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Back to Earth

I guess I’ve been back from LA for almost a week, but haven’t done the full stupid trip report, as usual. Not a lot to report; I tried to get out and do a few things, but I wanted to avoid three particular activities: eating ten times the normal amount; doing tourist trap stuff; and catching the plague. I gained a pound and a half, but tested negative on Friday, so partial success, I guess.

Let me try to reconstruct a bulleted list of stuff:

  • I forgot to mention, but the new gear for the Random Life project is a DJI Osmo Action camera, which is essentially a GoPro competitor. It’s about 2×3 inches, an inch thick, with screens on the front and back, waterproof (allegedly), and takes both still or a variety of video formats, up to 4K. It is extremely tiny. In practice, I found that it’s great for dash cam footage or tripod use, and would be good if I did any sport more extreme than walking. When I’m just randomly walking, I found that I would never hold the thing perfectly straight, which is problematic. Wind noise can be an issue too, I guess. Anyway, I brought that, the Canon EOS M mirrorless, and my DSLR, which never left the case. The mirrorless was great for quick shots, but horrible for video. Oh, I had an analog point-and-shoot, the Vivitar, but only shot maybe a roll of film.
  • Went walking at Dockweiler beach one morning. I used to live just east of here, and would walk to the beach a lot during the day. It was pretty empty but a lot more people than I expected. I got there just as the marine layer was not yet clear, and there was a slight haze over the air. It’s so peaceful on that beach, and I wish I still lived nearby so I could walk it every day in the morning.
  • Went to Santa Monica and saw the Space Shuttle Endeavour. There’s some other great stuff to see at the science center, like they have a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsule, and the only surviving F-20 prototype. But I hustled past everything to get to the Shuttle. It did not disappoint. I was such a huge space nerd as a kid, and the Shuttles were such a big part of my childhood, it honestly made me emotional just to be standing right next to one. It’s also amazing to look at one up close, because from a distance, they look like an airplane with a solid metal body painted white and black, but when you’re a few feet away, you see that it’s made of 21,000 tiles, which look like a reptile’s skin. I took many laps and many pictures around the thing, and the museum was almost dead on a Monday morning, which made it even more awesome.
  • I mentioned the malls in the last post, and didn’t go to any others. Fox Hills (aka Westfield Culver City) was too new and bland with the latest refresh; Galleria Redondo Beach had some good bones to it, but looked like it was in the slow slide;  Galleria Sherman Oaks is now an office building (no more Fast Times); FIGat7th is not a mall at all, just a semicircle of stores downtown, with insane parking fees.
  • Always fun to go back to Ralph’s, and even more weird when it’s the one I used to shop at every week. I forgot that I still have a Ralph’s fob on my keychain. Also forgot that their parent company is one of our biggest customers at the day job.
  • If you were looking to buy houses in LA in 2008 and still remember the prices, do not go window-shopping on Zillow. Just don’t do it.
  • The Promenade in Santa Monica was somewhat depressing to me. I think I’m used to going on a Saturday afternoon in the summer when it’s busy and there isn’t a pandemic going on, so going on a Wednesday morning was a drag.
  • I’ve never been to the Getty, so I drove up there and checked it out. I was more interested in the buildings and grounds, even more than the art. You park at the bottom of a giant hill and take this tram that snakes upward for a mile, but you can also hoof it, which was a nice break. Lots of great architecture, and amazing views of the city from up there.
  • Went to an air museum in Torrance, at Zamperini Field. I primarily went because they have two rare prototype planes there: Northrop’s YF-17 and YF-23, which are the planes that lost out to the F-16 and F-22 in bake-off competitions. Unfortunately, both are locked down in a part of the field you can’t get to right now. But they had a lot of other great stuff on display, and were very nice and helpful there.
  • I ate a lot, ate too much junk. Went to Shake Shack twice. In-N-Out once. Went to Carl’s Jr. once to try their chicken sandwich and only got halfway through it before I had to pitch it, because it tasted like it had a cup of mayo on it. I went to Veggie Grill I think three times, because it was a 30-minute walk each way, and I needed the walk. I walked 30 miles over the course of the week.
  • Didn’t get a lot of writing done. Got some video editing finished. Some reading. I realized how hard it is for me to relax in general. But at least I didn’t check work email.
  • Trip back was pretty easy, and ran into no traffic on the way out of LA. Two traffic jams in the middle of the state, so there’s that.
  • No pictures posted, maybe I’ll get to it. Videos have been showing up or are scheduled on Random Life, so like, share, subscribe, etc.
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The Second

So, change of plans on the Seattle thing. I am not ready to fly. And I’m not ready to see people, or see any of the various ghosts of Seattle that would bother me. And then there’s Delta. So, about two days before leaving, I canceled everything, backed out, and then needed to correct course. I wanted a place to hide out for a week, somewhere that wasn’t in the bay area, wasn’t Las Vegas, and was somewhat within driving distance.

So, I’ve been in Los Angeles since Saturday. More specifically, I’m staying in a residency suite in El Segundo, which is about five miles from my 2008 apartment. I figured the weather was nicer here, it was all easy to drive, and maybe I’d see some malls and get some writing done. And of course that hasn’t happened.

* * *

First, the drive down took about six hours and change, a pretty much straight shot through the middle of the state on I-5. The longest trip I’ve taken in this car was maybe two hours. I did the SF-LA round trip a couple of times in 08 with the Yaris, but it’s been a while. And it’s been a while since I’ve done any long-distance driving. (I have had four-hour drives home from work, but that was about 38 miles.)

The middle of the state is a strange world, and reminds me of what’s left on the surface of the planet in those Asimov robot books where everyone lives underground. It’s factory farms in every direction, broken up by stretches of nothingness. It would be the perfect long run to zone out on some true crime podcast, except it’s two lanes each way, and a constant war between people going way too fast in the left lane and way too slow in the right. There was also this strange haze in the air for the entire trip. At first I thought it was just morning fog, but after I got further south, I could tell it was some combination of agricultural dust and the debris from the fires up north, getting sucked into the wind tunnel of the central valley.

I stopped about two or three hours in for lunch, at this weird little non-town that was nothing but four mega-stations on each corner of an intersection, each with a fast food place grafted onto it. A bit further out, an older set of fast food joints lay abandoned, either arsoned or destroyed by the elements and vandals, probably stripped of any metal. I got out of my car at the gas station and realized the temperature had risen maybe forty degrees since I left the house. There was no sun overhead, just an amber-brown haze of dust.Too bad John Steinbeck’s not around to write a sequel.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. I had to stop maybe 50 miles out from the hotel for a tank of gas. Not only had I forgotten to turn on Eco mode, which cut my range maybe thirty miles, but I didn’t remember that the last bit was a rough uphill climb through the pass, going from sea level to about 4400 feet and back down. I went to a station right by Magic Mountain, which reminds me of my very first trip to LA in 1997. No restroom there, so I went to a McDonald’s, After using the facilities there, I ordered a drink and some fries that I probably should not have eaten anyway. After ten or fifteen minutes of waiting for a simple order, I said fuck it and left, $3.14 off into the universe.

