“Hollywood” Sign of the Times

Photo Courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com. All Rights Reserved.

The “Hollywood” Sign inspires dreamers, welcomes starry-eyed visitors, is a familiar friend to locals and has a life of its own with stardom and tragedy. For nearly a century, the Southern California icon represented in movies, TV shows, advertisements, books, music and more, has stood tall on Mount Lee, which is located in Griffith Park.

“It’s more than just nine white letters spelling out a city’s name,” says Betsy Isroelit, media director for the Hollywood Sign Trust. “It’s one of the world’s most evocative symbols – a universal metaphor for ambition, success, glamour… for this dazzling place, industry and dream we call H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D. It’s wonderful to know that the Sign is an inspiration to people from all walks of life, as well as to generations of filmmakers.”

Like the city it watches over, the dramatic Sign was a fitting addition to a booming industry of silver screen magic and shining stars above and below. At its birth in 1923, the Sign read “HOLLYWOODLAND,” after a local real estate development, owned by then Los Angeles Times Publisher, Harry Chandler. It was used primarily to draw people to the glamorous west and sell homes.

The $21,000 Sign, lit up with 4000 light bulbs blinked in order: “HOLLY”, “WOOD”, “LAND”, and a 35-foot diameter “.” punctuated the end. Each letter stood about 43 feet high and 30 feet wide. As described by Isroelit, “The original Sign was constructed of wooden telephone poles and squares of tin. Letters made of hundreds of small squares of metal proved to be difficult to maintain, as the squares would easily pop off in a wind or rainstorm.”

The advertising tool was meant to stand for only 18 months, but outlasted the real estate company it was originally built to promote that eventually went out of business. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, as the country suffered, Americans looked to the movies for escape. But pain was also found there.

The rise and fall of one movie star proved too much for 24-year-old Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by plunging to her death off the top of the “H” in 1932.

Some say “The Hollywood Sign Girl” still haunts the mountain today. But perhaps she doesn’t have to wait much longer for her featured roll. Entwistle’s tragic story will finally be told on the big screen as a film is currently in the works.

By the end of the 1930s, the Don Lee Network, then owned by his son, bought the land behind the Sign and built a television broadcast studio and what was the highest elevation transmission tower in the world at the time. The site of the network and working radio towers are still seen by the Sign on Mount Lee, the namesake of the man who helped promote television broadcasting.

Aging and in need of care, the Hollywoodland Sign became the property of the city in 1944. In 1949, after World War II, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, together with the City of Los Angeles, decided to give the Sign a badly needed facelift. And like many of the movie stars it inspired, the Sign was also given a name change, dropping the “LAND” and simply becoming “HOLLYWOOD” to help promote the city and growing movie industry.

Unfortunately, in the 1960s, after the golden age of cinema, large movie studios began to move out of Hollywood and into neighboring cities with more space. The Hollywood Sign continued deteriorating, like the city beneath.

In 1973, the Sign was designated an official Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (#111). In 1976, prankster Daniel Finegood changed the sign to read “Hollyweed,” as a class project in college and in support of looser marijuana laws; he received an “A.” Finegood changed the sign to “Holywood” in 1987 during the Easter season and a visit from Pope John Paul II.

By the 1970s, the Hollywood Sign was infested by termites and a crumbling mess. In order to restore the iconic landmark, Hugh Hefner held a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in 1978. Each of the original letters were “auctioned” off and 9 well-known individuals spent about $23,000 each to sponsor a letter.

Today, the Hollywood Sign Trust non-profit “is responsible for physically maintaining, repairing and securing the Hollywood Sign; educating the world about its historical and cultural importance; and securing the funds necessary to accomplish these projects,” says Isroelit. “Since its charter in 1992 the Hollywood Sign Trust has led a range of projects to preserve and protect the Sign, including two major refurbishments and the installation of a state-of-the-art security and surveillance system.” There’s even a police officer stationed nearby. According to Chris Baumgart, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, “The Hollywood Sign received two tons of makeup in time to celebrate her 90th birthday [in 2013], restoring an American icon.”

So grab your hiking boots, some water, and sunscreen. You don’t have to go far to see the most famous Sign in the world. One great way to see it is via the Mt. Hollywood Trail at the Charlie Turner Trailhead, on the north end of the Griffith Park Observatory parking lot, a 3.8 mile round-trip hike. There is also a Hollywood Sign shuttle from the observatory and other longer trails that lead right behind the Sign for hikers to enjoy an added bonus: a spectacular view of Hollywood, a unique and thriving city once again.

Go to Hollywoodsign.org for more information and details about visiting the historic monument.

Originally published in The Quarterly magazine, Fall 2015

A Very Special Olympics

Originally published in “A Stone’s Throw” Column, South Pasadena Review 8.6.15

By Ann Suk Wang

The Special Olympics: Volleyball at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion

The Special Olympics: Volleyball at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion

After the last note of the floor exercise played and the final pose held, a gymnast sprinted off, into an excited embrace with her coach. Together they almost fell over, twirling with joy as the athlete’s legs and arms wound around the coach’s torso. It looked like an octopus clinging to a pillar. The pillar stood strong.

I waited in line for 45 minutes with two whining boys to get into the John Wooden Center at UCLA and experienced this glorious moment. It was worth it for all of us.

Last week, Los Angeles was graced with a special event: the Special Olympics. And I say graced because it was a gift to L.A. to participate in the celebration of diversity and be inspired by the determination and courage of those around the world with an intellectual disability.

My family also attended volleyball games, the first ever “dance challenge” and the closing ceremony; all were tear-jerkingly inspirational. We had witnessed the thrill of victory, not only for a medal, but personal victories to overcome with disabilities that, truth be told, melted into the background.

