weekly photo challenge: family

Saturday, January 18: The last time I saw my little sister Stephanie must have been at my mother’s funeral 12 years ago.  Stephanie has lived in Los Angeles for longer than that, and despite my best intentions, I’ve never made it to California until early this January.  It really is pathetic that we live on opposite coasts of the same country and never visit each other.

For this Weekly Photo Challenge of Family, I dedicate this post to my talented little sister.

To see full-sized images, click on any of the pictures in the gallery below.

Stephanie has always amazed me.  She’s insanely creative, energetic, and has a great sense of humor.  She can draw, paint, write, and do most anything that is inside or outside the box.  She used to work for Redbook, and later for Shape magazine, as Art Director.  Most recently she worked for Fit Pregnancy and Natural Health, magazines owned by American Media.  Now she’s taking some time to build her freelance business and pursue the non-corporate life of her dreams.  She really inspired me on this visit as we are both now trying to carve out lives for ourselves that are more fulfilling than the ones we’ve been living.

Steph and her abstract art
Steph and her abstract art

Stephanie writes of herself on her website KONSUMERISM.RUN.AMOK: the most random of desires: I’m a Creative Director, illustrator and obsessive collector.  I’m usually on the trail of something I have a sudden passion for, whether it be vintage books, tin toys, Danish modern furniture, cool plants, certain enticing vegetables, crazy looking bunnies, classic film DVDs, old jazz records, bicycles… the list goes on (and on). Everything is design. And I have an extra special kinship for old things. Mid-century makes my heart quicken. This is a place to share my latest finds and passions. Relax, put on a scratchy bop LP and meander with me through the artifacts of the last couple of centuries. I have tons more on my Pinterest than I’ll ever have time to post here, so be sure and visit.

Steph's house
Steph’s house

Stephanie is an avid collector, with an array of mid-century modern furniture, vintage bicycles, toys, books and movie posters filling her house.  Black & white family photographs adorn her walls and toy wind-up birds sit on shelves waiting to cock-a-doodle-doo. The whole ambiance of her house evokes our childhood, and the era of our parents and grandparents. On her living room wall hangs a photo of our brother Rob, Steph and me (with an especially bad haircut) in a New York diner, from her days in the city.  In her backyard, she has an aviary full of birds, especially finches, and a chicken coop where three chickens, rounded up by Horatio the rooster, lay eggs for her breakfast.  She has orange trees and a pond, and rusty vintage lawn chairs like the ones my grandmother used to have.  She has two friendly dogs, Babe and Buster, several cats who curl up by the heater and like to mark their territory on the guest bed, and rabbits who enjoy gnawing on electric cords.

We spend our time together on this visit reminiscing about our childhood, laughing, eating sushi accompanied by Sapporo and warm saké, watching The Invisible Woman at Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood, exploring the boardwalk & walk-streets of Venice, and watching Downton Abbey and the Golden Globes. We eat shrimp dumplings and calamari at P.F. Chang’s.  We talk of art and our goals and we encourage each other in our dreams. I loved spending time with my long-lost sibling.

Or, maybe it’s me who’s been long-lost.

In case you missed the homage to my visit that Stephanie drew in her journal, here it is, one more time.

~ journal entry by Stephanie Birdsong, in homage to my visit :-)
~ journal entry by Stephanie Birdsong, in homage to my visit 🙂

poets & writers LIVE! & a night on abbott kinney

Saturday, January 11: This morning, Rosie and I are going to the Poets and Writers LIVE! event in Los Angeles, but before we do, we take a nice walk around the Toluca Lake neighborhood.  Being in LA, it’s hard to believe it’s January. Back home in Virginia we’ve had below freezing temperatures and snowfall after snowfall, and here in sunny LA, it feels like a spring day.

