December 31, 2011

At the End of the Year

At the end of 2011...

I'm not working at the job that I accepted at the end of 2010.

I'm not dating the guy that swept me off my feet for most of 2010.

I don't have as many friends as I thought I would. (My best friends in LA are my boss, my hairdresser, my waxer, my bartender, and my ex.)

I haven't gone on as many dates as I thought I would.

I haven't gone on as many hikes as I thought I would.

But I am lighter.

I am browner.

I am stronger.

I am healthier.

I am creative. I am creating.

And despite everything, I am still open to all that California has to offer.

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December 28, 2011

An Unnoticed Return

I haven't written much in the last week, not since I left LA for NY last Thursday night on the redeye.

I've had LA on my mind.

And as lovely as my Christmas visit back East was, I was really looking forward to coming back home to the West Coast.

But upon my arrival tonight, sitting on a bench at LAX waiting for the Super Shuttle, I wondered what I'd been looking forward to?

I was alone, surrounded by packages and luggage full of presents from people I love, and wrapping paper leftover from giving gifts to people I love, waiting for some anonymous driver in a shared passenger van to bring me back to the office, where I'd left my car parked.

No one was waiting eagerly for my arrival.

No one noticed when I arrived.

There were no hugs and kisses, not like when I landed in Syracuse. There were no smiling faces, not like when I drove up to pick up Edith and Eric in Cohoes.

So what did I come back to?

Why did I choose to leave New York to spend New Year's Eve here, in my new hometown, when I could've spent it in a familiar place with friends who were sure to kiss me at midnight?

But New York City isn't so familiar to me anymore. Even since my last visit in October, the bus stops have changed, the traffic patterns have adjusted. For the first time since I first moved to NYC in 1997, I felt like a tourist.

I longed for my car, my apartment, my crosswalks, my perils.

Because, when it comes down to it, I really love LA. I love getting to know LA.

But I don't think LA loves me very much. At least now. At least, not yet...

Related Post:
A Place Where I Used to Live

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December 24, 2011

Staying In My Zone

When I was visiting the West Coast so often last year in search of clients and hopefully a job, I would always turn my watch back three hours upon arrival, but I would wait days, sometimes weeks, to turn it ahead three hours upon my return.

Sometimes, because I was going back and forth between New York and LA so often, I would just leave it on Pacific Time, even while I was in New York, so I wouldn't have to turn it back when I got back to LA.

Even back then, I was becoming Californian.

Now that I'm back in Syracuse for Christmas, back for the first time in a year, I still haven't set my watch forward three hours. I like to know what time it is back home without having to calculate it. I don't think I'll set it to Eastern Time before I head back to LA.

After all, I'm going back so soon.

And Pacific Time is my time zone now.

And I plan to keep it that way.

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December 21, 2011

Winter Solstice

As of today, the days will start getting longer instead of shorter.

I'll soon be able to start seeing the sun for more than five minutes in the morning.

Thank heaven for that.

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December 20, 2011

Open Letter to Santa

Dear Santa:

It's been a long time since I've written you. I've never been too keen on receiving gifts, especially since I never really got what I really wanted as a child, so I just haven't thought to write over the last few years.  I wasn't sure you ever read my letters, or even ever visited my house. On Christmas morning, I found your leftover cookies untouched in the kitchen.

But this year, I've made a Christmas Wish List that I must share with you.

Santa, if you have any power at all, could you please bring me at least one of the following this Christmas?
  • someone to enjoy my Christmas tree besides me
  • a Christmas party
  • a tub of Heluva Good French Onion dip
  • peace of mind
  • rest
  • hope
  • a sense of purpose
  • someone to kiss at midnight on New Year's Eve
  • a replacement heart, for mine is too broken
I haven't always been good. I've done some horrible things. But I have been better, at least this year. I got a job. I moved to LA. I lost weight. I hiked mountains. I faced my fears, time and time again.

