Monday, July 17, 2017

On the Air

A few weeks ago, I asked someone about a building I had seen that I thought looked like an old radio station, probably due to the tall tower standing next to it. The next time I went by it, I took a closer look at the side of the building and spotted the call letters. I looked up the letters online and spent several enjoyable hours reading about the history of the station, which has been a part of daily life for Southern Californians for decades.

Something about the building, surrounded by nondescript structures in an industrial area, made me think of the radio station in American Graffiti, visited by one of the film's main characters, in search of answers to large questions on the eve of his entry into adulthood. When I looked at the building, obviously of an older vintage than everything else around it, I could see it in my mind's eye as it must once have been, a solitary outpost surrounded by fields and orange groves, an intimate presence in tens of thousands of homes daily while itself maintaining a lonely vigil outside of town.

When I was growing up (not in Southern California, but I suspect the same was probably true everywhere), the radio was a friendly presence, dispensing the great variety of pop, rock, folk, jazz, and country music that provided the background of my growing up years. I didn't know the difference between a "corporate" playlist and an independent one made up by the radio station's personnel--all I knew was that music was the pulse of the times, the soundtrack of our lives that was shared by everyone, something that not only entertained us but connected us all.

In the small towns I grew up in, the radio stations played great music and a great variety of it. That's what I usually miss with most of the stations I hear today: their carefully crafted playlists and endless commercials often lack soul and offer instead a bland predictability. It was nice to turn on the radio, have no idea what the DJ was going to play but feel assured you would hear some favorites, and listen to someone talking who sounded like a real human. There are stations today where you can still get this, but they seem harder to find, and I know of very few that exhibit the kind of footloose and relaxed approach to programming that I used to enjoy. If there's a station on which you might hear music from both Bobbie Gentry and Ray Charles these days, I'd like to know where it is.

It was entertaining to read the reminiscences of the Southern California radio engineer who wrote down his memories of his station. He made it sound like a real adventure to be a part of a broadcast team, especially in the early and middle decades of the 20th century. I didn't realize, for one thing, how many physical hazards existed in the day-to-day running of a station, from high voltage areas, to fire dangers, to hazardous chemical waste. Nostalgia can be a dangerous emotion, but I do think something has been lost in the modern era of audience tracking and marketing studies, a certain flying by-the-seat-of-the pants quality that used to be a bit more apparent when you switched on the dial.

I would have liked to work in a radio station in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. It would have been nice to be in on the industry in its pioneering years when it was easier to be adventurous and try new things without considering shareholders and profit margins quite so much. There was an unmediated connection between the broadcaster and the audience members, a genuine intimacy that is tough to match these days, though I think a lot of the college stations do a pretty good job. Why would Curt have gone to Wolfman Jack for advice on love if he hadn't considered him almost as a friend?

I know some people enjoy the syndicated radio shows in which listeners phone in their personal stories and requests, but it always seems too much like "reality TV" to me--even if it isn't--because of the way it's packaged. Give me a lonely caffeine-addicted DJ in a rumpled shirt with a little pizzazz to his personality and an ear for a good song any day over a slickly coordinated corporate playlist and canned patter that might just as easily have been phoned in from Mars for all I know. I still look to radio for entertainment, even though I often come away disappointed. If only there were more of those independent voices still out there.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Panorama

The question you've probably wanted to ask all week is, "Wordplay, how did you spend your first Fourth of July in L.A.?" Hopefully, no one missed any sleep over it, but in any event, I'm about to satisfy your curiosity: first I went downtown to the festivities at Grand Park, and later I went up to the Observatory to take in the view. There was no formula to it other than the fact that both events were low-cost and sounded like fun, and that's pretty much it.

I thought that going downtown, where the music and food trucks promised to bring in a cross-section of people, would be a good way to see a microcosm of the city. I suppose it also seemed most similar to the type of celebrations I'm used to in Lexington, where most of the main events take place downtown. I went to the Observatory because I was fascinated by the prospect of watching multiple fireworks shows going off at once. That promised to be quite a spectacle (and it was). Why restrict yourself to one fireworks show if you can see all of them for the cost of bus fare to the top? I had already enjoyed some fireworks that I could see from my window the night before; it was nice to have such a good view without having to go anywhere.

