Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Every poet is a thief

I was recently listening to U2's "The Fly" (from their 1991 Achtung Baby album) and drifting back to my first years of college. When the album came out (with the sound of four men chopping down a Joshua Tree, according to U2 singer Bono), I was taking a course in 20th century literature, reading Jerzy Kosinski, Toni Morrison, that sort of thing.

I look back on the course as being ridiculously ambitious, but at the time it seemed reasonable. I was thirsty for knowledge in those days, which was well timed; St. Petersburg Junior College's (Clearwater Campus) Humanities and English programs sprayed knowledge with a tight-squeezed garden hose. I'll never be able to thank those faculty members enough.

We were reading Sylvia Plath, watering a nascent feminist impulse while showing me what powerful poetry can do, and we were asked to present talks about how we interpreted our own selection of her work. I confirmed with the instructor, Sandra Kerns, about whether I could analyze one of Plath's poems using lyrics of "The Fly" as a sort of comparative lens. Thereafter I launched into one of my first attempts at rhetorical analysis, which led in part to what I do now for a living.

I don't remember the piece I selected or much of my presentation, but I still remember the excitement I felt when I was able to connect U2's lyrics - always buzzing in the background of my thoughts back then - to the sad and tragic life of Sylvia Plath. Apropos of nothing else than the memories of how college can work to light up the mind, here are some of those lyrics that spoke to me so vividly.
It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest
It's no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief
Odd, isn't it? These lyrics, bitter and ironic jabs at creativity, remind me of days when I was most clearly coming alive.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Why Study Public Life?

When contemplating ways to improve Rhetoric and Public Life (both my COMM 149 course and, I admit it, the applied practices of civic engagement in a broader way), I often reflect on a perennial question that arises in conversations stretching back to the first time I ran this class back in 2000: Why? Why should we take a class like this? I always enjoy that conversation, through I'm never entirely satisfied with my efforts to respond to the implications of the query.

Given the rhetorical focus of my class, my responses often focus on the role of communication in the construction, contestation, and revision of public life. Yet that latter term, "public life," itself merits closer explication. Starting from there, one necessarily returns to rhetoric (and performance, to an extent). Yet beginning with the standpoint of public life rather than rhetoric might be more useful for students.

For that reason, I've attempted to lay out some tentative components of public life that animate my class (and my personal thinking about the topic). With some obvious exceptions, these bullet points are not beholden to any particular theorist or existing framework, though I am undoubtedly borrowing from a large number of thinkers who have investigated public life with much more precision and complexity than I have been able to muster thus far. Here they are, with some semblance of order but no rigidity of placement. Thoughts? Observations? Recommendations? Let me know.

• Public life is a sphere of human interaction that expands and contracts through time. It is where people work together to make sense of the world and accomplish what appears to be meaningful. People outside of that sphere matter in an existential sense, but their ideas are generally not admitted to the realm of public deliberation.

• Public life is mostly composed of seemingly ephemeral utterances, images, texts, and performances. More than great speeches or formal documents (such as proclamations and laws), public life resides in the things most people take for granted. Public life reflects the practices and the performances of the everyday - even as it provides a means to critique the status quo.

• Public life is a consensual hallucination (here, explicitly borrowing from William Gibson). We all accept a sufficient overlap of meanings between disparate texts to make shared sense of the world. While it may appear that we all simply read the same signs individually, we need each other to interpret the whole in some coherent way.

• Public life is a consequence of choices we forget that we made. Beyond broad historical forces and ideological narratives, public life includes people, sometimes working anonymously, to construct the raw materials from which all truths emerge. Thereafter, we recreate those decisions through our actions and performances.

• Public life is malleable. No matter how fixed our circumstances may appear and no matter how powerless we may feel, all persons occupying the public sphere possess the ability to affect the world we've built. More importantly, anything built can be unbuilt if we choose to make it so. Most importantly, the separation of a person or group from public life can be unbuilt through persuasion (as opposed to coercion).

• Public life is never merely consumed, despite many appearances to the contrary. It must also be produced and performed.

So, why this class? Certainly not to remember and regurgitate my half-baked bullet points. No, this class works (not always, but often enough) when it inspires us to consider the ways in which public life might be expanded to include more voices, just as we seek to understand why so few people now seem to meaningfully participate in shared deliberation. This opportunity - this challenge - lies at the heart of so many personal and professional endeavors; it seems to deserve at least one class.

Ultimately, I approach this topic from the perspective of a person trained in the liberal arts tradition to value efforts that integrate seemingly unrelated (or, to some, unnecessary) functions of public life: visual arts, literature, poetry, philosophy, and related investigations, into a consequential and useful framework for interpreting the world that otherwise may seem intractable (or to use the youthful epithet, "so random").

Random zigging and zagging, the sense that our individual choices are somehow unrelated to the lives of others, has helped produce so many of today's struggles, so much of today's suffering. How else can we understand the contemporary onslaught of individual discourtesies and public policies that reflect nothing but the conveniences of the moment? Integrating the parts into a whole - not just now but with a sense of past and future - is undeniably useful, now more than ever.

That's why we have a class called "Rhetoric and Public Life."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Daytime Dispatches - 2009

Today's live-blog (8 a.m. to 5 p.m., PDT) was dedicated to enduring a Friday's worth of daytime television (mostly network, some cable). I gorged on cheesy informercials, who's-my-baby-daddy confessionals, cringe-inducing soap operas, "talk show" shouting matches, and self-help gag-fests. Like last year's Daytime Dispatches, I surely made lots of typos and other mistakes during this day of furious typing. I'll revise as time permits.

8:00: Hmmm. Should I start with Martha Stewart, Good Morning America, or some random infomercial?

8:00: It's time to learn about "Winning in the cashflow business!" (Spike TV)

8:03: Poor, poor Gary Collins ("Emmy Award Winning Host"). Hunching into his pink button down shirt, he's got to be thinking, "how did I wind up in this..." - update! scroll on bottom of screen! Some woman in Virgina just made hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash flow! ("Unique experience, results may vary")

8:05: Oh, those sad people in black and white - people, "good people!" - who live paycheck to paycheck when they could be "winning in the cashflow business"!

8:06: News! Russ wants to do something just for me! (But I need to be one of the first 250 people to respond). Best of all, I don't need to leave home (unless I want to).

8:08: Russ's primary persuasive appeal seems to be stretching his hands out (just lightly above the camera) every second. It's like there's a someone behind him pulling the strings.

8:10: Gary furrows his brow: "If it's so easy, why don't more people do it?" Yes! Remember a time, years ago, when you had some self-respect. Make Russ defend his program! Grow a spine, drop that kill-me-now-smile off your face, and turn this into an investigation!

8:11: Turns out, Russ has an unimpeachable answer. People are too busy with day jobs. If they'd just try his system, they're guaranteed to make money! ("Unique experience, results may vary")

8:12: Now an audience surrounds Gary and Russ, clapping after each sentence.

8:13: Update! Dairy farmer makes hundreds of thousands in cash flow! ("Unique experience, results may vary")

8:15: I'd love to meet those dedicated phone-support Success Advisers shown in the tiny boxes. They keep nodding and smiling - they must be giving good news!

8:16: Cool! That couple is sitting by their pool, wearing bath robes, and making money with their laptops. ("Unique experience, results may vary")

8:17: "But wait, it gets even better!" Russ will ship his program to my front door! (but no checks or money orders. How about C.O.D.? Remember C.O.D?)

8:19: Wow, you'd think that Scot A., California, would tame his hideous walrus mustache, what with all the money he's making, winning with cash flow. ("Unique experience, results may vary")

8:20: It's just three simple steps: Find 'em, List 'em, and Make Money!

