Sunday, December 27, 2009

How I Found Alignment, and What it Taught Me

This post is the second in a series on aligning work with one's values, strengths and traits. Read the first post here.

In my previous post, I suggested that aligning one's work with their personal values, strengths and personality traits is good career planning. I suggested this after respected friends and family members had told me that they found success in aligning their own work with these personal qualities. This post is about how I examined my own personal values, strengths and traits so that I could find work that aligns with them.

In August and September, I spent much time reading "What Color is Your Parachute" by Richard Bolles, and then going through the book's Flower Exercise. The Flower Exercise helped me understand my personal values, strengths, favorite personality traits, favorite subject matter, favorite working environment and preferred geographic areas in which to work. The exercise asked me to make lists for each of these factors and compare each item on a list to the other items until my list was ordered from most favored item to least favored or most prevalent item to least prevalent, depending on the list.

Completing the Flower Exercise was massively useful for several reasons:

Reason #1: I was surprised to discover I enjoy using certain skills and practice them often without noticing. For example, nearly every incident I deconstructed involved me 1) Organizing, Classifying, Systematizing and/or Prioritizing information, and 2) Deciding, Evaluating, Appraising, or Making Recommendations. I used these skills whether I was weighing where to take Mom and Dad for vacation, looking for an apartment in San Francisco, or researching business schools.

Reason #2: I easily found points of misalignment in my past career. My last two economic consulting jobs, and especially my last one in Los Angeles, featured client-oriented, fast-paced, deeply verbally abusive working environments. Defining my personality traits and favored working environment made it obvious that I do best in a gentler, slower environment where I don't have to deal with external clients. This was illuminating because I used to think that hard-driving, aggressive environments brought out the best in me by challenging me at every turn. I was wrong.

Reason #3: Writing down the results of my Flower Exercise really made me focus my search on jobs that would honor my values, strengths and traits. How could I ignore them anymore? I couldn't. I had written them down. And now that I had written them down, I was going to pay attention to them and find jobs that honored them. The Flower Exercise also provided the basis of a great sales pitch I could use in interviews.

Reason #4: Completing the exercise excited me. Writing down my results gave me a list of things to look for in a job. I was excited to find a job that offered these things because once I found that job, I knew I would be in a great environment where I could stretch my skills without breaking my psyche.

The bottom line is that the Flower Exercise was very useful in helping me discover and then define my skills, values, traits, favored subject matter, favored working environments and preferred geography. Defining these factors helped me explore career alternatives I would not previously have considered and focus my job search only on alternatives that honored these factors.

The end result has been great. And I'll explore that in a future post.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Looking For Career Advice? How About First Defining Your Values and Strengths

This post is the first in a series on aligning work with one's values, strengths and traits.

Some economists and political pundits are opining that our economic recession is over. I heard that on Reuters last spring. I'm hearing that elsewhere today. I didn't buy it then, and I don't buy it now for the following reasons:

* CNN tells us there are no job prospects for the man on the street, and that he's lucky to find contract positions without benefits.
* Bloomberg confirms this gloomy picture, reporting that national unemployment in September hit a 26-year high.
* That same Bloomberg article states that nationwide July 2009 foreclosures topped 300,000 for the sixth straight month, 50% higher than the number of foreclosures in July 2008.
* Another CNN article reports 650,000 consumed the last of their standard unemployment benefits in August and that the flood of people like them is just beginning.

What's a person in need of income to do? I challenge those looking for work to search for work aligned with their values, strengths, and personality traits.

There is ample material addressing the link between personal satisfaction and success on one hand, and personal values and strengths on the other. Books "What Color is Your Parachute" by Richard Bolles and "Do What You Are" by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron, talk about this relationship. Blogs Brazen Careerist by Penelope Trunk, and Start Being Your Best by Jason Barr do too.

But does linking values, strengths, and work in a golden triangle really lead to personal satisfaction and success, or is it just career planning propaganda? I wasn't sure, so I contacted friends, I asked my parents, and talked to total strangers about finding satisfaction and success by aligning their work with their values and strengths. I asked each of them questions like these:

1) How do your personal strengths, personal values, and current work compliment and align with each other?

2) How is this alignment different than how your personal values and strengths lined up with jobs you have held in the past? If the alignment is different, how has that difference impacted your success at each job and your personal contentment during that period?

3) How important to success and personal contentment is finding alignment among personal values, personal strengths, and work? If you think this is garbage, tell me why.

4) Anything else you think I should know about the relationship between values, strengths, and work?

Nearly everyone I asked said the following:

1) They believe that aligning their values, strengths, and work certainly leads to personal satisfaction and can lead to success,

2) their current work aligns better than their past work, largely by design,

3) that improved alignment has increased their personal satisfaction at work and outside of work, and

4) one can find alignment by choosing work that is not life-consuming and then pursuing one's passions outside of work.

I was struck by the variety of ways in which people sought alignment. For example, my Dad has purposely spent most of his career at small companies so that he can shape his working environment in a way that plays to his strengths and values. Another friend of mine engineered her alignment by pursuing graduate studies, teaching yoga, and spending her time in other stimulating ways that speak to her unique values and strengths.

