Sunday, December 11, 2011

What's Old is New Again

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Better Life, No Matter How Elusive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Make Mine Lemonade

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Boy Who Taught Me How to Be a Teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

22 Miles Across the Sea

Catalina is a local destination I'd never visited before. The occasion? A day trip with a dear friend who was celebrating her birthday. Since she's more in the know than I am, she had acquired a free boat pass courtesy of the birthday promotion at (Take a look! The offer is legitimate and it is good through April 2012.)

I booked my passage online to complement hers, departing San Pedro. There is a rather youthful senior-citizen rate (ahem, 55 and up), and if you wish to phone in reservations, AAA offers a $7.50 discount for up to six in a party. The boat terminal is located 45 minutes south of Pasadena. Parking for the day costs $12.00. Now if the facility looks vaguely familiar, perhaps it's because you've made some joyous drops here in the misty past, sending kids off to summer camp. I have, and that was my only association with the terminal. Now it was my turn to sail away.

Waiting in what feels like a small-town airport--friendly staff, no sense of impending terrorism--I read maps and recommendations and the correction that Catalina Island is not 26 miles away; it is twenty-two. The ride over takes 75 smooth minutes. Docking in Avalon calls for a southern California brain change; walking is the norm here! Almost all transport is by foot, golf cart ($40 per hour rental), or wheel (bikes, segways). The other adjustment is accepting that everything is on a tinier scale, more akin to Main Street Disneyland or Brugge. Small clapboard houses, narrow alleys, dinky splashes of gardens. First we located a deli and bought sandwiches. We took our lunch and walked toward the curvilinear casino, a 1920s Mediterranean landmark that houses performance space, a cinema, and a museum. Soon we sat on a bench to people-watch and read aloud all the boat-names we could see in the slips. After lunch we got serious about walking.

Through the town there are charming flat-lander neighborhood streets. We went into St. Catherine's Catholic Church, whose stained glass windows cast their nautical glow into the silent sanctuary. Then we headed upland in search of the Wrigley Garden. This route was more rustic, among eucalyptus, a campground, the sunny summer smell that results from sunshine falling on trees. We never did reach the botanical garden, but we did find a golf course with a snack shop offering dollar tacos. Sold! We fortified ourselves before heading back to the dock.

Thirty minutes before departure is the line-up formation. The return ride was simple, though I did spy some campers going home after their Catalina adventure. But they weren't my campers, and I coasted back to the mainland without a care in the world.

Reservations and information:
310-519-1212 or 800-422-9159

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


"To all those who dare to care" is the dedication in the newest novel by Pasadena author Kwei Quartey. CHILDREN OF THE STREET has just been released in paperback. It's a book unlike any you have read, unless you are already a fan of his first detective tale, WIFE OF THE GODS.

Both books are set in Accra, Ghana, the West African nation Americans may recognize for its horrific past as a slave source. As critical as its historic position remains, Ghana is also a fascinating, increasingly cosmopolitan presence. Its capital city Accra is a living, breathing creature sloughing off its provincial skin. Modernization in the forms of constant construction, international investment, and potential offshore oil reserves drives its metamorphosis. Kwei Quartey examines these elements with an insider's eye. You see, Kwei is a physician who was raised in Accra through his adolescence, the son of a Ghanaian father and an African-American mother. His authorial voice blends his African self with his American self. And overlaying both is his discernment of the frequent intersections of medicine and human nature.

Inspector Darko Dawson is the protagonist of these books. His first name is an anglicized version of "Daaku." Dawson is a husband, the father of a chronically ill boy, an honest guy working in an often-corrupt environment. He is also gripped by dark demons. It's Dawson's internal struggles that endear him to us. In the current book he is pursuing the killer of near-anonymous street teens, those ever-present hawkers and cart-pushers seen on Liberation Road or Independence Avenue. When the corpse of 17-year old Musa turns up in a filthy lagoon, Darko Dawson take the case. Accra's many faces glower and evade and occasionally shine as the detective seeks answers from every source.

Because Accra is such a complex city, Dr. Quartey sees it as the perfect setting for crime stories. His third book, MEN OF THE RIG, about the burgeoning oil industry, is due in 2012. His research visits to Ghana are chronicled on his website. Of particular interest is a school called Street Academy. Dr. Quartey formed a connection here and presently underwrites the education of one of its students. Ghana may seem a world away to us in California. Yet if we can dare to care, we too can connect. These books are a wonderful invitation to do just that.

Kwei Quartey joins a Barnes & Noble panel on "Deceit and Intrigue in Foreign Settings," at the Westside Pavilion, West Los Angeles, at 2 pm on Saturday, August 20.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


TERRI is an intimate, autumnal-lit film about an overweight high school boy and his unexpected relationship with his assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald. Though we locals can sense that the movie was filmed right under our noses, the location is meant to be a woodsy Anywhere, USA. The players are Everyman. Their situation is both heart-rending and heartening.

