Thursday, December 6, 2012

Harry Potter's Penny Postcard

Let's do something only 3% of consenting adults are brave enough to do....

In the change-the-oil-yourself-sort-of-lower-middle class household I grew up in, a special dinner would have been hotdogs wrapped in Kraft American cheese singles and inserted into crescent rolls. Did you boil the hotdogs first? Probably, and with lots of salt, then maybe the rest got finished in the oven. You wanted the cheese gooey but without burning the rolls. We were stylin' then, any occasion when we planned to have such fancy food.

Looking back, of course, I am amused by it, and while I have yet to find a passion for caviar or escargot, I am now a bit more up market, and I do now know my way around Trader Joe's. One middle class tradition that my parents did indulge in (and in this, we were perhaps a bit more ambitious than our neighbors) was to take car trips to other states. We stayed in motels, not just with relatives or at a campground, and while we generally ate at least one picnic meal a day to save money, we did go to lots of coffee shops and state parks and curio shops. My mother brought her address book on these trips and unfailingly mailed off the obligatory postcards to the folks back home, and, when those relatives traveled, they traded the same back to us.

Although postcards as picture spaces are more post-World War II, the tradition of postcards themselves goes back to the very start of the 20th century. Initially, images were colored by hand and produced in color lithography.

After World War II, postcards were usually cheap (five cents or a dime), as was postage (comparatively speaking). Now lost from American English, there used to be a sort of generic term, like "email" today ---- the so-called penny postcard. It could have been purchased with a printed stamp directly from the post office, or else one used a one or two cent stamp on one's own note or card. Even though rates had gone up, the term stayed in use.

In the 1950s, with the rise of post-war travel and the availability of cheap color printing, picture postcards were produced in the tens of thousands. In the words of Wikipedia, "These still photographs made the invisible visible, the unnoticed noticed, the complex simple and the simple complex."

I still collect and send postcards, but I think it's the end of an era. According to The Guardian, a newspaper in London, this year only 3% of Britons will send back postcards from their vacations.

Now we have Instagram and Facebook, so writing a solo card to a solo recipient seems dreadfully inefficient, plus we can't include ourselves in the picture. Who needs postcards?

I will miss them, once they're gone completely.

This postcard of Wisconsin, with its "photo no-no" middle-of-the-view horizon line, diminutive silos, and hideously cold looking landscape, wants to celebrate the Wisconsin-ness of Wisconsin. I bought this recently (just in the past few years), and I suspect what I see in the postcard (mainly, a view of a climate and lifestyle I am glad to be separated from) is probably not what the designer intended. For one thing, unless it's intended ironically, we could almost use this in an art appreciation class as an example of what NOT to do when designing a composition. For another, if they're hoping to attract settlers or even tourists, this ain't doing that either. Still, its lack of pretension and its folk charm does make it authentically "Midwestern."

Postcards were normal and abundant up until very recently. It was like pay phones (every gas station had one) or a DMV office open all the days of the work week except maybe Christmas. Postcards were a fact of life. This postcard below of a jet I also got not that long ago --- handed out free by Lufthansa on board a flight, as a branding give-away. I assume the practice was discontinued shorted after I picked this card up.

One reason I love postcards is their ability to be inexplicable. Here's a card I bought in Namibia, which formerly was a German colony. This postcard shows a procession of Himba tribal people filing past the graves of the German soldiers, at least one of which has the date of 1908. What anniversary is this? Why are they here? Why still in complete tribal clothing? (Some more European-dressed people are at the end of the line.) It's a great mystery. When I was in New Guinea in 1984, the government had just stopped allowing a postcard to be sold showing a woman breast feeding a pig. Pigs were used to pay dowries, and an orphaned one was a valuable family asset. I am sure now those postcards go for absurd amounts of money to fetish collectors. Here is the Namibia postcard:

Many of us can still remember staying up all night at Barnes & Noble when the next Harry Potter book was due to be released. Less easy to remember were the ways those books were advertised. Here's another free postcard that was given out at hip places like bars, indy movie theaters, and boutique bookstores. Note the date printed on the card.

