Claremont the beautiful

Southern California is not generally known for its beautiful skies.  During the summer, I often cannot see the foothills that are, you will notice, not very far away.  Smog collects against the hills, bringing close, hot, awful days and stunningly beautiful sunsets.  During spring and autumn, however, the two quasi-seasons (for we don’t really have seasons here, at least not proper ones) during which we experience the blessed, if brief, kiss of rain, the smog is occasionally washed away.  Immediately following a rain storm, the clouds begin to break apart to allow the clear, blue sky to show through the cracks.

After the rains, Claremont, CA

If we are very lucky, huge, puffy, white clouds will stick around for a few hours.  I like these clouds because they seem so full of promise.  On those summer days when it is over 100 degrees and the air is dreadfully still, we will often get these huge white (ish… they appear slightly brown when viewed through the smoggy haze) thunderheads burgeoning up behind the mountains, but they are so far away.  The puffy clouds after a rain are close, almost touchable, and are somehow comforting compared to those sinister-seeming thunderheads.  Puffy clouds mean no harm.  One can appreciate their beauty without having to consider the wild, untamed, stark, often violent beauty of nature.

Clouds and construction, together at last.

The picture below shows my favorite thing about huge, white clouds: billowy, blindingly white mottled with lovely shades of gray and blue and pink.

It’s supposed to rain again tonight, so I’m looking forward to more days of beautiful skies.

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Days off in Monrovia – perfect weather and grilled cheese with bacon

I just had a three-day weekend.  I didn’t exactly go anywhere or do anything amazing, but that one extra day of sleeping in and loafing about made a profound impact on my Monday morning outlook.  I feel sanguine about the coming week.  I will accomplish everything on my to-do list.  I will remember to smile and laugh  more often.  I will be a better person.

Counter and menu board at Monrovia's The Market Grill

Perhaps it’s ridiculous to attach so much importance to one extra day off.  Even without the extra day, this past weekend would have been great.  On Saturday and Sunday, I painted my nails, bought new bras (that alone is enough to impact my outlook on life), spent time with family, enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance of a full processional on Palm Sunday (it was glorious…), took deep breaths of after-rain air, and had chocolate pie!  That’s a great list of weekend accomplishments, but the day before the weekend officially started, I got to sleep in and then I went to my favorite burger joint (although I had the grown-up grilled cheese–with bacon!–rather than a burger) and, after that deliciousness, went to see a movie with my honey.  I know I’m belaboring a stupid point, but my weekend was simply 33% more awesome than it would have been otherwise.

The view facing north, across the street from my parents' house. Overnight rain plus Santa Ana winds equals beautiful weather.

Yesterday was a beautiful day in Monrovia.  I always get excited whenever the clouds cast shadows on the foothills.  I call it El Greco weather, because it reminds me of one of my favorite paintings, View of Toledo by El Greco.  It’s a bit silly that I have this mental connection, because Monrovia doesn’t look a damn thing like El Greco’s Toledo, but the dappled effect of light and shadow in the one view always reminds me of the other.

View of Toledo, El Greco - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Where we are (and where we were) informs who we are.  I simply can’t look at Monrovia’s foothills with objective eyes, because when I see them, I see not only what they look like now but what they looked like every time I looked north in the twenty years I lived there.  All those pictures overlap in my mind, creating a sort of mental collage overlay through which I see their current incarnation.  And, strange as it may seem, El Greco’s View of Toledo is one of the layers of that odd overlay.  In my interactions with the world, I wonder how much of my perception of the here and now is influenced by my recollections of the past.  When I look at a friend, am I ever able to see who he really is today, or am I blinded by that overlay of everything I thought he was before?  Of course, that’s assuming that the overlay is a negative thing, an obscuring thing.  I’d prefer to think that it enables me to see the world (or portions of it) in greater detail than would otherwise be available. Instead of blinding me to the present, perhaps all those accumulated perceptions help direct my attention to nuances that may help me to understand both the current picture and all the images that came before.