Terri is apparently suffering from anomie, which we see from the get-go as we watch him shuffle tardily to school wearing pajamas and Crocs. He is not contriving eccentricity. He is odd. Terri's parents are inexplicably absent from his life, so that explains one level of daily pain. Instead, Terri lives with his uncle whose growing dementia shadows their daily lives and foreshadows a time of yet deeper isolation for Terri. However, the uncle has occasional astute moments, so beautifully illuminated when Uncle James informs Terri, "Don't mean to be rude here. Just have to take advantage of this window right now," gently tapping his temple. And despite what others at school may think, Terri does have genuine social intelligence. He responds graciously to his uncle's ebbs and flows. Terri runs their household, tends to his uncle's medications, steps in when the uncle stares uncomprehendingly at food burning on the skillet. The Terri we see at home has a maturity that almost all school personnel miss when they perceive him to be a shambling misfit.

Of course, Terri is referred to the office for counseling. This is where the movie gains traction. John C. Reilly evokes that administrator who appears initially to be the school-policy mouthpiece. But as he interacts with Terri, we start to recognize a teacher-iconoclast, the guy unafraid to tell a kid that life can be a vessel loaded with both manure and flowers. We are going to have to choose which aroma we prefer and work for its fragrance every day of our lives. For Terri, this kind of adult influence is puzzling, then intriguing, then disappointing, and finally satisfying. What Terri learns from his most imperfect, candid counselor is the basis of any trusting relationship: it's evidenced in the healthy patterns of friendship, family or loved ones. A reliable relationship has to be tensile enough to stretch and contract with the times and not snap on us. Such resolute knowledge applies to Terri, to Mr. Fitzgerald, to you, and to me.

TERRI is rated R for a sexual situation that may make viewing with younger teens uncomfortable. There is also a dicey-appearing implication with some special needs students that actually resolves quite fairly. Even if you have seen the entire catalogue of quirky coming-of-age films, you may still find delight in TERRI. And those of us who work in high schools should never grow so complacent that we gaze over the river of youth without plumbing the deeper currents that determine our students' lives.

TERRI, starring Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly
Laemmle Playhouse 7
673 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena 626.844.6500

Saturday, June 4, 2011

CLUB 21: Just Imagine

The volunteers at Club 21 are wrapping up spring session. I help there every Wednesday at ECAR, the Every Child a Reader tutorial. I am one of a cadre of ten teachers who report from 4 pm to 6 pm. Each of us is assigned to a student with language and developmental needs. All of our Club members happen to have Down syndrome. We never say that they ARE Down syndrome; we say they have it. A medical condition does not define who we are.

Down syndrome is a congenital disorder. Some of our families learned of their children's medical condition prenatally. But many others are shocked to receive a diagnosis at birth. Luckily, an increasing number of obstetricians and pediatricians are referring families whose babies have Down syndrome to Club 21 immediately. As a clearinghouse, emotional support system, and school resource, Club 21 is unmatched in the Los Angeles area. It is the brainchild of Nancy Litteken, who is a native speaker of American Sign Language (among her many other winning traits).

Language and communication can be challenges for all children. But for children with Down syndrome spoken language is invariably a struggle. Yet the earliest intervention helps the child and the whole extended family. Most parents now learn and then teach their babies sign language as their primary system. Signing gradually cohabits with oral speech. The two languages support the child's needs and reduce frustration. When reading instruction begins, sign language links a depicted concept to a print symbol. Because the children have characteristic short-term memory issues, repetition-repetition-repetition of sign, spoken, and print language cannot be stressed enough. The wonderful outcome is that every child will read! All will labor, most will sight read, and each will surprise us.

Every Wednesday as ECAR commences, we greet the children with a ritual. One adult dispenses hand sanitizer and a spritz of lavender spray. We have the kids intone after us, "I am focused and ready to learn." It's just a little mantra to state our purpose and it starts our next 45 minutes with a contractual nod. Then we head up to our study areas to work. Parent conferences and teacher debriefing round out the session. The parents pay a nominal fee to help cover materials; otherwise all activity at Club 21 is volunteer-supported.

"Just imagine the possibilities" is the motto of Club 21. And even tiny miracles do occur. Recently we learned the theme of the 2012 Rose Parade will be "Just Imagine." We think this phrase may be more comprehensive than we ever realized.

