Saturday, December 28, 2013

California Winter Fashion

This week, the Winter Solstice marks a special point in our planet’s yearly voyage around the sun.  Our planet does not spin straight up and down, in comparison to the gigantic ball of fire we orbit. We actually tilt -- 23.5 degrees, to be exact.  We are like a spinning top that’s always leaning to the same side.
            The degree and direction of that tilt stays the same no matter where we are in our yearly journey. On December 21st, our northern hemisphere is tilted from the sun---the farthest away it will be all year, and the southern hemisphere is the closest.
            If the Earth were a leaning drunk man, on December 21st our tipsy planet has his head out in cold space, with his butt against the fire. On June 21st, it’s the opposite: his scalp burns while his toes are getting frozen.
            This tilt creates our planetary seasons, which are always opposite to each other in the two hemispheres.  Cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere, warm summer in the South, and the Tropics in between have seasons too, but a little less extreme. 
            That means that today in Maine they’re wearing parkas, snowshoes and ear muffs and tapping maple trees. In Sydney, Australia they’re in board shorts and bikinis drinking beer on sailboats or surfing on Bondi beach.
            But in California, the seasons don’t match up easily with the rest of the world, despite the Golden State being well above the Tropics. That means we can’t figure out how we’re supposed to dress.

            At 8:30 in the morning in Southern California, you’ll see a woman in a long winter overcoat with a chic scarf standing on a street corner next to a man in flip flops, board shorts and a T-shirt, waiting for the light to change.
            The man is shivering a little, but he’s committed to proving he can live like a surfer all year long. The woman is maybe a tad too warm and sweating under the collar, but she’s committed to wearing her fashionable winter clothes at least a few weeks out of the year.
            It’s warm in the sun and cool in the shade, so you’ll see the board short folks sticking to the sunny side of the street, while those seeking a winter wonderland will be hugging the buildings, searching for shadows.
            You also see mad fashion mash-ups that you get nowhere else in the world. Plenty of women wear their down parkas up top, and then flip-flops down below. Guys will wear cargo shorts with a ski sweater.  Both men and women will wear knit caps with their arms, legs, and digits exposed.  We sometimes export these bizarre trends, and people copy us without realizing that we have a seasonal disorder. Consider the woman wearing a thigh-exposing denim mini-shirt, and then oven-hot Ugg Boots on her feet. That weird look came from our seasonal confusion, folks, not any true fashion sense, so be wary of copying us.

            It’s a coastal issue, mostly.  When you get into the San Joaquin Valley and then closer to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, our behavior matches the rest of the country.  True, you’ll sometimes see people skiing in bikinis (only in California), but generally people dress appropriately.  A Visalia cotton farmer wears thick denim in winter, and woman working for the Forest Service in Truckee knows to wear snow boots in Winter.  But if you cross the coastal range and get closer to the ocean, the temperate effects of the ocean confuse us.

            In San Diego, it’s not that bad. San Diego has the best weather in the country, which means it’s 85 in the summer and 70 in the winter, and only the absence or presence of leaves on the trees will tell you whether it’s winter or not.

            When you get to Los Angeles, the confusion begins. Los Angeles is a semi-tropical desert, which means it can get warm in winter, but the warmth doesn’t stick around. It’s cold at night and in the morning, enough for frost to happen, but then it can be 80 degrees in the middle of the day if you’re standing in the sun. It’s hard to know what to wear, so we invent bizarre clothing combinations as we each decide which trade-off we prefer, shivering or sweating. The amount of cement in the urban sprawl only makes it worse. Cement and asphalt don’t hold heat well, so it rises away quickly at night and reflects into your skin during the day. 

            As you get to Northern California, the weather stabilizes, but in ways that don’t match the rest of the country. In winter, Monterey and San Francisco have brilliant days of blue skies and bright sunshine, but it’s still too cool to strip down. In summer, the interior valleys get so hot that the rising air sucks in air from the coast to replace it, and that cooler ocean air hits the coast and turns into fog -- fast moving, bone chilling, wet fog. The last thing you want to do in summer in either Monterey or San Francisco is to go to the beach and take off your clothes. You’d get hypothermia.

            We want our summer and winter experiences to match the rest of the country, so we engage in wishful thinking and questionable behavior. In San Francisco, in winter time, if the sun is out and you can get out of the wind, you can actually find warmth. You can find guys in the parks with their shirts off and women in bikinis and shorts lying on beach towels, but laying low behind hedges. If you’re lying flat to the earth the sun will feel like it’s 80 degrees, but if you raise your head above the hedge row the cool breeze will chill you.  That’s why you see people in swim suits wearing down parkas on top -- they’re on a search for a heat sink in which they can rest, and pretend it’s summer in the middle of winter.
            In summer, it’s the opposite. In most of the city the wet fog is moving so fast that it’s better to wear a winter raincoat than any kind of summer clothes. But Northern Californians still try to be like the rest of the country. That’s why they’re wearing down parkas on July 4th as they barbecue in their tiny backyards, and then they all go down to Crissy Field by the Golden Gate Bridge, and watch the fireworks over the water change the color of the thick clouds while the fog horns blast.

            A trip to the beach is always wistful in Northern California. If it’s warm, it’s still not warm enough to go swimming. If it’s cold, it’s wet enough that you want to be in the car.
         Farther north, the Coastal Redwoods take over and they create their own eco-system. It’s a temperate rain forest; wet in winter, less wet in summer.

            As winter takes over in Southern California, I plan to enjoy the next six weeks. There was frost on the ground on the first day of winter, but the forecast for later in the week is eighty degrees. January has the best weather of any month, which is the whole point of the Rose Bowl Parade. Look America! While you’re freezing, we have a hundred floats covered with roses and tropical flowers, and it’s brilliant sunshine!  Come move West! 
            The weather is great for hiking, and you can get a sun burned face if you’re not wearing a hat. In February it all changes as the rains finally come, and then we’ll remember that it’s winter and we’re supposed to cover up, but for the next six weeks it’s glorious, as long as you accept the wackiness.
            Our changing climate will mean winters will get more wet and blustery and summer will be hotter and drier, but for now, winter means I can wear my ski sweater with my swim trunks and flip flops.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Super Aggressive Christmas Performance

The Christmas season has zones of anger, aggression, disappointment, and fear.   The zones are the crowded places -- the shopping centers, parking lots, post office lines and grocery stores where people must go in their obligatory quest for joy.  Get to the store early to purchase your joy, wait in line for your joy, make sure you bring home joy for your family, and be joyful on command while doing it. Time, space and resources are limited, so we end up jockeying against each other in our individual quests for joy, and it can sour a crowd quickly.
            I can dodge most zones by planning ahead and avoiding people. But there’s one zone I must enter each year, and it always scares me: the school auditorium for the Christmas Singing Performance.
            Lily is in third grade, so this year is my fourth visit.  Although it scares me, I’m battle-hardened. Like fathers everywhere, I know my job on this day and I prep for it with  grim determination. I get up early, charge the camera battery, make sure I have the long lens, and I’m wearing the right gear.
            Robin and Lily are also up early, perfecting Lily’s long hair and steaming the wrinkles out of the outfit for the performance. They’re the show, I’m logistics.
            I leave first, with one of Robin’s long scarves. It will be a seat holder. School is close enough that I could walk, but today time is crucial, so I’m driving. My job is simple; to secure two good seats in the auditorium and hold them while Robin gets Lily to class, and then she can cross campus and get to her seat before the show starts at 8:15 a.m.
            I see other neighborhood cars with solitary drivers and I know they’re like me. They’re the early planners, those people who decide they want to be the first ones in.
            There’s a line at 7:45 for the three hundred seat auditorium, and there’s already a line of eighty people waiting, most of them with tripods and camera bags. People smile and trade pleasantries, but we’re like photographers ready to enter the Olympic Stadium on the day of the 100-meter dash finals. We’re colleagues, but we all want that one special spot. We’re also of like mind; if we plan ahead and work hard, we can grab seats and insure joy for ourselves and our family before anyone else arrives.
            The doors open at 7:50, and the first battle begins. Some people are bold and come with six or seven sweaters or scarves and lay them down and fill a row. The best way to hold them is to plop down in the middle seat, get on your cell phone and keep saying, “these seats are taken, these seats are taken,” to anyone who dares approach.
            Some make the mistake of putting down several sweaters or jackets, and then leaving. Their “reserved” spots will disappear, and once they return and find five people sitting in their spots, they’ll be lucky if they can shame even one person to give his or her seat up.
            I understand the pressure. Grandparents and aunts and uncles are in town, they move slow, they want to see the snowman collage that Class 34 made, and then linger to talk to the children as they prep for the show. That’s where the excitement is, and why they came to school today. They’ll get to the theater when they can.
            We, the brave few who breach those auditorium doors first----know what our jobs are.
If we don’t hold the required number of seats, we will have failed in our jobs to ensure Christmas joy for our families. We also know that there aren’t enough seats for everyone who wants to see the show, so we set up our perimeters and guard them.
            Then there are the video and camera people. They fight for their position in row four and back, they get their cameras set and they raise up those tripods. They’re gambling; by grabbing the less desirable seats, they figure they can occupy more real estate without too much of a fight. But if you’re in row four or back, you know that the video you are shooting will be too unstable in the close-up, so you need that tripod, damn it, or there will be shaky video to show on Christmas night. By 8:00 a.m., there’s a forest of tripods back there.

            I grab two seats in row four, and set down Robin’s scarf to save her seat.  I set up my own camera, with no tripod. Instead, I’m wearing my thick jacket, because I can rest my padded elbow on the wooden arm chair and create my own comfortable “mono-pod,” and shoot a steady image. I’ll overheat, but I don’ care.  I have to lean into Robin or my neighbor to get my shot, but I’m ready. Tap on my shoulder all you want, tripod boy. I’m doing my lean, and I’m not moving.
            At 8 a.m. the second jockeying battle begins. We early settlers, once competitors, now must fight and defend our territories against the interlopers who arrive on-time. We were the busy ants who planned ahead, and now in come the fiddling grasshoppers, only fifteen minutes before the performance, and they’re amazed there are no seats left. Is this your first year, buddy? I feel for you, but we’re taking care of our own right now.
            The comments between 8:00 and 8:10 a.m. get aggressive. There are too many people trying to sit in too many guarded seats, and the mom guarding six spots can’t hide in her cell phone anymore, and the dad with the tripod up too high ends up raising his voice as well. The newcomers plead for fairness, and often get rejected.
            “Yeah, and Merry Christmas to you too,” often gets said, a few decibels too high and dripping with disdain.

            Robin arrives, along with the other moms and dads. People find their seats, or take a spot standing at the back of the auditorium, leaning against a wall. I know the feeling, that’s where I spent my first year.
            But there is one more battle. There is a final wave of twenty people who tumble in at 8:14, just before the kids march in. These people are joyful without effort, laughing and waving, and clueless to the unwritten rules of How to Properly Secure Seats for the Grammar School Auditorium Performance. They sit anywhere, right on the hands of the people trying to guard the chairs, ignoring the pounding on their shoulder, while they wave to the other Room Mom six rows back. Or they plop down in the aisles, ignoring the fire codes, or they sit right on the floor in front in front of the stage and yank out their tripods and cameras. They missed a chance for the best seat? These self-appointed VIPs create their own. They also stand their ground, and their behavior is so audacious few people challenge them. Although a murmur of dissatisfaction rolls through the rows, we all just want the bickering to end and the show to start.
            Then the principal comes in and grabs the microphone and calms the collective savage beast. Like that poster that reminds us that everything we need to know in life we learned in Kindergarten, the principal turns the first minute of the performance into a gracious thank you to all the parents for coming, and then gives us all a gentle reminder about how and where we sit, why rules are important, and how he’s proud of us for being such good role models for our children. The murmuring goes down, the aisles clear, and the music begins.

