A Quick Check-In

The move into our new house in Des Moines is going well, and the last of the cardboard boxes left yesterday. Now we’re on to hanging art, touching up paint, and other sorts of second-level decorative or comfort elements, with basic living arrangements essentially sorted.

One of those second-level comfort elements is the installation of internet access in our house, which won’t occur until next week. This means all of my online capabilities are via phone at this point, and that makes it tough to do my usual back-of-house Indie Albany administrative duties.

So please forgive the lack of notification updates and/or any formatting or style issues that have crept in or do creep in over the next week or so. I’ll get the site all pretty again, and get back to notifying you of new content, as soon as I’ve got my home office command center properly deployed.

Thanks for reading, though, even in my absence. It’s nice to see the site thrive without me!

On The Great Western Trail

Our household goods are scheduled for delivery tomorrow morning, so today was the last day for a while when I didn’t really have anything that I absolutely had to do. So how to spend it? Well, since the weather was nice, I took a walk on The Great Western Trail, spending two hours on an amazingly well maintained multi-purpose path, not seeing another human being during the entire walk. I snapped some shots with my phone as I walked, not realizing that I had fat-fingered it into the “sepia” effect setting. When I downloaded the snaps on my computer, though, that sepia tone actually seemed appropriate and evocative somehow. So here are a few of those sepia shots showing how I spent a very enjoyable part of my afternoon today . . . before I am consumed by setting up a household tomorrow!

The Great Western Trail, south of Des Moines.

Cows up close to the trail.

Cows at a distance.

I heard a truck go rumbling down this road a couple of minutes before I crossed it. The dust it kicked up was still in the air, making the sunshine visible.

Farewell, Champ

Note: I hate to be that guy who keeps republishing old material, but on hearing the news of Joe Frazier’s passing this morning, I wanted to share this piece from a few years ago (lightly edited) about my longtime love of boxing, which was largely developed during Frazier’s heyday, so that those who might not have seen it the first time around can read it. Rest peacefully, Champ. You earned it.

When I was a kid, my dad was always good about dragging me in to watch important sporting events with him when they aired on television, letting me stay up late if necessary to catch something that he considered worthy of remembering. I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, but I’m grateful now that he made me watch (among many other things) the Dolphins completing the only perfect season in NFL history by stomping his beloved Redskins, Hank Aaron hitting home runs number 714 and 715,  the last three horse racing triple crowns, Arthur Ashe winning Wimbledon in ’75, and then the epic Borg-McEnroe match there five years later.

I have active, personal, vivid memories of watching each of these events, but all of them pale in comparison to the memories I have of the heavyweight boxing matches that my father brought me in to watch through what I (and many others) would consider the pinnacle of the Sweet Science’s history, through the heart of the 1970s, when Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and a score of colorful supporting characters fought each other in a series of epic, mind-blowing, gut-churning, ring battles. The build-up to these events was thrilling, and as sporting spectacle they were simply untouchable.

I can honestly recall no television moments more stunning, more shocking, and more deeply memorable than Ken Norton breaking Muhammad Ali’s jaw in the ring in 1973, Ali outlasting Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla in 1975, Ali losing his title to Leon Spinks in 1978, then regaining it in a rematch six months later, then losing it for the last time to Holmes in 1980. (I should also note that I vividly recall watching Ali and Frazier shooting marbles on Wonderama with Bob McCallister just before their second fight, though I suspect I watched that alone, since my dad was probably still in bed when that wonderful early kid-babysitting show aired).

Rest in peace, Champ.

I was an Ali man throughout those glorious days of sport, despite the fact that my father was a Frazier fan, and Smokin’ Joe was from my own birth city of Beaufort, South Carolina, making him a home-town hero of sorts. In fact, we used to drive past the plantation he bought his family after he achieved fame when driving down the Old Sheldon Road between Beaufort and the family homestead in McPhersonville. You could tell it was Frazier Plantation because of the boxing gloves hanging off the mailbox.

