Friday, April 24, 2009

Some Fun in Las Vegas

On Saturday evening, Clara, Linda and Jerry went to a show at the Aliante Casino just not very far north of their home. The featured performer was Robert Cray, a blues singer whom they all liked.

On Sunday, Linda had arranged a "Garden Party" for some of our old friends from UUCLV as well as some of her new friends that she wanted us to meet. It was a delightful afternoon, and, just coincidentally, it also included a blind wine tasting for those who were interested (guess whose idea that was . . . )


To be edited later

Around Las Vegas

Just the other morning as I headed down the street on my way for some shopping, I was struck by the incredible view of the Spring Mountains just 15 or so miles west of Las Vegas. It was 70 degrees here in town, but Mt. Charleston still had lots of snow – after all, it's over 11,000 ft in elevation (compared to about 2200 here in town) and Mt. Charleston looked so close as if it were just around the corner in the next block.

Clara, Sheral and Linda are all taking an embroidery class at one of the local quilt shops. Clara needed to learn so she could do up an Oregon light-house quilt that calls for "red work" to outline the light-houses; so Sheral and Linda decided to join her. Here they are all hard at work – the instructor had the audacity to give them "homework" to be done for the next class.

Las Vegas got its name from the Spanish for "the meadows" because right near the center of town there is a spring that waters the area, hence creates "the meadows." Originally, the town was founded as a railroad watering stop because of this spring and the availability of water for the trains. Finally the city is getting around to memorializing its heritage by creating the "Springs Preserve," a combination natural area and meeting place complete with a small (but Wolfgang Puck operated) restaurant.

Clara and her friends were there for lunch one day, and just the other evening, we all went there for a light supper and the evening "Café Concert," featuring an
excellent lounge singer who
was also expert on the harp.

The view of the downtown skyline gave me pause – viewing "New Vegas" from the site of "Old Vegas," where "New Vegas" is even decorated with the Nevada State Bird atop the largest, but as yet unfinished, building on the skyline. [For the uninitiated, the Nevada State Bird is the (construction) crane!]

The Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, shown here after dark, is somewhat reminiscent of Seattle's Space Needle, although it's nearly twice as tall. That building at the bottom is itself 24 stories high. Here's a note from Wikipedia:
the 1,149 ft (350 m) Stratosphere Tower, the tallest free-standing observation tower in the United States[1] and the second tallest in the Western Hemisphere,

The Lettermen

Last weekend, we went to see "The Lettermen," (surely you recall them from the '60's and '70's) who were appearing at a new casino out on the far south side of town. We all enjoyed hearing those old tunes, some of them their exclusives ("Hurt So Bad", "Traces/Memories", "Goin' Out Of My Head/Can't Take My Eyes Off You", "Shangri-La", "Put Your Head On My Shoulder", and many more.... ), others just old stand-bys of the era . They briefly showed, on the showroom TV, some tape from the beginning of the group, including this shot of the original three with Jack Benny. Only one of the original three (Tony Butala on guitar) is still with the group, but he's been there for 48 years now. And what's absolutely amazing is that he, together with various others, has been putting on at least a hundred shows like this every year since 1961!

The lighting in the showroom was great for the show but absolutely awful for any photography (so bright it washed everything out, or so colorful it distorted everything) but I did manage one shot when they had a member of the audience on stage briefly. The old coot with the gray hair is Tony, the original.

Two other things of note – the drummer in their accompanying group was sitting in an acrylic-walled room, apparently so that he could hear only the "pure" sound from the microphones through his headphones. The second thing is, I believe, related to this . . . this "background" accompaniment, especially the drums, was so loud that it seemed as if the singers were almost screaming into their mikes to be heard. We had some discussion about this – you can pick what you think is the correct explanation for it:
1) Today's "young" people are almost deaf from listening to so much loud music, so they insist on very loud presentations. They don't think the music is any good unless it's very loud.
2) The back-up group has it written in their contract that they must be heard, even above the singers.
3) The musical arranger for the group is a young guy, hence number 1) applies to him specifically.
4) The showroom manager is (probably) a young guy, hence . . .
5) Beats hell out of me, but it sure was loud . . .


This spot will be edited later.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Fountain Hills

At this very moment I'm sitting in front of a quilt shop in Fountain
Hills, AZ, which is about 30 miles E/NE of Phoenix. We are camped
just north of here at McDowell Mountain Regional Park, a very nice
high-desert park run by Maricopa County.

