Cobwebs and Strange

1. The Grackles are back! I got home from work this afternoon, looked out the back window, and saw a couple of dozen feisty, iridescent, purple, blue and black birds stomping around the back yard, sussing out the competition, the potential mates, and the nesting sites. Usually a month or so after this happens each spring, we’ll have three or four nesting pairs at the far corners of the yard, jealously guarding their sectors from intrusion by other birds or mammals, including me. Still, they’re my favorite yard birds, and I love watching their return each spring.

2. Jed Davis is back! Or will be soon, anyway. Back in 1996 (I think), I reviewed the UAlbany alum’s album We’re All Going To Jail, and ended the review by noting that “[this album] makes it very clear that the local music scene really let a big one get away when we allowed Jed Davis to head downstream on the Hudson. So have your nets and gill-hooks ready next time he visits, okay?” I now see from Jed’s Facebook page that he’s planning to move back to Albany soon, which is great news for the local music community (forage around his website a bit if you don’t believe me), and means that you can put your nets and gill-hooks away, finally. Huttah!

3. Spring is back! Marcia is headed out to Las Vegas tomorrow to meet her sisters for a long weekend of Sin City fun, and the timing perfectly corresponds to what appears to be the first truly fabulous weekend of the spring hereabouts, so I am taking my bicycle and heading down to Rhinebeck for the weekend to do some Duchess County rides and soak up the sunshine and warmth in a reasonably healthy fashion. Should be a wild and crazy cycling nerd weekend. What happens in Rhinebeck stays in Rhinebeck. Since no one outside of Rhinebeck would be interested in it.

4. If you’re on Facebook, you need to join this group to hear Jason Martin‘s “Schenectady Song.” I love this song and this performance so very, very much, and was thrilled to hear it again tonight, for the first time in too many years. It’s a great testament to a great city and great musical talent. Listen!

5. Neil Diamond’s “Morningside” is the saddest song ever written. Ever! Even sadder than “Eleanor Rigby!” Listen!

6. Cobwebs and Strange.

On Shrimp: Fishing Vessel Ophelia Rae and Walker Cotton

I’m reading a great book called Shrimp: The Endless Quest for Pink Gold by Jack and Anne Rudloe. I guess I don’t need to explain what it’s about, do I?

The book got me to thinking about how important shrimpers, shrimp boats and shrimps themselves are to the way my South Carolina Lowcountry homeland looks, thinks, feels and smells. In fact, if you asked me to come up with a single, indelible image that defined the Lowcountry, I would find a picture of some shrimp boats among the waterways in and around the coastal marshes of Beaufort County.

I can smell the shrimp, diesel fumes and marsh gas from thousands of miles away, just looking at a good photo of a shrimp boat. The folks who work those boats are finding their livelihoods challenged by pond-grown shrimp from abroad, but it’s hard to imagine that farmed shrimp could ever taste as sweet as something pulled fresh from the sea. I wrote a piece about one of these boats a few years ago, and the relentless nature of its work. I reproduce it below, for those who missed it first time ’round on my website:

Fishing Vessel Ophelia Rae
(Copyright 2004, J. Eric Smith)

The sun’s rising on the horizon
as our boat motors into the east,
with nets hanging low on her winches
like wings on some cumbersome beast.

She’s a mote in that vast living ocean,
a speck catching yet smaller specks,
which we haul up in great writhing masses
and then dump in her tank, below decks.

With a full metal belly, she shudders
as we turn her back ’round t’wards the shore,
and then ease her back into her harbor,
where she vomits up shrimp by the score.

And the townsfolk, they scoop up her purging,
which they take home to shell and de-vein,
and then eat with their families at dinner,
while our boat, she gets hungry again.

I also wrote a song about shrimpers once, a dirty talking blues that’s a little bit less noble than the one above. A murder ballad, no less! This lyric is among my personal favorites (I would offer Jefferson Water as the best poem I’ve ever written, but I think this is close), although writers are always lousy judges of their own writing, so you may feel free to disagree. I think Nick Cave could sing this one better than I ever could. Just in case he’s reading. Call me.

Walker Cotton
(Copyright 2000, J. Eric Smith)

Shrimp boat settin’ out t’ sea long before the dawn
Diesel fuel and fishin’ nets long before the dawn
Walker Cotton’s gotta fish before them shrimps is gone

Drop the nets and let ’em drag, he’s settin’ out t’ sea
Sun come up off to the east, he’s settin’ out t’ sea
Walker Cotton chaws a plug, an’ spits off t’ the lee

Down the river, roun’ the bend an’ watchin’ out for mud
Catch the tide and pass the bridge an’ watch out for the mud
Walker Cotton’s overalls are stained with dirt and blood