My next post will address how I am trying to find alignment. Until then, how are you finding alignment? What do you think about the whole idea of aligning your work, values, and strengths as a way to find personal satisfaction and success? Leave your answers in the comment section.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Four Great Places to a Get Drink in Hollywood on a Sunday Night

The portion of Sunset Boulevard around Highland Avenue used to be so seedy. I drove through here a couple years before the entertainment complex at Hollywood and Highland went up and remember plenty of wig shops, graffiti, and homeless people. Aggressive redevelopment anchored by the Kodak Theater has helped push out the neighborhood's grittier elements, replacing them with gaudy, overwrought tourist attractions like the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, and not one but two wax museums. But no place in the world tries to be more things to more people than Hollywood, and its bars are no different. To enjoy this once-forgotten, now fresh again part of Sunset Boulevard sans the crowds, visit on a Sunday and stop in at these four completely different bars.

- Sunset & Cherokee at 1652 N. Cherokee Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. Phone: (323) 462-9621

Boardners in Hollywood, California
Boardners in Hollywood, California
Boardner's has been in business since 1942. Enter and walk down the tight passage between the dark grey granite bar on your right and the booths on your left. The black ceiling, black leather booths, black metal chairs with black cushions, subdued lighting and ornate lamps make you feel like you're in some Raymond Chandler detective story. Red neon signs advertise Oscar's kitchen, open until 9:30PM. Try the build-your-own B52 burger if you're hungry or the chicken quesadilla for something tasty and light. Food is half off all day Sundays. Down a narrow hall at the back is Club B52 and the outdoor patio. Sit on one of several couches, talk with locals under disco lights, or just listen to chill music while admiring the massive candelabrum dripping wax into a water fountain. Enjoy the $14 Caribou Lov (Malibu Rum, pineapple juice, and Bacardi 151) on a warm summer night, or spring for a $650 bottle of Dom Perignon Rose to celebrate your movie script getting picked up.

Full Bar
Food (half priced all day Sundays and 4pm to 8pm Monday through Friday)
Open Monday through Thursday 5:30pm to 2am. Open Friday through Sunday 4pm to 2am

The Power House - 1714 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. Phone: (323) 463-9438

Power House in Hollywood, California
Power House in Hollywood, California
A welcome oasis in a desert of velvet ropes, manufactured glitz, and pretentious wannabes. Christmas lights hang all year around just inside the entrance. The Sunday night crowd is mostly 30-and-40 somethings wearing old jeans, witty T-shirts, and worn flannel. It's dark, so try not to stumble on a concrete floor so old the top layer has been worn through in places. Look up and count the missing ceiling tiles. Pull up a stool and enjoy $3 Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap at the kitchy Formica bar with fake wood grain. The green vinyl booths look new enough, but the brick wall they're against looks like it was built when Greta Garbo first strutted down Sunset. Throw darts at one of two dart machines in the back while listening to the juke box and munching on the bar's freshly made popcorn. For just a second, I'm back in Pittsburgh.

Full Bar

Hollywood Happy Ending - 7038 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA. Phone: (323) 469-7038

Hollywood Happy Ending
Hollywood Happy Ending
Two words: college bar. Beer company and sports team pennants are strung from post to post at this brightly lit bar and restaurant. The attractive, preppy, barely post-fraternity and sorority crowd gets loud, lively, and flirty. One of those machines with a controllable, drop-down claw is at the back, but it's filled with water and live lobsters instead of teddy bears. Try your luck for $2. Don't like cheap cans of PBR? The bartenders pick a hot blonde from the crowd to spin the Wheel of Specials hourly so $5 Irish car bombs are just a lucky turn away. Enjoy a full food and drink menu. There's even a popcorn machine.

Live music lovers will definitely want to come Sundays for the Frank and Todd Show. I saw these two amazingly talented acoustic cover artists mash-up The Momma's and The Poppa's California Dreamin' with Kanye West's Heartless and never heard a bar crowd cheer so loud at the end. When they closed the show with a fully beat boxed version of It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time, I knew I found the band for my someday wedding. Frank and Todd play every Sunday night from 9:30PM until midnight.

Full Bar
Nightly Events
Open Monday through Saturday 11am to 1am. Open Sunday 11am to midnight.

The Woods - 1533 North La Brea, Los Angeles, CA. Phone: (323) 876-6612

The Woods in Hollywood, California
The Woods in Hollywood, California
Formerly the tiki-bar Lava Lounge, the owners redecorated this cozy bar into part Minnesota hunting lodge and part forest. The small vestibule just after the entrance is lined with wallpaper depicting fishing, hunting, and other summer outdoor scenes. Step into the bar proper and look up. The black painted ceiling is pierced with twinkling pinhole stars. Did you find Orion, or were you distracted by the elk antler chandeliers? The big frosted glass window behind the bar is painted to look like a field of thin, dead trees against a white winter sky. Dark brown seats against a wall of sawn wood blocks face small tables carved to look like cut tree trunks. A DJ spins chill out music in a black corner, only soft blue and red light from his mixing board betraying his hidden redoubt. It was summer when I walked in, but Grey Goose straight up sounds real good right now. In fact, make it a double. Winter's here.

