Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's in Zane

As a child, Zane Grey wasn’t much of a dentist, but then he’d grow up to be not much of a writer. Somehow he realized financial success at both.

Little Zane made money offering door-to-door dentistry. “Hey ma’am, you have something that needs pulling, I’m your boy.” Astonishingly, this pitch, or something similar, worked like a charm. And to think I couldn’t even sell a Thin Mint.

His books? I suppose you’d say someone who has sold as few words as I would have a lot of nerve to criticize someone who sold millions of them. I believe you don’t have to lay the eggs to spot a bad one. Or bad ‘un, as Zane would say. So I see your nerve and raise you an excerpt:

“Nell, I’m growing powerful fond of you.”

“So you must be Master Joe, if often telling makes it true.”

The girl spoke simply and with an absence of that roguishness that was characteristic of her. Playful words, arch smiles, and a touch of coquetry had seemed natural to Nell; but now her grave tone and almost wistful glance disconcerted Joe.

I’d let old Zane go his way and I go mine, so long as he took his disconcerted yet roguishly arch coquettes with him, but for one grave and wistful problem: He is one of Altadena’s favorite sons. Zane lived here, wrote, fished, hiked, and kept at least one of his many, many (Many!) mistresses here. His estate, lovingly restored by a really nice couple who throw open their doors for all sorts of local events and fundraisers, is less than a mile from my house. I literally meet him coming and going all day.

Zane was the most popular writer of the 1920’s. That means he wiped the floor with Faulkner and Hemingway. While FSF could barely make a living from Great Gatsby:

I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others - poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner - young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

Zane gave us:

A tide of emotion swept over Gale. How good it was to meet a friend—someone to whom he could talk! He had never appreciated his loneliness until that moment.

This is from a book of bad called Shower of Gold. Pity Zane chose that moment to get all pretentious on us; we could have had a really memorable title.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Nature’s ok, I guess, but it’s no Disneyland. Sure, both have a Matterhorn, but only on the top of one can you to see all Anaheim and the distant land of Fullerton. Hark! Buena Park!

I’ve found nature isn’t so – well, boring – when you zoom by the natural stuff. That’s why I got my mountain bike. If god had meant us to hike, why did Goodrich make tires? To be honest, it’s usually not much of a zoom on the way up, that’s more of a front-wheel wiggle and stop, but I make up for it on the way down. Either way it scares the shit out of the bipeds -- still, even that gets old after awhile.

So, as I usually wiggle up Altadena’s Echo Mountain and zoom back down again, I wondered – what’s missing around here? Why does this joint feel as disappointing as the last revolution on the teacup ride? Where’s our Pleasure Island? Then it hit me, hit me as hard as the time I got drunk and tried to stand up in Space Mountain: Where’s the bike toss? The bike limbo? Where the hell are the kiosks and pancakes?

What’s missing? Nothing that a megaphone, a raffle, vendors, and a dozen corporate bike sponsors can’t fix.


This is a sanctuary.

This is a carnival.

This is my brain on drugs. Because this can't be for real.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Oh peas -- bean there, done that. I no longer carrot all

During times of uninspired desperation, household chores help. Oh, nothing drastic. Vacuuming? The hell you say; what next -- opening the fridge to peer in my vegetable crisper? (Vegetable crisper, by the way, is a misnomer. I’ve kept the same vegetables in mine for years, and they're still not crisp. Maybe once the Toyota mess is cleared up someone will look into this.)

In fact, I’ve reached the conclusion that life is too short for certain activities such as dusting, ironing, window washing -- those repetitive tasks that yield no lasting result. That wasn’t a rock Sisyphus tried to push up the hill, it was a Beissel.

No, I and my farmhands have been tending the crops, crops that actually agreed, grudgingly, to make an early-spring appearance. Of course, the ones in greatest abundance have no edible value – kale, swiss chard, and a few other poisonously bad tasting leaves. The beans and peas are ok I guess, but when I read the urban homesteaders describing the juicy sweetness of green pockets bursting with flavor … aw, come on, we know it’s just a fucking pea. It tastes of chlorophyll and dirt, not of ripe cheese or caviar.

But now I sound all grumpy don’t I? So forget it, you go have your splendor in the grass with your peas, get naked and frolic with your juicy sweetness in a meadow for all I care; it’s a free country. It’s a free country, and that’s just a pea. And I’m not going to wash my car, either.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Our neighbor, Norman Schureman

Norm was the first person to welcome me when I moved to my new house. He issued a standing invitation for a glass of wine at chez Schureman, and though a few years passed, there seemed no rush. We ran into each other all the time -- neighborhood parties, on walks, when his Labrador charged loose down the street, or mine did.