But, still, Ali moved me (and moves me) in a powerful, visceral fashion, changing the ways I viewed self-identity, self-worth and self-improvement at a particularly formative phase of my young life. I’m not naive, and I understand the ways that Ali abused the people around him (especially his wives and, sadly, Frazier), but, you know, I don’t really care about all that, when push comes right down to shove. The man’s always been a bigger-than-life hero to me, and he’ll always be the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) in my eyes and mind, though Smokin’ Joe certainly gave him more of a run for his money for a longer period of time than anyone else, and I admire that immensely. I also have come to appreciate Frazier’s support of Ali during his politically-inspired ban from boxing. Those great Frazier-Ali bouts of the 1970s never would have happened if Joe hadn’t offered his own moral and financial support of Ali during the period when he needed it most. That’s the stuff of which champions are made.

My appreciation for those epic 15-round boxing battles of the ’70s grew immeasurably when I went to the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, where all male midshipmen at the time were required to box during our plebe and youngster (a.k.a. freshman and sophomore) years. The coaches would line us up by weight in gym class, and then pair us off from heaviest to lightest, which always seemed to work to my disadvantage, as it seemed I was always the second heaviest person in the class at around 210 pounds, which meant I had to fight the heaviest person in the class, who was inevitably a mutant like my room-mate Jamie, a 6 foot 6 inch, 250 pound monster with a six-foot wingspan.

We fought three rounds under Golden Gloves rules, and those brief bouts were among the most excruciating, difficult, painful things I ever did, as I was typically pummeled around the ring by heavier opponents with longer arms. Consider, then, the fact that I had a head-guard on, while Ali, Frazier and their foes fought unprotected for five times longer than we did, throwing punches that had to be at least five times harder than anything I ever threw or received. If you’ve never been punched repeatedly in the body by a bigger, stronger person, then you can’t imagine what pain-management and discipline Ali’s “Rope-A-Dope” strategy must have entailed. If you’ve never tried to stay on your toes and out-dance your opponent for ten minutes, then you have no ability to conceive of what a titanic athletic achievement Ali’s “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” approach to boxing was. He was an athlete’s athlete. I watch his classic matches now, and still recoil at the punishment that he dished out and received, round after round after round, bout after bout after bout.

Twenty-some odd years after I left the Academy, I started integrating boxing back into my workout regimen, and these days, it’s essentially the cornerstone of my physical fitness program. I don’t take punches to the head anymore, obviously, but as a general rule, I work the heavy bag at the gym hard at least three times a week, throwing 1000 or more punches per session, usually while listening to brutal death metal, ideally by Napalm Death. This makes for an absolutely untouchable workout, as the act of moving the heavy bag requires your shoulders, arms, and core muscles to be active and coordinated, while staying on your toes throughout the workout keeps legs and glutes working hard as well. I easily sweat and soak through whatever I’m wearing after 20 minutes or so of throwing punches, so the regimen’s got hard aerobic and anaerobic elements. Plus, there are few things better for letting off the steam of the day than punching the blazes out of something, so there’s a strong sense of psychological satisfaction involved as well. I’m grateful for the coaching I got at the Academy on the proper ways to beat stuff up, because I quite like doing it at this stage of my life, as much as I hated it at that stage.

I have to note in closing, though, that as much as I love the classic era of boxing, and as much I enjoy punching things, I absolutely detest the whole contemporary world of Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting Championships and whatnot, and find little admirable in a “sport” where one assailant can defeat the other by choking him into unconsciousness during the first 30 seconds of a match. Boxing earns its title as the Sweetest Science due to its refereed adherence to the Marquess of Queensberry Rules or their relatives, which provide a controlled structure for physical conflict, and put an emphasis on strength, stamina and coordination over the raw, brute-force ability to kill another human being. There’s not much noble about that, and I tend to agree with legislators and sportsmen who oppose such dehumanizing spectacles. I appreciate warriors. I don’t care for thugs.

I feel somewhat similarly about the state of heavyweight boxing these days, as the concept of title by acclamation has been diluted by an ever-growing profusion of title-offering governing bodies. I doubt that we’ll ever have a champion as grand as Ali or Frazier (or even Mike Tyson, for that matter) when there are at least half-a-dozen money-making entities out there with their own money-making champs in the ring. I’m a sport junkie, so I know who the heavyweight champs are these days (do you?), though I don’t much care. Few of them move me all that much, though I appreciate their athleticism. None of them are heroes to me.

Not the way that Ali and Frazier were, anyway.

More Things I Will Miss When I Leave Albany

I am down to my last six nights as a Capital Region resident, so as I enter the final phases of packing and moving, I wanted to note some other things that I will miss when I leave Albany (even as I try to forget the things that I will not miss). Here are a few of those great things that will cause sweet sorrow when we part:

1. Airplanes: Oh, yeah, of course they have airplanes in Iowa, but I’m not going to get to see them the way I do now. We live a few miles in a straight line from the end of Albany International Airport’s east-west runway, so when the wind is blowing out of the west (as it often does hereabouts), incoming flights come pretty much directly over our house, with wheels down and flaps extended. As a person who likes to look up in the sky a lot, this adds a great degree of interest to the act of sitting out in the hot tub (which I also do a lot), since we get to see all sorts of traffic arriving, from small private planes through commercial Canadair Regional Jets, Boeing 737’s and Airbus A-319’s to behemoths like National Guard C-130‘s and the occasional KC-10. I’ve become something of a connoisseur of aircraft hereabouts as a result, and can often identify planes by their sound before I can actually see them. I doubt that I will ever become as well-versed in the aviation fauna operating over Des Moines.

2. Stewarts Shops: In the suburban neighborhood where we live, it’s hard to get anywhere without getting in a car (something we’ll be changing in Des Moines, as our new house is smack in the middle of the city), so we appreciate the few relatively close businesses that allow for the quick pickup of goods and sundries. The nearest store to our house is a Stewarts, so in all likelihood I’ve made as many visits to that particular business location as I have to any other in the Capital Region. And as regional convenience stores go, Stewarts is really quite a gem. Their locally-themed and produced products (Crumbs Along the Mohawk or Kaydeross Kreme anyone?) give them far more character than the national chains (e.g. Cumberland Farms) located hereabouts, and their stores tend to truly integrate in their home neighborhoods in ways that most multi-venue businesses don’t. When I was working in Great Barrington,  I used to pick up a work colleague near the Defreestville Park and Ride, and I loved the fact that the Stewarts adjacent to it served as a de facto town community center, as its booths would be filled, every morning, with a great assortment of garrulous retirees sharing their morning coffee and donuts, and providing running commentary on everyone and everything that struck their fancy. As a nonprofit fundraising type, I also appreciate the Dake family’s commitment to philanthropy in the community, as well as their approach to grants and gifts: they tend to make a lot of smaller gifts to organizations and activities that fly below the radar screen of many grant-makers around here, many of them youth oriented, rather than offering a few massive gifts that serve fewer people, but offer greater recognition. I must admit, too, that I will miss Stewarts because its analog in Iowa is quite unfortunately named. I’m going to have a hard time ordering anything with sprinkles there . . .

3. Albany Songwriters: Again, while I’ll certainly be able to listen to the music of some of Albany’s finest songwriters while I am in Iowa, I’ll miss the opportunity to see them live, and am grateful to have made their acquaintances over the years. While the Albany market has always been unfortunately focused on judging musical success through the lens of whether or not you make it out of Albany, no matter what it takes to do so, some of our greatest creative treasures have produced their finest works locally, and continue to offer them locally, to the great benefit of those of us who actually support local artists before people outside the market tell us to do so. Three songwriters in particular stand out for me after 18 years in and around Albany: Stephen Gaylord, Gaven Richard and Jed Davis.

