Our Trip to Las Vegas: A Reflection

Note: Originally Published 1-6-07

As my wife and I both have careers that afford us the luxury of vacation time between December 23rd and January 8th, we decided that to sit around the house twiddling our thumbs, while inexpensive, would be a terribly foolish use of time on our parts.  Hence, in an incredibly impulsive move one evening, we booked airline tickets to Las Vegas, a room at Caesars Palace, and two tickets to see Celine Dion: A New Day

From that moment on, we could never turn back.

We arrived in Las Vegas on January 1st, around 11:00 am, and left on January 4th, around 1:30 pm.   

What I would like to do for you, friend, is break down our vacation into experiences.  I think this will make it both easier to read and will allow you to jump around to the topics of most interest.  I will bold and underline each experience to catch your eye.  I hope you enjoy it and happy navigating!

Las Vegas:  On the whole, I loved it.  By no stretch of the imagination would I compare it to one of the most beautiful cities of the world, rarely will you find a greater example of commercialism and indulgence, but if you find yourself bored in Vegas, you’ve got problems.  I am not a big gambler or partier (anymore), and I still had a wonderful, wonderful time.  Yes, the crowds are atrocious and there can be severe culture clash as you’ll hear every language across the globe, but that is a small price to pay for all the city has to offer.  Trust me, I detest crowds, and even I managed to tolerate the throngs of humanity.

Money:  My wife and I are DINKs (double-income, no kids) and so the following piece of advice is a little easier for us, but if you are going to Vegas, you MUST be willing to spend money.  You cannot do anything without dropping a wad, and they charge you for everything, so loosen up and let it go.  Easier said than done for those of you with single-incomes or a couple of little ones to take care of, I know, but in all truth, there is very little to do out there unless you’re willing to pay.  Of course, if you’re a high roller, you might get a bunch of stuff compensated, but I’m not, and so I paid, but I paid with a smile on my face the whole time as I loved everything I paid for.

Caesars Palace:  We stayed at Caesars Palace, and while it was expensive, it was absolutely worth every cent.  Extravagant is too mild a description.  Everywhere you looked you saw murals, statues, ornaments.  We truly had not one disappointment with our stay.  As you probably have surmised, it works on an Ancient Rome theme, specifically during the time of Julius Caesar. 

As soon as we got there I knew we’d made the right choice.  The help were absolutely the nicest people imaginable, and the gentleman, Tom, who checked us in spent more time than necessary offering advice on shows and things to do.  In fact, he clued us in on a performer’s last show in Vegas we had to see, but I’ll talk more about that later.  Let’s just say I was glad Tom brought it to our attention.

Tom also offered us a room upgrade, which I’m sure everyone gets, and while it cost us a little more each night, we took it.  My wife and I once passed on a first-class upgrade on a flight to St. Lucia and have forever regretted it, and so I now take upgrades more seriously.  I am so glad we took it.  Our room size, including the bathroom, almost doubled.  Plus, unlike some other pricey avenues I’ve stayed at, everything in the room, and around the mammoth hotel really, was very clean. 

Caesars Palace has something like 12 restaurants, 11 bars/lounges, and 21 shops.  Of course, the Forum Shops, attached to Caesars Palace, also has 100 stores and 13 restaurants.  So if you’re a shopper, which we’re not, you will think you’ve touched down in fantasyland.  Personally, I didn’t recognize 98% of the names I saw on the storefronts, but my wife assured me they were all very posh.

Along with all that, of course, it has a fully functioning casino, as well as a beauty salon, a health spa, and plenty of swimming pools. 

Finally, Caesars Palace also has the Colosseum where Celine Dion and Elton John regularly perform.  More on that to come later.

We easily could have spent our entire stay in Caesars Palace and been perfectly content and entertained.  If you’re willing to drop a little more money than an average hotel, I severely recommend you stay at Caesars Palace.

Eiffel Tower Experience:  In the Paris, we took part in the Eiffel Tower Experience.  You basically take a ride to the top of a half-sized replica of the Eiffel Tower.  We went up at night and got a breath-taking view of the city.  Just like the real Eiffel Tower, you are exposed to the elements and so it was a little chilly, but nothing too terrible.  My wife and I have both been in the real Eiffel Tower and were still pleased with our trip up Las Vegas’ doppelganger.  Before you get on the elevator, they take your picture, which you may purchase on your way out if you like.  We liked the picture and so took advantage of the opportunity. 

