A Los Angeles Moment

Never Built Los Angeles poster

More greetings from Los Angeles.

Tonight I attended my cousin Sam Lubell’s exhibit “Never Built Los Angeles” at the Museum of Architecture + Design. I was walking through this amazing exhibit of very cool buildings that never came to be with my high school friend Barry.

Los Angeles could have been a far more interesting city architecturally if some of these projects had been realized. (If you won’t be able to see the exhibit, you can buy Sam’s book here.)

As we perused the exhibits, Barry told me about a film he wrote several years ago. This led to what Barry called “a typical LA moment.”

What happened was that a tall and fast-talking, slightly disheveled stranger interrupted us.

“Tell me your story about making a film. I’m making a film,” he said. Barry and I didn’t appreciate the strange interruption.

“I’m not a film maker, I’m a real estate broker,” Barry said. (Barry is a partner at Deasy/Penner & Partners.)

“Oh good, I can help you,” the stranger said. “People trust me because I’m an architect. If you ever have a client who is on the fence about a house, you can call me and I’ll tell them how great the house is so they’ll buy it,” he continued. Then he thrust his business card into Barry’s palm and said, “Call me, we’ll do lunch,” before scurrying away.

Barry and I laughed and shook our heads. What a nut, I thought. If Barry had said he owned a bakery, the guy would have probably said he could come over and ice some cup cakes. If Barry had said he owned a clothing store, the guy would have probably said he was an expert tailor.

First a filmmaker and then an architect on the take. The guy might as well have just walked over and said, “Whatever it is you do, let me in on the deal.” He was like a character that had been plucked directly out of a sitcom.

This was the point where Barry proclaimed the whole thing “An LA Moment.”

Now I understand how TV and movie writers get all those wacky ideas for their scripts. All they have to do to create an entertaining story is walk around Los Angeles and pull from real life.

Big Sugar, So Many Cupcakes

Big sugar yellow cupcake chocolate frosting

Greetings from Los Angeles.

I spent a couple of hours this morning at my friend Lisa’s bakery, Big Sugar. If you haven’t been to Big Sugar, you are missing out. Pretty much everything Lisa makes is better than anyone else’s. Cupcakes, cookies, and especially her Buckeyes—those creamy peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate that look like chocolate eyeballs and taste like heaven.

big sugar buckeye dipped

I went to Big Sugar at 6 a.m. this morning and watched Lisa and her crew bake. A team of three—including Lisa—work a seven hour shift every morning to make several hundred cupcakes per day. Even more than normal today, because it’s Saturday—which is a big day for cupcake consumption.

Many women I know fantasize about how much simpler and less stressful their life would be if they started some sort of food business.

Simpler and less stressful, I laugh. About two-hundred cupcakes plus dozens of other treats per day. Not to mention frantic and desperate parents calling to say, “Today is my daughter’s birthday and I need a cake right away.”

From what I see, simpler and less stressful is not a valid definition.Big sugar cupcake batter

 

At Big Sugar, the cupcake baking process is fast and streamlined. Batter gets scooped a tray that holds twenty-four cupcakes. The filled tray gets popped into the oven. One batch comes out, another goes in. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s as smoothly choreographed as a ballet.

Big sugar red velvet cupcake batter

Big sugar red velvet cupcakes baking

Cooled cupcakes get iced. Lisa creates a perfect frosting swirl on the top of every cupcake. Her process is to plop a healthy dollop of frosting into the middle of a cupcake, then softly pat it down about nine times with a short, wide spatula to get the frosting spread evenly. Then she pushes the top of the spatula lightly into the frosting puddle and quickly gives the cupcake one complete twirl. The twirling creates a small, circular indent in the frosting that looks sort of like a moat surrounding a hill.

Big sugar cupcake swirl

Lisa’s final step is to give the cupcake a quick twirl in the opposite direction while pulling the spatula toward the center.

Big sugar cupcake final swirl

Ta-da! A perfect icing swirl.

The trick is to complete the swirl process in seven seconds—or less—per cupcake. Lisa does it so fast you can barely see what she’s doing. That’s what you have to do to have two-hundred or more cupcakes ready at opening time.

I watch Lisa frost tray after tray. She is fast and precise. There are no mistakes. Not a single cupcake needs to be re-frosted.

Big sugar cupcakes on tray

Some of the finished cupcakes get placed in three straight lines on white rectangular trays. These will sit on display inside a glass case near the cash register. Some of the cupcakes go into bleach-white boxes with Big Sugar stickers precisely adhered to the bottom right corner of the lid.

Big Sugar box

Hundreds of cupcakes plus donut muffins and scones and buckeyes EVERY DAY. My head spins. “How do you do it?” I ask.

Big sugar mini-cupcakes

“You have to be a tiny bit ill—OCD—to really excel,” Lisa says.

I’m tempted to try the frosting twirling when I get home, but I’m going to try to resist the urge. I just don’t think I have it in me.

It’s probably better to leave the cupcake baking to the experts.

 

What Decatur Can Learn From Savannah

DSC_5445

Ron and I are visiting Savannah for three days. I can’t start to tell you how beautiful it is here. Tree-lined streets, brick antebellum mansions, lush gardens, curtains of  Spanish moss,  Cooling fountains, lush public squares.

What I didn’t expect is that in a way, it reminds me of home in Decatur.

What gives Savannah its charm is that the city has preserved its green space, many of its historic buildings and the pedestrian-friendly scale of its architecture. I’m sure Marriott would love to build a 20-story hotel down by the riverfront—but there are rules in place to stop that.

Maintaining this warm, human, scale required heroic efforts on the part of the Historic Savannah Foundation. Many grand old buildings were lost—but even more were saved.

For instance, in 1954, the original Savannah City Market at Ellis Square—where everyone bought their produce—was demolished to build a parking lot. Ellis Square, established in the 1700s was one of the first four public squares plotted by Georgia and Savannah’s founder, James Edward Oglethorpe.

Savannah residents refused to live with the loss of Ellis Square. In 2005—nearly 50 years later—the city razed the parking garage, constructed underground parking and turned ground level back into a public space.

This is the part that reminds me of what’s going on at home in Decatur: Our city planner’s office seems to have mysteriously revised some ordinances without public hearing last December—coincidentally just in time for a developer to request permits. Also coincidentally, the developer’s project takes full advantage of the relaxed setbacks and increased building density allowed by the new ordinances.

The new development will be apartments—tasteful if somewhat crowded onto the site. But the piece de resistance will be a parking garage that will sit on a hill—and thus become the towering visual focal point of Decatur’s skyline as people approach heading east into town.

My neighbors are soliciting support and have hired a lawyer to challenge the validity of the revised ordinances. I’m glad they are fighting for the pedestrian-friendly character of our city, the way the residents of Savannah fought for theirs.

Parking_Deck_Design_Scale_and_Visibility_Issues

It’s much easier to stop the construction of buildings that change the scale of your town before they are built than it is to live with those buildings once it’s too late. Most properties don’t get a do over the way that Ellis Square did. And when they do, it only happens after many, many years.

Decatur might not be Savannah, but to us, it’s home. And at its present scale—it’s a pretty darn nice place to live.

 

Sultry, Sexy Savannah

Savannah square

Ron and I are visiting Savannah for three days. I can’t start to tell you how beautiful the historic district here is. Tall trees arch nimbly over public squares. Spanish moss dangles from branches.

Think New Orleans Garden District without the sleazy stuff.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil house

I can’t stop staring at the antebellum mansions. Tall columns sprout salad-like Corinthian capitals.

Corinthian columns Mercer House Savannah

Graceful staircases curl upward, connecting sidewalk to front porches. I imagine a Southern belle wearing a full hoop skirt a la Scarlet O’Hara. She steps out of a carriage, then regally parades her way up the stairs and into the front parlor.

Savannah wrought iron

And oh, the wrought iron! Gates and fences and balconies and window grates. They elevate the elegance level of the houses, the way the right scarf can make an outfit sing.

Savannah wrought iron

As we leave our bed and breakfast for dinner, the sultry air hugs us with an earthy perfume. Harmonic insects engulf us in a symphony. Their melodic tsch, tsch, tsch swells and ebbs. I picture the orchestra as Disneyesque, an ensemble of tuxedo-clad crickets, all following the lead of their conductor—a preying mantis.

Savannah trees

This is perfect I think. Why can’t home be like this?

But maybe home is like this. We might not have antebellum architecture, but there are lots of cute bungalows nestled into a sub-tropical landscape. And we do have some of the same earthy smells and charming sounds. But there, I brush them off as ordinary. At home, sultry air equals nasty humidity. And I recognize the aural symphony as what it is: evil bugs eating away at the trees.

But here in Savannah, it all feels extraordinary. But then again, I’m on vacation.

Vacation isn’t really a time or a place. It’s a state of mind.

Stalking David Sedaris

DSC_5283

If you are lucky enough to meet your personal Rock Star, how do you succeed in making an impression on them? (And by Rock Star, I mean the famous or abnormally successful person whom the very thought of  transforms you from a rational human being into a fan, groupie, or even a crazed–and potentially dangerous–stalker.)

This is something I can’t answer.

In late May, David Sedaris—my personal Rock Star—did a reading and signing at our Barnes and Noble—the one just four miles from our home. Normally a five-foot six-inch tall, middle-aged gay man who speaks in a slightly pitchy voice wouldn’t get me excited. But for David, I waited an hour-and-a-half in the morning to get tickets for the signing and another hour-and-a-half later that afternoon guarding my spot for the reading.

When you look at the facts, David’s not glamorous at all. From the stories in David’s books, I know that most of his original teeth have rotted away. That when he was a kid he used to hit himself over the head with his shoe. And per the essay David wrote in the June 3 issue of The New Yorker, his plumbing isn’t up to par these days either. “Yes, the washer on my penis has worn out, leaving me to dribble urine long after I’ve zipped my trousers back up,” he says.

Short and crazy with bad teeth–and leaks pee. Not what I normally consider attractive features. But in David, they seem cute and sweet and endearing. This is how it works with personal Rock Stars. You idolize something about them so much, that you forgive their shortcomings.

This was the third time I’d gone to see David. The first two readings required purchasing tickets and one of those events required driving two hours each way from Maine to Boston. Not only was totally worth the effort to see David all three times, but if I ever have another opportunity to hear David read again, I’ll do it again.

I racked my brain as I waited in the signing line. I really wanted to say something clever so David would remember me. Maybe I could make him laugh. Then he’d invite me to visit him and his partner Hugh at their home in the English countryside. Or maybe he’d volunteer to read some of my work and share it with his editor.

“Are you sure ? I wouldn’t want to impose,” I’d say.

Instead, I went blank. What could I possibly say that would be amusing to David Sedaris?

David asked me how old I was and when I said 49, he said 49 wasn’t old, but that 56 was—and that he was 56. I stood there silently, staring, wishing something clever would come out of my mouth.

“You’re supposed to say, ‘You don’t look it,’” he said, sketching an owl and his name into the inside front cover of his new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. Guess I blew that one.

Then my 60-seconds with my rock star were over.

I went away happy with my encounter with David, who took my lack of social grace in stride. He’s probably used to inarticulate fans. No, David was great. What disappointed me was my own ability to be clever and poised under pressure.

So much for making an impression on my Rock Star. Perhaps I’ll do better the next time I see David…

Storyteller’s Interpretation

orchid money shot

The macro photography class I took a couple of weeks ago at the Atlanta Botanical Garden with Charles Needle made me think about how people integrate their personal perspective into the way they tell stories.

I took the class to improve my photography, so my objective for the day was to experiment with different exposures and lighting techniques to learn how each of them would impact my photographs. I chose an orchid, a Phalaenopsis with rose-colored lips and speckled petals. It had a really great pair of magenta fangs that curved upward from its center–like a tiny pair of Gene Simmons tongues.

