Colluvies

 1. I traveled to New York City in 2008 to see what I have since assumed was going to be my last King Crimson show, as mainstay guitarist Robert Fripp announced his retirement from live performance soon after that tour wrapped up. The show was wonderful, as was the mobile fracture subset of the Big Crim, ProjeKCt Two, that I had caught in 1998. (My P2 review is here at Crimson’s Discipline Global Mobile [DGM] site). So imagine my delight and surprise when, in 2013, Robert Fripp announced that King Crimson was on the move again, with a new seven-man, three-drummer line-up, including four of the five players I saw in 2008 — Fripp, Tony Levin, Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto — plus Jakko Jaksyck from the 2011 KC ProjeKCt album, A Scarcity of Miracles, plus returning sax man Mel Collins from the early ’70s Crimson lineup, plus former Ministry/R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin. Wow! I have been eagerly monitoring Robert Fripp’s diary and the DGM Live pages waiting to see where they’d play, so imagine my shock a few weeks ago when the Crim announced that they’d be opening their tour in, of all places, Albany, New York . . . which I left in 2011 after 19 years in the market! Auggh!! Why you do this to me, universe?!?! No fair!!! Fortunately, Crimso are playing two gigs in Chicago (a mere six hours away), and Marcia has agreed to be a Prog Rock Warrior Princess and accompany me to one of them . . . on top of our agreed-upon-trip to Chicago to see YES! She’s even committed enough that she’s asked me to put a selection of YES and King Crimson songs on her car iPod to prepare her for the adventure. What a gem! What a wingman! How lucky am I, right? I love the road trips, I love the music, I love my wife, so this is about as good as it gets for me!

2. We had a great opening night of Shakespeare on the Lawn at Salisbury House last night, with perfect weather, a super crowd, and a nice sponsor preview Garden Party where we unveiled our plans for transforming the grounds of the property. I did a few TV spots in advance of the show, and I like this one best, as it features a green-screen sneak scene (ooo! I like the sound of that accidental alliteration/rhyme!) by our presenting partners at Repertory Theater of Iowa of this year’s production, The Merchant of Venice:



3. While Marcia and I were on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the paradisaical Villa Amarosa, I read a relatively recent work of fiction by Christopher Priest called The Islanders, which had been “Recommended For You!” by my Kindle. And what a great recommendation that was: this book is completely my alley in terms of its subject, its presentation, its structure, its use of language, and its general, over-arching weirdness. I’ve been finding myself thinking about and re-visiting it, mentally, for the past few weeks, and may decide to give it a full “Five by Five Books” treatment at some point soon, if just to get the thoughts rattling around out of my head. It’s pretty rare for a new book by a new (to me) author to resonate with me so deeply, though I suspect that this would be a “love it or hate it” kind of book, with more people leaning the latter way than the former. Are you intrigued enough to give it a shot? (Katelin is reading it now). If so, let me know what you think!

Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers

I’ve had the opportunity to raise, manage, invest and spend a lot of money over the course of my nearly 30-year career, and without patting myself too hard on the back, I’d say that I’m pretty darn good at doing so — despite having little formal training in the financial and accounting disciplines.

I am certainly not alone among nonprofit executives in my lack of textbook-based financial training, in large part because those individuals who choose to pursue such skilled financial degrees are not innately going to be drawn to a professional sector known for its low compensation, high personnel turnover, risks of financial insolvency, governance by unpaid amateurs, and fuzzy wuzzy management practices.

No, it takes a special personality type to purposefully choose such a work environment — and those possessing said personality type are generally more apt to prefer ballet to balance sheets, Renoir to revenues, and punk rock to sunk costs, while also understanding “liquidity” to be a measurement of after-work intoxication resources, and “utility” to be a closet. Note well, though, that I say these things with nary a shred of condescension or disdain, since I am the owner of one of those special personality types myself.

So given this two-strike functional handicap, how did I get to the point where I can confidently create complicated budgets, deftly parse the details of a balance sheet, swap accounting jargon with alpha bean counters, and manage other people’s money in a way that doesn’t embarrass me or them?

It wasn’t easy, and I had to figure most of it out for myself . . . so it recently occurred to me that it might be helpful to others if I created a little primer for up-and-coming nonprofit managers and executives, to help the next wave learn from my own experiences. I’m selfless like that, you know, because that’s the nonprofit way. Huttah!

First and foremost, I followed the best professional advice I’ve ever been given, and I consciously, actively became an expert in the financial workings of my various organizations. I may not have known as much as a marginal first year accounting student much of the time in my early professional days, but if I knew just a little more than most of my colleagues, that was generally enough for them to defer to me when confronted with financial quandaries. If people believe you are an expert, and if you confidently and consistently talk and walk like an expert, then amazingly enough, eventually, you actually really become an expert.

