Thursday, June 28, 2012

Photo Essay: Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House, Exterior

When our urban ramble on Day Two of The Big Parade took us past the Ennis House in Los Feliz, I was reminded that I actually had several unpublished photos of both the exterior and interior of the famed Frank Lloyd Wright-designed (and Lloyd Wright-built) behemoth.

I guess it's about time I share them.

The house is strikingly recognizable because of its concrete textile block architecture...

...whose relief ornamentation is reminiscent of ancient Mayan temples.

The house, built by Lloyd Wright out of 27,000 concrete blocks in the 1920, was remodeled in the 1940s for a new owner, who wanted to add a pool to the north terrace, and a billiard room to the interior.

It has sustained significant damage over the years - namely in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the particularly rainy 2004-2005 season.

Some tiles are cracked. The rebar holding the tiles together is rusted.

As it is, Frank Lloyd Wright buildings are known for being leaky.

Many of the textile blocks - far beyond repair - have been replaced in recent restoration efforts...

...though historically there had been a coating added to the exterior to try to protect the tiles (and I suppose keep the water out). Most of that light-colored coating has been removed, though some of it - cracking and peeling - still remains.

Reportedly, the neighbors don't love the house, or the attention it draws to the neighborhood...

...not only because of its striking presence, but also its frequent depictions in such TV shows and movies as Blade Runner, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Twin Peaks.

Although it's a historic landmark at the city, state, and national levels, skulking around it is discouraged.

Ennis House was sold to a billionaire a year ago, who claims he is committed to its continued rehabilitation.

We shall see.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

In Search of the Avoidance of Doubt

"Est-ce que tu vas continuer?" my French teacher, Corinne, asked me when I arrived to class tonight, indicating that it's the last week of the early-bird special for current students to re-up and sign up for their next course.

"Non," I replied, "parce que je n'ai pas d'argent," bemoaning my impending doom of my job ending this week and no other subsequent work lined up.

Qualifying my answer, I said, "Mais...Je crois que je dois étudier le Basic." After all, at some point, when I do have more money, I do want to continue to learn French, but I feel foolish for having placed into too advanced of a course for my ability level.

"Le Basic?!" Corinne laughed, and told me I was ridiculous, that I could speak French very well.

"Oui, je peut parler," - I can speak it, and I can read it aloud - "mais je n'ai pas le vocabulaire! J'ai oublié tout!" I've lamented since the beginning of class that I seem to have forgotten everything from my five years of studying French, over 20 years ago.

"Tu as le vocabulaire!" Corinne protested.

"Je crois que je suis stupide." I confessed my suspected stupidity to her, and to the couple of students who'd also arrived early to class.

Corinne then said something to me in French that I didn't understand, and, upon my quizzical look, translated it into English:

"It's always the best students who have the most doubt."

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Run for the Hills

I have never, in my life, been a runner.


But lately, I've found myself wanting to run, springing forward, arms swinging, unprovoked, just to move ahead, more quickly.

I had somewhat of a running epiphany a little over a year ago in Joshua Tree when I was late to my Keys Ranch tour, and my car was stuck behind a locked gate, necessitating a practically jetpack-fueled run up a long driveway to meet my tour group. Sure, I was running downhill most of the way. But it wasn't so bad.

Since then, I've witnessed plenty of trail runners in LA, particularly in Runyon Canyon, where they wear very little, and carry a bottle of water, or an iPhone, at most. But I haven't really felt like I belong with them - like I'm one of them - though occasionally I'm descending a trail so steep, I'm paralyzed by fear, and instead of taking it as slow as possible or scooting on my behind, I rip it off like a Band-Aid, running down it like hell, hoping to God I'm able to stop myself at the bottom.

Two weekends ago, I was running late to pick up tickets from the Hollywood Bowl, and, for fear of missing out, ran most of the mile-long uphill climb there from my car parked in a lot on Selma.

And the funny thing is, it felt good.

