Category Archives: Weirdness

Learning to Love the Subjunctive

Learning another language is less about acquisition than a long process of letting go. You think adjectives should go before the nouns they modify? Let it go. That grammatical rule seems illogical? You think irregular verbs should be outlawed? Let it go. Why are things that way? They just are. Let it go. Besides, the more Spanish I learned, the more logical it seemed and I pitied folks who were trying to learn English. English makes no sense whatsoever.

Most people fare pretty well through Spanish 1 and 2 – adjectives, present tense, past tense, commands, imperfect (which sounds baffling, but is actually one of the easiest tenses)…Then comes…THE SUBJUNCTIVE.

The subjunctive exists in English, but we could say it has atrophied from lack of use. What better example than Justin Bieber’s new song “If I was your boyfriend”? The grammatically correct phrase would be “If I were your boyfriend,” because the status of boyfriend is currently NOT locked down…it’s not out of question, but that it is currently contrary to fact that Bieber is this lady’s boyfriend…right now, the Biebs is in more of a hopeful, wishful state. That’s the subjunctive – a perfect blend of hopefulness, uncertainty and ambiguity.

As it turns out, English-speakers (and Americans especially) are not too big on ambiguity. For the past ten years, it has bothered me that Mexicans don’t have different words for cantaloupe, honeydew and crane melons. They’re all just…melón. Ditto with lemon vs. lime. This doesn’t bother Mexicans in the slightest however. So if my head explodes over that, you can imagine how well I took to the subjunctive. Americans also have some rude and demanding tendencies. Using the subjunctive will instantly make you more solicitous and humble. There is more than a linguistic gulf between the phrases: “I think she’s totally preggers” and “¿Podria ser que este embarazada?”

Americans are culturally averse to the subjunctive. Which is why I listened with such interest to this lecture “Can Diverse Societies Cohere?” Sociologist Richard Sennett argued that in order for very different people to get along and cooperate, three things need to happen. 1) Our conversations need to be less of a dialectical tug of war and more about listening to get at what people are REALLY saying behind the words they’re using. Basically the opposite of “Crossfire.” 2) We need more subjunctive in our lives. 3) We need less sympathy and more empathy. He has an interesting definition of empathy that is more akin to a caring curiosity for others, not pretending you get everything about them and where they’re coming from, but caring enough to wonder.

Why the prescription for more subjunctive? Because it’s gray and unclear, it leaves space. Let’s say you’re next to a stranger on the bus. If you say, “Look at that girl’s outfit. Teenagers these days. I think they need not only a little more clothing, but a little more God,” the conversation probably isn’t going to progress very far. You already stated your piece. If you instead opened with, “How about that outfit? Wonder what it could be that inspired that…” There’s space to converse. (Sorry for the poor example. That’s how little we use the subjunctive in English!)

For us Americans, the subjunctive is confusing and ambiguous. That’s exactly why we might possibly need a little more of it in our lives. ¿Podria ser?

Thoughts? C’mon friends – based on your recent rants on the Oxford comma, I’m pretty sure  that you all have strongly held opinions about my favorite (and almost everyone else’s least favorite) part of Spanish.


Filed under Mexico, Weirdness

Prehistoric Weirdness and Footnotes to History

Portland’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Portland Weird.” Yes, Portland can be weird at times, but it is a place that is actively trying to be weird. LA, however, is a place that is better described as bizarre – and it doesn’t even try.

In Portland, you might see someone with crazy face piercings, wearing a clown suit, riding a two-story bike cobbled together by hand and playing a harmonica. And maybe they’re in the middle of transitioning from a man to a woman. Pretty run-of-the-mill weirdness. In LA, you will encounter things that are more profoundly strange.

I am talking about the La Brea Tar pits, of course. There you are, on the excessively hip westside of LA. You hit up the pastrami at the famous Canter’s deli and top it off with dessert at that one really hip bakery that has amazing gluten-free cakes that cost about one-month’s salary. Then you mosey down past LACMA, which is featuring a really fantastic exhibit about a designer whose name you don’t want to say because you’re not actually sure how to pronounce it. And there you will find a bubbling pit of prehistoric tar.


“La Brea Tar Pit” literally means “The Tar Tar Pit.” Also, it is not actually tar – it is an “asphalt seepage.” But whatever it is, it is definitively there, smack dab in the middle of LA’s urban center, filled with fossils of prehistoric critters, the teeth of saber-toothed cats and mastodon bones. One point for nature.