On the Fourth itself, I was feeling a little daunted by the thought of looking for parking downtown, so I decided to park in Los Feliz and take the Metro in. When I got there, it was by no means deserted but wasn't exactly bursting at the seams either. I had to ask for directions to Grand Park, and I told someone that at first glance it really didn't seem like the Fourth of July. I was comparing it with Fourth of July celebrations I remembered from Lexington and actually felt a bit homesick for a little while. Never mind the fact that I hadn't attended any downtown festivities in Lexington for quite a while; I believe I was remembering Fourth of Julys from happier times. Certainly, the celebration in Lexington used to have a "Main Street USA" feeling that was different from the feeling I got in scattered downtown L.A.

Once I made my way to Grand Park, I found a very lively scene and walked around for a while, taking a few pictures and trying to get the pulse of the place. I felt more like an observer than a participant, and it certainly didn't look like half the city had crowded into the festival area, but OK. The people-watching wasn't bad, and I had a really good chicken sandwich for dinner. I was starting to think of staying downtown instead of making the trek to Griffith Park, but I decided I'd be sorry if I missed the panoramic view while I had the chance, so I hopped back on the Metro at Pershing Square and caught the observatory shuttle at Sunset and Vermont.

I've been up to the Observatory before, but the bus trip to the top that night on a road crowded with cars and revelers was something I doubt I'll forget. That's where the traffic jam was, not downtown. The Observatory was brightly lit, and there were people everywhere at the top. When I got off the bus, I was rooted to the spot for a while, riveted by my first glimpse of the myriad lights of greater L.A. spread out below and fireworks going off simultaneously all over town. When I walked over the hill and to the side of the Observatory, the view was even better since I could see the L.A. skyline.

I felt something up at the Observatory that I had been missing earlier, a sense that L.A. had its own way of exhibiting pride in America, that it had something to show me that I had never quite seen before: what patriotism looks like when a number of individual celebrations are seen to be part of a greater whole. That's what America actually looks like on the Fourth of July, after all, if you could reach a high enough vantage point to see it all at once. What my Fourth of July in L.A. lacked in intimacy it made up for in awe. I think it would have been nice if someone had arranged to have a band playing patriotic music in front of the Observatory, and maybe a few ice cream stands and flags and so on, but for sheer visual fascination, I've rarely seen anything to beat the view.

The ride down on a crowded bus was a little tiresome, but never mind that. I was glad I went, and I only had to walk around for about 10 minutes before finding where I had parked my car. When I got there, I was greeted by two nocturnal animals of uncertain pedigree grazing in the grass nearby. I had two thoughts, and one of them was badgers. Since I didn't think L.A. even has badgers, I was pretty sure I was looking at skunks. I gave them a respectful distance, and it ended happily for all concerned. On the way back to my lodging, I saw multiple fireworks going off all along the way, and it was the first Fourth of July I can remember that ended in fireworks partly shrouded in fog.

So that was about it: fireworks, food trucks, a chicken sandwich, Metro rides, incredible views, skunks, and a finale of fog. The experience would have been enhanced if I had had someone to share it with, but I will go ahead and make a recommendation: if you ever find yourself in L.A. on the Fourth of July, alone or not, make your way up to Griffith Observatory to cap things off. You'll never see fireworks in quite the same way again, and maybe, by that time, someone will have thought to hire a band for the night.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Tattoos and Shadows

Last week I wrote about my attempts to settle into L.A., and it seems a bit redundant to talk about job search woes again this week, though that is what I think about most of the time. What to do for a topic, then? I've been watching a little TV, but I'm circumspect about giving too much space to what I see there. How about a book review? I may have mentioned that I have a visitor's card to a local library that will let me check out one book at a time, but if I didn't, it's true--and for some reason I settled on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo last week.