It felt so good that sometimes at night, when I'm walking around my neighborhood, I just want to run home.

I'm not in a hurry.

I just want to run.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Photo Essay: The Hidden Fire Roads of Tuna Canyon

I was supposed to go to a BBQ in Santa Monica on Saturday, so I took the opportunity to go head west early and go hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains, an infrequent destination in my explorations of the various trails of LA County.

I didn't feel like revisiting Solstice Canyon (one of my favorite hikes), and I'd already been to Temescal, Topanga, and Will Rogers, so I set my sights on the lesser-known Tuna Canyon, just west of Topanga State Park, not to be confused with La Tuna Canyon in Burbank.

I knew it would be a bit off the beaten path, and solitary. I knew the trailhead would be hard to find, requiring you to wind through the surrounding hills, up and around the canyon park rather than the straight shot Tuna Canyon Road, whose short one-way stretch prevents approach from the south.

Its elusiveness drew me in.

When I arrived, I wasn't sure I was in the right place except for the one landmark I knew to look for: an abandoned phone booth. As I was confirming my location and surveying my surroundings, two blonde dogs came bounding towards me, sniffing and barking, cowering at my outstretched hand.

I looked for an unmarked yet obvious fire road...

...which turned out to be marked...

...and obvious.

A short walk up from the trailhead, there are two choices of fire roads to take: on the left to Hearst Tank, and on the right to Big Rock.

I took them both.

On the Hearst Tank fire road trail, the path winds around, steadily ascending in a gentle slope, with the ocean gradually revealing itself in the distance, looking south upon Santa Monica.

The sky and the ocean were equally blue.

Less than two miles in, I reached a saddle, a couple perched atop. Not wanting to disturb them, I kept moving...

...til I reached the end of the trail, where fellow hikers have laid out a kind of maze made of stones and trinkets...

...with messages of love and peace and belief spelled out in pebbles...

...and a variety of shells...

...placed in a variety of positions.

Heading back north towards the Big Rock Lateral...

...the ocean breeze was cooling under the hot sun...

...even when I couldn't see it.

Soon, amongst the power lines and the ridges in the distance, the ocean opened up again...

...passing old rusty vestiges...

...and other traces of others who have trodden [Ed: corrected from "have tread"] this path before.

Unlike the Hearst Tank climb, the Big Rock Lateral trail actually descends...

...dropping a few hundred feet towards the ocean...

...with plenty of vegetation...

...and the shores of Malibu spread out below.

All in all it's just over five miles to do the whole thing, though there are some extension trails and various other offshoots you can take to lengthen the hike.

Once you're done and back to your car, it's a relatively straight shot back down to the PCH, now going the right way - heading south - along the one way Tuna Canyon Road which had to be bypassed on the way up.

I changed into my party dress at my car, wiping the sweat (and dirt) from my face with the towel I keep in my car for swimming. Mid-change, another dog - this time a black one - came barreling towards me, panting and sniffing as I pulled my hiking pants off from under my skirt.

A few minutes later, I was back in civilization, and could barely recall how I'd gotten to Tuna Canyon in the first place. I may never find it again.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Lightning Strike

French class has been depressing me - not only because I'm not very good at it, but also because the lesson plan takes concepts like "love at first sight" to teach grammar lessons like the difference between the imparfait and passé composé tenses.

In French, "love at first sight" is communicated through the colloquial phrase coup de foudre, which literally translates into "lightning strike."

When it was my turn in class to describe my experience with a coup de foudre, I had no choice but to tell the painful story of my LA guy who I was seeing before I moved here, who I first met when I spotted him across a crowded room during a visit to LA.

I had to retell the story, in French, of him suddenly disappearing, and not admitting he'd found a girlfriend until I asked him point blank.

And all my classmates pitied me, in French, for both my story and for my difficulty in recounting it.

