Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Back from L.A.--back in the blow-dryer again.

Summer breeze...what could be more relaxing, more welcoming?...a kiss of cool air on a sunny day--normally. But when it's 109 degrees, you don't want the breeze--it feels like a giant blow-dryer is blowing on you. Blowing, on the HOT setting. No respite.
We just got back a few days ago from a short trip to Los Angeles, and returning to Tucson after the comfortable Mediterraneanesque coast, clad in morning fog and 59 degrees--it's a hot and rude awakening. But you have to look at it with the detachment of a climatologist. 'One-hundred-nine degrees,' you say to yourself as you dry instantly upon stepping out of the warm pool, 'fascinating.' At least we don't live in Phoenix, where, as we drove through the other night on our way back, it was 110 degrees at 6:30 p.m! 'Even more fascinating.'

Los Angeles. Like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with the place--so easy to deride the botox-mentality, the pollution, the foolishness of building a megalopolis on the San Andreas fault with no natural water supply nearby, the paparazzi, the racism...but the weather, oh the weather and the vegetation that it creates. And the museums. And the food. The craziness is fascinating. Glad to visit; wouldn't want to live there.

This was a last-minute trip, made possible by my being off for the summer and my wife's work-schedule. Some friends of ours from Guatemala and Nicaragua were in L.A. for a quick stay, and we thought--when might we see them again without having to fly down to Central America? An 8-hour drive across the desert is much cheaper than plane tickets...even with gas at $4.80/gal in California. And so we went.

Some highlights.

I have to start with a bit of kitsch--a very refined sense of Angeleno kitch:
Yes, you're not imagining it--those are multiple copies of Michelangelo's David 'adorning' the front yard of a house not too far south of the Hollywood sign. Perhaps a frontal view of the property might do it more justice:

The house is a minor landmark in the otherwise lovely Hancock Park neighborhood. Note the subtle fleur-de-lis on the fence. Royal taste, indeed.

Interestingly, the house was formerly the home of Nat King Cole. The 17 copies of David are the work of the current owner, who has dubbed his property "Youngwood Court." In December, the Davids wear red caps. The neighborhood, (where we stayed, incidentally,) is full of lovely 1920's buildings on sycamore-lined streets where well-heeled Jewish families make up the majority of pedestrians on a Saturday...I wonder what they think of this appropriation of one of history's most famous Jews...Oy vey, tacky...
Still sticking with white architecture, now let's climb up into the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains and see real art--the Getty Center, L.A.'s answer to The Louvre...and it's free. You leave your car at a parking lot in a valley next to the 405-freeway, and you 'rise above it all' to the travertine-art-city-in-the-sky on a specially built tram that whisks you quietly up the mountain:

The views inside and from the museum complex are stupendous, with lovely gardens as well...Look, an urban vineyard! And jacaranda trees! This is the part of L.A. that makes you say, ahh, isn't it beautiful, instead of the usual, eww, isn't this gross...or whoa is that gaudy...

So that's an overview of the Getty Center, built in the 1990's...The original Getty Villa is a few miles away, in a secluded Malibu canyon overlooking the Pacific:
Decades ago, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty decided to construct a replica of an excavated Roman villa that had been buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 70 A.D., and then to fill it with his increasing collection of art. Later, it was open to the public, and eventually the new Getty center was built to house most of the art dating from the Middle Ages up to the 20th century. This left the old villa to house exclusively the Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities collection, in an 'authentic' setting. Impossibly picturesque, with ocean breezes and the Mediterranean garden setting...

I haven't even begun to mention the sculpture, painting, etc. etc. inside these two Getty museums. Click the link and visit the websites...and better yet, next time you're in L.A., GO! It's free!!


On to modern things, then. Or, rather, 'postmodern.'
The new home of the L.A. Philharmonic is the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall:

I'm impressed, but I'm not sure if I like it...I mean, are all the curves there merely to impress? Is it just a bunch of metallically curvaceous virtuosity for virtuosity's sake?
(I do like it better, though, than Gehry's multiculored 'blob' at the foot of the Space Needle in Seattle, his "
Experience Music Project.")

Our visit to L.A. was not all architecture, though....Our whole point in going was to spend some time with our friends...which inevitably involved eating, of course. I introduced my wife to "The Cuban Chicken" at the oddly-named "Versailles" restaurant, which is an L.A. institution. One word: AJO.

And, a bit of culinary nostalgia--my first introduction to Thai food, as a young teenager visiting L.A. from Georgia (what's "tie" food?) en route to visit relatives in Seoul, was at a place in Koreatown called Ocha. We revisited it...It is always packed...with Latinos. Our table and the wait-staff were the only non-Hispanics in the Koreatown...Only in L.A. El pad thai es muy rico; pruébalo pues!


