November 30, 2017

The Anxiety of Anxiety

Three and a half years ago, after getting into a car accident, I would've told you that I was struggling with anxiety for the first time in my life.

I'd always thought of myself as a depressed person, not an anxious one. I believed then—and still do—that I was born depressed.

Of course, the anxiety that began to eclipse my depression in 2014 was perfectly understandable from a circumstantial point of view: I'd lost a love and a job in the same month, and I'd been rear-ended a couple weeks later. I was financially destitute, with no prospects—professional or romantic.

I then rebounded into an incredibly toxic and anxiety-provoking relationship with someone who practically flaunted his infidelities and yet hypocritically insisted he be the only one for me.

The anxiety got so bad while I was with him that I'd begun clenching my leg muscles uncontrollably all day long, and even during the night while I slept. Despite how much they ached, I kept flexing those muscles in my legs.

But it was only in my legs, and not my arms or anywhere else—not even my jaw. Why my legs, and, in particular, my calves? I still don't know.

However, other parts of my body didn't escape the manifestation of anxiousness. For example, I literally peeled the skin off the surface of my nose.

I told myself I'd gotten too much sun, or that I was experiencing some dry patches, but the truth is that I could not stop digging into my pores and trying to eliminate what I thought were blackheads until I got rid of my illuminated, magnified mirror.

While I drove—which was particularly anxiety-provoking after getting whiplash in a collision—I'd begun picking at the holes in my pierced ears until I drew blood.

What was I digging for? I'm not sure. I thought I'd know when I found it.

Of course, as nothing in life is really permanent, I eventually got a job and licked my wounds. The chaos of my life subsided. My situation calmed down.

Yet, although I was no longer in crisis mode, I had a hard time shaking all of these tics I'd developed and, if you were to ask me, perfected.

Once I had the time to give it some thought, I realized that behaviors like those—even if not those exact ones—had been ingrained in me since very early in childhood. In fact, they'd become so second-nature to me that I'd kind of forgotten I did them.

The only difference? I hid it better back then. And when I got caught doing one thing, I'd shift to something else.

As a preschooler, I was a nailbiter. I could not leave my nails alone or keep my fingers out of my mouth. So, my parents put this special habit-breaking nail polish on me that's supposed to taste bad if it gets in your mouth.

And you know what? I was immediately cured—but not because of the flavor of the stuff. I was such a vain little girl that I loved the way my nails looked all pink and shiny.

Then, I figured out that I could bite my cuticles and the skin around my nails without destroying a manicure.

I also remember obsessively bouncing my leg up and down as a kid as young as, say, five or six. I could hide it at the dinner table, but when I did it in church, it infuriated my father so much that he'd drag me out into the vestibule and shake an angry finger in my face.

Of course that only made me feel worse, so I needed to do something to comfort myself. I passed out in church once as a flight response. By high school, I'd taken to rocking back and forth like what you might see a kid with autism do.

Up until the age of 10, I found myself playing an imaginary keyboard whenever I could find a flat surface. My parents thought it was cute that I was practicing my piano lessons. But I don't think that's what I was doing then—just like I don't think that's what I was doing when I obsessively repeated sign language finger-spelling to myself after having learned it for a high school production of The Miracle Worker.

I needed a lot of comfort as a kid, and all these things made me feel better. Whether it was the rush of dopamine, or the intermittent distraction from constant traumatization, having some repetitive motion I could rely on made me feel like everything was going to be OK.

In grade school, when the rush of pubescent hormones changed the texture of my hair, I couldn't stop touching it. I still struggle with that to this day.

The only thing that keeps me from going bald or peeling off my entire face is that same vanity that allowed my nails to grow long despite my desire to bite them.

But I can't be trusted with, say, an exfoliator or other advanced tools of beauty and hygiene. I would probably get overzealous if I had a home waxing kit. I've sent myself limping away from a home pedicure more recently than I care to admit.

