Hidden in Suburbia (Salvage)

This version of my website was established in mid-2014, and includes posts from a variety of my other websites dating back to 1995. When I set this one to be a central clearing house, I closed most of the older domains.

There are two downsides to this sort of consolidation. First, pages that had long been Google search favorites now have new addresses, so they’re a little harder to find, and generate a little less traffic than they once did. Second, internal links get hashed up as articles move from one domain to another, while their images or related pages either no longer exist, or remain on other servers with other addresses. These are both annoyances, but I decided that they were acceptable inconveniences, given the content density that comes from having twenty years’ worth of the best bits from a dozen websites in a single (virtual) location.

For most articles, especially standalone pieces, these structural inconveniences really don’t have any lasting impact. But for long-form, multiple chapter entries, or pieces with significant inline imagery, they can be catastrophic to understanding or appreciating what I originally intended to communicate. Unfortunately, one of my most popular online pieces, the “Hidden in Suburbia” series, was particularly hard hit by changes in hosting locations and addresses. I ran multi-entry “Hidden in Suburbia” series in 2005, 2008 and 2011, and they were widely read, and still generate significant search interest. Alas, much of the incoming traffic generated by that interest now results in “404 Page Not Found” entries.

Here’s the original premise of the series:

I live in a nice area called Latham, New York, middle to upper-middle class for the most part, well-kept homes in properly manicured and landscaped settings, good schools, good investment value in property, all the things one generally expects in the nicer bits of suburbia. If you draw a circle with a radius of about two and half miles around my house, you will also see that there are lots of woods. This makes the neighborhoods look nice, with backdrops of green and nice, tidy (from a distance) wild areas separating one neighborhood from another. This is good, because I have a deep fascination with woods. Not forests, mind you, but woods. Forests are the untamed, wild places where nature is still, for the most part, in charge, and where urban, exurban and suburban development are still ages, years and/or miles and miles away. Woods, on the other hand, are the bits of forest that are left when development occurs, stands of trees immediately adjacent to suburban civilization, the dark places where all the things that suburban civilization doesn’t want to think about go to die. Or to thrive, depending on what flavor they are. It’s shocking to find a piece of trash in a pristine forest. In suburban woods, though, you expect to find trash. People dump in there late at night, so they don’t have to drive all the way to the landfill. Kids steal stuff and take it out there to hide it, then forget about it. Teenagers smoke, drink, make out, break bottles and blow things up in the woods, leaving a variety of interesting detritus. The woods are the places where suburbia’s darkness lurks in wait, like something from a David Lynch movie. But it’s not the specters and spirits of the woods that interest me, really, as much as it the stuff you find back there, and how the community sort of turns its collective consciousness away from it all. It may be right behind your house, but if it’s in the woods, then it’s okay, as long as it stays there and you don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to. But I like thinking about it . . . and so I ride and walk through muck, mud, weeds and woods looking for the things that no one else wants to. All of the photos and all of the stories in this series are taken and told from within a circle with a five mile circumference, my house smack in the center. It doesn’t seem like a lot of space . . . until you really start exploring the spaces between the space . . .

While working to clean up some archives for another project, I decided to see what I could do to salvage the original three Hidden in Suburbia essays. The 2011 one was pretty easy to clean up and recover, since it was posted to WordPress on the defunct Indie Albany page, which was formatted very much like Indie Moines, and so could be exported and imported with most links and references intact, and because the images were hosted on a Flickr account that I still have. Clicking the link below will bring the series up — plus a related piece called “Academia (After the Apocalypse)” — with both words and images available as they originally appeared, with the last post first, and first post last, per normal blog convention. (The post you are currently reading will appear on top at the new window, since it shares a coding category, but you can then scroll down and work back up to read them in proper chronological order, if you want; note, too, that you will need to hit the “older posts” link at the bottom of the page to see the first two pieces):

J. Eric Smith’s Hidden in Suburbia 2011: Complete

The 2008 and 2005 articles, on the other hand, are damaged beyond viable repair in terms of re-knitting narrative and images together again, so the best I can do for the two of those series is to delete the damaged pages and upload the imagery into its own Flickr set, so if you’re interested, you can see it, and I can answer any questions about it, but that’s about it. Interestingly enough, though, I have found that going through these images as a slideshow is actually oddly fascinating . . . the lack of context, and the unrelenting oddness of the spaces where woods and civilization meet, creates quite an evocative experience. Click the link below to see the whole set:

J. Eric Smith’s Hidden in Suburbia 2005 and 2008: Photo Archive

I hope that these pieces will inspire you to explore your own woods and share what you’ve found. While these images were captured in and around Latham, New York, they truly could be just about anywhere in North America where stands of old trees abut suburban and exurban development, and the universal nature of these images is what has given them their appeal over the years.

