Los Angeles Times, December 25, 2003

By James Verini

HONEY-GLAZED ham! Bing Crosby! Scotch tape sticking to your wool pants! Pine needles in your Florsheims! Mincemeat pie! Your ridiculous sister-in-law and her violent-video-game-playing kids! More ham! More pie! Is that Nat King Co– No, it’s Bing Crosby again! And still more Crosby! Crosby, Crosby, Crosby!

Welcome back to your holiday life.

Remember last New Year’s Day, when, tucked away in bed, cheap champagne hangovers raging, you and the wife — or hubby or sweetheart or life partner — made a pact that next holiday season you’d be far, far away from home and family and Neiman Marcus? Remember how you furtively browsed through the brochure of that B&B in the Berkshires, almost smelling the New England tranquillity over the aroma of piled-up leftovers and pine?

Well, it didn’t happen. Again. The boss needed that PowerPoint presentation by the 23rd, the kids practically had their final exams administered by elves, and that Dow rally somehow managed to circumvent your entire portfolio. The Berkshires … for yet another December, it may as well be Tahiti.

So here you are, once more, in brisk but sweaty L.A. over the holidays, with the ham, with the pie and the sister-in-law and the Crosby. Always with the Crosby!

What you need is a big, 2004-strength Holiday Weekend Purification. The binging has gone on long enough, Tubby McDebtins, and now it’s time to purge. Out Christmas! Out Hanukkah! Out Kwanzaa! Out Ramadan! (Actually, fasting might be a good idea.) Pack the tree stand and the dreidels back into the attic of your frazzled head and regroup.

Here are your 12 simple steps to coming down from the holidays….

Step #1

Get the heck out of the Grove! Just validate right now and leave! We know the fountain is oddly hypnotic and the Banana Republic salespeople, with their new little Secret Service headsets, are nicer than ever. But you must go. You’ve been here every other day for a month. AmEx has a hit man patiently waiting for you outside Nordstrom’s shoe department.

We suggest you wind down from the Grove’s holi-pomp and ungodly large flora (this year’s tree is larger than Rockefeller Center’s, it’s rumored), with two of L.A.’s more profane Christmas tableaux.

Get back onto 3rd Street, heading east. At Muirfield take a right, and marvel at the notorious house on the southeast corner. Eight naked Davids with eight Santa hats. Bella! Now take 3rd east again to South Windsor Drive, and make a left. Look at the house on the northeast corner. Ten-foot flamingos with diminutive reindeer hiding behind a chain-link fence. Did Frank Gehry design that?

Of course, if you’ve had enough kitsch, the answer may be as simple as turning off the cellphone, heading west and parking by the Pacific for, oh, six or seven hours.

Step #2

Change your clothes and linens. Take off that red union suit with the booties, rip those green flannel sheets from the bed. Cristina Bornstein, the color expert and cosmetics mini-magnate, tells us that red fosters feelings of aggression. “You really need to be careful with it.” Bornstein recommends, as soon as possible, replacing the reds with violets, which are conducive to clarity. If you must have red around, make it a burgundy.

Green, however, is a trickier proposition. “You never want to counteract green,” Bornstein said, “it attracts love and releases anger and grief.”

But she does advocate changing hues of green in the coming days — after all the forest and pine, she likes to see lighter, fruitier shades, like Granny Smith apple. She calls yellow a wonderful “blues-buster for the new year,” though it may be too great a jolt for some. “People don’t like to wear it, and that might be because they don’t want to reflect.” But socks and underwear count!

Step #3

To: My stomach.

From: Me + 15 pounds.

Re: Out with the jive, in with the love.

Sure, while you did your Beastmaster impression at the dining room table, stuffing down that 10th turkey leg alongside that ninth billfold-sized slab of brisket, you assured yourself that Dr. Atkins would be proud. But then you had some potatoes, and some bread, and, marveling at the endless loop of Saddam Hussein getting his beard picked through, much pie. Well, how can I not have potatoes with turkey, you implored.

All those roasted animals and leaden carbohydrates are making you logy. The answer? For once, embrace a little of the Westside lifestyle and go eat some swami-blessed organic vegetables.

Unfortunately, the granddaddy of L.A. health food restaurants, the Source — that’s where Woody Allen orders a plate of mashed yeast at the end of “Annie Hall” — has closed. (Its founders started a cult, and things went downhill from there.) So has the Golden Temple of Conscious Cookery, reportedly Michael Jackson’s favorite vegetarian haunt at one time. Insert joke here.

But situated off a hairpin turn in Topanga Canyon, there sits the venerable Inn of the Seventh Ray, which has been around almost as long. Many SoCal restaurants bill themselves as oases, but in the case of the inn, there’s no other word. Gaze down upon the heavily wooded slope of the canyon and neighboring creek, and drink enough organic-grape wine, and it’s easy to forget that most of the food is cooked in a steam convection oven, whatever that may be. It’s almost all organic, with no preservatives, no refined oils, no added sugars, and no white flours. They don’t even use aluminum pans.

“In many religions, changing your diet is the first step in the spiritual path,” said Lucille Yaney, a psychotherapist who opened the inn in 1975 after moving to L.A. with nothing but her three kids and a Volkswagen Bug (from the Berkshires, no less!). “You have to get your body out of the density.” To get your body out of the holiday density, Yaney recommends a little quiet reflection (statuettes of the Buddha, the Virgin Mary and Quan Yen can be found on the patio), followed by the special micro-greens salad. The lettuce leaves are only three days old. “Those are 3-day-old cells you’re eating!” Yaney said, almost sounding like a carnivore.

Step #4

So you drank too much eggnog, started singing the dirty version of “Good King Wenceslas” and locked yourself in the garage. That doesn’t mean you have to lay off the hard stuff.

Just vary the mixers a little. (I swear, darling, it was the cream, not the Beam!)

Ben Chung, a bartender at Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills for 32 years, suggests a mai tai to cut through all the nog and cinnamon. It should include 1/2-ounce each of light and dark rum; 1/2-ounce fresh lime juice; and Trader Vic’s special mai tai concentrate — which, of course, Chung would not discuss. (Absent that, try 1 ounce of Triple Sec and 1/2-tablespoon of grenadine.)

Dale DeGroff, master mixologist, formerly of the Rainbow Room in New York and the Bel Air Hotel, told us he likes to make a nice sour to counteract the sticky Christmas parties. He’s developed a special recipe involving Splenda, the sugar substitute (even manly bartenders are going no-carb these days, it seems): 1 ounce whiskey, vodka or gin; 1 packet Splenda; 3/4-ounce fresh lemon juice; 1 tablespoon water. See Degroff’s website for more post-holiday drinks.

Step #5

For the love of peace, turn off Bill O’Reilly already. He’s giving your whole family Baghdad-size ulcers. Between him and “Punk’d,” you nearly pinned the cat to the wall with a menorah last night.

Try a little holiday reading instead. If you’re feeling at all down today, pick up a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Pat Hobby’s Christmas Wish” and be thankful that you’re not Fitzgerald’s beleaguered has-been writer protagonist, who’s stuck, on Christmas Day, in his studio office, working on a scene in a B western. Now that’s a bad Christmas. (For that matter, be thankful that you’re not Fitzgerald.)

Step #6

Many people don’t know that there is a lot of quality holiday music set in L.A., such as the lost Lawrence Welk classic, “Christmas in Los Angeles,” in which the Welk choral singers warble:

The nearest snow is 60 miles from here,

And roasting chestnuts

Don’t perfume the atmosphere

But I love Christmas in L.A.

And then there’s this little ditty:

The orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day

In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the twenty-fourth,

And I’m longing to be up north.

That, amazingly, is the rarely performed first verse of “White Christmas.” It’s a little-known fact that the original version of Irving Berlin’s 1939 classic contained a preamble. There’s never been such a day/In Beverly Hills, L.A.. “White Christmas” is about L.A.! It rather changes things.

These facts notwithstanding, by this point you’ve heard “White Christmas” so many times, you’d go to the Neverland Ranch to seek refuge. We suggest instead that you banish the carols and cheer with some good, depressing blues. And we’re not talking about seeing Patrick Swayze in “Chicago” at the Pantages — we’re talking about the 12-bar stuff.

The time to do it is Monday night, after the boss has ripped that PowerPoint presentation apart, and the place to do it is Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn, the woefully under-patronized blues bar in Crenshaw. For $10, you’ll get five solid hours of heartache and pain and some of the best fried chicken drumsticks in town.

But the real reason to go to Babe’s on Monday is Miss Mickey Champion, the featured vocalist and a woman whose voice has been known to set grown men blubbering and chaste women quivering.

Champion, a Louisiana native who stands not even 5 feet, usually comes on about 11 p.m., but not onto the stage; she starts singing near the door, in a low moan, and then wends her way through the tables, no microphone, virtually unaccompanied, her voice growing louder and louder, until she ends up in the back, hollering the chorus of “Woke Up This Morning” or “I Am a Woman” (that one comes with a lot of gyrating).

Bring plenty of $1 bills — Miss Champion likes to collect them from the melting onlookers.

Step #7

Reassess the verdure. The tree stays until New Year’s Day, you say. But then New Year’s Day becomes next weekend, which becomes “when I get chance,” and before you know it you’ve got a defoliated Valentine’s Day pole.

Throw the tree out today and start thinking round and soft. Feng shui experts warn that pointy plants offend, since pointing, in most cultures, is a rude gesture. If all those needles weren’t enough, you’ve got those pointy red poinsettias too (aggression!). Pat Welsh, author of “Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening,” likes to replace the pointy things with hanging cymbidiums, which are a type of orchid, around the house. “They have bright, happy, gay colors, very different from red,” she said. They have long, strap-shaped leaves, and what’s more, they’re easy to make bloom and don’t need much sun. She recommends a golden yellow variety that blooms just after Christmas.

