Inclusivity, reaching new audiences and instilling hope are the goals of Laura Farber, the first Latina president of the Pasadena Tournament of Roses

L

aura Farber knows her kids will be telling her to “chill out” and “calm down” on Dec. 31. It’s a battle they won’t win.

“They know how I get. They’ve seen me before. I just can’t help it,” says the 53-year-old South Pasadena lawyer. “The parade is one of those wonderful institutions that gives us joy, happiness and hope — something we all need these days — and look!” She holds up her arm. “I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it!”

Farber’s infectious passion suits her well; after serving the Tournament of Roses for 26 years on various committees, she’s taken on the mantle of president for 2019. Her duties include planning and organizing the 2020 parade and football game, and providing direction and leadership as the official face and voice of the venerable organization. Farber has the distinction of being the first Latina to hold the yearlong post; she’s also the third woman to do so in the Tournament’s 130-year history.

“Laura represents the collective spirit of the Tournament, and her enthusiasm is contagious,” says Tournament CEO and Executive Director David Eads. “She has committed a year of her life to this role, traveling the world and making an impact. As the first Latina, she has reached out to lots of diverse communities to make important connections.”

Times are indeed changing, contends Farber, who wholeheartedly embraces how the Tournament is evolving to be relevant in these days of social media buzz, short attention spans and cultural divisiveness. She’s excited that women are taking on more prominent leadership roles in the organization; in fact, the fourth woman president, retired construction industry executive Amy Wainscott, will take over for the 2022 parade, with more female representation on the horizon. (The Tournament announces presidents eight years in advance.) “The face of the Tournament is changing to better reflect the community we live in,” says Farber about the increasingly diverse leadership. “It’s an exciting time for us.”

Overall, Farber sees a Tournament future where the traditions of the past are intertwined with the diversity of today — ideals well represented in “The Power of Hope,” the theme of the 2020 parade. “Interestingly, in our 130 years we have never used ‘hope’ in our theme,” she says. “That is fascinating because we have an event that celebrates the New Year, which is all about looking forward, starting off fresh, being hopeful for the future.”

The word hope has a profound personal meaning for Farber. Her parents were biochemistry students in Buenos Aires in the late 1960s when a military coup led to a period of dictatorship in Argentina. Through academic connections, the young couple — with 2-year-old Laura in tow — left everyone and everything behind and found refuge at UC Santa Barbara. “It was a difficult decision, but they didn’t feel comfortable in their own country. They came here and had to start from scratch,” she explains. “The United States represented freedom and the ability to pursue education, careers, religion and speech. My parents are proud immigrants. And they are. like me, always incredibly optimistic about the future.” Farber’s husband, Tomás Lopez, was also a youngster when his parents arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic, which was also racked with political instability. Again, the U.S. offered hope, says Farber.

Farber notes that the parade’s theme “is not just about immigrants. Hope is about dignity, respect, joy, happiness, aspiration and achievement. It never quits. It’s always there and tells you that everything is possible. It’s a way of thinking and no one can take it away from you. This is the message I share everywhere we go, and with everyone I visit.”

Hope notwithstanding, Farber is also eager to remind everyone she meets about the many facets of Tournament life: the cadre of 935 loyal volunteers who donate countless hours working year-round, not just on the New Year’s Day festivities but on other events held throughout the year; and the generous contribution of the Tournament’s Foundation which grants $200,000 annually to various programs benefiting children through seniors and which has, since its inception in 1983, invested $3 million–plus in more than 200 Pasadena-area organizations. Community programs receive grants in the categories of performing and visual arts, sports and recreation, and education; a new category is sustainable programs that invest in people. Recipients include Pasadena Educational Foundation (Summer Academic Support for Low Performing Middle School Students), PTA California Congress of Parents Teachers & Students, Blair High School (Aquatics program) and Boys & Girls Club of the Foothills (Think Digital STEM Education).

But, Farber adds, the Tournament gives more than dollars. “Our philanthropy is not exclusively supporting worthwhile causes with money,” she says. “It’s supporting with efforts and involvement and community outreach that’s grounded in the message of hope.” Recognition can provide an emotional and a potential financial boost, for bands that travel far to participate in the parade, for example. Under Farber’s leadership, the 2020 parade will feature a record number of Latin American bands, including groups from Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Several Latino authors will write an anthology about the bands and their experiences and Spanish broadcaster Univision is covering all the Tournament visits to Latin America, which, says Farber, shines a light on these bands and communities. “We don’t realize the impact we have all over the place, the world,” she says. “Most band members have never left their cities or their towns and they are going to come and perform on the biggest international stage. This is a life-changing moment for many of them.”

Farber witnessed the power of community support during a recent trip to Alajuela, Costa Rica, to meet with first-time participants Banda Municipal de Zarcero. When band members from nearby towns gather to practice every weekend, their families tag along and mingle with community members. Parents, shopkeepers and restaurateurs told Farber: “We have such energy and excitement in this town with this band representing us. We just don’t know what we are going to do when the parade ends.”

Farber’s enthusiastic response: You’ll find another project or event to keep this energy going. You must do it. You will do it.

Closer to home, Farber continues to connect with the local Latino community, whether by reading in Spanish at library storytimes (“a rewarding and wonderful experience”), being a keynote speaker at the Adelante Mujer Latina Conference held this year at PCC or supporting East L.A.’s Roybal Foundation by offering the Tournament grounds free of charge for the nonprofit’s annual fundraising gala. On Oct. 19, she’ll wave proudly as the grand marshal of Pasadena’s Latino Heritage Parade.

Beyond those endeavors, Farber is helping make inroads in connecting the Tournament with new audiences. The organization has developed a new Innovation Team comprised of folks in varying leadership roles from all walks of life. Their assignment: If money was no object, what types of things, events and activities make sense for the Tournament? What direction would you like to see the Tournament take? Ideas will be discussed, researched and submitted to various committees to see if such concepts have a place at the Tournament’s table. “We want concepts that will be disruptive, but in a good way,” Farber says. That prompts a discussion about the Funny or Die Rose Parade broadcasts with faux local newscasters Cord Hosenbeck and Tish Cattigan, a.k.a. comedians Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon. “That is a great example of thinking outside the box,” she says with a laugh.

In years past, such an idea would probably have been jettisoned by the tradition-bound organization, but now, such concepts are considered and pursued. “No one would have thought we could be so hip or cool to do something like Funny or Die,” she says. “We want to continue to surprise and reach audiences, especially those who don’t watch TV the traditional way. We are looking to engage with interactive opportunities and experiences beyond the TV box. Maybe it’s augmented reality. Maybe it’s connecting audiences directly with the floats or bands. There is so much potential moving forward for us.”

From mingling with foreign dignitaries to chatting up schoolkids in Altadena, from giving children tours of the Tournament House in Spanish to meeting with local leaders, Farber has been having the time of her life as president and Tournament booster. “Giving hope and supporting hope, that message has been extremely well received everywhere,” she says. “Everyone has their own interpretation of hope, their own experiences and they have shared their experiences with us. This year has been so moving for me. We need to know to never ever lose hope.”

Go Glamping, Backyard-style

With a little (or a lot) of help, your summer party can be the talk of the town.

The staycation phenomenon spotlighted the pleasures of hanging out inside your home, offering you a chance to relax and unwind in the comfort of your own recliner or bed, where you can get lost in an assortment of Netflix-binging options. And a new trend aims to reintroduce you to your patio, porch, deck and backyard in ways you didn’t think possible.

Now glamping, or luxurious camping — combining a nature experience with lavish furnishings — is hitting closer to home. Backyard barbecues are becoming more extravagant, baby showers more memorable. Birthday sleepovers are celebrated with enchanted flair, and simple family gatherings are benefiting from greater creativity.

Backyard glamping is officially a thing. Just scan Pinterest and see the thousands of images folks are posting of their elaborate thematic setups, their clever use of lighting draped inside and outside of canvas tents that are artfully decorated with throw pillows, Moroccan rugs and hanging chandeliers. Kids’ sleepover parties are enhanced with Martha Stewart–inspired crafts, tasteful design elements encircling the “campfire” (a.k.a. fire pit) and giant outdoor versions of Jenga and Connect Four.

If these extras sound exhausting for the time-crunched host and hostess, don’t worry. A handful of companies are making it easier for clients to throw a backyard glamping experience, because organizing a gathering — no matter how big or small — comes with its own set of stresses. Hosts work with designers to tailor the events (such as bridal showers, graduations, book-club meetings or girls’ night-outs) to be as elaborate or simple as needed. On the day of the event, all the necessary gear and accessories will be delivered and often set up for you. After the shindig, crews pack everything up so there’s no post-party hassle and cleanup.

“We started thinking we would focus on children, but we learned quickly that adults want these kinds of experiences as much as kids do,” says Trish Healy, founder of Studio City–based WonderTent Parties, launched in 2017. Originally from Australia, Healy said the idea for the company was sparked by a request from 13-year-old Celia, a child she and her husband were fostering at the time. Celia’s Christmas wish list included a sleepover, something she had yet to experience. This simple request turned into not just an unforgettable event for Celia (who’s now officially adopted by the couple) but a business opportunity for Healy, who decided to elevate the humble slumber party into a memory-making event.

