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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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90405, Santa Monica

Friday night at McCabe's Guitar Shop

Dear ——–,

Walk past walls lined with guitars, mandolins, banjos and dobros and you get to the beating heart of McCabe’s Guitar Shop: the live performance stage. Bryan and I went to McCabe’s on Friday to see Ivan and Alyosha, a band from Seattle that actually features three guys, none of whom are named Ivan or Alyosha. (The name, they explained, refers to two Brothers Karamazov, since two of the members are brothers.) Bryan is going to be mixing some of their songs, so he wanted to hear their songs live. They play sweet, lilting melodies limned with perfectly blended harmonies. The effect is something between Paul McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel and Wilco. During intermission, the band members chatted with guests next to a rack of song books and guitar straps. A girl with her parents snapped pictures with them. I guess it’s this kind of humbleness and intimacy that McCabe’s space is designed to foster.


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90401, Santa Monica

KCRW spinning near the foot court of Santa Monica Place

Dear ——–,

I’ve never been to a more glamorous mall than the newly opened Santa Monica Place – this project must have been started before the recession. It has that mid-00’s L.A. vibe: a glamorous lounge area with fire place for enjoying your food court treats and cocktails, a slim glass barrier between you and an ocean view, and a D.J. spinning break beats. You could envision someone saying, “Meet me at the mall for a drink,” and hanging out for a few hours. (Will it be open late enough for most L.A. hang outs?) Despite signs of a deepening recession, Tiffany, Burberry and Betsey Johnson optimistically flung open their doors. “It’s kind of like they’re trying to be Rodeo Drive,” Bryan said.  I’ve always associated malls with middle-class desires and luxury brands usually prefer an on-the-boulevard kind of locale. But thanks to status anxiety (a la Richard Hofstadter), I’m sure many middle-class mall goers will enjoy window shopping the upper-crust life they’d like to lead. Whether they will buy enough to keep it open is another question.


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20560, Washington

Beanbag people outside the Hirshhorn Museum

Dear ——–,

I had never seen so many warning labels in an art museum before I spent the morning at the Hirshhorn. In the “Colorforms” exhibit, one piece cautioned about the low light levels and another pointed out the bright and rapidly flashing lights. A third advised, “Some individuals may be sensitive to the hazelnut pollen in this work.” I know contemporary art is supposed to assault you, but I thought it was all intellectual! I was not impressed by the Yves Klein exhibit. I felt weird watching a movie that showed the artist leading nude women out to a space where they rolled around in paint and pressed their bodies against canvases. The artist and audience were fully clothed. Maybe this was iconoclastic in the early 1960s, but to me it seemed a stale, almost exploitative re-enactment of old male fantasies. I did particularly like a time-lapse film by Guido van der Werve, which showed a man functioning as a kind of sundial as the summer sun moved around the north pole. Klein may have invented his own shade of blue, but the shifting blues of the never-dark sky were far more evocative.


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20001, Washington

Summer night outside Oya

Dear ——–,

I met up on Wednesday night with Saba, who suggested going to Oya. It was restaurant week and I decided to splurge on the three-course prix fixe menu for $35. The tuna tempura roll was very good — crispy and silky all at once. The salmon was a little salty, but I lapped up the bittersweet molten chocolate cake, which came with some tiny popped rice balls for garnish. It was good to catch up with Saba, who interned with me many years ago at Newsweek. We’ve both changed jobs since the last time we saw each other over a year ago and, of course, had to ask each other why. Saba brought her roommate, who does international development work, and I admired the purpose with which they were both charging ahead in their careers. Say what you will about the petty politics of the Beltway, but at least people in D.C. don’t think “laid back” is a compliment. We ate around 6:15 and headed out around 8 p.m. Do people in Washington all have to get up early?


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20001, Washington

Photo mural of the Capitol, in the Renaissance lobby

Dear ——–,

I loved stepping out of the airport doors into the mugginess Tuesday night. It was a reminder I was back on the East Coast. It’s been about two years since I’ve been back to downtown D.C. and I’ve definitely noticed some changes. Chinatown, for example, has cleaned up a lot and now is home to foodie salad joints like Chop’t. (I totally recommend that place, by the way. I had an amazing steak salad with chimmichuri dressing. They also had a machine with a variety of Boyland sodas on tap.) Even though it was a sultry night, the sidewalk was thick with people. I even passed some teenagers hanging out on a corner, listening to iPods tucked into portable speakers rather than the boom boxes of old. I’m glad that the hotel where I was going to stay — the Residence Inn in the midst of enormous cement bureaucracies — was overbooked and they tranferred me (free!) to the Renaissance instead. There’s a lot more going on in this area, which they call “Penn Quarter.” But what’s with the name? What’s wrong with calling it Chinatown?


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92060, Palomar Mountain

Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain

Dear ——–,

We sought out darkness on Palomar Mountain to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I’d never set aside time to watch a meteor shower before, but when some coworkers invited Bryan and I to Doane Valley campground at Palomar Mountain State Park, we said yes immediately. Staring up at the night sky there reminded me how three-dimensional the universe is. The stars glimmered like dewdrops on gossamer cobwebs. A friend pointed out the gray smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy to our own, but probably the most distant object I’ll ever see with my naked eye. The meteors were not as numerous as I imagined, but I probably saw a dozen each night. Some of them were large bright bursts streaking across the sky, leaving a sparkling tail behind them. We also took the opportunity to visit the nearby Palomar Observatory, whose telescopes were used to discover Eris (the dwarf planet that led to Pluto’s demotion) and the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. The tour was meh, but I loved hearing about the inspiring words of George Ellery Hale, the driving force behind Palomar’s 200-inch telescope: “Make no small plans. Dream no small dreams.”


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90012, Elysian Park

A night out at Dodgers Stadium

Dear ——–,

Summer for this sports fan is usually the lull between basketball and football season. (The World Cup helped somewhat.) When I saw a good deal for Dodgers tickets in the L.A. Times — $60 tickets for $20 — Bryan and I decided to catch them taking on the Nationals. (OK, so this post is a week late.) I don’t have any blue Dodgers gear, but I’m slowly adopting L.A. sports teams as my own. We settled into seats not far up from first base, amid fans with shirts reading “Los Dodgers” and “I only kiss Dodger fans.” Watching baseball seemed to me a little like slowly working out some elaborate math problem, whereas I’m usually more interested in seeing games that reward the players for running faster or hitting harder. But I can appreciate a sport that allows players to make up for early mistakes (Hiroki Kuroda) and rewards solid play when the other team is trying to strategize counterintuitively (the Nationals walking a batter to load the bases and hoping to catch a fly ball for an out, but having to deal with a James Loney ground ball instead). I’m ready to go back again.