Monday, August 31, 2009

Dumping on NY Toilets

Simon Akam (NYT - free registration required) writes about the dearth of automated public toilets (APTs) in New York. Only one is running today; the plan is for 20 throughout the five boroughs, one day.

The APT project is part of a larger deal between the city and a company seeking to also build bus shelters, newsstands, and bike lots - paying the city for the privilege - in return for the ad space from which the company plans to profit.

The project, as one would guess about any effort to improve life in the Big Apple, has suffered numerous hassles, including the need to secure sewage and water hookups, connect phone lines (for automated trouble reports), and deal with at least one neighborhood's complaints that the steel crappers somehow don't resemble pieces of Victorian architecture.

Will adding 20 public toilets make life in New York more livable? Consider Akam's description of the city's one working model: "Inside, revealed for the admission price of 25 cents, is gleaming metalwork and a machine that dispenses toilet paper while making a mewling sound like that of a small wounded animal."

Read the article:

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Fun Post: Kissing Robots

This is 15 types of creepy. Once seen, this cannot be unseen.

You've been warned.

Difficulty seeing the video? Click here:

Difficulty after seeing the video? Sorry. See warning above.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Espresso Furniture

Today I added a piece of furniture to my office. The piece is so pretty, I found myself noticing the dirt and oil ground into my computer keyboard. In comparison, much of my office could use some sprucing up. What's the cause of this conundrum? It's Nespresso's Le Cube.

I feel silly buying such a needless toy, especially these days. But a decent quality espresso machine is my gift-to-myself for advancing to full professor; it's been a long 12 years. Plus, I suppose it's not too hard to rationalize the extravagance: An alert faculty member is good for the economy!

Now to turn the thing on...

(image from Amazon. Here's the Product Link)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Andrew Frazier Wood

It's a presumptuous thing, I know, to think about my autobiography when there's so much left for me to do. It's all the more presumptuous to imagine that anyone would care to learn about my background, formative experiences, and recent adventures.

Generally I'm sure that my friends are satisfied to read an occasional Wood Family road trip summary, or to hear about holidays we've shared [these two links lead to collections of every blog post I've written with those tags]. And any Facebook pal can view an album of photographs of me through the years. Still, I thought it might be useful for me to organize some of the autobiographical blog notes I've written. If anything, this collection inspires me to consider: What have I missed?

As time allows I plan to expand (and maybe prune) this collection of links, maybe even to add annotations to help folks interpret my occasionally vague titles. For now, consider this page as a placeholder for a project that, given the topic, will take a lifetime to complete. Have you created a similar space to organize the notes of your life? Send a link; I'd love to see it!


25 Not-So-Random Things about Andrew Wood

StrengthsQuest Personality Profile

What I Wish I Knew

Becoming a Frazier



More Alive at 45

Early Life

Memories of my Grandfather

Talking about Suicide

Florida Dinosaur

Waffle House Memories - 3

Star Wars - Thirty Years Later

Fast Times at Countryside Mall

Navy Days

NBS Det Rota: Seabee Training

NBS Det Rota: Marine Training

NBS Det Rota: Pumpkins for Sale!

NBS Det Rota: Hiring Freeze

NBS Det Rota: Commissioning a Spanish Flagship

Reserve Duty and McDonald's Sweet Tea

College Memories

Teachers that Matter

Slow Looking

Every Poet is a Thief

Adventures in College Forensics

Remember your First Time?

Professional life

Heading for San Diego

Last Call at the All-You-Can-Eat Academy

At Last

Pushing the Pile

Salzburg Stories

2012 Sabbatical Success

Seven Days in the DPRK

2015 Fulbright 

Married Life

20th Anniversary

She's Right on Time

Yearly Summary



• 2012

Note: This page can also be accessed via

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Simpsons and California's Budget Woes

A new semester begins, this time with SJSU students hit with a 30% fee increase and employees forced to take furloughs (resulting in a 10% paycut). With that in mind, I launched the first meeting of "The Simpsons as Social Science," a course I teach for incoming freshmen, with a snip from an episode entitled, "The PTA Disbands" (season six, episode 21).

The episode begins with a field trip to Fort Springfield, a visit marred by the fact that Springfield Elementary is so poor that Principal Skinner can't afford to buy tickets for the children. When Skinner complains about the five-dollar cost, noting that admission was free last year, the ticket seller shrugs and points to the new owner's sign: "Diz-Nee Historical Park -- Sorry, but there's profit to be had").

Skinner compares the sorry lot of Springfield Elementary to the comparative wealth of Shelbyville Elementary, whose students arrive in a fancy bus. Skinner is further peeved when Shelbyville's Principal Valiant (winner of last year's "Princy Award") easily buys tickets for his kids, even leaving a tip: "Here's the admission, plus something for you. See that they get a little extra education, would you?"

While the Shelbyville kids enjoy a bloodily entertaining historical reenactment, the Springfield kids are forced to sneak peaks from behind a fence, before they're caught. With historical reenactionists in hot pursuit, the poor students and mortified faculty flee in disgrace. Springfield Elementary School's budget problems have reached a crisis point.

Edna Krabapple, a long-suffering faculty member, complains to Principal Skinner on the ride home that the school's tight fiscal policy is ruining the students' education. But Skinner can't free up the funds to fix things. The results are serious, particularly when one child who can't run fast enough to escape his Fort Springfield pursuers is left behind in a cloud of bus fumes. Edna blames the administration for this mess: "Because of your penny pinching, we're coming back from a field trip with the fewest children yet." Skinner replies: "God bless the man who invented permission slips."

The stage is set for war between faculty and administration. Teachers bemoan the declining quality of student education; the principal is caught up in his struggles to balance his budget.
Edna Krabapple: "Our demands are very reasonable. By ignoring them you're selling out these children's futures.

Seymour Skinner: "Oh, come on, Edna, we both know these children have no future.

[The noise of the lunchroom ceases; the children sitting around them are shocked.]

Seymour Skinner [chuckling with nervous optimism]: "Prove me wrong, children, Prove me wrong.
Before long, the school shuts down as the teachers go on strike. Eventually Skinner and Krabapple meet for a public debate, but the exchange offers little hope for resolution. The nature of their clash, which collapses from simplistic argumentation to vapid sloganeering to one-word rebuttals and nonverbal gestures, says much about the state of public discourse in Springfield.

As I anticipated, students watching excerpts from the episode were quick to uncover parallels between the cartoon city and the cartoonish antics of decision-makers in California who helped create the real-life mess we face today. We have much to talk about in "The Simpsons as Social Science," and in the Golden State too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The D5000 Makes Nice with San Jose Neon

Following up on a two-year-old post about San Jose Neon, I thought I'd share some recent images of local signage photographed during a particularly gorgeous evening. While the sun's position was not optimal for composition purposes, the grays and purples and yellows of the city at dusk were prettier than I'd seen in a long while. They seemed even nicer when interpreted by the sensors of our new camera.

Jenny and I took these pix while testing the Nikon D5000, a DSLR we bought three weeks ago on our New England Diner Tour. While we hardly chose this device for its video capability, I'm delighted with the quality I'm seeing. The still-shot of O.C. McDonald (above) is nicely augmented by the chance to present the sign in animated form. Yes, the video suffers a bit from some subtle pixelization, but this stuff certainly looks better than anything I expected from a prosumer level camera. And to think, I haven't yet videoed at the camera's highest quality.

Our goal is to explore night shooting in more depth than we've previously attempted. Jenny digs the look of blurred car lights, so we spent lots of time experimenting with the camera's timer function (aided by a wireless remote that's oddly not included with the unit). We found that the D5000 works well to reduce signal noise related to high ISO, producing smoother, more silky skies during long exposures. The live view's manual focus-point selection tool also helped craft relatively crisp shots in low-light situations (though we're still learning how to set the focus more precisely).

So where do we go from here? I guess we'll add a neutral density filter to gain more control over aperture and shutter speed. We should also practice with the vibration reduction feature, which supposedly reduces the demand for a tripod in some circumstances. But even with a basic set-up (using a tripod, of course, and a polarizer filter that we forgot to remove) the results of our neon odyssey bode well for our photographic adventures.

Yep, we're happy with this new camera, especially now that we've gotten our product recall-replacement (following the discovery of a defect in the model's power system). The D5000 offers a real advance over the Olympus C-5050 that served us so well these past few years. I'll likely post more notes as Jenny and I learn more about prosumer quality photography, working to expand our skills beyond the realm of point-and-shoot.

Bonus: Like that first pic of the neon pig? Here's some camcorder video of the Stephen's Meat Products animated sign I shot last year.

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Fun Post: FB Request from Jesus: Confirm/Ignore

It's been around for a while, but you've got to see this image. How would Jesus Facebook?


Thursday, August 20, 2009

PowerPoint at 25

Remember the Gettysburg Address PowerPoint? It's the satire of presentation software that distills Lincoln's eloquent call for reverence and transcendence into a mush of empty bullet points and meaningless bar graphs. Who would have guessed it, but the target of that satire, PowerPoint, turned 25 this August. I had no idea it's been one score and five years! I hope bean-man brought a cake.

In honor of this auspicious occasion Max Atkinson presents The Problem with PowerPoint, an article that lays out the most common complaints about this ubiquitous source of sleep-inducing talks. Helpfully, Atkinson formats his remarks in both text and PPT modes. In his critique you'll find old favorites: speakers who read slides verbatim, bullet- and text-laden slides, the droning advance of slide after slide, and the frustration of information overload (the slide into oblivion, one might say).

Me? I'd add one more item to Atkinson's list. PowerPoint is ugly. A handful of exceptions aside, many of its visual and organizational themes are garish or trite or plain boring. The presentations that result are rarely much better. That's one reason I'm a confirmed Keynote nerd. Apple's application just looks better. And good slides lead to good speeches, right?

Well, no.

Indeed, I agree with Atkinson's broader concern (one illustrated by my personal evangelism of Keynote, I must admit): Presentation software invites our emphasis of style style over substance, order over meaning. I can't count the hours I've spent tweaking a graphic or fiddling with a formatting issue, time better spent honing a complex argument or crafting a stronger claim. I've created some pretty cool talks with this software but I can't attest to the brilliance of the ideas I shared.

So why the seeming dependence on PowerPoint, Keynote, and the like? In my line of work it's considered old school -- frankly, ancient -- to simply read a lecture. What about visual-learners? How about chunking information into bite-sized nuggets? Who will speak to the MTV Generation? (Ooops, that's my generation; most of my students are well past that age). These are fair questions, and I don't intend to mock them.

But when I recently saw a Reed College professor read an hour-long lecture, after rewinding my instant recoil at her antediluvian structure I was impressed by the speech's inspiration to listen closely to words, to consider claims carefully and to think deeply about ideas. I was reminded of the work that goes into sharing the right idea, not merely the coolest font.

I'm not ready to abandon Keynote or its lesser cousins yet. Even after 25 years there's too much worthwhile stuff to be found in these tools. Of course maybe I'm just not sure that my words are worth being heard alone. Not yet, at least. Still, I yearn to write a lecture one day that is worth reading word for word. No bullet points. No drop-shadows. No animated transitions. One day I will present that speech. Now I need to earn that audience.

Read Atkinson's article: The Problem with PowerPoint

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Forming the Reformers

Today's NYT reports that Democrats could be "set to go it alone on a health bill." Yeah, that's a relief.

Honestly I understand their reasoning. Republicans have concluded that the pleasures of political payback exceed the exigencies of fixing our system run amuck, a cacophony that costs so much more than it needs and delivers so much less than Americans deserve, this nation offering the Greatest Health Care System in the World (has that trademark been assigned yet?). To secure any hope of surviving as more than a regional throwback, Whigs without wigs, the party of Reagan must stand for something, even if that something is the pathetic choice of "anti-Obama."

Once more, health care reform faces death from a thousand scalpels.

So the Democrats are going to manage the operation now, run the Republicans out of the operating theater. Well, can you blame them? When it comes to the GOP's responses to each Democratic give-away, from single-payer to public option to private co-op -- "socialized medicine!" they screech (as if the Defense Department isn't a "socialized military" -- it's clear there will be no bipartisanship on this deal. Can you doubt that President Obama has mused aloud in staff meetings, "We've got a filibuster-proof majority, we've got a wide margin in the House, why not take this mandate out for a spin?"

Don't slip on the blood-stained floor, Mr. President. It's bad enough to confront a calcified Republican Party, bent on mischief and possessing no willingness to offer Americans more than empty fears of pulling the plug on Grandma. But the Democrats will be no easier to wrangle. Blue Dogs on the Right; Progressives on the Left, and few members of Congress owing you personal favors. The mind reels with the ways a decent president can be unmade by indecent hacks. I personally find sad reminders of Carter's failed presidency in this ongoing mess. And then there are the parallels to an even darker time.

A recent Harper's article compared Barack Obama to Herbert Hoover, noting both leaders' intelligence, pragmatism, and willingness to tackle tough issues. Hoover got a raw deal in the popular historical depiction, painted as the guy who fiddled while the economy burned. A fair assessment holds that this Republican worked tirelessly to head off the Depression, confronting first the disbelievers in his own party. But Hoover could not overcome historical, structural, and personal constraints that blocked his good intentions. I wonder if Obama thinks about Hoover's fate when he wrestles with the health care conundrum.

I have hope. I've got to. This is the first president in a long while who possesses the power to actually change things.

But I fear too that Democrats, despite the best intentions of their standard-bearer, are unable or unwilling to define the debate, clarify the plan, sell the vision, and craft the details without slipping their own predictable mires. The leadership in the House and Senate manages to be both feckless and petty, and the party as a whole lacks the discipline possessed by their opponents. Barack Obama proved his mettle as a community organizer in Chicago, but can he organize this community of fractious, insular, self-serving politicians?

Oh god, save health care reform from the Democrats.

Read the article: Democrats Seem Set to Go It Alone on a Health Bill (Free registration required)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Slow Looking

One of my favorite memories from college involves an assignment given to students of a humanities course I took: We would visit a museum, find one of several pre-selected paintings, and look at the piece.

Simple enough, right?

Actually the looking was expected to last an hour or more. We were meant to stare at the piece, getting close, sitting at a distance, viewing it from the side (to assess its "painterliness") and generally living within the work.

My painting was by a Russian-American artist named Ben Benn; the piece was entitled Still Life with Fruit. It was, as you'd imagine an Early Modern painting, literally named. No impressionistic wispiness here, the bold lines and saturated colors made for an unmistakable impression. These were fruit and they were sitting.

Still, after an hour I found myself integrating classroom discussions about war and technology and progress into my viewing of the piece, shifting from the practice of looking to the craft of interpretation. My paper reflected an undergraduate glee of peering beyond the world of five-paragraph essays. Referencing World War I, considering the Russian-American painter's hybrid-status, reviewing my notes on cubism, I over-wrote the hell out of this assignment, a tendency that served me well in grad school.

I remembered that happy hour while reading a recent NYT article by Michael Kimmelman. The article tackles the question: What are we looking for when we adopt the tourist gaze?

As you'd guess, Kimmelman recalls from a visit to the Louvre that few tourists dwell lengthily at any one work of art; most buzz from piece to piece, snapping pics, often comparing their experiences to the words of guidebooks. The larger point of this critique concerns a tolerance for surface level impressions in preference to in-depth analysis of art in any form:
"At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely. Today we read hundreds of books, or maybe none, but rarely any with the same intensity."
Intriguingly, Kimmelman then shifts to the premodern "Grand Tour," that province of travelers (need we add the inevitable yet invisible adjectives of "wealthy" and "privileged"?) offering a point of comparison to the author's dismal recollection of clicking cell phones and blase expressions, of cameras in Paris.

Abandoning the class-implications of that turn, Kimmelman shifts to a safer argument, noting ways we use cameras and camcorders to store experiences, to allow us to encounter them, to edit them, to repackage them but not necessarily to be touched by them. The consequence of this simultaneous explosion of images and privatization of experience?
"[T]he canon of art that provided guideposts to tell people where to go and what to look at was gradually dismantled. A core of shared values yielded to an equality among visual materials. This was good and necessary, up to a point. Millions of images came to compete for our attention. Liberated by a proliferation, Western culture was also set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it."
Kimmelman concludes with a call for "slow looking," even for a return to the old school practice of sketching what we see. In a way similar to the "slow food" movement "slow looking" compels us to slow down, to limit rather than expand the number of our observations and to seek their experience in a manner we may call "live" (ideally with other people) rather than to save them for later when we're alone.

Read the entire article: At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus (free registration required)

Monday, August 17, 2009

More Proof that Brits Write Better Obits Than Yanks

Once more I am bound to offer mad props to the lunatic obituary writers of the UK. I've never heard of Hugh Millais, but I now wish I could have met him. Here's the overview: "Hugh Millais, who has died aged 79, wafted genially through life – sailing around the Caribbean in his own yacht as a calypso singer; starting an ambitious house building scheme in Spain; and appearing in two of Robert Altman's films – without ever having to suffer the indignity of full-time employment."

And now for some tasty bon mots:

On his youth in wartime Britain: "When he saved up his pocket money to take his nanny out to tea at Gunter's in Curzon Street, he recalled a bomb going off nearby – and being told as the smoke and dust lifted: 'Take your elbows off the table.'"

On his early sailing days: "After learning to sail with Captain OM Watts's school on the Hamble, Millais' picaresque life began with a voyage to Venice, where he and a friend sold his boat and then were robbed of the proceeds in St Mark's Square. They walked to Milan, were arrested as vagrants and then visited in their cell by a Benedictine monk who gave them some money to get to France after Hugh had poured out their plight in Latin."

On his short-lived construction company and an odd dinner date: "An article he wrote on the Austrian-born architect Richard Nuetra so impressed a group of businessmen that he recalled them inviting him to start a construction company in Venezuela. It lasted until the country's president fled and the Millais yacht was stolen and wrecked by four escaping naval officers. After a spell back in Oxfordshire with his father, Millais went to Paris, where he fell in with Rita Hayworth, who agreed to dine with him in Montmartre and left him to pay the bill."

A review painted on the door of a restaurant with whom he was associated: "The service is non-existent, the food is disgusting. But, thank God, it's expensive."

And one final recollection: "Quite whether these adventures occurred exactly as Millais recounted them was largely unimportant. Those who had never met him could not believe such a character existed; even close acquaintances were sometimes tempted to rub their eyes."

Read the obituary: Hugh Millais

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Habitat 67

During our 2009 trip to Montreal, we visited Habitat 67, a vision of modern housing featured at the world's expo held more that four decades ago. This habitat, designed by a then-young architecture student named Moshe Safdie (who has since forged a rich and storied career) reflects a radical rethinking of public life. It is hardly beautiful, but it is fascinating.

Habitat 67 sought to demonstrate how modular construction could balance the demand for increasing urban density with the human need for privacy and greenspace. The cantilevering of 354 prefab concrete units, akin to the construction of legos, was meant to be augmented with shops and a school, but high costs caused the project to be scaled back.

The Habitat's distance from downtown Montreal, along the Saint Lawrence River, complicates efforts to visit this spot. If you're taking the metro, you'll depart at Jean-Drapeau and then need to hoof it over the bridge to the Marc-Drouin Quay. Expect at least a 20 minute walk, and be careful to avoid altercations with fast-riding bicyclists who also use the bridge.

On site, there is little opportunity to tour the three pyramids of Habitat 67. The complex is owned by tenants, and private property signs abound. Still, it's worth the trip, even with the expectation that you'll likely just stand outside the place to shoot pictures. Visiting this place you can visualize a 1960s-vision of public space in which one person's roof becomes another person's garden.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Montreal Murals

As I continue working on the website for the Wood Family Diner Tour I thought I'd share some images of Montreal murals. They're everywhere in this amazing city, telling tale of a complex social environment that is both redolent with pleasure and sometimes sick with despair.

As with all forms of Street Art the murals of Montreal live in a heterotopian between-space of authenticity and artifice, and certainly betwixt the spaces that mark rebellious utterance and authorized discourse.

When I return to Montreal (and that trip will be soon, I hope) I will spend much more time exploring its murals, noting the names of their artists and uncovering themes and motifs that are invisible to my now-uneducated eye.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fun with Self-Timer

Since I'm wrapping up the website for our 2009 Diner Tour, my blogging will be a bit sparse. Still, I have to share this image:

Two people set the self-timer to take a nice photo from their vacation.

They're on a lake with pretty mountains in the background.

And who should mess up their shot?

Click to find out...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pennsylvania Car Guys

While on our New England Diner Tour (story to be posted as I sort through hundreds of pictures) Jenny spotted the ultimate proof that my search for Car Guys is divinely inspired. You remember Car Guys, right? Those angular, solid-color, no-nonsense graphics that typically help lead people to old auto repair shops? Well, it turns out they also lead folks to Jesus, as illustrated by "Car Guy Christ," found in northern Philly. As with all other Car Guys, Car Guy Christ is sharp, simple, and tough; you wouldn't want to pray to Him in a dark alley. Oh, and while Car Guys and Car Gals don't go in for seeing doctors - unless something's broken or gushing - they apparently like chiropractors (see example below from Matamoras, PA). It makes sense, I suppose. Got a problem with your back? Wrench it!

By the way, having found Car Guy Christ and Car Guy Chiropractor I'm sure that my journey will one day take me to the Car Guy Pool Player I saw once but failed to photograph. Any hints on where he might be? Please post a comment.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Waffle House: 10 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

I lied a bit, too...

Most importantly, I lied about where I wrote this piece. I did not write this essay in Waffle House; I wrote it at home. Yes, I did drive to Phoenix; yes, through the snow of the Mojave Desert; yes, barely avoiding a robbery late at night; and yes, the sound of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" transformed an early morning hour into something meaningful, at least to me. These things happened, but I wrote all of these words at home.

Just now I'm sitting in bed with my cat curled up on my lap, she who detests the cold and finds me more than suitable as a means to escaping the winter that creeps through our poorly weather-stripped doors. Outside, I can hear the sounds of children playing on the streets of our cul-de-sac as the sky darkens at dusk. I write this is an enclave called Scotts Valley, a one-hour bus ride from the halls where I work. I live in a community composed of people who are pretty much like me, middle class strivers seeking a safe investment and quiet streets. I write this as the cat groans and sighs in the pleasure of our darkening room, she and I warm and comfortable.

I tried to write this essay entirely on site, in "the field" as the silverbacks (and wannabe silverbacks among us) might say, but I never could get beyond hastily typed notes. I remember typing them and reviewing them again and again. Is that what I heard? Is that what I said? But I quickly forsook any effort to writing "the truth" of my experiences while I was there. Sipping a cup of coffee, typing out notes on my laptop, I was usually surrounded by folks who reasonably assumed me to be a journalist or an author come to make them famous. Consequently, my fellow patrons paid more attention to me that they would have otherwise. The act of writing in Waffle House undoubtedly skewed what I saw. I mean, really: other than college students cramming for exams or banging out a course paper, who comes to write in a Waffle House? And I stopped looking like a college student a long time ago. So I came home, guiltily, carrying a computer filled with digital scribbles and predictable photos.

I thought briefly about writing at my neighborhood Starbucks, a phrase just about as meaningless as one's "Neighborhood Applebees" (where I'm not sure that they serve anything that can technically be called "food," certainly not "apples," any more than they serve "neighborliness"). Sure, there was plenty of noise, a Waffle House hallmark, and Starbucks possesses the same sort of enclavic sensibility, perhaps even more so with its "black card," a clever device to transform Starbucks into something more akin to an airport terminal's private lounge. But one can hardly confuse Starbucks with Waffle House; the theoretical similarities and stylistic differences are just too distracting. It's better to come home as one would come to Waffle House, to a place where they call you "hon."

My home in Scotts Valley culminates a personal and professional search for enclave that brought me westward from Florida to California. It's a place where garage doors are larger than the porches, where we celebrate our community through holiday performances but generally leave each other alone (with some notable exceptions). It is a sign of the times in our age of anxiety. It is perfect for me. I fled a childhood filled with fear for the safest port in the storm, a hitch with the Navy. I then bounded into the cloistered confines of college years, learning to please those who judged me, selecting my battles with precision.

I made mistakes, so many mistakes, especially when admitting my weaknesses to friends better labeled acquaintances, and I found myself behind the closed door of my own tenured office space. I discovered the unhappy truth of so many academic lives: We who enter the Ivory Tower, searching for a fortress for ideas and a mote of separation from the dreaded "real world," generally manage to bring our own fears with us, locking them tight within our interiors.

Home, therefore, is the final freedom, the ultimate closed door. I have found shelter after all these years as the storms rage outside. I am safe in my protected intellectual space, a world in which I can drive hundreds of miles to sit in a cheap fast food diner and expect people to say, "Well, that makes sense." I admit this only from the safety of job security and the confidence that no one would every really publish an essay like this. I shuffle paragraphs, rehash quotations, double check song titles, and abandon any pretense at depth. Moments break and congeal, transformed into a story, an auto-ethnography of fragmentary shards read at highway speeds. Only in this way do I try to explain the bittersweet domesticity of Waffle House, my home away from --

Well, you know.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Thanks to Tyrone Adams for inspiring this essay. While the book we envisioned did not (as yet) come to pass, I am grateful for your seductively written call to write something heartfelt about Waffle House. Anything that works in my essay owes much to your recommendation to tackle this topic. All errors that remain, of course, are my own.

Read More

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Waffle House: 9 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

I drive and fly and race to perform moments of silent wandering, through memories never personally known...

My own memories are both too vivid and too trite. I prefer the media-and place-based phantasmagoria that is easier to edit, to repurpose, to repackage, and to save or to delete as I prefer. This is my Waffle House, not a locale but a fauxcale, a suggestion of time and character sufficiently evocative to enable meaningful performances but one not so determined as to demand a particular script or provide a means of recognizing which acting efforts are fake [Yep, I hope to return to the concept of fauxcale one day]. In Waffle House, at least late at night, one may wear the façade of insider for the observation of others, and one may then cast off the performance with little or no consequence.

One Last Lie

I promised that I would stick mostly to the truth in this essay, and I think I've done that (again, mostly). My experiences of Waffle House have recalled a series of practice of surface-level encounters with people and places, a fragile artificiality and performance of self. I recall the invitation to submit a manuscript for this volume of essays, the evocative language calling for a series of chapters meant to celebrate meaningful conversations with friends and strangers, those lost hours passing time in a booth or bellied up to the counter as servers banter with cooks and customers. And I knew such writing would not be forthcoming from this traveler [The book never did get pulled together, but I chose to post these reflections anyway].

I've spent untold hours sleeping in airports, wandering malls, touring casinos, and plying interstate highways in a an unfolding project meant to provide some insight into the contemporary built environment, and in my writing I've attempted to parlay thick description and bursts of conversation into a sense of the places that I've visited. But the nature of this exploration, the places I visit and the manner in which I experience them, inspired one trusted reviewer to call me an anti-ethnographer. I'm just as happy to dabble in auto-ethnography. After all, the places I investigate, a matrix of nodes connected by shared purpose and common practice, do not reveal itself to the occupying gaze of the anthropologist but to the passing view of one who observes surfaces and reads signs. Mine is the gaze of a flâneur inclined to distrust deep narratives, a traveler trained to read sudden motions. In that sense, I have told the truth.

But I lied a bit, too.

Part 10 of 10 appears tomorrow.

Read More

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Waffle House: 8 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

"How are you?" "OK, I guess, for someone who just got robbed..."

Turns out that a dude had come in, sat down, ordered a meal, went up to the register to pay, pulled a gun, and demanded money from the till. He left just a few minutes back. At once I think about how fast I'd driven between the two Waffle Houses. The interstate's open wide this time at night, the speed camera sensors glowing red, and I made good time with no flash of the ticket machine. Perhaps that explains the action back on 59th. Customers are now chatting nervously and the cook and server decide to take a smoke break. A bit later when I visit the Waffle House on Country Club Road, it's clear that news of the robbery has made its way around the area stores. The cook gives me a careful once-over as I walk in. The server later explains to me, "It's that time of year. People get desperate during the holidays. And with layoffs and the economy, it's getting worse."

That said, I feel like things are winding down. Wherever the thief is, he's not here. It's time to engage one of my longtime diner fantasies, the stuff of dime store novels and black and white movies best watched on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I'm going to play Patsy Cline's "Crazy" on a jukebox at this ungodly hour. Some folks would prefer Frank Sinatra's "One For My Baby (And One for the Road)," but that choice seems a little too on-the-nose for me. There's a more subtle meaning to the song, "Crazy," when played late at night. In a quiet spot near the road, at a time when folks pull their hats low over their eyes, the kind of vibe Edward Hopper sought to capture with Nighthawks, "Crazy" is an admission of last-rung desperation, a willingness to do anything to set things right and an awareness that nothing can be done. The tinkling of those piano keys produces a slow rhythm of despair masked with a smile.

Yet, to me, the choice to return to Waffle House at this time of night is a performance, a pose, not an expression of the real thing. I've been married for over twenty years, and I have rarely felt close enough to losing my love that I would drown my sorrows in smothered hash browns and bitter coffee. I write this with the dim awareness of just how precarious my own life has become, as I wade obliviously further and further from the shore, ignoring the tug of the undertow. I sit in a Waffle House at 4:43 a.m., my quarter transforming the place into my own stage. Patsy Cline is on the jukebox -- I could hardly imagine a Waffle House without her, or Johnny Cash, or Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA"; it'd be like a Waffle House without syrup. Tonight I am a Nighthawk hunched over a burger, pretending that I inhabit some noir fantasy. Yet I am not here so much as I am caught up in my own silent reverie, the director of a movie only I can see.

Thinking on this, I return to a Tuesday morning a few years ago. I walk to the nearby theater to see Grindhouse. It is raining, cold and dreary, and I wear a heavy overcoat. I have already seen the double-feature of ersatz exploitation flicks, with their post-production film scratches and artfully "missing" reels; I understand the point: an homage to the kinds of lousy movies shown in skanky auditoriums that once housed burlesque shows or, even earlier, vaudeville venues. Grindhouse is a performance of malstalgia (yes, it is doubly-bad), something so intentionally awful that it seeks to return back to something kind of cool. I get the joke. So I drag my way up to the ticket window, prepared to creak out a one-word command. Not the cheerful, chirpy announcement of a happy foursome calling out their choice for an evening of safe entertainment ("Four tickets for the 7:15 Shrek, please!") but something guttural, dripping with whiskey, stretching out the miserable last syllable: "Grindhousssss," as if I'm some sad letch wandering Times Square just after the Midnight Cowboy took his last bus ride. But I can't do it. It's a Tuesday afternoon in my quiet bedroom community and the kids working the ticket booth won't get the joke. I'll feel silly and look stupid, so I abandon my plan.

That's what I love about Waffle House, the safety, the anonymity, the freedom of being up at 4:43 a.m. some place hundreds of miles from home. I do not come here to experience the communitas of meeting up with an old buddy, the friendly banter of a neighborhood crew of regulars passing the time. I come for the freedom of being unknown, the freedom to sit a while and then to return to the night without more than a brief word of thanks and a decent tip. So I sit here and listen to Patsy Cline's "Crazy." My motions become slower and I allow my fingers to drift over the table, drawing the coffee cup closer to me, leaning down to inhale the aroma, feeling something of that dull ache of childhood years.

I know the truth, though. My heart is not broken tonight. Indeed, I know that my spouse patiently endures these silly games I play, racing off to Phoenix for an essay on Waffle House, flying off to New York to drive silently back across the country to write my introduction to a book on omnitopia, even crossing the globe to wander the alleys of Hong Kong, all to gain some vivid understanding of urban life never known in my younger suburban shuffles. I drive and fly and race to perform moments of silent wandering, through memories never personally known.

Part 9 of 10 appears tomorrow.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Waffle House: 7 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

Any place becomes an entirely different place at night...

Late one evening, about 2 a.m., I sit in the 59th Avenue Waffle House. At the table across from me, a guy and a red ballcap, a Bluetooth device stuck in his ear, sits with a forlorn looking woman. She's tapping on her mobile phone. Texting someone, I suppose. No, it turns out she's scrolling through an electronic assemblage of toots and beeps and whistles, selecting a ringtone. A server walks by and deposits some coffee: "I was wondering where those sounds came from," she says with a smile. Neither patron utters a word in reply.

I get up and slide a dollar in the juke: Eric Clapton's "After Midnight." No one seems to care. Soon thereafter the machine cranks up "House of the Rising Sun" (The Animals version, of course), and the grill cook whistles along. "Last Night I Saw Elvis At The Waffle House" follows, and the guy slinging eggs turns around:
"Who played that?" he asks.
"I did," I reply sheepishly.
"That's a good song!"
He then starts to sing a few lines. Finally I seal the deal with Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues."

The cook asks me: Why Johnny'd shoot a man in Reno ("just to watch him die") only to wind up in California's Folsom Prison?
"Maybe the guy he shot crawled across the state line," I offer.
"You sure have a taste in music, guy."
The caffeine is working its magic and I'm getting a bit jittery. It seems like a good time to head out and find another Waffle House, to check out the early morning vibe elsewhere. Just across the street, I spot a gas station and fill up. Behind me, tires squeal. An unmarked cop car races up and a young guy in a buzzcut races into the store where I'd been sitting. The place empties out. I have no idea why.

I head to the Waffle House on University. It's a different scene than when I first visited in daylight a few hours before. In normal times, this Waffle House seems fit into the omnitopian pattern, part of an office-park hotel complex, and the only place during my Phoenix fast food travels where I score free wireless (easy internet access is as essential to omnitopia as holy water is to a cathedral). But the mood is much more tense when I return at 3:43 a.m., just having left that strange parking lot scene on 59th. The server offers a menu, but I can tell she's shaking.
"How are you?" she asks.
"Fine. How are you?"
"OK, I guess, for someone who just got robbed."
Part 8 of 10 appears tomorrow.
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Monday, August 3, 2009

Waffle House: 6 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

Does Waffle House lead away from omnitopia or toward the same continuum?...

I can think of few Waffle Houses that sport a cactus out front, but this one on Baseline, just off I-10, does. I walk in and find one of the many varieties of Waffle House greeting. Some are cheery, some are wan, some are tired, and some are genuinely pleasant. But it's inevitable, I end up chatting with someone every time I pass through those doors. A woman wearing caked blue eye shadow offers me a piece of pecan pie, and I drift back to The Mamas & the Papas, "California Dreamin." Somehow I am here but not entirely here.

Further south in a Chandler Waffle House I bop my head to a jukebox tune, "Last Night I Saw Elvis At The Waffle House." A fellow serving tables shoots my way, asking, "Have you seen Dewey Cox?" In most contexts, his is an odd question. Here, not so much. As it turns out, yes, I have seen Walk Hard. Indeed, I listened to the soundtrack on the way here. Within a moment, he and I trade our favorite lines from the mockumentary until he leans closer in and asks in an almost conspiratorial tone: "What do you think of the rap version of "Walk Hard"? I dip my spoon into some Bert's Chili and think carefully. This moment is different than any other I've experienced in a Waffle House. And that's the point. This place is built for random connections. It is a locale, at least it is one of sorts.

That famed Waffle House jukebox also contributes to its sense of locale, and yet, somewhat paradoxically, illustrates how each store seems to convey its inhabitants to a common place in a manner fairly termed omnitopian. In my experience, Waffle House jukeboxes seem to offer a consistent set of choices. Waffle House standards include songs created just for the chain, such as "I'm Going Back to the Waffle House," "There are Raisins in my Toast," and (a personal favorite) "844,739 Ways to Eat a Hamburger." Some Waffle House jukeboxes are tiny units mounted over individual tables. But not in the Phoenix area. These jukes are big standalone monsters. Even without glowing lights or flowing water beads, these jukes are sufficiently impressive to draw attention. And when you plunk in your quarters or dollars, everyone's going to know something of your musical taste.

There's something wonderful about a jukebox that has been largely bypassed in our contemporary rush to create individual aural enclaves. When I was a kid, I remember huge boom boxes hoisted above t-shirted shoulders, and before that I remember transistor radios: mobile stations that crossed paths in intricate and complicated ways. Before that, I vaguely recall the ways in which stationary radio receivers played music from shops and stores around town, producing a happy cacophony of words and tunes. Pop culture was shared, for better or for worse, in these spaces of overlapping choice.

These days, an age of the clinically white iPod earbud, such sonic seepage is impolite, even threatening. You imagine that you might walk over to the car whose subwoofers are loud enough to crack concrete and chat with the driver -- say, could you turn that down a bit? -- but you probably never will. More likely you'll turn up the volume to your personal audio device and shut your eyes to the ugly world outside.

Thus the pleasure of the Waffle House jukebox: an invitation to play deejay for a group of strangers. Sure, there's risk there too. You really want to play Village People? Ooops. The truckers will look at you funny. Try again. Maybe something more classic: "New Kid in Town." But you press the wrong button and select that awful new Britney Spears song when you really intended to play The Eagles. No matter. Anyplace becomes this place with a jukebox.

And any place becomes an entirely different place at night.

Part 7 of 10 appears tomorrow.

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