13 August 10 – Feast Day of Cassian of Imola, Ill-Fated Writing Teacher

A quick little moral tale before we get to our main story

Saint Cassian was a 4th century schoolteacher, who “taught [his students] the basic elements of literature, that is, how to read and write.” Unfortunately, Cassian’s activities drew the ire of the local judge who, alliteratively, was a “partisan of the passions of the apostate emperor.”

For any still-summer-vacationing teachers, the ominous news is that the angry judge “could find no means more appropriate to take vengeance on Saint Cassian than to abandon him to his own students.” (shudder!)

Cassian was stripped and bound, and some two hundred of his students  did their worst – or, depending on your interpretation, their best, for one telling of his martyrdom records that the students “carved their initials carefully on his flesh.” (emphasis added)

A good story seems to lurk here, morbid though it may well be: Cassian taught 200 boys to read and write: After carving their initials into their master’s flesh, what did they go on to write?

And Now, Our Main Story:

Each December some half a million people converge on Guadalajara’s convention center to celebrate that perennially endangered species known as the printed word. La  Feria Internacional del Libro, or FIL as it is more handily and affectionately known, brings together publishers, authors, and book lovers from all over the (chiefly Spanish-speaking) world  for a week of exhibitions, conferences, readings, and convivially crowded hobnobbing.

For some two decades now, la FIL has recognized one country or another as its Invitado de Honor, affording them the chance to spotlight their literary and artistic culture.  Last year la FIL tweaked this tradition a wee bit by extending its Invitado invitation to the City of Los Angeles, which, in turn, invited four dozen writers to travel to Guadalajara as L.A.’s cultural ambassadors.

While a number of well-known and widely-read authors – Ruben Martinez, Yxta Maya Murray, Dagoberto Gilb, Geoff Nicholson, Jonathon Gold, and Alex Espinoza – traveled to la FIL, at least one fairly unknown author also got the nod – that would be me.  Sort of like Ringo being chosen once upon a time to bring up the rear for the Beatles.

A highlight of our Guadalajara sojourn was, of all things, the hotel.  Not that there was anything the least bit distinctive about it, but because each morning, upon entering the café for breakfast, one focused not on what to eat, but with whom to eat it.  Writers who principally knew one another by by-line alone got to chat over café con leche with writers they – we – admired.

One thing that came up repeatedly in conversation was how charmed and enamored we all were with our host city.  Guadalajara has wonderful colonial and beaux arts architecture, parks hither and thither,  several museums and community arts spaces, and some of the most congenial and polite citizens a large city could possibly boast.

It felt, one thought, like a rather enhanced, civilized version of L.A.

And that’s where the thought began to germinate, to propose a small anthology of writers’ reminiscences about our time in Guadalajara, as sort of valentine not only to our host, but also to the National Endowment for the Arts (which funded our trip) and to the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles (which organized it).

My sweetheart friend Veronique de Turenne, late of the LA Times and still of the “Here in Malibu” blog on LAObserved.com, enthusiastically volunteered to co-edit the submissions, which filtered in from a dozen fellow authors.  David Kipen, who organized the L.A. writers contingent, agreed to contribute a cheery, pithy foreword; and Veronique and I each had stories about Guadalajara we wanted to contribute. Veronique’s fun tale, which ends the book, inspired its title, Waiting For Foreign.

The essays include a pair of lovely, nuanced pieces: Alex Espinozas uneasy meditation on his complicated relationship with the land of his birth; and Michael Jaime-Becerra’s sweet ode to his father’s alternating power and fragility.

There are some light-hearted pieces as well: Dagoberto Gilb’s stream-of-consciousness take on Guadalajara, the publishing biz, and Cesar Rojas, which ends on a slightly bitter rant about racism; and Ruben Martinez’s reggae-foxtrot love song to Guadalajara and all things tapatío.

I had taken dozens of photographs in Guadalajara, and as I graphically reworked them in Photoshop, these began to complement the stories in the book. I found a website – Blurb.com – which enables users to design and create their own books, through its downloadable program, and which the website will then print on demand.

