21 Wishes for ’21

Pete Townsend’s song “1921” from The Who’s epic Tommy album opens with the line “I’ve got a feeling ’21 is going to be a good year.” I’m a little surprised that I haven’t heard or seen many music media folks mention or riff on that fact, given how awful ’20 has been, and given humanity’s generally hopeful nature. Of course, given that the rest of the song details a murder witnessed by a child who is rendered deaf, dumb and blind by that emotional trauma, maybe it’s not the best anthem for our Second Anno Virum. Though I suppose there are likely some accurate metaphors in that narrative for what 2021 may bring, if it doesn’t turn out to be as good as we might feel and wish it may be.

I tend to function within a worldview built on pessimism, because pessimists are never disappointed. But while I expect things to be rotten much of the time on a macro basis, I do believe in the importance of acting optimistically and positively on a personal front, making changes for the better within the circles of my own influence, limited as they may be. I also believe in the importance of hope, seeing a future within which big things and little things align and fall into place in pleasing fashions, for me, for those close to me, for those less fortunate than me, and for those in positions of power with the ability to legislate, litigate, create, govern, mediate and manage actions and activities that create social and civic good for the greatest number of people.

So on the cusp of that conflicted personal dialectic, there are some big picture things I’d like to see happen in the twelve months before us, and some specific things that would give me particular pleasure, should they come to pass. I’m not generally much of a prognosticator and futurist, but as a first post here on the blog in the new year, I’m moved to offer the following 21 wishes for ’21. That may be a greedy number, but hey, we all likely under-performed on our wish lists for ’20, so I think we’re entitled to swing big at the plate this time around. I’ll circle back in December and we’ll see how I did. And I’ll welcome your own wish lists, if you choose to share them. That’s what the comment section is for, yo.

1. The obvious one first: that everyone near and dear to me remains happy, healthy, and hearty, hopefully as we’re able to come out of our COVID shells and gather again to mark important events, little victories, and whatever other excuses we can muster for hugs, love and laughs.

2. That the Democratic Party candidates win the two special Senate elections in Georgia, giving our new President the opportunity to govern effectively, even if just for two years. That will be such a refreshing change of pace.

3. That any and all of the traitorous creeps who vote to overturn the results of the Electoral College this week, facilitating and/or placating an authoritarian clown in the process, are somehow held accountable for their malfeasance. This year would be fine for that, but if it takes longer in this case, that’s okay too. Patience is a virtue when it comes to grudges and vindication.

4. That the new administration is able to quickly deploy skilled professionals in non-political ways to address the virus, quickly, thoroughly, with scientific rigor and military precision on the logistics front of vaccinations and protective measures. Let’s have the grownups handle this for a year, and get the partisan amateurs out of the way. Please.

5. That having a smart career public servant in the White House, instead of a dim-bulb reality television celebrity, will reduce the volume of “news as entertainment” noise that has made the words we read and the air we breathe (metaphorically speaking) so very noxious for the past four years. I’m ready to be bored by my elected leaders again. Seriously. When I worked at Naval Reactors, we used to say that our public relations policy was “Put the sum’bitches in and don’t talk about it.” I’d like that approach to governance. Do the jobs you were elected or appointed to do. Do them well. And don’t freakin’ tweet about them all the goddamn time.

6. That Butthole Surfers release a new album this year. My long-time favorite band were reportedly back in the studio in 2018 for the first time in decades, but since then, it’s been radio silence. Let’s get that new rekkid out, Gibby, Paul, King and Jeffrey. We need it. Pass me some of that dumbass over there, yeah buddy!

7. That First Cow, Da Five Bloods, I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Soul win all the major Oscars for 2020, whenever the Academy gets around to awarding them.

8. That the overdue new films from Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch) and Taika Waititi (Next Goal Wins) are as good as those they made before them, becoming early clear contenders for the next year’s Oscars.

9. That film studios and distributors recognize that the quick streaming markets that emerged from necessity during COVID time are a perfectly fine new normal, as I’ve been happier watching films at home as I ever have been going to theaters to see them. I’ve also watched more movies this year than I normally do, in large part because they were readily available, and the cost was lower. There’s a good supply-demand lesson in there somewhere, greedheads.

10. That I get to see at least one live music event in 2021. Ideally featuring King Crimson, Napalm Death, or The Who. (The last show we saw pre-COVID was the Crim, and we had tickets for Napalm and The Who in hand in 2020, only to see the shows cancelled).

11. That the Super Bowl is played between Tampa Bay and Baltimore, as we made preseason bets in Las Vegas on those two teams. It’s nice to know you’re a winner, no matter which team wins. Absent that impetus, I’m down for the Chiefs to take it all again. Otherwise, mostly meh.

