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The American Dream

The American Dream

This particular adventure draws to a close; in a few minutes Pablo the limo driver (cheaper than a taxi) will return, hopefully with my luggage, and we’ll be off to LAX. The pictures on this page I took earlier today around the Getty Center. There are two American dreams. It’s ironic that I’m typing this while in Los Angeles, the magnet for people looking for the first one:

Dream 1. The shortcut to wealth. Be discovered, become a star; quickly build up a business empire and make millions. Protect your wealth through whatever means, be they economic or political.

Sycamore tree

Dream 2: Find someone special. Afford a house with a white picket fence. Raise a family. Grow old together, enjoy each others company. Stay healthy, stay out of debt. Read. Be optimistic. Live modestly.

I met plenty of people who were after dream 2. Some, like the couple at the last meal I had on an Amtrak train, had found it. Others were looking. Those two dreams; they partially but don’t totally fit the political scene. Many Republican voters would prefer dream 2; some Democrats have achieved dream 1.

Open plaza

What connects them both is opportunity and education. Learn how to find the opportunities. Give yourself the skills to take advantage of them. Whatever American dream you follow, unless you get extremely lucky or are born into money, you’ve got to go for the opportunities. And they’re there. If you want them and go for them. And you have a large slice of luck with things such as health. So Americans seem quietly determined; at least the ones I met. Perhaps this is a manifestation of their ancestry, with people determined to leave behind poverty and repression and make a better life. Maybe it’s a desire to get on in life. Connect with like-minded people. Move on, and build what is still a new country, make it better.

And maybe this is why the US has what I call The Hive. It’s an extremely intense network and community of self-driven digital library researchers and practitioners. They each make considerable use of Web 2.0 and other net technologies to what some may think are extreme degrees. They don’t *have* to do any of this; they just do. I met some of The Hive at #IL2008 and #GLLS2008; others online, through Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and email.


This doesn’t exist in Britain to the extent it does in the US, and I’m not sure it could. Work conditions, negatively, count against it. Americans would say “Just do it.”; Brits would say “Why on Earth are you doing it?” in that ever-cynical way I’ve gotten tired of over the last decade. Cynicism is not the same as intelligence, which is why Britain would never elect someone like Barack with a message of “Hope” and “Change”. By coincidence I had a late night twitter exchange with someone senior from the UK academic digital education scene, who made pretty much the same point about a lack of any substantial UK “Hive”. This needs investigating properly (RB: we need to talk).

What is America? It’s being in wonder at something without looking for fault or cynicism in it. It’s strangers saying hello. It’s trying at something. It’s having conversations that are never dull or predictable. It’s having an opinion. It’s making a cause, and voting, and elections, and not giving up when a hurricane washes away your house but going back and rebuilding it and making a home and starting again. It’s an utter diversity of landscapes, communities and people. It’s being awake, it’s realising what’s outside and what you want to do, and who you are. Smell is the strongest sense, and to me America smells of Amtrak diesel, pomegramates and lemons, strong coffee in a Memphis diner, badly made tea, gumbo, the dollar bill, hotel cookies, peanut butter at Graceland, Louisiana swampwater, Seattle breakfast fruit, rooftop swimming pools, bear poo, the sweat of a nervous taxi driver, the breakfast buffet at #glls2008, hot dogs on Santa Monica pier, fish feed at Monterey aquarium, Pike Place in Seattle, cheesecake, the Mississippi at sunset, deep Chicago pizza, the edginess of El Paso, hotel conference room carpets, the hair of someone hugging you who was a stranger yesterday and will be a friend for life today, a library in Montana, the tangiable excitement of a crowd counting down the seconds to their president-elect…


But there’s only one colour for me and that colour is blue. Blue for the sky over the Getty Center in Los Angeles as I type this, of the sky over the Canadian rockies, of the Mississippi at dawn, of the sky over a Swedish-style house with a white picket fence I glimpsed in Minnesota and can’t forget, of the eyes of Brooke and Holly, of the winning party. “Soak it up – be inspired – let yourself be open – you don’t know what might come in.”

I did, and found America, and home.

Thank you.

First overnight trip on Amtrak

First overnight trip on Amtrak

The train left Salinas half an hour late. On the platform, as darkness fell, we saw a shooting star. “Oooh, look at that” said a distinctly Brummie voice to my left, and it turned out there were a group of people from Redditch travelling to San Fran. Small world. Boarding meant encountering the roomette for the first time. Basically, imagine an area with two chairs with a two feet gap facing each other, bound by walls behind them, a sliding door to one side and a window on the other. That’s pretty much it, though in a model of efficiency various compartments and switches offered lighting, ventilation and storage options. There’s no room for luggage of any kind, so that stayed on the racks nearby. Scared of missing dinner (old habits die hard) I practically ran to the dining car. Turns out there was plenty of time.

