Seen Recently



by John Tyler Connoley


January 28, 2005



This past week, my spouse Rob and I went to the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco: all the latest in gourmet and international cuisine; 1,100 vendors offering free samples; special tastings of olive oils, wines, cheeses, and balsamic vinegars. It's a hard job, but somebody's got to do it.


Whenever my father travels, he writes short essays, which he calls Seens. They're observations of the cultures and landscapes of the places he visits, made from the point-of-view of an American missionary abroad. (Some of his essays have been collected into the book Let Sleeping Lizards Lie, available at Amazon.) This week, I'm offering my own travel observations, made while visiting the magical land of California.


LA: The City


Every time I fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), I think of Isaac Asimov. As a teenager, I read Asimov's two great science fiction series, and was struck by his concept of Cities (capital C). He envisioned a future in which most people live in Cities that spread over vast swaths of land. In his novels, one of these partly underground complexes covers all of Southern California, from San Diego to San Francisco. Flying into LAX and seeing nothing but neat rows of houses reaching to the horizon must be what flying into a City would be like.


At sixteen, a City seemed like the best place to live. I loved the idea of all those people moving in and out of tunnels and tubes in a human beehive the size of a state. I also marveled at the infrastructure such a City would require, and the almost magical nature of the cooperation involved in housing so many people on top of one another.


Asimov's Foundation novels portray a scientific organization that believes the actions of vast numbers of people are predictable in a way that individual actions are not. Flying over a Los Angeles freeway, one can see this idea acted out. The cars on the freeway look like leaves on the surface of a stream, moving in predictable wave patterns. The actions of individual aggressive drivers blend with the whole, and I see only graceful motion.


These days, I also recognize some of the bad aspects of Cities -- such as the heavy Los Angeles smog that's clearly visible from a plane. However, I haven't lost the awe I feel every time I look out a plane window and view rows of house lights stretching all the way to the horizon. Even New York, the original City, doesn't offer a view like that.


Reservations are Overrated


Our first day in San Francisco, we went to the Information Booth at the Fancy Food Show and asked if they could recommend a restaurant for dinner. A woman standing in line said, "You're at the Fancy Food Show, in Downtown San Francisco, and you don't have reservations for dinner? I hope you're not expecting to eat!" She and the Information Booth woman recommended we go to the food court at the mall -- as if!


So, we decided to head away from the convention center. We hopped a train, and went to Castro where we walked around for a while, and ended up at a great restaurant called Catch. We had no trouble getting the seat we wanted next to the fire, out on the patio where we could people-watch while we ate.


The next night, we walked up into China Town, and asked a shop owner where we should eat. She directed us five blocks up and around the corner to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. We only saw one other white guy the whole time we were there -- and the place was hopping. I'm sure we couldn't have gotten reservations at this restaurant, even if we wanted to, and why would we have bothered. I'd always rather find great food on the fly.


A Little TLC


Whenever I'm in a hotel, I spend the hour or so before falling asleep watching TLC -- the channel that used to be called The Learning Channel. This week I watched Trading Castles, in which two couples allowed wacky designers to do whatever they wanted to their Scottish castle bedrooms. The results were faux-antiqued pieces paired with tacky modern junk in overly colorful rooms. I also watched What Not to Wear, in which a woman who dresses like a hussy and man who dresses like a dandy tell people how to dress. This week, they tore up and threw away a woman's favorite pair of boots, because they didn't like them.


Then there was Town Haul, in which an uppity New York designer stooped to "help" a small-town ice cream stand owner. The designer ignored building codes and angered neighbors with her project, and couldn't understand why the stand owner's daughter wasn't willing to get fired from her paying job to drop everything and help the fabulous New Yorkers wreck her mom's stand.


I also watched two shows about plastic surgery. The first was Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon, in which a fashion model wanted her lower ribs removed, to make her look thinner. (The Surgeon refused, thank God.) Then I watched Extreme Plastic Surgery, which I wish I hadn't seen right before falling sleep -- and from which I'm still recovering.


I also saw commercials for other TLC programming: As far as I can tell from he commercials, Moving Up is a show where homeowners return to their old homes and pick apart all the things the new people have done. Overhaulin' seems to involve people taking their cars in for an oil change and the mechanics secretly tricking the car out to look like a pimp-mobile. Then there's the "America's Ugliest" series. Last time I was at a hotel, they were touting America's Ugliest Bathrooms; now it's America's Ugliest Kitchens. Both programs showcase disgusting rooms that any sane person would be ashamed to show to his friends, much less to the television viewing audience.


All of these shows are great fun, which is why I watch them. But it does make me wonder, what am I supposed to be learning on The Learning Channel?




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Copyright 2005 by John Tyler Connoley

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