Come, Let Us Gaze at our Navels Together! (Blogging on Blogging)

As I’ve written here and elsewhere many times before, I’ve been longtime online . . . and the odds are very, very, very good that I’ve had a personal website and a blog for a lot longer than anybody else reading this post today.

That being the case, I don’t make these statements today with any authority or arrogance in my (written) voice, since I’m not really sure whether my internet longevity as a (mostly) unpaid “content provider” is something that I should revel in or be punished for at this point. I’m kind of thinking more the latter lately, truth be told, as it becomes increasingly clear to me that the whole concept of blogging probably jumped the shark quite some time ago, and I continue to engage in it more as an act of inertia than an act of exploration.

When I sit down at the computer these days, I generally feel the same way that I do when I sit in front of a television with cable service: I have thousands of channels to choose from, but I can never find anything that I really want to watch or read, 99% of the time. (The online “one percenters” for me are, for the most part, linked on one or the other of my blogs, so if you see a link to someone on any site I administer, you can be sure that I consider it to be a highly valuable internet commodity). I just keep clicking and clicking and clicking, and maybe I’ll find something that amuses me for 10 minutes or so, but I rarely stumble upon anything that truly rocks my world anymore, the way the internet, websites and blogs did when I first discovered them. Why is that?

I think in large part it is because most of the large and busy blog portals these days are built upon a model where profit-earning corporations squeeze dollars from the sweat equity pumped in by unpaid bloggers eager to earn “exposure,” even though most of them would never, ever be able to earn a paid print byline based on the quality of their contributions. But in a world where anonymous cranks and sockpuppets can generate massive advertising revenue in the comments section of an amateurishly provocative blog (much to the finance department’s great and glowing satisfaction), where are the quality filters?

Frankly, I am just as tired of having to trawl through the growing mass of words tossed online by unrealistically enthusiastic amateurs as I am of untrained film-makers thinking that they are artistes because they shoot scenes in shaky-cam mode on their phones and can’t be bothered with scripts. I want some editing these days, dammit. And quality control. And good lighting and cinematography. And stories, not just opinions, or reactions. Whatever happened to those things, oh, my droogs? Lamentations!!!

I’ve been a regular, steady, forward-looking adapter throughout my time online, and when things have gotten stale for me, I have always been able to find something new and exciting to represent the next phase. But I’ve not (yet) figured out what comes after blogging at this point, since the alternatives all seem feeble by comparison.

The way I see it, a blog is a modern-day equivalent of a thoughtfully-composed diary or a journal, except that it gets shared with whoever wants to read it, rather than getting stuffed between the mattress and the box-spring of the bed. There’s a lot of potential there, even if the execution is often lacking.

Facebook, on the other hand, is nothing more than a high school yearbook that you try to get all the cool people in school to sign. Twitter is a note you pass around class with a funny picture of your Spanish teacher on it. Pinterest is a cork bulletin board above your headboard, most of it filled with things (and people) that you covet, but will never own. LinkedIn is a sterile speed-dating service, where you swap business cards instead of saliva. None of those are even vaguely viable replacements for blogs/journals/diaries, in my eyes . . . and it’s disturbing to me that I don’t really see anything else that is.

I’m really pretty good at walking away from things when the time comes to do so. Good case in point: I don’t miss social media of the Facebook variety at all, having turned my back on it well more than a year ago now. Sure, it was fun to accumulate 700 “friends” and to try to find amusing bullet points and pictures to share with them all on a daily basis, but the reality is that ones I really care about (and who really care about me) have always been able to find me online: I mean, if you know how I write my name, then I’m the number one reply on Google for “J. Eric Smith,” and I make my e-mail address public, so how much simpler could connecting with me be? And on the flipside: how much do I really want to know about what 700 people ate for breakfast, or what their children did in the bathroom last night, or where they are having coffee this afternoon? (A: Not much, sorry.)

What inspired this round of bloggy navel-gazing? I received a “your domain is about to expire” notice on Indie Albany this week, and I had to decide whether I wanted to spend the money and time required to renew the domain, and the private registration, and the no-advertising premium payment, as well as the emotional/psychological/time commitment needed to provide quality control and promotion for the site at a level commensurate with what I have provided since I launched it a couple of years ago.

