Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Altadena Hiker Gardening Awards

Among the finalists, we have:

A stunning example of the Utilitarian Aesthetic. Disguise these beauties? Not a chance. Note the careful arrangement of additional features; they don’t compete, they actually draw the eye on its exciting journey to the ultimate destination.

Inspired use of natural and manmade materials. Sculpture of recycled palm fronds suggests good friends and open-pit barbeque on hot and windy summer nights. What else can we say but rare and well done!

Honorable Mention

Breakfast on the Terrace


Monday, June 28, 2010

Local Heroes

Once again, I’ve been cheated out of the Altadena Golden Poppy Beautification award. I hold no Golden Trowel. And this is after I’ve done everything, everything the committee requires. My garden is awash in fountain grasses and artfully placed hardscape; it’s a haven to insects and other tender woodland creatures; I've been handmaiden to the weeds we call California Natives.

And oh, on Sundays, I don my white eyelet sundress, open my gardens, serve organic lemonade and herbs to passersby, often trilling along with Sarah Brightman, and every bit as loudly.

Golden Poppy people, I’m not bitter, only curious; give it to me straight: Just who the hell do I have to sleep with?

Yes, yes, you say, it’s you, not me. But of course it’s me; what on earth isn’t me?

What put you off? What, because I snuck in a few tropicals? Well pardon my Algerian ivy and Kudzu. Or was it the dry rot? I’m planning on painting over that, you know.

Eventually I’ll get tired of trying to kiss your shovel; maybe after a shot or two I’ll tell you to take your golden trowel and stick it in a shady spot. There are lots of golden gardens around these parts, and there’s no law says I can’t hand out my own awards (so long as I mind my letterhead and keep our senator’s name out of it.)

I won’t do anything behind your back, but let this be fair warning. I’ve been toying with a few ideas, a few contenders, and will post them next. The Golden Trowel may be in your corner (well, of course, you've got the budget for that), but let's see how it stacks up against the cheap hoe.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Passing Shot

I’m not a deep thinker, just an obsessive one. Sometimes I’ll stall somewhere, rev the engine and spin my wheels. It can take days before I admit I’m stuck and wave the white hanky for roadside assistance.

I can’t get Mahut out of my mind. How, in the twilight of a less than stellar career, he won the greatest loss in tennis history.

Mahut’s old. He’s 28, and in tennis, those are dog years; tendonitis, dislocated shoulder, down-and-goner plays up-and-comer years.

He qualified for Wimbledon, which means he worked his way through a series of matches to play in the opening round. Those who play the qualies pay their own way -- equipment, racquets, shoes, strings, plane tickets, taxis, hotel rooms. Throughout most of the year, they scrape out a living, or not, on the challenger circuit; doing it for love, or doing it because that’s all they know.

Potential tennis stars are plucked from early childhood by giant sponsors. They spend the next six or seven years at a tennis academy, often mentored by an immediate family member. Too young to love the game, someone has to love it for them. A fraction get their GDA; a fraction of a fraction go to college.

They’re not unlike racehorses; groomed to do one thing only, pampered when they do that one thing well, dropped unceremoniously should they disappoint. Nothing personal, it’s only business.

Mahut didn’t always suffer early losses. He won the Wimbledon juniors title in 1998. He turned pro at 18, and could never quite get a foothold in the big time; another victim of early promise.

On the night before Day 3 of the longest match in Wimbledon history, the American contingent threw all their best resources at Isner – medical therapists, nutritionists, masseuse, etc. So far as I know, Mahut just went back to his hotel room and took a hot shower and ordered room service.

Well, no playing field is level. And now, no doubt, all the big sponsors are throwing blank checks Isner’s way because he’s a tall, good looking kid, and young. And Mahut is probably on his way to the next job -- another city, another tournament, where it seems someone else is always serving for the match.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


You can be the best or the brightest or the fastest or the strongest. Or you can just hang on longer -- far, far longer -- than anyone else in history.