Norm was a well-proportioned, 6-foot tall gentle man with a level gaze and a wry grin -- the kind of grin that implies he knows or he knows you know a pretty good joke. Usually I’d see him in the company of his wife and kids. He built the most beautiful treehouse in their backyard. I saw the family together last month; his little boy held a new Boston Terrier puppy in his arms. “Is that cute puppy yours?” I asked the son. “Yes,” he said happily, and leaned against his father’s leg, “He’s mine.”

Norm died this weekend. He was shot and fatally wounded while at a holiday gathering.

I've never really believed in Karma; reciprocity seems more like mathematics than a philosophy. Do the honest thing or the right thing just because you want to or have to; even if Karma does exist, it might be otherwise occupied. Sometimes what goes around just keeps on going. Witness how often the good die young or at least before their time.

Some think the very young feel more deeply because adults develop callouses along the road. I don't believe that's true. It’s just, once you’re grown, you either learn to bob and weave or else end up punch drunk -- standing on street corners and in subways, making loud attempts to dissect the absolute random series of events that make up life.

(Norman Schureman taught illustration and product design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He leaves behind a wife, children, dogs, students, and a very sad neighborhood.)

This just in: Art Center College of Design will host a memorial service for alumnus and faculty member Norm Schureman on Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 10:00 a.m. The service is open to friends, family, members of the Art Center community and the general public. Full details can be found at comment #39.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

2nd Annual Altadena Primavera Blogger Picnic

I don't know why I can always make a crowd of 50 look like a crowd of 5. I also don't know why I can shoot dogs better than people.

Good scout that he is, Mr. Earl took all the leftovers to a homeless shelter in Pasadena, and they were really happy with the fare. We had a top notch, gourmet spread with nary a hot dog in sight.

(Pasadena Daily Photo has another photo. Maybe Altadenablog will post something his son snapped.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

He ain't heavy, he's my blubber

Prosperity isn’t beating a path to my door; he’s crouching playfully around the corner. Boo! Oh, silly, silly prosperity.

I have a plan to tease him out; gather a few duckets for my online content. Following a popular new business model, I will no longer have a blog per se, I’ll have a club, no – a blub. A very cool blub, where even if you can afford the fee, maybe you're just not hip enough to be a blubber.

Well, why not; the concept worked for American Express. Members felt privileged to pay $100 a year to impress the discerning busboy or reservation clerk. Stuck with MasterCard, who knew what might happen -- perhaps the waitress wouldn’t even take your money. Or worse, she might hold your card between thumb and forefinger, extending the arm while walking it to the cashier. Ah, the 90’s; money so plentiful you couldn’t give it away. Is that an American Express in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me.

The membership concept has always worked for National Geographic, which takes things a step further and only promises a nomination. Not everyone makes the final cut, you know. Worked on me as a 12 year old. Gosh, I wondered -- who put my name before the committee? Did Sir Edmund Hillary vote? And am I like the youngest ever?

What really drives new membership is the quality and exclusivity of the current membership. That’s where you come in.

You're already enrolled in my blub, so no worries. But that also means you’re going to have to start putting out. A book of poetry or photos, yeah, ok, fine. A lecture -- Oh great. Yawn, people, yawwwwwn!

I’ve got one word for you – Scientology. Read the chapter on recruitment techniques. Start dressing like you mean it.

What do you get out of it? A membership card. The Phoebe and Albert newsletter (A big maybe on that one). Exclusive content and information on my latest appearances – like the next time I plan to shop at Ralph’s.

But you’re going to have to put out again shortly – membership has its expiration date.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A few miles from Altadena

...that would be Flintridge, with roads and trails leading to a stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains called Cherry Canyon. Not usually an admirer of the gulag style of architecture, I appreciate the simplicity when all you really want to see is endless sky and trees and purple hills.

This house is for sale. There’s a rumor it belongs to a major basketball star – you know, the tall one.

Both my surgeon (the one who finds my bones after my horse throws them around the Arroyo) and my dentist live around here. So did Dr. Bob, a well-known heart transplant specialist who would ride up the canyon with Vandy and me and whoever else might join. Everyone, horses and all, could tramp across his lawn to the pool for ice tea and a swim. Hemingway was right; the rich do have more money.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A cautionary tale

“According to new research, Greek doctors found that marathon runners have increased stiffness of the large arteries, suggesting that some types of high-intensity exercise may actually be bad for the heart, potentially leading to hardening of enlarged arteries, high blood pressure, heart attack and even death.” Yahoo!News

It’s about time the Greeks weighed in. Over the past two decades, I’ve put off serious marathon training in light of their deafening silence. Thanks to my prudence, I won’t need a baby sling for the giant stiff artery.

