Thursday, December 23, 2010


If you haven't read HELEN OF PASADENA, by Lian Dolan, treat yourself to a sweet truffle of a novel. For many reasons it is a delicious local confection; and one is its reference to a Korean day spa, which echoes our Olympic Spa right here in Koreatown. I just visited the Olympic with two of my daughters to celebrate their December birthdays. Now there is a worthwhile destination.

Olympic Spa caters to LADIES ONLY. This means the only men to be found are the two parking attendants in the locked courtesy lot out back. Prior to your arrival, it is wisest to book reservations and treatments. The online menu displays spa services, including facials, massages, soaks, and assorted combinations. My girls and I opted for PURE BLISS, a 90-minute series of scrubs, masks, massage, and hair treatments. It's reasonable to spend a period of two to three hours at the spa.

My younger girl and I took the Gold and Red Lines to Hollywood & Vine station. Older daughter fetched us from there and we wended our way down Western into K-town. Only the rain and Christmas traffic slowed us, so we didn't quite honor the 30-minutes-early arrival that Olympic suggests. If you haven't been to this spa before, know that once you leave your shoes and belongings in the lockers, it's a concertedly nude place. You are issued a pair of towels and a hospital gown, but for the most part it's jaybird time. Don't fret. It's actually very comfortable, like entering an exclusive club where you never knew you held membership. Shower first: it's required. Then if time permits before your appointment, you can soak in the several large tubs or bask in the saunas.

Each patron is issued a wrist-coil with a number. That number is your ID. When the uniformed employee (in black bra and underpants) calls your number, your treatment begins. Do everything she commands. You will lie on a Burberry-print table like a big baby to be scrubbed, rinsed, manipulated. When she tells you to get up and shower again, go do it. When she tells you to shift or turn, comply quietly. You are an obedient baby filled with the peace that passes all understanding.

After PURE BLISS, the girls and I crossed the room to the heated napping floor. This is a jade-tile stage stocked with cotton coverlets and softer yoga blocks for pillows. It is a murmuring or silence zone where we just stretched out, glowing pinkly in our gowns. We must have rested there for another thirty minutes.

When you feel ready, you dress again for the world, blow dry your hair, and deposit the gowns and towels. Hand the small 15-20% gratuity envelopes to the desk staff as you exit. The parking men retrieve the car, and life as we know it resumes. Birthdays and birthday suits again next year...

Olympic Spa
3915 W. Olympic Blvd. (enter on Norton)
Los Angeles 90019
9 am to 10 pm

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How I Met My Mortgage

Where do I start with the saga of my mortgage application? What a lamb I was at the outset; it's a wonder I am not a lambchop today. Last May I began with what we call the pre-approval phase.

Squaring up records and information is one of life's harder tasks for me. I never feel adept at organizing data. Locating and faxing forms mutates into a vast, ever-disturbing moil of dark symbolism for me. But isn't self-scrutiny supposed to be good? Shining that antiseptic light of day onto the shadows of your fiscal behavior? Yet I just HATE collating pay stubs, verifications of employment, bank statements, tax forms, decrees, licenses, credit card trails. And I'm one of those untidy circular people who frets about any ability to reach precise answers and codify the proof. I freak! (I recall the same unease back in middle school when I had to construct an apron and I could see the gobs of remaining creased yardage lurking beyond the waistband. How would so much fabric fit into the confines of a dainty little garment?) More to the point, how could I assemble what I needed for an ongoing mortgage application when my records and I dwelled in different locations? Many locations, over what became a five-month episode.

In July I located a sweet little cottage in Altadena that I wanted to buy. Danny Schmitz, my thorough, realistic, steadfast real estate agent, guided me through the bidding and purchase. Little did we know that the next eight weeks would be dominated by an extremely difficult-to-acquire mortgage. In August I even took a trip to the Florida Panhandle. Instead of studying oil spill effects, I ruminated over the elusive mortgage.

By Labor Day the mortgage application was floundering. The accommodations of house-sitting and guesting were starting to curdle. My stoic facade was showing stress fractures. By October 1, I started craigslisting apartments for my own nervous recreation. My car had become a mobile Smithsonian, the kind that never had a curator. Here I was again, striding into another school year, sowing my upbeat philosophy to continuation kids. Meanwhile, the exact opposite feeling was furring up my insides like an aging jack-o-lantern's.

Then by serendipity (or was it better business practice?) Danny announced, "You're going to Steven Kim, another mortgage guy." The day of our appointment I gritted my teeth across town, canvas bag crammed with all those odious documents. I realized this office was mid-Wilshire, near the very building where my dad's boss had jumped to his death back when I was a kid. Now I arrived late, hot, crabby about facing more mortgage torture. I met our Mr. Kim. He was a tall, calm man with a kind, heart-shaped face, and when he said, "No worries," I winced, "That's what you think, bub." He also observed, "I know you teachers are very organized," while I was muttering and pitching out forms and folders like so much inventory at Big Lots.

