Proceeding Home

At an overlook somewhere between Roanoke, VA and Sweet Springs, WV.

On Sunday of last week I I discovered in the parking lot of my hotel in Florence, Alabama that I had a leaky seal on one of my motorcycle fork legs with fluid seeping out.  I was in the middle of a 3,500-mile vacation ride with the leak starting the weekend before the Fourth of July when there was no place to go for help… Other than fellow members of the Iron Butt Association (IBA), an organization devoted to to safe long distance motorcycle riding.

I went online to ask for advice on a member forum and got good information about my problem (keep riding but get fixed ASAP).

But Scott Newlin, when he found out I was looking to get repairs in Roanoke, VA stepped in and really saved the day for me.  He’s the former GM of Star City PowerSports in Roanoke, the local Yamaha dealer which would likely be the first place I could get help.  Scott got ahold of the current management of the store, got them to order my parts by next-day mail when business restarted on the 5th, and got the already overbooked shop to book me first thing Thursday morning.

By three that afternoon I had repairs completed. And as a bonus, the shop loaned me a Triumph Tiger 800 to ride for the day with the Biker Bishop while they worked on my bike.

Triumph Tiger 800

My loaner Triumph Tiger 800. Thanks, Star City Power Sports!

When I wrote the original draft of this last Thursday, I was taking a break on my way back north and west, but I just wanted to take a moment to thank Scott, as well as Doug and Matt at Star City Power Sports.  They all went out of their way to help someone they didn’t know before. And I really appreciate it.

While there, I was also privileged to meet four-time Iron Butt Rally finisher Peter Withers, who was at the shop with the Yamaha demo rides team.   He asked me some questions about my bike and my involvement with the IBA.  Not knowing who he was, I gave some basic answers and then asked him if he had done any IBA rides…  Anyway, in addition to feeling kind of stupid, it was really cool to meet one of the really Big Dogs of long distance riding.

Much of my ride to the southeast took place while the biannual Iron Butt Rally was taking place.  The IBR is sort of a nationwide motorcycle scavenger hunt that takes place over 11 days where competitors travel somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 miles collecting photos of statues and other artwork depicting all manner of animals.

Earlier in the week I paced IBR competitor Andy Hall for about 20 minutes in central Arkansas while he was riding his heart out to a gold-medal finish in the rally. It was surprisingly easy to pick out Andy as a competitor on the road – he was on a Gold Wing with lots of extra lights, an auxiliary fuel cell, full electronics in the cockpit, and full gear despite the brutal heat. It was really fun to encounter one of the 100+ riders out in the wild.

I ended my trip with a stop in central Iowa to visit my dad, as well as my brother and his dear wife for day, and then the final run home.  My total mileage for the trip was just shy of 3,500 miles, not counting the 100 or so on the Triumph. It was a great time.

Blue Ridge Parkway Trip

My SPOT track from my 2017 summer motorcycle ride to the southeast United States. Click on the map to see an interactive version of it at the amazing website Spotwalla.

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Proceed As The Way Opens

Proceed as the way opens

My two sons learned to loathe that phrase as they were growing up. Conversations would go something like this:

“Dad, what do I do if this doesn’t work out?”

“Proceed as the way opens.”

“Dad, that isn’t being helpful!”

I picked up the Quaker phrase, which is present at the bottom of every personal e-mail I send, from William Least Heat-Moon’s wonderful travel book River-Horse.

In the book, Least Heat-Moon takes a four-month journey across the United States, almost entirely by water. He starts out in New York Harbor and finishes near Astoria, Oregon. And except for a few short portages and a much longer portage across the Bitterroot Mountains, he does the journey entirely by boat. The boats varied throughout the journey, starting out with a 22-foot c-dory, and later moving on to a canoe, and even jet boat near the end.

(You can watch C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb interview Least Heat-Moon about the book here.)

