Saturday, January 24, 2015

Wild cucumber


Soon after the rains, the landscape here in the Santa Monica mountains begins to green up. One of the first winter plants to emerge is the wild cucumber, Marah macrocarpa. It springs vigorously up, stems seeking something to hoist itself up on by its coiling tendrils. The plant can climb twenty or more feet high.

Wild cucumbers have pretty, palm-shaped leaves, and white flowers that appear almost as soon as it springs from the ground. The plant is monoecious, bearing both male and female flowers on the same plant, and it can self-fertilize. The male flowers grow in clusters, while the female flowers grow singly.

The fruit is a round, prickly ball that swells up to the size of a fist, then yellows as it ripens, finally drying and splitting open to spread large seeds.

It's tendrils are fascinating, twisting like little green springs.

Here, a plant has hoisted itself up a wire fence, spangling it with white flowers like a bridal veil.

Another common name is manroot, for the plant's huge tuberous root, which makes it a remarkably drought-tolerant perennial.

Marah macrocarpa is not inedible, but it's very bitter, hence the genus name Marah, which books tell me is Hebrew for "bitter," though google-translate doesn't recognize it. Its juices and a paste made from its seeds can be used to treat pimples or other skin sores.

For me, though, wild cucumber's fresh green shoots and white flowers are a signal that spring is coming.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tree trimmers


Perched, like bright birds, green weskits and orange hats flashing, they call and respond in high pitched staccato Spanish. Bright yellow ropes hang and loop like vine tendrils over the oak's twisting branches, and clip back to belt harnesses as, scabbards strapped to leg, the climbers straddle the tree’s limbs.

Tethered orange chainsaws dangle when idle, bar-down, like jagged plumb bobs. The men brandish long-handled pruners to lop and snip, pulling, pushing, sweeping. Another shout, and the saw growls, pulsing low then howling out in exultation. Cut green wood tweaks the nose like menthol, and a leafy branch jangles down. The tracery opens and sunlight pours in.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

White out

The Edie and Lew Wasserman Building is a sleek white glass and steel new addition to UCLA campus, a stunning architectural work by Michael Palladino of Richard Meiers' group of notable architects, a new research and patient care facility for the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA.

It took three months since my optometrist referred me to schedule an appointment, but last Tuesday I finally went in to consult with a doctor whether I have cataracts and whether they require surgery.

The building is structurally anchored by two concrete towers at its east and west end. These massive towers are spanned by six floors, open and airy with sheer glass walls facing south toward Westwood Village.

The initial impression upon entering the lobby is white and light. The building glows with light.

Upstairs, in the second floor suite of the cataract surgical unit, the examination rooms are disconcerting. White floors, white walls and ceilings, white cabinets, all the same pristine shade of white. The black-upholstered examination chair, the black and silver optical instruments seem to float in the whiteness as though unmoored in space.

When I took my contact lenses out for exams, it felt even more like I was floating in a world of white light.

The doctor is a hotshot - so renowned he has a phalanx of assistants to do the work for him. First a scrubs-wearing assistant gave me an exam. Then an associate doctor wearing a white labcoat came in, and administered a different set of tests. Only after this did I meet the doctor himself.

There seems to be a certain hierarchy among doctors - the really celebrated ones transcend the need for such conventionalities as wearing labcoats.  When my doctor entered the pure white room, he wore a tweedy sportcoat, shirt and tie, the earthy colors standing out in the whiteness.

He pronounced his diagnosis. I do indeed have cataracts. But they are not advanced, and unless they cause me impairment, he doesn't advise surgery at this point.  His assistants checked my prescription and he advised me to upgrade my lenses and glasses. "Give this a few months and see how you feel," he said. "If you really think you need surgery, just call us."

I put my contact lenses back in, and was ushered out into the bright white lobby. On the one hand, how nice that a building dedicated to human vision would celebrate brightness and illumination. On the other hand, with my eyes dilated, it was too intense, almost headache-inducing - blinding, in fact.

I found my sunglasses in my bag, to cut the glare of this magnificent edifice to vision.

Football menu

Korean-style, left, and Buffalo-style, right
Nachos and wings. Potato salad, guacamole, salsa.

Go Seahawks!

UPDATE: They  won!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Goodbye, friend, and thank you

I just learned today that Southern California journalist and Topanga's own man of letters, Al Martinez, passed away Monday.  He was 85. Al had been a columnist for the LA Times since 1985. He had also written for many other Southern California print and online publications.

I knew of Al because he wrote of Topanga Canyon, the community where he and his family had made their home since the early '70s, and where I have lived since the mid '90s. His writing made me feel a part of here.

I also knew Al because in the fall of 2012 I pulled a tab off a flyer thumbtacked to a bulletin board at Pat's Topanga Grill that said "Topanga Writers Workshops" and called the number. For a couple of months, I attended Al's Writers Workshops at his home, up the hill from my house in Topanga's "Post Office Tract" neighborhood.

The first time I attended, I realized I had another connection with Al - his wife Joanne had been a member of a book club I'd participated in sporadically a few years earlier. A smart, intelligent woman with incisive comments about the books we read, she was intriguing, yet during those years I didn't really take the time to know her well. This will teach me - and I hope it teaches those who read this - don't overlook people you encounter. You could be bypassing jewels.

Al was a wonderful guy, and very encouraging in his workshops to a novice writer like me. He gave me great feedback and strong praise for the embryonic works I submitted to him. But he didn't give specific criticism about structure or form or voice, or all those technical details I felt I needed; nor were his workshops a collaborative environment where students critiqued one another. Al followed a different kind of model, one that was not like the writing classes I'd attended at college. So, eventually, I told Al I thought I might take a break from his workshops, and check out the classes at the UCLA Extension Writing Program.

I often thought about going back, but I didn't. When I decided to apply for MFA programs, I thought about asking Al for a letter, but I also didn't. I told myself it was because it would be an imposition, since I hadn't spent that much time with him. I told myself it was because his health was fragile, which by that time, it was quite obvious that it was.

And I also felt a little ashamed at having abandoned his workshops.

And now, I feel even more ashamed. Because, when it really comes down to it, I didn't really do Al justice.

Though he didn't help me tinker with structure or form or voice or all those things that writing classes give you - what Al gave me was unconditional confirmation that I am a writer. He gave me the confidence and the motivation to go forward to do what I hope to do in the next years.

Thank you, Al, and go softly. What you gave me was the spark, the start. Who could give me more than that? I am so grateful to you.

UPDATE: Another memory of Al, from a better writer than me, Patt Morrison.  I'll have a vodka martini, straight up, with an olive, for you, Al.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


For the last couple of months, [The Man I Love] has been undergoing a challenging adventure with extraordinary grace and courage.

Tomorrow, he takes on the next chapter. My friend, my companion, my partner, I am with you all the way. 

In the rain

Malibu Pier in the rain. Who would go eat lunch at the pier in the rain? We would.