Tag Archives: Santa Monica

Mom’s Gifts of Nature

Today would have been my mom, Bunnie’s, 77th birthday. She died four years ago after a long illness. We were close but our relationship was not without rocky patches. Since I began working for Children & Nature Network a couple of months ago, I can say without hesitation that my appreciation for her has grown. There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought about her influence on my enjoyment of nature and the gifts she gave me in that regard.

The gift of walking. My mom didn’t drive. In L.A., a place built especially for transportation by car. As a result, we walked everywhere when I was little. She walked with my brother and I to different parks and playgrounds, talking to us the whole time. She ran errands on foot (and then by bike when we were older), so that we had a sense of our place on the earth and in our community. We knew neighbors and shopkeepers and had a different kind of life than the kids who were driven places.

It helped that my parents had settled in Santa Monica, which they chose because it was (and is) a very walkable, livable place, with real streets where there are neighbor-serving businesses (this part has diminished over the years, as the businesses have largely gone upscale) and good public transportation. I rode the bus by myself at age 9. Pretty much everyone walked, biked, or bussed to and from school. I only recall a couple of rides to school ever, and those would have been early mornings in high school, when my dad would take me before he and Mom went to work.

I love to walk to this day. I enjoy the activity in itself, and a pace that allows you to engage with your surroundings and neighbors.

The gift of splashing in puddles. We didn’t have snow in Southern California, but we did get rain. My mom was not one to let the weather impede any plans. Dressed appropriately, in raincoats and boots, we were encouraged not only to walk in the rain but to enjoy it and to splash in the puddles. Her attitude was, “Who’s afraid of a little rain?” and I adapted it in junior high when I secretly looked down on my peers for using umbrellas. This seems a bit guerrilla now, but the spirit holds. To little kids, especially, rain is something to be enjoyed, not cowered from. And children’s bodies and clothes are meant for play.

The gift of summer camp. My mom was a Brooklyn girl, but her childhood memories from upstate New York’s Camp Guilford and Oxford had deeply imprinted on her. She talked lovingly of classic camp activities like archery and color wars. My parents worked summers; There were not a lot of family vacations. But what my brother and I did have was camp. I got to go to camp for nine summers, seven of them at Tumbleweed Day Camp, beginning incredibly enough when I was four.

I loved everything about Tumbleweed. It was in a gorgeous, special spot in the Santa Monica Mountains. Days began and ended by sitting by group in an amphitheater made of logs, singing folk songs. (I can still sing the camp and other songs.) I learned to swim there, and ride horses, and jump on a trampoline. We had cookouts and sleepouts and dress-up days. In the 70s we did modern dance to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” while the boys played caroms. There were nature hikes. (I learned about poison oak and bee stings.) We cared for animals and made lanyards and paint-and-macaroni covered cigar boxes. There was one camp craft I loved so much that we started doing it at home, too — gathering items from nature and placing them in a paper cup, pouring resin over the items so that the whole hardened into a medallion, and then drilling a hole and stringing it to make a necklace.

Because I loved camp so much (can you tell?), I sent my own daughter to camp and sought the most classic, outdoor-oriented ones I could find. So far she has attended five years of JCC Day Camp and three years at Mountain Meadow Ranch in California’s Lassen County, and I believe her experiences have been formative.

The gift of independent exploration. There is no doubt some personality trait involved, but I got on that camp bus by myself at age 4, and it wasn’t even an issue. I also, from maybe age 5 or 6 on, regularly took my own “adventure walks” around our neighborhood — with age-appropriate limits, like working up to crossing streets. My mom championed and encouraged these. She understood the power of exploring on ones own, the serendipity of what might transpire. That I called these “adventure walks”, even though they were in a neighborhood of suburban apartments, speaks volumes. Any walk can be an adventure, given the right spirit and desire to find something new. To this day, I enjoy being in a new place, whether it’s an exotic location or somewhere a bit more close-by and mundane. I like to have map and resources, to consult if need be, but I’ll also let curiosity take me someplace if I’m pretty certain I can find my way back. (Warning: This does not always fit others’ comfort levels.)

The gift of quiet and observation in nature. I believe I inherited my mom’s mix of gregariousness and solitude. On the solitude end of the scale, she loved any walk in nature, in various seasons, usually with her twin-lens Rolleiflex camera. (A camera case is visible in the above picture of her, which was taken among cherry blossoms in Japan.) She would slowly stroll, pausing often to aim her camera and look down into its viewfinder to compose her shots. She took great pictures — in New England falls, of the plants in the park near our house, in the Japanese gardens she loved. As it does with me, I believe nature provided her a kind of meditation. The photography was an activity within it, and then a result. It was fun in itself but also a way to harness and focus observation. On my early walks, I took a notebook. I now often carry a notebook and a camera. And, if my family is any indication, I can take just as long as Mom did to compose and take a shot.

The gift of appreciation of nature. My mom’s appreciation for the beauty of nature was apparent in her photos, and also in our home. She had a beautiful rose garden, which she lovingly tended. Once a week, she’d pick roses from it and arrange them in vases that would be placed around our house. She seemed to spend hours arranging them to please her aesthetic eye. I have memories of the lovely rose smells, the snipped stems on our kitchen counter, and also of her being lost in the activity, as her slender fingers repositioned the open roses in their vases. Here, I believe I have her eye but lack some of her patience.

Come to think of it, I especially enjoy taking pictures of wildflowers. Perhaps wildflowers embody much of the above, and so much of the gifts available in nature: serendipity and discovery, solitary enjoyment, continuing wonder and delight, appreciation, and sheer beauty of form.

For all these gifts of and in nature, Thank You, Mom!


Inspired by Grass Stain Guru: The Joys of Being a Free Range Kid

One of my favorite bloggers, Bethe Almeras, the Grass Stain Guru, has a consistent and wonderful gift for capturing the joys of childhood and the outdoors. She has posted often about simple pleasures, outdoor creatures, and all kinds of activities and play.

Recently she posted a short reminiscence called Free Range Guru about her childhood in which she enjoyed the freedom to wander, explore and play in nature. She also regularly accessed her imagination — so much so that she actually talked to sticks. It’s a lovely post and it sparked the memories of readers, including me.

What it brought up for me was this:

“I also talked to sticks! And ants and bees and rocks and marguerite daisies and tiny flowers that grew on bushes in Southern CA that had a distinctly wonderful smell. I lived in an apartment until age 9 and, while I loved moving into a house with a big backyard and a perfect climbing tree, the apartment neighborhood also offered wonderful opportunities for exploration.

I lived in walking distance of two lovely parks and my walking mom took advantage of them. But I also found plenty to observe in the (sometimes green) spaces between and around buildings, and at 6 or 7 I would announce that I was taking an adventure walk and would do just that. People of all generations (well, mostly seniors and kids) seemed to be around and, except for crossing streets, which I was allowed to do one by one, it was not particularly exceptional to do this.

I also had media and school and activities, but there did seem to be a space for exploration and imagination that many kids don’t have today. I know I have a certain sense of the natural world, of neighborhood and community, as well as a delight in being by myself, as a result of these childhood experiences.”

Does this sound like a child you might know today? Perhaps, but more likely not. They don’t often find the same stretches of time available for play, the same parental spirit that lets a child  — in age-appropriate fashion — wander a bit. As a result, children miss out on opportunities for play, as well as development, friendships, and the ability to order and navigate their surroundings. As witnessed by Bethe, me, and so many others (including Lenore Skenazy, who writes the Free Range Kids blog), these skills and experiences can color our whole lives.

I also use my own experience to note that one needn’t grow up in a rural area to experience nearby nature. Nature and its value can be found in a park, or any wild or green space, even a small one and even one between apartment buildings.

I’m very excited about the work the Children and Nature Network is doing to inspire and educate people about ways to connect children to nature. So much so that I host their discussion forum. You might want to come along!

Following is a sample of the nearby nature where I grew up. As a kid, even the smallest (the better for secrets?), local, and not always particularly special looking, spaces fed imagination and play.

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

Cheese of the Week: Coolea

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On a recent trip to my old stomping grounds in Santa Monica, CA, I wandered down Montana Avenue and into a delightful, relatively new cheese enterprise, Andrew’s Cheese Shop. Not only was the Andrew on hand, along with some hearty cheese tasters, he personally recommended a Coolea cheese from Ireland’s County Cork. “Outfreakingstanding” was his word for it, and he was right.

Coolea (pronounced Coo-LAY) is hand-made on a small Irish farm (near the town of Coolea) by the Willems family, which is now into its second generation of cheesemakers. The family emigrated to Ireland from the Netherlands, and they employ their wonderful Dutch methods (and recipe) to produce a cheese that is indeed Gouda-like. It’s nutty and mild, with a nice semi-firm texture and a very pleasing mouth feel. Other flavors begin to come through as it sits on the tongue. There’s a hint of the Irish farm, of the earth, sweet grasses and flowers, which Andrew says make this cheese an outstanding example of Terroir — of its taste bearing the land from which it was produced. If that weren’t enough, a nice caramel note comes on from the back of the mouth, along with more earthen tastes, something a little damp.

This is a very nice cheese. It’s solid, with a medley of meadow-y flavors. Because of the caramel aspect, it pairs especially nicely with grapes or with my favorite cheese-partner, a Warre’s Otima 20-year Tawny Port. Andrew recommends having it with an Amontillado Sherry. You could also go the ale route, to bring out the sweetness of the cheese and the uniqueness of the terroir.

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Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Vanishing Breed: Milkmen

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It seems home milk delivery is up. Of course, through mid-century, most Americans had milk delivered to their doorsteps, from horse-drawn wagons, and then from trucks. In Southern California, the Adohr man left cold bottles in a metal carrier outside our door. But supermarket milk seemed more convenient, and many routes were discontinued (like Adohr, and then our Helms Bakery truck), and by 2000, less than one percent of Americans had their milk delivered.

If there’s a slight uptick, we’re part of it. We’ve been getting milk delivered for nearly 10 years. We started because I wanted my daughter to have that experience, to be able to mark time by the simple routine of a weekly delivery, as well as taste farm-fresh organic milk — produced the same day we get it, we’re told. Because our driveway is too steep for the milk truck, we would even wait for it to come driving up the street below. If we missed our milkman, no problem. Glass bottles could be left in our oversized mailbox, which serves the same purpose as a tin cooler of old.

Our milkman is Ron LaMariana, the Sonoma-Marin Milkman, who calls himself “Mr. Moo.” His milk is from the Straus Family Creamery, in West Marin, the first organic dairy west of the Mississippi. We even took a tour of the Straus Creamery, to complete the loop. To say hi to the cows that give us our milk, to walk the land, and to churn butter so fresh you could taste a hint of spring grass in it. Even now, I like the weekly routine of going down to the mailbox and returning with a crateful of milk. Sometimes we’ll even get a nice cream top on our 2%, so thick you have to scoop it out with a knife.

Susan is Enjoying Facebook

OK, I know I’m late to the party. I resisted it for some time. But, you know what? Facebook is fun. A lot of fun. It’s also provoked a complete flood of nostalgia for every station of my life. There’s a page for Roosevelt Elementary School, where I spent grades K-6 and where I thought a little hillock of land on its corner at Lincoln and Montana was a mountain (and I really did fly off it once, using a wind-blown umbrella as a sail. Really.) My brother’s on the site — he’s the one who convinced me to join — and he has assured that every business on that stretch of Montana has been memorialized. I posted about the candy I used to buy at Patton’s Pharmacy — Everyone stopped there after school and ogled the whole aisle of impossibly-colored wrappers. My favorite, for the record, was the Chick-o-Stick.

Then there’s a group for reminiscing about the whole town — the Santa Monica of my childhood, with it’s open-air promenade that is now a chic shopping destination, but was then a modest collection of stores that were grand only in terms of their size, their buildings proclaiming “Toni” and “Thom McCann” in the scrawled, optimistic text of the 60s. I posted about eyeing the paisley and other very hip shoes at Vin Baker, before buying the cheaper platforms at Carl’s, and about Sol’s Yardage, a warehouse-sized place where women would sit at the long wooden tables, in rows across from one another, licking their forefingers as they turned the pages in the pattern catalogs. There was mention of the Smuggler as a “head shop”, though, of course, it was more — a den packed with turquoise rings and macrame chokers and tiny vials of floral scents and buttons with hilarious (to a teen) sayings. I contributed the Sorrento Grill to the memory bank, a wonderful fry joint on the beach that had checked tablecloths and black-and-white photos of old volleyball players and surfers on its walls. It was torn down in 1974. Appropriately, the last song I remember weeping out of its jukebox was “Alone Again Naturally”.

Then there is perhaps the weirdest Santa Monica memory. For years, every time I’d walk or drive by the retaining wall that sat nestled into the bluffs on Pacific Coast Highway at Montana, I’d see it: huge, black graffitied letters, of a sort that wouldn’t stay up for years today, proclaiming: “Tommy Surko says, for my girl, there’s only one. Tommy Surko.” I always wondered what happened to Tommy Surko and whether he got the girl. (Or any girl.) On Facebook, I might not find out, but I can at least find people who also remember Tommy Surko and that particular time and place.

There’s a junior high group, of course (with the word “Survivors” in its title.) And high school ones. And groups for people of similar vintage who went to the same dance clubs I did, in L.A. and then in New York, and who remember every incarnation of the floating underground ones whose names I could never hope to recapture by myself. And groups for people who just like the same architecture, or philosophy, or relatively arcane hobbies and passions. That’s the beauty of this large selection of people, and why I’m finding it so different from the smaller boards I’ve been on since 1991.

I’ve also found people and they’ve found me. These are good friends who live in other parts of the country that I’d been in occasional touch with. Now I can see what they’re reading and listening to and thinking about and doing, and what their kids — and even they — look like. And I’m really enjoying that.

It’s only been a few days. I’m not ready to proclaim, “Facebook, C’est Moi!” For one thing, its interface and search functions are clunky and inept. I don’t need the e-mail updates when a stranger writes “You go, Girl!” to a friend. But, for the most part, I’m finding it one more fun aspect of a full life, and thinking about all the connections that are duplicated for other people’s hometowns and elementary schools, not to mention the people finding companionship, or at the very least a group of people who also like to eat jelly doughnuts, is cause enough to smile.