Friday, April 29, 2011

Dune Report

The weather has grown steadily nicer and more temperate over the past five days. Yesterday was almost a perfect day. Warm and clear skies with a gentle breeze. The wind gusts had been much stronger earlier in the week. Not necessarily unpleasant in their briskness, but yesterday seemed idyllic by contrast.

In fact, lying on the beach yesterday, it was difficult not to imagine that we live, as Voltaire's character Dr. Pangloss says in Candide, "in the best of all possible worlds." Of course, just as Voltaire's generation saw that platitude destroyed by the Lisbon earthquake of 1655, so also the tornadoes sweeping the south over the past few few days should put to rest any such nonsense that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Still, yesterday was a good example of why we continue to live in Southern California, even though my music career is still born (the only reason why I would stay in Southern California aside from the glorious weather) and Alma's art career could probably use a shot of New York City.

Yesterday was also Alma and my 9th wedding annviersary. We had a nice day. I went out to buy groceries and bought her a pretty spring bouquet while I was out. I also bought her a new bicycle seat for her exercise bike and she bought me some new sweat pants for workouts.  I made us Cajun style red beans and rice for lunch along with corn muffins. Last night, we capped off the day with a lengthy bubble bath together in candle light and with soft instrumental music playing.

But the highlight of the day, in my opinion, was the extended period we spent at the beach. It was a nice enough day that each of us could wear shorts and t-shirts. Alma said she thought she could have gotten away with wearing her bikini top under her t-shirt. I never felt like it was warm enough that I wanted to take off my t-shirt. But I probably could have had I wanted to. We took a blanket and Frisbee with us. But the first order of business was to take our daily walk which each of us did barefoot! The loose sand had been warmed pleasantly by the sun and even the cooler hard pack was not cold by any means. However, I got slapped by couple waves and I can tell you that the water is still icy cold. I don't know how the kids can play in the water -- maybe children are not as sensitive to cold temperatures as this old fart is.

When we returned from our walk we lay down on the blanket. The balmy breezes and gentle sun soon had each of us snoozing and listening to the white noise of the waves. We never did get around to playing any Frisbee. Alma never did get around to drawing anything in her sketch pad.

I wish every day were as nice as yesterday. We will be heading down to the beach in about 2 hours for another extended stay today and it looks to be as nice as yesterday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How We Walk - Part I

Alma's birthday was earlier this month and I got her a Sony Walkman MP3 Player. I remember when Walkmans were all the rage because, suddenly, you could jog and listen to a cassette tape or FM radio. Now I know some of my readership will ask, "What is a 'cassette tape'?" Well, you see, back after man had just left the caves, he chose to record his sounds onto magnetic tapes that came on plastic cartridges. Those cartridges could be placed inside a Sony Walkman to replay the sounds through a pair of headphones or earphones.

Yeah, I know. I'm an old fart. IPods and MP3 players -- it's like a foreign language to me. An IPod sounds like something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Frankly, I've been around since the days of LPs, 45s, 78s and record players. While I never had one of those wind-up Victrolas, I feel like I'm old enough I should have. I've seen records replaced first by 8-Track tapes, next by cassettes, then by compact discs and now these digital formats. Just makes me feel old, I tell you.

But I try to avoid the 'Hey kids, get off of my lawn!" mentality. And it does seem like digital music is all the rage now. I have to admit to being impressed a bit at how well the technology works.

First, a public service announcement: beware of Napster and its so-called 'free trial offer' included with Sony Walkman MP3 players. What happens is that Napster includes a promo for a 14-day free trial after which one is placed on a $15/month subscription that allows unlimited music downloads. All well and good. But what Napster doesn't tell you and what you will be at pains to learn from reading the 'fine print' of the 'free' offer is that if you download songs during the free trial period but decide you don't want to continue with Napster, all the song files you downloaded suddenly become inoperable. Thereby proving the adage that there's no such thing as 'something for nothing'. However, what makes this particularly obnoxious is that you have to spend a lot of time downloading Napster's software and then downloading the music itself. In Alma's case, she estimates conservatively that she invested at least 10 hours of time downloading software and songs only to have all that time wasted after the 14 days were up because we did not want to continue our subscription. And Napster just shined us on when Alma emailed to complain about their deceptive business practices. The customer service at Sony was a bit more receptive and promised to convey our complaint about Napster through appropriate channels.

