Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Walkie Talkie Wake-Up Call

This morning Theo woke up at 5:30 a.m.!!!! He rose from bed, got dressed, and went downstairs. He got out all the cereal, the bananas, the spoons, the bowls and the milk. Then he unlocked the front door, went down our 43 front stairs and got the three newspapers. He brought them up, and laid them across the bowls of Jonathan and me (the newspaper readers). Then, he snuck upstairs and noiselessly placed a walkie-talkie in the folds of my comforter while I slept.

At exactly 6:05 the walkie talkie crackled to life somewhere around my feed.

"Mommy, Daddy, wake up! Breakfast is ready! Please come downstairs now! Mommy. Daddy! Get up! Your newspapers are here!"

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Frankie Manning is Dead!

Watch this man dance! (And make sure you watch the video!!!!!)

Or watch him here. Less crazy, but so smooth.

I crossed paths with him only once, but seeing him dance was one of the highlights of my life. I swear to you!

I was a swing dance addict back when I lived in Ventura (there was nothing else to do!) and I loved nothing more than the Lindy Hop. I loved it so much that before I even knew the lindy existed, and good dancers would slip a lindy move into their regular swing repertoire I would shout out, "What is that? Show me!" I didn't know it, I had never seen it or heard of it, but I could pick out the lindy style.

In the height of my swing madness I went for a four day Swing Camp on Catalina Island. We took over the town of Avalon--thousands of swing dancers--many living in 1940s style--whether they were dancing or not. They closed down every available space in town--halls, gyms, empty rooms--and filled them with swing workshops. In the evening they opened up the grand old Catalina ballroom, put in a swing band, and it was like being transported back in time.

There on the island, shipped in from New York, was Frankie Manning--a living, walking, dancing piece of history. He must have been 88 when I met him. He would creak out to the middle of the floor--like the old man that he was. But when the music came on he just turned smooth as molasses. I have never seen anyone else dance like that. You just wanted to do what he was doing. To be his partner! There he was, a black man from Harlem, once the star of New York, then an anonymous postal worker for thirty years, until some crazy swing dancers came and dug him out of obscurity in the 1980s.

He was light. He was grace. He was about how to treat a woman. "Gentleman, you must treat your woman like a queen," he would shout out. "I don't care who she is, I don't care how beautiful she is, for that three minutes you are with her you treat her like she is the most beautiful woman in the world! You look in her eyes! You drink her in! You dance with her! Don't pay attention to your own moves, and definitely do not let your eyes follow some other woman!"

Put on your Count Basie, your Nina Simone, your Indigo Swing, your Big Bad Voo Doo Daddy. Put on your music, put on your shoes, and do a little lindy for Frankie Manning! He made my world a better place!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Goodbye Wowie

In our house, a wowie is a pacifier. Somehow, that is the name Benji invented for his most favorite thing. He is a boy who needs a pacifier. A lot.

He is such a sophisticated child in so many ways. He can pass as a five-year-old, and continually surprises us with his wisdom, smarts and savvy observations. The only give-away of his still babyness is his cute and earnest lisp, and his love of his wowie. He can find it in his sleep and put it back in his mouth. He can whirl it around in his mouth like a propeller. And he can talk with it--even though we all insist we cannot understand, so he will be forced to talk.

It is already starting to be obscene. Strangers ask him if he is too old to have one. And he knows enough to be embarrassed. When people he knows disapprove of his serious wowie habit are around he always stashes the wowie out of sight. Hiding it in a pocket, or under his seat, or inside his rescue-mobile.

And so, as his fourth birthday rapidly approaches I have told him, when you are four, it is Goodbye, Wowie. You might as well start weanig yourself now because we are getting rid of them ALL they day you turn four. I told him we will tie them to a bunch of balloons and let them sail up into the sky. We will wave until they are out of sight.

But he knows balloons pop eventually. He claims he will run out into the city and catch them when they rain down on the L.A. wherever they are. I say they could land on a highway. Or in the ocean. Theo says he will help Benji hunt them down.

But worse than that, I think I may be making his wowie habit worse. The more I remind him that soon he will have to say good-bye, the more he clings. Now at night he has one in his mouth, and one in each hand. He claims he needs all three to sleep. He travels to our bed in the night with a wowie in his mouth, a wowie in each fist, and his favorite pirate ball.

I know I need to be more strict. I know I just need to take them away.

Gotta go. I'm off to play Sorry with the boys. Benji is waiting--with one wowie in his mouth, two his hands, and his pirate ball by his knee.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wildflowers With Nat, 2

...the story...

A little over a year ago my friend called me. She had breast cancer and she was between treatments. She had been fighting the aggressive cancer for three years. She was young and strong and resolutely, determinedly, defiantly hopeful. Those of us who loved her read the science, checked out the medical prognosis, did our own research. Things did not look good. In fact, they looked really, really, really bad. But when we talked to her, she was so sure she would live, so determined to live, we believed her. At least I did. Until last spring.

Her doctor took her aside. He didn’t tell her he would die. What you say to people at that point in the disease affects the outcome. If you tell someone they are going to die—they often do, right on schedule. So he did not do that. He knew her rules. And he followed them.

He simply told her: “You are between chemo sessions. The next round of whatever we do (she was running out of options) is going to be hard. If there is somewhere you want to go, someone you want to see, something you have been dying to do, do it now.”

So she called me. She told me she wanted to go and see the desert wildflowers. She could have done anything. She was a world traveler who had lived in Japan and Thailand, and traveled to India, Nepal, China, Indonesia and Vietnam. She spoke fluent Japanese and restaurant Thai. She could have flown to Italy. Or gone to Hawaii. Or done a week of yoga with one of her gurus. Inside her, I think she knew this would be her last trip. Even if I didn’t.

