Movin’ On Up

I’ve had many addresses during my nearly five decades on planet earth, from a sorority house in Evanston to a couch in a shared New York one-bedroom, a hotel in Arlington, Virginia to a depressing stint in Charlotte, North Carolina.  But the only two places that have ever felt like home were my mom’s turn-of-the-century building in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and my grandparents’ 1920’s English Tudor in Canton, Ohio.  Most people see the Lincoln Park in me – the city girl who likes to be a part of the bustle, with easy access to cool restaurants, shops and diverse culture.  My lesser known alter ego enjoys the safety and familiarity of a small town with manicured lawns and a postman who knows your name.

Twenty years ago, I moved in with a Canadian guy who would eventually become my husband and we began our own residential journey in Los Angeles together, which included the purchase of our first house and, fifteen years later, what appears to be our last one.  I wasn’t quite prepared for the reactions from friends and acquaintances when we shared the news that we had put an offer on a property in Pacific Palisades.  Comments ranged from “it’s so far” to “it just doesn’t seem like you” to “movin’ on up, huh?”  Whatever words were actually said, there was a definite subtext of just who do you think you are?  from everyone except, of course, our friends who already live in the Palisades.

My defenses went up.  It’s a major fixer upper.  On a busy street.  It’s smaller than our old house.  I swear, I thought we’d end up in a modern spec house in Mar Vista. (Nobody would have had issues with that; everyone likes Mar Vista).  We’re only making necessary upgrades like heat, electric and plumbing… and floors, bathrooms, kitchen, front yard, back yard.  We got the last affordable house in the Palisades.

But you’re in the Palisades.

It isn’t like we didn’t look anywhere else.  We did.  For like, fifteen years.  Before purchasing our first home, we took a cursory glance at the Palisades.  It felt too suburban, too sleepy, too Desperate Housewives.  What I really wanted was to live in North Santa Monica, but everything we could afford there was a dump.  At the time we were in a swanky rental off Robertson, walking distance to Chaya Brasserie and The Ivy.  We settled on a newly remodeled Mediterranean in Rancho Park.  Everyone pointed out what a nice, safe neighborhood we chose to raise our family.  Sure, it was pretty and walkable, but there was still the exhaust of a major freeway separating me from the ocean.

We had two kids and turned the backyard into a gorgeous oasis, the site of many memorable barbecues and birthday parties.  It felt like home, but I still drove West every chance I got.  By the time we discovered affordable West-of-the-405 areas like Sunset Park, Mar Vista and Venice (imagine! Venice was once affordable), we had become pickier.  I wanted walkability, cool restaurants, a big back yard and the ocean.  He wanted an area without campers in the driveway and meth dealers in every alley.  I wanted the urban feel of Ocean Park; he wanted the Jacaranda-lined streets and classic street lamps of Cheviot Hills.  We widened our search to include every beachside community 20 minutes or less from our kids’ school.

There was a house in Mar Vista that we both loved, a 1936 two-story Spanish with a finished garage on a huge lot.  It was an even trade for our house, but we couldn’t buy without selling our house first.  Fast forward four years.  Mar Vista is blowing up, due to its proximity to Venice.  Venetians cannot even afford Venice.  Maybe it’s time to think outside the box.  We tour homes in Marina adjacent Westchester, where you can get a six bedroom, five bath new construction for less than a Venice bungalow.  We realize that we’re not that far outside the box.

We meet with a realtor we’ve known for years, stage our house and get an offer close to the asking price the week before Thanksgiving.    At the same time, we tour a fixer in the Palisades.  The house reminds us both of our grandparents.  It’s walking distance to the village.  You can feel the ocean breeze.  We write a letter to the adult children who grew up in the Palisades house, promising not to tear it down and make a McMansion.  They accept our offer while we’re on vacation in Europe and we wonder what we just got ourselves into.  We close escrow three days before Christmas.

On our first Saturday after moving in, my husband walks to the Starbucks where he reports seeing “lots of white people in exercise outfits.”  The prototype Westside housewife, suspiciously un-sweaty in her Lulu Lemon Athletica and running shoes, Goyard tote swinging from the crease in her arm, is a fixture of affluent communities from Brentwood to Beverly Hills, North of Montana to Westwood.  She’s not my people, but neither are the Silicon Beach hipsters with their ironic grey hair and carefully curated tats spilling out of Gjelina on Abbot Kinney.

Where are my “peeps”?  They’re in Hancock Park and Toluca Lake, Culver City and… San Francisco, Rome, Paris.  One friend, who recently moved to Paris from a giant property in Mar Vista, said the Palisades felt too “precious”.  But now there’s me in my paint-splashed denim overalls and well worn Blundstones, buying screwdrivers at Norris Hardware.  And there I am in my 6-months dirty Volvo in the Gelson’s parking lot.  Picking up fluff-and-fold at Royal Cleaners.  Having minestrone soup at Pinocchio.  My husband compares the Palisades to Bayside, the fictional beach town from The Hardy Boys.  There is no nightlife.  They roll up the sidewalks at 6pm.  That may change when the new development is finished, but I don’t foresee the area becoming Century City any time soon.  People in town know other people’s business.  It’s a lot more like Canton, Ohio than it is like Lincoln Park.

Week three and having no kitchen or laundry is starting to wear thin.  We may have watched a few too many episodes of HGTV’s Fixer Upper.  It’s easy to romanticize a house project before you are knee deep in it.  We are all four sharing one bathroom, the roof may have a leak, and the single pane windows in all of our bedrooms create the effect of free air conditioning on full blast every night.  And there are the cars zipping by at high speeds as I back out of my driveway.  We really need to put in a circular driveway and some lights.  And a fence.  And fix those fireplaces.  I used to have a gorgeous Carrera marble bathroom.  And a huge kitchen…

But now you live in the Palisades.

images-3Yes, we do.  And even in a fixer upper, it’s hard to imagine living any place more beautiful than a mountain above the Pacific Ocean in Southern California.

 

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https://www.pypo.com/perfectionist-no-more/

Check out PYPO!  And find out why I’m a recovering perfectionist.

XO LZ

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Java in La La Land

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Butt in chair. That’s really the only rule of writing. Beyond that, we all have our own quirks. If it were solely up to me, I’d write in five-star hotels, preferably with a view of the ocean. Think Casa del Mar in Santa Monica on a sunny day. But my muse doesn’t roll that way. She likes to get down and dirty, as long as the coffee is strong and the bathrooms are clean. Pleasing us both is a more difficult task than one might think, even in the dense javadom of West L.A.

Too Fancy

Lately, I’ve been writing at Caffe’ Luxxe (two f’s, two x’s) in the Brentwood Country Mart. Or, rather, I’ve been sipping their smooth, chocolatey Gibraltars and eating baguettes with raspberry jam while trying to write. My girl refuses to join me there. Maybe it’s the desperate housewives in their Lulu Lemon tanks and Goyard totes.   Or the the snippets of conversation… I’ve been on Xanax since 9-11I told him, he’s got to push himself now that he’s in sixth grade.  She has little patience for the worried well and their first world problems.  I’m more empathetic, but easily distracted.  The minute my fingers start typing, my brain loses focus.  I wonder, what’s up with those middle-aged men in head-to-toe spandex riding three thousand dollar racing bikes in the middle of the day?  They’re not nerdy enough to be television writers, but not hip enough to be film directors.  Agency chiefs with took a buyout?  I’ve got to get out before I create any  more backstory.

Too Dirty

Deus Ex Machina is a motorcycle accessories shop-slash-café at the Corner of Lincoln and Venice Boulevard. With its rustic wood tables, comfy couches, and dogs roaming around, it feels like sitting in your own garage, if the white noise in your garage were a blend of milk steaming and Spotify. The food is tasty, especially the thick toast and serve-yourself jam in flavors like Bourbon Peach and Jalapeno Blueberry. Their liberal canine policy edits out the jerky element; in fact, if you’re bothered by a strange dog licking your toes, this is perhaps not the best place for you. My muse loves it. She did some of her best work there this summer. There’s just one small issue: cleanliness. I actually believe you can’t maintain a healthy immune system without eating a little dirt. But the day I witnessed one of the baristas wipe up some dog vomit and then go immediately to the espresso machine without washing his hands, my inner germaphobe took pause. And I’m pretty sure there was rat poop on the table when I arrived one morning shortly after opening. Just sayin’.

Too Douchey

So I decide to return to my old stomping grounds on Abbot Kinney in Venice, Intelligentsia. With the summer tourist traffic thinned out, there’s virtually no line, and I’m looking forward to sitting down with a nice short-pour cappuccino. I’m hungry but not in the mood for anything sugary so the barista suggests the Spam and Kimchi croissant. “It’s really good. Especially with some Sriracha on top.” “Really?” I say. “Because that sounds disgusting.” I want to tell him that just because something is vintage and ironic and trendy, that doesn’t make it good. I want to dare him to spell sriracha. As if on cue, a guy covered in neck tattoos walks by.  My muse rolls her eyes as if to say “Told ya so.” Somehow, I’d forgotten how loud the music is and, frankly, how annoyingly hip the people are. No offense to my friends who were early adapters to the area. You moved in when the real estate was cheap. You dug the surfer-aging hippie-struggling artist-homeless veteran-smalltime drug dealer all living together in a kumbaya of ocean breeze. But with the advent of “Silicon Beach” driving prices up so that only chain stores can afford the rent, Abbot Kinney’s old charm is rapidly evaporating.

Just Right?

My final stop is the Venice Grind in Mar Vista, where all the people who cannot afford three million dollar bungalows still live. There are a few more businesses popping up on this stretch of Venice Boulevard, but still plenty of grit to satisfy my girl. A more mellow but still hip crowd populates the local businesses, the way Venice used to be twenty years ago. The neck tattoos feel more earned here, like they belong to a person who knows his way around a Fender, as opposed to the poseurs on Abbot Kinney who seem inked up for the occasion. One drawback to the Grind: the coffee is like Colon Blow. But they have normal food (bagels, croissants, cookies) and plenty of places to plug in your laptop. The music is soft and the guy behind the counter is nice. I think I’ll stay for a while.

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poem/2040

2040 

by LZ

 

The sun reboots over a slightly less polluted Pacific

than the one I first viewed

A grad student in a Green Wrangler on that rollercoaster incline

to a future long past, but ever present

Today it is fortified, the road, made stronger by steel rods and containing walls but lacking the charm

Where that old sign welcomed you to

Santa Monica.

