Vegas

I got back on a Saturday and slept most of the day.  Around 2 or 3 in the morning I treated myself to a bowl of cereal.  I couldn’t help but think about how young the night must still be in Vegas.

*****

This is the story of a lucky man.

The woman at the United airlines baggage check-in told me that I’d be okay to bring both of my bags on-board.  She seemed sweet and helpful so I nodded my head and proceeded to customs.  When I got to security, things got confusing.  After passing through the x-ray machine, one of the employees opened my bag to take some liquids out.  I’d forgotten that I packed in a full size shampoo and body wash and I told him it was okay to throw them out.  For some reason he put them back in and insisted that I go to the last minute baggage check-in.  I’m not sure if he thought that I wanted to keep them, but it was twenty minutes to flight time and the lady at the desk told me it was too late to check in now.

“Can’t you move some things around, maybe make one bag smaller?”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was starting to feel the urgency of the situation and I began to shuffle the items between my two bags wildly.  At some point, I removed a small black satchel and placed it on her counter.  It contained the following items:

  • notepad
  • headphones
  • glasses case containing a pair of clip-on shades
  • package of wet napkins from Japan
  • two USB cables and a wall charger
  • iPod with about 4,000 songs on it
  • $300 US dollars

It was the last time I would see those things.  The clerk kept telling me that my flight was about to leave so I needed to hurry.  I had no idea how close I was to missing my flight until I heard this announcement:

Last call for Alexander Lee, please proceed to gate F7.  Last call for Alexander Lee…

You’ve never seen someone run so fast through an airport.  Onlookers must have thought I was in love.  Even weighed down by two bags, I was able to get down like Usain Bolt.  I might have done 200 metres in about 20 seconds.  And you bet I made the damn flight.

I was so exhausted that I slept all the way to Chicago.  It wasn’t until I needed American money for some food at O’Hare that I realized what was missing.  It was a sickening feeling and I talked to whoever I could to figure out how I should go about communicating with the folks at Pearson to recover my satchel.  I called my parents.  I made a mental note to e-mail the website as soon as I could.  That’s really all I could do.

Without the contents of my iPod to stimulate me (I’d loaded several podcasts on there that I’d planned to listen to) and not feeling particularly tired I simply meditated for the duration of my flight to Las Vegas.  It occurred to me that the following items were not in my lost satchel:

  • iPhone
  • passport
  • wallet

Like I said.  Lucky.

*****

This is Brian.

Brian is a doctor.  I used to have this respectful admiration for the people in the medical community.  When I was growing up, I associated doctors with being kind, reliable and noble.  They seem like the kind of people who really care, who you believe were put on this earth solely to help others.  When one of your best friends becomes a doctor, all of that crap goes out the window.  Even though they’ve got this new title, you still end up having the same conversations and doing the same stupid stuff that you always said you’d do when you were kids.

On this occasion, Brian was flown in to give a presentation at a conference and he was given a reasonable amount of compensatory funds to take care of his food and travel expenses.  What better way to take advantage of that than inviting a few friends to come with you?  I was the only one who was able to make the trip and I’m grateful that he decided to let me tag along even though his colleagues kept assuming we were a pair of well-to-do homosexuals.  It probably doesn’t help that we ended up going out with a gay couple on what was for all intents and purposes a double date.  But I digress.

The point is that I used to be able to look at a doctor and see a pillar of the community.  Now I just see my friend Brian.

*****

As with any good Vegas vacation, it began with go-karts.  Brian’s friends Helena, Grace and Eugene (a racing fanatic) decided it would be fun to check out the Fast Lap Indoor Kart Racing facility.  I’ve never raced any sort of vehicle before, but I did almost get a speeding ticket once so I didn’t think it would be too difficult.  After a few laps, I have a newfound respect for vehicular racers of all kinds.  I’ve always been a staunch advocate against race car drivers being classified as athletes, but I realize now that you’ve got to be in decent shape because the vibrations from a high powered vehicle will mess you up.  And I was driving a go-kart!

I know what you’re thinking: “How could someone who looks this cool have any trouble racing?