So she drove down the five from San Francisco on her own in her beat up old Subaru with the fuzzy faux leopard skin on the seats—the same car we had driven cross country together in 20 years before. She threw in a sleeping bag, great music, bean sprouts, nuts, carrots and snacks for the road. In the passenger seat, like an old friend, rode a pair of oxygen tanks. And stashed in her suitcase was her growing collection of pills.

We decided to go to Joshua Tree. We had been on so many fantastic trips together. We met right out of college and we were two East-Coasters bewitched by the West. This was one of the joys we shared. The beauty of the West Coast—its forests, its oceans, its deserts and yes, its wacky, way out, unrestrained people.

Maybe we both loved being far away and free at last from our conservative, controlling, religious fathers. Maybe we both suffered from the hyperambitiousness of the East Coast and wanted to silence that part of ourselves in a place where it didn’t matter. I don’t know. She irritated most of my friends. But to me, she was a soulmate, a sister, and a fellow traveler on the road of life.

I booked the last room I could get in Twenty Nine Palms and we headed out into the desert. Me, my husband, my two small boys and my friend, Natalie. She rode in the front seat where she had room at her feet for her oxygen tanks.

She never acted like a patient. Not once. Our hotel was full of soldier’s families—those who were waiting by the base to see their loved ones who had a few days between deployments before heading back to Iraq. The rooms and desert gardens were full of new babies, grandparents and young brides, all waiting for their 48 hours of precious time with their loved ones before they headed back into war, perhaps for the last time. The air was thick with blind, positive energy—and we we part of this – we will have fun. We will pretend everything is normal. We will not admit that death is in the air. We will just savor the normal, drown ourselves in it, with Budweiser, Tecate, hotdogs and tacos.

Nat got all stories and felt their pain. She was a natural reporter, a born propagandist and a passionate political junkie who could not stop herself from lightly lecturing anyone she came across. Not even as the cancer consumed her body and took her breath away.

At night we went out into the desert and lay under the stars. During the day we hiked out to the big rocks and looked for the desert wild flowers among the Joshua trees. We climbed boulders and drew pictures of the flowers. She never complained. Ever. When she got tired she would pull out her oxygen tank and hooked herself up. She would roll down the window as we wound through the park and shout out imperiously, “Stop the car. Go faster. Slow down. Pull over here. ” It drove my husband crazy.

At one point she and I got out of the car and hiked out into a field of golden flowers. My boys were asleep and my husband stayed in the car with them. It was like an enchanted field in the middle of the desert. There were flowers there I had never seen before in my life. Magical flowers. Some of them had delicate blooms and would stand completely alone, with none other like them around. The sun was high in the sky, and the air was so bright it made us dizzy. We lay down in the field of flowers together, our heads on each other’s arms, our bodies cradled by the sandy soil. We were intoxicated, going under in a cloud of wildflower perfume, with yellow heads bobbing all around us. It was the way I think heaven will be. It was of life’s perfect moments, all the more precious because we knew it might not come again.

Then we got up and went back to the car full of snacks and diapers and sweaters and toys, where my husband and sleeping boys were waiting.

She documented the entire trip. She took pictures of the magical flowers and found their names. (They were extremely rare). For dinner, we ate burritos and drank margaritas surrounded by soldiers on leave who seemed like they were holding onto life as desperately as she was.

Four months later my friend died. Ours was the last trip big trip she ever took. I feel honored. She chose me, my boys, my family to be with. We opened up and let her in. But I also weep because I did not know. I did not know, as she did, deep inside her, that this trip would be her last. She got to pick what she still wanted to see of all the miracles on this earth, and she chose wildflowers, with me.

I no longer cry every day. To me she is an impish soul who lives on powerfully in my mind, and visits me frequently with wry comments and endless advice. When I signed up for Facebook a month ago—the last person in America to do so – she had set it up so she was my first friend, and so her picture with me was my profile picture. As she was in life, she is in death – slightly controlling, highly opinionated, always one step head of everyone else, believing she did everything better than you ever could.

She would not want me to mourn.

But the season is upon me again. The California poppies are out. The wildflowers are blooming. Spectacular colors are shooting up from California’s barren, desert soil. I see the flowers and I weep. But I also smile—because my friend knew their beauty. She knew they were the last great thing on earth she wanted to make sure she saw.


...I mean Theo...

takes a break from shooting on the steps of Hightower.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Birthday Party Fantasies

For boy #2 a birthday takes on added significance. It is perhaps the only day in the whole year when it is only about him! Gifts only for him. People singing only for him. A cake, only for him.

So we have spent most of the last eight months--maybe the last twelve--since his last birthday--fantasizing continuously about what kind of birthday party he wants to have. All year he gathers string on what he wants. Each week he revises: "I think I want a jungle party." "No, I would like a pirate party." "I would like it at the park." "I would like it at home." "I want everyone to have a blindfold when they hit the pinata." "I want to have a bouncer shaped like a giraffe. Like a tiger. Like a car. Like spiderman."

I take it all in, store it away.

But now we are getting to crunch time. He must make a final decision.

Today he came down with a new idea.

"I want to have a Star Wars party," he said. Strange, from a boy who has never seen the movie in its entirety. This is what it is like to live in American Society in 2009. If you are three, you know every character in Star Wars and have a light saber (or light saver) of your own. But then he said this:

"I want to have Star Wars balloons. Shaped like hearts."

