Day 21

I have seen some lovely sights since being here.  Foremost, when walking, are those rose bushes that extend from the fence over to the trees on the other side of the sidewalk.

Lovely to walk through – trust me, especially when you walk all over and you’re used to much worse stuff.  Sometimes you catch a tunnel of these and you breathe in and just dig what you get to savor as you make you way down the sidewalk.  They are more common than you might expect.  This isn’t all bad either:

This was on one of the sunny days.  There haven’t always been alot of these, but when there are it’s kind of devastating how beautiful it is here and you feel like a shmuck for complaining.

Later, you see this chopper on Abbbot Kinney in Venice Beach and you appreciate why TLC has reality shows:

Gotta love that bike!  Comfortable – yes!  Practical – that has nothing to do with LA!

Finally, you enjoy seeing this pickup in Santa Monica:

The door says, in case those readers at home can’t read it, “The Gentleman Scholar.”  You very much want to ask what makes the driver a scholar – or, you guess, a gentleman – but you couldn’t find him to do so. Your loss, obviously.

That’s leather seating and a plastic skull gear shift, just like you hoped it would be.  Sweet!

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Day 20

For our first week or so here, I wondered whether we’d ever see an overweight person again.  As you no doubt already know, it’s a culture here in SoCal that is very fit, very aware of the body, very much focused on good looks.  Suffice it to say, I became pretty damn self-conscious of my own body and looks after just a day or two.

When we first arrived, we headed down to the Venice boardwalk to get a sense of the scene and the neighborhood.  It was much as we imagined – surfers, boogieboarders, skateboarders, bikers, joggers, tattoo artists, henna artists, rollerbladers all dominated the landscape.  There were some vendors selling pretty bad artwork and some musicians playing, hoping for tips so they could buy some dope, but what was striking was just how much what was going on was focused on the body.  If someone wasn’t exercising in some form or another, they seemed to be engaged in some form of body embellishment – tattoos, piercings, henna paintings on their hands or shoulders or ankles.

The exercise is one thing.  J. is in good shape, having done yoga for years now and being actually very good at it.  She’s been going to Exhale and YogaWorks here in the neighborhood, both because she loves it and also because she’s wanted to witness the yoga rockstar-thing up close and personal and each of these studios has at least one major yogi attached to it.  But she’s also been jogging, going for about 45 minute or an hour.  I’ve done some jogging – I love going through the hills of the Ocean Park neighborhood in Santa Monica or along the boardwalk to enjoy the beach – but also a lot of walking.  I haven’t done any yoga yet here, but am considering just so I can get a little touch of the crazy that J.’s been telling me about.

The point being, though, that we don’t feel out of touch with fit people – neither of us looks exactly what we’d like to in terms of an idealized image of ourselves, especially me, but who does (other than the residents here!)?  We belong to a gym back home, we work out, we’re not at a point where we have health concerns, and we don’t stand out in a  group.

Trust me, though, when I say that almost all the women here are skinny, many of them are very attractive, and more than I can say have had surgical procedures meant to “enhance” their looks.  That part is a little daunting – and depressing.  It’s a good-looking crowd, and people here are very cognizant of how good they look as well as how others look.  (And I’m not even talking about people in film and television especially – these are more like your average Joes and Janes).  It can all be a little much for me, already self-conscious because of my lack of a tan and the fact that I do weigh a little more than I should, so maybe I really should keep my shirt on while sitting out here.  I’ve tried to keep active, to get some color when I can, and buy some new groovy shirts.  After all, style matters.

Indeed, this is something I’ve seen a number of people resort to who don’t have the God-given body, or the martial discipline or financial flexibility to build or create the body, that others do.  They go in for funky hats, sunglasses, facial hair.  They buy vintage t-shirts featuring long-forgotten rock bands.  They adopt skatepunk or ska style.  They find a way not to look vanilla.  Indeed, this is somewhat the route I’ve been going, not to look cool – because I find that doubtful at this point – but not to stand out too much for looking so out of place.

I already have a tattoo, on my left leg just above my ankle, and it’s pretty visible to everyone except me – sometimes I forget I have it because it’s on the outside of my leg and not something in my line of sight on almost all occasions.

J. has been considering one, and has thought Venice might be the perfect place to get one because of its many tattoo parlors and because so very many people have them out here.  Indeed, it seems to us that more people have tattoos here than don’t, and only a very few people don’t seem to have at least one, at least in Venice.