Pretty Toluca Lake
Pretty Toluca Lake
Walking around Toluca Lake
Walking around Toluca Lake
Toluca Lake farmer's market
Toluca Lake farmer’s market

We drive to the Poets and Writers Event, which, much to my surprise, is just around the corner from Abbott Kinney Boulevard, the main drag that my sister Stephanie and I explored when I was in Los Angeles at the beginning of my trip.

Rosie & me at Poets & Writer's LIVE!
Rosie & me at Poets & Writer’s LIVE!

Poets & Writers magazine was started in 1970 to help writers. Editor-in-chief Kevin Larimer introduces the event, the first of many face-to-face events that Poets & Writers will sponsor around the country. The event is organized into four sessions of 1 1/4 hours each.

In session one, Larimer discusses why we want to publish: 1) for validation and 2) so people can read our work.  As authors, he suggests, we should buy books and literary magazines, thus supporting the community we want to be a part of.  He advises that an agent is helpful to writers when sorting through complicated publishing contracts, as he/she can give legal advice.

In session two, a number of speakers discuss how to build community in the Los Angeles area. This is the least interesting talk to me, since I don’t live in LA and can’t take advantage of the myriad opportunities.  The general consensus: “Creativity flourishes in community.”  Suggestions for building community include surveying the neighborhood you’re in and encourage whoever wants to participate.  Align what you’re doing with your own needs as a writer, because the needs of the organizer should be met as much as the needs of participants.

Opportunities to connect abound: 1) Find an art buddy to check in with to see whether you’re writing or not; 2) Make writing dates, where you get together with another writer in the same room to write; 3) Have writing practice groups where you practice meditation and then do a “fevered writing;” 4) Join writing groups where you get feedback within a set of guidelines.  This gives you a way to know how your work is “landing;” 5) Put together readings with other people; 6) Approach a publisher with a common-themed group project.

Other advice: 1) Find your own niche and 2) to inspire your own writing, get out of your element.

If you decide to form a writing workshop, try to discuss the works in a positive way: 1) What meaning did you get from that? 2) What did you notice in a piece of work? 3) Invite people to ask questions about form, content, what if?  Guidelines in a writing workshop should apply to everyone.  Someone should be chosen to facilitate in a smooth manner, using humor to transition.  Try to be communicative and transparent.  The workshop facilitator should be consistent about times and run a tight shift.

Sound advice: As a writer, the best thing you can do is to read aloud your work.

In session three, a panel of writers have an interesting discussion about writing, and answer questions from the audience.  Ron Carlson, American novelist and short story writer, most recently wrote Return to Oakpine.  He talks about his life as a short story writer.  Poet Harryette Mullen, who wrote Sleeping with the Dictionary, shares her story about being a poet.  Novelist Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, discusses his style of writing and why he loves the craft.  Meghan Daum, an American author, essayist, and journalist (L.A. Times columnist) who wrote My Misspent Youth, The Quality of Life Report and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House says she became a writer because she literally couldn’t do anything else.  She had no other talents.  I doubt that’s true, but it makes for some funny stories.

The panel discusses writing in different mediums: crayons, chalk, or play dough — to spark creativity.  Draw pictures.  Think of five things and draw one, write a caption, add five more lines.  Play Sculptionary or Lego-nary.  Always try to trick your mind into opening up.  Just sit in a chair, stop whining, and do it.

In the final session, author Dani Shapiro reads from her book Still Write.  I always love it when I hear authors speak about how, no matter how many times they’ve been published, they still feel dread and self-doubt when they sit down to write.  That’s how I feel, of course, so to know that published authors feel that way gives me some small bit of encouragement.

Dani writes a blog about the creative process: Dani Shapiro.  She wants her book Still Write to be a companion to fellow writers, similar to Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life or Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.  It’s about beginnings, middles, ends, and the puzzle-like pieces of writing.  She challenges writers to write about the things they do that they’d be mortified by if anyone knew about them.

After one of our breaks, I come back to my seat to find a Chinese man sitting next to me, in what had been an empty seat. He hands me a card: Da Chen.  His latest published novel is My Last Empress.

