A Guide to Fine Dining by Aunt Snow

In adventure stories, explorers visiting a strange land find a trusty native guide to show them around, find food, and survive. When I came to Los Angeles in the fall of 1996, I was overwhelmed by its size and breadth, and I could not grasp its unfocused geography. The streets and boulevards were chaotic, lined with a visual cacophony of signs in multiple languages I could not decipher. But then I met Mark.

We met at the Shubert Theatre in Century City. I had been dispatched by Local #33 IATSE to fill in as a follow-spot operator for the show “Ragtime,” which was nearing the end of its pre-Broadway run in Los Angeles. The show had four spotlights – two in the booth and two truss spots. I ran Spot Two in the booth. Mark ran Truss Spot Three, suspended from the ceiling high over the audience.

The House Electrician liked me, so I quickly became the regular vacation cover for the Electrics Department. I worked both backstage and on spot for a couple of months.

A long-running show is a routine, with shows Tuesday through Sunday evenings, and matinees on Wednesday and Saturday. There’s a two hour break between the matinee final curtain and our call time for the evening show. That first matinee day, Mark invited me to join him for dinner break.

“I know a good place to go,” he said.

Mark was one of the best followspot operators I’ve ever known, and that’s saying something, because Local #33 spot operators are the best in the business. In LA live TV broadcasts, and award shows require absolute precision and lightning-fast reflexes, with zero rehearsal time and zero toleration for mistakes. The top followspot operators in Local #33 work so many award shows they own their own custom-tailored tuxedos.

Mark loved to eat, and his physique showed it; he was short and rotund and light on his feet like a beach ball. As soon as the house lights came up, we’d dash down the exit stairs to the parking garage beneath the theatre, and jump into his 1989 Camry. The driver’s seat was pushed as far back as it could be to accommodate his belly, while his arms and legs were stretched straight out to reach the wheel and the foot pedals. We’d be cruising down Olympic while the audience still waited for the elevator.

Mark liked all kinds of food, but because of our schedule, he limited our tour to West LA. Mark liked a traditional Italian red-sauce joint called Anna’s on Pico near Westwood, and place nearby called Killer Shrimp. He also liked Gloria’s on Venice, for Salvadoran food, and Delmonico’s Grill for seafood. He knew what was good on every menu. “Get the cannelloni here,” he’d say, and he was always right. We sat at the counter at Johnnie’s Pastrami on Sepulveda, eating thick luscious sandwiches, hot on a French roll, Los Angeles style, slathered with mustard, while he flirted with the waitresses.

And all through dinner, Mark would tell me about other great places in town. “If you’re working at CBS,” he’d say, “you gotta go to DuPars in the Farmers Market.” Or, “There’s this great Thai place on Sunset, just a few minutes from the Pantages.”

Sometimes the show called us in for daytime maintenance, to change light bulbs, repair broken fixtures, and change out faded color medium. If such a call came on a Friday, the whole electrics crew would go to the Century Plaza Hotel for dinner break. Mark had discovered the $14 All-You-Can-Eat Friday night seafood buffet. A bunch of rough-necked stagehands all dressed in black, we’d take over the dining room and eat huge plates of king crab legs, fried shrimp and clams, chowder and baked fish.

Mark invited others to dinner too; sometimes Stan, on Spot Four, or the show roadie Steve, or Bobo, the deck electrician. Sometimes we’d stay in the big entertainment complex, grab a bite at McDonalds and catch a movie at the multiplex. But Mark wasn’t much for fast food – he liked sit-down places with table cloths.

Mark liked the kind of places that were part of Los Angeles’ history, the places he’d gone as a kid. Billingsley’s was one such joint, a dark steak-and-chops house, with a dining room with curved, tufted red-leatherette booths and tiffany hanging lamps. The early bird special was prime rib, veal parmesan or chicken marsala, served with your choice of soup or an iceberg lettuce salad, and garlic cheese toast made with soft white bread. In its dark and moody bar quiet old people sipped gimlets and rob roys, but we never had a drink since we had to go back to work.

