Reflecting on Community While Quarantined

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude and how to write about it without sounding like every other knucklehead in Los Angeles clutching their mala beads or exploiting this sacred practice to peddle premium kombucha. A perhaps cynical segue into self-reflecting on all the things I’m grateful for that seemed so trivial a few short weeks ago, but sarcasm is one of my greatest coping mechanisms and, if I do say so myself, gifts.

I’m a loner at heart, which always seems nuts to my inner tribe because I can be very outgoing amidst close friends and family. But if I don’t know you, I won’t go out of my way to engage, so all this social distancing is sort of a dream. While sarcasm is one of my gifts, embracing isolation may be my superpower. There have been periods of my life where I’ve spent months alone wandering the globe, and most recently pausing my career for 9 months to focus on writing. If it weren’t for my dog getting me out for walks and that nagging voice in my head that forces me to hit the gym, it’s fair to say I would have inadvertently been in self-quarantine before this crisis ever christened our shores.

Despite my leanings towards introversion, I do appreciate a sense of community. And in our neighborhood, that may be what defines it against other LA county enclaves. I miss our Sunday midday-to-sundown drum circles on the beach. I miss watching our local roller dancers and skateboarders entertain the crowds. I miss the usual boardwalk characters, who make a living by simply being a bit offbeat. I miss watching – and participating in — the weekly electric bike parade from Venice to Santa Monica complete with mobile DJs and boom boxes. I miss people watching and stealing snippets of an overheard conversation or a look between lovers to add color to a character in a script.

I miss live music, almost desperately. Nothing represents community to me more than the communal pleasure of people coming together to let go and revel in something that’s sole purpose is to evoke a sense of joy.

But more than anything, I miss the dark and eerie bar I write in. I miss my bartender who calls me Mrs. McDonald (my married name, something only he and my mother would do). I miss the smell of whiskey and bitters and freshly sliced citrus. I miss the regulars and the tourists who stumble in off the beach by accident and are delighted by her history. I miss my favorite doorman who’s always reading hyper-intellectual novels while he passively cards patrons as they pass through the door. I miss the entire ritual, something I’ll never take for granted again.

Look, LA has admittedly rubbed off on me. I have a symbol tattooed on my wrist that is meant to be the universal marker for gratitude, for fuck sake. But I’m a spiritual person and have always engaged in daily gratitude rituals. In this moment in time, though, they feel more meaningful than ever.

Venice Beach Drum Circle

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Will the Real LA Hipsters Please Stand Up?

I’ve never fancied myself a hipster. Never once have I made coffee by way of pour-over vs. my durable DeLonghi espresso machine. I don’t sip alkaline water from a bottle with an amethyst protruding from it’s base nor do I support white 90s Reebok sneakers worn with floral frocks.

By definition, I always felt that I rated rather low on the hipster spectrum quotient. Per urban dictionary, “hipsters are people who try too hard to be different by rejecting anything they deem to be too popular. Ironically, so many other people also try too hard to be different that they all wind up being the exact same, so hipsters aren’t actually different at all.”

I assure you, I’m the only woman in my neighborhood wearing zebra print H&M stretch pants, a worn-out rock shirt and Adidas slides while walking my dog each morning. Zebra print, not because animal prints were haute this year, but because I find them slimming. A rock shirt, not because it’s still trendy (mom word) but because I a) actually went to the show or b) worked in the music biz for a minute and got tons of free shit. Adidas slides, not because they were considered poolside chic a few years ago, but because I’ve wrecked my achilles tendon from walking around barefoot and need some sort of arch support.

Hold up. Is it happening? Am I blending into the very psychographic segment I’ve always lovingly poked fun at? The same people Portlandia brilliantly portrayed as moody millennials who essentially morph into the same, ethically sourced character? Am I actually okay with men wearing wingtips without socks?!

