No TV Week: A Worthy Challenge

This last week students and families at Monterey Hills and Arroyo Vista Elementary Schools were encouraged to participate in “National TV Turnoff Week.” A special pajama story-time at each school was held on Thursday to drive home the value of turning off the TV, turning on a book, and sharing special moments together.

Consider the following statistics by “TV Free America,” a national nonprofit organization founded in 1994 and sponsor of the National TV Turnoff Week: number of minutes/week that the average parent spends in meaningful conversation with their children – 38.5, hours/year the average American youth spends in school – 900, and hours/year the average American youth watches TV – 1500.

The challenge to South Pasadena families was to turn off the screen, except online research for necessary homework. It is a straightforward and simple concept, right? Well, not so simple to accomplish.

To not engage in electronics was optional, but done in an effort to encourage more meaningful interactions with people (especially family) and discover the wonderful, sometimes forgotten world of physical activity and worthwhile pastimes (like reading, enjoying nature, and playing).

Translation: no video games of any sort, no movies, no computers, no smart phone browsing, no YouTube, no Facebook, no nothing I do all day. In this area, I failed. But my kids… they did great!

Arroyo Vista’s librarian, Joanna LaFave, distributed “Get Out & Play, Read A Book” guides. Inside, it encouraged families with a list of best books to read, non-electronic activities to try (from the South Pasadena Public Library), a PlayDough recipe, puzzles, and a certificate of completion to be exchanged for a prize.

LaFave also participated at home, but admitted, “It [was] hard on me because I’m a big sports fan.”

With a bright yellow “CAUTION” tape, included in the guide from Arroyo Vista, wrapped around our TV screen, my forth-grader was vigilant about sticking to the rules.

The computer was a necessity for me to do my work, so it was unrealistic to do away with that aspect all together. And my boys, thankfully, do not have the kinds of social connections I have online, but they will, all too soon.

But to rid the home of the extra media entertainment (TV, movies, games), I must admit, was refreshing! And most of the parents I spoke with agreed.

There was the occasional chanting from my four-year-old, “I want TV, I want TV, I want…” But beyond that, it was a good week.

One Arroyo Vista Parent, Suzanne Ebner, dusted off an aging “Clue” board game and enjoyed watching her son and his friend discover this new, yet ancient, form of entertainment, playing 3 times straight through.

Michelle Hammond, parent at Monterey Hills, did not watch much TV to begin with, so foregoing the screen was not too painful. But it also didn’t come completely easy either since she relies on it during dinner preparations, “It’s the only way she [younger daughter] won’t injure her big brother.” The most important thing for Hammond, “that he [older son in first grade] wants to do it himself. He’ll feel more accomplished if I’m not forcing him.”

A mother at Arroyo Vista, Gina Chang, said of the challenge, “There was no complaining from the kids [one in kindergarten and the other in second grade]. Especially if it’s a school-wide thing, they think, ‘why not.’” She noticed that certain TV viewing sometimes had adverse effects on her son with the occasional over-stimulation, causing him to be more ornery than usual. So the break was a welcome change for the entire family.

We live in an age where electronic media is as common as drinking water, perhaps more so since I definitely spend more time online than I do drinking the recommended water intake to keep me healthy.

Certainly, TV and electronics are not all-together evil, unless it becomes the glowing babysitter for hours on end. But it behooves us all to stop and think: can we use our time better? Can engaging the mind and body to actively learn something be better than passive learning via TV? What am I giving up to engage in this form of media?

Simply saying, “NO” to this omnipresence is a challenge for most and even a near impossibility for some. But it is an endeavor that is well worth the effort.

If you missed the official National Turn Off the TV challenge, and believe it could do you some good, do not wait to try and catch it next year (be honest, it’s probably just an excuse to not attempt it at all).

