Saturday, October 31, 2009

Driving



When I got my first car, a blue ‘72 Camaro with a loud shark grill on the front, I was liberated.  I found it via “The Recycler” in Sun Valley.  My dad accompanied me by driving me to the seller’s property in a rustic area that had mature trees and an old house that looked a bit ramshack.  The piercing blue Camaro was parked on some dirt near the house.  I knew as long as it ran, it was going to be mine.  The blue Camaro proved to be in good condition and I paid the $1200.00 for it and drove it home. 

Most kids, upon getting their first cars, would go to their friends’ houses and local hang out to show off their new wheels.  The first thing I did was to drive North on Interstate 5 to the 14 to the 138 East, to the 15 South, then down to the 10 freeway and back to Studio City.  This was about a four-hour loop through the high desert.  I wanted to feel like I could really take myself somewhere and see the things I had only done on family trips when my dad was driving. 

One of the most startling things that I saw on this first excursion was the jagged rocks in the San Andreas fault heading through Canyon Country about 20 miles North of Los Angeles.  I had seen them many times before, but on this occasion they looked more brilliant and real to me.  My sense was that for the first time, all of this was mine to explore, not something that someone else was showing me.  Seeing this scenery, my heart beat fast and I felt unstoppable.  There was nothing else I would rather do than to drive places and discover things and people.

When did I realize that driving meant something extra special to me?  It started very young; about the time that I could loco-mote myself farther than a block or two.  When I was seven or eight years old, we lived in the Hollywood Hills, a place where a kid was pretty much stranded on an island of steep, narrow roads, miles away from even the closest handi-market.  I used to keep myself occupied by taking a used car tire from my parents’ garage and roll it around on the neighborhood streets.

I would listen to the sound of the tire as I encouraged it along the asphalt by skimming it with the palm of my hand making a hollow tonal sound within the tire and a light hum as it rolled.  Then, as cars would drive through the neighborhood, I would hear the contrasting sounds their wheels would make; a much deeper, churning sound that reflected the car’s weight.  I also noticed that when I ran it through a drainage dip in the road, which had some run-off in it, my tire would splash while a real car would temporarily stop the flow by displacing a lot of water.

One of my close friends in the neighborhood named David seemingly got everything he wanted.  His father was a well-known music arranger.  His father worked on records for the Beatles, Barry Manilow, the Carpenters, and a list that just went on and on.  They had a home up a long, private driveway which was huge and to which they were continuously adding on.  David’s family was the first on the block to get a microwave oven, and I remember witnessing bacon cook in just minutes there.  That became David’s specialty.

One of David gifts from his parents was a prototype bicycle that was the epitome of luxury and transport to me.  It had a cushy, wider-than-normal banana seat, a chopper-nose set of handle-bars with a tire that protruded way out in front, an extra thick back tire, about 10 gears that he could switch between with a flick of his thumb.  But the thing that made me most envious, the thing that I had never seen before on a bicycle were shock absorbers on both the front and back wheels.  He also had a bright green safety-flag fastened to the back bar of his seat via a stiff yet flexible plastic rod which stood erect with the pride of a pirate. 

Being good friends as we were, he would occasionally trade bikes with me for maybe 15 minutes, although I had no idea what the value was on his side.  Maybe he just wanted to feel the contrast of slumming it for a bit.  But when we did trade, as I rode through bumps in the road, I would sense the shock absorber system evening out my ride unlike my bike and immediately thought of the counterpart those big, living entities called cars.  My bike was so different in contrast to all of this that it made me crave the complexity and comfort that my own ride was missing.

There was something in this for me in continuously comparing whatever mode of transport I had at the time to cars.  But in the beginning, I didn’t know what I was seeking.

David and I often played, “Emergency,” based on the popular paramedics TV show at the time.  Since both of my parents’ cars were gone and I was kind of a latch-key kid, I would open up the garage, and David and I would station ourselves in there, pretending to be on break in the fire station, when the call would come in.  We’d hear a three-toned alarm come over the speaker system followed by the dispatcher.  David and I would take turns being the alarm and the dispatcher while still trying to act natural.  “Squad 51, squad 51, respond to a man down in a structure fire on maple and 1st street.  Heavy burning with lots of smoke and fire and flames.  Time out, 2:49.”  David and I would jump up from our normal firehouse duties, our sirens would blare from our mouths, and we would be off to the fire on our bikes with water-spritzers in hand, the location of which was usually one of the neighborhood dirt lots.  The excitement for us was in getting to the emergency, the movement, importance and momentum that our transport embodied.

A couple of years later, David’s parents presented him with a go-cart.  This was no ordinary go-cart that you’d rent at your local Cart-O-Rama made from a flat piece of metal with tires, a steering wheel and an engine welded on it.  David was given a huge, blue dune-buggy go cart with mud-grade balloon tires larger than most cars’, a big, black cushioned seat and a thick leather steering wheel.  And there was that damned electric-green safety flag transplanted onto the back of it.

David generously gave me many opportunities to drive the go-cart around the neighborhood which was really my first experience driving.  When I look back now, I realize that his dune buggy was similar to driving a car.  There wasn’t much difference. It had the weight and the reaction of a vehicle, and it was just downright large.  I remember the very first time I stepped on the gas.  I just could not believe that this machine was moving me based on my foot pressing a pedal.  It was glorious.  There was a whole different perspective of the neighborhood to me; a place I could pass through as an observer rather than as a worker.  With the decision to accelerate, I could make my surroundings disappear and be in a totally different area far from my origin.  This aspect of driving still fascinates me to this day.

I think of the Native American Indians way back in the day when they migrated through the landscape over seasons, lifetimes and generations.  And now I can jump into my Jeep starting down by the sea in Manhattan Beach at 10am, and if I please, I could be snowboarding on Mammoth Mountain by 3pm the same day.  I mean, that’s phenomenal if you think about it.  The Native Americans who happened to settle in Lake Tahoe would never have imagined a place like Indio, CA where indeed, there were other Native Americans who couldn’t imagine the inverse.  Being connected to all of these areas simply by pressing a gas pedal still blows my mind.

