Making Mistakes and the Perfection of Trying Again

Not long ago a friend sent along a note and a quote. The note read "In our room, perfection with be a stranger and vulnerability our friend." The quote was from jazz great Miles Davis.

Do not fear mistakes - there are none.

The note was funny for obvious reasons (or maybe the typo was intentional to subtly cement a point), but it was important, too, for it was discussed in a local elementary school classroom and this next generation is every hope we have.

Sadly I was not privy to the conversation itself, being some years removed from elementary school, although now and again certain fussy people suggest I am eminently qualified to return. But you don't need to sit around an elementary school carpet to know that perfection is very much a standard in our world, which is why I so like both the thoughts of the communal carpet and Miles Davis regarding the matter.

We live in a world that strives for, and glorifies, the achievement of perfection, perhaps at some cost. I once stood outside a third grade classroom listening to a parent tell me their Student of the Month would one day attend Stanford University. This shocks no one. We are all familiar with driven parents driving their children. Formerly (I don't do it any more: I have learned my lesson), on the rare occasion when I questioned whether a third grader even knew what Stanford was (or had considered the economics of going there), I was sternly informed that it is a ruthlessly competitive world and only the best survive. Never too early to think about the future. Plan or perish. Accept nothing less than perfection. If I was bold enough to mention that the child was eight, I was reprimanded for my Peter Pan attitude.

Once, after one such foolish mention, a mother glared at me.

What are you doing at an elementary school in the middle of the afternoon anyhow?

Well, planning to play wall ball with my sons.

The woman didn't voice it directly, but the inference was clear. A man in his (then) mid-forties shouldn't be standing in an elementary school hallway at two in the afternoon. He should be out in the world striving for perfection, perhaps well along in captaining a ship of commerce toward a Fortune 500 berth. Maybe she was angry because she had hoped I would lend her money when her child got into Stanford, but there are few dollars, though much reward, in wall ball with happy third graders. And I must say I achieved a modicum of success in the wall ball arena, although I fell short of perfection.

We celebrate the winner. We console second place. One word. Sochi Olympics. Wait. That's two words. My mistake. Or is it a mistake? Either way, second in the world never seemed a consolation prize to me.

I like Miles Davis because he created soulful music, but I also like him because he provides us carte blanche to make mistakes, and I have made many.

Maybe the emphasis on perfection is more strident these days because there are so many of us. To rise above the ever-swelling crowd of humanity requires nothing less than perfection. The sticking point here is obvious. Which is why, when my friend sent me Miles Davis's quote, I decided to share it with you in this column. Because being human means being a vessel of imperfection. Because being human isn't about achieving perfection, it's about running aground. And running aground isn't always a mistake.

As a book writer of (very) moderate success, I am occasionally approached by those who are also writing books. Sometimes they tell me they have finished their book, and as they say this I see it in their eyes. They shrug. They look down at their feet. They are reluctant to publish their book, they say softly, because it's not quite perfect. They still need to tinker. The more honest writers also give voice to another problem. What if people don't like what they've written?

They are so very vulnerable.

Aren't we all? I worry about my editor liking this column. I worry about you liking this column. I worry about my books being liked. I worry about the words being perfect. And I do my best writing when I give a friendly nod to these worries and just move ahead.

In our room, perfection with be a stranger and vulnerability our friend.

Yes, the typo is intentional.

One of my favorite sayings is a Chinese proverb. I'm betting Miles Davis would have liked it too.

Fall down seven times get up eight.

It's one of my favorite sayings because, along with being easy to remember, it applies to almost everything in life. Plus - here I am being vulnerable - I fall down a lot. It is not easy being a writer. There are many setbacks. I have experienced a degree of success, but it is still very much an everyday struggle. I have doubts. I have readers (yes some of them are friends, and one of them is a lover) who believe in me. They tell me I am going to be a best-selling author. They tell me my words stir them, and that the stirrings matter. They tell me I am not perfect (especially the lover, because she knows me well, although she is very loving in the telling), but they tell me that sometimes the words are close.

This is what I strive for every time I search for words and stories. I like to think Miles Davis did the same thing with musical notes.

I plan on making what some see as mistakes, but I plan on getting up.

