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February 29, 2008

Beyond Baroque safe to 2032

Photo from Beyond Baroque at flickr
A news release from the office of Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl said this afternoon that Beyond Baroque has been saved.

According to the release, members of the City Council unanimously approved Rosendahl's motion today to direct city officials to renew and extend Beyond Baroque's "low-cost lease" for 24 years.

[For background see Feb. 20 post, and Feb. 28 post.]

From the news release (complete text is after the jump):

Date: February 29, 2008


Literary Arts Center to Keep its Home in Old Venice City Hall

LOS ANGELES - Beyond Baroque, the nationally acclaimed poetry and literary arts center, will keep its home in the former Venice City Hall, thanks to the actions of Councilmember Bill Rosendahl.

The City Council today unanimously approved a Rosendahl motion directing city agencies to renew and extend a low-cost lease, allowing Beyond Baroque to keep its headquarters at 681 Venice Blvd. through 2032.

"Beyond Baroque is one of the last bastions of the spoken word in Los Angeles," Rosendahl said. "It is appropriate that it maintain its home and its special relationship with the community of Venice, so long a haven for poets, artists and writers."

The council action came after weeks of intense concern by many in the literary arts community worried that Beyond Baroque might lose its headquarters and be forced to close or move from Venice, which it has called home since 1968. City agencies had sought a new policy that would have prohibited low-cost leases with struggling arts organizations. Rosendahl intervened, effectively saving Beyond Baroque from possible extinction.

"We are extremely grateful to Councilman Rosendahl for his support and for his leadership," said Fred Dewey, director of Beyond Baroque. "Beyond Baroque is part of Venice, and Venice is part of Beyond Baroque. I am delighted we will be able to stay there, and I am extremely grateful for the City's continued support for the literary arts and for our public mission."

Beyond Baroque has been at its current location since 1979. Its most recent lease, approved in 1997, was set to expire February 29. Rosendahl's motion directs the Department of General Services to renew and extend the existing lease for 25 years, at the current rate of $1 per year. The paperwork should be completed within 30 days.

Beyond Baroque is a non-profit poetry and literary arts center with a national reputation for attracting, showcasing and advocating for poets and writers. It has played a significant role in helping Los Angeles become an international arts capital, and has helped to make Venice and Los Angeles a cultural destination.

Beyond Baroque offers free workshops and low-cost readings and performances, maintains archives of Los Angeles literature, publishes and sells magazines and books, advocates for Los Angeles writers and artists, and showcases public art projects. The organization serves more than 300 writers and 10,000 residents per year.

In exchange for its renewed lease, Beyond Baroque will continue to provide those services, and pay any costs needed to maintain, upgrade and landscape the facility. The building served as Venice's City Hall before the community joined the City of Los Angeles in 1925.

*See also: Los Angeles Times story, 03/01/2008.

February 28, 2008

Shelf Life

I was still reeling from the heart-breaking news that Dutton’s Brentwood Books will be closing in April, when I picked up yesterday's LA Times Home section and read David Keeps' thorough, if dispiriting piece on book shelving. It seems that Angelenos have lately come to feel that “the home library is an image-enhancing badge of literacy.” Ever hot to trot for image enhancement of any kind, moneyed LA homeowners are creating "liahbrries." They are buying expensive, designer shelving, then lining those shelves with books. But look again! Some of these books are faux books, pieces of rock and plastic made to look like books. Sometimes the shelf-owners don't actually like books, so they hire “library consultants” to go out and buy books to arrange on their expensive shelves like so much knick-knackery.

On the face of it, this trend seems to bode well for books. Yay! Books are back! But to me, it feels like the death-knell of reading.

I have spent a lifetime co-habitating with books, some of which I’ve had since grade school. I have shlepped, shelved, shared and stacked them in all the places I’ve lived. I’ve never had anything close to a library, but that has never stopped me from going to Dutton’s and picking up a few more juicy titles to squeeze onto my cheap-ass, Ikea, poo n’ glue shelving units. Steel and oak? Hell man, I'm coming from a cinderblocks-and-plywood place. In fact, my house is starting to look a lot like Dutton’s: there are books stacked on the floor, squeezed into hallways, lying around on every available surface.

Look, I know books inspire a lot of self-satisfied prose about the magic of reading. There will be many sincere, elegiac, homages penned as we watch one independent bookstore after another shutter its doors. We will hear wistful remembrances of the blissful hours spent curled up with a good book, transported to magic lands, blah, blah, la, la, boo hoo!

I just want you to know, like most Americans, I spend way too much time watching television and not enough time reading. I can give you chapter and verse on "The Wire," but frankly, I'm a little sketchy on Proust. But I also cannot remember a night, since I learned to read when I was six years old, that I did not read at least a few lines before passing out. My books aren’t precious items of value to be displayed lovingly in humidity-correct environs. They are Vintage Classics, aged Penguins, yellowed and musty, disintegrating slowly on my dusty shelves. I love my books, but I treat them like crap. I break their spines, use them as coasters, write in the margins and dog ear them to death. I keep them in the kitchen, next to the toilet, by the bed, in my purse. I don’t point spotlights on them, I don’t put a lot of thought into arranging them, I certainly don’t have any that are leather-bound or that I imagine “signify wit or learnedness” or would ever bring anything at auction. But I will tell you some of my books are pretty frikkin' good, and I'm happy to loan you my favorites. If I don’t like a book, then I stop reading it and give it away as quickly as possible, because I don't have the time or space for books I don't like. (I thank God for Bookmooch! ) If I love a book though, then it's forever. I must keep it until the day I die. It is part of me, and I cannot ever bear to let it go. So at 44, I have a lot books.

When we begin fetishizing books as interior design elements, then we have begun to lose ourselves as readers, and places like Dutton’s disappear. What we are talking about is two distinct cultures: one that love books for how they make us feel about ourselves versus those that love books for how they make us feel. I'm not saying that I wouldn't enjoy owning a nice library with pretty shelves and 3-way lightbulbs, but in place of that, I had Dutton's -- and Dutton's was better. It was like a single’s bar for readers. We went there to grope and sniff and leaf, all in the dizzy hopes of finding that special one. If you found it, that irresistably yummy volume that hooked you and got your heart pumping, then you could hide out deep in the stacks with it and make out for a while before, inevitably, going home together. You just can’t swing like that on Amazon, or, even, in your own sumptuously-appointed home library, which, face it, is pure monogamy. The magic of books is finding one you haven't met and falling madly in love.

Since I want this post to be the anti-elegy to books, I have to kick it down a notch: Has anyone else out there noticed the laxative effect of bookstores? Maybe it's all that binding glue in one place, but I love how bookstores unbind me every time. Add a nice latte to the mix and those pay stalls you find at chain bookstores become a heinous affront to genuine readers. See, real readers aren't the people with leather chairs and rolling ladders, they're the people who always remember to take a book with them into the crapper.

Rocky says call Rosendahl

Photo from Beyond Baroque at flickr
An e-mail went out this afternoon to those who inquired with Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo's office regarding the possible termination of Beyond Baroque's tenancy at a city-owned building in Venice [see previous post here].

The gist: Don't call us. Call Council Member Bill Rosendahl.

"The City Attorney's Office does not set or control policy in leasing matters."

Also this week, Beyond Baroque's executive director, Fred Dewey, sent an e-mail to supporters that described the situation as being "down to the wire," with the non-profit's lease set to expire Saturday, March 1.
"We are a national institution caught in LA indifference."

Not sure if Dewey intended to snipe at the Los Angeles Times with that reference, but if the indifference fits ...

The only place the LA Times has made mention of the Beyond Baroque matter is online, at the newspaper's new LA Now blog.

But it's hardly been the only local literary news missed this week by print-side reporters at The Times.

The LAT's print edition also missed the LA City Council's vote to award landmark status to Charles Bukowski's bungalow on De Longpre Avenue in Hollywood. That news rated only online coverage:

1. An online roundup mention at LA Now [which had to link to a Reuters story because there was no staff byline to be had].
2. An online item at the LAT's Opinion LA blog, which had the temerity to claim partial credit for the achievement, saying that its editorial board "along with local activists, scored a victory."

In contrast, the sad announcement of the closure of Dutton's Brentwood Books this week was well reported online and offline:
1. A double-bylined story.
2. A guest column by author TC Boyle.
3. A post at the LAT's LA Now blog.
4. A mention at the LAT's Opinion LA blog.
5. A blog post from LAT columnist Steve Lopez.

Perhaps the lesson is to not expect proper coverage until you're dead. Or, maybe, to die in Brentwood. Not sure.

Text of the e-mails from the City Attorney's office and Dewey follow.

From David Michaelson, chief assistant in the Los Angeles City Attorney's office, Feb. 28, 2008:

Thank you for your recent e-mail expressing your support for the City's extension of the lease of City property to Beyond Baroque. We applaud the wonderful work that this organization performs for our City residents, and wish to make clear that the City Attorney's Office is not in any way prohibiting the City from continuing its long-standing relationship with Beyond Baroque.

The City Council and Mayor are responsible for decisions to lease City property. The City Attorney's Office's role in these matters is solely to approve the form of the lease and to advise City officials regarding applicable laws. The City Attorney's Office does not set or control policy in leasing matters.

We understand that Council Member Rosendahl has recommended to the City Council that the City's lease with Beyond Baroque be extended.

If you have questions about the Council Member's motion or the Council process going forward, you may wish to speak with his office.

Again, thank you for taking the time to send your e-mail.

From Fred Dewey, executive director of Beyond Baroque, Feb. 27, 2008 [*The article referenced below was a Daily Journal news story about the Beyond Baroque lease issue, the text of which was included in the e-mail]:
I am sending this email to those I know pretty well (and have emails for), to family, friends, and colleagues, to fill you in on the current situation on the fate of Beyond Baroque, a cultural institution I have worked for the last 12 years, with many others, to build up, here in Los Angeles. Its lease is now in question, and ends Saturday, March 1st. It has not been extended. Obviously, I take this very much to heart, so I am trying to get the word out. Some of you have weighed in, others might just like to know what is happening. Like so many American non-profit stories, this has that unfortunate crisis ring. Nonetheless, Beyond Baroque must be protected. I and a good team of people have been working hard on this, but things are down to the wire.

We are a national institution caught in LA indifference. If you know anyone in the national press, please pass the [*] article on. I believe the facts to be solid, tho the tone is hardly poetic, and the problem somewhat obscure. But Beyond Baroque is an amazing, forty-year institution, with an extraordinary list of accomplishments, free workshops, publications, readings and so on. It has nurtured so many. But our lease is up Saturday, and we will go month to month, with unforeseen consequences. it is possible things will all be worked out in the next few days. We have worked very hard, for almost five years, to make sure of that.

I have listed two key emails below, for those among you who have NOT already gotten emails. cc me if you send something. Updates are on our website, at, and on my space.

There is nothing like Beyond Baroque anywhere else in America; it is dedicated to the power of language, meaning, and public space, in the struggle to protect all our precious freedoms and capacities. We will prevail.

February 27, 2008

Bukowski's unbeatable bungalow

Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Corbis Sygma

The City Council of Los Angeles made it official Tuesday. It voted to preserve the one-time residence of poet and author Charles Bukowski, puncher of walls and thrower of radios; a non-native Los Angeleno who came here not to look pretty, but to write vile truths. In doing so, he inspired generations with his voice, if not his breath. So raise a glass, or two, or six, and quit looking at me like that you ugly mother.

Bukowski's was not exactly an exemplary life. As he wrote in the script of BARFLY:

Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.


