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In this issue: Portraits of Pandemic Pivots | Building Minds ... and Bodies | Media Sommelier


WHEN LIFE gives you a pandemic, make a pivot. That might be the motto of these Las Vegans who lost their jobs because of COVID — often after devoting years to their chosen career — but then saw an opportunity to pursue exciting new projects. Las Vegas photographer Claire Hart made them the subject of her ongoing photo essay, in which she cleverly captured these resilient locals in their new and old occupations in one image. Here are some outtakes from her series, which she plans to update on her website. Writer Allison Duck conducted the interviews from which the quotes are taken.

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MICHELLE DERSTINE
Michelle Derstine made the transition from performing in Le Rêve at Wynn Las Vegas to teaching others how to become aerialists. After her show closed, the dancer became a fitness coach and aerial instructor.
 
On saying farewell to a career
“Once you’re at the level where you’re a performer in a resident show in Las Vegas like we were, it comes with years of honing your craft. A lot of people who aren’t familiar with the industry are like, ‘Oh, just find a new career,’ and that was so infuriating to hear. It felt like people were saying we didn’t do anything important. It felt like a slap in the face, because this had been my whole life. People’s emotional health and experiencing the arts are important, too. That’s why I’m so sure it will come back soon, because people crave the spectacle and to be moved emotionally.”
 
On getting “the hustle” going
“The hardest part has been finding the motivation for the hustle. When you’ve been in a show for so many years, it becomes so ingrained in who you are, and now you have to find your way again. It takes so much faith in yourself to put yourself out there in areas that you never have before.”
 
On her new career as a fitness  and aerialist trainer
“I’m a fitness trainer at F45 Training. I got my personal trainer certification a couple of years ago. It was a side thing to help people with healthy lifestyles. I never wanted to teach aerial. As a performer, you don’t usually do that until you’re retired. I would post things on my social media of me practicing, and people would ask if I thought that it was something they could do, too, and I said I could train them. Once I started training people on aerial, I realized how people not in that world were so amazed by it. It gave me a lot of fulfillment when they learned something new in the air."
 
“I’m also working at Circa as a dancing dealer. I had to go to the dealer training school. In a way it’s like performing. It’s dance with a little bit of math!”
 
ANDREW YOUNG
Andrew Young is a rare native Las Vegan who’s been entrenched in the entertainment scene since he was a child training in the performing arts. Despite losing his longtime position as a rigger in a major production on the Strip, he used his skills acquired there to pivot into the world of leather crafting.
 
On the rigger relationship
“Heartbreaking is the best word I can use (to describe Strip shows shutting down). We all become a family, whether you’re a performer, a technician, a designer, usher. We really trust each other. Especially with the rigger and performer relationship; they trust us with their lives. You create a bond with each other. When you hear about a show like ours that had been running for over 15 years, it’s devastating. You almost feel like you’re losing your family, which you are in many ways.”
 
On his quick pivot to leather crafting
“It all started literally the day after shows closed. My gear is very specific to my former career as a rigger. I use rigging hardware (for leather projects). I used the same vendors I used when I worked with shows and I make the harnesses out of rigging materials. ... I’m really proud of what I’m creating. I want to diversify the clientele. Traditionally with harnesses, it is a masculine gay male clientele, and I really want to expand that. I sent quite a few free ones to people within the trans and lesbian communities, and I am expanding beyond the norms of typical gay leather. I’m proud to work with other communities.”
 
VANESSA DOLESHAL
Vanessa Doleshal worked for eight years in digital media and advertising at Vegas.com before deciding to follow her passion — interior design — when she needed a career pivot.
 
On making the jump
“Interior design has been a huge passion of mine for the last decade. It’s always something I’ve had in the back of my mind that I’ve wanted to do, but I never had the guts to make the jump and leave something that was consistent and had benefits. I never had the guts to follow my passion, so I would say it’s a blessing in disguise that this happened, because I likely never would have made the move on my own.”
 
On getting out of your comfort zone
“My business is called Grey Space Interiors. Starting from scratch has been hard. I was coming from a world where I was a subject matter expert. I was in my comfort zone, and now I’m stepping into a world where I don’t know how things work. I don’t know the players. I don’t know all the jargon. I keep reminding myself that everyone has to start somewhere.”
 
“(In my interior design business) I do consulting. I go shopping with clients. I can manage the project and the budget. That’s my main business, but I also got involved with a vodka company called Soda Jerk, which is all about flavored shots. I also started a travel blog with my friend called Explore Media. The intention is to document our travels and turn it into an affiliate marketing website where we offer tips and travel advice, and help people navigate the world of travel.”
 
