Category Archives: Life

Spring Awakening

Bears do it.  So do ground squirrels and marsupials.  Even the western diamondback rattler makes a habit of it.

Hibernating, that is.

And apparently, so do I.

(I, however, was buried in the madness of moving, working, and studying — not the earthy hollow of a winter’s den.)

But now that the Southern California sun seems to have eclipsed the cloudy skies and cold rains, I figured that the arrival of March meant it was high time for me to emerge and pick up my Local Gypsy adventures where I last left them.

And I could think of no more appropriate way to mark this rebirth than by a daytime frolic in the Santa Monica Mountains, with vivacious friends and an abundance of wine.

Did I mention wine?

While Malibu’s wineries may not revel in the international acclaim of Napa Valley or Hollywood’s halo illuminating Santa Barbara (think Sideways), its Los Angeles County terroirs are blessed with microclimate conditions conducive to quality cultivation of this sacred vine.

So, on an unseasonably warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, three lovely ladies who define spectacular — Courtney, Naz and Stephanie — and I piled into my road trip-hungry Subaru Outback.  We headed north up the PCH to take in the sparkling Pacific Ocean and soak up some local sacrament.

Welcome to Malibu

After thirty or so profoundly colorful minutes trading stories of our latest love interests and dating debacles, professional pursuits and international journeys, we made the strategic call to preemptively fill our bellies with something other than sulfites.  We pulled over at Coogie’s Beach Café and ordered a peculiarly random assortment of dishes, including an artichoke and brilliantly crisped sweet potato fries.

And while each of the four of us was equally eager to begin the bacchanalia, trust me when I say that, collectively, we have a magnificent ability to talk…and laugh…and eat…and talk…and laugh…

Before we knew it, 4:45 p.m. had arrived.  And the last tasting at Malibu Wines was scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

We raced out into what was now a much cooler late afternoon, screeched out of the parking lot and wound our way up Kanan Dume Road until we hit Mulholland, and eventually Malibu Wines — just as the sun was sinking behind the harvested hills.

Let the Tasting Begin...

Harvested Hillsides

I was surprised at how spacious the winery’s tasting grounds were, dotted with ample tables, fountains, as well as vintage wagons, cars and a watertower.

Vintage Beauty

And Another...

Shivering as I surveyed the entirely outdoor setting, I vowed to come back another day at an earlier hour to take full advantage of a long lazy and wine-hazy day.

The Wine Well

In the meantime, there was just one way to warm up.

To Life!

My Kind of Menu

Friendly, fetching staff assisted us as we blazed through the eight Saddlerock and Semler selections.

The Man Behind the Bar

Several so-so white and red varietals were followed by three particularly luscious Cabernets, which made us very happy.

Happy Us

Especially Courtney.

Courtney 🙂

And as the sky darkened and the grounds’ lights began to glow, I knew that spring had finally sprung — vibrantly.

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Filed under Food, Life, Los Angeles, Outdoor Adventure

An Enlightening Addiction

I’m not what you’d call an addictive personality.

I can cork a bottle after savoring a glass or two of pinot noir.  I’ve been known to keep a bag of caramel-filled Dove chocolates in my cupboard for weeks.  And I’ve even managed to resist the coveted iPhone 4, despite the insufferably slow speed at which my 3G now functions following that regrettable software update.

But when it comes to frolicking outdoors, I require a strong dose on a very regular basis.  Cabin fever strikes me easily, and nothing else seems to cure it like a session of physical activity, spiked with sun, trees, and a gentle breeze.

When I lived in New York City and spent the majority of my waking hours amidst reams of legal documents on the 49th floor of the Met Life Building, I would go to great lengths to cavort somewhere other than Equinox’s claustrophobic cluster of elliptical machines.

On a rare summer Saturday when I wasn’t cloistered in my office, for example, I’d schlep uptown on the steamy subway to borrow my parents’ car and brave the outbound city traffic to meander through the Palisades across the Hudson River, or head upstate to paddle through the Adirondacks’ mountain lakes.

Given my infinitesimal threshold for cold weather, however, winter presented a more substantial challenge.  When the partners for whom I was working actually permitted vacation, I’d board jets, puddle jumpers, chicken buses, ferries, etc. in earnest pursuit of tropical climates where I could dive, surf, and hike — in other words, where I could feed my addiction.

It was particularly nourished during a winter 2004 trip to Tulum, which, at the time, was still a sleepy gem on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  Precious highlights included snorkeling with sea turtles on the shallow reef a short swim from shore, strolling the long stretch of ivory sand towards the seaside Mayan ruins, and kayaking through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve’s brackish wetlands.