Bukowski had it to spare, as so few seem to have (yes, Hunter S. Thompson had it too) and now, by association, so does Bukowski's former bungalow on De Longpre Avenue in Hollywood. The walls that survived all that rage have now dodged a wrecking ball, too. The bungalow is officially protected as a historic LA landmark.

February 25, 2008

The secret life of Los Angeles dirt

Observing an L.A. Photographer
Venice bacteriaIn her series L.A. Bloom, photographer Joyce Campbell gives us a fresh way of viewing neighborhoods in Los Angeles. She made each of the images from soil collected on explorations around the city.

Driven by a desire to "make visible what lives in the environment," Campbell chose 27 locations out of the Thomas Guide to gather her soil. She sprinkled each sample on a plate of agar, the medium in laboratory petri dishes. After the cultures stewed for awhile, she made contact prints of the bacteria that grew. The photograph here was made from material she collected at Venice Beach.

The resulting 16-by-20 inch images look more like delicate underwater sea life than the mundane, everyday microscopic organisms growing under our feet. Campbell prefers this kind of hand-made look to the "too exact…too polished looking" results of digital photography. She belongs to a subculture of photographic artists referred to by author and art critic Lyle Rexer as the "antiquarian avant-garde." They are reviving 19th-century processes like daguerrotype, cyanotype, and tintype.

Campbell likes the quirky "mistakes and accidents" that come with the old processes. Her work brings to mind the 19th century photographic pioneer Anna Atkins, who Campbell counts among her photographic heroes. Atkins, who worked with the camera-less cyanotype process, was the first woman to create a significant body of work in the still-new practice of photography. Like Campbell, she created a series of images of plant species and had a deep interest in botany.

Campbell, who lives half the year in Los Angeles and half in her native New Zealand, is working now on another project based in the L.A. environment. The images in L.A. Botanical are of local plant species she finds on the streets. For this series, Campbell is using the ambrotype process. Made using a view camera, an ambrotype is an underdeveloped positive on a coated glass plate which becomes fully visible only when backed by a dark surface.

Campbell is interested in communicating her ideas about the "biological" and "geopolitical" forces that create the city. "We're surrounded by botany created by ten to twelve generations of colonization," she says. Many of the plant species that catch her eye are functional, either for medicinal or cosmetic purposes. Brugmansia provides scopolamine, used to relieve motion sickness. The series includes a sculptural close-up of aloe, which produces gel used as an anti-inflammatory and skin soother. There is a delicate rendering of the pomegranate, which Campbell calls an "antioxidant superfood."

BarleyInspiration for the series came following Hurricane Katrina during a walk with her young son in the hills near their home in Glassell Park. Campbell spotted a barley plant and thought, "we could survive on barley -- let's see what else is around here that could sustain me." She admires plants that are hardy survivors, the kind that grow through cracks in pavement.

Recently, the Community Redevelopment Agency discovered Campbell through her L.A. Botanical show at the G727 Gallery on Spring Street. The agency purchased six prints for its portable collection and commissioned her to continue the series at the former Crown Coach site on Santa Fe Ave. and Washington Blvd. The vacant 20-acre plot is slated for environmental cleanup and sustainable development. "We hope to incorporate some of Joyce's imagery in or around this new development and the adjacent river area," said CRA spokeswoman Susan Gray.

This is the fourth post in an occasional series about Los Angeles photographers whose subject is the city. Previous entries featured Iris Schneider, Julius Shulman and teenagers Downtown.

February 22, 2008

LA's cab quandry: Go Brown

Los Angeles officials have decided to pop the hood on the city's taxicab ordinance, which is all good, except that the whole thing has left residents to wonder "whadaya mean when you say 'taxi?'"

A lot of us have seen the Mann movie, and that Scorsese film too. We've even glimpsed those yellow cars stacked up on World Way at LAX, though none of us would be caught dead on a theme-park ride like that (they just go round and round, right?). Besides, have you ever actually priced a cab ride from LAX to anyplace you'd want to go? The answer — $42.00 just to get downtown — sounds a lot like the reason we get confused when anyone other than a weather girl uses "hail" as a verb.

Who knew LA actually discriminates against taxi drivers? Today's story in the Los Angeles Times says LA has "some of the most stringent taxicab regulations in the country."

Cabbies can't pick up passengers in bus zones, alongside red curbs or on busy streets when no-parking rules are in effect. During rush hour, the city's busiest streets become "No Stopping" zones, in which drivers can be ticketed for loading.

Veronique de Turenne, at the LAT's LA NOW blog, previewed the issue yesterday following a meeting at City Hall, the result of which was a bureaucratic sig alert — the city’s Transportation Department was asked to prepare a detailed report.

But maybe commissioning another analysis is the wrong way to approach this problem.

No doubt, LA traffic is already bad enough, what with all the cars wanting to turn, and the buses wanting to stop, and those pedestrians in the crosswalks actually WALKING in LA. And where did these bicycles come from? Do we really want to exacerbate that situation by adding more drivers distracted by dispatchers (the very reason suicide knobs were invented)?

Perhaps what this paradigm needs is a gear shift, a great big one, like in those big, brown UPS vans, which already seem to park with impunity any damn place they please everywhere I go in LA.

Seriously, I don't think The Big Brown Machine ever met a red zone it didn't like, whether it blocks traffic or not, and maybe that could be transformed into a benefit. Maybe UPS is part of the solution.

In this particular case, double parking may not be a double standard, but rather a matter of double happiness. Packages have to get where they're going same as people. So, couldn't the city just get with these guys and work out a mutually beneficial system that doesn't come back to bite us in the back of our brown shorts? Why not let us hop on board the next idle van we see, cop a squat on something solid, and hold tight til the neighbor's house?

Of course, getting the neighbor to sign for us is going to create a whole other set of problems, but we'll request a detailed analysis of that situation when we get to it.

