Monday, December 28, 2009

My Island Discovery

I used to be very easily defeated by car troubles. I felt personally affronted, even persecuted, by the nail in the tire, the blinking light on the dashboard, the heart-thudding engine glug on that morning I was racing late for work. Some years back when I was learning to fend for myself, I answered the call of the coupon from Island Tire. This garage turned out to be more than a tire warehouse; for me it's been a lifesaver.

Maybe it was the time I needed tires for the Honda. I was wary about buying them anyplace because I had no confidence or tire prowess. I just had a generalized anxiety disorder regarding Tire Salesmen, men I pictured in blocky white shirts with skinny black ties, hornrims, and the clairvoyance to read my ignorance. But I compelled myself to visit Island. Here I met the man known only as JOSE (so it says in red on his business card). I was nervous about joining his "tire club," which was some kind of enrollment that offers a fixed rate for oil changes and tune-ups. "Scam," whispered one little voice on the left. "Desperate," whispered the other, more sotto voce on the right. I went with the right and there began a regular, very beneficial automotive relationship. It wasn't a scam. It was a solution!

Just before Thanksgiving Day my battery died on Foothill Blvd. Luckily I was curbside, but unluckily I could not get through to AAA. So I walked down to Island and located Jose. I explained my little tragedy and he took time immediately to drive me over to the car, charge it, and then replace the battery back at the shop. Yes, to the world it's just a car battery, but to me his assistance represents community as well. It's a giant comfort to know you can solve a pesky problem with the help of someone reliable. As I drove my functioning car onto Colorado Blvd., I thanked the universe for allowing me to problem-solve in Pasadena.

I have steered a couple of lady friends to Island. One of them told me she had been to Paradise and she was very happy with it. For a moment I thought this was an allusion to mature romance, but then she gushed about Jose. My Jose! Call the place what you wish. Island Tire just may be that oasis we all need on occasion.

Island Tire
2754 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena 91107

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Day at the Opera & the Weeks of Preparation

Usually by October 1, the art teacher and I have written an elaborate application to the Los Angeles Opera in hopes of being selected a school who will attend one of two full-on matinees. In the past years the process has been rigorous. A pair of original lessons adhering to visual arts and language standards must pass scrutiny of the opera education department. This year the stakes were even higher. The program was forced to reduce its matinees to one. In addition, funds for school buses have nearly vanished.

We called this project, "From Alhambra to Seville," invoking our town and "The Barber of Seville." We researched commedia dell'arte and decided to create a lesson based on opera buffa and the life of Rossini. We met our deadline. Then we chewed our nails and by Halloween assumed that we had been eliminated. However, due to a glitch, we learned belatedly that we WERE indeed chosen once again. This opera competition is not kids' stuff. The teachers who submit applications hail from all over our county, representing private and public schools. They teach AP, average, and at-risk youth; humanities, music, foreign language, English, drama, and beyond. It's stellar to be accepted, and from that point, the onus to prepare students to experience an opera and comport themselves properly is dead serious.

The Los Angeles Opera and its patrons throw their support into the annual project of bringing young people to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This year, on December 8, an energetic, professional ensemble of vocalists, dancers, musicians, lighting and set designers presented a gorgeous three-hour production to a full house. Seats which ordinarily cost from 60$ to 260$ were donated so that Los Angeles students could steep themselves in live opera. For many kids this was THE field trip of the year. We live in such strapped times that we can no longer take the occasional cultural outing for granted. The elegance of opera-going was theirs for that single day. Will it be remembered? I vote yes.

But allow me to pull back the curtain and reveal just what it takes to make such a field trip happen. I confess to a certain queasy ambivalence this year when I learned that our lesson plan had made the grade. It is very nerve-wracking to take 30 continuation school students out to a ritzy institution. All my fears about profanity, fights, inebriation, tagging, or just small stuff like quashing conversations in the house or losing children rose up like condos replacing bungalows in Pasadena. But then I steeled myself.

