For many, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is an uplifting literary event. A two-day opportunity to glean wisdom from the pros, to engage in a free exchange of ideas, to celebrate the written word and the power of human imagination. For me its an opportunity to swan around the green room, gorging on free food and generally sucking up the last sweet drops of milk from the withering teat of Mama Tribune.
For us, the perk-free, underpaid, uninsured, shut-in scriveners of Los Angeles the LATFOB is one of the best weekends of the year. A time and place where the dweeby, the dorky, the debt-ridden, the middle-aged, the social misfits, the awkward, the mouthy in short: the writers, get all-access laminates and a rare chance to feel like rock stars. It doesn't happen very often, and given all the job stress we have been under lately it's an opportunity to party like it's 1999, when newspapers still had freelance budgets. Would I like a cold bottle of water? Why yes! An escort to my panel? How divine. I always wait a minute too long before meeting said escort, just so I can enjoy hearing my name being called over the green room loudspeaker.
On Friday night, after obediently enduring the book prizes, we herded into the reception area. I was so hungry and excited to be there I found myself resisting the urge to tear off all my clothes and dive into the chocolate fountain.
But for all of that party's shmoozy fun, the real party is in the green room during festival hours. It is the Peyton Place of the west coast literary world. Here people mingle and chat, rub up against and run into each other. The mood is felicitous, but there is also intrigue as it brings together disparate voices and points of view from every corner of the writing world. Where else can you see the salt-of-the-earth, environmental writer (and LAO contributor) Jenny Price one minute, then turn around to watch Maria Shriver emerge from her luxury SUV limo with her crazy doll hair? (Seriously, I think Maria had her hair done by the same Emerald City beautician who styled the Cowardly Lion). Where else can you hear James Ellroy refer to someone as "walking syphillis"? My friend Mark Netter (a huge Ellroy fan) asked the expressive author what he was currently working on. ""The Big Hurt." It's an examination of my checkered romantic past", (Note: I am paraphrasing here) Mr. Ellroy proclaimed, as one of his exes stood in line for a sandwich not far away. Wouldn't that be a great panel, "James Ellroy: My Dark Heart"? But wait, here's Steve Almond and Mark Sarvas within spitting distance of each other, causing a frisson of excitement for anyone who has read the accounts of their famous feud. Twice I found myself gossiping like a fishwife, then being made aware that the subject of the conversation was sitting behind me.
Of course, it goes both ways. As I was doing some nervous pre-panel primping in the ladies room, I overheard one gal say to another, "Oh, well I have an Erika Schickel story for you ..." as they walked out the door, clearly unaware I was standing there. What's that Oscar Wilde quote? The only thing worse than being gossiped about, is not being gossiped about? I'd have gone out to the booths to find a nice tote bag with that quote printed on it to commemorate the weekend, but frankly, it was too fucking hot for booths. I avoided them.
There was a moment on Saturday, when my energy flagged and I thought that between the heat, and the tragic loss of the fabulous Susan Salter-Reynolds party, this wasn't going to shape up to be much of a book fest. But Sunday dawned bright and fiery and I found myself just being grateful that at I wasn't at Coachella. (Can we bring Prince to the book festival next year?) I made it to Royce Hall at the deeply non-rocking hour of 10:30 in time to see Steve Almond interview singer/songwriting luminaries Aimee Mann and Joe Henry. Aimee was lithe and lovely, though. sadly, noticeably Botoxed. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe she just has a really smooth, shiny, unmoving forehead. But she sang beautifully and spoke shyly of her process. Joe Henry was full of fascinating patter. It was an inspired session and hopefully will bring to a close the tedious stranglehold The Rock Bottom Remainders has had over book festival music stages across this great nation for the past decade and a half.
I skittled back to the Green Room, looking to eat lunch with someone pleasant, like maybe Richard Rayner or Nick Goldberg. Instead of Nick, I ran into Tod Goldberg, who's name and work I knew, but had never met in person. "Oh Erika, I read you everywhere, " he said, smiling. "You're like lint!" So, yeah, I love him now. We sat at a table where I enjoyed watching Tod crack up LATBR editor Orli Low over and over and over again with his verbal fastballs. You can read Goldberg's bent, hilarious report on the festival at his blog here.
