Monday, September 28, 2009


As Richard ended his producing duties for the Food Network we headed for Florence, the legendary Tuscan city, for a little R and R and more delicious eating. Driving into the ancient part of the city where our hotel was located, we found ourselves in a maze of narrow one way streets jammed with smart cars and Vespas, We drove up and down those streets and alleyways for what seemed like hours until we found our hotel. I was more than cranky by then, and as I got out of the car and saw the old, cramped, worn-out buildings on our street and the New York City flop house marquee marking our hotel, I burst into tears. Dozens and dozens of Vespas careened noisily by narrowly missing us as we unloaded the car while I sobbed quietly that this wasn’t the Florence we always dreamed of visiting.

I got it together, however, as we walked under the old, ugly marquee and into the tiny lobby of our hotel. Inside, I began to feel a little better. It had a charm that belied the outside. There was some lovely Italian pottery on display. We checked in and made our way upstairs to our room which was very simple, but had an artistic flare. I sat down on the plush duvet and let out a sigh of relief. A few minutes later we were out doing the sightseeing thing, marveling at the city’s beauty.

When we got back to our hotel, I showered and put on my black DKNY traveling pants suit, a cream-colored silk blouse and strands and strands of Coco Chanel pearls… we were going to one of Italy’s finest restaurants: Ristorante Enoteca Pinchiorri a member of the Relais & Chateaux group – Relais Gourmand. Richard had discovered it on-line when he researched the sites in Florence and had made the reservation. Since it was in the old part of the city, we (my husband, the director, the associate producer and I) decided to walk the narrow streets to the restaurant.

As we approached the restaurant we were greeted by a plain door to a building with an unremarkable façade. I didn’t react. I learned my lesson when I misjudged the outside appearance of our charming little hotel. We entered and walked up a short flight of stairs to a small foyer. We were greeted by the maitre’d who led us to our table in a stunning garden atrium with colorful flowers in huge stone urns and tall carved statues of what I assumed were Roman gods. The tables were dressed with ‘aged’ pink cloths and the walls were a pale yellow. Through a doorway on the other side of the atrium I could see another dining room in the same pink and yellow theme with vases filled with brightly colored flowers. An old world landscape in a gilded frame hung on a wall. Our waiter brought us menus and a tiny little chair that he placed on the floor beside me. I hadn’t a clue what it was for until he unhooked my Vuitton bag hanging on the back of my chair and placed in on the chair. A purse chair! Who knew? But it was then that I knew we were in for a memorable evening… no detail was too small.

Our food ordered, the sommelier chose a bottle of rich red Italian table wine (the only one we could really afford even on an expense account) from the restaurant’s cellar that houses about two hundred variety of wines.

We shared the appetizers: sea scallops with herbs and bell pepper, lobster ‘gratinated,’ and an endive salad dressed with hazelnut oil. We talked about the past three weeks and all the ‘shoots’ they’d done and the meals we’d eaten (some of which have been reviewed here – Lyon, Beaune) while the waiter replenished our wine glasses. He really didn’t understand English that well, but he did understand “Food Network” and began asking us all sorts of questions… Who were we? Why were we in Florence, etc? By the time we finished the delicious appetizers and answering his questions, the wine was gone. But, sadly, “our” cable show budget didn’t allow for another bottle – the food prices alone were going to put our per diem in shock.

However, when our waiter returned with our entrees, the sommelier also returned with a second bottle of wine, compliments of the chef, explaining that the chef couldn’t allow people from the Food Network to eat his creations without “complementing” it with wine. I wanted to cheer, but restrained myself. This bottle of red was far more complex than the one we had just finished and went beautifully with each of our entrees. We shared a handmade tagliatelle pasta filled with ricotta and basil served with chanterelle mushrooms, mozzarella and capers. Richard and Charlie (the associate producer) had the duck cooked two ways. The breast came separately – tender and juicy – followed by the legs which were served up in a confit. Jason (the director) had a lamb shoulder with asparagus and sesame seeds and I had the pigeon with thyme and garlic, squashed potatoes with a black pepper and chicken liver sauce. I had a taste of everything. Oh my!!!... This Tuscan food the chef made using French techniques was amazing. We couldn’t eat another morsel… well, except the cheese wheeled in on a cart by the chef. Not as extensive a selection as the restaurant I reviewed in Beaune, but filled with some of the most delicious cheeses I’ve ever had.