The art teacher and I marched through November with our preparations. We played arias. We got composition books so that the kids could arrange all their handouts and design commonplace books. Our students prefer to create a product. Theorizing and reveling in abstractions are proven ways to shut down their interest, so we have to inject the color, the texture, the fun of the pageantry of opera. (In past years we have watched MOULIN ROUGE prior to La Boheme, or built shoebox dioramas of torture rooms for Tosca.) We also had to ready the students to be attentive for our guest from the speakers' bureau, a mentally supple gent named Mr. Cadman, who brought along his personal powerpoint-boombox equipage. After Mr. Cadman spoke, we had the kids write him thank you notes, because good manners make the world go 'round.

The week before the field trip, we distributed the permission slips and then chased those down. We dunned the students regarding modest attire, about not looking hoochy, about not wearing hats, and about relinquishing electronics. This was the toughest part because these guys are committed to ipods and phones. (We actually put each item in a baggy, labeled it, and locked it in the office during the hours we were away from campus.) On December 8, we met for breakfast in the art teacher's room. We reviewed how it would go yet again. We now had four adults and 27 students. A short bus ride away we found ourselves spilling out onto the Music Center Plaza. "Miss, you're looking all tense," one boy chided me. By 10:10 a.m. the doors opened, and schools of teenagers swam under the glittering chandeliers on the way to their seats. Precisely at 11 a.m., the familiar overture rose, and the students remembered that this was their cue to fall silent. My students were actually polite and attentive. They watched the production, and I watched them, just as it should be. Twenty-seven plus four adults returned by bus. And just as it should, it all worked out. Bravo!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Remembering Avery

By mid-December the ginkgos lining south Allen Avenue toward the Huntington Library are dropping their leaves, so many yellow potato chips settling beneath each tree. Comes the showy end of another cycle of a landscaping staple in our neighborhoods: the ginkgo, whose nascent green ushers spring, whose fan-shaped leaves quietly deepen over summer, whose gold steals in during October and November. (We'll forgive the trees' smelly autumn phase.) By Thanksgiving, I always wonder, "When will the ginkgo leaves drop this year?" It's the cold that helps them shed: they were just there, and now, dramatically, they fall away from us. I love the ginkgos. When their time is nigh, we stop momentarily to heed their arresting beauty.

You may sense where this story is leading. It's a quiet story of two friends who met and collaborated for a season. Do you know Sue Hodson, the curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library? Sue is a learned, ebullient jill-of-all-trades at the library. I benefited from her American literature expertise when she guided me during last year's BIG READ collaboration with our school. Sue's most recent project is "Central Avenue and Beyond: The Harlem Renaissance in Los Angeles." This study is part of the "Dreams Fulfilled" series, which for the last two years has examined cultural contributions of African-Americans. Close to Halloween, I visited Sue. (Sue and her staff are kind enough to collect pencils and pens for my students.) She gave me an insider's tour of the current exhibit. In her lively discourse, she connected the many letters, photos, movie posters, and other significant artifacts from the 1920s to 1950s, the period of our own western Harlem Renaissance. I couldn't imagine where this trove came from.

Sue explained that she had worked for the past year with Mr. Avery Clayton, inheritor of more than 600 boxes of cultural mementos and landmark documents. Avery's mother, Mayme Clayton, had been a college librarian for forty years, always with a collector's eye for Black history. Mrs. Clayton haunted garage sales, acquiring books, periodicals, correspondence, and art from numerous sources, sensing that she was constructing an important collection. Upon Mrs. Clayton's death, Avery decided to keep that collection intact and seek a means of cataloging and utilizing the items for public appreciation. Avery had been an art teacher and artist. He was able to secure an old courthouse in Culver City that will become museum to the Clayton collection. Sue marveled at Avery's resourcefulness and his ability to draw a dedicated cadre of volunteers. She intimated that accruing the works was his mother's mission, but that bringing the collection to the public eye was Avery's. The exhibit at the Huntington was easily nine months in the making. Sue works fastidiously. She is a generous collaborator and she loves to learn from every new partnership. She thought the world of Avery. The Clayton exhibition opened on October 24 in the West Hall of the Huntington Library.