My other close childhood friend, Kristian, and I spent most of our time forming roads in the dirt with the palms of our hands.  We did this with these toy cars we played with called Corgies and Dinkies which were popular brand names at the time.  We built city streets and highways and byways that were as complex as our little minds could construct.  Our childhood playtime was always about figuring out how to connect areas of the dirt lots we played in with clever roads that would make interesting routes for our cars.  For some reason, our sessions always ended with a huge explosion created by our piling dirt together like a volcano and throwing it all up with our hands resulting in 15 minutes of picking out embedded gravel from our hair and scalps.  There wasn’t always a lot of logic to the flow of our urban planning meetings.  But I believe all of this play helped me to desire and appreciate more the simple comfort, mobility and magic that a car could offer.

I did a lot of traveling when I was young, just after I was adopted.  My parents and I flew to the East Coast many times within the first few years that I joined the family in their effort to show me off to relatives.  These trips involved a lot of shuttling from house to house, from Manhattan to Long Island, and from family events to restaurants.  I was not thrilled with being jolted back and forth so much because I was still getting settled after such a change in my life.  My new parents and I also took annual trips to Sequoia National Park.  These were much more appealing to me because it was just my parents, our chocolate Weimaraner, Willie, and I.  The plan was simple; drive up the San Joaquin Valley for a few hours, and then get to a cabin and play in the snow. There were fewer places and new people involved, and while watching the scenery go by during the trip there and back, I could see how the origin and the destination were connected.  I liked this.

When I was going to middle school, they called it Jr. High here in the Valley, my parents let me get to school on my own.  In the winter, I was always faced with a dilemma; either ride my bike three miles to school on very cold mornings, or wait for my father to get ready for work and have him drive me to school.  The latter choice could make me late for school, and it also forced me to take a bus home in the afternoon, which I was never keen on.  I always wanted to get home as directly as possible, and the school bus’s circuitous route didn’t suite my tolerance level.

So most of my memories of Jr. High were of these very cold mornings, seemingly more than we have nowadays, in which I got on my yellow Raleigh ten speed with a goose down jacket and stormed up Fulton Avenue as fast as I could to reduce my exposure-time to the morning.  While making my way through the flat seemingly cold, hard Valley streets, I noticed people in their warm cars listening to their radios and presumably making it to their destinations with much more efficiency than I.  To me, the condensation coming out of tailpipes could only mean a warm driver’s compartment inside, and I imagined the soft, luxurious ride over the many road bumps with which my bike was unforgiving.

I had an on-going fantasy about having a car one day in the future, running out on cold mornings to start it and then running back inside and letting the interior warm up while I was showering.  Then, upon emerging from my house being ready for the day, I would enter the car’s warm, dry interior, like an insulated womb protecting against the super-chilled blue winter air, and I would be happy.

My arsenal for road-trips has always been pretty simple; a large, general map of the United States, state maps for whichever areas I thought I might pass through as well as a few AAA guidebooks for hotels and diners in case I got completely lost.  My luggage was simply a small carrying bag with a few days clothes.  And with that I would go.  Navigation is only a recent addition in my SUV.



When I was new at the Walt Disney Company and finally making a salary in which I could do things for myself, I bought a sapphire blue 1995 Mustang.  The first chance I got, I drove up Highway 1 through Cambria, Big Sur, Carmel and finally Monterey.  As I drove through Big Sur, heavy tuffs of fog were moving in from the ocean across the road and up the shallow green grade to the East of the highway.  I felt like I was floating through another time, like some lost land that only I had ever witnessed. The contrasting rough, rocky shoreline against the greenery all around made me feel like I was in a dreamscape. I felt very alone, but not at all lonely.

Another trip I took in the Mustang was through Arizona and New Mexico to Silverton, Colorado.  I loved stopping in small diners along the way and talking with people.  Getting a taste of local people’s lives has always been fulfilling to me.  At one point in a little town in Colorado, I was behind a slow pick-up truck with two very cute young women standing in the back of the payload bed.  I noticed two older women were driving the truck and eventually, with my hot colored Mustang, they all noticed me and were smiling and waving. 

They turned off the two-lane highway onto a small, dirt road that eventually became their driveway.  I followed them and when I got to their house, they invited me in to eat lunch and we all got to know each other.  I asked the more attractive of the two women who had been in the flatbed if she’s show me around the town a little.  I drove while she pointed out different things in the five square mile area of this town.  The day ended with us talking while parked on an upward slope of some nearby foothills which gave us a magnificent view of the surrounding towns and ranches as the sun set.



Another person I remember meeting on that same trip was a middle aged, lanky man with a white straw hat who had a scruffy grey beard half grown in.  He sat next to me at the counter of a local diner somewhere in New Mexico.  His work involved removing rattlesnakes from people’s properties.  He had been bitten a few times on his hand and arm. Just a hazard of his business.  When I asked him what he liked to do with his free time, he said he enjoyed traveling and hang-gliding in different locations.

So what is it about driving for me?  I love the visceral feeling of moving through large areas as my vehicle eats up the road, such as driving on Route 40 through Arizona and watching the land slide past me under a big, blue, sunny sky.  I love finding old diners and hotels and imagining what they must have been like in their hey-day, and speculating on what led to their current state of economic and physical erosion.

There’s also a challenge in it for me.  I like to know that I can find my way through new, vast areas and know that I can eventually find my way out and even start to feel a mastery for an area.  More than that, really understand how the roads, the people and the natural flow of the landscape are all connected.   The challenge is also in the goal of coming back with something interesting to tell.  I find it fascinating to see the mini-cultures that exist in different pockets, which are vaguely aware of each other at the most.  I like documenting what I find by writing about the people and stories I come across, and taking photos of the areas I pass through.  The sparse desert life of someone who lives in Yucca Valley, CA is vastly different from the agricultural life of someone who lives in Westmorland, CA near the Salton Sea.  Yet, those locations are not that far apart.  The energy I naturally spend thinking about all of this feels like a mixture of archeology, geology, journalism and sociology.  It seems I should have figured out how to make a living from this quasi-science since I’m already doing a lot of the mental work.

