Oh No Man, I Haven’t Got The Time Time

A friend of mine died this week, too young, and too soon. He was a music nerd, cultural commentator and technology geek par excellence, and will be missed by many — in both virtual and real world spaces. He was a private soul in his personal life, so I’ll not mention his name here at this sensitive time out of respect for him and his loved ones, but I do want to publicly note his passing, and celebrate his life for those who come here and knew him.

We met in virtual space in early 1993 in the CompuServe RockNet Forum. He later launched and managed a series of online communities and websites under variations of the “Xnet2” moniker that survive to this day, with about ten folks from around the world having been connected in one way or another pretty continuously from ’93 to now. Others have also joined along the way. The community currently resides in a private group on Facebook, so when I left that social media platform, I ceased being actively engaged with them on a regular basis. I had assumed that, as has happened in the past, the group would eventually reconstitute somewhere else so that I could jump back in, but that’s apparently not to be at this point, alas.

My friend and I likely exchanged hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of written words over the years, both within the group and in private. He was always a good sounding board for me, and I tried to be the same for him. We only met in person a few times, relatively early in our relationship, when people were still figuring out what online friendships and virtual social networks were all about, so that “RLCOs” (real life conferences) seemed to be required events to cement those bonds. These days, I think most digital citizens understand those aren’t necessary, even though they’re fun when they happen. We saw Pere Ubu together once with other friends from virtual and real world spaces. That was a very good day.

My friend shared my penchant for seemingly pointless surrealist games, and was willing to create time-consuming silly things just because it was fun to do so. He and I and others in the group romped and stomped in little self-contained worlds in a variety of amusing (to us) ways and places over the years. One example: if you remember my “What Would Don and Walt Do?” page (offering random life tips from Steely Dan lyrics), I hatched the concept, but it was his programming skill that made it actually work. There was also an interactive dungeon. And a tree house. And other similarly goofy things.

We both later wrote and published novels: he inspired a character in mine, and I inspired a character in his. He recorded a great album, and I gladly wrote a press kit for it. He hosted and helped me design and maintain a variety of personal and work websites over the years, including early versions of this one. There was always lots of creative energy in the spaces between us. And some friction, I have to admit, as is to be expected over a 22-year relationship between two strong-willed, highly cerebral, opinionated, and sometimes touchy individuals. I’m glad and thankful that our last communications were positive ones. I just wish that there had been more such missives lately, but with all of the moves in my own life over the past year, I was unfortunately not the best correspondent.

The Xnet2 group that my friend organized and sustained did have a public face at some points in its history. Most people came to that portal via word of mouth from current members. Very occasionally, outsiders would join us cold, if the following “invite” on the ’90s version of the Xnet2 website didn’t scare them away:

This is the XNet2 antiSocial club.

XNet2 is dead. Long live XNet2.

If you’re interested, send an e-mail to [redacted] with “info xnet2” in the body of the message.

If you’re still interested after you do that, send e-mail to [redacted] with “subscribe xnet2” or “subscribe xnet2-digest” in the body of the message.

You’ll get the hairy eyeball from all of us if you do, so make sure you know what you’re doing, please and thanks.

Oh, yeah. It’s a community. Really. We don’t want a whole ton of people moving in. Just you. Maybe.

The SnotNet Collective

If that enticed you enough to investigate further, there was an Xnet2 Charter and an Xnet2 FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) List, both of which were randomly generated in real time from snippets and fragments that members of the group could create and save as the spirit moved us. The FAQ List grew to contain about 1,200 mostly absurd entries before SpamBots overwhelmed it and it was abandoned. I have the full list, and reading through it provides a wonderful remembrance of the creative and fun spirit of the group and the person who built and sustained it.

So in honor and memory of my friend and creative foil, I picked my Top Ten Xnet2 FAQ’s and I share them with you below. He wrote some, I wrote some, other people wrote some, and some we just stole. They make no sense, and yet they make all the sense in the world, depending on the lens through which you view them. Life’s like that, right?