Once I got back on the highway, it was pretty much bumper-to-bumper for the next fifty miles. Welcome to Los Angeles.

* * *

Somewhere on the 405, Google Maps started complaining about the traffic and routing me onto various parallel surface roads, which I usually ignore, but this time I went for it and dumped off on Sawtelle, maybe around West Los Angeles. And then it became rows of tall palm trees and tournefortia, rows of rancher houses and stucco cottages. And the first reaction was that I really, really missed LA.

And then it was weird, because I’d shut off the GPS, and was just driving, and I realized that Sawtelle runs into Culver, and Culver runs out almost to the ocean, and hits Pershing, and Pershing goes straight to my old apartment. And keep going past LAX, and hang a left on Imperial Highway, then a right on Sepulveda, and you’re at the strip of stores like my old Walgreen’s and my old Ralph’s. And hang a left a block from that, and there’s my hotel. The entire week has been half-remembered connections like that, strange deja-vu moments of remembering driving on a road a dozen years ago, and that it connects with another road and goes to another neighborhood I dimly remember.

* * *

I had almost zero plans coming down here, except that I brought all of my photo gear, thinking I’d take pictures, and of course I haven’t. I thought about going to every mall I could find, and made a list of maybe a dozen of them. But every mall has been bought by Westfield and looks identical. I went to what was Fox Hills Mall, and it feels like it was 100% changed from when I was last there in 2008. Went to the Galleria in Redondo Beach, and it has the bones of a great mall — three stories, giant domed ceilings, plenty of walkways — but it’s largely abandoned. When your Nordstrom leaves and the anchor becomes a dinosaur museum that doesn’t have actual dinosaurs in it, good luck. Today I drove out to Sherman Oaks to look at the galleria that was in Fast Times and Valley Girl, and I should have read the wikipedia before I left, because it was redeveloped into office space.

That’s been the depressing theme here. Everything has been redeveloped. I only lived here for about six months of 2008, so my set of reference points is very small. But it seems like every place I ate or shopped or hung out has been completely nuked. Any strip mall with a large parking lot has been blown up and replaced by a 500-unit apartment building with a Trader Joe’s on the ground floor. I was in the middle of a weight loss thing when I was in LA, and only ate at two places: Koo Koo Roo chicken and Souplantation. Both of those chains are bankrupt. The tiki-themed Fry’s Electronics down in Manhattan Beach went bankrupt. The Panera in Marina del Rey is now a physical therapy place. It’s understandable that chains flip and new things come in, but there’s an insane amount of redevelopment. I guess that’s better than closing stuff down and letting it sit vacant for tax purposes, though.

* * *

Anyway. There’s probably more to write about here, but I have to get stuff done. I have been mostly hiding out in this hotel room, because it has a kitchen and an office, and I can get from the room to my car without passing through a common area. There’s a staircase downstairs, and nobody here uses stairs. Other than that, it’s mostly been driving around randomly. It’s weird to have my own car, And LA is driveable, but not parkable. I went to the new “mall” at Figueroa, which turned out to not be a mall, but three anchors butted together with a piss-poor food court. I turned around and left, and that was $21 in parking. Went to the beach Sunday morning for an early morning walk: $13. An hour at the science center: $20. And the hotel is charging me $15 a day to park, too.

I’ll be here until Saturday. I should probably hit the book stores tomorrow, since I don’t have a weight restriction on my return luggage.

Oh, the title. El Segundo is Spanish for “The Second.” It’s where Chevron’s second refinery is.

Also, still working on this: Random Life. Check it.

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Vegas 2020

Got back from Las Vegas last night, so I’m still digging through things and looking at photos and trying to get reset for work on Monday. Oh, and trying not to catch the death plague everyone’s worried about. (I actually wash my hands, so I’m not as worried about it. But now that I’ve said that, I’m probably the first person you’ll know to die of it.)

Anyway, here’s the trip rundown:

  • Flew in Sunday night, out Friday night, so it feels like it was a slightly shorter trip than usual.
  • Stayed at Vdara, which is a new one for me. It’s part of City Center, just north of Aria, sort of just below Bellagio, but not on the strip. Vdara is all suites, and has no casino. The rooms have a nice view, but it does take a minute to get to the strip, and there’s no food, other than a small snack shop place, or room service. I had a smaller suite, with a token kitchen (tiny fridge, two-burner stove, no oven, no dishwasher) that came with no dishes. Bill had an upgrade, which had full-size appliances and a washer/dryer, which was a first.
  • There are room service robots. You can order a soda or some sundries, and they load it up into this oversized Roomba thing which then drives to your room, rings the doorbell, and unlocks the top so you can get your stuff. It sounds pretty neat, but I didn’t want to pay $20 for a Coke and a Snickers bar.
  • Bill and Marc also came in on Sunday, and left Tuesday afternoon. I spent the rest of the trip by myself.
  • The first night, we went to the first place that was close by that I could pull up a reservation on OpenTable with no notice: the Strip House at Planet Hollywood, a New York steakhouse. It was decent, although the salt and pepper char threw me a bit. I didn’t pay much attention, but the decor had various old cheesecake photos or something on the walls.
  • Went downtown to the Fremont Street experience and wandered a bit. We went to the Fremont and Marc and I played some blackjack for a few minutes. I was slightly ahead, then went to make a dumb sports bet, and put $20 on the Rockies winning the World Series, which would pay out $1600, although of course that won’t happen.
  • Ate that night at Roy Choi’s Best Friend Korean BBQ restaurant at the Park MGM. Choi is the proprietor of the Kogi taco truck in LA, and this place is sort of a LA/hipster/Korean/Mexican joint. Decor is weird, looking like a liquor store in Koreatown, with the waitstaff all wearing track suits. Food was great – we all just did fixed menu and an endless array of different stuff came out, all excellent.
  • We had lunch at The Peppermill, which is always okay.
  • Brought Bill to the Boulevard Mall, the weirdo all-dead-anchors old mall, which now has a Goodwill as an anchor. Did a quick lap there, and it looked about the same as last year, except the Sears is now fully dead and stripped of logos. They’re supposedly stripping that out to open some little open-air mall next to the existing one.
  • Spent an afternoon taking a long walk through all the malls on the strip, then ate at Cabo Wabo for no other reason than gaming OpenTable of points. (Well, I like the nachos too, I guess.)
  • Drove out to Rachel, NV to see the Little A’le’Inn and extraterrestrial highway and all that. Stuck a Konrath sticker on the flying saucer in front of the Inn. Drove around “downtown” Rachel, which is more like 50 people living in trailers in the desert. Lots of old cars and broken-down stuff. Also found the black mailbox and got a Konrath sticker on that. And stopped at the Alien research center to buy books. They had Andrea’s dad’s book there, which was awesome.
  • Went to Meadows Mall, which is doing okay. Their Sears is also dead, but a Round One took over one floor of it. They have this new store called Curacao’s, which is interesting. It looks like a nicer Best Buy, but with a big toy department, furniture, jewelry, and cosmetics. Honestly, it looks like an alternate timeline where Wards somehow survived and actually updated their stores.
  • Went to UNLV because they have a copy of Dealer Wins in a special collection of Vegas gaming history books. I don’t know why I wanted to see a copy of my own book, especially since I have a half-dozen here, but it was neat. They have a very modern library, but it still reminds me of IU for some reason, which makes me horribly nostalgic, and everyone there looks like they are about twelve, so very strong “you can never go back” vibes, and I had to get the hell out of there.
  • There was really nothing to do that week as far as shows or comedians or anything. Although I know nothing about hockey, I probably should have gone to the hockey game, because for whatever reason, people are nuts there for the new hockey team.
  • Went to The Writer’s Block, which is a great little book store downtown. Bought a couple of books, and if you’re there, you should too, because we need more of this sort of thing.
  • Weather was about perfect for the trip. A little cold at night, maybe the sixties but going into the seventies in the day. Ideal walking weather, clear skies, a lot of sunshine, but no triple-digit weather.
  • The old Harley BBQ restaurant is now the most ghetto weed store imaginable.
  • They are putting a Target on the strip.
  • They renamed the Monte Carlo to the Park MGM. There is still an MGM Grand, so this is confusing.
  • The Sahara, which was the SLS last year, is now the Sahara again.
  • It was slightly quiet with the COVID scare, but not as bad as when I visited in October 2001.
  • Fuck resort fees. And fuck parking fees. And Vdara doesn’t even have a self-park garage. You either pay $30 a day to valet, or you pay $18 to self-park at the Aria, although the lot is on the far side of the Aria, so it’s a major hike.

