Saturday, 29 September 2012

Four Months, Two Weeks: The Nevada Kid

Our personalities are the sum total of all our life experiences combined with our natural genetic tendencies. Certainly, if you look at Calista you can see both Roni and me there physically, but as to her unique, memorable personality, I have no idea where that came from.  Neither Roni nor I would ever be described as "outgoing", "generous", "creative" or "charismatic", and yet many of Calista's close friends have used exactly those words when talking about her. Personally, I have been called "an ill mannered red-neck" while one of the more polite terms used for my lovely Roni has been "testy".  How two misfits like us produced someone like Calista is nothing short of a miracle. On the other hand, there is one thing about Calista that Roni can and should take full credit for: her sharp sense of fashion and marketing. 

Calista, Roni and I had a running stand-up comedy routine that centred around their ongoing effort to spend money and my constant grumbling about how expensive they were to keep in clothes. It was kind of "Rodney Dangerfield" meets "Lucille Ball" with lots of credit cards involved. Roni would find a sale, be it "half-off" or a "red tag" sale and I would complain loudly that if she saved me any more money I would be bankrupt within the year.  The way we carried on, you would think we were working poor living on a patchwork of rotating credit and scavenged coupons.  In truth, while our family never had much discretionary income, Roni's relatively tight control of our finances meant that neither us nor our daughter ever went without. In fact, if you wanted to point fingers at the irresponsible spendthrift in the family, you need only look at the guy with the red drop-top Mustang and the extensive collection of rare martial-arts texts. That would be me.

So maybe she did develop into a shopper

And she did a fair bit of retail therapy

Calista never really did take to retail therapy with as much enthusiasm as her mother. As a young child, Calista found shopping every bit as tedious as I did unless it was near her birthday or Christmas. Even then, the mall tours were more about the bright lights, decorations and crowds of people. In fact, keeping a young Calista under control in the malls at Christmas could be quite a challenge; the one and only time I can remember spanking her diapered butt was after a third warning not to take off running on her own impromptu explorations.  That episode taught me to never threaten a spanking unless you really intend to carry through with it. I am pretty sure I was more upset about the spanking than she was (She seemed more angry than ashamed). Really, it was not until Calista reached her "tweens" (I hate that word, but it works here) that she took much interest in playing "wing man" to her mother on one of her many trips to the mall.

Roni can whittle away the greater part of any day just "shopping" without actually buying anything. We can visit three malls and dozens of stores without a single significant purchase and Roni will consider it a day well spent.  Shopping, for her, is a form of entertainment as satisfying as any sporting event or movie.  To Roni, its all about the hunting and the finding rather than the actual buying of a new pair of boots or a nice leather jacket. Personally, I consider a root-canal without anaesthetic comparable to her speculative shopping (as in "I  speculate I might find a really good deal"), but then I am just a redneck man. Calista, on the other hand, matured into the perfect shopping companion for Roni: patient, compassionate, understanding and appropriately critical when the jeans really did not fit properly. To watch the two of them together was like watching two sisters or best friends just passing time enjoying each others company.  People often commented that they could be mistaken for sisters if you did not know them.

There was such a difference in purchases between mother and daughter. I am not sure which is more efficient, but it does make a person think.  Roni always purchases on quality. She will search for hours for the exact right product and does not mind spending a bit more to get top quality. Calista, on the other hand, seemed to shop in bulk, foregoing quality in favour of finding that certain "look". With Calista it was always about finding that exact right style. That style was not necessarily "in fashion", but it was always "her style". I once asked her about why she never seemed too concerned about quality clothing and her sensible reply was "why worry about quality when something will be out of style long before it will actually be worn-out".  When I look at Roni's wardrobe filled with expensive clothes that are unlikely to ever come back in fashion in our lifetime and I have to admit, Calista had a good point.

I eventually was excused from the whole shopping experience.   The turning point came one year after a particularly demanding expedition to Pacific Centre Mall in Vancouver.  I had spent the afternoon growling in boredom and essentially holding up the walls of the mall outside of each clothing store the girls stopped at. The mall security was getting suspicious and probably was considering evicting me for loitering. I eventually lost my cool a bit and suggested that the mall would make more money if they established a "Daddy Day Care" where wayward husbands could congregate to play games and watch Pay Per View TV, preferably ensconced in well-worn leather recliners eating toxic finger food like nachos with cheese. Calista rolled her eyes and told me that I should just stay home if I was going to act like that.  She was a bit taken aback when I jumped at the chance and agreed to just stay home from that point on.  In retrospect, knowing what I know now, I wish I had been more mature and just enjoyed the time with my two beautiful women.  Vision is always 20/20 in hindsight.