February 20, 2008

John Doe is my copilot

Back in the mid-90s, when I was working as a nightlife columnist in Los Angeles, I had a little pre-evening-out ritual: I’d get my young daughter settled at her father’s house or a sleepover, and then, perform my ablutions while listening to Meet John Doe, or more precisely, the song “Knockin’ Around,” which I’d set to replay as many times as it took for me to pick an outfit and blow-dry my hair.

I can go out to every club in town, not get what I need
Sit right there and drown. Sit right there and bleed
I have been drunk amongst you all, and you know me for some time
Sometimes I slip so far down, I don’t even realize

Acrylic by Heidi BarackI did not make more of than necessary the overlaps with the lyrics and my life, and anyway, I liked slipping down; it was the place, paradoxically, where I thought you find transcendence. Isn’t that why people went to bars? And if most of the time you just got drunk and had the same conversations with the same people, there were also the nights when you made out with your friend Jason by the bathrooms at the Lava Lounge and laughed and laughed and laughed, or sang Frankie Valli’s “You’re Just Too Good to Be True” at the top of your lungs with everyone else still at The Room at closing time, which got your head about as far into the ether as it could go without actually having sex.

I’d also liked Doe since college, when a friend called me my freshman year and said, “You have to get down to New York; I got us tickets for X.” I didn’t know who X was, but they’d just released "Under the Big Black Sun," and I knew, as I watched and listened to Doe and Exene Cervenka mesh those harmonies that should not have worked but did that they were ripping up old ground and making something new, and letting us walk around on it. Cool.

Four years later, I was living in Los Angeles. Eight years after that, Exene was eating dinner at my house, our kids in my daughter’s room building a fort made of blankets, onto which they beamed Mickey Mouse flashlights. Two years after that, Doe was singing me on my way out the door.

Sometime around 2001, I was at Frank ‘n Hank’s on Western Avenue, with the man who would become my husband. Frank ‘n Hank’s is a great dive bar, and at the end of the bar was a couple, maybe 15 years older than we were, maybe 30, it was hard to tell. They were having a little party with a man they’d just met, talking over each other, their laughter punctuated by coughing jags. I looked at how the gal’s lipstick had stained the bottom half of her face coral, how her eyes unmoored when she stopped talking, as though, without the tether of speech, she just drifted away. She and her husband began fussing about whether they could keep the trailer parked where it was for two nights or three, and I thought it might be a good idea to not get too cozy on this barstool, and realized this, too, was the point of Doe’s song.

Last night, I went to see a friend play a small club here in Portland, Oregon, where I’ve been living since 2004. Also on the bill was John Doe, who I’d not seen play since New York. As I listened to the other bands, I saw Doe in a little archway near the stage. He was looking at me, the way a friend looks across a room, just pleased to see you, and before logic told me, this could not be (he and I have never met), I thought, of course he knows me, all those years of us both in LA, our lives running parallel, and him having the heart and guts to write songs about it.

Doe took the stage, dark jeans; jean jacket, hair that maybe hadn’t washed in a few days. I’ve known a lot of people in touring bands; it’s a young man’s game, driving from city to city, trying to get some sleep in the van. Doe didn’t look unnerved by any of this; he looked like the last man standing. Alone on stage, no fancy lights, he started to play. His acoustic guitar and voice filled the room more than any of the preceding five-piece bands. Yeah, he was loud, but that’s not why he was rocking harder than anyone else; he was rocking harder because he had authority. The other acts had been arty, testosteronic; enamored of their own sensitivity, and they’d all (with the exception of the sensitive guys) been interesting to watch. But was that why we were here?

Doe changed over to electric guitar. “That’s all the stage craft you’re going to get, folks,” he told the room. Then he played songs from the new CD, A Year in the Wilderness, including one I’d heard him talk about on NPR, “Little More Time,” about his oldest daughter, who I know is about eighteen, the same age as my daughter. The title of the song tells you what it’s about, and as I watched and listened to Doe sing it, I stood there and cried. It’s the song I hear every day these days, if not exactly that song.

“Go ahead and talk and let your cell phones ring, I don’t give a shit,” Doe told the crowd. There was nothing to prove; we were going to get what he was talking about or we weren’t. Then he asked for requests. Someone shouted “Fourth of July!” but Doe said, “It’s just after New Year’s; too early for that.” I thought about asking him to play “Knockin’ Around”; I thought about it for a few minutes. But why should he? Hadn’t I dipped in that well hundreds of time? Hadn’t I sucked what I could from it? And, was there part of me that imagined I’d shout the title and Doe would say, “That song’s always meant a lot to me, and I’m going to play it right now for you, little lady”? Yeah, there was, and screw that. Better to let him play what he wanted, to hear what he’d learned lately. Which was: We’re already raged at the sun, and what good did that do? Nose down, keep working; look how much we’ve got.

A few months ago, I heard an X song, in repeat, coming from my daughter’s room. It was Nausea, one of the world’s great odes to hangovers, which goes, in part, Today you're gonna be so sick so sick you'll prop your forehead on the sink, and I thought, oh Christ, what was my child up to last night? But she bright and chipper, sober as the day she was born. “I just like the song,” she said. I say, preemptive learning.

Image: Acrylic by Heidi Barack,

Beyond words*

Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo's side of the story has yet to be told, but supporters of Beyond Baroque say the future of the literary arts center is in serious doubt, possibly tangled in a political battle between Delgadillo and City Councilman Bill Rosendahl.

Beyond Baroque has posted the following on its Web site:

After much effort on everyone’s part, our Councilman Bill Rosendahl recommended a 25-year lease extension for Beyond Baroque to the City General Services Department.

Unfortunately, it now appears the City Attorney is recommending against an extension.

We are now in great peril. Our lease is up in a few weeks and uncertainty is threatening grants, programming and our entire future.

An e-mail circulating the LA literary community suggested Beyond Baroque had until Tuesday (Feb. 19) to respond, but no update appeared on the Web site as of this morning (Feb. 20).

Regardless of the reason for the threat, it is ironic that it should come at the same time the LA City Council is set to consider preservation of poet Charles Bukowski's former Hollywood bungalow (a completely different issue, but nonetheless, an expression of respect for LA's literary history). Not that the bungalow in Hollywood doesn't deserve to be preserved, but whereas it's a dilapidated, uninhabited structured, the Venice home of Beyond Baroque continues to inspire and showcase artists of all sorts, and yet, it's supposedly at risk of being booted.

What makes the performance space at 681 Venice Blvd. a vital component of the Los Angeles literary community (even with those horrible metal folding chairs) is that it's been a platform for the famous, the infamous, and those who are neither. As described by the Los Angeles Times, it is "one of the few venues to bring in national spoken word artists regularly," but it also continues to help shape the future of emerging talent.

When I moved to LA more than 10 years ago, I did so to become part of the city's literary community, which, for me, existed in physical centers of creativity like Beyond Baroque and many of the now-defunct independent bookstores that hosted readings, particularly the Midnight Special, where I later ended up as co-host of its weekly readings. These were places that opened their doors to anyone, and, as a result, minds both beautiful and ugly had a chance to showcase their art. Regardless of whether writers came to listen, or to be heard, they were exposed to both brilliance and mind-numbing gibberish. Every night was a new possibility. Sometimes I went home frustrated, sometimes hurt, sometimes inspired, and sometimes over-inflated. But I always came back. No one told me, or anyone else, what we could, or couldn't say, although there was usually an offer of help from someone, a suggestion or, at least, a compliment. Most people treated each other with respect. The only rule (and one most every complained about) was a time limit at the microphone.

But places like these aren't just about the microphone. Beyond Baroque has provided exposure to successful artists and offered workshops to help writers improve their level of craft. Its Web site touts "the longest running free poetry workshop in Los Angeles (on Wednesday nights)."

Sadly, a lot of these places have already closed, including the Midnight Special Bookstore. Chain bookstores have taken their place, if not the blame, and some even host readings. But, signing up to participate in many readings today requires that readers agree not to use "bad" language or to avoid certain subjects, the last thing any artist wants to hear, especially in a bookstore. It's doubtful that many of the more famous people who have performed at Beyond Baroque would have put up with it, certainly not Allen Ginsberg reading HOWL "with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls."

There are some things some people don't want to hear. But when the operators of Beyond Baroque say they're "in great peril," let's hope the city responds.

* UPDATE: The Poetry-Arts Confidential blog posted today that Beyond Baroque may become the first of many occupants of city-owned property to be required to compete for lease renewal. No official word from the city yet.

** MORE from Veronique de Turenne at the LA Times' LA Now blog.

February 17, 2008

Populism, yeah, yeah!

One wouldn't expect there to be a musical about Andrew Jackson, the Populist, Indian-killing 7th president of the U.S. Let alone a musical that tells Jackson's story with humor, modern language and a thrilling punk rock score. Say hello to "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which closes tonight at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

Written and directed by Alex Timbers, composed by Michael Friedman and filled with a young and enthusiastic cast, this high-energy show gives a modern, humorous and sometimes humbling view of the notorious 7th president. The score weaves seamlessly through the narrative in a way reminiscent of surprise-hit Broadway rock musicals "Rent" and "Spring Awakening." BBAJ is already set to continue on a similar path.

Although the creative team freely mixed modern clothing and speech with nineteenth-century costumes and concepts, one still feels completely enveloped into the world of Jackson.

For some younger viewers, this will probably be *because* of the modern music and speech, which makes everything a bit more accessible. Robert Brill's warm Wild West barroom set welcomes you to the nineteenth century as you walk into the theatre, along with performer Gabriel Kahane onstage playing a ragtime tune that reminds me of Disneyland and sounds suspiciously like "My Name is Jonas" by Weezer. Oddly enough, my only problem with the show (aside from a rather sudden and disquieting ending) is the fact that there isn't *enough* music, although the songs that are there work very well.

Benjamin Walker is a true punk rock hero and commands the stage as the obnoxious and intriguing Jackson, doing it all dressed in tight clothes, combat boots, and utility belt complete with gun and microphone. And even amid all the humor and punk rock and silliness, some excellent points are brought up that resonate rather loudly in our own society ("do you really want the American people running their own country?") A nice surprise was seeing John Krasinski from "The Office" in attendance. It turns out he saw BBAJ's workshops in New York and got to know Timbers and Friedman as the show took its current form and made its way to Los Angeles. When I spoke to him in the lobby, he had nothing but praise for the show.

I've seen many shows from minuscule community theaters to full-scale Broadway houses, but never anything so fresh and enjoyable in my hometown. Relatively few Angelenos go to the theater except for big hits like Wicked, but we're attracted by new and slightly odd concepts. What could be more intriguing than a rock musical about a young, sexy former President? While it's not perfect, I would have thought I was seeing an Off-Broadway musical with a cult following. I'm hoping that Friedman and Timbers are able to take this work of art to NYC.

February 15, 2008

More than one way to pay*

A year ago, on March 29, 2007, the suggestion of a one-way plan for Pico and Olympic Boulevards made me think of some of the more massive protests I've covered as a journalist. This was bound to get ugly. People wouldn't sit this one out.

But, yesterday's news suggests otherwise, with traffic signals already being re-timed to favor eastbound traffic on Pico and westbound on Olympic. They're some of the first steps of the turnaround, which has since morphed into a mostly one-way plan for each boulevard, as described by the Los Angeles Times:

Traffic signals would be timed to favor faster eastbound traffic on Pico and westbound traffic on Olympic by April 28. After six months to a year, the two streets probably would be restriped so that Pico would have four lanes going east and two going west, while Olympic would have four lanes going west and two going east, a spokesman for the mayor said Thursday.

When I wrote last year that "I expect all of Los Angeles will wholeheartedly agree," I intended it as sarcasm.

