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, journaling and posting links and doing things that didn’t quite have a name yet, for an audience that didn’t quite exist yet.

I acquired the jericsmith.com domain in 1999 and started “formally” blogging on September 7, 2000, after I had discovered that what I did had a name, but before most people had any idea what “blog” meant. WordPress tells me that this site now contains 975 posts, incorporating articles written here 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 occurred 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 a 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, without being distracted by self-imposed blog posting requirements. I intend to continue communicating in the public domain via Facebook and Twitter, 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!

One More: Top Ten Pop Songs Ever

1. “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc
2. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
3. “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys
4. “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” by The Four Seasons
5. “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by The Manhattans
6. “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer
7. “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart
8. “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by The Bee Gees
9. “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley
10. “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes

Ten Top Tens

I. Top Ten Cover Songs

1. “Young Man Blues,” by The Who (covering Mose Allison)
2. “Morning Dew,” by Einsturzende Neubauten (covering Bonnie Dobson or Tim Rose)
3. “Whole Lotta Love,” by Tragic Mulatto (covering Led Zeppelin)
4. “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores,” by Bauhaus (covering John Cale)
5. “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” by Bongwater (covering Roky Erickson)
6. “Shipbuilding,” Robert Wyatt (covering Elvis Costello)
7. “Black Diamond,” The Replacements (covering KISS)
8. “Sugar Smack,” Hanslick Rebellion (covering the Archies and the Velvet Underground, at the same time)
9. “Walk on By,” by The Stranglers (covering Dionne Warwick or Isaac Hayes)
10. “Stagger Lee,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (covering Lloyd Price and 1,000 bluesmen)

II. Top Ten Movies

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. Aguirre: Wrath of God
3. A Clockwork Orange
4. Cool Hand Luke
5. Dead Man
6. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
7. Eraserhead
8. The Great Dictator
9. Network
10. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

III. Top Ten Airplanes

1. SR-71 Blackbird
2. P-38 Lightning
3. Fokker Dr. I
4. RF-4C Phantom II
5. JU-87D Stuka
6. JA-37 Viggen
7. P-51 Mustang
8. MK9 Spitfire
9. F4U Corsair
10. J-35 Draken

IV. Top Ten Books (Or Series of Books)

1. “Engine Summer” by John Crowley
2. “Titus Groan”/“Gormenghast”/“Titus Alone” by Mervyn Peake
3. “Out of the Silent Planet”/“Perelandra”/“That Hideous Strength” by C.S. Lewis
4. “The Fellowship of the Rings”/“The Two Towers”/“The Return of the King” by J.R.R. Tolkien
5. “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke
6. “A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K. Dick
7. “The Flounder” by Gunter Grass
8. “The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
9. “A Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
10. “The Once And Future King” by T.H. White

V. Top Ten Albums

1. Flan by Dogbowl
2. Tarkus by Emerson, Lake and Palmer
3. Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall
4. Duke by Genesis
5. A Zed and Two Naughts (Original Soundtrack) by Michael Nyman
6. Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
7. Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel
8. Aja by Steely Dan
9. Time Waits for No Slave by Napalm Death
10. The Broadsword and the Beast by Jethro Tull

VI. Top Ten Blogs (Other Than Indie Moines)

1. Des Loines
2. Mimi Smartypants
3. Keyboard Krumbs
4. Strange Maps
5. My Non-Urban Life
6. Nonprofit With Balls
7. Such Stuff
8. Robert Fripp’s Diary
9. Toothpaste for Dinner
10. Planetary Society

VII. Top Ten Restaurants in Des Moines

1. Louie’s Wine Dive
2. Alba
3. Wasabi Chi
4. Sbrocco
5. The Continental
6. Woody’s Smoke Shack
7. 801 Chop
8. Waterfront
9. Christopher’s
10. Trostel’s Dish

VIII. Top Ten Guitarists

1. Robert Fripp
2. David Gilmour
3. Paul Leary
4. Rowland S. Howard
5. Jimi Hendrix
6. Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad)
7. Andy Gill
8. Eddie Hazel
9. Adrian Belew
10. Max Eider

IX. Top Ten Most Disliked Foods

1. Mayonnaise
2. Boiled or fried eggs
3. Garlic
4. Ranch dressing
5. Cauliflower
6. Uncooked tomatoes
7. Cottage cheese
8. Fruits on meats
9. Sour cream
10. Broccoli

