Monday, August 21, 2017

Follow The Sun

I had lots of excuses for why I didn't travel to the "Path of Totality" for today's solar eclipse.

I leave for the Ukraine in just a couple of weeks and will be gone for eight days. I've got another trip planned to New Mexico in October.

Both have been a strain not only on my bank account, but also on my heart—because each will be the longest duration I will have been away from my cat since I adopted him last year.

I made a commitment to him when I brought him into my life—and that wasn't so I could go gallivanting all over the country chasing eclipses without him.

But since missing out on something epic is literally one of my worst fears, I took the opportunity to seriously consider the total eclipse of the sun and what it might mean to me.

If I didn't position myself directly underneath it, what would I actually be missing out on?

At first, it occurred to me that I might drive or fly to some far-flung location and still not see the eclipse because of cloud cover. And in that cost-benefit analysis, it seemed that I would be missing out on more by going than by not going.

"I would be so mad," I told my friend Erin, "if I hauled my cookies all the way to Oregon and then I couldn't see it. I would be so mad."

Even more, those moments of "totality"—what I wouldn't see if I stayed in LA—were all of two minutes.

Two minutes!

I get that it's a life-changing experience for some people. I get that watching it on a screen isn't the same as experiencing it in person.

But I can't imagine any two-minute event that would be worth that kind of expense of time, energy, and money—not to mention the opportunity cost of being away, even if it was only for a day.

Two hours? Maybe. In the past, I've traveled some distance for a concert or a rare tour of some place on my list.

But two minutes is nothing more than a commercial break.

Beyond all considerations of practicality, though, eventually the question of whether I should stay or go became somewhat of a philosophical conundrum.

And I decided that while maybe I could justify traveling to see something—say, Halley's Comet—I just couldn't justify going to see the absence of something.

To me, the sun transforming into a crescent shape is far more interesting than it being blacked out completely—and I could witness the moon taking a bite out of the sun if I just stayed right here in LA.

I had a number of viewing options to choose from. I could've traveled up to Santa Barbara or out to Joshua Tree.

But I chose to stay local and be a part of my community—heading to Westwood (or, the recently-rechristened "West Beverly Hills") for the event at UCLA.

There, I chatted with astronomy students and space-minded volunteers and faculty, peeked through a variety of pinhole cameras, borrowed eclipse glasses and filters, and scooped up some science flyers.

An overwhelming line for the solar telescopes had formed at 7 a.m., and those in it still had at least an hour's wait at the point that LA reached its peak eclipse (maxing out at only 60%), so I just sat on the steps of the Court of Sciences, ate my lunch, and watched the crowd exclaim and marvel.

No one bemoaned that it wasn't dark enough, or that the sun hadn't been eclipsed enough. We were delighted to see crescent shapes emerge in between the shadows cast by the leaves of trees overhead.

And the best "viewer" of all turned out to be a standard kitchen colander.

For the year 2017, I think I made the right choice. But the eclipse that will occur seven years from now may be an entirely different matter.

We shall see. A lot could change before then.

Related Posts:
Dark Matters
Photo Essay: The Big Parade Day Two Part 2 (Franklin Hills, Los Feliz, Griffith Park)
Chasing the Moon

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The East Coast Architect Who Pioneered West Coast Modernism

Though it's lovely and I'd enjoyed visiting, I haven't had much interest in writing about the Clarke Estate in Santa Fe Springs.

That is, until two years later—when I realized that its architect, Irving Gill, was born 20 miles south of my hometown of Syracuse, New York in a town along the 81 South called Tully.

Some consider Gill somewhat of a "missing link" in modern architecture, a style that he certainly pioneered around the turn of the last century—pre-dating Mies van der Rohe by a decade and Koenig by four decades.

And yet this is a guy who went to Madison Street High School in the Westcott area of Syracuse, where I used to go to shop for vintage dresses.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Gill had little to no formal training in architecture. He'd only apprenticed in Syracuse and Chicago before moving to Southern California—as many of us do, in poor health— opening his own architectural firm, and designing a number of private homes.

When he came out west at just 20 years old, he ended up first in San Diego. But while he's often considered a San Diego architect, by birth he was a Central New Yorker—and, as I did, found himself in LA.

The move north was probably not unrelated to some commissions in Torrance that Gill had completed for the Southern Pacific Railroad company in 1912 and 1913.

