Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Baby showers and UFOs

It's not often these days that I'm brought close to tears, but such was my quite unexpected reaction to our recent baby shower, kindly organised by family friend and Lake Oswego resident, Sharon Loffelmacher. Not only were almost all of our new friends present to wish us well on our forthcoming metamorphosis into parents (a transition universally and euphemistically described as 'exciting'), but they also came laden with all manner of gifts, both practical and aesthetic, frequently of mysterious function and all utterly undeserved. I was at once moved and a embarrassed and overwhelmed. And tipsy, of course, that goes without saying. "Baby Fluffy" has yet to arrive and despite this is already in possession of a van load of accessories to furnish his tastefully decorated room (not to mention half the basement). He is certainly a fortunate soul, to be born into such a position, better off than many a Byzantine prince and at considerably lower risk of assassination.

Rachel admires a minute item of clothing, suitable for a goblin or perhaps some kind of pixie-child.

In motoring news, a guy was clocked on Interstate 84 last week doing 146mph (apparently he was running late for a meeting). Which is 81 miles an hour over the limit. The cost of this infringement? An $1100 fine and a ninety day ban. Is it just me, or was that rather lenient? Meanwhile there is an ever mounting brouhaha regarding the price of 'gas', which now tops $3 a gallon. Personally I can't help chortle with old fashioned schadenfreude at the voxpops bemoaning, for example, the cost of driving little Madison to her piano lessons - a hundred mile round trip - in her chevy suburban three times a week. O, the suffering. Note for UK residents: $3 gallon = 42p/litre.

In any event, we made our own small contribution to global warming last Saturday when we took a trip down to McMinnville for the annual UFO festival. Although it wasn't quite as "out there" as I'd hoped (just a handful of stands selling homemade DVDs and random texts on alien abductions), the parade was quite fun and the weather held. McMinnville (population 30 000) is a charming little town to the south-east of Portland, about half-way between here and the coast. Apart from extraterrestrial encounters, the town is also home to the Spruce Goose i.e. Howard Hughes' giant plane. We've seen it up close and can confirm it's an absolute behemoth. "No metal for my elephantine flying boat? No problem, sir, for I shall build it out of wood" - genius. Snaps follow...

Yes, they're aliens, but you have to respect their taste in motor vehicles.

Bizarre alien children emitting diaphonous bubbles, which, though delightful, no doubt exert a sinister form of mind control on the subjects of their enchantment.

Elvis and Marylin Monroe turned up, clearly having engaged in some kind of faustian-pact with the aliens in return for eternal youth. And a Chrysler Sebring.

It's the McMenamin's crew. The McMenamin brothers own a chain of outre pubs and hotels, all concievably fashioned after the Snowdrop in Lewes (see above), only less pikey.

An alien labrador, of course.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Vive Las Vegas (yes, I said vive not viva)

About a month ago we took a trip to Las Vegas and had a wonderful time, although not quite the wonderful time we imagined we were going to have, for the city had somehow transformed itself in the eight years since we were last there, when Tom Jones was playing the strip, when Richard Kitch, Simon and Briony were with us, not to mention Stuart the inflatable dinosaur, and we were but recently engaged. Following that earlier mesmeric experience I had been warming myself up for a tale of gargantuan buffets, $1.99 steak and eggs after midnight, tawdry mockney piratical displays, Elvis impersonators calling keno (bingo) numbers, old ladies shovelling quarters from plastic buckets into semi-bulimic slot machines, desperate couples hurling loaded dice across the baize of futility, the light in their eyes slowly dying as the ageing cocktail waitress doled out another round of complimentary sea breezes in the musty, low-slung everlasting twilight of the Tropicana. You get the picture.

Instead the feeling that consumed me as we stared out across the city through the plate glass window that formed one edge of our hotel room on the 53rd floor of The Wynn hotel, was a heady mixture of wonderment and (uncharacteristic) humility. I felt perhaps as a minor official from rural Gascony might have on his unlikely arrival at the court of Louis XIV. The spectacle was simply awe inspiring.

With a construction cost around $3 billion (a full billion more than New York's forthcoming Freedom Tower), I suppose you'd expect the Wynn to be comfortable, and they didn't let us down with the view, the marble bathroom, the widescreen plasma TV and the extended minibar wherein each item was electronically tagged and charged to your room if moved out of place for more than thirty seconds. We didn't even toy with the variety of super-upscale restaurants to be found in house (including a chinese where the set menu was $120 per person), the majestic pool or of course the 18 hole golf course; neither did we gamble or attend the broadway or (now obligatory) Cirque de Soleil show running downstairs; nor did we shop at the selection of in-house designer stores, which included a Ferrari dealership. Though on the last night we did order room service and enjoyed a panorama every bit as good as that of the Stratosphere, down the street.

The Wynn is only the latest example of Vegas' recent shift from blue to white collar decadence. Of course outposts of the old Vegas remain: the Tropicana, the Monte Carlo, the Sahara, Circus Circus; yet somehow their lustre has been stripped from them, their gaudy, cheap and cheerful all-you-can-eat, neon-lit, clankety-clank "what happens in Vegas..." almost rootsy dive-bar charm suddenly squalid in comparison to the mock Venetian canals, Parisian side-streets and white tigers from distant Araby, flatteringly lit in the reflected twilight of a trompe l'oeil fresco. It's a bit like finding Bette Lynch (or Paris Hilton) at a debutantes ball. Or how Tanya Turner probably felt when she met Eva de Wolffe (Joan Collins) in series 5 of the excellent Footballer's Wives (available on a bittorrent near you, probably). NQOCD: Not quite our class, dear. Which, when you think about it, is all very unamerican. This is, after all, the only country I've ever visited where you can tell absolutely nothing about a man's wealth by the way he dresses. Make no mistake though, there is a class system here; yet its vagaries continue to elude me.

In any case, I cannot recommend a trip to Vegas highly enough. It is quite simply one of the wonders of the modern world. By any almost every rational (indeed ethical) standard it should not exist; and yet it flourishes. Vive Las Vegas, bebe.

The view from our window by day...

...and by night

New Vegas vs Old Vegas. Yes, that a 2:1 Arc de Triomphe there.

That Frontier billboard in close-up. Unashamedly old-school.

Not NASA's mission control, but the sports-betting area at The Wynn. Not exactly Ladbrokes.

Hey, look, I'm in New York.

...I mean Paris

...I mean Venice (or maybe not; although, on the plus side, it does smell a lot better)

Just rounding things off with a tiger. It breaks the narrative, but my future biographer will rightly interpret this as a deliberate attempt to caricature the postmodern mise-en-scene. Although she may just take it as further evidence of my obsession with cats, which I feel would be doing me a bit of a disservice. Don't buy that one.