Health Insurance and Religious Freedom

A few days ago, I came across an article in the paper about the suit challenging the new healthcare law’s dictate that corporate health insurance benefits for employees must include coverage for standard contraceptives, including the “morning after” pill, was heading to the Supreme Court. The suit claims that this part of the law would constitutionally violate some company owners’ religious freedoms, since it would force them to support a practice that is against their tightly held religious beliefs. According to the article, the debate turns on whether a company can be considered “a person” that has religious beliefs protected under the First Amendment. However, I see this argument as being spurious because it does not matter whether one is making this case for a company, a person or even a religious organization. After all, how can any entity claim a First Amendment right to freedom of religion as a defense to deny that same right to another citizen?

In essence, all jobs are basically inherent contracts between parties requiring services and parties providing the services needed, whether the relationship is between an individual and an independent contractor or between an employer and employee. For services rendered, compensation is provided, and the payer has no further ownership or control over the funds provided, and therefore, no control over what the payee does with those funds going forth. For example, a vegan company owner cannot force his employees to use their salaries to purchase only vegetable dishes for their families.

Employee benefits are just as much a form of compensation as salary for an employee’s service. Considering that no individual or party can control or impose any sort of restriction upon how an individual uses that compensation within the freedoms guaranteed to that individual by the Constitution, it is up to the employee to decide how to use a health insurance benefit within his or her own religious beliefs. If an owner of a company is a Jehovah’s Witness, should he be able to restrict his employee’s health plan benefit so that it does not allow any form of emergency blood transfusion? I think not. A health insurance plan should cover most legally acceptable forms of medical services that an individual may find acceptable to his or her own religious beliefs, which is why the new healthcare law included contraceptive services. A business owner, like any other individual, has a right to preach his or her religious and moral beliefs to his or her employees, but the employees’ rights to their individual beliefs and morals must be respected and accepted in return. That is the price for living in a non-theocratic democracy.

The Novelization of Television

Last week, I found time to attend an Academy of Television Arts and Sciences event which had television critics Robert Bianco of USA Today, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, Brian Lowry of Variety, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Roush of TV Guide on a panel moderated by Variety editor Cynthia Littleton, giving the audience a critic’s preview of the Fall TV Season. Even though the discussion did eventually get around to what new shows they liked, what new shows they felt would crash and burn and what new shows will become cult darlings, the initial question and somewhat underlying theme of the evening was about the changes within the business of television, which was changing the storytelling of television and its relationship with the audience. In essence, changing technology was providing the audience with the means to easily see what they wanted to watch when they wanted to watch, creating a desire to see complicated storytelling within a closed format leading to a resolution. I see this evolution as the novelization of television.

When television began broadcasting to the public, the public had to adjust their viewing time to the networks’ schedules. Viewers were enticed to return to watch new episodes as an endless series of short tales with favorite characters until the characters or stories became too familiar. Except in a few instances, the series would be cancelled without a final resolution or sendoff to the characters. It was the business of television. Ninety minute movies, stretched out to two hours by added commercial breaks, was the longest form of individual storytelling available within the broadcast schedule. Then, networks discovered that viewers were willing to see more complicated storytelling within a limited number of episodes over a shorter period of time. This was a golden age for miniseries, led by Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. However, the economics of schedule television could not support an over-abundance of miniseries and the format faded. However, cable television, VHS tape recorders and the digital revolution of DVDs, DVRs and smartphones were all evolutionary steps that would move audiences away from scheduled television, which brings us to what Robert Bianco, Tim Goodman, Brian Lowry, Mary McNamara and Matt Roush were observing now.

