The Extraordinary Life of Gil Haimson

Born in 1933 and raised in Los Angeles, Gil Haimson grew up alongside the golden age of film and television. As a cameraman he flew around the world with Bob Hope on a USO tour and while in the Army he performed variety shows alongside Raymond Burr. Henry Fonda once gave him a jar of honey from his private bee hive and he has shaken hands with both John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Ronald Regan himself once handed Gil a box of chocolates as a thank you for buying him and Nancy ice cream cones. At eighty years of age Gil has truly lived an incredible life and he was kind enough to sit down with me and tell me a few stories…

The first time Gil brought his hand to his heart during our conversation was when he talked about his love of musicals. His eyes light up and he fondly recalled some of his first theater experiences while attending Venice High. He played the villainous Jonathon in Arsenic and Old Lace and the comedic Percy Kilbride in George Washington Slept Here. Playing these characters “to the hilt” as Gil described was a lot of fun and there was no doubt what he wanted to study in College.

In October of 1955, while studying Theater Arts at LA City and State College, Gil was drafted into the Army. He had overlooked registering himself as a student and was therefore drafted. Being that Gil has a way of making the most of every situation he played volleyball and softball for the Army and put in to spend three months in New York for a portion of his active duty so he could see as many Broadway musicals as possible. In New York, Gil saw a show at least three nights a week after classes in “troop information and education” at Fort Slocum. After class he would run to catch the ferry, take the train to Grand Central Station and was given a dinner ticket at the USO as well as a ticket for a Broadway show. “I was in heaven,” he said. Gil seems to have been made for the stage himself with his rich, smooth voice and natural charisma. He has a class about him belonging to another time; a sense of humor and charm reminiscent of a true silver screen leading man.

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– Gil at top right with some of his college theater friends.

Although Gil did play a few small roles, he didn’t end up in front of the camera, but rather directly behind it. He worked as a cameraman in Hollywood for over fifty years filming everything from the original Batman series to Bob Hope’s 1971 overseas Christmas tour during Vietnam. While in the Army Gil was also contacted by Raymond Burr to audition troops for a variety show. The show consisted of pies in the face, slap stick comedy bits and musical numbers; things Burr never got to do as an actor because he was always cast in more serious, dramatic roles. Gil, Burr and a troupe of thirteen soldiers performed over one hundred shows at military bases up and down the west coast. Their successful run was only cut short when Burr got the call that he had been given the part of Perry Mason.

With no more shows to perform Gil went back to playing volleyball and to his job as a Guided Missile Specialist. He spent his days in an under-ground bunker tracking unidentified aircrafts and monitoring the sixteen guided missile batteries in and around the Los Angeles area. Each site had Nike guided missiles in underground silos, ready to strike down unknown aircrafts. Quite an exciting job and an important part of California’s military history.

After finishing up his Army career, Gil found himself teaching ballroom dancing at the Veloz and Yolanda dancing school in Beverly Hills where he spent his days and nights teaching the older women of Beverly Hills how to dance.

Eventually Gil focused on his love of filmmaking and was hired by an independent filmmaker named Bruce Herschensohn, a man he speaks fondly of and learned a lot from. Documentary films were Gil’s passion at the time and his first assignment was to help edit footage for a film advertising Airstream trailers. In 1959, Wally Byam, maker of the Airstream, sent a group of thirty-six American families on a caravan from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt in their Airstream trailers. Gil’s job was to edit all of the footage taken during their trip into a forty-five minute documentary. After hours of labor the film was shown to Mr. Byam and the first thing he exclaimed was, “where are all my trailers?!” Gil was so captivated with the breathtaking scenery that he left out shots of the trailers. He had to go back and re-cut the entire thing. “It hurt me to take out all of that gorgeous scenery,” Gil said “but you have to give the client what they want.” He learned a big lesson that day. Working on this film was a great entryway into the world of documentary filmmaking which Gil lived and breathed for the next four years.

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– Photo credit: twm1340 at Flickr

Much as it is today, getting hired at the major studios in Los Angeles is not an easy thing. Fortunately, Gil always had consistent work outside the studios when one day he got a call from Sol Halprin, head of the camera department at Twentieth Century Fox. “Is this Gil Haimson?” Sol asked. “Yes, it is sir.” “Would you be interested in working at 20th, Gil?” “I’d love to work at 20th, sir!” “Well, come over and see me next week.” A few weeks later Gil had full-time work as a camera assistant at Twentieth Century Fox and for the next four years he worked on television series such as Batman, Time Tunnel, Voyage to The Bottom of The Sea and countless other shows. Generally working twelve-hour days due to the time-consuming special effects, Gil had very little social life or time to go see his musicals but he said, with no trace of regret, those were “very exciting days.”

After about four years, work at Fox started to dry up. It was a slow time but Gil needed to find work so he made the tough decision to leave the studio. He went onto work at MGM, Paramount, CBS, Disney and Universal when one day fellow cameraman, Allen Stensvold asked him if he would like to go on tour with Bob Hope to Vietnam to film the Bob Hope Show. “We went around the world in sixteen days,” Gil said “to Guam, Madrid, Guantanamo, Saigon (which is now called Ho Chi Minh City) and Da Nang in Vietnam. We weren’t allowed to stay the night in Da Nang because troops were in battle a mile away from where we were putting on the show!” Bob was a great guy, Gil said and it really moved him to see how grateful the men were for the show and how happy it made them. Many of them were wounded and wheeled out on gurneys by the nurses to see the show. A crew of eighty people was flown by the Air Force to perform a one and a half hour show at each location; there were twelve beautiful girls that danced and sang, baseball pitcher Vida Blue, the astronaut Alan Shepard from the Apollo 14 mission and Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Despite the long hours and intense work schedule, I was beginning to sense that Gil said yes to just about everything. “Was there anything you said no to?” I asked him. “I didn’t know the word,” he said with a smile.

– Some of Gil’s memorabilia from The Bob Hope Show, Christmas 1971.

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The second time Gil brought his hand to his heart was to tell me about filming the night Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles. His voice lowered, his head hung a little and his eyes seemed to bow down in remembrance of a man that he, and much of the country, had come to admire and respect.

In the spring of 1968 Gil spent two months traveling with Kennedy as a cameraman filming a documentary for NBC on Kennedy’s run for the presidency. Gil and the crew traveled with Kennedy, sharing late night bus rides, making whistle stops at small towns and taking early morning flights. Due to the close travel arrangements between the crew and Kennedy’s entourage, Gil experienced firsthand Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s kindness and down to earth manner. He recounted a moment, while on a chartered flight, when he went to bring his dinner tray back to the stewardesses and Ethel stopped him and insisted on bringing it back for him. “She was a delightful woman,” Gil said. She was friendly and personable with everyone as was Kennedy himself. Kennedy often came back to where the media team was seated to shake hands, share a few stories and tell them what a great job they were doing. “They were just lovely, lovely people,” Gil said.

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– Photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society

While filming, Gil remembers the way Kennedy always insisted on riding in a convertible through the streets, crowded with fans and supporters. Despite what happened to his own brother it was very important to Kennedy that he be able to “touch the people” as he drove by. “He was that kind of man,” Gil said “and he would have made an incredible president,” pausing as if to take a moment of silence, “It would have been a different world.” The many moments the crew shared with the Kennedy’s, and their gestures of kindness, touched Gil deeply making it all the more painful to be there on that fateful night.

It was just after midnight on June 5th 1968 at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy was finishing up his victory speech for the California primaries; the celebratory energy in the room was high. Gil and the film crew had gone ahead of Kennedy in order to film him entering a room full of volunteers he intended to thank and give a speech to. Before the crew could get down the stairs shots rang out. Gil and the crew ran back up the stairs to see a panicked mob scrambling out of the back pantry area where Kennedy had been shot. As the room cleared they saw Kennedy lying on the ground covered in blood. Ethel, who was pregnant with their eleventh child at the time, was down on her hands and knees above him. “I couldn’t film it Gil said,” in a quiet voice. “I couldn’t film it.” “Were you expected to?” I asked “Oh yes, but I couldn’t do it.” Gil said he collapsed at that moment and told himself “never again, no more documentaries.” The closeness of the last few months ending with such a traumatic event was heartbreaking. “It really affected me deeply,” he said.

