Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Flattery of Anonymous Followers - Part II

From time to time, I like to pause with the quotidian accounts of life at Venice Beach to consider the nature of writing and blogging itself. Especially when, like today, the weather has again turned cold, nasty and rainy, which means Alma and I shall be trekking to the mall for our daily walk.

I happened to take a look at the blog's statistics this morning and was struck by how worldwide the audience has become. There have been several visitors from Russia, from Slovenia and from Malaysia (among other places) since I began. It is so flattering that people from these different parts of the world are spending time with my words. I stop occasionally to wonder about what these visitors from distant lands find in my blog that brings them to it. I cannot believe that my words alone explain the draw. Perhaps it is Alma's wonderful beach photography that pulls them to the blog. Perhaps it is the mythic lure of California. Perhaps some combination of all the above. Or perhaps these foreign visitors merely skim the blog's contents before heading off to the proverbial greener pastures. (The statistics function on does not indicate how long a given visitor remained on the blog or, more importantly, whether they actually read any of the words.) Still, a delicious thrill steals through me when I think that someone from Denmark or Australia has read one or more of my posts.

I do wonder what Thoreau would have made of the technology of blogging, had he lived to see it. Methinks today that Thoreau would be one of those we see pushing a shopping cart down the boulevard, if he were not safely ensconced in some sinecure in academia. Today's world would have even less use for Thoreau than his own world did. That said, the universal demoratic quality of blogging would mean that Thoreau could get his message out to the world, provided he had access to the internet even at a public library. Thorea did view himself as something of an evangelical for his worship of nature, so I think he would probably not have completely disapproved of the blog as a means to publish to an ever-wider audience.

Foreign visitors notwithstanding, the vast majority of my readership appears to hail from the United State and from Canada. Even there, though, I know for a fact that one of my readers lives in landlocked Kansas. Perhaps she feels the same lure of the sea that I feel, the lure of the waves that drew me out here from the midwest 16 years ago, never to leave. As for my other American visitors, I can only wonder at what they find of interest in this humble blog. I welcome any comments any visitor wishes to leave and will attempt to address any relevant concerns raised therein in future posts.

To my readers, though, I thank you most sincerely. It means the world (no pun intended) to me to have you reading my words. Even though we may never meet in person, even though I may never even know your names, merely knowing you are out there and paying attention makes it all worthwhile.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Seagulls, Birdbrains and Freedom

Alma and I returned to our beloved beach yesterday for the third day. Even though rain did not fall while we were walking, the skies were mostly cloudy and the weather was cold and windy. Not the most pleasant of walks. Added to this, the run-off from storms of the week earlier had left a thin residue of garbage at the high-water mark. About the only saving grace was that the solid clouds were broken up at the far horizon so that, when the sun finally set at 4:50, we saw a beautiful sunset.

While we were walking north of the Washington Boulevard pier to the small breakwater a 1/2 mile north, I noticed that an enormous number of seagulls had congregated on the beach. The weather was so cold and windy that even the gulls seemed a bit intimidated by it. We try to walk in such a way that we disturb the gulls as little as possible. But yesterday, they had occupied the stretch of beach upon which we walked and so our path intersected where they stood.

The wind was so strong that when one of the gulls would start flying, it would almost hover in place and gradually drift lower until it made a soft landing in the sand. Really quite elegant and the gulls seemed to achieve this hovering effect with very little discernible effort. The gull simply extends both wings straight out from its torso with legs extended beneath it. Not the prettiest of sights but. again, the gulls' sprezzatura is noteworthy.

One of the gulls had what I think was a small rubber superball. It would climb about 30 feet into the air and drop the ball onto the beach, after which the gull would dive upon the bouncing ball and re-capture it in its beak. This particular gull's efforts had drawn the attention of a few other gulls who, no doubt thinking the super ball a sea creature of some sort, kept trying to poach the superball from it.  Result: a lot of squawking and pecking at one another's bums and feathers.

Which led me to point out these bird-brains to Alma. We both laughed at their stupidity. But then I had a realization. Alma pointed out that these birds do not have bosses and they can pretty much do whatever they want when they want. Their food needs seem pretty much handled by the food refuse from the beach communities. They are beholden to no one.

If these birds are so stupid, how come they don't have to work and we (I) do? In other words, who are the real bird brains? Bears thinking about, I would say.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas 2010

The torrential rains we had been having tapered off on Thursday, such that Alma and I were able to return to the beach on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The weather appears today to be returning to its inclement nature, but I think we will get one more day in today.

Alma and I never did finish the tree about which I posted earlier. We simply ran out of time and each leaf was taking me about 30 minutes to finish. With some 44 leaves that would have meant close to 24 hours straight working only on the tree. So Alma has moved it back into the art studio to rethink the project and perhaps re-purpose it.

I did learn from it that there's a reason why I am not a plastic artist. I lack the patience for the detail work. I sure enjoyed getting to experience what artists and craftspeople have to go through and learned enough to ratify that it's not for me. Strange because I really enjoy the painstaking nature of cooking, but for some reason, working on arts and crafts projects makes me want to take up smoking again.

I hope all my readers, both regular and occasional, had a good holiday season this year. Alma and I are getting ready to leave now to go down to the beach, so I will be resuming my regular commentaries shortly.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Christmas Tree Tradition

What do you get when you combine 7 inches of rain, a writer, an artist and cabin fever? Well, the jury is still out, but this writer has been dipping his toes into the fathomless depths of artistic creation this week. The weather has been so dreary and, after a minor squabble over my lack of sufficient holiday spirit, Alma suggested I think of something, anyhing, to make Christmas better this year. Being a Spartan in the land of plenty, I pretty much have everything I need or could want. So the only thing I could think of to make Christmas better was for me to help Alma make this year's tree.

And now the back-story: Alma is allergic to conifers, so we can never have a real tree in our place. In fact, she is so allergic that merely driving by one of the ubiquitous Christmas tree lots will set her off in a fit of wheezing and teary-eyed misery. Whence has developed our one and only Christmas tradition -- each year, Alma thinks up and then makes a new tree. One year she fashioned a tree completely out of origami. Another year she made one from coat hangers that she unbent and then rebent to form the shape of a tree.

Bottom line: it's always fun as Christmas approaches to speculate about what Alma will come up with for her tree. This year, as might be expected, Alma came up with the idea of a beach-themed tree that would use recycled materials and materials we had found during our walks at the beach. By the time I offered to help, Alma already had the frame of the tree created from wire and celluclay:

Near the base of the tree, a terra cotta flower pot that Alma has had for years, you can see some of the leaves which are cut from clear plastic lids that one gets in the containers at the grocery store when purchasing food items from the deli. The first thing I had to do was trace the pattern of a leaf on a piece of clear plastic and then cut the leaf out of the plastic. Actually, one of these deli lids had enough surface area for four such leaves. So I began with five deli lids and traced four leaves per lid, so that I cut out a total of 20 leaves.

Then the real fun began, because the leaves had to be wavy but the plastic had begun as rigid sheets. So once the leaves were cut from the plastic, Alma used a lighter to heat each one just enough so she could mould it into a shape of 3 right-angled folds, so that the two-dimensional plastic cut out transformed into a three-dimensional piece. Next we had to stand at the stove holding a piece of wire over a burner until the wire was glowing red hot. We then inserted the tip of the wire piece through the plastic, in effect drilling (or melting) holes in the plastic, so that Alma could attach each leaf to a branch by using florists wire threaded through the holes.

That was Monday. Fast forward to yesterday. We started the day by making ornaments from sea shells. Alma had collected a massive number of sea shells of all sizes and shapes over the summer months. Alma had decided that we would use glitter glue to decorate the shells in a holiday motif. Here is where the first SNAFU surfaced.

Alma had intended that we write holiday messages like "Peace" and "Joy" on the surfaces of the larger shells, using the colored glitter glue. However, after Alma had used the green glitter glue pen to write "PEACE" on the surface of one of the larger shells, she observed that the glue started to run down the shell, so that the writing became almost indecipherable. It became evident that these glitter glue pens (made by a company called 'RoseArt'), while perfectly appropriate for small children who lack a lot of manual dexterity, are not well suited for any type of fine detail work. The glue tends to come out in spurts and gobs and it does not matter how much or little pressure one applies to the glue pen. So we were reduced to decorating the shells in rather abstract fashion with green and silver glitter glue. The shell-ornaments turned out absolutely gorgeous -- the angels of Christmas must have been watching over us -- but without the written messages that Alma had originally intended they convey.

I felt like I was rediscovering my inner child while using these glitter glue pens. There is something about getting dirty and making a mess in a controlled setting that creates warm fuzzy feelings, even if the project threatens to consume our entire living space at times. And the glitter glue that was stuck to my fingers when we were done decorating the shells peeled and washed right off. In fact, this whole process has allowed me to re-connect with the child in me who used to be able to create without fear of being mocked or belittled.