Anyway, good trip. Pictures here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jkonrath/albums/72157713401785407

 

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The inevitable stupid end-of-the-decade summary

So we’re twenty years into the 21st century tomorrow, and I still call it the 20th century half the time. Luckily, I never have to write paper checks anymore and put the year on them, right?

OK, so regardless of my feelings that I need to stop looking back in a haze of stupid nostalgia, here’s a summary of my last decade, more or less.

Writing

At the start of 2010, I more or less was not writing. I call the oughts my “lost decade” because after I published Rumored to Exist in 2002 (after having mostly wrote it in the 90s), I basically didn’t do anything. I dicked around with the zine, published a couple of non-fiction books, but that Third Book I wanted to do never happened, and I lost all momentum I had at the end of the century. And then when I moved to Silicon Valley in 2008, I completely stopped writing fiction, because I was spending three or four hours a day in traffic, and another dozen in an office.

That changed when I was given the opportunity to go back to my old job, albeit with their new post-acquisition overlords, but instead of New York, I could work remotely. So I did that, with the intent of getting serious about writing. I’m still at that job (and I don’t talk about it here, so I won’t) and it has allowed me to get a lot of work done.

I didn’t publish anything in 2010, but I did manage to get eleven books out in 2011-2019. I also placed 30 articles elsewhere. (Most of them were collected into books later.) I also was interviewed in eight long-form print interviews, and appeared on or recorded maybe a dozen podcasts. (All of this is summarized here: My Books and Stories) My goal, more or less, was a book per year. I hit that, although I ultimately wish I would’ve done less with collections and put out more novels.

For what it’s worth, I think my favorite book of the decade was Atmospheres. The best-selling book I wrote this decade was The Earworm Inception (probably because it was the cheapest.) The best-selling book total though was the new reissue of Rumored that went on the Kindle.

Blogging

I have now been blogging here for something like 22 years. Oddly enough, I have added 666 entries since January 2010. This is 667, so I screwed it all up.

My blog doesn’t make money and nobody reads it, so there’s not much to say about trends in the blogosphere with regard to what’s hosted on Rumored dot com. I started before the term blog was invented, and plodded on as the “Web Journal” fad of the late 90s came and went. I went unnoticed when the blog fad came in the early oughts and everyone got a one-and-done book deal before fucking off and deleting their blog. And I’ve weathered on as net-generations have found, enjoyed, and abandoned every social media platform out there.

My own personal opinion (and this isn’t a research paper) is that there were a lot of solid and entertaining blogs at the start of the 2010s, which were bringing in decent ad revenue and good traffic, and by 2019, all of that fell apart. I used to have a rotation of blogs I would read every day. The Awl shuttered due to diminishing ad prices. BoingBoing got stupid with sponsored stories, often for products they themselves decried in their actual stories. Gawker got bankrupted by a Hulk Hogan lawsuit. And plenty of blogs got sold, merged into other media conglomerates, or otherwise watered down stuff to the point of uselessness.

One of the biggest trends of the 2010s was chasing ad revenue with click journalism. It was the decade of the listicle, the years of the hundred-picture slideshow that opened every image in a new page with ads between every other one. Titles became tricky questions. “8 Unbelievable Things You Never Knew About Enemas!” The days of long-form blogs ended, and sensationalized headlines were the norm.

Three big things changed the way I personally read blogs. First, I used to use Google Reader to subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds for every blog I read. In 2013, Google discontinued reader. There were substitutes, like Feedly, but when the Google behemoth went away, people seemed to stop caring about RSS-centric publication. Google told us all to switch to the iGoogle home page tool, and then they cancelled that too. This meant there was no real centralized way to read your favorite stories and blogs.

Well, except for Facebook. Just as we got to the point where FB became the de facto standard for sharing stories, Zucc started screwing with the algorithm, holding links ransom unless the publishers paid money for them. As the algorithm hemorrhaged traffic from small sites, all other forms of propagation died. Facebook is now the worst way to tell the world about your blog articles (or new books you’ve published), except that it’s now the only way.

Other annoyances that make me think the 2010s are the year the internet died:

  • News sources going paywalled to (maybe justifiably) keep running after ad revenue vanished.
  • The war between sites with tons of shitty ads versus ad blockers.
  • Sites that have weaponized the use of pop-ups, pop-overs, pop-unders, and full-page ads that play video at top volume or try to convince me my Windows PC is infected with a virus when I’m reading on my iPhone.
  • GDPR – which may be well-intentioned, but unleashed an era of giant pop-up “we use cookies!” banners, “we’ve updated the terms of service” emails from every fucking page you’ve ever visited in your life, and the outright destruction of some sites like Klout and Google+. (Looking forward to what CCPA does next year…)
  • Google changing their search algorithm to try and stop link farms and clickbait, but making it essentially useless as a search engine for creative content.

Publishing

Ebooks have been around in some form for decades, and Kindle Direct Publishing started in 2007, but the 2010s were the Kindle gold rush. And the gold rush was a race to the bottom.