Rather, give yourself a healthy diet of periodic TV or electronics fasts. Read a book. Try a new hobby. Take a walk. Meet your neighbor and get them to stop watching TV. Re-think life. Do nothing. Talk with and really listen to the humans closest to you. Take the no electronic plunge or wade a bit by taking just one thing away for a day; you’ll be glad you did.

For an entertaining look at the effects of Television, I highly recommend a classic read by Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

For kids (and kids at heart) to learn everything one should know and do while growing up, try “The Dangerous Book for Boys” by Gonn and Hal Iggulden and “The Daring Book for Girls” by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz.

Brewing Coffee, Creativity, and Community

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Drew Gale, co-organizer of Kaldi's Open Mic Night

Good coffee. Live music. Relaxed people. All warm the soul on a rainy brisk Friday evening, “Open Mic Night” at Kaldi, on the corner of El Centro and Diamond.

Removing the layers of outerwear and chills from a frigid wind, I was immediately distracted by the friendly atmosphere. Susan and Chanho Park (not the former Dodger pitcher, but former CFO at a Korean Bank and coffee bean enthusiast) became the new owners this last December.

Along with their daughter Christina, a graduate student at USC, the barista staff, and loyal customers, new and old, a steadily growing audience prepared for a night of exchanging laughs and artistry.

Of Kaldi’s ambiance, Christina stated that there’s “an atmosphere [here] that breeds creativity as well as intellectual juices.” And glancing at the display of local art (from photography to sketches) and people reading, writing and in conversation, I can’t deny it.

Nestled amidst and among the city’s 41 historic landmarks, it seems apropos that Christina, a current student in historical preservation, along with sister, Jennifer, help their parents at Kaldi, originally the South Pasadena Bank Building (keeping Mr. Park loosely tethered to his former life in banking).

So in our quaint city of preserved landmarks, a modern surge of creativity brews at Kaldi, the namesake of a legendary goatherd from Ethiopia, believed to have discovered coffee while watching his goats find renewed energy after eating certain red berries.

Passionate about coffee beans, even roasting his own at home, Mr. Park and his wife have brought a new brew to Kaldi. Along with new beans, a new “Open Mic Night” has also been added.

May of 2011 was the last time an event like this took place at Kaldi. But even then, it was not the same because there were only three scheduled acts.

Last Friday marked the first of many to follow. Co-organizers of the event, a local Drew Gale (former Kaldi employee, award winning personal trainer, and musician) and Jonathan Zadok (stand-up comic, entertainer, and musician), who both met while working at the historic Rialto, hope to create a new open-mic tradition of sharing talents while having fun.

When asked, why they switched to an open-mic format, Gale responded without hesitation, that it would be great to “try to get in new people and make it more for the community.” Even children are invited to perform and participate in a coloring contest with prizes. Though kids were not present Friday evening, it was nice to know they are always welcome to join-in.

Though the “open mic” format, in general, originated with the sharing of folk music, today it is an opportunity for members of a community to share their creativity in a supportive environment, be it poetry, music, spoken word, comedy, or a host of other mic-related performances.

But on Friday, original acoustic guitar pieces dominated. Gale, opened the evening with tunes like “Movies with Lewis,” dedicated to an elderly man (a client he walks with as a trainer) with whom he also enjoys watching movies.

Next up was Richie Webb, staff at the local Kinesthetic Kids and a South Pasadena resident. Webb played his music as well as improvising by encouraging the crowd to throw out words. They chose random ones, like “cats, bake sales, and airports.” And Webb delivered with a rhyming musical concoction of a cat getting sick from a bake sale on the way to an airport.

Zadok followed, wearing a multi-colored beanie and singing witty tunes, in line with his life in comedy. Then a soulful Mike Sanjuan shared his original pieces next, enjoying casual tunes among friends. All were amazingly professional, laid-back, and gifted.

Wearing my “Open-Mic at Kaldi” swag, a button pinned to my shirt, and as I spoke with customers and those sharing the mic, I couldn’t help but feel what Mrs. Park spoke of, “Each day I’m learning that [Kaldi] is more than a place to get coffee.”