Of course, there's another layer of pleasure the LATFOB brings for me: it's a famliy event at which I can safely ignore my kids. This is the weekend where I give my tweenage daughter Franny free license to roam. Tethered only by her cell phone, she is allowed to ramble around book city with her pals Noah, Edison, Caroline and Sophie (all literary brats) unencumbered by the soul-crushing maternal gaze. They browse the stalls, nabbing freebies, posing for oh-so-cynical photos with the rubberheaded characters, checking out whatever Y.A. lit. panels are on offer. Like hummingbirds, they flit into the green room for a sugar fix (icy cold Cokes and cheesy cheesecake) then buzz back outside for more adventure. I ran into my daughter in the green room for a minute on Saturday, and she reported meeting her favorite author Francesca Lia Block in the ladies room. She told Ms. Block she was a huge fan of her books and Block graciously gave Franny a signed copy of her latest YA novel "Blood Roses."
At the end of the day Franny looked at me tiredly and said, "I want to go home, take a shower and get into bed with a good book." I felt the same way. Not only that, but I was feeling super-inspired to get back to writing my own book. And that right there is the real magic of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
I find that when going to the theatre to see a new show, it's best to have few expectations. I went to see "My Fair Lady" at the Ahmanson with no expectations at all, just one strong hope: that the live show would prove better than the film, as musicals usually (but not always) do. My wish came true.
As soon as the the rose-covered painting rose on turn-of-the-century Covent Garden, I knew I was in for a visual and musical treat. Anthony Ward's beautifully detailed set filled the stage and nearly distracted me from the action several times. Ward's genius also extends to the costumes: I nearly cried when Eliza Doolittle walked out onto the Ascot set in that magnificent black and purple dress. The cast is fabulous, especially the multi-talented ensemble. The musical highlight of the night for me was "A Little Bit of Luck," performed by the ensemble and led by Eliza Doolittle's father Alfred. The ensemble's raucous dance, with trash can lids on their feet and hands for percussive power, was a loud and appropriate testament to the culture of the working-class English of the time. I was beyond pleased to find Tim Jerome's Alfred P. Doolittle a truly funny character who is not bound by the comic relief stereotype, but rather a scene-stealer who brings life to the amoral dustman and his working-class friends.
Unfortunately, the comic relief turned out to be the young man enamored with Eliza, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, played by Justin Bohon. Perhaps the film's Freddy spoiled me: he was handsome, charming, and a man Eliza would seriously consider for herself. This Freddy was anything but. While cute in a nerdy way, Bohon's Freddy often came off as silly, forgettable and hardly worth a second glance from the object of his affection. Christopher Cazenove's Professor Henry Higgins also surprised me. While his take on the character has strong echoes of Rex Harrison's portrayal, he creates his own Higgins, one who, unlike Harrison's, truly becomes human through his relationship with Eliza.
At last we come to the star of the show. Lisa O'Hare is simply fabulous as Eliza Doolittle. She makes a clear and smooth transformation from brash flower girl to polished lady. To my delight, she makes Eliza Doolittle her own while drawing inspiration from the original, Julie Andrews, and the film's star, Audrey Hepburn. Like most of her principal castmates, she has great comedic timing and is consistently adorable.
The one problem I had with Ms. O'Hare was her interpretation of a few numbers, including "I Could Have Danced All Night." Her voice is beautiful, and her soprano seems to be effortless, but there needs to be more of it. I felt as though Ms. O'Hare was teasing the audience, not letting go until the very last minute. "I Could Have Danced All Night" is Eliza's big number; Ms. O'Hare should use it as a chance to show off what she can do.
More importantly, O'Hare's Eliza is the perfect match for Cazenove's Professor Higgins. They are equals on that stage, in acting power and in sheer presence. Thank goodness there is a suitable ending to the show to illustrate that fact.
My Fair Lady closes Sunday
As noted on the LAO Blog, Los Angeles Times Calendar TV Critic Mary McNamara made one of those mistakes the other day, the kind that all writers dread, yet eagerly ridicule when a colleague falls prey.
Readers can be almost as vicious.
Nothing else is like this. Make a mistake in the day-to-day course of most any other profession and, at worst, a few dozen people become aware of it. But do so in a newspaper and … you quickly learn to understand why reporters can come off as cocky. If they didn't keep their confidence (some might say "egos") pumped up, they'd deflate daily at their desks.
The initial responses of writers vary, though most I've known jump right to denial and do all they can to prove the mistake is no mistake. Once the error is verified as an error, the next step is often to blame the copy desk: If they didn't inject that nonsense, then why in God's name didn't they catch it? A writer I knew in the late '80s became notorious for blaming his every gaffe on his computer, as though that boxy cyclops of a Mac had achieved consciousness and was determined to get him terminated.
