Five Songs You Need To Hear (I’m Only Bleeding)

In 2004, I took on a self-imposed project to write and post a poem a day on my website for the entire calendar year. I got it done, but it was a slog. On August 31, 2004, the day’s bit of poesy was called “Twice As Far Behind As Yet To Go,” noting that the year had hit its two-thirds mark, and how it was feeling a bit endless on one plane, but with an end visible ahead on another. With a little editing, it’s a perfectly apt sentiment for August 31, Anno Virum, as well:

It’s summer, yet an illness falls like snow,
atop an ice of hatred hard below.
The dire year drags relentlessly, although
there’s twice as far behind as yet to go.
The joys of friendly discourse are benumbed.
We’re isolated, bludgeoned, stricken dumb.
But as we plot the “to” against the “from:”
there’s twice as far behind as yet to come.
Off in the distance, maybe, we can see
a shoreline from this sea of misery.
Perhaps we can feel hope, to some degree,
with twice as much behind as yet to be.
(The writer sighs on reaching a plateau,
with twice as far behind as yet to go).

If all goes as planned, Marcia and I will wave off 2020 from a new house somewhere in Northern Arizona, knowing that we’ll be in the final three weeks of the worst Presidential term in American history. Please Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Brahma, Flying Spaghetti Monster, [Your Deity Here], let it be so. It’s harder to predict the state of the virus and the festering sores of institutional inequity at that future point, though I suspect that with an anti-scientific, greed-fueled, sexist and racist administration perhaps twitching in its death throes, its purveyors and enablers may purposefully make things worse before they have any possibility of getting better. But again, LORD willing and the creek don’t rise, come the end of January, we will most hopefully be in a place where those who steer our collective colorful caravan are actively interested in seeking a path toward health, justice, social equity, security, safety, stability and charity. We’re desperately in need of a new compass pointing that way.

A stirring soundtrack for that trip wouldn’t hurt either. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to this installment of my ongoing “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series. Which was motivated primarily because I just nabbed one particular song that you most definitely need to hear, right now: Public Enemy’s 2020 remix of their towering 1989 anthem “Fight the Power,” from Spike Lee’s equally thrilling film Do The Right Thing.  The core riffs, beats and rhymes of the original version of “Fight the Power” are just so iconic all these years on, and I am most pleased that P.E. have returned to this classic with a topical and timely update, involving some of the many talented folk they have inspired over the years.

I vividly remember hearing “Fight the Power” for the first time when Marcia and I saw Do The Right Thing (one of my all-time favorite films) in Washington DC on or very near its release date, and it opened with Rosie Perez dancing and boxing on the big screen with that song just absolutely kicking!!! It remains the only time I can ever recall an audience clapping, standing and whooping for an opening credit segment. (You should watch it now). As provocative and inspirational as the song was in and out of its original context, it’s dismaying to think that it’s been 31 years (“1989, a number . . .”) since Spike released that great film, in which the climactic scenes hinge upon a black man being choked to death by a police officer. I guess I hoped, dreamed, maybe even believed in 1989 that things would have changed by 2020 in ways that such acts would be inconceivable, not commonplace. But nope, we’re not there yet. And we’re maybe not even twice as far behind as yet to go on that front. We’ve got work. Let’s do it. Voting smart would be a great step, for starters.

The other four songs in this month’s installment are also 2020 cuts with topical themes, food for thought, fuel for action. You can click here to get all of the previous “Five Songs” installments (scroll down after you click that link to move past this current article), which are now at 18 posts and counting. Loads of musical wonders and weirdness await intrepid explorers there. Get down to the sound of the funky drummer!

#1. “Fight the Power: Remix 2020 (Feat. Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG and Questlove)” by Public Enemy

#2. “Amoral” by Napalm Death

#3. “Asylum Seeker” by Gordon Koang

#4. “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” by Run The Jewels

#5. “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” by Sparks

Mask Music

It has been an annoying week in Iowa since Marcia and I returned from our wonderful trip to Minnesota. The weather has been mostly disgusting, with hot winds and high humidity making our daily walks a sweaty slog. Our Governor and junior Senator were among the cast of clowns dancing in center ring at the Von Trump Family Circus, both of them spewing the half-truths and nonsense required as acts of fealty to their ignorant overlord. Diligent and persistent community watchdogs pressed the state to admit that it has been miscalculating, doctoring and/or misrepresenting our COVID case numbers. (I’d long been observing that Iowa’s official outcomes and trends seemed improbable compared to neighboring states and other states of similar sizes, so this did not surprise me). Once adjustments were made, Iowa immediately moved into the number one national position of new case incidence by state over the past seven days.

Which also isn’t really surprising, given our proximity to several major access highways for the Sturgis Coronapalooza, the fact that we are in the bottom ten states in the nation for mask usage, and in the bottom three for social distancing. Which I experience every freaking day in our apartment building, where I swear that Marcia and I are the only people I see who conscientiously wear masks whenever we step out of our unit. Polk County (where we live) leads the state in case load, about three times higher than the second-placed county, and over 50% of cases reported are in the 18-40 year old demographic, which overwhelmingly defines the East Village neighborhood where we live. To give credit where it’s due, the Mayor of Des Moines did issue a mask mandate this week, which I appreciate, though I haven’t seen any changes to the behaviors among our neighbors. On the flip-side, after returning home from her circus performance, our Governor made a relatively short-term proclamation closing bars and making other minor concessions in only six of Iowa’s 99 counties, but still refused to make masks mandatory, because freedoms and liberties.

It’s just exhausting and sad, at bottom line. And it’s lethal. If the Governor would impose a mandatory State-wide mask requirement, and people would abide by it, the projection for cumulative COVID deaths in Iowa by December 1 would be about 1,900. (We’re at about 1,100 deaths now, officially, though I believe the state is fiddling with the reports there, too). If things just continue as they are in terms of required protective measures now, then that cumulative death prediction rises to about 3,100. And if the limited restrictions in place are lifted or reduced (which the state has done every time it has the chance to do so), then the death count is forecast to rise to 4,700. So we’re looking at a situation where our elected officials have been and will (likely) be making policy decisions that will result in killing a couple of thousand Iowans, for no lucid or cogent reason beyond currying political favor with racist rich people, most of whom don’t live here, and who don’t believe in science and social justice. Ugh! Marcia and I are (safely, distantly) counting the days until our next out-of-State trips, and until October 22, 2020, when our household goods will be packed and picked up and we will leave Iowa for good. It’s been a nice run here since we first arrived in 2011, positive for a variety of reasons at different times, but at this point, enough is enough. Stick an ethanol-subsidy-powered fork in us. We’re done.

I don’t normally rant like this here on Ye Olde Blog, but I put all of that forward just to give you a sense of my head-space as I was out driving between errands this morning, and this song queued up on the car stereo:

It’s a beautiful song by a favorite artist. Like most great art, its complexity and layers of meaning made me feel better and worse at the same time while it spun, and in the quiet afterward. The lyrics are adapted from the poem of the same title, by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The author wasn’t writing about protecting himself and his neighbors from infection, but rather about the experience of being Black in America in the post-Civil War years, and the ways in which people are forced to wear happy and harmless masks to cover their real faces, which may be wrenched in suffering and pain by their own circumstances, internal and external. So it works on many levels today, with pandemic and institutional racism vying for top-billing in the Nation’s news feeds, between the steady stream of malformed blurts that our Grifter-in-Chief barfs upon us throughout his waking hours, with no mask worn (and none strong enough anyway) to filter the infectious virality of his awful words and sentiments.

Me being me, listening to “We Wear The Mask” got me to thinking about what other mask-related songs might be found in my collection, and whether they carry explicit or implicit resonance with the spirits of our age, malign, benign and/or sublime. I came up with the following playlist about masks, veils, and other face coverings, literal and figurative. Maybe if I crank it off of my apartment balcony it might subliminally inspire my oblivious neighbors to cover their faces before they go bumbling into the hallways which we all share. Probably not, though. I guess I’ll just have to enjoy it here in my home office. Do you have some other good recommended mask songs for me to add to the mix?