Here's a picture of Clara by our very own Saguaro, right at the top end of our camp-site. It was interesting to me, as we drove from Tucson up to Phoenix the other day to observe the gradual disappearance of saguaros, going down from at least 1,000 per square mile near Tucson to about 1 per square mile as we neared Phoenix.
They tell me, at the Desert Botanical Garden, that it's a matter of rainfall -- 14 inches per year in Tucson but only half that in
Phoenix -- but that rainfall is directly affected by the drop in elevation -- 2200 ft above sea level in Tucson to slightly less than half that in Phoenix. That seems reasonable in that we go up again as we go out of Phoenix to Fountain Hills and the Saguaros become more numerous.

The second picture shows why it's called Fountain Hills -- the fountain comes up every hour on the hour for fifteen minutes. The big question is why -- a) to entertain the snow birds, b) to aerate the water in the lake, c) secretly it's the Fountain Hills Sewage Treatment Plant -- you may only pick one answer . . .

On Cactus

On our guided tour of part of the Desert Botanical Garden, the docent explained to us that a cactus has three essential things – a cuticle to hold in the water and sugar that it stores, an extensive root system to gather what little moisture is available in the desert, and an attractive flower to bring in pollinators.

In this first picture, of a cluster of barrel-type cactus, you can see the cuticle and the means of storage – barrels. In all of the others, the blooms are the outstanding feature. The first blooming cactus is actually not from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix but from our friend Margot's front yard in Tucson. It's a Mammillaria cactus with an attractive wreath-shaped bloom. Then comes a Cholla cactus with bright pinkish blooms, followed by a prickly pear, and yes, those are real orange blooms, not some pieces of Chihuly glass dropped in there.

This last one is the most amazing of all . . . remember, as you can see, that cacti are inherently ugly and threatening with their bristles/spines/stickers, but this last one looks just like that piece of exposed root in the upper middle of the picture every day of the year, and for 364 nights of the year. But on one night, for just a few hours, it puts out these
lovely white blooms which wither and die before morning. It's called the "Queen of the Night" and it's Arizona's species of the "Night-Blooming Cereus." No, we did not actually see one in bloom, only the ugly root-like stem – this is a picture of a picture . . . but, as with all cactus, it does store water and sugar – if you were to attempt to pull that " ugly root-like stem" out of the ground, you would find yourself tugging on a large bag/sack of water and sugar, perhaps as much as fifty pounds of it stored just under ground! Cacti are truly amazing!

Chihuly at the Desert Botanical Garden

While camped outside of Phoenix, we went down to the Desert Botanical Garden in Scottsdale, where they had an exhibition of Chihuly glass sculptures – probably close to a hundred groupings – placed amongst the flora in the garden.

For the unitiated, here's a few things about Chihuly:
1) Dale Chihuly (b. September 20, 1941 in Tacoma, Washington, United States) is an American glass sculptor and entrepreneur.
2) In 1976, while Chihuly was in England, he was involved in a head-on automobile accident during which he flew through the windshield.[1][3] His face was severely cut by glass and he was blinded in his left eye. After recovering, he continued to blow glass until he dislocated his shoulder in a 1979 bodysurfing accident.[3] No longer able to hold the glass blowing pipe, he hired others to do the work; Chihuly explained the change in a 2006 interview, saying "Once I stepped back, I liked the view" and pointing out that it allowed him to see the work from more perspectives and enabled him to anticipate problems faster.[1] Chihuly describes his role as "more chore-
ographer than dancer, more supervisor than participant, more director than actor."[1]
Around Las Vegas (where we are now) Chihuly is known for having created the ceiling display in the Bellagio Casino, shown in the first picture. The rest of the pictures pretty much speak for themselves in presenting shapes and colors that fit in with, but also stand out from, the displays of plants at the Desert Botanical Garden.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In and around Gilbert Ray Campground

Clara dearly loved this campground (on the far western edge of Tucson) because it had the best of the Sonoran desert all around you. From there we could see the "march" of the Saguaros up a nearby ridge, and on one walk around the campground she learned of a cholla cactus which was harboring a nest with a tiny bird in it.

I was enchanted with "Moonrise Over the Desert" as you can see from these two pictures.

The Birthday Boy

On Sunday it was time to celebrate (?) my birthday – well, let's see . . . celebrate because you're alive, celebrate because you made it to that day, celebrate because you have some friends with you to share the day with . . . uhhh . . . celebrate because it beats the alternative . . .

