My Art Must Stew

I never used to be much of a television watcher, but since the Anno Virum began, Marcia and I have generally watched something on the tube together most nights, even as our once frequent visits to movie theaters have dwindled into negligible numbers. While we’re no longer housebound as the virus has moved from pandemic to endemic state, our pleasant quarantine evening television habit has continued on mostly unabated. That being said, I can never stand to watch garbage just for the sake of killing time, so I do remain pretty selective on what I want to spend my time staring at, and I do a fair amount of reading and research on a running basis to try to find quality films for our evening entertainment.

As longtime readers here are no doubt aware, I’m also an inveterate list-maker, so when I’ve watched films I’ve enjoyed, I add them to a file I keep, so that I might refresh my memory when the end of the year arrives and I want to post my annual best films report here at the website. (Here’s last year’s list, for perspective). I’ve got 52 films released in 2022 on my pending list at the moment, from which I will cull my year-end “Best Of” report, supplementing it with whatever comes out and moves me between now and (nominally) December 31. I’ve seen some truly great films this year, a few that I might consider for my all-time favorite film list. There have been epic performances, amazing scripts, beautiful photography, incredible animation, sublime direction, stellar songs and scores, and all sorts of other cinematic highlights.

In trying to see how and where my own tastes might be aligning with 2022’s cinematic zeitgeist, I recently looked at one of the major trade magazines to see which of my favorite films and performances of the year might be trending highly with the professional cinematic chattering class. And I have to say that I was shocked that not a single one of my 52 favorite films thus far in 2022 appeared on the top contenders’ lists for any of what I count as the major Academy Award categories (Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, Score). Not one! NOT! ONE!!

Interestingly, though, the reason for that was not because I have bad taste, but rather because none of the critics’ favorite films and performances of 2022 have actually been released where regular folks like you and I can see them. They’ve screened at some select festivals or in very limited rund, for the most part, and are then being hoarded until the very end of the year for wide release, since apparently Oscar voters all have memory issues and have to see things within days or weeks or submitting their ballots. The net effect of this approach is that it makes release date much more important than it should be in critical consideration of the year’s best projects, and it also has a self-fulfilling prophecy aspect, as the critics and trade magazines and online repeaters get told over and over again what the best of the best is going to be, before it’s possible to make any decisions based on, you know, actually seeing the films in question.

(As an aside, yes, I know that Oscars don’t really matter, and that year-end lists are all artificial constructs anyway, as art is not bound by calendar-time. But in the same way that January 1 is always seen as a good day for life-changing resolutions to shape the year ahead, so is December 31 seen as a good day for looking back and reflecting. And while I pay less than no attention to the Emmys and Grammies and Tonies and such, Oscar Night still stands with the Super Bowl for me as one of the two big “All-American” television events that I make a point of watching and critiquing every year, for no good reason that I can explain).

This film industry practice got me to thinking about my own approaches to criticism in the public domain, more especially with regard to music. I have written and posted a “Best Albums of the Year” report for 30 straight years, and I usually do it around the end of November, or the beginning of December, believing as I do that I need to live with an album for a month, at least, before I declare it among the best things I heard over the course of a given year. I then do an update or supplement in January if I feel like I need to add anything truly notable that slipped in after that. As I considered the fact this week that Oscar-bait films are all packed into the end of the year, I then started to wonder how long I actually tended to live with albums over years past before judging them to be the best things I heard in any given year.

Fortunately, since this website and my prior print archives go back that far, and then some, I was able to check the actual release dates of all 30 albums that I have judged to be the best of the best since 1992. Of those thirty, here is how their release dates fell by month over the past three decades:

  • January: Three albums
  • February: One album
  • March: Three albums
  • April: Five albums
  • May: Two albums
  • June: Six albums
  • July: Three albums
  • August: Two albums
  • September: Five albums
  • October: No albums
  • November: No albums
  • December: No albums

The earliest annual date that any of my Albums of the Year were released was January 8, when I gave the 2016 nod to David Bowie’s Blackstar. Him dying two days after releasing a masterpiece probably cemented that one before anybody else had gotten off the dime. The latest annual release date for any of my Albums of the Year was all the way back in 1994, when I awarded that personal honor to Ween’s Chocolate and Cheese, released on September 27. I know there are a ton of albums I love that were released in various Octobers, Novembers and Decembers over the past three decades, but none of them have sunk in well enough for me to declare them the best before the artificial end point of the calendar year arrives.

I guess the other thing that this exercise shows me is that I could go ahead and do my Best Albums list in October each year. Hey, maybe then I would be one of the critics influencing other critics in making their own year-end lists. At least that way they’d be picking things that regular listeners could actually hear, not things that are still in the “review copies only” pipeline. It’s a thought, though not one I will implement this year, with November already around the corner.

As it turns out, three artists who I have previously selected for a Best Album of the Year nod have just or will soon release new records: Goat, First Aid Kit, and Dry Cleaning. Their new records are all very good on first listens, and they will certainly place on my year-end list whenever I get around to doing it. But can one of them move me so deeply, so quickly, that Chocolate and Cheese gets bumped off as the latest-release entry in my pantheon of album greatness? I don’t know. It seems unlikely, but I suppose that it does remain conceptually possible. You know where to look, later this year, to find out the answer.

First Aid Kit are among three artists I have recognized as Album of the Year creators in more than one year, along with David Bowie and Björk. The new First Aid Kit record is not out yet in general release, so I suppose I will resist the urge to play Oscar Voter and declare it 2022’s best now, before you can hear it. You’re welcome.

Sedona Biennial

Two years ago this weekend, I snapped this photo . . .

That road just behind the highway signs marks the border between Iowa and Missouri, and as soon as this picture was shot, we drove south across it, leaving Iowa for the last time after a total of six years (over two stints) as residents of the Hawkeye State. We were most ready to be elsewhere at that point, so we took the sunbeams lighting the path ahead, under the glowering skies, to be a fine portent for days and miles to come.

Three days later, I took this photo out the front window of our temporary rental house in uptown Sedona, Arizona:

Within 72 hours of capturing that scene, we put an offer on a lovely house, which was accepted, and we moved into our new digs over Thanksgiving Weekend, 2020. It’s been an amazingly packed and exciting time since then, for sure, and we remain most pleased with our choice of domicile, two years in. That’s not always been the case for us after moves in the past, so that makes us appreciate the current situation even more, knowing from experience how it feels when a new location isn’t as pleasing to us.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve done hikes to local high points that provide nice round senses of closure and capture on those two years. In the Sedona photo above, see that highest peak to the left hand side of the image? That’s Wilson Mountain. I was up at its summit recently, and here’s what it looks like gazing back down from there on that first temporary house, and beyond:

And then a few days ago, after several exploratory attempts over the last couple of years, I finally found a pretty good bushwhacking route from our house up to the eastern flanks of our friendly neighborhood volcano, House Mountain. (I’ve been there before, but always from the longer, more distant western flanks). I was rewarded with a lovely panoramic view of the entirety of our current home community, The Village of Oak Creek. Here’s that scene (as always, with any of these pictures, you can click the image to see them at full size); our house is right against and below the face of the front range of rounded red rocks to the left of the visible central massif:

And to close the two-year reminiscence, here’s what our house in VOC looks like right now, properly bedecked with signs offering our support and encouragement to our local Democratic candidates for office. We hope to take them down in a few weeks with similar smiles on our faces as to their efficacy:

10,000 Words for the Firing Squad (Sedona #14)

 

(Note: Click on any image above for a full-size view, or visit the links below to see what I’ve seen in prior months and years).

PRIOR ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

Where Will 10,000 Words Come From (Sedona #13)

10,000 Words in a Language We Understand (Sedona #12)

O For 10,000 Words To Sing (Sedona #11)

Land of 10,000 Words (Sedona #10)

Fumbling Over 10,000 Words That Rhyme (Sedona #9)

10,000 Words On A Chair (Sedona #8)

The Night Has 10,000 Words (Sedona #7)

10,000 Words From The Exit Wound (Sedona #6)

What Are 10,000 Words For? (Sedona #5)

10,000 Words In A Cardboard Box (Sedona #4)

10,000 Words (Bless The Lord) (Sedona #3)

Brighter Than 10,000 Words (Sedona #2)

10,000 Words (Sedona #1)

Storm Force 10,000 Words (Chicago #10)

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save 10,000 Words (Chicago #9)

Beyond the Valley of 10,000 Words (Chicago #8)

Return to the Planet of 10,000 Words (Chicago #7)

Revenge of the Son of 10,000 Words (Chicago #6)

Son of Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #5)

Yet Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #4)

Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #3)

10,000 More Words (Chicago #2)

10,000 Words (Chicago)

Arches and Zion Whirlwind Tour

Marcia and I did a 1,200-mile long road trip over five days this week to visit two of our Nation’s more spectacular national parks: Arches (near Moab, Utah) and Zion (near Springdale, Utah). Katelin and John drove over from Las Vegas to meet us for the last couple of days at Zion, and we were able to celebrate their first wedding anniversary together, just a little bit after the official date. We had near perfect weather, and while crowds in the parks were larger than we like or are accustomed to, we know they were nowhere near as bad as they could be, so that was fine, in the grand scheme of things.

