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 (http://www.almasartasylum.com/), 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:

http://almasartasylum.com/



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.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An Afternoon with the Venice Boardwalk and an Evening with the Culver City Symphony Orchestra

Alma and I went to the beach earlier than usual yesterday because we had an evening engagement planned with a friend at the 2010-11 debut concert of the Culver City Symphony Orchestra. The weather yesterday afternoon was simply gorgeous. As a result, we were unable to find parking in our customary spot and instead had to park further down on Brooks Ave. Brooks feeds straight into the heart of the Venice Boardwalk, a strip of t-shirt, tatoo and trinket vendors, and we decided to walk down the Boardwalk between Brooks and Windward Circle, rather than venture out onto the sand. I shall have far more to write about the Boardwalk in subsequent posts. Suffice it to say for now that the feeling and energy right now on the Boardwalk are somewhat muted, given that the high season is over. There are still many vendors hawking their wares there, but there are noticeably empty spots which during the high season would be filled.

Still, we had a nice walk and I did not get a sunburn. I was concerned, because I all too frequently forget to bring sun block. And, although I forgot to bring any yesterday, I managed to find shady spots along the Boardwalk to tarry while Alma perused the vendors' wares and looked for any unusual art supplies.

We had to walk early because we would be attending the concert that started at about 7 p.m. last night. Now I should point out that I have something of a background in popular and classical music. When I came out to Los Angeles from the midwest in 1994, I tried to break into the pop music business out here (with at best mixed results). I play guitar, piano and a few other instruments. Before I earned B.A. degrees in English and History, I studied classical piano performance for two years at the Conservatory of Music in Kansas City, Missouri.  So I know a little bit more than the average citizen about classical music, you could say.

This performance last night brought to mind Samuel Johnson's witticism regarding Milton's Paradise Lost: No one would have wished it any longer. It really is a shame, as there was a large audience for the concert. One had the feeling that this audience was a bit untutored in classical music, as witnessed by its proclivity to clap at inopportune moments. Still, the audience did not get to feel the magic of a truly electric live performance of classical music. One of the orchestra's adminsitrative flunkies actually came out before the concert started to instruct the audience in proper concert etiquette, i.e., no cell phones and no talking. Not a good harbinger of what was to come, as it turned out.

The program was billed as a tribute to veterans and, in keeping with that theme, started with a medley of U.S. military service agency themes, like 'Anchors Away' and the 'Marine Hymn.' I knew we would be in for a long night when, upon the conclusion of a hum-drum prosaic rendition, the conductor (Frank Fetta) turned to face the clapping audience and beckoned the audience (but not the orchestra!) to stand. "Only in LA," I thought "would a conductor motion to his or her audience for a standing ovation." Very strange. At intermission, Alma confided that she thought the conductor was trying to signal to us that this would be as good as last night's performance was going to get.

The program continued with 'Excerpts' from Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite. Why 'Excerpts'? No explanation given in the program notes for why nor for how or why the specific excerpts were chosen. I started noticing ensemble problems though almost from the start of this piece, as entrances were just a few milliseconds late and notes held a few milliseconds too long, particularly among the violins and violas.

The first half of the program concluded with Schumann's Cello Concerto. The soloist, Peter Myers, played quite passionately in his solo passages and cadenzas and convincingly conveyed some of Schumann's Romantic spirit. But I could not help but feel that the orchestra held back Myers' performance. In a concerto, the primary role of the orchestra should be to accompany the soloist and allow the soloist to set the pace. In this case, though, the orchestra did not seem to be accompanying the soloist so much as playing its own concerto to its own tempo, one that the soloist kept trying with only mixed success to speed up.

Indeed, tempo proved a constant challenge for this director and orchestra. And nowhere more so than in the second half of the program, when the orchestra played Beethoven's "Eroica" in its entirety. Beethoven marked the first movement as 'Allegro con brio' meaning 'Fast with spirit'. Instead, the conductor chose to conduct the movement to almost an 'Andante non con brio' tempo. What was the conductor thinking? He was nothing if not consistent, however, as each of the next 3 movements played more slowly than either Beethoven intended or modern convention typically has them. Especially obnoxious was the final movement "Allegro molto". It seemed to me that the most the audience ever got was an Allegretto. The ensemble problems I had begun to notice in the Stravinsky became really noticeable in the 4th movement.