Several things I didn’t know about go-karts:

  • even though you’re not going that fast, speed is relative to the space you’re moving in and since the track is indoors and the lanes aren’t that wide you find yourself genuinely afraid to let loose
  • these bad boys handle incredibly well and there’s almost no resistance so if you’re planning to crank that wheel hard you better be ready to follow through otherwise you might find yourself in a pile of tires
  • I found myself pressing down on the gas pedal for about 95% of the lap and it ended up hurting like a muthaf**ka.  My lower leg was kind of messed up for the rest of the trip.  Again: these are go-karts!

So Dale Earnhardt, if you’re up there somewhere and you’re reading this, I’d like you to know that I take back everything bad I ever said about you and your sport.

Afterwards, we chose to forgo the cab ride back in favour of a cooling walk back to the Bellagio.  Eugene led us around like a Vegas strip Sherpa, taking us in and out of different casinos and hotels and somehow bringing us to where we needed to be.  Apparently he and Grace have been to Vegas many, many times and the whole experience was old hat at this point.  I was dazzled by the city sights, but I would eventually see how one might become numb to it all.

*****

I had to drag Brian out of his room to check out the pool area at the hotel.  As the Bellagio attracts a more esteemed, some would say “senior”, clientele, it wasn’t exactly the MTV bikini fest that a young man would hope for.  The facilities were outstanding and there was no shortage of space, but if you go there looking to “pick up the chicks” as they say then you’re probably out of luck.  Unless you’re, like, fifty.

Needless to say, as soon as we were able to find a comfy spot in the shade, Brian understood why I thought it was so important he check it out.  The weather was hovering around 30 degrees Celsius and the thin Nevada air was surprisingly refreshing.  You could spend the early part of the day wasting away there and that’s exactly what I did when Brian had to go to his conference.  I completely lost track of time as I alternated between sleeping and peaceful contemplation.  I thought about how too few people get to live like this on a regular basis and I swore I’d make the most of it…after another quick nap, of course.

*****

Planet Hollywood proved to be a source of much merriment.  We ate a couple of meals there, including taking advantage of an “all you can eat” pancake deal…which, for me turned out to be three.  I made the mistake of wearing my favourite orange shirt that day, which just happened to match the attire of the servers at the restaurant.  I kept expecting the manager to yell at me, wondering why the hell I was sitting around eating with a customer.  I’m kind of a pushover, so if he’d ordered me to start serving some dishes I probably would have done it.

After a hearty meal (three whole pancakes!), we decided to kill time by playing some poker.  Fact: I had never played poker in a casino before.  I was incredibly tense and nervous, even as I found myself wedged between two Irishmen who couldn’t be friendlier.  I believe their names were Sean and Patrick, but I believe all Irishmen are named Sean and Patrick.  They could sense I was new blood and they started jawing right away to set me at ease or maybe just to see if I was easy money.  Maybe both.

After a while I did loosen up, going as far as to accuse them of faking their accents and actually being two hustlers from San Diego and also asking them what it takes to be an honourary Irishman.  “I don’t drink.  The Irish aren’t big on drinking, right?”  I deadpanned.  It was a good time.  All of the witty banter almost made me feel better about the fact that I was bleeding chips.  If my jokes were loose, my actual poker playing was the exact opposite: I was tighter than a (insert virgin-oriented simile here) on (insert common moment of sexual awakening).  I played horribly and the money didn’t last long.

*****

While Brian was off fulfilling his conference related duties, I spent most of the day at the pool.  Bobbing up and down in 3 ½ feet of water wasn’t as exhilarating as I would have liked, especially since I was there by myself and I kept checking to make sure nobody stole my shoes.  I got comfortable and probably looked like the clumsiest, loneliest goof in the world navigating the pool aimlessly.  I didn’t care.  I felt free.

Another thing I did when Brian wasn’t around was check out parts of the strip that one might miss when walking around with a friend.  The Cosmopolitan is another swanky casino with incredibly well furnished upper levels primarily reserved for housing guests and hosting conferences.  There was nice art and a cool art-deco vibe that would have fit perfectly in a movie looking for a retro-futuristic aesthetic.

