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Sure, our plastic grocery bags have been replaced by "reusable" ones.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:
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Monday, August 14, 2017

Photo Essay: The Temple of Academia at UCLA's Original Quad

Of all the places that I've explored and want to explore in the LA area, there are still some that I just haven't given much thought.

Sure, I might know about them. I might even have them saved to my map. But since there's just so much to do and see every day and every place, I need something to really spark my interest.

Yes, I hunt down many of my experiences. But more often than not, I am an opportunist. And when opportunity knocks—as it inevitably does—I'm usually on the other side of the door, ready to answer it.

Such was the case with Royce Hall, the performance venue on the UCLA campus. In fact, I'd completely forgotten that I'd actually seen a show there for work back in 2008.

Since then, I'd been to UCLA a couple of other times—for a meeting somewhere, for a planetarium show I missed because I arrived too late, for the botanic garden—but I hadn't really explored the heart of its campus yet.

I'd never realized how it had been built on such a hill in Westwood, flanked by ravines on either side of it.

If you enter from the north at Sunset Boulevard, park your car down below, and walk up the Janss Steps (named after Edwin and Harold, the brothers who developed Westwood Village and sold their land in the former Rancho San Jose de Buenos Ayres for the creation of UCLA)... come up to the semicircle-shaped Shapiro Fountain, which anchors the academic quadrangle of the original (now "old") campus on a former sheep pasture.

There were four buildings at the start of UCLA (hence, the "quad")—and the largest and most grandiose of them was and still is Royce Hall.

Named after the late 19th century California idealist Josiah Royce and designed to mimic the 11th-century Romanesque style of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, Royce Hall is undoubtedly the "crown jewel" of the UCLA campus—and not just because of its iconic, asymmetrical towers.

After you enter through the cloistered colonnade...

...and gaze up at the clerestory windows... still feels like you're in some Italian Renaissance church.

Designed in 1927 by brothers James Edward Allison and David Clark Allison as the main administration and classroom building of the UCLA campus, Royce Hall is a kind of temple of education...

...its stained glass windows celebrating academic pursuits instead of miraculous works...

...and scientists and athletes instead of saints and angels.

Although Allison + Allison architectural team was probably known best for its work on public schools, the brothers also designed the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.

And what we now know as a grand concert hall was actually designed as an auditorium for academia...

...where students filled its 1800 seats to listen to speeches given by Albert Einstein or any of the many other intellectual, cultural, and political luminaries (Ansel Adams, Aldous Huxley, Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Nixon) who graced its stage.

Although an E.M. Skinner pipe organ was installed in 1930 (its pipes placed above the proscenium arch) and legendary musicians like Gershwin, Ellington, and Dorsey all performed at Royce Hall in the mid-1930s, it wasn't until 1984 that it was converted into a performing arts venue and its acoustics were retrofitted to be more suitable for music.

That meant covering up the leaded, bottle-bottom windows with modular, soft-walled acoustic panels and draperies. (Fortunately, you can see those colorful windows elsewhere in the building, as pictured below.)

After sustaining significant damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the hall went through another huge renovation—allowing the university to make some other modernizations and improvements, like installing camouflaged lighting into the original coffered ceiling (instead of hanging unsightly lighting rigs).

Backstage, you'll find various boards and other controls at the stage manager's station... well as a number of rigs...

...a fly system...

...and dressing rooms that have been hidden from audience view.

As you descend into the bowels of the hall underneath the stage, you can examine the two significant eras of Royce Hall at once: pre- and post-earthquake damage. Cinder blocks were used in the rebuilding and reconfiguration that happened over the course of four years after 1994 and can be seen right alongside the original brick (both painted white).

A concrete ramp was also demolished as part of the reconfiguration (which also included the construction of a new rehearsal hall with the same dimensions as the performance stage).

While most people won't ever get the chance to see the inside of the modern rehearsal space in the basement...

...some may have actually stood on top of it without realizing... its roof is the Ahmanson Terrace, just outside of the West Lobby.

Architecturally, you can't really put Royce Hall into any one bucket. Between its carved stone lintels, rounded arches, and supporting columns, it's at once Mediterranean and Classical—although references to both, as the Los Angeles Times aptly put, are "vague."