And who can blame parents when they see kids having fun with their friends in a relatively nondigital manner? In addition to tents, sleeping bags, mattresses and lanterns, parties can include a karaoke machine, popcorn cart, dress-up clothes and more. Adults, says Healy, have options to kick it up a notch with five-star experiences that have included gourmet dining on low tables, wine or tequila tastings, massage tables, sushi sampling, a Tiki bar, tarot card readings and more.

Of course, low-key requests are also popular. Healy once organized a Father’s Day backyard glamping party for a few families that involved a dinner, a movie and tents. “The families brought the dads’ favorite recliners outside for them to watch the movie,” she says, explaining that clients often personalize their parties with items they already own. “Backyard glamping is all about creating a shared experience with others.”

Another company that serendipitously fell into serving backyard glampers is Los Angeles–based Joymode, which has been offering camping bundles for folks wanting to camp — without the ruggedness and/or the gear hassle — at such far-flung destinations as Joshua Tree and the Pacific Coast. Joymode drops off all the gear for you at the campsite (yes, you have to set it up yourself) and picks it up afterward. In addition to warm canvas tents, they supply rugs, air mattresses, sturdy camp chairs and other accoutrements to make your campsite the envy of the others.

Realizing that a campsite can be a close as a client’s own backyard, Joymode started offering home glamping bundles which can, according to Molly Schmidt, the company’s head of merchandise, “take an ordinary weekend or sleepover party and turn it into a magical event because you are outdoors. You can do all the traditional camping things — roast marshmallows, tell ghost stories, snuggle in your sleeping bags — but you’re not far from home. It’s the ultimate in low-tech comfort.”

Camping gear is bulky and often needed only sporadically, so renting from a company that will supply and sanitize everything is a popular choice, says Schmidt. If a person has never set up a tent before, detailed but simple instructions are included for novices. Rental products are intensely curated so folks will experience the crème de la crème of blenders, projection screens, Go-Pro cameras, even TheraGun professional massagers. “This is a way for many of our clients to get access to these items and test them out,” says Schmidt. Clients often suggest items for the company to carry; a big request lately is baby gear available for traveling parents who don’t want to lug all the extras with them. Likewise, Healy has had clients who have fallen in love with certain items (usually cushions and tableware along with kids’ products) and want to purchase them outright. “That’s another area we never thought about before,” she says.

But cool accessories aside, the experience is what really matters. When her preschool daughter’s annual camping trip to Big Pines was rained out earlier this year, Mary Everard of West Los Angeles canceled her Joymode gear delivery but decided to rent a backyard tent package that included a projector and screen for Disney movies. “It was really fun, we made a weekend of it,” she says, explaining that she wanted her two older children (ages 3 and 5) to have good memories of these “little things that are out of the ordinary that they did with their family when they were young.”

At its core, backyard glamping is about human connection, explains Healy. “We are living in an age when people are a little removed from each other, even with social media,” she says. “This is about bringing friends and family together in a loving home environment where you can create amazing experiences. It’s a natural extension of the comfort and warmth of your home — and how wonderful that you want to share that with friends and others around you.”

Should You Backyard Glamp?

Hosting an event in your own backyard has pros and cons, says Kelsey Sheofsky, the founder of Shelter Co., a luxury pop-up camping and outdoor-events supplier based in Northern California. In addition to managing large events, Sheofsky has overseen numerous backyard kid’s parties, bar mitzvahs and 50th birthdays as well as large weddings and other formal events.

Smaller events are easier to plan, and “when you are in your backyard, you are on familiar ground,” she adds. Crowd control is not the only issue with large events. “There are lots of considerations and costs, especially things you might not automatically think about, like landscape lighting, parking and how a septic system will hold up,” she says.

For overnight events, there is always a fear that guests won’t enjoy the experience. “People are always concerned, saying that ‘My family doesn’t camp!’ They don’t like being outdoors” says Sheofsky. “But 100 percent of the time, we get people telling us that they have had the best sleep in years in our tents. So warm and cozy. Don’t be afraid if you think you don’t have an outdoor crowd — they will really enjoy themselves.”

Thinking about a summer backyard glamping event? Designers and party-planners say to let your own creativity be your guide, especially when you want to keep the budget low but fun factor high. Keep the audience in mind, whether it’s adolescent girls, middle-school boys, members of your book club or out-of-town family members.

In general, look around your closets and garage for items that can — with a few glam touches — be repurposed outside. Maybe a trip to local thrift stores, Ikea, Cost Plus, Costco and Target is in order.  Remember, style and substance along with unusual activities can transform a simple gathering into the Best Summer Party Ever.

Here are suggestions to get your
glamping started:

1) It’s glamping, so you’ve got to have a tent or a tent-like enclosure to define a party-mood space. You can dust off that extra-large tent that’s been in your garage for years, or assemble a series of pop-up canopies decorated with fabric swaths to create a breezy gazebo structure. There’s always the “tie a rope between tall trees and create tipi-like structures” approach as well. Depending on your gathering, you may want just one main party space or a series of rooms. Will there be a food tent? Lounge tent? Movie tent? Sleeping tent? Even for the budget-minded, this is one item you may want to rent since it’s the main piece of infrastructure. You might want to think beyond traditional canvas tents; consider inflatable bubble tents, which are all the rage in the eco-glamping community. Based in Arizona, Bubble Huts (bubblehuts.com) offers a selection of see-through structures so you can feel like you are outside…even when you are technically inside.

2) Furnishings: From mud-cloth to frills, from velvety to plush — pillows of all sizes and shapes will make your backyard event even glampier. Woven rugs add earthy textures to the landscape. Colorful rugs beckon guests to sit, stretch out and relax among friends. Low tables encourage lounging.

3) Eating spaces can be tricky. How formal or casual is the event? Simple dishware can be easier to clean up. Will there be a sit-down area or buffet line? Maybe food will be sprinkled throughout various tables and tents? Prepare food in advance so you’re not stuck behind a grill the entire party. Finger foods are perfect. Of course, what’s a camping dessert without the obligatory s’mores? Use dark chocolate, trendy flavored marshmallows and toast over your fire pit.

4) Lighting: The event will probably incorporate dusk and nighttime — it’s camping! Light up the Tiki torches and string twinkly white lights around the landscape. Strategically position camping lanterns to set the mood. Opt for flameless candles. Solar-powered wine-bottle lights cast a rosy golden glow after the sun goes down. Create a kaleidoscope of color with Bliss Lights laser projections (blisslights.com), which fling a whirl of rainbow colors onto trees, fences and outdoor walls.

5) Forgo the candles and bug spray, and glam up your insect deterrent. The Mosquito Repellent DecoShield Lantern (decoshield.com) uses pleasant-smelling all-natural essential oils and repels mosquitos and biting flies within a 300-square-foot space. It’s encased in a stylish cover and also serves as a lantern, casting a soft glow.

6) The details: As with all creative endeavors, the devil is in the details. Arrange cut flowers in mason jars. Incorporate antique sculptures and colorful swaths of flowy scarves and other materials, lacy hangings and art weavings. Possibilities are endless.

7) But in the end, it’s the shared activities that will make your party. Have friends bring over their guitars, ukuleles, bongos and keyboards for an impromptu jam session. If it’s warm, splurge on a three-person adult-size inflatable pool (from Target) and take turns. Oversized Jenga and Connect Four seem more fun outdoors. But hands down, watching a movie on a large outdoor screen — maybe a GPX projection screen — while you are snuggled up in a sleeping bag with your kids or cozying up to your sweetie could be the ultimate in backyard glamping. Now, the big decision: Which movie will you watch?

            B.R.

A Family Affair

The California Cactus Center nurtures the botanical wonders of cacti and succulents along with familial bonds.

When the six Thongthiraj children were growing up in Pasadena in the 1970s, going to Disneyland was the high point of their summer break. But before the daughters could get into the car for a pricey day with Mickey and Minnie, they were told they needed to contribute to the family business. “Our father insisted that in order for us to go, we needed to propagate 1,000 flats of plants,” Arree recalls of her childhood with a laugh. “And we always managed to do that before the summer ended. He was very smart that way. That project certainly kept us busy and out of trouble.”

Indeed, keeping busy has long been a family affair at the California Cactus Center, which has been at its original East Pasadena home since it opened in 1976 with a simple setup — just a couple of benches, a gravel floor and a modest selection of home-propagated plants. Today, five of six daughters are actively involved in the day-to-day workings at the nursery known internationally for all things cacti and succulents. With 23 additional acres of propagation facilities in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the center specializes in rare and hard-to-find plants with specimens from all over the world.

