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!

Trixcellaneous

1. I’ve just finished reading KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money by JMR Higgs and I enjoyed it tremendously. The book ostensibly attempts to explain why Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the early ’90s arch pop group The KLF burned one million U.K. pounds on the remote Scottish island of Jura in 1994. Cauty and Drummond themselves have both expressed bafflement over their actions in the years since their fortune went up in smoke. Needless to say, it’s hard to explain and justify such an overtly iconoclastic act, and I heartily applaud Higgs for an audacious feat of research, interpretation and writing as he manages to crunch the JFK assassination, the Illuminati, Doctor Who, actors Bill Nighy and Bob Hoskins, post-punk bands The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen, graphic novelist Alan Moore and scores of otherwise unlikely characters and events into a compelling narrative that actually withstands Wikipedia fact-checking. If you like mulling over popular conspiracy theories and the dark forces behind them, then this book is definitely worth your while.

2.I had not laid eyes on arguably the best known painting in the Salisbury House permanent collection — Joseph Stella’s The Birth of Venus — until yesterday afternoon, as the massive, florid 1925 painting has been on an American tour since before I was working at the House. It was a delight to finally see this amazing work removed from her storage crate yesterday, and today to help get her restored to a spot on honor in the Great Hall, where the family who built the house originally displayed this important hyper-modern painting. Here’s a tease of what Venus looked like as we eased her back into her place; that’s me on the left on the scaffolding, doing my small part to make sure she was safe and secure, back at home, at last.

Hanging "Venus," Salisbury House Great Hall, February 2013.

Hanging “Venus,” Salisbury House Great Hall, February 2013.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Liber Florum”

As we approach our 1,500th like on the Salisbury House Facebook Page, I decided to look for something in our library dating from around 1500 A.D. to mark the occasion. I found something beautiful, though a bit confusing: the book in question had been re-bound in more modern boards at some point with the title “Flores” and the date “1534” on its spine, neither of which reconciled to anything I could find in our databases or online. With a little bit of research, I discovered that what we actually have in the library is called “Liber Floru[m] Beati Bernardi abbatis Clareualle[n]sis,” and it was published in 1499. It’s a magnificent book, made more special by extensive marginalia throughout the text, including an end-note with the date 1534 in it, which perhaps contributed to the erroneous date in the new binding. Here are some shots of pages within this text, with explanatory notes gleaned from my research. As always, you can click each image to enlarge for more detail.

Cover page of “Liber florum Beati Bernardi abbatis Clareualle[n]sis” by St. Bernard of Clairvaux printed by Philippe Pigouchet in 1499. Pigouchet was a prolific printer who began printing around 1487. There are more than 150 known titles of his work surviving. He excelled at printing Horae (Books of Hours), of which there are more than 90 titles survive. The title of the Salisbury House book appears above Pigouchet’s illustrated mark, which features a fur-covered Adam and Eve!

This is the first text page of the Salisbury House Library’s edition of St. Bernard’s “Liber Floru[m].” St. Bernard had died over 300 years earlier, so this is a long posthumous edition of his words and wisdom. Our copy is filled with hand-written marginalia, some seen here at the bottom of the page.


A central page from “Liber Floru[m]” of St. Bernard of Clairveaux. The book was printed with movable type on a press, and it contains hand coloring at the start of each section and sentence.

The final page of St. Bernard’s “Liber Floru[m],” with an inscription at bottom in Latin dated November 1534.


Inside the back cover of “Liber Floru[m]” is an amazingly beautiful hand-written section with hand-coloring. The symbols atop the Latin words would most likely indicate that this was a text to be chanted. Any Latin scholars willing to translate for us?

A Friday Photo Mystery

Last night, we announced that we will be presenting A Midsummer Night’s Dream from June 20 to June 23, 2013 for our Shakespeare on the Lawn at Salisbury House program. We made the announcement during a wonderful fundraising event in the Common Room presented by our creative partners, Repertory Theater of Iowa. When we have such events, we like to find rarely-seen items to share with our audience members as a testament to the breadth and depth of the collections here. Here’s something we showed our guests last night, that ties Salisbury House, the Weeks family, and William Shakespeare together in an amazing fashion. We present it to you in the same way that we discovered it!

High on an out-of-the-way shelf in the Salisbury House Library is a slender, unmarked book that has been rebound in plain, manilla-colored cardboard. What could it be?

High on an out-of-the-way shelf in the Salisbury House Library is a slender, unmarked book that has been rebound in plain, manilla-colored cardboard. What could it be?

Inside the front cover is an inscription: Carl Weeks gave this book to his youngest son, Lafe, on Christmas Day, 1939.

