Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Trip to the Desert

It wouldn't be the New Year without a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. We used to go hiking there with the kids all the time, heck, they practically grew up in the desert, scrambling over rocks, scaling impossible heights, dining on powerbars while sitting on majestic thrones of giant boulders. For anyone who's ever been there, you know of what I speak: Joshua Tree has a special draw, a kind of energy I haven't found anywhere else in the world.

On the drive out with Tom, I felt lethargic, uninspired, but after breakfast at the Country Kitchen, the Cambodian-run place across from the West entrance, I immediately perked up. We parked at Keyes Ranch and hiked across that incredible expanse of flats and washes, with chollas, manzanitas and Joshua trees, towards Barker Dam, keeping an eye out for the bobcat we saw there once. I walked ahead and stopped, listening: there was absolute dead silence.... then, on the periphery of sound, a jet streaking across the sky, the 'whee whee' of a tanager, and in time, the crunching of Tom's footsteps up to me. I was wide awake and happy. And so— even if our kids aren't spending as much time with us as I'd like, at least they're happy, and here in the desert, we're happy too.

 Tom's ideal garden

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Christmas Chickens!

Merry Christmas Chickens!

Merry Christmas Dogs!    

Merry Christmas Turtles!

Merry Christmas Hogs!

Merry Christmas Ratties!

 Merry Christmas Ravens!

Merry Christmas Baby Jayan!

Merry Christmas Husband and Daughter!

Merry Christmas Son!
And to Everyone

Merry Christmas
 a Happy New Decade!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cruising Highland Park

I thought I'd take this opportunity to give a pictorial tour around Highland Park, the community that sits to the north east below Mt. Washington —home of the notorious Avenues gang—in order to answer a question posed in an earlier post as to the whereabouts of the wicked looking Micky Mouse.

Micky is on the back wall of The Highland, the oldest movie theater in the area, at Figueroa and Ave. 56, on the south side of the street...

...across from a community garden called Milagro Allegro. The director Nicole Gatto and community members broke ground in February of this year.

Micky is part of a series of murals by various artists, in the alleys and parking lots off Figueroa. If you drive down the alley behind the theater and look to your left you'll find Micky.

Other murals can be found in a continuous row from Ave. 57 to Ave. 60 on both sides of the street.


This last mural is painted on the wall of Monte Vista Elementary, at Monte Vista and Ave. 54, a school in the middle of the 'hood, where children are trained to hit the ground on hearing gunfire from feuding gangs. The intrepid reporter Steve Lopez wrote that the children at the school have been caught in the middle of such madness "far too often." I believe though this is a mural of hope and endurance.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wasted Tears

On Wednesday, I was so anxious for my daughter to come home from college I kept bursting into tears, really just pent up emotions hoping everything would be okay. And, of course, it was. When I got home from work, there she was, curled under blankets sleeping on the couch. Thirty minutes later, she went out with friends. It's so wonderful having her home again!

Kids don't mean to make their parents cry, but they do. Recently, my friend told me she'd been crying over a problem concerning her daughter every night for weeks, even in her car, listening to sad music to cry some more. But then remarkably the situation resolved itself. She laughed at herself for the homemade drama but I couldn't stop thinking about all those wasted tears.

Which leads in a circuitous way to a story I've been meaning to tell about my brother David and I when we were kids.

On trips to Florida, my father would bring home painted turtles, no bigger than a silver dollar. We'd play with them for a few days and then they'd die. Afterward, David and I'd have an elaborate burial ceremony between our yard and the neighbors', where we'd place the deceased in a box and proceed solemnly from the driveway to a spot under the magnolia. But one time, as soon as we bent down to place the turtle in the ground, it started wriggling around... then stopped. We began again: we walked to the end of the line, crying and saying our prayers, and the damn thing started up again. We did this over and over until, finally, we buried it. It seems cruel now, but I can imagine my brother and I thinking as we made that long march: Why waste all those good tears?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Now for the Holidays

First night of Hanukkha/Chanukha/__________ (your spelling here).     

Zen Koan for today: If you're home alone with no kids around, does Chanukha make a sound? I'm pretty sure the answer is no. I lit the candles anyway, on my daughter's plastic preschool plate and thought of her faraway... but not for long. She's coming home next week, and my son the week after. I'm anxious/excited/thrilled for the holidays to begin; I'm ready to stop working, to cook for my kids again (I'll make latkes, promise), to complain ad naseum that I have no time to do anything. I really can't wait.

Regarding a previous post about seasons, or lack thereof: Mea culpa. I was wrong!

We do have seasons. It's cold as heck in L.A. (abnormally wet, i.e. it's raining like crazy). We even had our first snowfall a few days ago, covering the tops of the San Gabriel Mts (here overlooking Highland Park) and beyond, in Big Bear.

                                 But nothing like Rhode Island!

   And for more proof: trees have lost their leaves.

From my meditation bench in Oct.                       

From my meditation bench in Dec.

Still, we have freaky flowers like these blooming: don't they know it's winter?


Let the Holidays begin!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Channeling Cynthia

Three years ago, almost to the day, I attended a Supreme Court hearing in Washington, DC, lining up at 3:30 a.m. on the coldest day of the year!