We paid the tab, we thanked the chef, telling him that this was one of the greatest meals we’d ever had and walked back to our hotel. Tomorrow was another day in Florence. I couldn’t wait.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


After Richard and the crew finished their ‘shoot’ in Beaune, we packed and headed for Lyon where the next piece for the Food Network was to be on one of the world’s most famous chefs… Paul Bocuse, the father of nouvelle cuisine. He’s so famous, in fact, that his cooking earned him France’s highest civilian award, the French Medal of Honor, bestowed on him by President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

We parked and walked through the tall wooden gates that lead us into a tiled courtyard with carved frescos and mosaics on the stone walls. Wow! History! On the other side of the courtyard was an old stone building. Once inside, the main dining room left me speechless – it was exquisite with its lush fabrics on the tables and windows, upholstered chairs and banquettes. Everything was elegant, expensive, yet oddly home-like and cozy. I could live there.

After the shoot was over, Monsieur Bocuse invited us to sit down in the kitchen at the long picnic-style dining table used by the sous chefs, cooks and waiters on their food breaks. Chilled bottles of sancerre were opened and poured for me and the guys. Then a waiter served each of us a bowl of the Bocuse’s famous “tres expensive at 80 Euros a bowl!” truffle soup topped with a chicken pot pie-type of pastry crust that they had just shot him making. We broke open the crust and dipped into the soup filled with a mirepoix of carrots, mushrooms, beef, celery, plus “melt in your mouth” foie gras and the $600 an ounce black truffles. Bocuse uses black truffles because, unlike white truffles, one can cook with them. White truffles disintegrate. A bottle of Bordeaux appeared on the table (the only wine Monsieur Bocuse said should be served with this soup). It was the most amazing soup I’d ever tasted.

After the individual soup tureens were removed, we got up to leave, but immediately sat back down when a platter of ripe, stinky cheeses magically appeared out of nowhere... followd by a salad… followed by red mullet topped with a potato crust which was scalloped to look like the scales of a fish (the presentation was only matched by the taste of the fish and potato mixture... art and mouthwatering food all on one plate… it doesn’t get better than that)… followed by a chocolate bombe dessert (all of which are found on the restaurant’s menu)… and many bottles of white and red wine.

For the second time in a week (the first being in Beaune), I thought I had died and gone to food heaven. The French really can cook.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Summer is over but many Americans are still traveling in Europe on vacation. If you happen to be anywhere near Beaune, it's so worth a visit. Beaune, the last walled-in city in France is truly out of an Alexander Dumas novel with worn cobble-stone streets and courtyards. Definitely worth a sleepover. Richard and I had the opportunity to be there not long ago when he produced some specials for the Food Network and I got to tag along. The city is enchanting and I half-expected to see the Three Musketeers come flying off one of the geranium-covered balconies.

Much to our delight the network splurged and we (including the 4 man crew) were booked at the Hostellerie de Levernois just outside the walled city. We drove onto wooden bridge over a storybook brook to enter the property that was nestled in acres of gardens. I immediately wanted to move in. The rooms, decorated in country French florals, were set apart from the main building that housed the check-in desk and its multi-star restaurant. Each room had a lovely terrace overlooking those gardens and, unlike any of our other hotels in Europe, this one had wash cloths. We made a reservation at the restaurant.

As our reservation witching hour approached we strolled to dinner through the gardens and over the expansive front lawn.

The restaurant didn’t disappoint in upscale elegance and amazing food. Richard had the five course tasting menu that included sweetbreads. He had never before tried sweetbreads and wasn’t all that excited to see them included as one of his courses. Innards! Shiver! But in the spirit of this Food Network adventure, he tasted them. He liked them. He really liked them.

One crew member had Bresse chicken with a sauce reduction that must have taken hours. Another had a three course dinner that included red mullet sautéed with Provencal herbs. My dinner was baby rack of lamb for one and included a foie gras appetizer that I yearn for every time I see a slab of liverwurst. The director, who had barely been out of Tennessee before, ventured out of his shoe-leather-meat comfort zone and tried a filet of sole dinner which contained no food or ingredient that he hadn’t eaten in some way, shape or form back home in Knoxville.

The wines: Burgogne and Sancerre.