Typical Tulum Scene

My sweetest memory from that trip, though, was probably the most relaxing.  After gently waking and enjoying a momentary walk on a palm tree shaded path, I set my towel down on the sand next to several fellow travelers.  We greeted the day with sun salutations and other gentle yoga poses, to a soundtrack that came not from a studio stereo, but instead from the lapping of the turquoise waters onto the sand.

Pure paradise, I thought, as the morning sunshine warmed my bronzed face — and remembered, as I later trudged through the frigid wind towards the subway stairs.

Now flash forward six and a half years.

9:07 a.m.  Friday, October 1, 2010.  I coaxed my eyelids open and happily beheld the blue skies sparkling through my gauzy white curtains.  A cup of coffee and glass of juice later, I swung my yoga mat bag over my shoulder, hopped on my cruiser, and headed west.

Yoga by the beach, it turns out, is a little more accessible these days, thanks to the lovely Shawn Bisi.

Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Shawn has for years practiced, studied and/or taught yoga all over the world, from Dharamsala, India to Park City, Utah.

Luckily for us locals, she now resides in Los Angeles, where she teaches a fusion of various styles.  (For more information on Shawn, to confirm class times, and to learn more about her one-on-one, couples and family yoga therapy, see her website: http://www.shawnyogahealing.com.)

Shawn Bisi (photograph by Patricio Motta)

Yet Another Inspiring Image of Shawn (photograph by Patricio Motta)

In addition to private sessions and her group classes at Aanand Saagar in Venice, Shawn has recently begun teaching yoga by the beach in Santa Monica, on Wednesday and Friday mornings from 10:00 – 11:15 a.m., at Crescent Bay Park, between Bay Street and Bicknell Ave.

This is a very good thing.

After a brisk 10-15 minute bike ride past the Venice Skate Park and several gargantuan bulldozers fashioning sand berms (shelf barriers) for the upcoming winter months, I arrived at the park’s grassy area just south of Casa del Mar.  Shawn was already peacefully seated in lotus position under the shade of a tree.

Shawn, Yoga Instructor Extraordinaire

This was certainly a far cry from the sweaty, body odor-ridden yoga studios I have frequented.

Over the next hour and fifteen minutes, Shawn gently guided us from cobra to warrior, and from triangle to crow; she also shared precepts of Zen philosophy, while ensuring our constant flow of breath in relation to conscious body movement, designed to eliminate blockages and promote relaxation and clarity.

My View in Triangle Pose

Her method worked.

As I emerged from shavasana (a pose often used to conclude a practice session), opened my eyes and slowly sat up to the Southern California sun and Pacific Ocean breeze, waves of comfort and peace swept over me.

I was undeniably blissed out … high as an addict, you might say.

NAMASTE!

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Filed under Consciousness, Exercise, Life, Outdoor Adventure, Peaceful

A Semblance of Summer

For those of us living west of Lincoln Boulevard, the summer of 2010 is an utter oxymoron.

June Gloom far overstayed its welcome.  I drank more green tea on my couch than beers at the beach.  My skin remained an unacceptable shade of sallow.  And the ocean temperatures never grew tolerable.  (Well, except for that one time at 3:30 a.m. after a wedding and seven glasses of champagne…)

But in between all those wintry days were a few, precious sunny ones.  And you can rest assured that I was going to squeeze as much summer as possible out of them (even if they were chilly enough to pass for autumn on the Siberian peninsula).

And what screams “southern California summer” more than an afternoon at the Santa Monica pier?

The World Famous Santa Monica Pier

So, as soon as the marine fog miraculously gave way to an azure sky, I called on Tyrone — my Stanford friend and neighbor extraordinaire — to leave the world of gaming behind in his man cave and join me for an afternoon of good, clean fun.

Tyrone and I

We hopped on our beach cruisers and, within moments, turned north onto the beachside bike path, joining the throngs of others drinking in the glorious day.

As we passed under the pier’s welcome sign and advanced towards the water, I realized I needed to channel some of my New York City mojo to embrace what might otherwise have been an assault of the senses.

After successfully making that adjustment, I gazed upon the spectacle before me with wonder.  Within roughly fifty yards, I could buy a whopping portion of fluffy pink and blue cotton candy, soar on a trapeze, have my photo taken with a cardboard cutout of Tupac…and, most importantly, ride the “West Roller Coaster” and consume massive amounts of funnel cake.