Per the critics, the defining series for the current evolution of how today’s audiences consume television was Netflix’s House of Cards which released all 13 episodes to its subscribers at the same time. This allowed the Netflix audience to become like the reader who stays up all night to finish a good book. The audience was able to binge view the entire series and walk away satisfied at reaching the somewhat season-ending resolution. However, one of the critics related that he was hearing from friends who were DVR’ing full seasons of other current cable series, which have been running a single complex storyline within a shorter span of ten to twelve episodes, and then binge-viewing them in one day to get that same feeling of reading an exciting book in one sitting. For viewers of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, each episode was like a chapter in the overall tale that needed to be viewed as a whole.

In addition, the critics noted that producers were gaining more control in creatively demanding a final season within a short span of years in order to give a complex premise a final satisfying resolution to loyal viewers. (Some credit was given to ABC’s Lost for this, although one critic claimed it was a desperation stand by the producers against the network for a series that had passed its prime.) Even for viewers willing to view the chapters weekly, the ability to follow a set of inter-connected characters through a period of conflict to its end and then move on to another satisfying story within a reasonable few months was much more preferable to being dragged along a nearly endless flow of cliff-hangers.

Finally, technology in the form of computer tablets and smartphones has freed the television viewer from the home. The audience can binge view the story while riding the bus, enjoying a coffee in the local café or getting that suntan at the beach, right next to the person reading an exciting novel. Soon, the viewer like the reader will have total control – when, where and how – over scheduling the enjoyment of a good complex story with fascinating characters. For now, the critics are trying to decide how to review shows going forth – one episode at a time or a full season in whole like a book. The evolution continues.

The Power of Editing

When I wrote my first draft of Legacy Discovered, I decided that if it was going to be taken seriously, then it would need to be read with as few unnecessary grammatical errors as possible, so as not to distract the reader from the story and its characters. As I wrote my first chapters, I reached out to my Facebook friends and asked for volunteers to read, edit and comment on the book as I wrote it. Using the collaborative cloud service, Box.com, I was able to upload the chapters where my volunteers were able to read and comment from whatever location they may be. Once I had a first draft and signed up with Createspace to publish the novel, I chose a package that included a round of professional editing. Even after this round of publishing and another review by my volunteer friends, I re-read the book twice at a steady pace. My goal was to have my book look professional to any reader. Since it has been published, I have discovered a handful of small overlooked errors which will be corrected in an upcoming re-release; however, I feel it compares very favorably to books released through many of the professional publishing houses. Yet, as I have read some works from fellow indie authors in the past year, it has surprised me just how much the art of editing has suffered during the self-publishing revolution, an issue that may be dragging on the creative power of books to today’s audiences.

In many of the indie books that I read, I was quite impressed with the story-telling prowess of my fellow authors. I may have had an occasional plot or character quibble, but for the most part, my interest was held. Still, to come across the somewhat frequent extraneous ‘to‘ or ‘the‘ within a sentence would be like hitting a pothole on a comfortable ride. A missing key word in a sentence would feel like a red light on a freeway as I had to stop to try and understand the sentence before moving on. Misplaced quotation marks during character interactions would confuse me as I tried to determine whether a statement was stated aloud or was just a thought expressed as an aside in the dialogue. In one novel, I truly had to shake my head at the statement “She s.” for which I will never know what the author was hoping to express. Formatting errors were also prevalent, like an end of line or extra indent within a paragraph. What got me was just how prevalent these simple errors were and how easily most of them could have been corrected with a steady review of the work before publishing.

Actually, these errors in no way reflect upon the literacy or grammatical competency of the author. Our brains are notoriously capable of mentally correcting and becoming blind to these types of errors during reading, especially when the underlying meaning is truly clear to the reader. Since an author is the one who transcribed his or her thoughts to the paper (virtual or real), his or her brain very easily corrects these errors mentally as the work is reviewed. The rush to get the story out under deadline is the main reason why these errors have become almost the norm in online news postings or within current newspaper articles. However, the novel is not a place where the avid reader expects to find these errors, as the reader expects that time is available to edit the story being presented to him or her. Since readers do not create the works in front of them, they are more likely to stumble upon these errors when the meaning has been slightly compromised by these errors. Subconsciously, the errors begin to reflect upon the stature of the work, regardless of the entertainment or informational value of the work.

