Friday, March 31, 2017

D.J. WALDIE'S HOLY LAND: A SUBURBAN MEMOIR



This week's arts and culture column is on a book that is deeply dear to my heart.

Here's how the piece begins:

“Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

— Genesis 28:16

D.J. Waldie, born in 1948, was raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood, a planned suburb of 17,000 homes incorporated in 1954 and the first of its kind in the West.

He still lives in the same 957-square-foot house his parents bought in 1946. For decades, he worked at Lakewood City Hall, most recently as deputy city manager.

And in 1996, he established himself as one of the finest writers our city has known, with the publication of “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.” The book is divided into 316 sections, or “fragments,” some as short, for example, as “The grid is the plan above the earth. It is a compass of possibilities.”

Waldie does not drive and has said that he ordered his writing around the reflections that came to him during his 25-minute walk to and from work each day.

On one level, “Holy Land” is history, geography and sociology. We learn of the three Jewish developers who envisioned and built Lakewood, the 30-man construction crews, the concrete-mixing trucks that waited in a mile-long line to erect as many as 500 homes a week, the eucalyptus and red crape myrtles planted at precise intervals along the identical streets and the post-World War II home-buying frenzy.

On another level, “Holy Land” is a memoir “of a place more than an account of a life,” Waldie has said.

READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

HEART OF FLESH



I’m at a certain Hot Springs Resort outside Death Valley and let’s say the word “resort” is used loosely.

It’s the kind of room where you walk in and immediately think “A lot of people have had sex here and most of them smoked.”

Who cares, though. The room gives on one side into a hallway off of which are four or five private hot springs bath rooms that if you don’t have contamination fears, which I don’t, are kind of great.

The sliding window has no screen so I slept last night open to the night-cool desert air. There’s no food or drink to speak of (I brought plenty, camping-style myself) so I opened one of my cans of double shot Starbucks espresso, heated some water in my electric kettle, threw in some instant coffee, mixed all (twice) in my travel mug, and I’m good to go for several hours.

The drive yesterday from Pasadena was lovely. I caught up on some phone calls on the way, and though I did go the wrong way on 127 from Baker for 35 miles finding myself in the East Mojave’s Cima Dunes and having to reverse track, driving with virtually no-one else on the road—and this is the height of wildflower season—was its own kind of treat. I listened to Russian pianist Maria Yudina, one of my many heroes, who was openly Catholic in Stalinist Russia and was once summoned by Stalin himself in the middle of the night to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto I believe Number 22.

After checking in, yesterday afternoon I drove through Shoshone to within 9 miles of the park (which is gigantic, with 30- or 50-mile increments between “points of interest”) border and, desirous of a hike, spotted a dirt road meandering through the desert scrub, wheeled over, parked and set out. Apparently this is BLM land which means it is open to one and all for free camping, dirt-biking and whatever.

Five minutes in, I came upon a gentleman in a somewhat soiled white T-shirt and khaki pants sitting on the tail of his pickup truck bathing his feet in a basin of water. He had set up camp there. Just like pioneer days! I imagined him panning for gold in the mornings. He had a cultured accent and was friendly without being creepy and we had a nice chat. Then I continued on and hiked up this fairly steep trail for a bit, enjoying stupendous views of the valley floor while perched on a no doubt billions-of-years-old rock escarpment.

This morning in prayer I realized all over again that my heart has become hardened against certain people. No, no, that can never be the way. “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” [Ezekiel 36:26]. Please, PLEASE do.

I visited the (Charles and Ray, husband and wife as you may know) Eames House earlier in the week and have become entranced, like so many before me, with the Eames “philosophy” (although Charles apparently had affairs, which tarnishes the halo somewhat).

Still, “Take your pleasure seriously” has always been my own credo. Field trips are hard, but the best kind of, work.  







2017 IS NOT THE "SUPERBLOOM" YEAR THAT 2016 WAS,
BUT AGAIN, WHO CARES?
THAT MAKES EVERY FLOWER THAT MUCH MORE OF AN EXPLOSION!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

IT'S WISTERIA BLOSSOM TIME


Oh friends, it is springtime in Los Angeles. I have been digging up Bermuda grass (also known as dubo, dog's tooth grass and, most accurately, devil's grass) in my native plant garden to the tune some days of several hours.

Apparently many people actually plant the stuff for a lawn but here in Southern Cal, and I'm sure points beyond, it is viewed as a noxious weed with unimaginably deep, gnarly roots that must be eliminated inch by inch!

Anyway, last Sunday I was able to steal away to view this white wisteria on Pasadena's Arroyo Boulevard that I'd spotted the week before on a walk. The neighboring town of Sierra Madre boasts a purple (more common than white) wisteria that was planted from a gallon pot in 1894, now occupies over an acre, and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest blossoming plant I think in the world!

By the skin of my teeth, I am caught up on my writing, admin, social, spiritual and religious obligations, email and other correspondence (kind of), and gardening, and am thus stealing away for a few days to Death Valley, hoping to catch some of this year's wildflower display.

