What Are You Looking At?

Ever try to go unnoticed?  Well then you know the natural outcome – if you don’t want to be looked at, people won’t be able to stop looking.

Some people spend a lifetime enjoying being the center of attention, starting as class clowns in grade school.  Others want to disappear. For most of us, it’s probably somewhere in the middle – wanting people to notice when we’re all cleaned up, and when we’re not looking or feeling our best, it would be nice to be ignored.

People will stare – because of unusual physical traits or because we’re caught in a place where we aren’t expected to be, and because sometimes onlookers are rude. This is rattling to the spirit.  

Crossing a bridge over a creek last week, I watched a crane or some other kind of oddly tall bird with very skinny legs, standing absolutely still, pretending he wasn’t there. Though we made eye contact – if a crane can be said to make eye contact – he ignored me. While he tried to act like a statue of a crane, he was the center of attention. 

He stood in a spot where generally only ducks (and the people who watch ducks) gather. He was in the water barely up to his ankles – if cranes can be said to have ankles – while the rest of the waterfowl dipped and swooped and floated. 

When we meet people with outstanding physical characteristics – some incredibly good-looking and some missing features that others have, it’s enlightening to note that many of them don’t seem to waste a minute on their differences.  Proof that it can be done. The lesson we’re all trying to learn is to accept that our physicality is only a fraction of who we are.

For the times when the crane finds himself a bit off-course, in a body of water that’s too small for his exceptional self, a sense of humor might be helpful – if a crane can be said to have a sense of humor.

Ó Anita Garner 

Putting On A Cell Phone Show

Every cell phone is a potential camera and a potential record of something embarrassing we’re doing right now.  Strangers can hold up a phone and send a picture of us anywhere. But that’s not the most intrusive thing cell phones can do.


Worse are the performances we’re forced to watch against our will.  Lately everywhere I go, cell phones are treated as stages, with the holder of the phone putting on a show.  The trouble is, I didn’t buy a ticket nor do I want to get in for free. 


I just came back from Starbucks, a confined space, where several people in different corners of the coffee emporium were busy working on productions that were too big for the room. 


One man paced back and forth between tables.  Another was loudly talking into his phone about something he needed everyone to know about him.  He tossed around the word “millions.”  This guy reminded me of the olden days when one man puffed up a story like that while acting as wingman for his buddy at the bar. 


A woman raised her voice telling someone on the other end of a conversation what an awful week she had. She named names.


A man pushed open the door, stood in the center of the room and shouted into his phone, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”  He turned around to scan the line waiting to order.  This was no quiet little glance.  It was a large whoosh of a turn. Then he spun back around, and projecting like one of the Redgraves, he said, “Go ahead.  Get started.  Ten minutes.  Yes.  Start now and I’ll be there.”


All of these performances break two rules of show business.  Rule number one:  If you’re going to draw attention to yourself, don’t be boring.  Rule number two: (If this isn’t a rule it should be.) Be sure you have a willing audience. Willing does not include people who are stuck next to you because of coffee cravings.  


Do you ever wonder who’s on the other end of these conversations? One day, while I waited in the market checkout line, the man in front of me talked into his cell phone loudly enough for the people in the back of the store to hear, while the checker scanned his stuff. 


At first I thought, oh he’s letting his mate know he’s successfully completed a shopping list, but because of the responses, that notion was dispelled.  It was clear he and the person on the other end of the call were making a plan to do something tomorrow but the guy in the store couldn’t seem to think a thought without repeating it into the phone, so there was not only boring conversation, but also a recitation of products.  


Evidently some new rules were written since I read my manual.  Here’s the revision: If we own a cell phone we must talk into it at all times.  Loudly. And while we talk, we must pace up and down in a small space, the smaller the better.


While talking, imagine there is a camera pointed at us, recording our lives.  A producer may need this material one day.  I’ll leave you with a transcript of that supermarket conversation, and you decide if this is a reality show you’ll want to watch.


“Yeah.  Beans. Okay.  Tomorrow.  Rice.  Nine sounds good.  Tomatoes.  You off all day?  Bacon.  Nah, I’m going in first. Potatoes.  Just for a few minutes though.  Onions.”  


