Home From New Mexico

After ~3,500 miles of road-tripping over three weeks, Marcia and I arrived home in Des Moines yesterday afternoon. We were greeted by brutal cold temperatures and high winds (because Iowa), and also (more unusually) by a really excellent Sun Dog phenomenon this morning, that looked like this:

I’ll take that as a (faint) benefit associated with returning to near-Arctic climes, begrudgingly. But most of the past three weeks were spent in much nicer locations, weather-wise, mainly in New Mexico, but with a few nights in Texas as well. As always, I snapped lots of photos, and as always, I share them here on the blog. Click the picture of the Sandhill Cranes in El Bosque de Apache Park below to see our trip photo album, while I add a layer of clothes to keep myself warm . . .

Meanwhile In New Mexico

Marcia and I continue our Winter of Warm(er) Climate Explorations this month with a three-week trip to various New Mexico destinations. Lots of great walks, culture and food, with occasional forays into neighborhoods urban and rural, to check out real estate properties of interest. Not a lot of blog news to report accordingly, but I have been taking pictures (as I always do), so I share ten of them below so you can see what we have been seeing. It’s utterly gorgeous and raw out here, at bottom line. This is our fourth trip down to New Mexico in the past decade, so it is definitely a leading contender for where we might spend our active retirement years. Lots of birds and trees and rocks and fossils and history and suchlike to keep me amused and out of trouble. Or at least as out of trouble as I ever get, anyway. Marcia approves.

2019: Year in Review

Marcia and I are hitting the road tomorrow for New Mexico (where we’ll see out 2019, having welcomed it in Paris, France), so it seems a good time for my annual recap and summary of stuffs and things here as a final blog post from a big year, on a wide range of fronts for our family, most of them documented within these pages.

ON THE BLOG:

This is the 70th post on the blog this year, up from 41 in 2018, 35 in 2017, and 27 in 2016. A very positive trend (if not as many posts as I used to poop out annually a decade or so ago), and a good indicator that getting off of social media (a goal established in last December’s “Year in Review” post) was a good way to redirect time and energy to pursuits that I consider more rewarding. Traffic was up a solid 40% over the prior year as well, confirming once again that volume drives reads, as long as quality remains acceptable. As satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020, as I plan to work on some projects for potential professional or commercial purposes, and don’t intend to share them until I know there’s not a market for them. But I do have a couple of new ideas for public writing for pleasure knocking around in my brain, so I may surprise myself.

I completed my planned Credidero writing project this week, an act of thinking out loud in public over the past year about a dozen concepts of interest, looking to see what beliefs might emerge from such active reflection and analysis. It was satisfying to click the final “publish” button, seeing that effort to fruition. Of course, I’m lousy at letting things go cleanly, so I will re-read and mull the entire project output soon, and write one last summarizing article in January, to assess themes or thoughts that emerge from between the lines for me.

As I report each year, here are the ten most-read articles among the 70 new posts here in 2019:

And then here are the ten posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2019. It always fascinates me which of the 1,100+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on an early version of this blog, long before any of us knew it was to be called a blog. (I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Here’s hoping that people realize that the perpetually-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ON THE WEB:

I begin my day, every day, reading two utterly brilliant sites: Thoughts On The Dead and Electoral Vote Dot Com. My deeper thoughts on the former are here, and on the latter, suffice to say they’re my main online source for hard political/electoral news and analysis at this point, and have been since the early ’90s. I will admit that it is hard, sometimes, to decide which one of the worlds they describe in glorious detail (the first a semi-fictional universe built around the exploits of a time-traveling Grateful Dead, the second an academically rigorous view of our Nation’s electoral processes) is the most absurd and unbelievable anymore. I definitely would prefer to live in Thoughts On The Dead’s universe some days when I read the reports on Electoral Vote Dot Com and cringe at the idiocy, if not outright evil, of our ruling class. Beyond that, I didn’t add any new crucial web sites to my roster of favorites this year (see the “Regular Reads” block in the right side-bar), which I suppose is another good indicator that I spent less time trawling and more time creating in 2019 than has been the case in recent years. Good on me.

