Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I'll admit upfront that I don't much like Reno. People here are mighty friendly, the skies are blue, and the humidity low, but I find this kind of barren, stark landscape soul-withering. When I drive to my brother's restaurant in Verdi, a tiny town on the outskirts of Reno, I see a landscape so spare that it might as well be lunar.

I'm not a gambler, so the casino culture that dominates downtown has little appeal. Reno lacks the high-end casinos and Disney-like fantasia of Las Vegas: it's far more down-market. And there's not much to do outside of gambling. If you're a skier, the very nice slopes around Lake Tahoe beckon, and other outdoor sports, such as biking or skateboarding, are eminently doable part of the year. Otherwise, there's not much here: a small, mediocre museum; a so-so branch of the state university; and the occasional road show floating through town.

I come once a year solely to see my mother and one of my brothers. I stay at the Peppermill Casino and Hotel, largely out of habit. I suspect they aren't entirely happy to see me return, given how little money I spend. I don't like gambling--I don't see the point--and I don't like casinos. In Reno, though, your only options are sleazy motels or casinos, so I pick the latter.

I'm happy to see that the Peppermill has replaced the ghastly orange-and-purple decor from the 80s (sort of New Orleans whorehouse meets psychedelia) with what they're dubbing a "Tuscan" theme. It's a huge improvement: my room is done in cool whites and beiges with subtle splashes of gold. I could do without the gilt, but it is, after all, a casino. One can only hope for so much.

To the credit of this establishment, they run things very well. The staff are unfailingly polite and helpful; rooms are immaculate; and food is surprisingly good. Tonight my mother and I will eat at Romanza's, an Italian restaurant that in the past has done very well by us. I don't get the appeal of squandering hard earned money on slot machines or blackjack, but I'm clearly in the minority. The array of visitors is quite astonishing, ranging from older couples to families with children in tow. One sees representatives from every ethnicity and class. Personally, I'd rather be in Southern France, with a nice glass of bordeaux and a good book, but I suppose that's why I ended up in a university: my tastes are rather rarefied.

So while the Peppermill has certainly done a nice job of taking care of their customers, I will be very happy to leave Reno and casino culture behind tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Russian River

As part of my continued journey down memory lane, Alex and I went to the Russian River, another site of happy reminiscences. My great uncle and aunt, who put up with me for long stretches every summer, owned a cabin not far from Guerneville. My holidays with them fell into a predictable pattern of staying in the city during the week and then, on Friday, driving 90 minutes north on Highway 101. On the way, Hank and I would stop off at an ice cream parlor in Santa Rosa. Always I would deliberate carefully, but inevitably I would order rum raisin, my very favorite. I suspect the dash of rum seemed the height of sophistication to my thirteen-year-old palate.

Our long weekends consisted of lazing around the cabin and reading; looking at the stars through Hank's telescope, one of his few indulgences; and floating down the river in inner tubes. Temperatures easily run fifteen degrees higher than in the city, a fact I forgot one summer. I ended up with a sunburn so bad that I ran a high fever and nearly ended up in an ER. This excruciating experience made me swear off tanning subsequently and taught me to cover my fair skin, no small feat for an adolescent growing up in Southern California. From that summer onward, I was resigned to life as a pasty-faced person.

Overall, I was struck by the relative lack of development in the area, something entirely unexpected. While the proliferation of ugly, largely frangible, tract homes and malls have ruined the Peninsula and blighted former farm land in what is now Silicon Valley, the same has not happened north of the city. On Saturday when we hiked through Muir Woods and then lunched in Sausalito, I was startled to see that Marin County looked unchanged. The same is true for areas further north, as one drives up 101 through Tiburon, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa. Huge swaths of land remain untouched, and farms (many quite neglected) dot the landscape. As for the Russian River itself, the most notable change is the profusion of wineries and vineyards everywhere; if anything, cultivation has beautified the area.

If Healdsburg is any indication, the small, sleepy towns that once typified the Russian River have grown nicely. I remember in my youth being hard pressed to find a decent restaurant. Occasionally we went into Occidental to eat at a family-style restaurant where the Italian-American waiters plunked down heaping bowls of pasta on picnic-style tables. The food was hearty and plentiful but hardly gourmet. With the influx of wineries and vino-tourism, that has, of course, all changed. Excellent brasseries and cafes are everywhere. We had lunch at Bistro Ralph, one of the places recommended to us, and we were not disappointed. Our good-natured waiter, a friendly bear of a guy, gave us excellent service, and food came piping hot out of the kitchen. Alex had a very good salad; I had a superb pasta with smoked chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and a fennel cream sauce. Our waiter suggested we try the strawberry shortcake for dessert. I hesitated since I do a pretty mean shortcake myself, but caved at his urging. I grudgingly admit this shortcake trumps what I make at home, something that happens too rarely (and one of the reasons I rarely order dessert in restaurants--frankly, I usually do better).