But not Ms. McNamara.
When next I teach a journalism course, I will distribute copies of her LAT Show Tracker blog entry from yesterday (04/21/2008) -- A TV critic's walk of shame -- and explain that this is how to do the right thing, and do it with class. Before there was an Internet, newspapers never did anything like this. Here's an excerpt:
If you want to know if anyone is reading your stories, make sure you insert a mistake about George Washington.
Oh, if only I could claim it was all a ploy by Calendar editors to gauge readership. But when I wrote in Saturday's story about HBO that George Washington stepped down from the presidency after serving only one term, it was just a stupid, blind error, the sort that leaves you smiting your forehead, literally and repeatedly, the moment it is pointed out to you.
[Snip] ... we entertainment writers are held just as accountable for flubbed historical references as any other journalist. The correction runs today online and in tomorrow's print edition, and I will try to comfort myself with the knowledge that a good, strong dose of humility is always good for the soul. Especially the soul of a critic.
Click to e-mail TJ Sullivan.
It is National Library Week and there is no better time to put libraries at the forefront of public consciousness as cities like L.A. cut services in the face of looming budget deficits and an ailing economy. Indeed, news has come out that the LA Public Library has ceased purchasing new books and plans to start charging a $1 fee for inter-library loans come July 1st. This charge may not seem like much, but it adds up once you realize that many branches do not have copies of their own, forcing patrons to either drive to another branch or opt for an inter-library loan. My friends Kim Cooper and Richard Schave have launched the Save the Los Angeles Public Library campaign, which urges city officials to rethink the plan and consider alternatives to meet the budget shortfall.
Libraries are more than just structures for housing books. They provide space for communities to gather, shelter the homeless and under supervised children, and offer literacy services to those who cannot read. However, these institutions cannot exist without dedicated librarians and staffers to manage and disseminate information.
Thankfully, library workers are doing more to educate the public about what they do and the importance of their role in American society. Last year, Ann Seidel released her film, The Hollywood Librarian, an entertaining look at librarians through film. Closer to home, Don Borchert wrote about his experiences working at a library in Torrance in his book, Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library. He kindly submitted to the following email interview:
What inspired you to write your book?
I've been writing since I was about six years old. I wrote for the school newspaper in junior high school and in high school, and wrote a few articles for the Ohio State Lantern in college - until I was thrown out of the school of journalism. It was the 60's. I was a rebel.
I also used to write what one science-fiction magazine editor called 'superb plotless scenarios' which might have been a compliment, but didn't get me published. I didn't understand it. It worked for Borges, why not me?
Anyway, a few years ago, I was working on an outline for what I thought would have been a dynamite book for kids - all about the Peloponnesian Wars, but I put it aside. I knew you were supposed to write about what you know, but this was not one of these areas. Then it dawned on me that I could write about the library. I thought it would be fascinating - it's so different than the perception you might get when you walk in, look around, and go: nice quiet place. I wasn't sure that I'd ever be able to convince an agent or a publisher, but it felt very good to write and get down on paper. Cheap therapy.
How has your story challenged or confirmed public perception of library professionals?
I think my book describes a situation where library professionals, like it or not, better be ready to do a wide range of jobs completely unrelated to their job description. The public often has the idea that librarians sit and read books for a living, and at the end of the day, turn off the lights and lock up. It can be a little more complex, a little more stressful than that.
I took a hit on the Internet recently when I described most librarians as not particularly ambitious. I'll still stand by this generalization. A good librarian is many things, hard-working, conscientious, but I don't see ambition as being any part of that mix. You don't go to library school for a few years knowing you're going to move into a position at the end of it that has a definite starting salary and once-a-year performance reviews because you're insanely ambitious. If you believe this, you've probably never met anyone who IS ambitious.
Why do you think publishers are now open to publishing the stories of librarians and information technology professionals?
I'm not sure that a corner has been turned or a particular door has been thrown open wide in this regard. I think my book was published because it found the right agent, the right publisher, and has an interesting voice. Any occupation has the ability to turn into a fascinating read if its well done. Heat by Bill Buford is a great book about what its like to be a sous-chef in a three-star kitchen. The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer is the memoirs of someone working in a Long Island bar.
Another book may come out about libraries and librarians and utterly tank. The subject matter is only a component.
Do you still work in a library?
I have two answers for this one. One - I still work in the same branch library I started at thirteen years ago. I get a nice feel for the community I live in, and I get to see kids grow up, mature and move on. It's very satisfying. Two - I have three children of my own. Raising children is a very expensive proposition. Having enough money for this endeavor is a good thing. I'm clinging to the middle class quite nicely.
What do you wear to work and why?
I wear a nice shirt and a nice pair of pants. In the summer, I have a variety of Hawaiian shirts that my wife really wishes I would throw away. Some libraries demand their menfolk wear shirts and ties, sports coats. Ours doesn't, and I don't.
Has Google and web-research databases made life easier or harder for library workers?
Both. Getting your information on the Internet is a double-edged sword, and everyone working in a library is aware of this. Instantly, you cut out the need for having a library filled with scholarly, ponderous books on a variety of subjects. On the other hand, there's no guarantee that the information you find on the Internet HAS to be accurate. If you're looking for Elvis Presley's birthdate, it might be a five-minute hunt through the stacks, or a ten-second click on the Internet. On the Internet, however, you might find a half-dozen different answers.
How does your library system celebrate Library Week
In my particular branch library, this will be a relatively low-profile event. The juvenile librarian might bring in some classes and urge the kids to sign up for library cards. We'll be urging the regular patrons to check out books, which we do anyway. A much more exciting week in the library comes around at the end of September, when we commemorate Banned Books week. It's a celebration of free speech. A lot of people are absolutely stunned when they realize books like 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' by Hemingway, 'Civil Disobedience' by Thoreau, 'Catcher in the Rye' by Salinger, and 'The Lorax' by Dr Seuss have at one time or another all been banned books. And we wont even get into Harry Potter.
Do you think Library Week has been reduced solely to the Banned Books and First Amendment campaigns? What should the public get out of Library Week?
The idea of banned books gives the library a little emotional resonance, which is good because it makes people pay attention. I think people in this country are used to the idea of a free public library, and so take it for granted. It becomes invisible. But what other institution is as accessible, as valuable, and as welcoming as the public library? We cater to older people trying to figure out their options, little kids doing their school reports, and first-generation immigrants trying to get a handle on things. Its just that there's very little glamor associated with it.
A story headlined "Likelier here: the next Big One" in today's Los Angeles Times reports up top that a new "forecast" suggests a "much greater chance" of "a huge temblor" in Southern California during the next 30 years.
Because SoCal has remained relatively unshaken since the devastation of the Northridge quake of 1994, such news is of particular concern to area residents.
Paragraph No. 2 says that "California is virtually certain to experience at least one major temblor by 2028."
Then you get to Paragraph No. 19, which says:
The researchers were quick to point out that their forecast does not amount to an earthquake prediction. Moreover, the research focused on the probability of ruptures along the faults, not the potential destruction that can be caused by seismic waves, which do the most damage. Scientists noted that even parts of California that were not marked as the most seismically active could be vulnerable to far-reaching waves.
Still, the researchers expressed hope that their findings would be used to improve seismic codes and boost emergency response plans.
New discoveries abounded last week. UC Irvine astrophysicists discovered a far away galaxy in the act of formation, billions of light years ago. A clinic revamped itself to provide Mayans in LA with accessible health care. Former interim LASUD superintendent, Ray Cortines, returned to the agency and revealed that being senior deputy superintendent isn't so bad.
Iris Burton, the child actor agent who discovered River and Joaquin Phoenix and a phalanx of your favorite child stars, died on April 6.
L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine discovered that his proposal to modify Special Order 40, the Los Angeles Police Department rule defining when officers can inquire about the immigration status of suspects, is all the rage--it enraged foes and supporters alike.
Beer lovers learned that a tax hike may be on the horizon. Teens also learned about the high cost of alcohol at "Every 15 Minutes" anti-drunk driving programs held at several Southland schools last week. Unfortunately, students and parents had a real life demonstration of DUI consequences after a 17-year-old Newbury Park High senior died late Tuesday when his car rolled out of control on Pacific Coast Highway. One of the youngsters seriously injured in the crash was slated to play a role in his own school's upcoming "Every 15 Minutes" program. The world finally noticed that food riots in Indonesia, the Philippines and Haiti are not isolated incidents. Anticipating food shortages of global proportions, perhaps now is the time for SoCal farmers to reacquire arable land beneath foreclosed housing developments that had displaced farms during the housing boom. Asian circus elephants, Boo, Jewel and Tina found out that the show won't go on after Los Angeles Department of Animal Welfare officials banned their act from the Circus Vazquez, currently performing near the Panorama City Mall.
A few months back, the Atlantic Monthly ran an essay by Lori Gottlieb entitled, “Marry Him! The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough,” a title a former editor of mine would have termed “nothing but readers.” And read I did. Gottlieb's writing had pith and verve, but the essay's essential argument -- that a woman's dream of wanting a smart, cultured, successful husband who recognizes her for the brilliant, accomplished, potential baby-maker she is -- is just that, a dream, and one that will rarely if ever come true because men are not sufficiently complicit. The solution? Settle. Marry the okay-guy, get a child or two out of it, and complain to your friends about the husband you hate to have sex with. Hey, at least you're married, which, by the way, Gottlieb is not.
I have rarely been as incensed by an article as I was by this one. As I wrote at the time, rather than blaming men for their disillusions…
How about women of Gottlieb's ilk stepping up to the plate? Try not setting traps for guys. They know, by the way, you're doing this; they put up with it. But they don't like it. And while they might think it's sweet, for a time, that you're building this imaginary castle into which, should you be able to amplify what you like about him and amputate the rest, he will nicely fit, they really are not keen in the long-run to be thought of projects. So knock it off.
I also at the time wondered why the Atlantic, publisher (if we must split down gender lines) of the brilliant and always illuminating Sandra Tsing Loh and Virginia Postrel, would give this take on a “woman’s topic” so much space. After reading Rebecca Solnit's Opinion piece in yesterday's LA Times, Men Who Explain Things, I wonder if it's institutional.
Solnit's position is, she feels bullied by men, and it's their fault. Speaking directly to said men about this has not apparently occurred to Solnit, though it did to Amy Alkon, who wrote today over at Pajamas Media:
Solnit mewls on for 1,863 words about how women are patronized and silenced by men.
But, wait. Let me check. (Peering down into pants and then panties.) Yup, there’s a vagina in my pants, which suggests I’m either a woman or there’s a matched, escaped set of labia taken up hiding in my underwear. Most mysteriously, I don’t seem to suffer the myriad conversational injustices from men that Solnit and so many other women apparently do.
In Gavin De Becker's excellent The Gift of Fear, he explains what most of us intuitively know even when we don’t know we know it: that people who explain too much are often trying to justify what they know to be their poor behavior. This is what Solnit does, though I assume unintentionally, as it’s in opposition to her stated objective of being heard.
Telling us about her mistakes might have been constructive; she might have said, “Here was this time when I really clammed up, geez, how embarrassing. Won’t do that again!” Instead, she presents experiences in which she flopped around like a fish in a boat as the manifest insecurity of every woman in any situation that calls for her to interact with a less than attentive man. Example: when the host of a party does not acknowledge Solnit’s authorship of a book he’s discussing, Solnit does not laugh ("Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing," she writes of her friend and herself); she does not consider that maybe the guy is dim; she does not say, "Darling, why not do something useful and get me a drink?" No, she freezes, she fumbles; she's overrun with self-doubt. And whose fault is this? According to Solnit, the man’s.
Let us acknowledge there are bullies in the world, and some of them are men. My sister-in-law once mentioned that, as a sailor, she’s often crewed on boats where the guys take for granted that they know more than she and order her around accordingly. She also said that, when she sails her own boat, she often has male sailors rush out on their dinghies, wanting to know if she needs any help. Both instances can be seen as patronizing, or the natural order of things, or the product of testosterone, or idiotic, or helpful, or any number things. In all cases, we have a choice in how we act and react, and on and on bumps the world.
Solnit does not see she has a choice, which is of course her choice – but why publish it? If Solnit wants to play the victim, let her. If she wants to spend years researching and writing books and then get watery and weak-kneed when someone is dismissive, or loud, or boorish, that's her business. But what is the use in her relaying the following: when confronted by a man who knows less about a subject than she, Solnit does not argue her point; does not engage in and thus further the cultural conversation. Instead, she double-checks herself, and later, alone in a hotel room, goes on Google, where she finds… she's right! The lesson she takes from this? To call out the guy years later, in print, to wit:
Dude, if you're reading this, you're a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.
Why did she not stand up for herself in the moment? I don't know. What does she want? As far as I can tell, a sea change in order to accommodate for her weakness, though why we should embrace her passivity while rejecting men's aggression is never made clear.
The battle with Men Who Explain Things has trampled many women -- of my generation, of the up-and-coming generation we need so badly, here and in Pakistan and Bolivia and Java, not to mention the countless women who came before me and were not allowed into the laboratory, or the library, or the conversation, or the revolution, or even the category called human.