While I was finishing up the shells, Alma was attaching the remaining leaves to the tree and starting to celluclay its branches so we could hang ornaments from the branches. Without the celluclay on them, the wire branches tend to droop precariously under the weight of the ornaments. This introduced a second SNAFU, however, because it takes time for celluclay to dry and harden. We tried to compensate by placing the tree in front of our gas fireplace in hopes that the heat from it would hasten the drying process. Alma also tried using her portable hair dryer to see if she could spot dry especially problematic areas. However, I am not sure the drying and hardening process is happening as quickly as Alma wishes it.

The last thing I did before going to bed last night was to prepare the top piece -- a starfish cut from the same plastic as the leaves -- by using a glue and acrylic mix to paste white tissue paper to each side of it.  Actually, I did only one side and Alma finished up the second side and cleared a couple of my blemishes.

We still have a lot of work to do and it will be touch and go whether the tree is ready by Christmas. We now have to apply the same tissue-paper treatment that I used on the starfish top piece to each of the 44 leaves, so it will be a busy next couple days. But hey, it's only Wednesday, right? Alma has grown so vexed with the complexity of this tree that she swears this will be the last one she ever does. Actually, though, the process of making the tree may constitute our second or even third Christmas tradition. Because it seems that every year we have a minor or major squabble about my lack of Christmas spirit -- fortunately, we seem to get past the squabble before Christmas Day gets here -- and every year Alma swears she will never do another tree. But after enough months have gone by, Alma always returns to making a new tree. But hey, what's Christmas without at least a few traditions? Traditions, like beauty, rest in the eye of the beholder.

Here is a picture of Christmas Tree 2010 as of 9:00 a.m. PST December 22

 Stay tuned for further photographic updates!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bad Weather is Here

If you have not been following Southern California's weather recently, we have been experiencing very heavy rainfall and cold temperatures. I would estimate that in the past 4 days we have gotten more than 5" of rain. And they say the worst is still on its way and will arrive in the next couple days. This may be the wettest winter I have ever personally seen in Los Angeles.

So Alma and I have not walked at the beach for the past few days (since last Thursday). We returned to the Westside Pavillion on Saturday, went nowhere yesterday and went back to the Westfield Culver City mall today for our walks.

Given that this past weekend was the final weekend before Christmas, I was not surprised to see activity at the mall picking up a bit. There was definitely more foot traffic and it took quite awhile to get a parking space. But I don't think that one weekend of high activity will rescue the economy. It's way too little way too late. The Atlantic Monthly has an article whose title ("Retail Sales Are Back, but the Jobs Aren't") suggests that businesses' revenues are starting to recover, even though unemployment continues to stagnate at about 10%. Well, with consumers constituting 70% of the economy and with unemployment hanging at 10%, I don't see how business can remain strong. Tepid but not strong. The Atlantic disagrees. We shall see.(

Alma and I have started making a Christmas tree together. I will have more to write about it tomorrow (along with pictures of the tree in progress). It is a Christmas tree made out of recycled materials and with a beach theme, so I think you will find it fits right in with this blog.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Coming Deluge

We were able to walk down by the beach yesterday, after having skipped beach walks in favor of the Westfield Culver City Mall on Tuesday and Wednesday when the weather turned nasty. Yesterday we squeaked in a walk under partly cloudy skies. It may be our last walk on the beach for a few days, as the weather people are warning of a new major storm system moving in.

Sure enough, when I woke up this morning, the skies were all clouded over and grey. While it has not yet begun to rain, the skies look as though they could open up at any time. All of which means we will be returning to the Mall again today and probably this weekend also.

Did I mention that I am really starting to detest walking at the mall? There are only so many observations one can make about the economy sucking and only so many times one can see empty storefronts, overweight shoppers, unnecessary garbage before it all starts to blend into one giant ugly mess. I predict that the retail sector is going to plunge after the holidays - how many athletic shoe companies, cell phone providers or fine jewelers does a country need, after all? Right now, it is obvious to me -- less obvious to Alma -- that there is an excess of supply and a shortage of demand. The retailers can keep up pretenses through the end of the holiday season. But, based on what I see on my walks in the Mall, very few shoppers are buying anything other than necessities.

Alma and I walk daily not just for her art or for material for my blog. We walk daily for exercise. And our efforts have paid off. Alma and I have each lost about 15 pounds since we began this latest regimen. However, keeping the pounds off requires that we walk each day, no matter what the weather. We have put off doing any Christmas shopping for each other until now, so these next few days, our Mall visits will have a purpose beyond strictly exercise.

I hope the sun and decent weather return soon, though.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Abandoned Flip Flops

During our walks on the beach these past few months, Alma and I have found many strange abandoned articles, ranging from a fire extinguisher (talk about taking owls to Athens or coal to Newcastle!) to women's cosmetics (I'm talking the big, vanity-scale bottles of eau de toilette) to full-scale outfits of clothing (talking shirts and pants together).

But few man-made items we find are so weird as the spectacle of abandoned flip-flops. When we find them, we tend to find them in batches. Yesterday, for example, Alma found two and a half pairs. They come in all shapes and sizes -- one of the pairs Alma found yesterday belonged to a very little girl, as judging from their petite size and Little Mermaid imaging overlaid on top of pink soles. Another pair belonged to an older boy, as they were longer and had some sort of moto-cross insignia on them. But, as often as not, we will find flip flops that belong to adults, seemingly abandoned without a care. The half a pair was an adult-size flipflop, black with some neon colored design on it.

Now why we would find abandoned flip flops is a subject of endless conversation and theorizing for Alma and me. One theory we have is that they are from boats that pitch a little too violently, sending flip flops over the edge to wash up eventually on the beach. Except that, all too often, we find complete pairs of flip-flops. While the sea might cause a boat to tilt to such an angle that one or both flip flops washed off the deck, would that same sea cause both flip flops to wash up on the beach in close proximity to one another?

Another theory we bandy about in jest is that exposure to the California sun causes people to lose their minds entirely and simply abandon things they came to the beach with. This theory holds some attraction, but it presumes that people who abandon their flip flops have other footwear available to them for the walk across the sand and back to their cars wherever they might be parked. (There are beach parking lots, so presumably one could abandon one's flip flops, walk across the sand bare footed and reach one's vehicle in the beach lot without having to walk a long distance on paved surfaces.) But we find too many single flip flops for this to explain the matter entirely.

As often as not, the flip flops appear brand new, unmarred by any significant wear and tear. Sure, we find the occasional flip flop whose strap has broken from over-use or stress. But the flip flops we found yesterday all appeared to be in very good shape, as if their owners had abandoned them while the flip flop was still usable.

I do not mean to single out flip flops entirely. I have also found expensive leather sandals down there in the past. Again, while not flip flops, we are talking sandals (and pairs of sandals) in mint condition. The type of footwear one might expect to pay upward of $30-40 for. Simply amazing.

A final possibility is that flip flops and sandals are left on the beach whose owners fully intend to recover them after taking a walk. But then the sun sets and finding the flip flop one left in full expectation of returning them becomes a far more daunting proposition. However, this theory does not explain the curious case of the abandoned single flip flop. It is probably best that some things remain a mystery.

If you have lost or abandoned your sandals down at Venice Beach during these past six months, you can take consolation in the knowledge that Alma is busy turning them into found art. Or rather, the straps of the sandals. Yesterday, as we walked, Alma pulled the straps free from the soles and kept the straps, while chucking the soles onto the sand beyond the high-water mark. (The trash cans are so far removed from the part of the beach where we walk as to make putting the soles into the trash too time consuming for a walk intended to conclude before the sun sets. The authorities of Los Angeles County put the trash cans so far away from where the crowds congregate as to provide a disincentive to folk to police their garbage. More on this in a later post.)

If one or two great works of art emerge from the abandoned flip flops, that will immortalize them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Decline and Fall of American Consumerism: The View from the Trenches (Part IV)

Alma and I wanted to see the new release of Shakespeare's The Tempest. And we had to buy a Christmas gift or two today. So we headed back over to the Westside Pavillion whose Landmark Theater was showing the movie. (I will write more on the movie tomorrow but suffice it for now to say that it is well worth watching.) Since we were going to be at the mall anyway for the movie and the gift, we decided to do our walk there today. And I had promised a few posts earlier that I would update you about what I saw on a 2nd return visit to the WP.

