July 24, 2014 Leave a comment
April 5, 2014 Leave a comment
Indie Moines was launched in December 2011, and Marcia and I have published about 220 new posts since that time. (Some of these articles have since been moved to our professional websites: J. Eric Smith and Marcia Brom Smith). After we established this domain, I decided to shut down and/or reorganize a variety of earlier websites, so I have also populated Indie Moines with about 800 additional posts — dating back to 1995 — that originally appeared on a variety of other commercial and noncommercial websites.
There are two downsides to this sort of consolidation. First, pages that had long been Google search favorites now have new addresses, so they’re a little harder to find, and generate a little less traffic than they once did. Second, internal links get hashed up as articles move from one domain to another, while their images or related pages either no longer exist, or remain on other servers with other addresses. These are both annoyances, but I decided that they were acceptable inconveniences, given the content density that comes from having twenty years’ worth of the best bits from a dozen websites in a single (virtual) location.
For most articles, especially standalone pieces, these structural inconveniences really don’t have any lasting impact. But for long-form, multiple chapter entries, or pieces with significant inline imagery, they can be catastrophic to understanding or appreciating what I originally intended to communicate.
Unfortunately, one of my most popular online pieces, the “Hidden in Suburbia” series, was particularly hard hit by changes in hosting locations and addresses. I ran multi-entry “Hidden in Suburbia” series in 2005, 2008 and 2011, and they were widely read, and still generate significant search interest. Alas, much of the incoming traffic generated by that interest now results in “404 Page Not Found” entries.
Here’s the original premise of the series:
I live in a nice area called Latham, New York, middle to upper-middle class for the most part, well-kept homes in properly manicured and landscaped settings, good schools, good investment value in property, all the things one generally expects in the nicer bits of suburbia. If you draw a circle with a radius of about two and half miles around my house, you will also see that there are lots of woods. This makes the neighborhoods look nice, with backdrops of green and nice, tidy (from a distance) wild areas separating one neighborhood from another.
This is good, because I have a deep fascination with woods. Not forests, mind you, but woods. Forests are the untamed, wild places where nature is still, for the most part, in charge, and where urban, exurban and suburban development are still ages, years and/or miles and miles away. Woods, on the other hand, are the bits of forest that are left when development occurs, stands of trees immediately adjacent to suburban civilization, the dark places where all the things that suburban civilization doesn’t want to think about go to die. Or to thrive, depending on what flavor they are.
It’s shocking to find a piece of trash in a pristine forest. In suburban woods, though, you expect to find trash. People dump in there late at night, so they don’t have to drive all the way to the landfill. Kids steal stuff and take it out there to hide it, then forget about it. Teenagers smoke, drink, make out, break bottles and blow things up in the woods, leaving a variety of interesting detritus. The woods are the places where suburbia’s darkness lurks in wait, like something from a David Lynch movie.
But it’s not the specters and spirits of the woods that interest me, really, as much as it the stuff you find back there, and how the community sort of turns its collective consciousness away from it all. It may be right behind your house, but if it’s in the woods, then it’s okay, as long as it stays there and you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to. But I like thinking about it . . . and so I ride and walk through muck, mud, weeds and woods looking for the things that no one else wants to.
All of the photos and all of the stories in this series are taken and told from within a circle with a five mile circumference, my house smack in the center. It doesn’t seem like a lot of space . . . until you really start exploring the spaces between the space . . .
While working to clean up some archives for another project, I decided to see what I could do to salvage the original three Hidden in Suburbia essays. The 2011 one was pretty easy to clean up and recover, since it was posted to WordPress on the defunct Indie Albany page, which was formatted very much like Indie Moines, and so could be exported and imported with most links and references intact, and because the images were hosted on a Flickr account that I still have. Clicking the link below will bring the series up — plus a related piece called “Academia (After the Apocalypse)” — with both words and images available as they originally appeared, with the last post first, and first post last, per normal blog convention. This post will appear on top, since it shares a coding category, but you can then scroll down and work back up to read them in proper chronological order, if you want; note that you will need to hit the “older posts” link at the bottom of the page to see the first two pieces:
The 2008 and 2005 articles, on the other hand, are damaged beyond viable repair in terms of re-knitting narrative and images together again, so the best I can do for the two of those series is to delete the damaged pages and upload the imagery into its own Flickr set, so if you’re interested, you can see it, and I can answer any questions about it, but that’s about it. Interestingly enough, though, I have found that going through these images as a slideshow is actually oddly fascinating . . . the lack of context, and the unrelenting oddness of the spaces where woods and civilization meet, creates quite an evocative experience. Click the link below to see the whole set:
I hope that these pieces will inspire you to explore your own woods and share what you’ve found. While these images were captured in and around Latham, New York, they truly could be just about anywhere in North America where stands of old trees menace suburban and exurban development, and the universal nature of these images is what has given them their appeal over the years.
April 1, 2014 Leave a comment
Despite the fact that it feels nothing like springtime in Iowa, I’m pleased to note that the Major League Baseball Season is underway, as I am cautiously optimistic that I might actually have something to root for this year.
Let me come clean up front about why that’s the case, since I am that rarest and most pathological of all baseball followers: a Kansas City Royals fan. Stop smirking, I’m serious. No, really. Stop it. Now. Last season, the Beloved Royals actually finished above .500 for the first time since 2004. Can they build on that this year? Perhaps even making the playoffs for the first time since they won the I-70 World Series in 1985, and invoked the Curse of Joaquin Andujar? Or is that just crazy talk?
It’s probably just crazy talk, but a deranged fan can dream, can’t he?
I do feel like I should note that my devotion to the Royals is not an affectation picked up since I moved to the Midwest, nor is it some sort of weird bandwagon jumping just as sportswriters seem to notice that there is actually a second major league baseball team playing in Missouri. No, my delusional fandom has far deeper roots than that.
As a kid in the Carolinas, I followed my Dad’s lead and was a devoted Washington sports fan. I diligently followed the Redskins, then the Bullets when they came over from Baltimore (and before they became the Wizards), then the Capitals when they came along. But in the early ’70s, after Washington lost its second baseball franchise, I was without a team to root for. Then we moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for a year, where the new-ish Royals were doing whizbang good for an expansion franchise, making the postseason for the first time in 1976.
