1. Today is my father’s 75th birthday. Unfortunately, my family and I will not be able to celebrate it with him, as he was killed by an elderly driver in 2002, soon after he retired from a life of hard, hard work. Here’s a piece I wrote about him five years ago today, on his 70th birthday. All the sentiments still hold true, most especially how much we miss him, and how important it is that people surrender their car keys when they can no longer safely operate a motor vehicle. If you find yourself or a loved one in that circumstance, do the right thing and make the transition. It will be hard, sure, but the devastation caused by one little slip on the roadways is a whole lot harder, for everyone involved.

2. Marcia and I made a quick road trip to Chicago this past weekend to catch Yes in concert, performing their epic albums Fragile and Close to the Edge in their entirety. (Both of those records performed exceptionally well in my long form music essay, March of the Mellotrons, which attempted to identify the greatest classic progressive rock album ever, says me). It was a fantastic show, with new singer Jon Davison doing a magnificent job of hitting those high notes that Jon Anderson originally sang, as bassist Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe added their signature harmonies. Geoff Downes was fun to watch as he switched between a dozen-plus keyboards, and stalwart drummer Alan White kept things swinging more than you might expect given the complexity and density of the music. Howe and Squire are the stars of the show for me, though, when it comes to Yes, and they are truly magical to watch onstage when they’re playing at the top of their form, which they were this weekend. Definitely a better performance than the last one I caught at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center when the group was touring The Ladder in 1999. Marcia won the “Good Sport” award for attending this one: when we sat down, we had a bunch of drum techs from Ludwig sitting around us, discussing their trade, while gaggles of gear nerds congregated at the front of the hall, snapping photos of the amps and keyboards. Not quite the same crowd we experienced when we went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Milwaukee last month, needless to say. She will get further Good Sport points when we travel to see King Crimson and Ian Anderson later this summer. I tried to parlay her Good Sportiness into a pair of tickets to this, but, alas, she does have her limits.

3. We also popped in to the Chicago Institute of Art of see their exceptional Rene Magritte Exhibition. We will be traveling to Magritte’s native Brussels, Belgium in a few weeks, so it was a good way to get a sense of his work in preparation for that trip. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, paced, interpreted, hung and lit — the latter being particularly important in establishing mood, with Magritte’s works floating like dreams in mostly dark rooms. Of course, we live in modern, selfish times, so our ability to appreciate the lighting work was often marred by people checking their cell phones or texting or shooting selfies, their garish screen glare and flash routinely destroying the night vision that some of the rooms required. I also found the use of audio wands to be distracting: while they’re probably better for your ears than ear buds are, it’s really annoying to be in a room where 20 people are playing them at high volume, creating a tinny, trebly, hissy background din, often exacerbated by the person with the wand having to explain to the other members of their party (at high volume) what the wand was telling them in real time. Whatever happened to the days when museums felt like libraries, and people knew to be quiet, reflective, and respectful? It seems to me that with good written interpretive materials, and occasional opportunities for guests to take guided tours, where docents provide additional context and information, museum visitors should be considered smart enough to enjoy art without having a noisy stick by their heads or a glaring screen in their faces. Call me old fashioned . . . but that’s how I’m running my own museum, and I think it’s an effective model, technology be damned.

4. Marcia got yet more Good Sport points for continuing to humor my desire to never make the same trip in Iowa using the same route, while trying to drive on as many highways, byways and dirt tracks as possible, seeing as much of the state as can be seen from the road. I’ve continued updating the map I started back when I did my original 99 County Tour of Iowa in 2012. See paragraph number four of this post to see the map when I finished the 99 counties. And then below is what it looks like these days. Ride on!


I’m So Albany


Five by Five Books #5: “The Islanders” (2011) by Christopher Priest

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? The Islanders is written in the form of a travel guide to a vast, equatorial, globe-encircling chain of islands called the Dream Archipelago. The names, shapes, histories, locations, economies, and politics of the Archipelago’s islands are elusive and amorphous, defying ready mapping or simple narrative description. Several key characters (a mime, an artist, a social reformer, a reporter, a roustabout, a writer, a stage manager) appear sporadically throughout the text, on a variety of islands, and over wide spans of time, their stories occasionally over-lapping, all advancing through hints and off-hand references and casual mentions. The Dream Archipelago is, by law, ostensibly a peaceful buffer zone between two warring polar superpowers, though both powers wield significant influence and shape the narrative through varying degrees of skullduggery or outright aggression. An apparently unreliable narrator further complicates the proceedings, whoever he or she might be.