  • Stephen Gaylord writes deeply-emotional songs about often-flawed individuals, and his work is frequently rooted in the rural culture of his native Kinderhook and its environs. He has offered these riveting compositions onstage hereabouts for the better part of two decades with Beef, The Wasted, and as a solo artist (under the pseudonym Gay Tastee), and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone write or sing music that hurts as good as his does. Marcia and I both count his heart-wrenching “Beautiful Brand New” among our favorite songs, ever, and Beef’s “Spavid Story” provides the greatest description of the creative urge to rock that I’ve ever heard, including the classic couplet: “We never listened to the reasons why it didn’t sound right / We was f*ckin’ around on a Friday night.” If I had to pick a single album to stand as the soundtrack to my 18 years in Upstate New York, there is no doubt that it would be The Wasted’s We Are Already in Hell, a loosely-conceptual masterpiece of insightful lyrics and brilliant riffs, featuring a killer performance by the band (Gaylord, Kelly Murphy, Dave Reynolds) from soup to nuts. I will never hear this record without being transported back to a place where “there’s a certain shade of red the weeds down by the creeks will get between the Catskills and the Berkshire hills / and if you’re from down here you shouldn’t need to ask if it’s a theme park or a labor camp.”
  • Gaven Richard is another born-and-bred Capital Region denizen who probably achieved his greatest local exposure as the drummer-singer-songwriter for Kamikaze Hearts, though his back catalog includes a stint with the Birthday Party-esque Annabel Lee, occasional work with Stephen Gaylord and the loop-based solo project Salon Style, among others. Richard is a great story-teller, and the true testament to the power of his songs is how well they work in whatever setting he chooses to present them. I would count “Pink Huffy/Pink Murray,” “High Dive” and “No One Called You A Failure” among his greatest works, but the sonic differences between the three of them are striking. The first of those songs is swirling, organ-driven carnival dirge about an adult who has to ride his daughter’s bicycle around town after a DWI conviction (“now she’s got her license, she don’t need it no more”), the second tells the tale of a terrible poolside accident over a booming drum-and-guitar riff (“there’s an ambulance parked right on the deck / back flip to a broken neck”), and the third is one of the most profound observations about the blessings and complications of familial love I’ve ever heard, delivered over the Kamikaze Hearts’ trademark acoustic porch-rock. Marcia and I first heard this subtle and poignant tale of a young man’s tentative first steps away from home right as our own daughter was leaving the nest for the first time, and it can still bring tears to my eyes for its spot-on depiction of the emotions related to those difficult days.
  • Long Island-native Jed Davis first came to town as a student at UAlbany in the early ’90s, and he wowed me then, and then wowed me during a subsequent decade spent in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and has continued to wow me since he returned to Albany a year and half ago, through his solo releases and performances, as well as his work with a variety of bands, including Skyscape, The Hanslick Rebellion (who I consider to be the greatest live band Albany ever produced), Jeebus, The Congregation of Vapors, Sevendys and Collider. Davis is the highest-profile performer among the three songwriters I’ve listed here, and the list of folks that he’s worked with over the years reads like a veritable Who’s Who in Excellent Music. Just off the top of my head, I can call up memorable songs that Jed has written and recorded with Chuck Rainey, Ralph Carney, Steve Albini, Tony Maimone, Jerry Marotta, Reeves Gabrels, Avi Buffalo, The Ramones, Anton Fig and Tony Levin, and if I had my iPod with me right now, I’d no doubt be able to call up an even longer list of the folks who have deemed his work worthy of their able ministrations. Jed is another masterful storyteller who is capable of working within a dizzying array of musical genres, and he always does a tremendous job of writing and arranging songs that allow the music to optimally complement the words he’s singing. Unlike any other songwriter I know, though, he’s also a brilliant graphic designer and layout artist, and his attention to the presentation of his work is sublime to boot. Case in point: the delightful Dixieland swing of his paean to his former Brooklyn neighborhood, “Yuppie Exodus From Dumbo,” was actually released as a period-appropriate wax cylinder.  Go explore his vast catalog, here.