Desserts ran the gamut from chocolate delights to fruit pastries. But as delicious at it was, what I remember most about the meal was the cheese tray… though ‘tray’ is a gross understatement. It was a cheese cart. A big cheese cart. Two tiers! Filled with nearly every imaginable French cheese. I realized that when the waiter asked me what cheeses I’d like to try I was suppose to select three or four – perhaps five at the most, but nooooooooo. I wasn’t going to be dining there again any time soon, if ever, so I went for it and asked to taste everything… I was in cheese heaven. All-in-all the restaurant, considered one of France’s greatest, lived up to its reputation, so if you’re wandering around France and find yourself in Beaune and want a fantastic meal, walk, don’t run, to the restaurant in the Hostellerie de Levernois .

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From Start to Finnish

Ethnic Diversity:
From Start to FINNISH

As Hollywood enters Oscar fever mode and the networks gear up for November sweeps, the clarion call for racial and cultural diversity in television and film is once again sounding across the land. So, for all of you who are demanding your piece of the American pie and begging for your chance to fail at the American dream or simply to bring a more ethnic “face” to movies and TV… I say, kippis! (Finnish for “skoal!”) I’ve been there.

Growing up a second generation Finnish-American (just plain “Finn” in the pre-PC days) was a lonely lot… there were only 37 of us in the whole country: seven in rural Wisconsin (or was it Minnesota?) raising cows and making cheese, eight in Fargo, North Dakota running naked in the snow after their nightly sweat in the sauna, four in New England doing the cow and cheese thing… and, except for my parents, my brother and me, the remaining Suomilanders (all carpenters), including my grandparents on my father’s side, lived in Brooklyn in a section they called “Finntown” (3 row houses, side-by-side off Sunset Park). We lived in Bayside, Queens, where my schoolmates had last names like Ferraro, O'Toole, or Goldberg, along with the Jones, Smiths and Johnsons. When I told kids my name was Ilona, they wanted to know what my first name was.

I yearned to be Italian --they had great food and their countrymen were always on TV in things like “The Untouchables” and “The Kefauver Hearings.” Or Irish – their food was not as good, but they were always in movies playing singing priests or dancing with mice. Or Jewish – their food was terrible, but they, too, were always on TV in things like “Your Show of Shows” and “The McCarthy Hearings.” I had no one to relate to or look up to, much like the groups protesting today. Where were the Finnish Sal Mineos and Troy Donahues to have a crush on, the Sandra Dees and Annette Funicellos to emulate? “What about Albert Salmi?” my mom would say. “Who?” you ask. Exactly!

Of course, there have been one or two world famous Finns: Sibelius, Nurmi (the flying Finn) and Saarinen. But a dead conductor, a dead runner and a dead architect didn’t exactly win a kid any bragging rights. And the single thing we learned in school about Finland: it was the only country to pay the U.S. back for its WWII war debt. I didn’t get a lot of mileage out of that one, either. Once I commandeered my brother to sign my petition to get a Finn History course included in the curriculum. In response, my class was assigned “Huckleberry Finn.”

At Christmas, my grandparents arrived from Brooklyn with tons of presents and loaves of Finnish molasses bread from their neighborhood bakery. I loved that bread and shared it with my friends, proud that it rivaled their soda breads and challahs. This was part of my heritage they could understand. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out that the Swedes in Finntown, who outnumbered the Finns 20-1, owned the bakery and laid claim to the bread. For one brief moment, I wanted to be a Swede.

As I reached my twenties and the health club craze took off, the Finns finally hit the jackpot. Saunas! I personally hate saunas, but here was something tangible, identifiable. People actually stopped asking, “Oh, you’re Scandinavian?” when I would tell them my family (both sides) came from Finland. The only problem is that no one pronounced “sauna” right and it’s my mission to rectify this: sow (rhymes with cow)-na” NOT “saw-na”.

During those youthful years and into early adulthood, I harbored a deep resentment that no acknowledged Finnish-Americans were ever seen on television (or in the movies), so I decided to picket the networks. For days I stood in front of CBS’ New York headquarters in my mini skirt and Twiggy eyelashes alongside Moondog, the “Viking of Sixth Avenue,” whom I considered a cold climate kinsman.
Dressed in flowing robes, Norseman’s helmet, holding his lance proudly, Moondog stood vigil on “network row” for many years and I was proud to share his corner as I held my sign of protest. Someone noticed, because soon after, Arte Johnson was playing the first Finnish-American character on television. It didn’t matter that it was on “Laugh In” or that no one but my family could understand his “Finglish,” everyone just laughed because he was funny. The Finns had arrived. But, my victory was short lived. The show was cancelled. I decided the only way to erase our cultural anonymity was to become a Hollywood writer--- work to change the system from within. I would strive to put Finland, hence Finnish-Americans on the pop culture map. I would become a role model for all those young Finnish-American children milking cows at dawn in snow-covered barns in the mid-west and New England or those trying to pass as Swedes in the five boroughs of New York.

