Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tear downs and dream homes

I read with interest this NY Times story about the trend in LA to tear down historic homes and replace them with larger, contemporary houses.

'Historic' here, of course, could mean an 1950s bungalow. While it's easy, as a Brit, to sniff about the  historic value of a sixty year old house, it's true that there are some beautiful neighbourhoods, old by LA standards, which are characterized by a conformity of housing, all built around the same time, and some really charming and quintessentially Californian styles. Like the Storybook homes in Culver City and in Hollywood, the Spanish colonial homes on the flat bits of Beverly Hills and the mid-century boxes that perch on outcrops of the Hollywood Hills.

Apparently the volume of new homes being built on the site of older ones is on the up, and these newer home bear no resemblance to their neighbors. It's a trend that's ruffling feathers in Beverly Hills.

For much of LA the historical preservation ship sailed some time ago. This passage is from Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust, describing Depression Era Hollywood.

The same description could be used of the Strand in Hermosa Beach - although I don't think I'd describe the diverse architectural styles which rub shoulders here as 'truly monstrous'. I've posted about the bonkers patchwork of dream homes here before and sure, it's not very beautiful, but I do like the freedom of choice it represents.

Although I may not wish to create my own personal Swiss Chalet I can understand the desire to build something new and bespoke - and be damned if it doesn't match the neighbour's new and bespoke house. My dream house would be a gleaming white box, but I'd take even a 1990s 'palazzo' over a charming old beach cottage with 1920s amenities. You do see the odd run of older homes in the area and I'm glad they're still around. But I wouldn't want to live in one.
Sweet, but probably doomed
While in the UK I wouldn't have thought of remodelling extensively - that's the stuff of Grand Designs and a move to the country - here it seems less out of reach. It's not an unusual thing to do, and some of the homes we've looked at would require or at least lend themselves to a rebuild. The house we're currently eyeing up is what's known as turnkey. If we can stomach the cost, we would maybe make some cosmetic upgrades before we move in, like redoing the floor and repainting some rooms, but that's about it.

Still, the dream of finding a sweet little beach bungalow, ripping it down and building a gleaming white box in its place remains alive. That'll be the next house we buy.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Future Olympians of the South Bay

Sport is taken seriously from a very early age across America. That's why they win so many medals, I think. They don't mess around. TLOML showed promise as a swimmer from a young age so spent his teenage years in 6am or 7am swim practice five days a week, with meets most weekends. I don't think even the British junior squad practice that hard. Given the amount of money generated by college sports, and the difference a sports scholarship can make to a university application (not to mention tuition costs), it makes sense that parents would want their athletic children to excel.

Here in the South Bay they step it up a notch. It may be a Californian thing: the golden state is notoriously fitness focussed. Or the fact that the weather lends itself to year-round outdoor activities. Or maybe because there is a disproportionate number of pro-atheletes living here, from LA Kings and Galaxy (who practice in nearby El Segundo and Carson respectively) players to volleyball stars and pro-surfers, not to mention the little known tennis player, Maria Sharapova.

Friends have told us of incredibly competitive soccer leagues, where teams of 7 year olds are selected in a very serious draft which excludes any possibility of picking friends or cousins just to have fun. I see the crowds that gather to watch the 9 year old basketball teams play matches at the weekends. And a friend recently told me her 8 year old's softball team are playing at a tournament in Vegas - i.e. 300 miles away, in another state - in a couple of weeks.

Naturally I scorn all of this. And yet.. well, we wouldn't want Lady P to be left behind, would we? And what if she's inherited my athletic (in)abilities? She'll be the scourge of her school.

So we've signed her up for Sportball, a non-competitive coaching for toddlers and young children. Each week they attempt to train a handful of two and three year olds (which is akin to herding cats) in basic techniques, like running, or kicking a ball, or throwing.

Is it wrong that I was proud to see Lady P doing exactly what I would do, and using the ball as a seat? And this, when all the other children were learning how to bounce a ball. Her mother's daughter, indeed.

