Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Some fun things I've been doing besides traveling and would recommend to others

1. Guillotine. This is a card game I bought at Funagain Games last week that arrived in the mail sometime while we were in California, so it was a nice little surprise to come home to. Basically you get to chop the heads off French nobles (figuratively, of course), and in the process make things a little more interesting by messing with your opponents. It's not a hard game, or a particularly complicated one, but it is fun and entertaining.

2. 500 Rummy. This is roughly the card game Emily and I played in Italy for at least an hour or two every day. We were trying to play to a million points. She still has the score sheet somewhere, but I don't even remember who won. It's a great 2-person game with enough strategy to be fun, but not to give you a headache in the middle of the afternoon.

3. The Great Dalmuti. This is a game I learned to play years and years ago at my friend Jamie's house. Back then, it was a drinking game, but I've played it since without the fridge full of cheap beer, and it's pretty much as good.

4.Catch Phrase. I just played this game for the first time last night. Games are short and intense, and we're currently working on some variations to make it even more fun and interesting.

5. Super Collapse 3. I played Super Collapse last summer for a while, and this new version has kept me entertained today in between cleaning the house and doing laundry. It's worth bootlegging from LimeWire.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The prettiest little valley ever

Up above Rock Creek Lake on the Tom's Place exit is this little glacial valley full of lakes that are full of fish. The runoff was still really high, and there were five little lakes all spilling one into another. After the sweltering morning at Owens River Gorge, it was the perfect hike because the snowpack still lay across the trail in many places. There are not a whole lot of things that are more fun on a hot June day than a snowball fight.

At Long Lake, the fourth in line up the trail, three feet of snow still extended all the way down to the water. It was fun (and a little unnerving) to look down at the steep snowbank underfoot and into the glassy water. Tyson caught about half a dozen little brookies right at this spot while I hiked about another mile down the trail to the north shore of the lake.

On the way in, we passed a two people with cross-country skis on their packs who, we guessed, had come up over Mono Pass from King's Canyon. You can't make it out in the photo, but you could see ski tracks coming down one of the snowfields up on the ridge. Talk about hardcore.

The trail at the north shore of the lake was completely covered in snow, and Tyson still hadn't caught up to me, so I found a sunny rock and sat down to read my book (Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen). After about half an hour I looked up and happened to see a marmot sunning himself on a rock a few hundred feet back down the trail. I got up and moved closer, slowly, then found another rock to sit on. The marmot didn't move, so I read a few more pages, then looked up to make sure he was still there, then read a few more pages, and so on. After another twenty minutes, I noticed another marmot a little further down, who waddled off his rock and came over to play with the first one. Then he trotted to a grassy spot about twenty feet from me and started chewing on the wiry blades of grass poking through the rocks.

At about this time Tyson came around a bend in the trail. I tried to tell him to come quietly, but I was afraid making wild hand signals or yelling might scare off the marmots. On the other hand, he had the camera, so if I wanted pictures he'd better not scare them off, either.

The marmots didn't care. They played around, ducking under and peering out from over the rocks, letting us get ten or so really good pictures.

I like to think if I am really, really good, I'll get to come back one day as a marmot. They get to live in really pretty places, where they hibernate for up to ten months out of the year--during the long winter and again in the heat of the summer. When they do come out, they lay around in the sun and whistle back and forth to one another. Sounds like the life for me.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Owens River Gorge is F*cking HOT

And not so much in a bare-midriff, short-shorts kind of way. We thought, "hey, you can see snow from here. It's not going to be hot," but we were wrong. We imagined that, due to the distance we'd put between ourselves and Las Vegas, that we'd gone somewhere cooler. We thought, "it'll still be really nice if we get out there a little after 7."

We thought "hey, the approach is only 600 yards from the parking area to the routes we want."

What we didn't realize, and what the guidebook failed to emphasize, was that the parking area was, in fact, at the top of the gorge and the 600-yard approach was straight down.

I'm not really afraid of much, but falling off cliffs and bees are two things I am afraid of. The steep, rocky gully leading to the river had both. If somebody had been there to show me pictures of what I would look like when I became old and wrinkly, it would probably have become the scariest experience of my life.

At the bottom of the gorge, we found most of the routes in our range were in direct sunlight. Up the river a little way, however, was a wall with a promising-looking 5.6 and 5.7 that was in the shade. We trotted up the road (now why couldn't we have just driven down here? I wondered) until we got to what the guidebook generously termed a bridge and was actually broken pieces of pressure-treated lumber composite tied together messily with sun-bleached rope. A dark-green plant of some kind inflicted painful red bumps on Tyson's arm as he negotiated the crossing. Anxious to avoid a similar fate, I turned my back on the poisonious plant and wound up with a welt on my ass instead. Here I am later modeling it for the camera.