But then in 1919, after Chauncey and Marie Rankin Clarke had already struck gold in Arizona, the pair hired the architect to come to their 60-acre orange grove in Southeast LA County and build a "country home"—a project he completed two years later.

He was an unexpected and idiosyncratic choice for the Clarkes, unless you consider how well-traveled Marie was. She was probably just a bit ahead of her time.

For all the affluence of the Clarkes (each of whom had come from successful Midwestern families), Gill's design was strikingly unembellished.

But the lack of adornment in this reinterpretation of Mission Revival design allowed the beauty of the structure—the "tilt-up" (or tilt slab) concrete construction, with its columns and arches and casement windows—to speak for itself.

The "clean" design also turned out to provide a more sanitary way of living, since ornamentation is usually what gathers dust. And it manages to achieve aesthetic purity without becoming antiseptic.

Fortunately, very few changes have been made to the inside of the Clarke Estate, making it one of the most intact examples of Gill's work—especially since many of the others have been demolished.

It's a time capsule of how the other half lived in the first half of the 20th century—and an important representation of the area's shift from citrus ranching to the oil industry (as also evidenced at the nearby Heritage Park).

And even though Mrs. Clarke proudly displayed artifacts and antiquities from her worldly travels throughout the minimalist interior and even convinced Gill to concede to including some subtle design elements in the interior, it wasn't enough to keep the Clarkes at their estate for very long.

The smell of oil—and the racket that drilling for it made—got to be too much for them, so they left to live out the rest of their days in the Coachella Valley, where they raised Arabian horses and grew dates.

But the architectural legacy that Gill left behind with their former home—in all its cubist, poetic, and innovative glory—remains somewhat miraculously preserved after having been forgotten—or, at least, under-appreciated—for decades before being rediscovered.

Now, the landmark is owned by the city of Santa Fe Springs, and it's a regular stop on Esotouric's "South LA Road Trip" bus tour.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn't that unusual for an East Coaster to pick up and head West—to escape the brutal winters or to improve failing health. It's a wonder that more people didn't do it back then—and that more people don't do it now.

Having made the move myself, I can't quite comprehend why there hasn't been a mass exodus of New Yorkers fleeing to California. And for the life of me, I can't even imagine why any New Yorker would come out here, stay for a while, and then go back.

Tully's own Irving Gill, however, spent the rest of his life in Southern California, dying in Carlsbad in 1936 at age 66.

Sure, other architects became more famous than Gill for their rejection of historical architectural styles and their elimination of decoration. But I can't help but feel a sense of hometown pride for the guy who put Syracuse on the Modernist architecture map—even if he traded the snow belt for the sun belt and never turned back.

Because... who could blame him for that?

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Ruins of Santa Fe Springs
Photo Essay: A California Country Home In a Long-Lost Orange Grove

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Another Missed Calling

As I continue to explore my new homeland—which is still very much foreign to my Upstate New York-raised former self—I'm still catching glimpses of what could've been my future self.

I still think I should've become an artist. Taking photographs is my meager attempt at fulfilling that deferred dream.

In my heart, I know that whatever is is probably what's supposed to be, but that doesn't mean I can't fantasize about what might've been.

If I could've played an instrument I actually liked, or if my mother hadn't criticized my singing in the car so much, I might've expressed my artistry through music. My piano teacher—who was also my Grammy—was always so proud of my piano-playing.

I stopped playing only after she died, when I was just 10 years old.

Maybe my parents thought that artistic endeavors were a foolhardy pursuit—but had they encouraged any outdoorsiness or athleticism in me instead, I might've made a bigger impact than the butt-print I left on the couch.

I was so good at golf and archery and dancing back then.

I was good at a lot of things back then.

But there's one thing that I'm good at now that took a long time to emerge. I can blame my parents or my circumstances or myself, but now it's very clear to me that I would've been a great drag racer.

I've had an inkling about the parallel universe in which I race cars for a while now, but something became very clear to me when I recently visited the National Hot Rod Association Motorsports Museum at the LA County fairgrounds in Pomona (also the site of the Auto Club Speedway, formerly Pomona Raceway).

I belong behind the wheel of a Ford Highboy Roadster, and I long to careen down the open road in a streak of "Insatiable Red."

I would've made a great drag racer.