Afterward, I had lunch with my new friend Cynthia Dailard, a senior policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank devoted to women's health issues. We'd met earlier in L.A. and liked each other instantly; we'd been emailing back and forth ever since.

We had a great lunch and when we said good-bye I hugged her, and then for no reason, I hugged her again. A few weeks later our family went overseas and when we got back in January, I had a voicemail telling me Cynthia had died of cardiac arrest, caused by a previously undetected heart defect. She was 38, and left behind two small children and her husband of 14 years. To add to the tragedy she died the day before Christmas, Dec. 24, 2006.

As the holidays approach, she's been on my mind a lot.

She'd emailed me about a piece in The New Yorker called, "The Swamp Nurse," by Katerine Boo. Cynthia had covered the same material in a policy review showing how home nurse visits were instrumental in preventing subsequent pregnancies among poor teen moms. She'd put together an amazing array of evidence as to the importance of funding such projects, over the $176 million spent annually on abstinence-only education through the Bush administration. But she felt her piece "paled in comparison" to Boo's, whom she called an incredible writer. At lunch she'd quizzed me about my writing, how I'd started, what I was doing, how one makes it as a freelancer.  She talked about branching out beyond writing policy papers, into something more creative. I didn't exactly come right out and tell her I wasn't making it, although I did tell her it was difficult; but I encouraged her to try because she seemed so darn excited about the possibilities.

When she died Senators Olympia Snowe and Hillary Clinton submitted a Congressional Resolution honoring her work as a women's health advocate.

Their resolution can by found on the Cynthia Dailard memorial website.

It's hard not to read/hear/talk about the health care bill without thinking of Cynthia, knowing she'd be front and center, writing about the importance of decent coverage for everyone, especially, young and poor women. Today the Senate announced they're dropping the kind of equitable public option we'd all prayed for, in lieu of increasing national coverage in the health insurance market. Huh? I'm sorry Cynthia's not here to shed some of her brilliant light on the subject.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rubbernecking in South L.A.

Okay, I'm no genius, but I did foresee a money making opportunity that I'm sorry now I didn't rush into production while there was still time. Unfortunately, no proof exists that I actually thought this thing up except for the 'reject file' of my blog, an entry titled, " Moms and Pops of Invention" about hard times and entrepreneurial jobs.

Here's what I proposed:
"Crime scene tourist guide. The industrious people of Mumbai have set up shop, guiding tourists around Colaba, site of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel terrorist attacks that occurred last year. Be the first on your block to open your own home travel agency, taking tourists around Highland Park and areas beyond to show them scenes of gang crimes."

And then came yesterday's front page headline in the Los Angeles Times:  "The 'hood as a tourist attraction." Whoa!

The article informs us that a group of civic activists will be offering bus tours to some of the grittier parts of the city including, "decayed public housing, sites of deadly shootouts and streets ravaged by racial unrest."

I can't believe they stole my idea!
They're calling it "L.A. Gang Tours." The operation has a social justice, or I should say, injustice component to it, no doubt, as the organizers want to show how the economic engine has detoured around the poor and black/brown people of this city, to which no one can argue.

But I can't help but snicker when I read that Terry Jensen, one of the backers, thinks this is the next big destination tour that will draw people to L.A. Jensen is owner of the Seattle based Duninger Corp., an engineering and real estate investment firm, and inventor of "Jakpak" the jacket that turns into a tent, useful if you're homeless ....or going camping.

There's something a little cynical about making money while touring sites like the South Central bus stop where, "five children and three adults were shot in gang crossfire last year." I was just kidding when i was thinking up new jobs. The word that comes to mind for this, which ironically I taught to my class last week, is rubbernecking.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Shoes, Jews, Booze.... and a final project

When I was on the east coast in Oct., I talked to my friend M about starting a blog; I even had a title in mind: Shoes, Jews, Booze and News. I think it was there in the dog park that we decided it would be too much to cover in one blog, and so, I told her my second idea, which was the Rat's Nest, about my children leaving home. This, we agreed, would be more manageable.

But the idea of shoes and Jews still persisted, esp. after learning someone had actually edited a book on the subject, aptly named, Jews and Shoes, by Edna Nahshon. When we were assigned a final project, in my multi-media journalism class at UCLA, that topic was the first thing that jumped to mind. To help me out, my good-natured walking buddies contributed their own audio shoe stories as well.

The pressure of doing this final project over Thanksgiving weekend led me to buy a big bottle of Johnny Walker at my local market (on sale!). Thank G-d I didn't open it; I'd never have finished this project, which I present to you now.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Two Poems (to be thankful for)

I teach at a school that could easily stand in for the American Night Preparatory School for Adults found in The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n. But instead of teaching Jews from Europe, living on the Lower East Side in the '30s, I'm teaching Jews from Iran, living on the outskirts of Beverly Hills in 2009. I also teach a lot of Koreans, and one of them— I'll call him the Professor—is one of my most devoted students.