It’s true! Try it!

Another key to my success was making sure that I had a real financial expert available to me for consultation at all times. This was pretty easy, since financial types tend to be somewhat socially awkward, meaning they generally don’t mind if you take credit for their work and expertise, so long as you express gratitude by visiting their cubicles every so often with snacks and/or properly filled-out travel reimbursement forms in hand. Then, once I reached the point of being able to hire my own staff, I always prioritized having an exceptionally talented, scrupulous, and well-trained financial professional on my team, which required me to learn even more of their arcane practices and language, further bolstering my own expertise in the process.

Having those financial language skills is crucial to an up-and-coming nonprofit executive. If you don’t parlez le money vous, then your staff financial professionals and your board treasurer are just going to talk through, around, or over you. You’re going to look lost at staff or board meetings as a result, which does not inspire confidence, even among the kitten-handling types. Conversely, few things are as dazzlingly empowering at a staff meeting as successfully translating and taking decisive action on a jargon-filled statement emerging like squid ink from your accountant’s maw, especially if you can use some cool acronyms and juicy terms of trade in the process, just to keep the non-financial experts in the dark.

To help you in this regard, I’ve compiled a list of ten very important concepts — and the language used to frame them — that you’ll likely need to master in order to convince your staff, colleagues and board that you’re a seasoned nonprofit financial expert, in large part because most of them will have no idea what you’re talking about. Ready? Let’s do this . . .

