“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!

2017

Marcia and I greeted 2017 in Reykjavik, watching the Icelanders absolutely lose their collective minds in an orgy of pyrotechnics and bonfires. Never mind some city sponsored “shows” staged by a fireworks company — in Iceland, it’s every man, woman and child for him/herself, with all the explosives you can afford and carry. My ears are still ringing and I still smell like gunpowder as I enjoy the first coffee of 2017. Now that is a celebration. More words and pics to follow when we get home, and I am posting these from my phone so I can’t really attest to their quality, but here’s a tiny taste of what it looked and felt like.

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2016 Year In Review

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

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

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

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

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

sopines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum

The extended Smith-Duft clans will be gathering in Beaufort, South Carolina today to give thanks and then eat ourselves into food comas. It’s been quite some time since all of us have been together in the Low Country that spewed us forth, so I sent the following “Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum” out as a refresher to remind everyone how we roll at this most gluttonous of gatherings. Here’s hoping your family traditions result in similarly successful results.

1. Gristle may be sucked off bones at the table, but cracking bones to remove the marrow must be done in the kitchen.

2. If there are no pets in the room to blame, all flatulence must be held until such time as a particularly funny joke is told, and the accidental emission adds to the mirth.

3. The tube of cranberry sauce is a decoration, not a food. No touching!

4. You must clear your plate of all objects put upon it before beginning round two. Even stuffed tomatoes.

5. You may only hide peas within a roll if there enough rolls to ensure that everyone else gets as many as they want. If rolls run out, you must eat your pea filled roll before you leave the table.

6. No matter how you hold the fork, it is wrong. If anyone chooses to notice this fact, you must skip a round and look contrite while others eat.

7. Discussion of bodily functions should be reserved for the pause between main course and desert. Comparisons of bodily functions to objects on the table may result in a fork mishandling penalty and forfeiture of dessert rights.

8. If someone disappears for more than 90 seconds, everyone at the table must loudly enquire as to their whereabouts, and whether everything is okay in there.

9. No additional butter is required on the Stouffers Mac and Cheese, unless it touches anything green and you need to offset the effect of the vitamins and minerals.

10. You may not take the hambone out of the green beans and pass them on without taking at least six beans, and not hiding them in your roll. You may elect to butter them before eating.

Storm Watch

We’ve had a series of strong storms here over the past week that have had some tangible impacts on our days, e.g. we were in our seats at Steppenwolf Theater on Saturday night for a performance that was cancelled due to backstage flooding, we had to flee an outdoor show at Pritzker Pavilion on Thursday night when the lightning began striking too close to comfort, and we got to watch an aquatic rescue after seeing a sailboat struck by lightning in Monroe Harbor later that same night.

On the upside, the view of these big storms from our apartment is awe-inspiring, especially when two of them occurred just as Coldplay were about the take the stage at Soldier Field during their sold-out, two-night stand. I mean, yeah, I totally understand the universe’s wrath about that sort of thing. I’ve been snapping the storms somewhat randomly trying to get some shots worth preserving, and share a half dozen of them with you below (in the sixth one, you can actually see the Jumbotron at Soldier Field telling the Coldplay fans that the cosmos disapproves of them). I’ve also set up a second 2016 Chicago Scenes folder in my Flickr account and posted these there, with others, if you want to keep up with the ongoing adventures hereabouts, or at least the visual representations thereof.

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