Something I would like to do in the future is to take a big drive across a large portion of the US, like maybe Route 66 in one direction, and then just decide where to go spontaneously after that.  It’s strange that I haven’t already done so, but it’s an adventure yet to be had.

The thing I like so much about driving is that I can explore and meet people on my own terms.  Without any formal structure, I can decide to stay longer, or go when I please. When I get a whim to do this or that, I can just do it without a huge change of plans or scheduling needed.  I like the freedom of driving.


Rolling Lights in the Night



Cool pic, huh?  You’ve seen this before; keeping the shutter open for a while at night.  But the effect never gets old.  I think for me because, to start with, the night is so magical.  Everything seems calm and on hold.  A normally very busy freeway can seem like the picture; as a quiet, very wide cement trench with a few cars floating by on their way to who knows where.

One lady driving down the road may have just left her mother’s home after visiting her for the evening and is thinking about her day tomorrow.

A guy passing the other way is on his way to start his security graveyard shift at a small hospital on the West side.

Another guy has just left his girlfriend’s house and is heading home looking forward to sleeping in late.  Meanwhile, he is listening to a comical talk show host doing voices while interviewing people.

It’s not going to rain tonight.  It’s not going to be windy tonight. It’s not going to be super cold tonight.  Just the cool still air of the Pacific West settled in the valley.  If one is awake and outside, they will hear the occasional nut fall through the leaves of a tree, or the scattering of some furry animal among some nearby bushes.  And the sound of a distant freight train every half hour or so will break the silence which is the night.

But it will mostly be still.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Roads


Did you ever think about how many roads there are in the United States?  The US Department of Transportation says that as of 2000, there were 3,951,098 miles of roads, which includes interstates, local roads and other arterials. If you think about it, it’s kind of strange how, when you step onto your street, that street is connected to a street in California, or in New York, or in the Keys of Florida by this monstrous network of ribbon-like asphalt and concrete.

We take it for granted, but what if there were no roads.  Think about having to get through the desert or through mountain passes through a never-ending line of uneven and often treacherous terrain.  But we have these long, flat and mostly smooth surfaces we’ve created to roll our cars down.  When you think of it like that, it’s really a neat thing.

Have you ever been driving somewhere pretty desolate, such as Interstate 40 through the Southwest and wondered how in heck the road was ever built?  Those long stretches where you are going 75 mph for hours and thought, when did they make this road, how many people had to do it, and how long did it take?  Did they ship people in from miles around each day, or did they stay in tents or something?

You get this feel too when you are in an airplane and see either networks of fragile looking roads in cities that look perfect from the air, or when you are over the desert you see one long, thin road going through wastelands. 





One of my favorite roads, and one that I travel a lot, is Interstate 5 over the Grapevine.  Once you leave the city of Santa Clarita, the road becomes much less crowded, and that one stretch of road, within an hour, takes you from 500 feet above sea level, to 4144 feet above sea level and back again.  Without that road, those mountains would be a barrier to the California Central Valley.










Another favorite stretch of mine is the 86 in California.  It takes you from Indio to Westmoreland.  It is so astonishingly vacant at times that you wonder if you’ll ever see another person.  You get to pass by the somehow-still-surviving communities of Desert Shores, Salton Beach and Salton city.  I’ve gotten out of the car there a few times to find a Marina where, apparently, in the 1950’s, the area was a popular recreation destination for entertainment types such as the Rat Pack.  There were hotels and I’ve seen pictures of water-skiers.  But I’ll save more on those findings in another post.

But again, the thing that is amazing in some way that we forget is that we can get in our car, pull it out of our driveway, and be in any of an infinite number of places because they are all connected by roads someone has built.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ladybug

Here are a few funny stories for you recounted by my girlfriend who grew up in a small town in the San Joaquin Valley.  Her uncle has a big ranch, part of which is devoted to horse stables.  Her uncle rents out the stables and tack rooms to locals in the area.

My girlfriend’s aunt keeps her horse, Ladybug, on this ranch.  The aunt and uncle are brother and sister by the way.  During the daytime, the animals can wander here and there on the ranch.

Well, Ladybug is one of the sweetest, easy-going horses you could ever know, not easily distracted (she can walk through sprinklers without batting either her brown or blue eye…she has both), and loyal to her people.  One day, my girlfriend returned to her uncle’s ranch in her little red “Pup” pick-up truck after shopping for groceries.  No sooner than she turned of the truck and got out when she noticed a big neck protruding from one of the grocery bags attached to a horses body.  Ladybug was head-deep into one of the bags looking for fresh produce.

Another time, my girlfriend, who was not comfortable on horses yet, rode on the back of Ladybug with her aunt over to the nearby Circle K (similar to a 7-11 for you city-slickers).  Upon arrival at the store, her aunt, who only wanted cigarettes, suggested to my girlfriend that they both dismount lest the lesser experienced of the two didn’t end up “walked away with” by the Equus should the horse decide to leave.

When her aunt came back out of the store with her pack of Marlboro, my girlfriend was sitting on top of Ladybug, proving to her aunt that she was more confident on horses than her aunt had taken her to be.

One last story.  During another double-dutch trip on the back of Ladybug, my girlfriend and her aunt casually strode Ladybug through their little town of 30,000 people and through the local Taco Bell drive-through where they proceeded to order their food and a couple of sodas.  Everyone in the drive through thought it was funny, and as Ladybug put her head through the order window, the workers stroked her long nose and laughed.

This last story, which I’ve heard for years, is a favorite of mine because I am from a very large city, and yet I have known this little down since about 1997 (twelve years).  Even in the relatively short time I have known the town, great growth and changes have occurred which have surprised me.  The Taco Bell story happened well before I knew my girlfriend or the town, and in a quasi-romantic way, I can easily see how they could have done what they did, no problem.  You’d never get away with it today.



