Sunday, July 27, 2008

Motorcycle weekend

This weekend there's some sort of big motorcycle gathering going on here in Morgantown, the best part of which, as far as I'm concerned, is the big fireworks show they put on last night, which I watched right out of our bedroom window. Very cool.

But yesterday, as I was walking up to the office, I saw a couple of bikers walking along ahead of me. They weren't dressed in leathers, or anything, but with bluejeans, t-shirts, and maybe a bandanna--but they had an obvious biker look, if you know what I mean.

So there they are, ahead of me, trying to figure out the sign for Bent Willey's, a bar near campus. "Is that a bar?" the man said to the woman.

Breaking my usual rule about not talking to strangers, I told them it was. "There's so many college students around," I said, "that every other door you see around here belongs to a bar of some kind."

The guy said to the woman, "Yeah, you used to open some of them up, and close 'em down too, huh?" and she laughed and talked for a minute about having looked for some of her old hangouts in Sunnyside. "Where's the Dungeon?" she asked, "but that was twenty years ago."

Our paths started to part company, and I told the two of them to take care as I walked up to Colson Hall. "Well, I'm off to visit my old sorority house," said the woman as I walked away.

And I had a different impression of WVU sororities, as the biker lady went off to visit her old house.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Too Much Zappa

When Rose and I got satellite tv here (a first for us, who've never even had cable before), it came with a number of Sirius satellite radio channels, way up in the 6000s. We've spent some time listening to Outlaw Country, First Wave, The Big 80s, Soul Town, and Pure Jazz, but my secret vice, I have to admit, is The Vault.

So, if Rose is out of town, or out of the house, or even simply upstairs, I sometimes put the tv on The Vault and wallow in the lost seventies jams and classics that live there. They play The Who, Yes, as well as occasional songs from Springsteen, Petty, and the Dead--you know, all the kind of music that (at least for someone my age) seems like the kind of stuff that a cooler older brother would have listened to. And an occasional Rush song, too--The Vault has a thing for longer songs that no one else ever plays.

But as far as I'm concerned, The Vault plays just a little too much Frank Zappa. Somehow, I don't know why, I've never acquired the Zappa taste, and the occasional Vault offering doesn't really work for me. Ah well.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A few thoughts on being a student again

On top of all the stuff I've learned this week about audio production from concept to finish, it has also been an enlightening and at times tremendously painful experience to be a student again.

One thing I wasn't expecting--but which is, of course, true in every class--is that there was a huge range of experience among the participants, from seasoned radio professionals to people like me, who knew they wanted the knowledge but were clueless.

The thing is, I'm not a very patient learner. I knew that about myself already, but it became a real obstacle this week. Every day, multiple times a day (and often multiple times an hour), I'd modulate from being exhilarated to being frustrated to tears, literally, and constantly felt like I must be the stupidest person in the world. So stupid, in fact, that I wasn't about to ask for help because then everyone would discover just how stupid I truly was. And I honestly had no idea whether I was "getting" it or not--at least, not for a loooong time.

As a teacher, I forget what that's like. I hope that I'm approachable, and I know I tell students to ask stupid questions, since (as the cliché goes), if you don't know the answer, it's not a stupid question. But this experience made me realize that you have to go a bit beyond that. And what seems most important is that you be accessible and patient and have time for those students who aren't confident or assertive enough to make those moves in the classroom itself.

These ideas tie into possible uses for audio in the classroom. We listened to an amazing audio diary piece written by a guy taking a course where college students traveled cross-country by train, studying Kerouac's On the Road en route. The person who played the piece had been on the trip, providing technical support, and said that the young man who wrote and narrated it was painfully shy. I could relate. I always do better, and feel more inclined to share, if I have a script. Hell, that's why I like being the teacher rather than the student.

