Thursday, May 30, 2013

Travel California: Vitello's Italian Restaurant

I have a piece of San Fernando Valley history and culture hanging in my garage; it’s a portion of the original mural that graced the main wall in the old Vitello’s restaurant on Tujunga Avenue in Studio City.  It’s a painting of the Sicilian fishing village of Cefalu where the former owners, Steve and Joe Restivo were born.  They had bought the original restaurant from Sal Vitello in 1977 and had the mural painted, and it stayed there for 35 years.  The current owner then bought the restaurant and renovated it by opening up the front wall to the street and making it feel more like a contemporary Italian bistro.  But when the wall came down, so did the mural, and the best parts of the mural ended up with me.

the original mural

my piece of the mural

            Things must change, and Vitello’s is better for it in my opinion, but the old version of Vitello’s had its charms. It was the classic red Italian restaurant - the booths, the tablecloths, the sauce and the wine were all red, with old school American Italian items on the menu that you only hear being ordered in a movie, like Braciole (pronounced Brazhul), which is meat wrapped in meat.  

No matter where you are from, there is a version of this Italian restaurant in your hometown.  Back in San Francisco where I grew up, it’s Original Joe’s, which had branches throughout the City.  When we lived in the Sunset District, the family would head out on Sunday night to Joe’s of Lakeside for spaghetti and meatballs.
           The San Fernando Valley gets a bad rap for having no culture, but we have plenty going on. However, it’s also true that we tend to celebrate odd vestiges of 1950‘s through 1970‘s American Suburbia as if they were European Renaissance Treasures. Thus, I love my piece of Vitello’s mural, as if it were a portion of Da Vinci’s Last Supper.
            The old version of Vitello’s also had perfect kitsch. Photos of celebrities graced the interior foyer, like Frankie Muniz and Garry Marshall.  In Brooklyn, the same kind of restaurant would have framed and signed photos of Tony Bennett and Frankie Valli.

            Vitello’s became notorious nationwide in 2001, when Robert Blake’s wife Bonny Lee Bakley was found shot dead a block away from the restaurant after the couple had eaten there. Blake, a regular, had returned to the restaurant because he had forgotten his gun in his usual booth.  When he went back out to the car, he says that he found her shot dead, and he was acquitted of her murder.
            My wife Robin and I loved to go to the old Vitello’s and Steve, the more gregarious of the two brothers, would always come by and say hello and chat.  I had read in the press that they despised the notoriety, so it wasn’t until I felt that Steve had accepted me as a regular that I dared to ask him about it. He pointed out which one was Blake’s regular booth and from then on he’d seat us there -- right under an oil painting of an Italian lute player and next to the closet with the vacuum, broom and pungent cleaning supplies, covered up by just a red curtain on a wooden rod.  The seat in the booth had come loose so if you sat on the edge it would pop up in back. But the wine was decent, Robin loved the pizzetti, and I liked the fettuccine with artichokes and steak.
            In 2003, when we thought we were close to starting a family, Robin and I realized we probably wouldn’t get to travel in a big way for many years so we should go have an adventure somewhere.  However, it had to be right away. We had both finished shows early and didn’t have our next jobs starting for several weeks, so we had to plan a trip and go on a trip within days -- we just didn’t know where we wanted to go.
            That night we went to Vitello’s to make plans and Steve overhead us talking and asked us where we were going.
            “We don’t know, where should we go?”  Robin asked.
            “You should go to Sicily,” Steve said.
            “Where should we go in Sicily?” Robin asked.
            “You should go to Cefalu, where my brother and I were born!” said Steve, and pointed at the gigantic mural on the wall behind us.  It looked like a make-believe medieval storybook town, on the water below a towering mountain.
            “Does it really look like that?” I asked.
            “Of course it does! I’ll give you the name and phone number of my relatives there, you must call them.  When are you leaving?” he asked.
         We followed Steve’s advice.  We bought tickets on Thursday and we went to Sicily on Saturday. We were there for two weeks, winging the whole trip, getting lost constantly but eventually driving around the entire island.  