“Ragtime” closed in 1998, and soon after, Mark moved to Las Vegas. I changed careers and lost touch with my Local #33 friends. The Shubert Theatre is gone now along with ABC Television Entertainment Center, demolished in 2002 and replaced by a featureless office tower. I’d always meant to go back to the Century Plaza on a Friday night, but missed my chance.

Some of the places Mark took me are gone now too. Delmonico’s Grill on Pico, where I savored lobster bisque, is no more. Anna’s Italian Restaurant closed; now it’s a faux British gastropub, tricked out with old-timey décor to look like a place with history.

Johnnies is still open, though, and I sometimes drive by Billingsley’s. It’s in an imperiled triangle by the 405 freeway, crouched underneath the looming span of the new Expo Line light rail spur to Santa Monica. Banners festoon the walls proclaiming bravely “Still open during construction!”

 Mark loved Los Angeles with an enthusiasm stronger than a Convention and Visitors Bureau. Mark made me feel like an LA insider before the newness wore off me, and I still hear his voice in my head as I drive around town. He served up Los Angeles on a plate to me, and I’ll always remember him.



Aunt Snow is one of the most interesting women Mrs. G. has had the pleasure to meet. She is a true renaissance woman who writes about the need to celebrate life all around you. You can read more of her writing at her blog, Doves Today.


Balance by Anonymous

I haven't been writing on my blog consistently over the past couple years. The thing that stopped me from writing has been difficult to articulate. It's a thing so big that the thought of stopping to write about it trivializes the magnitude of it's impact on my son's and my life.

I've had time to write, plenty of time. But instead of writing, I've been immersing myself in coping strategies: going to therapy, knitting, reading, walking my dog in the woods, doing countless sudoku puzzles. I've worked my job and volunteered for worthy causes and have tried (and likely failed) to connect with my friends and family.

I've tried.

As I start a new year, I'm finding myself wanting to roar a little bit because the quiet (and not so quiet) battle that's been waged in my home every day for the past 18 mos is the stuff of miracles. I know I can't do it justice, but perhaps I can write a little with the hope that other folks going through this won't feel so alone.

This big Thing I'm trying to write about it mental illness. My only child, a high school senior, experiences symptoms of bipolar disorder every day. Even though we're fairly open about it, the stigma around mental illness manages to slap us in the face constantly. I spend some time with NAMI and other advocacy groups to get support for myself and my family. I know that when I'm no longer in the thick of it, I will move on to advocacy more publicly. But for now, while my son is symptomatic and still in my care, I do what I can in my quiet way.

For the past several years, symptoms have been creeping into our household. They show up as cast of characters, all with personalities of their own - unwelcome in my quiet life - yet they barge into my home with little to no warning. 

Mania usually shows up when the seasons change. Mania is outwardly goofy and silly, has amazingly complex views on the world and is outrageously creative. Mania is pissed off at people who can't think as fast as he can and swears at folk with such brilliance that it would be awesomely funny if it didn't cut so badly. Mania doesn't need to sleep, has to move all the time, and can sometimes walk for 20+ miles before realizing how far he's gone. Mania recently lost over 20 pounds in a month's time (he's not that hungry). Sometimes Mania's mom calls to check in and he finds himself three towns away near no recognizable landmarks. Mania sometimes makes wild and dangerous plans, packs his bags in the middle of the night, and simply disappears. Mania (and his pal Depression below) often turns off his cellphone after he leaves the house so no one will bother him. 

Mania is a jerk, but is sometimes so fluidly brilliant it's like being in the presence of a the most inspiring motivational speaker you've ever seen. Mania has dancing eyes, paces a lot, and talks super fast. He's kind of a rockstar, if he weren't so sick.

But, Mania often self-medicates and sometimes ends up in the ER. Every so often, Mania needs the police to come calm him down, and rarely (but still too often) Mania needs to go hang out in a hospital for a few days to get back on track.

Once, in 2012, Mania brought his friends Paranoia and Psychosis. I can't even type about those guys. They're terrible and frightening. They convinced my boy that the people who loved him were conspiring with the government to control his brain. Angels from places I didn't even know about swooped in and got those symptoms under control. I got my boy back two weeks later, beat up and scarred, but alive.

