A Crowded Family Tree

Once upon a time, a child in a typical family had two sets of grandparents: a maternal and paternal pair, four grandparents who could lavish attention, tell stories about the old days, provide babysitting duties and dole out extra cookies and ice cream when mom and dad weren’t looking. Through the decades, adult grandchildren were there to assist their aging grandparents, offering help and hands, reversing roles and becoming the new caretakers.

But an explosion in the divorce rate in the 1970s, coupled with a rise in domestic partnerships across the age spectrum, created more blended families that have shattered the traditional unit. Ripple effects have continued to alter family connections and interactions, especially for the 70 million grandparents who now live in the U.S.

Some changes are for the better, others not as much.

“Picture a family tree of a child who had parents that divorced and remarried — it’s possible that a child could have eight grandparents, and even those grandparents could divorce and remarry and then that number is exponentially increased as well,” says Caroline Cicero, an associate professor of gerontology at USC. “[Multiple grandparents are] changing the dynamics of families because there are many factors. Issues also come up even when couples are not married, especially domestic partnerships in older age; these relationships can affect numerous family members in so many ways.”

A family with numerous grandparents can be “a wonderful advantage or a nightmare,” says Christine Crosby, editor of Grand Magazine, a national publication focused on grandparent issues. When families are young, multiple grandparents mean more eyes to watch and positively influence the grandchildren — which can help overworked and exhausted parents. What could go wrong?

Well, there’s a natural friction that arises between grandparents, says Crosby, adding that it’s common even among grandparent couples who get along with each other and are all engaged with kids and grandkids. “I think it comes to down to jealousy and an underlying sense of competition,” she explains. Who gets to buy the First Communion dress? Why did they get to set up the college fund first? Why are they going there for the holidays? Look at them showing off with that expensive gift!

The solution is communication, and while it should originate from the parents, it often doesn’t because parents are overwhelmed or unaware of a potential powder keg. “It behooves one set of grandparents to get to know the other set of grandparents and the third or fourth set,” says Crosby. “I think it’s up to all the grandparents to realize how critically important this is, and how smart it would be to collaborate with one another.”

Crosby tells a story about how her son-in-law’s family kept jealousy in check. “Recently I received two beautiful books of our grandchildren that the grandmother put together not only for Mom and Dad, but she sent copies to me,” she says. “She wrote a note thanking me for the opportunity to share these beautiful grandchildren with her. It’s thoughtful, inclusive; it’s all the right things you want to do.”

But there can be a dark side, especially when it comes to nasty divorces; a parent may
consider an ex’s parents — the grandparents — off-limits, even if they proved to be a positive force in the past. “Those grandparents get the shaft and it can be a very sad thing,” says Crosby.

Indeed, being cut off from grandchildren can be emotionally devastating for seniors. Created in 2011, the nonprofit Alienated Grandparents Anonymous (AGA) reaches out with expert advice and support to grandparents worldwide who have experienced unhealthy behaviors, unrealistic expectations and high emotions that have destroyed or critically damaged relationships with their own adult children and grandchildren. Today, there are 129 support groups (including some in California) throughout 22 countries. During a national conference call each month, grandparents ask questions, tell their stories and help each other navigate the choppy waters of family dynamics.

“Grandparent alienation is all about power and control,” explains the founder, who asked for anonymity. AGA’s mission is to harness the help of professional experts in psychological alienation and offer strategies for rebuilding and healing relationships marred by rage, fear, jealousy and even betrayal from close family members. The founder tells of grandparents heartbroken from being denied access to their grandchildren, especially poignant after an adult child passes away either from an illness, unexpected death or even murder. “Even if you raised a healthy child, it can be who they marry that can be an issue,” she says. After all, when your child marries, “they marry into the dynamics of that other household.” Toxic daughters-in-law, for example, can bring jealousy and insecurities into the marriage by manipulating situations to reduce the influence of grandparents.

In support groups or on AGA conference calls, seniors usually listen quietly at first. But after hearing inspiring stories of others who’ve closed the gap, many become active participants, learning skills to navigate situations for better outcomes. “We encourage them to periodically send a message of love to their adult child, just one or two sentences, and then tell them something about what they are currently doing to get maybe a response,” says the founder, adding that these messages can be sent via text, voicemail, email, postcards or letters. “These messages can be strong, simple reminders.”

Another strategy for grandparents who have been completely cut off is this: Create a memory box filled with photos, stories, pictures of presents sent to the grandchildren (gifts that often are intercepted and not delivered) and other date-related mementos. These boxes have proven powerful, the founder says, citing the experience of a 17-year-old who angrily confronted his grandparents at their house, demanding to know why they “gave up on him as a child.” The grandparents calmly presented the box, and as they went through the materials inside together, the boy broke down, realizing he hadn’t been abandoned.

Young parents today often have higher standards on what kind of influences they want for their children, says Joel Coleman, a San Francisco–based psychologist and senior fellow at the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families. “They demand certain levels of involvement and grandparents often can feel criticized and think that their values are being shunned,” he says. “There is a lot of potential for hurt feelings and misunderstandings.”

Alternatively, Coleman says that today’s seniors have a more active lifestyle than previous generations — and another source of tension can be adult children demanding their parents be “more involved with their grandchildren than the grandparents have the time or energy or resources to do.” Arguments can heat up (Don’t you care about your grandkids?) that can lead to threats (Well, maybe you don’t get to see your grandkids), which could set everyone back to square one.

With more people bonded in family relations — such as multiple grandparents — there needs to be a “lot of maturity and good psychological health for everyone involved,” says Coleman. “Learn how to communicate in a clear, low-key, non-
confrontational way and make sure there is clarity about expectations and sensitivity. Keep criticisms to a minimum.”

Healthy connections among adult children, grandchildren and grandparents can be a life-changing experience for everyone. According to the American Grandparents Association, 72 percent of grandparents say that being a grandparent is the single most important and satisfying aspect of their lives. “If grandparents are involved in the lives of their grandchildren, they feel younger and have a renewed sense of purpose,” explains Annette Ermshar, a Pasadena-based psychologist, adding that research has also shown that if grandparents have emotionally close ties to their grandchildren, they have less depression. Hanging around grandkids on a daily basis keeps “grandparents mentally sharp,” she adds. “Studies have shown that grandmothers perform better at cognitive tests if they have regular contact with their grandchildren.”

Grandparents can also feel more comfortable in the modern world when they use technology to stay connected to their grandchildren. “Even simple texting is cognitively stimulating to them,” says Ermshar. If it wasn’t for grandkids, grandparents might not be exposed to social media, Skype and other contemporary communications.

Likewise, grandchildren can have renewed respect and a sense of security when their relationships with grandparents are strong — no matter how many sets of grandparents they have. Says Ermshar: “There is life wisdom and experience along with firsthand historical perspectives that can enrich their grandchildren’s lives and give them a better understanding of the past.”  

Managing the Elder Explosion

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that the country’s senior population is booming. By 2030, the number of American elders is expected to outnumber the population of children for the first time, according to U.S. Census projections. Here in the L.A. area, between 2010 and 2030, the population of people over 60 is expected to double, from 1.8 million to a whopping 3.6 million.

Is metro L.A. ready for the elder explosion? How residents in a vast county that encompasses 88 cities and 140 unincorporated areas be served most effectively?  How do you effectively connect with a economically and culturally diverse region that speaks in 200 languages?  What’s the best way to reimagine the region as a place where everyone wants to stay and grow comfortably old with adequate support? Can L.A. adult?

Currently, L.A. County and city are participating in a three-year action plan to tackle some of the biggest issues facing seniors who want to live out their golden years in the Golden State. The roots stretch back to 2008, when L.A. County Supervisors created a Seamless Senior Service task force to explore how to best integrate services. In 2016, the county shifted into higher gear and instructed the Department of Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services (WDACS) to collaborate across 20 departments on the Purposeful Aging Los Angeles initiative (PALA), with the goal of targeting specific ways to make the L.A. region more senior-friendly. County staffers also reached out to coordinate their efforts with the City of Los Angeles Department of Aging.

The goal is to “improve not just the lives of older adults, but Angelenos of all ages,” says Joel Diaz, public information officer for WDACS. “Everyone is aging. We don’t want people to move out of the Los Angeles area, but stay here happily and engage with their community and families.”

An extensive research phase took place in 2017; WDACS launched a countywide survey with folks from AARP, the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and UCLA’s Los Angeles Community Academic Partnership for Research in Aging. Presented in nine languages, the survey was designed to learn more about the needs and realities of older people; more than 14,000 respondents answered questions on a broad range of topics. Stakeholders, advocates and professionals who work with older adults reviewed the results and developed recommendations; 300 older adults helped prioritize them.

The result? The countywide Age-Friendly Action Plan for 2018 to 2021 promotes 34 recommendations on how to make the following sectors more age-friendly: employment and civic participation, housing, emergency preparedness, social participation and use of outdoor space, among others. The emphasis is on practical and innovative ideas that unite public and private leadership, resources and strategies.

During its three-year lifespan, the Action Plan encourages and directs organizers at all levels to take greater advantage of resources and connections. Since its kick-off, new activities and programs have been launched. Here are just a few:

Dementia Friends/L.A. Found

An estimated 147,140 Angelenos currently live with Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2030 that number could reach more than 290,000. Research shows that the number of Latinos and Asian Pacific Islanders experiencing dementia will triple; among African Americans it will double.

In partnership with Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles, PALA launched Dementia Friends L.A., part of a worldwide campaign started in the United Kingdom to create dementia-friendly environments and encourage a deeper understanding of individuals with dementia. The public can attend in-person talks or watch informational videos that offer instruction on how to detect certain dementia symptoms, along with practical advice on interacting with afflicted loved ones. More details at: alzheimersla.org/los-angeles.

There’s also the new L.A. Found program, a spinoff of the county’s Bringing Our Loved Ones Home Task Force, which tackled the problem of wandering seniors with dementia. L.A. Found was implemented last year, providing families with a more direct connection for help with wandering elders who get lost. Individuals are fitted with a lightweight electronic wristband, called a Project Lifesaver. This radio-frequency tracking device allows the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to coordinate a countywide response when someone goes missing. Since its inception, two wandering individuals were successfully located within hours of the alert. “It’s incredible to see the effectiveness of this program,” says Diaz. He adds that the LAPD and local fire departments are also working together to respond to 911 calls and find wandering family members, sometimes even via helicopter. At the program kick-off last summer, more than 100 wristbands were handed out to caregivers. There is a $325 fee for the devices, although there are financial breaks for those with qualifying incomes. More details are at lafound.com.

New Freedom Taxicab Service Program/Volunteer Driver Mileage Reimbursement

Getting around L.A. County is a hassle at any age. For disabled seniors, it can be complex and frustrating. As of this year, the New Freedom Taxicab
Service Program offers eligible disabled seniors 60 years and older a monthly maximum of four free one-way trips covering a grand total of 40 miles. Rides must begin and end in L.A. County and can be arranged seven days a week; seniors can also request special wheelchair vans and/or ramps. Rides can be for medical appointments, shopping, banking, senior centers visits, volunteer sites and other reasons.

Still, some seniors (especially those who are more ill or frail) may feel more comfortable being driven by someone they know personally, such as a spouse, caregiver, neighbor or friend. The new Volunteer Driver Mileage Reimbursement program will financially reimburse these volunteers who drive a senior to needed destinations such as doctors’ offices and therapy centers as well as social outings. Seniors create a list of approved volunteers who can drive them and they receive mileage reimbursements for their approved trips (also within L.A. County) on a monthly basis, which they pass on to their drivers. The program has no limit on the number of monthly trips, but it caps out at a total of 250 miles a month, at a rate of 44 cents per mile ($110 maximum).

For more information, visit newfreedom.lacounty.gov or call (888) 863-7411.

Aging Mastery Program (AMP)

This free 10-week program offers core and elective classes that incorporate expert speakers, group discussions and resource materials. Each week features a different discussion topic related to health, finances and other concerns. Currently, the program is currently being offered at a select number of senior centers in the county, but more are being planned for the spring and summer. The participating center closest to Pasadena is the L.A. LGBT Center Anita May Rosenstein Campus at 1116 N. McCadden Pl. in Hollywood. Find out more at https://wdacs.lacounty.gov/amp/

Meanwhile, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted in February to explore the feasibility of creating an entire new department (working with? Los Angeles city? services) focused solely on serving older adults. This stand-alone county entity — which may be dubbed Seniors Advancing Gracefully Everywhere (SAGE), a moniker suggested by Supervisor Janice Hahn — could integrate services and provide an overarching strategy with perhaps a bigger focus on job training, employment and social services. Officials are researching the feasibility of such a standalone department and targeting what county programs and services could be included in that consolidation; a final report will be presented back to the board by year’s end.

No doubt, there will be many more chapters in local governments’ push for greater age-friendliness. Stay tuned.  

When the Smoke Clears

Last year California endured the deadliest fire season ever, with 1.9 million
acres consumed by 8,527 fires. Now insurance companies are witnessing
  an unprecedented number of claims and astronomical payouts. Indeed, last December, one small Northern California company, Merced Property & Causality Co., went bankrupt in the face of some $64 million in claims from the Camp Fire, the state’s single deadliest fire, which devastated the small town of Paradise. As a result, the state’s insurance industry is changing, and California homeowners — even those unaffected by the fires -– should pay attention to what could be coming down the road.

To date, more than $11.4 billion in insured losses have been reported from last November’s Camp and  Woolsey fires (the latter torched 97,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties), according to the California Department of Insurance. The number represents 13,000 insured homes and businesses whose owners lodged more than 46,000 claims, as reported by insurers.

According to U.S. Climate Prediction Center forecasters, almost half of California has an elevated risk for fires, and there are 15.5 million people living in critical areas — including parts of Los Angeles. “Change is on the horizon,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a research analyst with Value Penguin, an analytic research company that tracks the insurance industry. “With the record damage last year, we are already seeing major insurers talking about applying to the Department of Insurance to raise rates. They need their customers to pay higher rates so they, in turn, can pay out the claims.” How much the increase would be depends on many factors, but experts say homeowners can expect to see policy changes in 18 months to three years from now.

Also, insurance companies will likely not renew policyholders considered too high a risk and longtime loyal customers may find themselves unceremoniously dropped. As ruthless as that sounds, insurers “have the right to do that,” says Fitzpatrick. “They can cancel you in 30 days if they [reinspect a property and] see something they don’t like, or even if they don’t want to be in that area anymore,” says Paul Diaz, an independent insurance agent based in Eagle Rock. “That goes for all areas that have homes up against the hills and mountains — La Caňada, La Crescenta, Altadena, Monrovia, Glendora, Sierra Madre. Homeowners in those areas could have their policies dropped and they may have a tough time finding another one.”

The definition of a high-fire-risk area is shifting, and homeowners who previously were in the low-risk category may get a rude awakening, thanks to sophisticated modeling programs — and maybe their neighbors. Using geo-mapping data and satellite imagery, these high-tech wildfire models that predict losses and assess risks consider the home’s natural features, the density of surrounding vegetation, access roads and historical wind patterns. But this evaluator model “also looks beyond the individual home to a designated perimeter around the home that’s maybe 250 yards, a quarter of a mile or greater,” says Joel Laucher, a special consultant at the California Department of Insurance. “People are used to insurers just looking at their own home, but that’s changing,” says Laucher,  adding that even if homeowners do everything they can to reduce risks, they still may get higher premiums or a cancellation because of their neighbors’ houses and/or the surrounding community. The 2018 fires taught insurers that, according to Laucher, “mitigating fire risk is a community effort.”

In the past, insurance carriers lumped homeowners together in zip codes and city boundaries. Now, insurers realize that risk can change dramatically within those distinct areas; risks are being pinpointed today on a near-granular level. Think about your zip code, says Laucher. “Some areas are more of a flatland, others are hilly. Are fire trucks going to have it easy to get to the house? What happens if that big tree falls over and blocks access? These are questions being asked.”

With all these changes in the insurance industry, what can — and should — homeowners do? Just as temblors prompt homeowners to reassess their earthquake preparedness, wildfires should nudge people “to inspect their insurance policies and update if necessary,” says Mel Cohen, an independent insurance agent in Pasadena in business since the 1970s. “You as a homeowner need to know what the rebuilding costs will be to adequately replace your home. So many people think, ‘Oh, I’m covered,’ but maybe that policy is 15 years old and what they have is not enough to cover rebuilding costs in this current climate.”

Estimated replacement costs have been moving upward, but only recently have they skyrocketed. “In 1977, we used $32 per square foot as the baseline number to rebuild a like-kind quality structure,” says Cohen. “But as of the Station Fire in 2016, that number went up to $200 per square foot. And now with these last fires, we think that number should be about $300 per square foot to cover construction costs.” And Cohen’s estimations may be on the low side; Laucher has heard of locations with estimates of $700 or $800 per square foot. Homeowners who want a second opinion can hire a professional appraiser — just make sure your insurer will accept that estimate. Check to see that your policy adequately covers personal property inside the house; expensive jewelry, artwork, antiques may need additional coverage. Finally, make sure you have coverage for living expenses if your home needs to be rebuilt.

If Your Policy Gets Dropped

Homeowners who receive a cancellation notice will have 45 days to find replacement coverage. But don’t worry yet; California is known as a competitive market when it comes to insurance. “Just because one insurer rejects you, doesn’t mean they all will,” says Fitzpatrick. Check out the listing of statewide insurance carriers on the California Department of Insurance website (insurance.ca.gov), which also has numerous interactive tools to help you navigate the process. Fitzpatrick also suggests reaching out to independent agents who represent a variety of carriers.

Shopping around could be advisable for everyone, not just those who have been dropped. “There can be benefits to being a loyal customer, but sometimes a new policy may be cheaper,” says Fitzpatrick. “Be sure you’re taking advantage of all the available discounts such as smart devices, damage mitigation, etc. Check and see if you quality for a premium discount, too.”

If all fails, the California Fair Plan offers basic private coverage to homeowners; supplemental policies to provide liability protection can also be purchased to wrap around bare-bones coverage. Remember, you have an ally in the California Department of Insurance, which can provide assistance and resources.

Similar turbulence around insurance rates and coverage is being played out in other parts of the country facing their own natural disasters. “So much of insurer analysis, the risks vs. the payouts, is dependent on local vulnerabilities,” says Fitzpatrick. “You see the same thing happening in hurricane-vulnerable areas of the East Coast, for example. Natural disasters are a reality we are all facing these days.”


Turtle Whacks

The 5:30 a.m. knock on the door on Nov. 9, 2018, wakened Malibu residents Susan Tellem and husband Marshall Thompson abruptly. “Get out, pack up and get out,” their neighbor told them. “The fire is almost here.”

The couple raced out of their 1978 home and scoured their 1.5-acre property to pack up as many sulcatas, box turtles and Russian tortoises as they could. In addition to day jobs, the couple operates the American Tortoise Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues and adopts out turtles and tortoises worldwide (tortoise.com). Started in 1990, the nonprofit has helped find suitable homes for more than 4,000 shelled critters and care for the unadoptable ones.

As fate would have it, the couple had not unpacked their personal go-bags from a previous evacuation only a few weeks prior. Wrangling the animals proved difficult; Tellem and Thompson gathered up about half of their charges, about 50 turtles and tortoises from the sanctuary and hospital treatment building. They filled the turtle pond, placed all the captured animals (including three cats) into their two cars and sped off.

After driving to Zuma Beach and sleeping with their menagerie in their cars that night, the couple learned their house and sanctuary — along with 15 other homes on their street — did not make it. “We were prepared for the loss when we went back,” she says. “But it was still very hard to see everything gone.” Amazingly, though, almost all the critters left behind — turtles, tortoises and two roosters — survived.

On paper, Tellem and Thompson were fire-ready; brush was amply cut back from their home and other structures. They used fire-resistant cement-board siding and fireproof paint on their house, deck and sanctuary housing. “The fire department loved us because we were on top of it all,” says Tellem. None of that mattered, however, against 3,000-degree heat that melted cages and plastic tubs.

The couple is in the process of rebuilding; the sanctuary is back in working order with turtles and tortoises wandering once again in their familiar habitat. A recent fundraiser is helping to support the onsite hospital which was completely destroyed. The pond has been covered with chain link to keep away raccoons; the previous electric fence burnt and there is currently no electricity.

The rescue operation has good insurance through AARP, and Tellem says she’s learned so much already about the insurance process through this whole ordeal. Her advice to homeowners everywhere: Look at your policy every year and update it. Get the lowest deductible limits that you can afford. If possible, ask someone to look at your property and provide a second opinion if you have any doubts about what level of coverage you should have. Make sure you have a detailed inventory of your home’s assets in writing or on video. “Document every phone call and email contact you have with your insurer,” she says. “Record date, the time, who you spoke to and what you talked about. It’s critical to keep good records.”

The couple is also considering installing other mitigation equipment, including an outdoor sprinkler system with heat sensors that release flame retardants in the event of a wildfire.

Today, Tellem and Thompson are renting a house about 10 minutes from their property. When Tellem goes to feed and water the critters, she passes by charred rubble where a statue of St. Francis stood for many years. The statue was there after the fire, and Tellem credits the saint for watching over the turtles the couple could not find the morning they evacuated. “St. Francis protected the animals we couldn’t catch,” she says.

Sadly, that property, like so many other homeowners in the fire-ravaged landscape, has recently been targeted by thieves. “We have had to put locks on everything, but I never imagined that someone would steal St. Francis,” Tellem says about a final gut-wrenching loss from this fire. “That truly breaks my heart.”

          B.R.

The functional fitness workout method strengthens your ability to accomplish everyday tasks

On an early Sunday morning, the blaring horns from the “Rocky Theme” echo off the gym walls at Function and Fitness in La Crescenta. My workout buddies and I stop chatting as our effervescent coach Jessica Rose hollers a long “Woooohooo,” while raising her arms and racing around the room. Grab your water bottles, folks. The Sunday sweat session has officially begun.

Class participants of all ages, sizes and athletic abilities gather around Coach Jess as she demonstrates the morning’s exercises. There are side lunges. Kettlebell swings. Squatting with sand bags. Chest presses with the TRX Suspension Trainer. The dreaded burpee. We hear a rendition of her silly “Hinge Song” reminding us about proper form. Demonstrating a plank pose, she admonishes us that, “Even though we are on Honolulu Avenue, this is no time to do the hula. Keep those hips up!”

Finally armed with our workout regimen, Coach Jess leads us in a warm-up before beginning a 45-minute routine specifically crafted to target common movements and muscle groups that assist us in our daily lives. It’s sweaty, exhausting, challenging and, yes, I’ll admit it, fun.

The motto “Train Movements, Not Muscles” is displayed on the wall, a subtle reminder that this place — like a growing number of fitness facilities — embraces a functional fitness training concept that doesn’t promise you six-pack abs or deeply chiseled biceps. Your reward is being able to easily master a flight of steps, effortlessly squat down to pick up a dropped iPhone and comfortably place your carry-on luggage in the overhead bin.

Indeed, functional fitness has hit the mainstream. Self magazine calls it one of the “Ten Biggest Fitness Trends of 2018,” but many coaches, devotees and others in the fitness industry say this workout method has been around for years — there’s just a new light shining on it.

Maybe the heightened attention comes from aging Baby Boomers who want to stay in shape but don’t strive to be super hard-core athletes. According to the Mayo Clinic, “This type of training, properly applied, can make everyday activities easier, reduce your risk of injury and improve your quality of life…. [It can help] older adults improve balance, agility and muscle strength, and reduce the risk of falls.”

According to Christine Clark, owner of Function and Fitness, there are six main functional movements that are usually incorporated into her facility’s workouts: squats, lunges, rotations, hip hinging, pushing and pressing. “What we do is teach basic patterns of movements because every day we push, every day we pull, every day we lunge, hinge and squat. Our hope is that you take the stuff you learn here and apply it outside — at work, at home, the store, wherever — so you can stay healthy and safe.” Clark explains that the idea is to prevent the type of injuries most people suffer, usually from doing something as mundane as putting groceries in the car. “People typically throw out their backs because they haven’t strengthened those rotational movements,” she adds.

Today, all of Clark’s exercise classes are led by coaches who supervise the carefully programmed weekly small and large group sessions that build upon the prior week.

Clark started her fitness career as an instructor at a big-box gym and then met clients in rental spaces until she opened up this workout facility in 2014. At fitness conferences, she sees new expensive equipment for sale and crazy workout techniques. “But you won’t see any of them the next year because they didn’t catch on. You know what works? Good old-fashioned dumbbells, kettlebells and resistance training.”

Indeed, the power of functional training is vital as we age, contends Tom Strafaci, owner of Functional Fitness, which has locations in Monrovia and Arcadia. Most of Strafaci’s clients are older — and many come to the facility “fearful of movement,” he says. “Often simple things, like climbing stairways, getting into a car or using the toilet can be difficult for older people,” he says. Strafaci and his coaching staff train one-on-one for a more personalized exercise session. They know their clients’ backstories; many have diabetes or knee replacements or a history of heart attacks and strokes.

“Sometimes a good workout that day doesn’t mean sweating like crazy,” he says of his individualized approach. “Maybe it’s a series of eye drills to help with balance because that function is way off that day. We meet clients where they are at that moment. Our goal is to train clients so they can maintain their independence.”

With more than 34 years in the world of fitness (including a previous career as a physical therapist), Strafaci has seen many fads come and go, but he’s excited about one of the industry’s newest trends. “It’s not a piece of equipment,” he explains. “It’s better-educated trainers who have college degrees and know what is really important. We now better understand the body and how it moves and ages — and we know how best to keep it working.”

Enter a cozy workout space on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock and you will see the customary weight rack, stability balls and balance boards — as well as numerous oversized hooks placed on walls at different heights. This is where class participants attach the resistance tubing that is a hallmark of The Dynamic Advantage boutique fitness center. The mini watering-hose-like tubing comes in six colors indicating levels of resistance from three to 90 pounds which, when combined with other functional movements, can challenge pros as well as novices.

One afternoon, Coach Marlene Maroun-Flowers leads a small group through a series of fast-paced but carefully timed exercise sets. After warming up and working with hand weights, participants fasten colored tubing at various heights for specific exercises with whimsical names like “the power bar” or “coffee cup row.” “Bow down and keep your chest up high!” exclaims Coach Marlene.

The tubing is “versatile, safe, efficient and effective. It allows people to train in a way that gives them a multitude of options without a lot of excessive gear,” says Brandon Flowers, who owns the studio with fitness partner Rick Caputo. The duo has been training clients since the 1990s; they capitalized on their love of fitness when both were laid off from their corporate gigs — Caputo in aerospace and Flowers from insurance. After receiving certification, the two trained clients in their homes and rented spaces before opening a studio in Eagle Rock in 2001; they moved to their current location in 2012.

Understanding and strengthening the biomechanics of movement is at the heart of the workouts. The two stress the concept of micro-progressions — that is, encouraging clients to intensify their workouts at a slow but steady pace. “What we do here is focus on correct movements that strengthen muscle, posture and balance,” says Caputo.

A client’s age and ability may influence the intensity of the move but, as Flowers says, “No matter what condition you have — injury, illness — your elbow is your elbow. Your knee is your knee. They all do the same function. At the beginning, we give clients the proper dosage of exercise and they slowly creep up with ability and confidence.”

Dynamic Advantage opened with only one workout session a week; now 24 sessions are offered at their main location, and other weekly classes are held at the Cancer Support Community Pasadena and onsite at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The mix of exercises is excellent and uses the whole body,” says Mike Kleine, an acquisition advisor at JPL who has been participating in the Dynamic Advantage sessions at the space-research facility for nine years.

An avid fitness nut, Kleine says functional training complements his other activities — Pilates, cycling, skiing, hiking, kayaking and running. People often mistake him for a much younger man (he’s 69), and he credits that to spending more time moving. “I don’t take the shuttle around the JPL campus, I walk,” he says. Like many, Kleine wants his fitness to propel him into the future. “I’ve seen so many young vibrant people bent over, heavy with weight and with poor posture. It’s painful to see,” he adds. “When I’m older, I want to hike the landscape, not see it from a tour bus.”

Flowers says that’s the highest compliment he or anyone in the fitness industry can hear from clients who embrace functional fitness. “We have a lot of people who are in their 70s and 80s and who travel a lot — and they are able to do that because of their fitness levels,” he says. “They are out there living their lives and that is huge. We keep telling everyone that the road to fitness really has no finish line. You are on
it for life.”

From its Pasadena office, China’s Alibaba Pictures is quietly making incursions into Hollywood.

Alibaba Pictures, somewhat hidden in the Pasadena Playhouse Plaza, presents itself with a modesty at odds with Tinseltown’s tendency for hyperbole. In fact, relatively little fanfare accompanied the arrival of this film unit of China’s multinational technology behemoth, Alibaba Group (ranked among the world’s 10 most valuable and successful brands by the brand equity database BrandZ for the first time this year). Alibaba Pictures opened up shop in a 22,000-square-foot office in Pasadena in 2016. 

Since its landing in metro Hollywood, Alibaba Pictures has been working on a handful of deals, investing in a few film productions and distributions, and keeping, at least by in-your-face American standards, a rather low profile. The Pasadena office didn’t respond to interview requests.

But in an interview with Pasadena-based East West Bank, Alibaba Pictures President Wei Zhang describes the client company’s mission here. “We see ourselves as a platform company,” she said. “Our goal in entertainment is not just to make a few movies. We’re not here to create another traditional movie studio…We are a new movie infrastructure company with Internet DNA; we use technology, data and our ecosystem to bring more efficiency and transparency to the filmmaking process.” Zhang describes her goal as growing Alibaba’s role as a gateway between Hollywood and China by developing appropriate content for Chinese movie audiences. And those audiences are expected to grow into the world’s largest, in light of China’s 1.4 billion population. Alibaba Pictures’ parent company has been reshaping the Chinese entertainment industry with an aggressive acquisition strategy since 2014.

Formed in 1999, Alibaba is the brainchild of one of China’s most beloved businessmen — Jack Ma. He’s been called the Steve Jobs of China because of his business savvy, his inspirational leadership and his intimate understanding of the American and Hollywood cultures. An e-commerce company at its core, Alibaba leverages entertainment ventures (film production investments, movie and live events ticketing apps, video-streaming platforms, mobile content browsers and others) to cross-promote interests in a multifaceted business ecosystem.

For example, Alibaba invested in Amblin Partner’s 2017 film A Dog’s Purpose (starring Dennis Quaid and Josh Gad) and helmed marketing the flick in China. Overall, the movie raked in only $64 million in the U.S., but it made $88 million in China with the help of Alibaba’s online movie ticketing app, Tao Piao Piao — in China more than 80 percent of movie tickets are bought online using apps.

From its Pasadena offices, Alibaba continues the Amblin partnership with the sequel, A Dog’s Journey, slated for a May 2019 release. Alibaba’s other successful movie investments include big-budget action flicks such as Dunkirk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Star Trek Beyond and Mission Impossible — Fallout.

Earlier this year, Alibaba Pictures announced it was partnering with STX Entertainment on the Robert Zemeckis–produced Steel Soldiers, an original sci-fi action movie set in a futuristic world where humans and androids battle side-by-side. Also this year, Alibaba threw its hat into the ring with other studios (21st Century Fox, Disney, NBCUniversal, etc.) to fund Jeffrey Katzenberg’s streaming video startup, NewTV, which is creating short content for small screens.

For the younger set, Alibaba is producing a full-length adaption of the hit children’s TV series Peppa Pig, based on a beloved series of animated characters that premiered in the U.K. in 2004. (The movie will be a combination of animation and live action.)  It’s scheduled to be released during Chinese New Year 2019, which will usher in the Year of (what else?) the Pig.

So what can we make of this Chinese entertainment company that invests in American big-action films, heartwarming family flicks and charming children’s fare?

“I predict that Alibaba will be a good neighbor and a good company in the Southland, but I don’t think it will be a game-changer for the Southland,” says Tom Nunan, an international cinema expert, lecturer at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television and partner in Bulls’ Eye Entertainment, a mid-size independent film and television production company.

Nunan remembers the ChinaHollywood lovefest of a few years ago that seized the imagination of producers, financiers and investors, eager to partner up with a new foreign market, foreign talent and foreign money. The hope was that such a move would herald development of a China-L.A. synergy, especially since Northern California — with its emerging technology in software and AI — has had a longstanding relationship with Beijing.

In 2015, leading Chinese investment and entertainment companies, such as Fosun International, LeTV, Dalian Wanda and, of course, Alibaba, were all going Hollywood; Wanda had just bought the AMC Theatre chain, and the STX production company was doing a deal with China’s Huayi Brothers Media Group. “All of us in entertainment had stars in our eyes, thinking, Wow! China’s investment in us will pump up the volume in Hollywood financially, content-wise, across the board,” Nunan continues. “We have all sobered up since then.”

Indeed, part of the sobering reality is that the Chinese government limits and restricts the type of entertainment that can be distributed. China doesn’t have a motion picture rating system; all films must be approved by Chinese censors who officially promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony. For all practical purposes, these are PG films — which are the least frequently produced films in Hollywood.

“Think of it this way: The Chinese government is acting the way the FCC acted in the ’70s,” explains Nunan. “They are really, really, really strict about the kind of content they want their citizenry to be exposed to. Also, don’t forget, there is no free Internet in China. Very few countries in the world restrict the freedom to surf the web. That’s not to say you can’t do business with China. There are opportunities, but it can be complicated.”

It addition to content, since 1994 Beijing has been restricting the number of American films that can be shown in Chinese theaters. The quota started at 10, increasing to 34 films per year in 2012 with the proviso that at least 14 be in 3D or IMAX format.

Of course, Hollywood would like to raise that quota, writes Michael Dresden at ChinaLawBlog.com. “But the on-again, off-again U.S.– China trade war has thrown those negotiations for a loop and effectively given China the ability to take whatever position it likes, from slapping a huge tariff on all U.S. films to conceding on all of Hollywood’s deal points,” Dresden writes. “But China is in no hurry to agree to anything. Why should it be? They’re fine with the status quo.”

Still, China’s Alibaba is here in the Southland to be a player, and it’s also a
resource for filmmakers and studios here, contends Nunan. Of course, setting up shop in Pasadena may have surprised many, considering that the prime entertainment hubs are in Burbank, Hollywood or the West Side. Says Nunan: “I think the strategy of the move was to announce that ‘We are a Chinese company. Most of the influential Chinese folk live right here in the Pasadena area and this is where we feel most comfortable.’ It’s wonderful that they are unabashedly embracing the neighborhood. Why shouldn’t Alibaba reward them by locating here? This is where their heartbeat is.” 

Personal Tech

Just when you thought technology couldn’t make our lives any easier, smart gadgets are getting smarter, more stylish and more powerful. Here are some new tech standouts that can make your life better.

Play Impossible Gameball

What could be more analog than a simple bouncing sphere? As the basis for countless sports, the ball gets a digital upgrade with Play Impossible Gameball, which has embedded sensor-technology that connects to a smartphone app…and that’s where the fun begins. Challenge your buddies to see who can throw the small soccer-like ball the farthest, highest or fastest. Kick it up a notch with digital games that can be played solo or with friends. There’s a virtual version of water-balloon toss and a “keep-away” game that encourages critical thinking along with brute force. Recommended for ages 4 and up.

$99.99, playimpossible.com

Movi Smartphone

Don’t want to watch a movie on your phone? Who can blame you? Movi, an Android smartphone, features an integrated projector that can enlarge 720p images up to more than 16 feet in size diagonally. Nearby walls or ceilings become screens so everyone can share the latest YouTube video, installment of your fave Netflix show or any digital content. The sleek phone’s battery can last up to four hours when the projector is turned on; the projector is launched via an app and switches to landscape mode when you hold your phone horizontally.

$599, moviphones.com

Ovie Smarterware

Leftovers? We always have such high hopes for them, but then time (and mold) sets in. Enter Ovie Smarterware, an easy-to-understand system that tracks how long you have until your food reaches critical spore and ooze level. The Smarterware is a Bluetooth button that is affixed to existing food containers. (You can also purchase Ovie’s bag clips and plastic containers.) Connect with your smart assistant — Alexa, for example — and tell your speaker what’s in the container. Alexa and Google will load the information into the cloud, which has a database of the life span of common foods in the fridge. Ovie, which starts shipping early next year, tracks that food and changes the button colors from green to red, signaling time to reheat or toss.

$95 and up, ovie.life

ZeTime

As the first hybrid smartwatch, the recently upgraded ZeTime combines mechanical hands with a round AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) touchscreen — all crafted with Swiss know-how. Activated for voice recognition, the regular (1.3-inch screen) and petite (1.05-inch screen) models display incoming calls, emails, texts, social media and calendar events. The water-resistant watch can also track your daily activity, sleep patterns and heart rate. If you’ve been a couch potato too long, it gives you a gentle reminder. Compatible with both iOS and Android, ZeTime’s battery typically lasts about four days in either smartwatch and 60 days in analog mode.

$299 and up, mykronoz.com

Kodak Scanza

Baby boomers will have more options for posting pix on Throwback Thursday with this handy device that scans old-school negatives and slides and transforms them into digital form. This film-to-JPEG converter from Kodak quickly digitizes 35mm, 126 and 110 negatives and slides as well as images from Super 8 and 8mm negatives and can transfer them into optimized 14-megapixel or interpolated 22-megapixel files. Images are contained on a simple SD card (not included). You can enhance the quality of the film and adjust the colors and brightness to your liking. You can even scan in gallery mode and display a slideshow as you relive those ancient memories.

$169.99, amazon.com

Cyber Body slimmer

Bringing new meaning to the phrase “shake it off,” the Dr. Fuji Cyber Body Slimmer offers a workout on a self-vibrating platform. Activating many muscle groups at the same time, the fitness machine can produce an effective training session in a mere 10 minutes. And performing exercises on the shaking metal platform can increase blood flow which, in turn, can help users improve balance, strength, flexibility and weight loss. The device runs on 90 watts of power and can vibrate 550 times a minute.

$3,300, cyberbodyslimmer.com

Landroid

It’s a jungle out there, but your lawn doesn’t have to be part of it. The Worx Landroid M is a robotic lawn mower that does the job for you. It tackles your grassy landscaped areas using the power of artificial-intelligence algorithms, sensing and avoiding obstacles and mowing in a best-practices pattern of efficiency, all with minimal noise output. Designed for smaller lawns (less than a quarter of an acre) and customizable for continuous manicure service, the device also “knows” when it’s raining and will return to its docking/charging station. Before you send your unit outside, you’ll need to install perimeter wire that will keep the automated mower contained. If the droid saunters outside the perimeter, you’ll be alerted on your smartphone.

$999, worx.com

Neutrogena Skin360 Skin Scanner

Get ready for your extreme close-up with Neutrogena’s Skin360, which gives you a snapshot of the health and condition of your facial skin. Affix the scanning device — which consists of 12 LED lights, a 30x magnifier and a moisture detector — to the edge of your smartphone camera. Download an app, snap a selfie and then place the scanner on your forehead, chin and cheeks. You’ll see deeply detailed images of pores and wrinkles (“Gasp! Me? What??”) along with a skin-hydration-level score and overall facial analysis that compares your skin to that of other folks your age. Sure, there will be recommendations for Neutrogena products, but you’ll be armed with skin knowledge that can inform your next skin-care purchases.

$50, neutrogena.com

Array Solar Smart Lock

Like the idea of a smart deadbolt, but not the worry about failing batteries that could leave you locked outside of your own home? The Array has your back. This stylish smart lock is powered by an integrated solar panel that continually trickle-charges its onboard battery. The lock should last around 10 months on a charge when it’s in direct sunlight, 30 to 90 days in indirect sunlight. It connects to your overall smart home via Wi-Fi with a wireless router, so there’s no extra tech to buy. You can open it with your smartphone by entering preset codes into its hidden metal keypad (think e-keys) or with a conventional key. The product comes with a second battery and USB charging cradle so there’s always a backup handy. 

$299, acehardware.com

Eveline Smart Ovulation Test

Planning for a bundle of joy? Consider turning your smartphone into a fertility coach. The Eveline Smart Fertility System is an ovulation prediction kit that employs a fertility tracking app with patented technology for near-pinpoint planning. Moms-wanting-to-be use a front-facing smartphone camera and light to measure the color of ovulation test strips; with a 99 percent accuracy rate, results are then recorded in your phone. (The system comes with 10 strips.) Using that data, the system can predict upcoming fertile days with a push notification. Another feature allows you to share your fertile status with your partner — which could mean a candlelight dinner and roses when you return home that evening.

$49.99, amazon

 

Visitors can witness art conservation in action in Project Blue Boy

For decades, the handsome young boy with rosy red cheeks decked out in a fashionable blue satin outfit with knee breeches has delighted guests in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. Painted around 1770 by prominent English landscape and portrait artist Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy has an endearing charm reflected in a careful composition that reveals the master’s fine strokes, using a shimmering blue hue created with numerous tints.

Now visitors will have a different view of the relaxed young lad as he poses in the English countryside — a close-up so extreme it can be microscopic. The Huntington’s new show Project Blue Boy offers gallery visitors a behind-the-scenes experience of the extensive two-year-long conservation process that will restore and stabilize Gainsborough’s classic work as much as possible.

This is the first time the Huntington is putting a conservation project on display for the public to observe; it’s a rare opportunity to witness both the art and science of conservation in action. “We’ve known for a while that the painting needed attention,” explains Melinda McCurdy, exhibit cocurator and associate curator for British art. The original colors have turned hazy and dull. Paint is starting to lift and flake off in certain areas. Too many layers of added varnish have served as temporary bandages to keep the almost life-size painting intact. Likewise, the painting’s lining (added as another
attempt at restoration) has been separating. The Blue Boy needed a serious tune-up.

Earlier this year, the painting was subjected to a three-month-long examination. High-tech methods — infrared reflectography, ultraviolet illumination and a scanning electron microscope — helped conservators chart a course of action.