Away from the buzz of busy Rosemead Boulevard, a steady stream of customers wanders among rows of sculptural exotic plants that are often weird, fuzzy, prickly, knobby and mesmerizing. The center was a natural offshoot of the beloved hobby of Arree’s father, Zhalermwudh, who, along with wife Maleenee, immigrated from Thailand in the 1950s. He had fallen under the spell of desert cacti and succulents in his adopted country so he started to investigate species, perfect propagation techniques and learn everything he could about these plants — long before the Internet made such research easy.

In the 1960s, Zhalermwudh dove deep into his botanical fascination while working as an X-ray technician at Huntington Hospital. Back then, IVs came in plastic bottles, not bags, and Arree recalls her father recycling numerous IV bottles at home. “He’d cut the corners off the bottoms and make tiny little pots,” she says. Through trial and error, he developed his own soil recipe — the same popular mixture the nursery sells today.

Growing up, the sisters carefully studied how their father made cuttings from the plants he bought, positioned them in the tiny plastic IV pots and tended them as they grew and flourished. Plants took over the backyard where the Thongthiraj sisters received their horticultural education — despite the occasional poke, scrape and scratch. The rest of the family caught Zhalermwudh’s cacti and succulent bug, taking frequent trips to local deserts where they expanded their knowledge by seeing these plants in their native habitat. “The Huntington Garden was also our playground,” adds Arree. “We went there practically every weekend, spending hours in their desert garden.”

While Zhalermwudh taught his girls about plant names, propagation techniques and plant care, mother Maleenee “taught us how to pot and arrange them,” says Arree, who continues in that artistic vein, offering design services for customers who want to integrate these drought-tolerant plants into their yards and homes or businesses. “I do a lot of on-spot design, especially for people who have just purchased a house,” she says.

Indeed, the demand for California Cactus Center plants is impressive. You’ll find them at numerous L.A. Department of Water and Power stations, a SoCal Google campus, Huntington Gardens, UC Riverside, Claremont College and even Disneyland. Celebrity clients include Martha Stewart, Paul Weller, Diane Keaton, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, to name just a few.

Yet for some clients, unconvinced at first, Arree needs to nurture their appreciation of cacti. (“People think they are just thorny, but that’s not true.”) She explains why they have become prized garden additions: “They really appreciate that they are low maintenance and can look good all year round. Plus they want the most they can get out of their money; they want longevity, which these plants offer,” she says. “Rather than spending weekly or biweekly on flowers, they know they can get a cactus or succulent and it will last — you don’t have to replace it all the time.”

With a degree in art, Arree encourages clients to consider cacti and succulents as an art form on their own, especially when appropriately paired with others in tasteful containers. “The plant is the art piece and the pot is the frame,” she says, adding that as the plant grows, its changes can be a form of “performance art. No plant is ever going to stay the same size, right?”

There are rows of artful displays of well-curated plants with delightful shapes and textures in stylish bowls and dishes; no wonder these mini-gardens are in high demand as wedding centerpieces, party favors or gifts for birthdays, showers and other celebrations. There is also a selection of local pottery, including a series crafted by a NASA scientist who embeds fossil prints on the sides of his amber-and-rust-colored creations.

As she leads a visitor on a tour, Arree points out selections that are rare and impressive, including two that are more than 100 years old: a Pachypodium succulentum  from South Africa and a desert rose (Adenium obesum) sporting gorgeous pink blooms. There are frilly-shaped crested euphorbias (created by a mutation) and the sea urchin–shaped Euphorbia obesa, commonly known as the baseball cactus (which is special to the family since it was one of the first specimens in Zhalermwudh’s collection).

This slow-growing cactus with no needles requires a delicate procedure to fertilize the female flowers in order to produce seeds — a task the Thongthiraj girls learned at an early age. Arree would use a horsehair brush to gather the pollen on the male flowers and gently deposit the powdery substance onto the female flowers. “We made cones out of window screen material and placed them on top of the female flowers in the summertime,” she says. When the heat caused the seed pods to finally burst open, she adds, there was a “popcorn-like noise all over the place. It was pretty fun and very neat.”

These days, Arree’s sister Sue handles propagation duties at the nursery. She’s often behind her work table, prepping containers, observing the progress on certain youngsters and carefully extracting and cultivating small offspring. Cuttings are the easiest way to propagate; seeds can take up to two years to germinate.

Sue’s hands hold the descendants of her father’s collection. Many plants at the center can be directly traced back to the Thongthiraj home, whether they were propagated via seed dispersal or cuttings. “My father had a personal goal of propagating a million golden barrels from seed,” she says, as she shows a selection of tiny seeds collected from the cactus flowers of Echinocactus grusonii.

Zhalermwudh did not achieve that benchmark during his lifetime; Arree and Sue roughly calculate that he got to about 500,000 before he passed away in 1998. (You can see 550 of Zhalermwudh’s golden barrel descendants at the Getty Center.)

While friction is common in any family business, Arree and her siblings have managed to keep drama down while improving on and expanding their father’s dream. Malinee Romero captains the center’s popular video channel, posting short tutorial videos on all aspects of care of cacti and succulents along with design tips. Sister Molly oversees the business side; and even Took Took, an English professor at Pasadena City College, rolls up her sleeves at the center during school breaks. Along with the oldest sister, Smanjai, the siblings all care for their 87-year-old mother.

To keep the business as a family endeavor, 10-year-old Evanlee, Arree’s nephew and the sisters’ only offspring, has been coming to the nursery to learn the secrets of succulents and cacti. “We’d like very much to continue as a family business, so we are in the process of grooming him,” says Arree with a sparkle in her eye. Like the generation before him, the youngster is learning the art of propagation (mainly from his Aunt Sue) along with all the other horticultural complexities. Fortunately for him, he won’t be required to propagate 1,000 flats as his aunties had to do.

Arree says her father’s presence is still felt every day as she walks past the giant tree aloe from South Africa (Aloe bainseii) that graces the outside of the business along with a Bombax ellipticum, better known as a shaving brush tree. “This is the largest aloe tree you’ll ever see,” she says of the center’s stately unofficial landmark — originally planted by her father. “He wanted to make sure we would be always be taken care of; that’s why he created this business for us.” 

 


California Cactus Center is located at 216 Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena. Hours are
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday.
Call (626) 795-2788 or visit cactuscenter.com.

A Crowded Family Tree

Once upon a time, a child in a typical family had two sets of grandparents: a maternal and paternal pair, four grandparents who could lavish attention, tell stories about the old days, provide babysitting duties and dole out extra cookies and ice cream when mom and dad weren’t looking. Through the decades, adult grandchildren were there to assist their aging grandparents, offering help and hands, reversing roles and becoming the new caretakers.

But an explosion in the divorce rate in the 1970s, coupled with a rise in domestic partnerships across the age spectrum, created more blended families that have shattered the traditional unit. Ripple effects have continued to alter family connections and interactions, especially for the 70 million grandparents who now live in the U.S.

Some changes are for the better, others not as much.

“Picture a family tree of a child who had parents that divorced and remarried — it’s possible that a child could have eight grandparents, and even those grandparents could divorce and remarry and then that number is exponentially increased as well,” says Caroline Cicero, an associate professor of gerontology at USC. “[Multiple grandparents are] changing the dynamics of families because there are many factors. Issues also come up even when couples are not married, especially domestic partnerships in older age; these relationships can affect numerous family members in so many ways.”

A family with numerous grandparents can be “a wonderful advantage or a nightmare,” says Christine Crosby, editor of Grand Magazine, a national publication focused on grandparent issues. When families are young, multiple grandparents mean more eyes to watch and positively influence the grandchildren — which can help overworked and exhausted parents. What could go wrong?

Well, there’s a natural friction that arises between grandparents, says Crosby, adding that it’s common even among grandparent couples who get along with each other and are all engaged with kids and grandkids. “I think it comes to down to jealousy and an underlying sense of competition,” she explains. Who gets to buy the First Communion dress? Why did they get to set up the college fund first? Why are they going there for the holidays? Look at them showing off with that expensive gift!

The solution is communication, and while it should originate from the parents, it often doesn’t because parents are overwhelmed or unaware of a potential powder keg. “It behooves one set of grandparents to get to know the other set of grandparents and the third or fourth set,” says Crosby. “I think it’s up to all the grandparents to realize how critically important this is, and how smart it would be to collaborate with one another.”

Crosby tells a story about how her son-in-law’s family kept jealousy in check. “Recently I received two beautiful books of our grandchildren that the grandmother put together not only for Mom and Dad, but she sent copies to me,” she says. “She wrote a note thanking me for the opportunity to share these beautiful grandchildren with her. It’s thoughtful, inclusive; it’s all the right things you want to do.”

But there can be a dark side, especially when it comes to nasty divorces; a parent may
consider an ex’s parents — the grandparents — off-limits, even if they proved to be a positive force in the past. “Those grandparents get the shaft and it can be a very sad thing,” says Crosby.