And just like that, TLOML insists we start bumping up our contributions to her college fund, in case that athletics scholarship is out of our grasp.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Happy Birthday Lady P

Lady P turns two today! And what a perfect, fun, sweet, smart, silly two year old she is.

To honour this landmark birthday I have baked a cake and decorated it with sprinkles in the shape of a number two.
We - and family and friends - have showered her with gifts. We spent a lot of time choosing the perfect toy guitar but I suspect her favourite gift will prove to be the umbrella her grandmama brought. She can wear a badge saying '2 Today!' all day long, to get the necessary birthday attention. And later, we'll go out for a happy hour drink and some oysters (mashed potato on the side for Lady P) to celebrate keeping her alive for two long years.

What's that? When's the party? The cake and the happy hour are the party, I'm afraid, and that's your lot.

I do feel a pang of parental guilt if I think about it for too long. I know lots of parents throw parties for their one and two year olds. But we figured we'd put it off for another year. When she's three, she may demand a particular kind of cake, and appreciate a few games, or at least a couple of other toddlers to run around with. Right now, if we tell her a birthday cake at 10am constitutes a party, she knows no better.

Don't judge us. From next year onwards. it's petting zoos, magicians and inflatables all the way. Or at least, we might invite a couple of people to join us for happy hour.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Happy Valentine's

Happy Valentine's, dear readers. What do you mean, I'm early? Valentine's is apparently much more than just one day.

In the UK Valentine's Day is grudgingly marked by couples who know it to be a marketing event established by greeting card manufacturers. It'd be churlish not to send a card, and the less cynical may go out for a romantic dinner or even exchange gifts. Teenagers no doubt agonise over who to send a card to, and giggle over the ones they received. But among anyone over the age of 30 it's surely known for the bobbins it is.

I'm sure for many people across the US there is the same level of cynicism. But here in the sunny South Bay there are those who would have this day marked as a holiday: the kind where you wish someone a 'Happy X', like Thanksgiving, Christmas or the Fourth of July. The kind of holiday which children's activities are themed around. Witness this email from Lady P's music class:
Just a reminder we're going to be celebrating
Valentine's Day all week!
If you want to dress in red, or pink, or hearts feel free :)
Also, have your child bring their favorite lovey....we're going to be "Dancing With Teddy"!
And the kind of holiday in honour of which you decorate your home. I've seen some heart shaped lights, a couple of flags, and also these fabulous Strand homes. I never see anyone in these houses but every so often the cushions change: for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and now... Valentine's.

TLOML and I will mark the day with an exchange of sarcastic cards. But since Lady P is being exposed to this cheese fest anyway, I couldn't resist having her make a Valentine's Card for the man in her life.

Oh god, have I succumbed? Is this the beginning of the end of my British reserve and cynicism? Save me! I'll be hanging up leprechaun bunting for St Patrick's Day before you know it!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Date night

Married life, parenthood, and finally our move to the South Bay have brought a certain predictability to our dating life. These days we're all about a place that'll serve a good steak, an interesting salad, and a decent cocktail. Preferably within a 10 minute drive. And I love it. I love our cosy, domesticated, bubble-of-bliss, life.

Once in a blue moon, though, I think wistfully of our courting days in London and Beverly Hills, and our time in NYC. In those days we went on the kind of quirky, higher investment dates that characterize an early relationship. Fortunately nothing as self-consciously eccentric as the gamelan concert a difficult ex 'treated' me to years ago. Still, there was a champagne tasting in Beverly Hills, that quest for Harlem jazz, and a burlesque cabaret night in London.

So when I read about an old town music hall which screens classic films in nearby El Segundo, I decided to shake things up a bit and plan a date night there. To butter TLOML up, in case the old movie didn't work out, we started our evening at Britt's BBQ. You know you're set up for a good night when you kick off at a place with kitchen roll on the table.
Then, after a swift drink in a nice dive bar, on to the Music Hall. Ticket sales are on the door only, 30 minutes before the show starts. My anxiety about facing a long line and/ or a sold out show were unfounded. A handful of, ahem, vintage people shuffled in ahead of us but there were plenty of seats to choose from.

