Friday, March 21, 2008

Dwelling in Possibilities

Students in my COMM 149 class get to read a terrific essay by Mark Edmundson in The Chronicle Review (March 14, 2008). In this piece, Edmundson presents an overview of his perception that Americans increasingly privilege speed and motion over thought and place. Young adult college students in particular seem enamored with multiphrenic technologies that hasten the dissolution of identity into overlapping shards of media simulation. Recalling Kenneth Gergen's Saturated Self, a book that influenced me in graduate school, I was drawn to Edmundson's description of student-simultaneity:
I asked the group, "How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?" Suppose you were chatting on your cellphone, partially watching a movie in one corner of the computer screen, instant messaging with three people (a modest number), and glancing occasionally at the text for some other course than ours — grazing, maybe, in Samuelson's Economics rather than diving deep into Thoreau's "Economy" — and then, also, tossing the occasional word to your roommate? Well, that would be seven, seven places at once. Some students — with a little high-spirited hyperbole thrown in, no doubt — got into double digits. Of course it wouldn't take the Dalai Lama or Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular — not present, not here now. Be everywhere now — that's what the current technology invites, and that's what my students aspire to do . . . The students were a little surprised by the conclusions they came to about themselves. "It's when I can see it all in front of me," one young woman said, "that's when I'm the happiest."
Seeing "it all," even in an illusory way: this is part of the pleasure of the omnitopian enclave. A result of this phenomenon is a collapse of our traditional notion of place, the locale that attaches time and character to the physical environment. Being "here" "now" seems much less meaningful than the next place, the next interaction, the sense of having access to "all places" at the same time. I know this feeling. When traveling on a roadtrip, an event I'll anticipate gleefully for months, I must constantly remind myself that "this" place is worth savoring. "These" people are worth getting to know. In so many ways I am reminded: the map is not the territory. Yet I seem to suffer the same fate as many of my students, traveling only for the sake of movement.
And once you do get somewhere, wherever it might be, you'll find that, as Gertrude Stein has it, there's "no there there." At a student party, about a fourth of the people have their cellphones locked to their ears. What are they doing? "They're talking to their friends." About? "About another party they might conceivably go to." And naturally the simulation party is better than the one that they're now at (and not at), though of course there will be people at that party on their cellphones, talking about other simulacrum gatherings, spiraling on into M.C. Escher infinity.
Recalling recent catastrophes, and anticipating those that loom beyond stormy horizons, Edmundson offers compelling justification for this tendency.
There's a humane hunger to my students' hustle for more life — but I think it's possible that down below bubbles a fear. Do it now, for later may be too late.
The fear that this moment may be literally shattered in the next 9/11 leads many of us to take less faith in places that promise permanence. Certainly, Americans have always romanticized travel. Piercing the horizon -- the border, the "West," space (the "final frontier") -- has motivated all manner of Conestogas. It's no surprise that the original series of Star Trek was labeled (humorously, I imagine) a sort of "Wagon Train to the Stars." Yet from the Puritan errand into the wilderness onward, fear of some unknown, some demonic presence or foreign threat, has motivated so many of our journeys. When faced with the darkness, we often find it best to keep moving. Sometimes toward the light. Sometimes just toward.
[T]he children of the Internet are Romantics, for they perpetually wish to be someplace else, and the laptop reliably helps take them there — if only in imagination. The e-mailer, the instant messenger, the Web browser are all dispersing their energies and interests outward, away from the present, the here and now. The Internet user is constantly connecting with people and institutions far away, creating surrogate communities that displace the potential community at hand . . . The Internet is perhaps the most centrifugal technology ever devised. The classroom, where you sit down in one space at one time and ponder a text or an issue in slow motion, is coming to feel ever more antiquated. What's at a premium now is movement, making connections, getting all the circuitry fizzing and popping.
Rather than the train whistle, the highway, or the globe-girdling jet, we now find pleasure in the device that connects us to a version of the world. The internet becomes a meaningful place, a "second life" that spins us perpetually outward. We need only click to find something new, the rush of flow.
For students now, life is elsewhere. . . . The idea is to keep moving, never to stop. It's now become so commonplace as to be beneath notice, but there was a time that every city block contiguous to a university did not contain a shop dispensing a speed-you-up drug and inviting people to sit down and enjoy it along with wireless computer access. Laptops seem to go with coffee and other stimulants, in much the way that blood-and-gold sunsets went with LSD and Oreo cookies with weed. (It's possible, I sometimes think, that fully half of the urban Starbucks in America are located in rental properties that, in an earlier incarnation, were head shops.)
Yes, I read this piece first at a Starbucks, and I had to laugh. Starbucks is the promise of commodified connection. A quick jolt of sociability between home and work. I visit my local node about once a day, ordering the same doppio espresso in a demitasse cup. They know my name, even though I often sit only for a few minutes. It's a rush of safe sociability, a shopping encounter with something vaguely exotic, a brief sit-down vacation. Soon thereafter, I return to my office or a class, anticipating the twitter of mobile phones. I'm lucky if class ends without so much as an overly loud "vibrate."
When a seminar is over now, the students reach their hands into their pockets and draw — it looks a little like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But what they're reaching for, after discussing Thoreau, say, on the pleasures of solitude, are their cellphones. They've been unwired, off the drug, for more than an hour, and they need a fix. The cellphoning comes as a relief: The students have been (give or take) in one place, at one time, pondering a few passages from Walden. Now they need to disperse themselves again, get away from the immediate, dissolve the present away.
What is the role of the college professor in this environment? It's often claimed, particularly by folks seeking to condemn higher education, that a nineteenth century time-traveler crossing over to the twenty-first century would be amazed by our highways and our skyscrapers and our other myriad wonders, but she would be quite at home in a classroom, with its rows of seats ordered to transfix students' attentions upon their instructors. The edu-disciplinary apparatus has changed that little, they say. Alternatives range from more multimedia stimuli, more synchronous and asynchronous collaboration, and more student-centered learning -- all the way to abandoning the schools of today as the dominant "place" of learning. Edmundson proposes that we avoid leaping so far from our traditions, proposing instead that college can and ought to be a place where people can slow down a bit and contemplate a while. I would add that such a place would remind us that "learning outcomes" ought not be confused with learning.
We teachers need to remind ourselves from time to time that our primary job is not to help our students to acquire skills, marketable skills, bankables. And we don't pre-eminently teach communication and computation and instill habits of punctuality and thoroughness. We're not here to help our students make their minds resemble their laptops, fast and feverish. We didn't get into teaching to make trains of thought run on time. . . . To live well, we must sometimes stop and think, and then try to remake the work in progress that we currently are. There's no better place for that than a college classroom where, together, we can slow it down and live deliberately, if only for a while.
Read the entire piece: Dwelling in Possibilities: Our students' spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wood Writing Guide - Getting Better

