Note: I guess when I wasn’t looking, this somehow turned into a series. Here are the prior installments if you missed them or want to revisit . . .
Note: Here’s my new “Leading Thoughts” article from TREE Press, the monthly newsletter of TREE Fund. If it inspires you not only to feats of creativity, but feats of generosity as well, you’ve still got 12 days to support my Tour des Trees ride campaign, here.
TREE Fund works hard throughout the year to raise money for tree research and education. Our usual pitch to donors can be generically boiled down to “more scientific knowledge leads to better management of urban forests, which then leads to a whole spectrum of benefits to people.” Because we are focused on practical applications of scientific knowledge, the human benefits we focus on in fundraising also tend to be the most practical, scientific ones, e.g. storm water, erosion and UV radiation mitigation, carbon sequestration, air quality, wind and sound barriers, etc. There are also a lot of economic benefits that we discuss, especially when making appeals to municipal or business leaders: increased property values and retail sales (along with increased tax revenues), attracting skilled workers, reducing property crime, etc.
We probably spend the least amount of time discussing the “soft” benefits of urban forests — inspiring creativity, building sense of community, providing gathering places, etc. — because they seem the furthest removed from the hard scientific research we fund. But on some plane, those “heart string” stories are the ones that motivate and connect people at the most deeply personal levels to the trees in their lives. A personal example: as a young(er) writer, long before I knew that urban forestry existed as a profession (never mind how to spell “arboriculture”), trees moved me deeply enough that I published a poetry chapbook called The Woods. It didn’t make me much money, nor did it win me any acclaim, but it felt good to write and share, as a tangible expression of how resonant and important trees and forests were to me.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched another delightful tree-inspired creative endeavor unfolding: Jimmy Shen, a professional botanic photographer based in east China, connected with me via the TREE Fund website to tell me about his book Ginkgo: The Living Fossil. Jimmy lives and works near the mountain homes of wild and native ginkgo biloba, and has spent decades exploring and capturing their beauty, history, folklore, science, and importance in Chinese and global culture. You can learn more about his work by clicking here – and then maybe reflect for a moment on the myriad intangible ways that your support for tree research and education may, several steps down the line and in unpredictable ways, inspire or empower someone else to create a beautiful, life-affirming work like Jimmy’s.
It was very warm and very nice in Key West while we were there.
It was neither in Chicago, nor is it since our return last night.
Oh well, that’s what vacation is for, I suppose.
Some snaps of the New Year’s festivities on Duval Street below. The crowds were dense and formidable, since it’s just a two-lane city street in front of the shoe drop, not a vast public square as in New York City. We came, we saw, we left as soon as it was done accordingly.
And then we returned to the frigid zone the next day. It’s not pleasant, but I will note that even when the weather is dire, I always find that Chicago is one of the prettiest cities on the planet when you’re making final approach in the evening, so rather than beefing about the cold, I celebrate returning home with those images in mind instead, and share them with you below.
We are closing in on the shortest day of the year, and that always puts me in a reflective mood, so how’s about a trawl through 2017 to summarize the year that was, for those interested in such matters. (And if that doesn’t include any of you, well, then at least I’ve given myself a nice summary for future reference. Excelsior!)
ON THE WEB:
I posted 35 thingies (some fiendish) on the blog this year. The number actually surprised me; I would have guessed less. Last year I posted 27 times, though I was working on the short story project, so at least I was producing more long-form stuff than I did this year. In 2015, I posted 77 times. I guess either this blog’s swirling along a slow spiral to oblivion (like most blogs), or this is just the new normal. We’ll see what 2018 brings us. The ten most read new posts here in 2017 were:
- (My) Best Book of the 21st Century
- Best Albums of 2017
- (My) Best Albums of the 21st Century
- My Top 200 Albums of All Time (2017 Update)
- (My) Best Movies of the 21st Century
- Don’t Take Me Alive: Walter Becker (1950-2017)
- New Facts (Finally) Emerge
- Show Me Where You Are: The Geography of Steely Dan
- Never Talking To You Again
The ten old posts that got the most traffic in 2017 were as follows. It’s always fascinating to me which of the 1,000-ish posts that I keep on the blog interest people (or search engines, anyway) the most all these years on . . .