I decided to renew it all for one more year, mainly because I really love all of the writers who write there, and I can’t think of another place where I will be able to read what they have to share if I shut that platform down. I’m hoping for a bit more clarity in the months ahead, and perhaps the emergence of a more obvious next step before July 2013, when I will have to make this decision again.

At bottom line, though . . . I am interested in why you blog, and why I (and the other writers on the websites I administer) should continue to do so, especially if our online neighborhood becomes increasingly polluted and/or pedestrian, which seems to be the case. Care to share?

Death Valley, Iowa

Welcome to Des Moines, Summer 2012 Edition.

It has been hot here in Central Iowa for a while, but we moved into whole new realms of scorched here in Des Moines today, with a 107 degree high at the airport late this afternoon. I had figured it was going to be bad when I noticed that we broke 100 degrees before noon. It’s not the hottest weather I’ve ever experienced (Marcia and I endured 120 degrees during a July trip to Las Vegas one year, and it got up to 107 out in the deserts of Idaho on occasion when we lived out there), but 107 degrees is definitely getting up there high on the hot list.

It’s also been well over three weeks since we got any rain, so when those of you back east (and elsewhere) read about the great Midwestern drought of 2012, we’re pretty much right in the middle of it, so we are eating all of the locally-grown Iowa sweet corn we can right now, while we still can, since the crops are rapidly going south, and many farmers have already cut down their fields and filed for crop insurance.

The long-range temperature and precipitation models have us forecast for higher than usual temperatures and lower than usual rain through October, if not longer. Fortunately, the body really does adjust to these extremes, and there have been a couple of evening where we’ve been outside thinking that 90 degrees with a slight breeze feels really, really nice. Even more fortunately, we’ve got two good air conditioning units in our house, which is much smaller and much better-zoned than our house in New York, so we can stay comfortable indoors, which wasn’t the case in Latham when it got above 90 degrees or so.

First world problems, I know . . . but it’s still hot . . .

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Let me note right up front that this is a shallow post . . . I’m talking about little things that make me happy, not profound ones. The big things don’t lend themselves to list-making of this online variety, because my family, and my home, and my work, and my friends please and delight me on such fundamental levels that they’re beyond reducing to a piffle and tripe blog post like this one. The fact that they make me happy goes without saying, so these five items are just the sorts of little details that make me smile amidst the rush and hustle of life. Simple pleasures. Easy thrills. Happy happy happy.

1. The “Metalocalypse” Theme Song: I love everything about this cartoon centered around a death metal band called Dethklok, who — despite its members’ idiocy and disregard for the consequences of their actions — become the world’s seventh largest economy, worthy of attention from a shadowy supernatural cabal called The Tribunal. But I particularly love the way that the series’ opening theme song boils everything stupid and happy-making about the death metal genre down into a perfectly nuanced 30-second nugget of brutal excellence. We tape “Metalocalypse” on our DVR, and for most shows, that would mean that we fast forward through the opening and closing credits. But I don’t allow that in this case, and make my family watch it in its entirety, every week, because it makes me smile with glee every time. Here ’tis, if you’ve not seen it:

2. Our Backyard Ecosystem: Marcia quickly created an amazingly beautiful series of gardens in our backyard in Des Moines, just as she had done in Albany. My role when it comes to these gardens is to provide brute labor when heavy things need to be moved, and to provide the required elements of chaos, either by sowing Johnny Jump-Up seeds that will propagate and blossom for years to come in places where they aren’t supposed to be, or by putting out feeders that bring critters to lively up the space. I have to refill my two bird feeders pretty much every day at this point, as we get an incredible assortment of avian visitors, and the seeds that they scatter also attracts fox squirrels, chipmunks and bunnies galore. We also have bats and cicadas aplenty, and I like seeing and listening to them, too. Sometimes when I look out at the backyard from our dining room, I can see literally dozens of mammal, bird and arthropod species going about their business, blissfully unaware of how much I am enjoying watching them do it.

Dining room at Alba, Des Moines. (Photo from their website).