Yes, in fact, it’s one of several gems in our diverse and small-town neighborhood, where community is more than buildings and programs, but people who help each other, grow and enjoy life between generations.

Future “Open Mic Nights” are planned for every second Friday of the month, sign-ups for acts begin at 6:45 PM with performances winding down by 10 PM.

New Owners: Susan and Chanho Park with daughter, Christina.

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Kaldi: one of South Pasadena’s 41 historic landmarks

The Beauty of Birthdays

I don’t like birthdays. One year, my parents almost forgot mine. I had to remind them at the end of the day… and I’m an only child!

The good-natured, broken-English response I received was, “Everyday your birthday!”

Truthfully, I’m not that bitter. Maybe I need some therapy. But I’m not bitter. Snicker, snicker.

Don’t misunderstand, my childhood was and my parents are wonderful in many ways. But when it comes to birthdays, my family has an obvious deficiency.

So as my big 4-0 approached (or encroached) I welcomed it with arms open wide, like I would an obnoxious nagging in-law, come to stay a few weeks.

Only, getting older never goes away, at least, not in this lifetime. So I’ve had to find a way to make the most of it.

Some of my more celebratory friends believe that birthdays are often things for which to look forward. In the spirit of growing older with grace and wisdom, as opposed to becoming the town’s grumpy old woman, I have tried, really hard, to see it from their perspective.

So I attempted to make sense of and unearth my own way of honoring a milestone. And what did I discover?

I am a beauty whore. (Please don’t stop here, lest you receive a completely deranged version of what I’m about to dissect.)

I am infatuated with and addicted to beauty – not the kind in Cosmopolitan magazine; but of all things beautiful, I am obsessed (scenery, art, food, well-behaved children, you get the idea.)

What does this have to do with birthdays? For me, it’s a time to remind myself of beauty in my life, past, present and future.

I’ve been known to find beloved authors and devour their works in a week (if they have fewer than 3 books). When I find music that inspires, I will listen to it continuously until my children’s ears bleed and they’re begging for mercy. And God help me if I find a television series that sucks me in, I will go without long stretches of sleep for days, resembling a zombie to find out who done it.

But I’m not only neurotic with beautiful mass media. One year I decided to visit just about every museum and architectural gem in LA (buying membership at half the sites and finding “free” days for the others), determined to revisit all year long and soak in the masterpieces that surrounded my South Pasadena home.

Inspirationally beautiful dance, artistically delicious food, visually breathtaking vistas, powerfully awesome weather and selflessly caring people can make me downright emotional when I glimpse their depth and grandness.

And more often than not, the old adage rings true, the simplest things in life do bring the greatest joy. I love listening to my kids play the piano or crack silly mindless jokes. I enjoy the farmers market, watching my children play around the ginormous exposed roots of the old Moreton Bay Fig by the library, walking by historic structures, and taking our dog and kids for a walk at Garfield Park. I look forward to breakfast at Gus’s on the weekends and a good red velvet cupcake from My Sweet Cupcake that can cure all ills.

My heart sings when humanity trumps selfishness, when friends fight for and find reconciliation, or when love is enough. Beauty and a healthy dose of your mortality combined can move and motivate. Birthdays are an excellent reminder of these.

When my 40th birthday arrived this year, to my pleasant surprise, it felt good. I was hopeful to fulfill my bucket list, to experience beauty and share it with others.

Whether at Christmas, in death (remembering a life), or during cheeseburger week (a recent reality in Pasadena) or on your own birthday, a friend’s birthday or a city’s birthday, whether you’re 4, 40 or 124… celebrating is important, giving us reminders to live life in the fullest most beautiful way possible, no matter our current circumstance.

