Cafe Gratitude

Even if you’re not from California, you may have heard about Cafe Gratitude, an organic vegan food spot based around healing energy and the power of affirmations. If you live nearby one in California, you might not necessarily go all the time for two reasons:

  1. The idea behind it is sort of gimmicky, and might feel like an option that only appeals to tourists.
  2. There are plenty of organic and vegan food options in California that don’t require you to be so positive about the world.

However, after going to Cafe Gratitude twice, I have to say that I really appreciated the place – was grateful for it, even (yes, I did that).

The first of this small chain of cafes opened in Venice Beach, and that’s the one I visited both times. The interior of the restaurant has a very “bungalow” vibe to it, as do many places around Venice Beach. Low circular tables are surrounded by whicker chairs surrounding and a warm, yummy Mexican-style throw draped over the back of each chair to keep you warm if needed, creating the effect of sitting around a bonfire on the beach.

Water sits in a bottle with positive words like “Love” or “Peace” written on the bottle, a tribute to Emoto’s Water Experiment. As the waiter comes and explains the menu to you/asks if you’ve been there before, he tells you the affirmation question of the day, which you can sit and reflect on or discuss with the table, whatever you feel. The one I remember most was, “What keeps you grounded?” I don’t remember what the question was on my second visit, but I do recall feeling like the people sitting with me at the table were the answer both times. My fiancee keeps me grounded. And so do my crystals.

The menu is the really special and fun part of the cafe. Each menu item is titled with an adjective that will be your affirmation when you order, such as “magical,” “glorious,” “accepting,” etc. Then when you order, you have to say “I am…” and your food choice, which for me was “bountiful.”

The food is all vegan and delicious, and obviously quite healthy. While you’ll have fun with it either way, I recommend that you don’t leave without ordering one of their juices or smoothies. So delicious.

And there you have it, very simple, positive concepts put to work at Cafe Gratitude. And while it might make you seem a bit eccentric to make this spot your go-to for eating, the food is top notch for vegan eaters and it certainly makes a fun outing for visitors to the LA area.

Death Valley and the 2016 Super Bloom

You may have heard about the super bloom happening right now in Death Valley. But what really makes it so special? Well, first, it only happens once every decade. The last wildflower super bloom in Death Valley was in 2005. And second, it can only occur under near perfect conditions, which depend on: well-spaced rainfall throughout winter and spring, lack of harsh, drying winds, and sufficient warmth from the sun.

This El Niño year in drought-ridden California has been criticized for its lack of consistent rainfall. From our apartment on the beach, I see firsthand what El Niño looks like – a cloudy sky that rolls in from the Pacific in the early hours of the morning and then clears up by noon each day like clockwork. Sometimes it comes with an insane fog that reaches us even on the 14th floor of our building, making it impossible to see anything below or around our balcony. But still, not much rain. Here is what El Niño often looks like before noon:

El Nino California
El Niño from our 14th floor balcony
El Nino Long Beach California
El Niño receding from Long Beach

Yet despite the lack of rainfall we’ve seen in the greater Los Angeles area, there seems to have been enough to nurture this year’s Death Valley super bloom.

Death Valley Desert Gold
Desert Gold wildflower (Geraea canescens)

When we first heard about the super bloom, it was just barely too late to catch the peak of it. We made a day trip out on a Wednesday, just after a weekend storm had wiped out huge amounts of the wildflowers. However, they were still sprinkled throughout the park, and cast a very beautiful sheer blanket of yellow across the red rocky desert.

Although the majority of wildflowers spread across Death Valley were the sweetly fragrant Desert Gold, we were also able to spot patches of purple and white throughout our drive. Each time we came across a new splash of color, I hopped out of the Jeep and snapped a photo. There were usually three or four other cars clumsily pulled off to the side to snap photos as well. The wildflower patches would sneak up on us pretty quickly, and were impossible to pass by without taking a moment of awe. It seemed a miracle these little beauties could grow out of such dry desert soil.

Desert Gold and Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) Wildflowers
Desert Gold and Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) wildflowers

Despite the rare occurrence of this super bloom, the park was not too crowded that day. Perhaps because it was a Wednesday, or maybe it was due to the fact that the rainstorm had already wiped out so much of the bloom’s former glory. Either way, we were thankful for the free rein to move about the park without much foot traffic getting in the way.