#648 (5/18/2000):

Yes yes yes, it was a very, very interesting episode in Xnet2’s history: a crime drama with both philosophical and psychological overtones. During Japan’s 12th Century, a music critic and a programmer relate conflicting stories to a young woman known as “The Mistress of Light” as the group takes shelter in the Tricycles of Love. The different tales revolve around a trucker who has attacked a couple wandering through the woods, tying the husband up and forcing himself on the wife. The husband was found dead in the forest by the music critic, but what actually happened between these people is inconclusive. The trucker, the wife, the husband (through an Australian medium), and the music critic all present different and irreconcilable versions of the events in question to the authorities. The music critic and programmer are disturbed by the absence of an objective truth, but the young woman seems not to care. The three find an abandoned baby inside the Tricycles of Love, and the young woman steals some of the items left with the child and leaves. The programmer fears for the baby’s safety, but the music critic states he already has several children and offers to care for this one as well. Weird, huh???

#738 (12/14/2000):

Was the fire in a transformer box, the round garbage can looking thing with a couple of insulators and wires leading in and out? Did it drip anything cool on the ground? Did the neighbor’s cats lick it up and turn into Wizard of Oz flying monkeys before they died screaming?

#465 (10/8/1999):

Bambino fui merino, Bambino fui un puta.
Bambino fui asi asi, Bambino fui prosciutto.
Bambino pecorino, Bambino molto gnocchi.
Bambino-bino-bino fui un roll e roll e rochi.
— “Rock and Roll Genoese” by Xtobal Colon, 1492

#1004 (7/6/2004):

Employee X is a 52-year-old accountant and holds an MS in Accounting. He started working in New York City restaurants in 1992 and continues to enjoy the torture of restaurant employment. As a result of his restaurant experience, he is familiar with virtually every aspect of restaurant operations, as well having gained an insight into the minds of its owners, staff, customers and vendors. More importantly, Employee X’s dubious past gave him an inside peek into the brains of the freeloaders, ass-lickers/kickers and ecstasy club kids that have come to define a certain segment of the restaurant industry. Employee X chooses to hide behind a pseudonym out of an overwhelming respect for the Slavic mafia.

#147 (8/8/1998):

Mistuh Whatever is here tonight. He gonna git down tonight brother. He gonna git wid it.

#80 (7/8/1998):

It’s all in your head. We spent years trying to get it all out, but not the merest portion would come forth, no matter how we drilled.

#46 (1/6/1998):

Intuition just bein’ logic you ain’t quite figured out.

# 715 (9/17/2000):

Once upon a time there was this list, see? Almost like a regular internet mailing list, only . . . not. No real subject, no real raison d’etre, if ya know what I mean, just a bunch of folks who kinda sorta knew each other (“friends”) suddenly roped together into a chain gang, or a reality tv show, out in a still-unsettled frontier corner of cyberspace, where the people were a little . . . off, all of em, in their way. “Quirky.” “Eccentric.” A real esprit de corps, tho, if ya get my drift. Possessed of a sense of *PURPOSE*, but no idea [thankst gawd] what that purpose might be. Anyhoo, that list blowed up and reassembled itself a few times, one too many times, and the final blow-up was way nasty. All the folks were sitting in their booths, chowing down on Big Macs and Pronto Pups and soy burgers and sate and parathas, smirkin’ and snarlin’ and sneerin’, when all of a sudden a coupla heads exploded, just like that, squirting hair, teeth and eyeballs, and special sauces of various flavors [no vegemite, tho!] in a zillion directions, all on the plate glass window out by the jungle gym, on the uniform of the manager (whose own head had, not coincidentally, been one of the ones that exploded), on a few particularly surly customers (the Gary Glitter dude, in particular, got blown across the room and wound up in a barrel of peanut saus, and was ejected from the joint looking like a headless tub of goo who’d, uh, had an accident). Some of the folks who were there headed for the hills, some of em re-grouped and moved to Brighton, where they amuse themselves to this day sitting on benches, playing skittles and cribbage, occasionally staging three-legged races and such. And we, many of us, wound up here.

#311 (1/16/1999):

They are tuned into fighting and procreation, and as long as you ain’t humping along on your belly going bbrrrrup bbbrrrrup bbbrrrrruuuup they ignore you.