Since I didn’t have a Washington-based baseball team to claim as my own, I quickly jumped on the Royals bandwagon that fall, becoming a dogged, diligent fan of great players like George Brett, Frank White, Cookie Rojas, Larry Gura, Freddie Patek, Amos Otis, Bret Saberhagen, Hal McRae, Willie Wilson, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Dan Quisenberry and so many others on the classic ’70s and ’80s rosters. Times were good then: the Royals made the postseason in 1976, 1977 and 1978, then made their first World Series appearance in 1980, losing 4-2 to the Phillies.
After a pair of quick postseason eliminations in 1981 and 1984, the Royals finally ascended to baseball’s highest pinacle in 1985, when they beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 in the American League Championship Series, and then beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3 in the World Series. Of course, the East Coast Sporting Elites wanted to sully my celebration even then, noting that the Royals were the beneficiaries of a series of ridiculously bad umpiring calls, not to mention Cardinal pitcher Joaquin Andujar‘s monumental on-mound psycho meltdown in Game Seven. But I didn’t (and don’t) care. The Royals were the champs in 1985, and I gloated like a champ, as the only known Royals fan within a 500 mile radius of Annapolis, where I lived at the time.
It’s a good thing I gloated so much then, because the Royals have never returned to the post-season, and I haven’t been able to do so again since. I don’t believe in the Curse of the Bambino any more, but I do believe in the Curse of Joaquin Andujar, who most certainly directed so much antipathy towards the Royals and Umps who shamed him that they have never been able to get out from beneath the lingering cloud of bad karma that he tagged them with in that ominous, potentious seventh game. They won the battle that year, but clearly the war turned against the Royals and their fans.
Until this year? Maybe? One day into the season, despite an opening day loss, I’m still optimistic. Give me a few weeks, and I’ll let you know whether reality has set in or not.
While the Royals are certainly my most beloved major league team, and the one to which I’ve been unequivocally faithful over the years (no Yankees bandwagon jumping for me during the 24 total years I lived in New York, thank you very much), they’re not my only sports passion, so while I’m putting my heart out on a sleeve here, I’m going to go ahead and tell you all the teams I follow, so you can mock me pretty much anytime of the year, as the spirit moves you. I offer some explanatory words about each of these passions, since my nomadic upbringing results in something of a weird combo platter of cities and states.
Major League Baseball (MLB):
- Kansas City Royals (American League): Duh. See everything above.
- Washington Nationals (National League): As noted above and below, as a kid in the Carolinas in the ’60s and ’70s, Washington teams made regional sense, until we lost our baseball team. I followed the Mets for many years (picked up that habit while living on Long Island, 1976-1980), but once Washington got its third franchise, I reverted to classic Southern form. I should note that I actually prefer National League, no-designated hitter, baseball to American League baseball, so wish that the Beloved Royals had made the intra-league leap instead of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1998. Oh well, just another disappointment, nothing to see here, moving right along.
National Basketball Association (NBA):
- Washington Wizards: I started following them in 1973 (we lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time) when the Baltimore Bullets moved to Landover, Maryland and became the Capital Bullets, then later the Washington Bullets, then later the Washington Wizards. As is the case with the Royals, I have one great and glowing memory of this team, when they won the 1978 NBA Championship (their only title) with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes leading the charge. They’re poised to make the playoffs again this year after a drought, so maybe something to excited about here, too? We’ll see.
- Brooklyn Nets: When I first moved to Long Island in 1976, the New York Nets were playing their first, epically bad season in the NBA at Nassau Coliseum, mere minutes from our house at Mitchel Field. I always love a loser (can’t you tell?), so I’ve monitored the Nets as my secondary team through their decades in the swamps of New Jersey and on to their delightful renaissance in Brooklyn. They’re looking to make the playoffs this year, too, so with my luck, they will end up playing the Wizards in the first round, just because.
National Hockey League (NHL):
- Washington Capitals: Been following them since their inception in 1974 (also lived in the D.C. suburbs that year), and they are really the team that I love to hate, or hate to love, more than any other. They are truly maddening, year after year, losing series after taking 3-0 or 3-1 leads, capturing individual honors by the score while the team wallows in mediocrity, doing well in the playoffs when they barely squeak in as #8 seeds, and tanking when they roll in strong with the #1 conference ranking. They’re right on the cusp of missing the playoffs again this year, so will likely get in, win two series, then belly flop just as I get excited about them again.
- New York Islanders: As noted above, I was lucky enough to live on Long Island, five minutes from Nassau Coliseum by bicycle, during the glory days of the great Trottier, Bossy, Gillies, Potvin, Smith and Goring fortified Islanders. So I still follow them faithfully, because their subsequent pitiability fits in nicely with my sports worldview.
National Football League (NFL):
- VACANT: My dad was a devoted Washington Redskins fan, and when we lived in the D.C. area during the early ’70s, I had the chance to see the team live a few times, and also have vivid memories of watching their first Super Bowl appearance in 1973, with the sole score coming on the infamous Mike Bass touchdown return of Garo Yepremian’s misguided pass attempt. I even got Herb Mul-Key‘s autograph that year! But after years and years of Dan Snyder and Mike Shanahan and Jeff George and all sorts of other annoyances and irritants, some time ago, I found myself realizing that my feelings for the ‘Skins had shifted from my usual love-hate type relationship to a more active hate-hate mode. So until Dan Snyder sells the team, and until it has a new franchise name, I’m going to have to remain a Man Without a Team. It’s the right thing to do. Boo!
Major League Soccer (MLS):
- I’m sorry. I don’t know the name of any of the teams, or if this league still exists. So can I claim the New York Cosmos of the original NASL or the New York Arrows of the original MISL as nostalgia, picks, since I saw them play in the late ’70s, when I actually cared, just a tiny bit, about soccer at something below the World Cup level?
