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John Gardiner: The poet, performer and perfectionist at the heart of Laguna’s literary life


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

What happens when two language geeks get together at Zinc Cafe on a Thursday afternoon to talk poetry and prose, Shakespeare, the psychedelic sixties, Wallace Stegner’s plagiarism, and more? They swoon over sonnets, argue about punctuation, and get giddy when inventing phrases like “leering moon,” each of them deciding it’s about time the moon be taken to task.

Time spent with John Gardiner – dramatist, teacher, activist, and author of twelve collections of poetry – is like riding a literary tidal wave. At his core, John is a performer, and a perfectionist who has such a love of the written word that it’s hard not to hang on his every one. When John reads his poems aloud, which he loves to do, his voice is a melodic baritone, his language measured and precise, and his enthusiasm infectious. He can’t help himself from stopping every so often to say, “Let me read you another.”

And when he does you can only sit in awed silence, knowing something magical is happening, then and there.

Poetry in motion

“Poetry in an oral art form,” says John. “There’s the page poem and the stage poem. They both have to work.”

John has a voice made for radio and lyrics made for stage. He was trained in opera in an amphitheater in Maine, his tenor rich and deep.

“When you’re on stage you can dance, gyrate, and draw attention to yourself,” he says. “But then it has to work quietly on the page. It can’t be full of sound and fury.”

Making a show of Shakespeare

In addition to performing at local poetry readings, slams and workshops in Laguna Beach for the past two decades, John regularly tours in a music-infused Shakespearian show called “Shakespeare’s Fool.” He teamed up with Jason Feddy. Together they mix rock ’n roll music along with reggae and acoustic based tunes, performing ten songs and ten speeches from the Shakespeare canon.

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John Gardiner reads one of his poems

Shakespeare speaks to John. He has a deep appreciation for not only the language, but the sounds. “Shakespeare invented more than 1,800 words,” John tells me. “Maybe 2,500 words because he invented so many compound nouns.” This was a result of Shakespeare’s desire to avoid obvious rhymes, preferring pleasurable sounds to be subliminal. 

“He put syllable rhymes in the middle of the words, which resulted in a beautiful fluidity,” says John. “Much prettier than consonants and so subtle you’re not aware of it.”

Another technique Shakespeare favored was to use rhythm and meter to drop the endings of words, giving another meaning to the phrase. For example, “To be or not to be. That is the QUEST-ion.” The reader is hardly aware of it but, when read aloud, the emphasis is on the “quest.”

John’s lessons in Shakespeare are so spirited and enthusiastic, I couldn’t help becoming a renewed fan, going home to crack open a volume and re-read a few passages for myself.

From Bard to beards and back again

John took the drug culture of the 1960s seriously. Far more seriously than most Orange County conservatives were willing to give him credit for at the time, finding himself frequently harassed by the police. He was no stranger to hallucinogens. As he writes in his prose poem, “Just Another Strange Night in the 60s” (in which he describes a party in Floriston, Nevada): “Lots of trucks and VW vans out front, mud and ice on the front porch, rock climbing boots, beards, pony tails, granny dresses, patchouli, weed . . . and a bunch of people on varying elevated levels of externally stimulated and chemically altering psychic-cosmic buzzing caps of mind juice.”

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John’s books are available at Laguna Beach Books: He’s working on a third

But, like everything John does, he operated with intention. The drugs were used for a purpose, as opposed to recreation. “Sure, I took large amounts of acid, mescaline, peyote, etc.,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “but I also had one foot firmly planted in the anti-war movement …The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go to the Sunset Strip and jump around elbow to elbow in what can be called a ‘60s acid-head monster mosh pit. That was too much confusion, and I had no interest in it.”

Everything about John is disciplined. He’s neat and particular. His coins are stacked on his desk, his poetry filed in three-ring binders, rewrites of each verse replacing old work, each binder placed chronologically on his shelves. “Writing is discipline,” he tells me. “Never write while you’re stoned.”

The many creative leaves on John’s family tree

John was born in Manhattan Beach in the 1940s. His father had been a fighter pilot in WWII, their relationship not always easy. As he wrote in a poem entitled “Fathers and Sons,” capturing a fictional dream about his father hunting him with a gun, “You missed me daddy-o, so I guess the fight’s still on.”

His parents had six children in less than eight years. John describes them as a “psychedelic Brady Bunch.” The creativity gene has deep roots in John’s family tree. His late brother, Bob Gardiner, was a multi-talented artist, animator, painter and more who won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1975 for the Claymation film “Closed Mondays.” Everyone in his family, John says, writes and reads.

He also says it was a matriarchal family, crediting the strength of the women for allowing him to become the male mascot for Laguna Beach’s own Women on Words. “I not only love women,” says John. “I like them.”

Angle of Repose revisited

John’s great-grandmother was Mary Hallock Foote, a renowned 19th and 20th century writer of the American old west. She was a prolific storyteller, writing novels, nonfiction, stories and correspondence. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, for which he won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, is based directly upon her personal correspondence. While Stegner gained her family’s permission to use an outline of her life on the promise he would disguise her, he used direct passages of her work without giving credit, an act that has tarnished his reputation in the literary community until today.

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John Gardiner’s constant companion, Maddy

Coyote spirit

John tells me his spirit animal is the coyote, reflected in his 2014 collection “Coyote Blues” and numerous references throughout his work. After spending some time with John, this makes sense. The coyote totem, I learn, is “strikingly paradoxical and hard to categorize.” The coyote’s symbolism is associated with a deep magic of life and creation. He’s a teacher of hidden wisdom with a sense of humor. Perfect for John.

From his poem “Coyote Talk #4”: 

“Two coyotes were greeted the same way we seem to greet

Everything natural, mystical, magical—

Kill it or pave it.


With billions of humans, who stands a chance?

Better to rise from this plane and let your wildness roam free.”

There’s long lament in John’s work, a wistfulness for times past and a certain disgust for where things have ended up. His passages echo the sadness of a fading history, the trampling of nature, the risk that technology will subsume creativity, that social media’s ceaseless noise will drown out the quiet beauty of the written word. John is the coyote. The seasoned man of infinite experience and quiet wisdom, standing at the door of a new generation and perhaps wanting to close it. He seems to see ahead to what’s coming for us, and still finds power in the written word, strength in Shakespeare, and beauty in the natural world.

The legacy of language

In looking across the long arc of John’s life, from the generations that came before him, to the brother he lost and the children he never had, there’s a legacy of language, the specific beauty of the creative mind. 

John tells me he regrets never becoming a father. But it strikes me, in poetry, the white space holds just as much meaning as the written word. There’s great power in what’s left unsaid, and beauty in the silence. 

It also seems, in a world weighed down by the burdens of overpopulation, maybe John leaves an even more important legacy behind.

I ask John what his greatest accomplishment has been, his proudest moment. He considers this for a while before saying, “I hope it hasn’t happened yet.” Another nod to the mystical magic of the great unknown.

Steve Bramucci, author/traveler/teacher: His favorite adventures are misadventures


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Steve Bramucci clowns around in front of a combined class of 64 third and fourth graders at Anneliese School, discussing his new children’s book The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo, which was released on August 1 and published by Bloomsbury. 

During a slide show, a picture flashes onto the screen of a five or six-year-old kid wearing a phantom mask and a red cowboy hat. He has the look of a little boy who always has stories on his mind, tales of adventures and pirates and swashbuckling. 

Steve says to the attentive children, “This wasn’t unusual, this is how I dressed for school. I’m wearing a mask, it’s Monday.”

One man in his time plays many parts

Not surprisingly, this boy grew up to be a man who claims, “My favorite adventures are misadventures.” And as a testament to this, his resume has grown considerably since his mask wearing days. A born storyteller, he’s added author, travel and food writer, adventurer, teacher, surfer, husband and soon to be dad to the list. 

Truth be told, he could also add standup comedian and master of accents (British for Jeeves the butler in the book, and pirate-speak) to his qualifications. He’s an expert at both.

Steve keeps the diminutive crowd vacillating between laughter and awe as he tells stories of a confrontation with a flesh-eating Komodo Dragon (“It’s a bad idea to fall asleep on an island of dragons,” he warns), blood-seeking bats (looking for a mosquito meal) that flew into each other over his head as he slept, and how he spent a day with a lioness. He loves exotic animals and endangered species, especially orangutans (a portion of his book sales is donated to saving them). The students hang on his every word. 