But on every boat, he kept a little placard with the phrase “Proceed as the way opens,” which is the nature of river journeys. I read the book at least 15 years ago, and it still sticks with me, largely because of its meditation about the nature of journeys.

Motorcycle journeys, much like traveling by boat, are not always under control of the traveler, and so he must always be willing to proceed as the way opens.

I was reminded of that this week as I took my annual motorcycle vacation, meeting up with my old friend Matt Riegel. I had several goals for the trip – to complete my National Parks Tour, to ride as much of the Blue Ridge Parkway as possible, and to spend time with my friend Knowing, of course, that I would need to proceed as the way opens.

Matt and Ralph along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Matt and Ralph at the Mt Jefferson overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

During the first couple of days of the trip, which I talked about in an earlier post, I rode through very hot weather and got dehydrated, leaving me more exhausted than I should be on vacation. During my ride then from Florence, Alabama to Huntsville, I found myself in stop-an-go traffic and realized if I kept on with that kind of riding, I would get myself overheated and dehydrated again. So I decided to skip a trip down through Chattanooga, Tennessee and down into Georgia because it would require a lot of urban riding through stop-and-go traffic. Skipping Georgia meant that I wouldn’t be able to collect National Park stamps from all 25 states required for my National Parks Tour, but I decided it was far smarter to just stay on roads where I could keep moving and stay at a reasonable temperature. Proceed as the way opens.

On the day Matt and I were scheduled to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, the forecast called for a heavy layer of fog at the parkway’s elevations, so we rode from the southern terminus of the parkway in Cherokee, NC up to Asheville. When we attempted to enter the parkway there, we found that the road was still covered with impenetrable fog. So we hopped back on US 19 and skipped by another big portion of the road and entered the parkway near Linville Falls. So we missed the first 150-miles of the parkway, certainly the best riding of the road, but we ended up traveling a range of roads we hadn’t seen before and ended up having an excellent time. Not what we had planned, but… well, you know.

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I’m going down to Florence…

A couple of years ago my Dear Wife and I drove 350 miles or so up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to see Rosanne Cash and her band play one of the most sublime shows either of us has ever seen.  For the first set she played her album about the American South, The River and the Thread, start to finish, complete with stories about the history of each song. (Note – If you have Amazon Prime, you can listen to the album through their streaming service.

The album opens with one of my favorites – “A Feather’s Not a Bird.” The song starts this way:

I’m going down to Florence, gonna wear a pretty dress
I’ll sit atop the magic wall with the voices in my head

National Park Stamps from Tupelo, MIssissippi and Florence, Alabama

National Park Stamps

When I decided to head to the South this year for my annual motorcycle trip with the Biker Bishop, I knew I had to make a stop in Florence.  One of the things I do on motorcycle trips is collect National Park Passport Stamps.  When I did my last round of stamp collecting about four years ago, I got to Tupelo, but didn’t make it to Florence.  So this year I had to get there.

As I came in from the West, I really entered the South in Mississippi, hooking up with the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis. For those of you not familiar with it, the Natchez Trace is a roughly 400 mile long national park controlled access road that meanders through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, running from Natchez to Nashville. Riding a motorcycle up that road puts a person in a musical frame of mind.

There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past
The land becomes a memory and it happens way too fast

I took the Trace from Tupelo up to the exit that leads to Florence.  But before you get to Florence, you go through Muscle Shoals.  To me, and so many of my age, Muscle Shoals means FAME Recording Studio (FAME stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) and the incredible Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They brought such a great sense of soul to so many classic songs.  The National Park Service noticed that, too, and designated that general area of Alabama the Muscle Shows National Historic Area.  Which means that there are a host of passport stamps to be had in the area.