We arrived at the WP at about 2:30 p.m. in order to put in our 90-minute walk before the movie began at about 4:30. The WP's layout resembles that of the Westfield Culver City Mall, about which I have also posted previously. 3 stories, the uppermost of which is partially occupied by a food court. However, the WP is far more upscale than the Westfield CC Mall, anchored on one end by Macy's (which it has in common with the Westfield CC Mall) but anchored on the other end by Nordstrom's. (The Westfield CC Mall is anchored on one end by Target and Best Buy and on the other by J.C. Penney, but it also has a Macy's mid-mall on the bottom two stories.)

How shall I put it? Activity at the WP in mid-afternoon on the Saturday just two weeks before Christmas was decidedly muted. Sure, there was more activity today than there had been a few days ago when we went there mid-week. But big-name outlets like Zales, Foot Locker and Sleep Number had 0 customers on multiple passes by each establishment. The Mall was even more of a ghost town after the movie had concluded and we returned to it to buy the gift. Alma seemed to think what we were seeing was normal for this point in the holiday shopping season. But I couldn't help wondering if California's 12.4% unemployment rate might be casting a pall over holiday shopping this year. With 1 out of 8 able-bodied workers out of work and probably another 3 out of 8 worried they might lose their jobs, it's a surprise that any of these shops is able to stay open.

Just as we were concluding our walk today, Alma and I witnessed a site that still bothers me. As we headed towards Macy's on the first floor, I happened to notice two uniformed Los Angeles police officers escorting a middle-aged woman in handcuffs towards us. In her mid- to late thirties, the woman was dressed conservatively in white slacks and a yellow top. She did not look like one of the homeless waifs one sees constantly in Los Angeles but also did not look like Nordstom's material either. Decidedly average looking, nothing exceptional. The two male officers passed us with the woman in cuffs between them. I turned to look and observed that they were walking her the full length of the mall towards the end anchored by Nordstrom's.

Alma and I turned to one another and our reaction seemed near unanimous. "That's not cool," I said. "There's no need whatsoever to humiliate and degrade this person by making her walk exposed to public view for the entire length of the mall." Alma agreed and said she thought the woman had probably been arrested for shop-lifting.

I expressed astonishment that anyone would risk shop-lifting at this time of year when security is apt to be tighter than usual. Alma quickly rebutted me "Oh no," she said. "Even if she is unemployed, I can see that if she has kids, they expect Santa to bring them something. I can just see some dough-eyed kid saying, 'What's Santa going to bring me this year, Mom?'

As we continued to walk, we each grew more incensed that this person, no matter her social standing, should have been forced to walk the length of the mall exposed to public view. Alma said she thought the fact that the two LAPD officers were men and the alleged perpetrator was a woman allowed them to think there was nothing wrong with what they were doing.

So when we reached the Mall's Concierge and Welcome service, we mentioned to one of the "hosts" there how unseemly we had found the whole matter. This host was quick to make excuses for what we had seen. First she said, "Sir, if it was LAPD we don't control what they do." We continued to protest that the LAPD had no business perp-walking this person through the mall to humiliate and degade her.

"They could have taken her out of the building through Macy's," I said. "They didn't have to make her walk the entire length of the mall in public in handcuffs."

Then the host said, "Sir, i was unemployed and I never shop-lifted." I pointed out that I was not saying that shop-lifting was justifiable but that I was objecting to the LAPD pulicly humiliating a citizen when there was no need for them to do so. She fell back on the "We don't control the LAPD" line as Alma and I walked away, me saying that what they had done and the Mall allowing it was the height of 'tacky' and very 'declasse' (classless), I could just tell that this person who had to be working class was decidedly not getting why what we had seen was so offensive.

However, after the movie was over, Alma and I somewhat undermined our high horse when we returned to purchase the gift for our friend at Brookstone. I only remembered how offended we had been after we were in the car and heading home. I hope this woman we saw is able to salvage something of worth from this holiday season and can only say that we wish her well and that her troubles dissipate.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sea Life Abounds

After a weekend of cold and cloudy, the weather turned nice again on Monday. Alma and I thus resumed our walks down on the beach Monday and yesterday. We have been trying to arrive down there no later than 3 p.m. so that our walks will conclude either right before or right after the sun sets at 4:45 p.m. The past two days have been no different in that regard. At 3 p.m., the tide seems to be at its lowest, such that probably 20 yards of hard-packed sand, mud and surf wash is exposed.

The weather has been so changeable lately that few people spend any time on the sand. So for the past few weeks, we have been limited to collecting pretty much only what the sea has to offer in the way of interesting rocks and sea shells. On Monday, Alma found several interesting shells and rocks but yesterday, it seemed as if the ocean had washed the beaches clear of most of the noteworthy shells and rocks. Even the man-made garbage seemed a little lighter than usual yesterday. I only had to pick up one or two plastic bottles, where normally I would pick up as many as ten on a single walk.

I mention this because yesterday, when we reached the Villa Marina jetty, we could almost walk all the way out to the end of jetty, the tide was so low at about 4 p.m. As we neared the jetty, we saw a starfish on the sand, a medium size specimen, about 3 feet from the water's edge. Yesterday marked the first time either of us had seen a starfish of any size at the beach:

After Alma had taken the picture above, she lifted the starfish up. We could see the little suction-cup thingies on the bottom still moving, so we knew that starfish was still alive. Alma put the starfish back in the water and we continued our walk towards the jetty.

When we reached it, we both noticed that the tide was so low we could walk on the sand almost out to its end. When we reached its tip and all along the way, I noticed these strange, mushroom-looking appendages on the rocks.

"Those are anemones," Alma said. "And look, they're still alive." She reached out with the sole of her boot and touched the top of one lightly. Sure enough, the appendage contracted in on itself, almost like a Venus Flytrap or like the floral creature in Little Shop of Horrors. There must have been thousands of them attached to the rocks and holding on for dear life for the return of the high tide. Alma took pictures of the rocks with anemones attached, but none of the photos came out very well. But if you can imagine a giant blackish-grey damp boulder with what look like 100s of blackish-grey mushrooms growing out of it, you will have the picture, I think.

In between some of the boulders, stagnant pools of water remained and in those pools we could actually see individual anemones fully opened up:

What astounded me though is that, attached to these same boulders and right in the midst of all the anemones, many starfish of varying hues and sizes had also attached themselves:

An entire colony of starfish must live right by the jetty. But Alma and I had no idea either anemones or starfish lived there until yesterday:

We may think of it as "our beach" and some of us may even claim to live "at the beach." But really, we are mere transients compared to the real locals, these anemones and starfish. They have lived here far longer than man has although, in fairness, they have only lived at the jetty since it was constructed in the late 1950s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

These anemones and starfish exhibit such a quiet unassuming elegance. Amidst all the human activity, they quietly live and thrive. I hope they contiue to live there long after homo sapiens have departed the scene. And I certainly hope Alma and I see them again in the future.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Disposable Culture

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The weather took a turn for the worse over the weekend, and Alma and I spent a couple days at the Westfield Culver City Mall. I thought we would have to buy her a new laptop, as it seemed her Toshiba had crashed after only 13 months. But we took the laptop into Best Buy and a member of the Geek Squad determined that Alma's laptop had been attacked by a virus.

This despite the fact that we had purchased Norton software to protect against viruses. So the guy from Best Buy's Geek Squad tells me I can either pay Best Buy $200 to remove the viruses or wipe out everything that was stored on the laptop and restore from system backup disks. He did not tell me to contact Norton and at the time it did not occur to me to do so. Instead, I restored Alma's laptop from the system backup disks. After the restore had completed successfully, I happened to remember that Norton had charged my card $59.99 for 2010-11 just a couple weeks ago. So I said to Alma, "I'm going to contact Norton and get my money back, since they did not protect your computer." Alma had far less polite things to say about Norton.

Well, I contacted Norton today after having located the email receipt they sent me for the credit card charge. I did not actually speak to anyone. I did the whole thing via a chat window online with someone whose patronym suggested he was in India. He tried to save me as a customer but I told him it was too late. So Norton says it is refunding the $59.99 to my card for its non-existant security.

In its place I will install Microsoft Security Essentials on Alma's laptop. It's a free software program from the folks at Microsoft. Word is it is better than Norton and, at $0.00, would have to really suck to be worse than Norton.

But here's the thing: between futzing with Alma's laptop, the two trips to Best Buy and the time required to restore from the backups, I figure I spent at least 4 hours. So while I'm really glad we saved the $350-$400 I thought we would have to shell out for a new laptop, I spent so much time on it that it almost became worth it to replace the computer with a new one and simply scrap the old one.

This is "planned obsolescence" at its most stark and manipulative, when it becomes more expensive in terms of time required to troubleshoot and repair a piece of technology than simply to buy that same piece brand new. It is this contemporary disposable culture that I think would absolutely enrage Thoreau. We inhabit an America fundamentally changed from Thoreau's America and our decadence is nowhere more evident than in this disposable mentality that seems everywhere always.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Does Technology Free Us or Enslave Us?

