Friday, July 31, 2009

Waffle House: 5 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

I wonder if Waffle House reflects a node of omnitopia. Or perhaps does it represent something more meaningful?...

The coffee is poured and the laptop is on the table. I look past the counter and spot dozens of pre-made salads in the crisper and rows of bread loaves on the shelf. Coffee cups climb in ziggurat rows, each boasting a clever logo, demarking this place. Signs remind visitors that Waffle House serves more t-bone steaks than any other place in the world. I'll have to take that on faith; I can't imagine coming to Waffle House for a steak.

Along the wall above the grill area, "House Rules" speak in a sort of semaphore, jaunty and telegraphed reminders that Waffle House does not discriminate against patrons or expect them to pay in advance, but neither does it tolerate disrespectful behavior (a strange binary somewhat hidden amid other platitudes). And, perhaps most importantly, patrons are reminded that booths are reserved for larger groups, that singles and two-tops may be asked to move. Discipline permeates the interior, wafting like steam, filling the crevasses. A guy walks through the door. He's wearing desert camouflage.
"You want water?" asks the server as the guy sits down.
"You know I never want water," he replies.
"Well, you never know."
How often do they replay this script? I take a sip from my own glass and contemplate my own cup of coffee. I am a stranger here, free to write or eat or stare out the window. But many folks hanging out in Waffle House are regulars: truckers who plan their routes around Waffle House stops; klatches of old folks who visit every Saturday morning, gabbing about local affairs of one sort or another; couples sharing a room at a nearby motel, stuck between bills and trying to ignore the sex trade or meth labs bubbling through paper-thin walls.

For these people, more than me, Waffle House is appropriately named: walls that contain them and protect them. Its discipline, its consistency, its order is both welcomed and largely ignored. Locals can jaw with the servers, sitting single or double to a booth if they wish. And no one really minds if the bedraggled couple staying nearby leaves with a coffee cup. They'll be back. They'll keep coming until one day they stop. And there are plenty of coffee cups stacked for the next visitors who pass through the door. The rules seem more fixed for folks like me, strangers passing through.

I sit in a Waffle House, just a mile away from another one, and I find that this node looks like any other in the chain. But to the locals, even a Waffle House becomes a locale. Indeed, I quickly learn that the Waffle House on 59th is quite a different thing indeed than the one of 51st. The place on 59th resembles a typical Waffle House, a detached building near a major highway, a spot boasting a separate sign that can be read at a high speed. The one on 51st looks more subdued, part of a lowslung row of businesses, a narrow cleft that is darkened by lowered blinds. Even the sign is less obvious, located above the entrance but under the eave. A server tells me that the place of 51st attracts a pretty strange clientele.

Without much prompting, she illustrates her case with the legend of the Phone Licker. This guy, she says, occasionally ambles down McDowell Road before stopping by the payphone outside. He sneaks a salacious peak for privacy's sake and then tongues the phone receiver. She caught him once, if only to prove to her friends that she's not crazy, but he scampered off without an explanation. "We don't need TV," she announces to me. "We've got McDowell vision." It could be a bar, this Waffle House. It certainly offers the kind of tall tales that one would expect at a well-worn watering hole. It's certainly a different locale than its cousin on 59th.

This difference requires one to ask: how meaningfully can this Waffle House, or any Waffle House, be called a node of omnitopia? After all, omnitopia is the death of locale, a word referring to a place imbued with time and character. And omnitopia finds an essential counterpoint in locale as both an exception to its rule and a limit to its reach. While omnitopia promises fluid transition between ersatz environments, conveyance to the same place, locale is the particular, the disconnected, the self-sustaining.

Even so, locale is not imminent flow, the acute sensorial clarity of high-speed traffic. In other words, it is not this node of omnitopia, which is hardly different from that node, other than a distinction of logo. You do not experience locale at a Food Court by choosing to consume a meal at KFC as opposed to Taco Bell. Locale is the piercing of the omnitopian shell. Or, more correctly, locale resides beyond the omnitopian domain altogether, at least by the side of the road.

The old mom and pop motels -- the kinds of places that drew me to this conversation all those years ago -- tried to create senses of locale. In the dawning of the automobile age, tourist courts were fashioned to resemble places that contained a unique history and set of norms, simulacra of comfy cottages or native teepees or southwestern pueblos (with related rude caricatures). One would drive a hundred miles or more, an impressive distance in the early days, and settle into a performance of place designed to catch the motorist's eye. "I am a home dweller," one might think, "a native, safely cocooned behind a door that closes just for me." Such safety, far from home. Eventually chains like Holiday Inn would even more completely expand the omnitopian enclave to include roadside lodges, where "the best surprise is no surprise," all to ensure that we need never leave.

Thus we might conclude that travel as consistency rather than transformation marks the modern age. And the traveler in search of locale, fleeing the metastasizing tourist realm -- the conflation of interiors that Émile Zola described as the "cathedral of modern trade," that Walter Benjamin recognized in the Parisian arcade, that Siegfried Kracauer found in the urban hotel lobby -- would be required to venture further and further away from the urban cores and the dependable sameness of tourist bubbles. And where do we find Waffle House along this journey? Does Waffle House lead away from omnitopia or toward the same continuum?

Part 6 of 10 appears Monday.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Waffle House: 4 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

"What will you write about?" I haven't a clue....

I think this conundrum reflects a larger conversation about finding meaning in places rather than people. It's as if I am sitting in a corner watching the streaming crowd of laughing, chatting friends, a cohort I can never quite know. The crowd congeals into a mass of barely remembered names, halfhearted conversations, jokes that never did seem that funny to me. But behind them lies a structure, something I try to see and maybe understand, even as, all too often, insight flashes by too quickly to recognize.

For the past few years I've written about something called omnitopia, an effort, I suppose, to understand. In bits and pieces, confident drives and dogleg detours, and a few hairpin turns, I've carved out some space within this portmanteau of the Latin "all" and the Greek "place." It's an idea that, truthfully, came to fruition from the velvet command of a dean to start publishing more peer reviewed articles if I had any plans to gain tenure. I can still see the wide eyes of a trusted confidant to whom I shared the news. "She wrote that?" At once, some notes from grad school days needed to find order and purpose, and pretty damn quick.

After a few iterations, I came to define omnitopia (my definition; there are others) as a structural and perceptual enclave whose apparently distinct locales convey inhabitants to a singular place. From this perspective, omnitopia refers to the experience that parallels exiting a computer terminal to visit cyberspace or entering an airport terminal to visit the global domain of movement, commerce, and discipline that marks contemporary air travel. Omnitopia is a matrix of undifferentiated, un-striated experiences that has no "capital," no "home," through it has an exemplar, which is Las Vegas. It has no ideology, but it has a motto: "Wherever you go, there you are."

In this "place," one must emphasize the necessary relationship between structure and perception. Just because you're waiting at an airport gate doesn't mean that you're in omnitopia, particularly if you're waiting for a loved one to pass through this door of this gate. The structure of nodes that perpetuate mobility from place to place, typically a conflation of consumer and corporate environments, from airport to interstate to food court to atrium hotel to convention center, requires a perception of flow, a sense of seamlessness, to render omnitopia visible.