Friday, April 24, 2009

My Son Is a Flower

There in the center--the green boy dressed as a flower--is my son. In fact, he turned out to be the only male flower in the whole school. This is a picture from the Earth Day Concert at Larchmont Charter West Hollywood. It is all part of the school's mission to promote eco-literacy.

I know--concerts and events where children do cute things and parents weep is such a cultural cliche! But now it is my child, and I admit it, I wept.

The children created an art museum of their work--animals constructed with recycled materials, accompanied by stories they wrote themselves. (Theo made a whale he named bottlecap--because his spout was made out of a bottlecap, not pictured here). On the wall was a giant rain forest, with all its layers--the canopy, the undercanopy, the recycled animals and giant flowers in the understory. The trees reached to the top of the auditorium and were all made by the children.

But best of all were the children themselves.

They sang beautiful songs and played cool, multi-ethnic instruments. They danced like seaweed and crabs and fish. And they dressed up like living things. Most girls were flowers. Most boys were some kind of bug--with little eyes.

But not my son.

He was a beautiful flower. And he was soooooo proud of it. They had rehearsed this event for a month--learning the songs, the dance, the accompaniment. He demanded that I wash his green clothes for the performance so his body would look like a stem. And, though he wanted many things to be a secret, on the morning of the show he gave himself away as we snuggled in bed.

"Mommy, I'm going to be a flower. You are going to love it!"

He didn't care that he was the only boy flower. I don't even know if he even noticed. And this is what I love about him.

I said something to another mother and she said, "Oh, he is so comfortable in his masculinity he doesn't even care!" (She is a psychoanalyst so I felt comforted somehow, though what was I worried about?? )

And, I have to admit, he was an adorable flower.

He made his mama so happy.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wildflowers With Nat


The Nature of Genius

All you writers and artists and smart people: Check this out, and tell me what you think.

I forward you this clip, forwarded to me by my friend Anna, to make you think. Where does genius come from? What is it? Is it you, or a visitation by God? Do women think about this differently than men?

I adore Elizabeth Gilbert, so perhaps I am partial, but watch her, and please, send your thoughts!

Musings on Teaching

As I teach, each week I come home with a new revelation, a new insight, a new question, and more respect than I have ever had for all the teachers who have fed my head along the way.

As I stand before my class, droning on, trying to show them that they just save the world of journalism, must remake it and be reporting revolutionaries, try to plant in them the seed of curiousity that will make them great writers and citizens, so many questions bubble up.

My dear friend Sarah, who got me this gig, has a million insights, and much wisdom. But as with so much in this life, you have to do it, and live it, to really feel it and understand it. At least that is the kind of learner I am.

On Thursday I came home wondering if I should be simpler. Or more demanding. Or more hard-core and militaristic. Jonathan reminded me that this is college. All I can do is put it all out there--the articles, the books, the ideas, the passion, the issues. Whether they choose to work hard on the assignments or not, read the books or not, do their homework or not, is not up to me. Nor is it my job. Not how. And he is right.

Still, as I stand before them for hours each week, I find myself looking for clues. Are they taking this in? Are they understanding? What is really sinking into these brains of theirs? What will they really walk away with? How much is my responsibility? How much theirs?

Two of my wisest friends say all they will take away is my passion. They will forget all the details, the specifics, perhaps the assignments. They will just remember that I cared a lot, and that may ignite in them a passion, and make them care a lot.

But yesterday I had a fascinating discussion with Jonathan.

We were running through all the classes and teachers we have had in our lives, and thinking about which classes we really really loved, which professors we really really admired, and which teaching methods made things stick in our heads.

And here are some of our conclusions:

* You may learn more in a class that is easy than in a class that is hard just to be hard. Of his entire education Jonathan remembers his senior playwriting class the most. He said it was easy, so easy. And yet, I would argue that that class changed his life. He said there were other classes by more famous people, more important people (though this was taught by a famous playwright) but this one stuck. Other classes he loved in the moment, but the lessons have not traveled through time. This professor did not lecture, or make them read anything. All they did was write plays and read each others work.

Which leads to:

* The greatest classes force you to interact, and to give something personal of yourself. They also let you see what your peers have done, with the same assignment. Already I have seen that if I use the students work to make a point--no matter how primitive their copy may be -- I can tell they are more engaged than if I used the greatest feature story ever written. The stories are about their friends and peers, and it is theirs, and they sit up and take notice.

* Forcing people to go out and DO, to go out and have experiences, will mold them more than anything that happens inside the four walls of the classroom. Whatever they learn on the spot, they must then most go out and try it, digest it, practice it or it will not stick. If they do, if they go out and really try it, they will come back richer, more excited and it will be stuck in their brains forever. Last week I asked them to interview 10 people--just to practice reporting, which is hard. At least if you are shy, which many writers are, including myself. Some barely tried. But I could see that others were completely transformed and empowered by the experience. I was moved.

Tune in next week to see if I learned anything else.

Just One Night

These weeks I am gone all day on Thursday. I leave around 11 a.m. and return around 10:30 p.m. when everyone is asleep. I come into the dark house wired and tired and chow down on any leftovers I can find--snorting it all down like a starving wild animal because I am so hungry!!

But here is what my Thursday journeys have taught me. As much as I gripe (on bad days) about my lack of career, focus and time, as much as I muse about the crazy paradox of motherhood (wanting to work, wanting to be home) when I am actually away from my children all day, when I do not see them, feed them, bathe them, read to them or tuck them into bed, I miss them in a deep, profound way that startles me.

