Arizonin’

Marcia and I are nearing the mid-way point of our two-week Arizona jaunt, so I thought I’d post a quick baker’s dozen pics of our adventures thus far. We’ve spent time in Phoenix, Flagstaff, Grand Canyon Village and Sedona to date, and have stays in Prescott and Phoenix (again) yet to come. Amazing, beautiful country, with some great eats and stunning hikes tossed into the mix. A good trip, with lots of sun. That last piece goes a long, long way as an alternative to dreary Midwestern winters!

(You Make Me Feel Like) Five Songs You Need To Hear

Well, the Iowa Caucuses lived way down to my prescient prediction of “chaos and disorganization” last Monday night, and then some. (I’m gonna claim prescience anyway, but if have you have ever paid any attention to how things get done politically out here, then the absurd outcome really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Please, let this one be the last time Iowa goes first, ever. Amen).

The only positive caucus experience we had through the pointless, poorly managed hours we spent milling about the cold concourse of our local sports arena — regularly getting told to “stop talking!” by our petty tyrant precinct captain, while our candidate’s floor manager gave us wildly varying and mutually exclusive instructions throughout the evening — was watching our daughter, her boyfriend and their friend get interviewed live by Dana Bash on CNN. The three of them were smart and well-spoken, all on the spot. Good job, you! But then, on the flip side, we also interacted with Jake Tapper as he worked the room, and, uhhhh, he was kind of a jerk.

Add some shit weather to the mix as we’ve been sitting here being embarrassed about our state of residence fully failing per forecast, and we’re very ready to hit the road again, which we’ll be doing tomorrow morning, this time for two weeks in Arizona. I’m sitting here making playlists before we head out, and it seemed like a good time for one of my occasional “Five Songs You Need to Hear” features, while I’m looking at my recent listening logs, and trying to distract myself.

As always, the only connections between these five songs are that I love ’em, and that you probably have not heard ’em. So let’s fix that, yeah? If you do like these songs, and the concept in general, hit this link and you can scroll down through all of the earlier installments, too. Happy spins!

#1. OOIOO, “UMO”

#2. Napalm Death, “Logic Ravaged by Brute Force”

#3. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Kyrie From Missa Papae Marcelli”

#4. Subtle, “The No”

#5. The Stan Tracey Quartet, “Llareggub”

Iowa Caucus Guide 2020

Well, it’s Iowa’s big day today, the third caucus process that we’ve gone through as a family since moving out here in 2011. While I believe “Iowa First” is terrible for our nation for a variety of reasons, and I expect chaos and disorganization tonight, I’m civic-minded and politically engaged, so I’ll be headed to our local caucus site tonight to do my part.

I wrote a lot about Iowa the first time we were here (we had a four-year Chicago sabbatical in the middle), with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s (shall we say) “unique” cultural habits and history. And in a quadrennial spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few of those articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why.

Some of the specifics are a little outdated since I first penned them, though their gists and points mostly remain valid. I chuckled while re-reading them all, in any case, so perhaps they’ll bring a smile to your face too. God knows we can use some levity in our current political hellscape . . .

Iowa Geography: An Introduction

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

The Bikini Bottom caucus site has a reputation for rancor . . .

Screening the Teens: The 25 Best Films of 2010-2019

Marcia and I watched The Lighthouse this weekend. A harrowing flick with innovative visuals and cinematography, and good enough for me to update the “Best Movies” section at my 2019: Year In Review page to include it there. As I was doing that, I noticed my Best Albums of 2010-2019 article nearby (virtually speaking), and, well, if you know me and/or been here more than a couple of times, then you probably know where the combination platter of those two threads led me.

Being a chronic list-maker, I already had a large amount of information on what films I’d seen and liked over the past decade here at the website, so I started by combining and culling those annual lists, then went to look at several other critical websites for their own best of the year (each year) or decade-in-review pieces. There weren’t many films disclosed throughout that review process that I wanted to see that I hadn’t seen, so that was nice to affirm; living in Chicago within walking distance of several movie theaters certainly was conducive to keeping abreast of current cinematic offerings, alongside the emergence of streaming services over the decade.