In this enclave, one finds a set of distinct places that render even exteriors part of a barricaded interior, crafting a synecdoche of the world, individual places -- this tiki restaurant with glowing blowfish and nautical netting, that "New York" themed casino sitting next to "Paris" in the Nevada desert -- which all blur into the same continuum, one safely detached from the real world outside. Omnitopia is not a place but a desire, sometimes conscious and sometimes just below the surface, to be safe.

Naturally I wonder if Waffle House, with its interchangeable architecture, its mass-produced signage, its utter dependability, reflects a node of omnitopia. Or perhaps does it represent something more meaningful?

Part 5 of 10 appears tomorrow.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Waffle House: 3 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

We were on our own, without a place to stay...

We passed our time in a string of motels offering the neon flash of domesticity and detachment, and I solidified my interest in the ways in which people carve intentional spaces out from impersonal wildernesses, natural or humanmade. I never thought in such theoretical terms, of course; life was far more practical in those days. But so much of what moves me now began back then.

I remember those mom and pop motels along the highway possessing the exotic thrill of near-distance, just far enough away from what I'd previously considered home but not too far that I couldn’t find a ride to elementary school. During those evenings, I imagined other kids sitting in their dining rooms and eating dinner while I ventured out on my own to the diner attached to our motel, free to get whatever I could fetch for a couple of bucks. It was exhilaration leavened by the dull ache of apprehension. I could close the door to our tiny room, lock it even, but I still heard the cars race by outside, and I still saw the light of the sign through the closed curtains. Finally when my mom scrounged up enough money to get us an apartment, making sacrifices I cannot imagine to name, I remember being enclosed in our car by the gathered stuff of our lives, fitted tightly within laundry baskets of clothes, a few toys, and some books. I was safe but always moving.

Maybe that's what I meant about the feeling of safety that flowed from entering a Waffle House my first time on the road. I joined the Navy to get the hell away from home. I figured that staying too long pretty much anywhere was fraught with risk. Even a house, which other children crayoned as a sort of permanent mother's embrace when I was in elementary school, seemed ephemeral, untrustworthy, perpetually ready to collapse. But the Navy promised a short commitment and long distance. I did my years and cleared my head a bit. But my time ran out. At 22 I was married and renting. I was lucky to find someone who loves me, but those early years were rough.

We had a daughter, and I was working my way through school, handling my reserve obligation as just one more plate to keep spinning. Life at home was tense, often bitter, and the walls closed in on our tiny family as bills piled up and time ran short. Hitting the road, heading away, was my safety valve. And Waffle House offered the perfect form of temporary domesticity, a house without a key, a house without a father, a house that didn't need me. I could visit and enjoy comforts of home, share first names or not, and cut into a grid drenched with sweetness. I could order it all on a ticket. Waffle House was a poetry of safety in its ritual and speed, an exemplar of automobility -- a perfect site for auto-ethnography.

Heading South to Phoenix

So I'm sitting in a Waffle House on 59th Avenue west of downtown Phoenix. It's morning, and I'm sliding a dollar into the jukebox. I've traveled more than 20 years from those bad old days in Florida, passed through gauntlets of dissertation and job search and tenure, all to enjoy the pleasure of sitting in a Waffle House a day's drive from home, here to write an essay for no pleasure other than its creation. Back on campus, my promotion dossier is winding its way through the university bureaucracy. I know what the outcome will be, but I've been living in a state of functional panic for months anyway. Years, really.

Around me, the economy sputters and dies; things fall apart. Around the world, kids throw rocks and teenagers launch rockets, and I'm worried about my little office with its door that closes tight. I've gathered one mortgage and then a few more. My spouse and I have invested in a series of properties around the country just in time to watch the real estate market dive off a cliff. But now I'm far from that place and those anonymous cul-de-sacs, even though I've managed to carry a few bricks with me, loaded in the back seat of my Saturn (American made, but not really, safely nationalistic, but practical too), my own little intellectual fortress. "I'm going to Waffle House to write an essay," I say, and my colleagues ask, "What will you write about?"

I haven't a clue.

Part 4 of 10 appears tomorrow.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Waffle House: 2 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

Too much honesty can be a dangerous thing...

At Home on the Road

Starting in my early twenties, a quick visit to Waffle House for some pecan waffles and hash browns (scattered and smothered, nothing fancier, thanks) seemed like a natural part of any interstate journey. For a time, if I was heading on the highway for a lengthy drive, I couldn't imagine not going to Waffle House. The friendly yellow and black sign, the (usually) stained drop-panel ceiling, the jukebox filled with roadhouse tunes, the booths filled with chatting locals and tired-eyed travelers, these fragments (and a few others) have always brought to my mind a special set of associations. As far back as I can remember, Waffle House has called forth a different mode of social interaction, a place that can hardly be confused with most other chain restaurants.

I came across my first Waffle House on a northerly drive from Clearwater to Jacksonville, Florida. I'd finished an active duty Navy tour and was beginning my reserve hitch. JAX was the site of my two-week summer obligation. I was 22, give or take, and I was taking my first solo roadtrip. I remember opening up a map with a couple of friends and surveying potential routes. The interstate seemed like the way to drive, but a pal opined that I should take the smaller highway, 301, a diagonal course that cut through the state's interior.

Options unfolded with the map. The superslab would allow for more speed, but I wanted to savor the small towns that dot the interior of the state, places like Citra and Waldo and Lawtey (long before I learned about the speed traps that mar that region). I'd traveled a reasonable portion of the world, but I'd never driven a highway by myself. This would be my chance. I was anxious and excited, not entirely sure of myself. And just before I turned onto 301, I saw the sign for Waffle House. I'd heard of the chain but had never before had reason to visit. This time, my first time on the road, it felt right to stop here. Walking through those doors, I felt a kind of safety that's hard to explain, difficult, that is, without some discussion of fear.

Since I built my first fort out of couch cushions, claimed my own tree house in nearby Hammock Park (it was actually built by older boys who used the place to store girly magazines), and crafted my own Logan's Run fantasy cities of Lego bricks, Tinkertoys, and Lincoln Logs in my childhood room, I've had a thing for enclaves, safe spaces within frightening places. Soft chambers, childhood fortresses, and fantasy cities promised safe divestment from the realities of being raised by a poor single mother in a house run by an extended family of violent drunks.

My most vivid memory of that time has me wandering into a screaming match between my mother and grandmother and finding my arms being pulled in opposite directions as they sought to drag me one way and then another, ripping me apart. In a home that could hardly be called safe, I had a room with a door that closed, and I used it frequently. But the room wasn't really mine and the home wasn't really ours. Soon enough we were on our own, without a place to stay.

Part 3 of 10 appears tomorrow.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Waffle House: 1 of 10

The following is from a ten-part serialized essay on Waffle House, initially written in December 2008. A sort of mashup between scholarly musings and personal reflection, this piece may satisfy no one in particular. But I'm happy to share it nonetheless (presuming you don't edit or repackage this piece without my permission). Also, a reminder: these words do not reflect the opinions of Waffle House, San José State University, or any other entity.