What saved me from the ravages of intense exercise? The little voice in my head; the little voice I once accused of self-indulgence. I now know it was the voice of self-preservation -- a voice that protested any run in excess of four miles. (Actually, the voice is pretty satisfied with two miles, or on a bad day, just a can of cocktail nuts.)

Clearly, the Greek doctors took their time on this one, as running has been popular for at least 40 years. In the interim, I of course was ready to take any measure that would lead to health and longevity -- 15, 20, 25 miles -- had it not been for the little voice, ever cautioning, “Calm down and eat your Snickers. Wait until we hear from Greece.”

Some people may question the validity of this study, as well as the fact that much of our information comes from Yahoo rather than the Economist these days. The fact that this particular news item mentions no hospital affiliation or even a single doctor’s name. Oh, blah, blah, blah. Go Wiki the research if you don’t believe Yahoo. Better yet, run your marathon. In five years, we’ll see who’s towing their veins around in a Radio Flyer.

As for me, tonight, I turn around at the two-mile mark. Thank you, says Mr. Heart. Thank you, says Mr. Blood pressure. Curses, foiled again, says Mr. Death.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Death and Taxes

We had a date. Not me and the sinister, brooding guy with an axe to grind, but me and his pimply younger brother -- the one in corduroy with braces and BO. In his case, I neither sought nor desired romance. Adrift in life’s bleaker moments, one might be seduced by the older brother, but no one ever threatens to tax oneself.

The IRS has an image problem, no question about that. You’d think anything so dangerous and powerful would carry an air of bad-boy sexiness. Then we might not mind the process so much, might even look forward to it, in a perverse way. But when the taxman commeth, he's not wearing a wife beater. Though Ingmar Bergman often featured the talented older brother, you'll see no film where blondes run through the fjords chased by an auditor.

In the Certainty family, only hunky death inspires poetry.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Girl Scouts

I think the line handed to parents, at least back in the day, was that scouting gives children the tools and vision to meet their future. I have to admit, Scouting’s glimpse into my future absolutely nailed it.

Scouting taught me the value of a dollar.
In the Girl Scout section at Sears, you could buy an official pocket knife, comb, handbook, pup tent, slip, socks, lip gloss, really, the accessories were endless. My mother bought me the minimum requirements – skirt and sash.

Scouting taught me independence.
The day I joined, my parents made it clear I would have to move my own inventory. When it came to the cookies, neither mom nor dad would shill for me -- not at the country club, not at the charity league, not at the office.

Scouting taught me to accept my limitations.
The first assignment from the Girl Scout Association of America was to bring in the lolly. But when your parents refuse to push the cookies, it’s like playing baseball without arms.

Before Girl Scouts operated like a multinational corporation, each scout had to place her order prior to sale, and the order indicated your level of ambition. Minimum order was one case. I ordered one case.

Then, if you were the little matchgirls of scouting, you had to lug around a cardboard satchel of cookies door-to-door. My parents forbade me to beg in our immediate area. I partnered with Kim; she also had uncooperative parents, but at least we could hit up her neighbors.

Scouting taught me resourcefulness.

What did we hit – two houses, three houses? – before throwing in the towel and heading back to her place. Kim opened the Thin Mints and I lit into peanut butter creams as we watched I Dream of Jeannie reruns. I know you think you know where this story is heading, but you’re wrong. We didn’t eat 24 boxes of cookies, we only ate three or four. Kim stole some money from her mother’s purse and put it in our pay envelope, then we forged a few names on our Girl Scout receipt.

Scouting taught me that when life is unfair, blame your parents.
I remember that year, the only year I was a girl scout, the grand prize for cookie sales went to a Mary Thompson. Mary had a horse and her father owned Thompson Chevrolet. He gave five boxes to every customer. Mary won something, maybe a bike, I can’t say for sure because I never looked through the awards catalogue. Scouting taught me pragmatism. You’ve just got to let some things go; not all in life has your name on it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sexual Politics

Piero Marrazzo was forced to step down as governor of Rome's region, Lazio … Prosecutors have now opened homicide investigations into the deaths of two people intimately linked to Marrazzo, Brazilian transgender prostitute known as Brenda, and a Rome-based drug dealer…” Time Magazine

It’s not often Americans can preach the virtues of underachievement, but wow, I don’t think our guys have ever nailed that triple salchow. All we’re known for is a hard fall from a single lutz.

Now our politicians seem all Herbie the Love Bug compared to La Dolce Vita being celebrated over in Italy these days.

Call girls on the credit card? The Washington version of senior prom.
A wet footsie under a public toilet stall? Romantic.
Mark Foley texting congressional pages? A poet.