J. went to a place the other day to scope out the vibe there and to test out whether she was up for getting one.  She came back a little later, not sure.  The price is good, the shop seems fine, but she’s nervous about regretting it at some point later on, especially when she’s older.  That’s not something I’ve ever thought about, not once, but I can understand why someone would.  Tattoos are certainly not going to have any adverse effect on our careers or how people see us – we’re academics, and tattoos can only help in that regard, not hurt us!  But one of the things that J. worried about was that somehow she wasn’t “cool enough” to have a tattoo.

On one level, I understand, because the culture we’re in seems to lead one to think that way, especially if you’re an outsider to it.  It’s weird to come to a place that you’ve always heard values looks and style and to approach it as an outsider but also as someone who wants to live here comfortably for a few weeks and the things you find yourself doing, or considering, as you move through that process.  Should I buy this or that?  Should I get a tattoo?  What is my style, or what do I want my style to be out here?  Do I want to change?  If I change, am I planning on bringing that back home?  Is this a persona I adopt just for out here?  It’s a lot to consider, and as always it comes back to how much I want LA to change me, if at all?  How much of an influence do I want it to have?

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Day 19

June Gloom.  It’s a weather pattern in Southern California that hits every year, usually starting in late May and sometimes extending into July.  What is it like?  Well, every morning when you wake up it’s overcast.  It looks almost like fog, but is really more a layer of stratus or stratoculmulus clouds that hang over the coast for the morning and early afternoon.  Too technical?  It’s cloudy, with little sun, and although the clouds will burn off by afternoon due to solar heating, the mornings are pretty gray with no real sunshine.

Inland, things burn off quicker, usually sometime in the morning.  But here in Venice and in other spots along the water, this gloom has been here pretty much every day for the past two weeks – at least the days that I’ve been here.  And it lasts until about two o’clock.  By three I’m on my way somewhere, or about to be, to pick up the boys.  When we get home they’re pretty wiped out, so we chill out with some reading, perhaps a little television – it’s shark week on the Discovery channel! – and/or a game or two.  J. comes home and we either cook or go out to eat, and then back home for the slow shift towards bedtime.

What does this mean for me?  I’m hardly seeing any sunshine, mainly just during my trip to and from camp or elsewhere to pick up the kids.  While we enjoyed some sun while in Torrey Pines and at Legoland, even those days began cloudy – they just turned sunnier sooner than the days in Venice.  Pretty much every other day has been mainly overcast.  I know the song claims that it never rains in California, but this June gloom that has extended into August is really starting to get me down.  I think I’m having a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder, something I had my first year after grad school when I moved to my current hometown with its brutally gray winters.

I don’t want to complain – life ain’t so bad when you’re living in LA for a month with your family and getting to experience the things that we are.  Still, this weather pattern’s got me down, man, and I could use a pick-me-up.  I think this continual onslaught of overcast skies might be effecting my output, because I’m never as effective when I am feeling this way.  It’s too distracting, too much of a weight, and the forecast is that it will be like this all week long.

June gloom is contributing to my own gloomy sourpuss, and I’d like that to stop.  Time to take a more active role in putting a stop to it in whatever way I can.  And while that sentence could be interpreted as some sort of mad and zany vow to somehow come up with a diabolical plan to change the weather, all I really mean is that I need to be more proactive in coming up with ways to feel more active, to get outside more often, and to find some means toward a more positive outlook, and then maybe I’ll start being more productive.

I write this at night – tomorrow I vow to get out of the little house here, hole up somewhere interesting, and get some work done.  Time to get back into the spirit of things.

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Day 18

As I’ve mentioned before, ever since we told F. and W. that we were going to spend a month in Southern California, they’ve been terrifically excited about only one thing: Legoland.

F. has always been something of a builder – first with wooden blocks, then with Duplos, Playmobil, and finally graduating to Legos.  When he was very little I built with him – castles and forts and areas for the different characters from The Lion King, which he was totally into at the time.  After he fell asleep at night I would build him something special, while J. and I watched tv, so when he woke up in the morning and came downstairs he would have a new fort or castle awaiting him.  I taught him how to build structures so that they’d be strong, and we would use colors in interesting patterns.  I loved doing that with him.

After he moved on to Legos I would help him as well, especially at Christmastime and at birthdays when he’d get all sorts of presents, but eventually he became old enough to build everything on his own and didn’t need my assistance anymore with directions.  He could follow them precisely, and then eventually he moved on to building his own contraptions with Legos and not feeling it necessary to follow the directions.  He could get lost in building for hours.  In the past year he has twice gone to camp where he does things with robotics – using Legos to build robots and then fitting them out with a motor so that they could move and do other things.  He’s gotten really into it and will most likely join a club.  It’s been great to see him develop all this through the years – it’s really taken off, and J. and I like to imagine him as an engineer or an architect or something science-y.  Much different than the two of us.