I have come to respect the power of having a trusted second or third pair of eyes review my work. I would hope that other indie authors would open themselves to having someone else review their work before publishing in today’s digital world, even if it is among trusted friends. A good editor does not take away from a writer’s voice; he or she only enhances it for a receptive reader.

Bucket Lists and Road Trips

I love traveling, exploring the vast complexities of this little orb circling a massive globe of energy in a little section of infinity. I am fascinated by the artistry of this constantly changing natural world and the amazing interaction of our species within this world in such a short span of time. Constantly flowing currents of air and water carve rock, transform landscapes, fluctuate temperatures and transport life on this spinning globe. Amazingly, here I am with the ability to move faster around this earth than my ancestors and the technology of a camera to freeze and record these wondrous sights for the temporary span of my lifetime. However, I am a part of this eternal miracle and responsibility comes with the gift of my life within the tapestry.

For some, travel means finding another place different and exotic from the regular patterns and flows of their home turf, then returning to this place year after year to enjoy a different regular pattern and flow. For me, it means more to uncover a new pattern and perspective with each trip I take. Sometimes, this can be accomplished within my own home backyard by hiking a different trail or checking out a local community or historical site previously unvisited. However, to really expand my perspective, I need to look beyond and see how natural elements and cultures fill in the mosaic. The best way for me to do this is to examine the adventures of those before me and to create a plan of adventure for myself. The first step is to create a series of bucket lists to set out as goals. In my case, my bucket lists are more places to see and experience, rather than activities to accomplish.

My bucket lists begin with the main list of hoping to set foot on every continent. On this list, I can check off North America, Europe and, nominally, Africa. Branching off the main list, I have lists to visit every country in Europe and to explore listed wonders worldwide both natural and cultural, but my longest bucket lists are set within the United States. One reason is obviously the proximity and ability to explore more with less resources. There is a large area to investigate and admire without crossing international borders. I have created three bucket lists to explore this country – to visit every state, to visit every US national park, and to visit an ever-growing list of US cities and sites (currently 141 items). Officially, I can state that there are only three states I have never been in. However, there are five other states in which I was younger than 2 years old when my parents drove through them and two other states in which I changed planes at a major airport, so I only count 40 states as actually visited and experienced. Of those 40 states, I have marked 12 that need to be re-visited since I feel the experience to be more cursory on the first go-round. On the extraneous list of 141 cities and sites, I have checked off 72 items as having been visited and explored. Quite a feat, but still only halfway through the list.

I placed the US national parks in a separate list. It was America that first decided to separate, protect and maintain nature’s grand displays, allowing people from around the world to gain the perspective of the forces that nourished this earth. Other countries have followed America’s example and many of their parks are on my international lists. There are 59 officially designated national parks in the United States and its territories. The newest national park is Pinnacles National Park which was elevated from national monument status in January. I have checked off 32 of these parks from my list. I am not sure which will be the hardest to visit on this list, American Samoa National Park or the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, but I am going to do my best to visit them all.

Most of these parks I have visited and explored in the last ten years through the most American type of travel, the road trip. The advent of the automobile brought about a vast network of asphalt and concrete that turned months of harsh travel to go from ocean to ocean into days in air-conditioned comfort. Modern mapping technologies and Internet reservations allow one to plot a general route and organize reservations on a day-to-day basis in order to travel economically while maintaining flexibility in the overall schedule. It allowed me to plan a Rocky Mountain circuit, a grand Californian tour, an Arizona parks tour, a southwest Nevada to Colorado trip and an Eastern parks tour. An $80 annual entrance pass covers my vehicle entrance fees into the national parks along the way, and in the process, I gain a greater appreciation for the geologic forces that shape this planet from the volcanic geysers of Yellowstone and the sea of grasses in the Everglades to the uplifting forces that allowed the Colorado River to carve a Grand Canyon. This country hosts the tallest living things (Redwoods), the largest living things (Sequoias), the oldest living things (Bristlecone Pines), the longest cave system (Mammoth Caves) and the tallest land-based mountain (Mount McKinley, also known as Denali) in the world. Getting to experience these wonders hopefully prepares me to find a way to experience the rainforests of the Amazon, the great bio-diversity of the Great Rift Valley of Africa and the largest sandstone monolith known as Ayers Rock in the Australian desert. Some day…

