Concision

Rob Madeo has long been one of my favorite bloggers, first at Albany Eye (although I didn’t know it was him writing at the time), then when we shared column space at a certain Upstate New York newspaper blog portal (both of us left on unhappy terms), then on his current Keyboard Krumbs blog. I don’t read newspapers anymore (alas), but I click to him every morning while I drink my coffee to see what he’s got to say.

Why do I like his writing so much? Well, first, I guess, is that as he documents “the fascinating world of a middle aged American man,” I see a lot of things that have relevance in my own life, as a U.S.-bred gentleman of a certain age. We also have some shared experiences in the pros and cons of being public bloggers, and we both lived in Central Nassau County, Long Island in the ’70s and ’80s, so we did some of the same stupid things in the same stupid places during our stupid teenage years.

But more important than that, I have always admired Rob’s ability to say what he wants to say effectively, yet concisely. As a writer, I find his brevity to be inspiring, as he communicates in terse, active prose, getting in, getting it done, and getting out. And that’s not easy: the famous saw about “sorry for the long letter, I did not have time to write a short one” is true, especially for someone like me, as I’ve never met a subordinate clause or parenthetical phrase I don’t like, I tend to write with rhythm and alliteration in my head so will actively add words to accent a verbal riff I’m enjoying, I love semi-colons and adverbs and qualifiers, and I’m rarely content to use one word where seven will suffice.

This is a problem in blogging, because for the most part, we are all our own editors, and we like to let things fly before our keyboards have cooled down from the frantic pounding required to get words from brain to screen. When I wrote for newspapers, I grew to appreciate the discipline associated with word counts, as it forced me to chop and shape things differently, and to seek the keeper nuggets embedded in the matrices of my florid, verbose flow.

I was a slow and late adopter of Twitter as a result, since I can barely say “hello” in fewer than 140 characters most of the time. (I am trying, though, as evidenced by my 1,550+ tweets here). When I launched my “Five by Five Book Review” series a few months back, it was with something of a conscious intent to make them brief(er) by forcing them into a 25-sentence rubric that lent itself to more frequent posting. But as I look back through the six pieces in that series that I’ve written to date, I note that the mean length per article is about 950 words (the longest was 1,200 words), which means my average sentence in the series has 38 words in it!

38 words per sentence?!? That’s kind of obscene, isn’t it, verging on James Joyce territory? (Probably no surprise that I love the Irish madman, and have enjoyed satirizing him). I think as a course of discipline in 2015, I might have to create a new series of short articles, intentionally writing with punch, forcefully cutting to the chase, and deftly editing the extraneous from my usual epic verbal emanations.

I’ll know where to go, at least, when I need a look at how it’s done. So thanks, Rob, for the regular reminder about where the soul of wit really resides!

Where the Turf Meets the Surf

Marcia and I made a quick trip to San Diego a couple of weeks ago. We had originally planned to travel there in March for her birthday, but the scheduled day of our arrival coincided with a rare monsoon-type storm involving 50 mile per hour winds, five inches of rain, mudslides and the like, so we made a quick adjustment to visit St. Petersburg, Florida instead at that time, and rescheduled San Diego for October. The weather was lovely this time, fortunately. We visited the USS Midway Museum (some excellent planes on the flight deck), spent time in and around the Naval bases at Coronado (we were there for the Navy-Notre Dame game, so got to watch that at an old school Navy bar called McP’s Pub), played golf at the beautiful Coronado municipal course, and spent a day driving up the coast to La Jolla and Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve, before eventually turning back south at Carlsbad. The only downside to our trip reschedule was that we found ourselves staying as a Gaslamp District hotel that was literally ground zero for the Monster Bash, a massive late-night Hallowe’en street party debauch of mostly twenty-somethings that had our hotel room literally shaking from the boom-thump DJ booth below us, and forced us to walk through large crowds of annoyingly-costumed drunks for a couple of days. Adult Hallowe’en is easily among my least favorite contemporary annual events, so I certainly could have done without that intrusion of trashiness. That being said, it was still great to spend time under beautiful sunny skies during the weekend of the first hard freeze in Central Iowa, and we got some fun photos of our travels, as is our wont when we go hither and yon. Click on the photo of Marcia at Torrey Pines (below) to see the whole album, which is guaranteed to contain no images of Sexy Ebola Nurses or Zombie Chambermaids or characters from Sons of Anarchy (among the most popular costumes we saw in San Diego, alas), but plenty of harbor seals and sculpted sand. Plus a scary seagull.