There were some good things about last night's performance: the orchestra's intonation in general was good. I noticed that the woodwinds and brass played with passion and feeling. The oboist was especially noteworthy during the 2nd movement (the so-called Funeral March) of the Eroica.

However, good intonation and good intentions do not a masterful performance make. It was not all the director's fault. The acoustics in the hall were less than optimal. But I constantly heard voicing problems throughout -- by 'voicing,' I mean that the balance between the sections seemed off at crucial moments in each piece. I swear there were places in the Beethoven where it seemed like instruments were simply missing, the balance between sections was so poor. That I do hold the conductor responsible for. And rather than wave his arms melodramatically through the air like some swimming -- or perhaps drowning -- aquatic mammal, would it be too much to ask that the conductor first use his baton like a metronome to make sure that all members are playing on the beat? Upon the recapitulation of Beethoven's 3rd movement (the "Scherzo"), unless I miss my guess, the orchestra simply dropped two beats of music, skipped over them as though they did not exist, replacing the glory of Beethoven with ... two fewer beats of Beethoven.

When Alma and I left that night, we overheard a violinist outside the hall complain about the 'blitzkrieg of notes'.  Had he overheard that comment, Beethoven would be stomping his feet, tearing his hair and throwing his baton at the offending orchestra member. When an orchestra's instrumentalists feel they are dealing with a "blitzkrieg of notes," that might explain why they would be tempted to skip a couple beats here and there.

I hate to say this, but the Culver City Symphony Orchestra should not have performed Beethoven's 3rd last night. It should have stuck with the 1st or 2nd -- both relatively simple pieces by comparison -- and left the 3rd to the big boys and girls at the LA Philharmonic. (The LA Philharmonic might want to give that oboist a good listen though.) The really sad thing from last night's performance is that the magic of the music did not come through in the slightest. It is safe to say that those who came without prior exposure to any of the pieces left unmoved. And given my prior exposure to some of the pieces, I was left feeling vaguely resentful and determined that I would spend no more time in this orchestra's and director's presence. If you are going to play Beethoven, you should play him as he intended he be played or you should propound an original vision of his work. You do the audience and Beethoven a dis-service if you promulgate a wishy-washy mish-mash of half-baked musical nostrums and hide behind a melodramatic presentation to disguise the utter emptiness, vacuity and banality of your soundscape

Friday, November 12, 2010

Are Cars Necessary?

I carried on at length in my post of November 10th about cars, driving and parking in Los Angeles. An astute observer might say that I carried on at such length because I had a guilty conscience. And why would I have a guilty conscience about something as mundane as a car? Because one does not absolutely have to own a car to survive in Los Angeles. As Thoreau might say, a car is not "necessary." A car in Los Angeles, though, is a major convenience and life without one here can be distinctly brutish and often unpleasant.

Before Alma met me, she had spent her entire adult life without a car, including 10 years in Los Angeles. She survived in a previous marriage and then as a divorcee and single mother using public transportation and her feet. Alma points out that, before she met me, she never had to exercise, because she walked so much in her day-to-day life. Now, ironically, we drive to the beach each day . . . in order to get exercise. Thoreau would no doubt find that little paradox worthy of comment.

I drive a beat-up 1993 Nissan Sentra and have done so since June of 1993. Despite having been seriously damaged twice in hit-and-run accidents while parked and vacant on the street, the Nissan still runs well. It has about 125,000 miles on it, although the clutch may be starting to fail. I have long since paid off the loan I took out to pay for it and so consider myself truly a free man when driving it. It is a very dependable vehicle and I would not trade it for anything else on the road, I think. Well, now the clutch may be starting to fail and I have been warned that this could be an expensive repair. But it is an expense I will gladly endure because I have no car payment and because I save so much time with it. compared to taking the bus, bicycling or travelling on foot.

I must say, though, that when I am driving and I happen to look over to my left or to my right and see a single person driving one of these modern-day land yachts like a Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade, or when I see some high-paid denizen of society driving a BMW or Mercedes, I must confess to wondering how much of the car he drives is necessity and how much instead ostentatious display.

Or, as Thoreau might say, the people in LA who drive these opulent displays are the

most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.