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Steve mesmerizes class of third and fourth graders at Anneliese

Standing in front of a class of children isn’t new to Steve. His self-proclaimed, “Favorite school on the planet,” he taught at Anneliese School off and on for 15 years and even lived with Anneliese for six of those, leaving for periods of time to travel and then returning to teach. One of those trips lasted 13 months.

But how he ended up at Anneliese is an experience on its own. 

Steve graduated from UCSD and spent a year teaching in New York, arriving there only three days before Sept 11, 2001. 

On the cross-country-trek back to the West Coast, he bought a VW station wagon and was sleeping in it. He’d always wanted to go to the Sundance Film Festival, so he stopped in Utah. In freezing weather, at 5 a.m. in the morning, he spotted a woman waiting alone in front of a theater. Turns out she was a scout for the NB Film Festival and also the director of the older grades at Anneliese. With no real plan of coming here, he got a job at Anneliese. 

“No matter where you are, life can be an adventure,” Steve says. And he’s living proof of that. “There are always little seeds being planted in your head, and these seeds can be part of the story you tell. The greatest gift a teacher can ever give you is a blank piece of paper.”

And evidently these seeds have been accumulating for some time in Steve’s head, since many have blossomed into elements of his book.

The main character Ronald Zupan is a daring swashbuckler, though he hasn’t really had any faraway expeditions until he sets out for Borneo to rescue his parents. And there are pirates, and orangutans, and mosquitoes. Sound familiar?

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Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo

Steve’s parents were both adventurous, but in dissimilar ways. Steve’s life started out in Portland, OR, with a mother (also a teacher) who sometimes wound up getting lost on hikes as she led groups of his nephews and nieces. Perhaps that’s why Steve’s drawn to misadventure. 

While on fishing trips, Steve’s dad would tell him, “Go find whatever you can, and it’ll be your pet.” (Steve’s allergic to cats and dogs). On one search, he wrangled a rough-skinned newt. Unfortunately, its skin gives off toxins. On another occasion, he brought home a pregnant snake whose babies ended up slithering down the stairs, so his mother put the kibosh on his pet adoption phase.

Surfing, jumping off cliffs, and rowing down the Mekong River

Beyond bringing home the random off-beat pet, what Steve loved most while growing up, were comics with pirates who swung on ropes, hopping from crocodile to crocodile, so he translated that into traveling around the world, surfing (his favorite adventure), jumping off cliffs and swinging on ropes (though not from croc to croc). He has rowed down the Mekong River (twice) in a traditional Vietnamese x’ampan, gone into the outback with Aboriginal elders, and spent four months driving a Nissan Patrol in East Africa. 

He says of his excursions, “You never return home the same as you left.”

Then in 2010, Steve won a travel-writing contest at Trazzler with an article about (what else), a pirates’ graveyard in Madagascar. The monetary prize allowed him to concentrate more time on travel and writing. He has written for National Geographic (books), Afar, Outside, OC Register Magazine, and is the founder of the Life section at Uproxx, an online publication with 20 million unique visitors each month. Currently, as his fulltime job, Steve works as the food and travel editor for Uproxx.

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Steve imitates swashbuckler swinging on a rope 

Adventure is stock in trade for his two sisters as well. His older sister is a protection officer for women endangered in war zone areas and lives in Central Africa, and his younger sister is a Glaciologist. 

Now to Steve’s biggest adventure of all, he married Nitka, a fifth-grade teacher he met at Anneliese (the ceremony took place at the school), and their first child is due on Oct 24, a boy. Having globe-trotted extensively, Nitka identifies as a traveler as much as he does. Last year they rowed the backwater of the Mekong Delta, and they’ve been on a road trip, and fished in Alaska.

And on this Wednesday afternoon, it’s Nitka’s class that Steve next visits to discuss his book Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo. This audience, besides being a bit older, has just read the book, and the students are ready and willing to ask questions.

An inquisitive audience

One student says, “Why Borneo?” 

Steve responds, “I wanted to have orangutans, and I spend a lot of time in jungles, and I’m proud of how I describe them.”

“Are you happy with how the book turned out in general?” another asks.

“So far, I like it,” Steve says. “I wrote it to please myself.”

And when questioned as to why he wrote it, he explains that he wanted to write books specifically for kids, and one he would have liked to read at eight years old.

In answer to how long it took him to write it, Steve says, “The first 20 pages I wrote in one night and they didn’t change. The rest went through three years of editing and then it took one year for the illustrations and little details. Four years altogether.” He admits that editing is his favorite part of writing. 

Great questions from fifth grade readers.

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Steve Bramucci at home

Steve just returned home from a book launch tour that included Chicago, Wichita, Denver, Portland, Oakland, and San Francisco, sometimes speaking to auditoriums filled with as many 500 children. The appearance at Anneliese is his first in OC. 

He relates one of the most interesting questions while on tour: “Was writing the book hard?”

To which he answered, “It was the most fun difficult thing, and the most difficult fun thing I’ve ever done.”

And Steve likes to amuse himself in the process by adding humorous parts (possibly not evident to everyone). For example, Ronald Zupan says, “At the tender age of five, I crept inside the Zupan Library and devoured my first book, The Collected Plays of William Shakespeare. As my mother, Helen Zupan, once said, ‘The most adventurous people are carnivorous readers.’ She was right, it was a feast of language.”

Later Ronald repeats words from Shakespeare’s plays, as if regurgitating them. 

Shakespeare untamed and a tale of grand adventure

Ronald ends Chapter One with, “The past is prologue. Now, friends, we venture into the vast unknown!” The “what is past is prologue” comes from The Tempest. Later, Ronald worries that his, “Courage isn’t quite screwed to the sticking place.” “Screw your courage to the sticking place,” is a famous line by Lady Macbeth. Steve says there are at least a hundred of these sprinkled throughout the book.

Thankfully, this is not the last readers will see of Ronald Zupan. On October 1 of 2018, the second in a series of four Danger Gang books will be released, Danger Gang and the Island of Feral Beasts, about Fennec foxes. At Christmas, his new book for National Geographic will be released, National Geographic Chapters: Rock Stars, the true stories of extreme climbing adventures. Steve is currently working on The Fixers, the story of a boy and girl who get into terrible situations and try to fix them. 

Danger Gang starts out, “Hello friend, Are you ready for a dazzling tale of grand adventure?” And that it is! But so is the story of its author quite a dazzling tale of grand adventure - and misadventures. And this one is true.

To that five-year-old little boy in the picture whose head was already full of stories, I’d say, “Don’t ever take off that mask, it’s served you well.”

Buy Hand: Retail curated with a conscience – and Reddy charm


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Opening a retail business is always a risky venture. Opening a retail business during a lingering recession, the Great Recession, no less, could be considered complete folly. Despite the obvious timing issues, Kavita Reddy opened her shop, Buy Hand, in 2012. “My background is in tech and communications,” she explains. Her complete lack of retail experience, she believes, may have been helpful. “It’s almost better not to know things,” she says with a laugh. If she had known better perhaps she would have decided not to take the leap. “We haven’t regretted it. It has been great,” she says.

Buy Hand becomes a sister act

The “we” Kavita refers to is she and her sister, Vidya Reddy. Vidya joined Kavita as a partner in Buy Hand after moving to Laguna three and a half years ago. The sisters, originally from Canada, bring very different backgrounds (Vidya’s is in healthcare) and perspectives to their shop. These differences seem to be working out remarkably well for them. The store was voted Retail Store of the Year in 2014 by the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce and is rated the number one shopping destination in Laguna by Trip Advisor.

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Sisters Kavita and Vidya Reddy, owners of Buy Hand in Laguna Beach

“Businesses can do good”

 “I always wanted to do something in retail with a social component,” explains Kavita. The store originally featured only American handmade products. Now, the store’s offerings include globally sourced handmade products, in addition to the USA made items. “We believe businesses can do good in the world,” says Vidya. “We were worried about the impact of technology on work so we focused on selling handmade things. Our goal was for our customers to get a cheery, unique gift, but also to know that they are impacting the lives of real people.” 

A new location brings new energy

The sisters moved from their original location to the one they’re currently occupying in February, and they couldn’t be happier. “We are much more part of the community,” says Kavita. “The space has a great energy; it’s very synergistic. It highlights and showcases the things so well and that makes me happy. The pieces have soul. You can feel that here.”

