Changing Coasts

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Hiya, gang. I’m back!

The past few months have been intense — emotionally and physically — as I’ve pulled up roots after spending 20 years at MIT, 14 of it in the Senior House dormitory, and moved to a loft in downtown Los Angeles to start my new job this fall at the University of Southern California. I have had less time than I would have liked to focus on the blog and as a result, have grown frustrated by my inability to respond adequately to a range of developments in areas which I try to follow closely. I am hoping to change that in the weeks ahead, though for now, while I am going to try to get back on a regular schedule of posting, you may expect some disruptions in my typical three day a week schedule.

Today, I wanted to share with you some images and thoughts about my final days at MIT and my first impressions of lives in Los Angeles. This blog really tries to focus on my intellectual life more than my personal life but I’ve gotten so many questions from readers and the two are pretty closely intertwined.

This first photograph (above) was taken by a longtime visiting scholar in the Comparative Media Studies Program,Jaroslav Svelch, who has been doing work through the GAMBIT games lab. It was taken right after I had participated in my last graduation as an MIT faculty member. I had gone through this process many times before but as I sat there, watching the most recent class of CMS graduate and undergraduate students parade by, I realized that in a very real sense that this was my graduation too. I found myself engaged in the bitter-sweet process of reflecting backwards over good times and bad at MIT and forward to the new life which awaited me on the opposite side of the country. Tears welled up as we rose to sing the school anthem and as I found myself walking down the aisle. The band was playing the theme song from the Simpsons as the faculty recessed — an apt choice under the circumstances. A few minutes later, my wife wanted to take some pictures of me in my robe and I ended up mimicing a classic graduation pose — trying to capture that sense of liberation one feels when it is all over. And at that moment, I looked up to see J. across the way taking my photograph also capturing this moment of frivolity.

I was honored with several farewell parties in my final days at MIT. The first of these events was a gathering of the staff, students, and faculty whom I had worked with so closely over the past decade. It was an evening of laughs and nostalgic tears as people rose to tell stories about the ways my work had impacted their lives. At times, it felt like I was Huck Finn who got to sneak in the back of the church and listen to what people said at his final rites. There were moments I wanted to shout out “Not dead yet!” in my best Monty Python voice. But at the same time, I was deeply touched to hear such words of tribute from people who had also transformed my life in such powerful ways. These photographs from the event were snapped by Ilya Vedrashko, an alum from our masters program, who is now a “thought leader” or “guru” at Hill, Hollday Advertising across the River in Boston. This first one shows my wife and I sitting and listening to the wonderful comments from my CMS community.

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This next one is a reunion of sorts of most of the folks who have been active researchers through our Convergence Culture Consortium over the past few years. As you can see, many of our student alums had returned for the event. We are planning a major reunion of all ten classes that graduated from the Comparative Media Studies Program under my watch next spring.

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Many of you who have contacted me in recent years have had a chance to interact with my assistant, Amanda Ford. Amanda now lives in New York City with her husband, Sam Ford, who was also a graduate student in our program, but both of them came down for the going away party. I wanted to share this image as a way of saying thanks to Amanda for all that she has done to support my work over the past few years. Amanda is also going to continue to be facilitating my research and scheduling at USC though she will continue to live and work in New York City. Amanda’s a new mother and we’ve discovered that we work well in a distributed manner. Even when we were working on the opposite sides of my office door, we ended up corresponding via e-mail or speaking on the phone most often given my crazy travel schedule.

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I also very much appreciated a gathering in my honor hosted by folks working in the games industry around Boston. Long time friends and collaborators Alex Chisholm, Scot Osterweill, and Philip Tan stood up and “roasted” me. Given how central games have been to my time at MIT, this was a fitting exchange between academia and industry.

Steer Roast is an event held each May by the students and alumni of Senior House, the oldest dorm on the MIT Campus. For the past fourteen years, my wife, Cynthia, and I have been housemasters, living in the dorm and interacting with its other residents. A housemaster in the MIT system is something like a community organizer, or at least that’s the way I see the job. Every housemaster establishes a different relationship to their dorm population. But for me, the job is one of community building. We tried to help the community define their own goals and figure out the best way to achieve them. We were there in the middle of the night when a student in distress knocks on our dorm. We were there helping the student prepare for disciplinary hearings or work through academic issues. We were there to hold house elections and to advise student leaders. We were there trying to offer ways that students can work with an MIT administration which doesn’t always understand who they are or where they are coming from. And most of all, we tried to make the dorm feel like a home, sometimes for young people who say they have no other home to come back to.