Death Valley Super Bloom 2016
A “field” of Desert Gold and Desert Dandelions (Malacothrix glabrata)
Death Valley Super Bloom Desert Gold
The view off the side of Daylight Pass Road

Once we had taken in the wildflowers, we were still super stoked to see the rest of the park. Neither of us had been to Death Valley National Park before, and we only had a day to get through all of it (we’re pretty experienced by now at beasting our way through National Parks). With only a few choices to prioritize, we started our day trip with Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
The lowest point in North America

We were excited to finally reach the lowest elevation point in all of North America, a basin 282 feet below sea level. The basin was absolutely breathtaking. It seemed like you could walk through it forever and still never reach the other side. What struck me most was the roaring of the wind if you turned your head in just the right direction – it sounded like a plane was landing right overhead. I imagined how frightening it would be to find yourself out in the middle of the basin alone at night, the only living thing for miles. I think I’d rather be in a jungle full of unknown creatures than completely alone in this wasteland.

Of course in March, the basin wasn’t very hot. But in the summer it can reach up temperatures as high as 134ºF, so hot that birds have been known to just drop dead mid-flight over the basin (Death Valley – Am I right?). It also has the greatest evaporation potential in the United States, as in a 12-foot-deep lake of water could dry up within a year in Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
Walking through the salt flats

The name, Badwater Basin, became clear as we looked out across it. The whole area is covered in salt flats that look like a turbulent ocean of water. The basin is known to flood sometimes, but water never lasts long in the valley.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
A closeup of the “bad water”
Badwater Basin
A panoramic view of Badwater Basin

After a good hour and a half of walking into the basin and back, we decided to move on. With only a few hours of daylight left, we chose to head straight for Dante’s View. However, luckily for us, Artist’s Drive and Palette were on the way. Though we didn’t spend long there, it was a beautiful sight to see – the only color to grace the park besides the wildflowers!

Artist's Palette Death Valley
Artist’s Palette
Artist's Drive Death Valley
Artist’s Drive

After Artist’s Drive and Palette we had only an hour or so left of daylight. With the lack of traffic and a little bit of speeding, we were able to make it to Dante’s View before sunset. This was my favorite part of the park, as I’m a total sucker for good views. Maybe it was the lack of cellphone service that limited distractions, but I felt I could sit there for hours just having a think. I was pretty obsessed with all three books of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in college, and Dante’s View, overlooking the Black Mountains, bestowed upon me the mixed senses of foreboding and purpose I imagine Dante felt with Virgil, with so much vastness ahead to capture. My camera didn’t do the view justice, but the photos are beautiful nonetheless. We were even able to catch some mid-level elevation wildflowers – this time Desert Gold Poppies.

Dante's View Death Valley
The trail up to Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
A panoramic shot of Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
Desert Gold Poppies (Eschscholzia glyptosperma) at the top of Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
Dante’s View at sunset
Dante's View Death Valley
Obligatory “I was here” Death Valley photo

After a day of blazing through the park, we headed out on our 4-hour trek back to Long Beach. It’s amazing how each National Park we’ve seen has been so remarkably different. It is impossible for me to say which of them I enjoyed more. I can only affirm that all of them have left me feeling astounded that such enormous treasures of nature can all exist together in one country. Each park takes me to another planet of miracles, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to experience the incredible diversity of the United States, both of nature and people I meet along the way. As my dad always says, “The world is a beautiful place.”

Meeting My Long Beach Neighbors

Just when you think you’re at the end of your rope, a 50-year-old woman with no reservations sails a boat right under you, tells you to jump in, and hands you a glass of wine.

Seriously, things were getting tough and I wasn’t ready to admit it. People always compliment me on being able to make friends wherever I go. What most, aside from my closest friends, don’t realize is that I often hit a breaking point of absolute loneliness before I make my first real friend in a new place. Tonight was that breaking point, and tonight I made… an unlikely group of friends.

