The Fog of Yore: Learning to Love Real L.A. Weather

Written the other day...

I woke up this morning to gray -- that solid spring overcast we call May gray or June gloom that each year exposes the persistent myth about Southern California's blue-sky beaches and perpetual sunshine. You know, the sort of weather that bewilders the tourists who come here from January on thinking it's the tropics, only to find that flip-flops and tank shirts don't work after dark or in the morning, before noon or so. That doesn't stop them from walking determinedly around in said flip-flops and other manner of summer dress while the mercury barely registers 70; I suppose they think that if they act like they're in the tropics -- or in a full-on desert -- L.A. might respond in kind. Our city may be laid-back, but it isn't charitable like that. It is what it is. There's lots of room for invention, and reinvention, but that doesn't include the weather.    
 
I'm a native, but like the tourists, I used to resent the overcast. From the time I was a kid, it was a stain on my summer-vacation expectations of sunniness that the annual reality of May gray/June gloom altered not in the slightest. The way I saw it, that gloom was unnatural, an interloper that stood between me and my belovedly mythical SoCal that for forty-odd years was always just within reach, and then spring happened.  I used to feel flat-out betrayed by the wall of clouds that dampened, sometimes literally, many a graduation and outdoor wedding over the years, events that were recorded in photos in which women in flimsy dresses and sandals hugged themselves to keep warm. Such a let down. I took it all terribly personally, and lived for the days when the sun got strong enough to crack the morning fog by 8 or so, or better yet, to keep the evilness of fog at bay altogether. On those days, I felt like the enemy had been conquered, at least for the season, and I could go about my business of being an entitled native with real confidence and optimism. Those were the best days of the year.

When North Hollywood Was a Town Named Toluca, Or Lankershim

The town of Toluca (now North Hollywood) in 1894. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Some of Southern California's "lost towns" never actually vanished; they simply assumed new identities. That's what happened to one small San Fernando Valley farming village that sprang up in the late 1880s -- a village we know today as North Hollywood.

The town's name was born unstable; in its early years, residents feuded over what to call their home.

Some preferred Lankershim -- a name that honored James B. Lankershim and his father Isaac. In 1888, Lankershim subdivided the easternmost 12,000 acres of his father's old wheat ranch, carving the vast tract into farms of 10 to 80 acres each. On the map advertising the new venture, the Lankershim Ranch Land and Water Company identified a prospective townsite where the old road to the San Fernando Mission crossed a newly graded road, Central Avenue. The map identified the townsite as Lankershim.

Many of the residents who settled there disregarded the map's suggestion. Instead, they called their town Toluca. The name's origins are unclear, but it had the strong backing of an influential newcomer (according to one legend, it was an Indian word meaning "fertile valley," and it is also the name of a city in Mexico). When mining baron Charles Forman arrived on the Lankershim Ranch around 1892, he took leadership of efforts to organize the scattered orchards into a town -- a town he called Toluca.

We Don't Always Have Tomorrow

The woman was buying jewelry. Small items. The sort of jewelry you see on the counter at a gift shop. Perfect for two little girls.

I was waiting in line behind her. This is how I learned that the two girls had just lost their mother in a car accident.

The woman leaned heavily on the counter.

"In an instant," she said, "everything changes."

Several days later, I received a letter from a friend. After remarking on various personal matters, my friend mentioned an earthquake from a few months ago. Though the quake was centered near Brea in Orange County, its tremors were felt as far south as San Diego and clear up here in Ventura County, for the Earth is a very powerful and interconnected place.

My friend wrote, "We pave and build and act like today is forever. Every now and again the earth shakes like a wet dog."

Charles Wright: United States Poet Laureate and My Teacher

Charles Wright in 2006. | Photo: Holly Wright, Courtesy Library of Congress

Librarian of Congress James Billington announced the other day that Charles Wright would be the next United States poet laureate, succeeding Natasha Trethewey as the Library's 20th -- to use the post's clumsy official title -- Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

Wright is 78 now and retired from teaching (lastly at the University of Virginia). He's the author of more than 20 collections of poetry and translations. He's won the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, Griffin International Poetry Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was my teacher in 1971 at UC Irvine.

The Lost City of Tropico, California

Downtown Tropico, circa 1912. From the brochure 'Glendale, California: The Jewel City,' courtesy of the Glendale Public Library's Promotional Brochures of Tropico and Early Glendale.

A post office may still bear the name, but don't try addressing a letter to "Tropico, CA" -- the city of Tropico dissolved 96 years ago.

The name first appeared on maps in November 1887, when the Southern Pacific applied it to its depot in the fertile farming valley just north of Los Angeles. The name's origins are unclear, but it certainly agreed with the railroad's promotional claims about Southern California's warm climate. Oddly, when rancher W. C. B. Richardson and his business partners platted a town near the rail station in late 1887, they gave two other names to the collection of buildings, "Ethelden" and then "Mason," before realizing that "Tropico" might suit the settlement best.

