The homeless problem: From condemnation to compassion

homeless-cart2.jpgMy recent visit to southern California left me frustrated by the rampant homeless  problem seizing the golden state.  I lived in the heart of L.A for over a decade, and homelessness existed, but it didn’t seem permanent or ubiquitous.  Mostly confined to Venice Beach, downtown at Skid Row, and the freeway ramps with beggars holding honest or creative signs.  This time I noticed them everywhere, even in the out-of-the-way, senior living town of Sun City.  This desert town was once only occupied by the 55 and over crowd, retirees looking for cheap living in a safe community.  The youths were watched closely, and vagabonds non-existent.  This visit I watched backpackers and cart pushers wandering though town with all their belongings.  A few were passed out in bushes, homeless man 2others displayed burnt hard faces of the street life, and some lived in their car.  I felt disheartened, and disappointed that this seemed to be the new norm.


On the evening news, they showed permanent homeless camps along the L.A. river.  What in the hell is going on in this state, I thought.  Do people seriously want to live a homeless life?  Why can’t they get a job, or move to where they can live a better life?  The trash they leave behind is unbelievable!

I visited Santa Monica for a few memorable days to enjoy my old playground on the beach and in the mountains.  My morning runs took me though Venice Beach, where the homeless have always migrated. Again, it was out of control. Camps with tents, personal belongings, bikes and stoves.  They’d wake, use the public toilets and drink their lattes.  An ambulance was called for a dispute or injury between two of them.  Great, your tax dollars at work for those that don’t contribute.

Later that evening as I walked to dinner they hung out on main street, and I didn’t feel safe turning some dark corners.  Why let these people invade prime property?  Why do locals accept and support people who do nothing  to better society?

Back in Florida we also have a homeless problem as do many towns.  Sometimes they harass me, other times I smile at them.   I’m trying my best to hold compassion for everyone, including the destitute.  After all, I don’t know their story.  Many jobs have gone overseas, and the cost of living is increasing, especially in California.  I have since opened my mind and heart and compassion is my new word of the month.  With the holidays upon us, I hope to keep my eyes and heart open to those in trouble and need.homeless familycompassion jpeg


Familiar scenes in La La Land

lala landI recently watched the award-winning musical movie La La Land. In my 20’s I lived and played in the heart of  L.A., and embraced every moment including the jazz and Hollywood scene.  I was young, rebellious and passionate about the city, as I still am today at a distance.  The movie includes Universal Studios, Jazz and Griffith Park, as do these memories I share.

I somehow wandered into Universal Studios through a back gate with my BFF, my Asian twin.   I think the gate was unattended, or we simply smiled and walked through.  Tourists on trams were pointing at us and we seemed to be the only ones roaming the fake studios unattended.  I think we were walking through the set of Back to the Future, among others. The tram slowed and we hopped on the back as people took photos.  The driver was confused and pretended not to notice, or maybe he really didn’t.  After disembarking and spending the afternoon exploring, we asked one of the directors to give us a ride back to my car parked at the other end of the studio.

“How did you get here?”  He asked.

“We walked though the back gate, and jumped on the tram.  I think it’s a few miles that way, ” I said pointing.

“Without I.D?”

“Um, yes.  Nobody said anything.”

He grinned and told us not to try that again and then he had a conversation with the gate guard.

jax2My love of Jazz began in Los Angeles, with my first date night at JAX in Glendale. I think it’s one of the filming places in La La Land, or very close to it in ambience and location.  It was during the L.A. riots, 1992 and a curfew was enforced.

“Are you still up for getting together?” My future boyfriend asked.

“I’m game.  I need to get out for a while.”

The streets were smoky, eerie and strangely silent.  Live jazz at the close-by club reflected the mood.  We had a private booth, life altering conversations, and the beginning of a love affair that lasted until his sudden death.  Memories made but not forgotten.

griffithI considered Griffith Park my other love. It integrated nature and hiking, biking, the observatory, stargazing, drinking, and the famous Hollywood sign.  I’d hike or bike the trails and solve many of my problems.  Minor issues that seemed larger than life back then.  A breakup, head to the park.  A bad day at school, an intense bike ride through Griffith.  An hour at the planetarium watching projected stars on the ceiling while listening to Pink Floyd was a complete escape or sometimes a bonding experience with a friend as we sipped concealed cocktails.  I even watched a full solar eclipse with hundreds of others picnicking for popular the event.  A friend and I climbed the Hollywood sign and even met and flirted with the two Matt’s, young actors from the TV series Friends.  griffith 3

