Saturday, December 31, 2011

Andy Looks Back on 2011

Preparing to celebrate New Year's Eve with Jenny at Disneyland - and reflecting on 2011. Some highlights:

• Chilling in Yosemite (JAN)

• Thinking about theory (FEB)

• Wandering LaLaLand (MAR)

• Digging around Detroit (APR)

• Thanking Seal Team Six (MAY)

• Returning to China (JUNE)

• Touring in Europe (JULY)

• Geeking with Devo (AUG)

• Finding my Family (SEP)

• Creeping with Jenny (OCT)

• Grooving in NOLA (NOV)

• Finishing a documentary (DEC)

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 Wood Family Holiday Newsletter

Click the image to read our holiday newsletter, or simply download it here!

And to Woodland Shoppers Paradise fans out there, I will return to my regular blogging schedule starting in 2012. Until then... happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tilt-shift Europe

Following up on yesterday's post (tilt-shift Japan) here are some miniaturized versions of Europe!

Prague, Czech Republic

Salzburg, Austria

Athens, Greece

Budapest, Hungary

Paris, France 

Paris, France (2)

Loch Ness, Scotland 
(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tilt-shift Tokyo

For no particular reason, here are some tilt-shift photos from my 2006 visit to Tokyo. I'm still working on my technique. I can't seem to get that proper balance of angle, detail, and processing. But I enjoy trying to produce these goofy effects as a sort of homage to my tiny-town fetish [the effect works best, by the way, if you click on the images for fuller view]. I'll post Tilt-Shift Europe tomorrow...

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Salzburg Global Seminar video

After months of stressing about this project, I'm able to share a first draft of the Salzburg Global Seminar video [Click here for high-def link]. This is the "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" version, an effort to tell the Salzburg story, focusing on history, purpose, culture, opportunities, and practicalities. After some minor script revisions and a little technical clean-up, future versions will be scaled to specific audiences: a short video for student applicants, a separate version for archival purposes, etc. I'll attend to those items in spring. For now, I'm just glad to have this part done!

Let me know what you think!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Europe 2011 - Wood Family Grand Tour

Jenny and I have finally completed writing up our experiences from the 2011 European Grand Tour. Come with us for three weeks as we journey to Scotland, England, Germany, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and France. Visit highland castles, miniature villages, sun-kissed islands, red-light districts, leaning towers, cobblestone cafes, and a park where Communism lives on and on!

[Start Here]

Oh, and if you haven't seen the video yet, take a look!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Drinking Game

Watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? Sorry about that. Here's one way to pass the time. Do a shot of, I dunno, "eggnog," every time you see the following:

• Broadway performance based on a movie you'd forgotten about years ago

• A floating balloon portraying a pop culture character you've never heard of

• Cheesy segue from weather report to some product, film, or television show

• Kid wearing a generic Christmas present-box costume

• Commercial for anything related to Black Friday

• Apple-faced high school marching band-kid drops an instrument

• Musical performance by someone who hasn't had a hit in over ten years

• Stilted interview with the star of new TV show (that won't last the season)

• Musical performance with obvious lip-synching

• Commercial repeats for tenth damned time [2011 ed.: Justin Bieber spot]

Bonus Ten

• Salute to the troops

• TV host who would rather be anywhere else but here

• Performer whose song stops when the float begins to move off-camera

• Reference to 70s-fashion, culture, or music

• Overhead view of marching band

• Earnest country singer extolling the lyrics of simple living

• Awkward reference to Native American traditions

• High-kicking [bonus if performers are not Rockettes]

• Nameless corporate hack waving from car (or on a float)

• Commercial aired for the twentieth damned time

Bonus Death-Match Play-rules

• Anytime someone says the word "Macy's"

• Anytime you're reminded of just how old you are

Monday, November 21, 2011

NCA 2011

Funky NOLA
I'm back from the National Communication Association's annual conference in New Orleans - this after barely escaping an avelanch of projects all coming due at the same time. I'd just unveiled my Global Technology Initiative documentary on Wednesday night - and Thursday morning, I was waiting to catch an early flight to Louisiana when I really just wanted to be in bed. The trip turned out to be a tonic, though, a welcome respite from an epically, gloriously, insanely intense semester. I did the stuff I needed to do - responding to a group of swell papers on "regional rhetorics" and presenting my essay about teaching millennial students. I looked at new books, I chatted with far-flung colleagues, and I picked up some ideas for next year's classes and writing projects.