Primetime Emmy Nominations

It’s that time of year again. Time for me to consider what shows to mark on my Primetime Emmy nomination ballot. As a member of the Public Relations Peer Group within the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, I am not eligible to nominate for the individual Emmy categories, but I can nominate for the program and special class Emmy categories. Still, It is pretty neat to have a voice in determining the finalists for best drama or comedy television series of the season.

It is impossible for one person to view every minute of original programming throughout the year. It is just as impossible to view all the DVDs or online screenings that studios and production companies make available to Academy members in hope of being considered for a nomination ballot. As an Academy member, I have a deeper understanding of the process, skill, hard work and luck involved in getting a series, movie or special to air or distribution, which encourages me to view these creative works openly. However, I still must use my preferences, experiences and friend recommendations to choose what shows I want to view and enjoy, selecting my nominations from this group. There are plenty of Academy members with different preferences and experiences to give the full slate of works an honest viewing.

In the comedy category, the FX series, Louie, starring Louis C.K., has been touted in glowing terms in press and by some Facebook friends, so I will take time to view the DVD FX sent me. However, I am not a big fan of gritty or crude material just for the sake of being crude. Ultimately, the message or theme is the last word. Humor by its nature can be cruel. In fact, comedy has been defined as tragedy with a happy ending. For me, I prefer lighter fare where condescension tinged with ignorance is skewered and insecure characters actually find a road to redemption and community through their comic antics. Something like The Big Bang Theory. With its syndication over TBS and the local Fox affiliate over the past two years, I was able to binge view the previous seasons, turning it into a current favorite. In the past season, as the characters have grown, I did feel that a few episodes this season were more filler episodes to stretch out the life of the series, but there were good seminal moments. I find it interesting that perhaps the most insecure character is Penny, the beautiful girl among the geeks who is actually scared that she is not as smart as the friends she has around her. Another series I have come to enjoy is the skit-infused Portlandia on IFC. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein take on many characters in vignettes that gently poke fun at the casual culture of Portland, Oregon. Deep thoughts in a shallow pool.

In the drama category, I am not a fan of non-redemptive, ultra-twisted series, based on foundations of sex and violence. These are valid themes to explore in the challenges of life, but for me, they are hard to take over the extended period of a series. This is why I have avoided fan-favorites like HBO’s Game of Thrones or AMC’s The Walking Dead. The key for me is the underlying sense of redemption that inspires growth in the main character, allowing me to empathize and root for this character. To me, an empathetic anti-hero is a character living a survivalist, immoral lifestyle that is unexpectedly thrust in a heroic position to lead against or uncover a greater conspiracy of evil, which requires the character to grow in a redemptive manner. BBC America’s Orphan Black, a series about a woman who discovers that she is a clone to the woman whose identity she took over, is a perfect example of this and definitely on my consideration list.

As for reality programming, this is divided into two categories – reality and reality competition. The standard reality category mostly contains docu-series like Real Housewives, Deadliest Catch and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. I generally do not have any interest in this type of programming. A reality series that focuses on a person or a small group of people tends to be almost unrealistically larger than life in order to keep it from getting stale. However, I am more impressed with a reality series which educates while it entertains. A good example of this is Discovery’s Mythbusters. As for the reality competition category, there is one show that consistently expands our global perspective in the challenge, The Amazing Race. It is definitely one of my favorites.

