2016 Year In Review

We’re two days shy of the year’s shortest day, and deep in the heart of the coldest snap of the current winter, so it seems a good time to look back over the past twelve months here at the blog and in the greater personal, professional and cultural world around me.

Counting this one, I published 27 blog posts here in 2016. That’s a big drop off from the 77 posts I published in 2015, but that was a somewhat conscious decision as I decided to focus on my Short Story of the Month project, which I completed successfully earlier this month. The 12 new stories I wrote over the past year were knit together with half a dozen older ones into a single manuscript, and it’s off for copy editing as I type. You writing types: if you’ve got any good leads you’d suggest for placing the manuscript commercially in 2017, I would appreciate an introduction!

Marcia and I opened 2016 in our still new home town of Chicago, watching the inaugural edition of the city’s “Chi-Town Rising” star drop on the river, which was frankly underwhelming. You’ve got too much going for you, Chicago, to try to ape New York City! Let them have their thing, because you’ve got plenty of your own! Seriously! They’re apparently doing it again this year, but we will welcome 2017 in a more exotic locale instead: Reykjavik, Iceland. We loved our summer trip there some years ago, and are excited to see it under the polar twilight with (hopefully) some Northern Lights in play to guide us into a new year together.

Between those two points, we had a crazy travel year. Marcia goes back and forth between Chicago and Des Moines ever other week for work, and I traveled to 26 states this year for my own work with the TREE Fund. (Speaking of, it’s not too late to contribute to our year-end appeal . . . hint hint). Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, here’s the visual representation of my travels in 2016:

cwne26ewgaazm9i-jpg-largeThe arrow pointing southward was to Grand Cayman, which Marcia and I visited together as part of a work trip for me. One of the northerly arrows points to Iceland, as mentioned above, and the other one points to Tuscany, where Marcia and I had a wonderful vacation with many new friends from Australia and New Zealand. I also did about 600 of those miles  on a bicycle through my native Carolinas. Big thanks to R. Jeanette Martin for the photos at that prior link, which are totally worth seeing, even if I’m in them.

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See? While it was my intention to try to do a little bit less traveling this year for work, I just laid out my 2017 schedule with my staff, and at this point it looks like I will be going to Mississippi, Arizona, Puerto Rico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ontario, Maryland (twice), Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida, Colorado, Washington (state), Oregon, Missouri, Texas, Iowa, Connecticut, California, Ohio and Oklahoma during the next twelve months. Plus wherever Marcia and I decide to go for our international summer trip. Personally, I’m lobbying for Malta. So, uh, my 2017 map will probably look like a spaghetti chart too. Hmmm.

Even with all of that travel, I suspect that 2017 will look like more of a typical blogging year for me, so if you have been and intend to remain a faithful follower this site, then (1st) thank you, and (2nd) there might be more things for you to read beyond short stories next year. I’m considering a couple of web-based writing projects that are a little bit more interactive, so will update on that when I decide which one (if any) I want to pursue.

Some other bits and bobs to wrap things up . . .

Music, Theater and Dance: I’ve already done my 25th Annual Best Albums Report, here, and my Annual List Of Most Played Songs, here. On the live front, we saw many plays, concerts and dance performances, and honestly, I’m just really happy to have spent the year experiencing them in the moment and not documenting and making lists of them, and I’m disinclined to go back and do so now to try to recreate them after the fact. Maybe next year, I’ll start keeping a list. Or maybe not. We’ll see. I kinda think my live performance criticizing years may be behind me, y’know?

Books: As posted here multiple times before, my book reading tends to cluster predictably into four primary areas: 10% Fiction, 40% Natural Science and History, 40% Music Biography, and 10% Tales of Human Suffering. Over the past year, my fave reads didn’t stray too far from the norm, although I read more older books than newer books in 2016, so my list of favorite new releases is a bit brief:

  • The Fisherman by John Langan
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
  • The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
  • Not Dead Yet: The Memoir by Phil Collins
  • My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris
  • But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Movies: We have a theater within walking distance of our apartment, so we saw more flicks in first release than we typically have in the past. The best films I saw in 2016 (thus far, recognizing that much of the Oscar Bait is just coming out now) would include:

  • The Witch (My current pick for Best Movie of 2016)
  • The Lobster (A very close second place)
  • Everybody Wants Some!!
  • The Jungle Book
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Sausage Party
  • Hell Or High Water
  • Arrival
  • Manchester By The Sea
  • La La Land
  • Office Christmas Party

Politics: Ennnnnhhhhh . . . . the less said here the better, I think. I’ll leave it to others to write about those matters more regularly and effectively than I do. That said, I did write and publish a poem here in the days after the election called “Tiny Blue Isle,” which explains what it feels like to me to live in Chicago right now. A local colleague liked the concept and approached me about using it for a progressive politics feed on Twitter and (maybe later) as a website, and I agreed to let my friend do so. Follow here for more news on that in the months ahead.

Art: We are blessed with ready and easy proximity to some exceptionally fine museums hereabouts, and three solo exhibitions stand out for me among the dozens we saw in 2016:

  • Mastry by Kerry James Marshall, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
  • Future Present by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, at the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Procession by Norman Lewis, at the Chicago Cultural Center

Websites: Two websites dominated my daily reading in 2016, and I have written about both of them here before:

  • Electoral Vote Dot Com: I’ve been following this website through every Presidential election since 2004, and I think it remains the best real-time aggregator of relevant information, and the best site for thoughtful, objective analysis that I’ve found for comprehending our incomprehensible electoral nightmare process. I wrote about it back in 2012, and my thoughts about it (and its competition) remain unchanged.
  • Thoughts On The Dead: I wrote about this website back in 2015, and my thoughts on this one have changed a bit. At the time, I cited it as one of the few websites that actually made me “laugh out loud” (not LOL) as it did a bit of creative world building around the history of the Grateful Dead. While that element of it remains (e.g. the coverage of the Dead And Company tour with John Mayer was sublime and hilarious), somewhere along the way, the site also evolved to include some truly brilliant fiction (the Roy Head adventures, the Route 77 travelogue, and the Little Aleppo series, among others) and some of the most incredible rock music writing I’ve ever read, anywhere (the recent series on Van Halen and Queen, most especially). The volume of exceedingly high quality work being posted here on a nearly daily basis boggles my mind. Thoughts On The Dead is unquestionably my Website of the Year for 2016, and if I knew who he was in real life, I’d celebrate and hail him by name as my flat-out favorite writer of the past twelve months as well. And I’m done here with this note, so get on over there and just dig in . . . wonders await you, I promise!