With those resources, it didn’t take me very long to develop a first-draft list of my 25 Best Films of the decade, and as I mulled it over the past couple of days, making some drops and adds, it finally started to seem like a good list to share. I will note, though, that as I look at the list and the pool from which it was drawn, I think it’s a list of good films from a decade that history will judge to be a wan era in cinematic history, critically, if not commercially. The blockbusters of the decade are almost all comic book franchises, sequels, reboots, or movies inspired by toys, games, theme-park rides or other infantile sources. The roster of Academy Award Best Pictures includes plentiful “What were they thinking?!?” winners like Argo, The Artist, Birdman, Spotlight, The Shape of Water and Green Book, mostly nice enough for a bucket of popcorn, sure, but none to these eyes and ears worthy of being dubbed best in their years of release, by long margins in most cases.

That said, I will note one other trend: my list definitely skews toward the latter half of the decade, and I think that’s a positive sign, as more unique, original, diverse films are seeing the light of day, and then finding audiences and attention beyond the tiny art house scene, than was the case at the start of the decade. I scrubbed my list fairly hard to make sure that this late decade skew wasn’t just an artifact of me better remembering more recently-seen films than those I saw a decade ago and forgot about, but going through all the data at my disposal, I do think it is a real trend, at least in terms of the types of films that I appreciate most.

As the list below will likely and quickly make clear, the movies that I hold in the highest regard tend to be original, technically sophisticated (beyond just slathering on layers of CGI), unique, and haunting, in both their real-time content and their lingering effects on my consciousness. There are scenes and performances in these films that took my breath away, and which I continue to remember and consider years after I first saw them. Their stories are all fresh, and their action and direction are truly creative, with nary a straight regurgitation nor a franchise feature among them. More of these, Hollywood! Please!

As always, I welcome your own thoughts, corrections, and additions in the comments. Is there something out there that I need to see? An amendment screaming to be made? Hit me, if so! I’m always open to having my mind blown unexpectedly.

THE 25 BEST FILMS OF 2010-2019 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

1917 (2019)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Black Swan (2010)
The Death of Stalin (2017)
Dunkirk (2017)
The Favourite (2018)
The Florida Project (2017)
Frank (2014)
Get Out (2017)
A Ghost Story (2017)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Inside Out (2015)
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Lady Bird (2017)
The Lobster (2015)
Melancholia (2011)
Midsommar (2019)
Moonlight (2016)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
mother! (2017)
Parasite (2019)
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Under the Skin (2013)
Us (2019)
The Witch (2015)

And if I had to pick the best of the best . . . which Oscar COMPLETELY ignored, ugh . . .

(Get A) Five Songs You Need to Hear (On Yourself)

We’re in the midst of a days-long weather hellscape here in Iowa with the nastiest of nasty stuff falling out of the sky, continually. Ice, snow, frozen rain, sleet, vulture urine, aviation fuel, chemtrails, and who knows what else. It’s disgusting and cold, whatever it is. So I’ve been hunkered down, spinning tunes, and thought it an apt time to return to our occasional featurette here, “Five Songs You Need to Hear.” The only things these songs have in common are that I love them, and you probably haven’t heard them. Now you can! Get listening! And then explore the artists further, as they’re all most worthy and deserving of your attention.

