September Morn

Holy moly, how did that happen, and where did the summer go???

(Well, actually summer started late in Chicago, and it’s as hot and damp here right now as it’s been all year, so maybe we’ve just shifted the season forward a couple of months, along with the summer storms . . . )

But, regardless of what the weather is weirdly doing, the calendar says it’s September! School’s back in session! Leaves are (conceptually) beginning to brown! Days are getting shorter! Turtlenecks are being brought out from under the bed! And so forth and so on! Makes me feel like I need to recap some summer stuff, so here goes . . .

1. Between rain showers, we caught five great sets at the 40th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day Weekend, always a signature event for us here. Among the legends, we saw Ramsey Lewis (who received a city proclamation on the date of what was said to be his last Chicago performance)(!) play a deliciously accessible set of his usual pop standards interpreted with brilliant piano arrangements, and then we caught Maceo Parker, who repeatedly noted “I do not play jazz” over a great set of funk and soul classics; Maceo impressed as much as a vocalist, bandleader and front man as he did on his alto sax, so that was a nice surprise in terms of the flow of the set. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society was probably the biggest surprise for us, not being familiar with the 18-member jazz orchestra, not Argue’s compositions. We’ve since rectified that situation and added his studio recordings to our archives. While Marcia was still in Des Moines, I caught Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening, though Mitchell herself was absent due to a family emergency. A very, very cool set with highly unusual instrumentation, including koto and theremin; cellist Tomeka Reid served as fill-in band leader, and she was a delight, as always. Finally, we caught local stalwarts the Sabertooth Organ Quartet playing a six-part suite to celebrate their 25th anniversary on the scene, and it all went down good and interesting, especially some choice bits with baritone sax and Hammond B-3 organ dueling at the bottom end of the sonic spectrum. Mmmm, nice!

2. Every year I say I am going to travel less for work, and every year, it doesn’t quite seem to work out that way as I find it hard to say “no” when asked to attend various conferences and events in our professional community. Three-quarters of the way through 2018, I’m at least keeping more density in the Midwest region per my travel map below, though that will shift outward a little before year end with trips to Vancouver, Mystic, Charlotte, Philly and Albany.

3. I am not posting weekly (or more) about the 2018 Tour des Trees anymore (for now), but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still support this year’s campaign: we are just as hair below $340,000, and we will continue fundraising through October 1, so you can still make a difference in what our 2019 budget looks like, here. One of the final pieces of the campaign was a wonderful picnic in Northeastern Ohio the week before Labor Day, and I was glad to be able to join the team there for good eats and good company and good fundraising. Local film-maker Jeff Reding of FilmMag Productions even came out and shot some video for the day, which was nice; you can see his mini-documentary of the picnic here.

4. Marcia, Katelin and I watched the final episodes of Adventure Time this week, and were happy with how this most unexpected gem of a television show went out on a high note, all these years on. So many amazing characters, such an outstanding example of patient and profound world-building, as fine a work of visual art as you’ll find on any screen anywhere, and with a nearly ridiculous level of internal consistency and re-engagement from characters major and minor throughout its run; check the plot summary and episode connections of just the final show, here, to see what I mean in that regard, if you’ve already watched it and need to know what you might have missed. I envy those who may not have been following along with Finn and Jake and PB and BMO and Marcy and others all these years, and who can binge the imminently watchable 12-minute episodes at leisure and in order in the months or years to come. When you do, holla my way. This is one of those shows that’s truly better when you talk about it with enthusiastic fellow fans, and I will miss our family’s “Wow!! Did you see it??” texts between Des Moines and Chicago every time new episodes aired, especially ones that advanced one of the many tangled plot lines in a meaningful way. I’m not a big TV person and don’t have many shows that move me deeply, but this was one that I truly loved, and its absence will create a hard-to-fill hole for me.

One of many best bits in the final montage of the sublime Adventure Time

I’ve Got A Bike . . .

White Trash on Wheels! Represent!

The photo at right is among the oldest ones I have of myself. It was taken in the mid-’60s in Ridgeland, South Carolina, at the little bungalow we called “The Green House,” where my Mom and I lived while my Dad was off on various and sundry Marine Corps duties. I am wearing my “Deputy Dawg Hat,” one of my grandfather’s cast off chapeaus, named after my favorite cartoon, which was the only place on television where people spoke the way they did in the real world around me. I’m clutching a football (probably via my Dad, a former offensive linesman who likely expected I’d follow in his footsteps), and whenever I look at this photo, I always smile at the classic piece of redneckery visible in our back yard: a picnic table made out of a door laid over a couple of sawhorses.

I also see, of course, that I am sitting on a tricycle, which I know that I love love loved! This old photo and others from that same general period featuring that same trike remind me that I’ve been rolling around on self-propelled wheels for as long as I can remember (maybe longer), and that bikes have been a key part of my life’s narrative for over half a century. I do not call myself a “cyclist” (not fast enough for that) nor am I a gear nerd nor do I collect bikes nor do I feel like I need the latest and greatest equipment at all times. I just like using my own wheels to get where I need to go or (even better) to just roll around checking out the world around me, with no particular destination in mind. I like bikes and biking. I always have. That’s it.

I should note at this point that I’m not just talking about “bikes” generically here in this article, but rather the long line of very specific bikes that I have owned and ridden, oftentimes well beyond their normal life expectancies. I can clearly remember them all, every one: what each one felt like, where I went with it, what I did to it, what I liked about it, what I didn’t, and where each of them went when our times together were done.

My family moved to Naval Ammunition Depot (NAD) Earle near Colts Neck, New Jersey a couple of years after that trike photo was snapped, and I got real two-wheel bike once we got settled in there. We lived at the top of a long hill on Green Drive (an extended cul-de-sac), and I learned to work my two-wheeler by essentially being set atop it and pushed down the hill, with wobbly training wheels at first, each of which fell off (at different times) over the course of a few weeks or so, eventually leaving me rolling like a big boy. My Dad was the Commander of the Marine Corps barracks at NAD Earle, and the base was secured at its perimeters, which meant that me and other little kids in the neighborhood could essentially just ride and ride and ride to our hearts’ content without any adult supervision, as far as we wanted to go, until the sun went down, or one of our parents sent the base security folks to round us up and send us home.

As I grew, I went through a series of larger and larger bikes (usually birthday or Christmas gifts, as I needed them) through various family moves to Virginia, Kansas, Long Island, Rhode Island and North Carolina. I rode them on the roads, and I rode them in woods (the distinctions between street bikes and trail bikes are generally lost on kids), and I destroyed a few of them by jumping them over ridiculously unsafe ramps, or field stripping them for parts to add to other, newer bikes, or doing the various other stupid things that stupid teenage boys do to their belongings.

Gotta dig the early ’80s helmet . . .

I didn’t take a bike with me when I went off to the Naval Academy in 1982, but I bought one in Annapolis soon afterwards: a great Bianchi Celeste road bike. I kept and rode that one until 2011, when we moved from New York to Iowa, making it my longest-lasting bike buddy, by far. That’s me and Green Machine at right, probably in spring 1988, in the driveway of the first house that Marcia and I shared together. I think she probably took this photo, though I can’t say that for certain. (Another redneck classic moment here: I couldn’t afford real cycling gloves, so these are just thick wool winter gloves with the fingers cut off. You can take the boy out of South Cackalacky, but you can’t take the South Cackalacky out of the boy).

By the early 2000s, we were living in Upstate New York, and various family and work obligations made it harder to use my limited free time by taking the sorts of long road rides that Green Machine was designed to accommodate. So I decided to get an off-road bike instead, and do shorter, more intense, rides closer to our home, mostly in the woods. That bike was named Trusty Steed, and man oh man, did I ride that thing hard, using it as a companion on the various Hidden in Suburbia photo-essays that I wrote and published on and off until 2011. Trusty Steed wins the “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” prize among all of my bikes for accommodating whatever I threw at him in stride, and still getting me where I wanted to go, even if it was via routes that weren’t really made for bikes. At all.

Trusty Steed and I going where we shouldn’t . . .

I took Trusty Steed with me to Iowa in 2011; Green Machine stayed in New York, given to a charity that refurbished bikes for immigrant families. Unfortunately, most of my riding in Iowa was done on roads or paved trails, not in the woods, and years of abuse meant that Trusty Steed had a variety of clanks and creaks and bonks and rattles that were okay when crunching through rocks and sticks, but became distractions in the relative quiet of blacktop pavement riding. He was put out to pasture (in our garage), and then I went through a couple of replacement bikes in short order after that, before settling on a hybrid bike named City Liner (named after a Good Rats song) that wasn’t exactly a superstar in either off-road or on-road situations, but got the job done.