In February of 2004 I made my first trip to the Western States Veterinary Conference at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas. Dollar for dollar, the Westerns are the best continuing education for a veterinarian in general practice in North America. The topics are timely, the speakers are practical and entertaining and Las Vegas is....well, over the top.  The trip itself was hard on me; I was only six weeks post-operative for the removal of a potentially malignant tumour and my father, Kelvin Orr, passed away while I was en-route to the conference. Typical of my father, he had left instructions that there was to be no funeral and his family was to continue on with their lives without pause. I stayed at the conference and even under the pall of death and disease, my daily updates home to Roni were nothing short of enthusiastic.

At the Venetian. Don't ask how
I got this picture. It involved
lying down in public. It's a

The best a cheap point-n-shoot can do of
the Strip at night. Not bad for film photos.

Las Vegas is the brightest, most gaudy and loudest place I ever have visited. After being informed of my father's death, I spent over an hour trying to find a quiet bar at which I could sit, have a cold drink by myself and just think about the old man.  It was a futile effort; I ended up buying a long-neck "Bud" and retreating to my lonely hotel room. There is no quiet place anywhere on the strip;  even McCarran International Airport is filled with a constant barrage of bells, whistles and canned music emanating from the ubiquitous slot machines. Not being a gambler (even slot machines are a bit of a mystery to me.), I never have felt the allure of the casino.  On the other hand, Las Vegas would be entertaining to anyone if all they wanted to do was people watch.  The city that Bugsy Siegal and the mob built seems to attract the most colourful people, many of whom seem to be cut right out of a comic book.  
"Bugsy" Siegal and the Princess. Bugsy
ended his life all at the hands of a Mob
hit man. Maybe my friend from the plane?

My first introduction to the wild-life of Las Vegas was on the Northwest connector flight to Las Vegas out of Minneapolis-St Paul. First Class seating seemed to be filled with well-tanned Hollywood-handsome men escorting tall, leggy women who looked like they might be dancers (they were). Passing back through the cabin there was at least two guys who looked like hard-used and past their prime Elvis impersonators (probably were not; the Elvis look just seems to be popular in Vegas) and one bone-thin rat-faced guy standing about five foot two, hair tightly greased back, eyes hidden behind wrap-around Ray-bans and sporting an expensive Italian silk suit and sharply pointed snakeskin shoes. I was not sure who he might be, but I steered clear of him since the term "Mob Hit Man" immediately came to mind.  Seated across from me was an immense mountain of a woman with artificially red hair, a thick layer of cheap pancake make-up and wearing a brightly coloured "moo-moo" dress. I saw that lady several times during my week in Vegas; she seemed to have a "moo-moo" for every day of the week.  Sometimes reality is really stranger than fiction.  Roni just had to see Las Vegas to believe it.

The Luxor: Roni's favourite. I've stayed
there 6 out of 8 years.

In retrospect I question introducing Roni to Las Vegas; it was love at first sight. There was nothing about Sin City she didn't love. The lights, the noise, the costume-clad characters ( most who didn't think they were in costumes), even the casino (though she has no use of gambling either) was a wonder for her.  The shopping was absolutely the best anywhere as far as she was concerned.  I was happy with the situation; the majority of stores in the casino malls are so far beyond our family budget that I had no fear that she could much more than look. Unfortunately I was tied up in lectures all day, so Roni was painfully lonely for much of the time. She needed her faithful sidekick for proper expeditions out onto the strip. She needed Calista.

In 2006 Calista made her first visit to Las Vegas. This time there was absolutely no pretence of any educational value to our trip. Calista was simply coming along to keep her mother out of trouble. We booked with Northwest Airlines, connecting through the hub of Minneapolis-St Paul. I like to believe Calista's first reaction to Las Vegas was mostly due to traveller's fatigue. 

While the airport at Minneapolis is very nice, there are large cities that would disappear inside it.  Making any connection in that airport usually involves a rushed pass through customs, a long jog to the rapidly moving human conveyor belts and many frantic cross-checks of your wrist watch and your gate number.  By the time Roni, Calista and I made it to our distant gate Calista was more than a little ruffled and irritable. Then we got to enjoy a three hour flight shoe-horned back in steerage, barred from view by cheap drapes lest our economy-lifestyle bodies upset the rarefied passengers up in first-class.  I never have really warmed up to Northwest Airlines, if you haven't noticed.