Someone recommended the book to me years ago, and I had seen the previews for the film that was made of it, but I never got around to reading it. The characters looked interesting, but I don't read a lot of suspense thrillers, which is what I suppose you would call this book. Having finished it, I have to say that I don't think I agree with the casting of the film: Daniel Craig seems too hardened and cynical for the main character, Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who runs afoul of a criminal and ends up on a kind of sabbatical, writing a family history for a wealthy industrialist. In the book, the Blomkvist character, while no Pollyanna, is painted in somewhat softer tones as a nice guy who does his best but ends up in a compromised position anyway.

The most unforgettable character in the book, is, of course, Lisbeth Salander, crack investigator, computer hacker, and social misfit who ends up helping Blomkvist solve a decades-old mystery and reopen his investigation of the criminal mastermind. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out in Sweden twelve years ago and has probably been read already by almost everyone except me. The only thing I can add to what everyone else has said is that I was struck by what a Hecate-like character Salander is. Hecate is probably a much less familiar figure to most people than the other Greek goddesses, shrouded as she is in mystery, darkness, and associations with magic. Salander, with her tattoos, piercings, and unconventional (not to mention off-putting) attire, personality, and habits, is an almost pure embodiment of that seldom seen goddess most associated with the black arts.

If you've ever read Greek mythology, you may have noticed a certain lack of what I would call morality in many of the gods' dealings with mortals. It's often hard to say whether the gods are "good" or "bad" because their actions often seem arbitrary--they seem to just do what they want to do, though they can sometimes be prevailed upon to assist mortals and arbitrate disagreements. They're a law unto themselves.

Hecate has an even darker profile than most of them, but is she "bad"? My sense is that because of the nature of what she does, which is to operate in darkness and concern herself with magic, with things just outside the ken of everyday concerns, most people would rather not think about her too much--until they need her. She might be the one they turn to for a potion or for matters requiring secrecy, guile, and a certain amount of ruthlessness, situations in which playing by ordinary rules won't get the job done. When this happens, most people would rather not talk about it.

That's the very definition of Salander, who operates by her own code and her own conventions; she isn't "bad" but she is certainly dangerous. She isn't motivated by petty concerns or greed, but once you make an enemy of her, she's implacable. Blomkvist is unable to figure out how she is able to find out some of the things she knows and do some of the things she does: firewalls, locks, laws, ethical conventions, and other people's opinions have no meaning for her. So, is she "bad"? A lot of people consider her so, and they certainly find her scary, but she isn't exactly amoral. She will go to great lengths to right a wrong (and when she considers something to be wrong, it usually is). She doesn't even have to be the target of the wrong but will act on someone else's behalf, without their even knowing anything about it.

The problem (or the advantage, depending on how you look at it) is that her solutions tend to be drastic as well as unlawful, but that's the Hecate coming out. She often operates in areas in which wrongs would go unpunished or even unnoticed if not for her intervention, situations in which ordinary remedies aren't available. Her actions can often be justified even as they veer into vigilantism. You sympathize with Salander and may even like her, but you're never really comfortable with her. She's just too devastatingly effective at operating in the shadows and outside the conventions that restrain most people. She's both unpredictable and uncanny.

Salander is also misunderstood by most of the people who know her, which is largely what has made her such an outlier, but the point is . . . a little bit of Hecate goes a long way. For a while, I had a plaque with Hecate's likeness on it in my bathroom, and even though I had several Buddhas and Shivas and the like scattered around because of my interest in mythology, I was never altogether comfortable with Hecate. For me, it was more a reminder that there are various forces at work in the world, whether we like them or not. I didn't bring her with me when I moved, as I decided that I'd had enough of a reminder. I'm not sure if I'll read any more of Stieg Larsson's books, either, but I'm certain I'll never forget the gothic and intransigent Lisbeth Salander. I think she has something to say to each of us.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Urban Adventures

Last Saturday was the most vacation-like day I've had out here, even though it was spent in pursuit of jobs. After getting off the interstate and trying an alternate route that let me get a better feel for the layout of things, I visited a suburban library and took the Metro into downtown L.A. After checking out the main library (quite an experience in itself, even with non-functioning escalators), I stopped at Starbucks for an iced coffee. I was struck by how decidedly urban that whole experience was, from the bunker-like entryway, to the window onto a busy street, to the attenuated seating area under exposed pipes, as if the coffeehouse had been built into the remains of an excavated basement or subway station.