Sunday, October 25, 2009

Herbert Stothart's Score

Have you ever listened, and I mean really listed to the Wizard of Oz score?  Now, I’m not talking about the songs by E.Y. Harberg and Harold Arlen, which are obviously classic in themselves and probably some of the most recognized songs ever written.  But I mean the music behind the scenes while the dialogue is running.  It is so carefully and meticulously composed to create the magical and exotic mood for each moment of the film and is omnipresent.

It’s easy not to realize what the composer did since you’re so caught up in what’s happening to the characters in the story.  Let me take you through a few of them so that next time you watch the film, you can listen to that layer of genius just under your attention most of the time.

The movie opens with a version of the theme of “Happy Little Farmer” as she’s running down the dirt farm road with Toto, which I’ve always thought was cute.  It also almost instantly pauses for a more austere moment letting you know that this is not going to be a simple story. 

Also, listen for when Ms. Gulch parks her bike to go into Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s house.  It’s thoughtful score cleverly combining life on a farm in Kansas with the menace that is about to invade Dorothy’s life.  For whatever reason, the editors dialed out the music cue when Uncle Henry lets the gate hit Ms. Gulch’s butt. 

However, the music that continues as Ms. Gulch is in the family home is also very rich.  You can only hear the rest of this by buying the Deluxe Edition double CD set of “The Wizard of Oz Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” that was released in 1995.  This set has all of the music cues for the Wizard of Oz that was included in the film, and also music that was dialed out or completely dropped.

When Dorothy starts out on her journey and meets the Scarecrow, the score is a kind of light-hearted, exotic, swingy-tempo’d feel with clarinets and a xylophone that is playing under the dialogue.  It’s so easy to miss because it’s such an important point in the movie as these two characters meet, but the music has such a rich tapestry in this section.  But I love how the composer is toying with various themes that are to come in the film.

And just a side note, but not really...there were large chunks of musical numbers and scoring taken out of the Wizard of Oz between when it was tested with audiences in Santa Barbara in 1939, and when it was premiered.  All of them are on the CD mentioned above.  Here is a look at one musical sequence that was cut from the film; an extension of "If I Only Had A Brain." If I Only Had a Brain - Original Length

There is a moment when Dorothy is in the witch’s castle later, and the music is so forlorn.  The mood is dark, sad and always makes my skin tingle because the composition is so deep and think with emotion for Dorothy who is now a complicated world away from the simple life of her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.




Let me now introduce you to Herbert Stothart who is the genius musician who composed the music for the Wizard of Oz.  I think many people don’t know of him because they focus on Arlen and Harberg’s songs, and rightly so.  But one must really take a step back and digest the incredible contribution that Herbert Stothart made to this film.  His score is the raw emotion and underpinning of the whole story.

A quick look in Wikipedia tells us that Herbert Stothart He was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and studies in Europe and in Madison, WI, where he later taught. “Stothart was first hired by producer Arthur Hammerstein to be a musical director for touring companies of Broadway shows, and was soon writing music for the producer's nephew Oscar Hammerstein II. He composed some of the music in the famous operetta, Rose Marie. Stothart soon joined with many famous playwrights including Vincent Youmans, George Gershwin and Franz Lehár. In 1929, Stothart was signed to a large Hollywood contract by another would-be playwright of the day, Louis B. Mayer.”*

He composed the scores for at least twenty-four films, many of which were Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films.  Some of these were A Night at the Opera, After the Thin Man, Anna Karenina, China, David Copperfield (1935 version), The Good Earth, The Green Years, Idiot's Delight, Madame Curi, Northwest Passage, They Were Expendable, Mrs. Miniver, Mutiny on the Bounty, National Velvet, Naughty Marietta, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Pride and Prejudice, Rasputin and the Empress, A Tale of Two Cities, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Wizard of Oz, What Every Woman Knows, The White Cliffs of Dover, and The Yearling. **

Each of the studios back in those days had their own “sound.”  I’ve heard that Warners and 20th Century Fox had a more brassy sound to their film scores.  MGM was known for their emotional string sound of their in-house orchestra, a sound that has always been near and dear to my heart.  This all had to do with the composers on staff at the studios, and also the one or two rooms each studio had to record most of their scores; how the sounds resonated from their studio walls, etc.

Stothart won the Oscar for his scoring on Wizard of Oz.  And remember, that’s the exact same year that “Gone With the Wind” won all of its Oscars.  But obviously, Stothard’s work on Oz beat out Max Steiner’s work on Gone With the Wind.

The real key and the real genius of Herbert Stothart’s work in the Wizard of Oz in my opinion was his ability to draw on whatever he needed to evoke the strongest possible response from the audience.  He mixed in classical composers’ work such as Mendelssohn’s Opus 16 #2 (when Toto is getting away from the witch’s castle to find Dorothy’s friends) in with his own concoctions ranging from dark to glorious (when they see Emerald City for the first time) to make us feel that we are in this strange, sometimes nightmarish world with Dorothy.

I really hail Herbert Stothart for what he did with this film and for how he makes me feel every time that I see it.  I gave just a few examples, but every moment of the film's score is so carefully composed. So, next time Wizard of Oz happens to be on TV or DVD, or if you’re seeing a special presentation in a theater (the only real way to see this movie), give your attention to the music behind the emotion, and think of Herbert Stothart.

* ** Research from Wikipedia page:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Resonating

Wow, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been reading “Outliers,” by Malcom Gladwell.  I’m only at page 78 or so, but the things he’s discussing in this book are so interesting to me.  He’s describing how very successful people are almost always the product of some very special circumstances; where they grew up, what time in history the grew up, the access to preparation for the thing they later specialized in, and then the incredible opportunities that came their way given all of their earlier experience and preparation.

He writes that when the general public wants to find out why someone is so successful, the all too often try to find out what it is about the person’s character that allows them to be so successful.  However, it’s not about their character, but their preparation meeting opportunity that makes the great difference.

It is all resonating with me strongly.  Since I am psychologically minded, I have always had a sense that there were many more factors that allowed some people to become extremely successful, while other people just weren’t in the right place.

Well, more on this to come as I read on…

Friday, October 23, 2009

In The Lead

I’ve thought of this many times since it happened, but have not written about it.  It’s about a moment or two of feeling an almost blissful pride combined with being in incredible shape.

