Friday, December 27, 2013

O Rats!

The heating repairman was here last week. I was just noting his resemblance to actor Chris Cooper as he descended from the attic. Dryly, he remarked, "Ya got a rat problem up there." My head spun, as if I had just learned I had an STD or was a slatternly housekeeper. I heard the words, "feces," "urine," and I thought, oh drat! But I have lived in this bungalow for three years; the demands of homeownership cannot be postponed any longer.

So what friend will you ask about rat abatement problems? In one sense seeking referrals instantly unravels your filthy secret. Then again it may convey that you suspect someone else has experienced vermin---now there's an unsavory assumption. Instead I turned to the trusty Hometown Pasadena website because its concierge department lists plenty of specialties. There it was: Choice Pest Control of Sierra Madre, CA.

I made an appointment with Mr. Joel Pena. What a nice fellow! He has the reassuring, comforting smile of an obstetrician. He conducted a brief interview and then headed up to my cursed attic. Yes, old and new rat activity was evident. We walked about the exterior of the house and he pointed out three or four small permeable entries for rats. He said they love homes for shelter and comfort, just like humans do. He further mentioned that I shouldn't leave my house doors wide open on these lovely mild days, that quick crafty critters sidle in despite the presence of a dog.

After the estimate, I went whole hog for fourteen traps in the attic and basement. Mr. Pena will be back in a few days to seal the entries and check the traps. Trapping will continue for several weeks. Meantime, I am going to tend to my yard by disturbing leaf litter and trimming back growth. I can't let any corners remain dark, attractive nuisances. The days of benign neglect are officially over. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Elegy for Mr. B

This is an essay I never wanted to write. My dear friend, John Bogert, succumbed to cancer on July 29, 2012. He was 63, a longtime newspaper columnist, Pasadena resident, and devoted dad to his three darlings, Caitlin, Rachael, and Ian. I was a latecomer to his life, having met him in 2010.

Just prior, a longer-time friend, Frankie Stearns, had recommended I buy the book, GROUNDED, by John Bogert. Duly I went to Vroman's and ordered a copy. It's a collection of columns--humorous, musing, ruminative, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One day my daughter Eliza came home and said, "Whose book is that?" "Mine," I replied. "Mrs. Stearns told me to get it." "But that's Rachael's dad's book!" "Rachael who?" (Come now! I have four kids and I'll wager each has had a friend named Rachael.) "MY RACHAEL FROM SCHOOL!" she corrected. Then the dots began to connect. This was the Rachael whom Eliza had met at University of Edinburgh when they were comedic Improverts together, another local girl who had ventured to Scotland for college. The Bogerts were as colorful a family as ours, I deduced from John's book and Eliza's anecdotes. I just had yet to meet them.

I did meet John at a St. Patrick's party. He was both a late arrival and the raconteur who said all the funny lines first. Usually I like to be the one to toss the bon mots, so I was amused to be displaced. We chatted, discovering we had many mutual acquaintances, parenting similarities, and East Coast origins. We parted ways. But I did start to read his Daily Breeze columns online. His writing became a compass for me sometimes, his prose elevating the prosaic, his distillations of events becoming droplets of significance. Through the written word did my affection for him grow.

Eight months after we met, John was hospitalized with acute gut pain. Appendix? Maybe. But it was much worse. I remember the rainy afternoon Eliza phoned me. I was on the way home from school and I pulled over near the Langham Hotel. She informed me of the cancer diagnosis, and I crumpled in the car, crushed. Everyone who knows cancer understands that its diabolical reach must be countered as craftily as possible. John enlisted a top-notch doctor at Keck. Our erudite Everyman kept springing back from every bodily insult. Surgeries. Chemotherapy. Nausea. Weight loss. During 2011 he was able to resume work on a limited basis. He saw one daughter marry, another daughter move into television work, his son enter senior year of high school. Life ambled on.

But as 2012 progressed, so did the illness. If I ventured to say maybe we'd all see each other when we were stardust, John would tersely text:CUT THE CLICHES. I visited a few times; we'd just sit and reminisce, or not. "How are the cactus?" he would ask. We remembered the July day he had brought a load of cuttings to my Altadena backyard and dug them all in. "Now once in awhile, ya gotta flood them," he advised. "Flood them."