The eastern approach to Las Vegas takes you over the great plains which transition, for the last hour or so of the flight, into the vast, empty and barren expanse of the western desert.  Looking down, the interested tourist will see a red rock and clay desert punctuated by wind beaten mountain chains and dissected by the odd road coming from nowhere and running to nowhere. Las Vegas itself appears suddenly, exploding suddenly into view as the plane crests the surrounding high-altitude mountains. With the exception of the shiny, glowing Las Vegas Boulevard, lined with massive modern hotels, each with more lights than the next, Las Vegas is actually not terribly attractive. The city just seems to start sharply at the edge of the desert and all you can see is miles of red and grey stucco houses, condos and warehouses connected by the snake of hundreds of miles of elevated freeway. The scant few "green spaces" visible from the air usually represent exclusive country clubs, civic ball parks or soccer pitches.  I am sure there are some nice green parks somewhere there, but I have never seen one. That high altitude desert was never meant to have anything more than cactus, sage and seasonal desert flowers growing on it.

 Calista, surrounded for the most part by patriotic Americans, felt obliged to exclaim loudly as we descended into McCarran International Airport; "Dad, that is the ugliest city I have ever seen! Why would anyone ever want to live here?". Did I say somewhere here that diplomacy was never a strong suit with Calista?

The First Trip to Sin City with Mom. Outside the Monte Carlo
before they put that ugly Mexican Bar in front of it.

The youngest pirate with shopping
booty in 2006. Las Vegas was not too
ugly to shop till she dropped
Calista's first visit to Las Vegas was spent at the New York, New York Casino and Resort. The hotel itself has a distinct carnival atmosphere.  To access anything there, including the front desk, the rooms and all the restaurants you have to pass through the casino, which is always crowded and busy. There is a roller-coaster that runs twelve hours each day, rolling screaming passengers around the outside of the guest towers late into the night.  Some people may get some sleep at that resort, but for that week I got very little. I also saw very little of my family; I had to leave for the conference by 7 am and I rarely returned to the room before 6 pm. Roni developed a real taste for the massive Margarita drinks sold up and down the Strip, often in novelty collector containers. Dealing with a half-cut wife and a frustrated fourteen-year old daughter after a long day at lectures was often more than I could handle. Calista found the trip quite amusing, especially acting as an escort for her directionally challenged and periodically tipsy mother while they patrolled the strip for the entire day.  My daughter learnt the first lesson of Las Vegas on her first day in the Big Neon: wear sensible shoes. I had no idea that standard "flip-flops" could cause blisters that badly and apparently neither did she.  Subsequent trips to Las Vegas involved serious consideration of footwear for Calista. She never did learn diplomacy though. And we have never stayed at New York, New York since.
At New York, New York in 2006 looking across the foot bridge to the
Excalibur.  The Excalibur has seen better days, but the rooms are
very quiet and quite nice. Busy hotel though.

She is young and gorgeous and I look like the scrawny old
chicken-necked man I am slowly evolving into.
As we left Las Vegas, in the departure lounge at McCarran, once again surrounded by patriotic Americans, my lovely daughter felt obliged to broadcast that Las Vegas had given her lots of ideas for her school essay on "Why I Love Canada" due the next week. Her meaning was not difficult to follow.

Jimmy Hendrix and her. Look
for a second theme in all the photos
I selected here.

A lot of her "looks" were very
Marilyn Munroe. She actually
had studied both Marilyn's posing
and style of the photographer's that
immortalised her. Calista had some form
of personal connection to MM.