Gil took some time off work after that. One day, in the steam room at the gym he met a man who asked him if he’d ever been to Europe. No, Gil said but a month later he had sold his car, put all his belongings in storage and set off for what would be an eleven month trip across Europe, visiting twenty-three countries in a Volkswagen Beetle he purchased for $1,325 at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg Germany. It was a much needed and well deserved adventure… and perhaps a story for another blog post.

The third time Gil brought his hand to his heart was when he told me about meeting his wife Dulce. At sixty-five Gil had never been married and figured at his age it probably wouldn’t happen but just like something out of a Hollywood romance, it did, and he said he knew immediately that she was the one. Like Gil, Dulce loves musicals also. The two of them have fallen in love with the latest film adaptation of Les Misérables with Hugh Jackman and Ann Hathaway. “It’s beautiful.” Gil says to me, “It’s a magnificent story, and we’ve seen it three times in the theater!” What’s magnificent to me is Gil and Dulce’s own story and being reminded that love has a way of finding us in its own perfect time.

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img044I don’t know anyone who has lived a more full and exciting life as Gil Haimson. At eighty years of age he has more energy and enthusiasm for life than anyone I know. Just the other night he invited me to a private screening at the Fox lot to see the latest Ben Stiller movie. Pulling into the parking garage, Gil parked in a reserved spot for an actor on the TV show Bones; something I’d never have the nerve to do. Flashing back on all of Gil’s stories I realized that somehow, regardless of how small, Gil has a way of bringing a sense of adventure to everything he does and that night I was happy to be along for the ride.

To my dismay Gil didn’t have as many pictures of his adventures as I had hoped but it’s clear that Gil was much too busy living life than to worry about preserving it all. I think my generation has a harder time with this. Many of us spend a lot of time snapping photos of everything from a recent purchase to our morning breakfast. We have so many outlets to share every second of our lives but how much does that distract us from actually living it? For this I envy Gil and I am inspired to spend more time living my own adventure for all its worth.

50th b-day

– Gil at his 50th Surprise Birthday Party.

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The Crapi Apartments

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Like most people, when I first drove by the Crapi Apartment complex I assumed it said “Capri”; trying to make the renter feel as though they were living in a sunny villa along a picturesque Italian coast. After doing a triple take one day I realized that no, my eyes were not playing tricks on me, this apartment complex was indeed named the “Crapi” (crappy) Apartments. It was already a stretch to believe this complex would make anyone feel as though they were on a Mediterranean beach sipping sangria but this shattered the fantasy altogether. All of a sudden you knew exactly where you were; on a busy, loud, somewhat dirty section of Overland Avenue in Los Angeles, California.

What were the apartment owners thinking? They must be foreigners, I thought and didn’t have a handle on their English yet. But wouldn’t someone have told them? How did this get overlooked? And what about the people who live at Chez “Crapi” – do they realize it’s spelled wrong? Are the apartments actually crappy?

After a quick Google search I discovered that the apartment owners simply have a sense of humor. This of course makes the most sense but I’ll admit, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a long overlooked spelling error that I alone had discovered. I did however find out that the apartment owners also have a complex just around the corner called the “Chee Zee” Apartments. Okay… that’s pretty funny.

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It’s nice to think that there are some apartment owners out there who might be really cool people to rent from.

My neighborhood is filled with amusing apartment names which I regularly admire and contemplate on my walks. Many of the complexes were built in the 1950s and 60s and I can’t help but wonder how and why they got their names. Take for example the “Leonara Jay” Apartments below. Who was Leonara Jay?

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Months after taking this photo, I happened to be walking the other direction and noticed that the other side of the complex is named the “Leonard Jay.” Were they husband and wife? Were they brother and sister? I’m sure somebody out there knows. Either way, it makes me happy that someone took the time to name the complex. It feels like a great aunt or uncle with a few good stories to tell.

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Recently, while walking down Motor Avenue, I happened upon the “Fantasie” Apartments. I have walked past this alleyway dozens of times and never noticed this sign. It seems unfortunate to me that such a beautiful sign would be stuffed between two buildings, certainly lessening the possibility of this being anyone’s “fantasie.” I would imagine though that there was a day when this complex stood proud and alluring, newly built on Motor Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the glitz of Sony studios.