It’s Wimbledon, and watch these guys -- Isner and Mahut. Not for the best serves, or returns, or strategy. Watch these two guys because they’re so far in their heads, they won’t let go, they can’t let go. 59-59 games in the final set – beyond what’s ever been done, so way beyond it’s crazy, it’s -- the commentators tried to come up with a superlative -- “Epic, no, beyond that, it’s… epic and then something…”


And I’ll bet anyone who has ever punted a ball over the net is boring others with their personal best.

(Sybil. Semi final, Juniors. She had a better forehand, I had a better backhand. We had played before and before and before. It seemed it was always Sybil or it was always me.

But this one match, we pounded away for hours,from early afternoon until dark. We finally weren’t playing tennis at all; we just smacked each other’s hearts back and forth, cross court and down the line.

All other matches I remember because I raised a trophy, or didn’t. But this one I remember from right in the middle. Just the ball and my arm, and the way my arm crossed my chest and stopped, then swung free. There weren’t ten voices, or five or even one in my head. The whole world was silent, but for the whack and the whack and the whack.)

In soccer, even in the World Cup, if two teams are evenly matched on a given day, they’ll call the whole thing a draw so everyone can go out and get drunk.

Not so in tennis. 59-59 games in the final set? Tomorrow, lift one for Isner and Mahut. We’ll never see the likes of this again.

ap photo. Epicalifragilistic match continues tomorrow.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The course of true love

This is Phoebe.

This is Otto.

They’re very much in love.

Otto and Sophie have been married for eight years. Now he wants to leave his wife. "I love her, you know. I'm just not in love with her."

Phoebe is in the throws of a moral delimna. And there's the age difference; she's 91, Otto is only 56. Plus, Phoebe already has a significant other. But when I reminded her Albert was waiting at home she said, "Albert who?"

Friday, June 18, 2010

Altadena: Where we live, part 2

“I have spent much of my life looking at plants. And recently it seems that plants, with sympathy, are looking at me. I wish I could get them to look the other way. It has all to do with memories, memories of the time when southern California was different, or the world was different, and so was I.”

Hildegarde Flanner, Poet and Author, "At the Gentle Mercy of Plants"

I get excited about a few old olive trees or 20 acres of open space. Hard to imagine, hard to imagine Altadena was once nothing but olive trees, orange groves, vineyards, poppy fields, and a few dwellings, all lightly held in the open hand of the mighty San Gabriel Mountains.

The 27-year old Flanner and her mother moved to Altadena in the 1920s, after their home in Berkeley burned to the ground. They bought three old houses, structures is probably more apt, on a little less than an acre, and here they would stay for the next 35 years. Flanner writes that it was a “stunning surprise” for her mother to learn, after the purchase, “Typical of many modest old houses in California, ours was constructed without studs, and of walls somehow assembled of thin redwood planks nailed top and bottom to horizontal two-by-fours … anyone who could hit a nail with a rock could put a house together, and often did.”

Fast growing vegetation of the climbing and flowering sort hid the less than stellar results. (Trust me, that still works at my house.)

I don’t know how Flanner met the architect Frederick Monhoff, but, “Very happily, both for my own life and our immediate circumstances as abashed householders, we had not lived in our delightful slum for more than half a year when I married.”

Monhoff reconstituted and in some cases, totally rebuilt the three structures into actual living spaces. A unique zigzag wood and cinderblock wall still surrounds the houses and the houses still surround the garden, and in the garden some of the original plants still thrive.

As Monhoff installed the wall, Flanner, all chuffed and proud of her husband, told a neighbor:
“Our wall is designed with certain formal irregularities. Have you ever seen a serpentine wall?”
“I have not,” she said. “But I can see by the foundations that yours is going to wiggle.”

I try to steer clear of nostalgia for a past that was never mine; we lose enough in our own lifetime.