A night at Preservation Hall
I also took some time to catch up with a tight group of good friends from my Berry College days: Chip Hall, Randy Richardson, and Kathy Richardson. Rooming with Chip meant hours of delightful conversation about our families, our current adventures, and our mutual loves of music and movies. One night, we grooved to three sets of Leroy Jones at Preservation Hall; the next, we walked over three miles to catch The Shining at the Prytania (a midnight show that actually began at 12:45). Chip and I also enjoyed several delightful meals with Randy and Kathy, our professors back at Berry who continue to remind me how meaningful those years in northwest Georgia turned out to be. Hanging out with this crew was the best part of New Orleans.

L to R: Andrew Wood, Chip Hall, Randy Richardson, and Kathy Richardson
Along the way I also spent some time wandering Old Easy streets alone. I bought a cheap pipe for some equally cheap cherry tobacco, lounged awhile in the Old Absinthe House, and lingered on the side streets in search of a little stencil art. Listening to a busker belting out "House of the Rising Sun" on a street corner, I found my love for NOLA rekindled [I also made a few interesting friends - especially when folks saw my pipe and presumed I was smoking weed]. I never did grab a Sazerac or any of that decadent pecan pie for which I'd been pining, but I had a wonderful time, all the same.

Bourbon Street Reflection
(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Global Technology Initiative Video

[Revised February 3, 2012] Here it is - my documentary project for the SJSU College of Engineering Global Technology Initiative. This project is one reason why I've taken some time away from regular blogging. I hope you find the results to be worth the hiatus.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Halloween 2011 - Corpse Wedding

This year's Halloween porch theme was a throwback to our first all-out family production: a corpse wedding. And with Vienna joining in, our show was a neighborhood hit!

Vienna was a beautifully eerie bridesmaid.

The "sinister" wasn't up to officiating. 

Happy Halloween wishes from Scotts Valley!

The "Fright" and the "Goon" welcome the kids to our creepy wedding.

Previous Years

• 2010: Alien Autopsy II [Pix and Story] [Video]

• 2009: Zombie Apocalypse [Pix and Story] [Video]

• 2008: Dr. Freightmarestein's Haunted Laboratory of Horrors [Pix] [Video]

• 2007: Psycho Circus [Pix] [Video]

• 2006: Alien Autopsy I [Pix]

• 2005: Just Buried [Pix]

• 2004: Pirate Dungeon [Pix]

Friday, October 28, 2011

Brief Hiatus

You may have noticed that Woodland Shoppers Paradise has not featured a new entry in many days, and that my posts have been relatively spotty this semester. And you, my friend, would be right! With two documentaries, seven new lectures (on topics ranging from Olaudah Equiano to Dream of the Red Chamber), a new grad course prep (a highlight of my year, actually), a student trip to Beijing to coordinate, a couple NCA essays to write, and all sorts of other work to complete, I've had to hold off on blogging these past few weeks.

Comparing the 2011 workload to previous years - and I'm remembering back when I was completing my dissertation - this is the most demanding year I've ever had. Yeah, I'm complaining a bit. But I'm counting my blessings too. I've got a job, some friends, and a family who loves me (or at least tolerates me). And I'm writing some pretty fun stuff [Yeah, I still write every day, just not on the blog!]. Moreover, I look around and I see the same shellshocked look in the faces of others. Folks on the bus, students in the hall, people queuing at the market. Lots of people are stressed and tired. At least I'm not alone! [Plus, I do have that sabbatical to anticipate, so, really, I can't complain.]