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I’m not sure why I like the apartment complex names so much. They invoke a sense of nostalgia I suppose, for a past Los Angeles I like to imagine experiencing. A mid-century Los Angeles full of atomic starburst designs and lava rock décor. I like that somebody tried at least to bring some imagination and intrigue to these simple, somewhat boring, rectangular buildings that countless people move in and out of year after year. Why not make it fun?IMG_6303IMG_620220131127_15434320131127_155440-00120131127_155410IMG_630520131231_144737 (1)20131231_150113IMG_630220140102_105649

I Just Want to See Something Grow…

20130627_191008“I just want to see something grow,” I say to the lady at the hardware store nursery. “Which flowers will grow indoors by a sunny window?” Seed packet in hand, I make my way to the register. I just want to see something grow, I think to myself, filling the pot with soil, moistening it a bit and then scattering some of the seeds about. I’ve never been much of a gardener. I hope I’m doing this right. I just want to see something grow, I said to myself that spring, sitting in my Los Angeles apartment, the sound of the freeway in the distance, a layer of dust on the window sill.

Watching something grow seems like a long-lost thing, now that I live in the city. Not the same as buying a potted plant. What if nothing happens? What if it dies before it has a chance to bloom? And how do I care for it once it grows?! I’m not going to worry about all that right now because I just want to see something grow.

I don’t recall how long, it seemed like a month or two went by. Nothing happened, just brown dirt which I continued to water, and then finally one day a tiny green shoot started poking out. Yay! It’s happening! It’s actually happening. But wait, I planted so many seeds, will this be the only one? That’s ok, one is enough.

Watering it ever so gently, realizing that it’s still very fragile. One gush of water from the mug I’m using could uproot it for good. Summer becomes fall and fall becomes winter. The fragile shoot grows sturdy and strong, thick and green. Leaves grow in all directions, getting bigger and bigger, expanding out until one day a bud arrives. A tiny pink bud. Wow, I almost can’t believe it made it. It was strong from the start though, I could tell. Determined to be what it was meant to be.

Looking at the full-grown plant, its green leaves and multiple pink blossoms, I’m struck by how much has come from this one little seed. More than one would expect from something so small. I was once a little seed and so were you. And just look at how much has come from us. Not how much we do or achieve but rather how much comes from us simply because we are here. Our thoughts, our dreams, the love we feel for the people and things we care about. The joy we feel while reading a good book or the renewed sense of hope a good movie can give or how nice it feels to hold the door open for someone. These are our blossoms, growing effortlessly from us, happening each and every day in small and seemingly invisible ways. We are always blooming.

I just want to see something grow I think to myself now, realizing that something is always growing whether it be in my heart or in the ground. I don’t need to make it happen, the seed of me was planted a long time ago and all I need to do is sit back, be myself and let the flowers bloom. 20130627_19092220131110_15545620131208_163341 (1)20140125_122158

A Day in India

I spent the day in India today… while lying in bed at home.

I was not reading a book or watching a movie and yet I flew across India, diving down into villages at the base of the Himalayas, standing at the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi and enjoying the vibrant beaches in Kerala.

Sick in bed with a cold, I needed something to amuse myself with and recalling the recent mention of Google Earth, I thought that sounded like fun. I started out by Googling my mom’s house in Oregon. Arriving at the house I thought, Yep, that’s where my mom lives. And then the house I grew up in near Santa Barbara. Yep, that’s our old house. And look, they painted it. And then I decided to Google some places I had always wanted to visit: Prince Edward Island in Canada, the coast of Main and The Isle of Man in Great Britain. The more I looked around I was startled by the detail in the photos. In a way, I felt like I was really there. The Google earth cameras had captured people jogging, going to the post office, driving their cars, I could see puddles on the road, mud on tires and paint chipping off old buildings. Oh my goodness, I thought, what on earth would I see in a place like India?

