Culture, Lifestyle

The Big Challenges and Small Joys of Parenting During COVID-19

May 21, 2020 by Jean Trinh
Photo: Jean Trinh

At the start of L.A.’s stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, my toddler was introduced to the exciting world of video chats. Since we were social distancing from her grandparents, FaceTime became our only way of connecting with family. 

My daughter became so enthralled by these video chats that any time I would get on a work call, she would get FOMO and be very vocal about it. In the early days of the pandemic, I would apologize profusely to the caller as my toddler screamed in the background; in turn, the caller would always reassure me that this was the “new normal,” that it was now commonplace to hear children, pets, and partners (read: utter chaos) in the background. We knew this waltz well and danced the same steps every time.

In times of crisis, sometimes people think of calming images like rolling ocean waves. I like to picture the dad who became famous when his children interrupted his BBC News interview. It’s oddly comforting to commiserate and laugh-cry.

Over the last two months of parenting while sheltering at home, I’ve been continually learning how to adapt to life amid a global pandemic. With a partner who’s working full time, and with me freelance writing, it’s been a challenge taking care of a toddler without any of the help we previously had. 

I’ve learned to hit the mute button, strategically schedule calls during my kid’s naps, and save her favorite activities for times when I really need a breather. Sometimes I write through the night after she’s gone to bed. There are (many) days I turn a blind eye to the mountain of dishes in the sink or the teetering tower of empty cardboard boxes by the doorway. Also, what diet? Pepperoni pizza is the new keto.

It’s a Grind

Kimmy Tsuyuki with her family.

“Being a caretaker every moment of every day is exhausting and takes a toll on you, especially [with] not knowing when we’ll get out of all of this,” says Kimmy Tsuyuki, a Pasadena mom of two young children, ages 1 and 2. “Without the help of my mom and daycare, getting a break from watching the kids is nonexistent and sometimes it can feel like Groundhog’s Day. It’s been a challenging and also rewarding experience for us as parents, but mental and physical breaks are healthy for everyone.”

Parents are stretched too thin. Since March 16, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools have been closed, and there are 700,000 students distance learning at home. Parents deemed essential workers still have to go into their workplaces, while others are working from home at full capacity. And then there’s the astonishing number of people who have lost their jobs. The government’s latest figures revealed that more than 36 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the last two months. Last week alone, 3 million applied for unemployment; compared to the same week last year, only 188,264 filed, according to The Guardian.

In a Baltimore Sun op-ed, M. Elston wrote about the conundrum parents face. “Many parents working from home are expected to work at full capacity, while acting as the single point of contact for healthy, active kids in a confined space. Children require meals, homework help, fresh air and exercise, entertainment and activities, supervision, attention, cleaning up after and in some cases sick care. Those are typical kids.”

There are also single parents and ones who have children with special needs who are struggling to figure out how to work and take care of their kids. With many childcare centers closed, some parents are left making the hard decision of sending their children to their grandparents, who have a higher risk of developing more serious complications from COVID-19.

Tsuyuki, who’s a nurse case manager, says she is juggling working from home, taking care of the kids, and doing housework. While she’d like to exercise like she used to at the end of the day, she’s too tired and falls asleep.

Mabel Kawada, a hospital nurse and mother of three young children, finds it hard to sustain a healthy lifestyle.

“Through this pandemic, it is important that I stay healthy since I am on the front lines exposed to COVID-19, but finding the time to exercise and eat right is hard since we do not go to the market that often,” she says.

Homeschooling Wasn’t All Created Equal

Matthew Medrano and his family.

In terms of homeschooling, the experience is not the same across the board for parents. As the LAUSD school year reaches its end, the new academic year is slated to begin on Aug. 18. It’s likely that learning will continue online, according to ABC7. The district has been scrambling to deal with the digital divide as one in three LAUSD students don’t have access to home internet or a computer, according to a recent USC Annenberg study. However, on May 11, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner announced that the district has been able to get most students access to internet and laptops.

Matthew Medrano, a teacher and Long Beach resident, says it was easier to homeschool his 7- and 9-year-olds in the early days of distance learning.