I have no desire to harm myself—in fact, quite the opposite. All these things usually start with good intentions. Snip off the split end. Pluck the rogue eyebrow hair. Slough off the dead skin.

All these things can go horribly wrong with just a simple misstep. And, usually, any attempt to try to fix what's been done only makes it worse.

It's a terrifying thing to face—mostly because my mother was and is a nervous person, wracked with phobias of water, heights, bridges, germs, smells, dirt, driving, foreigners, leaving the house, letting strangers into the house, and so on and so forth.

Although, come to think of it, I think I got off pretty easy with just my irrational fear of bees and my completely rational distaste for heights and the dark.

When I'm home, I try to keep one hand occupied with the cat and the other clicking away on the keyboard or lifting a fork or a spoon to my mouth. But sometimes the cat walks away, and then I'm left to my own devices.

This type of behavior, of course, is also seen throughout the animal kingdom. An anxious cat might over-groom himself and, as a result, develop a hairball problem. An anxious parrot will pluck the feathers off of her own chest, sometimes so bad that she'll render herself bald. An anxious monkey might hit himself in the head repeatedly with his own fist, or he might hit it against a wall or a window.

When it comes to people, some smoke cigarettes one after the other. Others need a few shots of liquor before they can calm down.

Of course, they're doing the same thing I'm doing—they're just ravaging the invisible insides of their bodies.

I don't know if I became anxious because I am my mother's daughter genetically or because I was raised by an anxious mother. I don't know whether it was a destined anxiety because I've got some aberrant chemical make-up or if it was an evolutionary adaptation to endure the slings and arrows that modern life offered me.

Do I survive because I'm anxious? Or do I survive despite being anxious?

I may never know the answer. But I refuse to worry about it.

Related Posts:
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I Refuse to Worry
Avoiding Worry
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November 28, 2017

A Nearly-Lost French Vineyard Grows in the Glendale Foothills

California owes a certain debt to the Spanish for its current existence—and the conquistadors who held a certain fancy for the local indigenous women, which spawned generations of Mexicans to come.

We celebrate the Californios—or, those born in California of Spanish descent—who pioneered the creation of our pueblos.

In LA, we've got Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown, Thai Town, and Koreatown to remind us of the cultural (and financial) contributions of our neighbors to the East. There's the Byzantine-Latino Quarter with its annual Greek festival, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Little Osaka, Persian Square, and Little Bangladesh.

We've even got an Italian-American Museum.

But let's not forget about the French.

The French began to immigrate to El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles in 1827, despite the fact that it was, at the time, a tiny Mexican village—and it took them less than a quarter-century to rise to prominence here.

A French winemaker named Jean-Louis Vignes was one of the first—but the French vines he brought here and the wine-friendly climate lured many others of his kind to follow in his footsteps.

One of those immigrant French winemakers was Georges Le Mesnager, who arrived in 1885 and purchased land in the Dunsmore Canyon area of La Crescenta (now known as Deukmejian Wilderness Park). There, he planted vines and grew grapes for a winery he opened at Main and Mesnager Streets in Downtown Los Angeles.

At the time, the canyon was wild and steep, subject to runoff, flooding, and mudslides—but nevertheless, Mesnager tried to develop the land with the help of his son Louis, who, in 1905, began building a stone barn for their winemaking business. (Some reports say that the barn was built from 1914 to 1918, along with some other buildings that no longer exist.)

For a while, the barn was primarily used as a stable and a storage facility—not only for vineyard equipment but also for the grapes that would be shipped off to the family's winery in Downtown LA. That is, until Prohibition hit in 1920.

The ratification of the 18th Amendment of the Constitution pretty much put an end to the Le Mesnager winemaking business (and the winemaking industry in general, save for places like San Fernando Mission and San Antonio Winery that could continue to produce sacramental wine), although the Le Mesnagers sold table grapes and produced non-alcoholic, grape-based drinks like brandy (which is typically created by distilling wine).