Peace, silence, solitude--first, though, I have to run to Target for a large supply of canned Starbucks double shot espessos to tide me over in case the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort and Amargosa Opera House Hotel are short on caffeine (not to mention Death Valley is a 4-hour drive each way).

Hey, I'm fasting from sugar for Lent (again, kind of). Cut me some slack.

Happy spring to all!







THIS MAY BE MY FAVORITE.
INVASION OF THE WHITE WISTERIA!
THEY ALSO SMELL INDESCRIBABLY SWEET...


Thursday, March 23, 2017

THE MARS 2020 OXYGEN EXPERIMENT AT JPL

CRAB NEBULA,
HUBBLE TELESCOPE IMAGE

I didn't have to look far for this week's arts and culture piece

.
Here's how it begins:

Nohtal Partansky, 26, is my downstairs neighbor.

He’s also a mechanical engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. He grew up in South Pasadena. So did he used to look at the stars as a kid?

“No, but I used to build stuff, K’Nex and Legos. [Remote control] cars, airplanes and rockets. One of my first inventions was a magnetic shoe holder,” he said. “I liked being outdoors. But it was never, ‘Look at the trees cause they’re pretty.’ It was, ‘Look at those trees cause they’re like a fractal!’

“When you like to build things, you like to know how things work,” he continued. “Science is just the description of how nature works. I’d watch Bill Nye and ‘The Magic School Bus’ [and it] made sense. I’d look at a tree and see how it made sense.”

At first, he wanted to be a doctor, like his mother. “But at some point I realized I didn’t want to help some guy who’s been smoking for 20 years with his lung cancer. Building was more interesting.”

Partansky’s last three years of high school were spent at Ribet Academy. “You know, that place off the 2 that looks like a prison. I’m half Mexican and half white so I didn’t really fit in with either of those groups.”

At UC Davis, he saw his friends doing machine shop. One of them made a gyro.

“That was cool. So I decided to major in mechanical engineering,” he said.


READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.

Friday, March 17, 2017

MONTECITO'S CENTER FOR SPIRITUAL RENEWAL



This week's arts and culture piece is a little report on a 3-day retreat from the world I took recently.

Here's how the piece begins:

The Center for Spiritual Renewal, located on the grounds of the nonprofit retreat center La Casa de Maria in Montecito near Santa Barbara, is a house designated for personal retreats.

A ministry of the Immaculate Heart Community, the center is located on El Bosque Road — “el bosque” means “woodlands” — and the 26-acre grounds are studded with towering live oaks and other gorgeous old-growth trees. Footpaths meander through citrus orchards, an organic garden and onto a hiking trail that goes miles into the Los Padres National Forest.

Everywhere is a tucked-away bench, overhung with hydrangeas or bougainvillea or toyon, on which to ponder. My first night, I sat overlooking San Ysidro Creek and watched the sycamore trunks turn molten gold in the setting sun.

The house, the former novitiate for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is baronial: nine “distinctive fireplace mantels” imported from Italy, huge bathrooms with majestic sinks, teak-paneled ceilings, wrought-iron staircases, a library. Outside one spacious terrace faces south, another east.


READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.






THE MAGIC HOUR AT MONTECITO'S CENTER FOR SPIRITUAL RENEWAL



Monday, March 13, 2017

CELLBLOCK VISIONS

DEWAYNE WILLIAMS,
untitled self-portrait

Recently I came across the book Cellblock Visions by Phyllis Kornfeld.

"Cellblock Visions  is a lively collection of inmate artwork, created behind bars, from county jail to death row – the alternative artworld flourishing today in American prisons. Men and women inmates, having no previous training, turn to art for a sense of self-respect, respect for and from others, a way to find peace. They transcend the cramped space, limited light, and narrow vistas. They triumph over security bans with ingenious resourcefulness - extracting color from shampoo, making paint out of M &  Ms and sculpture out of toilet paper."

One inmate is described as follows:

"Dewayne Williams is incarcerated for life in a mental health unit at a medium-security prison. His sentence was originally life, but was later reduced to first-degree manslaughter. He can barely speak except in a low rumble of one-syllable words, responding only to direct questions or asking for something he wants. For many years he was seen walking across the yard with a strip of duct tape across his forehead, his home remedy for headaches.

He was put on medication for epileptic seizures at thirteen (and has been on it all his life), but otherwise Williams had a normal childhood, functioning well in the family. There was no reported abuse and no show of violence on Williams's part until six months before the crime, when he began to rebel viciously against his mother's authority. he didn't fight with his father until one day when he was told to do yardwork. Williams' refusal was vehement, and later that day, he shot his father in the back of the neck.

In prison, Williams was a recluse, too antisocial to double-cell, but he did participate minimally in some programs. For a few years, an art class was held on the unit, and he showed up regularly, without being called. He was mild-mannered and dove into his painting without hesitation, worked with complete absorption, and when he was finished, signaled by shoving the paper across the table and holding out his hand for another sheet.