I spent an entire hour making this orchid my bitch. I went shallow depth of field and focused on the details in the foreground only so people would zoom in on the fangs. Then I went deep depth of field and articulated a lot more of my orchid’s details.

orchid shallow dof

orchid great dof

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also experimented with lighting. I held a gold reflector next to the flower to bathe it in a halo of warm glow. I used a white LED flashlight to highlight a single part of the orchid, causing the lips and center to stand out further. Light from a blue LED flashlight distorted the image. In that shot, my orchid glowed turquoise and looked sort of creepy and wrong—like I’d run it through a Photoshop filter, even though I hadn’t.

Orchid with highlight

orchid blue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I changed shot angles. I flooded the petals with red light and created a horror story.When I slowed down the shutter speed and made my orchid look even more horrific—like a carnival fun-house version of the gates of hell. My choice of angle and technique impacted not just the image, but the emotion the image elicited.

orchid change of angle

orchid change of angle redorchid change of angle hell

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the day, I had to select a single image to share with the rest of my class. It was up to me to determine how everyone else would see–and interpret–that orchid. Up to me to tell that orchid’s story.

As I narrowed down to the one photo I felt described the orchid best, my head buzzed with intoxicating chemicals. In that moment, I was Queen of the Orchids. The Great and Powerful Oz. A political consultant.

Ok, I exaggerate. That’s what I do with my stories, I exaggerate. Not because I mean to, but because exaggeration is how I convey how much I  feel about whatever it is I’m telling. This applies as much to when I  recap my day to a friend as it does to when I write an essay.

How do you adapt your stories–verbal and otherwise–to convey what you feel?

Do you do it on purpose or is it just something that happens?

PS- I shared the image that appears at the top of the page.

 

 

 

 

Inane Conversations With Myself

raspberry donut

Everyone has an Achilles’ heel, a weakness that has the potential to undermine all of their positive qualities. Superman had kryptonite, The Wicked Witch of the West had water, Imelda Marcos had shoes. Mine is that I think too much.

Those of you who know me well understand that this is something I’ve excelled at my entire life. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t written much recently.

Lately, the things I’ve been overthinking include: What I should write? How I should write it? What is unique that will draw readers to me? What are my goals as a writer? How does my blog fit into and advance my goals as a writer? What do readers want to read? Who is my target audience and how do I reach them?

Of course these thoughts occur in a less organized way. It goes down more like this:

Me: I really want to write a blog post about my donut.

Internal Bad Cop: OK, but what is the plan?

Me: My plan? To write a blog post about my donut…

Bad Cop: No, no, no. You can’t just write a blog post about your donut. Remember that seminar you went to? The blogosphere is crowded. You can’t just write about anything you want. You have to have a niche, a unique angle, then turn yourself into an expert or a character. Think Happiness Project or The Pioneer Woman.

Me: But I like to write about everyday life as well as food and travel. You know, things that make me laugh or smile.

Bad Cop: No, no, no. WAY TOO WIDE. Think narrow end of the funnel. Like the woman whose posts are all thoughts on Post-It notes. Or that guy who posts photos of beautiful women with douchey-looking guys. People love those blogs.

Me: Well, I could narrow the focus to just food…

Bad Cop: Food? Do you know how many people already write about food? Plus they are much better recipe developers and food stylists than you will ever be. If you’re going to do food, you’ve gotta get specific. Go where no one else has gone before. I know—DONUTS.  You want to write about that stupid donut—go for it. But then do it every day.

Me: Write about donuts every day? Seems like that would get a little repetitious.

Bad Cop: In the blogosphere, repetition is a good thing. People will come back if they know what to expect.

Me: I wish you’d stop saying blogosphere. Is that even a word?

Bad Cop: Let me check. Yup, yup. Wikipedia says it’s a word. Urban Dictionary too.

Me: Ok, fine. Blogosphere is a word. But I’m still not sure about donuts every day. Shouldn’t I write about things that interest me regardless of whether I can organize them into a neat little marketable package—or not?

Bad Cop: Sure, if you want to take the risk that no one will ever read it. The least you can do is to make it a little salacious or provocative. Innuendo always gets people’s attention. And speaking of marketing, this would be a good time to think about the monetization of your blog. What might make it attractive to an advertiser or sponsor? What potential products could you sell from your site?