Full Bar
Open seven days a week 8pm to 2am

Special thanks to local resident and my guide, Paul Fontana.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I've been published in two travel webzines in three days. Yay!

Carnival of Cities selects travel stories highlighting a city someplace in world. They typically select several stories each about North American, South American, European, and Asian cities. I submitted my "Three Hours in Los Feliz - Part 1" post for inclusion in the July 15, 2009 Carnival of Cities and I got listed. Yay! See for yourself.

Location Independant Blog Carnival selects travel and vagabonding stories, and articles about doing business abroad, technology for traveling, and designing your life around travel. I submitted my article entitled "Road Trip South of Playa Samara - Saturday 4-11-2009" for inclusion in the July 17, 2009 issue and they picked it up. See for yourself.

Four Can't Miss Bars in Echo Park

Echo Park is a neighborhood in Los Angeles, CA just north of downtown, off the 101 freeway. Los Angeles' film industry was centered in Echo Park before World War I, and the neighborhood served as the backdrop for many silent films. The film Mi Vida Loca explored Latina gang life in Echo Park in the 1990s. Several new apartment and condominium buildings were built in the northern portion of Echo Park as spillover from the late 1990s and early 2000s renaissance downtown.

But don't let the new wine bar fool you. Gentrification hasn't sterilized this neighborhood yet. Today, working class Latinos and Millennial generation hipsters (and yes, some plaid clad Gen Xers too) frequent shadowy dive bars serving $3 Pabst, eat at ethnic restaurants in operation for generations, and nod their heads at live music venues tucked away in the shadows, safe from the judgmental eyes of pretentious Westsiders.

The Short Stop
Only a pink neon COCKTAILS sign advertises this former cop bar turned gay bar turned hipster haven. The shadowy back room houses a pool table, a collection of police badges, and dark leather booths for quiet conversation. The narrow bar quenches the thirst of straight twenty-something "actors" and "actresses" financing edgy entertainment industry lives with Mom and Dad's green. Come for Super Soul Sundays from 10pm to 2am to dance on a packed floor to Motown oldies and 80's favorites. Ignore the worn wooden sign declaring "DANCING IZ EVIL." Groups of skinny-jeaned, pirate-mustachioed hipsters get their nicotine fix on the outdoor porch. Come early for a seat at the bar because Sunday nights also feature crowds four deep trying to get a drink.

No cover
Full bar 5pm to 2am
Super Soul Sundays 10pm to 2am
Sunset & Sutherland at 1455 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. Phone: (213) 482-4942

The Little Joy
The kind of bar I would run if I were a tagger. Enjoy two beers on tap, play on a worn pool table, cut shadowy deals in the few booths hidden in corners, or chat up the pretty blond in the black dress with leggings underneath as you both stand around because furniture is so sparse. Surprisingly well-lit for a dive, but how else could you enjoy all the graffiti, sketches, and street art four walls can handle? Bring cash because they don't take credit cards. Cheap drinks and a DJ spinning funk offer comfort to patrons who didn't want to deal with the line at The Short Stop. More diverse crowd than the hipster-only Short Stop. Makes up with real what it lacks in hip.

No cover
Cash only
Full bar
Sunset & Portia at 1477 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. Phone: (213) 250-3417

The Gold Room
Well-lit with tiled floors, leather booths, and a largely well-dressed, young, female clientele. Sometimes the entire staff wears tuxedos. Fiber optic lighting at the bar cycles through a rainbow of colors. And was that a neon palm tree? What is this, Miami? Sit at the polished granite bar and get all the free roasted peanuts you can eat, if you don't mind shelling them yourself. Mirrored wall next to the booths and behind the bar make this small spot seem larger. Loud, eclectic jukebox plays mariachi, bachata, classic rock and metal. A good reprieve from the local dive bar routine.

Full bar
1558 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. Phone: (213) 482-5259

El Prado
Westside class without the arrogance. Long and wide light brown bar with plenty of stools offer ample opportunity to meet locals. Modern art, mellow lighting, and light colored wood paneling lend this wine and beer bar a chill atmosphere. Staff spins LPs from a sizable collection next to the wine bottles. Wine and beer selection hand written in white wax pen on the mirror wall behind the bar instead of in a menu is a nice touch. Enjoy olives, walnuts or pecans for $3, or spring for the cheese plate for $7. Impress a first date by ordering a glass of an obscure New Zealand Pinot Noir she's never heard of for $7. Or commiserate with a friend over a $3 glass of the finest Portuguese boxed wine you've ever cried into.