Growth Rings In The New Year

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December 11, 2016

Dear Friends of the Urban Forest,

Annual growth rings in temperate-climate trees mark the increments of new wood added each year. As you all know, we can learn a lot by studying a tree’s annual rings: its age, the climates it has thrived in, its relationships with symbiotic organisms, and even the nature and quality of its interactions with humans.

I’ve been thinking about the imagery of annual growth rings as I reflect on my first year with TREE Fund, much of it spent traveling to meet, listen to, and learn from professionals working in the tree care community. We’re a year older now, so what would our latest annual growth ring say about our nonprofit organism if you peeked inside?

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Click the growth rings to support our work.

First off, it would show that we’re growing in both resources acquired and resources expended, and that the ratio of those two flows is trending in a healthy direction, as we’re working to get more of every dollar we raise back out to support our colleagues in the field. We’re doing this by growing new branches and adding new coverage — additional programs, larger grants, and more awards — all to the benefit of the professionals who shelter under our canopy of knowledge.

To sustain this healthy growth, we’re continuing to “open the circle” in a healthy, non-invasive fashion, thereby allowing new friends and supporters to build atop our strong roots, injecting new revenue streams that will ensure we remain vibrant for many years. Trees are long-lived organisms — just as endowment funds are — and we exist to provide long-term support for tree care professionals, helping them adapt to the ever-evolving challenges facing our urban forests.

Of course, there’s another meaning to “annual ring” — namely, a once-per-year call — and I’m hoping you’ll indulge me on that front here as well. As we move forward and upward, solid sustenance sets the stage for potentially transformative growth in 2017, so I respectfully request that you consider a gift to our 2016 year-end appeal. Please make your contribution at treefund.org today. With your support, growth can ring in the New Year from day one.

With best regards, and deep gratitude,

J. Eric Smith, President and Chief Executive Officer

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Most Played Songs of 2016

Today is the day that I reset the play counts on all of the Smith Family iPods after a year of data gathering and consolidation. I’ve been doing this annually since we got our first iPod in 2007. I used to wait right up until December 31st, but I’ve found that Marcia and I almost always want something fresh through various holiday trips and hectic work season, so early December has become iPod playlist reprogramming time.  And, uh, we now have a lot of iPods in our house at this point, all of them still in regular use:

ipods

The most interesting playlist to clear is the collection of “most played songs” for the year. Since we synch all of our gadgets to one computer and one iTunes account, this “most played songs” list in our household represent the aggregated play counts from my train commute, my travel time, Marcia’s car, Marcia’s gym, Marcia’s apartment in Des Moines, and the collaborative family iPod that stays in our Chicago apartment stereo dock and is played by whoever’s home at the time.

So the “most played songs” of the year are often unexpected, since they tend to represent the heart of a musical Venn Diagram where our family’s musical tastes most closely overlap, even though each of us individually may like very different things. We spun about 4,000 songs in 2016 — out of about 10,500 stored on my computer. The list below represents the 40 that earned the most frequent listening love in aggregate; because it’s 2016, it’s probably not a surprise how many of them are by dead people, sigh. I have also provided links for some of the less-well-known artists for your listening enlightenment, should you be curious:

1. “Single Bullets” by Huggy Bear

2. “Flesh And Blood” by Roxy Music

3. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” by David Bowie

4. “Sons Of The Silent Age” by David Bowie

5. “Cervix Couch” by Christian Death

6. “Tensile” by The Clean

7. “The Blue Hour” by Christian Death

8. “Wondering” by Reverend James Cleveland

9. “Open Your Eyes” by School of Seven Bells

10. “Sound and Vision” by David Bowie

11. “C’est La Vie” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

12. “Move On” by David Bowie

13. “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

14. “Ablaze” by School of Seven Bells

15. “Children Laughing” by Wendy and Bonnie

16. “If You Know What I Mean” by Neil Diamond

17. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” by The Monkees

18. “Oh Yeah” by Roxy Music

19. “Larf and Sing” by Family

20. “You Just May Be The One” by The Monkees

21. “Still . . . You Turn Me On” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

22. “On My Heart” by School of Seven Bells

23. “Death Is A Star” by The Clash

24. “Lazarus” by David Bowie

25. “Clasp” by Jethro Tull

26. “Fire Of The Mind” by COIL

27. “Look Back In Anger” by David Bowie

28. “Heart Like A Wheel” by Linda Ronstadt

29. “Longfellow Serenade” by Neil Diamond

30. “Bee Stings” by COIL

31. “Children” by Family

32. “Passerby” by Quilt

33. “Lord Do It” by Reverend James Cleveland

34. “Fishes Bones” by Wire

35. “Dollar Days” by David Bowie

36. “Love Is Like Oxygen” by Sweet

37. “Wanna Be Cool” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment

38. “Take To The Sky” by Alan Parker and Alan Hankshaw

39. “More Than The World” by FREEMAN

40. “Internal Exile” by Wire