- University at Albany Great Danes: I worked here and got a degree here, and watched their first NCAA Tournament appearance when they put a scare into mighty UConn back in 2006. They’re an exciting, rising program, and it was great to see them win their first NCAA tournament game this year in their fifth Big Dance, even if it was a 16 vs 16 seed play-in game.
- Navy Midshipmen: My undergraduate alma mater. David Robinson was in my Navy company his freshman year, so it was exciting to be there for the greatest moments in Navy men’s basketball history. I regret that Navy left the Colonial Athletic Conference some years after I graduated, downsizing into the Patriot League. I think that has hurt the program in the long run, as there was a day when they had the potential to be an ongoing Mid-Major powerhouse.
- North Carolina State Wolfpack: My grandfather, father, brother-in-law and many other friends and family members went to State, so I grew up rooting for them, though as a kid, I referred to them as “The Wolf Patch,” so
that’s still a source of mirth for the family. I watched their first National Championship (David Thompson era) with my Dad, then listened to their second National Championship (Lorenzo Charles era) while standing at attention outside of my Naval Academy Company Wardroom, since I was a plebe at the time, and plebes were not allowed to watch television. I don’t think I saw the famous Lorenzo Charles winning shot nor Jim Valvano’s run in search of hug in their entirety until the Youtube era. Sadly, both Coach V and Lorenzo are no longer with us, but I remember them fondly.
- Iowa State Cyclones: College sports is a very serious business out here in Iowa, and one of the defining characteristics of households hereabouts is whether they are Iowa State Cyclone or University of Iowa Hawkeye fans. I very quickly decide that I would ally myself with the Cyclones. They are closer geographically, for starters, and our next door neighbors who are avid sports buffs are both alums. I also don’t like the Big Ten (the Hawkeyes’ home conference), since I hold them and their greed responsible for a host of ills in college athletics, so that pushed me toward the Cyclones, too. Finally, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffrey used to coach at Siena, and they’re a rival to UAlbany, so that was the clincher. We watched a ton of Cyclone games this year, and they had a great run to the Sweet Sixteen. They’re the one Iowa team that’s captured my heart so far,
- Navy Midshipmen: No question about my number one football loyalty here. The Army-Navy Game is America’s
best annual sporting event, and one of my greatest sports memories of all was watching Navy beat Notre Dame in triple overtime to end a drought that went back to Roger Staubach’s playing days. Outside of the Army-Navy game, I always root for the Black Knights, since they share so many traditions, experiences and commitments with the Midshipmen. But I always, always, always root against Notre Dame, in every sport, all the time, world without end, amen.
- North Carolina State Wolfpack: Again, as noted above, I grew up rooting for the Wolf Patch with my Dad. He died in fall of 2002 after an auto accident; one of the last things he did, and the last lucid conversation we had, was about his beloved ‘Pack beating Navy soundly in football, preserving what was then an unblemished record. I didn’t mind my Midshipmen getting whacked since it made him so happy. And I still root for the Wolf Patch in his honor.
- Union College Skating Dutchmen: We moved to the Albany area in 1993, and I worked in downtown Schenectady, which wasn’t really a very nice place to be at that time. For lunch, when the weather was nice, I would get some bread and cheese from little Italian bakery called Perrecca’s and take it over the nearby Union College campus, which was an oasis of shade and green in an otherwise bombed out urban cityscape. (Things have changed for the better for Schenectady since then, I am happy to note). That was the end of Union’s second season as a Division I hockey program (they are D-III for all other sports), and I started following the then-hapless Dutchmen at the time, and have done so zealously since. I had to suppress this enthusiasm a little bit during the five years that I worked at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, since RPI and Union are fierce rivals within the ECAC Hockey League, but the passion remained, nonetheless. As I type this, the Dutchmen are ranked Number One in the USCHO College Hockey Poll, and are preparing for their second trip to the Frozen Four. It’s great to see such a tiny engineering college holding its own against huge schools like Minnesota, Boston College and the like. I’ll be watching eagerly April 11 and 12 to see if the Dutchmen can bring a national championship back to Schenectady. I think they can do it.
And in closing . . . . a reminder as the NHL season winds down:
March 19, 2014 1 Comment
Thank you, Iowan friends, for warmly embracing UAlbany’s cause yesterday, as we happily watched the Great Dane Men’s Basketball Team take down Mount Saint Mary’s and earn a spot against overall #1 seed, Florida, in Orlando on Thursday night.
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the UAlbany Men gave #1 Connecticut fits in 2006, so I’m optimistic that they’ll also put on a strong and credible performance tomorrow night. The 2006 Team’s motto was “Why Not Us?” I think that’s just as germane for this season: some day, some #16 seed is going to knock off some #1 seed, and until the final buzzer Thursday night, UAlbany is still alive on the list of team’s that have a chance to do it.
So I hope you’ll continue to watch and to pull for this scrappiest of underdogs, given all of those strong Iowa connections I mentioned yesterday. UA! You Know! Go Danes!
But, dearest Iowan friends, your work on behalf of the Great Danes is not yet done, because the UAlbany Women’s Basketball Team will be playing the Big 12’s West Virginia on Sunday on a neutral court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a #2 vs #15 match up. While the Men’s presence in the Big Dance this year was something of a surprise, since they finished the regular season in fourth place in the America East Conference, the Great Dane Women have been Bracketology locks pretty much all season. This is their third straight visit to the NCAA Championships, and they go in this year with a 28-5 (15-1 Conference) record, and a #4 ranking in the College Insider Mid-Major Top 25.
I gave you a bunch of reasons to root for the Men yesterday, and they all apply to the Women too. But there are even deeper connections between Iowa and the UAlbany women, designed to appeal to both Cyclones and Hawkeyes alike. Continuing our numbering from yesterday’s column, consider this:
7. Head Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she was a Parade Magazine and USA Today High School All American.
8. She played for legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer at the University of Iowa, making two NCAA Tournament appearances (including and Elite Eight and a Sweet Sixteen finish) with the Hawkeyes.
9. From 1994-2000, Coach Abe (as she’s know about UAlbany) was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for Bill Fennelly’s Iowa State Cyclones. During her time on staff, the Cyclone Women earned a Big 12 Championship and four NCAA Tournament appearance, also earning and Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen finish, as she did as a player.
