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Happy New Century?

By Frank Gruber
Happy New Year -- although if your politics are like those of a cousin of mine, maybe you're not celebrating until Jan. 20. He told me that the new year won't begin until Barack Obama is inaugurated president. I told him that although 2009 did start last Thursday, perhaps future historians will mark Jan. 20, 2009 as the beginning of the 21st century.

That is, if Barack Obama as president achieves even ten percent of what his supporters expect him to achieve. If he changes that many political and cultural paradigms, then his peaceful inauguration will mark the end of the 20th century much as a violent event -- the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 -- truly ended the 19th. (When the 19th century began is another question -- in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, or in 1815 at Waterloo?)

I don't want to say that the 20th century was a miserable century, because it was good to me personally during the 48 years I spent in it, but let's face it -- for sheer scale and scope of calamity, it was uniquely terrible.

The 19th century was much better. Sure great strides were made in the 20th in, for example, civil liberties, medicine, and science, but in most cases the important battles were won or initiated in the 19th, with everything from the Civil War and the 14th Amendment, to the women's movement, and, with regard to medicine and science, to public health (much more important for health than any medicines or surgical procedures) and Darwin, who set up everything that's happened since in biology and medicine.

Sure you had the rigors of industrialization, but you also had such increases in productivity that there was no inflation for generations, and along the way literacy became universal in the countries that modernized.

As I said, personally the 20th century treated me well and I like the music and living in an age when we have some idea how big the universe is and how long it's been around, but it's time to move on.

* * *

When not contemplating the turning of the historical wheel, I spent the holidays in what people this year are calling a "staycation," meaning I stayed at home but didn't do much work. And, no, I wasn't unemployed, which is a condition that is going around like a bad flu, but I suspect that in these hard times staycations are going to become popular even among those people with incomes, because they're a lot cheaper than the go-somewhere variety.

We're lucky here, because it's easy to be a tourist in L.A. and especially congenial in Santa Monica, a genuine tourist destination for more than a century. My son Henry was home for the holidays for the first time since going away to college, and naturally we had a lot of plans.

Of course there was the Tonto question: "What do you mean, 'we?'" We -- Henry's parents -- had lots of plans to do all the family/culture things we rarely did before he went to college but which seemed like a good idea now. Such as go to museums.

But except for one trip to the Huntington none of that happened.

The Huntington is one great reason to have a staycation in L.A.; we went to see an exhibit about Charles Darwin's work as a botanist (he used botany to prove his theories about natural selection, because he showed how even though plants were capable of self-fertilization, they had evolved to encourage cross-pollination), but along the way to that part of the library we managed to see artifacts of the whole history of printed books and on the way back we saw what seemed like the whole history of science.

And of course the gardens are worth a trip themselves.

(Photos by Frank Gruber) The Huntington Gardens

Henry had his own plans; mainly, it seemed to us, to stay up into the wee hours playing computer games with old friends from Samohi, and then sleeping in all morning. We're happy that those plans panned out for him.

One of our traditions going back a few years is to throw a barbecue for Henry's birthday at the start of Christmas vacation for his friends. This involves roasting a whole pig, which then involves having our lives dominated by leftovers of roast pork. I'm not complaining, but then my wife and I compounded things by having some friends over for New Year's Day and now we're left with half a ham.

With Henry having gone back to school my wife and I are facing what is described in my favorite basic cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, as eternity: two people and a ham.

Lately my wife and I have been taking long walks in Santa Monica. We've always enjoyed walking from our house in Ocean Park to see movies downtown -- that takes us about 20 minutes. In the fall we became a little more ambitious and walked to concerts at the new Broad Stage at 11th and Santa Monica -- about half an hour.

A few friends when they heard that we walked to the Broad reacted as if we should get medals for doing our part to stop global warming, but my reaction is what's so virtuous about taking a walk in Santa Monica? Tourists come here from all over the world to do more or less that.

There are few better places take a half-hour walk than Santa Monica, except for when it comes to crossing the freeway. This is unpleasant no matter which bridge you take (although the old Main Street Bridge that was built before the freeway was built -- meaning it was built with a little style -- is not so bad).

I know there are dreamers who want to cover over the freeway with parks, but in the meantime, would it be too much to ask for the City to add some planters to the bridges, and to landscape the streets approaching the bridges, to make them more pleasant for walkers? (This is happening on Fourth Street downtown.)

Carrying on with the staycation theme, we took two great touristic walks the weekend after Christmas -- when the weather was unusually cool but particularly glorious. One walk was up the beach and out to the end of the Pier and back; the other was all the way up Palisades Park to the City's northern end and back. Talk about a cheap vacation -- but don't do it unless you're going to be happy bumping into people you know -- even political figures -- basking in the sunshine.

These photographs don't quite capture the blueness of the sky, but maybe they will trigger your own recollections.

And get you out and about.

Former judge David and Artist Bruria Finkel

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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