The cutest of the cute on the California coast . . .

The cutest of the cute on the California coast . . .

Verscheidenheid

1. While I’ve been quiet here in terms of new material, I’ve been fairly busy on a “back of house” basis putting Indie Moines into a retirement phase, sorting through over 1,000 blog posts (I figure there’s an equal number that were once online, but were dropped somewhere along the way), and preparing to re-launch this website as my primary online outlet. It feels good to reclaim my name: when I moved to the newspaper blog page in Albany in 2007, and then to Indie Albany, and then to Indie Moines, I never really envisioned letting this page go fallow, but things happen, and here we are. Hopefully by not splitting my market presence I will consolidate traffic more effectively into a single destination for the long form stuff I do on my blog, while also driving traffic from my increased activity over at Twitter (if you don’t follow me, you should). We’ll see!

2. Today is the third anniversary of my arrival in Iowa, after two horrible days on the road with two very unhappy cats. I shudder to recall it. I wasn’t really sure what to expect in a lot of ways when I got here, and I had some visions of what my possible futures in Iowa might look like, but as always happens in real life, the actual path taken is hard to foresee, difficult to predict, and filled with unexpected twists and turns, some of which are surprising and delightful, and some of which are not. At bottom line: I have a unique and interesting job in a field that engages me, we live in a wonderful house in a good neighborhood, both Katelin and Marcia are here in Des Moines with me and happy in their own work/life situations, and the cats remain the cats, happily in a house, and not in a car. It is interesting to compare and contrast where I was at my third anniversary in New York, circa 1996: I had left Naval Reactors and had no full time job (instead freelancing for the local alternative newsweekly), Marcia was just beginning her legal practice, we lived in a small rented townhouse, we were trying to make decisions about where Katelin would be going to Kindergarten and how we were going to afford our first choice private school, and we were still bleeding financially from a house we owned in Alexandria, Virginia that had not been the good investment we might have desired. It was a tough, stressful time, and if you’d told me then that I would still be in the Albany area 15 years later, and would happily consider it home, I probably would not have believed you. So it’s obviously just as hard to see what the future here in Iowa might bring, too, a point which was serendipitously affirmed for me this morning when I read the latest post on one of my favorite blogs, Amy Biancolli’s sublime Figuring Shit Out. Here it is . . . words to the wise, words to live by.

3. Watching the European Space Agency’s Rosetta-Philae Mission perform a soft landing on a comet yesterday was one of the most exciting space nerd days I’ve had in quite a while, made all the better by the vast out-pouring of interest and support from folks around the world. Special mention must be made of Randall Munroe’s live animated progress reports on his utterly geektastic and incredible XKCD website as the mission unfolded; you can view the whole sequence compiled here. (Note that it doesn’t quite tell the full story of how the Philae lander actually bounced and drifted a kilometer away from its planned landing site, and that it appears to currently be sitting on two legs up against a cliff . . . we didn’t know that until after the fact!) Planetary exploration is important  and worth funding — and it’s a red herring to compare/contrast it to earth-bound domestic programs at a dollar-for-dollar basis, so don’t take that tack with me, please and thanks. As I’ve noted before here many times, we’re really living in a golden era of planetary exploration, as best communicated by this excellent graphic showing all current and planned missions in (and beyond) the Solar System. I also frequently hear people express dismay because (a) we haven’t been back to the Moon since 1973, and/or (b) the Chinese are likely to put the next bootprints there. Keep in mind, for perspective, that 58 years lapsed between the first and second sea circumnavigations of our own planet, the first on behalf of Spain, the second under the British flag. It has only been 57 years since the Russians launched the first man-made satellite, and 43 years since the United States placed its flag on the moon. In relative terms, we’re making great progress, and if the Chinese are next to visit our fascinating sole natural satellite, then that’s just the natural order of how exploration unfolds. I’ll be rooting for them when they go — but just as avidly rooting for our own Orion mission when it makes its first unmanned test launch beyond our atmosphere in early 2015. Go Team Earth! Conquer the Heavens!