 

I come from true North now,

Long ago traded the land of plastic faces and eternal sunshine, for a chilly bay of tech magnates and vineyard dwellers,

Millennials who ascended from their parents’ basements to microchip thrones

In a real city on a million hills overlooking the rock museum

We have that ocean here, too. With more ice cubes and fewer surfers

Sea spray and Chinatown

And farther still, over the bridge, the magnet for spiritual awakenings –

 

The New Age Bethlehem, that’s where I live.

Writing and wearing holey jeans and boots, and hopping into my Jeep-shaped Benz

A cool granny, a published author, a hippie with diamond rings

Most of the hair turned ash by time, the skin leathered by topless automobiles, smokes, sun.

A face, the foundation of which was built back in ’66, still standing with no major renovations.

 

The curtain of a smile rises each morning to greet the things that I love –

A man, a dog; they’re here.

The boys reside elsewhere, places I visit often but don’t call home.

Outliving me was the only deal breaker and the Universe has upheld its bargain so far

Others bowed out earlier, their presence catalogued by walk-of-fame footprints on my heart

Tiny fissures that exist because I indulged it, let it feel.

 

“Checking in, Ma’am?”  A simple question, and I only hesitate briefly,

for a memory montage of Chantilly lace, sandy toddler toes, and club sandwiches

I am just a guest; I don’t live here, even though in my mind it has always been mi Casa

A grand brick house by the sea where I vowed, vodka in hand, crisp Pratesi sheets on the bed,

To one day reside, a dowager with a view of the pier.

The timing was never right for us, Santa Monica.

But I’m thrilled you’re still here, neither demolished by progress nor tsunami

As permanent as you get in this world.

 

 

 

 

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Thought for the day

…nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films,
new films,music,books,paintings,photographs,poems,dreams,random conversations,architecture,bridges,street signs,trees,clouds,bodies of water,light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul…if you do this your work(and theft) will be authentic.Authenticity is invaulable; originality is non-existent…and don`t bother concealing your thievery-celebrate it if you like it…in any case,always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ” it`s not where you take things from- it`s where you take them to.

– Jim Jarmusch

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First Date

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On a day when my 12-year-old Gabriel* is texting with girls on his iPhone, I am reminded of the mushy cheeked boy who sat on my lap at The Wiggles concert, too shy to run up on stage with the other toddlers. Wasn’t that, like, five minutes ago? What happened to Woody and Buzz, Lego Batman and Harry Potter? When did those obsessions become replaced with group chats and late night Face-Timing?

I should have seen this coming last year when Gabriel started wearing all black. Every day. Specifically, a black motorcycle jacket and Greek fisherman’s cap he got as a souvenir at The Beatles’ Love show in Las Vegas. Then he and a bunch of other kids formed a band, with Gabe on lead guitar. A few girls joined as back-up singers and he made a point to complain about how annoying they were.

Fast forward to the first middle school dance. Gabriel can’t go because we’ll be out of town at his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. He is seriously bummed. The night before we leave, there is an art gallery at school. A cute blonde who he swears is “just a friend” comes to see his exhibit and hangs around till the cheese and crackers are put away. They text the whole time we’re gone; when we get back she messages him, “we should hang out”.

We’ve already planned to see a movie together and I suggest that he invite her along. Next thing I know the girl’s dad, whom I’ve only met in passing, joins us. Afterward, I suggest that Gabriel and his friend have lunch by themselves at the food court while we shop. But the only plan her dad finds acceptable is to take him back to his house. Gabriel awkwardly hugs me goodbye. I can’t pretend he’s just on a play date; an invisible line has been crossed.  As we roam around the mall it feels weird not to have the fourth member of our team with us.

“Remember Teagan?” my husband Andrew says. Teagan was Gabriel’s first preschool crush. She was the kid who could never sit still during circle time, who needed a daily talking-to from the teachers. We had a birthday party where everyone came in costume. Gabriel was Batman. Teagan, with messy blonde hair and red lipstick, was the sexiest five-year-old Wonder Woman around. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Her mom was a tough talking muscular brunette with a white-blonde streak of hair who had built her big guns by working as a grip on Hollywood movie sets.

At least I still have one boy who hasn’t hit puberty.  I turn to my 9-year-old son, Sage.  “Do you think Gabe likes this girl as a girlfriend, or just a friend?”

“I’m not getting involved in that,” Sage says. A week later he’ll complain that his brother spends too much time on his phone talking to girls, but today he just wants to go home and ride his bike.

Back at the house, our Jack Russell terrier has gotten into some chocolate and is running around like he’s high on cocaine. I don’t have time to obsess over Gabe’s date because we have to go to the emergency vet.  When we’re back home, safe and sound, I hold Cowboy in my arms and remember what it’s like to have a baby that size. The worries were much simpler then, at least compared to the ones ahead: driving, alcohol, drugs, sex, heartbreak (and not necessarily in that order).