Indeed, being cut off from grandchildren can be emotionally devastating for seniors. Created in 2011, the nonprofit Alienated Grandparents Anonymous (AGA) reaches out with expert advice and support to grandparents worldwide who have experienced unhealthy behaviors, unrealistic expectations and high emotions that have destroyed or critically damaged relationships with their own adult children and grandchildren. Today, there are 129 support groups (including some in California) throughout 22 countries. During a national conference call each month, grandparents ask questions, tell their stories and help each other navigate the choppy waters of family dynamics.

“Grandparent alienation is all about power and control,” explains the founder, who asked for anonymity. AGA’s mission is to harness the help of professional experts in psychological alienation and offer strategies for rebuilding and healing relationships marred by rage, fear, jealousy and even betrayal from close family members. The founder tells of grandparents heartbroken from being denied access to their grandchildren, especially poignant after an adult child passes away either from an illness, unexpected death or even murder. “Even if you raised a healthy child, it can be who they marry that can be an issue,” she says. After all, when your child marries, “they marry into the dynamics of that other household.” Toxic daughters-in-law, for example, can bring jealousy and insecurities into the marriage by manipulating situations to reduce the influence of grandparents.

In support groups or on AGA conference calls, seniors usually listen quietly at first. But after hearing inspiring stories of others who’ve closed the gap, many become active participants, learning skills to navigate situations for better outcomes. “We encourage them to periodically send a message of love to their adult child, just one or two sentences, and then tell them something about what they are currently doing to get maybe a response,” says the founder, adding that these messages can be sent via text, voicemail, email, postcards or letters. “These messages can be strong, simple reminders.”

Another strategy for grandparents who have been completely cut off is this: Create a memory box filled with photos, stories, pictures of presents sent to the grandchildren (gifts that often are intercepted and not delivered) and other date-related mementos. These boxes have proven powerful, the founder says, citing the experience of a 17-year-old who angrily confronted his grandparents at their house, demanding to know why they “gave up on him as a child.” The grandparents calmly presented the box, and as they went through the materials inside together, the boy broke down, realizing he hadn’t been abandoned.

Young parents today often have higher standards on what kind of influences they want for their children, says Joel Coleman, a San Francisco–based psychologist and senior fellow at the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families. “They demand certain levels of involvement and grandparents often can feel criticized and think that their values are being shunned,” he says. “There is a lot of potential for hurt feelings and misunderstandings.”

Alternatively, Coleman says that today’s seniors have a more active lifestyle than previous generations — and another source of tension can be adult children demanding their parents be “more involved with their grandchildren than the grandparents have the time or energy or resources to do.” Arguments can heat up (Don’t you care about your grandkids?) that can lead to threats (Well, maybe you don’t get to see your grandkids), which could set everyone back to square one.

With more people bonded in family relations — such as multiple grandparents — there needs to be a “lot of maturity and good psychological health for everyone involved,” says Coleman. “Learn how to communicate in a clear, low-key, non-
confrontational way and make sure there is clarity about expectations and sensitivity. Keep criticisms to a minimum.”

Healthy connections among adult children, grandchildren and grandparents can be a life-changing experience for everyone. According to the American Grandparents Association, 72 percent of grandparents say that being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfying aspect of their lives. “If grandparents are involved in the lives of their grandchildren, they feel younger and have a renewed sense of purpose,” explains Annette Ermshar, a Pasadena-based psychologist, adding that research has also shown that if grandparents have emotionally close ties to their grandchildren, they have less depression. Hanging around grandkids on a daily basis keeps “grandparents mentally sharp,” she adds. “Studies have shown that grandmothers perform better at cognitive tests if they have regular contact with their grandchildren.”

Grandparents can also feel more comfortable in the modern world when they use technology to stay connected to their grandchildren. “Even simple texting is cognitively stimulating to them,” says Ermshar. If it wasn’t for grandkids, grandparents might not be exposed to social media, Skype and other contemporary communications.

Likewise, grandchildren can have renewed respect and a sense of security when their relationships with grandparents are strong — no matter how many sets of grandparents they have. Says Ermshar: “There is life wisdom and experience along with firsthand historical perspectives that can enrich their grandchildren’s lives and give them a better understanding of the past.”  

Managing the Elder Explosion

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that the country’s senior population is booming. By 2030, the number of American elders is expected to outnumber the population of children for the first time, according to U.S. Census projections. Here in the L.A. area, between 2010 and 2030, the population of people over 60 is expected to double, from 1.8 million to a whopping 3.6 million.

Is metro L.A. ready for the elder explosion? How residents in a vast county that encompasses 88 cities and 140 unincorporated areas be served most effectively?  How do you effectively connect with a economically and culturally diverse region that speaks in 200 languages?  What’s the best way to reimagine the region as a place where everyone wants to stay and grow comfortably old with adequate support? Can L.A. adult?

Currently, L.A. County and city are participating in a three-year action plan to tackle some of the biggest issues facing seniors who want to live out their golden years in the Golden State. The roots stretch back to 2008, when L.A. County Supervisors created a Seamless Senior Service task force to explore how to best integrate services. In 2016, the county shifted into higher gear and instructed the Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services (WDACS) to collaborate across 20 departments on the Purposeful Aging Los Angeles initiative (PALA), with the goal of targeting specific ways to make the L.A. region more senior-friendly. County staffers also reached out to coordinate their efforts with the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging.

The goal is to “improve not just the lives of older adults, but Angelenos of all ages,” says Joel Diaz, public information officer for WDACS. “Everyone is aging. We don’t want people to move out of the Los Angeles area, but stay here happily and engage with their community and families.”

An extensive research phase took place in 2017; WDACS launched a countywide survey with folks from AARP, the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and UCLA’s Los Angeles Community Academic Partnership for Research in Aging. Presented in nine languages, the survey was designed to learn more about the needs and realities of older people; more than 14,000 respondents answered questions on a broad range of topics. Stakeholders, advocates and professionals who work with older adults reviewed the results and developed recommendations; 300 older adults helped prioritize them.

The result? The countywide Age-Friendly Action Plan for 2018 to 2021 promotes 34 recommendations on how to make the following sectors more age-friendly: employment and civic participation, housing, emergency preparedness, social participation and use of outdoor space, among others. The emphasis is on practical and innovative ideas that unite public and private leadership, resources and strategies.

During its three-year lifespan, the Action Plan encourages and directs organizers at all levels to take greater advantage of resources and connections. Since its kick-off, new activities and programs have been launched. Here are just a few:

Dementia Friends/L.A. Found

An estimated 147,140 Angelenos currently live with Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2030 that number could reach more than 290,000. Research shows that the number of Latinos and Asian Pacific Islanders experiencing dementia will triple; among African Americans it will double.

In partnership with Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles, PALA launched Dementia Friends L.A., part of a worldwide campaign started in the United Kingdom to create dementia-friendly environments and encourage a deeper understanding of individuals with dementia. The public can attend in-person talks or watch informational videos that offer instruction on how to detect certain dementia symptoms, along with practical advice on interacting with afflicted loved ones. More details at: alzheimersla.org/los-angeles.

There’s also the new L.A. Found program, a spinoff of the county’s Bringing Our Loved Ones Home Task Force, which tackled the problem of wandering seniors with dementia. L.A. Found was implemented last year, providing families with a more direct connection for help with wandering elders who get lost. Individuals are fitted with a lightweight electronic wristband, called a Project Lifesaver. This radio-frequency tracking device allows the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to coordinate a countywide response when someone goes missing. Since its inception, two wandering individuals were successfully located within hours of the alert. “It’s incredible to see the effectiveness of this program,” says Diaz. He adds that the LAPD and local fire departments are also working together to respond to 911 calls and find wandering family members, sometimes even via helicopter. At the program kick-off last summer, more than 100 wristbands were handed out to caregivers. There is a $325 fee for the devices, although there are financial breaks for those with qualifying incomes. More details are at lafound.com.

New Freedom Taxicab Service Program/Volunteer Driver Mileage Reimbursement

Getting around L.A. County is a hassle at any age. For disabled seniors, it can be complex and frustrating. As of this year, the New Freedom Taxicab
Service Program offers eligible disabled seniors 60 years and older a monthly maximum of four free one-way trips covering a grand total of 40 miles. Rides must begin and end in L.A. County and can be arranged seven days a week; seniors can also request special wheelchair vans and/or ramps. Rides can be for medical appointments, shopping, banking, senior centers visits, volunteer sites and other reasons.

Still, some seniors (especially those who are more ill or frail) may feel more comfortable being driven by someone they know personally, such as a spouse, caregiver, neighbor or friend. The new Volunteer Driver Mileage Reimbursement program will financially reimburse these volunteers who drive a senior to needed destinations such as doctors’ offices and therapy centers as well as social outings. Seniors create a list of approved volunteers who can drive them and they receive mileage reimbursements for their approved trips (also within L.A. County) on a monthly basis, which they pass on to their drivers. The program has no limit on the number of monthly trips, but it caps out at a total of 250 miles a month, at a rate of 44 cents per mile ($110 maximum).

For more information, visit newfreedom.lacounty.gov or call (888) 863-7411.

