Entries in My Humble Opinion (24)

Sunday
Aug092015

Ten Great Reasons to Live in L.A.

It's no secret that I miss the New York. What do I miss about it? Pretty much everything. I was constantly near tears when we visited this summer. Our friends and family, the seasons, the culture, the food...It has been hard to leave all those things behind. 

And then there's France. I actively hope that we can move there in 15 years or so, and I try on a daily basis to prepare for that, language-wise and otherwise. 

But I'm here now. I knew moving to Los Angeles was the right thing for our family, and Patrick has never been happier in his work. And I believe strongly in savoring and living in the moment, even while preparing for a different future. As I've struggled to adjust to life in Southern California--finding zen despite the traffic, enduring the relentless sun, dealing with homesickness--I've identified at least ten great reasons to be here and be happy about it. Some are general, while a few are personal. See what you think.

10) It's always easy to be a dog owner here. 

As much as I love the seasons on the East Coast, I'm not sure I'd want to own a dog there, where every element must be braved to ensure dogs' comfort and hygeine. Here, my morning walks with Moneypenny (above right) are delightful. It's almost always cool and pleasant, with no violent weather to endure. This may sound like a small thing, but since I spend nearly an hour walking Penny almost every single day, it's a significant portion of my time, and I appreciate the ease and convenience.

9) Excellent ethnic grocery stores are close by--and mad inexpensive.

My favorite of these is 99 Ranch Market, a Chinese supermarket less than ten minutes from our house. The fish, poultry, meat, and produce are amazingly priced and much fresher than what you find in more mainstream stores. Ditto goes for Baja Ranch, which is just a little farther away. (Fresh, house-made tortillas...drool....) And when we want to make sushi at home? We go to Mitsuwa to get all the essentials. I can never resist trying new things--the Asian cookies, the Mexican drinkable yogurt. I don't love shopping, but these stores make it more of an adventure.

8) The Pacific Ocean is better than the Atlantic.

It's true. The waves and tides are more interesting, the topography is more varied and wild. The abundance of beaches can't be beat. And then there are the sunsets. We don't get to the ocean all that often, but when we do, the Pacific refreshes my soul. 

8a) Corgi Beach Day

7) White flowers are my favorite.

For a good portion of the year, jasmine, mock orange, all kinds of citrus, and gardenias are blooming in our yard and neighborhood. Their exotic, bewitching scents fill the air, making every inhalation a luscious treat. Oh, and the datura. Last night, we were watching a movie in our room, and as usual, our French doors were wide open to let in the evening air. The datura beneath our balcony, which releases its fragrance mainly at night, was out of control scent-wise. Bliss. 

7a) We sleep with our windows open nearly year-round.

As hot as it gets in the summer, it's almost always cool enough to turn off the A/C at night. And, you know, winter doesn't really exist here. I love to fall asleep looking out at the palm trees and the city lights far beyond. It's like living in a treehouse, and it's amazing.

6) We never run out of terrific, inexpensive restaurants to try.

It's true that great Italian food is scarce and great French food is almost nonexistent. (But we've squirreled out a few favorites in that regard, so we'll get by.) But when it comes to Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Mexican options, the San Gabriel Valley is a treasure trove. Oh, the dumplings; ah, the scallion pancakes, tacos, beef rolls, banh mi, and pho. I mine two excellent food blogs: 626 Foodettes and Gastronomy, for ideas, and haven't been steered wrong yet. Also: donuts and burgers. In these things, L.A. excels. (But don't get me started on In n Out. It's not good and never will be.)

5) I love me some Trader Joe's.

Here's another great thing about L.A. that may seem trivial, but affects our life for the better on a daily basis. (And I fully realize that 30% of this list concerns food. That shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me.) I'm at Trader Joe's at least three times a week for lovely dairy, produce, and other groceries that make life good. Just this week, we discovered Thomcord grapes, a hybrid of sweet, crunchy Thompson and luscious, full-bodied Concord. Insanely delicious and affordable. They'll likely only be around for a few weeks, because Trader Joe's likes to focus on seasonal stuff, but we're eating them while we can. 

We're doubly fortunate, because Trader Joe's is notorious for having horrendous parking options--or lack thereof. If I lived in Toluca Lake, for example, I'd likely only walk to TJ's. But our local branch is close, convenient, and has ample and sane parking, which again is a bigger deal than it may appear.

4) The independent bookstores and movie houses are the best.

I've never been to a better bookstore than Vroman's. It boasts a huge selection of wonderful books, intelligent staff reviews and recommendations, lovely stationery and gifts, international magazines, and a really cool program that rewards the community with every purchase you make--Vroman's rocks. But then there's Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Kinokuniya downtown, San Marino Toy and Book, and a host of others over on the West Side that I haven't even gotten to explore. Yet.

Movie-wise, we favor either ArcLight, a local, upscale chain, for mainstream movies, or Laemmle for independent and foreign movies. I love them both.

4a) Also: the Pasadena library is great: branches all over town, and the ability to order any book in the Pasadena/Glendale system online. The Central Branch in Old Town is gorgeous. 

3) L.A. has given my children opportunites they didn't have in New York. 

Specifically, my younger four have become avid, skillful swimmers. Hope and Tess swim and play water polo in Pasadena High School's aquatic program, and Daniel and Anne are on the town swim team here in Sierra Madre. They're fit and having a great time. Marching band and orchestra are two other activities that weren't available to us in New York. And I doubt that James would have decided on UC Berkeley had we been on the East Coast--and it has turned out to be the perfect place for him to attend college. 

2) I'm closer to my family.

We miss Patrick's family in New Jersey terribly; there's nothing good about that. Visits with my family, however, have gotten much easier. My mother is in Reno, my grandmother is in St. George, and nine of my ten siblings are in the San Francisco Bay Area (2), Portland (2), Utah (2), and Arizona (3). This was a blessing when my father died, but being closer to my family under non-tragic circumstances has also been a boon. And we've even seen Patrick's family from Texas a lot more often. 

1) I've made life-changing friends.

Again, it's a bitter thing to be so far away from people I cherish in New York. Four groups of people have saved me. We are surrounded by kind, generous, interesting neighbors. My amazing book group is full of diverse, fascinating women who treasure each other and make excellent conversation (and meals). My world-class writing group (above)--I can't even believe these famous, skilled ladies want me around, but I've learned so much from our weekly meetings. And a few stalwart friends at church, who both understand and inspire us. I can't imagine life without any of these people--and I would never have met them if we hadn't moved here. 

I wrote this post mainly as a count-your-blessings exercise, a reminder to ground me either when the challenges of living here loom large, or when being away from New York seems intolerable (friends; bagels; autumn leaves). But maybe a few other immigrants to the Southland will find it helpful. If so, let me know by leaving a comment.  

Friday
Jan172014

Top o' the Pops: The Best of 2013

Best Acquisition of 2013: Our darling Moneypenny--This was back in May; now she's a grown-up girl.

Long-time readers of this blog know that in years past, I've always posted a retrospective on or around January 1st. Well, my report on 2013 is late in coming, due to a series of unfortunate events we have dubbed "Janupocalypse" at our house, but it's finally here. 

2013 was our first full year as a family in the Golden State, and we've had quite a grand time exploring our new home town and its environs. Here's what I liked best:

Favorite Books Read: 

10. Joyland, by Stephen King

9. Callender Square, by Anne Perry

8. Mastering the Art of French Eating, by Ann Mah

7. The God Who Weeps, by Terryl and Fiona Givens

6. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente

5. I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

4. Dancing on Broken Glass, by Ka Hancock

3. Forever Chic, by Tish Jett

2. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

1. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

(Once again, I did not rank books by close friends, many of which were superb.)

Most Disappointing (not the worst) Book:

Harrowgate, by Kate Haruyama

Favorite Movies Seen:

10. 42

9. Up on Poppy Hill

8. Man of Steel

7. Monsters University

6. World War Z

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

4. Austenland

3. The Way, Way Back

2. Gravity

1. Blue Jasmine

I'm super way behind on filmgoing. One of my goals in 2014 is to see a lot more movies. I live in Movie Central, after all. Sheesh.

Favorite TV Watched:

5. Game of Thrones

4. Modern Family

3. Downton Abbey

2. Breaking Bad

1. Call the Midwife

And I have to mention Almost Human, which we are recording on DVR, and which I'm thoroughly enjoying. It features interesting science fiction-based plots and about the most attractive cop duo of all time. Give it a try.

Music: It's been a year of treasuring the old stuff: The Beatles, Great Big Sea, Niamh Parsons, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bach, Brahms. I just haven't had a need or a desire for anything new, really. We'll see if and when that changes this year. 

Food, on the other hand: It's all about the new and fabulous. LA County is a motherlode of inexpensive, world-class Asian food, so we've hit that hard: Din Tai Fung, Vietnam House, Luscious Dumplings, Gin Sushi, Sweethome Grill, and many more.

We also found Da Pasquale, an absolute gem of an authentic Neopolitan restaurant in Beverly Hills, a stone's throw from the temple in Santa Monica, and it has been our go-to spot for pizza and the like. I keep heading back to Eagle Rock's The Oinkster for top-notch pastrami sandwiches and luscious fries with homeade aioli. For artisanal ice cream of the freshest and most delicious sort, we alternate between Carmela's in Pasadena and Mother Moo's right here in Sierra Madre. Awesome tacos abound; we love Taco Fiesta, conveniently an easy walk from our house. And burgers? The Counter, Hook Burger, and Pie n' Burger have all been on hand to satisfy the craving. 

