely Irish Malotov cocktail-throwing suspect. They were after me, and it was clear they had cast the net a little wide. I was not the terrorist they were looking for, but what was the use in trying to catch me and other potential suspects as we got OFF the plane?

I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later I read a story by Richard Lieby in the Washington Post about an NIH employee with a name very similar to mine that had been detained and questioned on New Years Eve because he also shared a name with an IRA terrorist. The article goes on to speculate if and how there is any connection between the IRA and al Qaeda. Obviously enough to send the FBI on wild goose chases over holiday weekends.

My clan back on the Old Sod has an unsavory reputation, but I doubt that any of them have graduated from bombing department stores to airliners. In fact I’m pretty certain the desire of Sinn Fein to disassociate themselves from Islamic fundamentalists had a quickening effect on the Irish peace process. And it is not just a few members of the Potato Diaspora that have been randomly inconvenienced, just ask Teddy.

With the British announcement this week of a foiled bombing plot, airport security has again been ratcheted back up to bright blinking crimson. I read that in London you are not allowed to bring anything on the plane other than a passport and a wallet. I hope menstruating women are allowed to tuck a few tampons into their bra strap as they turn their purses over to the complete strangers at baggage check.

At this rate we will be seriously considering Thomas Friedman’s tongue-in-cheek but prescient suggestion that all passengers be forced to fly naked. That will be when I abandon air travel together. Then the terrorists will have already won.

Also see Joel Achenbach's tales of overzealous screeners and his recent encounter with polite, professional French airport security personnel. Am I the only one to see the irony?

Blatant Comment Whoring™:
Is this just rampant paranoia or are these Orwellian/Kafkaesque security procedures justified if they can save just one life?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

RiverWalk Rocks

RiverWalkA few days ago, I damned with faint praise Leclede’s Landing in St Louis as a second rate Tacky Tourist Drinking District™. A week later on our trip, we visited Riverwalk in San Antonio, which by all measures is a first class T2D2. We were there on a hot humid weekday evening and had to wait a half hour to take the boat cruise tour. The informative and entertaining tour covered a lot of history and culture of both the Riverwalk area and San Antonio in general.

Taking a travel tip from Rachel Ray about getting the locals opinions about where to eat, we asked the native San Antonioian tour guide what the best Mexican restaurant on the Riverwalk was and he recommended Rio Rio. The place was still busy at 9 pm, but we were able to snag a waterside table, where we shared a jumbo margarita and dove into the food, which was excellent. This also gave us a great vantage point to watch the other tour boats and dinner cruises ply the river. Afterwards we worked ourselves to the Pat O’Briens branch opposite the Menger Hotel where we were staying for even more alcohol.

Tacky Tourist Drinking Districts come in two varieties, the organic and the developer-driven. An organic T2D2 is where a cluster of bars just happen to spring up and become popular enough to form a destination in their own right. The French Quarter in New Orleans is the prime example of this. The Buckhead area in Atlanta is another case of word of mouth creating a destination. Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and Ybor City in Tampa are other places where the bar and restaurant scene just reached critical mass.

More often than not, cities, seeing this phenomenon, try to capture lightning and build their own entertainment district where none existed before. A master plan is developed or a developer hired and a former wasted part of town is brought back to life. Lacledes Landing was one of these. Underground Atlanta was an organic T2D2 that was killed by subway construction in the 70s only to be rebuilt by a developer in 90s. Baltimore has both an organic one in Fells Point and a phony one at Power Plant Live (not to be confused with The Power Plant a few blocks away). The Brickyard area in Oklahoma City has stolen the San Antonio Riverwalk concept right down to the arched pedestrian bridges and flat-bottomed tour boats.

Rivercenter MallThe San Antonio Riverwalk straddles a fine line. There is clear evidence of phony theming surrounding some of the genuinely authentic locations. One branch of the Riverwalk even dead ends into a huge suburban-style shopping mall. The riverboat tour guide tells how they moved a historically protected hotel several blocks to make room for an even bigger hotel to go up.

San Antonio River Flood Control DamThe San Antonio River through downtown itself is a glorified water feature maintained by the city to support tourism. A dam just past the riverboat garage controls the level of the water through downtown. Outside of downtown, for most of the year, the real river is a muddy creek barely visible from the high banks. The flood control aspects of the Riverwalk have taken a backseat to the need for tourists to float around an outdoor theme park. Locals will let you in on the secret that they have to drain the Riverwalk once a year to clean out all the muck that has floated in from the zoo upstream. Definitely don’t drink the water, and I would recommend a long hot shower if you happened to fall into the water in a tequila-induced stupor.

For the most part, tourists don’t seem to mind as long as the Disneyfied illusion of historic context is maintained. I know I had a good time. The place is pretty, popular, and within stumbling distance of hotels. All the qualities of a fine Drinking District. And we exploited it to the hilt.