Ó Anita Garner 2008

Fear Of Change

I love routine.  Embrace it.  Find it invigorating.  Routine enables us to accomplish new things because we know we can return to stand on the smooth and relatively splinter-free platform of the everyday, emboldened by the foundation we’ve built.     

All new experiences aren’t better than the old ones. Just because we decline to try a new thing, that doesn’t always mean we’re afraid to shake up our routine. Sometimes it simply means the invitation isn’t that interesting. 


There’s nothing wrong with preferring certain companions, specific kinds of mattresses, chairs, coffee and food.  These are often the only things I can control for weeks at a time, so I’ve learned to count each choice a small victory. My routine gives me the freedom to feel most like myself. 


In this way I’m very like my granddaughter, who at three-and-a-half, embraces every detail of her daily routine and reminds anyone who forgets.   


When I leave my own comfort zone in order to have a different experience, it’s a blessing to know the familiar waits for my return.  Sometimes the new works out, sometimes not. 


The real enemy, of course, is the fear of change. 


The very young ones haven’t learned that part yet. They’ll try anything. We supervise them closely, because in their quest for new experiences, they’ll jump too high and land on an unfriendly surface. 


Somewhere in the middle is the hoped-for balance.   


Ó Anita Garner

Nobody’s Home

Twenty years ago, during a pre-dawn drive through Los Angeles neighborhoods on my way to church early on a Sunday morning, I wrote notes on this subject.  It was my turn that day to help prepare the chapel for worship and as I drove to my first stop at a coffee shop, I noticed lights in a few windows and imagined early risers like me, with coffee or tea and the Sunday paper.


Turning a corner that took me into an urban area, the buildings grew taller and the lights inside shone only into empty offices and corridors.  Not a single person was there at this hour. Thousands of square feet of space remained empty all weekend and every night after workers went home.  Come Monday morning, freeways would be clogged with people driving to temporarily populate these work spaces. 


All of a sudden, that one Sunday morning, everything about this picture seemed wrong.


These notes come from the late 1980’s, B.E.  Before the Northridge Earthquake of ’94. In the aftermath of that quake, after crucial freeways collapsed, some employers set up satellite offices so workers could get to a space with computers. It was a swell solution but it didn’t last. 


These thoughts troubled me B.A.I.T.  Before millions of citizens began to embrace An Inconvenient Truth about the effects of global warming and how our present way of life contributes to it. But we still haven’t changed many bad habits.  


My notes are B.C.O.C.  Before the Current Oil Catastrophe.  Now that gasoline prices have reached a new obscene level, we’re hearing about more employers considering flex time and job sharing – ways for commuters to take care of their families and not go broke getting to work everyday.  But it’s not happening fast enough. 


Lately we’ve added the current housing market crisis. Twenty years after that Sunday morning, we’re still not close to solutions.


That Sunday, instead of listening to the sermon, I scribbled notes.  Recently I found them and the notes ask, Is it time for a real urban village?  Is it time to re-purpose office buildings? 


Within one tall building in any city, an entire village could reside, with shops and services and education and housing in all shapes and sizes.  A skyscraper could serve its original business, but with more people working from home, the need for office space is minimized.  With entire floors devoted to living, the commute for others is gone completely.  


What about the people who own those buildings?  How can they receive a return on their investment?  I don’t know as much as business leaders and politicians do about manipulating the economy, but I’m confident they’ll find ways to make money in any kind of market. They always do.


One approach to replacement revenue might be to use some of the subsidies that now go toward housing on a local and national level to defray costs.  Responding to the needs of this new urban community, services and stores inside the buildings would pay rent. Tenants would pay rent. 


I know people – some of them young and single, some retirement age, some families, who are ready for this kind of new village right this minute.  For the “show me” others, when it exists, it’ll be an option they’ll consider.    


It means changing dreams. The notion of a house in the suburbs, miles away from a city, relies on automobiles and gasoline. Instead of building more freeways to carry us to houses far away from work, we could make upgrading mass transit a priority.   