I occasionally see commercials on television for these types of expensive vehicles and am continually thunderstruck by how high the monthly payments can run, often in the neighborhood of $4-500/month just for the vehicle payment. When one adds insurance, the monthly vehicle cost may easily exceed $750/month. I have never seen the inside of an Escalade or Navigator, but I think one had better be able to live inside one for $750/month.

One of the things I most like and admire about Thoreau is that he is so uncompromising, at least in print. His curmudgeonly persona matches the persona I frequently offer to the world; one of my former companions referred to me as a "Spartan in the land of plenty" and so I find in Thoreau something of a kindred spirit. Thoreau sets a high standard and one that I find impossible to attain completely, but his standard is one I strive for in my daily life.

The first section or chapter of Walden, "Economy," offers a protracted discussion of what exactly is necessary to survive and to stay free. Somehow I think Thoreau would heap scorn on anyone who said that he or she simply had to have a motorized vehicle to survive or to save time. If one were to reply to Thoreau about how much time one wasted getting from point A to point B by bus or, better yet in Thoreau's thinking, on foot, Thoreau would reply that one is imprisoned by the very idea that one "must" get from point A to point B in any amount of time. This "gospel of the necessary," if preached by a fuss-budget, would drive most people away. And although he does sometimes come across as a bit prissy, still Thoreau compels us to engage his point that we do not possess things so much as they possess us.

Here is what Thoreau says:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable [sic], but positive hinderances [sic] to the elevation of mankind.

Along those lines, thinking like Thoreau, is it not a contradiction of the highest order to think that one must save time to get to the beach only to stand in the presence of timelessness? Is it not a contradiction of the greatest severity to employ the infernal internal combustion engine in order to more quickly see Nature face to face? And is not one doing a disservice to brutes to call life without a car 'brutish' as I did in my first paragraph?

Life is 'brutish' without a car in Los Angeles? Thoreau would laugh at me, just as he would laugh at my petty need to save time. But I still like Thoreau. A lot. And I would gladly offer him a ride to anywhere he needed to go. And he would probably gladly accept it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why I Posted So Late Yesterday and Today

My regular readers will have noticed that I did not post an entry last night until far later than had been my custom previously. The same has happened today.

As it happens, I am helping build a virtual gallery to display Alma's art online. We decided to use Yahoo for our web hosting solution and Yahoo offers a website design kit that is fairly intuitive and user friendly, i.e., does not require any programming.

However, because Alma's website of necessity includes a large number of images and not as much text, I find that she and I are spending a lot of time editing photographic images of her art. I will have far more to say on the issue of art galleries and the "art scene" in Los Angeles in later posts. Suffice it for now to say that this virtual gallery I am building for Alma leapfrogs entirely over the whole question of how to display her work in physical brick-and-mortar galleries.

We hope to launch this website on Saturday. I will of course post a link to it when it launches. But my time to post on this blog right now is limited. So I hope my regular readers and any current or prospective cult followers will have patience and bear with me during this time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How We Prepare to Walk

A whole host of things happen before Alma and I begin our walks each day,  First and foremost, we must drive to the beach from our home. As I have written earlier, the beach is really only about 5 miles from where Alma and I live and you might think we could easily ride a bus or a bicycle to it.

A bus ride to the beach in Los Angeles, however, is not always a simple matter. Alma and I live in Westchester, close to a couple major bus lines, but neither line goes straight to the beach. Instead, each bus travels to a central hub, from which we must transfer twice more to end at the beach we prefer. I am not opposed to buses in principle and have used them regularly in the past to commute to various jobs. And I would gladly take one to the beach, were it not that the bus ride each way lasts about 90 minutes (or 3 hours round-trip), when I can easily reach that same beach by car in 15 minutes each way, or one-sixth the time.

I will grant you that there are many advantages to riding a bus, not the least of which is not having to fret about parking. I am unemployed and I suppose my time is now cheaper. But I simply cannot justify to myself the massive amounts of time required to get from point A to point B by bus when the same trip by car lasts only 1/6 the time. The Los Angeles MTA has not yet invented a way that one can work on one's laptop while riding its buses and, while Alma and I would surely enjoy the additional time we spent together getting to and from the beach by bus, by the time we had completed our walk, and with three hours for the bus ride factored in, we would be looking at spending upwards of 5-6 hours for each beach walk. And that kind of time means we might also need to start worrying about dining options while out, another expense we cannot easily afford while I am unemployed.