It seems an impossibly long time ago. In my family we all looked forward to the next book equally, kids and adults alike. Another "blast from the past" is this card, which, frankly, I never thought would become a past-tense memory. Once upon time, under the direction of then-faculty member Mike Traina, we had an Antelope Valley Independent Film Festival. It ran 13 years and premiered films from around the world. Here's a publicity postcard. The festival may yet come back (maybe next fall), but once Mike Traina left, it has been difficult to revive it. This card almost feels like an invitation to a funeral.

Morbidity and postcards often dance in unintentional partnership. From the doomed Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole, here's a base camp shot. None of the horses survived that trip. The postcard shows a vintage wet plate photograph from 1912, but the card is more recent: this is from a polar study center in Cambridge that I have done research at. Sort of sad, though, to feature doomed men and dying horses on a postcard? Just as morbid is the comment rarely said out loud but more or less true --- had Scott come back alive from this trip, given that World War I started in 1914, he and the other officers would probably have died in that great mess.

Maybe it is just my own morbid nature, but I have been to a number of human catastrophe sites. When I went to Treblinka, a Nazi death camp site in Poland, no souvenir postcards were for sale, but at "ground zero" in Hiroshima, I bought several things, including this elegant shot of a backlit monument. What the text says in Japanese I do not know.

A lot of debate about the atom bombs arose later, though at the time, it was (in America) universally praised. Anti-Nazi propaganda centered on Hitler or the Nazi party, but in the Pacific side of W W II, we demonized the Japanese people universally, separate from leadership or party affiliation. This is a scan from a book on war memorabilia, and it shows a postcard one could buy during the Second World War. The text says, "Here hangs the pelt of a Jap / Who mistook a Yank for a sap / He never deserved to be preserved / So we just kept his hide and his cap." This racist doggerel (as vicious as anything you would have found in Germany, denouncing Jews) was perfectly acceptable: you could buy this card at the dime store (the precursor to Target) and send it through the U.S. Mail to Aunt Bessie or maybe your favorite Sunday School pastor. A card like this reads like a time capsule or an x-ray of white America's narrow view of humanity. If you're a person of color or foreign or not a member of the Elks Club, we will skin you like an animal and then laugh about it.

Let us hope that in another generation or two, after we have had not just a Black president but a gay one and a mixed race one and a Mormon one and a blind one, that a postcard like the World War Two anti-Japanese one will be so distant it will be almost impossible to explain.

Here is a recent card (less than a year old) that I got in Iceland. It's part of a tourism campaign to preserve and celebrate Icelandic folk expressions. First, the card itself.

That is not a typo: "skyr" is a kind of sour yoghurt served with sugar and cream." Several people have tried to explain this card to me. Do note that it is in English. Here is a picture of what modern Icelandic looks like, when written out.

So, yes, I for one am glad the card is in English. Once at a gas station the self-serve pump's software was glitzy, and instead of bilingual options, I had to gas the car up only using Icelandic direction. I still don't know if I got premium unleaded, diesel, or perhaps a tank full of skyr. Anyway, back to the card itself. This folk saying apparently says one thing but means another. At the literal level, if you own the skyr, of course you get to gobble it so fast you splash it all over. But according the note on the back of the card, it means something more like "people [ especially politicians ] who live in glass houses shouldn't throw the first stone." In America, we speak of pork barrel politics, that is, Washington politicians who make sure that needless projects in their home districts get funded, to ensure their own reelection (at the expense of the national debt). Maybe we could adopt something from the Icelandic people --- speak not of how much pork is in the next appropriations bill, but how much curdled yoghurt.

Here's a card that like the Icelandic one uses a literary phrase (in this case, a line from a poem by the late Charles Bukowski) but also manages to be a scenery card, too, at the same time. Take that, Wisconsin! In this instance, the card itself is sold by the Huntington, since they own Bukowski's papers. (The image itself is credited to his widow. I assume the billboard appeared after he himself passed away.) I never went to hear him read when I was in college; at Glendale College and later Northridge, I usually worked two jobs and sometimes three. I went to as many literary events as I could, but sometimes I didn't have the gas money to drive across town, or else I had to work and couldn't get off. The one that I nearly did attend, Bukowski was so drunk he was nearly incoherent. That may seem hip and cool and Bohemian, but if you grew up around men like that, there's not much romance in it up close and personal.