The weather having turned chilly and cloudy again, Alma and I returned to the Westfield Culver City Mall yesterday for our walk. Since we were there anyway, we decided to go to Best Buy and Radio Shack to check out new laptops or netbooks for Alma. The Toshiba laptop that Alma had been using only lasted about 13 months, exactly one month more than its warranty, before dying an ignominious death. Why is it that any time I buy an extended warranty I never use it but any time I heed the warnings of consumer advocates and don't buy the extended warranty, the equipment craps out? There must be some perverse law at work in the universe. We saw some reasonably priced laptops and netbooks yesterday and are heading back today to either buy a new one or have the Geek Squad diagnose and repair the Toshiba.

Since we were at the mall, and since we are now using photography on this blog and on Alma's website, we also decided to see what was available in cellphone cameras, to see whether there might be newer cellphones with better cameras than the ones we currently use. It turns out there are, but they come with a major catch: to get one for free or at a discount, you must sign up for a 2-year plan with a $15/month supplemental data plan. If you don't want to be roped into a 2-year contract with the $15/month kicker, you must pay $3-500 for the phone. The data plans are designed for people who use their phones to surf the web and who do various web-based activities on their phones.

Neither Alma nor I use our phones for this. We basically require our cell phones to be available for emergency calls and we use our cell phones to take photos. We do not need to post Facebook status updates or keep the entire civilized world tweeted and twittered about our current whereabouts. We checked out Best Buy, Radio Shack and three phone vendors in the mall (Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile). They all offered basically the same quid pro quo: to get a phone with a decent camera (5 megapixels and image stabilization), we would have to sign up for a 2-year plan with a mandatory data plan or we would have to pay at least $2-300.

Why would this be? We were talking about this and speculating why we would be required to sign up for a $15/month data plan to get one of these phones with a good camera. After some too and fro, we decided that the reason the mobile providers can require the additional data plan is that they are marketing themselves primarily to younger people who are increasingly comfortable maintaining their online presence while mobile. In fact, yesterday, in walking the mall, we spotted several people (all younger than ourselves) walking through the mall and texting or surfing while walking.

This got Alma exercised: "I'n not against young people," she said. "And I'm not against technology.  But I am against people walking around with their heads up their asses because they have to be on the grid every second of every day." I think Alma laid bare the crux of the issue: why does everyone now feel they have to be "on the grid" at all times?

I realize we may be starting to sound like old curmudgeons, the kind of elderly folks who just dont' "get it." Truth to tell, I am misanthropic enough that I don't have anyone whom I want to send text messages to. When I am walking at the beach, my senses are fully occupied with the glories that Mother Nature has to offer. So I would not text or blog or tweet while at the beach or while at a mall.

I also know that  cell phones are great in an emergency situation. But have cell phones cost more lives than they have saved? Yes, people who are in car accidents can use the phones to call for emergency assistance -- heck, I've used my cell phone for that very purpose more than once. But how many accidents and deaths have occurred because a driver was texting or surfing the web while driving?

I sometimes wonder what that other curmudgeon Thoreau would make of our society. Would he embrace technologies like the Internet and cell phones or would he retreat into an even more extreme asceticism? Somehow, I don't think that Thoreau would place much stock in the value of constantly being on the grid. I suspect he would probably not approve of Alma and me each having a cellphone in the first place. He simply would not buy the rationale that one needs to stay connected while on the go.

In Walden, Thoreau wrote that we run the risk of becoming prisoners of our possessions and that our technologies may actually become the instruments of our enslavement:
The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature . . . He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain tops. But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.
And I wonder what Thoreau would say about Alma's laptop dying after only 13 months of use. I doubt he would take kindly to our consumer culture's "planned obsolescence," where repairing an old laptop is more expensive than simply buying a new laptop and where the knowledge and skill to make the repairs is limited to an ever-shrinking circle of geeky specialists. Thoreau constantly preached a gospel of 'self-reliance,' and in that context, today's world would probably have him checking himself into an insane asylum.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Christmas Comes Early

Anyone who knows Alma knows that only a fool comes between her and Christmas. So when she said to me that this year she would be making a "beach tree," I just saluted and said "Yes ma'am." And now for the backstory: Alma and I do not have many Christmas traditions of our own except for one very special one. Because Alma is highly allergic to conifers, she cannot have a real tree. If there is going to be a tree, it must be artificial. Or man-made. And thus has developed our one tradition that each year Alma makes a different tree.

One year, for example, Alma made a tree completely from origami. Another year, she took coat hangers and unbent them, then refastened them in the shape of a tree with lights strung on it. It's always something I look forward to, seeing what type of tree she will come up with and what I will be expected to do to help make it happen.

I'm not too sure exactly what this year's tree will look like. In fact, I'm still a little sketchy on the details. But I know it will include sea shells for ornaments and a starfish for the top piece. And something about plastic cut into the shape of seaweed leaves. I just go "Uh-hunh" and trust that, as in years past, this year's tree will turn out awesome.

This is all by way of saying that yesterday we walked on the beach looking for beach material that could be turned into a tree and accompanying decor. So in addition to looking for seashells for ornaments, Alma also was finding beautiful pieces of sea glass, in various colors. On the walk southward from the Washington Blvd. Pier, the ocean had thrown up many pieces of sea glass almost as if it had anticipated that Alma would need them for her tree and holiday decorations.

While we were walking south, I noticed in the distance several small birds skimming the surface of the ocean and flying in circles just beyond the point where the waves break. From past experience, I suspected that they were flying out there because there were dolphins in the vicinity. Sure enough, when I trained my eyes on the water's surface, I saw the tell-tale dorsal fins of arcing dolphins or porpoises. What was amazing yesterday, though, is that the dolphins were very close to the shore, probably no more than 40 yards out. At times, they seemed so close that, if I closed my eyes and reached out my hand, I could almost touch them.

And, goodness, there must have been 10 of them in the pod. At one point, I saw three of them emerge simultaneously from the water in unison. "It's like being at  Sea World," I said to Alma, "but without the $60 admission fee and the cloying messaging." Alma at one point giggled like a school-girl. "Look at them go," she exclaimed as the dolphins skipped out of and over the water. The bigger (presumably older) dolphins in the pod would move more slowly, more gracefully, as they arched their backs and their dorsal fins. Every once in awhile, I would see a monstrous waterspout pop up from the waves as one of the pod exhaled to get a new breath. There were 2-3 young, small dolphins and they were a real treat, as they would completely emerge from the water, almost like stones were being skipped along the surface of the ocean.

Indeed, there is something incredibly magestic about seeing dolphins in the wild. While I may be projecting my own feelings onto them, they seem to exude an exuberance as they frolic in the waves. As we walked southward on an all but deserted beach, it seemed like the pod of dolphins travelled southward accompanying us. Was it mere egoism on my part to think that the dolphins were syncing up their route southward through the bay in step with Alma and my southward march? They were not doing it for anyone else because, for all intents and purposes, the beach was entirely deserted and the dolphins were performing only for Alma and me.

After a certain point, Alma made me walk 5 paces behind her so that, in my gawking at the dolphins, I did not inadvertently obliterate any valuable sea stuff with appeal to her. (This after I crunched a couple shells under foot while not watching where I was stepping.) We continued our walk southward. And then, suddenly, like an apparition from out of a fog, emerged a figure riding a one-speed bicycle on the hardpack. When he got closer, I was able to see the top hat on his head. Sure enough, it was our friend and unsung hero Josey Peters using his biccycle to pick up garbage along the beach again.

This time when our paths crossed it was like old friends meeting once again, even though we had only become acquainted these past couple months. I told Josey about the blog and that I had written a post about him a couple weeks earlier (see my November 24 post "Josey Cleans Up Our Mess" at
Josey promised he would read it the next time he had internet access. Because he has lost his job and is living out of his RV, he has only sporadic internet access. A friend lets him shower and store belongings at an apartment close by but Josey is one of the economy's recent rejects. He is making lemonade out of his lemon though and it is lemonade that all of southern California can drink.

When we bumped into Josey, the sun was beginning to set. "That's one of the best things about this job," he said. "The sunsets." And indeed we had a doozy. There were very few clouds in the sky, but there were a few low-slung cigar-shaped clouds right above the western horizon. After the sun had dipped beneath the horizon, those clouds seemed to catch fire, to be shining a bright orange-red color. And the effect lasted a good 20 minutes.

So I have to say I think my Christmas came early this year. Even though I am unemployed, at least as traditional economists define the term, it's not all negative -- my unemployment compensation check arrived in the mail on Tuesday (a couple days late because of the Thanksgiving holiday) and with these checks I am able to maintain our basic expenses. And, because I am not cooped up in an office or factory all day, I get to see these magnificent displays put on by Mother Nature.

