Tarzana Is My Heroine

a poet considers the imaginary and reality of Tarzana

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Tarzana Is My Palimpsest

Since my mother died five years ago January, I’ve criss-crossed Tarzana scores of times. If my car had left marks (like lain rubber), the town would be a Pollock of lines, angles, and loops everywhere I’ve driven.

If my tires had been dipped in paint, the town could in fact be painted red, with the red and black lines all tangled up.


Tarzana Is My Palimpsest

Tarzana Is My Palimpsest (Coco Owen)



The vectors and loops I’ve driven add texture and depth–but they write over that page recording my mother’s last illness, which began Christmas Day of 2007 and ended when she died less than a month later.

The day she died was one of those freakishly unseasonable winter days. The gas-jet blue January sky was unclouded. After she was gone, something like a film of plastic fell over the board-and-care home and over her room, where I stayed with her body until the mortuary people came.

Once I stopped crying all the time, went out for groceries, cooked dinner, and paid the bills again, I started to make tracks up and down Ventura Boulevard as I retraced the page recording her death. Imagine my car as a huge paintbrush, as

I drove

south on Mecca, west on Wells

north on Corbin, east on Burbank

south on Lindley, west on Oxnard

south on Wilbur, east on Ventura

& up Nestle past Palora

to _________  [unspeakable street ]

where she died.

I started rewriting the story of my life by reviewing her life-story. Her life and her death starred in an elegiac group of poems I wrote, because I could keep her alive there–if only in the past tense.

[She wouldn’t like that I’m writing about her.]

I write about Tarzana, though the errands I run, the walks I take, the bike rides, further obscure that page in my mind that recorded her death. It’s become a palimpsest text–layers and layers of posthumous scribble.


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Tarzana Is What Paradise?


Tarzana Is What Paradise?

It is a finite neon thing;
A flame-out orange & spiky thing.
I think it is a final thing
I’m coming to understand.


Paradise, acetylene torch,
Lights us up but casts a shadow


Taking the shape of possible fates
Unrecognized as our own doing.


Tarzana is a paradise
Of Canada geese & lost dogs.
It is jungle-fevered profit made
Off twice-removed celebrity.


What paradise has lost its birds?
Has busy streets, but empty stores;
Not enough parks? These late fall
Days bring forth something amazing,


Something I didn’t realize before:
Birds-of-paradise die. Fall will
Come for what’s ready and what’s not,
For the citrus and the root crops.


It comes to the year-round summer
Spoiling us for anywhere else.
Our heaven is a tropical
Bloom wilting in the desert weather


Of someone’s paradise idea.
Whoever planted these flowers
Forgot they die. So did I.
Tarzana is my told-you-so.

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Tarzana Is My Inner Life

The other night I dreamed of my parents. They were younger—like in the family photos from the 1940s and 50s that I’d been sorting through the day before.

In the dream, my mother had a Solomonic question for my dad. It was like Penelope putting Odysseus to the test—to prove his mettle or his knowledge of her. This was a step too far, on the dream’s part, since it was my mother who lost her memory to Alzheimer’s, not my dad.

Mom posed her question. In the dream, I turned to listen for my father’s answer. I’ve forgotten the question, but he answered it, and she approved his answer with a nod of her perfectly coiffed head.

(Oh that Grace Kelly hair and the beautiful face she had!)

This dream is a snapshot of my (symbolic) childhood family, where I am the wayward, but knowing daughter, except there’s the absurdity that I’m the age I am now–older than they are–in the dream.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

I found this poem by Gottfried Benn in Poetry magazine after waking from this dream when our beagle barked to get out and I couldn’t back to sleep:

“One says: please no inner life,

manners by all means, but nothing affective,

that’s no compensation

for the insufferable

difficulties of outward-directed expression—

those cerebralized


I’m not sure what “city-Styxes” are, and I bet neither did Mr. Benn or Michael Hoffman, who translated it from the German. But we know immediately that it’s a heck of a portmanteau word that carries the extroversion of a city to hell in a handbasket. It’s also a clever half-rhyme in the English.

My mother, in her more righteous moments, would have quoted the line, “Please no inner life,/manners by all means . . .” when she was reminding herself or me to stay on the straight and narrow.

She wouldn’t advocate manners above inner truth because she disdained the inner life, she didn’t; that’s where she truly bloomed. She would have done it because “the insufferable/difficulties of outward-directed expression” made it hard for her to reconcile the contradictory claims of her inner and outer lives. At least that’s what I think, and I am the only one left to think about it.

Meanwhile, my father was an actual hick from actual sticks who rode a horse three miles to a one-room schoolhouse up through eighth grade. He was poor enough that he sometimes held up his “britches” with twine, and they never had store-bought anything. This was in Holt County, Nebraska, 12 miles from O’Neill, the nearest town.

It was his uncommon good looks that took the sticks out of him—he looked like a Cary Grant or Gregory Peck, with black hair and green eyes. I should find a picture and insert it here. . . .

My mother, for her part, had the looks, wardrobe, and figure of a Gabor sister, but with creativity and smarts to burn that weren’t called for often enough. It was because of dad’s looks that she first went out with him. After they were married, they were called “The Hollywood Couple” back in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she taught college English while he finished his degree at Andrews University. We’re talking 1952 here.

“the contraries are not easy to reconcile

but when you survey the provinces

the inner life

has it by a neck.”

                                   —Gottfried Benn

Tarzana, the town where they both died, is the “provinces” and a “city-Styx”—not so much a place reconciling the “contraries,” but yes, a portmanteau, hodge-podge place. The inner life can be a distraction here, though it may be the best thing going for us, as Benn states.

Are we hicks or are we mythic?


*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

In 1931, Dad stands up on the saddle on his horse Gyp and gallops the last 100 yards to school to show off. He’s 11 and doesn’t know till he’s almost grown that his father has followed behind him on horseback most every day to be sure he doesn’t get lost in a snowbank or a dust wallow (depending on the season).

And you thought ‘helicopter parenting’ started 10 years ago!

That was my dad’s Great Depression. That and leaving one Adventist boarding school in Nebraska after his first two years of high school for another farther away in South Dakota because the tuition there was $10 a month cheaper and you could pay your bill in corn or cattle. And his Great Depression was that drought year when the hundred acres of corn they’d planted yielded just one “mess of roasting ears.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

My mother’s father, William, was a streetcar conductor in Minneapolis and her mother was a seamstress. They went downtown and had store-bought ice cream as a treat on Sundays. That was an unthinkable luxury to my dad and his family.

These city-and-country contraries did not easily yoke together. Ironically, it was dad who was easy with all “outward-directed expression”—teaching, lecturing, telling jokes at dinner, or emceeing a church program. Mom organized things behind the scenes, wrote the annual Christmas letter, and read the books he then talked about.

Later dad was like Charon the underworld boatman, keeping my mother out of the undertow of her inner life, which came to revolve around a fear that someone was stealing her clothes from our house. But all the while he was taking her farther under.

Eventually her memory, and with it the paranoia, got leached away by the Alzheimer’s. Dad lost his keen sense of direction and his sense of humor to dementia, and there were no inner or outer lives to negotiate anymore.

Solomon, here is my question: Which life is the greater, the inner or the outer?


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Tarzana Is This Broken Glass

I’m having the gorgeous three-layered latté they serve in a glass at Aroma Café, the Israeli-run hangout in Encino, just east of the Tarzana city bounds.

I mean, four years ago that’s what I was drinking.

Los Angeles - Aroma Bakery cafe

Los Angeles – Aroma Bakery cafe (Photo credit: Waqas Ahmed)

There’s a large menorah on the sidewalk across Ventura from Aroma Café, just behind a fence next to the sidewalk. I think I remember looking at it while I drank my latté that time, facing out toward the street. The menorah belongs to a synagogue called Beit Yosef–the sign’s in Hebrew, so last week I stopped in there again and asked one of the waitresses what it said, and she told me.

The next two businesses to the west–Crystal Repair by Rattay and Tarzana Glass and Mirror–share storefronts. Isn’t that a little ironic? One shop sells glass (that breaks) and the adjoining shop repairs the damage. Meanwhile people at the synagogue pray for wisdom, forgiveness, mercy, and healing for everything broken. I am broken.

