All posts by Meryl

Message From The Center: Picturing Mexican America

Welcome to L.A. Omnibus, a forum for writers, thinkers, artists, and activists to share ideas, pose questions and explore solutions. Deriving inspiration from the Latin meaning of omnibus, “for all,” these programs explore how our city is shifting, settling, and re-making itself. L.A. is not only about where we live, but how we live, how we fit together in a dynamic California landscape that is often at odds with its human inhabitants.

This morning before writing this, I went on one of my usual weekend walks. Each weekend, I try to pick a place I haven’t been to, someplace to really look at, the kind of looking you can only do because you’re on foot, and not in a car on the way to somewhere else. Today, I did a big loop in Encino, roughly between Petit and Encino Aves on the east and west, and the L.A. river and Ventura Blvd on the north and south. Sitting in the middle of this large, flat Valley rectangle is Los Encinos State Historic Park, originally Tongva land before being colonized by the Spanish expedition of Gaspar de Portolá. Over the next couple hundred years, this tract of land, plus the surrounding miles upon miles of land in every direction, underwent a complicated tangle of questionable private and municipal land acquisitions. This part of the Valley was home to an enormous cattle industry, then sheep, then agriculture, then housing subdivisions. This small State Historic Park, with its restored adobe structures, fenced in duck pond (which was the site of the original natural springs so crucial to the area), and centuries-old oak trees (los encinos) is one of those odd markers of “old California,” which used to be Mexico, or Alta (Upper) California. Sitting hidden in the middle of a residential neighborhood, the fading historical marker inside the park doesn’t quite tell the whole story. One of the frustrating yet fascinating things about California is that there is always more than one story. This is a big, complicated place, and like the fault lines that periodically shift the landscape, we periodically need to shift our way of seeing and understanding.

Recently, on one of my L.A. walks, I did a deep dive into something I encountered, and in the internet rabbit-hole of one link leading to another, I found the project Picturing Mexican America. I was surprised that I didn’t know about the project, and that it was founded by UCLA professor, Marissa López. UCLA is not unlike California — it’s a big, complicated place – frustrating that you can’t keep track of everything that’s happening, but so gratifying when you stumble on a fascinating story. I love learning about L.A., there is so much I don’t know, or thought I knew but didn’t. I love having my assumptions overturned. The amazing thing about this project is how it so generously disrupts assumptions, how it expands our lens: revealing who we are, where we come from, and how we might get to the next place.  I’m so excited to dig deep with Marissa and Ani Boyadijian, Research & Special Collections Manager at the Los Angeles Public Library (who is a partner on the project), as we uncover archives, maps, photos, and stories – shaking loose some assumptions about the Los Angeles we think we know, and how we got here.

­—Meryl Friedman, Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message From The Center: Breathing Fire

Welcome to the second year of L.A. Omnibus, a forum for writers, thinkers, artists, and activists to share ideas, pose questions and explore solutions. Deriving inspiration from the Latin meaning of omnibus, “for all,” these conversations explore how our city is shifting, settling, and re-making itself. L.A. is not only about where we live, but how we live, how we fit together in a dynamic California landscape that is often at odds with its human inhabitants.

As I write this, on an early October morning in L.A., it is cool and dry, the sky a faultless blue. But California is burning. Today, the wind is picking up, red flag warnings are in effect and there are reports of possible “proactive” power shutoffs throughout the state. On Cal Fire’s interactive map, there are more than fifteen active “fires of interest,” and over 50% have been burning for more than two months. Millions of acres are scorched, the loss of habitat, livelihood and life is disastrous, and yet… The smoke will eventually thin out, the evacuation orders will be lifted, the crews will move on, and the sky will return to that devastating blue. In a matter of days, or weeks or months it will start all over again, in another community, in another forest, in another canyon – we shift and re-settle and re-build, but we are at odds with what we are making. The tallest living tree in the world, standing unbowed for almost 3,000 years in the middle of the Sequoia National Forest is wrapped in a kind of flame-retardant aluminum foil, guarded by front-line firefighters against the surrounding blaze. How will this end?

The women and men fighting California’s fires undergo unimaginable hardship. They must fight against the instinct that tells them to run from fire, and they instead, run towards. Since World War II, California has relied heavily on inmate fire crews, who can make up about 30% of the force.  Like “regular” firefighters, they work twenty-four-hour shifts, often sleeping in the scrub that they clear, covered by dirt and ash and the all-pervasive smoke. Unlike “regular” firefighters, they are paid $1 an hour.