As for riding a bicycle to the beach, the thought is tempting. However, Los Angeles is a motorized city and has almost no bike paths once one leaves the coast. Any time you ride a bike on the streets of LA, you place your life at risk. Not so much because the bicyclist is unsafe. Rather, motorists here seem particularly out of tune with anything not powered by an internal combustion engine.

So for safety and time savings, taking the car is really the only way to go in Los Angeles. But this choice brings up the bane of every Southern California motorist's existence: parking. We have developed quite a ritual in our search for the perfect parking spot.

Parking at a public or private lot at the beach can cost a lot. During the high summer months on weekends, a spot in the beach lots can run as high as $20 for all day parking. Even during the off-season, I have seen the parking go as high as high as $10. My unemployed status means I look for free parking whenever possible. So Alma and I always try first to park on Strongs Dr., a little side street about four blocks from the beach, so that we can walk down any of several pedestrian walkways that lead to the beach.

In order to find parking on Strongs Dr during the summer months, we found that we needed to arrive there after 5:30 p.m. when most beach goers had left or were in the process of leaving. Now that the high season has ended, though, we almost always find a parking spot there no matter what time of day we arrive.

However, if there is no parking on Strongs Dr., we have discovered several other no- and low-cost alternatives. Pacific Avenue, for example, runs parallel to the beach all the way from Washington Blvd. northward from Marina del Rey to Santa Monica. There is free street parking on either side of the street all along the way. If we are lucky and there has been no parking available on Strongs, we might find a spot on Pacific Ave. Failing that, after we have driven north past the famous Windward Circle that is the central hub of Venice Beach, we arrive at Brooks Ave. A sharp right onto Brooks takes us across the north-south artery Main St and onto Abbot Kinney Blvd. where we may also find free street parking.

The problem with the Pacific Ave and Abbot Kinney possibilities is that Alma and I, interlopers from outside the area, must compete for spots with residents who live there. Venice takes a laissez-faire approach to parking, unlike its more militant sister Santa Monica, so that interlopers and residents in Venice have equal claim on any free street parking spots. However, in our experience, residents have already taken most of the spots on most days before we ever arrive.

So we will then continue northward down Main St. to the border of Santa Monica and Venice. If we are lucky we might find a free spot on Santa Monica's 2nd St (which turns into Venice's Hampton Dr once one crosses the border). Or if we are lucky we might a free spot on Santa Monica's 3rd St. (which becomes Venice's 3rd Ave). More often than not, we must park on the Venice side of the border, because Santa Monica reserves street parking for its residents after 6 p.m. And Santa Monica's parking enforcement is notorious for religiously enforcing its post-6 p.m. residents0only policy. Tickets range from $40-$60 for a single violation. Venice has no such restrictions on non-residential parking.

Finally, if all the free spots are taken, metered parking is available for quite reasonable hourly rates of $0.75/hour, just west of Main St and just north of Pier Ave, at the southern edge of Santa Monica. Two caveats: first, the meters allow only three hours of parking, so one must plan one's excursions carefully and second, the meters take only coins, so one must make sure one has ample change with one to feed the meters or run the risk of afore-mentioned $40-$60 violations.
Taken all together, we find that a single round trip with gas and metered parking included runs us no more than $5. If we find free parking, the single round trip cost drops to about $2.50, ironically about $1 less than the cost for two round trip bus trips.

We usually try to decipher the weather we will encounter at the beach before we leave each day so that we can choose the appropriate attire. During the high summer months, most often I  wear shorts, a t-shirt and tennis shoes. Alma chooses between a skirt and sun dress but will also occasionally wear shorts. If the weather looks a bit chilly or cloudy, I will invariably wear jeans or sweat pants and a sweatshirt. Alma will almost always wear the same.

We must also decide what we will carry and what we will leave behind. I usually carry a sport bottle filled with fruit juice and ice from which we can both drink when thirsty. I also carry a recycling bag for any detritus we might find on the walk and for our socks and shoes should we decide to walk shoeless.

Finally, we must decide in which direction to start. When beginning at Catamaran Street, one of the pedestrian walkways that leads from Strongs Dr to the ocean, Alma and I usually start by walking south 1 mile, then turning and walking north 1.5 miles, before returning to our jumping off point with a .5 mile walk south. At other beaches, however, we might start by walking north on the first leg with our final leg being southward back to our jumping off point.

