Best of the Archives #13: Wrapping Up

A dozen “Best Of” articles feels like a good haul for this quarantine project, so I’m going to declare it a wrap and move onto other things at this point. I hope the 12 pieces posted here either elicited “Oh, I remember that!” responses from long-time readers, or “Huh! That was interesting!” reactions from those who started following in the past decade. It was fun to re-read some of these old things, several of which I’d forgotten about, along with a lot of other aged items that I didn’t post on the blog.

While the articles posted here, plus new reflections on them, marked the public part of this little personal project, I actually spent a fair amount of additional times in “back of house” mode doing some other overdue clean-up work, and being The Destroyer. As a result of these activities, the site now only has 939 public articles, about a 15% reduction. I also, finally, killed off and closed down the rump Indie Albany and Indie Moines sites that had been sitting out there for years as “just in case” placeholders. No more. All gone. Destroyer destroyed.

Here’s the roster of featured pieces in one place, if you stumble across this post before the others. Onward!

Rulebound Rebellion (2010)

On Being A Music Critic (1998/2010)

The Shared Experience of Hair Removal (2004)

Interview with Kim Deal (1997)

Fin de Cyclical (1999)

The Road to Anywhere (2003)

The Grease Group (2009)

Heart of Darkness, My Old Friend (2009)

The King of Tests Strikes Out (2002)

A Lifetime of Good Eats (2009)

Trio das le Studio (1999)

Internet Information Overload (1995)

The Destroyer’s work is done. For now.

Best of the Archives #12: Internet Information Overload

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

INTERNET INFORMATION OVERLOAD (1995)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

Today’s archival article was one of the first “think pieces” I wrote for Metroland, moving beyond the record and concert reviews that defined my earliest days with the newspaper. While the Internet had become available for public use as the World Wide Web in 1991, it remained primarily an academic community until late 1994 or early 1995. At that point, the emergence of the Netscape browser, Yahoo!, eBay, Amazon and their pioneering peers transformed the digital world, opening it more widely for free exploration by “regular folks” who happened to have computers, and were ready to move on from the more canned experiences that America Online and CompuServe were then providing over our land lines.

A good deal of the traditional print media chatter of the time focused on “sky is falling” narratives about how the Web was going to kill books and newspapers, was never going to become a manageable and trustworthy source of dependable news, and was going to over-power our tiny human brains with more information than we could process. I was assigned to explore the latter facet of that transitional period, and this article reflected my findings.

Re-reading it now, a quarter-century later, evokes two basic reactions. First, it’s charming in its datedness. Remember Netscape? Magellan? USENET? And remember a world without Google, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and smart phones? But on the flip side, some of the questions we were asking even then remain frighteningly relevant today, most notably “How do we distinguish good information from bad information?” I’m not sure we’re answering that one any better today than we were in 1995.

I interviewed some subject matter experts for the story and asked them what they thought the future might hold for the World Wide Web and its users. It’s interesting to see how most of them were on the right tracks with their forecasts, though the way in which those tracks were actually laid curved in some unforeseen directions, as did the language which we use to discuss them.

I tended to stay on the front-lines of web culture community-building for many years after writing this piece, and was an early adopter of more platforms and trends than I can actually recall at this point, moving from ASCII bulletin boards to LISTSERVs, from mailing lists to MMORPGs, from blogs to tweets, and from Cyber-Yugoslavia to Six Degrees to Friendster to Orkut to Xanga to MySpace to LinkedIn to Facebook to Twitter to Google+ to Ello, and God only knows what other passing fancies came, crashed, and burned without leaving any memories of note — or became so problematic for one reason or another that I abandoned them.

As I wrote just before I started this archival series, at this stage in my life, I’ve pretty much decided that a social media blackout is about the best way for me to go from a mental health and time management standpoint. I maintain this website, obviously, and I keep a LinkedIn account for professional reasons (posts here cross-post there), and I have been a registered member of the Fall Online Forum since around 2007, though my involvement there is increasingly cyclical, with longer stays away than active periods of participation. That’s about it for interactive social networking for me. Beyond that, I have identified my own trusted news sources, I consider a smart phone paired with Wikipedia to be the real-world manifestation of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, I do much of my shopping online, and I appreciate having my music and movies being delivered to me at home.