The next postcard for my collection almost certainly will have an alligator or an orange tree on it, or maybe a manatee. Once grades are in after finals week, I will be leading a small birdwatching tour in Florida, home of cheesy alligator farms and even cheesier postcards . . . or at least it used to be. If Florida no longer has postcards then the world really is coming to an end. Or maybe it's all just evolving. According to The Guardian, there's a new service starting in England, where you can email a photo to a printing company, and they will convert that into a real postcard and mail it to somebody's whose address you supply.  It costs about $3 in US cash --- the ever increasing cost of a penny postcard.

The AVC blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts. He can be reached at

Saturday, November 24, 2012

From Couch to 5 K

One Woman's Story.....

Former AVC Writing Center Tutor Abbey Fitting has been an occasional guest writer for this blog. This weekend, she joined 700-800 other brave souls for a Thanksgiving-morning "Turkey Trot." For her, this was proof that she could set a goal and stick to it: loosing weight, gaining fitness, and mastering weather, entropy, and days she had to stay late at work. After her dedicated training was over, it was here. Cold and clear, the big day had arrived.

This was the first formal, organized run in her life. She decided fairly recently to follow the "couch to 5 k" training plan. She arrived at the YMCA that morning proud to have been issued her number.

Other folks were glad to be there too, like these two dogs, re-enacting the play, movie, and tv series franchise, The Odd Couple.

"I think I am in love...."

And after the usual messages and lost children and the national anthem, the runners were off. Meanwhile, some of us had to stay behind and keep the home fires burning. This adorable little girl below I think is saying, "Run faster, Mommy ---- I'm cold!"

The great support volunteers at the YMCA were out on the course helping direct traffic, while others cut up oranges and got the finish line cones lined up. Seeing all of these earnest, slender, well-intentioned people working so hard and selflessly early on a frosty Thanksiving morning made me want to give thanks for the enduring presence of the human spirit. They also made me secretly desire a cheeseburger and a cigarette.

I know that in the modern big marathons, runners can opt to have little tags wired into their shoelaces, and those near and dear to them can follow their progress online.

Here in the Antelope Valley, we're not quite so sophisticated. You lick a finger and test the tail wind, take the occasional look at the cell phone to see what time it is, and make an educated guess when your runner is likely to show up at the finish line. In Abbey's case, encouraged by the crowd and after having trained, ate, and slept sensibly all week, she and her iPod rounded the final bend and came shooting up towards the finish line to clock her best run ever.

WOW, she says --- I did it! And then of course one must take care of necessities. What comes next, directly after a run? Kissing a spouse? Looking for the kids? Going over to the stretching station? No, of course not. What has to happen next is to get a posting up on Facebook......

Others dug around in the pile of oranges, saying (as I did), aren't there any cheeseburgers under here?

Here are her thoughts on the process, in her own words.

"When I decided it was time to lose some weight and gain a little fitness (it's really embarrassing when climbing the stairs in your own house leaves you winded!), I didn't make enough money to afford a gym membership, so I decided to find an alternative. Over beers and burgers a friend of mine mentioned that he'd done this Couch to 5K thing, which takes you from couch layabout to 5K in nine weeks. It sounded really easy (in the first week you start by walking for 5 minutes, then jog for 60 seconds, then walk for 90 seconds, alternating the 60/90 for 20 minutes and then walk for five: piece of cake, right?).  

Plus, since I already owned a pair of old jogging shoes and an iPod, it would cost me nothing but time. So, I downloaded one of the free C25K aps from iTunes, and got on the program. 3 days a week, wind, rain, or (as was more often the case) scorching heat, I went out and did my time. When I finished up the C25K program, I decided to keep it up, getting out and running 3 days a week. The result was a really good (for me) 5K on Thanksgiving day.

As advertised, running has had a lot of benefits. I have amazing energy these days, I sleep like a baby (I'm prone to bad bouts of insomnia), I lost weight, and I got an excellent (farmers) tan from all that time in the sun, but the best thing has actually been the satisfaction of knowing I could set a goal for myself and see it through even when there wasn't anyone hounding me to get it done."