If I hadn't been so absorbed by my own tension, I would have sensed that Steven Kim was going to be my lucky charm. He actually stated it only takes 48 hours to determine whether you are a viable applicant. He got right to work on my case and phoned/texted me frequently to keep me out of that dark bog. Over the next 3.5 weeks, my little army of supporters helped me provide whatever the loan processor needed. Only one time was I about to burst into tears with Steven, but somehow I reined it back.

Fast forward to October 28. Just a few days before, Steven had assured me, "You'll have your house." And I, with a drop of jaundice, replied that I'd believe it when I saw the key. Danny gave me that key. I was able to hand out Halloween candy in my own home. And that simple pleasure was directly due to the efforts of two men who were "just doing the job," bless their hearts.

Danny Schmitz, Keller Williams, 323 691-1307
Steven Kim, Hillside Home Mortgage, 213-591-6300

Sunday, October 10, 2010

NAMI Walk & Union Station Benefit

Last week I had invitations that both relate to homelessness. Not my temporary, seeking-a-house-to-buy homelessness, but the serious kind, often symptomatic of mental illness, poverty, or addiction. Two vaunted organizations, National Alliance on Mental Illness and Union Station, sponsored their annual fundraisers.

NAMI hosts an October walkathon in Santa Monica. A dear couple I know whose daughter suffers schizophrenia invited me to join the walk. The local NAMI chapter rented a yellow school bus for the trip across town. Riders included "consumers" (who have been patients or those who live in board and care) and "supporters" (who are everyone else). Really, it wasn't that apparent as to who was in which category. But it did cause me to think back to my college job as a "mobility trainer," teaching developmentally disabled adults to ride the public bus system. How confounded I felt back then, trying to navigate the RTD as it was called. How do people cope, I have since wondered, when they are disabled or hallucinatory or ill and need to commute?

The NAMI walk drew 3500 participants this year. I walked with my friends' daughter, and we chatted away about spirits, reincarnation, food, geography, and more random topics threaded by the most delicate of skeins. But this young woman with the blue marble eyes is so much healthier now than she was when psychotic breaks ravaged her and her family. Some credit must go to the tireless support and education offered by NAMI volunteers, as well as her extraordinary family who never falters in trying to provide a high quality of life. Mental illness affects all of us to varying degrees. Depression, addiction, organic brain problems: I saw the placards reminding us THERE IS NO HEALTH WITHOUT MENTAL HEALTH. NAMI's work will never end. But the solace and the information for supporters, consumers, and anyone else will be its legacy. The bus rolls again in October, 2011. All are welcome. Check out

That same night I was lucky enough to return to our beloved Pasadena Playhouse for Union Station's 11th annual benefit. Hector Elizondo, the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra, the Yellowjackets and others donated their talents. Entering the Playhouse is its own happy homecoming. But since 1973 Union Station has given succor to those who find themselves in a rough patch or worse. Union Station's services include emergency and transitional shelter, meals, substance and mental illness outreach. The Pasadena Playhouse partnered with Union Station on this twinkly night so that others might not suffer colder nights in times to come. If you ever wish to contribute, there is a range of possibility and participation. See for yourself at

The Glass Menagerie

Dateline: Alhambra, 10/5/10
Twenty-seven students and three teachers headed to the Mark Taper Forum to see a Young Audience Program of "The Glass Menagerie." Beforehand I must confess I sweated out the roll-taking, the body-counting, and the alphabetical lineup to the bus. But hadn't the kids signed my homemade Pledge of Conduct, agreeing to sit for the duration of the play; to carry no gum or contraband; to leave electronics at school? We were ready for our public test of behavior.

Tennessee Williams' play is a family case study, actually more comic than any of us realized despite my enforced classroom reading. Right before the lights dimmed in the theater, I reminded the boy next to me, "If you do fall asleep, that will be me pinching you quietly. Do NOT reflex-punch me because it's just me, your teacher who loves you." "Don't worry, Miss," he replied, "I don't snore," which wasn't the answer I wanted. On to Act I. Thirty minutes into it, two shadowy forms from my class rose and exited left. My shoulders sagged. The Pledge of Conduct was already showing its fault lines! Over the next thirty minutes, two other students stood and headed to the restroom. Now I was breathing hard. Hadn't I hammered theater etiquette properly? I consoled myself until intermission by recalling that only one of the entire class had ever been to live theater. Still...

After intermission I hissed at everyone, "Stay in your seats for the remaining hour!" I have to say, however, that not one of our students hooted or vocalized during any part of the play as other students may have been doing. As one of the girls observed on the way back to the bus, "Miss, making noise was so immature in there!" Thank you, I didn't say aloud. Some remarks are best left with a profound nod.

Field trips are no longer the norm in our fiscally strapped school world. Our principal's resourcefulness pays for the bus and the $50.00 attendance fee. She gilded the day for the students by providing breakfast food at the start and pizza upon our return. Because we are a Title I school (a measure of poverty), transportation and food issues loom over our students all the time. If staff can somehow guarantee some solutions, then we have inducements that make participation all the more logical. These particular kids have to be reassured time and again so that they can become the learners we expect. Teachers have to make every step palpable. We want them to understand that this is their Los Angeles too, that they can enjoy its offerings even moreso if they know how to behave. For any field trip we deliberately assign one teacher to ten students. This time our retired art teacher, current art teacher and I were the ones who watched over the students while they watched the play.