Wine and beer only
Open 7 days a week, 6pm to 2am
1805 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. Phone: (213) 483-8609

Special Bonus:
Taco Zone Truck
The only taco truck I've seen on Yelp with a 4.5 star rating and over 150 reviews. Didn't stop them from getting firebombed(!) in mid-2009, though. Jealous competitors? Thankfully, Taco Zone is back as of early July 2009. Enjoy steaming, flavorful, tacos, burritos, and quesadillas. Taco Zone even set up a few chairs, just for you. At 2:30AM, how could you possibly go wrong with three chicken tacos for $1.25 each, and a full salsa bar? Go for the dark orange salsa if you like hot. Tacos served open face on soft tortillas the way they're supposed to be done, and not in crunchy shells like at corporate behemoth Taco Bell. Walk across the parking lot to Vons and wash down your late night taco with a Snickers bar.

Open well past 2AM.
Parked at Alvarado and Montana, on the street next to the Vons supermarket parking lot and near a car wash.

Special thanks to Echo Park resident and my guide, Nima Samadi, who took me on an amazing five hour bar crawl and taco fest one Sunday night and Monday morning.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What Does Financial Freedom Mean to You?

Get Rich Slowly is one of my favorite personal finance blogs. Its writer, J.D., used to be a chronic debtor who worked a job he hated. Several years ago, he committed to getting out of debt. His journey attracted so many readers, and opened his own eyes so much, that he quit his job and now blogs full time. What I like best about his blog is that many of his posts link financial freedom to personal freedom. This post is a perfect example.

J.D.'s post links financial freedom to the freedom to choose your work, the freedom to live where you want, the freedom to do what you want, the freedom to seize opportunities, and freedom from worry. In my "About Me" statement and in a previous post, I link financial freedom to several of these things as well. This is how I link financial freedom and my freedom using J.D.'s criteria:

1) Freedom to choose your work: When I had six-figures worth of student loan debt, I absolutely felt like I had to make a lot of money. In fact, I have read that graduates need to limit their student loan balances to no more than two-thirds of their first year salary. My high pay jobs were so stressful they were hurting my physical and psychological health. I paid off over $50,000 in student loans last autumn and immediately felt like I could downsize my career to something more sustainable. I am now searching for less stressful, less time-intensive employment that focuses more tightly on subject matter I like and responsibilities that I enjoy and are good at handling. This will probably entail a pay cut, but reducing my debt load gives me the financial flexibility to absorb that hit and chase satisfying work.
2) Freedom to live where you want: Ultimately, I want to live in different parts of the world during different parts of the year, but still spend decent time in California. I could achieve this by traveling and then renting housing in whatever locale I decided to stay for a while. That would certainly be cheaper than owning property every place in the world I want to li.
3) Freedom to do what you want: This is huge for me. Financial freedom means doing what I want where I want with whom I want when I want. I traveled through Costa Rica for five weeks without a job and without concern about finding one because my finances are in good order. Though I had an amazing time abroad, I do desire work that plays to my favorite skills, deals with my favorite subject matter, and that focuses on tasks I enjoy performing. I have a decent feel for what all of this entails, so I feel like I am moving towards achieving this goal.
4) Freedom to seize opportunities: My Costa Rica trip was a great opportunity for personal growth, and one that I would have passed on had I been furiously searching for a job because I was drowning in debt, or because my lifestyle was so expensive I needed constant income to support it. A friend recently approached me about investing money in a private business he found. I passed, but the fact that I seriously discussed investing felt empowering.
5) Freedom from worry: I still worry about money, my remaining student loan debt, maintaining cash flow as I age, and similar concerns. However, I don't worry about those things nearly as much as I did before I paid off over $50,000 in student loans last autumn. When my last $33,000 is gone, I know I'll worry even less about money. Also, I don't worry about car payments because my car is paid for. I don't worry about mortgage payments because I don't have a mortgage, nor do I desire to purchase a house in the foreseeable future. I don't worry about monthly, or even emergency expenses because I have ample cash.

What does financial freedom mean to you?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Things You Own End Up Owning You

I came upon a great blog posting at My Two Dollars about material possessions, and how they end up possessing you. Remember, everything you buy is something you have to store, clean, maintain, think about, and take with you when you move.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Why Do We Work?

I have been unemployed for six months now and I am OK with it. Why? Because I have achieved financial freedom. Not true financial freedom because I lack the funds to be unemployed forever, but I have achieved enough financial freedom to be unemployed for six months, so far, without worrying about money.

I achieved my temporary freedom by saving aggressively, living frugally, and avoiding debt. For example, I've been crashing with my parents for over a year because they don't charge me for rent or food. Because of their graciousness, I saved 70% of my after-tax salary at my last job. I paid off most of my student loans, dropping my monthly cash outflow by nearly $650. I drive a seven year old car I paid off years five years ago. I haven't bought new clothes in months. I rarely eat out.

It sounds like I live a crappy life, right? I don't see it that way because I don't feel as though I am depriving myself of anything. Drastically reducing my cash outflow means I can get by on less money going forward. This means that I can work less stressful, less intense jobs than the jobs I previously worked at. More imporantly, drastically reducing my cash flow means instead of working, I can spend my time doing things I enjoy like traveling abroad or catching live music shows. For a while, anyway. And that's what I really want these days...the time do what I enjoy.

