Mangan’s memoirs

Pictures from Tanglewood Festival of Lights 2013

Every November, the organizers of the Tanglewood Festival of Lights allow a walk-through so folks can take their time and immerse themselves in the riot of holiday lighting. That happened last night; tonight the festival begins in earnest with carloads of people inching their way through the park.

Few will ever leave their cars, which is a shame because putting a two-ton vehicle between yourself and all this is a crime against the senses. It was a bit misty and far too warm to qualify as wintry weather on Friday night, but the ability to feel the breezes, move at whatever pace feels comfy, pause to take pictures and hear the kids erupting in peals of joy was priceless.

In comparison, driving through the festival in a car feels more like standing in line at Disneyland. While you get the thrills eventually, the crowds and the waiting ruin the magic.

I’m guessing no more than a few hundred people showed up last night, but those of us who made it were in for a treat.  Note that I have no claims to moral superiority for walking through this year; I’ve had the same opportunity for the past three years and never managed to dislodge my fanny from my favorite chair in front of the TV.

Here’s a quick summary of last night’s walk-through, posted in the order I took the photos.


From a shutterbug’s perspective, the best thing about the walk-through is the ability to get close to the displays; there’s not much chance of that in a car. When you’re up close, there’s enough light for the camera to get at least a decent handheld shot at a one-eighth-second exposure. The camera’s image-stabilization technology does the rest.


This is the first big feature after you enter the festival. All these snowflakes are flickering, which gives the visual centers of the brain a nice workout.


Probably one of the best scenes in the festival. A lot of the festival’s lighting is over-the-top but this one has a subtlety that better reflects the spirit of the season, as we like to say.


The abundance of arches over the road speaks to the fact that this is designed to be seen through the front windshield of a car.


This mill with the stream of blue lights is a nice touch.


The real showpiece is the display around this pond — though you have to admit there’s not a lot of holiday imagery happening here.


OK, so the sea serpent may represent our collective dread of fighting crowds at the mall.

Why does the serpent seem to have two heads and three tails? In real life, the display flashes in multiple positions to give the impression that the serpent’s head and tail are moving. Actually the brain is what makes us think it’s animated. It doesn’t move at all — so when you leave a camera’s shutter open for 15 seconds as I did here, the sensor captures all the “frames” of the display’s animation and freezes them all in the same shot.


Ever notice how certain clowns, dolls and jack-in-the-box heads seem vaguely diabolical? It struck me as uncanny how this display has the same effect.


One of the many static displays.


In the animation, the guy on the left is grabbing the time bombs from the box and handing them to the guy in the center, who drops them in the cannon for the guy on the right to light the fuse. The time exposure captures it a single frame.


And now we jump to hyperspace! This actually is better experienced in the car because it makes your Chevy feel like a spaceship.


A magic castle.


Horses leaping near an equestrian corral where people put their jumping horses through their paces.

More on the 2013 Festival of Lights.

  • Official website.
  • Schedule: 6 to 11:00 p.m. nightly, Nov. 23-Jan. 1.
  • Fees: $20 for cars, trucks and SUVs on Friday-Sunday and all holidays; $15 on Mondays-Thursdays. See the website for rates on buses and commercial vans.


What I think of the Fourth of July

It was the 12th of September in 2001, the day after the 11th, and I was driving to work to fill a newspaper with followups. I lived Alameda County, California, and every day I crossed a minor mountain pass and descended into the wall-to-wall sprawl of Silicon Valley at Fremont, a burb that became a city of 200,000 people.

It was the same view I’d seen a hundred mornings before, but this time it was different. As I wondered what could’ve possibly possessed those clowns to fly jetliners into skyscrapers, I didn’t see Silicon Valley’s smog-inducing sea of sameness. This time I saw an ocean of ingenuity in all those office parks: people designing faster microchips, gleaning the secrets of DNA, making manufacturers more efficient.

Flag of the United States of AmericaI’ll grant you those 19 guys were clever, daring and devoted to a cause. And there probably were thousands more just like them scattered around the globe. But they were outnumbered 50-to-1 in Silicon Valley alone, and the Silicon Valley types were building stuff, not blowing it up.

