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 . . .

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.

 

Dear New York . . .

Please shut up and enjoy your beer. There are grownups doing serious work out here, and you are just too noisy and distracting. Yes, yes, we know that you have more electors in the Borough of Queens than we have in our entire state, but that and a cup of coffee will get you a cup of coffee. So sit down and be quiet and drink your beer. We’d put the Islanders game on for you, except they’re on strike. Again.  So have a nice, quiet day. We’ll be in touch when you need to know something. There, there . . . shhhh . . . there, there . . .

Best regards,

Iowa

The Lifestyle You Deserve

I am a deeply-committed music geek (as if that’s not obvious enough, duh), and there are very few things in my life that don’t feature background tunes when they’re happening. There is one major exception to this rule, though, and that would be cycling. I am pretty serious about the act of getting on a bike and taking to the road, or the trail, or the hidden deep-woods zones, and I never, ever, ever, never, ever do anything when I am on a bike that impedes my already damaged hearing, since the ability to perceive incoming sounds is a key to safely negotiating the path on a two-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle. So I always shake my head disapprovingly when I pass cyclists with headphones on, and have been doing so for many years. That’s dangerous and wrong. This year, however, I have been dismayed to discover a new source of sonic distraction on the bike trail: people riding with actual speakers on their bikes, so not only are they distracted from the dangerous world around them, but anyone else anywhere near them is also subjected to the tinny din of their trebly iPod-quality speakers. A few weeks ago, I was walking a trail with some family members, and the bucolic nature of our hike was disrupted three times by cyclists roaring up on us with speakers cranked, which (they seemed to believe) also mitigated the need for them to verbally notify us of their passage, via the courteous “on your left” or “bikes back” declarations that I always offer to pedestrians on the trail. Instead, we got bad Bon Jovi delivered with maximum volume and distortion, pushing us off the trail, and making conversation impossible until the owners of those odious musical rigs were well past us on the trail. This strikes me as a terrible evolution in the field of communal, public cycling, and I am hoping that these recent events are short-lived anomalies, though in my heart, I suspect they aren’t. I guess once you get to the point where you can carry on private conversations in public with a Bluetooth device stuck in your ear, then your ability to render courtesies to the other human beings within your sonic sphere atropies quickly, on foot or on bike. This seems a pity to me.

Moving Along With Moving Along

This week is Marcia’s last in her current job, and she will be heading west to Iowa next Thursday, picking up Katelin en route so they can keep each other company through the long drive and first few days in Des Moines. I’m glad things worked out that way, schedule-wise, for both of them.

Marcia will be living in a furnished corporate apartment for the first six weeks or so, while I remain in Albany to take care of various local and regional things that I need to get done before I’m able to join her. If all goes as planned, my last day of work at the University at Albany will be November 9, the packers and movers will take care of clearing our current house on November 10 and 11, I will head west on November 12 (with the cats), arrive in Des Moines on November 13, with closing on our new house on November 14.

Between now and then, I will also be serving in my volunteer capacity as Secretary of the Corporation for the American Institute for Economic Research at their annual meeting, and as reunion coordinator for my Naval Academy class at our 25th anniversary homecoming. I will also be attempting to maintain a small and tidy footprint in our current home, to facilitate selling it soon. So it’s going to be a busy six weeks.

Of course, that period of time is still going to seem somewhat empty to me, since I’ll be alone at the house for much of it. While a six week separation for Marcia and me is nothing compared to what many of my Naval Academy classmates and all of our fellow soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines endure as a matter of course, it is pretty dramatically outside of the family paradigm to which we’ve become accustomed, as we’ve never been separated for more than a week during the past 24 years.

So I’m advance planning on how to amuse myself during that time to make it go more quickly. Those of you who know me or have read my work over the years are probably aware that I have a fairly deep masochistic streak. Not in the sexual sense, mind you, but rather more in the monastic/ascetic/penitent/endurance athlete model of the word. I often like to push myself to the point of discomfort to see how I manage it, because I believe we learn things about ourselves that way. For example: is it possible for a reasonably fit person to lose 30 pounds in 30 days? Answer: yes, which I know because I’ve done it, though it was a long, long month. What did I learn from the experience? That I never, ever, ever want to gain weight to the point where I feel like I need to lose 30 pounds again. 16 years later, I never have. Mission Accomplished.