In another model of efficiency, groups of passengers are put together to fill whole tables, so you usually end up with a random selection of fellow diners for every meal. On this occasion, I was bundled up with a Republican voter (and not shy to state this) from New Mexico (“They should build that fence and electrify it”), a stereotypical senior Jew from New York, and a goth from Portland. The goth had the miserable time, going stiff at every rightwing comment, sipping tea and eating a salad while the rest of us tucked into steaks. Perhaps her “Goodbye, hope to see you again” to the republican was not entirely sincere.

Dining car

The rest of the evening was spent getting progressively more sozzled with a group of cowboys and fishermen. It was either that, or watch the movie in the 20 seat cinema downstairs, but IronMan wasn’t appealing. I *think* the foresome were two couples, but couldn’t entirely work it out. One was a Canadian who’d been fishing off Louisiana for the summer; one was a producer of TV shows about cooking. They wore cowboy hats and said cowboy phrases; beer flowed until the conductor closed the bar and turned off the lights. I went back to my roomette and considered how to make the bed properly. I’d already sussed, by accidentally stepping on the foot pedal, that the chairs slumped and came together. Bedding was located, which consisted of quite a good matress, a couple of sheets, and to be frank the most pathetic pillow I’ve seen in my life. No – calling it a pillow is a travesty against pillows. So I borrowed several towels from the racks outside and fashioned a more substantial pillow arrangement from them.

Then got in and lay down, becoming immediately aware of the train rocking. Would sleep actually occur that night. Yes; it happened just after the train left Sacramento. Surprisingly, I didn’t wake up until 7:30, somewhere in northern California (still), with the train ambling through a distinctly western landscape (picture below). A better nights sleep than in some hotels I’ve stayed in. Hopped in the shower (no queue) and found it pleasantly hot and fierce. Went straight to breakfast; dining table companions included a freshman on her way back to college (clutching her teddy bear), and an Amtrak consultant on his way to give a presentation on the future of the company (summary: healthy).

First view in the morning

The rest of the day involved drinking coffee and watching the Cascade Mountains and their covering forests chug by. The train stayed for a while at a very small town where everyone appeared to drive a pick-up with a dog in the back. During the hour there I tried and failed to find a Wifi connection, and tried and failed to use the phone to ring the folks in the Seattle and tell them the train was going to be late.

Klamath Falls

Lunch companions were a talkative senior from Nebraska who was enjoying the scenery no end, and a couple from Seattle. I was the only one who didn’t say grace before lunch. He seemed to have an underlying anger about immigrants of all types, everywhere. She was more amiable, and talked about her trips to visit their daughter in Alaska. They both agreed that Sarah Palin was good, as she was genuine – what you see is what you get.

The afternoon brought with it the Amtrak wine tasting, which was good fun. Though surprisingly not that popular – despite four tastes, cheese and crackters being five dollars, much vino was swallowed by the small group there. It was here that I met a three tour Vietnam veteran, who was doing an epic train trip of the US and Canada for very personal reasons. Partly because of his connections, talk amongst the six of us in our area turned to the election. He said some rather dramatic things (two of which am sure would make the front page of major newspapers) that caused the rest of the carriage to go very quiet.

Wine tasting on the train

And that led on to Chicago. When the usual “Why are you travelling on this train?” came to me, two very conflicting opinions were expresssed about being in Chicago on election day. One camp decided it would be the “Party of the Century” if Obama wins. Another group opinioned that in that circumstance, Chicago would burn – which made me think, what would therefore happen to Chicago if Obama *lost*? After that – a short rest and a watch of more scenery go by. Then yet another meal. Food – hmmm. They do have a different menu for each meal on Amtrak, but healthy it is not. The specialty sandwich of the day (their spelling) turned out to be fried :-( Other healthy options had something nasty lurking in them too.

Meals are included in the price of accommodation for people in the sleeper cars, so I felt obliged to get what I could to maximise money’s worth. Unfortunately, the general unhealthyness, plus the utter lack of exercise opportunities, makes for inevitable weight gain. The train has a cinema, so why not a small pool, or at least a gym?

Four minute stop

And, like this blog posting, it ambled on. Unfortunately Amtrak doesn’t own the track and therefore the trains have to wait and give way to freight trains. Which means that many train rides run late – like this one. So, 29 hours after starting from Salinas – and 37 hours for people coming from LA – the train stopped in Seattle where Alex and Theresa were waiting (probably nervously) to pick up the polar bear and take him back to their place. More on that later…

Monterey aquarium

Monterey aquarium


With IL2008 over, and it being good to have the first presentation of this trip done, this morning I hit the world-famous aquarium in Monterey with a couple of other delegates. I’d heard a lot about this place, to the extent I was getting a bit fed up with it, but as I have most of a day before my train to Seattle it seems a logical place to check out.

The admission fee isn’t cheap – $24.95 – which is blimey UK prices. But, after a few hours of wandering around, looking at the substantial collection of sea thingies, stroking a blue ray, and watching sharks, otters and fish being fed, it’s been a pretty enjoyable time.