It was the perfect time to do this sort of thing too: Middle of the day, nobody around, the evening conference goers killing time at the casinos or enjoying some afternoon delight.  That’s the thing about Vegas.  From an architectural standpoint it can seem messy, but the individual parts can be a sight to behold.  It’s a cliché, but going from building to building is like transporting between worlds.  The Roman trappings of Cesar’s Palace.  The upscale atmosphere of the MGM grand.  And in the distance, the awful turrets of Excalibur.

*****

Our third day in Vegas proved to be the most enjoyable.  Brian finished up his official duties as a representative of the Toronto medical community so it was time to open the cage and let the animal out.  We both decided to wear suits, which for some reason inspired us to freestyle a racist standard that we thought Frank Sinatra might have sung in his day.  I went with the always un-fashionable “button up but don’t wear a tie look”.

We had to get dressed up because we were spending a portion of our evening at a cigar bar called Casa Fuente.  Our disguise worked, because when we got there, a helpful employee walked us into the humidor and started going over the cigar selection as if he thought we knew something about the product.  We know nothing about the product.  I believe, “Uh…how about that one?” were my exact words when it came down to deciding.  Thankfully, even though our plebeian roots were showing, the guy was cool about it even walking us through the whole cigar lighting procedure (which I needed, sadly).  The pretty waitress didn’t even give me too much crap about ordering a glass of water, though she did make a face as if she couldn’t understand the words coming out of my mouth.  Can you blame her?

I’m not sure why I like cigars so much.  The image is a huge part of it, but there’s definitely something to be said about the taste and texture of a good stogie.  We had fun sharing stories with Brian’s friends Andrea and Helena, though the most amusing bit was probably Helena’s inability to keep her cigar lit.  “Amateur.”  I thought to myself.  That was moments before I accidentally inhaled too much smoke and almost ended up vomiting on an escalator.  Our waitress really would have been impressed by that one.

Andrea and Helena also made the excellent recommendation to check out Wild Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon.  The fact that there was no “G” at the end of “gambling” told you this joint was legit.  It was actually the perfect place for people like us, because the dealers were good at their jobs but they didn’t have that clinical approach that you often see at some of the higher stakes casinos.  It was a small building, but they packed it with everything you expect in a casino.  As Brian and Helena won money (and Mardi Gras beads) and made friends at the blackjack table, I moseyed on over to the karaoke stage.  There were a group of drunkards monopolizing the microphone for most of the night, but I eventually mustered up the courage to get up and do a song.  I chose “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, one of my mother’s favourites.  It’s also an up-tempo tune.  I love singing sad stuff, but when you’re in Vegas and everyone is trying to have a good time, you have to respect the audience.  I made up for my weak vocals with some spirited hip thrusts, capped off by me giving a middle-aged woman a twirl from the edge of the stage.

Afterwards, I had to help Brian home as his blackjack success allowed him to enjoy an ample supply of free drinks.  They were filming scenes for The Hangover Part III, but for some reason we couldn’t get it out of our heads that it might have been Ocean’s Fourteen (a production that doesn’t exist).  Our repeated attempts to call out Casey Affleck and Scott Caan went unanswered, lost in the hustle and bustle of the strip.

*****

Our culinary choices during the trip were all over the place.  One night we’d be sampling the delights of a fully stocked buffet, the next we’d be picking up twenty chicken nuggets from McDonald’s (only five dollars!).  Not being a foodie, dining is really an obstacle for me to get past before I can move on to my next experience, especially in a place like Vegas.  Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious, sophisticated meal I ate at Estiatorio Milos, but I got just as much satisfaction from the “steak & shake” I devoured at the Hard Rock.  Considering how overindulgent the latter meal was and the setting in which it was served, I found myself referring to that combination as “the Elvis”.

*****

The second round of gambling went as poorly as the first, though it was equally enjoyable, albeit in a different way.  While the action at the Planet Hollywood was light and fun, the atmosphere at the MGM Grand was far more cutthroat.  I sat down and immediately noticed the big cat at the table, a grizzled, mustachioed looking fellow from Canada.  After a few hands and a few glances at the other players, I could tell he was in a rhythm.  His bets were all on point, getting everyone to fold or dragging just enough suckers in so he could take the wind out of their sails with two pair or trips.  Even his dialogue was controlled, opening up just enough to be polite, but not enough to give a single weakness away.