I estimate that I'll resurface sometime after Thanksgiving the new year. And I still plan to complete my blog posts for the previous China and Europe trips. Soon!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

After Power

Drudge plucked another doom and gloom article from the Financial Times to highlight the depths of despair that is our due for having the audacity to hope that President Obama was the real deal. Generally I ignore these red flags, especially since the American Right appears to be dead set on taking Obama down. Even so, Gideon Rachman's essay makes the depressingly credible argument that our nation will inevitably be required to seed dominance to China, adding, "Those who refuse to entertain any discussion of decline actually risk accelerating the process." No matter who wins the 2012 elections, we all should prepare to lose our "We're Number One" attitude.

The article offers a reasonable enough parallel between our decline and that of Great Britain after the Second World War, adding, however, that our approaches toward also-ran status couldn't be more distinct. While Britain faced the loss of empire with a certain magnanimity, the U.S. is far too invested in its "American Exceptionalism" identity to recognize the passing of power. Some among us, for instance, respond to the Rising China thesis with a smug reminder of our 1980s near-capitulation to Rising Japan. It's a fair point. Remember when Japan Inc was buying America from under our feet? Doesn't it seem strange to recall? I mean, really, when's the last time you heard someone say that we all must learn Japanese to stay competitive?

Still, as Rachman rightly points out, China's got tough numbers to beat. They're awash in money, they've got an increasingly potent military force, and they've got workers, workers, workers. They face their share of structural and fiscal problems too. We mustn't forget that. And all of us, the U.S., the Europeans, the Chinese - the whole world - we all confront an economic contagion that threatens to make the 2008 crisis seem positively healthy in comparison. The Occupy Wall Street protestors, for all their goofy eclecticism, seem to know this better than most. Something has deflated in the American psyche. A privileged few will ensure the continuation of their personal pleasures. The rest of us will pay the price. China is part of that new future. But they are hardly its author.

Read the piece: America must manage its decline

Monday, October 17, 2011

Memorizing the Preamble

I'm presenting an Honors Humanities lecture on the U.S. Constitution tomorrow and, for no particular reason, I've committed to memorizing the Preamble. As most of my pals know, memory is one of my weakest public speaking skills. Indeed, I spent a couple hours on a recent evening working through various mnemonic techniques - just to wrap my brain around that danged Fifth Amendment [so many "nors"!]. So far, the classic approach seems to work best for me: storing bits of information in "places" that form a logical narrative. Still, for those folks who are more musically inclined, there is at least one other way to learn that danged Preamble…

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Florence Street Art: Part 2 or 2

Here's some more goofily arresting Florence street art. Missed yesterday's helping? It's only one click away.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Florence Street Art: Part 1 of 2

It's time once more to share some street art from our recent European travels. Our destination? Florence, Italy - and reminder that economic and social pressures are bringing this place to the boiling point.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Urban Wandering

If you want to see a picture of the 21st century, stand along the Shanghai Bund and stare across the Huangpu River. A brash panorama of jaunting skyscrapers that somehow resemble children’s toys, Shanghai’s Pudong district is a remarkable vision of things to come. I’d come here before, back in 2010, to attend the Shanghai World’s Fair. Back then, I was traveling with my wife, enjoying the pleasures of spontaneous decisions to ramble and explore wherever our instincts led. The 2011 GTI study tour was much more complex, but no less fulfilling.

The ostensive purpose of my visit this year was to gather footage for a documentary about the Global Technology Initiative. Yet I also served as co-leader, along with Richard Chung, helping ensure that 23 undergraduate students could get to know China personally, safely, and meaningfully. I may have thought I’d be focusing solely on a video project, but there was no way I would focus on my camera viewfinder alone. There was just too much to see and do in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Taipei, and other destinations on our itinerary. Averaging about four hours of sleep a night, I sometimes felt like I would age a year from this trip, but I look back on GTI 2011 as well worth the sweat, hassle, and occasional unexpected adventure.

Traveling with so many people, I felt a special understanding for Beijing traffic. I remember vividly the dense and complex roads of China’s capital city. But it’s one thing to read about the effects of automobiles on a strained grid where bicycles once held sway. It’s something else entirely to join the crowd. I can think of few other venues to encounter contemporary China's post-Revolutionary "Get moving – but not too fast" spirit than a Beijing traffic jam.