Me: (silent pout for five minutes)

Bad Cop: Ok, ok. How a compromise. Maybe fried food…

Me: I don’t know. Still sounds like it would get very repetitious after a while.

Bad Cop: Repetitious? No way. You could do fried clams, fried artichokes, fried Oreos, onion rings, French fries, fried eggs, fried bologna sandwiches…

Me: But I’m trying not to eat as much fried food. At 50, my metabolism can’t burn off fat the way it use to.

Bad Cop: Do you want people to read your blog or not? Fried chicken, fried Milky Way candy bars, chicken fried steak, fried shrimp, fried rice, fried grasshoppers—and even that stupid donut of yours is fried.

Me: Ok, ok, fried food. So now let me get back to what I was trying to do in the first place—write about my donut.

Bad Cop: Hold on. You can’t write anything yet. You haven’t named your blog.

Me: Shouldn’t I just write some posts first, on the blog that I have? After I see where it’s going I can worry about a name.

Bad Cop: Sure. Do that—If you want to risk loosing out on the best blog name possible. URLs are going fast. In fact, I read somewhere that all the best ones are gone already. Wait if you want. But it won’t be my fault when you get stuck with a loser .biz or a .co url.

Me: Ok, ok. So what do you suggest?

Bad Cop: How about High Frying.com or FryFryAgain.com.

Me: FryFryAgain is kinda cute. Let me check WestHost to see if it’s available…Oh shoot. Taken. By a fryer management company. Whatever fryer management is.

Bad Cop: See. You’re already too late. Someone else has stolen your big chance for blogging success… Your blogging career is over as fast as it started. Wait—what about this: FrydayNightBites.com—you could post once a week—on Friday night…

Me: FrydayNightBites? That’s just stupid.

Bad Cop: Just check WestHost to see if it’s available…Or maybe FridayNightBites instead and your focus is easy finger-food sort of stuff…

See why I haven’t been able to get anything done?

Personal Perspective-Aliens In Orchids

Orchid sea creature 2

A couple of weeks ago, I took a macro photography class at the Atlanta Botanical Garden with Charles Needle.

Macro photography is where objects are shot larger than life size. It’s really interesting to discover what you notice when you really look up close at things.

We got to shoot in the orchid house, which is an amazing place. Many of the orchids were varieties that I’d never seen before.

orchid squid 3

orchid sea creature

A peach-colored orchid that had a brown spot on its side that resembled an eye–and dangling white tentacles. It looked more sea creature than flower and made me think about snorkeling in Hawaii. When I emailed the botanist the following week, she said it was a variety of Stanhopa.

Alien orchid 1

I also noticed that many of the orchids have a part in the center that looks like a baby alien. The first one I spotted had angry eyes, a yellow gaping mouth (which reminded me the mask worn by the killer in the movie Scream), a well as the requisite oversized throbbing cranium.

orchid alien 2

Another alien had child-bearing hips and spindly arms that reached up and grabbed its head in an “oh no!” gesture.

What great movie premise! Alien embryos secretly deposited inside of Earth flowers grow to unnoticed maturity—then launch an invasion. Will Smith could star…

The rest of you see aliens when you look at orchids too, right?

Madeira Espetada: Spectacle of Meat

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

I’ve been thinking about how when I was a kid, my favorite restaurant meals were the ones where they prepared or served the food with a flourish. Pizza dough tossed to the ceiling, the spinning salad at Lawry’s, Steak Diane flambeéd tableside at the Hotel Roanoke (which looked like this).

Based on my enthusiastic response to the Espetada we were served at Restaurante Santo António on the island of Madeira, this is one aspect of me that hasn’t changed. I can no longer do a cartwheel and it’s been years since I have responded to the call of “Do the hustle.” But bring out the food theatrics—and I’ll push my way to the front of the line.

I gaped and giggled as our waiter approached with a 4-foot long skewer of beef. It was a real man’s man sort of presentation worthy of people like King Henry the Eighth, Neandertahl man and Hagrid.

Really, it was a 4-foot long skewer. With almost 18″ inches of beef chunks. If you don’t believe me, just look at the photos.