It dawned on me, while walking my dog in the aforementioned outfit this morning, that maybe I’ve bought into all this shit. Did I mention she’s a rescue*? From the same place Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis adopted their dog? God help you should you enter an LA dog park with a pure bred, for you will be socially ostracized the same way one might if they were wearing a MAGA hat (in our neighborhood, anyway).

We live in Venice, which over the past 10 years has transformed from gangbanger territory to THEE place to be seen whilst nibbling on gluten-free avo toast. Our home is outfitted in macramé, mid-century furniture and what feels like a forest of potted cacti. We even took desert chic to the next level by purchasing a plot of land near Joshua Tree.

I’ve adopted rituals like charging my crystals in the sun, sleeping with rose quartz and placing citrine in my locally made hemp bralette before pitching development executives my scripts. I have a clairvoyant tarot reader instead of a therapist and I’ve traded americanos for cold brew and creamy nitro.

While I consider myself a lighter, subtler flavor of hipster compared to the dedicated devotees of Silverlake, DTLA and Atwater Village, my hipster tendencies do exist. I like being served my activated charcoal smoothie with a positive affirmation. I like listening to Mac DeMarco while journaling my feelings in a moleskin notebook. I like Instagramming #streetart and find it pleasing when my husband grows out his beard. And I guess that’s my healing buddha beads to bear.

*Adopt don’t shop, not because it’s trendy (mom word again) but because it’s the kind and ethical thing to do.

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On Quitting Your Day Job

I began my career many moons ago after living in Australia for a year. While in Oz, I took odd jobs to fund my trip as I made my way around the country, every time I was running short on money or on the brink of begging my parents to pump cash into my account. Server, bartender, cleaner, shuttle bus driver – you name it.

Since then, I’ve had a satisfying professional career and I’ve met some incredible people along the way, many of them lifelong friends. And one mantra I’ve always maintained, no matter what, is to never quit your day job.

This, of course, applies particularly to people who are pursuing something creative or high risk that potentially won’t earn a viable income. I’ve always preached, especially to my creative friends, the importance of remaining gainfully employed while in pursuit of your dreams.

For some, they get lucky early on, and figure out how to blur the lines between day job and dream job. For the rest of us, it’s a delicate dance between committing fully to what feeds your belly while still carving out time for what feeds your soul.

I thought I had this down. While being relatively satisfied in my day jobs, I’ve always made time – dedicated time – to my creative pursuits. For a while it was freelance journalism and about five or six years ago, before moving to Los Angeles, it became screenwriting.

In LA, I’ve worked out a sort of writing schedule or ritual. Every Wednesday and Saturday night, for about two hours, I settle in to my favorite table in my favorite bar in Venice (the oldest bar in Los Angeles) where my favorite bartender has a cold glass of California chardonnay waiting for me. Like. Clockwork.

Last year, I decided to turn one of my scripts into a short film, something I produced, directed and self-funded while maintaining the most demanding job of my career to date. And I discovered how much I loved the experience of collaborating with a diverse group of creatives and the journey of bringing a story from page to screen. Meanwhile, as I was shooting said film, I turned 40. I’m not sure if this is related because I hate the idea of having some cliché midlife crisis, but I decided to quit my day job to develop more projects for film and TV. I guess this was my Ferrari moment?

I’m a writer first and foremost, no doubt about it. I’m happiest sat in the darkest corner of the darkest bar observing and writing. Much like the dark little London pub I’m sitting in right now as I write this. But there is something thrilling about the challenge of directing, working with actors and translating a script into a moving picture.

So here I am, nearly two months in to a self-imposed professional hiatus, having followed none of my own advice and quit my job. My goal is to complete as many projects as possible by the end of summer to pitch, develop or sell. And given I live in the real world and not the fictitious scenarios of my characters, I’ll need to land another day job soon. And that’s okay, cuz a girl’s gotta eat. But I’m grateful I was in a position to give myself the space and time to pursue these creative urges. Even more grateful to have a loving partner who understands and supports me.

I still stand by the mantra of not quitting your day job, but if you can take a little break to give your dreams your full attention, give it a shot. You never know what interesting opportunities may bubble up.

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The Venice Roller Dancers

There is no better example of what makes Los Angeles a special place like Sundays on the Venice Boardwalk. Every time I get caught up in the news cycle and think the world has gone mad, I bike over to the grassy knoll between the skate park and roller rink and people watch.

Sunday’s are the best for soaking it all in, especially in the hours leading up to sunset. While the roller dancers blast their disco and old school R&B from huge amps they’ve rolled in for the day, the muted sound of a bongo beat carries over from the drum circle several yards away. Sometimes the skaters are blasting punk, adding to the mix of musical genres.

Not unlike hearing everything from Bell Biv Devoe to Black Flag to a synchronized Afrobeat, the diversity at the roller rink feels like the truest representation of America. People from all backgrounds, religions and ethnicities – complete strangers in many cases – connecting, having a laugh and getting their boogie on. No judgement. No animosity or prejudice. Just pure joy.

I suspect most people don’t know this, but the roller dancers in Venice during the late 70s are in large part responsible for the culture that exists on the Boardwalk today. I certainly didn’t, until I saw Roller Dreams (trailer) during the LA Film Festival this year, a documentary on the Venice Beach roller dancers and the adversity they’ve faced from local government and police over the years while trying to keep the roller dancing community alive. Many of them are African American.

Here’s the thing, friends. Black culture is American culture. So much of what makes the US a cultural powerhouse can usually be tied back to the black community. I’m so grateful to these folks for fighting to keep this Venice tradition alive.

A few of the OGs still dance every Sunday, including Terrell Ferguson who was one of the roller dancers who performed in these popular iPod ads. Now and again, the man who started it all known as “Mad” shows up to linger on the sidelines and watch the new generation of dancers (look for a large fellow dressed head to toe in black with a ball cap that says ‘Mad’ on it). He’s a civil rights hero, in my opinion. One of these days I’ll conger up the courage to thank him.

While hate groups are ever-present in the US, California included, I can’t help but think the kind folks outweigh the ignorant by a large, loving margin. Every time I need a reminder of this, it’s comforting to know the roller rink is a quick bike ride away.

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The Beat Goes On

Venice is in transition, a time where gentrification is altering the DNA of this historically diverse community. A neighbourhood built by immigrants from all walks of life. While a quick stroll down the boardwalk might suggest that diversity is still a cornerstone in our quirky part of town, more and more you see it’s storied past fading away. Except on Sundays, in the hours leading up to sunset, slightly north of the skate park on beautiful Venice Beach.

Around midday, flags from every country begin to appear, planted in an inviting V-like formation in the sand. The Venice Drum Circle is open to all, regardless of color or religious creed. Boy and girls, young and old. Whether you have mad rhythm or can’t maintain a beat, everyone is welcome. It’s a celebration of inclusiveness, community, joy and unabashedly getting a boogie on with complete strangers.

In a time where the US feels so divided, the drum circle is a welcome reminder of the warm, tolerant, loving people who make up this great nation. Despite what the media clings to, I refuse to believe the majority of Americans thrive on hate. I won’t accept that everything is red or blue, left or right. The United States is a country of immigrants. And while there are still barriers to burst, stigmas to eliminate and glass cielings to shatter, an event like the drum circle represents what the US is all about: a sum of all its beautifully eclectic parts.

Happening every Sunday, from noon(ish) until sunset on the beach where Brooks Ave meets Ocean Front Walk. Bring a bongo, maracas, your best dance moves or any other percussion instrument. See you there, friends.

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6 Songs by Summer

As the saying goes, it’s never too late to try something new. Or learn something new. You’re never too old to tackle something you’ve been wanting to learn, master, achieve or overcome. Leonard Cohen was 33 when he released his first album. Nora Ephron was 42 when she wrote her first screenplay. A good friend of my mom’s was 46 when she competed in her first Ironman. It’s never too late.

