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Archive for the ‘Living in LA’ Category

Cheery in death

I went to the cemetery the other day:  Forest Lawn, in Glendale, CA.  It was a bright afternoon, though freezing by local standards, with temperature in the 50s and whipping wind that cleared away all the clouds, revealing every crisp detail of the surrounding hills.

Somehow I imagined this place to be like an old European or American graveyard—a gathering of picturesque statues and stones rising over aged tombs.  I love wondering around such evocative grounds, reading weathered names, looking at sad-eyed stone angels and faithful hounds, peering at grand mausoleums in various architectural styles.  But I encountered none of this at Forest Lawn.  Its founder, Dr. Hubert Eaton, had a very different idea when he founded his memorial park in 1906.

A believer in joyous life after death, Dr. Eaton deemed traditional cemeteries, with their assortment ofmournful monuments, depressing.   So he created instead a sprawling terrain of rolling hills covered with emerald lawns into which are inset flat horizontal plaques marking the graves.  (Dr. Eaton was also a clever man:  this kind of burial ground is much easier to maintain:  you can mow the lawns with ease, passing over the markers, and not have to weave between the upright monuments.)

The pristine appearance of undulating green slopes is a bit of a bore.  What makes it more interesting, though, are occasional statues livening up the scenery.  Eaton was an art lover and he purchased statues both for his pleasure and for resale to cemetery clients.  What’s remarkable about these pieces is that most of them are conspicuously non-funerary:  a great number of them depicts scantily clad or quite naked young ladies sitting or standing in romantic poses, their white marble buttocks and breasts seemingly pulsing with life and promise of earthly delights.   They make for peculiar guardians of the cemetery’s inhabitants, especially those interred at the time of its founding, since they belonged to the Victorian age.

It is still more strange that Eaton combined these beauties with a distinctly more Christian art:  he commissioned copies of Michelangelo’s statues including David, Moses, and San Lorenzo Madonna and Child, a stained glass version of Leonardo’s Last Supper, an enormous panorama of the Crucifixion measuring 195 feet in length.   He also set up a museum on the grounds to display his collection of stained glass, coins, Western bronze statues, and even an Easter Island head.   The museum also puts on three exhibitions a year on various, equally diverse subjects.

All this makes for a strange cemetery visit.  Is one supposed to feel reverent, amused, educated, inspired?  I may be too traditional in wanting my museum experience to be one thing, a stroll through the cemetery another, a perusal of lascivious 19th and early 20th century beauties something else again.  But maybe it’s a perfect LA experience – having it all, in a somewhat kitschy version, with a doze of old world pretentiousness and California outdoor spaciousness.  Maybe Dr. Eaton was right and this is a cheerier way to go.

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Dog life

If you want a good life, turn into a dog and move to LA.  Of course dogs get spoiled in other places as well, and not all pooches are pampered in this city.  Still, canine life looks very sweet under the California sun.  You can gauge it by Audrey’s contented state—and she enjoys only a fraction of what’s available to her species here.

We’ve had a cold spell last week, so I as bundled into my woolens, I made sure Audrey was warm as well.  Vizslas have short hair and no undercoat, so they chill easily.  When the house temperature drops to the 50s, Audrey’s nose, ears, and paws turn into icicles and she shivers.   So she needs her own sweater.  I bought her one after she had a big surgery a few years ago and half of her body was shaved, so she actually needed this outfit.  I will admit, though, that I spent $75 on a designer get-up that turns her into a stylish Dalmatian:  it is reversible and has either turquoise circles on brown ground that matches her color, or the other way around, plus a cute collar and cuffs.  She looks très chic.  The garment came from a specialty store in the neighborhood that stocks an assortment of canine clothes, toys, and other necessities.  Including cookies.  Though for that there are here whole bakeries – just for dogs – where your pooch can choose anything from biscuits to muffins to birthday cakes.  And yes, I once caved in and bought from such an establishment cupcakes for Audrey and her cousins to celebrate her birthday.  I am not sure who was more delighted, the dogs, or the humans looking at the dogs gobbling down the treats and laboriously licking sticky frosting off their lips.

As Audrey and I stroll along on our walks, in sweaters or not, depending on the temperature, we regularly see dog-grooming vans in front of people’s houses.  Yes, they deliver a wash to your door, shampooing and blow-drying your animal without making a mess of your home, getting you scratched up by the reluctant pet, or spoiling your relations with him or her.  My canine princess has to rough it and step into the bathtub for her monthly ablutions, giving me a martyr’s look that asks why I must torture the one I claim to love.   Afterwards the bathroom floor is a disaster area of puddles and wet towels, the comforter on the bed is damp and disarrayed from Audrey drying herself on it, the tub needs a wash.  I hope that at least she takes comfort in me, rather than a stranger, maltreating her in the privacy of her own home, rather than in a van outside the house.  But her canine confederates might disagree and find the experience luxurious.  Their owners certainly do.