But that which remains is ours to treasure and respect -- just as the current owners of the former Flanner/Monhoff property lovingly maintain and restore the history and beauty in their care. Fittingly, one of the owners is Victoria Liptak, Dean of the Faculty at Woodbury University. She teaches architecture, and says:

“It’s so easy for architecture to be a manifestation of control over nature. I try to teach and live an alternative to that. I live in Altadena because I want to deepen my understanding and renew my appreciation of the power of nature. As part of teaching architecture, I bring my students once a year up to Echo Mountain, to expose them to this power.”

After observing and attending some years of preservation meetings, I've learned the quality of mercy can be strained. But now as many of us fight to save historic structures, the sanctity of mountains and oceans, the open space that’s left, we appreciate mercy, given gently or grudgingly, wherever we find it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Altadena: Where we live

I’m sandwiched between two poets. Linda Dove lives a mile to the east. Hildegarde Flanner doesn’t live four blocks south, almost a straight line from my house. But she did once, from 1926 to 1961.

Ten years ago I bought my house, and thus began my most meaningful and imprudent love affair. Even from a distance you wouldn’t say my choice was especially wise. It leaks, sprays, sheds, groans. It likes to collect spiders; we have potty problems. When things go bump in the night, it’s usually from down below. My 90-year old doesn't like the cold, and doesn't much cotton to the heat, either. But even if some other guy shares my bed, it’s my house I spoon. My house, built in 1923, one of a series of orchard sheds constructed when Altadena was oranges and grapes, barons and bootleggers. My house; mine.

I love it for the oak and camphor tree, for the hand-blown glass window, the view of the mountains, the plaster lathe walls. I love it for all the birds and lizards. I love it because I find a shard of old pottery when the soil is turned. I love it because my present has a past.

And we’re just a stone's throw away from Hildegarde Flanner’s house.

I’ve walked by so many times, like stalking a rock star. And now I’ve been inside, and I’ll take you there. Actually, the owner will give us a tour.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Caveat Emptor

“We all love scoring great deals on Craigslist and EBay, but many second-hand purchases are actually terrible deals. Stay clear of these 20 used items that will end up costing you money -- or even endanger your health.”
[Included on the list: swimsuits, undergarments, make-up.]
“… a good thing to remember about used makeup is that it's a breeding ground for bacteria and a number of contagious diseases.”

-- US

The more you know, right? And I was just about to put a down payment on a sack of old gym socks and eye shadow (sold as a set). Whew. How did we survive before respected journals saw fit to share lifestyle tips on the internet?

Though generally a compendium of vital, daily information, U.S. News failed to mention a few used items I consider suspect. You may think I'm overly suspicious, but I once lived with a used-car salesman, and can parse some lingo and read between the lines. I’m not saying don’t buy the following items, just don't rush out all fresh-faced, thinking it's Christmas:

Dental floss: Sure, it may look fine; there may appear to be a lot of play left on that string. But if the floss is still good, why isn’t the owner taking it for a second trip around the choppers? A new coat of wax makes anything shiny and bright. Be especially wary if sold in conjunction with q-tips.

Kleenex: Here’s the quandary: The ad on Craig’s List claims “double plie,” but you’re just taking their word for that, aren’t you. At least ask how many prior blows, and get it in writing. Don’t settle for something vague like, “lightly used.”

Contraceptive devices. Remember, “Previously owned” probably means previously tested. I’d ask for a head count on that household.

Band-Aids: A little white-out and superglue. Oldest trick in the book.

I have at least twenty more, but I’ll stop here because the rest might be considered in questionable taste

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Homestead Meditations

One thing is certain – Wimbledon will not be held in my backyard this
year. (Trust me; the backyard doesn't look so good in real life. This is a glamor shot.)

I can’t tear the ugly brown lawn out fast enough.(That’s not true, of course. I could go faster, but it’s rather a stinking job.) And I’m lining a new series of rectangles with river rock. Only now do I realize they look like coffins – at least while they’re curing.

