Friday, December 18, 2009

2009 Wood Family Newsletter

Greetings! I've uploaded the 2009 Wood Family Newsletter. If you'd like to take a look, click the link below:

By the way, this is my last blog-post until early January. I'll be enjoying some time away from daily writing to travel and relax with the family. I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season.

See you in 2010!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter 2009 Reading List

Recently, a member of our campus community invited me to share some recommendations on good books to read over the winter break. A simple enough opportunity, right? A chance to share a bit of my mental index, highlight my knowledge of hip trends, and enhance a genuinely pleasant SJSU collaboration along the way. Even so, I dreaded the assignment from the start.

Waking after a fitful night's sleep at around four this morning, I followed the illumination of my iPhone's flashlight app down the stairs and made may way into my personal library. I hoped to find some stimulating books to add to a decent reading list, knowing somehow that I would be disappointed.

Flipping through volumes, many of them still glossy with barely touched covers, I drifted to the late nineties, back when Jenny, Vienna, and I were living in Athens, Ohio.

Ahh, I marveled, that was a time for reading, and for learning how the experts do it.

The professor who taught my first grad course, David Descutner, transformed much of his house into a rambling library, filling seemingly every corner and hallway with shelf after shelf of smart, challenging books. That guy showed me how a real intellectual stocks a house. I'm not sure he had a television, but that fellow could boast mini Alexandria of books.

I took a directed readings course with Professor Descutner once; for the life of me, I can't remember the topic. But I do remember how we'd chat for an hour or so about my research and the questions he thought I should explore, and then he'd invariably suggest four or five more books to read, often lent from his own collection. I offer this memory to contextualize my guilt that I haven't been reading as well as I should these past few years.

Writing City Ubiquitous -- a process that began in earnest back in 2002 but took root in grad-essays five years earlier -- immersed me into a hyper-focused but dreadfully small world of written words. Building and revising chapter after chapter, I plumbed through histories of the department store, encounters with the Parisian arcade, analyses of world's fairs, surveys of the interstate highway, and even biographies of French film director Jacques Tati. Sometimes I devoured books, other times I reviewed chapters, sometimes I scrolled through smudged microfiche articles.

Over the years of writing my own little book, stuffing file folders with highlighted photocopies and developing an appreciation for bibliographic software, I also built a shadow library of pleasures rendered guilty -- not for being enjoyed but for being ignored. I promised myself I would learn about the technologies of "hacking matter" by reading Wil McCarthy, that I'd internalize that introduction to Seurat's Sunday on La Grande Jatte found in a book I picked up at the Chicago Art Institute, that I'd finally endure Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons, no matter how much his new effort to stay hip had been critically savaged.

I admit it: The last serious fiction I read was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and I'm fairly certain I was already two years too late for that meeting of minds to be remotely contemporary. When writing City Ubiquitous, my fictional detours veered toward classics that I'd either savored before, titles like The Great Gatsby or Rendezvous with Rama, or stuff I could justify as useful to my own research, like Émile Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames (which, as I recall, ended up producing a swell endnote).

So now I'm asked what I'd recommend, and I have precious little of contemporary value to offer. I refuse to cheat by grabbing the last few issues of the New York Review of Books and thumbing through the pages in search of credibility. That would be worse than downloading an essay from one of those hideous paper-mills (you know -- the ones that promise their papers aren't plagiarized). No, I'll simply come clean and admit that my proposed reading list is fairly ancient. It's good stuff, honestly, but it's none too flashy.

That apologia aside, I propose the following three (four, really) titles:

Two monographs by Susan Sontag, On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag's works always convey the mind of an essayist rather than a mere writer (oh, and yes: I generally refer to authors in the present tense after they have died because, after all, their books still live). Reading these monographs, I remember my former office mate Phil Wander's discussions of "the essay" as a literary form rarely seen among the ponderous piles of academic prose that fill our journals and volumes. Sontag's essay examine visual culture in ways that unify high theory, globe-trotting history, insightful anecdote, and arch criticism. Each sparkles with wit and passion and humor, like one of those brilliant dinner guests you meet from time to time, someone whose library is so much bigger than yours. You may feel guilty by the imbalance of the meeting (certainly I do), but you'll feel ennobled too.

John R. Stilgoe's Outside Lies Magic is a nearly perfect collection of essays that build to a coherent argument for the need to sharpen our acuity about the human-made world around us. I return to his book often to borrow illustrations about how the built environment consists of layer after layer of patina that can be scraped away through physical or mental means, revealing more than mere history as an intellectual exercise but rather the means to encounter bygone modes of life that shimmer like William Gibson's semiotic ghosts (it's pretty much a rule in Woodland Shoppers Paradise that I cite William Gibson once every couple months). Outside Lies Magic encourages readers to become explorers of the "why" of everyday life. One example: Stilgoe says that if you peer into the cabinet under the kitchen sink of an early-twentieth century house, you stand a good chance of finding apple green wallpaper -- the same color found in that era's police stations and asylums. Read the book and find out why.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine is easily one of the most frustrating and mind-tickling books in my library. I re-read it at least every three years, ever confident that this time I will somehow follow the convolutions of its plot. An essential stop in any tour of the "steampunk" genre that's enjoying a mild resurgence these days, The Difference Engine may be better termed an epic failure whose plot seems to hurtle even beyond the capable minds of its authors. Regardless of whether the book loses its narrative among the byzantine labyrinth of iterations and allusions, I never tire of the journey.

Gibson and Sterling start with a simple enough question: How would the world have been changed if Charles Babbage had perfected his mechanical computers? In this alternate 1855, historical and literary characters jumble together amid a collision of steam-era technology and Victorian pop culture references. The conclusion cascades forth a terrifying parallel future of the world that ensues from those churning difference engines: a necropolis wherein "Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye. And when a given face has served its purpose, it crumbles, frail as ash, bursting into a dry foam of data..." Cleverly satirizing our contemporary surveillance society -- naturally being set in London -- The Difference Engine is endlessly challenging in the best way.

What would I add? I'll return to that question in a future post.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Aught? Why Naught?

A local reporter called yesterday, asking if we could set up an interview for a story he wants to pursue. His topic? As our decade is drawing to a close, what should we name the last ten years?

We were unable to find a mutually workable time in our schedules, but we had a pleasant phone chat on the topic anyway. Here's the gist...

