Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Flip it!

Flipped view
From the roof of the Ace Hotel, using the wonders of digital photography, I've flipped this photo so it reads in the right direction.

During the days when the United Artists Theatre and Texaco Building were owned by evangelist Gene Scott's Los Angeles University Cathedral, two huge neon signs proclaiming "Jesus Saves" were installed on the building.

In 2011 after Scott's widow sold the building to a real estate investment firm, one of the signs was removed to parts unknown, but the second sign, facing to the west, still remains and still functions.

From the bar at the roof of the Hotel, you can look down on the back of the sign:

True view
Like LA, perpetually re-inventing itself.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cold day in LA

View yesterday evening from the Ace Hotel upstairs bar
It's cold here in Los Angeles, about 45 degrees right now at 9:30 PM. There's a wind tossing the oak leaves around, and this wooden box of a house feels like it's breathing.

Cold and alone, just me and the dog. I'm going to snuggle up in bed with a book.

Monday, December 29, 2014

In the 'Bu

It’s a brilliant, clear Saturday in December, and we’re going, for the first time in the 18 years we’ve lived in Los Angeles, to the Malibu Pier.

Built in 1905, the Pier’s entrance is impressive though almost fortress-like compared to the other coastal piers in Southern California. Solid stone walls, studded with rustic rock inserts, flank the entry, marked by two Spanish-style towers. Massive wooden gates hinge open to a relatively short wooden pier. Within, small wood-frame buildings house a restaurant, dining room to the right and bar and deck to the left. The far end of the pier broadens into two charming pavilions, painted white with blue trim, for a café, bait shop, and sport fishing business.

On this bright and clear winter day, the sun is low in the winter sky, glancing off the turquoise water. There’s a pleasant but cool breeze blowing. Tourists snap selfies at the rail. Latino families with fishing poles cluster around coolers and boom boxes. From out on the Pier, you can see several angular and sprawling modernistic homes, architectural gems hidden high on the bluff above the road.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Jack the dirty dog

Jack slipped out the door this afternoon as we were bringing groceries in the house, and when he returned later, he bounded inside with his feet absolutely filthy with black, foul-smelling mud, tracking footprints all over the wood floor.

Here he looks properly embarrassed as I try to clean him up.  I don't think he likes having people clean his feet, because he slipped away and back out the door. I chased him up to the street and found him stopped, stark-still, at the top.

He was staring up the road to where two deer were standing, just near the drainage culvert. They stood as still as he, and stared at him.

So that's where he was - chasing deer through the ravine.

Bright, cold and clear

Merry Christmas! It's bright, cold and clear here in Topanga, California.  I hope the season is bright where you are!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pretty sunset



Today, I've completed all my applications for graduate school. Ten schools, applications are complete and paid for and at least three letters of recommendation have been sent to each school.

The schools I've applied to are:

  • University of Iowa Non-Fiction Writing Program
  • University of California at Riverside Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts
  • Otis College of Art and Design MFA Writing Program
  • Mount St. Mary's College MFA Creative Writing Program
  • Louisiana State University MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of Pittsburgh MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of Alabama MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of Arizona MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of New Mexico MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of New Orleans MFA Creative Writing Program

Now I want to contract a case of amnesia, until I hear from each school some time in March.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Girl on a Swing

She is alone, a woman or perhaps a big, ungainly girl. She is by herself in the park on the swing. It is a cool winter day, a touch of rain in the air, the sky grey.

Her garnet red hair floats like a nimbus about her head as she pumps with her feet, knees bent and then fully extended, toes pointing to the sky.

She wears baggy jeans and a jacket that rides up above her rump, cradled in the broad hoop of the belt seat. Her backpack and shoes are piled in the sand by the strong steel legs of the swingset.

I don't know how long she has been here, but as I watch, taking an afternoon break, she continues to swing without stopping, without slowing. She was swinging before I came out. She will still be swinging when I leave. The chains sing rhythmically in the shackles and hooks: up and back, up and out, singing ringing chinging.

She is not swinging for me. She is not swinging for the handful of toddlers across the walkway, playing in the sand. She is swinging for herself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Green shoots

Today it rained again, for the third time in two weeks. It's supposed to rain more today, heavily with possible thunderstorms.

I took Jack the dog for a walk this morning during a steady sprinkle. With only two weeks of rain, now there are fresh, green new blades of grass coming up all along the road.