Lady Di.  A poor rendition really if
you compare it to the photo
right behind the wax mannequin.
During Calista's teen-aged years the time just flew by. I cannot remember now if she came to Las Vegas the next year, in 2007, or if she skipped a year and came with us in 2008.  I know by the second trip to Sin City she had a plan and had come with a list of things to do and places to see....and stores to raid.  By her second visit to the Strip she had physically matured considerably, which had it's pros and cons.  On the pro side, we no longer had to escort her through the casinos since she could easily pass for 21 by that time, but on the con side we constantly had to provide picture i.d. for her to prove she could still travel on the public transit at a "junior" rate. That year I finally realised that my time with my family was running out; Calista was growing up and even then I knew that she was going to leave me sooner rather than later (Sooner and permanently is the reality). I started cutting my time at the lecture halls considerably and made a point of doing something with the family each evening no matter how tired I was. That trip was actually not just good, it was great. I took a long lunch break 3 out of 5 days and did some laps in the pool with Calista, watched on deck by Roni as she caught some sun.  We attended "O" at the Bellagio, visited Freemont Street, and Roni and Calista did a double-trip at Tussuad's Wax Gallery over at the Venetian. Now I wish I had played hooky from "Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment of Feline Hepatic Disease" and gone to the gallery with them; Roni still laughs (through the tears) about Calista hamming it up with the wax dummies. I laugh just looking at the pictures; half of the celebrities she posed with were dead before she was born.

Old Binions under the dome at
Freemont Street.

Freemont Street, the original "Strip" before there was a strip, is right in downtown Las Vegas, miles from the busy corridor most tourists associate with Vegas. To get there you grab "The Deuce", the public transit double-decker bus that runs along Las Vegas Boulevard and ride it to the very end of the line. Getting dropped off in downtown Vegas after dark is not for the faint of heart, especially if you are a past-his-prime middle-aged man with his beautiful wife and daughter.  The place looks like a movie set for a post-apocalyptic science fiction thriller. Dirty, dusty empty store-fronts, sketchy lighting and more than a few very marginal characters loitering in the shadows surround you as you exit the bus.  Freemont Street itself is just a few steps away from the bus-stop thank goodness, and it is truly worth the ride.  The old centre of gambling has been closed off to traffic now and is exclusively a pedestrian walk-way. Both sides of the street are lined with the profitable old casinos and western-style bars that originally attracted the Mafia to the isolated desert town decades ago. Sometime over the last ten years the city of Las Vegas had the foresight to place a arched roof high over the entire three or four blocks of Freemont Street and this roof becomes the projection screen for an amazing light and music show once the sun goes down. I am sure it is jam packed with equal measures of gamblers, tourists and buskers during the high tourist season, but on a cool February night, Freemont Street was practically empty when we were there.  It is worth the bus fare, but don't expect to find hours of excitement there unless you really are a hard-core gambling machine with a hankering for old-school casino fun.

Calista never really warmed to Las Vegas, which was a disappointment to her mother. Roni liked to have Calista at her side every trip to Sin City, but Calista always found (usually excellent) excuses to skip the trip.  In 2009 it was some pressing concern in her last year at Leboldus, the following year it was mid-term exams at University. In 2010 Roni refused to go to Las Vegas with me since her faithful wing-man was staying home and in 2011 I missed the conference altogether.  Of course she was at college in 2012 and 2013....well that is taken care now, isn't it?  2013 was to be kind of special. I was going to take a few extra days just for the family and we were going to do a little exploring of that corner of the USA. I wanted to see the red-rock desert and maybe visit the Grand Canyon, Roni wanted just a few days in the sun away from the constant grind of owning a small business, and Calista wanted to attend a large photography conference held at the MGM Grand yearly which coincides with my veterinary conference. Las Vegas is now off limits for a few years; too many ghosts floating around on that Strip for Roni.

The Nevada Kid and her wing-man Calista probably shopped out Vancouver's Fourth Avenue between Burrard and Arbutus streets more than any other pair of tourists in the world. If you inventoried Calista's wardrobe closely, you can actually track both her changing interests and her preferred retail stores down on Fourth as she grew up.  Of course, as an infant many of her ensembles came from "Please Mom", a Kitsalano original which has since expanded over much of Western Canada. Through her teen years Calista fancied herself a surfer-girl (from Regina?) so there were many visits to the congregation of board shops at Burrard and Fourth and a subsequent collection of rash-guard shirts and surf-shorts (and many, many pairs of flip-flops). Finally Calista and Roni discovered Yoga clothes (and apparently the rest of the world, including some men and women who have no business wearing form-hugging spandex yoga pants in public). There is an entire section of Calista's wardrobe dedicated to Lu Lu Lemon, and she could tell you practically every store location in Saskatchewan and BC by memory. The Fourth Avenue retail corridor felt like home to both Roni and Calista; their discussions about the area were often mysterious and incomprehensible to me because they were able to dispense with details such as names and locations by simply referring to the product they were looking for.

That's the same "Please Mom" outfit she
 was wearing over
a year earlier. DURABLE.