I was blessed enough to live close to the park.  When I moved near UCLA campus I found other places to enjoy the outdoors and jazz, but these moments will always hold a special place in my heart.  I’m visiting L.A. later this summer and I might visit Griffith Park, but not Universal Studios.  It’s too touristy and nothing can top my visit through the back gate.  I recently learned JAX jazz club and grill closed last year, such a shame since it was truly a unique local jazz club.

Northern California Dreaming

goldengateUpon arrival in San Francisco, California,  we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in our rental car, briefly stopping for a photo opportunity at a vista point overlooking the bay.  While snapping several pictures through the crowd, sailboats participating in the America’s cup were finishing up the day’s race.  An hour later, we arrived in Geyserville, the center of Sonoma County. Wine country.  Two bottles of chilled champagne and an amazing view greeted us.  From the balcony, vineyards and wheat colored hills traversed the landscape. A faint vinegar scent permeated the air, the smell of the harvest time I later realized.

We had dinner at the only restaurant in town, Catelli’s.  The food lived up to the standards of wine country;  fresh, organic, tasty vegetarian choices and five-star by every means.  We met the friendly owner and enjoyed plenty of good wine at the rustic, sociable bar.  The evening was complete with a stellar performance from the sky.  Stars such as Orion, the Three Sisters and the Big Dipper clearly noticeable among the thousands lighting up our evening.

Our first day of wine tasting we visited five wineries, a bit ambitious on our part.  Medlock Ames had the best Sauvignon blanc, served in a converted barn turned tasting room.  It’s quaint with an organic farm and picnic area.  White Oak was fun with a tipsy host giving us a spontaneous tour of the wine making process. Supported by eighty-five percent solar power, Clos de Bois is fairly large with a trendy gift shop.  Our visit to Trentadue was brief but they had excellent champagne. We just made Geyser Peak at closing time, the closest winery to our Inn, and we called it as day buying some wine and snacks to take home.  In-between the vineyard visits we lunched and shopped in Healdsburg, a vegetarian and boutique shop haven.  It was the perfect day followed by a night of dining and gambling at the nearby River Rock Casino.

vineyardsDuring my morning run I encountered grapevine lined dirt roads, smiling faces from cars passing by, chickens and goats. I breathed acrid vinegar, taking in the countryside while jogging to country music on my iPod.  After brunch, we hit some golf balls at a scenic drive range, visited a few boutiques and a microbrewery prior to resuming our wine tasting.  The Coppola estate was our final highlight of the self-guided wine tour of Sonoma. Complete with stairs from a scene from the Godfather, movie memorabilia, pool and gift shop.  I joined the family, by joining the wine club after a heavenly wine tasting.

“Welcome to the family,” the host smiled.

I grinned back with a warmth that I’d receive a wine package monthly.

The next day we hiked among the Redwood giants at Armstrong State Park.  An easy walk in the woods, until I did the forced march up to the ridge with an unhappy husband in tow.  I like elevation and the challenge, as he did not.

“I don’t give up elevation,” he’d complain.

“Enjoy the view,” I shot back.  “And don’t look up.”

Our next destination for two nights was a short forty minute drive to Bodega Bay, a small fishing community and tourist destination on the north coast of Sonoma.  A cozy wine and cheese tasting at the Bodega Bay Lodge lobby, welcomed us and other guests.  Our timing was once more spot-on.  After a blissful dinner at the lodge, we relaxed with a bottle of wine on the balcony, listening to the consistent faint sound of a fog horn and sea lions barking. A shooting star magically appeared, I silently made a wish.  At sunset the air turned arctic so we lit a fire in the fireplace with the bestowed Duraflame log. It was a refreshing change from Florida, yet again.

My morning run though the park resembled a Monet painting.  Ice plants, wild flowers, birds and deer filling every color of the spectrum in a subdued tone, seamlessly fitting the music I was playing on my iPod, classical Bach, a favorite from my teenage years.  Music and nature in harmony.  I spotted a buck and watched him forage the open fields, dancing to the sunrise.

bodega2We had lunch in the marina while searching for noisy sea lions and seals.  It was a beautiful drive along Pacific Coast Highway, exploring the coast and stopping for a drink or two along the way.  A massage at the lodge and another amazing meal completed our coastal visit.

