Erskine Offers Humor as Cure for Pandemic Perplexity

First published in the Nov. 26, 2020, print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.

Chris Erskine

The man, the legend, the mustache.
For those who have followed local resident Chris Erskine and his nationally known humor columns over the years, it will come as no surprise that the author has released an endearing COVID-19 diary just in time for the next Safer at Home order, with handy “Quarantini” recipes at the ready: stiff on the gin, salty on the laughs.
Erskine, who just retired from the Los Angeles Times after 30 years, has engaged loyal readers for decades by sharing his personal tales of hilarity, sorrow, sweetness and everything in between, often combined together. His fourth book, “Lavender in Your Lemonade,” will not disappoint that audience, and arrives in the nick of time, when readers are just far enough into the pandemic they can laugh over the confounding disappearance of T.P. worldwide (“the Charmin virus,” he calls it), but so deep into the solitude of separation that people are desperate for an escape.
Because, as Erskine writes, nothing is off limits to being joked about:
“To laugh at this awful pandemic, the same way we mock despots and tyrants, is to make it a little less powerful, to rob it of its muscle and ability to push us around too much.
“Laughter is like porridge. Laughter is the best revenge.”
And then, as is vintage Erskine, a punch line, kind of — one of his delectable, idiosyncratic teasers: “My buddy Tom just told me a pretty good COVID-19 joke. I’d pass it along, but it takes two weeks to get.”
Sitting down with the Outlook Valley Sun via Zoom, Erskine explained his inspiration for the book, a collection of daily Facebook posts meant for devoted adherents, dear friends, friends you can laugh at and others, he wryly added.
Ahead of his retirement, his Times column running once every two weeks, Erskine found himself with time on his hands. And in the midst of a pandemic, what else is a writer to do? He took to Facebook, a newer medium for Erskine, who wasn’t always well versed in social media.
“I’m one of those old guys who’s awake at 5 or 5:30 a.m., and I would just tap out a Facebook post. I’d never done anything like this before, but it was in the early days of COVID and we’d never seen anything like it. Writing is kind of my therapy, and I had a lot to say,” he said. “I knew that I needed to laugh a little bit, and it turned into a little bit of a morning pep rally. We all needed to know that we were going to survive this, no matter what.”
The daily posts, which garnered hundreds of responses and comments (that “oftentimes, were so much funnier and bouncier than what I had originally posted,” Erskine said, in a likely overstatement), caught the attention of publisher Mike Sager of Esquire magazine.
When he reached out to ask about turning the odds and ends into a volume, the famously self-effacing Erskine responded, “A book? They are barely Facebook posts, Mike!”
After some convincing, Erskine was on board. Part of the endeavor felt like an ode to his Facebook group, which had gotten him through some dark days, and vice versa.
“I kind of think of it as a plate of warm cookies … you know, it’s not life changing or anything, it’s just kind of a nice gesture to my neighbors,” he said. “It’s kind of a compilation of all the things we took for granted, and you know, I don’t think we’ll ever take it for granted again. And in that way, we’ll be richer and remember that even in the darkest times, there are things that can make us smile and feel better.”
The rest, as he writes, is the “Lavender,” the giggle-inducing explanation of bizarre yet delicious items one might find at Trader Joe’s, a jest to chasing down eggs at Easter only to come up with an empty basket, the alarm at not being able to see people smile or the chagrin of trying to order at the deli counter through mask-muffled grunts and hand gestures.
It’s a trip worth taking, to laugh at the ludicrous, even as readers slide deeper into the pandemic.
“I think humor is really the great unifier — doesn’t humor bring us together?” mused Erskine, who is finally comfortable with social media in the time of COVID. “It gives us that communal back-and-forth that I think we all need in a time when we’re super isolated. You know, we’re pack creatures at the end of the day, we need each other.”
As always in his writings, La Cañada Flintridge plays in the background, like his silent movie partner. He never mentions the town by name (“Partly because of potential stalkers,” he said, only half joking), but the Chardonnay moms, the hiking pals, the local watering holes and his trusty steed, White Fang, all ring sweetly familiar.
Erskine considers moving, sometimes, especially since his youngest, Jack (aka “Smartacus”), will be off to college soon. But he’d miss La Cañada too much, he said.
“I mean, I would love to move sometimes, but then I’d have to take all my friends with me. And, you know, there’s a lot of places that wouldn’t take them.”

