Friday, February 29, 2008

Wood Writing Guide - Keeping Your Voice

One of the hardest lessons to be learned by a college student is how to not write like a college student. Personally, I continue to struggle with my almost pathological need to forecast, transition, and review everything I write, recalling a time in my community college years when I wished that somewhere I could find a job comprised solely of crafting five-paragraph essays. Oh, how I loved the simplicity of that form. Even so, I have picked up one pointer in the intervening years that concerns authorial voice: Keep yours.

Beginning students can be forgiven for a tendency to cite authorities at every turn, especially when they're engaging a scholarly conversation for the first time. Pouring through voluminous (and frequently impenetrable) prose, the beginning student understandably wants to demonstrate her diligence. "Yes, I did the reading," she announces with paragraph after paragraph of cite and counter-cite. What's more, students often confront lousy examples from published scholarship of writers who seem much more interested in establishing their academic bona fides than taking the risk of saying something original.

In that spirit, I recall an essay I attempted to publish from my grad school days that included, I think, about five pages of analysis and fifteen pages of "discussion." That's a bad sign. Add another ten pages of literature review and I had the makings of (to employ a technical term) a POS. I had no clue, but the editor did. That piece remains today a sad reminder of a career that threatened to be built solely around the ideas of other people, moldering in a lost floppy disk somewhere.

I suppose I would have continued along the same dismal path had I not received a half-hour master class from my former officemate, Phil Wander, while sipping a martini at lunch (on a non-teaching day). He'd read my work and noted that I demonstrated some promise as a scholar. My problem, among several he noted, was my fear of straying too far from established ideas. Every paragraph tacked awkwardly back and forth from my own nascent notions and those more established ideas of others, dangling precariously over stony cliffs while clinging to citation lifelines that anchored me. It seemed that I could not write a page without appealing to some authority. Even when citing ostensibly "radical" scholarship, my writing seemed far too conservative as I sought to type and retype the ideas of others. In response, Phil offered an idea: Don't cite anyone.

Actually, his suggestion was a bit more nuanced than that. Phil proposed that I should write a manuscript with no in-text citations. If I felt compelled to name-drop, I could develop pithy and provocative endnotes, the location where so many academic scholars produce their most interesting works anyway. But a reader must be capable of reading the entire piece without the aid of endnotes, finding something useful and unique in the work "above the line." Try it, he said, and see what happens.

I tackled Phil's suggestion and subsequently found that many of my early essays demonstrated little of my own voice. I had simply cobbled together quotes from established scholars, dipping only a little bit into shallow waters of my own. Faced with an empty page to be filled solely with my own thoughts, I rediscovered the utility of deep analysis, rich illustration, historical context, and personal narrative. From this perspective, I also found it much easier to pass another of Phil's tests: I could ask a family member to read my ideas with hopes of receiving a meaningful review.

That is the primary test of decent prose, Phil said: Can a non-academic, a non-specialist, read your work and discover something useful within? Most of us in the academy learn early how to weave a thick web of verbiage, acronyms, and jargon. Our colleagues nod at the cryptic references, fearful that a glazed stare will reveal insufficient knowledge of our arcane arts. But few scholars learn how to write clearly enough for their mothers to read. Strip away the academic crutches, and a writer faces a broad audience that can discern BS easily. That's a scary proposition, no doubt. But it's also a good way to get good advice.

So that's how I write my first drafts: No cites, no references, no authorities of any kind. Once I get a decent manuscript, I'll ask a friend or family member to review my progress thus far. Without the protection of ponderous supports, my work usually reveals itself as baked or half-baked, which is a good thing to know early on. Eventually I weave in some in-text quotes -- at least for those publications that require them. But I do so with confidence that these authorities are helping me make my own point; I'm not just retyping theirs. Finally my work looks like an academic essay, without, I hope, reading too much like one.

New 'Largest Airport' opens in Beijing

Richard Spencer writes in The Telegraph that Beijing has opened a 1.8 mile airport terminal [designed by Norman Foster] to accommodate the throngs of visitors expected for the Olympics. Here's a snip:
No project is more symbolic of how China is using the Olympic Games this year to refashion its image and prepare itself for a future once only dreamed of by Chairman Mao's economic planners.
Read the entire article: Beijing Terminal Breaks Size Barrier - and check out amazing pics on the slideshow.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lost in Non-Place

I recently came across a poem by Lee Durham Stone that includes omnitopia in an interesting way. The poem appears in his blog, Embodied Space: Traces on the Holo-Spatial Cognitive Shore. Here's a snip:
Omnitopia: the new EveryPlace
Stark airports, office parks,
strip malls: the cityscape strip mines
babble blight of siren signs.
Read the whole piece here: Lost in Non-Place.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mike Off

It's official. Michael Bloomberg knows that it's too late to take on Obama, so he's sitting this one out. Add last night's debate results, a swan song for the Clinton camp if there ever was one, and it seems pretty clear that this November will mark a battle between Obama and McCain. Who would have guessed it?

