Dig these wholesome Vegas attractions before it’s too late!

You’re in Las Vegas. What’s there to do in this town? What isn’t there to do, right?

Well, if you’re not much of a gambler, don’t like to stay up late and could do without some of the hubbub that makes Vegas an enchanting destination for millions of tourists every year, vegas.signhere are a few things to check out. None of them costs a lot of money, and none will get you in trouble with your baby, if you’re traveling solo.

Party animals
For two sawbucks, check out Sigfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. Not only can you witness majestic beasts (who, I concede, are enclosed) this zone offers a tranquil oasis from the hullabaloo of the Vegas Strip. Hard to believe, since it’s housed in the MGM Mirage, smack dab in the middle of the Strip. Miracle of sound-proofing, I guess.

This is really the only big cat game in town, as the MGM Grand closed its lion habitat. Too bad. It was free and impressive, even if those kings and queens of the Plexiglas jungle tended to be older and woozier than their cousins at the Mirage. That’s the thing about Vegas: You hear about something interesting, see it now, since things tend to disappear like Teller during Penn & Teller’s not-to-be-missed act at the Rio.

And speaking of things disappearing, the swell Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay ($18 for adults) used to have the only hammerhead shark in captivity in North America, but no more. Still, as I said before, this aquarium is swell and yet another respite from the frenetic pace of the Strip.

Full tilt boogie
For a wholesome pastime, but with the frisson of delinquency, you can’t beat pinball. And for pinball, except for the golden memories of misspent youth, you can’t beat the Pinball Hall of Fame, just off the Strip at 1610 E. Tropicana, and it’s free.

At least I doubt you can. I haven’t actually been there, yet, myself. Let me know if it lives up to the hype I’ve dreamed up. If it’s still open.

Learn something, why don’t ya?
If you’ve got a car or a bit of cab fare, check out the pleasant and occasionally riveting Nevada State Museum, which is now closer to the Strip than when I visited it years ago (it was then in the surprisingly pastoral-for-Vegas Lorenzi Park).

It’s part of the Springs Preserve at 309 S. Valley View Blvd., and though its admission price of just under $20 seems a bit steep, this place will show you the history of old-school Vegas (including exhibitions about the mobsters who built the city) and really old-school Vegas (a study of geology, fossils and wildlife). There’s also nuke testing info, neon signs, old slot machines, video on the construction of the Hoover Dam — you name it. Anything you need to know about Vegas and the Silver State to bore your friends with at a cocktail party is contained in this museum. Don’t be put off by its crappy website: please believe me when I say this place has the goods.

What else is there?
Thrill rides aplenty, from a nifty roller-coaster at the New York, New York hotel and casino,  to a couple of rides at the Stratosphere.

But I’ve found the most thrilling ride of all, and one of the cheapest, is to just get behind the wheel and drive out to the desert to dispose of a body gaze at the stars, and then drive back into the city, seeing the Strip’s resemblance to strings of Christmas lights being tested on the living-room floor.

Know of any fun, cheap and vice-free Vegas attractions, lay ’em on me!

Woman of mystery

What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.

Still can’t. Not really.

Two years shy of two score beyond the reach of cut flowers and sweets.

Are flowers always in bloom where you are? Is everything sweet?

You can’t see me, or maybe you see everything. I see nothing.

For years I heard nothing but, little by little, more and more came back. But no words of comfort.

No new words, at all.

Still, ten years with you wasn’t nothing.

Another year, the mystery continues, until one day it won’t. I suppose.

Love always, just the same.

My favorite cities

You didn’t ask, but here are my top 10 favorite cities.

I’m leaving out Boston, Dover, N.H., and Portland, Maine, because I’ve called all of them home at some time in my life.