San Francisco awaited us the following afternoon.  A charming drive south through villages along the coast led us back to Sausalito for lunch, to the same mexican cafe where we began our journey.  We drove to the center of San Francisco, Union Square, to the Handlery Hotel, our sleeping quarters for the next two nights.  The square, specifically Powell Street is the center of action in San Francisco including: vagrants, trolleys, pubs, clubs, restaurants and prime shopping.  The neighborhood Walgreens carried gourmet salads, a bakery, wines, souvenirs and two floors of everything anyone could need.

sf2The next day we did a self-guided bike tour of the city, the best way to observe and get a real feel for the local culture and environment. San Francisco, despite the hills, is truly a biking and green metropolis.  We started out riding through the hood, Market Street, a depressing homeless area I remembered from several visits in my youth.  We cruised away from the square into several neighborhoods full of beautiful historic homes, cafes, unique shops, and lush parks. We passed a soup kitchen, art murals, numerous views of the city and Golden Gate bridge.  It was flat for the most part with the exception of a few steep hills.  We had lunch at a local spot, then continued though Golden Gate Park, downhill past the Presidio and over the bridge as fog set-in, engulfing it as we crossed.  Arriving in Sausalito just in time for the ferry, we jumped aboard for the short crossing back to fisherman’s wharf.

In the evening we gorged on some light modern asian cuisine at E&O on Sutter Street.  For the second night we revisited an Irish piano bar, Lefty O’Duals, and we were welcomed by friends we had met the night before.  We drank, sang, and the piano player finally played my requested, Dancing Queen, by Abba as those surrounding the piano belted out lyrics in harmony.

sf 1I left the city smiling with unforgettable memories.

Mammoth Mountain and Beyond

We arrived at the base of Mammoth Mountain in time for lunch after a scenic and sometimes terrifying drive through Tioga Pass.  Looking at the menu I unconsciously grinned realizing that I was indeed in the Northern California mountains.  With more than five vegetarian choices I ordered a sandwich loaded with veggies including sprouts accompanied by a locally brewed beer.  My husband stuck to his meat and cheese as my famished ten-pound Snorkie loyally sat by his side waiting for a scrap.  Smart pup with her nose that can detect a hamburger ten miles away.  Eating lunch outside I spotted the famous Schat’s bakery next-door known for their cheese bread. Fresh sourdough bread filled with melted cheddar is a must while hiking.   A staple, a reward, and easy to eat on the move.  I picked up a loaf for the following day, just in case I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy Schat’s cheese bread during the rest of the trip.

Our boutique hotel was the ideal getaway for a few days.  Dog friendly and human friendly the place was cute, comfortable and modern.  In October, the down time for Mammoth, in-between summer and winter sports, it was very affordable.   We had a private balcony, fireplace, kitchen, living room and a large bedroom loft.  The afternoon was sunny and warm but as the sunset a winter chill filled the air.

The following morning I had one of the best runs of my life, surreal in its beauty.  At 8,000 feet, the hotel manager reminded me of the altitude then pointed me towards a close-by running trail.  “Nike, is building a high altitude training center here,” he beamed.

As I worked my way into a jog the trail seemed routine at first until I opened my eyes and mind. Breathtaking beauty halted my run, feeling as if I was in a Monet painting.  A perfect pairing of mountains, valleys, wildflowers, desert scrub and a cobalt blue sky.  Combined with the crisp air mingling with my heated body and sweat, perfect.  If only Monet was around to paint my dreamlike scene.  Instead, I settled for a picture on my iPhone.

My afternoon was filled with an internal need and desire to hike alone, and Devil’s Postpile was the backdrop for this journey.  The hotel manager confidently endorsed the trail as being well-traveled and safe for a solo traveler.  My husband briefly visited the national monument agreeing to pick me up in a few hours as he set off in search of a driving range to hit a few golf balls.