Better in my opinion to go with ITunes and its simple fee per download business model. We downloaded some tracks for as little as $0.69/track. Once you download and pay for an individual song from ITunes, you never have to worry that the song will expire because you choose not to continue a subscription. Alma has downloaded tracks from the 80s (when she grew into adulthood) and 90s that we did not already own on CD. I had a lot of music on CD that Alma was able to copy directly to the Sony Walkman.

And, old fart I may be, but I am proud to report that Alma's Walkman has more tracks by me (from my CD "Living in the Shadows") than any other artist. Actually, I'm tied with Duran Duran. Each of us have 11 tracks on Alma's Walkman currently. (Sad note: I don't really follow Duran Duran, so I don't know much about them or their music.)

So now when we walk the beach, you will likely see Alma grooving to tunes on her Walkman while I walk behind or beside her in silence. I do not care to listen to music as I walk, preferring instead to listen to  the music of the waves and sea life, punctuated by the occasional distant cry of joy from a child in the water. I never picked up the habit of listening to music through earphones. When I recorded the CD of my songs in the recording studio, I of course used headphones when listening so that I could block out all extraneous noise. But when I listen to music for pleasure, I like to let it fill the air around me. Just a personal preference I suppose.

But Alma really likes the Walkman and has taken to it like a duck (or seagull) takes to water. In fact, as I write this, Alma is sitting in the chair next to me with earphones on downloading more tunes from ITunes. Will our credit card survive Alma's discovery of digital music downloads? Only our hairdresser knows for sure (and she ain't talking).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter at Venice Beach

As Easter approaches, signs of rebirth abound at Venice Beach. On our walk to the beach down Catamaran Lane, the wildflowers along the path are starting to bloom, a profusion of colors and textures. Al, one of the residents with whom we have become acquainted over the past 9 months, has planted a very nice courtyard garden. His star jewel is called a Desert Orchid:

This photo is of one of the earliest and smallest blossoms. Al has pointed out that the big blooms have yet to blossom. When they do, Al's courtyard should be awash in shades of brilliant pink, purple and red.

The weather has been a little tricky these past few days. Each morning begins with completely grey skies, looking as if it is sure to rain. By early afternoon, however, the skies have begun to clear and patches of blue are showing. And, in fact, over the past three days, each time we have reached the beach the skies have completely cleared and the sun is shining. The air is still a bit chilly so I still wear long pants, as does Alma. But yesterday the sun had shown long enough that Alma could remove her shoes and walk barefoot in the sand the entirety of the 3-mile walk.

In keeping with the season of rebirth, the beach seems pristine right now. All the garbage and detritus we normally expect to see on our walks has seemingly miraculously vanished from the beach, leaving only clean sand upon which to walk. Alma has mixed feelings about this, as she looks to the beach to deliver materials for her art. Right now she has containers full of each type of sea shell she needs for her upcoming projects. In fact, there is an irony at play. Alma is trying to finish up a giant beach flower whose petals are covered in plastic bottle caps. She needs only a few more small red ones to complete the work but, because the beaches are so clean lately, finds at most one or two on each walk.

The clean sands allow for various impromptu beach art to occur:

This is a peace sign we encountered already drawn out on the beach yesterday. We also saw a beautiful sand scuplture of a sea tortoise, complete with scaly back. Unfortunately, glare from the sun interfered with Alma's picture of it, so I cannot display it here.

Alma has been hard at work on Easter-themed art as well. Below is a detailed picture of an egg she sculpted from Celluclay and hand-painted for her friend Margie:

Alma has done at least 2 dozen of these eggs. Some have faces and others just pretty designs or, as you will see below, letters of the alphabet. The eggs have definitely brightened up our place quite nicely, adding a touch of brilliant spring color to the place.

Even though neither of us are particularly religious, we would like to wish my readers a Happy Easter weekend, no matter what your particular religious persuasion. May spring bloom in your hearts and on your hearths this year. And may you experience a rebirth of your spirits.

Monday, April 18, 2011

New Ways to Look at Old Things

Walking the same stretch of beach daily tends to at times put me in a rut where nothing seems new or worth looking at. I have been feeling just a bit blase about our beach for the past couple weeks. As the weather has begun to brighten and spring has begun to assert itself, the beach seems to have lost some of its charm. But that feeling can change at a moment's notice, as yesterday's walk reveals.

