Audiobooks, Music, and My Phone

I travel a lot. I’m not a global jet-setter or a frequent-flyer million miles, but I take trips throughout the US. I drive. I train. I bus. I cajole my friends to go to places I want to see by offering to pay for gas. I prefer to see where I’m going instead of flying.

Somewhere in Illinois

While the American countryside provides a range of lovely vistas and perfect sunsets, sometimes it’s really kinda… well… boring. I mean, how many exits with Shell stations, McDonalds, and a car wash does one need to see? So, when the road gets monotonous and the radio stations are few and far between – I download audiobooks and listen to my vast music collection on the cloud. In fact, I’m so lazy that I use Amazon Prime for everything.

Full disclosure – As an educator, I get a pretty sweet discount on Amazon Prime, which makes the service totally worth it.

MP3s and audibooks aren’t new, but doing everything through the phone is. Not too long ago, you had to order CDs to listen to books and music (you still can). Today, all iPhone and Android users can access all of their media anywhere they can get a network connection. Just the fact that every interstate in the US has regular cell towers that helps drivers remain connected is a relatively recent phenomenon. This progression of connectivity astounds me. Millions of drivers can access vast libraries of media: music, podcasts, books, videos, and film. Our consumption of media is no longer bound by physical medium.

This revelation came to me over Labor Day weekend as I drove through the Midwest. On Monday as I headed south to Memphis, I streamed Paul Simon’s She Moves On and his lyrics struck me, “When the road bends / And the song ends / She moves on.” There I was, in the bend of a road, the sun set over the low rolling hills of Missouri and Arkansas, and I was moving on.  In that moment, I realized that a miraculous collection of technologies came together so that I could enjoy my long drive home.

Reflections on the New School Year

Twenty years ago, nearly to the day, I packed my mother’s Subaru Forester with everything I would need for my first year at college. My future roommate and I had corresponded all summer and agreed that in addition to clothes, bedding, and school supplies, I would bring the mini-fridge and CD boombox and she would bring the microwave, fishtank, and blacklight. After all, a dorm room just isn’t a dorm room without a black light. So, with a car packed to the gills, my mom backed the car down our gravel drive as my father and brother waved good bye, dogs circling their legs and barking. 

My mom, me, and my grandmother – 20 years ago

We sped through two lane highways that twisted and turned through treed hills and the iron-packed rocks of the Upper Peninsula, always moving south.When we finally reached Lake Michigan, we fell into blinding sunny beaches where the lake shimmered and the low sandy dunes pushed back against the waves. We crested a steep hill and the Mackinac Bridge stood before us; 500 foot tall ivory columns rising out the water. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles sped across the five mile long span where lakes Michigan and Huron met.

The Mackinac Bridge

Halfway across the bridge, nearly 200 feet above the water, my mother reached over, squeezed my knee and said, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.” Cheekily, I looked over my shoulder, laughed and waved, “Goodbye to the UP Gator!” Of course, now I know what my mom already knew – I would never really return to the backwood and backwards place that was my home. Sure, I would visit. I came home in the summer to swim in clean lakes and walk in the dark woods. I came home for Christmas to get snowed in for days and ski to the store for fresh milk. And years later, I came home to say goodbye to my mother and celebrate her life after she succumbed to cancer. Even then, I never really returned. I was a different person from that 17 year old girl.

So, two years ago, almost to the day, I drove my little Ford Focus, packed to the gills, through Arkansas on my way to my first real job after graduate school. I crested a low hill and saw the impossibly long and wide Mississippi River spanned by the two silvery white arcs Hernando de Soto Bridge. Instead of trees and dunes, the buildings that made Memphis’s skyline rose up from the shores of the river. I sighed with relief because I was nearly to my new home. And, as I crossed the bridge, I could almost hear my mom whisper in my ear, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.”

De Soto Bridge

Next week, we’re going to meet over 300 young people who’ve crossed bridges – both real and figurative to get here. They may struggle with the demands of college. They may be crossing a bridge to a new life with a trailer full of baggage behind them. However, we have the unique privilege to greet them when they arrive and help them make new lives for themselves.

Seeing America, Part 4 – Chicago

Whenever I tell people that I love Chicago and that I used to live there, the most common response usually goes something like “Oh, I love the Field Museum / Shedd Aquarium / Art Institute!” or, “You must love going to the Taste of Chicago!” or, “How many time have you been in the Sears (now Willis) Tower?”

However, just like most Memphians never visit Graceland, most people from Chicago rarely go the the Taste and only go to these landmarks when friends or family visit. These attractions attract tourists, but they are not what make Chicago great. Chicago has character.  It’s a tough city with a heart of gold.  It’s the best urbanity and Midwestern work ethic. The Jay Pritzker Pavilon, designed by Frank Gehry is the center of Millennium Park and embodies these contradictions in the way that the rear elevation highlights the support beams necessary for the polished face. Chicago embraces its contradictions – that’s what makes it great.