During the two days following "The Glass Menagerie," we had our students write thank you notes. They wrote to the principal, to the home-school coordinator, and to Center Theater Group. I told the kids I would act as censor for quality control; I've gotten 48 notes so far. On Monday we will send some emissaries to deliver the on-site notes. I've just mailed the first wave to CTG. Writing thank you notes is a staple of our field-tripping. It wraps up an event; it provides an informal evaluation; and it exercises our civility. I just want every kid to feel equipped to cope in public situations. Father Greg Boyle is fond of saying, "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." I tag along with, "Nothing builds confidence like a guided cultural experience." It's but one day of school, yes. But I hope it becomes a day they will remember.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Questions

"Miss, don't you ever get mad?"
"Miss, does a crime record hurt you for college?"
"Miss, you're wearing different shoes! Does that mean you got a place to live?"
Every day students ask me the unexpected. Every day I answer as honestly as I can.

We're in our fourth week of school. The familiarity of routine is established. We're a lucky school in that we don't have fights; the staff is always vigilant for any signs of tension or dispute between students so that we can glide in and intervene before something gets hot. Because of this vigilance, we all cultivate techniques for keeping kids engaged. We give them the space to ask and express what may be bottled up inside, even if it's "off-topic" or seemingly disconnected from classwork. Usually our adult responses involve mild banter. Effective teachers have learned not to use sarcasm or threats. Students don't take to either, and in fact they will drift out of our orbit of influence if we are not mindful.

Bringing a student closer to graduation is much harder than you would think. Right now I am very excited about the turnaround of one young man who used to bedevil me no end. Last year I could not convince him to sit all period; he hovered by the window "Looking out, Miss," so regularly that I nicknamed him VENTANA. He scowled at me for that, but gradually he began to smile a little. He's the one who called our word game "Scramble" despite my puny insistence that it be Scrabble. His pacing, the intractability, the attempts to slip out of class that colored last year have all vanished this fall. What happened? Because even our summer school time remained a struggle of wills. I wanted this student to work through an English text and he was hellbent on tracking the World Cup. I know we met in the middle and he wrote me an armload of soccer essays while I tried to step back from hovering and micromanaging.

In our school lexicon we have a small category called "Superseniors." These are kids who are in the fifth year of high school, so the stakes are high. It is expensive to keep Superseniors in the system until they can graduate, but it's even costlier to cut over-18s loose without doing everything possible to help them earn diplomas. Superseniors can be tough to work with--some drag it out and some just have had such a tortured school history that it's a slog to the final credit. The happy news is that some Superseniors rekindle the spark they may have felt in kindergarten. This is what happened with my soccer fan. It was not my doing. It lay hidden within him, and in some inexplicable way, we've gotten to witness the change. This boy is my right-hand man right now. One of my coworkers got him to organize, photograph, and issue the school ID cards. We entrusted him with necessary school tasks and gave him the freedom to move about campus to accomplish them. We got the blessing of the school principal to put him to work in an unorthodox way. We listened to his concerns and we accepted his suggestions. During these past four weeks I've checked with his other teachers to see how he's doing. Each teacher has marveled over his ability to knuckle down. One teacher remarked, "He told me he just wants to graduate."

Just-wants-to-graduate is a very ambitious concept for students who have skittered along the margins before we meet them in continuation school. The process of coaxing students into scholastic life is freighted with open-ended questions. I never feel I know the answers until I've seen them graduate. But I know I am going to bawl on the day this particular young man finishes, and the principal escorts him to the classrooms as the P.A. system blasts "Pomp and Circumstance," and she throws confetti to mark his passage.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Me and Mrs. Jones

"She bore her burden because she did not wish to be a burden." I'm paraphrasing from an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, "The Washerwoman." It's one of those anthology selections for ninth graders that kids never take to, a story that eventually resounds for those who live long enough to have the stuffing kicked out of us a few times. The titular washwoman is a birdlike Gentile who launders for wealthier Jews in an early 20th century Polish shtetl. Her frail build belies tenacity and pride in her lowly occupation--an occupation both arduous and invisible. I guess I'd call it a story where stature trumps status.
Often I've thought of that very story over the the past ten years since I've known Mrs. Jones. She is a longtime Pasadenan, living in her home since 1951. She's raised a family and worked at the legendary FEDCO on Colorado Blvd. until she retired at about 70. That must be when Mrs. Jones started fueling her next career.
Mrs. Jones takes in ironing. I can say it no other way. She is a word-of-mouth phenomenon who can starch a flaccid shirt into respectability. She transforms a jumbled basket of laundry into prete-a-porter. For as long as I have patronized Mrs. Jones, by gum, my creases have been straight and my cuffs crisp. Mrs. Jones is all business and no play at her ironing board.
Just last week we were chatting about my house hunting trials. Mrs. Jones handed me a xeroxed policy statement written in her elegant hand:

Dear Jean-
I'm going to give myself a 90th birthday present and raise the price of ironing
to $8.00 per hour starting Sept. 1, 2010. I hope you will still let me do your
ironing because I love doing it.
Mrs. Jones

All I could say was, "90? Mrs. Jones, you don't look a day over 82!" I get such a kick out of her professionalism and her product too. Ninety years old and still keeping Pasadena/Altadena unwrinkled? That to me is stature.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Homeowner Once Removed

I've lain dormant for the last eight weeks since my Pasadena house sold. More accurately, I've laid my head in a number of different homes because I've become a housesitter. I didn't foresee this lifestyle. Somehow it sought me.