So, my planned self-betterment schemes for October and November currently include:

1. Eating The House: You know how you often buy food items on a whim, or when planning some meal that never quite comes to pass, and then they sit in your cupboards for months, or (sometimes) years? We have a good number of those sorts of items about. So, starting October 7, I will not spend a penny on food until I have eaten every bit of food in the house. (Within reason, of course: I’m not going to drink a bottle of Tabasco Sauce straight up or eat a bowl of ground cumin, but rather will be focusing on living off all of the end product dry, canned and frozen goods in the house). As an adjunct to this, my fighting weight for the past several years has been in the 208 to 212 pounds range, and I’d like to see what I look like back under 200 again, since the last time I was there was in 1995, after dropping from 227 to 197 in 30 days (see above). So I’m sure I’ll come up with some extra uncomfortable physical activity to facilitate that piece.

2. Living Off The Stuff: My last paycheck from my current gig will come sometime in late November, and I’d like to be able to put away all of my earnings from October and November to provide some buffer and safety net for the first couple of months in Des Moines. Toward this end, I will be attempting to live completely off money earned or collected outside of my salary and benefits. For example, I plan to hold a CD and DVD sale of the “Three bucks per disc, 10 discs for $25, and 25 discs for $50” in my garage some night in October. I guarantee you that my collection contains a lot of stuff that you’re not likely to find elsewhere, especially at those sorts of prices. I have a restored vintage ARP Solus analog synthesizer that I’ll be selling too, and I’m going to start re-activating some of my paid freelance writing relationships over the next couple of months. Finally, there will be The J. Eric Exotic Escort Service . . . okay, just kidding on that last one. At bottom line, though, all discretionary activities until I arrive in Des Moines (to include gas for getting around outside of work responsibilities, and food, once I finish eating the house) will be funded through such additional income streams, which will also help me de-clutter in advance of the move.

3. One Bag Out Of The House A Day: Some de-cluttering can’t take place through selling stuff, but rather needs to be taken care of by chucking or donating things. For my last 30 days in the house, I want to have one large garbage bag’s worth of stuff (or a similar volume, for items that don’t go into bags) leave the house each day, either into a dumpster, a Salvation Army collection bin, or someone else’s home, in the case of items that can be directly free-cycled that way. I used this approach in a facilities job I had once, and it was amazing how much we cleaned the place up just by forcing ourselves to look for the things that really could go, right now, rather than seeing them and thinking “Well, maybe someday this might could possibly of some use, to someone . . . ”

I’m sure I’ll come up with other games to play to amuse myself, but these are the ones I’m planning at the moment. Watch this space for updates.

Ten Things I Will Not Miss When I Leave Albany

I’m down to my final seven weeks in Albany, which means that I’ll be regularly doing a lot of routine things here for the last time. Many of these final passages are bittersweet, or make me wistful, and I will write about those sorts of fondly appreciated things in more detail later as my days here get even shorter. Today, though, I’d like to examine the flip-side of this season of closure, and provide a brief overview of some of the things that I am totally looking forward to bidding adieu, forever, world without end, amen, when I leave Albany for the last time.

1. Price Chopper Advantage Cards: I got so sick of being bullied by cashiers about having to put gas in my car from a certain gas station (where I don’t buy gas) before a certain date, lest I lose my points (or whatever they were) that I actually cut up my Advantage Card, and now just demand that they give me the discounted prices without it, simply because I am in their store, spending my money, and that’s the right thing to do. The thought of our sole locally-based major grocery chain running such an information gathering scheme so obviously and zealously is kind of sad, and I suspect that it plays a role in local longing for other, better grocery chains hereabouts.

2. The New York State Thruway: I have spent a lot of time driving from Albany to Long Island and from Albany to Geneseo over the years, and I’ve reached a point where the thought of paying high tolls to drive on one of the most efficient, but skull-crushingly boring, highways in the world makes me crazy with dread. I’ve developed alternate routes that don’t take too much more time when I head to Geneseo (west of Syracuse, anyway), and I’ll often go south on the Taconic Parkway or New York Route 22, rather than watching the mile markers crawl by between the New Baltimore and Suffern Rest Areas, but even so, I’ll be glad to toss my EZ Pass in a dumpster once I get west of our Nation’s Toll Highway Zone.

3. Crossgates Mall: I only go inside this Shopping Abomination when I absolutely have to, but its toxicity taints much of the area around it, often generating traffic clogs that impede my progress to and from the University at Albany. You know something is bad wrong when a major retail shopping center has to put curfews on young people during evenings and weekends. Here’s hoping the vastly superior Colonie Center and Stuyvesant Plaza slowly choke it to death, so that it can crumble back into the Pine Bush that was raped to birth it.

4. Northeast Public Radio: A tidbit of history: the very first public radio broadcast in the United States was made in 1922 from station 9YI (now WOI) at Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa, some 30 miles north of where we will be living. Here’s hoping that Iowa Public Radio does a better job today of hewing to the intended regulatory purposes of public broadcasting (service to minorities, children, and localities) than our local public broadcasting syndicate, which seems instead to be focused on empire building, shaking down listeners to fund the ever-growing infrastructure needs of the ever-growing empire, serving the needs of affluent tote-bag carrying white urban and suburban professionals, and smugly dismissing all products offered by commercial broadcasters as inferior, along with the people who enjoy such products. No thank you, snobs. You don’t get to decide what’s good for us all.

5. Summer in Saratoga: Being in the nonprofit sector, I’ve had to spend a lot of time working the Saratoga summer scene, and I’m delighted to ponder a future where I can be happily oblivious on matters of deep urgency to the local media hereabouts, such as which matron is wearing what hat to which event being put on by what diva, and which feminine hygiene product she uses on her face to keep it young and taut looking. The horses are spectacular to ponder, sure (well, except when they have to be executed on the track after breaking their legs), but the scene always feels ugly to me, as the privileged rich flaunt their status, while the addicted wannabes circle around them, betting their kids’ college funds on a chance to rub shoulders briefly with the beautiful people, who snub them.

6. Not Having My Vote Matter: I am a dutiful voter, in primaries and general elections, but in the 18 years that I have lived here, I have never gone into a voting booth with any sense of mystery about what the outcome was going to be the next morning. Our voting districts and habits at a local, regional and state-wide level are so ossified and compartmentalized that the act of voting always feels like we’re just going through the motions of a process orchestrated by the career political elite (more on them a little later). At least in Iowa, the Presidential caucuses are early enough to be influential, so I look forward to participating in that process, and not knowing what its results are going to be before I do so.

7. No Hands-Free Gas Pumping: Of all of New York’s nanny state laws, this one probably bugs me the most, since it is so patently, objectively stupid and needless. I like to put the gas spout into the tank inlet, lock it down on full flow, and then go check my oil or wash my windows while the gas pumps, knowing that it will knock off at the appropriate moment, since the technology required to make it do so is pretty rudimentary and dependable. In Iowa, I will be able to do this. In New York, signs warn me that it’s a crime to use my gas cap to lock the pump in place. Guilty as charged. Now what?

8. Calories Being Printed on Restaurant Menus: Look, when I go to Ruby Tuesday or similar chain restaurants, I’m not going there for a healthy meal, and forcing the restaurants to list the calorie counts on all of their menu items isn’t going to change my ordering habits, since anything good on the menu is going to be upward of 1,000 calories anyway, so shifting from a 1,400 calorie dish to a 1,200 calorie dish in the name of health seems sort of pointless. This one is an Albany County special, and since its inception, I have secretly hoped that its sole impact would be to drive local customers to outlying counties, where they can eat their Parmesan Chicken Pastas in peace, blissfully ignorant of the 1,400 calories of tasty delicious goodness they are ingesting, even before they woof down the garlic cheese biscuits and add bacon to their salads.

9. Three Men in a Room: New York’s state-wide political process is notoriously non-representative, with the Governor, Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the Assembly (and their unelected staffs) generally running the state in an imperious fashion, ordering their respective troops into tidy lines, then leaving them sitting there while the real work of the State is done behind closed doors without them. This approach is made possible by a professional political class that is willing to do what it is told to preserve its ill-earned compensation, as well as deep-seated political machines and an entitled sense of “incumbency for life” (especially in Albany, where Gerald Jennings now lags only Erastus Corning 2nd in mayoral tenure). In Iowa, the legislature is seated the second week of January each year, and they generally finish their business on behalf of the State within 100 days, when their per diems expire. I like the thought of politicians who have to spend eight months each year doing something other than politicking.

10. The Times Union: When we moved here in 1993, I was honestly delighted by the quality of our local news daily, which was edited at the time by the heroic Watergate newsman, Harry M. Rosenfeld, and had some great editorial writers and reporters working on its behalf. But sometime after Rosenfeld’s retirement in 1996, things took a serious turn in the wrong direction. If there was a single moment when I began to think that our local newspaper had definitely lost its bearings, it was when the Times Union purchased naming rights for the Arena Formerly Known as Knickerbocker, which seemed (and seems) wrong on so many planes. Since then, the print version of the paper has atrophied into meaninglessness, its lifeblood and energy sucked dry by its bloated online doppelganger, where comment mobs run amok, paid staff spar smugly with their readers, and unpaid bloggers are duped into believing that the “exposure”  they receive is adequate compensation for their intellectual property. I don’t believe in regret, since all we are is all we were, but if I did, donating my work to such an unsavory organization for nearly four years would be high on my list of things to deeply rue. So it will be a happy day when my personal and professional lives have no further overlap with this tedious media enterprise.