- The Worst Rock Band Ever
- How To Write a Record Review
- March Of The Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Record Ever
- Iowa Pick-Up Lines
- Interview with Dave Boquist of Son Volt (1999)
- Furthur Festival ’96
- Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands
- Coffee and Crystal Meth (A Play In One Act)
- Good Riddance to the Times Union
- Pink Flag at Map Ref 41 N 93 W
I gave up on Facebook years ago, but I remain active on Twitter. I have learned after a very long time online that accepting or seeking connections just for the sake of doing so is a tool for madness, so I generally ascribe to Dunbar’s Number and try to keep my follows and followers around the 150 level. I am a little high on both fronts right now, so there might be some purging to be done by year’s end. On a political front (while I try not to write about that much here), Tiny Blue Isle is my go-to aggregator for Chicago-oriented progressive stuff. Bonus points for them using my poem as inspiration for their handle. I should also note that a photograph I took during the Chicago Marathon went wildly viral, for all of the wrong/right reasons (depending on whose views you take).
Where I used to regularly read one or more newspapers each morning to get my day started, my train commuting routine now involves three websites, which are almost always refreshed on a daily basis, and which fill the time in a very satisfying fashion as I rumble down the rails from Chicago to Naperville. In the order that I read them each day:
- The Fall Online Forum: I’ve been a reader here for about 15 years, and an active poster for over a decade. You don’t have to be a fan of legendary English band The Fall to have fun in this forum: it’s high volume, with threads on pretty much everything under the sun, and some things from elsewhere, if you’re willing and able to trawl around a bit. It’s an old school message board, so there’s a nice nostalgia factor in play there, too. (Edit: Literally days after I posted this, the hosting site unilaterally updated the FOF, so now it looks like a typical modern web forum. Phooey!) Recommended, if you need a place to romp and stomp and waste time on the man’s dime. Smart people, passionate and knowledgeable about all sorts of arcana and oddities, and a great place (for me) to get an outside-the-US perspective on what the hell’s going on in the world these days. Plus the time difference between the UK and Chicago means that in the early morning here, I’ve got hours of new posts there to peruse.
- Thoughts On The Dead: My favorite purveyor of semi-fictionality (have you heard of the concept?) has produced two novels’ worth of utterly stupendous world-building in his ongoing Little Aleppo Chronicles, along with a surrealistic treasure trove of character-based stories, timely satire, and the best writing about everybody’s favorite semi-defunct choogly band to be found in this universe and time stream. And if you nab the time sheath, you might find that it’s the best such writing in any universe or time stream. Try not to commit any felonies if you do that, though, please and thanks. Oh, and Thoughts On The Dead is being considered for an Oscar this year too! Be sure to check out his Christmas List if you visit, and do the right thing, namsain? You don’t want Donate Button to come looking for you.
- Electoral-Vote Dot Com: I’ve been depending upon (and writing about) this website for my election season news aggregation since 2004, long before some of their more-highly-visible imitators started pilfering their data-driven approach. Normally, after the final counts were tallied in late 2016/early 2017, they would have shut down for a couple of years — but things this year are just so freakin’ weird that they’ve decided to keep rolling with the daily posts, for which I am thankful. There’s lots of political news aggregators out there on the web, and I consider these guys to be the pinnacle of the form. Good data, good sources, no bullshit, solid interpretation. Highly recommended.
Marcia and I began the year in Reykjavik, watching the citizens of Iceland lose their collective minds in an orgy of fireworks and bonfires. We are going to end 2017 in Key West, with Katelin in tow this time. We were there for New Year’s Eve 2009/2010 as well, and it was a hoot. Here’s hoping that the city is well recovered from its hurricane damage, and that we have a nice warm night for the drag queen drop to marshall us into 2018.