Money can buy options for many who won’t have to face changes, but for millions of people right this minute, downsizing is necessary. I won’t use the word “affordable” next to the word “housing” because so often it’s an insult.  How about “realistic” instead?   


Architects with skills and vision and heart can turn any existing tall building into a workable and lovely and sustainable small town.


Using what we’ve already got isn’t a new idea. Our ancestors did it.  The principle of re-purposing is something we heard about from our elders.  It worked for them.  If we’re smart, we can make it work for us. 


Ó Anita Garner 2008

Multi-cultural Microcosm

My daughter, Cathleen, was born in California.  Her husband, Edan, arrived from Israel a few years ago. My granddaughter, Caedan Ray, goes to Temple Pre-School, where many songs are sung in Hebrew, where the cantor, when he teaches the little ones a song, counts off “One, two, three, go!” in Hebrew. 

Caedan knows the Sabbath prayer. She greets her family with “Shabbat Shalom” and that’s about all I understand from their Friday night ritual.  Even if I did understand Hebrew, I’m not sure I’d grasp what the three year old is saying.  She doesn’t have a hard “r” sound in her arsenal and she does some creative things with l’s and y’s.  It’s easy to imagine why Mommy and Abba smile when Caedan says the prayer. 

When I arrived for a visit recently, I rang the doorbell and the little girl answered.  Behind her, I could see Abba chatting on the phone. The little one (“Yiddie for short – her “l/y” situation results in her saying “yiddie” for “little” and we’ve added that to her list of nicknames) gave me a hug and said, “shhhh, Abba is talking to Einat (A-not) in Israel.”  Then she said quite slowly, to be sure I understood, “He is talking Hebrew.”

My daughter and I ask Abba if he speaks Hebrew to Yiddie when they’re home alone.  He says he forgets, because he enjoys English so much.  His English is colorful; a bit more formal than the way it’s taught in America, with fewer contractions, but then he tosses in the occasional “dude”  and “s’all good.” 

So – Caedan has English.  And pre-school speak.  And bits of Hebrew.  And she has Dora The Explorer on PBS. She watches faithfully and shouts out the answers in Spanish.  

Many neighbors near her home are Spanish-speaking.  One boy, Eric, goes to school in his wheelchair. He waits out front with his parents for the special van. Caedan stands eye to eye with him and says “Hola, Eric.”  His parents smile, pat her on the head, and say a whole bunch of sentences I don’t understand.  Yiddie smiles back and this goes on for a while.   

I have no idea if she understands what Eric’s parents are saying.  In her world, everybody speaks different languages, so maybe it’s already second nature. While she works on her l’s and y’s and r’s, Eric’s parents are working on English and Abba will soon be working on the answers to his citizenship test.

Ó Anita Garner 2008




I’m a third-generation magazine addict. My grandmother was one. My mother was one.  The fourth generation is well represented now by my daughter.   

From the time I was a child, even before I could read, Mother saved all her magazines for me.  She treated every one like a treasure and none was to be thrown away.  I’m not sure what she did with them after I looked at the pictures and gave them back, but when they were stacked up by my bed, they represented the promise of quiet time alone.  Since we were on the road a lot, a bed with a stack of magazines beside it was a great escape. Magazines brought the outside world into a sequestered life, and when we loaded up the car to travel again, somehow we found room in the car for Mother’s periodicals.    

I shared her interest in McCall’s, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Time, Newsweek, Life, and Look.  In later years, she added copies of Consumer Reports, trade newsletters concerned with religion (the family business) and music (another family business) and though I no longer shared her taste in all that she read, my reverence for printed matter never diminished. 

Today I buy lots of magazines at the store, subscribe to others, and receive still more as gifts. Friends also pass along the ones they receive. Often when I hear about a new magazine, I get excited and feel compelled to buy at least a few issues. Some of them fold too soon. Does anyone remember “Lear,” Frances Lear’s (God rest her soul) foray into publishing?  Rumor was that she spent millions of an enormous divorce settlement from Norman Lear to launch her dream publication.  It was big and glossy and beautiful while it lasted. I also miss Talk Magazine, with Tina Brown as Editor In Chief.  Nothing has quite replaced either of them. 