  • Chart of Accounts and the General Ledger: Your Chart of Accounts is just the listing of all of the buckets (called “accounts” in accounting speak) into which your business transactions can be dumped. While there are some common buckets/accounts that most nonprofits will share, your Chart of Accounts should also be tailored to the unique nature of your own enterprise. Don’t make it too complicated, though, and make sure your buckets’ labels make it clear what gets dumped where, e.g. if your Chart of Accounts has a “Marketing” sub-sub-account under the “Cookie Sale” sub-account under your “Fundraising  Event” account, and it also has a “Cookie Sale” sub-sub-account under the “Marketing” sub-account of your “Office and Administration” account, then which one do you pick when the printing bill for your Cookie Sale Posters arrives? The General Ledger is the official and formal record of your business transactions, classified via the Chart of Accounts for easy access and analysis, if you’re doing it right. Most of us use pre-packaged or off-the-shelf software (e.g. Intuit’s QuickBooks or Blackbaud’s Financial Edge) at this point for our general ledgers, and there are both server and web-based systems available. I prefer the safety of the latter, having once watched one of my employees blow up the former.
  • Profit and Loss Statements and Balance Sheets: Profit and Loss Statements (call them the “P&L” for maximum meeting dazzle) are reports that list your organization’s revenues, then subtract from those revenues the costs of running the business. The bottom line difference between revenues and expenses is called net income (or, sometimes, profit. . . gasp!), and you generally want this to be a positive number. (But wait?!? We are nonprofits?! How can we show a profit on our P&L?!? Hang on, Scooby, we’ll get to that in a minute . . . it’ll be okay, I promise). The Balance Sheet is a statement of the financial worth of your nonprofit that lists all assets (things of value owned by your organization, including both current and fixed assets, more on that below), then balances them with your organization’s liabilities (amounts owed to others) and capital (fixed assets and money invested in the nonprofit, again more on that below). Assets = Liabilities + Capital on the Balance Sheet, always. The P&L Statement covers a period of time (e.g. First Quarter, Fiscal Year 2014), while the Balance Sheet covers a point in time (e.g. March 31, 2014), so don’t trip up while trying to be cute by asking for “the first quarter balance sheet” or the “June 15 P&L.” Your General Ledger software should be able to easily and quickly produce these reports, assuming your financial professional is relatively up-to-date on his or her General Ledger entries, and also considers your needless, last-minute requests for information to be a priority. 
  • Profit for Nonprofits: Why, oh why, do I keep referring to profit?!? We are all nonprofits, so we must lose money every year to have negative net income, by definition, right?!? No! Wrong! Bad wrong! (Insert sound of me rubbing your nose in your P&L here) Bad! Bad nonprofit manager! Here’s the deal: any nonprofit corporation that spent every single penny it earned (or more), as it earned it, would quickly become an ex-nonprofit corporation. The real difference between nonprofit and for-profit corporations is what happens to the positive net income when revenues exceed expenses: in a for-profit corporation, the surpluses are distributed to shareholders as income or dividends; in a nonprofit corporation, the surpluses must (eventually) be applied toward to the nonprofit’s mission. Some amount of running surplus is generally required on a year-to-year basis just to meet basic payroll and operating requirements. Some larger surpluses may support organizational mission by being placed in endowments (say “permanently restricted”), with earnings providing long-term revenue streams. Some surpluses may be ear-marked by your board for specific mission-based needs, and held until such time as the funds may be paid to meet those needs (“board designated” or “temporarily restricted” in the jargon). At bottom line, and over the long term, all nonprofits must make more than they spend, or they will cease to exist as effective entities. You do not want to be the manager who drives a nonprofit organization into insolvency, as that’s one of the very, very, very few things serious enough to keep you from getting another job in our sector. If you’re forced out of our cozy little world, then you will have to jump to the corporate side, where you only get a multi-billion dollar golden parachute for destroying your company’s finances. And who wants that?
  • Current Assets vs Fixed Assets: As noted above, assets are things of value owned by your organization. Current Assets are things that could readily turn into cash within a year or less, e.g. money in a bank account, inventory that can be sold, marketable investments, and accounts receivable (more on receivables below). The ability to turn things into cash quickly is called “liquidity,” even outside of Happy Hour. Fixed Assets are things of value like buildings, land, equipment and long-term investments that can’t readily be turned into cash within a year without having an impact on your nonprofit’s operations, e.g. if you are a museum, you can’t sell your entire collection without seriously degrading your ability to satisfy your nonprofit mission, hence your collections should be considered fixed assets. Most nonprofit managers will spend the lion’s share of their time dealing with current assets, which we need to pay bills and buy lollipops, though most nonprofit organizations will have more of their worth defined by their fixed assets, which seems damnable because we can’t pay the printing bill for the Cookie Sale Posters with them.
  • Cash Basis vs Accrual Basis: Getting your hands around this vast, slobbering bantha of an accounting concept  is the key to advancing from Nonprofit Padewan Noob to Nonprofit Jedi Warrior, for sure. Personally, if I could go back in time to the moment when the first primordial accountant crawled out of the ooze and convinced Executive Director Dimetrodon that accrual based accounting was the wave of the future, I’d redirect a comet to obliterate that exchange, and we’d all happily manage our businesses the same way we manage our personal finances: either we have money in the bank to pay our bills (yay!), or we don’t (uh oh!). That’s cash basis accounting at its most basic, where transactions in the general ledger reflect the point when cash (or equivalent instruments) changes hands: we put five dollars in the bank on Monday, we take three dollars out on Tuesday to pay a bill, we’re still two dollars up, right now, so we could plan on buying a cookie or a cup of coffee on Wednesday if we wanted, so long as we don’t go to Starbucks to get it. But accrual basis? Oh, accrual basis! Bane of board meetings! Destroyer of balance sheets! Sapper of Executive Director souls! I can’t do justice to the horrors here in a single paragraph, but suffice to say that an accrual basis accounting system (under which most of us operate, alas) is one that records revenues and expenses at the time a transaction is said to occur, regardless of whether cash or other current assets change hands or not, while also looking at the life expectancies of fixed assets and only applying pro-rated portions of expenditures for those long-term acquisitions as expenses in any given accounting period. And, yes, I know that all sounds like gobbledegook and is completely alien to anything you encounter in managing your own real world financial affairs, so to spread the confusion out, I cover key accrual basis concepts in their own bullets below. You might want to charge your light saber before reading on.