I also remember walking the streets of Shanghai with GTI students, experiencing anew the bumpy realities of a nation where so many people are charting new courses without maps. One night we were heading for the subway, passing through some of Nanjing Road's funkier side streets. It seemed that we were constantly split across three intersections. Eventually we agreed on a "sticky rice" strategy to stay together. We wanted to catch that last train.

We rushed to beat the closing door and, before long, were exiting somewhere near our hotel. Problem was, the building’s marquee was lost among the clouds. A guy on a motorcycle pointed at a narrow alley nearby offered his advice, and we plunged into a neon-lit corridor of mahjong games, hair salons, and all-night veggie shops, producing our own jagged map of awkward turns and confident strides. Once we arrived at our hotel, I remember the smiles of students who loved our adventure of urban wandering. “Let’s do that again!”

That’s my vision of China too. The nation’s urban planners are building stunning vistas and awesome panoramas. Our students saw some of the blueprints and chatted with those visionary engineers of the 21st century. GTI participants grew from the visit, and so did I. Yet my favorite moments were closer to the ground, grinding through Beijing traffic and wandering Shanghai’s crowded streets at night. Sometimes we got lost, and sometimes we were unsure. But we were always ready for the surprises awaiting us. I can’t wait to go back.

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Origami Urbanism Update: OnStar

I recently received word that my essay manuscript, "Origami Urbanism Amid the Flat City: An Omnitopian Analysis of Commercials Depicting Mutability in Urban Life," has been tentatively accepted for inclusion in the forthcoming Urban Communication Reader III: Communicative Cities and Urban Communication in the 21st Century.

Naturally I'll have some editing to complete before whipping the piece into final shape, but it's nice to pass this part along the journey. I've been working on variations of this essay for a few years now, always keeping an eye on various media for examples of Origami Urbanism. So it was a special treat to spot this OnStar ad earlier this month.

[Oh, and thank goodness for Inception. While my writing on this topic predates that flick, seeing Christopher Nolan's vision of cities that fold into themselves like carpets inspired confidence that this piece is worth pursuing!]

Monday, September 26, 2011

Salzburg and Beijing 2012

As you may know, I'm leading two student tours overseas this summer. The first one is a return to the Salzburg Seminar's International Study Program (May 30 through June 6). I attended ISP faculty meetings in 2010 and 2011 - the second trip to gather video for a forthcoming documentary about the program - but I've never gone with the students. I know it'll be an amazing experience.

Later that month I'll depart again, this time taking students to Beijing for a three week faculty-led program (June 18 through July 10). This one is a four-unit course that concentrates on the intersection of tourism, modernity, and urban life in China. To help pitch that program, I edited some footage shot by Aaron Correll to create a "commercial" for the class. Check it out!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Castle Dunnottar

As we're sl-oo-wly finishing our our Europe 2011 blog, I thought I'd share a clip from our visit to Castle Dunnottar. The calls of seagulls, the whipping wind, the pounding surf... a quiet moment among ruins.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Waffle House Index

Forgive the slightly old news, but I had to share this Wall Street Journal article about the "Waffle House Index." As you may recall, I made a road trip pilgrimage to the nearest Waffle House I could find - in Phoenix, Arizona - back in 09. So you can imagine my fascination with FEMA's unofficial use of Waffle House as an indicator disaster status.
"Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions."
These folks are among the country's most dependable businesses at restarting after a disaster. Putting it another way, if your local Waffle House is closed, you know the weather is bad.

Read the entire article: How to Measure a Storm's Fury One Breakfast at a Time

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shameless Media Plug: Contra Costa Times

Recently I was quoted in a Contra Costa Times article about crowdsourcing businesses that are leveraging the slow economy by paying people to take pictures of public places.

This trend reflects a clever use of increasingly ubiquitous digital cameras - adding detail to Bing results, TomTom directions, and other databases.

My quote is brief - edited as usual (and commonly necessary in my case):

"Crowdsourcing apps that can transform free time into currency and connections offer a smart response to today's economic doldrums," Andrew Wood, a professor of communication studies at San Jose State, said in an email."
Read the entire piece, which offers a useful example of the emerging Gig EconomyNew apps help people make money with their phones.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Athens Street Art: Part 3 of 3

One final day of Athens street art - this time focusing on works that depict feminized (or feminist) imagery. [Oh, and don't forget to check out Part 1 and Part 2.]