Sugar!!!

Glittery Bumper Cars

Ah, American capitalism.

But first, a little history.

The Santa Monica Pier we know and love today is actually two piers, one constructed over the course of sixteen months in 1908-09 — initially built to support sewer lines extending past the break point — and a shorter pier, built in 1916 by a father and son duo of amusement park entrepreneurs.  More than two decades later, the bridge and entry gate were built in connection with FDR’s Works Project Administration.

As for the icons of entertainment subsequently constructed on top, the famous carousel, which features a calliope (a musical instrument of large, chromatically tuned whistles through which sound is produced by steam or compressed air) and 44 hand-carved horses, was built in 1922.  During the middle of the century, La Monica Ballroom (now closed) hosted Spade Cooley, a famous swing musician, whose career came to an abrupt halt when he was arrested and convicted for murdering his wife.  The ballroom later served as a roller skating rink.

Today’s pier contains Pacific Park — home to a massive Ferris wheel and other carnival-style games and rides — as well as an aquarium, arcade, restaurants, a trapeze school and more.

Pacific Park

There are even concrete slabs for use by the ubiquitous fishermen and women — right underneath the conspicuous signs warning that eating mussels caught there could result in three-headed babies and gender reassignment.  (I embellish.)

Bait Plate

Since reading them did absolutely nothing to eliminate our hunger, Tyrone and I decided to pack in some calories before embarking on the superhuman test of patience that is the roller coaster line on one of the summer’s only sunny weekend days.

After perusing our somewhat limited options while meandering and marveling at the views of Santa Monica Bay, we finally settled on Mariasol Cocina Mexicana at the far end of the pier.

View of Pacific Park Outside Mariasol Cocina Mexicana

Now, when you’re smack dab in the middle of one of America’s most visited tourist attractions, you can generally count on two things when it comes to a restaurant: (1) it will be preposterously overpriced and (2) it is likely to suck.

I can’t say much about the quesadilla I ordered, other than the fact that, sitting on a plate as large as my kitchen table, was a tepid tortilla with some undercooked onions and mushrooms stuffed inside.

But Tyrone’s strawberry margarita?  Damn.  It transformed my “play it safe” decision to order a beer into a seriously chump move.  I don’t ordinarily go for blended drinks, let alone flavored ones, but this vessel of deliciousness alone was worth the exorbitant bill that Tyrone so graciously covered.

The Man, The Shirt and The Drink

Bellies full, we bought our roller coaster tickets and, amongst the childish mayhem occurring at waist level, we located the end of the line and stoically began to wait.  And wait.  And wait.

And it wasn’t getting any warmer.  The summer dress I had donned hours earlier because, well, it seemed like the right thing to do, was slowly but surely beginning to feel like a shrinking piece of gauze.

Despite an acute case of goose bumps, there was no turning back.  I huddled close to Tyrone, and creatively visualized myself baking in the steamy hot Caribbean sun, while we slowly made our way through the labyrinth and up the steps.

And then it was our turn.

It wasn’t the biggest or scariest or most gut-wrenching roller coaster I’d ever had the privilege of riding.  But we were sufficiently tossed about — while the southern California sun shone on our faces, and the Pacific Ocean sparkled all around.

I would endure the wait all over again…with a scarf and sweatshirt.

As we giddily put our feet back on the “ground,” the thought of a hot bath at home sounded very tempting.

But before I let this semblance of summer slip through my fingers, Tyrone and I still had some unfinished business to attend…

Funnel Cake!

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Filed under Food, Landmarks, Life

For the Love of (Mis)adventure

On Friday night, I wanted to inject myself with a dose of something lethal.  And on Saturday morning, I wanted to shoot myself.

Before you recommend the latest SSRI to hit pharmacy shelves or refer me to a suicide hotline, let me explain.

Those close to me know that, since my early 20s, I have suffered from cluster headaches.  If you’re fortunate enough to know nothing about these excruciating nuggets of misery, I’ll permit Wikipedia to elucidate: “Experts have suggested that it is the most painful condition known to medical science.”

I agree.

They come on with such rapid fury that I imagine the experience is akin to being mauled by a tiger — except that I would have the pleasure of laying eyes on such a magnificent creature.

The cause of cluster headaches is unknown, and they can strike anytime…like, for example, on a Friday evening transcontinental flight from New York to Los Angeles.