  • Receivables and Payables: While an annual fund pledge for $10,000 does not change anything for you on a cash basis until the check clears (no matter how much your development director crows about it), it is recorded as a “receivable” on an accrual basis, and increases your organization’s assets on the balance sheet. Conversely, when you receive a bill from Hair Club for Men with a 90-day grace period, nothing changes on a cash basis, though it is recorded as a “payable” on an accrual basis, and decreases your organization’s assets on the balance sheet. If you tally up everything that’s owed to your nonprofit, those are your “accounts receivable” (which the cool accounting kids call “AR”), while the sum of everything your nonprofit owes to others is called your “accounts payable” (repeat after me: “AP”). Unfortunately, you can’t take presumed credit for your organization’s deliverable outcomes and outputs in advance this way, much to your grant writer’s chagrin. 
  • Capital vs Expense: More accrual basis linguistic madness here, where “expense” can be used as a verb, and “capital” has nothing to do with upper and lower case letters. When you expense an item, you post an expenditure against your revenues that reduces your assets — but not all expenditures are expenses. (What?!?) The most common expenditures-that-are-not-expenses for most of us will involve capital investments, which are the fixed assets we acquire that have long-term value and use. For example: let’s say you spend $100,000 to buy a party bus for your clients, and that party bus has a life expectancy of ten years. At the time of the purchase, you convert one asset (cash) into another (party bus), but you have not changed the total value of your assets on your balance sheet, so no expense occurs. How, then, do you actually expense the party bus? Read on!
  • Depreciation: So after one year of riding the party bus with your clients, its value has gone down by ten percent, because it has a ten year life expectancy. How do you mark this anniversary? By expensing ten percent of the purchase price of the party bus in your general ledger, reducing the value of the assets on your balance sheet by $10,000. Then you repeat that annually for the next nine years, until your party bus is fully depreciated, at which point it has no value on your balance sheet, though it may still be fun to ride around in while drinking with your clients. This concept can be tricky to deal with: some assets do not depreciate (e.g. art collections), some assets’ real world value declines far faster than depreciation schedules indicate (probably the case with the party bus), so if you sell them at market price, you still may have to post a loss on your books, etc. If you own a lot of land, building, equipment and other property, your accumulated depreciation numbers may be among the largest figures on your balance sheet, even though 95% of your board members will be rendered immediately glassy-eyed if you try to explain this to them. Better to just jump past it as “one of those accounting things” and get to the kittens and lollipops as quickly as you can accordingly.
  • Materials and Subcontracts vs Labor and Overhead: Gah, enough with this accrual nonsense! Let’s jump back, for a moment, to talk about things that make sense in a lucid world without accountants, and to provide a cautionary note in how to look at — and present — your financial successes and failures. Let’s imagine you run a week-long Clown Academy each summer as a fundraiser toward your charitable mission of terrifying children into avoiding circuses. This year, you raised $20,000 in sponsorships, and 100 aspiring clowns paid $200 each (total of $20,000) to participate in the program, for gross revenues of $40,000. Against these revenues, you spent $10,000 in greasepaint, $10,000 in cream pies, and $10,000 in seltzer water, for total expenses of $30,000. Huttah! You netted $10,000 from the Clown Academy, which you proudly report at your next board meeting . . . neglecting to mention that you and five of your deputy assistant subminions worked for three months to plan and execute this (so called) “fundraising event.” What happens if you factor in the cost of your salaries, your healthcare benefits, your payroll taxes, your paperclips and your bad office coffee? Odds are, the Clown Academy is a big, big loser. Financially, I mean. Nonprofit organizations are utterly notorious for writing budgets and presenting results of fundraising events that focus solely on materials and subcontracts: things we buy, stuff we pay for, checks we write that we wouldn’t buy, pay for, or fund if we didn’t do the event. But it is equally important to plan for and report the costs of your human livestock, too, which you can call “labor and overhead” when talking to your board, since that makes you sound less ruthless and inhuman, which is always good in our business. If you inherit a bunch of fundraising events when you take on a new management position with a nonprofit, the first thing you should do is find out how much staff time is consumed in running each of them, and then quickly kill a few of the ones that are upside down when Materials and Subcontracts and Labor and Overhead costs are factored in, just to show you mean business. You’ll be amazed at what a game changer this can be.
  • Audits and Internal Controls: Once your nonprofit gets big enough to have any real meaningful impact, you’re likely to have to undergo an annual independent financial review, where you will pay an outside agency a lot of money to come in and tell you that you don’t really know what you’re doing. These grouchy outsiders, called “auditors,” will spend a lot of time hunkered down with your financial professional(s), throwing bones around, spilling Diet Coke everywhere, muttering incantations, and frequently popping into your office to wave their hands and moan “GAAP! GAAP! GAAAAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaaaaaP!” What does it all mean? Well, GAAP means “generally accepted accounting principles,” which are a set of standards for financial accounting that we’re all supposed to comply with, because it amuses the auditors and other accountant types to watch us struggle with accruals and depreciation and receivables and whatnots. The auditors will also generally want to look at your internal controls, which are the policies and procedures that you must have to preclude fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement, or the appearance thereof. Auditors love it when you say “or the appearance thereof,” by the way, so be sure to work that in whenever you can. If all goes well, or the appearance thereof, then the auditors will provide your board with an audited financial statement that essentially says you are in compliance with GAAP, you have sound internal controls, and the papers you gave the auditors when they arrived were accurate and complete to the best of their knowledge. Note well, however, that the auditors will also generally provide 473 carefully-crafted disclaimers, so that if they made a mistake, or the appearance thereof, in their audit, then it is still your fault, not theirs. Also, while getting a “management letter” from your auditor may sound like a good thing — since you’re an important manager, after all — it actually is a bad thing: it’s the way the auditors tell the Board that you’re a knucklehead, or the appearance thereof. Do not want!