Oddly enough, I found my coffee break and window seat view to be quite calming. In part, I think it was because that particular Starbucks seemed to be built for foot traffic, not loungers, and there were hardly any other customers seated nearby. It was enjoyable, for once, to be able to calmly sip a drink and watch the world go by without listening to a lot of chatter. I was able to let my mind roam and enjoy the passing scene--who would have thought downtown L.A. could be so relaxing? I took a quick walk down Broadway and back to Pershing Square and was amazed at how much less intimidating it all seemed than it had the first time I was there. I wouldn't say I'm ready to move downtown, but I enjoyed taking it all in.

There was a street festival in full swing next to Olvera Street, with some very lively folk music providing a soundtrack to all the activity near Union Station. It was more stimulation than I would have had in six months at home and was somehow both bracing and restful at the same time. Once I got back to my car, I did have trouble finding my way out of the parking structure, but I'm getting used to the fact that I sometimes drive around in circles or go the long way around. On the other hand, I had to congratulate myself for figuring out I was going the wrong way after someone gave me directions; I was looking at mountains, so I knew I needed to turn around. Orienteering might not be my thing, but I have a basic sense of direction.

A few days later I had a less successful urban experience in Los Feliz, which I found to be too crowded and urban for my taste. How it could out-urban downtown is a little difficult to explain, but perhaps it has to do with the commercial density of the area and the (to me) uneasy mixture of residential, retail, and business, all jumbled together in a jarring sort of way. The post office parking lot was hard to get into, many of the houses had bars on the windows, and the bathroom of the neighborhood branch library didn't smell good. I wanted to like it but didn't.

Some of the things I've liked and disliked have surprised me, but I still don't know where I'll end up settling in. Where you find a job dictates the way everything else falls into place, and that hasn't happened yet. I suppose it would have been surprising if I had gotten a job right away, but I really was hoping for a fairly quick turn-around, especially after signing up with four employment agencies and having applications in before I even got here. I sometimes feel I am hitting my head on an invisible wall, a feeling I was already familiar with before I got here, thanks. It should not be this difficult to become employed. Right now I feel I am a bit off the grid, and while you don't mind that for a little while, you don't feel that you're really a part of the community until you have a job and a regular apartment.

However, I am still applying and hoping to get my foot in the door somewhere before long, though I'm not adverse to going somewhere else if an opportunity opens up. When I worked for employment agencies before, they just sent me around to places, and I stayed busy all the time. Once one assignment ended, I went to another. Here, it's almost as if you're applying for security clearance instead of a temporary office job. After several possibilities that looked like good opportunities fell away to nothing this week, I applied for a job in Ohio. Ouch, take that, L.A.! If it doesn't work out, I don't have to stay. It took so much work to get here that I'd hate to turn around and leave but . . . you have to eat and have a place to hang your hat. If money grows on trees, I've yet to see any sign of it.

Meanwhile, the fleeting vacation feelings that come and go are welcome, but not something I'm going to get used to. People are generally friendly here, the weather is pleasant, and I'm finding my way around. Moving across country isn't child's play, though, and I didn't do it to put my life on hold for an undetermined amount of time. Moving in with a friend, which I had hoped to avoid, is beginning to look like a real possibility. And, darn it, the blister I got on my hand from all that driving was just starting to heal.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Cattle Thievery and the Evening News

There was a job announcement the other day for a writer in the public diplomacy program of a university journalism department, a job that at first glance sounded like something I might be able to do. Since I didn't know exactly what public diplomacy is (a fine-sounding term, but what is it?) and how it relates to journalism, I spent some time reading about the position and trying to get a feel for where they were going with it. In the end, I decided it wasn't for me, for several reasons, the main one being that I'm still not sure what public diplomacy has to do with journalism. Is it the same thing as P.R.?