Invigorated by the lunch, Alex and I spent the rest of the afternoon, map in hand, driving to various wineries. We only got through five and there must be at least fifty now in the area. By far, Rosenblum was our favorite. A brilliant winery, they do fabulous reds and whites, in addition to extraordinary dessert wines. I put together a case and arranged for shipping to some friends in Virginia since we're not allowed to receive wine across state lines in Maryland, a barbaric law. Among my finds at Rosenblum is a dessert wine that smacks of chocolate and coconut: it's like drinking an exquisite version of an Almond Joy bar. Unfortunately, none of the other wineries we visited came close to Rosenblum. Several produced wines that left a funny metallic taste on the tongue, something Alex noticed as well. We liked the sparkling wines at J Winery--the rose is especially nice--but I wasn't sufficiently convinced as to order another case. 

I've noticed that people working in wineries are, without exception, delightful. This appears to be a universal phenomenon, if my experiences in France, Italy, and South Africa are any indication. I suspect the lifestyle is largely responsible. Good wines flourish in beautiful surroundings and great climates, so one gets to live in paradise and pour wine for happy, eager customers. True to form, we met some lovely folks on our little tour. The man who helped us at Rosenblum had a superb palate, and I ended up purchasing nearly everything he poured for us. The woman who assisted us at J Wineries turned out to be a graduate from AU. She was so delighted to encounter an AU professor that she poured us samples well beyond the requisite four wines covered by our tasting fee.

At the end of the day, sated and tired, we drove back into the city. As we approached my hotel, I became teary at the prospect of parting from my adored and adorable son (who was the consummate host and gentleman throughout my stay). We had a tearful parting and, crying lightly, I went into the hotel only to be dragooned by a group of Aussies who were dismayed at my discomfiture. I have to say there's nothing like drinking with a bunch of blokes from down under to cheer one up.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Even by Jacobean standards, John Ford's plays are wonderfully strange. Plots twist and coil, as revenge piles upon revenge; siblings lust after each other; and characters spontaneously expire, keeling over from shock or, even weirder, willing themselves to die, as occurs with Calantha in The Broken Heart (1625?).  She appoints an heir, sits down on her throne, and then painstakingly describes her death as it occurs.  As I said, this is strange stuff--and I love it!

Thus it was with great eagerness that I accompanied Alex to see 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633) at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.).  The play is rarely staged, and A.C.T. used to have a fine reputation. I haven't seen one of their shows in twenty years, so this was a particular treat.

Overall, I was quite pleased.  We saw a preview, so I fully expect the minor problems with pacing, tech, and entrance cues will vanish once the production gets further into the run.  The director, Carey Perloff, made some fascinating choices.  She hired the cellist and singer Bonfire Madigan Shive (who does "punk chamber music") to accompany the show with haunting melodies and otherworldly moans and screams, a terrific effect. Shive is fully visible throughout the performance, sitting aloft on a raised platform integrated into the set. I liked too that Perloff didn't update the script by transposing it to another period. She left language intact, trusting her audience's comprehension. 

The set is semi-industrial, as seems to be the fashion right now in staging Shakespeare and Elizabethan/Jacobean plays, but for the most part it worked.  A strange series of tubes hung in a cluster from the ceiling, and tiny glass balls dotted fishing line that was also suspended throughout the space.  At first, I didn't get their significance; then I realized that Perloff and the designer, Walt Spangler, were giving us visual metaphors for blood, with the tubes signifying arteries running to the heart and the glass balls standing in for corpuscles.  These visual references are obscure but smart: blood is everywhere in 'Tis Pity, literally and figuratively, from the bodies littering the stage to the "hot blood" inflaming the incestuous siblings.