“We set our own schedule, and I used one of those really cool Pinterest schedule calendars,” he says. “We had [planned] hour by hour what we were doing: We were riding our bikes in the morning and in the afternoon, and we had our math, English and science time. And little by little, as teachers, I think, felt more comfortable with using the internet and with teaching online, it kind of threw our homeschooling schedule out of whack. Teachers wanted to Zoom at particular times and on particular days, and it was a certain time for one student and another time for another student. And then, of course, that started to conflict with an increase in the number of Zoom and work calls that I had.”

Some parents have had a more streamlined experience with their children’s schools. Denise Michiko Almonte, a registered nurse living in West Covina and mother to a 10-year-old, found her child’s transition to distance learning relatively easy. Even though Almonte and her ex-husband, with whom she co-parents, were only given a two-hour warning that it was their daughter’s last day of class, the school had already supplied students with a laptop and packet of assignments for the following two weeks. 

“Everything was as organized as I could hope for and all I had to do was keep us on schedule,” Almonte says. “[I thought,] if this is what homeschooling would continue to be like, then I would be OK doing this.”

Kawada, who lives in Whittier, started off with an organized schedule for the first two weeks of homeschooling. It got difficult when her children didn’t want to follow the schedule anymore, and she found herself yelling at them. She read an online article that changed the way she approached the situation.

“[I asked myself], ‘Years from now, do I want my kids to remember this pandemic lockdown as not fun, boring, with school work all the time and mommy yelling at me, or do I want my kids to remember the days they did not have to go to school and instead they got to build tents in the living room and adventure outside on scavenger hunts to find bugs and sticks?’ That was my answer. I started to just let the kids have fun with crafts and games and a lot of outside play. I know this is only temporary, so let’s enjoy the family time while we can.”

Medrano, who teaches high school science in South L.A., says he and his colleagues have found that it’s hard to get their students to just show up online. They’ve only seen about a third of their students online at any given time, and sometimes not at all.

“That obviously becomes worrisome for us because if they’re not online, we don’t know what they’re doing,” he says. “We don’t know where they’re at.”

At the end of March, LAUSD officials revealed that about 15,000 of their high school students had not been checking in online with teachers or doing schoolwork at all, while 40,000 failed to do so on a daily basis, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Medrano says he and his colleagues can only speculate the cause.

“[The students say,] ‘Well, I can’t fail, so I don’t really need to be online,’” he says. “I know there [are] some students who are busy taking care of the household because they might have parents who are still working. They have a lot of other brothers and sisters who are home and so they may be working on their schooling and sacrificing their own schooling to ensure that their family members are getting things done. And then I know we have some students, who, when they’re home, are responsible for taking care of sick or elderly parents.”

A frontline worker at a testing site. Photo: County of Los Angeles

Working the Front Lines as a Parent

The other day I had to take my toddler with me to the bank. What used to be a casual errand was now surprisingly anxiety-inducing. My daughter wasn’t wearing a mask because the CDC has advised against it for children under 2. But when I saw everyone else with masks on and lining up six-feet apart (but sometimes still crossing each other’s paths), it sent me into a panic. People stared at my child and it got in my head that they were probably wondering why she wasn’t wearing a mask. I rushed out as soon as I could, afraid of getting her sick.

If that’s just going to the bank as a parent, I can’t even imagine the stress of working the front lines while having children. For Almonte, who works in a dialysis clinic, she says her anxiety levels have been high.

“I’m so worried that I could possibly bring this virus home and pass it on to my family,” she says. “I share custody of my daughter, so I also had to have a conversation with her dad in regards to how they are handling the pandemic and COVID-19 precautions. I needed to be sure that we were all relatively on the same page because with our daughter traveling between houses it would make us all instantly connected.”

Kawada echoes the same concerns. “I have never been afraid to go to work in the past 11 years in my critical care unit, but I am now,” she says. “My main concern is getting infected as I am taking care of some of the sickest COVID-19 patients on ventilators and not being able to care for my young children and possibly passing the virus to them.”