Steer Roast is the community’s celebration of its traditions, its social ties, its creativity, and its diversity. It is said to be one of the largest alumni events which MIT hosts each year: many of our students come back year after year, bringing their families, connecting with decades-old friends, and offering their support to the people currently living in the dorm. It’s a massive task to organize for Roast — not the least because of all of the bureaucratic organizations we need to navigate through. Roast is a come as you are (or perhaps come as you imagine yourself to be) party so students dress up, dress down, and dress all around, the more outlandish the better. You will get a taste of the atmosphere of Roast from these photographs taken by Harvard Student Dharmista Rood. She has posted them as creative commons, attribution, non-commercial, share alike

This first image gives you a taste of the pit-lighting ceremony. As you can see, it’s a come as you are party. Well, actually, it’s come as you want to be party which reflects the range of identities and lifestyles that co-exist in a dorm where being called strange is a compliment.

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Every year for the past decade Cynthia and I have launched the mud wrestling at Roast. Students had joked for years about trying to get the housemasters into the mud. One year an administrator expressed concern about the event — some concerns about student safety, some, I think, about morality, though it’s often hard to separate the two once admins start fretting. We responded by saying that it was perfectly safe — just clean fun — indeed, we did it ourselves. So that year, we were obligated to put on a show for the admins and for the students. And the students showed such delighted, we continued the tradition year after year. One year, we scripted and choreographed a WWF style performance, complete with faked injuries, ring-side coaches, and a dastardly ambush. Most years, we played it more or less straight. We hammed it up but we left it to fate. And almost every year, my wife beat me. I’d be slow to get knocked off my feet but once I did, it was pretty much all over. I have excuses — I can’t see without my glasses. But the reality is that she’s just more competitive than I am and in better shape all around. We found that once we’ve done our bout, the students respected us if we needed to get them to cut out some activity that wasn’t by the book, and it made us much more part of the community we were there to support.

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For several decades, the dorm has proclaimed its identity through a banner which depicts a red white and blue skull, an image taken from the cover of one of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing books, and the motto, “Sport Death.” In the skull’s teeth are the words, “Only Life Can Kill You.” For the students, the image and slogan embodies an ethos of creative risk-taking. Without risks, there is no life. And from risks comes innovation and imagination. The image frightens some parents and more administrators (and that pleases many of the students very much) but at the end of the day, the “Sport Death” spirit is one which is very much in tone with the claims that MIT itself makes as the place where creative people are working together on the outer limits of their fields of research. We have a closet full of “Sport Death” shirts from various Roasts — “Spork Death,” “Spore Death,” “Sport Robot,” and so forth. But I was delighted this year to discover that the dorm had selected a design which was their tribute to our time as housemasters. The “Sport Jenkins” shirt was designed by a CMS undergraduate alum Jaimie Jones. In its mouth are the words, “Only Admins can kill you.” It’s either a sentiment you get or you don’t and doesn’t require much comment here. During the feast this year, we were greeted by a prolonged standing ovation from a courtyard full of students, many of whom were wearing Sport Jenkins shirts. It really took my breath away.

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On July 1, we got on a plane and flew to California, leaving much of this behind. For those of you who haven’t been following the plot, I am accepting a post as the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. I am thrilled to have a chance to work with many here who have been long time friends and colleagues and many more who I am meeting for the first time. There’s something really extraordinary happening at USC right now — starting with the fact that the Provost created a series of positions which are designed to straddle between schools and support multidisciplinary research. Having never been terribly disciplined even on good days, it is amazing to have a job title which tries to capture the full range of my interests. I know great things are going to happen to me here.

July 4 turned out to be an essential “new to LA” experience. When we were living in the dorm, we essentially had the country’s most famous fireworks display going off in our front lawn. The dorm was position in front of the Charles River, across from the Boston Esplanade, and just a little ways down from the barge from which the fireworks were fired. We just had to sit in lawn chairs and watch the spectacle unfold. This year, we had no clue where you go in LA to see fireworks, and of course, in our minds was the same idea of a centralized civic ritual. So, we ended up staying in our hotel. Around 8:30 or so, we started hearing fireworks going off and so we went to the window figuring we’d learn the answer to our newcomer’s questions. And we saw localized fireworks displays going off from neighborhoods as far as the eye could see. Being on the 10th floor we could sit Los Angeles unfold all around us and everywhere we looked there were bright lights exploding in the air. At the peak, we saw maybe 20 different displays occuring simultaneously in different neighborhoods, making it as clear as I’ve even seen the truth of the claim that LA is not a city but a cluster of different neighborhoods.