Overall, I thought the women were stronger than the men. Susan Gibney is simply fabulous as Hippolita, the sexy, wayward wife who dispatches her husband (or so she thinks) for her lover, only to have him dump her for another woman. Rene Augesen brings a complexity to Arabella, the incestuous sister, that I never saw when reading the play. While Michael Hayden does a fine job as Giovanni, the incestuous brother, he has an unfortunate tendency to swallow words at moments of high passion. His gradual descent into madness, though, is absolutely believable. I wish some of the other men were as strong. Steven Anthony Jones is downright embarrassing as the friar; Michael Fajardo phones in his performance as Soranzo; and Gregory Wallace is painfully bad as Bergetto, the foolish nephew of a wealthy citizen. I think Anthony Fusco will improve as Vasques. He strengthened as the performance progressed, always a good sign. I don't have much hope for the others.

I was pleased to see A.C.T. still going strong after nearly 45 years. It's a shame that this very smart production will just miss being superlative because of several weak men in the cast.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Muir Woods and Sausalito

It has been many a year since I last hiked in Muir Woods, that stunning national park just over the Golden Gate Bridge.  This morning Alex and I spent a couple of hours walking along manicured paths and taking in the redwoods.  I had forgotten how much I love the smell of eucalyptus trees.  I also forgot how wildflowers perfume the air in California. The weather was perfect: low seventies with little humidity.  One could not ask for a better day.

Later we drove to Sausalito for lunch.  Alex recommended Fish, a casual eatery overlooking the marina.  Alex had a sandwich with crab rolls; I had a crab louis salad, a dish I always ordered when I visited SF in my youth. Both were excellent.

Later we hiked into town, where I was sorry to see that the once chic shops have been replaced by tacky tourist joints. Unfortunately, the Fisherman's Wharf syndrome has spilled over to other parts of the Bay area. Around 3.00, we found a bar where we could watch Big Brown run the Belmont. I knew immediately that something was wrong: BB's gait looked nothing like his customarily easy, loping gallop, and I'm happy his jockey pulled him up, perhaps preventing a tragedy like the one that doomed poor Eight Belles. Big Brown didn't win the Triple Crown--but he's still alive.

Tonight we're seeing John Ford's wonderfully strange Jacobean play, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at American Conservatory Theatre.  I haven't been to ACT for years--I used to go regularly with Hank and Ruth--and I'm curious to see how this classic repertory company has fared. Aside from ACT and Berkeley Rep, there's little serious theatre in San Francisco. It's telling that Beach Blanket Babylon, now in its 34th year, has outlasted every other form of drama.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Impressions of San Francisco,

Let me preface this post by saying that I have happy memories of San Francisco that go back many years to my childhood and adolescence.  I used to spend part of my summer with a great uncle and aunt in this city, and they were partially responsible for who I am today.  Uncle Hank regularly shipped me boxes of books; Aunt Ruth taught me how to dress and comport myself. They took me to theatre and concerts, and they shaped my politics, opposing my father's cowboy conservatism with classic Marxist materialism.  

I have through the years made periodic trips to SF, but it has been a long time since I've explored the city at a leisurely pace.  Here to visit my son Alex, I've had a chance to wander neighborhoods, visit museums, and eat out.  

Some moments have charmed: the man playing the theme to the Godfather on his sax in Union Square; the AIDS Memorial in Golden Gate Park; the tough old Chinese ladies who still elbow one aside; the adult entertainment store on Market Street that blares classical music from loudspeakers (Tschaikovsky as I walked past); the beatific old black man blessing passerbys (when he wasn't ogling attractive girls); the grotesquely fat seagull that has apparently taken up permanent residence outside the museum cafe in Golden Gate Park.

And there have been some delights.  I am absolutely enchanted with the Asian Art Museum, a superb collection in a beautifully retrofitted building.  I loved everything about the museum, from the smart commentary to the interactive touch screens. The galleries are light and airy, and the objects displayed carefully.  I also like how cross-cultural currents are underscored throughout. This is exactly what a museum should be: intelligent and aesthetically pleasing. Even the museum cafe defied expectations, serving fresh, impeccably prepared food at reasonable prices. I had planned on spending no more than two hours at the Asian Art Museum; I ended up staying most of the day.

I have, thanks to Alex, discovered the pleasures of San Francisco's hip neighborhood bars. One night we went to Absinthe, where I had an odd but refreshing cocktail with a very complicated name I cannot recall; this afternoon we stopped at Alembic in the Haight, where I had my first Pisco Sour.  I am a complete convert to this delightful drink.  