What I did expect, and did encounter, was a run-in with my old nemesis, perfectionism. I have to say, though, that sheer exhaustion kept it at bay. Several times today while we were editing our final piece, I found myself saying things to my co-producer that were as much for myself as for her: for example, when she wanted to keep toying with the basic sequence of the story, I said it was fine as it was, and that I wanted to move on to the editing because that's the stuff I really needed to learn. And we did. And when we could've stayed for another hour or two tinkering with volume levels and other minutia, I finally convinced her that it was good enough as is.

Yeah, me saying good enough. I guess I have learned a lot this week.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Radio Rosie, on the air

I’m going to make an embarrassing and possibly diagnosable confession here: for years, when I was a kid, I used to narrate a radio show in my head on my way to and from school, a walk of about five minutes each way.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I was seven or so when this was going on, but I can clearly remember actively engaging in this activity until at least my freshman year of high school—at which point I also remember another part of my brain loudly telling me that it was time to grow out of that crap, that only weirdoes do that kind of thing.

In my adolescent fiction class, we often spend a good bit of time at the beginning of the semester talking about how adolescence differs from other life stages, and the biological, cultural, and (increasingly) neurological bases for those distinctions (see also “undeveloped cerebral cortex”).

But for me, that transition from childhood to full-blown teenagerhood boils down to the shift from the moment when those twin thoughts existed in my brain and the moment when the radio station went off the air for good. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened—and I won’t say that I didn’t still have a rich fantasy life after that—but the things I imagined afterwards were the garden-variety teen-girl fantasies about cute boys (and being a famous actress living in New York, married to the drum major, now a symphony conductor, or to Mikhail Baryshnikov. OK, so even my fantasies were geeky).

I wish to god that I could remember what the radio show was about, though. I know that it was a very sustained and episodic sort of fantasy; I can distinctly remember “part one: the walk home for lunch” picking up where it left off for the walk back to school afterwards, the baloney sandwich in between functioning as kind of a commercial break.

I’ve had the radio show on the brain lately, though, as I’ve been preparing for (and now attending) a digital-audio institute at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. In trying to piece together an understanding for myself of what it is I’m doing here, I’ve been starting to see connections between a lot of episodes in my life that I previously would have considered unrelated, from the radio show to my training in folklore to being a public-radio freak to my (probably annoying) affection for playing clips of various sonic materials in class.

And I really want to be able to do this stuff myself—in a sense, to make the radio-show fantasy a reality. Not in the talk-show sense (which is what I think the fantasy format was), but in the sense of bringing shape and life to the stories that most interest me in a way that makes them accessible to others…but without the kind of academic intrusiveness that’s often a part of “presenting” one’s fieldwork.

What I can tell you after the first 24 hours of this intensive workshop experience is that it’s all vastly more complicated than I ever imagined. It’s not unlike doing folklore fieldwork, in the sense of having to balance vision, intuition, and technical skill to get good materials. But the enormous number of additional considerations that come into play when you want to broadcast those recordings—well, it’s overwhelming. Where do you sit? Is the sound of the refrigerator running going to trash your whole session? How do you get people to speak in complete sentences and use the phrases you want them to use? Blah blah blah.

And christ, we haven’t even started talking about editing yet. That’s this morning. Gah! My head is going to explode! But possibly in a very good way…

Friday, July 11, 2008

Tetris Tales

I know I'm showing my age when I say that Tetris is pretty much the only computer or video game I play with any regularity. Having recently started playing again (on a tiny dedicated Tetris-only hand-held game) has got me thinking about my Tetris history.

Though I remember playing Tetris some back in grad school, either on my old 386 machine or else the "Abusive Tetris" on the black and white Macs in Denney Hall, I rediscovered it while in the UK a few years back, when a colleague and I were stuck on a train in the middle of England, taking us from Leeds to King's Cross. We'd just come from the big medieval conference in Leeds and Erin needed to get to Heathrow, but track problems had first shifted us to a second train and then stranded us between stations. Standing and waiting, Erin pulled a little GameBoy out of her bag and started playing Tetris on it: the perfect solution for travel boredom or travel anxiety, it seemed to me.

