June 30, 2011

California Conversations: Table for One

"A girl as beautiful as you should not be sitting at that table alone."

I was caught. I knew the couple next to me had noticed me on their way in, but I was hoping I could slip out without a comment.

I finished signing my credit card slip, put down the pen, and said, "You're telling me."

I thought that I could get away with just that, but the woman proceeded. "In a restaurant as romantic as this..."

I looked down at our tables, and I realized that when I first walked in and was instructed by the host to "sit anywhere," instead of sitting at the smaller round two-seaters on the right, I chose the row on the left: slightly larger round tables, wide enough for two people to sit next to each other on the pillowed bench while a third could join across the way. Every other table on the side I'd chosen had a pair of plates facing the bench. Mine was littered with the dirty relics of only one place setting.

My cheeks ran hot.

"Well, I wanted to come here, and I didn't have anybody to come with, so I just came alone," I said. I'd rehearsed that line so many times already, saying it was as easy as hitting the "Play" button. "I wasn't not going to come."

"You're absolutely right," she said, shaking her head. "But why you don't have someone to come with, I don't understand."

I pulled out the "I'm new in town" card which brought on a battery of questions of where I live, what I do for a living, etc. "I'm going to try and think if I can find you someone--"

"--Someone age appropriate," I interrupted. "I'm 35, I know I look younger." I should have requested single, honest, capable of intimacy, unintimidated, adventurous, etc. but I figured "age appropriate" was at least a good start. Maybe some of those other qualities necessarily come with age.

"Right," she said. "I'm going to work on getting you a job, and getting you a man. You are too young and too pretty to be in here alone."

"Well," I said, as I collected my purse and tried to keep the tears from welling up into my eyes, "Thank you very much."

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June 29, 2011

Photo Essay: Up and Into Catalina's Wild Interior

"I need to find some hills in New York," I heard Edith gasping from behind me. I was leaving her behind in my dust on the Hermit Gulch Loop trail on Catalina Island because it's easier for me to sprint the steep slopes and then take a moment to rest in the shade, rather than take them slow and steady.

"Yeah, the thing is," I said, "pretty much every trail in LA is an up-and-down."

This is particularly and literally true on Catalina Island, which was formed when tectonic plates went crashing into one another, forming a mountainous outcropping off the shore of Southern California in the Pacific Ocean, which you can see from the Santa Monica Mountains on a clear day.

About a mile and a half from town, a trailhead appears off the Hermit Gulch Campground, and quickly, you are in the wild.

In fact, most of the interior of the island is off-limits to vehicles or the golf carts that threaten pedestrians in the port town of Avalon, save for the occasional tour bus or open-air tour jeep crowded with sedentary tourists eager to catch a glimpse of the rare wildlife and flora, much of which is unique to the island.

But we, adventurous as we are, or perhaps naive, decided to walk. All the way in, and all the way up.

The steep, narrow, overgrown path that greeted us for the first half of the trail soon gave way to expansive views of the mountains that surrounded us (and the fire breaks that recent wildfires had necessitated)...

...and, of course, the ocean.

Our hearts were pounding in our heads as the ocean breeze cooled our sweat-soaked faces, and reminded us of how wet our backs had become. We heard neither waves nor crowds nor cars, only our own chests heaving, and the flap of predatory birds encircling above.

"We're almost there," I reassured myself, since I was probably too far ahead for Edith to hear me and receive any comfort. "It can't keep going up. At some point, it has to go down."

And soon, though perhaps not soon enough, we spotted the ocean on the other side of the island, and we knew we could go no farther...except down.

The return path is a wide, gently graded fire road, which we guessed most people would choose as the beginning of their loop.

"We chose the steep way to go up," Edith surmised.

"Yeah, but it's better that way," I said. "I'd rather go up steep than go down steep."

And as we looked around at our surroundings, though our pace had quickened, our heart rates lowered and our breathing softened, we said, "It would have been really boring to go up this way."

Dangling from a Wire

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June 28, 2011

Have a Nice Life

"Don't read too much into this..." I prefaced my declaration to Edith, because I'd been fairly obviously dropping hints about her moving to LA ever since I did five months ago.

"But isn't this nice? Isn't LA nice?"

We were standing at an unusually high elevation in the eastern end of Hollywood, with a view normally necessitated by a tall building in New York, but provided to us Friday night by the top of Barnsdall Art Park, a weird little hilltop public park that lets you look down onto the city without having to hike a mountain. I pointed westward, where palm trees dotted the hazy gray horizon, providing a smog-stockinged skyline of tropical stillness, their top-heavy trunks delicate like dandelion stalks. We couldn't see the buildings below them, only the filtering haze and the disappearing light.

Glass of wine in hand, I inhaled the open air, looked up at the Griffith Observatory and Hollywood Sign - always my beacons whether up there in Griffith Park or down below - and could only utter the simplest, most mundane descriptor: nice.