TRAVEL:

As noted above, we greeted 2019 in Paris, France and will see it out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We also celebrated our 30th anniversary in June with a great trip to Greece, and our first retirement trip was a jaunt to Spain. In the middle of all that, we consolidated our household in Des Moines, Iowa, after having split time between there and Chicago for three years. I traveled less for work in 2019 than I had in the four prior years (it’s harder to get anywhere from Des Moines than it is from Chicago), though I still got to enjoy my fifth Tour des Trees, this time in Kentucky and Tennessee. Next year the team will ride in Colorado, with Iowa as the target destination the year after that. I hope that health and schedule allow me to continue rolling with them, minus my management responsibilities. At bottom line, 2020 will be mainly about the travel that Marcia and I choose to do, not that we need to do. That will be refreshing. We have trips to Arizona, Ireland, Spain, Costa Rica and Iceland in the family’s conceptual hopper at this point, and we shall see what else the next year brings. Here’s my 2019 map, as a benchmark (with this week’s trip to New Mexico already penciled in):

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2019 and Best Albums of 2019 reports, and consider 2019 to have been an outstanding music year. After completing the latter article, I acquired the new self-titled album by The Who, which would have made the list had it been released on its originally announced date, so that I could have given it enough spins to properly evaluate it. But it slipped, so it didn’t. That said, I do think it’s the best thing Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend have done since, oh, I guess I’ll say Quadrophenia (1973), so I heartily recommend it. These old dogs may not have many new tricks, but they’re really, really good at doing the ones they know, even without their classic era rhythm section, RIP.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Alas, this is the one section of my annual report that’s ready for retirement, with us having left Chicago. We saw dozens of shows (of both types) each year when we were living just off of The Loop, and we’ve seen, well, close to none, since we moved back to Des Moines. The one concert that stands out was our final one as Chicago residents: King Crimson at Auditorium Theater, where we had front row seats to watch the Seven-Headed Beast work its magic. A wonderful and fitting chapter closer for four great years of concert-going and museum-strolling in a world-class cultural city.

BOOKS:

I set a goal to read more books in 2019. I did read more books in 2019, once again demonstrating the perfidy that Twitter and its ilk impose upon us as time sucks and soul wasters and dumb-down distractions. Here’s the list of my favorite nonfiction works, novels and short story collections of the year. I feel smarter having read them.

FILMS:

We’ve seen a lot of movies this year, many of them quite good. (We’re pretty astute at just not going to see things that we think are not going to appeal to us, so I don’t often get exposed to garbage). Here’s my Top 15 of the year, thus far, in alphabetical order:

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • The Art of Self Defense
  • Booksmart
  • Brittany Runs A Marathon
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • The Farewell
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • Good Boys
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Knives Out
  • The Lighthouse
  • Midsommar
  • Parasite
  • Ready Or Not
  • Rocketman
  • Us

I still have some Oscar Bait late-in-the-year or below-the-radar films that I would like to check out: Pain & Glory,  The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Monos, and Hagazussa. I’m iffy on The Irishman, as I have a hard time wanting to sit through anything that long, especially a gangster movie, as much as I like the (most of) the film’s cast and director. I thought Little Women was unwatchably bad, so I’m flying in the face of critical consensus on that. In theory, I will amend this to create my final list after I catch the ones I’m going to catch, though once the Academy Awards show rolls around, I usually lose interest in catching up, and start looking ahead to next year.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to New Mexico and beyond. I assume that I will be back here at my desk (wherever my desk lives at that point) in December 2020 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?

Most Played Songs of 2019

Last night I reset the play counts on all of  our family iPods, as I’ve been doing every twelve months or so since we got our first iPod in 2007. I used to wait until the very end of the year to reset the counts, but now I generally reprogram everything soon after I complete my Best Albums report, and then push the magic button that zeroes out play information for all 15,000+ songs stored on my hard drive. Boom! New music year!

We still have seven iPods in use in various locations (car, living room, bedroom, gym, etc.), and I’ve been scavenging online to build  a little trove of models I like (old Shuffles and Nanos, mainly) to keep my current listening paradigm going as long as it can. But, as has been a recurring theme for me over a lifetime of listening, I do recognize that I’m once again fighting a rear guard battle as playback technology makes another of its seismic shifts from a purchased media file model to streaming services, delivered over our phones or other smart devices, and designed so that we never actually own anything musical anymore, but just rent it. That said, Marcia needed to get a Spotify account for her yoga instructor class this fall, and we used that and a BlueTooth speaker exclusively while we were in Spain, and that worked out fine. So I suspect this may be the last year that I base this report solely on iPod usage. Grumble.