Lately I've been thinking about the many students who want to improve their writing but are unsure where to begin. Students have reported success using style guides, reading their work aloud, and employing resources such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab. But there are a couple of other steps that I've found to be personally helpful. I stress here that I am hardly a writing-mechanics expert. I barely know my participles from my predicates, and I'm OK with that. But I've developed some confidence as a writer with the aid of these two steps:

1. Write every day

Writing is an opportunity to express yourself, to train your mind, to exercise your opinions, and to "thicken" your experience of the world. All too frequently, we plow through our days with little to show for the effort. I can think back on entire months of my life that seem little more than a blur. But when I write - every day - in a diary, in a letter, in a blog, in whatever medium, I find it easier to remember my experiences. The act of writing weaves my days more richly into my memory.

On a far more practical note, the act of writing parallels (so I'm told) the act of physical exercise. The initial strain of working out, jogging, strength training, swimming, etc., begins to ease as your mind and body develop a tolerance for - and eventually a desire for - the work. Write every day, keeping track of your strengths and weaknesses. Build up your confidence by observing incremental improvement in your mastery of mechanics, your avoidance of clichéd and hackneyed phrases, and your ability to marshal facts to advance a point. Write. Every day. Even if you're only writing for an audience of one.

2. Read every day

Of course, just like a public speaker must have an audience in order to usefully practice a speech, a writer ought not live in a vacuum. Read the words of others. Imagine those people as a potential audience for your words. Or more simply imagine them as colleagues from whom you can seek advice. When I read an article in The New York Times, or I savor a delicious passage from Tom Wolfe, or I work through a dense essay of academic scholarship, I focus on the form as well as the content. How does this author employ semicolons? How does this author paint such vivid word-pictures? How does this author employ proper citation? Reading the published works of others, preferably those that are edited or peer reviewed, offers a free master-class in my own craft.

One of the fascinating aspects of this exercise is a growing awareness in the diversity of writing styles and, more intriguingly, the variances in "correctness." Reading The Economist, I noticed that British writers place periods ('full stops,' they'd say) outside of quotation marks while U.S. writers place periods within quote marks. Reading good prose, I've also found that some of the most strictly taught rules of grammar and punctuation are joyfully abandoned if they obscure the purpose of the work. And I've certainly developed an eagle-eye for typos that, no matter what, almost always manage to slip into published work. It's humanizing to find that we all screw up now and again. Mostly, reading every day reminds me that the written word is vibrant with contradictory uses and strategies for its improvement. I think I've become a decent writer because I read folks who are much better than me. Every day.

