Tuesday, January 16, 2018


LOUIS KAHN, 1901-1974

The subject of this week's arts and culture column is Louis Kahn--who was a genius architect, and also had a compelling personal life.

Here's how the piece begins:

Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974), one of the most well-known architects of the 20th century, died of a heart attack in Penn Station at the age of 73. He was nearly bankrupt and on his way home from India.

He was born in Estonia. His family moved 17 times in his first two years of life, a pattern that repeated during his own nomadic adulthood.

Kahn was short (5 feet 6 inches) with a gravelly voice and conspicuous facial scars from burns sustained as a child. He was also magnetically charismatic and an almost fanatically hard worker.

“He was not controllable,” people said of him. “He didn’t know day from night.”

Symmetry, order, principled, fundamental, primitive and exhilarating were some of the words used to describe his work.

“It’s important that you honor the material you use,” he once told a group of students. “You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ and brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’ ”


And don't miss Wendy Lesser's wonderful You Say to Brick.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018




"From my present point of view, the sky is the most important landscape, the sky reigns over all things, forever changing their aspect and making new spectacles of the most familiar sights.
--Auguste Rodin, Cathedrals of France

I found the quote in a wonderful book of photographs, by Jennifer Gough-Cooper of Rodin's work, called Apropos Rodin

Which in turn Geoff Dyer turned me onto (he also contributed an essay), I think in The Ongoing Moment.

I also learned from Geoff of photographer Miroslav Tichy, who is also well worth a look.

In fact, I wish I had time to write of all Geoff Dyer has given me, and to the world His But Beautiful is a book about jazz that you can read and be changed by even if you know next to nothing about jazz.

Then there is Zona, which is about his obsessive love for Tarkovsky's Stalker...but don't get me going.

I am headed out soon for my afternoon walk.

All I'm saying is that reading--a practice of steady, eclectic reading--has opened up universes for me, my whole life. And continues open up more. 

A few other books on my list right now are a biography of the late, great rock critic Lester Bangs called Let It Blurt, by Jim DeRogatis, Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," and a book about Indian untouchables (there may be a more p.c. word now) called Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla, who actually grew up as one of this despised caste. Things are changing, apparently, and about time.

I have had approximately one hour of "free" time in my time at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, where I arrived last Tuesday. Every time I hear from someone from home, they say, "I hope you're enjoying your retreat."

I have to refrain from shrieking, "It is not a freaking RETREAT. It's a "residency." Where I have been working my ASS off since the moment I arrived."

My God! Do people know nothing of "the writing life?"  There's not just the writing. There's the collecting of pebbles, rocks, twigs, and seed pods. There's the incessant observation of the sky. There's the prayer, the stoking of the wood-fire, the sitting with one's head in one's hands, the inability to sleep because you so don't want to miss the stars, the coffee-drinking, the pacing, the talking to oneself, the practicing of the Haydn sonatas. The reading of the book on Rembrandt, the book on Illuminated Manuscripts, and the book on North Korea by Suki Kim, all for future columns.

Oh, okay, the NYT and the New Yorker blog.

The stretching exercises.

The looking through the binoculars at the acorn woodpecker.

The snatched watching of the Brisbane and now Sydney WTA tournaments. 

The realization, all over again, of how truly petty and touchy and impossible I am, and no wonder I'm  not married, and God, please don't hold my MYRIAD character defects against me.

No but seriously, I have only had to get into my car and drive, anywhere, once, the whole time I've been here, which was to Sunday Mass. So no driving, no social obligations, no dentist or doctor appointments, no "having" to talk to people (the bane of my introvert's existence), no food shopping even, as I stocked up before I came. Just enough phone calls to keep me involved and interested in the stream of life. But basically none of the stuff that makes life so unbelievably stressful.

This morning, walking down the hill, I realized that for the first time in probably years, my entire body did not ache. My back didn't hurt. More notably my neck, which lately has seemed more or less permanently crippled, did not hurt, or at least very much. So that was a treat.

Just then I spotted a whole cache of weird spiny sponge-like-looking objects that had clearly fallen from or been blown by a nearby tree, cactus, or shrub. Of course I had to nab a few.

I feel so bad for the people in Montecito who were killed in this week's mudslide. I've been on retreat there, and attended Mass at their beautiful mission church, and hiked in the hills above, many times over the years.

Here's what the sky looked like this morning in Temecula, after the rains here.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


photographs from the hill i walk every day--
or turner paintings!?

Maria Popova's weekly column "Brain Pickings" is often thought-provoking and a good source for reading and watching tips.

Here's the link to a lovely article, just out today, entitled "A Gentle Corrective for the Epidemic of Identity Politics That Is Turning Us on Each Other and on Ourselves." 

I couldn't agree more. I have resisted with every fiber of my being the notion of "branding" (vile!)  or even categorizing my life and work. The only reasons to reduce a human person to a brand or a categorized identity are to consume, market, defend or attack.

I've also wondered these few months, Am I the only woman in North America who has not been fondled, groped, harassed, insulted, demeaned, propositioned and raped since the moment of my birth?

Now that we have mindlessly destroyed the careers and publicly excommunicated a whole bunch of sometimes otherwise talented and basically decent men, with no due process, no capacity to shade, differentiate, listen to, weigh the evidence, or reconcile, we are beginning to see the first rays of a a restoration of sanity. I now predict a mass abdication from the latest "identity movement" by the very virtue-signalling, self-proclaimed spokespeople for my glorious gender who first advanced it.

As usual, the deepest issue isn't political, but rather human. Shaming, lording it over, reproaching, insisting on one's superiority and rightness, and shrieking never change anything or anybody one tiny real it. Not the shamees, not the shamers.

What does, and I come back to this again and again, is story.

I just finished a wonderful book: Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo.

From a thumbnail New Yorker review:

"The author, a Harvard-educated child of Taiwanese immigrants, volunteered for Teach for America in a small town in the Arkansas Delta. In this memoir, she recounts arriving determined to empower her students through the study of black American literature and civil-rights politics. Sobered by the challenges she encounters, she leaves the program at the end of her commitment, only to return, guilt-stricken, when a former student, Patrick, is arrested for murder. As he awaits trial, the two resume their lessons"...

Kuo came to the Delta thinking to energize her black students, to educate them to the way their race has been so cruelly bowed down, to rouse them to action. She showed them photos of lynchings, which were passed around in horrified silence until one boy put his head down on his desk (a punishable offense in Kuo's classroom) and mumbled, "Nobody want to see that." She introduced them to Malcolm X--they were bored. Obama also elicited yawns. She shoved at them all manner of scholarly, political and historical material (Patrick at one point ventured that the Civil War--"Was that the one where the slaves freed?"--began in 1940): no discernible effect.

Deciding to try one last time, she introduced Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

"It was a hit. The angry banter between Walter and Ruth, husband and wife, got laughs. Their complaints about living in a crowded house got nods. Ruth's despair over discovering she's pregnant made the room go silent. And the students universally loved the grandmother. All seemed to know her. Born in Mississippi and religious, she scolded her son for wanting to start a liquor store, slapped her daughter for saying there is no God, and yelled at her daughter-in-law for wanting an abortion.. As I assigned parts, the students clamored to be cast in her role. 'She don't play,' they said admiringly."

I've been out in a cabin in Temecula since Tuesday, in silence and solitude, and when I read that passage, tears sprang to my eyes. One, because to write a story, to be able to write a story, takes everything a person has. All his or her time, energy, heart, muscle, memory. And two, isn't it interesting that the poorest of the poor, the recipients of generations of unspeakable violence, oppression and trauma, still have a truer moral compass than many of us who would now "free" them?

Yesterday I saw an acorn woodpecker on the kindling pile. His head, a splash of blood-red, was like a longed-for love letter.

Let's invite everyone to, or back to, the table. Then and only then will we be able to say, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last."

farewell. sublime Christmas season, until Advent 2018...
may we all be magi... 

white people can sing spirituals, too! this was the closing hymn at St. Catherine's 8 am Epiphany Mass--

Wednesday, January 3, 2018



Yesterday morning I took down the Christmas decorations.

I would have left them up through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this year the day after the Solemnity of the Epiphany, when the liturgical season of Christmas officially ends and we re-enter "Ordinary Time."

But I'd booked an 11-day stay at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, January 2 through January 13. I could arrive anytime after 2 and was planning on an ETA of 2:01.

And I wanted to come home, after the residency was finished, to a fresh start and fresh year.

So, I took down the decorations. It was like striking a stage set--this apartment, in particular my little prayer corner, where I'd spent so many mornings and evenings the previous month in the semi-dark with my Advent calendars and candles and incense and lights and cards and bulbs and garlands and wreath. Hoping, Praying. Waiting. Watching.

I took my time, which is not always like me. I often use my purported desire to "give a good account of myself" at the end of the day to engage in slightly frenetic activity. I like to think adhering to a timetable that is not totally of my own devising and that often puts my time and energy at the disposal of others in a way I wouldn't have chosen myself builds faith, or love, or at the very least, character.

