Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Holidays!

What a great year it's been!

Fun things we did this year:

Traveled to Portland (twice!); drove to Reno, NV with my sister Vicki to visit our Uncle Louie; traveled to Las Vegas with the Lakers; just got back from Orlando, where we did Walt Disney World and visited the Kennedy Space Center (absolutely fabulous!); toured Frank Sinatra’s former home in Palm Springs, Disney Studios and several architecturally significant homes in L.A.; saw President Obama and Michele Obama at separate Democratic Party fundraising events; attended Comic-Con and Destination D, the first-ever Disneyland conference; attended several concerts, including Sting, Ringo, the Dukes of September (Michael McDonald, Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagen), and Neil Young’s unforgettable Bridge School Benefit with Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Leon Russell, and Buffalo Springfield; saw live interviews with Roger Corman, Leonard Nimoy, Sandy Koufax and Joe Torre; and welcomed over 100 people to visit our home’s gardens as part of the prestigious Theodore Payne Foundation’s annual spring tour.

What we’re grateful for:

Family, friends, jobs we love, and good health; our cats Beanie and Cecil, who bring us joy every day; our wonderful home; and 24 happy years of marriage.

What we’re looking forward to in 2011:

Tim's family reunion in San Diego; being part of the Theodore Payne Foundation garden tour in April; visiting friends in Louisiana; and watching the Emmys red carpet ceremonies again from Tim’s office window!

Wishing you all a wonderful new year!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Walt Disney World, Orlando

Since we don’t have kids, we usually treat ourselves to a big gift every Christmas. Last year it was a new computer. This year we decided to go to Orlando—a place we’d never been, even though I’m (as you probably already know!) something of a Disney nut. We left L.A. on Saturday morning and arrived back home late Wednesday night.


We roomed at the Beach Club Resort, one of the nicest but oldest Disney properties. The resort’s main advantage: it’s within easy walking distance of Epcot, the most “adult” of all the Walt Disney World (WDW) theme parks, which we visited several times during our stay.



Epcot is actually two parks in one: (1) Future World, a more traditional Disneyesque experience with attractions focused mostly on ecology and the future and (2) World Showcase, a mini-world’s fair of exhibits and food from several international countries. Our first morning there, we made a beeline straight to the Spaceship Earth geosphere—the iconic golfball-shaped building that greets all Epcot visitors. Inside we traveled from the stone age to the information age, culminating in a very clever video that’s tailor-made for every person participating in the ride. (Click below to see ours.)


video

Very fun! The rest of the park, though, was rather mediocre. The various “countries” offered an interesting array of restaurants (that serve alcohol!), but the attractions were embarrassingly outdated and stereotypical. No need to ever return.


From Epcot we took the monorail to the Magic Kingdom, Disneyland’s fraternal twin. Visiting the Magic Kingdom was weird for both of us. Although the layout is very similar to Disneyland, it’s enough different that we felt like we were in an alternate universe. Everything is also more spread out in the Magic Kingdom; plus there’s no Matterhorn (!!). And the castles aren’t the same: Disneyland has Sleeping Beauty’s castle, while the Magic Kingdom’s castle is home to Cinderella. I longed for the familiarity of Anaheim!






Temperatures plummeted into the 30s on Monday, but we mushed ahead anyway to the Animal Kingdom, one of the newer and best WDW parks. Built in 1998, Animal Kingdom feels like a true extension (rather than recreation) of Disneyland and does a good job of promoting animal preservation, one of my favorite topics. We enjoyed the half-hour Finding Nemo stage play, performed with puppets (a la The Lion King). We also went on the Dinoland, U.S.A. ride, which is similar to Disneyland’s “Indiana Jones” but with dinosaurs instead of Harrison Ford (!). The best part, though, were the live animals featured in several of the park’s attractions. Foremost was the Kilimanjaro Safari that takes visitors through some 100 acres of transplanted savanna, forest, and rocky terrain. Now I’m not one for zoos or other artificial animal habitats, but this was really quite wonderful.