The AVC blog is curated by Language Arts Instructor Charles Hood, who can be reached at It does not represent the views of the AVC District, the Board of Trustees, the YMCA of the Antelope Valley, or members of the Cheeseburger Chamber of Commerce.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Smartest Man in America Tells Us Who is the Smartest Man in America

Grading the Graders....

One of the pleasures of being around a campus all the time is that I do get to meet smart, interesting people, and of course I do mean on both sides of the podium. That much is natural, and might happen in a public library or even a bank. But in showing content to students, I also get to meet smart people just through the interweb.

One of my heroes is the art and literary critic Lawrence Weschler, shown here on the left in discussion with Matthew Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

They were meeting at a lecture by photographer Michael Light. While all three gents have tremendous IQs and quick wits, Weschler himself is often introduced as "the smartest man in America."

He himself though would say, no, it's not him, it is the man most of us best known as the editor behind Apocalypse Now, Walter Murch.

Here is Weschler via a blog relating to the Chicago Humanities Festival:

Every spring, at some point in the semester as I am teaching my graduate Fiction of Nonfiction writing and reading class to the usual collection of journalism and poetry graduate students at NYU (my mission, to help foster a new generation of lyrical reporters and investigative poets), there comes a point in the proceedings where I have occasion to offer up my opinion (which given the rules of graduate education has the momentary force of law) that Walter Murch is the smartest person in America.

“Walter Murch is the smartest person in America,” I’m likely summarily to declare, “and that will be on the test.  The question will be, ‘Who is the smartest person in America?’ and the expected answer is ‘Walter Murch.’  Ten points.”

The link to that, which probably won't be click-able inside the blog, is this:

So there we go. High praise indeed, and if you want to explore an extended meditation on Murch and Apocalypse Now (and if you are an AVC student), go into the "Library" part of the AVC website (log in first, go to Academics, then find "library") and use EBSCO Discovery Services to take you to Weschler's article in Harper's Magazine, "Valkyries Over Iraq: The Trouble with War Movies." Via the subscriptions AVC has, you can read the content but not see the pictures, which are though included in Weschler's book, Uncanny Valley, and inside the Harper's site itself.

Basically, Weschler's piece tries to navigate the problem that (as shown in the book and movie, Jarhead) parts of an anti-war movie like Apocalypse Now can have scenes of such heart-bestirring romantic glory that they can be used to be turn an audience pro-war. In short, who wouldn't want to swoop around in a helicopter, playing the record player too loud and annoying the neighbors? Rather than condemn the Air Cavalry commander Col. Kilgore (note the name, a three-way blend of World War Two's comic character "Kilroy," the verb "kill," and the verb and noun "gore") --- rather than condemn the character as Coppola intends for us to do, in experiencing that scene as viewers, instead, we identify with him. The colonel loves the smell of napalm in the morning (it smells like victory), but we love fast machines and a good soundtrack, and if there are guns and naked chicks (both of which Apoc Now has, and especially Apoc Now Redux), so much the better.

That's a fine insight and I like this article a lot, even the parts (especially the parts) I disagree with. What has been fun has been seeing where following him has taken me. In looking at the book and then the original article, I ended up spending time on the Harper's website.

This turns out to be trivia-city, in ways that nearly verge on (but quite enter) the profound.

For example, according to Harper's

--- researchers have found that the five-second rule (ok to eat food that has only touched the floor for a few seconds) is biologically false;

--- Police in Britain apologized for tasering a blind middle-aged man after mistaking his walking stick for a samurai sword;

--- an Orlando man who started having sex with his date on a restaurant table in view of young children, and who then refused to pay the bill, was arrested on a charge of defrauding an innkeeper;

---  Ulaanbaatar took down its last remaining statue of Vladimir Lenin, which it will auction at a starting bid of $280 (though I suspect the shipping charges will be 10 or 20x that);

--- a Danish pornography website announced a contest that would award an iPhone to the entrant with the smallest penis. “It’s a competition which is at the core of manhood,” said site owner Morten Fabricius;

--- a Seattle man was arrested for the 1976 murder of an elderly woman after an undercover policeman obtained DNA from him by pretending to conduct a chewing-gum survey;

and lastly (for now),

--- French president Fran├žois Hollande announced a plan to ban homework, which he said favors the wealthy. I am sure my own students would appeal to my sense of us all being part of the 99% and would agree with Mr. Hollande.