Club 21
539 N. Lake Avenue
Pasadena 91101

Sunday, May 1, 2011

I Call Him Sugar

"Oh, come give me some sugar!" Miss Lois McLeod would greet us children when we'd arrive those summers to visit our granny. Nowadays we'd refer to Lois as a spinster. She was a bred-in-the-bone North Carolina Presbyterian lady. She worked as a secretary for Gulf Oil and for years she rented room and board from our grandmother, Miss Alice. If Lois had suffered in life, and certainly she had, with the polio, it was utterly lost on us children. We were always overjoyed to slam the old screen door, bound through the dining room which predictably creaked, and check to see if that special single case of bottled Coca Cola under Granny's sink awaited us. And of course we would give Lois some sugar, an exchange of welcoming hugs and kisses. She belonged there and she belonged to us.

Lois and Miss Alice are long gone, as are almost all our links to Aberdeen, North Carolina. But a month ago, some sugar came back into my life. I decided to adopt a little dog from the animal shelter. I named him Sugar Rum Cherry. It didn't take long to get him to answer to Sugar or informally, Shuggy.

This dog adoption had been noodling around in the back of my head since I had a gate put up to enclose the yard. Discreetly I had been online surfing the animal shelters, looking for dainty Italian Greyhounds or maybe a comical pug, something whimsically genteel, like me. At the West Valley facility I located what was listed as a Clumber. I know Clumbers to be jumbo spaniels, often calm to the point of listlessness. I thought I might check this unusual breed.

The Chatsworth animal shelter is gorgeous, and sadly it is full of pits and chihuahuas of every permutation. Eventually I inquired about "the spaniel," which elicited a number of nods and smiles, though I learned he had been placed in isolation for kennel cough. I was taken to meet him. I could see that he might become a lovely animal, and better yet, my boon companion. He is a tricolor long-tailed late adolescent who resembles the result of a Cocker/King Charles Cavalier meetup. I just felt he was the one for me.

When we came home to Altadena, I made an appointment with the vet, filled out the microchip form, and began a serious relationship with Centinela Feed and Pet Supplies. I can say I have now become a Dog Person. I always nodded politely to the Dog People, but now I find myself willingly engaging in Dog Chats at the Rose Bowl or on the street when we are Dog Strolling. Perfect strangers remark, "What a cute pup!" and I beam as if I, Pygmalion, had designed him. But the truth is he is a good little fellow who just wanted a home, where he could lie inside under a computer desk and forget that he had ticks and matted hair and whatever else may have befallen him. And he doesn't mind that I call him Sugar.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Sometimes I ask people if they are comfortable going places by themselves. In the past year I've grown ever more capable of taking myself on solo excursions. I've discovered places that are satisfying little idylls, either for singular or plural outings. Here are some I can vouch for in no particular order.

1. Tommy's Restaurant, 170 N. Hill Avenue, Pasadena. For a meal under $5, I always choose the chili cheese fries and a small drink. People who know me might be shocked at this pursuit because I am not a fast-food fan. However, Tommy's is clean and bright, perfect for spreading out the Pasadena Weekly and eating with decadent gusto.

2. The Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino. Buy a membership and you can walk the grounds in quiet splendor beginning at 8 a.m. The guards are always affable weather prognosticators. I head to the cactus garden first to admire the crenulated brains and prickly mammaries that stud the landscape. The ducks at the pond have paired off, the camellia forest casts down its showy mantle, the allee to the mausoleum foreshadows more cooling strolls into summer. A visit to the gardens in any circumstance reminds us why we love California. It makes the heart sing its own private aria.

3. Farmers' Market at 3rd and Fairfax. Another venerable destination perfect for a Sunday morning: arrive by 9 a.m. Take your L.A. Times; get your two-hour free parking spot in the lot before all the car sharks start circling the lot. Proceed to the Coffee Corner, buy a cup of joe and have your parking ticket validated NOW. I prefer the communal tables under the heaters, but really any spot is suitable for eavesdropping on screenwriters, families, or wizened regulars. Diners seat themselves with breakfast trays from the surrounding stalls and the place gradually increases its animation. There is still time to wander over to the Grove as shops open at 10 a.m. Although I pooh-pooh the Grove for its artifice compared to my beloved Farmers' Market, I confess to having found some true bargains at the Grove Gap and Anthropologie.

4. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. My own personal screen gem! I subscribe to their newsletter ( and there is a steady stream of offerings for even an ordinary movie fan like me. I recommend the free curated exhibits on the fourth floor. I like to arrive at noon on a Sunday when parking is navigable and foot traffic is nil. Go right into the lobby, take out your driver's license, and approach the desk. Hand over the license and ask to see the exhibit on the fourth floor. You'll receive a pass and off you go via the elevator. Now there's a rarefied space guaranteed to please and teach you about cinema. I've seen collections featuring W.C. Fields, Ray Harryhausen, and Noel Coward. It's a splendid uncrowded foray. When you finish and collect your license, be sure to linger in the lobby where there are historic and changing portraits or posters displayed. The restrooms are coolly elegant too.