We saw all kinds of African fauna, including flamingos, giraffes, hippos, lions (spectacular!), and elephants.












The highlight, however, came after the tour when we walked along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and saw a family of silverback gorillas. What a thrill!











Did we end up having a good time? Absolutely, especially when combined with our trip to the Kennedy Space Center (see the separate blog entry below). But whenever I need a Disney fix, I’m glad all I need to do is drive 35 miles to Anaheim and visit the Happiest Place on Earth. Sure, Orlando’s Downtown Disney—with its miles of endless shopping, restaurants and fun nightlife—is far superior to ours, but the rest doesn’t hold a candle to the original Disneyland. (If only Animal Kingdom could be transported here!) Plus, Walt Disney World is far too enormous. You literally need a car to get from one park to another. You can rely on the free shuttles, but they take FOREVER! I swear we spent at least 10 hours waiting for shuttles to take us to and fro.


Will we ever return? Of course! We barely scratched the surface of things to do and see. But next time we’ll go in the spring and rent a car for our entire stay.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Kennedy Space Center

One of my earliest childhood memories is of watching astronaut Alan Shepard blast-off from Cape Canaveral to take the first U.S. trip into space. The event was so historically significant that my 1st-grade teacher brought a TV to class so we could all watch. I was immediately hooked on space travel.

Oddly enough, it never occurred to me that Orlando is only an hour away from the Kennedy Space Center—that is, until Tim’s boss mentioned we might need a break from Disney while there (thanks Mike!). Boy, was he right! On Tuesday, we rented a car and drove to the Kennedy Space Center, home to NASA and my childhood dreams of space exploration. Hands down, it was the highlight of our vacation.



Much like Walt Disney World, the Space Center is spread out over many miles, most of which are accessible only by tour bus. The visitor center features a rocket garden of early spacecraft, exhibits about the U.S. vs USSR "space race," an IMAX theater, and an open space shuttle. There’s also an astronaut hall of fame, located a couple of miles away, and a fabulous offsite Apollo/Saturn V Center, which houses an example of the monstrous Saturn rockets that carried the Apollo moon missions into space. To get the real flavor of the place, however, you have to pay extra to take a tour of either Cape Canaveral (”Then and Now”) or the shuttle assembly building, launch pad and landing strip. We opted to revisit our youth and so toured the Cape.



Some of the launch pads are still active; but the most impressive ones were those where Shepard, John Glenn, et al., lifted off in the 1960s. We toured the “blockhouse” where Shepard’s first flight was counted down






and took pictures of what remains of launch pad 14, where Glenn’s historic Friendship 7 flight originated.











The most emotional site, though, was launch pad 34 where the crew of Apollo 1 burned to death during an on-ground test run. Although it was a horrible time for the space program, NASA eventually recovered and launched Apollo 7 from this same site.




The dramatic concrete pad base








and huge flame diverters remain on the site, as does a memorial to the three Apollo astronauts who lost their lives.






Tickets to the Kennedy Space Center are good for two days. “That’s strange,” I thought when we paid our entrance fee. But now I know why. Spending only one day at the Space Center is not nearly enough. The next time we’re in Florida, I hope to schedule at least two days on Cape Canaveral as this was truly one of the most amazing places we’ve ever visited.


Monday, November 08, 2010

7th Street

One of the most exciting on-going local developments is the revitalization of downtown L.A. Hundred-year-old buildings are turning into living spaces as more and more amenities—like a recently opened Ralph's supermarket—are introduced into the area. Downtown is becoming gentrified.

A big proponent of this conversion is the L.A. Conservancy, the organization that regularly fights for the restoration of old Los Angeles landmarks. To open residents' eyes to the beauty of the city, the Conservancy conducts several walking tours a year, featuring downtown architecture. We try to participate when we can.

On Sunday, the Conservancy offered an historical tour of 7th Street, one of the main east/west arteries downtown. As usual, we revisited some familiar spots; but mostly we marveled at buildings we had never really noticed before.