So my fiancée works night shift as an ICU nurse, the reason why we travel. And this weekend he was on from Thursday to Sunday night. I could justify staying in and curling up with Netflix on Thursday, but heading into the weekend with zero plans and no one to go anywhere with was an unbearable thought. I had already been to four open mic nights, and while I met a few cool people, no one really stuck. Plus you never know with an artistic scene. Sometimes it feels like everyone has something to prove, which can make it hard to really get to know anyone.

I remembered meeting a woman named Angela, who seemed only a little bit older than me, in the elevator last week. She told me her unit number and said to come knock if I ever wanted to hang out sometime. So Thursday night I put a post-it note on her door explaining my weekend situation and scribbled out my phone number in case she wanted to hang out. Well Friday came and went, and I got no response from Angela. So around 6pm, I gave up and headed to an orientation for volunteer work at the Long Beach Animal Care Services, aka the Long Beach SPCA Animal Shelter, hoping to make a friend.

Within the first ten minutes of this orientation, the supervisor asked us flat-out to commit to one year of volunteering before signing up. That was the end of my ability to volunteer at the shelter, but I decided to stay the full 2 hours because I had literally nothing else to do and I wanted to give the puppies treats at the end. On my way out, I offered one girl a ride in my Uber because she said she lived downtown, and while she declined because she had her bike on hand, another girl overheard me and told me she wouldn’t mind giving me a ride in her car. It was an act of kindness I really needed, and on the way we chatted about places to go and things to do in Long Beach that I hadn’t heard of before. Can’t wait to check out Tuesday $1 pupusa nights!

Anyway, I realized pretty quickly that there was an age gap between us that made me feel a little creepy to try to hang out with her – she wasn’t of drinking age yet, and well, I just turned 26. So I thanked her when we got to my building and said goodbye without asking for her number (oh, friend hunting can be so hard and awkward!).

Let me tell you a little bit about my building before I get into what happened next. I live in downtown Long Beach on Ocean Blvd, in a very nice building with beach access, garage parking, a fancy library with old furniture, a gym, pool, and sauna, etc. It is probably one of the tallest buildings in Long Beach, 16 floors high, and located right next to the most famous, very old, former hotel and now apartment building in Long Beach (it has gargoyles looking down on my balcony – I love it). I’m renting from a woman who owns the condo, but is currently upstate living with her boyfriend. If you hadn’t guessed yet, my building is filled with older wealthy people and doctors, the only types of people that can afford to own these condos. But the thing about Long Beach and the Los Angeles area in general is the older you get, the more eccentric you are. No one in my building is stuffy, bougie, or conservative in any way. At least that has been my experience.

So I entered my lobby and could tell immediately that there was a party going on in the library off to the right. With nothing else to do, I decided to wander in and see if this was a private event or not. I asked a sprightly, 70-year-old woman, whose name I would later learn was Mary, what kind of event this was. Well Mary was just THRILLED that I had been so brave as to wander in when I am “only a renter” because “the renters should feel welcome too” and immediately handed me a glass of wine, a ham sandwich with sauerkraut, and introduced me to like 10 people, most of whom were named Don, all of whom were around her age, clearly very wealthy, and very laid back.

I was a little bit overwhelmed, but enjoying myself. I noticed a table of people around my age standing and chatting. Mary took me over, butted right into their conversation, and introduced me to all of them. I felt a little bit awkward, but everyone was very nice. I then realized that the young woman to my left, who I had just struck up a conversation with, turned out to be Angela, the one whose door I had put my post-it note on the night before! Awkward!

Anyway, it turns out she didn’t get the note at all and immediately took my phone and put her cell number, email, and unit number into it. Whew! A friend! It was at this point that my left arm was grabbed by a 50-or-so year old woman with one blood-shot eye and a drunken slur in her speech. I’ll call this woman Trish. Apparently Trish lives just down the hall from me and knew I was in her friend’s apartment and had been meaning to come talk to me and my fiancée because she used to be a traveling therapist! She wanted to connect and take us out sometime.

This woman was a total character, I could not believe it. She brought up the Grand Prix, soon to come up in April, that will be happening literally right outside of our apartment:

“I don’t give a crap about the cars and stuff, but oh the parties! They have the VIP tent right outside and you need tickets and everything to get in, but I just get in anyway. And I’ll get you and your fiancée in too. We’ll have such a blast. Oh you’re going to love it.”