South Pasadena had the privilege of being a “Host Town” to athletes from Morocco and Paraguay. More than 100 communities from San Louis Obispo to San Diego participated by being matched with delegations from different countries. Volunteers welcomed guest before the games through parades and activities, spread the word around town about events to come and cheered during competitions for their matched athletes.

The Special Olympics are held every two years, alternating summer and winter games (and should not to be confused with Paralympics, held the week after The Olympics for those with physical disabilities.) Their motto: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt” was coined by Special Olympics founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the first games in 1968, held in her backyard.

Since then, the Special Olympics has promoted awareness and been a champion for equality, inclusion, and acceptance. During the 9 days of the 2015 summer games, there were about 7,000 athletes, 177 countries represented, 30,000 volunteers, 3,000 coaches, and 500,000 spectators (millions more watched on TV).

Volunteer healthcare professionals gave free exams and met the health care needs of the athletes. Michael Wang, a physician at USC and my husband, cared for a football coach with malaria and an athlete with a foot infection, requiring surgery.

“Fans in the Stands” gathered groups of 10 or more to attend sporting events to cheer for the athletes at dozens of venues around L.A. (like UCLA, USC, Long Beach, Griffith Park, Lucky Strikes in Downtown and more.)

Special Olympics Inaugural Dance Challenge: me with Cody Carlson, made popular in So You Think You Can Dance

Special Olympics Inaugural Dance Challenge: me with Cody Carlson, made popular in So You Think You Can Dance

The “Inaugural Dance Challenge,” launched at the Wallis Annenberg Center, was hosted by Nigel Lythgoe, producer of “So You Think You Can Dance” and judged by famous names like Nicole Scherzinger, Paula Abdul and Twitch, to name a few. Apolo Ohno, Gold Medalist in speed skating at the 2006 Winter Olympics, said it well, “This night is about being unified on the field and in life.” Ben Vereen, the “preacher” of the night said, “The dance heals us. [It’s] not only for the people dancing, but for us.”

The dancers were magical, whether from Panama or Pakistan. I almost lost my voice in collective shouts of excitement as soloists leapt in a lyrically graceful jeté, couples glided across the stage in beautiful ballroom gowns and crews hit it hard while onlookers bounced to the beat and hooted their approval. One soloist even got there late, due to a bus problem, but was given the opportunity to perform anyway, his hard work rewarded with cheers and tears.

“The world comes together to see our athletes in action and celebrate their victories over huge odds. The Special Olympics World Game embraces unity, achievement and dignity,” states the la2015.org website.

This last week, my own chest swelled with pride for the courageous athletes and all the supportive people around them, holding them up and giving the rest of us a snap shot of a hopeful future.

Authentic Asian Cuisine: A Unique Food Culture in the 626

Originally published in The Quarterly, Summer 2015 issue

By Ann Suk Wang

Venture east, not Far East, but much closer for some palate pleasers. East of Los Angeles and into the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) is where a vast variety of authentic Chinese food outmatches any outside Asia. These days, even New York, San Francisco, and Chinatowns around the country cannot compare to the offerings in the “626” (a term adopted by Generation Xers and Millennials, referring to their beloved hip area code.)

Truffle Pork XiaoLong Bao from Din Tai Fung. Photo courtesy of dintaifungusa.com

Truffle Pork XiaoLongBao from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: dintaifungusa.com

In our cultural stew that is Southern California, the SGV is a welcome haven and home to many new immigrants, primarily from Asia. And we all benefit from the cultural exchange, especially when it comes to the amazing food options around Main Street and Valley Boulevard.

According to Clariss Wei, columnist for Have You Eaten? at kcet.org,

“We have some of the most apt and undiluted representations of Asian cuisine here.” From Yelp reviews to food bloggers and top food critics, people agree that the SGV is turning the commonly thought of “Chinese food” on its head and has been for the last 30 years. The poor man’s chow mein is old school. Now, specialties like “water boiled fish” from Sichuan are perfected nearby and take the spotlight.

Even the entertainment industry speaks to the unique food culture in the 626. The Fung Brothers ignited excitement around businesses in the SGV while giving people a taste of good eats on their catchy YouTube music video that went viral in 2012 and remains unmatched. Search “Fung Bros 626” for the original video and bounce along.

“We didn’t create the food wave, the Asian food movement; but we helped brand it,” says David Fung in a phone interview from South Carolina where the brothers are filming a show for the FYI network. They helped make it cool for the younger generation to drink boba milk tea and have pride in their neighborhood.

Shanghai Rice Cakes from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit dintaifungusa.com

Shanghai Rice Cakes from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: dintaifungusa.com

But taking a step back, the Asian food boom in the area began in the 70s. The attraction for Asian immigrants to come to the SGV can be traced back to a single realtor, Fredrick Hsieh. “He wanted to make Monterey Park the new Taipei,” says Tony Chen, freelance food writer at Eater.com and SinoSoul.com. Wei adds in her article in firstwefeast.com, “He began to advertise homes in the San Gabriel Valley in Hong Kong and Taiwanese newspapers. In the 1980s, Monterey Park was heralded as the Chinese Beverly Hills. Today, that title belongs to Arcadia.”

The affluent, who were drawn to the SGV, brought their appetite for authentic quality food with them. Today, more wealthy mainland Chinese people are attracted to the area, bringing with them even more tasteful delights, pushing the boundary of culinary excellence even further east, past the 605 Freeway.

Sichuan food is an example of even more variety in Chinese food now available in the area. “Sichuan food has blown up in China and now here,” says Chen. For some of the best and spiciest dishes, try one of Chen’s and Wei’s favorites: Szechuan Impression in Alhambra. Chen raves, “They’re elevating the game. They believe in restauranteering.”