Go, Harper's! Certainly this is fun stuff. It made me re-visit some of the past AVC blogs to see how we hold up. It's a mixed report card.

One piece of art that I took a skeptical view of at LACMA, the new big rock, remains a crowd-pleaser. Of course, this blog never said it wouldn't be popular, just that as a sculptural presence, it didn't merit the awe and hype being generated. Just go for a hike around Stoney Point in Chatsworth if you want to see bigger rocks, and in their case, since that site has a cultural history ranging from the start of modern rock climbing to the horror of Charles Manson, it has large-as-houses-stones PLUS a human layer of narrative.

But that rock remains deeply popular, so I am glad LACMA put it in. Visitor numbers upticked very strongly, and the current (and fabulous) show on cinema's Stanley Kubrick will keep those numbers high I suspect. Indeed, on a recent Saturday, there was not even anyplace to park, it was so crowded. Here is an art world newsletter reviewing the piece's impact:

Another topic the blog took on was beauty and impossible standards, and it spent a small amount of time with an ad for skylights. AVC wins one again, since apparently that ad was striking to a number of judges, too, and it won awards. Here is the ad, surrounded by some cropped text from Photo District News that explained the ad's appeal.

It is nice to be right, sort of like when I have seen a movie and then gone on Rotten Tomatoes to find out all the film critics who agree with me. (The ones who disagree clearly are drunken fools.) The bed and skylight shot itself was very tricky to do, hence the article about it inside a photography professional journal. It is also just flat out striking, and I feel mildly vindicated that others agree with me. (I still also think it promotes absurdity and criminal levels of consumerism, but whatcha gonna do? The world is what it is.)

I close with something from Weschler, one of the favorite things he has said that I have come across this week. This is from his remarks about Murch from the same site mentioned above. Here he is:

Smartest?  Well, okay, maybe [ Walter Murch is ] not the smartest (I suppose there must be some Nobel Prize winning biophysicist/concert pianist somewhere with an equally plausible claim to that title.)  But surely among the most various and polymath and confoundingly protean.  One recent afternoon, for example, he sat down to puzzle out the answer to a question he’d posed himself: on a per-watt basis, which emits the most energy for its size, the sun or a brain?  (His answer: on a per-cubic centimeter basis, the brain emits 56,000 times more energy than the sun.)  

That seems like great stuff, but what about the rest of us, whose solar factories often feel as if they are in semi-permanent eclipse? Well, for us, luckily, there are videos of dogs giving rides to cats and the results of that Danish contest to see who will win the smallest tallywhacker iPhone.

The Antelope Valley College blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, who can be reached at These blogs do not represent the opinions of the District nor of the Board of Trustees, nor Harper's magazine or Larry Weschler or anybody else living or dead, past or future, in a time machine or in locked in Tuperware, who might be offended by anything here. Also, this blog is not endorsed by Tuperware, a registered trademark. Thank you for visiting.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sexy, Loud, and Fast (and other four-letter words)

How Mermaids (Don't) Sell Cars

America can take pride in having brought the world a number of great achievements --- jazz music, the Declaration of Independence, good coffee even at McDonald's, and, more than anything, muscle cars. The Camaro, the Mustang, the Charger: old versions or new, these are as much our legacy as landing on the moon or the whistle-inducing skirt of Marilyn Monroe.

Anybody remember the Pearl Jam song, "Wishlist"? Among other things ("I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house key on"), one of the lines goes, "I wish I was the full moon shining off a Camaro's hood." Ah yes, classic cars indeed. They are still around, of course, and out now in updated versions. (The new ones even have seat belts.) My wife's boss recently got a mailer for the new generations of cars like these, and the brochure combines sex appeal with poetry. One thing that this advertisement has learned is that the sexiest images may have no naked women (or men) in them at all. Less is more, in language and lingerie ads.