But I think a lot of the time I'm just trying to mask the terrible existential pain of the human condition and thus devise extra tasks and deadlines.

However, I had done a huge watering of my garden and ridiculously large collection of plants the day before. I had a good head start on my packing. So I took my time taking down and re-stowing the Christmas decorations. And the couple of hours turned out to be the most special, liminal, somehow sacred hours I've spent at home in quite some time.

One of the things I have is a ton of vintage mercury glass bulbs, some as tiny as a pea, that have their own ancient cardboard nests with a little depression for every single bulb. I could of course throw the nests out and just dump these tiny items in a baggie. But no--I loved putting each and every one in its little bed for another year--cerise, teal, parrot green, silver, burnished gold.

After the bulbs, there are two creches: one of whittled wood that my friend Patrick gave me and that goes in a black zippered bag--I kissed each figure goodnight--and another fashioned roughly of clay that comes from Africa--each of these figures gets wrapped in black tissue paper and placed tenderly in a special paper bag with the palm tree and its green pipe cleaner foliage going in last.

There's the paper snowflake, somewhat permanently squished, that my nephew Allen made for me, as well as a paper bag and sparkles "ornament" that hangs every year by a length of red ribbon from a doorknob.

And on and on it goes--the terra cotta Italian angel that got dropped one year and now has a super-glued torso, inexpertly disguised by a length of striped green grosgrain ribbon. The teardrop-shaped striped bulb of magenta and green I bought years ago at the gift store of Yoken's Restaurant ("Thar she blows!") in Rye NH after dining, the way I remember it, with Nana and Cousin Dickie. The creme de la creme cards saved from year to year that are arranged on top of each of four door lintels. Every year a new ornament or garland or two or three.

For every item, a blessing bestowed until next Christmas.

Anyway, after I had labored, cleaning and dusting and sweeping as I went along, I got everything, as I do each year, easily, into two medium sized cardboard boxes. A whole world in two not even very large boxes.

And when I started packing in earnest, for my trip, the reflection continued. There are four main categories when I travel: Books and work material, food, clothing and toiletries, in descending order of importance. Just as my Christmas fits into two boxes, really my entire existence, apart from my car, would fit into a 5 by 10 storage space. In fact for almost five years, my stuff WAS in a 5 by 10 storage space, and there was some room left over.

I've bought some furniture since then, but my apartment probably tops out at 600 square feet, not counting the balcony which is crammed with succulents and agaves. Then there's my native plant garden, which is a huge part of my existence but is not "mine" as I'm a renter, clearly,

The point is that the whole construction is a kind of "portable kingdom" (the phrase is from the exiled German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine). Emily Dickinson, another poet, wrote: "The Brain--is wider than the Sky," and my real world is inside. It's my curiosity, my questions, my conflicts, my reflections, my prayer, my hopes, my fears, my memories, my experiences, my many journeys, my love.

So much packed into one smallish person! Which is of course true of all of us.

I thought about how someone else would come in to my little apartment in which every single object is cherished, tenderly cared for, observed and sweep it away with a rough fist into the garbage bin. What to me is an empire, the fruit of a lifetime of battle scars, a living monument to the ongoing crucifixion and ongoing resurrection,  would be, to someone focused on money and bling, trash.

I thought about what will happen to it after I die. How even a friend who loves me could, and should, for we must make room for the next person!--clear my painstakingly-created place in an afternoon.

I got everything packed, and the drive was smooth, and after my 2:08 arrival, I got settled in, and went for a walk at dusk.

I came back to an email from a friend of a wonderful, deeply talented artist and deep man of faith about whom I'd written a column last year, Tomasz is the artist's name. His 12-year-old daughter Grace, and her mother, had been killed in a car accident on Christmas Day. Could I pray for him?

In my cabin, I lit a candle and prayed the Office of the Dead for his daughter and ex-wife.

And I knew all over again how right I had been, that morning, to take the time to lay each of those tiny bulbs in their nests, and to wish them goodnight.


Monday, January 1, 2018



Happy New Year!

This week's arts and culture column is on a pop-up, currently on exhibit in downtown LA's Arts District, called The Museum of Failure.

Here's how the piece begins:

Are you, like me, casting back over your year thinking you’d hoped to be just a tad more forgiving, more disciplined, more patient, more kind?

If so, take heart. Through February 4, in downtown’s A + D Architecture and Design Museum, is a pop-up called “The Museum of Failure.”

