Monday, January 22, 2018

Sister Act

When I was entering fourth grade and transitioning from Catholic school to public school, I went through a battery of IQ tests and placement exams to see where exactly I belonged in the educational tracks that they'd established.

I passed everything with flying colors and then some, qualifying for the "Gifted and Talented" program and reading, writing, spelling, and doing math at a seventh-grade level.

I was so far ahead of my fellow classmates, in fact, that my new school was inclined to have me skip a grade—but my parents refused.


Because that would put me in the same grade as my sister, who was only 15 months older and just one school-year ahead.

Her test results hadn't been spectacular enough to warrant her leapfrogging fifth grade and landing right into sixth grade.

I don't know exactly why my parents didn't want us in the same grade, though I suspect it was more of a social decision than an educational one. They knew I'd get along with the teachers better (even though we wouldn't necessarily have the same teacher). They knew I'd make friends more easily.

So they held me back. And, as a result, I was a freak.

Maybe I would've been freakishly young for fifth grade. Maybe having skipped fourth grade would've also made me an alien, as most of our classmates were more likely to repeat a year.

But I can't help but resent the fact that my parents sacrificed my academic success to save my sister's feelings from being hurt.

I did the best I could to cope with the hit that my own social life had taken. That was way more challenging than the schoolwork.

After all, I didn't have to work very hard on my homework, and I didn't have to study for tests—and by the midpoint of fifth grade, I'd already finished the entirety of junior high for those subjects I'd been allowed to advance in.

By mid-fifth grade, I was ready to study a foreign language—something that students weren't normally allowed to do until seventh grade, even if they were particularly precocious like me.

I literally had nothing to do for the rest of fifth grade and the entirety of sixth grade for half of the subjects. Teachers didn't know what to do with me, so they had me help the other students.

I was so bored, but I was also so grateful not to have to be at home with my mother.

But looking back, it's clear to me that if I wasn't going to skip fourth grade, I should've skipped fifth or sixth grade. To my knowledge, though, the subject was never discussed again.

Whenever given the choice, though, my parents preserved my sister's feelings and protected her, even when I would take a hit as a result (sometimes literally).

At times during our childhood, my sister and I managed to overcome being pitted against each other. There were times that I was my sister's best friend.

When she stayed home during both of her proms, no date and no dress, I turned on the stereo in the basement and danced around and sang to entertain her and take her mind off of what she was missing out on. And when she struggled during her freshman year away at college, I recorded cassettes for her featuring messages from all our dolls and stuffed animals, in each of their individual funny voices. I made her mixtapes. I wrote her letters.

But since I was just a year behind her in school, that was also the time that I had to be figuring out my own college plan and sending in my applications.

I wanted to go to Yale—and I was certain I could get in—but my parents didn't want me in New Haven and refused to bring me there for a visit or help me pay the application fee. I wanted to go to Columbia—again, convinced I was a shoe-in—or NYU, but my parents wouldn't allow me to attend any school in New York City. In fact, I got one out-of-state college visit, which I used on Williams College in the Berkshires—where I got waitlisted.

I applied to a couple "safety schools" where I was sure I could get a lot of financial aid, if not a free ride.

And at the insistence of both my parents and my guidance counselor, I applied to Colgate—a "Little Ivy League" school I'd never heard of until my sister applied there—because she'd gotten a nearly full scholarship and they all thought I had a good chance too.

My parents had already made it very clear to me and my sister that they would be contributing no money to our tuition or any college expenses. If we wanted higher learning, we'd have to figure out how to pay for it ourselves. So, it almost didn't matter where I wanted to go; it was more about where I could afford to go.

And I had to go somewhere. I needed to get away from my parents.

But, much to my dismay, Colgate forked over the most amount of money. And once I'd applied and been accepted, there was no way I could turn that down.

Here's the rub: My sister got there first, and she wanted my arrival to be on her terms. I had to let her sign up for classes, and then I had to make sure I didn't end up in any of them. I couldn't live in the same dorm. She even forbade me from auditioning for theatrical productions that she'd signed up to work backstage on—even though I'd been the one to introduce her to the drama department in high school.

"I don't want to introduce you to my friends," she said. When I asked why, she said, "Because they're going to like you better."