Following a week in the city — book-ended by throwing my parents a surprise 40th anniversary party (along with my brother, Justin, with whom I successfully schemed) and a late night with summary judgment motion papers — I was heading home to Venice for a long awaited day of scuba diving off Catalina Island.

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles, I’ve dreamed of exploring the enchanted underwater forests that lie just 22 miles from Venice Beach.  I’ve scoured youtube.com for submarine footage taken by fellow land dwellers, giddy from the ephemeral euphoria of experiencing life at 60 feet below the sea’s surface.  And on clear days, I’ve stood on the beach and gazed longingly at the island’s silhouette, anticipating the day when I would be donning an extraordinarily thick wetsuit to revel in its cool, clear waters.

Kelp Forests

After more than five years, that day was almost here — Saturday, August 21, 2010.

Everything was set.  I had reserved the last available spot on a round-trip ferry ride from Long Beach, and purchased a full scuba gear rental with Catalina Divers Supply.  I had arranged to meet the inimitable Stephen Mendel of Premier Scuba Diving early in the morning to ensure sufficient time for two dives.  I had even reached out to all 1,032 of my Facebook friends to inquire about suitable underwater camera options.  I was ready.

Or so it seemed, as the taxi whizzed across the East River to deposit me at JFK.

Armed with my laptop and a pressing need to finish researching and drafting an argument on land title, I eventually settled into my window seat and decided to take advantage of American #21’s Gogo Inflight Internet service.  I extracted my wallet from my bag below the seat and entered in my credit card number; by Pennsylvania, I was online.

Just as I was about to coax myself away from images of fluorescent fish and turn my attention to Westlaw, there it was — a dull throb behind my right eye.  I took a deep breath and braced myself.

Within two minutes, the headache was full blown, and more acute than any I could recollect.

I should note that a cluster headache in the privacy and comfort of my own home challenges the outer reaches of my sanity.  A cluster headache at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet and four in-flight hours to go left me willing to call it a life.  But since I presumed that no one on board made it past the TSA with a vial of lethal relief, I sat there, in quiet anguish, willing the pain to abate.

Thirty minutes later, the intensity had only escalated.   With tears streaming down my face, I staggered to the flight attendant station after waiting in vain for someone to respond to the call button.  (They too, had availed themselves of Gogo, and were all on Facebook.)

Rushing to my aid, they whipped up an ice pack, a fresh pot of coffee and a handful of Excedrin Migraine.  And then I waited it out.  All the way to LAX.

By the time we landed at 10:30 p.m., the agony had finally subsided and sheer exhaustion took its place.  After gathering my bags, I headed down to baggage claim to collect my suitcase, and gratefully waited at the curb for my friend Caroline to pick me up.

As I collapsed on my couch, I resisted the overwhelming desire to fall into a pathological slumber, and instead flipped open my laptop to finish what I had been unable to accomplish on the plane.

At 2:00 a.m., I triumphantly clicked “send.”  After tossing my swimsuit, mask and snorkel and a towel into a bag, I set two alarms for 6:15 a.m. and crawled into bed — smiling as I envisioned turning my head up towards the ocean’s sun-drenched surface.

The simultaneous clamor soon awoke me, and within seven adrenaline-fueled minutes, I was dressed and ready to make the 45-minute drive to Long Beach to catch the Catalina Express.

Until I realized my wallet was missing.

In addition to cluster headaches, I also suffer from a pesky paternally hereditary condition, which causes me to misplace/lose sundry items with disquieting frequency.  So I remained calm at first, probing through every nook and cranny of my purse, computer bag, jacket, as well as under the couch, in the refrigerator, etc.

But no luck.

And then it occurred to me.  In the throes of cluster headache torture, I had failed to place my wallet (containing, among other things, all my credit, ATM, insurance, AAA, and attorney ID cards) back into my bag, leaving it, I was sure, either wedged into or on the floor below seat 26J.

I wasn’t sure which affliction I should curse first.

With a sinking heart, I called American Airlines, only to be informed that its lost and found office is, brilliantly, closed on the weekends.  I would have to wait more than 48 hours until Monday at 8:30 a.m., to determine whether or not my wallet was merely misplaced or truly lost.

In the meantime, however, the ferry to Catalina wouldn’t be as patient.  And thankfully, I still had my driver’s license (which I had kept in my pocket after passing through security), and had either already paid for or reserved with a credit card everything I would need for the day’s excursion.  I grabbed my checkbook, just in case, and raced outside to my car and then down the 405.