One might say many things of Solnit's assumption that hers is the battle cry women should heed: that it is ludicrous, laughable, sad, counterproductive. But I won't say any of these things, only, to those tempted to follow: you're running the wrong way.
I overheard a little girl in line at Trader joe's the other day ask her mother how to swing from a vine. It was a great question. It gets answered (or rather, how does one swing from a curtain) in "Aurelia's Oratorio" playing at the Freud through the weekend. Read Sean Mitchell's review for all the fascinating deets about this wonderful performer and her extraordinary background.
I took my kids (ages 9 and 12) and was surprised how few children were in the audience. Though not in any way a "kiddie show," this piece is so strange and beautiful, magical and creepy it's perfect for them. It's a child's dream, verging on nightmare. A little scary, but not too scary, full of sight gags and laughs, yet very sophisticated. The show is a long series of "what ifs?" that get answered in startling, visual terms. My girls said it was the best thing they'd ever seen, and they've seen a lot.
Before we went in, we were milling about the Freud courtyard and struck up a conversation with a charming, older, metrosexual who had recently met Aurelia through a friend. She told him one of her earliest memories was of running around onstage in a suitcase that had two leg holes cut through the bottom. Her whole life sounded like a dream to us.
We got tickets just by showing up before the show, but that was before the big review. It ends with two shows on Saturday. It runs an hour and fifteen minutes, so don't worry, you can have the kids home and in bed by ten.
So many Los Angeles Times reporters accepted the early retirement buyouts at the end of March that Angelenos are only now feeling the true impact of these cuts. When new retiree Cecilia Rasmussen, Metro section reporter and "L.A. Then and Now" columnist, published her last column, "DNA Test Could Force Rewrites of City's History Books” on April 6, 2008, the loss was particularly acute. For many readers, she was more like a neighbor than a name on the page -- a good friend ready to share old-time gossip and hidden historical treasures. Indeed, readers have left up to 21 comments at the LATimes.com site, thanking her for her work and praising her legacy. Fortunately, the LATimes.com posted links to her favorite stories so that we can savor them once again.
I caught up with Cecilia last week to discuss her last days at the paper. Even in casual conversation, Cecilia's knack for storytelling is evident. She has a wonderful laugh and it's easy to imagine interviewees opening up to her and telling them about their lives.
A resident of Sierra Madre for most of her life, Cecilia started working at the Los Angeles Times as a secretary in 1983 after a stint in international banking. Former Los Angeles Times editor, Los Angeles City Ethics Commissioner, and current LAObserved.com contributor, Bill Boyarsky, hired her and encouraged the development of her career from secretary to researcher to writer. Her first byline in the paper, "Flashback: Reliving Moments in L.A. County History 1961: The Bel-Air/Brentwood Fire" dated 1/18/91, came as a surprise. "The editors asked me to do some research during a big fire in the area, comparing its impact to the Bel Air fire in the '60s. I turned in my research and Bill told me to write it up and that was my first published piece in the Times," she laughed, "I started out writing small paragraphs, mainly about the city's social history, and that evolved into larger stories. "
She learned writing skills on the job, having studied business in college. Luckily, she had excellent teachers. "I learned to write one sentence at a time," she said, "I had so many great editors in the Metro section over the years--Bill, Patt Morrison and Tim Rutten." She changed her style over time. "I tried never to use one format. In the beginning, I used a similar pattern for story construction but got bored and tried new things," she shared.
The column evolved over time under a series of names: Flashback, LA Scene/The City Then and Now, L.A. Redux/The City Then and Now. It's hard to imagine how Cecilia was able to obtain so much detailed information so quickly in the pre-Internet age. Prior to the desktop computer revolution, Times researchers and archivists had to use key punch cards to analyze data from a huge mainframe computer. Using aids like this, Cecilia did most of her research at the Times in-house library and the public library. She told me with a laugh, "I'm not sure how I did it before [the digital age]. We've come a long way since the ProQuest [an information database] dial-up days. The Times never allowed us to use Lexis Nexis as it was too expensive in those days. "
With only a few days to research and write a piece for the weekly column, Cecilia combed city and county archives located downtown and conducted phone interviews in order to save time. But when she could, she would visit sites, saying "I have to see a place in order to write about it. Occasionally, I'd go into court records. My usual method was to track down a descendant mentioned in an obituary, court document or newspaper cutting." That's when the sleuthing really started. She found most folks via voter registration rolls and then cold called likely prospects. She explained that most of the time she could find descendants because "nine times out of ten an individual's descendants kept the same family name, changing only a middle initial."