I will be perfect at it.

2014 Is the Year of the Night Market

The decades-old tradition of the night market (covered last year in Transpacific Routes) -- the evening outdoor marketplace events in Asian cities known worldwide for their array of street food and haggle-happy merchandise vendor stalls -- is still a nascent concept on this side of the ocean, but it's already quickly writing its own history here.

After the initial 626 Night Market hit the streets of Pasadena in April 2012 -- an event that was as heavily criticized as it was attended -- the organizers worked out the logistical kinks with a larger location at the Pasadena civic center, before settling at their current home at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia last year. In June 2013, summer weekend Little Saigon Night Market premiered, as well as the inaugural San Diego Night Market in that city's pan-Asian Convoy District.

Now, in 2014, even more night market events are setting up in the Southland, with the recent announcement of the KTown Night Market coming to L.A.'s Koreatown in April and the now-experienced 626 Night Market operators taking their show to the 714 (949, technically) and the 213 with events at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa in May and the Staples Center parking lot in Downtown Los Angeles in June. Later this summer, Asian American arts and entertainment organization Kollaboration and the Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce are planning to bring the night market experience to that city as well.

Less than two years after the first Asian-style night market made its debut in the San Gabriel Valley, the nocturnal bazaars are finally making their mark on the cultural landscape of Southern California. The Year of The Horse? The Year of The Night Market is more like it.

So why have night markets suddenly become all the rage recently?

Fading Tinsel: New Report Pictures Trouble in Hollywood

The trouble, as always, is money. Hollywood has created dreams and spectacle for screens big and small for a hundred years, but the payoff for the studios wasn't entertainment. It was always cash flow.

That's because Hollywood is the place where, as memoirist William Goldman famously said, "Not one person ... knows for a certainty what's going to work." Goldman didn't say that the suits in the suites in Burbank and Culver City are stupid. He meant that the suits in banks in New York and Tokyo can never know if or when an unreleased movie will ever recover its production costs.

Because of that uncertainty, Hollywood is always looking grab its next up-front dollar and Hollywood doesn't mind where it's found. These days, up-front dollars are found in Louisiana, Georgia, New York, London, and Vancouver in the form of tax credits and rebates that are helping to hollow out film and TV production in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley.

Explainer: Sriracha, Irwindale, and the Politics of Hot Sauce

Sriracha, the almost mythical red sauce made in Irwindale, is actually pretty simple stuff: puréed jalapeños blended with vinegar, garlic, salt, and a bit of sugar. Relatively mild compared to incendiary hot sauces, Sriracha is supposed to make anything -- from eggs to cheesecake (really) -- something more.

The "more" comes from the chilis' capsaicin, a tricky molecule that unlocks a protein on the tongue that urgently signals the brain when exposed to temperatures over 109 degrees ... or chilis. You sense that your mouth is on fire, and your brain releases pain-easing endorphins. You feel the false burn and as it fades, you feel good. And you repeat.

Sriracha may be simple stuff, and its pleasures a little masochistic, but its manufacture is something of a mess right now, because politics in little towns is so intimate. Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha plant in Irwindale has had a few residents gasping and gagging. Complaints about offensive smells and burning eyes come when new batches of jalapeños were ground and blended into red sauce.

Awards, But No Audience: What '12 Years a Slave' Tells Us About America Today

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Paul Giamatti as Freeman in "12 Years a Slave." | Photo: Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

I haven't seen all the Oscar-nominated movies, a situation in which I find myself every year as the hour of the Academy Awards telecast approaches (though, admittedly, the older I get, the less these things seem to matter. But I try to do my civic duty as an Angeleno by being as cinematically informed as possible). One movie I have seen that a good chunk of film fans and Oscar-watchers evidently haven't is "Twelve Years a Slave."

Today, the L.A. Times ran yet another front-page story about the movie's persistent lack of appeal to the general public, despite its multiple nominations and accolades from Hollywood and the general movie critic-sphere. Betsy Sharkey's somewhat distressed conclusion in the Times story is that slavery is simply too discomfiting a story for American audiences to really contemplate deeply, let alone watch unfold on a big screen. It clashes directly with our foundational ideas about democracy and self-determination and all that. Any mildly true rendering of slavery is cognitive dissonance of the most ear-splitting kind.