She takes major precautions every time she comes from from work. Kawada changes out of her scrubs and shoes before getting into her car and immediately showers in a separate bathroom by the back door at home before going inside. She wears a mask as much as she can at home in case she’s asymptomatic.

Family Dynamics Have Shifted

Denise Michiko Almonte and her daughter.

Despite all the terribleness happening with this pandemic, this situation has actually made me more present as a parent. With a looser schedule and nowhere to go, I’ve found myself enjoying our outdoor walks and playtime much more than usual. It’s been a joy watching my child develop. My daughter’s schedule has not only given her, but also given me, a sense of normalcy. It’s been a welcome distraction during these trying times.

Medrano says he’s started fun projects with his children that they never thought they’d get to, like building a model train that had been sitting in the closet, unopened, up until the pandemic hit.

What Medrano has noticed is that it’s been hard to help his children with their social and emotional needs. Small things that they would’ve been able to figure out on their own or get over quickly have turned into big crises. He says it’s not so much tantrums as the kids just don’t know what to do.

“As the weeks go by, it’s been more and more difficult for them to express their emotions and control their emotions,” he says.

Medrano sees his kids needing alone time, too. They tell him things like, “I’m just going to go in my room for half an hour.”

“Obviously with being home and being around each other so often, it shows just how vital that time away is at the same time and how we maybe enjoyed our time together a little more pre-COVID-19 because we didn’t have as much of it,” Medrano says. 

Meanwhile, Almonte cherishes this time at home with her daughter. Nursing school had taken up a lot of her time when her daughter was younger. Halfway through the nursing program, Almonte was diagnosed with cancer and underwent radiation. Because of this, her daughter moved in with her father and continued to go to school closer to where they live.

“Not having to send her to school has given me a chance to have more time with her,” Almonte says. “I feel like I’m always trying to catch up on time with her. Time really does go by so fast and I still can’t believe she’s already ten years old. It sounds so old to me, but I still see her as my baby.”

Almonte’s daughter had been looking forward to her dragon-themed birthday party this year and was sad when she realized it couldn’t happen. Almonte found a workaround. 

“We set up a car parade and a lot of her family and friends came down to greet her. We kept it a surprise and it was such a joy to see her face light up,” Almonte says. “I think for all of us we got lost in the excitement and [in that moment] everything felt alright.”


Sparrow Mart is a Supermarket Art Wonderland Full of Felt-Covered Food Replicas

August 2, 2018 by Jean Trinh

Sparrow Art Installation at The Standard

Photo via The Standard

Supermarket Shopping can be a chore, but British artist Lucy Sparrow has made the mundane task into an experience so joyful that it’s even worth waiting in line for. She’s hand-stitched over 31,000 felt-covered plush replicas of grocery store items for her whimsical Sparrow Mart art-exhibit-meets-shopping-spree at The Standard in Downtown.

On the second floor of the hotel an entire room has been transformed into a grocery playground of sorts with shelves fully stocked with felt goodies that are all for sale throughout the month of August. In the produce section, smiley and doe-eyed avocados, potatoes and watermelons fill large cardboard bins, that are, of course, also covered in felt. White gondola shelves are stocked with Reese’s Puffs and Frosted Flakes cereal boxes, Jif peanut butter jars, and KitKat and Skittles bags — all hand-painted with striking attention to detail. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even a felty ATM machine at the entrance.

Sparrow Mart Aisle

Photo via The Standard

“I decided to work with felt because I find that it’s a medium that is so synonymous with being a child,” Sparrow said in an interview with The Cut. “It’s an easy fabric to work with, it doesn’t fray, it’s available in all the colors you could possibly think of. So, I thought, I wonder if I could make an entire shop that if you’re daydreaming, it looks similar enough that you could go there thinking it was real.”