#49 (1/6/1998):

Whatever this is, this is NOT art.

1,000

WordPress tells me that this is the 1,000th post on J. Eric Smith Dot Com. Huttah!

I’m guessing that there aren’t a lot of solo blogs out there that hit this mark — though in reality, I’ve actually been far more prolific with my online writing than the post count here would indicate. This version of the blog compiles and consolidates a lot of earlier sites, and I deleted a lot of things along the way that I didn’t want to carry forward, or that I reserved offline after original publication for other purposes.

Here’s the tale of the tape: I have maintained an active online presence since 1993, launched a personal website in 1995, and blogged regularly since September 2000. The website you’re reading now is the fourth incarnation of my blog. The first served as a repository for over 750 reviews and feature articles I wrote in the ’90s for print clients, before most of them even had their own websites. The second version focused on creative writing projects, including a poem a day published in 2004; several articles went viral during this period, helping me to develop a very strong online brand. The third version provided an archive of professional posts written for commercial and academic purposes.

This current, fourth version of my online home consolidates all of these earlier pieces — professional and personal, entertainment and education, left brain and right brain, humorous and serious — dating back to 1995, and serves as my home for new writing of all flavors. It also incorporates pieces that I wrote for other blogs and websites, often under pseudonyms. I’m not telling you which ones they are and where they originally appeared, though. If you recognize them, a gold star for you. But then: Shhhh!

I’ve made some money on some of these items, and used others of them for professional and academic pursuits that had high return on time investment beyond initial compensation, but this website ultimately reflects the fact that writing is my primary hobby. It’s the thing I do to enjoyably fill spare time, some of which might truthfully be better spent doing other things, but such is the nature of creative compulsion. I enjoy scribbling, and I appreciate having a public forum to do it.

That being said, by being such a diligent, sometimes feverish hobbyist over the years, I have definitely made myself a far better and faster writer at work, and my ability to communicate via the written word is now the cornerstone of my marketability to employers and clients alike. So all things considered, I’m at peace with having freely shared a lot of my work online, minus one unfortunate foray into unpaid writing for a venal and unethical commercial website that ended poorly. We live and we learn.

If you’re new to my site and writing and want to know more, here are the ten posts that WordPress tells me are the most frequently viewed by my site’s visitors, excluding the front page and general information sections:

On Success, And Who Defines It

The Worst Rock Band Ever

Understanding Organizational Development

March of the Mellotrons: The Greatest Classic Prog Rock Album Ever

Top 20 Albums of 2014

Let’s Take It To The Stage: The Greatest Live Album Ever

How To Write A Record Review

Five Common Misconceptions About Nonprofits

I Like The Bee Gees

You Ain’t Got A Dog In That Fight

That’s an interesting (to me) combination of pieces covering a pretty broad spectrum of my writing subjects and styles, and I get why some of them are popular, though not so much with others. So as a supplement to the voice of the people with regard to my writing, here are ten additional pages that I personally would consider as contenders for the best 1.0% of the work archived here — recognizing that creative people are often the worst judges of their own work, and that if asked to recreate this list a year from now, it might look very different:

The Road to Anywhere

The Analog Kid Speaks

Compassionate Grounds

Rock And Roll Is Not Collective

Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

James Joyce Vs Breakfast

The Grease Group

Rulebound Rebellion: An Ethnography Of American Hardcore Music

Jefferson Water

Sweetman

So there’s 20 pieces for you to read or re-read, if you’d like to help me celebrate my 1,000 post milestone here by engaging with the back catalog. There’s also a pull-down menu at the right that allows you to trawl back through the archives to 1995, and the search bar is always an effective way to find what you’re looking for — or to surprise yourself by finding what you weren’t. And if you’ve got a favorite that I’ve not mentioned, let me know. I might have forgotten that it existed, and might enjoy re-reading it again!

Regardless of where you surf on from here today, thanks for reading and playing along all these years. It has been — and remains — fun to have a big online sandbox to play in, and I appreciate you all bringing your buckets and shovels over every now and then.