It seems that most media-types refer to the years between 2000 and 2009 as "the aughts." There's precedent for that choice going back to the turn of the last century. However "the aughts" has not caught on this time around -- most likely because of its archaic sound (fit for horse and buggy-times perhaps, but not for these days).

However, the reporter's research suggested another explanation for why we generally don't refer to the last decade as "the aughts:" Perhaps the passing decade doesn't seem "finished" enough to name.

Think about it.

The pivotal event of the last ten years - 9/11 - punctured us in ways we still don't fully understand. We're still engaged in the wars we launched after the September 11th attacks, and we're not wrapping those wars up anytime soon. Indeed, it seems as if we're digging ourselves deeper and deeper into those quagmires.

Then there's the other big news of the decade: The collapse of banks, housing prices -- heck, entire countries (Wanna buy Iceland? I hear it's on sale at eBay). These problems erupted in the past ten years, but they are hardly resolved enough to call forth a name. Just as with the wars that confound us, we're still stuck in the economic mess that marks our times.

We'd love to name this miserable era if only to render it safely past-tense. But the last ten years remain frustratingly present.

In contrast, we can easily spot the end of previous decades...

The fifties? Kennedy's election

The sixties? Altamont

The seventies? Some would say Reagan's election, but my vote goes to Disco Demolition Night in Chicago's Cominskey Park.

The eighties? The fall of the Wall

The nineties? Hmm. Can you guess?

Anyway, while the reporter and I couldn't schedule a formal interview, we enjoyed the opportunity to chat about how history and language sometimes converge to shape meaning -- and sometimes team up to destabilize meaning-through-naming altogether.

December 31, 2009 will mark a turning point in a chronological way, no doubt. Naming that turn? Maybe we're just not ready yet.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Notes on "Can the Polis Live Again?"

Contemplating the so-called "Tiny Town" project -- not literally "small" towns but installations designed to generate paradoxical perspectives of public life in miniature -- I find myself imagining my next book, my next new course, and certainly the next stage of my thinking as unambiguously "post-omnitopian."

For a time, I felt that I'd prefaced my work on City Ubiquitous with a healthy establishment of my fear, if not contempt, for contemporary environments and their impacts on self and society. Yet some of my interactions at a recent conference convinced me that I risk appearing as a champion of omnitopia, not its critic.

I note with some irony that this risk follows almost any articulation of the term in public. My enthusiasm for the chance to share my work in a live forum can all too easily be confused as enthusiasm for the ideas I'm trying to convey. So I appreciate the opportunity these days to slow down and disengage from talking so much. And certainly I have plenty of reading to cover in the next few months, which will demand silence and thought.

Starting slowly, I finally took the opportunity to read Michael Knox Beran's City Journal piece, Can the polis live again? His essay raises fairly typical assertions -- one representative quote: "Rock concerts and iPods we have in abundance, but our public spaces are unmusical." -- but he also does a fine job of presenting his articulation of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition before critiquing her apparent reliance on politics as the site of meaningful public life.

Beran recall's Arendt notion of the banality of evil -- I instantly flash to Steven Spielberg's depictions of the meticulous production of bureaucracy in Schindler's List: all those tables to set up, all those forms to fill out -- before conveying Arendt's statement that fascism is merely the absurd extent of all large states that transform discipline into virtue, even into fashion. Beran summarizes:
"Public space, small and polis-like, is for [Arendt] the school of civil courage and distinctive individuality. Yet no polis can withstand the might of the nation-state. Build a nation-state to save yourself, however, and you sacrifice the humanity and civic vigor of the agora, the forum, and the town square. The nation-state, because of its size, requires a people to undertake the very kinds of social administration that degrade the civic artistry that makes them strong and self-reliant."
Beran then turns to Arendt's affirmation of political discourse -- one imagines Pericles extolling the virtues of Athenian democracy under a piercing blue sky -- as the site where we transcend both the state of nature and the totalizing state. To Beran, Arendt's choice to valorize the political figure as one who transforms potential into words and then into action is overly romantic and historically incorrect. The political animal, from Pericles to Blagojevich, is inevitably a play on a singular theme, self-aggrandizement masked by pomp and platitudes:
"[Arendt] was looking in the wrong place. It was almost certainly the art, not the politics, of the old spaces that made them prime begetters of civic culture and individual distinction... Arendt attributed the decay of public space to the degeneration of politics, but her case would have been stronger had she fingered instead the decline of public poetry."
Beran concludes with a brief flourish of examples that illustrate the potential for public life to be found within the nation-state, concentrating on Jefferson's University of Virginia -- "one of America's most beguiling public spaces" -- and the various experiments in New Urbanism that have sprouted since the 1990s.

As longtime readers may recall, I described my own encounter with New Urbanism in my dissertation of Disney's Celebration, and I was not sold on the vision. To me, Celebration offered yet another means toward enclave, despite the appearance of its Town Hall whose farcical proliferation of columns sought to evoke a dozen Athenian City States.

Even now, I remain unsure of where to find meaningful public life. But over the next couple years I hope to think further on this question. Maybe I might even propose a few answers whose implications find root in this blog.

Some books worth reading or re-reading

• Democracy in America - Alexis de Tocqueville

• The Human Condition - Hannah Arendt

• The City in History - Lewis Mumford

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

December 2, 2010 Update: Florida new urbanist town built (and once run) by Disney confronts its first murder. NPR considers implications: Town That Disney Built Has 1st Killing Since Start

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Limits of Long Letters

One of my most demanding and thought-provoking grad school professors, Judith Yaross Lee, occasionally mentioned a letter so lengthy that the writer added a note of apology, explaining that he didn't have time to cut the extraneous material.

My memory of how she actually conveyed the anecdote has drifted over the years, yet I've retold her story many times since.

Eventually, after years of transmogrification, the guy had written an 80 page letter and literally clipped a note on top, saying, "Sorry, didn't have time to shorten it." I'd long forgotten his name, but I still told the story to illustrate how good writing is frequently measured by what is omitted more than what is present.

Professor Lee would have been displeased.

After all, this is the professor who once responded to my half-assed attempt at impromptu classroom analysis by replying that I could only raise my hand again if I could support my claims with three facts.

So in honor of Professor Lee, I finally took the time to get the facts right about this anecdote. I could yet be wrong, but I believe the story refers to Blaise Pascal's Provincial Letters, Containing an Exposure of the Reasoning and Morals of the Jesuits, which includes the following passage:
"[M]y letters have not usually followed each other so long; the little time I have had is the reason of both. I should not have extended this so much, but that I cannot command leisure to shorten it."
Pascal's words are a bit wordier than my preferred pithy quote, but I guess that's the idea.

Want to learn more about the famed French mathematician and philosopher? Might as well start at Wikipedia:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Fails of the Year

Friday: It's a good day. Really!... But it doesn't have to be...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What I Want

One of my favorite scenes in The Godfather is when Michael Corleone faces a tense sit-down with Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo and the corrupt Police Captain Mark McCluskey. Meeting to discuss a recent assassination attempt on his father, Michael tries to speak with Sollozzo in their native tongue. But the young man's grasp of Sicilian is weak - at least when it comes to dealing with the men responsible for nearly whacking The Godfather.

At first, he struggles to make his point in Sicilian: "Ma voggiu ca - Come si dice...?" And then he abandons the effort, switching to English. Practically spitting out his words through his recently broken jaw, Michael announces: "What I want... what's most important to me..." He follows up the phrase in the most Machiavellian manner. He excuses himself from the table, retrieves a gun and returns, killing them both.

I don't advocate Michael's choices, but I do respect the forcefulness and clarity of his statement, What I want.

I'm working slowly on a series of blog posts dedicated to observations on how you can "get what you want" where you work. I'm still thinking through a number of issues, but I'm certain that the process begins with knowing what you want and being able to articulate that goal without ambiguity. You don't need to employ such ruthlessness as Michael Corleone - and again, I do not recommend stashing a pistol in the restroom before attending a meeting - but you are wise to know and clearly state what you require from your relationships.

Keep watching this blog for updates...

(Image borrowed from USA Today)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Where does Route 66 End? Redux

A recent post, Where does Route 66 end? Does it matter?, garnered no comments but still managed to inspire two folks working closely with the Route 66 community to backchannel me in other ways, one via Facebook and one via personal email. Both expressed concern about the overly negative implications raised by my remarks on the erection of an "End of the Road" sign at Santa Monica Pier, some distance from the "official" Route 66 terminus. Their messages reminded me that this marker makes a significant contribution to the experiences of travelers seeking a symbolic conclusion to their cross-country journeys.

I've responded to their messages individually, but I'm not entirely sure my efforts to contextualize my observations have been terribly useful. So I thought I'd slightly edit one of those responses and offer it here to receive further feedback.

Like many travelers of the Mother Road, I've found myself underwhelmed by the lack of formal "stopping point" at the end of the journey, other than an historically-correct site on a map. So like everyone else, I've made my way to the pier and taken all the standard pictures without knowing for sure that "this is the place." I therefore agree that a sign announcing "End of the Road" is a grand idea for orienting travelers to some shared experience of arrival.

My response to this idea, therefore, really isn't a critique but rather a suggestion that as we make use of such amenities we also consider the implications of our increasingly common efforts to "improve" places and experiences beyond physical and/or historical reality. In other words, we should explore whether we risk losing some sense of "authenticity" when we reshape places, people, and things to accommodate tourist desire.

At the same time, I am rightly reminded that Route 66 has always reshaped itself for practical purposes. It is not an abstractly "pure" thing, but is rather a vibrant, changing environment of human beings making do with changing times. Choosing "this" terminus over "that" terminus is ultimately self-defeating when talking about Route 66 because its history is filled with so many narratives. Choosing any particular one offers partial truth at best.

My writing, which includes an essay on this topic due to appear in Critical Studies in Media Communication, merely tries to explore the poles of authenticity and performance on Route 66, relating practices that evoke "the real" to performances that suggest "the ideal." I am drawn to environments like Route 66 for deeply personal reasons, of course. And my experiences on the Mother Road are always shaped by practicality first and theory distantly behind. Read my Waffle House essay and you'll get some sense of what I mean. Still, I also cannot help but wonder, as academics often do, about the complex meanings that compete under the surface of the ubiquitous highway shield.

Conveying a mixture of authenticity and performance, Route 66 resides somewhere in the middle of these poles, always tantalizingly in between.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


It's a crazy-busy time of year, so much so that I'm holding off on a number of blog-projects that need editing (and pruning). But I wanted to quickly share this resource that has proven to be useful during my recent inquiries into modern art. It's a multimedia web project called Smarthistory.

With this growing collection of web-narratives, folks can access bits and pieces of art history in any order they choose, and they can integrate these nuggets into their teaching and learning - for free. In a broader sense, Smarthistory illustrates how web-based learning tools can augment and ultimately replace traditional textbooks.

I've checked out a couple of Smarthistory videos and found them to be pretty useful, though not without some drawbacks. Some of the commentary can be frustrating in the same way that a talk show-guest might seem out of depth with the broader conversation. Every once in a while I wished one contributor would hush and let the other person, clearly the expert in this case, talk more. Even so, the content offers insight on artists, periods, and works that otherwise may be locked within a proprietary or pricey delivery mode.

Thus, for example, while studying the lines of Barnett Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis, I gained an intriguing perspective on the artist's personal background that helps me interpret his so-called "zips," allowing me to appreciate a piece that might otherwise be dismissed as yet another bland example of color field painting. I'm not sure I'm convinced by the commentary I heard, but my understanding is improved by it. And that's worth some time to take a closer look.

If you're hoping to increase your knowledge of art history, start with Smarthistory.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Walking Man

Here's one last memory of my November trip to Chicago to attend the annual meeting of the National Communication Association. While touring the Art Institute, I took an opportunity to meet Albert Giacometti's Walking Man II (1960). I'm told that postwar existentialists celebrated Giacometti's skill at articulating some semblance of the modern self: a crushed and beaten figure who somehow manages to move forward.

Taking these (admittedly low quality) mobile phone pix, I was intrigued by the museum curators' placement of Walking Man, given its commanding view of a Chicago skyscraper. One could interpret this scene in at least two ways: as affirmation of our abilities to build massive monuments to human ingenuity, or as proof that we are increasingly the tools of our tools, even that we're starting to resemble them. What do you think?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why so blue?

Lately I was asked to study some works by French conceptual artist Yves Klein. Once I realized that I was not searching for "Eve Klein," I discovered a fellow who represents a turn toward the realm of contemporary art that I have yet to fathom. Undeniably, Klein brought an intriguingly thoughtful perspective to his works, sometimes labeled (the good folks at Wikipedia inform me) as neo-dada and sometimes as early post-modern. Among his achievements include the popularization of a particular hue called International Klein Blue, along with works that reveal experiences of "the void," playful photomontages, and performance installation pieces that often mocked artistic conventions, most notably the idea that a gallery visitor enters the scene to, you know, see something.

Checking out his Blue Monochrome (1961, Dry pigment in synthetic polymer medium on cotton over plywood) at New York City's Museum of Modern Art's website, I'm told that Klein's IKB sought to evoke "the immateriality and boundlessness of his own particular utopian vision of the world." OK. But frustratingly, I have no idea how one could affirm or refute such a statement. As we shift beyond representation into the allegedly pure "experience" of contemporary art, we seem to enter the world presaged by Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q., in which the artist's vision -- the choice to say, "this is art" -- is freed from the risk of evaluation.

Art patrons choose to value this hue of blue as gloriously revolutionary and that hue of blue as hopelessly pedestrian, and critics become akin to fashionistas celebrating a hemline one year only to rebuke the same style as "so last season" the next. I fear that non-initiates such as myself are compelled to either adopt the trendiest narrative ("Oh, don't you see Klein's utopian vision? Isn't it obvious? It's right there!") or else be resigned always to stand outside the gallery with its assortment of free crab cakes and sparkling wine, now that contemporary art seems to appeal mostly to those within its shrinking domain.

Once more, mine is the response of one who is genuinely ignorant of the meaning of something like Blue Monochrome or IKB 191 (above). Even after reading a fair amount of commentary on Klein's work, I feel adrift among all those competing narratives. Always I return to William Gibson's notion of "consensual hallucination" when I think about the time and effort that contemporary artists must spend crafting their "artist's statements," the ones that explain why we are staring at canvas after canvas of blue (or contemplating a dead shark in formaldehyde, or whatever). Something seems to be lost in this turn.

Still, while the world of visual arts may have abandoned the potential to create scenes that convey anything that two people can agree that they see simultaneously (I'm flashing on a Simpsons line, "Oh, it's a donkey!"), all the work that goes into writing about these productions -- by the artists, the critics, the buyers, the sellers, the curators, and of course, always the academics -- has at least inspired a golden age in the written word. Oh, and blog posts.

(IKB 191 image borrowed from Wikipedia commons)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Up in the Air

I've been meaning to post this trailer for a while. Up in the Air has the potential to demonstrate the omnitopian mindset -- the places, the connections, the placelessness and the missed connections -- far more effectively than Steven Spielberg's The Terminal, which suffered from an overdose of schmaltz (though serving usefully in chapter three of my book, City Ubiquitous).

I can't wait to see the flick for myself (wide release, Christmas day). It might provide one of those essential non-scholarly texts to help build a class about omnitopian design, theory, and performance. It might also offer a vivid demonstration of the price to be paid for omnitopian living.

Check out the trailer:

Monday, November 30, 2009

Where does Route 66 End? Does it matter?

I'm finishing an essay due to be published in Critical Studies in Media Communication, a piece called "Two roads diverge: Route 66, 'Route 66,' and the mediation of American ruin." The essay explores the highway as both a material environment, that is, a place with buildings and people and landscapes, and as a constellation of media texts: buttons and videos and souvenirs and the like. The article is the scholarly side of a trip I took, from which I also produced an end-to-end website. "Two roads diverge" has been accepted, and I'm now wrapping up final edits.

Working to that conclusion, I recently came across a New York Times article that featured an "end of the road" sign being placed at Santa Monica Pier as part of an 83rd anniversary celebration for the Mother Road. While U.S. Highway 66 never officially terminated at that location -- before the road was decommissioned in 1985, the most recent endpoint was the intersection of Olympic and Lincoln Boulevards -- some boosters decided to mark the pier as the terminus anyway. It's more photo-friendly, they explained.

My essay is about the way we lay new media texts atop the old roadside, sometimes even building new tourist experiences away from the highway to attract tourist dollars. In this way, simulacra replace simulation, which replaces locale. From this perspective, the essay extends from my long-term omnitopia project (while also pointing a direction toward new scholarly projects). Thus you can imagine my delight when I read a quote by Route 66 Preservation Foundation chair James M. Conkle who explained the choice to create a new terminus for the old road: "It's a myth . . . but it is a myth added to all the other myths of Route 66."

Considering the long journey I took just getting to this point in the essay, it's nice to get some confirmation that I've been heading in the right direction.

Read the entire NYT story: Mythical end for legendary Route 66

Update (with photo of new sign): Where does Route 66 End? Redex

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Return of the Dingbat

Sometime this December I plan on returning to L.A. in search of dingbat architecture that I've not yet photographed [Here's a collection of my earlier dingbat posts, if you'd like some background on the architectural term].

Any ideas on sites to visit?

(Image by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Squirrel of the Year

Four pictures: Once perfectly quizzical expression.

Clicky - Clicky: Squirrel of the Year

(Warning: Some juvenile language)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Holy City Light Painting

Jenny and I made our return-trip to Holy City for a Friday light painting excursion. I'm glad we double-checked our permission to photograph this building. Not one minute into our shoot, a sheriff's deputy drove by to check us out. He accepted our explanation, but I was reminded of Troy Paiva's advice that light painters are wise to bring along samples of their work as proof of their artistic intentions. Without a decent excuse (and a rapid departure plan) traipsing around someone's property with flashlights in the middle of a foggy night can be risky.

The shoot was terrific. Jenny and I painted the building with our car to get a decent focus before killing the light. In the misty blackness that followed, Jenny used a white flash on the outside while I stood inside, outside of camera view, painting the rear interior with red. Getting that red-window effect was my goal. Once more I appreciated the challenge of lighting empty space. In this case, we didn't light the window; we lit the wall behind - using the window as a structural lid. The result is pretty swell.

What's the next goal? I'm not sure. We've got the necessary equipment (other than a decent flash) and we're fairly confident in our technique. It's just a matter of finding the right subject for another evening of stumbling around in the dark.

(Photograph by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Empty LA

What would it be like to see Los Angeles utterly devoid of people? Photographer Matt Logue wanted to find out. Here's his vision: Empty LA.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Return to Paris Streets

During last week's trip to the Chicago Art Institute, I delighted at the opportunity to revisit Gustave Caillebotte's 1876-77 Paris Street; Rainy Day, a critique of urban life I discussed in a recent post. My favorite part of seeing the piece up close once more? The chance to spot intriguing details in this precisely composed view of Paris that had just endured the extremes of Georges-Eugène Haussmann's city-reshaping ambitions.

I'd always recalled this image as feeling complete. The structure conveys totality, a surveillance over a managed environment, illustrated by the all-seeing eye atop that dominant building. Yet detail-photos reveal that work continues (left and center) in urban transformation, suggesting untidiness, a sense of Paris working frantically to stay ahead of a momentum its planners failed to anticipate. Also, my return to Chicago reminded me how the Paris street is indeed rainy (see right-side detail).

Strange, I know, but I'd never really noticed the drizzle. Ahh, the joys of museum attendance.

(low-res mobile phone photos by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I have no idea how this information slipped through my filters, but apparently some times when you're asked to transcribe those awful squiggly words before you can access a website, make a purchase, or attend to some other form of internet business, you're working to transcribe a piece of pre-digital text. This is a brilliant example of how the power of crowds can be employed for useful purposes.

Extra bonus: Learn what CAPTCHA stands for!

Read the entire article: reCAPTCHA (a.k.a. Those Infernal Squiggly Words) Almost Done Digitizing the New York Times Archive

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Chicago Tiny Town

While attending the 2009 National Communication Association conference, I came across a miniature city at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Snapping (admittedly crappy mobile phone) pictures of this scale model City of Big Shoulders whetted my appetite to pursue the "tiny towns" project that is my typical answer to the question, "So, what will you write after the omnitopia book?"

The new project is about the structural and perceptual construction of the god's eye view, focusing particularly on why we are drawn to this kind of gaze. Chapters will concentrate on 19th century bird's eye lithographs, touristic "tiny towns," model railroads, chamber of commerce-type model cities, and (perhaps) an analysis of Google Earth's spatial/communal rhetoric.

"Tiny towns" may become a series of articles, a book, a web project, or some other manifestation of the idea. I'm at such an inchoate place in my thinking on the subject that there's no point in making promises. But now that my public presentations on City Ubiquitous appear to be slowing down (though a couple more have recently been scheduled) it seems right to look forward to the next adventure.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trillions and the Age of Ubiquitous Computing

Click the image for an interesting note on trillions and the next revolution in computing...

Some interesting quotes:
"Trillions of computers: This is not computing as a place, or computing as a big calculator. It's going to be computing as an ecology. It's all around us. Not information in the computers, but people in the information."

"Many leaders see the mountain ahead. After all, it is huge. But many of them have confused a good view with a short distance."

"Even though we haven't solved the problem of trillions, nature has."
Difficulty accessing the video? Here's a link:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Holy City, CA

Searching for an interesting site for a future light painting experiment, I came across what's left of Holy City near Highway 17, once the headquarters for William E. Riker and his goofy religious commune. Riker, a Depression-era cultist, on-the-run bigamist, repeated candidate for governor, and avid Hitler supporter, promised his followers a "Perfect Christian Divine Way" in a quasi-utopian experiment that began in 1918.

In her Saga of Holy City, Andrea Perkins describes how Riker's town, once home to 300 souls, became a minor tourist trap, selling gas, water, and (some say) lurid peep shows. Back then, motorists taking the only road connecting San Jose and Santa Cruz stopped to gawk at murals and banners announcing the new kingdom. One sign announced: "William E. Riker - The only man who can save California from going plum to hell."

Declining interest in Riker's vision, failed real estate transactions, and unexplained fires emptied Holy City in the fifties and sixties. Today only a house and post office, now a glass art store, remain. And then there's this shed, a weathered structure supported with the help of diagonal beams. The owners (folks unaffiliated with the former commune) gave their permission, so Jenny and I will return one night for some light painting.

Learn more: Betty Bagby Lewis's Holy City - Riker's Roadside Attraction In the Santa Cruz Mountains is said to be the definitive history of this town. I've already ordered my copy...

Also see: San Joaquin Valley Library vertical file

And: John V. Young's Rise and Fall of Holy City

See more: Here's the light painting experiment from our return to Holy City

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Milk Men

Do you love Mad Men? I mean, do you contemplate this Sunday's season finale with a mixture of excitement and dread that's a bit scary, considering that we're talking about a television show? Then you've got to see this video. It's almost perfect...

Milk Men - A Mad Men Parody

Trouble seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Thursday, November 5, 2009


This is the third in an occasional series of posts about modern art. These days, I'm focusing on early twentieth century imagery related to urban life. My ideas are hardly formed; these are just musings, really. All the same, I'm happy to share them with you.

Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. (1919, Pencil on Reproduction of Mona Lisa) is an example of the artist's "assisted readymades": a work that alters found-materials instead of producing something that may be called "original." Duchamp's choice to purchase a postcard of the Mona Lisa and alter it by placing a mustache over the subject's iconic face -- not to mention his decision to scribble seemingly meaningless letters on the bottom of the card -- is an exemplar of dada, an absurdist response to art in the modern era. Like most dada pieces, L.H.O.O.Q. initially appears to reflect the artist's perspective on the world of art itself, working on a meta-level. "What is art?" This piece seems to ask. "Art is appropriation," Duchamp seems to answer. All artists are thieves, from this perspective. And yet great artists are rewarded for their theft while middling artists are mocked as pretenders. Duchamp playfully tweaks that convention by pushing the practice to excess.

Still, I would add that Duchamp goes further in this work, toward a rebuke of modernity itself. In an era of standardization and mechanization, epitomized by the mass-manufactured killings of World War I, L.H.O.O.Q.'s mustachioed image of adulterated femininity conveys a degree of disgust beneath its playful façade. In this way, the piece demands that we ask: What is the value of "originality" when a generation of young people, millions of potential artists and poets, may be slaughtered anonymously on European battlefields? Perhaps, Duchamp might conclude, we are all vandals of the good and the beautiful in this modern age, a gaping maw of destruction produced by our collective (even if unthinking) choices. This perspective might partially explain the rude implications of work's title, said (by some) to suggest sexual licentiousness or lust. After all, what higher values remain to be found in a time when all values seem to be blown away?

Incidentally, I downloaded the image [top of page] from Wikipedia commons. At this time, various wiki "editors" are squabbling about whether L.H.O.O.Q. should be considered a "public domain" work. Proponents of its inclusion cite U.S. copyright law, which apparently defines the piece as freely available. Critics respond that Duchamp's jab at the pretensions of "originality" is nonetheless protected by French copyright law and should not be freely accessible. If this is true, it's an irony that the artist himself would have relished.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Horrifying Truth about The Sims

The FooPets site is so slow and buggy these days that I'm seriously thinking about taking my "cat" to a nice "farm upstate..." [Here's some background]. But, seriously, have you ever thought about what it'd be like to be a sim? Here's one horrifying portrait:

Point your browser here:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Elizabeth Landau posted an article on CNN that asks a thought-provoking question:
"If we rely on technology for documenting, sorting and storing information -- creating digital diaries, or "lifestreaming" -- what will become of our minds? Although there is not a lot of research on this subject, psychologists have a range of opinions about where we're headed."
Some folks propose that releasing our mental processors from mundane tasks like remembering phone numbers, addresses, and other similar low-value data frees us to concentrate on more useful things.

Others respond that as we use digital tools to continually document our own lives, gathering massive quantities of data -- images, calendar items, Facebook posts, blogs -- like an ever-expanding closet for accumulated souvenirs, we risk losing our skills at remembering our lives as they are experienced.

This reminds me of John Stilgoe's insight in Outside Lies Magic about how nineteenth century aesthetes developed richer and more vibrant ways of seeing color because they focused their attention to subtle distinctions in hue and saturation more than we do today. This was not just about looking; it was a demand for training, effort, and focus. According to Stilgoe, few of us practice that precision in cultivating our sensibilities. Instead, we gather and maybe sort, but do not engage our lives so directly. Perhaps our world is more bland than it once was because of an emergent inability to process what we see.

Paralleling this concern, one researcher quoted in the article states, "Constant documenting may make people less thoughtful about and engaged in what they're doing because they are focused on the recording process."

Landau's piece also proposes that our choices to live our lives in a constant state of expectation that our actions should be blog-able or Tweet-able may alter what we value. Shall we strive for long-term or short-term experience? Put another way: What is worth remembering if we can remember everything (or if others can remember it for us wholesale)?

Read the entire article:

Also: Here's a recent post that explores this topic in a related way: Real-Time Web

Monday, November 2, 2009

Halloween 2009

Here's the video from Halloween 2009 [Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:]. We selected Zombie Apocalypse for this year's porch theme, and we had a great time sharing our vision (the result of untold hours of planning and effort) with the kids.

Effects included a gory zombie feast, a television showing "This Just In" news, the projected image of a ghoul leering through the window, the skeletal remains of a dude who shot himself before becoming the next meal, and the kids' favorite prop: a roving undead baby who cooed and giggled while digging at a bloody amputated leg. As usual, we posted parental warning signs to avoid traumatizing the wee ones (usually to no avail). And, just like every year, I'm already dreaming of next year's porch theme.

Below are some pictures from this year's show...

The onslaught began in the peaceful Skypark neighborhood of Scotts Valley where one house had become ground-zero for a gory night of savagery. Seeking safety from hoards of ravaging undead ghouls, local kids raced up the steps and into the living room where a television blared warnings of the zombie plague. Too late: the occupants were already infected.

The Undead Eradication Squad, a crack team of special forces soldiers and hastily deputized locals, tried to alert the children, but these hungry neighborhood kids smelled candy. Ignoring posted warning signs, barreling past parental-caution notices, hundreds of impressionable kids climbed the stairs and faced a scene of inexplicable horror.

The house had been ransacked; bags of candy were strewn about, as if the night were some sort of macabre holiday. Caution tape, hardly a deterrent to the famished children, did little to enforce the quarantine. Once a pleasant abode of domesticity, the living room was now occupied by zombies who'd already gorged on living flesh and were ready for another helping.

An elderly relative shot himself once he realized that his family, a married couple named Andy and Jenny, had joined the groaning ranks of the living dead. The family's teenage daughter had escaped and the zombies were hungry, so they ate the old man's skin and organs, stripping him clean to the bone.

Jenny, still in her curlers and bathrobe since the moment she'd been infected, tried to lure the children to their doom by offering them pieces of candy. But the kids were too fast, wearing costumes to confuse her and racing away once they snatched treats from the zombie's clutches. Even after three hours of trying, Jenny couldn't eat a single tot.

Andy was no luckier than Jenny at wooing the young visitors. He tried to encourage the kids to join the feast, but his clever attempts to charm the children failed every time. Invariably he'd stare at them maniacally and start moaning, "brains, braaaaaiiiiiinnnnns." The kids were curious, but they weren't stupid.

One other rancid resident of this Skypark home, Andy and Jenny's baby, had also succumbed to the pathogen, and she was famished too. Fortunately, the baby got lucky earlier in the day when someone from child protective services tried to offer her a meal. The zombie bit the hand, which fed her all night.

Even more horrifically, a dimwitted pizza delivery guy mistook Andy and Jenny's address for his last stop and -- well, there's no nice way to say it -- ended up supplying "extra meat" to the feast. While children screamed and (God knows why) laughed, the zombies ripped his chest open and took turns gorging on innards and outards. There was no tip.

Countless children visited Andy and Jenny's house that night, enduring depraved displays of carnage without becoming the evening meal. By around 9:30, the last one departed the house, and the exhausted zombies leaned against each other. Drifting to sleep, Zombie Andy and Zombie Jenny dreamed together of a neighborhood where the kids aren't so suspicious.

See you next Halloween!

Previous Years

• 2008: Dr. Freightmarestein's Haunted Laboratory of Horrors [Pix] [video]

• 2007: Psycho Circus [Pix] [video]

• 2006: Alien Autopsy [Pix]

• 2005: Just Buried [Pix]

Friday, October 30, 2009

Cheap Bikes, High Cost

Steven Erlanger (NYT, registration may be required) writes a sad yet strangely hopeful article about the current state of an ultracheap bicycle rental program in Paris, a means to reduce carbon emissions and enhance healthy living. The problem is that 80 percent of the first bikes in the program have been trashed or stolen. Why?

Erlanger explains that all this increased mobility is an insult to people who lack access to the French capital city. Erlanger quotes transportation sociologist Bruno Marzloff who describes a sense shared by some poor immigrants that the bikes represent yet another perk for those who are already privileged:
"It is an outcry, a form of rebellion -- this violence is not gratuitous," Mr. Marzloff said. "There is an element of negligence that means, 'We don’t have the right to mobility like other people, to get to Paris it’s a huge pain, we don’t have cars, and when we do, it’s too expensive and too far.'"
That said, one must wonder at the wisdom of renting custom-made bikes costing the equivalent of $3,500 each, only to be surprised that so many are stolen or damaged.

Erlanger's article concludes with a description of efforts to dissuade people from trashing the bikes: "Posters showed a cartoon Vélib' being roughed up by a thug. The caption read: 'It's easy to beat up a Vélib’, it can’t defend itself. Vélib’ belongs to you, protect it!'"

Read the entire article: Reality Proves a Setback for Cheap Bike Rentals in Paris

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Shameless Plug - City Ubiquitous Wins Jane Jacobs Award

I'm delighted to pass along some happy news: My newest book, City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication, and the Rise of Omnitopia, published by Hampton Press, has received the Urban Communication Association's Jane Jacobs Award.

As the UCF website explains: "The Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Publication Award recognize an outstanding book and/or journal article (published in 2006-2009) that exhibits excellence in addressing issues of urban communication. It is named in honor of the late social activist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book award brings with it a $500 prize."

I will receive this award on November 12th at the UCF reception at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association, this year being held in Chicago. There, and in other venues, I'll thank the many people who helped this book come to fruition.

This award caps an exciting year for City Ubiquitous, as I've given presentations on the book at the Cal State East Bay "Communication and the Future" meeting (as Guest Scholar and New Book Speaker), the Heard Museum (in Phoenix, AZ) for the SJSU Alumni Association, and several local groups, including the First Congregational Church of San José and the Mountain View Technology and Society Committee.

After November, my next trip takes me to Albuquerque where I've been invited to present the keynote address at the Rocky Mountain Communication Association's 2010 conference, April 17.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paris Daguerreotype - 1839

For no particular reason, I thought I'd post one of the most famous photographs ever taken: Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's View of the Boulevard du Temple. I could stare at this image for hours.

Just think: This isn't some painting or literary vision. This is an actual image of Paris from 1839 [don't you wish you could see this image colorized?]. Oh, and see those people in the lower left?

These people aren't the creation of a poet or historian, as most people from before the age of mechanical [image] reproduction are to us. These people really stood on that street in Paris 170 years ago.

What's more, when you consider all the other people thronging the city that day, only these two stood still long enough to be captured by Daguerre's long exposure (something between 3 to 15 minutes, I'm told). Everyone else that day, at least in terms of their physical appearance, is lost to history.

In terms of photographic process (or any similar technique of image reproduction), this fellow paying for a shoe-shine and the fellow doing the work are the first people in the world.

And, as if we're time-traveling to 1839, we can see them.

I just think that's intensely cool.

Download much higher resolution version of the image:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pick Up Your Visual Scanning!

Remember the scene in Star Wars when an X-Wing pilot shouted, "Pick up your visual scanning"? Stripping away the geek-speak, he was simply reminding us that when storming a Death Star, we're wise to look out the window once in a while.

That's good advice, especially as more and more people wander the lanes and trenches of public life, typing Tweets, emails, and Facebook updates onto their mobile phones - and walking into trees (and people) because they forget to look around. What can be done?

Type n Walk to the rescue! For 99 cents, this app promises to help you avoid collisions when you're too busy typing to watch where you're going. It works by using your iPhone's camera to project a live view of the world in front of you. Upon that image, you can type your message.

Yes, that means people have more incentive to walk around staring at phones.

One silly limitation: You must copy/paste your message into whatever app you're using to communicate. Another glitch is the lack of landscape view. But I'm sure the creators of Type n Walk will fix those hassles. Is there any other problem? Beyond the whole "I can't believe anyone would use this app for real?" problem?

Nope, can't think of any...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Text-Talk, Like Kudzu, Continues to Colonize

Earlier this month, I came across a CNN story [link] about a reality show performer named Kandi Burruss whose fiance, Ashley "A.J." Jewell, was beaten to death at a strip club called "Body Tap."

You can't make these names up, but that's not my point.

What struck me (so to speak) was CNN's inclusion of Kandi's Twitter posts about her loss. Here's the copy/paste:
"im just in one of those moods where i dont wanna talk, i dont wanna b held & told its gonna b ok. i just wanna cry myself 2 sleep, alone," she says.

"i could never n a million years imagine this happening. please pray for AJ's children. that's who im the most concerned 4."

"im bout 2 giv my swollen eyes sum rest now. i just wanted to say thanks 2 every1 for their prayers."
Look, I don't mean to trivialize this tragedy. Anyone deserves compassion in Kandi's situation. Perhaps we should leave this as a live-and-let live situation (except for the dude who inflicted blunt force trauma on A.J.).

But I can't wrap my head around Kandi's choice to share news of her genuinely painful suffering in the language of text-talk. To reiterate: "im bout 2 giv my swollen eyes sum rest now... i just wanted to say thanks 2 every1"


Your fiance just got his head pulverized, and you're too bereaved to spell "everyone"?

Maybe the matter is the medium. Twitter demands brevity; the 140 character-cap doesn't allow for encyclopedic bloviation [that's what blogs are for]. And then there's the matter of personal choice. No doubt, anyone seriously calling herself "Kandi" is going to write however she darn well pleases.

Still, if I were sharing heartbreaking news, in any form, I'd take a break from trendy-chat. I'd certainly differentiate between "sum" and "some." But that's just me.

What about the larger trend? Well, it's hardly news that people -- "ppl," in text-talk -- increasingly resort to telescoped language. It's quick and it's popular, yet it could also represent a problem, especially as functional and fashionable choices continue to blur our willingness, if not our ability, to convey complex ideas in meaningful ways.

At some point I fear that we're creating a world where public discourse is little more than a cacophony of car honks and fart noises, the verbal equivalent of typing (or saluting) with one middle finger. And when it transforms from clever technique to ubiquitous practice, all this rapi-tapping pushes us further along into the din.

No, I'm not railing for some abstract principle of "decorum" or "etiquette." I'm just advocating the more basic principle of "not sounding like an 14 year old who just discovered Prince," at least when writing about the loss of a loved one. That's my hopelessly outdated dream.

wats urs?

December 20, 2009 update: Here's a copy/paste from CNN's report of Ashton Kutcher's Twitter Post following the death of Brittany Murphy: "2day the world lost a little piece of sunshine. My deepest condolences go out 2 Brittany's family, her husband, & her amazing mother Sharon."

January 5, 2010 update: Here's a copy/paste from one of Tila Tequila's Twitter Posts following the death of Casey Johnson: "R.I.P my Angel. @caseyjonsonJnJ u will forever be in my heart! I love u so so much and we will Marry when I see U in Heaven my Wifey."

September 16, 2010 update: Creepy loser Wisconsin prosecutor sends repeated come-on texts to crime victim, including this gem: "Are you the kind of girl that likes secret contact with an older married elected DA ... the riskier the better?" followed by the kicker: "I would not expect you to be the other woman. I would want you to be so hot and treat me so well that you'd be THE woman! R U that good?" Really. R U that stupid?

December 30, 2010 update: Raz-B tweets his displeasure at Chris Brown: "@chrisbrown u victimize victims, ur a homophobe, ur on the down low & a woman beater. Merry Christmas & thx 4 showin every1 ur true colors."

January 17, 2012 update: Some idiot ignores a restraining order: "Even though u r mad at me will u still marrier [sic] me? ... I love you!"

Related Posts

Text-Speak and the New Discourse - Djelloul Marbrook has written an interesting piece about the impact of online communication on what counts as good writing, and he offers a provocative thesis, that today's electronic writing, often a lazy mishmash of lazy and hackneyed tripe, may yet unfold into something new and transformative.

Dont h8: Keyboard Got Me LOLing - A fullsize keyboard for folks who write in LOLs has arrived. It's called the Fast Finger Keyboard, and it offers a host of TextTalk options under the function keys, everything from ASAP to TTYL. The keyboard also allows you to switch from QWERTY to A-Z formats.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

One man's thoughts on same-sex marriage

Difficulty seeing this video? Point your browser here:

I understand that people of good will will disagree on the issue of same-sex marriage. But this fellow deserves some attention. He's a lifelong Republican. He's a WWII vet. And he's the father of a gay son. His voice is halting, but his message is crystal clear.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Faux Revolt

Last Friday, I was grabbing a beer with a new departmental colleague, David Terry, when we spotted this San José protest. Folks were chanting, waving signs, and drawing attention to their cause. We had to stop a while and see what the fuss was about.

Problem is: We couldn't quite understand the point of this revolt. The protesters were shouting slogans about "lower dues," which makes sense in a certain way. But then we had to ask: what were they rebuking? What dues? And what's with that other sign that announced, "Downtown Living"?

Then it all became clear. These scruffy looking "protesters" were advertising $270,000+ condos. They were apparently being paid to provoke some sort of rebellious attitude in support of local landlords.

Ah, give me that vibrant downtime life!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yosemite 2009

Jenny and I returned last night from a weekend trip to Yosemite, where we enjoyed lovely fall foliage, up-close encounters with wildlife, and a memorable hike up Vernal Falls. For various reasons, we'd had to reschedule this trip twice, but this weekend was a perfect getaway, and we enjoyed (nearly) every minute of our visit.

We arrived Saturday afternoon and quickly found that transcendentally beautiful vista from which to gaze over the valley floor. I've seen this perspective plenty of times, taken lots of photos too. But this view never ceases to amaze. Thereafter we started our tour at a favorite site: Lower Falls. The torrent of water usually slows to a trickle this time of year, but recent rains produced a thunderous cascade of roaring power that delighted us with sprays and rainbows.

Darkness came fast, though, as the sun set behind the mountains earlier than we'd expected. So we finished the last of our brisket saved from lunch at Central Texan BBQ and commenced to exploring the long exposure abilities of our new D5000.

We're still working on the technicalities (especially the ability to focus on distant objects in no-light conditions), but the multitude of stars offered a dazzling show. That night we enjoyed a heated tent at Camp Curry, though the skittering of woodland creatures playing on our roof woke us up early.

On Sunday, we rented bikes and toured the park in the absolute best way. The bike-idea was Jenny's, and at first I wasn't excited about the whole thing. But I caught the vision fast. Without concern for traffic, our bikes allowed us to amble from place to place, stopping whenever we wished. So when we'd see something cool, like a majestic deer munching on leaves, we'd simply dismount without a care for a parking spot. And because the bikes are so exquisitely dorky, there was no need to worry about locking up. Who'd steal 'em?

Throughout the afternoon, we rode bike paths as yellow leaves rained on our heads. Another visit to the Lower Falls, this time climbing the rocks to enjoy more splashing water, and then we toured some the prairies, enjoying views we'd missed during previous car-bound visits.

One of my favorite moments from the ride: the chance to enjoy one remarkable tree that sported brilliant orange leaves. More than a dozen other folks had the same idea, hanging from limbs and craning for perfect photos.

Later on, we decided it'd be nice to visit Vernal Falls. Jenny and Mari trekked up to the footbridge a few years back, bringing back only pleasant memories of a mellow hike, and it seemed like a relaxing jaunt at first. But I was winded and cranky soon enough. So much elevation! And while I've lost plenty of weight in the past few months, I was still unprepared for a "mildly strenuous" hike. We made it to the bridge and savored the view of Vernal, satisfied that we'd gotten our workout for the day. Then I saw the mist trail climbing still higher and knew: we had to keep going to the top.

This time it was Jenny's turn to grouse, but we soldiered up those steep stone steps, both of us dazed nearly to the point of unconsciousness when we saw the top of the falls for the first time (my repeated phrase at that point: "We made it... We made it... We made it..."). Looking down on the valley where we started, barely seeing that first footstep that led to this place, I felt proud. Do I want to take the next challenge and try Half Dome? Oh yeah. At night, no less. But only after lots and lots of cardio conditioning (and finding a way to convince Jenny).

Light rain cooled us off on the descent and the evening promised a deep sleep. Problem is, our woodland creature friends returned, determined to keep us up with their nocturnal antics. Early on, we realized that one of our new friends was a tiny mouse with big ears. A few hours later, we discovered a new pal: a wide-eyed ringtail who stared at us with the same amazement as we had for him. Jenny worried that our flashlight would hurt his wee little eyes, but I figured he's tough enough to live in Camp Curry; he can handle a little light.

The next morning brought fog and the promise of rain -- and some forlornness on our parts, given the realty that we'd soon have to head home. But we managed to fit in a gentle hike to Mirror Lake. Jenny loved searching for reflections, while I smiled in gratitude at my choice to wear shorts and flip-flops this time, even in the cold. My flexible attire allowed me to cross one stretch of achingly chilly water in search of a perfect place to enjoy my own place for reflection amid Yosemite's grandeur.

We wrapped up our visit with a decadent lunch at the Ahwahnee Dining Room, both of us bummed that our trip was nearly over. Still, we agreed that the trip was exactly what we needed, especially during this complex and busy time in our lives. We'd come to Yosemite to recharge ourselves, personally and as a couple. And we left the Valley with stories, smiles, and promises that we'd return. This place is a world treasure, and we live less than five hours away!

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)