Shelter from the Storm:
An Auto-Ethnography of Fear and Hash Browns

I'm sitting in a Phoenix Waffle House, waiting for the world to end.

I've driven 727 miles one way over a day, alone, to sit here. It turns out that this Waffle House sits in a cluster that is nearest to my home on California's west coast. I figure about eight links to this chain reside in the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metroplex. A sprawl of limited access freeways and speed cameras, of rock gardens and ornamental cacti, the Phoenix region presents a dense enclave of order when viewed from above, all that stretching, colonizing geometry, all that wheezing air conditioning surrounded by fearsome desert. Waffle House is known for its order too, for its incantation of commands and precise ballet of motions, but it still feels strange being this far from its Southern roots.

I'm a Southerner too, sort of, also far from my roots. I was born in Florida, raised in the suburbs of Pinellas County, which is a gigantic parking lot when compared to the Everglades further south or the one-stoplight towns north of I-4. In fact, I didn't discover my Southernness, my tendency toward a drawling y'all and my deeply instilled sense of "place," until I left my home state after high school. In a similar way, I never really thought much about Waffle House as a southern institution until I found myself far from home, a faculty member at a California university where many folks have never heard of the chain.

I'm asked, "Is Waffle House like International House of Pancakes?" Yeah, just about as much as Pepsi is interchangeable with Coke. A Southern institution (and IHOP, if you're curious, is a Los Angeles area fabrication) contains a subtle but distinct set of rules about decorum and design, and it most definitely offers sweet tea, a delicacy I'd never recognized as such until I left home. Even in an era of globalization and homogenization, a world whose primary metaphor may be the international shipping container, the South means something distinct to the American imagination. The South remains an enclave, safely and necessarily apart from all that surrounds it.

So here I am, a transplanted Californian sitting in Phoenix after a 15 hour drive -- it should have been 12, but a Siberian blast of snow and ice, even in the Mojave desert, was both extraordinary and thought-provoking: better slow than dead on the road. I've driven a long way to think about Waffle House as a safe space against a surrounding world that seems frightening. Fresh memories of terrorists laying siege in Mumbai, dawning threats of war in the Middle East, and global fears of an economic collapse so vast and intricate, so perfectly total and mindbendingly grand, that serious-minded people are called forth to remind us again and again that, no, we're not drifting toward a Depression (repeatedly enough to panic us into imagining that, yes, we are drifting toward a Depression): these thoughts troubled me enough to seek a redoubt from all that random violence and ominous danger. The world is ending, the time we once knew, and this spot so far from home seems like the appropriate place to wait for what comes next.

I'm here in a Phoenix Waffle House, writing about fear. That is to say that I've chosen to write about how places like Waffle House (how rare and necessary they are these days) serve up enclaves from the outside and the unknown, particularly as they perpetuate the possibility for us to order places and relationships as we would order our meals, a performance of ritual and community that resembles that we would call real, even while it is usefully, therapeutically, unreal. Assuming a perspective that is somehow broader yet simultaneously much more narrow, I have also chosen to write about the way in which some academic writing may benefit from a method of auto-ethnography, a kind of drive-by scholarship that reveals the role of fear that animates so much of academic life, whether on the road to Waffle House or the road to tenure.

While I claim no particular "ownership" of this play on words, I would offer my own interpretation, emphasizing that auto-ethnography ought not be confused with autoethnography, the method of qualitative analysis that calls for a profound and time-consuming encounter between the author and a site or community (generally with the author her/his self providing a primary lens of inquiry). Auto-ethnography demands the fast moving gaze of the long distance driver, a means to catch quick meaning from blurring signs, reading the road as flow rather than stasis. Auto-ethnography requires a peculiar vigilance borne of imminence, a sense of threat that yields the clarity of perpetual now. It is a position that is never fixed, one that milks the risk of staying anywhere too long. Indeed, auto-ethnography is most aptly employed when unpacking the complimentary reality of fear and safety, a desire to be here and not-here at the same time.

In this essay, I will try to tell a useful story about Waffle House from an auto-ethnographic perspective, even as I tell some stories about how I came to write this piece. I will generally tell the truth, though I will lie a little bit, too. After all, whether studying the creation of hash browns or the mashing together of scholarly prose, too much honesty can be a dangerous thing.

Part 2 of 10 appears tomorrow.

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

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Friday, July 24, 2009

The Great Gatsby

Rereading The Great Gatsby reminds me of how silly the "rules" of punctuation are. In the hands of a master of dialogue, description, and the evocation of grand ideas, all such rules become mean and petty things. That's how I encounter F. Scott Fitzgerald. Seriously, when's the last time you read a book so good that you grabbed your nearest writing reference guide, asking, "How'd he do that?"

For me, finishing Fitzgerald's gorgeous final pages again - easily my favorite conclusion to any book I've read - demanded a return to Lynn Truss's Eats Shoots & Leaves, whereupon I rediscovered her primary rule about comma use - a perspective that Fitzgerald understood and I have yet to fully master: "Don't use commas like a stupid person" (p. 96). Few books inspire me to consider my own stupidities when it comes to punctuation. Gatsby has that effect on me.

In a Facebook thread last night, I chatted on this topic with a couple of pals for a few hours, and I feel confident that I could extol The Great Gatsby's adventuresome punctuation for a few hours more (especially considering the war between open-minded editors and pusillanimous pedants who have added and struck commas from Fitzgerald's masterwork for decades as if gaining or losing ground in literary trench warfare). But, no. I will write no more of commas today. It's enough to reflect on the words themselves and what they inspire.