Quoting from their website:
"T2B is an independent international film festival
that focuses on public art forms"

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Athens Street Art: Part 2 of 3

Presented with a minimum of comment, here are some more images of Athens street art. [Part Three is coming tomorrow. Missed yesterday's? Take a look!]

Define - Demilitarize - Deny

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Athens Street Art: Part 1 of 3

It's time for some more street art from our European Grand Tour. Today we're viewing some of the most memorable pieces Jenny and I saw during our time in Athens. Take a look at these images and you'll see signs of a nation in crisis, yes, but you'll also see people using art to convey their struggles, communicating with passion and pathos.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Becoming a Frazier

I recently had the opportunity to clear a dense patch of brush hiding my grandfather's grave. He's buried in West Virginia, we live in California, and I've wanted to pay my respects for a long time. Problem is, I heard that his gravesite was covered by a thicket of weeds. One genealogist even reported that the marker was inaccessible. I couldn't believe it. Preston Allen Frazier died less that four decades ago, and his grave had been lost already? I had to see this for myself. So I conducted some research and found him. Along the way, I began learning about a family history that initially stretches back ten generations at first before diving much deeper into the past.

While my last name is Wood, I was raised a Frazier and taught from my earliest years to see Scotland as my ancestral home. I remember my mom telling stories of isolated hamlets on storm-racked coasts, illustrating how members of our family learned self-reliance on those rocky shores. I guess that's one reason why Mom had me read books like My Side of the Mountain and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, stories of young people facing grownup dangers on their own. Mom also insisted that I read Emerson and Thoreau, but it would take years for me to follow her advice.

Image borrowed from
Mom raised me in Dunedin, Florida, a community that defined itself as a sort of Scottish enclave. I remember seasonal Highland games, and I grew to love the sound of local high schoolers practicing bagpipes in the afternoons. Once, when I was assigned an elementary school assignment to talk about my family history, Mom showed me a picture of a belt and buckle surrounding a buck's head. Upon the belt was a motto that she had to translate for me: Je Suis Prest, which means "I am ready." Pretty cool, I thought, but confusing too: a Scottish family with a French motto, and my grandfather hailed from West Virginia? I had some research to do.

Turns out, the Fraziers trace their roots to an older clan called Fraser, which, according to standard histories, first rose to prominence in the French provinces of Anjou and Normandy (hence the French motto). Some historians tell of Frasers crossing over to England in 1066 as allies of William the Conqueror. Others place them in Scotland about a hundred years later. Either way, the family thrived in their new home, first in the south and later in the highlands.

Over the centuries the Frasers played key roles in Scotland's many political and religious dramas, expanding their influence and building castles that stand to this day. By the seventeenth century, through, widespread poverty in Scotland forced some Frasers to head out in search of better lives. Many fled to King James' plantations in Northern Ireland, only to encounter ruinous rents and religious intolerance. A few, including followers of Protestant Reformer John Knox, pushed further west to America. Around this time, some changed their names to Frazier to denote their Scots-Irish roots (though naming conventions were relatively unfixed back then).

My Aunt Linda tells me that our first American family member was a fellow named Joseph Frazier. Born in 1661, Joseph departed Northern Ireland (his birthplace) between 1720 and 1730. A relatively old man by this time, Joseph brought his wife (Elinor Frazier, née Ewing) and children to America in search of religious freedom in Pennsylvania. They arrived in Philadelphia and settled 70 miles away in Lancaster. The first American Fraziers are buried at Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church. One of their sons who crossed the Atlantic with them, John (born in 1717, though some say 1712), would later marry Isabella Moody (sister of Robert Moody) and purchase a homestead in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. There, the Fraziers and the Moodys helped found the Tinkling Springs Presbyterian church.