Somehow in my time in New York, or before that in childhood, I forgot what nice was, or why nice was so nice. Maybe I never knew. The New York attitude dictates that "nice" be considered weak, boring, bland, soft, pale, effete, effeminate, ephemeral. To be strong and interesting and worthwhile in New York, you have to walk around covered in dirt, living in filth, breathing in black air and black thoughts and black intentions. Grit and grime, darkness and shadows, shivering and sweating and soaking feet make you cool and resilient. You don't have to grin and bear it; you just have to bear it. Or be gone.

I did my time, and then I got gone. And now I'm allowing myself to drive a nice car down a nice palm tree-lined street to my nice apartment with my nice neighbors and jasmine-scented yard.

Back home at my apartment, Edith and I were chatting and she remarked, "I like the way your building smells" - a compliment considering its age (80+ years) and its inhabitants (20- and 30-something singles).

"I know!" I chimed in. "Isn't it nice?"

In Praise of the Nice Guy

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June 27, 2011

Make It Happen

You can't force an employer to hire you.

You can't force someone to love you.

You can't force someone to forgive you.

You can't force someone to miss you.

You can't force someone to let you love them.

But when do you give up, and accept defeat? When do you admit it's over?

Is it ever over?

Is it over with my parents, with whom I haven't spoken in almost four and a half years?

Is it over with the one I left behind in New York?

is it over with the one who left me behind in LA?

Will I ever sleep?

Will I ever love?

Will I ever marry?

How do I know when it's over for me? When I'm 35? Or when I'm 65?

Will I be lying on my deathbed in fifty years, gasping my last swallow of air, when someone will burst through the door with a last-ditch confession of lifelong love and obsession, finally gathering the courage to say what they'd been feeling all along? When I'd waited 85 years, and now it was too late?

There are many things I can do. I can answer the phone. I can put myself in the right place at the right time. I can do a good job and live a good life and have a good heart.

But I cannot take any more control over my life than I already have. For now, I can only wait.

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Dangling from a Wire

"Oh shit."

I was standing on the first platform of our zipline excursion - the one they called "The Bunny Slope" - watching our instructor demonstrate how to step off the edge and let our weight carry us down a metal wire with our knees tucked in for speed. For the first time, I felt scared.

I've jumped out of a plane, taken a running leap off a cliff, flown a sailplane, and crashed a snowmobile into a creek before, but the only prior time I was ever really scared was standing on the high rickety platform, leaning over the edge to grab a trapeze bar. With no glasses on or contacts in, and no ability to hear anything beyond the westside traffic roar, my most relied-upon physical senses were disabled, leaving me only with the sensation of sweaty fingers slipping over the bar, a lurching stomach, and a watering mouth.

Embarking on my first zip, I recalled the terror of trapeze, a physical activity I was embarrassingly bad at (a self-criticism that a friend likened to complaining that I was no good at swimming with sharks). Nevertheless, though I've never gone back to try to swing my legs over that bar, I did feel like I conquered those selfsame fears on Saturday, when I zipped through the canopy of Catalina Island's interior.

Oh, you're safe enough, skull crammed into helmet, straps digging into chin, tethers woven around pelvis and hardware dangling from carabiners.

That doesn't make it any less scary. You're in the mountains. With the sun setting. And you're pretty sure you're going to do it wrong.

Before my first giant leap for womankind, our instructor asked if I had any questions about the positions I'd have to execute: cannonball, starfish, etc. I said, "What happens if I don't starfish when he signals me to? What if I don't see him?"

"Well, you'll just be going really fast, and he'll have to stop you. But that's OK. If you do cannonball all the way, that's OK."

She'd strung me up and clipped me in while I was standing atop a box of stairs, which I had to step down one at a time to get to the ledge. I started to get really nervous, because with every step, I felt the tethers pulling at my waist, practically lifting me off my tiptoes and dragging me forward.

"That's OK," our instructor said, "I've got you. It'll be easier once you get to the ledge."

And it was. Once I got into position, the wire line above me sagged down with my weight, and waited for me to give it its cue: one confident step forward and vertical plunge down, and then a tilt back with straight arms, tucked-in knees, and crossed ankles.

My first trip down, I didn't look around at any of the scenery. I tried to keep my eyes on the instructor waiting for me on the other side, telling me whether to slow or keep going. When I landed, I said, "Did I starfish properly?", concerned with perfecting a technique I would have no previous knowledge of - not any more than trapeze, or swimming with sharks.

"Well, you'll get there..." he said.

This is what a perfect starfish looks like (this is not me):

With every leap, my form got better and the scenery got prettier, the sun casting its golden glow on us and imbuing the ocean with a deeper blue.

From the Bunny Slope, our lines got longer, lower and faster, allowing me to actually see my surroundings, the boat-flecked ocean shore to my right, the darkening peaks to my left, and the canyon of trees below as I sliced through the tree-tops.

I stopped asking questions.

I stopped looking before I leapt.

But I started looking at everything that passed before me on my way down.

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June 25, 2011

Photo Essay: Venice (Beach) Canals

I was reticent to go back to Venice after having worked there for three months and the subsequent awkwardness of getting laid off.