When I started teaching I used Shel Silverstein's poetry to stimulate conversation. One poem in particular drove the Professor mad. The title of the poem was a play on words, but he couldn't understand what 'a play on words' meant. "God's Wheel," I told him, "could also be taken for God's will." He fought the idea like crazy, telling me I was wrong, but then a little while later I saw that he'd gotten it. His eyes sparkled and his whole body softened. For the next few weeks the Professor brought in poems he'd written, powerful poems, deep poems, poems that must have been burning inside of him for a long time.

Here's one he brought in a few weeks ago:

"The Ocean you can't see"

You walk,
eat, and sleep on the bottom of an ocean.
The ocean is really
an invisible ocean of air
that covers the world like the skin of an orange.

The air you breathe,
the air that blows in your face as a breeze,
the air that smells like dinner cooking,
and the air that can carry the sound
of your voice when you speak.


Last week Lu sent an exuberant email from NYC, a poem in itself. Here it is (taking liberties with phrasing):          

[I]t is brilliant fall                                                                
and the ginkgoes in Central Park are ablaze                        
and the river
the river is surging and swelling


Happy Thanksgiving!            




Monday, November 23, 2009

Afternoon Tea

For months now I've been trying to get my German neighbor, Thea, to come for afternoon tea. It gives me an excuse to bring out my mother's teapot, bone china from England, that I use for special occasions. But every time I ask her she has a reason why she can't make it: in the summer it was too hot; in Sept. she was too tired; on Halloween her daughter was in town; I called her this weekend but she was feeling a little under the weather.

Thea was a refugee after the war, forced to leave her home in Silezia and head south with the clothes on her back. As a young school girl, she remembers getting up early in the morning and tuning into the Voice of America from London. Her uncle, who was also up early to feed the goats, would shake his finger at her and warn her not to play the radio so loud, "I will not turn you in, but we have neighbors!" Since losing her husband three years ago, she's been feeding all the wild animals in the neighborhood: phlegmatic raccoons, waddling skunks, and about a dozen stray cats. She's like St. Francis of Assisi, the animals just come to her. The only problem is that all those animals leave a terrible stink that filters up into my office window. I thought at tea I could gently mention it.

Instead I saw her this morning while I was sneaking around taking pictures of her strays.

She stood in her driveway with binoculars searching for the hawk circling above her house. I shouted out to her and she walked over to my side yard, down below. We talked about how she was feeling, the books she's been reading when she wakes up in the middle of the night, her need to get out once in a while to the hairdresser. She looked worn out and thin, standing in the morning light, but beautiful. Thea has a lot of stories to tell, but maybe she doesn't want to tell them anymore. She's old, she's tired, perhaps she's content to stay home with her cats.

My mother's teapot will have to wait.

Friday, November 20, 2009



When my daughter left for college she left behind her pet rats Luna and Malka. If you've ever had rats you know what great pets they make. Albino rats have been bred since the early 1900s for their docile natures, thus what's followed is totally different than NYC sewer rats (although if you cleaned up those little fellows who knows how well behaved they'd be?).

Domesticated rats bond with you. For instance, when I sit at my computer Luna sits beside me while I scratch behind her ears; she responds by closing her eyes and making teeth chattering noises (a rat's bliss). Malka is the more active rat, but when she's feeling affectionate, she'll patiently groom Tom's nails. Both wait to hear my car at night then scurry to greet me at the door when I come home from work.

Lately, they've taken to nesting under the orange couch. I found this out the other day when I walked into the room and thought, "Now, why is that dishtowel moving across the floor?" I looked under the couch and saw a pile of old newspapers, dishtowels and rags wrapped around each other in a huge rat's nest. I had to take it apart yesterday, it was getting so big, and then this morning I found they'd dragged all the folded laundry under the couch to start again.


Nothing makes me happier than waking up in the morning and saying hello to my rats— nothing, that is, except for writing this blog, which has cheered me beyond belief, giving me a way to deal with my own rat's nest and the day-to-day of missing my kids.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Traveling East

Sunday was a day for celebration. Finally, the Gold Line extension into East L.A. opened to what the LA Times claims was 50,000 free riders. Man, it was more like 500,000! I've never seen so many people crammed onto a light rail car. Huge lines formed in Union Station and snaked their way back through the terminals and out the parking lot. Proud parents brought the kids along like they were going to a historic political rally, and in a way they were. Angelenos rarely travel east to East LA, but East Angelenos travel in droves to downtown Los Angeles, and neighborhoods beyond, for work. Up until now commuters had to deal with crappy public transportation—slow buses, inconsistent schedules (to be kind), over crowding, and on some days, no transportation at all. But the Gold Line has brought change to East LA, plus the hope of the City Fathers that the rest of us will travel east to help in that part of the city's economic revival.

After eating at King Taco (Maravilla stop), we walked to the East LA Civic Center and lined up to come home. We decided to skip Union Sation altogether and walk to Chinatown through Olvera Street, where they were having a festival of their own.

All in all, a great day!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Freak Show

I've never gotten used to L.A.'s weather, never, especially come fall and winter when exotics are in bloom. This isn't natural— this is a freak show!

Not that Louisville got that cold in the winter but, G-d-damnit, we had seasons— four of them!

A lizard sunning itself in a cool 69 degrees: