Prophecies and Portents in San FranciscoPosted: Jun 27, 2005 10:01:33 PM
"A wise old owl sat on an oak
The more he sat the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why can't you be like that wise old bird?"
"Yes my friend your greatest fault is that you talk too much."
San Francisco is a place of prophecies and portents. Well, not really, but on my latest trip to The City I came across various visions of the future that were most entertaining. This particular fortune was given to me by a grandmother in a box. More about her later. Her fortune, however, was much more useful than the first one I was given: "The smart thing is to prepare for the unexpected." Hey, buddy, if you honestly don't know what's going to happen just say so. This ineffectual fortune was served up by a friendly neighbourhood fortune cookie, purchased in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The tea garden was founded as an exhibition (different from the exhibition that led to the Palace of Fine Arts, mentioned in the last report - who would have known than San Franciscans were such exhibitionists?) in 1894. It's full of everything Japanese, and having been to Japan I found the pagoda, moss gardens, carp-filled ponds, sacred gates, and souvenir shop most familiar. Such attention to detail! It felt so much like a real Japanese souvenir shop it brought a tear to my eye.
The real reason we went to the tea garden, however, was to get a fortune cookie. To the dismay of all badly-researched Oriental historical movies featuring fortune cookies, it was right here in America that the first ones were created, back in 1909, and it just so happens that it was right in the Japanese Tea Garden that the first ones were sold. You can imagine that I was expecting something profound and sagacious, like "Fear the third pope from the left", rather than an admission of prognosticatory miscarriage, but at least Siobhan's was funny: "You have a quiet and unobtrusive nature." Heehee.
Back to the grandmother in a box. This is her here: quiet, polite, just waiting to be asked for advice. And then she has to go and insult me. Oh well, at least she softened it with a nursery rhyme. This wonderful contraption, and a couple of hundred others, are the attractions at the Musée Méchanique in Fisherman's Wharf. They're all carnival / circus attractions from about a hundred years ago forwards, and they're all still in working order. If you remember the make-a-wish scene from the movie 'Big', you'll know what we're talking about here. For a quarter, you can be entertained in any manner of interesting ways.
You can get a prophecy card from one of about a dozen wizards, grandmothers, gypsies, and gypsy grandmothers - the prophecies range from admonishing ("Make better use of your spare time") to the alarming ("Beware, beware of the Number 7, unless you want a one way ticket to Heaven") to the unfortunately inappropriate ("A friend will urge you to take a trip. Don't do it. Your best interest lies in remaining at home"), and the only accurate one is the always-present "Drop another Coin in slot and I will tell more."
There are the peep-show attractions, most of which are mildly pornographic; "Dare you look at the Unknown?" was the best titled of this kind, although I'm not too sure what's so unknown about a collection of semi-nude Victorian ladies. Some produced a giggle, however. This one ("See the Horrible Monster"), for the price of a quarter, reveals to your eagerly awaiting eyes ... a mirror. Oh ha ha flippin' ha. Some were more animated, moving little dolls around in some typically macabre dance (a lot involving public executions or fevered whisky-dreams). The oldest machine in the museum is a zoetrope of a girl jumping rope; other machines flipped movie stills over in front of some viewing goggles to create what were at the time the first movie theatres. Some were even interactive, such as this armwrestling machine. Yes, I tried, and yes, I lost, even though it was set on bantam-weight. Stupid machine. Bah! I say. Bah.
So much of San Francisco so far has focused on the past, I figured it'd be nice to explore something of the future, and in San Francisco the best place to do that is at the Exploratorium. It's an interactive science museum, one of the first, famously founded by the brother of Robert Oppenheimer (he of the Manhattan Project to create the world's first nuclear weapons), and dedicated to allowing children (and ignorant adults like me) to revel in the curiosities of technology.
Walking through it is really like walking through an anarchist laboratory: on one side there are complicated exhibits involving magnets and levitating objects, on the other there are two-metre-long bubbles and giant pendulous spirograph machines. One morbid section had glass boxes containing animals that have been decaying for ten years, while nearby children gleefully watched animal parts (mostly eyes and brains) get dissected for their pleasure. There were square wheels that rolled unimpeded, waterfalls that seemed to spiral through the air, and visual illusions even in the columns on the walls. The kids loved it, and at least some of them were taking it all in, as we listened to a particularly precocious six-year-old explain the inner workings of a simulated comet exhibit. I prefer this version of the future, personally.
The gift shop in the Exploratorium was particularly good, and I purchased a couple of items that I'm most pleased with. The first was a Rubik's Cube. Those of you who know me will know that I spent part of last year teaching myself to solve the Rubik's Cube, so you can imagine the size of my eyes when I saw a new cube ... 5 by 5! Suffice it to say that it is insanely complicated, I have not yet worked out how to solve it, and I am very happy with the purchase. The second was a gift for Siobhan: a large stuffed doll of a yeast microbe, one million times amplified. It's completely accurate, except for the cute brown eyes. You can see a picture here. Why, what did you think I meant when I said I had given her yeast?
And that's part two of San Francisco. There are still many places yet to see and activites yet to try, such as Chinatown, Lombard Street, Alcatraz, and the cable cars, but I'll have to save those for another report. Next week's report is going to be a bit late, interrupted by the quintessentially American holiday of the Fourth of July, so stay tuned!
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