And now, by writing you, I am facing one of my greatest fears: that you don't exist, and that there's nobody out there to help me, to give me something I ask for, to give me the help I so desperately need.

Or, maybe you do exist, but you've just chosen to skip over me. Or you couldn't find me. Have you been looking for me?

Santa, please find me this Christmas, and if not Christmas, then definitely New Year's night.

Much gratitude in advance,

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December 19, 2011

Photo Essay: Mt. Lowe's Inspiration Point to Altadena

A couple of weekends ago, I managed to rise at an ungodly hour to join a rare caravan up Mt. Lowe to the site of the old Alpine Tavern, the end of the line of the old Mt. Lowe Railway trolley. (I'd been fascinated with this site since I'd hiked up to Echo Mountain, the end of the line for the Mt. Lowe Incline Railway, and the transfer point to the trolley.) It was a somewhat harrowing trip just days after a record-breaking windstorm ravaged the LA area, including the Angeles National Forest and the towns along its foothills. As it is, that area of Angeles National Forest is still recovering from the 2009 Station Fire which tore through a huge area which still recovers from it.

But what I didn't realize, on our way up to Mt. Lowe Camp, sitting on the passenger side, mostly facing the mountain, was that the trip down would be ever so much more harrowing, sitting on the passenger side, mostly facing the canyon.

Up at Inspiration Point, the highest we got that day, with Mt. Wilson in our sights, the wind was still whipping around our heads and through our teeth... we teetered along the trail...

...and around Eagle Rock.

As we drove down the Mt. Lowe Railway's old right-of-way, it was easy to imagine the perils passengers faced as the trolley traveled a tightrope track around the mountain...

...and hard to imagine it crossing a bridge that traversed the mouth of the canyon.

You can experience the descent for yourself, as documented by me from the passenger side backseat of a large, rugged truck that dragged debris it caught under its tires, scraped against the side-of-road overgrowth, but couldn't quite get past a downed tree without stopping and moving it.

Down Along the Path of the Mt. Lowe Railway from Sandi Hemmerlein on Vimeo.

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December 17, 2011

Photo Essay: Beachwood Canyon, In Search of the Hollywood Sign

The first time I drove up through Beachwood Canyon, it was in search of Hollywoodland. I found the old gate that marked it, and lots of signs that read "No Access to Hollywood Sign," though you could see the tall, white letters peeking out from atop Mt. Lee in the distance.

My second time in Beachwood Canyon, it was for a late night tryst, and it was too dark to see the Sign.

I actually made it to the Hollywood Sign once - well, behind it - when I actually climbed Mt. Lee in Griffith Park, still one of my favorite LA area hikes.

So last weekend, when I found out there was a way to hike up under the shadow of the Sign, through Beachwood Canyon, down some public stairs, of course I printed out my directions, parked my car on the street, and set off.

Of course I got lost.

The hike technically starts at the main commercial intersection of the neighborhood known as Beachwood Canyon, and takes you through the residential streets of the Hollywood Hills. Since I don't have much interest in houses that aren't abandoned, I started taking photos upon entering Griffith Park by the Norman chateau known as Wolf's Lair.

I was looking for a T-intersection, where I was supposed to turn right down a wide path, but the only T I saw lead down a narrow path to the right. I walked down it a little bit as it narrowed through overgrown brush, and decided I hadn't gone far enough. I returned to the T, which maybe wasn't really a T, and went left, which maybe could be considered straight.

As I passed the fence on my right, I caught glimpses of the Lake Hollywood Reservoir, surrounded by water tanks and cell phone towers instead of the Hollywood Sign, which I was supposed to be approaching...

When I kept approaching the reservoir instead of the Hollywood Sign, I decided I'd gone in the wrong direction and went back to the T.

But upon second glance, going right still seemed wrong to me, so I decided I hadn't given my prior path enough of a chance, so I went back, this time all the way down to a locked gate, with the reservoir on the  other side.