            Sicily is on the same latitude as Central and Southern California, so it looks and feels the same in many places. The center of the island has rolling green and yellow hillsides that look like the Salinas Valley, and the coast has towering hills that crash down into the Mediterranean sea, like Big Sur.  Many Sicilians came to California too; some childhood friends came back to me when I saw their names on the town signs -- Mazzarino, Randazzo, Trapani.
            Sicilians are tough people who give you the cold shoulder and a stare down for the first 30 minutes, and then after a meal and a drink they become your best friend and want to spend time with you. We would arrive in a town and pick a restaurant, and then after dinner the owners would insist that we come back and dine with them every night while we were there and that they’d cook special meals just for us.  We complied, and the trip was better for it. 

            Outside Syracuse we stayed on a farm where we ate dinner with the family, and the paterfamilias leaned across the table and said in broken English, “this American war of yours, it’s a war about oil.” Suddenly nervous, I grabbed the Italian English dictionary and did my best to make conversation, and it worked.  Three hours later we were polishing off a bottle of limoncello, and they were refusrf to let us leave the table.
            Steve was right; Cefalu was the best town (at least for us) and we were stunned that the town looked exactly like the famous mural back in Studio City.  The centerpiece of Cefalu is the cathedral. It was built by the invading Normans who came to drive out the Moors, during a time when every town was reinforced to withstand attack by the next conquering army rolling through.  Thus the cathedral looks like a castle, which I’m sure it was when the Normans first built it.

            When we returned to Studio City we went to Vitello’s to tell Steve about our trip and he was crushed because we hadn’t eaten dinner with his relatives.  We had called once but couldn’t communicate well, we couldn’t reach the right sister, we didn’t think it was crucial, and then we got occupied with our own vacation adventure -- but Steve remained distant.  After all, he is Sicilian. It took awhile for him to forgive us, but he did.
            When the new owner decided to renovate, I begged him for part of the mural and he kindly obliged. The mural is just acrylic paint on drywall so it’s not built to last the centuries, but I got some good pieces,including the section with the Norman cathedral that rises above the town. Each piece is too heavy to frame and too big to hang in the house, so I have them arranged on the walls of the garage.  The pieces remind me of the Italian restaurants from my youth, then of Sicily, which reminds me then again of California, and we come again full circle.  All I need now is a red booth.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

California Artist Spotlight : David Trulli

David Trulli is a California artist you should know about.  I first met David when I was hired to direct a short documentary about the closing of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and David was the cinematographer whom the company had hired.  We had to create compelling TV out of images of old barracks, rusting ship locks, drained swimming pools, and empty offices. David found a way to shoot the barren mid-Century industrial architecture in a beautiful way, and I found enough characters with great stories to put in those settings that somehow it came to life. I loved his eye, and we stayed in touch.
         In 2001, I asked him to shoot my short film, Dodgeball, a comedy about a company where to get ahead you must compete in the weekly company dodgeball game.  The film pre-dated the feature of the same name, but there’s another story that goes with that.
            We became friends, and I noticed and admired a few things about him:
 He is a clothes horse.  A lot of Los Angeles cinematographers wear cargo shorts with Hawaiian print shirts, and he said he was tired of being that guy on a set, so he spent some money and graduated up to what he calls “grown-up clothes.”  Now he wears suits whenever he works, and he looks good in a fedora.  He also inspired me to improve my own wardrobe. He appreciates a good root beer float. When he and his wife Lisa (an amazing editor) came over for dinner in the summer, he enthused about how they are the perfect treat on a hot summer night.
            David surprised me a few years later when he said he was leaving cinematography to be a fine artist, and that scratchboard was going to be his medium. To me, it seemed daring but risky; much like an actor quitting the theater to become a singer. Yet it worked.  He is now a successful fine artist, with his own studio on Hollywood Boulevard, and successful gallery shows every year or show throughout Southern California.  In fact, he is part of a show happening right now at the Pacific Design Center featuring black and white art: 

Another Year in LA
May 16 - August 9, 2013
Pacific Design Center
Suite B267
8687 Melrose
West Hollywood, CA 90069

         Over the last few years I have bought one original piece, one lithograph from a limited series, and a poster.  A good mix, and I can say I collect California art now. His work captures a dark world where there is no escape from modern technology, yet nature and humanity manage to break through, like a blade of grass coming up through the sidewalk.  His older work evoked classic Los Angeles Noir, which  first drew me to his art, but I like his new pieces even better.

Tranquility Base

Beyond Daylight

Edge of Town

Also, as I  transition into a new career, I look at David Trulli’s art with an added twist. I think of how he succeeded in becoming someone new, and the idea of self-transformation suddenly seems attainable and not so lofty. He also turned me on to an amazing radio show and podcast, which changed my life and it may change your life as well -- RadioLab, out of WNYC.  Whenever we see each other we talk about our favorite RadioLab episodes.  

Somewhere Gone

Check out his work at (his current shows listed here):

Check out RadioLab at (listen to Sleep and Emergence):

You can find Dodgeball, the film we did together, at:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Dark Los Angeles : The Deed

            I live in Studio City, which is a neighborhood of Los Angeles, California in the San Fernando Valley. 
        Studio City got its name in 1927 when Mack Sennett built his studio next to a new neighborhood under construction so his studio employees could buy homes and live close to where they worked. That studio became Republic Pictures, where many B-movies and Gene Autry Westerns were shot, and eventually CBS bought the studio and now mostly TV shows are shot there on 18 different sound stages. Early episodes of Leave it To Beaver were shot there, along with most of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.   
            Most residents of Studio City don’t work at CBS Radford Studios, but many work in the Film, TV and Music Industries.
            There are a lot of old Hollywood touches in the neighborhood.  The Sportsmen’s Lodge on Ventura Boulevard has photos in the lobby of the different movie stars who drove out from Hollywood in the 1930s to stay there, ostensibly to hunt, but more often to have affairs.  At the end of my block are two wooden buildings built by Universal Studios in the 1940s that look like family homes, but when you look closer they actually hold studio and one-bedroom apartments each with its own private entrance, so young single women under contract could live together without scandal.
            That’s the sunny side of Studio City, but like every neighborhood in Los Angeles we have a darker side too, often right in front of us.  Our home was a tract home built in 1939 and cost $4500 in construction costs.  We are the third owners of the property and we have the original deed from 1940.
             A few pages into the dense legalese, you can find this clause:

i)  That no lot in said tract shall at any time be lived upon by an person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race, and for the purposes of this paragraph, no Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu, or any person of the Ethiopian, Indian or Mongolian races shall be deemed to be Caucasian; but if persons not of the Caucasian race be kept thereon by such Caucasian occupant, strictly in the capacity of servants or employees of said occupant, such circumstances shall not constitute a violation of this condition.

            The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made this clause illegal half a century ago, but it’s still creepy to think that my home and neighborhood were first built to be for whites only. It’s also strange how each race is singled out and described so carefully; you don’t often read Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu, Ethiopian, Indian and Mongolian people all being excluded by whites in the same sentence. 
            It’s probably a negative reaction to a positive California trait - California has always attracted immigrants from around the world, and in 1939 there were probably enough Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu, Ethiopian, Indians and Mongolians living here to strike fear into home developers trying to keep their new California neighborhoods lily-white. 
            I don’t think tract home developers in Alabama or Texas in 1939 put the same clause into their title documents; if anything, I suspect that those states would have excluded groups of people with the all-inclusive words “colored” and maybe “Jewish.”
            I also wonder what groups of people they were trying to exclude by writing “Ethiopian” and “Mongolian.”  You don’t meet Ethiopians and Mongolians very often in the United States, so in their ignorance they must have been mislabeling some group of people -- maybe Native Americans?
            Studio City is still predominately white.  There are Asian and Hispanic residents, but Caucasian is still the majority.  I wonder how that will change over the next few decades as California and the United States continues to change.
            Keep reading the blog for more dark facts about sun-splashed Los Angeles.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Australia : Body Surfing

The only time I came close to dying while swimming was in Australia.  That seems appropriate -- the vast country is still wild and untamed and people are used to living with a certain degree of danger.  There are birds in downtown Sydney that attack you when you approach their nests and nobody thinks twice about them.  There are sharks in Sydney harbor, and the Australians string long nets along all the eastern beaches to keep the hungry predators out.
            Further north, box jellyfish near shore can kill you with one sting, and children wear full-length lycra swimsuits for protection both from the tentacles and from the blazing sun.  You can’t drive too fast at night in the outback, because you’ll hit a kangaroo or a wombat and destroy your car. And along the marshes and beaches there are saltwater crocodiles that crawl into campsites and chew up drunken clods who falls asleep in the sand.  But the risk is part of the fun, and downplaying the danger is part of the cultural identity.  Sure you can get hurt -- you’re in Australia.
            It happened to me on the Sunshine Coast at Noosa Head, which is a large peninsula with a hundred acres of remaining rainforest that juts out from the perfect straight coastline. 
            There are hotels on the beach to the north and condos and private homes on the hundred kilometer beach to the south, but right at Noose Head you can walk into the rainforest and in less than an hour find a completely isolated and unsheltered wild beach.
            Coves and points are good for swimming and surfing for a reason. Swells come in from the ocean and their energy gets funneled over the reefs and rocks and focused into regular steady waves that pass the point and leave the cove sheltered.  Nature becomes orderly. 
But if the beach has no reef, no sandbar, no point or cove to focus the energy, then all the power of the ocean hits the beach head-on.  It’s chaos.  The waves seem small and predictable, and then become huge.  Sandbars build up in sections on the beach, and then a week later are gone.  Because the water energy coming in makes little sense, the water going out makes even less sense, so there are strange currents and undertows that pop up and disappear.
            I walk through the rainforest and find my beach -- a mile long stretch of sand that faces the full force of the Pacific.  I’m the only person there.  That happens a lot in Australia.  Getting off by yourself is not a hard thing to do on a continent with only twenty million people, most of them in cities.
            Signs are posted that there is no lifeguard on duty.  The water is rough, so I go in with flippers to help me power under the waves.  I’m breaking one of my own rules -- no one is there to see me and none of my friends even know I’m out here doing this.  But I just hiked all this way and I want to get wet.
            I rely on my standard procedure.  I dive under the first line of breakers and about seventy-five yards out I turn and swim parallel to the beach.  Further out there are even bigger waves, and I’m swimming in the hundred yard clear area between where they first break out at sea and then reform again into new waves that crash onto the beach. 
            After five minutes of easy swimming, a wave approaches and instead of breaking it keeps
getting bigger.  I swim out to meet it, sprinting up its face before its tower of water topples over
and crashes on me.  I'm ten feet high at the top and then it breaks just past me, sending up mist, and I feel the tail end of the wave pull at my fins like a hand that just missed grabbing me.
 I see another one coming that’s not as big and I decide to ride it, turning sideways and kicking hard with my fins until I feel its power catch me.  I scream down the face and try to tuck back into the wave at the last moment but the wall is too thick and I can’t break through.  A wave is like a moving barrel full of water that must keep turning to empty itself, and now I'm stuck inside.  The barrel rolls me off the bottom, up the backside, over the top, and flings me down against the bottom, knocking the wind out of me and driving my shoulder and cheek into the sand, and still it keeps emptying more and more water onto my back, making it impossible to move.  Then suddenly the barrel is empty, all the force is gone and there’s no resistance at all, just foam.  I flail with my arms in a mixture of water and air with no sense of up or down.
            I find the surface and fight to fill my lungs, then gasp air and head out to sea, rushing to get under or over the next wave before it catches me and tosses me into another rinse cycle.
            I make it past the next wave but when I pop up there’s another one right behind it.  The clear area between the outside waves and inside waves has disappeared; it’s all huge waves now, crashing, reforming, and then crashing again.  Going in won't work, so I head out as fast as I can, kicking madly up some waves, diving deep under others.  Four hundred yards out I finally find blue water again.  The swells moving under me are enormous, and I must keep kicking to stay in one place and not get pulled back in.  At the peak of each swell I can see the entire mile long stretch of beach -- but between it and me is all white crashing chaos.  Going back in right now would be suicide.
            I’m so happy I have fins on. I'd packed them at the last moment, not sure I wanted to ruin the purity of my swim by wearing them and now I know they saved my life.
But I'm not safe yet.  I could swim a mile around the point and try to find a way into land that way, but I’m exhausted and this set of waves might be just as bad over there, so I wait until my strength returns.  After forty minutes of bobbing and treading water  the waves shrink back to a size I can manage and I swim into shore on the backside of waves, spinning my arms as fast I can before the next one forms.
            I limp back up the beach and I'm amazed that my towel is still in the exact spot where I'd left it, as if I've been gone for a year instead of an hour.  I notice for the first time that it's bright blue; in fact, everything around me is clear and vivid.  I feel changed, but no one is present to witness what I went through.  I collapse on my towel and rest for a full hour without moving.  The sun sets and I have to hike back through the rainforest on a pitch black trail, but by now I’m afraid of nothing.  I emerge into brightly-lit Noosa, and I rejoin the crowd.
            I also swear I’ll never swim alone in again in place I’ve never been before.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