Jay Pritzker Pavilon – Wikipedia Commons

Really, when I think of why I love Chicago, I always go to its neighborhoods. Even with 2.7 million people in the city and over 9 million in the metro area, your neighborhood can feel like a small town. For example, I used to live in an area called Uptown. The area is known for some of the best music venues in the city: the Aragon Ballroom and the Riveria. Less than a block away sits the Green Mill, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the world. Al Capone had his own booth, and jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Al Jolson performed there. Only a few block away is Argyle Street, home to some of the best Viet-Thai
restaurants and stories. The best Pho in the city is served by Tank Noodle. I share all of this because when I lived there, it was my home. The baristas at my local coffee shop knew my order. I knew the servers at Tank by name.  To me, that’s Chicago.

The other best feature of Chicago is its lakeshore.  Unlike most industrial midwestern cities (Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit), Chicago did not sacrifice its shoreline to industry. The 1909 Burnham Plan was an ambitious attempt at urban design that preserved this space. Every person who bicycles to work along Lake Michigan and every tourist who walks from museum to museum can thank the legacy of this plan. Other cities emulate Chicago; when I visited Mud Island for the first time, I thought, “Thanks Daniel Burnham.”

Chicago is a great city, but like Memphis it struggles with poverty and crime. Gun and gang violence are rampant in some parts of the city. Chicago has had over 2000 shooting victims this year already. In the last couple years, stories have surfaced about a Chicago Police Department “black site” in which the CPD detained and tortured African American suspects, denying them due process. Violence isn’t new to Chicago. For example, the events in Dallas this week reminded me of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in which someone (perhaps a Pinkerton seeking to discredit protesting laborers) threw a bomb killing protesters and police alike.

In the end, the museums, the lake, the neighborhoods, the racism, and the violence are all part of Chicago. However, when you love something, you love it better when you know its flaws.

Seeing America, Part 3 – The Upper Peninsula of Michigan

UP-MapFull disclosure. I’m a Yooper. I grew up on the southern shore of Lake Superior or as one of my friends once said, “So you’re basically Canadian?” In fact, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (UP) is so set apart from the rest of the country that it often doesn’t appear on maps of the United States. In the early 1960s, people in the UP formed the Upper Peninsula Independence Association and submitted a secession bill to the Michigan legislature. Michigan has two peninsulas, but the UP is a special place. While I grew up here, I am still continually amazed by the rugged and rural beauty of this place. You can drive, hike, canoe, or boat for hours without encountering another human soul.

Part of my appreciation for the place is rooted in the summer I turned 15 when I took a
job with the National Park Service’s Youth Conservation Corps. I cleared brush from trails, built a boardwalk to make a scenic lookout wheelchair accessible, and tore invasive plan species out of the ground. Sometimes, we had to canoe and portage to more remote parts of the park. Unfortunately, a lot of my job was cleaning up after visitors to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: picking up trash from roadways, extinguishing smoldering campfires, and burying human waste and leftover foodstuffs to discourage bears from visiting campgrounds.

Clockwise from Top Left: Sunset in AuTrain, Big Bay Lighthouse, Grand Portal on Pictured Rocks, and Paradise Point.

I share all of this because whenever I go home, I am struck by how little respect tourists have for the UP and its inhabitants. Droves of people leave noisy and cluttered cities to commune with nature; they are looking for something pure and pristine. However, when tourists leave their trash, speed down gravel roads, or walk off boardwalks that prevent erosion, they say “My experience is more important than anyone else’s.” To me, this approach and behavior are fundamentally opposed to the purpose of national parks and conservation zones. National parks are a uniquely American phenomenon. Many of our earliest settlers, explorers, and leaders account wilderness as an essential defining characteristic of America (for more on this check out Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind).

My hometown is amazing. You should see it. Come, check out one of the most beautiful places on earth, but clean up your garbage, put out your fires, and be nice to the locals.

Seeing America, Part 2: The Black Hills

I realize now that I had a strange education growing up. In my home and school, we spoke regularly about the history and plight of Native Americans. My family read Black Elk Speaks aloud alongside the Bible and other religious texts. We learned about Ojibwe customs in elementary school. Our Civics teacher taught us the Native American origins for the place names in our community. I had friends who lived on reservations.

When I drove west to the Black Hills, I was thrilled to see the placed I grew up learning about. How would I feel walking in these holy lands? How would I feel as a white interloper among the Lakota? How would I feel when I looked at the monument for the Wounded Knee Massacre?

Crazy Horse National Memorial – Work in Progress (June 2016)

While South Dakota contains some of the largest reservations in the US, their people were nowhere to be found. The presence of Native Americans seems reduced to a byword. Every county, town, and street seemed to bear the names of the Lakota: Sioux Falls, Minnehaha County, Cheyenne River, and Lake Oahe. With the exception of the Crazy Horse Memorial and small signs pointing towards reservations, the land seemed conspicuously free of the Lakota. The fields were fenced and filled with cattle. The small towns were full of casinos, motorcycles, and pro-gun t-shirts. People from all over the country visited, but they were mostly white and middle class.   