We drove up to Moab on Wednesday, taking the route through the Navajo Nation and past Monument Valley, with a stop at the Edge of Cedars State Park in Blanding, Utah. We generally enjoy the various museums in our region dedicated to native arts, history and culture, and this one was a particularly good one, with some excellent interpretative exhibitions, and an accessible, well-conserved ~1,000-year old kiva from an Ancestral Puebloan community partially excavated on the museum grounds.

After we had checked into our hotel in Moab, we  decided to have a nice pre-dinner ramble along the downtown greenway trail that parallels Mill Creek, and a few minutes into the walk were shocked to see the aftermath of a 100-year flood event that had devastated the low-lying regions of the city last month, unbeknownst to us. Large swaths of the trail were still impassable, so we just altered our amble to the retail district instead, then had the first of two really good meals we experienced during our nights in Moab, at Thai Bella. We rose before sunrise on Thursday to drive into the National Park (they have implemented a timed entry program requiring advance registration, so plan ahead before you visit), and got to pass some of the park’s more prominent vistas with beautiful dawn colors behind them. We hiked about 12 miles over the course of the day, seeing (or often passing through) most of the better-known arches. A good day, capped with our second tasty dinner at Sultan Mediterranean Grill.

On Friday, we drove down to Springdale, Utah, following the same route we had taken when we helped Katelin and John move from Des Moines to Las Vegas. It was much more pleasant this time, when it wasn’t 110ºF out, let me assure you. We had a nice dinner that night (are you detecting a theme?) at Dulivia, then got up early Saturday to catch the shuttle buses into the Scenic Canyon Drive at the heart of the National Park. A sizable chunk of the hiking area I’d hope to visit was closed due to rock falls in 2019 and continuing instability in the area, but we did get in about eight miles worth of trekking, which was beautiful, if a bit congested around the sites that get the most social media hype. We closed the last night of the trip with Katelin and John’s anniversary dinner at Switchback Grill, then after a lazy breakfast together, headed home, completing the big loop part of the trip near Tuba City, Arizona.

We felt like a full day in Arches was sufficient to get the experience of the place, but could definitely use another day or two in Zion at some point, especially if some of the closed trails in the Canyon re-open. Barring that happening, we’d probably focus our next trip on the less-congested, more-isolated flanks of the park east of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, and west along the Kolob Canyons. While I do certainly applaud the use of shuttles to minimize traffic and enhance conservation in the heart of the park, I can’t say I was fond of the experience of having to queue to catch them, nor of having each shuttle disgorging large loads of people with us when we exited, so that it became a race up the trailheads to get away from the less-experienced, and often obnoxiously loud about it, hikers. But that was, all things considered, a minor annoyance in a glorious piece of country.

And not to sound smug or self-satisfied, but this trip also furthers our appreciation of the place where we’ve chosen to make our home, as we’ve got some equally spectacular scenery and hiking opportunities within walking or quick driving distance. We know our home area well enough at this point to be able to partake in the best hikes and bask in the best vistas, often never seeing anybody else en route, because most online resources send most visitors to the same densely-packed photo op sites, which we generally avoid accordingly. Our visits to Arches and Zion also hammered home my sense that hikes and climbs to high, edgy destinations are much better when you’re not having to be constantly vigilant about selfie-shooters falling off cliff faces or knocking others down in their pursuit of the perfect Instagram shot. I’m very comfortable doing high elevation, exposed hikes with small groups of people I trust, but I find it pretty deeply uncomfortable to be in such places with people running along ridge edges in flip flops or clambering out on cantilevered rocks and ledges to get the perfect shot or just generally being oblivious to the safety of those around them, and the care and preservation of the sites attracting their attention. Harrumph.

No surprise, but I snapped a lot of pictures on the trip, as did John and Marcia, and I’ve put a collection together which you can check out, should you care to, by clicking on the photo below of Delicate Arch, one of Utah’s most iconic visual images. Note that no other human beings were put at risk by my photo-making activities, nor were any natural sites despoiled. Those aren’t hard outcomes to achieve, with some self-awareness and care, and some basic respect for the experiences of others.