Thankfully, that's not my only experience being electrified by the sight of another. Who knows if it's really love, but it's certainly more than lust. In coup de foudre encounters, rarely is the other person the best-looking person you've ever seen. There's just something about them - how they appear, how they act, how they enter the room - that you just love, immediately. In the story I told in French class, what attracted me most to him was his desire for me. But in the other cases I can think of - both within the last two years - what struck me most was an overwhelming desire to answer the question, "Who is that?" I didn't want to kiss them, take them to bed, or give myself freely to them. I wanted to know who they were, inside and out.

In the case of the one that got away, the one I left behind in NYC, I only got four dates with him before he dumped me and I moved to LA, before I ever got to answer that question. But he remains in the back of my mind as someone I could love, if only he would give me the chance. If only he didn't live so far away.

And now - as I've gotten better at moving on, at forgetting - lightning has struck again here in LA. I never saw him coming, but once he arrived, I could not take my eyes off of him. The night we met, I refused to leave his side. And now I find myself drinking the coffee he left behind in my apartment - now cold and bitter - just to feel close to him.

It's not love - no, not yet - but I am électrisée. I can't explain it. I don't know who he is yet. But I am finding out.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Time's Up

Three weeks ago, I gave one month's notice at my job, without having another job lined up.

After all, it took me less than three weeks to find this job after having been laid off by the one that relocated me to LA.

Wouldn't a month be long enough?

Didn't I need to stop working at this job in order to actually find some other job elsewhere? Unlike in the past, at this job, I couldn't really sneak around, surreptitiously dressing up for interviews, taking long lunches for meetings, and sending my resume out instead of replying to emails. I had to come clean, and do it out in the open. I had to make finding a new job my new full-time job.

But now I have a week left before my imminent departure.

And I cannot answer the question, "Where are you headed?" because I don't know.

I suspect I'll freelance for a bit amidst looming unemployment. I'll recapture some of the spirit of my visits to LA in the two years before moving here, when I would pay clients a visit and drive around the city all day jumping from meeting to meeting, lunches and coffees, breakfasts and confabs and pow-wows. I'll go hiking. I'll visit some of the places that are only open during the day, during the week, yet not on holidays.

I truly believe I'm meant to be in Los Angeles right now, just doing...something...else. But when I say I'd like to find out what LA has to offer me, I have to field the resulting scoffs from the jaded Angelenos who have lost their optimism, who stay in their jobs just to receive a steady paycheck.

As for me, I'm not afraid of starving to death.

But once again, I am facing the great unknown, alone out in the world. My parents aren't supporting me. I've no sugar daddies or husbands or benefactors of which to speak.

I can only do what feels right.

I might regret it.

But I most certainly would regret staying on my current path.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Out of My Comfort Zone: The Malaise of Learning Français

I have two weeks left of my eight-week French course I've been taking at the Alliance Française, something I've wanted to do for years now.

I studied French for five years between seventh grade and tenth grade and loved it. In truth, I was ready to take a language in fifth grade, having completed all of the lessons required through the end of eighth grade English, but the school system didn't have a track for a student like me (who also completed eighth grade level spelling and math before the end of fifth grade, yet not allowed by my parents to skip a grade).

While my sister embarked on her studies of Spanish because it was practical, and Italian because it was similar to Spanish, I opted for French because it was the pretty girl language equivalent of playing the flute, something else I wasn't allowed to do as an awkward child (instead being forced to lug around a giant French horn that instilled a permanent metallic smell into the inside of my nose). I dreamed of the Champs Élysées and champagne and salade niçoise. I wrote stories in French. I read stories in French, preferring those written in it (Le Petit Prince, par example) rather than their English translations. I had a French penpal. I thought in French (albeit rather simple thoughts of amour, la famille and les amis).