For the most part, food has been good. We ate on Wednesday night at Citizen Cake in Hayes Valley and had a fine meal. Although they are known primarily for unusual desserts, Citizen Cake's limited dinner menu features some real delights. Alex had very good braised pork, while I had local cod on vegetables infused with ginger and lime.  Dinner the following night at Zazil, located in the quite grand Westfield Mall on Market Street was okay, not great: my braised pork (a popular dish here!) was too salty; Alex didn't like the sauce on his fish. I have better hopes for a seafood restaurant we're trying in Sausalito tomorrow.

Increasingly, however, I understand why Alex doesn't enjoy day-to-day life here.  Without a doubt, San Francisco is scenic and charming, but there's little to do outside of the 20-something hipster culture that dominates the city. Good theatre is scarce, and the opera is horrifically expensive. Museums, with the exception of the Asian Art, are so-so.  Little works.  We waited nearly 50 minutes for a bus that supposedly runs every 10 minutes, an all too common occurrence I am told. BART has so few stations as to be almost useless.  The streets are dirty, some smelling like urinals. Petty crime is rife. This afternoon alone we were approached by a gang of youths in Golden Gate Park trying to sell us drugs; then we saw a woman lose her wallet to a nimble-fingered thief as she boarded the bus. Sadly, banks in tourist areas, such as Union Square, post security guards next to ATM's. And homeless people are everywhere, pushing carts overflowing with their possessions. Most mind their own business, but the schizophrenics and druggies are unnerving. I found myself walking briskly back to my hotel and hugging my purse. This is not the San Francisco I remember.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Shopping and Eating Orgy

My last two days in Pasadena whirled by in a carousel of food and clothes, thanks to the goodly ministrations of Kathie, who has a genius for ferreting out charming little boutiques. I've fallen into the habit over the past four years of shopping almost exclusively on holiday. What little disposable time I have during my normal workaday life goes to sports, theatre outings, and entertaining, with nary a minute left over for anything else. I also lack the patience to try on clothes and sort through racks: I'm in work mode, powering through my day and trying desperately to conserve enough energy to ride my horse in the afternoon or mark papers later that night. Stumbling through a mall is the furthest thing from my mind, even on weekends, which, alas, have become extensions of the work week.

When I travel, however, the relaxed pace mellows me sufficiently to browse and sample various garments. I like too that I find more daring fashions outside of Washington, a notoriously staid city. Last summer in Paris, for instance, I came upon a couple of charming skirts, the one a riot of Provencal colors, the other a ribbony swirl of flounces in more subdued grays and taupe. Neither was the sort of thing I would normally pull off the rack, but the very good French saleslady insisted I try them on to happy results.

International attitudes among saleswomen vary greatly, another source of pleasure (and occasional bemusement). French saleswomen are universally helpful and refreshingly blunt. At one shop in Paris, the saleslady blocked my progress to a fitting room and pulled a couple of items out of my hands, clucking at me disapprovingly. 

Russian saleswomen trump every other nationality when it comes to mercantile brusqueness. They also have an uncanny ability to sniff out black market knockoffs, a topic deserving of a separate post. Several years ago I wandered into a shop in St. Petersburg with my friend Elena, hoping to get ideas for a coat my darling husband was having made for me. The two salesgirls, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, watched contemptuously as I tried on a succession of fur jackets. I liked a sheared grey number, but one of the girls suddenly waved her hand dismissively, scolding me in Russian and gesturing toward my face. Bewildered, I turn to Elena for translation. It appeared the grey made me look sallow (which was probably right). The salesgirl then ordered me to another shop down the street: "Nothing here looks good on you." So much for post-Glastnov capitalism.

My two-day shopping orgy in Pasadena with Kathie resulted in nothing that inadvertently hilarious, but I did end up buying a smart pair of linen trousers and several tops, mostly casual. I indulged in one designer piece, the sort of thing one can pair with jeans or nicely tailored pants. Kathie has an impeccable eye for clothing, as she does for interior design. She's one of those people blessed with damn good taste and superb organizational skills. I've decided she should run my life.

We punctuated our shopping expeditions with very good lunches and dinners. On Monday we had a long leisurely lunch at Saladang Song, a tasty Thai restaurant in Pasadena. Later that afternoon we made our way to an outdoor mall that just opened in Glendale called Americana, developed by the same guy who did the Grove in Culver City. Again, we wandered through shops before collapsing at a Mexican restaurant with outdoor seating. Fortified with drinks and appetizers, we watched the throngs promenade lazily in the perfect Southern California weather: families with young children; well-heeled 50- and 60-somethings; and teenagers armed with credit cards and hopping hormones. I liked the ambiance, the leisurely pace of it all.