10. From 2002-2007, Abrahamson-Henderson was head coach at Missouri State University of the Missouri Valley Conference — no strangers in these parts, as they played home and home series with Drake regularly — earning three conference championships during her tenure.
11. Coach Abe’s husband, Michael Henderson, played with the Harlem Globetrotters. That doesn’t have anything to do with Iowa, mind you, but it’s just way cool.
While UAlbany doesn’t feature any Iowa-bred players on the current Women’s roster, their team is exciting to watch, and represents the true globalization of modern college sports, with players from Nigeria, the British Virgin Islands, Canada, Jamaica and New Zealand on the roster. They took the formidable University of North Carolina women to the wire in last year’s Big Dance, and I guarantee you they will not be intimidated by the West Virginia.
Yesterday, the Great Dane Men beat the Mountaineers of Mount Saint Mary’s. On Sunday, I want to see the Great Dane Women beat the Mountaineers of West Virginia. Doesn’t that just have fate, or kismet, or whatever, written all over it? I think it does.
So rifle your closets, Iowans, and pull out whatever purple and gold you can find, and join me Sunday in celebrating the UAlbany Women as they make us all proud.
Once again: UA! You Know! Go Danes!
March 18, 2014 Leave a comment
Following a late-season stumble, the University of Iowa men’s basketball team will be participating in a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio tomorrow night against the University of Tennessee. The Hawkeyes’ travails (especially when contrasted with the ascendency of the Big 12 Conference Champion Iowa State Cyclones) have a lot of folks grumbling and out of sorts around here. And it could get worse, as it’s no gimme that the Hawkeyes are going to be able to beat Tennessee, who hung tough against overall #1 seed Florida last week in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
So to mitigate a potential week of disappointment and wounded pride, I’d like to invite all of my Iowa neighbors, of both Cyclone and Hawkeye persuasions, to adopt the University of Albany Great Danes tonight — as they are also in Dayton with the Hawkeyes, playing for a berth in the final field of 64.
Yeah, I’m partisan, sure. I got my masters’ degree from UAlbany’s Rockefeller College, and I later worked there as Executive Director of University Auxiliary Services at Albany, responsible for quality of living services (e.g. dining, book store, laundry, banking, vending, etc.) for the 20,000+ person campus community.
UAlbany earned its spot in the play-in game by winning the America East Conference Championship for the second year in a row as a #4 seed, beating Vermont and Stony Brook (who swapped places as the #1 and #2 seeds) both years to get there. They are facing the Mount Saint Mary Mountaineers, champions of the Northeast Conference — in which UAlbany was once a perennial powerhouse in football, before jumping to the Colonial Athletic Association.
So why should you, my fellow Iowans, root for the Great Danes of UAlbany? Because they have some seriously strong credentials that you’ll appreciate, as follows:
1. When the UAlbany men made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2006, they took #1 overall seed Connecticut down to the wire as a #16 seed, leading by 11 points halfway through the second half. They also hung in there with Duke last year as a #15 seed, so they will at least make it exciting when they play #1 overall seed Florida later this week.
2. The Great Danes’ star players in 2006 and in the following year (when they returned to the NCAA Tournament) were Brian Lillis — who grew up in Urbandale and went to Dowling Catholic — and Brent Wilson, who is originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
3. Their current starting center, senior John Puk, is from Waterloo, Iowa. Freshman Dallas Ennema is from Sheldon, Iowa, and looks to be a star in the making in years ahead.
4. They came to Des Moines two nights before last Christmas to play (and lose to) Drake at the Knapp Center. And, really, you know that was no treat for them, right? We owe ‘em a solid for that trip, for sure. John Puk had a great Waterloo contingent rooting for him behind the UAlbany bench, which was cool to experience.
There’s also two bonus reasons for the Cyclone fans out there to root for UAlbany:
5. Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffrey’s prior job was at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, a northern suburb of Albany. Siena and UAlbany are fierce rivals in their local market accordingly, so rooting against Fran comes naturally for UAlbany people, including me, who are likely to be receptive to Hilton Magic accordingly.
6. The UAlbany Women are also in the big dance this year, as a #15 seed going up against #2 seed West Virginia. And I don’t need to remind you what West Virginia did to the Cyclones this year, do I?
So are you with me, Iowans? If so, clear your throats and repeat after me . . . . UA! You Know! Go Danes!
November 15, 2013 1 Comment
For most of the time that we lived in Latham, New York, we were hard-wired for both television and internet purposes to Time Warner Cable of Albany. They were not cheap, and we had occasional service problems, of course, but they were generally resolved quickly. Having entertainment being pumped to us over that fat, underground wire seemed a good system, and having actually worked for Time Warner Cable of Albany for several years, I was favorably disposed toward them, even when they weren’t performing at the top of their game.
When we moved to Des Moines, I assumed that we’d find a similar “all services on one wire” situation with whoever Central Iowa’s leading cable provider might be. I was wrong: cable service in our neighborhood is patchy, low quality and expensive, so we were forced to enter into split contracts with an internet provider who pipes our bytes in via a DSL telephone line, and a television provider whose signal comes into the house via an antenna on the roof. Since the prior owners of our house had used Dish Network, it was an easy transition for us to take that contract on ourselves.
There are some things we like about Dish, but their pay-per-view service is not one of them: they have limited offerings, and since our television is not connected to the internet, we have to order movies online in advance, then make sure that we are in the TV room at the right moment to tape or watch the movies in real time. The last time we tried to do this, we pre-ordered the very marginal The Rum Diaries, and when we went to watch it, almost 25% of the movie did not successfully load, due to some communications glitch.
While Marcia fumed in her recliner, I retired to the home office to contact Dish Network, hoping that we could salvage our movie night. I used their online technical assistance service, and was connected to a technician who identified himself as Austin G. Within the first few lines of online communication, it became very clear that Austin G was a chosen (or assigned?) name of convenience for an individual who (a) was not a native English speaker, and (b) had been trained to offer replies to customers culled from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
To his (her?) immense credit, Austin G did a great job resolving the customer support issue that I brought to him/her. But as the clearly canned responses that he/she was trained to offer crossed my computer screen, the creative writer in me decided that I needed to create a character myself, one just as eager to please, but language impaired, as Austin G him/herself.