Mysteries of Chicago (Part One)

It has been about three months since Marcia moved to Chicago, with me following behind her a few weeks later. We then moved from temporary housing into our long-term apartment about a month ago, so we’re starting to feel settled in our work and residence, and are beginning to develop the routines and identify the favorites that make a place feel like home. We’re figuring the City out, and enjoying the experience.

That being said: there are still some things about Chicago that remain mysterious to us. Here are some of the early, obvious ones for us — though I am sure there will be many more to follow. Any help or perspective from long-time Chicagoan to get these things figured out, or are they actually mysterious to the natives too?

  1. Why do the streets in the Loop named after Presidents exclude Jefferson and favor John Quincy Adams’ place in the sequence over that of his father?
  2. Why is eating breakfast out such a big deal here, with people patiently waiting in line well over an hour for a pancake?
  3. Does the Purple Line really exist, and if so, why would anybody get on it?
  4. Why the obsession with caramel and cheese popcorn being mixed together, creating an end product that tastes like Captain Crunch with a yeast infection?
  5. Why do street lane lines appear to have been painted by a drunken random number generating robot?
  6. Why are pizzas made out of pie crust, and why are the toppings all out of order?
  7. Why is the City’s most famous, most trafficked downtown Avenue named after the state on the other side of the Lake? And for that matter, why is the Lake named after that place, too?
  8. Why is the per ounce price for meat at  Chicago Steak Houses similar to that of many precious metals?
  9. How did the Chicago political machine produce Chicago, while the Albany political machine produced Albany?
  10. Bicycles on the sidewalks? Really?
That's just wrong, Chicago.

That’s just wrong, Chicago.

Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

1. Lisbon: First day in Portugal, Marcia and I leave our hotel, heavily jet-lagged, for our first walk together in Iberia. Time to kill before we meet our new travel companions for dinner. Down the hill toward the historic central waterfront market, aimless, following gravity’s pull at each intersection. Turn a corner, and hear a sonic blast warm front of the most extraordinary pulsing rhythmic racket from somewhere unseen, ahead. Follow the noise: primal, pounding, pummeling rhythms of metal and hide, bestial, wild, attractive, audible id. Glimpse a parade line one block away, push through the crowd, turn another corner to confront a movable carnival feast of color and light and noise, winding its way to places unknown, primitive masks evoking ancient gods, rites, passions, dances, magic. We are suddenly part of something. We don’t know what. Mysteries make everything better.

17741862328_eec1b19283_k 2. Rural Andalucia (I): Long bus ride into the country from Seville ends with a 30-minute jumble along a bumpy, twisted, dusty dirt road, winding between prickly pear cacti and olive trees, signs telling us this a private hunting preserve for the region’s richest residents. Arrive at a ranch where prize toros are raised for their final moments of public pain and posthumous glory in Spain’s finest bull fighting arenas. Greeted by Matias, an impossibly handsome young matador in training, dressed in traditional chaps, hat, coat, boots, his rock star dreams of arena triumph balanced by his efforts as a law student; he will succeed, one way or another. Pile into a wagon pulled by a tractor, Matias riding alongside on a fine grey horse, carrying a long spear, into the fields where eight choice bulls await their final journey in blissful, aggressive ignorance. Matias runs the bulls. He shows us the field where the cows and calves live, food atop a hill, water miles away in the valley, the long daily trips between the points of comfort keeping the animals healthy and lean. Matias demonstrates the matador’s moves in the ranch’s central show arena, manipulating the cape, frozen in handsome snapshots of equipoise, muscles clinched, a beautiful dancer in all but name. As he poses, Marcia whispers: I can has matador?

17929333665_622e74e5c2_k 3. Ronda: Ancient Roman mountaintop city atop a vast gorge, overlooking fields, groves, green, lush, history palpable in layers. Whitewashed walls protected long-ago citizens from plague, modern police cars protect today’s residents from parking violations, creating traffic jams as they tow vehicular offenders. Heat as a layer of clothing, worn atop shirts, hung from hats, sun haze and sweat. Leave a euro in a tiny church’s till as we pay our respects to the Holy Mother, and are rewarded with a carry-out prayer in the language of our choosing. Enter the bullfight arena at city center, wind through the shadowy concrete paths that the enraged beasts themselves follow to their final conflicts, past paintings and scrims explaining the rich cultural history of this most savage form of communal entertainment. Emerge from the dark tunnel into the ring itself, the paint of the walls mirroring the sun-yellow color of the sand. At the center, a lone figure stands with the distinctive long instrument of his trade, mere meters from his eternal foe. This is the place! Centuries of heritage unfold before us, as the mighty Caterpillador faces down the terrible Bobcat in all of its fury. Shivers. Heat haze. Herculito’s Final Task.