Five years was the maximum course available in our school system for any one language, so during my last two years of high school, I let French go. When I got to college, I never took it up again, and to this day, I cannot explain why. I suppose there were too many other studies to tackle - philosophy, psychology, embryology - that I didn't want to retread old ground. After all, I'd already studied French for five years, which at the time felt like an eternity. What else was there to do there? Why eat the same meal twice? Why jump off the same cliff when there are so many others that stand ripe for conquering?

So aside from a weekend trip to Montréal in which I was the sole French-speaker in a pack of American college students, I didn't really use it for years.

But French has never let me go. Not entirely. At my first job in the music industry, I was responsible for distributing a variety of classical music albums released by a French label in the United States, putting me on the phone and in email correspondences with Francophone colleagues (as well as those who spoke German and, oddly, Finnish). I dabbled in replying to them in French. I'd maintained my good pronunciation and some of my vocabulary, but most of all, I'd retained my love for it.

In 2008, when I was trying to strengthen the thread by which I hung (at work, and in life in general), I escaped to Morocco for a short trip, feeling drawn to the French-influenced culture but wanting an adventure a bit more dangerous and less European than France itself. Michelle was impressed with my French, but I knew I was getting by on bad grammar by looking cute, somehow convincing the locals I could be française or moroccaine, when in truth I was a-mér-i-caine. Vraiment!

Two years later, I again escaped to another former French protectorate, this time Tunisia, where my French linguistics were not as up to par since French is compulsory in their school system, and therefore the Tunisians' mastery of the language far exceeds that of the Moroccans - or mine. I could understand most of what was going on around me - reading signs and menus, eavesdropping on conversations, receiving instructions from hotel staff - but I'd lost a lot of my ability to actually communicate in the language. It was a palpable loss in my life, and one I couldn't entirely explain.

But this was a loss that I could do something about. French lessons are expensive but they're possible. And even though I shouldn't leave work at 5:30 twice a week for eight weeks, I took the placement test anyway and signed up for an Intermediate I class excitedly, with coupon in hand.

Unfortunately, I'm such a good test-taker that I fooled them into thinking I remembered anything from 1987. Upon my first class, it became very clear to me that I would be very remedial in the course, surrounded by classmates who could conjugate in various tenses, and who could conjure vocabulary on demand, both of which I could not do.

I'm not good at not being good at something.

It makes me very uncomfortable.

It has been a stressful six weeks.

But if nothing else, I am learning parts of grammar in French that I never learned before, understanding the construction of the language conceptually even if I can't execute it perfectly myself without the aid of a dictionary.

And when these eight weeks are over, I think I'd like to find a way to go back to the beginning, and start again with the Basic study of French. I know how to count to 60, but past that, I struggle. I know the alphabet. I know pronouns. And I can say them all perfectly.

I'll be the star of the class, which I'm much better at than being the dunce.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Need for Speed

"I just came from stock car racing," I told Maria's dad on Sunday over the phone, when I'd called him to wish him a happy Father's Day.

"Oh yeah? Do you have...interest cars?" he asked, chuckling.

"Well, yeah."

I'd only actually raced another car once before, six months ago when I spun out and stalled a Formula 1 racer at Willow Springs - twice.

But, as a child of the late 70s and early 80s, I grew up voraciously consuming high speed chases in film and on television - from Thunder Road to Smokey & the Bandit to Knight Rider to getting up early Saturday mornings just to watch Dukes of Hazzard, I always dreamed of driving a car, and driving it fast.

Last summer, I decided I'd found my lost calling: demolition derby driver. Only problem is, you have to go pretty slow.

It's one thing to dream something, and another to actually do it - to sit in the cockpit (as it were) with all of the switches and gauges, to sink into the seat, pop the steering wheel into place, depress the clutch to the floor, flip on the fan and ignition, and go.

Surrounded by mid-life crisis men celebrating Father's Day, I was one of two women in my pre-race driving class, which did more to frighten me then teach me how to operate a stock car. I must've looked troubled because all of the track hands were asking me how I was doing, if I was OK.