W. has been different.  He was never as interested in the building.  He would leave that to F. for the most part, only doing so in a dispassionate way, vaguely helping with the wooden blocks and Duplos.  He was more interested in what you’d do with things once they were built.  He liked figures who used the castles and forts.  So he enjoyed Playmobil probably more than F. did because they actually came with figurines he could easily put together and then concoct stories about.  The same was true with Legos.  He wasn’t super interested, at least for a while, in putting together the big ships or buildings.  He would let F. do that or ask me to.  He has come to do this more often now and takes pride in his ability to complete them when he gets around to it, but generally speaking W. is interested in role-playing or creating narratives in which he can put these figures to use.

So it wasn’t hard to see that Legoland would almost certainly be a hit.  It’s been a big part of our family.  Plus, W.’s best friend at school went last year and came back and told him that you get to drive cars and get a driver’s license – W. could not have been more pumped!  That’s just what he wanted to do, virtually ALL that he wanted to do, in Southern California (at least until he discovered skateboarding).

To Legoland it was, then.  What is this place?  Well, it’s an amusement park, of sorts.  It’s not Disneyland – not as many rides and there isn’t as overwhelming an onslaught of fairy tale creatures wandering the grounds and creeping you out.  But it’s clearly modelled after Disneyland, and in addition to the main Legoland Park they have now added an aquarium and a water park.  All to get more money out of you.  And getting money out of you they will.  They don’t charge you money for the rides once you are inside – for the most part, though they do charge you for some special “attractions” – but man oh man do they charge you to get into the place.  Whew!  And you pay for food and for those driver’s licenses and for any other incidentals and of course they charge you for the Legos that you just know you’re going to have to buy when you leave.

But it is fun for the kids, to be sure.  W. did indeed get to take his “driving test” and he did marvelously.  Here’s a little photo from it:

He passed and did indeed get a “license,” which for hours he believed actually qualified him to drive a real car and certainly served as an official means of identification.  F. went too, of course – they pretty much did everything together except for the rollercoaster, which W. refused to get on.  There weren’t many creepy characters, dressed up in costume, other than this guy, who seemed to be some sort of Bionicle:

Overall, they ran hither and thither and had a grand old time, and when it came to the water park they went crazy for the rides down the tubes.   We stayed there for about 2 1/2 hours, just focused on three different rides.  And we stayed in Legoland itself for seven hours, which seemed a lot of time but also made me like we got our money’s worth from the admission costs!

The thing is, that Legoland is an amusement park, but it’s also more than just a temple of consumption and consumerism.  Because while with Six Flags and other amusement parks you actually participate pretty passively in the park by sitting down most of the time and letting things happen to you, and in the narratives of Disney you don’t really do much more than just listen and glory in the imagination of the Disney imagineers, Legoland has a number of areas in which you can build things – cars and robots and people and whatever else your heart desires.  And Legos are toys, but not ones that overly control you as the one who is doing the construction.  You can follow the directions or not.  You can build them as shown, or go in a different direction.  You are not merely a consumer, you are a producer.  F. likes to build his own designs.  W. likes to create his own stories with the figures.  They are not beholden to narratives where one or two of the parents and dead and the children are now in peril, clearly needing some sort of role model who will illuminate the proper means toward agreed-upon mainstream behavior (I’m looking at you, imagineers, who don’t really seem to have that much imagination when it comes to human behavior, if you ask me).

This is what makes Legos different, and worthwhile.  They are not passive, they are active.  They don’t try to control or constrict your imagination, they encourage it to take flight in weird and unknown directions.  They Lego people are amazing with construction, don’t get me wrong.  Look at some of the images from Miniland, USA, where they build some of the most recognizable buildings and neighborhoods from different US cities:

We loved looking at these miniatures from Washington, New York, and San Francisco, as well as ones from Las Vegas, New Orleans, Southern California.  It was really the best part of the park, at least for J. and for me, but the boys liked it too, especially F. because the construction and use of the materials was so very clearly the point of what was in front of us.  It was there for more than just our amusement; it was there to demonstrate what we could do, if we chose to do so.

But I also love that the park, and Legos in general, leave that choice up to you.  Legos come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors.  They can show you lots of things to do with them, they can give you lots of instructions.  But ultimately, what you do with these blocks is up to you.  And that’s the best thing about these toys.

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Day 17

Torrey Pines.  Before this day all it meant to me was a golf course, and I knew that only vaguely.  But J. wanted to go to the state park reserve and do some walking and go to the beach, telling us that it would be great and that it was supposed to be beautiful and that we’d love it.  Ok, I said, I’m game, and off we went.