I wake up the next day feeling slightly disconnected. And grateful that I can be with them again.

And I know, that for all my temporary dissatisfactions, and frustrations with not being able to do more for myself, there is nowhere, NOWHERE I would rather be each day than with them.

This is good for me to know.


Here is a Zebra Longwing, landing on a flower at the Butterfly Pavillion at the Natural History Museum.

And here is Benji, standing in wonder before a Monarch. Just like Mama!

They were all there, in this exhibit that was like being trapped inside a giant butterfly net. The scaly-winged insects fluttered and flittered and tried to escape. They landed on your hands and shoulders and each other (to make love, it is spring!). I love their names: Orange Julia, Zebra Longwing, Question Mark, Buckeye, Spicebush Swallowtail (with bits of blue on their wings), luna moths, Great Southern Whites and Painted Ladies.

I just love butterflies. To me they are one of the great wonders of the world. Monarchs are my favorite, but I love them all. I have traveled to Michoacan to see the butterfly preserves high, high in the mountains--where, if you close your eyes you can actually hear the sound of millions of butterfly wings.

And I have traveled the trail of the West Coast Monarchs here in California for a story--looking for them hanging in great clumps in groves of eucalyptus from Santa Cruz down to Goleta. I have seen them swirl into the sky like orange fairy dust when the sun hits them, then grab onto each other and hide when the clouds come again.

Out in the wild is best, but even being trapped inside a netted pavillion with hundreds of children and butterflies in the middle of the city for me is a transcendent experience.

But just one question, dear reader: What do you think, should they be called Butterflies or Flutter-bys?

Ask your children.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Castle

I never meant to do it. I really didn't. I went to Wellesley, and I ended up marrying a guy from Harvard. It was not my goal, or my intention. In fact, when my now husband told me he went to Harvard, over a bit of Fondue in the San Fernando Valley, I almost choked. How could this have happened? I had come so far!

Well, now 20 years later the reunions are rolling around. Last year Jonathan came to mine at Wellesley (I am an older woman...), where, as befits a women's college, husbands and children are welcome!

This year is his college reunion, but we are skipping that for something even more spectacular: the 100th year Anniversary of the Harvard Lampoon.

I accidentally wandered into the castle -- (placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978)-- a few times as an undergrad and what a scene. I admit I remember little. The alcohol was flowing too freely. What I do remember is bacchanalian revelry and college decadence. There were smoking jackets, champagne, and crowds so tight it was hard to breathe if you were under 5'7". I remember guys in black tie hurling china plates against the wall. My memory gets fuzzy after that.

Suffice it to say, it was a legendary place. And now, in two weeks, we are going back. The Lampoon Anniversary invitation was cryptic, but enticing. Cocktails at the Isabella Gardner Museum on Friday, a black-tie dinner at the castle on Saturday. Erotic massage (^%$#@!????) from 2-4 on Saturday.

Jonathan is bringing me. Sweet guy. He would never leave me home. I think he wants me to see his now latent decadence in full flower. And I would like to. Bpth the Lampoon and its decadence have had a huge influence on his life, and I have had far too little decadence in mine!

Last night Jonathan was out (I will not say where for now) at a meeting and ran into crowds of Lampoon guys and their wives. He found out he is the only one bringing his beloved@!##$##@!!!!

What does it mean?

"I guess I didn't get the [no wife] memo," he said.

I am tempted to bow out, to let him have his crazy weekend with lobster, champagne and erotic massage. But who would tell the story? Who would tell the world? Who, I ask you, would bring back fantabulous tales for this little old blog o' mine?

I simply must go.

It is my duty as a reporter, an urban anthropologist, a Wellesley Woman!

If You Were a Great Writer or Artist

who would you be? I ask this question because last week I picked up an Evolve magazine in front of the Bodhi Tree and there was an interview of Sark. I love Sark. She is corny and way out, but she makes me happy. And in her loopy watercolors and happy pages I find great truths. So there.

As I read her interview, about a new book she has coming out about writing, I realized she reminded me of my friend Jo. It is as if they are of the same genetic material. They are both optimistic and deep, searchers and smilers, hustlers and happy-go-lucky types. And so much more. Jo is a teacher, now, not a Sark. But if someone secretly dropped her into Sark's life and said live it, as if it is yours, she could pull it off.

Anyway, the whole experience got me to thinking, What artist that I love and admire, shares my genetic material? Who would I be, if I had to be one of them? And when I say this, I do not mean who do you wish you could be, I mean, when you read or hear or see this person you recognize a part of yourself.

For me, those two people are George Sand and Mary Wollstonecraft. (If you don't know her, look her up all you non-Feminists!) I might throw in Georgia O'Keefe if I weren;t so scared of the cliche. I admire the woman, in addition to her art. I love her New York life and her New Mexico life. And I could see myself living in an adobe home walking the hills inviting beautiful young men in to stay with me. But I digress...

Who are you? Who would you be?

Tonight I Raise A Glass...

to myself. I raise a glass to myself because I feel I need to be toasted, and I am in that place where as much as I wish someone would call me and toast me (or call me from the other room and toast me) I know it will not happen. So someone has to do it. And it might as well be me.

And so, dear Hilary, I toast you for all you have done this past week. For your fabulous brisket and your lemony lamb chops, for caring for your children and passing on the tools of journalism to the next generation of reporters in a mammoth university two hours away. For working out daily, for feeding your family and clothing them and loving them and soothing them and swimming and riding bikes and planting flowers with them. For trying to find your school a site, and trying to keep on writing. Keep at it, Girl!