At this point, the history gets a bit murky. Did one generation pass, or two? Regardless of the answer, there is no doubt that one of Joseph and Elinor's descendants, Samuel Craig Frazier (b. 1765 - most likely a great-grandson) settled further inland, traveled down the Kanawha River with three of his sons, and took up farming near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, on the Ohio River. Samuel, whose ancestors supposedly fought with William the Conqueror and toiled for King James, is my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, and he's buried in a place called Fraziers Bottom.

My grandfather was born in 1914, not too far from where Samuel is buried. Preston Allen Frazier was raised in a town called Scott Depot, where he was expected to follow family tradition and become a farmer. He tried his hand raising watermelons one summer in his late teens. He rented land from his father and got credit at the local feed store to purchase seeds. He had two mules and a plow, and he worked that land all summer. The result for all those troubles? $20. Preston decided that farming life was not for him and focused his attentions to schoolwork. He graduated at the top of his high school class and began looking forward to college. He knew that the world beyond tiny Scott Depot would make room for someone with ambition and smarts. Yet when he asked his folks to help him pay for college (as they had for his sisters) he was turned down. Preston surveyed his options and chose the one that would take him farthest away from West Virginia: He joined the Navy.

Preston excelled in the service, rising quickly through the ranks to become the youngest petty officer of that era, just as the United States was gearing up for war. Linda describes the day that Preston was at sea on neutrality patrol. He was set to go on vacation when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. On the other side of the world, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, Preston walked to the fantail of his ship and shredded his leave papers. No one would be taking vacations for a while. My grandfather served four years, sending money home to support his mother (though she saved it for her son, refusing to spend it on herself). After completing his hitch, Preston traveled home - and found a telegram on the table. He didn't have to read past the cheerful "Greetings" to know what happened. The army had drafted him. So he kissed his mother goodbye and headed to Norfolk where he waited ("they hid him out," Linda recalls) until his reenlistment paperwork got squared away. If Preston was going to stay in the fight, he was going to serve as a sailer.

My grandfather served throughout World War II and stayed on through Korea. After his Navy years, Preston studied to be an electrical engineer but left school early. Seeking opportunities in New Jersey and Florida, he settled his family in the Sunshine State and found work as an electronics technician at Sperry. Caught up in the postwar housing boom, he and his wife (Charlene Frazier, née Faught) bought a ranch house in Dunedin and began to raise two girls: Sandra, my mother, and Linda, my aunt. Preston Allen Frazier carried a steel lunchpail every weekday until 1976 when he died of a heart attack - just one day before he was set to retire. He was 61. Mom and I were living with my grandparents back then, so his death struck me as a personal blow.

The Fraziers aren't especially prone to sentimentality, but Granddady's death was a family crisis. Linda stayed awhile and helped us cope. But after a while we just drifted apart. Mom and I eventually found a place of our own, and Linda returned to her home in northern Florida. Nana soldiered on for years, and then one day she was gone. With no direct male relatives, the Preston Allen Frazier line ended. I've adopted the name, but my choice is, perhaps, little more than an affectation [Heck, I was born with "Franklin" as my middle name; my mother simply raised me to use "Frazier" after divorcing my dad]. Still, I figured I should at least see my grandfather's last resting place. You can imagine my distress at learning that his gravesite was lost. It was time to plan a road trip and sort some things out.

Coming Soon[ish]: Part II: West Virginia Digging

[NOTE: I am indebted to Linda Frazier for her painstaking genealogical work on behalf of our family. Much of the history presented here comes directly from her emails to me. In sharing this information I hope to further promulgate what I have learned and inspire future conversations about Preston Allen Frazier's family line. Yet I can add little to what she discovered and passed on; none of this material would exist without her work.]

Friday, September 9, 2011

Roy Neary Was an Alien!

One of the great things about watching a beloved movie on the big screen is the chance to catch tiny details you might have missed. A bit of toss-off dialogue here, a hidden piece of obscure scenery there, a chance to read the story with a tiny bit more precision. It's geeky fun. And that's all I anticipated last night in Santa Cruz when Jenny and I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a movie theater for the first time in two years. I've seen this flick over 200 times, so didn't expect too many surprises. I certainly never thought I'd see an entirely new ending. But that's what happened.