To those of my regular readers, I am sorry I missed a day in posting. Alma's laptop finally crashed once and for all, so she and I have been sharing my laptop. We had a couple scheduling hiccups with it yesterday, so I am only now able to post this latest report. Alma and have reached a modus vivendi of sorts and take turns with the sole remaining laptop an hour at a time. So I should be able to resume regular posting forthwith.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Universe's Indifference

Early in Dickens' Great Expectations, the young narrator Pip is thinking about the escaped convict Magwich whom he has encountered earlier that day and who is now on the run somewhere out on the marshes on a cold winter's night:
And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful if would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude
Pip's epiphany -- that the universe ("the stars") is indifferent to man's fate -- has this brutally stark quality to it. The stars care little about any one individual's fate. What makes this little vignette so remarkable to me is that, at this point in the novel, Pip is still a little boy.

I have had a similar epiphany when looking out at the ocean. The vast expanse of water tends to naturally propel my thoughts away from the trivial and mundane and toward the more philosophical and profound. To the question "What was I put on this planet to do?" the Pacific responds with a resounding, "Don't care."  The waves will continue to pound the sand regardless of any action I take and long after I am gone.

Now the universe's response of overwhelming indifference can push one towards either despair -- what's the point? -- or towards a greater self-reliance -- it's on me to determine my destiny. In my case, I find myself frequently vacillating between the two poles. When I start by saying that, because the universe cares not one whit what I say or do and so it is on me to determine my own destiny, the slapping waves remind me that, when all is said and done, nothing I say or do will make much of a difference one way or the other.

These are age-old questions -- they have been around since Marcus Aurelius and probably long before he wrote -- but there is something about being down at the ocean that brings out the armchair philosopher in me and stimulates deep thoughts. For just as I realize that the universe indifferent to the fate of man or even of mankind, looking at the ocean makes me realize also how insignificant I am in the cosmos. As a grain of sand to me, so I am a grain of sand to the cosmos.

The quote from Great Expectations acquires an even more ironic flavor as the novel continues, because the story is really a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age narrative of a Victorian 'gentleman' who becomes that only by virtue of having a secret benefactor (the convict Magwich who, after having been transported to Australia, becomes incredibly wealthy and uses the attorney Jaggers to become Pip's 'benefactor'). As Pip grows into adulthood and decadent gentrification -- he's the first Yuppie in Anglo literature -- his essential aloneness and isolation become all the more evident. The stars gaze down on Pip with no help or pity. And only Joe, simple Joe, continues to love Pip even after his essential human vacuity has revealed itself.

When we look to the cosmos to validate our existence, we look in vain.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Barefoot in the Sand in November

As it happened, the weather cleared up enough on Saturday and yesterday so that Alma and I could walk on the beach rather than return to the Westside Pavillion. I vastly prefer walking on the beach to walking inside a mall, so I am afraid my follow-up weekend report on the Pavillion may have to wait until the next weekend we have inclement weather.

The weather both days was cool and windy. These are steady winds blowing in from the northwest (off the Pacific) or from the northeast (the so-called Santa Ana winds). And, when the sun goes behind the clouds, it can get quite chilly. A portion of the western sky fills up with long cigar-shaped cumulous clouds. However, the clouds do not solidly fill in the sky so there are occasional breakages in the sky when the sun shines.

Watching the play of light and shadow on the waves and on the sand as these clouds move across the sun's face is but one subtle sign of beauty for those with eyes to see. When the clouds obscure the sun, the air grows noticeably cooler and the sea wind seems to bite a little more deeply. Ah, but when the sun emerges from the clouds, the renewed warmth hitting the skin feels doubly good for having replaced the chill.

Alma typically wears a long-sleeve shirt, light sweater and hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants. In one of our trips to the mall, we bought her a new pair of boots at Old Navy and she has taken to walking the sand in those. I started with a short-sleeve t-shirt and sweatshirt and sweatpants. But it has become so chilly that I have now upgraded to a long-sleeve t-shirt, sweatshirt and light jacket (and sweatpants). I usually wear sneakers or walking shoes.

Well, yesterday, the sun had been out for an extended enough period that Alma decided to try walking without her shoes. She tested the waters (or the sands) first by putting her hand down onto the sand and discovering that it felt warm to her touch. So she took off her boots and, placing the socks inside them, gave them to me to carry in the recycling bag.

For the most part, walking barefoot in the sand worked perfectly for her and she did not complain about her ankles bothering her. However, on the return walk from the Villa Marina jetty, the sun slid behind a cloud for a fairly lengthy time and Alma was at the point of putting her boots back on. But, as has been the case so often these past few days, the sun slid out from behind the cloud and we finished the walk in glorious warm sunshine.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Writer's Block

Today I cannot come up with any subject which engages or inspires me.Typical case of writer's block. Alma has made two great suggestions (messages left in the sand and the Southern California phenomenon of flakes), but each of these leaves me uninspired for the moment. I am the type of writer who must allow time for subjects to germinate before I can harvest their fruits. So you shall see writing at some point about sand messages and about flakes. But not quite yet.

I have also tried circling back to Thoreau's Walden. But I must confess that this time around I have begun to find Thoreau's flowery style a bit tiresome. For some reason, the charm I so fondly associated with the book from my undergraduate days seems sorely lacking this time around. So, needless to say, I have not found any topics in Thoreau recently that compel me to write or serve as a springboard to my search for a suitable topic.

The weather has again turned cold and cloudy, so I think there is a fairly good chance Alma and I will eschew the beach today and return to the Westside Pavillion for our daily walk. I want to compare the WP mall today with what I saw earlier this week during the week. This is also the first Saturday following Thanksgiving, so I will be curious to see how frenzied the activity is there.

But writer's block is a serious matter for me. I know there are many things I could be writing about, but no subject agitates me to the point where I feel I must write about it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving at the Beach

Today is the Thanksgiving holiday. Alma and I made the customary feast (rotisserie chicken, au gratin potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes cranberry sayce and chocolate pecan pie). More accurately, I made the potates and stuffing, Alma made the green bean casserole and sweet potatoes and we bought a pre-rotiseried chicken from Ralph's Grocery Store. Yum. But we had to do penance for our over-indulgence, so it was off to the beach for us.

The windy weather I wrote about last week has for the most part abated and, while the chilly temperatures remain, we were blessed today with an absolutely cloudless sky and exceptionally clear skies. The Santa Monica bay is framed by the Santa Monica mountains to the north and north west. Directly east and at a greater distance lie the Sierra Nevada mountains. Today the skies and air were so clear that one could face to the northwest and then rotate all the way around to the southeast and see nothing but mountains.

The cold temperatures mean that snows have already begun to fall in the Sierra Nevada mountains and at lower elevations than customary. I could actually see the snows on the tops of some of the mountains in the Sierra and pointed it out to Alma while we were walking.

It being Thanksgiving, I gave some thought to what I had to be thankful about. I came up with three specifics: I'm thankful that I'm married to Alma. If you have taken the time to visit her website (, you have seen the beauty she has created where none existed before. I actually get to live with that beauty every day. It's like waking up each day in the Louvre Museum. I am so blessed.

I am also thankful that we had saved enough money that this most recent bout of unemployment has not really meant any serious dislocation for us. At least not yet. When I think about how bad some of my fellow Californians have it, I am again truly blessed that Alma and I continue to enjoy a high degree of financial security.

But the thing I was most thankful for, as I walked along the beach, was that I had all five of my senses. Today, I valued most highly smell and taste at home and sight at the beach. But really, I shudder to think how much poorer I would be if I lacked any of the five senses.

I am thankful that I have the beach to walk on every day the weather allows.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Decline and Fall of American Consumerism: The View from the Trenches (Part III)

The weather remaining cold and windy yesterday, Alma and I decided to venture a little further afield to the Westside Pavillion at the intersection of Pico and Westwood Boulevards. The WP is quite a bit more upscale than the Westfield Culver City mall I described initially. For one thing, there is no Target, no Old Navy and no Best Buy at the WP. Instead, the WP is anchored by a Nordstrom's and, in lieu of Old Navy, has a Banana Republic (the upscale relative to Old Navy and the Gap).

Likewise, the WP is connected by a so-called Sky Bridge to a Barnes & Noble and multiplex cinema. So the WP has a few more cultural connections than the purely consumer-driven Westfield CC mall. And, given is proximity to the main UCLA campus at the other end of Westwood Boulevard, the WP would seem to attract a mix of middle class academics, students and Westwood residents.

Again, the dominant feeling I had was that activity was quite muted. Now granted, this was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and the so-called 'Black Friday' stampede. But once again, in walking by Foot Locker and Lady Foot Locker (no Kids Foot Locker at WP), I was struck by a complete and total absence of customers. Same applies to most of the specialty apparel shops. Interestingly, the one shop that seemed to be having more than a few gawkers and idlers was a local shop, 'OC Design'. The WP had only one jewelry retailer, Zales, that I could see, and like the Westfield mall, this Zales had zero customers in the 90 minutes we were walking the mall and the 30 minutes that Alma went to OC Design.

Overall, though, I would have to say that I foresee a very shabby holiday season for these retailers. Alma noted that yesterday was a weekday and that tmost people tend to shop in malls on the weekends. Alma predicts the WP will be quite busy on the weekend, but I am not so sure. We may go there this coming weekend and, if so, I will supply a 'Part IV' to this running commentary.

Josey Cleans Up Our Mess

Venice Beach has always attracted more than its share of eccentrics, and I shall write in far greater detail about some of them over the coming months. But Alma and I ran into a gentleman named Josey while walking the beach on Monday who exexmplifies the best of that eccentricity.

We first encountered Josey well over a month ago while walking our stretch of the beach but, at the time, we did not know his name or anything about him. At the time, Alma and I were in full 'trash collection' mode, picking up every discarded piece of plastic we could for her found art. One day, while walking, we crossed paths with a man who carried a black plastic garbage sack. The man wore a circus top hat on his head and had long shoulder-length straight brown hair that flowed from underneath it.

I asked the man what he was doing and he replied that he was picking up trash along the beach. I told him what Alma and I did -- that we were collecting discards to use in Alma's art. I expressed my personal gratitude to him for his efforts cleaning the beach. And there the exchange ended.

However, since then, Alma and I have encountered him at least 3 other times on our same stretches of Venic Beach, most recently on Monday. Each time we encountered him previously (prior to Monday), we had exchanged courteous pleasantries and gone our separate ways, but without knowing much about one another.

On Monday, we had begun our walk northwards from the Washington Blvd. Pier to the small breakwater a half-mile north. When we reached that breakwater, a foreign tourist standing there asked Alma to take his picture. While Alma was helping the tourist, I again spotted this same man whom we had seen before.

He was picking at various kelp piles there, removing the odd piece of paper and plastic that had gotten tangled up in the kelp and again placing them in a black plastic garbage sack. I waved at him and said a hearty "hello." This time he walked over bearing something in his hands. When he reached me, I saw he carried one of those rubbery toy snakes.

"Here," he said. "I know you two collect weird stuff for your art." He proffered the rubber snake to me.

"Thanks," I replied. I put the rubber snake in my recyclying bag. "Actually, though, my wife Alma is the artist and I merely help her with the collecting of materials."

I introduced myself and asked his name and he told me it was Josey. I next explained that I was doing a blog about our walks down on the beach while I was currently unemployed.

"Are you and your wife only staying here for a year?" he asked, referring to my blog's title.

"No," I replied. "But I sure hope my unemployment doesn't last longer than that." I explained our situation and he replied that he too had lost his job . . . working in a medical marijuana dispensary that the Los Angeles District Attorney had raided and shut down.

"I've got an RV and I'm collecting food stamps," he said. "So I've decided that cleaning the beach is the most important thing I can be doing right now. Besides," he continued, "there aren't any jobs anyway."

During this conversation, I watched his face to check for any signs of delusional thinking. I could see none whatsoever. Josey's eyes looked normal and his physical comportment had an energetic but non-manic grace. Although he was dressed like a hippy in denim jeans and a denim vest, Josey was not dressed in rags like one of the homeless waifs you'll see so often on the beach, tormented by his or her own internal demons. I finally concluded that Josey, while eccentric, is not that different from Alma and me.

But Josey is a "heroic eccentric," forged in the same mould as Henry David Thoreau. You may look at him and think "He's crazy." But I look at him and say to myself, "He's cleaning up the messes that others make and preserving and protecting our common patrimony."

And, for all I know, Josey looks upon Alma and me as harmless eccentrics too, if he thinks of us now. If so, I cannot say Josey's perception is entirely incorrect.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ugly Foamlets, Strange Beauty

Here's an ugly truth. Sometimes walking on the beach feels like a chore. Not every walk down at the beach produces sweetness and light. And not every vista one sees is beautiful, as last night's walk demonstrates.
The rain having stopped, Alma and I returned to the beach yesterday afternoon for our customary walk. We only made about 2/3 of our normal three-mile walk on the beach itself because, while the rain had stopped, the temperatures had also fallen by a good 20-25 degrees. Compounding the drop in temperatures, strong northwesterly winds off the ocean blew the entire time we walked. Neither of us had dressed warmly enough for the cold and windy conditions.

The day began like many of the others I have described heretofore, sun shining brighly through scattered clouds in the westernmost quadrant of the sky. We could find no parking near Strongs Rd, but managed to find a spot on Pacific Ave. close to Venice Boulevard (mid-way between Strongs Rd. and Abbot Kinney Boulevard). So we were ideally positioned about 2 blocks from the beach.

When we arrived at the beach, the first image I had was of a thin sheet of sand blowing across the surface of the beach, such was the effect of the wind. There was no place to hide from it and the strong winds yesterday were sustained and not occasional gusts. Even though we began by walking southward, the winds were coming equally out of the west as from the north and so, as Alma constantly reminds me, that "big cold wet thing" out there made for a cold walk even walking southward.

While we walked southward toward the Villa Marina jetty, Alma and I noticed little foamlets on the sand, almost as if the Pacific had held a giant bubble bath and the bubble patches on the shore remained. I almost want to say that these foamlets were unnatural, the scummy by-product of pollution. The foamlets seem to hang around inordinately long, almost as if they have some chemical component. And they appear slightly dis-colored with a slightly off-white tint. The wind would push these foamlets across the surf and, when I noticed them, I mentioned to Alma that I thought these foamlets were singularly ugly. Alma disagreed. 

Now I admit that watching these foamlets dance across the sand had a certain grace, a certain sprezzatura. And I'll grant that perhaps my aesthetic judgment was somewhat clouded by the cold winds that were blowing yesterday. But I think that the reason I saw these foamlets as ugly is that they diverged so radicallhy from my picture of what a beach should be, the Platonic essence of 'beach-dom,' if you will.

Ironically, Venice Beach usually comes nowhere close to matching that Platonic beach ideal under even the most idyllic of circumstances. The water at Venice Beach is not blue and is often too cold for swimming or even wading. Often you find black globules of tar washed up on the beach from the offshore tar vents the area is famous for. And, as often as not, rotting kelp dots the shore. So asking Venice Beach to meet some Platonic ideal is asking a bit much. Even so, in no Platonic vision of beachiness do I find little commas of foam that stay on the beach long enough for the wind to push them around.

Alma said that the foamlets reflected what was going on in the sky and their blowing across the sand reflected the clouds blowing across the sky. Not literally, of course. To Alma, though, it looked like the clouds blowing across the sky were "a reiteration of what was occurring in Nature." And, it's true as Alma noticed, that in the wet sand itself, you could see reflections of the actual clouds themselves.

Alma took several pictures and so I will let you decide for yourself whether these foamlets are beautiful or ugly:

The sun sets at 5 p.m. or even earlier now. We finished our southward leg and arrived at the Villa Marina jetty at about 4:40 p.m. and had only about five minutes of direct sunshine left before the sun finally dipped beneath the western horizon. The wind continued to blow harshly but now, with no direct sunshine, the temperature and effort required began to feel unbearable to Alma and to me. So, after about 15 minutes of trudging northward back towards the Washington Boulevard Pier, we decided to get off the sand quickly and did so, returning to the car via surface streets.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Decline and Fall of American Consumerism: The View from the Trenches (Part II)

Alma and I returned to the Westfield Culver City Mall last night. As we had Friday night, we again walked for 90 minutes, from 5:45 - 7:15 p.m.

There were more people at the mall last night and, judging from the shopping bags they were carrying, shoppers were buying things at the mall last night. However, the feeling was decidedly muted and I again saw many retail shops with no customers in them. Specifically, there are four specialty jewelry outlets: Zales, Kay, Romano and Kevin's and, with seven complete circuits in 90 minutes, I saw at best 1-2 people patronizing any of the four. The 3 Foot Locker outlets (Foot Locker, Ladies Foot Locker and Kids Foot Locker) also had at best 4-5 customers between them. This in the space of 90 minutes on a Saturday evening.

When I checked Foot Locker stock on a lark, I was shocked to see that its stock price went up more than 10% on Friday alone. Why? Well, the per-share earnings had doubled in the previous quarter (from $0.16/share to $0.33/share), surprising analysts and the market. All I could do is shake my head - clearly that doubling in earnings is not coming from the Westfield Culver City mall, based on what I've been seeing.

In fact, all 3 of the stocks I checked (Foot Locker, Zales and Kay Jewelry) saw their share prices go up on Friday. So it's probably just as well that I only joked about selling shares of the stocks short, as I would have been punished for my presumption.

It appears as if the bad weather has lifted today, so Alma and I shall be heading down to the beach today. But I have no doubt we shall be returning to the malls soon when the weather turns inclement again.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Decline and Fall of American Consumerism: The View from the Trenches

In my second post, I wrote that my audience for this blog was as large as the world but as small as only myself. I would now like to refine that statement a little bit or to amplify upon it. Southern California is hurting right now -- in the midst of Great Depression v2.0 -- and I would like to describe that pain and offer some of my ideas for palliatives.

As of October 22, the unemployment rate in California as a whole stood at 12.4%, according to California's Economic Development Department (EDD). And this is using the narrowest U2 measure. More expansive definitions, up to and including the widest U6 measure, suggest that the percentage of Californians out of work, working less than full time but seeking full time work, or discouraged entirely from looking could climb as high as 25%. (In other words, one out of every four Californians of working age wants to work and cannot.)

The weather here has taken a sharp turn for the worse since Thursday. Cold temperatures, high gusty winds and a chilly, miserable rain have moved into the westside and promise to remain here for the next few days at the very least. Accordingly, last night, Alma and I decided to walk at a nearby mall, rather than our beloved beach.

We arrived at the Westfield Culver City Mall -- located just off the intersection of Sepulveda and Slauson Boulevards -- at about 5:30 p.m. and walked and shopped there until about 7:30. This mall is relatively small, as these affairs go. It has three levels, the uppermost of which is a modest food court with perhaps 8-9 food choices. Because we are now walking 90 minutes each day at the beach, we also resolved to walk for 90 minutes at the Westfield Mall. In practice, this meant about six full circuits. We spent three of those circuits on the ground floor and the other three on the second floor.

And what we saw was not pretty. The many specialty stores seemed entirely devoid of customers, even customers who were only browsing. Several of the storekeepers at the smaller stores actually stood in the doorways of their stores, looking forlorn as the pedestrian traffic passed them by. Not that the big anchor stores fared much better. Best Buy and Target anchor the southern end of the mall, Best Buy on the ground floor and Target on the second floor. Even Target seemed pretty muted -- we went in there at 7 p.m. when our walk was over to buy some lingerie for Alma and I observed that many Target clerks were standing around and not doing much of anything. More to the point, there were not that many customers coming through the checkout lines. We waited exactly 30 seconds for our cashier.

JC Penney anchors the northern end of the mall, occupying both levels.  Despite running numerous televsision ads constantly, the place seemed almost empty. We saw only one family of 5-6 people going in and, more important, no one leaving carrying a JC Penney bag. How in the world can these big chain stores remain open when there is no business at all?

Macy's occupies the first and second floors in the middle of the west side of the mall. It too seemed like a ghost town each time we walked by. Simply incredible. I foresee a very bad holiday season this year, based on what we saw last night.

There are probably 5-6 specialty athletic shoe stores there and we could see no customers in any of the stores. The mall has 3 dfferent Foot  Locker variants - none of the 3 had any customers that we could see. I joked to Alma that I was thinking about selling Foot Locker stock short, so shocking was the vista. What made it more depressing was that we could see all the sales people standing around fidgeting with the merchandise, mervously re-arranging it in the various displays.

"The whole place is vibrating with nervous tension," said Alma at one point. When I asked what she meant, Alma said, "These retailers are worried about counting on the Christmas season to stay in business." Indeed, there were two places in the mall that had closed up entirely or were in the process of going out of business. Alma continued that all the other retailers who remained wondered whether closing would be their fates also.

There were a lot of people at the mall but they did not seem to be shopping at any of the retail outlets there. God knows what the  people actually were doing -- perhaps eating dinner at the food court. We seemed the only people there who were using the mall space to exercise. But there is nothing culturally redeeming about this mall, no bookstore, no movie theaters. And so, if no one is shopping at the retail outlets, there really is no reason whatsoever I can see for this mall to exist.

What we saw at the mall last night, I think, is nothing less than the decline and fall of American Consumerism writ small. There is simply no way that retail establishments, whether nationally branded or locally based, can remain open, pay their staffs even the minimum wage and meet overhead, when they have no customers. There were a few customers in line to pay at Old Navy and at Claire's. But Old Navy was selling plenty of clothing items for less than $10 and Claire's is a novelty store that appeals to young girls, The rest of the Culver City mall is like a morgue or like some character from the Undead, not yet fully aware that it has died and still going through the motions.

I am no advocate of broad consumerism, no proponent of crass materialism, and I would not be entirely heart-broken to see America start learning to make do with less. At one point in our walk last night, I turned to Alma and said, "America deserves this for electing Bush for 8 years (or for standing by while the Supreme Court installed him illegally in a bloodless coup in 2000)." But a lot of people working at the stores in the Westfield Mall were mere children in 2000 -- they had nothing to do with Bush's junta but they will end up paying for the consequences. And when I think of all the people whose employment prospects depend upon a healthy, vibrant consumer economy, and when I see what I saw last night, I cannot help feeling a bit sad for what we had before and what has passed. In posts to come, I shall offer some ideas for fixing things. But after last night, I am not sure things can be fixed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Welcome to the Asylum

I have been unemployed since October 5 but have few regrets so far. I had basically exhausted any growth possibilities at the place I worked for the previous 4+ years. During those four years, Alma and I had, thanks to frugal living, repaired our balance sheet and paid off all our debts. In April of 2009, we took advantage of the housing collapse in Southern California to buy our first home, a condominium in Westchester whose extra bedroom became an art studio for Alma and a music studio for me.

Alma and I live frugally by Southern Californian standards. As I wrote earlier, I drive a 1993 Nissan. We have paid off all our credit card debt except for a few miscellaneous gas purchases. Furthermore, Alma and I had saved up some money prior to this unemployment beginning. I also am collecting unemployment compensation, so we are in no immediate fianncial danger. I have always landed on my feet in the past after periods of unemployment, some long and some short, and I have no doubt I will do in this case too, without any significant danger or damage to Alma's and my well-being.

Unemployment is very strange though. At the end of October, California's unemployment rate stood at 12.4%. Even by the strictest measure of how economists define 'unemployment,' roughly one out of 8 Californians who wanted work could not find it. (If one uses a more expansive standard of unemployment, to include those working part-time who wish full-time work and those who have given up looking entirely, the percentage may rise to Great Depression levels of 25%.) Add to this the fact that I am now 51. And the job boards are replete with horror stories of older workers who face lengthy stints of unemployment. So I look for a job that pays a regular salary or paycheck, but I also search for activities to fill my days.

Since becoming unemployed, I have finished two important tasks, while continuing to look for a new job. First of all, in early November, I started this blog so that, when this period of unemployment ends, I will have something of lasting value to show for the time I was without paid employment. I plan to have a book-length manuscript after a year of these daily blog posts. Only time will tell whether it becomes the next Walden.

Equally important, I have built a website to display and market Alma's art:

Right now, it's a pretty simple website, with only four inter-linked pages. But the site is scalable, so as Alma produces more work and organizes that work into shows, the site can grow to accomodate that growth.

The website allows Alma to evade the barriers to placing her work in brick-and-mortar galleries in Los Angeles. I shall write on that topic more at length in posts to come, but suffice it to say that gallery owners here look for artwork by a younger set that is hooked into some sort of bizarre hipster scene. Alma and I occasionally attend openings at one or more of these galleries and, frankly, the curating of exhibits is appalling to me. The works displayed for sale are ugly and leave me completely unmoved, except for remembering Flaubert's exhortation to epater la bourgeoisie (loosely translated: "shock the middle class"). Flaubert shocked the middle class but exhibited great artistry in doing so, whereas today's hipsters have the 'shock' part down minus the artistry.

We have put prices on a few of the pieces on display at the gallery; we have also offered Alma's work on a commission basis. So perhaps Alma's art will be discovered by one or more wealthy collectors. I shall use various strategems to place and keep Alma and her work in the public eye through this website.

Truth to tell, Alma and I have not decided whether the primary purpose of the Asylum is to display her art, to sell it or some combination thereof. As a putataive webmaster though, I can take some solace in the thought that I am not completely 'unemployed,' even if that employment has not produced any positive cash flow yet, nor may it ever. I take solace in remembering that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. And now look at Van Gogh. Likewise, even if the Asylum produces no sales, it has secured a sort of immortality for Alma, just as this blog has produced its equivalent for me. Seen in that light, cash flow is really only the icing on the cake.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Beach and the Five Senses

Most of my reports of our walks on the beach have, until now, concerned what the eyes can see. This focus on the visual makes sense, because Alma is a visual artist and this blog is in part a record of her creative process and how she sees the world around her. But the world of Venice Beach touches far more than merely the visual.