California Artist : The Amazing Gregangelo

I grew up in San Francisco in Diamond Heights, and when we moved into our brand new Hayman Home in the 1970’s, the Herrera family was just two doors down.  We were from Canada and had been in the United States less than two years, while the Herrera family was of Lebanese and Mexican descent and had been in California for three generations.  There were enough kids who matched up against us age-wise that we all became friends and we have been ever since.
            The Herrera kids grew up to be filmmakers, scholars, teachers, and musicians, but Greg, the middle kid, grew up to be a professional whirling dervish.
            At a young age, in the street and on the playground, Greg would spin. He could turn and turn and turn and not get dizzy, leaving any challenger who went up against him on their hands and knees in the dirt.  No kid on the block could do more than twenty spins without falling down, but Greg would then spin on for twenty minutes. With no worthy adversary he’d spin alone, entering a trance state to break his own personal record again and again.
            Most people eventually set aside childish things, but San Francisco is one place where it’s neither required nor recommended. You can call yourself a stilt walker, or a juggler, a clown, an acrobat, painter, sculptor, a nun drag queen or a pro downhill skateboarder and no one will bat an eye. In fact, if you’re good enough they’ll probably name a day after you. 
            That’s how it’s been in San Francisco from the beginning. The Outlands were defined as the territories west of the Mississippi, and that’s where outlandish behavior was tolerated. Keep moving west and you’d reach the city where your outlandish behavior was actually celebrated. Emperor Norton was an English eccentric turned San Francisco resident in the 1860’s who called himself the Emperor of the World and the Protector of Mexico. He’d mount parades around the city, which he’d lead in full military uniform, and people loved him for it.  Besides abolishing Congress (people didn’t obey him) he declared that the two bridges spanning the San Francisco Bay should be built (which people obeyed) and 30,000 people came to his funeral.
            So, when you’re growing up in San Francisco and people ask what you plan to do for a living, you have a wider choice of careers.  Some kids might dream, “I’m good at basketball, maybe I could play in the NBA.”  Greg dreamed differently. He was good at spinning, and figured he could be a professional spinner.