And that’s it! If you can master these ten very important concepts and glibly and fluently discuss them, then I guarantee you that your staff and board will consider you to be a financial wizard in no time straight. If you want to go a few levels deeper, then I highly recommend The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, which is an excellent resource for staying that crucial one step ahead of your board, colleagues, and staff.

Or the appearance thereof.

Gallimaufry

Some short bits as a brief reprieve from the live album tournament, while we wait for the next installment of reviews to arrive . . .

1. We’re doing some data gathering to support strategic and tactical initiatives at Salisbury House, so if you’re familiar with the property and would like to have a vote in our planning process, you can take our survey here. 20 questions, should take no more than five minutes. Thanks for your thoughts!

2. I’ve never been a weather whiner, but since legitimate complaints about legitimate problems do not constitute whining, I would like to note for the record that I am seriously tired of shivering all the time at this point in the winter season, especially as our latest Thundahailapocablizz drops feet of Lightninslush and Typhoonisleet and Ice 9 and God only knows what else outside. Yeah, I know that my friends in Snowbany are having a worst time than what we’re experiencing in Hoth Moines right now, but I don’t care, because I am a selfish pig who just wants to be warm, right now, forever. Make it so!

3. I don’t edit my “Album of the Year” articles once I publish them, even though sometimes my affection for select albums wanes over time, or I miss something great at the time of its original release. The latter has happened at least once in my 2013 list, as I’ve really been loving Suns of Thyme’s exceptional Fortune, Shelter, Love and Cure album, which was released last November. Give it a listen, starting with this song.

4. Call me curmudgeonly (it won’t be the first time), but I am completely and totally disinterested in anything happening in the Winter Olympics right now, as I don’t like seeing the noble concept of “sport” being used as a prop to bolster the reputation or financial strength of inept and violent kleptocracies like Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I truly believe that the Olympics Movement has outlived its utility, and would be delighted to see this outmoded quadrennial fit of nationalistic jingoism fall to the wayside, so that the absurd resources put into these circuses could be applied to health and fitness and nutrition programs that benefit the greatest number of people, rather than tiny cohorts of elite competitors in sports that virtually no one in the world really cares about, except when the television reminds us they exist, every four years

5. Marcia and I recently booked a two-week vacation in August to celebrate our 25th Anniversary (which I know is in June, lest you think I goofed on the date). Here’s where we’re going. This will be the first time that we’ve ever gone anywhere on vacation together for more than a week, so we’re very excited about it.

6. Oh America, this photo makes me gag with revulsion and grieve for your soul!! This is our culture? This is how we entertain ourselves? This is what we like? Gah! Edward Gibbon has rarely offered more relevant perspective on our Nation’s possible futures than he does today, though 99% of the people who will pay to personally encounter the hideous, garish, trashy, crass and utterly stupid spectacle documented in that photo will likely not know or care who he is. So bring on the Visigoths and the Vandals, please. They have better taste in culture and music than we do, apparently.

Two Years

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:

jesmap

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 . . .

catcouch

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

1. Marcia, my mother and I watched Katelin graduate from the State University of New York at Geneseo with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a minor in Business. Then I drove her and all of her worldly belongings out to Des Moines, roaring through tornadic storms in a U-Haul panel truck with neither radio nor cruise control, quick like bunny. (Six weeks later, Katelin had a temporary/contract job and an apartment of her own. And last week, she started a permanent job with a great company, making good money in an awesome office location, doing exactly the sorts of Human Resource work that she came of college wanting to pursue. It’s nice when it works out the way it’s supposed to!)

2. I saw my favorite band live for the first time. Brutal!!! (I did not shoot that video, by the way. I know which way to hold a camera). (Though I am in the video, if you look closely).

3. I worked hard to bring Shakespeare on the Lawn back to Salisbury House, and it was a big, big hit. (I am in this video, too).

4. I went to Madison, Wisconsin, where I was elected to the Board of the Association of Midwest Museums.

5. I went to Nordic Fest in Decorah, Iowa, with Marcia, where we celebrated her Norwegian ancestry with plentiful white foods.

6. Marcia and I also went on vacation to Lake Superior, spending a few nights at the Lutsen Resort and few nights in Duluth. On our way back, we stopped at the little Bed and Breakfast where we’d spent the weekend after our wedding, 24 years ago.

7. I bachelored it for a week while Marcia and her sister visited London. There was plenty of popcorn and wine and cartoons.

