30
Sep

Weekend getaways. One of the best things about LA. Though as a kid, weekend getaways were not part of my vocabulary. My weekends were committed to one thing and one thing only: Saturday morning cartoons. Perhaps a bike ride or two. Heading out of town on a road trip? Our family had an entirely different name for that. It was called summer vacation.

We didn’t travel much outside the Great Lakes states, and when I say states, I mean Wisconsin. Oh sure, I’ve been to Ohio, Indiana, Michigan (including the UP – booyah!) all a handful of times. Lovely, lovely places they are. Yet Wisconsin has always held a special spot in our family’s heart. During my youth, it was our own Cheesehead Mecca. But instead of being required to go just once in a lifetime, we went there at least once a year. Sometimes it was to visit my great uncle’s farm – and this place was the real deal – overflowing with corn, cows and cats. By the way, have you ever felt the sensation of a calf sucking on your thumb? I have. It’s an experience. Yet most times my family would travel to the crown jewel of the Badger State – Wisconsin Dells. Unless my dad received a kickback from the local tourism board, I have no solid explanation as to why we went there so many times. Not much changes in the Dells from one summer to the next. Though the horseback riding and waterparks were always fun, the fake Native American souvenir shops and Holiday Inns are fond memories that I’m happy to keep in the past.

And that was it. Our yearly summer vacation. Now no disrespect to the Dells or the other Midwestern attractions I’ve visited, among them the Indiana Dunes and our capital city of Springfield, Illinois, but these exotic locales pale in comparison to those on the flipside of LA. Santa Barbara, Big Bear, Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, Catalina, San Diego – these are destinations so awesome that people outside SoCal do indeed plan their own family vacations around them. Not Los Angelenos, though. Staying in the same state doesn’t really count for us. Hell, we’re not going to waste our ten vacation days (if we’re lucky enough to get that many) on some place that has the same time zone. Hence the weekend getaway.

Cue Joshua Tree. A destination I have visited before, therefore one to which I was eager to return. This place rocks. Pun intended. Simply spectacular. The granite rock formations are amazing. You should go if only to experience the strange sensation of being in the Rockbiter scene from The NeverEnding Story. And without the light pollution of Los Angeles, you can actually see stars. Not the Botoxed and liposuctioned kind. The hydrogen and helium kind. (Though both contain a lot of hot gas! Zing!) Needless to say, I was totally pumped when a friend suggested that we – as in about two-dozen of us – hang there for a weekend. My mistake, though. I didn’t read her email closely enough. Another friend then enlightened me. We weren’t staying in Joshua Tree per se. We were staying in Hicksville.

That is the name of this resort. Technically in Joshua Tree, but really a world apart. And not so much a resort as a glorified trailer park – but I mean that in the best way. They even advertise themselves as a “trailer palace.” Kitsch at its finest. Upon entering the premises, you first notice a wagon circle of Airstreams, each with its own theme: alien, western, tiki. After taking a few steps forward, you then realize that the gorgeous green grass beneath your feet is completely fake. Can it get any better? Yes, it can. A mere hundred feet away are BB guns and bows and arrows just waiting to be drunkenly misused. A communal shower stall. Oh, and the best part! A public toilet with two handles appropriately labeled #1 and #2. It was love at first sight for all of us.

Because my friends have their priorities straight, we broke out the food and drink before most of the luggage had even been brought in. That’s pretty much the point of these gatherings, isn’t it? To gorge yourself without guilt. “It’s okay! You totally deserve it.” Though staying for less than one full day, we had enough grub to last three times that. So we ate and ate and ate some more. We barely made a dent. By midnight, I overheard a conversation of whether or not we should put the food away for fear that bears might try to take it. Bears. In the desert. Obviously we are city folk.

And because we are city folk, the shine that once gleamed bright from our silver trailers began to fade by day two. At least it did for me. I love my friends. I love food. I love Hicksville. Yet the charms of this rustic retreat were wearing away fast. I mean, fo’ reals… The temperature at 9am was already hovering at one hundred degrees. But it’s a dry heat, right? Doesn’t matter. At that point, I can be charmed by one thing and one thing only: air conditioning. Perhaps a Starbucks or two. And if I’m going to be covered in dust and sweat before noon, there better be a shower at the end of the tunnel. A private shower inside a private bathroom. Where you don’t need to wear flip-flops. Preferably with adjustable water pressure. Where’s a freaking Holiday Inn when you need one?

Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

23
Sep

How does one graciously decline food from their landlord? I would like to know. It’s a problem.

Sorry, lemme back this story up a bit… Los Angeles is a city that does not lack in particular areas. We got the sunshine. We got the traffic. We got the interesting characters. Both in the figurative and literal sense. This is Hollywood, baby. Thousands of aspiring actors flock to this town, pinning their hopes and dreams on that one breakout role that will catapult them to stardom. Everybody wants to be the next Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman or Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. But you can find captivating characters outside the movie theatre as well. To be exact, outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Darth Vader, Captain Jack Sparrow, SpongeBob SquarePants – all these larger than life figures and many more troll Hollywood Boulevard everyday for your entertainment pleasure – and maybe a buck or two if you can spare the change. Hey, Stormtroopers have mouths to feed at home, too.

And then there are the characters you can find in your very own backyard. My landlord happens to be one of them. I’ve been living in the same building for over three years now, and I still don’t know his name. His first and last name anyway. When first introduced, I assumed the name he gave me was his first name. It’s French, like Pierre. So I thought his name was Pierre. He next introduced me to his sisters – they also live in and help manage the building – by their first names. Makes sense. But then he said that I could write out the security deposit and first month’s rent checks to just Pierre. “That’s weird,” I thought, “Will banks actually accept checks made out to just a person’s first name?” I didn’t press the issue. I was too excited to have found an apartment within my price range that didn’t remind me of a prison cell. If he had some special arrangement with the bank that was fine by me. But as time went on and I got to know my neighbors, one of them revealed that Pierre was actually his last name. Or that’s what she thought. Wasn’t sure, though. She’s been living here for over five years. Needless to say, we’re all a bit confused.

So let’s get back to the problem at hand – the food. Pierre/Mr. Pierre just loves to give me food. He loves to give it morning, noon and night – and it doesn’t matter if I’m home or not. He’ll knock on my door at eleven o’clock at night with steaming plates of beans and rice. He’ll surprise me at our building’s front gate with containers of freshly baked cookies. I’ve even come home to bags of food just waiting for me at my door. And though I swear I’ve never disclosed this information to him, he somehow found out that I’m a vegetarian. So now he makes sure all the meals are vegetarian-friendly, too.

Yet the strangest food encounter I’ve ever had with Pierre/Mr. Pierre occurred when we crossed paths just after he had returned from the grocery store. I tried to zip past him as if I was a very important person with very important things to do, but he wasn’t buying it. Reaching into a Ralph’s bag, he offered me a family-sized bag of premixed salad. I kindly refused. He said he couldn’t eat all the salad by himself. I countered, “Then why would you buy a family-sized bag of it?” He next offered me a mango. I again refused. He forced the mango into my hand. “Okay, okay. Thank you.” He then tried a second time with the salad mix. Words I never thought I would utter: “Look, I’ll take the mango, but not the salad.”

Now I know what you must be thinking. This dude is desperately fishing for compliments on his cooking. Or he’s just a sketchy old man trying to seduce me via fruits and vegetables. But I think both of those scenarios are wrong.

Pierre/Mr. Pierre and I are on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to personal space and privacy. Like most Americans, I want my peace and quiet. I don’t care if you smell something so bad it makes you gag when you pass by my apartment and no one’s seen me in a month – leave me alone. Also like most Americans, I am supremely suspicious of other people’s motives, especially when someone appears to be giving me something for nothing. What’s the catch? What do you want in return? But I think in Pierre/Mr. Pierre’s case, he’s just being nice. Strange, eh? I know his family emigrated from Egypt decades ago, and he was raised within a culture that considers this type of generosity normal. I also know that I’m not the only one in the building he kills with kindness. Plus, it’s his building; I’m just living in it. He probably doesn’t think it’s a big deal to knock on my door at eleven o’clock at night – after all, it’s his door. And I have to admit that sometimes I actually appreciate his intrusive behavior. More than once, I’ve overheard him kicking out strangers who somehow had made their way past our front gate. I’m pretty sure they were just friends visiting my neighbors, but that doesn’t matter to Pierre/Mr. Pierre. Your ass will be back on the street if he doesn’t like the look of you. It’s kind of nice.