Some of my favorites (spoiler alert):
I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life. (p. 40)
From the copy I'm reading, the 1995 "authorized text," I learned that an editor of an earlier version replaced the word "was" with "saw." Consider the implication of that alternative paragraph: Nick observes a casual watcher and identifies with him abstractly. That's it. Compare that statement to Fitzgerald's (apparently) original intent: "I was him too." These four words transform Nick into a figure more mysterious than "Jay," despite Nick's affirmation to the reader that "I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known" (p. 64). Gatsby's narrator reminds me somewhat of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg's eyes, always presumed to evoke some god's-eye morality upon the scene. Transforming "saw" to "was," the eyes of the narrator become less fixed. For me "the doctor" loses some of his objectivity also. In Gatsby none see without distortion. The city, the technological manifestation of human will, stretches beyond our natural perception and moral constraints.
I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. (p. 61)
Anyone who has read my preliminary inquiries into the nature of the flâneur gaze, which owes more to Walter Benjamin than Charles Baudelaire or Georg Simmel, will recognize my identification with the "restless eye" roving that passage. The "flicker" draws me first, the telegraph-dance of light and sound - zeros and ones - that connects the historical "modern" to contemporary life, a world of "men and women and machines." The desires for anonymity and safety that mark so much of public life, the "hidden streets" and "warm darkness" amid the bright lights of surveillance, the death of secret places, seems thereafter to give way to our choice to eschew the hope of authenticity altogether, our increasingly common choices to broadcast ourselves relentlessly and without shame. This is the meaning behind a phrase that has pushed me toward my current projects: We Are All Tourists [here's Margo Jefferson's deployment of the words; I have no idea who uttered them first]. Performing ourselves for others, reading others as performances too, where do we hope to find ourselves? Gatsby resonates still, even when his answer fails.
"Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!" [. . .] He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. . . (pp. 116-117)
Nostalgia spins out a kind of mania for many of us, certainly for me, to recover what we've lost in our efforts to become who we are. In this sense, "Jay," in all his fanciful fakery, is America. He is the deluded confidence in the future that grounds itself in the past, in its civic religion, in its frontier myths, in its caricatured heroes against which few of us seek our measure. Despite our frantic faith in change - tearing down cities to build cities, tearing away identity to build identity - we are fundamentally a conservative nation, I think, seeking through jeremiads of one form or another to rebuild some fantasy foundation, to condemn the choices we've made. Like "Jay," we repeat the past even when erecting ourselves upon a tabula rasa. We all would be "founders" of ourselves, dreaming to give birth to ourselves alone upon the untamed fields of possibility.
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further . . . . And one fine morning ----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (p. 189)
How many students have struggled that last passage, with its "green light" and "blue lawn" and "dark fields" and its boats that struggle forward "against the current," driven to the past? Well, not me. For me The Great Gatsby and all its dazzling imagery and invitations to think carefully about the written word (which includes, regrettably, shocking ambivalence concerning Nick's observations about race, ethnicity, and class), these all represent merely one of the things I ignored in high school. I ignored Gatsby for the same reason I ignored so many of my homework assignments back then; I saw (or "was," either way) no future; I had nothing to prepare. Why read this ponderous stuff?

My "fine morning" appeared years later and an ocean away when I began to imagine how the written word can reveal subtleties and complexities which are otherwise shorn by thought-killing entertainments that help us pass the time. It took me years to reach the point that many clever students claim in high school, the awareness that precision and discipline liberate our ambitions, even as they confound them somewhat. Once more I relate to Gatsby, even in his death, recognizing his ambition to "stretch out our arms further." He knew at the end what I am coming to understand: No matter how far I go to make myself, I can never quite escape the place that made me.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Will Facebook Still be Around in Five Years?

Newsweek's Kurt Soller guaranteed some page views with his provocative question: "Will Facebook still be around in five years?" He launches his essay with the oft-quoted claim that a country of Facebook users, now topping 250 million users, "would now be the fourth most populous in the world." Soon afterward, Soller explains how the same impulses that contributed to the site's explosive growth could ultimately lead to its collapse. There's an attention-grabber!

Seriously though, could Facebook implode? Could it really join Friendster and MySpace as a casualty of the social networking wars? It could, Soller replies. According to his article, one potential cause of Facebook's demise may lie in something called context collapse, when our heretofore distinct networks (party friends, work colleagues, family members) blur amid the same online frame, when anyone can access parts of ourselves that were once dependably distinct. One example is when a professor witnesses party activity of a student-Facebook pal that neither would envision seeing in the classroom [some images I still can't get out of my head, believe me]. The awkward possibilities of context collapse lead many folks to abandon Facebook after a while. It's just too easy to get confused and overwhelmed, even with the many privacy settings available today.

Even worse for the company, Facebook hasn't managed to make real money just yet. The company is worth billions of dollars potentially, but actual revenues have not yet caught up with costs. Sure, the ads that appear on our pages are eye-catching without being too obnoxious, but I can't think of a single time in which I made a purchase as a result of seeing a product on Facebook. Even those cute Snorg t-shirt ads evoke no more than an occasional smile. Brand awareness, yes. Results? Not from me. To survive, Facebook needs to generate serious cashflow. How can it accomplish that goal?

The most promising means to Facebook profitability and long-term growth involves next-generation tools that will allow us to glean meaningful information from our network of friends. Soller states that it's one thing to learn what a FB friend wants to share; it's another to employ our networks to learn what we want to know. And considering the collective wisdom in the typical Facebook network -- offering answers from (presumably) trusted friends to questions that range from Where can I get a decent local meal? to What is necessary part of my itinerary when visiting Paris? to How should I invest my retirement funds? -- there's a vault of valuable information waiting to mine from all those notes and updates and pictures, information that may only be constructed through complex algorithms and content analysis, not simply by posting a question.

It may sound overly utilitarian, and maybe even kind of creepy in the way that social networking contributes to our contemporary surveillance society, but we all could benefit from Facebook data mining. Indeed, "[i]f they can figure out a way to monetize our interactions without violating our trust," [University of North Carolina researcher Fred] Stutzman says, "then maybe they've got a chance of being the next Microsoft or Google" [This seems like a dichotomy rather than a pair of related futures, but never mind]. Stutzman's projection could be cool from both a personal "quality of life" perspective and a corporate balance sheet point of view.

That said, Facebook stopped being cool to me years ago. Now it's something more bland: it's simply indispensable. Adding much to "thicken" my in-person friendships [here's a story to illustrate], Facebook has also bolstered my daily life with more loose-but-meaningful connections than I ever had before. Those relationships offer many of the essential traits of friendship we come to expect in "real life": shared community, mutual affirmation, historical narrative, and - yes, I'll be a bit instrumental here - useful information and advice. For all its silly quizzes and obnoxious "targeted advertising" (Over 40? Like Peter Gabriel? You'll love this guy!), Facebook has become my primary interface to hundreds of consequential relationships. It literally has improved my life.

Even five years from now, I can't imagine being without Facebook. Can you?

Read the article:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Should Roadside Memorials be Banned?

A few days ago, the New York Times featured the topic of roadside memorials, asking whether they should be banned. While few among us would blithely dismiss the desire of friends and family members of people killed along the highway or in some other shared environment to memorialize their loved ones, reasonable people may disagree about the acceptability of appropriating public places for private uses. For me, these memorials are a mostly positive phenomenon, but I agree with the title of the NYT blog that addressed this issue: there is room for debate.

In my book, City Ubiquitous, I briefly touch upon roadside memorials as examples of locales that can pierce the omnitopian bubble (I used the image above in chapter nine to illustrate the concept), yet I remain unsure about the appropriateness of these performances. Roadside memorials speak to larger issues of death, memory, and meaning; sometimes those topics must be thrust upon us, though we'd rather avoid them. Moreover, as with other kinds of folk art, they gain some of their power from their slightly unauthorized natures. At the same time, roadside memorials evoke awkward possibilities that some may exceed the bounds of good taste (ah... there's a phrase ripe with trouble), and that the privatization of the public sphere, no matter how partial or ephemeral or well-intended, leads to a slippery slope: Who decides?

That question certainly brings to mind hours of conversation with anyone who has ever taken my COMM 149 class. For me and many of my students, investigations into the nature of public life requires us to ask three questions: Who's In? Who's Out? Who decides? Responding to those queries, roadside memorials problematize some of our legal answers to debates about ownership, challenging our formal assumptions about the public-yet-anonymous nature of places like the highway or the street corner. Thinking about future versions of Rhetoric and Public Life (and reflecting on my recent post about street art), I thought I'd share this link with folks who may want to consider the issue as well.