#1. “Space Invaders” by Solaris, (available on the outstanding and recommended Soul Jazz Records Presents SPACE FUNK: Afro-Futurist Electric Funk in Space 1976-84 compilation)

#2. “Electronic Eye” by Crisis Actor

#3. “Love Lived Here Once” by Christelle Bofale

#4. “Analog Warmth” by Jad Fair & Kramer (Feat. Paul Leary)

#5. “Crazy Energy Night” by Pom Poko

Credidero: An Epilogue

On January 17, 2019, I framed a year-long writing project for myself, called Credidero. On December 26, 2019, I completed the final planned installment, contemplating the concept of Possibility, following on eleven other pre-selected monthly topics of interest. According to the “Document Readibility” counter at Online Utility Dot Org, the full project looked like this, statistically:

Not surprising to me that (a) I write long sentences and (b) I write at a fairly high educational level. I think that’s the poet and scholar in me. In my personal projects, I like sentences to flow, metrically, which often makes them more florid than they might be for strict journalistic writing. And then I like to be precise and use the right word in the right place at the right time, even if that word is an arcane one that could be replaced with something less precise, but more accessible. Words matter. As do structure and flow. Text should feel beautiful, even when it’s dense.

I used another tool at Utility Online Dot Org to assess the words most commonly used in the full Credidero text. I eliminated the most common English words that are essential to sentence construction, but don’t much add informational value (e.g. the, be, to, of, and, etc.), and then merged some similar terms, leaving the following list of words that appeared most frequently in the text:

  1. human/humans/humanity/man
  2. time
  3. write/writing/written/wrote
  4. year/years
  5. thing/things
  6. way/ways
  7. word/words
  8. people/person
  9. think/thought
  10. life/living
  11. community/communities
  12. know
  13. made/make
  14. creative/creativity
  15. now
  16. first
  17. good
  18. long
  19. authority
  20. complex/complexity
  21. actually
  22. better
  23. work
  24. because
  25. right
  26. security
  27. something
  28. use/used
  29. believe
  30. within
  31. experience
  32. hostility
  33. little
  34. real
  35. find
  36. personal
  37. death
  38. others
  39. new
  40. possible
  41. certainly
  42. form
  43. create
  44. credidero
  45. online
  46. seems
  47. sense
  48. well
  49. absurd
  50. fact

If you’re more visually inclined, here’s a Wordle created from the same data set. (Wordle and I make different choices on which words to combine, and which to eliminate, so it’s not quite an apples-to-apples match, but the gist is there).

Here are some things that jump out to me as I look at these text sets. Do you see something different?

  • The focus on “big” topics puts the “big” concept of human beings in aggregate (human/humans/humanity/man, community/communities, and people/person) at or near the top of the pile, more so than words related to individuality, even though this was a project related to my personal thoughts and reflections. I suppose that means I worked to apply my own perceptions in universal ways whenever I could.
  • Time-related words (time, year/years, now, long) feature heavily, consistent with both a long-view of the concepts being explored, and also (I think) a sense that I was using this project to place where I am in my life now within a broader frame, looking at what I’ve experienced, and what may be ahead of me, and how I might consider and live within it. Right here, right now is a point on a time line. You can only accurately define it by looking both backward and forward along its span.
  • There are a lot of words related to our perception of the world around us (think/thought, know, believe, experience, find, seems, sense). This seems apt in a series that cited an exploration of belief as one of its core tenets. But it also seems to indicate some fuzziness of outcomes and outputs, as there are few absolute statements to be made on many of the subject topics. Belief is as much a function of feel as it is a function of know.
  • This was a writing project that recognized that it was a writing project, so there’s probably no surprise that scribbling-related words (write/writing/written/wrote and word/words) score so highly. More on this below, as I think that one of the underlying things that I gleaned through this project was why this type of writing is different from most other things I write, and perhaps some reflection on how to blend those pieces better.
  • The tone of the project felt and feels positive to me, even when covering topics with negative connotations, and that seems to be affirmed by the high placement of positive words like “good,” “better,” “right” and “well.”
  • I probably use the word “actually” too often. Might need to work on avoiding it (and its “mansplaining” association) in my writing. Although, actually . . . oh, never mind.

Getting beyond that simple text analysis, how do I think this project lived up to my own expectations for it? Here’s what I originally wrote about what I might want to achieve with Credidero:

I found myself focusing on a series where I grappled with one of those abstract and uncountable “-ity” nouns every month or so, letting it carry me where it would, with the thematic restrictions on the pieces being that they should reflect some real personal belief (“My Creed”), that they should eschew political dogma (neither “left” nor “right”), and that the acts of creating them should spark emotional response in some way, ideally something at the joyful end of the spectrum as an escape from the unrelenting sourness of modern media discourse.