Minnesotin’

Marcia and I are back home in Des Moines tonight after a wonderful week in Minneapolis and environs. It’s nearly 100° F here in Central Iowa with grotesque humidity levels, and is forecast to be so for the next week, making the inordinately nice weather we had in Minnesota over the past eight days all the more pleasurable in contrast. As noted in my prior post, we rented a really nice AirBnB in Minneapolis’ Kenwood area near Lake of the Isles, making it super easy and convenient to access a variety of great (carryout) restaurants along Hennepin Avenue, and also the glorious Grand Rounds network of trails surrounding the lakes at the heart of the city. The architecture in that area is stunning, and we were just a few houses down from the Purcell-Cutts House (a most fine example of the Prairie School), and just across the narrow lake neck from the Mary Tyler Moore House, made famous by her hit eponymous sitcom. There’s boodles of other fine specimens about, along with stunning gardens in great, full, peak bloom in most cases. Perfect!

Marcia and I circumambulated Lake Harriet, Bde Maka Ska (the Lake Formerly Known as Calhoun), Lake of the Isles, and Cedar Lake multiple times on foot without having to get in the car to get there, and we also kayaked on and between the latter three, which was wonderful. We did leave the neighborhood a few times for great walks around the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Lake Elmo Park Reserve, The Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden, and the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Trail. En route between Des Moines and the Twin Cities, we also did very nice walks at Myre-Big Island Park in Albert Lea and River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. My pedometer tells me that I walked 79 miles over the course of the week. That clearly justified all the ice cream, cookies, popcorn and pie that I ate while there, om nom nom!

After the Arboretum walk, we took a guided tour at Paisley Park, Prince’s nearby production studio and (in his final years) home. It was very cool to see, though sad to ponder how prematurely the Purple One left us, another undeserving victim of Big Pharma’s pusherman approach to opiate economics. Sigh. On the family front, we got to spend outdoor time with three of Marcia’s siblings and some nieces and nephews as well, and she had brunch with a pair of school friends at a legendary neighborhood restaurant, Curran’s, which is sadly closing and being razed soon, after over 70 years in business. We drove by Marcia’s nearby childhood home and schools, along with the church where we were married in 1989, and also went out to Fort Snelling National Cemetery to leave flowers for and pay respects to her parents, who are buried there.

And also on the paying respects front, we visited the George Floyd Memorial Site at South 38th and Chicago, which was powerful and heartbreaking in equal measure. We could stand at the spot where George Floyd was murdered and see the bell-tower on that church where we were married, just some 10 blocks to the west, so there’s a small personal connection for our family in there, a proximity to places dear. The city has closed off the streets around the area to vehicle traffic, so it’s a growing walk-in shrine site at this point, with volunteers offering visitors donated masks and drinking water if needed, and with various places and ways to leave messages, thoughts, prayers and promises. Or just to walk and reflect and be in the moment and dream of a different future, as the spirit moves each visitor individually.

It is sad to ponder how a regular night on a regular street-corner in a regular neighborhood could go so awfully, tragically wrong. But it is profound to consider the ripples of outrage that have washed outward from this modest spot, in large part because these same sorts of tragedies have occurred so many other times in so many other places, just as needlessly, just as horribly, just as wrong. One whole city block just north of the murder site now has its pavement painted with more names than I could count of victims of similar racially-motivated institutional violence from across the country, encouraging visitors to say their names aloud as they walk among them, reading them like a mantra, honoring their memories, and mourning their absence, and the losses felt by their loved ones. Such killing needs to stop. So here’s hoping those waves of righteous resistance rolling out of South Minneapolis are powerful enough to wash away some of the stubborn structures of institutional racism in our nation, for the betterment of all of its people.