As soon as I arrived in Hollywood, I joined a mass petitioning effort by the four people who comprised the Finnish Film Community and we imported action director Renny Harlin to U.S. shores--- the rest is history. Now, even limo drivers in L.A. can say Esa-Pekka Salonen. Doors continue to fly open for Finnish-Americans. I have two features films in development hell, just like Italian, Irish, and Jewish writers.

So, for all you protesters out there seeking your slice of the American pie… keep it up. You CAN change things… just like we did. SKOAL! … I mean kippis.

Saturday, September 12, 2009



Ca’ Del Sole has long been one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. Located in a little Mediterranean-style building with washed ‘mustard’ colored stucco walls and pots of geraniums on the outside walls, this is an Italian restaurant with a Tuscan flare. The main dining rooms are chic and inviting with displayed Italian pottery, beautiful framed landscapes and comfortable booths with crisp linen. The separate bar/cocktail lounge is a cozy place to meet friends for a drink and hang out long past ‘dinner time’ while snacking on such delights as ahi tuna tartare or fried calamari, shrimp, zucchini, vegetable tortelli or beef carpaccio with shaved parmesan and capers or maybe just sipping a perfect vodka martini or sharing a bottle of Barolo.

I love the food here. A few favorites are the mezzelune pumpkin ravioli, with butter, sage and parmesan cheese. It’s a dish I actually crave. The pasticcio chicken lasagna, béchamel, light tomato sauce with mushroom and cheese crust is a dish about which poets could write sonnets. And for those summer nights when you want something light there’s the Milanese breaded chicken breast with baby arugula (my favorite ‘green’) onions and tomatoes.

But I’m writing about this favorite restaurant not because of its lovely inviting décor or my usual favorite dishes. I’m here to tell you about it’s recently redecorated walled-in garden patio with it’s pretty potted plants and large trees brimming with clusters of little white lights bunched together to look like twinkling grapes dripping from the branches. Along the garden wall the tables have been encased in romantic cabanas with a rich salmon-colored fabric outlining the tent and white sheers draped and knotted for a dramatic accent. In the cocktail area of the patio, the wall has new elegant pillowed chaises which give new meaning to the definition of cocktail lounge.

Recently Richard and I were there for lunch. While sitting in a garden cabana which blocked the sun yet allowed the gentle breeze to filter through, we were transported to a charming villa patio in Tuscany. I had one of the piadina grigliata, a thin crust bread topped with prosciutto di parma, burrata (a king among cheeses) and arugula (I love that arugula!). Delizioso! Other piadina grigliata (a sort of pizza) toppings are cured salmon with goat cheese and watercress; seared ahi tuna, caramelized onion, black olives, capers and curly endive; and roasted wild mushrooms with arugula. Richard had the scaloppini pollo, a sauteed chicken scaloppini with fresh tomatoes, basil, watercress and Belgian endive. I love this chicken dish so much that my husband learned to make it for me so I could have it at home whenever I want.

So, if you’re in the neighborhood and want some truly good Italian food AND charming ambience, I highly recommend Ca’ Del Sole.

4100 Cahuenga Blvd.
Toluca Lake CA 91602

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Ah, Los Angeles, the land of Dorian Grey where more and more people have their portraits aging in their plastic surgeon’s closet! As a transplanted New Yorker living in LA, I felt like an unretouched photograph, but proud of it. I looked down my birth nose at the people I knew for having their eyes “done,” their breasts enhanced or their thighs “de-hanced.” I never let an opportunity go by without telling them how ridiculous they were --- how they should age with grace.

“Easy for you,” they’d say, “you’re a writer.” “You don’t make a living off your looks.” “You’re happily married.” “You’re younger than we are.”

For years I self-righteously continued my crusade against elective surgery. I privately railed against celebrities who altered their appearances every couple of years or so--- who puffed up their lips, tightened their eyes, and changed the contours of their noses. Some beautiful women, still under 50, began to look like drag queens impersonating themselves. Why? Would it make them live longer? Not in this lifetime. But, would it keep them desirable? Maybe, but to whom? Well, I think I found the answer. Themselves.