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.

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W

Wire have been one of my favorite bands since the late 1970s, and their latest album, Change Becomes Us, has been earning heavy spins on household and car stereos hereabouts since its issue last month. It’s one of their finest discs ever, hands down. For longtime Wire fans, this one has been a particular treat, since it returns to song sketches crafted in the aftermath of their 1979 masterpiece, 154, but only issued in fragmentary or raw form on the live Document and Eyewitness, released when the quartet dissolved for the first time as the ’80s dawned.

With a new Wire album out, I loaded up a bunch of their older tracks — including their remarkable 154-era single “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W” — onto the car iPod when Marcia and I drove down to Asheville, North Carolina last month to visit family. “Map Ref” came on somewhere in Tennessee, and Marcia looked at the title on the dashboard display and asked “Is that a real place, and have you looked to see where it is?” As a hardcore map geek, and a 30+ year Wire fan, I was embarrassed to admit that I had not, so I asked her to use her Smart Phone to look it up and see where it was.

Imagine our surprise when Marcia discovered that the point described by those latitude and longitude coordinates was about 100 miles from our home in Des Moines, down near Centerville, Iowa! When we got back here after our holiday, I did a little research and discovered why lyricist Graham Lewis had picked that point: here’s the story.

For those who know me or have been reading my writing for more than the past ten minutes, it should come as no surprise that I immediately resolved to visit this location, since that’s how I roll. A little Google Earth research showed me that it’s actually a bit to the northwest of Centerville, on the opposite side of Lake Rathbun, where Marcia and I had vacationed for a weekend last summer.

Map Ref 41 N 93 W as Graham Lewis might have first seen it

It appeared to be in the middle of a pasture, about a mile from U.S. Highway 34. I could see that a tree-lined creek bed ran from the highway nearly to the “Map Ref” coordinates, but unfortunately, where the creek crossed under Highway 34, there appeared to be a large production facility of some sort, likely a pig enclosure based on its size and shape from above. That means people, and people means trouble for the casual trespasser. I could also see a dirt road to the west of the creek that got relatively close to the spot, so hoped I’d be able to sneak down that.

Either way, I wanted to get there, and this weekend seemed the ideal time to do it, as Marcia was away in Portland, Oregon, visiting her sister, and spring had actually finally made its first sustained appearance in Iowa. I decided to mark my visit for posterity’s sake, and originally considered placing a geocache there, with my e-mail address in it, so that if any future Wire geeks arrived on the designated spot, they’d be able to share their accomplishment with me. But then, as I thought about it longer, I decided that directly announcing my trespassing tendencies was probably not the smartest course of action.

So instead, I decided to leave a Pink Flag, in honor of Wire’s seminal debut album, which also serves to this day as their website address.

I left Des Moines around 7:00 Saturday morning, and by 9:00 AM, I’d reached the nearest point on the highway to “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”, and was disappointed to discover that the dirt road approaching the designated spot was barred by a locked, heavy-duty gate, necessary to keep the cattle behind it from venturing onto the roadway. Much of Iowa is corn, soybean or hog country, but this sector is cattle country, which means there is a lot of hardcore fencing, little of it easily crossed. Shucks.

The land did have a little bit of rise and fall, though, so I was able to pull my car down into a little gully beneath the roadside power line and behind some scrub trees, where I hoped no one from the hog enclosure across the way would notice it during the half hour or so it took me to get to the map reference point and back. I walked southward down the east bank of the tree-lined creek for about half a mile, trying to keep out of the sight lines of anybody in the farmhouse on the hill to the east of me, until I reached a pasture that was surrounded by a barbed-wired topped fence. I skirted the fence east to a point about 150 feet north of “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W”, trying to find a way to get over it, until I noticed what it was there to contain: another couple of dozen cows . . . and a bull who seemed to be watching me on behalf of his farmer owners.