I had to vacate my home by May 18. Once the sale fell into place, the sorting, discarding, and packing demands punctured my reverie and pricked me until I finished. Do-it-yourself storage! Pink Transfer! Annual city bulky item pickup! These agencies and the kindness of friends emptied a big old house of 24 years of stuff.

The devil lurking in the details was where would I go next? Luckily I was so fatigued from the pack-out that my usual over-planning tendencies were blunted. I can say that a dear couple was heading out on a trip May 18 into June and I slid right over to their commodious Altadena home. Another friend then introduced me to a family from southwest Pasadena who were vacationing for ten days. From there it was a night at my sister's. Then back to the first homestay. In another week I will head to a new family's poolhouse. It's a daisy chain of accommodations--all of them lovely, summer-y, imbued with a tensile strength of unexpected generosity to me. The serendipity of all these people offering ME places to stay while I complete summer school and sort out my future is the gift.

You learn things about yourself when you are itinerant. Every now and then you'll reach for something familiar, only to realize it's packed in storage or a friend has it at her home for safe-keeping. My computer, for instance, lives in a private home in Monrovia. My potted plants moved to El Monte. My favorite dictionary is in, er, uh, word limbo somewhere. But certainly I am enjoying the chance to see how homes reflect the organization of our lives. It's an education in itself to see an efficient cook's kitchen or where it's best to store the pet food or how to set up a discreet laundry system. Maybe once I find my own new home I can remember to emulate some of these principles. In fact, later today I am looking at houses in Altadena.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


"La Mission"
Written & directed by Peter Bratt/starring Benjamin Bratt

Some ten years ago at UCLA I heard Raymund Paredes, Ph.D., state, "The universal lies in the particular." His context was multicultural literature and how the stories of lives far beyond our own can illuminate your very situation or mine. I've since adopted his observation and it lives with me daily in my classroom. It also lives in the excellent independent film, "La Mission."

Peter and Benjamin Bratt have collaborated on a story set in their hometown of San Francisco in its Mission District. The story line: bus driver-recovering alcoholic-single dad Che Rivera abruptly learns that his cherished son Jesse is gay. Che's troubled ability to cope with this shock and his threads of connection to others lattice the plot. The "particular" of the film is its Latino community life. The universal is its painstaking process of sloughing off a father's angry, deflective layers of hurt in order to reveal his tender core, his corazon, for his beloved boy. The brothers Bratt coax Che's transformation without ever slipping into the maudlin. They recreate a milieu of working-class car aficionados, neighborhood tensions of gentrification and homosexuality, and urban violence so authoritatively that all of us viewers can understand Che's anguish.

"La Mission" takes a cue from opera when it uses signature music to identify each major character. Watch for that touch. Two scenes that employ music are among my favorites. In the first, for about 90 seconds we see Che ironing his clothes for an evening out. Now I admit to having spent many a Saturday night ironing to Art Laboe's Killer Oldies, but Che vaults ironing up to Olympic stature in this scene. How he summons perfection from an iron deserves major props. The other exemplary scene is the lowrider outing set to "Stop, Look, Listen," the magnificent 1971 Philly Soul cut. As far as I am concerned, this song is the apex of the Stylistics' catalogue; the pairing of this music with Che and Lena's date is sublime. It made me cry. It was that beautiful.

Another interesting motif is the presence of shrines. The Bratt brothers are ever mindful of both the leadership and confluence of indigenous and conquering peoples. The opening montage of murals illustrates this tension from the get-go. Repeatedly we see Che pause at the shrine he keeps of Our Lady Guadalupe and her red roses. Meanwhile, his neighbor Lena maintains her own shrine to feminine power with a goddess from India. Much later at a Dia de los Muertos memorial, Che finally experiences the integration that has eluded him. What are shrines but memory made palpable? We can feel the ache in Che when he holds the photo of his late wife. The tattoos on his body, the image of his mother on his prized ride, the regular offering of groceries to his aged neighbor--Che is a memory-curator in his own particular world.

I hope "La Mission" will find a viewership in and beyond Los Angeles. I hope it reaches Phoenix, Tucson, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, El Paso, San Antonio. And it's an unusually potent film that deserves a rebirth once dvd time comes along.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Parsing the Parson's Nose Productions

Tonight was yet another winsome evening of readers' theater sponsored by the Parson's Nose Productions. This is a South Pasadena-based troupe whose motto is "introducing classic theater to contemporary audiences." Husband and wife duo Lance Davis and Mary Chalon are the mad creative geniuses who direct and devise all things Parson. They would also like a bit of our help.

