Key West to Chicago . . .

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.

2017: Year In Review

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:

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 . . .

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.

TRAVEL

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.

Leaving a nicer legacy in Annapolis than I did 30+ years ago. (Me in yellow NAVY cap).

RECORDINGS:

I already published my Best Albums of 2017 (26 years and counting!) and my Most Played Songs of 2017 reports, so probably don’t need to say much more on that front.

FILMS:

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
  • mother!
  • The Big Sick
  • A Ghost Story
  • Dunkirk
  • 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 . . .

BOOKS:

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.

PERFORMANCES:

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

ART:

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 . . .

Adventure Family in The Netherlands and Belgium

Katelin, Marcia and I returned Sunday after a week in the (European) Low Countries of The Netherlands and Belgium. Marcia and I had visited Amsterdam and Brussels as part of an earlier trip, but this was Katelin’s first time in that part of the world. We decided to overnight in Amsterdam for the duration of our time there, then to day-trip by train a couple of times to get some additional destinations on the agenda. One day, we used the domestic train lines to visit Den Haag (fave new city), Gouda, and Utrecht. Another day, we took the high speed Thalys line to Antwerp in Belgium. It was a great mix of new and familiar for Marcia and I, and it was wonderful to have a week abroad with Katelin since we haven’t been able to do that often in recent years. Click the picture below to see our photo album for the trip. It was a good one, filled with lots of walks (71.1 miles in six days according to my Fitbit), plentiful museums (ten over the course of the week), and a special bonus moment when Katelin got to meet her favorite/spirit animal up close and personal at Artis, the Royal Zoo in Amsterdam.

“So You Must Be Eric . . .”

On March 8, 1987, I graduated from Naval Supply Corps School in Athens, Georgia, and was given a one-month leave period to make my move to Arlington, Virginia. I was one of four from my year group in Athens (me, Mike, Bruce and Greg) who had been selected to work as procurement, logistics and budget officers at Naval Reactors Headquarters, which was considered a very prestigious posting.

After two days en route from Georgia to Virginia, followed by 29 days of being a dissolute wastrel, I checked in at my new office (Room 3N11 in National Center Two, on Clark Street, in Crystal City) on April 8, 1987, and spent a busy day learning the ropes, as Naval Reactors was very much a “throw you in the water to see if you can swim” sort of place.

Sometime in mid-afternoon, I managed a quick bathroom break and was hurrying back to my desk, when out of a door on the other side of the resource management department’s office area stepped a confidently attractive blond woman, her charms made especially striking when encountered in a building dominated by badly-dressed male engineers. (There’s a reason for the pocket-pen protector stereotype, believe me).

As it turned out, the very striking woman had already met Mike, Bruce and Greg, and so she properly deduced that I must be the fourth member of that year’s Naval Reactors Supply Corps cohort.

“So, you must be Eric . . .” she said, being a friendly type.

And I said in reply, because I am not half as clever as I like to pretend: “Must I be?”

Then I scurried back to my cubicle.

That was 30 years ago tomorrow, and that was the first conversation that Marcia and I ever had. Who could have possibly imagined where it would lead us?

It turned out we were neighbors, too, and we moved in similar social circles, so we saw each other a lot, at work and at play. I was quickly smitten, though it took a while before the feeling was mutual, and we didn’t start dating until about nine months after we met. After that, though, things moved quickly: within 18 months, we’d gotten engaged, bought a house together, and were married. The girl child (who is now 26) was born less than two years after that.

Then came Idaho. Then came New York. Then came Iowa. Then came Chicago. Wow.

I don’t know what I did that made me deserving of such an extraordinary life partner, but I’m thankful for whatever it was, and awed on a daily basis by my good fortune. So I must be Eric, indeed, and apparently, that’s just fine. Thank you, Marcia, for noticing. I love you with all of my being, and look forward to whatever adventures the next 30 years bring us!

Look what I caught! Can I keep it?!?

The Iceland Report

We’re happily back home in Chicago again, though it’s colder here today than it was in Iceland, just for the record. Of course, we have a bit more daylight in which to appreciate  the cold, so I suppose that’s a reasonable trade.