 

You Can’t Stop Progress

1. Another week, another need to make a couple of “in memoriam” observations. I guess that comes with getting older, huh? First, I note with deep respect and awe the passing of author and artist Brian Catling, who emerged late in his life as an incredible and prolific novelist, creating a strange and wondrous canon that I devoured in its entirety. His official website (which has not been updated to note his passing as I am typing this) is a treasure trove of weirdness, touching on the host of creative and transgressive activities in which he has engaged for many decades; I recommend giving it a look-see. Closer to home, on this website, I’ve twice written essays about his works, and I link to those pages below, encouraging you to explore his work, if you can, and if you dare:

2. I also note the passing of the amazing jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders this week, at the age of 81. After struggling to find an audience for his work in the early 1960s, Sanders joined John Coltrane’s live group in 1964, and played with that legend until Trane’s death in 1967, crafting an extraordinarily influential and powerful body of work together. Sanders then emerged as a band-leader in his own right, and also as a key collaborator with Alice Coltrane (John’s widow) on a series of albums that shaped the form of what’s come to be known as spiritual jazz. After a long quiet phase, Sanders re-emerged last year with a beautiful, haunting, and critically-acclaimed new album called Promises, which was a collaborative effort featuring electronic artist Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It will prove to be a most worthy musical epitaph, for sure. My own personal favorite from Pharoah’s catalog sits at the heart of his long collaboration with vocalist Leon Thomas, the 1969 album Karma, and its cornerstone cut, “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” I consider that (long) song to be one of the most incredible works in the history of jazz, an epic suite with a beautiful and accessible melody that’s torn to shreds and rebuilt multiple times over the work’s run, creating senses of tension and relief that feel like life itself feels, glorious and harrowing in equal measure. At its sweetest points, it can move you like the most gracious gospel music ever recorded, then in its hardest breakdowns, it feels as intense and atonal and chaotic as the most abrasive things in my industrial and death metal catalogs. But it all works and flows flawlessly, a piece so much larger than the sum of its parts, truly. In the LP’s original format, “Creator” was split across two sides of the record, so I do appreciate that in our modern digital era, we can get the whole thing as a single track. Do yourself a solid sometime this week: carve out a half-hour of time and crank this jam in your fave listening zone, and feel the world change a little bit, just because you did:

3. We spent three days last week in Prescott, Arizona (our county seat) where Marcia had been selected to serve jury duty. Fortunately, her case was not as long and painful as the one that I got pulled into last year, which ran for nearly three weeks. As I wrote about in item #2 here, Arizona has a very small number of very large counties, meaning that getting to our local seat of power is a long drive. We elected to stay over in Prescott accordingly, and I figured I could get some good hikes in while Marcia was doing her civic duty. Alas, the weather did not cooperate and it rained almost the entire time we were there, meaning I spent a lot of time reading in our hotel room. But I was able to get one decent schlep up onto Thumb Butte during a brief sunny window one day, for a nice view back down over Prescott:

I had another brief window of opportunity to be out and about the next day, so decided (as one does)(when one is weird) to check out a little cemetery nearby that I’d spotted on the map. There’s almost always something interesting to see in any out-of-the-way burial site. This one proved to quite weird indeed, a semi-abandoned (I think) Independent Order of Odd Fellows graveyard that seemed to have peaked in terms of burials between the 1930s and 1970s, but is largely overgrown and disheveled looking now. But, oddly enough (no pun intended) there were interesting clusters of graves that were clearly receiving regular love, attention and visitation, even though none of them were anything close to current or recent burials. The odd vibe was enhanced by the presence of various vehicles tucked away in various corners with various people sitting in them for no obvious reasons, which tends to imply that this location is either a good place to score drugs or a good place for sexual adventuring. Or both. And neither of those propositions were the least bit appealing to me, so I made my rounds, snapped some snaps, and beat a discreet retreat, keeping a cautious eye out as I worked my way back down the muddy trail toward town. Here’s a peek at what it looked like, minus the creepers in their cars:

4. Between the Anno Virum and our moves from the cultural hub of Chicago to the less culturally endowed Des Moines and Sedona, getting to see good live music has mostly become a memory for us, not a current-day regular activity. But we did catch a nice al fresco show this weekend at a block party thrown by one of the regulars in the group with which I hike each Monday. The featured group was called Black Forest Society, and they offered a really engaging collection of original songs from within an interesting voice, guitar, cello, and percussion line-up. Their music is ostensibly folk-based, but it features a lot of open tunings and drones and wordless ululations that give it an interesting cross-cultural vibe evoking both traditional (Asian) Indian and Celtic motifs and moods. I particularly enjoyed their songs that featured 12-string guitar work, some of which reminded me of the late, great Robbie Basho and his yeoman efforts to bring steel-stringed guitars into the classical traditions of Indian music, establishing a western raga system in the process. Toss in the fact that we were sitting outdoors with friends, noshing tasty snacks, surrounded by our wondrous red rocks, and it made for a really lovely Sunday outing; you can click on the photo below to visit Black Forest Society’s website and hear some samples of their music:

5. Speaking of my Monday hiking group, we did another fantastic backwoods trek yesterday, (way) up to four native ruins, two with impressive rock art formations, all of them located on precipitous overhangs with challenging approaches. Click the pic below, at the first ruin we visited, to see the mini-photo-album for this trek:

6. And to close on another happy note, we wished Katelin and John a most happy first anniversary this week, all of us noting that it seems hard to believe that it’s been a year since we traveled to their home in Las Vegas for their wedding. We’re heading out for a little road trip tomorrow up to Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, then over to Zion National Park in the southwestern part of the Beehive State. Katelin and John will be driving over from Vegas to join us while we are in Zion, so we’ll celebrate their anniversary properly in person then. We love them dearly, and are proud of them always.