17926144882_920181ae1e_k 4. Rural Andalucia (II): Another long bus ride into the country, Luis the driver navigating us safely through impossible straits and passes, no scrapes, no sweat: El Jefe del Autobus! Arrive at a beautiful family-owned vineyard overlooking a lush valley, ancient Ronda on the horizon’s hilltop. Greeted by Moises, one of the brothers who cares for the grapes and olives with which the family makes fine, organic wines and oils. Moises gestures down into the rows of grape vines, pointing out the fragrant lines of rosemary, thyme, tarragon nested within, designed to draw desirable bees and birds to combat the family’s greatest nemesis: the terrible tiny spiders. A palpable tremble as Moises utters that phrase. Shadows cross the sun. Dark birds take flight, croaking in horror. The Terrible Tiny Spiders! Terrible! Tiny! Spiders!!! We cannot see them, but we know they are there, waiting, patient, poised, eternal. Everywhere. Unseen. Always. This is the history of Spain: Ferdinand and Isabella unite their kingdoms to protect their people from Terrible Tiny Spiders; Franco died screaming amidst dreams of Terrible Tiny Spiders; the sultans of the Alhambra trembled within the embraces of their concubines as the Terrible Tiny Spiders swept through their gardens like poisonous smoke; there they are, there, there, crawling beneath the hooves of Guernica’s horses, battling the ants that infest Dali’s paintings, parachuting like Jesus from the spires of La Sagrada Familia, lurking in the corners of La Casa Del Bacalao. Terrible. Tiny. Spiders. We now understand Spain.

17929377571_e8e261f06f_h 5. Figueres: On the bus again, en route to the Theater Museum that the great Salvador Dali built to preserve his own legacy, in his own way. The skies are grey, mountains on the horizon evoke deja vu, Dali’s landscapes embedded in brain matter, known but not, silent but sensed. A palpable sense of personal pull, approaching the home and tomb of one of the greatest figures in my personal creative landscape, a man, a force, a presence who shaped the way I understand and process the world, how I see beauty, how I admire the muse, how my dream life invades my waking world, how I ask how, and why. Headphones are over my ears as we exit the highway, my iPod set to random play mode. “The Wheel” by Coil begins to play as we approach the museum, another very important touch point for me. Coil, like Dali, have long shaped the way I hear beauty, how I admire the creator, how my waking world invades my dream world, why I ask why, and how. The song begins with a tape recording of a ghost’s voice, a faint vocalization from the great beyond whispers to us from deep within tape hiss, then the drums, then the haunted, haunting lost voice of beautiful John Balance explains the world and all the things in it, and Sleazy is there, too, also calling from the places and spaces we who live have yet to experience, except in dreams. As the bus stops, these words linger: Oh, I was dragged here by an angel. Thank you.