The lesson of human history is that the builders keep building and the bomb-throwers get blown up. That was the world I saw that morning on my way to work.

In America, we build. Not just houses, factories and fast-food joints. We build ourselves.

We’ve gotten ourselves into terrible jams in the 235 years since the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence. A Civil War, a Great Depression, two World Wars. Today gutsy young Americans are dodging bullets on our behalf, just as they’ve done in all our wars.

I’m not into simplistic, flag-waving patriotism that hollers “my country, right or wrong.” Everybody loves their country, which makes us all easy prey for politicians who’d use our affection for our homeland to fight their ill-advised wars. I’m even a little embarrassed by fireworks when I think of all the people who’ve huddled in bomb shelters as American-made rockets rained down on their neighborhoods.

Yeah, the history books are full of our nation’s screw-ups. We owned slaves, we wiped out Indian tribes. Up until about 1965, liberty meant “you’re free if you’re white.”

Two generations later, descendants of slaves are among our most popular personalities, and our president is a half-African with “Hussein” for a middle name. Try to imagine another country with 300 million citizens where that could happen.

We were the country that dumped monarchy into history’s landfill. We proved that people could elect their own leaders and build a productive, prosperous society despite all the divisions — religion, ethnicity, class — that bedevil us. Making racism obsolete will be our gift to the world. We’re not there yet, but it seems doable.

Update (summer 2013): When I wrote this in the summer of 2011, my prospects looked grim: 49 years old with no job and a home-based business built mainly on a suspicion that I could make it work. Today I have a thriving freelance content business that makes me proud to be an American on this Fourth of July — because impossible is still doable here.

My name is Tom, and I am a Verb Nerd

Tom Mangan, editor, writer, blogger, founder, verb nerd industriesIt used to be easy to explain how I earned a living. Just show somebody the daily scandal sheet and point to the headlines, captions, photos of a proper proportion, etc. All that ended a couple summers ago when I left the San Jose Mercury News by the back door for the last time.

Today I’m doing something similar yet altogether different. I still write, I still edit, I never stopped blogging (it was easier to kick nicotine). I call my new venture Verb Nerd Industries — the link leads to several pages of shenanigans I’ve been implicated in over the years. My life story at a glance:

1961: Born in Peoria, Illinois.

1968: Moved to suburbs of Peoria with family (yes, Peoria had suburbs).

1979: Graduated from Limestone High School (see “Dazed and Confused”; it tells all of our stories).

1982: Lived in Abilene, Texas; assistant-managed a fast food joint called Hot Dog Castle, acquiring sufficient motivation to better myself.

1984: Entered journalism school at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Worked for campus paper called the Daily Egyptian, which was at least 10,000 miles from the Nile.

1988: Started first big-city newspaper job at the Tampa Tribune. Learned the true meaning of sweat.

1991: Married Melissa, next-door neighbor of the guy at the desk next to mine at the Trib.

1993: Moved back to Peoria to work for the Journal Star. Career highlight: compiling a package of stories revealing that the all the rich and famous Peorians got that way after moving away.

1996: Started my first blog, devoted to journalists’ websites. Didn’t realize it was a blog until years later.

1999: Moved to Silicon Valley to see the great Tech Boom up close. Tech Bust ensued as if on cue. Followed all the fun from the front lines at the San Jose Mercury News.

2005: Started Two-Heel Drive, my hiking blog; persisted all these years despite persistent evidence that bloggers rarely hike, and hikers rarely blog.

2009: Second market crash in the space of a decade motivated me to try new things outside the newspaper business. Relocated to North Carolina for the abundance of cheap housing and hiking trails.

2011: Launched Verb Nerd Industries. Avalanche of clients currently poised on a cornice somewhere in the Grand Tetons. Hire me now and beat the crush.

Where to find out what I’ve been up to

When I’m not noodling with my various blogs, I’m often killing brain cells at these online hangouts:


I was geeky enough to snag before somebody else did.


Twitter was a mildly diverting toy till I discovered a site called, which allows you to create an online newspaper from the links posted to Twitter. Now I have four tweets-papers:

I’ve posted dozens of iPhone hiking guides and GPS-enabled travelogues there.

Linked In

Work history and recommendations from colleagues.