I’ve posted my usual trip album over at Flickr if you’re interested in seeing the images there, including all of the sites mentioned above. Click on the “Sunset Over Lake of the Isles” photo below to see the rest of the set. Marcia and I are both very glad we went North for a spell. And we’re grateful for the reminders that we are blessed indeed to be able to make a trip like this in a time when many families are struggling with illness, or financial duress, or social and racial inequities, or all of the above, and then some. We do not take that good fortune for granted. Ever.

Magnetic North

We’ve been drawn Northward this week, following Marcia’s homing compass back to her Minnesota magnetic pole, where the Voluptuous Varmints roam.

We are renting a very comfy AirBnB just a couple of blocks northeast of Lake of the Isles, and have been walking 10+ miles each day around Minneapolis’ spectacular parks and trails system. We’re trying to safely, distantly visit as many family members here as we can before we relocate to Arizona in October, since it’s a much easier trip from Des Moines than it will be from Flagstaff or Sedona. It’s great to see folks, and great to be back in and around the area where Marcia grew up.

But there’s another component of the visit that carries an edge with a bite. George Floyd was murdered just about 10 blocks due east of Marcia’s childhood home, and we’re seeing a lot of damage around the community from the outraged eruptions which followed that tragedy. Sad and sobering on so many fronts, for so many people. It certainly hammers home the fact that we have so far to go and need to do so much better in terms of providing and protecting justice and equity as defining conditions of our national social contract.

As we watch the Democratic Nominating Convention this week, we are also reminded of one huge, important thing that we must collectively attend to by early November to redirect us along a more compassionate and Constitutionally-sound long-term national path. Marcia and I have already applied for our absentee ballots in Iowa accordingly, and will willingly head for the ballot boxes, masked, if they don’t get to us in time. When hatred, racism, grift, and willful anti-science ignorance are embraced as core operating parameters by both the White House and the Senate majority, it is hard to fight those scourges at street, community and State levels. We can do better. We must do better.

Enough on that, for here and now, I suppose. But plenty more to be said and done elsewhere and elsewhen, and we’re committed to that as a family whether I write about it here or not. Just for the record. Just so you know.

I share a few snaps below of our trip thus far, some happy and pretty, some sad and hard for us to see. We are energized by both types of photos, just in different ways. Maybe you will be too.

The Madness Of “With Which I Am Well Pleased” III

With so many things to be stressed, obsessed and/or depressed about in recent months, those little escapes, thrills and distractions that can brighten the hours and days are to be cherished, without doubt or question.

First and foremost in our family’s case, of course, is that none of us have had any medical emergencies to contend with during this our anno virum. Marcia and I were additionally pleased when Katelin called us earlier this week to tell us that she had received a very nice work promotion, demonstrating that her chosen work-remote situation in Nevada is clearly acceptable and sustainable to her employer, atop the satisfaction that she and John are feeling with their new Western lifestyle. We gave ourselves Six Parenting Gold Stars for that one. Very pleasing.

Marcia and I continue to have our own work opportunities to keep the mental juices and financial benefits flowing, I continue to find things to enjoyably think and write about, and we both continue to prioritize daily woodland and countryside walks of five-miles-plus to keep the body tuned along with the brain.  (I’m also cycling when I can to further that physical component, with ~650 miles covered over ~15 rides since May). We will be heading back up to Minnesota next week to see family in socially safe circumstances, so another change of scenery in Marcia’s beloved home state will feel good, for sure. Keeping on with keeping on, at bottom line. As one does.

Beyond those macro existential things, there are lots of smaller thrills that have delivered me the joy juice of late as well, so it seems fitting to provide a third installment to my “With Which I Am Pleased” series, building on this one and that one. As with the earlier posts, I feature 15 items in various categories, and commend and recommend them for your attention and (maybe) enjoyment as well. May they distract you from distress, alleviate your duress, and/or prepare you to safely impress your social (distant) circles with hot fresh content. Got recommendations for me in return? That’s what the comment button is for. Hit it!