Fountains of Bellagio Water Ballet:  This is a free show that takes place every, if I’m not mistaken, 15 minutes.  It’s a magnificent spectacle in the fountains outside the Bellagio with high-powered waterspouts sending air hurtling to the heavens in rhythm to music playing over speakers.  I’d say the fountains stretched maybe a quarter of a mile in length, so it was truly quite a show.  We watched it both during the day and at night.  During the night everything is accentuated with lights, but I liked it better during the day because you could see the water in greater detail.  Very cool.

Madam Tussand’s Wax Museum:  This was one of my absolute favorite things we did during our trip.  Located in the Venetian, this museum had dozens and dozens of celebrity replicas.  The best part was that they left out little interactive baubles for you to use while posing with your favorite celebrity.  For instance, they had George Clooney in a little wedding chapel and left out bridal gowns for the ladies to slip on over their clothes.  They also had golf clubs on the putting green with Tiger Woods.  Celebrity figurines ranged from athletes to musicians to actors to historical figures.  They also had a haunted house tour featuring The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Kristen shoved me through it so fast I didn’t get to see much.  I still love her, though! 

We posed with virtually every figure they had, so we had a great time.  You must be willing to look like an idiot in front of all the other tourists, however, otherwise you may be too timid to pose for pictures and thus have a lackluster time.

Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin and White Tiger Habitat:  Siegfried and Roy may not be performing any longer, but their names are still everywhere, including this habitat which offers full above and below water views of dolphins as they are swimming leisurely about or working with researchers and trainers.  They also offer very up-close views to lions, cheetahs, panthers, regular tigers, and white tigers.  They had the cats in pens with all kinds of vegetation and downed trees, and most of the cats were lounging upon them without giving us a second look.  It really felt very special and the white tigers were mesmerizing.  Again, this was well worth the price of admission and is near the top of my list of favorite sites we took in while at Las Vegas.

Gondola Ride:  This was a gondola ride we could have taken through the Venetian’s shops.  We were stoked to do it until we actually got there and saw that the ride was very short and that the shoppers, including ourselves, stopped and gawked just feet away from the folks taking the ride.  I’ve taken a real gondola ride in Venice and simply refused to pay the fare for this substitute.  Don’t get me wrong, it looked pleasant enough and was very fun to watch, but I just didn’t think the experience on the water would have been any better than what we were getting on land.

Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum:  This museum in the Venetian featured the work of Robert Mapplethorpe.  The actual exhibition was entitled Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition.  The work shown was mostly his photographs, and they featured a comparison between the themes of classic Greek sculptures and works with his nudes and still-lifes.  While my wife and I both appreciated the artist and his work, some of his photographs were explicit and the general content proved beyond our usual tastes.  However, I was happy for the exposure to an artist I had not previously been familiar with and certainly support his legacy.

David Copperfield: An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusion:  Tom, the pleasant man who checked us in at Caesars Palace, recommended we see David Copperfield.  My wife and I were not even aware he was in Vegas, so soon after we got to our room we called MGM Grand, his venue for the show, to see if we could get tickets.  Luckily for us, they had a few available and so the following night we took in his show! 

I’ve been a fan of Copperfield since I was a little kid and I can’t think of many more people who have worked themselves into the social conscious of pop-culture.  In fact, the show began with a series of clips highlighting all the times he’s been mentioned.  They ranged from cartoons to movies to television shows to songs.  It really made quite an impression on me.

Once he finally came out, he started off a little slow, almost as though he didn’t want to be there.  But, the man completely had me eating out of his hand by the end of the show as he warmed up and got his engines revving.  What astounded me most was his great humor and ability to handle his crowd.  He was very interactive with his audience and had many, many people get up on stage with him by randomly throwing frisbees out into the crowd.  When he got one fella who didn’t speak English, he dealt with it and pulled the guy up on stage anyway.  He never got angry, but his frustration at times was obvious and his jokes making light of the situation seemed completely off the cuff and, in my opinion, were hilarious.  He desperately wanted to know if the man wore boxers or briefs, and he finally had to simply guess as all Spanglish attempts and hand gestures got him nowhere.

He gave us a lot of the standard stuff you see on television, but he did a few things, like appearing right in the middle of the audience, that had my wife and me completely baffled.  All in all, he gave us an amazing show and I completely understand how he has become the megastar he is.  Though a little pompous and self-serving, he didn’t make any attempt at pretending otherwise and actually made jokes about it.