It’s a time of renewal, to align or realign all the riches you want out of the short time we have on earth. And if you look deep enough, monetary value has nothing to do with it (although, money doesn’t hurt.) Rather, your riches and gifts are made more beautiful when shared with those who need it the most, in your community and around the world.

I still don’t like birthdays. But drown it in beauty and I may tolerate it.

Happy 124th, South Pasadena! May we, the community at large, be a landscape of all things beautiful, embracing the challenges (and challenging people) while celebrating what we already have and the beauty yet to come.

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A Dog, a Moment and a Sunny South Pas

It was an absolutely gorgeous, sunny winter day last week in South Pasadena, California, just a tad under 80 degrees with bright blue skies and fresh, rain-washed air. It was the kind of day for which people uproot their entire family and move here!

My faithful Terri-Poo, Bree, and I were on the back porch soaking in the sun. Bree was enjoying the splash of water from the fountain to the grass and I was enjoying a wise and hysterical book on writing by Anne Lamott.

When it was time to go in, I called out “Breezy” to make sure she knew where I was going. But really, I think I called her because I needed a dose of my pooch’s love. And she delivered.

As the following unraveled, I was reminded of why I love this member of the family so much.

While entering the house, Bree was quick to follow, but then she paused just outside the threshold. She turned, craning her neck around to glance behind at the beautiful outdoors. Then she glanced longingly back at me, as if to say, “What? You want me to come in on a day like this? You’ve got to be kidding me! But you feed me and I love you more than this day; and if you want me to come in, I will.”

Yes, I am a dog whisperer. She said all this in one adorable glance.

Then uncaringly, like many distracted pet owners, I walked inside to go about my business. But I wasn’t completely uncaring because I left the door open for her to choose to stay outside or come in.

She came in, dragging her paws and with head held low. I heard her quiet, complaint-filled mumbling behind me, “Fine. I’ll come into the cold cave you call home because you’re too cheap to turn on the heater. I’ll come in; but I don’t have to like it. Grumble, grumble.”

So I turned around and got down to her level, kind of like I do with my 4-year-old human (many similar training techniques, but that’s another story). And I began to stroke her and speak gently into her big dark eyes, like she understood every wise word issuing from my lips. “Breezy, You don’t have to stay by my side. You can go out and enjoy the perfect day.”

And surprisingly (I mean, I knew she understood my every word all along), I kid you not, she turned around and leaped back toward the door. But she also stopped midway and turned around as if to say, “Are you sure now? Because once I step across to the other side, I’m outta here!”

I responded aloud, “Yes, go ahead. I’ll be right here with the door open, waiting for your return, and writing about how much I love sunny South Pas and you.”

Wind Whipped War Zone

In the wake of an early morning whipping from the Santa Ana’s, South Pasadena and surrounding communities suffered one of the worst windstorms in recent history.

As gusts of up to 97 miles per hour (as recorded around Los Angeles) barged through December’s doors, we were not fully prepared for the equivalent of a stage 1 to stage 2 hurricane-like wind condition. Any wind speed above 75 mph is classified as hurricane winds, so we were well within what many southern states are usually forewarned about and prepared for.

Our homes, businesses, and trees were simply not used to this sort of abuse and few were ready. After all, we’re earthquake country, not hurricane ally!

Like many during the night and morning of November 30 and December 1, respectively, our family (including the dog) huddled together in the dark of a power outage. Emergency vehicle sirens, car alarms, and random wind-whipped objects kept us up, as we wondered when the calamity would stop. I could not sleep until after 3 AM; and that, only because I used earplugs.

The next morning, the electric alarm clock did not go off. But perhaps out of habit, we woke at about the usual time and rushed to get ready for the day, unaware of the destruction outside.

As we exited our home to get the kids to school on time, we surveyed the damage: our beautiful Australian Willow in the back yard didn’t make it through the night (thankfully, it fell away from the house), the front yard maples lost hefty branches, our 2-inch thick swinging wooden car gate cracked in two places, my hand-sewn seat cushion disappeared and more.