X. Top Ten Painters

1. Joan Miro
2. Salvador Dali
3. Pablo Picasso
4. Georgia O’Keeffe
5. Gustav Klimt
6. Paul Klee
7. Francis Bacon
8. John Singer Sargent
9. Lawrence Alma-Tadema
10. Max Ernst

Brave Exhibitions

1. In New York, we could only buy wine and spirits at liquor stores. In Iowa, we can buy it pretty much anywhere: grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores, wine stores, wherever. Quality varies widely, needless to say. We rank the wine shopping hierarchy in Des Moines as follows:

Ingersoll Wine & Spirits > Hy-Vee > Dahl’s > Wahlgreens > Quik Trip > Casey’s > Kum & Go

2. Heresy alert: Critics around the world are falling all over themselves to praise Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new disc, Push the Sky Away, as a moody, atmospheric masterpiece. But me? I think it’s slow, boring, and proves just how important ex-member Mick Harvey was to the Bad Seeds.

3. My other biggest musical disappointment in 2013 is Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse. I adored their last two albums, and their 2012 EP State Hospital boded well as a preview for the new disc, but it really fell flat for me upon arrival. I read one review that compared the new record to Coldplay. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment, though I consider it a terrible insult.

4. Grand Mal’s Binge/Purge is one of my favorite records from the time I spent in mid-1980s Washington, DC’s musical underground. You can nab a copy here. Don’t be put off by the heinous album cover, a poster of which used to adorn my bulletin board at the Naval Academy, much to our visitors’ horror.

5. Still the best children’s book ever: Jerome.

6. Still the most terrifying version of the tired Charles Dickens classic: Richard Williams’ A Christmas Carol (1971). See especially 5:58 and 16:40.

7. As a native South Carolinian, I am very good at cracking pecans by hand. There’s some brute force involved, but also some finesse, and it is deeply satisfying to end up with two perfect pecan halves in hand without any mechanical assistance. I bought some pecans at our indoor Winter Farmer’s Market a couple of months ago, and one afternoon was particularly pleased by the perfect pecan I extracted. I went to the living room to show Marcia and share my accomplishment, hand held out in front of me. Before I could say a word, she grabbed one of the pecan halves, popped it in her mouth, and walked away. Show Off FAIL.

8. How much money do state and federal governments spend on signs that are essentially universal, such as “No Littering” or “Bridge Freezes Before Road” or “Keep Right Except to Pass.” How about we save a ton of tax dollars and eliminate all of these and other stupid signs by just having acceptance of a driver’s license include a signed attestation the the recipient understands that all bridges freeze before all roads, that littering is a no-no, that the left lane is reserved for passing, etc.

9. This post cleared about half of my office whiteboard.

Recycling Old Facebook Notes #2: The Desert Island Disc

(Note: I mostly shut down my personal Facebook wall/timeline recently, and when I did, I noted some old lists or notes from early Facebook days that seemed to merit salvage. I’ll occasionally republish some of them here, as the spirit moves me, or inspiration fails).

Note the singular “disc” in the title . . .

Over the years, the plural version of this title has been used to define some crucial number of albums that folks would take were they stranded on a desert island with only a lifetime’s supply of food and a record player.

But in the iTunes era, most folks don’t listen to whole albums intact anymore, but rather listen to mixes of things from a variety of albums. So on the modern desert island, there’s you, a lifetime’s supply of food, a CD player, and a single mix CD, with standard music files on it (no cheating with compressed or otherwise altered files), meaning you have only 80 minutes worth of music to get you through to your dying day.

What would your 80 minutes include? Mine would look something like this:

Butthole Surfers, “Hey” (Song time: 2:06, Time elapsed: 2:06)

Rolling Stones, “I Just Want to See His Face” (Song time: 2:54, Time elapsed: 5:00)

The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (Song time: 3:00, Time elapsed: 8:00)

Jethro Tull, “17” (Song time: 3:07, Time elapsed: 11:07)

Funkadelic, “Biological Speculation” (Song time: 3:10, Time elapsed: 14:17)

Velvet Underground, “The Black Angel’s Death Song” (Song time: 3:12, Time elapsed: 17:29)

Napalm Death, “Cursed to Crawl” (Song time: 3:25, Time elapsed: 20:54)