If I'm not mistaken, public relations is sometimes taught alongside journalism courses in college, which makes sense in a way because both disciplines are a part of the field of communications, even though they have different aims and methods. When I worked for a newspaper, I worked on the business side doing creative and promotional work, which, while a necessary part of the paper's functioning, had nothing to do with news reporting. The newspaper tried to keep the two sides of its business, the advertising/promotion side and the editorial/reporting side, separate, even so far as placing them on opposite sides of the building. I started out at the paper working part-time on the copy desk and writing free-lance pieces, but once I got a job on the business side, I was in very different territory. It was uncommon for someone to go from the business side to the news side, so even though I continued to write features articles for the paper, that was different from being an investigative journalist or a reporter. It would have been hard for a Promotion writer to seem credible as a regular reporter, because the roles are very different.

When I see a concept like public diplomacy being touted as an exciting new field, it reminds me of what I don't like about the media: there's too much of what I would call "soft journalism," too much opinion mixed up with news, and too much of what many people would consider propaganda if they only knew what it was slipped in alongside old-fashioned reporting. It's a regular Mulligan's stew out there in the media world, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and I think about this every time I look at or listen to a news piece. I'm guessing there are opportunities in non-profits, businesses, and other organizations for someone to put expertise in public diplomacy to good use; it's the proximity to journalism that seems problematic.

As I understand a reporter's function, it's to tell the who, what, when, where, and why, if I am not being hopelessly romantic in supposing this. There is certainly a place in journalism for editorializing and commentary, but first and foremost, journalists are supposed to tell you what happened. How can democracy function if people don't first know the facts? We do want democracy to function, don't we?

I suspect that some people welcome the blurring of boundaries between reporting and public diplomacy because it allows more opportunities to sway public opinion and influence views, to push out propaganda in a way that looks respectable. It's likely that this has always gone on, and it's probably a mistake to hearken back to a "golden age" of journalism when things were done differently, but nevertheless--reporters are supposed to report, and there just seem to be a lot of ways to get around it these days.

So I looked at the posting, read about the journalism school and the people who worked there, and realized I wouldn't be able to do the job even if I got it. The whole project had a lot of gloss to it, as befits a prestigious organization, and not only am I anti-gloss but I also have a problem with the presentation of public diplomacy as an adjunct of journalism. It seems to me that they ought to be in different departments, that public diplomacy, marketing, and public relations belong in business schools, while journalism is a separate thing entirely. I am often frustrated with the news because even after consulting numerous sources (like our English teachers told us to do) I still have to piece together what's actually happened for myself. By the time you get past the spin, there's sometimes not much else.

The proliferation of news sources via the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse, I think. There are many more sources out there, which potentially means many more independent voices, but it can also create a kind of cacophony in which what's important gets lost in the shuffle. It's like the satellite TV dilemma, the situation in which you click past dozens of channels without finding anything to watch.

I'm all for quantity--having a choice of news sources is good--but here I'm putting in a good word for quality. The fluidity of boundaries between what really should be separate endeavors creates a slipperiness that lets Hermes, who hovers over all forms of communication anyway, flit around all over the place, and as we know, Hermes is a bit of a trickster. He was a cattle thief, after all.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Library as Portal

You might think that, being in L.A., I might have been doing some sightseeing on my down time, but the truth is, I don't consider this down time. Every minute that hasn't been spent getting organized and oriented has been spent on the job search, except for a few stolen moments here and there. Does time spent in libraries count as relaxing if you're a librarian who's job searching? I'm not sure, but if you're going to be sore over not getting a sightseeing report, I'll try to make up for it by telling you about a marvelous sight I did see in the course of my rambles.

