Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dodgers Game

Karen’s brother was otherwise engaged last Wednesday, so we bought his Dodgers season tickets (and good parking pass) for the evening. It was our first baseball game of the year. Unfortunately, it was also the night that 70-mile-per-hour winds whipped through many parts of the county—but more about that later.

I packed a heavy sweatshirt and blanket. Before I even turned the key in the ignition, we discussed our strategy for getting to the stadium. The Lakers were playing at Staples Center, while the final episode of “American Idol” was being filmed at the Nokia Theater next door. Obviously we wouldn’t be traveling through downtown. Instead, we decided to take surface streets: Third Street to Temple to Alvarado to Sunset Blvd. It took us one-and-a-half hours to drive nine miles.

We parked in the highly coveted section B and entered the stadium. The place was practically deserted. Either everyone was home watching “American Idol” and/or the Lakers’ play-off game, or people were sensibly staying inside.

With fifteen minutes to go till the first pitch, we scoped-out our dinner options. Although Tim had insisted he wasn’t going to eat a Dodger dog, he succumbed at the first whiff. I, on the other hand, had a more difficult decision since I’m not prone to eating regular stadium food. We checked out Panda Express (too expensive!) and Carl’s Jr. (too goopy) before I settled on California Pizza Kitchen. Nine dollars (!!) for an individual pizza, but at least I didn’t starve.

The seats were great—the Reserved Level, right behind homeplate. But the wind was atrocious! I swear I could barely see the ball, at times, for all the hot dog wrappers and napkins blowing around.

Tim and I grew-up following the Dodgers, but have moved on since then: we were Padres season-ticket-holders when we lived in San Diego and then switched to the Angels in 2002 when they won the World Series. No surprise that I didn’t recognize one player on the Dodgers team. I scrutinized each photo they showed on the Jumbo-tron every time a new man came up. One of them had more homeruns than any other second-baseman in 2006. Another hit a triple six weeks ago.

“Yikes!” I said to Tim. “They’re really digging deep to say something flattering about each player.”

“Well, better than putting up a slide that says, ‘Overpaid has-been who sits on the bench for most of the game,’” he sniped.

Just at that moment, a huge gust of wind nearly knocked us out of our seats. Tim didn’t know whether to grab his hat or his garlic fries, but managed to hold onto both. A little girl two rows in front of us quickly put her cotton candy back into its bag. I watched as the palm trees in left field danced a jig. It was going to be a long night!

We ended up having a fun time, of course, despite the weather. Don’t ask me who did what, but both teams played well enough to keep us interested. By the sixth inning, I was ready to leave. The wind had calmed down enough to not blow us and our tiny Honda to Kansas, so we quickly slipped away before we got sucked into any further action. Three days later, I remembered to ask Tim who had won the game!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Speaker of the Assembly

Somehow, I received an invitation to the swearing-in ceremony of Karen Bass, speaker-elect of the California Assembly. Sure, I live in Bass’s district, am a lifelong Democrat and contribute regularly to the party, but I still haven’t figured out why I was invited. Nevertheless, I was very aware of the historical significance of Bass’s appointment—not only is she the first African-American woman to be named speaker of the state Assembly, she’s also the only African-American woman ever to lead a state legislative body anywhere in the U.S. I was already scheduled to be in Sacramento that morning, so I called the capitol and accepted the invitation.

When I arrived at the airport, everyone at the gate was happily hugging and kissing. “This is the Karen Bass plane!” someone shouted. Indeed, it seemed like everyone from the 47th Assembly district was flying up for the ceremony. The founders of the New Frontier Club, the oldest and largest African-American Democratic organization in the state, were there, as was state senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is running for L.A. county supervisor. A young man who’s working with Bass on the Obama campaign looked wide-eyed and rather overwhelmed by the commotion whirling around him. I stood on the waiting line next to Mrs. Lee Welinsky, secretary of the Culver City Democratic Club. With so many Democrats on the plane, I knew we’d have a safe flight and so tuned into my iPod and took a nap, even though people were noisily celebrating.