Who wrote it? Christopher Priest is a British novelist who cites H.G. Wells as a formative influence; he has served since 2006 as a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society. His books and short fiction have won multiple British Science Fiction Association Awards, and he has also been nominated for or won various Hugo, Campbell, James Tait Black, Clarke and World Fantasy Awards throughout his career. He is probably best known in the U.S. for his novel, The Prestige (1995), which was adapted into a highly acclaimed and successful film of the same name by Christopher Nolan, with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in the lead roles. He has also written various film tie-ins and television screenplays under pseudonyms. The Dream Archipelago has been a recurring motif/location in his fiction, first appearing in 1981’s The Affirmation, where a possibly schizophrenic protagonist may or may not be preparing to undergo an operation that will make him immortal, a theme that again appears in The Islanders.

When and where did I read it? This is a relatively new one to me, since I just read it this past May, during the trip that Marcia and I took to Fort Lauderdale, Florida around my birthday. I was not familiar with Christopher Priest when this book showed up on the “Recommended for You” panel of my Kindle, probably because I had recently read the first two books of Jeff Vandermeer’s somewhat thematically similar (in terms of its narrative ambiguity) Southern Reach Trilogy. The unmitigated weirdness of The Islanders‘s premise appealed to me, so despite my general reluctance to buy new books by unknown (to me) authors, I went ahead and downloaded it, and was absolutely delighted by my choice. I finished the book over a couple of days (it was addictive reading), and the lovely tropical opulence of our rental digs at Villa Amorosa provided an absolutely perfect setting and ambiance for the woozy literary magic that Priest concocts in The Islanders. I even dreamed about the Dream Archipelago, further cementing my sense that reading The Islanders was a very resonant, provocative, and haunting (in the good sense of the word) experience for me.

Why do I like it? I have always loved entering and experiencing well-created, fully-realized, wholly inhabitable literary worlds, in books, in video games, in movies, in online communities, anywhere. The Dream Archipelago is one of the most vibrant and rich such literary worlds that I’ve ever experienced, even though the descriptions that Priest offers of it are nebulous, shifting, and certainly lacking in the structural rigidity and formality of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. That being said, some of the details placed before a reader are sublime: the explanations of tunneling as an art form, or of a particularly nasty toxic critter, or of the denizens haunting a cluster of ancient towers, or of the activities of the polar superpowers’ drones, and so many other scenes, all of which are beautifully elucidated, and instantly memorable. Very little is ever explicitly explained in The Islanders; instead, the reader gains knowledge and perspective pebble by pebble, bit by bit, hint by hint, picking up a lot of information over time, while not actually realizing how much has been learned. The key recurring characters in the novel are also delightfully well-realized, and the often unexpected interactions between them provide some of the novels’ sharpest “a-ha!” moments, where revelation seems close at hand, though it almost always still slips through your fingers if you try to grab on to it too quickly or too hard. 

A five sentence sample text: (From Chaster Kammeston’s Introductory) “Here is a book about islands and islanders, full of information and facts, a great deal I know nothing about, and even more on which I had opinions without substance. People too: some of them I knew personally, or had heard about, and now rather late in the days have learned something about them. There is so much out there, so many islands to discover, while I am familiar with but one of them. I was born on the island where I live now and where I am writing these words, I have never stepped off the island, and I expect never to do so before I die. If there were a book about only my home island I should be uniquely equipped to introduce it, but for quite other reasons I would then not agree to do so.”


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast (1946/1950)



A Quarter Century Minding the Crank

Okay, so let’s talk straight and honest here, for a moment, can we? Here’s the deal: despite my nominally friendly public persona (online and in the real world), I’m actually a fairly difficult person to deal with much of the time. Maybe even most of the time. Seriously. You don’t want to know.

I can be very demanding, for example, expecting things to happen the way I want them to, when I want them to, and being hugely annoyed (and annoying) when they don’t. I’m digital in my interpersonal relationships, generally compartmentalizing  people into “for me” or “against me” columns, thereby likely alienating people who actually didn’t really care about me much one way or the other, until I put them in the wrong hopper. I’m obsessive to an extreme, so if I get interested in doing something, I generally get interested in doing way too much of it, whatever it might be. And I can be as self-absorbed as all get out, quick to chatter on and on and on about geeky or arcane subjects that other folks likely find to be skull-crushingly inane or irrelevant.

I could go on, but suffice to say that spending a lot of time with me can be something of a chore. Which is why not a lot of people have been able to do it over the years. I graduated from high school a year early, and left for the Naval Academy a couple of weeks after my 17th birthday, so my parents only had to put up with me on a full-time basis for 17 years. Well, my Mom did that, anyway, since my Dad was away for probably four or five of those years with the Marine Corps. My sister is four years younger than me, so she only got 13 years up close and personal with me. My daughter went to boarding school after her freshman year in high school, so it was only 15 years for her. And that’s it, really, for my family, by blood.

What about friends and colleagues? The longest a non-romantic roommate could put up with me was two-and-a-half years. The longest a romantic partner (prior to my marriage) maintained interest was less than five years, but that was a long distance relationship, so it probably would have imploded much sooner, had I been around her more often. My peripatetic upbringing as a military brat meant that I never lived in one neighborhood or went to one school for more than three years, either, and my average job tenure as an adult is about three years, so I have had regular opportunities to rustle up new batches of friends once I wear out my welcome with the prior ones.

Like I said . . . I’m difficult.

But then there’s Marcia, who somehow — amazingly and thankfully — not only tolerates prickly, cranky, moody me, but actually seems to like (!) being around me, for long periods of time, even, since we mark our 25th wedding anniversary today! Lawks! Plus, I should note for the record, before Marcia signed on the dotted line of matrimony, for better or worse, in sickness and health, she and I were housemates for almost a year-and-a-half, so she’s done some serious bonus time in the trenches of life with Erac, who is not a nice person. (That’s how my Naval Academy roommates described me when we memorialized ourselves on a wall during a company wardroom renovation, so it’s not a new phenomenon).

At some point in the past six months, I had a milestone day, after which I have spent more of my life being married to Marcia than I have spent not being married to Marcia. That’s pretty cool, especially since I still consider her to be my favorite person, and adore her even more today than I did on our wedding day. I am still happy to see her when she gets home from work every day, and I am always happy to go on trips with her, and am happy for her successes, and just generally happy when she’s around, and really, really, really happy when she is happy.

Come to think about it, the fact that she makes me so happy may be what makes me tolerable to her in ways that no one else can tolerate me. She brings out the best in me, and sees facets of me that no one else does (or can), so I’m deeply thankful and grateful for that. I am also grateful for how often she makes me smile, and how often we laugh together, and how often we get to give each other Parenting Gold Stars as we watch our greatest collaboration (Katelin) striking out on her own as a lovely and smart adult, with just enough weirdness about her to keep people guessing. Perfect.

One of my favorite conversations with Marcia went like this, after I had no doubt been waxing loud and opinionated about some arcane factoid of marginal relevance and importance . . .

Marcia: You are a crank.

Me: What? Me? Why am I a crank?

Marcia: Because you have too many strong feelings about too many things.

Which, uh . . . well, yeah, that’s true. I can’t argue that. But I will note that some of my strongest, deepest feelings are for Marcia, and they’re the ones that are the most important, and most meaningful, and most enduring. There aren’t very many people who could live in close proximity to me for 25 years . . . and there aren’t any others who could make me feel so good while doing it.

Here’s looking forward to the next quarter century, as we celebrate the last one!

June 24, 1989. Happy Together.

June 24, 1989. Happy Together.

Best Albums of 2014 (First Half)

2014 has been a great year for new music so far, both in terms of established artists issuing awesome new additions to mature canons, and in terms of talented first-timers hitting it out of the park with their debuts. Here are the ten albums that have moved me most during the first half of the current year. I expect many of them to also appear on my 23rd Annual “Album of the Year” article, come December. (Here’s the 22nd edition, if you are interested to see how 2013 and earlier years turned out here). The listing below is in no particular order, so if you don’t know these artists and records, click on their album covers to learn more, as they are all worthy of your attention. Happy listening!

Memory Map, “The Sky As Well As Space”


Ian Anderson, “Homo Erraticus”


Aloe Blacc, “Lift Your Spirit”


Ought, “More Than Any Other Day”


Behemoth, “The Satanist”


First Aid Kit, “Stay Gold”


Protomartyr, “Under Cover of Official Right”


Greys, “If Anything”


TEEN, “The Way and Color”


Xiu Xiu, “Angel Guts: Red Classroom”


 1. I traveled to New York City in 2008 to see what I have since assumed was going to be my last King Crimson show, as mainstay guitarist Robert Fripp announced his retirement from live performance soon after that tour wrapped up. The show was wonderful, as was the mobile fracture subset of the Big Crim, ProjeKCt Two, that I had caught in 1998. (My P2 review is here at Crimson’s Discipline Global Mobile [DGM] site). So imagine my delight and surprise when, in 2013, Robert Fripp announced that King Crimson was on the move again, with a new seven-man, three-drummer line-up, including four of the five players I saw in 2008 — Fripp, Tony Levin, Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto — plus Jakko Jaksyck from the 2011 KC ProjeKCt album, A Scarcity of Miracles, plus returning sax man Mel Collins from the early ’70s Crimson lineup, plus former Ministry/R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin. Wow! I have been eagerly monitoring Robert Fripp’s diary and the DGM Live pages waiting to see where they’d play, so imagine my shock a few weeks ago when the Crim announced that they’d be opening their tour in, of all places, Albany, New York . . . which I left in 2011 after 19 years in the market! Auggh!! Why you do this to me, universe?!?! No fair!!! Fortunately, Crimso are playing two gigs in Chicago (a mere six hours away), and Marcia has agreed to be a Prog Rock Warrior Princess and accompany me to one of them . . . on top of our agreed-upon-trip to Chicago to see YES! She’s even committed enough that she’s asked me to put a selection of YES and King Crimson songs on her car iPod to prepare her for the adventure. What a gem! What a wingman! How lucky am I, right? I love the road trips, I love the music, I love my wife, so this is about as good as it gets for me!