Aging Mastery Program (AMP)

This free 10-week program offers core and elective classes that incorporate expert speakers, group discussions and resource materials. Each week features a different discussion topic related to health, finances and other concerns. Currently, the program is currently being offered at a select number of senior centers in the county, but more are being planned for the spring and summer. The participating center closest to Pasadena is the L.A. LGBT Center Anita May Rosenstein Campus at 1116 N. McCadden Pl. in Hollywood. Find out more at https://wdacs.lacounty.gov/amp/

Meanwhile, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted in February to explore the feasibility of creating an entire new department (working with? Los Angeles city? services) focused solely on serving older adults. This stand-alone county entity — which may be dubbed Seniors Advancing Gracefully Everywhere (SAGE), a moniker suggested by Supervisor Janice Hahn — could integrate services and provide an overarching strategy with perhaps a bigger focus on job training, employment and social services. Officials are researching the feasibility of such a standalone department and targeting what county programs and services could be included in that consolidation; a final report will be presented back to the board by year’s end.

No doubt, there will be many more chapters in local governments’ push for greater age-friendliness. Stay tuned.  

When the Smoke Clears

Last year California endured the deadliest fire season ever, with 1.9 million
acres consumed by 8,527 fires. Now insurance companies are witnessing
  an unprecedented number of claims and astronomical payouts. Indeed, last December, one small Northern California company, Merced Property & Causality Co., went bankrupt in the face of some $64 million in claims from the Camp Fire, the state’s single deadliest fire, which devastated the small town of Paradise. As a result, the state’s insurance industry is changing, and California homeowners — even those unaffected by the fires -– should pay attention to what could be coming down the road.

To date, more than $11.4 billion in insured losses have been reported from last November’s Camp and  Woolsey fires (the latter torched 97,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties), according to the California Department of Insurance. The number represents 13,000 insured homes and businesses whose owners lodged more than 46,000 claims, as reported by insurers.

According to U.S. Climate Prediction Center forecasters, almost half of California has an elevated risk for fires, and there are 15.5 million people living in critical areas — including parts of Los Angeles. “Change is on the horizon,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a research analyst with Value Penguin, an analytic research company that tracks the insurance industry. “With the record damage last year, we are already seeing major insurers talking about applying to the Department of Insurance to raise rates. They need their customers to pay higher rates so they, in turn, can pay out the claims.” How much the increase would be depends on many factors, but experts say homeowners can expect to see policy changes in 18 months to three years from now.

Also, insurance companies will likely not renew policyholders considered too high a risk and longtime loyal customers may find themselves unceremoniously dropped. As ruthless as that sounds, insurers “have the right to do that,” says Fitzpatrick. “They can cancel you in 30 days if they [reinspect a property and] see something they don’t like, or even if they don’t want to be in that area anymore,” says Paul Diaz, an independent insurance agent based in Eagle Rock. “That goes for all areas that have homes up against the hills and mountains — La Caňada, La Crescenta, Altadena, Monrovia, Glendora, Sierra Madre. Homeowners in those areas could have their policies dropped and they may have a tough time finding another one.”

The definition of a high-fire-risk area is shifting, and homeowners who previously were in the low-risk category may get a rude awakening, thanks to sophisticated modeling programs — and maybe their neighbors. Using geo-mapping data and satellite imagery, these high-tech wildfire models that predict losses and assess risks consider the home’s natural features, the density of surrounding vegetation, access roads and historical wind patterns. But this evaluator model “also looks beyond the individual home to a designated perimeter around the home that’s maybe 250 yards, a quarter of a mile or greater,” says Joel Laucher, a special consultant at the California Department of Insurance. “People are used to insurers just looking at their own home, but that’s changing,” says Laucher,  adding that even if homeowners do everything they can to reduce risks, they still may get higher premiums or a cancellation because of their neighbors’ houses and/or the surrounding community. The 2018 fires taught insurers that, according to Laucher, “mitigating fire risk is a community effort.”

In the past, insurance carriers lumped homeowners together in zip codes and city boundaries. Now, insurers realize that risk can change dramatically within those distinct areas; risks are being pinpointed today on a near-granular level. Think about your zip code, says Laucher. “Some areas are more of a flatland, others are hilly. Are fire trucks going to have it easy to get to the house? What happens if that big tree falls over and blocks access? These are questions being asked.”

With all these changes in the insurance industry, what can — and should — homeowners do? Just as temblors prompt homeowners to reassess their earthquake preparedness, wildfires should nudge people “to inspect their insurance policies and update if necessary,” says Mel Cohen, an independent insurance agent in Pasadena in business since the 1970s. “You as a homeowner need to know what the rebuilding costs will be to adequately replace your home. So many people think, ‘Oh, I’m covered,’ but maybe that policy is 15 years old and what they have is not enough to cover rebuilding costs in this current climate.”

Estimated replacement costs have been moving upward, but only recently have they skyrocketed. “In 1977, we used $32 per square foot as the baseline number to rebuild a like-kind quality structure,” says Cohen. “But as of the Station Fire in 2016, that number went up to $200 per square foot. And now with these last fires, we think that number should be about $300 per square foot to cover construction costs.” And Cohen’s estimations may be on the low side; Laucher has heard of locations with estimates of $700 or $800 per square foot. Homeowners who want a second opinion can hire a professional appraiser — just make sure your insurer will accept that estimate. Check to see that your policy adequately covers personal property inside the house; expensive jewelry, artwork, antiques may need additional coverage. Finally, make sure you have coverage for living expenses if your home needs to be rebuilt.

If Your Policy Gets Dropped

Homeowners who receive a cancellation notice will have 45 days to find replacement coverage. But don’t worry yet; California is known as a competitive market when it comes to insurance. “Just because one insurer rejects you, doesn’t mean they all will,” says Fitzpatrick. Check out the listing of statewide insurance carriers on the California Department of Insurance website (insurance.ca.gov), which also has numerous interactive tools to help you navigate the process. Fitzpatrick also suggests reaching out to independent agents who represent a variety of carriers.

Shopping around could be advisable for everyone, not just those who have been dropped. “There can be benefits to being a loyal customer, but sometimes a new policy may be cheaper,” says Fitzpatrick. “Be sure you’re taking advantage of all the available discounts such as smart devices, damage mitigation, etc. Check and see if you quality for a premium discount, too.”

If all fails, the California Fair Plan offers basic private coverage to homeowners; supplemental policies to provide liability protection can also be purchased to wrap around bare-bones coverage. Remember, you have an ally in the California Department of Insurance, which can provide assistance and resources.

Similar turbulence around insurance rates and coverage is being played out in other parts of the country facing their own natural disasters. “So much of insurer analysis, the risks vs. the payouts, is dependent on local vulnerabilities,” says Fitzpatrick. “You see the same thing happening in hurricane-vulnerable areas of the East Coast, for example. Natural disasters are a reality we are all facing these days.”


Turtle Whacks

The 5:30 a.m. knock on the door on Nov. 9, 2018, wakened Malibu residents Susan Tellem and husband Marshall Thompson abruptly. “Get out, pack up and get out,” their neighbor told them. “The fire is almost here.”

The couple raced out of their 1978 home and scoured their 1.5-acre property to pack up as many sulcatas, box turtles and Russian tortoises as they could. In addition to day jobs, the couple operates the American Tortoise Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues and adopts out turtles and tortoises worldwide (tortoise.com). Started in 1990, the nonprofit has helped find suitable homes for more than 4,000 shelled critters and care for the unadoptable ones.

As fate would have it, the couple had not unpacked their personal go-bags from a previous evacuation only a few weeks prior. Wrangling the animals proved difficult; Tellem and Thompson gathered up about half of their charges, about 50 turtles and tortoises from the sanctuary and hospital treatment building. They filled the turtle pond, placed all the captured animals (including three cats) into their two cars and sped off.

After driving to Zuma Beach and sleeping with their menagerie in their cars that night, the couple learned their house and sanctuary — along with 15 other homes on their street — did not make it. “We were prepared for the loss when we went back,” she says. “But it was still very hard to see everything gone.” Amazingly, though, almost all the critters left behind — turtles, tortoises and two roosters — survived.

On paper, Tellem and Thompson were fire-ready; brush was amply cut back from their home and other structures. They used fire-resistant cement-board siding and fireproof paint on their house, deck and sanctuary housing. “The fire department loved us because we were on top of it all,” says Tellem. None of that mattered, however, against 3,000-degree heat that melted cages and plastic tubs.

The couple is in the process of rebuilding; the sanctuary is back in working order with turtles and tortoises wandering once again in their familiar habitat. A recent fundraiser is helping to support the onsite hospital which was completely destroyed. The pond has been covered with chain link to keep away raccoons; the previous electric fence burnt and there is currently no electricity.

The rescue operation has good insurance through AARP, and Tellem says she’s learned so much already about the insurance process through this whole ordeal. Her advice to homeowners everywhere: Look at your policy every year and update it. Get the lowest deductible limits that you can afford. If possible, ask someone to look at your property and provide a second opinion if you have any doubts about what level of coverage you should have. Make sure you have a detailed inventory of your home’s assets in writing or on video. “Document every phone call and email contact you have with your insurer,” she says. “Record date, the time, who you spoke to and what you talked about. It’s critical to keep good records.”