Bottoms up!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cool Shades

Last Friday my favorite sunglasses in the world snapped in two!

I loved them for how I imagined they made me look (perpetually glam, a harried movie star chasing her children about the city incognito). And they held a great memory. Jonathan and I had gotten them at Oliver People's on Sunset at a party where DJs played music with a big back-beat and beautiful shoppers quaffed foreign beers. Two salespeople fought over which glasses looked better on me (because both looked GREAT, of course!) They were called La Donna.

So when they broke I nearly wept.

My husband told me to go to Retrospecs & Co. This is the store owned by the two original founding parents of Larchmont Charter West Hollywood. The store is run by a husband and wife team. The business was born out of a college dream of Jay Owens. He loved old spectacles. So after college he began traveling around the country in an RV searching for and restoring old glasses from the golden age of eyewear. He would fix them up and sell them. Little did he dream that one day he would sell his glasses across the country--from Aspen to Madison Ave. And have his own store on one of the trendiest little strips in Los Angeles.

They are two of the coolest people you will ever meet. To me they embody the enterpreneurial spirit of America--before the world went corporate. They have huge hearts and a can-do spirit. And they are good businesspeople, too.

Jay and Marya's store is on Melrose--just steps from the Pacific Design Center and the Bodhi Tree. The shop is small and chic. Deep drawers are filled with the coolest glasses you have ever seen. And they know how to make you look good!

They pulled out Seventies glasses that made me look like Joni Mitchell or Elton John, and movie star glasses that made me look like Sophia Loren. But in the end they encouraged me to get some one-of-a-kind shades of gray-blue buffalo horn. I have never seen anything like them. They are a work of art. And in them--I tell myself--I am a work of art.

And, Jay promises me, you have never felt anything like Buffalo Horn. The specs won't slide and sweat like plastic. They meld to your head!

Check it out!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Do You Love Them?

Like I love them?

OK, I admit it. I adore poppies. I love red poppies--the kind that coat Europe and that the Afghan hill tribes harvest to make Opium. I love wild pastel-colored poppies. And, now that I am a Californian, I love California poppies. I adore when they pop up alongside the highways, and turn the hillsides gold. To me they are magic.

You can't pick them. They die.

And you can't really capture them--not really--unless you are a painter and you mix the perfect color of orange, that shows the light shining through the petals.

But now you see, my blog is covered with California poppies--shot by my beloved on his iPhone.

What is the flower that makes your heart dance?

Is it irises? Peonies? Roses? Nasturtiums?

Tell me!



As we sat around the table on the eve of our Passover Seder, I felt the history of generations in the room, and I was surprised by how moved I was.

Jonathan's mother lit the candles (a woman's role) and read in Hebrew from the Haggadah (she keeps her Jewish talents well hidden). And Theo, his yarmulke perched precariously on his head at a jaunty angle, read the four questions unassisted.

I thought I would weep.

Why was it beautiful?

Was I just experiencing a Fiddler on the Roof Moment? A Sunrise Sunset emotion?

Is that what ritual does? It makes you reflect back onto all the other times you have done the same thing? And then to reflect on what has changed, and what has remained the same?

Spring Flowers

...another L.A. secret...the L.A. Arboretum. Out in Arcadia--past Glendale and Pasadena--sits the L.A. Arboretum--167 acres of plants and lawns and waterfalls filled with wild peacocks.

For Easter we went for a stroll on what was once the grounds of Lucky Baldwin--a businessman, horse racer and real estate developer--who planted the grounds in the late 1800s and created the Santa Anita race track.

The air smelled like flowers, and the place felt like paradise. Signs on the property said Baldwin converted his Rancho from a patch of desert into the lush, tropical oasis it is today. There are ponds and prehistoric forests, prickly cactus gardens and low-hanging magical trees for children to climb in.

It felt like Paris, or Rome, or just the past. A place where you could stroll for hours and not lose your children under a car or a Hummer.



I don't really like lamb. And neither does my husband.

First, the name is so evocative. And I mean that in the most negative sense.

You are eating a sweet baby sheep that was snatched from it's mother and slaughtered. It just doesn't make you feel good.

Second, I never really liked the gamey taste of lamb.

And third, Jonathan and I realized that we both grew up eating leg of lamb smothered with jiggly green mint jelly. I remember my father shouting out in joy, "Roberta, this is out of this world!" as he snarfed down lamb and jelly--and the rest of us picked at the meat on our plate.

Thirty years later my father is still eating leg of lamb with mint jelly (my mother confirmed on Sunday, as she was about to put the lamb in the oven) and he probably still shouts out in joy as he eats it.

I wanted to celebrate. I want to have an easter tradition. But I do not want leg of lamb with mint jelly. Last year I cooked leg of lamb coated in mustard, and slipped a heady herb concoction into slits in the lamb. It was quite good, and not very lamby at all. But this year we switched again. This year we had a Turkish recipe for lamb chops--garlic and lemon and olive oil marinade, stove-top sauteed chops topped with a mint, garlic, yogurt sauce.

It was so delicious we almost fell out of our nook. We shouted out in joy as we ate it. Just as my father had shouted in joy as he ate his.

Perhaps this Turkish concoction will be our easter tradition.

And perhaps our children will look back in horror and disgust at the Easter lamb they ate in their childhood.

And they will create their own tradition.

What is your Easter tradition?


Here we are at dawn, before choirs of hundreds, singing to the Lord!

I love Easter. And I love sunrise. But in my life, I have been to a total of two sunrise easter services. I just can't haul myself out of my warm, cozy bed when the moment of religious devotion arrives.