When the 21st Amendment of the Constitution repealed Prohibition in 1933, as we learned on our guided tour, winemaking resumed in the barn. But by then, Le Mesnager and his wife had returned to France, and he'd passed away a decade before after suffering a stroke.

Also in 1933, a fire in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains (now known as Angeles National Forest) gutted the barn—destroying the equipment inside and leaving only the original stonework. And, as is typical after a fire clears a hillside of its vegetation (in this case, chaparral and sage scrub), the rains that followed brought massive flooding—and more devastation to the vineyard.

Still, the early families of the LA area were a hardy lot, so the remaining members of the Le Mesnager family rebuilt the stone barn with an arched roof instead of the original pitched roof, taking the opportunity to add living quarters on the second floor and moving in. They lived there from 1937 to 1960, which helped preserve that stone barn as a rare example of a two-story vernacular rock structure.

And fortunately, the non-profit group the Stone Barn Vineyard Conservancy—led by, in large part, local historian, author, and winemaker Stuart Byles—has preserved not only the barn itself, but also the legacy of winemaking in this area of the Crescenta Valley.

The vineyard now has 81 grapevines—none original, all planted since 2004 and regularly maintained by volunteers. But, after being sold to a developer in 1968, the 709-acre property almost became a housing development. Fortunately, the City of Glendale stepped in, purchased it, and turned it into a park in the 1980s.

Now, you can find both red and white cultivars growing on the vines there, from Alicante Bouschet and Red Flames to Early Burgundy (a.k.a. Abouriou).

How does it taste? Well, I've yet to find out. The Conservancy isn't legally allowed to sell the wine it makes from these grapes.

So, I may just have to join as a member to get my complimentary bottle. After all, I do love underdog wine country.

And despite how big winemaking once was in LA (and not yet Malibu), there's no bigger underdog than LA when it comes to California wine.

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November 27, 2017

Photo Essay: Where Lovebirds Take the Biggest Gamble of All in Vegas

In my quest to discover and uncover traces of the "Old" Vegas, I usually come up short if I stay on the Strip, in that vast expanse between Mandalay Bay to the south and the Stratosphere to the north.

Until recently, I thought the only way to experience that Vegas of yore was to pay my respects at the Neon Boneyard or to walk along Fremont Street and try to imagine when it wasn't covered by an awning and I wouldn't be under the path of drunken zipliners.

But there's something else along Las Vegas Boulevard that's oh-so-Vegas and that's stood the test of time: wedding chapels.

When I was a kid, I was only aware of Vegas as a place people went to get married—or, more accurately, elope. I didn't really grasp the concepts of gambling, prostitution, or nightclubbing until much later.

But then when I started going to Vegas in the late '90s—and then more frequently for business in the late '00s—I never saw one wedding chapel, not one limo festooned with streamers, a "JUST MARRIED" banner, or the rattle of empty cans attached to the rear bumper by strings.

I never drove by any of them, or even passed them in a taxicab. I'd gotten to thinking that maybe they were a figment of Hollywood's imagination, or that maybe the'd all been imploded along with all the old casinos.

But once I finally decided to hunt them down—starting just last summer—I discovered a whole 'nother strip of a completely different sort in Vegas.

It's a strip of nuptials—and one that's not just littered with blackout proposals or shotgun weddings or sacraments soon to be annulled after a brief consummation.

These are the chapels of some people's wedding dreams—right out of a storybook fairytale.

After all, if it's good enough for Jon Bon Jovi or Joan Collins, why not forego spending your life savings on a palatial venue, ostentatious catering, and a dress you'll only wear once—especially if you're not a high roller?

Might as well put it into a slot machine or on the roulette wheel. At least then, you've got a chance of winning your money back.

Besides, the weddings at these chapels may be quickies, but they're just as much a part of the "show" culture in Vegas as Siegfried and Roy were or Penn and Teller still are.

And if you pick the right locale for your ceremony, you just might get a musical performance as part of the package deal.