Excelsior!

(Note: The final post from Indie Moines is copied below, for the permanent archival record. All new online writing from me will now be located on this site).

The Indie Moines blog will be shutting down in December 2014, per this post.

Changes Made

I’m not much of a New Year’s Resolution kind of guy, since I know that the holiday season and attendant travel actually extends until well after MLK Day in most years for my family, so it’s hard to get serious about making changes on January 1, when I know I’m likely to be on vacation somewhere decadent in the following few weeks. Lent always seems like a better arbitrary season for personal tweaks, as it falls after that extended holiday season, and bridges the spring season, when change is in the air already. Plus that whole 40 days and then it’s done thing is kind of nice, for some sorts of changes.

Autumn, too, finds us in a season of change, and that’s resonating with me right now. At home, Marcia is putting her gardens to bed for the winter, and we’ve recently acquired really awesome fluffy cold-weather bedding, and turned on the furnaces at work and home for the first time, creating that burnt dust smell that I strongly associate with winter’s approach. Golf season will probably wrap up in the next few weeks, and Marcia and I will return to work with our personal trainer in early November.

I’m looking at some health-related personal changes that month, too, since as a gentleman of an increasingly certain age, annoying things like cholesterol and sodium and blood sugar have, by circumstance, become items of deeper concern for me, requiring some modifications to long-held habits, many involving cheese, smoked meats and wine. I’ve also acquired a lot of new recording gear, and look forward to getting a home studio set up this winter to revive some long dormant creative activities as the snow flies and winds howl. Rage against the dying of the light . . . with guitar.

While these mostly quiet, personal, home-related changes are taking place, I’m also going to be making some more public changes in how I connect with the world in a digital format, which is how most of you reading this post have interacted with me over the years. You’ll see these rolling out in the next few days, so I’m leaving a description of them here in this post as a guide marker in case you can’t find me where you used to. Here’s the plan:

1. I’m permanently closing my Facebook account, including the Indie Moines group there. It used to be valuable to me as a promotional tool, but as Facebook has phased out organic placements of posts, I find myself connecting with an increasingly limited audience there, and the cost of time-wasting that occurs when I log in no longer offsets the benefit of doing so. Plus, you know, it’s Facebook. Been there, done that, tired of it.

2. While I don’t think it’s going to live up to the hype that it’s gained as the site that’s going to kill Facebook, I have joined Ello as an alternate social network for now. It’s still in beta, and it still requires an invitation to join, but if you are there, I am user @jericsmith, so feel free to add me to your noise or friends lists, and I’ll reciprocate. If you’d like an invitation, shoot me a note.

3. I’m going to maintain my Twitter account at @indiemoines, though I am re-branding my feed under my own name, rather than having the posts show up as having originated from Indie Moines. Same piffle and tripe, same location, just without the anonymity of the third party designation. It’s me tweeting in the first person now, not Indie Moines tweeting in the third.

