Archive for the ‘It’s Free’ Category

James Turrell Divides the Light in Pomona

July 31, 2013

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hosting a 50-year retrospective this year of artist James Turrell. It’s one of the hottest tickets in town (“the art world’s brightest luminary this year,” according to Forbes). But there’s another, easier way to check out Turrell’s fabulous use of light and space — or to extend your Turrell-in-L.A. experience if you are lucky enough to nab a LACMA ticket.

Head east to Pomona College any evening (or Saturday through Monday evening during the school year) and join those in the know for the best free sunset east of the 405. During the day, the Turrell Skyspace looks like a small open-air courtyard with marble benches and a shallow reflecting pool. As the sun sets, it turns into something absolutely magical. LED lights bathe a hovering metal canopy in an array of changing colors, starting with muted shades of gray and lavender and building to striking swaths of turquoise, blue, and burnt umber as the sky fades to night.

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It is an evening ritual that attracts a fun mix of spectators, from professors and groups of undergraduates to families with small children who stretch out on blankets on the grass. The show creates a subtle camaraderie among its fans, inspired perhaps by the shared witnessing of such an unusually beautiful sight.

A Quiet Detour on the Jack Smith Trail

June 3, 2013

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I head to Mount Washington whenever I crave a good outdoor workout. The area’s hills and steps are a great natural substitute for a treadmill, and the cool architecture and city views keep things interesting. The Jack Smith urban trail (named after the beloved L.A. Times columnist who lived and strolled here) starts at the flight of stairs just above Marmion Way at Avenue 43. I thought I knew everything about this trail (it’s featured in my book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Los Angeles), but a recent visit added a new layer of magic to it.

The Self-Realization Fellowship, a worldwide spiritual organization with temples throughout Los Angeles, opens the lush grounds of its headquarters to the public most days. The gates are about mid-way through the hike at the corner of San Rafael Avenue and Elyria Drive. Walk through them and you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by lotus pools, meandering paths, and about a thousand shades of green. There’s a big stone table near the rose garden that most writers will find hard to resist and benches placed discreetly throughout, making it easy to cocoon in your own space.

“Where ARE we?” my companion wondered as we wandered through gardens that gave way to more gardens along with stunning views of the city. L.A., of course, minus everything that’s stressful about it.

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Sunday in Santa Monica: Crepes, Spices, and a Giant Whale

May 27, 2013

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I have always been a little intimidated by Santa Monica. Getting there from just about anywhere in the city can shave years off one’s life — and finding a reasonable parking space within a mile of the ocean is often impossible. But on a recent Sunday, the kids and I were up early with a completely unscheduled day ahead of us, so I faced my fears and headed west with a few vague destinations in mind. The 10 freeway was nearly deserted before 10 AM, and we had our pick of parking places (street parking is free on Sunday). The next thing we knew, we were riding the sleek escalators of Santa Monica Place up to the food court and standing in front of a play area dominated by a 46-foot-tall humpback whale. This being Santa Monica, it was a whale made out of sustainably harvested deck wood perched over an “ocean floor” made of recycled rubber, and the kids couldn’t have been more enchanted. They played for an hour, then when it started getting too crowded for comfort, we picked up some crepes and smoothies and headed out to the food court deck and its impossibly scenic setting.

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Our next stop was the tiny Santa Monica Pier aquarium, which was also packed (Sunday afternoon at the beach was now in full swing). But Theo got to see some nurse sharks in an open tank and make a shark puppet out of a paper bag, so he was happy. We spent our last hour shopping at Penzeys Spices, where the clerk hung Jack’s I LOVE Santa Monica drawing in the window, and eating ice cream in the courtyard of the Santa Monica Library, which is also impossibly scenic and surprisingly quiet despite the presence of children.

I don’t know if we’ll go back again soon (too many other destinations on the bucket list), but the kids still talk about our spontaneous trip to Santa Monica and playing in the belly of the giant whale.

Pasadena’s Secret Garden

December 26, 2012

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I think I drove by Arlington Garden about ten thousand times before stopping to explore it. From busy Pasadena Avenue, it doesn’t appear as big as it actually is — I just assumed it was someone’s private garden, or a community garden that required a share purchase. But enter from Arlington Ave. between Pasadena and Orange Grove, and you immediately realize what a special place it is. Scents of lavender, eucalyptus and herbal fragrances are everywhere, and Adirondack chairs are scattered around with whimsical care. Its diverse pockets include a butterfly garden, succulent area, citrus grove, wildflower meadow, and lots and lots of drought-tolerant and endangered California plants. Once designated a construction staging area for the 710 freeway (which never made it this far), the CalTrans land was turned into a garden in 2005 with help from the city of Pasadena, Pasadena Water and Power, and a local couple who saw potential in the dirt and weeds.

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I am always too busy marveling at all the beauty to try out their special phone app, which lets you scan sign codes to identify plants and other garden features. Maybe next time. As much as I love the Huntington and Descanso Gardens, this is a homegrown place that makes you want to kick off your shoes and revel as if it were your own backyard. Sometimes I bring the kids, who love the labryinth created by Mayfield students, and sometimes I drop them at school and take a walk that always ends with a little R&R on one of those Adirondack chairs.

Tips for Leading a Peaceful Life in Los Angeles

September 24, 2012

A friend from the East Coast, who recently spent miserable stretches of time on the 101 freeway, asked ‘How can you live here?…With kids??’

My simple answer was ‘I never take the 101 Freeway.’ Here’s the longer answer…

1. Don’t try to go the beach at noon on a summer weekend. The 10 will be a parking lot, guaranteed. Go before 9:30 a.m. or take the day off and go during the week. Better yet, go in October when it’s still hot but everyone’s mind is on school and Halloween. Or go in January, when you’ll probably see more wild dolphins than you ever have in your life.

2. Avoid major freeways between 8 and 10 am or 4 and 7 pm weekdays. If you must go then, check Sigalert before leaving the house and plot your route based on that. I’ve planned spur-of-the-moment day trips to Laguna Beach and Malibu based on red-free traffic patterns.

3. Do a little research before you go…but not too much. Advance prep applies to everything from Disneyland to that mid-summer hike in Topanga Canyon. (It may look close to the ocean, but chances are it’s 15 degrees hotter.) Let yourself be surprised too, by the no-name tamale stand or the spinoff trail that leads to an even better view than the one mentioned on Yelp.

4. Never, ever take the 101 or the 405. Moorpark Street in the Valley parallels the 101 and Sepulveda runs along the 405. They’re usually fast and much more scenic and interesting.

5. Make at least one farmer’s market a part of your weekly routine. Year-round strawberries, live music, pupusas, spit-roasted chicken, croissants, sunflowers…You can pretty much find one somewhere in L.A. at any day or time of the week, and spending even an hour is guaranteed to lift any mood.

6. Open your mind. So many people who hate L.A. base it on their drives from LAX to a hotel in El Segundo or Hollywood. Let’s face it, Cienega and the 5 Freeway are not the city’s best assets. But that strip mall Peruvian restaurant just might have the best ceviche you’ve ever tasted. Get past the stucco and adjacent laundromat and go inside. And the chaparral-covered hillside you pass every day off Avenue 52 might end up being an Audubon Society-sanctioned nature preserve with one of the best outdoor children’s gardens in the city.

Bottom line: Plan a little, make time for detours, and avoid the 101 at all costs.

Stumbling upon Atlantis in San Gabriel

August 25, 2012

Giant sea serpents. Pink whales. Dragons and lighthouses and pirate ships. Just about everyone who walks into this whimsical park gasps with a delight usually reserved for Disneyland. Master concrete artist Benjamin Dominguez created the park, known as La Laguna de San Gabriel, at the city’s behest in 1965. There have been a few outrageous attempts to raze it, but a non-profit group stepped in, and now it is perhaps the only playground in the state listed on the Register of Historic Places. After a year and a half of renovations, it has finally reopened to the public. The boys and I checked it out this week and it still inspires the same wide-eyed wonder, though the metal rocket ship and other sweet retro playground structures are gone.

Theo, a huge dinosaur fan, cried when we left and asks almost daily when we are going back to “Monster Park.” Soon, mi hijo, soon.

A couple of tips: Go early or later in the day, as there is very little shade. Since it’s a hefty drive from just about anywhere in L.A., turn your visit into a day trip, or at least consider having breakfast or lunch out. The park is near the San Gabriel Mission and many well-regarded eateries, including the Golden Deli Vietnamese restaurant and Twohey’s, an old-school breakfast-all-day diner. Also, GO NOW because there seems to be a Phase 2 construction in the works, and that means this fabulous place could be off limits again.

This Tuesday, Aug. 28, is the official Grand Re-opening. There will be food trucks, bocce games, music, and all those wondrous sea creatures on hand to help celebrate.