Some of Fung’s favorites include (and I must agree here): Savoy for their juicy Hainan Chicken and Vietnam House for your pho fix (pho – pronounced “fun” – is a noodle soup with fresh herbs, vegetables and meat.) Both are modest restaurants that serve delicious food at a very reasonable price. Expect a wait, especially at Savoy on weekends and lunch and dinner times.

For the best variety in one location, visit the hugely popular “626 Night Market” at Santa Nita Park, in Arcadia. There you can try many types of food like Korean BBQ, fried squid on a stick and egg custard desserts. End the night by sharing a packed bowl of Asian fruit over shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk while enjoying arts, entertainment and shopping that doesn’t break the bank.

Modeled after the famed Night Markets of Taiwan where patrons push through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, vying for the freshest foods and the most popular goods, the Arcadia version is much tamer in comparison, but still scented with stinky tofu and lots of fun. The next of these periodic events will be July 3-5. Visit http://www.626nightmarket.com for details.

Lobster from New Port Seafood. Photo credit newportseafood.com

Lobster from New Port Seafood. Photo credit: newportseafood.com

Whatever your taste, you can certainly enjoy the combination of exotic authentic ingredients only 10-15 minutes away. Even better, you’re sure to find new favorites there.

** Some of my favorite Pan-Asian fare in the 626:

– Din Tai Fung (Arcadia) for hand-made Taiwanese xiaolongbao or juicy pork dumplings. Also try the Shanghai rice cake, cucumber salad, fried rice, and 8-treasure sticky rice for dessert.

– Golden Deli (San Gabriel, Temple City) for Vietnamese pho noodles, spring rolls and egg rolls.

– Lunasia (Alhambra, Pasadena) or King Hua (Alhambra) for dim sum, a sampling of Chinese dishes.

– New Port Seafood (San Gabriel and other locations) for their special lobster.

– Phoenix Food Boutique (South Pasadena, Arcadia) for any meal item and dessert.

– Noodle World (San Marino, Alhambra, Pasadena, Monterey Park) for pan-Asian noodles.

– Huge Tree Pastry (Monterey Park) for authentic Taiwanese breakfasts and classic dishes.

– Why Thirsty (San Gabriel) for Taiwanese pork chops and fresh tea.

– Fluff Ice (Monterey Park) for a unique take on shaved ice.

– Paris Baguette (Arcadia) and 85 Degrees (Pasadena) for French and Asian-inspired desserts and coffee.

– Half and Half Tea (Pasadena, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Monterey Park and other locations) for honey boba (tapioca pearls) and ice milk drinks. I ask for everything “½ sweet” for less sugar.

Award-Winning Author, Gary Schmidt Visits SPMS

Originally published in “A Stone’s Throw” column in the South Pasadena Review 3/26/15

By Ann Suk Wang


Many become excited when a movie star or a well-known musician is seen in person. Palms may become slightly damp and the heart may pound a little faster. The rush of recognition causes even the coolest fan to quickly assess, whether to try to get an autograph, snap a quick photo with a phone, shake the celebrity’s hand, or form words of praise: “I loved you in [such and such] movie” or “Your song is the best.”

For me, I feel a bit giddy and star-struck when I have the privilege of meeting an author. Maybe it’s because we share a love for words and good story telling. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent days in their world, with their characters and their thoughts. But no matter who strikes intrigue in you, it’s probably because there’s an instant respect for whoever creates the art that moves you.

signing for a long line of students

signing for a long line of students

On Friday, the students of South Pasadena Middle School (SPMS) got a taste of the excitement that comes with meeting a two-time Newbery Honor-winning, National Book Award finalist, and Printz Honored author of The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, Gary D. Schmidt. These awards are no joke in the children’s book publishing world. They’re the best of the best novels, chosen among all published works for youth each year.

But how did such an author find his way to SPMS? Librarian Betsy Kahn loved Schmidt’s book Okay for Now so much that she persuaded the South Pasadena Educational Foundation (SPEF) to fund the purchase of dozens of copies and distributed them so that students and staff could “read it forward” around school. Eventually she wrote Schmidt a lengthy hand-written letter about the stir his book was creating, included a photograph of herself dressed for Halloween as the hardcover copy of the book, and asked if he could possibly make a visit. Schmidt later admitted to Kahn, he just “couldn’t refuse.” So with further financial help from SPEF, Schmidt was flown to California.

Schmidt teaches prospective writers

Schmidt teaches prospective writers

When Schmidt arrived at the school on Friday, his day was packed: autographing books and pieces of paper for a winding line of students during brunch and lunch, speaking to student artists and writers, and giving two assemblies. He led a workshop about developing intriguing characters. He disclosed that he has a secret room in his home that he’s never entered because he likes the mystery, revealing a little more about him. He told a moving story that included how “The Draft” was done during the Vietnam War and how older men now, still remember “their number.” He spoke about stories starting with questions and ending with even more. All was inspiring.

As for my part in all this, I had none. I was just a parent volunteer at the library who caught wind of the Okay for Now phenomenon and was fortunate enough to see it unfold from a distance and as a parent of a pre-teen who now calls Schmidt’s writings one of his favorites.

But don’t feel too bad if you feel you missed out. Fortunately for those who live in and around South Pasadena, there are many opportunities to learn from and meet local and world-renowned authors: during events at the South Pasadena and surrounding libraries and at bookstores like Vroman’s in Pasadena and Once Upon a Time in Montrose. Check them out because these locations attract the biggest names in the industry!

The power of a book: there’s no telling where it’ll take you… maybe right to the feet of your favorite superstar author and beyond. Way beyond!

Dangerous, Common And Treatable

An ad from the San Francisco Hep B Free Campaign. Source: SFHepBFree.org

An ad from the San Francisco Hep B Free Campaign. Source: SFHepBFree.org

Originally published in The Quarterly Magazine, Spring 2015 issue

A deadly disease lurks in the blood of nearly 1 in 50 people in Los Angeles. The silent killer is the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). And a simple blood test for those who are more prone can easily be the first step in eliminating the devastating effects.