I recorded the text of the conversation and share at with you at this link:
I found the whole exchange very amusing, though I admit to feeling marginally guilty about it, seeing as how my amusement sort of came at someone’s expense, when they were just trying to do their job and bring home the bacon. Or the saag paneer, as appropriate. When all was said and done, Austin G took care of the problem I brought to him/her. That’s what customer service people are supposed to do, and Austin G did it well. So when I received an e-mail from Dish Network asking me about the quality of my customer support interaction, I was delighted to respond their request, even if I was not quite ready to give up the creative writing character I had embraced during my correspondence with Austin G. Here’s what I told them:
I have no idea what Austin G’s real name is, nor what his or her future holds . . . but I sure hope that Austin G finds great personal and financial success in whatever city and country he or she resides in. Their assistantage was really great. And the gratitudinous was sincere. Thanks, Austin G!
November 12, 2013 8 Comments
Two years ago today, at about 5:00 in the morning, I woke up in a cheap hotel room in Latham, New York, drove over to a cold and empty house that had once been full of all of my family’s worldly belongings, loaded two protesting cats into my car, and headed west for Des Moines, Iowa. It was cold. And dark. And raining.
In the two weeks before this momentously dreary morning, I had also spent five days in Annapolis, Maryland as the Naval Academy Class of ’86’s reunion coordinator for a three-day, 25th Anniversary event involving over 1,000 people, $100,000 in expenses, and uncountable numbers of details, questions, complaints and comments to be handled. Just before that, I had spent four days in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in my role as Secretary to the Corporation for the American Institute, dutifully recording days’ worth of meetings, and then transcribing minutes. Oh, and I also quit my job and oversaw the sale and emptying of our home of twelve years.
Barring death and birth experiences, obviously, I can tell you that October and November of 2011 were undoubtedly the most difficult and stressful months of my adult life, made all the harder because Marcia had already moved to Des Moines with her new job, and Katelin was away at college. So I spent most of my time drifting around an ever more empty house, worrying about the fairly stupid combination of responsibilities I had saddled myself with during that period of time, and trying to figure out how to say goodbye to so many people and places that were important to me.
Since I had no regular income at this point, I amused myself by “eating the House” (don’t buy any new food until everything in cabinets and refrigerator has been eaten, leading to some interesting meal combinations), and “living off my shit” (lightening the load of the move by selling a lot of things I’d accumulated over the years, and not spending any more cash than I was bringing in). I also loaded a huge dumpster-full of basement detritus that was not salable, and donated our bikes and house plants to people needier than we were. One woman of very limited means was starting a new household for her child and new boyfriend, and she cried with gratitude as she took the many gorgeous plants I let her have, since she had been forced to leave all of her own beloved plants in her ex-husband’s house. After she left, though, I felt like crying because they were gone.
And then on November 12, 2011, the morning after a lovely wedding and reception attended by many dear friends from Rockefeller College, I got in the car, and I left. I would have liked to have stopped and seen Katelin in Geneseo on the way, but could not do so with the cats in the car; I just needed to drive as hard and as long as I could to get to Des Moines as fast as I could. I made it past Cleveland on the first leg, and spent a sleepless night in a desolate interstate highway hotel listening to the cats pace and cry. The next morning, also by 5:00 am, we were up and on the road again, next stop Des Moines.
Marcia had a great apartment out here already, so it was wonderful to arrive there at the end of a long and unpleasant drive, even if the cats (and their litter box) had to share it with us in close quarters. The day after my arrival, Marcia and I were scheduled to close on our new house in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood. The closing was, probably no surprise, also stressful due to the seller using a fly-by-night “Sell Your Home Yourself” outfit that did not provide needed documentation, paperwork and filings; fortunately our own exceptional realtor got it all done for us. Thanks, Sue Mears!
The final walk-through and acceptance of the house was something of a shock to us in terms of how much junk was left behind by the sellers, and the unexpected condition of many of the rooms: the prior owners had once painted without moving furniture, and the interior walls of the house looked like a patchwork quilt when they got their stuff out. So there was a lot more work necessary than we had expected, and it was really well into spring 2012 before I felt like we had gotten the required baseline projects done to bring the house up to the standards we wanted and expected. (Our additional shower took another six months after that, even).
But, eventually, there I was, in Iowa, chores mostly done, house settled, spouse gainfully employed, child doing well in school back in New York, cats happy that I gave them their own couch in my home office.
Huh. Now what?
Well, fast forward two years, I guess, for the answer. I am in my 18th month as Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation. It’s a tough, time-consuming and often thankless job, but one that fits my skills and interests well, and it allows my hard work to benefit a truly astounding historic house and its collections. Marcia’s work continues to go well, too, as she always adds value when working on behalf of her clients and their interests, and has much better home/work balance now than was the case when she was a partner in a New York law firm. Katelin graduated from college in May 2013 and followed us out here: she has a great job in her chosen field of her study, and lives in her own apartment in what’s emerging as a hot neighborhood in downtown Des Moines. Our house is fantastic: we pay much less for a much nicer property, in easily the best and friendliest neighborhood I’ve ever lived in. We have seen more of Marcia’s family in Minnesota in two years than we had in the prior two decades. And the cats still like their (increasingly shabby) couch.
So it’s (mostly) all good, at bottom line. The move has allowed us to achieve the objectives that we desired from our relocation, and we’ve settled into new routines, with new friends, in new places, far more rapidly than we did when we first moved to New York. I will say, though that I have actually been surprised at how hard the adjustment was for me in many ways during these first two years. Having moved so often while growing up and during my early professional career, I used to be really good at ripping up and starting afresh at the drop of a hat, but those 19 years in Latham (the longest I have ever lived in any one place) caused my roots there to sink deeper than I realized they had. But when I am back in New York visiting now, two years later, I don’t feel like I am at home anymore. I am always eager after a couple of days to return to my family, house and work in Des Moines. As it should be.