We actually felt a little bad for him because his audience didn’t seem very entertained and were a little lame.  Kristen and I were laughing and clapping non-stop and the people around us must have thought we were crazy, but were having a great time!  I am so glad Tom brought this show to our attention.

Bellagio Botanical Gardens:  I think we were expecting some sort of gargantuan greenhouse, so when we came upon a little patch of vegetation in the Bellagio, we weren’t all that impressed.  They had it decorated with Christmas themes and it was very tastefully done, I think we simply had an image in our minds it couldn’t live up to. 

Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay:  Found within Mandalay Bay, this was very impressive.  It offered a wide array of sea life, from piranhas to stingrays to jellyfish to many species of sharks, and, while a relatively short exhibition, you could stay as long as you wanted and it proved endlessly interesting.  This also was one of my favorites.

Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art:  We totally lucked out and caught an exhibit entitled Ansel Adams: America.  Many of you are familiar with Ansel Adams’ work, but if you’re not, he is one of America’s favorite photographers specializing in American landscape.  Let me tell you, it was breathtaking.  Not only did it feature many of his actual photographs, but it also displayed actual letters written to and from him with friends and presidents, as well as some of his actual equipment he used throughout his life.  Again, by far one of my favorite things we did in Las Vegas.  I think Kristen, an avid photographer herself, felt both awed and inspired.  As for myself, though not a photographer, this man compelled me that masterpieces arrive though careful planning, hard work, listening to your instincts, and taking some good old luck when it comes your way.  Magnificent exhibition!

Celine Dion: A New Day:  Okay, I’ll own up to it-I loved it.  Those of you who know me personally probably know that I wasn’t the biggest Dion fan out there . . . in fact, I had gone on record as saying I thought she was the anti-Christ.  However, my wife is a fan and I knew she’d enjoy it, and so I booked the tickets.  Don’t get me wrong, while I wasn’t her biggest fan, I did understand she is one of the world’s biggest stars and jumped at the chance to see her in action, for I knew the production value alone would be worth my time.

Let me just say that within the first five minutes she had me completely won over.  I will never, and I mean never, make fun of this woman again.  The antics I once perceived as silly and over-the-top I now see as passionate and expressive.  I make no apologies: this woman was simply and totally awesome.  I’ve never seen anything like it and I don’t think I ever will again. 

While simply watching her would have been enough, she also had all sorts of dancers and theatrics taking place around her as she performed.  The costumes and props, along with a giant video screen behind her that became a part of the stage, made an already dazzlingly performance even more so.

Don’t get me wrong, the tickets were very expensive, but I’d see her again in a heartbeat.  That’s how good she truly was. 

Gambling:  Kristen and I fully intended to play some slots, but we were so busy we never got around to it.  We managed to take a quick picture of Kristen at a slot machine, but there were too many things I wanted to do beyond gambling.  I don’t have a problem with gambling, don’t misunderstand, but I can go gamble in Peoria if I want.  I can’t see Copperfield or Dion just anywhere.

Anyway, you can obviously gamble virtually anywhere in Las Vegas!  Every hotel had a fully functioning casino, and even the airport had slot machines.  No matter what time of day or night you passed through a hotel, there were always people at the slots or the tables.  If you love to gamble, Las Vegas is the place for you!

Airports:  We flew out of Peoria, Illinois, because they offer Allegiant Airline tickets for $99 one-way per person, non-stop.  The Peoria airport is what you would expect for a little regional airport, so I don’t have any serious complaints. 

The Las Vegas airport, however, impressed me to no end with its speed, productivity, and general organization.  I dread a certain Chicago airport that shall remain unnamed and I was expecting that sort of general chaos at the Vegas airport, but it was nothing of the sort.  This proved a very pleasant surprise for me.

So, okay!  There you go!  We loved it, absolutely loved it, and while I’m not sure I would go back next year, I can easily see myself traveling to Vegas again in a few years (after saving up).  That is, unless we become DIKs (double-income, kids), in which case we may be going someplace a little less . . . well, you know.  Thanks for stopping by, and if you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them!

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Meeting Michael Chabon

Note:  Originally Published 5-24-07

About a year ago, Michael Chabon (who is, in my opinion, America’s greatest living author) had been scheduled to do a book signing at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago in order to promote his latest novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

One problem-the book got delayed for many different reasons.

