Saturday, July 25, 2009

Taking a Break

I am heading out of town - back in touch next week.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Spamalot - is it appropriate for kids?

This review was originally posted after seeing Spamalot in 2009. The show will be back in town, this time at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, for a 2 week run beginning February 28th, 2012. 
 Spamalot is many things children love; it's fast paced, it's silly, there's confetti at the end (try to sit in the orchestra so some of it lands on you.) The show's source material is the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail and it's pretty close to the original - if you are a Python fan Spamalot is not to be missed. If you are a parent you should know that the show is a little dirty.  In a silly, absurdest, English sort of way. You may remember the French Guards from the film? They are here, making all kinds of creative fornicating gestures with their hands and - there's just no other way to say this - humping the castle. Yup. So, you know, how do you feel about that?

You also need to ask yourself how you feel about a knight, upon realizing that he is gay, donning a sparkly silver cod piece and dancing around like Peter Allen. That's in here too. For my 9 year old, all the sexual stuff went right over his head. The 11 year old felt like he'd been let in on a little secret. They both loved it.

There is a little bit of cartoonish violence - the Black Knight has his arms and then his legs severed by King Arthur, wonderfully voiced for our local performance at The Ahamanson by John O'Hurley, whose toung-in-cheek gravitas makes for perfect casting. Maybe this would scare your kids. My boys were not scared but it looked so real (to the youngest) and was so well done that he did need to be reassured that it was all fake. And, later, he needed to talk about it in the car and understand exactly how it had been done. There is no squirting blood either here or, later, when another knight loses his head. But it's a bit of shock, followed by a big laugh, when red streamers unfurl from the place his head used to be. Ah, the magic of theatre.

And then, of course, there's some swearing. The "Life's a piece of shit" thing. It is there is all its Python glory but it's really not terrible ( or I'm a bad mother...)

If you are a Python fan, or if you are just a fan of great big, funny, lots of singing and dancing, old fashioned Broadway- style shows, you will love Spamalot.   If you have children I hope this helps you to make your decision about what is best for your family.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Riva with a bit about The Little Door and Cecconi's

UPDATE - Riva is now the Santa Monica Outpost of Fraiche with a Fraiche style (rather than Italian focused) menu. 

Perhaps I am getting old. It's sad, not just for the obvious reasons but because my largely unsupervised childhood was deliciously spent; cake and candy for breakfast; regular trips to Baskin Robbins and Friendly's for after school snacks; many, many ruined hot-pots worth of macaroni and cheese in college. These days I find myself less easily able process all the fat and salt of my youth. Lately I am coming home from dinners out and all I can think - no matter how good the food was - is, I am never eating like that again. So it was last night after Riva, 312 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica.

I haven't been out to eat in a while. Well, that's not completely true - I was at The Little Door 2 weeks ago. That lovely old standby still holds up. Charming, flirtatious service, fantastic cheese plate, lots of Europeans, flattering lighting, live guitars on the bougainvillea covered patio with it's unique indoor/outdoor feel. We had good wild salmon and a delicious Mediterranean plate. After all these years you still can't go wrong at The Little Door. 8164 West
3rd Street, Los Angeles.

And then I must confess that I ate at Cecconi's about a month ago. We had a very nice seat on the front patio. The place is stylish and pretty and most of our party enjoyed their food but I won't be going back. The front of house staff, the people at the desk that night, were obnoxious. Boring. The waitress was fine but the food was nothing special. I opted for the pasta with lobster and the lobster was so fishy and chewy I was shocked. Dinner for 4 with a couple of cocktails, wine, coffee and dessert was pretty close to $500. Ouch. In this economy the diner who chooses expensive, mediocre food for the sake of a scene more than once (maybe even at all) is a fool. But like I said - perhaps I'm getting old. If you go I hope you have a terrific evening. Let me know about your experience.

We started our Riva dinner with a Marguerita pizza for our table of four. It was delicious - a delicate, lightly sweet sauce, the sweetness coming naturally from the heating of the tomatoes rather than from any additions. It was a bit salty, mostly due to the cheese but perhaps owing to a little too much salt in the dough as well. There is some debate on the L A chowhound board- Mozza vs. Riva pizza. Mozza gets my vote, having more spring in the crust and more variety.