Parson's Nose is peripatetic, which sounds a lot classier than itinerant or heaven forbid, homeless. There is a mailing address, a phone number, a website; but at present there is no theatrical home. Gamely, Davis and Chalon have mounted a fine series of reading performances in Pasadena's Jameson Brown Coffee Roasters (260 N. Allen Avenue). Also, in January 2010 the company staged a successful run of the full-on production, THE IMAGINARY INVALID. This show inhabited the Pacific Asia Museum upstairs for its performance space. Certainly, the locations bloom merrily where the players perform each rendition. But it's not quite the same feel as having a room of one's own. Parson's Nose is searching for its own dedicated spot. Pasadena tops the wish list, in case anyone knows of a space available for regular rehearsals and productions.

"The Pied Piper of Hamelin" was tonight's hourlong adaptation written by Lance Davis. The coffee shop kind enough to host such a reading closes at 6 in order to be ready for this 7 pm performance. Entering a closed business with others in-the-know feels like we're melting into something exclusive like the Mattachine Society. I kidded with the reservations volunteer when she asked, what's the password? "Nonprofit organization?" I ventured. Now the super part about these readings is that they are FREE, though donations are enthusiastically recommended and received. Tonight I also noticed a ramped-up conviviality among the patrons in the full house. In fact, Davis and Chalon had to play school principals to coax the irrepressible audience back into their seats after intermission. My read on this level of interest is that Parson's Nose is starting to root in our town. And for an organization to succeed, there has to be an emotionally attached following. Davis tapped into that sensibility at the end of the reading when he spoke to us. He said that actors love their work, just as other professionals do. And actors wish to pay mortgages, bills, tuitions, and they deserve salaries steadier than what donations generate. Davis said that he wants to pay his players fair wages and that they are seeking a space in town where the classics will have a home. Brainstorms are welcome. The last readings of this season are scheduled for May 15 (UBU ROI) and June 19 (KING CYMBELINE).

Parson's Nose Productions
1325 Monterey Rd.
South Pasadena, CA 91030

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

WASC Sting Averted

I've had to remove myself from my dating scene in order to complete work on our school accreditation, cryptically known as "WASC." Western Association of Schools and Colleges is the organ's proper name. This organization verifies and upholds the quality of diploma-granting schools. To a school as small as mine, a pair of WASC reviewers was dispatched.

Going through an accreditation is like planning a wedding. Backward design, or setting the end-goal first, that joyous day of affirmation, then allows you to align the months' preparations leading toward the big event. Our school sought a three-year validation of our programs. That's because the last time we were visited, we did not receive the highest seal, the six-year clear term. Oh well. What could we do but use the interim to refine our practices?

No one can say it's been easy, moving continuation school aggressively into standards-based instruction. Data is king nowadays. We've had to retool our teaching in order to generate more of it. Now the data pops up like crabgrass. The data has to be collected and interpreted to drive classroom practices. I accept that data now features in my life, just as a colonoscopy does: each beneficial and each to be endured with grace.

But let's get real. The part that interests me in this whole self-study process is the people. A WASC visit typically runs for three days. Day 1 is a Sunday reception for parents, students, and staff. Days 2 and 3 are classroom visits, interviews, and conclusion-writing. I almost think Day 1's gathering was the most profound of the three, because students and parents testified as to the effect the school has had upon them.

One mother stood to explain how very stressful it is as a parent to keep hearing that your child is failing, your child will not graduate on time, your child is off track at the big school. She told us that now she receives heartening phone calls from our school, telling her about credits earned, improved attendance, her daughter's involvement in extra-curriculars. Another mother echoed this by reminding us all that at the big school, her son was relegated to a sort of permanent underclass of non-achievement. Now to her great delight,he stays after school to volunteer on committees, he's applied for a scholarship, he's certain to graduate by June. Yet another speaker was a lovely girl who has just completed her credits and graduated. She recalled how all her teachers knew her name by the first week. And that daily, as she got off the bus, there were always three or four adults there to say good morning and encourage everyone to have a good day. When she said, "No one gives up on us here. My English teacher sat with me to do my FAFSA because I had no one to help me," I couldn't help but well up. To me, that's the job. But maybe to a student it really is crossing a little Rubicon with adult guidance.

We will not really know the full outcome of this visit until June. Our sense and of course our hope run positive. The pair of reviewers were keen observers of our process. They understood that our students are among the most fragile. But all of our community is held accountable. Back to creative aspirations on a shoestring and other California realities.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


This week during my drive to work, I noticed the forlorn vacant Oreck Vacuum shop on South Lake Avenue. When did that close? I glanced into its empty storefront, one of how many in the stretch from San Pasqual to California Boulevard? Eight?

I know most of us don't have particular affection for vacuum stores, but the departure of Oreck leaves me a little sad. Some years ago when I was part of a two-income lifestyle, I bought myself a snappy little Oreck upright. Lightweight, smart, accompanied by the perks of an Oreck iron and an Oreck mini-vac, my new vacuum convinced me I would now houseclean like Samantha from BEWITCHED. I pampered my Oreck and I took it to the mother store for annual tune-ups. The clerk would show off my vacuum's prowess on their thick green plush and I felt a certain consumer's pride rise in my chest. But I haven't taken my Oreck in for its tune-up for about 18 months. And now there is no specialty shop devoted to the pride of Mr. Oreck. My reasons for shopping on South Lake are disappearing faster than you can say Pete's Grandburger or Smith and Hawken.