That being said, the Chicago appearance obviously was cancelled, and I was devastated.  Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I was very disappointed.  Chabon is my literary hero, and I wanted to meet him terribly.

So several weeks ago, I discovered that with the novel coming out on May 1st of 2007, his appearance at the Harold Washington Library had been rescheduled for the 21st of May.  Well, after losing out last time, I knew I would always regret it if I let this opportunity pass.  I took a personal day from work, and Kristen and I made a trip out of it.

Monday night arrived and we made our way to the Harold Washington branch of the Chicago Public Library.  Neither of us had ever been there before, so after finding our way inside we asked a helpful security guard to direct us to the Michael Chabon signing.  She pointed us into the next room, and from there a staff member escorted us to a reserved elevator.  Had we not been with a few other anonymous Chabon fans I would have been a little unsettled by the strange proceedings. 

All was well, for when we got off the elevator we were immediately faced with multiple persons waiting in line to sign in and get their reserved tickets.  Luckily, my self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder served us well as we were nearly an hour early.  Even so, after receiving our ticket and entering the room he would actually be speaking in, we only got about a fourth of the way to his podium; all of the front seats had already been filled.

So, Kristen and I sat and waited.  I had a wonderful time listening to all of the conversations taking place around us as people discussed their favorite works of Chabon.  Several minutes passed and then, finally, I caught a glimpse of Michael Chabon coming from the front of the room and grabbing a seat in the first row. 

I seemed to be the only one who saw him!

I immediately wanted to scream, “There he is!” but, thankfully, my common sense prevailed and I instead grabbed my wife’s arm and whispered loudly, “There he is!”

What kind of fans were these?  No one seemed to even care he had entered the room!

Anyway, several of the event’s organizers gave their spiel and then they finally introduced Michael Chabon.  Just before he opened his mouth, I realized that all the trouble of taking the personal day and traveling to Chicago had totally been worth it.

Then he spoke.  (Man, I totally sound like a freakazoid stalker, don’t I?)

I won’t recount the entire talk and reading, but let me just say that this man is a Pulitzer Prize winning author.  This is a world-renowned author.  He is, in every conceivable way, a very big deal.  Best of all?  He was totally cool. 

I couldn’t believe the humility and warmth the man exuded!  He genuinely seemed like a nice guy, and that made me feel very good about touting him as our greatest living author.  So many times, people reach his stature and become-how should we put it?-arrogant.  Not so with him.  He cracked many jokes at his own expense, and when the audience put forth questions (some of them asinine in every sense of the word), he handled them with grace and respect.  The faulty microphone they gave to the questioners didn’t even faze him.  He was a class act, without a doubt.

When it came time for the actual book signing, our tickets all had a number on them.  Because five hundred people had showed up, they had us get in line by groups of fifty.  I was ninety-one and Kristen was ninety-three (don’t know how that happened), so we had to sit and wait for quite a while, which was fine.  We didn’t actually have to get in line in numerical order, but they have the first fifty people get in line, then the next fifty, and so on. 

My all-time favorite book by Chabon is called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (if you haven’t read it, leave your computer, get in your car, drive to your nearest bookstore, and purchase it immediately-I’ll wait for you to return … Back already?  Good, I’ll continue).  I realize it’s considered common courtesy to only have an author sign one or two items, so as much as I wanted to bring my entire Chabon collection up for him to sign, I limited myself to this favorite paperback of mine.  I gave my wife his latest release, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and we agreed she would have it signed specifically to me-first and last name.  (Yes, I’m that neurotic.)

As we got nearer, we saw that Chabon was taking his time with people, actually talking with them, and most surprising of all, he extended his hand to every single one of his fans before they even got directly in front of him!  The women in front of us had their books signed, and then one of them took out a camera and sheepishly started to ask if she could take his picture with her friend.  Before she could even finish, he was out of his seat and putting his arm around her friend, saying, “Sure, no problem!” 

I had been contemplating the words I would say to the man who inspires me on a regular basis.  I was prepared to discuss his themes, his many interests, and his impact upon both the literary world and pop-culture in general (after all, he’s appeared on The Simpsons).  I even had brought a spare copy of my own novel, fantasizing that I would give it to him, he would read it as he sat alone in his hotel room, then seek me out as a peer and we would keep in touch through correspondence for the rest of our days.

