Wednesday, December 28, 2005

James & Tim Go to The Magic Castle

Wednesday night we finally got to go somewhere we always wanted to visit: The Magic Castle. If you're not familiar with it, The Magic Castle is a pretty well known landmark in L.A. It's a clubhouse operated by the Academy of Magical Arts, an organization devoted to the advancement of magic as an artform. The Magic Castle is one of the rare places where you can still see magic shows.

The Magic Castle from the outside. Sorry it's so hard to see, but it was pretty dark. (12/28/05)

Because it's a private club, the only way you can get in is by being a member, or being invited by one. We were fortunate enough to be the recipient of an invitation through our friend Sabrina (a schoolmate and co-worker of our friend Amy, who over time has become our friend too). Sabrina knows some club members. And when she invited Jon, Amy, Tim and me to go with her, we jumped at the chance.

Located in the Hollywood Hills, The Magic Castle was built in 1908 and served as a private home (and later an apartment building) for more than 50 years. Then in the early '60s, it was converted into the private club that exists today. The original dress code is still strictly enforced (coat and tie for men, cocktail attire for women).

Tim and I hope our attire meets the stringent dress code standards. (12/28/05)

After leaving work early and driving to Hollywood, Tim, Jon, Amy and I arrived just after 6:00 p.m. The first room we entered had no visible doors other than the main entrance. To get into the next room, you had to say "Open Sesame" to a brass owl on a bookshelf. Then presto! ... one of the bookshelves magically opened and let you into the castle.

No photography was allowed, but I magically found some photos of the interior. These are the bookcases that slide open when you say "Open Sesame" to the brass owl.

Inside there are a variety of stages and performing areas, including the Close-Up Gallery (a theater that seats 20 people where magicians perform sleight of hand magic), The Museum (a small room that was at one time the main stage), the Parlour of Prestidigitation (a medium-size performance room) and the Palace of Mystery (the largest theater in the building). In addition there were at least three different bars, a full service restaurant and a lounge where Irma, a piano-playing ghost, takes requests.

This is the first bar you enter. Just behind it is the room where Irma, the piano-playing ghost lurks.

In addition to having dinner, we saw two full magic shows (in the close-up room and the large theater), both of which were incredibly entertaining, And like always, I couldn't figure out how a single trick was done. The main show was very exciting ... especially the hilarious puppet show opening act.

This is the main dining room, near where we sat. It had a great view of Hollywood's landmark Roosevelt Hotel.

Overall, it was a lot of fun, and I would recommend it for anyone who has never been. Keep in mind, however, that it gets very crowded inside, if only for the fact that the building wasn't originally designed to handle crowds. The only thing I wouldn't recommend is eating at the restaurant, which was a little pricey for what you get. Next time we'll eat before we get there and simply go for drinks and magic shows.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas in Laughlin — Day Three

On this, our last full day in Laughlin, we had Christmas breakfast at the Flamingo, in the buffet overlooking the Colorado River, which was pretty good.

Jon, Amy, Tim and I try our luck again at the Star Wars machines at the Ramada Express. (12/25/05)

After breakfast, we headed to the Ramada Express for some gambling. We chose the Ramada Express because Jon and I wanted to see the patriotic movie that they play every hour (although it turned out to be closed due to a private function). Plus they have a free train ride.

We took a Christmas day train ride at the Ramada Express. (12/25/05)

After some slot machine play (mostly TV- or movie-themed penny machines) and the free train ride, we all got into the car and drove to see Tim's family.

While riding the train, Mr. Hanky made his annual Christmas appearance. (12/25/05)

Tim's mom made an excellent spaghetti dinner. We even convinced Tim's grandma to join us. It was nice to finally let our friends meet Tim's family, which they've never had a chance to do. Joe particularly liked their dog, Pudgy. He even took Pudgy for a walk (or vice versa).

We closed the night with a very competitive round of Nine Holes of Golf, one of our favorite card games. It was a blast.