So if work means swapping our time for something, what is that something? Why do we work? I used to work at high-pay/high-stress jobs 1) for the social status that comes with making a lot of money and having an office, a staff, and heavy responsibility, 2) because I desired material things like expensive clothes and luxurious housing, 3) to pay my student loans, and 4) because I believed that responsibility, power, and hierarchical progression would eventually provide an intangible benefit like happiness.

My values have since changed. I don't desire social status anymore because I would rather spend my money buying my free time back than impressing strangers with a $40,000 car and a pricey condo. In fact, I barely desire material things at all anymore because everything I own is something I have to purchase, store, maintain, think about, and take with me when I move. I am happier spending that money and energy on fun things like this. I have paid off most of my student loans and I feel great about having fewer financial obligations. And I see now that the stress, heavy obligations, and intense pressure of previous jobs were destroying my physical and psychological health.

So tell me...what keeps you going into work for 50, 60, or more hours a week? Do you enjoy what you do? Are you good at it? What trade-offs or compromises have you made to keep on your career path?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Three Hours in Los Feliz - Part II

From Half-Off Clothing on Vermont Avenue, I walked south to the corner of Vermont Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, and then west across Vermont Avenue. I ended at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from Barnsdall Art Park.

Barnsdall Arts Park in Los Feliz
Barnsdall Arts Park sits atop Olive Hill, on the border of Los Feliz and Little Armenia. The park was originally the property of Pennsylvania oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. Aline settled in Los Angeles after visiting from Chicago in 1915. She hired architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build her residence on Olive Hill, the Hollyhock House. The Hollyhock House was Frank Lloyd Wright's first project in Los Angeles and second in California. Aline donated the park, Hollyhock House, and all other structures on Olive Hill to the city of Los Angeles in 1927 with the intention of maintaining an active arts and recreation center for the local community.

Today, Barnsdall Arts Park has five major attractions. First, the park itself is a large grass open area city cut by concrete walkways and interspersed with kinetic and stationary modern art sculptures.

Hollyhock House in Los Feliz
The Hollyhock House was built between 1919 and 1921. The house is named for Aline's favorite flower, the hollyhock. At her request, Wright incorporated abstract hollyhock patterns into the structure including in the planters and stained glass windows. A small colonnade leads from the park and its modern art exhibits to the house. The house is situated around a central courtyard with one side open. Split levels, terraces, and steps surround the courtyard. The exterior walls are tilted back 85 degrees, giving the exterior a "Mayan Pyramid" look. In fact, this look is sometimes referred to as Mayan Revival Style. Wright also designed a grand fireplace with bas-relief and a moat. The great lawn in front of the house offers a commanding view north towards the Hollywood hills and west towards Century City and the Westside. Hollyhock House is open for tours Wednesday through Sunday at 12:30PM, 1:30PM, 2:30PM, and 3:30PM.

Los Angeles Municipal Arts Gallery
The Los Angeles Municipal Arts Gallery is a 10,000 square foot venue large enough for extensive retrospective arts exhibits and thematic exhibits showing the work of multiple artists. The junior gallery offers 2,000 square feet of exhibition space for a more intimate showing. The gallery shows about nine contemporary art exhibits per year. The gallery's mission is to promote, interpret, and present to the public the work of Southern Californian artists. The gallery exhibits paintings, sculpture, photographic, architectural, design, video, electronic, , performance, and installation works. Exhibits server 45,000 visitors annually.
The Barnsdall Gallery Theater is a 299 seat venue for live theater, music, dance, spoken word, lecture, and film events. Its goal is to present artistic and diverse cultural events at the lowest possible admission price to maximize attendance and audience development. The theater also co-produces a variety of free community events including the Independent Shakespeare Company and the Silverlake Conservatory of Music's Music Summer Camps.

Barnsdall Arts Center in Los Feliz
The Barnsdall Arts Center is housed in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and provides college level arts instruction to the local community. The center also provides arts instruction to children and teens, and offers gallery space for students to display their work.
For further information on the Barnsdall Art Park and its programs, visit or call the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs at 213-202-5500.

My afternoon in Los Feliz passed too quickly. I loved how the neighborhood's charming and crowded sidewalk cafes sat next to discreet, dark old bars that hearkened to an older film noir Los Angeles. I also liked the trendy apparel boutiques for that younger, tragically hip crowd whose patronage keeps one of Los Angeles' last major independent bookstores in business. It's cliche, but there aren't too many places in Southern California where tattoo wearing, skinny jean sporting, big sunglasses wearing 20 (or 30) somethings can share the sidewalk with the stroller pushing, sportscoat wearing, leather shoe shod, BMW driving crowd sporting their own more subtle counter culture body marks.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Three Hours in Los Feliz - Part I

Los Feliz is a Los Angeles neighborhood just east of Hollywood, south of Griffith Park, and west of Silver Lake. Los Feliz once housed movie studios, including Walt Disney's first studio in Los Angeles, and movie royalty including Cecil B. DeMille and his family. Today, Los Feliz's apartments and Victorian, Queen Anne, and Mission Revival homes house twenty-something singles, thirty-somethings just starting families, and retirees. Residents enjoy an eclectic neighborhood of trendy boutiques, sidewalk cafes with hardly an empty seat to be found, and classy old bars that hearken to a previous era. The Village is the heart of this bohemian neighborhood and is bordered by Vermont Avenue on the west, Hillhurst Avenue on the east, Los Feliz Boulevard on the north, and Sunset Drive on the south. This article covers a walking tour of the Village along Vermont Avenue.

