Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tips for Initiating a "Difficult Dialogue"

As I mentioned yesterday, I've launched an experimental blog called Why Do You Do That?. Already I've received one comment to the question Why Do You Play Loud Music in Public Places?. Feel free to visit and reply.

I've also received some solid advice from a colleague about how folks can initiate a difficult dialogue. From his suggestion, I've begun to expand the section on inviting people to participate in this blog. Check out the "tips" section on the invitation page, and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Why Do You Do That?

I’ve decided to launch a new blog called Why Do You Do That? an online forum where people can discuss social transgressions without fear of embarrassment.

Think about it: How frequently do you encounter a person who does something so troubling that you vent to your friends for days afterward? Maybe it’s a stranger who speaks too loudly while using a mobile phone. Perhaps it’s a restaurant patron who refuses to tip properly (or at all). You imagine that this person doesn’t know the implications of her or his action. Maybe this person just doesn't care. Wouldn’t it be cool to ask Why Do You Do That? Or consider a counter-example: Wouldn’t it be cool if you could explain and even celebrate your occasional lapses in social courtesy in a safe and anonymous environment? If only a forum existed for these sorts of interactions.

The problem is that these conversations can be downright scary. Today’s public sphere, that theoretical “place” where people interact beyond their relationships with families and close friends, is a thin and narrow domain with little room for strangers to confront and discuss each other’s transgressions. Our web of shared history, geography, and consequences has unraveled in recent decades, or at least it has changed so substantially that many of us feel adrift among strangers. As a result, many of us feel awkward and fearful at the prospect of telling a stranger when her or his behavior bothers us. It’s just too daunting to ask Why Do You Do That?. To illustrate, let me tell you a story:

I finished my undergraduate degree at Berry College, a small southern liberal arts college in northwest Georgia. At the time, all Berry students were required to work on campus ten hours a week, ensuring that everyone participated in the daily functioning and maintenance of our academic home. One day, my co-workers asked me to drive into town and buy some Mrs. Winners’ biscuits and sweet tea (a Deep South delicacy, I assure you). Returning from my trip I found myself trailing a slow-moving car. The biscuits were getting cold and I grew impatient, so I wheeled around the slowpoke and rendered a “one fingered salute.” I felt some petulant satisfaction and continued down the road.

After a few moments, though, I noticed that the car I had just passed followed me turn for turn. I turned onto campus, and the car followed. I turned onto my building’s parking lot, and the car did too. Now I was nervous. Was it my boss? A professor? A friend? I exited my car, kept my head down, and raced into the building. I was mortified. Working and living in such a small community I’d forgotten about the tight-knit nature of our social fabric; I forgot that small communities mean that our actions almost always have social and public consequences. And I swore to myself that I would never again be so rude. Stories like this help explain “southern manners.”

Today I work in San Jose, California. For a big city, it’s a pretty nice place to live. But one rarely finds that southern small town courtesy in such a place. Aside from a few ritualized interactions with coworkers (and maybe a few folks I’ve gotten to know during my daily amblings), the vast majority of folks encountered on an average day are strangers with whom I may only interact one time. We may pass on the sidewalk or perhaps share a bus seat. And yet we know that we will likely never share this place again. In this environment one may easily forget the simple courtesies and gentle kindnesses that bind people to that ephemeral thing called community.

I therefore admit with some guilt that I commit an occasional social transgression. And I see plenty of similar transgressions committed by others. Sitting on the bus I want to ask the girl munching on microwave popcorn, “Why do you fill an enclosed space with that awful smell?” Standing at a busy intersection I want to ask the guy blasting his car stereo, “Why do you set your subwoofers loud enough to liquefy concrete?” Reading a book at the local coffee shop I want to ask the high school student, “Why do you use the word like every three words?” I want to ask these questions, but I can’t.

Asking these sorts of questions, after all, signifies intolerance. And given a general decline in the notion that we should feel “guilty” for pretty much anything these days, intolerance has become an all-purpose pejorative for rule-bound social organization. Surely it’s better to practice patience with the things that strangers do, to relax our standards a bit and concentrate on our mutual rights more than our mutual responsibilities. I understand that sentiment, and sometimes I even agree. But sometimes I just have to know why people do what they do, even if asking risks the implication of judgment. Some things are so bothersome that only some form of explanation can help me tolerate them.

And yet the choice to ask such questions risks public rebuke, maybe even physical violence. Today, the question Why Do You Do That? generally merits a rejoinder to “Mind your own business,” or some equivalent instruction involving the F-word. The tension of the moment, fleeting and filled with danger, allows for no reflection, no empathy, no possibility for mutual edification through shared understanding. There’s just too much risk in asking strangers to justify their transgressions, particularly when they feel no guilt about their actions.

A blog called Why Do You Do That? might provide a safe environment to engage in these sorts of “difficult dialogues.” Visiting the blog and answering a question could allow people who knowingly practice social transgression to explain their positions without fear of personal embarrassment. Posting could also allow folks whose actions have been labeled “transgressions” to reject those rules and explain why their actions should not be judged harshly. Finally, feedback sections could allow readers to share their opinions in a low-stress environment that inspires thoughtful conversation rather than bumper sticker epithets. Who knows? Maybe the world could become a bit more conducive to courtesy if people chose to visit Why Do You Do That?.

The first step to launching this blog is to invite participation, and that’s hard to do. I imagine a number of venues though which this experiment can be announced: posting to online interest groups, sending pitches to newspaper commentators, even putting up fliers in public places. But the most intriguing way to get these conversations started might be through viral marketing, when folks tell each other about the site. Here’s how it might work.

Different sections of the blog will focus on specific questions. Each page will include a handout that can be downloaded and shared. Thus the very moment you want to initiate a potentially difficult dialogue, you can simply offer a piece of paper instead, particularly when you’re departing an enclosed space. Better yet, you can leave the note anonymously and with no fear of personal rebuke. Here’s a draft:
Why Do You Do That?

There's something I noticed that you do...

[Space to illustrate the behavior in question]

Would you explain why you do it?

I’d like you to visit a blog called Why Do You Do That?. Just point your browser to and check it out. You will not be asked to post any personal information; you can use a fake name or post anonymously. So you can write without fear of embarrassment or hassle.

While you’re there, you can also propose your own Why Do You Do That? topic for others to answer.

I hope you’ll consider this invitation, and I appreciate your time.

PS: You must read and accept several terms prior to participation on Why Do You Do That?. These terms are explained when you visit the blog.
The blog would then offer the following notice that must be read and approved prior to posting:
If you submit content to Why Do You Do That? you are certifying that you have read and accepted the following terms.

1. Comments submitted to Why Do You Do That? may be made anonymously.

2. Comments become the property of the blog owner and may be used in any medium, for any purpose, at any time.

3. Comments may be used, not used, or removed for any reason deemed appropriate by the blog owner.

4. Comments may be edited for spelling, length, and clarity.

5. You will receive no payment or other compensation for comments submitted to this blog.

6. You certify that you are participating in this blog freely, knowingly, and without coercion.

7. You certify that you are 18 or older.

8. You release the blog and its owner from any liability related to any harm you may experience from posting to Why Do You Do That?, including loss of job, reputation, or self esteem.

Remember, you may post comments to Why Do You Do That? only if you understand and accept these terms.
I’ve purchased the web domain and selected the blog space, and I’ve begun to develop a plan to launch the site over the next year. Tentative questions include:

Why do you litter?
Why do you gossip?
Why do you park so carelessly?
Why do you play your music so loudly?
Why do you speak so loudly on your mobile phone?
Why do you write a check in the line at the grocery store?
Why do you spit on the sidewalk?
Why do you procrastinate?
Why do you refuse to leave a decent tip?
Why do you yell at your kids like that?
Why do you stare at my boobs when we’re talking?

And perhaps the question that is most appropriate for this blog (and for me):

Why do you judge people so harshly?

So that’s the idea. I think part of the appeal for this blog is its convergence of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Many of us would love to peer into the psyches of folks who trouble us and understand their inner logic. Many of us would love to share our guilty pleasures, the things we do despite social niceties. We want to know, and we want others to know, why. Of course, the concept for this blog will evolve over the coming months. But the only way for Why Do You Do That? to succeed is to invite plenty of advice and feedback. And I need some initial postings. I hope you’ll let me know what you think about this idea, consider answering one of the initial prompts [to be posted in the next few days], and tell your friends!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Community in the Post-Newspaper Age

In a recent commencement address offered to graduates of the San Jose State University department of Communication Studies, local newspaper columnist L.A. Chung asked an interesting question of our students: Now that you have been certified as someone who can communicate effectively, have you anything to say? Given the noise and tumult that passes for civic discourse these days, her message resonated with many members of the audience - though I could tell that a few were simply waiting to hear their kids' names called.

Even so, another thread that she wove through her remarks interested me even more. While exploring the value of what we say, Chung discussed changes in the media through which ideas are transmitted. She focused primarily on her own industry, newspapers. Recognizing her fortuitous position as a columnist paid to distribute opinions on pretty much any subject, Chung wondered aloud whether print-based newspapers will exist for long as central sites of public discourse. She's right to wonder.

I subscribe to my local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, but I do so only because I don't get wireless broadband on my morning commute. I also appreciate the Merc's decent collection of comics. And yes, several of the columnists help start my day in a thoughtful manner. But a few months ago I cancelled my subscription. You see, I discovered a widget for my Mac that aggregates a much better collection of comics than is offered by my paper, and I remembered that I can read those columns online for free. So I dumped the Merc.

Six months later I changed my mind, restarting my subscription because of that morning commute. I take a one-hour bus trip "over the hill" from Scotts Valley to San Jose on most weekday mornings. And I find that a physical paper helps occupy my time. Sure my fingers get stained with ink, but I get local news I'd otherwise miss. And yet now I'm thinking about abandoning my local paper one last time. Instead I may syndicate online newsfeeds onto my laptop before leaving the house. No more inky fingers, and no more glimpses of Mallard Fillmore. It's tempting, but is it a good idea?

Such is an oft-cited dilemma of contemporary life, the declining public sphere where strangers may mix and mingle with only tact and courtesy as social constraints -- where a confirmed Doonsesbury reader may still come across a Mallard Fillmore comic. Sure we may encounter genuinely bad ideas or crazy people (I'm writing this on a particularly illustrative bus ride, actually) but the newspaper presumably confronts us with more voices than we might hear among our smaller social circles. Consider merely one example:

A safely suburbanized soccer mom reads the Sunday paper and learns about the miserable conditions in some downtown hovel or distant slum. She pours a cup of coffee and commits to some ameliorative action. She will help people she never met. Will she visit the place or simply write a check? It's a fair question of comparative value (though few social service agencies will dismiss the value of a check). So we look to the newspaper to gather and integrate persons who might otherwise never mix. We hope newspapers help us identify with each other as human beings sharing the same planet.

But how genuinely public can any newspaper be? As more and more local papers get swallowed into vast media conglomerates one may fairly presume that corporate interests increasingly trump public interests. All too frequently it appears that the public sphere resides within militarized and monetized frontiers that affirm the privileges of a wealthy few, leaving everybody else to consume simulacra of meaningful public life: a darkened movie theatre, a mammoth amusement park, or a so-called "lifestyle mall." Other than sanctioned performances such as election day, or in moments of crisis like 9/11, where do we find public life?

The newspaper seems to offer an inadequate answer to this query. Given its various constraints -- page length being the least of these -- we find in our morning pages a mere trickle of public life, one that can hardly compare to the tidal wave of "content" streaming through decentralized media, forming digital empires of the ether, ubiquitous but decentralized. In spite of all this, Chung gamely affirmed the value of newspapers in her graduation speech. She reminded her audience of newspapers' ability to gather and report local news, as well as their ability to reflect traditional notions of a community simply by naming it as such.

I want to believe her, because I like communities. I'd like to live in a small town where folks know me by name. I'd like to buy lemonade from the kid down the street, even though I don't like the stuff. I'd like to invite my neighbors onto the porch to sit a spell in the gloaming. And yet, I can't help but remember: I do live in a small town, Scotts Valley. My family and I moved to this little town because we love the sidewalks, the Fourth of July celebrations, and the way in which folks go all out for Halloween. But day to day life, beyond the design and formalities, is less Pleasantville and more Office Space.

I've learned that far-distant strangers share more of my interests than most of my neighbors. I think that my preferred "community" -- and I say with some irony that I'm not "alone" in this -- is increasingly an ephemeral, customizable, widget-based collaboration of strangers who identify around common areas of interest, rather than the geography-based collective of strangers forced to become friends.

Such a community, one organized around self-interest, cannot possess the kind of "social capital" described by Robert Putnam in his well respected work on the topic. After all, one finds few consequences to departing such a community, few causes to work together long-term for the common good. When one such virtual community, one wiki-agora, no longer serves our needs we simply find another one, or we recruit strangers to join our own. Yet at the same time, the local newspaper as a conceptual map of community is too slow, too stagnant, and too beholden to its own small "community" of business interests to accommodate the increasingly fluid nature of our personal and social enclaves.

So I subscribe to the San Jose Mercury News -- today. I read the obituaries to learn about local folks, unknown to me, who served in World War Two or raised a fine family or started a respected local business or simply managed to survive a number of decades. I study the intricacies of local politics, trying not to view their debates as just another soap opera. I try to imagine that San Jose, the star around which my bedroom community of Scotts Valley orbits, is a place of consequence, a place that I claim as part of my character. I read the paper because the bus still hasn't managed to offer a wireless option. But I hear they may start a pilot project. When they do, shall I disconnect altogether, except to pay taxes and suffer traffic jams? Shall I claim to "live" in these places at all? Or shall I find my home entirely among the invisible tendrils of shared opinion and weak consequences?

June 30, 2007 Update: Community in the Post-Newspaper Age - Follow-up

Friday, May 25, 2007

Fast Times at Countryside Mall

For teenagers where I grew up, a Florida suburb built between the cities of Clearwater and Dunedin, one mall represented the central site for public life: Countryside Mall. The name is instructive because Countryside wasn’t alongside the “country”; it sat at the intersection of State Road 580 and U.S. 19, then a major conduit for Florida traffic that heading as far north as Erie, Pennsylvania. Located a sizable distance from both Clearwater and Dunedin, Countryside signified the rough land that had been plowed under when humble two-lane 19 bulked up to accommodate the new developments. It was more than just a means of getting somewhere; it was a place of its own. Clogged with freshly planted suburbs and the supportive infrastructure that grows around these sorts of places, Highway 19 called forth a mall and named this site for the country it replaced. It’s a cliché endemic to this sort of writing, but that’s just what happened.

Countryside was an enclave against the old world of downtowns and the rickety social mores they represented. Surrounded by acres of free parking, enclosed against the harsh summer sun, and protected by an internal security force (mocked by my friends as those “old men in red jackets”--retired cops, we assumed), Countryside was the agora, the public green, the place to be seen. We all had typical teenage jobs (I pulled pork butts at a local barbeque restaurant, waited tables at the nearby Steak ‘n Shake, and even served time at the mall’s McDonalds for a couple weeks when I needed money for prom). We all could afford to shop at Countryside from time to time, digging through bargain bins for cheap music cassettes of our favorite bands. But to us, the mall was much more than a place to buy things. It was our dating habitat, our fashion show, and our refuge from responsible life.

The mall was also our place to play “Stalker,” a revved-up version of hide-and-go-seek that grew out of our love for 80s-era slasher flicks. In our game, a “stalker” would chase “victims” throughout the mall. But we followed horror film rules, which meant that no one could run, and no one could occupy a hiding place for more than a minute. While we played out our suburban fantasies, walking and hiding from store to store, we transformed the mall into a film set. Security guards seemed to understand their role as “meddling cops” easily enough, but the shoppers never did came to appreciate their roles as “annoying obstacles.” Nonetheless, playing Stalker with my friends, we learned how to perform/transform a formal and authorized place into our kind of space, an environment where real and perceived dangers could be managed.

In the teen movies of my youth, we saw malls that reflected our own experiences. The big mall movie of my era was Fast Times and Ridgemont High, though truthfully I don’t recall anyone who thought of this flick as a “mall movie.” Fast Times was simply a teen movie where some of the most significant and banal moments occurred in a mall. Not surprisingly, many of the film’s interior shots where filmed in the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Bright and brimming with shops, and safely enclosed from the world of adults and their rules, The Galleria offered a perfect setting Fast Times. The choice seemed obvious, indisputable. Where else could eighties-era suburban teens hang out? In American Graffiti early-sixties-era California kids cruised Main Street, darting in and out of adult responsibilities but keeping their sensibilities securely in childhood. In Dazed and Confused, mid-seventies-era Texas kids transformed their small town into personalized (and literal) “stomping grounds.” They toked up at the Moon Tower, played foosball at the emporium, and scored tickets for Aerosmith, dreaming of that perfect high that waited just over the horizon beyond the frontier of a crummy town. But for kids in the 1980s, at least kids where I grew up, there was no horizon, and we couldn’t imagine hanging out downtown: the space was uninviting.

It was surely worse elsewhere around the country where urban centers had progressed further along their slow descent into shuttered and boarded oblivion. When Bruce Springsteen sang about his hometown’s empty storefronts in the 1984 album Born in the U.S.A my friends and I vaguely got his point, though we’d never seen whitewashed windows on Main Street. We’d never thought to look. And driving offered little relief from the boredom of our enclosures, since U.S. 19 simply connected us to more suburbs. While this lament merely revealed our provincial ignorance, it really seemed we had no place to go. Utopia was one freshly mowed lawn after another. Certainly, we could have headed further south to visit the old school urbanity of St. Petersburg, or we could have headed north along the arching coast where the highway soon returned to its two-lane roots. But we almost never did. We lived indoors, recognizing the Fast Times mall as our own.

My friends and I liked Fast Times because we liked the characters (despite the fact that they looked so much older than real teenagers), but we respected Fast Times because this movie got many of the details right. Of particular interest to me is how the movie depicted the mall’s video “arcades” not as some form of social-commercial connective tissue but as a place to break the bonds between teenage life and the adult world of the city. In the movie and in my experience, arcades provided a separate space where intruding adults were little more than zombies, participants in a horror show they could not recognize. In Fast Times, and certainly at Countryside, the mall replaced Main Street as a gathering place; the mall was the central site of social ordering and hierarchy. Most importantly, the mall provided a quasi-public enclave where we made the rules, or at least thought we did. And we could hardly imagine an alternative to this place.

Learn More:

Read my entries on Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti: Great Movie Endings Part 1

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Modernaire Motel

Some of my favorite architectural styles are the types that tastemakers tend to mock. Real connoisseurs concentrate on flying buttresses or classical proportions or complex curvilinear forms. Readers of this blog know I prefer tackier stuff, the kinds of designs and executions dismissed by experts as cheap, disposable, and populist. To illustrate, let me tell you about one of my favorite types of design, a mid-century style called googie. Sometimes called Populuxe or Doo Wop, googie achieved some manner of prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as a playful celebration of otherwise mundane environments such as diners, motels, and bowling alleys. Googie took its name from a Los Angeles coffee shop built in 1949 (long ago razed), but the term eventually became associated with any design that can be labeled “the Flintstones meet the Jetsons.”

Googie is a variant of “moderne,” a stylized implementation of artificial materials, sweeping angles or curves, gravity-defying masses, plate glass, and “dingbat” accessories such as sputniks, starbursts, and atomic symbols. That’s the Jetsons half. Googie adds a Flintstones vibe with the addition of primitive or organic motifs into the structure: amoeba shapes, tiki idols, faux stone facades, and the like. Created in an era of fear and fascination with both technological innovation and psychoanalytical analysis, googie integrates science and superstition, optimism and fear, in a playful and accessible manner. Without the self-conscious posing of postmodern architecture that would follow in the 1980s, googie was a fad that was easily dismissed--until it was missed.

While today's epicenter for googie design is Wildwood, New Jersey, the style took root in southern California places like Anaheim and sites like the now-demolished Modernaire Motel, which opened to accomodate tourists visiting Disneyland. Take a look at the close-up from the postcard shown above. Notice the oversized arrow on the sign, designed to suck motorists off the road and onto the property. Look at the stone-like finish of the office, covering an otherwise utilitarian enclosure. Notice the fields of glass, made possible through structural innovations that enabled the removal of weight-bearing elements from the building’s exterior. It’s just a motel, of course, but it’s also a manifestation of “space age” America.

Learn more:

Alan Hess, Googie redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture

Thomas Hine, Populuxe: From tailfins and TV dinners to Barbie Dolls and fallout shelters

Also, visit my website, Motel Moderne, to see more images of early- to mid-century motels that embraced the "moderne" style.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Chili Bowl Matchbook

Over the years I have been developing a decent-sized collection collection of ephemera related to motels, diners, and other roadside attractions: postcards and matchbooks mostly. While I was able to share a few of them in a couple books published by Collectors Press, the majority of my collection still sits in acid-free boxes, viewed and enjoyed only once every few months. This blog is a chance to open that collection up to anyone who shares my passion for these artifacts of another time and place. I decided to start with matchbook covers, the kinds you generally don't see anymore. Here's the first one...

Chili Bowl was a southern-California chain of restaurants whose buildings were shaped like chili pots. This is an example of mimetic architecture (sometimes called programmatic or vernacular architecture): buildings shaped as things. Jim Heimann offers a concise history of the Chili Bowl in his book, California Crazy & Beyond:
Chili Bowl owner Arthur Whizin [ed. note: Oh that name] was the consummate programmatic entrepreneur. Starting in 1931 Whizin managed to open several Chili Bowls a year, completing twenty-three within a decade. His popular cafes had a loyal following and to further promote them he sponsored a baseball team, raffled rides on the Chili Bowl airplane, and advertised his restaurants on a speedboat which crossed the Catalina Channel laden with Fanchon and Marco showgirls. (p. 64)
The back of this matchbook cover illustrates Whizin's pride in the design of his buildings, warning all would-be copy-cats, "building design protected." Despite the initial success of the chain, though, Chili Bowl could not survive the economic hard times wrought by World War II. Those few Chili Bowls that survived now have been repurposed; one is a rib joint. The other sells noodles.

Learn More:

Los Angeles Time Machines

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dallas Motor Courts

All around the country, crumbling motor courts face inglorious razing. But in some places, preservationists are trying to revitalize these roadside relics for other purposes. A recent article discusses efforts to save three Dallas Motor Courts.
"The heyday of Fort Worth Avenue's motor courts is as long past as a pastel postcard, but Preservation Dallas is hoping that remnants can be saved."

"Though not, perhaps, as motels."

"The preservationist organization's recently released list of the "Most Endangered Historic Resources" in Dallas included three of the motor court motels – the Mission Motel, the Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts and the Ranch Motel."
Read the whole thing:

Flick, D. (2007, May 22). New uses considered for '50s motor courts. Dallas Morning News.

Learn More:

Highway Host: Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts: Dallas page

Wood Writing Guide: Taming the Semicolon

I write for a living, and I make plenty of mistakes. Errors in fact, clarity, spelling, grammar, and punctuation appear with disturbing frequency in my writing, particularly in my early drafts. Revision and peer review reduce the number of those errors, but I have not managed to master the art of error-free writing just yet. The risk of embarrassing mistakes, like any risk, can be managed and reduced, but it can never be eliminated. So I shuffle along in my efforts as an academic and freelance writer, struggling to rid my work of typos as best I can.

I imagine there are plenty of people out there who, like me, want to improve their skills as writers. Perhaps if I focus my attention on commonly made errors that I see in my drafts, not to mention those drafts submitted by my students, I might make the world a slightly better place for writers and readers alike. To that end, this is the first of an occasional series of notes about commonly made errors in writing. The topic for today is a dangerous animal that should be handled with care and caution: the semicolon.

The semicolon should be safely caged unless you know exactly how to handle this beast. Among its many uses, this device helps to separate independent clauses. In other words, the semicolon serves as a partial stop between phrases that express a complete thought (typically because these phrases include a subject and verb). Here’s an example:
I carried a sandwich onto the bus; I was hungry.
Notice that you can replace the semicolon with a period with no error. The semicolon is acceptable if the second clause is related closely to the first clause, even though it could technically stand by itself. “I was hungry” helps explain why I carried the sandwich onto the bus; the appearance of a sandwich follows my state of hunger. By way of contrast, consider the following example:
I carried a sandwich onto the bus; being hungry.
I’m happy to note that my grammar-check caught that error even as I wrote it. “Being hungry” is not an independent clause; it is a fragment. Unless you’re discussing some obscure Zen riddle, the meaning of “being hungry” makes no sense without the context of the previous clause. To test that principle, walk up to a stranger and say only that clause, "being hungry." Will it make sense? If not, you're dealing with a fragment (and now a confused stranger). In this case, a comma should be used, not a semicolon. [Incidentally, Strunk and White remind us that commas may be used to separate independent clauses - as long as they are "short and alike in form." Example: "I came, I saw, I conquered."]

Other less exciting uses of the semicolon follow sets of comma pairs. When listing a set of comma pairs, such as Tallahassee, Florida, employ the semicolon. Doing so reduces the risk of reader confusion. Here’s an example:
There are three cities on our itinerary: Tallahassee, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Columbia, South Carolina.
Are there more uses to the semicolon? Absolutely. But this brief note only covers a couple basic applications. Learn more by observing the semicolon in the wild. Approach it cautiously, observe its habits, and you’ll quickly tame the beast.


• I recently learned that semicolons can be used to separate independent clauses that appear to contradict each other. Previously, I would have tutted at that technique, but, as it turns out, you may employ semicolons to divide seemingly disparate ideas if you employ a conjunctive adverb (eg., "however" or "therefore" or "yet") to relate them. Thus, the following examples demonstrate correct semicolon use:
I drove the car home; however, home was not what I expected.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about semicolon use; yet, I was wrong.
If you'd like to learn more about this technique, here's a useful link: Semicolons with Conjunctive Adverbs.

• Marika Minehart sent me a New York Times article on semicolons in public spaces. Read the article: Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location.

• Paul Collins writes in Slate about the decline in semicolon usage: Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Adventures in College Forensics

(1994 photo by Michelle Holtzman)
Every once and a while I plan to write an autobiographical essay in this blog, describing a few of the formative experiences that made me who I am. It’s entirely self-centered, this activity of personal reflection, and I make no apologies for the presumptuous nature of this writing. I have no idea of whether my recollections matter to anyone else but me, but I’ll post these occasional stories anyway. Some topics likely to follow include my courtship with Jenny, my hitch with the Navy, which included my first road trip and a time I almost got turned into hamburger on a flight deck, and my choice to become a college professor. I’ll write and revise these entries in no particular order. In that spirit, let me begin with a college activity that is responsible for virtually everything I’ve done professionally thereafter: forensics.

Initially I should begin with a note of explanation. Forensics refers to the deployment and evaluation of evidence, often in a legal forum. Yet the concept of forensics has been applied to a wide range of topics, including forensic accounting, forensic computing, and even forensic linguistics. Most commonly you’ll hear about forensics in relation to medicine in shows such as C.S.I., the popular medical procedural. When I was growing up, the television show Quincy, M.E. introduced me to forensic medicine, though I wouldn’t have recognized the term. Either way, wherever people gather, weigh, and debate evidence concerning the truth of a thing or idea, they are engaged in forensics.

I first heard the term “forensics” when I was invited to join a speech team. For these folks, forensics refers to the search for truth through oratory, typically speech and debate. While I was not initially interested in joining a forensics team, I ended up competing for two forensics programs. From 1990 to 1992 I competed at St. Petersburg Junior College, Clearwater Campus (now St. Petersburg College). From 1992 to 1994 I competed at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. I even helped coach the forensics program at Ohio University from 1994 through 1998 while I was finishing grad school. Those eight years were exciting and exhausting. Occasionally I’ll write about some of my speech adventures and maybe even discuss my thoughts about the practical and philosophical aspects of forensics. But for now, let me tell you how I got involved in this activity.

My beginning as a forensicator started in my very first college experience, a speech class in the summer session. I took this particular section from a large choice of options because it fit my schedule. I'd just left the service and had begun freelancing for a few local video production companies during the day, and night classes were my only option. So I showed up to Bonnie Clark’s “baby speech” class, ready to learn the fundamentals of human communication. Really, I was ready to grab my credits and motor out of there. I’d had plenty of experience in various media of public speaking due to my previous job as an active duty Navy journalist, and I wasn’t too jazzed about this particular class. Professor Clark, however, saw something in me right away, and she was determined for me to take this experience seriously.

We all had to give introductory impromptu speeches on our first evening. This activity allows even reticent students to stand up and talk about something within their field of expertise, themselves. For a faculty member, it's a good opportunity to gauge whether some students face profound communication apprehension and to offer those rare students individualized attention. For everyone else, it’s a chance to get to know classmates and realize that the course isn’t so bad after all. I don’t remember the content of my speech, but I remember Professor Clark’s pointed questions afterward: “Do you have a job?” “Do you work every day?” I said yes to both counts and took my seat, feeling a bit self-conscious. She chatted briefly with other students’ speeches, but not with the same vibe. Fairly soon, she told me about the campus speech team, suggesting that I’d really enjoy it. I was polite but firm: No thanks. I was busy trying to handle a job with odd, unpredictable hours, my duties as a young husband and father, my Navy reserve obligations, and my coursework. I’d done poorly in high school, taking my classes lightly, and I was determined not to make the same mistakes again. She left me alone, realizing I was not an easy sell, but she didn’t forget.

By the end of the course, Professor Clark provided everyone an individualized gradesheet. I remember folks leaving the class, knowing how they did. Some smiled, others were less happy. Regardless, the class was over for them. But my gradesheet had no grade. Instead, the paper said something like, “See me.” Waiting to see Professor Clark I fretted plenty. But she quickly informed me that I’d done just fine in her class. I got the grade I expected. She simply wanted to remind me that the speech team met regularly at a certain hour in a certain place, and that she would not tolerate me being late. When given a choice, I could refuse. But when given an order -- well, I had just left the Navy, and I hadn’t yet forgotten how to take orders. It seemed, like it or not, that I’d been drafted.

I am so grateful for that additional duty to my hectic life, because forensics taught me so many things. I learned that I could prepare and deliver a six and one-half minute speech on a randomly drawn topic with 30 seconds of preparation (and months of practice). I learned that I could parse professional journals for evidence to support my original speeches about topics ranging from political correctness to antibiotic resistant bacteria to an analysis of Slobodan Milosevic’s rhetoric. I learned that I could be dropped off on any college campus anywhere in the country, find my way to some poorly marked building, and convince a classroom full of strangers to see the world my way. With forensics I developed a love of literature, a taste for scholarship, and an awareness of many of my own strengths, weaknesses, and growth opportunities. Because of this activity, and the tutelage of forensics coaches Bonnie Clark and Randy Richardson, I decided to become a college professor.

So now I teach public speaking during the winter or summer session, when students are stressed and often just wanting to get through. I can relate to them. Most of my students are working class folks. Virtually all hold down a job, many are first-generation college students, and quite a few are parents or full-time caregivers. These are not necessarily the folks whom you visualize competing against the best forensicators in the country. But with just a little coaching, some can. So I keep my eyes open for that one special person, a student who might be just like me when I was first in school -- somewhat cocky, a bit overworked, and absolutely sure that forensics is only for medical examiners. That student is in for a big surprise!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Peter Max-style Intermission Ad

It’s a little before midnight, some summer evening in the early seventies, and you’re blazing at the drive-in. A van next to you is rocking (with a bumper sticker warning not to “come knocking”) and the first show (Peter Fonda’s The Trip) has just wrapped up. The movie wound its way around the country for a few years before finally arriving in your little town, and it sucked. But you’re with friends, and you’re feeling mellow. The next show is a sequel to Planet of the Apes. Your kid brother, the one who reads comics all the time, says it’s pretty boss. But he refers to things as “boss,” so what does he know? Then this intermission ad runs: “Hey! Son-of-a-gun! It’s refreshment time!” Suddenly you regret that third cheeseburger.

I love movie intermission ads. I’ve been known to sit through a crappy movie at our local drive-in, the Skyview, just to hear that sublime invitation to purchase hot dogs and popcorn. I’ve watched plenty of these ads on YouTube. But this ad, cleverly integrating the Pepsi logo into a sixties-era psychedelic freak-out, blew my mind. Its style is Peter Max, a pop artist whose work inspired countless sixties and seventies rip-offs. I grew up with this stuff, having little context to evaluate the style. Back then it seemed safe and gentle. Now these ads seem much more complex. Just watch that smiling cow transform into a hamburger and wonder: is that meant to be funny or disturbing? And what's with those human-faced paper cups? Does the overfilling soda represent mind expansion? And have you ever looked at your hand? I mean really looked at your hand? Well, you get the point.

What interests me most about ads like these is how they represent an appropriation of rebellious style -- mod youth, drug references, the peace movement -- to sell consumer products. This is hardly a new phenomenon; it wasn’t new back then either. Today’s most vivid parallel example comes from the integration of hip hop imagery, sound, and terminology into the most banal product appeals. Every generation, it seems, enjoys a moment or two of vivid, undisciplined artistic expression. It’s best to get used to them early. If they sell, you’ll see them for a long time.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Route 66 Motels

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Justin Juozapavicius has written a piece in USA Today about the slow death of motels on Route 66. Here's an excerpt:
"In Oklahoma, with more Route 66 miles than any of the eight states it flows through, many motels are derelict or abandoned, used as junk yards, makeshift car lots and flophouses."

"Owners who inherited these historical footnotes have no use for them, and would rather sell the properties to a developer if the price was right."

"Today, many structures that made the road what it was — the diners, family-owned service stations, barbecue joints — have fallen apart. With efforts to fix up these architectural landmarks scarce, time has become the road's worst enemy."
Read the whole article, Route 66 motels endangered. And if you're nostalgic for Mom and Pop motels, think about visiting one this summer.

To learn more about motels on (and off) Route 66, visit our website, Motel Americana.

Save Jericho

As expected CBS dumped Jericho. Aside from 60 Minutes, Jericho was the only show I watched on that network. I've already shared my love for that show in a previous entry; there's no need to reiterate that Jericho is a gem amidst so much garbage on network television. Now the question is this: how do you save a cancelled show?

Over at Ain't it Cool News, Merrick recommends that viewers send letters to pertinent folks at CBS - letters, rather than emails or online petition entries. Letters - with stamps and everything. Given that we're talking about a show that depicts a Kansas town struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the United States, without most of the electronic communications so essential to our everyday lives, sending an old fashioned letter to CBS seems more than appropriate.

Borrowing rom Merrick's post, let me copy/paste the addresses to relevant CBS executives here:

Mr. Kelly Kahl
Senior Exec VP of Programming
CBS Television Network
51 West 52nd St.
New York, NY

Ms. Nina Tassler
President, CBS Entertainment
7800 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA

Here's the body of the letter I sent them. It seeks to be short and courteous. It provides a little demographic information (note the reference to 60 Minutes), and it focuses on programming logic rather than fan emotion. Other folks will try different approaches, but this style works for me.


Jericho is the only show on CBS I watch these days (aside from good old 60 Minutes), and I am disappointed that your network has cancelled it. While its ratings were unspectacular, I believe much of the problem can be attributed to the show’s placement in a brutal time slot, not to mention its lengthy hiatus over winter. I am confident that the show would have done much better had it been better handled by your network.

Please bring Jericho back.

Advertise the show as “back by viewer demand,” locate a timeslot where it can serve as counter-programming to less family-oriented fare, and give it another year.

If you do, I commit to actually watching the commercials that run during the episodes, and I’ll consider trying other CBS programming as well.


AICN has a pretty good hub of Jericho activities, and I plan to check back with them to see about other fan efforts to rescue an under-appreciated show.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Whales as Spectacle

(Image from KNTV)

On May 17, I was interviewed by KNTV (NBC 11) about media coverage of two whales that have wandered upriver to Sacramento. In the story I was able to discuss notions of media spectacle and virtual community. Reporter Garvin Thomas was kind enough to send me a link to a Google Video archive of the piece.


  • May 31, 2007: United Press International: "Whales vanish from San Francisco delta"

  • June 10, 2007: San Jose Mercury News: "Save the humpback? Maybe it's been done"
  • Favorite Places - Part 7 - Del Mar Theatre

    (Photo by Andrew Wood)

    The Del Mar Theatre is a Santa Cruz treasure. Opened in 1936, the Del Mar represented one of the best examples of art deco design on the California central coast. Outside, a soaring marquee glowed with blinking letters and alternating colors. Inside, a mammoth auditorium (with a balcony!) was bordered by two towering bas-relief water carriers. Folks wanting a smoke could amble upstairs to a fashionable mezzanine level, peering over the concession stand.

    The Del Mar struggled in recent years until being closed in 1999. Like so many popcorn palaces, it appeared that yet another art deco masterpiece had been beaten by the multiplexes. But local preservation groups rallied to save their hometown theatre, restoring the Del Mar to its former grandeur in 2002.

    Today the Del Mar offers art-house flicks and swell midnight movies for the college crowd, all just a few blocks away from a multiplex showing mainstream movies. Next door is a terrific pizza place (Pizza My Heart) open late enough to grab a slice while waiting for the midnight show. With its glowing neon, quirky selection of films, and downtown location, the Del Mar is a dream.

    By the way, this post does double-duty: celebrating the Del Mar and providing a follow-up for previous entries about Bourbon Street Neon and San Jose Neon. The Del Mar photo comes from my small collection entitled Santa Cruz Neon.

    Learn More

    Friends of the Del Mar

    Santa Cruz Sentinel: Del Mar Theater [sic] Part II

    Santa Cruz Sentinel: Readers recall the Del Mar

    Santa Cruz Sentinel: Del Mar defies national trend

    Thursday, May 17, 2007

    Does Wikipedia contribute meaningful knowledge?

    I'm thinking about this issue because a number of my students have asked me whether they can cite Wikipedia in their course papers. I want to explore that question, and this post will evolve as my thinking does. At the outset, though, I should state two biases. First, I am primarily an academic writer. Thus my standard for what "counts" as knowledge is somewhat severe and somewhat limited. Second, I have recently participated in a debate about a Wikipedia entry, a debate I found to be indicative of the problems that have befallen this online encyclopedia. Thus, my notions on this topic are necessarily shaped by personal experience.

    Wikipedia is indisputably an important experiment in the aggregation, evaluation, and distribution of knowledge. Among its many values, Wikipedia allows anyone anywhere a chance to contribute content, and to edit content contributed by others. The presumptive result is a marketplace of ideas where massively distributed "editors" can use simple online tools to improve entries of all types, ridding them of errors in fact, clarity, and bias. Perhaps more importantly, Wikipedia promises to transcend the primary limitation of page-bound encyclopedias through its perpetual evolution. An entry about a brand of automobile will therefore be revised almost simultaneously as news reports about that car are broadcast. In this way, Wikipedia offers fulfillment of an ancient dream: the gathering and distribution of humankind's collective knowledge beyond the limitations of production costs, physical geography, and page limits. That's the idea anyway.

    In my experience as an occasional editor (a generic term for anyone who updates a single entry even just once), I find Wikipedia in its current iteration to be flawed enough to warrant serious rethinking of the entire experiment. The problem is not that "just anyone" can propose or edit an entry. I actually do believe in the "marketplace of ideas" concept. The problem is when debates about entries get wound up in discursive abscesses by a handful of partisans, along with one or two wandering passers-by who got sucked in. I've seen a few of these debates (and participated in one that was marred by particularly specious reasoning). In my observations, I have noticed that far too many Wikepedia arguments demonstrate what folks in the world of collegiate debate call "lack of clash." By "clash" I don't mean vitriol. Rather I mean close and direct engagement between two or more participants of each others' ideas. Rather than clash, many Wikipedia debates descend into a chase of moving targets: new expectations are raised without address to the achievement of previous expectations. More seriously, many of these debates collapse into ad hominem attacks and appeals to misplaced authority. Almost always, notions of good will and consensus building become abandoned when the war of egos replaces the clash of ideas.

    For that reason, I insist that my students (and my own scholarly publications) cite peer reviewed materials rather than Wikipedia. Now, I should be clear that Wikipedia has its uses as a third-tier resource. Indeed, Wikipedia pages generally include this note, "Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research." Following that advice, I use Wikipedia to gather unambiguous facts, check well-known dates, and confirm common spellings -- testing that knowledge by comparing the Wikipedia entry to other sources. Moreover, I often find that Wikipedia entries include links to peer reviewed or professionally edited publications that may be appropriately cited. But until Wikipedia makes some serious changes I will be unable to conclude that its contents reflect meaningful knowledge. Initially, it seems necessary for Wikipedia to require much more specialization for its editors. Certainly anyone should be able to suggest a revision. But editors ought to demonstrate content-specific expertise before being authorized to add, edit, or remove an entry. Developing a means to reduce vandalism or "drive by editing" requires more than the assumption that more participants generate better results. Wikipedia must require genuine peer review for all its articles before it merits academic citation.

    Learn More

    Citizendium seeks to improve upon Wikipedia's model by requiring editors to use their real names and possess some demonstrable qualifications (other than an internet connection and some free time).

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    Barbecue Roadtrip

    Every year, the Wood family takes a themed summer roadtrip of two to three weeks. Our last one covered more than 10,000 miles and brought us from one coast to the other and back.

    This year we're visiting the southern United States to sample the finest barbecue from several distinct regions. In some ways, this is a kind of homecoming. More than 20 years ago, Jenny and I fell in love working together at Prince Pit Barbecue in Clearwater, Florida. And some small part of our continued love affair must have something to do with our mutual passion for primo ribs. So this summer we're heading east for a two week gastronomic showdown: our bodies verses piles of smoked meat.

    One thing to note at the outset: we're skipping Kansas City. No disrespect to our friends in the midwest, but we prefer to focus our energies on the deep south. It's just more efficient to concentrate our driving time around major barbecue regions that way. To that end, here's a tentative list of the places we'll visit and the meals we'll enjoy. Naturally we have no way to eat at every one of these places and live to tell the tale, but these places seem like essential stops.


    Smitty's in Lockhart, Texas

    Black's Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas

    Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas

    Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q in Llano, Texas

    The Salt Lick Barbecue Restaurant in Driftwood, Texas

    Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor, Texas

    City Market in Luling, Texas

    Southside Market & Barbeque in Elgin, Texas

    Crosstown BBQ in Elgin, Texas

    We also hope to drop by Top Notch in Austin, where some of Dazed and Confused was filmed. See my first Great Movie Endings entry to learn more about that movie.


    Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous

    Corky's Ribs & BBQ


    Herbs Pit Bar-B-Que in Murphy, North Carolina

    Jimmy's Barbecue in Lexington, North Carolina

    Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina

    B's Barbecue in Greenville, North Carolina

    Sticky Fingers in Hilton Head, South Carolina


    Johnny Harris Restaurant & BBQ Sauce Company in Savannah, Georgia

    Wallace Barbecue Restaurant in Austell, Georgia

    GA Pig in Brunswick, Georgia

    Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

    We also hope to drop by Dew Drop Inn in Mobile, Alabama, where Jimmy Buffett is said to have envisioned "Cheeseburger and Paradise."


    Here's a list of some of the places we plan to stay on our journeys. This list will likely grow over time.

    Tee Pee Motel in Wharton Texas

    Shack Up Inn in Hopson, Mississippi

    Pink Motel in Cherokee, North Carolina

    Mountaineer Inn in Asheville, North Carolina


    Here's a list of some of the non-BBQ tourist traps we'll visit on our journeys. This list will likely grow over time.

    World of Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta, Georgia

    Tiny Town U.S.A. (see also Small World) in Hot Springs, Arkansas

    We also plan to use our ten year old "wind check" to hang glide at the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

    I'll update this page as our itinerary evolves. Naturally we appreciate your comments and suggestions...

    August 9, 2007, Update

    The tour was a success. Travel with us for 2,500 miles and 21 BBQ spots:

    Favorite Places - Part 6 - Hula's Island Grill and Tiki Room

    (Photo by Andrew Wood)

    Hula's Island Grill and Tiki Room is a welcome addition to the food scene in Santa Cruz, California: a tiki restaurant and bar with surprisingly good food and reasonable prices. It has become a weekly favorite of the Wood family, offering much needed assurance that the Polynesian-theme craze still manages to endure.

    Hula's is located on Cathcart Street, just off Pacific Avenue, presenting itself somewhat shyly to outsiders. Just getting there demands some patience as downtown parking is usually packed. So you might be tempted to bypass the place altogether, but don't. Hula's is worth the hassle.

    The fare covers lots of nautical miles; plates may be weighed down with sticky rice, plantains, and all sorts of tasty seafood. But if you crave heartier grub, order one of Hula's' overstuffed burgers or succulent steaks, impeccably marinaded and served in medallions. The deserts are equally fulfilling. My favorite is the Hula Pie, macadamia nut ice cream in a Oreo cookie crust and a pitcher of hot fudge on the side. And don't forget the Kona coffee. You'll hit the gym after a night at Hula's without losing too much weight in your wallet.

    Best of all, Hula's has recreated a tiki vibe that reminds me of evenings spent at the (sadly departed) Kahiki in Columbus, Ohio, or the still delightful (but overpriced) Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Hula's contains an artfully designed stage-set of imposing Polynesian idols, blow-fish shaped lights, island music, and a terrific collection tiki mugs. The whole thing is set in a darkened space designed for sensory alteration. You can grab a seat next to the bar or in the general seating area, and you'll be glad you did. But for the best Hula's experience, ask to sit in the Tiki Room, where you'll need a few minutes to adjust to an even more dreamy Polynesian vibe.

    Hula's is new and part of a tiny chain, with an older location in Monterey and a small branch in Carmel. Therefore some critics will withhold honors of tiki "authenticity." But I'm not sure that term means anything more than age. All tiki restaurants offer a kind of simulacra of various Polynesian cultures, mediated through books, films, and television shows: from James Michener to Hawaii 5-0. It's all tacky and fake, yet still charming. I suppose it fulfills a nostalgic memory from my childhood.

    I still have a warm glowing recollection of the first tiki restaurant I visited with my grandparents, a place with aquariums for walls. It was something out of Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room, just down the street. It was a suburban "social safety valve," before I'd ever even come to understand what that meant and how necessary such a release can be. That place closed down decades ago, as did so many others. Today, the Kahiki resides only in memory (and mail order frozen meals), the Mai Kai is a bit too far distant for a weeknight meal, and the San Francisco Tonga Room is rightly rebuked for its overly syrupy Mai-Tais.

    So about once a week I return to Hula's to drink some Polynesian-inspired confection in a mug shaped like a tiki idol. I tolerate when the music shifts from Don Ho-type Hawaiiana to reggae (which is island-music but hardly tiki). I order the same meal, mixing only my combination of rum drinks. And I thank my lucky coconuts that Hula's has come to town. It's an island fantasy 15 minutes away from home.

    Oh, and watch out for those Mai-Tais. They can pack a punch.

    Learn More:

    Critiki: review of Hula's (Definitely check out the picture gallery)

    (Photo by Andrew Wood)

    Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    Motel 6 Founder Dies

    (Photo borrowed from Wikipedia user Coolcaesar)

    William Becker died on April 2nd at age 85. Did you know that? I didn't until I flipped through the obituary notices, where his death was reported more than a month late. I wouldn't have read further, perhaps, except for the full headline: "William Becker Founded Motel 6." That got my attention. Working with Paul Greene, Mr. Becker helped create a low budget motel chain that has earned my (somewhat grudging) admiration.

    I have no idea about Becker's personality or character. But I know a bit about his creation. Motel 6 is a traveler's bargain. Convenient, ubiquitous, dependable, and inexpensive. Picking up the year's Motel 6 guidebook (conveniently shaped to fit in a car glove box) is a ritual to me, akin to purchasing a decent roadmap prior to summer driving season and fretting about the rising cost of gasoline.

    Any readers who know me may recognize something odd about me rhapsodizing about Motel 6. My preference is to patronize mom and pop motels that reside on small two-lane roads, ideally quirky places that sport glowing neon signs. I like the kinds of places that most folks would never see, places with friendly owner/managers who like to chat as they hand you a key. Recent movies like Vacancy and classic horror flicks like Psycho have blotted their reputations, but these sorts of motels can still be found. With Jenny, I have run a little mom and pop website, Motel Americana, to celebrate motels as a fading part of the American roadside.

    But for my money (and I don't like to spend a lot of it), Motel 6 is a good fallback when my travels take me to places lacking in the mom and pop spirit. And I'll admit it: sometimes when we're driving at some ungodly hour, it's nice to pull out the Motel 6 guidebook, dial up their 800 number, and reserve a room. Almost always, their prices are better than surrounding hotels, and they certainly compete with flea-bag motels that are sometimes too quirky even for my open-minded tastes.

    No one will confuse Motel 6 with fine lodging. The walls are paper thin, the televisions are microscopic (they used to be coin-operated). And I've been known to place towels in the tiny shower stalls to silence an annoying late-night drip. But you get what you pay for at Motel 6. And that can't be said about all motor lodges.

    The first Motel 6 opened in 1962 in Santa Barbara, California, selling its rooms for -- you guessed it -- six bucks. Today you'll spend somewhere between 29 and 49 bucks at most locations, more on weekends or at tourist hotspots. The rooms are utilitarian and bland, excepting those jaunty bedspreads I've noticed in recent years. The rooms are designed for easy cleaning and minimal upkeep. The motels are dependable in their banality, honest in their simplicity.

    So when my daughter Vienna passed through her Michael Jackson phase, we stayed at the Santa Maria Motel 6 when attending the trial several times. Now that she's college shopping, we look for college-adjascent Motel 6s to leave room in our budget for souvenirs or the occasional brownie fudge sundae. And when we head out for this summer's road trip, The 2007 Wood Family Southern Routes BBQ Tour, we'll keep an eye out for Motel 6s along the way. While we prefer independently owned places with glowing signs and linen postcards, we're always happy to settle for the motel chain co-founded by William Becker. So thank you, sir. Wherever you're going, I'm sure they left the light on.

    Learn More:

    New York Times: obituary (Free Registration)

    Monday, May 14, 2007

    Favorite Places - Part 5 - El Vado Motel

    The El Vado Motel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a Route 66 icon that just may survive the onslaught of "developers." Currently the motel is closed, but it is still standing. A fellow named Richard Gonzales now seeks permission to tear down most or all of the 1937 Pueblo Revival motel so he can build townhouses.

    I stayed at the El Vado in 1996 on our family's first road trip, and I revisited the site in 2004 while attending a conference. Both times I enjoyed the chance to rent a cheap, clean, and comfortable room under the glow of a nearly perfect motel sign. I've heard rumors about meth labs and prostitutes, but the El Vado always seemed safe and friendly to me. More importantly, this motel has character.

    The site's pueblo appearance reflects an age of highway travel when diners, bowling alleys, motels, and other otherwise forgettable places sought to lure motorists through themed appearances. Why stay in an anonymous motel room when you can stay in a Spanish hacienda or mission? Sure the effect went only to the facade; one motel room has always been like another (with a few delightful and bizarre exceptions). But after driving hundreds of miles, searching for a room in the setting sun, it's wonderful to pull into a place like the El Vado and experience a place worth remembering when the sun rises.

    Destroying the El Vado would add another sad story to a tragic epic of wholesale abandonment of Route 66's motel history, places like the streamlined Coral Court south of St. Louis and the sublime Yukon and Big 8 motel signs east of Oklahoma City, which once greeted tired motorists with jaw-dropping beauty and design.

    Fortunately, Albuquerque's landmarks and urban conservation commission has pushed back on Gonzales's plans, insisting that he offer far more justification for the destruction of a site that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places back in 1993. Right now the fate of the El Vado is kicking between the city council and its landmarks and conservation commission. Most observers think that the El Vado has escaped the wrecking ball, but one can never be too sure. This is one debate I intend to follow.


    February 7, 2007: National Trust: Albuquerque's El Vado Motel Saved

    April 17, 2007: Albuquerque Tribune: City Council Recap

    June 16, 2007: Albuquerque Tribune: El Vado Motel might be historic

    (Photo by Jenny Wood)

    Sunday, May 13, 2007

    San Jose Neon

    (Photo by Andrew Wood)

    Lately I've been thinking a lot about neon. When Georges Claude commercialized the technology at the turn of the twentieth-century, neon was associated with modernism and progress. This was the kind of technology that thrilled visitors to world's fairs and expositions. For the next few decades, a business sporting a neon sign was a business on the move. Fairly soon, though, neon became attributed with tawdry excess. The light was garish, and its association with bars, diners, motels, and casinos added still another element of sleaze to the technology.

    The recent trend, therefore, has been to eliminate the neon sign from the commercial landscape, replacing it with the backlit plastic sign or some other boring type of display. Fortunately today there are many folks, like me, who are nostalgic for the neon sign. We search out neon meccas like Wildwood, New Jersey; Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; and the whole Route 66 corridor through New Mexico. We visit archives of great signage, such as the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. And we prefer to patronize businesses with neon signs.

    With that spirit in mind, I took a neon tour of San Jose, California, some years back. I adopted that city as my academic home when I became a professor at San Jose State University. Even though the city is increasingly known for its lines of drab tilt-up structures that stretch along the Silicon Valley corredors of 101 and 880, one can still find plenty of "liquid fire." As with my collection of Bourbon Street Neon signs, I don't boast any particular artistry to these photographs; these images are meant to be simple, clear, and unambiguous, like the signs they represent -- only the image atop of this entry involves some degree of editorial composition. Let me know what you think.

    San Jose Neon

    Saturday, May 12, 2007

    Favorite Places - Part 4 - Bourbon Street Neon

    (Photo by Andrew Wood)

    One of the great things about blogging is the opportunity it affords to share bits and pieces of ideas that have been floating around in my head for years without a venue for their promulgation. For example, I visited New Orleans five years ago to attend the annual conference of the National Communication Association. While in the Big Easy, I shot photos of neon signs on Bourbon Street (and nearby environs). These aren't meant to be "arty" or evocative; they simply seek to provide a denotative recollection of signs worth seeing. I planned to do something with these images, but never got around to it.

    Then came the weather advisory. On August 28, 2005 (1011 AM CDT) the National Weather Service office in New Orleans distributed its warning about the impending monster storm. The message detailed an apocalyptic threat that reads like a missing passage from Revelations.

    "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks . . . perhaps longer . . . High-rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously . . . a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out . . . Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards . . . The vast majority of native trees will be snapped or uprooted. Only the heartiest will remain standing . . . but be totally defoliated. Few crops will remain. Livestock left exposed to the winds will be killed."

    We may never know if local, state, and federal planners dismissed this notice as hyperbole. But we do know that the warning proved to be prescient. And now it joins the list of documents presaging the death of cities.

    I have not returned to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, though I might do so this summer. I've been told that the neon still shines despite the wholesale destruction of surrounding areas. RJ Eskow describes the eerie scene in the Huffington Post: "You can spend your entire visit in the French Quarter and downtown, and never know there had ever been a hurricane . . . You need to search for the real story of this damaged city when you're inside the tourist bubble . . . The real city is dying, and it's been replaced by a synthetic version of itself." To be sure, New Orleans has always been a simulacra, like Las Vegas and Times Square, or like any shopping mall. But the neon, a performance of neon, still glows, and it's still pretty cool. Check out the images and tell me what you think.

    Bourbon Street Neon

    Follow-up: I just rediscovered an article I bookmarked several months ago about Johnny White's, a bar that stayed open throughout Hurricane Katrina.

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    Favorite Places - Part 3 - Skyview Drive-in

    (Image found on Google Earth)

    The family-owned Skyview Drive-in offers the only chance to watch a double-feature under the stars on California's central coast. Located on Highway 1 in Santa Cruz, the Skyview (formerly the Encina) has shown movies since 1949, surviving the rise and fall of the drive-in movie craze. Today, approximately 400 drive-in theaters are open around the country, compared to nearly 4,000 in 1950. For that reason, Skyview is a particular gem. One of the early ads read, "Fill up your car, come as you are . . . no need to dress up here, bring the whole family and save the cost of a baby sitter. We even have free bottles for baby's formula." Since the Skyview sits on pricey California real estate, one can only be amazed that this place has endured so long.

    I'm writing this on a Friday afternoon in springtime, anticipating tonight's double feature. The movies are not well reviewed and, frankly, I'm not terribly excited about either show. But I'm happy to see them cheaply and comfortably with my family. We'll pack a cooler, bring some glass cleaner for the windshield, and maybe some blankets in case it gets chilly. We'll arrive at dusk and stumble home after midnight. It's a great evening.

    The Skyview features two screens and a terrific snack bar. The burgers are grilled outside, wafting their meaty aroma over the lines of hungry snackers. This being California, the aroma of various smokable herbs sometimes fills the air as well. Generally we grab some burgers for the first show and line up at intermission for some popcorn prior to the second feature. Intermission is time for one of those old school filler ads, reminding patrons that "the show starts in ten minutes." I've seen these ads for years now, but I never get tired of them.

    Nearby, family pick-up trucks are sprawled with kids. Sometimes a solitary motorist carrying everything he owns in his car will occupy a space too. You meet all kinds at the drive-in. But the mood is relaxed and folks are friendly, as long as you don't flash your headlights on the screen. Commit that sin and you're liable to hear the projectionist over the radio: "Hey Beavis, this is the drive-in, not the drive through. Turn off your lights, dude." We've gone to the drive-in for years now, and can only hope that rumors that a nearby hospital hopes to buy the land prove to be unfounded. Drive-in theaters represent an essential piece of Americana: love of the automobile, clever integration of private and public spaces, celebration of spectacle. So, tonight we're going to the drive-in. We'll arrive early to get a decent spot, scarf down tasty burgers, snuggle close as the fog rolls in, and watch the show. When we leave, our eyes blurry after hours of movie-watching, we'll listen to the music coming from our car speakers getting fainter and fainter until we turn the corner and it's gone.

    Learn More: Richard von Busack's article, Spirit in the Sky. I got the "come as you are" quote from this piece. Catherine Graham's article, Movies under the stars . . . or sometimes the fog. Offers a good overview of the rise, fall, and rebirth of drive-in culture.
    (Photo by Andrew Wood) 

    (Photo by Andrew Wood, Northport, Nebraska) 

      Sad Update: The Skyview closed at last on December 2, 2007.

    Thursday, May 10, 2007

    Great Movie Endings - Part 3 - The Fountainhead

    Warning: Spoilers

    One of my favorite movie endings comes from a genuine guilty pleasure: King Vidor's (1949) The Fountainhead. Written and adapted for the screen by Ayn Rand, the movie advanced her objectivist principle of hero worship, illustrated by an architect who would not yield to the standards of others. Naturally, the book is much more developed in its explication of Rand's philosophy and its depiction of her characters, but I still enjoy the film version more. I love this movie for its excesses: its bombastic music, its heavy-handed imagery, its wooden dialogue, and its utter lack of humor. Every scene in shouts "greatness!" even as the experience descends into camp. Like Dominique Francon, I love this movie "without dignity, without regret."

    I use one scene from The Fountainhead in a course I teach, Visual Communication (COMM 171). It occurs early in the film when Howard Roark is offered a much needed commission, so long as he allows a modernist masterpiece he designed to be mutilated by a committee's vision of popular taste. There's a moment when he seems to consider the opportunity that is offered him, a chance to escape his debts and gain the acclaim he deserves. But Roark turns the committee down, announcing that he'd rather work as a day laborer than prostitute his talents for corporate parasites. When he does indeed go to work at a stone quarry, he meets Dominique, a woman who is nearly his moral counterpart. They fall in love, quickly recognizing their mutual idealism. Yet they must endure years of hardship and struggle before earning the right to each other.

    I'll leave that drama to your own perusal and jump right to the film's best part. Dominique has proven herself to be Roark's equal at last. Only at the film's conclusion is she worthy to ascend to his lofty heights. Recalling that The Fountainhead is incapable of rendering an idea with any subtlety, she affirms their mutual triumph by literally rising to meet Roark in the clouds, taking an elevator to where he stands at the top of his new building (the world's largest, naturally). Out of respect for Ayn Rand, who would view any attempt of mine to summarize that scene as the act of a "second-hander," I will let the "architect" of The Fountainhead speak for herself:

    "She rose above the broad panes of shop windows. The channels of streets grew deeper, sinking. She rose above the marquees of movie theaters, black mats held by spirals of color. Office windows streamed past her, long belts of glass running down . . . The city spread out, marching in angular rows to the rivers . . . There was nothing behind her now but steel ligaments and space . . . and the figure of Howard Roark."

    Yes the visual effects necessary to place Gary Cooper on top of the tallest skyscraper in New York City look pretty silly by today's standards. But I still love the confidence, the audacity, the brute arrogance of that last scene. It's definitely worth a rental on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

    Visit IMDB's post on The Fountainhead

    Malls and Free Speech

    Do malls constitute a form of public space? It's a complex issue. Some observers note their clearly privatized environs, arguing that one cannot protest in a mall any more than in a stranger's house. Others reply that malls have replaced traditional public spaces. Thus, like it or not, they should accommodate communications that would otherwise appear on the proverbial village green. Here's a recent article that addresses this issue.

    (Excerpt begins)

    SOUTH PORTLAND - Should the public have free-speech rights in the common areas of Maine's privately owned malls?

    That isn't the case now, and Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland, says that a change is needed.

    Hinck has introduced a bill that would give people the right to petition and otherwise exercise their free-speech rights in the common areas of shopping centers as long as they do not interfere with business or pedestrian traffic.


    "They've shut down Main Streets, and that's where we used to go. Main Street doesn't exist anymore," [Sen. Peter] Mills said.

    (Excerpt ends)

    Read the whole thing:

    Kim, A. (2007, May 9). Malls would be a marketplace of ideas under bill. Portland Press Herald.

    See also:

    Lithwick, D. (2003, March 10). Why can shopping malls limit free speech? Slate.

    Favorite Places - Part 2 - Roadside America

    Roadside America is one of the best tourist traps in the United States. You can see the whole thing in about an hour, it has a great gift shop, the folks are friendly, and the price is reasonable. Located in Shartlesville, Pennsylvania, Roadside America is dedicated to Laurence Gieringer's desire to craft a miniature time capsule of his ideal America (circa 1890 to 1942), with railroads and fields and mountains that connect tiny villages, bountiful farms, and thriving towns. You’ll see tiny mills, small-town baseball fields, and even a terrific set of motel cabins: a tiny version of America in one huge air-conditioned enclosure.

    (Photo by Andrew Wood)

    The story of Roadside America is often told, but essential to understanding the place; it begins with a childhood fixation. One night when Laurence was five years old, he stared out his window, spotting a hotel on a far away hill. He was was entranced by the twinkling lights; it seemed like a toy he could reach out and grab. Little Laurence left his room and set off to find that toy, but he got lost in the woods. The ordeal terrified him, but even when searchers found him and returned him home the memory of that tantalizing vision stuck with the boy. Thereafter, he started building miniature buildings and towns, happily closer than that distant hotel. Once the local press discovered his creation, Laurence’s hobby got a bit out of hand. Roadside America is a legacy of an obsession that lasted for sixty years.

    The details of Roadside America are its prime pleasures, and there are thousands of them. Some of my favorites: a little girl who stares pensively at an ice cream parlor. A sign reads: "What could she be thinking?" Then there's the house that has caught on fire, its walls burned to ruin. A sign instructs parents to warn their children about the dangers of fire. Finally, I can't help but laugh at the sign that simply said: "Press the button to operate donkeys" How many times do you get a chance to "operate" a donkey? If you're curious, the button causes the miniature beasts to turn their heads back and forth. The purpose of Roadside America is to entertain, of course, but Laurence Gieringer always wished that his roadside attraction would educate as well.

    Make sure you stay for the "Night Pageant," an unapologetically religious reminder of Gieringer's belief that America is literally blessed by God. The lights dimmed while "stars" appear overhead. Religious music and slides segues to Kate Smith's rendition of "God Bless America," and then the lights return. It's all a bit goofy, maybe even tacky, but there's no doubt that Roadside America is heartfelt.