When the waiter got to our table, he hung the giant skewer pendulum-like from a four-foot high iron hook that rose out of the middle of our table. With the restaurant’s high ceilings, minimal décor and bulky wood tables, the whole thing had sort of a dramatic, mead-hall feel.

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

The only way it could have been better is if the meat had been served impaled on an actual medieval sword.

I almost wanted to stand up and salute.

Espetada is a traditional dish on the island of Madeira. Big nuggets of meltingly tender beef threaded with a little bit of bay leaf and grilled fast over an open fire. A small plate positioned under the beef catches the drops of au jus that slide down the skewer.

We went at lunchtime, so the place was filled with large, extended families—all happily jabbering away and enjoying their own Espetada.

Espetada Restaurante Santo António Madeira

I’d like to thank Joel, a Madeira native I stalked on the message boards of Chowhound.com for leading me to Restaurante Santo António. The restaurant is in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos, a mountain village 15-minutes from Funchal. Ron and I got there by cab.

They serve Espetada at some of the restaurants in Funchal, but I never saw in-town skewers more than 12” long. Espetada light, after you’ve seen the super-sized version.

Ron and I tried a chicken skewer too, which had a light yellow curry flavor. Side dishes are salad, Bolo do Caco (a traditional round and somewhat flat loaf served with garlic butter) and Milho Frito—cubes of deep-fried polenta. Everything was really good. If I went back, I’d have the same meal again—maybe with the addition of their French fries.

Whatever you do, don’t touch the skewers. We found out the hard way that they are very hot!

(Get Saveur magazine’s recipe for Espetada here.)

The Right Frame of Mind to Write

Creative womb

 

Some of you have been wondering why I haven’t been posting. Although I’ve wanted to write, I haven’t been able to. I seem to have lost my connection to the part of my brain that gets beyond wanting to write and actually does write.

I’ve had so much to write about, too. Since moving to Atlanta in November I’ve been to Chicago, Seville, Boston, Madeira, Lisbon, New Orleans, Las Vegas (twice), the North Georgia Mountains, and San Francisco. Every place had stories to tell. I just can’t get into the right frame of mind to write them.

My ability to create has become as illusive as a mobile phone signal in the Ozark Mountains

So what happened?

Honestly, who the hell knows?

What I do know is that when I’m writing prolifically, it’s because I’ve been able to crawl into a cerebral womb. A safe-room in my head that insulates me, even from my own doubts. Inside my womb I am obsessed, almost possessed. Writing is a game. I giggle when I find just the right word, mentally high-five myself when I cut a wordy paragraph down to a single, clear sentence. My internal critic goes silent. Hours pass without me realizing. Sometimes a whole day.

Being inside the womb feels really, really good. Intoxicating. Like being on drugs. Only better because you don’t get a hangover, nothing goes missing or gets broken, and the worst consequence is that your family gets pissed when you postpone lunch until tomorrow or the next day.

When I’m in my womb, I feel so satiated by doing the work that it doesn’t matter that only a handful of people will read it. Nor does it matter that I’ll probably never turn my essay writing into financial success.

Things had been going great until right before our move to Georgia. I’d been able to create at least one blog post a week. That’s when I found myself outside the womb. I don’t even know how it happened. One day I was in, the next I was out.

I think every writer and artist (and even the people who have to come up with new ideas at work or to entertain their children) experiences this. One day, you wake up and you just can’t make it happen. It feels like someone has cut the giant umbilical cord that delivers the sustenance that enables you to create. The flow is cut off. Nada. Caput. Gone.

Being locked outside my own womb makes me feel lonely, angry—and incapable.

Feelings which, in turn, seem to make it even harder to get back into the womb. It’s an endless circle of frustration.

After six months of writers block, I’ve had enough. I want back in my womb.  I miss that magical, enchanted state. The satisfaction of getting words onto the page screen.

I’m not sure how to get there, but I’m going to take the fact that I’ve been able to write this as a promising sign.

So how do you do it? How do you kick-start the creative flow so you can crawl back into your womb? Please share…