Next to my big blue reading chair right now there’s an eclectic stack.  One by one they’ll go in the trunk of the car to make the trip to my daughter’s house.  She tells me she passes them along to the people she works with, and who knows where they go from there?

I like the thought of a big reading circle made up of people who don’t even know each other.  When all our magazines come to their final resting place, as surely they must, then all of us – the endlessly curious magazine addicts – will have played a role in a friendly sort of recycling.  

 Ó By Anita Garner 2008



I miss cafeterias. There isn’t an honest-to-goodness old fashioned cafeteria within hundreds of miles of my house. We’ve got plenty of buffets, sure, and they offer choices, but all-you-can-eat isn’t the point. Automats are fun but they don’t come close to the cafeteria experience. Putting in your money and watching food come out of a slot is a novelty, but it can’t duplicate a cafeteria’s piping hot steam tables or the beds of crushed ice with tiny dishes set inside like jewels.

In the 1950’s, on visits from our home in the Deep South to our Glendale, California grandmother’s house, my brother and I begged to go to Clifton’s Cafeteria. At the Pacific Seas on Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, with Gramma in the lead, we’d dash to find a seat near a waterfall.

Entrance to Clifton’s Pacific Seas, (sadly, now extinct) which also featured a giant waterfall built into the facade.

Clifton’s Pacific Seas interior featured Tiki huts and tropical sound effects. On the way out, we kids chose a toy from the Treasure Chest.

At a cafeteria you go down the line and put together your own version of the best meal you can imagine. One day you crave macaroni and cheese but you’d like a little something else on the side. Or you have a hankering for cornbread and everything else is selected in terms of how well it complements the bread. In a cafeteria, we didn’t need to explain our choices to anyone.

We learned how many kinds of puddings there are, and marveled at all the ways Jell-O can be served. In fact, the smaller than home-size dishes were part of the charm. You could go back for more, but most of the time we didn’t. A cafeteria reinforces the eyes-bigger-than-the-stomach urge. We filled our trays with an armada of tiny bowls and plates, lined them up in front of us and whatever we didn’t finish, someone else at the table always did.

Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria, still in business on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. It’s called the largest public restaurant in Southern California, seating 600 at once. Still, it feels cozy inside – like the lodge in the redwoods it was created to emulate.

“Big” doesn’t begin to describe the inside of a Clifton’s. Inside the Brookdale, for instance, there are several levels for dining and a small chapel that’ll play you a recorded blessing before you leave.
Jell-O dominates the dessert table at Clifton's in downtown Los Angeles.
Jell-O at Clifton’s. Let me count the ways.

What this country needs is more cafeterias, but if that way of dining isn’t coming back, perhaps we can compromise on a tasty alternative. We could make a new rule that every town must have a small cafe or diner every few blocks. Affordable. Nothing deliberately retro-chic, just real food at real prices so it could serve a diverse clientele. And every one of these places should be required to offer a blue plate special every day, with a choice of Jell-O flavors and at least three kinds of pudding, with mandatory Tapioca. 

© By Anita Garner 2008

Denial – The Earlier The Better

I like to think I’m helping to teach our toddler a few important life lessons.  Denial, for instance, can be a useful tool.  It takes years to learn the nuances, but I’m pleased to say I see signs that the three year old is well on her way. 

I cite this example: 

It’s a long drive, the 400 mile journey to visit my family.  It’s a trip I make every few weeks.  After our initial greetings, I often like a little quiet time.

Recently I said hello and then, to the jumping, hopping, running, climbing little girl, I said Hammy is tired from the drive.  I think I might need a nap.

The very thought mobilized the three year old, who hasn’t napped since she was two.

“No!”  She was adamant.  “No nap!” 

I reassured her that no one was trying to persuade her to do such a thing. 

You don’t have to nap, I said.  You can play, but Hammy is tired.

“Will you read me a story first?”

Okay, one story.  I sat down on the couch. Why don’t you go pick a book and bring it to me?

“No, you come too.  Please, Hammy.” She skipped ahead of me and tugged at my hand.  “Let’s go to my room.” 