So I went back again, this time the fence on my left, with the Hollywood Sign peeking out in the distance.

Back at the T, as wrong as right seemed, I went down that narrow path, looking for signs of the old Mulholland Highway. It was so overgrown, I couldn't imagine even a dirt road passing through there, until I found telltale crumbling remnants of asphalt on either side of the path.

Soon, the trail opened up, revealing the Hollywood Sign tucked behind Castillo del Lago, a Mediterranean villa once home to both Bugsy Siegel and Madonna (though not at the same time).

From the driveway of Castillo del Lago, I exited Griffith Park onto Canyon Lake Drive, where lots of tourists have figured out you can get a great view of the Hollywood Sign (much better than from Beachwood Canyon Drive).

Down Canyon Lake Drive, past all the tourists, I looped back into the park...

...and hiked right under Mount Lee and the Hollywood Sign...

...winding through the park and back out through basically a private backyard, onto Mullholland Drive (whose asphalt is very much intact right now).

From there, the hike took me through more neighborhood streets, to the first public staircase off Durand Drive...

...which leads down to Belden Drive, near where the hike begins.

Except apparently there's another staircase that takes you from Belden to Beachwood (where my car was parked), but for the life of me I couldn't find it. Instead of pacing back and forth as I'd done in the park, I just kept walking, knowing that Belden would eventually hit Beachwood again, but there's something mysterious and confusing about those Hollywood Hills, whose streets look like driveways and aren't always marked and whose house numbers don't seem to go in chronological order.

Even with my GPS in hand (which was confused by me walking on the left side of the street instead of the right), I could not figure out how to get back to my car, though I had a general sense of the direction it was in. The light of day was waning, the chill of the air was advancing and I was wondering if I once again had to consider calling a cab.

But somehow I found my way, without having to trace my steps all the way back through the park, ask for help, or call a cab.

I'm not sure how.

But I always seem to find my way in LA, no matter how often I get lost.

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December 13, 2011

Passing Notes

I was sitting at the bar, alone, as usual.

I was busying myself on my phone, as usual.

But I looked up because I felt someone approach. I felt their eyes on me. I lifted mine to meet their gaze.

"Hi," she said. Her uniform's red bandana gave her away as one of the waitresses. I was curious to see her; I wasn't expecting any food.

"Hi there," I said.

She twisted her mouth. "See that guy over there?"

Without looking, I said, "The really drunk one against the wall?"

"The one in the white shirt?" she offered, seemingly sinking into herself even though she was standing.

"Yeah the one that just came and sat at the bar and then turned around and sat back at the table? That guy?"

The waitress winced. "He wrote you a note," she said, holding up a folded piece of paper.

"Oh yeah?" I asked, humored. "What does it say? Did you read it?"


"Well let's take a look!" I was always up for a little drunken hilarity at bars and restaurants, and this wasn't the first time that I'd been approached from across the room.

Scrawled across the white piece of paper was something about how cute sexy I am, and how he thought we should hang out later, and how he wasn't having a very good time on his date, because she just wasn't his type.

"Oh hilarious!" I laughed. "He must be drunk. How do I respond?"

Just then the waitress - who'd introduced herself as Emily as she was thanking me for being so cool about it - got pulled away, and I took a moment to consider my reply. He wasn't dashing. He was too drunk to be interesting. And he was on a date with another girl. So I wrote, "I'm sorry but I have to get up really early in the morning. Besides, I don't steal other girls' dates."

I folded it up, handed it back to Emily, and sent her back to his table. Later, she reported back that when he opened it up and recited it to the table, he punctuated it with, "Classy."

"That is classy!" Emily said to him, and to me later.

"The truth is," I confessed, "That's totally a lie. I totally do steal other girls' dates."

Soon thereafter, the guy - whose name I never got - sauntered by me at the bar on his way out, kind of poked me in the back a little bit, and walked out with his arm around his date, I shaking my head.

"He actually wrote you back," Emily said, "But I didn't want to give it to you."