Though some may feel shame in being a potential carrier, this misconception carries a greater shame in not being tested and facing death. The truth is that Hepatitis B (Hep B) is a sickness like any other, passed between average people. But unlike other sicknesses, the virus often progresses without any notice to its victim. 85% of carriers have no symptoms. Undetected, HBV quietly replicates, eventually targeting the liver. “The main cause of death from Hepatitis B is liver failure and the development of liver cancer,” says Dr. Myron Tong, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Asian Liver Center and Clinical Hepatology at UCLA and Chief of the Liver Center at Huntington Medical Research Institutes (HMRI) in Pasadena.

This insidious attack can continue for decades until the damage is so great that the individual begins to experience severe fatigue, abdominal pain, or jaundice (deep yellowing of the skin or eyes). These are only a sample of symptoms caused by a distressed liver. “By this time, you’re pretty sick,” says Tong. Those affected “don’t feel sick so they don’t feel an urgency to be screened. [With advances in testing and medication,] we don’t need to see people dying of Hep B anymore,” says Mimi Chang, Senior Nurse Practitioner, Asian Pacific Liver Center in LA.

Looking in the future: This could be you. By the time Hep B individual is jaundiced, the liver is already seriously damaged. Source: WebMD.com

Looking in the future: This could be you. By the time Hep B individual is jaundiced, the liver is already seriously damaged. Source: WebMD.com

Because the virus is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids (like semen and vaginal fluids), one cannot get Hep B through casual contact (hand shakes, sneezing or sharing utensils). However, HBV is 50-100% more contagious than HIV. 50% of HBV is vertically transmitted from mother to child during the birthing process. Intravenous drug users, men who have sex with other men, and those with multiple sex partners are also at risk.

Immigrants (even second and third generation) from and those traveling to areas around the world where there are high rates of HBV carriers are also at greater risk. Some high-risk regions include, but are not limited to, East Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. 75% of carriers around the world are Asian, according to Tong. So in LA where Asians make up nearly 15% of the population, the number of people who don’ t know they have Hep B is an issue.

Endemic areas around the world. Source: HepBFreeHawaii.org

Endemic areas around the world. Source: HepBFreeHawaii.org

One of the saddest cases seen by Susan Lewis, RN and Clinical Hepatology Coordinator at USC, was in an educated family man of 28, raised in the US, who didn’t know he had Hep B but came to the hospital when symptoms finally appeared. He died of liver complications before his 30th birthday. But this stark outcome can easily be avoided.

“Chronic hepatitis B is a treatable infection. Screening of at-risk persons, early detection and treatment, when indicated, can lessen the risks of illness, liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and death from liver disease,” says Dr. John Donovan, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine, Gastrointestinal and Liver Diseases, Keck School of Medicine at USC. With education and careful attention to Hep B, Tong believes this health concern can even be eradicated in the next few decades.

Since 1991, all children born in the US routinely receive the Hep B vaccination (in existence since the early 1980s), effectively protecting 95% of those inoculated. But for those who did not receive the vaccine, it is still a necessity, so long as the virus is not in their system (only found by a blood test) and they are born to a family from outside the US where Hep B is endemic. For instance, a person born in the US in the 70s to a parent who immigrated from southeast Asia should be tested because even though the parent did not show outward signs of Hep B, they could have passed down the virus to their children. The vaccine is useless if an individual was already exposed to HBV and is an asymptomatic carrier. For these people, a blood test is necessary to be screened for the virus.

A doctor can then determine if a person needs the vaccine based on family history, or if found positive, the type of treatment needed (usually one pill each day until the HBV is under control.) The sooner it’s caught, the less damage to the liver and the higher the chance of survival. All pregnant women in the US are tested for Hep B. If they are found positive, the baby has a chance at a Hep B-free life if treated at the time of delivery.

If anyone has a family history of liver cancer or falls in the categories above, screening is necessary. Since physicians may not exactly know the people groups who need testing, it is up to the public to become aware and ask for the test. And money should not be an issue. For those who need it, there are free clinics where testing can be done and if necessary, funding for treatment as well. Visit AsianPacificLiverCenter.Org for more on testing in LA, regardless of race. Having a discussion about family origins and medical history can begin the awareness toward testing for a potentially hazardous illness that is completely treatable if found well before symptoms arise.

Join others on May 19, National Hepatitis Testing Day and be an advocate for a “Hep B Free LA” (a volunteer organization to help educate and promote screenings).

To read more about Hep B, go to http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/B/bFAQ.htm or http://www.AsianPacificLiverCenter.Org

A special thank you to Dr. Tong for his expertise in Hep B.

Grief in Good Times Through the Holidays

Originally printed in the South Pasadena Review 12/18/14; for my column, “A Stone’s Throw”

Image from psych central.com

Image from psychcentral.com

This is a season of celebration and joy. It’s seen in stores and along Fair Oaks. It’s heard on the radio and in churches. You can smell it from kitchens. We feel it in the air. But for those who have lost a loved one (and now I join this thoughtful bunch with the sudden passing of my father this September) mixed emotions abound.

I don’t pretend to be experienced in grief; this inevitability is still raw. But as I mourn and help my mom in the process as well, we’ve learned much together, stumbled through Thanksgiving, and continue to figure it out as we go.

Mom lives with us for now (2 loud children, a needy dog and patient husband among us.) We decided it’s best for us to be together. The boys have to sleep in the same room, though challenging at times, this has also proven to be good; they actually like it this way, now.

Mom and I are currently going through the seemingly endless “business” of tying-up financial loose ends, memorializing dad’s life with an engraved bench in Griffith Park (his favorite hiking spot), cleaning, and creating memories of his legacy as a poet and a “viewing stone” artist.