I made my favorite crab cakes with scallops and smoked trout while Clara and Margot made a Queen of Sheba cake, a Julia Child concoction made mostly with ground almonds rather than flour so that a diabetic can eat and enjoy it, with plenty of chocolate in and on the cake. You'll note that the candles on the cake must each represent about a dozen years . . .

Note also the box of chocolate bars on the table in front of the cake . . . a special gift from my daughter ordered from Theobroma Chocolate in Sitka, Alaska . . . my longtime favorite indulgence . . .

The evening was just a little eerie . . . our friends Jim and Judy Bateman [whom we met at the same time as we met Margot and J.D. (Garcia) back in 1967] came over for the evening . . . the course of the conversation took us all back 42 years to when we met . . . it was as if time had not passed . . . we spoke with each other just as we had back then . . .

A great evening . . .


On the far southeast side of Tucson there is a planned community called "Civano," which is described by its originators as "an antidote to urban sprawl's five banes: loss of community, loss of open space, traffic congestion, air pollution, and poor use of resources."

"Civano" was the golden era of the Classical Phase of native Hohokam civilization, an era that balanced natural resources with human needs. Hohokam is the name given to one of the four prehistoric civilizations that archaeologists have uncovered in the SouthWest.

This first picture shows the ultimate Civano home

– desert landscaping, thick adobe walls, solar panels in the back, rainwater collection tank and cooling tower (air is drawn into the house thru floor level vents and exhausted by convection up thru the tower). Admittedly, it was the only one we saw with all of these features, but several other homes had some of the features.

The second picture shows the "walk to anywhere" design

of the community,

while the third and fourth show some of the other interesting homes there.

At the moment there are about six hundred homes in the community. Two different friends of ours live there, and one of them gave the tour to the four of us (Clara and I and our Laramie friends.)

Of "Topopo" and "Mistletoe"

Words are interesting, both in where they came from and in what they presently represent.

Here we are, fixin' to eat yet again, this time on the patio of the El Charro near downtown Tucson, the (self-proclaimed) oldest

continuously operating Mexican restaurant, owned by the same family to boot, in the United States (since 1922) and the home of the chimichanga (a deep fried burro, for the uninitiated; or a deep fried, tortilla wrapped concoction of beans, meat and cheese for the totally uninitiated).

And here is another concoction, allegedly big in Mexican cuisine

but found (by me at least) nowhere else but in Tucson – a topopo salad. I first had one in a little place on 22nd St. just west of Swan many years ago, and had one here, but have never seen it offered anywhere else. With just a little research I found this interesting tidbit: "Topopo" means volcano in Spanish and, appropriately, the salad is a conical monument of shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, shredded chicken and olives.

And as you can see by the picture that is an apt description.

On our way into town one day we saw mistletoe in a mesquite tree. Most folks are unaware that mistletoe is a parasite, living in New Mexico in juniper trees and here in Arizona in mesquites. What is mistletoe, other than a bouquet under which we kiss at holiday time?

The word "mistletoe" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words, "mistel" (dung) and "tan" (twig) -- misteltan is the Old English version of mistletoe. It's thought that the plant is named after bird droppings on a branch [source:].

One of the beliefs in the early centuries was that mistletoe grew from birds. People used to believe that, rather than just passing through birds in the form of seeds, the mistletoe plant was an inherent result of birds landing in the branches of trees.

So how did this plant become entwined with Christmas? The holiday has assimilated a wide range of customs and traditions from many cultures, and mistletoe is one of them. For example, one French tradition holds that the reason mistletoe is poisonous is because it was growing on a tree that was used to make the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Because of this, it was cursed and denied a place to live and grow on Earth, forever to be a parasite [source: Saupe].

Mistletoe is also said to be a sexual symbol, because of the consistency and color of the berry juice as well as the belief that it is an aphrodisiac, the “soul” of the oak from which it grows. The origin of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is vague. However, the tradition may have stemmed from either the Viking association of the plant with Frigga (the goddess of love) or from the ancient belief that mistletoe was related to fertility. Another explanation for the tradition is that it is derived from the festival of Saturnalia, a popular mid-December celebration in ancient Rome [source:].

Mistletoe is a symbol of love and fertility.

The correct mistletoe etiquette is for the man to remove one berry when he kisses a woman. When all the berries are gone, there's no more kissing permitted underneath that plant.

One legend states that a couple who kisses underneath mistletoe will have good luck, but a couple neglecting to perform the ritual will have bad luck. Specifically, it is believed that a couple kissing under the mistletoe ensure themselves of marriage and a long, happy life, while an unmarried woman not kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for another year.