Room for Debate: Should Roadside Memorials be Banned?

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Democracity - 1939-40 NYWF

This is an artifact-set from the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, a site studied by students of COMM 149F: Rhetoric and Public Life. The images are scanned from the 1939 Official Guide Book, while the text comes from Gilbert Seldes' description of Democracity in Your World of Tomorrow (a booklet, shown below, sold at the Theme Center). Both are from my personal collection. Click the images for a larger view.

Henry Dreyfuss' Democracity was a popular exhibit that promised a glimpse into the world of 2039. To see Democracity, visitors entered the Perisphere after departing an escalator rising from the adjacent Trylon [see the postcard at the bottom of this post for illustration]. Inside the Perisphere, fairgoers viewed a city diorama from an overhead vantage point upon twin revolving mezzanine balconies. From their god's-eye view, visitors surely recognized the calm and confident voice of beloved radio commentator H.V. (Hans von) Kaltenborn, who explained the scene. While I'm borrowing from booklet text, I can hear him saying these words: "Here it is . . . and we like it. It's attractive and sensible at the same time. It's pleasant because we've spent a lot of money to make it so . . ." As David Gelernter [author of 1939: The Lost World of the Fair] might say, this was the voice of authority.

Democracity may not appear all that revolutionary to contemporary viewers, but the exhibit was pretty remarkable to visitors at the 1939-40 NYWF. A central city would be ringed by Pleasantvilles and Millvilles, all surrounded by green parklands. Democracity's future was a profound change from the world of today experienced by its visitors. In this future people would live, work, shop, and play in areas sufficiently distinct from one another to ensure order through proper zoning, even as they would be connected by a system of highways to ensure that no region would be too far from any other [see Democracity being designed]. No longer would cities feel like mazes of teeming humanity; no longer would rural regions seem disconnected from the world around them. The future would be ordered even as the people would be free.

Democracity promised suburbs -- fairly boring, right? Not if you consider this vision from the perspective of its Depression-era visitors. To them, Henry Dreyfuss' future promised to guard civilization itself from the forces that threatened to tear it down: "On one side is the World of Tomorrow, built by millions of free men and woman, independent and interdependent . . . On the other side is chaos . . ." Given that people in 1939 were contemplating the chilling prospect of a second world war, this after a wretched decade of deprivation, one may hardly doubt that they knew the meaning of these words. Still, even as chaos surely resonated with visitors' justified fears of continued economic struggle and military conflict, we may safely assume that they also referred to the kind of chockablock disorder found in cities that allowed all manner of classes to overlap in an expansive and potentially frightening public sphere. That kind of chaos was also manifested within the modern mind in 1939.

The promise of public life was therefore somewhat complex: an attempted balance of freedom and discipline. That's why as the display reached its conclusion a sound and light show depicted the independent and simultaneously interdependent vision of tomorrow, as disparate social groups appeared to merge into one harmonious whole:
"These giant figures . . . with arms linked . . . priest and farmer and miner and housewife . . . sandhogs and baseball players and telephone operators and ministers . . . dairymen and cotton pickers and brakemen and nurses . . . men and women of all nations . . . They are marching in triumph."
After the six minute show, visitors excited the Perisphere and glided back to earth, walking down the sweeping helicline ramp in a clever transition designed to inspire contemplation of Democracity's promise that planners could build the world of tomorrow with the tools of today.

Learn More: See an artifact from General Motors' Futurama.

Note: Henry Dreyfuss was sometimes spelled Henry Dreyfus in period publications. Artifacts from Official Guide Book: New York World's Fair (1939, Exposition Publications Inc., New York), 42-45. Quotations from Your World of Tomorrow (1939, Gilbert Seldes, author; Rogers-Kellogg-Stillson, Inc., New York), np. In all quotations, the use of ellipses appeared in the original text. Postcard from my personal collection.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Street Art and Public Life

Anticipating a future iteration of COMM 149 Rhetoric and Public Life, a class I've taught since 2000 but still continue to revise and rethink semester after semester, I've been planning to develop a module on street art, paying special attention to graffiti, tagging, and the use of stickers used to alter public or private places in a manner not intended by their designers.

Right away, I flash on Michel de Certeau's distinction between place (planned, authorized, formalized) and space (momentary, unscripted, creative), a perfect introduction to the post-place approach I bring to my own inquiries into public life. I also imagine that William Gibson's dictum "The Street finds its own uses for things" will appear somewhere in this new class discussion. Of course, I need to smarten myself up about few topics first, and maybe even rethink some of my biases.

Owing partially to my ignorance, I possess a visceral and somewhat simplistic response to much that is called "street art." Put simply, I don't like it. To illustrate, I recall a highway 17 bus commute onto campus a couple months ago when we passed a well-known painting that indicates the entrance to a San Jose dive called Cinebar. I've visited the bar a few times, but I'd hardly call myself a regular. Still, I always liked the mural on the outside wall. It's a colorful and rare burst of creativity in a what is (all too often) a bland, corporate desert.

Then one day that mural was covered with a spray-painted scrawl: someone's idea of creativity, or rebellion, or personality, or whatever. Wow, that pissed me off. And while I was thrilled when the Cinebar image was repainted a few days later, I wondered how much it cost the small business owner to remove the tag and repaint the mural, recognizing that the unauthorized artist could simply return to inflict his or her damage again. Moreover, the new mural possessed much less detail than the previous version. The result is a sign of diminishing communication. Maybe next time the owner of Cinebar will conclude that beautifying this piece of private property is simply not worth the hassle at all, leaving us with yet another blank wall amid urban corridors. And if the tagger returns then? Well, whitewash is cheap.

I used that example in a summer offering of Rhetoric and Public Life to illustrate how the individual and (sometimes) group marring of public places reflects a problem of contemporary urban life. I figured this was a conventional point, one that would earn polite head-nods. I was wrong, naturally. One especially bright and challenging student pivoted to an intriguing question: How do you feel about billboards? Don't they mar public life? Hmm... My initial response was less than useful: Sure, I replied. I don't like tagging, but I don't like billboards much either. Many are ugly and few contribute much that is meaningful to our shared environment. Perhaps there was some relationship between the two, I considered.

Only later did I recall on the fact that billboards are typically located on private property. In other words, let's say that a farmer agrees to host a billboard and is paid for the exchange. Those advertisements can be seen in public by passing motorists, but they are not imposed on the public in the same manner as one person's graffiti on another person's private property - or on property owned by the public in common (such as a tax-supported civic building). Whether through ownership or rental agreement, if a billboard is located on a private place that is merely adjacent to public life its owner enjoys a high degree of freedom to use it as desired. The same cannot be said for most cases of tagging.