I haven't seen deer in our woods since the rains came. With new growth to browse on, I think they are staying in the park and wilder parts of the mountain, instead of coming close to our houses and neighborhoods.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Making seasons bright

This morning it is clear, bright and cold, after the storm.

My trip to Riverside was a good thing. I was invited to sit in on a three-hour graduate seminar, discussing regional fiction. There were about a dozen students around a long conference table, and three of the students gave multi-media presentation based on a work of fiction, that they supplemented with facts, history, photos and video to tie in the work with a larger issue. Although I didn't have a syllabus so I'm not sure, I concluded that the notion was that, as grad students, they were preparing how to teach about literature this way.

The three presentations I saw were all well put together, ably presented, and fascinating. One was about the high plains, based on Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain." Another was about gentrification in poor neighborhoods of Portland, based on works by two local Portalnd authors. The third was based on an older work by a local Southern California writer, Victor Villasenor.

For each presentation, the discussion was lively yet respectful; analytical and targeted. The students clearly were engaged in the work, and in the issues raised. But in addition to this, the professor always brought it back to the main point - the writing. Yes, we are passionate about, say, the displacement of poor African Americans by hipsters in Portland's north east neighborhood. But how does the author Michael Jackson, in his novel, convey this to the reader? We kept circling back to the craft, the work.

The professor was encouraging and open and drew out responses from the students. She made the seminar a 'safe place' to have a discussion, even when it went into tricky areas  like race.

I sat, mostly silent, sometimes nodding my head or uh-huh-ing, but really I was itching to join in the discussion. As a guest I felt it would not be right to do so, but every once in a while I couldn't prevent a "gosh, that's great!" or other brief comment from escaping my lips. It was exciting to witness - it would be even more exciting to be a part of it.

The students and the professor were very welcoming to me, and though I didn't really get a chance to talk in depth to any of them (it wasn't the right context), I felt I learned a lot about the program.

The following day I met with another professor, over coffee, and he generously gave me an hour of his time. This time, I was able to share about my ambitions and the work I want to do - he drew me out, even asking me questions about the work that I hadn't thought of before.  I came away inspired, and very hopeful that my application to the program at Riverside would be accepted.

The other schools on my list are too distant for me to visit before applying, so I won't have this opportunity to observe them. Some of the programs invite accepted students to visit before they make their decisions, and I will take full advantage of that - if accepted.

When I finally made it home to Topanga, I felt excited and inspired, and felt like a thrilling future is on the horizon. What a good feeling.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Waiting for rain

View from my room

It's been raining like mad in the Bay area and northern California today, gale force winds and flash floods, power outages and fallen trees.

We're expecting the same storm to hit southern California late tonight and most of the day tomorrow.

I'm driving from Riverside to Los Angeles tomorrow, and will probably be in the thick of it. My planning went awry - early reports of the storm had it hitting today and easing by tomorrow, which is why I decided to come to Riverside last night for an appointment this morning.

I'm here in a pleasant enough motel room, waiting to hear rainfall begin later tonight. I'm trying to plan when to head back to LA - surely after the peak of rush hour has ended. But what of the storm?

I'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dinos for Christmas

When you drive in to Riverside, California on the 60 freeway, the first thing you see is a barren and rocky hillside with a giant woolly mammoth on top. This is the Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center.

I got a good look at it, because traffic was moving slow.

By the time I was five miles from my exit to downtown, traffic was creeping along at five miles an hour.

I'm staying in a modest hotel - or, rather, motel. It's a revamped '60s 2-story Travelodge or something similar, but it's clean and pleasant and the bed is comfortable. It's just down the street from the famous Mission Inn, which, in the holiday season, is not available.

Just as well. After I checked in, I wandered down to the Mission Inn, thinking I might have dinner in its fabulous historic restaurants. But in this holiday season, the place is tarted up for Christmas, and the joint is jumping. There were hordes of elderly folks, dressed in their holiday sweaters, brandishing their Cadillac-style souped-up walkers, taking selfies in front of the glittering lights and giant Nutcrackers.

The nightmare before Christmas!
I wandered through the Presidential bar, but it was full to the brim, people laughing and drinking under the portraits of the presidents - predominated by Republicans, I noted. I passed the Kettle Corn stand, the place where you can pay to ride a Cinderella Coach, and a gift shop called Miss Tiggy Winkles. I couldn't take any more. I ended up at a taqueria down the street, with a good chile relleno and a cold Tecate.