Avery Clayton died suddenly while hosting Thanksgiving at his home in Culver City. He was 62 years old. There is a wonderful photo by Don Milici of Sue and Avery studying documents attached to the article, "A Burgeoning New Library Puts the Fine Art of Collaboration into Practice," by Traude Gomez-Rhine. It is a stunning loss to have Avery leave us just as we were getting to know his work. Drive past the ginkgos on south Allen Avenue and take yourself to "Central Avenue." You will see the dream of Avery Clayton fulfilled.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My Dinner with Pat

About two weeks ago I met my pal Pat Atkins for some evening fun. We used to teach high school together. Pat has since retired, but her avocation is that of character actress. In fact, I'll bet you've seen Pat in Nestle or Hallmark commercials. She's the kindly matriarch who beams over a cup of tea or whose face floats out of the greeting card. I was teasing Pat about a recent job.

"What role are you playing?"
"Now what do you think I'd be cast as?" Pat purred in her distinctive contralto.
"Let's see...a grandmother?"
"You guessed it, kiddo."

But Pat is genuinely grateful for every job. She's one of the most active, vibrant women you could hope to meet, always up for theatre or a foreign film or an artwalk. I had told Pat I am dating myself in Pasadena, and she replied, "Is that what it's called? I've been doing that for 35 years!"

We agreed to meet at Daisy Mint. This is a small quirky Asian restaurant that fills up rapidly. Therefore, whoever arrived at 5:25 was to snag a table. Pat captured the flag and we ordered. I chose the spring rolls, which are little hand salads the size of small ice cream cones. The chicken satay, some vegetable dish, the green tea steeping in a glass pot--all of it came together for us as we caught up. The surprise element was a table visit from my old friends Sally and Tracy. They just materialized, and we started talking about the food drive at a local public art spot, known as The Fork in the Road, near Huntington Hospital. Now it may be that I don't get out enough, but I get the biggest bang out of the occasional small-town confluence that is Pasadena. This was just rich, a little cascade of friends in a cozy public spot, people laughing inside, twilight deepening outside.

Pat and I needed to get to Jameson Brown Coffee Roasters by 7 p.m. We are among a growing number of fanatics for the public readings staged by Parson's Nose Theatre. About once every six weeks, this South Pasadena troupe of actors gives a lively reading in a nearby coffee house. Admission is by reservation. Donations are encouraged, but the audience is not browbeaten. Instead, you find yourself so grateful for intelligent hilarity, time after time, that you donate because it is right and meet so to do. Lance Davis and Mary Chalon lead a fine, rapier-witted crew of professional actors. These people interpret classics with zeal and spirit and audacity. I can't say enough good about them. (I can say that they have a production of THE IMAGINARY INVALID coming to the Pacific Asia Museum on weekends from January 15-February 12. Tickets may be ordered online.) Their work is an absolute delight for all mortals. You need not be a theatre geek to appreciate their talent.

And so, thus went my dinner with Pat and all its commensurate antics. We are heading to Parson's Nose at the coffee house again on December 19 at 7 p.m. for a reading of A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

Daisy Mint: 1218 Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

Jameson Brown Coffee Roasters: 260 N. Allen Ave., Pasadena

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Quare Jean

"Jean, are you quare like Miss Alice?" asked my cousin Joe some years back. Joe was a trucker from North Carolina, a genial, knobby-knuckled connection to my mother's generation. Joe and his wife Genevieve (pronounced Genevee) had driven (of course!) cross-country as retirees to sightsee and visit a few of us western kin.

His question took me aback. Miss Alice was my beloved granny, born in 1889 up over the border in Virginia. She spent most of her life in a small burg in the North Carolina Sandhills, Aberdeen. Joe and Genevee had not only known Miss Alice for decades; they even knew Miss Emma, our granny's mother who died in 1952! This family history sped through my mind like a reliable dsl connection. Yes, I remembered both those ladies were quare, and today I can say that I am probably quare too.