I got my license at 16 (almost 17) but I could've started really driving so much earlier. My father wouldn't even let me take the driving test for my license on his car, so I had to use my own money to pay a local driving instructor who let me use his car.

That's before I'd ever heard of El Mirage or the Bonneville Salt Flats or the nation’s first commercial drag strip, Santa Ana Drags at Orange County Airport, which opened in 1950.

Of course, when I was 16, the 1991 version of drag racing wasn't what it was 30, 40, or 50 years before—when roadsters and dragsters had names like "The Bug," "The Glass Slipper," and "Midnite Oil" and V8 engines competed against the so-called "four-bangers."

Drag racing most likely first started when the second guy in town got a car and the two sole drivers in any given era decided to see who could go faster.

Hot-rodding started out as more of a way to strip those cars down, removing as much of the chassis as possible to reduce drag and increase speed and overall performance.

And where this style of racing diverges from, say, Formula 1 or traditional stock-car racing is that the racers were highly customized on both the inside and the outside.

It was as important to look cool as it was to go faster and win.

And there's a certain art to that, isn't there?

I coulda been somebody. I coulda been somebody else.

In fact, I could've been so many other things. And I could've written about doing those things rather than visiting museums about them.

Maybe it's not too late for me. Maybe my time hasn't passed for everything.

But since I didn't even have my own car until I was 36 years old, I've got some catching up to do.

Related Posts:
A Missed Calling
Photo Essay: A Haven for Hotrodders
Photo Essay: Under the Hood at a Hot Rod Shop
Photo Essay: The Secret Street Legal Collection at Vic's Garage

Thursday, August 17, 2017

This Disposable Life

Nothing lasts forever. This, I know to be true—at least, intellectually.

But I am increasingly surprised and disenchanted at how disposable things are.

Or, rather—how disposable things have become.

I don't even mean interpersonal relationships—those forgotten encounters and micro-interactions that pile up over time, cluttering my purse with business cards and my rolodex with "connections" I can't seem to recall.

I mean actual things.

Sure, our plastic grocery bags have been replaced by "reusable" ones. Batteries can be recharged (though, if you ask me, the non-rechargeable ones are a huge, noxious waste that should be outlawed).

There's a lobby against disposable diapers, arguing in favor of the cloth ones that you've got to launder the poop out of. And there are even those who want to pluck the plastic straws right out of my very mouth.

But why is it that some of our most major purchases in modern times are only built to last a year or two?

I used to refer to my first car, a silver Honda Fit, as "my little tin can" because of how easily it crumpled. I would've turned the lease in early if anybody would've wanted to buy it back, but it had so much damage that I suspect they just disposed of it when I finally gave it back at the end of my three-year lease term.

The Honda dealership happily put me in a new car, a 2013 Honda Civic, for no additional money down and basically the same monthly lease payments.

In less than a year, I was ready to get rid of that one, too. Although it was much sturdier than the car it replaced, it bore the brunt of being rear-ended and pushed into a car in front of me. The body shop repaired it—cosmetically—but of course it never ran the same again.

I kept that one pretty much through the end of my three-year lease term, and the dealership once again had no issues waiving the cost of any of the "excessive damage" it had sustained, as long as I signed up for a new lease on a 2016 Honda Civic for no money down and just a few bucks more per month.

Less than 300 miles into driving that new car, and it was pummeled while parked in front of my building in a hit-and-run. If it had been any older, it would've been totaled—but since it was so new, the body shop just basically rebuilt the entire back end.

It looked like new again when they completed the repairs, but it was already battle-worn. I couldn't wait for the next three years to go by so I could replace it with something else.

But when does the cycle stop? Of course Honda wants to constantly keep me in a new car so I'm forever indebted to them for monthly lease payments instead of eventually paying one of those automobiles off.

They make more money off me that way—but also, I get to always drive a new car.

Inevitably, towards the end of my lease period, something on the car starts to go. With the Fit, it was the master brake cylinder. With my first Civic, it was the filters and the brake pads.

I've yet to see what's going to fall apart on the car I'm driving now, but I've still got two years left with it.

But regardless of any of the collisions I've had—and regardless of who was at fault—today's cars feel as disposable as a pair of summer flip-flops.

At what point did spending thousands of dollars stop getting you something that would last? Was there a tipping point when vehicles shifted from being fine china to paper plates?

It seems pretty certain that the next car I drive is going to be an older model, since brand-new cars no longer carry CD players and instead require periodic software updates.