The couple is also considering installing other mitigation equipment, including an outdoor sprinkler system with heat sensors that release flame retardants in the event of a wildfire.

Today, Tellem and Thompson are renting a house about 10 minutes from their property. When Tellem goes to feed and water the critters, she passes by charred rubble where a statue of St. Francis stood for many years. The statue was there after the fire, and Tellem credits the saint for watching over the turtles the couple could not find the morning they evacuated. “St. Francis protected the animals we couldn’t catch,” she says.

Sadly, that property, like so many other homeowners in the fire-ravaged landscape, has recently been targeted by thieves. “We have had to put locks on everything, but I never imagined that someone would steal St. Francis,” Tellem says about a final gut-wrenching loss from this fire. “That truly breaks my heart.”

          B.R.

The functional fitness workout method strengthens your ability to accomplish everyday tasks

On an early Sunday morning, the blaring horns from the “Rocky Theme” echo off the gym walls at Function and Fitness in La Crescenta. My workout buddies and I stop chatting as our effervescent coach Jessica Rose hollers a long “Woooohooo,” while raising her arms and racing around the room. Grab your water bottles, folks. The Sunday sweat session has officially begun.

Class participants of all ages, sizes and athletic abilities gather around Coach Jess as she demonstrates the morning’s exercises. There are side lunges. Kettlebell swings. Squatting with sand bags. Chest presses with the TRX Suspension Trainer. The dreaded burpee. We hear a rendition of her silly “Hinge Song” reminding us about proper form. Demonstrating a plank pose, she admonishes us that, “Even though we are on Honolulu Avenue, this is no time to do the hula. Keep those hips up!”

Finally armed with our workout regimen, Coach Jess leads us in a warm-up before beginning a 45-minute routine specifically crafted to target common movements and muscle groups that assist us in our daily lives. It’s sweaty, exhausting, challenging and, yes, I’ll admit it, fun.

The motto “Train Movements, Not Muscles” is displayed on the wall, a subtle reminder that this place — like a growing number of fitness facilities — embraces a functional fitness training concept that doesn’t promise you six-pack abs or deeply chiseled biceps. Your reward is being able to easily master a flight of steps, effortlessly squat down to pick up a dropped iPhone and comfortably place your carry-on luggage in the overhead bin.

Indeed, functional fitness has hit the mainstream. Self magazine calls it one of the “Ten Biggest Fitness Trends of 2018,” but many coaches, devotees and others in the fitness industry say this workout method has been around for years — there’s just a new light shining on it.

Maybe the heightened attention comes from aging Baby Boomers who want to stay in shape but don’t strive to be super hard-core athletes. According to the Mayo Clinic, “This type of training, properly applied, can make everyday activities easier, reduce your risk of injury and improve your quality of life…. [It can help] older adults improve balance, agility and muscle strength, and reduce the risk of falls.”

According to Christine Clark, owner of Function and Fitness, there are six main functional movements that are usually incorporated into her facility’s workouts: squats, lunges, rotations, hip hinging, pushing and pressing. “What we do is teach basic patterns of movements because every day we push, every day we pull, every day we lunge, hinge and squat. Our hope is that you take the stuff you learn here and apply it outside — at work, at home, the store, wherever — so you can stay healthy and safe.” Clark explains that the idea is to prevent the type of injuries most people suffer, usually from doing something as mundane as putting groceries in the car. “People typically throw out their backs because they haven’t strengthened those rotational movements,” she adds.

Today, all of Clark’s exercise classes are led by coaches who supervise the carefully programmed weekly small and large group sessions that build upon the prior week.

Clark started her fitness career as an instructor at a big-box gym and then met clients in rental spaces until she opened up this workout facility in 2014. At fitness conferences, she sees new expensive equipment for sale and crazy workout techniques. “But you won’t see any of them the next year because they didn’t catch on. You know what works? Good old-fashioned dumbbells, kettlebells and resistance training.”

Indeed, the power of functional training is vital as we age, contends Tom Strafaci, owner of Functional Fitness, which has locations in Monrovia and Arcadia. Most of Strafaci’s clients are older — and many come to the facility “fearful of movement,” he says. “Often simple things, like climbing stairways, getting into a car or using the toilet can be difficult for older people,” he says. Strafaci and his coaching staff train one-on-one for a more personalized exercise session. They know their clients’ backstories; many have diabetes or knee replacements or a history of heart attacks and strokes.

“Sometimes a good workout that day doesn’t mean sweating like crazy,” he says of his individualized approach. “Maybe it’s a series of eye drills to help with balance because that function is way off that day. We meet clients where they are at that moment. Our goal is to train clients so they can maintain their independence.”

With more than 34 years in the world of fitness (including a previous career as a physical therapist), Strafaci has seen many fads come and go, but he’s excited about one of the industry’s newest trends. “It’s not a piece of equipment,” he explains. “It’s better-educated trainers who have college degrees and know what is really important. We now better understand the body and how it moves and ages — and we know how best to keep it working.”

Enter a cozy workout space on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock and you will see the customary weight rack, stability balls and balance boards — as well as numerous oversized hooks placed on walls at different heights. This is where class participants attach the resistance tubing that is a hallmark of The Dynamic Advantage boutique fitness center. The mini watering-hose-like tubing comes in six colors indicating levels of resistance from three to 90 pounds which, when combined with other functional movements, can challenge pros as well as novices.

One afternoon, Coach Marlene Maroun-Flowers leads a small group through a series of fast-paced but carefully timed exercise sets. After warming up and working with hand weights, participants fasten colored tubing at various heights for specific exercises with whimsical names like “the power bar” or “coffee cup row.” “Bow down and keep your chest up high!” exclaims Coach Marlene.

The tubing is “versatile, safe, efficient and effective. It allows people to train in a way that gives them a multitude of options without a lot of excessive gear,” says Brandon Flowers, who owns the studio with fitness partner Rick Caputo. The duo has been training clients since the 1990s; they capitalized on their love of fitness when both were laid off from their corporate gigs — Caputo in aerospace and Flowers from insurance. After receiving certification, the two trained clients in their homes and rented spaces before opening a studio in Eagle Rock in 2001; they moved to their current location in 2012.

Understanding and strengthening the biomechanics of movement is at the heart of the workouts. The two stress the concept of micro-progressions — that is, encouraging clients to intensify their workouts at a slow but steady pace. “What we do here is focus on correct movements that strengthen muscle, posture and balance,” says Caputo.

A client’s age and ability may influence the intensity of the move but, as Flowers says, “No matter what condition you have — injury, illness — your elbow is your elbow. Your knee is your knee. They all do the same function. At the beginning, we give clients the proper dosage of exercise and they slowly creep up with ability and confidence.”

Dynamic Advantage opened with only one workout session a week; now 24 sessions are offered at their main location, and other weekly classes are held at the Cancer Support Community Pasadena and onsite at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The mix of exercises is excellent and uses the whole body,” says Mike Kleine, an acquisition advisor at JPL who has been participating in the Dynamic Advantage sessions at the space-research facility for nine years.

An avid fitness nut, Kleine says functional training complements his other activities — Pilates, cycling, skiing, hiking, kayaking and running. People often mistake him for a much younger man (he’s 69), and he credits that to spending more time moving. “I don’t take the shuttle around the JPL campus, I walk,” he says. Like many, Kleine wants his fitness to propel him into the future. “I’ve seen so many young vibrant people bent over, heavy with weight and with poor posture. It’s painful to see,” he adds. “When I’m older, I want to hike the landscape, not see it from a tour bus.”

Flowers says that’s the highest compliment he or anyone in the fitness industry can hear from clients who embrace functional fitness. “We have a lot of people who are in their 70s and 80s and who travel a lot — and they are able to do that because of their fitness levels,” he says. “They are out there living their lives and that is huge. We keep telling everyone that the road to fitness really has no finish line. You are on
it for life.”

From its Pasadena office, China’s Alibaba Pictures is quietly making incursions into Hollywood.

Alibaba Pictures, somewhat hidden in the Pasadena Playhouse Plaza, presents itself with a modesty at odds with Tinseltown’s tendency for hyperbole. In fact, relatively little fanfare accompanied the arrival of this film unit of China’s multinational technology behemoth, Alibaba Group (ranked among the world’s 10 most valuable and successful brands by the brand equity database BrandZ for the first time this year). Alibaba Pictures opened up shop in a 22,000-square-foot office in Pasadena in 2016. 

Since its landing in metro Hollywood, Alibaba Pictures has been working on a handful of deals, investing in a few film productions and distributions, and keeping, at least by in-your-face American standards, a rather low profile. The Pasadena office didn’t respond to interview requests.