            And everything changes when the kids come in.  Time stops, and we all get our moment of joy, watching our children and their classmates mount the risers and then turn to face us. They peer out into the darkness and then their eyes brighten and they smile and wave when they spot us. They are all dressed up and proud of their work, and they feel safe and loved because they know we are there watching and caring about them.
            There’s an empty seat next to me, and the father sitting on the other side alternates between guarding it with his hand and madly texting into his phone.  A woman comes in late after pounding on the door, and she makes her way to row 4, and we all go into the half-crouch as she squeezes past us. She collapses into her spare seat, closes her eyes and exhales. There was another child to drop off at another school, but she promised that she would get there and see the performance, and the dad promised that he’d help make it happen -- and she made it, on a day when the world conspired against her. I glanced over and saw her eyes brighten when her child hit the stage, and she waved at her daughter just like I did with mine. Their child spotted her and smiled like the Cheshire Cat, beaming light right back at them. Parenting is showing up, and Mom and dad had made it happen. They’d done well.
            The performance was great. Some classes sang in two part harmonies, and in repeating rounds, which isn’t easy, They weren’t just belting it out, they’d rehearsed, and it came out as sweet music. Seventy-five third graders sang as one, which turned all 350 of us in the audience into one, and we embraced the moment.
            My fear turns to pleasure on a dime, and I realize both feelings are in my mind, not in the seats or in the people around me. Everything I experienced before was, and is, all in my head.
            I suddenly feel regret within my pleasure; she finishes at this school in two years, so there are only two of these performances left. I feel the days and the months racing past, and I need more moments to embrace.
            I get a grip and return to the present moment, listen to the music and relax. The children give us all the Christmas joy for which we’d come, and I receive it, with thanks. I am grateful for all I have. Merry Christmas.            

Thursday, December 12, 2013

When will the dying begin?

When will the dying begin? I put it at less than ten years.
            Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, will die in some kind of environmental disaster. It could happen anywhere.
            From the Los Angeles Times -- A National Research Council Report says that “the planet is warming so quickly that the world should expect abrupt and unpredictable consequences in a matter of years or a few decades.”
            The summer fires and the winter storms that disrupt our lives, destroy homes and businesses and cost so much? And the hurricanes? And the droughts? It’s going to get worse and worse.
            The party is over, folks.
            Three massive hurricanes back to back will destroy the East Coast.
            Colorado will burn. The Mississippi rivers will have a mega-flood and destroy cities.  In California, the water will run dry in the middle of the state, while the coast will go underwater. San Francisco will not be a city of hills, but a city of islands.
            As federal and state disaster funds get eaten up and there’s not enough time, money or manpower to address every issue, eventually there will be a disaster that we won’t be able to contain. Food, water, medicine and shelter will run out.
            Civilization will break down.
            We all feel it.  That’s why zombie apocalypse stories are so popular. We all feel that we are just one flashpoint away from chaos.                        
            Soon we will reach a tipping point with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere where no amount of retroactive action will reverse the forward motion of climate change, at least not for thousands of years.
            Once there are one or two massive death events, we will try to geo-engineer our way out of the problem, by shooting chemicals into the sky to block the sun and cool the planet, or by building gigantic sequestration plants to pump CO2 into the ground, or we’ll build nuclear, as fast as we can. These may create worse problems, but we’ve been geo-engineering the planet for hundreds of years already, we just did it blindly and without purpose.  People will demand that something be done, and we’ll be desperate enough to try anything.  The unintended consequences of our good intentions will certainly surprise us.
            Meanwhile, the acid levels in the ocean are increasing, killing coral and plankton, and there’s a zone of plastic garbage the size of Texas swirling slowly in the middle of the Pacific, like a toilet that you can never flush.
            At one time, the nuclear arms race and the potential for war was what I constantly thought and worried about. That seems like such a quaint fear now, compared to this.
            This way of life that we have may be gone soon. I think about it every day. No more gluten free cookies, stem cell research, or Superbowl halftime show.
There’s also no way to predict which region will have the massive disaster. There’s no way to prepare for it, except to be ready to escape if you have to -- to leave your life behind and be ready to start new somewhere else.
            I also wonder what life will be like after the massive paradigm shift.
            As resources dwindle, as problems mount, governments will control access and limit consumption. There will be rationing. Democracy and freedom will suffer.  It may disappear, and be replaced by some regulated system of government dedicated to controlling intake and doling out resources.
            What can I do?
            I keep two quotes on my desk, scribbled on a tiny note pad.
            “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.”
            This is an ancient Chinese saying, which made it into Poor Richard’s Almanac, and Eleanor Roosevelt used as well.
            So shines a good deed in a weary world...
            This is what Willy Wonka says to himself when Charlie gives back the amazing Gobstopper, and is reassured that there is good in the world.
            I try to keep life small, and my consumption small. I try to stay in Tier 1 in all my utility bills. I recycle. I eat meat once a week. I’m looking into the solar panels and getting rid of the lawn. I try to be a good example to my daughter. I also try not to get attached to anything, because it may be gone. It may not make any difference, but it’s my candle, for now.
            I think about what role I’m going to play when the paradigm shift happens. I’ll probably be a teacher, a coach, a cook, and a farmer. If I’m required to do more, I hope I can rise to the occasion. It may all end anyway, but I have to try.
            The truth is, I despair. How do you battle despair?
            I realize the solution to despair is to take action. I have great ideas about how I can save the world, but I realize I haven’t take action on any of them. And guess what?  Other people already have.
            I was thinking of a way you could use solar powered garbage collection scoopers to gradually gather garbage from the Pacific Gyre. Then I researched it and found out that Boyan Slat from the Neitherlands already has an idea to clean the Garbage Patch, using the swirling currents themselves to gather the trash.
            It’s engineering on a big scale, but not complicated, and we should try this before other grand scale geo-engineering projects.
            Check it out:
            I also have a solution for global warming. We require millions of massive bio-engineering devices that suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and spew oxygen. But we already have them -- Giant Redwood Trees. Coastal Redwoods are thriving with the higher CO2 levels in all the forests on the Pacific Coast. They are nature’s wonderful geo-engineering marvels.
            If we are going to bio-engineer the planet...
            If we are going to mobilize millions of people because of disaster...
            If whole regions are going to be lost because of tragedy...
            We can plant redwood trees everywhere where they will grow.
            We can plant trees of all kinds, everywhere.
            And of course, Million Trees LA is trying to do just that, planting a million trees within the city, thus changing our ecosystem. Check out:
            That’s the only sure-fire system we have right now to battle the problem, along with drastically cutting energy consumption.
            We’ve had a Dark Age before. We may be heading for another one.
            All I can do for peace of mind is to light my candle, be thankful for what I have, do what I can, and hope the light stays on.
            And maybe take more action...