Launched by Swedish “psychologist and innovative researcher” Dr. Samuel West, the museum focuses on often hilariously ill-conceived marketing schemes.

The commentary is tongue-in-cheek. Each product is rated in four areas: Innovation, Design, Implementation and Fail-O-Meter.

The first artifact — surprise — is an Edsel which, except for the unfortunate flesh-colored Band-Aid paint job, to my mind was actually kind of cool. People apparently didn’t like that the controls were centered in the middle of the steering wheel, however, or the fact that they didn’t work.


Thursday, December 28, 2017


Whoops, I see what with cooking, hostessing, eating, socializing and worshipping, I'm a little behind here,

A couple of weeks back, I devoted a column to a December tradition in my neck of the woods Christmas Tree Lane.

Here's how the piece begins:

Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, known for the rest of the year as Santa Rosa Avenue, is a Southern California holiday tradition. The approximately .07-mile stretch, between Woodbury Avenue and Altadena Drive, is lined on both sides by Deodar Cedars (“Cedrus deodara”) that, during December, are festooned with more than 10,000 lights. Its association claims it the oldest large-scale Christmas lighting spectacle in the U.S.

Santa Rosa Avenue was the former driveway of brothers Frederick and John Woodbury who, in 1880, bought 937 acres in the scenic San Gabriel Foothills, named the parcel Woodbury Ranch and founded what is now the unincorporated area known as Altadena.

The trees were originally grown from seed brought back by John Woodbury after a trip to Italy. In 1885, ranch superintendent Tony Hoag oversaw the original planting of the 3-foot saplings.

In 1920, local merchant Fred Nash was inspired, with the help of the Pasadena Kiwanis Club, to drape the tree branches with colored electric Christmas lights: white, red, green and blue.


There's still plenty of time to view The Lane--hope everyone had a beautiful Christmas.

Monday, December 25, 2017


Assuming he recorded it near December 25, I would have been five months old when Dylan Thomas read this version of his "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

I listened to the story last night, alone in my bed, after the Vigil Christmas Eve Mass, and after the final prep of home, kitchen, living room, bathroom, balcony, garden and my heart to cook and receive guests today for dinner.

"I said some words to the close and holy darkness--and then I slept."

Merry, merry Christmas to all of you. Thank you for the stupendous gift of yourselves, your readership, your own lives and hearts. God bless us, every one.

Monday, December 18, 2017



My dear friend Greg Camacho from San Antonio, Texas, wrote yesterday morning quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, from the poem "Inversnaid":

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.


Monday, December 11, 2017



This week's arts and culture column gives me real pleasure to present.

Here's how it begins:

McManus & Morgan, established in 1923, is in its 94th year. Owner Gary Wolin has been its brains and heart for around the last 50.

Located at 2506 W. 7th Street, just west of MacArthur Park, this cultural treasure occupies a ground-floor space in a 1924 Spanish Revival building that, until recently, time pretty much forgot.

The store shares customers, physical space and a unique esprit de corps with its neighbor, Aardvark Letterpress.

Back in the day, the Otis College of Art, the Chouinard Art Institute and the original Art Center College of Design were all within shouting distance. The area was heady with artistes who patronized the store — among them reputedly Ansel Adams, June Wayne, Ed Ruscha and designers from every major Hollywood studio.

But eventually the colleges moved, MacArthur Park became a haven for drug addicts and petty criminals, and seedier times followed.

Through it all, McManus & Morgan endured.


Saturday, December 2, 2017



This week's arts and culture piece concerns the marketing phenomenon known as planned obsolescence.

Here's how it begins:

High up near the ceiling at Fire Station #6 in Livermore, California, burns an electric bulb that has continuously thrown light for more than 100 years.

Known as the Centennial Light Bulb, this small object — approximately 2 ½ inches in diameter and 4 inches long — has been the subject of the late, great Huell Howser’s TV show “California Gold,” a story by NPR’s Terry Gross and countless articles, essays and word-of-mouth stories.

A short Vimeo documentary called “Mysteries at the Museum Centennial Bulb” is one place to start.

In December 1971, Jack Baird — who at the time had been the paid Livermore fire chief for 13 years — noticed that the light had always been on. (Unexplained is whether the light had ever been turned off.) For years the firemen considered the bulb a kind of talisman and developed the tradition of gently tapping it on their way out of the station when responding to a call.

Since a typical lightbulb lasts only about 1,000 hours, Baird set out to discover how long the lightbulb had been on. Where did it come from? he wondered. Who was the manufacturer? He contacted local reporter Mike Dunstan, at that time a young man, and asked him to help investigate.