In my experience, when one is dying of cancer, the circle tightens to family. It's serious work to die, and all energy is concentrated on the process. I never saw him again after April. I'd text. Once or twice a week, I made my backyard bouquet stealth drops on their front steps. Eliza saw John in May at Ian's graduation party, and she conveyed my love to him. John's final newspaper column was published on June 24, coincidentally my birthday. Despite all pain, he wrote heroically, capsulizing a life of language and love, exactly as great journalists strive to do. How I miss him. He was my wonderful cranky friend.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Like a Phoenix

I traveled to Phoenix over a recent 3-day weekend. While visiting my college roommate Robin, I also managed to fit in a little time travel.

Robin and I met 41 years ago as freshmen at Arizona State University. We lodged in Dixie Gammage Hall, the original bargain dorm, for the rate of $160 a semester. Our hall was outfitted with two stories of what were essentially dressing rooms. The beds were located in a nearby sleeping porch, likened by some of us to a Girl Scout camp or reminiscent of the garret in the Madeline stories. And most of us dragged our cots into the small rooms during the first two weeks of school. Voila! Dorms as nature had intended.

We also had some quaint practices that smoothed the rougher edges of first-time communal living. Our R.A. instructed us to shout MAN IN THE HALL if we were lucky enough to have one to walk to our rooms. What was intended as a warning actually conveyed bragging rights. We also learned to shout the cautionary HOT WATER when flushing. The adjacent showers immediately reacted with a hellish blast, and who wanted to be scalded and then drop her glass Prell shampoo bottle?

Gammage Hall had a careworn living room of good intentions, a place I imagined where gentleman callers of the 1940s waited for their dates. It also had an expansive grass backyard, now a Phoenix luxury but one I took for granted. The dorm was centrally located. You could practically tumble over to Hayden Library to read or to the Memorial Union for meals, walk to class in five minutes, strategically lounge on the mall, ready to meet all those new people streaming into your young life.

Gammage girls were an eclectic bunch, from Montana and Idaho, Arizona and California, even faraway New York. In contrast, the glamorous blondes we stereotyped as Barbie dolls lived in modern dormitories like Manzanita Hall, the fancy housing that sported elevators and its own dining room. But we could climb in and out of our low-slung windows if someone forgot to prop open the security door. Gammage was so uncomplicated.

But it is 2012 now, meaning Robin and I rode a sleek metrorail through downtown Phoenix and eastward. (We reminisced about the 1973 Bette Midler concert where I saw my first transvestites in ballroom gowns.) We alighted in Tempe. And now I genuinely believe in what Rip Van Winkle felt. Any familiarity of place had been overlaid with "progress." The local Mill Avenue district of bong shops and dusky taverns had become a glittering Emerald City of high-rises and upscale chains. Our university burgeoned with strange edifices. The local apartments once collectively known as SIN CITY looked tidy, sedate, and adamantly sinless.

We walked into the campus and by degrees discovered our past. Having a companion who shared experiences made the journey all the more comprehensible. Here was the boys' dorm, the WPA project called Irish Hall. Here was the Language and Lit building where we learned to be English majors. Here was Gammage Hall, now repurposed for administration. By gum, its door was unlocked! We entered, as if to sanctuary. The living room has been walled off as a Dean's office. To the left we counted the doors. Mine was open, and we startled an employee toiling at her desk. She allowed us to see the room, the tiny room that had served as my portal from childhood to whatever the heck I was about to become. We went to see the infamous toilets, the sleeping porch, the yard now known as The Secret Garden. Everything was ordinary and everything was profound. How often do we have the privilege of revisiting those places which shaped us? How lucky I feel. How lucky I am.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What's Old is New Again

During several summers following high school, I, like nearly every teenager in Orange County, worked at Disneyland. Early in my career, one of my pals introduced me to another coworker in the parking lot. Actually, this new acquaintance was crawling out of the rumble seat of a 1939 Packard, if memory serves me. And as if to interpret the behavior, my friend said, "This is Ralf Reynolds. His grandma was ZaSu Pitts." Since I already had a dear Uncle Ralph Reynolds living in Downey, the name was easy to remember. The silent film star link sealed it into my knowledge reliquary.

But Disneyland yielded to other jobs and the years fled breathlessly. I forgot about Ralf Reynolds until somehow Facebook resurrected us. We've cyber-howdy'ed. Then came a Facebook post announcing a musical performance starring the Reynolds Brothers right here at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena! I had to go.