The good people of the El Segundo Old Town Music Hall open every film screening with a Wurlitzer performance, a silent movie, and a singalong. Like the fanatics they clearly are, they've rigged up all 2500 parts of the Wurlitzer with lights so you can see it moving as it works.

It was quite the spectacle, though I could have lived with a slightly shorter performance. The plot of the silent movie lost me, but it was accompanied with great panache by the Wurlitzer. The songs for the singalong were a bit obscure (hits from the 1910s, apparently) so no-one really belted them out; still, when do you ever sing songs with a bunch of strangers? Charmingly old fashioned.

And finally, the movie began: 42nd Street, is apparently a classic from the golden age of cinema. At this point the night went a bit down hill. If poor acting, preposterous plotting and ludicrous dialogue make a great film, then I'll pass thanks. I mean, did anyone ever really say 'aw shucks'? TLOML's exact words were 'worst movie I've ever seen'. Far more entertaining than the film was the loud, rhythmic snoring - timed to perfection to blast out at pauses in the dialogue - from an old lady a couple of rows behind us.

Despite the film being a bomb it was a fun night out. A change of scene. And an evening which will I'm sure give us something to talk about the next time we go out for a good steak and an interesting salad.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Still keeping Hermosa Hermosa

There are just 26 days left until Hermosa puts the oil drilling ban to the vote.

With every week that passes a new rash of No to Measure O signs breaks out on lawns and fence lines. More Keep Hermosa Hermosa flags appear each week, along with cod-Banksy stickers featuring a rat and the legend 'E&B Oil Slick Liars'.

And for every ten or twenty anti-oil signs there's a meek one in favour of 'sustainable oil recovery' and 'protecting Hermosa's future'.

So whose side are we on? Well, I've been wearing my Keep Hermosa Hermosa baseball cap for almost a year now. It's clear to me that for the risks to the best little beach city are just not nearly worth the purported benefits.
More recently, Lady P got on board. She picked up a sticker from a neighbour's yard and insisted on plastering it on her bucket. She is broadcasting to everyone else on the beach the reported 9 Significant and Unavoidable Impacts of oil drilling in Hermosa.
Finally, despite being a man who doesn't like to wear his political colours on his sleeve, TLOML has got on board and posted our own 'No on O' sign outside the Sugar Cube.

The reason there are so few pro-oil signs out on the streets reflects how unpopular the position is. It takes a bold pro-oil person to actually advertise the fact to their neighbours. So it might be that the number of Measure O supporters is greater than the poster count suggests. Even so, it's hard to imagine the vote passing, in a city which prides itself on healthy living and natural beauty. Not to mention those steadily inflating house prices, which might suffer if a 100ft drilling rig appears in the heart of Hermosa.

And therein may lie the thin silver lining to the big dark cloud of oil recovery: if the vote goes ahead, and house prices do wobble, newcomers like us might get a foot on the housing ladder here.

Be assured, we are 100% against oil recovery in Hermosa. I'm just saying, we won't be leaving town in protest if Measure O passes (we may be able to do just the opposite instead).

Monday, February 2, 2015

In America, there is no gazumping

In a recent post I mentioned our hope of getting a foot on the housing ladder here. In fact we have just positioned one toe on the bottom rung: we've had an offer accepted on a house.

I have been reluctant to post about it in case I jinxed the whole thing. After all, we Brits all know of someone who found the perfect home only to be gazumped (i.e. the seller accept a higher offer). Or to discover half the garage is built on someone else's land and the next door neighbour has the deeds to prove it. Or that the back garden is included in some high speed rail expansion plan.