MOODY ELRAGAAL
Moody Elragaal went from working for a decade in the hospitality industry as a nightclub host to a new profession that itself grew out of the pandemic. He transitioned into the world of cleaning and sterilizing buildings.
 
On inspiration for his new venture
“My brother-in-law in Pittsburgh had a car detailing business. He transitioned his business from detailing to sterilization and disinfecting. That’s how the idea came to me. My company is VZap NV — as in virus zapping. We sanitize offices, homes and vehicles. I had to buy the fogger and mister machines and the sanitation products plus PPE, which was hard to find in the beginning. Prices were getting very high for that, but I managed to get what I needed to start the business. I started with a couple of employees. One is a friend, and one was working with me at MGM. We added cleaning as well.”
 
On what he misses from nightlife
“I miss the social part of it. I used to see a lot of friends and family when they came to Vegas. Our job was to socialize with people, and we don’t have that now. I am happy to be able to spend more time with my kids and my family now.”
 
SEAN BAKER, AKA DJ KID CONRAD
After 12 years as a DJ in popular daylife and nightlife venues, Sean Baker, aka DJ Kid Conrad, was faced with a challenge when all his normal work venues were forced to close as COVID-19 tightened its stranglehold on the Vegas entertainment industry. He took a temporary job at Costco, and also started helping out at his wife’s family’s dessert store, Fluff Ice.
 
On getting a “real” job
“Before COVID, we were living off of my income and once we weren’t able to, trying to get unemployment was pretty rough. That took months on months on months, and I ended up getting a day job at Costco. … I said, well, it’s been about 12 years since I had a ‘job,’ but I’ll get a job. I’m not afraid of work. ... Costco is a glorified grocery store, and in the beginning of the pandemic people were going crazy for the paper towels and the toilet paper. I saw people acting like animals."
 
“When it came to the Fluff Ice store, we didn’t have any employees. It was just me, my wife and her family running the store. Income was bare minimum. There were two stores but we ended up closing one due to COVID. The one we have now is located at 25 N. Nellis Boulevard.”
 
On customer service
“I genuinely get a kick out of hospitality. I think being there (at Fluff Ice), I take away the Kid Conrad cover and welcome guests, making them feel good, making sure the desserts look good, and remembering people when they come in and saying, ‘Welcome back,’ and seeing how something so small affects them. I know it goes a long way, because I experienced it in a club in a whole different manner, where my face was on a billboard and I show up and it’s straight through the line and all the door staff are cool. I was used to that, so I know how those little things can literally brighten up someone’s day.”
 
ALEX STABLER
Alex Stabler transitioned from a lead in Le Rêve at Wynn Las Vegas to a partner in an interior design firm, Frederic Alexander. He’s now putting his artistic side to use in a brand new way.
 
On starting over
“For many of us performers, we have worked our entire lives to get to where we were. I started dancing when I was five, gymnastics, swim team, water polo. Everything I had trained in growing up was utilized in Le Rêve. You have to completely reevaluate where you are and what you’re doing, because I’ve spent the last 20 years to get there, and now ‘there’ isn’t there anymore. I was where I wanted to be. I wasn’t planning on that ending. Now I have to start over.”
 
On diving head-first into a new venture

“I’ve always done interior design in the background. My husband and I combined our creative insights into one common goal. When Le Rêve closed, we just kind of dove in head-first to see what would happen. I’m still mourning the loss of my previous career and the financial comfort. I’m trying to create a new career in a matter of months, and the pressure is a little bit overwhelming at times, but we’re doing it! When you’re pitching a design or a proposal, it’s a show — and you’re selling. You need to be able to be ‘on’ and perform. That’s something I learned from being on stage and interacting with strangers.”

 

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ON A MONDAY afternoon in May, a few dozen tweenage girls tumble out of five rooms ringing the open central area of the John D. “Jackie” Gaughan Boys and Girls Club and sit cross-legged on Xs taped to the carpeted floor. After a day of taking state standardized assessment tests, they’re chatty and restless.

With their pink backpacks and pouffy ponytails, they look like any other girls their age, but they’re part of something unique, a program that’s shown success in other regions and has now come to Southern Nevada. It’s an all-girls, tuition-free charter middle school designed to help close the gender gap, that quaint phrase used to describe the inequity of women lagging men in everything from average pay to science careers. Called the Girls Athletic Leadership School, or GALS, it opened in August 2020.  

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“Last reminder!” shouts a young woman in a T-shirt, sweatpants and sneakers at the front of the room. “If you haven’t turned in your laptop yet, we need it now!” 