We decided to climb a route just at the bottom of the gully we'd climbed down, an ominious reminder that we'd later have to climb up that same slope. After scaling the first 40 feet, our toes were burning from the direct rays of the sun on the black rubber of our shoes, the rock was becoming uncomfortably hot to the touch, and the sight of the path back up to the car sapped our strength. I hauled Tyson back up quickly to clean off our gear, then we sat in the shade staring morosely at the top of the cliffs.

Although we briefly contemplated holing up in the gorge until near sunset, we realized it was still 11:00 and we'd have a lot of waiting to do for the place to cool off. The climb out was incredibly hot and icky. When I finally staggered to the top, I felt like I was going to throw up, but instead Tyson had the van on with the a/c running and a cold Vitamin Water for me to drink. Then we hightailed it up to Mammoth, where the ski area is still open for another week.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A few more photos of South Lake

A much-needed vacation

I was so ready for this. We took a much-deserved and long-anticipated mini-jaunt up to the mountains just west of Bishop, California, where, despite the 110+ degree heat in Las Vegas, there is still plenty of snow left.

We cut out of town at almost midnight on Tuesday, hoping to avoid the oppressive and confrontational heat of the southern Nevada convergence of the Sonoran, Mojave, and Great Basin deserts. We stopped the van and took out the kayaks to make room to sleep at about 4am in the White Mountains (not the same ones in New Hampshire). Even though we stopped at about 7800 feet, it was still too hot to sleep past 8 in the morning.

We got to Bishop by 9. After a quick stop at the sporting goods store for flies and a climbing guide and a mocha from the Looney Bean, we headed up the mountains to South Lake.

I had been to South Lake a year before, but it was cold and miserably wet. Because we are occasionally given to flights of fancy that cause us to believe we are some kind of rugged mountain men, we figured we'd hike 4 miles to some other little lake up by Bishop Pass (we made it almost an hour before trotting back down to the car as quickly as possible). Needless to say, our day was approximately one thousand times better than the last. It was warm and sunny, with snow on the high slopes melting into cascading streams and waterfalls on the talus slopes on the far side of the lake.

We paddled across the lake, an easy, pleasant 45 minutes, and ate sandwiches and grapes on the beach. On the return trip, I got distracted by a marmot on the rocks and Tyson claims he saw a pair of 5-pound trout. He must have seen something, because I dozed on the shore for more than an hour waiting for him to fish. He had the fish bug bad, so we stopped for another hour and a half or so on Bishop Creek. I didn't mind--the day's sweat had washed sunscreen and insect repellent into my eyes so all I wanted to do was take out my contacts and sit somewhere shaded for a while.

Afterward, we drove up to Lake Sabrina, where the dam had just been rebuilt so the water was a little low, then we ate relatively decent barbecue at the joint in Bishop, then got a motel room (our very first since we bought the van!) because we really, really wanted showers. We checked out climbing info for the nearby Owens River Gorge, read, and finally fell asleep.

Monday, June 19, 2006

My campaign against mediocrity ends (temporarily) with chocolate fondue

After a day of piddling around the house, avoiding the heat, and an uneventful trip to the Regional Justice Center to pay a speeding ticket, I picked up Tyson at the Tropicana poker room and we headed to dinner. His official excuse was that he'd left the house on the motorcycle at 8am, and now it was too hot to come home. But by 6:30pm, he was starting to get antsy.

We decided to head to a friend-of-a-friend's restaurant,Boo Boo's over on the West side of town. It's one of those places that always seems to far out of the way, but as soon as Chris brings out our food, we wonder why we don't make the drive more often.

See, Chris is one of those restaurant people that actually likes his job. He loves it, in fact, and you can tell. He's not one of those people that shows up and mechanically assembles plates of plain-tasting and average-looking food because that's his formula for making money. He gets to the restaurant at, like, 6am and starts making six or eight kinds of salad dressing from scratch and then goes wherever restaurant people go at all hours of the night to get their food--fresh organic spring mix, buffalo mozzarella so soft it almost crumbles, half-baked French baguettes and croissants--you get the idea.

Anyhow, Chris made us a salad and the day's special: some kind of fish with this lemon-caper sauce that was unbelievable, a crab cake with dijon mustard sauce, and a bowl of fresh fruit. Then, because it'd be a crime to drive all the way over to Durango without eating dessert, we got a chocolate fondue. We were almost too full to walk back to the car afterwards, but it was worth it to deal such a crushing blow to the forces of mediocrity in foodservice.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

I wasn't going to rant, but then I remembered...