FILMS

MUSIC

WEBSITES

Going Medieval

Daily Abstract Thoughts

The Diversity of Classic Rock

BOOKS

Dining In and Dining Out(side)

I’ve been the primary cook about our household for as long as we’ve been a family, though the ways in which I deploy my culinary skills have evolved significantly over the years. When Marcia and I were younger and less financially comfortable, especially in the years soon after Katelin was born, the vast majority of our meals were eaten at home, and prepared with economically sourced supplies. I actually used to carry a little calculator into the grocery store with me to tally my purchases, making damned sure that the weekly food budget was not exceeded, not by a penny. We still smile about those days when discretionary spending limits forced me to make a tough decision on which one of Guns N’ Roses’ two Use Your Illusion CDs we could actually get when they were first released together, since we couldn’t afford to buy both. Oh, the hard choices! Oh, the humanity!

Dining Out was definitely a luxury in those days, and saved for special occasions if the destination was a nice one (well, in relative terms, anyway, since we lived in Idaho at the time), or as a socializing reprieve if we were having more mundane and affordable fare with friends and neighbors. But then as our financial situation improved over the years, so too did the frequency, expense and (some of the time) quality of our Dining Out experiences. Back in 2012, I developed and posted a listing of what I then considered to be my nine best Dining Out meals ever and with whom I shared them; it looked like this, and I still hold each of these dinners dear:

  • Channel Bass Inn, Chincoteague, Virginia (me and Marcia)
  • Cafe Marquesa, Key West, Florida (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • Zuzu, Napa, California (me and Marcia)
  • River Street Cafe, Troy, New York (many meals with many people)
  • Driftwood, Oranjestad, Aruba (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • Barbes, New York, New York (me, Marcia, Katelin and our friend Pat, two meals)
  • Hótel Búðir Snæfellsnesi, Búðir, Iceland (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • V Mertz, Omaha, Nebraska (me and Marcia)
  • Unknown parilla (steak house) in La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina (me, Marcia, Katelin and Katelin’s friend, Kenna. I can’t recall or find the name because apparently it has closed; I know where it was, but it does not show up on maps anymore)

Having spent 2015 to 2019 in the Food Mecca of Chicago, and having traveled internationally numerous times since 2012, we’ve experienced many more exquisite meals at superb places that could potentially be added to this listing. Maybe I’ll do that post at some point. I’ll have a lot of meals to consider from our Chicago Era, because the wealth of local choices and the presence of a massive grab-and-go style grocery store in our condo building reduced the number of meals I cooked from scratch at home to truly negligible levels. We essentially inverted our original family paradigm, such that it was typically a special occasion meal (e.g. Thanksgiving Dinner) that was cooked and consumed in our condo, while routine meals were experienced elsewhere, even though the quality of offerings available made even some of those regular evenings out quite divine from a culinary standpoint.

That said, it’s also important to note that we’ve experienced myriad forgettable or offensive Dining Out experiences along the way as well, even in Chicago and overseas, with their number rising in direct correlation to the number of Dining Out meals we consumed. When we lived in Iowa the first time (2011 to 2015), we ate most of our meals at home, largely because I found the local restaurant scene to be so very dire. Yes, you could find some decent-ish food in Des Moines, but a Dining Out experience involves three key elements — food, ambiance, and service experience — and getting just one or two of them right isn’t good, at all. Unfortunately, missing one-to-all of those three elements seemed to be the norm in Central Iowa, prompting me to write this aggravated slate of advice to the region’s restaurateurs, based on loads of real-time, real-world Dining Out Disasters.

So I knew when we moved back to Iowa from Chicago in 2019 that I’d be cooking at home a lot more than I had the prior four years, out of necessity, whether I liked it or not. I will note, to be fair, that the Des Moines dining market had improved a bit while we were away, with a few more quality options emerging and a widespread reduction of the “Closed on Sundays” theocratic nonsense that used to drive me crazy here. Room ambiance remains a chronic problem in Des Moines, with inept service still nipping at its heels in many locations, but at least the trends are moving (a bit) in the right directions, if slowly. But, still: it’s no Chicago. And it never will be, no matter how desperately the market aspires for distinction.

