Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Fun Post: Happy Halloween!

Getting ready for this weekend's Halloween festivities...

Today and tomorrow are dedicated to final preparations for our ambitious Alien Autopsy II "porch show" [I hope to have pix and video up early next week]. In the meantime, here's a link to a perfectly named website that features bizarre, creepy, and just plain wrong Halloween attire: WTF Costumes.

You've been warned...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Can you rewind…?

Yesterday I was introducing Marshall McLuhan to students of my COMM 101 class. I started with that famous scene from Annie Hall when Woody Allen pricks a media studies professor's pompously incorrect diatribe about McLuhan's notion of hot and cool media by pulling the famed theorist from behind a conveniently placed stand.

McLuhan proceeds to berate the prof: "You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong." It's a wonderful moment that humanizes theory, complicates common sense, and sets up the larger postmodern context that my students are beginning to enter (if only in the classroom).

Thereafter I started working through McLuhan's media theory of history, comparing oral and textual eras of society. Folks were asking questions, making notes, and struggling to see the bigger point. For many, I suppose, it seemed like we were plowing through some dead history without relevance or utility. What does Marshall McLuhan tell us about human communication today? Then this moment:

McLuhan's endlessly frustrating, endlessly fascinating aphorism, "The medium is the message" is hanging in the air when one of my students raises his hand. "Hold up," he says, looking through his notes with an earnest expression. "Can you rewind and say that again?" He's a smart guy, this student, but he doesn't yet see the what just happened. I ask for him to repeat his question, and for his colleagues to listen closely to the words: "Can you rewind…?" The student smiles and a few of his peers laugh good-naturedly. They get it.

If McLuhan could somehow enter my classroom, he might find my own media cluelessness just as incredulous as he found that fellow in Annie Hall. But I have no doubt that he would have loved the moment.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Doonesbury at 40

Doonesbury © G.B. Trudeau and Universal Press Syndicate
Can you believe that Doonesbury is celebrating its 40th anniversary today? 40 years! I started reading Doonesbury when I was in middle school after picking a paperback collection of Watergate-era strips from a pile of mildewed books at a yard sale. Most of the jokes were too esoteric for me to understand, but I loved the detail and precision of those drawings. As I read other Doonesbury books, checking them out from the school library, I started to understand the characters and their relationships to the world outside the comic frame. I was hooked.

Turns out, Doonsbury creator G.B. Trudeau didn't set out for a life in comics (or, in some papers, the editorial pages); he wanted to be an illustrator. At first he didn't show much promise for even that line of work. Trudeau's early strips were wiry, confusing, almost unintelligible. And the world they inhabited, fictional Walden College and a nearby commune, could hardly spark the imaginations of children; Walden was too small, too localized, too adult. You'd hardly imagine that Trudeau had a future in the fickle world of the funny pages.

But Trudeau expanded his reach, and Doonesbury's world grew. The comic started tackling tough and timely topics that other comics wouldn't touch [I have no idea why I'm drawn to alliteration today. Sorry]. Some of Trudeau's characters retained some degree of childlike innocence - you could tell by the wide shape of their eyes - but most were firmly caught in the adult world. For many Americans, especially those reactionary buffoons so deserving of cartoon comeuppance, Trudeau created a hard world to love.

Still, Doonesbury ultimately revealed the humanity of even the most complicated or controversial characters. As a result many Americans found that they could relate to Vietcong insurgents when they met Phred the Terrorist, identity with "women's libbers" when they cheered Joanie Caucus, commiserate with AIDS sufferers when they wept at the passing of Andy Lippincott, and confront the realities of war when they saw B.D. lose a leg in Iraq. Unlike its timeless cousins, change was practically a character in this comic. Especially after Doonesbury's 1983-84 reboot, characters tried new careers, got married, had kids, and grew old. Some died sadly, some sweetly. Trudeau's world converged with ours.

I hate to admit it but I don't read Doonsbury as regularly as I once did; comics aren't part of my regular routine these days. But I still keep up with my favorite characters by flipping through new books and occasionally dipping into their daily adventures. Occasionally in class I'll flash back to my all-time favorite strip, the January 27, 1985 Teaching is Dead cri du coeur that speaks eloquence to the sadness that can sometimes overcome any educator these days. Stung awake, I can't help but smile.