LA is assertively man-made. It’s fashion and film and music and point-of-view are completely freed from the tethers of reality. Nature and history are not notable influences – they are largely forgotten in so many ways. But what keeps LA bizarre is the way nature and history aggressively pop up in the middle of all of this city’s fancy-pants fantasy.

I remember visiting Descanso Gardens up towards Pasadena. The gardens are a lovely place, as you might imagine, built by newspaper baron Elias Manchester Brody. They have a famed camellia forest that is just huge with tons of massive bushes with beautiful blooms in pink and red and white. Wandering around the gardens, I found a sign in the main house with a little history on the property. It described the rise of self-made man who went from rags to riches through hard work and a knack for tapping into business opportunities. For instance:

“In 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Boddy found himself with a business opportunity that was surely ambivalent at best. All along the west coast Japanese-Americans were being sent to internment camps to wait out the war, leaving businesses behind. Boddy acquired thousands of camellias from Francis Uyematsu, a successful local nurseryman, buying his entire stock. “

Just a footnote in one man’s life and in the history of a pretty place – but clearly a life-defining event for another man.

LA likes to forget that it was once a desert where wild animals roamed, a Native America village, a Spanish/Mexican colonial settlement, so many things it now no longer remotely resembles. But you’ll find that past in the footnotes. You just have to look.

P.S. The story of Francis Uyematsu is even more extraordinary than I could have imagined on my own – check out this LA Times article for more. 

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Filed under California, California history, Los Angeles, Weirdness

The Captain of Love

When my boyfriend told me our next gig was a wedding on a boat, I had a fleeting moment to picture a luxury yacht cruising down the Baja peninsula. He quickly clarified that this boat is actually a river boat that cruises around Balboa Island in Newport Beach, offering a daily happy hour with tacos.
Okay, not quite Beyonce and Jay-Z, but us photographers are concerned with more mundane details such as availability of natural light. The Angela Louise did not disappoint on this count (abundant! diffuse!), nor on entertainment value.
The captain of the ship looked eminently captain-ly. In a wedding, generally the bride is the star of the show, but this time, the captain stole the spotlight. Just as we all turned in anticipation of the wedding march, it wasn’t the bride that emerged from the curtains, but our very own captain … singing “Love Boat.”

The topper was that we later talked to the bride and groom and apparently this performance was not discussed previously. The guests certainly took it in stride.

The ocean theme was integrated into every part of the ceremony. See if you can count all the maritime metaphors in this speech:

The reference to the “mermaids of temptation” is my favorite part. Stay away from this holy union, Ariel!! Viva the love boat!

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Filed under I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Orange County, Weirdness

Adventures in Quinceañera Photography

I used to be a bit miffed that I never got to have a quinceañera. No ballgown, no party with 300 people, no mariachi serenade. Even the Jewish girls got bat mitzvahs (even if having to learn Hebrew kind of ups the ante). I remember somebody asked me, “What about your sweet 16?” I don’t know ANYONE who had a Sweet 16 party. As far as I can tell, it was always an east coast debutante, coming-out-to-society thing that has now been reconceptualized by MTV as an opportunity for noveeau riche über brats to organize obscene displays of wealth on their daddies’ credit cards.
In theory, the quinceañera marks a girl’s rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. I believe that is something worth marking.

Alix XV
One of German’s photos: Presenting flowers to La Virgen

However, in the context of the United States, in which adolescence can now stretch into one’s twenties, the event sometimes seems less about taking on a mantle of adult responsibility and more about having a whopping huge party. After all, not many girls marry at 16 anymore.
I would say the age of 15 is unique in one respect- the spectrum of maturity is vast. Some of our clients did seem like they had just been playing with dolls last week as they did a dance, cradling their traditional “last doll.” Others seemed already hardened by life. I guess growing up is all relative.
Given that this tradition has persisted since Aztec times and across international borders, I’m guessing it’s not going anywhere soon.
Why my sudden fascination with the quinceanera? You have a lot of time to think about them when you attend 1-2 a month for a year. Since moving to LA, I have been assisting my boyfriend in his photo and video business. We primarily do XV años and weddings so I now have a privileged front row seat to this rite of passage, from the girl getting dressed in the morning up through the big dance.
There are many beautiful moments – as you can see showcased on our website.
Norma XV
One of German’s photos
However, today, I’m going to compile the hall of fame of some of our funniest experiences:

The worst toast of all time
For the sake of all involved, I am not going to post video of this one. Key detail: the bride and her husband had already been together for well over 20 years before tying the knot, so everyone at the party knew each other pretty well. When we got to the toast part of the evening, the sister of the groom apparently wanted to address some lingering animosities between the family members. She grabbed the microphone and called out to the bride:
“I want to tell you something. Let it go already! I don’t know what’s wrong with you because my brother has never cheated on you – never! So stop giving him a hard time! He never cheated on you!”
At that point, a couple of guys wrestled the microphone away. Needless to say, that toast DID NOT make the video.
Second runner up: This wasn’t a bad toast, just one that caught us by surprise. A relative of the bride said: “And congratulations because this baby is such a blessing.” That’s when we realized we were at a shotgun wedding. Unclear whether this was news to anyone else at the party.

#1 Vendor
Party and they will come. The light lady in the photo below has an uncanny ability to find any party we’ve ever gone to, get herself in and start selling glowing necklaces to everyone there who is under four feet tall.


Puzzling familial relationships
Our policy regarding identifying family members is that we simply don’t ask. Sometimes the father is MIA, sometimes there are estranged siblings…we simply say, “Let’s a get a photo of the whole family!” and photograph whoever is standing there. At one party, a sibling showed up at the mass who we hadn’t met over at the house – the girl’s older “brother” who was six feet tall, wore a tight black skirt and a leather corset with 4-inch bondage-style heels and was accompanied by her boyfriend.

Best Photoshop request
One of our young ladies asked if we could do some work in Photoshop. She wasn’t looking for a little airbrushing. Rather, she handed German her brother’s booking shot, explained that he was incarcerated and would therefore not be able to attend the quinceañera and asked if we could Photoshop him in.

Most unusual location
The facility requirements for a rocking Mexican fiesta are not high. All you need is space for tables, an outlet for the DJ to plug in and neighbors who aren’t going to call the cops. We’ve been to a lot of backyard house parties, a couple of “salons” in converted warehouses, including the most elegant one we’ve seen which was in the swap meet building by the dumpsters. For this particular gig, we followed directions to a building in a decidedly industrial part of town and followed people disappearing into a gray building. We walked down a long hallway, past some classrooms and popped out into the party – in an enormous auto training shop. There were literally cars on lifts all across the side of the room, not to mention a stunning wall of tires.

The DJ
Quinceanera in auto body shop

Quinceanera in auto body shop


Quinceanera in auto body shop

Best kid dancer: El Monte’s got talent!
The video speaks for itself.

Best Baile Sorpresa

This is a hard one to pick– we’ve seen some pretty good dances. I’m a bit partial to the western ones myself, but we had to give these girls a hand. They even did an impromptu encore.

Strangest Catholic wedding of all time
It is a common practice here for several girls to have their quinceañera mass at the same time as a money-saver. However, we have only attended one mass wedding. There were SEVEN couples, all of whom were clearly on the older side and several of whom already had children running around during the ceremony. The priest emphasized the timing was not as important as “eventually doing the right thing.”

Most absurd display of machismo
For one wedding, all of the payments were handled through the bride. She gave us the down payment for half and when we delivered the album and video, she spoke to German outside, slipped him the money, then told him to take the payment from her husband so he wouldn’t know how much the photo and video cost. He proceeded to slip German $20 dollars.

Worst Father of All Time
One time, I wasn’t able to assist German so his sister pitched in. When they went to the park, the father rolled up in a van with all the kids, who poured out and headed over to start taking photos. In the meanwhile, he pulled out a 40 of beer to entertain himself for the next hour. It is worth mentioning that German’s sister is a social worker whose professional assessment of the situation was, “Oh, hellll no!”

Best party music
This is my personal fave – a song guaranteed drive all Anglo neighbors up the wall. Good thing it’s LA and you don’t have any! The music video is also pretty awesome. “¿Esto ya se acabó? NOOOOOOOOO!!!”

For your listening pleasure, here my Mexican party mix to date – I’m still adding to it. It enlivens my Friday afternoons at work quite a bit.