Random things make us break down at various times. For mom, she became angry when having to check-off “married,” “single,” or “widowed” on a form or cries when thinking about all the food she didn’t let him eat (cannot win here.) For me, I broke down at the grocery store after seeing a friend from the past. All are examples of just a few of the many unusual times grief has struck.

We fight the dichotomous need to hold in our emotions, so we’re not a blubbering mess at every turn, while at the same time, try to encourage each other to just let it out, to allow the grief to flow naturally.

When I want to cry, I don’t. When I want to hold it in, because it’s just downright embarrassing at times, my face curls up hideously in a last-ditch effort to control the flood about to erupt.

There is, of course, no one “right” way to mourn. There are, however, some good things to keep in mind, whether you are grieving or someone you know is mourning a loss (this may also include beloved pets). Whether or not it’s been a few months or a few decades since the loss, grief rears itself unexpectedly and sometimes so deeply it may seem no one can possibly understand. Experts say it gets better with time. I’m trusting this.

For now, there are days I am numb, emotionless even. Sometimes I am so busy, taking care of everyone else, that I forget mourning. But as a good friend reminded me, I, too, am grieving. When I stay in that space, I realize it’s the pain I’m avoiding. And as I read in grief.com, “Grief is the way out of pain.” So it behooves us to find ways to grieve well.

Here are some dos and don’ts I’ve found helpful or have discovered through research:

Do something for yourself, whatever feeds your soul (even if it’s “fun,” don’t feel guilty, laughter is also a form of medicine). My mom wants to learn how to play the guitar. I write.

Do think about children who are close, they are often “forgotten grievers.” Keeping old traditions during the holidays may serve them well. And come up with some enjoyable new ones, too.

Do things for others. Volunteer at a food bank. Visit those who may be lonely. A month after my father’s passing I made a meal for a new mom and that surprisingly felt healing to serve another.

Do celebrate the season. For me, Christmas is about “Emanuel,” God with us. So my focus here fills me and keeps me grounded.

Do rest.

Don’t force yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right. Allow yourself to be alone and be with people, whatever helps.

Don’t keep feelings locked-up. Talk about your loved one, whether or not emotions follow. Celebrate this season as you mourn and remember treasured memories of your loved one.

Don’t reject help. You may be blessed (and allow blessings to fall on others) in unexpected ways as you stay connected to people. This was definitely true for us in the form of friends giving us meals, to give only one example.

Though there is no magic solution to make the pain go away during the holidays and the “quiet” months that follow, there are ways to press into it and make it a time to celebrate the life of a loved one and how they made you who you are.

For dealing with grief, try one of these resources in South Pasadena: Jessica ChenFeng, PhD, LMFT (626) 817-2188, therapywithmftjess.com; Craig Clark, PhD (626) 403-0734; Jacqueline Woods, LMFT at Pacific Trauma Treatment Center (626) 808-4030, PacificTTC.com. Also, seek counseling and grief support in various houses of faith in the community.

Research credit and online resources: griefnet.org and grief.com

In Memory of Sang Gil Suk 8/7/39 – 9/7/14

Farewell to My Daddy: A Rock Star! A Writer. A Role Model.

Daddy Suk's younger days

Daddy Suk’s younger days

The Rock Star

In College I told a friend about my dad’s “Rock Show.”

My friend replied, “What? You’re dad’s in a band? He’s so cool!”

“No, not a rock show with rock music, but a show with stones, viewing stones.” Apparently, that was still cool; so we went and enjoyed a more mellow kind of show, one with peace and God’s beauty at the center.

These stones (or Soo Suk) filled our home, lined our walls, stairs and bathroom. Even our last name “Suk” means “stone” in Korean. God gave my dad a fitting name. And in turn, my dad gave my eldest son, his middle name – Ian “Stone” Wang. Even my email is stonemama@gmail.

And like a rock, my dad was strong, carved by God and one of a kind. His passion was to discover stones that told a story… of war and peace, a story of strength and vulnerability, and sometimes a simple story of a dancer…which brings me to his love for words.

The Writer

My daddy, the writer, the poet, not only admired beauty in nature, but he deeply appreciated the simplicity and profound nature of words.

He has probably penned over a hundred poems. And though they seem simplistic at first, they are pregnant with meaning. That’s really hard to do! The collection of poems could easily be made into a book, but he didn’t care about the result as much as the process of creating.

And that creative literary spirit was passed down to me. Nature and words spoke to his soul. It was his way of connecting with God, like it is for me. I now realize that the things he valued, I learned to value from him.

One of dad's hundred+ stones

One of dad’s hundred+ stones

The Role Model

My daddy was my role model:

He loved fun. He loved God’s creation. He loved animals. He loved people. He loved life. He loved Jesus.

He loved well.

Sometimes he took fun to an extreme. Once he was playing a game called “Bloody Knuckles” where one person punches his fist against another’s fist until someone gives up. (Kids, don’t try this at home!) My dad played this silly game with a co-worker half his age and ended up breaking his hand, literally fracturing it. Okay, this is not good role model behavior, but what I did get from it (besides, don’t play “bloody knuckles” with someone bigger and stronger”) was that even when you’re 50 (or 70 or 90), you can still enjoy playing silly games! (Only remember, safety first!)

He had no desire to accumulate wealth or power, but rather, he valued experience and beauty far more. He spent his money on trips and on people, instead of on stuff. (He’s been to Death Valley nearly 30 times and took people on tours at least half the time.)

But even more than the rocks I painfully stubbed my toes against, or more than the poems that are sadly lost in translation because my Korean is lacking, or more than the silly guy who would joke with perfect strangers, I remember my daddy as the one who taught me to enjoy life, to not take things too seriously, and to be giving. He would say, “you learn by doing, so let’s go…” camping, hiking or into some new adventure.