"Oh yeah? What'd it say?"

"'It's meant to be.'"

And then, in unison, we said, "Ugh."

And then I thought about how he walked out with the girl, the same girl who was at the table every time I looked over, and who must've been there when he wrote the note to me, and when he read my reply aloud. My face fell.

"What's wrong?" Emily asked.

"I just realized, they must've been making fun of me."

"No, no, no, don't be silly..." she protested.

But it sure seemed like his date was in on the joke. And they walked out, laughing, while I still sat there, at the bar, alone, eyes welling.

Why did they decide to target me? Because they saw me sitting, eating, drinking, tweeting alone? Because they always see me there alone?

Because it's so absurd to think that someone might like the sight of me so much that they might actually write me a genuine note and send it to me with the waitress?

No one likes being picked on, and usually whoever is picking on you isn't worth the angst they create. But no matter how small, infantile, insignificant or idiotic the mocker is, it doesn't make the mockery sting any less.

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December 12, 2011

Photo Essay: Pasadena to the Mt. Lowe Alpine Tavern

I've been skulking around the periphery of Mount Lowe in the Angeles National Forest for over a year now.

This summer, I spotted the closed trails to Mt. Lowe from both Henninger Flats and Mount Wilson, but the 2009 Station Fire left a lot of those roads, fire roads, and trails closed for repair and rehabilitation. Last summer, I hiked up Echo Mountain to the old White City, to explore where the old Mt. Lowe Incine Railway used to drop folks off. At the time, I thought that was kind of it, but now I realize, just as you can hike farther up from there, the incline railway's passengers' journeys did not have to end there, either: they could take a trolley all the way up Mt. Lowe to the Alpine Tavern, and even stay overnight in one of the surrounding cottages.

The original path of the trolley is actually open to the public, but not to vehicular traffic. But last weekend, thanks to the Scenic Mt. Lowe Railways Historical Committee, a group of us got past the locked gate and drove up the old path of the trolley in an annual trip that occurs every December to commemorate the opening of the railway.

Looking down at Echo Mountain...

Past the Cape of Good Hope, the site of the old Circular Bridge, Dawn Station...

...Winding around the mountain, first on asphalt, dodging falling rocks...

...and debris from the wind storm that rocked the area just two days before...

To experience the vehicular journey up the mountain to the Tavern - a narrow, harrowing trip that served as a good approximation of the original experience, I think - check out this video shot from the passenger side of one of the cars in our small caravan:

The site of the old Alpine Tavern - the original end of the line for the railway - is now the Mount Lowe Camp in the Angeles National Forest, but the campground still bears some vestiges... an old rusted-out stove...

...the terracotta kitchen floor...

...and the kitchen walls.

Volunteers scour the mountain and the canyon for relics, and when they can, they bring them back to their (sometimes guessed) original location, like this snow plow that used to be attached to the front of the train...

...and this metal ring, which the rangers and volunteers think used to encircle a tree by the tavern.

The 2009 Station Fire miraculously spared much of Mt. Lowe and what little remains of its railway, but as evidenced by the pervasive crunch underfoot of uneaten acorns, much wildlife was not spared, and the ecosystem has not yet snapped back into place, despite how much of the forest actually has recovered in the last couple of years.

Not much else remains around the Alpine Tavern, save for some stairs that now lead nowhere, and some interpretive signs installed by the Historical Committee.

One of the committee's greatest contributions has been the restoration of the Ramada (or pavilion) at Inspiration Point, a short hike for us (and for the railway passengers back in the day) slightly higher up the mountain, where several trails now intersect.

Stay tuned for the next post that shows Inspiration Point and the journey back down to Pasadena.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Heart-Pounding Hike to a Lost City

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December 11, 2011

Flying Solo

I would rather sit in a crowd alone, surrounded by strangers
Than interject myself into a small group, surrounded by friends.

I'd rather buy one ticket to a concert
Than tag along with another couple.