"Well, that's true," I said.

I couldn't even claim any of the glory of receiving such a big honor—the "Alumni Memorial Scholarship"—from such a prestigious university. Next thing I knew, my mother was calling the local newspaper and pitching a story to them about how we both graduated as salutatorians of our respective graduating classes and both wound up getting the same award from the same school.

I was only special because I'd only done the same thing my sister had done the year before. I'd argue at the time and even now that I was only salutatorian and not valedictorian based on a technicality (whereas my sister was actually in second place). But that doesn't make very interesting news.

Still, I'd been a ham for attention ever since I appeared on the front page of the Lifestyle section of the local newspaper that ran on Mother's Day when I was in nursery school. At least I was going to be in the newspaper again.

The article was a big feature with a big stupid back-to-back photo of our "sister act" that ran on the back page of the Saturday paper—a pretty visible press clipping. I felt humiliated and diminished. And then my mother ordered a poster-sized print of the article from the newspaper and gave one to each of us.

I don't know what my sister ever did with hers, but mine has been rolled up in a poster tube with a bunch of other stuff for years, shoved into a dusty corner of my current kitchen, having been moved from dorm room to dorm room and apartment to apartment. I pulled it out and read it recently and had two reactions.

First, the quotations sound like me. And that's a good thing. I'm not sure I've actually changed that much since then, at least in the most fundamental ways.

Secondly, I don't think I was actually speaking the truth. To me, it sounds like I was trying to give them a good article. After all, I worked for that very same local newspaper and had landed a front-page story on it. I knew what worked for them.

I'm kind of inclined to throw that poster out, but it's an artifact of a big time in my life. It's unpleasant, but I think it's important I remember it.

Related Posts:
Open Letter to My Biological Sister
Black Swan, And The View from Behind First Place (Excerpt from Extra Criticum)
Upping the Ante
A Missed Calling

Subterranean Explorations on Second Avenue

When I actually lived on Second Avenue in Manhattan from 2004 to 2010, the year 2015 seemed so far away.

That was the date the Second Avenue Subway construction was supposed to be completed, having started in 2007 and being bumped from the original estimate of 2012 (but only if NYC had been awarded the Olympics).

Because I knew the route incorporated some existing tunnel from the 1970s (and that the project had been proposed first nearly a century ago), I used to think that the vibrating and shaking in my apartment was the ghost subway running under Second Avenue.

I never was convinced it wasn't.

So, fast-forward a few years. The projected completion date came and went, and although the new subway line was making progress, it wasn't done yet—and it wouldn't be until 2016 gave way to 2017.

I'd been in New York City twice since it had opened—last January and last May—but somehow, after all those years of anticipation, I just didn't make it over there to ride it and check out a station. After all, I'd been living in California for seven years. I didn't need to take a subway on the Upper East Side of Manhattan anymore.

But being a fan of public transit in general—and specifically the history of the NYC Subway—I finally found a reason to hop on the Q train, experience the screeching turn uptown from Lexington and 63rd Street, and emerge at 72nd Street.

I must admit, I expected more. I'm glad to see some mosaics inside the station...

...especially socially conscious ones...

...but the whole thing felt pretty plain and antiseptic to me.

But maybe that's just because the new stations—unlike the old ones—are clean. I'm not used to seeing so much white.

But despite the billions of dollars that has been spent on this new spur and these new stations, I would still consider New York City Transit inferior to the DC Metro, BART, and even Metro Los Angeles. And its design and functionality is far less than the London Tube and the Kiev Metro (Ки́ївський метрополіте́н—stay tuned for more on that).

It's a necessary evil in New York, though, unless you've got enough money to take a taxi or car service everywhere. And when the roads are too snowy or slick from some weather event, sometimes you've got to move your commute underground.

Those stations and tunnels protect you from some of the elements, though they subject you to a whole 'nother ecosystem down there, rife with other perils.

The first time I rode an MTA subway train, I thought it was scary. Then, I spent over a dozen years laughing at my former naiveté. And now, whenever I return to New York, its subterranean grid scares me once again.