It was two weeks after the September 11th attacks had occurred.  I had been running with a marathon-training group called the L.A. Roadrunners, which met on Saturday mornings in Venice.  The long training runs would either go south from the grassy knoll area near the outdoor weight platform on the boardwalk, or they would go north.

The weekend after September 11th, there was no run.  Los Angeles, as the rest of the known world, was in such a frenzy that pretty much everything was canceled.  So I was out with the running group the first session that picked up after the attack, as I said, two weeks after the tragedy.

On this training run, which was still early in the training cycle, we were probably running something like 14 miles that morning.  The way a lot of these running groups such as ours and L.A. Leggers work is that since they have so many people of varying abilities, they split everyone into pace groups. For instance, there will be a 8:30 minute per mile group with a pace leader who keeps everyone on pace.  And there will be a 9:00 min/mile group with it’s own pace leader, and so on.

During this run, I happened to be in the middle of my most successful and prolific running block to date; an 18 month training period where I was running between 50-70 miles per week, doing a lot of races of differing lengths, and running marathons every four months.  The result, in addition to achieving an 18:21 5K, a 40:08 10K, a 1:28:53 Half Marathon and a 3:15:42 Marathon, which by the way was run in Vancouver and which qualified me for the 2002 Boston Marathon, was that I was in spectacular shape.

So, before the training run, Coach Pat Connelly, a retired LAPD officer who for years organized this training club, told the rather large group that the lead group, the group that I trained with which was a 7:00 min/mile pace group, would carry the American Flag.  We, in this group, got out to the boardwalk where we started running and it was decided that we would trade off carrying it.

Now, this wasn’t a little flag, or just the flag itself, this standard sized American Flag was attached to a heavy metal pole, which was about four feet tall.  The plan was that everyone would see this flag as we ran by them, I supposed.  We would each take it for a mile and trade off, and there were five of us in this group.

So we started running north towards the Santa Monica Pier.  That’s 2.5 miles from where we started, and from there, we started running up the pier bridge that takes you up to the Ocean Park Bluffs where we turned onto Ocean Park Avenue and headed towards the North part of Santa Monica, and then on into Brentwood via San Vicente.  So about a half-mile after this turn from the pier bridge onto Ocean Park Avenue, after three of the guys had carried the flag already, it was apparently my turn, because it was handed to me.  And keep in mind that we are running 7:00 minute miles, which is not slow to say the least.

I took the American Flag on its pole and discovered that it was a heavy pole.  And I mean, heavy.  I ran in the lead with it as my four other lead runners followed me.  There were a lot of police cars patrolling given what had just happened two weeks before, and every time a police car passed us, they would flip on their spinning blue lights out of respect for the flag passing them.  It was an amazing feeling, both to be in the kind of shape I was in to be in the lead of the lead-pack carrying something that cumbersome, and also to be carrying our nation’s flag and be saluted by the many officers driving by.

My mile with the flag turned into two miles and the next guy who was supposed to take it wanted to wait and told me, “Just hang onto it for a little while longer,” but eventually he took it.  We cycled with the flag several more times during our long run, and all of the fatigue of having carried it for all of those miles was worth it.  It’s a proud memory for me.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Only Jewish Kid in the Valley

After I was adopted, I guess you could say I quasi-transitioned from being a Catholic child to a Jewish kid since my adoptive parents were Jewish, I felt that instilled in me a slight shame in being Jewish.  As I grew up, I realized that some of this came from what I observed from my parents.  However discreet they were with their own discomfort about their Jewish history, it permeated almost every interaction they had with me when it came to religious activities.  They were proud to be Jewish, and yet, there was some feeling that they had from their upbringing that they were in some way shunned.  And I sensed this. 

Much of my mother’s side of her family on her father’s generation was killed in the Holocaust.  Her stories of who got across to the US and who was left behind are tragic and miraculous at the same time.  I could always hear in her voice and sadness and anger when she told stories of those times.

But for me, so disconnected from any of this, it felt like I was being burdened with a history I didn’t own.  I'd say that when I was about ten years old is when I felt this the strongest.  An event such as lighting the menorah was solemn, and Rosh Hosanna and other Jewish holidays had the same flavor of raw sensitivity for my parents that made me uncomfortable with having been brought into Judaism.

I even convinced myself that not only was being Jewish a handy-cap of some sort, but that I was the only Jewish kid in the San Fernando Valley.  From the time that I was in about fifth grade in elementary school, through about middle of high school, I thought that all of the good-looking, popular kids were other than Jewish.  This, with these kids having surnames such as Friedman, Goldring and Tannenbaum.  I just didn't know.  It only occurred to me in tenth grade that almost all of those kids were sons and daughters of successful Jewish people in the entertainment industry and such.

But I think with the difficulty of having been adopted, and then my parents’ discomfort with their own heritage, I felt like a black sheep for a long time.  Looking back on it, I can see that it was all ultimately self-imposed, rather than instilled in any way.  My parents bent over backwards to make me feel a part of everything.  But I was young and ignorant then. 

Nowadays,  I have pride in the fact that I was raised Jewish, and that my first five years were Catholic.  I tell people that I can use all the help that I can get, and that I have enough guilt from those two sources to last me a lifetime.  I love hearing stories about old Jewish families' experiences, and I so enjoy visiting Catholic missions around California. But more seriously, I am not a religious person by nature.  I love God and I try to live my life the 'humanly' best that I can. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pet Finder

It’s easy to either not know, or to forget how painful and frightening it is to have a pet get lost.  My girlfriend’s mother lost hers yesterday afternoon around 5:30pm.  We found out when her brother called us about 8:00pm saying that their mom was frantic and sobbing because the 1 year-old Shih Tzu, which I adopted for her, had somehow quietly sneaked out the kitchen door when her mom was over talking with a neighbor.

Did the wind blow the door opened and closed?  Did the elderly and somewhat unthinking ex-husband go out to his truck, rummaging around, and forget that the door had been opened?  Who knows, and at that time, it didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that Molly, a sweet, black and white Shih Tzu, had gotten out into this small rural town of 30,000, mostly immigrant farm-workers and was either roaming into nowhere, gotten by a family, or dead.