And to think we all dropped our fork when what’s-his-name jetted off for Brazil to see his girlfriend. That wouldn’t make an Italian even look up from his plate. In fact, if that's all Marrazzo had done, not only would he still be governor, he'd be on the fast track to sainthood.

The ordinary citizen over there handles these scandals much better than we would, but then, they’ve had centuries of practice. Modern Italy was weaned on your Fra Filippo Lippis and Lucrezia Borgias. We’ll forever be the younger country, where arguments over fabric and stain removers can threaten to topple a government.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Central Altadena

Walking in the afternoon, before the rain. I intended to shoot nothing but houses. Maybe houses with clouds. Maybe houses with clouds and trees. Maybe houses with clouds and trees and dogs.

Then it was just dogs. Dogs that live, one assumes, in houses with clouds and trees.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The company we keep

When I was growing up, the shelves in our house held row upon row of books. Or at least, the best parts of books -- books boiled down from an unwieldy 400 pages to their 80 page essence, cleansed of all the fatty, non-nutritional bits such as adjectives and subordinate characters. I’m talking about the Reader’s Digest Condensed books.

Each Reader’s Digest Condensed Book anthology was a full house of popular fiction – two inspirational novels and three filthy ones -- delivered by mail 8 times a year. As I recall, the inspirational tales were printed on brown butcher paper so one could, presumably, skip straight over those to the good stuff.

My parents never read the Readers Digest Condensed books, they certainly never bought them. No need to buy a cow when we had the public library.

No, the books must have been passed along to us by neighbors, just as my mother’s friends would pass her their old Vogues and Harpers Bazaar. I loved Vogue. Though only 10 at the time, to this day I remember a photo with the caption, “I’m walking my hair!” that showed a model swinging her long gold braid in the sunshine. I made plans to start walking my hair too.

But even the most frugal middle-class household had a subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine, filled mainly with dreary articles ( “I am Joe’s Liver”), save for the joke pages and quizzes. For awhile my whole family would sit down to take the How to Increase Your Wordpower quiz. As native speakers, we kids argued about any definition we missed. No surprise there, we argued all the time anyway – for sport, in deadly earnest -- often losing sight of which it was this time. I suppose that’s why my parents eventually decided to let us each increase our wordpower on our own time.

Old copies of Reader’s Digest ended up in the reading room, as ubiquitous to the middle class bathroom as a fuzzy beige rug, little shells of scented soap, and guest towels.

… Or did you have company towels? Or both? Something never addressed in the Wordpower quiz was the crevice, crevasse, canyon that exists between company and guests. I remember an argument I had with my best friend as to the difference. It was my contention that in the visitor hierarchy, company reigned supreme, and only company could use the best towels. All visitors, however, fell under the umbrella of guests, which meant everyone except those actually living in the house had permission to use the guest towels.

Suffering from the insidious side effects of wordpower, I would argue about anything.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Take it easy lady

Sometimes I face the blank screen and think maybe I’ve given one too many shakes to the spice jar. Nothing left in the noggin but a whiff of expired powder that can only be excavated with a magnifying glass and dental pic.

And I weep.

Then I think, screw it, let me bore you bitches one more time. (We agreed at a party recently that “bitches” is now unisex, and a perfectly acceptable substitute for “guys” and a more than acceptable substitute for – blech -- gals.)

Speaking of which …

When someone refers to me as lady, as in “This lady is asking for help with furnace filters on aisle 2,” I feel like Ethyl Barrymore, pulling her stole tight around her neck until the fox heads bobble, waving her cane, hairpins flying off her steely gray bun as she stamps her sensibly-shod foot.

“See here, I’m Mrs. Montague-St. John-Smythe, and I want to see your best filter!”

Customer, okay. Woman, fine. But lady? That chaps my woolen underwear.

I’m cranky. That’s what happens when we don’t get enough sun around here. Cranky enough to admit to lots of stuff festering in that spice jar – Like, how much I hate California native plants. There, I’ve said it, and there’s no going back.

Just because you tuck a few redwood chips around those wizened stems doesn’t mean they still aren’t a bunch of weeds. I guarantee that everyone who landscapes with California natives carries a sanctimonious canvas tote into Trader Joes and stuffs it with soymilk and raw almonds before firing up the Prius and plowing into the nearest retaining wall.

And you know what else gives me a run in my blue stockings? Now everyone’s talking about Obama’s medical exam, how the doctors say he should stop smoking and drinking. What, you want to be led by some nicotine-deprived maniac who needs a belt or two? I want my president to have every comfort at his disposal as he considers the future of the western world.

What else, what else. I’m fearless. I’m rolling up my tweed sleeves and pouring a sherry. I’m not afraid to tell anyone anything right now, so long as it’s not to their face.