In the top photo, see the ugly cyclone fence to the right? That was supposed to be Albert’s dog run, something he has refused to enter since Day 1. If I force him in there, after he’s eaten all the unripe apples off my espaliered tree for example, then he gives forth with the most alarming and annoying barks I’ve ever heard. No, they’re not barks; they’re the high-pitched yelps that travel for miles on the Serengeti.

So then I let him out so he can go back to eating squirrel vomit and unripe tomatoes.

He’s awful, and he’s all mine. I just know deep in my heart, he’s going to live longer than any other dog I’ve ever had.

Monday, June 7, 2010

In so many words

Many actors and musicians who got their start in front of a live audience later used film or the recording studio to extend their creative reach.

I know; me, too.

It’s second grade, I’m 8 years old, and Trouble is my middle name. I’ve just discovered dirty words. I’ve also discovered I’m a fair hand at prank calls, and the meeting of forbidden words with the telephone is one of those great Aha! events.

I begin with improvisation, live and without a net. I call a number, shout the mot du jour into the receiver, and hang up. This act I perform regularly and to great acclaim at sleepovers and slumber parties.

Like any artist, I grow bored with repetition. The next step is to string forbidden words in a sentence. But a string of words with stinky butt in the middle is too much hilarity for any one mortal to handle, so for a time I’m unable to complete my calls; I abort mission after mission as I and my companions gasp for air.

This inability to stay in character promises to end a short but promising career; that is, until Kim brings her tape recorder to the mix. We continue the prank calls, but now we can play my pre- recorded messages.

That works for a time, but soon, the isolated sentence wears thin. I have something big in mind – something that will include every forbidden word we’ve learned thus far, from magazines and ads, from eavesdropping, from slightly older brothers. My inspiration is the title of an advice column in Ladies Home Journal: Answers to Teens’ Questions.

This will be my magnum opus, and it takes twenty recordings to get the right take. We set it to music. Later I’ll lose the tune, but always remember the lyric:

Answers to teens' questions on
Feminine napkins, boobies, and tits, and
Damn girrrr-dullllllls,
Butts, and bras, and hairy in-betweens.

One doesn’t quickly tire of a masterpiece. We’ll dial and play this tape all summer long, until we're caught, anyway. And by that time we're pretty much over it, but we will have to listen to lectures, and my parents' favorite, "I don't even know who you are."

I could tell them -- I'm Karin, but my middle name is Trouble.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

After the Fire: Angeles Forest

The problem with setting up house in god's country is that god can always take the country back again.

I've never wanted anything I couldn't bear to lose. So I don't live in god's country, I just visit.

Thank you to Pasadena Adjacent who grew up in these hills and mountains and showed me around some hidden pieces of past and present. Her pictures would have been far better, but she forgot her camera both times. (Honest to god, she really did.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Necks Us

I don’t want to sound shallow or anything, but when I saw the photo of Tipper and Al announcing their divorce, all that struck me was the size of their gargantuan necks. What kind of giant sequoia trunks must their offspring shoulder?

I find it better when the DNA from each parent forms complementary characteristics rather than dominant ones. For example, from my father I inherited over-sensitivity and a short temper; from my mother self-absorption. That means that while a mild insult from you can cut me to the quick, it’s likely I'm not listening.

Of course, my parents did saddle me with at least one form of gigantic neck -- a toss-up, really, between terminal, paralyzing anxiety and an insatiable appetite for blue cheese on Triscuits.

How does this relate to my new interest in bird watching? Back to the self-absorption issue -- anything that gets me out of my head is like a vacation.

Bellis introduced me to this birding group from Cal Tech, and they haven't kicked me out yet. Not when I constantly shout "Where?" to their "There!" Or even the time I said, "I don't see anything but an old crow."

Or maybe they did kick me out, and I just wasn’t listening.