I then noted:

I originally planned to title the series “Credo,” from the first person indicative present conjugation of the Latin verb “credere,” which means (approximately) “to believe.” That conjugated form has long since entered the English language to refer to a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions and premises, that guide an individual’s actions. But as I started to think about it more, I realized that I don’t actually have a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions, related to those 12 tenets and words right now — though I should in the future, once I really consider them. Hence a new title: “Credidero.” That’s the first person future perfect conjugation of “credere.” This verb form is used to describe an event that is expected to happen before a specific time of reference in the future. So if “Credo” translates to “I believe [now],” then “Credidero” translates to “I will have believed [by the end of the year].”

I think I did reasonably well in being honest and candid and personal in these pieces, and they did give me a sense of joy, most of the time, that hopefully translated into the reading experience as well. I might have been a little more politically strident in some cases than I would have desired, but there were concepts to be considered that, unfortunately, were and are tied up to our current political situation, dire and unavoidable as it is.

In terms of how my beliefs might have evolved or been codified in writing, I went back through each of the twelve pieces to find a sentence or paragraph that best synopsized what I carried out of the writing and research process. Reading them as a piece feels good to me. They may not represent a manifesto, but I think they accurately capture the head space and physical place where I find myself at this point in my life. I am glad to have actively reflected upon them to gain a more structured peek into the morass of my mind, busy and buzzing with noise and weirdness, always.

If there’s a core theme that runs through them, I believe its an active acceptance and embrace of the fact that I’m blessed to be able to think and write about such matters, a luxury many cannot afford, and that I need to use whatever time I have left on our blue-green glorious rock to embrace wonder in ways that produce joy for me and those whose lives intersect with mine, directly or indirectly. That joy and wonder should be anchored in the real, observable world around us, but with a recognition that our powers of observation are limited by biology and culture and habit. There are surprises and unknowns out there. Some will feel good. Some will hurt. Such is being alive, and aware. There’s no brilliant revelation there, I know, but it still feels good to actively contemplate and test such conclusions, and to decide whether they feel right and true. For me, they do.

Here are the twelve key quotes that frame “what I will have believed” in each article under the Credidero rubric:

  • Hostility: We can know how to kill without killing. We can know how to hate without hating. We can feel hostile without being hostile. Or we can be hostile without feeling hostile. We have agency in the presence of hostility imposed and hostility expressed, both individually and institutionally, but we must choose to accept that agency. I believe we should do so, and I believe we may all become better humans by occasionally facing the ugliness that sits at the very heart of our species’ collective soul, and also occasionally considering the ugliness that our societies ask us to assume as part of our social contracts, and then consciously, actively shaping our behaviors to manage, accept, or reject that ugliness, as best befits our personal and collective circumstances.
  • Curiosity: When I ponder what a personal end of days might look like, I tend to think that losing the desire for these types of inquisitions will be among the key dominoes falling in an ultimately failing physical system, and I’m going to rage, rage against the dying of that light, for as long as I can. For all of the emotional negatively that morbid curiosity might theoretically inflict upon me, were I more prone to explore it, I can’t help but think that the emotional positivity of eager, open, innocent investigation of the world around me will always return a net positive position for the time and energy spent in its pursuit. If I am the sum total of my experiences, then my curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes me me. And your curiosity, more than anything else, is what makes you you. And the glorious variety possible through endless permutations of those equations is what makes so much of life so very enjoyable, in ways that I hope to remain always curious about, until I disperse the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen that composes me, so that other curious entities might form from it.
  • Security: The little moments remain precious, the little touches remain important, the little objects remain iconic, the little steps remain productive, and on a personal basis, I will pursue and appreciate them as I always have, and they will anchor me, daily, in their comfortable familiarity and emotional warmth. That said, they should not, must not, render me numb to the realities of the world around me, and the real — not imaginary — threats to me and mine, and you and yours, that await there. We must feel at least “cum minima cura” about those realities, to create the friction and heat needed to prepare us to do more than hug fantasias when we’re required to do so by events beyond our individual control. Perhaps that collective sense of edge and unease will serve as the fulcrum upon which change is finally levered, and perhaps that’s the greatest little step than any of can truly take toward building a more secure world for the maximum number of its residents, human or otherwise. As good as it feels to hug our transitional objects, and as often I’m going to continue to do so, I think I’m also going to try to hug my own anxieties every now and again, if for no other reason than to look at them, understand them a bit better, and maybe decide that they might actually be trying to tell me something that I shouldn’t be hugging away at all.
  • Absurdity: I am absurd, I admit it, inside and out — but I am not a philosophical absurdist. I do believe we can glean meaning and value in an unfeeling, unthinking, and unknowing universe. And I do not believe that a fundamental conflict between the quest for meaning and the universe’s indifference to it drives my own inner absurdity.
  • Inhumanity: [All cultures], throughout our history, have created stories and religions and narratives that seek to guide humanity’s future through the examples of non-human actors, be they other living things on our planet, or mystical beings beyond it. I doubt that any one of them is any better or any worse than any other, so long as they focus individuals and small groups (remember, we get horrible en masse, always) on goodness at a scale perceivable to the perceiver, and receivable by a receiver . . . Maybe we all become better, more humane humans, the more we embrace the inhuman-ity around us.
  • Creativity: Creatio ex nihilo was long the sole province of God, or the Gods, or Muses, or Daemons, or other inhuman forces swirling in the vapors around us. I believe that by claiming creativity as our own human right, in all the things we do, and celebrating its fruits, we don’t denigrate the God(s) that inspire us, but instead become ever more like them.
  • Community: Somewhat ironically, this month’s “community” topic has been the hardest for me to consider and write, almost entirely because I’ve already spent so much time thinking about it and writing about it over the years that I already have a stronger set of well-formed beliefs on the topic that I’ve had on any of the others thus far. How I act on those beliefs, though, I think is evolving, hopefully in ways that connect me more meaningfully with a more local or in-person communities, rather than spending so much time alone (in real life) while sort of together (in virtual space). I imagine that retirement, with all the newly available time it entails, will be a much richer experience that way. Less thinking and writing about community all by myself, and more experiencing community with others.
  • Complexity: If simple work is the opposite of complex fun, just as entropy is the opposite of creation, just as the Devil is the opposite of the Watchmaker, then we’ve got to wrap back around to opening arguments and conclude by accepting that work must be the purview of Satan, and play must be the purview of God, and that we model ourselves most clearly in His image when we frolic in fields of phlox and fescue and philosophy and felicity and feeling and friends and family and festivity and fun. I’m ultimately happy to believe in such a simple truth when staring into the awesome face of such a stupidly, gloriously complex universe as ours!
  • Eternity: It seems to me that a belief in and commitment to the tangible (though as yet indeterminate) time span “L” is of greater utility than being afraid of and/or longing for a metaphysical eternity and what it might (though probably doesn’t) represent and contain. So is anybody up for starting The Church of Maximum “L,” with a defining core belief that “N” is greater than one, if we can only stick around long enough to establish contact and connect? I’d be a darned good early apostle if you need one. (Note: “N” and “L” are terms in the Drake Equation, discussed in that month’s article; “N” is the number of intelligent species in the galaxy capable of communicating across celestial distances, and “L” is the length of time they — are we — able to do so).
  • Authority: I believe we need to be constantly vigilant as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, I also believe that there’s a need for such authorities, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . “
  • Mortality: What else can we do in the face of the ways that mortality will impact us, sooner or later, except live life to the fullest while we still can do so? As trite or pat as that might sound as a concluding sentiment for this article, it’s what I have believed, do believe, and hope to always believe.
  • Possibility: Not everything’s possible, but more than enough things are plausible, and probable, to keep my sense of wonder and expectation high, and I believe that’s a rubric worth living in, and living through, and living for.