Here are just a few of the sights we enjoyed. Who says this city isn't beautiful?





Los Angeles Public Library as viewed from atop the Sheraton Hotel


The crown of the Pantages Theatre (1920)
401 W. 7th St,


Ornamentation on the Union Oil building (1937)
215 W. 7th St.


Old L.A. streetlamp and fire escape


Mural on Dearden's furniture store
700 S. Main St.


Former factories (1911) turned into lofts
Santee Court, 714 S. Los Angeles St.


Top of unknown building
7th and Los Angeles streets


Mural on Spring St.


Kitschy detail, St. Vincent's Court
Alley off 7th between Broadway and Hill


Saving the best for last:
Fine Arts Building (1926)
811 W. 7th St.

Batchelder tile floor


Lobby


Mezzanine




Saturday, November 06, 2010

Home Improvements

As those of you who know us know, we've been tinkering with our yards for several years now. Three years ago we tore out the backyard and planted drought-tolerent California natives. That worked so well, we did it again the following year in the front yard. Then last year we converted our garage into what realtors call a "bonus room"--that is, we now use it instead of cars.

Since the garage is no longer auto-friendly, I decided the rear concrete driveway was just wasted space and so asked our landscaper Joel to design a third garden. We quickly dubbed it "phase 3" of our ever-growing re-landscaping project. He did his magic and we now have a wonderful new garden right outside our backdoor. The concrete was demolished, but saved to create a step-stone path from the remaining driveway to the garage. The backyard was extended to the front of the garage as well and two new small gardens were planted: one along our wall and the other beneath our backdoor steps. In addition, our gate was pushed forward by 8 ft. so we can now hide the trashcans on the side of the house. The new plants (mostly natives) are still in their infant stage, but I already feel like this is how our yard and patio were always meant to be. And, oh yeah, we also bought new front and back doors and, of course, painted them red! Looks pretty good, don't ya think?


"Before" and boring


Demolition


Construction (notice the white back door)


All done: the path from the driveway to the garage door


Trashcans now live on the side of the house (hooray!)


Peering through our new side fence


The backyard and patio


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

LOLA



Living in Los Angeles, you get used to seeing movies and TV shows being shot all over town. A long line of “Star Waggons” parked on the street, or a brightly-colored sign attached to a lamppost, inevitably means something is being filmed nearby.


Even though we live within walking distance of Sony Studios, we’ve never seen film crews in our neighborhood—that is, until yesterday. On Monday a notice from Film L.A. was tucked into our front door, warning that an episode of Law & Order: Los Angeles (or LOLA, as we affectionately call it) was being shot the next day in Ballona Creek, the concrete “river” that runs at the end of our block. The notice promised “atmospheric smoke effects,” weapons, a “crime scene body,” “fake blood on the river bank,” and an array of film equipment. In addition, the bike path located alongside the creek would be inaccessible and street parking restricted, 6AM to midnight.


As soon as I got dressed the next morning, I looked down the street and, sure enough, orange cones were blocking the exit. I walked over to the creek to see what was going on. At the far side, I could see what looked to be a white bodybag. A crew member was picking trash out of the water—heaven forbid the rest of the country sees debris in our sad excuse of a river! Two retired motorcycle cops guarded the ends of the street bordering the creek. They were giving me the fisheye, so I went back home to work.



I returned a few hours later to survey the scene. Two (prop?) cop cars were parked on the other side of the creek, along with a fake county coroner’s wagon. A neighbor pulled out of her driveway and yelled my way, “Has anyone claimed the body yet?” She then sped away, laughing hysterically at her own joke. A police officer walked past, but I couldn’t tell if he was real or an “extra.” I then noticed that the gate to the bike path, which has been locked ever since we moved here, was open! Marveling at the power of Hollywood, I walked toward the gate. No one stopped me and so, for the first time in 12 years, I took the normally forbidden shortcut to the post office.