Council Wary of Law’s Impact on Local Housing

A visibly frustrated — and at times, seemingly defeated — City Council dove into the weeds at its meeting on Tuesday as it sought to clarify the requirements of state Senate Bill 35 and its potential repercussions on housing density across Burbank neighborhoods.
Ultimately, however, the council voted 5-0 to resume discussion of the subject at its next meeting, on Sept. 14, after requesting that the city staff provide more details on the bill’s language and key provisions.
SB 35, which took effect in 2018, streamlines approval of housing development project applications that meet specified criteria, bypassing the conditional use permit requirement in cities — like Burbank — that have failed to develop enough residential units as required under the Regional Housing Needs Assessment. The legislation essentially removes local control in the approval process and prohibits the often nuanced decision making through which the council and Planning Commission decide if a proposed development is appropriate for a site or meets a neighborhood’s character. Continue reading “Council Wary of Law’s Impact on Local Housing”

Freeing the Treasured Forest of Trash

Takataka Club volunteers have bonded over their love and care for the Angeles National Forest, with members including Kamden Gray (from left), Sarah Culhane, Jeremy Culhane, Oliver Gilpin, Kirby Gilpin, Matt Culhane, Ellen Runkle, Patrick McDonald, Ruanne McGuiness, Valerie Botta, Natalie McKenna and Jean Pierre Mangui.

On a recent misty morning in the Angeles National Forest, a group of local volunteers wearing yellow vests and hard hats dispersed throughout the cliffs, making like bees to recover debris — trash of all kinds — strewn along the bluffs, an unsightly mess framing the view of the area’s majestic mountains.

That’s why, in fact, the group was there: “Look how beautiful it is out here — it’s just gorgeous,” said Valerie Botta, motioning toward the panoramic vista. “We’re so lucky to have this in our backyards, so incredibly fortunate to have this forest nearby for hiking and views, yet people treat it like a dumping ground. There’s trash everywhere.”

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On Happy Note, City Approves Music in the Park’s Return

The La Cañada Flintridge City Council discussed items on Tuesday that anticipate a return to pre-pandemic days, approving the revival of Music in the Park beginning July 5 after the popular summer concert series was canceled in 2020 due to restrictions set by the Los Angeles County health department.

Coinciding with L.A. County’s recent arrival in the yellow tier, the least restrictive level in the state’s four-tier Blueprint for a Safer Economy, the city staff told council members it is planning to conform with the protocols currently in place for outdoor live events and performances. Under current requirements, the city is securing bands and vendors to provide 10 live concerts (instead of the traditional 16), starting Monday, July 5, and every Sunday thereafter through Sept. 5. 

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LCF Library Turns New Page for Book-Hungry Patrons

Outlook Valley Sun Photo
Jerome Kim, with his children Emmy (left) and Ellis, were excited to finally return to the La Cañada Flintridge Library to browse and check out books in person on Tuesday after 14 months of service disruptions due to COVID-19.

The La Cañada Flintridge Library opened to in-person services this week for the first time after a 14-month hiatus due to the pandemic and resulting Los Angeles County Public Health restrictions to stop the spread of the virus.  

The library will open at 75% capacity, allowing for about 60 people to enter at a time, which is monitored by an electronic sensor at the entrance. Under the new L.A. County health guidelines and L.A. County Library mandates, the limited in-person services include the use of public computers, printing and browsing the collection. Masks are required, as is the 6-foot social distancing rule between.