Another kind of vans we see are the ones that pick up pooches for playgroups and hikes.  Theses are not your regular walks with a gaggle of dogs straining at the end of the leashes as they drag along a distracted young person.  LA dogs go romping freely along the ridges of hills, gazing at the mountains around them and the ocean shimmering in the sun further off, breathing in the scents of shrubs and fresh air.  They go for hours and come back happily exhausted, at peace with their owners, household furniture, and shoes.  Their people, relieved of the obligation to walk their pets can go off and pay some more money to have their personal trainers exercise them in the freshly air conditioned gym.

Dogs whose people go out of town for a few days, or weeks, decamp for their own vacations.  Some take up residence at in-door doggie day cares, where they run around in huge rooms in packs arranged by clients’ size, or relax in their own rooms, draped on their own little couches in front of their own TVs.  Others spend their holidays at doggie camps in the hills where during the day they can frolic outdoors, dipping into a pool, playing chase on the lawn, and catching a glimpse of a whiff of surrounding nature.  They are delivered back to their people freshly bathed and groomed, their spa experience complete.

Yet another convenience available as home delivery is dog training.  I see these cars frequently, too, their purpose decaled on the sides of the vehicles.  Audrey, I will boast, was home schooled by her mother (me) and proved a diligent student.  She walks off leash, comes when called (mostly, unless there is manure to be had), and sits at curbs, waiting for me to lead her across the street.  She knows, and complies with the firm rule that she is not allowed to step off on her own under any circumstances, not even for a squirrel.  We often encounter other dog owners, wrestling with their more unruly pets, who marvel at Audrey and say to me, “can you train my dog, too?”  Having someone else do the job of teaching your animal how to live with you harmoniously and safely is a common wish, it seems.  Hence the traveling teachers.

Yet even for a dog not privileged enough to be visited by hairdressers, personal exercisers, or tutors, life in LA offers many pleasures.  Nature is on dogs’ side here:  the weather is almost always nice enough for a walk, since it almost never rains and certainly never snows, so pooches can enjoy strolls around the neighborhood, in the hills, and on the beaches – though strangely not most beaches.  The city itself is so dog friendly that countless stores put out water bowls for canine passers and welcome them inside with cookies.   Audrey can, and in fact would very much like to take me on a daily visit of all such places, and it would be a nice, long walk.  But only a few beaches allow dogs on them.  Which forces you, life being tough, to take a scenic drive to Malibu and dip your combined toes into the waves on a quiet beach where Hollywood celebrities have their houses, which they visit only seldom, leaving the beach blissfully empty most of the year.

If you don’t have time or inclination for a beach outing, you can take your dog to a play-date at a friend’s house.  Audrey is not a social butterfly.  She does not enjoy mingling with the masses at the dog parks.  But she has a number of boyfriends who call her up for dates.  Because California is a spacious state, and it has all these lawns I mentioned earlier, and nice weather, she spends many a happy afternoon racing around the back or front yards with her suitors, chewing on grass between sprints (she doubles as a cow), and running up to me, her whole backside wiggling, her years cupped out, her lips stretched in a smile, telling me how happy she is with her life.

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Christmas in LA

Christmas time in Los Angeles is very odd.  Even after living here for a while I find it somehow jarring.  Perhaps because I grew up in Moscow, where December meant bitter cold and snow, and also lived in Boston and Chicago for many years, I still think that summery sunshine is out of balance with the season.  Not that I am complaining.  Nostalgic as I may be for the “look” of white Christmas — or New Year, which is what we celebrated in Russia — I am not that keen to feel the bone-piercing chill, the brown slush of melted snow underfoot, the constant tugging on and off of the heavy coat.  And yet, it feels odd to be in LA at this time of the year.

Take Christmas decorations, for example—the white and red and blue lights wrapped around trees, dangled off cornices, draped on bushes.  You’d think that it would make for a fun and cozy family day to apply this festive glitter to one’s house.  It does for some.  But others, the affluent Angelinos, who are a plenty, seem eager to forego this pleasure for another kind:  paying special companies to come and adorn their property.  I see these men — perhaps the same ones who work as gardeners by day, also paid to take over the contemplative delights of planting, pruning, and perfecting people’s flowers and bushes — climb trees and ladders, affixing strings of colored lights to mini-mansions.  To me it seems sad, somehow, that this festive activity is given away, paid off.  Maybe I still relish my childhood memories of decorating our New Year’s pines – the Russian version of Christmas trees.  I am an idealistic kid at heart;  I want to tangle in tinsel and hang with my own hand the fragile and radiant ornaments on fragrant green branches.

Speaking of ornaments.  I was walking with Audrey the other day and was stopped in mytrack by this LA sight — I went back the next day to document it:  shiny red balls dangling off palm trees!