However, if you travel to the east side of town, there is another distinguished vacuum repair shop, Tanner's Valley. I know it sounds indulgent, but I have a second vacuum cleaner. It's a Cadillac to me. This one is a big red Sanitaire, circa 1990 maybe. It's the type professional janitors admire: heavy, serious, with a cord long enough to traverse three rooms. I love the Sanitaire because it belonged to my mom. She had to wait a long time in her life to acquire some of the nicer things, and I count this king of vacuums among them. The Sanitaire I take to Tanner's Valley for its tune-ups because it is an old-timey shop with a love of old-timey machines--Hoovers, Singer sewing machines, Mieles, and come to think of it, I just saw a little clique of Orecks standing around together among the other repaired vacuums awaiting their owners. When I took the Sanitaire in for its checkup last week, the lady who clerks told me the parts themselves are very valuable to scavengers, and not to sell it at a garage sale for $20! Now it's entirely possible I have paid more for tune-ups over the years than the initial purchase price. But the Sanitaire seems eternal so far, and I think my mom would be proud of me for maintaining it.

I may go to pick up the Sanitaire today. It should be standing at attention with its fellows, handwritten tag on its neck. After the lady apprises me of its needs and remedies, I will lug it out to the Honda curbside and take it back home. Next month when I get paid again, I am going to bring the Oreck here. Some things in life just need to be maintained, and that goes for machines and memories.

Tanner's Valley Vacuum Center
2610 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena 91107

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Practice of Friending

I was a bit late arriving to the Facebook station, maybe because it takes me such a long time to mull over trends and then weigh whether I can hop on before their hipness pulls away. But thanks to the urging of a former student and my sister, I joined the crowd on the platform. You have to find your way and decide whether social networking even serves any purpose for you. Once you figure out the etiquette (i.e., don't post negative or personal messages, as everything has potential to go public), you can refine your role on Facebook. I myself like to flit around as a demi-Kokopelli, that flute-playing trickster whose image is overused in Southwestern advertising. I like to post my little quips and then see what kind of response comes 'round. (Aside: Kokopelli also has allusions of randiness, fertility, and agriculture, but I doubt much of that fits my Facebook profile.) Anyway, to its credit, the Facebook phenomenon does help link you to friends from the past and it helps acquaint you with those you might not otherwise run into. For me, it's become an entertaining conduit to my more traditional friendships.

From my fog of adolescence, I do remember my mom stating, "Jean, do not ever lose touch with your friends." I was a little know-it-all about human relations in those days, so of course I shrugged her off with my silent retort, "Hummph...what would MY 50something mother know about friends? I don't even see her running around with any friends!" Of course, I'm leaving out the parts like my mom raised 4 kids on her nurse's wages, she worked the 3 pm to 11 shift, there was a time when 5 of us relied on one Ford Maverick...yeah. But her exhortation comes back to me now. How prescient she was. Our friends, virtual, real, remembered, upcoming--these are the figures that stabilize and enrich our lives. Everyone knows this; it's just been crystallizing for me in recent years.

One serendipitous result of Facebooking was re-meeting a teaching colleague from the late '80s. I bet we had not seen each other for 14 years prior to her visit to Pasadena last weekend from Olympia, WA. We had a hilarious, sad, wondrous catchup, cataloging our many life changes and just reflecting how we cope and teach and learn to BE in this life. We also dined at Puebla Tacos #2, a homey little spot for hungry LA ex-pats and local yokels like me. The punctuation of the years fell away as we laughed it up, my mom's words preserved in parentheses.

Too, I credit Facebook for my invitation yesterday to a memorial at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. My long-ago student, now a mother of 3 and my cyber-pal, invited me to her dad's service. She's an ordained minister. As she delivered her remarks about her pop, I realized, this isn't your 17-year old yearbook staffer anymore; this is a polished divinity grad who knows how to structure the story of a life and imbue it with meaning in a way that all of us can grasp. At the reception, I found yet another student, herself a teacher these last 15 years, and her mom, whom I had met at many a parent function as her three kids grew up in our school. It was a delightful funeral, if that is not too oxymoronic, and it was my privilege to connect with these people once again.

Puebla Tacos #2
1819 E. Villa
Pasadena 91104

Monday, February 8, 2010

"Different, Not Less"

HBO's current special, TEMPLE GRANDIN, stars Claire Danes as the noted author, animal husbandry expert, and unlikely heroine for many families affected by autism. I found the film spellbinding on several levels. (You can catch it on HBO by demand.)