So--the next time I went to England, Rose got me a Tetris game of my very own, and sure enough, I played it quite a bit when I was bored on the long flight to Heathrow. I went to King's Cross again (I was headed for a conference in York, this time) and barely made it onto a train, in full travel-anxiety mode. Soon after taking a seat, I thought I'd cool down with a little Tetris. I looked in my book bag, but my game was nowhere to be found: I think some pickpocket in the crowded train station must have grabbed it, probably thinking it was a Blackberry or PDA. At least it amuses me to think that's what happened; maybe I just left it in the overhead compartment on the plane.

But now I have another hand-held Tetris, and I'll probably play it quite a bit for a while, then (one hopes) it will go on the shelf again for a few more months. I mostly play the game where you try to get 25 lines done in the shortest time: currently my score is 1:25.90. Not bad, I think.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The charms of Tom

So, over the weekend, Tom and my nephew went up to the nearby elementary-school playground to shoot some hoops, and my sister and I tagged along.

As we were walking down the sidewalk beside the school afterwards, my nephew suddenly threw the basketball up in a tree, where it ripped out a bunch of leaves and very nearly clocked a pretty blond chick walking toward us, talking on her cell phone.

My sister and I both insisted that Justin apologize to the poor creature, and then Pam said, "You thought she was cute, didn't you, Justin? That's why you threw the ball at her." She and I both then opined that throwing balls at women was not the best way to make an impression, and offered several alternate possibilities.

Then I turned to Tom, and asked him what he'd do to impress a pretty girl.

"I'd probably throw a ball in a tree," he replied.

Repetition kills you

Like Mike, I'm more or less completely tuned out of the contemporary music scene. But one of the advantages of a three-hour road trip on I-70 is the chance to listen to the odd radio stations that pop up in eastern Ohio. Yesterday we heard this on the Muskingum College radio station. I love its 80s vibe, though Tom thought it sounded more like The Kinks. Either way, we're decades off: apparently, it's on an album that the Black Ghosts just released today. Wow, for once, I'm ahead of the curve!

Friday, July 4, 2008

In which Little Miss Midwestern Suburbia gets nostalgic about her Western adventures

The 4th of July was Greeley's signature holiday, since it usually coincided with the last day of the Greeley Stampede, the "World's Largest Fourth of July Rodeo."

I remember once having a discussion with a UNC colleague, who said to me (with no little condescension), "There are people in this town who think the Stampede is local culture. Can you believe that?!" He was of a mind that the city symphony, such as it was, was a more worthy candidate. But any damn city can have a symphony.

The Stampede, on the other hand, could not be more local in every possible way. Being on the Stampede Committee was the ultimate indicator of insider-ness: you knew you'd made it when you were crowned with one of the custom-made cowboy hats that the committee commissioned every year.

The composition of the committee also indicated exactly where in the 20th century local politics was stuck: it was huge (and controversial) news when the first woman got on the Stampede Committee, and when the first Latino got on. And both of those events happened after I moved there in 1996.

The Stampede also embodied the beauty and the ugliness of local culture. I have to admit, I brought all my outsider prejudices to rodeo the first time I went. And they weren't helped any when a calf that couldn't get up after being roped had to be pulled out of the arena on a dray while the guy sitting next to me yelled, "It's McDonald's for you tomorrow, buddy!"

But after going once to a tiny, pro-am rodeo in Grover, a little town on the eastern plains--a rodeo where only one rider stayed on his bull for the full eight seconds, and one competitor had to be life-flighted to the hospital--I came to appreciate rodeo as a sport, and the skill required to do well at it.