For example, in the case of the Monrovia foothills, my overlay of recollections enables me to recognize changes wrought on the foothills by time, weather, land development, etc.  Those foothills are not exactly as they were twenty years ago, and I would not be able to appreciate that fact in a personal way if I did not have my recollections to serve as a comparison.  There are, of course, historical photographs of these foothills, documenting the changes in an impersonal way, but when I stand on the sidewalk outside my parents’ house and look north, I am able to perceive not only the changes wrought by time in the foothills but also in myself.

I suppose it is the same in the example of the hypothetical friend.  If we take a moment to be still and look at one another and see the image proffered by the present day as well as all of the images that came before, we have the opportunity to struggle to differentiate between all of those different images of the object of our attention (the hypothetical friend) and to determine what those images might tell us about our own selves.  It means something that when I return to my parents’ house, I take a moment to stand out on the sidewalk and look north at the foothills.  It means something that when I look at a friend, I notice certain details rather than others.

My husband would say that I’m thinking too much (he’d be right).

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine – where to go when you want to feel insignificant (in a good way)

Entrance to St. John the Divine

That’s me standing outside the entrance to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine after the 11:00 Mass on Sunday, March 11, 2012.  It wasn’t actually that cold outside, but I’m from California, so I wear my big black coat whenever the temperature dips below 60.  It was probably about 50 out when this picture was taken.  You can really get a feel for how enormous the cathedral is… I’m 6’2″, and I look tiny compared to that giant entryway that doesn’t even fit in the frame.

POV shot walking up the steps of the church

When you’re walking up the steps to enter the church, you really can’t see the whole facade.  I mean, sure, you could crane your neck and attempt to see it as you step closer and closer towards it, but those sorts of walking antics would cause me to fall backwards down the steps.  So when I say you can’t see the whole facade, I actually mean that you can’t see it and stay vertical or, more accurately, that I can’t.  You might be more amazing.  I took the above photo holding the camera at eye level and looking up slightly to demonstrate the sort of view available to a person walking up those steps.  Limited and skewed though it is, the view is still impressive.

I get distracted thinking about all the masons who worked on the facade, all those workers who carved the stone and applied the iron to the wood and dangled precariously off scaffolding in order to create this magnificent frontispiece to a truly remarkable building.  Did the artisans and workers feel a sense of personal pride or service (or both) in working on what was to be a House of Prayer for All People, or was it just a paycheck to them?  Did they believe they were working on something beautiful, or did all of that Gothic over-the-topness seem a bit much?

I took pictures only of the exterior.  I know there are plenty of photos out there of the interior, but it felt wrong, somehow, to take pictures with my lame camera phone.

The first thing I noticed when I walked inside was how big it was.  My church could probably fit in that cathedral twenty-four times (two wide, three high, four deep).  When you’re in a space that big, the very air is different.  Sounds carry differently in such a place, and I bet the scripture readers have to undergo a lot of training on dealing with the relay before they are unleashed at the microphone.  The Reverend Canon who delivered the homily spoke deliberately, using the size of the place and the relay of sound to add another layer of meaning and experience to her sermon.  Even though the liturgy was exactly the same, the experience was completely different because of all that space and stone.

Personally, I like my church a bit better.  Maybe it’s a big fish/small pond thing, but I felt uncomfortably insignificant standing in the cathedral.  It’s good to feel that insignificant once in a while (because surely we are), but I can’t imagine dealing with it every week.

The other thing that I noticed about the cathedral is that it’s much more pleasant to be fully high church in a spacious cathedral than in a relatively small parish church.  They had a jolly incense bearer swinging his incense all over the place, sending up these giant plumes of white, fragrant smoke.  When my Priest takes it into his head to be all sorts of high church, I cringe and cough and try to discretely cover my nose so I can breathe air untainted by all that smoke.  What seems noxious and awful at my church was absolutely endurable at the cathedral.  At my church, the incense, because it is so concentrated in the smaller space, smells–to me–like burning pee.  At the cathedral, the incense carried hints of that burning pee smell but, oddly, not in an unpleasant way.  It was clearly the same type of incense, but it wasn’t horrible.

So there you have it: the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine!  I definitely recommend a visit whenever you should find yourself in New York City, especially if you are already of the Episcopal persuasion (otherwise, perhaps take a guided tour rather than attend a mass… less confusing that way!).  I think I need to visit some of the cathedral churches in Los Angeles to see if a cathedral is a cathedral or if my impression that St. John the Divine is a very special place holds true.  After all, I’ve only been to one cathedral–maybe they’re all like that!