Alabama Chanin

Alabama Chanin

This morning I headed to the O’Neal House Museum where there was a stamp to be had.  I’m not sure whether the museum was open, but I followed the sign to the Heritage Area office and found a charming pair of  Southern ladies, Judy and Clair if I’m not mistaken, who were thrilled to give me the stamp.  I mentioned that Rosanne’s song was what sent me there.  And at that Judy really lit up.  She said, “You know that place she sings in about in A Feather’s Not a Bird, well they have a stamp! You have to go there.” And unfortunately my writing doesn’t capture her lovely Alabama accent. (And no, all southern accents are not the same.)

So that set me off to Alabama Chanin, where they maintain the art of southern quilt sewing, but apply it to making clothes.  Judy said that the duster Rosanne wore during the show DW and I saw was likely made there. The shop, known as The Factory, was full of shirts, dresses and other items, all showing the distinctive quilt stitching.

So there’s a lesson here, that small things aren’t always the same as the bigger things they are a part of.  I was collecting stamps, and I was hoping for one from Florence, but I got something so much more. I got to meet interesting people, hear stories about one of my favorite singers, and see a place where old arts are being used in new ways.

A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me.



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Guest Blog Post: The Nintendo Switch – Buying a $300 Console Based on Media Alone

The following is a guest blog post by my colleague Aaron Blackman, who in addition to being a forensics coach and comm lecturer is also a big fan of video and tabletop games. 

Aaron Blackman and his SwitchE3 2017 just recently wrapped up, and after watching all of the major press conferences highlighting the future in gaming, both distant and near, I feel that Nintendo had the strongest showing. After a brief 25 minute spotlight focusing on the recently released Nintendo Switch, I’m thrilled about the future of my latest gaming console. I was able to buy a Nintendo Switch on launch day and I absolutely love the console. At the same time, this was one of the weirdest consumer choices that I have made in my life.

Let me explain.

On October 20th, 2016 Nintendo released their first trailer of their upcoming console. Before this, the codename for the system was the “Nintendo NX”. Despite being thoroughly confused by the name “Nintendo Switch”, this short trailer hooked my attention in a way that only Nintendo could: by attempting something unique. Nintendo’s newest console would be a hybrid, a portable gaming machine that you can hold in your hands and play on an airplane or during your commute, but also easily dock it into your TV when you returned home.

For context, the company’s consoles have been technically inferior for a long time now, but when Nintendo gets an idea and actually runs with it, they find massive success. For example, the portable Nintendo DS sold nearly 154 million units according to IGN. The DS’s success was based on numerous factors: a phenomenal library of games, sleek design as well as two screens for both standard gameplay and touch-based controls. Additionally, Nintendo struck gold when they originally released the Wii, a console centered around motion controls in 2006.

As Fall 2016 transitioned into Winter, many gamers were excited about the news of Nintendo returning to form and refining their creative approach to hardware development. There were many questions that still needed to be answered of course, like how long the battery would last, internal data storage and the big unknown: price.  

This anticipation built over the holidays until January 12th, 2017, which brought an hour-long live presentation from Tokyo to give details on pricing, release dates, and upcoming games. Overall, reviews of the presentation were mixed. Hopping between live talking points on stage and pre-recorded segments, the production felt clunky and oddly paced. Many of the featured games had little information available, worrying fans that the Switch’s game lineup would echo the Wii U, few and far between. Additionally, Mario’s newest adventure was nearly a year away and every accessory seemed extremely expensive. The Pro controller was priced at $70, which is $10 more than a standard Xbox One or Playstation 4 controller. Extra Joy-Con controllers (the small devices that slide onto the side of the console) would cost $50 for one or $80 for the pair. Finally, an extra dock to connect to a second TV would run you a whopping $90.

Luckily, the $299 price tag for the console and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a launch title served as an oasis of good news. I personally knew of five people who preordered the console that very night: myself, two of my brothers and two friends. As Nintendo and Zelda fanboys, we all chose to adopt the console early as a risk, but one that could be canceled if we changed our minds.