12. That the NCAA learns from the COVID year that academics are more important than athletics in the grand scheme of things, perhaps shortening seasons on a permanent basis and otherwise allowing unpaid student athletes to supplement their educations with sports, and not the other way around.

13. That international travel becomes safe again. As much as I love our new home in Arizona, I’d gladly welcome 2022 in Europe.

14. That our local internet provider delivers promised system upgrades in the months ahead, as this small town rural network was not built for students and workers doing all-day video calls from home. Slooooooooooowwwwwww . . . .

15. That my Naval Academy class is able to mark our 35th reunion in person this year. Whether I’m there or not, it’s an important part of our collective culture. Our 15th was largely undone as it fell immediately after 9/11. It’d be nice to not lose another major one two decades later.

16. That the charitable sector bounces back in 2021; it’s bothersome to see corporate stock levels (and related IRA’s and 401k’s and such) maintaining robust balances through the plague, while giving to nonprofits evaporated.

17. That Facebook, Twitter and their ilk are disemboweled and disempowered, removing a vast source of malefic and ugly social evil from our ever-more-connected world. Oh, what the heck, let’s try to get rid of FOX News this year too, while we’re at it. Imagine an information spectrum where truth and facts prevailed, neutrally. Glory be! Such larks! (Yeah, I know, this one’s probably the biggest fantasia on the list).

18. That we’re able to do some sort of endurance physical event this year, like a hike/camp trip into the Grand Canyon, or a multi-day walkabout pilgrimage, or a long bike trek. It’s good physically, mentally, and spiritually to have days on end dedicated to exerting the body, without constant connection to the world beyond one’s next foot-fall.

19. That Thoughts on the Dead keeps on keeping on, despite his formidable recent health challenges. He makes the world a brighter, smarter, and much funnier place. Every day he posts is a little better than every day when he doesn’t.

20. That I’m able to hike every formally marked trail within 20 miles of our house (that’s a lot of trails), and that I’m able to find and explore every unmarked “social trail” that’s hidden between the official bits. Some of the best things I’ve found here have been on paths known only to the locals. I’m doing my part to be one of them on that front.

21. That we’re able to occasionally dine out, indoors. I’ve gotten used to picnics and carryout and masked patio food, but I’d be okay with celebrating some important event or another over white linen and good china in 2021, and there’s loads of interesting places hereabouts that we’ve not felt comfortable entering. Yet. But we will. Hopefully this year. Hopefully hopefully hopefully . . .

Mysterious abandoned dam on a “social trail” less than half a mile from our house. What other coolness awaits on the unmarked and unheralded spaces between the spaces here? We’ll soon find out, hopefully . . .

It’s Not the Turkey . . .

It is a strange and unsettling Thanksgiving season this year, made even more so here by us being in transition between homes, with our furniture being delivered to the new house on Friday. This morning, we left our AirBnB home of the past month (and its resident javalinas) and are in a hotel for two nights, so really a betwixt situation, on all fronts.

While many or most of us may not experience the traditional big dinner tomorrow, as an offer of  small comfort, I republish an old poem below to remind us all that the turkey is not the most important comestible of Thanksgiving anyway. Not by a longshot.

Here’s wishing everyone health and safety and happiness wherever and however you are able to mark the day. And a big serving of cheese, fat, salt and carbs, readily made in the microwave, easily devoured anywhere, fresh out of the tray . . .

Alma rose at dawn to make the biscuits,
kneading lard into the baker’s flour,
rolling sheets and cutting discs for baking;
it took her just a bit more than an hour.

At that point, Alma turned to make the stuffing:
sausage, cornbread, broth and butter, nuts.
She pulled the neck and gizzard from the turkey,
(which, with the heart, she thought the sweetest cuts).

She filled the bird and stitched it tight for roasting,
then with a jar of cloves, she dressed the ham,
and pressed the honey from the comb she’d purchased,
to sweeten up her famous candied yams.

While collards stewed in bacon fat and bullion,
Alma snapped the beans and okra too,
then shucked the corn, (the Silver Queen she favored),
which, paired with shrimp, went in her Frogmore Stew.

By sunset, Alma’s work had been completed,
the family blessed their meal on bended knees.
An awkward silence followed, ‘til her son said
“How come there ain’t no Stouffer’s Mac an’ Cheese?”

With Which I Am Well Pleased V (Miles Out)

A week from today, Marcia and I should be waking up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one day away from the start of our shared lives’ next chapter in Northern Arizona. We’re leaving Iowa on Thursday, and spending a couple of nights at opposite corners of Kansas (Atchison and Dodge City) on our way to the Southwest, so there’s some work, time and miles to get us to where we’re going, but we’re pleased to be so close, having looked forward to the move for so long.