As a grandfather, my dad found a way to slip money and gifts into every meeting with my kids. And we saw him a couple times every week! At one point, my youngest exclaimed, “Harabugee is RICH!”

Yes, indeed, he was rich. We didn’t live in a grand home, but we were rich!

Socrates said, “He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.” My daddy’s genuine appreciation for the simple and small things in life made him wealthier than kings.

When I think of my dad, I think of the classic children’s book, “The Giving Tree” By Shel Silverstein. This tree gave it’s leaves, apples, branches even it’s whole trunk to the one she loved. And in the end, though my dad didn’t say much, he kept giving, just like this tree. Let me read the ending to this story…

“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy,

“just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired.”

“Well,” said the tree, straightening herself up as much as she could,

“well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.”

And the boy did. And the tree was happy…

And my dad was happy.

My daddy was my tree, my rock… a steady support. When he looked at me, his eyes sparkled with pride. I knew he was proud of me and that has made me stronger, too. His support has made me who I am today.

Thank you, daddy, for teaching me how to live well. I miss you. But I am excited you are in the best place ever – with all the people you haven’t seen in so long, a place of immense beauty and an eternal story to tell.

You are gone from here, but your legacy lives on in me, in your grandchildren and in all the people who were fortunate enough to meet you.

I love you. Though it hurts to not have you here anymore, I know I will see you again!

Daddy and me

Daddy and me

Olympic Freeway Murals Come Alive Again

Originally published in Fall 2014 Quarterly Magazine

John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo" - 101 Freeway at Spring St.

John Wehrle’s “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” – 101 Freeway at Spring St.

Larger-than-life faces, a child frozen in a handstand, flying mythical columns, and colorful cartoon cars stream by on concrete walls as commuters and visitors from around the world speed or crawl by restored murals.

This is Los Angeles, “mural capital of the world,” and home to the 10 Olympic Freeway Murals from 1984.

Angelinos are fortunate to live and work in a metropolis surrounded by public art created by esteemed muralists. But it is easy to take the beauty of the artwork for granted as drivers sit behind the wheel.

Yet these murals beckon and bend to the rushing nature of traffic. They were created to be experienced in motion – an inspiring backdrop during a hectic day.

According to Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA), “Although we were all excited to host the Olympics in Los Angeles thirty years ago, in my memory the excitement occurred as I opened the Olympic Arts Festival calendar and saw the opportunities to enjoy world-class art along with world-class sports!”

Unfortunately, mural art is more susceptible to not only highway expansion and the elements, but also taggers who illegally vie for the public’s attention with their own message, placed directly on top of the commissioned works. Because of this, Caltrans painted over the walls. And supporters of the original art have called for restoration.

On August 24 of this year, MCLA held a 30th anniversary celebration fundraiser to help the effort.

The original 10 muralists were honored at the historic Pico House: Glenna Avila, Judith F. Baca, Alonzo Davis, Willie Herrón III, Frank Romero, Terry Schoonhoven, Roderick Sykes, Kent Twitchell, John Wehrle, and Richard Wyatt.

According to Wehrle, “It was wonderful to see people … who went through the same fairly harrowing experience” of making art on the shoulders of some of the busiest freeways in the world (the 101 and 110.)

It was also an honor, Wehrle said, to be counted among the reputable muralists chosen “to represent a vision of LA and the chance to work with other visionary artists of the highest caliber.”

Wehrle’s 24’ x 207’, Keim silicate paint Olympic mural, Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo is an homage to the ancient Greek games and man’s reach into space as a Babel-like tower becomes the rings of Jupiter.

Rojas-Williams said, “As an art historian and scholar of murals, I’m inspired by the history conveyed by the murals in our city. The 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals were painted by some of LA’s most iconic muralists.”

The painstaking restoration is well worth the effort. Avila’s L.A. Freeway Kids took six months for preliminary drawings and another six months to prepare and paint acrylic onto the wall. The mural stands 20 feet high and 225 feet long, and some eight additional artists were hired to help complete the painting.

The mural depicted real children in Avila’s life, playing and running while wearing t-shirts of iconic, kid-friendly places around town: the Los Angeles Zoo, the former Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, Disneyland, and UCLA.

At the forefront of the restorations is Herrón III, artist of the Olympic mural Struggles of the World. Lauded by both Avila and Wehrle, Avila stated of him, “He’s my hero.” And though Herrón III has helped to restore multiple Olympic Freeway Murals, he has yet to work on his own.

Of the 10 original murals, five murals have been restored, one is in the process, two are candidates to be restored in the future, and two have been destroyed in a freeway expansion project.

Rojas-Williams adds, “Murals are important because they convey the voice of the masses, the disenfranchised, the voiceless. Murals serve as an education tool; they empower. They are like open-air books, which educate communities about their history … The 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals brought tremendous pride to Los Angeles.”

The 10 Olympic Freeway Murals:

Glenna Avila’s “L.A. Freeway Kids,” — 101 Freeway near Los Angeles St.

Judith Baca’s “Hitting the Wall” — 110 Freeway at 4th St.

Frank Romero’s “Going to the Olympics” — 101 Freeway between Alameda and San Pedro

Kent Twitchell’s “ Lita Albuquerque Monument” — 101 Freeway, Temple St. underpass
 and “Jim Morphesis Monument” — 101 Freeway, Temple St. underpass

John Wehrle’s “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” — 101 Freeway at Spring St.