Tomorrow I meet a professor from the UCRiverside Creative Writing Program, and observe her seminar. Then I meet with the staff administrator of the program. I'm going to walk and drive around town to get a feel for the place.

It's supposed to start raining hard tomorrow night. I'll be driving back to LA on Friday. Maybe I'll stop off and visit the woolly mammoth on my way.

Mom's Bar

In his 1956 novel "A Walk on the Wild Side," Nelson Algren lays out his "three rules of life":

"Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."

I'm not much of a card player. And if I look back over my life, I'm grateful to the male acquaintances who were kind enough, when it came to me, to ignore the third rule. But I've been pretty steadfast about never eating at a place called Mom's.

That doesn't mean you can't DRINK at a place called Mom's.

Mom's Bar is on a undistinguished stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in West LA. It's in the same block as a huge Smart n Final that turns its back on the street, and its other neighbors are a Persian grocery, a Thai massage joint, a little pharmacy and a nail salon.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon the place is almost empty, just a couple of guys at the end of the bar, a single bartender lazily polishing glasses, a football game on the TV. I sat down and ordered a rum and coke.

Mom's is just a neighborhood bar; it's nothing fancy, and it doesn't even serve food. But it's got a following, especially at happy hour.

When you sit at a bar, you probably don't pay much attention to the bar itself. But when a bar is built with comfort in mind, people want to settle in, and maybe order another one.  One key component of a good bar is the bar rail, something sturdy, smooth and comfortable to lean up against. Some bars have a padded vinyl cushion running the length of the bar, but Mom's bar has the traditional bar rail, also known as the Chicago bar rail. This is a length of smooth solid oak, shaped with a curved lip at the top to keep spilled drinks from the patrons' laps, and has a nice contoured inner curve to rest your forearms against.

I sat there comfortably, sipping my (truth be told, somewhat weak) rum and coke. Oh, well, it was only five dollars. "Another?" asked the bartender.

I was so comfortable it was tempting. But, "No, thank you," I said. "I'll be back."

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Journey in the Cloud

Fog on the mountain
A couple months ago, I had a serendipitous encounter with a neighbor while walking on my road. She mentioned she was writing a memoir and had just begun working with an agent. I mentioned that I was applying to graduate school for a degree in writing.

She said she was part of a local writers' group, and that the group had just lost a member who'd moved away. They were looking for new writers to join them. She asked if I would be interested. I said yes.

So that's how I began meeting with a great group of talented women writers in early October. We're all working on different things, mostly memoir and non-fiction. There isn't a ringer in the bunch - these women are such excellent writers it humbles me to be in their company.

We meet on Wednesday evenings at the home of a member who lives way up in Tuna Canyon, which is at the crest of the ridge, and on a hilltop that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. To get there, you drive up Fernwood Pacific, a torturously winding road through one of Topanga's oldest neighborhoods, full of switch backs and tight ox-bow curves.

Last night, after three days of storm, I drove up into Fernwood. It was already dark; darkness falls about 5:15 these days.

If you look at a map of the Fernwood neighborhood, it looks like someone dropped a handful of cooked spaghetti onto a tablecloth. The main road, Fernwood Pacific, is the noodle outlined in blue, below:

Only in this case, the tablecloth has been thrown over a large mountain. Where Fernwood Pacific intersects with Topanga Canyon Boulevard, at the upper-right, it is 738 feet above sea level. By the time you get to the lower left-hand corner of the map, you've climbed 1100 feet in six miles.

Last night, as I started driving, the ocean fog was creeping into the canyon. Here, in a peculiar phenomenon, the ocean fog climbs up the coast mountains and cascades over the top, rolling down into the canyon. The higher up I drove, the thicker grew the fog. By the time I had reached the summit, I could barely see in front of the car.

As I climbed, I began to worry. The road is tricky, climbing a narrow ridge, bordered with steep fall-offs to one shoulder, or sheer stone cliffs rising up from the other. In some places, deep storm culverts gaped, big enough to shred my car tires if I drove carelessly into them. I thought for a moment about turning back.

And yet - I had driven this road before. Though I could not see for than a few feet, I knew what lay ahead. I had been to the house before, and knew there were lanterns to mark my destination. I had come this far already, and to turn back now would be foolish. It would be no more foggy after our meeting than it was now, I thought. Press on. So I did, and I arrived at our hostess' warm and welcoming house, and listened to some wonderful and inspiring readings.