The swearing-in ceremony started at noon. Not knowing what to expect, I headed over to the capitol a few minutes early. The place was a mob scene with dignitaries and school kids clogging the hallways. I asked a security guard where I needed to check-in and was directed to an area on the other side of the building.

“You’ll be in viewing room 4203, on the fourth floor,” the woman at the registration desk said as she handed me a ticket to get into the event.

I was disappointed to be relegated to watching the ceremony via closed-circuit TV, but changed my tune when I arrived at the room and saw it was almost filled to capacity! I showed my ticket and was given a program.

Although not as magnificent as the Assembly chambers, room 4203, named in honor of former state legislator and Congressmember John L. Burton, was still very beautiful with its wood-panelled walls and ceiling-high mural depicting California’s history. A large flat-screen television was set-up at the front of the room in addition to the two smaller TVs on the side. I sat behind a woman who talked about staging a peaceful demonstration demanding more funding for Alzheimer’s research.

At noon the TV screens switched from an outside shot of the capitol to inside the Assembly chambers. The caption noted that this was a “floor session.” People in the viewing room began to settle down. Then, after about eight minutes of watching attendees greet each other, someone yelled, “There she is!” as we all spontaneously leapt to our feet and started to clap. Karen Bass had entered the Assembly chambers. It felt like we were right there with her even though we were half-a-building away.

Speaker Fabián Núñez led the festivities by recognizing “special guests” in the audience. Several people on my end gasped and yelled “OH NO!” when he introduced esteemed actress Alfre Woodard as “Alfred.” Núñez then began naming all the various politicos present. Judging by the reaction in room 4203, former speaker Willie Brown was the most popular man at the event. Governor Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, received only a smattering of applause.

We could feel the excitement of the moment through the TV. We stood for the invocation and pledge of allegiance and cheered our favorite speakers. Three legislators spoke of the speaker-elect’s good deeds and Ms. Woodard recited a poem, “Ego Tripping,” by Nikki Giovanni—all while Bass looked on from the back of the Assembly chambers. I almost cried when the governor mentioned Bass’s 23-year-old daughter who had died in a car crash two years ago.

Then came time for the escort committee, made-up of former speakers Brown, Robert Monagan, Cruz Bustamante, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Herb Wesson, Jr., to accompany Karen Bass to the podium. Her stepdaughter Yvette carried the Bible on which the oath was administered. Afterwards, the new speaker admonished her colleagues to unite in responding to “the current economic crisis the way we would a natural disaster." She also announced that she has asked former governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis to head a commission to examine California’s antiquated tax structure. The viewers in room 4203 clapped their approval. She ended by asking the Assembly to “get back to work!”

I returned to my office across the street and got back to work of my own, moved by the historic event I had just witnessed. Although the plane ride home was far more subdued than the morning, people nonetheless remained joyous as they reflected on the significance of the day. I could almost hear the unasked question on everyone’s lips: is this a sign of what’s to come this November if Barack Obama is indeed nominated?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Viva, Palm Springs!

My family didn’t travel much when I was a kid, but we did go out to the desert a lot. Palm Springs was close enough to drive and, in those days, fairly cheap. Plus my sister and I got to spend entire days swimming and lounging around the motel pool. The desert was our favorite vacation spot.

I no longer do anything that requires a bathing suit, but Tim and I do occasionally go to the desert just to get away. We especially enjoy Palm Springs because, unlike Las Vegas which has turned into a hideous monstrosity, the downtown area looks pretty much the same as it did in the 1950s/60s and the surrounding mid-century modern homes still reign supreme. As far as I'm concerned, Palm Springs is all about nostalgia.

For example, we were taking time out from a conference I was attending there this past weekend when I noticed an ad offering tours of Elvis Presley’s “honeymoon hideaway.” Turns out, May 1 was the 41st anniversary of Elvis’s marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu, the young woman he had met overseas while in the military. To celebrate, the current owners of the newlyweds’ first home were opening up the place to the public, Friday-Sunday, 10AM-5PM.

Now we are not Elvis fanatics, by any means, but we do know a good story-in-the-making when we see one, so I called the number in the ad. It was 10:15AM. A groggy voice answered the phone.