And if you're in an even bigger hurry, you can choose one of the drive-thru services to become man and wife (or wife and wife, or husband and husband, as same-sex marriage was legalized in Nevada in 2014).

After all, anything goes at the Vegas wedding chapels—and whichever version of holy matrimony you're looking for, you'll probably be able to find it here.

And who wouldn't want to pledge their love and honor to their betrothed under the glittering flicker of neon lights and incandescent bulbs?

Who better to make you promise to love each other tender—and teach you how to be each other's teddy bear—than the King himself?

But, for a bit of class, and some history that goes even farther back in time, there's always the Little Church of the West—the oldest standing building on the Strip. It opened in 1942 as part of the now-defunct Hotel Last Frontier, but it's been moved a couple of times before landing in its current potion south of Mandalay Bay and walking distance from the "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign (where the chapel can also host your ceremony).

Intended to replicate a typical "Old West" pioneer town church, it was built in the Late Gothic Revival style out of California redwood.

It's attracted such celebrities as Elvis himself (for his on-screen vows to Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas), Richard Gere (for his wedding to Cindy Crawford), and Angelina Jolie (for her wedding to Billy Bob Thornton).

And this charming chapel has been registered as a national landmark. It's a Vegas treasure, for sure.

I can certainly imagine far worse places to get married than Vegas.

But for those who've already gotten hitched elsewhere, I can't imagine anywhere better for vows to be renewed.

It is, after all, considered the "wedding Capital of the World."

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November 26, 2017

Giving Thanks on the Vegas Strip

With no plans and less than a month to go before Thanksgiving this year, I made the knee-jerk decision to take myself to Vegas.

The timing seemed questionable to some, too soon after the October 1 massacre at Mandalay Bay.

But, of course, as I recalled after 9/11 in New York City, there's no better time to visit and spend some money than when everybody else is scared off.

And I wanted to be somewhere that wouldn't remind me so much that it was Thanksgiving or that I had no plans. Although I'd spent the last two Turkey Days in Pennsylvania with a dear friend, thanks to strategically-timed business trips to Baltimore, I'd endured being an orphan on the fourth Thursday of November before in LA, and I had no desire for a repeat performance of that.

At least in Vegas, surely some Elvis impersonators would never take the holiday off...

...the "Big Apple Coaster" would be running its loop-de-loops at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino...

...and the Monorail would take me wherever I wanted to go, but without the throngs of tourists that usually pass through its turnstiles.

Because I couldn't bear the heartache of being turned away from the type of offbeat attractions that I usually visit while in Vegas, this time I stuck mostly to the Strip and its casinos, hoping to find the weird and wonderful amidst the mainstream and cliche.

Up until this visit, I'd mostly recoiled from the Epcot-like experience of the themed casinos, especially those built in the height of the building boom (and literal implosion boom) of the 1990s. None of those theme park-styled attractions felt real to me. I ached for the lost "old" Vegas of the Sands and the Dunes and the Riviera, Tropicana, and Flamingo. And I wondered by anyone would go to the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino when they could just go to Paris.

But now, to many visitors, the Paris does mark an Old Vegas—at least, an older Vegas—and a turning point in the architectural style of the Strip when million-dollar experiences gave way to billion-dollar luxuries.

And since my first trip to Vegas in the late 1990s, I still haven't been to the "real" Paris or the "real" Eiffel Tower. So, on Thanksgiving Day alone in Vegas, I was more than happy to visit a reasonable facsimile—to enter under an awning styled after the Paris Metro and take an elevator to the observation deck of a scale model of Le Tour Eiffel.

This tower a little more than half the size of the French one—built to the same exact specifications, just on a smaller scale. And it's the centerpiece of the hotel and casino, both of which were built around it (which explains the exposed wrought iron beams in the restaurant and the lobby.