I have always wanted to go to India but feeling a little nervous about what I might find there and not currently having the means to go, this seemed like a good way to test the waters. In the U.S. and many other Western countries you can drop down into almost any place on the Google map and you will find yourself in a 3D landscape. The visceral response I had to dropping down into places was surprising to me. The screen dives into each location making you feel as if you are falling out of the sky with no warning about what you might land on. Apprehensively, I flew over to Mumbai and randomly clicked on a spot. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I half expected to see children in slums missing eyes and limbs like in Slumdog Millionaire. I know India is much more than the poverty and trash you hear about but based on the detail I had just seen in the Google Earth images, I expected (and secretly hoped) I might get to see a more real India; more real than I would find in a guidebook.

To my dismay you cannot just choose anyplace on the map and see detailed images of each and every street. There were however many designated spots all over India that had captured 360 degree images of different places and to my excitement they were filled with real life scenes including trash, bird poop, rusty bicycles, and dusty cracked feet poking out of sandals; images that a guidebook would most certainly leave out. There was nothing romanticized or air brushed about the photos. Just the real India, the India I would love to see.

First stop… Mumbai. Ever since I read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts I have dreamed of standing at the sea walls of Mumbai, listening to the waves of the Arabian sea. Preferably at night like the main character often did to clear his mind or do dealings with the underground mafia, but something tells me I should stick to daylight hours in this city. Along a paved seashore path, I saw a man walking a cow. A lovely sand colored bull with big, curvy horns on either side of its head. The man and the cow walked past people sleeping on benches that lined the walkway. As far down as I could see there was someone asleep on each bench. The sun was just coming up over the city as they were in the final deep stages of a restful sleep. Not even the clip-clop of a cow’s hooves passing by could wake them up.

All pictures courtesy of Google Earth.

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The sea walk in Mumbai

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What I noticed immediately was that most people were wearing sandals. Which makes sense because it’s India and It’s hot. The men almost always seemed to have buttoned up collared shirts on and I noticed that most of the bicycles I saw were rusty. Some were very rusty, covering the entire bike in a muddy brown film. I saw people riding bikes or standing beside bikes while talking to other people. I even saw one person holding a bike up at his side while wading across a shallow river; a small child, just wearing shorts, was wading across with him. The Taj Mahal was off in the distance across the water, the air was misty and balmy looking as I would have hoped and there was trash along the river bank at my feet; bits of paper and plastic wrappers.

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Bird poop at the Taj Mahal

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I love the looks on their faces

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Southeast of Mumbai, I walked down another seashore path, this time along the Bay of Bengal, in a city called Pondicherry. Here I visited  a statue of Gandhi where I noticed that most of the men had taken off their shoes. I took this as a sign of respect, suggesting that this was a sacred place. Gandhi had an orange marigold mala around his neck as children climbed all over him. I enjoyed seeing the Indian tourists taking photos, perhaps fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting this popular little town. Pondicherry was part of French India so there are many beautiful colonial style buildings and everything looks much cleaner than Mumbai. I also stumbled upon the cutest restaurant called La Maison Rose. Everything was pink. There were pink Christmas lights in the outdoor courtyard and adorable pink paintings of Nandi, the sacred Hindu cow. I have to be honest, Pondicherry was a lovely surprise.

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La Maison Rose

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Pondicherry was a lovely surprise because it seemed like an India I could probably handle. But I didn’t go today looking for clean streets or French cafes, I wanted to see what it really looked like there. Yes, I would love to see the majestic palaces, lush gardens and ancient temples that make India famous but that’s never what makes a place real. It’s the stench and the noise and the taste of the food and sound of the people who live there and that is of course what Google Earth can’t give me but I was grateful at least to see some of it and get a little more comfortable with what I might find there, outside the picture perfect world of a guidebook.

Some friends at a boat house in Kerala.

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As if it were your last…

For some reason I get really annoyed when I hear people say, “live everyday as if it were your last.” First of all, if I were to do that I’d be morbidly obese. I’d most likely start my day by eating Eggs Benedict with hash browns slathered in hollandaise sauce. I’d drink a big cup of coffee and probably have a donut and then fly to Paris or London and eat some more. Or maybe I’d start by buying a dozen donuts of all variety and take a bite of each one, slowly savoring all those delicious tastes that I usually restrict myself from. I’d still be in my pajamas at this point, most likely eating the donuts in bed. After the donuts I’d go find the perfect brunch spot to have my last Eggs Benedict. I would make sure and ask for extra hollandaise in case they’ve skimped a little. As I write this, I realize I have no idea which brunch place I’d go to for this last meal. I should probably start researching (or rather auditioning) restaurants now to be prepared, or in case I do decide at some point to “live each day as if it were my last.” Currently, I eat oatmeal for breakfast in the hopes of having a more comfortable tomorrow.