            When you have a passion, you still work -- you just don’t call it that. 
            Greg studied theater and dance and business.  I remember being in a nightclub and Greg arrived wearing a paper painter’s button up jumpsuit that was splattered, Jackson Pollock style, with vivid florescent colors that lit up when he was on the dance floor. 
            “Cool jumpsuit!” people would say. “Where’d you get it?”
            “I made it!  Want to buy it?” he’d answer.
            He’d open his backpack and sell twenty paper painter suits for 20 bucks each, and then disappear.  Great artist, great presentation, great businessman.  He paid five bucks for the jumpsuit, five bucks for the paint and made 100% profit on every jump suit he made, and he made dozens of them in an afternoon and sold them in clubs every weekend.
            Greg turned his spinning talent into an act -- Gregangelo, the Amazing Whirling Dervish. Imagine spinning to music in multiple costumes with electric lights. It’s mesmerizing. 
            Other artists noticed that Greg was booking more gigs and making a better living than they were, so they asked him if he’d manage them.  It was an unwieldy and eclectic group, more like a circus than a business...
   Greg turned it into Velocity Circus, which now performs 200 days a year.  He mounts performances at San Francisco’s City Hall, for the San Francisco Opera and often hired to promote exhibits at the DeYoung Museum.

            The kid down the street who wouldn’t stop spinning is now The Amazing Gregangelo, an Electric Whirling Dervish, Master of Ceremonies and leader of Velocity Circus, a real life Willy Wonka with a labyrinth in his home.  His life is his art is his life, so why not turn your home into something worthy of a creative dervish?

            I tried to turn him into a reality show awhile back and did a sizzle reel, the link is below. If you ever get a chance to see him or his home, I highly recommend it.  

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Dark Los Angeles: Talking with Trevor

This is a real conversation I had, with changes only made to protect identities.  It is a conversation that could happen in no other city in the world besides Los Angeles.

I’ve just finished oral surgery at my dentist near Cedars Sinai hospital and my headache and nausea are bad enough that I don’t want to go home where only work and phone calls await.

Instead, I go to the Farmers Market where I can have lunch and wander until my sense of self returns.

As I cross the open-air parking lot, I see Trevor Hammond, a British screenwriter who once taught a night summer screenwriting class that I took when I first came to Los Angeles. He’s standing in the shade of the first building, smoking a cigarette.  We spot each other and smile.

I loved his class because he’d take us students drinking afterwards and entertained us with amazing stories of his life growing up in East London and his work as a writer in Hollywood.

Trevor is talented -- he’s written movies and TV shows you would recognize -- but he has enough demons that he’s sabotaged his own success, mostly with drugs and that gets him fired for tardy work or bad behavior. 

Yet he’s always funny and friendly and gracious and open whenever I see him, which happens randomly about once a year, in stores, theater lobbies, and at screenings.

“Hello, Professor Hammond,” I say.

“Mr. Bull,” he answers. “Always good to see you again.”

His second-hand smoke hits my nostrils and churns my head and my stomach, and it also must turn my face green because he drops his cigarette and steps on it.

“You look pickled, Squire,” he says.

“I just had my mouth worked on.”

“You just do the Novocain and laughing gas? Or did they give you the Michael Jackson joy juice?”

“I didn’t know you could do that for oral surgery.”

“Of course you can. We’re in Los Angeles. You just have to sign the forms and pay for the anesthesiologist. I’ll e-mail you my dentist’s name.”

“When did you start smoking again? I thought you quit three years ago.”

“I always find a reason to start again. My first draft, my second draft, the Oscars were on, and I’m seeing you again.”

“Thanks, Trevor.”

“I smoke to celebrate, too. Any excuse will do.  Besides, my doctors all smoke and I’ve never met healthier, happier people.”

“You have doctors who smoke? What kind of doctors are they?”

“They’re not really doctors, they’re more like healers. Medicine men.”

“Do they have a clinic?”

“No, they’re constantly moving through the West, going state to state, and whenever they loop back through town I get in touch with them and I go through a healing ceremony with them.”

“A healing ceremony?” I ask.

“I take DMT with them. It’s a mind-expanding vision-inducing chemical.”

“DMT?” I ask. “You mean LSD?”

“No, it’s DMT. It cleanses both your mind and your body. I compare the experience to a loving psychiatrist who shows you all your flaws, and who then water boards you. It’s blows your mind, mate.”

“Water boarding doesn’t sound fun,” I answer.