Really. I was going to spend my energy today by complaining about mediocrity, not by complaining about my day in California Consumer Hell, but then I remembered that I did have several legitimate things to complain about.

As I mentioned before, we went to California on Friday to visit some friends in Riverside. I had forgotten to bring anything to read, and I was tired of poring over maps looking for places that might be fun to live, so we stopped in Baker for a magazine. My standards were pretty low--it was too hot to nap in the back of the van and I was tired of staring out the window, so I would've settled for a Cosmo or a Self or a Shape or something. We checked five gas station/convenience stores and found absolutely nothing except books of bible crossword puzzles and kiddie word searches. What kind of a town doesn't have anything to read? On an unrelated note, gas was a whopping $3.71 a gallon. One more reason why Baker is dumb.

The Big Boy in Hesperia I've already mentioned. They were out of mushrooms, which made my mushroom patty melt not so mushroomy--which I could have overlooked, had it not also been simultaneously dry and soggy. The waitress served our ice waters in cups with lip marks all over them, then forgot to bring us sodas in to-go cups to replace them. Tyson's burger was cold. It was bothersome not simply because the whole experience was crap, it was one of those crappy experiences when bringing the state of crappiness to someone's attention would get, at best, a blank look and maybe a free slice of crappy pie. Then the next time someone was desperate enough to eat there it would be the same old crap. Nobody would bother to wipe the lip marks off the glasses or serve hot food instead of cold food.

We ended up in Redlands at a Sports Chalet trying to buy a book on rock climbing, and the one copy of the exact book we needed didn't have the right SKU tag on it so the sixteen-year-old-girl behind the counter had absolutely no idea what to do. She wasn't just clueless about how to ring the book up, or who to ask for help; she didn't really seem to know what to do with us, either. She kept looking away at the next customer in line and then back at us as though she hoped we'd disappeared while she was turned around. Finally, some manager-type guy just made up a number and sold us the book so we could leave.

We had gone to Riverside early to get some climbing in before our friends got off work, but it was about 100 degrees and humid (at least for us) so we headed towards the nearest Coffee Bean, in search of blueberry-pomegranate iced tea and free wi-fi access. Turns out the wi-fi wasn't free like it is at every store here in Vegas. We still have almost two hours to kill, a laptop computer with no internet, and nothing to read. We ask the girl behind the counter where we could find free internet access and she goes, "I don't know. I don't live around here," and then she walks off.

Then I saw a homeless guy taking a dump behind somebody's trash bin, and that convinced me that California people are nuts.

What the hell is up with mediocrity?

This has been bothering me for a long time now, and I think it's high time I did something about it.

Let me begin with an example. On Wednesday, we went to California to go visit some friends. We stopped in Hesperia at the Big Boy, because we (mistakenly) assumed that a moderately-well-known chain with a high-profile icon would offer a decent dining experience for hungry travelers.

We also assumed that paying close to $8 for a hamburger might guarantee a certain level of quality.

I won't go into the numerous ways our experience sucked, except to say that we're STILL waiting for Tyson's Dr. Pepper in a to-go cup.

Still, I've eaten worse food, food that someone had to work hard to make as awful-tasting as it was. I've received terrible service, service where some waitperson was determined to take her lousy day out on everyone within a half-mile radius. But I think my Big Boy experience was representative of something far more insidious: the American people are in love with mediocrity.

Don't believe me? Read movie reviews, then go see the movie (or vice versa, if that's your pleasure) and then think. Really think. Go over the movie in your head and try to make some sense of it. Let it marinate for a day or two. In most cases, one of a few things will happen:

  1. You recognize immediately that the movie was lame.
  2. You recognize after a few days that the movie you thought was sort of okay was really lame.
  3. The reviews you read said it was better than it was.
After you have decided exactly how average and unstellar the movie was, think back to the audience and their reactions to the movie. A lot of people in there probably thought the movie "rocked" or somesuch.

And it's not just movies, or food, it's music too. And niteclubs. Cheap stuff you buy at Wal-Mart. Pork chops. Even services like tech support and installation of hot-water heaters have become mediocre.

But WHY??

I can only guess, but I think I may be onto something: Mediocrity is a byproduct of laziness. People are too lazy to make something good or to do something well. Consumers, too, are lazy. We don't want to think, or learn how to do something differently, or to spend more money than we think we "have to."