3. Alba: This exceptional East Village venue is rapidly cementing its stature as my favorite restaurant in Des Moines, as we keep having outstanding dining experiences there. The menu is eclectic, with most of its dishes based on sautes involving fresh, rough cut vegetables and meats, served with beautifully balanced and tasty sauces. The service is knowledgeable and attentive without being obtrusive, the dining room is comfortable and spacious (it’s situated in a converted car showroom), the decor and location are appealing, and the wine list is strong, creating a complete dining environment that’s hard to match, in Des Moines or anywhere else I’ve been in recent years. We went there for dinner last night, and I had an incredible English Pea Soup followed by a prawn gnocchi dish to die for. Sublime, divine, and deliciously pleasurable.

4. The Lyrics of John Balance: It’s hard to explain why these make me happy, as you’d be hard pressed to find someone more different than me, on some plane, than John Balance, a proudly gay English musician with the group COIL whose chronic alcoholism led to his untimely death by misfortune in 2004. (His long-time musical and personal partner, Peter Christopherson, also flew from this world in 2010, which I wrote about, here). Balance’s subject matter was often dark, and reading many of his lyrics after his demise creates an uncanny sense that he knew it was coming, perhaps even down to the manner of his passing (e.g. “When I find you I will remind you: most accidents occur at home.”) But I still listen to his music on almost a daily basis, and I am regularly moved by the beauty of his words and the imagery that they evoke, regardless of their seemingly insurmountable surface darkness. As I type, I am listening to COIL’s “Are You Shivering?“, which contains the following lines: “In the oceans of the moon / swimming squidlike and squalid / This bright moon is a liquid / The dark earth is a solid / This is moon music in the light of the moon.” “Squidlike and squalid”?!? That’s lyrical magic, and it makes me happy to know that such creative beauty can emerge from such seemingly dark spaces.

5. The Library at Salisbury House: I said I wasn’t going to write about obvious things like my work, and this is equally obviously work related, since as Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation, I am responsible for the care and promotion of this incredible collection of books and documents. But the happiness this collection evokes in me is deeper than sheer professional responsibility would dictate, as I am legitimately moved — deeply — by the objects that are housed in my workplace.  I have spent a lot of my time at Salisbury House researching this under-utilized and under-promoted resource, and the more I study, the happier I get about the objects that have been placed under my supervision and care. I have held in my hands a leaf from an original Gutenberg Bible, and a letter signed in 1492 by King Ferdinard II of Aragon, and a hand-illuminated Book of Hours from the 14th Century, and galley proofs hand-edited by James Joyce, and a first edition Book of Mormon, and countless other epic historic and literary works, experiencing their corporeality and presence in ways that few people will ever have an opportunity to share. I spent most of this week working on a grant application to the National Endowment of Humanities to allow us to better catalog and share this awesome material, and among my many aspirations for Salisbury House, few would make me happier than reaching a point where our library receives the international acclaim from scholars and researchers that it deserves.

So those are some things that are making me happy these days. What sorts of things are rocking your worlds?

The library at Salisbury House. The shelves to the left of the fireplace contain some of the world’s most amazing D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce collections, which make me shiver every time I walk into the room. How could I not be happy to spend time here?

Nine Facts, One Falsehood

1. I am tenth in direct line of descent from the first English settler of South Carolina.

2. I have been in the World’s Largest Truck Stop, in Walcott, Iowa.

3. I have broken 100 on a regulation golf course, once.

4. I have a lazy right eye and atrophy of two fingers on my left hand.

5. I used to go sailing with Oliver North.

6. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover yelled at me during commissioning ceremonies for the submarine named after him.

7. I used to play acey deucy late into the night with the NBA’s David Robinson.

8. My current house is the 26th one that I have lived in, to date.

9. I have visited the site of Alvin Straight‘s house, but it was burned down when I got there.

10. When I was in sixth grade, I could see the dome of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary from my bedroom window.

So . . . which one is the lie?

Supergroup

Having once written a 26,000-word essay about the greatest classic progressive rock album ever, I know a thing or three about supergroups, since they tend to run rampant in the incestuous English progressive rock community. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were one of the first of the species during the glory years of prog, bringing players from The Nice, King Crimson and Atomic Rooster together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Drummer Bill Bruford played with prog titans Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis, before forming his own prog supergroup, U.K., with Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music, Curved Air), Allan Holdworth (Soft Machine, Gong) and John Wetton (Family, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep). One could argue, too, that the classic era of prog actually ended when the prog rock supergroup Asia (featuring Wetton, Steve Howe and Geoff Downes from Yes, and Carl Palmer from the aforementioned ELP) broke big at the top of the pop charts with the decidedly straightforward and non-technical Heat of the Moment.”