What is quareness, Californians may ask? To me it means being a bit eccentric, independent-minded without the stridency, maybe even a little offbeat or unusual. In Miss Alice's case, I can think back to a few particulars. If she prepared a fried chicken supper, she would always, always serve herself the back. Not the thigh, not the drumstick, never the breast: only the back. Now you may feel this was her sacrifice borne of surviving the Depression. But habit it became, and only much later on did another cousin explain to me that there on the chicken back lay the two finest, tiniest filets for the most discriminating of diners. I also recall that Miss Alice was an inveterate walker. She never learned to drive. But she liked to go to town regularly for her groceries, and she hoofed it at least three miles well into her seventies. She'd loop her black pocketbook over her forearm and cross her arms for the walk. Trotting alongside her, we children would bat at our heads, complaining that the sucker bugs (deerflies) were biting us viciously. She'd just nod left to right and observe, "Y'all must be too sweet because they don't bother me at'all." Miss Alice had a neighbor across Bethesda Road who mowed her yard. Yankees believed his name to be Garfield, but Miss Alice pronounced it, "Gaw-field Wilson." Some child had the bright idea, "Granny, why don't you marry Gaw-field Wilson? He seems very useful." Her reply? "Now what would I do with a man?" Even though we did not understand rhetorical questions, we knew it best not to prod further. And Miss Alice could twine her legs around each other when she sat down to fan herself, remarking, "Ooo-ee, it's hot'here!" I admired that odd compact way of sitting a spell.

If you want to learn more about being quare, I recommend the essay, "The Quare Gene," from the book Somehow Form a Family by Tony Earley. Mr. Earley grew up in North Carolina. His deceptively simple, lambent writing style carries me back to the place and time of grannies and deerflies and country cooking. "The Quare Gene" explores the meaning and emotion of similar archaic terms, like peaked (peak-ed, meaning ill) or pallet (bedding arranged on the floor for sleeping), words once naturally woven into our Southern lives. Little by little these words are becoming display case curios. As our nation is changed by mass media and technology, words like poke ( a sack) or even pocketbook become consigned to increasingly ironic use. Mr. Earley believes, "...that each individual word functions as a type of gene, bearing with it a small piece of the specific information that makes us who we are, and tells us where we have been..." If this can be so, that language connects us to our personal history, then cousin Joe was actually a messenger delivering a reminder to me. I had almost forgotten that I was right quare until he pointed it out.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

They Came. They Saw. They Et.

Last Wednesday our school hosted its annual Thanksgiving Feast. This is a traditional event that grows from mere mention in October to trumpet blasts from on high by the fourth week of November. It's a time of great anticipation, and once again to my immense relief we pulled it off. I'd estimate we served 200+ dinners to students and guests.

For reasons of poverty or other social woes, a number of our students always go without the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. However, we see it as our job to normalize kids' experiences as best we can in the short time we connect with them. The Thanksgiving preparation process is ideal for that. Let's face it: everyone can be helpful if given a chance and the encouragement to do so. We just have to devise the ways to elicit their help.

I was this year's Thanksgiving Lady, the person who makes sure the event happens. In my usual circular style, I needed to enlist gobs of helpers. The staff is fine. They sign up to contribute and cook volumes of food: nine turkeys; 50 pounds of corn; 60+ pounds of mashed potatoes; rolls, salad, gravy, dressing. We also asked the students to bring dessert. They really came through. Loads of pies and brownies and cakes, all daubed with whipped cream. A bonus this year was a former parent who has an angel's touch in the community. She scored us three salads from Souplantation, a tray of mashed potatoes, and three more turkeys from Fresh and Easy. This all made for a great presentation. For the students, especially the boys, it's the quantity of food offered that thrills them. In the whole buildup to this day we kind of mythologize the meal. Its bounty addresses cravings that a lot of our kids conceal in daily life.

Even though I find organizing the dinner nerve-wracking, there is a part I like. That part is the metamorphosis. It's a human metamorphosis, wherein the individuals gradually merge to form a single working organism. Even the more obdurate ones can come around (the difficult boy who made me a poster listing the helpers because he could 'bomb' or stylize the heading; the too-cool-for-school kids who brought pies and waited patiently in the buffet line...). The two days prior to the dinner ramp up with activity. Girls who typically apply makeup in class carefully arranged buckets of greens from my yard for our pilgrim tables. Boys who cross their arms and stare when I ask them to start their assignments moved tables and set up chairs. Detail kids wrapped utensils in napkins and tied them smartly and set out placecards and collected leaves for decor.