I’ve always fantasized about playing guitar. My dad and brother both play. My husband is a natural. My mother-in-law backpacked around Europe with a little acoustic in her 20s, no doubt charming her way across the continent. It’s always been one of those things I wanted to learn.

I can read music. I play piano and flute, an instrument my mom kind of pressured me into because flutes get all the melodies, she would say. I always thought it was kind of girlie instrument until Beastie Boys released Ill Communication and obviously Ron Burgundy has given new life to the delicate woodwind. But guitar is much more badass, and given my taste in music falls on the edgy side, I basically wanted to learn something I could plug in and make a shit ton of noise with.

My dad and my husband bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday last fall and my goal was to be able to play 6 songs by summer. They didn’t have to be perfect and they certainly didn’t have to be difficult. Just six songs I could play at the beach or around a campfire or alongside my husband.

After scouring the web in search of guitar tabs for some of my favorite songs I realized if you could play a C, D, F and G you can basically play 75% of rock songs ever written. Maybe throw in an A and E minor and you’re golden. Here’s my six:

I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty
Otherside – Red Hot Chili Peppers
Old Man – Neil Young
What’s Up – 4 Non Blondes
Three Little Birds – Bob Marley
We Are the People – Empire of the Sun

I memorized all the notes, added all the tabs into my phone and practice practice practice. One day I heard the girls who live below us say quite clearly through our thin walls Oh god, she’s playing that song again. Yes she is!

If you’re a beginner like me, here’s a few more simple songs I’m learning:

Today – Smashing Pumpkins
Wheat Kings – The Tragically Hip
Tennessee Whiskey – Chris Stapleton

I’m not exactly ready to plug in and stomp on a distortion pedal, but for now I’m content strumming away at sunset. The other night I was at the beach and this cute couple was taking painfully awkward selfies so I asked if they wanted me to take their photo for them. They were from Milan so I reminisced a bit about when I traveled there and before they left the beach they asked if they could take my photo. That’s the other cool thing about playing guitar. Any instrument, really. It immediately breaks the ice, invokes a conversation and creates a sense of community.

When I walked back to where my bike was parked, two different people approached me to ask if I wanted to jam sometime. JAM? ME? Ha, not yet. But if you see my at the beach stumbling my way through my modest repertoire of songs, by all means join in.

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Jim Morrison & Venice

James Douglas Morrison was one of my earliest rock star obsessions. My formative years took place during the tail end of the 80s hair band phenomenon through to grunge and alt rock, but bands of the 60s and 70s were ever-present in our house growing up. My dad’s vinyl collection was a vessel into an era of music so familiar to me it’s as though I was there. Maybe I was? In a past life, anyway.

I began listening to The Doors in my early teens, memorizing every poetic word of every song while listening to my Best of The Doors double CD set on repeat. I would make beaded necklaces that matched the necklace Jim Morrison wore in Joel Brodsky’s iconic “American Poet” photograph like an obsessed groupie. I even stole a huge sign from our local cinema promoting Oliver Stone’s The Doors, which hung above my bed until I moved out of my parent’s home.

In 2008 while in Paris I visited his grave at Père Llachaise Cemetery alongside other Morrison obsessives like me. Then, to top it off, I moved to Venice and live a short walk away from the home he lived in when the band came to be. That all probably sounds pretty creepy, but I swear I didn’t land in Venice just to channel the spirit of the Lizard King and lust after leftover hippies in leather pants, but it further proves my fandom is legit.

A lot of people come to Venice to be closer to Jim and the birthplace of The Doors, either as part of a larger pilgrimage or to relive the days of free love and flower children lining the boardwalk. And its true, his spirit is everywhere. Whether it’s in the form of a portrait by a sidewalk artist, part of mural or the sound of a Doors song blasting from a cyclist’s boombox on the bike path, remnants of Morrison are literally everywhere you look. I wonder if he had any idea how transcendent his words would be 50 years later.

One of my favourite Doors fan rituals was to sit outside Venice Bistro on the boardwalk Sunday nights just before sunset to listen to Peace Frog, their longstanding Doors tribute band. Gentrification has led to new ownership and the band has since relocated, not too far away though, at another bar in Santa Monica.