“Hello,” I chirped. “Is this the Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway?”

“Yes,” the man curtly answered.

“My husband and I would like to take the tour. The ad says the house is open after 10AM. Do we need a reservation or can we just show up?”

“No reservations needed,” he replied. “But give me a few minutes to get over there first.”

We arrived an hour later.

There was no sign or even an address, yet we knew which house it was. Architecturally significant long before Elvis came along, the 5,000-square-foot home was dubbed “The House of Tomorrow” by Look Magazine in 1962 and is truly a magnificent example of desert modern design. Elvis moved in a year after the original owners, renowned Palm Springs contractor Robert Alexander and his wife, were tragically killed in a private plane crash. Elvis leased the home for a year and lived there for six months with Priscilla in 1967.

We approached the house reverently and knocked on the door. Through the huge front window we could see the living room and numerous photos of Elvis and his “Memphis Mafia” friends.

“This is already worth it!” I whispered to Tim.

We could hear commotion behind the door and then, after about five minutes, were finally greeted by two elderly women.

“Our first customers of the day!” one of them cheerfully exclaimed. The man from the phone was doing something in the kitchen.

We stepped inside as I silently gasped. To our right was a sweeping stairway that we later learned led to Elvis’s enormous bedroom. Poster-sized photos of “The King” decorated the walls above the stairs. To the left was the living room, looking very much like a James Bond set or some other 1960s movie. A built-in white naugahyde couch lined the perimeter of the room. Above it hung a large faded photo of Elvis and Priscilla during happier days. We could see the swimming pool outside beyond the dining room window.

After collecting our money, one of the ladies said she’d lead us on our tour, which began with a brief history of the house. She told us that the current owners bought the house in 1994 and immediately turned it into an Elvis museum, which is usually open by appointment only and on special occasions, like Elvis's birth and death dates and the honeymoon weekend.

She then told us about the Presley wedding as we ogled the various Elvis memorabilia displayed around the room. Seems that Elvis and Priscilla were supposed to get married in the backyard. But when gossip-maven, and local resident, Rona Barrett got wind of the story, they decided to elope to Las Vegas instead. At 3AM on May 1, 1967, the couple snuck through the bushes at the back of house—the same bushes we climbed through ourselves a few minutes later!—hopped into a limousine, which took them to Frank Sinatra’s private plane, and then flew to Las Vegas—all while the paparazzi crowded outside the house, waiting for the ceremonies to begin. When the newlyweds returned home, Elvis carried Priscilla across the threshold before heading upstairs for their honeymoon. Their daughter Lisa Marie was born exactly nine months later.

“Have you seen Priscilla lately?” our tour-guide then asked. “A friend of mine said she was on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and looked horrible! Too many facelifts! What’s wrong with looking her real age?!”

Although the architecture of the home was spectacular, the decor was garish, to say the least. The master bedroom was done in pink and the lamps throughout the house were gold-chrome. Thank goodness the owners didn’t feel compelled to recreate the shag rug that apparently covered most of the floors when Elvis lived there.

Since we were the only visitors that morning, we got a very special and prolonged tour of the house, including a screening of a homemade video about the grounds. I asked if there were any other celebrity houses we could tour while we were in Palm Springs.

“Well, Frank Sinatra’s home is now owned by a corporation,” our tour-guide revealed. “But no one wanted to buy Liberace’s home when he died. He wanted to turn it into a museum, but the city didn’t want it. Such a loss! There really should be a Liberace museum in Palm Springs.”

Later I asked if this was the house where Elvis famously shot his television set.

“Elvis shot his television set?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” the other woman, who was eavesdropping, said. “He was always shooting his televisions!”

“Really? I must admit that I wasn’t really a big Elvis fan until later in life,” the tour-guide confided. “I was always a much bigger fan of Liberace . . .”

“No kidding,” Tim whispered in my ear.

It was starting to look like there was no graceful way to for us to exit when, after about an hour, a group of tourists knocked on the door and asked if they could see the house. We thanked our hostesses profusely and eased ourselves toward the door, promising to return another day. And with that, we left the building.