Related Posts:
Underneath the City (Hall)
Photo Essay: MTA Vintage Subway Train Ride for the Holidays
Nostalgia Train Ride
Underground History
Photo Essay: The Inner Workings of LA's Public Transit
Riding the Red Line to Haunted Hollywood

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Photo Essay: Taking a Break at the Ranch of Repose

It began as a "Ranch of Repose"...

circa 2010

...and what was once known as Rancho del Descanso is now 160 acres of gardens...

...where you can get lost among its flowers and trees...

circa 2010 well as its water features, arbors, and gazebos.

Because they’re all ripe for exploring.

Of course, most people visit Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge for the flowers – camellias bloom for eight months out of the year, from October through May – and even in the dead heat of summer, you can catch roses, summer annuals and perennials, crape myrtle, and cassia.

circa 2010

But this public garden that was once a private estate holds plenty of secrets in its far-reaching corners...

circa 2010

...and to discover them, all you’ve got to do is open the right doors...

...cross the right bridges...

....look up into the trees...

... and take the path less traveled by.

Aside from a few Canadian geese rambling across the Main Lawn or through the Oak Woodland, and perhaps an American crow or two taking a drink from the Mission Fountain, the birdlife of Descanso may not be obvious at first.

Heed the calls of mourning doves, Western scrub jays, house finches and goldfinches – all of which are pretty abundant at the gardens. At lakeside, there’s a Bird Observation Station that was originally dedicated in 1961 at the behest of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society.

There's an ongoing project to revitalize the Bird Observation Station, waterfall, and surrounding area and will reopen in October...

...just in time for the fall migration along the Pacific Flyway.

Or,  follow the sound of a whistle... the Enchanted Railroad...

...a 1/8th-scale model of a diesel train from 1960s/’70s.

The conductor calls “All aboard!”, and then the train chugs along the 7 1/2" gauge rails through the oaks, over a bridge, past the rose garden, and encircling the Promenade and Nature’s Table.

It’s somewhat of a hat tip to what the Rancho del Descanso could have become, since Walt Disney’s representatives had approached Descanso founder Manchester Boddy about developing the real estate while scouting locations for what ultimately became Disneyland.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Descanso Gardens & Trail
Photo Essay: The Boddy House of Rancho del Descanso

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Photo Essay: A Day on the Other Side of the Wall

Isn't it funny that the thing that's brought me to Tijuana all three times now has been art, cuisine, and culture?

Because that's not what most people think of when you tell them you're going to TJ.

Yet four and a half years after my first visit through the border crossing with A+D Museum and Steve Turner Contemporary gallery, I found myself back on a bus to Baja California—this time with the Oceanside Museum of Art.

I wasn't actually planning on writing about the day trip. I just wanted to experience it without worrying about getting good photos or taking notes or memorizing details.

But what I experienced was so interesting that I just decided I had to share it. People have to know what's happening just on the other side of the wall.

Like my first whirlwind trip to Tijuana, we started our day at CECUT, the cultural center of Tijuana that opened in 1982 and has hosted a number of intriguing rotating exhibits, IMAX movie screenings, and even a Beatles laser light show.

I just love the giant sphere that's been plopped down in the middle of the Zona Centro, currently guarded by iron figures courtesy of Spanish sculptor Xavier Mascaró.

Inside the museum, we got a guided tour of the Jaime Ruiz Otis exhibit Inauguración: Intuir el azar, a 19-year survey of the Bajacalifornio's work in mixed media, found object sculpture, and industrial dumpster-diving.

Just as important as the art to me was the opportunity to drink some local wine at lunch, this time a chardonnay from Valle de Guadalupe—two full glasses of it, which cost just over $7 USD.

Uncharacteristically, I felt no time crunch in Tijuana, though we only had one day in town and several stops to make on our tour. I didn't mind that our lunch took two hours when it was only scheduled for one.

As we were still waiting for our spinach and roquefort salads, I told the woman to my left that I refused to worry about it. We would surely get our food... eventually.

I didn't even mind when my filet mignon never came—because as I waited for my entree, I'd been eyeing the atún that had arrived at so many of the placesettings around me. I'd like to think that I'd made the wrong choice from the set menu, and the Universe intervened to set me straight.

Some folks on our tour thought we should leave early and skip dessert to make the next appointment, but since I'm a completionist, I can't even imagine ending our lunch without the plantain tart and vanilla ice cream.