8:21: News flash, a single mother now sees light at the end of the tunnel! ("Unique experience, results may be a train coming right at her!")

8:22: Gary reminds us that "in my 45 years in television" he's seen so many people struggling with debt, living paycheck to paycheck.

8:25: Wait a sec, it seems that Gary promised a gift from Russ "Just for you!" for a third time. But what if the first 250 people already called for their program? Is it too late for me to "find 'em, list 'em, and make money"?

8:28: The "Winning with cashflow" informercial ended early. It's too late for me to free myself from living paycheck to paycheck. Maybe I don't deserve to live the life of my dreams! Maybe I should be stuck on this couch all day. I feel stupid and worthless. I need something to fill that gaping, empty place in my soul. I need...

8:29: Martha Stewart! (KCBA)

8:30: Dude! Healthful Life augments its catfood with a touch of cranberry and cheese! Clearly those cat owners paid closer attention to "winning with cashflow" than I could muster. They're living their dreams. I'm stuck on this couch.

8:33: Martha Stewart is talking about herb gardens (pronouncing the "h").

8:34: Martha's guest is pronouncing it "erb" (without the "h"). Awkward!

8:36: Ooops, I should remove that previous exclamation point. There are no exclamation points in Martha Stewart's world.

8:37: We're meeting Sal, who runs the most amazing herb gardens in Westberg, Connecticut and Easton, Connecticut. What the heck am I doing in this dump? I need to get to Connecticut.

8:39: Heald College commercial (with twenty-something kids shaking hands with real executives!) Get in. Get out. Get Ahead. ("financial aid available for those who qualify")

8:43: Martha is now interviewing a lovely woman wearing an Orangesicle-blouse. Her guest only eats fresh food delivered from within 250 miles from her New York apartment (though, she doesn't have her own root cellar. Horrors!).

8:45: Martha, of course, eats food from within 500 feet of her kitchen: ("I eat from my garden and my chicken coop"). Really, I wish I lived in Connecticut. Everyone is classy - oh my god! What the hell are they pouring into those ice treys! It looks like green puke.

8:48: Oh... it was basil or pesto or something like that.

8:49: Awesome! An Aardwolf Bail Bonds commercial ("this is the wolf"). It looks like something out of Miami Vice! But... hmmm.... why would a bail bonds company advertise during Martha Stewart?

8:50: Oh, yeah... the jail thing.

8:54: It's amazing how the audience knows precisely when to start clapping. And now they're shouting, shouting for herbs (remember: pronounce the "h").

8:56: More commercials: Someone is taking fresh basil out of her fridge. The GE Monogram Collection seems pretty snazzy. Why don't I see commercials for those appliances on Maury?

8:57: And now a commercial for Lipitor - something about cholesterol, right? Perhaps people don't eat as well as the commercials they watch.

8:58: Next? A commercial for Dove Silk Chocolate: "Only a chocolate this pure can be this... silky" Dove: Now with peanut butter! Yeah, bring on the Lipitor.

8:59: Martha is now pitching her magazine. Maybe I can visit Connecticut vicariously through Martha's magazine.

9:00: It's Live with Regis and Kelly (KION - previously recorded - with William Shatner as special co-host!)

9:01: I think William needs an extra chair to support his - well, you know... years of television experience.

9:02: Regis says, "Well, you've seen my show -" Shatner (Kirk: deal with it. I'm calling him Kirk for the next hour) fires back: "I never watch your show." Nice.

9:04: Regis is digging deep in the Kirk's psyche: "Do you have a dog?"

9:06: They're talking about Shatner's Raw Nerve. Can you imagine living in that guy's world for an hour?

9:08: Ooops, now they're talking about the new Star Trek movie. This could get problematic.

9:09: Regis exclaims, "You and Leonard Nemoy made so much money." Kirk replies: "He did. I..." A micro-moment of silence... which is filled by Kirk emphasizing who really had the talent. They agree: Nemoy had nothing but those ears.

9:12: Regis turns up the heat: "Can you run a computer?"

9:13: Kirk is frustrated: "They hide the power button behind it!"

9:13: Now they're watching a video of a talking dog.

9:14: Now Kirk is howling like the talking dog.

9:19: They're doing some trivia game, but the person didn't answer the phone. Kirk howls "I love you" like a talking dog to the unlucky trivia contestant's answering machine.

9:21: Next guest? Ray Romano. That seems about right for this show. After Ray? Someone from Transformers: Revenge of Fallen. Can you imagine a more perfect combination?

9:23: Great. Now it's that damned McDonald's commercial with screeching loud sound effects of iced coffee being made.

9:24: And here comes Ray who, coincidentally, has a new movie coming out. Thank goodness he's such a regular guy, just like you and me.

9:26: Regis asks Ray: What was it like when Everybody Loves Ray ended, when "you go home, and you stay home?"

9:31: Ray's back, pitching Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. Ray promises that 3-D no longer sucks.

9:32: Ray explains the centrality of his wife to their marriage: "I wake up. There's an apple and a new pair of underwear, and I'm happy." This guy's a model for men everywhere.

9:33: Somehow Regis segues back to an Ice Age clip: B-list actors voicing kid-friendly pap for video-game graphics. It's a golden age!

9:36: PSA: "Are you trapped and don't know how to escape your addiction to cigarettes?"

9:37: Someone named Megan Fox is pitching another movie. I'm told that she's quite famous. I suppose I should read Entertainment Weekly more thoroughly.

9:38: Megan is showing off one of her eight tattoos. It's Marilyn Monroe - or Madonna, depending...

9:39: She also boasts a quote from King Lear. You know, Shakespeare makes a lot more sense in tattoo form.

9:41: "Choosing Jif is a great way to show someone you care." How nice. A little girl brings a sandwich to her dad, who's making a tree house: "Choosy moms - and dads - choose Jif." Cool! Peanut butter discovers the 21st-century.

9:43: Time for a clip from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

9:44: Wow, I actually feel stupider!

9:45: Regis manages a perfect review of a Transformers scene that focuses 80 percent of its time to an animated robot, only occasionally allowing a generically attractive young human to fit into the frame: "I never thought you'd show up, but there you are."

9:46: Some guy selling tall bathtubs reminds us: "The bathroom is the most dangerous room in the house."

9:47: It's time for the Live's Ultimate Hometown Grill-Off!

9:50: I don't think I've moved my legs more than an inch in two hours. This can't be healthy.

9:52: I'm watching a nice asthma day camp commercial, but I'm thinking ahead to 10:00. At that moment, I will begin my first episode of The View. I am unabashedly terrified.

9:53: KION news: "now," "now", "NOW!" My TV keeps flashing at me! It's ripping into my very soul. I swear: watching local news - even just their commercials - causes more heart attacks than Big Macs.

9:56: Another commercial: "Yeast infection? Get over it!" How nice. Next up? Nesquik: "Come to your happy place."

9:57: Kirk wishes he could get Regis to smoke a cigar and throw up: "Imagine that on the YouTube!"

9:58: U-Scoot promises a power chair with practically the same script as The Scooter Store.

10:00: The View-crew will going to help us all get jobs! Today's show even promises to show women how to make money without leaving the house. Cool! Just like "Winning in the Cashflow Business"! Maybe they can get that Russ guy on with 'em.

10:01: They're walking out of their secret enclosure, one at a time. I felt a chill.

10:04: So. Many. Interruptions. So. Ma-

10:05: I can't imagine being this Fortune Magazine guy, sitting between four View-hosts, each of whom is confident that she has something to add right now ("It's like farming is food!").