CE3K is my favorite movie of all time. Sure, there are technically better movies - plenty of them. Still, only one movie lit up my nine-year old imagination like Close Encounters. Even Star Wars seems to shrink in comparison (at least now). Steven Spielberg's depiction of ordinary people encountering extraordinary circumstances struck a more profound chord in me than George Lucas's blaster-happy space fantasy. Watching CE3K's slow-zoom moments of grownups looking heavenward, terrified and wondrously awestruck - those moments dug deeper in me than the rumble of a hundred Star Destroyers.

So we're watching the show in Santa Cruz last night, just like we did a couple years back, and I'm focusing on those tiny details that only a large canvas can reveal [Spoiler Alert, blah, blah, Spoiler Alert]. For example, did you ever see a guy rolling around the Project Mayflower landing site in a motorized wheelchair? Or have you noticed the peculiar way Ronnie cocks her head - just a microburst of disdain - when Roy makes his Mashed Potato Pronouncement? [Check out Jenny's version!] Yeah this flick feeds my inner geek.

OK, If you've read this far, you probably dig Close Encounters too. I therefore hope you won't mind a bit more background before I get to the point of this post. As you likely know, Steven Spielberg has fiddled with CE3K regularly since releasing the flick in late '77. Studio pressures to rush production forced him cut corners, and the results disappointed him. Some of film's original effects were sloppy, and the pacing didn't feel right. Version 1.0 contained scenes that Spielberg thought to be extraneous. And it failed to convey the international breadth of the aliens' message. Even so, the movie made buckets of money. So Spielberg pestered Columbia Pictures for some of that cash to buff out his movie's rough edges. And they agreed.

They agreed, that is, with one important proviso. Columbia Pictures promised to finance Version 1.5 - as long as Spielberg would take the audience inside the Mothership. He did, and CE3K fans have debated the decision ever since. In the intervening years, Spielberg has disavowed his "Special Edition" ending, and subsequent versions have relegated the Mothership-as-Las-Vegas finale to the scrapheap of "additional scenes." But as far as I'm concerned, the 1980 version makes it clear that Roy Neary was an alien. He didn't search for aliens. He didn't become an alien. He was an alien all along.

To understand why, let's go back to that infamous Special Edition conclusion. Roy is walking alone into the ship. He's sporting those sexy seventies-sideburns and some gnarly beard scraggle. The spaceship's interior seems weirdly sterile, though, like a corporate disco. It's now 1980 and Steven Spielberg is giving the suits at Columbia Pictures what they want. Anyway, Roy is looking around, taking it all in. Then he stares upward into the fiery neon chandelier of that vast floating city. Above him, tiny aliens twitter and gawk. He's welcome; he's been expected. Suddenly a shower of pixie dust pours upon him. [Yeah, if you've read this far without seeing CE3K, there's no other way to describe it. Roy Neary is covered with pixie dust]. The scene then cuts back to original footage. A third kind of alien exits the ship. It's not one of the childlike rubber-skin moppets we saw a few minutes earlier, and it's not that creepy spindly thing that announced the visitors' greeting. It's something new. As many folks have wondered, maybe the aliens transformed the human Roy Neary into an extraterrestrial. So, in that way, Roy could now be one of "them."

Maybe. But I'd prefer to take this thesis one step further.

I think that the 1980 version of CE3K indicates that Roy Neary was an alien all along. How could that be? Well, first, we know that the visitors have been messing with humans for decades. They've kidnapped some people and implanted visions in others. Their reasons remain inscrutable, but their methods suggest tremendous power. I mean, heck, they can float a huge oil refinery-type vessel low over Devil's Tower, flip the thing over, and not scratch a single lightbulb on the tarmac. As one dude intones, "They can fly rings around the moon" [though we've got 'em beat on the highway]. Regardless, it's clear that they can levitate objects ["Non-ballistic motion" is a technical term used by one character]. I'll bet they can mutate objects. And people? Sure, they can do that too. I mean, come on, they're aliens!