I started at Franklin Avenue and walked south on the east side of Vermont Avenue. I first passed the Electric Lotus, an Indian and Punjabi restaurant with outdoor seating (1870 N. Vermont Avenue at the corner of Vermont & Franklin. phone: 323-953-0040). Peeking in to the shadowed interior, I could see candle lit tables covered in white linen and surrounded by dark brown chairs. I also glimpsed stautes and painting depicting Hindu gods. Next door is Psycho Babble, a coffee house with outdoor seating and a wall painting showing the Tower of Babel.

Further down, I passed Palermo Italian Restaurant (1858 N. Vermont Avenue. phone: 323-663-1178). The interior is separated into sections by faux archways and columns. A skylight opens above one section, natural light flooding in. Patrons sit on overstuffed leather seats in booths, or at tables surrounded by metal chairs. Red linen covers all the tables. Beautifully detailed wall paintings depict the Italian coast. Palermo is open every day except Tuesday.

Fred62 is difficult to miss with its bright green exterior, orange awnings, and sidewalk tables (1850 N. Vermont Avenue. phone: 323-667-0062). The extensive menu features an extensive selection of colorfully named breakfast omelettes, sandwiches, pancakes and cereals. Try the Dime Bag if you're hungry or the Fred McMurray if you're not. Lunch and dinner also offer many choices of sandwiches, burgers, pastas, salads and entrees. The Manhandler is a classic Sloppy Joe, the Hippy Sandwich goes meatless, and the Noo-Deli Noodles are almost Pad Thai. Wash it all down with fruit juice, shakes, sodas, beer, wine, or even champagne and finish up with Red Velvet Cake (the best kept secret in Los Feliz). Fred62 is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

The Los Feliz Theaters are at 1820 N. Vermont Avenue (phone: 323-664-2169). The theater marquee announces that the theater has been here since 1934. Today, its three screens show first-run and independent movies.

Skylight Books (1818 N. Vermont Avenue. phone: 323-660-1175; web: is one of the last major independent bookstores in Los Angeles. They specialize in literary fiction, books on film and theater, alternative literature, and Los Angeles and regional culture and history. Skylight has nearly nightly readings by authors and I have found numerous autographed books on the shelves. Stop in, call, or visit their website for a calendar of events. Oh, and there's a living fifteen-foot tall tree in the middle of the store under which you can sit and read.

Figaro Bistro (1804 & 1802 N. Vermont Avenue. phone: 323-662-1587; web: takes up two storefronts and has ample sidewalk seating that was nearly full when I visited. The interior provides leather booths and table seating on a red and beige tiled floor and can be a pleasant oasis from the noise outside. Dressy waiters take lunch orders of croque monsieur (toasted bread, French ham, Swiss cheese topped with bechamel sauce), pastramis et mozzarella (sliced pastrami beef with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and mustard), salad de mangue et crevettes (mixed green salad served with beet, heart of palm, hard boiled eggs, sliced tomato and feta cheese) and other sandwiches, salads, pizzas, soups, and entrees. Come for dinner for richer French fare like Cote Beouf pour deux (grilled boneless Rib eye steak served with French fries, green beans, and cognac). Figaro Bistro is open Sunday through Thursday from 8:30AM to 10:30PM and on Friday and Saturday from 8:30AM to 11:00PM.

Y-Que Trading Post (1770 N. Vermont Avenue. web: sells ironic t-shirts, action figures including ones of Jesus and Edgar Allan Poe, vintage lunch boxes (I knew I should have kept my Pac-Man one from 2nd grade), incense, and ruffled panties. The 20-something to and 30-something hipster crowd soaked up the humor and barely noticed the well-pierced cashier dancing to 80's era Madonna music booming over the speakers.

The Dresden Restaurant (1760 N. Vermont Avenue. phone: 323-665-4294, web: has operated since 1954. Its lounge has been shown in Swingers, That Thing You Do and other movies. Caricature sketches of famous Los Angelinos line the lounge's stone walls. Marty and Elayne perform Monday through Saturday from 9:00PM to 1:15PM. Don't forget to try the Blood and Sand, the Dresden's signature drink. Next door, the dining room holds only cozy white leather booths -- no tables -- surrounded by dark reddish-brown walls highlighted by something like mother-of-pearl. The menu is small, but offers seafood, pasta, beef, and Italian specialities. Dinner served 4:30PM to 11:00PM Monday through Satuday and 4:30PM to 9:30PM on Sundays.