8. I made two trips back to Great Barrington, Massachusetts in my role as Secretary of the Corporation to the American Institute for Economic Research. At the second trip, I was elected to the Board of Trustees for a three year term.

9. I bought a new bike for only the third time in 31 years. I’m very loyal to my trusty steeds, until it finally comes time to put them down. C’mon, buddy. Let’s go out behind the shed for a minute. This won’t hurt much at all. Sniff.

10. I golfed. I walked. I bowled. I took some road trips. I ate and drank and cooked. I went to a lot of community events. Most of the time with Marcia in all cases, but sometimes with Katelin. It’s nice for the three of us to all be in the same town again. Very nice, indeed.

I Do What I Do, Indeed I Do

I have been online for a long, long time. When the World Wide Web launched 20 years ago, I was one of the first people staking a claim to my own website there. I acquired jericsmith.com in 1999 and started blogging on September 7, 2000, before most people had any idea what “blog” meant. WordPress tells me that Indie Moines now contains 975 posts, incorporating articles written here, and at Indie Albany, and at jericsmith.com, and at Upstate Ether, and several of my earlier websites. I received a coveted Freshly Pressed nod in November 2010, and my 2004 “Worst Rock Band Ever” survey went viral in ways that most bloggers can only dream of. At bottom line, I’ve written an awful lot of words in the public domain, and had an incredible number of people read them. I’m pleased and grateful for that experience.

There are few things more boring than blogging about blogging, so I generally try to avoid doing so. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t spend a fair amount of time thinking about blogging, and what it accomplishes, and why I do it. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that my primary motivation for blogging is best summed up by one of my favorite Bonzo Dog Band songs, “What Do You Do?” Here’s that crucial cut, well worth listening to, with the lyrics transcribed below:

\

What do you do?
I don’t know, but I know
I do it every day

Why do you do it?
I don’t know, but I know
I do it anyway

I do what I do, indeed I do
I do what I do, every day
Indeed I do

I do what I do, indeed I do
I do what I do, every day
I do what I do, I am what I am
We are what we are, we do what we can

What do you do?
I don’t know, but I know
I do it everyday

Why do you do it?
I don’t know, but I know
I do it anyway

I do what I do, indeed I do
I do what I do, everyday
Indeed I do

At bottom line, in 2013, I blog because it’s what I do. Indeed I do. Why? I don’t know, but I do it (almost) every day. Is that enough? Today, I find myself answering “no.”

The most rewarding blog experience I had occured in 2004, when I set myself the task of writing and publishing a poem a day, for a full year. On December 31 of that year, I achieved my goal. Many of the poems I shared that year were, to be honest, marginal works, at best. But the discipline involved with producing them also resulted in occasional moments of brilliance, and I think some of the strongest writing I’ve ever done occurred that year, with a dozen or so of the poems I wrote going on to see publication in traditional print outlets.

After I finished the Poem A Day Project, I lost any sense of urgency for blogging, so I took a year-long blog sabbatical. When I returned, I found myself with a more engaged audience than I’d had when I retired my keyboard, so it seemed like absence actually made a lot of hearts grow fonder for my piffle and tripe. A phrase which, if you’re not a long-time reader, stemmed from a poem I once wrote, as follows:

“Piffle and tripe and balderdash!”
roared Lord MacCormack, his purple sash
rucked up beneath his ample chin,
as he pounded his desk again and again.
“Codswollop, blarney and twaddlerot!”
the good Lord raged, his temper hot,
his anger roused by news reports
of politics and sex and sports.
“Bosh, bunk, claptrap, bull and fudge!”
MacCormack the day’s events soundly judged,
while flinging his papers across the room,
and gesturing angrily into the gloom.
(His manservant, Roger, knew this was the cue
to roll in the cart, with the buns and the stew).

I have been thinking about tackling another project of the Poem A Day variety in 2014, to mark the 10th anniversary of that rewarding foray into sustained, public creative writing. But this time, I am thinking that I need the sabbatical before I start, not afterwards. So with a little bit of regret — but a larger amount of relief — I announce my intention to take an Indie Moines blog sabbatical until January 2014 to recharge the batteries, focus the thinking, and come up with a reason for blogging that’s more profound than “I do what I do, indeed I do.”

Does this mean that I’m going to quit writing? Of course not. I wish I could say that I write because I want to, but the reality is that I write because I need to. In my 2001 novel, Eponymous, protagonist Collie Hay (who I have always publicly denied is me, though everyone knows that is just diversion and posturing) is quoted as saying: “Writing is the only way that I can actually get facts and my thoughts about them in order, then do something about them and (more importantly) begin to believe that they actually happened. To me, no less. Because if I don’t (or can’t) write about something, then it’s generally not real to me — and I’ve reached a point where I want my life and my history to feel real.” That’s a true statement, made in a fictional context.

What and where will I write? First off, I have some bigger writing projects that keep getting back-burnered — since given the choice of doing a hard writing job or an easy blog post, the latter almost always wins. My primary writing objective for 2013 is to finish a theatrical adaptation of Eponymous that Marcia deftly framed, ideally creating a work that she and I can shop to local stages and actors to see if it has real-world audience appeal. I think it will, and I think Des Moines is a great place to launch it.

I have half-a-dozen short story ideas parked on my office whiteboard, so I look forward to having time to develop them fully, undistracted by self-imposed blog posting requirements. I also have many research pieces related to the Salisbury House library and collections that I will post to the blog I launched on behalf of my employer, here. I have worked as a volunteer “Art Blaster” on behalf of the Des Moines Art Center, so I intend to coordinate with volunteer and curatorial staff there to develop an outlet, somewhere, to help them interpret and share their extraordinary collections online, one way or another.

I also intend to continue communicating in the public domain via the Indie Moines Facebook and Twitter feeds, so I heartily encourage you to like or follow those pages, if you are not already doing so. I find lots of cool stuff in my forays online, and I look forward to sharing such things with you all via those social media outlets. If I place any work in traditional print outlets, I will announce it on those sites. When I travel or have other photographic adventures to report, I will post them at my Flickr account, so you might want to follow that as well.

For most of the past decade, I have done 95%+ of my pleasure reading on the elliptical at the gym or while sitting in my hot tub, so I also look forward to having more time to just sit in my own living room, reading. It will be refreshing to step away from the computer in the evening, since I’ve rarely done that for many, many years. And, finally, I am also looking forward to having our lovely daughter, Katelin, moving to Des Moines in May. It has been seven years since we’ve lived in the same city on a permanent basis, so I want to be available and accessible to her, without feeling like I have an online community that must be serviced as a priority.

All of this being said, I am humbled at the response that my writing has garnered in this and other, earlier spaces over the years, so I thank you all — my faithful readers — for your support, encouragement and interaction. I hope that you will return as active supporters in January 2014, when I launch the next phase of my blogging career, whatever it might entail. I think the break will do us all good.

I hope that you all agree!

“Des Moines’ Own Downton Abbey”

WOI-5, our local ABC affiliate, offers a Sunday morning show called DSM Living. During two recent weekends, Salisbury House (where I am fortunate to spend my days as Executive Director) was featured on the show, and I share the clips with you all below. Thanks to DSM Living‘s Melanie Hall for being a great and enthusiastic guest, and opening her first spot with a nice connection to a wildly popular television show. That’s good marketing! Melanie and her production team did a great job, it was fun to show them around, and I thank them for thinking of us. If you’ve never actually heard me speak about the House, here’s your chance.

I should note that this is not the first time that Salisbury House has been likened to Downton Abbey by guests: when I explain my job here, a lot of times people will say “Oh, so you are like [insert character's name here] on Downton Abbey, then!” I just nod my head and smile . . . because I’ve never actually watched the show, so I have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Maybe I should start? Or just stick with my current favorite television show instead? Decisions . . . decisions . . .

 

Capers

1. My Oscar Best Picture Model failed this year for the first time since I developed it. The numbers clearly pointed to Lincoln, based on its other nominations, but Argo obviously pulled off the upset, despite its lack of Best Director nomination putting it in fifth place (in my model) among the nine nominees in terms of likelihood of victory. Apparently, the Academy’s decision to have a larger number of “Best Picture” nominees than “Best Director” nominees no longer means that not having the latter is an absolute death knell come Oscar night. I’m still sticking with my model, though, as I do believe this year’s weird distribution of Oscar trophies and industry indignation on Ben Affleck’s part makes 2013 an anomaly, not a bellwether. I doubt we’ll see another “Best Picture” win without a “Best Director” for many, many years. You can quote me.

2. We watched Argo for the first time last night, and I did not think it was Best Picture-worthy, regardless of what my model and the Academy’s voters thought. The acting was mostly wooden (except for John Goodman and Alan Arkin), and once the intense opening scenes in the U.S. Embassy in Teheran passed, there was never any real suspense about anything, since I knew how the story ended, and I didn’t really care much of about of any of the one-dimensional hostage characters. Affleck, though, tried desperately to artificially generate a sense of suspense with some of the most cliched techniques in the filmmaker’s arsenal: will they answer the phone in time? will the driver get the truck into gear? will the Boeing 747 outrun the Chevy sedan? etc. Honestly, I don’t think Ben and his beard deserved Best Director, Best Actor or Best Film plaudits. I chalk this one up to Hollywood having a fit of self-love, while watching a movie about Hollywood self-love. Bring on the 2014 Awards.