Inside the front cover is an inscription: Carl Weeks gave this book to his youngest son, Lafe, on Christmas Day, 1939. Lafe was about 20 at the time.

Tucked inside the front cover are four yellowed pieces of lined paper, pulled from a spiral notebook. They are filled with writing in what looks to be a young person's cursive, done in pencil.

Tucked inside the front cover are four yellowed pieces of lined paper, pulled from a spiral notebook. They are filled with writing in what looks to be a young person’s cursive, done in pencil. Do you recognize the quote?

Carl gave Lafe a 1703 edition of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," published in London. The page numbers in Carl's inscription match the locations of the four passages recorded in the handwritten pages. Did Carl find some of young Lafe's writing done after "90 minutes spent with Shakespeare," and surprise him with it in this gift, years later? We may never know . . . but it's a reminder that all of these objects have amazing human stories and meaning behind them!

Behind the notebook paper, we find what lies within: a 1703 edition of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” published in London. The page numbers in Carl’s inscription match the locations of the four passages recorded in the handwritten pages. Did Carl find some of young Lafe’s writing done after “90 minutes spent with Shakespeare,” and place it in this gift, years later? We may never know . . . but it’s a reminder that all of these objects have amazing human stories and meaning behind them!

A Message to Garcia (Up Close and Personal)

Elbert Hubbard’s A Message to Garcia (1901) is an incredibly meaningful document in the lives of generations of United States Naval Academy graduates (like me), as it has long been used as an early and important part of the Plebe Summer training curriculum. It’s fundamental message? When you are a given a job to do, you just go and you get the job done. End of story.

Seems pretty obvious on some plane, but the language of the piece — not to mention the crucible within which most Naval Academy alumni first encountered it — leaves it looming large in our collective subconsciousness. In fact, there are few insults that sting as much as having a fellow member of the august Naval Academy community look you in the eye and say “message to Garcia” when you’re whining about not being able to get something done. It’s a powerful piece that resonates.

A couple of days ago, I was going through the database of rare books and documents contained in the Salisbury House Library, working to pull some records for an Iowa history project we’re working on. There was a long section in the database citing “Hubbard, Elbert” as the author of a variety of periodicals, books, or the initiator of various pieces of correspondence, including a hand-made Christmas Card sent to Carl and Edith Weeks, who built Salisbury House.

It took a few seconds for the proper neurons to close, and for me to realize that this was actually the author of A Message to Garcia. So I scrolled back up into the database, and discovered that we have five rare copies of early versions of this formative masterwork here at Salisbury House, along with scores of other tomes by its author. Hubbard was an accomplished man, until tragically being killed (with his wife) in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Carl Weeks admired him and his writing, and maintained correspondence with him for some period of time, and after his passing, continued what appeared to be an affectionate relationship with his son, Elbert Hubbard II, who provided Carl with some of his father’s original manuscripts.

Needless to say, it was a real treat for me to be able to grab a key out of my file cabinet, walk up a flight of stairs, and put my hands on some of these rare, early editions of A Message to Garcia, including a reproduction of the original hand-written manuscript provided to Carl Weeks by Elbert II. I reproduce some images below for those who have also been moved by the power of these words over the years. Enjoy!

Front cover of the 1901 edition; Fra Elbertus was a Hubbard pseudonym.

Front-page of the 1901 edition. Hubbard’s Roycrofters printed high-quality, limited edition books with exquisite designs and bindings.

First page of text of the 1901 edition. Much nicer looking than the smudged mimeograph version I first encountered in 1982!

A personalized manuscript portfolio provided to Carl Week by Elbert Hubbard II.

Cover page of the manuscript portfolio.

Certification of authenticity signed by Elbert Hubbard II.

First page of Hubbard’s hand-written manuscript of “A Message to Garcia.”

Last page of Hubbard’s hand-written manuscript.

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Let me note right up front that this is a shallow post . . . I’m talking about little things that make me happy, not profound ones. The big things don’t lend themselves to list-making of this online variety, because my family, and my home, and my work, and my friends please and delight me on such fundamental levels that they’re beyond reducing to a piffle and tripe blog post like this one. The fact that they make me happy goes without saying, so these five items are just the sorts of little details that make me smile amidst the rush and hustle of life. Simple pleasures. Easy thrills. Happy happy happy.