As mentioned above in the comments about the prevalence of writing-related words, I also found myself considering, from a technical standpoint, what it was that I was doing with this project, and how it differed from what I “normally” write. I knocked the idea around a bit, and eventually kept coming back to there being four key types of writing in my world, as follows:

  • Reactive: These would include reviews and related pieces; I saw, heard, read or did something, and here is how I react to it. Political pieces probably fall into this bucket too, as they are often written in response to governmental or social actions that generate a reaction requiring explanation.
  • Descriptive: I see these are being my experiential pieces, and I probably do this most often in travel articles and in my professional writing, where I am trying to tell readers something in ways that lets them see what I see, or understand what I understand, or value what I value.
  • Creative: The most obvious of the four categories, these would be my short stories, poems, lyrics, or whatever else just spins out of my head without direct anchor in the real world, until I make it so by writing about it.
  • Reflective: This is where I put Credidero. I see it as a type of writing that is personal, but is not necessarily anchored in any specific outside stimulus or activity. If I go back through the 1,200+ articles in my web archive, it’s unquestionably the least represented category of writing in my archive.

When I think about writing across these four categories, I believe that to hone my craft, I need to find ways and spaces to create more pieces that straddle multiple categories. A descriptive travel piece would become more compelling with a deeper reflective component, for example. Creative writing is strengthened when the descriptive elements are rich, even if the descriptions are of imaginary spaces and places. I can see other opportunities to blend across the four categories, and as I work in the year ahead to frame and market various writing projects, I want to be mindful of not just defaulting to my three usual silos (e.g. reactive reviews, descriptive travelogues, creative stories), but to think of ways to cross-pollinate my usual styles within each one, and to bring the reflective elements more to the fore. We can always get better at what we do, and that’s true for me and writing as with everything else. Maybe this will be a good rubric for formalizing that aspect of improvement.

One final thought, on “belief” itself. If asked to briefly summarize my most deeply-held beliefs before embarking on this project, I generally would have offered something glib like “physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics,” rather than anything anchored in mystical or metaphysical worlds. One needs a particularly deep faith to embrace the untestable, the invisible, and the unknowable, and my personality is a bit more “show me” oriented than ones that are receptive to believing in something simply because someone told me to believe in it. In our culture, those faith-based life practices tend to be seen as warm and nurturing, where science-based life practices are viewed as somehow cold and without deep emotional reward. I beg to differ on that front. I found myself reflecting regularly in this series on mysteries and margins and mind-blowing experiences — which can exist in the material world — and I glean deep emotional resonance from being a small, sentient object in a vast universe, composed of an uncountable number of ever-smaller objects, moving across a globe that seethes with living, breathing, moving, growing and dying objects of all shapes and sizes, each of them as important as I am, in the grand scheme of things. As noted above, “belief” is as much about feel as it is about know, and I do not see that as being the least bit out of alignment with a science-based view of the world around me. I’m happy to know things empirically, and I’m happy to feel things emotionally, and my beliefs sit comfortably atop both types of life experience, always. I do not feel a void in my life where faith should sit, at bottom line.

And with that note, I think this project is now complete. I appreciate those who have read along with me over the past year, especially given the fact that this is not the type of thing that has generally brought an audience to this website, nor sustained it. The project may have been an act of creative self-indulgence accordingly, but I gained value from it, and I’m glad to have played it out in a public domain. Here’s hoping that the insights and perspectives it provided me result in better writing and richer experiences in the years to come, however many more I might be blessed to experience, actively, in good health, and with eyes wide open to wonder and joy.

Note: This epilogue summarizes a 12-part, year-long writing project. If you wish to read more deeply, you may do so at the links below:

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

Thanks again, St. Anselm of Canterbury, for letting me borrow “Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam.” You have been a good guide.