Unpopular opinion: I don’t read ebooks. I know people find them convenient, but I feel an inherent value in the design of a book, and holding it in my hand. I got a kindle in 2009, and I tried using it semi-exclusively for maybe six months, but I found that every book sort of ran into each other in my head and I remembered nothing from them, because I was always holding the same device and reading the same fonts and the same spacing. I did not retain any of the words in my head.

I can tell that opinion is unpopular based on my book sales. I sold roughly twice as many kindle books as print in the last ten years. I don’t make much money from either, and I don’t sell many books in the first place, but it’s clear other people like them, so I still publish them.

That said, it’s become a horrible race to the bottom. Amazon became the de facto monopoly of ebooks, although others tried and failed to create their own devices or sales channels. Amazon then more or less pushed the price of self-published ebooks to either 99 cents or $2.99 and locked out other vendors with various programs like KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited. They didn’t directly force people to use those prices, but try selling a book, even a thousand-page book, for $4.99 and see what happens.

(What’s funny about this is that Apple was sued and lost a price-fixing lawsuit, saying they tried to create a monopoly, when they currently own a single-digit percent of the market, and Amazon owns like 90% and has essentially fixed the price of of self-published books, and no lawsuit there. I’m simplifying here, but shit.)

Amazon also bought CreateSpace (in 2005) which had previously pushed out any other print-on-demand publishers (which all had their own problems anyway) with low pricing and tight integration with Amazon. Then they forced everyone to move to KDP for print in 2018, and (my conspiracy theory, not citable) did something to fundamentally break the sale of print books. My books that were previously available to ship that day now take 2-3 days, and I don’t know if it’s the algorithm (or that I suck) but my print book sales almost completely stopped in 2019.

Anyway, the general desire for page-flippers and the same mentality behind clickbait articles have made it very profitable to churn out short sequels and made it difficult to spend time crafting a long book that doesn’t immediately catch the attention on the first page. This is a much longer rant and I’ll shut up, but I feel like something fundamentally broke with publishing in the last ten years. And at any moment, Amazon is (my unsubstantiated conspiracy) going to start charging fees to publish books and will completely fuck self-publishing. So that will be fun.

Travel

I don’t even know how many miles I’ve flown in the last ten years. Let me see if I can do this from memory:

  • 2010: Vegas, Denver, New York, Milwaukee
  • 2011: Vegas, LA, Indiana, Milwaukee
  • 2012: London, Nuremberg, Berlin, Milwaukee, New York, Reno, Milwaukee again
  • 2013: LA, New York, Maui, Reno, Milwaukee, Indiana
  • 2014: Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Reno, Milwaukee
  • 2015: Las Vegas, Indiana, Maui, Indiana again, Milwaukee
  • 2016: Milwaukee, London, Nashville/Memphis, Milwaukee
  • 2017: Mendocino, Maui, Milwaukee
  • 2018: Anchorage, Milwaukee, Indiana
  • 2019: Las Vegas, Milwaukee

Travel’s gotten a bit light in the last few years because of my crazy work schedule. I’m about due for a big trip that doesn’t involve family and/or a funeral.

Other Stuff

I walked like 14,000 miles in the last ten years. Gained and lost hundreds of pounds, probably. I started the decade at like 170, and I’m now a touch above 200. In 2011 and 2013, I got back down below goal weight, but haven’t been close since, which is a bummer. Working from home is awesome except for the food thing. Maybe I’ll fix that next year.

No big predictions otherwise. I just finished a book, and I’m in the heavy postpartum depression from that, trying to figure out what to do. I’m going to keep writing. I should probably find another hobby to keep me busy when I’m not writing, but I know I’ll keep writing.

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Milwaukee

I am on day nine of a ten-day stretch in Milwaukee. I don’t know how this happened, how I managed to schedule ten days here, but as a rule of thumb, ten days anywhere is too long. It’s also a problem here, because I always get sick, and the trip was long enough that I was able to catch a cold, get completely over it, and then catch another cold.

This trip, we’re staying at the Saint Kate hotel, which just opened this year. It is an “art hotel” and has various galleries and exhibits throughout the hotel. Very weird to be wandering down to find a cash machine and see a Damien Hirst print on the wall. So everything is new, the HVAC system is modern and didn’t give me an upper respiratory infection (like it did in Reno last month) and the WiFi works. Also the rates were absurdly cheap, either because they are new and underbooked, or they do mostly business travel and this is a dead week. Either way, it was half the price of the Iron Horse, our usual place, and much nicer.

This is the type of hotel that tries to be “hip” by putting a ukulele and a record player in every room. The uke was exactly what you’d expect if someone needed to buy 200 instruments just to say they had them, and I don’t think it had ever been tuned. We have one of those Crosley record players you get for fifty bucks at Target (or $100 for the same exact thing at Urban Outfitters) and it looks like they bought a giant battle-worn record collection at a garage sale and dumped a half-dozen albums in each room. I fired up an old Canned Heat record for kicks, and it was fun, but convinced me that vinyl is not an upcoming obsession.

Mostly did all the usual family stuff. Then yesterday I met up with John Sheppard for his birthday and went to the Brat Stop in Kenosha. We they drove to the Regency mall in Racine to walk around. I immediately got busted for taking pictures by an overzealous mall cop, but I posted my few pictures over at Instagram.

The mall is an interesting one: just under a million square feet, with former anchors of Sears, JC Penney, and the Boston Store, all of which are now dead. All but maybe two dozen of the stores inside have closed, so a recent “remodel” covered the cool-looking vaporwave tile floors with institutional carpet, and boarded over the vacant stores, with various “history of Racine” photos on the walls. I did a short dive on the place yesterday, and it looks like it’s getting redeveloped, probably leveled and replaced with a strip mall, although there’s already a Walmart and some semi-populated strip malls across the street, so who knows.

Also went to Mar’s Cheese Castle yesterday. Turns out they’ve nearly doubled the size of the roadside tourist stop. I originally went there in 2006 when it wasn’t much bigger than the average highway service station. They built a new building in 2011 when road construction forced a move, but made it look like an actual castle, with turrets and walls and everything. The place is now immense, almost overwhelming, with a giant restaurant, endless cases of beer, and of course a large stockpile of cheese and meats.

So I’ve been way off plan with diet, obviously. I do have a great gym here, and have been going every morning. Walking outside has been problematic, because it’s either freezing, raining, or both. At least it isn’t bone-cold freezing like it was a few years ago.

No writing at all lately. Deep in the post-partum depression of the last book, which of course you should buy (https://amzn.to/2svrSV4) but I don’t even want to talk about, and I have no idea what’s next.

No other mall visits, and honestly, I think 2020 is going to be a really bad year for retail in general and I should do all of my walking in the forest instead of following the depressing nostalgia trail and doing indoor laps.

One more day to kill, then I fly home and have a few more days to do all the dumb end-of-year summary posts.

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Vegas 2019

I’m back from a week in Vegas. My allergies have gone full tilt since I returned yesterday afternoon, and I really should rail about ten Benadryl tablets and go to bed for another week, but I should probably write a dumb bulleted list of everything before I forget it.