But now that we live with the Hollywood Bowl steps from our house, I have no excuse.

So yesterday Jonathan, Theo and I woke when the stars were still out, bundled ourselves in warm clothes and walkable shoes, and began the trek over to the Bowl by moonlight.

As soon as we hit Highland you could start to see the crowds emerging from the dark. The parking lots were full, and families dressed in their easter best were hiking up the hill to the performance. (Others, like us, looked like they were still dressed in their pajamas and wrapped in blankets snatched from their beds) From a quarter mile away in the darkness you could hear the singing.

What a show! It was a combination of televangelism, showmanship, religious devotion and multi-culturalism--with an overlay of religious masochism that allows you to arise so early and feel virtuous about it. (Some of those families must have gotten up at 4:30 a.m.)

Here is Theo partway through. Is he singing, "Halleluyah!"? Or is he snoozing?

It turns out the Hollywood Bowl sunrise service is one of the oldest institutions in Los Angeles. This is the service's 88th year. It began in the Teens in a neighborhod on Franklin Ave. with a group of residents gathering at sunrise and singing. Then it moved to Olive Hill by Barnsdall, and the two year old L.A. Phil played. But thousands turned up and they had to find a new location. Developers found the Hollywood Bowl--the largest natural ampitheater anyone had ever seen--and the service moved again.

The setting is spectacular. It begins in darkness, and as the sun rises over the hills the rays of sunshine peek over into the bowl and bathe you in light. Gospel choirs, African soloists in fabulous orange fabrics, Japanese choirs, children's choirs and Korean choirs sing. Old Hollywood stars like Tippi Hedren (Alfred's Hitchcock's favorite blonde) read religious texts and saunter across the stage with style and flair -- that was what the studios demanded of the movie stars of old!

The service ends with the release of 100 doves from the stage. They swirl out from behind the lilies and soar into the sunlight.
Can you see them?

I felt uplifted, and happy. And ready for a strong cup of coffee!!!

Jonathan said he felt like he had been annointed into the ranks of true Angelenos--taking part in a secret ceremony that marks you as a native.

In this city that hides her best secrets, what makes you feel like you know the secret Los Angeles?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Jew Confewsion

My husband is a Jewish Fernandez. This is in contrast to his two sons, who could only count as Jewish in certain very reform Jewish synagogues in the most liberal cities in the United States. This is due to my thinning of the Jewish bloodline. And this non-qualification remains steadfast, despite the fact that their tiny perfect penises were circumcised within the first week of life by one of the busiest and most Orthodox Jewish moiles in Los Angeles.

Jonathan, on the other hand, counts as a Jew by any criteria. He could move to Israel and join any temple he wants. His mother is Jewish--a Hoffman from the Ukraine. Despite his Jewish street cred, all his life he has confused people. He looks Irish, has a hot Latino last name (and yes, he does speak Spanish) and a Jewish heritage that is real. No one ever knows what to make of him, and he is tired of explaining.

I, on the other hand, think it is all cool. I love his Jewish blood, his family's persecuted Ukrainian history, and his Latin name of unknown origins. I love that he is a true American mutt with the troubled history of the world flowing through his veins.

But as the years pass, I see that the Jewish holidays create war inside him. When we first got married he used to go dark and angry around Roshashana and Yom Kippur. He never would have initiated a celebration, and yet not to celebrate made him deeply sad. Now we celebrate.

Same for the Passover seder. For me, raised by a born-again Christian, the seder is a beautiful meal. It is the kind of celebration that would make anyone want to be Jewish. The story is moving, the lessons inspiring, the meal beautiful. Who doesn't want to fight for the slaves and downtrodden people of the world? It calls to my soul.

But even with the seder Jonathan had more mixed feelings. Our first Passover together we went to a friend's house, and he didn't really like it. So we went smaller. The second year -- with only a tiny bit of nudging from me -- he went down to Pico Union and bought a beautiful seder plate, three yarmulkes, the haggadahs, and a brisket.

I found a fabulous Julia Child brisket recipe (is that sacrilege?) and we held our first tiny seder. Jonathan was delighted. The second year we did it alone again. The third we invited some practicing Jewish friends, whose older son is in Hebrew school, and could actually read the Hebrew during the seder. They brought beautiful chalices, a delicious Haroset, and some powerful Jewish energy. They taught us a thing or two.

This year Jonathan's family is coming. His more Jewish sister and her Jewish husband and their Jewish child, and his own Jewish mother will arrive in three hours. I, the shiksa Goddess, am hosting. And I do make a good brisket.

Right now the slow-cooked smells of thyme and garlic and olive oil and salt and tomatoes and carrots and onions and brisket are wafting up the stairs. Soon I will go down and boil some eggs, put out the bitter herb, the parsley, the shank bone and the matzoh. I will pull out his grandfather's big, brass Jewish candlesticks and put them on the table. And we will sit down as a Jewish family to celebrate this, the most moving of all Jewish holidays.

My husband is delighted, happy, proud. As I type he is picking up his mother, who has flow in from Phoenix for the occasion, from the airport. This morning, on the way to Griffith Park, my sons asked why I was going to make them go to a sunrise Easter service.

"We are Jewish, Mommy," Theo said.

And yet, as certain as my oldest son is, my husband remains deeply ambivalent about his Jewish identity. He said when he went two days ago to get the best brisket in Los Angeles from the butcher at the Farmer's Market, the butcher looked at him in surprise. As if to say, "You, a red-haired, freckle-faced, All American screenwriter dude are a Jew?" And then, just as the guy was digesting that Jonathan was a real live LA Jew ordering his Passover brisket, Jonathan flipped out at being pigeon-holed and ordered five pork sausages and a couple of pounds of bacon.