This past weekend, we had one day (Saturday) of brilliant sunny skies and temperate breezes. Alma and I actually spent a little extra time down at the beach on Saturday. We took a blanket, a Frisbee and Alma took her drawing pad. We planned to do the same on Sunday and I scrambled madly Sunday morning to get all the weekend errands done so that we could head to the beach early and spend more time there.

The skies seemed to be cooperating Sunday morning and the temperature started to climb as I drove to the grocery store, gas station and post office. But after we had eaten lunch and were in the car driving down to the beach, we  noticed that thick clouds had started to fill the sky. We did not think too much of it until we got down to the beach and found no parking in our customary areas.

This time, however, instead of driving north in Santa Monica in pursuit of either a reasonably priced lot or a long-term metered spot, we decided to drive southward further into Marina del Rey. At the intersection of Washington Blvd and Ocean Blvd., we turned left and headed south on Ocean Blvd., running parallel to the track we customarily walk. We drove about 10 blocks south and there were no parkng places on Ocean Blvd. where we might normally expect to find at least one or two spaces. This I ascribe to the weather having been very nice before we headed out. Many locals decided to make a day of it at the beach and we simply arrived too late to find any of the free parking.

After we had driven south about 10 blocks, we came to the Via Marina jetty. Ocean Blvd. curves sharply to the left, away from the Pacific, and running perpendicular to a causeway for the sail- and motor boats that have slips in the Marina. I had never seen this particular stretch of Ocean Blvd., even though I have lived here for almost 20 years now. So Alma and I were pleasantly surprised to discover that the city has created a sort of mini-park along the causeway. Actually, it's more properly speaking a grassy promenade with some benches placed at regular intervals for promenaders to sit and take in the view.

Even better, though, was that this stretch of Ocean Blvd. was lined with metered parking slots. Interestingly, the meters allow for a maximum parking time of only 2 hours. Why is this important? Because cars must circulate in and out of the parking. We jumped into a spot that was just opening up as we arrived. I keep a plastic cream cheese container full of change in the car for just such occasions when I find myself parking at a metered spot. Good thing too, because these meters cost $1.50/hour. So I plugged in $3 worth of quarters, enough to get us the maximum of 2 hours parking. As my regular readers will know, this is a bargain by local standards as parking in the beach parking lots runs anywhere from $5-$20 on weekend days.

At first I was reluctant to do park in a 2-hour slot, because Alma and I had planned for a longer stay at the beach. However,  by this point, the weather had become far less ambiguous. Those clouds we had seen filling the sky as we drove to the beach had now become a solid grey marine-layer laden sky. No more brilliant sun or bright blue skies. So Alma and I made a decision that we would pay for the 2 hours of parking and simply confine ourselves to a standard beach walk of the kind we take daily.

However, we got to walk along the promenade back to the beach about 3 blocks. Along the way, we met some wonderful dogs, among them a beautiful Border Collie with its long nose and mournful eyes and a couple  yappy after-thoughts of dogs. I also got to see some beautiful sailboats going out to the ocean and back into the Marina. I find that I like the 'idea' of sailing a sailboat, although I would definitely be a horrible boat owner, as I do not enjoy working with my hands and dread the 'idea' of maintaining a boat.

When we reached the beach, we now walked northward briskly towards the Washington Blvd. pier. We had to walk briskly, as we only had 2 hours on our parking meter and the parking enforcement people at the beaches have a reputation for being merciless to parking scofflaws. Parking tickets run between $50 and $75, so it pays to keep one eye on the clock. We actually walked along the row of houses that front the sand. There are some beautiful houses there (with pricetags to boot) and I enjoyed seeing the variety of architectural styles. (When we pass that way again, I will ask Alma to take some pictures of the architectural highlights.)

We made very good time and reached the pier after only about 30 minutes of brisk walking. Now at that point we could have continued walking northward to the breakwater, the way we customarily do. But I suggested, and Alma agreed, that we instead walk out onto the pier.

The Washington Blvd. pier juts out from the beach into the ocean for a distance of 30-40 yards. At the end there is a large circlular area bounded by a waist high fence. At the end of the pier, I would estimate that you are about 40 feet above the surface of the roiling ocean waves. The beach and ocean look quite different from the end of the pier. We could see many swimmers and beach goers but they looked like little insects from our vantage point. The water at the pier's end looked a deep, dark green. The dark green lightens up when the water is about 10 yards out from land, probably because reflection of the sand underneath  lighten the more shallow waters.