Instead, within the span of a minute and a half, I introduced my wife to him twice (no idea why), spat out something about Kavalier and Clay being my favorite book, and generally acted like an eight-year-old girl standing before Justin Timberlake.  My wife had a wonderful time laughing at the star-struck, babbling fool I had morphed into.

Be that as it may, I shook my hero’s hand, and he signed two books to me-to Scott Foley.  No matter what happens, no matter what becomes of me, for those few seconds he knew I existed and those books are proof of it.  Those books will always cement the fact that I met Michael Chabon, and he signed his work for me.  Our names will forever be linked.

Like I said, it was all totally worth it.

Man, I really do sound like a stalker.  I’m starting to creep myself out!  Oh, well, if you’re a literature fan, maybe you can relate.

On a final note (if you’re still reading this, you’re a saint), I’ve decided to reread The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.  I usually don’t take the time to do such a thing, for there are far too many books I want to read and not nearly enough time to do so, but I rushed through the book so quickly I didn’t really savor it.  I compare it to wolfing down a meal without tasting any of the food.  I wanted to have the book finished before it was signed, but now I realize I didn’t focus on it enough in my haste.  Having met the man and listened to his personal thoughts on this book in particular, I think I’ll read it anew with a greater appreciation.

I tell you, when you find out your literary hero is a genuinely nice person, it just makes you feel all the better about following his career and trying to get anyone who will listen to read him as well.

The Best Book You’ve Never Read

Note: Originally Published 6-9-07

About once a year, I like to remind my friends that there is a superb book out there they’ve never read.  It’s by a terribly talented man from my neck of the woods named Ken Bradbury.  The book is a short story collection called homerville, and if you grew up or live in Central Illinois, you’ll love it-no doubt.  It’s from a small publisher, but don’t let that scare you off.  We need to support our living artists who are still waiting for a national audience, and this man is a great one to back.  I hope you enjoy it!

Here’s a link to at Consortium Publishing.

Here’s a link to it at Amazon.

There, now you have no excuses!

The Importance of Action

Note:  Originally Published 10-14-07

You may have seen on the news lately the wise and all-knowing talking heads are coming down pretty hard on Barack Obama because he dared to put on a suit without an American flag pin on his lapel. 

It must have been a slow news day, for this thing blew up and he was finally forced to defend himself by saying that his actions display his patriotism far more than simply wearing a pin.

I found the whole thing pretty funny because it reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer took part in an Aids walk, but refused to wear the ribbon.  He ultimately got ganged up on by the other walkers and beaten up because he refused to wear the ribbon, even though he was actively taking part in the walk.  He finished the walk, by the way, though he had to drag himself across the finish line.

After 911, I think wearing the American flag pin proved to solidify one’s own resolve in their patriotism; it served to reassure people in distressing times; and it simply made people feel better on the inside.  Somehow, however, as the years went by we started judging each other on if we wore a pin.  And, as is the unfortunate trend, we have now exploited the pin to a degree where if a high level politician is seen without it, it becomes the main topic of the day across the news.  The original purpose of the pin has been objectified and bent to serve ulterior motives, and I find that despicable.  In my mind, that pin serves as a metaphor for far greater issues taking place within our nation.

I’m not a particularly political person.  I don’t vote straight Republican or Democrat.  I try to go with whoever seems most intelligent on the issues that I feel are important.  And one issue that is important to me is the fact so many of us, myself included, talk a big game but rarely take any true form of action.  We dream; we wish; we say what we’re going to do; we brag about accomplishments yet to be executed; yet, when it comes time to actually tally the score, few of us find that we have lived up to our own talk.  And then, when people actually hold us accountable for failing to live up to our boasts, we take offense.

I worry that we’ve become a nation of talkers, not doers.  What’s the point of wearing a flag if your actions don’t display patriotism in the least?  What’s the point of saying how awesome you are if you’ve never actually done anything?  We’re becoming a culture that praises people who have no discernable accomplishments, and then we mock those that do.  This is troubling.

This is beginning to sound judgmental and harsh, and it’s certainly not meant to.  I actually wanted this little essay to be motivating.  I wanted to encourage you to chase your dreams, to go out and make something special happen!  I wanted to get you psyched up not just to wear the pin, but also to actually do something that validates the pin!

So, what are you waiting for?  Get out there and take action!