But in an interview with Pasadena-based East West Bank, Alibaba Pictures President Wei Zhang describes the client company’s mission here. “We see ourselves as a platform company,” she said. “Our goal in entertainment is not just to make a few movies. We’re not here to create another traditional movie studio…We are a new movie infrastructure company with Internet DNA; we use technology, data and our ecosystem to bring more efficiency and transparency to the filmmaking process.” Zhang describes her goal as growing Alibaba’s role as a gateway between Hollywood and China by developing appropriate content for Chinese movie audiences. And those audiences are expected to grow into the world’s largest, in light of China’s 1.4 billion population. Alibaba Pictures’ parent company has been reshaping the Chinese entertainment industry with an aggressive acquisition strategy since 2014.

Formed in 1999, Alibaba is the brainchild of one of China’s most beloved businessmen — Jack Ma. He’s been called the Steve Jobs of China because of his business savvy, his inspirational leadership and his intimate understanding of the American and Hollywood cultures. An e-commerce company at its core, Alibaba leverages entertainment ventures (film production investments, movie and live events ticketing apps, video-streaming platforms, mobile content browsers and others) to cross-promote interests in a multifaceted business ecosystem.

For example, Alibaba invested in Amblin Partner’s 2017 film A Dog’s Purpose (starring Dennis Quaid and Josh Gad) and helmed marketing the flick in China. Overall, the movie raked in only $64 million in the U.S., but it made $88 million in China with the help of Alibaba’s online movie ticketing app, Tao Piao Piao — in China more than 80 percent of movie tickets are bought online using apps.

From its Pasadena offices, Alibaba continues the Amblin partnership with the sequel, A Dog’s Journey, slated for a May 2019 release. Alibaba’s other successful movie investments include big-budget action flicks such as Dunkirk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Star Trek Beyond and Mission Impossible — Fallout.

Earlier this year, Alibaba Pictures announced it was partnering with STX Entertainment on the Robert Zemeckis–produced Steel Soldiers, an original sci-fi action movie set in a futuristic world where humans and androids battle side-by-side. Also this year, Alibaba threw its hat into the ring with other studios (21st Century Fox, Disney, NBCUniversal, etc.) to fund Jeffrey Katzenberg’s streaming video startup, NewTV, which is creating short content for small screens.

For the younger set, Alibaba is producing a full-length adaption of the hit children’s TV series Peppa Pig, based on a beloved series of animated characters that premiered in the U.K. in 2004. (The movie will be a combination of animation and live action.)  It’s scheduled to be released during Chinese New Year 2019, which will usher in the Year of (what else?) the Pig.

So what can we make of this Chinese entertainment company that invests in American big-action films, heartwarming family flicks and charming children’s fare?

“I predict that Alibaba will be a good neighbor and a good company in the Southland, but I don’t think it will be a game-changer for the Southland,” says Tom Nunan, an international cinema expert, lecturer at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television and partner in Bulls’ Eye Entertainment, a mid-size independent film and television production company.

Nunan remembers the ChinaHollywood lovefest of a few years ago that seized the imagination of producers, financiers and investors, eager to partner up with a new foreign market, foreign talent and foreign money. The hope was that such a move would herald development of a China-L.A. synergy, especially since Northern California — with its emerging technology in software and AI — has had a longstanding relationship with Beijing.

In 2015, leading Chinese investment and entertainment companies, such as Fosun International, LeTV, Dalian Wanda and, of course, Alibaba, were all going Hollywood; Wanda had just bought the AMC Theatre chain, and the STX production company was doing a deal with China’s Huayi Brothers Media Group. “All of us in entertainment had stars in our eyes, thinking, Wow! China’s investment in us will pump up the volume in Hollywood financially, content-wise, across the board,” Nunan continues. “We have all sobered up since then.”

Indeed, part of the sobering reality is that the Chinese government limits and restricts the type of entertainment that can be distributed. China doesn’t have a motion picture rating system; all films must be approved by Chinese censors who officially promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony. For all practical purposes, these are PG films — which are the least frequently produced films in Hollywood.

“Think of it this way: The Chinese government is acting the way the FCC acted in the ’70s,” explains Nunan. “They are really, really, really strict about the kind of content they want their citizenry to be exposed to. Also, don’t forget, there is no free Internet in China. Very few countries in the world restrict the freedom to surf the web. That’s not to say you can’t do business with China. There are opportunities, but it can be complicated.”

It addition to content, since 1994 Beijing has been restricting the number of American films that can be shown in Chinese theaters. The quota started at 10, increasing to 34 films per year in 2012 with the proviso that at least 14 be in 3D or IMAX format.

Of course, Hollywood would like to raise that quota, writes Michael Dresden at ChinaLawBlog.com. “But the on-again, off-again U.S.– China trade war has thrown those negotiations for a loop and effectively given China the ability to take whatever position it likes, from slapping a huge tariff on all U.S. films to conceding on all of Hollywood’s deal points,” Dresden writes. “But China is in no hurry to agree to anything. Why should it be? They’re fine with the status quo.”

Still, China’s Alibaba is here in the Southland to be a player, and it’s also a
resource for filmmakers and studios here, contends Nunan. Of course, setting up shop in Pasadena may have surprised many, considering that the prime entertainment hubs are in Burbank, Hollywood or the West Side. Says Nunan: “I think the strategy of the move was to announce that ‘We are a Chinese company. Most of the influential Chinese folk live right here in the Pasadena area and this is where we feel most comfortable.’ It’s wonderful that they are unabashedly embracing the neighborhood. Why shouldn’t Alibaba reward them by locating here? This is where their heartbeat is.” 

Personal Tech

Just when you thought technology couldn’t make our lives any easier, smart gadgets are getting smarter, more stylish and more powerful. Here are some new tech standouts that can make your life better.

Play Impossible Gameball

What could be more analog than a simple bouncing sphere? As the basis for countless sports, the ball gets a digital upgrade with Play Impossible Gameball, which has embedded sensor-technology that connects to a smartphone app…and that’s where the fun begins. Challenge your buddies to see who can throw the small soccer-like ball the farthest, highest or fastest. Kick it up a notch with digital games that can be played solo or with friends. There’s a virtual version of water-balloon toss and a “keep-away” game that encourages critical thinking along with brute force. Recommended for ages 4 and up.

$99.99, playimpossible.com

Movi Smartphone

Don’t want to watch a movie on your phone? Who can blame you? Movi, an Android smartphone, features an integrated projector that can enlarge 720p images up to more than 16 feet in size diagonally. Nearby walls or ceilings become screens so everyone can share the latest YouTube video, installment of your fave Netflix show or any digital content. The sleek phone’s battery can last up to four hours when the projector is turned on; the projector is launched via an app and switches to landscape mode when you hold your phone horizontally.

$599, moviphones.com

Ovie Smarterware

Leftovers? We always have such high hopes for them, but then time (and mold) sets in. Enter Ovie Smarterware, an easy-to-understand system that tracks how long you have until your food reaches critical spore and ooze level. The Smarterware is a Bluetooth button that is affixed to existing food containers. (You can also purchase Ovie’s bag clips and plastic containers.) Connect with your smart assistant — Alexa, for example — and tell your speaker what’s in the container. Alexa and Google will load the information into the cloud, which has a database of the life span of common foods in the fridge. Ovie, which starts shipping early next year, tracks that food and changes the button colors from green to red, signaling time to reheat or toss.

$95 and up, ovie.life

ZeTime

As the first hybrid smartwatch, the recently upgraded ZeTime combines mechanical hands with a round AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) touchscreen — all crafted with Swiss know-how. Activated for voice recognition, the regular (1.3-inch screen) and petite (1.05-inch screen) models display incoming calls, emails, texts, social media and calendar events. The water-resistant watch can also track your daily activity, sleep patterns and heart rate. If you’ve been a couch potato too long, it gives you a gentle reminder. Compatible with both iOS and Android, ZeTime’s battery typically lasts about four days in either smartwatch and 60 days in analog mode.

$299 and up, mykronoz.com

Kodak Scanza

Baby boomers will have more options for posting pix on Throwback Thursday with this handy device that scans old-school negatives and slides and transforms them into digital form. This film-to-JPEG converter from Kodak quickly digitizes 35mm, 126 and 110 negatives and slides as well as images from Super 8 and 8mm negatives and can transfer them into optimized 14-megapixel or interpolated 22-megapixel files. Images are contained on a simple SD card (not included). You can enhance the quality of the film and adjust the colors and brightness to your liking. You can even scan in gallery mode and display a slideshow as you relive those ancient memories.

$169.99, amazon.com

Cyber Body slimmer

Bringing new meaning to the phrase “shake it off,” the Dr. Fuji Cyber Body Slimmer offers a workout on a self-vibrating platform. Activating many muscle groups at the same time, the fitness machine can produce an effective training session in a mere 10 minutes. And performing exercises on the shaking metal platform can increase blood flow which, in turn, can help users improve balance, strength, flexibility and weight loss. The device runs on 90 watts of power and can vibrate 550 times a minute.