People who don't see these symptoms everyday really can't comprehend how the staying alive part is such a miracle. Most people who throw around words like psychotic and paranoid truly don't understand the pathology of those words, and they should consider themselves blessed that they don't ever have to see the close up.

When Mania is around, I often pine away for the calmer cold days of winter, until I remember the unwelcome guest in Depression. Depression usually shows up during the shorter darker days. He is also a jerk and sometimes hangs out with Hypomania - who is just chronically pissed off. Many of us think we know Depression, and foolishly encourage him to load up on Family Guy  episodes or a dose of John Stewart. Some people pshaw at the melancholy and don't understand how he can't appreciate all the gifts he has in this world. Depression laughs at this shit. He's a pretty powerful guy and even though it looks like his regular routine is sleeping a lot and sighing heavily, he's often behind the scenes, insidiously convincing my boy that it's too hard, that this planet sucks, and leaving is the best possible choice.

Again, the staying alive part? Miracle.

My child is in there. He beats the shit out of all of these symptoms on a regular basis. He throws a routine at them, a good sleep schedule, medications, solid friendships and family relationships and an amazing school full of folks who get it. He gets up and goes to school every day even when he doesn't want to.  Though my son is brilliant and was on a college prep track years ago, my silent mantra during his high school career has been "alive and graduated...alive and graduated." (psst: he's set to graduate in a few short months - if you're the prayerful type - remember us.)

His will to survive is awe inspiring, even when his mom doesn't feel inspired when a random f-word gets thrown her way. (During symptomatic episodes, a one f-word day is a good day.) I've had to seek my own therapy to stay balanced enough to support my boy, and when I joke and say I have PTSD due to all we've been through, my therapist reminds me that it's no joke. 

Every day in our house we scrape and swear and peer through the fog reaching for rungs on the stability ladder, but it's still a battle. NAMI teaches a course called Family-to-Family that helps family members support their loved ones with mental illness. That class likens the onset of symptoms to a bomb going off and the rest of the family experiencing collateral damage. The shrapnel in my family is everywhere. Cleaning up after an episode is nearly as exhausting as getting my son through a manic or depressive phase. As I begin this new year, I find myself with an almost stable child, cleaning up an excessive (excessive, I tell you) debris field.

I wanted to write here anonymously because, well, I need to protect my son's privacy - it's his decision to disclose his disease. That's a tough call for me because I don't want to contribute to the culture of mental health stigma, but I know I'll be out there one of these days. 

I know many Derfs are on their own journey and even though I don't participate much here, I felt inspired to write in this safe community. 

Be grateful for your mental health and the balanced brains in your family, Derfs, and if you or any of your people need help - get it.



Full Confessional Friday! 1/24/2014

Mrs. G. is putting the Confessional up a couple of days early because she's going to put her laptop in her desk drawer and unplug for a few days. See you sometime next week -- with the boll weevil story.

Be it Venial or Mortal (there's no escaping Original), we've all got secrets -- light, dark, funny, sad -- worth bringing to light. The act of confession can be liberating, mollifying and entertaining. Contrition? Repentance? A shot of Tequila? That's your call, sister.   


The River Card

Mrs. G's brother reminded her yesterday how much their grandmother loved saving S&H Green Stamps and regularly flipping through the rewards catalog imagining glorious prizes. She licked and licked, hoping to fill enough books to win a cuckoo clock or a lighter shaped like a woodpecker.

The thill was second only to scoring free glassware in a box of Duz Detergent.
Mrs. G. writes a lot about her grandmother because she was minimum three sturdy rungs on Mrs. G's life's ladder, and her absence forces Mrs. G. to hoist her leg higher up the ladder to make up for her grandmother's love and seemingly unlimited pride.
So when Mrs. G's grandmother was diagnosed with brain cancer and given six weeks to live, Mrs. G. had to scramble through the five stages of grief and get immediately with the program. Since doctors have degrees and white coats, Mrs. G's grandmother asked no questions and soberly accepted her prognosis as the gospel truth. True to form, in what Mrs. G. is sure was her grandmother's determination to be an agreeable overachiever, she died four weeks later, a good two weeks early just to keep from being any trouble.