He asks if I’m a writer.
I hem and haw.  “Yes, I’ve written a novel.”
“What is the title?” he asks.
“I don’t have a title yet.”
“Oh.  Do you have a business card?”
“No, sorry, I don’t.”  I fidget uncomfortably, feeling embarrassed by my lack of confidence and professionalism.

He turns away, having lost interest.  I feel disheartened that I blew an opportunity to talk with someone who might be in a position to help me get my novel published.  Live and learn, the hard way.

I am thrilled that Rosie heard about this event and that we signed up for it before it was sold out.  It was so inspirational!  During the time I started writing my novel in 2002, I used to go all the time to listen to authors give readings in bookstores, and I found them inspirational.  They prodded me to finish the first draft of my book.

For the next several months, my goal is to get my novel done.  To give the book a title.  And to make up business cards for future encounters with other writers!


After the event, Rosie and I drive around the corner and stop in at The Brig for cocktails.  The picture below was taken the week before when I was here with my sister.  By the time we arrive here tonight, it’s dark.

The Brig on Abbott Kinney Boulevard
The Brig on Abbott Kinney Boulevard

We stand around drinking wine and chatting with other writers who attended the event.  It’s all very lively and authorial.  I feel a bit of a thrill by the whole thing. 🙂

There seems to be no food served at The Brig, so we walk out the front door and pick up some very decadent food at a food truck.

Rosie at the food truck
Rosie at the food truck

After everyone disperses, Rosie and I take a leisurely stroll up and down Abbott Kinney Boulevard, enjoying some nighttime window-shopping.  If you want to see the daytime view, you can check out window-shopping on abbott kinney boulevard.

A fun and inspirational day all around!  To learn more about Poets & Writers, check out this link: Poets & Writers.

window-shopping on abbott kinney boulevard

Saturday, January 4: After wandering the walk streets of Venice, my sister and I stroll down Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice, California. We have fun dipping in and out of the cute shops and looking longingly into the shop windows.

We go into an enticing shop, the Juicy Leaf, which is arranged with artistic and beautiful displays.  We take some pictures, until the woman proprietor tells us we’re not allowed to take photos.  I say, “Really?  I’d think you’d be happy to have us post pictures that give you free advertising on sites like Instagram and Facebook.”  A man behind the counter chimes in, “Well, we’ve had our competition send in whole teams of people taking photos to steal our ideas, so we have to be careful of that.  Besides, it’s posted through the store that no photography is allowed.”

Bonsai and artsy arrangements in Juicy Leaf
Bonsai and artsy arrangements

I say, “Oh really?  Sorry, I didn’t see the signs.”

He reiterates, as if I’m lying, as if I were blatantly ignoring the signs: “Well they’re posted in several spots.”

Honestly I never saw them, and if I had I wouldn’t have been photographing his shop.  My sister and I both dislike his accusatory manner and determine not to set foot in there again.  What happened to the old adage: the customer is always right?  We’re both affronted by him and later we make fun of his attitude.  “Oh yes, his shop is so different and so spectacular that people are dying to spy on him and steal all his ideas, ideas that no one else in the world could possibly have.”

Matchboxes in the Juicy Leaf

According to an October, 2013 article in the LA Times, longtime merchants and residents are worried that this “once-desolate stretch” is getting too “posh for its pants” (Los Angeles Times: Abbot Kinney Boulevard’s renaissance a mixed blessing).  After our encounter in the Juicy Leaf, I would have to agree that some places are a little too posh for their pants.

Thirty years ago, when the stretch of road was known as West Washington Boulevard, “gunshots routinely rang out at night in the Oakwood, the adjoining drug-infested ghetto. A U.S. senator’s niece was shot to death in a holdup on the sidewalk in 1980.”  Eventually, a crackdown on gang activity helped rid the area of criminals, says the LA Times.

In 1990, West Washington Boulevard was renamed to Abbot Kinney, after the man who built the Venice Canals.  The street boasts fine restaurants, unique art galleries, prestigious wine shops and exciting nightlife.