At the helm of Project Blue Boy is Christina O’Connell, the Huntington’s senior painting conservator and exhibit’s other cocurator. She has set up shop in the Thornton Portrait Gallery inside a special satellite studio, complete with work table, easel, conservation lights and exhaust units. A half wall separates her from the crowds, but the public can watch on a display monitor as she performs the deft and precise work of stabilizing the paint, cleaning the surface and removing the non-original varnish and overpaint. (Her satellite work schedule will be posted on the Huntington website.)

The plan is for O’Connell to work three to four months in the satellite studio. The Blue Boy will then go off view for another three to four months while she strengthens the canvas structure and applies new varnish with special equipment that can’t be moved into the gallery. After that’s completed, the painting will once again return to the satellite studio where visitors can continue to watch as O’Connell takes the artwork closer to perfection in anticipation of The Blue Boy’s return to gallery walls in early 2020.

Among the paraphernalia in O’Connell’s toolbox is an impressive 6-foot-tall surgical microscope. This state-of-the-art device has a long moveable arm and optics that can magnify up to 25 times; especially helpful when she applies special adhesives to areas where paint is lifting off the canvas. 

Near the satellite studio, there’s an educational exhibit with an iPad describing the science of conservation and a display of typical conservator hand tools; they’re on hand to help guests gain a deeper appreciation for the conservator’s skilled artistry.

Visitors will also be able to see what lurks underneath The Blue Boy; an interactive light box will show digital x-rays of the artwork, revealing that the it was painted on a used canvas: The artist had originally begun a portrait of a man, before opting for a younger model. McCurdy hopes the current conservation process may unearth more clues to the earlier model’s identity. Perhaps just as interesting is that other x-rays show that at one time Gainsborough placed a small white dog next to the boy’s bowed shoes. For whatever reason, the hound didn’t make the cut and was eventually transformed into a pile of rocks.

Information will be posted on the artist and painting, which has called San Marino home since Henry Huntington purchased it in 1921 for a whopping $728,000 — the largest sum paid at that time for any artwork. “The Blue Boy is iconic for a reason… it’s a really good painting,” McCurdy says, adding that it is as much a study of the look and feel of period apparel as it is a character study of its young subject.

Look closely at the intricate details of the clothes, she says. “Gainsborough’s great skill was as a master painter, using vigorous slashes of unmodulated color to mimic the look and texture of smooth satin in the boy’s costume, for instance.” The illustrious costume was inspired by the work of 17th-century Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who often incorporated fashion in his work. (Note the blue coat worn by the young subject of Portrait of Charles, Lord Strange.)

While his portraits are masterful in capturing the essence of their models, Gainsborough preferred the peaceful beauty of landscapes. He once said, in third person: “He painted portraits for money and landscapes because he loved them.”

There remains a lure of unsolved mystery surrounding The Blue Boy. As famous as it was back then and is today, no one knows for sure just who this fair-faced boy was. Many art historians originally thought it was a portrait of a younger Jonathan Buttall, the painting’s first owner. “There is no documentary evidence to support that,” explains McCurdy.

Susan Sloman, a London-based art historian, thinks she might have unraveled the mystery. “She proposes that the model for The Blue Boy is Gainsborough Dupont, Thomas Gainsborough’s nephew, who lived with the artist’s family and later served as his uncle’s studio assistant,” she says. This young, readily available model could have been in the right place at the right time — never imagining that his likeness would live on forever the world over.

Originally titled A Portrait of a Young Gentleman, the painting received high acclaim from fellow artists when it first appeared in public in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1770. Somewhere along the line, its nickname, The Blue Boy, seemed more appropriate and became its official name. Fame grew for The Blue Boy; for years, the painting traveled around Great Britain, endearing itself to the masses, and public outcry in Britain was loud when Henry Huntington (an American!) acquired the British treasure. Huntington wanted to show off his prize and enlisted art dealer Joseph Duveen to stage an international publicity blitz around the painting’s journey from London to Los Angeles. It was briefly put on display at the National Gallery of Art in London where it was viewed by 90,000 people. “They really hyped it up,” says McCurdy. “These limited engagement exhibitions and newspaper articles really transformed The Blue Boy into a well-known and recognizable icon of the times.” 

It wasn’t until the late 1920s that The Blue Boy was introduced to another icon-to-be, one that would be forever visually associated with the Gainsborough masterpiece. In 1926, Huntington purchased Pinkie (1794) painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The young girl dramatically posing on a high cliff, a breeze jostling her dress and pink hat ribbons, became The Blue Boy’s eternal partner on the Huntington Art Gallery’s walls and in our culture’s collective consciousness. A bit of irony: There is neither historical nor costume connection between them. No matter; they have been the Huntington’s power couple for decades, a visitor favorite and tourist must-see.

But for now, guests will have to wait for their reunion as The Blue Boy’s imperfections and cracks vanish, his colors are revitalized and the magic of conservation is complete — a signal that the young man in his glistening smooth blue costume is ready to resume his rightful place on gallery walls.

Christina O’Connell, senior painting conservator, works in public view Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 4 p.m.; she also appears the first Sunday of each month from 2 to 4 p.m. through January. Visit the website for details about the second in-gallery session next year. The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Visit huntington.org.

Longtime Pasadena philanthropists Bill and Judy Opel share fundraising tips and insights into the past, present and future of charitable giving.

sk Bill and Judy Opel about what they think is the most effective fundraising technique in these days of customizable analytics, sophisticated online tracking programs and upscale black-tie charity events. Scratch ’em all, they say. Just put on the coffee pot.
“Sitting down with someone personally and sharing a cup of coffee can be one of the most effective fundraising events and you don’t have to spend much money,” says Bill, a lifelong Pasadena resident with a career that spans more than five decades in both medical research and executive nonprofit administration. “Just sit and have coffee and talk. Maybe follow that up with a phone call and stay in touch.” That personalized, no-frills attention can make all the difference in landing a big donor or, on the flip side, finding an organization that will make you, a potential benefactor, feel proud to support it, says Bill.
Bill and wife Judy have witnessed how the landscape of charitable giving (financial donations and volunteering) has evolved over the years. Bill has seen philanthropy as both grant-maker and grant-taker, having served at Huntington Medical Research Institutes (HMRI) for 53 years as president/CEO (and previously, executive director) in addition to his first 10 years as a lab researcher.
Back in 1982, Bill was instrumental in unifying the Pasadena Foundation for Medical Research (PFMR) with the Huntington Institutes of Applied Medical Research to create HMRI. During his tenure, Bill oversaw donations of tens of millions of dollars to fund research. He recently retired from HMRI and is currently active in several local nonprofits.
Likewise, Judy, in addition to being a teacher, has been active in charitable endeavors for decades, and because of her social networking is fondly known as “the first lady” of HMRI. She also served as president of the Altadena Guild of Huntington Memorial Hospital and volunteered regularly there. She was instrumental in fundraising for the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, chairing the annual Baldwin Bonanza plant sale in 1976. Today, she still gets her hands dirty with The Arboretum’s Compulsive Gardeners group.
Perhaps the biggest change the Opels have observed in philanthropy over the years is in its sheer scale — how big and international it has become, with organizations raising money 24/7. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofits are registered in the U.S. and there are millions more worldwide.
Giving USA reports that for the first time ever, charitable giving exceeded $400 billion in 2017, relecting an impressive $14.27 billion increase in individual giving (topping $286 billion) along with substantial gains in bequests and donations by foundations and corporations.
Gone are the days when Judy would enlist surgeons’ wives to cook casseroles for a casual sit-down dinner with potential donors at a medical researcher’s house. “It was all pretty amateur by today’s standards,” says Bill. “We didn’t have an event coordinator or use a caterer, and we didn’t have a high-priced development director,” adds Judy, noting how the professionalization of fundraising has elevated the causal event into a highly curated experience.
Indeed, directed by well-compensated development executives, today’s nonprofits are vying for donor dollars by reaching across many platforms to advertise their differences from other organizations. But the multitude of choices can be daunting for donors — it’s now a bigger challenge to decide what and where to contribute.
An informative website is a good first step, says Bill (“I always look at the scientific publications and reports they have done”), stressing that numbers can be deceiving, especially client numbers. “The fact that you cared for or served so many is just a head count — that’s pretty objective,” he says. “Everyone can tell you that they are doing great stuff, but where is the evidence? Where’s the meat?”
The Opels appreciate how some unbiased websites, like GuideStar and Charity Navigator, rate nonprofits but say that potential donors still need to dig deeper to find out how truly effective an organization is. “With a lot of charities, you go to a social event and often don’t see the people they are helping,” says Bill. “The events I really love are when there is an open house and you can see the faces and hear personal stories.”
Consider community colleges, continues Bill, where many incoming students arrive academically struggling but leave renewed. “The fact that your school turned them into accomplished learners who can achieve is more impressive than a high-end selective university that already gets great kids enrolling,” explains Bill.
Some entities are more transparent than others. Support the Pasadena Symphony or the Sierra Madre Playhouse, and it will be easy to see where your money is going — it’s right there on the stage. But other causes’ activities can be more opaque. Explaining HMRI’s complicated science and research needs to benefactors was a challenge for Bill, who learned early the benefits of telling a human story.
In the 1960s, Bill was a cell biologist working in the El Molino Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PMRI) facility, one of the first research centers to grow human cell and tissue cultures to study cancers. Researchers received small and directed National Institutes of Health grants. “The main discretionary money we got was from grateful patients,” he says, launching into the story of a life insurance salesman stricken with neck and jaw cancer from smoking cigars. Using radiation techniques developed at PFMR, the man recovered and, despite losing half a tongue, was as loquacious as ever and able to continue his high-pressure career. He became a big donor to the lab.
Examine an organization’s newsletters and publications, question other donors and research what that nonprofit has done to “move the needle,” says Bill. “My objective at HMRI was to make meaningful improvements in how medicine is practiced. I can show you how that improved every year.”
Above all, long-lasting nonprofits have to communicate a message that addresses the brain and the heart: “Will my money be well spent?” and “Is this donation the right thing to do?”