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College Access Plan Pushes for Equity, One Student at a Time

Photo courtesy Dipti Vaidya
College Access Plan founder and Executive Director Mo Hyman has fought passionately for students in Pasadena to have fair access to a four-year college education — and all that it represents.

After more than a year of living under a pandemic cloud, College Access Plan founder and Executive Director Mo Hyman has found a way to celebrate silver linings.
And with reason, since CAP — a nonprofit advocate for four-year degree college access and attainment for underserved, underrepresented students — has achieved a lot recently to celebrate in 2021, its 15-year anniversary.
For one, CAP helped defeat the use in California of the SAT/ACT, that formidable and much-dreaded test that has long determined a college-bound student’s fate. CAP was one of six organizations that joined in bringing civil rights action against the University of California and its use of standardized exams in admissions decisions. The plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction, later upheld by a California First District Court of Appeals, barring the UCs from using the scores to determine acceptance.
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City Sends Off Prized Local Deputy

Deputy Eric Matejka

At its regular meeting on Tuesday, La Cañada Flintridge City Council honored Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station’s dedicated resource officer Deputy Eric Matejka, who is retiring, with a commemorative plaque and kind words for all his work over the years.
Matejka spent about 20 years at the CV Sheriff’s Station post, investing a lot of hours at La Cañada High School, other local schools and community-wide functions.
“We’re super happy for you but we’re a little bummed out that you’re leaving us,” said Mayor Mike Davitt. “But you’ve done such a great job in our city and you’re such a key member of our community and part of the fabric of everything that goes on here.”

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Fiesta Days Canceled Amid Hopes July 5 Parade Will Fly

Outlook Valley Sun file photo
La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce President Pat Anderson and City Manager Mark Alexander attend a former Fiesta Days celebration. This year’s annual event has once again been canceled, but a July 5 parade is being planned in its place.

For the second year straight, the La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce will cancel its annual Fiesta Days celebration held over Memorial Day weekend due to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting restrictions set by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
However, in lieu of the time-honored festival — a tradition since 1974 — the Chamber will plan a parade for Monday, July 5, pending improving coronavirus case numbers throughout the County.
“The decision to cancel Fiesta Days last year, and now, this year, was really taken out of our hands by the Department of County Health — all we could do was try to adhere to the orders,” said LCF Chamber of Commerce President Pat Anderson. “However, with the improving metrics, it seemed possible that we could at least hold a parade, and that seemed like something positive and hopeful to shoot for.”
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City Council Advances Pickleball Pilot Program at Glenhaven Park

Photo by Keira Wight/Outlook Valley Sun
A tennis player volleys against the backboard at Glenhaven Park, which has been earmarked for a temporary, mixed-use pickleball and tennis pilot program. City Council denied an appeal of the program on Tuesday.

Following a lengthy public hearing and discussion, the La Cañada Flintridge City Council on Tuesday voted to uphold an earlier decision by the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission to implement a pilot program allowing for a mixed-use pickleball and tennis court at Glenhaven Park.
The city received 83 public comments via email voicing support for and opposing the matter, as well as submitted, signed petitions opposing pickleball use at the park. Residents living in close proximity to the court in question spoke publicly, some giving emotional addresses in a bid to dissuade council from forging ahead with the pilot program at Glenhaven, known as the city’s smallest and most remote park.
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Food Pantry Feeds More Than the Hungry

Photo courtesy Yemi Kuku
With the pandemic limiting their volunteer options, Tony and Jacque Collier (above) spearheaded a neighborhood food pantry outside of their home in Altadena, which has fed thousands during the crises.

At the outset of the pandemic, Jacque Collier found herself feeling like a lot of people — directionless and bereft of motivation. But when she began having trouble getting out of bed, she decided, something had to give.
Collier, who in normal times dedicates her retirement to volunteering countless hours, was clinically depressed. And that just couldn’t stand.
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