A quote attributed to the American novelist E.L. Doctorow appears in many books about creative writing.

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."*

I read that and thought it was particularly apt for last night's journey in the clouds. Up beyond 1500 feet, it was only by focusing on what was right in front of me that kept me climbing.

When our meeting concluded, two hours later, we stopped and steeled ourselves for the treacherous journey back through the fog. Then we opened the door and stepped out into the night.

The sky was completely clear, the stars glittering.

Morning fog from my house
*Doctorow's wonderful quote appears everywhere, in "Brainy Quotes" and in "Goodreads" and online in blog after blog about the creative process. It appears in creative writing textbooks and "how-to" guides. Only there's one odd thing. The origin of the quote was an interview Doctorow gave to George Plimpton in the Paris Review in 1986. You can read the interview here:

The words "in the fog" do not appear. The closest thing I could find was an attribution to a 1988 volume of collected Paris Review interviews with writers. Perhaps the language about fog was in Plimpton's original notes, and edited out for the journal but later re-inserted in the book? It's a mystery.

I guess the point is, just keep driving on, and focus on what's in front of you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Not fit out for man or beast

Four days of rain, Sunday through Tuesday. It's wet and dangerous out there. It's been so long since we've had rain that no one remembers how to drive in it.

Don't drink and drive!
Here in Topanga, the squalls are particularly fierce, with water flowing down the hillsides and rockfalls off the cliff.
But it's not all bad. We're looking at clearing tomorrow, then a sunny warm weekend. Stay cool!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Applying myself - Part 2

Malibu sunset

Here's where I am regarding my applications to MFA programs.

I have submitted my completed applications to five of the ten programs I'm applying to.  For the other five:

1) Ready to submit, just doing final proof-reading.
2) Ready to submit, just doing final proof-reading.
3) I need to submit one more document; a letter of interest for an assistantship position
4) I want to visit the campus first (it is in the region) and then update my personal statement based on what I observe or learn there.
5) I still need to write my personal statement.

For nine of the applications, two of my three letters of recommendation have not been sent in, so I am having automated reminders sent to my references. It's tricky to balance the timing and frequency of these - I don't want to bug my references, but I also want to make sure they get them in by the deadlines.

For the tenth application, it turns out their online system doesn't even solicit the letters until after the applicant completes the submission - meaning I need to get it in with enough time before the deadline for my references to send in their letters. This is Number 4 on the list above - the campus I want to visit. I'm hoping to visit in the next week, and then submit immediately. The deadline for this campus is in early January.

It's been quite a process.

The next step is to wait - typically, schools notify applicants in the month of March.  I think, for the purpose of sanity, that my best bet is to submit all my applications and then forget completely about them until I hear from the schools. I don't want to overthink it.


Today, after more than a year of drought, we get a true gullywasher of a storm.

It beats on the roof - our flat roof sounds like a drum head. The sound ebbs and flows with the gusts of wind, first a gentle patter then like pebbles flung hard or poured from bins.

It overspills the gutters and drips, into flat puddles. It cascades onto the deck, drops bounce and spatter off the flat arms of chairs.

It flows down the driveway like a stream, a creek. Ever flowing down the hillsides, down the culverts, through the drainage pipes into the creek, the canyon and down to the sea.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Let there be pie

Pumpkin Pie with Ginger Streusel.

Cranberry Walnut Tart.

We're spending Thanksgiving with our friends Jill and Sparky Greene, on their hilltop in Malibu. I'm bringing these.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Morning deer

This morning's deer is a young male, with antlers. Jack and I come up the steps to the street, and we look up the road.  Our local deer are California mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus californicus. They browse near water, what there is of it, in our terrible drought. That must be why their trails come through this place, where a storm drain feeds from the hill and down into the ravine.

I wish this picture had turned out more focused.

He's right there, crossing from the woods to the hillside, at the bend in the road. He's there like a statue against the darkness of the forest behind him. He stops, still, watching us. Are we a threat?  He quietly assesses us. I can see his head turn, vigilant, and his huge ears swivel, listening.

I take out my phone and take a quick photo of the deer. Jack's distracted, he's sniffing the aromas of other animals, among the fallen oak leaves. Behind me, I hear a car. It's a neighbor from down the street, a grey-colored Mini with two surfboards on the rack.