If the next twelve years go as quickly as the first, I want to maximize every second and so I decide to splurge on tickets to see Billy Joel. Gabriel doesn’t remember The Wiggles concert, but he’ll remember this one. It’s not exactly the hippest crowd at the Hollywood Bowl; there are lots of middle-aged men with paunches and Hawaiian shirts. But there’s something magical about our family of four communing with seventeen thousand strangers under a full moon. The boys know the words to every song; we’ve taught them well. Afterwards, we collect posters and overpriced t-shirts, and commence the 30-minute journey back to our car. Sage falls asleep the minute he hits the back seat but Gabriel replays the parts of the show he recorded on his iPhone all the way home. There will be many more concerts and many more girls, but for now we have this moment together.

 

 

* names have been changed to protect the privacy of minors

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Thought for the day

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Not A Face Person

Face People, you know who they are.   They’re the restaurant manager who comes over to tell you they’d be happy to replace the bloody rare ahi with another dish, but that’s the way the chef “recommends” it. They’re the hourly employee in relaxed fit jeans who greets you at The Gap with a “How’s it going?”, the guy who directs you to the back of the store when you ask an actual question like, “Do you have this shirt in a medium?” They’re the cashier at Whole Foods who, without looking away from her screen, asks “Did you find everything okay?” even though she really doesn’t give a shit if you did. She’s not paid enough. She just wants to get out of there to comb Tumblr and Buzzfeed from the dim light of her parents’ basement.

I am not a Face Person. If I were an actress, I’d take only character roles. I’d be the Wicked Witch, not Glinda, Bellatrix, not Hermione. In politics, I’d be Rahm Emanuel, not Obama; Hillary, not Bill (more on that another time). I’m the passionate doer with no time for public relations. I like the dirty work. In my teens and twenties, I slummed at face jobs. There was the summer I worked at the front desk of a big convention hotel, serving champagne to dilute the anger of customers waiting in long check-in lines. I interned for a screaming Hollywood producer. I was even a temp at the Disney legal department, the ultimate face job.

But even back then, Lizzie was inside me somewhere, screaming and flailing her arms, urging me to tell people what she really thought. Lizzie is my id, known well to close friends and family but unfamiliar to casual acquaintances. For convenience, I leave her at home when I go out into the world. Lizzie is the one who asks the poor guy at the Gap if he can turn down the blaring pop music long enough to answer a real question: Does he know that fast beat increases people’s heart rate, subliminally urging them to buy more? And does he care that everything there was made in a sweatshop? Answer: not for twelve bucks an hour, he doesn’t.

As my forties wane and this go-round on earth nears its halfway mark, I’ve been letting Lizzie out with more frequency. For one, I like her. And she’s nicer to me when I take her for regular walks in the fresh air. I no longer treat her like my weird distant cousin because I realize that she is my identical twin – same DNA, same upbringing, just different sides of the same coin. I’m a little more diplomatic, a little more polished, but neither of us are Face People. I confess that sometimes, I feel a twinge of jealousy for the people in the face jobs. It would nice to be revered. But if I were caught up in my own Face-ness, who would see past the glossy veneer to the ugly truth of situations? Who would pierce the veil of complacency and actually do something? Lizzie and I, we’re a good team.

 

 

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Passover-Easter Redux 2015

cropped-Photo-on-3-30-13-at-2.23-AM.jpgSpring Break is over. A big To Do List awaits. But first, a recap of our big weekend filled with God and sugar, birthdays and death, creativity and freedom, all wrapped around a full Libra moon. Passover comes first, with a beautiful Seder at the home of our friends, Lynn and Dennis. These people know how to throw a party. From their annual Super Bowl extravaganza with more than two hundred guests and a television in every room (including the loo) we know that a gathering in their home is always a rockin’ good time. What to expect from our first Passover? Thoughtful comments from the hosts and each of the guests as we go around the table and discuss the core Passover themes of slavery and freedom. Festive “plague” masks are passed out. Gabriel, nearly 13, puts on the black one and announces, “I am darkness”. Sage, 9, says that he still thinks there’s a lot of good in the world, even though some people believe the Holocaust never happened. Deep thoughts from the kids’ table.

Saturday I wake up late, a little hung over from the Passover wine. It is a somber day; after a brief call to wish my dad happy birthday, we get the news that the father of Andrew’s good friend has only hours to live. Life is short. I think about this as I head down the street to look at the ocean, do some writing, and figure out what I’m going to fill the Easter baskets with this year. After all my rants on GMOs and consuming too much sugar, I choose some expensive pure chocolate bunnies from Germany. Later, I’ll arrange them nicely in three baskets for each boy and the husband who was raised Jewish. The filling of the eggs is also my job. We stopped putting candy in them when we adopted Cowboy, our Jack Russell mix. Now we fill them with things that won’t cause a trip to the emergency vet: money, toys, gift certificates and, this year, corny Easter jokes. Who is the Easter Bunny’s favorite movie actor? Rabbit De Niro!   It’s 2am by the time I begin this process and must resist the temptation to add off-color jokes like, Why don’t rabbits make noise when they’re having sex? Because they have cotton balls…

When my husband wakes at 5:30am, he hides the eggs around the back yard. Everything you need to know about the boys’ personalities can be gleaned from the Easter egg hunt. Gabriel begins his slow and deliberate search by looking in all of the obscure, hard-to-reach places. He’s competitive but hates anything obvious. For him it’s about finding the eggs that nobody else sees. Sage dives right in and grabs as many of the ones right in front of him as possible. He’s a path-of-least-resistance guy. He’s also generous and non-competitive. Halfway through, when he sees that Gabriel has only a few eggs compared to his haul, he begins picking up eggs and putting them into his brother’s basket. I’m always worried about fairness. But the Universe has got my back. For the second year in a row, the boys end up with exactly the same amount of money.