I had tried to travel less for work this year, but it didn’t really quite work out that way, as my annual travel map (including planned holiday travel) indicates:
There were loads of adventures and lots of good work done over the the course of the year, but the particular highlights (beyond Iceland) of 2017 travel included: a family trip to the Netherlands and Belgium (where Katelin got to meet her spirit animal); getting to experience the solar eclipse in the mountains of North Carolina with the extended Smith-Duft families (minus Katelin, alas); a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where I go to see (ZOMFG) The Mothership; and riding the Tour des Trees in and around my old stomping grounds of Washington, DC and Annapolis, where I got to dedicate a Liberty Tree on the grounds of the State Capitol.
We have two good movie theaters within easy walking distance of our apartment, not to mention Amazon Prime and Netflix, so we watched a lot of movies this year. At the time of this writing, here are my Top Ten Films of the Year . . . though I note that I have some Oscar Bait movies to see between now and early January, so this list could change a little bit before the dust settles on the year.
- Get Out
- Trainspotting 2
- The Big Sick
- A Ghost Story
- The Disaster Artist
- The Florida Project
- Lady Bird
- The Darkest Hour
Special mention to two epic television experiences that held us bound in front of the screen this year: Amir Bar-Lev’s outstanding Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, and David Lynch/Mark Frost’s thrilling and maddening Twin Peaks: The Return. I’m not sure which story was weirder . . .
Years ago, I summarized my general book reading habits thusly: 10% Fiction, 40% Natural Science and History, 40% Music Biography, and 10% Tales of Human Suffering. Nothing too far afield in the mix of this year’s Top Ten Books, even if the percentages change, so I remain adamantly predictable in my tastes. (Note that a few of these books came out toward the end of 2016, but I didn’t read them until this year, so I’m recognizing them now):
- Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
- Borne (and The Strange Bird) by Jeff VanderMeer
- The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones
- Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger
- Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
- The Erstwhile by Brian Catling
- The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel
- The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis (December 2016)
- Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (December 2016)
- The Gradual by Christopher Priest (December 2016)
I should note that this list is based on traditional print media output, but if we expand the definition of “book” to include serialized fiction online, then we must also add A Book With No Title by Thoughts On The Dead (see above) to the list.
We also went to a ton of live performances this year, in a variety of genres and idioms. Rather than break them up into different bits, I list my 15 favorites below, chronologically:
- Too Hot to Handel, Auditorium Theater, January 15
- Carmen, Lyric Opera, March 3
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Oriental Theater, March 11
- Adrian Belew Power Trio, Old Town School, April 1
- Destiny of Desire, Goodman Theater, April 8
- Jean-Michel Jarre, Auditorium Theater, May 22
- U2 and The Lumineers, Soldier Field, June 4
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Auditorium Theater, June 16
- Paradise Blue, TimeLine Theater, July 15
- Wire and Noveller, Metro, September 16
- Rigoletto, Lyric Opera, October 14
- Giselle, Joffrey Ballet/Auditorium Theater, October 29
- Pere Ubu and Minibeast, Beat Kitchen, November 18
- King Crimson, Riverside Theater (Milwaukee), November 26
- In The Next Room, TimeLine Theater/Stage 773, December 9
As with so many other things, we’re blessed with a plethora of riches right here in our neighborhood: The Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center are both within 10 minute walks of our apartment, so I visit each of them every few weeks, just because they’re my fave indoor places to go, solo or with friends. Here are the ten art happenings in Chicago that most moved me in 2017 (in no particular order), and those two venues feature most heavily, just because I’ve seen everything they offered in both permanent and temporary exhibitions over the past twelve months.
- Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsia! Soviet Art Put To The Test, Art Institute of Chicago
- Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, Museum of Contemporary Art
- Along The Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg, Art Institute of Chicago
- Chicago Architecture Biennial, Chicago Cultural Center
- Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, Art Institute of Chicago
- Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When? Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership
- Provoke: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960–1975, Art Institute of Chicago
- Jack Kerouac’s On the Road Scroll, American Writer’s Museum
- Eugene Eda’s Doors for Malcolm X College, Chicago Cultural Center
- India Modern: The Painting of M.F. Husain, Art Institute of Chicago
And . . . I guess that’s it! Unless something moves me profoundly to write here in the next couple of weeks, it’ll probably be 2018 when I next check in at the blog. ‘ta ’til then from all of us in The Adventure Family . . .