Even more incredible were the people working there on the holiday—from the hostess who let me take a peek around the restaurant hours before it opened to the ticket-taker who told me how much he loves his job to the elevator operator who can rattle off encyclopedic factoids about the casino you're staying in, no matter which one.

In their own ways, the reminded me to be grateful and not forlorn on that "Day of Thanks." And from that birdcage 460 feet above the Strip, with 360-degree views of the Las Vegas Valley below, I made no pretenses that I was actually in France, looking down at the Hôtel de Ville or L'Arc de Triomphe.

But I finally let go of the need for it to be. This Thanksgiving, an approximation of Paris—and, a lovely one, at that—was enough to shift my gaze away from my own navel and experience something new on my own terms.

And for that freedom, I am eternally thankful.

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Upon the Fourth Thursday of November

An Orphan Bird Finds His New Flock

It had been several months since I'd signed up to volunteer for SoCal Parrot and helped rescue my first bird.

I thought I would've rescued so many wild parrots—including some babies—by now, but when the calls had been coming in, I'd be working or traveling elsewhere or otherwise occupied and just couldn't make the drive to wherever the bird was stranded and then to wherever I had to hand off the bird (usually somewhere about an hour and a half away).

That's what happened when I got the alert about a Nanday at a private residence in Malibu. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and I was scrambling to finish work for my five-day weekend.

But the rest of the volunteer team must've been busy, too, because two days later, we got another text message asking for help. And since it was a low-urgency situation, it could wait until after Thanksgiving.

I was already driving to Vegas by then. Not knowing what the next few days might hold for me, I wrote back, "I might Monday."

And then I kind of forgot about it until the day after Thanksgiving, when I was once again in the car heading back from Vegas to LA.

There must've been something about careening down the Nevada freeways in those 75-mph zones that got my own engine revving to be behind the wheel—even after a nearly 700-mile drive to Vegas and back (via the scenic route)—that made me want to keep my foot positioned over the gas pedal, because on that Black Friday, I committed to spending my Saturday in service to a bird.

Most of the orphans so far during my volunteerism with SoCal Parrot have been Amazons in the Pasadena area, but this was a "black-hooded parakeet" (Aratinga nenday), a type of conure generally native to South American countries like Bolivia. Apparently flocks of nanday conures have taken over many of the Southern California beach communities, from Malibu to Pacific Palisades and Manhattan Beach.

With their black faces, green bodies, and blue tail feathers, they're quite beautiful—so, it's understandable why someone might want to keep one as a pet. They can be incredibly social and even affectionate.

But given their squawk, they're also considered a nuisance, which is why some pet owners end up releasing theirs. Of course, when combined with a local flock, that only makes them more of a nuisance for the greater surrounding community.

Unfortunately, unlike other feral flocks of non-native parrots, nandays are considered an invasive threat to local bird species—mostly because they compete with the natives for nesting areas.

They're hardy, too, and can survive even in the wild for more than 20 years. That is, however, if they don't manage to get stranded in the middle of the road with a broken wing.

That's where this guy was found in Malibu. (I say guy, but because the males and females of this species look exactly the same from the outside, only a vet could get in there to find out.)

He'd been hanging out at this horse ranch by the beach for three months now—and, according to those who found him, his flock had been stopping by every day to check on him.

The flock's visits had gotten less and less frequent, though, and the nanday's chances of ever flying again to rejoin them were less and less likely with each month that passed.

And, three months later when I was called to finally come get him, he'd already been incredibly socialized.

His keepers, in fact, were sad to let him go—and there were more than a few moments while I was there that I thought they'd change their minds. The bird was so imprinted that he could sit on a human shoulder and allow his head to be pet and his neck feathers ruffled (and even enjoy it).

I have to admit, I was a little jealous of the bonding that I saw between the parrot and the woman who'd found him in the road. This was going to be my chance to hold a wild parrot in my hands—to transfer him from cage to carrier, instead of just picking up a carrier with a parrot already in it.

But in reality, I knew that I wasn't there to bond with the bird. I was just one part of a relay, a glorified messenger service whose package happened to be a live parrot.