What a feeling of helpless dread.  And, again, I am not even the owner, but rather the donating adoptor.  I felt such fury last night, not only at someone letting the dog go, but also at the fact that I had promised to give this dog a good home, and as it seemed, I had really sentenced her to death or the unknown.  Also, finding out that my girlfriend’s mother, other than driving around a little with her ex-husband, was not putting out an all-force effort, but was back in the house by 8:30pm, really got me irate.

And the fact that she didn't call anyone when it happened to get a search party going; not either of her two daughters, nor her other son.  The son she called was the only one working and completely unavailable at the time.  I think in her effort to hide her shame, she sacrificed that critical window of time you have to round up a lost pet before their roaming circumference widens to an impossible area.  I felt the dog deserved a lot more than a half-assed search by her owner.

It sounds insane, but I decided to do something about it. I created three types of fliers on my computer with pictures on the dog with her description. At 10:00pm last night, my girlfriend and I left Burbank, CA and headed 2 hours North (122 miles) to her town and drove the streets looking for the dog and taping up fliers.  We arrived at 11:45pm and looked until 12:30am, at which time we drove the 122 miles back to Burbank getting home at 2:30am, and not to sleep until about 3:15am.  And we had not found her.

Then, my girlfriend woke up this morning, got into her car and then drove back up to the town and searched the streets all day, putting up fliers in public places and businesses with her mother at her side.  I did my work groggy all day in Burbank while keeping updated on their efforts.

When I got home tonight, I created slightly updated fliers and was going to print up 150 of them as I contemplated the drive back up there to give my girlfriend better fliers for tomorrow’s search.  I was and am still completely tired from last night and wasn’t sure how I would hold up through another 244 mile round trip.

I printed the last of the three templates when my cell phone rang.  I generally don’t answer blocked ID calls, so when I checked the message, it was Home Again pet tracking company.  When I adopted my own dog and cat, I had them put one of these chips inside their skin, and an identification tag on their collar should the ever get lost.  If they are scanned at a pet shelter or if someone reads the tag, they can connect back with the owner through the pet tracking company.  When I adopted Molly for my girlfriend's mother, I had one implanted on her too.

Well, that’s who had called me; the pet finder company.  My heart lifted.  I felt great that Molly was found, and also that I wouldn't have to do the drive there and back again tonight.  But I was also a little conflicted about the dog going back into the same environment that had just let it escape.

I phoned the pet tracking company back, and after a brief identification check on me, they connected me with the person who had found Molly in good shape, save a bit of dirt on her here and there.  It was a nice Latino man, Mr. Diaz and his 8 year-old daughter, Jasmine, who found my girlfriend’s mother’s dog.  I got the feeling that they were a poor, field-working family who lived a few miles outside of the city limits, probably because they are able to stay on someone's land at a discount by working on the farm.  It was actually the little girl who insisted her father stop for the dog which was walking in a farm field on the way to 50 miles of no-where; just my nightmare.

He said that the dog had wandered about 5 miles North of the town, walking through farmland passing a nearby rural seldom-used airstrip.  He had found Molly roaming with two other dogs; I remember now that dogs tend to find packs when they are lost.  He and his daughter had only found her tonight at about 5:00pm; just about 24 hours after she was lost.  I shutter to think of the Big-Rig-infested highway that Molly crossed on her own.  I really can’t think of it without wanting to cry.

I called my girlfriend and told her that Molly was found.  This has been one of those things where you throw your energy in each direction and hope that a miracle happens.  Tonight it did.

They all reunited at a Taco Bell in the little town.  My girlfriend's brother gave Mr. Diaz and his daughter a very thoughtful reward.  I happened to call in the middle of the reunion and I asked my girlfriend to hand the phone to Mr. Diaz.  I told him that what he had just done for our family had made all the difference to each of us and that there was really no way of thanking him enough.  He said that the best way for me to pay it back would be to help someone like this in the future.  He’s right.  It is the best way.

But I also asked him for his address and the name of his daughter; there is an eight year-old girl and a couple of parents who are going to get some very nice Christmas presents this year from me.  I want to show my appreciation to them in my own way.

Now it's back to the how's and why's.  The truth is that I am still concerned about the dog living there in my girlfriend’s mother’s house.  But it’s her dog now, not mine.  All I can offer is that if she feels she can’t keep the dog in a perfectly safe environment, I am 100% willing to give the dog our home.  We’ll see.  Pets deserve only the best from us; they rely on us, trust us and love us.  We should never fail them.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Rosebud

I just wanted to start off the evening by saying that...Rosebud.

There is this little old lady.  She is pale white, small, slightly hunched over, and she prepares some tea for herself.  She brings it to her little round, wood table, not much larger than the circumference of what would enclose a chessboard. 

She sits by her little storybook window with diamond shaped, lead filled pane-frames.  It is drizzling and windy outside.  Her view out of her small brown house is of many green plants and trees in rich, brown soil, which are blowing in the wind gusts.

She wears round spectacles with thin, wiry frames, which magnify her great powder blue eyes many times over.  She holds the cup handle with her left hand and supports it with her right and she is lost in thought.

The patter of the rain and wind blows across the roof of her house nestled in the jungle-like hills of a lost forest. 

The little lady has not seen anyone socially in ages.  Just the postman who makes his trip once per week, and the food delivery truck that comes by every two weeks.

She reads and read and reads.  That’s how she spends here time in the quiet.  She is tranquil and content in her way of life.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Pro So Cal

I am very Pro-Southern California living.  I think that you have so much access to a variety of areas and people that you can’t beat certain elements of the lifestyle here.

What are the negatives of living in So Cal?  It’s been getting warmer over the past few years.  I remember as a little boy that the Grapevine would be snowed in quite often.  In fact, one winter when my parents and I were either going to Sequoia, or were on the way back from there, that the Grapevine had experience a freakishly heavy snow storm, and that there were big rigs strewn across the opposite lanes, any of them overturned.  All of this because a snowstorm had surprised everyone.  Nowadays, there is only maybe one week of light to moderate snow dusting that occurs across those parts.