We showcased this meal at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. It's always a crapshoot in continuation as to who will show up for any event. But sure enough, the line from the science room where the buffet sat steaming snaked down the hall by 10:20. We staff donned our black aprons. The nurse, counselors, teachers, office ladies, even a board member all stood poised with ladles and tongs. The runners angled themselves toward the exit for the refills. For a moment I stood in the empty center of the horseshoe and pretended I was Gustavo Dudamel at Disney Hall. And then on my signal, the organism pulsed and its every function came to life. Dinner was served.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Push for '"Precious"

About a month ago one of the students was explaining his tattoos to me. He showed me his mom's name, his grandma's name, and various curlicues. But I was curious about a delicately scripted PUSH on his wrist. He translated it for me: "Pray Until Something Happens." I thought about that later, because although I recall being taught to pray for God's solution, I just assumed it might not necessarily be my kind of solution. Maybe Pray Until Something Happens is another riff on my childhood theology. I just hadn't looked at it that way.

Then I took myself on a date to see the fine, skin-pricking movie, "Precious:Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire." Talk about praying until something happens. The characters in this film may not overtly pray, but they surely endure until something happens--the somethings that are both expected and unexpected in an abrasive, treacherous cityscape. Precious Jones is an unloved, functionally illiterate, pregnant teen plodding through the dreariest existence imaginable in Harlem, 1987. The opening pulls you right down into gray-black-white grittiness with a slash of red provided by the titles. (You can trace that red throughout the story if you like to look for color motifs.) I admit that I was prepared to find Precious repellent before I ever met her. But I grew intrigued with her stoicism, her carefully tended bangs, the follow-through that I know it takes to enroll in an alternative school. Certainly, Precious has little reason to be resilient. And yet I started to root early on for Precious not to have the tenacity beat out of her. Precious is no angel--she clocks several characters in the course of the film. But she has this life force that will not be extinguished.

There is a great New York Times Magazine article, "The Audacity of Precious," (Lynn Hirschberg, 10/25/09) where director Lee Daniels is profiled. Daniels greeted an audience at the Cannes Film Festival announcing, "I'm a little homo, I'm a little Euro, and I'm a little ghetto," and the crowd roared approval at his precis. Daniels says he likes to cast comedians and singers as film actors, and he really is onto something in "Precious." Mo'Nique tears the roof off in the final soliloquy. That speech has to be the most riveting, profoundly painful, shocking statement in a movie already loaded with human suffering. Lenny Kravitz warmly provides the convincing male anchor of the ensemble. Mariah Carey, at first unrecognizable, is as plain and wryly world-weary as a lot of us are when we labor to make a system beat with a human heart. If you check out the article and its accompanying video, it will enrich your understanding of what went into this film. The film's potency lies in its ability to coax identification from disparate viewers. For example, many's the time in my own teaching job when I think to myself, "Try harder, Jean. This child was once somebody's baby." And then I read Mr. Lee Daniels his own self says, "Even the most evil person was somebody's baby one time..." Yes, he is referring to the character Mary Jones, but for us it's exponentially larger than that. When a monster of a mother can plaintively cry, "Who gonna love ME?", we all need to think about whom we have loved and who may yet need our love in all its myriad forms.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


For the past few weeks I have been doing some weekly volunteer work at Club 21 in Pasadena. This is an organization dedicated to serving families and youngsters who have Down syndrome. It's a clearinghouse, an education resource, a place of comfort for families, and a social nexus. There is a queen bee at the center of this buzzing hive, and her name is Nancy Litteken.

Who doesn't know Nancy? If you don't, you should! Nancy is that person you want to sit beside at a conference because she grasps what's going on intuitively, but she has a deliciously impish sense of humor that keeps you alert at all times. As with many warm,dynamic people, Nancy does not appear to have much reason to be such a crackerjack. She will tell you that she was a hearing child born to deaf parents. Her first language was Sign, and when you converse with her, her hands are still flying today. Nancy once told me her parents would take her to the Hollywood Bowl to listen to music because they thought that was what Hearing People did. Nancy grew up to teach and work with hearing-impaired and special needs families. There is, of course, a pretzel logic to her life's preparation. Eleven years ago her own daughter was born with Down syndrome. As Nancy began to search for therapies and resources to benefit her own family, she discovered that our Los Angeles region was strikingly devoid of comprehensive support. What to do about that?