We followed the pizza with salads and an order of the sea bass crudo. The fish was really beautiful, perfectly fresh, delicately pale and soft, the crunch of the pink peppercorns and the light zing of the lemon oil creating a beautiful contrast. I loved my spring salad of pencil thin asparagus, crunchy but yielding, topped with a mess of mache, a few fava beans, panteleo cheese and a meyer lemon dressing. Two others ordered the caprese salad - ripe, heirloom tomatoes, nice buratta and the real treat, a puree of 3 basils that was so wonderfully flavorful I was wishing for a big bowl of pasta over which to dump a half cup or so. These salads were my favorite parts of the meal and nicely fulfilled Riva's promise of market driven food.

There is no pasta on the Riva menu. Know this going in. If you want to bring picky children they will no doubt be happy with the pizzas but there will be no bowl of buttered noodles.

I ordered the monkfish "francaise" with potatoe puree and spinach...

Monk fish is fatty. I knew this, but even so it was a little too much for me. The vegetables were delicious, potatoes creamy and sweet, spinach still retaining a bit of a crunch. I split the large portion with my friend who had ordered the halibut en crout. Her fish, with its fava beans, pearl onion and meyer lemon was a little bland. With such a beautiful crudo selection I do wish there had been a simple grilled fish option. I suppose I could have asked for it, and I realize that it's a bore, but after starting with a piece of pizza, and fully intending to have dessert, it would have made a nice, lighter option.

My husband had last night's special, pork belly, which he enjoyed but which sent him straight into the same fat overkill my stomach was feeling.
The side onions and tomatoes and the glass of barolo he had with his entree made nice accompaniments that stood up to the fattiness of the pork.

Our other companion had the queen cut of the prime rib. It was a nice piece of meat and the bowl of mushrooms that came with it was yummy.

We shared 2 desserts, neither of which are listed on the web site menu - the fantastic fromage blanc cheesecake with strawberry sorbet and the milk chocolate cremux with coconut sorbet and chopped candied pecans (which were so yummy they should sell these in small cellophane bags to go)

Good cappuccinos are served in tall glasses with straw/spoons. The wine and beer listings are very heavily Italian. We had a variety of wines by the glass rather than a bottle. The Pinot Nero is a real standout.

Party of 4 - 1 pizza, 4 appetizers, 4 entrees, 2 desserts, 3 coffees, 5 glasses of wine, 2 beers, 1 coke and filtered, no charge, environmentally friendly tap water - $ 350 including tip.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Boy who Sailed the World and the Mother who Let Him

Last June 14th a 16 year old boy named Zac Sunderland sailed out of Marina Del Rey, just south of where I sit now, with the goal of becoming the youngest person to sail the world alone. He made it and tomorrow he will be home, having turned 17 on the trip. I'm not going to try to encapsulate his story here - you can check out Zac's blog at Take a look at it with your kids. His story is inspiring, to say the least.

So here's my question - who is his mother and how can I be more like her? I am struggling this week because I have one child at skateboarding camp (where he might fall!!!!!) and one child, the one with ADD and other challenges, at a 2 week program of morning academics and various afternoon projects. When I arrived the first afternoon to pick him up he was siting on a bench crying, furious, having been removed from the group by the young, slightly bewildered teacher. I resisted the urge to pick him up and run out, which I'm counting as a victory, and we talked it out. After he was calm I brought him over to the table where the child who had smashed my kids rocket ship and generally "Didn't listen to me!!!" sat. I used all my best preschool teacher words and thanked God again for the many years I spent teaching. The camp teachers were great and I was able to bring my blood pressure down to a manageable level, collect my boarder, no bones broken, and go home. Where I asked myself, what would Marianne Sunderland, Zac's mom, do?

What is required to set your kid free the way she did with her 16 year old? She has some answers on Zac's FAQ page. They are good answers. The family lived many years on a boat, Zac is qualified, she believes in the community of sailors. It's the last one that gets me. The faith in the community of sailors. She knows, both his parents trust, that all over the world there are strangers who will help her son should he need it. She can count on this. It's amazing. And it's what I need to feel when I send my kids out in to the world. But with my second one, I don't always. I'm comfortable if I'm with him to run interference. I'm comfortable putting him in an environment that is specifically set up for kids like him. I have searched out these places. School, check. Camp, check. I write long letters detailing my kid and all his glory. I have conversations with the people in charge. There may be a few problems. I might get a phone call, maybe an e-mail requesting further conversation and the scared, lonely worry for the future will wash over me again. But I will shake it off and tell myself that everyone is working together for the good of my boy. Except that everybody isn't. Not always. He gets teased, I get looks. It's hard. I once read a story of a mom with a severely autistic child who was so sick of getting looks in restaurants and other public places that she had cards printed up saying, basically "My child is autistic. I am doing my best to control his behavior but I can't always. Your patience and understand are appreciated." She dropped these on the tables of rude, staring people.

Big picture wise, my boy is doing so well - learning, growing, reflecting, practicing new ways of handling his difficulties. So, it's time to set him a little bit free and we are trying something. This particular 2 week summer school is not designed for ADD kids, though I bet he won't be the only one there. I'm telling myself over and over again that it's only for 2 weeks. What could happen? (Oh, the possibilities...) but still, I know this is what I have to do. Since literally the day he was born the kid has been pushed to see where his just-short-of-breaking point is. In the neo-natal intensive care unit, where he spent the first 2 and 1/2 months of his life, they were constantly challenging him; how much milk could he take and keep down, how much time could he spend without breathing support. As the doctors told us, this was the only way to determine how strong and healthy he actually was. And so it continues.

I'm thinking of Zac and his family. I'm thinking of his mother and the deep, deep trust she must have in her boy, her community of sailors and any sacred, holy power she might believe in. I'm imagining the pushing she had to do with him as a child, as every parent must. I'm in awe of the letting go as she watched him sail out of the harbor last year. And I know that some days, maybe whole weeks, my child's difficulties are going to feel as big as all the oceans Zac has crossed. I want to say thank you to all the members of our community, all of you who love us and our different, magical little boy. I want you to know that every kindness you show me and my child strengthens his little boat. Every kindness you show to any child, especially a child who is different, and any kindness you show that child's parents strengthens them and, I believe, all of us, as we navigate these waters together.

Zac is sailing home tomorrow morning, into the harbor at Marina Del Rey. He's scheduled to get in at 10. You are welcome to go and see him.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Your 11 is my Second Childhood; Bowling, Ringling Brothers and the gang

Last week was the sleepover with friends, yesterday we celebrated my son's birthday as a family. First we went bowling in Santa Monica. 3 Games.

Then, oh then -
When was the last time you went to a circus?
Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had its last night at the Staples Center - happily they'll be in Southern California for the next month or so. Great seats for $25 a ticket. We tried for the "Circus Celebrity" seats, being that it was a birthday. $90 a ticket but right on the floor with chances to participate in the show. They were sold out. It was no doubt fantastic for the people down there but I wonder if the view is the greatest, especially of things flying overhead.
I highly recommend arriving an hour early for "Clown College" a pre-show on the floor where you get this close to some of the performers, get to try on costumes, take pictures and get autographs. It was wonderful to walk among these people. I felt a real sense of history there, the nomadic life of the circus performer, the sky high energy of the clowns and the ring master, the slight other worldliness of it all.
After finding our seats an announcement asked us to rise as a red sequined rider atop an elephant bearing the American Flag in its trunk circled the ring to the National Anthem. Immediately you know where you are, and when. It was a strange, compelling image. Then - the first few bars of that circus music you know so well, the ringing "Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls..." and the greatest show on earth was on. I loved it from the beginning. It was different from the circus of my childhood, just as that was different from a show my mother might have seen as a girl. For one thing, there was a lot of music, the live band, singers and dancers using the numbers to knit the various acts together into a cohesive whole. This was an obvious updating and, perhaps, a slight tip of the top hat to the beauty and success of Cirque du Soleil and its powerful, sophisticated use of music. It works, the music, even if the style is what you might call big production number/pop culture Americanism and the lyrics, especially in one of the main songs "Do not try this at home," are pretty simplistic.
Another difference is that the clowns are not scary. Not at all. Trust me, before we got in my youngest had himself all worked up about "their white faces and evil red mouths." Nope. Not like that. Very funny, wonderful tumbling, high energy. My kids loved them.

While the updates remind you that time does pass and that even the circus needs to make some changes in order to stay relevant, the acts are as classic and time honored as any one could wish. Horses, tigers and trained dogs jumping through hoops. Two tiny women shot out of canons. Amazing acrobats and tight rope walkers. They were all wonderful and, to my eye at least, the skill level of each of the performers is extremely high.