  • As I mentioned in my last post, this trip was extremely unplanned and I did little research, except to book hotel/plane/car, and plan on writing all week.
  • I did not write all week. I probably got less writing done than if I stayed home.
  • I stayed at the Candlewood Suites, which is about a mile east of the strip, at Paradise and Flamingo. This is an odd location, because it’s an okay walk to the central strip, but there’s a lot of nothing between the two. It’s also about a quarter-mile north of the Hard Rock. There’s nothing north of there, unless you want to see the back of the Wynn golf course. You really don’t want to walk east of Paradise.
  • The hotel itself was nice, fairly updated, had a kitchenette and a nice desk and all that. But the toilet ran constantly, did this weak little half-flush every 174 seconds that eventually drove me nuts. The big plusses were no resort fee, no charge for parking, decent wifi, and no casino. Also, I could make oatmeal every day for breakfast, instead of going to a resort diner and eating 1700 calories of pancakes for $47.
  • Every single thing in Las Vegas is now a weed store. Everything. Okay, maybe not really, but the ads are everywhere. I can’t find an exact number, but I think Vegas has twice as many dispensaries as Oakland. And everyone sells CBD oil, every gift shop and gas station that has knock-off Chinese Vegas shirts for three for ten bucks. Every billboard is for weed or Jesus. Every taxi cab is fully wrapped in weed ads. It’s sort of bizarre how the gold rush has struck there.
  • I walked an insane amount on this trip, something like 40 or 50 miles. Way over 10,000 steps a day. There was a day of 25,000, which is about a half-marathon. Had a minor foot injury one day – ingrown toenail cut into the next toe, sock full of blood, etc. But I got it patched up and had no issues after that.
  • Tons of food. I found out quickly that the best way to handle things was OpenTable reservations, especially since you can now convert their points to Amazon cards. So even if I just wanted a seat at a bar at 11 in the morning, I’d make a reservation. Places of note: the Hofbrauhaus place on Paradise and Harmon (hard to go wrong with Bavarian sausages and waitresses in dirndls; Gordon Ramsay’s pub in Caesar’s (scotch eggs are so good, Waygu steak is also top-notch); and Wolfgang Puck’s bar in MGM. Ate way too much on this trip, and gained three or four pounds, which isn’t good, but the food was worth it.
  • Went to the Neon Boneyard, an outdoor collection of retired neon signs from casinos and hotels. Great stuff, although once you walk the loop and take your pictures, that’s like fifteen minutes total. Really weird to see signs for casinos which I used to go to all the time.
  • Walked around downtown on Fremont on a Monday afternoon, which was depressing as hell. You really need to go at night when it’s lit up. During the day, it’s all old people who don’t want to deal with that liberal bullshit down on the strip, and homeless buskers. It’s a great place to watch old women on mobility scooters with oxygen tanks chain-smoke. I went to the giant White Castle there out of a fit of nostalgia, and quickly remembered why I hadn’t eaten White Castle in thirty years.
  • Went to I think every mall in the area. The casino malls were no-brainers; you cut through them to use the air conditioning and avoid the pile-ups on the strip. The mall at Caesar’s is the highest-grossing mall in the country, and every few years, they say “fuck it, we need more” and basically Control-C Control-V the whole mall and double it in size. It’s about an expansion away from lapping Mall of America for size. It probably makes three times as much per square foot already.
  • Meadows Mall, just a bit north of Vegas, and Galleria at Sunset, down in Henderson, were both well-managed, orderly, large malls that had few vacancies, lots of national brands, and very little soul. Galleria has the biggest JC Penney I’ve ever seen.
  • And then there’s the Boulevard Mall. Holy shit, was this bizarre. So it’s a million and a quarter square foot mall, four anchors, all dead. The interior has this crazy early sixties art deco look to it, but they’ve gone sideways on filling the mall. For example, the first floor of Dillard’s became a Goodwill store. The upstairs is now a telemarketing call center. A Circuit City became an Asian grocery store. A JC Penney got carved up into an indoor go-kart track and a laser tag arena. A bunch of stores became an aquarium. The top floors of a Macy’s is now office space for Anthem Blue Cross. A bunch of the stores in the mall are various local Filipino-related businesses. There’s an imitation Cinnabon. There’s a store that only sells Mexican potato chips. They were blasting slow jazz at excruciating volume through the concourses. There were 19 different kiosks selling CBD oil. The whole thing was just sensory overload, so confusing.
  • I didn’t go in, but the Liberace museum – the original one – is now an escape room. The new museum is now a Mexican catering hall.
  • This was the first* time I’d visited Vegas in the spring — I usually visit in either January or during the summer. So it while it would be hot in the late afternoon, it was actually cool in the morning, and would require a jacket. It only got unreasonably hot one or two days. It also rained on Tuesday, a crazy desert rainstorm where it dumped an insane amount of rain quickly, and suddenly nobody knew how to drive.
  • (* I actually just realized I was in Las Vegas overnight almost exactly twenty years ago, when I moved east. That was my first real visit, outside of an airport layover. But I don’t think I was even outside. I pulled into the Luxor, ate at the food court, fell asleep, and then left the next morning.)
  • I went to the SLS casino, which used to be the Sahara, and saw Eddie Griffin. That was a weird one, and I went on a lark, because no other comedians were there all week. It was maybe a 200-seater, and I had tickets about a row of tables back from stage. He’s working on a new hour for Netflix, taping this June. It was a bit sloppy. Maybe he drank too much, maybe he didn’t care about a Wednesday night show, but he did a little over two hours, and I think he’s about halfway to getting that hour done. There was some good stuff, but very uneven. (What’s even funnier is reading the Yelp reviews of uptight white midwesterners who were offended by his show.)
  • Saw Blue Man Group at their new spot at the Luxor. I think this was the seventh time I’d seen them — three in NY at the original Astor Theater, and three in Vegas. I know it’s corny and not cool and whatever, but I like going, like the drumming, and like the sound and music. I don’t like how many people try to video the thing, even though they tell you not to video the thing, but everyone’s the center of the universe these days.
  • Drove out to Valley of Fire, but this was the hottest day of the week, and with the heat and the altitude, I was pretty much done after about 30 minutes of walking and climbing around. Also, people climbing all over that famous red stone arch and taking selfies, even though there are a thousand DO NOT CLIMB signs all over it.
  • Went to the Pawn Stars pawn shop. Of course, none of the people from the show were there. They have opened a little plaza next to it, built from steel containers, filled with various little shops. Chumlee has a candy store, which is a tiny little room with some pick-a-mix bins and about as much candy as a typical Kroger grocery. I guess he works there sometimes, though. There’s also a CBD oil store, of course.
  • I should be don’t-ask-don’t-tell on gambling. I didn’t do much of it, did okay, let’s leave it at that.

Overall, a good trip, although I wish I would have done more writing. Also dreading a week of emails tomorrow morning, but not much I can do about that.