Smoking one of the Partagas cigars we got at the nearby Indian reservation. (12/25/05)

Afterwards, we headed back to Laughlin where we gambled a little more, and where Jon and I smoked our Partagas cigars that we picked up at the nearby Indian reservation. Afterward we did a little more gambling where I gave about $20 of my winnings back to the casinos. No biggie. I still walked out with $160+ in winnings, which made for a very Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas in Laughlin — Day Two

Okay, so my luck wasn't so great the first night. The next day I fared much better, especially at the River Palms where a Dirty Harry machine turned my $10 bill into $94. I was just happy enough to be back in the black. But my luck hadn't run out just yet.

Dirty Harry made my day by turning a $10 bill into $94 in winnings. (12/24/05)

My bigger win was when we played Bingo afterward. It was there that I won $180 in Bingo (technically my winnings were only $165, since I paid $15 to get in the game, but if you add it up with my Dirty Harry winnings, I was still $180+ ahead). Tim was actually the first one to win at Bingo, taking home $48. But my $180 win eclipsed his.

Here I am holding up my winning Bingo card, my winnings, and my lucky green Bingo dauber that I nicknamed Pam. (12/24/05)

Incidentally, anyone that tells you that Bingo is a relaxing game is lying. It is one of the most stressful games ever. They call the numbers so fast. And on top of that, you have to keep an eye out for all these patterns on your card. It's very stressful. I don't know how old people handle it.

That night Tim and I drove to Tim's parents for Christmas dinner and presents home while the other guys did their own thing. We got some really interesting gifts including toilet paper, Kleenex and a hospital-size vat of puffed cheese balls (although in all fairness, I must explain that we also got some normal gifts too, like clothes, money and gift cards). Afterward we played cards with Grandma Jean and a couple of her friends, which was loads of fun. It was a nice way to spend Christmas Eve.

Enjoying Christmas dinner with Grandma Jean, Tim, Tim's Dad, two of Grandma Jean's friends and Tim's Mom. (12/24/05)

Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas in Laughlin — Day One

Every year for the holidays, we alternate which family we see for which holiday. For example last year we did Thanksgiving with Tim's family and Christmas with mine. This year, we spent Thanksgiving with my family and Christmas with Tim's ... but with an added twist. Our friends Jon and Amy, and our roommate Joe, were looking for something to do over Christmas weekend. So we made two worlds collide and spent the weekend in Laughlin, Nevada.

On our way to Laughlin, we stopped for a bite to eat at Bob's Big Boy in Barstow, CA (12/23/05)

For those who aren't familiar with Laughlin, it's the third most visited casino and resort destination in Nevada (with Las Vegas and Reno being #1 and #2 respectively). Laughlin is located on the Colorado River, approximately 94 miles south of Las Vegas. It has about nine major casino/resort properties in a 1.5-mile strip.

Laughlin was also the site of the 2002 River Run Riot, where a major fight occurred involving two rival California motorcycle gangs — Hells Angels and the Mongols. Between 75 and 100 gang members were involved in the violence, which resulted in three deaths and multiple gunshot and knife injuries.

Needless to say, it sounded like a great place to spend Christmas! :)

We chose to stay at the Golden Nugget, largely because there is a Starbucks inside. (12/24/05)

Laughlin is geographically perfect for our plans, since it was within driving distance to Tim's family in that top secret location in the Southwest. Plus, while Tim and I were doing the whole family thing on New Year's Eve, Joe, Amy and Jon would have plenty of entertainment to keep them busy.

We left Friday morning, and after a three-hour outlet shopping stop in Barstow, we arrived at the Laughlin strip at its most exciting time — at dusk, right after the casino lights had turned on. After checking in at the Golden Nugget, we had dinner at the Colorado Belle, a casino/hotel that looks like a giant riverboat. I can't speak for anyone else, but that night gambling I was down $60. Not exactly a great start.

We had dinner at the Colorado Belle, which is shaped like a giant riverboat. (12/23/05)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Happy Solstice!

With all the Christmas activities taking place this time of year, most people barely pay any attention to the winter solstice, which is when the northern hemisphere is most inclined away from the sun. In effect, the winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. And in pre-Christian times, it was also the time when the Germanic festival of Yule was celebrated. We too decided to celebrate the solstice with a fabulous night of dinner and drinks.