Self-portraiture is infrequent in prison art. When it does happen, the style is usually realistic, the pose, heroic. Tyrone O'Neil's [another inmate] portrayal of himself, seen later, goes much deeper to reveal layers of inner selves. Here, Williams's portrait is a single aggressive blast of identification.

If he could get red crayon or paint, Williams would use it to paint a broad stripe across his own forehead, taking off the duct tape first. He studied his reflection in a small mirror with great concentration to produce this untitled self-portrait [above]. He saw the red stripe across his head head, his pointed tongue, a vivid bush of facial hair (he was actually clean-shaven). He applied the medium with force. The face is blind with a fury that Williams himself does not speak of or act upon."

Friday, March 10, 2017

DONALD EVANS AND HIS FANTASTIC WORLD OF POSTAGE STAMPS



This week's arts and culture piece is on a wonderful, heretofore-unknown-to-me artist: Donald Evans.

Here's how it begins:

Donald Evans (1945-1977) “put his whole life and everything that interested him into the stamps of his fantasy world.” So says Willy Eisenhart, author of the wonderful “The World of Donald Evans.”

Evans was born in Morristown, New Jersey, to Dorothy and Charles Evans.

An only child, he grew up in a stable, prosperous and loving middle-class family. He liked to play alone. An older neighbor introduced him to stamp collecting when he was 6. He spent hours poring over the stamps, memorizing the names of the countries and capitals of the world, learning about the flags, currency, local customs and flora and fauna of fiefdoms, dictatorships and obscure islands.

His best friend for a time was Charles Fisk, who came from old money and whose well-traveled family, Evans recalled, “had a fascinating house full of collections of things and lots of encyclopedias.” The two boys built elaborate sand castles and palaces, made maps and calendars and invented characters. Charles’ was named Uncle Rich Harvest. Donald called his character The Queen.

When Donald was 10, he found he could render the places in his imagination “more real by making stamps from them and little letters.” He outlined the stamps in pencil, filled them in with pen and brush and made the perforations by pummeling out rows of periods on an old typewriter.


READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE.



Monday, March 6, 2017

WHAT THE TREES SAY



SYCAMORE TREE, LOWER ARROYO,
PASADENA, CAn

From a New York Review of Books article by Thomas Pakenham dated December 8, 2016:

Poets, [Fiona] Stafford* continues, are quicker than suburban gardeners to appreciate the virtues of the sycamore. She cites John Clare’s lyrical account of the “splendid sycamore” with its mountain of sunny green foliage. Its sticky leaves, he wrote, were a great gift to the world. We should listen to the “merry bees, that feed with eager wing,/On the broad leaves, glaz’d over with honey-dew.” Stafford also reminds us that Shelley’s bittersweet poem “Ode to the West Wind” was based on his experiences in the autumn of 1819, wandering in the sycamore woods around Florence. Shelley was in a wretched state; two of his young children had just died. That autumn it was the fall of the sycamore leaves that caught his imagination. The dead leaves were driven by the west wind—“Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,/Pestilence-stricken multitudes.” But the trees, he hoped, would “quicken a new birth.” For the west wind was propelling the “winged seeds” as well as the dead leaves. The dead leaves promised new life. “If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?”



THE SAME SYCAMORE, TOP BRANCHES

*Stafford is professor of English at Oxford University and the author of The Long Long Life of Trees.

Friday, March 3, 2017

"GOD'S HOTEL" BY VICTORIA SWEET, M.D.

THE OLD LAGUNA HONDA

This week's arts and culture column is on one of the best books I've read in recent times, or really ever: "God's Hotel," by Victoria Sweet, M..D.

Here's how the piece begins:

“God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine” is a 2012 memoir by San Francisco-based physician Victoria Sweet. The subject is Laguna Honda, a long-term Bay Area hospital that for years was known as “the last almshouse in the country.”

When Dr. Sweet began working in the early 1990s at Laguna Honda — “an elegant, though somber, riff on a 12th-century Romanesque monastery” — patients, nearly always poor, could stay as long as they needed to. There was a turret for a resident priest. There were open wards with a solarium at the end. There were nooks and crannies where the patients smoked, drank, played cards, gambled and occasionally had illicit sex. There was a greenhouse, a barnyard and — I kid you not — an aviary.

Perhaps nothing captures the spirit of Laguna Honda more colorfully, in fact, than that for a time the AIDS hospice ward had its own much-beloved hen.

Unhygienic? Maybe. “Although, as a matter of fact,” Sweet writes, “in the months when the AIDS hen roamed the open AIDS ward, she did keep her diseases to herself, as the AIDS patients did for her.”

Inefficient? Certainly. “But there was therapy in her inefficiency. I can’t document the numbers, but it was worth my while to walk into the AIDS ward just to see the spark of interest in those cachectic faces when lunch was served and the AIDS hen began her strut down the ward. It was a spark of life, an extra spark and sparkle that must have extended a life or two by a day or two, which, when you only have a few days left, is worth something.”


READ THE WHOLE PIECE HERE. 

DR. SWEET AND HER BOOK