Since we synch all of our many fiddly widgets to one computer and one master iTunes account, the “Most Played Songs” list on that account represents the aggregated play counts from all of our iPods. This means that the “Most Played Songs” of the year are often unexpected, since they represent the heart of a musical Venn Diagram where our family’s tastes most closely overlap, even though each of us individually may like and listen to very different things. I spin a lot of Napalm Death every year, for example, but they very, very rarely show up on these lists, since they’re never played when Marcia and Katelin are around. The grind is for me time only.

With those usual preambles aside, here are the Smith Family Top 40 Most Played Songs for the past twelve months. Maybe the list will inspire you to check some of the songs and artists out. They’re all great, guaranteed, and you can even play them in polite company. Mostly.

1. “Time Is The Killer” by Rain Phoenix (Featuring Michael Stipe)

2. “Jeannie Becomes A Mom” by Caroline Rose

3. “Winona Minnesota” by The Weasels

4. “Embryonic Journey” by Jefferson Airplane

5. “Happy With You” by Paul McCartney

6. “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane

7. “Jack-A-Lynn” by Jethro Tull

8. “The Second Shift” by Virginia Wing

9. “The Creator Has A Master Plan” by Leon Thomas

10. “The Oak” by The Albion Band

11. “I’ll Be All Right” by Jorma Kaukonen

12. “Another Song About The Moon” by Buggy Jive

13. “Marrow” by Jealous of the Birds

14. “Song For The North Star” by Jorma Kaukonen

15. “Names of the Stars” by Weyes Blood

16. “Clementina” by Jealous of the Birds

17. “Long Island Ice Tea, Neat” by The Coup (Featuring Japanther)

18. “After the Gold Rush” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

19. “We Took the Wrong Step Years Ago (Acoustic)” by Hawkwind

20. “No Man’s Land” by Imperial Wax

21. “God Bless the Child” by Ernest Dawkins

22. “Sleep Song” by Hot Tuna

23. “Genesis” by Jorma Kaukonen

24. “Get Me Out Of This Town” by Andy Prieboy (Featuring Tony Kinman)

25. “There’ll Always Be Music” by Dolly Parton

26. “I’ll Let You Know Before I Leave” by Jorma Kaukonen

27. “Colour of Water” by Rose Elinor Dougall

28. “Blues for Mr. Mu” by Acoustic Alchemy

29. “Inkulu Into Ezakwenzeka” by Nontwintwi

30. “Easy to Slip” by Little Feat

31. “Finnegans Wake” by The Weasels

32. “Larf and Sing” by Family

33. “Confidante” by Paul McCartney

34. “Fall on Me” by R.E.M.

35. “Heaven and Hell” by William Onyeabor

36. “Love Theme from Spartacus” by Yusef Lateef

37. “Everybody’s Talkin'” by Harry Nilsson

38. “Water Boy” by Don Shirley

39. “Genesis Hall” by Fairport Convention

40. “I Believe You” by The Monkees

Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix nab most played kudos for 2019. Click the image to hear their glorious duet.

 

Meanwhile, In Madrid and Toledo

Not much activity on the blog of late, because Marcia and I have been in Spain since Thanksgiving, keeping way busy doing things, rather than writing about them. A great trip so far, and we are not even halfway through it. Some pics below of sights seen and places visited, with text to follow at some point when we are home and I have a computer, instead of a phone, on which to clatter away.

Thanksgiving Casserole

Due to a variety of travel plans, we had our family Thanksgiving dinner on Tuesday night this year at our apartment in Des Moines. It was just me, Marcia, Katelin and John, and since it was a small gathering (and since we all had a grand full Thanksgiving dinner the Sunday before at John’s mother’s house), I decided to roll out the most magical of holiday dishes again this year: Thanksgiving Casserole!

As much as I do appreciate (especially when somebody else serves it) the traditional conspicuous consumption dinner that takes hours to make, minutes to eat, and then leaves days worth of leftovers behind, when it’s just two, three or four of us together for the holiday, I’ve decided that it’s really not worth the time, effort, and calories. I’ve written here before about the wonders of casseroles (which are known as Hot Dish where Marcia’s from), and (without patting myself on the back too much), I do consider this one to be the end-all and be-all of the idiom.