She is right, of course. But there some other things going on that she overlooks or misses. She says that slavery as a movie idea is not taboo -- there was the '70s miniseries "Roots," Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," and Quentin Tarentino's "Django Unchained." Three slavery-themed projects in 35 years doesn't exactly constitute a willingness on Hollywood's part to explore the subject, especially as compared to its enduring interest -- nearly a moral obligation -- in other large-scale human tragedies like the Holocaust or world war. But more important is the fact that those projects were really nothing like "12 Years."

Mercantile Place: The Tiny, Lost Shopping Street of Downtown L.A.

A private, open-air shopping street, Mercantile Place stretched 325 feet between Spring and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Long before the Grove, Third Street, or even Universal CityWalk, Angelenos flocked to another open-air shopping promenade: Mercantile Place -- a tiny, private street that stretched between Spring and Broadway from 1904 to 1923. At only 22 feet wide and embraced on each side by identical, two-story brick buildings, Mercantile Place created an intimate setting that stood in contrast to the rest of booming, bustling downtown Los Angeles.

Though it looked like a public street with its concrete sidewalks and paved motorway, Mercantile Place actually cut through a parcel of private property, owned by the Los Angeles Board of Education since 1883 and leased to real estate developer C. Wesley Roberts in 1904. The shopping street was the Roberts' answer to a vexing problem: though the long, rectangular parcel abutted two of the city's busiest streets, the land in the center would be virtually useless. No shopkeeper would rent a space 160 feet from the sidewalk. In a stroke of genius, Roberts built a street through the middle of the property, thus more than doubling the available frontage from 240 to nearly 600 feet.

When Mercantile Place first opened to the public on October 29, 1904, shoppers found a mix of independent businesses and branch locations of downtown's larger retailers. Shops included Citron-Favell's Women's Wardrobe, the Yamato Japanese art bazaar, and the Pe-co dance academy. Upstairs, members of the Woodmen of the World fraternal society congregated in their temple. Though the street was usually open to traffic (and became a favorite "secret" parking place among motorists), the board of education occasionally closed it to vehicles and posted signs proclaiming it a "private thoroughfare" to maintain title to the land.

In later years, retailers would complain of the chaotic street scene. Farmers' trucks sold fresh produce from the roadway, while flower vendors paraded down the sidewalks and newsstands often blocked traffic on either end. Shoppers, however, continued to visit Mercantile Place for a change of pace from the wide and more impersonal retail corridors along Broadway and Seventh Street.

It was the very success of Mercantile Place that convinced its new owners, a San Francisco-based syndicate of investors, to convert the open-air street into a $6-million enclosed arcade. Demolition began on May 1, 1923. In just eight and a half months, Mercantile Place had become the Mercantile Arcade complex -- a long promenade anchored by two twelve-story office buildings -- that still stands ninety years later. Angelenos continue to stroll under the arcade's glass skylight, tracing the path of downtown's long-lost shopping street.

The Difficult Matter of Achieving Balance in Our National Parks

It is a difficult and curious matter, the balance between man and nature.

Once camping on lovely Santa Rosa Island, I met a man named Norman. Norman was grizzled, weather-roughened and whippet-lean. He might have been in his fifties; he might have been five hundred. You may have met this type of outdoorsman. Though he didn't need to, Norman told me he had spent many years adventuring in nature. Then he looked at me as if he might take a bite out of me.

Norman was adventuring on Santa Rosa Island - some forty six miles by boat from Ventura Harbor -- with a group that included a woman named Eva. It didn't take long to realize that Eva was cut from the same cloth as Norman. She spoke in a bark, and her words were laced with challenge, superiority, and disdain.

"There are people who were born in Southern California who actually have no idea these islands are out here," she declared. "People go, 'Oh, where are they, in the Caribbean?' I think it is kind of sad."