I’m not a futurist, so I won’t hazard any sweeping guesses as the what the next quarter-century will bring with regard to “internet information overload” — except on one point. I am all but certain that the “How can we tell real news from fake news?” issue will remain with us in 2045 and beyond, as propagandists will be just as effective as pornographers at staying one step ahead of the controls implemented to neuter them for the betterment of society on a national and global basis.

Here’s hoping that I live long enough to test this prediction. And even more, here’s hoping that I am wrong.

If this image evokes fond nostalgia, then you are officially old.

Best of the Archives #11: Trio dans le Studio

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

TRIO DANS LE STUDIO: ANN MASON STOCKTON, CATHERINE GOTTHOFFER AND DOROTHY REMSEN ON THE HARP IN FILM (1999)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

As I noted in the background story to my Kim Deal piece, the normal rubric for a musician interview in most print or online publications revolves around the writer asking a fairly short set of questions via phone of a trending artist who either has a new album out or is playing in town soon, then boiling those brief remarks down into a promotional piece. The writer recognizes that the artist will likely have already been asked the same questions many times already by other writers, meaning that their answers may be rote and ossified through repetition, thus limiting the unique value and depth of the articles that emerge from this type of mass-production process, especially given the fact that today’s hot commodity musician may be a passing fancy of little interest to future readers and listeners.

As I also noted in the Kim Deal piece, being an interesting musician does not necessarily correlate with an ability to say interesting things about anything interesting, so a lot of those going-through-the-motions interviews are dull to write and dull to read. It’s therefore a treat when a writer is given the opportunity to speak with artists of vast proven accomplishment, and those artists have insightful and interesting perspective about interesting things, and the writer is given the column space to do justice to the story. Today’s archival article is, for me, the finest personal example I have of such a fortuitous alignment of story elements.

I wrote the piece for The American Harp Journal, the long-running periodical of The American Harp Association. It is a group interview of three of the most prominent and beloved film studio harpists of the 20th Century: Ann Mason Stockton, Catherine Gotthoffer, and Dorothy Remsen. If you have a favorite big studio movie from about the 1940s to the 1990s, and you hear a harp in its score, the odds are high that one of them played it.

I chanced upon this writing opportunity after I had engaged Albany-based harpist Elizabeth Meriweather Huntley for an event in one of my other professional positions. She was a wonderful player, and I had multiple opportunities to appreciate and recommend her work during my time in Albany. As it turned out, Elizabeth was also the editor of The American Harp Journal, and as we chatted about things at some event or another, and my music critic work for the regional newsweekly came up in conversation, she told me I might be able to help her with a project.

Stockton, Gotthoffer and Remsen were getting on in years, and the Harp Society wanted to capture, preserve and share some of their history and memories while they were still able and available to share them. Music historian Russell Wapensky (a great authority on California music-making and Musicians’ Local 47, including some epic research and preservation efforts on the Wrecking Crew’s and Beach Boys’ myriad sessions) was attached to the project, and he conducted and filmed a three-hour interview with the three harpists, aided by Remsen’s husband.

I was then given copies of those raw interview tapes and assigned the task of transcribing them and compiling their contents into a readable standalone article. This wasn’t my normal working approach, at all, but it was a very enjoyable undertaking, and I found the three harpists to be delightful long-distance companions as I listened to their stories and studied their lives and work.

It was fascinating to gain insight and perspective into just what attracted prospective musicians to chose such an unwieldy and expensive instrument, and the group psychologies and tics of those who did so and then stuck with it for decades. It was also amazing to get some first-hand perspective about some great artists of the 20th Century before their greatness had been widely recognized. Ann Mason Stockton played on some of Frank Sinatra’s very first recordings, for example, and she knew he was special, even then.

All three of the harpists featured in the story have passed away since this article was published, so I do hope that it served its purpose as a valuable remembrance of them, and a useful long-term research resource for the American Harp Association. They were delightful subjects and great artists, and I’m glad to have been given the gift of sharing their stories.

Ann Mason Stockton (1916-2006)

Best of the Archives #10: A Lifetime of Good Eats

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

A LIFETIME OF GOOD EATS (2009)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

There’s an old joke about a Southern man’s personal prospects that posits the greatest uncertainty about his health outcomes thusly: Will he have his first heart attack before he loses all of his teeth or not? I come from a long line of big Southern Men, and it was a valid question for a lot them, as dentures and cardiac arrests were certainly real life concerns for most of the old gents in my life, many of whom were indeed done in by clogged arteries and diabetes, before the cigarettes could get them.