My play was better, though still atrocious.  I was working through Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book chapter by chapter and I clumsily used what I could from there even though my overall understanding of the game was still non-existent.  Nevertheless, I gained no small amount of satisfaction from raising on the blinds and watching the others limply toss their cards away.  Too bad I had no idea where to go from there.  If I was winning, my moves might have been tolerated but I was not only the pest at the table, I was also the sucker.  Whenever I got a decent hand, my eyes darted around like I was on bath salts.  I played horribly and the money didn’t last long.

*****

As the fourth night wound down, the magical pixie dust of Vegas quickly faded from our eyes.  We spent much of a three course meal discussing matters back at home, something we’d managed to avoid for most of our trip up to that point.  It didn’t help that we had to check out early in the day, about twelve hours before our actual departure.  We ambled around, bouncing from souvenir shop to souvenir shop (they all looked the same) and trying to make sure we had enough tip money to take care of the various attendants we knew we would encounter.  It got so bad that we ended up hitting a movie theatre to catch Skyfall.  “That’ll be a good way to kill three hours.”  I lamented.  When you’re on your last hours and lost dollars of a Vegas vacation, that’s the kind of stuff you find yourself saying.

*****

When we got home, I checked two lost and found areas and talked to everyone I could at Pearson, but I had to accept that my belongings were gone.  It was a bitter pill to swallow, only because the trip had worked out so well otherwise and I had been incredibly optimistic that the satchel would turn up.  I got over it.  What’s gone is gone.  Maybe I was too worn out to fuss over it.  Brian and I continued to talk about Vegas as we got on the subway, though it started to seem more and more like some far off place.  I made sure to express my gratitude for him bringing me along.  We planned to return to Vegas sometime, with reinforcements.  We split at Yonge station and on the train ride north, the lost things seemed inconsequential.

Champion God Flow: The Return of Georges St-Pierre

The evening was not going well. My boy Chad Griggs had been choked out by a kickboxing specialist. Mark Hominick might have fought his last fight in the UFC. And Tom Lawlor was robbed of a decision against a listless Francis Carmont.

Then the champ showed up.

Montreal’s boisterous reaction to hometown hero Georges St-Pierre was entirely predictable and utterly delightful. Even after nineteen months, they remembered who the true pound for pound greatest is. The respectful reception for the challenger, interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit, showed that the crowd was ready to appreciate a good fight. Condit is no push-over; this was going to be a true test for St-Pierre and his fans that had been with him through all the highs and lows were ready for the last leg of this trying journey.

Up that point, the card had been lacklustre. Johny Hendricks had briefly sparked the crowd with his one punch knockout of Martin Kampmann, but that was more shocking than inspiring. Afterwards, there was the sense that someone could get seriously hurt in that cage…and with the main event coming up there was no shortage of anxiety. I, for one, couldn’t remember the last time I was so nervous about a GSP fight. Condit might not have the cachet of a Matt Hughes or BJ Penn, but I would argue that he’s the toughest, most well-rounded opponent St-Pierre has ever faced outside of Penn in his prime.

The ensuing contest was everything mixed martial arts is supposed to be. The final judgment had two 50-45 scores (a common sight in a St-Pierre victory), but anyone who watched the fight will tell you that those don’t reflect the closeness of the action. The dynamic kickboxing of St-Pierre, rarely used in lieu of his wrestling expertise, was as evident as ever and it had to be to survive the unpredictable Condit. As Condit threw spinning backfists and snapping hook kicks, St-Pierre darted in and out connecting with leg kicks and his new favourite weapon, the jab. It is a weapon that he’s become even more proficient with since using it to fracture Josh Koscheck’s face.

Of course, the strikes were simply a precursor to the takedowns that have become his trademark. When he finally landed one in the middle of the first round (nineteen months!), the roar from the crowd travelled all the way from the Bell Centre in la belle province to the Boston Pizza in Markham where I was watching the event. Just like all the others, Condit soon found himself weathering some severe ground and pound. The round ended with his head cut open, blood covering the right side of his body. Some people think GSP isn’t active enough from top control, but I guarantee you Condit wasn’t thinking that after five minutes.