Chrysler wants to take ownership of its old Dodge Charger heritage. In this expensive, fold-out packet, each page has a sort of haiku-like text, one page visible at a time, and as you unfold a poster-sized ad, the next page of text opens up a new set of car photographs. Here's the first bit of poetic copy: "Sexy / Loud / Fast / And Other Four Letter Words." (We'll follow academic convention and use the slash mark to show line breaks.)

As with most good ads, this one can be read in a second or two, and the color red (speed, danger, red lips, fire trucks) combined with the technical, silvery grey (and details of pseudo-technical parts, like the lug nuts on the rim) create the impression that we're dealing with fine but complicated racing machinery. What do you get when you cross lipstick with a jet engine? Ads like these. Turn the page and here's the next hit of poetry.

To rely on the taxonomy of classical rhetoric, we can say that this text uses a trick called elision, which is to say, implied words we can skip over and yet still count as being grammatically present. The copy just says "Flat Out," but we understand there is a bit more text needed here, so the invisible, implied verb would be something like "run flat out" or "go flat out." We can skip over these words and just get the compression and energy implied by a tighter, more "driven" line. This is a brilliant choice and one I wish my own poetry students could learn. It's classic "less is more," and too it shows how a bit of colloquial English (flat out) can do wonderful things. In case it is hard to see on the screen, the text says, "Flat / Out / Until You / See God / Then Brake."

And note too here that as we move through the narrative (each page unfolding more cars than the spread before), the cropped perspective implies glimpses: glimpses of cars that are perhaps going past too swiftly to be seen all at once, but glimpses too because of the voyeurism of the perspective. We are spying on the cars almost, watching them through a keyhole. This is much sexier in practice than it might seem just in a verbal analysis, and sexier too than if we had the Laker Girls involved or some other cliche representation of overt sexual presence. The next page works just as well:

Not legible in this blog version may be the punch line: "Cops / Will / Stop / You. / Just To Ask About Your Car." The four bold large-font words are each monosyllables and of course we have an internal rhyme with cop and stop. There is great power and directness here, as well as the implies bragging rights of having a car that everybody covets, even John Q. Law, whose own car, we assume, is pretty quick out the gate itself. When I took delivery of my current car, a limited edition "Baja" version 4 x 4 Tacoma, the sports graphics irritated me but added to the "young-guys" vibe the car puts out. I think the 20-something techs at Toyota who prepped it for delivery did indeed fancy it. (They might think they want it right up until the first time they had to pay $85 for a full tank of gas.) Here's my car the afternoon I took it home.

As with Chrysler's launch of the SRT brand (Street and Racing Team), I intuited that for a shot of my own car the black and chrome style and deep-tread tires would speak for themselves. The ad above continues to unfold with more text and images, concluding with "Blur / Life / And / Everything / Suddenly Becomes Clear." All of this reverses almost a century of car ads, when women were needed to demonstrate sexual potency and speed, not glimpses of fenders or blurred taillights. I first went to an auto show with my dad in 1968. The car model gals were something else back in those strange and troubled times, and I was delighted to find a book at the Peterson Automotive Museum that surveys exactly this. Here is the cover shot from Sirens of Chrome: The Enduring Allure of Auto Show Models by Margery Krevsky.

I suspect most of us find this funny, not sexy. And as the book reveals on page 150, changing from exploiting men to exploiting women doesn't work visually either.

I hope his car has one of those magnetic hide-a-key boxes under the back bumper, since apparently he doesn't have any pockets to keep his car keys in. I graduated high school in 1977 and this ad from that same year brings me more discomfort than nostalgia. The car is as ugly as the pants suits.

I suppose the implied story of the Pontiac shot is "girls night out"? They are not just there as eye candy but somehow are in the middle of an actual evening or event? Maybe they are an under-cover team of super heroines, Charlie's Slacks Angels.

If they are crime stoppers, here's an ad from 1967 that combines The Avengers, the Perils of Pauline, and Bonanza, all in one visual mess.

1967 was the model year the Camaro was released, and so from the same year as the rope and hat ad above comes this shot with these three very mod models. Shag-a-delic, baby.