I did learn from that, and I watch what I eat and I exercise regularly. I’ve also been blessed with tough teeth that I care for properly, even though (true confession time) I have probably only been to the dentist two or three times since college. On those rare occasions when I do go, the dentist invariably praises my oral hygiene and says everything’s fine. I’m told that different people have different bacterial cultures in their mouths, some that foment the growth of plaque, and some that foster decay and cavities. Neither one of them seems to care for my pie hole. I’ll take that as a blessing.

I had some blood sugar and cholesterol readings some years back that were marginally problematic. I adjusted the necessary lifestyle choices accordingly, and neither one’s much of a concern for me now. I know I don’t eat as much fruit as I should (it’s a grease group thing), but otherwise I’m pretty good about maintaining a high fiber, low fat, low carb diet, without much red meat in it. I don’t obsessively mind my calories, but I’m mindful of portion control, and I rarely indulge in any belt-busting all-you-can-eat buffet style behaviors either.

But, boy oh boy, is that all learned behavior of my adulthood, because I was brought up eating the polar opposite of that, in almost every way. Today’s archival article is a remembrance of those glorious, innocent days when buffets, fried foods, sweet tea, processed meats, and just about every other unhealthy thing imaginable featured heavily in my diet, and the diets of pretty much everybody around me, friends and family alike. It was all bad for us, sure, but it certainly tasted good, and I sure do remember those days fondly and wistfully — most especially my dad’s quixotic quest for the perfect chili dog, which found us buying unhealthy bags-worth of them in most every town we lived in or visited over the years. (Note well that what Southerners call “chili” on a hot dog has no resemblance to the Southwestern food of the same name; it was more of a greasy, chopped meat paste that it was bean-rich bowl food).

This article focuses a lot on diner-style restaurants, and I wrote it while still living in New York’s Capital Region, where those are a big part of the regional culture and cuisine. I tried to find an analogue of that experience when we moved to Des Moines, but never quite succeeded. Drake Diner on the campus of the same name has the chrome exterior and big menus, but it always felt more like a diner-themed college cafeteria than it did a real diner to me. In our current East Village neighborhood, there’s a new place called Clyde’s Fine Diner that advertises a gourmet-caliber diner experience, but that’s just an oxymoron, really. The food at Clyde’s is quite good, mind, and they even have Shrimp and Grits on the menu, but it’s foo-foo, and bears no resemblance to what real Carolina Shrimp and Grits looks and tastes like, while the restaurant interior is in the standard noisy Iowa box-style that I’ve written about, unhappily, here. Diner and hipster dining cultures just don’t align, no matter how hard folks might want them to. Bubba’s in Des Moines has also legitimately good and authentic Carolina-style food, but it’s more of a white linen restaurant than a diner, so that doesn’t count for me either.

While they don’t usually call them diners, once you get out into rural and small town Iowa, you can find a lot of family-owned, non-chain restaurants that are legitimately analogous to the feeding holes of my Southern childhood. While the menu highlights can be dramatically different, there’s fried foods aplenty, and you can easily create a true carbohydrate nightmare meal if you want to. If I had to pick the best of the bunch that I’ve experienced to date in Iowa, it would be Cronk’s Restaurant and Lounge in Denison, which has been around for over eight decades. It’s located on US-30, which is the modern-day remnant of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental automobile roadway. Its hearty food, great prices, convenient location, quick and friendly service, and unassuming interior have likely made it the perfect pause point for millions and millions of travelers over the years, while the locals seemed to love it just as much when I was there.

It’s good to know that places like that still exist. I don’t want to eat like that everyday, but I’m glad I can when the spirit moves me to do so.

Central Lunch was still hanging in there when my sister and I visited Albemarle in 2011 — but the last time I was there a couple of years back, it seemed to have been finally shuttered, alas.

Best of the Archives #9: The King of Tests Strikes Out

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE KING OF TESTS STRIKES OUT (2002)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

One of the personal out-takes from my Credidero writing project was an analysis of the types of writing I’ve done over the years, and how I might alter or adapt it in the years ahead. In the summary of that piece, I described my four major types of writing as follows:

Reactive: These would include reviews and related pieces; I saw, heard, read or did something, and here is how I react to it. Political pieces probably fall into this bucket too, as they are often written in response to governmental or social actions that generate a reaction requiring explanation.