We met several people, older guys and a couple young boys, who were fishing from the pier. They were actually catching small fish, although I doubt the fish were edible. And, really, who would want to eat any fish from those waters, if they knew what Alma and I have discovered there (like used diapers and medical syringes)? The feeling I got is that most of the fish were being thrown back in.

We spent about 30 minutes on the pier and then walked back along the surf's edge. We saw one sad item during our return walk. A seal or sea lion had washed up onto the surf's edge and was struggling about. There were already a couple onlookers there when we arrived and one of them said that the creature was sick and that help had already been summoned, words confirmed by the lifeguard who drove up shortly after we arrived. Apparently, there is some person who specializes in marine life rescue but he or she was stretched thin, as there is a lot of beach to cover and only one person available on Sundays.

I suppose all wild sea creatures must go somwhere to die and must land somewhere when they are too ill to continue. Still, it is distressing to see a magestic creature lieing helpless in the sand, able only to weakly wave a single fin. Even though the surf continued to wash over this creature at regular intervals, it was unable to lever itself back into the water. I would have gladly given it a push back into the water -- don't like to see any animal suffer --  save that the lifeguard said professional help was on its way. Although Alma and I are usually highly suspicious of anything anyone in nominal authority in Los Angeles tells us -- Los Angeles being full of flaky self-proclaimed experts -- we find that the lifeguards at the beach are generally pretty eco-conscious and bio-friendly, so we deferred to this lifeguard's words.

We arrived back at the car with 15 minutes left on the meter! So we took advantage of the remaining minutes to sit on one of the benches that line the promenade, admire a few more sailboats and greet a few more dogs. What a nice surprise yesterday turned out to be. Good thing, too, because today the skies are full-on cloudy and grey. I suspect there will be no beach walk for us today.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Playing Music Again

This really does not have much to do with Venice Beach per se but I have started practicing guitar and writing music again. Last night I broke out my solid-body electric and my little Fender practice amp and re-familiarized myself with the vagaries of electric guitar. Since learning guitar in my late teens and early 20s, I have mostly played acoustic, but I have a Strat knockoff and a  Gibson semi-hollow knockoff. I find that electric guitars are more fun when you are playing with others in a band. I don't enjoy electric as much as acoustic when I'm playing solo.

So, anyway, last night, after I had made sure the guitar was in tune with itself, I hooked it up to the practice amp and went through some old favorites: "The Wind Cries Mary," "Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo" and "Revolution". I was surprised how good I sounded, given that I have not touched an electric guitar in over six months and never really became expert on electric to begin with.

I am also trying to re-construct one of the last songs I wrote 10 years ago, called 'Chasing Rainbows.' I was so arrogant about my musicianship back then that I didn't think I needed to write anything down. Silly me. While I can remember perfectly well the melody of the song and its chord progressions, the words are a different matter. I can remember the first and parts of the second and third verses and part of the bridge. The words come back to me in little bits and pieces and I hope someday I can remember the whole song. Needless to say, I am now writing it down. When I remember a line or two, I promptly note them in my lyrics binder.

Alma heard me play the song 10 years ago and loved it then. So now, when I try various iterations of words and lines, she knows pretty much whether they are correct. And she actually remembered one of the lines of the bridge that I had forgotten. So it's a team effort, I guess you could say.

What is weird is that picking up the guitar again has triggered all my rock and roll fantasies. "If I can just get this song perfect . . . " I think to myself. Or "All I really need is a new amp and . . . " Or (my personal fav) "This one could be the one that helps me hit the big time."

I am resolved though not to buy any more equipment. I have spent so much money on equipment over the years and, aside from the fun I have had with the gear, have never earned back anywhere near what I spent. My closet right now is full of old gear I no longer use: a Carvin PA, a Tascam 4-Track recorder, a Digitech digital effects processor and a multi-pedal unit, among other bits of gear. I can't bring myself to part with any of it because you never know, success might be just around the corner and then I'll be able to put the gear to good use. Right. And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. Seriously, though, were I to get rid of some of the gear, it would be like confessing that my rock and roll fantasies were only that.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Grey Skies Return

We had been enjoying a series of nice if windy walks these past few days. This morning, though, when I woke up, the skies were grey again and it looks as if we might just get another April shower.