But as with many areas of LA, there was still plenty I hadn't seen.

Especially since I'd spent all my time, you know, working.

Witness: the Venice Canals.

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June 24, 2011

The Lost Road to Glendale Peak

"We might get lost today," I told Kevin as he climbed into the passenger side of my car. He was in LA for a few days and suggested we go on a hike together to catch up.

"That's OK," he said. "I'm ready to get lost."

"OK because I'm taking you to a place that's not on most maps..."

I was taking him to Glendale Peak in Griffith Park.

We found the trailhead easily enough, situated between the two tennis courts at the Vermont Canyon tennis complex, and navigated the unmarked trails that wound up and around towards the peak...

...past the landmarks we knew to look for...

to the green pump house, where the bridle trail is marked.

And then I got confused.

We faced the choice of heading left towards Glendale or right towards the city skyline. I tried to remember the lines on the map, to no avail. We headed right first, and then I second-guessed myself and led us left, through an open gate. It felt wrong, but I knew the other way was wrong too. And I thought we only had the two options.

Kevin was a great hiking partner because he was interested in everything we saw - the sandstone crumbling alongside us, the lizards crossing our path, the garter snake slithering away, and the bridge looming high above us.

"Oh," I said. "We're supposed to be up there. But how do we get up there?"

We kept walking until I checked the time and remarked that we had to go back in order for Kevin to check out of his hotel in time, so we retraced our steps to the pump house, where I discovered my previous error in judgement: there was a third path, a bridle trail that would lead us behind the pump house, up the hill and, eventually, across that bridge.

But it was too late to hike the rest of the way to Glendale Peak, so we abandoned mission, and went back.

I returned to Griffith Park Tuesday night after work to complete the hike, with about an hour left before the sun set, on the longest day of the year.

I found the bridge...

...and the sign for Henry's Trail to Glendale Peak...

...and I found Glendale Peak, whose narrow trail was overgrown with mustard and brush, slippery silt crumbling beneath our feet, brittle branches for grabbing and possibly breaking if we lost our footing.

But once we were at the top, with the sun setting behind the much taller peaks to our west in the park, and only a half hour left of daylight on the longest day of the year, what were we to do but simply go back down to where we started?

I took a moment to point out where I'd gotten lost before, down below, now having a high-level view where my mistake seemed so obvious to me.

And now I can move onto the next opportunity to get lost for a while, and find my way...

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June 19, 2011

All Dressed Up

I wore the same dress tonight as I did last night.

I wore it Tuesday night, too.

I wore it for you. I don't know where you are. I don't know who you are.

I wore this dress to a party last night. I didn't have anyone to talk to. I sat in this dress alone, sipping a mojito with too much mint in it. I hoped not to spill my drink on my dress.

I left the party early in this dress, and went to my car and took it off on the street. I left this dress in the car while I took a walk in shorts and a t-shirt as the sun set, lying down on the Silver Lake Meadow with bare feet, watching a couple play soccer with a too-small ball, blocking the setting sun with my crossed legs.

I put this dress back on and sat in it in the dark at the movies.

I took this dress off and went to bed early.

I put this dress back on tonight, and I still didn't find you. I don't know what I'm looking for. I don't know if you've seen me.

I took this dress off tonight and hung it on its hook. I slipped it over my head and slung it away for the night.

I might put it back on tomorrow.

I might sleep in it tomorrow.

Just in case you visit me in the middle of the night.

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Photo Essay: A Sunset Stroll Up Mt. Hollywood

There is more than one way to climb a mountain.

Friday night, I experienced the third way to climb Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park.

I'd wanted to do a group activity so someone could show me a new hike in Griffith, whose 50+ miles of trails are still largely a mystery to me, having only scratched the surface of them in the last year. We met in the north parking lot of the Merry Go Round - a huge group of us, making photographing the scenery difficult not only to avoid people in my shots, but to avoid creating bottlenecks along the narrow trail while I dawdled with my new camera - and set off on the little-known "Lingerie Trail," a steep climb along tree roots and through lush vegetation.

It was touted as a "full moon hike," but with a 6:30 p.m. meeting time shortly before the summer solstice, we had plenty of sunlight to get to the top, and plenty of time to loiter while the sun set behind the Hollywood Sign.

I watched the sun set and then quickly left most of the group behind to join a few hikers back down the mountain in the dark, but I never got to see the full moon. I followed the glow cast by a flashlight somewhere in front of me, and the sound of voices behind me telling us where to turn, but otherwise, I was pretty much barreling blindly down the hill. When I returned to the parking lot, I realized that parking my car in the more familiar south end of the Merry Go Round lot was  mistake not only because of its distance from the hike's starting point, but because of the pitch black absence of street lights.

Luckily, though I was willing to continue fumbling in the dark, a fellow hiker offered me a ride back to my car, where I changed my clothes in the dark to get ready to start my Friday night...

Photo Essay: Franklin Canyon Night Hike

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