Tim and James toast to the winter soltice at Orange's Citrus City Grille. (12/21/05)

The destination of choice was The Citrus City Grille, in the heart of old towne Orange. Although a tad on the expensive side, it's one of our favorite places to go when we want to do something a little more special. I really recommend the ahi poke — tuna sashimi in soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and cilantro, served with wonton ribbons. It was fantastic, as always.

For the entree, Tim got an excellent monk fish with risotto. I had scallops wrapped in prosciuto on a bed of angel hair pasta. And Everett got some sort of ravioli. We closed the night by sharing the chef's specialty chocolate soufflé, which was sinfully delicious.

Everett opened his bottle of Dolce, one of the most celebrated sweet wines. (12/21/05)

We closed the night back at our home where Everett shared with us his bottle of Dolce 2001 Late Harvest Dessert Wine. It's produced by the only winery in North America that is solely devoted to producing a single, late harvest wine — one of the few wineries in the world willing to make such a commitment. It's not cheap. You're probably talking $50 a bottle or more (and that's for the smaller, 375ml bottle), but it was worth every penny. Thanks for sharing Everett!

Friday, December 16, 2005

One More Night With Kelly

You may remember when in September I wrote the blog entry No Kelly Clarkson Tonight lamenting about Kelly canceling her September 7th concert and my not being able to make it to the rescheduled night on September 15th. Well it turns out I got the info all wrong. It wasn't rescheduled on September 15th at all. Rather it was scheduled for December 15th. And as luck would have it, I was available!

Kelly Clarkson in concert in Chicago last August. Photo by Niva Bringas. (08/14/05)

This time I got there plenty early and didn't miss a single note. It was at the Bren Events Center at UCI (University of California at Irvine, for you out-of-staters). Needless to say, it was heavy with college students. The girl-to-guy ratio must have been at least 5-to-1.

It started off with opening act: The Graham Colton Band. They were pretty good. Did a nice cover of REM's "The One I Love." Then, after a 20-minute break while they struck down the opening band's set, the lights went black and the audience went wild. Before any band members came out, they played AC/DC's "All Night Long" through the audio system. And surprisingly everyone was singing along to every word (aren't they too young for that song?).

Then Kelly emerged and the magic began.

The sign outside ... taken with my phone cam. (12/15/05)

She came out rocking and tore through Breakaway's "Walk Away" and "Miss Independent." Backed by a six-piece band, Kelly mourned her way through "I Hate Myself for Losing You", then hit the crowd with a fiery take on "Low." Showing her versatility, she turned to her more soulful side for "The Trouble With Love Is," "Thankful," and returned with the Evanescence-esque "Addicted."

Some other memorable moments were when she sang "What's Up Lonely", "Where Is Your Heart" and a song from her next album, which she said she's working on. While the band took a break, she sang an a capella version of "Beautiful Disaster" which was awesome.

A shot of the actual concert from my camera phone. I added a white arrow to point out Kelly. (12/15/05)

Other highlights included "Behind These Hazel Eyes," which included a costume change, "Because of You," and an incredible cover of "Crimson and Clover." The main set closed with a revved-up version of the smash-hit "Since U Been Gone," which, during the chorus, had everyone in the amphitheatre on their toes jumping up and down. For the encore, she sang the inspiring "Breakaway."

Overall, she rocked. She rolled. She belted with soul. And I get the feeling that Kelly enjoyed herself as much as we did.

Thanks for another great evening Kelly!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Another Night With Jones the Voice

For the two people that read this blog with any regularity, you might remember the first adventure with Me and Mr. Jones from last May. It was a night that changed my life. It was the first time I finally got to see Tom Jones in concert. And seven months later, he came to do four nights in Orange County. And once again I was there. And once again, he pulled off another incredible night.

Another fantastic performance by the legendary Tom Jones. From

This time I brought Tim with me, as well as our friend Everett. Everett was easy. Tim took a little convincing. But I knew that once he saw his first Tom Jones show, he would be a convert.