And a double-edged sword. Sometimes he’ll knock on my door, but I just don’t feel like answering. Three more knocks and two doorbell rings later, he’ll finally leave. And then the phone rings. I let it go to voicemail. He tells me he made too much food for him and his sisters – it’s a vegetarian meal if I want some – and did I realize that I left my apartment with all the lights on? Sigh… Or moments after walking through the front gate, again I’ll hear my phone ringing. Of course it’s him just calling to say they need to fix a leak and the water will be off for ten minutes. Sure, no problem. And ten minutes later? Another call to confirm that they did indeed turn the water back on. “Thank you… Mister… Pierre… No, no. Thank you. I already ate.”

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

16
Sep

I love the Hollywood Bowl. Listening to beautiful music under the stars? Oh yeah. That warrants a top ranking on my “Things That Make Anna Happy” list. Unless I’m listening to beautiful music under the stars after having enjoyed a lovely picnic in the adjoining park. That has a slight edge. Did you know that you can picnic in the middle of Hollywood? You can. Last year I got to see John Williams conduct at the Bowl, and that night seriously ranks as one of my top three favorite moments since moving to LA. (I’m a big believer in listing and ranking things. As our world is going to hell in a hand basket, I find comfort in the illusion of order.) The other two moments? Having Seth MacFarlane sing “Happy Birthday” to me – though he was somewhat coerced into doing it – and seeing Conan in person. What can I say? I’m a sucker for guys who make me laugh. That aside, it doesn’t get much better than seeing hundreds of geeked out Star Wars fans brandishing light sabers and waving them in unison to Darth Vader’s theme music. It was like watching a battery-powered aurora borealis. Just awesome.

Fast forward one year. A very dear friend – to protect her anonymity, I shall refer to her as Kiki – had come into town for a visit. To celebrate, we headed to the Bowl for an evening of Twentieth Century Fox’s greatest film scores. Movie geekdom in all its glory. Yet after a blissfully uninterrupted first hour of musical wonderfulness, we couldn’t help but notice a sound that definitely wasn’t coming from the orchestra pit. No, this hideous noise was emanating from behind us – a noise that I can only imagine is what a moose sounds like when coughing up a furball. A row back, this elderly woman was clearing her throat. Very loudly. And a lot. She just kept going and going and going like a phlegm-ridden Energizer Bunny. It was disgusting. Beyond disgusting, it was disturbing. Beyond disturbing, it was just really, really annoying. So my friend and I carried on as any other indignant ticket holder would have; we groaned and gave each other pained looks every time she did it. Kiki even turned around a few times to make obvious her displeasure, and believe you me, her stare is intimidating enough to make anyone forget her diminutive five-foot-one stature. This chick will take you down to Chinatown. But then she had a change of heart and suggested we offer the woman something to drink. Thing is, this woman’s husband was sitting right next to her. Wouldn’t he do something if she was genuinely in distress? Um, no. He just sat there, completely oblivious to the guinea pig that was dying a slow, painful death inside his wife’s throat. Didn’t bother him.

So I have a question for all the husbands out there. Is this what happens to men after marriage? You develop a X-Men-like ability to block out all sounds your wives make? Because I get it. I acknowledge that we women are most often the more vocal of the two genders, and that sometimes you need us to just shut the hell up, but either we won’t or we can’t. So you adapt to survive. Darwinism in action.

Anyway, my friend and I ultimately decided that this woman had no clue what she was doing. She was a throat clearer just like others are nail biters or knuckle crackers or mouth breathers. (Hate those people.) Yet for all our hypothesizing, Kiki and I never actually said a word to this woman. Why did we refrain? Was it our innate sense of politeness? Our gracious manners? No. We just felt bad because she was old.

And therein lies the rub. We opted to stay quiet because this chick had gray hair and wrinkles. But is that really fair? Isn’t that in its own way a kind of discrimination? Because I’m just gonna get right to the point – old people are getting away with murder nowadays. Literally. Every couple of months I read a story about some geriatric driver that mistook the gas for the brake and crashed into a Wal-Mart or farmers’ market. And if they’re not plowing into people, then they’re taking twenty minutes to cross the street while you wait and wait and wait to finally make that turn. I don’t understand. Why don’t they just get one of those motorized scooters? I see commercials for them all the time – and senior citizens can get them for free! That’s hardly fair. I wouldn’t mind a free scooter. Not only that, but they also get ridiculous discounts at all the very best restaurants like Old Country Buffet, Boston Market and IHOP. And don’t even get me started on the movie theatre discounts. It’s a total abuse of power, this whole old person racket.

Case in point… One day I decide to go see a movie, which is rare because outside of the ArcLight, I hate going to the movies nowadays. It pains me to say that, but alas, it’s true. Too many jackasses. Can’t stand them. They have conversations with their friends. They chat on their cell phones. Or they bring their very loud and very fidgety children with them. Who wouldn’t want to pay $15 for that kind of entertainment? It’s like four shows in one. But sometimes I will chance it on a matinee screening – less people. Ergo, less risk that someone will bother me.

So I enter the theatre. It’s completely empty except for this one dude who, like me, obviously doesn’t want anyone disturbing him. He’s sitting about as far away from the entrance as you can get. Fantastic. I take a seat somewhere in the middle; I am an island unto myself. And then they enter… These three old fogeys who noisily shuffle past me and proceed to sit down just three seats over. Three seats over! They literally had the entire theatre from which to choose, save two occupied seats, but they decide to sit four feet away from me. Great. They continue to chat with each other. Loudly. I assure myself that as long as they shut the hell up by the time the previews are over, everything will be okay. The movie starts. Yet this fact seems to be lost on them because they don’t stop talking. And if possible, they get louder. After five more minutes, I finally get up and politely ask them to pipe down. Their response? One of the women points to her friend and informs me, “She is blind, okay?! So I have to explain everything that’s happening.” I am dumbfounded. If she had told me that Tom Cruise really is straight, I couldn’t have been any more shocked. I ask, “So you’re going to talk throughout the entire movie?” Her unapologetic answer? “Maybe. Just maybe.”

I wish I could say that I marched right over to one of the testosterone challenged teen ushers and asked them to kick out the old biddies. I wish I could say that at the very least I reprimanded them for their unabashed rudeness. No. I totally wimped out. Without another word, I just grabbed my purse and moved as far away from them as I could.

What can I say? I felt bad because they were old. So I guess I’m not just a sucker for guys who make me laugh. I’m just a sucker.

Image: jscreationzs / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

09
Sep

There are some things I can get on board with as an adult. Drinking can be fun. Driving is cool. (PSA alert: Never do these two things at the same time. I don’t want to be sued for advocating poor life choices.) I can also appreciate walking right into a rated R movie with no hassle. Remember the days when you had to beg someone to buy you a rated R movie ticket? I think the last time I did that it was to see The Piano. Alas, I was a lame child. I can only hope some teen punk asks me to buy a ticket for him one day so I can attempt to redeem myself as a cool adult.

But I definitely miss some aspects of my youth. Jumping balls. Sit ‘N’ Spins. Monkey bars. The first day of school… The first day of school? Correct. Your eyes are not deceiving you. I liked school.

Summer was just okay for me. I loved our overcrowded, guaranteed to be filled with kiddie pee, public pool the same as anybody else. Riding my bike all over town was tolerable until I was sweaty and cranky and lost. Catching fireflies at night was probably the most fun, but I cringe to think how many I inadvertently killed by smashing them upon capture or leaving the innocent to sit and suffocate in a poorly ventilated jar. Those fun memories aside, I cannot tell a lie – my favorite day of summer was always the day I got my packet from school in the mail. Fo’ reals.

That packet was monumental; its contents would determine your future happiness for the next nine months. The million-dollar question: What teacher did I get? Was it the cool teacher? The mean teacher? Or the “I guess s/he’s okay” teacher? Though I had absolutely no say regarding to whom I was assigned, somehow that teacher reflected my own coolness factor for the next year. It wasn’t fair, but then again most parts of growing up aren’t.