The key issue concerns the rights of ownership [But wait, you might reply: who owns the image at the top of this post? I'll get to that point at the end of this piece]. That's why I have a real problem when I observe the results of a student tagging (owning?) the public university campus where I teach. Any student conceivably contributes to the operation of the campus through taxes, fees, and other supports, but the student hardly owns the campus as private property; the student may not unilaterally alter its design without some form of public consent. The results of that student's tagging, therefore, is not art; it may not be forgiven as harmless "expression" either. It's vandalism.

Can you guess my age? Yep, I'm over forty.

Anyway, while thinking about this topic I recalled an online essay by Rex Thomas called Street Art and Civic Space that has inspired some reflection about the broader topic. Particularly as it relates to my evolving college course, I wonder how I might develop a more sophisticated understanding of street art. Thomas' thesis offers some insight and is amply illustrated with this excerpt:
"Street art is tied into a larger urban culture, and expresses the visual aspect of this larger milieu. As Western mainstream culture retreats from the street into the air-conditioned, connected bubbles of the suburbs, street art and its culture expands to fill the empty space."
Tagging, graffiti, stickers: these are nothing less than meaningful social commentary then, right?

Maybe, but I'm not yet sure. Intriguingly, this commentary championed by Thomas may be revolutionary, but it could also be profoundly regressive. Indeed, Thomas suggests that street artists borrow from the language of advertising: "branding" their identities with "logotypes." Yet he also appears to reject the "culture of consumption" that demeans public life (citing architect Daniel Libeskind to support this point). One imagines that Thomas sees no contradiction in these ideas. Rather, he might say that street artists like Barry McGee and Banksy are appropriating commodity tools to reject the corporatization (and related privatization) of public life.

Thomas proceeds to employ Marshall McLuhan (we all do at some point) to emphasize the role of the medium in defining the message of street art: Given that the art is generally done illegally, "[t]he content of the piece is almost irrelevant; the viewer's reaction is the same regardless of the tag's content or author." In other words, what is uttered is less important than where and how. Even so, one wonders: How can an illegal message inspire meaningful contemplation or dialogue, as Thomas would hope? The author appears to reply: How can it not? Illegal messages inevitably call us to question the nature of legality itself. Who decides?

Thomas shifts to some comments about permission walls, heterotopian spaces that are both uncensored (one might believe) and yet authorized, before concluding with his analysis of how street art signifies a larger aesthetic process. At this point we observe the reduction of "meaning" as a site of communication or method for its evaluation:
"Artists first threw out figure, then form, then color, then the frame, and then wandered into their process itself as an art form. Graffiti artists begin with the end: their signature, or tag, becomes the art, and by using this as the starting point, and the city as their canvas..."
I must admit that this statement about the steady reduction of communication, and its presumably concomitant loss of detail and subtlety, reminds me of George Orwell's claim that language in a coercive environment ends up sounding like the quacking of a duck, or at least becomes valued accordingly.

From this perspective, I continue to ponder: What is really being said on the urban canvas? Thomas seems to reply that street art reveals the crisis and collapse of public life, the consequences of a "privileged few" retreating into their physical and rhetorical enclaves, leaving the rest of society in ruins. To those who flee from public life, excepting armored incursions from the safety of their cars, street art shows what they will not otherwise see. OK, that seems like a fair argument, but this is where I must do some serious thinking. After all, what if the message of street art -- all those tags on interstate highway barriers, all those stickers on suburban stoplights, all those spray-painted faces on urban ruins -- is much more simple and much less meaningful than its defenders ask us to believe?

What if street art simply says, "Look at me"? Yes, that statement "says something" about public life. But does the message offer any promise of change?

Learn More: For me as much as anyone else, it's time to research this topic more thoroughly. Here are some sites I hope to investigate (I have not visited these sites in detail, and I do not necessarily recommend them). Please feel free to post comments on your thoughts and/or recommendations for sites I should add or subtract:

Art Crimes: "a gallery of graffiti art from cities around the world"

Situationist International Archive: collection of essays - a particularly useful site to learn more about Guy Debord

Street Use: "This site features the ways in which people modify and re-create technology"

Note: The image above is borrowed from Banksy's website. I wasn't sure I could use his image for my blog - the risk of hypocrisy is too great - until I read the artist's online manifesto, a quotation from Emo Philips: "When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised God doesn’t work that way, so I stole one and prayed for forgiveness."

Update: This article has been republished under the author's own name (Rex Thomas is a pen name) at New Geography.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stolen Books, Delicious Irony

Sometimes an example of our surveillance society is hard to visualize. In a story about a police chief who recently referred to people using iPhones to circumvent ticket-camera machines (revenue enhancers, whatever) as being "cowardly," I learned that the Washington D.C. region "has 290 red-light and speed cameras -- comprising nearly 10 percent of all traffic cameras in the U.S." (Washington Examiner - check for bias, though), which is a scary but somewhat abstract number. 290 devices and 10% of the national total sounds like a lot of surveillance, but it's a hard thing to see in something approaching adequate context. Numbers never tell the whole story.

And then there's this example from The New York Times. It's pretty damned vivid. Amazon Kindle owners woke up today to discover that one or two of their newly purchased e-books had gone missing. No, the books weren't stolen by neighborhood thieves. No shattered windows marked this crime. The books were taken by the folks who sold them in the first place. Amazon stole 'em, just used their internet connections to wipe 'em clean off the Kindles.

Sure, the peeved owners were refunded the purchase cost. But, as one observer notes, "it’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table." Oh, and the name of the books? Well, that's the best part of the story.

David Pogue has the scoop:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Seeking Thoughts on Closing the Loop

Honest, this is not a re-post without purpose. Rather, I'm hoping to get some feedback on draft language for an email FAQ item I'd like to share with my students in future classes.

I've updated an earlier draft of this post sufficiently to hope that it merits a moment's second glance.

If you're interested, could you read this note and share your comments with me? Are my thoughts on "closing the loop" reasonable? Overbearing? Useful? Crazy?

Here's the link:

Follow-up: I received a number of responses to this query via Facebook and on the original draft-page. The post (link above) has been edited to reflect the advice I received (for which, also, I am grateful).

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

SeaTac Neon

Here's a brief video I shot of animated neon signs in the SeaTac area. Locations (in order of appearance):

• Elephant Super Car Wash - 616 Battery Street - Seattle (downtown)
• Dahlia Lounge - 2001 4th Avenue - Seattle (downtown)
• Caffe Vita - 4301 Fremont Avenue North - Seattle
• Flying Boots Cafe & Spur Room - 614 S 38th Street - Tacoma
• Buckaroo Tavern - 4201 Fremont Avenue North - Seattle

Yes, I know I missed plenty of other great locations. Considering our unfamiliarity with the area, we found enough to keep us busy with just these five locations. Definitely we'll return to visit others (the rotating P-I sign comes to mind). If I'm lucky, I'll get Vienna to make that return trip too. When it comes to navigating a complex environment, she shows promise - and she's an awesome roadtrip buddy. Any can't-miss recommendations for the next trip? Please post a comment.