(As a sidenote: While in SD, W. developed a fascination with the Navy and we took him past the USS Midway, which serves as a kind of museum.  You know the type – you go on board and see how the sailors lived and what they did and the equipment and the giant capacity of the ship, etc.  He wanted desperately to go on board, but the price was heavy and the discovery of that was before they told us that it would take 3 hours for us to get around the whole thing.  Umm, no.  Off to Torrey Pines.)

Going in, the boys in the family knew that there’d be some walking.  As we got there, we realized that by “walking” J. meant “hiking.”  But that was fine and cool – we’ve been to the Adirondacks and hiked a peak.  This had a road.  She told us she wanted to hike up and then down to the beach.  How hard could that be?  Up the road to the top and then back down.

Well, not exactly.  The walk up the road was easy enough.  Steep, yes, but something all of us could handle.  We weren’t fully dressed for it, with bathing suits on, and a bag full of towels for the beach.  J. had wondered whether I should leave it, but I wasn’t sure where on the beach we’d come down and whether we’d be close enough to the car for me to go and get the gear.  So I carried it.  And it was fine, though it began to hurt about 75 minutes into the hike.

That’s right – 75 minutes.  Although J. had told me that Brian – her colleague in the seminar who lives and teaches in San Diego – did the whole thing in an hour, she didn’t tell me that he really motored and that he was always on his own, knowing where he was going, and didn’t carry any gear.  No no and no for us.  We had a longer hike that Brian, and longer than I had anticipated.

But it WAS beautiful.  What I didn’t realize was that there would be all sorts of trails to follow down to the cliffs and to get really amazing views.  The one at the top of this post is of Flat Rock.  Here’s a different one, of us, with the background of a different trail:

Lots of sunshine, the Pacific in full splendor, dramatic cliffs: what a view!  (And yes, I know I look kind of crazy with the hat and the beard and the sunglasses, but it was a vacation day and I wasn’t looking my best…)  Although we were all tired after hiking down to the cliffs and gazing at the ocean from above, then hiking back up and back down the road, we all went into the ocean and revived briefly before packing up and heading in to La Jolla for lunch.  Truth be told, J. was right – it was a fabulous time and a great call on her part.

Still, the sojourn in Torrey Pines took much longer than we had expected, so I was pretty hungry, as were the boys.  A few fish tacos and margaritas later, I had refuelled and we walked around the town, which is much like I remember it from 25 years ago – lovely, highly commercial, full of skinny blonde women.  Here is one of them:

That’s right, Tori Spelling was there, in La Jolla for book signing.  W. wandered right into the store, blithely passing the security in search of the next installment of “Backyard Sports.”  J. went racing in after him and then called immediately for me, telling me I had to come in.  After I noticed her I started laughing, not at seeing her in a bookstore, signing her book – though there was a bit of amusement there – but because W. was walking around, ignoring all the fuss, focused on finding his book.  To Tori’s credit, she found him amusing as well and gave us a big smile as we called him over to us.

The rest of the time in La Jolla was fine – great views, nice stores, iffy parking – and then we headed up to Carlsbad.  Next stop – and the boys’ focal point of not only the trip this weekend but of the entire time in Southern California – Legoland!

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Day 16

We came to San Diego for a few reasons.  It’s a lovely city with good weather and has a great zoo.  Because the boys are both crazy about legos, we knew we needed to visit Legoland at some point during our month in California, and it’s down by SD.  Plus, San Diego has an area called Chicano Park with amazing murals that were painted during the 1970s, that J. could focus on as part of her research project (and thereby we could get reimbursed for parts of this leg of the trip!).  Doing a weekend wherein we started in SD and slowly made our way north, through La Jolla and Torry Pines, and then on to Legoland made logistical sense.

Today was the day of the zoo.  The San Diego Zoo is big, if you haven’t been there, with about nine different major areas.  It takes a while to traverse it.

We got there pretty early and started right in, looking for tigers and crocs, seeing a python that freaked me out, eventually heading up to the polar bear plunge.

Then we saw some amazing birds – a giant eagle and an even bigger condor, before looking at a three-year-old panda moving about rather friskily.  We headed over to see the elephants and lions, had lunch, and saw some more big cats before making our way to the monkeys and gorillas and flamingoes.  Finally we stopped to take in a show of sea lions and birds (one of whom flew off unexpectedly and alit on a woman’s shoulder.  J. was horrified.)