The trail was flat and peaceful as I faced nature and my overly imaginative mind.  A blessing sometimes and a burden others, especially when fear and doubt creep into my thoughts.  After 45 minutes of not seeing anyone I started to think about bears, mountain lions and snakes.  I considered turning around but chose to pick up a walking stick and soldier-on while contemplating  my relationship with nature.  Fearless, became my mantra as my confidence in myself and my surroundings restored over a two-hour period.

I ended up encountering a few hikers near Rainbow Falls, apparently a few trails merge near the falls.  I chose to return on the same lonesome path back to Devil’s Postpile with a renewed love for hiking alone and an intrepid friendship with nature. Amazing what the mind and nature can accomplish when forced to live in harmony.

After a blissful dinner we decided to explore the hotel’s steam, sauna and hot tub located in the basement.  We had the spa to ourselves. Turning everything on we waited, but with the rock-lined coolness nothing heated above our body temperature.  We got wet, dried off and went to our room to warm up.

The following day I embraced Tioga Pass and it’s turns, cliffs and moonscape-like surroundings.  In no-time we were cruising back through Yosemite and into the heart of the California agricultural district.  Passing endless farmland we arrived at yet another mountain base.  This side of the Sierra Mountains was hot and dry compared to west mountains we had departed just hours prior.  We had arrived in Three Rivers.  Population 2,600, entryway to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Forest, and the location of my friend’s wedding set for the following day.  She was my BFF twenty years ago and although we reconnected on Facebook we hadn’t seen each other since.

With the wedding at 2:00 and being so close to the largest trees in the world, at noon we decided to take a hurried drive into the forest.  Construction, twisting roads, and biting nails ensued to the top of the mountain.  We snapped a few pictures and quickly turned around as I checked my watch constantly. Traffic suddenly halted as I glanced out the window and loudly whispered, “holy shit.”

“What,” my husband alarmingly shot back.

I rapidly searched for my camera.  “Bear,” I exclaimed.  As the car in front of us scooted forward the bear was within arm’s length of my window.  I snapped a few shots while watching the lovely creature eat grass on the side of the road.

Let Yoda see it,” he claimed. Referring to our small dog.

After verifying the window was up, I mindlessly held up our dog.  She instantly started whining with uncertainty, or with certainty that the creature was a danger to her.

We continued speeding down the mountain with just twenty minutes to prepare for the wedding.  Good thing I get ready quickly.

It was a small wedding and I was the first person my BFF saw as she entered the church.  An instant smile simultaneously graced our faces.  I held back tears throughout the ceremony and outside the church we embraced a twenty year friendship renewed.

50 shades of grey, Yosemite style

Engulfed by cool crisp air, granite cliffs, pine trees, and a trickling brook in Yosemite National Forest during mid-October is breathtaking.  Going for a morning run in this forest, simply divine. Unlike the camping I did in my youth, we stayed at a decent hotel just minutes outside the park, along the Merced river.  My jog paralleled the river and the road, an easier choice than running up a trail, and a wiser one for this flat land runner accustomed to Florida terrain. My challenge would come later in the trip.  Leaving my i-pod behind, I listened to nature and the slight sound of trickling water.  The rising sun hit granite cliffs  reveling a spectrum of colors.  Fifty shades of grey played off the granite, mottled with yellow, green and chocolate hues.  A scene I could capture in my mind but not in a photo.

I stumbled upon a historic railroad station with a single caboose resting for a half-century on the rail. Stopping in awe, I briefly contemplated this great area within the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Driving through Yosemite and the Tioga Pass flashbacks  flooded my thoughts. Passing El Capitan and Half Dome I recalled my first camping trip with my best friend at the time, Lynda.  I was twenty-two years old and had just returned from China.  My BFF wanted to visit Yosemite prior to moving to Utah, a decision she’d made while I was exploring her part of the world.  Still dazed from my international travels we set out to rent a tent and camp the following day in Yosemite Valley.  Arriving with no permit, no plans and just a few pillows and sheets we learned quickly what camping in the mountains was about.  Nothing like learning the hard way, first hand.  Struggling to assemble our tent, a nearby camper offered a helping hand.  Once assembled, he glanced in our tent and snorted.  “Don’t you have sleeping bags?”

Lynda and I glanced at each other, “No.” We responded in unison with not a care in the world.

“Well, you’re going to need them,”  he said with confidence.  “It gets down to 30 degrees here at night.  I used to be a ranger here, so I know what I’m talking about.”