For more pictures of the Riverwalk, see this Flickr set. Be sure to check out the sleeping ducklings.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Take Me To Your Leader


The Great Rock And Roll Swindle


The Grand Illusion

Here’s a quiz inspired by Courtney’s rant about The Germs going on a reunion tour. Match the following bands with their lead singer:

1. Styx
2. Journey
3. Foreigner
4. CCR
5. Chicago
6. Cars
7. Queen

a. Jason Scheff
b. Kelly Hansen
c. Lawrence Gowan
d. J. D. Fortune
e. Steve Augeri
f. Paul Rodgers
g. Todd Rundgren
h. John Tristao

If you don’t recognize most of these names, it’s because they weren’t with the band in its heyday. They are replacements or sound-alikes picked so that the band can go on tour and exploit the nostalgia act circuit. The excuses for this deceptive trade practices fall into a couple of disingenuous categories.

We can’t help it the guy died. Your lead singer dies, what are you supposed to do? If you’re Dave Grohl, you form a different, arguably better, band. If you are INXS, you go on a cheesy reality show and realize that your band will be the butt of auto-erotic asphyxiation jokes (through no fault of your own) for the rest of your career. When lead singers, or even major band members die, the chapter should close. Even Jimmy Page understands this. Pete Townsend never got the memo, and Roger Daltrey needs the money too much to do the right thing.

The original guy quit/got fired/went completely nuts. These are the bands that make great Behind The Music episodes because there is so much bad blood. Dennis DeYoung is bat guano insane. That doesn’t give Tommy Shaw the right to hire a ringer. These bands also cause the most confusion in the marketplace because they are often in direct competition with the former frontman, sometimes playing the same venues within weeks of each other. Dennis DeYoung tours as DENNIS DEYOUNG: THE MUSIC OF STYX with or without a backing orchestra. Lou Gramm bills himself as “Lead Singer of Foreigner” with nary a “former” in sight. At least these guys are honest about who is on the bill.

We aren’t trying to deceive anybody. This tack is the trickiest. Queen+Paul Rodgers takes the approach that the absence of Freddy Mercury is hidden in the fine print. The New Cars ignore the fact that while Brian Orr is pushing up daisies, Ric Ocasek is too busy trying to kickstart his solo career between banging Paulina Porizkova to be bothered with his former bandmates. Like Queen, the abandoned Cars have gone to name talent to add legitimacy, but I’m not sure what Todd Rundgren brings to the table unless they are adding "Hello, It's Me" to the setlist.

Our new guy is even better than the old guy.Van Halen is the only band to successfully pull off this excuse only to fall on their face on the second try. As someone that saw the David Lee Roth line-up live, I get to be a snob even though Van Hager may have actually made better music. If you are going to switch singers, you better do it early in your career. REO Speedwagon pulled it off, and as far as I know, Kevin Cronin is still with the band and nobody is begging for the return of Terry Luttrell or Mike Murphy. Unfortunately, they often tour with faux-sters Styx and Journey.

It also works in reverse. When the reformed Doobie Brothers tour sans Michael McDonald, they only play their pre-sell-out music. It bugs me to hear that Joe Walsh plays Hotel California and earlier material on his solo tours.

Like any set of rules, there is a lot of gray area. You would need a wall chart to figure out what the "true" line-up of Jefferson Airplane/Starship/Whatever should be in order to even attempt to figure out who is what. Yes is another band available in an infinite set of permutations. And don't even get me started on Pink Floyd.

Any band touring with members that weren't there when they got their picture on the cover of Rolling Stone should be clearly labeled. It's called Truth In Advertising. The two original members of Credence Clearwater Revival tour as Credence Clearwater REMEMBERED, barely fooling anyone. Whenever I get tempted by some show like the current Foreigner/Journey “Not The Singer You Were Expecting” Tour, I have to do some serious Google™ searching to find some obscure trade magazine article explaining that it is not the real thing. No matter how many “original members” are on stage, without the original singer, who was usually a good part of the creative force that made the band noteworthy in the first place, these are just amazingly authentic tribute acts.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: Have you seen any of these Frankenzombie bands, were they any good, and did matter that it wasn’t the original line-up?

Answers (highlight text to see current and former singers)

1. Styx - c. Lawrence Gowan for Dennis DeYoung
2. Journey - e. Steve Augeri for Steve Perry
3. Foreigner - b. Kelly Hansen for Lou Gramm
4. CCR (Revisted) - h. John Tristao for John Fogarty
5. Chicago - a. Jason Scheff for Peter Cetera
6. New Cars - g. Todd Rundgren for Ric Ocasek/Brain Orr
7. Queen - f. Paul Rodgers for Freddy Mercury
8. INXS - d. J.D. Fortune for Michael Hutchence

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Lacledes Liquor Landing

Every town has one or wants one. No public official will call it by its true name, but every politician talks about needing a Tacky Tourist Drinking District ( or T2D2 as I call them) to boost the local economy. This is the neighborhood where all the out-of-towners go to get sloshed. The best and finest of these is the all too appropriately named Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The year ‘round street festival that is the French Quarter is the envy of many a city that wants drunken tourists to leave behind scads of cash.