This Heat, “SPQR” (Song time: 3:29, Time elapsed: 24:23)

Human Sexual Response, “Andy Fell” (Song time: 3:35, Time elapsed: 27:58)

Bee Gees, “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You” (Song time: 3:37, Time elapsed: 31:35)

Earth Wind and Fire, “Serpentine Fire” (Song time: 3:50, Time elapsed: 35:25)

Black Flag, “Damaged I” (Song time: 3:51, Time elapsed: 39:16)

COIL, “Love’s Secret Domain” (Song time: 3:52, Time elapsed: 43:08)

Genesis, “Dusk” (Song time: 4:15, Time elapsed: 47:23)

Birthday Party, “Mutiny in Heaven” (Song time: 4:17, Time elapsed: 51:40)

Uriah Heep, “Poet’s Justice” (Song time: 4:17, Time elapsed: 55:57)

Joy Division, “Dead Souls” (Song time: 4:54, Time elapsed: 60:51)

Grateful Dead, “Box of Rain” (Song time: 5:19, Time elapsed: 66:10)

Brian Eno, “Baby’s on Fire” (Song time: 5:18, Time elapsed: 71:28)

David Bowie, “TVC 15” (Song time: 5:30, Time elapsed: 76:58)

Wire, “Advantage in Height” (Song time: 3:02, Time elapsed: 80:00)

Feel free to reply as you see fit. Geek out.

Iowa Oddities Tour

Since I had the full weekend for exploration after my Pink Flag adventure yesterday, I decided to investigate some other Iowa oddities, while also heading up to the northeast corner of the state, which was my favorite region when I did my Full Grassley in the winter of 2011-2012. My next planned stop was in nearby Centerville, which had seemed like a sound geographical omen for Graham Lewis when he was seeking to identify a point at the geographic center of the prairie, demarcated with its regular lines of roads. Interestingly, though, I knew that the name of Centerville had nothing to do with its location near the center of the North American continent: it was actually a misspelling of a city originally named for William Tandy Senter. Iowans are funny that way, in naming their towns for folks from other places.

Why do I know this about Centerville? Because Carl Weeks, who built Salisbury House, where I work, once operated a pharmacy there, around 1900. We have a picture of it in our archives, and here is what it looked like then:

Carl Weeks Pharmacy in Centerville, Iowa, circa 1900.

Carl Weeks’ Pharmacy in Centerville, Iowa, circa 1900.

We didn’t have any note of the address of Carl’s Pharmacy in our records at Salisbury House, but I found this video of some old postcards from Centerville, and was pretty sure that I could see the store at the southeast corner of the town square at around the 1:00 mark. Sure enough, when I got there, I was able to match several architectural features between our 1900 photo and the modern store’s facade, and was able to positively identify its location: today it is a chiropractor’s office. Here’s what it looks like now, with some significant brickwork having been done in ensuing years:

Carl Week's Pharmacy in Centerville is now a chiropractor's office.

Carl Weeks’ Pharmacy in Centerville is now a chiropractor’s office.

After making this important work connection, I turned northward, wanting to make it to Decorah, in Iowa’s hilly northeast corner, before sunset. I did make some stops for photos along the way for a few Iowa Oddities, though, including The Great Pyramids of Avery, the Stoneman of Fayette, and The Smallest Church in America. Here’s the photo record:

The Great Pyramids of Avery, Iowa. Taken while sitting on the bench its builder built to admire his handiwork.

The Great Pyramids of Avery, Iowa. Taken while sitting on the bench its builder built to admire his handiwork.

The Stoneman of Fayette, Iowa. I was in a rental car, as my own car is in the shop. Pity, because I always keep a necktie in my own car, and I would have donated it to the Stoneman, since his current cravat is a bit weather-worn.

The Stoneman of Fayette, Iowa. I was in a rental car, as my own car is in the shop. Pity, because I always keep a necktie in my own car, and I would have donated it to the Stoneman, since his current cravat is a bit weather-worn.

St. Anthony of Padua near Festina, Iowa. Allegedly the smallest church in North America, if not the world.

St. Anthony of Padua Chapel, on a dirt road near Festina, Iowa. Allegedly the smallest church in North America, if not the World.