I'd rather talk to no one
Than be asked why I'm not with anyone.

I like the company I keep
When I keep myself company

When I am the only wheel

But nothing makes me want to escape, flee, or retreat
More than being an extra wheel.

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December 09, 2011


Ever since I moved to LA, I've been cold.

I moved into my apartment in late January, in the middle of winter, into an apartment with no heat (and no air conditioning), and only a hot water bottle to keep me warm.

Back then, new in LA, it was enough. I wasn't that cold yet. LA still seemed warmer than New York to me.

But with the onslaught of winter in LA, a winter that really feels like winter to me, a winter that feels just as Christmasy as New York, I am blasting the heat.

I sit next to a space heater all day, while regularly turning the office furnace up. Sometimes I wear my coat.

I blast another space heater at night, placed on the hardwood floor, with a faux fur blanket draped across me, the hot water bottle tucked underneath. Sometimes I sleep all night like that, slowly toasting the night away, waking up in a dry, oven-baked room, the tip of my nose thankfully warm.

I seek the heat.

I didn't move to California to be cold; I moved here to be warm, to bask in the sun, to brown and burn and cook and boil and sweat and bake.

But for now, I'll have to do so artificially, as I sit here in my office, gazing out the window at the disappearing sun...

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December 07, 2011

Off to the Races, Part Two

...a continuation from Off to the Races, Part One.

And with the turn of a key, a press of a clutch, a push of a button and a pump of the gas pedal I was off...

But not for long.

I managed not to stall the racer when I was taking off, when it's most likely you'll stall, trying to get into second gear from first gear. I managed to take the first curve in second gear just fine, looping around the track with a scowl on my face, concentrating very hard. I had my right foot pressed all the way down to the floor. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?

I was focused on going fast, though the flag man told me I'd be fine if I just stayed in second gear the whole time, and if other racers needed to pass me, he'd just wave the blue and gold "Pass" flag. But I wasn't there to just drive; I was there to race.

I was the first to blast off, but by the time I made it to the final S-curve before the straightaway along the starting point, I was going too fast (even only in second gear), and with my tiny little steering wheel sized somewhere along the lines of a salad plate, I lost control of my racer and spun out, way out, off the track, into the gravel, around and around, and back on the track.

I stopped because I thought I'd be in trouble.

The BMW brought me rescue: technicians to spin me around to face the right way and get me started up again so I could return to the starting line, where they'd check my helmet and wheels. I kept apologizing. A bunch of racers were backlogged behind me, waiting for me to clear.

I was sorry, but I wasn't that sorry. After all, I'd warned them.

Back at the starting line, everything checked out OK, and to my relief, they sent me back out. Around the track another time, I returned to the scene of my first spinout, the harrowing S-curve, and did exactly the same thing as the last time, in exactly the same spot - only this time, when I stalled out, I got myself started back up again, turned around, and back on the track. I approached the straightaway trepidatiously, anticipating the red flag to bring me back in, but instead I saw the glorious green flag waving proudly through the air. In my delight, I shifted into third gear with my right hand, waved my left hand out of the open top of the racer, and tackled that first curve again.

I was out there on the track for probably about ten minutes, but it simultaneously felt like two minutes and an hour. I kept looking for the checkered flag to indicate the end of my run, but not seeing it, I just kept going, around and around those same curves, learning when to ease up on the gas, how to steer, and how to see what was going on despite being so low to the ground.

When I was finally waved in, I realized I'd been first to launch and last to land. The flag man returned, this time congratulating me: "Well! You spun out, you stalled, you off-roaded, but you got yourself going again! A+!"

"I didn't break anything!"

"No, you didn't. Anybody else would have taken you off that track, saying you couldn't do it, but I knew you could do it. And I let you stay out there because I wanted to see what you were going to do next."

He then pointed at my driving suit, covered in dirt, and picked a sizable rock off of it. "You roughed up our equipment a little bit and got it a bit dirtier than we expected-"


"-But for doing bad, you did a great job."