Nail on the Head

1. My prior post noted the anniversary of a moment of great private mourning for my family, just as the very public mourning for Queen Elizabeth II was beginning. That was a lot of heavy matter spilling out of the Interweb Pipes all at once here, as I don’t enjoy feeling like a ghoul picking over the remains of the dearly departed. That said, I do want to note two other recent passings of personal import to me, then will move on to some less death-centric material.

Firstly, astrophysicist Frank Drake passed away earlier in September. He spent much of his career engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) from a macro hard science standpoint, not from the fringes of the micro bug-eyed men with anal probes standpoint. He was involved in Project Ozma in 1960, which was one of the first technologically sophisticated attempts to discern communications signals from the stars. Dr. Drake later went on to play key roles in developing the Pioneer Plaque, the Voyager Golden Record and the Arecibo Message. But his achievement that resonates most closely for me was his Drake Equation, developed in 1961. Marcia, Katelin and I all have that equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here’s two-thirds of the family collection, freshly inked:

The Drake Equation is a probabilistic calculation designed to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. Here’s an explainer of its various elements. We know a lot more about some of its variables today than we did when Dr. Drake postulated his argument, but for most of the variables related to potential intelligent life forms, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of but one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all. The equation resonates with us as a family in a variety of ways, and has framed a variety of discussions and digressions among us over the years. But at bottom line, I think Marcia summed up what we love about it best, when she noted: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” Amen. Thanks for that, Dr. Drake.

A second memorial nod must be tipped toward the late great jazz-man Ramsey Lewis, who died this week after an incredibly long career as a composer, performer, radio host, educator, and philanthropist. His best known works were recorded around the time that I was born, yet they still sound vibrant and joyful to modern ears, or at least my modern ears anyway. Lewis’ trio was also where the equally late and equally lamented Maurice White cut his performing teeth, before departing to launch Earth, Wind and Fire to massive creative, commercial, and critical acclaim. While we were living in Chicago, we got to catch a special performance by Ramsey as part of the Chicago Jazz Festival, a gig billed as his retirement performance, which turned out to be a passionate, warm, emotional experience of great heft to the creative community in the city where Ramsey spent the vast majority of his life. Here are a pair of Ramsey Lewis’ most beloved performances, offered with immense respect for his life and work:

2. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about respectfully visiting a variety of hard-to-find, hard-to-see native historic sites in and around our area. The group I hike with have since done two more excursions up into the highlands at the northern edge of our local red rocks region, and we did find some interesting ruins, if not any dramatic rock art. For these hikes, for me, the highlights were actually the views from on high. While archaeological assessments of native sites obviously focus on the practical reasons why people would have lived there (e.g. access to food and water, shelter from the elements, safety from other humans, etc.), I do deeply believe that our ancestors also must have shared some version of our own appreciation for “location, location, location,” especially for locations with utterly exquisite views. Here are a pair of snaps from each of those past two hikes. Wouldn’t you have loved to live here too? (Note: at the tip of the central promontory on which I am standing in the second photo, you may just be able to see one of the ruins we visited; I’d wager it was a sentry or guard post, based on the panoramic views of all approach routes from within its confines; you can click either photo to see a larger version).

3. Closer to home, and while I’m sorting photos, we have fine views from our windows and yard, though not quite as grand as the ones above. We also have an incredible variety of visitors who make their homes in our yard, or at least pass through on a regular basis. I’ve posted a lot of photos of various yard critters here over the past two years, but here are three guests who came to see us since last I posted. Note that the mule deer is reacting to one of the very few yard guests that I don’t like: the mosquitoes that swarm here after the monsoon leaves plentiful pools of water for them to breed in, ugh.

4. I’ve long used arcane titling conventions for posts like this one, which offer a variety of short pieces rather than a single conceptual article. Back in 2017, I tried to recreate the roster of those conventions in a post called So Many Ways To Say Some Stuff. For a variety of reasons, it seemed that after I compiled that list, I didn’t find myself writing many such posts anymore, favoring instead a variety of more series-based articles like Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists, or 10,000 Words, or Best of the Archives, or With Which I Am Well Pleased. By early 2022, I was feeling a bit burnt-out by all of those various series, and by the pace that I’d kept up here throughout the Anno Virum, and by the time being consumed by a not-yet-ready-for-public-announcement writing project away from the web. I whithered a bit on what to do, and have cut back the frequency of posting here since then, but that seemed to open up the window to more compendium posts again, like this one. I only state that publicly here to note that my naming convention for such posts through 2022 has been based on song titles by the great Uriah Heep, and that after fourteen such posts, I think it’s time to move on to a new rubric. I know that virtually no one reading this piffle and tripe will note such arcane conventions, nor necessarily pick up on the new paradigm, but it pleases me to have structure, and to have little tricks and hooks that help me sort the immense volume of stuff here, even if nobody notices but me.