Take the coffee example. I started working for Starbucks here in Las Vegas in 2000. There weren't more than about 15 stores in the Valley. (Now there are more than 60, not counting Albertson's and casino stores.) When I was hired, I competed with others for the job, and was hired with the assumption that there were other, qualified people to fill my position if I didn't work out. We busted our asses and made a good product and gave good service. Then, as the Las Vegas market grew, we started hiring people I liked less and less. People who "didn't do" dishes. People who gave the floor a half-assed swipe with the mop then said they were done. The company started to need employees so badly to fuel their expansion that standards were lowered again, and again, and again. The difference between a visit to Starbucks today and a visit six years ago is astounding. They've traded their reputation for service and quality for name-brand recognition and ubiquitousness.

But Seattle people, this is no news to you, I'm sure. And the same goes for chains like Seattle's Best (now owned by Starbucks), Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and even Peet's.

But why do customers stand for this kind of watering-down? I think your average customer doesn't know the difference between a good mocha and a lousy one. I don't even think he or she knows the difference between good service and lousy service. All that customer knows is that the coffee in the green logo cup is the coffee everyone says is good, so it must be. Plus, that place is everywhere, so it must be good.

Anyway, let me use this opportunity as a call to action for all three of my loyal readers. Let's fight mediocrity! Together we can bring a few more people to their senses, and maybe one day our grandchildren's children will not have to live in as bland a world.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why I hate the Clark County School District

As grateful as I am to finally have a real, career-type job with great benefits, I really hate CCSD.

Don't get me completely wrong; there are some good things, which I will get to later. However, like a supervillian who helps old ladies cross the street in between his evil schemes, there's not enough good to balance out the bad. It may even be worse, because it says the district knows how to do something right, it just chooses not to for whatever reason.

Let me tell you my story.

I graduated from UNLV this past December with my degree in education. It took me seven years to get this degree because it was essentially a dual major in education and English (plus I change my mind a lot and took an unnecessary course or two). All the while I'm going through this program, there are a bunch of yahoos in my practicum classes who have non-education degrees and who are taking, like, five education classes and then they will have a master's degree. In education. Because CCSD needs people so bad, any sucker with a communications degree suddenly gets to run a classroom.

I suck it up anyway because, hey, that's what I do. "Wait to rock the boat until after you've gotten out of it," that's what I always say.

So after New Year's, after my degree posts and I do the last of my paperwork to get my license, I'm sitting by the phone waiting for a call. I need a job by the end of January. See, the deal was, if I got a job by January 31st, a couple of good things would happen to me.

  1. I would qualify for insurance on the day after my old insurance expired.
  2. I would start out on year 2 on the payscale, provided I make it to a couple of classes and Saturday conferences.
  3. I would only have to spend a year and a half at my school before being eligible for transfer.

The first thing went without a hitch. The last thing I wasn't even concerned about at the time because I was fairly certain of getting a private school job offer for next fall. And the extra paychecks, wow, that was just going to be great.

Finally the phone rings. The lady at the personnel office says "hey, you need to come in and sign your contract," and I'm like "what contract? I haven't even had an interview yet" and she says "come down tomorrow and sign."

I show up the next day at the contracting office and they plop a stack of papers in front of me. They ask if I have a copy of my job offer and the other paperwork I filled out at my interview, and I say "what interview? what's going on? I haven't been to any interviews."

The lady behind the counter says "oh," then she sends me with another stack of forms down to the district police station for fingerprints, retinal scans, the whole works. All this time, I'm trying to get a straight answer out of someone, asking questions like "Do I have a job? Why didn't anyone tell me? Where is it? What grade? What subject?"

Finally someone tells me it's a reading position, which means sixth or seventh grade, but they "hadn't decided" on what school. I said "do I have a choice?" and they said they would "put me close to home." If nothing else, I could appeal.

I shouldn't have signed. Oh, Lord, I should have kept my ink inside my pen where it belonged.

At 7:30 the next morning, I got a viocemail from Lisa, the secretary at Swainston Middle School, welcoming me to the team and inviting me to the inservice the next week. "Haven't decided," my ass. I looked up the address on the internet and started to cry. The school was in North Las Vegas (aka "Northtown"), more than 25 miles from my house, and, for all I knew, deep in the ghetto. Turns out it was only on the edge of the ghetto. Still, I live on the edge of the ghetto in my part of town. Why couldn't I just teach in my own ghetto, instead of driving to the ghetto two whole towns over?

This, unfortunately, is but the first of my complaints about Clark County School District. The rest, I am too griped out to go into today. For mental health reasons, I try to keep my dwelling-on-crappy-things time to a minimum.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Why do I never notice these things?