Recently I went in for a complete check-up. You know, the one you get every year or two after you turn forty--- the one with the EKG. After it was over, I got dressed and sat in my doctor’s office nonchalantly leafing through the recent Vogue, wondering whether I should go shopping for one of those cute, retro, straight skirt/pinched-waist jacket suits or go to the gym, when my doctor came in and told me I had to lose weight. She may as well have stabbed me right in the heart. What did she mean, I had to lose weight? I know I gained a little when I quit smoking a few years ago and my period became a little less reliable, but I’m an ex-model, an ex-dancer--- we don’t get fat! Naturally, I didn’t say that out loud, but she read my mind. She warned me that my blood pressure was a bit too high, but if I’d cut down on my salt intake, drink less wine and lose ten pounds, I’d be just fine.

Stunned, I chose the gym over shopping, where I experienced a profound moment--- you know, one of those earth shaking realizations that come upon you at the oddest times--- things most people know at twelve.

There I was, zoned out on the treadmill, staring at nothing in the mirror in front of me, contemplating this cruel turn of events, when I noticed this great NY Ranger hockey shirt on the woman treading next to me. No surprise the team name in the mirror was backwards. I turned to look at the shirt straight on when suddenly it dawned on me that I was backwards--- that the way I saw myself was not the way others saw me. That the part in my hair wasn’t on the side I saw it on. That my crooked “Ali McGraw” tooth wasn’t crooked in the direction I thought it was.

I rushed home, dragged out my photo albums and studied my pictures. I couldn’t see a difference. So I grabbed two large hand mirrors and stood in front of the bathroom mirror trying to get the right angle. After a few minutes, I couldn’t remember which ear was which, so I borrowed two full-length mirrors and moved them around until I could see myself next to myself. My way. Then your way. It was an enlightening experience. I discovered a crease under my eye, a little extra skin under my chin and a body bulge I’d never noticed before. But what I really discovered was that I don’t like the way others see me.

Did these revelations send me scurrying off to the nearest plastic surgeon? No, and probably never will. But, I’m at the gym more often. May even go back to dance class--- well, I’ll think about it anyway. I’m trying to eat less and use more sun screen. And, when someone I know tells me she’s having her face peeled or her fanny tucked, I don’t look down at her anymore. I understand. We’re all on the same whitewater, rapidly churning downstream, paddling to stay afloat.

Monday, September 7, 2009


When we woke up the next morning, I couldn’t wait to explore this cozy coastal town while the guys played 18 holes. My cousin and I meandered through lovely shops and galleries on Main St. that ran along the ocean front. After golf and meandering, we all drove a little north of Ft. Bragg (a neighboring town) to visit the Pacific Star Winery high on a bluff with a spectacular view of the Pacific. The tasting room was “warehouse” funky and our wine pourer knowledgeable and very charming. If only the wine we sipped had lived up to the view or his charm.

That evening before the sun set we drove up the winding cliffs to the casually elegant Albion River Inn & Restaurant with more breathtaking views of the ocean and rocky shoreline in hopes of seeing a magnificent sunset from one of the window tables. Unfortunately, the sky was dark and cloudy and the fog never lifted.

Before going to our table, we decided to have a drink at the bar and take in the dramatic foggy view and the restaurant’s romantic atmosphere… fire place ablaze, white table cloths, Windsor chairs, hurricane lamps I half expected Heathcliff to come dashing in from the moors. Though Richard had a single malt and I had a vodka martini, Laura, the bartender poured all of us a mini-tasting of various wines from her cellar, our favorite being Chante Perdrix’s Cotes du Rhone from the Rhone Valley.

At our table our wait staff (Tamara and Anthony), like Laura, were attentive and friendly. It was obvious that they enjoyed working at the restaurant. My cousin’s husband and I had the chef’s choice two-course dinner with wine. The lst course was a lovely feta cheese salad which I paired with the Husch chardonnay that I had liked from the night before. The entrée was roasted boneless breast of chicken with a Marsala wine, mushroom, Dijon mustard & cream sauce, served with garlic-mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and a mix of steamed vegetables. Just writing about this meal makes my mouth water.

Richard had the oven-roasted quail (two – they are tiny) wrapped with honey cured bacon, marinated with burgundy vinegar, soy, garlic & fresh rosemary as a sort of barbeque sauce, served with maple-whipped sweet potatoes and sautéed snow peas. I tasted. I salivated.

My cousin chose the grilled fresh Pacific swordfish with lime & soy, served with stir-fried Nappa Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, sweet peppers, snow peas & coconut jasmine rice, topped with a chili-garlic glaze & marinated cucumbers. A definite winner.

