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.

Something terrible happened here . . .

Something terrible happened here . . .

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!

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.


Nine Facts, One Falsehood (Part Three)

I hate April Fool’s Day on the internet, since I have no interest in reading wholly false articles designed to trick people into believing nonsense. So today seems a good day to run the third installment of “Nine Facts, One Falsehood” . . . because at least 90% of the material displayed below is real, compared to the 0% that most of the internet is offering today. (Prior installments: Number One and Number Two).

So which of the following ten statements is a lie? And why?

1. My grandmother in South Carolina had scores of cats, and we always had a few ourselves, so many of my earliest childhood memories involve moving around with a cadre of felines surrounding and/or menacing me.

2. My grandfather in South Carolina was a heavy equipment mechanic. He smelled like Juicy Fruit Gum and motor oil, all the time.

3. My first dog was a wire haired terrier named Angus; when we were visiting my other grandparents in North Carolina, the foul-tempered Angus decided to take on a pack of wild dogs and was killed by them. My second dog had a crippling injury as a puppy, then had to be put to sleep after developing a seizure disorder. I never really bonded with another dog again.

4. I was promoted directly to third grade without having to go to second grade; it seemed like a good idea at the time, but by high school the age difference became an issue with regard to driver’s licenses, etc.

5. My best friend from our mid-teen years was killed in the PanAm bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. He was returning home to finish his senior year at Columbia after traveling around Europe for a year, writing.

6. After high school, I was accepted for admission to the Naval Academy, West Point, the Air Force Academy, Duke and Virginia. I chose to attend the Naval Academy.

7. I did very well in military performance during the first half of Plebe Summer at the Naval Academy, because I knew more about the military than most of my classmates did, having grown up on military bases. By the second half of Plebe Summer that advantage had been neutralized, and I ended up being one of the lowest ranked midshipmen in my company, a status I held until I graduated.

8. My father served as Marine liaison to Ambassador Philip Habib during and after the Lebanese Civil War of 1982, and played an important role in the peace process negotiations there.

9. I am horrifically allergic to poison ivy, a fact unfortunately and graphically illustrated after I petted a horse that had brushed up against that noxious weed during my and Marcia’s honeymoon at Spicer Castle in Minnesota.

10. I can make a very credible noise on pretty much any instrument that has strings, despite the fact that I have never taken formal musical lessons.

Nine Facts, One Falsehood (Part Two)

Slight return to an earlier post tonight. Nine of the statements below are facts. One of the statements below is false. Which is the lie?

  1. I earned my first paycheck as a journalist when I was 13 years old. I was hired to write the “Teen Corner” column for the Mitchel Field News, which was supposed to be sort of a social column for the teenagers on a military base. I was fired a few months later because I used my column to write reviews of Steely Dan and Jethro Tull records instead.
  2. On my home office desk (where I type now) I have: a pair of fuzzy dice, a Beavis and Butthead statue, a stuffed frog, a stuffed sloth, Chinese bells, and a Spongebob Squarepants lunchbox.
  3. I have a series of circular scars on my left leg and foot from dropping molten plastic on myself while burning a model airplane. The plastic burnt itself into the flesh, then hardened there and had to be pulled back out.
  4. I haven’t intentionally taken a nap since approximately 1987. I only seem to have enough “go to sleep” chemical to do it once a day, and if I fall asleep during the day, then I stay up all night. So I actively avoid falling asleep during the day.
  5. I never used sunscreen growing up, and in fact was a devotee of tanning oil, which gave me a beautiful mocha tone and (later) two rounds of skin cancer.
  6. When I graduated from the Naval Academy, I had to choose between a variety of staff corps position with schools in Colorado Spring, Norfolk and Athens, Georgia. I chose Athens (Supply Corps School) because my favorite band (Butthole Surfers) had recently relocated there from Austin. By the time I actually arrived in Athens, though, they had moved back to Texas.
  7. Peter Buck of R.E.M. publicly insulted my musical tastes in front of a bunch of giggling sycophants at the Wuxtry Record Store in Athens, Georgia (where he worked, before he was famous) when I appeared at the cash register carrying Einsturzende Neubauten and Fad Gadget records. I knew who he was, but I still said “Shut up, record clerk, and take my money.”
  8. Kim Deal got angry with me during an interview when I asked her about a side project that was actual her twin sister Kelley’s gig.
  9. I listen to Wings albums far more than I listen to the Beatles and John Lennon’s solo albums combined.
  10. I used to bite my nails, but now I keep emery boards at all of my desks, and as soon as the urge to nibble arises: FILE! FILE! FILE! As long as nails are smooth, there is no desire to nosh.