There’s an interactive component that brings childlike wonderment to many of Sparrow’s objects, like a felt-shrouded soda refrigerator with doors that open up to Coca-Cola and Snapple bottles, and a gum-ball machine that dispenses plastic capsules containing Dubble Bubble candies glimmering from its blue metallic fabric. At the overwhelmingly massive selection at the sushi glass counter, visitors get to pick out their favorite cut rolls and fill a black plastic sushi tray with the items. To add to the experience, guests can use actual shopping carts and baskets to hold their goods and line up at the check-out counter to purchase them.

Sparrow Mart shelves

Photo via The Standard

Hidden within this dizzying array of art pieces are Sparrow’s more playful and irreverent items, where she even manages to make things like alcohol bottles, Trojan condom boxes, Gas-X meds and Marlboro cigarettes cute. As an added bonus, a blue display case features Sparrow’s hand-made recreations of 1980s VHS and Betamax movie boxes like Footloose and Ghostbusters.

While the price tag of the items range from $1 to $50,000, pieces like a Twix bar will run you $35, a head of cheery cabbage for $40 and sushi at $10 a piece. If you happen to have very deep pockets, you can buy an entire seafood case filled with lobster, fish and clams for $50,000. Don’t forget to make your way to the back room behind the check-out counter to scope out some of the more expensive pieces of art, like a shopping cart filled with an assortment of grocery items and a Playboy magazine, or a Warhol-esque shadowbox of pastel-rainbow Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup cans.

Sparrow Mart Playboy

Photo by Brian Champlin / We Like L.A.

A total of 50 visitors can be in the store at once and stay for 30 minutes at a time. All it takes to get into Sparrow Mart is checking in with the hosts at the hotel lobby before heading up the escalator to the store. Since there are no reservations, keep in mind that this exhibit is first come, first served.

If all that faux food shopping gets your stomach growling, there’s a British-inspired pop-up eatery downstairs in the lobby and in the hotel’s 24/7 restaurant that coincides with the Sparrow Mart installation. Here you’ll find snackable items like a sweet-and-savory Sparrow hand pie stuffed with confit duck and acho blackberry barbecue sauce, or a New Delhi Grilled Cheese sandwiched between melted cheddar and Beemster with mango chutney. If you want to go very meta, the hotel also offers combos where you can eat the real versions of the felt creations, like a raspberry-and-blueberry pop tart, and then take its plush counterpart home. Same goes for the homemade Moon Pies and a Tapatio cocktail made with mezcal and lime.

Sparrow Mart product

Photo via The Standard

Sparrow Mart is the artist’s fifth felted show, following her New York appearance where she debuted her 8 Till Late bodega at The Standard at the Highline and sold out everything in two weeks’ time. It took Sparrow and her five-person team a full year in her “Felt Cave” studio in Essex, England to create all the pieces for this L.A. show.

Back when Sparrow had her first Cornershop installation in Bethel Green, London in 2014, she started off with just 4,000 pieces. In the ensuing years, her different exhibits have tackled subversive topics, like her sex shop installation called Madame Roxy’s Erotic Emporium that showcased didos, porn mags and sex toys. And then there was her Warmongery show that featured weapons, including guns, tanks and rocket launchers.

“I am very interested in military history and everything to do it, warfare and the grizzly events of people getting harmed. What better to turn it on its head than to use a fabric that is so innocent and childlike, it just completely messes with your head,” Sparrow told Wonderland Magazine.

Sparrow Mart is the artist’s largest installation to date. While that means that you’ll have a larger selection of items to choose from, it doesn’t mean that it’ll make it any easier deciding which adorable goods to bring back home.

Sparrow Mart is located on the second floor of The Standard hotel at 550 S. Flower St. in Downtown, and runs August 1, 2018 to August 25, 2018. The installation is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is closed on Mondays.


The 12 Punniest Places to Eat in Los Angeles

January 25, 2017 by Jean Trinh

What’s in a name? Well, if you’re a restaurant your name is kind of like a handshake. It’s the introduction before two strangers really get to know one another. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s approach to the intro has to be exactly the same.

Yes, many restaurants tend to go in the blank slate direction. Pick a verb. Pick an adjective. Pick a noun. If you’re really intrepid you might even combine two of the three. Sure, it might not be the most memorable approach, but at least it will not offend.

Then there are the folks who stray waayyyy on the other end of the spectrum. These are the restaurants owners who wouldn’t flinch at sneaking in phrases like “turnip the beet” or “penne for your thoughts” on their menus. And in their unabashed lust for word play and dad jokes, these bold souls have helped create the best places in L.A. where you can have your pun, and eat it too.

And this is where we pay homage.

Enjoy the list!

[RELATEDThe 17 Best All-You-Can-Eat Spots in Los Angeles]

1. Yeastie Boys food (Various locations)

Yeastie Boys takes the cake — or the bagel, rather — for having one of the punniest names out there. This reference not only pays homage to the The Beastie Boys, but also to New York-style bagels. Owner Evan Fox and his former partner came up with the name while they were high one night, and it seems apropos because the sandwiches they make out of these hand-rolled, doughy wheels are a stoner’s dream. Think scrambled eggs paired with beer cheese on a cheddar bagel; or the marriage of banana slices, Nutella and cream cheese on a plain. They carry a bunch of varieties, so we only have one question for you: So, whatcha whatcha whatcha want?

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"Yeastie Boys" food truck. Fight for your right…for a bagel sandwich. (📷: @billycrystales)

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

2. Ramen Hood (Downtown L.A.)

Like the name it riffs off, Ramen Hood is in a way an outlaw in the food world. Chef-owner Ilan Hall (Top Chef Season 2 winner and former owner-chef of The Gorbals) plays by his own rules; while everyone else is making fatty tonkotsu pork broth, he’s going the vegan route with his piping hot ramen bowls at his Grand Central Market stall. Everything really is vegan here, from the umami-laden kelp and shiitake mushroom broth, to the “hard-boiled egg” that’s might just fool you for being the real thing. After eating here with some buddies, you’ll be a band of Merry Men. The only thing is we wish they served ice cream here, because come on, it’s a missed opportunity to not call it “Sherbert Forest.”

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"Ramen Hood" ramen shop in DTLA. (📷: @iheartcreeps)

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

3. Amazebowls (Various Locations)

You might not remember this, but Paris Hilton was the one who popularized “amazeballs” back in 2009 and made it a thing. And then Bryan Leong and Desmond Ng took it one step further and made a whole business that cheekily played off the slang word. The best part is that their Amazebowls company actually has bowls involved, like the ones that are filled with blended frozen acai. One of their top sellers is their very Instagrammable acai coconut bowls that are adorned with edible flowers, and they even have another one dubbed the “Fresh Prince of Bowl Air.” In our opinion, they live up to their amazeballs name.

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Gotta give this acai bowl place credit for running with the "Amazebowls" name. (📷: @dbernabe)

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

4. Take a Bao (Studio City)

You can get buns at Take a Bao pretty late into the night (10 p.m., that is), which is perfect because we can just picture Madonna singing, “Take a bao, the night is over.” Its fluffy white buns are filled with a variety of different fillings, from house-cured pork belly, to tempura tofu, and the restaurant’s modern take on Peking duck. If the “Take a Bao” pun isn’t good enough for you, just know that celebrity chef Eddie Huang is also serving buns at his restaurant Baohaus (another fine musical reference), not too far away in Chinatown.

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5. Humphrey Yogart (Sherman Oaks)

We know, a frozen-yogurt shop called “Humphrey Yogart” doesn’t exactly rhyme with “Humphrey Bogart,” the star of Casablanca, but the fact that anyone opened a business based on this connection is amazing, so we don’t care that it’s a bit of a stretch. This old-school joint started slinging frozen yogurt even before it was cool — for the last 32 years — so it has a lot of street cred and history. Most recently, the owners had to move out of their longstanding location, but fortunately found a new space inside of Gelson’s in Sherman Oaks. We’re happy for them and only have this to say: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

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Finally made it out to Sherman Oaks to snag this photo of the "Humphrey Yogart" frozen yogurt shop. 💯

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

6. Lobsterdamus (Downtown L.A.)

On Sundays, you can find this punny vendor faithfully stationed at the outdoor food market Smorgasburg. The grill-masters at Lobsterdamus may not have soothsayer abilities, but can sure grill wild-caught Maine lobster to perfection. If you end up ordering this, we foresee in your future a whole lot of envious people craning their necks and looking your way.