4. And speaking of Indie Moines, the biggest change coming is this one: this domain expires this December, and I’m planning to retire the site at that point (though I will renew the domain registration, lest someone else snarf it up for nefarious purposes). Why am I doing this? From 1999 to 2007, my website and my blog were one and the same: J. Eric Smith Dot Com. But when I started blogging for a certain New York digital rag, and then that blew up and I set up Indie Albany in a fit of pique, and then I unexpectedly moved to Iowa and created Indie Moines as a continuation of the Indie Albany narrative, the website associated with my core brand — my name — began to languish in something of a netherworld between my professional and my creative life. This has allowed other J. Eric Smiths out there (there are a lot of us, surprisingly) to encroach on my digital turf, so, as with my Twitter account, I’m ready to reclaim my name and roll all of my online archives (dating back to 1995!) over to J. Eric Smith Dot Com, and to begin posting all new material there. This feels sensible since I rarely write about Des Moines or Iowa as specific topics anymore, instead focusing on things either larger or smaller or more national or more personal in scope, so the inquiries that Indie Moines generates don’t really have a lot of bearing on what I’m doing on the site at this point. So go ahead and click on one of those links above to my name website . . . look familiar? Same things that exist at Indie Moines, just under my own name, with some professional tabs preserved from my work sites for the folks interested in those sorts of things. Shift your bookmarks now if you’d like, as anything that appears here over the next two months will also appear there, and then at some point, this site will vanish. Poof!

There might be some other changes coming, too, but these are the ones that are feeling good and right for me now, as I watch the leaves fall and prepare myself — physically, psychologically, creatively, digitally — for the winter months ahead. Sing it, John Cale, since you know what I mean . . .

The Fame of States

Does your state have a particular claim to fame with which it is closely associated?

For reasons too complicated to explain (like most things in my brain), I posed this question in a writing project recently, and then wondered how to answer it. On a gut instinct whim, I opened Google, and typed a search stream in the form of “Famous [State Name] [space],” then noted the first suggestion made by Google’s auto-fill engine. So, for instance, here’s what the search for Alabama looked like:

famousalabama

Famous Alabama Football Players? Okay, I’ll buy that . . . since the correlation between “Alabama” and “Football Players” does seem to be pretty strong in public perception. But what happens when you run this same test with all of the other states and major territories or affiliated entities in the United States? Do the correlations still ring as strongly? Let’s look and see!

As was the case with alphabetical alpha Alabama, college (and occasionally professional) athletics are among the most common categories of “Famous State” suggestions, as follows (with some notes):

  • Alabama Football Players
  • Colorado Rockies (Could also be the mountains, of course).
  • Idaho Potato Bowl (Interesting that the Bowl Game scores higher than the potatoes it is named after).
  • Kansas City Royals (Go Beloved Royals!).
  • Kentucky Derby Winners (This is the only animal related response in the mix, if people are looking for the horses, not the jockeys).
  • Minnesota Twins (Go Marcia’s Beloved Twinkies!)
  • Nebraska Fans (Wonder why fans over players? Is it because the Cornhuskers are so hated that it’s hard to imagine what famous people might like them? Probably).
  • Ohio State Football Players (Complete with mug shots).
  • Oklahoma Football Players
  • Oregon Runner (The singular is interesting. There’s only one famous Oregon runner?)
  • Texas Rangers (Could be the law enforcement types, too).
  • Utah Jazz Players (Because it’s Utah, we know these are basketball players, and not saxophone players).
  • Washington Redskins (Sad that Washington State’s search fame hinges on an ethnically offensive sports team mascot from the other side of the country).

Some states’ claims to fame are similarly linked to their colleges, though not for their athletic programs, but instead for those who matriculated from their institutions of higher learning:

  • Arizona State Alumni
  • Georgia Tech Alumni
  • Maryland Alumni
  • Michigan Alumni
  • Virginia Tech Alumni

The next most common category of responses are related to food, with some interesting variations between “restaurant(s)” and “food(s)” perhaps indicating where people dine out more, and where people eat in more:

  • Connecticut Pizza
  • Delaware Food
  • Guam Food
  • Illinois Food
  • Louisiana Restaurants
  • Mississippi Restaurants
  • Missouri Food
  • New Jersey Food
  • New York Restaurants
  • North Carolina Foods (interesting that this is the only plural incidence of “food” . . . apparently the Tarheel State does not have one singular signature cuisine item?)
  • Pennsylvania Food
  • South Carolina Food (Complete with organ meat).

Two states improve on the food cluster by prioritizing sudsy libations over eats:

  • Vermont Beer (A little surprising).
  • Wisconsin Beer (Not at all surprising).

Some states are apparently best known (or searched) for their cultural resources:

  • Arkansas Rappers (Really?!? Okay, I’ve got to do some research here and figure out what’s going down in the Little Rock hip hop scene).
  • Maine Artists
  • Massachusetts Artists
  • New Mexico Artists
  • North Dakota Artists (Okay, this one surprises me. Sorry, North Dakota. Just saying).
  • Rhode Island Actors (Because Providence is the Hollywood of Southern New England).
  • Tennessee Authors (I wonder if “Tennessee Williams” skews this one?)

There are a cluster of states whose geography resonates most strongly with Google searchers:

  • Alaska Cities (Are people surprised to learn there are more than one?)
  • California Beaches
  • Florida Beaches
  • Hawaii Beaches
  • Puerto Rico Beach (Is there only one?)
  • South Dakota Landmarks (Plural? Does that infer that there’s something other than Mount Rushmore?)
  • West Virginia Hotel (Just one? Why does that make me think about some weird combo of The Shining and Deliverance?)

A couple of states apparently raise the question “Who the heck actually lives there?”

  • Montana Residents
  • New Hampshire Residents

Sadly enough, there are a few regions in the United States that apparently have nothing famous worth searching for, including our Nation’s Federal District:

  • American Samoa NOTHING
  • District of Columbia NOTHING
  • U.S. Virgin Islands NOTHING
  • Northern Mariana Islands NOTHING

Then there are some weird ones that don’t quite fit into any other category:

  • Indiana Jones Quotes (Harrison Ford’s limited dialog in an action movie series is more searchable than everything else in the Hoosier State? Wow).
  • Nevada Brothels (Well, yeah, sex sells, apparently even more than casinos do).
  • Wyoming Attorney (There’s only one? Apparently that’s enough).

And, then, finally, there’s the state where I’ve made my home for the past three years. I figured that when I searched for “Famous Iowa [blank]” that I might get “Iowa State Football Players” or “Iowa Wrestlers” or “Iowa Corn” or something along those lines. But how wrong I was, since here’s a screen capture of the actual result:

famousiowaMurders? The most searchable thing in Iowa is homicide?!? Well, I guess I might have done my part to help that out when I visited and wrote about the Villisca Axe Murder House, but, still, why is Iowa the only state in the Nation where searchers are most interested in the taking of someone else’s life?

This remains an open question for me. I’d welcome your thoughts on what the answer might be!

Five by Five Books #6: “The Flounder” (1977) by Günter Grass

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? At bottom line, this is a book is about men, and women, and food, so how can you go wrong with that, right? More descriptively, The Flounder (Der Butt in its original German) tells the tale of an immortal fisherman, the women he has loved through the centuries, and the talking fish who meddles in their lives, incidentally instituting the patriarchate in the process. Loosely anchored in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Fisherman and His Wife, Günter Grass’ epic Flounder blends absurdly cerebral elements (e.g. a court trial of the talking flounder, who is being persecuted by militant feminists), with visceral, earthy depictions of human bodies and the fuel (food) that powers them, some of it beautiful and sweet, some of it bloody and filthy, most of it some combination of all of the above. The main narrative of the book is broken into nine parts (called months), through which the Fisherman tells his pregnant current wife, Ilsebill, about the women (all cooks) who came before her, all the way back into the blissfully oblivious (for men anyway) matriarchy of the Neolithic era, when people ate in private, then gathered in groups to move their bowels together, socially. The book also provides a reasonably accurate history of the politics and culture of the Vistula River region around Danzig/Gdansk, which is sometimes German, sometimes Polish, sometimes Lithuanian, sometimes its own Free City, but always distinctive and recognizable in Grass’ depictions.