Uh, thanks. I think.

This is a sport that really seems built for men, tall men with long legs and big heads, not short girls with sparkly sneakers and heads requiring small helmets. But I did not approach the sport with timidity, despite my trepidation: I shifted into full gear (though I never actually made it into fourth), put the pedal to the metal, and treated the impossible as though it were possible. I was tired of saying "I can't drive stick shift." It's such a minor thing, but common enough to have come up several times over the last several years.

I mean, I can't drive stick? Or I just hadn't yet? And hadn't been taught yet.

Getting back into my little tin can of a car, my left foot felt antsy, reaching for an invisible clutch pedal. My steering hands wanted to veer the vehicle to the far side of every curve and turn (a condition from which I still suffer several days later). I longed to feel the transmission settle into gear, the RPMs increasing with the roar of the engine.

Safely out of harm's way (and I don't think I was ever in any real danger that day at the raceway), I told my boss what I'd done, the reason I'd taken the day off from work. "Good," she said, "I'm glad you got that out of your system."

"Out of it?" I asked, knowing I'd received a fuel injection directly into my bloodstream that day.

Related posts:
Elegy for the Flightless Bird
Adventure at Full Throttle
Dangling from a Wire
For those about to trapeze, I salute you

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Six Words About Work

After years of winning contests and earning featured homepage placement, finally my work as an avid Six Word Memoirist has come to physical fruition:

Smith Magazine is publishing one of my Six Word Memoirs in one of their books.

You can find my contribution in their Six Words About Work, available exclusively at

For all of my Six Word Memoirs on various topics (Love, Resolutions, New York, etc.), visit my profile (avoidingregret) on

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December 05, 2011

A Proper Sunset

With the onset of winter, and the setting back of the clocks, I've been particularly mourning the sunset, which I've been missing altogether for the last several months, especially the last six months at my current job.

When I'm on vacation, I never miss a sunset.

But even when I was working in Venice by the beach, I never really saw a proper LA sundown. Since moving here in January, I've caught glimpses of some: pink clouds swirling, a residual glow rising above the palm trees in the west, light slowly extinguishing through the smog, the sun dipping behind a mountain while hiking in Runyon Canyon, but I only really saw it set once during a sunset hike in Griffith Park.

It was about time for another one.

This afternoon, I took a leisurely stroll up and down the various Santa Monica stairs, including those that lead down to the beach along the bluffs from Palisades Park.

And an added bonus: an empty swingset on the beach, the perfect perch from which to enjoy the sunset.

There's no sunset like a beach sunset, and after the weekend I'd had of climbing stairs, race car driving, and getting up at 5:45 a.m. to tour Mount Lowe (report forthcoming), I was happy to simply bask in the glow, and swing.

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December 04, 2011

Photo Essay: The Stairs of LA

In a country full of elevators, escalators, and moving walkways, LA is a town that climbs and runs its stairways for fun.

A friend of mine conducts walking tours mostly around Downtown LA and the city's easternmost reaches, focusing on the hidden stairways along the route, and taking each stairway that they pass (even if it means making detours of varying lengths).

But in LA, plenty of stairs have become tourist attractions, with their own Yelp pages. Case in point: Santa Monica Stairs.

Santa Monica Stairs is actually several different sets of stairs, including one off Adelaide Drive...

...the really well-known and heavily-trafficked one at 4th and Adelaide...

...a little spur staircase off the 4th Street one that leads to a creepy, overgrown sidewalk path behind the residences in the trees...

...and the Palisades Park stairs amongst the bluffs.

These stairways were built as necessary access points, but here I was, descending them and turning around and going right back up them. Is this form of recreation inspiring, or completely frivolous?

In my mind, it's an industrious way to get exercise. After all, it wasn't the first time I'd climbed stairs in LA for (supposed) fun.

See also:

Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook

Runyon Canyon

...and the ultimate...

Murphy Ranch

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