1. Chicago — I just returned from there, so it might benefit from the recency effect. Still, I have a feeling this one will stay with me like a lost first love. chicagoEye-popping architecture, a huge city yet replete with personal space, phenomenal museums and attractions. And it’s a beef and beer mecca.
2. Las Vegas — No better place to be an insomniac. A whole new city every five years.
3. Munich — Great food, friendly people (most of whom speak English exceptionally well) and medieval charm. Rumor has it they sell beer.
4. Paris — Springtime in Paris, right? I was there in 2007 during the elections. Few sites are more spectacular than the Eiffel Tower lit up in red, white and blue.
5. New York — So nice they named it twice. This town has everything, most especially good-looking people, except smiles.
6. New Orleans — Best food on earth … and I’ve eaten in Paris. Languid and fun, and you can drink in the street.
7. San Francisco — Postcard-level beauty, excitement and generally gorgeous weather in a marvelously historic burg.
8. Santa Fe — I defy you to find a bad meal in this place, whether at a five-star restaurant or a roadhouse. Surrounded by the glorious Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
9. Seattle — Can be gloomy (though the weather’s always been great when I’ve been there), with a slightly hardscrabble flavor. Yet the people are friendly without being cloying and the Jet City has lots of attractions, including the real rock-and-roll hall of fame, the Jimi Hendrix Experience Music Project.
10. Quebec — Old-world charm and a cozy vibe. Rain and snow are abundant but, taken with the mighty St. Lawrence River, the place seems like a dream.

 

Zero-minute abs

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ben grimm

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Lessons in humility

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I need winter.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate winter with a passion as white and hot as snow is white and cold. But I need the constant lesson in humility winter brings.

One lesson is obvious: our inability to control the elements, and our charge to make the best of bad situations by laying up supplies, amassing sufficient money to keep one’s dwelling sound and warm, and mustering the fortitude snow photo 2 for jharmto suck it up and get out there and face the challenge of snow- and ice-mitigation.

But today I received another, more profound, lesson in humility. It came from a neighbor with whom, frankly, we haven’t gotten along.

Things started off terribly between our households when the late Buddy, Prince of West Methuen, on a couple of occasions availed himself of our neighbor’s lawn, unbeknownst to us (at least until our neighbor unequivocally and vociferously alerted us to the canine crime). You can probably guess what Buddy’s contribution to the contretemps was.

I bought our neighbor a case of Budweiser, left it on his doorstep as a peace offering, and we put the hard feelings in the rear-view mirror. Thus began a prolonged detente, punctuated occasionally by guttural, halfhearted greetings. We eventually erected a fence to keep our dogs on our property, and good fences made at least half-way-decent neighbors for years.

Relations between our camps were still somewhat frosty, but things hit a nadir last winter when I accidentally shoveled snow onto one of his trees, spurring a shouting match. (Both of us are perhaps afflicted, at least occasionally, with Irish tempers.)

However, circumstances led to an exchange, months later, of apologies for losing our cool and we went back to largely ignoring one another. Until today.

Today, for some unexpected reason attributable only to the grace of the God of Surprises, our neighbor approached me with an offer to snowblow our small yet still (on a day like today) formidable driveway. I reluctantly accepted, though unhesitatingly offered to pay him, or at least reimburse him for the gasoline exhausted in the task. He refused my offer and an enterprise that would have added a couple hours to a gargantuan undertaking — it still took me a few hours to clear the walk, deck and roofs — took about 10 minutes.

I’ve done nothing to deserve my neighbor’s largesse, yet I received it anyway. There’s been a lot of that lately in my life, and it’s still a struggle to accept.

I remain truly humbled by the magnanimity of others. Blessings abound, even when they’re disguised by a foot of snow.

The soft idolatry of thrift

Popular culture today is replete with gurus whose chief aim is to help you and I save money.

Sure, they’re often hawking their own frugality tools, their “Total Money Makeovers,” their “21-Day Financial Fasts” and their “Action Plans,” but I believe their hearts are in the right place.

That is, they’re in it for the money, but only in the best possible way. They’ve either grown up poor, made lots of money and blown it or made lots of pennybagsmoney and kept it. To a person, they give terrific and important advice.

An industry devoted to helping customers hold fast to their money might seem paradoxical, but on the whole it’s a good thing.

Except when it’s not.

At some point today, one of my favorite celebrity savers tweeted a link to something written by one of his website’s contributors. This article promised to show readers how to save big money — or,  more accurately, “$$” — by making their own laundry detergent! You can read this yourself, but it showed how some savvy purchases of bar soap, borax and a few other ingredients, and the commitment of about 20 minutes of one’s time, would yield huge dividends in the form of the avoidance of ponying up serious coin for laundry detergent.