“Hey, whatever works to get the gunk out.  Most of the time I take a gentler version of the medicine that lasts about two hours.  It comes from combining this flower and this root that comes from the Amazon rain forest.  They make a brew of it that you drink, called Ayahuasca.  Everyone’s doing it.”

“Never heard of it.  How do you spell it?” I ask, pulling out my iPhone.  I touch the notepad app and start typing in the letters as he dictates:


I’m waiting for the spell check on my iPhone to mangle this into something indecipherable. If you type in “I’m in the Marina,” it will turn it into “I am inanimate,” so I know it can’t handle a word for an obscure chemical stew from the Amazonian jungle.

I’m amazed when the notepad app accepts the word without a suggested change.

“That’s weird,” I say.

“What?” Trevor asks.

“I thought for sure my iPhone would turn Ayahuasca into Ayurvedic or some other word, but it went in with no problem.”

“That’s not an accident, my friend.  That’s on purpose.  That’s an inside joke between all the IOS designers at Apple.  All those guys in Silicon Valley are taking it.  That’s their little way of telling the world what they’re up to -- if you’re in the know.”

“Sure thing, Trevor.”

“You doubt? All the software designers in Silicon Valley are taking it.  I’ve experienced it first hand.”

“Really? You’re hanging out with software engineers now?”

“No, but I’ve taken Ayahuasca with them. I was on an Ayahuasca retreat in Peru, where travel by river to this compound in the jungle with thatched huts and wooden walkways between them, like the Ewok village in Return of the Jedi.  Do you remember that?”

“I remember the Ewok village, yes,” I answer.

“Well I was on this two week retreat in Peru where we take Ayahuasca every two days, and over half the people on that trip were from Silicon Valley.  Swear to God.”

“Good story, Trevor,” I say, waving my hand.  “That’s why I love talking to you.”

“Story? Always the Doubting Thomas. It’s all true.  And you know who the other half of the trip was?  Computer animators.”

“Interesting,” I answer.

“Believe what you want, but when you go to see a movie about talking cars, cute little robots, fighting pandas, or moms who turn into bears, just remember where they’re getting their ideas.”

He nods at me, smiles and holds up another cigarette.

“You feel well enough yet for me to smoke?” he says, and lights up before I can answer.

It’s a clean and sunny day, but its still winter, and when the breeze comes it’s suddenly too cold for me in the shade. I want to be in the warm sun again.

“Enjoy your medicine men, Professor,” I say, and I walk back into the sunny parking lot back to my car.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

California Life : How I Got to California

Like many Americans and Californians my family came from somewhere else. This is a photograph from 1916 of my great grandfather Norman MacDonald and my great grandmother Murdina MacDonald, shortly after they immigrated from the Isle of Lewis off the coast of Scotland to Ontario, Canada.