Baby Boomers Passing On Wealth
Pressure on the giving community will be compounded in the coming years, when Baby Boomers pass on their inheritance to their children. “It will be the biggest transference of wealth in the nation’s history,” says Bill. A new generation can change the direction of charitable giving, especially when it comes to assuming leadership of family foundations. New generations may have completely different interests from the relative who started the charity decades ago. “It’s not a given that the kids will continue down the path,” says Bill, who sees current social issues such as homelessness and mental health getting more play in the philanthropic spotlight.
Volunteering has also evolved. In the early 1960s, charitable women’s clubs were the main social outlet for many stay-at-home wives/moms. Judy recalls daylong club meetings that often involved lunch, card games and socializing. Today’s volunteers want a more active engagement with the people they help, she says. “My daughter started doing volunteer work in high school, and said, ‘I don’t want to do those social things,’” she says. “In law school she volunteered for a group that delivered meals to AIDS patients. She wanted her volunteering to be directly meaningful.”
While many old-school clubs have faded away, some — like the Altadena Guild — have stayed relevant. Judy credits forward-thinking leadership that re-prioritized to attract working women by changing meeting hours and providing more opportunities for hands-on volunteering.
Even philanthropic products have changed over the decades. You used to send in a check and get a little memorial gift — a card or your name in the newsletter. Now donors can choose from a myriad of ways to financially support an organization, through planned giving, family foundations or a trust gift annuity, to name just a few.
Endowments have also changed the landscape for nonprofits. “HMRI didn’t have an endowment when it was started and by the time I left, there was $40 million in the endowment reserve fund,” says Bill. Today many large medical organizations, including hospitals, have solid endowments (in the past, they didn’t need to compete for dollars to fill funding gaps then covered by operating revenue and government grants).
On a smaller scale, the Opels are creating their own endowment legacy. Bill and Judy launched one of 117 unrestricted endowment family funds managed by the Pasadena Community Foundation (PCF), an entity that also has also seen dramatic philanthropic changes in the last five decades. “When I arrived 15 years ago, the PCF had $16 in assets. Today, we have $80 million,” says President and CEO Jennifer DeVoll, adding that PCF started with 40 to 55 funds. Today it has 350.
While community foundations that pool funds have been around for 100 years, DeVoll says there has been an upsurge of interest and participation, especially in unrestricted endowments that rely on careful management to assist worthy local start-ups and businesses. The Opels are happy their fund can support organizations for today’s needs, as well as for groups and causes yet to emerge. “After we have passed away, our fund can still be making donations in our name,” says Judy.
While old-school philanthropy may seem quaint by today’s standards, the Opels think that people working together for a common cause fuels giving. In the 1950s, the genesis of the PFMR took place at a Pasadena cocktail party where friends were commiserating about the loss of a buddy from cancer. “Let’s do something about it!” they said between martinis. Then someone mentioned a guy they knew doing research — and the rest is history.
“It was formed because there was a group of people that wanted to address a problem,” says Bill. “You and your friends could be regulars at the 35er [Bar in Pasadena], and what if your bartender got sick? You would all work together to do something about it, to help that person you cared about. You’re mobilizing for a cause, for a noble purpose. The cocktail party is only the beginning.”

The Rose Bowl’s dynamic landscaping duo talk turf

It may be only 2½ acres, but to Will Schnell and Miguel Yepez, the Rose Bowl is a constant obsession. Tending this plot of land is a never-ending cycle of checking embedded soil sensors, monitoring hot spots, repairing damage, aggressive weeding and meticulous trimming, not to mention late-night worries and early-morning visits. But in the end, their attention to detail produces a joy that farmers and gardeners revel in: a thriving plant.
Schnell and Yepez’s plant, however, is a mega-collection of green blades that make up the famed Rose Bowl turf, the kind of immaculate lawn that would spark envy in any residential neighborhood.
These two longtime turf pros share a love of sports, plants and working outside. Schnell, 55, has been the Bowl’s stadium superintendent for more than 18 years; Yepez, 41, has been his assistant for 16. With the help of a small team, they cultivate and maintain the verdant field at this 96-year-old athletic stadium which hosts an almost nonstop schedule of football games, soccer tournaments, location filming, concerts and other big events. It’s used about 300 days in any given year. There is no off-season.
At this time of extreme drought, when many lawns are being removed and replaced with xeriscaping, this field is a reminder that there’s splendor in the grass. The Rose Bowl’s identity is so intertwined with its emerald lawn that it would be anathema to do anything but present the real deal. “I remember how pristine it was,” 1981 Rose Bowl MVP Butch Woolfolk said of playing on the famed field. “You didn’t want to mess it up when you fell down, and when your cleat dug out some, you’d want to replace the divot.”
“We’d usually do a walk-through at the stadium the day before,” said 2013 Rose Bowl defensive MVP Usua Amanam. “Guys were on the ground smelling the grass and picking up pieces of the grass and lying on the grass.”
Some sporting fields are landscaped with artificial turf, and Schnell acknowledges that there are good reasons for that. “I truly believe there is a place for synthetics,” he said. “If you have guys running on a [grass] field 10 hours a day, that’s not going to be successful. That’s the last place you want to invest in a real grass field. You have to understand the limitations of grass.” The Rose Bowl doesn’t experience constant wear and tear, so it doesn’t need the durability of artificial turf, and real grass looks better on camera.
Schnell has understood the complex nature of grass since his days growing up on his family’s 1,200-acre farm in Missouri. At a young age, he was raising plants and operating big machinery, activities he still does today. While attending high school he played sports and began maintaining athletic fields; by the time he graduated he had racked up three years’ experience — and an athlete’s appreciation of what makes a good playable field.
Armed with a degree in turf grass management from Central Missouri State University, Schnell worked at sporting venues around the country, starting with minor league baseball and eventually landing gigs with the Cleveland Browns, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He arrived in Pasadena in 2001. “I’ve worked the longest here at the Rose Bowl,” he says with a laugh. “They haven’t kicked me out yet.”
Two years after he started, Schnell brought on board Yepez, a Pasadena kid who went to work for American Golf, a national network of public courses, right after graduating from Blair High School. Yepez worked as a turf mechanic at Brookside Golf Club for six years before meeting his partner-in-turf, Schnell, and landing his Rose Bowl gig.
When it comes to big events and games (about three a year), the field is completely redone, and it typically takes the Rose Bowl staff and 20 workers from four to eight days to replace. Machines rip the grass up to its roots, soil is prepared with strengthening conditioners, a sand base is laid down and irrigation is positioned — and all that happens before the new sod even arrives. A fleet of 17 semi trucks hauls 3,000 pounds of it to Pasadena from the Bowl’s sod farm in Palm Springs, where sunshine and heat quickly mature grass. The cost averages about $250,000 a pop. Schnell regularly visits the desert facility to see how the grass is growing. Over the years, he experimented with grass cultivars until he settled on a mixture of bluegrass and rye grass. “It’s an aggressive turf,” he says.
Through the years, the two have learned various subtle tricks of the trade. “We talk about smoke and mirrors, how to divert people’s attention when there is a problem out there we can’t address in time,” says Schnell. Maybe there’s an unsightly sod seam, so a unique mowing pattern may redirect people’s eyes. “Sometimes you’ll have to do that and people will never know the difference,” he says.
One innovative way the team controls costs and time is by employing erasable paint on team logos on the field, a practice Yepez spearheaded many years ago. “We used so much paint we’d kill the grass,” he explains.
In their time on the turf, the duo has weathered many storms, tight turnaround schedules and everyday emergencies. Their devotion to the Rose Bowl field and what it represents is fierce and heartfelt. “People ask me to come and look at their yard and I say, ‘If it doesn’t have a goal post or bases, I don’t do it,’” says Schnell with a twinkle in his eye. “This right here is mine. I get to farm some of the most visible turf in the world. I’m so grateful every day. This is a big enough yard for me.”
Likewise, Yepez describes an almost mystical connection between gardener and plant. “I’m a sports fanatic and so being around a stadium is exciting,” says Yepez. “All these people are here to see these players, but they are also here to see my field. I love that I’m part of the game itself.”