Now properties on the street are seen as great real estate investments, with some buildings that stood untouched for decades now revamped.

We have a much more pleasant experience in the paper shop Urbanic, where no one seems to care if we take pictures, leading us to buy a thing or two, including a journal for myself.

Little do I know that I will return to Abbott Kinney Boulevard when I return to LA the following Saturday, where I share a few drinks with poets and writers after a Poets & Writers Live event at The Brig.

Click on any of the images below for a full-sized slideshow.

After our walk, we return to the car and drive back to Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills, where we repeat our sushi meal of the previous night at Akari Sushi.

me at Akari Sushi, again
me at Akari Sushi, again

Tomorrow, I head to Danville, to visit my friend Jayne near San Francisco.

exploring the venice walk-streets

Saturday, January 4:  Beyond the beach, Venice has neighborhoods tailor-made for pedestrians, referred to by the locals as the “walk-streets.” Stephanie and I wander through the narrow passageways that slice between bungalows, cottages, and gardens.  We love snapping photos of adorable homes behind arbors draped in heart-shaped tropical leaves, with their secret patios and lazy cats.  The Venice walk-streets offer up coral, yellow, and hibiscus-covered houses, birds of paradise, pink doors & papyrus, profuse container & community gardens, artsy house numbers and mailboxes, and whimsical female faces on picket fences.

Click on any of the images below to come along on a stroll through the Venice walk-streets.

bohemian venice beach, california

Saturday, January 4: Venice Beach in Los Angeles is a beachfront neighborhood of mist and muscles, bikinis and tattoos, piercings, surfboards, sunglasses, funnel cakes, pizza, hot dogs, exuberant street art, and medical marijuana. It’s gritty, energetic and a little chaotic, even before noon.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVenice began as a seaside resort town in 1905; it was a separate city until 1926, when it merged with Los Angeles.  Today Venice is known for its canals, beaches and its eccentric Ocean Front Walk, a 2 1/2 mile pedestrian-only boardwalk that features performers, vendors, artists, fortune-tellers and the acrobats and body-builders of Muscle Beach (Wikipedia: Venice, Los Angeles).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVenice Beach is a combination of the tacky, the mindless, the ironic, and the novel.  ~ Freelance Dionysian

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUnique among the world’s Bohemias. ~ Gordon J. Hazlitt


As we stroll down the boardwalk, we’re approached by men of various colors offering copies of their latest Rap CDs. I don’t take any of them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor about 150 days a year in Venice, the sun doesn’t show through the mist until noon. ~ Ray Bradbury

Stephanie and I wade our way through the chilly mist in search of a lunchtime spot.  We can’t even see the ocean but we know it’s out there, somewhere at the end of the broad expanse of sand.  We find Figtree’s Cafe and Grill, where we sit outdoors on the patio shivering under a heat lamp, and I order an omelet with chicken-apple sausage, red onions, tomato and guacamole.  The stuff of California dreams.

Omelet with chicken-apple sausage, red onions, tomato, guacamole at Figtree's Cafe
Omelet with chicken-apple sausage, red onions, tomato, guacamole at Figtree’s Cafe
Stephanie at Figtree's Cafe on Venice Beach
Stephanie at Figtree’s Cafe on Venice Beach

By the time we finish, the mist is starting to clear.  The ocean is somewhere out there, but we still can’t see it.

After lunch we wander a little further down the boardwalk before we turn down a side street to explore the walk-streets and cottages of Venice; we’re captivated by succulents and tropical plants bursting out from behind every fence.

patio garden on Venice Beach
patio garden on Venice Beach
me with Venice Beach succulents
me with Venice Beach succulents
succulents in Venice
succulents in Venice
bicycles for rent
bicycles for rent

I only get one look at the Venice canals.

Venice Canal
Venice Canal

Stay tuned for a stroll through the walk-streets of Venice…

All quotes about Venice Beach from Quotations About Venice.

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