Last chance for Grand Performances

August 21, 2012

This is the final week (til next year) for downtown’s free outdoor music series, a must-do event for any card-carrying Angeleno. The California Plaza setting (at the top of Bunker Hill) is not just your basic urban park: framed by soaring skyscrapers, it is super-clean, with lots of amphitheater-type seating (mostly concrete slabs) and sleek water features. The crowd is a mix of Financial District workers and tourists who have stumbled off the Angel’s Flight funicular. There is plenty of space for kids to run around, but lunch-hour folks can also pretty easily find quiet spaces to eat and enjoy the music.

This Friday’s Lunchbox noon set features He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister, whose sound is described as combining the earnestness of folk, the rawness of blues, the theatrics of cabaret and the hip shake of a rock-a-billy. At 8 PM, El Gavachillo y Banda Viento de Oro (a side project of Ozomatli bassist Wil-Dog Abers) takes the stage.

The blackberry blossom when summertime came…

July 24, 2012

Simi Valley’s Underwood Farms is a rite of passage for most L.A. kids. With its acres of produce, pull wagons and fun outdoor playground and petting zoo, it’s an easy way to show them that strawberries and squash do not begin in a place called Ralph’s. Not everyone knows that the farm has a quieter little sister a few miles away in Somis, one whose pockets start spilling over with raspberries and blackberries right about now. Unlike the main farm, the Somis location only grows blueberries (whose season ended in June), raspberries and blackberries, but here are a few reasons why we like it as much or more than its big sister in Moorpark:

* It’s free. The Moorpark location charges $3-5 per person. Worth it, but some days you just don’t want to pay for entertainment.
* It’s an easy walk to the berry fields from the parking lot. This means a lot to parents who have pulled their kids in wagons across the Moorpark fields.
* It’s usually pretty quiet. Not a field-trip bus in sight when we arrived on a weekday in July.

Last time we went, I watched my picky younger son eat raspberries for the first time ever. There was just something about pulling them fresh off the vine that made them seem less suspicious. Afterward, we ate a picnic lunch, then the kids fed the chickens (25 cents a handful for feed) and played in the shady sandbox. Next time, we’ll check out the alpaca farm directly across the street.

Madrona Marsh: a thousand shades of green

July 19, 2012

At first glance, Madrona Marsh in Torrance may seem a little pathetic as far as nature preserves go. The dry-as-dust path near the entrance gates leads you past views of sterile office buildings and sounds of cars motoring past, most of them on their way to Plaza del Amo mall across the street.

But give it a chance. Keep walking south toward the trees and in a few minutes you will find yourself surrounded by cottonwoods, wild grapevines, bramble bushes, and a thousand shades of green. This marsh is one of the last remaining wetlands in Southern California. In other words, this is what the South Bay used to look like before Macy’s and Chevron showed up. Despite development’s best efforts, it has somehow managed to thrive thanks to the efforts of some determined preservationists and the city of Torrance.

Madrona Marsh is home to some of the biggest ducks you will ever see, and your children will laugh their heads off when the ducks come charging through the soupy green muck hoping you’ve brought them some grub. Egrets and blue herons also stop by from time to time. Before entering the marsh, stop in the slick nature center for maps, updated wildlife sightings, and the chance to view some pretty cool reptiles. The center runs all kinds of nature hikes throughout the year; it’s almost worth a drive across town in rush hour to experience them. If you don’t want to do that, any weekend morning will suffice for a uniquely peaceful respite from routine.

Only in L.A.: Hollywood Bowl Rehearsals

July 10, 2012

Hollywood Bowl season is in full swing here in L.A. and there is nothing that showcases the city’s personality better than the bench seats at dusk. They are filled with all walks of Angelenos, often enjoying a glass of wine and a picnic dinner. Just about everyone seems to be soaking up the pre-show view of the mountains and the wonder of being so close to a stage that has hosted the Beatles and so many other great performers.

A lesser-known (but cheaper and just as enjoyable) way to experience the Hollywood Bowl starts this week. It’s not widely known, but anyone can sit in on the Philharmonic’s weekday rehearsals at the Bowl. It’s free (as is parking) and you’ll likely get a seat that goes for $75 and up in the evening. The first-tier Garden box seats are reserved for Friends of the Philharmonic, but walk-ins have access to the Terrace box seats on back. The musicians may stop mid-piece and be partially blocked from audience view by shade curtains, but you will still get to experience top-shelf music under near-perfect skies with fewer than 100 other people.

A tip: It’s always a good idea to call the Bowl box office early in the week to confirm that rehearsals are on. They are usually Tuesday and Thursday from about 9:30 a.m. to noon, but sometimes the schedule changes or a Friday rehearsal is added.

The rehearsals never lose their only-in-L.A. charm or the giddy feeling that you’re in on a very cool secret while the rest of the city is working or stuck in traffic.