1. The “Metalocalypse” Theme Song: I love everything about this cartoon centered around a death metal band called Dethklok, who — despite its members’ idiocy and disregard for the consequences of their actions — become the world’s seventh largest economy, worthy of attention from a shadowy supernatural cabal called The Tribunal. But I particularly love the way that the series’ opening theme song boils everything stupid and happy-making about the death metal genre down into a perfectly nuanced 30-second nugget of brutal excellence. We tape “Metalocalypse” on our DVR, and for most shows, that would mean that we fast forward through the opening and closing credits. But I don’t allow that in this case, and make my family watch it in its entirety, every week, because it makes me smile with glee every time. Here ’tis, if you’ve not seen it:

2. Our Backyard Ecosystem: Marcia quickly created an amazingly beautiful series of gardens in our backyard in Des Moines, just as she had done in Albany. My role when it comes to these gardens is to provide brute labor when heavy things need to be moved, and to provide the required elements of chaos, either by sowing Johnny Jump-Up seeds that will propagate and blossom for years to come in places where they aren’t supposed to be, or by putting out feeders that bring critters to lively up the space. I have to refill my two bird feeders pretty much every day at this point, as we get an incredible assortment of avian visitors, and the seeds that they scatter also attracts fox squirrels, chipmunks and bunnies galore. We also have bats and cicadas aplenty, and I like seeing and listening to them, too. Sometimes when I look out at the backyard from our dining room, I can see literally dozens of mammal, bird and arthropod species going about their business, blissfully unaware of how much I am enjoying watching them do it.

Dining room at Alba, Des Moines. (Photo from their website).

3. Alba: This exceptional East Village venue is rapidly cementing its stature as my favorite restaurant in Des Moines, as we keep having outstanding dining experiences there. The menu is eclectic, with most of its dishes based on sautes involving fresh, rough cut vegetables and meats, served with beautifully balanced and tasty sauces. The service is knowledgeable and attentive without being obtrusive, the dining room is comfortable and spacious (it’s situated in a converted car showroom), the decor and location are appealing, and the wine list is strong, creating a complete dining environment that’s hard to match, in Des Moines or anywhere else I’ve been in recent years. We went there for dinner last night, and I had an incredible English Pea Soup followed by a prawn gnocchi dish to die for. Sublime, divine, and deliciously pleasurable.

4. The Lyrics of John Balance: It’s hard to explain why these make me happy, as you’d be hard pressed to find someone more different than me, on some plane, than John Balance, a proudly gay English musician with the group COIL whose chronic alcoholism led to his untimely death by misfortune in 2004. (His long-time musical and personal partner, Peter Christopherson, also flew from this world in 2010, which I wrote about, here). Balance’s subject matter was often dark, and reading many of his lyrics after his demise creates an uncanny sense that he knew it was coming, perhaps even down to the manner of his passing (e.g. “When I find you I will remind you: most accidents occur at home.”) But I still listen to his music on almost a daily basis, and I am regularly moved by the beauty of his words and the imagery that they evoke, regardless of their seemingly insurmountable surface darkness. As I type, I am listening to COIL’s “Are You Shivering?“, which contains the following lines: “In the oceans of the moon / swimming squidlike and squalid / This bright moon is a liquid / The dark earth is a solid / This is moon music in the light of the moon.” “Squidlike and squalid”?!? That’s lyrical magic, and it makes me happy to know that such creative beauty can emerge from such seemingly dark spaces.

5. The Library at Salisbury House: I said I wasn’t going to write about obvious things like my work, and this is equally obviously work related, since as Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation, I am responsible for the care and promotion of this incredible collection of books and documents. But the happiness this collection evokes in me is deeper than sheer professional responsibility would dictate, as I am legitimately moved — deeply — by the objects that are housed in my workplace.  I have spent a lot of my time at Salisbury House researching this under-utilized and under-promoted resource, and the more I study, the happier I get about the objects that have been placed under my supervision and care. I have held in my hands a leaf from an original Gutenberg Bible, and a letter signed in 1492 by King Ferdinard II of Aragon, and a hand-illuminated Book of Hours from the 14th Century, and galley proofs hand-edited by James Joyce, and a first edition Book of Mormon, and countless other epic historic and literary works, experiencing their corporeality and presence in ways that few people will ever have an opportunity to share. I spent most of this week working on a grant application to the National Endowment of Humanities to allow us to better catalog and share this awesome material, and among my many aspirations for Salisbury House, few would make me happier than reaching a point where our library receives the international acclaim from scholars and researchers that it deserves.

So those are some things that are making me happy these days. What sorts of things are rocking your worlds?

The library at Salisbury House. The shelves to the left of the fireplace contain some of the world’s most amazing D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce collections, which make me shiver every time I walk into the room. How could I not be happy to spend time here?