Essaying New Yorker Phillip Lopate (track down a copy of his out-of-print "Against Joie de Vivre") spent eight years, from 1980 to 1988, living and working and teaching in Houston, so he must have seemed a defensible choice when the editors of the New York Times Magazine assigned him to revisit his old stomping grounds for its February 27, 2000, issue of "The Sophisticated Traveller." Lopate's travel essay -- situated alongside pieces by Robert Stone (British Columbia) and Francine Prose (New Castle, Delaware) -- made a relatively flattering case for Houston as an architectural mecca (Rice professor Stephen Fox, natch, is quoted), and even tosses our town a barely deserved bone regarding our perpetual second-string complex: In the 1980s, Lopate writes, Houston had seemed "almost pathetically anxious to become a 'world-class city,' " but today, "now that it no longer cares about being accepted as a world-class city, Houston has a much better chance of being perceived as one." Well, maybe. But the accuracy of Lopate's perception here is just a niggle. You have to read deeper into the story to get to the real head-scratcher. Lopate, like everyone else, is all atitter over our new downtown, with its lofts and coffee shops, where citizens may finally grab a bite or drink after imbibing some of the Theater District's blue-chip culture. "Or," Lopate writes, "they can stroll along the Buffalo Bayou, one of the many streams that run through the city. Ah yes, Houston's famous streams. Sims, White Oak, Green's, Brays -- the names just trickle off the tongue like spring water flowing through what we Houstonians have so long mistaken for mere drainage ditches. Reminds us of Lopate's out-of-print book of poetry: The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open.