In addition to the poor food choices, the urgency of time would most certainly drive me to make rash decisions. I’d feel desperate to experience everything one last time. I can’t be sure what I’d do but anything is possible. I definitely would not go to work. I suppose ideally if you had a job you loved you wouldn’t mind spending your last day working, doing what you usually do, I however am not in this position yet. Does that mean I should quit my job then? This is a scary thought, another reason why living each day as if it were my last doesn’t sound appealing. I’m well aware my job doesn’t pass the “last day of my life” test, but I’m still working that one out.

I wouldn’t be able to go to work anyway because in all reality I’d spend the day telling everyone in my life I love them. I’d go around to each person and tell them all they have meant to me. I’d say heart-felt things and mean them. I might even draw them a picture as a token of my love and something to remember me by. I’d spend the entire day crying and hugging everyone. For this reason living everyday as if it were my last wouldn’t be a good idea either; I’d have permanently puffy “I’ve been crying” eyes. If I were to go around everyday telling everyone I loved them and being as gushy as I know I’d be, I might throw up and so would they. Not everyone can digest that level of sentiment all the time. It reminds me of a story David Sedaris wrote about his mother while she was dying of cancer. He is clearly very close to his family but none of them are prone to expressing it. Given the circumstance, he felt he should try so he said, “I love you” to his mother one night while ending a phone call with her. Her response was, “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” It wasn’t something they normally said and he beautifully illustrated the fact that just because it isn’t said doesn’t mean that it isn’t felt.

It’s possible I’m taking the concept of living each day as if it were my last too literally. Perhaps it’s more of a reminder to walk slowly, notice the trees, the people passing by and take the time to smile. Perhaps it suggests a more subtle experience of life. Rather than focusing on the urgency of the senses, maybe it’s a call to rest more and enjoy where you are, who you are with and what you are doing. Seeing the moment with as little judgment as possible and perhaps more love. I know that when I feel loving towards myself, others and my situation, it could very well be my last day on earth and I would be fine with that. All somehow feels complete in the moments when I fail to see the cracks or problems, it feels complete when I am focused on the good. Maybe that’s what those words mean. I suppose I get annoyed by the phrase because deep down I know I spend much of my time thinking about tomorrow, waiting for a better time, a more convenient time or just a happier time. Maybe I get annoyed because it feels like a lot of pressure to live each day as if it were the last. What if I do it wrong?! Or maybe I’m just hesitant to have a good time. It seems to me it’s a state of being rather than any particular activity. Maybe I don’t have to tell everyone I love them everyday but I can do my best to spend more time feeling it.

For Everyone – As promised, something to remember me by.

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The Jacarandas

IMG_6166Every spring the Jacaranda trees bloom in LA. When I first moved here they really took me off guard. It was just so shocking to see something so brilliant and beautiful in a place that is usually so dirty. Nobody mentioned that for a few weeks out of each year the city would be bursting with purple! Somehow it felt like a gift just for me. It was then that I started to fall in love with the city and each year they are like a welcomed and comforting visit from that friend who is always such a breath of fresh air. That friend who helps you remember the brightness that is always there and you feel inspired, uplifted and even happy again. I’m reminded that all is well and that just because the Jacaranda looks so unsuspecting for most of the year, doesn’t mean that they don’t have it in them.

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Mid-bloom

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Old Los Angeles

IMG_6147Despite being a major metropolis, living in Los Angeles usually feels more like living in the suburbs. It’s not like New York where you know you are in the city all the time with giant buildings surrounding you, endless aisles of apartment complexes, street vendors selling food and sirens screaming below your window. Most of us live on tree lines streets with parks and little strip malls close by. Because of this Downtown Los Angeles is really exciting to some of us (like myself). It’s urban, there’s history and you feel like you are actually in a city. Things legitimately look old, kind of European and it’s all squished together, layer upon layer, piled on top of itself the way a real city is.