My newcomer's handbook pointed out the library I'm going to tell you about as something worth visiting in its own right, so even though I went there with a purpose, I also went to see the building. While many things in life are over-hyped, this library was a case of something you have to see to believe. It brought to mind a restaurant called The Glitz in Kentucky that I've been to a couple of times: it's nearly impossible to exaggerate the decor and the impact it has, especially on a first-time visitor.

The library's metal-clad exterior was striking enough but could have held a conventional interior in the way of many other public libraries I've seen. It didn't. As soon as you walk in, you're faced with a huge tank of tropical fish taking up an entire wall; it reminded me of an exhibit I'd seen at the Long Beach Aquarium. It formed part of the wall for the Children's Department, which one enters through a portal composed of gigantic books. Inside, there's a T-Rex, a lighthouse, an art room, a spaceship, a painted ceiling, and countless other things along with the books to intrigue and delight.

Across from the Children's Department was a very comfortable-looking reading room, with Craftsman-style furnishings and fixtures that gave it the air of a private library in a home or a well-to-do college. A matching area stocked with newspapers, sofas, and clubby chairs anchored the other end of the first floor, past the gift shop and Circulation area. I've rarely seen more inviting spaces in a library of any kind, and this certainly made the point that as welcoming as the library is for kids, it is just as interested in its adult patrons.

The Internet computers upstairs were state-of-the-art, as were the meeting rooms along one side next to the escalator, each named for a famous writer of science fiction. The literature and fiction department, also on the second floor, featured Art Deco styling and art exhibits along with the book collection. Everywhere I looked, there was something to stimulate the eye or the mind. I walked around for the first half-hour with my jaw nearly dropped to the floor in the midst of all those curving lines and soaring spaces. I was told that much of the money for the building had been raised within the community, which strongly supports education and literacy, and I have to say that speaks well for this small city, which--while fairly affluent--is not one of the higher-end zip codes in L.A.

The library was busy (and a bit noisy), but the main thing that impressed me was how well it succeeded as a community center that combined ease of use, modern technology, old-fashioned charm and comfort, creative flair, and an atmosphere almost guaranteed to stimulate the mind. I've rarely seen a building that went so above and beyond in fulfilling its function. It was a true gateway to the imaginative realm, combining some of the best features of a museum, an art gallery, an athenaeum, a children's playground, a teen hangout, and a technology lab all enfolded into a library.

You may be saying, OK, OK, when are you going to tell us the name of this paragon of the library world, and my answer is, I'm not. Perhaps the community would welcome a huge influx of visitors traipsing through, and perhaps not, but if you're ever in L.A., ask around and someone can probably steer you in the right direction. The gods on Olympus could not enjoy a finer library, and in fact, if they have one, it might look quite a bit like this one. It's the library you've always wanted but didn't know you could ask for.

Monday, June 5, 2017

South by Southwest

Wordplay has landed in Los Angeles after a trip that was in some ways better and in some ways worse than my last journey here (I refer readers to my previous blog post "Out West" for an account of that episode). One thing that hasn't changed is the number of odd occurrences, some alarming and some just plain weird, that seem to accompany me any time I step out the door (much less move across country). My last trip was peppered with repeated appearances by a stalker, heat exhaustion, food poisoning, hotel doors that didn't lock, and much night driving. When I got home to Kentucky, I was so glad to have survived the trip that I had no wish to repeat it any time soon, and didn't.

This trip began more auspiciously, helped in part by the time of year. A journey in spring, flooded by light, is bound to have a more holiday feel than one begun in late October, and this one did. The air seemed to sparkle with optimism as I headed out of Kentucky, and most of my encounters on the first stage were no more strange than the ones I'm used to, except for all the burned tire rubber I had to dodge in Indiana from a convoy of trucks ahead of me. Oklahoma was fairly uneventful until I hit a windstorm just as I was passing through my second toll booth. It was like a scene by Cecil B. DeMille via The Wizard of Oz, complete with an enormous storm front, a funnel cloud (unless my eyes deceived me), and a choice between exiting the interstate and trying to drive clear.