She always tried to keep things fresh. She kept files of interesting story ideas and reviewed her stockpile on a regular basis for potential pieces. She must have been an excellent note taker as she carted home 42 boxes of files when she left the Times building for the last time on March 31st. She always rotated story topics like people, buildings and court cases to keep things fresh. Her favorite aspects of L.A. history include stories about the Wild West. Asked if her research brought her new insights into Los Angeles, she noted, "No, I've learned that nothing changes. People still have affairs and still murder one another. "
While most stories in her column seemed to center on the downtown area, since our city originated there, Cecilia believes L.A.'s history is most visible in everyday maps. "I like to read street names because there's so many stories behind them," she said, "Lankershim Boulevard is named after a man [ J.B. Lankershim ] who had an affair with a woman who said he gave her half of his estate and sued him...Or I like it when I drive the freeway off of the 210 in Covina and see the name Lark Ellen, which triggers thoughts about its namesake, an opera singer who had a relationship with Harry Chandler in the 19th Century."
Nuggets of fascinating stories about L.A. roll around when one converses with Cecilia. She has no plans to stop sharing interesting tidbits with her public. She has no immediate plans to join another publication, though there have been offers, and would like to write more books similar to her book, L.A. Unconventional.
Now that she has retired, Cecilia says that in addition to her friends at the Times she will miss going downtown most of all. "I really enjoy taking people on tours of downtown. Recently I took folks on a tour of the underground tunnels that I wrote about in a story for "LA Then and Now." These readers could not envision what I was describing and asked if I could show them. I took them on a walking tour of the tunnels in the blocks around the Hall of Justice and the Criminal court. There's a tunnel to Grand Avenue and the Federal Court. The jail tunnels are restricted to LA personnel but the other tunnels are open to the public. I learned about them from the D.A.'s secretary, a 72 year old who runs in the tunnels on her lunch hour. "
Cecilia says she's looking forward to the next chapter in her life and has few regrets. "I had the best job in the world. It was so interesting and I enjoyed working with so many great people at the Times. "
LA history buffs have no cause for despair as Larry Harnisch will now continue the "LA Then and Now" column for the Times.
UPDATE-I'm sharing a lovely memory from a former colleague of Cecilia's at the Los Angeles Times.
You left out an interesting tidbit in your very nice look back at the work of Cecilia Rasmussen. In the nearly 1990s the L.A. Times’ then fledgling “New Media” department created a book of Cecilia’s Then and Now columns. The book sold well, directly to newspaper readers, and also was used as one of the most popular enticements for a PBS pledge drive. Paired with clips from the station’s “Things that aren’t here anymore,” it offered long-time L.A. residents and new-comers like myself a glimpse into the city’s colorful past. I was the editor and CC was joy to work with.
Dallas Morning News
I realize I am lately given to writing over-wrought pieces about dying literary bastions, but forgive me, I am a freelance writer experiencing the death-spiral of the written world in Los Angeles. So here I go again…
Oh readers of LA Observed, there have been a couple of wee items on this very site of late about the doings of one LA City Beat. First there was the notice on the sudden firing of editor Steve Appleford. One small ‘graph on an ever-morphing blogroll, mostly concerned with larger, Zell-tastic, journalistic concerns. But did you catch the drama? Steve Appleford, Editor in Chief was fired! Here comes another Steve…Lowery, to take his place. A mere week later, that man quit because “his heart wasn’t in it.” Rumors followed explaining his heart wasn't into pink-slipping a majority of his staff. I really can’t speak to any of it. I am NOT an insider on this story. But it sounds familiar, and like a creepy echoing of the antics at that other paper, which I also happen to freelance for.
I have kept quiet, not wanting to throw fuel on the speculative fire, but here it is: LA City Beat, under the tutelage of Steve Appleford, editor these past five years, held a special place in my heart, in my writer’s biography, and in my future. It was Appleford who threw in with me early on, before there was a book or a byline anyone had ever heard of, when I was Erika Schmuckle (as I am ever doomed to live on in my own head) and Appleford took a pitch I had for a story about being a mom hankering for a lapdance. That piece, Journey to Another Girl ran in the pages of LA City Beat and was noticed by one Kevin Roderick, which, if you were to hold Kevin’s naked tootsies to hot coals, he might confess inspired him invite me to write in this very venue. So let’s review: if it weren’t for Steve Appleford and LA City Beat, you wouldn’t be enjoying my prosaic stylings here now. Suckas.