Of course, there are little lifestyle things out here that remain gentle annoyances: the regional acceptance of boomboxes blaring from bikes and golf carts, for instance, or most restaurants being closed on Sundays, or having the State-wide news occasionally dominated by matters that really, truly mean less than nothing to us (e.g. legislation regarding lead vs steel shot when hunting doves, which really evokes a lot of passion in some quarters hereabouts).
When such gentle annoyances start to bother me, as they do occasionally, I have found that the best therapy is to return to a practice that helped me get through my first few months here: I get in the car, and I drive and I drive and I drive around Iowa. (Without the cats, though. They are on their couch. Always). Work peeves, petty urban annoyances, worries about things I can’t fix, all of those thoughts tend to dissipate when I am on the road experiencing Iowa at its most granular level: riding down dirt roads between corn and soy fields; visiting tiny towns with exceptional civic architecture and museum cultures; passing through the gorgeous campuses of the State’s many small private and three large public colleges and universities; appreciating entertaining roadside vernacular statuary and architecture from the earliest days of car culture in the United States. Best of all is when I get to do these drives with Marcia, or Katelin, or both. They are great company in great scenery.
I completed my “Full Grassley” in March 2012, having visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties in less than five months’ time. But I didn’t stop driving, and I didn’t stop exploring, so my current Iowa travel map looks like this now:
I rarely go the same way between any two points in the State if I can help it, though I am running out of options between Des Moines and Iowa City, since I go to or through there often. I will be planning on adding some new roads in December when I accompany Marcia to Clinton in the eastern part of the state, and we find a new route to wind our way back. Huttah!
Two years ago today, the cats and I set off on what felt like a terrible, disquieting drive to Iowa. Today, I actively look forward to my drives around Iowa as an anchor, binding me ever deeper to our new territory, our new work, our new friends, our new lives. And then I really look forward to coming back to our new home. To Des Moines. Here.
I think that’s good progress in 24 months’ time, don’t you? The cats certainly do . . .
November 10, 2013 2 Comments
1. Last week’s Navy vs Notre Dame game was a heartbreaker, made more painful when they showed David Robinson (arguably Navy’s most famous athlete, with the possible exception of Roger Staubach) wearing Notre Dame regalia. David was in my Naval Academy company his plebe year (he and his room-mate and I and my room-mate used to play a lot of acey deucy late at night, when we were all supposed to be sleeping or studying), and I like, respect and admire him. I am also delighted that his son is an accomplished football player with the Irish, since I know that the younger Robinson will be every bit the fine scholar-athlete that his father was. But, you know, maybe neutral colors for the Navy-Notre Dame game, huh? Just saying? Nicely enough, Notre Dame followed up on their success by tanking in a game against Pitt, while Navy pummeled Hawaii at home. Good bounce back, Mids. Very proud.
2. Just for the record: Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds deserves to be a Heisman Trophy finalist, if not the winner of college football’s most famed award. What he does week after week after week with a small offensive line against major college programs is just remarkable. And knowing what he has to cope with, week after week after week, in terms of his academic and military responsibilities makes him all the more everything that a great student-athlete should be. Are you watching and listening, Heisman Trophy voters? You should be.
3. Andy Prieboy‘s “Bands” is one of my favorite songs of recent years, since it does a brilliant job of describing the obsessive mindset of the serious music geek, and also sounds just gorgeous in terms of the language, words, rhymes, alliterations and rhythms that Prieboy uses in telling his tale. He’s an extraordinarily gifted songwriter and storyteller, right up there with my other long-time favorite tune-smith, Jed Davis. This band, that band, every damn band, every damn band know to either God or man, indeed . . .
4. Robert Fripp is one of my favorite musicians, and also one of my favorite philosophers and writers. After a period of retirement as a performing player, he is bringing back King Crimson in 2014 with a new seven piece lineup. I very much loved this quote from his online diary (which I read regularly) about part of the reason why he is re-embracing the venal world of the professional player: “Simply put, my life is closer to Paradise than I might reasonably hope for. The danger with Paradise: we fall asleep in the wonderfulness of it all. At that point, time to bring out The Pointed Stick.” I like and get this. It helps explain my masochistic tendencies.
5. One of the nice things about having Katelin living nearby is that we can get together when we have something special to do, or we can get together when we just feel like hanging out and being lazy. A couple of weeks ago, she was here in the afternoon while we just slugged about and watched football. She was sort of paying attention, while also reading a book, and it occurred to me that I had never actually seen her actively watch or had a conversation with her about football. So I asked her if she had any idea as to what was actually happening on the television. Here’s what she told me:
So the kicker kicks the football, and then they all run after it, and if they catch it, they generally run faster. And the kicker wants to get it as far away from scoring a touchdown as possible, but they want to get it to the touchdown. A lot of tackling happens, and there are four downs, and the downs have to do with when they’ve been tackled the most often. And when a touchdown happens, the kicker gets to do this again, to kick the ball to get it, I am blanking on what the thing is called, the pointy thing, and if that happens then they get an extra point, and the defense players are bigger than the offense players, and they don’t really look like humans. And the positions are quarterback, linebacker, kicker, running back. I don’t know what they do, but I know the linebackers are defense and they are the biggest guys. I know what the quarterback does: he is the head of the team, so he does the huddles and does the counts and tries to get the ball across. Oh, there is a center, too.
6. I have really been enjoying listening to some of the classic Little Feat albums recently. As I was looking for footage of them at the peak of their live capabilities, I found the great version of “Dixie Chicken” from Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special linked below. It is interesting how many times a search for great live performances from the ’70s bring up links to this amazing television show. With forty bazillion cable channels now, how come we can’t have nice things like this today?
7. G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury has been on hiatus for several months now while he works on other projects, but he’s started producing new Sunday strips in recent weeks, and plans to come back to his full daily schedule in the next month. I miss his his insightful daily takes on our modern times, but am glad to have strips like this one again, even if they only come once per week.