Difficulty seeing the embedded video? Point your browser to this location:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

2009 - Seattle Neon Weekend

Vienna and I returned last night from our four-day trip to Seattle, ostensibly to videotape Emerald City neon signs but just as much to enjoy some time together during one of the few open spaces in our mutually hectic schedules. I'd just finished teaching a grueling six-week course (cramming 16 weeks into a tightly compressed schedule), and Vienna had some time off from summer work. While the Wood Family is set for our big summer trip in less than two weeks, this weekend was the best chance for dad and daughter, just the two of us, to hang out before Vienna starts her second year of college. The road called us, so we set our course for the California border.

There's not much to report about our first day. We shot north on the I-5 fast-track, pausing only briefly for food and fuel (the 101 image above is from our return trip). We stopped at Eugene, Oregon, staying at the clean and comfortable Broadway Motel. Dinner was at the Hole in the Wall Barbecue, notable for well smoked meats and a fairly decent version of sweet tea (not to mention its surprisingly authentic strawberry lemonade). Feeling somewhat adventuresome, we surveyed our neon options in nearby Springfield, after overcoming our fluster at confusing SR 126 and SR-BR 126. I nearly passed the Holiday Laundromat, still sad that a much cooler sign was not lit, before Vienna recalled my oft-cited dictum (borrowing from Voltaire): "The perfect is the enemy of the good." The Holiday was certainly good enough for our first night. Soon afterward we spotted the Sutton Motel and I unpacked the tripod to grab some swell animation. [Difficulty seeing the embedded video? Point your browser here:]

The next morning, we drove the remaining four and a half hours to Seattle, grooving on the clearing clouds and anticipating a warm afternoon of blue skies in "Rain City." Our first stop was Pike Place Market (we're suckers for consistency) where we sampled some creamy macaroni and cheese (along with French Onion soup) at Beecher's. After lunch, we ambled along the shops, stopping to watch the guys toss fish for the tourists before buying a tiny box of raspberries. We even checked out the world's first Starbucks location, but chose not to join the lengthy caffeine queue. Returning to our car, we paused at one intersection to gawk at a parade of nude bicyclists celebrating something called World Naked Bike Ride Seattle. This being the Pacific Northwest, no one seemed to mind the spectacle.

Later afternoon was spent north of downtown. We stopped at Archie McPhee's, a goofy shop selling the kinds of silliness you'd typically find in the back of a comic book: a wacky assortment of finger-zombies, cheap tiki mugs, rubber chickens, "real life" skeletons, and other random knickknacks. Thinking ahead to this year's Halloween (our 2009 theme: Zombie Apocalypse) I picked up a bloody severed leg from a bin filled with the gory props; we're talking about maybe a couple dozen hacked-off legs piled up high. Part of the pleasure of Archie McPhee's is the guilty pleasure of thinking, "You never know when you'll need a severed body part. You just never know." So thanks to Archie McPhee's, I'm pretty well stocked up on severed legs.

Afterward we drifted around the Fremont neighborhood, known as the "Center of the Universe" and notable for its unabashed lefty-vibe (see the huge Lenin statue above for ample illustration). Apparently the city mothers and fathers of Fremont even "liberated" a rocket from America's 50s-era Cold War scrapheap; it towers above a local store.

We poked around antique shops for an hour or two, me thumbing through old photo albums now for sale, thinking about the stories told by those pictures: proud families standing next to their tiny houses, uniformed soldiers standing at attention with youthful smiles, pricey baby portraits taken almost a hundred years ago. It seemed an odd thing to consider buying one of these albums, but I weighed the choice anyway. None of them seemed to tell a story I'd want to read more carefully, though, so I decided to move on. Dinner brought us to the somewhat disappointing Luau Polynesian Lounge whose "wilted" spinach salad could hardly be called a trick of false advertising. "Ah," I mused, "That's what the spinach I hated as a kid tastes like!" Still, the tiki atmosphere was above par, with the Elvis shrine adding a nice touch.

After a brief visit to our hotel, Vienna and I hit the road, following leads throughout the SeaTac region in search of animated neon signs. Vienna gamely navigated us from site to site as lightning from a gathering storm danced in the clouds above. Despite my occasionally lousy maps, Vienna maneuvered us through congested surface streets and across a large portion of SeaTac interstates. Hours later, we stowed our gear and crashed back at our room.

Sunday's weather was dreary, but we still had a terrific time together. Morning called us back to Seattle's downtown where we visited the Experience Music Project and the Science Fiction Museum (after an unplanned and gut-busting meal at Buca di Beppo). Truthfully, I wasn't too excited about visiting EMP. I was therefore delighted to find the visit so thoroughly enjoyable. An exhibit called "American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print" introduced me to a commercial artform about which I knew little (and want to learn more), and Vienna discovered a desire to play with the instruments in the crowded Sound Lab.

The lines seemed overwhelming at first, but the two of us worked together to secure spaces so we could practice drums, lead guitar, keyboards, and try our hand at audio mixing. We even spent ten minutes in the "jam room" - Vienna on guitar and I switching from bongos and keyboard. You'd never believe it: we coordinated our senses of rhythm and tone to produce a pretty good song! It's amazing what decent equipment, lots of reverb, and a bit of whimsy inspires when your only expectations are to have fun.

Satisfied that we'd rocked out sufficiently, we began our trip south, staring in amazement at three separate miles-long traffic jams clogging the northbound road. How happy we were to have missed that nightmare, and how frustrated we were as we empathized with the motorists who rounded the curve before coming to a stop, having no idea what was ahead of them. Feeling blessed, we spent the rest of the day making miles toward the Oregon coast; there, we caught Highway 101 in the pouring rain. The slick, curvy roads inspired Vienna to become remarkably contemplative about her mortality, but we somehow survived the trip and found a decent room in Coos Bay.

Monday rewarded us with gathering sunshine and an open itinerary. With no particular plan (aside from taking 101 all the way back to San Jose) Vienna and I kept an eye out for fun roadside attractions to fill our day. Before long, we came across the West Coast Game Park and Walk-Thru Safari. Yep, we stopped at a petting zoo - and it was awesome. Vienna and I got to hold a lion cub, we made friends with a donkey who seemed to follow us around for the entirety of our stay (see above), and I even managed to avoid getting pecked to death by a peacock who sensed that I might compete for the sauntering pea-babe he was romancing.

The picture above illustrates how Vienna didn't fare too well with the llamas (really, who does?). As with all zoos, this one saddened us to consider how the animals are forced into artificial enclosures. Still, we balanced that regret with happy awareness that the chance to see animals up close inspires people to care for them in a more personal way. Such is the paradox of even the most humane zoos.

Soon afterward Vienna and I departed the rain and gloom as the clouds parted to reveal a bright and pleasant day. We'd feared that we missed the stunning Pacific vistas of the Oregon coast during the previous night drive, but we happily found plenty of gorgeous rock formations set amid blue ocean waters. Indeed it wasn't too long after we departed the zoo that we pulled off 101 again to visit Battle Rock in Port Orford.