He said he just couldn't control himself.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Can Interviewing Be Taught

Today I teach interviewing in my class. I will teach them the mindset, the method, what to ask and how. I will teach them ways to approach people and whether to tape or write. I will talk about anonymous sources and how to develop sources. Or I will try.

I was talking about it all at dinner and Jonathan asked: "Do you even think interviewing can be taught?"

Or is it just a talent.

We ended up having an argument.

He argued it is a talent. I argued it can be taught. In the end, he had a point. A bad person who is untrustworthy and emits that through their pores, or an interviewer who just exudes, "I am not interested in this assignment but my editor made me do it," is not going to get great quotes, or the info they want.

On the other hand, there are definitely techniques you can use. You can learn how to make people relax, how to know enough that you can disarm people with what you know, and you can learn to care, and make people feel that way. You can learn how to mix up your questions so the angle of your story is not so obvious, and you do learn what works over time. You learn when to provoke and when to seduce.

I do not believe it is a talent. But I do believe it is an art, and that only after hundreds and hundreds of interviews will you begin to develop the style that works for you.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Good Life as we sat licking the crab and butter and salt off our hands my husband asked, "Do you think they are spoiling them? Do you think they realize how special this is? Do you think we are ruining them by showing them too much of the good life?"

NO, I practically shouted.

Because this is what I believe as a parent. I believe it our job to show our children every thing beautiful, delicious, wonderful and fabulous about the world that we can. Our job is to make them feel the magic, the wonder and the beauty of the world. That is our duty. That is part of what we pass on. It is what will give them strength when times are tough.

I do not believe that means they need to stay in five star hotels with sheets of Egyptian cotton, or that they should eat caviar and champagne at the finest restaurants in fits of conspicuous consumption. Although I do believe they should know those things are there, in case they want to shoot for them.

But I want them to know that even when they do not have money, they can appreciate the feel of a sea breeze, the scent of lemon blossoms in spring time, the wonder of seeing one thousand dolphins leaping out of the water right in front of you.

I believe that most of the best things in life are available to all--at least in this country -- if you know where to look.

We were not taking the boys to the finest restaurant and paying astronomical sums to have our children eat crab leg. No. We cooked our Costco special Alaskan crab at home and spent as much as a dinner out at In-n-Out for the whole feast. Throw in some cheap champagne for us, and it was like In-n-Out with large milkshakes all around.

But I want them to know that if they want lobster or crab, they can have it. It comes from the ocean, and the ocean is for us all. I want them to know the beauty of the world, the tastes of the bounty of nature, the sounds of singing, the joys of dancing, all are available to them. And you do NOT have to have a lot of money to get those things. They are there for the taking. For all of us.

You could spend a lot of money to get those things. But you don't need to. And my job is to teach my boys that they can have the best things in life. Not because they are rich, or entitled. But because truly, many of the best things in life, are free. Or at least affordable.

Alaskan Crab Legs

I grew up eating lobster. That was the finest of the fine, the most decadent of the decadent, the most hedonistic of the hedonistic. To eat lobster with a big bib around your neck, a nut cracker at your side, and a bowl of melted butter at your elbow was about as close to heaven as you could get in New England.

When I was young my father, who forced me to eat almost everything, would suddenly say when lobster was served: "Oh, children, you wouldn't like these..." Well, we didn't like chicken livers, mushy green beans or tuna casserole and we had to eat those. We knew something was up.

When we finally tasted it (culls only, of curse--the two clawed lobsters were for my parents) we knew why he had hidden it from us. It was too delicious to be believed. It was also once forbidden--which heightens the flavor of anything!

Out in California we don't eat lobster. There is none around. And if there is, you know they flew it in from Maine, and in this world of waste who can justify that? So we eat west coast specialties.

But somehow, we had never eaten alaskan crab leg.

I had seen it at the market--the long spindly legs on ice. I just had never had a hankering to buy it. No one told me what I was missing. Until one New Year's Eve at the home of some friends. Our gourmet friend Monty served Alaska Crab Legs with melted butter, meyer lemon juice and nut crackers. I was ready to judge it as a second-rate lobster knock-off until I tasted it.
My God!!!! All I remember was lots of champagne, endless crab, and rivers of butter and meyer lemon juice running down my arm, into my fancy sleeve, with me chasing down the perfect crabby, buttery, lemony, salty rivulets with my tongue.

How had no one told us????? How had they let us live on in our East Coast ignorance???
Well, now we know. And on special occasions we get the crab legs. And unlike my father, we share them with our children, who love them, too.

Does that make us real West Coasters at last?

Don't Give Up on Me

O faithful readers,

Do not abandon me. My head has been preoccupied with my class, and how to fill three whole hours with drills and lectures and relevant information for my journalism students. Because it is all so new, and I am so uncertain at this point of how long anything takes I must plan meticulously for these first few weeks.

The UC system is getting FAR too much out of me for the pay. But I care. So that is my deal with the devil, I guess.

I am still here. Still thinking. Still living.

More soon...

Sunday, April 5, 2009


I love Pandora. I love it!!!

I know, I know. I am probably the last person in the universe to really appreciate how cool it is. A young reporter wrote a Column One on Pandora about six years ago, when it was actually new. Even then I was fascinated. Even if I didn't know how to use it.

For the three people left in the universe who have NOT tried out Pandora, here is what it does. It is called the Musical Genome Project. And somewhere (Berkeley? Portland? A musical utopia in the woods?) a group of musicians analyze music down to the chords, the genres, the style, the lyrics. But mostly the music.