It's hard not to get a little attached on these journeys, though. And since this parrot's keepers had given me a bag of his favorite snacks, I took advantage of the opportunity to spoil him a little bit on the hour-and-a-half drive to the drop-off spot in Orange County.

Every time I'd see his beak latch onto one of the breathing holes in the top of the carrier, I'd grab a seed or a pellet from the bag and hold it there between my fingers until I felt a tug. More than a few times, I heard the snack fall to the bottom of the carrier.

But we kept trying. And we kept learning together.

The beak appearances became less random and moved closer to me, allowing me to both feed and steer at the same time. If I held out a treat without having seen the end of his little black hook through a hole, I wouldn't feel a tug.

I wasn't luring him with treats. He was in control. He was demanding where and when he wanted a treat, and I was obeying, in service to him.

Our little routine calmed him down enough to endure the drive without too much flapping around in there or even vocalizing. When I wasn't worried so much that he might hurt himself further in that box out of distress, and once he stopped asking for food with his beak, I turned on the radio and sang to him.

And my arrival to the meeting spot where I'd hand him off came all too soon.

But I'm happy to know that even though he's gotten separated from his own flock in Malibu, he's being reunited with other nandays at the rescue and rehab facility in East County San Diego, and he'll be once again a member of a flock.

It wasn't fair to leave him in a cage, especially at a place where the only other bird on the property was another parrot who didn't like him.

And while his own family may have finally given up on him, there's surely another family that will welcome him with open wings.

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November 25, 2017

Photo Essay: Glittering Lights at Las Vegas Speedway

Surprisingly, my first time at Las Vegas Motor Speedway wasn't to race a car. It wasn't even to test-drive an exotic car or to get behind the wheel of any car but my own Honda Civic.

In fact, it was to drive through the annual Las Vegas holiday attraction, Glittering Lights, whose proceeds benefit the local Boy Scouts who sell cocoa and kettle corn onsite.

In truth, this is what I really went to Vegas for on Thanksgiving Eve.

Vegas always seems pretty festive to me, with all of the glittering light bulbs on the Strip on Fremont Street, though many of the new-fangled LEDs don't twinkle the way that old-fashioned incandescent bulbs and neon tubing used to.

But on a day that had topped 80 degrees, it was a little difficult to get into a wintery spirit, despite the lit outlines of the Abominable Snowman and Old Man Winter.

But it was a great way to get into the Vegas spirit, with a red-clad Elvis shaking his hips like a bowl full of jelly...

...and plenty of advertisements from local businesses.

Among the Vegas-appropriate ghost town figures, flamingoes, and racing cars, the best part of the experience was driving though the light tunnels....

...which are practically custom-designed for a certain persistence of vision that transforms a thousand points of light into a stream of hyperspace stars.

You wouldn't get the same effect if you walked through these tunnels.

And you need to keep a certain distance from them as well, just as you would any fine work of pointillism. If you were to get too close to it, your proximity would distort the image.

So, this is an opportunity to drive slowly around the motorsports complex, crawling through at a speed that would never otherwise be allowed, in a car that most certainly would be considered subpar for any of the normally-occurring track activities there.

Before I started off on the course, I asked one of the workers about the speed limit. He said that I could probably get through the whole thing in 15 minutes, but that's not what I wanted to hear. "No," I clarified, "How slow can I go? Because I want to take my time."

"Oh, you can go as slow as you want," he said. "Don't worry about the car behind you."

So, that's exactly what I did, pulling over at one point to get a steadier shot with my camera and letting a few cars pass me. I don't understand why anyone would want to rush their way through something like this.

Then again, it doesn't do much good to linger for too long, because Glittering Lights wasn't meant to be enjoyed as a static display. But since it doesn't move, you have to move through it to get the full effect.

And when you do, you keep seeing those streaming colors long after you've moved past the exit and have flicked your headlight back on.

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