The venue was The Grove of Anaheim, which is just a couple of miles from our house. It was the first time there for both me and Tim, and it was nice. It's a dinner theater, so you end up sitting with other people and making small talk. In our case we had a blast chatting it up with this mother-and-daughter pair from Woodland Hills (Judy and Kitty) who were lots of fun.

And what a fantastic concert it was again. This guy seriously rocks. (12/13/05)

Then Tom Jones came out and rocked the house for the next hour-and-a-half. basically sang the same stuff he sang last May, a mix of his greatest hits, along with selections from the albums he recorded with Wyclef Jean and former Squeeze co-founder Jools Holland. The set list included (in approximate order):
  • Tom Jones International
  • Mama Told Me Not to Come
  • Who Will the Next Fool Be?
  • Delilah
  • Help Yourself
  • We've Got Tonight
  • She's a Lady
  • If I Only Knew
  • My Babe
  • Hanging Up My Heart for You
  • Green Green Grass of Home
  • What's New Pussycat
  • Mom and Dad's Waltz
  • 200Lbs of Heavenly Joy
  • End of the Road
  • What am I Living For?
  • I'll Never Fall in Love Again
  • You Can Leave Your Hat On
  • Sexbomb
  • It's Not Unusual
  • High Heel Sneakers (encore)
  • Kiss (encore)

It was a great show, and because I had a better seat than last time, I enjoyed even more than the first time. Who wants to come along the next time he's in town? :)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Kudos to Joe

We gotta give mad props to our roommate Joe who, on his day off Monday, strung our house with lights (after we cannibalized the lights from our house to put them on the tree yesterday) and wrapped our front door like a big Christmas present.

Our neighbors across the street did their lights in red, so we thought blue would contrast nicely. (12/12/05)

Although we typically do lights, he took it one giant step further by wrapping our front door so nicely. Great job Joe!

Our whole house is a present with this fabulous door wrapping job. (12/12/05)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

For the past five years, we've been using a fake tree every Christmas. And for the past five years, all I hear every December is "I want a real tree, but James won't let me have one." (Even though I've told him every year that if he wants a real tree, to simply go out and buy one).

Our tree has to not only pass Tim's 10-point visual inspection, it also has to pass the pine smell test. (12/11/05)

This year, I wasn't going to hear that line one more time, so I didn't even bother bringing the fake tree down from storage. No, this year we're getting a real tree. In fact we decided to get one from Peltzer Pines Christmas Tree Farm in Orange, where you can buy trees so fresh that they cut it down right before your very eyes.

Picking one out that we could agree on was a challenge, but we finally found the right tree.

This is the tree! (12/11/05)

So we paid for it, and within five minutes that baby was strapped to the Envoy and ready to go home.

The manly tree cutter guy is about to hoist it on the Envoy and tie it up for the short ride home. (12/11/05)

Decorating it was another matter. After plugging in all our lights, we realized that a couple of strands weren't working any longer. So what did we do? We pulled off the LED lights that we had just put on the house a few nights earlier (Tim wasn't really happy with them anyway, since he thought they were too small to be house lights).

Fully decorated! Now all we need are the presents underneath! (12/11/05)

Finally, several hours later we have our freshly-cut, fully-decorated naturally-pine-scented tree.

A Night With Linda Eder

Saturday night Tim and I went to see a holiday concert by the phenomenal Linda Eder, whose Christmas album is one of my top three favorite Christmas albums ever. (The other two being Celine Dion's These Are Special Times and Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas).

Tim and I had a fantastic time at the Linda Eder concert at the historic Wilshire Theatre. (12/10/05)

Linda was performing at the 1,900-seat Wilshire Theatre on the corner of Wilshire and La Cienega, which was the perfect place to see a show like that. The first half of her set consisted of songs from her new album, By Myself: The Songs of Judy Garland. Then after an intermission, she stacked the second half with songs from her fantastic Christmas album. I was thrilled.

The phenomenal Linda Eder gave a thrilling performance. (12/10/05)

Incidentally, the Wilshire Theatre is also where I saw Sarah Brightman in Aspects of Love about 10 years ago. A few years later we saw the revival of Cabaret featuring Desperate Housewives' Teri Hatcher as Sally Bowles (and bumped into comedian/actor David Spade outside the men's room).