Twenty Years

My father died twenty years ago today, shortly after he was critically injured by an elderly driver who blacked out behind the wheel of his car, leading to a head-on auto accident. Dad died in the same hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where I had been born some four decades earlier. He was not conscious when I arrived at the hospital, and he never regained consciousness, though my mother and sister and I (plus a close family friend) were there with him when he left the troubles of this world behind and flew away.

In the brief period after the accident while he was still able to communicate with us, Dad watched from his hospital bed while his beloved North Carolina State Wolfpack stomped my own alma mater Navy’s football team by a score of 65 to 19. The last time that we spoke, by phone, we talked about that game, despite his morphine fog. I’m glad he got to see it. The last words he heard from me on that phone call were “I love you.” We’re one of those families that ends pretty much every phone conversation or written communication with those words, because you never know what tomorrow might bring. In this case, tomorrow brought something awful, so having said that was important to me.

We ran this memorial on the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death. Time flies, and it doesn’t ever move backward.

The day after my father’s death, we were all engaged in the sad business associated with funeral arrangements and announcements and such, precisely as the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks were being marked around the country, adding a surreal extra layer of national grief and loss to our own personal mourning experiences. I delivered the eulogy at my Dad’s funeral a couple of days later, having crafted it quickly on his old computer in his old office, reading from a printed hard copy that, alas, I did not save after the service. But I believe I’ve recreated and summarized the gist of my remarks a few times over the years, and they went something like this . . .

Colonel Charles R. Smith, Jr., (July 29, 1939 – September 10, 2002) was born and raised in the small Piedmont mill town of Albemarle, North Carolina. He attended and graduated from North Carolina State University before being commissioned in the United States Marine Corps in 1961. He served on active duty for 28 years, retiring as Chief of Staff at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, then going on to career in ministry as the station manager and on-air personality for the largest Christian radio station in South Carolina’s Low Country.

My father was a combat veteran of both Vietnam and Lebanon, and was handsomely decorated for his service over the years, earning The Legion of Merit, The Bronze Star (with combat V), The Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), The Navy Commendation Medal (with Silver Star), The Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal (two awards), The National Defense Service Medal, The Vietnam Service Medal (with four stars), The Humanitarian Service Medal, The Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (two awards, with Silver Star and Palm and Frame), The Presidential Unit Commendation (one star), The Combat Action Ribbon (one star), The Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and The Lebanese Order of the Cedar. He’s one of a very small number of non-Lebanese citizens to receive that last honor, granted to him for his peace-making work as Marine liaison to Ambassador Philip Habib, a crucial and meaningful side duty while he was serving as Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut in 1982-83.

While the biography that can be gleaned from my father’s list of medals and ribbons was an important part of who and what he was, there was obviously more to his life than the details of his military accomplishments. Dad was well educated with a pair of Masters Degrees, and he spent much of his life as an educator, either directly (as a school teacher, later in his life) or indirectly (as a mentor, storyteller, sage, and church elder). He was a man of great, deep faith, who touched countless lives through his ministries. He was also a “foodie” without pretense, who could just as easily appreciate a good chili dog as he could a fine meal at one of the world’s great restaurants. He was a loving husband to my mom, a great dad to my sister and I, and a doting grandfather to my daughter, niece and nephew.

But I think what I miss the most, when all’s said and done, is the fact that he was really quite the goofball much of the time, and was a lot of fun to spend time with. He had an infectious laugh, and loved to tell tall tales and stories; the truth was malleable for him, and did not necessarily have to correspond to reality. (The excellent Tim Burton movie, Big Fish, could have been his biography). He also found humor in all sorts of places where most folks didn’t look for it. I remember one time when my sister and I were young and our Mom was away for some reason, so Dad was left with the responsibility of making dinner for us. He spent a long time in the kitchen that night making a very special dinner for us: A Spam Lamb (for my sister) and a Spam Ram (for me). Both of them were anatomically correct, ahem.

We laughed and laughed and laughed through our dinner, and meat from a can never tasted as good as it did that night. Later, I watched him make his grandchildren laugh just as hard as he did his children, which was lovely, and powerful, and memorable. I will miss that, a lot. I know I’m not alone in that regard.