My favorite part is getting gussied up for the big fancy Easter brunch. With our bellies full of crab Benedict, currant scones, fish and chips, seafood pasta, pistachio profiteroles, and iced tea with fresh mint and sugar cane, we take a walk. We revel in the simple pleasures of life – good friends, good food, and sunshine along the Pacific Ocean. Whatever else troubles us, life isn’t so bad. After a couple of stops at open houses, we head home to our imperfect house that doesn’t seem so bad. We get the kitchen workspace ready for egg dyeing. With Gabriel’s academic, extracurricular and social schedule, it has been a long time since we’ve done something creative together. But two hours of egg coloring proves that we haven’t lost our touch. Afterwards, I rustle up some dinner and we watch two episodes The Last Man on Earth before putting the kids to bed. It’s a school night and we are heading into the last couple months before summer, rested and ready.

 

 

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Birth Control

th-8It was easy to be frothy yesterday.  Yesterday was the start of a new month.  Friends on both coasts posted Facebook pictures of themselves and their kids frolicking on the beach.  It was even a holiday in Canada.  But today I’m finding it harder to lack profundity.  (case in point: my use of the word “profundity”).  Maybe it has something to do with an evening spent at my friend’s self-improvement seminar graduation, a three-hour hard sell akin to watching an infomercial that you can’t turn off.   Or having cereal for dinner,  then getting my ass kicked by advanced computer Scrabble.  Or maybe it was dreaming that I was back in Charlotte, North Carolina, the place where I spent the darkest three years of my life in the 1990s.  Definitely not the makings of a light and breezy mood!

But a promise is a promise.  So here’s a little something to smooth out your hump day.  A couple of haircuts ago, my boys switched from the Beverly Hills children’s hairdresser they’ve gone to since toddlerhood to a green-haired young woman covered in tattoos at a hip barbershop called Shorty’s in West Hollywood.  Last Saturday, while waiting to pay, my younger son, 8, noticed a giant glass jar of free condoms on the coffee table.

“Can I have one?” he said, reaching into the jar.

“No!” scolded my 12-year-old son.

“Why not?  What are they?” he said.

A guy waiting for a haircut smiled at me as my husband grabbed my son’s hand and whisked him out the door.

“What are they?” he repeated.

“You’ll find when you’re older,” my tween replied, plugging his ears to avoid hearing my explanation.

“Birth control,” I said, matter-of-factly.

“Really?” my 8-year-old said.

“Yep.”

He giggled and that was all.  Sometimes no further explanation is necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shallow Thoughts

Hello and welcome to July 2014, the end of June Gloom in Los Angeles and the beginning of the middle of summer.  When you’re a kid, summer means shedding the intense seriousness of the school year and diving in to pure fun.  Summer is playful, light, lazy.  And in that spirit, I will attempt to post more frothy and less profound thoughts.  I will not sweat over every single word.  Hell, I don’t even care if my posts have a beginning, middle and end.  I’m gonna write more and edit less.  I’ll resist the urge to dig deep into my psyche and just be shallow.  At least for July.

Let’s begin with The Job.

I’d give my right arm to be an author like Jeffrey Eugenides.  He has a well deserved Pulitzer for Middlesex, publishes every 9 years or so, and works at an Ivy League university as his day job.

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But what if I were more like chick lit author Sophie Kinsella?  That could be fun…

th-6The Look.

Most of the time, I feel like Mayim Bialik.  The glasses, the obsessive political correctness, the NOSE…

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But what if I allowed myself to channel Angie Everhart?  What if I ditched the loose Laura Ingalls Wilder sundresses for more figure hugging clothes.  Tight jeans don’t kill brain cells.  (I recently colored my hair auburn — it’s a start)

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The ride.

L.A. is all about your car, which is probably why I could never go the minivan route.  Still, I’ve been driving this mom-mobile for the past decade.  I love the Volvo’s safety factor, the 8 airbags, the schlep-ability.

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But what if I could drive my dream car?  How cool would it be to zip along Pacific Coast Highway with the top down, hyper pigmentation be damned?  This vehicle is part Mercedes luxury, part tough girl Jeep.  Now that’s my kinda hybrid.
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So there you have it.  A few random, shallow thoughts to commence July.  May it be a month of good hair, incomplete sentences, and lots of ellipses….

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RIP Les Plesko

“Who is Les Plesko?” my son asked when he saw that I was crying.

“Mommy’s teacher,” my husband said.

“A man of few teeth,” I said. “And one sport coat, who chain-smoked and wrote on a real old fashioned typewriter.”

Eight years ago I walked into a Novel I class at UCLA Extension with a toddler and six-month old baby at home, desperate for something. I knew little of the instructor other than the fact that he was the published author of a semi-autobiographical book about a heroin addict on Venice Beach in the 1970s.

In the beginning, coming up with pages was like shitting coconuts and often I showed up with only one page. But after a while it got easier. Les’s number one rule of critiquing was “don’t dis” and in the supportive environment of his classroom, I felt safe to take creative risks. By the end of that first quarter, I was hooked. I signed up for Novel II, III, and IV, all taught by him. Why mess with success?