“We’re just finishing up the SBACs (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium),” Jennifer McCloskey explains, as we continue our tour. “It determines the star rating. Since this is our first year, it will be interesting to see how many stars we get.” 

McCloskey is the executive director of the 501(c)3 behind GALS. She'd struck a deal with the Gaughan Club to operate her school in the building between its open hours, roughly 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., during its incubator year. Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the club’s community service, the school became its sole occupant.  

“We wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for the Boys and Girls Club,” McCloskey says. “This is an affordable space for us to get our feet under us.” 

GALS’ charter allows it to have up to 400 students, and McCloskey has signed a lease for a building several blocks east, where it will have room to grow to that size. This year, GALS has just over 100 students — five classes of 20 students each — half of which opted to attend in-person and half online. Next year, it’s expecting 160. Students rotate among Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, and GALS classes.   

That last one is part of what defines the school, beyond its all-girls focus. The “GALS” class is, essentially, the social-emotional component of a model meant to teach not just academics, but also physical and mental well-being: mind, body, heart.  

A woman named Liz Wolfson developed the GALS model around a decade ago in Denver, and there’s now an affiliate in Los Angeles. The Vegas site makes three. The idea was to provide girls, at a critical time in their development, with a supportive environment free from the distractions of mixed-gender schools. The hope is that they’ll gain confidence in themselves, becoming strong self-advocates who make choices based on what they want and need, rather than others’ expectations. 

McCloskey describes it this way: The “G” is for “girl”— as in, all-girls school, where boys, who tend to be rowdier at that age, don’t soak up most of teachers’ attention. The “A,” “athletic,” may suggest sport, but is actually more about physical wellness. At GALS Las Vegas, each day begins with 40 minutes of movement, anything from yoga to sprinting, so girls can experience a variety of activities and find what helps them feel good in their bodies. And the “L” is for “leadership,” a catch-all for the social-emotional component, also taught five days a week.  

… Which sounds great but raises some questions. Like: How do you define “girl” (or take public funding for education if you’re discriminating based on gender)? McCloskey answers this way: “We are an open school, and we would absolutely enroll a boy if they wanted to attend. No boy has applied, but if one did, we would explain to their parents that we specialize in and cater to the needs of adolescent girls. If that works for them, then it works for us as well.” She adds that other GALS schools have had both boys and transgender girls.

Another question: Is it a disservice, socially, to teach girls coping skills in a carefully controlled — and, thus, unrealistic — environment? McCloskey says GALS probably isn’t the right school for someone who believes that. In any case, she is convinced of the need.

To illustrate, she gives the personal example of her own middle school-aged daughter, who was constantly bullied and harassed by boys in her accelerated science classes.

“They basically told her that her place was in the kitchen,” McCloskey says. “The only thing I can think of is that these boys were threatened by her intelligence and wanted to hold her back. … You know that happens frequently, right?”

She says her daughter “muscled through the oppression,” but not every girl can do that, and none should have to.

Twelve-year-old Jamya, whose last name we were asked not to use, says GALS was her mother’s idea, but she was happy about it. “All the schools I’ve gone to are boys and girls,” Jamya says, “The boys are the problem. I’ve been bullied from them for two years in a row.”

Krista Yarberry, GALS’ Head of School (their term for “principal”), adds that harassment is sometimes physical, too.

A 30-year educator, Yarberry says her favorite thing about GALS is the community it serves. In the heart of the 89119 zip code, the school’s student body comprises 85 percent children from surrounding neighborhoods and is more than 90 percent BIPOC. “I love, love, love what we’re doing here,” she says. “I feel like it can really make a difference.”

Yarberry describes the school’s administration, staff, and families as a tight-knight group. She knows every student by name. Parents have her personal mobile phone number and use it. It’s intense, she says, but some of the pressure will let up once the school gets up to full speed, there are more resources and staff, and the need for constant, anti-COVID cleaning and sanitizing ends.

“I do not recommend opening a school during a pandemic,” she deadpans. “It’s stressful. But it’s worth it.”

McCloskey agrees. A few years ago, after being diagnosed with cancer, she left her job as a Bureau of Reclamation Deputy Regional Director. She found she couldn’t care for herself and two daughters as well as she wanted to with such a demanding career in such hostile surroundings.

“Honestly, the federal government is not a very good environment for women,” she says. “I think that’s pretty commonly known.”

As her health situation improved, she decided opening a school was something she could do to make a difference.

“I look at my mom’s experiences,” she says. “I look at my life. I look at my daughters, and how frustrated they’ve been with gender issues and discrimination. And I felt like, I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to break the mold. My legacy has to be doing something about this.”