$3,300, cyberbodyslimmer.com

Landroid

It’s a jungle out there, but your lawn doesn’t have to be part of it. The Worx Landroid M is a robotic lawn mower that does the job for you. It tackles your grassy landscaped areas using the power of artificial-intelligence algorithms, sensing and avoiding obstacles and mowing in a best-practices pattern of efficiency, all with minimal noise output. Designed for smaller lawns (less than a quarter of an acre) and customizable for continuous manicure service, the device also “knows” when it’s raining and will return to its docking/charging station. Before you send your unit outside, you’ll need to install perimeter wire that will keep the automated mower contained. If the droid saunters outside the perimeter, you’ll be alerted on your smartphone.

$999, worx.com

Neutrogena Skin360 Skin Scanner

Get ready for your extreme close-up with Neutrogena’s Skin360, which gives you a snapshot of the health and condition of your facial skin. Affix the scanning device — which consists of 12 LED lights, a 30x magnifier and a moisture detector — to the edge of your smartphone camera. Download an app, snap a selfie and then place the scanner on your forehead, chin and cheeks. You’ll see deeply detailed images of pores and wrinkles (“Gasp! Me? What??”) along with a skin-hydration-level score and overall facial analysis that compares your skin to that of other folks your age. Sure, there will be recommendations for Neutrogena products, but you’ll be armed with skin knowledge that can inform your next skin-care purchases.

$50, neutrogena.com

Array Solar Smart Lock

Like the idea of a smart deadbolt, but not the worry about failing batteries that could leave you locked outside of your own home? The Array has your back. This stylish smart lock is powered by an integrated solar panel that continually trickle-charges its onboard battery. The lock should last around 10 months on a charge when it’s in direct sunlight, 30 to 90 days in indirect sunlight. It connects to your overall smart home via Wi-Fi with a wireless router, so there’s no extra tech to buy. You can open it with your smartphone by entering preset codes into its hidden metal keypad (think e-keys) or with a conventional key. The product comes with a second battery and USB charging cradle so there’s always a backup handy. 

$299, acehardware.com

Eveline Smart Ovulation Test

Planning for a bundle of joy? Consider turning your smartphone into a fertility coach. The Eveline Smart Fertility System is an ovulation prediction kit that employs a fertility tracking app with patented technology for near-pinpoint planning. Moms-wanting-to-be use a front-facing smartphone camera and light to measure the color of ovulation test strips; with a 99 percent accuracy rate, results are then recorded in your phone. (The system comes with 10 strips.) Using that data, the system can predict upcoming fertile days with a push notification. Another feature allows you to share your fertile status with your partner — which could mean a candlelight dinner and roses when you return home that evening.

$49.99, amazon

 

Visitors can witness art conservation in action in Project Blue Boy

For decades, the handsome young boy with rosy red cheeks decked out in a fashionable blue satin outfit with knee breeches has delighted guests in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Painted around 1770 by prominent English landscape and portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy has an endearing charm reflected in a careful composition that reveals the master’s fine strokes, using a shimmering blue hue created with numerous tints.

Now visitors will have a different view of the relaxed young lad as he poses in the English countryside — a close-up so extreme it can be microscopic. The Huntington’s new show Project Blue Boy offers gallery visitors a behind-the-scenes experience of the extensive two-year-long conservation process that will restore and stabilize Gainsborough’s classic work as much as possible.

This is the first time the Huntington is putting a conservation project on display for the public to observe; it’s a rare opportunity to witness both the art and science of conservation in action. “We’ve known for a while that the painting needed attention,” explains Melinda McCurdy, exhibit cocurator and associate curator for British art. The original colors have turned hazy and dull. Paint is starting to lift and flake off in certain areas. Too many layers of added varnish have served as temporary bandages to keep the almost life-size painting intact. Likewise, the painting’s lining (added as another
attempt at restoration) has been separating. The Blue Boy needed a serious tune-up.

Earlier this year, the painting was subjected to a three-month-long examination. High-tech methods — infrared reflectography, ultraviolet illumination and a scanning electron microscope — helped conservators chart a course of action.

At the helm of Project Blue Boy is Christina O’Connell, the Huntington’s senior painting conservator and exhibit’s other cocurator. She has set up shop in the Thornton Portrait Gallery inside a special satellite studio, complete with work table, easel, conservation lights and exhaust units. A half wall separates her from the crowds, but the public can watch on a display monitor as she performs the deft and precise work of stabilizing the paint, cleaning the surface and removing the non-original varnish and overpaint. (Her satellite work schedule will be posted on the Huntington website.)

The plan is for O’Connell to work three to four months in the satellite studio. The Blue Boy will then go off view for another three to four months while she strengthens the canvas structure and applies new varnish with special equipment that can’t be moved into the gallery. After that’s completed, the painting will once again return to the satellite studio where visitors can continue to watch as O’Connell takes the artwork closer to perfection in anticipation of The Blue Boy’s return to gallery walls in early 2020.

Among the paraphernalia in O’Connell’s toolbox is an impressive 6-foot-tall surgical microscope. This state-of-the-art device has a long moveable arm and optics that can magnify up to 25 times; especially helpful when she applies special adhesives to areas where paint is lifting off the canvas. 

Near the satellite studio, there’s an educational exhibit with an iPad describing the science of conservation and a display of typical conservator hand tools; they’re on hand to help guests gain a deeper appreciation for the conservator’s skilled artistry.

Visitors will also be able to see what lurks underneath The Blue Boy; an interactive light box will show digital x-rays of the artwork, revealing that the it was painted on a used canvas: The artist had originally begun a portrait of a man, before opting for a younger model. McCurdy hopes the current conservation process may unearth more clues to the earlier model’s identity. Perhaps just as interesting is that other x-rays show that at one time Gainsborough placed a small white dog next to the boy’s bowed shoes. For whatever reason, the hound didn’t make the cut and was eventually transformed into a pile of rocks.

Information will be posted on the artist and painting, which has called San Marino home since Henry Huntington purchased it in 1921 for a whopping $728,000 — the largest sum paid at that time for any artwork. “The Blue Boy is iconic for a reason… it’s a really good painting,” McCurdy says, adding that it is as much a study of the look and feel of period apparel as it is a character study of its young subject.

Look closely at the intricate details of the clothes, she says. “Gainsborough’s great skill was as a master painter, using vigorous slashes of unmodulated color to mimic the look and texture of smooth satin in the boy’s costume, for instance.” The illustrious costume was inspired by the work of 17th-century Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who often incorporated fashion in his work. (Note the blue coat worn by the young subject of Portrait of Charles, Lord Strange.)

While his portraits are masterful in capturing the essence of their models, Gainsborough preferred the peaceful beauty of landscapes. He once said, in third person: “He painted portraits for money and landscapes because he loved them.”

There remains a lure of unsolved mystery surrounding The Blue Boy. As famous as it was back then and is today, no one knows for sure just who this fair-faced boy was. Many art historians originally thought it was a portrait of a younger Jonathan Buttall, the painting’s first owner. “There is no documentary evidence to support that,” explains McCurdy.

Susan Sloman, a London-based art historian, thinks she might have unraveled the mystery. “She proposes that the model for The Blue Boy is Gainsborough Dupont, Thomas Gainsborough’s nephew, who lived with the artist’s family and later served as his uncle’s studio assistant,” she says. This young, readily available model could have been in the right place at the right time — never imagining that his likeness would live on forever the world over.

Originally titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, the painting received high acclaim from fellow artists when it first appeared in public in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770. Somewhere along the line, its nickname, The Blue Boy, seemed more appropriate and became its official name. Fame grew for The Blue Boy; for years, the painting traveled around Great Britain, endearing itself to the masses, and public outcry in Britain was loud when Henry Huntington (an American!) acquired the British treasure. Huntington wanted to show off his prize and enlisted art dealer Joseph Duveen to stage an international publicity blitz around the painting’s journey from London to Los Angeles. It was briefly put on display at the National Gallery of Art in London where it was viewed by 90,000 people. “They really hyped it up,” says McCurdy. “These limited engagement exhibitions and newspaper articles really transformed The Blue Boy into a well-known and recognizable icon of the times.” 

It wasn’t until the late 1920s that The Blue Boy was introduced to another icon-to-be, one that would be forever visually associated with the Gainsborough masterpiece. In 1926, Huntington purchased Pinkie (1794) painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The young girl dramatically posing on a high cliff, a breeze jostling her dress and pink hat ribbons, became The Blue Boy’s eternal partner on the Huntington Art Gallery’s walls and in our culture’s collective consciousness. A bit of irony: There is neither historical nor costume connection between them. No matter; they have been the Huntington’s power couple for decades, a visitor favorite and tourist must-see.

But for now, guests will have to wait for their reunion as The Blue Boy’s imperfections and cracks vanish, his colors are revitalized and the magic of conservation is complete — a signal that the young man in his glistening smooth blue costume is ready to resume his rightful place on gallery walls.

Christina O’Connell, senior painting conservator, works in public view Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 4 p.m.; she also appears the first Sunday of each month from 2 to 4 p.m. through January. Visit the website for details about the second in-gallery session next year. The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Visit huntington.org.