We started down the hall.  Making herself perfectly clear, she turned back to remind me.  “No nap.  I not tired.”  

We knelt by the bookcase.   I picked the first title I saw, How about ….

But before I could make a suggestion, she had quickly pulled out three different stories that cover similar subject matter – saying goodnight.  A couple of the “moon” books and another about tiny creatures in the animal kingdom getting tucked in by their parents.  

She plopped the books onto her bed and scrambled up. 

“Come on Hammy,” she said.  “Let’s read a story on my bed.”


“Lying down.”


“With a blanket.”

I’m so proud.  She’s already adept at denial.  Her classic I’m-a-big-girl-I-don’t-need-a-nap ploy is proof that my work has not been in vain.  

Ó By Anita Garner 2008

Adrift In Wisteria

Wisteria is in bloom everywhere I go.  The blossoms hang suspended, moving slightly in the breeze,  like lighter-than-air bunches of grapes.  Wisteria decorates the arbor in front of the drugstore.  It bends over cottage fences.  It nestles alongside gateposts and climbs on old redwood frames built long ago, out of respect for this lavender phenomenon. 

In this mild Northern California climate, Wisteria prospers, and every spring, when we’re rich in blossoms, I remember a coming-of-age visit decades ago  to one of the world’s most spectacular Wisteria displays in Southern California.

In my teens I sang many Saturday nights at a giant auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, under the auspices of Youth For Christ.  The onstage bands were composed of famous musicians mixed with young performers from all over Southern California.  A competition sponsored by the organization was announced, to decide the members of an all-star band to tour the state.  Our local group sponsor, Curtis Correll, encouraged me to enter and he worked with me on the songs I’d sing along the way. 

Our group won and the first stop on our tour was announced.  We’d be performing for teens at an outdoor stage in Sierra Madre, California.   The date of our first show arrived and as we climbed out of our caravan of cars carrying singers and musicians and instruments,  we were greeted by a wondrous sight.  It was a Wisteria vine that went on and on and on.  It was the largest plant I’d ever seen.  Later I learned the vine is world-famous.  It’s referred to as “One Of The Seven Horticultural Wonders Of  The World.” *   

Here and now in another spring, Wisteria still holds a fascination.  Breezes carry petals from the flowers into the air and on our daily errands we walk through clouds of lavender. I’m not the only one stepping over the fallen petals on the sidewalk in front of the bank, reluctant to disturb their formation.  I’m not the only one who stops to study the ways they arrange themselves on the ground.  The individual petals have massed into waves of color that look as if they’re painted there. 

Breezes will rearrange the waves many times before all the Wisteria blossoms are gone.  It’s the work of spring to create these flower pictures.  It’s also the work of spring to stir memories of a lavender-colored youth. 

*The City of Sierra Madre assures us the famous vine escaped damage in the recent fires.

Ó By Anita Garner 2008




Armpits & Other Questions

I’m reading a story to the three year old on the couch.  She slides down and goes to stand in front of the armoire mirror.  She holds an arm straight up over her head and looks at herself a good long while. 

“Hammy, do I have a armpit?”

“Yes,” I answer.  “Yes you do.”  (The story we’re reading has nothing to do with armpits.)  

“Is dis it?”

She indicates the small depression under the small arm.

“That’s it.”

“But I don’t see any hair.”

A grandma knows this is where adults tend to want to veer off into too many details.  Her Abba will be home soon and I’ll be sure to hand this one over to him.

She has a big crush on her Abba.  There are several hints.  She pretend-calls him on the phone and when I ask how Abba’s doing at work she flexes her arms in the classic comic book bodybuilder pose and says,

“Abba is a big strong man.”

Of course she also mimics everything her mommy does.  She’s just begun to notice the differences between an Abba and a Mommy.   Past the armpits, I will not venture.  This time it’s not my job.  I get to sit back and relax and congratulate myself on having raised the Mommy who will, along with Abba, be called on to explain many things in the near future, including the whys and wherefores of hair under the armpits of various people.  Some days it’s good to be the Hammy.

Ó By Anita Garner 2008