They take that information--the musical DNA--and figure out from what you do like, what you might like. And then they send it to you.

It is like having the best friend you find once in a lifetime who shares your exact musical tastes (impossible to define, unique to you alone!) and knows just a little bit more about music than you, so constantly sends you CDs, tapes and musical recommendations. And every time, EVERY time, you love it.

That is what Pandora is.

I played and played with it with Natalie--who loved music as much as I do. We would plug in strange combinations like Bruce Springsteen and Vicente Fernandez, and see what the computer would come up with. (that combination actually did stump the musical genome project).

But mostly you walk away in awe. And you see connections in music you never, ever saw. Bruce Springsteen is like U2 is like Billy Joel is like Elton John! (that is Jonathan's musical genome right there). Peter Paul and Mary is like Gordon LIghtfoot is like Nick Drake is like Cat Stevens. (that is me!)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What He Remembers

A little over a year ago Benji drank a bottle of cherry-flavored baby Tylenol (we don't know how much exactly) and almost died. We rushed him to the emergency room where he vomited for hours and they pumped him full of a special antidote that would keep his liver from shutting down.

It was terrifying. One of the worst experiences of my life, by far. I lay beside him and never left him and held him and consoled him as they poked and prodded and stuck needle after needle into his tiny, impossible to find veins as he screamed in terror.

It was a strain on our marriabe, and it almost broke my heart. The experience transformed me. I turned into a purely primal mama bear fighting with everyone as I tried to save my baby.

He was ok. Two days later we were home. He still hates baby tylenol.

We just wondered how much he would remember. It was traumatic for me. But what about for him?

Three days ago he pulled out is hospital doll. It was an ugly doll given by the social services people who roam the hospital looking for abuses. While they interrogated me, to try to determine whether I was an unfit mother, they gave him this little doll with blonde hair of yellow yarn.

He never plays with it. Ever. But every time I try to sneak it out to Goodwill he finds it and returns it to his room. So on this anniversary, or so, he pulled it out.

"This is my doll from the hosdebal (sic)," he said.

I asked him what he remembered, fearing the worst.

I remember all the stickers, he said, referring to the multiple IVS in his arm. I remember the thing here. He pointed to his wrist where they had an IV in his wrist. I remember I got to ride in a bed in an elevator, he said. I remember I was wearing pajamas the color of banana.

All this was true.

I remember Theo and Daddy brought me my favorite toys. Also true.

Do you remember why you were there? I asked. I drank all the medicine without Mommy, he said. I will never do it again.

Was it scary? I asked.

Yes, he said.

He never speaks of it. Unlike Theo, who has an uncanny recall of every event, Benji's memory seems more sporadic. But this he seemed to remember like it was yesterday. It scared me a little.

Don't worry, said Jonathan. This is his life. This is his story. This was one of his defining moments. He is never going to forget it.

I guess that is true. I wish it weren't. I wish it weren't one of his defining his moments, nor one of mine. But it was. And it does deserve to be remembered.

Every last detail.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Alcatraz Training Session #1

I'm kicking it all into high gear. I dove into the pool today for my first adult fit swim session in a long, long while. I am promising myself I will swim once a week with the serious swimmers to get ready for Alcatraz. Ricardo (our coach) put me in the fast lane. Today kicked my ass. I made it through the whole hour, but my shoulders were cramping after 45 minutes.

We swam 2600 yards.

I will be ready for the sharks, the waves and the cold.

I can do it!


Something about the smells of this season remind me of Italy. There is no question I chose this city, this neighborhood, this life, because it reminds me of the light, the plants, the smells, the feel of the Italy of my childhood.

I was startled to realize the other day that Theo is now 6. The age I was when I moved to Italy. I think of how that changed me. I think of what it was like to suddenly be in a country that adored children. Where children are tiny Gods and mothers are the center of everything. Where every stranger comes up and pinches the cheek of a beautiful child and coos, "Che bella!"

It is a country where the poorest families spend their last dime on outfitting their chubby children in beautiful clothes for the weekly passegiata in the park, where waiters hold children while parents eat, where children run shouting in the piazza and everyone rejoices in the noise, the chaos, the life of children.

It is a country where family is the greatest gift, the most prized possession, and life means nothing without that. I think of how the sun, the light, the food, the tastes, the colors, the smells of Naples live on in me decades later. And I think I want my sons to have that. I want them to experience la dolce vita first hand. I want them to be adored, to be the light of the world. I want them to eat fresh campana peaches and cherries til the juice runs down their chins, and to run shouting in the piazza surrounded by the musical sounds of Italian. I want them to swim into the Blue Grotto, eat zucchini pasta at Bagni de Tiberio, climb over the ruins of Pompeii and eat the world's best pizza in the birthplace of pizza! I want them to ride a vespa, eat fresh mozzarella, leap from rocks into azure sea, and run up and down alleys for miles under lemon trees.

I just want it all to be a part of them, too.

Lecture #1

What do I tell my students tomorrow? What do I want them to know?
Do I load them with information? Or start the fire that will turn into passion?

Do I intimidate them like a fearsome general?
Or do I introduce myself softly, like a nurturing mother figure?

What do I say?
What do I say?
What do I say?

I sit down now, to write out my lecture. My very first words to my new students, that will lay the groundwork for the next 10 weeks. That will usher them into the world of journalism and light them on fire with the contagion I feel for writing, for newspapers, for journalism, for the world!

LTWR 126

"Workshops in Creative Non-Fiction: Journalism."