As I wrote this today, I struggled to find some deeper meaning to it all, some sort of transcendence to the dull routine of preparing to walk each day. While certain portions of what I have detailed here partake of ritual -- the preparation of the sports bottle comes to mind, as does the drive down Washington Blvd towards the Pacific before embarking on the search for parking -- I find that these preparations, while absolutely necessary to a successful walk, do not have much redeeming social value. Maybe I am tired and unable to see beyond the mundane details for the bigger picture. Or maybe their significance resides in their very mundaneness. I do not know, but I detail them here so that my readers will understand a little more the preparations Alma and I make each day prior to beginning our daily walks.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dune Report

"Brisk" ... "Bracing" ... "Blustery"

All words used to describe last night's walk on the beach.. Wind gusts from the north-northeast at up to 40-50 mph. Steady breezes of 20-25 mph.

When we got home from our 3-mile walk last night, I was curious to see how hard the wind had been blowing. I came across this online alert from the National Weather Service:

URGENT - WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE LOS ANGELES/OXNARD CA
355 PM PST MON NOV 8 2010
...GUSTY WINDS WILL AFFECT PORTIONS OF SOUTHWEST CALIFORNIA
THROUGH TONIGHT...
...GUSTY NORTHWEST WINDS ARE DEVELOPING ACROSS MUCH OF THE
SOUTHLAND TODAY. WIND GUSTS BETWEEN 35 AND 50 MPH WILL BE COMMON
ACROSS THE ADVISORY AREAS WITH GUSTS TO AROUND 60 MPH EXPECTED

Walking on the beach in such stiff winds differs significantly from most of the beach walks I detail. Most of the time, the ocean and beach are very placid. The breezes, such as they are, typically blow gentle and warm. But last night's walk was entirely different. It was nature "red in tooth and claw" (or the nautical equivalent thereof). A wild, savage beauty.

I never intended this blog to become an episodic chronicle of our daily adventures on the beach, a sort of "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" day-by-day account. Actually, though, my very first post "Inspector of Sand Dunes" (November 3, 2010) did suggest that this would be  my purpose:


During this year, I hope to publish daily accounts of my wife Alma's and my perambulations upon Venice Beach as we gather materials for her art and exercise to defeat the nicotene demons.
But as I have begun to post daily, and as I have continued to re-read Thoreau's Walden, my purpose has changed and evolved. I now realize that I do not want my blog to be merely an online diary or journal of day-to-day events. Yes, I want to focus on the beach and our walks there and how those beach walks affect Alma's art and my healing. But I also want this blog to provide a snapshot of what it's like to live with an artist and how doing so changes one's way of seeing and being. Finally, I want this blog to offer a profound meditation on the world we live in now and the world I would like to live in. For those of you tiring of the blow-by-blow accounts, have patience, for you will see a change come upon this blog. For those of you who enjoy the blow-by-blow accounts, do not despair, as they will not be departing entirely

Along those lines, I shall henceforth publish periodic 'Dune Reports' that attempt to capture events of specific beach walks. I think once or twice a week should suffice for your inspector's reports on the condition of the dunes. The word "dune" is actually something of a misnomer, as I understand the term, for a dune is a sand formation that has been shaped by the wind and elements over the millenia. As it happens, the beaches at Venice, Santa Monica and Marina del Rey are regularly groomed by members of the municipal Beaches and Harbors Department. Although the grooming happens very early in the mornings apparently, the sand is raked almost every day. Frequently, at night, we can still see the tracks of the tractors they use to rake the sand.

Last night, we began our walk at 4:15 and ended at 6:00 p.m. Now that Daylight's Savings Time has ended, the sunsets happen at around 5 p.m. each day. By 6 p.m., it is now fairly dark on the beach. We typically walk a south-north route, starting by walking 1 mile south, continuing next with a 1.5 mile leg north, capped by a final .5 mile leg south back to our jumping-off point. (This augmented 3-mile trek honors the blog having received its 5th follower a few days ago.) After we finished the first southward leg and had turned northward for the second leg, we could both feel the extra effort walking into the stiff northerly wind required. At one point, while we were still walking southward on the first leg, we crossed paths with someone walking north who had not come prepared. This person, a young Asian lady in her 30's I would guess, had both hands over her ears and looked like she was in extreme agony. Alma told me I looked like an old sea dog as I strode along.

