Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#77, March 7, 2000


by Marylaine Block

One of the hidden pleasures of city life is the trade shows and conventions that come to visit. We may not even know they're going on unless we notice name badges on otherwise ordinary-looking people. Folks in restaurants are probably the first to notice that they are not quite ordinary. At the Internet Librarian conference in Monterey, our young waiter was so puzzled by all the sedate ladies talking offhandedly about LANs and databases that he had to ask us what was going on. I'll bet the servers in my home town had an interesting time of it when both the lady bowlers of America AND the Harley Riders of America came to town. It must have been a treat to watch them mingle.

Most of us probably do visit some of the trade shows that are intended for the public. Vendors at Floral World and the National Fiery Foods Show and the American Family Pet Expo WANT us to see, and covet, their wares, as do the sellers of cars and boats, craft supplies, PGA merchandise, and children's toys. We can trade baseball cards or coins at some shows, exhibit our model railroad layouts, or have our attic treasures examined by antique experts.

Collectors' expos give us a chance to find almost anything the human heart can lust after: antique needlework books, cherished Kingston Trio records and Mad Magazines our mothers threw away, 19th century newspapers, a long-sought "Pilot" Barbie doll or a Legend of the Alamo Toy Soldier set.

But you're missing something special if you've never visited any of the conferences and conventions, and their exhibits. If you have barely finished paying off last Christmas, it might boggle your mind to know that you've already missed your chance to see what the toymakers of American will be selling nine months from now -- they met in New York in February. Comdex and similar technology industry shows allow us to look into the future to see what new machines will be making everything we own obsolete.

If you wandered through the exhibit hall at the Amusement and Music Operators Association annual convention, you'd get to see the latest in arcade games and jukeboxes, and if you visited the American Culinary Federation's National Convention, I suspect there'd be lots of tasty samples and recipes.

The National Science Teachers' Association meeting almost certainly displays wonderful science gadgets and teaching tools, and who knows what apparitions of the past you might see on display at the meeting of the Costume Society of America?

At a meeting of the American Library Association you can pick up hundreds of gorgeous posters -- cover art from children's books. You'd also have a chance to meet well-known authors and have them sign copies of their books for you. (It's how librarians reward themselves for sitting through panel discussions on cataloging rules.)

When convention-goers are performers, we can get in on some dandy entertainment -- concerts by the American Theatre Organ Society, plays at the American College Theater Festival, stories at the National Storytellers' Competition or shows at the National Puppetry Festival. Even Space and Robotics 2000 has a student competition where we might get to see next-generation R2D2s beeping and flashing. And surely the US Twirling Association lets audiences watch the girls compete.

There is also art to be viewed, in all possible forms, at quilters' shows, at annual Ice Sculpture Festivals, at the Glass Art Society Conference, and at the Porcelain Painters' get-together.

But the greatest fun of all at conventions and exhibits is watching people revel in passions their friends may not understand or even know about. What's the point, after all, in a kindergarten teacher telling fellow teachers about the play she wrote (until it was produced and won all kinds of awards on Broadway)? Why bother your metalhead friends with your passion for unhip music, when you can share it with fellow enthusiasts at the International Barbershop Harmony Convention?

Who knows what passions lurk in the hearts of men (and women)? Attend a conference and find out. Listen to them as they chat, at last, with those who understand. You will appreciate anew that none of us are quite what we seem to be, and none of us are quite as ordinary as we look.

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