I have a couple more weeks to consider my choices for my ballot before mailing it in, so I’ll check out a few more shows for consideration. Maybe I’ll have time to view the NetFlix series, House of Cards.

Learning to Fly

In the 80s, shortly after I had graduated from UCLA, a college friend who had just gotten his pilot’s license invited me and a couple of our other college friends to fly down to San Diego and back for a day. It was a clear crisp October day and I had my new Nikon. It was amazing to be seemingly floating along over the Santa Monica mountains, Los Angeles and the Southern California coastline. The pictures I took were great, but could only hint at the perspective I found in the experience. A few years later, after I had gotten my first job with ABC in their printing department, I decided that I wanted to take on a little adventure in my life and learn how to fly before I turned 30. I headed over to Santa Monica Airport and signed up for lessons.

Los Angeles was and still is one of the busiest airspaces for general aviation. Besides the well-known LAX, commercial air travel is conducted out of Burbank, Ontario, John Wayne Orange County and Long Beach airports. Smaller private airports like Santa Monica, Van Nuys, Hawthorne and Fullerton dot up all around the metropolitan area. Learning to fly a Cessna single engine plane by visual flight rules in this airspace was like taking Drivers Ed training on a freeway during rush hour traffic, but I loved the challenge. It is one thing to read about the physics of lift versus gravity and thrust versus drag, but quite another to feel these forces around you as you pull up the elevator to take off or lower flaps to prepare for landing. Practicing the coordination of the turn and adjusting my flight direction to counteract the effect of the winds around the plane gave me a much better understanding of weather and navigation. True learning is an adventure that brings all of your senses into play. The best part of a flight was reaching altitude, setting trim and allowing myself time to take in the landscape stretched below me. The more prominent curve of the horizon around me reinforced the reality of this orb of rock, water and life we live on in this universe. It was a precious feeling for me.

Soloing for the first time is a major rite of passage, but in the crowded airspace of Los Angeles, it proved to be a test of my ability to adapt to unexpected challenges. Santa Monica Airport has a tower to control takeoffs and landings, but does not monitor airspace beyond its landing patterns. However, LAX’s controlled airspace extending from the ground up was just a few miles to the south of Santa Monica and extended like a ceiling starting at 5000 feet over Santa Monica. Crossing into this airspace without permission was forbidden. It was late in the afternoon when my instructor and I started some elementary pattern takeoffs and landings practice. As I finished the second landing, he directed me to head over to the tower area. After I taxied over to the tower, he got out and told me to do a pattern on my own. I was both excited and nervous as I taxied to the runway, received clearance to takeoff and soared up toward the ocean. After getting to pattern level, I turned south, flew a few miles, then turned east on the downwind leg. As I reached the point directly in line with the tower on this leg, I brought up my mike, waited for a few other radio calls to complete, than announced my plane ID to the tower and stated that I was “south abeam, ready for landing.” The response was totally unexpected. Having to deal with a sudden influx of traffic, the controller told me to break off from the pattern and go someplace else as he did not have time to deal with me. Of course, the time to tell this to me, a student on his first solo, would have been before takeoff, not when I am in the air! Even worse, where was I to go? There was very little distance between the downwind leg and LAX controlled airspace, but I had to turn south, then turn back west and fly just barely outside of the controlled airspace, while still maintaining proper distance from any other planes that may be heading on the downwind leg. I was able to fly to a point where I could turn back into the downwind leg and get back into the pattern. This time when I reached the south abeam point, I was given clearance to land. Needless to say, my instructor was absolutely livid at the controller, but I managed to complete my solo pattern without causing an FAA investigation.

I earned my VFR private pilot’s license and had opportunities to fly to Catalina Island, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and even took off and landed at Burbank. However, the cost of staying current in my logs, the increasing amount of time my career at ABC was taking, and the difficulty of finding an FAA approved doctor within the company’s health insurance program forced me to take a temporary break from flying, a break that I am still on. But I do not regret the adventure and the lessons of flying that are still a part of my essence and perspective.

Thoughts on The Social Novel

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held this weekend on the USC campus. I spent Saturday walking through the booths, checking out local bookstore offerings and featured authors. I also found a couple of indie author promotion and marketing booths and made contacts with them in regards to my current novel. It was a fun and interesting day for me. In addition, I attended a couple of “conversations,” moderated author panels focusing on fiction. One panel was appropriately labeled “Looking for Trouble,” considering the wild and erratic conversation that came from the four authors. However, the other panel turned out to be more intelligent and thought-provoking in its discussion of the “Social Novel.”

At first, the authors on the panel wondered at why they had been selected for a panel entitled the social novel. Rachel Kushner had a recently released novel, “The Flame Throwers,” which followed characters in rebellious New York City neighborhoods in the late 60s and equally rebellious neighborhoods in Rome during the early 70s. Marisa Silver’s recently released novel, “Mary Coin,” examined a fictional history of a photographer and her subject based on a famous photo of a migrant mother and her children from the 1930s. Jonathan Lethen was about to release a novel in the summer that appeared to be hard to explain in the session. There appeared to be no common theme in the narratives of these authors, except for the general concept that actions of their characters had to interact within the social network and individuals within a common social group. The conversation became a discussion about the concept of the individual within society and the contrast between the two. The panel defined two perceptions that was recognizable in literature – the American perception that favored individualism within societal relations and the European perception of a social commonality and responsibility among the individuals within the group. The general impression I received from the panel was that writers usually expressed themselves on one side or the other. What I wished there was time to consider was whether any of the authors felt a sense or possibility that modern literature might move toward a balance of the two perceptions, a sort of global perception that the individual has an innate responsibility toward the social community, while the social community depended upon its recognition of the individual contributions supporting it.

I can see the difficulty in trying to examine this delicate balance within a literary structure. Like all balances, it is dependent upon competing forces. While trying to understand this balanced competition, each of us tends to sympathize and side with one perception over the other. We feel that society must recognize each of us and it is up to us to present our own individuality to society as a whole – or we feel that society needs each of us to come together so we must submit our feelings and talents to the good of the whole. It becomes hard for us to see how both perceptions are just as valid and just as necessary in finding that balance. Also, even if we accept and explore the necessity of balancing both perceptions, we find it hard to not try and calculate an absolute formula in which to find and impose this balance. In nature and the universe, this balance is always fluid and constantly under recalibration. No wonder it is hard for any writer – past, present and future – to explore any story or set of characters working within a balance of the individual and society. Maybe something to discuss at next year’s Festival of Books.

Volunteering for 826LA

This week is Spring Break. Students have the week off from the public school system, and I have a week off from a volunteer mission I began two months ago. Late in January, I was walking up to pick up dinner from my favorite neighborhood Chinese take-out and passed by what appeared to be a new store next door. Outside the new storefront, a young woman was writing up a request for volunteers on a chalkboard two-sided sign. It turned out that the “new store” was in actuality the new location for an 826LA tutor center. As I discovered, the 826 organization, founded in San Francisco, have started up volunteer centers in cities across the country to provide free afterschool tutoring, in-school tutoring and projects, and field trip/workshops focusing on literary creativity for students. Los Angeles is the only city to have two locations and one had just moved into my neighborhood. For me, education is a core tenet in my charitable activities. It is a basic foundation for growth, discovery and success. Based on my current time availability, I signed up as a volunteer, making myself available on Tuesdays and Thursdays for three hours to provide afterschool tutoring to elementary students at the local center.

The basic procedure for the afterschool tutoring is to focus on the student completing his/her homework first, then to encourage the student to find something to read and/or write a story. A theme or project is posted on a blackboard to give the students direction on what to write, but if a student wants to write in another direction, he/she is not discouraged in doing so. The key is to encourage creative writing in general. When a student writes a story, he/she takes it to the coordinator for approval. If approved (based on whether the tutor has directed and corrected grammar and spelling errors), the effort is announced to the entire group, and the student puts the paper in a publishing box and gets to ring a bell to celebratory applause. The stories are collected over a period of time and published in a small volume that is sold in the volunteer center storefronts to support the programs of 826LA. Whenever a book is published, a book party is held at the center with the student authors reading their stories to fellow students, tutors and parents. Last week, we held one for the newest book of stories, “A Fireplace with Cold Fire in It,” focused mainly on Denver, whose central zip code is 80206.

Of course, the ideal is better than the reality. The student/tutor ratio could be 5 to 1 on some days with the students coming from different schools and grades, so a tutor often has to shift from first grade spelling to fifth grade social studies on to third grade math. Many students would rather be playing than doing homework and are easily distracted, so it might take the full three hours just to get a student to complete homework. I would not doubt that a few of the parents who take advantage of the free tutoring for their children are seeking an extra three hours of free daycare, but they are definitely in the minority. Like any job, volunteering is challenging work, but the rewards are different. Yes, it is heartening to see the light in a student’s eyes when they get it or to feel the joy when you have made a difference in someone else’s life. However, there is a selfish satisfaction in knowing that in a small way, I am improving the social and environmental structure around me that will improve my life and society in general.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.

Biking Along the Venice Beach Boardwalk – Part 2

In my previous posting, I had described my fairly regular bike ride to Venice Beach up to the central Windward Plaza. The trip continues…

Beyond the main plaza, the bike path wavers near the boardwalk north until it reaches a unique attraction, the Venice Beach Freakshow housed within an extended patio building. On weekends and in season, a loud speaker announces in barker fashion the various wonders visitors will see for a nominal admission price. Occasionally, I have seen a fire-eater performing on the patio to bring customers in to see the show. This freak show is currently the focus of a new AMC reality program, so it is attracting more tourists to the boardwalk. I must admit that as of this writing, I have not tuned in to see the series. Nor have I stopped on my bike rides to see the show itself.

At this point, the bike path snakes outward and around a series of grassy palm tree patches. Visitors and homeless alike gather on these knolls to view the waves coming in to the shore. My goal is reached when the bike path slides back to within a foot or two of the boardwalk, two short blocks away from the Santa Monica border. I get off my bike and walk it across the short sand strip to the red-stripped “no vendor” entry area on the boardwalk. Then I cross the pedestrian traffic to a small store called N’ice Cream on the north side of Thornton Court. The store sells gelatos and sorbets, made fresh every morning in their main shop on Abbott Kinney Boulevard, just blocks away. I choose one of the four fat-free sorbet flavors of the day and get two scoops in a cup. I enjoy the watermelon flavor when available and thought the champagne flavor during New Years was very creative. I take my cup and sit in one of their chairs to enjoy the broad variety of visitors walking along the boardwalk.

I mentioned the “red-stripped” no vendor area on the beach side of the walk. This provides an open entry area to the beach within the marked spots all along the beach side of the boardwalk where artists, musicians and small vendors can license a position to set up a canopy and pitch small souvenirs and artwork to visitors. At N’ice Cream, these spots are taken up by an artist selling colorful framed paintings, a small vendor selling marijuana design t-shirts, and Tom the photographer selling a small selection of 8×10 souvenir prints of Venice. It has only been a few cold and quiet weekdays when I have noticed their spots to be empty.

It is during this time of people watching that I realize just how famous worldwide this stretch of beach and storefronts truly is. I have heard just about every language and accent pass by me – German, Japanese, Spanish and more. Winter appears to be the season for European tourists, while summer is perfect for Aussie tourists. However, the bohemian flavor of Venice attracts a broader flavor of travelers, those seeking to explore the wilder side of human nature and enjoy the starving street performers populating the boardwalk. I was amused recently by one nattily dressed pedestrian who was walking his dog down the boardwalk. The dog was leashed per the law, but the man had trained the dog to carry the other end of the leash in his mouth, scolding the eager pup whenever the leash was dropped. A dog walking himself! I just had to shake my head.