I'm about to reveal something absolutely shocking. No, it's not pasty-white pictures of me in my underwear again.

Sometimes I can be totally dense. Sometimes there are these nonverbal things going on around me, and for some reason my receptors just aren't on.

So we went to dinner at Outback tonight to meet some guy we've been chatting with online for a couple of years now and had to flake out on this past weekend. Finally this waitress comes to our table and makes this silly small talk about how nobody was waiting on us and it wasn't even her section but here she was.

I didn't think anything of it except "good, we have a waitress. Now let's tell her to bring us a steak." Then Tyson was sort of flirting with her (or chatting her up, really, I can never tell the difference), but she just kept looking over at me and looking away.

The long and the short of it is, as I'm sure you've guessed by now, that I was being big-time flirted with by the cute waitress and had absolutely no idea. No clue. Every time she came to the table, Tyson would start to giggle, then she'd start to giggle, then I just felt like a giant doofus.

See, there's a reason I shut off my flirt receptors a long time ago: when I try flirting back, I can actually feel myself growing. I don't mean in a cheesy seventies "opening like a flower" sensual bullshit, I mean physically getting bigger. My teeth somehow get bigger until they take up my whole head, and my hands get long and spidery and my feet grow to a spectacular size and my whole body just balloons up until I threaten to completely overwhelm the person I'm trying to talk to. One time, in the seventh grade, I tried to wave hello to Blake Gafford, my lab partner and the guy I had a monstrous crush on, and I actually banged my fingers on my front teeth. No kidding. I felt like Nosferatu with giant bunny choppers.

So, Heather from Outback on Pecos and Flamingo, I'm sorry I didn't notice. It was nothing personal. I thought your braids were really cute. I left my phone number, but I can't begin to imagine the awkwardness if you actually call me.

Heading off afternoon ice cream cravings

I have a really active fantasy life when it comes to food. Once I get it in my head that I want something to eat, I just can't stop thinking about it. Usually after about noon, I can't stop thinking about ice cream. Sometimes I can't even make it for thirty seconds without imagining the cool, creamy taste of chocolate truffle ice cream with marshmallow swirls and fudge-covered coconut-walnut-brownie pieces.

So, in light of my earlier post, what with those scary pictures and compelling reasons and everything, I decided to forego the ice cream today. Whew. Good decision.

Which leaves me pacing around the house thinking about ice cream. See, once you get a bad idea in your head, and you know it's a bad idea, then it really seems to stick around. First I tried telling myself I wasn't hungry because I ate lunch, like, an hour ago. I even had cool, creamy cottage cheese, hoping to head off my afternoon cool-and-creamy cravings. Then I ate a few dried apricots, just for a little something sweet. Then a slug of milk. But still the little voice was saying "there are quarters in the bucket! It's almost happy hour at Sonic! If you pay in quarters, Tyson will never know you ate ice cream! You'd better go now, before he gets off work!"

But I said to those little voices, "NO!"

And I made myself a protein-banana-coffee shake instead that tasted a whole lot like ice cream but had however much fat is in 2% milk, plus 20 grams of protein and only just a little bit of sugar. And a banana. Don't forget that, because that's fruit and it has to be good for you because it's fruit. Plus there's all that potassium and vitamin G or whatever.

So maybe, despite my best efforts, my rationalizing still got away from me. At least I'm not hungry for ice cream any more.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Summer Vacation, day 3

It's officially the third day of my first-ever non-working-but-paychecks-are-still-coming summer vacation, and I think I may be out of things to do.

It's not that I don't have plans, like, in general, I just don't really have much of a plan for those stretches of time in between meals and naps.

Here's what I have going on: trying to loose weight, a rock-climbing-job-interviewing-grizzly-bear-seeing (hopefully!)-camping-hiking trip to Idaho and Wyoming, two surgeries for the skin cancer on my nose, a short climbing-and-clubbing trip to California, a solo birthday trip in August, three-times-a-week yoga, and getting things together for next year. It may sound like a whole lot, but here I am at 8am on a Tuesday just waiting for my next high-protein meal (#2 of 6).

So my plan is this: because my few friends already (and very patiently, I might add) listen to me going on about all this stuff, and they don't really care all that much because a) they have problems/projects/successes/children of their own to worry about, or b) they are not teachers and therefore cannot sympathize with problems stemming from getting a regular paycheck without having to do any actual work, I can tell you, the reader, about my summer vacation without having to endure the looks of polite boredom I get from my friends.