In the last few years, and especially the last two summers, it has been unusually hot averaging between 95-105 degrees on the very hot days.  This mixed with unusual humidity at times has made life a little less pleasant.

The other two negative aspects of living in So Cal are the loads of traffic you will into most of your waking hours.  In fact, the window of “non-traffic” hours is something like 11:30pm to 5:30am.  So unless you are a trucker passing through Los Angeles about that time, or you are working in a finance related field and need to be keyed into Wall Street on Eastern Time, you will be immersed in traffic much of your drive.

The last, and most serious deficit of living in So Cal to me is gang activity.  Southern California youths, especially those who live in the less favorable areas of Los Angeles such as East LA, South LA, parts of North Hollywood, Sylmar and Mission Hills, seem to allow themselves to be brought into a never-ending cycle of dangerous gang membership and activity.  This is the most worrisome thing about So Cal to me.

But with that said, where else can you live in such a media and entertainment rich city combined with access to beaches, mountains, deserts, rivers, lakes and National Parks, plus so much more?

No place is perfect, but I’m always having fun figuring out what living situation would be the close-to-perfect So Cal balance.  I’ve come up with this; a house in the Valley for when I want warm, blue-sky mornings, plus a house in Malibu on the sand, plus a house in the mountains for skiing and cabin retreats, and a house in one of the local deserts for that arid air.  Doing work which is creative and fulfilling and which pays well, traveling a lot, running, hiking and biking.  Making time for my honey, for this recreation and entertainment will always be a challenge, but what better place to live this life than here in Southern California.

But then again, I may decide to up and move to Oregon or New Mexico at any time; you never know.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Old Peeps

I spoke to some old folks tonight who were in their 80’s.  Most of the conversation was preoccupied with how well their day went, how much exercise they did recently, and what kinds of fights they had been having with siblings who want them to do things they don’t feel like doing.

What makes someone old?  Of course they are more physically limited in their ability to do things, more prone to illness and injury, and less outward as a result in many cases.

But in addition, I think because of their lack of ability to interact with the world as much, many elderly people turn inward to their past in their thoughts.  I find a lot of my conversations with people who are elderly don’t concentrate on what’s happening today, or what will be in the future, but much more on who they were, what the world was like back in the day, and on events that happened long ago.

I can only wonder if, at a time when many elderly people feel that they are losing themselves and feel unconnected with most of what is going on around them, that thinking about what had been and who they were helps to maintain a certain amount of identity, and that makes them feel better.

Just a simple theory.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

London Plane Dream

I had a strange dream early this morning.  I dreamed that Brenda and I were flying to some country in Europe or Scandinavia and were making a stop in London.  Our plane was flying over the Thames River slowly next to very tall buildings with dark, mirrored glass.  I had my arms out of the plane's window and was seated close to the nose giving me a good view of what was in front of us.  My hair was blowing in the wind.  I remember taking note of how white the outside of the plane was since I could see the outside forward hull of the nose.

Brenda was seated behind me, and as we got close to one of the buildings, she reached out and touched a framed picture that obviously belonged to someone which was sitting on a corner ledge of a building.  As she did this, the picture fell hundreds if not thousands of feet; I gasped at Brenda’s action knowing that the frame would likely kill someone below.

That was basically our stop; suspended next to a building hundreds of feet up.  So we started moving again, and were passing along the ledge of a building where a school boy, dressed in either German or Holland type school clothes, ran along side keeping up pace with the plane.  I thought it was strange in how slow the plane must have been moving for him to keep up with us.

The pilot then throttled up and headed the plane in a steep ascent between very tall buildings into the night sky.  There were two planes ahead of us.  Just then, the two planes ahead of us exploded in horrific fireballs as they had passed the buildings presumably out in the open.

Our pilot slowed our plane and immediately started turning it back to London to prevent the same fate from happening to us.  Something beyond the buildings was obviously shooting missiles up at planes.  As we turned around and headed back to London, I had a clear view of the sea below a few miles adjacent to us, and I could see pieces of white plane wreckage floating in the ocean swells.  I noted that they were large chunks of the fuselage that contained the passenger windows of those planes.

While heading back to London, though I was fearful, I acted happy to Brenda that we would get to spend a few days in London just tooling around.  This wasn’t such a bad place to be stranded since I knew London very well from my former trips there.  The only thing that was of concern to me was how we would eventually get back to the US if a war were starting across the Atlantic.

I think the location of this dream was brought on by the rain we just had.  The weather here in LA reminded me of London; wet and gray.  However, I don’t know why the dream’s content was so troublesome.  I can only suspect that it had something to do with my conflict of wanting to travel for a long time like I often used to, and the reality that traveling would feel foreign to me by now.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Jet Ski

I sat my butt on one for the first time a few weeks ago on the Colorado River when the weather was still hot.  I was in Laughlin and rented a jet ski, a model probably the equivalent of a Ford Taurus at a car rental place.  Not super a pro design or super sleek.  They wouldn’t rent those to people.  Mine was a very stable, very floaty jet ski with blue and white designs.

Now, I am an athletic person who has done a fair amount of water sports; surfing, boogie-boarding, single ski water-skiing, snow boarding, snow skiing, tubing, etc.  So it’s surprising, especially to me, that at age 44, I had never been on a jet ski.  I mean, my friend’s father actually invented the Wet Bike, a predecessor Jet Ski product.  But I got on and started jet skiing away!

I was actually quite astonished and delighted at how free I felt on the thing.  With just a pull of my right index finger on the throttle, I was up and away; I could go from here to there in just a matter of a few hair-blowing seconds.  I could get from our river-camp site to the dam about a mile up the river in a few minutes short cutting lines and angles atop the water.  I loved the feeling of moving through large amounts of space at my finger’s whim. 

The Colorado, despite the 105-degree air temperature that day, was chilly to say the least.  And yet, when I would throttle up my jet ski, say up to 40 miles per hour or so, the hot wind would blow against my face at such a force that tears formed from the sides of my eyes.  It was exhilarating.