Admittedly, it felt a little ironically complicated to be self-publishing and printing-on-demand a book inspired by an international book fair that relies on the participation of dozens of publishing houses, particularly at a time when no one knows what the future of publishing holds or what the workable model will be.

Perhaps this eight inch square, eighty-page book, labored over for months, and then uploaded in a half-hour and printed – “on demand” – and delivered directly to my door less than a week later, is one of those models for the future.  .

I only know that it offers a creative person the liberating opportunity to gather and organize thoughts and insights however one best sees fit into an actual physical book – that still palpable, valued object.

Whether anyone else cares to read, to purchase, or to own that creation remains to be seen.  But thus has it ever been with writing. May it ever remain so.


2 April – Feast Day of la Santa Musa

CBS Reporter Martha Teichner before my painting of "St. Stephanie"

My wife and I were recently in Barcelona (more on that another day), immersed in its many-layered histories and beauty, when I received a surprise email from a producer for the great weekly television program CBS Sunday Morning, inquiring if I would care to be the subject of a profile for an upcoming broadcast.

Timed to air on the thematically-relevant Easter Sunday, April 4th, this segment would feature my “All the Saints of the City of the Angels” project, wherein I had explored the multi-cultural heritage of Los Angeles, via its 100+ streets named for saints.

Of course I was ecstatic – and grateful – and, as soon as we returned to L.A., I began preparing for the film crew’s visit – which was an adventure in itself, as my studio had been hastily converted into a storage facility when our home’s sewer line irrevocably broke, just before our trip to Spain…. Ah, Best of times, Worst of times….

Nonetheless, I was able to re-establish peace, space, and reasonable tranquility in time for our interview.

I had long esteemed reporter Martha Teichner as one of the most thoughtful and cultured of reporters on Sunday Morning; so I was doubly pleased that she was selected to interview me.  She was thoroughly engaging during the nine hours we spent together; insightful and empathic, and the pleasant  source of sweet stories of interviews past.

Crew on location, KGB Gallery, producer Brian Healy at right

Producer Brian Healy hovered helpfully in the background throughout the day, offering spot-on suggestions and tips to enrich the  segment that will ultimately appear on the show (if it appears, of course).

Each time All the Saints gets a little exposure like this, that I get interviewed or asked to speak on the project,  provides me a much-appreciated opportunity to better understand the project myself.  These ten years of researching, writing, exploring, and painting the City of the Angels’ saint-streets and street saints add up to a significant portion of my time here on this blue marble, and probably constitute one of the most thoughtful, if meandering, meditations on how I view the world.

I am grateful to CBS Sunday Morning for the opportunity to explore this project again, and to share it with others. I hope those of you who view the segment, on televised air, or in some online version, will get something useful and reflective out of it as well.

All best. Blessings.

Shooting the Saints

18 August – Feast Day of Santa Elena (St. Helen), part ii

Detail, my portrait of Saint Helen, from "All the Saints of the City of the Angels"
Detail, my portrait of Saint Helen, from All the Saints

Saint Helen is a fascinating character to consider.

I’ve written about her twice in my book, All the Saints of the City of the Angels: once in connection with Santa Cruz Street, in San Pedro Bay; and again, in connection with the curiously named San Teala Court, in Woodland Hills.
As I wrote in the San Teala piece, she
“was Constantine’s mother, a pious woman with a penchant for organizing, and an eye for buried treasure. In the fourth century she bustled about the Holy Land, uncovering relics which had lain unnoticed for three hundred years.  The cross where Christ died; the nails which had secured him; the notice which hung above his head; the crown of thorns that rung his brow – all these freely presented themselves to her, as if awaiting her arrival.”

 And she, via her legend, is responsbile for the naming of both Santa Cruz Street and the island to which its name is directed, out beyond the harbor’s horizon.

The tale goes that, after millennia of living in relative harmony, the Chumash peoples of Limuw, a large island near present-day Santa Barbara, were visited by Spanish explorers from the empire to the south.