When I got back, the crew had moved to one of the houses overlooking the creek. Windows were covered in brown wrapping paper and floodlights were blazing. I looked around for the stars of the show, but didn’t see anyone famous, so kept walking home. However, I did see a bank of porta-potties standing at the end of the street. Show biz ain’t as glamorous as it used to be!


P.S. The L.A. Times also had its eye on our little TV production and so ran an article about the Ballona Creek LOLA episode in today’s Business section. According to the Times, film production in L.A. is up 22% this season, thanks to LOLA and other LA-centric shows. Good for the economy and good for those of us who remain star-struck, even if we’ve lived here most of our lives.


Be watching for the “Ballona Creek” episode to air some time in December.


UPDATE: The "Ballona Creek" episode of LOLA aired on NBC last night (11/17/10). Lots of creek scenes. I can't believe I missed all the action! You can probably catch the episode on Hulu if you missed it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

826


In my professional life I’m known as the “queen of after-school homework centers”—that is, I study homework help programs offered by public libraries after school. I am, of course, also a big fan of homework assistance provided by other agencies, including
826, a national nonprofit co-founded by author Dave Eggers eight years ago. 826 combines pop culture, celebrity (as well as non-celebrity) tutors, and fun to make homework attractive to kids who might not otherwise get the help they need. There are two 826 outlets in L.A.


Judd Apatow, one of our favorite filmmakers, is also a big fan of 826 and, in fact, held a big fundraiser a couple of years ago to help launch the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, one of 826’s wacky storefronts. He’s also donating the proceeds from his new book I Found This Funny, which was released last night at another big fundraising event. We were there.


The event was held at the Writers Guild of America theater in Beverly Hills, one block from Kate Mantilini, the single best restaurant in L.A. for spotting celebrities—plus the food is fabulous! We arrived early enough so we could eat dinner before joining the festivities. No surprise that Judd Apatow was there, too, sitting two tables away from us. We watched as people came over to pay their respects and exclaim their excitement about the night ahead. We, on the other hand, played it cool and focused our energies on eating. We then walked over to the theater.


There was no red carpet—unusual for an event that promised star wattage—but there was a gaggle of autograph-seekers standing outside the front door. They took one look at us and quickly went back to talking among themselves. Obviously we were nobodies. We then entered the theater’s lobby and were greeted by the happy din of a couple hundred people drinking and having a good time. These were the VIPs—mostly young hipsters, dressed in black—who had paid top dollar to attend. We did not pay top dollar, so were handed copies of Apatow’s book and told to find a seat in the theater. The show started 30 minutes later.


After a short film about 826’s Echo Park site, Dave Eggers got the ball rolling by introducing Apatow, who riffed a bit before introducing standup comedian Aziz Ansari (Tom on the TV show Parks and Recreation). Ansari was hilarious, talking about dating in L.A. and why men his age (27 years old) should not be parents (very funny, but unrepeatable in a PG-rated blog!). He was followed by Ryan Adams, a young country-rock singer who apparently hasn’t performed on stage in a while. I had never heard of him, but did enjoy his folksy style.


The highlight of the evening, though—and, quite frankly, one of the main reasons we went—was Garry Shandling, Apatow’s comic mentor, whom we’ve seen several times. Shandling was a riot, dispensing deadpan dating advice to Aziz Ansari and commenting on current affairs. His best line of the night: “I see Sarah Palin is thinking of running for president. I guess the Mayans were right about the world coming to an end in 2012.” He also said he didn’t care if Muslims built a mosque on the site of the World Trade Center, because there is no such thing as sacred land in Los Angeles. “Except, of course, the La Brea tarpits, but even there the buildings are a little too close to the edge.” Ahhh, L.A. humor!


The other highlight was Randy Newman, who sang a few songs, including our anthem “I Love L.A.” Afterward I grumped to Tim that the audience should have burst into spontaneously singing during “I Love L.A.,” but then decided they were probably all too young to know the lyrics.


The evening ended with former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham singing four of his greatest hits. Why he needed a different guitar for each song was beyond me, but the audience didn’t seem to care. They gave him a rousing standing ovation when he was done.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Halloween!