On Tuesday, we indulged in yet more shopping, breaking up our descent into abject materialism with a stopover at the Huntington Library, where I saw a chum and met the delightful old lady who is the subject of a biography Kathie is writing. This woman, a famous dancer between the wars, still at the age of 95 goes to the Huntington daily to work on her own project. She's quite extraordinary.  We lunched at nearby Nicole's Cafe, a brilliant little eatery featuring light fare and superb pastries (or so I am told). Alarmed by my expanding waistline, I have momentarily put desserts and snacks on hold. Dinner at Celastino's later that night was also excellent. Bob and I had delicious homemade pastas; Kathie had veal Milanese (a tad overdone).

On Wednesday I boarded my flight to San Francisco with mixed emotions. Sorry to leave L.A. and my friends behind, I was nonetheless eager to see my son Alex.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Sacred and the Profane

Sunday in LA defied my expectations: the church service I attended in Hollywood with friends turned out to be far more thought-provoking and aesthetically satisfying than the theatre performance I saw (also in Hollywood) later that night.

I met up with Kathie and Bob, close friends originally from Georgetown who relocated to LA four years ago so Bob could pick up the threads of his acting career. Years ago Bob was a professional actor in DC, working at Arena Stage and Olney, landing roles in films, and building a nice resume. Acting gigs, however, do not pay school fees, nor do they feather the nest except in the rarest of instances. Bob, now comfortably retired, can pick up projects while soaking up rays in L.A. It's quite a nice life.

These generous souls are hosting me for several days. We met up on Sunday morning at Ecclesia, a three-year old church based at the Pacific Theatre, a grand art deco building from the thirties, on Hollywood Blvd. The service is a strange amalgamation of early church egalitarianism, liberation theology, traditional liturgy, and evangelical fervor--all held together with excellent rock music and slick Power Point slides. The congregants are ethnically diverse but largely young and hip, many working in Hollywood. One glimpses Oscar nominees among the wannabes, but in typical LA fashion, everyone is cool with it. I was impressed by the church's commitment to a non-hierarchical structure, with congregants fully involved in the service. The church pushes its members to pledge time and risk safety in doing outreach. A group had just left for Africa; another was about to depart for Burma. The church is especially keen on helping homeless people on their doorstep in Hollywood, and I was also pleased they are targeting the grim issue of sex slavery.

Ecclesia has thought carefully about their policy on outreach. They provide support to indigenous, well-established groups so as not to come off as the outsiders bringing money and Western values to impoverished (and therefore culturally vulnerable) countries. The young man preaching the sermon reminded congregants that it's far easier to write out a check than help an actual individual. I was impressed and moved.

After the service, we met up with D. Paul Thomas, the associate rector of Ecclesia, his wife Debbie, and their daughter Dee at the Larchmont Grill on Melrose Avenue, the sort of place that is seemingly ubiquitous in L.A. It goes without saying that the food was spanking fresh and meticulously prepared: I had a superb salad nicoise with lightly grilled ahi tuna. The service was relaxed yet attentive. I'd kill for an equivalent eatery in Annapolis.

Halfway through lunch we were joined by D. Paul's other daughter, Shelley, who just graduated from Cal Arts with a major in international music. A mesmerizing (and striking) young woman, with intense eyes and Angeline Jolie lips, she too burns with evangelical fervor, only this time for global music. She sings Middle Eastern and South American music with her band around town; shortly she's off to Morocco to "absorb the musical rhythms," as she said, of that culture. I adored her instantly.

Over lunch we debated topics ranging from theology, to the Democratic campaign, to the direction of the music scene in L.A. It was the sort of intense, thoughtful conversation I haven't experienced in a long time and reminded me of what I so miss about L.A.: the openness and the eclecticism. D. Paul is especially fascinating, an actor who doubles as a minister. In him, one glimpses the aesthetic and the spiritual fires that probably animated ancient Greek theatre. So often one hears the truism about the affinity between performance and ritual, but in our contemporary culture, we rarely see it in action. I would like to know D. Paul further.