Like the rival town of Glendale to the north -- also established during the boom years of 1886-88 -- Tropico remained a small agricultural town for its first decade, famous for its produce and especially its strawberries, sold as "Tropico Beauties." But the settlement eventually matured into a diversified town with residential tracts, light industry, and a commercial downtown centered around the intersection of San Fernando Road and Central Avenue. An interurban trolley line reached Tropico in 1904, the same year a major employer, Tropico Art Tile Works, opened. It also soon became home to influential photographer Edward Weston.

On Father's Day, Remember Who to Thank

Sometimes, walking our Ventura beaches, I stop, transfixed and transported, before a jetty. Any jetty does it, though one in particular is responsible. If I listen very closely, I hear the soft breathing of small boys. If you are a parent, you understand.

Regarding Father's Day, I believe the wrong person is being thanked.

This special jetty -- and its hypnotic, lifelong effect -- is but one illustrative tale, plucked from hundreds. If you are a lucky parent, you are aware of the largesse.

Longer ago than it seems possible, our family vacationed on Cape Cod. This was something of a puzzle to the Cape Codders we met, who wanted to know who leaves a home at the beach for a vacation at the beach. People who love the beach, that's who. Cape Codders appreciate a straight answer.

Despite Prop 42, State Lawmakers Still Lack Transparency

Vaguely Transparent
| Montage by the author

California voters took a whack at a man made mostly of straw in the recent primary election and changed the state constitution to require local governments to comply with two state laws that local governments are already required to follow.

If that seems paradoxical -- the voters ordering local governments to do something they already have to do -- you have to understand that the state, under a separate constitutional amendment approved years ago, also by the voters, is required to reimburse local governments for the cost of fulfilling "state mandates."

The California Public Records Act and open meeting law are "state mandates" that the state decided -- when its finances were driven into a ditch by the Legislature -- that the state wasn't going to reimburse. The saving to Sacramento -- about $48 million a year -- wasn't a lot of money in a $100 billion state budget. Parceled out to cities and school districts, the loss was fiscally more meaningful.

Ironically, Proposition 42, which relieves the state of reimbursing cities, makes absolutely no change to the state's long-standing exemptions from the transparency requirements of the open meeting law. The Legislature has its own rules dealing with access to public documents.

Radiate L.A.: The Archdiocese's Push to Engage Millennials

Radiate L.A. aims to get young Catholics in touch with their faith.
| Screenshot: Radiate L.A.

He's the most talked about man on the Internet. He's ramped up crowds at Sunday mass, extending lines at confession and sparking inquiries about the Catholic faith. Even donations and volunteering have gone up -- a result of his calls to help create a "church for the poor."

It's been dubbed the "Pope Francis effect," and its latest target is right here in Southern California, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Tearing a page out of the pontiff's playbook, the L.A. archdiocese is trying to fit into the changing digital landscape of the Roman Catholic Church, taking a step in the direction of its move to expand how it evangelizes the faith. Enter "Radiate L.A.": a website created by the L.A. archdiocese's Office of New Evangelization, which invites L.A.'s five million Catholics to share their hopes, dreams, and concerns with the goal of generating a deeper appreciation for their faith.

Los Angeles Food Culture During My Childhood

Dinner Table.
| Original photo byVegar Norman /Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's Mother's Day as I begin to write this, that most fraught of holidays for childless husbands and motherless sons. I'm one of the latter and often I feel incomplete because of it. Nostalgia doesn't serve me very well, but I remember when I was a boy that my mother was the best cook in my neighborhood.

Sons often remember falsely that their mother's cooking was the best. But my mother's cooking -- which was actually commonplace -- really was the best that could be found on my block. I lived among families who had known the Depression and had fled the Dust Bowl, who had gone through wartime rationing and known meals that were only the opposite of going hungry.

Many of the husbands in my neighborhood still insisted on eating poorly because they had been poor when they were boys. Part of it was the exile of their young wives in the newly made suburbs that were so far from mothers and grandmothers. Only the scraps of half-remembered information from a high school home ec course might serve them.

On the tract house plains of South Gate, Downey, north Long Beach, Lakewood, and Bellflower, meals reflected what memories you stubbornly held on to. And if you ate to remember, as we often did, many of the memories were of loss.

I, Parasite Vessel: The Caterpillar, a Botfly, and the Foolish Aloofness of One Man

I like to crouch and look. Our fascinating world bears close examination. And so the other day I was crouched in a park near my Ventura home, examining a caterpillar making its way to wherever it is caterpillars go. I don't know what kind of caterpillar it was. It was dull green. Big and fuzzy. I just liked the way it moved, with quiet determination and a bunch-and-stretch sense of style. It was headed wherever it was headed, a survivor without distraction.

I concluded my examination of the caterpillar and then I rose respectfully to my feet. Normally I would have gone off on my self-important way, dismissing the caterpillar to the forgettable mass of less important creatures. I am so big, and my kind has created entire civilizations, the Internet, and pay-per-view television. The caterpillar, so small, was striving mightily to merely inch its way across the park. We trod the same patch of grass, but its world and mine were distinct.

So I once thought, but these days my hubris is no more.