Here is an unpleasant truth about the beach. Sometimes it smells horribly, like something has died. Well, the reality is that something has died (or is constantly dying): the kelp that washes up on the beach and the occasional bird or fish. But the rancid smell becomes especially pronounced when one is around any of the man-made formations: either the Villa Marina jetty, the Washington Boulevard pier or the breakwater a half-mile north of the pier. The water is less turbulent there and that relative stillness and fewer and smaller waves must allow for the bacteria to proliferate that produce the smells.

Below are pictures of washed-up kelp and a dead or dying jellyfish:

In fact, I cannot say that any of these segments of Venice and Santa Monica beaches we regularly walk ever smell absolutely delightful. At least, though, when Alma and I walk the open beaches, the sea breezes blow constantly, refreshing the air we breathe and preventing any buildup of noxious scent. And there are times when the temperatures are especially mild that a balmy breeze seems to waft a pleasant tropical scent through my nostrils.

In the summer, the sand warms beneath the sun's rays, such that we can almost always remove our shoes. Walking through the soft pack bare-footed produces pleasurable sensations of the warm sand massaging our toes, feet and ankles. Only rarely does the sand reach temperatures where walking on it at length risks burning the soles of our feet. The Beaches and Harbors maintenance folk drag their rakes and harrows through the sand each morning, leaving vehicular tracks we can step into and out of. The sand is packed down a little more firmly in the vehicle tracks than in the surrounding unblemished sand.

And, of course, we walk the beach in part to collect material for Alma's art, so we continully engage our sense of touch whenever we pick up objects on the beach abandoned by man or washed up the sea. Often the object has become partially embedded in the sand, so reclaiming it requires moving sand away from it or pulling it out of the sand.

I find, though, that I respond most to the sound -- the white noise of the waves, the muted sounds of sea fowl, the even-more-muted sound of people talking at a distance. The white noise overwhelms almost all other noise. Even the high-pitched keening of children and gulls takes on a 'far away' muted quality because of the dampening effect of the white noise from the waves' breaking on the surfline. The annoying distractions of the frequent helicopters and planes flying overhead from the Los Angeles International  and Santa Monica airports, even that sound becomes muted before the ever-present and unending white noise of the waves.

I did not intend this post to catalogue each of the five senses and I have left out taste, as we engage that sense only in drinking juice from the sports bottles we prepare before walking. But walking on the beach engages the senses, all of them, and not solely the visual.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ten Waves per Minute

Last night we returned to our customary walk between the Washington Blvd. Pier and the Villa Marina jetty. I was curious to see how often the waves rolled in and so made sure I was wearing a watch, so that I could continue timing the periodicity of the waves.

Back in October, before I started this blog, I timed the waves that rolled in at the Villa Marina jetty. The rate at the time varied but the waves seemed to roll in at a rate of six to eight per minute. Yesterday, we began by walking the half-mile jag north from the Washington Blvd. pier to the little breakwater just north of Washington Boulevard. While we were walking, I tried to measure the periodicity of waves on that portion of the beach to see whether waves occurred with the same frequency as at the Villa Marina jetty.

Maybe it was the beautiful weather, maybe it was a heightened attention to my surroundings, but I simply could not seem to get accurate measurements yesterday. I would start timing when the second hand of my watch was straight up and would count 4-5 waves within the first 30-40 seconds, but then would lose my concentration. Also, last night, I noticed that not all waves are created equal. Sometimes, the waves are of uniform height and come in at regular intervals. Last night, though, it seemed like the waves' height varied considerably from one wave to the next. And, as often as not, a given wave would be followed by a smaller 'wavelet', a pale afterthought of a real wave. So should I count that as 1 wave or as 2 waves? I did not know and such considerations prevented me from ever completing a count through a full 60 seconds.

As though Nature were conspiring to divert me from my measurements, when we reached the small breakwater, I happened to notice a single dolphin swimming just beyond the point where the waves would start to swell before reaching full form. He (or she) seemed to be swimming a very narrow circuit between the breakwater and a point about 20 yards south. The dolphin would arch partway out of the water every so often but never so predictably that Alma could capture a picture of him. But I found that I would gladly ignore the second hand of my watch for a chance to see his back arch from the water.

Alma found herself taking pictures of some of the rock formations that form the breakwater. I told her that, if I were the Inspector of Sand Dunes, she was now the "Photographer of Rocks." Truth is, there are only so many things one can photograph down at the beach before the potential subject matter starts to run a bit dry. But Alma took some rockin' photos. Should we say that Alma rocks?

So, at any rate, I think in the Santa Monica Bay, under normal weather conditions, one expects to see about eight to ten waves per minute, or one every 5-6 seconds. I shall endeavor to measure the periodicity again when the weather has grown worse. The meteorologists are forecasting that temperatures will drop some 15-20 degrees by week's end and there may be rain this weekend. I would like to see if the frequency of waves increases when the weather worsens or whether the periodicity of waves remains constant no matter the weather.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dune Report - From Brooks Ave to the Santa Monica Pier

Alma needed art supplies from a store in Santa Monica so yesterday, after having purchased supplies,  we again parked on Brooks Ave, rather than drive back to Strongs Dr.. This time, unlike Saturday, we did walk on the sand and we walked an ambitious route from Brooks Ave. all the way north to the Santa Monica pier and back. (I estimate the total round trip distance at about 4 miles and the duration of 2 hours seems to confirm that, as our normal walking rate is 2 miles\hour.)

We again had gorgeous weather and, as a result, many locals had chosen to decamp on that stretch of the beach (the northern-most extreme of Venice and the southern-most extreme of Santa Monica). I prefer walking when there are fewer people on the beach; the more people around me, the more difficult I find it to commune with Mother Nature. Even though the white noise of the waves swallows up most of the sound they make, just their physical presence often seems distracting to me. And yesterday was no exception, at least at the start of the walk.

But what is a distraction for me is often an absolute boon for Alma. On the inital stretch of the walk north, we found many abandoned beach toys and other man-made detritus. We arrived on the beach at Brooks Ave. at about 4:15 p.m., and so we had about 45 minutes of glorious sunshine left before dusk. We used that time to our advantage.  Here is what we found:

10 bottle caps (red and green Coke primarily, but a couple orange Gatorade tops as well)
3 plastic toy sand shovels (pink, green and yellow)
1 plastic toy sand rake (yellow)
1 broken plastic serving spoon (white)
1 plastic toy bucket (red with white handle)
1 plastic dinosaur mold (yellow).

Alma joked that with all the dinosaur molds she has collected on the beach this summer and fall, she can now put together an assemblage piece called 'Dinosaur Art,' an oblique reference to some of the put-downs she has endured at the hands of the Los Angeles hipster art scene.

We also came across the intricate cross-webbed tracks of many seabirds and Alma thought the imagery deserved a photograph. I would not have seen the beauty without Alma's pointing it out to me. The bird tracks do possess a strange sort of elegant, almost fractal, beauty:

The Santa Monica pier has a small amusement park\carnival built on it.

As you can see from the picture immediately above and the picture at the beginning of this post, the Pier offers various rides and attractions, including a small roller coaster and a medium-sized Ferris wheel. Someone associated with the park (or with the company providing the Ferris Wheel) has programmed the most beautiful light show for the Ferris Wheel's lights. Often, after dark or even as the sun sets, we will see the Ferris Wheel presiding over the Pier like some giant electrified kaleidoscopic sentry. Alma took some photos last night with her cell phone but the camera does not capture the magnificence of this Ferris Wheel well.

The lights on the Ferris Wheel constantly change, perhaps every second, producing an effect that the lights and the wheel actually move. Now I know that someone somewhere had to program the light changes and intricate designs. That would be a hell of a job to have, making beautiful light shows with a Ferris Wheel. Just as the colors of the sunsets are often reflected in the area or surf where water meets sand, so too the lights of this Ferris Wheel reflect onto the sand right where the water meets the sand.

As for the bottle caps Alma and I reclaimed from the beach yesterday and on days previous, below is a photo of one of Alma's work in progress. A giant flower whose petals are composed of . . . you guessed it, soda bottle caps of various hues. If you look closely, too, you might notice that the two petals on the stem  actually began life as plastic toy sand rakes:

Finding the materials for 'found art' on the beach yesterday and then seeing the Ferris Wheel so brightly illuminated got me to thinking that, as touchy-feely as it may sound, art happens all around you and often you find art where you might least expect it, provided you are willing to open your eyes and look (or have a spouse who is an artist). The western sky is a giant canvas upon which the powers of the universe put their works but even in something as small and seemingly disposable as the cap of a Coke bottle is the material of art, requiring only the imagination, hands and diligence of a dedicated creator.