Groovy Early ’70s Summertime Family Photo, taken in my grandparents’ backyard in Albemarle, North Carolina.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since I first wrote and delivered some version of those words. Some days, it seems like a lifetime ago, since so much has changed since then — but other times, it feels like yesterday, since I remember it all so vividly, down to the tiniest details that usually fade with time. A couple of years after my father died, I was asked to contribute an article for a “summer special” edition of the alternative newsweekly for which I wrote, describing unique or lasting memories of the year’s balmiest season. I think that was the first time that I formally put pen to paper (proverbially speaking) after the funeral to try to capture the experience of time spent with my Dad, and then the experience of the days after, without him. Here’s a link to that article, if you’d like to read it.

We were in Santa Barbara this summer on what would have been my Dad’s 83rd birthday. I got a good beach hot dog in his honor, though my Mom correctly pointed out that it should have had greasy chili sauce and mustard and way too many onions on it to properly replicate his preferences. Urp.

I miss my Dad, at bottom line, all these years on, and I rue the fact that he was not with us in the flesh to share in so many amazing experiences over the past two decades. And, thus, I must make the public service announcement that I offer pretty much anytime I mention my father online: if you know an elderly or infirm driver who is no longer capable of safely operating a motor vehicle, you really need to graciously, yet firmly, facilitate and support that person’s transition to a non-driving state. The man who killed my father walked away with a sprained wrist, while our lives were irrevocably changed, forever, for the worse. You don’t want your own loved ones to be responsible for doing that to somebody else’s family. So take the keys when it’s time to do so, please and thanks.

One final closing memory: I think I inherited a strong penchant for taking dubious shortcuts when driving or hiking or biking from my Dad, as part of both of our penchants for wanting to see how things connect, even if the shortest path between Points A and B is a dirty and dangerous and stupid one. I remember one time when I was a kid, probably of the age shown in that family photo above, and my Dad and I hiked up Morrow Mountain in the Uwharries of Central North Carolina. You could drive to the top of the mountain by car, or walk up along the road, taking advantage of the many switchbacks. Or you could just clamber straight up the steep faces between the switchbacks, although the park rangers probably wouldn’t have much cared for the third choice. So, of course, that was the one we chose. We made it to the top, so all’s well that ends well, but it wasn’t one of our brighter father-son outings together. Oh well . . . I guess if we’d just walked up the road or driven to the top, I wouldn’t have written this sonnet about that day, some 30 years after it happened:

The serpent switchbacks cut the mountain’s side,
each hairpin turn just higher than the last.
Straight up, between the curves, a gravel slide,
where trees were felled by avalanches past.
Both slide and road went to the mountain’s peak,
one paved and winding, one more steep, but straight.
We stood there at the bottom, by the creek,
and chose the rock slide without much debate.
We scrambled up the loose slate, crossed the road,
and climbed the next pile, careful of sharp shale,
bypassing slippery spots where moisture showed,
ignoring man-made paths for nature’s trail.
Exhausted when we finally reached the top,
amazed, on looking back, how steep the drop.

 

A Year or a Day

1. September? It’s September already? Only three weeks until the equinox? Yeesh. That snuck up on me. We’re greeting the month here in Northern Arizona (and most of the American Southwest) with some extremely hot temperatures again, and they feel even hotter than usual after a month of good monsoon, as discussed (with photo and video support) in my last post.  Hopefully everybody’s 2022 is going better than most of our 2021’s and 2020’s went, but if not, take heart: September 1 marks the “twice as far behind as yet to go” point for the year. Which reminds me of a poem I wrote a decade and a half ago, during a year when I was publicly committed to writing a poem a day for a year:

I’m very tired of pushing words like snow,
then slipping on the forms that lie below.
I think I might just stop here now, although
I’ve twice as far behind as yet to go.
The words that used to pour out, now don’t come,
I often feel as though I’m stricken dumb.
But looking back, I see how far I’ve come:
there’s twice as far behind as yet to come.
Off in the distance, maybe, I can see
an ending to my self-imposed decree.
I guess I can be proud, to some degree
with twice as much behind as yet to be.
So here I sit, and write, at this plateau
with twice as far behind as yet to go.

2. Through a series of fortuitous connections, I’ve fallen in with a group of serious hikers who go out every Monday morning on the types of treks that I really like, typically involving beautiful (but obscure) destinations, frequent bushwhacking in the back country, and fairly strenuous climbs and descents. The group also has a great appreciation for the proliferation of Native American rock art and ruins scattered throughout this region, most of them left behind by the people dubbed The Sinagua by Europeans and Americans who later settled the region. The Sinagua left this area en masse around 1425 AD, so whenever you find their remains, you know you’re looking at something that’s at least 600 years old. I’ve posted a variety of images in my various photo series over the past two years sharing some of the public and obscure sites that I’ve visited, but on this past Monday’s hike, our group went to one of the most amazing Sinagua art sites that I’ve yet seen. I posted some shots from that hike over at my Flickr site, and you can click on the image below to see the remainder of them.