I’ve put my usual photo album documenting the trip up at my Flickr site, if you’re interested in giving it a look-see: Icelandic New Year. Also ten quick thoughts, observations, or stray neuron firings, all of which are supported by photographic evidence in the linked Flickr gallery.

1. We did see the Northern Lights on this trip, and they were impressive, as expected. But we also saw something in the heavens that I didn’t expect, when our Northern Icelandic guide pointed out a pair of “glitský” scuttling across the sky one morning. He translated the word as “glitter cloud,” which was apt, though I now know they are actually called stratospheric or nacreous clouds. Like so many things in the sky, it’s hard to take their pictures, but imagine a line of luminous, rainbow colored UFOs passing overhead, leaving wakes in the blue sky behind them, and you’ll get the general gist.

2. Speaking of our Northern Icelandic guide, his name was Gísli, he was a fantastic companion, and he had the best hyphenated job listing I’ve ever heard: Farmer-Guide-Viking-Opera Singer-Classic Car Collector. Our Southern Icelandic Guide, Arne, was a Photographer-Designer-Guide. Multiple jobs are big in Iceland, which I like, as a Professional CEO-Writer-Critic-Crank-Gadabout.

3. I’ve already written about the New Year’s Eve Fireworks. They still blow my mind. And eardrums. Totally awesome.

4. We got our metal on with a visit to Dimmuborgir. If you have to ask, then you’ll never know. Brutal!!!

5. My favorite tasty thing on the trip was smoked arctic char on buttered lava bread. I ate it at a restaurant near Lake Mývatn that doubled as a cow barn. They also sold an Icelandic chocolate there that has the best brand name I’ve heard in recent memory: OMNOM. My other new taste sensation is a non-alcoholic drink that’s only consumed during the Icelandic Christmas season (which lasts 13 days): it’s a mixture of two independently bottled beverages called Malt og Appelsín. It’s sort of like a combo of beer, chocolate, and orange. Better than it sounds, honest.

6. As I usually do, I visited record shops to score some real local musical flavor of the variety I’m not likely to find easily in the States. I came home with six CD’s ranging from ambient jazz through to extreme pagan metal. Initial favorites after first pass are Önnur Mósebók by Moses Hightower, and Börn Loka by Skálmöld, though there’s not a dud in the bunch I acquired.

7. I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but we visited a cave that Gísli informed us featured heavily in the story line as “the love cave.” We also visited a couple of other scenes from that show, and when we were watching the last Star Trek movie on the plane on the way home, we were informed that several scenes from that were also filmed in Iceland. I guess it’s just the place to go for alien arctic landscapes.

8. Arriving just after the winter solstice, we knew we’d experience limited daylight, but it honestly wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Sunrise was around 11:30, sunset was around 3:30, and the dawn and dusk periods were long, so you actually had a reasonable amount of time to process Vitamin D.

9. During the widely hyped 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky  duel in the World Chess Championship, Fischer stayed at the S-Room Presidential Suite at Hotel Loftleider in Reykjavik. I remember eagerly following those matches as a kid, and playing chess more then than I probably have in any year since. Fast forward 40+ years, and the old Loftleidir has been acquired by Icelandair as part of its country-wide chain of hotels. it is now named Hotel Reykjavik Natura, and we stayed there for the two nights that we were in the capital city. I was rambling about exploring as I do, and I was tickled to come upon a nice little exhibition dedicated to the matches and (more specifically) Fischer. He was something of a tragic case with some noxious beliefs, but Iceland did open its heart to him and provide him sanctuary as a citizen for his final years, and you see a lot of “Bobby Fischer ate here” type recognition around the town. He’s actually buried in a tiny church yard on the south of the island, if you’re a chess nerd and want to make a pilgrimage.

10. When we were in Iceland in 2010, the harbor area was torn up as a new performance art center was under construction. We were pleased to see the final results this trip: Harpa. It’s architecturally striking, and we had a very good meal (fish soup for me, yum!) and saw a nice classical music show on New Year’s Day there. A good way to greet the year, peaceful and quiet after the fireworks carnage of the night before!