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Edelweiss, Edelweiss...bless my homeland forever?

My wife Robin holds a grudge against the actress Kathy Najimy. I don’t, however. In fact, Kathy Najimy is part of one of the best memories of my marriage, but whenever I mention her, Robin scoffs. That’s how different our memories are of the event that caused it all. Nostalgic affection versus bitter resentment.
            It was summertime, and for Robin’s birthday we purchased tickets to the Hollywood Bowl’s Sound of Music Sing-a-Long for a large group of friends. The Hollywood Bowl is wonderful in the summer, and seems vast yet cozy. It holds more than 25,000 people, and when you are there on a summer night you feel like you are part of Los Angeles. You feel the pulse of the city, and know that besides a baseball game, nowhere else in L.A. are this many people gathering. It’s warm as the sun sets, but you have blankets ready for when the temperature drops. You are nestled snug in the hills, and if you’re high enough up you can see the illuminated Hollywood sign in the distance. The Hollywood Freeway cuts through the Cahuenga Pass to the East, and you can hear it like a distant river. Deer and coyote creep through the dark hills to the West. You may see them on your way back to your car after the show, if you tried street parking in the high neighborhoods. If you’re lucky the moon will be out, which makes Los Angeles seem perfect.
            The Sound of Music Sing-along is a hosted screening of the movie, The Sound of Music, and everyone is encouraged to dress up in costume. As the sun goes down there is also a costume contest, and then as night takes over they start the movie on a vast screen, with excellent subtitles. You sing with the songs, shout back at the picture, and they even hand out goodie bags of props to every attendee, so you can throw confetti in the air, hold up edelweiss as you sway and trade cards of your favorite things.

            For the birthday party, we designed costumes for most of our friends. Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti and Do costumes were easy, for instance.  We painted eight t-shirts with the two-letter word written on it, and then threw in an extra prop --  like tea bags hanging from a baseball cap for “Ti” for instance. We gave a plastic yellow sun hat to “Re,” a drop of golden sun.
            However, Robin went all out. After all, it was her birthday...and her undoing.
            Robin dressed as edelweiss -- head to toe. She designed a full body jump suit of lightweight astroturf, including a hood, and covered the entire suit with tiny white plastic flowers. She was a human carpet of the Austrian mountain flower. From the moment we arrived at the Bowl, she got compliments.
            Then she was spotted by some of the Bowl staff and invited to participate in the costume competition, hosted by the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, Kathy Najimy.