Reflecting on the impact that G.B. Trudeau's creation(s) had on my imagination, I conclude with the best compliment I ever saw paid to a comic strip. I don't recall the exact line, but someone once said that the dependably honest satire of Doonsbury - never shrinking from its essential struggles against stupidity and pomposity - is like leaving a nice bike unlocked on a busy sidewalk. It's a big risk; it's sure to get lost or stolen. Yet day after day, year after year, Doonsbury is still there. It's an amazing feat.

Timeline: Slate has pulled together a collection of the strip's funniest, strangest, and most memorable moments. Check it out:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Planning Europe 2011

Update: Nov 19

Jenny and I have begun to clarify our Europe plans. Here's the most recent itinerary - following a rough course of our anticipated travels over about 24 days. Any recommendations for these places? Advice? Warnings?

Also, you can scroll down a bit to find our original post featuring more detail about what we want to do in some of these locations.

• Northern Scotland - 2 days

• London - 2 days

• Hamburg - 1 day

• Frankfurt - 1 day

• Prague - 2 days

• Budapest - 2 days

• Vienna - 2 days

• Athens - 2 days

• Santorini - 2 days

• Florence - 2 days

• Pisa - 1 day

• Nice - 1 day

• Paris - 3 days

It begins!

Jenny and I have just begun planning our Europe trip for August 2011. We hope to make it from the UK to Turkey, but we may end up sticking with Western Europe if our schedule gets overly packed.

So far our top four priorities are Paris, Northern Scotland, London, and Hamburg (the order of which are, of course, subject to revision).

Now we're fleshing out the details and adding additional stops. Have you any recommendations?

1. Paris for two or three days

Place de Dublin - Intersection of rue de Turin and rue de Moscou near Saint-Lazare train station (to see the location for my favorite paintingParis Street, Rainy Day - see blog posts here and here). I suppose we'll also want to spend a bit of time in the train station to see where Monet painted Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare.

Passage des Panoramas and Passage Jouffroy (because of my interest in 19th century shopping/walking arcades)

Jardin des Tuileries

Basilique du Sacre-Coeur

Arc de Triomphe

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Musée du Louvre (already I'm finding some hints on how to survive this place. Elsewhere I found some notes on seeing Mona Lisa: "Waiting to see the Mona Lisa has all the thrill of standing in an airport check-in queue. The crowd pushes forward, cattle-like and unquestioning, performing a ritual they know they have to go through with in order to complete a pre-ordained tourist experience.")

Musee d'Orsay (to see its collection of early modern art)

• Musée National d'Art Moderne (to see its collection of 20th Century modern art)

• And, of course, we've got to at least see the Eiffel Tower!

2. Northern Scotland for a day or two (to learn a bit more about my Frazier Family roots)

• Castle Urquhart - near Inverness

• Castle Dunnottar - south of Aberdeen

• Castle Fraser - near Kemnay

3. London for a day or two

• London Eye (a top priority for Jenny)

• Stonehenge

• Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park

• Tower of London

4. Germany

• Hamburg to see Miniatur Wonderuland (a world-renowned "tiny town")

• Frankfurt (Jenny has a friend she wants to see there)

Other priorities in order of importance:

5. Greece - Athens and Greek islands (definitely Santorini)

6. Italy - Florence or Venice

7. Turkey - Istanbul - (Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar, etc.)

8. Czech Republic - Prague (Nationale-Nederlanden Building)

9. Austria - Vienna

10. Hungary - Budapest

Europe in three weeks is a bit crazy, but we're going to experience as much as we can. Got any suggestions? Hints? Warnings? Please post a comment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Fun Post: Chicago Neon

Yes. This is exactly what you think it is.
Image from Time Out Chicago.

A few weeks ago came across this swell collection of Chicagoland neon signs. I've been thinking about doing a midwest roadtrip sometime in the next couple years, shooting architectural relics and old school signage around Illinois and Michigan. Now I definitely know a few places I'll have to see...