The surreality of L.A., which is what makes the place so re-visit-able (?) was summed up well, I thought, in a column in this past Saturday's Los Angeles Times, which we read while sitting in a bakery/café on Beverly Blvd. I'm taking it upon myself to copy the text here. Well worth the read...

Native sons and daughters

Raise your kids in L.A., and they'll never want a spray-on tan.

By Chris Ayres

As he made the fateful journey from womb to delivery ward, I like to think my son gave a moment of thought as to what would greet him on the other side. Would he find himself in an igloo, surrounded by Eskimo obstetricians? In a mud hut in an African township? In a bombed-out suburb of greater Baghdad? Whatever he was expecting, it must surely have come as an immense relief to glimpse the masked face of Dr. Jason Rothbart -- the ob-gyn from People magazine! -- and the bridge-of-the-Enterprise interior of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a palm-tree-shaded stroll from Rodeo Drive. No wonder the little fella shouted and waved his arms so much. "Jackpot!" he was probably telling us. "I've hit the jackpot!"

No one else seemed to share his excitement. "Now that you're a father, I imagine you'll be leaving L.A.," said a colleague a few days later. Confused, I asked him what on Earth he meant. "Oh, y'know," he said, in a prickly tone. "You don't want your boy exposed to 'Hollywood values,' do you?"

In all fairness, this was the opinion of a man with a famously conservative disposition. Nevertheless, it was repeated to me over the following weeks by several less-likely candidates, including a rock musician with a history of life-threateningly unwise lifestyle choices. She informed me that gay friends of hers had just adopted a boy but had decided to relocate to Scandinavia. I asked why. "Oh, y'know -- all this," she said, pointing to the L.A. cityscape beyond the diner in which we were sitting.

At first I shrugged off these comments, but as my first-ever Father's Day approached, I began to wonder if they were right. Maybe L.A. really is the worst possible environment to raise an enlightened young man of the 21st century.

Take my own journey to this city. Raised in a sheep-farming village under the rain-swollen skies of northern England, I spent much of my boyhood fantasizing about the promised excesses of Southern California: the hot skies, the hot cars, the even hotter women. Naturally, when I finally made it here at the age of 27, I indulged. I made walking-distance journeys in a 9-mpg SUV; I bought spray-on tans and caviar facial spa treatments; I purchased a negative-amortization, adjustable-rate mortgage via speakerphone from a broker in Santa Monica. The only thing that saved me from an implosion of Britneyesque proportions was the thought of my father, in flat cap and tweed jacket, shaking his head in sadness and bewilderment. But how would my own son survive if L.A. was all he knew?

Terrified at the damage I was about to inflict, I began to plot a relocation, to an eco-village in the Netherlands, perhaps, where the locals would commute in giant wooden clogs and make electricity from flatulence induced by homemade cheese. My boy would learn the value of abstention, worthiness and lackluster personal hygiene. My friends seemed to think this was an excellent idea, aside from one surprising constituency: those who were actually brought up in L.A.

What are you thinking? they exclaimed. Kids in L.A. get to go outdoors all year round. They have mountains, ocean, desert. They have culture. They have world-renowned educational establishments.

An epiphany soon followed. Being raised in L.A. isn't a problem. It's not being raised in L.A. that's a problem. It's being raised in a sheep-farming village that's a problem. Without exception, my native Angeleno friends are utterly immune to the lure of "the L.A. lifestyle." They drive tediously fuel-efficient cars. They have fixed-rate mortgages. They find Sunset Plaza to be an unbearable enclave of poseurs and Euro-cheese. Indeed, a childhood in L.A. seems to act like a kind of vaccination against the media-image of this city sold to and consumed with great pleasure by the rest of the world.

And so, on my first Father's Day, I can say with absolute confidence that I am no longer troubled by those who question my decision to raise my son in L.A. Soon, he will be a proud Angeleno: He will look at me with contempt as I cast admiring glances at shirtless Lamborghini drivers cockscrewing up Sunset Plaza Drive; he will never shop at Kitson; he will be unimpressed that the $16 gravlax-filled bagels at Barney Greengrass in Beverly Hills are flown in daily from New York. And perhaps one day, when he's older, he'll move to the English countryside, where he'll adopt a fake Madonna-style accent and buy a lordship on the Internet.

And then, of course, he'll have his own son, who'll get bored and come to L.A. to see his grandfather -- he won't have aged -- and together they'll go to the Sky Bar and drink $1,000 martinis.

Chris Ayres is a columnist for the Times of London and the author of "War Reporting for Cowards" and the forthcoming "Death by Leisure: A Cautionary Tale."

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