The ads for sports cars often imply that if a man is driving a car like that, he has a pretty girl by his side (think of the role women play as passengers in American Graffiti). When I'm in L.A. and see ultra hot cars tooling around Sunset Blvd, often as not, the driver is alone. All of the supermodels are in the backs of town cars being driven to their next gig. They know that to drive in a convertible will mess up their hair, and they won't be able to hear what their agent is telling them as they talk on their iPhones. Besides, going fast is always more fun for the driver than the passenger.

To return to our initial 2012 ad, the one with the poetry captions and blurs and glimpses, the cars have converged on Mulholland Drive to make out, but apparently with each other, since again, no humans (naked or otherwise) have cluttered up the clean lines of these latest production models. (A Jeep has snuck in there too, one many SUVs marketed these days too prissy to cross a half-full gutter.)

The ad does work, of course. Zoom, zoom --- I very much want one --- or maybe that is my midlife crisis talking again, since before I settled on replacing my beater truck with a new truck, I did wander around glam car showrooms. I still eye the zoomier cars, when I see them in Malibu or passing me on the long uphill that is the 14 climbing out of Los Angeles. At least for me, something faster off the blocks and louder down the street will have to wait until the loan payments catch up with the stack of paper I signed.

Until then, though, I can always spend my afternoons with my nearly-as-good and very flame-painted substitute: my newest Hot Wheels car.

The Antelope Valley College blog is written by Charles Hood, Language Arts, who can be reached at These blogs do not represent the opinions of the District nor of the Board of Trustees, all of whom collectively scold Hood for the number of speeding tickets he manages to accrue even in a heavy 4 x 4 truck.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This Snow Leopard Wants to Steal Your Wallet

Plush Toys, Marketing Ploys, and Background Noise

It's catalog time: in my house, since I get not only my own junk mail but mail addressed to my late parents, the Christmas catalogs pile up daily. On a bad day, I might get six or ten catalogs. Hard to hear yourself think, over the blizzard of visual static coming in with all that mail.

Today's catalog from the top of the stack comes from WWF, World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group which does, so far as I know, good work. Save the pandas, save the tigers --- that's WWF.

Each year they need a new animal to feature: maybe a koala, maybe a baby gorilla --- something K & K (cute and cuddly). This year's "panda" is a snow leopard. The nature organizations never seem to be interested in trying to save ugly animals, really really tiny animals ("save the endangered polio virus!" --- I think not), or animals that only live in the dark.

I'm all for snow leopards, of course. One of my good friends has just seen one this week I hope: he's on an expedition in the Himalaya right now, and I await his email from the airport, once he's on his way home, to say yes or no if they saw any in the wild.

My problem is that this catalog lies. The group is about wild animals (emphasis added), which is to say, it's not about zoos or captive breeding efforts, not directly anyway, but about habitat enhancement so wild animals stay wild. Their name is not "World (Tame) Wildlife Fund." Yet this photo on the cover almost certainly is a tame snow leopard, in a game park. Why do I say that? The fluffy, immaculate fur, the wispy flakes of snow, the kind yet concerned look on the animal's face, and the tack-sharp focus on its eyes, as the body fades away in a very shallow depth of field...these are all the things that make a perfect shot a perfect shot.

In a wildlife photo course, this is an A+.

Well it is, other than the optional view that in an ethics class, it's an F. All those tigers romping in the snow, in the calendars for sale at the AV Mall? Captive critters, shot in enclosures. Just the reality of reality. You can't get a shot like that any other way. There are very few tigers in places where it snows, and those that are there are so rarely seen that most photographs show animals being tracked from helicopters, woozily dozing under the effects of a tranquilizer dart, dead after having been poached, or auto-captured passing by a camera bolted to a tree. Head-on, perfectly focused, perfectly lit shots just don't happen, not of snow leopards or tigers in the snow, anyway.

But I could be wrong. Never want to be too hasty, especially in accusing somebody of cheating. So I looked in the credits.

The gift catalog doesn't provide credits, but if you check in the back in very small print it says you can go to a particular website and find out. It lists an address.

Google search for their provided address: nothing.

Go to the WWF site itself, nothing.