All in all it was five hours and it went pretty well in terms of what animals we were able to see and get good views of.  We covered most everything we wanted to.  Zoos are zoos – there’s a lot going on and plenty to see and talk and think about, but we were with our two kids and working on keeping them happy and interested.

Then we stopped in Chicano Park on the way home.  J. is doing a lot of work on murals out here in California, and Chicano Park is an important site for these.  The place has an interesting history, and it’s worth reading up on.  (This site isn’t perfect in terms of design or in terms of typographical errors, but it’s a grassroots-styled, invaluable resource for those interested.  Better constructed, and at least as if not more important, is the site of the Chicano Park Steering Committee.)  These murals were inspired in part by Siquieros, who J. is working on, and they continue his work in terms of a public art that is highly political, community-minded, of-the-moment, inspirational and at times confrontational, and visually arresting.

After a great deal of community uproar and conflict, the city of San Diego constructed Chicano Park Highway 5, which had been sent right through the Barrio Logan (a la Robert Moses in NYC and its environs).   As a public space, the park is a site of pride but also a site of what happened to the Chicano community in the decades following the second World War.  To commemorate their history, their traditions, their struggles, a group of artists took the highway pylons and girders that held up the highway and that bordered the park and they made these concrete slabs their canvasses.  Their work is striking:

Considering our stay in Los Angeles, which has had its own share of deeply conflicted history between Anglos and Chicanos during the postwar years, this park was really interesting to visit and spend some time at.

As a fan of James Ellroy, I first started to get to know the history of ethnic conflict through his LA Quartet, especially the Zoot Suit riots and the appropriation of Chavez Ravine for the LA Dodgers.  Going to Chicano Park made for a valuable counterpoint to that story.  In LA, the history of the Otises and the Chandlers is well-known and their manipulation of the real estate market, their control of water and power in the valley and the city, and their coopting of suburbs into the metropolitan Los Angeles area was all a part of what I knew to be a deeply scarred and ugly history to the growth of this city.

San Diego, from what little I know of it, seems to me to be a little different in its history and its current “story.”  It often shows up on lists as one of the best places to live in terms of climate and lifestyle, and lots and lots of people retire here.  It has a world-class zoo, a couple of professional sports teams, and a serious military presence because of the naval and marine bases in the area.  It also has its own history, and while it’s colorful, it seems somewhat less tempestuous than that of Los Angeles.  That doesn’t mean that those in power haven’t sought some of the same things that powerbrokers in LA have – they’ve just met with more successful resistance, it seems.  And Chicano Park, which isn’t much really, but which seems to be a source of deep community pride, is just one of those places of resistance.  And as an emblem of the city, it’s just as valuable as the zoo where we started our day.

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Day 15

I have been away from the blog for a few days because we were away, essentially on vacation.  Although the people I work with tend to see this as a vacation, I have not.  J. is here to work, the boys are in camp, and I am looking to manage as many household and camp responsibilities as I can, and get as much work done as I can.  J. wanted us to come because she didn’t want to be away from all of us for a month, and we didn’t want to be away from her either.  It’s up to me to do everything, but I have felt that I should certainly try to do as much as I can in terms of keeping the house clean, doing laundry, whatever shopping I can do, picking the boys up from camp, cooking (not all the time, for sure, but more than normal!), and other things.

But on Thursday we were headed down to San Diego.  J. put in a half day of work and I spent the morning with the boys, mainly chilling.  I let them watch some tv because I knew they haven’t watched much and wouldn’t be for the next few days, and then we went for a nice ride on our bikes down on the beach.  After J. returned we packed the car and headed through some light traffic down to SD.

On the way, we got a kick out of the towns in Orange County that looked like Agrestic, where the first three seasons or so of “Weeds” were set.  Ticky Tacky houses, for those who remember the opening credits of the show – they all are built the same, they all look the same.

We got into SD, checked in, and I took the boys for a swim downstairs so J. could get some work done.  Then we headed out for some dinner and back to the hotel.  We had a great ride back to the hotel on a carriage pulled by a Russian guy on a bike (We think he was Russian based on his accent, but he could have been Ukrainian or Belarussian or any other number of possibilities).  It cost a ton, but it was a funny ride during which we all laughed pretty much the whole way back.  (Unfortunately, I accidentally erased the little video I made during it – doh!)

That night, for the first time in California, J. slept with one boy while I slept with the other.  The boys were thrilled, because they love to sleep with one (or both) of us.  I wasn’t – this is something I’ve tried to get away from on this trip, as they’re getting older and need to be sleeping on their own and climbing into our bed less frequently.  But I knew I would break down on this trip because hotel living is tight.  Being on vacation can be hard!

I didn’t sleep well at all.

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