The sand on the hard pack had crusted over because of all the wind yesterday. A few words on the geography of the beach: From the parking lot and paved ocean walk the first 30 yards or so are what Alma and I call 'soft pack,' sand that is loose and that readily gives way under foot. Walking in the 'soft pack' generally requires far more effort than walking in the hard pack, which begins about eight yards from the water's edge depending on the position of the tide. In fact, when exercising, Alma and I recommend that people walk in the soft pack because it requires so much additional effort to move one's feet along and through the sand.

Typically, the transition from soft pack to hard pack manifests gradually and you have to look for it to see the transition point. Not so last night, however. Whether because of the violent winds or because of the driven waves, the sand transitioned abruptly from soft pack to hard pack with these little hard-edged walls or 'shelves' of sand about 1 foot high. Alma took the position that these shelves were created by the wave action, whereas I argued that it was the wind constantly eroding loose granules of sand that caused the phenomenon.



Sand Shelf - November 8, 2010

Alma pointed out that she needed to take pictures at different times to capture the orange and blue color contrasts. According to Alma, the vertical shelf was orangish in hue, whereas the softpack further away from the ocean was a beautiful dark blue. Well, I could see the orange in the vertical shelf but the 'blue' Alma claimed to see, I did not see with my naked eye. However, when you examine this photo, sure enough the soft pack to the left of the vertical shelf appears blueish in tint.

As we walked on the hard pack, we could see loose sand granules blowing over the hard pack. It was a very beautiful sight -- it actually looked like sheets of sand were swirling about atop the hard pack. That loose sand seemed to hug the ground closely. None of it got in my eyes and Alma did not report any in her eyes either.

Last night's was the first walk on which we found nothing to bring home with us for Alma's art. Perhaps, as Alma pointed out, the blowing sand had covered anything of interest. Fewer and fewer people are coming to the beach each day as the days shorten and winter approaches, so there will be less and less detritus until next spring.

But if we did not find anything usable to bring home with us, we saw sights that made the walk worthwhile. We had a minimalist sunset. The gusty winds accompanied clear skies so, except for a smattering of clouds directly overhead and a few heavier clouds in the far west, there was little for the sunset to project onto. But the clear skies made for excellent shadows upon the sand. As you can see, your Inspector of Sand Dunes casts a mighty long shadow, as does his illustrious sidekick and brilliant artist companion.


Even with a minimalist sunset, though, the pinks of the sunset reflected onto the wet sheen on the hardpack closest to the water's edge. The spirits alive in the world and the universe use the beach as their canvass.



After we reached the end of the 1.5 mile northward leg and had turned and begun the final .5 mile leg southward to our jumping off point, we both noticed the tiniest sliver of moon visible in the west-southwest quadrant of the clear sky. Alas, Alma had used up all the memory on her phone by that point and could take no further pictures. With the wind at our backs, the sound of the waves crashing to our right and the crescent moon visible ahead, we finished our walk and headed back to the car.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Alma Embraces Stone

After Alma and I had walked the beach for about 2 weeks, we began to notice that on certain days the ocean seemed to have thrown up small, flat black stones onto the beach. We are still unclear where these stones come from, whether heaved from the earth after underwater seismic activity or perhaps spewed from the same off shore underwater vents that spew the black gobs of tar that frequently wash up on the beach.

When we first encountered these small, flat black stones, Alma immediately considered them a possible ingredient for mosaics. And so we began to collect them whenever we came upon them. They were not there every day and no specific event occurred to cause the stones to show up on any given day. Furthermore, they would show up in patches. Some days, we could walk 500 paces without seeing a single stone but plenty of the globules of tar. Then suddenly, the black globules of tar would be gone and instead it would appear as if the beach was checkerboarded for another 500 paces with these flat, black stones.

Alma could not use every stone. She could not use most stones. The ones she could use had to meet two basic criteria: flat and black. Many of the stones were black but round like your garden-variety rock. Many of the stones were flat but were slightly off black or even other colors like red or brown. I would estimate that we selected one out of every 100 stones for use in her mosaics.