Doling out the exactly $14 I had left in cash to pay the $14 daily parking fee, I pulled into a spot at the landing and breathed a sigh of relief as I beheld the sparkling water and majestic white boat.  The journey had been both protracted and arduous, but well worth the thrill that was now, finally, within proximate reach.

I locked the car and pulled out my ferry confirmation receipt, and then sauntered down the hill towards the counter to check in.

But I couldn’t.

Even though I had reserved my spot with a credit card and presented my driver’s license, Catalina Express’ rules prohibited its clerks from issuing me the boarding ticket without first seeing the card.  And personal checks, it turned out, are just as ineffective as absent credit cards.

The ferry was leaving on time — without me.

About that gun…

*     *     *     *     *

But all’s well that ends well, and 8:30 a.m. Monday morning brought with it a wave of very welcome relief — as well as the promise of a rescheduled trip to Catalina in late September.  So stay tuned!

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Filed under Life, Outdoor Adventure

Gypsy Spirit and Sounds

If my last post on the presence and power of synchronicity didn’t convince you, try this one…

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

On Friday, I headed downtown for The Local Gypsy weekly outing to bask in the aural pleasures of a Gypsy music ensemble.

On Saturday, I met a cat named Gypsy.

And on Sunday, over an afternoon glass of wine with my friend, Ross, I learned that he had devoted his undergraduate thesis to Gypsy culture.

Oh, and for much of the weekend, I wore a necklace I bought at The Velvet Gypsy, a tiny cornucopia of global goodies on the Venice Beach boardwalk.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Maybe this means I should max out my credit cards and book that coveted trip to Southern Spain to revel in Gypsy-rooted Spanish guitar and flamenco?  Or perhaps I should sell my furniture, donate my clothes and embark on a day-by-day odyssey, trading jewelry I fashion for food?  (Don’t worry, Mom.  I love sushi too much to leave myself in that magnitude of a lurch.)

Whatever the reason, I know that the Gypsy spirit dwells deep inside me — and that the forces fueling me to engage in this year-long experiment are well nourished by these undeniable synchronicities.

Now on to the fun part!

Just when I was starting to hone in on what the week’s activity might be, my answer came in the form of an email from my dear friend, David Ackerly — and daytime downtown denizen, as the Directing Attorney for the Inner City Law Center‘s Homeless Veterans Project.

(On a side note, the Inner City Law Center is an extraordinary legal services organization serving Los Angeles’ most impoverished citizens in housing and benefits-related matters.  If you’d like to assist ICLC in obtaining a $50,000 grant from Pepsi by merely clicking your mouse, you can do so right here.)

An avid music lover and intrepid cultural explorer, David informed me that Parno Graszt, or “White Horse” in Romani — a well-known collection of Roma (or Gypsy) musicians and performers from Paszab, Hungary — would be regaling downtown Los Angeles with a free Friday afternoon concert as part of the inimitable Grand Performances series.

That was an easy decision.

After fetching David at his office, we maneuvered through downtown’s one-way streets and managed to score a parking space on South Olive, just behind the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and California Plaza, in which the concerts are held.  (If you ever pull into one of these $3/hour spaces, place a nickel in the meter and laugh.  I think it may actually subtract time.)

Shuddering briefly as I glanced up at the Wells Fargo Tower office building in which I used to toil endlessly as a litigation associate, I took a seat next to David on the sunny amphitheater steps and turned my attention to the delectable wrap I had just purchased from Mendocino Farms — and the exuberant music of Parno Graszt.

The Full Ensemble

For more than twenty years, this crew has been belting out flavorful, traditional Gypsy sounds on an array of instruments, including the accordion, double bass, guitars, milk churns, water cans and more.  The ecstatic music seems to take on a life of its own; it bounces and flows and gleefully possesses all who are near.

Simon Broughton, a well known music journalist, has described Parno Graszt’s musical art as “The source of Gypsy music itself.”

But given how far into Asia and Europe the Roma people have spread since leaving behind their roots in northern India, Gypsy music may vary widely.  Stylistic differences between Roma musical groups, I learned, tend to reflect the instrumental traditions of the countries in which they live.  And Parno Graszt is said to embody the essence of Hungarian Gypsy music.

However their sonic and visual delights are characterized, one thing’s for certain: they sure make you want to dance.

No wonder I enjoyed them so much.

Me, Blissfully Dancing (photo by Eric Balaire at Lightning in a Bottle Festival)

To the Gypsy spirit in all of us…

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Filed under Art, Cultural, Life, Music, Performance