With no discernible promise of success, Nancy hatched the tiny egg of ingenuity. She would raise a nonprofit organization to aid families with Down syndrome! And why not? She had no previous experience, so she never was rationally nervous about the undertaking. Through the miracle that is Nancy, Pasadena Covenant Church agreed to house an office, classroom space,a baby play area,and a private counseling room. Nancy favors a little p'zazz, so she chose the sporty, insouciant name CLUB 21, in honor of the little chromosome that begs to differ. Nancy and her devoted circle of friends have made both a haven and a cutting-edge lab where schoolwork is adapted, where parent meetings are held, where teachers are trained, and where questions are always welcome. Hugs, tears, and laughter are dispensed at every turn.

Earlier this month, the combined efforts of Flintridge Prep Leo Club, Polytechnic students, friends, families, and volunteers hot-housed a walkathon that earned close to $50,000! Nancy's autumn brainchild, recruiting credentialed teachers to volunteer as reading tutors, is just winding down its first ten-week session. After a December hiatus, we tutors will begin again in January. We plan to offer our services until the end of the school year, drawing in more volunteers and expanding the program. Check out and see what Nancy hath wrought.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Valentine for Jimmy Santiago Baca

Those of you who know me are aware of my challenging and poignant job as a teacher at a continuation high school. My students are mostly boys, not keen on reading, more than disaffected by a whole lot of things in life. But god love them, they are usually fairly tolerant of my attempts to bring academic order to our school lives. (At our school the kids address me by the honorific MISS.) As one fella said, when I was trying to gain his attention, "Oh, go ahead, Miss, teach. Do your little thing."

A couple of years ago I was galvanized by reading a paperback called A PLACE TO STAND, by Jimmy Santiago Baca. This book was the answer to my prayer, because I needed something substantial to read with my kids that would speak to them on a genuine level. The book contains innumerable harsh life experiences, explicit language, and a verity laced with crime and punishment and survival. All this fits my students' milieu. Trouble is, if you are a learner reading at second to fifth grade level, but you are a young adult,even a great book like this might be beyond you. Still, I had to have this book. I wrote a little grant and purchased a class set the first year we tried it.

I have to say that in class I read the entire book out loud, but it is a guided reading. The students read along with me, and we build up our stamina so that we can concentrate on the story for up to 30 minutes a class period. My students may not have experienced that childhood luxury of being read to. In fact, one of them remarked to me, "You know what, Miss? I'm gonna get my diploma and then open an after-school homework center and hire you to read out loud!" I replied that I would dig it and that I might be in the market for some part-time work one of these days. But it is the potency of the narrative that hooks them. How many times have they told me that they have never read a whole book until this one? It's so important to me that they read, that they feel invited to that table of readers and not hang back in the shadows of the excluded. (And it doesn't hurt that A PLACE TO STAND is highly cinematic in spots.)

One of my old teaching chums used to say she reserved time in class for preaching, and I do that too. When I preach, I always tell the kids I am that other mother they never knew they had. This particular book is rife with redemption but never in either a saccharine or lachrymose tone. Instead, this book is about LITERACY--about how we all can release life's pent-up emotion through thinking and reading and writing. I couldn't have asked for better preaching material had I devised it myself.

One small problem is that these books vanish. Everyone asks to take them home and we don't have enough to go around. In fact, I had to order ten more from Amazon for this quarter's go round. But I don't feel like I'm paying fare to Charon to enter the Land of the Dead. Far from it. This is my investment in our vida together.

Walk Therapy

One of my "hobbies" is walking with various pals in Pasadena. Out of serendipity, I have certain routes particular to certain friends. The other night I met one friend on the steps of our beloved City Hall. Pasadena City Hall is majestic at any hour, but come twilight and on into evening, the lighting beckons solely to you. (Go look at this landmark on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve or on your birthday and see if you can feel the connection to something sublime, that you may be folded into the strength of its glowing stateliness. It gives me the shivers, I tell you.) Anyway, from the City Hall steps on Garfield, we walk west on Union into Old Town.

Ladies walking = ladies talking. We are sorting out our work lives, and from there we segue into interpersonal psychology. We'll walk a loop to the fringe of Old Town and then east again along Colorado Blvd. The shopping district isn't exactly teeming, but it's populous enough that you should pay attention, especially at the scramble intersections. I think it is the patterning of walking and talking with a friend in a familiar setting that helps you calm down. Some of my workdays feel so electrifying that I need that kinesthetic logic applied like a patch.