Descriptive: I see these are being my experiential pieces, and I probably do this most often in travel articles and in my professional writing, where I am trying to tell readers something in ways that lets them see what I see, or understand what I understand, or value what I value.

Creative: The most obvious of the four categories, these would be my short stories, poems, lyrics, or whatever else just spins out of my head without direct anchor in the real world, until I make it so by writing about it.

Reflective: I see it as a type of writing that is personal, but is not necessarily anchored in any specific outside stimulus or activity. If I go back through the 1,200+ articles in my web archive, it’s unquestionably the least represented category of writing in my archive.

I see today’s Best of the Archives article as being one of a relatively small number of “Reflective” pieces that I’ve written and posted over the years. It’s a true story, with some some true personal lessons, and while it’s written to entertain, there’s no artifice in it, nor was it fictionalized, nor was it in response or reaction to any particular external stimulus. I know I wrote it as part of a Metroland group piece, but I do not remember exactly what the topic was. “The School Issue” maybe? I don’t know.

As flamboyantly out-there as my public persona has been over the years, here and elsewhere, I think I’ve actually been somewhat surprisingly private in terms of the truly meaningful and personal things that I’ve shared online or in print media. I do know that when I have shared them, they tend to be the more popular items on the website over a long period of time, so that should motivate me to write more of them. I think my reluctance to do so is anchored in the fact that so many of them involve(d) other people, and I don’t wish to violate their privacy or betray their trusts, so when I actually am inclined to share such tales, I almost always do so by framing them as fiction, in prose or poetry format.

Memoirs are big business, though, so maybe as I look to the future, this is where I should focus my writing attention. Food for thought.

A Navy Rule: “When in doubt, ‘Charlie’ out.”

Best of the Archives #8: Heart of Darkness, My Old Friend

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

HEART OF DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND (2009)

THE BACK STORY:

I suspect that for as long as recorded music has been widely available for retail sale, parents have been disapproving of their children’s listening choices. (That might have been the case in earlier history, too, though it would have been much harder for a kid to whip together a chamber ensemble to perform some Frans Liszt than it was to plop on a Little Richard record). Most of the time, this reaction represents benign “We just don’t get it” responses to generational change. Other times, though, it can be more problematic, especially when the artists who create it are unjustly accused of provoking dangerous, immoral or criminal behavior among its young listeners — and then the government gets involved.

I listen to a lot of fairly gnarly music as an adult, so if I had any fears about my own child’s listening habits, it was probably more a worry that she might either not appreciate music at all, or only appreciate shallow crap. I exposed her to the stuff I listen to as she was growing up, just because we pretty much have music playing around our house whenever we’re all awake, and I mostly let it go at that. (I was actually much more censorious about television, truth be told, in the early days of the “reality TV” era, when coarse, soul-sucking, exhibitionistic garbage filled an increasingly large sector of the broadcast spectrum; I am firmly convinced that actually watching someone get sexually assaulted, bullied, tortured, tormented or killed is a whole lot more psychically damaging to the mind of a youngster than listening to a song about it can ever be). As it turns out, my kid grew up to have fine musical tastes, and we still routinely swap recommendations and reviews. I award myself Five Parenting Gold Stars accordingly. Good job, Dad!

When all is said and done, I think tight parental control over children’s listening material is ultimately an exercise in futility, especially in the streaming era, since banning something is just as likely to motivate the kids to look for it elsewhere, and — more importantly — because parents actually have no real idea how their kids are going to hear things. Something ostensibly vulgar and vile may pass right over their heads. And then sometimes something that’s ostensibly suitable family listening may, in fact, push a whole bunch of unanticipated buttons in unforeseen ways.

Today’s archival article tells a story about that latter scenario, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I’m sure I’d be a much more highly functioning adult half-a-century later if only my parents hadn’t exposed me to the mellifluous  sounds of one of America’s best-loved and most popular folk duos. The horror! The horror!

Wait . . .  where are you taking me, Paul and Artie . . .. Nooooooo . . .  NOOOOOO . . .  AUUUGGGGHHH!!!!