 

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1. LET'S HAVE DESSERT first — I mean, we’re grownups here. This sweet interview with John Swartzwelder, legendary writer for The Simpsons, is overloaded with charm, humor, creative insight — his advice about writing and rewriting, too long to quote, is especially wise and funny — and behind-the-scenes glimpses into The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and other comedy touchstones. Swartzwelder is famously media-shy, so the length and wide scope of the interview are noteworthy. There are chef’s-kiss moments galore, on everything from his childhood (“When I told people I didn’t want to carry cement for a living, I wanted to write comedy and be a national treasure instead, I got some odd looks”) to the vivid violence of Itchy & Scratchy: “We could show horrendous things to the children at home,” Swartzwelder says, “as long as we portrayed them being shown to the Simpsons’ children first. Somehow this extra step baffled our critics and foiled the mobs with torches. We agreed with them that this was wrong to show to children. ‘Didn’t we just show it being wrong? And, look, here’s more wrong stuff!’” A surefire mood-lifter.

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2. Speaking of more wrong stuff: Donald Trump may be reduced to hogging the mic at Mar-a-Lago wedding parties, but his followers are determined to not only keep his white-grievance cuddle party going, but to double down on it. From a Newsmax TV promo: “This is our country. We conquered it, we built it.” Around the nation, red-state politicians are banning or attempting to ban the teaching of critical race theory. Folks, that’s the kind of brand loyalty only systemic racism can buy. So this is an especially propitious time for a chewy longread on the meaning of “whiteness,” and journalist Robert P. Baird is here with an excellent one. If you’ve ever been confused by what it means for whiteness to be “socially constructed,” Baird clears it up with a compelling piece that stretches from the 17th century — when skin color had little to do with categorizing humans — through the slavery era, all the way to our very fraught now. You won’t be surprised to learn that economics and Christianity play major roles in this grim saga, but there’s much more to it. Now, if it sounds as though Media Sommelier is insisting you eat your spinach, that’s not it. Baird has an intellectual’s mastery of facts, context, and nuance, but he writes with clarity and patience. Recommended.

3. In case you missed Daniel Rothberg’s recent report in The Nevada Independent about how state officials let a mining company dictate the meaning of “good science” — to the company’s advantage, natch — in the matter of a toxic cleanup near Reno, well, now you can give your outrage glands a belated workout.

4. Privacy — it’s hard to remember what it was. Nowadays, everything from our smartphones to our smart fridges, from social-media platforms to government facial-rec programs, has their siphons plunged not only into our business, but down into the innermost jellies of our psyches. And we’re mostly okay with it. “The self, the private self, the part of us that we’re taught in school is special because it’s where our art projects come from, the part science tells us we’re seeing during sleep when our eyeballs start to jiggle, is mostly occupied territory by now.” If you couldn’t tell from that sentence’s distinctively sardonic mouthfeel, that’s novelist, essayist, and noted contrarian Walter Kirn; it’s from Unbound, his intermittent newsletter. Like many of these Substacked efforts, Kirn’s has a casual, riffy intimacy — in this case, pinging from the betrayals of his phone to modern life’s insidious tradeoffs between surveillance and convenience. Sounds heavy, and it does have a few weighty moments, but it’s funny, too, and in the closing passage Kirn comically implicates himself in the erosion of his own privacy because he’s too impatient to wait in line.

5. Unless you read literary Twitter, the departure of Joshua Wolf Shenk from UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute hasn’t gotten much above-the-fold attention around here; it took the Review-Journal several days to follow up on the Los Angeles Times’ original piece last week. It seems Shenk accidentally exposed himself during a February Zoom meeting. His version of what followed, as reported in the Times and the R-J, is that he left the organization to spare it further embarrassment as it continues its important literary work. (And it’s worth noting that neither story quotes other individuals who were on that Zoom.) But an anonymous letter, posted on Medium by BMI staffers, refuses to let Shenk off the hook: “We see this act as the culmination of a years-long pattern of inappropriate and disrespectful behavior that belies a chronic lack of care and concern for the comfort, boundaries, and safety of the staff ...” The letter further criticizes UNLV for failing to publically address the situation while not letting them speak out. The staffers posted anonymously, the document says, out of fear of reprisal from the school. (Full disclosure: I recently did some freelance work for Black Mountain Radio but had no conversations with anyone there bearing on Shenk’s situation.) Scott Dickensheets

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Photos and art: "Next Act" photos by Claire Hart; GALS photo courtesy GALS

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