I smiled at the stranger, not realizing what that meant then unconsciously winked at my friend.  “Hey let’s try out our tent.”

We giggled while testing our pillows and sheets, then joined the ex-ranger near the picnic bench for a cold beer and some snacks we packed.  “I’m serious about the weather.”  He pointed to his Honda Civic, “I have extra blankets if you want them.”

Once the sun had set the air-cooled, and we needed blankets as our newfound friend warned us.  Over that weekend we hiked many trails.  I fell at Yosemite Falls fracturing  my tailbone and bruising my entire left butt cheek. We videotaped the bruise, the visiting coyote at the campground and the silliness we were back then.  We were fortunate to watch a major meteor shower in the strawberry fields with hundreds of other campers including ex-ranger.  Friendships and great memories were made that continue to this day. Years later, I was briefly engaged to the ex-ranger, and Lynda is still my friend although we are thousands of miles apart.  It’s amazing what nature can bring together including everlasting relationships, unparalleled memories lasting a lifetime, and desirable innocence combined with inexperience.  Simply heavenly with earthly splendor and all its blemishes.

My husband and I left Yosemite Valley on our eastward journey as my fascination continued.  Redwoods lined the road along with dwarf yellow and green beauties. I tried to read some park brochures but the flashing sun shining through the trees was like a strobe light.  I felt like I was trying to study in a nightclub.  A spontaneous lake appeared encircled by mountains winding through Tioga Pass.  Suddenly, cliffs appeared dropping thousands of feet without vegetation.  An instantaneous sweat covered my hands and feet, an unwelcome and uncontrollable response.  A drop-off immediately to my right with no rails.  I used to twist around these mountains in my convertible with no worries, I remembered.  I couldn’t control the sudden onslaught of sweat as I tried to admire the splendor without fear.  I yearned for my youth.

“Slow down,” I blurted out.  The pine trees transformed into a moonscape with an elevation difference of about 2,000 feet.  The cliffs subsided as did my instant sweating.   Fifty shades of grey continued as the cliffs and boulders transformed the landscape from green to dramatic rock.  Granite, I concluded from my distance education at UCLA.

A sign informed us that we were in the Inyo National Forest.  I’ve been here before, I recalled.  But when and why do I know this National Park? I soon realized it incorporated the Ansel Adams Wilderness, Mono Lake, Mt. Whitney and Mammoth Lakes.  It’s considered the “dwelling place of the great spirit,” and my old play grounds with the ex-ranger.

My week had just begun.

Re-visiting Venice Beach, part one

As we flew into Los Angeles the thin Marine layer butted up against the San Bernardino Mountains leaving the city sprawl below unseen and unappreciated.  Just moments prior to landing, the airport and its immediate surroundings came into view.  A familiar sight for me albeit a long overdue one.

We arrived at our two bedroom modern oceanfront home just steps from the Venice pier.  It’s located south of the madness where bikes are not allowed on the boardwalk and normal people and dogs flourish.  People watching for me would become a favorite pastime while my Snorkie would dog watch and dog patrol over the next week.  A whine here, a growl there, and lots of sniffing of the air, other dogs and the ground in general.  I too would use my sense of smell in a different way to bring back memories of when I lived near here.

Although Venice was cool with the marine layer, a rarity this time of year, the beach was crowded with surfers, families and hard bodies working out.  Couples doing squats, groups practicing yoga,  and individuals running and walking all day into the evening.  Mid-day the sun peeked through and some people just sat on the beach absorbing the afternoon warmth, but for the most part Venice is an active beach with movement overcoming inertia. 

The following morning I chose the southern route for my morning run around Marina Del Rey.  I ran around an endless sea of sailboats as I jogged through all the nooks and crannies of the marina maze.  I stumbled upon a friend’s condo not recognizing it until the faint familiar smell of hot bleach and laundry detergent hit me.  I stopped, looked around then confirmed that it was the building she used to live in.  What may appear to be a common smell in this particular instance was very unique and memorable.  I ended my run by cutting through a trail that I had never experienced.  It was a short dirt path between the Venice canal and million dollar houses with awesome landscape and architecture.  Over an hour passed without me even breaking a sweat.