After I had calmed down from either the exhilaration or despair that inevitably followed, it was time to call all my little friends to see whom they got. That was even more stressful. If I had the lame teacher, but my best friend had the awesome one, well… awkward. Sure, I wanted to be happy for them, but obviously I wasn’t. More importantly, not having my friends in the same class would mean that we probably wouldn’t be friends at all that year. Sure, you could still see them at recess – which we had up to three times a day – but still… Your friendships for the next nine months would be based mostly on the twenty or so kids with whom you shared a room seven hours a day, five days a week. Finding out that your BFF had another teacher was like finding out your boyfriend cheated on you. Perhaps the relationship could weather such a storm, but chances were slim. Better to cut your losses and move on. Besides, there was always a chance of reconciliation the following year.

Getting that packet in the mail also meant it was time to hit up the ‘rents for all kinds of fun stuff. Just like any other girl I loved to shop for clothes – The Children’s Place was my shopping Mecca from the ages of seven to ten – but I got high just cruising the grocery store’s school supply aisle. Lisa Frank, how I miss your psychedelic rainbows and unicorns. I would spend hours – or as long as I could negotiate until my dad’s patience ran out – perusing the pencils and folders and binders at Jewel, carefully picking out my accessories for that fall. As everyone knows, having a cool lunchbox was just as important as having a cool teacher.

Then came the final weeks of waiting. This is why I could never sleep the night before the first day of school. My anticipation had grown to unbearable proportions, yet there were still so many unanswered questions. Namely, what other kids would be sharing my bus ride that year? Climbing those steps and taking that first look around was a surreal experience every time. I had mere seconds to scan the entire length of the bus and calculate my next actions. Did I have any friends here? Would I have to sit with a stranger? Or even worse, would I have to sit alone? But then there are the moments for which you can never be prepared. Case in point: The year my regular bus was switched out for a short bus. In the name of all that is holy… Nothing is worse than showing up to school in a short bus.

Regardless, I still miss those days. No matter the anxiety and agony suffered prior to the beginning of school, all was forgotten once I walked into that classroom. Yet as adults we really don’t have anything like that anymore. Days run into weeks run into months run into years. Time just keeps ticking away. Sure, there are some special events for which we count down – weddings, births, a new season of So You Think You Can Dance – but those thrills are few and far between. And living in Los Angeles can seriously make you think like you’re in your own version of Groundhog Day. In a town with nary a season change – a rainy afternoon is considered so momentous it takes up most of the nightly news – everyday feels the same. Since finishing school, I rarely consider what September means for the under eighteen crowd. Usually I’m just reminded that the Cubs season is over. (Then again, I sometimes realize that in August. Or July.) But then I’ll catch one of those “back to school” commercials, and surge of envy spikes through my veins. I suddenly yearn for a shiny new Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox to call my own, and I linger just a bit longer at Target to check out the sweet new Crayola markers in stock.

Then I drive home, melancholy and… thirsty. But I’m not resigned to choose between just juice, milk or water. Nope. Instead, I make myself a gin and tonic – and a gin and tonic trumps a Capri Sun any day of the week. So I suppose there are one or two perks to this whole “being an adult” thing.

Photo courtesy of Darren Hester

03
Sep

Ah, teepeeing. There’s nothing quite like it. Not too long ago, I mentioned to a few friends my yearning to return to those innocent days of toilet paper throwing and occasional forking. Their response? Utter distain and absolute ridicule. My response? Not anger. Not shame. No, I could feel only sadness for these poor souls. These folk who have never felt the exhilaration of that first roll sailing high into the lofty branches of a mighty oak. These individuals who have been denied the joy of seeing a house covered in white streams of two-ply. These unfortunate people who would never feel that incredible rush of victory as you ran like hell for the car after your mission was finally completed.