Half Off Clothing (1748 N. Vermont Avenue. phone: 323-665-1626) at the corner of Vermont and Kingswell sells new T-shirts, button down shirts, jeans, and accessories for men and women. They stock independent designers. I saw a lot of Dragonfly, Chaser of Los Angeles, Kinetix, Zoo York, D-Soul, and Helmet Off The Wall. Ask friendly associate Joseph for help.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Playing Tourist at Home - Atomic Ballroom

Being a tourist is awesome. Every day brings a new adventure. I love playing tourist so much I am committed to exploring Southern California, my off-again-on-again home, with a tourist's eye.

Tucked away in a nondescript office park in Irvine, it is easy to overlook Atomic Ballroom. I walked in and up to the front desk. The helpful woman sitting there asked me to sign in and mark which classes I wished to attend that evening. Then, she asked me to provide my name, email, and phone number on a form, and sign a waiver promising not to sue if I injured myself while in class. I visited on Wednesday evening, which is salsa night. I marked two beginner classes, a 7:00PM class taught by Corey and a 7:45PM class taught by Megan. Then, I walked to their little bar area to wait for class to begin. The bar area leads directly to the dance floor and had bar stools and a few tables with chairs. No one was serving at the bar, but there was a filtered water dispenser, M&Ms, and other candy free for the taking. The dance floor was large and lined with mirrors, like a dance studio. One corner had a DJ booth and there was a disco ball hanging from the ceiling above the middle of the dance floor.

The first class, Corey's class, was three women and six men. I liked Cory's teaching style because he was funny, danced with each leader, and gave each leader constructive advice. He also only covered the basic step, side breaks, and the follower's right turn (outside turn), which seemed about right for a 45 minute beginner lesson. The second class, Megan's class, was five women and five men. Megan covered the basic step, the follower's right turn, the cross body lead, and the cross body lead combined with the follower's right turn. This was a lot of material and several people were confused by the end of her 45 minute lesson. Megan did not dance with the leaders, though doing so would have been useful.

Megan's class and Corey's intermediate level class finished at 8:30PM, and the dance floor opened up to a general admission salsa dance with music provided by the ballroom DJ. The dance is free with a paid lesson. Otherwise, it is $5. I stayed until 9:15PM, long enough for several dances. I noticed people who had not purchased a lesson starting to trickle in around 9:00PM. There were only about twenty people on the dance floor when I left. Perhaps more people show up later.

I had a great time taking two beginning lessons and staying for the dance. The dancers ranged in age from early 20's into the 70's. The atmosphere during the classes and the dances was relaxed, and everyone I talked to or danced with was friendly. I recommend the group lessons and dance at Atomic Ballroom as a fine way to pick up a new hobby, to meet people, to spend an evening, and as a great date idea.

Atomic ballroom has group classes every day of the week and private lessons by appointment. Group lessons are $15 per lesson if you drop in or $10 per lesson for 10 lessons if you buy their "virtual punch card." Visit the website at for class schedules. Atomic Ballroom is located at 17961 Sky Park Circle, Suite C, Irvine, California 92614. You can reach them via email at or via phone at 949-250-3332.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Costa Rica, A Review - Sunday 4-26-2009

Playa Samara, Costa Rica

You should go to Costa Rica.

The country is beautiful. I loved Costa Rica's gorgeous natural environments. The Monteverde and Santa Elena nature preserves house ancient hundred foot (and taller!) trees, which provide shelter to white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, rainbow colored parrots and toucans, exotic tree-climbing mammals, and rare snakes. One day in Monteverde, I found waterfall and lagoon tucked away in the jungle, hidden down a kilometer-long walk past of vines, ferns and huge trees. I had the entire falls, lagoon and jungle all to myself. It felt like being in a picture in a travel magazine showing places too isolated and spectacular to really exist. The countryside is similarly beautiful, with acre after acre of green, undeveloped rain forest, ranch land, and farmland.

There is plenty of opportunity for water sports. My water sports included only swimming and sitting under palm trees, but that's just me. The surf on the Pacific Coast is reportedly some of the best in the world, especially at Montezuma, Santa Teresa and Mal Pais, but there is ample opportunity to surf at beaches on both coasts. In Playa Tamarindo and Playa Samara, numerous tour operators fishing, snorkeling, or marine-life viewing tours. I understand tour operators in beach communities all around the country offer the same. I also understand that the snorkeling near Playa Hermosa and Cahuita is amazing. In Playa Tamarindo and Monteverde and Santa Elena, I saw brochures for river rafting trips, too.

The country is cheap, especially compared to Western Europe and Australia. I never paid more than $35 per night for a private room with at least a double bed, including pillows, linens, and towels. This fee often included a private bathroom and breakfast. Meals were at least $8 each in Playa Tamarindo and Monteverde and Santa Elena, but those places are tourist traps. I could feed myself with hearty meals for $10-$12 per day in San Jose and Playa Samara. Playa Samara was particularly cheap, and the food was always tasty.