Downtown is the old Los Angeles, the original Los Angeles, the place where it all began. People came with an excitement to build a new city “out west.” It was beautiful and there were fortunes to be made. The first town square was established in 1866 which was eventually named Pershing Square, a square that sits at the heart of downtown today. Eventually trolley lines and street cars opened to offer public transportation to the growing population. Cathedrals, synagogues, hotels, restaurants and schools were built – USC was established in 1880. Downtown was the place to be. At this point the city wasn’t being built around the car yet but by the 1900’s automobiles were on the streets and the great expansion of the city began, eventually dissolving Downtown as the city’s center.

I like to go down there today and imagine what it was like. The night clubs, the theaters, people dressed up to go out to eat, riding the trolley cars or just walking around. From the pictures it looks like it was a beautiful place. There were lots of trees, fancy hotels, shopping districts, a few lakes to walk around and enjoy. I am not en expert on the history and don’t have all the facts for you. The city leads some historic walking tours of Downtown and once I go on one of those I will surely be inspired to report back. Today Downtown is going through a revival. For many years  it was (and still kind of is) run down, dirty and not a very safe place to be. That is changing as the artists and the hipsters are making it a more interesting place to be and a place where businesses can make money again. My hope is that what old buildings can be saved will be saved and it will retain much of its original charm. Here are a few of my pictures from my visit to Downtown this weekend. I have a thing for old bricks and windows so you’ll see a lot of that but I tried to capture the colors and sights that I find so different from what I see in other parts of the city. I will continue to post more in Downtown as I am fascinated with its history and all the changes that are being made. You can visit my first post on Downtown for some shots of the Financial District and Pershing Square.

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The Jewelry District

The Jewelry District

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Dressmakers dolls in the window

Dressmakers dolls in the window

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Walking on the 6th Street Bridge

Walking on the 6th Street Bridge

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Doug and The Animals

There isn’t anyone I know who loves animals more than my friend Doug. When I first met Doug many years ago he had just taken a two month road trip across the U.S. A long-awaited and dreamed about adventure for him. When showing me his pictures I noticed that many of them were either of animals, or of himself with an animal. I distinctly remember a picture of him on a trail in Glacier National Park kneeling down next to a mountain goat. Doug set up his camera on rock, set the timer and dashed next to the goat to get a picture of the two of them together. Whenever I recall this photo I picture Doug’s arm around the goat, this was not the case, but Doug took the picture as he would with any human friend; with a level of excitement and respect for having met someone new. The goat, in fact, seemed to be smiling. Amused, and perhaps a bit shy, yet flattered that it had been asked to be in a photo.

Doug recently bought a beautiful home near Lake Arrowhead, California. Another lifelong dream of his that he has been able to accomplish. Living among the trees and the quiet mountain air, Doug lives with his two cats Topaz and Thicket, his dog Buddha, and two aquariums full of colorful fish in which he recently added two small blue lobsters. Outside on the deck there is a seed bell and a suet feeder for the birds. I know we saw blue jays the weekend I visited but other than that I can’t tell you who else flew by. What I can tell you is that they were small, colorful and very cute. Every time one landed to eat, Doug was consistently thrilled about the visit. With genuine enthusiasm and a sense of awe he greeted each small guest. I was particularly moved by this as I was reminded that, aside from our pets, we live with a whole population of non-human life every day that most of us rarely notice. Especially in the city where I live, I often overlook who I’m sharing my day with. The spider hanging outside my window, the lady bug on the small patch of grass by my apartment and the crow on the phone lines above often get missed. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning I hear the soft cooing of what is probably a pigeon but what I prefer to imagine is an owl. Either way, I always pause for a moment and enjoy its quiet communication, even if I can’t see who’s there.

One of the highlights of my visit with Doug was when he showed me a gift he was recently given. From its home on the fire-place it looked like a giant piece of bone or perhaps some kind of white coral that I did not recognize. Doug held it up for me to take a guess before telling me what it was. The minute he held it up I could see that it was a giant vertebra. “it’s the vertebrae of a blue whale!” he said with contagious excitement. Wow, I thought. I have never seen anything like this.