So how far back do I have to go to get a car that I can buy and make a commitment to without being let down so soon after making its acquaintance?

It's always been that way with cell phones, of course. You could find an antique rotary phone now and it would still work as long as you plugged it into the jack. But back in the 1990s when cell phones were pretty new, the technology was advancing so quickly that you'd have to replace it just to have a device that could handle the available cell networks and the bandwidth available.

And that hasn't actually stopped yet with mobile devices. You've still got to swap them out every year or two—or you've got to suffer with an agonizingly slow processing system, drained battery, and insufficient memory for all the applications required to run the darn thing.

A couple of years ago, I got one of the cheapest Samsung smartphones available and it cost me over $300. This year, I replaced it again with the cheapest Samsung I could find, and what this time cost me only $150 works ten times better than its predecessor.

I can't believe how well this new, cheap phone works.

Looking back, I don't know why I stuck with that old phone so long. I think it's because I thought it should last longer. I didn't realize how transient my time with it was supposed to be.

Over the course of my life, I've stuck with a lot of things—and relationships, and jobs—that I should've gotten rid of sooner. I don't consider myself averse to change, but it just seems like things shouldn't have to change so frequently.

I prefer jobs—and boyfriends—that last longer than three months.

At some point, I'd like to drive a classic car that's not road-weary yet.

But I'm kind of really looking forward to what kind of amazing things my next cheap phone will be able to do.

Related Posts:
Life for Rent
Life on the Curb
Hand-Me-Down Girl
Vast City of Forgotten Encounters

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Photo Essay: A Theater of Plants In the Cradle of the Canyon

Tucked into a mountain canyon in Topanga, you can watch a play under the shade of native oaks and with the scent of 15th and 16th century herbs in the air.

Just look for the wooden placard along the west side of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, announcing the current season for the Theatricum Botanicum.

It’s a hybrid theater / botanic garden founded by actor Will Geer, better known as Grandpa Walton from the TV series (not the film) The Waltons.

And although it's a bona fide performance venue now, it began more as an enclave for misfit artists...

...not the least of whom was folk singer Woody Guthrie, who lived in a shack on the property.

Today, this “garden theater” is a teaching facility as much as it is a performance venue...

...with kids of all ages coming from all over to learn The Bard’s words, techniques of stage combat...

...and a little botany to boot.

Geer was not only a Shakespearean-trained actor who'd debuted on Broadway in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, but he was also a horticulturalist...

...and when he founded his artist collective on his Topanga acreage in 1951 (having been blacklisted during the McCarthy era for for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities), he included every plant ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s works in his garden.

Neither the theater nor the garden had a name back then. It wasn't until 1973 that the "Theatricum Botanicum" was officially christened and incorporated as a non-profit.

Geer passed in 1978, but his ashes remain in the garden (as do the ashes of his former wife, Herta Ware).

The Theatricum Botanicum is one of the few mid-sized union houses in the Los Angeles area—but when you're there, it doesn't feel like you're in LA at all.

By using wood salvaged from the Santa Monica Pier, and by building around the protected oaks to create a natural sanctuary for the arts...

...the non-profit that runs the Theatricum Botanicum has reduced the impact on the environment as much as possible...

...while providing some accommodations for you to feel comfortable enough to go and stay awhile.

Sitting in the cradle of the canyon, listening to the waterfall that feeds Topanga Creek, you can watch A Midsummer Night's Dream during midsummer, at night, under a tree canopy that Shakespeare himself would probably approve of.

The whole spirit of the place feels very "This Land Is Your Land." You can practically hear Woody Guthrie plucking a tune in the wind.

A number of original plays are presented alongside the classics in every year's repertory season, but out of all the places in LA that I could catch a Shakespeare show (like the Old Zoo in Griffith Park), this is the one I chose first.

Is The Merchant of Venice my favorite play that the Bard ever wrote? Nah.

But in Topanga Canyon, I got to see a production that was directed by the daughter of Will Geer and Herta Ware (Ellen Ware Geer), that starred their granddaughter (Willow Geer-Alsop, Ellen's daughter), and that co-starred Herta Ware's daughter from another marriage (Melora Marshall).

It was almost like being invited over to a friend's house and watching them put on a show.

Related Posts:
Taking the Stairs to a Tower, a Terrace, a Dell and a Bowl in Hollywood