The sisters share a synergistic partnership

The synergy extends to the sisters’ partnership as well. “We’re best friends,” says Vidya of her relationship with Kavita. “We bring two different skill sets to the table. If she digs in her heels I defer and she does the same for me. We respect each other’s talents.” “I don’t think I’d be doing this with anybody else but my sister,” adds Vidya.

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Kavita and Vidya Reddy show off some of their handmade items

They also respect each other’s taste. Kavita says some of her favorite things are the handmade knit kids’ items prominently displayed in the front of the store. “It brings a cheeriness to the store,” says Kavita. Vidya, on the other hand, is passionate about jewelry and gemstones. Coming from an Indian background, Vidya says, “Jewelry is in my blood!” She is particularly passionate about the healing powers of gemstones. “I really want to emphasize that,” she says emphatically. Both sisters make jewelry for the store. “We make a lot of jewelry!” exclaims Vidya. 

Embracing – and being embraced by – the community

Since moving to their new space, the sisters have been wholeheartedly embraced by the community. Neighbors pop in while walking their dogs to say hello. “That’s my favorite thing,” says Vidya enthusiastically. “I love it when your neighbor drops in and says, ‘I heard you had a headache yesterday. How are you doing?’ That’s the community I was looking for.”

A global holiday party with The Peace Exchange

In support of that community, Vidya and Kavita are partnering with Katie Bond, founder of The Peace Exchange, during Art Walk on December 7 for a global holiday party. “Katie walked into the store and we knew we were kindred spirits,” says Kavita.

The party will be at Buy Hand and all proceeds from fair trade sales on the night of the event will go towards the Peace Exchange’s launching of new endeavors in Bolivia. “The party will be about shopping with good food, music, and a…” Vidya pauses as she searches for the word. “A henna artist!” adds Kavita. The sisters both laugh, “We really do finish each other’s sentences,” says Vidya. 

Meditation? Cooking? Look for it in 2018

One of the things the sisters love most about their new space is the charming back patio. Vidya, who studied Ayurveda in India, says she hopes to use it for things like meditation workshops and cooking classes in the coming year. According to Kavita, Vidya is an excellent cook, specializing in southern Indian fare (most Indian restaurants feature northern Indian food). “I like to feed people,” says Vidya. Stop by the global holiday party and who knows? Maybe you’ll get lucky and be able to sample some of Vidya’s cooking.

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Looking for items that tell stories

While the Reddy sisters will be delighted to see you (whatever your motivation to visit the store) their hope is that once there, you find something you like. “People who come into Buy Hand are buying stories. They get to know the process and the inspiration behind every piece,” explains Kavita. Vidaya adds, “We are drawn to things that evoke a feeling.”

Seeing Laguna for all its charms

A resident with her husband since 2010 when they moved from Irvine, Kavita says she was thrilled by the views and the physical beauty of her new hometown, but it took opening her shop for her to fully appreciate Laguna’s subtler charms. 

“When I moved here I didn’t realize how special Laguna was…After being in business for these past years, I can say that it’s a joy to have a shop in this town even if it took me a while to appreciate it.”  

Vidya’s response to Laguna was more immediate. “I fell in love with it the moment I got here,” she says emphatically. Buy Hand reflects the sisters’ commitment to each other, to Laguna and to the artists they represent. “Ours is a purposeful shop,” says Vidya. “A big thank you to Laguna for giving us such a great place to work and live.”

Lisi Harrison: A best-selling author gets “Dirty”


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

When Lisi Harrison came to Laguna 10 years ago she was looking for a change. After leaving her prior life in New York City, Laguna definitely gave her that. However, making big changes was not something she was unfamiliar with. A Canadian by birth, Harrison had also lived in Boston and Philadelphia. Driven by the need to explore, Harrison says she left Canada for Boston during her college years because, “It just got me away from everything I knew. It allowed me to figure out who I was.”

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Lisi Harrison with her beloved writing companion

“The Dirty Book Club” is for adults

This decision to leave everything she knew behind her proved to be prudent, as who Lisi Harrison became while on this journey to self-discovery turned out to be a best-selling author. Her credits include the young adult series “The Clique,” “The Pretenders,” “The Alphas,” and “Monster High.” As of October 10 she had a new credit to add to her list: “The Dirty Book Club” hit bookstores on that date. This time, however, her audience is adults. 

How the real Dirty Book Club was formed

As with most creative endeavors, one never knows when inspiration will strike. Harrison says it struck her while she was talking to some women – total strangers – at the Coyote Grill. “We started talking about Judy Blume’s (novel) ‘Forever’ and how it was the first dirty book any of us had read. We started bonding over this very quickly,” remembers Harrison. 

Those women, now friends as a result of their discussion about the book, agreed to read it again and meet up later to discuss. That’s how Harrison’s real-life Dirty Book Club was formed. 

A challenge to try something new

Since art frequently imitates life, she decided that this premise of a dirty book club would make a really good novel. “I’ll do it for young adults because that’s what I do,” she remembers thinking. That is, until one of the women from her book club suggested she write it for adults. “This became very challenging for me,” says Harrison. “I had this great title but then I had to live up to it.” 

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Lisi Harrison’s books

From erotica to the power of friendship

She says when she first started writing, the novel “50 Shades of Grey” had just come out. Its popularity (combined with the title of her book) compelled to try her hand writing erotica. “I failed miserably,” she says with a laugh. “I had to figure out why I was writing this book. Finally, I realized it was about the power of female friendship.” Again, art imitating life.

A much-needed break turns into burnout

The novel took more time than she’d planned, but once finished Harrison says she planned on taking a much-deserved break. Unfortunately, life, as they say, had other plans. “It’s much different promoting a book in 2017 than it was in 2007,” she says wearily. “So you take a person, who’s not an extrovert, going out there and saying “Hey, let me sell you something!’” Additionally, during this “break” she felt compelled to “reclaim” her social media presence, also not an easy task. The result? Complete burnout. “I had not written a word since January,” she says with mild incredulity.

However, there are signs of resurgence. As of this past Monday, Harrison says she finally sat down and started writing a chapter. “It felt like I was home again. I’m done with all of this ancillary chaos. I want to get back to doing what I love doing.” 

Harrison says it’s too soon to tell if the chapter she started on Monday will become a book, but at least there’s no doubt that another book will be coming – eventually. While the next one percolates, Harrison says she’s recharged enough to come to your book club, dirty or otherwise, if you happen to be discussing her “Dirty Book Club” (her novel, not her group). “I will Skype into anybody’s book club. I would love to do that,” she says enthusiastically. 

Jumping at opportunities post-college

If you do invite her, perhaps you can ask her, as a side note, about her journey from college grad to best-selling author to Laguna Beach resident. It is a great lesson in making the most of one’s opportunities, as well as just plain old perseverance. While attending McGill University in Montreal (“The Harvard of Canada,” she explains, adding somewhat archly, “Harvard people hate it when you say that.”), she realized she wanted a more robust arts program. She found one at Emerson College in Boston. 

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She completed her studies earning a BFA in Creative Writing. She says she followed a boyfriend to Philadelphia and then, somewhat impetuously, took a job in New York. “A friend said he could get me a job at MTV so I basically just jumped on the train and went.” 

A job at MTV turns into a career

Even the job at MTV was somewhat of a lark since Harrison says she didn’t really know what it was. “They don’t have MTV in Canada, and when I was a student I could never afford cable so it was completely foreign to me,” she says. Nevertheless, she got a job in casting (and then ended up being given the job of the friend who hired her in the first place, something Harrison describes as “very awkward”). Twelve years later, she had worked her way up to Senior Director of Development. “MTV was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” she says. “We were all young, in our early 20’s, with tremendous responsibility and no guidance, being fully exploited and harassed. It was great,” she says laughing.

Still, the desire to write was there

But while she was enjoying her career at MTV there was still this thing she couldn’t give up on: the desire to write. So she would work her “day job” at MTV from 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. and then come home and start writing. She says she’d wake up some mornings in tears she was so tired, but she was determined. “This is what I wanted to do. I just felt like an ass if I didn’t go for it,” she says. And her persistence paid off. She wrote her first two novels while still at MTV, “The Clique” and “Best Friends For Never.” When the latter debuted at #7 on the New York Times best-seller list she left MTV and pursued writing full time.

Leaving New York for Laguna

So how did this self-described city girl who was having the time of her life in New York finally end up in Laguna? It mostly had to do with kids. Married and with a new addition to the family, a son, and another baby on the way, Harrison says New York lost some of its luster. “When it stops being about you, when it starts being about the kids, New York is just not conducive to that. We just wanted an easier lifestyle.” Laguna was designated as that “easier lifestyle” because her now ex-husband, who is a surfer from Virginia, had visited Laguna and decided it was a pretty special place. Plus it checked one of Harrison’s boxes: a warm climate.

Becoming a true “Californian”

Being from Canada, Harrison was on a mission to live somewhere warm. With ten years under her belt, it looks as though she has acclimated to California-living quite well. So well, in fact, that when we met it was a pleasant 70 degrees (at the very least) yet Harrison decided she was chilly enough that she needed to put on her sweater. Nothing screams “Californian” more than being cold in temperatures the rest of the country finds positively balmy.

Learning to “restock the pond” at the beach

As with any change, there are trade-offs. Likening one’s imagination to a pond that needs replenishing after each artistic endeavor, Harrison says just walking out the door in New York helped “restock the pond.” In Laguna, where, she says, “It’s the same weather, same people…it’s like being in the Apple store all the time…” refilling the pond is a bit trickier. But what she lost in terms of stimulation, she gained in feeling the embrace of her new community. 

Community and the art of the potluck

“The community here blew me away. I kept thinking, ‘Why are these people so nice? Why do they keep inviting us to all of these potlucks?!’” It certainly wasn’t for her culinary skills. Not versed in the manner of potlucks or small town living, Harrison says she decided she’d pick up some garlic bread from “this little Italian place” she discovered to bring as her contribution to her first Laguna Beach potluck. She transferred the bread to one of her trays to look like she made it and voila! Instant potluck offering.

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Lisi is back at work

Unfortunately, since there are only a handful of Italian places in Laguna (quite different from New York) one of the guests took a bite of “her” garlic bread and asked, “Is this from Gina’s?” Whoops.

Now Harrison can undoubtedly potluck with the best of them. And there is no doubt as to where she belongs. Laguna is where her kids are growing up and there is probably no stronger definition of home than that. However, we can all agree that Laguna is not New York City. So to keep that part of her alive, Harrison satisfies herself with taking her kids to visit often so everyone can get a taste of what she (and they) left behind. 

There is no doubt she has embraced left coast living. However, she can’t quite shake the allure of one of the most bustling of all bustling metropolises. “Laguna is home. But my soul in in New York,” she says.

Retain Laguna’s tradition with chic new twists: That’s the goal of sisters Hasty Honarkar and Nikki Bostwick


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

There are some longtime residents who lament the loss of old Laguna. The town isn’t the same, they say, since the 1960s and 70s. Gone are the hippies and bohemians. Gone are some iconic spots—the Boom Boom Room, the Cottage, the movie theater. The battle is on between commercialism and charm, between locals and tourists, between the old and new. The nostalgists will tell you the greatest generation is fading away, and the younger population can’t afford to live here. They will tell you fewer and fewer people get the town. They long for the good ol’ days, while trying to remain optimistic about the future.

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Sisters Nikki Bostwick and Hasty Honarkar

Nikki Bostwick (27) and Hasty Honarkar (29) may represent Laguna’s strongest bridge between the generations. They’re passionate about preserving the charm of the town while injecting a chic and vibrant twist. These two sisters—with their sense of millennial style and creative design—are reimagining Laguna’s traditional roots one space at a time. 

A culture of caring, a head for hard work

Hasty and Nikki were brought up on hard work, imagination and gratitude. Their father, Mo Honarkar, moved to the United States from Iran when he was 20. He’d come to California before the Iranian revolution and then realized there was no reasonable path back. “He worked three jobs and went to UCI,” says Nikki. “A bus driver, an ice cream vendor, there’s nothing he wouldn’t do.” Their father made it possible for his whole family to immigrate—his wife, four of his five siblings, his parents, cousins, nieces and nephews all came to Orange County because of Mo. “He built everything all on his own,” says Nikki. 

The extended family stays tight. They see each other every week. Holidays are spent at the Royal Hawaiian (which Mo owns), or picnics at Heisler Park. “It always looks like a scene out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” laughs Hasty. The Honarkars have an open-door policy when it comes to celebrations. “If someone doesn’t have somewhere to go,” says Hasty, “they’re with us.” 

The strength of sisterhood

The sisters say they’re opposites, yet similar, at the same time. “We’re better sisters when we don’t work together,” they both say. But that doesn’t mean they don’t bounce ideas off each other, and come to each other for support.

Their affection for each other is clear. Hasty and Nikki sit close on the couch. One will finish a sentence the other started. They seem in sync, one often seeming to know the other better than she knows herself. 

When Nikki talks about marrying Eric, her high school sweetheart, Hasty’s face lights up. Her sister’s joy is also her own. 

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The sisters in Nikki’s store, The Fullest

They talk about raising their dogs like raising their future children. Hasty has two—a French bulldog and a puggle—who she describes as “plump and old.” Nikki has a Siberian husky named Cessna, who has all the envied energy of youth. “I keep looking for a pet psychic or therapist for Nikki’s dog,” says Hasty. She’s that invested in the canine cousins getting along.

Hasty’s head for business and passion for urban planning 

Hasty has worked with her father since she was a teen. She has a head for business and a heart that’s always belonged in Laguna. She tested out of high school when she was 15, moving briefly to Arizona to start her college career. “I cried every time I drove away. I came back after a year,” says Hasty. “Laguna is so cool. It’s fun and quirky and hippy, and yet so beautiful. It’s no wonder no one wants to leave.”

“Though you appreciate it more when you go and come back,” says Nikki, who spent some time in Oregon for college.

Hasty is fascinated by culture, geography and business. She changed her majors several times, studying environmental studies, product development, urban planning and more at UCLA. All these fields have helped in her current role as Vice President of 4G Ventures, a real estate development and hospitality business she runs with her father. Together they manage a portfolio of businesses—restaurants, hotels, residential properties, office spaces and venues that include Seven Degrees, the Royal Hawaiian, 14 West Boutique Hotel and many more. The company began after the Honarkars sold 4G Wireless, Verizon’s largest retailer on the west coast.

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Hasty Honarkar knows quality and creativity, in clothes and at work

“Laguna has a long history of being an incubator for creative minds,” says Hasty. “I want to build roots here for my family and my business. I want to raise children here, and watch my dad do what he loves in the community he loves. There’s nowhere else we want to go.”

Hasty says the danger for many local Laguna Beach businesses is their focus on revenue and making the steep rent. “It’s easy to forget the soul of the town when you’re caught up in revenue.” Her goal is to bring back these old projects that represent the heart and history of Laguna.

The Royal Hawaiian’s past, present and future

The Royal Hawaiian might be the best embodiment of the Honarkars’ vision to retain Laguna’s traditions while offering chic new twists. The island-inspired restaurant and bar has been an iconic Laguna staple since 1947, offering their famous (and dangerous) Lapu Lapus and transporting Orange County guests on a quick Hawaiian getaway. Over time, though, the place began to look tired. High rents, music restrictions, and a downturn in the economy forced the restaurant to close its doors in 2012. 

Three years later, Mo and Hasty arrived to save the day. They’ve revitalized the space, retaining all the traditions—banana leaves, pineapples, tiki torches and, of course, the beloved Lapu Lapu—while offering updated elements that allow the space to feel contemporary and relevant to new generations. The result, they say, is “tiki chic.”

For example, the old Lapu Lapu recipe called for canned juices from concentrate (which translated to a heck of a hangover). Now the local favorite is made from all freshly squeezed juices. Voila! The same . . . but better. They also showcase local artists who both represent the upcoming talent of the town while keeping with the artistic traditions of the past.

The goal is to give Laguna locals a place to feel nostalgic while also giving the next generation a chance to make new memories.

How Nikki’s obsession with wellness led to the Fullest

Nikki’s endeavors tend more toward lifestyle and wellness than business. Nikki is the founder of the Fullest, an online and bi-annual print magazine, and now a pop-up boutique shop in North Laguna. 

Nikki confesses she was a bit of a wild child at Laguna Beach High. But then she found yoga, specifically Bikram, and it helped her through a hard time. “I did a 180 degree turn in life,” she says. “Yoga changed everything for me.” It led her to culinary school to study raw food, vegan cooking, and wellness principles. Now she wants to bring that knowledge to her clients. 

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Nikki’s The Fullest magazine

Nikki’s recently launched pop-up boutique reflects the ideas of the Fullest. The space mirrors the website and the magazine—clean, light and airy—a place where clients can come to clear their minds and rejuvenate. She offers a sparse inventory of clothing, accessories, skincare, and home décor that follows this theme. Linens, teas, serums—items intended to promote a clean lifestyle.

The shop has a big comfy couch and chairs you can sink into all afternoon (I know this from personal experience). “I want a space where people feel comfortable just sitting, reading, or talking,” Nikki says. “I want this to be a place where we can build community, not just buy things.”

The Fullest offers yoga classes several times a week. Kundalini yoga focuses primarily on the breath. “It’s more spiritual,” says Nikki. “Good for the nervous system, circulation, and blood flow. I wanted to offer something that can’t otherwise be found in Orange County.”

Nikki also opens the space for a variety of other lifestyle and wellness workshops—a wreath making class, an organic bakery featuring a local artisan whom mills her own flour. She’s even starting a jogger’s club. On Saturday mornings at 9 a.m., the shop is the starting point where runners can meet up and return for a weekend inspired run.

Wellness, for Nikki, doesn’t mean deprivation or stressing over exercise. At one point in her life, she was militant about her diet and found it didn’t serve her. “Wellness isn’t just the food you eat and the way you move. It’s intention behind everything you do. Whatever makes you happy—that’s wellness. Stressing out about eating healthy is worse for you.” When Nikki discovered she could no longer eat at her grandmother’s house, enjoy her favorite meals, or share food with friends, she realized it was time for a new approach. 

“Fashion, art, music, self-expression—both the people making the art and the consumers enjoying it—that’s all part of a happy lifestyle. I’m hoping to bring that back to Laguna, because that’s what Laguna was based on. No restrictions. Just free-thinking and free expression.”

An Ohana state of mind

Ohana, in Hawaiian, means family (in an extended sense of the term, including blood-related, adoptive and intentional members). The concept emphasizes that families are bound together and members must cooperate and remember one another. Ohana is a concept this family embodies. It stretches back to their roots in Iran. It includes their extended family, all those who have immigrated to Orange County. And now it’s embracing the rich traditions of Laguna Beach and the upcoming generations who want to call Laguna home. The Honarkars are laying down a foundation for Laguna’s future. All of our town’s rich, artistic traditions…with a twist.

Jim Beres: Dedicated to staying connected to community concerns


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

What do Laguna Beach residents and visitors complain most about? Not a tough question. Parking. And Jim Beres, Civilian Services Administrator for the Laguna Beach Police Department, and one of three Division Commanders, is the man who fields all the complaints, questions, and concerns regarding this touchy and sometimes volatile topic. 

But that’s only one of the many hats he wears. In addition to managing Parking Services, he is also in charge of the Chaplain Program, Beach Patrol, Police Aides, Citizens on Patrol, and Animal Services. 

That’s a lot of hats.

And he’s been wearing them for quite a while. Jim has been with the LBPD for eight years this January, after positions in civilian law enforcement beginning in Orange (where he started as a police cadet), Stanton, Costa Mesa, and most recently before joining LBPD, El Monte, where he worked for sixteen years.

“On my days off in El Monte, for two and a half years, I worked part time in Costa Mesa. El Monte was very different from Laguna,” Jim says. “It’s a much larger city with 121,000 residents.”

It may have been larger, but few cities have the influx of people each year that Laguna does, a number that he says averages 6.3 million a year. With the overwhelming goal of accommodating both residents and visitors, the services that he manages ensure the city runs efficiently. That’s a gargantuan job, not one that many would want to tackle.

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Jim manages six different divisions

However, Jim appears to approach it with firm resolve (and a jar of pistachios on his desk though I would think it might be aspirin instead). It’s just business as usual.

A major factor in this “business as usual,” is outreach, based on the community policing efforts Chief Laura Farinella instituted in 2015.

Jim explains, “We go out to talk to our customers – our residents, visitors and employees of the city – to find out if we’re meeting their needs. You need to go out periodically into the community and ask, rather than waiting for them to come to you. Otherwise, sometimes the problem metastasizes. Part of contemporary community policing is going proactively out into the field.” 

They accomplish this in a variety of ways. Some of the meetings address specific issues with residents (such as coyotes), others are free form in which the audience brings up concerns, and then there are the traditional meet and greets. Several Coffee with Cops have taken place, the most recent at Moulin Bistro, a few at private homes. As with other members of the LBPD, Jim has a high visibility factor in town.

New member of Parking Services

On this beautiful day before Thanksgiving, we start on a light note and another highly visible representative of the LBPD. Jim is particularly proud and happy to show us (our photographer Mary and me) the new Hyundai Ioniq car, the first to replace one of the parking services older Prius models. He did quite a bit of research before settling on this make and model as the best replacement option. 

 “It has better performance,” Jim says. “And the amenities were all included.”

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Jim during a brief respite  

Parking Services employs four full-time parking officers and one full-time senior parking service officer, who provide service seven days a week. Next Jim will go to the City Council to get the second car approved, and eventually hopes to replace all the older vehicles.

Discussing parking vehicles migrates into the issue of parking. Because he’s the man in charge, he receives 30-40 emails a day, a high number of them addressing parking; from complaints about parking citations (which he must investigate), to a neighborhood dispute about someone bringing home a work truck or multiple cars parking on the street, or the receipt of a ticket in a parking structure because the permit was not in view. One can imagine the emails are mostly negative, but Jim says there are the benign inquiries from summer visitors regarding parking regulations and questions such as, “Do the meters take credit cards?”

Three common misconceptions

And this brings up a misconception that Jim quickly debunks.

“There is no quota on parking tickets,” Jim says. “It’s illegal per state law, a misdemeanor, for the city to establish a quota.”

First myth exposed. But there are more. Do residents know where the parking fine monies go? 

 “We work differently than other cities. All parking fine revenue goes into a capital improvement fund,” Jim says, “for public work projects, such as street improvements and tennis court reconstruction. No one likes to get a parking ticket, but maybe there’s a pothole out there with your name on it.”

Jim emphasizes the benefits of residents using parking permits (particularly the shopper permit, which is a bargain at $40 a year, bought every two years for $80), but cautions that even though there are five different kinds, the posted time limits still apply.

“This doesn’t have to do with Civilian Services, but we frequently ask participants at meetings if they know how many officers are on patrol at one time,” Jim continues. “Usually the answer is much higher, but on a typical day there are four to five sworn officers on duty.” Which he further explains makes it necessary to prioritize and make realistic choices regarding calls.

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New Hyundai Ioniq replacement vehicle for Parking Services

However, one of the biggest misconceptions that he demystified pertains to neighborhood street parking permits, which is a major topic of discussion among North Laguna residents living close to restaurants. Jim sets me straight on the subject. 

There is one residential parking permit district, the quiet zone, in place near Mozambique, but the City’s hands are tied granting additional ones. “The California Coastal Commission states that Laguna Beach is not allowed to establish any new permit zones,” he says. “Their mission is to maintain access to the coast for all, residents and non-residents alike. Anything that impacts non-residents’ ability to access the coast in an equal manner is problematic for them.” And this is the case with all coastal cities in CA.

Unfortunate news for residents in North Laguna, Alta Laguna, South Laguna (around 8th and 9th streets), and those who live near the high school, who have rallied for parking permit districts. 

Value of Police Aides and Citizens Patrol

However, there are issues, such as traffic, that have been addressed in ways that should please residents and visitors alike.

If you’ve ever tried to navigate the downtown area on a summer weekend, you must give kudos to the Police Aides in the bright yellow vests who direct traffic and keep the traffic flowing. These young men and women, some in the process of getting their degrees, are looking to get into law enforcement. This is a grueling job. Not only do they stand on their feet for six to seven hours a day, they must maintain complete focus, and constantly communicate with the other aides in the area to safely keep cars moving.

“It’s a really valuable program,” Jim says. “It helps the traffic flow smoother than it otherwise would. It’s tough because Laguna Beach isn’t designed for the volume of traffic that goes through. There’s not much we can do. Given the nature of the city, it’s not as if we can widen the streets or put in more turn lanes. It is what it is, and we just have to make it work the best we can.”

