Thursday, June 30, 2016

Spain: Missing batteries in Barcelona

While I didn’t write a formal blog post for my Summer 2016 European adventures, I thought it’d be fun to share some memories I initially stored on Facebook.


The good news: After a wonderful day exploring the Sagrada Familia, Jenny and I enjoyed a delightful evening of Flamenco at Tablao Flamenco Cordobes. The food was off-the-charts amazing. Maybe not such incredible quality, but you can't beat the deal: An endless supply of gazpacho, jamon, paella, and other yummy treats - not to mention a vast assortment of desserts and all-you-can-drink wine. Oh, and then there's the show. New and more seasoned performers stomping and dancing to 19th century Catalan torch songs, inspiring the audience to clap along with increasing frenzy. The scene was incredible. Of course you'll have to take my word for it; I forgot to bring a battery for our travel camera. Fortunately Jenny is patient with my occasional cluelessness. She merely reminded me a dozen times that I owe her big time. Next mistake she makes, she merely needs to remind me: "Dude, you forgot the battery that night in Barcelona."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Spain: One day in Rota

While I didn’t write a formal blog post for my Summer 2016 European adventures, I thought it’d be fun to share some memories I initially stored on Facebook.


Such a nice day: Sleeping in, finding some fresh shrimp for lunch, picking up some swimwear and snagging a spot on the beach, crashing the waves and thinking “there’s no way I could get sunburned today,” getting thoroughly sunburned, taking a nap, finding a place for some swell paella, spotting a colony of stray cats, “losing” our leftover paella to our new best feline friends, revisiting our first apartment from 26 years ago, slurping up some gelato - and realizing (1) how much this town has changed, (2) how much it is exactly the same, and (3) how little of it we explored back when we lived here!


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Finland: Two nice things

While I didn’t write a formal blog post for my Summer 2016 European adventures, I thought it’d be fun to share some memories I initially stored on Facebook.


Two nice things: Yesterday I joined a pal to visit Jyväskylä's Alvar Aalto Museum, exploring exemplars of Finnish architecture and design. During our visit we got caught up in a pitched battle between an architectural historian who said that Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater was "crap" and that the architect was a "charlatan" and a "criminal" - and his friends who loudly disagreed: "Wright is brilliant," they said, "His designs are so innovative!" We then entered a fascinating conversation about Wright's alleged anti-semitism, thievery, and abuse of his clients. I need to learn more about these topics, I'm not sure about them just yet. But I loved the opportunity to hear such passionate and informative discussion. Then today I noticed how cool it is that the JAMK campus has pianos in some rooms and common areas. Every once in awhile I'll hear a student playing a gorgeous tune, and I appreciate how they can add such beauty to our shared educational experience.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A few questions for Andy

Recently SJSU's College of Social Sciences asked me to answer a few questions about my teaching and research. I'd dreaded this assignment for the past few weeks. Having completed it, though, I found it a useful opportunity to reflect on where I am these days. So I figured I'd archive those thoughts here...

1. What research questions currently preoccupy you?

While my research has generally focused on communication and the built environment, studying structural and perceptual flows whose apparently distinct places convey inhabitants to a singular space, I have begun to examine disruptions in those flows. Initially I explored, somewhat optimistically, the production of “locale” in roadside architecture, arresting places whose evocations of home and community provide a nostalgic and therapeutic response to the stresses of contemporary life. More recently, though, I have concentrated on the somewhat more ambivalent rhetoric and performance of seemingly (but almost never actually) abandoned places. Currently I am interested in the uses, aesthetics, and ethics of “ruin-tourism” practiced in places like Detroit, Post-Katrina New Orleans, and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

2. What personal factors contributed to your study of communication and the built environment?  

I recall a conversation with a senior colleague, now retired, in which I outlined some plans for research into the history and design of postwar motels, now often used as long-term apartments, halfway houses, and shooting galleries. Summarizing my plans, I noted how my interest in roadside architecture began during the years when my spouse and I drove between Ohio and Florida to see our families. I was quite surprised when my friend asked, “but didn’t you tell me that you lived in motels for awhile?” I was amazed that I had somehow forgotten that dimension to my personal interest in the built environment. Fleeing an abusive relationship, moved by my mother to the relative safety of a Mom and Pop motel, I grew to appreciate the freedom evoked by roadside architecture – and the fear too. Coming to grips with that continuum of feelings is a personal factor shaping my research that long precedes the academic purposes of my work.

3. What has been most challenging in your research and teaching?

While I bring a scholarly interest in theories and frameworks to the classroom, as well as a humanist belief that study and contemplation are valuable skills whose outcomes may not be “measured” or “assessed” in some contemporary meanings of the words, I recognize that many SJSU students (and some administrators) bring what they perceive to be more practical concerns to our interactions. Many folks struggle with the notion that we should cultivate a keen interest in the world beyond our material ambitions, to read, to travel, and to explore a wide range of topics for the pleasure of doing so, for the opportunities to join the human conversation of values, interpretations, and possibilities, without being forced to account for the energies expended in these endeavors as one would complete a spreadsheet. Of course, addressing this struggle is a challenge worth undertaking.

4. How has your position in SJSU contributed to your research and teaching? 

As an SJSU faculty member, I have sought out opportunities to fund my travels, chances to experience the flows and disruptions of places that have contributed directly to my publications and lectures. Along with traditional college grants and departmental matching funds, I have sometimes needed to negotiate some non-traditional opportunities. For example, when asked to teach a second peer training course during my service as director of the university peer mentor program, I agreed with the proviso that my additional work be compensated with a one-time travel allotment. With those funds I completed a cross-country road trip in 2008 whose outcome included one of my most favorite scholarly articles, “Two roads diverge: Route 66, ‘Route 66,’ and the mediation of American ruin.” Though my research has required some similar appeals over the years, I have found that my university is willing to support my road-tripping and globe-trotting ambitions as long as I advance a productive array of scholarly output.

5. Do you have a hidden teaching talent? 

I have developed a small repertoire of songs that I’ll sometimes share with my students to advance one point or another. For example I love to sing “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” in COMM 149 (Rhetoric and Public Life) when we’re discussing Disney’s corporate vision of American domestic spaces, an ideal future of consumer technology. I also sing “[Get your kicks on] Route 66” in any class that includes a discussion of travel and tourism. My singing is not technically a talent, because I can hardly boast a gifted voice. But my willingness to express myself in song contributes to a memorable learning environment – for good or for ill.

6. What is one book that changed your life (or teaching/research) and why: 

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. 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.

7. What is one website/journal/newspaper (in your field) you follow without fail? 

While I scan the international, national, and regional journals that host the scholarly conversations of my field, I must confess that I almost never read an issue cover to cover. Speaking as a former journalist whose work was measured by its relevance and accessibility, I find far too much of our academic writing is laden with foggy, derivative, and frankly soul-sucking prose. Accordingly I don’t follow publications as much as I read a few authors whose works, which typically appear within and beyond one particular field, demonstrate a balance of intellectual sophistication, practical utility, and aesthetic quality that inspires me to improve my own writing.

8. What is some advice you’d give to newer faculty or students?

I encourage newcomers to balance enthusiasm and dedication with a healthy degree of stoicism. Far too many folks approach their duties with a kind of zealotry that blinds them to the subtleties of why people and things work as they do. People who approach each challenge and each obstacle as a matter of success or failure (or worse, as good or evil) end up being frustrated – and frustrating as co-participants in SJSU life. Successful faculty and students bring zeal to their tasks, yes, but they never lose sight of the fact that the world is far more complex than their desires, and that they are merely one part of a much more complex universe whose workings often defy easy understanding. A little stoicism – not dour acceptance but a deeper reservoir of patience and humility – goes a long way in this life we have chosen.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Finland: Tango Finlandia

While I didn’t write a formal blog post for my Summer 2016 European adventures, I thought it’d be fun to share some memories I initially stored on Facebook.


Back in '93, 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer did a story called "Tango Finlandia," which purported to explain why Finns are so shy and morose. "To be noticed is an embarrassment," he intoned. "To take notice an affront." Pretty much anyone who visits Finland today will find a much more vibrant country than the one Safer experienced. While its capital Helsinki can hardly reflect the complexity of the whole country, you'll find countless people chatting, drinking, and laughing in cafes that line the major streets (in summer, of course). They are celebrating the hours of light that have come to banish the seemingly endless darkness of winter. They are also celebrating friendship, love, and all the other things that make life worth living. Yes, I have met many, many happy, friendly, welcoming Finns. Still, during these weeks in Jyväskylä, I have to remind myself to stop nodding and smiling when I pass strangers on the sidewalk. They look at me (if they look at all) like I'm crazy. Perhaps they're wondering, "Why would you pretend to be friendly with a stranger?" I imagine that Finns also tire of the U.S. American tendency to over-celebrate the most banal things. "How's the coffee?" one might ask. "Great! Awesome! Perfect!" many Americans will reply. I think that Finns are measurably more happy than U.S. Americans because they maintain more reasonable standards.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Finland: Geisha chocolate

While I didn’t write a formal blog post for my Summer 2016 European adventures, I thought it’d be fun to share some memories I initially stored on Facebook.

So I return from Leonardo, my go-to restaurant in Helsinki, and find a big bar of Geisha chocolate in my hotel room - and a card: "With love from Merlin and Esteri." And I am reminded once more of how lucky I am to be here. You see, while I was scarfing down a pizza and some cocktails during dinner, a young woman sitting next to me announced that I needed to help her and her friend finish their bottle of wine. Never one to turn down a tasty beverage, I joined in - and we commenced to chatting about essential tourist spots in Florida, recommendations for where I can catch old school cinema in Helsinki and, of all things, our mutual fascination and frustration with Andy Kaufman. One of my new friends is a nurse; the other works at a local hotel, and she was thrilled to hear that I'm staying at the Indigo, because she has friends here. So much so that she arranged for this lovely present to be sent to my room while I was walking home. Yeah, I've heard the old cliches about Finns being taciturn and withdrawn. But I've met so many warm, friendly, welcoming folks here to realize just how limited (and limiting) those sorts of generalizations can be. Can't wait to get some sleep and continue the adventure tomorrow!

Kamppi Center