When I enrolled in Novel V, I had a solid first draft of my young adult novel. The level of writing in the class was professional and so, miraculously, was I. I decided to tackle the next few drafts on my own, to see if I could write this novel without supervision. I could, although never with as much joy and purpose as I did with Les. I do better with deadlines and he was the perfect teacher for me: old-timey, philosophical, soft-spoken, cool and always supportive.

From time to time I would run in to Les, at the beach in Santa Monica, or at Abbott’s Habit in Venice. I always thought that the Universe put him in my path for a reason: to nudge me a little, to remind me to keep writing. Today I’m mourning with each of the other writers whose work and lives were elevated by Les Plesko. Although my first novel did not get published, it came close. Maybe it will someday. But just in case, here’s what the dedication page will say: Thank you, Les.th-4

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Middle School

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Middle School Orientation.  It’s 9am, my clothes are too tight, and I’m not ready for this.  I want more time to be the mother of a 5th grader who needs me and not a 6th grader who wants to get away from me.  At least that’s how the parents with older kids tell me it’s going to be.  “Get ready,” they warn.  “He won’t even want to look at you.”  Not my boy.  Not the one who still likes to snuggle with me in bed, who’s afraid of ghosts in the bathroom, who doesn’t want me to leave him alone, even for a short run to Starbucks.  What do they know?  But inside, there is doubt.

I should have sent him to sleep-away camp, I think to myself for the thousandth time as I watch the other kids filter in.  I should have given him that micro step toward independence so when this day came, it wouldn’t seem so huge to both of us.  But I was too afraid to let him go.  And so the summer was long and painful with small bursts of day camp but mostly stretches of too much time – time for my two boys to fight, time for my husband to worry about money, time for me to fear the place I now find myself in.  We needed a big distraction, but Las Vegas was as far as we had gotten, front row center at Cirque du Soleil’s “O”, the water show a brief reprieve from the Hades-like temperatures of Nevada in August.

Yes, it was a shitty summer but I’d do it all again to not be here, among the hundred or so parents learning about brain development in the adolescent while my son gets indoctrinated with the other kids.  “Think of us as Hogwarts,” one of the administrators says.  And by that he means, not a boarding school for young wizards, but a place where your child can get away and discover his own powers – without you.  A place where you can’t help him, or, as they seem to imply, hold him back.  I hate what they are saying.  I want more of my boy, not less.  We could save a lot of money by homeschooling.  For a second I convince myself that option isn’t completely nuts.

“Now close your eyes and imagine your own first day of middle school,” the counselor, who has now taken center stage, instructs us.  As a writer of young adult fiction, I don’t have to dig too deep.  I access middle school memories on a daily basis.  The first thing that comes to mind is a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans I wore throughout seventh grade.  Specifically, kelly green velvet Gloria Vanderbilt jeans.  I received a lot of positive attention wearing those jeans.  Boys noticed me, girls wanted to be my friend.  When the other parents share their own mental snapshots of middle school, they say things like “Who will I sit with at lunch?”  or “Who will my friends be?” – vague generalities.  I don’t share my jeans memory, even though I know it will get a laugh.

We are then asked to break down into small groups, to talk about our children to the other parents.  We’re supposed to mingle with people we don’t know, and my husband frowns because he hates talking to strangers.  This part isn’t so bad for me.  One of my friends calls me over to her group and suggests that I go first.  My boy is easy to describe: he’s a gifted visual artist and musician, wildly creative.  He wears a lot of black.  Last year he wore a black leather jacket and John Lennon hat every day to school.  He isn’t afraid to be different.  I’m proud of that.  Most of the other parents give thoughtful descriptions of their kids.  One mother seems exasperated with her daughter and suggests she might be better off in boarding school.  As one who went to boarding school, I feel like telling her it’s not such a great idea.  But I keep my trap shut.

I need to get out of here.  And so, when we are given 15 minutes to go to the bathroom I escape to the Coffee Bean with my husband and another couple, feeling like a teenager who is breaking the rules.  I hope my son doesn’t enjoy this feeling as much as I do, although I suspect that he will.  Testing limits is one of the traits of adolescence, the counselor told us.  We walk back to school, iced tea in hand, via a short cut behind a strip club.  That’s right.  A strip club is located within walking distance of our school and three others.  I wonder when my son will notice the proximity of naked women.  Or has he already noticed?  When we return there are more speeches, but with less real information than I had hoped for.  The top three middle school administrators are all new, and so it feels a little bit like the blind leading the blind.  But they are earnest.

For the last part we gather in my son’s classroom to meet with his advisor.  It is small and claustrophobic.  We are asked to go around the room and list three adjectives to describe our kid.  My husband says two things and I say one.  The parents of a new boy use this opportunity to say six braggy things about their son.  I immediately feel an intense dislike for them.  When the teacher talks I am hanging on her every word, waiting for her to assure me that she will be the conduit between the warm womb of elementary school and the independence of high school.  She seems strict, like a person who doesn’t stand for any B.S.  She informs us of our duties as parents: make them go to bed by 9:30pm, make sure they come to school with enough food and water.  She will dispense hugs.  I feel slightly better, but I’m still not sold.  “Are you okay?” she says, calling me out in front of the class.  “You look sad.”  I quickly paste on a smile even though I feel like I’m throwing my boy to the wolves (which is a perfect metaphor since the school mascot is a wolf).  When we’re finally reunited with our son, I’m relieved to see that aliens have not taken over his body, that he’s the same boy I left three hours earlier.  I wonder if the day felt as long to him as it did to me.