3. I have written before about how much I detest the Weather Channel’s coverage of “extreme” weather, and they outdid themselves again last week with five solid days worth of hysteria building over “Winter Storm Q,” which basically gave Des Moines just a four inch dusting of powder, despite most of the town’s businesses and schools shutting down in advance of this latest “storm of the century.” When I wrote that piece, the Weather Channel had not yet developed its odious campaign of naming winter storms, which adds even more fever to the fire as it seeks to provide cold weather analogs to the National Weather Service’s naming of tropical typhoons. Any credible media outlet who uses these Weather Channel spawned names is a dupe, and should not be taken seriously. So what’s a soul to do when a soul needs just the facts, ma’am, about the weather? Go take advantage of your tax dollars at work, and read the calm and cool presentation available at weather.gov. In the days immediately preceding “Winter Storm Q,” the National Weather Service’s site had pretty much the same forecast, minus all the hysteria making it feel like end of days. It’s weather as news, and weather for grownups. Stop the madness!

4. I am totally a blog snob, if that’s not screamingly obvious, and I am very picky about what I read and (even moreso) what I will link to from my own blogs. So when something exceptional crosses my path, I feel it is important to note here that I have been impressed. That happened this week, when I found Nonprofit With Balls, which is filled with the most well-written, insightful and hilarious writing I’ve read in years, if ever, about my chosen professional sector. Even better, the blogger is an Executive Director, so he doesn’t just understand the industry in generic terms, he understands the specific strain of masochism that leads people like, uh, me to voluntarily lead nonprofit corporations. The blog is filled with finely observed, nuanced observations about how this particular professional lunacy manifests itself in our daily lives, while we earn our daily bread, which we get at the day-old shop. Bookmark this one. Right now. Seriously. No, really . . . seriously. Now. Thank you.

5. For the long-time readers: you know that I title omnibus, multi-topic posts like this one after songs from particular bands’ catalogs. I’ve worked through The Who and Emerson Lake and Palmer and The Bee Gees and Genesis and Frank Zappa and probably a few others that I can’t remember. And now I am starting a new band. Name them.

Shivers

I started a blog for my work at Salisbury House last fall, and have generally kept work and personal posts separate, the former there, the latter here. This made sense when I first set it up, since a lot of the work posts were related to schedules of upcoming events, or calls for financial support, or other market-oriented appeals. But as the months have passed, I have tended to use the Salisbury House Blog more and more as a platform for exposing folks to some of the deeply hidden treasures entrusted to our care, few of which have ever been widely discussed, online or in person. So this afternoon, I imported what I would consider to be some of the most “WOW!” posts from Salisbury House Blog to Indie Moines, since I think they are legitimately interesting beyond my work life, and because I think it’s important that as many people as possible see them, because why do we care for these precious items if not to share them? Here’s an index of the posts I copied over, in case you never saw them at my work blog. There are marvels here, and I have generally included never-before-published photos, just so you can get a taste of what I am seeing, reading, living with, holding . . . I have included brief descriptions to help you browse:

D.H. Lawrence: A Manuscript Mystery (Alternate versions of a key poem)

Knocking Down History (Destruction of Lustron Homes in Des Moines)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Liber Florum” (A beautiful book published in 1499)

The Book of Mormon in Des Moines (Rare early Mormon books)

Books as Art (The Private Press Movement, 1880s to 1930s)

Objects Come Home (How Museums Lose and Gain Artifacts)

Friday Photo Mystery (A rare, old book revealed)

The Bibles of Salisbury House (Gutenberg, King James, Doves, Oxford)

Object and Humanity (How our books and art shape us)

Book Smugglers (On importing Lawrence and Joyce when it was illegal)

A Message to Garcia (The work of Elbert Hubbard)

“Voices from the Prairie” Interview

I was interviewed for the Winter 2013 edition of Voices from the Prairie, the official publication of Humanities Iowa, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ affiliate for our state. There’s a link to the full interview below, and I am grateful for the chance to talk about Iowa, Des Moines, and Salisbury House for a state-wide readership. Humanities Iowa has also provided a grant that my staff and I are using to host a Iowa Humanities Festivals at Salisbury House on March 9, 2013, with a bunch of partners from all around the state. We hope it becomes an annual happening. Oh, the Humanities!

Click Here to Read the Full Interview with J. Eric Smith

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