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End of 2018

I’ve been back from Indiana for a few days now. Been slightly sick, working on unpacking, cleaning, resetting, all the usual crap before I get back to work on Wednesday.

The trip was probably my longest visit to Indiana since I left in 1995. I was there from Friday night to the following Saturday morning, with all of it in Indiana (save a quick spin through Edwardsburg and an afternoon in Dowagiac.) I had family stuff pretty much every day, and we tried to find new and neat things to do during the week, museums and other things I’d never seen. But I also had a lot of time by myself, and the heavy nostalgia thing I mentioned in my last post was problematic.

As far as stuff to do, we went to the Studebaker museum, which I’d seen years ago, but has since moved to a new building they share with a South Bend history museum. Spent some time downtown and went to The Griffon, which is an old RPG/D&D game store I last went to in maybe 1990, and it’s great they are still up and running. Went to the old Orbit Records in its new location a few slots over, and the whole vinyl thing has kept them running. Ate at Tippecanoe Place, a giant mansion turned restaurant, which I last visited on the night of my senior prom. Dinner buffet on Christmas night at the new Four Winds casino in South Bend was solid. Didn’t play anything, and then my sister played a slot machine for like two minutes and won $260. Also visited the history museum in Dowagiac. And malls. Lots of malls.

John Sheppard came out for a day, and we did the whole Jon Konrath Reality Tour, visiting every place I lived and shopped and worked and whatever else back in the day. The highlight was stepping into a completely vacant Concord Mall, which was like breaking into a tomb that had been sealed shut a thousand years before.

We started off our day by visiting fellow writer Steve Lowe, who now owns and operates South Bend Brew Werks. Had a great lunch, took the tour of their brewing operations, and saw a great example of how downtown South Bend is on the upswing. At the end of the tour, we hit Bruno’s for a pizza after walking around University Park mall, which seems like it has doubled in size since I left, with almost no vacant stores and every single thing except JCP and Sears replaced by a higher-end chain. It was a stark contrast to Elkhart, where things have closed and not been replaced.

The rest of the trip was me going stir crazy, walking around the mall, wondering what would have happened if I never left Indiana, and wondering what there was to do except eat, watch TV, or spend money. Family stuff, I guess, but I have this conversation with myself every time I go back, and it never goes well. Anyway, I’m back home, away from the snow, so there’s that.

* * *

End of year crap – don’t really want to get into that. I quit Goodreads, so I can’t tell you how much I read. I did exercise every day, although my total distance walked wasn’t as high, and I ended up gaining almost six pounds over the year. So I need to work on that. All the usual new year new me crap. Stop reading news. Stop obsessing over nostalgia. Write more. Whatever.

This year will be tough on the nostalgia front, because it’s thirty years since I graduated high school. and there are lots of various anniversaries there for me to obsess over. I need to find some writing project to distract me from this crap. Maybe I’ll blog more, although I don’t know what I’ll write about. I have a project that’s maybe 80% done, but stalled. Maybe I’ll take up knitting. I have no idea.

OK, going out to dinner in a minute. I’ll probably be asleep by ten. Hope you all have a good new year.

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Hello from the former 219

Exactly thirty years ago, to the day, I was here.

It was Christmas Eve. We closed at five. I was telling people we had no Nintendos. I probably worked forty hours that week. I’d listened to the same four-hour loop of taped holiday Muzak at least ten times. Mariah Carey was still waiting tables, so no, that song wasn’t on.

Today, I poked around what’s left of the Concord Mall, trying to visualize exactly where this was. The Montgomery Ward where I worked is gone now, having closed 18 years ago. The above picture is what used to be a door and a set of windows going in to the Auto Express department. Take a quick right, and you’d see me at a Nixdorf cash register, telling someone that no, we had no Nintendos.

Most of automotive is now a dentist’s office. Two of the bays, all of my old department, and a good chunk of housewares is now a warehouse-type electronics/appliance store. I went inside, and compared the layout of the poles and roof inside to some pictures I had from 1988 and more or less figured out where my department was. The warehouse store was empty, a ghost town. I talked to the manager, asked him if he remembered the Wards there. He didn’t. I don’t think he was alive thirty years ago.

The rest of the store is now a Hobby Lobby. I nosed around there a bit. You cannot tell it used to be a Wards at all. The area that used to be Electric Avenue is filled with floral arrangement kits, and “live laugh love” placards. I think their bathrooms are in the same place as the ones by the customer service center in Wards. I looked into an open door that led to their warehouse area. It’s the same warehouse where I used to unload trucks at six in the morning back in 1993. Same gray paint. I painted that warehouse at one point.

The mall was absolutely deserted. Echoing Christmas music. Zombie apocalypse. Almost every store closed. I went on facebook live, started doing a tour. Three minutes later, a mall cop told me to stop. Oh well.

Santa was gone. The winter wonderland booth was already partly disassembled. Nobody was around. The mall closed at five. There is no way this mall will survive another year. It was supposed to be torn down in 2017. Maybe if the economy tanks and there’s no money to rebuild it, they’ll chain the doors shut and let it rot. I spent almost every hour of my time there for a formative decade of my childhood. Best case scenario, they will turn it into a storage facility. Maybe tear it down and build some soccer fields for the high school. They turned Pierre Moran into a strip mall, and when I was there today, every store except one was vacant. So no need for that.

I have been on such a heavy nostalgia trip, just wallowing in a horrible pit of memories. I drove by my old house today, saw my dead uncle’s house, cruised past my dad’s post-divorce single-wide trailer. I went to the dead Sears at what used to be Pierre Moran mall, stood in the parking lot where the mall once was, tried to figure out the layout of where things used to be. I went in the Big Lots that used to be the G.L. Perry department store where I’d buy Star Wars figures and Halloween costumes, where I first studied the Kiss Unmasked LP and wondered why the hell they took off their makeup. I went to the grocery store parking lot where my car blew up in 1991. They started remodeling the grocery, ran into asbestos, ran out of money, and abandoned it. There’s a lot of that around the area.

An old friend from New York messaged me this morning, and said she had stopped in Indiana to eat breakfast at a pancake place, asked me if I knew it. It was literally 1500 feet from where I was sitting. I ran over and talked to her for a few minutes. I think I last saw her in 2002. It was such a weird coincidental mindfuck. It was like walking into a K-Mart and seeing Iggy Pop and Gerald Ford playing Uno. It was a great surprise, but also fed into this weird nostalgia thing I’m far too deep into.

If you’ve seen Mad Men, you’ll know I’m ripping this off from Don Draper, and I’ll steal it from the Apple thesaurus to make sure I don’t screw it up. The word nostalgia comes from from the Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’. After living in a dozen cities, it’s sometimes hard to say where home really is. But put me in a car in Mishawaka and tell me to go to the Tastee-Freez in Dunlap, and I will make every turn from one to the other without thinking. There is a deep familiarity there, things burned into my head, both good and bad, that are the basis for so many parts of my life. And revisiting that brings some pain I can’t avoid, that I want to continually revisit. I don’t want to move back here; I never could. But I have some sick fascination with going back to those memories, even as the physical world that formed them crumbles.