10:08: Ooops, Joy mentioned Obama. What will Elisabeth say?

10:09: Based on the View-crew's propensity toward interruptions, it appears that the acceptable unit for discourse in this show is the clause - not the sentence. God knows, certainly not the paragraph. I wonder if The View is directed by Michael Bay...

10:12: A commercial for My Sister's Keeper. One scene shows Cameron Diaz shaving her head. I can imagine the conversation with her agent: "What the hell must I do to get that Oscar?"

10:14: And now a commercial for Epiduo acne cream. Remember old-school acne commercials depicting acne-ridden kids who didn't seem to have a single blemish? Believe me, the commercials these days have gone entirely in the other direction. Eeewwww.

10:16: Now the View-crew are interviewing some job-hunting guru. He's speaking as fast as he can, zigging and zagging to avoid even the hint of a pause. If he shows any weakness, even a flick of the eyes that conveys a lack of confidence, they'll swoop in, cut him off, and reestablish their dominance. He doesn't have a chance.

10:20: I kind of want to turn down the audio and just look. The sound hurts too much. Just looking reveals... oh my God, those are some huge loops in Elisabeth's necklace. Maybe another sense... Touch? Smell? Anything but the ears and eyes. This show ranks with local news as a cause of heart flutter.

10:22: Ellen's in a commercial pitching some face goop: "Inner beauty is important. But not nearly as important as outer beauty." She's kidding, sort of. No, she's not.

10:24: A commercial for some storage-thingie: "Love to shop for shoes, but there's no place to store them? You're always running out of room to store more!" I'm guessing that folks taking notes during today's episode of The View don't need this commercial quite so much.

10:27: Now a woman's-employment specialist (a CEO of her own company!) is explaining her company, increasing her vocal pitch and speeding up her rate. She saw what happened to the last guy. Maybe she can - nope! Stopped cold. Those View-gals count words, and she just hit her quota. No more words for you, not yours.

10:29: A "job club" video of sad moms pouring out their hearts about their struggles to get a job in this miserable economy. No interruptions now, thank god.

10:32: Naked Naturals promises "worry free hair." It's nice that even the hair-goop companies are responding to the stresses of today's tense economy.

10:34: Bio-Oil adds some empathy: "Are you worried about scars or stretch marks?" Goodness. I am now!

10:35: A local old-folks home weighs in: "Worried about the day-to-day costs of retirement? Who will help you when you retire?" Maybe some Bio-Oil and Naked Naturals can help.

10:40: The commercials are over and the "job club" women are back, reporting that they're doing a bit better. The View-crew gleefully interrupts them, a good sign.

10:42: The woman's employment specialist is back, blazing through the top five resume mistakes. Pitch ever higher, speed increasingly ramped. Fast, fast, fast! Have you ever seen college debate? She's spreading like a champ. She's on her game; she has to be. This show is a war, a race, a knock-down struggle for verbal supremacy.

10:45: Oh bummer, it's that creepy animated Wendy's girl... followed by OxiClean ("MaxForce") with that creepy bearded guy!

10:47: Celebrex is explaining those pesky new warning labels. All similar drugs have to display those "this may kill you" warnings, they assure us. All of 'em! Not just us. All of 'em.

10:50: Now fast-talking-CEO-person is pitching "sell to your friends" businesses. I think she'll burn out my speakers: "Clean out your stuff! Turn the clutter to cash!"

10:52: Rapid-rate-employment-specialist has switched to baby sitting and dog walking as options for stay-at-home moms. Wow. What happened to our economy in the past year?

10:55: The Progressive Insurance Girl (PIG) announced a choose-your-own-price insurance deal. A customer exalts, "I feel so empowered!" "Power to the people," PIG agrees with a fist extended upward.

11:00: It's time for Judge Alex! (KCBA)

11:01: OK, here's the case: a nephew refuses to pay a family loan. Zack replies: Dude! It was a gift!

11:04: Much talking, I'm typing, and - Holy Ike! That Zack has the most flaming-red goatee I've ever seen.

11:06: Ooops. Zack said, "So, she loaned me the money - uh, give, gave me the money."

11:09: Court's back in session. The aunt huffs and puffs; she's been waiting five years to collect $350.

11:13: Walmart's slogan reminds me of just how brilliant their long-term strategists are: "Save money. Live better."

11:14: Alarm! Alarm! A Circuit City liquidation sale attacks my ears like a drag race commercial. You remember those, right? "See! Drag Racing Gods Race Through the Gates of Hell! Sunday!" Seriously, I think I felt some fluid dribble from my right ear. Is that blood? Oh, god. Is that blood?

11:16: Line of the day (so far): "OK, here's the deal. It's your girlfriend's birthday and - you're broke. You promised her a nice dinner out, and now you're the schmuck who only has twenty bucks."

11:20: Back in session: Surprise defense witness! The aunt's estranged son joins the proceedings. He says that Mom is relentless about collecting loans. Hmmm. Sounds like he's really helping the prosecution. Judge Alex asks, did you think it was a gift or a loan? Son's response: A loan.

11:21: Judge Alex laughs: "This is your witness?"

11:22: Commercial time: A hot club-girl steps into view and stares right at me: "You may have seen some Yaz commercials recently that were not clear. The FDA wants us to correct a few points in those ads." This can't be good.

11:25: A commercial for Jerry Seinfeld. God help me, I never thought that show was funny. Sorry. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I never laughed once. I think the problem was that I disliked the characters so much. Am I alone?

11:27: Alex is shown spinning from back to front, slamming a gavel into his hand. "Judge Alex continues."

11:29: That completes the case - Goatee-boy loses. Now it's time for...

11:30: Bosley hair restoration! (Ion TV)

11:32: I think I'm going to regret this choice: 30 minutes of people shaking their scalps and exuding: it's hair. It's real hair!

11:33: Yep, here come the before-and-after pix.

11:34: Our host? "Hi, I'm Matt Rogers. You might remember me from season three on American Idol or a host on Discovery Channel."

11:38: Now let's meet "the men and women who've experienced Bosley for themselves."

11:39: I love the idea of commercials within infomercials. Wouldn't it be a shock if they actually switched to a pitch for McDonald's as opposed to simply segued to another part of the infomercial?

11:41: I can't. I can't watch any more of this infomercial. It's time for Rachael Ray! (KSBW)

11:42: Yummers! I switched in time to discover Rachael's tips for making a whole chicken stuffed with sausage.

11:44: But first, a commercial for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Magic spells, fantasy landscapes, and horny adolescents: So that's what a license to print money looks like...

11:47: Watch out! Rachael's back to "bump up the garlic factor." And the audience applauds wildly. Soon after, our host manages to summarize her entire appeal in three words: "cheap and cheerful!"

11:49: Rachael mixes and kneads and blorgifies something into the shape of a spice-covered brain before folding a chicken over the whole mess. The audience applauds.

11:51: She throws salt and pepper over her shoulder for luck. The audience applauds.

11:52: Rachael announces, "It's time to drop the fettuccine." The audience applauds.

11:54: NBC advertises another comedy, this time at 10 p.m. That's right! Jay Leno, "America's favorite TV personality," is back for another show. "You're welcome," crows the announcer. Yeah, thanks, guy.

11:56: Rachael's back, announcing her new trend of tossing pepper and salt. The audience applauds.

11:57: Rachael poses an existential query: "Who doesn't love creamy fettuccine, right? Come on." The audience applauds.

11:59: You knew this moment would come. There's no other choice. It's time for...

12:00: Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! (KCBA). The music is guttural, angry, dangerous. Fists pump, red smoke rises, and the rally is prepared. End days, people. End days...

12:02: The subtitle for this first segment: "Big Tranny Surprise." Somewhere, far away from here, a place where no television can be seen, a baby cries for no apparent reason. Mom tries to soothe the infant, offers a binky, coos gently. Nothing works. Mom has no idea why the baby's cries reach to screeching-level, with rising panic. Things are getting out of control, and Mom can't figure the cause of this crisis. She's scared. "Why are you crying, honey?" Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!

12:04: Big Tranny does a split. The audience goes wild.

12:06: Jerry asks Big Tranny innocuously: "Are you a big eater?" BT smiles: "Oh, Jerry. I'm a buffet queen."

12:10: This is a public announcement! CNN announces that some buyers are scooping up houses for $1,000 a piece. If only there were a program I could buy that would allow me to... ah, there it is.

12:12: The animated insurance guy, "The General," is hiking on ice. He's followed by a penguin for some reason. Yes, Yes! I do need to rethink my auto insurance needs.

12:13: Big Tranny assures Jerry that she can convince the boyfriend to stay with her: "I wear the pants in this family." And... "Here is Ricco!" Ah, such a nice kiss. What could go wrong?

12:15: Ricco looks confused: "You a man?... Why didn't you tell me this on the internet?"

12:16: Headlocks and curse-beeps ensue.

12:17: Jerry asks, is there any chance you two can work this out? "I don't know," Ricco responds thoughtfully. Well, there's hope at least.

12:18: The audience shouts, "let's see, let's see, let's see!" and Big Tranny lifts her top, producing acres of pixelization. Audience members pinch their noses and employ the "ahhh, hell no" gesture with their hands. The game? Communicate their responses in the most television-friendly way.

12:21: DirecTV shows a nice looking couple who reviews their bills with dread. Happily, they can get the same television shows they already love and pay much, much less!

12:23: Jerry's next guest got married on the previous Friday. And now she's on Springer.

12:26: Sharon, "the slut from the neighborhood," announces via video-message that the newlywed bride has been served: "I bet he didn't tell you that we made sweet passionate love together."

12:29: Jerry has a mobile fan club! At last mobile phones have some practical use.

12:30: Yet another commercial-as-sign of the new economy: a swanky suited guy announces, "If you owe more than $10,000 in back taxes, you owe it to yourself - and your family - to call this number."

12:32: I've watched enough Jerry to recognize this most famous of explanatory segues from just-going-over-to-her-house-to-pick-up-CDs to we-suddenly-started-having-sex: "The next thing I know..."

12:34: Somewhere, a make-up counter attendant is putting her kids through college by selling this new bride her lifetime supply of powder-blue eye shadow.

12:38: The new bride puts her hands on her hips: "So you played me for a fool?" Hmmm. I recommend wiping off that hideous eye shadow before talking about smarts.

12:40: My mind is still reeling from another run of that Circuit City liquidation sale. I can imagine the process: Two guys shout about fifty phrases, each with a shatteringly loud down-inflected authoritative announcement. XBoxes! iPods! Wiis! Each word or phrase its own epiphany of consumerist utopia, edited together into a wall of sound that would drive even Phil Spector insane (more so, I guess).

12:44: Here comes Jermaine explaining why he had sex with Aqueena (incidentally, that's also the name for a water purifier by Zepter). "I just wanted to try something different, yo."

12:47: The jilted girl sings of her pain to Jermaine. I think Stephen Colbert would say something like this: "Pick a note. We're at war!"

12:49: A dentist commercial portrays children, eyes cast downward, explaining why they chose to hide their tooth pain from their cash-strapped parents. Yikes, that's sad.

12:51: Back to Jerry! Aqueena enters the arena wearing a leopard print miniskirt and a snarl.

12:52: Windmill fists spin in vicious circles...

12:53: ...and Aqueena's wig is tossed into the hands of cheering audience! Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!

12:58: Time for Final Thoughts! Jerry suggests that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't keep secrets from each other. "Until next time, take care of yourself - and each other."

12:59: And now it's time for...

1:00: Maury! (KCBA)

1:01: Yay! DNA Drama!

1:01: Andrina, the one with tomato-red yarn woven into her hair, slept with two guys (who subsequently went into hiding). Cue grainy black and white footage of shaking heads and wagging fingers. Andrina's default volume appears to be ear-melting shriek.

1:03: Steve and Bill stand backstage, posing and preening. They too have learned the yell-show rules: communicate only in a method that can be read when the sound is turned down.

1:06: Time for the report. Andrina goes into repeat-mode: "Let's find out! Let's find out! Let's find out! Let's find out! Let's find out!"

1:07: Steve gets the news. Dude! Break out the checkbook. Look... He's surely a jerk. He's surely a player. He's surely deserving of some karmic justice. But still... that sad man, condemned to a life of shrieking, shrieking, shrieking reminders of the worst one-night stand I can imagine.

1:09: A commercial for LavaLife: Apparently there are hundreds of local singles waiting for me! I hope Jenny doesn't hear about this.

1:12: Now let's meet Rocky and Monica. Let me guess... There's some potential ambiguity. Regarding paternity, perhaps?

1:13: Rocky's mom offers her wizened material perspective on this complex dilemma regarding genetics and Machiavellianism: "You can't make a wife out of a whore!"

1:16: Rocky's mom and Andrina need to go out for a long lunch together. They have so much in common.

1:16: The Results Are In! Rocky's mom owes all of us a big apology.

1:22: A third love-triangle, and the audience is shocked, shocked that Maury could be the site of some malfeasance. Look at those downward thumbs, those shaking heads. Those disenchanted folks are stupefied by disbelief.

1:25: The alleged baby-daddy baked an "I am not the daddy" cake. Mmmm. "Not-the-Daddy-Cake"...

1:26: I've got to wonder: When Maury goes to bed at night after choking down a meal that has no taste, do you think he looks up at his personal deity and cries, "where did I go so very wrong?"

1:28: The Results Are In! Derrick gets to enjoy his "Not-the-daddy-Cake." Gushing tears and much hand-wringing follows.

1:30: The Maury show is now taping in Stamford, Connecticut. Connecticut? What will Martha Stewart say? How will all that shrieking affect the herb gardens?

1:31: A commercial for a Everybody Loves Raymond repeat: Go play golf, his wife allows: "It insults me when you pretend to be a good husband." I swear, I will never get tired of the dumb-clueless-wasteful appendage husband motif.

1:35: New guests: A daddy wants to know that his son is his child. Mom tries to convince her lover that he is the father: "just look at his private parts." Happily, Maury decides not to cue the video.

1:37: That was fast. The results? "You are not the father." Mom rushes down the Brick Hallway Of Shame. She pastes her head against the wall: "It's not possible. It's not possible. It's not possible. It's not possible."

1:43: Sheina (her boyfriend's name is Skinny, if you're curious) is "one angry mom." The problem? Two cousins in denial.

1:44: Skinny (who really should not wear horizontal stripes) is doubtful.

1:45: Is their child's name Graceland?

1:47: The Results Are In! "Skinny, you are not the father." Skinny offers some old-skool philosophy: "You lay with dogs, you gonna get puppies."

1:51: Next, Tanisha and Jamil struggle over the paternity of Ja'zir. Now we have have a contender for the most-confident participant in this day: she's one million percent sure that she's right. If she's wrong? May God strike her down! It's hard to defeat that kind of logic.

1:53: The Results Are In! "You are the father!" And Tanisha commences to much dancing and merry-making.

1:58: Western Dental fit "my budget! Which isn't easy to do these days."

1:59: Next up?...