And on the subject of fragrance…  What does Christmas smell like here?  Like manure.  December is the season to fertilize the lawns so that — despite the fact that LA is really a desert, notwithstanding the water shortage (I got a recorded message this morning from the city government asking everyone to reduce water consumption because the situation is so dire), contrary to the fact that it’s winter — Angelinos believe that their houses must be surrounded by lush green carpets at all times.  Ideological qualms aside, I object to this philosophy twice daily as I walk my dog.  Pooches love manure.  For them it’s like a chocolate buffet on a cruise ship.  I must constantly pull Audrey’s muzzle away from this bounty, to the frustration of us both.  She doesn’t understand why I keep denying her the tastiest morsel of the moment.  I worry about the deadly chemicals she is ingesting into her furry little body that has already gone through a bout of cancer.  Not a festive thought.  My Christmas would definitely be improved by the absence of manure.

I do, I will admit, admire the lavishness of nature here—and most of it does not depend on fertilizer, I hasten to add, because nature and climate are so generous already.  While the East Coast is standing naked and gray, shivering in the cold, here not only is the grass emerald and the shrubs bottle green and the palms wave their olive-color fronds overhead, but the roses are blooming, bougainvillea is glowing in the sun, camellia trees are bursting into pink and red blossoms.   Not to mention lemon and orange trees that look like another species of decorated Christmas trees, the birds of paradise plants pecking the air, azaleas showing off their colors.  It’s all happening now, in December.  And magnolias will burst forth in January.

When my parents and I first came to Boston from Moscow, we reconnected with long-lost relatives who escaped from Russia in the 1920s and wound up in Los Angeles.   Overjoyed at discovering us after assuming that all their relatives had died in World War II, they flew us out for Christmas.  I remember the shock and the amazement I felt then at experiencing this winter holiday amidst sunshine, palms, and bare limbs barely covered by shorts and t-shirts.  We were recent immigrants, and LA felt like one more strange and marvelous manifestation of America, something out of the movies and not quite real.  I still have this feeling now.

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At the market

Another glorious aspect of living in LA are its farmers markets.  Here we are, in December, when most of the other parts of the country have closed up their produce stalls and can only dream of past or future fruits and veggies freshly plucked from the small family lots.  But we, the blessed Californians, can direct our morning steps to an outdoor market and check out what yummy offerings are in season.

This morning I had a purpose.  One of the vendors at my local market – and mind you, it is one of several I can reach easily (well, LA easily, by getting in the car and driving for about 10 minutes) — sells delicious fresh fish.  Its flavor is incomparably richer than what’s sold in a supermarket, even at the expensive Whole Foods, and it can wait for you in the fridge up to four days, chilling on ice, patiently biding its time till you are in a mood to throw it on the pan or in the oven.  I had in mind to buy some shrimp and trout, and a few add-ons for the salad.  But of course I was curious to see what else is around.

So here we are, it is December, and yet I had my pickings of strawberries and grapes, apples and persimmons (Fuji persimmons are dreamy, with the texture of apples, the color of apricots, and the flavor of the exotic Orient), pears and clementines.  Broccoli and cauliflower flirted with me from the overflowing tables.  Tomatoes looked festive next to Persian cucumbers.  Radishes and carrots competed over the bushiest tails.  And flowers!  Ravishing roses, cheery Gerber daisies, languid lilies, and countless other lovelies.  And this was just a cursory look.  On a humdrum winter day.

It is hard not to love LA for such offerings – profligate compared to other parts of the country, generous when properly appreciated, deliciously spoiling.  No wonder so many Angelinos are transplants from the East Coast or the middle states who have come here once and fell under the spell of all this bounty.

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A winter stroll

One does not think of Los Angeles as a place of subtleties.  Or of seasons.  But after you’ve lived here for a while, you start seeing them very clearly, though the signs are understated.

You notice these shifts particularly in the early mornings, as when you suddenly realize that winter has arrived.  (For such outings a dog is indispensible, for otherwise you would have a hard time dragging yourself out of bed at 8 am on a Saturday morning, when the light is dim outside and the indoor temperature is 59 degrees.)

You recognize a winter day not just by the chill in the air that numbs your fingers, or by the dampness that drifts from the ocean and suffuses the atmosphere with mist, but by the quality of light:  from the peachy glow it turns into a gray hue.  The sky assumes the color of tarnished silver, the clouds hum a monotonous tune, the brightness goes out of the bushes and blooms.

And yes, there are trees here whose shriveled brown leaves fall to the ground forming crinkling carpets, and other trees whose foliage turns yellow and red.  Not many of them, but you glimpse them with a quiet delight.  These autumnal signs clash strangely with the lush green lawns which Los Angelinos insist on maintaining through extravagant overuse of already scarce water.  They believe that just as age can be cheated in California through various cosmetic aids and active pastimes, so nature can be forced to perform unnatural tricks.  But the winter still insists on arriving and taking possession of the place.  It lays a blanket of hushness on the streets, as if trying to force the world to hibernate.

I love living in Los Angeles because it makes me pay attention to these things and relish the ever changing light, the constantly evolving vegetation, the texture of air.  And this is just walking around with Audrey in my neighborhood.  I will have to rhapsodize separately about our strolls by the ocean.

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