I feel a great need to stop doing this. I should be thinking about what book I should be writing next, or what I should be doing with my career, not trying to think of every record store that was open in the 219 area code in 1992. This area isn’t even in the 219 area code anymore. And there are almost no record stores. And I don’t live here anymore. You can’t go back. Whatever. I’m mentally ill. I should meditate or jog or take up knitting. I don’t know.

That night, thirty years ago, I got a ride home with a girl I had a crush on, because the starter on my car was broke. The next day, my family went to Chicago, stayed with my favorite cousins. We went to a mall that night and I saw the movie The Naked Gun, going into it blind, not even knowing it was a comedy, which was perfect. We drove back to my cousin’s after midnight in his 5.0 Mustang, blasting the song “Fade to Black,” which is an awesome song to listen to in the middle of the night on a highway in a big city in a fast new car. I was amazed that we were in a place so big and so cool that they played Metallica on the radio, and knew that someday, I would have to leave small-town Indiana. I was a senior in high school. I was getting ready to leave for college, start a journey that would eventually take me to the very end of that same highway, on the west coast, as far as I possibly could get from that point. That’s another story, another set of nostalgia points.

Anyway. It’s Christmas in 24 minutes. I have to Ambien out, see more family tomorrow. Hope your holiday is going well.

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Milwaukee

I had to make an emergency trip to Milwaukee last month – haven’t had time or energy to write about it yet, but I probably should put something here. My wife’s stepmother passed away suddenly, and there was much chaos behind the whole thing. I don’t want to go into too many details here, except to say like 19 things were wrong with this story. And if you smoke, quit.

I’m not sure how I managed to get out of work for an entire week, but I did. (Well, almost — I still got pulled into two or three different problems via email while I was gone.) Sarah left the week before me, and tried to handle the pure chaos of the situation: no will, nothing planned, separate finances, lots of people in limbo, coming in to town and trying to help but it was like throwing ten decks of cards in the air and trying to sort them before they hit the ground. The funeral was gigantic, something like a thousand people, even the mayor of Milwaukee, and the will and the probate and the finances will probably drag on for months. So, don’t smoke, and get a will and write all that stuff down.

It’s unusual that I visit the midwest during the summer. The annual trip usually happens over the holidays, when everything is frozen. I haven’t been to Milwaukee in the summer since I think 2007, when we did a big IL/IN/WI trip. And I was there in the spring of 2008, for our wedding reception. I wrote about this phenomenon when I went to Indiana in 2015, and it still holds true – that change in temperature and sunlight and the ability to be outside for more than ten minutes without losing fingers and toes really changes things, sets off a completely different nostalgia profile.

My only real summertime nostalgia for Wisconsin is from 1993, when me and Ray and John Woods drove out for the Milwaukee Metalfest. That’s a whole other story, which we covered in the episode of the podcast with Ray. The bit that reverberated with me, at least on this trip, wasn’t Ice T or Cannibal Corpse, but was a brief moment in the morning. We drove to Milwaukee the night before, and slept in Ray’s car, on North 24th Street, next to the Eagles Lodge. Or tried to sleep, anyway — I think I got about 90 minutes of fitful rest in the back seat of Ray’s Oldsmobile, crunched between boxes of shirts and tapes and zines and whatever else.

At five or six in the morning, unable to sleep anymore, I got out of the car, left behind an unconscious Ray, and went for a walk in the neighborhood, looking for caffeine. It was oddly quiet, almost vacant, the calm before the storm. And the midwest in summer always has this atmosphere property early in the morning, when the sun hasn’t heated everything up, and the humidity is still dew and not a swamp of unbearable mugginess. There was such a peacefulness and stillness to the air, and I enjoyed that feeling of tranquility in my half-awake state.

For this trip, we stayed in a hotel, one of the only places we could find because of Irish Fest. It was out in this tech center area of Wauwatosa, which I guess used to be filled with old hospitals and asylums which went vacant after new hospitals were built, and during the Y2K-era tech boom, the area was sort of reinvented as a tech hub, with lots of low-slung office parks that looked like the generic office buildings in places like Denver’s tech center, or the east side of Lake Washington in Seattle. The hotel was pretty meh, but I got a place that had a gym, which I usually do. But I usually do that because it’s like zero outside, and I have to treadmill it; this time it was actually nice outside (in the morning at least) and I was able to walk around in the morning. And I got that same feeling of the air, that I had back in 1993. The walks each morning, although they were through an area that looked like a copy of Palo Alto research parks, still was tranquil and enjoyable, a nice break from everything else.

The week of the funeral was chaos. The service and the reception went well, or as well as these things can go. And aside from losing an exceptional person, and having to deal with all the bullshit of the death (or in my case, feeling like I really could not help enough), there was the usual sinking feeling of a major existential crisis, the “what the hell am I doing with my life” trip. And the “what the hell is going to happen to my life.” I have so many family members who have cancer, heart problems, everything else, and I look at that, and start mentally calculating my own glide slope, then start wondering what I’m going to get done, and of course, I don’t even know what I want to do. So that’s a lot to process, and part of me would rather not.

Usual travel junk. They lost my luggage on the way out, and I almost got stuck in Las Vegas. Had to sprint full speed from one terminal to another to make my flight. The way back was uneventful. I spent an hour in Los Angeles, and my old familiar Terminal 1 has been completely re-skinned and redone, so even though I was less than a mile from my old apartment, it wasn’t the same. Spent a lot of time at malls. Did an amazing amount of walking. Ate way too much. Every time I turned around, someone else was bringing over a fresh pie. It was wonderful, and I hope it never happens again, for several reasons.

Anyway, usual thing about how I need to write more here. Trying to get another book out, trying to get healthy and lose weight, trying to not think about this whole life thing too much.

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Anchorage, recap

OK, I’m back. I’d planned on doing updates every day, and that just didn’t happen. The first half of the trip was too busy; the second half, I ran out of things to do and had no motivation to write in here.