Less than a month later on February 5th, Nintendo debuted their first-ever Super Bowl ad for the Switch. It’s timing was quite conspicuous, but the effect was massive. With a catchy song and the multitude of ways to play the console, Nintendo effectively excited people about the Switch again. Any doubt that I had regarding my preordered console was washed away. After waiting over five years for a new Zelda console game, we were less than a month away.

March 3rd was an exhilarating release day, and the perfect time for me to test out the portability of the console. As the forensics coach at UNK, I was scheduled to travel with my team to Crete, NE for a speech tournament. Normally, packing up an entire gaming console is too much work and takes up too much space for a weekend trip. However, the Switch fit easily into my backpack for the two-hour drive. Connecting the dock to the hotel TV took less than a minute and suddenly, I was resuming my adventures in Hyrule.

I tested each and every mode during the opening weekend (handheld, docked and tabletop) as an experiment for levels of comfort in different gaming scenarios. I showed the Switch to numerous friends and colleagues at the tournament, letting them play and hold it for themselves. Most importantly for that weekend, I had fun.

As I mentioned before, I love my Nintendo Switch, but it was certainly a rocky road to get to this point. Purchasing a $300 gaming console without ever seeing or holding it is a gamble, forcing consumers to rely on the various media presentations that Nintendo showcased leading up to release. Their marketing strategy worked, as the console is still flying off the shelves three months later.

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Bringing Julius Caesar Into The 21st Century

There’s been a big fuss over the last week over the New York Public Theater’s version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” As you’ve no doubt heard, the play features a staging in the present day with a Caesar wearing a bright yellow wig and an overly long red tie.

In other words, the play is being staged with a very Trump-like Caesar.  And given how the play ends for the Roman emperor (Spoiler Alert: He’s assassinated), there’s been a lot of criticism  of the production. Delta Airlines and Bank of America even went so far as to remove their corporate sponsorship for the production saying: “No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,”

The director of the play, Oskar Eustis, in a note published on line, defended the production, saying that the play does not glamorize or promote assasination:

“Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” Mr. Eustis wrote. “To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.”

This is not the first time that “Julius Caesar” has been produced with an emperor who strongly resembles the sitting president.

Back in 2012, a joint production of the Acting Company and the well-regarded Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis also did a contemporary version of the play, this time featuring a a tall, slim, basketball loving black man who was an obvious reference to then President Barack Obama.

Oddly enough, there was very little mention of it in the press and no widespread criticism of it by liberals. No sponsors, including Delta Airlines, removed their sponsorship, and the American Conservative praised the production. (In fact, the Obamaesque version was forgotten enough that HBO talk show host Bill Maher was not aware that there had been such a staging.)

On a completely separate note, back in 1988 avant garde opera director Peter Sellars staged Mozart’s classic “The Marriage of Figaro” in Trump Tower with characters in modern business attire.  (This was, of course, long before Donald Trump was directly involved in politics.)

And for those of you who don’t know the story of “Figaro,” Figaro is a manservant for Count Almaviva. Figaro is about to be married to the lovely Susanna, and the Count wants to claim his feudal right, the droit du seigneur – to force Susanna spend her wedding night with him instead of her husband, Figaro.

Here’s a clip where Figaro is working on the Count’s laundry. Unfortunately, some of the audio quality is poor.  But the production was great fun when I watched it on PBS back in  1990. (I wonder whether the DVD of the opera will come back in print?)

A clip from early in the opera

And from the end.