This summer, on a hot, dry day in the beginning of August, I heard Jaime Lowe on NPR, talking about her book, Breathing Fire: Female Inmates on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires.

I bought the book and read it nonstop; fascinated, moved, surprised by what I didn’t know. I read about women who run towards fire, women running towards redemption, towards a shot at a second chance; running towards a different life. I reached out to Jaime, to ask if she would be a part of this program, to be in conversation with other women who have literally pulled themselves from the fire and are working every day in our community to help others get a shot.

Many thanks to Jaime, Michelle, Elizabeth, and Wendy for being willing to talk about their lives, their work, their perspective. They have been through it, and they stand for possibility and solutions. They remind me of the hundreds of Sequoia, standing together in solidarity across thousands of years, amidst fire and drought and wind and us. They too, have been through it. If we listen, they can show us the way to the other side.

—Meryl Friedman,
Director of Education & Special Initiatives
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance

Message from the Center: On Omar Offendum

Many years ago, in what now seems like another life, I was working on the creation of a theater piece, and it was rough going. There were times when the road was not visible, but we pressed on. On opening night, one of my collaborators gave me a hand-made memento, a mini comic strip that illustrated our journey. At the top were the words: “Work is love made visible.” I remember gasping, I had not read those words in so long, and here they were, when I needed them most. For 25 years, I’ve kept that comic strip taped above my desk.

Fast forward to just last year. I was watching a performance by Omar Offendum, and in the midst of a very complicated and fast-moving suite of lyrics, I heard those words, “Work is love made visible.” I gasped again, and hit rewind, to make sure I heard correctly. I did.

Those words are from a poem, by Kahlil Gibran, called “On Work” from his book, The Prophet. I first read this book in high school, I have no recollection how I came upon it, but I read and re-read it, all through college and beyond. At some point I stopped telling people I loved it because it had become unfashionable to like it, and my beloved copy had disappeared. But words have a way of finding you, of lighting the way, of making the murky visible.

Like Gibran, Omar Offendum is a poet. His gift with words is beyond technical. He channels the magic, he enters the zone. Anyone can speak a poem, not everyone can make it sing.

I first saw Omar perform at the Ford Theater in the fall of 2019. We were co-presenting the project My Rock Stars by Hassan Hajjaj. Omar was in the cast. The day before the official opening, we coordinated a special performance for middle and high school kids from LA’s public schools. It was a warm October morning in LA, and 1,000 kids filled the outdoor theater at the Ford, squirming, texting, laughing, waiting for the show to begin. I was standing in the back. Omar was first. He stood, decked out in a sharper-than-sharp suit, a fez on his head and a cane in his hand. He spoke for only a few seconds and as if on cue, 1,000 students sat up in unison and directed all their energy to his energy. They were immediately present. It was electric. I remember turning to my colleagues when it happened, and one of them mouthed, “Whoa.”

Work is love made visible. That is what those young people responded to – they could see. They were allowed to see, and in that exchange, they were seen. The road is not always visible, it is often foggy and uneven and pocked with holes. But we work, with love, to find the way.

—Meryl Friedman
Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message from the Center: Lynell George

Cities reveal themselves in multiple ways. There is the Los Angeles that we know from behind the wheel of a car, the Los Angeles that we know from walking the neighborhoods and the Los Angeles that we see from the large, high windows of a city bus.

Before the pandemic, more than 1.6 million people rode LA Metro every day, and most of them on the bus. That’s more than the entire population of Rhode Island. A number of years ago I rode the 720 from Westwood to DTLA. I had assigned my students a special project downtown, most did not have cars and I suggested the 720 bus as an option. I wanted to know what they would experience, so we could talk about it, but none of them saw the bus as a viable option. “Why not?” I asked. “Too long…too boring…I don’t know how.”

Lynell George, in her new book, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, uncovers the hidden gems buried in the 300+ boxes of the Octavia E. Butler archive. The stories behind the story — the small notebooks, receipts, clippings, scraps of paper, marginalia, bus passes, bus schedules, bus maps and bus routes of the greater metro area. In a city of cars, Octavia Butler chose not to drive. Lynell writes:

A long vivid stretch of inspiration, the bus is a moving theater. Even the waiting provides an opening act. Anticipation: there’s a noisy expanse to get lost in, to be transfixed or puzzled by. Los Angeles is the world, the world comes to Los Angeles, to dip into a little bit of everything, to try a new self on for size… [Octavia] watches it flicker by from the bus window, seated high, as she passes through her day.

Like Butler, Lynell George is a collector of stories. Her reporting, her essays, her three books (each illuminating a different aspect of Los Angeles); all are filled with the stories of our city. These stories are our support system, they help us to make sense of where we live and how we live. Here, in this place.

In the introduction to her second book, After/Image, Lynell writes: “What is Los Angeles when you pull the image of the city away? What are you left with? What is the Los Angeles that lives inside of us?”

Los Angeles is more than the known images, more than one view. When’s the last time you rode the bus? Or walked the neighborhoods; or the boulevards, streets, alleys and secret stairs that connect the neighborhoods? There is so much to see.

Like Butler, the poet Marisela Norte uses her time on the bus to write, to compose, to imagine. And like Lynell George, she is searching for the stories of our city.

snow covers man on pavement/polka dot shoes run by/no clean getaways

waiting/for languages/as drivers become green

follow the curve of a building/trace your curve next to mine

building blue/violent pink/unread books on shelf/our stories inside

The stories are there to be read, we only need to look.

—Meryl Friedman, Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message from the Center: Frank Bruni & Sarah Smarsh

I’m writing this in the midst of a rough week.  We compile these programs about three weeks prior to when the event actually happens, so by the time you’re reading this, much of what I’m writing about will be old newsreplaced by new news. Right now, the impeachment hearings and their attending levels of nastiness continue, another school shooting occurred in a high school just north of LA, and student journalists at Northwestern University were publicly shamed by older, more experienced journalists for making a mistake in their coverage of a campus protest. Admittedly it’s been a rough couple of years for journalists: writers and editors are a bit on edge.  But if your experience as a journalist has afforded you the privilege of being able to air your ideas in a public forum or publication, you have the responsibility to use that forum to pave the road for younger, less experienced writers. How is it that so many “experienced” journalists did not see this as a teachable moment, but instead got on their soap boxes, and ranted at students whose actions did not quite live up to their best intentions. The student editors at the Daily Northwestern made a difficult decision, but why not help them learn from it, instead of disgracing them or even worse, deterring them from trying again?  We need young, committed writers and journalists and artists and activists and documentarians – we need our young people to feel like we have their backs or they won’t step up. We desperately need them to step up.  Soon.  Now.  Not only in large urban places like LA or DC or Chicago, but in every place, in small towns and small campuses with small newspapers trying to do the right thing.

In 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt made a now famous speech at the United Nations. The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which she was a principle author and advocate. This is one of the more enduring excerpts of that speech:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.

Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

This is where civic engagement starts. This is where civility starts.  With small acts of teaching and conversation and compassion and listening. If these things don’t happen in our homes and communities, in our meeting halls and in our classrooms, then they don’t happen on the national stage. Regrettably, our national conversation is being driven by shouting and shaming and thoughtlessness.

Tonight we are gathered in a hall of public assembly on the campus of a public university to be part of a conversation. Royce Hall is named after the philosopher Josiah Royce, who was an  “American Idealist.”  Born in a California mining town, he believed in communities of grace, in the commitment to the shared cause of a community. Frank Bruni and Sarah Smarsh are journalists who believe in that shared cause. They believe, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, in the small places close to home. Their words remind us that these small places, these small actions are important, they are the foundation of our democracy.  These are the places that matter, and if we put our collective minds to it, they can become communities of grace.

— Meryl Friedman, Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message from the Center: Samin Nosrat In Conversation with Lindy West

A few years ago I was wandering around at a farmers market and came across a table of cookbooks. The one that immediately caught my eye (and which I had to have) had a title that made me laugh out loud: I Am Almost Always Hungry.

Who isn’t?

And not just in the stomach-growling, feed-me-now kind of way, but in the larger, hungry-for-everything kind of way. We are always hungry — for a piece of the pie, for a seat at the table, for a change of scenery, for more, for better, for different. In our abundant, overflowing culture we are all almost always hungry.

The two writers on stage tonight, Lindy West and Samin Nosrat, both address this notion of hunger; for equity and acceptance, for humor, for access, for difference, for joy and comfort, for the right to just let your freak flag fly. One of the things I love so much about both of them, is that they refuse to ignore this hunger, they refuse to apologize, to fit in, to lower their voice. Instead, they are delightfully ravenous, they ask questions, and they demand that we too, ask questions, that we not dismiss our own hunger, that we take notice. There is a reason we are all, almost always hungry. It forces us to pay attention, to not ignore or deny the gnawing little voice deep inside that demands we feed ourselves and others.

The late, great M.F.K Fisher, in her introduction to The Gastronomical Me, writes this about hunger:

“Like most humans, I am hungry…our three basic needs, for food and
security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one. We must eat. If in the face of that…we can find other nourishment and tolerance and compassion, we’ll be no less full of human dignity.”

Thanks for joining us for our first Words & Ideas program of the new
season, it’s an honor to share this glorious hall with Samin and Lindy, and as always, with you.

Meryl Friedman
Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message from the Center: MOUTHPIECE

The great poet Mary Oliver passed away on January 17th. We were lucky enough to have had her on stage at Royce Hall in 2010, reading her poems in her signature style. This is one of her more well-known pieces, and it has a particular resonance to tonight’s performance of MOUTHPIECE. It is a celebration of knowing, of listening, of discovery, of the freedom to pursue the path. It is a declaration of independence. Here’s to Mary, to the artists of Quote Unquote Collective, and to all women who continue to speak up and speak out.

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.
—Mary Oliver

Meryl Friedman
Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message from the Center: David Sedaris

This year is the 20th Anniversary of David Sedaris being a part of our season. In 1998 he inaugurated a new series of writers and speakers at Royce Hall, which was then called Word of Mouth. Twenty years later we are still inviting writers to share their ideas on our stages, and the series is now called Words & Ideas.

Ten years ago, when I first started here, I had an idea to sponsor a humor-writing contest for students, as a kind of celebration of David. We spread the word on campus, three winners got their stories published in the Daily Bruin and displayed in our lobby prior to David’s talk; as well as a signed book and tickets to the reading. That first year, before the show, I remember asking David to sign these students’ books, as they had won the writing contest. He was so tickled by this that he asked if the students would like to introduce him. He met them all backstage, three breathless, shocked and wide-eyed students, who had no idea what to say, but bravely walked on stage in front of 1800 people and gave the most charming, heartfelt intro — the audience loved them. Backstage, David was grinning from ear to ear, and so delighted. This is the thing about David; he delights in supporting others. Every year, he recommends an author and a book that he loves, so we’ve gone back through the archives and listed all of those authors here. We hope that you find some of your favorites, as well as new discoveries.

We are all in this crazy stew together, and the best of us know that we are stronger when we support each other. Happy Anniversary, David. Here’s to twenty more.

—Meryl Friedman
Director of Education & Special Initiatives

2018: Less, Andrew Sean Greer and Homesick for Another World, Ottessa Moshfegh
2017: The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy and Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar
2016: Eileen: A Novel, Ottessa Moshfegh and Ghettoside, Jill Leovy
2015: Family Life, Akhil Sharma and The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey
2014: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
2013: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick
2012: The Bill From My Father, Bernard Cooper and The Book of Deadly Animals, Gordon Grice
2011: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler and The Barracks Thief, Tobias Wolf
2010: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower and Irish Girl, Tim Johnston
2009: Our Dumb World, The Onion
2008: The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders

Prior to 2008:
Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules: An Anthology of Outstanding Stories
Blue Angel: A Novel, Francine Prose
The Columnist, Jeffrey Frank
Random Family, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Truth Serum, Bernard Cooper
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware
Among the Thugs, Bill Buford
Birds of America, Lorrie Moore
An Obedient Father, Akhil Sharma
Jenny & the Jaws of Life, Jincy Willett
Take the Cannoli, Sarah Vowell
Guess Again, Bernard Cooper
Fraud, David Rakoff
Easter Parade, Richard Yates

Message from the Center: Rebecca Solnit & Jon Christensen

I write this at the end of a bizarre, disturbing and utterly depressing two weeks, as a new Justice of the Supreme Court is being sworn in. The media — both professional and social— continues to hash and re-hash what did or did not happen, what might have happened, what might have been. I’ve tried not to listen to the news for a few days, but today this caught my attention: “Taylor Swift breaks political silence, will it destroy her career?”