We arrived in St Louis late, toured the Arch, and set out to look for a place to eat. The visitors guide I had picked up at the hotel showed a cluster of restaurants in an area called Laclede’s Landing within walking distance of the Arch. The Landing is an old warehouse/industrial area that has been converted to an entertainment district. At first we were a little nervous from all the empty storefronts on First Street, but once we hit the main area at Second Street, we knew we found the right place. It had all the accoutrements of a true T2D2: a Spaghetti Warehouse franchise, a dueling piano showbar, horse-drawn carriages, and lots of strolling tourists in tank tops and cargo shorts.

We picked Joey B’s On The Landing almost at random because it had Rachel Ray's seal of approval, and if any one knows anything about tacky tourist spots, it's Ms. PerkyRayOfSunshine herself. We ordered a St Louis style pizza, which features a very thin crust and a cheese that is NOT mozzarella. From our sidewalk seat we watched the parade of T2D2 archetypes go by:

  • Families on vacation with children too young to be out that late or taken into most of the restaurants still open.
  • Romantic couples trying to set a mood by taking carriage rides behind smelly, diapered horses.
  • Roving bands of urban hipsters trying to look cool without actually spending any money.
  • Bar hopping bachelor and bachelorette parties getting totally hammered.

The last group was the most entertaining. Bachelor and bachelorette parties are the local residents' unwitting way of adding color to a tourist district. Nothing is more hilarious that a group of trashed sorority alumnae trying to pry their even drunker tiara-ed victim away from the fire hydrant she is clutching onto for dear life because it is the only thing keeping her from falling into space.

Laclades Landing was pretty dead when we arrived at 9 pm on a Saturday evening but was hopping by eleven when we finished our grain alcohol fueled Fat Tuesday slushies. We hated to leave when all the parties were just getting started, but we had a brewery tour to take the next day.

Laclede’s Landing is typical of the ersatz entertainment districts we have seen in our travels. At most of these, there is usually something just a little phony or false in the décor and atmosphere. They are often in a seedy area of town nobody in their right mine would be caught in after dark if there weren’t plenty of neon around. Also, the mix of bars, restaurants, and shops tends to fit a certain tourist-causal profile. Still, we ate a meal, drank some drinks, and went away amused, so The Landing filled the function it was made for.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: In a future post, I will rate some of the best and worst T2D2’s across the country we have been to. In the meantime, let me know if your town has one or if you have a favorite to visit.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

BooksFirst - July 2006

Books Read

Roadtripping USA: The Complete Coast-to-Coast Guide to America (excerpts)
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowel

Books Bought

The Washingtonienne by Jessica Cutler
Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley


Not a particularly illustrious month for me. In my defense, I was on the road for two weeks of it and my major sources of reading materials were AAA Guides and state tourism brochures. The one for Texas was particularly good.

The problem with travel guides, and particularly ones with a scope as idiosyncratic as “road trips”, is that the places they talk about are on some pretty remote roads and rarely exactly on your travel itinerary. I think we only ate at one place listed in Roadtripping USA and that was by accident. We saw the Red Hut (pictured) coming out of the Lake Tahoe area right about lunchtime completely unaware that it was in the book. These books are better as wish-fulfillment entertainment than as practical guides.

In keeping with the vacation theme, I took Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (the voice of Violet Parr from The Incredibles) with me. Her rambling and frequently discursive tale of an obsession with assassinated presidents is more entertaining than enlightening. She tells more than I ever need to know about Lincoln’s, Garfield’s and McKinley’s killers in here, but the odds of me being able to drop any bon mots into cocktail party conversation are negligible. Her frequent digressions are much more humorous. Also, since I live near DC, reading of some of the locations she visited researching the book is cool in a “I’ve been there” kind of way. I saw the Broadway revival of Assassins a few years ago, and I now consider myself topped out on darkly humorous takes on president killers as I care to be without running the risk of ending up on another Homeland Security watchlist.

The two books I bought were impulse purchases. I have followed the tawdry Jessica Cutler saga from nearly the beginning through Wonkette and other media sources. I realize the thinly fictionalized version probably isn’t very good, but since I felt compelled to buy something besides just a tee shirt at the Tattered Cover in Denver, it fit the bill.

I specifically got my wife to book us a hotel in the Cherry Creek area so we would be close to the main Tattered Cover location only to find out that they had moved the entire store lock, stock, and barrel to a converted theater on Colfax Avenue. This new location makes good use of the uneven floor levels of an old time theater while maintaining a bookstore vibe. They even kept some old theater seats for the reading lounge. Hopefully they have read my cautionary post on bookstores that overexpand.

I love Christopher Buckley’s political satires and when I saw Florence of Arabia, which I knew nothing about, in the discount pile at the local BigBoxOfBooks™ I decided that for $3.99 in hardback, I couldn’t go wrong. It sounds like good light summer reading.

I will try to buckle down for August, but not making any promises. Until then, remember to keep BooksFirst.