Another walking partner happens to be my neighbor, and we meet predawn twice a week. We are mole people. In fact, until we started volunteering at the same place, I had not seen her in daylight for ages. I go out onto my street at about 5:10 a.m where we will meet. Nothing moves. And then, straight out of Sherlock Holmes, my friend materializes; I always get a kick out of her spontaneous generation. We have a circuit that we walk in about 30 minutes' time. There are topics that reflect our passage of blocks: the greeting; recounting recent past events; upcoming/ongoing projects; maybe some ranting or rending of garments; some possible solutions; the benediction until next time. Again, it's the pattern we inhabit that helps us comb out our tangled brains.

And, I have one more longtime friend with whom I have shared many adventures and even more walks. Our usual walk therapy starts at Cal Tech. You can park your car on Wilson (unless there are filming restrictions) and cross campus by the Broad Building. Cal Tech must be the brainiest place we could ever pick to stroll, but it's benign, it's quiet, and it's welcoming every time. The surrounding camphor-lined neighborhoods feel like you're walking into a Ray Bradbury story (and I mean this in the fondest way). We even make up our own speculations about the lovely homes, their warmly lit windows egging us on. On these walks we discuss our dilemmas, the sad and funny events of life (which are often one and the same), social faux pas we have committed, job challenges, travel goals, you name it. We walk 45 minutes to an hour, depending on whose dog has come along. Really, the exercise is secondary to the solace and laughter that come from these rambles.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Chinese Foot Massage

Awhile ago I took myself on a date in Arcadia. A friend had told me about her visit to Swan Spa on Baldwin Avenue. She cautioned me not to feel ill at ease when I entered a darkened narrow room lined with upholstered chairs, that this was where the treatment took place. The workers were gregarious, even though they spoke mainly Chinese and I all English. Immediately after they placed me in a chair and put my feet into a bucket of water, they gestured for me to move. It turns out the first 30 minutes of massage take place as you sit on an ottoman facing the chair. No disrobing! The masseuse practically assaults you, kneading, pummeling, and slapping you along the shoulders, back, buttocks, and arms. Just lean forward. In fact, it is the just about the most invigoration a stockstill person can experience. During the massage my anxiety gradually quelled and I started to appreciate what this $18 hour might accomplish.

After the back massage I was asked to sit again conventionally. The plasma TV blared steady coverage of local news in China. Now it was time to roll up my pants legs to knee level and get down to business. My masseuse tugged and pressed each toe. I asked him the correlation of toe to body part, and he replied succinctly, "Head." Or "Eye." Or "Ear." He massaged my feet and calves for a good twenty minutes. Another attendant brought me several cups of drinking water during the process. The treatment was bracing, almost utilitarian, but never fawning. I practically felt like marching to the cashier's desk with new resolution borne of improved circulation. My appointment lasted an hour.

On the way home, I decided to stop at SUSHIYA (sushi for less at 2525 E Foothill, #2, Pasadena). This modest cozy spot in a strip mall is indeed teeny, but it is economical. If you are by yourself, you don't have to feel like an odd duck sitting at the bustling counter. The sushi chef will lean right over into you and ask your choices, his tone staccato but good-natured. There is a full offering of sushi and sashimi, but the dish I liked best is the Jasmine Hand Wrap. The chef rapidly constructs a cone from a seeded Japanese tortilla, stuffs it with mild chopped salmon filling, and brandishes it from his hand to yours. It is one of the more expensive items, about $4.50, but it is a must. After all, dating yourself is grounds for a treat.

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Dating Yourself is a Stretch

Granted, the metaphor of dating oneself may wear thin if you start to think, heck, this is all about spending too much time alone! But living for all of us has to be about widening our perceptions and stretching our capacities. There are plenty of instances in life where every one of us finds herself alone. But I discovered a way to be alone together at Pasadena City College.