It is easy to go upscale in Costa Rica. Every town I stopped at had expensive, resort-type hotels. You do not have to spend under $40 per night for a private room at a hostel to enjoy Costa Rica. There are plenty of luxury options.

Costa Ricans are friendly. More than once on my trip, I must have looked terribly confused because a helpful local came up to me and asked me in perfect English if I needed help. In each case, I explained where I was trying to go and the local directed me to my destination or told me exactly where I was. The hotel staff, restaurant staff, and tour staff I dealt with were also universally helpful.

The backpackers are friendly, too. I met so many interesting, friendly, worldly, talkative, and generally cool people at the hostels I stayed at. For the record, I stayed at Costa Rica Backpackers & Guesthouse in San Jose (; phone: 2221 6191), Manakin Lodge in Monteverde (; phone: 2645 5058), Hostel Botella de Leche in Playa Tamarindo (; phone: 2653 0189), Cabinas Marielos in Playa Tamarindo (phone and fax: 2653 0141), and Casa Brian in Playa Samara (; phone: 2656 0315).

I Miss Costa Rica (and Traveling) - Saturday 4-25-2009

I have been home for three days now and I miss Costa Rica. I miss its warm turqouise water and white sandy beaches. I miss its towering green tropical canopies, filled with the calls, chirps and howls of unseen parrots, toucans, and monkeys . I miss its quaint dirt roads and locally-owned businesses reminding me that there are still places in the world safe from chain restaurants, Blockbuster Video, Starbucks Coffee and other hallmarks of "progress." I miss its sugary-sweet pineapples, mangos, and papayas, picked ripe from a local farm a day or even hours before I ate them. I miss its simple, stress-free living without the distraction of television and materialist social conditioning. I miss Casa Brian and the people I met there.

I miss some things about traveling in general, too. I miss the adventure of traveling through a foreign country, of being a stranger in a strange land. I miss the excitement of arriving in a new city, not knowing anyone and having to make friends with other travelers. Sure, saying goodbye to my new friends always made me sad, but few things in life are better than making new friends. I miss discovering new restaurants with exotic foods. Four days after I came home, I miss being abroad.

Is it already time to plan my next trip?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Two Days in San Jose and the Flight Home - Monday 4-20-2009 and Tuesday 4-21-2009

Monday and Tuesday proceed similarly. I have lunch with Nicolas at the Mercado Central (I have the fried chicken with tortillas at Soda San Cristobal for 1,950 colones both days), he tells me he is ready to leave San Jose and return to Quebec, and I do a lot of listening because he has a lot to say about everything. On Monday, he asks our waitress at Soda San Cristobal if she would like to meet him for dinner on Tuesday. She agrees. After this, he talks a lot about how excited he is for his date. When we go back to Soda San Cristobal on Tuesday for lunch, the waitress is there again and Nicolas gets a confirmation that she will meet him later that day for dinner. Monday after lunch, we walk the blocks just to the south and west of the Mercado Central. Every store front facing the avenidas and calles is occupied, the merchants selling everything from fresh produce of every color, to childrens’ toys, to cell phones, to baked goods, to clothing, lingere, and other apparel for both men and women. Crowds are thick on both days. Nicolas and I weave our way through and around groups of pedestrians. Street vendors yell out the name of vegetables to passersby, hoping to attract a buyer. Old women sit at small wooden tables covered with lottery tickets. The destitute approach the slightly better off and beg for money. Taxis and trucks honk warnings to pedestrians as they zoom down the narrow streets. I will miss San Jose and its vibrant, chaotic life. Monday afternoon, I find a souvenir doll for my aunt at a t-shirt shop in a quiet alley in the Mercado Central. Tuesday afternoon, Nicolas and I walk to a park at the Costa Rica Gran Hotel and across the street from the Teatro Nacional and enjoy the early afternoon. Throngs of people walk by – businessmen in suits carrying expensive leather cases, teenagers talking on cell phones, couples walking hand in hand, old men with worn faces wearing threadbare clothes, private school students in their uniforms, tourists with folding maps.

I bid Nicolas goodbye on Tuesday afternoon and walk back to the hostel. Monday night, I arranged for a shuttle to drive me to the airport today. The shuttle driver arrives and I bid goodbye to Juan Carlos at the front desk. On the way out of town, we pass Parque Morazan. Laura and I walked through Parque Morazan the afternoon I showed her around San Jose. Further on, we drive past the hotel where Ricardo and Fernando stayed in San Jose; I remember it from when the shuttle to Monteverde stopped there several weeks ago. The 17 kilometer drive from hostel to airport takes forty-five minutes in San Jose’s heavy afternoon traffic. The driver wishes me good journey and pats me on the arm. Checking in, immigration, and security take all of fifteen minutes together. I spend the next three hours sitting at my gate enjoying the Juan Santamaria International’s free wireless. The plane boards at 6:35PM and takes off at 7:15PM. I bid adios to Costa Rica as the countryside rushes by and the plane lifts off for Los Angeles.