I really enjoyed jet skiing.  It was about time!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Rain Washes Away

Rain Washes Away

And I’m not talking metaphorically here.  I literally mean that rain washes and rinses things away.  Just think about how in Southern California, we don’t see rain from sometime in early March all the way until October.  So Cal weather is pretty consistent that way.

So during those months, consider how much dirt and dust builds up on roofs of houses, how much spit and grime ends up on sidewalks, dog poop on grass and in parks, and for that matter, wild animals are always relieving themselves in the mountains. 

Think of how much mud on the road from cars, how much old, dead brush in the wilderness and how much cosmic dust on all of the leaves of plants and trees gets washed away.  Consider all of the smog that gets cleaned out of the air.

And all of this during a heavy rain, washes through the canyons, to catch basins, through gutters and into storm drains that move into flood control channels, and eventually, where all the water around here seems to end up, down the slick concrete LA River towards Long Beach where it is all released into the sea.

Did you ever really look at those flood control channels (our family calls them “washes) and how brown and muddy colored the turbulent water is?  That's all of the filth and dirt moving swiftly out of the urban areas.

I always look forward to a hard rain.  My hope is always for a long, hard series of downpours that lasts for days.  And maybe I am indeed getting metaphorical here, but its always so clean feeling after heavy rains.  Yes, there are areas of torn up asphalt and places where hillsides have given way poring mud where it should be.  But after a good rain, it looks, smells and feels so clean.

Rain really does wash away.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kinship

I was at the inspection for a house that I had just sold in my neighborhood.  This meant sitting for two hours in the home while the inspector did his work; not something I was looking forward to.

When I got to the house, the man, “Jeff,” was also just arriving. Once he started to work, and we bantered about a little, we quickly found that we had both graduated at around the same year in the same part of the city suburbs as each other.

We talked about growing up there, the movies we used to see, the theaters and burger stands we used to frequent, and we even discovered that at about the same time, we had developed a greater than normal appetite for mountain climbing, and subsequently, both having laid off of it for the past few years.

It turned an obligated afternoon into fun reminiscences.  And it got me to thinking afterwards why it is that people relish having common histories.  I guess it’s obvious that it validates one’s own sense of who they are to hear common stories and situations told back to them.

But I also think that the longer you go in life, the more dispersed everyone becomes on this planet.  Therefore, those people you shared things with become less and less encountered.  Meeting someone with a common personal history that afternoon made me feel, …well…, not alone.  It was a good feeling and a delightful surprise.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Threading The Needle

A good friend of mine told me today that he feels he is threading the needle in that he has his music business set up, but it isn’t making money as of yet.  He is staring his bills head-on and isn’t sure if he’s going to be able to have the business make money in time.

My response to him was all about my own thin real estate sales and how I am having to juggle which car to sell, and how soon in order to float my own obligations another month or two.

Then, yet another long-time friend of mine who has not been working and living with his mother for literally years chimed in when I brought a similar topic up with him. He said that he thinks all of the members of the Forbes 400 List whose lives I annually salivate over have been successful due to their intense focus on creating and owning something such as a business or intellectual property.

I agree with his assessment.  I just don’t know what that focus should be for myself.  I have smarts, motivation and dedication, and yet I still haven’t figured out how to take my love of writing, photographs, movies and travel, and intertwine them into some fantastic new way of doing things.  I feel like its there, but I can’t get my head around it.

You see, I have this dream of doing something creatively and passionately in my work, and then retiring on the weekends to my second home on Malibu Road or on Broad Beach Road.  My girlfriend and I would watch the sun set from our house in the sand in a snuggle, then prepare some dinner and enjoy the sound of the waves rolling in and out below us.

So to get from here to there; it can’t be that hard, right?  I mean, going back to those 400 Forbes members with more money than one could spend in several lifetimes, my dream seems kind of menial and pretty attainable.

Well, I’ve just started, “Outliers,” by Malcolm Gladwell today.  Let’s see what he has to say about it all.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

I Remember When...

I remember when most mornings, my dad would open the wooden gate to the driveway at the side of the house to let Willie out for her morning run.

I remember when how up on that hill, it was always dry and how the areas of the neighborhood that didn’t have asphault had instead dirt that was mostly granite gravel.

I remember how Willie would run down the side of the hill and be instantly lost in waist high schrubbery and brush that seemed like tinder.

I remember the morning sun making an orange glow on Willie’s brown fur and on the surrounding plants that contrasted with the dawn sky.

I remember running and crawling through the cayote trails with Willie trying to keep up with her, she having the advantage of four legs and endless energy.

I remember thinking to myself on many occasions that I must have passed very close to rattle snakes and was very lucky not to have had a direct confrontation with one.

I remember how one of the trails led to a make-shift fort that someone had built out of large sheets of wood and spongy yellow foam padding.

I remember that when I brought friends to the fort, we had the idea that if anything ever went wrong at home, we could come to the fort and have a safe place to stay.

I remember once telling my parents that if I ever ran away, I would go to a place they couldn’t find me, thinking of the fort.

I remember how my friend Christian and I would attach a leash to the back of our pant belt loops and throw it over the jungle gym bars and we’d hang like suspended monkeys until our belt loops snapped and down we’d fall to earth.

I remember how Christian and I would build dams out of mud in the back yard and then let the water bust through.

One Step at a Time

So I just registered for the LA Marathon.  It sounds like it will be fun since it will be from Dodger's Stadium, through Hollywood and Beverly Hills, through Brentwood and ending at the Santa Monica Pier.  The only thing is that I haven't been running a super lot lately.  I started to in the Spring of this year, but then it got hot as hell, especially being stuck here in the valley with not enough money to even drive myself to Manhattan Beach to run where it is cooler.

So about six weeks off from running, and I'm starting from scratch again.  I first have to shed a bit of weight to get slim and sleek enough to run efficiently, and then put some mileage in my legs.  This past week, I ran only eight miles, and my right calf is a little sore, so I took off yesterday.  I'm going to run a mile in a few minutes and see if I can do some mileage down by the ocean tomorrow.

Well, one step at a time.