Monday, September 28, 2009

The C Word Part II

My sister has cancer.
The C word.

It's breast cancer, one of the more fashionable diseases, like AIDS.

For better or for worse, men's fascination with breasts has probably saved millions of women's lives.

Dana has surgery on Thursday at St. James hospital in Santa Monica. I pick up Mom at the airport, she's better now, less consumed with fear. I'm glad my sister is having the tumor removed so quickly, I'm told having a tumor is like being in the tub with a large black spider and you just want it out as soon as possible.

We pay $12 to valet and go up to the 2nd floor, where Christos nervously keeps watch in the waiting room. The surgery has already taken place, Christos whispers that the surgery appears to have been successful and Dana is in recovery.

"What about the lymph nodes?" I ask. The lymph nodes are where the doctor's determine if there has been any spread of cancer. Typically they take between 6 to 12, a sampling to check for cancer spread.

"They only took one." Christos remarks.
"One?" I ask, dumbfounded. "I thought they had to take at least three?"
Christos nods. "Normally, but they were happy with what they saw, so only one."

An hour later we are admitted into recovery, Christos first, my mother second, myself last. Unlike them, I am not nervous. I know my sister is going to be okay. I grew up with my sister, and it's going to take more than some piddly little thing like breast cancer to kill her.

Like a volcano or a tac nuke.

When I first see her she's pale but smiling, relief emanating in all directions. No more spider in the tub, it's been removed and put into a jar where it is being examined to see if it left any of its brood behind. We get back to Malibu and Dana spends the rest of the day valiantly trying to stay awake so she can sleep through the night.

Christos writes an email thanking everyone for their love and support. He calls my sister, myself, and mother into the room and reads the email aloud.

By the time he is done tears are rolling down his face.

Dana sits in his lap, silent. She frowns, brow creased with concentration as she peers at the monitor. A moment later she leans forward and begins making corrections to the email.

I can't help it, I start laughing.

"I may not be able to control the cancer, or the surgery, but at least I can control this!" Dana snaps.

Volcano? Bah!
Definitely a tac nuke.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The C Word

There are some words that can never be taken back. Forbidden, illicit, verboten. Speak them, and you've crossed a line - you're done.

There aren't many bad words left in English, most so overused they have become little more than verbally redundant adjectives. But there is still one word that is still a pure verbal vomit conversation killer. The C word.


My sister has breast cancer.
She's 35.
It's malignant.

I know something is wrong when I check my messages and hear my mother's panicked voice. "Brian, call Christos."

Christos is my sister's husband. A successful bio-tech recruiter, he has a house in Malibu overlooking the ocean, drives a porsche, and was a former restauranteur and photographer. He sings, plays guitar, scuba dives, speaks three languages, has a wine collection that surpasses most restaurants, a connoisseur of the arts.

I'd date him.

I call, but can't get ahold of him. I try his cell and his home phone, then I try my sisters. Nothing. I breathe out a heavy sigh.

I have no recourse, I'm going to have to call my Mom.

My mother is borderline hysterical with fear. She doesn't want to tell me at first, but finally blurts, "Dana has cancer!" Her terror washes over me, envelopes me over the phone and drags me into a world of doom where the cancer could possibly masticate and transform into the blob, devouring civilization.

The next morning I get a call from Christos. His worry leadens every word, but he has it under control. He explains:

1. The cancer is most likely in stage 1, which is 100% curable. (Stage 2 is 92% curable.)
2. Dana will need a lumpectomy, or excisional biopsy to remove the lump and some of the surrounding tissue to determine if there is any spread of cancerous tissue.
3. She will need radiation, but chemotherapy is unlikely unless the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes.

Christos has used all of his contacts in the bio medical field, his business savvy, and his indomitable will to put together the dream team of breast cancer experts. He has the head of oncology at UCLA and a lumpectomy specialist who is considered the best in the world.

This surgeon is so good he only operates on Tuesday's and Thursday's, and he doesn't bother with insurance. You want his services, cash only, 75% up front. People fly from Japan and China to hire his services. Dana and Christos hope the surgeon will be able to squeeze them in sometime in the next 5 weeks.

Dana and Christos meet with him on Monday.
He agrees to perform the surgery on Thursday.

Say one thing for the Count, he gets it done.
Say one thing for my sister, she knows how to turn on the charm.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Birthday Bazaar

On my birthday I have a tradition of going to fabulous overpriced restaurants, all due in part to my sister who insists I eat something better then a cheeseburger and fries. LA is a fusion of international cuisine, there is practically nothing you cannot find here.

It's just not affordable. If great food was reasonable then that would take away the fun of being a snob and being able to tell your friends to "suck it" as you devour $20 rainbow rolls at Katsuya or the drunken crab doused in chardonnay garlic and scallions at Crustacean.

My sister is a walking Zagat's guide, she and her husband have traveled the world and eaten probably everywhere there is worth eating. So when Dana raves about a restaurant, one should wake up and pay attention.

This year I make an insane demand - I want reservations at Bazaar, currently one of the hottest, trendiest, and most expensive restaurants in all of Los Angeles. It's become a watering hole for Hollywood power players - agents, managers, and talent all hob knob there as women in tight skirts and bursting cleavage vie for attention.

Bazaar is the restaurant people imagine of what it must be like to dine out in a LA.

Going there in itself is not impossible, but I want the reservation on Saturday night.
People book months in advance for a Saturday reservation.

My sister does it with a week's notice.
She knows the chef - Marcel who was the runner up on the reality show Top Chef. Part cook, part chemist, part wild haired mad scientist, Marcel runs Bazaar's kitchen. Marcel's second in command to Jose Andres, who owns and runs the entire restaurant.

I invite Phil who himself is a bit of a foodie, perhaps more so then myself. The restaurant is only about a mile from where I live, but with traffic it takes 20 minutes. Bazaar takes up almost the entire bottom floor of the swank SLS hotel, a line of cars wait patiently for the valet, but Phil spins around a corner and finds street parking.

Fuck valet.

Inside there are three rooms, in the middle is "Bar Centro", a cocktail lounge with mix matched chairs, stools, and thrones. Paintings of royalty adorn the floors and wall, subtly shifting into were-people before turning back into human form. Old films play beneath the counter tops, the entire effect is one of disconcerting bewilderment.

To the right is a shop that looks like a museum: lamp posts carved into the likeness of M-16's, corsets illuminated on display next to $125 vibrators. There is an architecture of destruction collection, where one can buy model likenesses of the Titanic, the Twin Towers, and the City of New Orleans before they were destroyed. There are gold hand gun lighters, three foot long miniature speed boats, carvings of animals and cakes, it is a menagerie of the misfit toys.

To the left is the actual restaurant itself, divided into two sub restaurants: Blanca, decorated in white, and Rojo, decorated in black and red. My sister insists that one must eat in the Rojo, closer to the kitchen, eating in the Blanca is simply an inferior experience.

We sit down and order drinks. I order a rum and coke, and my sister fires me a look that can be charitably described as bemusedly exasperated. She orders me a specialty drink, rum mixed with liquid nitrogen. A woman pushes up a cart and begins to mix the concoction in front of us, steam hisses and pours forth, blanketing the table as she pours and stirs various liquids to create this magical elixir.

I end up with a glass of yellow colored sherbet.

It's bitter and strong, it tastes like rum and knocks me on my ass.

From there we head to the Rojo. Marcel has set up a special table for us, where we can see him working in the kitchen. He has wild, unruffled hair and does not look up, focused on whatever is in front of him.

Christos pulls out a couple of bottles of wine from his personal collection. (It's larger then that of some restaurants.) I smile appreciatively, I admit that wine is lost on me, but Phil whistles. A second later he bends over and texts Varga on his iPhone.

"Who are you texting?" I ask.

"Varga." Phil responds. "I'm telling him I'm eating at Bazaar. That and that he can "suck it."

Upon the chef's orders, the waiters automatically bring us dishes. In the tradition of Spanish cuisine, Bazaar is a tapas restaurant, meaning all the dishes are bite size entree's. One, possibly two bites, and the dish is gone.

Normally I would turn up my nose at such an absurd idea. Fifteen dollars for an entree that you can swallow almost instantly? That's the kind of crap that gives LA an elitist bad name. Give me a good 'ol steak any day.

The waiter brings out a set of watermelon tomato heart skewers. I eat it and it's a gastronomic explosion of deliciousness. Watermelon and tomatoes - mixed together? Are you kidding me? It's amazing.

My skepticism evaporates.

From there it is the jicama wrapped guacamole, which looks like small tiny little gift bags, miniature green purses that can be swallowed in one bite. Except when you bite into them, they don't so much melt as POP, overwhelming the senses with corn chips and cilantro. It's like eating an entire Mexican meal in a single taste.

Dana orders a set of caviar cones, tiny ice cream cones filled with delectable caviar, I almost swoon and we are just getting started.

Then come the olives. The waiter brings out a set of traditional "stuffed" olives, then a series of large white spoons each with its own Bazaar created olive, a soft gel like pod broken down and reconstructed from a regular olive.

"Be careful with these," Dana warns. "They explode in your mouth." A second later she bites into it, and olive juice erupts and dribbles down her chin.

"You didn't over sell it." Phil replies laconically.

I put one olive in my mouth and slowly bite into it. The olive blows apart, creating a wild sensation that encapsulates the flavor and essence of an olive more then an actual olive could ever hope to emulate. Just as fiction can be more revealing then truth, so the artificial olive is more pure in olive taste then any natural olive.

Christos orders a beet salad. Normally I hate beets, but at this point I'm willing to bet just about anything on this menu is amazing. Surprisingly, the beets are merely good, but I guess that making beets taste good is an amazing feat in and of itself.

There is a mini salad that you can eat in one bite, scooped up with a chip that gives the sensation of having eaten a full salad.

Then comes the mini Philly cheese steaks, bite sized morsels twice the size of a pizza roll, but twenty times as good. I devour it, the cheese and steak combines into a culinary party that showers the tongue, teeth and tonsils more completely then a foot long philly sub.

Then comes the foie gras, wrapped in cotton candy. Foie gras is a fancy name for goose liver, a delicacy in France, but like escargot considered disgusting nearly everywhere else.

Not quite knowing what it is, I pick it up and put it in my mouth.
A moment later I am in heaven, the foie gras melts in a chewy carmel orgy of pure unadulterated flavor, buttressed by the cotton candy it turns into an olfactory orgasm. If foods had a rating, the foie gras would be XXX.

It is divine.
(Khazani, for the record, you are crazy not to like this.)

It is the coup de grace of the evening. Nothing can top the foie gras wrapped in cotton candy. Not the delectable lamb in white sauce, not the mouth watering baby corn on the cob mixed with corn nuts and popcorn shoots, not the mussels or crab meat in cherry sauce, or sweet potato chips mixed with yogurt and tamarind. I am not eating one meal, I am eating twenty meals, each dish a perfect culinary delight that dovetails perfectly into the next ideal bite.

It is a culinary waterloo.
I have never in my entire life eaten a better meal.

Dana and Christos pay for everything. As always, I am amazed by their generosity.
I even got an iPod touch as a gift.

I thank them profusely. Christos shakes his head. "Too bad you aren't forty, you would have gotten more."

Dana introduces us to Marcel. He comes out from behind the counter and gives Dana a hug, then shakes our hands. He is quiet and smiles. On Top Chef he had the reputation for being an egotistical maniac, but then you can't really believe anything you see on TV.

"I expect a blog out of this."

"Don't worry, Dana, you'll get one."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Six Years

They say that public school teachers peak at seven years. They've learned the craft of teaching, but are still new enough to care while able to circumvent the worst of the inanity.

After 7 years, teaching is a slow descent into the black miasma of doom.

The first year I was terrified, nervous, filled with dread and anxiety.
The second year I was just nervous and felt like I was still faking it.
The third year I was giddy with excitement.
The fourth year I was self assured and eager.
The fifth year I felt slightly tense, full of anticipation, like an athlete before a game.

The start of this year, my sixth year, one year before my "peak"...I don't feel anything.

I'm not excited, I'm not nervous, I'm not anxious, I'm not energized.
This year I just feel bored.
When did this go from becoming an adventure to being just a job?

Don't get me wrong, it's still not easy. The schedule Sarah and I worked so painstakingly on has been shot to hell, the teachers I thought I would be working with have disappeared, the students remain forever adolescent. I should have lesson plans that last me for 6 months straight without even thinking - I certainly have collected years of material.

But every year I always feel like I'm starting from scratch.

I've picked up the tricks, learned techniques that can never be gathered through training but earned only through battle scarred experience. Like a magician, I can bring a class to attention with a wave of my hand, have them laughing with a sly joke, or freeze them dead with a glare.

The staff nods and waves. They all know who I am, although I can barely remember half their names. There have been so many of them that have come and gone through our school doors that to me the faculty blends right in with the students.

The older teachers, the lifers, treat me differently now. To the one's that like me, I am a comrade in arms, a trusted associate who can be turned to for help. To the more difficult teachers I am a predator, we circle each other like sharks, mouthing empty pleasantries before both moving along our way.

I have even outlasted the principal. He was promoted this year.
I remain.