Beit Yosef Synagogue

Maybe the employees of Tarzana Glass and Crystal Repair have lunch together at L’Chaim Russian & Middle Eastern Cuisine just a little further down and discuss their mutual clients. Maybe they go to the Casa Di Tutti European Boutique to shop for last-minute birthday gifts. Next door, to the east, is Vino, the wine and tapas bar where one goes to enjoy oneself and forget.

Then there’s the Pizza Cookery restaurant, which makes gluten-free pizza, and a “Mediterranean Restaurant”–which I think is code for a Persian place whose owners worry that announcing that would hurt business. That makes me sad. Is the Valley a place where people can walk to where they eat, shop, and worship? Is it actually, in places, an unbroken place?

Crystal Repair + Tarzana Glass

A year later, I go window-shopping on Ventura again, a few blocks down into Tarzana. I walk along the gum-studded sidewalk. The gum is black and hard, like splats of prehistoric tar. I look at the darkened windows of Chocolate Crocodile but can’t see inside. What the heck is Chocolate Crocodile?

When I searched it on Google two days ago, it says it’s a shoe store. I go looking for Chocolate Crocodile again the next day and see that it’s closed. (I liked the name because of the alliteration.) Now something else is where it used to be. Right now I can’t remember what–and I just drove by looking for it.

See, my trips along these nowhere blocks of Ventura Blvd. began in 2000, when we moved to the Valley from the Westside, and continue. From 2000 to 2008, my parents went from various moderate cognitive and physical impairments unto their deaths: my father, in 2003, and my mother in 2008.

Point final, as we say in French.

Two weeks ago, my husband and I rode our bikes from Lindley to Wilbur Ave. along Ventura Blvd. It was easier to take in what was there, but it still went by too fast for me to register every restaurant, business, urgent care clinic, and synagogue.

I kept wondering how they survive, or do they? There are so many storefronts, each with its own style. Make that “style”. None look the least bit conscious they’re part of a neighborhood–they’re unique but indistinguishable. What makes it worse is that most everyone passes here going at least 35 mph. At that speed, it’s hard to absorb the feel of a place.

The only people I see walking along Ventura Blvd. are older Persian, Israeli, or Armenian immigrants–the men usually in a rumpled suit and the ladies in a simple dress and sensible shoes. Sometimes there’s a young mother pushing a stroller. Students from Crespi Carmelite High School or from the Armenian school a few blocks north of Ventura Blvd. on Reseda walk to the bus stops in the afternoon.

Since I mentioned it, I have to say more about Lindley Avenue. My mother’s first board-and-care home was there, a couple of blocks south of the Boulevard.

I moved her there in 2007 when I had to admit I couldn’t handle the level of care she needed at my home anymore. She kept getting diaper rashes and urinary tract infections even though I changed her last thing before bedtime and then changed, showered, and dressed her first thing in the morning when I really also needed to be getting my kids ready for school.

The board-and-care was a modest home made over inside to accommodate up to the six residents a board-and-care can legally have. It had a new front door with frosted glass and a white wrought-iron fence around the yard that was attractive enough, but didn’t match the style of the 1950s salt-box. You wouldn’t know that the fence wasn’t there for curb appeal, but to keep the residents from escaping, or know that the front door was alarmed and triple-locked.

I lose consciousness for a second whenever I pass that house. The day I brought my mother there to live she said, “Well, we’ve had a pleasant visit, let’s go home now.”

What’s most painful to remember is that she fought with her female caregiver every single morning at bath time. She believed the caregiver was violating her modesty, and she did it because that caregiver was not I.

But every day when the bath was over, she thanked the caregiver for her help. A year later, when my mother was dying, the caregiver told me that this unfailing graciousness of my mother’s so touched and impressed her that she knew my mother had been a great lady.


I poke my head into the Architectural Stone and Finishes shop a little farther down Ventura, past the motorcycle shop where several Harleys are parked. This is two years ago. The shop is brightly lit and attractive, but it makes me think about kitchen remodels (I need to do one) and headstones (I still have to order one for my mother’s grave).