As a teacher, I love any uplifting portrayal of the educator who never gives up, one who sees potential in even the most truculent student. Temple was an academic misfit whose love of science was stoked by her boarding school instructor, played by David Strathairn. As a parent, I somehow feel ennobled by a film mom who can follow her instincts and try her best to guide a difficult child to independence. Check: that element is present. As a viewer, I eat up transformation stories, starting with the erasure of a starlet and the utterly persuasive replacement with an indelible character. Claire Danes becomes Temple Grandin down to the very way her teeth bite her words. But the way Temple learns to find her place in our chaotic world is the most moving transformation of all.

Temple was born in 1947. In the 1950s, her now-classic symptoms of autism were attributed to "infantile schizophrenia" or bad maternal bonding. Fortunately, Temple's mother chucked much of the medical advice she was given, such as institutionalizing her child. Instead, I suspect this mother worked powerfully but self-effacingly. Her mother coined the phrase, "different, not less," to influence Temple. Once Temple acquired language, her mother insisted on schooling and engagement. As Temple said, "Mother pounded me with manners and rules." This very pounding helped to equip Temple to function out in the world.

I see so many criss-crosses with the story of Temple Grandin in my own life. Certainly when you work in a continuation school, there is a constant need for pounding manners and rules. Manners begin to instill a sense of dignity among those who've been downtrodden. Manners reduce classroom beefs and prevent fistfights. Furthermore, when I volunteer at Club 21, I'm noticing the steady emphasis of learning rules of civility and engagement, of what constitutes normal social behavior. If you are a teen with Down syndrome, you need to learn that you don't hug everyone you meet; you hug your family. Or if you want to join the social group, we sit up in chairs. We don't sprawl all over the floor during conversations. Most of all, I recall my own mom saying, "Just wait 'til you have a child who's different." Sure enough, I did have a child who has endured many learning challenges through life. How often our family has faced dilemmas and decisions, frustrations and missteps. Not as profound as what Temple and her mother experienced, but enough that I can identify with their story.

When you have a child who is different, your job as a parent becomes even more complex. Average can become your aspiration. As one of the moms at Club 21 beamed not long ago, "The teacher told me my daughter got a normal passing score on her spelling test! Normal!!" We all reveled in laughter at the compliment.

Parents who recognize their children may be different, but not less, become searchers. We don't look for grand-scale miracles, but we are always open to the smaller ones that may come our way. A kind, persistent speech therapist;a classroom teacher willing to adapt; the group leader who teaches social cues--as searching parents, we treasure these finds. Only last year did a friend recommend a great resource new to me: Fuller Seminary's Psychology Department. Dr. Stacy Amano and her team conduct thorough, in-depth studies for children, adolescents, and adults with learning and socialization issues, including Autism Spectrum concerns. Appointments need to be made six or more months in advance and the cost is dear. But the interpretation of results, the comprehensive report, and the valuable referrals that follow make it worthwhile. For us it made all the difference.

Stacy Amano, Ph.D
Fuller Psychological and Family Services
180 N. Oakland Avenue
Pasadena 91101

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Pasadena Playhouse

By now we are all aware that our solid old "always there" Pasadena Playhouse is on precarious footing. She's the grand dame of Pasadena culture. We are shocked and distressed to hear of her misfortune, even if we are not playgoers. How can we make sense of her decline, and is there anything that we ordinary friends or neighbors or even strangers can do to reverse it?

Last night I was at a dinner party with some far more cognizant of finances than I am. One suggested that the Playhouse renegotiate terms of its mortgage obligations, "skinny down" staff, and with the understanding that this recession may continue for another two to three years, work on revitalization. Someone else noted that significant fundraisers really can occur in a generous region like Pasadena. Another said bankruptcy is an option. I listened to all of this, but I admit I don't quite understand how we reached this point. Yet here we are.

I've always wanted to be a philanthropist. My primary obstacle is that I don't have any money. To compensate I suppose I think a lot about how to make things better. Now the Pasadena Playhouse has relocated right into the center of my thinking tank. Its occupation has become my preoccupation. On a human level, I have known Sheldon Epps, the artistic director, and his wife for nearly ten years. They are very understated, earnest, devoted contributors to the cultural scenes of Pasadena and Los Angeles. If anyone can suss out some solutions, I'd wager it will be Sheldon. Still, this is a painful time fraught with 37 job losses and the Playhouse's spectral possibility. I keep thinking about what else could help restore and reinvent the Pasadena Playhouse.

The other day in class a boy suggested, "Miss, if every man, lady, baby and kid in the US gave a penny, wouldn't that help the economy? Even the babies!" he emphasized. This did get me thinking, what if we shifted our view that instead of a getting-time, we now live in a giving-time? And it may need to be a giving-time for an indeterminate period? What if we imagined a new normal? What could that look like?

A new normal in Pasadena could steady the Playhouse. True, someone is going to have to lead the way in things monetary. But why couldn't the Playhouse broaden its applicability to the life of our city? Could it be used for filming? For music or speakers' series? Could its lovely courtyard be rented for private events as those in the oak garden behind Happy Trails Catering on Fair Oaks? Could a drama school be reintroduced? Could improv training like we find at Upright Citizens Brigade or Groundlings be offered? The Hamilton Theatre with its 86 seats is a great intimate space for performances and small-scale plays that itinerant companies like Buzzworks or Parson's Nose mount.