They have a lot of elephants. I love elephants.
I love elephants so much I don't really like seeing them anywhere other than Africa or India. They appear to be well cared for and there is a large pack of females which is how they would live in the wild. But still...

UPDATE - Wednesday, July 22 - PETA is accusing the group of cruelty to the elephants and tigers. If this is true I can't in good conscious suggest you support Ringling Brothers. Please make yourself aware of the latest on the situation as you make your decision whether or not to attend the show.

The tigers are really amazing, beautiful, powerful. The trainer, the same trainer who works with the horses, is a fabulous personality. He seemed to speak to each tiger in a different language, some in English, some Spanish. I think one tiger spoke only French, or at least pretended that was all she understood, and one seemed to be Russian. This guy and his gold vest alone are worth the price of admission.

I had several moments when I had to cover my eyes. The possibility that someone was going to drop someone else, or fall off a rope, or miss a step on a swinging platform, or drop face first from the thing you see below was breathtakingly real. The death-defying aspect of these guys and their work is thrilling in this age of helmets and mandatory printed warnings not to drink your dish washing liquid.
The circus is touring all summer. Here in Southern California this show - Zing, Zang , Zoom will be at the Honda Center in Anaheim from July 15 -26, and then at The Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario from the 29th to August 2nd.
Go, and for a few hours anyway, be a kid again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Few Things I Like About Baseball

You know how you want your kids to be free-spirits? You encourage their creativity. You fight to keep out a lot of the world's crap and protect their innocence as long as you can, knowing that the day they begin to worry about what other people think of them is the day they begin to leave childhood behind. The apple may be from the tree of knowledge but the pear in the same garden hangs on a tree called judgment.

My children must be respectful, and I'm a firm believer in table manners, but, when I became a mother, I decided that a big part of my job was to feed my kids and to foster a safe environment for their creative lives. Well fed, decently mannered free-spirits, that's what I'm going for. And it works pretty well - until something like this happens-

This is what my oldest wanted to wear last weekend. To a Dodger game.

I waged a tiny battle with myself. Conformity won. He had to choose; this shirt (not all the way buttoned up) and a pair of solid color shorts or these shorts and a solid color tee shirt. And not the socks. He got mad, then decided on the shirt and plain blue shorts. I felt like I had let him down.

Then, just as we were walking out the door, he donned this.

His outfit may have been out of the question, but at a baseball game this kind of head dressing is universally considered to be a sign of loyalty and respect. I like that about baseball.

Also, isn't the grass beautiful?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Favorite At Home Birthdays

In many ways I'm an old fashioned girl. When it comes to raising children I believe in chores, respect for adults, nightly story time and birthday parties that would probably be called corny by many people. If anyone actually used the word "corny." I like it and would love to bring it back into rotation but I don't have that kind of pull with the kids.

If you don't live here, you might have a feeling about Los Angeles, oh, let's call it a bias, that encompasses our child rearing, our breasts, our cars, our teeth, our politics, our food obsessions, Hollywood movies, celebrity culture, earthquakes, fires and traffic. People who don't live here, especially if they are New Yorkers, Mid Westerners, from the Bay Area or from the Pacific North West love making fun of us. If you want to meet someone who doesn't live here but loves LA, you may have to go to London. And I get it. I do. Take birthday parties. During the last decade's debilitating confluence of hyper parenting, kid as stylish accessory and lots of money, my kids have been to a few birthday parties that could only be described as "very L A." Featuring $400 cakes, a full bar for the adults, professional photographers and party favors that my boys would be lucky to get as their biggest Christmas present, some of these parties were fun but they tended to leave the less trendy, less wealthy me feeling a little anxious. I'm going along just fine, secure in my choices big and small as I stand in the bookstore buying the present. Then I spend the drive home after one of these parties imagining the birthday girl, guests gone, sitting down to open her mound of presents. I picture her ripping the paper off our offering of the complete collection of Little House on the Prairie books. I see her looking first confused, then disappointed. I can feel the strength of her grip as she reaches for a reliably pink bag and I know that my money would have been better spent like that of the mother who brought the favored gift, if only I could bear to buy something for a 10 year old that says "Juicy" across the butt.