 Lu Lu Lemon most likely.

On their last Mom and Daughter trip to Vancouver they took the trusty Smart Car down the coastal highway, trusting on the GPS to get them from Powell River to my sister's home in the Vancouver suburb of Kerrisdale.  Unfortunately I had thrown a wrench in the works by writing out directions for them to follow which conflicted with the GPS instructions considerably. By the time the two intrepid shoppers had found their way over the Lion's Gate Bridge, through downtown Vancouver and onto the Burrard Street Bridge, the GPS was switched off and stuffed into it's nylon case and they were no longer speaking civilly to each other.  It was only when Roni recognised the board shops (surf boards, skim boards, snow boards) at Burrard and Fourth that she finally understood where they had landed.  They turned to each other, sighed with relief for no longer being lost, and decided to forgive verbal transgressions with some forceful retail therapy.  More than anything else, shopping, even just window shopping, was a form of bonding for Roni and Calista.  Unfortunately, I am a pale second as a wing-man for the Nevada Kid. I will never replace Calista no matter how understanding I may be and I doubt Roni will ever find shopping much fun without her. My credit cards may be thankful, but I would prefer the debts and a happy wife.

Calista never was quite the shopper her mother is. In these last years I saw her interest shift sharply from how to buy merchandise to how to market merchandise.  During her last year at high school and through the following summer she actually worked in retail, selling clothes at "Ricci's" and "Bootlegger". While she did not actually enjoy working with the public (thankless job most of the time), she loved setting up the marketing displays. Within a few short months of taking the job at "Bootlegger" she took over all the responsibility for the store displays; her training in art and photography helped her immensely setting up the little marketing vignettes in the store and at its windows. After that year in marketing, Calista had very firm opinions on advertising and marketing, especially with regards to clothing, jewelry and make-up.  She would stop and critique a store's layout, often punctuating her comments with a derisive snort or sarcastic jibe.  She had shown an interest in starting her own little clothing store if the opportunity presented itself.

The Nevada Kid in her bandito bandanna and,
of course, her faithful sidekick Calista.
It was her keen sense of marketing that led Calista to take an interest in  product marketing photography. While Roni and I recognised her major interest for her portfolio was marketing, we did not realise quite how serious she was in her research for that interest.  A parent always worries that their child will never find their "passion" in life; we have no worries about that after cleaning out her apartment and inheriting her computer.  In Calista's apartment we found a thick scrap-book filled with advertising photos she had clipped stored with a stack of magazines she had collected as references.  Mixed in with those magazines were several advertising rags Roni and I had brought back from Las Vegas simply because they had such high quality advertising photos in them. Her computer Internet favourites file is filled with various product marketing sites and a good half of her "Facebook" contacts are marketing firms.  Heck, her favourite television series at the time of her death was "Madmen" which I guess was all about advertising executives.

Kelvin Orr's old "Rollei": one of her first
efforts at advertising photography.
Disney Couture. If you know anything about photography
you will understand how truly good this series really is.

That metal flask is tiny but very reflective. Just try to photograph
shiny metal without casting a reflection. I was there when she
took these photos; that was the day she turned professional.
I approached Disney Corp about buying these photos for advertising
for the very fair price of a donation to her scholarship fund. They
did not even bother replying to say "No Thanks". I guess typing
out e-mail with those big cartoon Mickey-Mouse hands is too difficult.

This week's journal entry was maybe a little different. Certainly it might be a bit of a surprise to realise that it was as much about Roni (The Nevada Kid) as it was about Calista. That is the point; they were closer than just mother and daughter. Calista completed Roni. You really cannot discuss one without referring to the other.  Throughout this journal I may have given the impression that I had a lot of influence on how my daughter turned out but really, in all the important ways, Roni was the major influence.  I have no doubt that Calista was heading toward marketing in some fashion and really, all those hours trading jibes with her mother while patrolling the malls of Canada and Las Vegas had to play a huge part in that.  While Calista's loss has been a near fatal blow to me, it has been a truly killer blow to Roni. Indeed, Roni is little more than walking dead now; she breathes and eats, talks and walks, but the flame has died in her eyes and there is no interest in the very things she once took great joy in. You can't have Batman without Robin, The Lone Ranger without Tonto, and without Calista, the Nevada Kid just ain't coming back.

The only thing healthy in my house anymore is my credit rating, and that does not mean much really. If you die rich you are still just dead.

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