The next morning is his first real day of school.  A coffee is scheduled for the parents, but I can’t find a parking spot so I drop him off and say that I’ll be right there.  Seven minutes later, I’m inside the building.  Parents and kids mill around; some girls hug their moms goodbye.  I spot my boy mingling with friends outside of his classroom.  He gives me a look like “What the hell are you doing here?” and I am crushed.  I slowly retreat upstairs, each step wrenching me away from him.  By the time I get to the parents coffee I am obviously a mess.  People understand.  It’s a tough transition.

We’ve survived the first two weeks.  The worst parts for him were being teased about his lunch, ironically by his best friends who accused him of eating GMO strawberries (I assured him that I only buy organic) and not being invited to the birthday party of a kid that he’s not really friends with.  Good things happened, too, compliments about his art and musical ability from his new teachers.  He now signs his homework with his first and middle name only, his “artist” signature.  He has yet to settle in to his signature look, his version of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans.  It’s still too hot outside for the black hat and leather jacket.  Instead he is focused on his hair, experimenting with different ways to comb and gel it, suggesting that it might look cool with a white streak in it.  “Maybe I’ll get one, too!” I say.  “Not a grey streak, a white streak,” he says.  And I suddenly feel old and uncool, like the mother of an adolescent.

 

 

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Laughingly Ever After

 

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My 10-year-old son was born the year that Austin Powers’ Goldmember came out.  He hasn’t seen the movie.  It’s a little risque’ for a fifth grader, or at least that’s what I thought until we watched James Bond in Goldfinger during Family Movie Night.  A couple days later, my son made a joke about Goldfinger at the dinner table that could have been written by Mike Myers.  I’d tell you what the joke was, but then I’d have to kill you.  Suffice to say that it was immature and completely inappropriate.   Soon, my younger boy joined in, repeating the off-color joke over and over, as seven-year-olds are prone to do.  I admit, I started laughing.  “Okay, that’s enough,” their dad said in his serious grown-up voice.  But then, he, too, succumbed to their lowbrow humor.  Such is a typical Tuesday night dinner at our house.

When my husband AO and I first met, he was a young writer on a hit NBC sitcom and I was halfway through a graduate program in film producing at USC.  He took me to the bar of a five-star hotel in Beverly Hills, and it was pretty much love at first date.  It wasn’t just his blue eyes and sandy colored hair that won my heart, or the fact that he ordered a grownup drink and listened intently to what I had to say, all the while staring at me like I was Gisele Bundchen. It was his self-deprecating sense of humor.  Afterwards, we went back to his place and looked at pictures of his Bar Mitzvah before tearing each other’s clothes off.  As the women in Woody Allen’s life will attest, there’s no greater turn-on than funny.

Our second date was decidedly less sexy.  I ended up with a horrible stomachache from the rich food at cute Italian bistro near my apartment in Santa Monica.  Afterwards, we stopped at the drug store for some Alka-Seltzer.  He stayed with me all night, even though it was clear there would be no hanky-panky.  I don’t remember our third date because by then I was basically living with him.  Or, at least my cat was.  I maintained the façade of my own apartment while we built a life together that included scheduled TV watching, combined laundry and weekend escapes to romantic spots along the coast.

Occasionally we’d make an appearance at a group dinner or house party.  But our friends were, for the most part, unattached, and there’s nothing more nauseating to single people than two googly-eyed lovebirds just back from their sixth spa weekend in Napa.  I was fine to ditch his buddies and remain in our love cocoon.  He wasn’t so crazy about my friends from grad school, many of which had taken jobs at studios or production companies.  Though still low on the Hollywood food chain, they carried themselves with a certain arrogance that was really annoying.  There was lots of name dropping.  AO would privately joke about it, which reminded me not to take myself too seriously.

After five years of living in sin, he popped the question with a big sparkly ring on April Fool’s Day. (Both the diamond and the proposal were real).  We considered saying a quickie “I do” in Las Vegas, but I couldn’t ditch the fantasy of a traditional wedding.  Bringing together our blended families was no small feat.  The night before our big fat Catholic-Jewish-Canadian-African-American-Italian wedding, my mom and I were obsessing over the seating arrangements like network executives planning the fall TV schedule.  My beloved walked in, tossed off a few one-liners and had us rolling on the floor.  Things could go wrong (and they did), but as long as we maintained our sense of humor, we’d be okay.