4. The University at Albany: I’ve spent three years on this campus as an employee, and two years as a student, and on some plane, my time at UAlbany stands as one of the most meaningful community experiences that I’ve had during my 18 years in the region. UAlbany is truly a wonderful resource for the Capital Region, and when we did the mental, financial and emotional arithmetic associated with moving to a new city, it was leaving this campus that weighed the heaviest on me. I have tremendous admiration for my colleagues, both administration and faculty here, and have been awed by the depth and richness of my interactions with our students over the years. It’s always easy to throw rocks at large public universities, and to accentuate the negative rather than celebrating the positive (a veritable varsity sport hereabouts, it seems), but I will remain forever grateful to the faculty who challenged me as a “nontraditional student” (a.k.a. the old guy in the class) during my masters’ degree program, as well as to the employees and students who have supported me in my work here. I am proud to be a UAlbany Alumnus, and proud of the work I have done on behalf of the University over the past three years. I will miss the UAlbany community more than anything else here when I leave, and will count myself fortunate if I am able to continue working in higher education at an institution of this caliber, with students and colleagues as good as those who support and sustain me now.

It Ain’t Necessarily The Saint James Infirmary

Goodness, two weeks since my last post on Indie Albany!! I’d better get something up, lest that jerk who runs the place start harshing my mellow and making snarky off-hand comments about my lack of productivity . . .

I have a pretty good excuse, though, what with being in my final four weeks of work at the University of Albany, and having thrown a $114,000 party for 1,000 people in Maryland, and having spent four days and three nights with my beloved in Des Moines after the longest separation of our 24-year history together.

As Carl Marsh from Shriekback once sang: “In the time that it takes to write about doing it . . . it could be done.”

So I did it, without writing. But, afterwards, one can reflect and document, sometimes even with images, like these:

My classmate, Robbie Shaw Belesimo, and I at the 25th Reunion Tailgater for the Naval Academy's Class of 1986. Notice Blue Angel and Football Stadium in the background, neither of which I paid much attention to while I was there, since there was wine to drink and ice cream cones to eat. I did most of the planning and contracting for the reunion events, which brought out over 1,000 people total, though Robbie also organized a great brunch for the women in our class, with my deepest thanks for making that happen!

Me and my Naval Academy roommate Jim Jaquet (a.k.a. Skippy, a.k.a. Jamie, a.k.a. Big Eight). He is one of a very small number of human beings in the world who can make me look tiny, much less throw me across a room, just to keep me on my toes. (I am not sure why my shirt logo turned fluorescent in this shot).

Big happenings as past (me) and present (W. Scott Gureck) USNA '86 Class Presidents discuss matters of urgent importance at the tailgater. "See, Scott, this is the best way to get the ice cream out of your teeth without getting a brain freeze." After nearly 15 years in class leadership positions, I'm delighted to turn the ship over to Scott at this point, and know he'll do a kick-ass job.

Wait, where's this? It's on the river in Des Moines, Iowa! As cool as the pagoda is, even cooler is what sits on the horizon to the right of it: that's the hospital where Marcia's new office is.

Awesome mural in the East Village of Des Moines, near Marcia's current apartment. It reminded me of some of the excellent street art we saw in Reykjavik last year.

Now, if I wait another two weeks before posting my next Indie Albany piffle and tripe here, then I will be doing it as a resident and homeowner in Des Moines, since I will be heading westward for good in just over a week. The schedule seemed manageable when I laid it out a couple of months ago, but now that I am living it, it’s a bit hairier than I expected. So my profile may remain low here for just a little longer . . . I hope they don’t throw me out!