The first day of school I sail through on cruise control. I march through my classroom like a twenty year sea captain walking the decks, anticipating problems before the students can even have a chance to react. Sarah is gone this year, and the room feels empty, party because I've finally managed to take down all her crap that cluttered the walls.

I miss her terribly.

At the end of the day I do something I have never done in five years of teaching.

I go out and join friends in Hollywood for a drink.

When did this become a job?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Photo Shoot

Photo Shoot.

Once upon a time, photo shoots weren't for mere mortals. Photo shoots were reserved for rock stars, models, and celebrities. Normal people didn't have photo shoots. Photo shoot? You'd have to be some kind of movie star to have a photo shoot.

Six months ago I met a photographer named Carlos. In Los Angeles, photographers make a living off head shots - every actor, wannabe actor, or person who thinks he's an actor needs head shots.

Or so I thought until the advent of online dating and facebook. Suddenly, I needed good photos.

That's when I met Carlos. He's a Peruvian photographer who used to run his own ad agency in Peru. Unfortunately for Carlos, he had the misfortune to spend more revenue then he generated, and his ad agency failed. They seized his assets, froze his accounts, destroyed his credit.

So he did what most people in other countries do when they need to start over. He turned his sights on the United States. Normally, the U.S. consulate would never let someone like Carlos through. A broke immigrant with no family in the U.S. and nothing to come back to? Forget it.

Carlos, however, does not look nor act like an immigrant. He's bilingual, fashionable, and hip. When he interviewed with the consulate, he wore a sports jacket and timberland shoes.

So they let gave him a ten year work visa. The bilingual, fashionable and hip can come to America anytime.

For anyone who wants to see his work, check out The man does know his way around the camera.

Carlos read some of my work, and was so taken by it he offered me a deal. I write a short story about his life, and in return he gives me a complimentary photo shoot.

The first day I had to try on a series of clothes. Fortunately, Carlos has an entire wardrobe of men's wear. Jean jackets and coats, formal and informal shirts, belts, cuff links, ties. He has enough clothes to start his own outlet store. He has converted an entire garage into a small studio, complete with backdrops, massive strobe lights, mirrors, and reflectors.

This isn't just some guy armed with a digital camera.

I interviewed him and we set up a day for the shoot.

"Come back on Thursday at four o'clock. The lighting is good then."

"Can't we do it earlier? I'm leaving town the next morning."

Carlos is adamant. "No, I want to shoot you in natural light. Natural light his the best light to shoot in, and I prefer late afternoon. Be sure to bring one pair of jeans, one pair of black pants. It doesn't matter if they fit, the camera only cares about the top of your body."

A week later I show up with one pair of jeans and one pair of black pants. Carlos has me put on a ruffled white shirt and black coat. He then begins to straighten it, looking to remove any wrinkles, attempting to get it to fall down along my body. He then pulls out a pair of golden light reflectors, they look like sun blockers, the kind that one would put in their car to reflect heat.

He asks me to sit in a chair and tells me to look at the camera. He begins to snap away, telling me to relax. Everything he takes is "great, wonderful, good." "Look sexy, that's it. Oohhh, that is so sexy. I love it. The women are going to love it. Yes, more of that. Look into the camera, own the camera. You are sooo hot right now."

"Should I give you blue steel?" I ask.

"Yes, Zoolander! I love it! Give me blue steel."

I shoot him a look attempting to do my best impression of Ben Stiller trying to look hot. I brush my hands through my hair and throw back my head.

"Yes, yes, yes! Now we are having fun." Carlos stops and gets on the ground, asks me to mimic a half dozen positions. Elbows on the floor, hands behind my back, laying on my side, chin out, chin up, face side to side. It is extremely awkward. Snap! Snap! Snap!

Carlos decides it is time for a change of wardrobe. He gives me a blue jacket and tells me to leave the top unbuttoned. "Oh yes, this is going to be sooo hot!"

We walk across the street to a neighbors house and he has me lean up in the corner of a vermillion wall. "Place your hands behind you and look like you are trapped." Snap! "Yes, this is good. Rich Varga found this spot and invented that look."

The neighbors small dog comes out to stare at us. After a dozen photos it lays down and goes to sleep.

I'm ready to go to sleep. After 90 minutes, I'm exhausted. Looking into a camera and trying to look sexy, relaxed, and confident is not as easy as it sounds.

Modeling is hard.

Seven hundred photos later, Carlos is done. He promises to take the best 30 photos and have them to me by next week.

A few days later he'll call with a problem. "Brian, I need you to come look at these photos. There are so many good ones I can't decide."

Damn, I knew I was hot.