It was then that I decided to impart my wisdom regarding all things teepeeing to those who have never participated in this life-changing adventure. My great hope is that they may read my words of guidance in order to experience the pleasure for themselves one day. For those kindred spirits who have already engaged in the ultimate thrill, may you enjoy the ride once more…

First, preparation. On this all else depends. Should you not properly lay down the groundwork for your mission, you will fail. Of utmost importance is the assemblage of your crew. You’re looking for stealth and speed. Totally useless are the morons who just stand there and laugh. When it comes to teepeeing, you can’t afford to have any weak links. Also, seek out those individuals that exude courage. When that light goes on in the master bedroom with one tree to go, you need peeps that are willing to put themselves on the line to finish the job. No one likes a pussy. Next, camouflage. This is relatively easy. Black is mandatory. Last, ammunition. Some might refer to this as “the midnight run.” Gathering supplies can actually be a lot trickier than you would imagine. Grocery stores have seen many a teepeer (the head-to-toe black kind of gives us away). If possible, split up your crew to avoid arousing suspicion. Also very important? Picking a cool cashier. You don’t want the fifty-something hag who’s bitter that she’s working the midnight shift at a grocery store at fifty-something. Instead, go for the thirty-something deadbeat who winks knowingly and whispers, “So cool, dude. Wish I could go with you.” Lastly, don’t forget your ride. I highly recommend that your driver not be a part of your team – too risky. Should your mission be compromised, you don’t want your driver caught in the line of fire. Then you’re all dead. Sidenote: I myself started teepeeing relatively young, before any of my peers could drive. Translation? Many a time my father would take me and my friends to our victim’s house. (Hells yeah, I got a cool dad.) I don’t think people quite realize the familial bonding that teepeeing can provide.

Second, victim selection. Back in my day, teepeeing was done without discrimination or malice. Everyone was a potential target: friends, enemies, teachers. Ultimately, the victim selected depended purely on the crew’s mood that night. Who was the last person to piss us off? One disclaimer: Beware those evil souls that will call the popo on your ass should you get caught. You don’t wanna mess with them. Too much trouble. Regardless, your goal is to have no members of your team taken prisoner. Should even one person be apprehended, it will result in the failure of your entire mission. Though most victims won’t call the cops, they will however make you clean up your masterpiece before anyone’s even had a chance to appreciate your handiwork. Like throwing away a Picasso.

Third, the mission. Always remember that time is of the essence. For every minute you’re out there on that lawn, bumping into friends as you frantically scramble to cover the joint in ribbons of white, the odds are increasingly against your favor that all will escape unscathed. But is it worth the heat, you ask? Damn right it is. No risk, no reward. Also, it’s extremely important to decide on concealment checkpoints ahead of time should a stray car come down the street. I have experienced more than one teepeeing attempt gone awry because some kid saw headlights, freaked out, and started to run for it, thus jeopardizing the entire operation. Once those spots have been secured, however, it’s time to roll up those black sleeves and get to work.

A successful teepeeing mission requires individuals that possess a subtle kind of artistic flair. It’s not just about being quiet and throwing rolls of toilet paper into trees. I wish it were that easy. No, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi that either one has or one hasn’t when it comes to the act of TP throwing. You can’t just throw at anything. If a branch is too high or too leafy, your roll will get stuck. However, toss your roll over a barren branch, and you’re just wasting your time. Utilizing a simplistic over and under approach won’t do the trick. You’ll be there all night. What you’re looking for are those branches just high enough and just leafy enough so that upon throwing your roll, you’ll witness a perfect cascading of white that stutter steps from your intended branch onto all the lower-lying branches just so, resulting in a beautiful waterfall of Charmin that streams a good thirty or forty feet from tree to ground. Should you be able to accomplish this, my friend, your teepeeing future will be bright.

Finally, the celebration. Though you mustn’t risk detection by sticking around any longer than necessary, taking a moment to relish in your victory is encouraged. There are those that might even take a camera along to record for posterity their moment in the sun (relatively speaking, of course). If you’re feeling extra cocky, you might even drive past the next day to see if the target was able to extricate themselves from your web of humiliation. And the ultimate triumph? Should you still see bands of white flying among the treetops days later, then consider yourself a member of the teepeeing elite.

Soldier, we salute you.

Photo courtesy of Kenn W. Kiser

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