One other consideration is the life and livelihood of Elements, the restaurant which has just arrived and is adjacent to the Playhouse. In its first location, this kitchen has won raves all around town. We've long anticipated its El Molino destination. Elements could prove to be as familial as our beloved old Playhouse, given the chance.

Pasadena has been blessed with its architecture, its sense of history, its ability to craft a particular identity in southern California. There is room for all ages in our city. At some point the scenesters who hang out at the Paseo are going to grow up and start going to the Ice House, the Playhouse, the Gamble House. It's our challenge to link the past and the present, to mesh our getting-time with our giving-time, to continue to foster our vibrant city. The Pasadena Playhouse may be ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille, but certainly not its close up.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Shopping in the House

Sunlight is pouring into my house after nearly a week's worth of rain. Tomorrow we have scheduled another open house, which is exactly what needs to occur until this place is sold. Of course, it's a tough time to have your house on the market. But the ever-readiness to show nudges my housekeeping chops to the mark. Albeit Me the Housekeeper felt more like Me the Slattern during the recent holiday season.

If you've raised a houseful of children, you know the pattern of their joyous returns and their flurries of exodus. The house stood still and expectant in early December, tidy, compliant from its series of open house showings. Then came all the prodigals--from Africa, Arizona, Washington, D.C., New York City. It was a happy jumble of car-sharing, birthdays, reunions with friends and family. And the house began to degrade inexorably. This is called "feeling at home." Th
at's when I remembered all the years of chore charts, exhortations, rewards, threats, piles: impressions spinning as endlessly as the washer did back when I still had collagen. But soon enough, everyone began packing and departing. This is where the story gets good.

Once everyone left, it took awhile to restore the house to order. From that point, and as far as I am concerned, into the future, I was able to resume my hobby, Shopping in the House. Shopping in the House is not an isolated phenomenon. If you've lived with anyone, surely there is detritus left behind once these anyones move on. It's one thing to clean up their messes. But it's far more delightful to stumble upon little unexpected treats, and this is the premise of Shopping in the House. It doesn't cost a thing (except that you have probably already paid for the stuff if your kids left it). Today for example, I was rummaging in the cupboard and I found two bags of authentic fry bread mix! You can make crepes from it, I discovered. When I was dusting a bookcase, I found a Frank Sinatra CD that I don't recall. It's got Frank phrasing words like "...groovy." Hmm.

My Shopping finds include beauty supplies that I would never buy for myself. I found a delicate bottle of Vera Wang perfume! Wow! I found a talisman necklace that I later learned was a good luck charm blessed by a tribal priest in Togo. That helped me through a challenging time at work. And what about those dramatic earrings that looked like a pair of small garbage can lids? Now those caused people to comment. I cannot recommend Shopping in the House highly enough. It turns dross into platinum, banality to beneficence. Poke around a little. You'll become a convert. There's treasure to be hunted in our very midst every day.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

January 2010

January has finally assumed its rightful place as a month distinct from the Christmas-New Year's domination. But for those of us in Pasadena, the days leading up to the Rose Parade may include watching the Bandfest at Pasadena City College, navigating alternative streets to avoid the set-ups for the parade, or wondering how many more RVs can cram into the USMC-adjacent parking lot. On January 1, the Rose Bowl game causes traffic to tilt to the west side of town. After that, we'll host two more days of visitors who come to admire the just-retired floats on the east end near Pasadena High School. When the floats are towed off to Duarte or to their cities' storage points, when the trash is collected, and the Christmas trees are mulched, January can officially behave like any other month.

To celebrate that normalcy, last Saturday I took a drive to Cabazon. The little town about 90 minutes east of here was once best known for its giant dinosaur statues (i.e., "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure") and Hadley's Date Shakes. But nowadays the destination is Desert Hills Premium Outlets. I visit that shopping behemoth perhaps twice yearly. I plan my incursion with military precision because shopping is not that much fun when left to chance. Usually I check their website to look for promotions and to verify that stores open at 10:00 a.m. No sense in arriving too early. Yet the parking scene is Darwinian, so a 10:00 a.m. arrival is prime for finding a good spot. If you park in the West Wing, you are close to the customer service office. This office is destination #1. Show your AAA card, and the lady there will give you a killer coupon book that may set your heart pounding. At least for me the adrenaline surges as I chart my course for bargains and acquisitions.

I began at the Bass Shoe outlet and progressed to the Gap. Onward to J. Crew! Nine West! My own relentless Sherman's March of shopping, driven onwards, minus the destruction. This shopping center has three linked segments, but it's wisest not to move the car and risk losing a place. Instead, plan on making little sallies to drop your purchases in the car. You can get lots of walking in with this style of shopping. In fact, I brought a Trader Joe's salad along so I could fortify without having to enter the sensory-overloaded food court. I am happy to say I shopped feverishly for six hours. I think I found some relatively hip school clothes and a pair of sexy lace-up nun shoes. And now I won't have to go shopping until maybe August. I can continue other January pursuits, like turning my own mulch pile, finishing off semester 1, trimming roses, and oh--making credit card payments.