I expected people would see that the cost of such a change would be greater than the price of paint and signal changes, that it would be paid by more than just the City of Los Angeles. But then again, maybe that's OK with people if the result is traffic relief.

If the plan proceeds, it will be interesting to see a final dollar figure on what it costs to reconfigure the actual left-turn signal apparatuses now positioned above the middle of both boulevards. And, of course, re-timing could mean lost revenue from those photo-cop devices, since fewer signal cycles could theoretically result in fewer last-minute left turns* against opposing lanes of traffic, depending on how the engineers accomplish the goal of favoring one direction. That's not necessarily a bad thing from the motorist's perspective, but in tight budget years like this any revenue loss means pain for someone. (I think a couple of those devices are on the portion of Olympic that travels through the city of Beverly Hills.)

Part of the difficulty in figuring the cost of changing these boulevards is going to involve figuring out who pays in dollars, and who pays in shoe leather.

Assuming buses will likely choose to go with the flow (rather than slog through a traffic-choked two-lane on the return trip), the riders of LA's MTA, Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus and the Culver City Bus will surely be inconvenienced when all westbound routes are switched to Olympic and all eastbound to Pico. Of particular concern should be physically handicapped persons, who will be forced to navigate (sans public transit) the sometimes-considerable distance between boulevards to go back from whence they came.

I assume bus lines will pay when they redraw routes and schedules, repost that information at bus stops, then reprint fliers and redistribute them to riders. Same goes for school districts that operate buses.

It seems a certain cost will be paid in the form of wasted effort and materials, too. Again, assuming transit officials decide to direct buses to go with the faster flow, there will be no need for half of the bus stop shelters that were installed in the past few years on both sides of both streets.

And what about firefighters and police? Won't emergency response routes written into policies and plans need to be reconsidered? Wouldn't "mostly" one-way streets change response time for some residences? After the change, a building now in Fire Station A's jurisdiction might be better served by Fire Station B, wouldn't it? Someone's going to pay for a study to determine that, right?

Perhaps the only smile the proposal can be expected to produce for people on both sides is its effect on many of the billboards on both boulevards, but only because no one I've ever met has expressed affection for a billboard. As I said last year, some signs will end up facing "mostly" the backs of motorists once the plan is implemented. Although, who knows, maybe there is a product out there looking to connect with the demographic that looks up and back when driving.

* HOW MIGHT LEFT TURNS BE REDUCED: I've written about traffic issues many times during the past 15 years, and was often told by planners and engineers that traffic snarls are created any number of ways, but that one of the primary causes is the left-hand turn. So, if you increase the left-turn time for one side of the street and not the other, you should improve the flow on only the favored side.

Another way to achieve favor would be to eliminate, or restrict, left-hand turns for vehicles traveling in the unfavorable direction, which, I would guess, engineers might consider for both Pico and Olympic. The back-up that could result in the absence of elimination or restriction isn't hard to imagine, but that's kind of the point, isn't it? A disincentive to use one street emphasizes the incentive to use the other.

But in some situations, no matter what you do, it seems the problem will be moved rather than solved.

For example, westbound Pico Blvd to southbound Overland Ave is the most direct route to the Santa Monica Freeway for office workers in Century City. At present, the completion of a left-hand turn at rush hour from westbound Pico to southbound Overland often requires enough time and patience to sit through a couple signal cycles. But if Pico is pinched down to two westbound lanes, yet provides no additional time for left-hand turns, the back-up can only get worse, and would likely spill out of the turn lane, blocking the flow of one of the two westbound lanes.

Eliminate the left turn on Pico and drivers would surely choose westbound Olympic to access southbound Overland in order to reach the freeway. Do nothing, and many drivers are likely to do the same thing if only because LA drivers are conditioned to seek faster routes. Under either scenario, the result will be another nightmarish snarl when all those freeway-bound drivers on westbound Olympic join freeway-bound drivers from Santa Monica Blvd on "Little Overland," which runs bumper-to-bumper between Santa Monica and Pico boulevards. They call this portion of Overland "Little Overland" because it's a slim residential street with one lane running in each direction, plus the added pressure of a public grade school and no fewer than three stop signs along the way.

From there, it's not unreasonable to assume that a few dozen rat runners will spill onto nearby residential streets and gum those up too.

That's just one example.

Of course, I'm not a traffic engineer. I just drive.

February 14, 2008

Spare me the 'happy' crap

Some days I miss that I no longer work in an office. I miss the distractions, the tangents, the spontaneous foolishness somewhere around 4 o'clock. But I don't miss any office today.

Today the workplace becomes an extension of the classrooms we inhabited as children, where near strangers exchange candies and cards with messages like "hot stuff" and "be mine," the kind of things that, on any other day of the year, would result in a round of sensitivity training for everyone (a contest entry at suggested the sweet notion "Zellous," no doubt for some very American reasons). Regardless of the form, sugar or saccharine, store-bought or homemade, today we're supposed to welcome even unwanted expressions of affection, to be silly hearts, or suck-ups, or … ugh.

It's not that I'm not romantic, not that I'm incapable of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I simply don't like the fakery of a day that pretends to be about all that's good, yet leaves so many people feeling bad.

And so, rather than read sonnets, I gravitate to like minds, to Nancy Gibbs' razor-sharp back-page piece in the latest issue of TIME, or my friend Amy Klein's slightly cynical column in today's Los Angeles Times:

My ideal mate should be worldly and well read, but she should not have too many thoughts about too many things unless they agree with my thoughts. She is sparkling but never outshines me. Better yet, she will not speak in public and rarely in private. Especially not in front of my mother, the most amazing woman alive.

On this particular day, I prefer Charles Bukowski's THE RED PORSCHE to any other red thing because, like the man said, "it feels good."

(The poem is after the jump.)