Predictably, there are the haters:
— “Just shut up and sing.”
— “Does every pop star have to voice their political opinions to the world?”

And the supporters:
— “Taylor Swift just posted an extremely political post on Instagram & I’m so happy she’s using her huge platform to speak out!”

Putting aside what Taylor Swift believes, why is there controversy over her right to express it? Artists live in the world, are a part of the world, make art in response to the world—why would they be apolitical? Why do we want them to be? James Baldwin, Ai Wei Wei, The Dixie Chicks, Ted Nugent, Maya Angelou, Susan Sarandon, Patti Smith, Kanye West, Leni Riefenstahl, Lillian Hellman,  and hundreds more over hundreds of years — artists stand and have stood on both sides of whatever divide they happen to be on. Why the disbelief over Taylor Swift and her opinions? Are the rules different for twenty-eight-year-old female pop-stars?

Just shut up and sing.”

Apparently they are. When I first heard this “breaking news event” voiced by the talking head with the arched eyebrow and the smug tone posing as a journalist, it struck me that at the end of an unbelievable week about the silencing of women, we were still at it. The talking head wondered who had advised her to speak out. Really? Maybe she decided for herself.

In a recent postscript to an updated edition of the essay, Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit writes:

The point of the essay was never to suggest that I think I am notably oppressed. It was to take these conventions as the narrow end of the wedge that opens up space for men and closes it off for women, space to speak, to be heard, to have rights, to participate, to be respected, to be a full and free human being. This is one way that, in polite discourse, power is expressed—the same power  that in impolite discourse and in physical acts of intimidation and violence, and very often in how  the world is organized—silences and erases and annihilates women, as equals, as participants, as human beings with rights, and far too often as living beings…Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.

So, Taylor Swift has shown up and spoken out. Here’s hoping more young women do the same thing. To use Taylor’s own words, I think we’re Ready for It.

—Meryl Friedman
Director of Education & Special Initiatives

Message from the Center: Fran Lebowitz

This summer when my husband was visiting family in Kansas, I got a text from him with this picture.

“Look,” he wrote, “Fran Lebowitz in Kansas!”

“Wow,” I wrote back, “Where are you?”

“I’m in a cool bookstore, and they have good iced coffee!”

My brain had never put the words, “Fran Lebowitz,” “Kansas” and “good iced coffee” in the same sentence. I looked more closely at the picture.

“Think before you speak. Read before you think.”
—Fran Lebowitz

The words were hand painted on what looked like old newsprint, the edges were curling, it was torn, but somebody had cared enough to frame it, and hang it on a wall. Being a native New Yorker (something I share with Fran), I will admit to having a few preconceived notions about what I think people are reading and thinking in other parts of the country. So, this was a bit of a surprise. It looked like the kind of thing you would see in San Francisco, or in downtown New York, but not in a small town in the middle of Kansas.

I texted back, “Who, in Kansas, even knows who Fran Lebowitz is?” Ooops. My cultural bias was raging. Think before you speak. Read before you think.

The woman who said these words has over 10,000 books in her apartment, and has read many more. For 60 plus years Fran Lebowitz has been thinking and reading. She has been called a literary icon, a social critic, a New York snob, a big mouth, a wit, a curmudgeon, a genius, a satirist and the heir to Dorothy Parker. She is all of these things, and none of these things. But she is a reader. She believes in books, printed on paper. The kind with pages that you turn, and fold, and write in the margins, and spill iced coffee on, and give to a friend, or pile in stacks or cram into crowded bookshelves, desks, nightstands. In the essay, Fran Lebowitz On Reading, she writes:

I would rather read than have any kind of real life, like working, or being responsible. Reading prepares you for other reading, and possibly for writing…All the things that I never did because I was reading, so what? If someone said to me, how did you spend your life? I’d have to say, lying on the sofa reading.

Books are our crucial connectors — whether in libraries, archives, classrooms, or small, scruffy bookstores in the middle of Kansas. I failed to imagine that someone in a tiny town could love what I love, value what I value, or—gasp—read what I read. Think before you speak. Read before you think. Sometimes we need our great readers to remind us to think differently.

—Meryl Friedman
Director of Education & Special Initiatives