For a while we simply stared at the awesome scene until noticing that folks were climbing a tree-topped promontory jutting from the water. Channeling Liz Lemon's catchphrase, "I want to go to there" (uttered in a robotic and vaguely wistful way) we soon commenced to scampering on the sand and stone and trails of wildflowers in search of the summit. Some careful balancing and footwork later, we reached the top and surveyed the beach below. Barks from a dog who challenged the ocean waves accompanied our smiles at being here together.

Returning to the visitors center, we chatted with a friendly guy who recommended a great place for lunch nearby, a cramped restaurant called The Crazy Norwegian. I know I risk losing my credibility with an excess of superlatives, but I can attest that their fish and chips, followed by fresh razzleberry pie with perfect crust and plenty of ice cream, resulted in the best meal I've had in a long time (of course, I have been dieting, so my standards have declined a bit).

The rest of the day was spent cruising through small towns along 101 and counting down hundreds of miles to our post-midnight homecoming. No matter, we were happy to pass the hours chatting. I can't imagine more fun: Vienna and I reminiscing, sharing music, discussing philosophy, swapping trivia, and even debating ethical quandaries. Without being too sappy or sentimental, I have no doubt that the chance to share uninterrupted conversation with my daughter meant more to me than the combination of every neon sign and roadside attraction we visited.

The time flew by, even as we stopped briefly at Klamath's Trees of Mystery to photograph Paul Bunyan (who was busy "talking" to assembled children who stared up at amazement). Dinner was at Garberville's passable Waterwheel Restaurant, followed by lovingly-made sundaes (and free wireless) at the nearby Treats ice cream parlor. A quick photo of the Eel River Cafe (once boasting a phenomenal animated neon sign) and we then returned to 101.

The rest of the night offered more conversation, more yawning from a lengthy drive, and more joy at the prospect of returning home to Jenny, Artemis, and Ariadne (the latter two, our cats, seemingly unaware that we ever left). Somewhat before 1 a.m. we were home.

(Photographs by Andrew and Vienna Wood)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Seattle Trip - Almost Back

Today I'm returning from a four-day trip to Seattle with Vienna. I plan to post a summary tomorrow. In the meantime, I thought I'd share this image from a delightful evening of feeling perpetually lost among the various iterations of SR 126 in Eugene, OR (where we stopped on the first leg of our trip).

(Photograph by Andrew Wood)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday Fun Post: 2012 - 70s Style

Fun mashup for this Fall's newest disaster epic. Difficulty seeing the video? Point your browser here:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

COMM 149 and writing

This summer I've been thinking about writing, especially as I've sought to inspire my students to attend more closely to their own written work. Now that I've completed my grading of their course projects, I've whipped up a note designed to share my appreciation for their work, along with my desire for them to consider next steps in their development as people who can contribute meaningfully to public life. Fully aware that my tone may come across as pedantic, nagging, pollyannaish, or even messianic, I've chosen to also post that note here. I could be wrong - hell, I make mistakes so frequently I'm lucky I'm not charged a quarter per error - but I don't mind looking silly. I may not believe these words tomorrow, but I surely believe them today. So for what it's worth, here's what I have to say.


I've enjoyed the chance to work with you this summer session. I can honestly say that teaching 149 these past six weeks has fired me up to consider new innovations, new texts, and new activities in future iterations of this course. Heck, I suppose I'd gotten a little tired of COMM 149 over the past few years. But I've rediscovered my love for Rhetoric and Public Life this summer, and I thank you. Among my happiest memories from this class are hours of conversation, which were frequently filled with engaged, insightful, and impassioned voices. So many of you took the challenge to dive into this course, even amid its rapid currents and risky undertows, and I respect your efforts to master some strange and challenging material. I've enjoyed getting to know you, and I hope you've enjoyed getting to know Rhetoric and Public Life.

Reviewing your papers, I made as much use of the brief period between Tuesday and Thursday as I could. A conservative estimate of time dedicated to writing 12 single-space pages of commentary for 24 papers (with minimal line breaks for readability) results in a total of 14.5 hours for what would be a 20-page double-spaced paper. I offer this observation not to impress - this is my job after all, a job I'm lucky and grateful to have. Instead, I offer this fact to call to mind a question: Was it worth it? I have my own initial thoughts, but I wonder about yours. Did you and I devote adequate time and care to our task of tackling this course? If so, what shall the results of our efforts be? Initially I'd love to imagine y'all buzzing for a lifetime about Gernsback continuums, nude platonic wrestling, fantasy islands, cities on hills, futuristic Bostons, world's fairs, nostalgia-land Disney-dreams, and creepy gas station attendants who smile with menace when they say, "We give the directions around here." I'd love that, but I don't think that's our highest goal. Our highest goal is for you to practice your ideal community. We'll talk about that today.

In the meantime, let me emphasize that our second highest goal is to enhance written communication skills. You may have noticed that I'm a fairly strict grader (I hope you find truth in both words: "strict," yes, but "fairly" too). One may wonder why. It's so much easier, after all, to buy a happy-face stamp and fill the empty spaces with smiles. It saves plenty of hours tapping on the laptop, too. Problem is, I'm a believer in the notion that a university degree means you can communicate your ideas with precision and persuasion. Evaluating those components, therefore, requires a bit of time and care on my part. To that end, I read your papers with the respect I asked you to demonstrate while writing them. You might be interested to know that in all cases - with no exceptions - I found sufficient quality, insight, surprise, and/or "uncountable" worth in your papers to revise my initial scores upward. Similarly I've tried to ignore typos that clearly demonstrate little more than an errant keystroke, just as I hope you'd do for me. For each of you, a holistic review of writing inspired me to celebrate the larger successes of your work. This, I was happy to do.

Yet I must share one sad truth that awaits many of you who may decide not to consider my requests and recommendations to enhance your mastery over the written word: much of the "real world" sought by so many college students, and all the glittering prizes piled within that consensual hallucination, is numbed by gatekeepers who will not consider your intelligence, your hard work, your challenges, or your unique gifts. They will grant or deny you the things you want and need according to rougher, less meaningful standards that often reflect the basest demand: attention to detail. Knowing the code, understanding the rules, and (dare I say it?) coloring within the lines frequently provide the key to many of the doors ahead of you. Is it right? Is it fair? I'll defer that question to the experiences that await you. But trust me: there's wisdom to the realization that errors in form are closely related to errors in function. That's why I've spent so much time reading your work for content, but also focusing on page counts, margin lengths, topic sentences, and even silly squiggles such as semicolons. None of these concerns guarantee that you will write precisely or persuasively. Indeed, slavish adherence to these rules if you have nothing to say all but ensures pointless, deadening prose (a truth I take from personal experience). Still, the question remains: how worthy is the word that is never read?

That, my friends, is why I've asked you to take writing seriously, because I take you seriously, along with your education and your hopes to accomplish something meaningful. Written words alone will not make things happen, either for you or for the world. But they often start the conversation that leads to where we wish to go. So please consider this invitation among your most important outcomes from our summer session: Promise that you will read, write, revise, share, critique, ponder, and practice your written communication daily. There's so much work to be done, both in your personal lives and well beyond those individual spheres. We need good words to produce good works. We need good writers.

What do you say?