On our block, the house next door lost windows, the house across the street lost a significant part of their roof, neighbors were cleaning their property, torn power lines dangled in mid air, and three mature palm trees were decapitated. And this was noticed upon first glance, while walking the dog and talking with neighbors.

Perhaps, still in denial or thinking it was better at school, we proceeded with our usual routine. Then, the extent of the devastation began to sink in. We were weaving through a nature-induced war zone. And our street got off easy compared to the wreckage we witnessed: trees on top of cars, trees blocking streets, leaning fences and debris everywhere.

My boys kept saying, “Look at that! Oh, look at that! Oh my gosh…” I was simply focused on not hitting the car in front of me, going at a snail’s pace because the streetlights were all out. We were late; but it was a good thing, because while we were in the car I got the cell phone call from the SPUSD, school was canceled. We turned the car around and took the 15-minute, 1.5-mile detour home.

As the days rolled by, stories of individual hardships poured in. There was chaos with families as children were dropped off at various South Pasadena schools, then classes were canceled and parents had to fight their way back through traffic to pick-up or find their children.

One story that appalled me was of a friend who (like many were dealing with a mess on their property) was also burglarized while at work that same day, heaping insult upon injury. Though according to Officer Richard Lee of the South Pasadena Police, the number of burglaries since the heavy winds was not unusually high, the rates rising since October.

School was cancelled again for Friday. My friend (still without power) and I decided to take our children out to breakfast. As we visited one of the few open restaurants, we immediately noticed how packed it was with families, kids, people trying to connect to the Internet, etc. And strangers at surrounding tables, like family, shared their wind-induced hardships and close calls.

I never felt so much camaraderie with neighbors. It felt bitter sweet to connect with each other through our challenges, but that’s what it took: often, through hardship we break open.

I’m sad for our loss. We love our trees, excellent schools, beautiful homes, and quaint community. The clean up is extensive and expensive. People are still suffering loss. But if any good has or can come out of this, it’s that we all have an opportunity to better prepare for an even bigger emergency. And at least for now, we can also begin to more deeply recognize our humanity: people reaching out to help each other, sharing our stories, sharing our pain. Let’s not lose this chance to offer our help, big or small, and mean it.

Inspiration in South Pasadena

Whether born and raised here or adopted into the heart, like myself, South Pasadena is a haven, rejuvenating the soul, for those who value the warmth of a small town set comfortably in a modern world.

As I live in and enjoy my neighborhood, I am thrilled to consistently discover new gems to enliven my soul. Whether it’s learning to bake pizza at Fiore Market Café or being inspired during an author night at the South Pasadena Library, I’m deeply grateful for the place our family calls home.

With a rich history (officially incorporated into a city in 1888) and a vibrant future that is evident in the proud residents who occupy it, SOUTH Pasadena (the “crown of the valley”) draws in the population with a magnetism that keeps spirits and house prices high.

Immersed in our walkable city (“Tree City USA,” in fact) are excellent schools, an award-winning Farmers’ Market, good eats, remarkable turn-of-the-century architecture, large exotic (albeit ridiculously loud yet lovely) parrots, and a landmark vintage water tower overlooking friendly citizens (among many other charms I hope to highlight in the months ahead).

On the west, we have the southernmost section of the Arroyo Seco greenbelt, full of opportunities for outdoor enjoyment, from horseback riding stables, tennis courts, and golf courses to athletic fields, batting cages, and an open-air skate park.

We have a decent-sized hill in Monterey Hills; and for better or for worse, a train (which my sons happen to love) flowing through our nostalgic downtown mom-and-pop shops. We have a freeway of our own in the 110 and we proudly don’t have another freeway in the 710. So our topography is certainly varied and our resolve to keep our environs healthy, solid.