What made the fight truly special is how Condit reacted. He didn’t wilt or look even slightly discouraged: he came back harder in the second and third round. In the third, he landed a kick that only the most gifted martial artists could dream of connecting with: after winging a left and a right harmlessly in front of the champ, Condit somehow contorted his body into a position to execute a picture perfect high kick that caught St-Pierre cleanly. St-Pierre goes down! St-Pierre goes down!!!

Even the stoutest GSP fan was having Matt Serra flashbacks and Condit, dead set on living up to the moniker of “The Natural Born Killer”, pounced without a second thought. He was hitting big shots from St-Pierre’s guard, totally locked in as St-Pierre did everything in his power to survive. Relief and euphoria swept the arena as he was able to scramble back to top control. Nobody wants to see their favourite fighter in danger, but his resilience in this fight will only add to his legend. Even though it seemed increasingly clear he wouldn’t be able to finish Condit, it was also clear that we were all witnessing a classic.

The phrase “championship rounds” has never been more fitting as both men cemented their argument for being the two best men at one-seventy. There was no “laying and praying” here; in fact, if St-Pierre had tried to utilize that tactic we’d have a new undisputed champion right now. It took every ounce of strength, technique and pure willpower to keep Condit from getting back up or sweeping or landing one of several submissions from his back. Condit never stopped moving and St-Pierre was forced to follow suit or die. One thrilling sequence in the fifth round saw St-Pierre nearly take Condit’s back only to have Condit scramble out of it, which lead to St-Pierre countering and Condit somehow forcing St-Pierre back into his guard again. It was a breathtaking exchange and even though it ended up in a familiar position, there was nothing comfortable about it for either fighter. Other than Koscheck, who stuffed his takedowns in the first place, St-Pierre had never faced someone so difficult to hold down.

There was a vast difference in quality between the main event and the majority of the card. Carmont and Lawlor seemed like it was from some minor league show; hell, it seemed like it didn’t belong on the same planet as St-Pierre/Condit. These are two champions who have had nothing handed to them. The soft spoken Condit earned his spot based solely on his undeniable performances; St-Pierre has had to rebuild himself after his ACL tear, an injury that usually signals the downward slope of an athlete’s career. On this night, both men were at the peak of their powers.

This was St-Pierre’s Michael Jordan moment; that occasion where despite enormous adversity and great stakes, your fans expect you to deliver. Some of the most dominant athletes of all time fell short in this situation. St-Pierre didn’t just live up to the hype, he excelled. He rewarded his fans, while simultaneously silencing his critics. There was nobody that could accuse him of fighting a safe fight tonight. Nobody in their right mind, anyway. And Condit more than carried his end, proving that self promotion and controversy will never be a proper substitute for hard work and dedication. Both men deserve all the accolades that are soon to be coming their way as word of the fight spreads, but only one man can claim to be the champion now. Georges St-Pierre is the clear cut best welterweight fighter in mixed martial arts history and I look forward to removing that divisional designation one day.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

I’ve gotten sidetracked recently and while I don’t like to make excuses, the truth is I’ve been spending a lot of time with my brother, Chris.  He flew in from Japan.

You would think that since he only comes to Canada once or twice a year (usually for his friends’ weddings), we’d make all sorts of extravagant plans to make up for lost time, but that’s never really been our style.  We’re more the “sit at home, binge watch past seasons of television shows, play some Borderlands 2, discuss what we’d do if we ran the WWE, and then retreat to our respective rooms for a much needed power nap before resuming business in the evening” types.  Maybe that’s why we can’t be bothered to make a big deal out of these reunions.  We pretty much do what we already do in our separate lives.

On the day before he left, we realized that in the two weeks he was back we hadn’t watched some of our favourite movies.  So rather than engage in some Toronto-centric exercise like going to a fancy restaurant or *shudder* “Edge Walking” at the CN Tower, we sat and caught up on old films while playing the “Android: Netrunner” card game.