Top Local Tourist Sites Visited:

10. Descanso Gardens

9. Chinatown/Olvera Street

8. Santa Barbara Zoo

7. Lake Hollywood

6. Bolsa Chica Beach

5. La Brea Tar Pits

4. The Norton-Simon Museum

3. Huntington Dog Beach

2. Huntington Library & Gardens

1. The Getty Center

We plan to do a lot more exploring in 2014. I don't know if we'll ever discover all there is to experience around here, but we'll give it our best shot.

Best to you in the coming year! Let's make it the greatest year ever, shall we?

Wednesday
Oct302013

My Top 13 Overlooked Creepy Movies

So, it's Halloween night. You want to watch a movie after all the kids are safely tucked away in candy-induced comas. But you've seen The Shining too recently, you're not in the mood for gore, and you're out of ideas. Well, I'm here to help. Here are 13 movies you may not have seen that might be just the ticket.

13) Manhunter (1986) Based on Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, the prequel to Silence of the Lambs. William Petersen, who would go on to play Gil Grissom in CSI, plays an FBI profiler looking for a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. Ignore the 80s cheese and give in to the creepy. The scene with the tiger. The "In a Gadda Da Vida" scene. Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter. Holy cow. 

12) Flatliners (1990) Kiefer Sutherland's character convinces his fellow medical students to participate in an unorthodox experiment--they'll each take turns dying, be brought back by the rest of the team, and report on what they found in the great beyond. It also stars Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Bacon--and almost feels like a John Hughes movie gone very, very dark.

11) The Woman in Black (2012) Based on Susan Hill's excellent novella, this movie tells the story of the grief-ridden Arthur Kipps and his attempts to clear up the estate of Alice Drablow, which includes the forlorn Eel Marsh House. Daniel Radcliffe plus Ciarán Hinds? Yes, please. 

10) The Messengers (2007) I do love me some Asian-influenced horror, and this is probably the most accessible of the lot. It was directed by the Pang brothers and stars Kristen Stewart--but don't hold that against it, because it came out before Twilight. A Chicago family buys a creepy old farmhouse, and the rest is history. Bonus: Dylan McDermott. 

9) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) So. Super. Freaky. The 1956 version was filmed in my new hometown, but this one stars Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. It was a huge hit 35 years ago, but deserves attention from today's audiences. The last scene: gahhhhhhhhhh.

8) The Hearts of Age (1934) It's almost 80 years old, it's silent, and it's only 8 minutes long. Never mind that; Orson Welles's haunting first film (he made it when he was 19) will stay with you (this time the link takes you not to the trailer, but the entire film). There used to be a version of it on YouTube set to a string quartet by Philip Glass, and the pairing was fantastic. It's gone now, unfortunately, but the original is plenty creeptastic. 

7) The Omega Man (1971) I adore the 2007 Will Smith movie I Am Legend, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, but this version of the story, starring Charlton Heston as a scientist who believes he's the only survivor of a plague-induced apocalypse, is more subtle in its unsettling despair. 

6) Lake Mungo (2008) I'm a huge fan of the found footage genre, and this one from Australia is a doozy. This mockumentary tells the story of the grieving family of 15-year-old Alice Palmer, who has drowned. Watch all the way to the end of the credits. 

5) Mirrormask (2005) Neil Gaiman wrote it. Need I say more? If you've got older kids (say, 9 and up) hanging out with you, this is the one to watch. 

4) Brazil (1985) This is my favorite Terry Gilliam film. Psychedelic, dystopian, and satirical: it's a 143-minute geekfest. 

3) 1408 (2007) I couldn't make a spooky movie list without including something by Stephen King. John Cusack (HEART) plays Mike Enslin, a grief-stricken writer who deals with the loss of his daughter by investigating haunted houses. An anonymous postcard leads him to check into Room 1408 in New York City's Dolphin Hotel. Bad, bad things ensue. You'll never hear the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" in the same way. Bonus: Samuel L. Jackson! Double bonus: if you're a writer, the opening scene, in which John Cusack sits at a bookstore signing with an audience of two customers, is priceless. 

2) Upstream Color (2013) I love, love, love this independent film by Shane Carruth; it will likely be my top film of 2013. A young woman named Kris is drugged by a thief at a club; afterward, she remains in a highly suggestible state for some time. Her frustration with her subsequent intermittent amnesia leads her to search for answers regarding what really happened to her. 

1) Donnie Darko (2001) Dig the haunting soundtrack by Michael Andrews, including the best cover theme song ever. Watch the movie at least a couple of times, because it gets better with repeated viewings (and it's great to begin with). A young Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie, a disturbed teenager, who is given a vision of the future by a monstrous rabbit named Frank. Donnie finds a way to change that future--at great cost. 