Truthfully, the over the top parties have been few and far between. My kids have spent some of their happiest hours at ice skating rinks, laser tag domes, public parks and other people's homes celebrating birthdays. We parents have employed magicians, "mad scientists", and reptile wranglers in honor of advancing years. Expensive but not crazy. With the way things are economically now though, even that kind of party may be a thing of the past. A weak economy means "old fashioned" is back in style and I predict that home-made, do it your self birthday parties are going to be all the rage. Look for them to be featured in the Sunday Styles section of The Times any week now.

My oldest celebrated turning 11 over the weekend. Water balloons, poppers, a screening of The Blob and a sleepover. It was great. I'm almost out of the big birthday party years and I'm feeling a bit nostalgic. Here are a few of our favorite at home Birthday parties. They are a lot of work and they're not free but these are the days. I'm going to miss them.

Turning 5: Follow the Band.

This first one is the easiest but also the most expensive. We hired the music teacher from my child's elementary school and 2 of his friends. They had a few old fashioned band uniforms from their high school days and I picked up a few more at a flea market and the Salvation Army. We furnished the kids with costumes and a variety of inexpensive instruments; hand drums, harmonicas, whistles. They had a parade down the street with the Birthday Boy leading the band. Of course, you could do this without hiring the teachers but the addition of real music added tremendously to the party and the parade lasted much longer than it would have if the kids had just been making noise.

Turning 9: Your Presence is requested at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

For the Harry Potter fans. Divide your guests into the Hogwarts School houses; Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin. You need 4 adults, each of whom will teach a "class."

1) Herbalogy - I took this one and thoroughly enjoyed teaching a bit about herbs and their uses while wearing a wild green witches hat. Take the kids outside to your garden (or to the pots of herbs you've purchased from the local market) Give a mini lesson in herbal uses and gather some mint. Come inside to the kitchen and make mint ice cream according to your favorite recipe. Don't worry, no mortar and pestle required as you won't be using the fresh mint in this easy recipe, it's just for effect. Be sure to have 2 groups do this class first as you need time for the ice cream to freeze so you can serve it with the cake. Here's an ice cream recipe I really like :

2) Quiditch Practice - this depends on your space. You can set up a soccer goal or basketball net outdoors or a trash can inside. The object is to get a ball or beanbag into the goal while the other kids stand along either side and attempt to knock it out of the air by throwing small balls or bean bags at it. The house gets a point whether the ball gets in the goal or gets knocked out by another house member and you can give a prize to the winning house at the end of the party.

3) Potions - Buy a collection of small, inexpensive plastic vials with lids and all kinds of fun things to mix together. We used different colored dish washing liquid, sparkles, colored water, paint, minced onion, grass, and wood chips. Give each ingredient a "magical property" and let the kids go to town.

4) Spells with Tarot or Runes - purchase a pack of Tarot cards or a set of Runes. If you're so inclined you can study these things before the party and give a real reading. If not, you can make up things as you go along.

Serve the homemade mint ice cream with cake.

Turning 10:
Mixed up and Messy

Have you child make invitations on Kidpics or out of any combination of collage, paint, crayon etc. The messier the better. Be sure to state that old clothing should be worn!

1) On arrival tell the kids that they are responsible for making the cake. Gather everyone around a table where you have standard ingredients laid out. Begin with real cake ingredients and let kids take turns adding them to a large bowl (actually we used a bucket, the "gross" effect was perfect) begin with flour, eggs, milk and then start getting weird; 1 cup of cat litter, 2 cups of dirt, 4 rubber bands etc. Assure them that the cake will be delicious and enjoy their faces. Do I really need to say that you will not be eating the cake? You will not be eating the cake.

2) Jello Dig. Have prepared 2 roasting pans of red jello in which you have embedded several small objects; a key, a match-box car, a playmobile figure, a small ball etc. Have each child reach into a hat and chose a piece of paper with an object written on it. Blindfold each child and have her dig through the jello until she finds her object.

3) Whipped cream and a half- willing adult. Take an old sheet and cut a hole in it at adult face level. String it up outside, put your husband or some other half willing adult behind it and begin tossing aluminum pie pans filled with whipped cream. Many of the kids will want to take the adults place so tell him he only needs to be that much of a good sport for a few throws. Have plenty of cans of ready whip and a hose nearby.

This party was my son's idea and so was the notion of putting fake vomit and fake poop on the real cake as decorations. Fake eyeballs look disgusting too. The kids will love it. Enjoy.