If you’re coming to Venice to get your Doors fix, here’s a good place to start:

  • Swing by Jim’s old Venice apartment, an orange building with a mural of Morrison himself, on the corner of 18th Avenue and Speedway, one block from the boardwalk.
  • See a show at the Whiskey a Go Go, where The Doors were the house band in the 60s until they were discovered.
  • Catch Peace Frog at their new residency at Zanzibar. The lead singer bears a striking resemblance to Jim, leather pants and all.
  • If you have time, spend a few nights in Mojave, ingest some hallucinogens and channel the spirits of Jim and Ray. Ride the serpent, man.

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The Doors’ John Densmore and Robby Krieger playing with Foo Fighter’s Taylor Hawkins and Stone Temple Pilot’s Robert DeLeo during a tribute to Ray Manzarek.

Now the soft parade
has soon begun.
Cool pools
from a tired land
sink now
in the peace of evening.
– Jim Morrison

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Venice’s Mosaic Tile House

It’s no surprise to stumble upon an unusually decorated home in Venice. Colourful murals adorning garage doors, alleyways brought to life with artful graffiti and decades-old artefacts lining pathways into overgrown gardens. It’s common to see artists using their home as an extension of their artistic expression here. But none as elaborate and ever-evolving as the Mosaic Tile House at 1116 Palms Blvd.

More of a love story than a tourist attraction, the enchanting 1940s house brought to life piece-by-piece over the past four decades, is the home and story of Cheri Pann and Gonzalo Duran. Married for over 20 years (Cheri mentioned Gonzalo was her third husband I believe), both around 80ish, their relationship and artistic partnership seem to have the fiery energy of a couple of 20-year-olds. His studio displays mechanical sculptures and multi-media pieces that challenge the meaning of devotion and love while her studio displays a floor-to-ceiling gallery of portraits of her beloved in various moods, expressions and color palettes. In a way, the place feels like a mutual shrine between the couple, but in no way do they make guests feel as though they’re intruding.

You can book an appointment to visit the Mosaic Tile House for $12 and Cheri offers a guided tour, sharing a few stories along the way until she disappears to let you meander through the home, studio, garden and surrounding yard – everything but the couples bedroom – as long as you like. Gonzalo was there too the day we visited, working on various projects in the front garden. He was kind enough to take a few artistic snaps for my husband and I, ricocheting our image from a reflection in one of their tiny, mirrored mosaics. My husband took a stab at it himself (last pic below) and did a pretty bang up job.

Our timing, luckily, was impeccable as we arranged to drop by in late March when the wisteria was in full bloom – an annual event that only lasts for about 2 weeks. Their front gate is dripping in the pretty purple blossoms, which made the visit all the more magical and colourful. Aside from the intricate detail and the incredible energy of the place, I was most surprised by the kitchen and bathroom, which are both completely covered in mosaic tiles and other curiosities. You would assume it would make the home look messy, but somehow the chaos of it all felt very neat and tidy. Even the hot tub in the backyard is decorated with a mosaic archway, you guys. It’s really a sight to behold.

Los Angeles has a lot to take in, if you’re traveling through, but if you crave something a little offbeat and local, stop by and soak in the kookiness and beauty of this place. Cheri and Gonzalo couldn’t be more friendly and gracious; you’ll feel like family by the time you’re saying your goodbyes.

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Coming to America

I’m not really much for milestones. My husband and I don’t really celebrate our birthdays beyond dinner and handwritten cards. Ditto for wedding anniversaries. Professional milestones come and go, more or less unnoticed, and I’m certainly not acknowledging the fact the my 20-year high school reunion is this year, although that’s more of an I’m-too-young-how-can-this-be kind of thing. It’s just not my jam. But today marks one year from the day we arrived in Los Angeles to embark on a brand new chapter, and I can’t help but call it out.