 Another area Jim oversees, is Citizens on Patrol, or sometimes known as Seniors on Patrol, though he emphasizes that recruits need not be seniors, but must be over 18 years of age. Volunteers complete an eight-week training program and are then qualified to apply to be a COP and participate in various support tasks (vacation home checks, meet the public, assist with traffic and parking enforcement, and fire/flood watch). COPs wear uniforms and drive city cars. They also transport various items (DNA samples, for example) to the crime lab. Currently, the COP has 12-14 volunteers.

They are indispensable to the force, but Jim says, ‘They are never in harm’s way.”

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An antidote for stress

Another of the services, Beach Patrol, that Jim oversees, was established after meetings with South Laguna residents, who were concerned about the nuisance activity caused by increased visitors to beaches (West St, Thousand Steps) whose popularity has spread via social media. 

As an outcome of these community meetings, two Beach patrol officers were hired, and, after the voters approved Measure LL, two more were added. There are also several part-time Beach Patrol Officers during the summer season. The feedback from the residents in that area is that the problems were reduced.

Most of citations they issue are for alcohol, (active consumption, open containers, minors in possession, or glass containers on the beach). In addition to beaches, they also patrol parks and the wilderness.

Counseling and emotional support

In addition, Jim manages the Chaplain Program, which currently has two volunteers. The LBPD relies on the faith based community to provide support and assist the Police Department on a volunteer basis, providing emotional support and counseling to victims of crimes and their families, as well as Department personnel and their families.

Pastor George Sabolick has been a volunteer with LBPD for over 15 years and provides counseling to officers on call.

The senior pastor for Calvary Chapel Seaside, Kurt Shonheinz, has been with the Department for 10 years. He can be seen in the police department almost weekly.

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The emails never ends

And certainly, the last two of Jim’s responsibilities are dear to my heart – the Animal Shelter and the Dog Park. Serving Laguna Beach and Laguna Woods, the shelter offers temporary care of sick, injured, and stray or abandoned animals rescued by the animal service officers.

The City employs three full-time animal service officers, who provide animal control services seven days a week. Their job is to enforce animal related laws, rules, and regulations in Laguna Beach and Laguna Woods. However, they also assist in incidents involving coyotes, marine mammals, rattlesnakes, and other animal related matters.

Partnership with the community

As stated on the LBPD website, “The mission of the Laguna Beach Police Department is to preserve human rights and enhance the quality of life through equitable law enforcement and responsive public service, in partnership with the community.”

It’s difficult to believe that all the departments mentioned above are maintained by one person, Jim Beres. He oversees a wide spectrum of services, seemingly switching hats as required. After spending only an hour with him, I realize just how big a role “partnership with the community” truly plays in his management acumen, and just how much the residents of Laguna Beach have benefited from that vision.

For further information on the LBPD, go to

Laura Linsenmayer: Back to her ROOTS, and driven by the moon to find her “magical vortex”


Photos by: Mary Hurlbut

Laura Linsenmayer, owner of ROOTS the Beauty Underground, says she finds it “hilarious” that Laguna is where she ended up. After moving here in sixth grade she says when she graduated from Laguna Beach High School, “I was the classic case of ‘I’m leaving my hometown and I’m never coming back!’” So she set out to “find herself” by living in Florida, Park City, Los Angeles and Connecticut. The plan was to move every two years because, as she explains it, “that gave me ample time to build roots there. I just kept doing that.”

A surprise homecoming

“That” stopped when she decided she had learned enough from running other people’s businesses and was ready to open her own. “I never even considered coming back home,” she says. Rather, it was her family’s suggestion. They must have been persuasive because Linsenmayer opened her shop in the Lumberyard Plaza on August 1, 2012. 

A good omen helps launch ROOTS the Beauty Underground

“From the date of conception until I opened my doors it was nine months,” she says, completely grasping the symbolism. “When I fully committed in my soul it was a divine lead. Everything presented itself really smoothly; everything unfolded so flawlessly I knew it was the right thing to do.” The fact that August 1 happened to be a full moon was one more good omen. “I’m driven by the moon,” she says.

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Laura Linsenmayer, owner of ROOTS the Beauty Underground in Laguna Beach

13 binders full of research provide the blueprint

Linsenmayer is also driven by a desire to help people. Her enthusiasm for her business is sincere and infectious. However, it was not necessarily part of a grand master plan. “I always knew I’d be in the beauty industry,” she says. She went to beauty school at 18 and has worked in some facet of the industry ever since. Every job she took she considered “research” for her future business, whatever that might be. She was so committed she wrote down things she thought worked and, more importantly, things she didn’t, eventually filling 13 binders. These binders became the blueprint for ROOTS the Beauty Underground.

Enlightenment leads to a business idea

While she was methodical with her experiences, the actual idea for her business was more happenstance. She had moved to LA and was walking her neighborhood looking for work. She walked into an organic hair salon. “I was just drawn to these girls,” she says. She listened and learned. “Once you’ve been enlightened you can never go back. I just got deeper into it.” The idea of natural, non-toxic beauty products took hold. “It was important for me to find a niche that required depth. This was it,” she explains. So she dove in, learned all she could and launched ROOTS the Beauty Underground.

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The “magical vortex” where ROOTS has been for six years

SIx years ago the idea of all natural beauty products, while not new, was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is now. There was enough of a market, however, that customers sought her out in her tucked away location, a “magical vortex,” she calls it. She made sure the products she carried had a store locator list on their website. “That was the root of how people started to find me,” she says. (Sidenote, Linsenmayer uses the word “root” a lot in her conversation. Just one more example of how connected she is to her business.)

Providing customer service that is unparalleled

Now, with her customers being split an even 50/50 locals and out of towners, Linsenmayer says her concern isn’t so much raising awareness about the store, it’s battling the Amazon effect. “We need to provide an experience they can’t,” she says. “The depth we go to is unparalleled. We won’t stop until we get you your perfect program.”

It’s all about the education

Linsenmayer and her team do that with education. “We’re educators first and foremost,” she says emphatically. “I want people to know they can come in here and just learn. There’s no pressure to buy anything. Come in for the education and leave feeling better about yourself.”

An area where education is making huge inroads is with her hair salon. People used to think organic hair color didn’t work effectively. “Now,” she says, “the word is out that it does work and it’s fabulous. It’s so fun to watch the graph go up in that area of the business.” 

The importance of what we wear is comparable to what we eat

Like all businesses, Linsenmayer has had to make adjustments to her inventory. One that has been a surprise is her now minimal kids section. “When I opened I had a really extensive kids section,” she says. “I have been surprised over the years that parents weren’t more enthusiastic about buying these (non-toxic) products for their kids,” she says. As more information comes out about what is in much of that we put on our body, this may change. “These products,” explains Linsenmayer, “hold just as much power (over our health) as food does.”

Non-toxic beauty products will eventually become “the norm”

That’s why she believes the idea of natural, non-toxic beauty products is going to become the norm in the future. “The toxic products industry won’t last much longer,” she says confidently. Her goal is to spread the word about non-toxic products across the country. And she’d love to help others do the same.

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Laura Linsenmayer works her magic with her non-toxic products on a client

Hoping to help others by providing them with her plan

It took Linsenmayer 20 years of research to learn what she needed to learn to open her business and keep it thriving. “I couldn’t have done it if I had a kid or a husband,” she says. A future goal is to put everything she has learned, from products to procedures, into a business plan so that others can do what she has done, albeit under their own name. “I would love for people from all over to say ‘I want to open a store like yours’ and I could provide the business plans and systems operations and they can put their name on it.” That speaks to her passion for what has clearly become a mission.

Striving to help Mom feel good

And passion is something Linsenmayer has a lot of. Not just for her business, but for the natural products industry as a whole. She also really, really, really wants to help people look and feel their best. “My favorite thing is making people feel good about themselves. That’s where it’s at. When Mom feels good everybody wins. That is so cool!” she says excitedly.

Six years in and feeling like she’s just getting started

So if you’re in the market for a cleanser or a lip gloss or need a new hair stylist, Linsenmayer and her staff are here to help. For someone who never intended to return home, Linsenmayer chuckles at the fact that she now attends city council meetings. She has also now has a new appreciation for her hometown. “I didn’t understand how special it was being from a small town.” And even though she is back in that small town for awhile now, there are still people who haven’t found her shop yet. “People come in and say, ‘How did I not know you were here?’ I love that! I feel like I’m just getting started.”

Jessica Byrne: From Paintbox to pastries to PedalBox, a new high-concept gym, it’s all about hospitality – which is in her DNA


Photos by Mary Hurlbut and Drew Fuerstman

Welcome to the season of calories, cocktails and holiday stress. It’s the month when even the strongest among us can lose her resolve. Fortunately, there’s an amazing new way to pay for December’s indulgences. And it’s delivered by a woman who has hospitality—and all the hallmarks of exceptional service—written into her DNA. 

PedalBox Gym, now open in Dana Point, is owned and operated by Jessica Fuerstman Byrne and her husband, Duncan Byrne. It’s the first gym in Orange County to combine the Schwinn Airdyne bike with boxing and other HIIT exercises to create a high intensity, low impact workout that will blast both stress and calories without taking a toll on the joints. It’s tailored to accommodate every age and workout level, and it will kick your bootie while leaving you begging for more (I say this from personal experience).

A history of hospitality

Hospitality has been handed down through the generations in the Fuerstman family. Jessica is the daughter of Alan Fuerstman, founder and CEO of Montage Hotel group. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Hospitality is in their DNA, whether at a hotel or boxing gym

Alan began in the hospitality business when he was in high school. His father was a dentist, a profession that requires the utmost care and client support. “My parents were strong role models,” says Alan. “I grew up watching how they dealt with people. They were very nurturing and gracious, and provided a great example of how to treat those who worked for them.” 

Alan has spent his life in the luxury hotel industry, starting as a doorman in the Marriott when he was a senior in high school. Through the years, he worked as the president and managing director of The Phoenician resort in Arizona, and was recruited by Steve Wynn to open the Bellagio. 

Montage Resort first opened in Laguna in 2002. The concept was to create a gracious and humble approach to luxury. “Many of these hotels are too pretentious and stuffy,” says Alan. “I wanted our clients to feel as comfortable wearing jeans as wearing suits.”

Alan passed along that humble mentality to his own children, instilling a sense of casual elegance and grace, coupled with the ability to be highly attuned to people’s needs. The result is a daughter who’s driven to succeed, and completely comfortable in her own skin. 

Jessica works hard. She isn’t afraid to take risks. And she’s well-positioned to bring her father’s style and level of service into her gym. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Jessica works hard and isn’t afraid to take risks

“No one wants to feel out of place or look stupid,” says Jessica. “If you can get someone to shrug that off, it’s amazing.”

“That’s similar to fine dining,” adds Alan. “Everyone wants to feel like they belong.” Worrying about which fork to use isn’t conducive to a good experience. Removing that intimidation factor is something father and daughter do best.

From Paintbox to Pedalbox—growing up Montage

Jessica started working at Montage Resort when she was only 17. She began as a counselor at Paintbox, the children’s program offered by the resort. She also worked at the pool as a hostess before heading to college at the University of Arizona. 

Ultimately, Jessica found her passion in pastries. She studied at both the Loft and the Studio restaurants at the Montage before getting her culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu in London. “I wanted to learn the science behind the pastries,” she says. That desire to achieve mastery over every detail and chemical combination in cooking carries through to her approach at the gym. She’s a perfectionist about form and technique.

A match made in . . . the gym

Jessica met Duncan in London. In a gym, of course. “I’d always been active,” she says. “Fitness had been an important part of my life.” So, during the course of her culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu, Jessica joined a gym.

Husband Duncan has worked as a strength and conditioning coach for over a decade. He has extensive experience in boxing, CrossFit, weightlifting, personal training, and strength and conditioning training. 

Once they decided to get married, Jessica turned her full attention toward getting in shape for the wedding. Duncan wooed her away from desserts and now she dedicates her days to PedalBox.

The PedalBox difference

It’s difficult for gyms to distinguish themselves. Especially in southern Orange County, where it seems there are as many trainers as there are clients. So when I first heard the concept, I was skeptical. What could be so different?

The unique (and grueling) combination of the bike and boxing is the first thing to note. The Schwinn Airdyne bike, different from spin bikes and other cycling training, is designed to increase its resistance in direct proportion to how hard you’re working. The harder you work, the harder it gets. It also incorporates your arms, giving you a fuller body workout. The best part? The bike generates a powerful fan that cools you off as you go. After 40 seconds going all out, you’ll appreciate the breeze. And you’ll get an intense cardio workout in record-fast time. 

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Photo by Drew Fuerstman

The combination of bikes and boxing sets PedalBox apart

From the bike, you’ll begin to box. Boxing had me worried. I’d never boxed, and coordination isn’t my strong suit. This is where Jessica and Duncan bring their unique skillset to the PedalBox experience with flawless technique, endless patience, and serious motivation. Even after a few minutes spent with them, I began picking up the basic techniques. (At least they said I did, so let’s go with that.)

Coming off the CrossFit craze, Jessica and Duncan found they loved the high intensity workouts, but didn’t love how hard it was on the body. It’s easy to get hurt. CrossFit workouts are hard on the joints, and the risk of injury from combining strength with speed is high. So Jessica and Duncan found a new way to maintain that intensity while removing the risks.

The proof is in the pedaling … and boxing

Even for the most seasoned gym rat, a new workout is intimidating. Boxing, to me, sounded synonymous with feeling foolish. “Think of it like dancing,” Duncan told me. That definitely didn’t help this uncoordinated client. But one thing Duncan and Jessica have down is quality instruction, service and training. They’re motivating. They’re encouraging. And at no point did I feel self-conscious. 

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Father and daughter hold impromptu business meeting following the photoshoot

Jessica and Duncan meet you where you are. Every workout is scaled for every skill-level and ability. Class sizes are small to maximize personal attention and ensure proper form.

More important, the workout is intense. And fun! The mental energy required in boxing takes your mind off how hard you’re working. Time passes exponentially faster when all your concentration is on a series of steps, instead of the clock. The music is motivating—always something with a strong beat because boxing is a rhythmic sport.

“Boxing is empowering,” says Jessica. “It’s something I don’t get from weightlifting or cardio. It makes me feel like a badass.”

Indeed, it does.

A gift to yourself this season

We’re entering into the season of resolutions. After all the indulgences, it’s time to do something good for yourself. Jessica and Duncan make that as easy in the gym as Alan makes it in his resorts. The key is creating an experience that makes clients want to come back by being attuned to every customer’s needs. Jessica has been cultivating that skill for a lifetime. It makes PedalBox an inspiring place to discover how much you have in you. You’ll be surprised . . . it’s more than you think.

PedalBox is located at 24470 Del Prado Ave, Dana Point, CA 92629, inside Rado’s Fitness. In addition to 60-minute circuit training classes, they offer personal training sessions and a lunchtime bootcamp. Visit their website,, for more information.

Meldie Moore: Making a difference for families


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Meldie Moore always wanted to work with children. When she was in college she thought her future would be in child psychology or in teaching. However, her parents had other ideas. “My mom and dad pushed me to thinking about becoming a lawyer,” she says. Not opposed to the idea, but not completely convinced either, Moore says she decided to take both the LSAT and the GRE. As luck would have it, the LSAT test date was first. Moore says she scored very well on the test, “So, I just applied to law school, even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer.”

County Counsel provides a great start to Moore’s career

Moore chose Pepperdine for law school. This meant leaving her east coast roots (she grew up in Ireland and New York) for the unfamiliar land of California. Eventually, Moore merged her interest in helping children and the law when she interned with the County Counsel in Los Angeles. “It was a big test. I wondered if it would be too hard emotionally,” she says. That’s because attorneys in that division work on child abuse, domestic violence and other traumatic incidents. It was a great training ground. Moore was in court every day and this gave her a first hand look at what that kind of advocacy for children looked like.  

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Meldie Moore of Moore Law for Children at her office in Laguna Beach

A “dream job” with the OC District Attorney

Once she graduated law school and it came time to get a “real job,” Moore decided she didn’t want to make a career at County Counsel. “There was this one family who was on their 12th drug baby, or something like that. I was so…I just wanted to put the parents in jail,” she says. So when she got an offer to work for the Orange County District Attorney’s office she jumped at the chance. “It was hard to get a job with the DA’s office,” she says. “And people said Orange County was nice so I snapped it up. It was my dream job.” 

A feeling of fellowship over a 16-year career

For 16 years Moore worked as an Orange County District Attorney. “I felt like I was making a difference. I’m very much about justice and doing what’s right,” she says. “I was only working on cases I believed in.” Not to mention, Moore says she finds being in a trial “very exciting.” There was a bond among all involved in the trial process: the police department, the public defenders and the district attorneys. “There is a feeling of fellowship. You really get to know people, and they were all a really great group of legal professionals.”