Comedy writing turned out to be pretty lucrative, until the Writers Guild went on strike, the economy tanked, and then, nobody in Hollywood was laughing.   My husband had written hundreds of episodes of successful sitcoms, but it was his other talents — self-discipline, perseverance, and industry savvy – that kept us afloat.  It also helped that he’s Canadian.  From Martin Short to Mike Myers to Seth Rogen, there’s lots of funny in the Canadian DNA.  AO created a sitcom about three overly close brothers and the woman who comes between them guest starring Canadians Eugene Levy and Pamela Anderson.**

Fast forward seventeen years and two kids in private school from that first date.  Late night cocktails at five-star hotels don’t happen as often.  Getaways are less spontaneous and more kid-friendly.  Being part of the saggy boobs and receding hairline generation is not as cool as when we were in our twenties, burning up all that disposable cash on the latest celebrity-owned bad restaurant.  And yet… I’m still laughing.  That’s partly because I have an appreciation for what seven and 10-year-old boys think is funny.  But mostly it’s because I had the wisdom to pick a guy who helps me find the humor in life every day, no matter how dark and dismal it may appear to be.

 

**  Shameless promotion.  Check out PACKAGE DEAL, on Canada’s City TV premiering June 25 with Harland Williams, Jay Malone, Randal Edwards, Julia Voth, and guest starring Eugene Levy and Pamela Anderson at www.citytv.com/vancouver/shows/package-deal.  You’ll laugh your ass off.

 

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The Cult of Aloha

th-13Ahhh, Hawaii.  The sweet unpolluted air, the azure ocean, the dramatic volcanic mountains.  What’s not to love about the string of Islands in the Pacific that combines unspoiled natural beauty, five-star resorts and American hospitals — just in case?  As the last vestiges of the harsh Los Angeles winter bears down upon us, it is the knowledge that we will soon be in Hawaii that keeps my family going, especially my husband, AO.  The ukuleles start playing in his head right after the New Year and get progressively louder until his need for macadamia-covered chocolates and Kona coffee has been sated.

As a boy growing up in the dreary suburbs of Toronto he fantasized about being Magnum, P.I.  When the detective dream didn’t pan out, he headed to the next best place with sunshine, palm trees and red Ferraris: Hollywood.  That was twenty years ago and, as people who live in Florida know, when you live there, it isn’t always a vacation.  It could be the constant drone of LA.P.D. choppers hovering overhead, in search of some dangerous criminal, or the traffic that causes such severe road rage that people periodically shoot each other over being cut off on the freeway.  Those things tend to make a place less vacation-like.

In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, my husband still feels entitled to good weather.  When it rains in LA, he is personally offended.  Accepting the fact that it isn’t 75 degrees and sunny every single day has been tough for him.  The sight of people walking around Santa Monica in lightweight down jackets and boots just doesn’t gel with the Baywatch in his mind.  Several years ago he made a pledge: if our holidays were to be spent with my relatives in frigid Chicago and his in snowy Canada, then, dammit, one week a year we deserve a warm, sunny beachfront vacation.

First came Mexico.  Cheap, hot and just south of the border, it seemed like the perfect destination.  We had some magical moments in Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.  And then in Cabo San Lucas, we accidentally locked our toddler son in a rental car.  He was fine, even before the ambulance arrived.  Although he was a little freaked out by the throng of townspeople, local news media, and, finally, the locksmith (“cerrajero” en Espanol, in case you ever need one) surrounding the vehicle.  The incident wasn’t Mexico’s fault.  But the article in the paper the next day about the “Gringos” who carelessly left their child in the car while they went shopping left a bad taste in my mouth.  How dare they be allowed to publish such lies?  I could not return to a place that practiced yellow journalism, no matter how good the margaritas are.

Enter Hawaii.  At first our attitude was, how different from Mexico could it be?, which is kind of like comparing blush wine from a box to Schramsberg Brut Rose’.  Hawaii is simply spectacular.  And, unlike Mexico with its police force corrupted by South American drug lords, it’s relatively safe.  Part of what makes Hawaii great is the landscape but there’s also an intangible X-factor– the “Aloha” spirit that is as intrinsic to the islands as The Beach Boys are to Southern California.  No wonder Oprah chose Maui to build her vacation compound.  Full disclosure, it does rain in Hawaii, especially on the Island of Kauai.  We’re partial to the tiny slice of beachfront known as “the desert of Maui”.  There’s a similar sliver of year-round sun on the Big Island.  When you have one week per year, you don’t want to spend it inside at the aquarium, no matter how cool the jellyfish exhibit is.

I always know when it’s time for our yearly pilgrimage because my husband begins talking about it incessantly.  Anything can trigger a Hawaii reference.  When the puking stage of my little boy’s flu had passed and he moved on to the hacking cough and raw sore throat phase, my husband whispered, “At least he got it over with before Hawaii”.  Then he tried to cheer the little guy up by painting a picture of the beach, the ocean and the big mountain near our hotel.  He may have carried it a bit far; the next night we were all awoken with screams from a nightmare about a volcano that erupted and covered Mommy in hot molten lava.

I think I’m safe.  Part of what makes it a vacation is not venturing too far from our lounge chairs.  Even though I don’t talk about it as much as my husband, I’m looking forward to our return to paradise.  We’ve added a bonus stop in Oahu this year – with a visit to Pearl Harbor for me and a tour of the Magnum, P.I. locations for my hubby  (www.Magnum-Mania if you must know the exact location of Robin’s Nest).   Our flight leaves early, and he has already warned us that we must be packed a week ahead of time to avoid any last-minute delays.  The night before we leave, we’ll watch Aloha, Scooby Doo to get everyone “in the mood”.   The fantasy will be complete with a luau at the hotel where they film Hawaii Five-O.  We’re already playing the theme song.

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