Now PCC's extended learning program ( offers all manner of non-credit classes. My favorite turns out to be Power Stretch, which meets in a dance studio room on campus every Saturday at 8 a.m. For one hour twenty-five (or so) adults move through a series of flexibility exercises. Equipment is minimal: loose clothing and a yoga mat if you like. Or borrow one of the mats provided. Also on loan to each student is a green stretching strap. If the equipment is minimalist, native ability is even less. Yes, you can do this physical activity! I have very little physical aptitude. I still recall how my fifth grade teacher selected me to stand in the middle of the circle for dodge ball. Fleetingly I gloated over the honor until it dawned on me that she knew I was too slow to participate as a ball thrower and would do better as a target. But power stretch is a different story. I can follow the directions, I can execute the movements, I can calm down, and I can be competent in the class. That is why I enjoy it so much.

Instructor Karen Harris is a personal trainer and kickboxing teacher by trade. She runs Saturday boot camp, stretch class, and air kickboxing. Our class is really about relaxation, but it takes you a while to figure that out when you first join,especially if your balance is wanting. Karen always reminds us, "The goal is to move through class with your eyes closed, getting into a meditative state." But of course it's a challenge to close your eyes that much without turning tottery. Karen leads us from standing willowy movements to stepping ("These are not lunges,") to floor exercises that culminate in leg and hip stretches courtesy of the green strap. You really can connect with your inner Gumby over the weeks, and any competition you'd sense is only within yourself. The class winds down with some yogic stretches and a return to the upright stretch. Karen always congratulates us and exhorts us to go on to a great day. Maybe it is the synovial fluid coursing through your joints that makes you believe it is indeed possible.

A class like this one gives an opportunity for think-time. I've heard that some people actually use physical movement to accelerate their problem-solving process. Maisie Dobbs comes to mind, the English detective in the same-named series by Jacqueline Winspear, who always takes a stroll when she faces an especially puzzling dilemma. Anyway, I like to walk myself down to PCC for Power Stretch and then walk back home to luxuriate in my thinking too.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

How to Date Yourself in Pasadena

When my marriage went kaput, I found myself with a whole new concept of time to manage. At first I devoted this cache of free time to making friends with the Law & Order team. After all, I discovered, they are available on several channels at all hours every day of the week. Elliot and Olivia, Goren and Eames, Fin and Munch--theirs was a comforting reliability during the many hours I found myself alone. However, they were actually only doing their jobs. They are tv detectives whose shifts have their limits. My attachment to them was illusory at best. I knew I was going to have to wean myself and face my brave new world. I decided I could begin by dating myself.

Dating yourself is a no-brainer. All tenets of social dating apply here, perhaps even more so. You have to be kind to yourself or it won't be enjoyable. You need to make a plan as to how you'll be spending your time and your money. You'll want to decide how to dress for your date. And there is no need to feel self-conscious. If you want to be aloof, play it cool. If you feel sentimental, release those emotions. If you are feeling like you want an educational outing, no justifications required. You're taking your own self places now and you get to be the boss!

At first dating myself felt tentative, non-committal. I might be walking my little terrier at Cal Tech, admiring stately arches or discovering the monkey frieze on the side of the genetic research building. Or I might be exiting All Saints after 7:30 a.m. Sunday service, gazing over our magnificent City Hall in a beatific morning light. I might be walking past the transients who drink their Sunday coffee on Euclid and discuss the reclamation of gray water. Gradually, I began to realize that all about me in Pasadena lay beauty and architectural integrity and humor. It was up to me: seek it out, enjoy it, and appreciate it!

One of my favorite Friday dates is going to a movie at the Academy Theatre on Colorado Blvd. You drive down Catalina past the ingenious little housing courts, past the planetary society (whose building is still for sale) and turn right into the free parking lot. You walk past the redolent Cobbler Factory on the way to the movie theatre. After 6 pm the ticket costs $3, and the movies are slightly aged, but who cares? I know the hot dogs are sold for a buck, but I can't seem to mix a hot dog with cinema, so I confess: I might smuggle Twizzlers or Tropical Dots in my purse. The Academy was filled with plenty of other independent daters the time I went to see The Visitor, and no one noticed when I shed a few tears during Richard Jenkins' eloquent confessional speech about the state of his spirit before meeting Tariq. When the movie is over at the Academy, if it's a late one, you almost have the sense that last one out switches off the lights. You stroll back to your car and head home. Soon enough it will be time for another outing.