Interestingly enough, supergroups like these continue to thrive, some three decades later, with the original members of Asia recently having released what I would judge as their best album ever, XXX (for the record: it’s probably a bad idea to do a Google search for “Asia XXX,” especially on a work computer), and the utterly unexpected and wonderful A Life Within a Day having just been issued by Squackett, featuring Yes bassist Chris Squire and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. But there’s another supergroup that’s rocking my world most thoroughly this week, featuring longtime David Bowie music director and current Cure lead guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Graham Maby (Joe Jackson, They Might Be Giants, Natalie Merchant, Marshall Crenshaw, etc.), drummer Anton Fig from David Letterman’s “World’s Most Dangerous Band” (as well as KISS and Frehley’s Comet), and singer-keyboardist Jed Davis, hailing from from scenic downtown Albany, New York.

The name of this stellar supergroup? Uhhhhh . . . Jed Davis, and his band.

Jed’s new record with Reeves, Graham and Anton is the tour-de-force Small Sacrifices Must Be Made. It features an awesome cover image of Otto Lilienthal, who has been moving me since I was but a little tiny aviation geek, long appreciating the fact that Otto had to die so that the Wrights could fly. I’ve been listening to the exceptionally prolific Mister Davis since the mid-1990s and I’d rate this new album among his finest recorded offerings to date, which is saying something, if you know his amazing musical back story. Suffice to say that in 1999, 23 artists from around the country covered his songs on the awesome Everybody Wants to Be Like Jed compilation on J-Bird Records. You don’t get a tribute album unless you’ve got chops that move people.

Me talking to Jed at Dreamland Studios, with Chuck Rainey, Jerry Marotta and Sheridan Riley in background. Photo by Bryan Thomas.

The last time I saw Jed in person was when he was tracking a session at Woodstock’s Dreamland Studios with his prior supergroup, Sevendys, which featured bassist Chuck Rainey (who, among zillions of other things, held the bottom down on Steely Dan’s Royal Scam and Aja, which makes him a hero’s hero in my book), percussionist Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, and many others) and Sheridan Riley and Avi Zahner-Isenberg from the explosive Avi Buffalo. While I was there, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Sebastian popped by to bring us all Italian food and to play a guest spot on one of Sevendys’ songs. It was crazy cool, needless to say.

I honestly lose track, sometimes, of all of the amazing supergroups that Jed has organized and directed over the past 20 years, but suffice to say that he is the only human being I know who can lay claim to both fronting the Ramones and directing Jessica Simpson’s band during a Donald Trump-sponsored reality television event. His band Hanslick Rebellion delivered what I consider to be the best live album I have ever heard. The last live concert I saw him play was with Jeebus, which featured the Hanslick Rebellion’s mighty front line, supplemented by the aforementioned Reeves Gabrels and Jeff Buckley/Rufus Wainwright drummer Matt Johnson. It was truly stellar.

Jed Davis is easily one of the finest American songwriters of the past half century. I say that without a shred of hyperbole, having witnessed the power of his words and melodies onstage and on-stereo time and time again, and having watched scores of amazing musicians — famous and not-so-famous alike — lining up to work with him, because the material he creates for them to play is just so . . . damn . . . GOOD!!!!

Small Sacrifices Must Be Made is a supergroup super album that deserves your attention, so I’m recommending that you go ahead and click on the image of Otto below and go grab this baby, because until you hear from Jed what happens when you ride the party bus, or what’s contained in the “Secret Prestrictions from the Past” notebook then, well, your life is just going to be lacking in ways that it needn’t be. Get on it.

Five Statements, Five Questions

1. The man who killed my father died yesterday. How should this make me feel?

2. I found this old video online recently. Would you wear the shirt I am wearing in it if I gave it to you?

3. When asked to pick the most quintessentially American composition of the 20th Century, I tend to think of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,”  or Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse.” Which would you pick?

4. Gina’s comment here rang true with me, since I’ve been a dogmatic North Carolina corn partisan for over 40 years, until switching to Team Iowa this summer. Is your own local sweet corn the best?

5. I was introduced to the concept of completed staff work in 1987, and I have really liked it as a working philosophy, both when I’ve been a subordinate, and when I’ve been a boss. Does it make sense to you?