After Indictments, 5 Lessons from Ron and Tom Calderon

Senator Ron Calderon.
| Photo: CA State Senate

First of all, the story so far:

Brothers Ron and Tom Calderon were indicted on Friday. Former Assemblyman Tom Calderon appeared in federal court and entered a plea of not guilty to charges of conspiracy and money laundering. State Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) was to appear in court today to answer allegations of bribery, money laundering, fraud, and aiding in the filing of false tax returns.

According to documents leaked to the news media in 2013, Tom, Ron, and their brother (and former state legislator) Charles Calderon were under investigation in 2007 by the FBI. Charles was not named in the indictments of his brothers issued Friday.

Ron Calderon is alleged to be implicated in a web of influence peddling and money laundering chiefly involving Dr. Michael Drobot, former chief executive of Pacific Hospital in Long Beach. Dr. Drobot accepted a guilty plea on Friday for his part in fraudulently billing workers compensation insurers more than $500 million for surgeries performed at Pacific Hospital. He admitted to bribing Ron Calderon to sponsor legislation that would have prolonged the scheme. As part of a plea deal, Dr. Drobot is cooperating with the FBI.

In return for support for expanding motion picture tax credits in 2013, Ron Calderon is alleged to have taken money and gifts from FBI agents posing as independent film producers. Some of the money, the indictment asserts, was laundered through Tom Calderon's political consulting firm and Californians for Diversity, a nonprofit he controls.

Last year, the FBI collected evidence from the offices of the Central Basin Municipal Water District and the Steelworkers Old Timers Association, a nonprofit founded by former Bell mayor George Cole. Tom Calderon was once the president of the Old Timers Association. He also was a consultant to the water district and served on the board of a contractor that received a district contract.

The FBI and federal prosecutors noted in their public statements on Friday that their investigations are continuing, with the potential to involve other state legislators, possibly based on conversations that Ron Calderon recorded while he wore an FBI "wire."

On Friday afternoon, the senate leadership (and others) called on Ron Calderon to resign his seat.

Persistence of Memories at a Roadside Shrine

Roadside Shrine in Lakewood, CA.
| Photo: DJ Waldie

At the end of my block and on the parkway panel that separates the boulevard from the service road, a community of mourners has maintained a roadside memorial for a young man at least since 2009. More red and white votive lights clustered at the foot of a streetlight that's a few steps from a bus stop.

The candles had been there several days already. They flickered ahead of me when I crossed the boulevard in the dark of a February evening. Some have burned down to nothing now. Some had gone out too soon. A plaster crucifix and Dürer's Praying Hands, ecumenically representing Protestant and Catholic piety, stood among them.

There have been times when photographs were taped to the streetlight in his memory: a lanky white kid lolling on a couch, smiling; a girl, also smiling; a crowd of youths mugging for the camera. Once, roses in cellophane -- the kind that a boyfriend buys from a roadside vendor -- stayed taped to the pole until the roses dried to pale ochre.

There had been a message in red ink and block letters attached to a copied photograph; both were made unreadable from sun and rain.

Statue of Limitations: A Vandalized Civil Rights Monument Reveals the Unexpected

For the last several years, we've been hitting a lot of 50-year anniversaries of civil rights milestones, among them James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi as its first black student in 1962. This one gives me particular pause because that was the year I was born -- it's always humbling for me to think about the racially tumultuous times I was born into, but ultimately spared -- and because of the recent desecration of the memorial of Meredith on the campus of Ole Miss. This week, somebody put a noose around the neck of Meredith's bronzed statue, and just to drive home the point, draped the statue with the former Georgia state flag. The flag was redesigned in 2003 to rid it of it controversial image of the Confederate flag.

It's yet another sad but unsurprising reminder that racism and is alive and kicking, especially in the deep South where it enjoyed such a long and, in the view of many whites, successful run. In this country, racism follows the physical rule of all energy in the universe: it is neither created nor destroyed, it simply changes form.

What did surprise and sadden me more than a little was Meredith's own response to the incident, published this week in the L.A. Times. After blaming the vandalism on a general lack of love-thy-neighbor values espoused in biblical teachings such as the Ten Commandments, he then blamed other black people for moral laxity. "I've been knowing a long time that we aren't teaching our kids right and wrong," he was quoted, adding that it was "important to fix one's own family before trying to fix another's."

Huh? Talk about a non sequitur.