Welsh also likes to usher in the New Year with aloes, azaleas and especially some “graceful, feathery” ferns. Ferns are hard to tend, however, if kept inside. Welsh’s trick? “Just take it out in the morning and stick it under a tree, and then bring it in when you get back from work.”

Step #8

You’re still at the Grove. It’s Christmas Day. Didn’t we discuss this?

Step #9

Do plastic reindeer pass for sculpture for you these days? Is the only painting you own your 4-year-old’s abstract pastoral scene hanging on the fridge? Doctors have reported that the presence of art can have a calming effect on the psyche, so drag your Jimmy Stewart-watching tuchis off the couch and head down to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to rent yourself some culture.

For as little as $25 for two months, LACMA’s Art Rental and Sales Gallery will rent any one of about 450 paintings, photographs, collages and sculptures by 200 artists. Seventy-five percent of the rental fee can be applied to the purchase (that’s better than your lease rate!).

Of particularly relaxing effect in the current collection are Scott Coleman’s hand-colored photographs of Southern farms, Carol Henry’s diaphanous monoprints of flowers and Oliver Tollison’s shots from Washington rain forests (the source of most Christmas trees imported to California).

Step #10

Yes, we know that the “holiday season,” as it’s insistently called, is a secular affair. It’s spiritual, not denominational; celebratory, not worshipful. But let’s not get too secular, people. Red skivvies with white fur trim from Frederick’s? Happy holidays from the Church of Scientology? Come on.

We could all do with a little old-time religion — on a purely aesthetic level, of course. Make it as old as possible by visiting the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in San Gabriel, founded in 1771. Strolling through its crumbling garden and cemetery, sitting in a pew in the austere chapel, it’s easy to feel you’re in the 18th century. Your donkey grazes as you gaze down the Camino Real; the perfume of California’s first grape vines and frankincense intermingle.

Is that a Starbucks?

According to Father Francis Weber, a church historian at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, it was from a base camp at San Gabriel that the city of L.A. was first established. Check out the bronze baptismal font and St. Francis on the quaint retablo, looking as though he’s about to break out into “If I Had a Hammer.”

For a better picture of domestic mission life, visit Mission San Fernando Rey De Espana in Mission Hills. The people at Pottery Barn could learn a thing or two from the mission’s convento (translates as monastery, not convent), which looks much as it did in 1822, when it was completed. It housed California’s first bishop, Francisco Garcia Diego, whenever he came into town. According to Weber’s biography, Diego was originally sent to California from Mexico with nothing more than 200 pesos, a bunch of mutinous Indians and a few prayers. Note the depiction of the Immaculate Conception on his headboard — now that’s chastity!

Step #11

Forgot your mantra? For some quiet polytheism, go back to LACMA and look at the 7-foot-wide sand painting, or mandala, called Chakrasamvara, which is the centerpiece of the museum’s exhibition “Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art.” Buddhist monks from the Gaden Lhopa Khangsten monastery in India have been tending to this vision of the universe and the three levels of human consciousness since October. But hurry — they’ll be back in January to blow it away, literally, in a traditional ceremony.

Step #12

Let’s face it: There’s no better way to come down from anything, whether it be war or in-laws, than a movie. By this point, of course, you’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” so many times, you’re cursing Old Man Potter in your sleep.

Are there nonsaccharine holiday films, you ask? Certainly. The genre offers many corrosive characters to counteract Capra.

Before Billy Bob Thornton was “Bad Santa,” before Gov. Schwarzenegger starred in “Jingle All the Way,” even before the Grinch, the American Scrooge par excellence was Sheridan Whiteside, the man in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Monty Woolley plays Whiteside, the vitriolic pundit and radio personality (based on the New York Times editor Alexander Woollcott) who is stranded in a small Ohio town over Christmas and makes everyone around him, including his secretary, Bette Davis, miserable. “You’re a selfish, petty egomaniac,” she tells him, “who would just as soon see his mother burning at a stake if that was the only way you had of lighting a cigarette.” Don’t worry — it’s a comedy.

No less mean-spirited, unlikely though it seems, is “Holiday Inn,” the movie for which Irving Berlin originally wrote “White Christmas” (it was not written for the movie “White Christmas,” confusingly enough).

Bing Crosby plays a crooner who exits the Broadway rat race to run an inn in Connecticut, and Fred Astaire, in an apt about-face — he always looked more like a villain, didn’t he? — plays Crosby’s treacherous ex-partner, who keeps hoofing off with Crosby’s women. Notwithstanding the fact that the characters all dislike one another, Santa Cros’ rendition of “White Christmas” in the final scene may well bring a tear to your eye.

For more contemporary fare, there is the Bill Murray film “Scrooged.” Like much of Murray’s mid-’80s work, this update of the Dickens tale is an overlooked masterpiece. Murray is at his pre-“Lost in Translation” best, yelling at children, drinking heavily, gluing antlers onto mice.

Look for the Lee Majors cameo in “The Night the Reindeer Died.” It will touch your every heartstring.