Pull the nets in, swing ’em round and drop ’em on the deck
Nets all wrigglin’ with the shrimps all hoppin’ on the deck
Loose and floppin’ just like Dewey Varney’s broken neck

Gotta put them shrimps away and chill ’em down all nice
Gotta get them shrimps put ‘way to chill ’em down all nice
Walker Cotton starts a’ diggin’ Dewey from the ice

A braid of rope ’round Dewey’s waist, an anchor at the end
A loop of rope ’round Dewey’s legs, an anchor at the end
Walker Cotton’s gone and killed his one and only friend

Dewey’s wife’s the only one who might been keepin’ tabs
On Dewey’s whereabouts and wiles, she’d long been keepin’ tabs
That’s what made her wish that he’d be eaten up by crabs

Shrimp on ice and Dewey gone, he’s sailin’ back t’ town
Shrimp all iced in Dewey’s box, he’s sailin’ back t’ town
Walker Cotton’s headin’ home t’ lay Miz Varney down

Respecting Nonprofits

I wrote a couple of days ago about how tactless and tasteless I found the ongoing Bobblehead media contest, to which I refuse  to post a link. I object to it, in large part, because the names of valued, valuable nonprofit organizations are being tossed about to give the thing some nobility and purpose, but the amount of benefit that (some of) the nonprofits will receive is woefully inadequate when compared to the value of their good names, reputations and work, which aren’t being fairly considered in the hubbub.

There are thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars worth of media time and space being dedicated to this thing, and the “winning” nonprofit will get $600. That’s borderline insulting. But, to be clear, the insult doesn’t stem from the ValleyCats’ marketing department (which gets a pat on the back and a hearty “well done” for being so adept at manipulating the media), it stems from the media outlets and figures who are wasting their valuable clout and reach on something so absurdly pointless.

While the $900 total prize kitty that the ValleyCats put up may be a significant sum to a small, minor-league, seasonal sports franchise, it’s chump change to the television and radio stations and newspapers that are pimping this thing as though it were some combination of a universal health care package and a landmark peace settlement in Palestine. Shame on you. Put your money where your mouths are, or move on to something meaningful, please and thanks.

That $900 should have been viewed by you all as seed money, and every media outlet and talking/writing head that’s playing along with this thing should be putting up matching gifts, soliciting funds, or giving legitimate advertising time and space to every one of the nonprofits whose names are being used to give this promotion its legitimacy. Use your media presence to add value, not vanity. Please.

I’ve spent my entire career working in the public domain, first with the government, now in the nonprofit sector, and I cherish the work that the employees, boards and volunteers of these organizations do, largely out of sight, and often out of mind. They deserve to be treated with respect for that work, and tossing some coins in their cups as justifications for media narcissism and obsession with hit counts, unique visits, and press mentions doesn’t quite count as respectful.

Yes, every dollar counts to a struggling nonprofit. As the Chief Executive Officer of one, however, I can tell you that I’m not so stupid as to feel like I should be fawningly grateful for every $100 corporate contribution offered in exchange for my organization’s good name, especially when the contributing organization does something as absurd as putting huge sums of money into promoting personalized plastic dolls, cast in their employees’ likenesses.

As I noted in the earlier post, a two dollar gift made from the heart by someone with limited resources means much more to me than a toss-off corporate gift that has nothing to do with my organization’s mission, work, values, and ethics. In fact, as a fundraising director and executive, I have declined contributions and refused to allow my organizations’ names to be used in marketing events numerous times over the years. I respectfully encourage my colleagues in the nonprofit sector to do the same, if the events and gifts are not in keeping with your mission, your clients’ needs, or with maintaining the dignity of your organization’s name and work.

Your organizations have true value, and you have something to offer the corporations in the Capital Region. So I hope you don’t feel like you have to sit there with your begging bowls, hoping that your “champion” makes it through three rounds of bobblehead competition so you can get $100 or $600 out of the deal. That’s a poor trade for organizational dignity. You have clout and power, especially collaboratively, and you should use it.

I post these thoughts not to be a party-pooper, or to be a crabby old man, but rather because I’m truly, deeply disappointed at the ugliness of this contest, and also in the hopes that the corporations that are using our valuable community nonprofits’ names will all step up to the plate and make meaningful, purposeful contributions to their work, maybe not now, but soon. They deserve that.

