Friday, July 30, 2010

Another Trip to LA

(News-Herald, July 29) I recently returned to Los Angeles—not because I love LA, but because it is where my son is. He is the main sight I go to see, and my daughter’s ability to get there for the weekend was an extra double bonus. But the trip was also an educational opportunity for me.
It has been a while since I’ve flown. The airlines are perfecting the fine art of nickel and diming people to death. If a restaurant ran like an airline, the waiter would take your order and then ask, “Now, will you be wanting plates or silverware? It’s a minimal extra fee. And during the meal, would you prefer to balance on this axe handle, or will you be upgrading to our deluxe three-legged stool?”
Sucking the last drop of blood from every airborne stone has probably not helped the other hazard of air travel—fellow passengers. Air travel is by far the best way to encounter many humans who apparently believe that rules are for suckers and consideration is for saps. I never see more people who believe that only they matter than when I am flying.
Once in LA, there were other treats to see. I was traveling with a devoted shopping enthusiast, so I made my first trip to Rodeo Drive. It truly is an awesome monument to conspicuous consumption. Can a dress be worth $5,000 even if it does not walk under its own power nor cure any major diseases? At one gallery, I was tempted to buy my daughter a piece of art—they were having a moving sale and some pieces were marked down a full 10 grand. But then to keep things even I would have had to buy my son a car (and not a Kia, but a Lexus with solid gold bumpers).
One of the things the rich consume conspicuously in LA is space; these shops flaunted their wealth by filling their stores with air, instead of trying to cram maximum merchandise in minimum space. Just about anything looks sophisticated and uncheap when it is flawlessly displayed. Many of these stores looked really cool.
LA is not a particularly great-looking place. The plant life is painfully thirsty and the grass is uniformly brown. But it still contains pockets of great beauty, much of it the result of the same sort of richness and privilege celebrated by Rodeo Drive.
Some is a tad silly. We drove past the edge of Beverly Hills, and there were the famous tree-lined streets and beautiful homes, but there also was a great lumpen silver sculpture that looked like the world’s biggest baked potato.
But we also went walking in Griffith Park. The public park includes an observatory and a tunnel that have both appeared in umpteen movies, but it also includes miles and miles of mountainside trails that provide absolutely amazing views of the city stretched out across the valley.
The park is there because in 1882, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, having made a huge bundle of money in gold, bought over 4000 acres of LA land. In 1896 he handed over 3000 acres (that’s over five square miles) of that to the people of LA. His conditions for the bequest are worth quoting:
“It must be a place of rest and recreation…for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered”
J. Paul Getty must have had something similar in mind when he created his museum. It is an awesome collection of art housed in a setting of buildings and land that are stunningly beautiful. You cannot turn in any direction without seeing something that makes you want to point or snap a picture or say, “Wow.” And it is completely free.
Neither man was exactly exemplary. Getty was unhappily married five times, while Griffith spent two years in San Quentin for shooting his wife in the head (she lived and was granted a divorce plus custody of their son in a record 4.5 minutes). But they are examples of how people can make lasting and valuable contributions to their communities. Neither contribution is central to LA life, but both make the place better. In that respect, Venangoland is no different from LA—if you want your community to be a better place, figure out how you can use your resources to help make it happen.

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