            “Just head down to the stage and tell them that we picked you to compete,” one staffer explained.
            I escorted Robin down from Section K, high up in the nosebleed seats, but as we got to the stage, the guards told me I could not stand and wait in the aisle. I was a fire hazard, and my costume as the note “Do” was lame and clearly not worthy, so back to the nosebleed seats I went.
            I joined our party in Section K and watched as the sun set. It was timed perfectly. Kathy Najimy went through the line of costumed fans and either found a reason to eliminate them, or asked the crowd to vote. The house lights came on just as the semi final round started. The line of competitors, which started at twenty, was down to four, and Robin was surviving every cut.
            “She’s going to win,” I announced.
            Her birthday revelers shouted loud at every “scream if you like this one” vote, and soon everyone in Section K knew to shout for Edelweiss. Our fan base grew to surrounding sections, and I felt the power of ten thousand people in the upper seats deciding that Robin had to win.
            As the twilight faded, the lights of the Hollywood Bowl lit up behind the people on stage, and shifted in different pastel hues, illuminating the bandshell behind them. They lowered the big movie screen, and The Sound of Music logo came up in bright yellow. Robin survived the semi-finals. It was down to two costumes. 
            Edelweiss Robin was up against two people who were dressed in ONE costume. They had taken a stretch of Astroturf, glued tiny hamlets, rocks, trees and rivers to it, and stuck their heads through two holes in the top. One would call out, ‘We’re the hills!” and the other would then chant, “and we’re alive!”
            Their presentation was good, but their costume was not. It came time for the final vote. Kathy Najimy said she would announce each costume, and then judge by the screams and applause.
            “And first up -- Edelwiess!” she yelled.
            Robin stepped forward, and opened her arms just as a spotlight hit her Center Stage. Her hundreds of white flowers lit up like a reflective beacon. It was dark by now, and my wife was a tiny speck on the most famous stage in Los Angeles, and 20,000 people were screaming for her. She was as big as Jay Z and bigger than Springsteen. She stood there, basking in the hot white light as thousands screamed for her. It was awesome, and I loved watching it.

            But Kathy Najimy made a mistake -- an understandable mistake, but a mistake for which Robin will never forgive her. In a music amphitheater so large there are several stations of speakers to amplify the noise as it goes back into the upper sections. It took an extra beat for Kathy’s question to make it all the way up to the back sections, and it then took a moment longer for the growing roar of the crowd to make it all the way back down to the stage, like a wave washing up and back through 20,000 people. But Kathy Najimy moved too quickly to the next contestant.
            “And who wants ‘The Hills?’” she asked, and Robin’s rivals benefitted from the roar that was still happening for her. Our roar, from way up in Section K,L,M,N, and O were hitting the stage just as Kathy switched to “The Hills.”
            She then decided, incorrectly, that “The Hills” had won.
            “The Hills” won a week-long cruise from Vancouver up through the Queen Charlotte Islands. Robin won second place, and received two free tickets to the Hollywood Bowl.
            The movie started. I saw Robin, the tiny dot, move off the stage and start the long losing trek up to the nosebleed seats. I ran down to meet her and got to her halfway and escorted her back. People were already yelling.
            “Edelweiss, you got ripped off!”
            “Edelweiss, you were the winner!”
            When we got back to our seats, I did a “shout-out” for Edelweiss and Sections K,L,M, N and O all screamed their support. It was awesome.
             The movie was great. The night was great. I was proud of Robin. I loved seeing my tiny little white dot down on the stage, her arms outstretched, as the screams of thousands rolled down the seats and across her. I loved being part of Los Angeles that night. All of that makes it a great memory for me.
            But Robin?
            When I told her I was writing this post, I asked her how she felt about that night. “Good times,” she said. “But I’m still a Bitter Betty.”
            I guess it’s like being proud of someone for winning a silver medal in the Olympics. I feel great for her, but she still remembers how close she was to gold...