All of this (mini overview) to say: our town, however small (consisting of 3.44 square miles), is large on stimulating the psyche. Whether you are part of an exclusive umpteenth generation of South Pasadenans or moved in yesterday, there are treasures galore to enjoy, old and new.

As we journey into all that makes South Pasadena beautiful, I hope to walk with you as we discover (or rediscover) that which ignites our being – to see, to feel, and to give back to our diverse community, inspiring the senses, inspiring the soul.

Facts to support this story were found on the City of South Pasadena website and Britannica.com  

Rolling Out the Dough: Bread & Pizza Making at Fiore

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The warm scent of yeast from a fresh risen loaf of bread wafts through the air from the corner of Fremont and El Centro. Last Tuesday evening, Fiore Market Café, owned by Bill and Anne Disselhorst, had their 2nd bread making class for a quaint group of 5 students. The week before, they had their first pizza making class with 10 budding amateur chefs, including myself.

Though I absolutely melt before fresh baked breads, what truly drew me to the classes was Fiore’s consistently delicious menu. I have tried a variety of fare issuing from their kitchen. I am pleasantly surprised with new favorites each time (like the short rib sandwich, roast chicken sandwich, or the vegetarian chopped salad). From their salad dressings, soups, and breads to their sandwiches, desserts, and drinks – all are fresh, homemade, creative, and simply delicious.

The inspiration for Fiore’s American-European, edible delights stem from Bill and Anne’s many cooking adventures while living in Italy. Their newfound friends taught them a new way of enjoying food, utilizing their hands to prepare homemade dishes while using fresh local ingredients. Bill beams and his smile widens when reminiscing about their experience there, “They have a craftsman-like attitude about cooking.”

Another inspiration (for the tasty cinnamon raisin bread, in particular, which is only sold on Friday and Saturday) finds it’s roots in Bill’s grandmother, Nana Gallagher, as he sidled up to her while she regularly cooked for a group of “orphans or truant boys.”

Fast forward to August 23, 2011, at Fiore’s bread making class, it was mostly about the dough: what to mix, how to briefly kneed and shape, how long to rise and rest, and bake in a typical stainless steel pan with lid on in the oven, a unique and effective method. Even for me, a self-declared “non-cook,” this bread was surprisingly simple to make!

After shaping the prepared dough, and during the second rising, with the help of Bill’s son, Patrick, we made pesto from the basil in their garden. We grinded it with olive oil the old fashioned way, with mortar and pestle (instead of a blender), brushed it on a sheet of dough, which was prepared earlier. Then we added course kosher salt and a fresh roasted tomato mixture, also prepared earlier. Baked it. Ate it. Yummmmm!

In between the rising and baking, we snacked on roasted figs, toasted walnuts and Danish blue cheese (a heavenly combination for my palate). We also munched on fruit and other cheeses, then washed it all down with some homemade lemonade and fresh brewed ice tea. This was a meal in and of itself! Then we practiced combining ingredients to help make bread for the next day.

Not only did I learn about an easy, homemade, tastier way to eat, but I had the privilege of getting to know my neighbors, Michelle, Chi-Ling, Nathaniel and Laura, in a relaxed atmosphere, where good food is not eaten fast, but savored and enjoyed with new friends.

After the bread flour flew and the yeast worked its magic in the oven, we all left with a fresh loaf of bread that I couldn’t resist biting into immediately. Before my head hit the pillow that night, half was gone and my tummy was delighted.

In addition to the bread and pizza making classes, future classes may include making Fiore’s popular cinnamon raisin bread or a scone version. I am quietly campaigning for a soup making class, as well, maybe learning one of Bill’s inspired concoctions served during the lunch hour.

Fiore Market Café is located at 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena. They are open Monday-Thursday 11 AM – 6 PM, Friday-Saturday 11 AM – 8 PM, and Sunday 12-4 PM. For more information on classes ($25), their menu, etc… go to fioremarketcafe.com or contact them at 626.441.2280.