We moved into an amazing Art Deco building, the Eastern Columbia building, which is in the heart of the newly revitalized downtown area. The Eastern Columbia building was built as a department store in 1930 and it has been a local landmark ever since. I’m told that our loft was where the freight elevator used to be. I had been hoping we were moving to the lingerie department, but oh well. The building was the center of a running joke on the old Jack Benny radio show and has been featured in many Hollywood productions, including the pilot episode of Moonlighting and the final sequence of the first Transformers movie. Our most famous current resident is Johnny Depp, though, before anyone asks, I haven’t seen the guy yet. I’m told this is simply one of his residents and he isn’t here much. (after seeing the pictures of him as The Mad Hatter, I keep having fantasies about asking him down for a tea party.)

The building itself looks like what would happen if the giant clock from Safety Last was redesigned by the best architects from the Land of Oz. Indeed, it so defines the Art Deco movement in Los Angeles that it is one of the illustrations of the Wikipedia entry on Art Deco. We live on Broadway which is an old theater district. Across the street from us is the Orpheum theater, one of a bunch of old movie palaces on our street. The Orpheum was the setting for the tryouts from So You Think You Can Dance, one of my favorite summer series.

So, all told this is the perfect place for us to live. After living in Boston for 20 years without a car, we did buy ourselves a Prius — a pretty red one! — but we are still determined to walk as much as possible. There’s public transportation from our neighborhood to the USC campus so this is well within the range of possibility.

Our move was delayed by a day because the moving company was paniced over what might happen on the morning of the Michael Jackson funeral. We are just a few blocks from the Staple Center. As it happens, things were really quiet. Indeed, the neighborhood was a ghost town as many people didn’t come into work trying to avoid the mob. I wandered down to get some groceries, saw one guy trying to hawk t-shirts, a few kids wearing only one glove, and a family wearing Michael Jackson shirts, and that was it. It is amazing so many people could gather in Los Angeles to pay tribute to the King of Pop and have so little disruption in the surrounding area.

So, we have arrived in Los Angeles. We are still trying to unpack our books and media. But the loft is already starting to feel like home. We are heading off in a day or so for San Diego for Comic-Con.

Comments

  1. blackaller says:

    Good Luck in L.A. Henry! Jaroslav’s picture is awesome.

  2. Great to see that the transition is going so smoothly, and it’s lovely to read this and get a sense of how you feel about things! Enjoy your new appointment. And THANKS for the pictures; the top one of you in regalia is priceless.

  3. JohnFrost says:

    I worked in Downtown LA (just above your condo on Bunker Hill) from 1998 to 2001 when it was struggling to germinate a life independent of the thousands of commuters who drive in from the boondocks everyday. (Myself I drove 1.5 hours in every morning from Long Beach.) The Redline had just opened and Metro-rail was carting in some of my co-workers from as far away as Lancaster (that’s on the other side of the mountains, but still in Los Angeles County (the nation’s largest)).

    I have friends who live downtown now, not too far from you, and follow their blogs (I recommend Meeko on Main ( http://pamelameekorouse.blogspot.com/ – she also shares my Disney addiction)) to see how 10 years later those seeds that were planted at the end of the last millennium are now bearing fruit.

    I wish you luck on your new path. I can’t wait to see what the next ten years bring to LA. It will certainly be better off with you contributing your insights.

  4. Welcome to California! I hope you and Cynthia enjoy your new home. Thanks for posting this; it’s great to catch up, and the mud-wrestling shot is just wonderful. (:

  5. I can only shake my head in wonder. USC? Notre Dame I can understand, but… Oh well. You sound like such a smart guy.|)

    Best of luck with one of our CA intellectual powerhouses.

  6. Jaroslav Å velch says:

    Good luck in L.A.!

    Glad you liked (and used) my photo.

  7. maisquared.wordpress.com says:

    Good luck!! I look forward to reading about your new adventures (or old?) in LA. MIT won’t be the same without you. I was never a student, but attended the Futures of Entertainment conference as a student at a nearby school. Hope you come back for those!