Combining two of my favorite things

Massie Gap

Funny how necessity recalibrates your intentions. Back in California I’d do almost anything to avoid long drives to trails — it seemed like a crime against nature to spend more time driving than hiking. The reality, though, was there were so many excellent hiking trails in the Bay Area that I could always find an excuse to pair a long hike with a short drive.

On our current end of the country, the situation is almost entirely reversed: it’s crazy to make do with local trails when excellent ones are just a couple hours away. Case in point: Saturday’s hike at Grayson Highlands State Park paired five hours of driving with five hours of hiking. While the Appalachian peaks seem scrawny by Western standards, they are nevertheless mountains that stretch for 1,200 miles from Georgia to Canada. There’s nothing like it within 50 miles of Winston-Salem.

The route up to Grayson Highlands twists, climbs and dives though at least 50 miles of remote two-lane blacktop; I’ve always loved taking these kinds of drives. Seems I now have two reasons to head for the hills.

(I’m sure it’s just a coincidence — not karma or anything — that my luck seems to have been continually improving since my departure from the daily-dose-of-doom industry.)

So this is what our new abode looks like

We moved all the furniture over today and Melissa had the place looking like home in five hours flat. A few images:


Entry hallway.


Dining room.






Living room.




Hildy says hi.



Melissa was in here painting and cleaning every day for the past four weeks; I expect she’ll be sleeping for a week.

I’ll gab more about what’s happening in our lives later; just wanted to satisfy the curiosity of anybody who wanted to know what the inside of the place looks like.

Planting the flag here

Looks like we’ll be setting up housekeeping here in the Triad — we’re in the paperwork phase of acquiring a condo in the burbs west of Winston-Salem. Yeah, there are burbs here. This’ll be the fourth address change in 12 months; we’re hoping it’ll be the last in several years.
I’ve always liked the South, though I confess I’ve read none of Faulkner’s novels (did enjoy “All the King’s Men,” a great Southern novel if there ever was one, however). North Carolina has become so prosperous and populous (10th most people in the U.S. now) that it’s unfair to think of it as one of those Old South states like Mississippi or Alabama. The state parks have no entry fees, the recreational opportunities are just about endless, the scenery is breathtaking if you know where to look. The tallest mountain in the East is here (but you knew that if you’ve been reading my hiking blog).

Now that we’ve decided to kick back here for awhile, I’ll have to start visiting some of the locales that don’t entail walking on dirt. The triad has museums, musicians and movie houses like any other place. History’s a big deal, seeing as how the region’s most compelling stories predate the Civil War by over 100 years (when the original settlers came here from Pennsylvania and set up shop in an abandon trapper’s cabin — see my hike at Historic Bethabara if you missed it). A man credited with inspiring the beliefs of Salem’s settlers was among the world’s first Protestants; naturally the pope ordered him burned at the stake. We’re talking early 1400s here, so yeah, the stories go way back.

More to come. Here’s hoping it’s interesting in a good way.

‘Mama Tried,’ a Christmas story

(I wrote this as a Christmas gift for Melissa. It was inspired by moment when we were packing our things in California and my darling wife held a rolling pin aloft just before stowing it and said “you know where I’d like to shove this” and I knew exactly what she had in mind and where she wanted to put it. I thought I might add more chapters but if I don’t get inspired, this little ditty stands on its own).

“… And I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole…”

It was their song, Merle Haggard’s classic account of an angelic mother and her demonic son who rewarded her goodness with shame and scandal. Neighbors of a shabby studio apartment on the seedy edge of Hickory, North Carolina, knew every syllable by heart. The guy in 228-J played it at 10:13 every Thursday night for the past 13 years, four months and 21 days.

“… no one could turn me right but Mama tried…” she heard through the apartment’s thin door. A wave of warmth pushed back the Christmas Eve chill.

She was the Rolling Pin Killer, and she was on the lam. She was right where the authorities would look for her first, the filthy warren of her soulmate, a failed newspaperman who devoted his every waking hour to securing her release from the Joliet Prison for Women.

She couldn’t remember ever being this excited as she began to rap upon the door, but remembered to pause till 15 seconds after the last guitar chord faded. The time he threw the landlord’s puppy through a plate-glass window for interrupting their song became the stuff of legend once the tabloids got ahold of it.