5. The Cornfields. For this one I ride the Gold Line to Chinatown station. Just before alighting, you will note a 32-acre evolving park. We used to refer to it as The Cornfields, which harks back to a time when kernels germinated there accidentally, but now it is an historic park of El Pueblo de Los Angeles. It may sound funny to take a train in order to take a walk, but I do recommend strolling from station to park and then walking its periphery. What was once a dusty old trainyard is now a farm lab, a grassy oasis, and a wildflower garden. The park is an exemplary L.A. juxtaposition of nearby buildings from our manufacturing past, our progressive train system, and the greening hope of reclamation. Often I feel that by walking a place, I understand it more. That's my sensation when I walk The Cornfields and look up at the big sheltering sky.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Beginning Again

"Girls, make your life a dance!" our Orange High School PE teacher, Mrs. Weatherill, would exhort us. She of the black tights, the blacker ponytail, the Kathyrn Crosby demi curl-bang, a big apostrophe resting on the right side of her forehead. Smartly keeping time, Mrs. Weatherill beat a hand-held drum and dispatched us in choreographed lines across the gym to the music of Carlos Santana. But as sixteen-year-olds, my friends and I skimmed past our teacher's advice, preferring giggles and gossip.

Yet over the years, I decided Mrs. Weatherill may have been a few beats ahead after all. She meant that we would need to muster all the grace, stamina, and joy we could in order to face what life was about to present to us. And with advancing age, it is easy to overlook making your life a dance: at every turn someone new is undergoing chemotherapy or learning a grim diagnosis or losing someone dear. The drum now beats mortality.

However, sometimes I use these heavy realizations to initiate something new. I found my latest pursuit at Pasadena City College Extended Learning. Yesterday was my first session of Beginning Ballet. You don't have to be thin! You don't have to be nimble! You don't have to have a neck like a swan! You only have to own a pair of ballet shoes.

Teacher Catherine Round is warmly emphatic, technically astute, and a dead ringer for kin of Amy Adams. She believes women of all ages can learn balletic movement and benefit from improved posture. Instruction involves explanation, modeling, guided practice, and gentle correction. Many of us arrived with childhood ballet experience, and it is the funniest sensation to return to positions you haven't held since the 1960s. Our class also learned practical tips for leg beauty, such as grasping a towel from the floor with bare toes in daily repetitions. Prehensile pulchritude? What's not to like?

Beginning Ballet is full for the current session through March 5. Still, there are many other non-credit options at . Meantime, ballet queries to Ms. Round are welcome at

Monday, January 3, 2011

Note to Self: Read 365 Thank Yous

On New Year's Eve I waited with several friends to watch Rose Parade floats being towed along Huntington Drive. We were seated in a car parked at San Marino High School plowing through two boxes of See's candy and dissecting our dinner at Gus's BBQ. Then one friend mentioned a gathering she had just attended at a South Pasadena home where she had met a new author celebrating his book. She sensed he was "...a really nice, nice man."

"New author?" said I, holding the See's momentarily. I can't help myself. I am enamored of the local lit scene. Now here comes a book by our latest Pasadena-area author, John Kralik. Its title is 365 THANK YOUS: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life. It's a petite memoir and meditation which contains a lot in a little.

Vroman's Bookstore stocks the book. Its cover is dominated by blue, but at center there sits a red mailbox on a white post resembling a match from afar,a match waiting to be struck. But a match's bright flare is better utilized when transferred to the slower, softer glow of a candle. Under the harsh glare of resentment, self-loathing, and anger, Mr. Kralik starts to examine the events of his life. As he realizes that negativity and disconnection are rapidly consuming any chance for happiness, he also hears a mystical reminder that he MUST learn gratitude. Profound message that it is, Mr. Kralik vows to himself that he will take action: he will handwrite a series of thank-you notes to others for an entire year. Now whether the act of writing propels gratitude or the gratitude promotes writing is moot to me. The reward is Mr. Kralik's subtle change in attitude, and then behavior, and then an incandescent peace that his book reveals. As his self-scrutiny process burrows deeper inside, the reader realizes this too is me; I too bear loss and disaster, and yet we all must live. How can we light the way for ourselves? How can we live with integrity and grace?

What is unusual about this book is that it lacks archness. It is forthright and generous, implying that any of us can rediscover our balance. Maybe the hope and the actuality of change for the better are unsung benefits of middle age.

John Kralik will discuss his book at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, on Wednesday, January 26 at 7 pm.