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.