Omnitopia Update

Not much to write today, other than the happy news that I've sent the manuscript for the omnitopia book, now tentatively titled City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication, and the Rise of Omnitopia, off to Hampton Press for copy-editing. I have no idea what next steps are in store; the timeline remains fluid, as it often does in the publishing biz. But I'm so glad to have come to this point in the evolution of the omnitopia project.

To add an exclamation point to that good news, I just today received my copy of Sith, Slayers, Stargates, + Cyborgs: Modern Mythology in the New Millennium, edited by David Whitt and John Perlich and published by Peter Lang. This book contains a chapter I wrote, entitled "'Small World': Alex Proyas' Dark City and Omnitopia." The chapter offers my most current summary and application of the omnitopian framework - and it celebrates a movie that is sadly under-recognized.

Visit my Center for Omnitopian Studies to download an excerpt.

I'll keep you posted on my progress as this project reaches fruition. But for now, I am due a good nap.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

No Starbucks for You Tonight - Not Yours

This evening, Starbucks will close its 7,100 U.S. Stores for a three hour training session designed to re-instill a sense of pride and professionalism that many observers have found to be lacking in recent years. Given newly enhanced competition offered by Dunkin' Donuts and even McDonalds (!), it ought to be time well spent.

In the New York Times Mike Nizza offered an appropriately philosophical note on this Night Without Starbucks:
On the practical end of the spectrum, freeloaders will lose thousands of dependable seats, bathrooms, internet access and CD’s of Bob Dylan’s favorite songs. On the spiritual end, the angst bred by Starbucks’ ubiquity will have a chance to recede for a moment, hopefully leading to an epiphany or two.
One change I've been told to expect is that Starbucks will begin to offer visitors their coffee in a ceramic mug rather than in that ugly to-go cup. I also heard that the company is planning to offer free wireless internet access, getting rid of its silly T-Mobile plan. It's a small but symbolic reminder that the company needs to go back to its roots: a place where you are invited to sit, chat, and maybe even work amidst the aroma of a temporary vacation.

Read the article: A Nation Briefly Without Starbucks

Monday, February 25, 2008

Star Wars According to a Three-Year-Old

The headline - and the little girl - need no additional commentary from me!

Just remember...

"The Shiny Guy always worries."

"Don't talk back to Darth Vader - he'll getcha!"

Friday, February 22, 2008

The handshake

Last night's Texas Cage Match was initially a haymaker-free affair: cagey jousting about minor distinctions between similar policies. Then Clinton opened up with her Xerox comment ("You know, lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches is not change you can believe in, it's change you can Xerox") -- and earned lusty boos for overreaching. Obama replied that his deal to trade lines with Deval Patrick trumped those silly plagiarism charges and won the round. Presuming that no broader pattern emerges, he elegantly left Clinton on the mat. As I've noted before, I wish he would have added a line about the correctness of citing his friend, giving credit where credit is due, but I was nonetheless impressed with Obama's coolness under the spotlights.

About five minutes before the final applause, Obama had this debate wrapped up. Then Clinton launched into a wrap-up that connected her plight to those of returning veterans gravely wounded by the war, simultaneously pointing out the pettiness of Democrat bouts when compared to their struggles. Sure it was shameless, I thought, that she lifted the "we'll be OK" line from John Edwards, especially given her previous accusations of plagiarism against her opponent. But she conveyed no small degree of class with the rightness of her words.

And then there was the handshake. For hours the punditocracy parsed that moment. Was Clinton demonstrating command of the debate by subtly maneuvering Obama to stretch out his hand? Was she obliquely signaling her acquiescence that she'd been sidelined by history's march? Was she, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd claimed, "furious that the Chicago kid got in the picture"? What did she mean? Apparently in an after-debate speech, Clinton made it clear that she has no intention of standing aside for Obama's coronation. Drawing from her Inner Flick, she emphasized that she'd worked too hard to back away now. So now we wait for Texas and Ohio to decide. And, of course, we wait for this Tuesday's return to the ring.