I put my hand out as a warning, and make eye contact with the driver, then take another picture.  He can see there must be something around the bend, so he slows the car.

As the car gets within twelve feet of the deer, the animal suddenly shies and bolts back into the woods.

Jack and I walk on, up the rise and beyond. He sniffs the grass. He does his business.  When he's done, we turn back toward the house.

The deer is down in the woods below; he hasn't made it across the street yet. From here I can take some more photos.

This fall, I encounter deer at least twice a week, whether on my morning walk, or at night when they cross through my car's beams on the road home.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tattle Tale

It's a strip mall in Culver City. I had a meeting nearby, and stopped for dinner at a little joint here. After I finished, there was still a half hour before my meeting. So I thought, hey, why not go in and have a draft beer or something, just to check it out and see what it's like?

I got right up to the Dutch door at the entry, peeked in to see the bar and the pool table, but then I got a whiff. It smelled like stale beer and garbage.

No, sorry. Maybe another day.

Great sign, though.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What's cool about living in LA

LA can be hectic, it can be a drag, it can be a rat race, but every once in a while something happens that makes you go - Hey, how cool is it to live here?

We were having lunch at a Santa Monica seafood restaurant, and a group of five sat down at the table next to us. Two couples and one child, a small girl, they ordered a bottle of prosecco that was clearly intended to be celebratory. We smiled at them and minded our own business.

As we ate our oysters on the half shell and dunked king crab legs in cocktail sauce, a plastic toy fell and then skittered on the wooden floor behind one of the women, beyond her view. I picked it up and put it on the table next to her, saying, "I think the little girl dropped this." She thanked me, with a beautiful smile.

A little later, their food came, looking delicious. As we were ready to order, [The Man I Love] asked them about one of the side dishes, and we took their advice that it was delicious.

How do conversations begin? A polite question about the celebration? A compliment about a well-behaved child? A shared enjoyment of salmon fillet or brussels sprouts? We started to talk. The older couple was from Austin, Texas, celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary.  My family was from Texas, too, we exclaimed. More smiles.

How did it go next? The younger woman, the child's mother, mentioned growing up in Rhode Island; [The Man I Love] said he'd gone to school nearby in Boston and had studied music. She said something about attending Julliard, and we asked if she was a performer, and she said she was. We introduced ourselves; they introduced themselves. She said her name was Viola.

Viola Davis.

Of course, now I recognized her. She is incredibly beautiful.

A great conversation ensued. We talked about working in the theatre, we talked about the work her husband was doing; we talked about a mutual friend, an artist she and [The Man I Love] both know well. We talked about projects she and her husband were working on, theatre projects and TV series and shows. I even confided my creative writing dreams.

She and her husband had brought a beautiful cake to celebrate their friends' anniversary, and they kindly invited us to enjoy it with them (it was delicious!).

When their party left, we all shook hands, exchanged cards, and Ms. Davis even gave me a hug. Wow!

I'm not usually star struck. In fact, I seldom recognize movie stars when I see them. But what really gets me feeling awed is when someone famous turns out to be a nice, caring, kind, generous, regular person. A lovely person. Like Ms. Davis.

Things like this happen in LA, when you least expect it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Blue Dog

Yes, I know it looks like he's blue on his eyebrow. That's the light. The ink is only on his cheek and throat.
Jack has been a remarkably well-adjusted dog, for a rescue dog, but he does have his little ways.

Some dogs can be destructible when left alone, bored. Our first dog, Trooper, when left alone, chewed up the carved leg of an antique table, in a house we rented from a Cornell professor.

Jack's predecessor, Kotzie, once chewed up one of my very favorite shoes - this was the left member of a pair of Amalfi high heels that I treasured because they were the only high heels I've ever owned that I could wear for eight hours. I nearly wept when I found it, mangled and covered in drool.

But Jack is different. Jack doesn't chew up shoes or furniture. His fixation is exceedingly narrow. He consistently attacks only two items. Eyeglasses and pens.

He eats little plastic objects. The eyeglasses are usually drug-store cheaters, costing less than ten bucks. We arrive home to find lenses and mangled ear-pieces scattered on the living room rug. Twice, though, he's attacked [The Man I Love]'s prescription glasses - a couple hundred dollars damage.

The other object of his fixation is plastic pens. Yesterday when [The Man I Love] came home from work, the remains of a pen were scattered on the rug.