Having children changes puts a new perspective on things

About eight years into her career with the DA, Moore says she started trying to have a child. Eventually, Moore and her husband adopted a child and, later, had another child with the help of infertility treatments. With two children at home, Moore decided to take a year off work. When her year hiatus was up, she returned to the job she loved only to find that either it had changed, or she had. “I saw it through different eyes,” she explains. “I now found it a little depressing.” Additionally, working such a rigid job with children at home was proving to be highly stressful. “I wanted more time,” she says.

Making a change that felt right for her family

So when a friend proposed the two team up and start their own firm, Moore says it gave her a lot to consider. “It took me about three months of hard soul searching,” she remembers. “I really loved being a DA, but I had waited so long to have children that I thought this was the best thing for my family.” 

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Moore lives and works in Laguna which makes her life a lot easier

Focusing on children

When she made her decision to leave the DA’s office and go out on her own, Moore says it was tough going at first. She and her partner decided to focus on working with families with special needs children. “I asked if we could do adoptions. She (Moore’s partner) didn’t want to, but said it was OK if I did it.” So Moore did pro bono adoption cases, as well. “I had to learn (a new area of) law and I didn’t really know anyone. It was a very difficult first couple of years.” 

Helping families of special needs children

A cornerstone of their new practice was students with a 504 plan. A 504 plan is part of the civil rights law that serves to prohibit discrimination based on a disability. According to Moore, some of these kids have behavioral problems. This can lead to them eventually getting expelled from school.  Helping the families navigate this is “a good 25 percent of my practice,” says Moore. 

Going solo presents an opportunity to focus on “happy law”

About five and a half years ago Moore’s partner decided to retire. Moore promptly moved her office from Irvine to Laguna where she currently hangs her shingle. 

Location was not the only change that took place.

 “I really started focusing on building up the fertility and adoption side of my practice.” Additionally, the education side of her practice has continued to grow as well, prompting her to hire two more lawyers. She calls this side of her practice “happy law.” “We are helping make people’s dreams come true, expanding their families.” The “schools” side of her practice is not quite as happy, although she finds it equally meaningful. “People only hire attorneys in these situations when things have gotten bad. But it’s still very rewarding. I help families with the most important issue in their lives: their child.”

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Meldie Moore with two associates. She hopes to hire one more in the near future

The ever-elusive work-life balance

Another important issue Moore says she finds personally very challenging is attaining balance. Like most working parents, Moore has a lot on her plate. “I’m trying to be a lawyer, market my business, run my business and be there for my family. I’m certainly not balanced, but I know it’s important, and I try!” 

Living and working in Laguna helps – a lot

Having other attorneys has helped. “They give me more flexibility,” she says. However, her days have her running from one thing to another. The day we met she was heading off to her son’s performance and then running into a meeting immediately after. “Living and working in Laguna allows me to do that,” she says.

And why Laguna? “When I first came to Orange County people said Newport Beach is nice. I lived there, and I liked it. Then I moved to CdM (Corona del Mar) and I liked it. But then my friend and I came to Laguna and we said, ‘We’re going to live here one day.’ I just fell in love with it.” She says her friend never made it, but clearly Meldie Moore has.

Diana Neff: She loves to live, work, and play to the fullest at her Glennwood House home


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

“I wanted to be independent like my sister,” says Diana Neff, as we talk on the patio of Glennwood House, a 42 room independent living facility in Laguna serving special needs adults 18 through 59 years of age.

Behind Diana, the wind ruffles the ocean into peaks in the distance. Almost four years ago, when Diana was barely into her thirties, that wish to be independent was the catalyst that sent her parents in search of a place to satisfy her desire for autonomy. She says, “We looked at other places, but I liked this place.” 

And, not surprisingly, it appears to be a perfect fit. Glennwood’s vision for its residents is an atmosphere in which they can “live, work, play,” and Diana is certainly the embodiment of that vision. Evidently, it’s the right soil in which the seeds of independence bud and flourish. Her days are filled to the brim with friends, work, volunteering, sports, art, exercising, walking, and yoga. With an emphasis on friends.

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Diana enjoys the sun on the Glennwood patio 

As for the “living” part of Glennwood’s mission, the facility provides beautiful and peaceful surroundings, yet it has a community feeling, welcoming and friendly. Diana’s self-reliance also extends to her living conditions, as she has her own room (and an ocean view), and she keeps her own hours. And the location is ideal for walking to the beach or the coffee shop down the street. 

But her schedule doesn’t leave much time for strolling. Not only does she work at Ralph’s Grocery four days a week, she volunteers at the Woman’s Club, for which she received an award for Volunteer of the Year. 

A packed schedule of work, volunteering, and fun

Sherry Neff, her mother, says, “She attended an eight-week serving course at Glennwood put on by the Woman’s Club, and was then invited to serve at events. She’s been doing that on and off for three years.” 

Sometimes these two worlds collide, but in a good way.

Members of the Woman’s Club come to visit Diana at work, and her mother says that when the two of them go walking together, people on the street frequently greet them. One of the reasons Diana loves working at Ralphs is the interaction with customers, where she says, “Almost everyone knows me.”

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Guest Services…Diana happily bagging and talking with local Cindy Fletcher

Aside from being autonomous, having friends appears to be of utmost importance to Diana. “I didn’t have very many friends before, but since living here, I have a lot of friends.”

Her best friend, Tina Cassani, passes us briefly in the hallway.

Sherry explains further, “When Diana was young, it was hard on children with disabilities. They were sent to a school that had a class appropriate for the children, and it was never her home school. She didn’t have friends. The children in her class didn’t live in the neighborhood.”

Diana gains a large network of friends

But now, Sherry says, “She has a few close friends, and the other residents are like an extended family. They all watch out for each other.”

Glennwood also has a bevy of people who assist residents in various endeavors. Since working is encouraged, they facilitate the process by providing a job coach. Diana’s job coach takes her to work, picks her up, and oversees any new assignments or necessary paperwork.

Although Diana is transported to work and back, she does have the opportunity to use the ACCESS bus available through OC Transit Authority. This comes in handy when she goes to Aliso Viejo to do one of her favorite things; help her sister with her nephews (six-month old twins and a two-year old). And three boys under two years of age seems like a situation in which a helping hand is needed. She’s very much looking forward to spending the holidays with them. 

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Dave and Sherry Neff with Diana’s nephews, Thomas, Bryan and Scott

Her mother says that Diana always loved exercise, but aside from skiing with her parents in Mammoth and (encouraged by her sister) running 5ks, she didn’t participate in team sports until she arrived at Glennwood.  And here’s where more friends come in. She’s now a member of the baseball team and plays every Saturday. And she does yoga once a week and spends a half-hour a day on the treadmill in the gym. 

However, there is an artistic side to her as well. Every two weeks, artists from LOCA visit the facility, and now Diana’s parents are the proud recipients of many of her drawings and paintings. And she uses this talent to make cards for her friends and family. Assistant Director Rachel Landers, who has been at Glennwood since its opening, says, “I have three of them on my desk right now.”

Sherry attests to the changes in Diana since she arrived at Glennwood. “She’s grown as an individual. When she was living at home, she didn’t think for herself. She’d ask, ‘Mom, should I do this?’ Now when she’s faced with a decision, she says, ‘Let me think about it.’”

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Gorgeous blossom in the patio garden

Even the neighbors on her parents’ street have noticed a change. “We’ve lived in the same house for 32 years, and the neighbors see how she’s matured,” Sherry says. “And when we’re together or out to dinner, she has so much to talk about now.”

Although it seems as if there is much to like of her new life here, Diana answers the next question without a moment’s hesitation. When asked about what she likes best at Glennwood, she says, “Being independent and having friends. Glennwood has been a good place for me to live. I’ve grown so much. And my parents know I’m safe.” 

Sherry claims that Diana’s time at Glennwood has been a life changer, and allowed Diana to live to the fullest. “I really appreciate the support Laguna Beach has for Glennwood, and how they address those with special needs.”

Living a full life has been hard-won for Diana. But she’s packing about as much as anyone could fit into a day, and it obviously agrees with her. Glennwood has provided an atmosphere in which she canthrive and blossom, and now she’s not wasting any time in that “live, work, play” scenario. Our lovely conversation must wind to an end, as Diana has places to go and people to see.

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