Enjoy the show: Chicagoland’s amazing neon signs (Time Out Chicago)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Something feels different this time

"Something feels different this time.": This quote from Fareed Zakaria's Time essay, "How to restore the American Dream," rings true to me. I recommend this piece for its honest and thoughtful assessment of our nation's contemporary fears and potential. A few excerpts:

What's happening today: "The middle class, many Americans have come to believe, is being hollowed out. I think they are right."

Why is the middle class getting hammered? "You can divide the American workforce in many ways, but any way you slice it, you see the same trend. People who get paid a decent wage for skilled but routine work in manufacturing or services are getting squeezed by a pincer movement of technology and globalization."

One part of the solution: Grow our economy by investment, not by goosing consumption: "The only good jobs that will stay in the U.S. are jobs related to knowledge and innovation." And, yes, changes to our tax system must be part of the plan. But the Republican mantra of "cut 'em all" suffers from near criminal cluelessness.

The time to act is now: "America needs radical change, and it has an 18th century system determined to check and balance the absolute power of a monarchy. It is designed for gridlock at a moment when quick and large-scale action is our only hope."

Read the entire article: How to Restore the American Dream

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Three Nights in Bangkok

Getting there... I'm working through my notes to post the story of our summer adventures in Asia. Now I can share our three nights in Bangkok. Of course if you haven't yet read the full story - including our time in Shanghai and Hangzhou - you might want to start at the beginning.

Oh, and don't forget to check out our two videos. One's dedicated to the 2010 Shanghai World's Fair; the other video summarizes the entire trip.

Coming next: Chiang Mai and Phuket!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Season of the Witch

Just a couple weeks until Halloween, my favorite holiday. Jenny and I started building a big prop for this year's show. I'll talk more about our porch theme in coming posts. But for now, just imagine what we can do with three large pieces of sheet metal and a couple metal vents. Rolling our gear out of Home Depot this past Saturday, we were stopped by a woman who asked whether our metal was corrugated. I had no clue. She then asked what were building. We told her in a matter-of-fact way, but she didn't believe us. We have 13 days to create a multimedia show that involves music, video, photos, live theater, and lots of blood (both red and green). Yep, it's time to break out the PG-13 signs (PG for "Pretty Gory").

The rainy season has begun, earlier than normal this year. And the drizzle has cast a pallor over our little corner of California. I gave a speech yesterday at San Jose's First Congregational Church and experienced one of the more intellectually stimulating chats I've had all year, even with my somewhat pessimistic thesis. We talked about the impact of world's fairs on city planning, exploring the dark side of all that idealism, all that hubris. It's my second presentation for these folks, and they asked if I'd return next year. One called me "Mr. October." We had a lovely time together, especially when a fellow shared a notion - the design replaces the divine - that may show up in my next book. It's a shame that this sort of visceral exchange can't be found in what passes for political debates these days. The midterm elections promise to be a bloodbath, not just for Democrats but also for decorum.

Creepy behavior abounds, especially among the bright lights of the Tea Party. Republican senatorial Rand Paul refused to shake hands with his opponent after a debate that featured accusations that Rand once tied up a woman and forced her to worship "Aqua Buddha."

At an Alaska town hall meeting, private security goons working for GOP senate candidate Joe Miller responded to a pesky news-website editor by roughing him up and placing him in handcuffs. The rent-a-cops justified their shenanigans by explaining that the forum, which was held in a public middle school, was "private property."

Then there's New York's race for governor, where Carl Paladino has forced Democratic rival Andrew Cuomo to debate the Anti-Prohibition Party candidate, who also happens to be the former madam on Eliot Spitzer's speed dial. Paladino: this is the guy who explained his choice to email sex-videos involving horses thusly: "If the worst I ever did was send out some non-politically correct e-mails, my God."

Oh, and loony senator wannabe Christine O'Donnell is airing commercials assuring the voters of Delaware that she's not a witch.

Trick or Treat!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Fun Post: GVSU LipDub

This is one of the most remarkable videos I've ever seen. If you've not seen it, take a look. You'll figure it out soon enough: It's a goofy lipdub. Yawn. But keep looking and remember: this is one shot (at least until the end). One amazing tracking shot.

Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Signs of Europe

During my summer trip to Germany and Austria, I focused on big ideas and big activities: the Salzburg Seminar, the chance to experience Cafe Culture in Vienna, and the opportunity to deepen my relationship with good friends. But I also concentrated on details such as street art - the kind of stuff that lots of folks tend to ignore.

Along with that ephemera, I also found myself snapping pix of strange and humorous signs (most notably, Austria's surreal Freedom From Fear advertisement for the Polizei). Problem is, I haven't had an excuse to share them. Thus, for no particular reason, here are some goofy signs I saw in Europe. Set your snark detectors on high!

German exclamation points
make child's play look mildly disturbing. Like,
aren't those the girls from The Shining?

Yes, I agree. It's a bad idea to enter the railway facilities.
But why make the guard look like Gort from
The Day the Earth Stood Still?

Maybe it's my Puritan heritage speaking, but sometimes a sign can be
a little too iconic, you know?

Warning: This elevator occupied by slackers with nothing to lose!

Big Brother is watching. Watching you drink!

Not here. Not here. Nope, not here either. And God help you if you stop here!
(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Better Cities, Better Lives: World’s Fairs and New Urban Design (1851-2010)

This Sunday I'm giving my second talk at the First Congregational Church of San Jose, United Church of Christ. Here's the abstract:

Having explored omnitopia as a framework for understanding public life - studying its early 19th and 20th century origins, analyzing its practices in airports, shopping malls, hotels, and casinos, and contemplating its implications for human communication - this follow-up presentation concentrates on world's fairs as exemplars of omnitopia.

Dr. Wood presents a tour of the great international expos in world history, including the 1851 London Exposition, the 1893 Chicago Fair, and the 1939-40 World's Fair in New York, showing how these sites of cultural production inspired transformations in public life that resonate today, change-agents that include television, suburbanization, and globalization.

This talk will also highlight the current world's fair in Shanghai - the largest international exposition in history - and invite analysis about California's hopes to mount Expo 2020 in Silicon Valley. Additionally, throughout, the role of church in these phantasmagoria of commerce and technology, both then and now, will be a site for vibrant conversation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Disconnect to Connect

A while back I was invited to present a talk about City Ubiquitous for SJSU alumni. It was one of those one-shot deals that gave me a chance to meet some cool folks but, presumably, was not a long-term-impact thing. I'm so glad I was wrong about that assumption. One lovely gift from that presentation was the chance to get to know our university director of alumni relations, Paul Richardson, a bit more. He really caught the vision of the omnitopia project and has shared his thoughts about the idea in occasional conversations and emails since that Phoenix presentation. Cool, right? But now Paul's outdone himself. He sent me a DTAC (Thai mobile phone company) video yesterday that just blew me away. It's called "Disconnect to Connect."

Normally this is the kind of video that calls for a shot by shot analysis, but the elegant beauty of this piece requires no highfalutin interpretation. Telling its story with images (until the end) this video conveys a sad dimension of our wireless lives, that we can connect with anyone around the world but find ourselves increasingly isolated from the people around us. Anyone who's read my blog knows that this is a constant hum of concern in the back of my mind. I see people standing together - friends, family members - who seem more interested in talking or tapping to disembodied folks far away than in being with persons close enough to touch. This video says what I've wanted to say with so much more power than any speech I've given. Check it out (and pay particular attention to the umbrella).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Skydiving over Hollister, CA

After more than 20 years of talking about it, Jenny and I went skydiving on Saturday. She got a pretty decent discount deal for an outfit called Skydive Hollister (the ones with the cheesy web address, and a promise for the "cheapest slots in the bay"). That's right, we gleefully invited our own deaths with a discount skydiving company! Actually, from what I've heard - and definitely from what we saw - these folks know what they're doing. The jump was professionally handled, and we were in good hands all the way down. I never felt anything but safe, considering that we purposefully hurled ourselves out of an airplane at 15,000 feet.

So, what's it like to skydive?

Well, it begins with some preparation. Maybe a month and a half before our jump, I was working at home when I got an email from Jenny: "Hey, wanna skydive?" Honestly I was too busy to dwell on the idea. But after two decades of saying we'd have to try it "someday" I couldn't say no. She had a "Groupon" and was willing to handle the arrangements; I had no excuses. The training and jumps themselves would be relatively cheap. Add videos and photos (a much more complex operation for all concerned, since individual jumpers would memorialize our exploits) and the total was around $450.

Waiting for our jump-day to arrive, both of us continued to be inundated with work and travel. There just wasn't any time to contemplate the gravity of our situation (sorry 'bout that). Only in the final days did I occasionally think: "You're really doing this. You know that, right?" I had some trouble sleeping the night before, especially when I did the math and realized: "Dude, you're jumping from 15,000 feet. That's almost three miles!" That morning my joints felt a little creaky, and I pondered, "I'm going to throw this body out of an airplane." Putting on some antiperspirant, I really slathered the stuff on. I figured it could get a little hot today.

Jenny joined me in feeling a little wired about our day's adventure, so she suggested that we pump ourselves up for the drive to Hollister by playing some suitable music. Our trip-list: Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly," Pink Floyd's "Learning to Fly," along with U2's "Vertigo," "Elevation," and "Beautiful Day." We also downloaded Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" but forgot to play that one. Our weirdest but most appropriate choice? Styx's "Come sail away."

Arriving at about ten, we had little clue what to expect. Well, we knew of one thing: We were going to hang around for a while. The Hollister folks had warned us to anticipate a two to four-hour wait from arrival to jump time. Some snippy Yelp reviewers had moaned of daylong drags in a boring facility without much to do. Fortunately the schedule seemed to be moving along smoothly. We paid our fee and were invited to select three pieces of music to accompany the videos they'd make. Not so amazingly (knowing Jenny and I) we chose the same three pieces from their list (Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly," U2's "Elevation," and some knock-off version of ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky").

We also signed "You can die doing this stuff, but you can't sue us" paperwork, which included an obligation to write out a phrase signifying our knowledge that this activity can end in "injury or death." To reinforce the message, we also sat through a video hosted by tandem parachute equipment pioneer Bill Booth (a guy whose epic beard earned him the nickname of "ZZ Top guy"). Staring into the camera, ZZ Top promised us that litigation is futile even in cases of a staff member's "gross negligence." Reflecting on that warning, I imagined myself in court: "But my instructor held me up at gunpoint. He stole my wallet!" - only to have some smirking defense attorney hold my signed waiver up for all to see: "But you were in a parachute, correct?"

We locked our stuff in the car after being assured that anything in our pockets would be lost in the air, and we waited. I'd dutifully brought some papers to grade, but couldn't muster an ounce of energy for that task. Instead I flipped through a book about surfing and occasionally joined some smalltalk with Jenny and another woman making her first jump. Our new pal's boyfriend was making his eighteenth solo flight, and he projected only the most subtle trace of swagger as he described how he'd advanced through the Accelerated Freefall training program over a few weekends. When one of the jump instructors walked by, he offered a hearty shout-out: "Didya hear about that new suit?" - naming an otherwise random assemblage of letters and numbers. I flashed back to that scene in Star Wars, when one stormtrooper asked another, "Have you seen the new BT-16?" I felt strangely still, waiting.

Right about then, geared-up instructors and googly-eyed jumpers walked past. I knew it: These folks had just gone up and it was our turn next. Like turning a dial to ten, things sped up. I was called by name and directed to a guy wearing an Army t-shirt who looked just like a young Tom Sizemore. Another fellow joined us, describing how he'd be shooting video and reminding me that I might want to grab onto his feet at some point. "Grab onto your feet?" I wondered to myself. My mind spun. I was trying to remember the names of these folks; it seemed like a good thing to know.

I learned that my trainer - the guy who'd be attached to my back the whole way down - was nicknamed "Mr. Rogers." His attitude was reassuringly no-nonsense. He explained the procedure of tandem parachuting and emphasized my role in this relationship: my job was to arch my back and to relax my arms. I didn't feel the slightest desire to point out the contradiction. For good measure Mr. Rogers instructed me to get on the deck and practice. Ever the studious learner, I tried once, got an OK, and then asked if I could try it again. "I'm thinking it, but I'm not feeling it."

"Oh man," my instructor was surely thinking. "This guy's going to be a handful."

Then we got harnessed up. Tight. Tighter than you'd imagine. I looked over at Jenny who was enduring the same process. She was laughing. I just wondered how much more squeezed my jiggly-bits would be with every adjustment. Time was racing now. We were getting suited up. We were walking outside. We were boarding a small plane. We were packed in to a tiny cabin. We were aloft. I was sitting between Mr. Rogers' legs; he was adjusting my gear tighter and tighter. Videographers were asking us questions for the shows they'd later produce, and Jenny and I somehow managed to answer. We were performing our parts: high-fiving, fist-pumping, woo-hooing. All the while my instructor counted off adjustments, hooking us ever closer together. "One. Two. Three. Four." [squeeze, clinch, shove, pull]. "Did you feel those?" Oh yeah. Then he told me on three separate moments, "I'm gonna ask you, 'Are you ready to skydive?' What are you going to say?"

The door was open and I felt cold. We circled higher and higher, watching the blue curve of Monterey Bay arch away from the Pacific. Someone else in the plane had forgotten their antiperspirant. I was focused on the bloody handprint stuck to the window. Halloween is coming, and someone thought it'd be funny to place a plastic reminder on the glass. I realized then that the only truly terrifying part of this adventure was the physical process of jumping. I still couldn't quite fathom what we were going to do. Would we stand up? Does one person go first, followed by the other? What if the wind snaps us against the plane? Oh, and what if all those adjustments fail and I plummet to a fast and violent death?

I reminded myself that I can't control what's going to happen. I'm going to be hurtling toward the ground with only confidence that my instructor knows what he's doing. I could only presume that this dude also, you know, wants to live. As we continued our climb, Mr. Rogers told me about his experience, that he'd made thousands of jumps and was the instructors' supervisor that day. I felt calm enough, I guess, even as I watched Jenny scoot toward the door. She and her instructor were going first. I patted her shoulder and we smiled at each other. They took their positions. They rocked - forward, back, forward - and were gone.

"Are you ready to skydive?" Mr. Rogers asked. "I am ready to skydive," I replied. What else could I say? We edged up to the open door. My feet dangled crazily out of the plane. I thought for a second that we might fall accidentally, just slip off the edge. How bad could that be? We're going out anyway. Then I thought more about what it'd be like to slam against the side of the plane or to cartwheel off into the air due to some micromoment of error. Just a second or two to go. We shifted our position as my instructor made his last adjustments. I thought about all those straps and connections. All that work, just for this. Then we rocked. Forward, back, out.

An explosion of wind blew my mouth open. I didn't feel velocity so much as pressure. The air pounded against my chest and I yelled for the thrill of it all. I knew we were falling at a rate of about 120 miles per hour, but I felt no fear. Nothing but exhilaration. My mouth grew stale with the storm rattling my tongue; I didn't care. We plunged and I shouted "Hell yeah!" I loved the feeling of racing toward the ground, daring it to grab me. I arched my back and held onto the straps when my instructor checked his altimeter. I remembered that he had a helmet, but that I didn't. I wondered why. The wind beat against my goggles. Then, a jolt. The canopy deployed and we hung in sudden stillness.

At this point we had a few moments to enjoy the ride. I looked down mostly, fascinated by the miniature buildings and the grand scale. Mr. Rogers then started teaching me how to turn, and we were soon whooshing left and right. He told me to pull one cable down beneath his knee and we began to twirl in sharp horizontal loops. I guess he felt that I was doing OK, because he let me navigate toward a church. We'd be landing somewhere nearby. I loved the feeling of controlling our descent, maneuvering us toward the ground. I removed my goggles and took it all in. Only at 1000 feet to go did Mr. Rogers regain the controls. The speed had become a tangible thing now. My bones would hit the ground one way or the other.

Mr. Rogers didn't curse, but I could tell he wasn't happy with the speed and angle of our final approach. Something about the wind. We were falling toward a field at a sharp pitch, heading directly for a fence topped with barbed wire. He yelled, "Kick your feet up!" I figured we'd land hard. I thought about speed, time, and direction. I was sure we'd plow into that fence. I wasn't frightened, though, just aware. My job was to kick my feet up; Mr. Rogers' job was to land us. One second, maybe two, and the canopy flared above our heads. We hit the ground and began to slide feet-first toward the fence, unearthing a plume of dust. There was nothing to do but to wait it out. I wondered if we'd get tangled in the barbed wire, how much it would hurt. Then, without so much as a flex of muscle, we stopped - maybe six feet before the fence. My heart was rattling. We didn't get a scratch.

And that was it. I stood up and Mr. Rogers congratulated me on being a good student. We shook hands and I turned to find Jenny. She was thrilled but a little shaky. Her descent had been a little rough on her stomach. We hugged gently. The mood was buoyant as our little group collected the gear and climbed into a tiny yellow bus. Once more we were squeezed in tight for the 20 minute drive back to Hollister. My videographer showed me photos and footage of the flight; I was grateful for his work. But almost immediately the moment seemed to grow abstract. I knew that Jenny and I had jumped out of an airplane - we'd just done it! - but seeing it all on those tiny screens made the whole experience seem almost artificial. I felt the dust on my pants and the icky pallor in my mouth. That was real enough.

We returned to the airport to get unhooked. Walking through the set-up area, it was fun being on the other side of this moment, enjoying the cocky feeling of strolling back from a jump. I thanked Mr. Rogers for his patience and expertise, and left a reasonable tip. I mean, really, I'd put my life in this guy's hands. Jenny and I then shared lunch at the nearby Ding-A-Ling Cafe while we waited for our videos to be completed. I ate a hamburger and contemplated the rest of our day, how we'd go home to look through our photos and maybe later see that new movie, The Social Network. Everything on the ground seemed smaller than it did before. And now for the big question: Will we do it again?

At this point I'd say, we probably will. Jenny loved skydiving, and I've got to admit that I'd like to try once more, if only for the opportunity to be more "present." All day I dwelled too much on minutiae and not enough on the feeling of being there. Moreover during the flight I tended to look downward too much, staring at the details of the ground. Next time I'd focus more on the horizon. And I'd like to arch my back more. And should relax my arms more… Ooops - there's that instructor over my shoulder again. Maybe the coolest part of going back, ultimately of getting certified, is the possibility of jumping alone. Oh, to feel that abyss of reality rushing toward me, with nothing but faith, equipment, and training to keep me safe. It's an expensive hobby, skydiving. It's also a hardcore way to die. But a life in the air (at least on weekends) would be a remarkable thing. We've gone once - and that's the hard part.

Yeah, we'll do it again.

(Special thanks to Skydive Hollister for the photographs and raw footage.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Progress on the Asia Trip Summary

Slowly, slowly I'm making progress on the trip summary of our two weeks in China and Thailand. I've finally uploaded a shareable version of our days in Shanghai and Hangzhou after the world's fair. Now, having endured a litany of computer problems and overloaded workdays, I'm caught up through the conclusion of our China trip. Over the next week or so I hope to add our adventures in Bangkok and other Thai cities.

So... if you want, you can return to our trip by starting either at day one - or you can jump right to day four - the trip to Hangzhou.

Wat Arun - our first day in Bangkok
As always, there's plenty of room for error. If you catch typos or opportunities for clarification, don't be shy. Let me know!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wood's Writing Guide - Index

Wood's Writing Guide is a growing collection of advice and commentary about the written word. These posts are developed for SJSU students, but anyone is welcome to use them. Just remember, WWG is incomplete. If you spot typos, errors, or opportunities for clarification, post a comment.

Big Stuff


• Learning to Decode Scholarly Journal Articles - Don't dismiss a challenging scholarly article as pointlessly overwritten, at least without first considering a basic question: For whom is the article composed?

Research Questions - Searching for the Lost Research Question requires courage to define your own story, not just to repeat the stories of others.

Literature Reviews - Literature reviews challenge you to enter a scholarly conversation, make sense of important themes and participants, and convey that sense-making to others.


Keeping Your Voice - One of the hardest lessons to be learned by a college student is how to not write like a college student.

Getting Better - Want to improve your writing? Start with these steps. You will get better.

Small Stuff

Word Choice

Hopefully [in a hopeful manner] - Chances are you never thought much about it, but the word "hopefully" is mired in controversy.

Use vs. Utilize - If your goal is precision rather than puffery, you want to know the difference between "use" and "utilize."

State, don't Believe - You might be inclined to add "I believe" precisely because you don't know with 100% certainty. Even so, don't do it.


Its vs It's - How can you avoid getting trapped by the its/it's dilemma? Two reminders.

Taming the Semicolon - The semicolon should be caged until you know exactly how to handle this beast.

Feel free to bookmark this page. I'll try to add more posts as time allows.

Would you like me to cover a particular topic? Send me an email:

Andrew [dot] Wood [at] sjsu [dot] edu

(sorry for the lack of link; I'm trying to avoid spam)

Reed's Motel

I've always had a particular fondness for this motel, which is located east of Tampa in Florida. So when we were driving back from Miami I had to grab some footage...

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Oil City Brass Works

A high school pal of ours, Michelle Templin, recently treated us to a walking tour of downtown Beaumont, Texas. Pounding heat and imminent rain quickened our pace, but I had to stop when I saw the Oil City Brass Works on the corner of Crockett and Neches.

The Brass Works resides in the Beaumont Commercial District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The city's downtown presents a swell collection of early twentieth-century architecture from a time when money flowed as oil through southeastern Texas.

Throughout our tour we walked alongside confident art deco buildings and peeked down narrow alleys. But nothing really spoke to me until I saw this building a few blocks away. Summoning up my best Liz Lemon catchphrase, I assured my friends: "I want to go to there."

I don't know anything about Beaumont's City Brass Works, but I love this building. There's a stark, quiet sadness to the place: the spirit of a relic that somehow affirms my appreciation for life. While Jenny and Michelle chatted, I stumbled about in search of pictures. A few minutes later the rain began to fall.

Not technically at the Brass Works,
but close enough...

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Return to South Beach

We'd waited ten years for the chance to enjoy this view
As part of our family-and-friend reunion travels last week, Jenny and I overnighted in South Beach, Florida. Again. Yep, we're suckers for consistency. Except this time we finally stayed in the Delano Hotel. It was our most expensive night of lodging that I can recall, and well worth every penny. The all white room (accented with a single green apple), the near excessively attentive service, and (finally) the chance to play on that oversized chess set, past the area where they ask, "room number, please…" The Delano was a delight!

Where the heck is that King?
One occasional hassle: September rain. Yeah, we grew up in Florida, but we'd forgotten about the seasonal storms that the "Sunshine State" racks up that kind of year. In fact when we pulled behind the tall hedges separating Collins Avenue and the Delano's long, dreamy hallway lobby and flowing curtains, I was planning to drop Jenny off and find parking elsewhere. The pouring rain convinced me to pay for valet parking instead. We didn't mind the weather, though. Our room was comfy, and when we couldn't sit out by the pool we played the indoor variety (I generally won our games until an "all the marbles" competition in which Jenny earned a hard-fought victory).

With evening, the clouds parted, so Jenny and I toured Lincoln Road and checked out the neon signs of the art deco district. Once again we left the D5000 at home and stuck with our tiny, imminently losable (but lovable) PowerShot. My first trip to South Beach, back in '91, hooked me, and every time we return I have to see the gorgeous marquees of those hotels by the sea. We also savored some of Jenny's beloved cuban food (this time at David's Cafe II; I think Lario's is a bit better), split a desert at Ghirardelli's, and picked up some cigars for a pal. Returning to the Delano we found a velvet rope blocking the door for a party inside. The world parted for us, though. We had a key.

Blue skies greeted us early the next morning, inspiring us to lounge by the pool. We ordered up a sinfully expensive breakfast delivered to our chairs and then hung out at the beach for a while. The waves smashed against the warm sand, and once more I turned to that friendly skyline of art deco rayguns. Early on I figured this would be our last trip to South Beach for a while, given the expense of the Delano. But Jenny and I agree: we'll be back this way again soon.

Yeah, they got a table in the pool.
(Photos and video by Andrew Wood)