The Reynolds Brothers, Ralf and John, and their cohorts Marc Caparone and Katie Cavera, turn out to be a most genial, lively, historically-attuned band which specializes in American music of the 1920s and 1930s. Ralf is the maestro. He plays washboard, which is really a Rube-Goldbergian percussion system. John plays a gleaming silver guitar that looks like it must have been designed for the film, THE ROCKETEER. Marc heralds coronet, muted by an assortment of plungers and cupcake toppers. And Katie strums a cool cat bass, as well as warbling songs like, "Was That the Human Thing to Do?" Their effect is lovingly G-rated (well, maybe PG), informative, energetic, and completely pleasing.

The Coffee Gallery is a ten-minute walk from my cottage. As I headed over, I chided myself, "Why don't I ever go to events at this place?" It's intimate, accommodating 50 people. You pay admission to manager and impresario Bob Stane at the door to the rear room and enter an oblong space containing a stage, trompe l'oeil backdrop, plastic chairs and tables. It's dark and cozy and you don't even have to buy any drinks. But of course there are coffees available, and on this night a guest chef was barbecuing pulled pork. The patrons are of all ages. It's an easy place to feel happy.

The Reynolds Brothers perform regularly at California Adventure at Disney in Anaheim. The Coffee Gallery Backstage offers an eclectic performance series. Information and reservations are available at 626.798.6236.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Better Life, No Matter How Elusive

"Teacher, why are you showing me such a sad movie? I'm gonna cry all day."
"Miss, I'd kill to have a father like that!"

Sometimes I strike gold while watching a film with my students. It happened last week when we saw the summer 2011 independent film, A BETTER LIFE, directed by Chris Weitz.

It's my academic and personal mission to bring challenging material into the classroom. In continuation school, the challenges already in situ can thwart even my best intentions. But if I can find a riveting story, one that the kids and I can lose ourselves in, one with cinematic integrity, then we are rich indeed. A BETTER LIFE piqued our interest in a big way.

It's the topical story of a laboring undocumented immigrant who is both mother and father to his 14 year-old son. As some students wrote, "...the son is careless about what he does and disrespectful to his dad;" "He thinks he is ruthless, but he is a punk!" Or, "He's stubborn, cocky, and isn't thankful for what he has." The son does skitter along the margins of gang culture to the disapproval of my students. I heard them chuckle during exchanges where the speakers address each other as "fool," or use "A'ight," shorthand for all right. But many found the son's disdain for his dad's efforts insufferable and consorting with gangsters unwise.

The film is anchored by a majestic, understated performance by Mexican film star Demian Bichir. His suffering and stoicism elevate him from humility to nobility, if that's possible. The students' observations ranged from, "He doesn't hit his kid," to "He's very noble," to "He is the definition of a real man--he is humble, honest, eager for a better life." Bichir's monologue in the final minutes of the film is wrenching. One of the girls came to me afterward and said, "Miss, I'm glad the lights were off because I was crying so much." I told her I was crying too and we exchanged sad little smiles. But I am certain the father's love for his son reached almost all of the students because they were deeply attentive, something I do not take for granted.

When we watch a film, I'm as active as I can be without becoming obnoxious. That is, I want the students to start to become mindful of color, detail, lighting, story links. The kids are already plot-line experts, more acute in that area than I am. In A BETTER LIFE, all of Los Angeles is a plot element. Students recognize settings, saying, "It's very correct. Dead-on what East LA/Lincoln & Boyle Heights areas look like," or, "I like how they don't have to be in the middle of night for bad things to happen." Or, "It seems very real because it could happen to any Mexican parent." One girl nails it:"I think the film looks realistic in some ways for many of us."

Patric Goldstein wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times (CROSSING BORDERS, 11/17/11) elaborating upon the film's power. He makes an eloquent argument for a Best Actor nomination for Demian Bichir. I'm with him on that one. So are my students. Rent this film and see what you think.

A BETTER LIFE, directed by Chris Weitz
Starring Demian Bichir and Jose Julian
Summit Entertainment

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Make Mine Lemonade

Dare I cite the old bromide, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade?" Now I actually love lemons in their every form. Naturally, the other night I chose to visit Lemonade, a restaurant which opened at 146 South Lake Avenue two months ago. The occasion? A delayed birthday meal for one of my valiant friends who knows a thing or two about lemonizing.