In the UK any of these spanners can be thrown in the works, after you've spent a lot of money on lawyers and surveys and so on, and before you have a legally binding contract. Until you've exchanged contracts - often a couple of months after your offer was accepted - you can't really start celebrating. Let alone create home decor mood boards.
Too soon?
In the US, by contrast, once an offer is accepted, the buyer and seller are locked into a contract. The seller can consider back up offers, and there are a bunch of contingencies to work through, but they can't just shaft you by backing out of the sale and taking a higher offer.

And another thing. About those contingencies. Among other things, this is an opportunity for us to point out deficiencies in the property and have the seller rectify them. Granted, this happens in the UK too. But in a rising market you don't want to negotiate too hard, in case the seller walks away. You might ask for them to fix the damp, but if they won't, and you love the house, you probably wouldn't push it. By contrast here we are asking for window screens to be replaced, the house to be professionally cleaned, the TV bracket removed and the wall made good, and other requests which I think would seem faintly outrageous in the London housing market. The buyer can either comply, or give us a credit for the cost of the work, or say no - but they can't walk away from the sale.

When I say 'we are asking for window screens to be replaced' etc, what's really happening here is that our realtor is running around dealing with contractors, getting quotes, visiting City Hall to check the deeds and so on. In the UK once they've shown you a dozen inappropriate properties (and that only because you've called them every week to remind them you exist) and you've finally settled on one, the estate agent just sits back and waits for the sale to close so they can collect their cheque. Here, the realtor's cheque is a lot bigger (6% of the sale price, split between the listing and the buying agent), but they earn definitely their money.

One last feature of the home buying process which still has me bedazzled: the standards. I mean, that there are standards. Standard contracts for pretty much everything. Standards governing how termites are dealt with. Standard time periods within which inspections must occur, offers be considered, finances secured, and so on. Hence no conveyancing lawyer, I guess. It's all very clear and predictable.

It's incredible. It's like the home buying process, but with all the crazy unknowns and risks removed. So in fact, without jinxing anything, I can actually say 'we are buying a house', and know that it is true. Right, I'm off to work on my mood boards.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Super Bowl XLIX: Highlights

Happy Super Bowl Sunday! It's a huge deal here. Everyone gets together to watch the game, even if they don't care about football. Not to watch the Super Bowl is to declare yourself Anti-American, and to open yourself up to social exclusion. And even if you're not into football, the ads and the half-time show and the overall spectacle make it a fun event.

TLOML follows the NFL season pretty closely, despite being a Redskins fan. And Lady P likes to watch and shout excitedly 'running running! man fall down!'. Personally, I can take it or leave it. But I do enjoy big budget ads and all that half-time razzamatazz. Our good friends in Manhattan Beach are equipped with several large TVs , with plenty of places to sit and eat their wonderful food, and watch the game, so we headed over to their Super Bowl party.

For those of you who missed the game, here are some of the highlights of the action from Super Bowl XLIX.

Pre-amble: some patriotic, soulful singing. Which prompted the thought that I'd love to hear someone try to sing God Save The Queen in the manner of a pre-NFL singer, warbles included.

First Quarter:  Lady P's attention was briefly held. But no one scored so she moved on.

Second Quarter: Some exciting play and a tied game at 14-14. Lady P discovered the beanbag game outside which it turns out has the perfect sized ramp for running down shouting 'wheeee!'.
Half-Time: Katy Perry rode a big lion (tiger?) and Lady P moved on to Bocce.
Third Quarter: Seahawks take the lead 24-14. Lady P checked out the action for a moment...

...but soon moved on, down to the garage to play 'pulling' (her description) and surfing.
 (And yes, this is what garages look like in the South Bay. Since there is no real weather from which to shield your car, most garages are converted into dens, playrooms or offices).

Fourth Quarter: the Patriots came back from the brink to seal victory 28-24. Lady P watched about 30 seconds of the game with intense focus.

 Then decided in favour of a story and some milk.
There you have it. TLOML tells me it was a gripping game. I will have to take his word for that, but Lady P and I had a pretty good time anyway.