The Santa Monica Pier, California, Usa

Image via Wikipedia

  Continuing my desire to exercise my body and mind by reliving my past life in L.A., I rode my bike to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market on Arizona Street.  I filled my backpack with fresh organic fruit, sourdough bread and gourmet nuts then headed back down the Venice boardwalk to our temporary home.  I’d worked up an appetite and wanted to visit another favorite place of mine, Trader Joe’s.  After convincing my husband that it’s worth the extra ten minute drive we arrived at my beloved grocery store.  We would be cooking dinner during part of our stay so he stocked up on meats for the three teenage boys while I strolled the isles for old-time favorites.  I was like a kid in a candy store, not sure what to get while trying to figure out what I could take back to Florida.  I ended up getting fresh and frozen vegetarian prepared meals and bottles of wine priced at $1.99 a bottle.  No wonder I didn’t cook much when I lived in Santa Monica, Trader Joe’s did it for me.  I would be back without my husband trying to rush me, I decided.

The following day I had an equally rewarding run through Venice Beach to the Santa Monica pier.  I decided to listen to music instead of my audiobooks so that my mind could wander through diverse memories and thoughts.  I let it without judgement or surveillance.

I craved a hike through the Santa Monica Mountains so my husband dropped me off at Topanga State Park at Temescal Gatway Park and then took the boys to Zuma Beach in Malibu to surf.  I took the more challenging route of the ridge trail, a hike I used to do once a week without effort.  The switchbacks led me uphill for almost an hour.  It’s a well-traveled trail but somehow a rather large non-venomous snake managed to cross in front of me, startling me for a brief moment.  As I winded through the mountains, sage and juniper filled the air.  The scent of nature and the views of the city and ocean were divine.  It had been over six years since I traveled this route that had inspired me for the preceding decade.

A visit with a good friend and a late lunch at Gladstone’s completed my awesome day.  The rest of the evening was a  gift.  Laid back with no agenda, just the beach and family.

Running in Venice Beach

I almost always rise early in California.  I woke at 7 am, something I rarely do on the east coast. Well rested and restless at the same time.  Fog engulfed Venice Beach and the air was refreshingly cool.  It would be my first run here in over eight years, and I was loving it.  My legs started bouncing down the boardwalk to the tunes of  Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.

Muscle Beach was the first familiar sight with shirtless iron chested men lifting weights at the famous outside gym.  The shops were starting to open.  You can still get your name on a grain of rice and the tacky t-shirts are still ubiquitous.  “I put ketchup on my ketchup,” and “I’m considered very large in Japan.” With a drawing of a well endowed stick-man. We all know the man wearing that shirt has been short-changed.  Or how about two pictures of the men’s restroom sign, one says “you” with a small penis, the other “me” with one twice the size.  Do men actually buy these?

The artists were setting up booths as they hauled their art to tables or simply placed them on the ground.  The sidewalks are now marked with numbers for the assigned artist, something that didn’t exist years ago.  Homeless men and woman wandered about and socialized.  It was difficult to distinguish between the homeless and the artists, perhaps they were one in the same.  Did it matter?  Why do starving artists always have the best looking jackets?  Long black leather seemed to be the popular style this year. 

The smell of marijuana clouded the refreshing scent of the Pacific Ocean.   It is the Venice Beach I remember.

Venice Beach clearly ended and as I crossed over to Santa Monica I had a perpetual smile on my face.  It must have shown because everyone smiled back at me. Every step, every curve held a memory for me.  Every building seemed familiar.  I stepped back in time and I was going for my morning run.  One so recognizable, enjoyable, and so me.

I turned around and headed back.  The boardwalk was quickly filling in with locals and tourists.  Almost everyone had a dog, even the homeless. Large dogs, small dogs, pampered and weathered, side by side.  A reflection of the boardwalk in many ways. I didn’t recall that many dogs when I lived here, but then again I wasn’t a dog person until recently.  I pictured my little diva on Venice.  Memories of her horrible New York experience entered my mind, reminding me that she’s a country dog. 

 There are many famous boardwalks in this great country of ours.  Many hold the same souvenirs, unhealthy food and characters.  But nothing compares to Venice Beach.  It is all of that and so much more.  A great place to people watch, browse shops and have a few drinks with no agenda.  My husband and I were lucky enough to find a great apartment for a few nights that allowed us to do this.