The Salastina Music Society is breaking down the walls between classical music and skeptical audiences

“I often wonder how many hipsters would come to our concerts if we advertised them as artisanal music-making with 300-year-old handcrafted violins?” jokes Maia Jaspar White about the Salastina Music Society, a chamber music ensemble based in Pasadena. The accomplished Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra violinist and Colburn School instructor co-directs the group with her music partner, fellow violinist Kevin Kumar, who has appeared as a soloist with the L.A. Philharmonic. Their quest is to make chamber music more user-friendly, satisfy their own artistic goals and have fun with fellow musicians playing the music they love.

Kumar and Jaspar White, who also directs Caltech’s chamber music program, have been performing for decades in renowned orchestras/ensembles here and abroad, as well as in the entertainment business; hear them both in the new Star Wars: The Last Jedi soundtrack, among countless other motion picture and television projects.

The pair met in the violin section of the now-defunct Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, where they struck up a friendship and shared musical goals. In 2011 they pooled their talents, contacted musician friends and created a program series under the Salastina banner to put the musical genre back into the must-hear category for any music lover. “We put ourselves in the audience’s shoes and then designed our concerts from that perspective,” says Kumar. “We both love playing chamber music. But we saw that the music was always being presented in the same old way. We started Salastina because we thought we had something unique to offer.” The name Salastina is an amalgamation of two names the pair don’t typically use — Kevin’s ancestral name, Salatia, and Maia’s middle name, Kristine.

Indeed, Salastina is breathing new life into a rich musical form that is artistically demanding, musically complex and unflinchingly intimate. Without a conductor to lead, chamber musicians rely heavily on one another during performances, working together and communicating with raised eyebrows, slight nods and an uncanny sixth sense. So often, however, chamber music concerts are straightforward and simple: Artists walk onstage, artists play music, artists leave. Jaspar White and Kumar have turned the conventional chamber music concert into part in-depth conversation, part performance, to offer a deeper and more satisfying musical presentation.

The format is applauded by both newbies and music connoisseurs. “I totally believe in this format; it takes the mysticism out of the experience and we have fun with it,” says KUSC radio host Brian Lauritzen, who has been Salastina’s resident host almost since the group’s formation; he hosts Salastina’s popular Sounds Genius series, which employs the immersive preconcert discussion to analyze the program.

But don’t call it a lecture or didactic examination, says Lauritzen. “We talk history, dissect the musical elements, pick the piece apart and then put it all back together,” he says of the casual talk that remains true to the music and its message. “By the end of the performance, everyone is a bit of an expert.”

“When you take the microscope and approach music from the intellectual, emotional and personal perspective, you create a more compelling context for people to latch onto when they are listening to the complete piece all the way through,” explains Jaspar White. “Any art, especially classical music, is appreciating what human beings are capable of creating. Beethoven was a genius; not everyone can do what Beethoven did, but everyone is capable of knowing a genius when they see or hear it.” Kumar agrees, adding; “At the end of the evening we want people to have made friends with the music, so it’s not just something to admire from afar, but they have had an engaged experience with it.”

While a preshow conversation with a host isn’t totally new to the chamber music landscape, Salastina has, over the years, taken that structure to heart, carefully integrating the format into its own signature style. “Salastina is really the best of the bunch when it comes to chamber music groups, technically and musically,” says Stephen Unwin, a JPL astronomer and self-described classical music junkie, who scours websites and calendars to catch performances whenever he can. “There are a lot of really fine musicians in Los Angeles, so it’s not hard to find professionals playing on any given night somewhere.”

Reaching out to people across the L.A. area, Salastina typically performs at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music’s Barrett Hall and small locations on the Westside. Unwin, who has attended Salastina concerts for the past five years, says he loves the small venues (“I went to one performance that was in a condo that held only 20 people. It was spectacular.”) and the social receptions that take place afterward. “So many times, after a concert, the musicians pack up and go home,” he says. “I enjoy that the musicians stay around to chat; I think they enjoy meeting us as much as we love talking with them, too.”

“Salastina audiences are very thoughtful, interested and always engaging,” says Meridith Crawford, Salastina’s resident violist, who has performed with the group for more than three years. “They love to ask questions and pick our brains. It’s fun for us as musicians when people are curious about the music.”

Seeing the audience react positively is rewarding to Salastina’s musicians and host Lauritzen. One of the group’s recurring Sounds Genius concerts is Mendelssohn’s Octet, written by the 17th-century German when he was only 16 years old. Lauritzen enjoys describing how the young Mendelssohn incorporated bits of well-known works by famous composers from his past into his octet. During the discussion, musicians play quick excerpts to demonstrate. “When the piece is finally played in its entirety and those musical moments come up, I love to see the light bulbs go off in the audience,” says Lauritzen. “I live for seeing these kinds of happy discoveries.”

On Feb. 17, Lauritzen unveils his collaboration with Salastina on Brian’s Playlist: Hope, Faith, Life, Love, a Feb. 17 concert at the Pasadena Conservatory featuring classical selections inspired by the content and structure of a moving E.E. Cummings poem. Salastina also partners with other organizations, musicians and performers for unique musical evenings. In December, the group joined Pasadena’s Red Hen Press in presenting a concert of new music by composer Eric Whitacre set to poetry by California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia and Elise Paschen, performed by soprano Hila Plitmann.  In a quite different vein, comedian/actor Seth Rogen has read Ferdinand the Bull while Salastina performed Jaspar White’s original composition based on the children’s classic in downtown L.A.

Overall, the group’s repertoire is as varied as its program offerings, Sounds Genius notwithstanding. Debuting last year, the Sounds Promising series involves up-and-coming teen musicians who not only sit side-by-side with professionals at rehearsals and concerts, but also learn about the day-to-day business of being a professional musician. “Private lessons and classes improve their skills, but it’s critically important that young people have more exposure to what kinds of career possibilities are in front of them,” says Jaspar.

The Sounds Delicious program is Salastina’s take on the salon tradition where culinary courses are paired with appropriate musical selections, treating audiences to a feast for both ears and taste buds. Recently, Salastina teamed up with Chef Becky Reams under the theme “Beautifully California”; prior to that was “The Music of India’s Cuisine” with Un-Curry, an organic Indian catering company.

Also on the calendar this year are the complete piano trios of Robert and Clara Schumann and the Second Class Citizens program, which examines why some composers, such as Zoltan Kodaly and Fanny Mendelssohn, didn’t get the fame and glory of their contemporaries.

Finally, Salastina embraces modern composers through its Annual Composers of Los Angeles series, which spotlights contemporary classical chamber music that Jaspar White contends is “accessible and listener-friendly.

“This is what also makes us different from other organizations and is the benefit of being a small company,” she says, explaining that larger organizations often feel obliged to champion modern compositions that are cacophonous, atonal and avant-garde. “We don’t think so,” she says, pointing to American Mirror, written for Salastina by L.A.–based composer Derrick Spiva. The group has performed American Mirror twice and made a recording of it this past December; the performance will be part of Salastina’s first podcast episode this month.

Jaspar White is adamant that “listener-friendly” not be considered verboten in classical music, an attitude that corresponds to the overarching mission of Salastina. “Why does listener-friendly mean simplistic and lacking in depth? That it’s not good or intellectual enough?” she says. “Just because you understand something doesn’t mean it’s less sophisticated. Classical music is not just wallpaper. It’s something that we hope people can latch onto and connect with throughout their lives.” 

For a concert schedule and tickets, visit salastina.org.