Try it. Review your schedule and carve out a little time to write and read every day. Start with a quick blog entry and a pass through one local newspaper article. Then add to your routine, mixing it up with international journalism, serious fiction, and even poetry. Start here and get there in incremental steps. Do it every day. You will get better.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Some Responses to Obama's Speech

Reflecting back on Obama's More Perfect Union speech, which I discussed yesterday, I thought I'd review a few editorials that followed. As I imagined, most (though hardly all) concluded that this address was an historical document of our nation's struggles to reconcile racial divisions. It was not a perfect speech, but it was a speech that solidified Obama's credentials as a serious alternative to the bland puffery that so frequently passes for political oratory.

: Some of these sources require registration.

Chicago Tribune, Saying a mouthful: "As a public statement about race, culture, class in America and, quite poignantly, in the heart of its speaker, Obama's Big Speech offered a rare outpouring of brilliance, sophistication and personal frankness."

Newsday, Obama eloquently addresses race issues: "It was a speech Barack Obama had to give. There was no way a black man within striking distance of a major party nomination for president of the United States was going to get much closer to the nation's ultimate political prize without, at some point, talking frankly about race in America. Obama did that yesterday. He did it honestly. He did it eloquently. And the nation will be better for it if enough of us accept his challenge to strive to 'form a more perfect union,' by dealing forthrightly with the uncomfortable and explosive issue."

New York Times, Mr. Obama’s Profile in Courage: "We can’t know how effective Mr. Obama’s words will be with those who will not draw the distinctions between faith and politics that he drew, or who will reject his frank talk about race. What is evident, though, is that he not only cleared the air over a particular controversy--he raised the discussion to a higher plane."

San Jose Mercury News, Beyond racism: Obama strives to build bridge: "What could have been a political cataclysm was transformed into another opportunity for the first serious black presidential contender to show how he can bridge divides. One speech may not do it, but the address in Philadelphia was a very good start."

Washington Post, Moment of Truth: "It was a compelling answer both to the challenge presented by his pastor's comments and to the growing role of race in the presidential campaign."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A More Perfect Union

Speaking in Philadelphia this morning, Barack Obama transformed the boiling controversy over Jeremiah Wright's excerpted speeches, those anguished and angry rebukes against a nation the minister appeared to paint as institutionally racist, into a call for America to confront the complexities of its historical and social cleavages. In this speech, Obama masterfully sidestepped insinuations against his integrity by forcing his critics to question their own.

The speech arose from the surprisingly fast-growing furor that followed YouTube-distributed snippets of Wright's impassioned oratory, most notably his call for God to "damn America" for its many injustices. Somewhat clumsily before the speech, Obama refuted those words, suggesting that he was surprised to hear them uttered by the minister who had wed him to his spouse, Michelle, and baptized his two children. Many members of the African-American community reacted with anger, accusing Obama of selling out his spiritual guide to placate the fears of so-called White America. Anticipating this speech, media prognosticators termed the moment a must-win challenge for a candidate who seems nearly impervious to losing the delegate count. Despite his success to this point, Obama had to do well.

At first, following a somewhat predictable development of the theme that America, like its citizens and candidates, is imperfect though perfectible, Obama tackled the issue directly, leaving no doubt that he rejects Wright's harsh words. His vigor suggested to me that Obama was replaying Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah Moment," professing mortification before sacrificing a symbolic evil from the body politic (while ensuring his own political survival). Instead, however, Obama would sacrifice a beloved and respected spiritual adviser, not some third-rate rapper. I must say that I was not impressed.

Then Obama pivoted the conversation, reframing the debate to reaffirm his allegiance to the man, Jeremiah Wright, even as the candidate professed not to share his former pastor's range of anger. Wright's condemnations of institutional racism, hardly without some merit, cannot be viewed in isolation from the minister's generation-long work on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, his undeniable affirmation of what is good about America, Obama said. Wright reflects the complexities of the black experience: the humor, the horror, the anger and the hope. Wright is an American, imperfect but striving, just as much as Obama's grandmother, he said, the woman who lovingly raised a black child even while occasionally uttering racist stereotypes. Obama could no more jettison his spiritual father than he could his maternal grandmother. And those who would seek advantage from this debate for political ends represent, he claimed, the kinds of race-mongering that continue to dog the country.

Obama affirmed that racial injustice does fester in the nation. And unmistakably, persons of color have born its brunt. Yet he added that all Americans suffer from deep wounds, that hunger is no respecter of persons. Perhaps in a subtle appeal to supporters of John Edwards, Obama reminded his audience that plenty of factory and mill workers have good reason to glare with anger as their jobs are shipped overseas, and they can hardly be blamed when they wonder how some folks manage to get ahead, particularly when some are presumed, rightly or wrongly, to benefit from favoritism based on race. Their rage is real and worthy of consideration, just as much as the vitriol heard in many places of worship around the nation. We cannot fear to engage in difficult dialogues of race and class, even though we must dig beneath painful sores to do so.

My memory does not serve to follow every thread of the speech; I heard it early this morning and promptly got on my bus for work. But I remember two things. First was Obama's conclusion, the story of the young white girl named Ashley who explained that she'd joined the senator's campaign in a desire to ensure that other children would not have to convince their parents that they crave only mustard and relish sandwiches rather than contribute to their families' economic struggles, as she did when her mother was ill and uninsured. Obama's telling of that narrative began by drawing attention to Ashley and her heartrending story. And then he switched attention to an elderly black man in the room who, when asked why he'd joined the Obama campaign, answered, "I'm here because of Ashley." That turn from the personal to the interpersonal is why Barack Obama represents something meaningful in American politics.

The second thing I remember, though, is entirely personal. Leaving my house after the speech, I arrived early enough to stand near the front of the line of folks waiting to board the Highway 17 bus. I chose to get to the station 20 minutes before departure so that I could have a sure chance of snagging one of the few seats remaining on what has become a frequently overloaded route. Boarding the bus, I was grateful to sit near a woman in the first row, even though she looked askance at my desire to occupy a seat where her bag had been strategically placed. Sure enough, many folks who arrived after me were forced to stand. Given that I sacrificed my time to get onto the bus early, I felt right with the universe - until at the last minute, late for our departure, an elderly woman run up to the bus, dragging a heavy suitcase behind her. The rules of courtesy, both posted and commonly understood, required that someone give up her or his seat to this woman. I sighed with barely quiet resignation, knowing that person would be me. Yet before I could stand, a person behind me offered his seat. I settled back into my hard-won privilege as we left the station for the last stop.

I hardly noticed that the final stop was occupied by one more elderly passenger. He boarded and asked the driver, "standing room only?" The driver replied in the affirmative. The man asked in a louder voice, "even for seniors?" Only then I noticed that he was looking directly at me. I was, to put it bluntly, pissed. Twenty minutes of standing at a bus station were wasted. I knew I had to abandon my seat. He offered thanks, but I was having none of it. I said what was polite, but I felt bitterness in my heart. A young college student offered her seat to me, but I knew I could not take it. I sat on the floor, placing my laptop on my knees and hoping that no one would spill their coffee this morning. I was angry. And then I was embarrassed. The Obama speech, which I so admired, was really about how we are all each other's brothers' and sisters' keepers, that we must decide in spirit - more than in law - to care for each other before we can proceed along the path to national reconciliation. I appreciated the speech on a rhetorical level, and I marveled at his astute turning of a political conundrum into a sharp elbow against his opponent. But I still have yet to fully digest the meaning of those words.

The reason why Obama's Philadelphia oration is a great speech is more than his ability to engage fully, honestly, and courageously with the racial divides that split us still. No, the reason why this speech matters is that it challenges us all to live up to our more perfect selves.

Read the entire speech, available from The New York Times.

See the video:

Follow-up: Some Responses to Obama's Speech

Monday, March 17, 2008

Route 66 Itinerary

Here's a partial Itinerary of my forthcoming Route 66 trip. Any other recommendations? Post a comment!

  • River Grove - Hala-Kahiki (tiki bar)
  • Cicero - Henry's Drive-In
  • Joliet - Joliet Historical Museum
  • Wilmington - Gemini Giant
  • Odell - Standard Station
  • Lexington - Memory Lane
  • Towanda - Route 66 Alignment
  • Atlanta - Muffler Man Holding Hot Dog
  • Springfield - Shea's Gas Station
  • Springfield - Sunrise Donuts Sign (closed restaurant)
  • Springfield - Cozy Dog Drive In
  • Farmersville - Art's Motel & Restaurant
  • Litchfield - Ariston Cafe
  • Mt. Olive - Russell Soulsby Station
  • Staunton - Henry's Rabbit Ranch
  • Edwardsville - Town & Country Motel Sign
  • St. Lewis - Ted Drewes Frozen Custard
  • Cuba - Wagon Wheel Motel
  • Cuba - Missouri Hickory Bar B Q
  • Rolla (10 miles W.) John's Modern Cabins
  • Devil's Elbow
  • Lebanon - Munger Moss Motel
  • Lebanon - Bell Restaurant
  • Convey - (six miles West of town) - Abbylee Modern Court
  • Springfield - Rest Haven Court
  • Joplin - Poochies Rib Pit
  • Galena - Up In Smoke BBQ
  • Galena - Palace Drug Store Sign Painted on Building
  • Baxter Springs - Phillips 66 station (refurbished)
  • Miami - Waylan's Ku Ku Burger
  • Afton - Afton Station Project
  • Foyil - Main street drive
  • Catoosa - Blue Whale
  • Tulsa - Desert Hills Motel
  • Tulsa - Rancho Grande (neon sign)
  • Stroud - Rock Cafe
  • Chandler - Lincoln Motel
  • Arcadia - Round Barn Site
  • Arcadia - Pops
  • Britton - Owl Courts
  • Oklahoma City - 66 Bowl
  • Fort Reno to Hydro - one of the best Route 66 Drives
  • Weatherford - Lunch at Lucille’s Roadhouse
  • Clinton - Oklahoma Route 66 Museum
  • Elk City - National Route 66 Museum
  • Erick - Curiosity Shop
  • Shamrock - U-Drop Inn
  • McLean - Phillips 66 Service Station
  • Alanreed (slightly west of) - Exit 128 - Donley County Texas Route 66 Safety Rest Stop
  • Groom - 66 Courts (demolished)
  • Groom Texas Area - best Route 66 section in Texas
  • Amarillo - Big Texas Steak Ranch
  • Amarillo (west of) - Cadillac Ranch
  • Vega - Vega Motel and town overview
  • Glenrio - Juarez Cafe (Streamined Diner)
New Mexico
  • Tucumcari - Blue Swallow
  • Tucumcari - Motel Safari
  • Tucumcari - KIX on 66
  • Tucumcari - La Cita Restaurant
  • Moriarty - Neon UFO
  • Moriarty - Whiting Bros
  • Albuquerque - Kellys Brew Pub
  • Albuquerque - The Dog House
  • Albuquerque - Monterey Non Smokers Motel
  • Albuquerque - Route 66 Casino Hotel
  • Holbrook - Wigwam Motel
  • Joseph City - Jackrabbit Trading Post
  • Winslow - Standin' on the Corner Park
  • Flagstaff - Western Hills Motel
  • Seligman - Route 66 Town
  • Kingman - Historic Route 66 Museum
  • Cool Springs - rebuilt diner
  • Needles - Fender's Resort
  • Amboy - Roy's Gas Station
  • Barstow - Route 66 Mother Road Museum
  • Victorville - California Route 66 Museum
  • Victorville - New Corral Motel
  • Rialto - Wigwam Motel
  • Monrovia - Aztec Hotel
  • Pasadena - Arroyo Seco Parkway
  • Santa Monica - Pier

Sunday, March 16, 2008


New York Times: JPMorgan Acts to Buy Ailing Bear Stearns at Huge Discount. Here's a snip: "Bear Stearns, pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by what amounted to a run on the bank, agreed late Sunday to sell itself to JPMorgan Chase for a mere $2 a share, narrowly averting a collapse that threatened to cascade through the financial system."

New York Times: The B Word: Here's a snip: "According to late reports on Sunday, JPMorgan Chase will buy Bear for a pittance. That’s an O.K. resolution for this case — but not a model for the much bigger bailout to come. Looking ahead, we probably need something similar to the Resolution Trust Corporation, which took over bankrupt savings and loan institutions and sold off their assets to reimburse taxpayers. And we need it quickly: things are falling apart as you read this."


Pretty much my favorite Rhymes with Orange comic yet: Take-Your-Cat-To-Work-Day (From the March 2, 2008 strip).

Friday, March 14, 2008

El Vado Update - March 2008

At last: news that Albuquerque is finally taking over the historic El Vado motel, saving it from demolition: City Obtains Historic El Vado Motel. Here's a snip:
Now the city is getting a look at the landmark's deterioration and hopes to re-open the motel as a museum or workplace for artisans.

The courts will determine how much the property is worth and the city will pay that amount to the current owner.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fed to the Rescue?

If you're only occasionally following news of the global credit crunch, I recommend you read this piece by The Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. While the author's personal credibility has been called into question in previous years, his piece lays out a fairly clear overview of steps being taken around the world to forestall an entirely new level of economic crisis. It makes for depressing reading, but the piece makes it clear that we're facing serious days. Some snips:
The US Federal Reserve has taken the boldest action since the 1930s, accepting $200bn of housing debt as collateral to prevent an implosion of the mortgage finance industry and head off a full-blown economic crisis...

The Fed's dramatic step came after an emergency conference call by governors on Monday night. It followed the melt-down of the US chartered agencies -- Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other lenders -- which together guarantee 60pc of the entire US home loan market...

"The agency crisis was a Tsunami event," said Tim Bond, global strategist at Barclays Capital...

Bernard Connolly, global strategist at Banque AIG, said the Fed action may help calm the markets for now, but it cannot solve the root problem of eroded of bank capital.

"There is the risk of a very damaging credit contraction. We face the most serious global crisis since the Great Depression. But this time at least the North American central banks are doing their best to stop it spreading to the real economy," he said.
Read the entire article: Fed takes boldest action since the Depression to rescue US mortgage industry

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Lost Air

Noted Apple observer Steven Levy has written a wry account of one price to be paid for our increasingly smaller and thinner gadgets, the risk that we may lose devices that cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. I first caught this essay in Newsweek and am glad to find that it is also printed in The Washington Post: Vanished Into Thin Air. The piece is, appropriate to the topic, pretty thin: a mystery about the incredible, lost MacBook Air. Its penultimate sentence made me chuckle, though: "my review unit lays claim to being the first MacBook Air to be discarded by mistake." Yes, Levy thinks he may have tossed his $1,800 MacBook Air in the trash with the newspaper.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

NBC Sunday Mystery Movie

What luck!

For years I had a tune embedded in my memory, something vaguely western and yet kind of modern in a seventies-sort of way, something almost frightening. I knew some of the tune but had no context upon which to fix my recollection. A year or so ago I came across a website that promises to name any song that you can hum or sing into your microphone. Not any song, but more and more songs as people add to the database. I tried it but got no answer.

It's like an itch you can't scratch, remembering a song but not knowing what it is or why you remember it.

Then this past Sunday, Jenny and I watched The Simpsons, a fairly good episode (though not comparable to earlier seasons, so goes the typical lament) featuring two "mysteries," with neighborhood bully Nelson Muntz playing the unlikely role of Inspector Columbo. The episode ended and what did I hear instead of the show's usual outro-music?

The song!

Sure enough the show writers decided to pay homage to the old NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (1972-1977), a "wheel" show that cycled through detective titles like Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan (sans wife), and even the little remembered Hec Ramsey (produced by my favorite television flatfoot, Jack Webb). Based on a couple of cues from The Simpsons version I was able to find the original intro and its unforgettable music on YouTube within seconds.

Ah, that song.

It's cheesy, but in a good way. Listening to it, I get the sense that Henry Mancini didn't really get the mystery drama concept, that he preferred something more western, something that reminds me of a roadtrip through Monument Valley on Highway 163 - maybe with some flying saucers in the background, thanks to the synthesizer arcs. It's the most non-noir mystery-detective music you can imagine.

That's OK, the producers said, we'll bolster the idea with a creepy looking guy advancing toward the audience, cutting through the night with a flashlight. Brilliant! And just to ensure that no one could mistake this intro as being for anything other than a television show, they agreed on a grand flourish of horns at the song's beginning and end that is the signature sound of middlebrow culture, a symphony without subtitles suitable for a Saturday morning cartoon.

Reviewing some of the YouTube commentary about the video that some kind soul posted, I found a couple of common themes. For some folks, this song marked the end of the weekend, time to get into P.J.s while the adults watched their un-kid-friendly shows. For others, the video conjured up scary memories of that sometimes disembodied searchlight coming for yoo-ooo-ou! Me, I just dug the tune - so much that I've added "Mystery Movie Theme" to my night driving list. Even now, it sounds unearthly enough to contribute to my post-2 a.m. soundtrack.

Learn More: Check out the entry on The NBC Mystery Movie from the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Old Photos

I've begun using Facebook as a repository for some of my old photos - the earliest goes back to when I was two. This one (above) is from my Navy journalist days, sometime around 1988 or 1989. This is pretty much what I looked like when pitching a story to the station news director.

I'll add to this collection as time allows.

(Photographer Unknown)

Friday, March 7, 2008

Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes

Since I can't invite everyone who reads this blog to visit my office (though I'd love to) I just had to share a photo of the newest addition to my workspace, a framed print of the infamous "Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes" poster produced by Transport for London a year after the September 11th attacks. In this effort to sell the value of a surveillance society to an understandably frightened public, the designer managed to create an oddly (maybe even purposefully) Orwellian image, complete with all-seeing eyes composed both of flesh and technology.

As you'd imagine, a number of friends (and strangers on the bus when I was delivering the poster to my office) exclaimed, "Cool! 1984!" I then had the pleasure of announcing, "Nope, this is the real thing." I'd read somewhere that William Gibson labeled this poster "madly hip." I admit it: I had to have it immediately thereafter. I visited the TFL museum store online, but found no joy. Lots and lots of other posters, but none of this image. Undeterred, I emailed them a follow-up query and found, delightfully, that they do indeed have a few of these laying around. I had to ask Jenny to phone them with my credit card info (they wouldn't accept my digits online for some reason) and within days I received my own copy in a durable mailing tube. Now, thanks to TFL, my office is more secure!

Want this poster? Here's where I got my copy: London Transport Museum Shop

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Springtime 17

Written on the bus - heading home from work...

This afternoon I find myself on a one-hour one-way trip on the Highway 17 bus with no wireless internet connection, misplaced earphones - thus no iPod - and recognition that this very morning I declined to pack two recent issues of Newsweek, not wanting to overload my travel bag. No media stimulation for me this hour, nothing but an empty page and plenty of time to write. I'm on a supposedly "express" route, watching as folks step onto the bus and discover, shockingly, that this ride costs money, and that they ought to have some. "Does anyone have change for a twenty?" one elderly woman asks. "This stinker won't let me on the bus." One hour to go until I'm in my easy chair, petting our cat who still thinks she's a kitten, and negotiating with Jenny about where we'll go for dinner tonight.

We pass through the last major intersection before we pour into the interstate which guides us to the mountainous and curvy road that drains toward the Pacific. The warm afternoon is cooled by spring breezes. Green and blue flags wave nearby, announcing a car wash. We roll alongside a billboard for Disneyland, and I catch sight of yet one more little girl who thinks she should be a "princess." It's easy, so long as you're willing to ride the rides, watch the movies, purchase the clothes, and convince your parents to cash out some of their 401k to visit the castle now and again. I shake my head and the billboard is gone. We're on the road heading out of town. A passenger sitting next to me reminds our driver to pull out his pilot's license. "Huh?" he asks. "You know, because you drive so fast." He's a young guy with spiky hair and long sideburns, but he answers with calm nonchalance: "I don't drive fast, I fly low."

Heading toward the dark green hills, I see signs for Los Gatos, and I smile a tight-lipped smile that would appear sheepish to anyone looking. I remember when I first came to San Jose, interviewing for a job back in 1998. I had done some basic research on the area, learning about the nearby towns. I anticipated that someone might ask, "so, where might you want to live?" and I wanted to have an answer, to sound like I'd done my homework. And sure enough, someone asked. I replied in my best middle school Spanish accent. "I'd like to live in Los GOT-tos." My guides chuckled, both at the impossible high standard I sought - telling me something of the insane housing market in that area - and at my silly pronunciation. "Oh," one said, "You mean Lazgatas." Passing Lexington Reservoir, I recall maybe a half-dozen times I've visited that town since moving to California.

Ascending the hill, cars dart around us, panicked at the thought of being caught behind a bus around here. The hills tumble into the road with loose rocks, some caught by netting, others unprotected. A fierce winter storm shuts this highway down at least once or twice a year, but the rainy season seems to be over. Our climb slows to a crawl, and I read hand-written signs posted in the grass. We're heading for the summit, nine miles to Scotts Valley now. We pass a northbound bus and our driver waves to his colleague in the other lane. I like that tradition, bus drivers recognizing each other, even if they can't see each other for sure in the blur of rapid passing. At the summit I spot the nice restaurant that advertises the world's best ribs. Honestly, they're not that good, but they're much better than they have right to be. Jenny and I sometimes dine there, and we're almost always one of merely two or three parties in the entire place.

Now we descend and the driver works that accelerator. Weaving through tight curves, we pick up some decent speed, and I flop left and right in my seat. We pass cops scouting for speeders and tow trucks ready to remove wreckage from the road. Highway 17 is notorious for the number of accidents it attracts, mostly due to lunatic drivers who overestimate their skills. One decent crash and this road backs up for miles with rubberneckers sniffing for blood. There are no accidents on the road today, though, just the risk of deer darting among the cars.

At last we pass the billboard for Ocean Honda, the sign that home is nearby. The town of Scotts Valley (population slightly over 11,000) stretches beyond the trees, hidden. It's a tiny enclave in so many ways. We turn onto Mount Hermon road and I breathe in deeply. San Jose is a lifetime away, hard to remember exactly. My home is here in this small place with a couple of decent restaurants and a movie theater whose owner sometimes chats about upcoming releases with the audience. I pass a gas station advertising cheap(!) stuff for $3.53, but I don't mind. I'm not going anywhere else tonight. Or if I am, I'm not going far.

Follow-up: Reading an article about the efforts of some Scotts Valley residents to protest efforts by Target to place a store in city limits, I was intrigued by Brian Seals's description of my town, the "business-friendly high-tech enclave of Scotts Valley, where khaki-pants wearing programmers are as common as sandal-clad middle-aged hippies are in Santa Cruz." In that article, Seals quotes the Scotts Valley 6 Cinema co-owner's position on people seeking to place anti-Target ads on his screens: "We sell popcorn, Cokes and hope you have a good time," [Don] Rudger said. "We run movies. We're not involved in the political schemes of life."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Clash of the Titans

Now what? As Texas finishes the job of sweeping up the delegates from its bizarre "two-step" primary-caucus conundrum, Ohio has made it plain that Hillary Clinton will not go away. A race that was supposed to be wrapped up in early February is gearing up to be a knockdown drag-out clash of attack ads, legal disputes, and GOP gloating, maybe through to Denver. Yes, that was Rush Limbaugh chuckling in the background. I awoke today to news that the Clinton camp is floating trial balloons about she and Obama sharing the ticket in Fall. Call it a political Super Friends ticket, with Hillary in the red cape. But there's no doubt that Clinton will be serving red meat to her fans over the next few weeks, reminding the country that only she can answer that damned phone at 3 a.m.

So now the pundits begin their parsing: county-by-county, zip code by zip code, click-thru by click-thru: How did this happen and where do we go from here? We know that neither Obama nor Clinton can wrap this thing up numerically until the superdelegates weigh in. And we know that savvy reporters are pulling out their Michigan and Florida roadmaps. But no one can claim to know what's going to happen next.

Recalling my (all too brief) viewing of the aftermath last night (after returning from a class that ended at 8:45 and exiting my homebound bus at around 10 p.m.), I caught one pithy piece of analysis that, for me, managed to convey the utter strangeness of this race. I was watching MSNBC -- because the audio feed from CNN's "best political team on television" kept dropping out -- and Chris Matthews commented on the failures of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday to produce a clear winner. He said, "It's the only sport, the only competition . . . where you have the playoffs and then you have the regular season." Yep, we're playing in Bizarro World now. What a game...

Follow-up: Newsweek's Jonathan Alter offers Clinton supporters some bad news regarding math.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

War of the Worlds

I recently re-watched Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds and, once again, I was struck by the power (however imperfect) of this movie. Some folks liken the alien-wrought carnage to 9/11, but they're missing the point. In this film, Steven Spielberg decided to make an analogy to the Shoah - complete with human beings turned to ash and the brutal combination of random life and death. Turn left, you die; turn right, you live. There's no reason why. For this reason, Spielberg himself has called this movie a "survivor's story." Appropriately, the director chose not to concentrate on typical summer blockbuster swaths of destruction. You see no capital cities burning, no iconic buildings destroyed. Rather, with few exceptions, the film places its characters in claustrophobic settings of imminent doom.

Here, the film loses some of its resonance, particularly toward the third reel (and the introduction of Tim Robbins as a would-be resistance member who won't tolerate people who "collaborate" with the enemy). By this point, Spielberg replaces much of the film's poignant imagery with haunted house tricks, complete with creaky floors and eerie shadows. Even so, it's pretty scary stuff. In scene after scene, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning (both actors surprisingly able to resemble real human beings) snatch themselves out of the maws of death until -- well, the ride has to end sometime.

Folks who've read H.G. Wells' book know that the ending is non-heroic, yet the only one that could be true. How else could humankind endure such an onslaught? Some reviewers have compared this film to Spielberg's other alien flicks, saying that War of the Worlds is the anti-E.T., the anti-Close Encounters. Again, they're missing the point. This film is anti-Independence Day, that lumbering celebration of earthling-jingoism. Rather than kicking some alien butt, the humans in War of the Worlds hold on, but just barely. Some survive with dignity; others survive with luck. Like audience members leaving their seats in a daze, they blink their eyes in the light and wonder how they survived at all.

Monday, March 3, 2008


Cinebar is a classic San José dive bar, and for some reason I want to learn more about this place. I suppose it's because I see its doors open at 6 a.m. when I take an early bus over the hill, and I know that the bar has already packed in some patrons at that ungodly hour. A bartender at another place once told me that Cinebar attracts three "shifts" of clientele: clubbers at night, college students by day, and professional drinkers in the morning.

On the few times I've visited, the vibe has always seemed mellow and relaxed. The decor offers no particular thrills, though the stormtrooper painted bathroom door is unmistakable and the prices are reasonable. Cinebar attracts my attention mostly because of its cool outside mural of a vaguely middle eastern or north African city lit by a crescent moon. With its palm trees and semi Art Nouveau font, the mural resembles a sort of nineteenth-century fantasy of a desert watering hole.

So, I'd like to learn more about Cinebar. Searching the San Jose Mercury News I found only 14 articles even mentioning the bar since 1991. Perhaps the most interesting reference was a June 7, 1996, piece by Brad Kava and Claudia Perry who recalled how, five years earlier, visitors were advised to wear biker jackets if they dared to enter the famed dive. Things have changed a lot since then. But I don't know much more than that.

Do you have memories or recollections about Cinebar? Please post a comment.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Shooting Neon

Planning my spring break Route 66 trip, I'm pouring through guides and memories so that I can select the right stops for research and pleasure. Along the way, I came across a swell article on shooting neon signs at night, a difficult feat for casual shutterbugs.

I invite you to check out Ask the Hippie's response to the query, "How do I take sharp, clear photographs of neon signs at night?" I'm sure that my own photos could benefit from this advice. I'll see what I can do when I'm next on the road.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)