Another swoon into unconsciousness.

Just east of Reseda Blvd., there’s another strip of nondescript stores along Ventura where the nations are disunited like oil and vinegar. Each plants its own flag, yet shares a border. Takzin Thai is two doors from the Tarzana Armenian grocery, separated from it by a knitting store where women from everywhere gather around a table and knit.

My mom had Alzheimer’s. (Have I said that already?) An English professor with Alzheimer’s . . . . The only upside to that particular curse was, as a neuropsychologist who examined her told me, she was so verbally and intellectually dextrous going in that she had a lot of cognitive resources that were breaking her fall into the oblivions to come.

The fine mirror of her lively mind became a collage of shards until she couldn’t even reflect on herself anymore. If only Crystal Repair by Rattay or Beit Yosef could have helped–if there had been some kind of spiritual glue-voodoo to restore her mind’s bent light, some Tikkun Olam.

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Tarzana Is A Small-Time Thug

iMob Sticker With Shadows

So here’s my question: why put this sticker on the base of a light post in a parking lot? Is it tagging-as-advert for the app? Is it “Kilroy was here” to other iMobsters?  Are they recruiting? In Tarzana? I looked for the Facebook address given under the iMob logo. Can’t find it. I did find out there are 40,000 users.

You may be asking, what is iMob? And you may say, look, the advertising worked because you’re writing about it!


So iMob is an iPhone and Facebook app–but of course you knew that. When I find it on my iPhone, the app’s blurb says: “Start off as a small-time street thug and work your way up to a iMob Boss [sic].” It goes on to talk about all the crime and mayhem you can cause. Such as, “Silence your enemies.”

Tarzana is a small-time thug.

The people I see around this parking lot when I come to eat lunch at Town Burger look like non-thug adults, 30s to 40s, who park and cross Yolanda to get to the Starbucks or Yoga Works or TJ Maxx. But half of them may be playing mobster on iMob. Someone is–the someone who put the bumper sticker on this lightpost.

High-school boys in uniform hang out in the lot. Small groups of guys, usually, talking and teasing each other. They look like they might leave an iMob sticker there, without committing any petty crimes.

Maybe they don’t because they’re decent guys; or also because two or three security guards are always walking the parking lot behind the stores and patrol Safari Walk along Ventura Blvd., from Whole Foods down to Children’s Place. Looking for small-time thugs and iMobsters, I guess.

I’m going to check the West Valley crime report and see what kind of real-time crime is going on while amateur thugs plan virtual, iMob mayhem.

Every time I’ve been to Safari Walk lately, there’s a landscape crew trimming the small trees along the Blvd. The crew wear drab olive-green uniforms. Two weeks ago, a young man from the crew was doing a particularly careful and stylish job on a young tree. I thought about going over and complimenting his work, but I felt shy and didn’t.

I’m a small-time coward.

My husband would say that was a crime of omission. Ok, there, I’ve confessed.

This is why Tarzana is small-time: the dramas are smaller (which is good), the crimes are pettier, the vandalism sillier, the boutiques are cheesier, the city planning’s haphazard, and the food’s just passable. It’s the small-time town our own smallness deserves.

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Tarzana Is A Neon Sunset

We were on our way home after a weekend away. There were mares’ tails striping the sky as we came driving back on the 101, yes, into the west. A knockout sunset got going. Not some schmaltzy, Happy-Trails thing, but a nitrous, virulent-neon apocalypse thing! The sky went skink-yellow, fright-white, bruised-peach. We tailed the red-eye of tail lights that starting blinking into dusk like the eyes of hyenas caught in the glare of a night-vision camera.


Tail lights on the 101

It was 15 years ago, in the twilight of a day like this one, that I decided to move back & be with you.

That day the sunset’s napalm colors came from the after-burn of a Minuteman rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base up in Lompoc. The Technicolor color riot unhinged me. I was wild for the possibilities of beauty, even if toxic. In ebb-&-flow riffs of conversation, you made a flaming word-cocktail out of something daily gone over to otherworldly .

Tarzana: I moved back for your Rocket-Man words, girl, & the fireworks.