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Listing Beatles Songs, 21st Century Movies, and Frank DeFord Stories

For some reason, lists of things have been popping up in my reading over the last several days.  Here are several worth taking a look at:

  • Beatles Songs Ranked From Worst to Best
    Vulture has put out a ranking of all 213 Beatles songs from worst to best.  And while I really don’t think the specific order means much (While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Yesterday are not in the Top 10, what’s with that?), the commentary about each song and the craft that did (or did not) go into them is terrific. Argue about the list all you want. (Please do!) But how great to give real thought to one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songbooks.
  • Quirky List of Top 25 Movies of the 21st Century
    This list comes from the New York Times, and it clearly leans to the arthouse crowd. But there’s a lot to be recommended here even to the more casual movie fan.  I thought it was interesting that two animated films made it into the Top 10 – (Anime-classic Spirited Away was #2 and Pixar’s psychological Inside Out was #7. Lots of movies on the list I was not familiar with, but I’ll now keep my eye open for them showing up on streaming. I will confess that one of my favorite parts of the article was the referral to a separate list of Six Directors Pick Their Favorite 21st Century Films.
  • Great Stories From Sportswriter Frank DeFord
    My favorite (by a long shot!) sportswriter, Frank DeFord, died at the end of May. I loved his radio commentaries for NPR, his articles for Sports Illustrated, and his novels & books. (His novel Bliss Remembered about swimmers in the 1936 Olympics still sticks with me several years after I read it.) I will be having my feature writing students this fall read him.

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Guest Blog Post: When a bomb explodes

Editor’s Note: The following blog post is from my old, old friend Dr. Chris Allen, who is a broadcast journalism professor at University of Nebraska – Omaha.  For years he’s been traveling around the world as a media scholar and to take students to destinations around the world.  Two years ago he took our youngest on a two-week study trip to Oman in the Middle East. To say it was a life-changing experience for him would be an understatement.

This spring, both of my offspring travelled together for two weeks to Europe, and while there met up with Chris in London for dinner and other merriment.  Chris was there with a group of students, as he so often has been over the years in May.

Both of my sons arrived safely back in North America yesterday afternoon, not long before the news from Manchester started breaking.  It’s been a difficult thing to know how to react to.  My wife and I are still very glad our boys took this trip and had those experiences together. But we would be lying if we didn’t admit that we were glad to have them back closer to home.  

A few minutes ago I was on Facebook and saw a link to this wonderful blog post from Chris with his reaction to yesterday’s bombing – as someone who has been through bombing on a number of occasions before, and as someone was responsible for a group of students two hours away from the bombing.

Thanks, Chris, for permission to reprint your blog post here.  And after you, dear reader, have read this, go check out his many other posts on Dr. Allen’s travels.

When a bomb explodes
By Dr. Chris Allen

I’ve been to Kabul, Afghanistan, four times in my life. The first three times a suicide bomber blew up something and took innocent lives somewhere in the city. The first time, in 2010, it happened on a road I had been on just two days earlier. But in none of those cases was the bombing anywhere near where I was. The last time I was there, last spring, there was no bombing. It had taken place the week before, killing 60 people.

Those bombings were not really close to where I was. I mean, they were in the same city, but not near where I was staying or working. I didn’t brush them off, but I realized them for what they were — targeted at a specific sector of the population,not random. I have developed an attitude toward bombings. I know I have never been involved directly in a bombing or lost anyone to one. And I realize people who have may have an entirely different attitude.

I have a group of eight college students here in London with me. We fly home Saturday. The bombing in Manchester caught our attention, the attention of the university administration, and of course the parents of my students. Manchester is at least two hours from London by train, not really in our neighborhood. But somehow it seems close. So far 22 people have died. This was also targeted — at young people attending a concert in a large auditorium. It was staged for maximum injury and maximum attention. It accomplished both.

So this morning I sat down with my students. Troupers that they are, none of them appeared to be nervous about the bombing. I gave them a chance to talk it out. I urged them to call their parents if they felt a need to — I’m sure just about everyone did. One of them said her parents were putting some pressure on her to come home, but she didn’t want to, and I offered to drop an e-mail to any of their parents they wanted me to. No one took me up on the offer.

I told them that 22 people had died. But that same day seven billion people did not die. The world sometimes seems like a dangerous place, but the truth is most of us are quite safe. And I said the same thing I say to everyone who asks about all these things: If we flee home in fear without finishing what we came here for, the terrorists win. We can’t let them win. Take precautions? Be vigilant? Absolutely. But as the British are quoted as saying, Keep Calm and Carry On.