17902512466_9aef6e5ff7_k 6. Barcelona: Last night in Spain, rain falling in torrents. Two people, one umbrella, in search of arroz negro, the traditional paella made with squid ink and langustinos. On Gaudi’s Avenue, Sagrada Familia at one end, Hospital of Saint Paul at the other. Slip into a small restaurant, take a table in the corner, order anchovy-stuffed olives, albondigas, arroz negro. A baby at a nearby table cries and can’t be comforted by an attentive mother. Somewhere behind, above, beyond us a strange noise arises, a series of shuffling clicks, or clicking shuffles, disconcerting, like something from a Japanese horror film, or one of the Alien movies. The mother continues to soothe the baby, but it is disconsolate. A large woman with a nearly-shaved head leaves the table near us and goes to the restroom, and she does not return. The clicks shuffle, perhaps in the heating ducts, or maybe just around the corner, where we cannot see the source? Wait! Perhaps the shuffles click from within the restroom! The large woman still does not return. Another man enters the restroom. He, too, is gone for the evening. The arroz negro arrives. We scrape it from its pan, and crack the little arachnids atop it with our teeth, sucking the sweet meat from within the hard carapaces, leaving little piles of claws and legs and tails on a plate between us. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. Now near. Now far. The baby weeps as the mother rocks her gently, trying to eat her own paella with one hand. We finish our meal and request la cuenta, the check. The waiter nods knowingly and walks away. We wait. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. No one emerges from the restroom. The check never comes. We wait. We do not dare use the restroom. What happened to the people inside it? Something scuttles across the room at periphery, just out of sight. Click. Shuffle. Click. Marcia leans across the table and says: The alien should eat the baby first.

17306078594_7da562b9fa_k

Iowa Art Crisis 3: Afterglow

Voice-over: And now Des Mean After School Specials proudly presents the tear-jerking third and final episode of “Iowa Art Crisis.”

Flash Screen Links to Part One and Part Two.

Scene: A grubby but comfortable East Village bar in the shadow of Iowa’s Capitol Building.

Fade in with piano music and singing over credits:

Making your way in the arts today
Takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your critics
Sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you wanna go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you paint
You wanna be where people see
Artists are all the same
You wanna go where everybody knows your name

Bode P. Chatsworth, COO of Cardinal Mutual Casualty Company, walks in.

Barflies: BODE!

Lovilia (polishing a glass behind the bar): How’s it going there tonight, Mr. C?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Not too bad, Lovilia. Quite a day at the office, helping out some traumatized artists. My bunions are killing me again. But it’s good to be here.

terryplayaTerry Branstad, Governor of Iowa (dressed in a postman’s suit, stands up, wobbles over to Bode P. Chatsworth, sits on the stool beside him): That’s good, Bode. We’re all glad to be here. Let’s chat about our favorite Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums to get your mind off your bunions.

Lovilia (Slings towel over shoulder): I tell you what, y’all keep chatting about E.L.P. all night and this bar’s gonna get shut down real quick.

Barflies: LAUGHTER!

Rufus Dunn Leakey, D.Phil., Voice of Wisdom (from a table in the corner): Aww come on, Lovilia, let’ em talk about what they want. I personally don’t care for E.L.P., but it’s a free world, and learning a little bit more about stuff we don’t think we like might just make us better, more tolerant people when all’s said and done, right?

Bode P. Chatsworth: That’s what I think, Rufus. (Sips from beer). Ah, nothing like sipping back a cold one and criticizing E.L.P. albums with pals.

Terry Branstad (increasingly wobbly): Yep, their third arlbum wars tha’ one ta have. Hic! It’s er, eh undeniable. Hey bahrkeep, how’s about parrin’ me anather one?

Lovilia: Just a minute there, Governor B. Hey, Mallard, why so glum tonight?

Mallard Meservey, Art Critic (in sports coat with beard): Oh I don’t know, Lovilia, I suppose it’s just so unreal, isn’t it?

Lovilia (Leans against bar): Well how d’ya figure that, Mr. M?

Mallard Meservey: Well, it’s the whole idea of criticism and community these days, I suppose. I mean, here we are, in a public space, similar to the way it used to be, talking about Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums. Some we like, some we hate. We explain our reasons why, people nod or shake their heads, and Lovilia pours us another beer. Simple! However, on another plane it’s completely different than it used to be, since our minds are all really far, far away, as we slyly check our phones under the bar for tweets about the latest art and music happenings elsewhere that we’ll never actually experience, or excuse ourselves to sit on the crapper with our pants up behind a closed stall door to read real time criticism from people we don’t know, with no training or qualifications, sitting in places we’ve never seen, anonymously savaging artists we’ve never heard of, about work we’ll never experience. And then we flush and Lovilia pours us another beer. Fifteen years ago, Putman was right, we were “bowling alone.” However, now, we’re not even actually bowling (and nor are we, I might add, in virtual reality helmets, literally). We’re just clacking away, 140 characters at a time, in public, privately. The least effort possible short of watching television, yet this is the proverbial and current public sphere!