But this time Jack's guilt was obvious. It marked him with a stain.  He has a blue spot on his cheek, and another blotch under his jaw. His lily white paws are streaked blue, too.

He takes these objects from the low-slung coffee table in our living room, and you'd think this would teach us not to leave things there when we're out of the house. I guess it takes a lot of training to teach old dogs new tricks.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fall deer

Our street - no deer in this photo
Jack and I went out this morning, as we do every morning, around 6:45, for our walk. Today it was misty and obscured. We walk north on the street, round the curve and then up a low rise. Jack likes to sniff the low branches that verge on the street.

When we climbed up the rise, we were overlooking a steep, falling away oak grove down the hillside. Down there, this morning, we looked and there were two young buck deer, dueling, head to head.

They looked like two boys on a playground, shoving one another fitfully, a little half-heartedly, like waiting for a teacher to separate them. Their heads butted together. I could hear their antlers clashing, a high, brittle clatter, like hard plastic. They pushed, butted, came apart, and then butted once again, antlers clacking.

Jack put his front paws atop the asphalt berm bordering the street, and looked down at them, and perhaps something - his breath, his animal energy - alerted them. The two bucks stopped dueling and turned their heads our way, and then they froze.

They stared at us, their big ears flaring, totally still. Then, instantly, they turned and bolted in opposite directions into the woods.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Night out

Last night after work, I braved Los Angeles traffic for two hours and ended up at Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown.

I had a ticket for a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert - I actually had two tickets, but at the last minute [The Man I Love] was unable to attend, so I went alone. It may seem odd to do that, but I've decided not to let inconvenience keep me from doing things I want to do.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Weekly Jack

Jack has a new denning place.

Inside my shower!!

After this Tuesday, I'm with him. I want to hide away.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Photo from a long time ago, not today.
It's actually raining!! Here in Southern California! Hooray!

Friday, October 31, 2014

She scores!

I've taken the GRE - it's a done deal.

It was quite an experience. The testing center is in a business park in the southern part of Culver City - just about to Inglewood. You go into what looks like a typical office suite, check in with a smiling receptionist. Today, it being Halloween, she was dressed in costume.

Then it gets a little weird. First, she asked if I'd left my cell phone in my vehicle. When I said "no," she told me to go back out into the parking lot and do so. When I returned, she took my driver's license and inspected it.

I completed a document where I acknowledged I was myself, swore to uphold confidentiality, and signed my name. Then I had to put all personal belongings except my ID in a locker, and was directed to speak with a proctor.

The proctor had me sign in,  compared my signature to that on my ID and took my photo. Then she asked me to turn out my pockets, raise my pants cuffs so my ankles were visible, and she scanned me with a wand. Then she gave me a booklet of scratch paper and three sharpened number 2 pencils, and escorted me to my computer terminal.

Each test section lasted 1/2 hour. First came the two writing tasks. I think I did pretty well with them. Next came a math section with 20 questions, and my brain froze. But I completed it, guessing and fumbling, and then on to a verbal section, also with 20 questions.

A ten minute break and then another math section, following by a verbal section. The test gauges your responses to the first section and adjusts the difficulty to your ability. I noticed the second math section was easier, and the second verbal section was a lot harder.

Finally, you draw a wild card - one more section, randomly. I'd hoped it would be verbal but it was math. Oh well.

I'm a disgrace with math, especially on tests. Even though I studied, I felt like I was back in seventh grade. My brain turned to mush. I forgot the Pythagorean Theorem.

When you finish, the computer gives you the score for verbal and math immediately - the writing section takes humans to score - they should come in five to ten days.

My verbal was 167 out of 170 - not bad at all!! My math was 147 out of 170 - a bit below average. But who cares? I'm applying for Creative Writing programs!! Bitchez!!

We'll wait and see how it all turns out. But the best thing? It's DONE!!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Test Preparation

I prepared for tomorrow's GRE test by going to Lares on Pico Boulevard after work. I sat at the bar drinking a margarita on the rocks with salt. Then I ordered a take-out platter of chile rellenos, and got in my car and went home.

Lares is an old-school Santa Monica Mexican restaurant, been there for years - since 1968, according to their website. It's decorated in a kind of 1970s version of Spanish colonial baroque - all ersatz weighty dark wooden ceiling beams, crusty paintings and a backbar that looks like a Churrigueresque altarpiece.