But among its ancillary influences (which also include Byzantine and Celtic), the focus seems to be on content over form.

Because the building is–as is everything else in life—open to interpretation. What you see is nothing more than what you see.

It's not necessarily what it actually is.

Related Posts:
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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Photo Essay: A Snow-Free Day at Mt. Baldy

I'm not what you'd call a "skier." Never have been.

Sure, I was forced to cross-country ski in middle school gym class in Upstate New York once or twice, but I've never made a habit of it.

If my family ever took a trip to any mountain in the Snow Belt of the Onondaga Valley, it was during the summer.

And now that I'm in California, I've had no desire to pursue much winter recreation in the mountains, which is the only place you'll find much snow out here. But I still find myself fascinated with California's old-school ski resort towns—particularly when it comes to what happens there once the snow melts.

Skiing down a snowy mountain seems a bit obvious to me. But when that layer of powder is gone, you've got to improvise to keep bringing people up the mountain.

I've gone to Big Bear, for instance, for the alpine slide and ziplining, and yet again it was ziplining that finally brought me through the 1950s-era tunnels in the San Gabriel Mountains to another ski resort area, Mt. Baldy.

Mt. Baldy has been on my list for a while now.

For years, I've wanted to come take a ride on the chair lift (so called if you're not skiing, I suppose), have lunch at the top, and come back down sometime during one of these summers.

After all, although it's at least a 90-minute drive from home, at least the mountains tend to be a bit cooler in these "dog days."

And with an unexpected day off at my day job, I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate a little surprise Friday freedom.

So, I climbed up to the "Sugar Pine Chair Lift"...

...which was built in 1952...

...and modernized in 1975...

...grabbed the center pole of a approaching chair...

...and hopped on.

What a ride!

Not only do skiers use it...

...but hikers also take it as a popular shortcut to climb to the top of Mt. Baldy.

The 20-minute ride is worth it just for the scenery...

...dangling from a cable, 20 to 60 feet off the ground, over the course of a mile...

...gliding through the Angeles National Forest... this mid-century resort area that can only exist under special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

Whenever I climb a mountain (and however I climb that mountain), I always turn around to remind myself of where I've been...

...but on the ski lift, I had to make it quick so I'd know when to lift the bar in preparation to jump off my chair.

By the time I reached the top of the ski lift—the so-called "notch"—I'd climbed 1300 feet of elevation to reach 7800 feet above sea level.

Although it is alpine up there, it's also a bit sparse—particularly on the south face of the mountain, known as the "Baldy Bowl."

That's why nobody ever calls Mt. Baldy by its real name, Mount San Antonio.

But when I was at Mt. Baldy, everyone just called it the mountain.

Although much of present-day Mt. Baldy is from the 1950s, including the Top of the Notch restaurant... was actually in the mid '30s that the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Devil's Backbone trail.

I, however, had come to zip Mt. Baldy, not hike it—so I proceeded past the trailheads, stopping briefly at the Desert View overlook...

...and suited up for my 600-foot thrill ride back to the notch.

The run takes between 15 and 30 seconds, and it's the entirety of the zipline experience at this point—but reportedly, that's just a teaser of what's to come. After all, it was only last May that the resort was able to get the permission of the federal government to install even one little zipline course.

While there are other chairlifts to take visitors even higher during the snowy season... was my time to go back down the mountain... explore some more.

Below Mt. Baldy is even more historic still, the former "Camp Baldy" having been so named in 1910, a holdover from the late 19th century and early 20th century "craze" of mountain exploration and recreation.

During Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, Camp Baldy was a place you could actually get something to drink.

But in 1938, flooding wiped out nearly all of it, including a casino—the same catastrophic flooding that also took out the roads on either side of the nearby Bridge to Nowhere.

Camp Baldy was rebuilt and, in 1951, renamed Mt. Baldy Village—which still features some original structures that survived the flood, like the Buckhorn Lodge (the former hotel to the ill-fated casino).

It's a charming little enclave of mountain cabins and bears and birds...

...the quietude interrupted only by the occasional motorcyclist roaring past...

...and the calls of a flock of Steller's jays alighting every rock, fence, and branch in a grove of evergreen trees.

It was a lovely way to end a lovely day on the mountain.

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