Seriously this was within 3 minutes of conversation, and I already had plans to party hard with this one-blood-shot-eyed, drunk, eccentric, and actually quite beautiful woman. I loved her.

Trish was clearly a vivacious woman who would either find the party or create it herself in any situation. She seemed to know and be very close with everyone in the building. She beckoned over one of the older guys, Wilson, and introduced us. After learning which apartment I was in, Wilson immediately ran upstairs to grab his iPad so that he could show me some photos he took from my landlord’s balcony a year or two back.

While he was gone, Trish informed me that Wilson has some “obsessions”. She wasn’t kidding. His condo is apparently like a museum (I’m supposed to be getting a full tour next week) filled with old relics from the most famous ships around the world that date up to a hundred years back. He even has a letter that a woman wrote to her husband as a passenger on the Titanic, just before it sank. Now in our building, almost everyone has a view of the Queen Mary – a very old, supposedly haunted ship that is permanently docked and now a museum and theater in Long Beach. But apparently Wilson’s apartment has the absolute best view of the ship in the whole building, and that’s why he lives there.

Long Beach Photography

Wilson started showing me photos and man were they cool! He must own around 25 lenses with all the different shots he has. And with everyone being around the same age and all friends and owners in this building, he had shots of a bunch of different apartments, including the penthouse. The penthouse is awesome, covered in funky sea art that makes you feel like you’re underwater. Even the bathroom has a wall of mosaic sea creatures underwater, all of which light up with LED lights when you flip a switch.

“What I would give to just have 2 hours alone in that bedroom and bathroom,” Trish exclaimed about the penthouse.

As we kept scrolling through photos, I soon learned that Wilson was gay when we got to photos of some guys around the pool area of our place.

“Oh honey, they are gorgeous,” said Trish, looking at a photo of three middle-aged guys standing around the pool. “I have never seen so many cute men and none of them interested. It’s frustrating! Oh the frustration, every night it comes. Let me tell you.”

I was dying of laughter on the inside. Who are these people who just fell into my lap on this evening that was supposed to have been spent alone with my television shows? Angela came over at this point to scroll through the photos with us, which soon got to a cruise that Trish and Wilson took together over 10 years ago. Photos of Pisa, Turkey, and the French Riviera. I was drooling over the fabulous life these people have lived.

“That’s where I spent my second honeymoon,” Trish told me, pointing to a very famous hotel in France, the name of which I don’t remember anymore.

As she’s talking, Trish spills some of her mug of red wine that she had been clutching between her legs. All three of us were sitting pretty close on the couch together, and I guess some of the wine got onto Wilson’s black pants and onto the couch cushion. Wilson stood up at once, clearly upset.

“These old people,” Trish complained while Wilson ran to get napkins, “they make a scene out of everything. They’re so fussy. We could be in the middle of a 5-star restaurant and he would still stand up and make a scene like this. It’s just champagne Wilson!”

Wilson, so clearly annoyed, grabbed a separate chair and sat away from us, leaving us his iPad to keep scrolling through.

“Just kidding, it was red wine,” Trish whispered to me. “Now quick, email yourself some of these photos to show your family later. He gets so stingy with his pictures, but I think it’d be nice for you to have some to show to your family. Let them see where you live! I’m going to email some to myself as well.”

And that’s how I acquired quite a few photos of our building from the amazing but fussy photographer, Wilson from the 4th floor. (Full disclosure: When Trish had gone to the bathroom, I did ask Wilson if he minded that I had emailed some of these photos to myself and whether it was ok to post some on my blog, and he gave me the ‘OK.’)

When Trish came back, she chatted some more to Angela and me.

“Of course I’ve been to every club in Vegas,” said Trish. “I don’t go back as often anymore, but when I moved here 15 years ago, I was going there 2 to 3 times every month.”

As the night went on, Angela and I both got pretty tired from wine and decided to head upstairs. Trish joined, and what do you know, we have plans for happy hour this Monday. Not exactly what I was expecting when I hoped to God I would make friends tonight, but it’s certainly something to write about. Here are some photos from Wilson below:

The Pacific Apartments in Long Beach California

The Pacific Apartments in Long Beach

The Pacific Apartments in Long Beach California