2:00: Guiding Light! (KION)

2:01: OK, what's going on here? Something involving stolen diamonds. Dangerous stolen diamonds! "Those diamonds were supposed to solve things. But they caused more problems than they solved."

2:02: Then there's a soap opera baby being lifted up by actors. "Who are these people? Why are they holding me? Where's my Mom?"

2:04: Dude who looks like a cast-off local anchor asks,"Who would have thought that a small little town like Springfield would have so many connections to Bosnia?" Who indeed?

2:06: K-Mart spokesperson offers some financial advice: "When affordable style gets a little more affordable, I go for it!"

2:08: Charmin toilet paper commercial involves a red bear with pieces of white tissue stuck to his rear. Thank you, Charmin. Thank you for that mental image that will, shall we say, cling to me all day.

2:10: Ohhh. Guiding Light has discovered the late-eighties and early-nineties! Emma has two mommies!

2:17: The thespian talents of these players suggests that L. Ron Hubbard might have been right: the evil emperor Zenu appears to have crammed together thousands of lousy performers into a volcano before using atomic bombs to melt them into singularly awful actors, who all got hired to play in Guiding Light.

2:20: "Smooth my sole" home pedicure: That pretty much says it all.

2:23: JCPenney-cop does his best Brad Pitt imitation, hopping up and down and challenging his pal to punch him.

2:25: Poor, poor tween child actor's only line today: "I have to go to the bathroom."

2:26: Big-busted local-TV-model quality actress explains poor tween child actor's sour mood: "Kids like to be part of the group."

2:29: Purex Complete 3-in-1 laundry sheet makes my day "one thousand times better!" Don't laugh. Just imagine how miserable she was before...

2:30: Ore-Ida extra crispy fries has now pummeled my teen years into a pile of bitter tears and retching grimaces. The background song in their commercial for carbo-load treats? Quiet Riot's "Cum On Feel The Noize."

2:34: I spoke too soon. Sad tween girl gets more dialogue.

2:35: Perhaps she should have left well enough alone.

2:35: The con is on! "See, my friend here is wearing a wire." Got her and - ooops! Silly girlfriend leaps between Aussie-stubble, JCPenney cop, and bad girl with oversized Ashley Banfield glasses and a gun. Now we've got a Springfield Standoff!

2:38: Geeez, the graphic for the PreferOn package looks like softcore porn.

2:39: At Olive Garden, prying mom tries to wrench love life details from dopey son (don't worry: they established that dad's working late). The son clams up. He'll only discuss the savory quality of Olive Garden's "food."

2:43: I love how these actors soldier on when they screw up their lines. I mean, really, what's the difference?

2:45: Bad girl in hot glasses gets hers. Of course, anyone stupid enough to fall for that stunt (quick mind-change: I'm now on your side!) really should go back to Criminal College.

2:48: French's mustard: "Happy starts here." Heck, that sounds cheaper than any antidepressant.

2:49: Aussie-stubble man packs his pistol in his back pocket. Wanna sit down and think about your many, many bad decisions that led to this show? That's cool. But sit down real slow.

2:53: Scenes from next week's episodes of Guiding Light. "Everybody eventually comes back to Springfield." Um, no. Not me, thanks.

2:53: Wait a second. They're showing next weeks' scenes with seven minutes to go? What gives?

2:54: Again with those freaky Yaz commercials. The new pitch is "Talk to your doctor about Yaz." What's more? Please, please don't die from using it the way we once advertised. Seriously. Don't die. Our lawyers would really appreciate it.

2:59: Coming up?...

3:00: Judge Joe Brown! (KION)

3:01: It's time for a little no-nonsense justice.

3:01: Linda lays out her case: among a hazy confusion of sins, a neighbor apparently stole her medical marijuana. Judge Brown tries to make sense of the situation, including the fact that "the two of you would sit down and get high." "Medicate, your honor," Linda helpfully explains.

3:04: I'm thoroughly perplexed. Now Linda's complaining about a broken hot tub cover, something about broken stone flamingos, and a screen ripped open by a dog. Judge Brown confirms, "and the dog in question is named Reefer, right?"

3:08: And now a commercial for TLC Dentistry, headed by - I can't believe I'm about to type this - Dr. Lips.

3:09: A commercial for a plumbing company presents a jingle that swirls with a Gothic mixture of Tennessee Williams and Chamber of Commerce happy-talk: "Three generations/Raising up sons and daughters/To make sure your plumbing/Is in working order."

3:13: Judge Brown throws his gavel down: "I give a value of about twenty-five dollars for the flamingos, and thank God they're gone."

3:15: Next case: Paula brings her brother Tremayne (and his girlfriend) to court over a stolen cell phone. The brother - he's the guy whose suit resembles stitched-together cathouse wallpaper - lifts his eyes to the heavens.

3:23: Hershey's offers bliss (in chocolate form).

3:24: OxiClean guy screams at me some more. I swear, I swear I'll buy your product if you - Just. Stop. Screaming!

3:26: Cathouse-suit guy is found not guilty.

3:29: OK, I got my Judge Brown fix. Let's try some...

3:30: Dr. Phil! (KSBW). Today's topic (already in progress): "Angry Moms."

3:32: Angry Mom is crying and apologizing to Weeping Children. How nice. I switched to happy-fun-channel!

3:33: Hard core! Weeping Child reminds her mom, "You say 'you're sorry' a lot. I don't believe you."

3:35: Dr. Phil gently shakes Angry Mom as he consoles Weeping Children: "I've given her a big wakeup call today. Right, Mom?"

3:37: Renuzit Crystal Elements allow you to pour de-stinkifying rocks into any container you like: "Which container will you choose?" You're living the dream now!

3:39: Another Angry Mom. Juggling kids, home, and work led to this new sad story.

3:43: Dr. Phil invites Dr. Jim to explain the physiological and personal impacts of chronic stress, which is closely related to Angry Mom Syndrome. Dr. Phil explains incidentally that Dr. Jim stars in a new TV show called The Doctors. Even more coincidentally, Dr. Jim is pretty darn telegenic.

3:48: Angry Mom II explains to Dr. Phil that she's a real estate agent. Yeah, I expect that she's going to get plenty of clients after this appearance.

3:50: Dr. Phil counsels Angry Mom II to stop working so much and learn to avoid venting on her kids: "Get some jogging shoes, but get off their butt."

3:52: Dr. Phil asks wife Robin (elegantly tailored and chisel-chinned): "Weren't we just as happy in the smallest place we lived?" No, she says in "yes" form.

3:57: Dr. Phil wraps up his show with another pitch for Dr. Jim and The Doctors (oddly enough, also a Harpo Production). Thank goodness. I almost forgot.

3:59: Is there any other way this day could end? You know what's next...

4:00: Oprah! (KSBW)

4:00: Oprah's tackling the topic of children who weigh too much. Everyone in the audience is counting down: Oprah addresses the elephant in the room in three - two - one...

4:02: Warning! Warning! Warning! There will be shouting. There will be crying. There will be hugging in this last hour.

4:06: Oh man, why can't this episode be one of those Oprah "summer giveaways" they keep advertising? This Oprah is a real downer. Not sure I can last an hour of this.

4:09: Awesome! A Geico caveman commercial that looks like it was directed by John Woo. It's even got slow motion birds!

4:11: Back to Oprah, promising a ground-breaking workshop. I'll give you 20 minutes, Oprah. Stop bumming me out, or I'm switching to Judge Judy.

4:15: One of the facilitators intones: "Teens, please stand if you ever seriously considered or attempted suicide." Kids stand, and the facilitator whispers, "Everybody breathe." Fifteen minutes to Judge Judy!

4:20: Oprah has spent 20 minutes psyching the audience up for the workshop, where fireworks are previewed. And... "If you really knew me, you'd know that I hate myself." Ten minute warning. I think they saved a seat for me at Judy's courthouse.

4:25: I don't know if I'm naturally this jaded - or whether a full day of screaming baby-mommas, droning infomercials, and overwrought dramas have reduced my tolerance for reality.

4:27: Monday's Oprah: Gay sex scandals, crystal meth, and Ted Haggard's fall from grace. Damn! So much of life is about timing...

4:29: Time for...

4:30: Judge Judy! (KION)

4:30: Feeling guilty for abandoning Oprah, I am about the enter the courtroom where the rules are so much simpler. "The people are real. The rulings are final. This is Judge Judy."

4:31: LaToya is accused of keying Antonio's car.

4:33: Judy the Grammarian! She instructs the plaintiff how to speak in her courtroom: "No likes, no whatevers."

4:35: Judge Judy is a ninja master of the silencing shhh. Young Antonio tries to interject again, to which Judy shouts, "I'm not speaking to you!"

4:40: I don't know why I hate that sound-effect-laden McDonald's iced coffee spot, but I do. It seems like an aural assault.

4:42: When Antonio is caught talking to LaToya again, the bailiff gently explains, "you better shut up."

4:44: Judy finds for Antonio, the car owner (who, I swear, looks no older than twelve).

4:45: The second case: something involving a bad tenant and a wrecked apartment.

4:47: What is the deal with commercials whose voices alternate between stereo and the sound of a broken AM radio?

4:49: The plaintiff states that the defendant broke into her home office. There was no ink in the printer!

4:51: The plaintiff adds that the defendant's cat ripped up her toilet seat! Thankfully Judy isn't granted the power of capital punishment.

4:56: Judge Judy returns from a commercial break. She's studying bills and receipts. The defendant had better break out her checkbook.

4:57: $2,200 bucks to the plaintiff. During a commercial for the next episode, a pierced, spiky-haired dude assures the judge that he'll respect her instruction to shut up: "That's a good idea. You don't have a choice."

4:59: Judge Judy ends a bit early and local news begins (how I love that trend: playing with start and ending times to force people to stay tuned).

5:00: The second annual Daytime Dispatches ends with a sigh, a wiped brow, and a tired smile.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Roger Ebert's Journal

Are you a film buff who still manages to avoid reading Roger Ebert's blog? Shudder! Look, I know that Ebert is fairly maligned for his tendency to bash a film but still render enough "stars" to confuse some folks, suggesting that it's worth seeing anyway. Moreover, Ebert has an annoying tendency to misquote dialogue or confuse plot points. And let's just ignore his "thumbs" altogether, shall we?

Ebert's blog is worth a read. He takes a decidedly middlebrow approach to his craft, complete with references to growing up in Illinois, an interest in (adult) audiences with whom you might share a beer, and a willingness to watch movies dumped into suburban metroplexes. Surely those would-be intellectual-types among us scoff. A review of Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? For shame. Genuflect at Mathieu Kassovitz's latest or go home!

Whatever. I love reading Roger Ebert. His historical references, his picky obsessions, and his willingness to connect film to larger and more real questions of truth, meaning, and a life well lived: these combine to produce entries that manage both to be sweet and penetrating. Of course, given Ebert's recent physical maladies, I admire his blossoming as a person of letters all the more. Many blogs, I bookmark; Ebert's blog, I read.

Best of all, this is a guy who knows how to hate a film. Referring to the new Michael Bay collision of hubris, money, and teenagers, Ebert focuses much of his disdain on the director's use of heart-curdling sound, with its "boilerplate hard-pounding action music, alternating with deep bass voices intoning what sounds like Gregorian chant without the Latin, or maybe even without the words: Just apprehensive sounds, translating as Oh, no! No!"

You like film? You've got to read this guy.

Read the blog: Roger Ebert's Journal

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


One stressful component of teaching college students - teaching anyone, I suppose, regardless of learning environment - is the reality that professors must demonstrate, at a minimum, the standards of excellence they expect of their students. A reasonable presumption, yes? And yet many professors surely share my occasional anxiety about failing to live up to those standards. So much of our teaching, assessment, and evaluation activities are packed into tighter and tighter timelines, particularly as faculty duties include ever more non-classroom related tasks. It's hard to ensure that our responses to students are entirely and utterly free of error.

"Stop right there," a reasonable reader might warn. "Call the Whaaaaambulance! Tell me that you're not complaining about such an easy job!" No, on both counts. The job is hardly easy, believe me. But you'll never hear me complain (without earning rightful rebuke) about this job, either. For all the stresses that come with this profession, I know how lucky I am to enjoy the freedom and flexibility that come with this gig.

Still, I think it's fair to add that people who don't teach may not recognize how much of a professor's time is repurposed (not often by our choice) to activities that do not appear to affect the individual and time-sensitive needs of students in our classes right now. Later, maybe in a big picture way, our non-class work improves the lot of students. But that future date can seem mighty distant when we're faced with a stack of papers to grade and little time to read them carefully.

Such was the case today, and such was the demand for a predawn rise to tackle those papers with the infectious gusto and lofty goals demonstrated by my most outstanding students. And thus emerges the challenge that animates this post. As my own confidence and competence regarding the art of writing has grown, I feel it fair to expect a suitable degree of clarity and correctness in my students' writing efforts. I am not perfect, a lament I share with them perhaps once a day, and so I expect no similarly unrealistic standards of them. But if I provide a rubric, a model, or some other unambiguous statement of my expectations, should I not hold them at least somewhat close to those measures? As I jotted numerical references and comments in the marginalia of my students' efforts to summarize Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward this morning, such a question swam in and out of view.

Initially, I emphasize my tolerance for obviously unique and irregular errors, those that suggest mistakes closer to "acute typo" than "chronic problem." I make typos, you make typos, students make typos. A little forgiveness goes a long way when it's my turn to account for some silly error. And yet I still feel anxiety whenever I deduct a point, write a classwide letter, or upload a blog-post about the need to fix semicolon use or differentiate between "use" and "utilize," or some other writing topic that risks demonstration of a holier-than-thou attitude. All of my tolerance and attempts at gentle reminders mean nothing if my students or other readers sense that I am not willing to meet my own standards. Merely by posting this note, one that practically begs for some anonymous tweak, I am hardly freed of my responsibility to get it right.

I recognize that tension elsewhere in my teaching, too.

As a fairly frequent instructor of public speaking, I lay out a strict set of standards that are manageable, measurable, and verifiable. Students are expected to demonstrate coherent organization, correct oral citation, meaningful platform movement (no podiums in my class...), audience-appropriate language, and all the other necessities that come with informative and persuasive public address. I assign a textbook, I provide written examples, I show video demonstrations. But the day that matters most is our second meeting. That's when I give my gradesheet to the students and perform a speech exactly as I want them to craft and present their own speeches. I encourage students to ask about the criteria, clarify their roles as evaluators, and grade me with the same kind of precision that I promise to provide them. I swear I lose a pound of sweat on those days. With 19 years of competitive public speaking, coaching, and teaching experience, I still am terrified on those days of looking foolish in front of my students. And it's inevitable that once in a while I'll screw up. I remember one day in particular that did not reflect my best efforts and which haunts me even now. It wasn't a nightmare - I simply got a bit lost in stating my point for about seven seconds - but it was a fairly rough example for my students anyway. Oh, how I dread repeating those sorts of mistakes.

But the bottom line for me is the belief that students deserve for their professors to show them not just tell them, to illustrate by personal example how to meet classroom expectations, whether in public speaking (and no, classroom lectures and discussions hardly count as models for the formal rules of public address - at least not in my class) or in written work. The cost is anxiety and the real risk that we'll screw up and reduce our ethos, at least temporarily. The long-term benefit is that we humanize ourselves and open the opportunity for meaningful dialogue. Better yet, we can learn something along the way. On one illustrative occasion, I was graced with a student who pushed back on my negative assessment of one picky detail about her citation style. I deducted a point incorrectly due to my ignorance of the specific rules of that style pertaining to her cite. I was wrong, but I wasn't so detached from her that I couldn't gain new understanding about a writing tool necessary for my professional livelihood. Daring to reveal our limitations to our students, oddly enough by maintaining high standards, offers students and professors chances to improve.

Sharing this blog with a larger audience - the world? Heck, that's just a larger number of people who can say, "boy, you screwed that one up. Here's how you can get better."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Magic Motorways: Fotsch reads Futurama

Note: This summary of Paul M. Fotsch's article, "The building of a superhighway future," is designed primarily as a reading guide for my students. I do not claim to represent the entirety or sophistication of the insights offered by the author. This summary merely suggests some ways in which Fotsch's piece might contribute to our course conversations. I should add that I've chosen to start posting these sorts of summaries on my blog rather than on my department webpages in an experimental attempt to blur some of those seemingly stark boundaries between academic inquiry and public life. Observations? Criticisms? Recommendations? Don't be shy. Post a comment.

"O engineering, open door
To worlds unknown before"

- Song of the World's Fair
John Black (cited in Fotsch, 2001, p. 74)

Talking about world's fairs helps us understand the early-20th century shift in civic influence toward planners and "experts" in the United States. The topic is especially salient as we investigate how the nation employed various rhetorics of scientific expertise to confront its wrenching transformation from agricultural to urban life. Paul M. Fotsch's essay, "The building of a superhighway future at the New York World's Fair," contributes to this conversation by illustrating how the 1939-40 NYWF offered a bit of optimism for a nation working to slough off the Depression while still anticipating bloodshed overseas, even as the Fair worked to train its visitors to adopt a corporate vision of tomorrow [one Fair slogan that sounds suspiciously like a chamber of commerce line: "Building the World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today"]. At this fair, public life would be transformed by transportation [See the Pennsylvania Turnpike for one real-life application of this vision].

How could innovations in motor transit bring about improvements in public life? Fotsch (2001) focuses much of his essay upon one corporate answer, a fascinating exhibit at the 1939-40 NYWF: Futurama, built by General Motors to demonstrate how central planning could help erase social instability (along with traffic jams) through a spectacle that blended "amusement, information, and promotion" (p. 84). [Check out an artifact of Futurama from my collection] Given his critical perspective, Fotsch attends closely to the implications of this kind of boosterism, proposing that Futurama helped popularize a technopolis that led to oppressive social conditions amid the well-manicured lawns of suburbia in the decades that followed.

The author begins with an overview of the 1939-40 NYWF as a showcase of modernity. Fotsch cites Lewis Mumford's description of the Fair as the story of "planned environment . . . planned industry, [and] planned civilization" (quote from Joseph P. Cusker, cited in Fotsch, 2001, p. 68). Along with Futurama, one highlight of that showcase was Democracity and its depiction of suburban life [here's an artifact; also, here's another image of the exhibit's making]. Located in the Fair's Perisphere, Democracity reflected a fear of urbanity, with its soot and violence and its jumble of peoples [one can imagine much behind earlier Victorian euphemisms that still influenced the modern mindset]. In contrast, Democracity was a planned community in which rational organization eliminated social tension, where careful segregation of land use - domestic, commercial, industrial - ensured regulation and control, a place where "homes turn their book doors to the streets" (Norman Bel Geddes describing Radburn NJ, cited in Fotsch, 2001, p. 70). The gospel of the Fair, after all, was order. It's no surprise that one of the nodes of Democracity was called "Pleasantville."

Building this world of tomorrow required city planning and regional cooperation on a vast scale. Thus Fotsch recalls New York city administrator Robert Moses who used the Fair - an illustration of planning by "progressive" objectivity rather than "machine" patronage - to help popularize the concord between corporate and political America necessary to endure the difficult times to come. This was no mere theme park; it was a blueprint for the next century, a vision that would not be promoted by ward heelers but by experts. Fotsch adds, "This strategy for highway planning presupposes that engineers will know better than local residents what will benefit them most" (p. 73). This was a future built upon scientific principles that would tolerate no petty disputes. Public life, as defined by the planners and their streamlined designs (p. 75), had no more time or patience for the discord of democracy. Speed rather than inertia, horizons rather than returns, led to the future.

Managing that speed called for organization beyond the limitations of human sense-making. The velocities of the future and the demands they would impose upon the fragile self would require that people become adapted to ever more ubiquitous technologies of control. Such transformation of the roadways would parallel, Fotsch notes, the desire of Fair planners to inspire unity among formerly dispersed communities. Inspired by Futurama and Democracity, the latter with its light and sound exhibit that literally portrayed disparate labor groups merging together as one, "the people could easily speak out in one voice" (Warren Susman, cited in Fotsch, 2001, p. 78). The results would be economic efficiency, improved communication, and growing consumer demand - with the added benefit of a reduction in social disorder wrought by unemployment and the creation of more opportunities to soak up excess production (p. 79). In this way, the Fair sold progress as a corporate invention and as a means for corporate growth. Managers rather than laborers would naturally lead the way.

Fotsch then shifts to Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno whose Frankfurt School critique of America's culture industry calls for readers to look beyond the glittering future produced by the Fair. Most notably, Fotsch employs Horkheimer and Adorno to describe how even the act of touring Futurama could be interpreted as a way to naturalize mechanized modes of production into the performance of everyday life and leisure, transforming people being "educated" by the exhibit into passive consumers. In this way, "Futurama exemplifies perfectly how entertainment could subtly promote particular corporate interests" (Fotsch, 2001, p. 83). While he recognizes recent critiques against the perceived totality of mass culture proposed by Horkheimer and Adorno - he even cites David Gelernter's response to critiques of the Fair's consumerism (what if Americans wanted a future of television sets and superhighways and streamlining?) - Fotsch holds to his larger point, that the Fair could be termed a machine for producing corporate citizens. Further along he suggests a more complex interpretation, that coordination between public and private efforts, as illustrated by the 1939-40 NYWF, affirm a last gasp of a capitalist system hurtling towards collapse. [When one considers the current plight of GM and its need for government intervention, one cannot help but wonder how correct that assessment may be, living now as we do in the "world of tomorrow."]

Fotsch then begins to wrap up his essay with a section on "Motorway Discipline," which should remind some readers of themes found in the Gernsback Continuum. Relating the highways of Futurama to the autobahns of Nazi Germany, Fotsch states that the tension between planning and the people, while palpable in that era, was overshadowed by more sophisticated means of ordering the nation to a war-footing, not one against an enemy beyond U.S. shores but one internally against labor agitators [and, presumably, feminists, given Fotsch's citation of Delores Hayden], particularly since "[d]ispersal and isolation [enabled by interstate highways and distant suburbs] make organizing for social protest more difficult" (p. 90). In this way, the automobile, rather than liberating people, served instead to ensure their more orderly control. Fotsch concludes his essay by noting that, ignoring some of the more fantastical promises that the Fair could not keep, we got much of the future that the 1939-40 NYWF envisioned. Now we must consider the consequences.
Read the entire essay: Fotsch, P.M. (2001). The building of a superhighway future at the New York World's Fair. Cultural Critique, 48, 65-97.

Difficulty accessing the essay? Let me know. It's worth reading and I'm happy to help you find it.

Want to read more? Professor Fotsch included an extended version of this essay in his award-winning book, Watching the Traffic Go By: Transportation and Isolation in Urban America (Buy it on Amazon). In that chapter, he addresses more the contradictions between the Fair's ideals of integration and equality and the practices found at that site.

(Postcards and other images from my personal collection)

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Night at the Races: Ocean Speedway

On Friday, the Wood Family visited Ocean Speedway in Watsonville (CA) to see our first demolition derby (which, for some reason, they call Destruction Derby). Traffic around the "fishbook" leading to Highway 1 was godawful and we ended up spending an hour on a trip that normally takes about 20 minutes. So we showed up in a somewhat stressed mood. But all that hassle evaporated when we arrived and heard the revving of the engines. We found seats, grabbed hot dogs (and a beer or three for me), and settled in for the night.

We presumed that the Derby started at six. Turns out, Ocean Speedway runs races for hours before the big event. So we set through time trial after time trial for five classes of cars. And then we watched those five classes compete for real (after the national anthem and a public prayer). Honestly, we didn't care all that much for the races. But it was pretty cool to see tightly packed scrums of cars whipping around a quarter mile dirt oval. There was at least a minor wreck seemingly every five minutes (oh, how we came to dread that yellow flag). And sometimes, even after a somewhat major wreck, they'd keep the race going anyway. So a number of cars looked like crumbled up pieces of fiberglass by the end of the event.

Finally, they ran the "destruction derby" sometime before 10. About six old clunkers, painted in garish fashion, were driven into a small part of the track set off by tires. The guys who drove them seemed to be regular fellows who do this sort of thing for kicks. Maybe they turn a wrench in their day jobs, but they could be shoe salesmen and barbers for all I know. The Derby ran about 15 minutes, a sort of bumper-cars-for-real spectacle complete with flaming engines and bone rattling crunches. Then, about five hours after we arrived, the Wood Family returned to our own boring car. No more crashes for us.

Visitor tips:

Parking is no big deal. They have plenty of open space across the street from the lot, which fills up early. No fees either way. Just remember to position yourself near the entrance for easy exit.

Seating is fairly spartan. If hours of sitting on aluminum bleachers depresses you, bring a cushion.

Dirt and mud are a big part of the close-up experience at Ocean Speedway. Despite the safety fence, you will likely get hit with bits of earth as the cars screech by. Dress accordingly.

Noise? Hell yeah. They sell cheap ear plugs if you need 'em.

Safety is no problem. Attendees are friendly and the vibe is relaxed. Kids run around the small (largely) enclosed area. Use common sense, but don't worry.

Weather can get chilly at night. We arrived in shorts and t-shirts, perfect for a mid-June afternoon with temps in the 80s. A few hours later, we understood why regulars wear layers. It can get downright cold.

Prices are predictably high, but not outrageously so for this kind of venue (one bottle of bear will run ya five bucks). Bring cash. They may accept credit or debit, though I never saw any card readers.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Pixar is UP in my book

Normally I post a goofy or bizarre item on Fridays, but not today. Read Annie Burri's article about a little girl's dying wish to see Pixar's Up and try not to cry. If you can accomplish that feat, you've got a heart of stone, my friend.

OC Register: Pixar grants girl's dying wish to see 'Up'

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Residents Hang Panties

Warning: This link includes references to drunken revelers, frustrated neighbors, soiled panties, and 29 inches. When it comes to the struggles of managing our relationships with strangers in urban spaces, this story reveals a whole new level of ewwwww.

1010 WINS: Residents Hang Panties...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Save the cities? Bring in the bulldozers!

Just after being asked to review a proposed journal article about new urbanism, I've come across a recent news piece in the London Telegraph about one response to the crises of old urbanism: bulldozing swaths of wrecked streets and abandoned homes to shrink the size of rust-belt cities to more sustainable sizes.

Flint, Michigan, which has been eviscerated by the collapse of the auto industry and the related rise of poverty, crime, and despair, illustrates this trend with plans to contract its borders by "as much as 40 percent."

According to the article's author, Tom Leonard, so many houses have already been pulled down that, "some streets peter out into woods or meadows, no trace remaining of the homes that once stood there." One vision of a New Flint is to fortify smaller, more compact parts of town with health and education services and allow green spaces to flow between them.

The article cites research by the Brookings Institution that identifies 50 rust belt cities that may require similar retrenchment.

Read the article: US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wood Writing Guide - Use vs. Utilize

The desire to craft and read decent prose (or similarly utter and hear good words) confronts distressing trends of text-speak and over-writing. Text-speak, the abandonment of correctness in place of convenience, is a topic I'll address some other time. But over-writing deserves some attention now. One example of over-writing? Folks who use the word "utilize" when they mean "use."

Read enough corporate or academic memos (there's still a difference between the two, no matter how increasingly small) and you will encounter the words "use" and "utilize" employed interchangeably. And if the author is attempting to establish her or his credibility, you can guess what word will appear more often: "utilize."

Why? Perhaps "utilize," with its three syllables, sounds more impressive than "use" with its mere one syllable. And we all want our words to bolster our credibility, right? However, if your goal is precision rather than puffery, you might want to know the difference between "use" and "utilize."

• "Use" refers to the typical employment of something or someone.

• "Utilize" refers to a novel employment of something or someone.


"I used my computer to write this blog."

"I utilized my computer as a paperweight."

See? The "use" is expected. The "utilization" is unexpected.

In reading other blog posts that tackle this topic, I encountered a rebuke to another author's call to distinguish between "use" and "utilize." The respondent said something like this: "Don't get so caught up with rules, dude! Writing is about sharing, not about regulation." Fair enough. No one wants to kill language with pointless rules. But I still advocate for precision in language. To that end, I invite you to consider the subtle variances between commonly conflated words. You might as well start with "use" and "utilize."

Know of any others? Please post a comment.

Monday, June 15, 2009

21st Anniversary at the Madonna Inn

Jenny and I celebrated our 21st anniversary at San Luis Obispo's Madonna Inn this past weekend (yep, pretty much like last year - we're suckers for consistency). This time we splurged on the Madonna Suite, one of those "rock rooms" that transcend any reasonable bounds of tackiness [here's a link to the Inn's room description]. Upon entering our suite, we found a complementary bottle of champagne and a balloon commemorating our special occasion.

Touring the suite, we marveled at the sensory overload: massive stone fireplace (lit by button, of course), sitting area with ornate furnishings, a king-sized bed, and a bathroom that has to be seen to be believed. Jenny loved watching the water spiral around the rocky sluice toward the sink, and I couldn't wait to jump into the waterfall shower. Yes, we took tasteful pix of me getting drenched in our own little rainforest grotto. No, you cannot see them.

Dinner was at the excessively ornate (and similarly priced) Gold Rush Steak House. Thereafter we took in a double-feature at the nearby Sunset Drive-In - again, just like last year (this time we saw Up and a forgettable sequel to Night at the Museum). That night also, Jenny thought it'd be cool to get a picture of me in the fireplace - with the fire on. She's quite the romantic spirit, yes?

The next day? We slept in until ten, grabbed a delightful breakfast at the Copper Cafe, hung out at the pool - one of those "infinity types" - and warmed up in the hot tub. Jenny thought it'd be swell to order a bottle of sparkling cider from the nearby bar, so we enjoyed that treat too. Taking the waterfall picture (first image above) capped our visit, a commemoration of 21 wonderful years together.

(Photographs by Jenny and Andrew Wood)