When I went to the nightly lighting ceremony of Mount Rushmore, the park ranger revealed that the original plan for included portraits of Lewis and Clark and Chief Red Cloud. This seemed more attuned to the spirit of the place – sacred to the Sioux and a symbol of white expansion. It was hard to sit through the twenty-minute long video that glorified George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt when they passively described Native Americans being removed from their land as if no one was at fault. I thought about the fact that months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln allowed the removal of Navajos and the Mescalero Apaches from the New Mexico Territory forcing women and children to march over 450 miles.  I understand, all men, even presidents, have flaws, and that doesn’t eclipse their great works. However, nobody spoke for the Lakota at Mount Rushmore. Nobody asked how the National Park Service acquired lands holy to these people.

The Badlands National Park (June 2016)

Despite my frustration with the lack of insight into much of what I saw in the Black Hills, I was happy I made the trip. America is a vast and beautiful place. The Bandlands took my breath away. Antelope really do play in long prairie grasses. The sky is so blue. The grass is perfectly green. The vistas are almost too wide. In the midst of this beauty, as we appreciate this wonder, we must remember it was stolen.

Seeing America, Part 1: What Is Southern?

Two years ago, I decided to move to Memphis. When I told my friends and family, nearly all of whom are from great northern states, they were shocked. They said true and practical things like, “but you hate the heat” and “it’s so far away from home.” However, the also said some extremely biased things like, “they’re all racists down there” and “you’re not going to start carrying a gun.” Of course, as a life-long Yankee, I drove through Illinois and crossed the Mississippi uncertain and maybe even a little afraid.

NOLABVMNevertheless, I’ve learned a lot about “the South” since moving to Memphis. I think one of the most important lessons may be that it’s not the South, but Southern people. To think of everything south of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio as a unified whole is both unfair and inaccurate. Sure, they may say “ya’ll” but that doesn’t mean every person who lives down here believes and behaves the same.  For example, I was shocked at how different New Orleans is compared to other Southern cities I’ve visited. In NOLA, diversity pushed beyond race and challenged my ideas of what it means to be Southern. The obvious Catholicism made me feel like I was back in Chicago, New York, or Pittsburgh where the Poles, Latinos, and the Irish dominated for decades. Unlike Memphis, NOLA seems cosmopolitan and open.  Urbane not merely urban.

At the same time, NOLA does share the legacy of racism and slavery with Memphis. Walking around the French Quarter with music spilling out of every door, it’s hard to remember that slaves laid the bricks and were sold on the streets. Similarly, people wandering around downtown Memphis and onto Beale street, might miss the Ida B. Wells plague commemorating her work to end lynching throughout the South. The streets of most southern cities are full of these tangible reminders.

And yet, both cities still grapple with the socio-economic inequalities created by slavery. For NOLA, Katrina destroyed neighborhoods, broke families, and drowned people in the deluge. In Memphis, neighborhoods, families, and people are destroyed by gun violence. Both cities seem helpless in the face of this deluge. But, this isn’t unique to the South. Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis face similar challenges.

So, what does it mean to be Southern?  I’m still not sure. I know it requires thinking critically about race and poverty, but that’s not unique to this region. At the same time, the history of slavery and civil rights movement may require Southerners to act and speak more purposefully about these issues. As a carpet-bagger, I’m not sure I should lead the charge. But as someone who lives here now, I want to embrace the Southern in us all.

On a Bus. On a Phone.

Last time I took a Greyhound bus, I was 21 years old. Suffice it to say, it’s been a while. I am composing the post on a bus between Milwaukee and Chicago listening to The Clash. I’m typing with my thumbs on my Smart Phone (See Arroyo’s “thumb writing”).

I remember my last trip on the bus because it was my senior year at Alma cupCollege. I was traveling to visit friends in Chicago despite the fact that I was writing an Honor’s thesis. On that trip, my backpack (a green Jansport and tres 90s chic) was full of printed JStor articles that I read furiously for hours. I scribbled in margins and took hasty notes.

My research process remains largely unchanged. I still prefer to print articles.  I don’t start with JStor anymore, but I still search there. The biggests change is the ubiquity of Wifi. I can start my search anywhere.

For people who matriculated before the 1990s, their research processes may have changed drastically. The library has evolved from a physical warehouse to a multi-access-hub for information.  But more than that, the sheer quantities of information available are staggering.  How do we weed through all of this? Or, more importantly, how do we teach students how to weed through all of this data? As a writing teacher, I think I need to start paying more attention to information literacies. I usually cover Boolean search logic, but I’m not sure this is enough.

Then again, maybe I need to reflect on my own process. I often cast a wide net and refine. Is that always the best process? Does it make sense for the kinds of writing I ask my students to do?

Perhaps grounding the discussion of research in rhetoric would help. We need to move beyond ethos/pathos/logos and authority.  Or, we shouldn’t stop there. Instead, we should look at how databases and websites categorize themselves.  What do tags and search terms say about the author’s perception of audience and use.

This reminds me of DeVoss and Rodolfo’s rhetorical velocity. When we use databases, we access data created expressly for reuse. That’s kinda the whole point of research! What if we asked students to interrogate an article’s success at categorizing itself?