The catalog lies: they do NOT provide captions, photo credits, or sources. There's no site matching that description or address. (If I were the stock photographer who had supplied this shot to them, I would be annoyed. And in fact, WWF may be violating its licensing contracts with their source photographers. Normally a sale includes specifications on what credit or byline needs to appear. Even the AV Press captions and credits all of its photos!)

Wild shots of true and real snow leopards do exist, of course. I can't say for sure this is a tame animal performing inside a game farm. I can though say it's very suspicious. Even I can go to a zoo and get a good picture, as this shot shows, from Santa Barbara.

There are some technical flaws here, most obviously the blown-out highlights, but still, we all know what it is, right? Hmm, maybe if I photoshopped in a bit of snow, maybe a few prancing fairy elves or a Russian snow panda, maybe I could get my photo delivered to the doorsteps of America, too.

Other pages in the current WWF catalog were taken in nature. Well, kinda sorta.

Here's the spread from pages 4 and 5.

The yearling polar bear on the left almost 99.99 % certainly was photographed in Svalbard, in the Arctic region of Norway.

Here's my shot of a wild cub, probably taken in the same group of rocks.

And not only was this polar bear picture of mine and the one in the catalog each probably taken at the same place, they may even have been taken from the same ship, the attractive and rather famous Noorderlicht.

Looks like a postcard or a brochure, but this is my shot, taken on a lucky day of perfect light.

This is a ship with an ice-breaker hull that each summer does wildlife cruises around the Arctic. Before we were stopped by pack ice, the year I was on board, we got within 600 miles of the North Pole. Probably more published polar bear pictures were taken from its decks than from any other ice floe, helicopter, or National Geographic-sponsored Zodiac on the planet.

What do we make of a shot like this from the WWF catalog? Are we trying to save nature or just getting juiced up for a run to Toys R Us?

The caption says, "Give $50 or more and receive a plush version of your symbolically adopted animal." I get a lot of art museum gift catalogs and wish they had this --- a stuffed Vincent van Gogh, or maybe a late-in-life Picasso, wearing a beret and a striped sailor shirt and about to paint a nude woman, but drawfed down to be pudgy and cuddly-sized, and not at all chain smoking and irritable.

It's not that little stuffed toy animals are not cute: of course they are. So are kittens, too. My wife has a new cat, a demon from hell named Kinsey. As a kitten, Kinsey was cute as a freakin button, I gotta admit. Here she is really small, and then in the dog's food bowl when a bit bigger, and now nearly grown.

Cute kittens work, and so the nature catalogs are going to feature them (if not kittens, then baby unicorns or doe-eyed seal pups or ultra-well-groomed koalas --- whatever it takes). Hard to believe, looking at this three-image sequence, that this is the same cat that can pull extension cords out of the wall or bite all the way through the covers of hardback, first edition books.

In contrast, here's the shot you will NOT see in the wildlife organization Christmas mail.

Yes, not asleep, but dead. As you can perhaps see, it's below the high tide line, and adjacent to this deceased polar bear was a very sturdy tripod with a camera on it. I assume it was set to take a sequence of shots as the tide came in and slowly covered the bear with water. What a great concept, and, potentially, a sober way to end a nature program or a wildlife art show. If anybody has ever seen a published version of that shot, do please drop a comment on this blog.

This shot more than anything else is reality, grim and unadulterated. We used to have a better capacity for reality, and in religious art in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, people would have themselves painted with skulls or other emblems of mortality visible on the background. (That will be a provocative visual survey, so expect a blog on it another time.)

And now? Now we open the mail, see the panda, write the check. That's okay and all, but what about a chance to provide education? This mailing, as I said earlier, went out to tens of thousands of households. It's a presidential campaign season besides being the run-up to the holidays. We are lied to daily, hourly. Doesn't the American public deserve to see a real snow leopard at least, and not one that eats Purina feline chow and lives in somebody's (very large) back yard?

Reducing nature just to postcards and plush toys diminishes the world for all of us.

AVC's blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees on cute animals, bright red sailing ships, or the ethics of keeping animals in zoos in India, as seen in the last shot, above. He can be reached by email at