The large piece of bone was found by a friend of Doug’s who happened upon a whale that had almost fully decomposed on a remote island north of Washington State. “Imagine,”  Doug said, “this came from one of the biggest creatures on Earth.” The deep reverence with which he said this transported me to a place of such gratitude for the miraculous world we live in. I sat there imagining the huge vertebrae in front of me slowly moving up and down as its majestic owner swam through the deep blue sea. At one time the beauty of this whale graced the waters it swam in, a work of art for any who happened to catch a glimpse. And now, something as simple as its vertebrae remains a work of art all on its own, with no less power and magic than the regal creature from which it came. Although it hasn’t been confirmed that it actually came from a blue whale, like my morning owl friend, It’s captivating nonetheless.

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Doug and a turtle.

Doug and a turtle.

Doug and Thicket

Doug and Thicket

A fish friend at Doug's house.

A fish friend at Doug’s house.

On the Roof

One of my favorite things about living in a city are all the rooftop views. Whenever I travel somewhere new my first desire is to get to the nearest lookout point so I can take it all in. I wasn’t aware of this fact until, while traveling with a friend, it was pointed out to me. After arriving in Florence, Italy late one day, I insisted on getting to a look-out point. It was getting dark but it had to be done. A little resistant to such a venture at sundown, my friend commented on my need to get an overview of each place we visited. She’s right, I thought, I need to see the view. Perhaps it’s the Capricorn in me; a goat who needs to climb to the top of the mountain.

When I was a teenager I would climb on the roof of our house just to get away from it all and look out over the fields behind our fence. There were two fields; a softball field and a eucalyptus grove. One open and free, the other tangled and mysterious. So many emotions were felt looking out on those two fields. My mother constantly yelled at me to get off the roof but I never listened. I needed the view. I think it was my way of trying to lift myself out of what was troubling me or find a way of distancing in order to get clarity. Sometimes getting a different perspective has a way of giving me an answer that I can’t see from where I usually stand.

Some rooftop views here in L.A…

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Downtown Los Angeles

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The view from Perch

The view from Perch

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City in the Trees

A few times a week I cross the tracks into a gorgeous multi-million dollar neighborhood called Cheviot Hills. Leaving my apartment, I walk north under a freeway overpass, up a hill and into a small piece of paradise. Lush with trees, flower gardens, green lawns and peaceful fountains, it provides instant refreshment. It is always quiet and the birds are delightfully louder here; I am usually one of the few people walking around. Occasionally I see children playing on a front lawn or smell BBQ coming from a backyard but usually I feel like I have it all to myself. Just me and the birds. The houses are beautiful and I never get tired of looking at them as I walk. They vary in style; there are white American Colonial homes with stately columns and bright red doors. There are large, brown and white Tudor homes with tiny stained glass windows in odd places. There are bright-colored Spanish homes with tiled roofs and playful steps to each door. There are clean modern homes with large windows and ambiguous sculptures. There are English cottage homes surrounded by wild and magical gardens. Simply, this neighborhood is a feast for the eyes.

Aside from the lovely homes, the part of the walk that I look forward to most is the view of the cityscape rising above the trees at the gulf course which sits at the heart of this neighborhood. Like the part of a song that gets you every time, this is always the moment I savor. There is something particularly moving about seeing the buildings of Century City rise above the forest of trees at the Rancho Park golf course. It’s as though the city has found itself lost in time at the center of an ancient forest. The juxtaposition of the natural and modern worlds create a particular magic for me. These views are especially divine in the late afternoon. The pink and golden light of a Los Angeles sunset creates a soothing balm over a city that is otherwise anything but. I’m convinced that if not for the afternoon glow that overtakes the city each day, many of us would not still be here. It’s like a siren sweetly singing, whispering promises in your ear. Promises of possibility, fortune and fame. No matter how tough your day was, this pink golden light has a way of washing it all away and restoring hope. It’s either helping you or swindling you; it’s hard to tell.

Regardless, I am grateful for the proximity to such a lovely neighborhood. If a spell has been cast, it has lifted me for a moment beyond my worries and concerns and opened a window of new thoughts and inspiration. As I head back down the hill, under the freeway overpass and back into the urban sprawl below, in some small way, I am made new.

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