Then, of course, and as is the case in so many narratives penned in 2020, COVID happened. Iowa’s response to the pandemic has been generally poor (our Governor ranks last in the Nation in terms of surveyed reaction to her handling of the virus), but there was a relatively brief time when the restaurants did shut down completely, and even if they hadn’t, we weren’t about to go put ourselves at risk by stepping foot in any of them. So cooking at home moved from a “most of the time” to an “all of the time” paradigm, and you know what? I was (and remain) pretty good with that situation.

Marcia and I have spent less, ate healthier, and had far fewer aggravations alongside our meals together since returning home from Florida in March. I’ve developed a nice roster of entrees that we rotate through, including various Indian, Japanese and Chinese stir-fries and sautes, some choice Mexican-inspired favorites (I’m particularly pleased with my posole and self-developed Mexican Lasagna), pasta, rice and tortilla-based dishes built around non-meat products, pizza, salmon, tuna, shrimp and beef with various sauces, and a nice mix of sides, including Low Cackalacky childhood faves like succotash and black-eyed peas. (We’ve not had any chicken or pork, though, as an active act of protest against the ways that Iowa has treated its meat-packing workers in recent months). I’ve also made and eaten more green salads in the past six months than I did in the six years prior, if not longer. So Dining In is okay with me. It’s a positive adaptation to a negative circumstance.

There are times when we can’t Dine In, though, so we’ve been Dining Out(side) in lieu of Dining Out for those meals. Socially distanced picnics with Katelin and John allowed us to visit and catch up with them during the darkest early days of disease time. When we have traveled out of Des Moines, we have taken to finding restaurants that can manage decent carryout experiences, and then eating them in pleasant outdoors environments. (This is easier when the weather is nice, obviously). We had some stellar outdoor meals during our trip out West last month, in fact, a memorable aspect of a soul-affirming change of scenery.

It has been interesting to see how well (or not) various restaurants have adapted to this changed food-service paradigm. One of our favorite neighborhood restaurants was also one of the first to offer carry-out options, which we were glad to give a try for our Anniversary Dinner in June. They seemed to be doing everything right: online ordering, curb-side pickup, contact-free transactions, etc. But, unfortunately, they missed two important elements: creating and preparing food that would travel well, and paying attention to what the customer ordered. We went with their prix fixe menus, choosing three items each, for a total six total items ordered — four of which ended up being the wrong items, or were wildly inconsistent with the menu descriptions, or were made with poor-quality ingredients. I can’t say I’d count them as a favorite neighborhood restaurant anymore accordingly.

I suspect that the restaurants which survive and thrive through and beyond the pandemic are going to be those who can do a much better job on this front, and who remain willing to continue hewing to such a model even after the virus has run its course and/or we have widespread vaccinations available. Because, honestly, at this point even if you remove fear of infection from the Dining Out experience, I’m not feeling particularly eager to reintroduce those two uncontrollable elements that can so wreck a meal — ambience and service experience — into my dinnertime plans, knowing how many truly enjoyable, healthy, affordable and aggravation-free meals we’ve had during lock-down days.

That may certainly be making lemonade from lemons and/or seeking silver linings behind grey clouds, but I think it’s going to be a near-permanent change to the way that I view the acquisition and consumption of foodstuffs. And I suspect that I am not alone on that front. My only regret in feeling this way comes from empathy with and sympathy for those whose careers will be impacted adversely and permanently by such a change of consumer sea-state in the Dining Out industry. I know that we are fortunate to work in fields that will not require such radical self-reinvention, and to have the means to meet our nutritional needs in a way that is pleasing to and healthy for us.

Our COVID Era philanthropy has been devoted toward food security accordingly. Perhaps you, too, could consider reallocating some of your erstwhile Dining Out dollars in a similar fashion? Well, if you already have all of your Guns N’ Roses CDs properly acquired and sorted, anyway.

While I do the cooking, I do not do the baking. That’s Marcia’s purview, and her banana scones were a most delicious treat. (I am hoping that when she sees this post, she will be inspired to make them again, om nom nom!)