8. So let’s say you are lucky enough to have Dale Crover (he’s on the left in the linked video) as the drummer in your band for 30 years, even though he did not participate in your very, very earliest demo works. So then let’s say that your original drummer from way, way back in your pre-Crover days turns up and wants to play with you again. Obviously, the answer is to kick him to the curb and tell him he missed his chance. Unless, of course, you are the Melvins, in which case you switch Crover to bass and let prodigal drummer Mike Dillard handle the skins again. That should be a recipe is futility, if not disaster, but in true Melvins fashion, they make it work brilliantly on their new record, Tres Cabrones . . . which is the best thing they’ve done since their last counter-intuitive move of incorporating Big Business into the band for their brilliant 2006 album (A) Senile Animal. “Civilized Worm” from that record is one of my favorite live clips ever, even if it didn’t appear on Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special.
9. The title of this post comes from an album by the legendary Albany band Section 8, who I interviewed and wrote press material for back in the ’90s. They played one of the ten greatest live shows I ever saw, at the late lamented QE2 in October 1997, then broke up soon thereafter. In January, they’re playing a two-night reunion stand in Clifton Park, and the tickets for the event sold out almost as soon as they were released. I just wish the bastards had done it before I moved to Iowa.
March 5, 2013 1 Comment
In 1995, I started working as a music critic for Albany, New York’s alternative newsweekly, Metroland. I would stop by the office once a week a pick up a pile of records (some still vinyl, some cassettes and some CDs at that point), a few of which would have elaborate press kits accompanying them, but most of which would just be sitting there, unexplained. In those barbaric pre-Google days, there was no easy way to find out much about the lower-profile artists who sent the fruits of their labor my way, so I’d end up listening to and reviewing many of their records in the dark, with no preconceived notions based on what I’d read before I spun the music.
At the end of my first year with Metroland, I was asked to pick my ten favorite albums of 1995, and most of them were by artists with whom I’d been familiar when that fortuitous year had commenced. One notable exception, though: an incredible record called Leon’s Mystical Head by The Weasels. One of my fellow Metroland critics had reviewed the album earlier in the year, and her article had made me pull it from the big pile of mysterious, unexplained discs I’d accumulated, and it blew my mind: it featured extraordinarily well-written — yet often horrifically disturbing and politically incorrect — lyrics atop catchy and melodic jazz/blues based musical beds, delivered by an ace band.
Best of all, I learned from my colleague’s 1995 review that The Weasels were a national-caliber band of homegrown pedigree . . . I had no idea who they were, but it was nice to know that they were Albany neighbors, and they thus became the first locally-bred Albany band that made me actively contemplate the fact that world class music was emerging from what was then (to me) a largely undiscovered market, beyond early MTV favorites Blotto.
As it turned out, that geographic proximity resulted in me later doing freelance work with several members of the Weasels in the years that followed, as well as the opportunity to see them live several times. I caught their very last concert appearance in October 2000, at which point they turned into Albany’s version of Steely Dan, offering only occasional slabs of sardonic studio work fortified by performances by the region’s very best studio players. While their live appearances dried up, their studio work just got stronger and stronger, and it was a real treat to have a local insider’s view into their creative progress, which was truly formidable.
And so, while I no longer live in Albany, it is a particular delight to report on The Weasels’ sixth studio album, AARP Go The Weasels, which was released on Valentine’s Day, 2013. I’m pleased to write about it here not as a partisan former member of Team Albany, but as a music aficionado who values great songwriting and great performances, regardless of the cities from which they hail. This is a great album, by a great band, no matter where you live.
Core Weasel players and songwriters Dr. Fun and Roy Weasell (both members in good standing of polite Albany society, hence the pseudonyms, lest their Weasel activities interfere with their other jobs) are joined on the new disc by the best rhythm section they’ve had in their long career together. Bassist Jon Cohen has been an on again/off again Weasel since their earliest days, and he is supported on the back-line on this record by the legendary Alexander Kash, whose back story includes stints in Australian pre-punk pop titans Blackfeather, among many other bands. Weasell’s rhythm guitar and mandolin work perfectly anchor the new album’s songs, while Fun sings some of his best lyrics and contributes choice keyboard and alto saxophone parts to the mix. The core quartet sit strong at the heart of these new recordings, and their tight and tough playing really anchors the proceedings, allowing the album’s guest soloists to soar: guitarists Chuck D’Aloia and Eric Finn, keyboardists Adrian Cohen and Mike Kelley and tenor sax player Brian Patneaude all offer stellar spots throughout AARP Go the Weasels’ run. The Steely Dan analogy holds, with traces of Frank Zappa tossed into the mix for good creative measure.
As great as these performances are, they’d be squandered on inferior songs, but that’s never a worry on AARP Go The Weasels, as this long disc offers some of the group’s finest creative moments. The album opens with the stellar “Father Weasel,” which updates Lewis Carroll’s classic poem “Father William” for the 21st Century: where Carroll worried about his aged protagonist’s penchant for headstands and somersaults, Fun’s Father Weasel offers his young interrogator wisdom about sexual potency among the elderly, along with tips regarding regular bowel movements and estate planning. “What Says Creep” and “Freemason Reese” update demo cuts from 2000’s Generation Xcrement album, while the closing pair of “Wailing Song” and “Doubting Thomas” stand tall among the Weasels’ most evocative depictions of the human (and post-human) experience. You could build a modern religion on the latter two songs, and it would be as compelling as many other creeds currently recruiting candidates in 21st Century America.
AARP Go the Weasels also includes the band’s politically astute 2010 single “Do The Teabag,” which offers a surf-rock synopsis of a particularly unfortunate modern right-wing American political movement, while “Zucchini Park” fairly takes a hammer and chisel to the left wing version of political populism, circa 2012. “Last Supper on Lark Street” provides a blissfully acute skewering of what passes for high cuisine experiences in many contemporary hipster dining establishments, as the mandolin-fortified “Invasion of the Body” turns an alien invasion scenario into something credibly mundane and real. There are over half a dozen other songs on this disc of equally revelatory and insightful quality, making AARP Go The Weasels a truly masterful snapshot of the political and popular memes that define our (sad and terrible) modern era. If you find yourself despairing at the world you live in today, this album provides a tremendous opportunity to skewer the unskewerable, with aplomb. You’ll be a better person for listening to it, carefully.