I did upload my pictures. They are on Flickr here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmhtk2H2

Here’s a high-level bullet list of stuff I did do, mostly so I’ll remember it in ten years:

  • I went to Arctic Comic Con, mostly on a lark. I’m not a comic book fan, and I didn’t really know any of the people appearing, aside from comedian Brian Poeshn. It was their first year, and not very big, but people were happy they did get some people to show up. The convention was about the size of a large high school gym, with a dozen or two booths, mostly selling comics, but also some weird ones, like the Army was there, and someone selling hot tubs. There was also a place doing tattoos and piercings, and it was weird to hear a constant BZZZZZ as people on panels were talking. The crowd was mostly younger, and parents. Every teen with blue hair and an anime fetish within a hundred miles of Anchorage was there. Didn’t stay that long, didn’t buy or eat anything, but it was an interesting time.
  • Climbed Flattop mountain just south of town. If you need to listen to any one song while driving into snow-topped mountains, make it the song “Antarcticans Thawed” from the new Sleep album. It was maybe 30 out, everything covered in snow, and very windy, like 25mph. The trail was buried, so lots of ice, and I fell in up to my thighs a few times. Forgot gloves, broke my water bottle in the car so no drink. Absolutely beautiful on top, could see the water, the city in the distance, and all the other peaks in the area.
  • Moose Tooth pizza was a good experience. Also, very cheap.
  • Went to The Mall at Sears, which no longer has a Sears. Was shooting the outside of the mall and a security SUV rolled up on me, lights flashing. The dude came up and said “hey are you the guy from the sign company?” then started babbling on about all the old Sears signage on site. Then started to talk about the break-ins, then about how everyone’s stealing Tahoe trucks because they don’t have a chip in it. I’m in a hooded sweatshirt and freezing to death and he goes on for fifteen minutes before saying “who were you with again?” I told him I was a photographer from California and he said “sure, OK. Did you hear they’re putting a Safeway in here?”  That mall was sheer desolation. Maybe a dozen stores, the only national chains being a GNC and a Payless, both of who are on the death list. A local cell phone store. A shuttered grocery store anchor on one side, the dead Sears on the other.
  • Went to a surviving Blockbuster. This was in a John Oliver skit, which I don’t watch, but I guess he sent some Russell Crowe stuff to them, and it was not on display yet. It looked like a 2002-vintage store, trapped in amber. I bought a t-shirt, and took a few pictures.
  • The Anchorage Museum got redone and expanded since I last went, and it looks like a full reset, because I don’t remember anything. I like the new building a lot – it has a very Euro look to it, like a museum you’d see in Berlin. Not a fan of the collection, because I’m not that into Alaskan art. I know that’s horrible, I’ll leave it at that.
  • Rice Bowl is a good old-school Chinese place. When I worked in Factoria in 1995 and would find an old strip mall Chinese place and think “this shit is straight out of the Eighties,” that was Rice Bowl today. Nothing wrong with it – I loved the food, the look, and the folks were nice.
  • Had a lunch at Snow City, which never disappoints. I have this weird conspiracy theory that Snooze in Denver and Snow City in Anchorage are somehow related, and I like them both, and being in one reminds me of the other. Anyway, pancakes.
  • There’s a Japanese place (the sign actually says “oriental food”…) called Da Mi, which is on the back half of an Econo Inn, which sounds horrific, but it was great food and cheap, and had the fountain and the neon sign above the sushi bar and gave you a fried oreo with your check and the whole nine. Ate there twice.
  • I know I ate a lot, but La Cabana, great Mexican place – I didn’t think you could get good Mexican this far north, but this was on par with a few of my LA favorites, which says a lot. (Side note: I hate Bay Area Mexican food. Enough with the cilantro.)
  • Red Chair Cafe, too – good brunch. Went there three or four times.
  • Drove to Girdwood, which is about 45 minutes south. It’s a nice drive on the Seward highway, with the water from the Turnagain on your right side, the mountains in the distance, and the single line of the Alaska railway snaking past. I stopped a few times for pictures, then went to the Aleyaska resort for a hike around woods at the base of the mountains. I really wanted to ride the chair lift to the top like I did last time, but it was closed for maintenance. The hike through the woods was pretty nice, the streams running wild with the meltoff from the glaciers. There was a fair amount of packed snow/ice on the wooden bridges of the path, so it took some work to not fall down, but there was a nice elevation change, and at this point, nobody was out. I also walked through the big ski resort, which was mostly empty and sort of Shining-like in the offseason.
  • Chair 5 was a good lunch stop in Girdwood. Kobe beef sliders and onion rings really hit the spot after the hike.
  • I drove out to Talkeetna, which is about two and a half hours north, on the way to Denali State Park. It’s the town that Northern Exposure was allegedly modeled after, although it was actually shot in central Washington. The drive out actually reminded me of driving around Southwest Washington – no real views of the mountains after I hit Wasilla, just lots of tree farming. The town itself is cute, a little general store, a brewpub where I grabbed a reuben for lunch, and a lot of closed galleries and stores. (Offseason!) I walked around a lot, and looked at their small bush pilot airstrip. Found out the general store sells Mello Yello, which I haven’t seen in forever.
  • Kept seeing F-22s take off from Elmendorf AFB, which was on the horizon across from my hotel. I tried taking some pictures with a 300mm zoom, but didn’t get much. They had two accidents involving the F-22 last month, so I couldn’t believe they were out flying that much.
  • Went to the Alaska Aviation Museum. Their WW2 hanger was closed for renovation, and it was a dreary day to visit the planes outside. The two things different since last time were that they have an F-15A now (not in great shape, though) and they have an Alaska 737-200QC, which is a weird plane. It’s a 737 that has a passenger door on one side, and a cargo door on the other – basically, the whole side of the plane in front of the wing swings up. The seats are all removable, so they can reconfigure it for various ratios of cargo in the front, people in the back. They had it set up so you could go inside and look around, with half the plane configured with seats with the backs against the wall, and the front half ready to be filled up with Amazon prime boxes, fresh vegetables, and livestock. They retired this example in 2007, and their last Combi (a -400) earlier this year. (https://blog.alaskaair.com/alaska-airlines/fleet/combi-plane-retires/)
  • Stopped in Obsession Records, worth a visit if you’re into vinyl. My hotel was right next to Mammoth Music, which was a great guitar shop, although my luggage and my marriage could not withstand another guitar purchase. Tidal Wave Books was still hanging in, although they’re all used books now, and it seemed a little less lively than 2006. There’s an REI at the same strip mall, which was packed with gear I wanted and did not need. That REI used to be a two-story Montgomery Ward forever ago, and I could still see a few remnants of that design.
  • I expected to see a ton of dispensaries, now that weed is legal, but I didn’t see many. I don’t partake, so I don’t care that much, but I expected it to be fully lit up like Denver, and it wasn’t. The back side of the REI in the strip mall did have a place called “Dankorage” so that’s neat. There’s a street named Fireweed, and I expect that to be the name of a dispensary or a stoner metal band.
  • Flight back was uneventful. A middle seat again for ANC-SEA, but I upgraded to a window seat for SEA-OAK and the person next to me was a no-show, so I got to actually use my laptop for once.

So, that’s it. My general takeaway was that if you want to go do tourist stuff, go after Memorial Day, but then you’re going to pay more. If you want to ski or do snow stuff, you’ll need to go much earlier now. I was surprised skiing and snowmobiling were closed at the end of April, when they were open at the beginning of June in 2006. The strange desolation of the off-season was interesting to me, so I enjoyed it. I don’t think I could hack Alaska 52 weeks a year, but I don’t think I can hack my home location 52 weeks a year either. Anyway, check out the photos, and apologies in advance that I took too many.