Blogging on Blogging

Outside of posting pictures of your cats, perhaps the most stereotypically self-indulgent type of blog post is one about blog posting. But who am I to resist stereotypical self-indulgence? A colleague recently expressed interest in teaming up with others on a potentially high-profile group-edited blog using the same content management applications that I use here and on other blogs I administer. He asked for my thoughts about blogging workload, opportunities and pitfalls, in general terms, which I provided, and share below (edited to protect the names of the guilty and innocent alike, to add some later thoughts, and with his concurrence to sharing our correspondence):

I’d love to see you take up a blog! This WordPress software application is very simple to learn and use. A couple of clicks, type your piece, hit “publish” and it’s up there. You can set it up so that reader comments generate an e-mail to you with the option to approve, disapprove or spam. That can be as much or as little work as you want to make it. If you tend to push the envelope on provocative topics, you’ll obviously get more comments. You also can decide how many of them you want to respond to, directly or online. Honestly, I’m probably a “bad blogger” in that I don’t really care about traffic that much at this point, so I don’t do some of the blog basics, like responding to every commenter to build a sense of “community” around my blog. In the case of what you’re proposing, I suspect you would want to build that sense of community, so you may find that you want to spend more time and effort in this piece than I do.

There’s another thing to be aware of, in regards to reader comments, best summarized by this now-famous internet image (note: language warning in link). There are some truly deplorable trolls out there who will say some truly awful things in blog comments anonymously, just because they can. Again, if you’re not pushing the provocative edge, you won’t likely see that kind of volume, but you’ll want to be prepared to have some thick skin about what people might say on your posts, and I recommend liberally refusing to publish offensive garbage in comments. Once they see that you won’t accept it, the trolls will first scream “censorship,” not knowing what that word really means, since neither the government nor the media own your blog, and you can decide who or what you choose to allow there, within rules and guidelines that you define and enforce, just as you can in your “real world” home. If you stay firm about blocking the idiots with nothing to add, then they will generally go away. Or at least go somewhere else to criticize you for your “censorious” ways.

To be clear: I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with me online, anonymously or otherwise, and I always publish those kinds of comments, but I do have a problem with racist, sexist, violent, or other attack-oriented anonymous posts. My blog is pretty “troll free” at this point, though, again, if I was more traffic oriented, I might get more of them.  Unfortunately, for some readers, those garbage comments are what it’s all about when it comes to blogs, and some of the high-traffic local sites draw hits less for the content in the blogs themselves, and more for the “community” action that happens in the comments section, complete with sock puppet wars, competition for attention from the blog host(s), trolls picking on the weaker members of the tribe, strident absolutist sloganeering, and deliberately provocative posting just to get a reaction. That all feels like junior high school redux to me, and I’m really not interested in encouraging it, though I do always like thoughtful discourse and discussion in the comments section if it’s about the topic at hand, not about the commenter’s wants and needs, and not about how I might respond to them. That sort of online relationship/community gets really creepy, really fast.

Finally, I think the most important thing to say to someone who’s considering blogging in a potentially high-profile local capacity  is that you really have to like writing. I’m probably borderline OCD about it, and it sort of takes some degree of obsessiveness to want to spend time regularly recording and sharing your thoughts in writing. The nice thing about starting with a group blog could be that it wouldn’t all be on your back, conceptually, so if you found that you really didn’t want to keep it up over time, there wouldn’t be a page out there with your name in the headline pointing to an out-of-date page. On the flip side, if you find that you really love the writing and are getting a lot out of it, I would suggest that you start your own personal blog as well, since that gives you a degree of freedom and autonomy that doesn’t exist in a group blog setting.

At bottom line, I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of blogging, because it’s a relatively simple way to record and share thoughts, and I can type in WordPress a whole lot faster than I can write in a Moleskine notebook these days. I’ve actually had a blog since September 2000, back before most folks knew what they were, and I moved to the TU about three years ago, since it was easier than coding and maintaining my own pages. I recommend it to anyone who really likes the written word. Hopefully you find this encouraging in terms of your interest in doing your proposed blog! Good luck with it!

Tournament Expansion = No Brainer

When the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there were 228 teams playing at the Division I level. That meant that about 28% of the teams playing made it into the Tournament.

This year, there are 347 teams playing Division I NCAA Men’s Basketball, a 52% increase over the the number playing in 1985. There are, however, still only 64 teams in the Tournament, meaning that only about 18% of the teams playing make it into the Tournament.

If you bump that number back up to 28%, the way it was when the field of 64 was launched, you’d have a field of 97 teams.

Most of the expansion talk at this point focuses on merging the current NCAA Tournament with the National Invitational Tournament (which is already owned and operated by the NCAA) to create a field of 96 teams, which would be achieved by going from one to 32 “play-in” games for the lowest ranked teams.

It makes perfect sense, and I’m all in favor of it. I’d certainly rather see more teams playing for the real title than what we have now, with three essentially meaningless post-season tournaments (NIT, CBI, CIT) competing (weakly) against the Big Show.

And to those who cry “Boo hoo, that would dilute the field,” I point out that yesterday there were ten matchups between Big Six schools and Mid-Majors, and the little guys won four of them, with the “mighty” Big East’s representatives losing to Ohio and Murray State, and barely squeaking out a win against Robert Morris.

It’s the little guys that bring the excitement. Let ’em play, I say!