New York City – some thoughts and mediocre photography

I mentioned in my last post that I recently vacationed in New York City.  I’m from southern California, and I’d never before been to the big city, so I experienced, in many ways, a sense of culture shock throughout my short visit.  We crammed an astonishing amount of adventures into our five days in the city, but my favorite moments were spent in Central Park, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Hungarian Pastry Shop across from the cathedral.  I’m not saying that the other stuff was deficient, but those three places resonated most strongly with me.

New York's Central Park (click photos to enlarge)

Pardon the terrible photography, please.  I used my cell phone as my camera during this trip, and it is difficult to focus and stabilize.  In addition to that, I’m definitely not a photographer, so these images are twice cursed.

There were a few things that I really liked about Central Park.  I liked the way it sounded–the noise and bustle of the city muffled somewhat by all that nature.  I liked the barren trees.  In my little corner of California, there aren’t very many deciduous trees, so it’s hard to notice the passing seasons.  When you’re surrounded by naked trees, you can’t forget that it’s winter.  Finally, I liked that so many people used the park in different ways, walking, running, singing, sitting on benches… it is a public space that actually gets used.

This winter has been a trifle mild (especially compared to last winter) across the northeast, so it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that the trees and plants were celebrating an early spring while we were there.

Tulips springing up in early March (Central Park)

I almost walked by these flowers without noticing them, but my husband pointed them out to me.  That’s my hulking shadow at the bottom-left corner.  Having no talent for growing anything that isn’t a drought-tolerant plant (thanks to my southern California climate), I didn’t realize that flowers could start to bloom before the plant is fully emerged from the soil.  It seemed that these tulips were so eager to see the warm sunshine that they just couldn’t wait for the rest of their foliage to get it together.  I like impatient things.

I wish I could have devoted an entire morning or afternoon to the park, but we just didn’t make the time for it.  The time we spent in the park, though, was wonderful.  We walked through a good portion of it (at a fairly brisk pace) one day, pausing occasionally to take pictures or listen to various groups performing in the park.  The next day, my husband and I ventured alone into the park and sat on a bench to enjoy the morning.  Even though it’s silly, I envy my sister for living so close (comparatively) to that park, for having endless opportunities for experiencing and enjoying it.  That said, there are lovely public spaces that I never visit located within a few miles of my house.  I think what I envy is not necessarily the proximity to such a space but the inclination to go there, to enjoy it.  I suspect culture is at work: in New York, the park is large and centrally located, and most of the residents in Manhattan aren’t able to cultivate their own little gardens, so they use the park for this quasi-bucolic enjoyment; in California, everything is spread out, and suburbanites like me can muck around in their own patch of soil (or hire people to do it for them)… in order to go to a park, one must drive and find parking… it’s all so damn inconvenient!  Maybe I don’t envy my sister at all.  Maybe I appreciate the burgeoning differences in our regional cultures as she becomes less and less a Californian and more and more an “other”.

Half-eaten pastries at the Hungarian Pastry Shop

I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.  I had an almond pastry (that semicircle of goodness at the top right of the image above), my husband had a prune pastry (that gorgeous bit of pie crust and prune filling at the bottom left), and my sister had a fresh strawberry pastry (a sort of deconstructed cobbler-ish pie with an almond pie crust shown at the top left).  The pastries were really tasty, but the best part about the Hungarian Pastry Shop was that it was dark with tables set uncomfortably close together, but it still managed to exude an air of comfort and quiet relaxation.  The walls were covered with strange art, and the bathroom was decorated with snatches of misquoted poetry, phrases expressing political discontent, and the ubiquitous “Linda is a lesbo”.  We stayed there for over an hour, and I am so grateful that we didn’t rush ourselves.  Since having kids, I haven’t taken the time to pursue one of my favorite hobbies: sitting in a coffee shop enjoying conversation (or silence) mixed with the background noise and bustle of espresso machines, other patrons’ conversations, and the clink of forks on plates.  I had forgotten how much I love those little moments spent both isolated from and together with humanity at a neighborhood coffee shop.  Also, I love almonds.