This particular friend and I have a years-long tradition of meeting for dinner every 6 or 8 weeks, choosing restaurants that our families probably wouldn't go for. Hence, the Thai-Italian noodle house. The Peruvian that replaced Hooters. The serene Tibetan on Holly. But we haven't met for our dinners since last summer. Over a year ago, my friend received a dire diagnosis which has necessitated a series of surgeries. Life-changing surgeries. We are trying to get back on track. The good news is that she is here and she is sunny and she is braver than ever.

In the two hours that we devote to catching up about children and mulling over life's challenges, there's always some unexpected profundity that emerges. I was thunderstruck when she said, "Jean, you're an inspiration to me! You were homeless and practically living out of your car for months [between houses] and you still manage to stay positive!" Psssh, thought I. Mere inconvenience compared to the courage that health issues demand. She thanked ME for keeping in touch and keeping her connected. But who are we if we don't show our friends and families through our actions that we love them? And we cannot stint on this because we all need that support sometime.

We both were delighted to try Lemonade. It is a cafeteria-style design with a playful yellow motif. Look up to see the yolk-shaped light fixtures while you sit in a chair colored just like a hard-boiled egg. There is a boggling array of at least 20 salads which can be ordered in share-able portions. Sandwiches, braises, soups, and macaroni + cheese follow. The fancy lemonades include cucumber mint, which I tried for my walk on the wild side. We enjoyed an ample meal for about $20. Lemonade turns out to be an unexpected sweet spot in Pasadena. (Six other locations exist in Los Angeles

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Boy Who Taught Me How to Be a Teacher

Once you get old enough, you start to develop a perspective about how life's random puzzle pieces have come to connect. Some pieces attach by sheer force, some settle gradually; but there are others whose fit becomes apparent only after the passage of years.

Now I was fortunate enough to be hired as a high school teacher at age 23. I had proceeded from high school to college to a fifth year credential program, and duly employed---there I stood, facing five daily classes populated with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. School's basics were firmly in my grasp: know your subject matter; manage timing; keep track of everyone. It was the ineffable that I had yet to learn.

When I first went to write on the board, I remember wishing a miracle would occur, transforming my printy script into an elegant, disciplined, right-slanting hand. It never happened. In fact, the whole disciplined elegance factor eluded me. But I do know I felt an immediate and deep concern if I saw anyone resting his head on his desk, and very quickly I found just such a one in my afternoon class. What to do? My own brother was in another high school at the time. I knew he was involved in cartooning for the school paper. But I didn't have the maturity yet to try to knit my student into the school's fabric through activities. I just decided to keep approaching the desk-rester in a low-key manner; I presumed he probably viewed me as an over-zealous do-gooder. If he even noticed my efforts.

In that era there was room to act more creatively. I inquired of my department head and learned I could remove this boy from class and instead carry him as an independent study student during my conference period. The boy agreed to the arrangement. We moved forward without asking his parents--it never even occurred to me, again due to my inexperience. We met daily in the English department office. We read literature of alienation, like THE PAINTED BIRD by Jerzy Kozinski and Kafka's METAMORPHOSIS. We talked about our readings; he wrote more and more and he attended faithfully. Somehow we finished that year together. He was a sophomore, though I was but a freshman as a teacher.

The boy moved on into his junior and senior years, joining in school plays, revealing a sensitivity to art and a wonderful sense of humor. Once I asked, "How do you memorize all those lines for a play?" He replied, "It's really like a conversation. And if you think of it that way, it's very easy to recall all the lines in order." After he graduated, we lost track.

Close to fifteen years later, my cartooning brother, who grew up to become a special effects creator, phoned me to say he was working with a man who spoke highly of me and seemed to know me very well. It turned out to be this very same student! Today if you google Spectral Motion in Glendale, you will see the powerhouse work and boundless creativity of Mike and Mary Elizalde. They run one of the top creature shops in the movie industry. Mike has been nominated for an Academy Award. But more significant is his generosity and willingness to mentor other young artists.

Mike came to speak to two of my classes last week. He brought along a gifted young illustrator, Alex Palma, who crafts images to show to producers who have word-ideas of what they want. Many of my current students struggle academically and emotionally. Mike spoke to them about how to pursue work in the arts with a directness tinged by neither a cloying or "bootstraps" tone. He was modeling sincerity and respect for others. It was then that I realized how pivotal Mike had been in my own career development. I finally understood that he had taught me the ineffables, my own sacred trio: reach out to others; meet the students where they are and go forward; and be kind. It is so simple. But it takes all the time we have to master it.