And it all worked out in the end anyway. Our visit to studio we were supposed to be at while we were still waiting for our salads got bumped to later, and we arrived right on time to the subsequent stop, at Calle Hermenegildo Galeana and Avenida Melchor Ocampo.

That's where we met Alida Cervantes, a Saatchi-affiliated border artist with an MFA from UC San Diego. Born in San Diego but raised in Tijuana, she now paints in her Tijuana studio and lives in San Diego—as she says, crossing the border every night to go to bed.

Alida's studio was, in contrast to our next destination, decidedly "inner city."

We later visited partners in life and art Daniel Ruanova and Mely Barragan way up in the winding roads of the hills above Central Tijuana the gated community in Lomasdoctores, past at least two security guard shacks and surely under the watchful eye of more.

If you're going to live in your studio where you paint, collage, and sculpt fabric, this is the place to do it.

Although their home currently acts as a gallery space for their work (all of which is "available," as they say), I found it far more interesting to head downstairs and examine their materials...

...their tools and instruments...

...and their equipment.

For me, the art is very much in the process.

Of course, by this time, we were running about two hours behind schedule—and it was already dark when we arrived at La Caja Galleria for what was promised to be a "sensory experience."

Certainly our eyes were dazzled upon our arrival by a mix of murals jumping out at us from the walls facing out on De Las Moras.

And we both smelled and tasted what we found wrapped inside a customized greeting that clarified that a burro painted with black stripes is not a zebra, but a donkey, and that our burrito contained no actual tiny donkeys, but a mixture of seafood (including dungeness crab). We washed it down with sips of mezcal and sake served inside a cored-out pepper.

I'm a fan of neither mezcal nor sake, but when in Mexico...

The finale of our night featured what I would describe as an immersive theatrical experience, followed by glasses of red wine and bowls of soup made from beans out of the gallery's own garden, fertilized by the gallery's own compost, both located in a converted parking lot.

It was a new experience to me, though perhaps Tijuana's art scene may seem derivative or even outdated to someone better-versed in the evolution of contemporary or modern art. But while Mexico has a lot of catching up to do, it's catching up pretty fast—something that's particularly impressive considering the fact that there is, in fact, no art "scene" in Tijuana, despite the multitude of talented and creative artists that may live and work there.

But they haven't figured out how to form a community yet. As Mely Barragan put it, "We don't talk to each other."

They most certainly will figure that out sooner rather than later. And when they do, the "scene" that emerges may seem as though it's exploded into the sky like the fireworks that sent us on our way, proclaiming into the sky and celebrating the victory of Tijuana's first soccer team, the Xolos.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bussing It to Baja
Photo Essay: A Culinary Tour of Tijuana
Photo Essay: The Terroir of Baja Wine Country
Photo Essay: Baja for Foodies
Crossing the Border (Cruzando la Frontera)

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Underground Secrets and Australia's 9News

I used to be on TV all the time.

But it's been a while.

When we were hosting a crew for an Australian news team in the underground tunnels and former speakeasies of LA, I didn't even plan to be on camera. After all, I was just there to help out.

I didn't even bother to put my contacts in or put on any extra makeup. I was not what I would consider "camera-ready."

Screenshot via 9News

But then again, I'm kind of always ready for a camera. My mother would tell you I was born ready.

So, after descending into one of the stinkier basements I've ever experienced (at a location I'm not allowed to divulge), I found myself threading a microphone cord up my shirt and affixing a battery pack to my belt.

I knew what I had to say. Talking is never an issue for me. Still, my interviewer felt the need to try to script me. But I pity the fool who tries to put words into my mouth.

So, I said what I had to say—and in my own way. The sound-bite that made it in to the final piece was all mine, right down to the very last giggle.

And now I'm plotting my next TV appearance, back here in the States—but not in a tunn

For someone who gets a little panicky in dark, enclosed spaces, I sure have been spending a lot of time underground lately.

You can watch my Australian TV debut here.

Related Posts:
The End of the Line at the Subway Terminal Building, Underground
Photo Essay: Into the Abyss of Kiev, A City of Hills
Believe It Or Not I Was the Audience Favorite