The waiters at Lares are courtly, dignified, and also somewhat indifferent. They wear maroon-colored guayaberas. There was an older bartender who served me.

On one side of me at the bar was a young couple, casually dressed, an array of heavily laden platters before them. The young man had a hoodie pulled over his head, even inside the restaurant. On the other side of me was a courtly-looking older man who spoke in very correct Spanish to the bartenders. He finished a huge dinner platter slowly and meticulously, pronounced it "muy delicioso" and downed the last of his Pacifico beer before paying.

There was a younger, handsome bartender who spent his time ferrying to-go orders to the valets stationed out on the streets. It probably meant nothing, but the ominous sky overhead made this furtive effort seem portentous.

The sky was wild and unsettled, even before I left the office. There's a storm coming in, they say. I welcome it, because it would relieve the drought, but it still feels ominous.

Outside of Lares tonight, just around dusk, with the sun down but still coloring the tossed clouds, it was beautiful.

My chiles rellenos were delicious and warm, even reheated at home in the microwave. A good night's sleep and I'm ready for the test.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Poem in October

Click to "embiggen"

Today is the centenary of the birth of the poet Dylan Thomas, born October 27, 1914.

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

You can read the rest of this poem HERE.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Sandwich shop

My Dung Sandwich Shop in Los Angeles's Chinatown is a hole-in-the-wall on Ord Street just off North Broadway. And please, don't laugh at its name.

The first thing I saw when I approached were displays of tropical fruit outside, rambutans and kiwi, cases of jujubes and bunches of small, curved ripe bananas.

Step inside and it doesn't look like a deli, it looks like a storage room. There are shelves stacked high with cases of  canned goods, packaged noodles, bottled condiments and Asian candy.

There's not a counter, exactly, but there is a deli case, blocked by more crates and shelves - an array of Maggi bottles, canned Vietnamese ham, and canned sardines are at eye level. On the side wall is an electric clock with a gaudy pastel image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. On top of the deli case is a little fan against the stuffy early autumn heat and, curiously, two water bottles labeled "holy water" in red Sharpie.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Readin' & Writin'

My appointment to take the GRE, or Graduate Record Exam, is on Halloween Day! It's a week from tomorrow.

I've checked out some test preparation books from the library, and I've also signed up to take some practice tests.  The GRE has three sections, given over the course of a three-and-a-half-hour testing period.

There is Quantitative Reasoning - or math; Verbal Reasoning, and Analytical Writing.

In practice tests, I've done pretty well in Verbal Reasoning. There are questions that ask you to fill in the blank for the correct word; questions that ask you to read a passage and answer questions about it; questions that ask you to complete a sentence. My weak point is - hah! - failing to read the directions correctly.  But as long as I'm careful, I feel pretty confident in this area.

For the math section - I'm willing to cut my losses. I'm no good at math. The GRE provides a calculator to use during the test, so my plan is to study up on common formulas (percentage, geometry, square roots) and then just do my best and not worry about it.

The Analytical Writing is a challenge. There are two questions. The "issue" question gives you a statement on some broad theory or idea - "I think modern technology has made people less smart" - and you are supposed to write an essay stating whether you agree or disagree, support your reasons, and refute any possible arguments against your position. In thirty minutes.

The second question is the "argument" question. Whenever I read that, I think about Monty Python, "I'd like to have an argument, please."

For the "argument" question, you're presented with an passage advocating something and offering evidence in support of it. The task is to assess the soundness of the argument.

The scoring for the essay questions is based on how well you make your point, how organized your essay is, how well you follow the precise directions, and your use of language, grammar and spelling.

I took one practice test and got a score of 4 out of 6 - good but not great. So I've been practicing - the GRE provides sample questions - I've been writing at least one practice essay a day, timed. I have no way to score myself, though, so I don't know if I've improved the quality of my writing, or just my ability to write bullshit.

This weekend I'll try another scored practice test, then spend next week learning math.

Friday, October 17, 2014


Today I drove 27 miles, paid $4 to park, just to buy a $2.50 sandwich, of which I only ate half.

That's not what I set out to do, but that's how it ended up.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Morning Drive

"Rock of Topanga" in 2005

Oh, the wonders of modern technology! Before setting off on the morning commute, you can check traffic on your route with Google Maps!

This morning, our two-lane mountain road was solid red.