At bottom line, I don’t gush about this album as a former citizen of Albany, nor as a current Des Moines denizen. I praise it as an exceptional artistic statement for listeners of all stripes and from all locales, and encourage you to snap it up as essential listening from a truly great band who deserve wider acclaim than they’ve received to date. Here’s a link to the first of six planned videos from the new album, the media skewering “A Friend in Tweed.” If this isn’t the best antidote to “little man, big head” syndrome that you will see in 2013, then I can’t imagine what is.
Great music, great songs, and great social commentary . . . what more do you want from a great album in 2013? Watch for it in my “Best Music of 2013″ list come December, likely near the top spot.
January 25, 2013 6 Comments
When I was getting paid to be a music critic in Albany, one of the more entertaining nights on the job was the annual get-together of all my newspapers’ music critics to compile our “Best Of” lists for the year’s Local Music Issue. These editorial lists were based solely on our own subjective opinions and observations, ostensibly filtered through our superior critical experience, while the separate Readers’ Poll represented the vox populi. It was sort of a “what’s good” vs. “what’s popular” dichotomy, to some extent.
The fact that there was very little overlap between the two lists probably says a lot about how music critics exist in little bubbles of elitism that have no bearing on the lives and experiences of most normal human beings. As I wrote in one of the opening paragraphs of Eponymous, music critics are:
“. . . the deeply demented souls who live in a world where a packed stadium equals ‘lowest common denominator failure,’ while eight of their kind gathered in a space of their own making watching a nobody doing nothing anyone else wants to hear equals ‘artistic triumph.”
One of the things that used to cause particular outrage at the annual gathering of the music critics was the fact that the hoi polloi would routinely vote for cover bands in the “Best Local Artist” category that we gave them in the Readers’ Poll. Can you imagine that?!? Lawks, how much we needed to educate the rabble, to help them rise above the humiliation of dancing in public to bar band versions of “Mustang Sally” or “Brown Eyed Girl,” while (shudder) actually enjoying themselves?!? Forsooth, we must select the most experimental, underground, obscure band we can find to counter their ignorance! Excelsior!
One year, though, one of our own turned on us: a normally dependable music critic came to the annual gathering of the rock and roll gadflies and nominated a duo who primarily played other peoples’ music for the “Best Local Artist” slot in our annual critics’ poll. The duo dug up pop obscurities and then completely reinvented their arrangements, he explained, turning them into something unique and fresh. They offered extraordinary vocals and exceptional instrumental talent. They were socially active, playing at the sorts of benefits that we liked to support, on behalf of the sorts of causes that music critics get excited about (e.g. “Hey! Let’s go to the PETA rally and see if there are any naked women painted as tigers there today!”) They collaborated with others in the community, sharing stages with some of the obscure weirdos that we’d already selected in other categories. Why, he pressed, would we not consider them for the top slot in our regional poll, just because they didn’t write their own songs?
Why? Why?!! WHY?!?!? Because . . . because . . . HERETIC!!! ABOMINATION!!! FREAK!!!! OUTCAST!!!! I won’t go through the details, but suffice to say that voices were raised, fingers were pointed, drinks were slammed, cigarettes were stubbed angrily, words were exchanged, feelings were hurt, alliances formed and broke up, more drinks were slammed, and in the end, we gave “Best Local Artist” to a new group composed of three of our friends who had only played two shows out in public to a total of nineteen people (but, boy, that TEAC Tascam 4-track musique concrete deconstruction of ABBA Gold they sent us was awesome!), while the proposed covers duo was grudgingly awarded a prize in a new category we created especially for them: “Best Local Interpretive Artists.”
These days, of course, I’m generally happier to go out and dance along to cover tunes played by great local bar bands than I am to go shuffle morosely in a seedy bar, hoping to find the next best thing, and having it fail to show up. I still appreciate the act of songwriting, of course, and I love up-and-coming artists who sing what they write, but I also appreciate the act of performing and connecting with an audience, and some of the better shows I’ve experienced in the past few years have been shows primarily composed of cover songs. (Note: I have surrendered my New York Music Critic license already, so I can say these things in public without fear of being fined and censured by The Ministry of Artistic Appropriateness).
So today, I lift up and celebrate our friends the Interpretive Artists by sharing a list of my Top 20 Favorite Cover Songs Ever, below. Feel free to submit additions to this list in the comment section, and I will make sure that no angry music critics show up to stub their cigarettes out on your arm.
- “Young Man Blues,” by The Who (covering Mose Allison)
- “Morning Dew,” by Einsturzende Neubauten (covering Bonnie Dobson or Tim Rose)
- “Whole Lotta Love,” by Tragic Mulatto (covering Led Zepellin, filtering Willie Dixon)
- “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores,” by Bauhaus (covering John Cale)
- “Shipbuilding,” by Robert Wyatt (covering Elvis Costello, though technically Wyatt’s version went public first)
- “Black Diamond,” by The Replacements (covering KISS)
- “Sugar Smack,” by The Hanslick Rebellion (covering the Archies and the Velvet Underground, at the same time)
- “I’m Not Lisa,” by Killdozer (covering Jessi Colter)
- “Stagger Lee,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (covering Lloyd Price and 1,000 bluesmen)
- “Scumbag Pines,” by The Kamikaze Hearts (covering Beef)
- “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” by Isaac Hayes (covering Glen Campbell)
- “Eruption/Tommy,” by Steve Hackett (covering Focus)
- “The First Cut is the Deepest,” by Rod Stewart (covering Cat Stevens)
- “Pablo Picasso,” by John Cale (covering Modern Lovers)
- “Going Up,” by COIL (covering the theme song of British TV show Are You Being Served?)
- “Love Hurts,” by Nazareth (covering The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison)
- “Yoo Doo Right,” by The Geraldine Fibbers (covering CAN)
- “Personal Jesus,” by Marilyn Manson (covering Depeche Mode)
- “Viva Las Vegas,” by Dead Kennedys (covering Elvis Presley)
- “Kaw-Liga,” by The Residents (covering Hank Williams)