I think I’ll write about the cathedral in a separate post… It was so amazing, I suspect it deserves its own billing.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Book cover image

Cover image, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

I’ve never before tried to participate in a book club with strangers, but this book really caught my attention, so I decided to join a book club.  The Office of Institutional Diversity at the college where I work hosts a diversity-related book club twice per year.  This semester, they timed the book club meetings to coincide with Black History Month and selected this fascinating book that discusses the lives of the women pictured–what’s happened to them over the past fifty-five years?–within the context of race relations in America.  I’m about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I think it’s an amazing read.

In my last post, I mentioned all the photos I had on my wall when I was a teenager, including a photo of Elizabeth and Hazel taken on September 4, 1957.  David Margolick’s book focuses on a view of that moment captured by photographer Will Counts.  The photo I had on my wall was by Johnny Jenkins, and it showed the same scene from a different perspective about a second or two before Will Counts snapped his famous photo.

Photo by Johnny Jenkins (Bettmann/Corbis)

This is the photo I had pinned to my wall (above).  In it, Hazel Bryan is just another member of the crowd of angry white people.  Now check out Will Counts’ version of the photo.

Photo by Will Counts

In Will Counts’ version, Hazel Bryan is the central figure, and she seems to be the only member of the crowd around Elizabeth Eckford who is angry about Elizabeth’s attempt at integration.  From this angle, the leering lady that I mentioned in my last post is completely blocked from view by Elizabeth.  There’s no one to distract the viewer from Hazel’s expression of distaste and hatred.  It isn’t accurate, really, to say that Hazel became the accidental villain.  After all, she was present among the mob that day, and she did shout rather horrible things at Elizabeth.  But a picture only tells a certain story, locked in time, unchanging, and this picture tells a very different story from the other image (Jenkins’) shown above.

We all do plenty of stupid things when we are young.  Most of the pictures I have of myself from the time just show an extremely awkward child who is uncomfortable in her own skin, but there are moments of my life that, if captured by photo, could haunt me more powerfully than they currently do, muffled as they are by those distorters: time and memory.  What if there had been a photographer to catch that moment in eighth grade when twenty (or forty?) girls surrounded me and threatened me because I was wearing a pale blue denim dress and pigtail braids–a very Little House on the Prairie homage.  The only girl from that crowd that I can remember with any sort of distinctness was dressed in white leggings and a black t-shirt.  Normally I might not recollect someone’s sartorial choices, but under those white leggings the girl was wearing bright green underpants, and they showed.  The idea that someone whose own clothing choice was so awful would shout at and threaten me for my own, admittedly odd, clothing choice always struck me as being an important point to remember.  In my life, that moment stands out as memorable because it demonstrates that people really do fear those who are different and that a mob mentality can break out no matter how apparently innocuous the cause.  A photo of that moment might not tell the same story.  It just so happens that I am white and that all the girls who stood in that crowd are black.  Maybe none of the undercurrents, the bits that seem so important to me because I was there and am aware of them, would show in the photograph.  Maybe for the rest of my life I would be that girl in the photo, unable to change or grow, when, in reality, I am so much more.

I suppose I identify with both Elizabeth and Hazel because they have at least one thing in common: they are both forever stuck in that photograph, in that moment in time when they were fifteen, in that image that only tells one tiny part of the whole story of that day.

Regarding the book club, it is so odd to me to actively participate in a discussion with a bunch of people that I don’t know.  I have grown accustomed to stifling my personality and remaining silent when among strangers for fear that they would misunderstand me (Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood) and take offense where none was meant or belittle me for being different.  I am still that girl who stood in the middle of that crowd and didn’t back down, but I have learned to be wary.  I am so sick of that wariness, so sick of being afraid of people, of being unable to trust that adults don’t act like twelve-year-olds.  The book club is a challenge, but so far it’s going OK.  There are definitely a few women in that room who have taken a dislike to me, but there are also a few women (and one man) who feel positively towards me, despite my opinions and decisive manner of speaking.

I was trying to make this post less of a downer than the previous one, but I’m not quite sure that I succeeded.