THE RED PORSCHE By Charles Bukowski

it feels good
to be driven about in a red
by a woman better-
read than I
it feels good
to be driven about in a red
by a woman who can explain
things about
music to

it feels good
to be driven about in a red
by a woman who buys
things for my refrigerator
and my
cherries, plums, lettuce, celery,
green onions, brown onions,
eggs, muffins, long
chilis, brown sugar,
Italian seasoning, oregano, white
wine vinegar, pompeian olive oil
and red

I like being driven about
in a red porsche
while I smoke cigarettes in
gentle languor.

I'm lucky. I've always been
even when I was starving to death
the bands were playing for
but the red porsche is very nice
and she is
too, and
I've learned to feel good when
I feel good.

it's better to be driven around in a
red porsche
than to own
one. the luck of the fool is

February 13, 2008

The gradual school of journalism

Every year, about this time, a former student from one of my journalism courses, or whose writing I've coached, asks that I recommend them for employment at some publication, or as a candidate for graduate school. Most of the time I'm happy to do so, although, in the past few years I've begun to see a common weakness among all the applicants.

Seeking a career in journalism alone has caused me to question their judgment.

I made this observation recently when a grad school application form (they get longer and more involved every year) asked me to identify a shortcoming of the prospective student. My reply: Despite obvious intelligence and talent, this person is about to invest an obscene amount of money, time and effort in pursuit of a career in a declining industry.

Considering the events of the past few years, money like that might be better spent on a BLOCKBUSTER® franchise.

Today's report of staff cuts at the Los Angeles Times, and the recent departure of its editor, James O'Shea, are only the latest in a long list of reasons for such doubt. Before O'Shea it was Dean Baquet. Before that, John Carroll. And that's just the LA Times newsroom. The battle of the budget has been going on for years, but the debate about profit margins and public service really began in earnest after the resignation of Jay Harris as publisher and chairman of the San Jose Mercury News. Reporters complain so much that their gripes rank somewhere beneath the whining of wet infants, but when the big guys begin to cry foul, it has to be something far more serious than temporary discomfort. Doesn't it?

Yet, seven years and hundreds of budget cuts after Harris, here we are, with some publications farming out their Fourth Estate responsibilities to freelancers, some of whom are staffers who took a buyout. Last year, a Pasadena paper actually considered outsourcing the task of local reporting to journalists in India.

Where's this going? Well, for a start, since few freelancers are able to afford the cost of liability insurance, they aren't likely to risk upsetting anyone by doing anything more than regurgitating meeting minutes and taking dictation. Of course, some journalists will say a graduate degree ought to rise above this and all but guarantee a staff slot, but then, reporters are also notoriously bad at math.

There's a line in the movie "The World According To Garp," adapted from John Irving's novel of the same name, in which the protagonist Garp explains: "Gradual school is where you go to school and you gradually find out you don't want to go to school anymore." Journalism, likewise, is fast becoming a noble pursuit in which journalists are gradually determining that they don't want to be journalists anymore.

Few non-journalists sympathize with this, which is exactly why the situation is sure to worsen.

More newsrooms will shrink. More newspapers will die. Journalism schools will become fewer. The world won't end, but it will become a more comfortable place for scoundrels.

Thomas Jefferson said: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Without oversight, the effectiveness of democracy will dwindle. At some point, the budget cuts will go so deep that non-journalists will feel the pain and demand action, or effect change in the marketplace. But determining when that will happen is about as difficult as predicting how bad freeway traffic has to get before LA drivers simply abandon their vehicles en masse and walk the rest of the way.

Society is the key to salvation, and society currently sees newspapers as businesses, not as the Fourth Estate these publications were always intended to be. Therefore, things have to get worse before they get better, so bad that the issue gets as much attention and prime-time play as Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan combined.

Until then, I'm happy to continue writing recommendations, but I'll also continue to list the act of application as the student's most glaring weakness. I have no doubt these students will have a harder time than I did when they try to put that education to the good use for which it was intended. But I also know that every one of them is aware of what's in store, and that's what makes the application a display of strength, too.

February 12, 2008

Over 38 too old to do what?

My friend and fellow Los Angeles writer Susan Josephs had a letter in this weekend's edition of The New York Times that called attention to something Charles McGrath said about age and authorship:

In his otherwise excellent profile (Jan. 27), Charles McGrath observes that Charles Bock is a “little old to be a first novelist” at age 38. Good thing Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Stephen Carter, Julia Glass and the nonagenarian writer Millard Kaufman, to name a few, didn’t think they were all washed up when they turned 38... (MORE)

We could go on and on with a list of authors who made their debut after the age of 38, but let's especially not forget the late bestselling author (and Southern Californian) Sydney Sheldon, who penned his first novel, The Naked Face (nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award), in 1969 at the age of 52.

(Crossposted at

February 11, 2008

Earth ... clunk


It had to happen. After years of just normal, run-of-the-mill email spam for everything from designer watches to male enhancement, from pleas from Third World dictators to help them get their money out of the country by borrowing my bank account, to various pornographic promises that could keep me occupied 24 hours a day (and give me the stamina to do so), my email inbox has suddenly been flooded with messages whose subjects read, variously: Mail System Failure, Mail Delivery Subsystem, MAILER-DAEMON, Barracuda Firewall, etc. All you non-Luddites out there will know that messages with these subjects usually mean that you’ve sent an email and it bounced back: either you got the address wrong, or the Web was constipated, or the queue was just too damn long and it timed out and will try again.

However, when more than 100 of these appear within an hour, and sometimes 500 - 750 or more a day, well . . . I may be a bit impatient if I don’t get a response to an important email, but I’ve never been one to hector, or for mailing lists. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

At first I deleted them. Then I opened one cautiously, aware that it might run a script that would get me in more trouble. What I found inside, hidden in the gobbledy-gook of headers and server addresses, was an add for Gucci knockoffs. Oh well . . .

I decided to create some filters in my email program – Eudora; I know, I should be using Gmail, but I’ve been using Eudora for so long and have everything organized so well ...anyway, they didn’t work. Don’t know why. They used to.