So I visited the California Highway Patrol traffic site, and sure enough there was an accident down near Pacific Coast Highway.

The CHP site is useful because it publishes a time log of actual communications between officers and other agencies. So I was able to see when it occurred, when it was called in, what kind of vehicle, when the towing company was called - everything.

Here's what you don't like to see in your traffic report:


Rock slide?

Just another Topanga morning commute.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Curtained bed for patients, Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a medieval hospital for the poor, France
I've been following the Ebola crisis in the news, and the typical on-line article includes a comments section at the end.  If you want a window on the depravity of the human soul, just read one of these comment sections. The ignorance, fear, virulence and hatred will astound  and sadden you.

Inflamed by irresponsible radio talk shows or sensational TV coverage, there are conspiracy theories ranging from "Obama's trying to kill white people" to "the CIA created Ebola to kill black people." There are accusations, including the laughable notion that refugee children from countries where no recorded cases of Ebola exist are mass carriers of the disease into the United States. There are people who seem to think this is a sci-fi movie or a Stephen King novel, panicking that the disease will suddenly mutate and become as easy to catch as a summer cold.

There are xenophobic comments from people who can barely find Africa on a map, stating that the people of West Africa are "uncivilized" and "unclean" and who caught this disease from eating "apes." Some of these are well-meaning, though still racist, deploring the supposed squalor in these countries we enlightened Westerners should correct.

Some people question why any American aid worker would go to West Africa to help fight the disease. There are hateful accusations against the man from Liberia who died in Texas, accusing him of deliberately bringing the disease to the US. Some want to prevent everyday commerce and travel from occurring between these countries and ours. Yet others say we should nuke the whole region.

In fact, the way Ebola spreads is very well known to health professionals. It's spread by human contact. People who come into contact with a sick person's bodily fluids contract the disease if these fluids enter the system through broken skin or mucus membranes. It is only contagious when a person is suffering from the pain, fever, and racking sickness of the disease. Those at highest risk of infection are caregivers like health care workers, family members, mourners and people who handle the dead.

In short, this is a disease that spreads through human compassion.

And that's what's so heartbreaking about it. I heard an interview on NPR with some workers from Medicins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders. They told a story about a woman who died in a hospital, leaving behind her infant child. The orphaned baby was kept isolated in a cardboard box, but the nurses could not keep themselves from comforting it. Seven of the ten nurses who cared for the child contracted the disease and died of it.

Mothers contract it from their sick children, wives from the husbands they care for. Daughters from the sick parents they clean up for.  Sisters from brothers whose bodies they tend, grandmothers from wiping the fevered brow of a stricken grandchild. The man who died in Texas helped a family take a sick daughter to the hospital. The family died and later he too fell ill.

It's hard to imagine the choices people are forced to make. If a spouse breaks a fever, do you turn away from him? If a child spits up, do you dare to wipe it away? If your brother soils himself, do you let him lie in his own mess, or do you give him the dignity of being washed clean? If your sister is racked with pain, do you turn her out of your house instead of comforting her?

We should understand how profound a challenge this disease is to our humanity.

Professionals who care for the sick and those who clean up after the dead are making a terrible but courageous choice. They put themselves in danger in the hopes of gaining control over this terrible scourge. Those of us who can't or won't, for whatever reason, should at least honor their sacrifices and bravery instead of condemning them for it.

The people making hateful comments on message boards and the cynical media figures encouraging the hatred should feel perfectly safe. They are in no danger. They will not contract Ebola from Central American refugee children, do-gooder missionaries, or immigrants from West Africa.

They will not put themselves in a situation where they will care for the sick, clean a soiled body, or comfort bereaved relatives.

You have to have compassion to catch this disease.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Getting the brunt of it

Over the weekend, something overseen by my office went horribly wrong, and dozens of phone calls and emails have come in to complain about it.

It wasn't our fault - in fact, a third party violated the terms of their permit. And the people who were supposed to enforce the permit didn't do so. But it's my office who is responsible in the long run.

I have spent hours on the phone, listening to people rant and rave, and murmuring my sympathies to them. It's mainly a complaint about noise, and people have a lot of opinions about that!

The powers-that-be are also going to make adjustments to the rules, so that this can't happen again. In theory. Unfortunately the way they tend to adjust the rules make them more complicated, which means that getting people to follow them is even more difficult.

One day I'll write a comic novel about stuff like this!