Alonzo Davis’ “Eye on ‘84” — 110 Freeway, 3rd St. onramp (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Willie Herrón III’s “Struggles of the World” — 101 Freeway at Alameda St. (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Terry Schoonhoven’s “Cityscape” — 110 Freeway, 6th St. off-ramp (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Roderick Sykes’ “Unity” — 110 Freeway, Figueroa St. exit (destroyed)

Richard Wyatt’s, “James and Spectators” –110 Freeway at Adams Blvd. and Flower St. (destroyed)

To find local murals and learn more about MCLA, go to muralconservancy.org

The Edible Pumpkin Patch

Kabocha pumpkin photo courtesy of wholedelicious.com

Kabocha pumpkin photo courtesy of wholedelicious.com

Originally published in “A Stone’s Throw” column in the South Pasadena Review newspaper, October 2014.

Fall is by far my favorite season. There’s a chill in the air (however faint this year), leaves turn a brilliant yellow and orange, and whiffs of pumpkin waft all around. Pumpkins! I adore this autumn gourd.

Consider these pumpkin nutrition facts: it’s low in calories (one cooked cup is 49 calories); it’s an antioxidant, rich in vitamins A, C and E; it’s rich in minerals like calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium; the seeds have an excellent amount of dietary fiber and are good for the heart; there are more than 45 varieties (it gets complicated when you include types of squash); and as my second grader taught me, the more lines outside, the more seeds inside. (I checked the facts and he’s basically right!)

Though the pure inside flesh of the pumpkin is healthy for our bodies, many pumpkin products may not be as much. (Make sure to check nutrition facts on the package.) But they are tasty!

This year I’ve been visiting a kind of pumpkin patch weekly! Trader Joe’s. And my habit has been stretching my wallet and my belly.

I consistently walk out with at least three to five pumpkin items each time: Pumpkin Cream Cheese, Pumpkin Rolls with pumpkin icing, Pumpkin O’s cereal, Iced Pumpkin Scone Cookies, Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Spice Salted Caramels … )

This last week, I purchased three actual pumpkins to grace our front porch and welcome people into our pumpkin-stuffed home (pantry, fridge and people alike.)

As you enter my pumpkin candle-scented house, you will find me smothered in Pumpkin Body Butter, munching on a Harvest Salad with pumpkin vinaigrette, sipping Pumpkin Spice Coffee, and making Pumpkin Bread Pudding.

There are more than 60 pumpkin items in all at this one particular store. So really, I am just skimming the surface.

Though I may seem a little crazy I am actually holding back when I buy just a few items. Oh, how I yearn to try so much more and I probably will (like Pumpkin Pie Mochi Ice Cream, Pecan Pumpkin Oatmeal, and Pumpkin Cranberry Scone Mix!)

Trust me when I say, I don’t work for any particular grocer or pumpkin association in any way. And I assure you; I am not alone in my pumpkin headedness. On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Fallon even jokes, on more than one occasion, about America’s insatiable appetite for pumpkin lattes, another weakness of mine. (Does that even surprise you by now?)

Amidst pumpkins galore and as delicious as all the pumpkin products are, one of my family’s all-time favorite fall treats is my mom’s simple Asian Pumpkin Porridge with only three ingredients (pumpkin, rice and salt or sugar). I’m drawn back to the basic pumpkin itself. (See recipe below.)

So as you enjoy the plethora of pumpkin in our lives, don’t forget to enjoy pure pumpkin and celebrate our access to and love for it.

Final pumpkin fact: The word “pumpkin” was shamelessly used 40 times in the writing of this piece.

Mama Suk’s Asian Pumpkin Porridge

(Mom says that kings used to eat this in Korea.)

Rinse one cup of rice. Soak in water for one to two hours. Take a greenish Kabocha Squash/Japanese Pumpkin (about five pounds) and wash well, scrub even. (You can use any cooking pumpkin, but Kabocha is our favorite.) Cut in half. Take out seeds. (You can bake those separately.) Steam for roughly 20 minutes, until soft (You can also microwave about one minute per pound.)

Scoop out flesh and combine with soaked rice. Food process or mash the mixture. Stir mixture often in a pot over medium heat, reducing heat to low after boiling. Stir into a thicker consistency. Watch for clumping by stirring regularly for about 15 minutes. (Optional: mix in ½ cup milk for a smoother texture.)

Add about ½ teaspoon salt (to taste) if you want a savory porridge. Or add about one to two teaspoons of sugar (to taste) for a sweet, dessert-like porridge. Enjoy and make sure to let me know how it turns out!

The Magnificent and Mysterious Monarch Migration

Monarch butterfly prepares for flight. Photo by ASWang

Monarch butterfly prepares for flight. Photo by ASWang

The moment I laid eyes on a chunky yellow, black and white-striped monarch caterpillar (larva), I was hooked. It is colorful, peaceful and eats a lot. It’s mesmerizing to observe.

But all this munching is in preparation for something profound, a phenomenon known as the monarch butterfly migration, a fierce journey of up to 3,000 miles in about 2 months from this majestic pollinator that faces multiple perils.

After 12 days or so of emerging from its egg and 5 instars later (shedding old skin and emerging into a larger caterpillar each time), it pupates, turning into a lovely light green jewel of a chrysalis speckled with a shimmering gold crown and a matching golden arc pattern beneath, like a priceless pendant worthy of royalty.

Finally, after being motionless for 10-14 days, the chrysalis turns black, then translucent and the great transformation that took place inside is revealed.

A glorious orange and black butterfly emerges, about 4 inches wide. It takes within 10 minutes to 2 hours to unravel its wings, pumping fluid into and flapping them while they dry and prepare for flight.

But even more than being beautiful and graceful, the delicate monarch butterfly is relentless in its keen sense of travel and highly adaptable under pressure.

“They are incredibly robust in their survival strategies… They’re pretty hardy! To fly as far as they do, they have to be!” says Gail Morris, conservation specialist in Arizona.

Among all insects, it stands alone in its determination to survive by an ability deeply rooted in its DNA to migrate to overwintering sites in the oyamel forests of Mexico, the tip of Florida and the coast of California.