I embraced Beverly Mills’ and Alicia Ross’ Desperation Dinners rubric in its construction, noting that not everything has to be made completely from scratch to be delicious, and that well-deployed packaged foods can be just fine, so long as they aren’t the sole anchors of a family’s diet all the time. I also, of course, ensured that there were no grease group violations here, by eschewing any water group foods that might be perceived as Thanksgiving staples belonging in such a casserole, e.g. the jiggling log of canned cranberry sauce that sits on the table and serves as comic relief for the dinner, much as fruit cake does at Christmastime. Do not want! No no no!

I mentioned the great success of this year’s Thanksgiving Casserole on a web forum I frequent and was asked for the recipe by one of the few other Americans there. I hadn’t really ever written it down before, so while it’s still fresh in my mind, I record it now for posterity’s sake, and so I don’t have to recreate it the next time I have need for it. Here’s how it goes, for the permanent record:

1. Make the stuffing first: I used one standard bag of cubed Stouffer’s herb stuffing, and prepped it per the directions: melting four tablespoons of butter in a big pot, adding two cups of chicken broth, bringing it all to a boil, then folding in the stuffing cubes and tossing until they are all moist. I then added one bag of Jimmy Dean turkey sausage crumbles to the mix, and set it aside. (The sausage crumbles were a new product this year and worked well; in the past, I have browned and crumbled about 12 ounces of Jimmy Dean bulk sage sausage in a separate skillet and then folded it in).

2. Butter up a deep casserole tray. Ours is a 13″ x 9″ by 2.5″ ceramic one and the quantities described here filled it perfectly. Pour in and press down half of the stuffing mix to cover the bottom of the tray. Next layer: one 16-ounce container of Bob Evans’ traditional mashed potatoes. Heat per instructions, then layer atop the stuffing mix. I then put a little bit of gravy (I used low fat bottled turkey gravy) and a little bit of shredded cheese atop that, to melt into and flavor the potatoes. (Note: the shredded cheese must be orange, and of a variety that can found at a typical gas station convenience store; don’t try to foo-foo up the casserole with fancy pants products, in this or any other step).

3. Next layer: Turkey. I got a pound and a quarter of Boar’s Head hickory smoked honey turkey breast, sliced thin, from the deli. I then diced it into small pieces and spread it evenly atop the mashed potato layer.

4. Next layer: Mac and Cheese. I used a box of standard sized (not the family sized) Velveeta Queso Blanco Shells. Make it per the box instructions, and layer it all smoothly atop the turkey.

5. Final layer: Drain one 15 ounce can of white shoe peg corn and mix it in with the other half of the stuffing mix. Spread this evenly atop the mac and cheese layer. Then use a piece of parchment paper to cover the whole thing and press down to get the casserole dense and of consistent depth, so it will bake firmly and hold its shape when cut. With the parchment paper still in place to absorb moisture, I put the casserole tray cover on top of the whole thing and put it in the fridge to set for a couple of hours before baking.

6. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the parchment paper, and bake the casserole covered for about 45 minutes. Then remove the cover and bake for another 20-30 minutes, until it’s bubbling nicely around the edges and looks browned on top. Sprinkle more shredded cheese atop the casserole and broil it for a couple of minutes to melt/brown the cheese. Remove from oven and let it set/cool for about 5-10 minutes before serving so it firms up even further. Cut into squares and serve, with the remainder of the bottled gravy (warmed) as a side to be poured on top of each square.

Then eat! It is really tasty and hearty, and it seems to create manageable portions in ways that the giant table full of 10 different dishes never can. It fed four of us comfortably at dinner, with two good-sized squares leftover for lunch the next day. We served it with a side of green beans (not the casserole, just regular beans), and then Marcia made her wonderful pumpkin praline pie for desert. The casserole took me about an hour to assemble, plus baking time. Marcia’s pie took about the same amount of time investment. Clean-up for everything took less than 15 minutes. Everybody was happy and sated, rather than bloated and tryptophan-shocked. We still had great dinner conversations, we still were thankful for what we have, we just didn’t have to start a crash diet the next day. Perfect!

Here’s looking forward to the next time I get to trot it out. If you’re inclined to try it yourself, let me know. We can start a club! Or a movement! Or a cult!

Here’s the casserole as it came out of the oven, before being cut into squares.

And here it is cut into squares to serve, layers exposed. Delicious! Like a White Trash Lasagna! Yum!