Next I logged into my email account on the Web. It’s Earthlink. They have all sorts of spam-blocking software and mine had always been set on medium because, frankly, I didn’t want to upload my whole email address book to their site and set the blocking to high and get only emails from people in my address book. Sometimes I like to hear from someone new. That would mean checking the spam mailbox ANYWAY, to cull out the messages I wanted.

I called Earthlink support. First I had to wade through endless menus that constantly tried to redirect me to use an automated system, or to go online and start a "chat" with a chat agent. My wife tried the chat once and got so frustrated she kept typing, "Are you even a human being? Are you alive? You are a robot," into the little chat box. She may have salted in a few ripe observations about their parentage, as well, just to, you know, see ....

The response to her frustration was akin to "Does not compute."

Anyway, I finally got somebody half a world away. Explained the problem. “Perhaps you should set your spam-blocker to high and upload your address book,” he said, with an indeterminate accent. I sort of like it when I get someone from India or South America. They try hard. If only the line echo wasn't so distracting. (At least I didn't hear: "Perhaps you should reinstall your operating system." The last time I heard that on a customer support call to Dell, I simply said, "No way." Amazing how this can lead to a more elegant solution.)

However, a few thousand spams later, I took their advice and set the spam blocker on high, and uploaded my address book after spending an hour editing a messy conversion to the comma-separated-values (.csv) file format.

Now I leave one of my browsers logged into my webmail and I spend a few minutes every hour marking and deleting spam. I didn't opt for the nice bounce-back email telling correspondents they could possibly join my address book by logging into the site and leaving their info so I could approve them, because I hate that when I get one. And besides, that just spams the spammers. And, as you'll see below, that would have resulted in a nice bit of irony.

Finally, with no end in sight, curiosity and a relentless desire to fix the problem got the better of me, and I opened another bit of spam, this time on the Earthlink site -- in case a malicious script was lurking.

I noticed something interesting. I was spamming myself.

The ultimate senders’ addresses were my own. Well, not exactly my own. If you have an Earthlink address, it ends in (dot) net – not (dot) com. But these addresses were mine, only at Somehow this perversion of my email address, for a domain that isn’t supposed to exist, had gotten on a list, and was being used to send out spam. When those emails got bounced back, they didn’t go to the senders, but to my inbox. Not that they are technically supposed to, since my inbox ends in (dot) net.

Hmm. Called Earthlink and explained. "I've figured out the problem."

“Yes. No, dot com is not valid. This is not right. Give us your phone number and we’ll call within 24 hours and fix this.”

Yeah right. That was a week and three phone calls ago.

I tried calling the corporate offices in Atlanta, but they have highly effective blockers in place to weed out complaining customers. It’s called “ignoring the messages left on your answering machine.” If I don't get a response soon, I'm going to edit this post and include the name of the guy who is blowing me off. (Fair warning)

So what am I complaining about here? Spam? Sure. Don’t like it. Who does? But it’s more about customer service. It’s non-existent. Or half-existent. Everyone is sorry for my problem but can't fix it. I can't speak to anyone in the department that actually futzes with the bytes and bits. Even the customer service rep claims they have to email that department.

If someone from Earthlink who can actually do something, or knows something – instead of some well-meaning functionary who can only pass me up the line to a series of apologetic supervisors -- but no further -- would call (or write; I promise not to filter them out) and let me know if they can block messages bouncing back to the (dot) com version of my email address, or not, I’d be happy. Then I’d either have the problem fixed, or I’d change the address I’ve had since 1997 . . . which would cause me a big headache since I have a book coming out in April and my address is on the little business cards the publisher gave me to promote the book.

C’mon Earthlink. Get it together. I know my monthly fee (times 11 years) is paltry in the big picture, but if you can't or won't fix this, then I won't be the first to leave, and you will no longer be part of the picture.

Tell you the truth, I've had a Gmail account for a couple years. Maybe I'll start using it.

February 7, 2008

The Heights Report

I was just now out working in the garden when over the sounds of afternoon traffic I heard a woman’s jagged screams and I thought, Oh, what fresh hell is this? I have seen and heard it all on this little corner of Midwest LA over the past ten years: drug deals, tagging, grand theft auto, half-naked women falling out of limousines, couples in knock-down-drag-out fights. I once saw six police actually nab a perp on my front lawn. So naturally I assumed I was about to bear witness to more random, urban violence.

The screams tore across the street. It sounded like she was being brutally tortured. My system flooded with adrenaline. I put down my trowel and went to peek over the wall to see where the screams were coming from, but the street looked quiet. I was trying to gauge the alarm level. Was this some grisly home invasion? Should I run inside and get my phone or head straight across the street to rescue this poor woman, my neighbor, a sister?

I cranked up my ears to pinpoint the sound. It’s Thursday, gardener day in Faircrest Heights, and there’s a cacophony of mowers and leaf blowers here from dawn to dusk. But this woman was louder than all that. It was a constant, repeating scream. Suddenly her screams were punctuated by a hoot. A long whoop, whoop! and then the screams started up again. Wait a minute… I listened and heard it again: Woooo, woooo, wooo hoo! Then Yeah baby, baby, baby, BABY!!

I stood there smiling, so glad that this wasn’t violence, not another grim statistic for Jill Leovy’s homicide file, just a good, old-fashioned, (if somewhat indiscreet) afternoon roll in the hay. And damn, the girl was getting it good.

All is well here in Faircrest Heights.

February 5, 2008

Not all pigeons are pigeons

I've been photographing fake owls around Los Angeles for years, forever seeking birds that aren't fooled by those evil, baby-doll eyes. But it was while doing research in Vancouver, BC, this past summer that I finally discovered a pigeon that was no pigeon. This bird knew that owl was no owl.

The photo is included with the hundred photos I uploaded this week of Vancouver, otherwise known as Hollywood North.

This is what I do between chapters.

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