When we moved to Chicago, we went from having a three-car garage (with plenty of bike space) to having a single rack spot in a communal condo bike room, so I donated all of my bikes except City Liner to the Des Moines Bicycle Collective. He seemed to be the best choice among my bikes, since city riding tends to require a combination of skills, including pot-hole dodging, curb-jumping, and pedestrian slalom on the various lake-front trails. But then a few weeks later, with virtually no training time logged, I was off to Florida to ride my first Tour des Trees (the major annual community engagement event for TREE Fund, of which I am President and CEO), and it quickly became apparent that I’d made the wrong choice of keeper bike if I was going to ride a 500+ mile, seven day adventure cycling tour every year.

Zoom zoom zoom through Southern Pines, Black Felt in effect . . .

So I went back full circle to a good road bike again, selling City Liner to a neighbor in our condo building who needed a city bike for his son, when he was home from college. My newest (and current) bike is Black Felt. I rode him in the 2016 Tour and have done all of my Chicago and training riding on him since then. (Though I do feel mildly guilty to note that I rented a sexy Aluboo roadster from our Tour Director for the 2017 Tour, so I didn’t have to ship Black Felt to and from Washington, DC, in the midst of a bunch of other work-driven chaos).

After an atrocious winter and hideously rank and dank spring that ran through the end of April, I’m pleased to finally be back out on the road again with Black Felt. We did a 52-miler this past Saturday, and it felt good. This ride was notable for me in a somewhat subtle way: after 50+ years of being a no-tech or low-tech rider, I took to the road for the first time with a cycling computer onboard, which was an early birthday gift from Marcia. I was somewhat awed and overwhelmed by what it captured when I got home and plugged it into my PC, so I look forward to figuring out how to add these bits and bobs of information into the way I ride going forward. (I know it will be helpful on the Tour des Trees: after three years of being the guy with a bunch of folded up paper cue sheets in my jersey pockets, I will at least look like the cool kids now).

Sorry about that elevation number. There ain’t no hills in the Second City!!

One thing that was particularly interesting to me among all the data was the impact on average speed that Chicago-style riding produces: when I was on the bike and moving, I generally kept to a 16 to 18 mile per hour pace, but since inner city riding means I can rarely go more than five or ten minutes without having to slow dramatically and/or unclip and stop for a light, car, pedestrian, crossing, whatever, it made my effective speed only 12.5 miles per hour. I guess if I could get to where my Chicago average speed was 15 miles per hour or so, then I’ll really be able to move up in the pack when we get out on the open road in Ohio for this year’s Tour des Trees. (Which you should support, by the way, with my thanks).

So that’s a lifetime in bikes there, for what it’s worth, and for better or worse. It’s hard for me to imagine a time that I won’t be rolling around on self-propelled wheels as I’ve done for over 50 years already. Hopefully they continue to be of the two-wheeled upright version, like Black Felt, for many more years, but if a time comes when I need to go recumbent, or back to a trike, or even a wheel chair, well, hey, no worries, no shame, so long as I’m still rolling down the road under my own power, since that’s what counts to me.

 

Adventures in Maui and Lana’i

As mentioned in the prior post, Marcia and I were in Hawai’i last week for the Tree Care Industry Association’s Winter Management Conference, and we had a delightful time while we were there. We are already trying to figure out a time and itinerary for a return, as we only got to see two of the islands (Maui and Lana’i) this time around, and they were so very unique and different that we expect each island will bring its own special “wow” moments for us.

On the professional front, I view my annual remarks at Winter Management as my “accountability report” to the owners and senior executives of the many businesses who make TREE Fund‘s work possible with their contributions, and whose employees and customers should ultimately benefit from what we do. We had a lot of exciting TREE Fund news over the past year, so I was glad to share that — and equally excited to share our (ambitious) plans for the year ahead. This is a good gig, and I get to do good work with and for good people for a good cause. Goodie!

On a personal front, it was lovely to have evenings and a couple of extra days with Mine Bestest. We both travel so much in our work that it’s always a joy when our schedules align, especially when they allow us to explore new parts of the world together. One of our principles when we travel is that we like to have adventures — which I essentially define as: “Look at where most of the tourists are going, and then go in the opposite direction.” I tend to consider it a proper adventure only if there’s some accidental trespassing involved, or someone comes home bleeding, or we have to get over/around/through some combination of creeks, walls, fences, tar pits, mud flats, or other exciting obstacles and terrain. Marcia, knowing this is my proclivity, is often a good check on things, and is not adverse to offering a firm “Nope!” when I point down a crumbling ravine and say “That way?”

Click on the photo of Marcia having an adventure below for a link to our trip gallery; I’ll let you decide whether it was my path or hers we were walking here . . .

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 . . .