And here is how an artist works with raw materials. Each day that we found these stones on the beach, we would bring home a few handfuls that we had winnowed. Once home, Alma would take them out on our balcony so they could thoroughly dry out. She then would sit with a 12 x 12 canvass and endlessly arrange and re-arrange the stones on the canvass, seeking the best fit and further winnowing the harvest. As it happened, not every stone could find a place on the canvasses and often there would be holes in the fill that had to wait for another 2 or 3 trips before we found exactly the right stone to fill them.

Once Alma had the right set of stones for a given canvass, my role was pretty much done. Alma first applied a substance called CellUClay to the entire surface of the canvass. CellUClay, a greyish-white fibrous substance somewhat akin to papier mache, was essential to stiffen the canvass so that it could support the weight of the stones. Next, Alma took a hot glue gun and glued the stones to the canvass. After the glue had dried and the stones set, Alma used a black Sharpie pen to draw the outlines of two figures embracing on the stones and painted one of the two figures blue and the other silver. The final step, once the paint had dried, was to apply CellUClay to the gaps between the stones, so that the CellUClay between the stones appeared pristine white.

I did not have the presence of mind to take pictures of Alma while she was at work, so the only pictures I have are ones taken after she completed the works just last week. However, I observed her closely while she was working and am always amazed when I think of the attention to detail required to get every aspect of these pieces exactly right. I would not have the patience for it myself and, in fact, I get a bit impatient even watching Alma's endless tinkering and meticulous detailing. It would be fair to say that she is happiest while she is creating, but I am happiest when the creations are complete and ready for my eyes to feast.

And here is the final result:


Stone Cold Embrace I


Stone Cold Embrace 2

If these pieces do not sell, they are destined to hang on either side of the head of our bed. As you might imagine, each one weighs about 10 pounds with all the stones, so we will have to exercise a little additional care in how we hang them, given Southern California's proclivity for earthquakes. It would be tragic were one to come crashing down onto Alma's or my heads.

They really are spectacular. If anyone reading this has any interest in purchasing one or both pieces (Stone Cold Embrace 1 and Stone Cold Embrace 2), please let me know via posting a Comment on this post or becoming a Follower. I will be in touch.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

If I Lead, Will They Follow?

Today marked a milestone of sorts for this blog, as it acquired its fifth 'follower'. I had told Alma that as soon as the blog crossed that threshold, I would be willing to extend our walks to a third mile. That we did today. We were rewarded with perhaps the best sunset we have had since we began walking in June. The day did not promise to start out that way.

Due to the switch from Daylight Savings Time last night, we arrived at the beach today at about 3:30 p.m. (about an hour earlier than we were arriving before the switch to DST). When we arrived, the sky was socked in with ominous looking rain clouds. The sun was not shining and, in fact, the skies appeared as if rain was imminent. We decided to give the walk a go anyway. Much to our surprise and relief, about 30 minutes in, strangely, the skies at the western most horizon cleared somewhat of clouds and the sun began to shine through them, warming us and giving us the bright light Alma needs so badly.

But the clouds remained in the rest of the sky, which proved to our advantage when it came to the sunset. Because those clouds became a canvass on which the sun could paint as it fell into the far western horizon. It was simply amazing to see how the sky pinked up in every direction. The photos below will give you a sense of what we saw. Had we not walked the extra mile today, we would not have seen this sunset. We did our standard roundtrip from the pier at Washington Boulevard to the Villa Marina breakwater, but upon our return walked a further half-mile north from the pier to an unnamed breakwater where the big lifeguard administration building and tower is and then a half-mile back. That final mile is where we witnessed the full glory of today's sunset.



Sunset at Venice Beach - Novembe 7, 2010

So, thank you to the 'Gang of Five.' as I refer to my first group of followers. One of you jokingly remarked the other day that signing up to become a follower reminded you of joining a cult. Were I to start a cult, what would be its tenets? Well, my cult would thoroughly repudiate the world of commerce and consumption. So I would insist that any members of my cult commit to spending at least an hour a day completely "off the grid," whether that be at the beach with me and my acolytes or in your own particular space. In fact, I would demand that my cult members renounce the consumption and materialism that seem to characterize so much of modern life. I suppose I would also demand that each of my cult followers blog or journal daily about his or her activities, thoughts and feelings.