There: problem solved. Feel better? What under-rated or overlooked creepy film would YOU add to the list?

Tuesday
Jan012013

The Long and Winding Road: The Best of 2012

My adorable baby girl ringing in the New Year (on NYC time)

2012 was perhaps the biggest year of change of my life. I had a novel published and had another accepted for publication; I got hired to collaborate on a video game. I spoke at conferences, English classes, and signings. I moved with our large family across the continent to a very different but wonderful new life. As I look out my window at the palm trees and sunny skies beyond my balcony, I marvel at how different this day is from 1 January 2012.

Let's get to the lists. 

Favorite Books Read or Re-read:

(I didn't rank books written by close friends, many of which were excellent.)

1) 11/22/63, by Stephen King

2) Flora's Fury, by Ysabeau Wilce

3) Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk

4) Acceptable Loss, by Anne Perry

5) A Short Stay in Hell, by Steven Peck

6) The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

7) The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

8) The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

9) Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George

10) French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon

Most Disappointing (not Worst) Book of the Year:

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Best Music Purchased:

Ralph Vaughan Williams: On Christmas Day: Folk-Songs and Folk-Carols

Morten Lauridsen: Lux aeterna

Great Big Sea: XX

Gary Clark, Jr.: "When My Train Pulls In"

The Black Keys: "Little Black Submarines"

Favorite Movies Seen:

1) Moonrise Kingdom

2) Skyfall

3) Argo

4) Hitchcock

5) Life of Pi

6) The Dark Knight Rises

7) The Hobbit

8) Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

9) Brave

10) Frankenweenie

Best Meals Eaten:

Per Se, NYC

Jean-Georges, NYC

Patina, LA

Brenda's French Soul Food, San Francisco

Chez Panisse Café, Berkeley

Luscious Dumplings, Monrovia

Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, Pasadena

Yarn of the Year: madelinetosh 80/10/10 MCN in the Grenadine colorway

Rose of the Year: Cramoisi Supérieur

 

Here's to 2013 being fabulous! Happy New Year, everybody.

Saturday
Jan142012

Creation and Consumption

This is the first post ever wrote on this blog, originally published on 6 September 2006. I am hard at work on some deadline-driven writing at the moment, so I thought I'd repost this for those of you who haven't been with me from the very beginning.

If you look up "consume" in the dictionary, you’ll find that most of its definitions are negative ones—besides "to eat or ingest" there is "to waste or squander; to absorb or engross; to ravage or totally destroy." (The American Heritage Dictionary, third edition) However, we are named "consumers" by the media so often these days that the word no longer holds a negative connotation for us.

I find this desensitization to be a dangerous one, because I believe our society has led itself into an unhealthy imbalance as it has increasingly focused on the act of consuming. We are here on the earth to begin to learn how to become creators, not consumers.

The survival instinct of consuming requires no further honing or development on our part. Yet we seem to spend more time consuming or finding ways to be able to consume more. It is vital to our mental, emotional, spiritual—and perhaps economic—health that we find a way to balance the act of consuming with the act of creating in our daily lives.

Almost any type of work, from gardening to lawyering, can be a creative activity if we choose to make it so. When we clean the house, we create order. When we read a book, we recreate for ourselves the world the author has already created. When we exercise, we create new muscles and blood vessels. When we take care of children or parents or neighbors, we create bonds of love.

For me, creativity is part of the process of living a rich life. Hugh Nibley wrote, “Who then is to judge what is good, true, and beautiful? You are. Plato says it is...by anamnesis, the act of recalling what we have seen somewhere before...We recognize what is lovely because we have seen it somewhere else, and as we walk through the world, we are constantly on the watch for it with a kind of nostalgia, so that when we see an object or a person that pleases us, it is like recognizing an old friend; it hits us in the solar plexus, and we need no measuring or lecturing to tell us that it is indeed quite perfect. It is something we have long been looking for, something we have seen in another world, a memory of how things should be." (Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion)

Mark Helprin wrote, “One lives for a very short time, and life is incomparably precious. To live has much less to do with the senses or with ambition than with the asking of questions that never have been surely answered. To ask and then to answer these questions as far as one can, one needs above all a priceless and taxing involvement with truth and beauty. These are uncommonly plentiful in music and painting, in nature itself, in the sciences, in history, and in one's life as it unfolds—if one labors and dares to see them.” (Mark Helprin, “The Canon Under Siege”)

Our minds are like muscles, which atrophy and become flabby if not used. Exercise has holistic benefits, which flow to other areas of our lives. As we begin to flex our creativity, we will find ourselves more able to deal with challenges which confront us, more adept at critical thinking and problem solving; better equipped to make informed decisions; increasingly able to form our own opinions; more disciplined. We will spend less of our time in idle consumption.