It took two sets of hard knocks before she heard him picking his way through his personal junkyard on the way to the door. She stepped aside as a plume of dust poured from the opening apartment door. He didn’t get out much.

“Honey, it’s me!” she cried, jumping toward the doorway and crashing into his sunken chest.

Can’t be a dream, he thought. I haven’t slept in five days. CNN was running updates on her cunning jailbreak every 12 minutes. He’d watched it all. They knew about as much as he did, but unlike him they had 24 hours of airtime to fill.

“Wow, she’s really bulked up inside,” he thought as her muscled arms nearly squeezed his breath away. Reflexively, he threw a hand between their lips, knowing her reunion kiss would drain his last ounce of sanity.

“Aggie, what are you doing here?” he demanded with his first strong breath. “For God’s sake, the Supreme Court is hearing your case on Tuesday.”

Agnes Butterfly was the name on her birth certificate, but everybody knew her as Aggie. Her conviction in the diabolical slayings of 17 corporate executives (each one felled by a fatally impacted bowel) had transfixed the nation.

Two trials and four appeals could not sway the U.S. justice system from its insistence that she was the Rolling Pin Killer. As far as he was concerned, though, the case was all circumstantial and ripe for appeals. After all, the one person she did vow to violate with a rolling pin was very much alive.

He updated his blog,, 17 times a day with fresh allegations of judicial missteps and police wrongdoing. He threw all the revenue from the site’s 17 million hits a day into Aggie’s defense fund, but $314.42 a week didn’t buy much legal advice.

But in classic Hollywood style, a determined gaggle of law students took on her case and smothered the justice system with every imaginable legal ploy, and many previously unimagined. It all paid off six weeks ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take on her case. What on earth, could have pushed her to this, he wondered as his breathing returned.

“It’s Mom,” Aggie blurted. “She knows everything and we have to stop her.”

(To be continued if I get inspired… suggestions for further chapters welcome.)

Carolina musings

Six weeks ago today we arrived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

I suppose I should have a lot more to say about the place, but I’ve spent most of the past 42 days right here, tapping into my keyboard. Went on a few hikes, dutifully recounted on my hiking blog. We moved out of Melissa’s mom’s living room after a month. We like having our own four walls, even if it means having a landlord.

So what do I think of North Carolina? Liking it so far, mainly because it appears to be turning into California. It already has mountains on one end and an ocean on the other (while the mountains are smaller, the beaches are more welcoming than the bone-chilling shores of Northern California — fair trade-off, I’d say). It has a burgeoning high-tech sector and a growing population that’s getting more diverse every day.

Truth is, there’s nothing I could say about this place right now that wouldn’t come across as a caricature — either of me, the stranger in the new place, or the place itself, whose strangeness lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder. I still feel like a guest in somebody else’s state, so hatin’ on the hosts is not high on my to-do list.

Melissa and I have had 14 address changes in the past 20 years — from Tampa, to Peoria, to San Jose, to Winston-Salem. Seems like we’re always someplace new, so I’ve learned to distrust first impressions. We have all the Taco Bells and Outback Steakhouses and Targets and Office Maxes that everybody else has. The terrain here is rolling, green and generally pleasing to the eye. Are there hellholes? Sure. Is there crime, bigotry and unnecessary unpleasantness afoot? Yeah. Our suburban sprawl looks just like your suburban sprawl.

Nothing has influenced my conclusion that there is very little true diversity within our species. Biologically we’re almost identical. People in this part of the United States have digestive tracts optimized for hunting and gathering on the plains of Africa, just like folks in every other nook and cranny of our planet.

So right now my life doesn’t feel all that much different. I’m getting freelance work that requires me to move words around on a computer screen, just like my old job. I am thankful that I’m no longer obliged to chronicle the daily depravity we have come to think of as “news.” I think I earned a vacation after 20 years.

I figure no matter what zip code you live in, you’ve only got one true address: the corpus carrying your brain and bodily organs. It contains all the tools you need to survive no matter where you live, so long as you have access to water, shelter and warmth. We’ve got all that stuff.