Mrs. G. received the news of her grandmother's cancer only two weeks before she died. She and her family had just returned home from San Diego, on what was their first vacation ever.  Mrs. G's grandmother had insisted that no one tell them the news of her cancer lest it spoil their trip. When Mrs. G. and her family returned home, they unpacked their suitcases, and an hour or so later, Mrs. G. got The Call. She and her family repacked their suitcases and drove to Memphis the next day.

The first couple of days of their visit, and Mrs. G. is sure visit is not the right word, it was more like an exit interview. Her grandmother was somewhat cogent despite an unsettling vacant stare. The entire family sat around, still reeling, really, like it was an ordinary Sunday visit. Mrs. G's kids, both toddlers at the time, provided much needed distraction, and her grandfather, so choked up he could hardly speak, plied them with Hershey's Kisses. He unwrapped one chocolate Kiss after another and popped them into Mrs. G's children's mouths. For once, Mrs. G. didn't give a shit how much sugar her kids ate. It provided comfort, solace and she had no intention of stopping it.
In an effort to gather family history that had, heretofore, held no interest to Mrs. G, she began asking her grandmother questions about her past. In what was clearly an effort, Mrs. G's grandmother shared bits and pieces about her life with Mrs. G's grandfather, particularly about the early years of their marriage. Mrs. G. asked her how long she and her grandfather had dated before marrying. Mrs. G's grandmother looked her right in the eye and answered quickly, "Not long." "What, like a couple of months?" Mrs. G. asked. "Not long," her grandmother repeated, retreating back behind that vacant stare. Mrs. G. looked at her grandfather for more information, but he wouldn't look at her. He refused her gaze.

Mrs. G's grandmother died four days later at home in her bed. Mrs. G, her mom and her aunt stayed by her grandmother's bedside and did all that they could to comfort her. Mrs. G's grandfather paced the hall outside of the bedroom but would not come in. He simply couldn't. Every few minutes, he would stop outside the door and bark at the three of them to be more gentle for Christ's sake  or to wipe her face with a cool cloth for the love of God. The Hospice nurse finally arrived and placed a morphine patch on Mrs. G's grandmother's arm. A few hours later, she died just the way she wanted -- at home, peacefully and with little drama. There would be no memorial service, no funeral. Even in death, fanfare was just not her style.

Mrs. G, her mom and her aunt said their goodbyes and went into the living room to wait for the people from the funeral home to arrive. Mrs. G's grandfather finally entered his wife's room. A few minutes later, he came back into the living room, sat in his chair and cried. Then he dropped the bomb:

"I'm going to tell you girls something we never told anybody. I met that woman on a blind date and we married that same night. We spent 56 years together and I loved Melly every day. We never told anyone about it, because she thought it was trashy."

Mrs. G. and her mother were stunned and she means stunned and, naturally, they had a few questions. But that was all he had to say. And Mrs. G's grandfather, always wary of emotion, rarely spoke of her grandmother again.

Mrs. G. returned home and forced herself back into the daily routine of taking care of her kids, but her grandfather's revelation dogged the shower, in the car, in the bed before sleep. She endlessly wondered how these two people, who she'd known her whole life and were astonishingly predictable, could have met and married on the first date. Was it champagne and Big Band music? Desperation? Practicality? A lost poker game?
Mrs. G's loopy favorite, true love? Of course the romantic insinuations of such an evening make Mrs. G. dizzy with idealized explanations but as a grown woman married almost 24 years, she suspects that a one night courtship is more likely fraught with complexity. Mrs. G. just wishes she knew.

Mrs. G's grandfather died of lung cancer about a year after he lost his bride. Mrs. G. tried to talk to him several times about his sprint to the altar. She sent him many emails, hoping that the distance of dial-up would make it easier for him to remember. He didn't respond for some time, and when he did, he simply wrote sorry, can't talk.