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"Lobsterdamus" vendor spotted at @smorgasburgla foresees lobster in your future.

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

7. Hoke Poke (Downtown L.A.)

L.A. is most certainly over-saturated with Hawaiian poke shops, but that doesn’t mean we don’t like them any less, especially the ones with punny names. At Hoke Poke, they elevate the poke scene by adding octopus, scallops and even lobster into the mix as topping options. A part of us wishes the servers at this Downtown outpost would sing while preparing our food: “You put your raw fish in, you take your raw fish out, you put your raw fish in, and then you shake it all about (with a garlic-soy sauce). You do the hoke poke…”

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8. Earth, Wind & Flour (Santa Monica)

Let’s take a look at the Earth, Wind & Fire lyrics to “Let’s Groove.” “Let’s groove tonight / Share the spice of life / Baby slice it right / We’re gonna groove tonight.” They’re totally talking about pasta sauce and pizza, right? It only seems fitting that an Italian restaurant that has been serving red-sauce-covered, carb-filled dishes since the early ‘80s would be named Earth, Wind & Flour.

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Posted by Earth Wind & Flour Restaurant on Friday, September 3, 2010

9. Nothing Bundt Cakes (Various Locations)

What can we say? We like big bundts and we cannot lie. If the Nothing Bundt Cakes locations sold any other type of dessert other than bundt cake, then we would scoff, but these guys are serious about keeping to their word. They’ve got everything bundts: from frosted single rounds to tiered cakes and tiny ones adorably dubbed as “bundtinis.”

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"Nothing Bundt Cakes" spotted in Sherman Oaks. (📷: @kaykaie1)

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

10. Sake 2 Me Sushi (Various Locations)

For those days you really just want to indulge and go all in, Sake 2 Me Sushi, which has a handful of locations throughout SoCal, is the place to be. This Japanese restaurant has a seemingly never-ending list of rolls, and also offer an AYCE option — and of course, sake. Can someone please make a parody version of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” but spell it out as “S-U-S-H-I” with a chorus of “sake to me”?

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11. India Jones Chow Truck (Various Locations)

Remember the second installment of the Indiana Jones movies, where Doctor Jones travels to India? It comes full circle as there’s an Indian food truck roaming the streets of L.A. and has a playful name: India Jones. Here, you’ll find “Frankies,” a roti flatbread wrapped around chutney and fillings like paneer (kind of like a burrito); taco chaat filled with chutney and raita and meat; and masala fries. We might just call this roaming truck “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Delicious Food.”

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"India Jones" and the temple of delicious Indian food. This food truck was spotted in Pasadena. (📷: @wpgazn804)

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

12. Pho restaurants (Various Locations)

Last, but not least, we need to give a shoutout to all the pho restaurants out there with pun-filled names. There are so many good ones that we couldn’t choose a favorite, so we put them all into one category. Some of the best ones in L.A. include Phoever Yum, Phorage, Absolutely Phobulous, Simply Pho You, and Phonomenal (fun fact: this place used to be called Unphogettable). Our love for the noodle dish and puns is seriously pho real.

Simply Pho You…

Happy holidays! This pho pun is "Simply Pho You." Spotted in Koreatown. (📷: @marigold55)

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

Absolutely Phobulous…

This pho in LA is "Absolutely Phobulous." (📷: @meetjakob)

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

Absolutely Phobulous…

Pho puns pho life. "PhoNomenal" spotted in West Hollywood. (📷: @marigold55)

A photo posted by Pun In The Sun (@pun_in_the_sun) on

For more awesome/terrible word play be sure to follow Jean Trinh’s pun-themed Instagram account @pun_in_the_sun.

Cool Spots, sightseeing

This ‘Robolights’ Holiday Display in Palm Springs is Something You Have to See To Believe

December 13, 2016 by Jean Trinh

Robolights is, if nothing else, pure spectacle.