Follow Up: Newsweek's Jonathan Alter has posted a fine analysis of why Hillary Clinton should get out now - and why she probably won't.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

El Vado Update - February 2008

In the Albuquerque Tribune, Carrie Seidman updates efforts to save the El Vado Motel. The article emphasizes the cost, complexity, and range of unknown factors that continue to slow efforts to transform the Route 66 icon from empty "investment property" to a revitalized "destination motel," or, at least, a mixed-use iteration that maintains some semblance of the El Vado aura as a hybrid of motel and museum (for example). Here's a snip:
"Sometimes you just can't convert it to what it was, but you can preserve the building," [Richard Dineen, director of the city's Department of Planning] said. "Ideally, to get both is what we'd love to do. We are trying to hold out for that."
Read the entire piece: Albuquerque landmarks along Route 66 face slow process to preservation

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

No-Tel Motel

Researching a last-minute revision to a chapter on hotels in the omnitopia book, I came across an article in Tucson Weekly by Saxon Burns about that city's aptly named "No-Tel Motel." I can't say that I like this article. Most of it seems focused on Burns's growing paranoia at staying in a skanky place, the realization that the romantic fantasy of staying at a "No-Tel Motel" is, shockingly, undercut by the folks who actually rent rooms there. Throughout the piece I wanted to yell, "Buck up, Dude! What did you expect?" That being said, if you want to live vicariously through one man's four days in Motel Hell (he wussed out from his original plan of a week), this is the article for you: My Stay at the No-Tel Motel.

By the way, you can visit Motel Americana to check out some other cool images of Arizona motels.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama: Plagiarist?

The 2008 race gets stranger and stranger. Now the Clinton camp has accused Barack Obama of plagiarism. This is a big deal, not only because of the power of that word but because of the sign it portends of just how ugly this race may become.

The allegations stem from speeches given by Obama that, in part, respond to Hillary Clinton's claim that he is an empty orator: long on flourish, short on substance. Just last night I caught one example of that strategy in a speech delivered by Clinton to supporters in Wisconsin, dismissing Obama with a classic attack: "There's a difference between speeches and solutions, between talk and action."

Immediately I thought back to Plato's Gorgias, a foundational assault on "mere rhetoric" that has been cribbed by word or implication for almost 24 centuries. In that dialogue, Plato's version of Socrates compares the oratorical teachings of the Sophists to the gastronomic productions of chefs. Either the teacher of speech or the cooker of a meal may concoct an effect that is delightsome, says Socrates, but their products often bring harm, both to the human body and the body politic.

I can't say I was surprised to find that Clinton, facing a steep climb out of her current pit of political despair, turned to that well-worn rebuke when viewing the popular clamor of Obama. Sure, he gives a better stump speech, she reasons. But his speeches are like a tasty dessert: indulgent and fattening.

And now they're even worse, she says. They're plagiarized.

This new attack is trenchant to me, as it should be to anyone who writes for a living. In my line of work, both as an academic and (occasional) freelance author, proper attribution is more than the accurate use of quotation marks. Giving credit where credit is due is an immovable rock upon which any serious writer builds a lifetime of work. As a professor, I have severely penalized students for gross failures of attribution, and I have forwarded their names to our academic integrity office, even when they assured me that they didn't intend to plagiarize. From the first meeting of every class I teach, students learn that copy/pasting a passage written by another person without citing authorship, even after making a few word changes, is a grave academic sin.

I therefore respond to Clinton's claims that Obama is a plagiarist with real concern.

Consider first the irony of the attack, that Obama lifted an argument from Deval Patrick's 2006 rejoinder to opponents who claimed that the candidate for Massachusetts governor offered "just words." Finding that Obama employed phrases that were substantially similar to Patrick's speech, the Clinton campaign cleverly advances the claim that her opponent offers nothing more than words while simultaneously arguing that the authorship of words matters.

More importantly, consider that Obama is himself an academic, a former lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He understands the rules of proper citation, doesn't he? This question calls for us to consider whether we should distinguish between standards of plagiarism in academic and political spheres. After all, while academic plagiarism is generally a matter of bright lines -- "Did you copy that? Yes. Did you cite it? No. Congratulations, you plagiarized." -- parsing out the difference between a politician's common motif, intentional homage, inadvertent error, and outright theft is much more complex.

After all, the political speech as a genre (composed of many subgenres) is typically not even written by the speaker. Audiences presume that some anonymous speechwriter crafted those words. Yet when we recall a potent turn of phrase such as "a thousand points of light" uttered by George H.W. Bush, we find no public outcry that the president failed to cite Peggy Noonan in his speech. Moreover, political speeches typically borrow phrases from previous orations in bids to bolster the ethos of their presenters. Thus, when we hear some politician utter that immortal evocation of America as a "shining city on a hill" we don't necessarily expect a citation of Ronald Reagan or John Winthrop or even the Bible. Enthymematically the reference calls for us to relate that passage to our own reservoir of references, however shallow. When we can connect the phrase to deeper currents of thought, it resonates with us all the more.

Even so, we know a line that cannot be crossed. Joe Biden tripped over that line in 1988 when he borrowed a bit too much from a speech by Neil Kinnock without offering attribution. Apparently, Biden had cited Kinnock in previous speeches numerous times before. But he forgot once when a videotape was rolling, and that marked the end of his presidential bid. What killed his campaign, though, was more than the one mistake. Oppo-squads dug into Biden's other speeches and college records and found a pattern: plagiarism in law school and overstatement in speeches thereafter. It was that pattern, I think, that did him in, that and the fact that Biden just manages to annoy people after a while.

So, where does this leave Obama?

As an academic, I find plagiarism to be reprehensible. As an observer of political discourse, though, I confess to being less dogmatic. Perhaps the question turns on the issue of claimed ownership. When a student signs her name to a course paper, she is testifying that all materials not otherwise cited therein are hers. Since she is being evaluated on the originality of her writing, the student ought to be held to a high and exacting standard. But when a candidate presents a political speech, she is not necessarily its author, any more than she is the author of every position statement advanced by her campaign. The political speech is inevitably a collaboration, both between the candidate and her staff and between the candidate and the chain of ideas she seeks to engage. Thus we generally do not condemn a politician for failure to adhere to the strictest academic standards. For that reason, I do not condemn Barack Obama for borrowing an argument from Deval Patrick any more than I condemn Hillary Clinton for borrowing some of her best lines from Bill Clinton (and from Barack Obama from time to time).

That being said, the fact remains: Obama should have known better. While we tolerate a political speaker's weaving together of commonly used phrases, aphorisms, and policy positions without the strictures of formal attribution, and while we are hardly surprised to find that politicians use speechwriters, we ought to expect a citation of authorship for unique and non-"public domain" phrases that are not original to the speaker or the speaker's staff. In Obama's case, it would simply have been a matter of the candidate saying, "As my friend Deval Patrick said..." Supposedly he did so most of the time. But he did not attribute his words to Patrick every time. Having not done so, the candidate opens himself up to charges against his credibility. No matter how small the error, Obama's ethos is tainted. It may not be fair, especially since Obama is known for writing most of his own stuff. It may simply reflect the desperation of the Clinton campaign seeking to savage a vexing opponent. But the damage is done.

To me, whether writing an academic paper or a political speech, it's always best to err on the side of too much attribution. I've learned this truth the hard way. When I was in school, I was once asked if I had read a book. Seeking to impress my audience, I replied that I had, even though I'd merely skimmed it. I didn't sign my name to some document, but I gave my word. And my word wasn't good. To my great fortune, I was caught in my deception and rightly rebuked. I paid a high price for that mistake and I learned an indelible lesson that I try to pass on to my students: there are no little lies when the authorship of ideas is at stake. For Obama's sake, I hope he steps in front of this issue, that he admits that he made a silly mistake and promises not to commit similar errors in the future. Thus far his response to this issue has been partial at best and downright smug; he needs to clarify his response to the moral issue that has been raised. Otherwise Obama may learn the hard way: Losing your credibility is too high a price to pay for a moment of expediency.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Panopticon From the Air

Since reading Discipline and Punish in grad school, I've been fascinated by Michel Foucault's articulation of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, the humanitarian penitentiary designed as an "all-seeing place." To Foucault, the panopticon illustrated an essential manifestation of modern power: coercion without violence. While medieval forms of discipline relied on spectacle, illustrated by public (and often bloody) executions, modern discipline relies on bureaucracy. The body is transformed into an object of perpetual gaze, endlessly scrutinized and categorized.

In the panopticon, the body is individuated in a cell located on the outer edge of a circular prison that allows light to stream in from the outside. A single guard located in a center tower need only view the prisoners' forms, all equally subject to his gaze, to maintain order. Because each prisoner is locked in a single cell, none can plot collective resistance. And because the guard may employ blinds in his tower office, no prisoner knows for sure whether he is being watched. Each must presume at every moment that he is under constant surveillance.

It's a strange object of study, I know. Still, you can imagine my delight when I found a Google Sightseeing page dedicated to panopticons throughout the world. These eerie structures, arranged for the perpetuation of self-discipline, remind me that control is not yet free of physicality.

See for yourself: Panopticon Prisons.

See also a previous post on Google's contribution to our Surveillance Society.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Last Cat You'll Ever See

There's no news like old news, I know. But I haven't had a chance to post a link to this amazing article from The New England Journal of Medicine about a cat who can foresee a person's imminent death. I know Fridays should be filled with happy news, but this article, while somewhat morbid, is surprisingly sweet.

Read the whole article: A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat

Thursday, February 14, 2008

2008 Primary Update

In the weeks since "Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday," Barack Obama has won every contest against Hillary Clinton, building up an impressive collection of pledged delegates. At this point, though, no candidate can pass the magic number to win outright. She or he will require help from 796 "superdelegates" to surpass the threshold of 2,025 delegates necessary to secure the nomination.

Democrats have used superdelegates since 1982 to ensure that party officials can conclude a contentious primary season when a clear frontrunner can't clinch the campaign. Supposedly, this innovation marks some improvement over the fabled days of smoke-filled rooms and brokered conventions. And they have already impacted the party's decision-making process. Historians remind us that superdelegates proved essential to helping Walter Mondale prevail over Gary Hart in 1984. Now, Democrats confront their return to significance.

In 2008 we see a real possibility that superdelegates may side with Clinton, even if Obama has more pledged delegates and/or wins the popular vote. Amazingly, a small collection of party insiders -- political lions, hacks, and assorted hangers-on, each of whom controls a vote that is estimated to equal that of some 13,000 "regular voters" -- could hand the race to whomever they choose.

If Clinton manages to score a respectable number of votes in delegate-rich states like Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, or if she convinces the party to seat enough pro-Clinton delegates from Florida and Michigan to help her catch up, Democrats could face a real stickler. Superdelegates may conclude that while Obama has the popular momentum, Clinton is the safer choice - and give her the nomination. This would be a mistake. Superdelegates should vote with their districts, reflecting the popular vote. Any other choice would make a mockery out of the process.

To me, the only excuse for a superdelegate to vote contrary to the popular will is a last-minute realization that the otherwise winning candidate is manifestly unfit for office. I'm talking about dirty pictures featuring sheep or a sudden rush of "campaign contributions" from the Cayman Islands. Otherwise, whether the victor is Obama or Clinton, the principle is the same: Let the people rule.

Gee, that sounds like a great philosophy for folks calling themselves Democrats.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jericho Returns

All's right with the world: Jericho is back. As you may recall from previous posts, I'm a fan of the show set in post-apocalyptic Kansas. And I was bummed that CBS yanked the series despite its critical acclaim. So I waited eagerly for the show's return, reciting my standard mantra when expectation turns to reality: "Please don't suck." Last night affirmed my faith. The writers have subtly rebooted Jericho to move the show past the "what the hell just happened?" phase to the rebuilding phase.

The nation has been destroyed. What remains are squabbling regions and plenty of lawless places between the new capitals of the former United States. An Allied States of America has been organized with a new government based in Cheyenne, competing with other governments based in Columbus and San Antonio. The survivors of the attacks have been told that Iran and North Korea are to blame, and that these nations have been obliterated. But we know that a much scarier truth remains to be uncovered: The attacks were launched from within - and one of the ringleaders is running things from Cheyenne.

I love this show: squabbling of Mimi and Stanley, the civil war with New Bern, and the new presence of Esai Morales as a military commander who will likely be forced to choose between his conscience and the dictates of the new government. I can't wait to see what happens. Supposedly the seven episodes shot for Season Two are a chance to wrap up the series. Nuts to that. I'm hoping that CBS gets a clue and keeps this show on the air.

(Image borrowed from Wikipedia)

For now you can view the first episode ("Reconstruction") of Season 2 at the CBS Website.

Follow-up Check out a website for Jennings & Rall, the Haliburton-like contractor that seems to be running a lot of the postwar economy. I have no idea if this is a fan-site or a CBS para-site. But it's worth a look.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Shameless Media Plug - Ephemera

Recently I was interviewed by Marty Weil for a story that appeared on his blog, Ephemera. The interview allowed me to reflect on some intersections between my personal story and my choice to collect motel postcards. As is often the case with these sorts of things, I found myself sharing more than I originally intended, but I like the outcome nonetheless.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Visalia, CA

This is one of those trip reports that offers no pretense to literary quality. I simply want to remember the details of our occasional journeys, even though outside readers will likely find them bland. That apologia offered, let's hit the road.

Jenny and I drove to Visalia Friday evening, returning early Sunday. It was one of those momentary decisions when I woke up and proclaimed, "I've got the fever." Generally Jenny responds to those light-hearted announcements with a wan smile and a noncommittal assurance that some day soon we will return to the road. Not this time. I was determined and Jenny was willing, so I started pouring through my trusty Rand McNally. There's so much to California that we haven't seen, but we wanted a trip that was short enough to make in one day, allowing a full Saturday of sight-seeing and the ability to return in time for Jenny to attend church on Sunday. Hoping to see more of the Central Valley than I've already explored, I proposed that we search for cities on or near Highway 99. Visalia has a pleasant enough sounding name, so that's where we headed.

The drive took us through fragrant fields of springtime produce and fields of empty houses that suffer the ravages of the latest California housing bust. Night fell quickly as we turned east on State Road 198 toward Coalinga and points beyond. A little piece of advice for folks who might attempt the same feat: Don't. Those little dots that parallel the road on some maps, the ones signifying "scenic view," also mean tight hairpin turns, often at the top of hills that allow for no warning. There are other ways to get into the Valley, and we'll seek them out next time. Jenny and I were somewhat frazzled once we made our way into town, and we were a little disappointed that Visalia offers so little appeal at first glance. 198 carves through town as a limited access freeway, revealing no charm or character. We got the last room at the Marco Polo Inn and drifted to sleep to the tune of footsteps on the ceiling.

The next morning, our spirits revived, we rolled onto Visalia's Main Street and discovered a pleasant community with a surprisingly large selection of diners and restaurants, lots of quirky shops, and even one of those nickel arcades that I haven't seen in years. We chowed down at the Main Street Cafe, one of those "we're a diner"-diners: Pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, chrome stools, and a jukebox. No matter. The food was swell and the service was friendly. There's something almost perfect about ordering a cup of coffee and getting a personal pitcher. After breakfast we wandered through town, gazing up at the 1930 landmark Fox Theater, whose interior was crafted to resemble the garden court of an East Indian ruler. [Learn more about the Fox at their website.] Later, we stopped at a home show, where we spotted a wooden sign-carving display. Almost immediately, we ordered one for our house. Now when folks enter our porch, they walk under a hanging sign that announces, "Woodland." We picked one with two trees whose branches have grown together. Tacky, but accurate in our case.

We then headed south toward Mooney Grove Park in search of the geese. We'd heard that this park boasts a large collection of the squawking, squabbling creatures, and we were not disappointed. We'd bought some bread at a nearby supermarket, so we came prepared. The birds were split into various competing groups, and it was kind of sad that the tougher birds were able to push their ways ahead of their weaker cousins. Naturally, Jenny and I aimed our bread for the little guys, but it wasn't easy. The big birds would waddle out of the lake and walk right up to us, hissing and clucking, eating right from our hands.

While at Mooney Grove we also visited the "End of the Trail" sculpture, which was created by James Earle Fraser. In our travels, we've seen some variation of this piece throughout the West, on motels and diners and belt buckles. The "Trail" was first made for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, though only in plaster. In 1968 the city traded it away to the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City in exchange for a bronze casting. Jenny and I sat and stared at the piece for a while, moved (as have been so many other people) by the sadness and spirituality of this tribute to America's first peoples.

Never afraid of a little irony, our next stop was Big Bubba’s Bad to the Bone BBQ, an oversized phantasmagoria of cowboy imagery, featuring a mechanical bull and drinks you can sip from a boot. The food was hugely portioned, calling forth our better instincts: a split of one combo onto two plates. Kids cavorted along a hanging walkway that led to a treehouse in the middle of the restaurant and we smiled at the silliness of the whole thing. The restaurant's website labels the place a Roger Sharp "concept." I get a little puckered at the thought of eating in a "concept" But the food was pretty good.

Heading back toward 198, Jenny and I stopped at a recently commissioned mural by Glen W. Hill, entitled "The Greatest Generation." Stitching together portraits and images that stretch from the bombing of Pearl Harbor through to the incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this piece is Rockwellian in its moral clarity and sentimentality. Even so, I always grow misty-eyed when thinking about World War II, particularly when contemplating the mural's conclusion: a soldier's homecoming (I've added a close-up of that image to the photograph). Leaving this place, I was gladdened. We need not journey to Washington D.C. to find how our small towns were also touched by the war. We need only read the walls.

The afternoon was dedicated to brief visits to nearby towns. Jenny plotted a path through Lindsay, Portersville, Poplar, Woodview, Plainview, and Exeter, mostly little towns with their own Main Streets and even some nice murals. By the time we returned to Visalia, the sun glowed fat and red through the haze. By evening we searched for neon to photograph, savoring the Chop Suey sign and feeling joyful that the Fox also lights up at night. Dinnertime brought us to the Wagon Wheel Steak House, where thick loaves of fresh bread are delivered by knifepoint. Again, we split a plate and left satisfied at a hearty meal served well.

Our trip concluded, we headed north on 99 where we were reminded of how tricky it can be to get gas on the freeway, with one place selling for $3.35 and another selling for $2.93 just a couple miles away. Gassed up, we stopped at the Madera Motel 6 whose somewhat higher than normal price includes an indoor heated pool, hot tub, and sauna. The next morning we hit the road by seven, stopping only at a Big Bear Diner in Gilroy for one of that chain's dependably tasty breakfasts. Aiming for 10 o'clock arrival, we returned home only ten minutes late.

(Photos by Andrew Wood)

Friday, February 8, 2008

Clinton's Inner Flick

My pal Bonnie sent this along: a creepily insightful analysis of Hillary Clinton's campaign. See it for yourself (pops in new page).

Thursday, February 7, 2008

At Last - Part II

The omnitopia project advances a bit further. I've received word that an anonymous outside reviewer agreed with the series editor that we should proceed toward publication, and now we're working out the details for final revisions with hopes of getting the book to press by the end of the month. Naturally there are no guarantees in this business; new wrinkles and proposed improvements may yet alter the itinerary. But I'm optimistic that the omnitopia book is reaching its culminating point. I'll keep you posted.

Read At Last - Part I

Read Omnitopia Update

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

After Super Tuesday

Yet again, followers of the Democratic 2008 primary race are scratching their heads and staring in disbelief. Is there no way we can get a straight answer out of the electorate? Depending on how you interpret the results, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama won.

Clinton scored a slivers-worth advantage in the popular vote, and she scooped big in delegate-rich California, but Obama won more contests overall, most notably the bellwether state of Missouri. Clinton can claim to have slowed down her opponent's Big Mo, but Obama has clearly shaken the one-time locked-in frontrunner. Before the results began to pour in yesterday, folks from the Clinton camp were proposing weekly debates, which is never a good sign for a heretofore presumptive nominee. And just today we discover that Clinton padded her account with a loan of $5 million of her own money, and that some staffers are going without paychecks to help keep her campaign afloat. Even though we know never to underestimate a Clinton, this has been a hard week for her side.

After "Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday" things begin to slow down a bit, an advantage for Obama. As more voters get to know him, more turn away from Clinton. And he's overflowing with campaign contributions, enough to run an effective campaign in the air and on the ground anywhere in the country. Amazingly, we may see the first multi-ballot convention since 1952: a real treat when compared to the four-day infomercials we normally get. What a great race.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


It happened again last night, that eerie silence.

Jenny and I were at our beloved Hula's -- I was digging into a faux coconut shell filled with wasabi mashed potatoes, along with a Caesar salad and four steak skewers -- when we noticed a sudden quietude from the table closest to us.

Just a few minutes before, three teenaged girls were laughing and chatting. One announced loudly, "I have to tinkle" and Jenny and I shared a silent eye-roll (kind of like an egg roll, but more tasty).

Then it got quiet.

At first we didn't notice, settling back into our own conversation. But then we picked up on the strange wordlessness coming from our neighbors.

Jenny spotted them first: two remaining girls text-messaging on their phones.

Both were facing each other, but each was intently staring at individual screens.

Jenny whispered to me, "Why would they be texting when they're out to dinner with each other?"

To our middle-aged sensibilities, this was a weird performance.

Gazing upon the texting masses, I often wonder: just what do people say when they're mashing those tiny buttons? Occasionally I'll text Jenny or Vienna if I'm attending a meeting that's running late. Sometimes my phone's texting feature helps me send a quick message when I don't want to disturb my surroundings.

But the idea of texting someone else while enjoying a meal with a friend strikes me as bizarre.

Sure, I can imagine all sorts of reasons why it made sense to these folks. And, of course, it's really none of my business why a stranger chooses to send a text message.

But I think that many, many folks text as a sort of nervous tic, a technological parallel to saying "like" every three words while speaking.

Awkward silence? Send a text. Boring surroundings? Send a text. Insufficient stimulus? Send a text.

Really, I wonder what percentage of all the texts sent throughout the world simply announce, "OMG, IM soooo bord!!! :-(" (don't get me started on the impact of text messaging on spelling).

Doubtlessly, my rant reads like the complaint of an old fogey hearing The Beatles for the first time: "You call that music? It's caterwauling!" Yeah, OK, gramps...

But for the life of me, I just don't get texting.

(Cartoon borrowed from Savage Chickens)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Super Bowl XLII

Now that was a Super Bowl.

Normally I don't follow any sport, and I never watch the big games that seem to capture everyone's attention. The Final Four, the World Series, the World Cup: couldn't care less. But every year I dedicate one Sunday to the Super Bowl. Ostensibly I watch it for the commercials and the grandiosity of the whole thing, a spectacle that manages to conflate our nation's obsessions with gastronomic excess, militaristic nationalism, nostalgic patriotism, and consumer identity.

But I also enjoy the game.

Oh yes, four 15-minute quarters that, to Jenny's chagrin, manage to last all afternoon and into the evening.

Since I don't follow the teams throughout the year, I usually face a last minute decision: for whom do I cheer? A sense of honor compels me to pick a team before kick-off so that I can ride its fortunes up or down. Yet I cannot help but grow excited for both teams as they advance down the gridiron.

Yesterday I chose the Giants, if only because they were so destined to lose. I mean the Patriots were coming into the season with a perfect record, ready to join the ranks of immortals like the '72 Dolphins. Compare to those beleaguered Giants who lost their first two games and came into the post-season as Wildcard players. It would be a slaughter.

But I was drawn to the underdog and - wow - did they come through.

Of all my favorite plays, and there were several, was a moment when Eli Manning looked sure to be sacked before miraculously breaking free of jersey-grabbing linemen. Creating a momentary pocket, Manning floated a 32-yard pass to David Tyree, who made a catch that could only be envisioned by a Hollywood screenwriter, wrenching from a determined opponent and slapping the ball to his helmet. Tyree later explained, "My opportunities are too far and few to let that one go. It was supernatural, you know? Some things just don't make sense, and that catch is a good example."

After a slow and ungainly start, this Super Bowl (and its winning team) offered up a vivid example of persistence in the face of long odds. An incredible game.

Read more about the catch at ESPN.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Interstate Exits

Recently I came across Darrell A. Norris's article about the designs of interstate highway exit clusters, with the somewhat ponderous title, "Interstate highway exit morphology." Reading his introduction, I was struck by the claim that the interstate highway system has done more than enable the rapid diffusion of people and commerce through the nation; it has "created at least five thousand new but nameless 'places' in the American landscape" (p. 24). In an effort to analyze the form, scale, mix, and spatial structure of these places, Norris focused his attention on I-75, the interstate that (now) connects Hialeah, Florida, and Sault-Ste. Marie, Michigan, studying the non-urban clusters that dot that span.

Norris's essay seems mostly gleaned from a close reading of an interstate guide, counting the numbers and types of businesses found at rural exits (a surely tedious exercise that was aided by his students, as acknowledged in the essay). The author states that he augmented that somewhat detached method with field visits to exits in Tennessee. Putting aside the implication that this scholarship was little more than the counting and classification of dots on a map, I appreciated Norris's willingness to propose a naming-system for the various types of rural exits that can be found along (at least one) interstate highway, and I enjoyed his occasionally witty and critical prose. Finding a fair amount of diversity in the types of rural exit, Norris concludes with a useful reminder:
"Roadside homogeneity in American culture is a common assumptive slur which does not survive close scrutiny. The commercial cluster at an interstate does follow norms of form, scale, composition, and structure, but in detail its repertoire is endless and bears witness to the regional variation which pervades and enriches American mass culture" (p. 31).
Read the entire article: Norris, D.A. (1987). Interstate highway exit morphology: Non-metropolitan exit commerce on I-75. Professional Geographer, 39(1), 23-32.

On the subject of roadside Americana, I plan to write an essay on Route 66 simulacra that are located on or near the highway. Here I'm referring to tourist attractions, museums, and even casinos that reproduce "Mother Road" memorabilia, places, and objects for folks who do not have time or desire to see the real thing. Any suggestions for necessary stops are most appreciated.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)