Steve Smith is the executive chef and though the dishes sound complicated and fussy, they weren’t. They were presented simply and the tastes all complemented each other beautifully.

To end our last night in Mendocino we decided to have a nightcap at our hotel’s bar with its stunning, domed stained-glass ceiling. As we sipped our after dinner drinks we shared a deliciously sinful chocolate cake and a cheese platter of brie, blue cheese, manchego, apricots, apple slices and some nuts. The perfect end for a perfect day.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


I’m an east coast girl. More specifically, a Long Islander with New England roots. I grew up in and around lovely coastal towns… from Glen Cove and Sag Harbor, to Quogue and South Hampton… from villages on the Cape and Vineyard to my mother’s hometown of Gloucester/Rockport, Mass. So for years after moving to LA, people had told how much I would love the little northern California coastal town of Mendocino, about a 4-hour drive north of San Francisco. They were right.

Recently Richard and I drove to the Bay area to rendezvous with my cousin and her husband then caravanned through the Anderson Valley, zipping through the Valley’s scenic wine country. We stopped for a picnic at the Navarro winery, a lovely Mediterranean structure with a beautifully manicured vineyard, then continued on through a majestic redwood forest to our final destination.

Our rooms were booked at the ‘period’ Mendocino Hotel and Garden Suites, an old hotel (est. 1878) with a wooden sidewalk on Main Street overlooking the Pacific that could have ‘starred’ in any John Ford western. Inside, the lobby, dining rooms and bar were charmingly decorated in Victorian décor as were our rooms in one of the hotel’s garden suites in a separate building away from the main hotel.

That first night we decided to eat in the hotel’s main restaurant which was given an “Award for Excellence” from Wine Spectator Magazine and a “thumbs up” from Zagatsurvey. Executive Chef Joe Brown is fairly new to the hotel and specializes in California cuisine.

We girls had the tapenade stuffed “rocky” natural chicken breast which I learned are from local chickens raised on a soft bed of rice hulls and allowed to range freely. The chicken came with braised cipollini onions, artichoke hearts and picoline olives. The dish was much lighter than we expected and just missed being excellent because it was sitting in too much broth.

Both guys ordered the roasted filet of California striped bass, confit red peppers, “speck” ham (juniper flavored from the Tyrolean region of Austria), baby fennel and marble (petite) potatoes. The fish was cooked well and all the tastes blended nicely.

We paid the corkage fee and brought our own bottle of Sonoma County merlot for the guys and my cousin and I ordered glasses of a pleasant Husch chardonnay, an Anderson Valley wine. As we ate and sipped we decided the new chef was good, but was trying a bit too hard to make his dishes ‘special.’

Friday, September 4, 2009

Kinsey & Me

I relate to Kinsey Millhone. I power walk to burn off the Cheez-Its I eat late at night while watching Charlie Rose interview people I would love to know… she jogs to burn off her Big Macs.

It doesn’t matter that Kinsey’s a fictional detective who solves mysteries and I’m a real person who reads them, we both love junk food and we both get “high” from our morning jaunts. Of course, her jaunt is a three-mile run around the streets of her picturesque California town that’s exhilarating and meditative. My jaunt is a three-mile “power” walk around a California dirt track that’s neither exhilarating nor meditative.

Kinsey also notices people and so do I. Lately I’ve been noticing the lady in the park.

While in “the zone” I’ve become familiar with many of the faces who have become part of my walking “crowd”… a swarthy (I love that word), compact middle-aged man, who listens to his walkman and nods when he passes me on the track; a rugged looking guy about forty in jeans and cowboy boots who walks and talks with a coiffed blonde dressed more for shopping than working up a sweat; plus assorted elderly people who walk in pairs and new moms who run as they push their infants in carriages trying to lose those last five pounds of “baby” fat.

The first time I saw the “lady in the park” she was climbing out of an old Chevy van parked in the track’s adjoining parking lot. She slid open its side door, pulled out a folding “beach” chair and sat herself down… right on the track. As I breezed by her, I saw she had also taken out a cooler. It was a lovely day, so I figured she had come to the park to have a picnic. I didn’t question why she hadn’t carried her chair the short distance to the grassy knoll that actually offered picnic tables… I just figured she liked to be surrounded by the “action.”