Henry David Thoreau has always struck me as the type of figure suitable to lead a cult. Thoreau's rugged and militant individualism strongly suggests that he would have been very uncomfortable as the head of any movement of followers. And yet that same uncompromising individualism would draw others to him like a candle flame draws moths.

In his later years,Thoreau attached himself to the anti-slavery\abolitionist cause with some zeal. This leads to what may seem a decided contradiction in his life and work, I guess. Thoreau strongly endorsed the ill-fated violent insurrection at Harper's Ferry of abolitionist John Brown. But in other parts of his life and work, Thoreau seems to endorse only non-violent resistance. So at least on one central issue in his life and work, whether the use violence is justified to resist injustice, Thoreau seems to want to have it both ways. (While I admire and respect John Brown, I pretty much come down on the non-violent side of this spectrum, as I think that violence usually tends to beget only more violence.)

By these standards, I suppose I would make a good cult leader. My life is and has been a contradiction and any of my acolytes expecting much internal consistency from me will look in vain. Likewise, I have spent about 1/2 of my adult  life protesting non-violently against various Republican Presidents (Reagan, George H.W. Bush and, most recently, George W. Bush) with a zeal that approaches Thoreau's. Finally, I think I know how to save the world if it will only let itself be saved.

Care to join my cult? Become my follower and you will be amply rewarded.

It's Not Even Thanksgiving Yet

The weather service had predicted that the balmy temperatures would be ending on Friday and, sure enough, when we arrived at the beach yesterday at about 5 p.m., temperatures had dropped about 20 degrees from the highs of earlier in the week. The sky held only a few clouds of the cumulous variety and, with the sun shining brightly, seemed to glow a brilliant blue. However, even though the sun shone as brightly as ever, the air had noticeably cooled and the breeze off the ocean was stiff and gusty.

It must have been very low tide last night, because when we started our walk, the hardpacked sand was exposed for about 10 yards and you could even see these wet muddy flats that do not usually show. It was not a very appealing vista, made even less so by these clumps of kelp (seaweed) deposited by the waves.

Walking with an artist definitely can change your perspective though. Alma spotted a string of kelp that she thought was singularly aesthetically appealing. Alma said that the waves had created sand waves around it whose shape mirrored the shape of the kelp and that there was a contrast between the grittiness of the sand and the smoothness of the kelp. I said it looked like something the sea had puked up after a night of heavy binge drinking. But you can be the judge:


Kelp As Art - November 6, 2010

We also came across two young men struggling to learn how to pilot their battery-powered model airplane using a remote control device. This plane had some sort of propeller behind its cabin that propelled the plane. The two guys could get the plane into the air but, once aloft, the plane would swoop and swoon until crashing into the sand, no doubt because of the gusty breezes I mentioned above. At one point, it seemed as if the plane was going to make a crash landing straight into my face. It crashed short of me, but my heart sped up just a bit.

I was fascinated by their efforts and wished to tarry but we have a policy that once in motion on our walk we will only stop for art's sake. Alma was worried for me and others on the beach and thought they should be flying their plane away from any people. "Silly boy toy," I heard her mutter as we continued to walk away from them. I looked over my shoulder as we walked away and saw them still valiantly trying to keep the plane aloft. They were gone by the time we returned.

Near the Villa Marina jetty, we bumped upon a most curious spectacle. There were two Christmas trees (artificial) set up on the beach and decorated with ornaments and presents. There were other Christmasy items set up in the sand also, including a sign that pointed toward the north pole. Very bizarre. Alma took many pictures, some of which you will see below.

The person had brought all the material out to the beach in a children's red wagon and I circled the wagon to see if I could find any sign of who might have brought the stuff. It seemed abandoned and adrift and there were no obvious signs of whom the material belonged to. So I was about ready to dismiss is as merely the fruit of yet another California eccentric when a woman walked up with a big, fancy camera. Turns out the woman, Stephanie Celine, is a professional photographer and was staging the trees on the beach for holiday cards.

She was quite open to my putting our photos of her Christmas tableaus on my blog. Thank you Stephanie, and I wish you a lot of luck wit your photography business (stephaniecelinephoto.com). It seems Christmas has indeed come a bit early this year for Southern California, so perhaps those lower temperatures yesterday were a harbinger.