The Monster Squad and The Goonies: We actually watched Monster Squad the night before.  That was my favourite movie as a kid but I didn’t realize that it was a total rip-off of Goonies.  The plot, the tone and the character archetypes are shockingly similar to the point that I’ve been telling people that Corey Feldman played Rudy, the Squad’s cigarette smoking, leather jacket wearing junior high kid.  Feldman was in Goonies, not Squad.

But the most surprising aspect of these films was what PG movies were allowed to get away with back then.  Monster Squad features a lot of violence and since this was before CG, that meant a lot of realistic looking blood and guts.  There was also a lot of foul language, including a character being called a “faggot” and a little girl accusing the Squad of being “chickens**t”.  PG!  That’s not even mentioning all of the scary stuff the kids deal with in these movies.  There are so many life threatening scenarios in Goonies that it’s no wonder I rarely left my house to play with other children when I was a child.  I was not a thrill seeker!

Even when you strip away the nostalgia, both of these movies kick serious ass.  Like a Pixar film, these movies are geared towards younger audiences without being insulting.  The characters are fun and likeable.  You care about their wellbeing.  The jokes are juvenile and funny without being nasty.  These scripts don’t waste time with superfluous dialogue or forced exposition; the plots move.  Most importantly, if it wasn’t for Squad I never would have learned an important lesson about The Wolfman:

And yes, that kid (Andre Gower) does look like Lyoto Machida.

Gattaca: Director Andrew Niccol has had a spotty record since this 1997 debut, including the hilariously inept S1m0ne, but he’ll always be in my good books for Gattaca.  I can’t remember if he showed it to me or if I had to watch it in school, but I know that my brother was always talking about it and when I finally saw it we bonded over it.

It’s a great looking movie, utilizing that retro-futuristic look to brilliant effect.  It’s the best kind of science fiction too, not because it poses relevant questions (though it does), but because you feel like the world itself would be interesting even if the movie had no plot.  It avoids the obvious themes of oppression that would come with a society focused on genetic superiority, instead communicating the unique journey of Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke).  Even if he overcomes all of the hurdles in his path, he’s still an overachiever with a bad ticker.  I’m a sucker for a good underdog story and this one is as good as they come.

Heat: I don’t know if this is my favourite movie and I don’t know if it’s my brother’s favourite movie, but it’s definitely our favourite movie.  We’ve watched it countless times and it’s the one thing that we make sure to do whenever we get together.  It’s the quintessential heist film of our generation and just features a murderer’s row of actors: Pacino.  DeNiro.  Kilmer.  Voight.  Portman.  And those are just the actors who were or would go on to become marquee names.  Everyone involved just kills the material here and each character is memorable in their own way.  There are too many classic lines to count and my brother and I have spent years trading dialogue back and forth, often devoid of context.  The script is just that good and Heat, in my opinion, is as close as any movie comes to being perfect.

The Fighter: What was really fun about watching this again was that we’d just been through four movies and Chris is like, “I just want to watch a little bit and then we’ll call it a night.”  Of course, we watched the whole thing.  Maybe it’s because it’s a story about brothers, but this was a fitting end to the evening.  From the first frame, Christian Bale’s restless performance drags you into the film.  It’s authentic and tragic.  The opening credits sequence where Micky and Dicky take a stroll down Lowell to the tune of How You Like Me Now? by The Heavy is just straight bad ass.  In that short walk, you learn everything you need to know about the characters and the environment they inhabit.  You know what, just watch it yourself:

And it just rolls from there.  I can’t remember the last time I’d watched two movies in a row, much less five.  But that’s how it is when my brother is in town.

*****

I feel bad about falling behind on my TUF recaps, but after thinking about it I realized that last episode of TUF Classic I watched was so boring that I shouldn’t feel guilty.  The fight was decent, but it is The Smashes continues to hit all the right chords with me.  The coaches are involved, the show is funnier and there was even someone threatening to quit (Luke Newman felt lost since suffering an injury that took him out of training)!  That’s like catnip for me.  Next week I’ll be in Vegas so my recaps might be brief again, but I guarantee I’ll finish this series of posts one way or another.  Take us out, Kristie!