I decided that this mission had gone far enough, and that attempting to climb a barbed-wire fence, place the flag, take photos, and then outrun an enraged territorial bull probably crossed the line from “entertaining adventure” into “reckless stupidity”. So I placed my flag on the north side of the fence, saluted the bull, and considered my work done. I left the flag behind . . . I don’t know how it will fare in the Iowa weather, but maybe some other Wire fan will find it, someday, and know that someone who cared was there. Here’s the photo:

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W, give or take 150 feet.

Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W, give or take 150 feet.

 

Eponymous (The eBook)

I spent a few years, on and off, during the late 1990s and early 2000s working on a novel called Eponymous, which saw the light of day in a print edition in 2001. I got some nice reviews on it, sold a decent number of copies, made a few bucks off the project (though not enough to cover the time I spent producing it, even at minimum wage) and then decided that I never wanted to write another novel again. Eponymous was supposed to be in print for three years, but it still shows up in new and used editions in a variety of outlets, and I still get little royalty checks every six months or so. I don’t really think about much anymore, except to be gracious when strangers write me to say that they enjoyed it.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn today that Eponymous has been converted by the publisher into a digital edition, and can now be downloaded and read on both Kindle and Nook, and possibly on other e-readers as well, though I have no clue what those might be. I looked at the sample on my Kindle, and while it appears that they’ve done a good job of converting the text for the most part, the formatting of some of the poems and lyrics and other pieces contained in the original print edition is a bit cock-eyed, alas. While new copies of the print edition went for about $20, the eBook edition is available for around four bucks, or less. As are used copies of the print edition, which seem surprisingly available. So if you have been, or are, curious about this lost classic (?), you can now read my first and (probably) last novel for less than you’d spend on a foofy whipped drink at a coffee shop.

Here’s a brief write-up on Eponymous that ran in the Albany daily newspaper back in 2002, just to demonstrate that you don’t actually have to know me to like the book:

GOOD REASON TO ROOT FOR EPONYMOUS
Dark, well-crafted satire of band life is set in the Capital Region.

By Lisa Stevens

Collie Hay is a washed-up musician who is now a music critic in J. Eric Smith’s fast-paced novel, Eponymous.

Collie, full of self-hate and loathing, is writing a self-hurt book to try and alleviate the guilt that consumes him following a horrible accident involving his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Kris Dennison, a bassoonist and a school teacher. Cause of the accident? “Toxic stupidity,” Collie explains.

The Capital Region is the backdrop of this dark satire, which Smith deftly crafts. The author’s in-depth knowledge of band life and his talent for rich character development makes for great reading. You’ll find yourself cheering for Collie’s smart-mouth, smart-aleck attitude and wanting to scream “grow up” all in the same sentence.

Eponymous, in its darkness, is also a laugh-out-loud page turner. We can only hope Smith is at work on his next book.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011: Epilog

Okay, I lied.

I wasn’t planning to do any more Hidden in Suburbia pieces during my final seven weeks in Latham, but as I was out riding for exercise last week, I noticed a new construction cut into some of my favorite woods, and that made me want to grab the camera and see what was going on, in an area that I had considered safe from suburban encroachment. I was, apparently, wrong in that assessment.

Click here for this set of  pictures.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Nine): Farewell, Latham

The past month has been a whirlwind as we go through all of the steps necessary to sell our house, and begin constructing a new life in Des Moines, including buying a new house there. As I work to mobilize contractors, get the house ready for showings, review property specifications in Iowa, and help hire my replacement, I’m finding myself with less time than I’d like for summer fitness, including riding my bike into the woods and wastelands of Latham and sharing my findings with our readers here. I’ve done a couple of short rides in the past few weeks, but as my psychic focus shifts from Latham to Des Moines, I figure it’s probably time to put the camera away and declare my work as documentarian of Latham’s dark spots to be over.

So this will be my final Hidden in Suburbia report hereabouts, though I suspect that Hidden in Des Moines may also be a going series once I get out there. This one features vast late summer meadows, graveyards, abandoned greenhouses, and the place where old pipes go to die. Here’s hoping these and all the earlier photos inspire someone else to keep looking in the spaces between the places.

Click here for this set of photos.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.