Lovilia: What are you getting at, Mr. M?

Mallard Meservey: Oh nothing I suppose, nothing. It’s just depressing is all.

Rufus Dunn Leakey, D.Phil. (from a table in the corner): I hear that.

Terry Branstad (Raises glass): Hic! Tahr dahpressions!

Barflies (All raise glasses): DEPRESSION!

Mallard Meservey: Don’t understand me too quickly, people! I’m talking about atomization, the individualistic, privatized tendencies of man gone too far! I’m talking about alienation, and anomie only against one’s self, the cause of that depression! I’m speaking of ennui, a lack of feeling, a numbing of our emotional senses, caused by a lack of real, public interaction, that can’t help but leave one feeling empty and unfulfilled in the end! I’m talking about the ways in which criticism comes easier than craftsmanship, and how bullies no longer need playgrounds to wreak havoc on the souls of those who are judged weak and wanting! Most of all, I’m talking about the fact that I’m pretending to be talking in public while I’m actually typing in private, and yet all of this private scribbling and sniping and clattering is, in some surreal sense, considered public discourse! And that’s acceptable to us all!!

Barflies: AWKWARD SILENCE!

Bode P. Chatsworth (Turns away from Mallard Meservey and towards Terry Brandstad): Yeah, so that third E.L.P. album is definitely the one to have. You know, the one with the giant armadillo tank on the cover?

Terry Branstad: Hic!

Fade to black over piano music.

Iowa Art Crisis 2: The Creative Rehabilitation Program

Continued from yesterday’s story: Central Iowa’s arts community continues to roil in the aftermath of the Bad Art Reviews Blog’s (ed. since shut down) violent disregard for the State’s Code of Niceness. In an effort to preemptively ward off an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder among the region’s creative caste, the newly-empowered Iowa Ministry of Artistic Compliance has established The Creative Rehabilitation Program to nurse wounded artists back to health. The program mirrors a “Big Brothers/Big Sisters” model, with struggling, disenfranchised artists receiving hands-on mentoring from wealthy arts patrons, all of them hand-selected by Governor Brandstad from among his wide circle of friendly GOP arts enthusiasts. Let’s drop in on a session as Cardinal Mutual Casualty Company’s Chief Operating Officer, Bode P. Chatsworth — a well-known collector of large metal objects and signed sports memorabilia — meets with two artists fished from the wreckage of their heretofore peaceful cultural pond:

whitemanartElliot Gruver, Graduate Student in the Arts: I don’t want to get too heavy on you, Mr. Chatsworth, but I’ve never been more confused in my life.

Bode P. Chatsworth, COO, Cardinal Mutual Casualty Company: What’s on your mind, kid? Go ahead and spill it. You know that we love to be entertained by others’ misery here. That’s what this whole “Big Rich Art Brothers” thing is all about, yes?

Elliot Gruver: Well, I guess you sort of put your finger right on the heart of my problem, Mr. Chatsworth. My issue is that I’m just a little put off by the whole notion of what makes for “good art.” It often seems that “good art” means exactly what you just said: comfortable people getting off on other people’s misery. That makes me think that in order to make “good art” for the people who have the time to appreciate and afford it, then I have to take a vow of misery and angst. But, you know, Mom and Dad are paying a pretty penny for me to be in a Master of Fine Arts program, and I really just don’t have much to be sad about. So is my art worthless? And do I need to find things to be unhappy about if I want it to have value?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Nonsense, kid! You’re just showing your youthful naiveté when you say things like that. Look, back before I became a successful insurance executive and collector of large metal objects and signed sports memorabilia, I was a wannabe artist too, and like you, I thought that my misery made for better art. But when I look at my stuff from back then, it’s generally not better or worse than anything else, it’s just more miserable. Misery doesn’t equal quality. It’s just that when people are miserable, perhaps they invest more value and import in their art than they do when they’re not. The art symbolizes their struggle, and maybe they fight harder for their art because of that. But that’s an issue of promotion, not of quality. And, frankly, sometimes the stuff people do that isn’t based on struggle can be far more profound and less obvious than the more angst-ridden stuff tends to be.