Imagine if you can nearly 9 million Christmas lights all sparkling in service to dozens of towering robot sculptures spread throughout some four acres of residential property in Palm Springs. Giant Santa Claus and Godzilla inflatables are perched on a rooftop above the entrance. Their greeting is merely a hint of what’s to come inside; something that is equal parts cheery and unsettling. It’s as if Dr. Seuss and Mad Max had a baby then decided to make a Disneyland-like theme park in tribute to their spawn.

Robolights Entrance

The entrance to Robolights. Photo by Brian Champlin / We Like L.A.

It’s hard to look at Robolights and not wonder, “Is the city totally cool with this thing?” The answer is, as often in life, it’s complicated. But before we talk litigation, let’s dive into inspiration. And that starts with the creator.

42-year-old Kenny Irwin, Jr.—the visionary behind this artwork—opens up his art garden to the public each and every year. Last Christmas season nearly 30,000 people visited Robolights. This year visitors can check out his lights display daily until January 1, 2017. The only thing Irwin asks for in return are donations, which all goes to the operation of his sci-fi, winter wonderland. He’s also hosting a toy-and-clothes drive for Syrian refugees at the entrance of his home. When it’s not the holidays, folks can still visit Irwin’s art garden by appointment.

[RELATEDEnjoy These Pics from Our Preview of Enchanted: Forest of Light at Descanso Gardens]

Robolights walk through

There really is something magical about walking through Robolights. Photo by Brian Champlin / We Like L.A.

2016 represents the 30th anniversary of Robolights. It’s a milestone the artist has dedicated to his father, Kenny Irwin, Sr., who died this year. “I wanted to dedicate it to my dad because he believed in what I did,” Irwin tells We Like L.A. “He said what I’m doing is a gift to the world and to never give up and to keep pursuing my dreams, so that’s what I’m still doing.”

On a December day, we stroll and zigzag through the pathways of the art-sculpture garden with Irwin, who fondly talks about his father. Creativity runs in the family, he says. Irwin, Sr., along with his late wife, opened La Mancha—a themed resort in Palm Springs based on Don Quixote—in the 1970s. Irwin, Jr. says he built a robot version of Don Quixote for his father when he was still alive, and it’s still on the property today.

[RELATEDThis is What the Venice Canals Holiday Lights Look Like]

Robolights daytime

Robolights robots look a bit different during the daytime. Photo by Jean Trinh

As we circle the grounds every piece of art is like an explosion to the senses. Cross over a bridge through a tunnel of twinkling white lights and you make it into the mouth of a maniacal clown that’s fit for a creepy carnival funhouse. A life-sized neon-pink horse is outfitted from old appliances, and the seats of a carousel are pink toilets. In one area, you’ll find a cheerful holiday structure that looks akin to a gingerbread house with Christmas reindeer around it, and another sculpture lined with rows of identical white skulls. It is, in a word, trippy.

Bridge crossing Robolights

A colorful bridge crossing at Robolights. Photo by Brian Champlin / We Like L.A.

“We live in such a colorful world and universe, [so] I figure, Well, why not make everything brightly colored because it is what we live in?” Irwin says. “Why make everything drab and paint in brown and tan and mauve when you can have beautiful, bright colors?”

The materials Irwin uses to build his sci-fi playground are items that have been donated by hundreds of neighbors, local businesses, and fans throughout the decades. If you take a closer look at his sculptures, you’ll see everything from old TVs to motorcycles and John-McCain-gargoyle heads embedded into them. He recalls how one woman even lugged her busted speaker all the way from San Francisco as a gift to him. “Robolights is an institution,” Irwin says. “[It’s] all about art and recycling.”

Robolights creative display

Recycled materials get plenty of creative reuse at Robolights. Photo by Brian Champlin / We Like L.A.

Irwin, who also makes intricate ballpoint drawings, has had a knack for art since early childhood. He says his parents told him that when he was just 2 years old he drew images of aliens and scenes of outer space with crayons around the periphery of his room in one single night. And when he was 4 he made an oil-pastel drawing of a red dwarf sun over an ocean planet. “I didn’t know what a red dwarf sun was at the time,” Irwin says. “I saw it in my dreams.”