I arrived in Decorah around 5:00 PM. It’s one of my favorite Iowa cities, though it had begun raining around the time I arrived, so I did not get to walk around it as much as I might have liked. I spent much of the evening at an excellent sports bar watching underdog Wichita State (an MMAL!) give Louisville its money’s worth and then some in an NCAA Final Four game, before retiring to my hotel room to ponder my next day’s drive. As I looked at my map, I was surprised to realize that I had been very near that point some 22 years before, under very different circumstances . . .

In March 1991, our only daughter, Katelin, was born in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where we owned a house. Two months later, my employer unexpectedly transferred me to Idaho Falls, Idaho, so Marcia, Katelin, and I had to drive across most of the North American continent to reach our new home. We wanted to visit Marcia’s family in Minnesota on the way. Prior to having our child, we had normally driven two long-haul runs to make this trip, the first from Washington to Chicago, where we had friends, then the second from Chicago on to Minneapolis.

This trip, though, we had a four month old nursing infant, so we decided that we needed to do shorter drives each day, and I was tasked with finding a nice way-station between Chicago and Minnesota. Back in the pre-Google days, this meant that I ordered a “Bed and Breakfasts of Wisconsin” book from our local bookseller weeks in advance, and then made reservations based on the information contained within, with no way to verify anything. I chose what appeared to be a lovely bed and breakfast in Ferryville, Wisconsin, right on the Mississippi River, for our overnight stay between Chicago and Minneapolis.

It was not a good choice. We had no idea, for starters, that we had arrived during the very brief period each year when billions of caddisflies emerged from the Mississippi Rover for their frenzied mating season: we could not leave the bed and breakfast without inhaling swarms of flying insects desperately trying to fulfill their reproductive prerogatives. So we hunkered down in our room with our tiny child, and figured we’d have a nice evening of talking and reading — until the entire building began to vibrate and roar, as the first of many massive freight trains on the Mississippi River Line barreled down its tracks, 20 yards across the street.

It was mind-blowingly loud, and it happened about every 30 minutes, all night long. We slept fitfully, if at all, and left our room in the morning, intent on getting the “breakfast” portion of our “bed and breakfast” experience, since the “bed” part had been a bust. But our hostess was nowhere to be found, and there was nothing in the dining room except a box of cereal and some warm milk.

I was ready to just hit the road at that point, but Marcia was damned if she was going to be cheated out of both bed and breakfast. So we waited — listening to the roaring freight trains — until our hostess, who was also the town’s attorney, drifted in, and Marcia let her know in no uncertain terms that we wanted eggs, sausages, toast and other breakfast goodies as reward for the suffering we’d endured the night before. Our hostess actually retired to the kitchen and made those things, very slowly, and not very well. We ate, glowered, and hit the road for Minneapolis soon thereafter.

So when I realized, last night, that this same Ferryille, Wisconsin was a mere 30 miles from Decorah, Iowa, where I was staying, I decided I need to make a return visit. I found the Bed and Breakfast from Hell and — surprise, surprise, surprise — it is no longer a lodging destination. Here’s what it looks like today:

Former B&B From Hell, Ferrryville, Wisconsin. We stayed in the second floor room at front right in 1991. Sleep did not happen.

Former B&B From Hell, Ferrryville, Wisconsin. We stayed in the second floor room at front right in 1991. Sleep did not happen.

Why did we not sleep in Ferryville? Because huge freight trains barreled down these lines, directly across the street, all night long.

Why did we not sleep in Ferryville? Because huge freight trains barreled down these lines, directly across the street, all night long.

I crossed back into Iowa after my Ferryville reminiscence, and took a circuitous path back to Des Moines, along many roads I’d not driven before. I particularly liked the region around Elkader, and hope to return to it at some point with Marcia. Over the course of two days, I drove 742 miles, much of  that time spent on secondary or dirt roads. Excellent! I had an amazing close encounter with a bald eagle in a bog between Monona and Volney, sitting directly under a tree with him eye-balling me for 10 minutes or so, before he decided I bored him and moved on, gliding away down the river valley. Truly awesome.

It was a fun trip, and added to my Iowa Exploration Experience. Here’s the current map of places I’ve been in the state, with this weekend’s route in red:

My Iowa Exploration Map, April 2013 Route highlighted in red.

My Iowa Exploration Map, April 2013. The black lines indicate the placed I’ve been since November 2011. This past weekend’s route is highlighted in red.