And the wifi. OMG. I don’t think I’ve ever had wifi as fast as this anywhere. And it’s public wifi, not optimized for your home or office. I cannot believe the speed things are downloading. (Downloads all the things)

There’s also an otter tank with feeding times, but as I have otters at the bottom of my garden back home, it was no big thing:

It was noticeable in the cafe/restaurant that people generally avoided the “Sustainable Seafood” option and went for beef or chicken instead…

Sleepless in Monterey

Sleepless in Monterey

Well, not quite, though the jetlag has not entirely gone and I have strange panda-like eyes now. I guess I should blog a bit, especially as my badge has a “blogger” appendage to it. So I’m here at the Internet Librarian 2008 event, or IL2008 as it’s Web-2.0-known. Monterey, on first look, is a bit of a sleepy place (compared to in-your-face LA) and pseudo-Mexican (there’s probably a proper word for it) in style. The conference centre has air conditioning and is surprisingly low-key from the outside. I know very few people at this event.


I’ve met my session chair before (another ex-eLib person) and one of the speakers who is on before me. Apart from that, I haven’t met anyone amongst the several hundred (or thousand) delegates here I know. Dispiritingly, most people are younger than me. Some appears to be at least a generation younger than me. Anyway, my presentation for tomorrow morning is in the can. Should any delegate come across this beforehand, it’s the Digital Games in European Libraries one.

I’ll be discussing such diverse topics as:

  • Playstation games in English public libraries.
  • George Washington and the Stars and Stripes.
  • Nintendo, Playstation and Xbox games around the continent (of Europe).
  • What the National Libraries of Europe said when I asked them what they did with video games.
  • …and why Sarah Palin is the closest the US has to official royalty.

Hey, there’s a cocktail reception at 6pm on the 10th floor of the Marriott. Hopefully that’s on the west side, as it’ll afford good views of the sunset over the pacific. Think I’ll go to that, then go to the evening presentation by the Dutch posse who are moving around the place dressed in black and looking particularly cool in that way only continental Europeans can do.

Pictures, not words

Pictures, not words

Not blogging much for a while; too busy to write prose. Most days though pictures are getting uploaded to Flickr.

The growing set for this particular trip are here… and here’s a few for now from today’s eight hour train ride:

Union Station

Waiting area

Amtrak train

Los Angeles and Santa Monica

Los Angeles and Santa Monica

It’s morning, and around 80 degrees. The eight lanes of traffic on the road outside are getting heavy. A mile or so away, jumbo jets are queuing up to take off, on their way to Japan, China, Europe and Australia. The view from the window:

Waking up in LA

As you may have guessed, I’m not in Berneray. Instead, I’m in an airport hotel in Los Angeles, California (Is that last bit necessary? Does anyone *not* know where LA is?). It’s about a week into the trip away, though it seems a very long time ago now since Shonnie Alick dropped me off at Benbecula airport. Yesterday and today are jetlag recovery days. As it’s my first trip abroad as a middle-aged bloke, and as jetlag has hit me hard on the last two US trips, am in chill-out mode for a while. Especially after the 11 hour flight here, though that wasn’t too bad. Heathrow Terminal Five was modern and relaxing, though the range of things to do was a little disappointing. The flight itself was pretty good; some spectacular views of Greenland (below), Canada, the Rockies, the vast midwest desert and Las Vegas


That Asus EEE is also damned useful in small spaces; I knocked off a whole presentation and about half of a paper in the seven hours of battery power (yay for solid state memory).

Working at 32,000 feet

LAX wasn’t too bad this time, and I was out of there within an hour of the flight getting in. Non-US arrivals are thoroughly checked; passports are scrutinised (not just checked) on three occasions. Two fingerprints and a picture are taken. The questioning can be detailed; I was worried for a few moments that my reply to “Why are you here?” of “To encourage librarians to use Nintendo Wii’s in their libraries” (which it is) may have misconstrued as taking the mick, but they let me through. Today, like yesterday, I’m off to Santa Monica. Last evening was shopping and pier time; today will be beach time, a swim in the Pacific (surely warmer than the sea off the Uists, though probably not as clean), and possibly a trip to the Getty Center.

Pier from the sidewalk

I’m travelling by Amtrak to get around the US on this trip. This’ll be an interesting experience, and it started yesterday when making the first reservations in the fabulous Union Station in central LA. Amtrak, oddly, seems to operate more like an airline (used to) than airlines do now. They advise you to arrive 90 minutes before, check in your baggage, and do other bits of admin before getting on the train. Tomorrows trip is a mere 8 hours (so no overnights) from LA to Salinas, after which I’ll make my way to Monterey where I’m presenting in a few days time.


Logistically, so far so good. Sensibly, US hotels often have laundry rooms, so I’m pretty up to date with clean clothes, supplemented by cheap purchases in the UK (Primark) and the US (Gap). And so, with just laptop, camera and towel packed, it’s off to the beach…