2. We had a great opening night of Shakespeare on the Lawn at Salisbury House last night, with perfect weather, a super crowd, and a nice sponsor preview Garden Party where we unveiled our plans for transforming the grounds of the property. I did a few TV spots in advance of the show, and I like this one best, as it features a green-screen sneak scene (ooo! I like the sound of that accidental alliteration/rhyme!) by our presenting partners at Repertory Theater of Iowa of this year’s production, The Merchant of Venice:

3. While Marcia and I were on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the paradisaical Villa Amarosa, I read a relatively recent work of fiction by Christopher Priest called The Islanders, which had been “Recommended For You!” by my Kindle. And what a great recommendation that was: this book is completely my alley in terms of its subject, its presentation, its structure, its use of language, and its general, over-arching weirdness. I’ve been finding myself thinking about and re-visiting it, mentally, for the past few weeks, and may decide to give it a full “Five by Five Books” treatment at some point soon, if just to get the thoughts rattling around out of my head. It’s pretty rare for a new book by a new (to me) author to resonate with me so deeply, though I suspect that this would be a “love it or hate it” kind of book, with more people leaning the latter way than the former. Are you intrigued enough to give it a shot? (Katelin is reading it now). If so, let me know what you think!

#applefail #cultstore #angryshopper #ipodyuck

We have five iPods for various purposes in our house, of differing ages and types — which means that we also have three different, non-compatible cords to connect the players to the master computer’s USB port. It’s an annoyance, but I’m used to it.

When we went to Florida, I forgot to bring the cord that I needed to charge the iPod Shuffles that Marcia and I use for gym workouts. We happened to stop at a mall for a brief shopping trip, and there was an Apple Store there, so I popped in to pick up one of those cords, just to have a spare.

The customer service experience that followed was singularly annoying and unproductive, as the plethora of sales associates milling around the store seemed more interested in playing with gadgets than helping or directing walk-ins — to the point of literally making it hard for me to get to the self-service wall rack for small Apple items.

When I could not find the cord I wanted on the wall rack and eventually got a service associate’s attention, I was told that they don’t sell those particular cords on their own, so I would just have to buy a new Shuffle to get one.

I expressed incredulity at the shakedown element of this scenario, at which point the associate tried to sell me a more expensive iPod instead, because the connector cords for that iPod are (for now) more readily available in Apple Stores. I told him I did not want or need another iPod, so instead he offered to provide me with an iPad tablet demo, thinking maybe I’d want one of those instead.

His affect was smug throughout, treating me like I was stupid and slow, apparently because I was not willing to wait in line to play with the latest hot technology being offered in the Apple Store. No, I just wanted to buy a cheap little gadget related to what he clearly considered to be an out of date Apple appliance, which apparently rendered me worthy of scorn and pedantry.

But I needed neither of those things, so I left, and I posted a few annoyed notes on my Twitter feed soon thereafter. Here they are:

In Apple Store, trying to buy an iPod Shuffle-to-USB cord, experiencing the most self-indulgent, inefficient sales model EVER. #appleyuck

I do not wish to join your cult, Apple, but only to buy a small accessory that will allow me to keep using your product. Y U NO sell me one?

I do not wish to chit chat, nor take a seat, nor am I in the market for a tablet. How about listen to your customers as a model, Apple?

In summary: Apple Store = dismal retail failure, filled with smug, unhelpful Mac disciples, spouting propaganda. No thank you. #applefail

Note well that I did not tag any of these tweets with any of the official or common Apple-related hashtags. Within minutes, however, I had three separate people, all in Italy (where it was the middle of the night, mind you), none of whom have ever before followed or commented on anything at Indie Moines, ever, jump down my throat about how wrong I was and how good Apple’s customer service model is.

Hmmmm. You can also note well that I have fewer than 150 followers on Twitter, so it’s not like I’m a big cheese with a wide reach on such matters, especially not in late night Italy.

This almost instantaneous barrage of pro-Apple tweets reeked obviously of poorly-managed paid social media damage control and/or of the cult-like behavior that zealous Apple devotees often demonstrate. I’ve been online and using social media longer than probably 95% of the people on the Internet, and I’ve never seen anything quite as clumsy as this.

Has anybody else ever had similar experiences when criticizing Apple in a public forum? Could they really be that protective of their brand and consumer perceptions of it, but also that clumsy at managing it?

(Note: Please don’t answer if it’s the middle of the night in Italy, and you’re on the Apple payroll. Thank you).


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