             They moved from the Isle of Lewis because the one patch of land he farmed could not feed a family.  Newly arrived in Canada, they took this family portrait with their children in their best clothes:
            Mary, my grandmother, the oldest daughter -
            Annabelle, the second -
            Dina (short for Murdina), the third daughter -
            Donald, the first-born son, full name Donald MacDonald (poor kid) -
            Norman, the second son -
            Baby Peggy, who would soon die in the influenza epidemic of 1918
            And still yet to be born:
            Angus, who was in the Canadian Navy in World War II and swam away from three warships sunk by Japanese torpedoes -
            Murdo, who was in the Canadian Royal Air force and who rode in the “death seat” as the rear gunner in a slow moving bomber, flying raids over Europe.  He was shot down and killed on his 26th mission.
            Ruth - the ninth child, also on the West Coast now, but in Vancouver Canada.
            My grandparents endured poverty, a long trek across an ocean, the death of two children, and a difficult life on a new continent. Yet you can see their strength and pride in this photograph, and when things are tough for me I am reminded of the good stock from which I come and that I have it easy compared to them.             
            My mother and father both grew up in Thunder Bay, Canada, but my mother fell in love with California when she worked in Santa Barbara for two years as a traveling nurse. When she stepped off the train in January in the 1960s, she saw palm trees framed by mountains with a dusting of snow.
            Palm trees and snow at the same time? she thought.  How was that possible? She was amazed but also felt that she had found home. She returned to Canada where she met my father, and after ten years of marriage and three kids she finally convinced him to move our family to San Francisco, which technically makes me a first generation immigrant to the United Sates, and the second generation in North America.
            And, like me, for half a century most Californians were from somewhere else, especially in the urban centers - the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. 
            Living in Los Angeles it’s rare to encounter a native Angeleno, and even more rare to find someone whose parents and grandparents are from California. That’s because from 1960 to 2010, the population of California grew 167 percent, which means most everyone or their parents were from somewhere else.
            We all came here for that particular permutation of the American Dream called the California Dream, and yes, it does exist.  Not to disparage any other state, but people just don’t speak of the Carolina or Arkansas or Wisconsin Dream. 
            But the California Dream has taken a hit in the last few years. Since the economic downturn life isn’t as pleasant in California as it has been and more people have left the state than moved here. 
            This has led to other changes.  The USC Population Dynamics Research Group has come out with a new study confirming this.  For the first time in fifty years, most people who live in California were born in California, and by 2030 two thirds of young adults will have been born here.
            I’m not sure how I feel about the news.  Part of me breathes a sigh of relief.  There are enough people here already, thank you.  With fewer people coming, we may finally be able to keep up with public needs, like rebuilding infrastructure, and private demands, like more housing. 
            Then again, I’m an immigrant and I know immigrants made California great. What will happen if the dreamers stop coming?
            I know Silicon Valley worries that if they don’t grab the brightest engineers from around the world they’ll just go somewhere else.
            But there may be a bigger problem than fewer engineers -- we are facing a future with fewer children. Not only are fewer families are coming to California, but fewer families are starting in California.
            Read this, from the same 2013 USC Populations Dynamics Research Group Study:
The number of children under age 10 living in (Los Angeles) county is projected to drop 15 percent from 2010 to 2020, on top of last decade’s 17-percent loss of children in that age group.

         At the same time, baby boomers are reaching retirement age. The proportion of elderly residents in LA is expected to nearly double from 9.7 percent in 2000 to 18.2 percent in 2030, the report projected. 
             You can see where this is going. 
            California is in debt.  I am worried about our educational system, our infrastructure, and about climate change.  How will we manage?  Everything will get worse before it gets better and it will be hard to keep the dream alive.
            California is facing many struggles and we need some good immigrant stock from around the world. We must find a way to lure smart hardworking people here, and to get them to stay and to raise smart and hardworking future Californians.
            But how?
            My mind flips back and forth --
            Flip: It’s expensive to live here, and there are easier places to start a business.  Taxes are high. We have tough environmental protections and regulations you don’t have to endure in other places. 
            Flop: California is still pristine because of those regulations, and those rules will probably end up being instituted elsewhere eventually.  California leads the way, which is why it’s sometimes called a bellwether state.
            Do we lower taxes? Remove regulations? Provide incentives?  Promote immigration?  It’s so strange to consider any of this, since California has never needed to do that before.  The Dream itself fueled it all.
            What must change?
            It leads my mind to one thought I dare not yet discuss in this nascent blog -- Proposition 13.  However, I will raise a few questions:
            You are 60, you own your home and you pay $5000 in property taxes.  If you sold your house and moved somewhere else in California, you’d have to pay $20,000 on a new home of comparable worth.  Would you ever move?
            You are 30 and you’ve saved up to buy your first home and you have one child and another on the way.  Someone aged 60 is finally selling their home, and you want to buy it so you can renovate it or tear it down and start over. However, that same property will now cost you $20,000 a year in taxes.  Do you buy or wait?  Or would you want to move to Arizona or Colorado instead?
            I won’t answer the questions, but I would love to hear your thoughts -- and also tell me how you and your family came to California!

Some interesting links : 

Here is a link to an interesting documentary project about the changing Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which epitomizes the changes California has gone and is going through.  Click and watch some cool video.