The next morning the lady showed up again, this time wearing powder blue sweats. The day before, her ensemble had been tan. As I completed my first half-mile, she placed her chair under a tree on the edge of the track and was sitting contentedly doing nothing. She smiled at no one as I whisked by and wondered if her long, straight platinum hair was her own. By the time I finished my second lap, she had moved her chair into the sun. Seven minutes and thirty seconds later as I approached her again, she was standing by her van, the doors wide open, and I could see that it was filled to the brim with “stuff.” It looked like the vans open for business at flea markets.

She’s been coming to the track every morning now for months, each day with a different color sweat suit. My personal favorite, which made its debut around Easter, was pink. Not light pink or dark rose, but bubblegum pink. While I marveled at the color and wondered why anyone her age would wear so much of it, I began to really wonder who the lady in the park was. Like Kinsey, I ran through my mind what I knew. She appeared to be around forty, she had an array of colorful sweats, she was probably blonde, drove a van that was about ten years old and she was clean.

Unlike everyone else at the park moving in circles to keep fit, the lady in the park just sits. During my thirty-minute walk, she often moves her beach chair from under the trees to along side her van, then back again. She does nothing else of note, except fill her water bottle from a nearby fountain from time to time.
At first I thought she might live in her van… a suburban bag lady... but I couldn’t figure out how she kept so immaculate. Where does she wash her hair (or wig)? Where does she do her laundry? How does she pay for gas?

Nope, she isn’t a bag lady. I decided she was an undercover cop surveying the park for gang bangers, terrorists or possibly just litter-ers. Or maybe she was a P. I., keeping a clandestine eye on Mr. Cowboy Boots. I mean really, who walks laps around a track in cowboy boots? Would Kinsey sit day after day in plain sight watching her prey? Would she disguise herself in pastel sweats and a blonde wig? Wouldn’t she at least read a book as she sat vigil?

I often think of talking to the lady in the park, but as I watch her watching me and my track crowd, I decide I really don’t want to know. I don’t want to know if she’s homeless or if she comes to the track to escape her life. I want to believe she’s a lady of mystery whose life is filled with many friends and loved ones… and that’s when I understand that I’m really not like Kinsey. Fictional Kinsey lives in the real world, I’m happiest in my fictional one.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Other 'F' Word

You don’t know me from Eve, but I am now and always have been a member of the feminist party… and not just because the first man in my life was a panicked intern who told my mother to cross her legs as I’m making my way down the canal, resulting in my difficult breech birth. Phew! That’s not to say I don’t like men, some of my best friends are men, even my husband, and I don’t make this pronouncement to be arrogant or “uppity.” It’s just who I am.

Recently I was on the treadmill (the fitness kind, not the one we’re on every day), off in my own zone, listening to Diana Krall through my headphones, while leafing through the latest “In Style,” when a woman I knew jumped onto the adjoining treadmill. She’s one of those women who, when asked “Hi, how are you?” actually tells you, non-stop. As she warmed up by walking faster than I run at top speed, I recklessly opened the door for conversation by saying “Hi, how are you?” And, she was off…

As she ran her own private 10K, she plunged into her incredible story of survival in a corporate world of sexual harassment and gender backbiting (without the slightest strain in her breathing, thank you very much) and how she was forging headlong into the future ready to fight for her rightful place in that world.
Twenty minutes later she finished and I was awestruck.
In tribute to all she had overcome and all she planned to do, I called her a true
“feminist” naively assuming she would take it as the compliment I meant it to be. Instead, she nearly leaped off the treadmill as she emphatically stated, “I’M NOT A FEMINIST!”

I was so stunned by her reaction, I started to jog.

As my shock wore off and I returned to my more reasonable pace, I asked her why. Her answer was simple: “I don’t want to alienate anybody.” For the second time in my life, mere moments apart, I had an overwhelming urge to become a sprinter. I couldn’t believe what she was saying! After all the progress she had made, all the gender wars she had fought, and all her plans for the future, she was ready to give it all back! I mean really, who’s to alienate? The people who didn’t want to hire, promote or pay her equally because she had “X” chromosomes? Not likely.
So what was it about that word that triggered such a response? Why does it make so many of us cringe when we’re accused of being one, as if it were the ultimate insult? Why has “feminism” become the other “F” word? Because of the mostly male media’s years of portraying feminists (f/k/a “women’s libbers”) as bossy, man hating mantises? No doubt. Because of the growing backlash against independent women who keep moving up the corporate ranks? Probably. But, maybe… just maybe, openly feminist females like myself are partially to blame (one-tenth of one percent sounds about right). Maybe, just maybe, in our empathic enthusiasm for equality, we forgot a smidgen of common sense and lost a teeny bit of our sense of humor.