Step one was, seriously, use a cheese grater to shred the bar of soap.

No.

I live in one of the more expensive parts of the country, but I’m confident I’ll never have to pay more than, say, six bucks for a half-gallon or more of laundry detergent. I’ve got six bucks, so do you. So does probably everybody you know or, if he or she doesn’t, he or she could certainly find a faith community or even a charitable individual to stand them to a bottle of Purex, Arm & Hammer or even the Market Basket brand.

I have no gripe with DIY-ers who want to give their pioneer spirit a workout by shunning Procter & Gamble, Amway or anyone else who manufactures laundry soap for a living. But I’m concerned that this level of frugality betrays more than a desire to be a responsible steward of the resources one has been blessed with. I think it gets at that “love of money” thing one reads about (or has certainly at least heard about once or twice) in the apostle Paul’s first letter to Timothy.

That is, greed is easy to spot (at least in others) and somewhat less easy to resist (though hardly impossible). Few would set out to live a life entirely based on the acquisition of wealth. Fewer, still, would allow envy to lead them to rob or swindle others of their wealth. Those who would, however, have clearly made a decision to serve money rather than God.

Yet isn’t our fixation on squeezing every last penny another manifestation of idolizing money, of somehow not trusting God to provide?

Stretching a buck has always been wise, especially when times are tough — as they have been for so many of us for so long. But I wonder if too many of us have made something of an idol of a sustainable, thrifty ethos. It’s a softer idolatry, perhaps, than a rapacious desire for money and things. However, we have to be willing to question what we might be squandering while we’re busy saving.

In the spirit of Janus

Last year, I rolled the dice with a New Year’s resolution blog. So how did the 2013 of my behavioral fantasy measure up to reality?

Buddy sun

Buddy on one of his last walks along the Merrimack River, Andover, Mass.

In the piece I talked vaguely about losing weight (I’m actually up a couple pounds, owing to overindulgence in yuletide sweets and too many lunches out), exercising less (my dog, Holly, is ailing a bit, and my other one had to be put down in late April, so my main form of activity — brisk walking along the banks of the mighty Merrimack River with my canine companions — has screwed the pooch) and my ridiculous novel remains unfinished.

Still, I consider 2013 a success. How?

Over the course of the year, I picked up a sweet summer freelance gig, which has turned into a surprising and serious full-time job. I’ve made a couple of new friends. And I feel like I’ve found my way (at least in part) to becoming (or returning to) the kind of person I want to be.

What’s more, I’ve generally stayed true to the “no complaints, no excuses” vow that constituted my true New Year’s resolution. In spite of a couple of personal setbacks, I can truly put 2013 in the “win” column. If nothing else, I’m still on the right side of the dirt.

So, this year’s resolution will be a repeat of last year’s, with one important addition: “Try a little harder.”

Like the Roman god Janus, from whom the first month of the year derives its name, I look simultaneously behind me and straight ahead.

And, on the whole, I like what I see.

 

When faith denies art

OK, I love Jesus and generally applaud others able to employ art as the means of conveying their own love for the “newborn king.”

santa_kneeling_lg

Now where did I leave my keys?

After all, one needn’t travel to the Sistine Chapel to see sacred themes expertly applied.

But sometimes an artist’s devotion goes horribly wrong, and goes wrong over and over again, as in the case of the theme of Santa Claus kneeling in prayer over the baby Jesus.

I mean, are such paintings and figurines supposed to be equating Santa Claus with one of the magi, or perhaps God himself?

I’m a big fan of jolly old Saint Nicholas and am not in the least vexed by the spirit of gleeful commercialism that accompanies Christmas. Similarly, I’m no stranger to disturbing devotional art.

Sgt._Pepper's_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band

The left-handed guitar on the grave is a dead giveaway.

But Santa as eternal being attending the birth of the Lord is too treacly, infantile and, possibly, heretical to take.

I’d just as soon see the baby Jesus PhotoShopped onto the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” that is, if that weren’t already too busy proving the death of Paul McCartney.

At any rate, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas or even some joyous, nondenominational winter time off. New year’s coming!