Elliot Gruver: But does angst-ridden art always have to be obvious? Can’t art be angst-ridden and subtle at the same time?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Well, what the hell would be the point of “angst-ridden and subtle”? Sure, you can be angst-ridden in your life, and subtle about it in your work, but who would be able to tell the difference? Would you have to code it into your titles: “Still Life with Fruit and Yarn (Composed While Suffering an Existential Crisis in a Sioux City Squat)” or “Sunrise Over Dubuque (Where Some Immigrant Somalian Babies Suffer from Worms)”? If you believe that suffering leads to angst, which then leads to “great art,” then you can’t make “great art” without such suffering, and you should just move out to a nice cardboard box now and have your folks send your tuition checks directly to me. But that’s a false model. You really don’t have to choose between art and happiness. Comfort level is not tied to how profound someone’s work can be.

Charlotte Mondamin, Working Artist: Oh, I can’t take it any more! Listen to you two go on about angst and art! What a pair of pretentious poseurs you are! And you’re missing the big picture completely. Listen: angst is an emotion that’s exclusive to the privileged class. When you are hungry, homeless, sick or poor, you don’t have time or energy to feel sorry for yourself because you don’t feel like the world understands or appreciates you. So buck up and quit wallowing. Go spend a night in a dumpster without a coat and see how bad your petty boo-hoos feel tomorrow.

Elliot Gruver: Don’t dismiss my feelings just because I’m a child of privilege! I didn’t choose to be born in comfort!

Bode P. Chatsworth: C’mon, Charlotte, you’re not really going to trot out that stale old canard, are you? I mean, sure, we should all be doing cartwheels because we’re not in a labor camp in North Korea waiting for a rat to jump out of the hole in the ground where we shit so we can kill it and eat it, even though we’ll be beaten by the guards for doing so. I’m convinced! Life is suddenly beautiful to me! Thanks for the wisdom!

Charlotte Mondamin: It is not a stale argument, you creep. Life’s what you make of it. If you’ve got a house, a family who loves you, and money for food, then you’re doing better than 90% of the human beings living in the world right now, including me. If you choose to be a spoiled crybaby because nobody understands your art, Elliot, then that’s your problem, not society’s, not your parents’, not anybody else’s. It’s just wrong to try to find things in life to be unhappy about just so that you can make “better” art that allows well-off boobs to feel even better about themselves because they embrace your false suffering. What do your type have to be unhappy about anyway?

Bode P. Chatsworth: Please, Charlotte. That’s just dumb. People with all of those things can be unhappy if their jobs are not fulfilling, their personal lives are in disarray, or their financial futures are uncertain. Having stuff doesn’t make you happy. If it did, celebrity gossip columns would be far more boring than they already are. Do you really think there’s some sort of happiness line, where if you make over a certain amount per year, you’re not allowed to be sad?

Charlotte Mondamin: Look, the more you make, the more you can do whatever you want with fewer and fewer consequences. I’d certainly rather be sad and rich than sad and poor, because sad and poor means that you also have the pressure of basic survival while being unhappy. So, yes, once you have your basic survival needs met, you really shouldn’t be whining about being sad. Your sadness becomes meaningless. You can buy something to make it better. Or you can use your ample spare time to make some art, in which you subtly embrace the fantasy angst that eats at your comfortable, benumbed brains.

Bode P. Chatsworth: Gah, you bore me! Enough! I don’t need all of this misdirected anger and needless confrontation from the likes of you! I’d much prefer to spend time with comfortable people in search of a little angst to fire their creative furnaces. C’mon, Elliot, let’s head over to the corporate canteen and see what they’ve got stashed away there behind the bar, crack a bottle of somethin’ somethin’, smoke a couple of cigars and figure out how best to balance your emotional and artistic aspirations. The keys to the Jaguar are on the end-table there. You can go warm it up for Old Uncle Chatsworth, since it’s a nippy night out tonight. And be careful not to step on any hobos. There’s a good kid. You got a future.

CONTINUES IN PART THREE