Mrs. G. will never know the real story about that first and last date in 1942. Her grandparents took it with them to the grave. This was their trashy secret. So reader, listen carefully to what Mrs. G. has learned the hard way -- gather your family stories while you can, before time and loved ones slip away.
And may your ladders be filled with many, many rungs.

Wednesday Six. No Reason, No Motive. Just Curious.

1) Who are you rooting for in the Superbowl? Don't feel pressured to say the Seattle Seahawks but your comment will be deleted if you don't.*

2) Mrs. G. is having six friends over for dinner in a couple of weeks and she is serving the Smitten Kitchen's Chicken Pho. Any appetizer suggestions?

3) If you have a physical or mental "bucket list", what is one thing on it?

4) Who was your favorite high school teacher and why?

5) Ice cream flavor of choice?

6) What is one of your quirks?

*Just Kidding


Full Confessional Friday! 1/17/2014


Be it Venial or Mortal (there's no escaping Original), we've all got secrets -- light, dark, funny, sad -- worth bringing to light. The act of confession can be liberating, mollifying and entertaining. Contrition? Repentance? A shot of Tequila? That's your call, sister.  




Many years ago, Mrs. G. and her friend Ann signed up for an ethnocentric dance class at a small studio in Seattle. They had no dancing history together so agreeing to participate in this activity was near heroic in Mrs. G's mind. The last person who had seen her dance was Mr. G. -- 14 years earlier, both of them loose limbed from lust love and Tanqueray martinis. When it comes Mrs. G's dancing, Mr. G's fresh devotion undoubtedly blinded him to the spectacle. Unlike the suggestion of inspirational posters in every therapist's office in America, Mrs. G. wishes she could dance like nobody is watching. But people watch. They can't help it. Mrs. G's style is the whitest white bread with an unpredictable break in to the Swim. It's well intentioned but stilted and, honestly, distressing.  

So she was nervous when she picked up Ann to drive to class. Mrs. G. felt vulnerable but determined to shift their friendship to a deeper level -- the level of affirmed affection and lifelong loyalty known as potential humiliation. Ann, a good dancer (Mrs. G. had admired her several times from the edge of the dance floor), was cool, even. No sweat, Mrs. G. thought, no sweat

But sweating commenced when she and Ann walked into the class in jogging pants, ratty t-shirts and running shoes only to be faced with a somewhat threatening number of women in leotards and dainty little, Mrs. G. isn't sure what they're called, so she'll call them dancing skirts for small asses, the short flowy kind usually paired with ballet slippers and messy chignons. It looked like two northwestern hillbillies had crashed the Bolshoi. Both clearly nervous and avoiding direct eye contact with anyone, including each other, slipped off their shoes and took their place in one of the four long lines of lithe women. She can't speak for Ann, but Mrs. G. knew she was up a creek. No paddle.

Within seconds of the stretch warm-up, the pounding of bong drums heated up and the teacher began swinging her hips and waving her arms like this...

It only got worse from there. Mrs. G. and Ann were frantically running and jumping and twirling diagonally across the dance floor. Mrs. G. is reluctant to say this for obvious reasons, but Ann looked as stupid as she did. They stood out in the crowd, which isn't always the desired outcome when you are uncontrollably shaking your butt against your will.

When the class finally ended, she and Ann put their running shoes back on (again avoiding eye contact, even with each other) and headed out the door to a bakery a block down the street. They didn't say a word until they sat down at a table with their chocolate croissants and decaf. They were at a friendship standstill -- unsure if the other liked the class, not wanting to torpedo her joy or acknowledge that the relationship would have to end if she did because come on.

"Whew," said Mrs. G, "that was an interesting class."

"It was," said Amy. The benovolent standstill continued.

"I'm not really sure what to say," Mrs. G. said, inching closer toward the truth.

"Please don't make me ever come back," said Ann.

And with that, the friendship was cemented.



Wednesday Five! No Reason, No Motive. Just Curious.


1) What is your favorite card game?

2) What is one place you hope to see before you expire?

3) What is one gift you have never forgotten?

4) If you could wish for one thing to come true this year, what would it be?

5) Whatcha cooking for dinner tonight?