As I sat behind the wheel with my helmet on, strapped in tightly, I waited, sweating. I couldn't breathe very well. I squinted without my sunglasses, which I couldn't cram onto my face through my helmet (and with no one with me to spectate, had to give them to one of the crew members to hold).

I worried.

I was afraid of crashing, bursting into flames, burning my face off. I was afraid of someone else crashing into me, resulting in all the rest.

But most of all, I worried that my fear would take hold of me and make me a timid, trepidatious driver who couldn't surpass commonplace freeway speed.

When it was time to go, though, I went. I probably didn't go the fastest I could've gone - at no point did I feel remotely out of complete control of the vehicle - but I shifted into high gear and I stayed there. I accelerated. (After all, race cars are built to like gas.) I steered with one hand, the other on the gear shift. I banked. I passed. I smiled at the roar of the engine, feeling it rise up through my feet and up into my throat, forgetting my propensity for motion sickness.

I didn't look at the dashboard. (There was no speedometer and the RPM meter was broken anyway.) I didn't look behind me, relying on the voice on the radio to be the eyes in the back of my head.

Instead, I kept my eyes fixed as far down the track as I could, so I would know as far in advance as possible where I was supposed to be going.

I don't know how fast I went. I know I wasn't the fastest. I know I wasn't the slowest. But at whatever speed it was, it felt right for me.

Related Reading:
Off to the Races, Part One
Off to the Races, Part Two

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Photo Essay: Graber Olive House

I have had Graber Olive House on my list of places to visit ever since I first explored the Inland Empire as a month-long resident of Joshua Tree. But somehow, I never made it until today.

I didn't really realize, until today, how cool it is.

And apparently, it's haunted.

On the property - pretty much all of whose buildings date back to 1894 - you can explore a little museum  on your own, featuring old equipment and rusty old relics from the olive curing, pressing and canning operations of yore (similar to the museum at E. Waldo Ward & Sons).

But as long as you don't arrive at lunchtime, you can also ask for a tour of the rest of the facility, whose historic inner workings are still very much functional and utilized during the annual olive harvest.

A dirt road used to go straight through this barn...

...and you could drive up, snatch up some olives, and leave some money behind in this slot.

Today, the public is only allowed in through a locked gate during tours, likely given by Betty, who has spent much of her career working with the Grabers, but now only works weekends.

In the Grading Room, you can see the machine which sorts olives grown (and tree-ripened) at the Graber Ranch up north by size, from small (10 sixteenths of an inch) to large (16 sixteens of an inch), measured by nylon bands which are gradually spaced farther apart, farther down the line, to let the biggest olives drop through at the very end.

In the Vat Room, olives are cured in a secret formula (one confirmed ingredient is salt) in rows of vats made from what Betty says are sewer pipes.

Apparently you cannot eat a ripe olive picked straight off the tree because it is too acidic. It must be cured first, and the Grabers have become famous for their unique curing style.

Whatever the olives are cured in, the mixture is changed out every day during the curing process.

The olive "factory" is of no grand scale, and the Graber's olive output is likewise small, intentionally - maintaining the original quality of the family-run business over the course of over 100 years.

The real activity at Graber happens in the fall during harvest, with most seasonal employees - most of whom return year after year - applying in August and starting work in October. So now, a couple of months prior, there are only small indications of the flurry of activity that is soon to come...

At the Filling Wheel...

...women will soon scoop handfuls of sorted olives from the center into empty cans which are placed in each hole around the wheel.

At the Panama Paddle Packer, water measuring as hot as 200 degrees Fahrenheit will be packed along with the olives in cans...

...which will be sealed amidst a cloud of steam...

...and sent to the labeling machine...

...where the labels will be affixed to the cans with hot glue by local high school students who work after school.

But for now, in the summer, things are quiet at the Graber Olive House...

...besides the ghosthunters...

...and, according to Betty, the busloads of people who arrive and ask to open its doors for a bit of a visit.

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