After that I wrote another piece, Grand Theft Mommy, about playing the video game that was sweeping the under-fifteen nation and had Hilary Clinton’s high-waisted panties all bunched into a crack-jamming wad. Again, Appleford ran it, because he liked my shenanigans and was putting out that kind of paper: a place where people could be voicey and edgy and goddamn, it was good to have a home.
Then, a month ago, Appleford and I were in cahoots on a City Beat column. It was to be a family column (at long last, LA!), penned by yours truly. We saw it as the anti-LA Parents column in which I would get to strut my generally questionable stuff. We were batting around column titles (“Alpha Mom”? “Who Are These People?” “The Family Plot”? “Use Your Words!”?) when I read on this very blog that Appleford had been suddenly and unceremoniously shit-canned.
I don’t know where my column-writing stands now. Maybe Southland Publishing still intends for me to write this column, but two new editors later, I haven’t heard a peep.
Now it’s Rebecca Schoenkopf. Okay, good. I may be a staunch Obamaniac, but otherwise I’d like to go on record for being for women in power every day of the week. Haven’t heard anything from Schoenkopf, but I’m sure it’s been a busy week. I'm still up for the gig but I’ve learned not to hold my breath. But here’s the point: freelancing is a tenuous fucking business in Los Angeles these days. And not to echo my last, gloomy Dutton’s post, but it feels like the end of an era.
For those of you who don’t know, LA City Beat was more or less an offshoot of the wonderful Los Angeles Reader, a paper that graced our city for over two decades. Featuring some of the best writers both currently working and unemployed today, it was voicey, opinionated, well-edited and the last of a dying, noble breed: the truly independent, alternative, free weekly newspapers.
The Reader published and gasped its last before I became a writer, but I picked it and the LA Weekly up every week (as I’m sure many of you did) and read it religiously. When it cagged (for reasons I am too ill-informed to go into) many of those people (Appleford, Natalie Nichols, Mick Farren among many notable others) found succor at Southland Publishing’s newly-hatched LA City Beat.
Being a burgeoning writer with little to show for herself, I saw a chink in the journalistic armor of Los Angeles with this upstart. I started pitching Appleford and he generously put me on his list of contributors. He encouraged me to write pieces exactly the way I wanted to, which almost never happens any more. I snagged one of the last weekly E-tickets out there. It was fun -- for a lot of people, not just solipsistic me. But now that particular moment has ended.
Anyway, I just got home from the wake held at El Chavo tonight, and if you can’t tell from the sloppy prose, I’ve had two too many margaritas. But I thought that LA City Beat as helmed by Steve Appleford deserved better than a couple of leaked items on the main blogroll here. That was a genuinely good paper. No diss on the next guys (or gal) to run it. It will be good, or better, or sucky, or whatever it will be, but it will for sure be different. And before we rattle on to that next station in the airless boxcar headed toward the no-decent-print-in LA-camp, I want to pause for a moment and say… LA City Beat from 2003-2008 was good. I will miss it -- as both a reader and a writer. I hope you will too.
"Anything can happen!"
A commercial* that aired this weekend emphasized the event's unpredictability with a clip of Last year's Miss USA winner, Rachel Smith, as she fell on her rump during the Miss Universe competition. But the centerpiece of the spot was a sound bite from last year's Miss South Carolina, Caitlin Upton [see inset], now infamous for becoming horribly tongue-tied during her Miss Teen USA performance (That's TEEN, as in, like, teenager, dude, OMG, WTF, ROFLMAO!).
Mean-spirited? Superficial? Shallow? Yeah, whatever. Executive producer Phil Gurin explained it all in an April 1 New York Daily News story that, apparently, was no joke: "See it live and you can be the one to tell your friends to go to YouTube."
"Our emphasis this year is not only do we have beautiful girls and two great American icons hosting [Donny and Marie], but we do want to let people know that anything can happen," said executive producer Phil Gurin. "When we did Miss Teen last summer and [Upton] said what she said, YouTube had like 25 million hits. That's just a ridiculous amount. So we're saying to people, 'See it live and you can be the one to tell your friends to go to YouTube.'"
Beautiful. Er, I mean ... That's hot.
* UPDATE: Finally found an online copy of it. Jezebel.com has the commercial, and makes some like observations.
Usually it's the LADOT doing the towing. This is on Rose Avenue this morning.
A closer look: