Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Newt Gingrich in 08?

Recently, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sounded off on the state of the GOP field, noting the strength of unannounced-candidate Fred Thompson in relation to two other serious contenders, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, and dismissing John McCain as campaign roadkill. Right away I flashed back to an extemporaneous speech I delivered in early 1992, declaring that George Bush was a lock to win that year's presidential election, a lock. Following the successful prosecution of the first Gulf War and observing the stumbles of candidate Bill Clinton, I felt confident that Bush would have to begin barking at the moon to lose that race. Bill Clinton? No way that goober could beat a war president. As a Democrat (at the time), and as an idealist (less and less, I must admit), I believed in the "Man from Hope," but I didn't have a hope that he could win.

Now I think about a fellow like Newt Gingrich handicapping the candidates, ticking off pros and cons with barely disguised glee. Here's a guy who advanced from the bomb-throwing back benches to lead the 1994 GOP Revolution, overthrowing four decades of Democrat rule in Congress, the same guy who disintegrated in a fit of hubris and overreaching before abandoning Congress merely four years later. This guy now surveys the current crop of candidates and seems to believe, "I could beat these guys." And he may be right.

Not since Richard Nixon's Shakespearian decline has the GOP seemed so lost. Fred Thompson: an undistinguished former senator known mostly for reminding people vaguely of Ronald Reagan. Mitt Romney: a handsome and clever former governor who has a problem keeping his positions straight. Rudy Giuliani: the former mayor who believes his unflinching performance on 9/11 will inspire most mainstream Republicans to forget that they disagree with the candidate on pretty much everything else. And let's not forget John McCain whose hapless campaign can't seem to get anything right these days. In this race, Newt Gingrich -- wonky, mercurial, goofy looking, smarter-than-you Newt -- is a serious contender. He doesn't have to endure a sweltering summer of baby kissing and all those silly "debates." Gingrich needs only to watch and wait, and to leap into the race in September or October as today's frontrunners knife each other up.

Will he do it? To be honest, I don't think so. I believe that Gingrich prefers to pontificate than to engage in the soul-sucking minutia and endless fundraising necessary for a run these days. I think Gingrich will sit this one out, recognizing that either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama -- maybe both as a Democrat Dream Team -- have a lock on '08. A lock.

But then again, I said something similar in 1992…


Eleanor Clift has written an interesting piece entitled, Comeback Kid?. She states, "The country wants different leadership, and Gingrich sees an opening. It’s hard to imagine him winning the nomination much less the presidency with the baggage he brings, but he’ll have a following if he can break through the canned commercialized process we’re trapped in."

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Elite Court and Motel - Before and After

These undated cards reflect the changing size of Amarillo, Texas. The older card marks the city's population at 80,000. The newer card bumps the population up to over 100,000. Both cards, however, are clear about their preferred (or idealized) demographic. After all, this place isn't a Route 66 flop-house. This motel is "where elite tourists gather for ultra-modern accommodations." Today I can find no record of Elite's fate. If you know, please leave a comment.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Travelers Motel - Before and After

I love the name Travelers Motel, with its indisputable reminder that the local "hot pillow trade" will not find accommodations around here. With this post, I thought I'd add to my growing collection of before and after images, focusing on a long gone Savannah motel. The first card was likely produced in the 1940s, in an era when motels still included distinct cabins. I recently purchased this card to provide some historical context for the next two, which I've had for a long time.
The middle card is postmarked 1954. Notice the word "modern" on the marquee. By the mid-fifties, the use of "modern" as a descriptor was beginning to lose its potency. Still, numerous moteliers continued to employ the term as an assurance of cleanliness and efficiency, connecting their properties to a vaguely tangible feeling of progress. However, the bottom card, postmarked 1967, demonstrates how the word had almost entirely fallen from use. What remained was the motel's too-clever-by-half slogan: "Enjoy the 'rest' of your life."
The middle and bottom cards also feature brief handwritten remarks. The bottom includes a basic "having a swell time" note, along with a reminder that home remains the best place of all. But the middle card is actually kind of sweet. The addressee is "Mr. Whitney Green," nothing surprising there. But the note is clearly written to a little boy, adding some pathos to this card: "Dear Whitney: Are you being a good boy? Did you have a good time at Brenda's? Hope you had a nice party. Lots of love from Mama & Daddy." The author also adds a piece of marginalia, "Yesterday we went over a high bridge." I'll bet Whitney was pretty impressed by that news.

I have no idea of the fate that befell the Travelers Motel. Recent google searches reveal no news of whether this property (advertised as being eight miles south of Savanna, Georgia, on highway 17) was razed or simply renamed. If you know anything about the Travelers Motel, post a reply!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie was worth the wait.

While not an unqualified success, the show's shift to the big screen offered much to delight the dedicated fan of the show, particularly those who have stayed with The Simpsons throughout their post "Golden Age" years (roughly, since season ten). So let's just get that aspect of the post out of the way. If you love the show, you'll leave the movie with a sense of satisfaction and appreciation for so much that Matt Groening and his crew got right. You can overlook a few missteps and even some comedy clinkers and recognize that the movie takes its fans seriously, even as it offers an accessible introduction to the Simpsons universe to those who'd never before seen the show. Beyond that introduction, this post doesn't seek to review The Simpsons Movie. Instead, I'd like to chat about a couple of ideas that emerged from one viewing, notions that might make their way into a future essay about the flick.

Warnings: The notes that follow contain both plot points and academic naval-gazing that may ruin your enjoyment of the movie.

Initially I dug how the movie reaffirmed the omnitopian character of Springfield. Locating the city at paradoxical convergence of four distant states -- Ohio, Nevada, Maine, and Kentucky -- illustrated the practice of conflation, which often blurs distinct locales into a structural and/or perceptual continuum. I also thought the idea of placing Springfield under a dome illustrated the enclavic principle omnitopia: the sense that one is protected within freely chosen confines whose edges are more easily recognized from outside than from within. And while the Environmental Protection Agency's imposition of the protective dome upon Springfield, contrary to the will of its inhabitants, was carcerial rather than omnitopian, that strange move nonetheless suggested parallel perceptions of imprisonment and freedom that arise within this environment.

Along with some reflections on omnitopia, I was also intrigued by the movie's identification of environmentalism with ethnic "others": Lisa's crush on an Irish boy who shares her earth-friendly activism and the Inuit woman whose mysticism served as an easily recognized sign of nature rendered exotic by modern city-dwellers. Homer offers vivid contrast to this "otherness," particularly with his illegal dumping of pig waste into a lake, which begins the movie's environmental crisis. Encountering the inuit woman, Homer achieves some degree of awareness of his connection to other living things. While that epiphany was most closely directed to his need to break through Springfield's enclosure and rescue its inhabitants, Homer can only accept the message after being torn apart by trees. His "reintegration" suggests one of the film's messages, that Earth's woes pose an existential threat to us all, and that environmentalism ("others") must become a "selfish" concern.

The Simpsons Movie certainly merits repeat viewing and conversation among devotees. Along with closer examination of its themes, I will search for visual easter eggs, a glimpse of Gil (who sadly did not have a speaking part), details of Springfield not seen in the show, and references to previous episodes. I'm certain that the film will play wonderfully on DVD, a medium much appreciated for its ability to stop and analyze individual frames in vivid detail. And while "sequel" was most definitely not Maggie's "first word," I agree with her: a second Simpsons movie would be swell.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Tiki Week - Don the Beachcomber

Today we conclude tiki week at Woodland Shoppers Paradise and put the matchbook collection back into my "safe deposit closet." Before we end our tour, though, let's stop at Don the Beachcomber in Palm Springs, California.

Any idea what became of this place? Please leave a comment.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tiki Week - Hawaiian Village

Day four of tiki week at Woodland Shoppers Paradise, an excuse to sift through my little collection of matchbooks in search of images and reminders of an age when Hawaiiana was hip. This time we're driving to Tampa for an overnight at Hawaiian Village. Hungry? Take your pick from the Kona Coffee Shop, the Tiki Lounge, the Lanai Room, the Mai-Tai Club Room, or the Hawaiian Dining Room.

Any idea what became of this place? Please leave a comment.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tiki Week - Cameron's Hawaiian Room

It's day three of tiki week at Woodland Shoppers Paradise, when I search through my matchbook collection for pieces of Polynesian-themed history. This time we'll stop in Alhambra, California, for a Mai-Tai in Cameron's Hawaiian Room.

Any idea what became of this place? Please leave a comment.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tiki Week - Tropicana Lodge

It's day two of tiki week at Woodland Shoppers Paradise. Every day this week we're celebrating a slice of Polynesian-themed Americana. Today we visit the Tropicana Lodge in Fresno, California. The back of this matchbook advertises a coffee shop, cocktail lounge, color television, and dancing in the Tropics Room.

Any idea what became of this place? Please leave a comment.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tiki Week - Aloha Club

It's tiki week at Woodland Shoppers Paradise. Every day I'll post one of my favorite tiki-themed matchbooks featuring bars, restaurants, and "villages." Today we begin with the Aloha Club, formerly of Martinez, California.

Any idea what became of this place? Please leave a comment.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Searching for Sierra Theater

I photographed this abandoned theater about five years ago in Chowchilla, California. I was struck by its simple facade, broken by ziggurat steps of sharp deco-verticality. Having no immediate plans to produce a book or website about old theaters I kept the photo in my collection, imagining some use for it eventually.

Recently I've heard that the Sierra was torn down, making way for townhouses. I'm sure that the good people of Chowchilla are happy to receive the new homes and the tax dollars that come with them. But I wish I'd had a chance to see the Sierra in its prime. Have you any memories of this theater? If so, please post a comment.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

High-Tech Manners

Earlier this month, CNN's Amy Cox wrote a piece called Where are your high-tech manners?, which explores generational differences in how people tolerate media-aided transformation of public spaces into private enclaves. Although she's citing research from last year, her article still resonates.

Cox cites a study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that compares experiences with the "icy glare" warranted by inappropriate mobile phone use: "In the Pew study, about 14 percent of people ages 18-29 drew criticism or dirty looks for the way they used their cell phone in public, compared to the 8 percent of respondents of all ages" (para. 15).

Cox also quotes University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism and mass communication professor Lewis Friedland, who describes a high-tech "cone of silence," a placeless enclave created by personal entertainment and communications devices:
"People act as if they're walking through life in a cone of silence in which only they and the other person on the end of the line can hear them," he says. "They can talk quite loudly, and they can talk about things that people around them don't really want to hear about." (para. 8)
After reading this article, I hope that more people who talk loudly on mobile devices will consider posting their explanations for this behavior on Why Do You Do That?.

I also invite your comments about an entry I posted in May: Mobile Phone Etiquette.

Learn More

Pew Internet & American Life Project, April 3, 2006: How Americans use their cell phones. Here's an excerpt: 
It is now possible to be sitting on a train or walking through a park and hear some of the most intimate details of strangers' lives because of the way they are chatting on their cells. To a great many people, this comes as an unwelcome consequence of their use of a mobile phone. Cell phones are blurring the boundaries between what is public and what is private. (p. 11)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Shameless Media Plug - USA Today

Recently I had an opportunity to chat with USA Today's Barbara De Lollis about innovations in Holiday Inn sites and signage. She paraphrased some of our conversation in today's issue:
One reason the Holiday Inn brand holds such potential is that millions of baby boomers who stayed in Holiday Inns as kids still have a deep fascination with the hotel chain, says Andrew Wood, a San Jose State University associate professor who writes about early roadside lodging.

People loved the chain's clean pools, free ice, predictable architecture and its four-story-tall, garish green road signs, he says. Guests were so enamored of it that they made a tradition of stealing the green-and-white-striped logo towel from rooms. Holiday Inn poked fun at the tradition by holding "towel amnesty" days, and in 2005, released a coffee-table book containing stories of guests and their "borrowed" towels.
You can read the entire article, entitled Holiday Inn chain gives itself a face-lift.

Fairly soon I'll return to my own writing about Holiday Inn, focusing on their efforts to add some "locale" to omnitopia by reintegrating elements of the "great sign" into their properties. In that same project, I'll likely explore the evolution of Holiday Inn from its motel predecessors. I should have more news about that project in a later post.

For now, here's a brief history of Holiday Inn I wrote some years back.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Social Geography of Cats

Our youngest cat, Ariadne, has discovered the hummingbird feeder. Now she sits on the windowsill, staring at the flitting birds that dart in and out of her sight. Unlike one of our older cats, Aspasia, our kitten doesn't "chatter" at the birds. She simply meows her displeasure that such tasty morsels remain tantalizingly close, yet beyond her reach. As soon as I open the door, Ariadne races outside. The only problem is that the birds are too fast for her, so she hasn't caught one yet.

Thinking of moments like these, I remember how much I love watching cats play -- particularly when they don't know they're being observed. I feel that I'm peering into a secret world when I watch these independent and territorial animals negotiate public spaces. I'm fascinated to see how neighborhood cats, generally much tougher than our three lazy felines, play against the borders of our yard. One awful cat in particular, a gray male who seems to run the neighborhood, delights in frustrating our generally gentle females. He walks along the curb, tilting one side onto our yard while keeping one side onto the street. Since he's been known to spray in our garage and attack our cats we try to discourage his invasive behavior. Jenny only needs to give that gray cat a mean look and he knows to skedaddle. Yet when the humans are away, our cats must fend for themselves.

Our neighborhood teems with cats who fashion hard-fought but invisible frontiers. Jenny and I can almost never tell where these battle lines are drawn until we stop to pet a neighbor cat on an evening walk and invite another one to join us. At first the second cat will trot toward us, his tail sticking straight up with pleasure and anticipation. But then he'll stop. At first Jenny and I think that we've startled the animal. Then we'll spot both cats bristling at each other, caught up in an undeniable contest of wills. To cats, hierarchies of place must be maintained. An otherwise public venue becomes a private enclave when a dominant animal chooses to assert its power.

Working in my home office I'll look out my window and marvel at how even human borders are transformed by the social geography of cats. The tall wooden fences that separate our tiny yards become highways for cats who stalk prey, visit friends, or just want to avoid dangerous streets. Our cats view streets as walls, while I've seen our toughest cat, Artemis, take feline "road trips" via our inter-neighborhood fence-way. To her, the fence isn't a border; it's a means of conveyance. The fence illustrates how feline pathways and borders often overlap with the human built environment, but they do not necessarily adhere to human maps. Cats carry different maps in their heads.

It took months for Ariadne to muster the courage to leave the house. At first she'd hiss and scratch at anyone stupid enough to take her outside. Then, if we managed to get her to leave the house, she'd panic at the prospect of being brought back in. All in all, hers was a difficult kittenhood. But now she's older and more confident. Today, Ariadne stares at the hummingbirds and plans her assault. One day she will leap upon the fence and climb the tree where the birds roost. Right now they chirp at her mockingly, while the tougher cats menace her without mercy. But her personal geography of safe places is expanding to accommodate a growing sense of adventure. Ariadne's territory is no longer limited to our little house. She now sees a much larger world that awaits.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

YouTube Politics

CNN has posted a fine overview of YouTube's impact on the political scene, beginning with George Allen's infamous Macaca moment and concluding with the anti-Hillary Clinton 1984 video and the booty shaking I got a crush on Obama video. Along with other examples, we see how "YouTube is empowering average Americans to affect the political process like never before. That in turn is affecting the campaigns. The candidates don't have total control over their message any more, and that's forcing them to change the way they campaign" (para. 26). Given that CNN is itself precariously perched between old and new media, their coverage of YouTube politics is fairly good. Moreover, as I think about the implications of this phenomenon I am inclined to be optimistic about America's political future.

Perhaps the most far reaching impact of YouTube and similar video sharing sites is the potential to loosen the Gordian Knot of our current campaign financing system. Today any serious candidate must wade through ludicrous amounts of money to purchase television ads necessary to win the "air war." Forgetting momentarily the corrupting influences of this mode of fundraising, we might focus on the kinds of politicians who pass through this old-media gauntlet: packaged, artificial, hollow. YouTube offers a means to prick those hot-air balloons, to ensure, for example, that people like George Allen are revealed for what they are.

But much more importantly, much more optimistically, one may hope that YouTube politics represents a flattening of the big-money hierarchy. Since anyone can upload a video and anyone can respond to a previously posted message, we might imagine a public sphere that contains more room for better ideas, one not shaped by last-generation thinking and institutional demands. Just as the music industry is shaken by web 2.0 distribution networks, the political class must confront much more sophisticated and engaged voters who no longer trust the "experts."

Sure, we'll see lots of silly and stupid stuff like the new Hott4Hill video, but we'll also get thoughtful and surprising contributions that would never fit into yesterday's system (and yes, I loved Mike Gravel's bizarre rock video). As a bonus, YouTube politics may help us bypass those tired First Amendment quandaries raised by campaign finance reform advocates and detractors. Perhaps we don't need to regulate television ads. We need merely make them -- and those who produce them -- irrelevant.

After all, who needs expensive television ads when good ideas can be distributed online for free?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Platoon: Vietnam and Iraq

Watching recent coverage of the newest "surge" in Iraq, I find myself thinking about a movie that diminished my childhood enthusiasm about war more than twenty years ago, Oliver Stone's Platoon. Released in 1986, this movie has not aged well in some ways. Certainly after the Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a love letter to the "Greatest Generation" of World War Two, Stone's Vietnam War drama has lost some of its luster. But Platoon continues to offer a meaningful illustration of how good intentions drift in the fog of war.

Warning: Spoilers

Beyond its 360-degree combat scenes and moments of jaw-dropping savagery, Platoon offers a philosophical inquiry into the soul of the combat soldier. The protagonist, torn between his respect for two battle-hardened veterans, must decide how to survive the insanity of war. Shall he forsake humanity and embrace the violence that seems to animate every scene? Or shall he seek some higher ground? The answer lies in the incompleteness of either option.

Platoon is the struggle of innocence to appear worldly. Charlie Sheen's would-be intellectual assessment of the war ("Somebody once wrote, 'Hell is the impossibility of reason.' That's what this place feels like: Hell.") doesn't reveal the soul of a poet, only a scared kid turning to grownups to make sense of the world. Even when Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) dies in the much-discussed jungle scene, the fact that the actor's blood packs malfunction is a revealing mistake, a strange virtue. In Oliver Stone's war, noble death is an illusion.

For those critics of Platoon who rail against its supposed "liberal bias," I propose some recollection of why so many Vietnam veterans embraced this film. They didn't praise heroic effects or an elegant plot. And most didn't give a damn about whether the movie was about Johnson's war or Nixon's war. They simply appreciated an ounce of realism, some actual mud, and a little honest ambiguity. For that reason, Platoon meant something to those who had seen the real thing. And that's why Oliver Stone's masterpiece continues to say something meaningful to me.

As an active duty sailor in peacetime (1986-1990) I saw no combat. I was a broadcast journalist, which was a "skate job" (in Navy parlance). Actually, my duties were interesting, even challenging. But the only dangers I faced were due to my own carelessness. Then my tour concluded and I became a Seabee (construction worker) reservist, receiving a new uniform and joining ranks with men whose motto is "we build, we fight." I liked the sturdiness of my boots, and I kept them shined next to my packed seabag as Iraqi missiles fell on Israel and Saudi Arabia. The first Gulf War had begun, reserve units were being called to active duty, and I waited my turn.

Back then I was a young husband, father, and college student. I expressed no outward hopes of being called up. But inwardly I felt ready for anything. I was in my early twenties and this was my war. But the ground assault ended quickly and my unit never received its call. For more than ten years I regretted that bad luck, my lost chance to play those jungle combat games of my youth. Today, though, nothing is so innocent. It appears that simple wars and clean narratives reside in the imaginations of kids and fools.

Recently, I saw an article asking whether a new kind of Tet Offensive may spill out over Iraq in what has already been a bloody summer. It seems that more and more Americans expect the bombings, the beheadings, and the broken promises to continue. Solders promised one-year tours see their stays stretched longer and longer. They return home only to be called up again and again. Their hard-earned successes seem to fade away as objectives become shuffled and reshuffled. They fight for a nation (now called "the homeland") that is ever more unsure whether this war is worthwhile. Many wonder whether our leaders have a clue about what we should do next.

Comparisons between Vietnam and our current misadventures in the Middle East seem almost quaint because the implications of failure seem so much more dire now. America has bet its prestige, blood, and treasure upon the shifting sands and tenuous loyalties of a cruel and dangerous place. In this way, anyone who thinks honestly about the whirlwind we've wrought in Iraq may recognize the same moral ambiguity in Stone's Platoon. American troops -- brave and dedicated volunteers -- know more than most of us the price of failure. Yet hardly anyone can define success beyond survival. No one, that is, except for our president and his increasingly isolated advisors.

These people, most having never served in the armed forces, lack the necessary kind of self-doubt that keeps most of us sane. For them most of all I recommend Platoon.

Monday, July 16, 2007


For some reason a local affiliate station airs 50s-era black and white episodes of Dragnet every once in a while, usually sometime after midnight. Commercial breaks are stitched into the episode with the precision and grace of a blind taxidermist working from mismatched body parts, and the film quality is pretty wretched, but I don't care. I set my DVR to catch every episode. Dragnet is my number one guilty pleasure.

If you've seen one episode you've got the whole idea. In its radio and television iterations, whether in black and white or in color, Dragnet never really changed -- at least not too much. For over two decades since his 1949 radio debut Detective Joe Friday and his partners caught a variety of cases, working in robbery, homicide, juvenile, and even the "bunco squad." As a procedural, the show followed the course of their investigations from initial canvassing to "just desserts," when the crook would face the harsh but fair wages of sin. The plot advanced according to the complexity of the case. One radio episode followed the real-time efforts of cops to catch a bomber. Some episodes took place over a number of weeks. While movies such as LA Confidential mocked Dragnet's fakery and hypocrisy, the show was originally praised for its no-nonsense realism. Many listeners and viewers had never heard of an APP or R & I or MO until Dragnet. Cops generally loved the show for its attempt to depict the gritty and sometimes mundane truth about their jobs.

For me, Dragnet began as an exercise in kitsch. Starting with re-runs on Nick-at-Nite and TV Land I loved watching Joe Friday and his partner Bill Gannon, two black and white characters in a Technicolor world, facing down potheads, hippies, and other assorted riffraff floating about late-sixties Los Angeles. Every episode would begin with a tour of local schools, churches, and happenings, all wrapped up into one synecdochal line: "This is the city." I'd wait for favorite moments: Joe and Bill exchanging a knowing head nod, people employing some goofy pantomime to illustrate something being said, the way cops always walked with such clinched authority.

I also love the speaking patterns of Dragnet, particularly Joe Friday's delivery, which is alternately staccato-clipped and deadpan laconic. Friday's creator, Jack Webb, insisted that his cop should be low-key and professional, a patient and methodical detective, mirroring the LAPD cops he idolized. Studying his real-life counterparts, Webb produced a show built mainly around questions. Even a statement of fact would be turned into a question with the aid of an invitational tag such as, "You say you live alone, is that right?" In a 1958 Film Quarterly essay, Paul A. Jorgensen cites research stating that 60 percent of the show's dialogue consists of questions. Beyond those procedural interrogations and some light banter between Friday and his colleagues, the show is stripped of any ornament. I suppose that's what I love most about Dragnet: its promise of simplicity and consistency.

Webb's production company, Mark VII, created Dragnet and plenty of related shows such as Adam-12, Emergency!, and Project Blue Book. I loved each of these shows (even carrying an Adam 12 lunch box as a kid), yet I had no idea that one man produced them all. Thus I feel warm appreciation for Jack Webb who, even as a young man, was a notorious workaholic. A 1954 Time Magazine cover story paints a vivid picture:
Unlike his creature, Sergeant Friday, Webb can roar with laughter and talk with vast intensity and enthusiasm. He attracts all sorts of people. But he has few friends, almost no social life and is seldom seen in Hollywood nightspots. Nothing but an ailing script can keep him from sleeping nine hours a night, and he is hard at work every morning at 8 o'clock. In his spare time he stares at motion pictures, often "stopping them and backing them up" to engage in rapt inspection of every last optical effect and lap dissolve. In five years, he has read only one book (The Caine Mutiny), but few films, good, bad or indifferent, have escaped his coldly appraising eye.
Aficionados all know that the hard drinking, jazz loving, chain smoking perfectionist died young at the age of 62. He's interred at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, a gravesite I plan to visit one day. I will make that pilgrimage out of respect for an actor and LAPD advocate who never seemed to fit into his times exactly. And along the way I'll listen to Dragnet radio episodes, remembering the craft of a true professional.

Learn More

Badge 714: The Dragnet Webb site

Jorgensen, P.A. (1958). The permanence of Dragnet. Film Quarterly, 12(1), 35-40.

Roborant, Dragnet Radio Show: "Dragnet has to be one of the most famous radio programs of all time. The dum-de-dum-dum theme by Walter Schumann is known to people who have never heard the radio shows or seen the television series and the phrase "just the facts, Ma'am" is part of our culture. Dragnet was probably the first "reality-based" program of any kind. At its height, it was one of the top-rated shows on the radio."

Staff writer. (1954, March 15). Jack, be nimble! Time Magazine, np.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Florida Dinosaur

As we prepare for the Wood Family Southern Routes BBQ Tour later this summer, I look back on my first road trips, and I remember how much I hated long drives as a kid.

Back then, the only vacations we took were our yearly drives from Dunedin to Tallahassee along US 19. The trip wound through congested towns that slowly gave way to rural west coast Florida in a northwestern arc that led us to where my aunt and uncle lived. Some years we joined them for Thanksgiving, others we visited for Christmas. And while I loved seeing my family I just couldn't stand being cooped up in a car for five hours. My mom tried to help me endure those trips, weighing me down with newly purchased books that would occupy my time. I tried to lose myself in the Encyclopedia Brown mystery books she'd buy. And yet the seemingly endless miles of boredom drove me nuts.

I do remember one highlight, though: the giant dinosaur at Spring Hill, near Weeki Wachee. A 1969 postcard from my collection offers useful description: "The only Dinosaur Station of its kind in the world. Overall Length 110 feet; Main body 34 feet High; Head 48 feet high." I loved that highway dinosaur (as well as a smaller one nearby). Once I saw it, I forgot my boredom and simply marveled at the huge beast.

Today the station remains open, though as an independent auto repair garage. And these days my family will often drive five hours before lunch on some of our road trips. I am delighted that my daughter has survived her early years as a passenger, because I remember vividly how much she dreaded those trips. Now every once in a while she'll express a yearning to hit the pavement and see how far we can go. One day we'll return to Spring Hill and photograph a roadside icon that, for me, started it all.

Learn More

November 10, 2003, St. Petersburg Times, Real Florida: Monster Garage: "Used to be that U.S. 19 in Hernando County was dark, dark as midnight in the country. Even on U.S. 19, a guy could lean up against a gas pump, look up and see the Milky Way if there were no car headlights heading his way. And if a fellow wanted, he could look back at the dinosaur. Its eyes glowed in the dark."

May 3, 2007, St. Petersburg Times, Kitschy, Maybe, but Sights Say Home: "For those tooling north on U.S. 19, the big concrete dinosaur that now houses Harold's Auto Center meant that Weeki Wachee Springs was coming up soon. 'We knew we were almost to the mermaids when we saw the dinosaur,' said 52-year-old Roberta Reese of Brooksville. 'We lived in Largo, and my grandparents used to take us to see them all the time. I got really excited when I saw that dinosaur.'"

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Litter Nation

In May while writing about mobile phone etiquette, my post concluded with a sarcastic proposal that I might one day write a rant about littering. How silly, I thought, because along with reminders not to kick kittens or slap the elderly one would assume that we need no more calls to end littering. When I was a kid in the seventies, I remember the television PSA about the "Crying Indian" and thinking even then: Do people actually toss their stuff from moving cars? Yes. They did then, and they still do now.

In fact when Jenny, Vienna, and I drove into California in 1998 I remember how embarrassed I was to see the freeways covered with litter. I was ashamed because I'd taken a job in San Jose and was bringing my family to our new home. Their first glimpse of California's west coast was mile after mile of trash-strewn interstate. I imagined their unspoken question: We're going to live in this place? Nine years later we love California. We own a home here and plan to stay for a long time. But we still are amazed by the trashing of this beautiful land. And we see much of the same in other parts of the country. It seems that many Americans have no problem with litter.

Why do people litter? One response to that question on Why Do You Do That? mentions a combination of laziness and rebellion. I certainly understand the first part of that answer. It really can be inconvenient to keep a piece of junk until you find a trash can. And I imagine that some folks feel no particular love for their surroundings. There are so many ugly places in America that one more piece of detritus must not seem so awful. Yet I still have no patience for littering. My thinking is that a person willing to toss a cigarette butt out their car rather than fill their ashtray isn't just disrespecting the physical environment, they're disrespecting the people who share that environment. And that includes me.

Looking back, I think the "Crying Indian" PSA inspired me to think this way. But it wasn't until the last year that I began to develop a small but daily response to the problem of littering. It does not call for confrontation or bellyaching. And it only takes a moment. Every day, no matter where I am, I pick up at least one piece of trash. Sometimes it's a fast food wrapper. Sometimes it's a discarded newspaper. One day my choice was a box of moldy doughnuts. It doesn't matter, as long as it's trash. I usually choose my daily trash pick-up while I'm walking in a public place. There's no announcement, no posing. But if someone sees me picking up a piece of trash that's clearly not mine I figure that other folks might get the message.

And that's the real point of this blog post. Because you know that one person picking up one piece of trash per day will accomplish pitifully little. And believe me, the momentary feeling of a good deed is insufficient to the problem we all face. No, what we need is for everyone, everyone to pick up one piece of trash every day. And that means you. Imagine if you made that commitment and stuck to it, and imagine if you asked your friends to do the same. Just imagine how easy it could be to make our public places just a little nicer.

Certainly we need much more than litter pick-up to clean up the junk that clogs our society. All of us, myself included, need to think much more carefully about the things we purchase that merely produce more junk that must somehow be thrown away. Each of us can think of ways to buy smarter, buy less, or get by without. And we can find ways to tell producers and retailers that we won't participate in an economy that junks our planet. There's much more to be done than one moment of trash cleanup. But we must start somewhere, so I propose we begin with the next piece of trash. Remove or recycle one piece today and one piece tomorrow and one piece every day thereafter. It must be something that is "not yours" because the consequences of this problem do indeed belong to us all. Don't think of it as empty symbolism. Think of it as a first step. Make it a habit and take it from there.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Jenny and I watched Twister last night. Again. The 1996 storm chaser flick starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton is a prime candidate for my Big Book of Guilty Pleasures, a low-brow literary project I may pursue one day. When Twister first appeared, most media coverage concentrated on its stunning effects, notably the combination of computer generated graphics and creepy animal noises used to create big screen tornadoes. And the movie still holds up on a high definition screen. But those genuinely impressive scenes -- a tornado tearing through a farm, a waterspout splitting into twins, and a pickup racing through a storm-tossed house -- do not attract me to Twister year after year. No, for me, it's the movie's endearing cheesiness that warrants repeat viewings.

Warning: Spoilers

Twister's plot begins with the banal struggles of Bill Harding (who comes up with these names?) to convince Jo, his estranged wife, to sign divorce documents so he can marry Melissa. Rather than wait for certified mail, Bill drives out to a farm road to pick up the papers, but he has no plans to join Jo and her wacky crew of storm chasers on their high-speed adventures through the countryside, even though this happens to be the stormiest day in thirty years. Did I mention that Bill is a former storm chaser whose tornado research equipment will debut today? And that Bill brought Melissa with him? And that Jo saw her dad swept up into a tornado thirty years ago? One windy day in Oklahoma can hardly compete with the tempest sure to blow in their hearts.

I love this movie's earnestness, particularly in its characters. Jo is haunted by the vision of her father getting sucked into that twister, even seeing families who eerily resemble her own standing in the rubble of storm-struck towns. Her crew is a motley collection of chipper sidekicks who race into danger to a Van Halen soundtrack but grow ominously silent when Melissa asks for a description of an F-5 tornado. "The Finger of God," is the awestruck response. My favorite illustration of this film's goofy seriousness is when we catch sight of Jonas Miller, a competing storm chaser. Bill describes his nemesis to Melissa, scrunching his face in disgust and practically spitting into the camera: "He's in it for the money, not the science." The DVD scene featuring Jonas crowing about tornado-research equipment called DOT-3 -- a rip-off of Bill's "Dorothy" device -- is actually labeled "Corporate Kissbutt."

Character conflicts well defined and in place, the movie leaps into a relentless pace as the storm chasers compete to position their research gear in the path of increasingly destructive tornadoes. The screen fills with flying debris, cows, fire trucks, and even houses. Twisters careen through ever-bigger targets: a farm, a drive-in, eventually an entire town. All the while Jo and Bill rediscover their passion for each other. And what about Bill's whiny fiancée? Melissa has enough good sense to depart after recognizing that she can't compete with Jo. To assuage Bill's guilt (and our own for cheering her departure) Melissa assures us all: "Sooner or later it would have ended. We both know that." Bill says nothing, so she adds, "The funny thing is, I'm not that upset. What does that mean?" With that awkwardness out of the way, Bill and Jo prepare for one last attempt at positioning "Dorothy" in the suck zone.

In case you haven't seen the film, I won't spoil Twister's climax for you. You can rest assured, however, that you'll see the Finger of God, that Jo will overcome her demons, and that Bill won't be too lonely that evening. Oh, and that Corporate Kissbutt will get a closer look at a tornado than he'd ever want. It's all such ludicrous fun, so loud and silly and amazing to behold, that our family watches this flick at least once a year. Jenny and I even dream of taking a storm chasing tour, envisioning our adventures among zany do-gooders who face hail and lightening in search of thrill and adventure. I'll fill my iPod playlist with Van Helen and try to keep the lens of my video camera clean. Now I just need to find a decent map of Oklahoma.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Still Craving The Simpsons

The Guardian Unlimited offers a damning indictment of The Simpsons, a show that has undeniably suffered some creative malaise for the past decade:
Once, it was the greatest show on TV. Every episode was brimming with imagination, excitement and some of the sharpest one-liners to come out of America for decades. But above all it was smart...Then it all changed... A looser, lazier sensibility took hold, given free rein by new executive producer Mike Scully. And the show became stupid.
I cannot quite agree with the essay's sweeping condemnation of the past few years. Certainly the show cannot hope to replicate nearly perfect episodes such as "Bart Sells His Soul" or "Lisa's Wedding." But the show still manages to produce some genuinely clever episodes year after year, despite its clunkers. And I continue to anticipate The Simpsons Movie, opening fifteen days from now!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Alma Mater

(Cover image by Charles W. Smith)

Alma Mater: The Gothic Age of the American College describes Henry Seidel Canby's youth and early professional years as both a student and professor at Yale University. As with his previous work, The Age of Confidence, Alma Mater paints a nostalgic image of pre- and early-twentieth century life, though sometimes demonstrating a disturbing ambivalence about that era's stereotypical notions.

I read Alma Mater as a professor who is interested in the changing practices and values of college life. Yet I was surprised by how similar Canby's experiences were to mine. This entry does not seek to "review" Alma Mater. Rather I hope to weave together some quotes from the book that illustrate the strangely consistent patterns of his day and our own.

Initially I was touched by Canby's recollections of undergraduate life. He noted how the daily grind of coursework, particularly the demand to endure professors' dull recitations on outworn topics, was swiftly forgotten by the willful choice made by kids to ignore both past and future and live only for the moment, celebrating freedom without consequence:
What frankness, for we had little to conceal! What fresh perceptions, for we had seen so little! What confidence, since the difference between success and failure seemed still to be an accident which a push could avoid! And those moonlights, marching home from our mild carouses, hearts released in convivial expansiveness, singing... (p. 35)
Much of the book concentrates on Canby's experiences as a Yale professor, a position that allowed the author to reflect on college life as two parallel but distinct worlds becoming permeable to one another only through excruciating effort:
They [the professors] talked to us as visitors at the Zoo might deal with a jaguar from the jungle, futility and ignorance on either side of the bars. Their neat categories of thinking were cages into which our disorderly and somewhat childish imaginations refused to step. We kept our vigor, our rich loyalty, our faith in a panacea called success. They kept their naive confidence in facts and theory unrelated to the social environment. They talked in a vacuum while we breathed the raw air from outside. (p. 93)
Yale's student body, especially those who came from moneyed backgrounds, saw college as a post-adolescent idyll that offered the added benefit of assuring even the dimmest kids some increased chance of material advancement, if only through their associations with various clubs and fraternal organizations. College was both a retreat from the outside world and a conveyance to that world. Consequently, the entreaties offered by professors to wander the groves of academic pursuits were heartily dismissed by virtually all their students:
For I quickly learned, intuitively, crudely, yet I learned, that whether it was the history of the English language, or Shakespeare, that I was trying to teach, the actual conflict was not with ignorance but with college life and all that it implied; and behind it the ideas and ideal of an American society in which materialism dominated action and governed thought. One could plant facts by waving a mark book, but when it came to ideas, beliefs, ideals, the soil was stubborn. (pp. 108-109)
While professors struggled to maintain some sense of relevance amid a society that valued practicality over abstraction, students generally eschewed the hard labor of the mind, choosing instead the quick and easy paths through educational thickets. Canby marveled at the willful ignorance demonstrated by both sides in this silly performance:
It seemed to me incredible that a mature and civilized person, who in private life had an impeccable character and often geniality and charm, should be willing to earn a living (and usually a meagre living) by asking trivial questions day after day of young men who had either memorized the answers as the easiest way of getting on with college life and their real education, or constructed a system of bluff so transparent that only a defeatist who did not believe in education would have stood for it. I understand more now of the exigencies of life and the conditions upon which a scholar was permitted to be an intellectual in those days. Even so I wonder when I think of men I know who have persisted in this rigamarole for thirty years. (pp. 64-65)
Even when their students had departed the classroom, a majority of Canby's professors withered, their rough vines hacked to make room for more efficient farms of knowledge. Specialization inspired by the transition from liberal arts monastery to twentieth-century university swept a number of ambitious academics along, leaving many great minds stuck in abandoned furrows. For some, the result was bitterness: "Arrogance, pedantry, and dogmatism . . . the occupational diseases of those who spend their lives directing the intellects of the young" (p. 135). Other professors cheerfully abandoned any pretense to practicality, choosing instead to build vast and intricate mazes that they alone would chart until their careers collapsed at last among boxes of meaningless files bundled for burning:
I know a so-called fabulist in my days in the graduate school, who for years had compared manuscript with manuscript of the fables of Aesop, tracing their indebtedness one to another by the use of "wolf" for "fox" or a peculiarity in the ass that wore the lion's skin, until he had curves of dates and influences running clear across the European Middle Ages. It all meant nothing . . . It meant no more than counting the bricks in a hundred city blocks. Yet he was a happy man. His task extended onward indefinitely. He would never finish, and so need never draw conclusions. He had a puzzle so good that it got him a professorship. The case was extreme, yet illuminating. (pp. 204-205)
Canby noted that the professorate was, at least in his era, marked by the drudgery of social hierarchy and the disheartenment of blasé students. Most professors sought safety from that strange and fickle world, living in a perpetual fear of their undoing by a society that couldn't care less about poetry or ethics or philosophy. In the manner evoked by Wordsworth I am tempted to call those few who affirm the value of their pursuits happy warriors. Such a professor:
who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined
Great issues, good or bad for human kind,
Is happy as a Lover; and attired
With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired
Yet Canby's description of the persistent professor who continues to stoke the fires of his own inner light is far too grim for such optimism. It is duty more than joy that animates the college professor. And still, one may recall a rare moment when the professor transforms solitary resolve into passionate demand, exhorting students to question the values of naked ambition and clothe themselves in garments of virtue:
He knew that his ordering of Shakespeare's sonnets or his analysis of the subjunctive in Anglo-Saxon, was a permanent contribution, however slight, to the fund of human knowledge, more permanent, if less immediately useful, than a factory or a lawsuit. Yet he knew also that to the country, and to his students, his work seemed to be an eccentricity of a belated adolescent, who played twenty questions while life roared past outside his study window. Remembering Mary and Martha, he wondered whether his dutiful service in the kitchen of literature would be properly appreciated, even by the Deity. It was after such moments of painful introspection that he would close his books, and with a grim resolve to make himself felt in his generation, charge into his classroom, and grapple with the callow imagination of his pupils, until even their conventional minds were ploughed up and planted here and there with distrust of their own smugness. Thus great teachers might be made. (pp. 212-213)
I don't claim to be that kind of teacher. I still have two or three decades of growth ahead, and even then I don't expect to be done learning (or teaching) anything of value. Still I recognize some of my own experiences in Canby's memoir, even while I teach in a vastly different environment. And I feel renewed in my respect for those who enter the classroom seeking to add something to the lives of students who may not recognize the value of that gift until they are long gone.

Canby, H.S. (1936). Alma mater: The Gothic Age of the American college. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Teachers that Matter

Upon reading Henry Seidel Canby's Alma Mater: The Gothic Age in the American College I felt compelled to follow his example and reflect on one or two great teachers that influenced me. At one point I wrote some lines about Bonnie Clark, the professor who introduced me to forensic oratory and pointed out the path that led to my career (more words for her will find their way to this venue). Now I'll tell you about another professor whose voice I hear when I enter my own classroom, years after leaving his presence. He was the scariest teacher I ever had.

It's entirely inaccurate to say that his name doesn't matter. It does. And yet I don't think my memories accurately reproduce the experience of taking his class. Those recollections are so worn and subject to the failings of age that my attempts to connect them to a name would seem unfair. It might suffice for you to recall the prep school mysticism of Dead Poets Society to get a general idea of his teaching. I can almost see him leaping upon tables to shout, to exhort, to enthrall us about some seemingly arcane topic, one transformed into living energy through his words. Truthfully I don't know if he actually ever jumped on a table. But that's how I remember him.

This professor was dagger sharp, and he could be merciless to the unprepared. I remember one student expounding about her problems as justification for failure to complete an assignment. I don't recall the details: something about job hassles, family obligations, physical ailments, or some combination. Having taught for almost a decade myself, I've heard countless similar stories. And my instincts generally lead me to some mixture of compassion and utility. This is a genuine problem, I'll sometimes say, and it can be solved. This professor said something quite different though. He didn't sneer, nor did he cackle. But there was something fixed and unmoving in the precision of his words.

Perhaps, he said, now is not the best time to take college courses.

He was right, of course. Yet I will never forget the sense of air being sucked from my lungs when I heard that retort. I didn't know teachers could say that sort of thing.

Maintaining a high grade in his class demanded constant vigilance. To illustrate, let me provide some context. My typical class grade is composed of assignments whose point values add to 500. A major essay might be worth twenty percent of the semester grade, topping out at 100 points. But the course total remains so far in the distance that many students don't fret about doing poorly now and again. My professor, however, offered no such balm. In his class (as I recall), one could earn a total of 100 points. Every jot, every mark, every error warranted a possible subtraction from that total. Throughout a semester, a student could see her grade decline inexorably from A to B to points below. One could not hide in mathematical haze. I remember double-checking and triple-checking each essay I wrote for him -- what should presumably be a commonplace corrective -- out of fear of that steadily falling grade.

I loved his class, even as I feared his judgment. This professor demanded much from me, not out of some false personal affirmation but simply because he set high standards for all his students. To him, teaching was more than a job. Strangely enough, though, his energetic classroom manner, his lengthy recitations about a beloved topic, and his utter unwillingness to coddle his charges, never seemed to translate into his office hours. When I visited him outside of class he seemed smaller, more distant. He was helpful enough but not as vividly present as he was, as it were, on stage. The classroom was his domain. There, he seemed bigger than the room.

A few years ago I emailed him, describing the influence he had upon my choice of professorial persona. After all I have been known to shout, to exhort, and even to startle my students. And though I feel that my teaching is a poor substitute for the experiences I had with him and other significant figures in my history I try to affirm the best of what he taught me. He replied to that email, but not as I would have hoped. While he was a bright and colorful (and sometimes terrifying) part of my personal and professional development, I was just one of many students who passed through his door. Such is the nature, I suppose, of nostalgia. Those who discover some sort of greatness within themselves and those who still have yet to accomplish that task may share the same space, but they seldom share much time.

Monday, July 9, 2007

World Liquors

Located in St. Petersburg, Florida, World Liquors injects a sense of grandeur into the otherwise functional process of getting tanked. There's a glorious mid-century excess in that name. You might easier visualize "Liquor Town" or "Liquor City," or perhaps "Liquor Nation" (in a trendy I Love the '90s sort of way). But a name like World Liquors takes guts.

And then there's that globe: a synecdoche of everything, at least all that matters around here, a boozy cosmos. Did the globe ever rotate? I've never heard a firm answer. But I like to imagine that it did: promising an entire reeling planet of sweet intoxication.

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Time Passages

I'll admit it: I love Al Stewart's 1978 song, "Time Passages." Such an admission must make me look silly to music snobs who generally dismiss the song as hackneyed and trite. To them, "Time Passages" is a regrettable throwback to the seventies era of "singer-songwriters" who crafted seemingly self-indulgent folk-pop narratives while (apparently) snorting all manner of dubious powders and convincing themselves that, yes, people will love listening to bittersweet ballads about love and loss and memory because no one had ever written about that before. Sure, "Time Passages" was an AM staple in 1978, but the song is precious and pretentious enough to garner sarcastic clucks from music critics today. Heck, even Al Stewart claims not to like the song. I don't care. I love it.

I was ten years old when "Time Passages" hit the airwaves (ahh, that explains it), and I quickly connected with its quirky message. Initially I was struck by how genuinely unique it was to hear a real foreign accent on the radio. Most musicians who manage to score U.S. hits sound almost indistinguishable from stateside artists. Only when being interviewed do they reveal their nationalities. But Al Stewart sounded plainly and unapologetically British (though he is Scottish). Moreover, his song sounded different from most of the music I heard in those days. In contrast to the silly disco songs that marked the last gasp of that strange decade, "Time Passages" sounded thoughtful and even a little sad. And then I noticed the lyrics that swirled around a peppy-orchestral confection produced by Alan Parsons (of course).

Without too much detail, the song relates the story of a man reflecting upon his precarious position within time. He imagines his life as an arrow that connects past to future. Thus his years "run" like a train. And yet he finds himself slipping into something cyclical when his "line gets cast into these time passages." He wants to hop back onto some familiar continuum, refraining, "Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight," but you begin to wonder if -- like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim -- he's become unstuck in time.

And then as "the picture is changing," the listener assumes the role of the protagonist. "You" are part of a crowd that is filled with laughing people and loud music. You see a girl whom you once knew. You reach out to touch her, "But you're all alone." Thinking back to when I first heard the song at age ten, I imagine myself uttering an audible "whoa." You see, I'd been raised on science fiction, so I immediately assumed that Stewart was singing about time travel. I'd read about it, and I seen it visualized in television shows and movies, and yet I'd never heard it so cleverly suggested in a pop song.

Listening to "Time Passages" almost three decades later, I'm certain that Stewart meant something less literal. He was simply talking about the way that memory blurs places and times into a personally coherent universe, one that would appear paradoxical to anyone else. Even now, writing this on a couch next to an open window, hearing a neighbor's dog bark, enjoying a cool breeze of a July afternoon, I find myself able to slip back and forth between incommensurate experiences. I remember taking a road trip with my father, listening to him explain that a quarter in his hand represents an investment in my college education. I remember walking the railroad tracks in Dunedin with my best friend, scrounging up two quarters for ice cream at McDonalds. I remember walking alone on a Nevada desert highway, my daughter waiting in the car a half-mile up the road. For reasons that only I can really grasp, these moments are connected, even beyond apparent similarities. Their meanings wrap around other in some phantom logic that defies temporal borders; they produce a hypertextual narrative that makes sense only to me.

Even without a literal ability to travel through time, songs like Al Stewart's "Time Passages" suggest that we can connect ourselves to a reality that resides outside of the everyday, that we can encounter some synchronicity beyond seemingly random moments. Bending straight lines into cycles, sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance, we can see our lives for what they are.

Want to hear more Al Stewart? Check out "Year of the Cat," a song that (on certain commercial levels) inspired "Time Passages."

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Searching for Arrowhead Cafeteria

This is matchbook has long fascinated me. When you think of a cafeteria, you probably imagine hair-netted servers slopping mystery meat onto your tray (mostly upon your plate, but not completely). Yet Arrowhead Cafeteria and Table Service looked positively luxurious. The men wear suits and ties and the women - is that woman in the green dress wearing a fur? Clearly it's a generic image, probably used for a large number of cafeterias. But I wonder if the folks at Arrowhead were overselling things just a bit.

As the matchbook indicates, the Arrowhead served American and Chinese dishes and assured its patrons: "All Foods We Serve Guaranteed of High Quality and Reasonable Price." If you have memories or photos of this cafeteria (located at 219 W. Superior St., Duluth, Minnesota) please leave a comment.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Wood Writing Guide: Literature Reviews

Literature reviews represent the summary and advancement of scholarly conversation. I recognize that readers coming to this blog by chance may find it strange that I'd dedicate a post to this specialized component of academic writing, but I hope that anyone who attempts scholarly prose, from a brief course paper to a dissertation, may find some utility in this entry: an introduction to the purpose of literature reviews.

Right away let me clarify some biases that shape this introduction. My primary academic audience is a community of scholars producing communication research. I offer no guarantees that this advice is suitable for other audiences. Moreover, this way of writing a literature review emerges from my own peculiar sensibilities. Even within the field of communication studies, one may find a wide range of philosophies toward this topic. Those biases noted, let us start with the fundamentals.

When writing a piece of academic prose, a literature review helps you position your hypothesis or research question within a larger collection of scholarly efforts. Writing a literature review situates you in that scholarly conversation, either as someone who seeks to continue an existing thread or as someone who wishes to propose a new thread. In explaining this topic to my classes over the years, I've found that students frequently struggle with this component of academic writing, so let me provide a narrative to illustrate this practice.

Imagine that you and a shy friend are attending a party tonight. You are comfortable with social get-togethers, you chat confidently with friends and strangers, but your friend is nervous. He knows most of the folks planning to attend, but he's still doubtful about being accepted at the party. Your shy friend asks you to arrive at the party a half-hour earlier than he and check out the social scene. Using your mobile phone you'll tell him about the conversations taking place so that your friend can arrive with something to say. You think it's a pretty strange plan, but you're happy to help your friend enter the social scene, so you agree.

As promised, you show up earlier than your friend. Immediately you scope out the room. At first the party is a loud collection of overlapping sounds; it's all a bit overwhelming. But your social instincts help you analyze the scene. Wandering about, sipping a soda and listening to the chatter, you discover that the party contains three distinct groups of conversation, as well as some randomly placed folks sitting alone and grooving to the music. Your friend said something about wanting to join a small group, so you focus your attention on the three most identifiable sets of conversation. You stand close enough to listen without distracting the participants.

The groups represent distinct types of conversation. The first group is an amiable collection of young folks who stand in the kitchen, chatting about classic movies. Jim starts by celebrating Citizen Kane. Jenny follows up with remarks about The Godfather. Jared then begins to explain the under-appreciated virtues of Hail to the Chimp. The participants are loud and excited, and they seem to welcome your presence. You listen for a while and then walk into the living room to join the second group. These are somewhat older folks, at ease with each other even as they discuss their topic intensely. This second group is debating the merits of the new Lady Gaga album. Listening to their discussion, it is clear that the group is evenly split between two dominant speakers, John and Jane. John says the album is excellent; Jane says it's trash. Both debaters and their friends use lots of inside jokes and refer to previous conversations. You can tell this group has had similar arguments for years. You eavesdrop without difficulty since no one seems to recognize your presence, but eventually you walk away toward the porch. There, the third group is drinking and laughing boisterously. You listen for a while, but the group doesn't seem to be talking about anything interesting; they're just cracking jokes. After a while you find a quiet corner and open your mobile phone.

You call your friend and say something like this: "The party's really fun. You should have no problem fitting in. Just remember: right now there are three basic groups. The folks in the kitchen are talking about movies. As you'd guess, Jim is convinced that Citizen Kane is the best movie of all time, though Jenny said some interesting things about The Godfather. Watch out for Jared, though. I think he's had a few too many beers. Just plan to talk about classic movies and you'll fit in. Or if you'd rather talk about music, you'll find John and Jane debating new albums yet again. Tonight they're talking about that awful new Lady Gaga album. As you'd guess, John loves it and Jane hates it. They're having an intense discussion, so listen for a bit to catch the flow before you join in. Oh, and avoid the porch crowd. They're having fun, but they're not saying anything interesting. Just come to the party ready to talk about movies or music and you'll fit in just fine."

Leaving our narrative example we can draw some conclusions about the nature of a literature review and how this component of academic writing fits into the larger goal of scholarship. Like a party, a scholarly community is composed of many people talking at the same time. Literature reviews organize that complex discourse into a number of related conversations. Following the party example, one might write a literature review that summarizes two particularly interesting conversations about movies and music. Certainly a formal literature review will be organized around more related and specialized scholarly conversations. But this example of movies and music illustrates how any conversation is marked by its distinction from other conversations and by its sense of internal cohesion.

What kind of internal cohesion do we find in these examples? The movie conversation is organized chronologically within a category of classics, from Citizen Kane to Hail to the Chimp. If the chat comments were actually scholarly articles you might cite the authors who refer to these movies, offering a quote or paraphrase that summarizes what they say. You might then conclude that section of your literature review by evaluating whether Hail to the Chimp belongs in this conversation at all. The music conversation is organized as a debate between two dominant experts and their partisans. If their comments represent competing scholarly schools of thought you have several options. You might simply compare and contrast the opposing points of view, again by citing major ideas and their originating authors. You might also take a side, becoming a partisan for one position or another. Or you might comment on how both sides of the debate are missing an important idea (after offering some sense of what is being said). Given the nature of the second group, though, you'll need to be careful when engaging their ideas. The rules for participating in long-standing debates tend to be more rigidly defined than in newer conversations.

Of course you won't necessarily cite everything you read, just like you won't chat with everyone you meet at a party. Within any party or scholarly discourse you may find other groups that are loud but not interesting. You can decide whether their conversations are worth engaging or whether they should be ignored. Similarly, at any party or scholarly discourse you will find loners: individuals who have not joined a group either by choice or consensus. Some folks don't care to join groups. Other folks can't find groups to accept them. When writing a literature review, it's your choice whether you wish to engage their ideas or ignore them. The former option is most common, since groups are easiest to navigate when attending a party or attempting a literature review. But remember, the loners in both examples can sometimes have the most interesting things to say.

Certainly there's much more to say about an ideal literature review than can be found in this brief note. One must consider whether a review should be organized by topic thread or by individual citation. I choose the former, but many other writers prefer the latter. One must also consider style-specific rules of citation. I prefer APA but many scholars write in MLA, Chicago, or other styles. Finally, one must consider how much detail to offer with each citation. I prefer a quote or paraphrase for most references. But some scholars are happy to lump dozens of names together with little context other than chronology. Thus we have certainly not exhausted this topic. However, it's important to begin with the fundamentals. Literature reviews challenge you to enter a scholarly conversation, make sense of the important themes and participants, and convey that sense-making to others who may follow your own scholarly efforts. Start with that perspective and you might even enjoy this component of academic writing.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Not Even Once

This ad comes from the Montana Meth project, which seeks to convince teenagers that taking the drug even once leads to terrifying consequences soon thereafter. It's potent, poignant, and scary stuff.

Viewing this ad, I remembered one leg of our 2006 family road trip, US 2 through Montana. On that road we encountered a series of homemade anti-meth ads that grabbed our attention.

An epidemic in big cities and small towns, meth has attracted some visionary foes.

(Photos by Andrew Wood)

Learn More

  • Ads of the Weird, Meth turnoff

  • The Meth Project advertisements: See the 12 most recent spots
  • Wednesday, July 4, 2007

    Independence Day, 1976-2007

    July 4, 1976, is the first Independence Day I remember. I'd grown up hearing about the Bicentennial; I had always been excited about the prospect for such a momentous birthday. But what I remember mostly was the quiet of the morning as I strode down a neighborhood street, walking through a corridor of flags. That morning I imagined that every porch in America boasted some fluttering emblem of pride. But there was something more to that day.

    I remember feeling somber on Independence Day. I think I recognized a cultural exhaustion that affected most folks that summer, a feeling that all of America was sighing with relief after a hellish decade of war, assassinations, oil shocks, and social upheaval. We'd seen a president resign in disgrace. We'd seen the dismal end to our adventures in Indochina. We'd seen students shot on college greens. We must have felt battered and lost on that Bicentennial Day. I was only a kid, and my memories now are surely altered by the weight of history. But that seventies-sense of sadness was palpable, even to me.

    That night my mom and I went to Dunedin Beach. Folks played music from their cars and unfolded blankets on the sand. The adults chatted while kids ran around waving sparklers. We all waited for the darkness to fall, anticipating the first explosions. The dazzling colors commemorated things I didn't entirely understand at age eight. But I knew that many of the adults in my life were quietly relieved that we'd made it to the Bicentennial somewhat intact.

    Today the nation celebrates its 231st birthday, and I recognize that same quiet sense of exhaustion that I felt in 1976. My generation has also endured its share of sadness. We've seen the impeachment (and subsequent acquittal) of a president. We've seen an electoral crisis in which the foundation of America's trust in its government and courts was profoundly shaken. We've seen airplanes turned into missiles and towers turned into tombs. And we've endured a seemingly endless quagmire in Iraq, producing a presidential approval rating that is comparable to that of Nixon in the darkest days of Watergate. It's the Fourth of July and our flags fly at a spiritual half-mast.

    But today we will celebrate nonetheless. Jenny, Vienna, and I will grill hot dogs on the deck. We'll applaud fireworks bursting over the soccer field. And we'll watch Independence Day, which (at Jenny's insistence) has become a Wood Family Tradition. We will continue to fulfill the sacraments of our civic religion, even if our faith has been battered of late. We will celebrate a nation whose basic goodness will not succumb to tyrants either beyond our borders or within them.

    We haven't had a lot of luck lately, but we continue to have hope.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007

    Hunt's Motel - Before and After

    This undated postcard depicts an LA-area motel in full nautical mode: portholes, streamlining, balustrades, and even a gorgeous aquamarine accent. The 2005 photo (below) reveals a mostly similar structure lacking the charm of its early years.

    (Photo by Andrew Wood)

    Monday, July 2, 2007

    Kwik-E-Mart comes to Mountain View

    By now you may have heard about the weekend transformation of a dozen 7-Eleven convenience stores into Kwik-E-Marts, promoting the new Simpsons movie. The "rebranded" stores will supposedly sell Squishees, Buzz Cola, and other Kwik-E-Mart-products. An Associated Press story explains the unique strategy of this promotion: "The Fox/7-Eleven deal is an example of a practice called reverse product placement. Instead of just putting products prominently in a movie or TV show, fake goods move from the screen to reality."

    One of the Kwik-E-Marts is located in Mountain View, California. Here are some photos from our visit.

    (Photos by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

    Learn More

  • 7-Eleven, Locate a Kwik-E-Mart

  • San Francisco Chronicle, Please to be enjoying a promotional gimmick

  • Salt Lake Tribune, Simpsons Kwik-E-Marts hit nation: I love the phrase in this article, "Life imitates Bart"
  • Sunday, July 1, 2007

    Evading False Dichotomies

    Watching television coverage of this weekend's attempted terrorist attacks in the UK, I was particularly interested in a CNN story that depicted an argument between Muslims and Catholics, in which one person asked another whether he shared a certain belief and then demanded, "yes or no?". The answer is less important to me than the strategy behind the question: false dichtomy, forcing a person to view the world in a binary manner.
    "Do you want the U.S. to win the war in Iraq? Yes or no?"
    "Do you support the troops? Yes or no?"
    "Do you like freedom? Yes or no?"
    Related to these questions is the broader strategy of limited options:
    "You can have peace or security. Which one do you choose?"
    "You're either for us or against us. Which one are you?"
    "You're either pro-military or you're a cut-and-runner. Well?"
    Thinking about questions like these, I remember an interesting line from George Lucas's most recent Star Wars movie: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes."

    I should add that the tension of the question flows more from its paralinguistic force: a loud and challenging vocal delivery, perhaps a parallel hand gesture like a pointed finger directing attention one way and then another, and almost always a repetitious demand: "Yes or no?" "Yes or no?" "Pick, choose, decide!"

    Accepting that I too risk committing the sin of oversimplification, I'll say it plainly: to demand false dichotomies is to employ the strategy of thugs. The false dichotomy does not invite clarity or precision. It does not invite at all. This strategy commands. And if you accept that command, if you distill your arguments through an opposing debater's filter, you will almost always lose the debate.

    So how should you respond to the false dichotomy? I propose four types of response. Based upon the situation and your own temperament, one of these approaches should work.

    Complicate Respond by collapsing your interlocutor's opposing sides into a complex whole. You might add, "It's a complex world, even though we'd like it to be simple." Employing this technique makes room for a more developed, more nuanced answer. And using the word "we" defuses tension.

    Elevate Rather than answer the question, raise the debate to a higher-level question. Here's an example: "Why do you feel the need to distill a complex issue into a overly-simple question?" This kind of metacommunication -- communication about communication -- invites a shift from binary thinking to more open-ended dialogue.

    Attack Push back against the interlocutor; call the bullying strategy what it is. You might say, "I will answer as I see fit. I will not be abused in this discussion." This tactic must be handled carefully, aided by a minimum range of nonverbal support. Remember: you're engaged in a debate, not preparing for a fight.

    Abandon A final choice, perhaps the least palatable of the bunch, is simply to walk away. Bullying, whether it is physical or conversational, requires at least one interlocutor to abandon the golden rule, that we treat others as we would wish to be treated. Engaging in prolonged debate with a conversational bully may be initially stimulating but ultimately pointless.

    I repeat that this final proposal is my least favorite. My own temperament leads me to accept verbal challenges even when I shouldn't. I would add that some debates are worth the effort, particularly when an audience may otherwise be swayed by a demagogue. So consider your options when faced with a false dichotomy and ready yourself. Slow your breathing, relax your muscles, and prepare your response. With luck (and some practice) you can transform a fight into a discussion.

    Any other tactics for handling false dichotomies? Any experiences you want to share? Post a comment!