Accompanying the soldiers who came ashore was a Franciscan priest; All were welcomed by the islanders, who took them to their chieftan’s village of Xaxas, set in a great forest.
After their warm reception, and an exchange of gifts, the visitors headed back to their canoes, and from there to their ship anchored offshore.
Overnight the priest, Juan Gonzalez Vizcaino, discovered he had forgotten his cross-topped walking staff (no mention is made of whether he had imbibed any welcoming inebriants during the welcoming ceremonies).
Despairing of seeing this treasure again – and admittedly harboring suspicions that the natives had gained the cross through clever means – , the Spaniards awakened at first light to the cheerful sight of the men of Xaxas guiding their great tomol towards the ship; and in the center of the tomol sat one of the Chumash, bearing the lost cross.
Like Saint Helen of old, some Limuw maiden had recovered the Friar’s lost cross.


18 August – Feast Day of Saint Helen

Detail, The Old Moon Remembers, by J Michael Walker, 2001

Detail of "The Old Moon Remembers", by J Michael Walker, 2001

All the long 101 way home


All the long 101 way home:


The moon,  

Large cream-gold

Old-friend of calm.


Pulling onto the driveway,

Behind silhouette trees

A horned owl asserts herself



Four-note verses

Unhurried, soft  

Against freeway’s wild wash.


– Composed tonight, upon coming home.

Published in: on 17 August 2008 at 10:06 pm  Comments (2)  
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12 August – Feast Day of Saint Felicissima

My favorite quote of the day comes from my friend Maureen, who replied, after I has emailed her that my book All the Saints of the City of the Angels has been named a finalist for the SCIBA (Southern California Independent Booksellers Association) nonfiction book of the year:

“I celebrated by going to my nearest independent book seller and buying another copy.”

How absolutely, fittingly perfect.

(And just for the record, she shopped at Vroman’s: they had 2 copies left)

Published in: on 13 August 2008 at 2:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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5 August – Feast Day of Our Lady of Copacabana

My version of Our Lady of Copacabana, sort of

My version of Our Lady of Copacabana, sort of

The cheerless dismantling of our local daily paper, the Los Angeles Times, has been so harrowing and relentless, it’s led me to check LAObserved’s fine blog a couple times a day for the latest dreary development. (Already the fine reporter who profiled me last fall, Deborah Schoch, was let go after 16 years.)

And so it was that last night, just before retiring, I turned to LAObserved for a final midnight looksee – and was stunned to read my name in a posting about upcoming book awards:

My book All the Saints of the City of the Angels: Seeking the Soul of L.A. on Its Streets has been named a finalist for the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association’s award for best nonfiction of 2008.

O my fluttering hummingbird heart! Humbled to the core, bedazzled and amazed, it’s made me feel just like a kid.

I want to send everyone flowers; offer free backrubs; share a glass of better wine; and stretch out on the grass to stare up at the clouds, and then (after more wine) up at the stars.

These awards are voted on only by independent booksellers, not the chains. No offense to Amazon and the rest; but these are the folks who, when they order my book, have to pay my wonderful publisher upfront and can’t return their leftovers. These arethe True Lovers of Books, who share their enthusiasm with customers and post handlettered endorsements next to treasured discoveries.

Their support since my book’s release, in March, has warmed my heart; this nomination has set it ablaze.

July 28 – Feast Day of St. Samson of Dol

Eight years ago I first had the idea to research the histories of Los Angeles streets, together with the legends and lives of the saints whose names they bear. It’s been enormously nourishing work, that has taken me all through this city, and into rough and remote corners of our history and heritage.

What I haven’t done much is to share what those experiences have felt like in the moment. But now, as “All the Saints” continues morphing, from paintings and bus shelters, to website and manuscript, then to book and exhibition, and now to traveling shows and author apearances — the thought occurs to share a bit more, on a personal level, some of the more salient moments along this poetically charged and side-swipingly emotional road trip through the City of the Angels.

Published in: on 29 July 2008 at 1:36 am  Leave a Comment