Sunset on the 101


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Tarzana Is My Ripened Fig

It’s the end of fig season, but my new tree has only been in my Encino yard for two years so the fig crop was a total of one: just one perfectly wrinkled purple fig. It was petite, but buxom of bottom. Here is a close-up of some of the tree’s disproportionately large leaves. The one in the center could serve as a plus-size cover-up.

All leaves and no fruit

In 2009, I wrote two pieces (slightly revised here) for the “Give A Fig” blog of independent L.A. publisher Les Figues Press, where I’m on the board and curate the literary salon, Mrs. Porter’s. [N.B., Les Figues means figs in French. See http://www.lesfigues.blogspot.com.] I’m re-posting the pieces here, in honor of my one shapely fig:

1.  April 16  (re. Fig Etymology)
So here’s the fruit of a little armchair etymology tracing the connection between figs as fruit and Les Figues. “Fig” is feague—‘whipping’ or ‘beating,’ from the German fegen—‘polish.’ Feg = fake flattery = “fig shower.” “A fig tree displays its roots.” It also descends from sycophant, from sykon (Greek) also “vulva.” Yes, the fig/female genital connection is as old as the Greeks and older (see below).

On fig reproduction: “The tiny flowers of the fig are out of sight, clustered inside the green ‘fruits’, technically a synconium . . . In the case of the common fig the flowers are all female and need no pollination.” (California Rare Fruit Growers, http://www.crfg.org). Who knew the Inland Empire was a hot bed of fig hybridization? — the “Excel,” “Flanders,” “Judy” and “Len” varieties originated in Riverside or Pasadena.

N.B. I’ll remind you figs aren’t the only fruit where a whole stands for a part that’s a hole. The pomegranate, la grenade, does that too, & in the same Romance languages.

Figs are also fig.ures—they’re the dope on tropes, as in representation, con.fig.ured. Which shows off another con our forked tongue pulls off: con (French., n.m.), is “idiot” and “female genital,” pardon my French.

Fig. leaves keep covering up women already under/between covers (of themselves) — ‘down there’ where fig. figs literally symbolize.

Fig./fig, try out this: “I like to make things that look like one thing even as they contain another….”

Fig leaves are large; they’re cover-ups. Leaves go figure. “Leaves”—as a fig.—as pages of a book. Pressed figs. Paper was skin first, papyrus, then wood by-product. Paper grows on trees, & books would be made of fig. leaves, cover to cover.

2. March 3  (“Figs Do Put Out”)

Figs and Les Figues have started to meld in my thinking about ‘the Southland’ — the fabulous media market of Greater Los Angeles. We’ve cultivated orange groves, olive trees, pomegranates, avocados, vineyards, and figs forever, wanting to be Mediterranean. And more, the Southland has always been sold as a Heaven on earth. A bill of goods, you may say.

In church, they teach the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree as a lesson to ‘ya about having faith and the need to put out the goods. The tree got cursed for not putting out. My theory is that ministers use the story as a way to chastize their wives secretly, in public.

It’s true that figs don’t put out. You can’t ship them. They’re not commodifiable. They don’t keep. They’ll never be a lollipop flavor. You don’t put figs in a rum fool. When fresh, they ooze, then rot, attracting gnats. Figs are strictly hand-to-mouth. You can’t pick figs by the handful. To pick them requires deliberation. You cradle the bottom of the fig in your palm, put a finger on the sappy white stem and snap the stem from the branch. Otherwise you blow the top.

Figs do get themselves into jams. They like a chocolate bath. They sit on their netherworlds and deliquesce, wasp traps. Oh fig, thou art sick!

“Conceptual poetry is poetry pregnant with thought.” (Charles Bernstein)

I have a fig tree at my childhood home in Redlands. More figs fall than we can eat. They plop on the ground, bottom-heavy; bruised and stoic odalisques posing in a random yet constrained pattern under the leaf canopy. They may be staging a critique of Christianity’s prejudice against figs, fags, & fogs of doubt. Or it may be a visual poem honoring the slow food movement & innovative writing by women. That’s how figs put out, here in the Southland.