After all the stunning landscapes and theme parks, it was time for a little bit of shameless beach bumming. For that, I drove about an hour south to the land of trained seals, wayward newscasters, and a certain red-coated mystery woman who, gosh darn it, still can’t be found. Of course, it’s also the land of awesome museums, nighttime farmer’s markets, and heaps of hidden dorkery. But more on all of that in a moment.
San Diego. The very name is relaxing, and I must admit, the drive is too – at least compared to the slog through its cousin to the north. I rolled into town a couple of hours before sunset, so the first night was pretty quiet. The next day, I headed over to arguably the most unknown of the city’s many, many museums: The Women’s Museum of California. It’s still a bit of an up-and-coming project, just one large room cordoned off into different thematic displays. But the power, the intelligence, and the creative passion behind said offerings rivals that of a larger institution. The collections (and topics) rotate periodically, but all focus on the empowerment and oppression of women over the years – both in California and at large. The two main focuses for when I visited were fashion and political involvement, each in their own way outlining the constrictions placed on women – physical, cultural, emotional. The exhibits didn’t have anything new to say about the issue overall, but the artifacts held the powerful poignancy of tangibility, and introduced some new stories and figures in the process.
After the museum, it was time for some more puttering around, and then a scenic sunset. Even though it was a little too chilly (in theory) for swimming, I couldn’t resist heading to a nearby park for some more of those gorgeous ocean views:
Next came Balboa Park, my nerdy Holy Grail, the Smithsonian of the West. Picture a whole bushel of world-class museums, covering the gamut of nature, culture, history and art, all spread across acres of gorgeously landscaped gardens, punctuated by palm trees. I’m not even remotely doing the place justice, and even the photos can only do so much. Suffice it to say that it is magnificent.
In the interest of time and budget, I only went to a few of the museums this time. Top of the list was the Museum of Man, which is an anthropological adventure like no other. There are a lot of fabulous institutions that focus on the older aspects of the field: archaeology, evolution, early civilizations, etc. But this one is unique in its cultural focus; the curators seem interested not just in what we are as a species, but who we are. There were some more traditional exhibits, of course, such as the excellent displays on Egyptian history and Aztec storytelling, but there were also exhibits on monsters and pets and historical constructions of race. At every turn, I was offered an opportunity to confront the nuances of myself – of everybody – as social beings.
I followed this up with the San Diego History Center. Part of the charm of Balboa is its hidden-treasure topography; sprinkled in among the towering tributes to fossils or spaceships are sweet, smart little enclaves devoted to various countries or African drumming, or, in this case, fun little anecdotes from a town’s history. The main exhibit focused on the history of Jews in San Diego – a particularly fascinating section for me, a Jew who was (at the time) in San Diego, and who has always had an interest in diasporas in general. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of the community is one of multilayered success, of struggling immigrants building up legacies that last to this day. Parallel to this was the story of the city’s black population, where active social movements clashed with the racial politics of the era. Even sunny Southern California can’t avoid systemic pitfalls. The visit wrapped up with a short film on the history of the park, which, like so many of its cultural cousins, owes its origin to exhibitions. Specifically, the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, which celebrated the completion of the famous canal and, subsequently, boosted the port city and its magnificent park. It was such a hit that it ran for another year, and gave the park the leverage it needed to grow into a major cultural space. I could have easily spent several more days there, but other things called for attention. Ocean-shaped things.
The beach is ambrosia to me, rain or shine. And the friend I was staying with just happened to live two blocks away, which allowed me to spend a happy afternoon in the sand. Gulls swooped overhead, ambient music poured out of every shop, strings of surfers crested the waves like endless sleek seals. I buried my feet in the sand, let my book make an imprint beside me. It’s an amazing ecosystem in that sense, marked in equal parts by consistency and impermanence. It’s also a dynamic place, a quiet place, an eternity of smoothies and skateboards. The shore was intoxicating, and I drank it in shamelessly, greedily, knowing that a vast desert lay ahead.