With that said, we all stood up, walked out of the hotel to our appointment, and carried on.

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Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)

After an end of the semester break – we are back. With all new questions!

  • Is this the changing of the guard? MSNBC on top, Fox on bottom
    No probably not. But it is no longer automatic that Fox News will have the biggest audiences in cable news. Last week MSNBC won the ratings war in several of the most important categories, including prime time audience in the prized 25-54 demographic and in total viewers. It also was the second-most watched network on basic cable, falling only to TNT – which was airing NBA playoff games. Biggest reason for MSNBC’s success? Host Rachel Maddow. Who proves that you can put a Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University Political Science PhD on the air and attract a big audience of people who want smart, thoughtful analysis of the news.I don’t believe this is the end of Fox News, but it does mean that the network needs to reconsider what they are doing.  I don’t think Fox needs to abandon its conservative orientation, but perhaps it needs to reconsider its evening devotion to conspiracy theories.
  • Is Trump Really Getting Lots of Negative Coverage?
    Yup – According to Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, coverage of the Trump administration has been overwhelmingly negative. But is this “bias” (whatever that is), or is it because that’s the way the news about the Trump administration is? Interestingly enough, even the news out of Fox is more than 50 percent negative….
  • What Does C-SPAN’s Audience Look Like?
    This is usually a pretty hard question to answer, but every four years, the non-profit public affairs network takes an in-depth look at its audience. They just recently published the latest version.  Among the details? Approximately 70 million US adults watch C-SPAN at some point over a six-month period.
  • What is Apple’s most exciting new product?
    A pizza box! No, not an early Y2K pizza box shaped computer. An actual pizza box for its cafeteria that lets workers take a pizza back to their cubicles without the pizza going soggy.
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And now you know… the rest of the story

Followup to several stories we’ve been talking about here:

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What do we talk about when we talk about fake news – Part 3

This is the final day of sequentially posting a paper I’m giving at the Western Social Science Association.  Instead of being in the form of a traditional academic paper, I’m going to post it in HTML with links to many of the subjects I’m discussing, and links to Amazon for the books that I reference.

Jon Stewart & Daily Show

During his infamous 2004 appearance as a guest on CNN’s political debate show Crossfire, co-host Tucker Carlson tried to compare the questions Jon Stewart asked presidential candidate John Kerry on his show with those Crossfire would have asked, Stewart’s response was:

“If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to.”

“You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”

During liberal co-host Paul Begala’s introduction to the episode, he introduced Stewart as “the most trusted man in fake news.”

It was during this time that many Americans came to know Stewart as the king of “fake news.” But this was a different kind of fake news.  It was not made up stories designed to influence politics or draw clicks to web pages more devoted to selling advertising than presenting information. Instead, Stewart used the term to refer to his brand of satirical news that had its roots in the world of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment.

Fake News in the era of Trump

Fake news today takes on a wide range of forms including all of those we’ve talked about so far:

Analysis and Conclusions

Christopher Lasch –Postmodernism

Of course, the problem of the media providing factual accounts is not unique to literary journalists.  Christopher Lasch, in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, argues that in postmodern culture we are beginning to question the very existence of factuality as a significant concept:

“[T]he rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence.  Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.”

What Lasch is saying is that it is not the truth or falsity of a statement that matters so much as whether people will accept it as valid.  Lasch illustrates his point with an example from the Nixon administration:

President Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, once demonstrated the political use of these techniques when he admitted that his previous statements on Watergate had become “inoperative.”  Many commentators assumed that Ziegler was groping for a euphemistic way of saying that he had lied.  What he meant, however, was that his earlier statements were no longer believable.  Not their falsity but their inability to command assent rendered them “inoperative.”  The question of whether they were true or not was beside the point.”

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