From Algae Shakes To Real Estate On-line

On the prowl for relevance in image-driven Tinseltown

WINNOWING out the ridiculous from the sublime, as many Los Angeles-based correspondents have found, is a far more ticklish undertaking here than in most US cities.

Partly because America's image factory exists to spin fantasies and smoke, one needs an industrial-strength fluff meter. There is also the tendency of this state to attract pitchmen hoping to cash in on, in the words of commentator Lance Morrow, ''Americans in search of dreams and redemption.''

I was struck by this again as I scoured the city for stories that may have been elbowed out of sight by O.J.-Watch 1995. While anchors and reporters continued to chase down every post-verdict wrinkle imaginable - from important things like jury reform to nonsense like the life story of a Marcia Clark look-alike - I jumped in the car and made like Philip Marlowe.

Raymond Chandler's fictional L.A. detective was always out to distinguish the real from imagined in ''that city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.''

This week he might have found two affairs that deserve at least asterisks in post-Simpson L.A. Both were harbingers of developing national and world trends. Both were important while laden with elements of sheer pap and peccadillo. And both were indicative of cultural life in this most openly searching of cities that seems never to have left its formative stage.

Of the two, ''Online Expo '95,'' billed as the first public exposition to trumpet on-line computer services, was clearly the most consequential. ''A year ago no one would have even considered that there would be such an exposition as this,'' said one of 100 exhibitors coming together to ''demystify'' the use of on-line computer products.

For three days at the city's mammoth convention center, vendors like carnival barkers claimed to tell exactly how the ''information superhighway'' can serve you. One woman touted a directory service that will make every other obsolete by allowing on-line users to find not only real-estate agents in any of 50 states, but take video tours of available houses as well.

Another talked of the ''interactive fantasy'' network where users could co-design cyber events such as Ferrari races, summer vacations, and interactive novels. From every direction there was the excitement of new technological possibilities, put to uses that ranged from the ingenious to the inconsequential.

AFTER some fresh air and a drive to the beach side of town, I arrived at the 13th Whole Life Expo, ''world's-largest exposition for personal growth, science, and new technology.''

For the uninformed, there are now more crystal, pyramid, sound, color, and aroma therapies available than one could sample in a lifetime. The term ''New Age'' has perhaps become so broad as to become meaningless - encompassing new and old twists on everything from acupuncture to Zen. Each year the combinations and permutations multiply.

One man at this show balanced another man upside down on his stomach while he rubbed his shoulders - a synthesis of acrobatics, yoga, and massage. Several others have seen the future - and it comes with lots of fiber and blue-green algae shakes.

But the news to beware of - if we are to believe book sales and other consumer indexes as related in cover stories in Time, Maclean's, and New York Magazine - is that these once-fringe enterprises are becoming mainstream.

Americans now spend $27 billion annually on alternative medicine, proclaimed 300 exhibitors and 200 speakers over three days. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, Americans make more visits to alternative therapists (425 million) than to primary-care physicians (388 million). New Age/spiritual book sales have been growing 12 to 15 percent a year since 1991.

I can't say I have yet sorted out the gold and dross from some 20 pounds of pamphlets collected from two days of dueling expos. But I did find food for thought as well as several thousand Angelenos searching for themselves, the future, and a way to forget about O.J. Simpson.

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