After nearly three hours, we drove back to Pasadena, where Kathie and Bob live. Their condo is lovely and comfortable, and they made me feel immediately at home. We rested and then hit the freeways once again that evening, heading back to Hollywood for a benefit performance at the Matrix Theartre, where Bob has done some work. The benefit in question was for Sister Cities, a new play by Colette Freedman headed for the Edinburgh Arts Festival. While I loved the notion of a play featuring all women (there are parts for five actresses), I didn't much like the script, which I found glib and unbelievable. Basically, Freedman marries Marsha Norman's unspeakably bad play, 'Night Mother to Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart--and not to good results. The premise is fairly simple: four half-sisters congregate at their mother's flat, where she has just committed suicide. Over the ensuing 70 minutes we learn that Mom, unbeknownst to three of the daughters, suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) and was assisted in her suicide by the one daughter who lived with her and therefore was privy to the horrors of the disease. While the script featured some nice comic moments, the bulk of dialogue required the half-sisters to scream epithets and accusations. No one cried; no one evinced a single emotional moment that rang true. Mainly, the characters threw off sitcom one-liners when they weren't telling each other to fuck off. This was not, to put it mildly, good writing.

I felt sorry for the actresses, who gave the script their all, but there's only so much one can do with lousy material. There were some pacing issues, mainly with missed beats at key moments of emotional reaction, but for the most part I liked the energy and physicality these talented women brought to their roles. As this was a benefit performance intended to raise money for the trip to the Edinburgh Arts Festival, I expected the plea for bucks before and after the show. I was, however, disturbed to see pitches to corporations for product placement. Is this what theatre is coming to? Let's raise the audience's consciousness about ALS while hawking toilet paper? Not good --not good at all.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

California Dreamin'

I landed in LA on Saturday after a long, but pleasantly uneventful flight. One of my closest, dearest friends--we go back to third grade--met me at LAX, along with assorted family members. Happily ensconced at their home, I visited with Carolyn's 92-year-old mother and reminisced about bygone days. The trip down memory lane continued when Julie, Carolyn's eldest daughter, graciously offered to drive me around old neighborhoods.

Julie and Carolyn wanted me to see recent additions to Loyola Marymount University (LMU), where I received undergraduate degrees in Theatre and English. The campus, always handsome, is now striking indeed. The university purchased adjacent land that used to belong to Hughes Aircraft. Once upon a time, these were empty fields where the brilliant but mad millionaire tested innovative aerial designs; now they are beautifully landscaped and feature an elegant entrance to the university, along with nicely designed buildings and dormitories. A new library is underway; an extension to the fine arts building was recently finished; and a new performing arts center is planned. The university has become quite posh.

We then drove down to Marina del Rey, where I worked back in the seventies while attending LMU. I had a cushy weekend job running the front office for a yacht sales center and marina. The owner, scion of an old California Spanish family, was charming and indulgent: when things were quiet, I could do schoolwork on his yacht, feet dangling lazily in the water. It beat the hell out of waiting tables.

Marina del Rey is hardly recognizable from what I knew: marinas everywhere, upscale eateries, and pleasantly apportioned townhouses and apartments. Indeed, even the area around Marina del Rey, which used to be quite grotty, is looking smart these days. Lincoln and Washington Blvds. were dotted with ugly strip malls and dubious liquor stores; now, new developments sparkle everywhere.

Most surprising of all is the transformation that has occurred in Culver City, where I lived for a year while attending graduate school at UCLA. In 1981 we fled to Santa Monica after being threatened by gang members. Now Culver City sports beautiful developments, and the neighborhood where I once feared for my life seems quite staid. Restaurants and theatres abound; best of all, city planners have created lovely plazas for mingling and lots of walkable space. I was very pleased.

That evening a couple of old theatre pals joined us for dinner. We spent hours catching up and recalling outrageous incidents from productions and parties; we mused aloud about former lovers and adored professors, too many, alas, now gone. There is something about early friendships that attachments made in middle-age simply can't emulate, an intensity of feeling that miraculously survives even the passing of years. I have, quite sadly, seen any number of friendships made in my thirties and forties evaporate on the filmiest of pretexts--a difference of opinion, the unthinking remark, even jealousy over career advancement or new spouses. My old friends, though, do not begrudge my little successes or my mid-life happiness, quite the contrary.

Best of all is how one easily picks up the thread of conversation. I had not seen Maryrose or Rick for ten years, yet from the moment they arrived, we chatted openly and affectionately. I've always loved that quality about Carolyn, my old friend from third grade. Sometimes we won't speak for a year or more; then one of us picks up a phone and we're off. For me, California will always be the place where I go to warm my heart at the embers of old friendships, still glowing after all this time.