I know the standard advice is not to try to outrun a storm, but based on past experience I have found that sheltering in place is not always the best idea either. The storm was far enough away that, given a split second to decide, I concluded it was better to keep going. (Note: I'm not telling you to try to outrun storms; I'm only telling you what I did in this instance.) It worked out OK, but I saw my life flash before my eyes for a few minutes there. Was it all going to end on an Oklahoma highway? Later that evening, I narrowly avoided running over an actual log in the middle of the road that surely would have ended my journey right there in Oklahoma City had I not seen it. That's two strikes against Oklahoma.

I accomplished my goal of getting as far as Amarillo, Texas, though I didn't expect to have to deal with sub-par hotel plumbing after a full day of driving. (I have a prejudice against calling for maintenance assistance in the wee hours of the morning while traveling alone, silly though that may seem to you.) After declining the orange juice that tasted suspiciously like Tang at breakfast in the morning, I journeyed on, looking forward to getting through New Mexico as expeditiously as possible.

I disliked eastern New Mexico, though driving in and out of rain showers did clean my car off. I found two things to like about western New Mexico: the beautiful sandstone highway infrastructure that mimics the colors of the landscape on the western slope of Sandia Mountain and the red rocks in the dessert near Gallup, two sights worth seeing. I enjoyed the sunset drive across Arizona as far as Flagstaff and the holiday mood that prevailed in the hotel there; Flagstaff was apparently hosting several events that weekend, and it was a Friday night to boot. I almost felt like I was on vacation.

After that, things went downhill (literally), as the interstate was under repair and not in the best condition for driving. I didn't like to stop in Kingman, as I had a problem with my hotel when I was last there, but you have to stop sometimes, and I prefer to take gas-and-caffeine-breaks in populated areas. That stop turned into a 90-minute delay when I forgot to lock the bathroom door in Starbucks and had someone nearly walk in on me. Normally, I would simply have felt embarrassed and let it go, but I didn't like the look or attitude of the man who did it and insisted that the Starbucks staff write up the incident. They called the police as well, and I gave a report to the officer who arrived. You meet all kinds of people while traveling, including some that you would much prefer not to.

Aside from delaying me, the incident soured what was left of the afternoon. I didn't like the look or feel of Kingman and was glad to get away, but I had some of the toughest driving of the trip just ahead of me. The last time I crossed the Mojave into California, it was at night, and I don't remember it taking nearly as long or being as difficult a drive. Between poorly maintained roads, a persistent wind that seemed determined to push my car around, the desolation, and the number of big trucks on the road, it was altogether a trying way to enter California.

Don't even get me started on the displays of unnecessarily reckless driving I saw on the hill near San Bernardino: I was afraid of getting blown off the road at any second, if not actually run over. I know people drive more aggressively out here, but I had never seen anything remotely resembling the way people, including truckers, were careening down that hill and cutting in front of others. It was as if everyone had decided to try for a live action replay of the runaway train scene in The Polar Express. The traffic in L.A. seemed tame by comparison.

I had tried to imagine how I might spend my first evening in California and had come up with a few thoughts, though I had never settled on anything. I had vague ideas of a celebratory dinner, and I wanted to try to find the house where I did some accidental damage to a screen the last time I was in town, but since I was late in arriving, dinner at Wendy's ended up being the main event. I finally managed a California Highway Patrol escort to my hotel when all the directions everyone gave me had me driving in circles. I spotted the CHIP car at a gas station and asked for help . . .  and when it's all said and done, I guess having a police escort at the end did kind of put a final flourish on things.

I've gotten organized, bought groceries, hung up my clothes, tried to find the people whose screen I damaged, and signed up with a temp agency. That's not bad for less than two days in town after a trying journey (punctuated by a few moments of beauty, I must say). I've been wondering how the pioneers ever managed it, since even today, a cross-country trip--with air conditioning, bottled water, and caffeine--is no joke. But as I told the highway patrol officer, the end of an exhausting day often takes on a different aspect the next morning, and it did. Here's hoping for better things ahead, but whatever happens, you can count on Wordplay to let you know about it. May your travels (and mine) be a bit smoother for the rest of the summer.