It's actually a pretty historic theatre, opening in 1930 under the original title the Fox Wilshire. It's also where Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall attended the opening of How to Marry a Millionaire in 1953, and where Ronald Reagan and Cesar Romero attended a special screening of the 1960 Elvis Presley film G.I. Blues. Presently it sits next to the Larry Flynt Building, in front of which strangely sits a large statue of John Wayne on horseback.

P.S. — Happy Birthday Dad!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Having a Medieval Time

This whole week at work has been crazy. It's our annual rep symposium, where the company reps from around the world congregate at our office for a week to review the 2006 marketing and sales plans. In addition to all that business stuff, our company planned all sorts of evening events to keep everyone entertained, including after-work wine and hors d'oeuvres socials, our annual Christmas party, dinners, etc. On Thursday night, we treated everyone to a night out at Medieval Times, a dinner theater in nearby Buena Park where you eat with your fingers while watching a jousting tournament.

Just one of the many spectacles at Medieval Times. (12/08/05)

It was really fun hanging out with all these guys from places like France, Germany, UK, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Argentina, Phillipines, South Africa, Spain, Venezuela, Australia, Colombia and Trinidad (although sometimes their accents make them a little hard to understand, which accountd for all my nodding and smiling).

I also enjoyed watching the Knight that represented our section (the red section). He was the only one with short hair and a clean-shaven face. The other Knights looked kind of dirty, if you ask me.

This was the Knight for our section ... the Red Knight. (12/08/05)

But despite what you might think, I wasn't the Red Knight's best fan. That was reserved for my friend and co-worker Tina who went absolutely ga-ga for the guy. At one point I thought she was seriously going to lift her top!

My co-worker Tina was so excited about the Red Knight, I almost expected her to lift her top. (12/08/05)

It was actually my third time attending Medieval Times. The first was for our friend Christine's birthday about 10 years ago. Then about five years ago we went again for Tim's nephew's birthday. At the time of Tim's nephew's birthday, I remember saying that Medieval Times was one of those things you only need to do once. But it's amazing how much more fun it is when someone else is paying for it (including drinks!). :)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A Visit With Amy, the Acupuncture Intern

For the past four years or so, our friend Amy has been studying to be a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which incorporates natural healing techniques that have been used for thousands of years — including acupuncture and customized herbal medicines — to treat almost any ailment.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Intern Amy poses with her three newest patients (aka guinea pigs). :) (12/03/05)

Before she graduate, she must complete nearly 1,000 hours of internship and treat at least 60 new patients by April. So naturally, we volunteered ourselves to be her guinea pigs. Our friend Everett also joined us.

For Everett and myself, it was our first time trying acupuncture (Tim had tried it once before). Believe it or not, we weren't in the least bit hesitant to try it. After all, all three of us have at one time or another goten body piercings, so needles aren't that scary to us. Besides, acupuncture needles are much finer than anything you'd find in a doctor's office.

Tim relaxes, not minding in the least that there's seven acupuncture needles in his head. Click the photo to see more detail. (12/03/05)

The number and position of the needles depends entirely on the symptoms for which you're seeking treatment. For example Tim was fighting off a cold, so he got seven needles on his head, mostly around the area affecting his sinuses. I, however, had no facial needles, but more on my arms and legs (and one on the top of my head, strangely).

Once the needles are in, they allow you to relax to some very pleasant Asian music for about 20 minutes. Afterward she prescribed each of us some herbs. You can get them in two forms: as a tea (which doesn't always taste so great) or as pills (we chose pills).

Afterward we continued with our Asian-themed day by taking Amy to Thai Beer restaurant, specializing in Thai-Chinese cuisine as you can see from the sign. (12/03/05)

By the time we wrapped things up three hours later, we were starving. So we treated Amy to lunch at a nearby restaurant that, appropriately enough, had Asian cuisine.

By the way, if anyone has an interest in seeking Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment for any ailment, get in contact with us and we'll give you the number of the clinic where Amy is interning.