A Memorable Visit from the Fire Marshall
This quinceañera took place in a converted warehouse in south LA where there were two other parties taking place simultaneously so there were a grip of people…and a dearth of exits. This fact was apparently not lost on the LA County Fire Marshall who paid us a little visit as chronicled by German:

Quinceañera Vocabulary 101
La Misa (mass): The most solemn part of the day is usually only attended by a handful of people with most of the crowd only coming for the party. Everyone dresses to the nines, which can range from elegant floor-length gowns to extremely short leopard print hootchie mama dresses.
Las damas (the maids) and los chambelanes: Just as a bride has bridesmaids, most girls have a full court of honor for the event – usually about five girls and five guys, including the chambelan de honor, who will be the quinceañera’s escort for the day. The commitment goes a bit beyond buying dresses and renting tuxes, however, because the court is responsible for putting on an elaborate dance later in the evening called the vals (waltz).
El vals: This is a multipart dance with quite a bit of shuffling around and elaborate walking patterns. The court often continues to dance into the brindis (the toast).
El baile sorpresa: I don’t know the background of this tradition. To me, it seems like an American add-on where the quinceañera gets to show off her style and put her imprint on the event. After the formal waltz, the court disappears for a quick costume change into more casual outfits, then returns for a more contemporary dance. I’ve seen some cute western-themed and hip hop dances and a couple so risqué that I did indeed feel that I was watching a girl grow into a woman…a skanky one.
Baile de Muñeca – They don’t always do a dance, but a traditional gift is the “last doll” and sometimes this is integrated into a dance.
Music – The party music varies, usually based on where the parents or padrino is from. Some popular choices: tamborazo (the loudest brass + drum emsemble you’ve ever heard), mariachi, banda, a DJ, cumbia…plus drunken relatives will often elect to sing a number (which might make the audience “llorar, llorar, llooooorrarrrrr…”

A tamborazo

Padrinos: Literally, Godparents. In the case of the quinceraera, there will be MANY Godparents. This mega-event is NOT paid for entirely by the father of the young lady. Some quinceañera’s have a padrino for almost every single element of the event, from the guestbook to the dress to the limo to the DJ. There is usually a point in the evening when they call out the padrinos and they can step up for a turn around the floor with the quinceañera.
This is the song – “Time for a Waltz” – a classic:

Birria – Goat stew…mmmm! It isn’t necessarily easy or cheap to feed 300 people. You can hire a taquero to serve tacos or a few of our moms actually cooked the whole thing themselves, not in multiple pots but in literally the biggest pot of all time. Tasty!

Quinceanera in auto body shop
Limo – This is high priority for the girls who usually want a Hummer (we’ve yet to see a traditional limo). We had some people get a party bus – complete with stripper pole which was a hit with the 15-year-old set. Then again, don’t go behind your father’s back to hire the limo as one of our clients learned when her father hit the roof the night before the event.


Filed under Los Angeles, Mexico, Uncategorized, Weirdness

Seabreeze Pet Cemetery

German and I were driving near Huntington Beach when we spotted a sign for a cemetery…a pet cemetery. It sounds like something from R.L. Stein, but it was very real and quite extensive. Smallest graves I’ve ever seen.

Click here to see the slideshow.

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Filed under Los Angeles, Orange County, Weirdness

Gracias for the heads up

Unfortunately, it’s a bit blurry, but this sign from the LA County Fair couldn’t slip by without comment or at least a head-scratch. The sign on the ticket booth had a number of generic rules on it like “Don’t carry a bazooka into the fairgrounds,” but it was the last line on it that caught my eye:

“Some fair employees do NOT speak English.”

Mainly, I don’t know how to feel about this. On one hand, my natural response is “Duh!” – We’re in LA after all. At the same time, this peaks my natural curiosity. What exactly prompted management to put this on the sign? I just picture some disgruntled ride manager yelling at a riled up redneck with a mullet – “Do you know how to READ? Did you not see the sign?!!! I’ll get my lawyer on the phone right now – it’s not our damn fault you don’t know how to say ‘Stop the ride, he’s going to jump’ in Spanish!”
I guess this one will go down as just another one of life’s little mysteries…

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Filed under Los Angeles, Weirdness


If you guessed the secret sound from my last post was a huge flock of parrots, you win…the self-satisfaction of being right!
This is more or less what the parrots looked like:

The parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco may be more high profile (guess they have a better publicist), but the parrots of the San Gabriel Valley/Los Angeles are just as noisy. I first spotted them at my old house in Alhambra. They merrily took up residence in the street across from my house in East Los Angeles for three days and I haven’t seen them since.
I reported my sighting at the California Parrot Project Web site, probably radically changing our understanding of these creatures. Ha!

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Filed under Los Angeles, Weirdness