The hours leading up to our departure from our hometown of Vancouver, BC are so vivid, it’s like my psyche secretly tucked away those final moments because it knew I’d feel sentimental 365 days down the track. And wouldn’t you know it, my own subconscious was spot on. We had a great life that we were uprooting. But as I’ve written about before, that life became cyclical. Our friends were moving on to new adventures, many of them starting families and moving out of the city. California was our next step. Our foray into the unknown.

Two pieces of luggage each, some precious family photos that don’t exist digitally and a little black and white photograph of Vancouver that I ripped from the front of a tear-inducing farewell card a friend gave me were all we had room to bring. The first 6 weeks were spent bouncing between Air BnB’s while trying to figure out where we wanted to lay down some roots. Luckily, we followed longing over logic and settled on Venice, a neighbourhood in the midst of intense gentrification driving the cost of living through the roof. Nothing new to a couple of Vancouverites and we didn’t come to California to be landlocked. We needed to be near the sea.

In the past year we’ve created a home in a neighbourhood we love alongside neighbours we adore. We’ve made lifelong friends, established our careers here and adopted the cutest rescue pup you’ve ever laid eyes on (total crazy dog lady bias). We’ve road-tripped all over this great state with so much more to explore. We’ve built a life here.

The novelty of biking everywhere, walking around barefoot every day, having fruit grow on our trees in winter and watching pink sunsets adorned with silhouettes of palm trees from our kitchen window doesn’t get old. Not yet, anyway. I hope it never does.

I miss Canada, but mostly Canadian things. Like the CBC and maple tress in the fall and people who understand what I’m on about when I throw down a little French (you don’t realize how much you do it until you leave!). I miss Canadian values. I miss our families and our friends, who luckily are only a short plane ride away. I miss my girlfriends and the feeling of collective world domination that comes over me every time we get together and polish off a few bottles of wine. I miss writing from our “perch” in Yaletown, overlooking our rainy city. I think of those things often.

But as I write this, the sun is pouring into our little beach pad and the smell of orange blossoms is everywhere and I’m grateful. Grateful to our wonderful American friends, who despite what’s going on in the media at the moment are some of friendliest most welcoming people on the planet. I’m grateful my husband is just as happy as I am here. It’s been a wild ride, Cali. And we’re just getting started.

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Extreme close-up family selfie.

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Venice Walk Streets

When I travel somewhere new, I’m always on the hunt for something way, way off the beaten path. Places where only the locals go. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to discover these places all on your own. A wrong turn that transforms into a serendipitous discovery. An inadvertent tip from an overhead conversation in a coffee shop.

There’s a place in Venice that, for some reason, no one really talks about. It’s not as iconic as the Venice sign or as colourful as the boardwalk but it’s a welcome retreat from the crowds and turistas.

The Venice Walk Streets, a set of pedestrian only inland walkways dating back to the 1900s, were originally part of Abbot Kinney’s vision to create a city in SoCal modelled after it’s Italian namesake. When the walk streets were first developed, mostly entertainers and people who worked at the Venice Pier lived there. Today, the streets are lined with some of the most expensive real estate in Los Angeles. Julia Roberts lived there until recently.

Despite the influx of affluent residents, the walk streets have managed to maintain their magical appeal. Elaborate gardens, gateways and kitschy artefacts adorn each property as passers-by try to discreetly take a peek. A tree canopy keeps the walkways mostly shaded, making it one of best places to go for a stroll during the summer months. It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and stepping out into another era, psychedelics not necessary.

Although a friend – and long time local – told me about the walk streets, I’m sure I would have found this part of Venice eventually. It’s easy to lose track of time wandering around this wacky neighbourhood. You never know who or what you’re going to find.

The walk streets are Nowita Place, Marco Place, Amoroso Place and Crescent Place. I recommend beginning at Lincoln Boulevard next to Painted Ladies and following Nowita all the way to Shell Ave.

Venice Walk Streets

Venice Walk Streets

Venice Walk Streets

Venice Walk Streets

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