But this unique migration is in danger of extinction. Generally speaking, there are two populations of monarchs within the same species, one to the east and one to the west of the Rocky Mountains. And each has its own migration pattern.

The traditional thinking has been that these two populations are completely separate. But recent studies from the Southwest Monarch Study and partners who tagged monarchs in the West, found that some made their way further south, overwintering in Mexico with the predominant eastern population of fall migrators.

According to Dr. Robert Pyle, founder of the Xerces Society and author of Chasing Monarchs, “The Continental Divide is not the absolute dividing line between Mexican and Californian migrants, as has always been said. Basically, the westernmost (coastal, S Oregon, Northwest) monarchs migrate to the California coast, while some of the inland ones migrate to Mexico. We have no idea how many or what determines the destination.”

The monarch migration in the East is better understood and documented than the western migration pattern that is still being discovered.

The monarchs in the East begin their spring migration to the North in the oyamel forest, when the sun warms their bodies and conditions are suitable for travel. It takes about a month to land in the southern parts of the United States, east of the Rockies. The females lay nearly 400 eggs on multiple milkweed plants to ensure the survival of at least 3 into adulthood! The parent monarch, the first generation, then dies.

The spring migration is brutal. The bright colors on the larva and the orange on the butterfly is a warning that they are poisonous, but this does not deter some predators. And not only do the monarchs face wind conditions that often flow against the direction they’re headed, but also the cost of reproduction is a toll on their longevity.

The second generation takes another 4-6 weeks to fly further north, from Texas to North Carolina and even parts of Virginia. They lay their eggs and die. The 3rd and sometimes even a 4th generation continues the cycle and the journey north, finishing the spring migration in the southeastern parts of Canada and northern portions of the United States.

Then the fall migrators emerge. They are in a state of diapause, not mating and so are able to make the dangerous 2-month journey south to Mexico mostly and some to Florida. On this 1,500-3,000 mile trip, depending on where they began, the monarchs are faced with death daily from predators, disease, extreme weather conditions like storms, geographic challenges like vast stretches of water where staying in flight is critical, and a lack of milkweed to sustain their energy.

When the monarchs finally make it to Mexico they overwinter in the trees of the oyamel forest, clustering together to keep warm. It’s a joyous and wondrous time in the village nearby when millions of monarchs descend and the locals believe their ancestors have returned in late October around “Dia de los Muertos,” or the Day of the Dead.

The Monarchs remain there until about March, when this first generation begins the spring migration north and east to mate, lay eggs and die after an exhausting 8-9 months of life, arguably the longest of any butterfly. And the cycle begins again.

The western population appears to have a similar pattern of generational travel, having a fall migration from Washington, Oregon and the southwestern sections of Canada to the coast of California (some even venturing to Arizona and even the oyamel forest of Mexico.)

But travel routes during the spring migration north and the fall migration south to various overwintering sites are not so defined. And both the migration and the overwintering sites are in danger.

According to Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director at the Xerces Society, “There’s an art to preserving overwintering sites. Microclimate change can occur when just some of the trees at the site are cut – affecting humidity, shade, sun and protection from wind.”

Though disease and other natural causes threaten the survival of the monarchs, perhaps the most severe threat is from humans.

In the East, the growing culture of genetically modified crops allow for the mass dumping of harsh herbicides, destroying native milkweed plants, the only breeding and feeding grounds for monarchs.

In Mexico, the monarchs’ overwintering habitats are threatened by deforestation of the oyamel forest.

In the West, our drought problem and urban sprawl destroys the milkweed, hence eliminating the monarch’s only food source.

So it’s no surprise that the monarch population has plummeted. According to the Xerces Society, the eastern population has dropped nearly 90% compared to the highest monarch population estimated in 1996-1997, hitting an all-time low this year.

The western population has seen about a 50% decline (taking into consideration a 17-year average) since 1997 when 1.2 million monarchs were counted. The last count in November 2013 recorded around 200,000.

Though the numbers look bleak, there is certainly a surge of interest in preserving this natural work of art and vital piece of our ecology. And protecting the monarchs’ migration is to protect the monarch itself.

“The more you learn about monarchs the more fascinating they become… Monarch butterflies are also ideal for involving citizen scientists and for conducting research with students. This is especially true in the west where we are still developing a culture of effective citizen science.” says Dr. Francis Villablanca, Professor of biological sciences at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, director and research advisor for monarch alert.

So to become more educated and help the monarch population recover, try some of the unique activities below.

Visit an overwintering site October-February. There are hundreds along the California coast, from Mendocino County to San Diego, the only place to see overwintering monarch in the United States. According to Dr. Villablanca, “Two of the most spectacular sites are Elwood Main in Santa Barbara, and Pismo Beach State Park.” Another popular site is around the Pacific Grove Museum. xerces.org/where-to-see-monarchs-in-california/

Become a citizen scientist during the Thanksgiving count and help field researchers determine the total number of monarch (October-January). xerces.org/butterfly-conservation/western-monarch-thanksgiving-count/

Learn how to get involved in tagging monarchs and furthering the study of migration patterns. monarchalert.calpoly.edu

Visit a vivarium (a house of butterflies) Go to butterflyfarms.org for year-round visits. Or enjoy the butterfly pavilion at the Natural History Museum (April-August)

For a fun family activity in your own yard, create a milkweed garden and become a feeding and breeding waystation for spring migrators headed north. xerces.org/milkweed-seed-finder/, monarchwatch.org and landmnursery.com

Visit my blog for more information on monarchs and to read about my experience raising and releasing monarchs in our home in the San Gabriel Valley. annsukwang.com

A special thanks to those who shared their passion for and wisdom about monarchs: Angie Babbit, Pat Flanagan, David James, Sarina Jepsen, Gail Morris, Dr. Robert Pyle and Dr. Francis Villablanca.

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Quarterly magazine.

By Ann Suk Wang