The way I see it, the visitors planted Roy onto Earth - maybe in 1944 [the year he says he was born] or some time afterward. Then, and this is important, they implanted human memories so that he would think he's an earthling. Now, you know they have that kind of technology because these dudes implant visions into people all the time. Remember how they use that process to convince dozens of folks, maybe hundreds, to make the dangerous journey to Devil's Tower? Typical interpretations of CE3K have us believe that aliens are implanting that same vision in Roy when his truck conks out at the railroad crossing. But I believe that the operation serves a different purpose. This encounter is designed to wake Neary up.

You see, Roy was planted on Earth, complete with "human" feelings and fears, to learn about us. He's a sleeper agent. When visitors read his mind, they can learn more about us than any probe could convey. Perhaps the aliens see their actions as part of a "foreign exchange program," a predecessor to when they announce themselves to technologically inferior civilizations. Thus when Roy encounters aliens at the railroad track, his fear is real. He has no idea that he is one of them. At that moment, a message is implanted in his mind. For other contactees, the message is, "Come to Devil's Tower." For Roy, the message is different. It says, "Come home."

Think about it. Roy Neary has always felt lost on Earth, especially when confronting adult responsibilities. He's done his best to follow the rules; he's got a job and a family. He pays his mortgage and has a hobby (model railroading, a signifier of travel and freedom). Still, the "real world" has always felt fake to him. That's one reason why he's drawn to Pinocchio. He wants to become a boy in order to become "real." That's why Roy relates so easily with Barry Guiler (the little boy whom the aliens abduct). While others try to manage and control their encounters with the visitors, Roy and Barry simply want to get close to them.

Compare this response to some other reactions to seeing the aliens at the landing site. Barry's mother looks for a while but then grabs a camera. Snapping picture after picture, she detaches herself from the scene, just like those scientists who barely look at the awesome spectacle unfolding around them. They too reach for technological distance. Meanwhile, standing nearby, Barry just stares and stares. Roy does too. Eventually, the others will come to understand what Barry and Roy know, that this is a moment which transcends science. It is, to quote François Truffaut's Claude Lacombe, "an event sociological," one best experienced as music, as play. Lacombe eventually admits that he envies Neary. A leader of an international group searching for evidence of alien visitation, Lacombe is the scientist who seeks a childhood fantasy - a reflection of Spielberg's next great alien fantasy, E.T. He is stymied by words and resorts to music and hand-signals. Yet he can only grasp so much. For Barry and Roy, such wisdom is child's play.

Oh, and we must consider the aliens themselves, especially those silly looking tiny gray ones that spill out of the ship once the other abductees are released. Not only were those creatures played by children, I believe that they are children. Or, more to the point of Spielberg's vision, they retain a childlike sense of wonder that attract Barry and Roy (and, to a lesser extent, Lacombe). The visitors possess ancient and frightening powers. But (as Barry explains in the novel) "they play nice."

Now we return to the Special Edition's finale, when the pixie dust begins to fall. For years I've wondered what that stuff was meant to represent. Was it some sort of bio-mechanical magic that helps humans survive the stresses of interstellar flight? Were the abductees coated with the same stuff, only to be re-humanized upon their return? Maybe. But the presence of that third alien-type - not quite the ancient-looking "greeter," not quite the childish-looking "grays" - tells me that Roy has been literally transformed. Maybe he's a hybrid. Or maybe he's a unique alien-type who is capable of such inter-species communication. I'll leave that sort of analysis to the truly obsessive CE3K-ophiles. As for me, I think that Neary has been returned to his old alien self. He is now going home.

I hope my hypothesis offers some insight into what Steven Spielberg was up to in 1980. In particular, this explanation responds to critics who couldn't abide the thought of a father abandoning his family to go play with aliens. Spielberg has often said that Close Encounters of the Third Kind dates him as a director, perhaps more than any other movie he's made. It signifies his younger, less mature self. After having children, Spielberg says, he could never again promote such selfishness. The Neary-As-Alien thesis represents a sort of half-step response to his guilt. I mean this guy chose Pinocchio's "When You Wish Upon A Star" to accompany scenes of a father ditching his wife and kids! It's a pretty lousy thing to do, actually. I'm a middle-aged guy, and I understand that now. I'd never flee my family to fly with ET.

But what if Roy was an alien? How guilty would he be then?