3. You may note that I do not disclose the location of the site in that photo album, and that’s generally been the case for any native sites that I find or visit hereabouts, excluding the ones that are readily open to the public under Forest or Park Service administration. I have increasingly come to believe that over-sharing on the Internet is destroying the experience of visiting sites like these, or high-profile natural locations, and I’m routinely annoyed at finding sites online with detailed descriptions making it relatively easy to find things that would be better-to-best experienced by having a knowledgeable and respectful local help you to see. (This applies to lots of things, actually. I’m equally bemused/appalled to see long lines at restaurants in towns where I have lived that locals consider marginal at best, but which for some reason have incorrectly convinced Tripadvisor or Yelp or whoever of their supposed excellence). That sense of annoyance about disrespectful visitors is even more exacerbated when I encounter people near or at these sites who are fundamentally unprepared to get there and be there, stereotypical case in point the time when I met a female “hiker” wearing yoga clothes and ballet slippers, dragging an out-of-shape photographer behind her carrying a massive equipment bag, but not much water. It was clear that her top priority was getting a fabulous Instagram-type influencer photo with professional assistance, and while I was going the other way and did not see the actual photo shoot, I can easily imagine her standing on or laying hands on things that should not be climbed nor touched. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love taking pictures (duh) pretty much everywhere I go, but the focus of the pictures is not on me looking fabulous, nor is it to provide a roadmap for strangers to follow, only a documentation of what I’ve done, because I’m a list-making, documentarian kind of guy. Be clear: I would be thrilled to take any friends or anybody who reads this site regularly up to these sorts of Native sites to see (but not touch) them, just as I was thrilled when others took me there for the first time. But I’m not going to use my website to make it possible for strangers with questionable intentions (to my views, anyway) to get there.

4. You might have noticed the owl in that photo album, if you visited it. I was leading the way in trying to find a path up to mesa we wanted to summit, and dropped down into a mostly dry wash to get some easier walking space. I came upon a small pool of water, and as I was looking for a way around it, what I thought was a rock turned its head and stared at me. Ye Gods! I figured I’d be lucky to get a single photo of this handsome fellow before he flew off, but he (using that gender neutrally, as I can’t bring myself to refer to sentient animals as “it”) was oddly calm and let me and my group (once they caught up to me) admire him. We were a bit worried that he might be bit under the weather given that odd behavior, and had we found him somewhere less remote with phone service, we might have called Animal Control to see if he needed rescue and rehab. But I’m cautiously hopeful that he was, perhaps, just a juvenile who had not yet encountered humans and so did not know to be frightened of us, if we made no threatening moves toward him. We walked on after a while, and I’m telling myself that Mr Owl had a nice rest, got a good sip of water, and then has continued on with his business, living his best possible owl life. As for us, the remainder of our hike got strenuous even by our standards, as we ended up in a blind wash and had to climb our way out through a dense half-mile, filled with cat’s claw acacia, agave, prickly pears, and other pokey, bitey, spiny flora. I looked like something out of a serial killer movie by the time I got home, every bit of exposed skin scratched to pieces. And I didn’t get the worst of it among our crew. Here’s hoping we find a cleaner path next week.

5. On the topic of hiking destinations filled with obnoxious “hikers” around here, the worst is absolutely Devil’s Bridge, a natural arch that’s relatively accessible, and is extremely highly documented on the web. I generally avoid it at all costs, because I’m averse to having to park a mile away from a trailhead, walk along the side of a busy road, and then embark upon a hike that culminates in a point on a trail where there’s a long line and a half-hour wait as people take turns walking the arch and posing for the “perfect” photo, that looks exactly like every other “perfect” photo taken there. That’s just not my idea of a good commune with nature. But a couple of weeks back, my hiking group was in the general vicinity of Devil’s Bridge, and our planned hike turned out to be a little shorter and easier than is our norm, so we decided to take a back route up to Devil’s Bridge just to add some steps to our schlep. We got up to the point where you can walk across the formation, and there was the usual throng of posing folks there. Meh. I had no desire to have the stereotypical Devil’s Bridge photo of me taken, but I did have a desire to document my explorations, so I elected to get what I think is a better shot of the formation anyway, climbing down to snap it from the underside:

Pretty cool, huh? From that vantage point, it was impossible to see the assholery going on up top, and that was a nice win from my perspective.