For Irwin, it’s like he’s living in two worlds. When he sleeps, he has lucid dreams of distant planets, stars that burn brighter than our sun, and colors that just don’t exist in our world, he says. And then when he wakes up, he remembers all these images as clear as day. When Irwin dreams of an idea, he may not even start translating it to art until decades later when the right materials arise.

Strolling through Robolights

Taking a stroll through Robolights. Photo by Brian Champlin / We Like L.A.

In 1996 Irwin graduated from the California College of Art in Oakland with a bachelor’s degree in fine art. But, for the most part, Irwin says he’s a self-taught artist. All the mechanics you see in making his carousels spin, the technique in making skulls out of resin, and building home-like structures just come to him. “I figure it out on my own,” Irwin says. “It’s completely intuitive. I just know and I do it. It’s instantaneous.”

Irwin’s been living in the same home ever since he was born and his parents always let him build his art sculptures in their yard. In 1986 at the age of 12, he first started up his lights display. Even though Irwin converted to Islam nearly 15 years ago, the holiday lights are still something he keeps out of tradition. “I was raised in a Christian family, so Christmas happened, so I stratified those themes in my art,” Irwin says. “I don’t really celebrate Christmas. I do celebrate the togetherness of humanity and the inclusiveness of everyone. . . . Trying to touch people’s lives with light—it’s much bigger than celebrating any particular holiday.”

Kenny Irwin Jr.

Kenny Irwin Jr. (left) discusses his inspiration for Robolights.

It’s been a tough year for Irwin not only because of losing his father (“I’m still reeling from it and I don’t know when I’ll ever recover from it,” he says), but he’s been dealing with an ongoing legal battle with the City of Palm Springs over what they believe are safety concerns with his art garden.

Right before Irwin was set to open Robolights, the City posted a “limited entry order” on his gate, warning guests that “dangerous conditions are present” and that entry to the yards of the home were prohibited. But Irwin opened it anyway and is still planning on keeping it running through the holidays.

According the Desert Sun, city officials said that Irwin has fixed most of the issues, but there are still two pending items that they consider “life safety issues”—the structure holding up the rooftop Santa and Godzilla inflatables and a wall that’s part of an aviary Irwin built for his birds.

This is where things get a bit tricky. The City of Palm Springs is planning on filing a civil court action this week; Irwin says it’s an order that is trying to get the court to prohibit guests from entering Robolights until he removes the inflatables. But for him, the Santa and Godzilla have been a tradition at the home for over 20 years, and he claims a structural engineer inspected Robolights in October and found no “imminent hazards to the public.” He’s planning to fight it.

Robolights inflatables

These are the giant inflatables in legal dispute. Photo by Jean Trinh

Irwin says, “In recent times [the City has] been trying to redefine my art as not art—as merely nothing more than structures—and try to impose building permits on my artwork, so they’re forcing me to remove artworks from my property.”

Jim Zicaro, Director of Building and Code Enforcement for the City, tells We Like L.A. that the City isn’t trying to shut Robolights down. “The City did not order Mr. Irwin to close Robolights,” Zicaro says. “Mr. Irwin can continue to maintain Robolights on the premises; however, he must comply with the laws of the City that each and every owner of single family residential property in the City is required to comply with.”

Regardless of what happens Irwin wants to keep operating Robolights. He’s even sketched out plans to create a 600-acre Roboworld “art-fusion amusement park,” a dream he had discussed with his father.

“I can’t predict the future, but this is what I do know: I won’t let the lights dim out,” Irwin says. “There’s enough darkness in the world as there is and what I intend to do is. . . to give [people] something special to touch their lives with.”

Robolights is located at 1077 E. Granvia Valmonte in Palm Springs, and will run nightly from 4 to 9:30 p.m. through Jan. 1, 2017. Before you journey to see the display we recommend checking the Robolights Facebook page for updates on any possible closures.