Having finished my sorbet, I toss my cup into the ice cream cone-designed trash bin and walk my bike back over to the bike path. It’s time to head home by backtracking my trail and re-navigating the bike path with fellow bikers, Segway renters, skaters and seagulls. The bike path is posted as being for bikes only, no pedestrians, but many visitors find the concrete path to be a lovely walk on the beach without the sand or crowds. There would be no issue passing a group of walkers going single file along the right side, but many tend to bunch into conversation groups or pair up as couples holding hands in double wide formation. If they are called out for being on and blocking the bicycle lane, they have no problem glaring back or giving out a not-so-mild invective even as they stand on the large white bike icon painted regularly along the trail. All I can say is that it is just part of the challenge and experience of keeping fit and enjoying this world famous location.

Biking Along the Venice Beach Boardwalk – Part 1

I have been lucky to travel and see many amazing places in the US and Europe, but my recent unemployment has reminded me of an old truism – one often forgets to visit the wonders in one’s own backyard. Shortly after I had purchased my townhome on the westside of Los Angeles over a decade ago, I purchased a bike to enjoy an occasional ride to the beach, but I allowed my job to turn that occasion into an annual or biennial event on the Fourth of July or Labor Day weekend. When I was laid off over a year ago, I suddenly had extra time on my hands which I used to write and publish a novel as well as get myself into better shape by riding my bike two or three times a week down to Venice Beach. Just off the boardwalk, a concrete, two-way bike path snakes it way from Washington Boulevard to the Santa Monica pier and beyond towards Malibu. I found that I could head down Venice Boulevard straight to the bike path, turn and bike up to the northern end of the Venice boardwalk, take a pause and head back home all within an hour. Add an extra half hour and I could add the Santa Monica Pier to the round trip.

The boardwalk basically begins at Venice Boulevard North on the south side. The pedestrian strip does extend farther south to Washington Boulevard, but the adjoining buildings are all residential, out of sync with the eclectic vibe from the stores and sights to the north. A stark indication of this vibe is the first store at the Venice corner, a medical marijuana dispensary whose clerks come out into the boardwalk in green scrubs announcing, “The doctor is in.” The bike path at this location is separated from the boardwalk by a city parking lot. During mild weekdays in the winter, parking is a reasonable five dollars and readily available. Film and TV crews will often take up half the lot during these off season periods. During mild weekends in the winter, the parking rate doubles as traffic backs up on Venice. When the weather really warms up, the lot full sign pops up and the backup traffic is forced to turn around and find a way out of the jam. I wave to them as I navigate my bike through the traffic into the lot to the bike path entryway on the other side.

As I bike north on the path, I catch glimpses of the open-air gym of Muscle Beach, the handball and basketball courts, and the children’s playground grouped north of the parking lot. The bike path curves in just past the police station and then curves back north between Windward Plaza and the skateboard park. This is the busiest area of Venice Beach as Windward Plaza is the beach side’s extension of the open area plaza signifying the central entry point to Venice Beach and its boardwalk. Next to the skateboard park, a modern art sculpture of five iron bars stands vigil over two flat-top concrete cones and a couple of concrete walls painted over with graffiti art. Navigating through the pedestrian crosswalk and skateboarders can be tricky at this point even during light off-season days.

Past this point, the bike path curves in toward the boardwalk, turning back north to snake along in close proximity. Near this point in the boardwalk, there is an open air restaurant with a faded red-and-white canopy over the eating area that extends over the entry of a small independent bookstore, Small World Books. I pitched them to carry my book in their store as a local author, but the owner let me know that the store is too small to carry unknown books on consignment. One day, I hope to sell enough books to entice them to stock a few copies of Legacy Discovered on their shelves.

To be continued…