The power went out at the house a couple of nights ago, so we experimented with our new camera, taking photos by candlelight. We look like two jack o' lanterns!

Have a festive Halloween!!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Michelle Obama

One of the best things about California elections is that big-name politicians inevitably come to Los Angeles to stump for their favorite candidates and causes. Former President Bill Clinton came to UCLA three weeks ago to support gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown. President Obama appeared at USC the following week. Though I saw Obama back in April, I was too busy to see him and Clinton this time around. I did, however, make a point of getting a ticket to see Michelle Obama and vice president Joe Biden’s wife Jill earlier this week when they campaigned for Senator Barbara Boxer’s reelection.

The event was held at the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre, not far from our house. Doors opened at 5PM, so I got there fifteen minutes early. The line (mostly women) was already around the block. It was an interesting group: young and old alike from all ethnic backgrounds. The woman standing next to me was a conspiracy theorist who, for much of our wait, described in great detail why she believes the Bush administration staged the 9/11 attacks. I just stood there and smiled.

Then there was the woman behind me who kept saying how excited she was to be there. I finally bit and engaged her in conversation.

“I’m excited, too,” I said. “I’ve seen the President before, but never the First Lady. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”

She then told me she had seen Condoleezza Rice speak the night before at the Saban theater, located in the heavily Democratic Beverly Hills area. “I was surprised there weren’t more people there,” she commented.

“Well, it was the westside,” I pointed out.

“Oh, yes!” she laughed. “Well, it was a good event anyway. Condoleezza told us about her childhood and was just fascinating, until she started talking about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ . . .”

“And then you started to roll your eyes,” I guessed.

“Exactly!”

While we were on line, several people with clipboards came around to check us in and give us our wristbands. There was a great deal of flurry about who got which color wristband. We decided the colors corresponded to the amount of money each person paid to attend. The conspiracist, who, like me, was given a blue band, insisted on a green wristband so she could sit with her friend. They apparently thought the green seats would be closer to the action. I didn’t care where I sat just as long as I got a seat. (I stood for four hours when I saw the President in August.)

It was every woman for herself when we got to security. And thank goodness, too, because my blue wristband entitled me to a 7th-row seat! I have no idea where the green wristbands ended-up.

I sat between a young volunteer from San Diego, who was working on the Boxer campaign, and a woman my age, who took notes throughout Michelle’s speech. At 6:30PM, the president of the Ebell of Los Angeles, a women’s philanthropic organization, gave a brief history of the theater. She was followed by the head of the local chapter of Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots campaign group. It dawned on me then that this was more a recruitment event than it was a rally in support of Barbara Boxer.

Rhythmn and blues artist Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds was next. I don’t know him, but the audience went wild, practically swooning at the sight of him. He sang a couple of songs and then (finally!) Dr. Jill Biden emerged, looking beautiful and energetic despite what must have been a very long day. She introduced her “good friend” Barbara Boxer, who enthusiastically spoke a while, before turning the stage over to the person we were all obviously there to see: Michelle Obama.

The First Lady is quite an imposing figure—extremely tall, athletic and confident. (Boxer, who is so short she famously stands on a box when she speaks, looked almost like a child next to her.) Michelle started her speech rather deliberately, talking about her family and calling herself “Mom-in-Chief.” She then spoke about the plight of other families in the country and how her husband is working to improve the state of the economy. The more she spoke, the more passionate she became, till the theater took on the air of a revival meeting. Individual audience members yelled out their approval. I’ve attended many political events in my time, but never one like this. Michelle Obama was, quite simply, amazing. In the end, the three women—Michelle, Jill and Barbara—embraced as the audience roared. I’m guessing lots of new volunteer campaigners were recruited by the time we left the theater.

Walking to my car, I suddenly spotted three SUVs, flashing lights and zipping across Wilshire Blvd.

“There she goes!” I yelled to a crowd of strangers standing on the corner.

We spontaneously burst into applause and waved good-bye.