And while I know it sounds corny, there is something kind of thrilling about watching a thundering herd of rodeo queens charge into the arena, flags flying. Say what you like, those girls can ride, and ride hard and fast without getting one hair out of place. One year the Stampede featured a women's rodeo, which was really fantastic; we sat next to an older woman who told us that her granddaughter was in the bullriding event, and that she had been a bullrider herself. Three generations of women bullriders in the family.

But then there's the ugly side. In order of least offensive to most offensive: the announcers' sexist jokes; the "Indian races" at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo; and Greeley's systematic exclusion of the Latino community from the Stampede. You see, the Stampede used to include one day of Charreada, or Mexican Rodeo, a tradition that includes different events than the more "mainstream" rodeo (though using the term "mainstream" to describe whiteness in Greeley, where some 35-40% of the population is Latino, is a little misleading).

One year, the Stampede Committee simply decided not to have the Mexican Rodeo anymore. No explanation was offered, though they made the lame excuse that it wasn't profitable; however, the Committee refused to make its books public, and everyone knew that in fact, the charreada was one of the most popular and well-attended events during the whole ten-day Stampede. Eventually, the Latino community started its own annual festival around Mexican Independence Day in September, but the message had been received: your cultural heritage is separate, and we don't want any rodeo miscegenation.

It's depressing, but that was Greeley (unofficial motto: "Discriminatin' aginst Latinos ain't racism; it's patriotism!"). I served on the city museum board for several years, during the time when they'd just gotten money to build a new history museum, and it was amazing how marginalized the city's long Latino history was.

And in many cases, this marginalization was literal: all that fascinating, but incriminating information was confined to the adobe house at the living-history village. So, unless you knew where to look, you'd miss the cool story about the "Greeley Grays," a competitive minor-league baseball team formed in the "Spanish Colony" (yeah, no joke: that was the name of the segregated neighborhood Latinos were confined to in the pre-civil-rights era).

Nevertheless, I kind of miss the 4th of July in Greeley. Because it coincides with the Rodeo, you have never seen a parade with more livestock in it in your life--there are more horses and cattle than people, to be sure. And I'd rather see horses than the endless string of vintage Corvettes, all owned by one family, that makes up a ridiculous portion of the parade in my hometown.

Since, in Greeley, we lived between the Stampede arena and the staging area for the parade, we'd often see floats and horses going by en route in the morning before the parade started. One year, Tom and I were sitting in the backyard drinking our coffee when we heard a tremendous shuffling sound, and looked over the fence to see an entire herd of longhorn cattle strolling up 13th Avenue. (I guess longhorns don't "stroll," exactly, but they were moving at a leisurely, unconcerned pace, as if they walked this route every day.)

I don't think I'm going to see longhorns strolling, or whatever they do, up Simpson Street anytime soon.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Whackin' the Grass

We have a tiny "postage stamp" front lawn here at the new digs, and last summer, in a fit of well-meaning greenness, we bought a cheap-o manual mower: you know, the old-fashioned kind where the easy rolling of the wheels spins a whirling, razor-sharp blade that slices and dices grass and weeds into instant mulch. The kind that makes you feel good (and not just virtuously nostalgic, mind you) just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, having bought the cheap-o edition, this mower now happily slides across the lawn, pretty much no matter how or where I push it, and both the wheels and the razor sharp blades resist turning at all. (It works well enough as I push it along the empty sidewalk, to give it its due.) So that mower now has a special place in the garage--the place of all stuff that is simply waiting for the next garage sale. As a result, I've taken to mowing our entire lawn with an electric "string trimmer": that is, an electric "weed whacker," which I plug in in our living room, believe it or not.

Oddly, this device seems to do the job well: I sweep it back and forth over the lawn, as if I were a metal detectorist searching for buried treasure, and I get the same kind of chronic back pain as well, I suspect (a somewhat different kind than I got from the push mower). Soon, I think, I'll have the whole routine perfected, with the crowning glory being the fact that I'll probably need to adopt some protective eye goggles. That should be a look.