So I thought I would use this post to make a Public Service Announcement about Alma's website. Yesterday, we added a page to the website to show a selection of Alma's beach photography.

The page is called "Photo Therapy" and currently displays a "Best Of" collection of 20 photos. Depending on the response this page gets, we may add more photos or rotate some of Alma's other photos onto the page.
My personal favorite on the website is the photo of the sand dollar, followed by the photo of the sunset that is next to last. All of the photos are simply stupendous, though, and I would be hard pressed to say that any one photo is 'better' than any of the others.

If you have visited this blog before, chances are that you have already seen some of the excellent photographs of the beach that Alma has taken. She uses a Samsung cell phone and her artist's eye to capture great images of the beach.

If you do visit Alma's website, Alma asks that you kindly take a moment to fill out her guestbook on the 'Contact Alma' page with any comments you might have. Doing so will send Alma an email to let her know you visited and, if you make comments, will give Alma some guidance

You can get to the page of photos directly from this post by clicking on the link below:


Friday, April 8, 2011

Winter's Last Gasp

Alma and I took a chance and headed down to the beach yesterday. Before we left, the skies where we live were a bit clouded over and the temperatures were a bit cooler than just a few days ago. So we dressed warmly. Good thing, too, because when we reached the beach, the winds were whipping about, sending waves crashing into the surf and blowing a fine sheen of sand across the beach.

We managed about 2/3 of our normal walk before we decided to throw in the towel and head home. Good thing, too, because just as we wrapped up our walk, it began to rain, one of those cold and blustery rains where, even when there is not a torrential downpour, you feel miserable because you can't get warm.

We will not have to walk in the mall any more, except when we choose to. I bought Alma a stationary bicycle for her birthday. She and I have been taking turns using it. Last night, I pedaled the equivalent of 15 miles in an hour and burned some 400 calories, according to the computer readout from the bike's monitoring. Sure enough, when I weighed this morning, I had lost 1 pound. Alma had lost two pounds overnight.

Any time it is raining or threatening to rain now, we can simply hop on the bike for our workout rather than trundling over to the soul-sucking mall. About the only reason I can think of for a stationary bike, as opposed to a mobile one. But it's a good reason.

The weather seems to have improved over night. While still unseasonably cool for these parts, the sun is making valiant efforts to shine through the scattered clouds. So I think we shall be heading down to the beach today in a couple hours.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Birthdays, Balloons and Bad Habits

Today is Alma's birthday. I have not posted for the past few days because I was working hard finishing her song. I finished it just in time, although the bridge is still a little rough, thanks to my having made a last-minute modulation change (basically changing the key in mid-song to a new key). "One in a Million" is a song about what I find when I'm down at the beach and the fact that Alma is also one in a million. The song, I think it was safe to say, was a big hit and I'm going to keep working on it and try to figure out a way to record and post it here.

Speaking of birthdays, Alma and I walked down at the beach yesterday. One sure sign that spring has arrived is that we are starting to see balloons abandoned along the surf. Frequently these balloons are partially or wholly deflated with the colored ribbon still attached:

Although not the ardent environmentalist that Alma is, I get seriously pissed off when I see balloons that are polluting the beach. What morons would bring balloons down to the ocean only to abandon them, whence they threaten sea life and damage habitat? Often, parents throw birthday parties for their children at the beach. Think of the example those parents, unwittingly or no, set for their children. Other times, it is the ubiquitous quincenara (the coming-out 15th birthday party for Latinas). Again, what message are those young women on the cusp of adulthood receiving from their moronic parents?

I save my harshest scorn, however, for balloons with corporate logos:

What possible event could AT&T be having that required or suggested bringing bundles of balloons down close to the ocean? What idiot in AT&T's marketing department conjured up that brilliant scheme? One reason why pollution is so bad in this country is that corporations like AT&T do not have to pay the true costs of their pollution. When a company's emissions pollute the air, the company usually does not have to compensate citizens for damaging the common resource. (Economists call such common resources 'externalities'). In AT&T's case, it only has to pay for the balloons and the nitrogen that inflates them. It does not have to pay for any damage those abandoned balloons cause.

AT&T, you suck. Reminds me that our cell and internet service are currently with AT&T. I am out of contract on each so I think I will send them an email of complaint about the balloons and, if I'm not satisfied with the response, will switch our cell and interent carrier to a different provider.