Who wrote it? Günter Grass is arguably post-war Germany’s most famous — if often controversial — cultural figures, a left-leaning, politically-active playwright, novelist, sculptor, illustrator and poet, whose work is frequently categorized as an integral part of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“Coming to terms with the past”) movement in contemporary German arts. Grass was born in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), and his works are often set there, in the crook of the Baltic Sea where eastern and western empires have clashed for centuries, all of them coveting the deep water port and strategic importance of the ancient burg, which has as a result changed hands (politically) at least 15 times in the past 1,000 years. His most famous book, The Tin Drum (1959), was the opening salvo of his so-called Danzig Trio, and it was later made into an Academy Award and Cannes Palm d’Or winning film, released in 1979 — just after The Flounder received its first English pressing. Grass has won numerous awards and plaudits throughout his career, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999 for his book, My Century. He continues to write, and provoke, to this day, most recently earning headlines on our shores for his 2012 poem “Europe’s Disgrace,” in which he lambastes the European Union for condemning Greece to poverty through its (mis?)-handling of the sovereign debt crisis.

When and where did I read it? I first read The Flounder in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1980, as America’s Cup 12 meter sailboats trained, transited and raced outside of my bedroom window above Fort Adams State Park. I had seen the film adaptation of The Tin Drum a few months before we moved from Long Island (after four seminal years there) to Rhode Island, and read that novel soon thereafter, surprised and delighted to discover that there was a long and important second part of the book that had not been included in the film. Soon after we arrived in Newport, I visited the public library downtown, and am fairly certain that The Flounder was the first book I ever checked out there. It’s a long, somewhat difficult book, and I know I had to renew it a couple of times before I finished; oddly (it seemed to me) nobody else wanted to check it out. The book’s bizarre potpourri of water, and fish, and food, and women, and history, and politics, indelibly underpins my memories of a summer spent on the shore, during political season (John Anderson for President, anybody?), while eagerly pursuing women, and food, ideally at the same time.

Why do I like it? Like I said, men and women and food, so what’s not to like? Actually, the thing that impressed me most on first reading was the book’s rich structure, the layers of history, with poetry and prose intertwined, and an absurd and satirical contemporary story line providing the anchor from which upon thousands of years worth of deliciously dirty, meaty, sweaty, sensual yarns and tales are spun, ostensibly to entertain a pregnant woman through the nine months of her term. Grass’ deep sense of place (the Vistula estuary, Kashubia, Pomerania, Danzig), and his vast affection for food and its preparation are contagious and memorable, and I found myself wanting to reproduce many of the recipes described in the book, even though many of them would be viewed as disgusting my most modern gourmands, just for the experience of eating things we generally don’t eat anymore. The (titular) Flounder is an amazing character — a mystery, a meddler, a bon vivant, a maker of bad jokes and puns, a know-it-all in both the best and worst senses of that phrase — as are the 11 cooks, all powerful women, each in their own ways, flawlessly envisioned and embodied by a master writer. Credit must be given to Ralph Manheim for his English translation of this knotty (and naughty) work; the language never feels forced, nor dumbed down, nor stiff, and I think that’s a rare and significant accomplishment in a field that’s largely invisible or forgotten by most readers of foreign novels.

A five sentence sample text: “He, the one and only, the talking Flounder, who has been stirring me up for centuries, knew all the recipes that had been used for cooking his fellows, first by the heathen and later as a Christian Lenten fish (and not only on Friday). With an air of detachment and a glint of irony in his slanting eyes, he could sing his praises as a delicacy: ‘Yes, my son, we happen to be one of the finer fishes. In the distant future, when you imbecilic men, you eternal babes in arms, will at last have minted coins, dated your history, and introduced the patriarchate, in short, shaken off your mothers’ breasts, when after six thousand years of ever-loving womanly care you will at last have emancipated yourselves, then my fellows and relatives, the sole, the brill, the plaice, will be simmered in white wine, seasoned with capers, framed in jelly, deliciously offset by sauces, and served on Dresden china. My fellows will be braised, glazed, poached, broiled, filleted, ennobled with truffles, flamed in cognac, and named after marshals, dukes, the prince of Wales, and the Hotel Bristol. Campaigns, conquests, land grabs!”

PRIOR FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

Click on The Flounder to order your own copy.

Click on The Flounder to order your own copy.

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