Before I married, I dated a guy I cared about, but he wasn’t willing to make an emotional commitment… or is that redundant? He insisted on the option of dating other women. Saturday nights were mine, but the rest of the week was open to interpretation. I was young and foolish, so I agreed. After dating for about six months, he inquired (I use “inquire” because he did… he was an attorney) why he always paid for our theater tickets, dinners, whatever. As a self-proclaimed “feminist,” didn’t I want to pay my fair share? I told him no (I was a feminist, not foolish), and explained that feminism had nothing to do with who paid for dinner. Why should I pick up a tab for someone who wanted to use the money he saved on me to wine and dine the first bimbo who said yes to Tuesday? Made sense to me. Okay, maybe she wasn’t a bimbo, but you get the point.

I really couldn’t blame him --- we (as in card-carrying feminists) had confused the poor guy, and ultimately alienated ourselves, with all that 50/50 rhetoric. Nothing in life is 50/50.

So maybe it’s time to soften our image --- to put a new spin on things --- to put “feminine” back into feminist. No, I’m not talking crinolines and ruffles (though black lace garters have their uses)… But, if a man wants to open a door for us --- hey, why strain? And, if some swain (don’t you just love that word?) wants to lay his coat over a puddle so your feet stay dry, smile first --- then step on it!!!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The "Pitch"

When Richard and I moved to Los Angeles, we immediately got with the program. Everyone here was a hyphenate. He became husband-writing partner. Me… wife-writing partner. Everyone wanted to meet us… the new husband-wife team. Soon our palm pilots (pre-Blackberrys days) were filled with appointments… network people, studio people, indie people, starting with the VP-Comedy Development at Universal TV.

To prepare, we rehearsed a couple of our fish-out-of-water stories, turning them into hilarious verbal tales or at least we thought so. We jumped into our newly-leased, silvery sedan (with sun roof) and headed to the studio and our very first ‘drive on.’ We followed the yellow brick road (oops, wrong studio) to the appointed office designed two steps above ‘motel chic.’ But, Mr. VP-Comedy Development was open and friendly. He steered us to a leather sofa while he perched in a chair across from us. He kicked off his well-worn Guccis and plopped his feet up onto the coffee table. He had no socks on. Husband-writing partner and I exchanged looks. We definitely weren’t in New York (well, maybe the Hamptons). Fortunately, his feet were clean and oh, so immaculately manicured.

After exchanging some pleasantries, we started our first pitch. Forty-five seconds in, Mr. Buffed-Toenails jumped to his bare feet.

“Love it, guys!”

My optimism soared, until he continued. “But we’re already developing a show about a girl coming out of a coma, only to learn her husband framed her for murder and she’s headed to prison. It’s a com-dram.”

Since our story had no one coming out of a coma or being framed for murder, we weren’t sure what the parallels were, but we pressed on, each time stopped short by a “Love it, but…” By the third “love it, but” my optimism had left the building.
After twenty minutes we were ready to pack it in, but we had one final idea to throw at him. “Mother of Pearl”… a family sitcom about Pearl, an older, widowed, black woman in Harlem (think Della Reese) who decides to take in foster kids of various racial backgrounds. A rainbow of comedic complications ensues.

He loved it. No, he really loved it! He wanted to option it. Just one thing… Universal had a deal with that year’s Heather Locklear… could we make Pearl an “almost’ 40-something, single, career woman whose biological clock is ticking and decides to adopt twins?”

Husband-writing partner and I locked eyes. Before we could say anything, the barefoot wonder rattled on in a gush of enthusiasm. We held our breaths.
“Oh! And she’s left her high-powered job in Manhattan and moved to Connecticut after buying a rundown chicken farm. No…” A pregnant pause. We still weren’t breathing. “Maybe a horse farm. Are they called farms when you have horses?”
We didn’t know how to answer. Not to worry, we didn’t have to. He barely broke stride before galloping on.

“Well, some kind of farm. Babies. Animals. The network will love it!”

Back in our country cottage in snake-riddled Laurel Canyon, we wondered why the VP-Comedy Development needed us. The show he optioned had nothing to do with our pitch. But, hey, we had a contract. We’d been paid. We had arrived.
Of course, bottom-line, the show was never produced… unless ‘they’ changed it from that year’s Heather Locklear to a New York ‘stand-up’ whose comedic clock was ticking and decided to surround himself with three friends who do nothing. Renamed it “Seinfeld.” And “forgot” to tell us.