We’ll be living in an AirBnb in Sedona until at least mid-December, while we hunt for the ideal house, so I will be packing up the home computer where I do the vast majority of my online and real-world work, and putting it into storage for a few months. I will have a laptop with me, so will be able to continue posting and participating in online activities, though it’s always less appealing to me to do so that way than it is to have my nice, big, high-resolution screen, full-sized keyboard, and ample stereo system in front of me while I clatter away. All good and worth it on a macro basis, though. I’ll trade that short-term working inconvenience for the longer-term expected pleasures of warmer weather in a culture more attuned to my own, any and every day.

We’ll also be packing up the television upon which we watch all of our movies, and the iTunes account I use to manage my music will disappear for awhile as well. So it seems a good point to pause today and add an entry to my “With Which I Am Well Pleased” series, offering an assortment of 15 items in various categories for your consideration, since they’ve been rocking my own socially-distant world in recent weeks. If these aren’t enough recommendations to move you fully, or if you’re so thoroughly moved that you need more, more, more, then there are also four earlier installments in this COVID-era collection, here, here, here and here. Knock yourselves out! And note that the next time you see a post with this series title, it’ll be coming to you from a land without endless corn and soybean fields, too many hogs and Covidiots, and a never-ending gnawing cold autumn wind. Pleased!!

FILMS

BOOKS

MUSIC

OTHER

New Thule roof box on new Mazda car.

Monkey Bread from Scenic Route Bakery.

Dining In and Dining Out(side)

I’ve been the primary cook about our household for as long as we’ve been a family, though the ways in which I deploy my culinary skills have evolved significantly over the years. When Marcia and I were younger and less financially comfortable, especially in the years soon after Katelin was born, the vast majority of our meals were eaten at home, and prepared with economically sourced supplies. I actually used to carry a little calculator into the grocery store with me to tally my purchases, making damned sure that the weekly food budget was not exceeded, not by a penny. We still smile about those days when discretionary spending limits forced me to make a tough decision on which one of Guns N’ Roses’ two Use Your Illusion CDs we could actually get when they were first released together, since we couldn’t afford to buy both. Oh, the hard choices! Oh, the humanity!

Dining Out was definitely a luxury in those days, and saved for special occasions if the destination was a nice one (well, in relative terms, anyway, since we lived in Idaho at the time), or as a socializing reprieve if we were having more mundane and affordable fare with friends and neighbors. But then as our financial situation improved over the years, so too did the frequency, expense and (some of the time) quality of our Dining Out experiences. Back in 2012, I developed and posted a listing of what I then considered to be my nine best Dining Out meals ever and with whom I shared them; it looked like this, and I still hold each of these dinners dear:

  • Channel Bass Inn, Chincoteague, Virginia (me and Marcia)
  • Cafe Marquesa, Key West, Florida (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • Zuzu, Napa, California (me and Marcia)
  • River Street Cafe, Troy, New York (many meals with many people)
  • Driftwood, Oranjestad, Aruba (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • Barbes, New York, New York (me, Marcia, Katelin and our friend Pat, two meals)
  • Hótel Búðir Snæfellsnesi, Búðir, Iceland (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • V Mertz, Omaha, Nebraska (me and Marcia)
  • Unknown parilla (steak house) in La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina (me, Marcia, Katelin and Katelin’s friend, Kenna. I can’t recall or find the name because apparently it has closed; I know where it was, but it does not show up on maps anymore)

Having spent 2015 to 2019 in the Food Mecca of Chicago, and having traveled internationally numerous times since 2012, we’ve experienced many more exquisite meals at superb places that could potentially be added to this listing. Maybe I’ll do that post at some point. I’ll have a lot of meals to consider from our Chicago Era, because the wealth of local choices and the presence of a massive grab-and-go style grocery store in our condo building reduced the number of meals I cooked from scratch at home to truly negligible levels. We essentially inverted our original family paradigm, such that it was typically a special occasion meal (e.g. Thanksgiving Dinner) that was cooked and consumed in our condo, while routine meals were experienced elsewhere, even though the quality of offerings available made even some of those regular evenings out quite divine from a culinary standpoint.

That said, it’s also important to note that we’ve experienced myriad forgettable or offensive Dining Out experiences along the way as well, even in Chicago and overseas, with their number rising in direct correlation to the number of Dining Out meals we consumed. When we lived in Iowa the first time (2011 to 2015), we ate most of our meals at home, largely because I found the local restaurant scene to be so very dire. Yes, you could find some decent-ish food in Des Moines, but a Dining Out experience involves three key elements — food, ambiance, and service experience — and getting just one or two of them right isn’t good, at all. Unfortunately, missing one-to-all of those three elements seemed to be the norm in Central Iowa, prompting me to write this aggravated slate of advice to the region’s restaurateurs, based on loads of real-time, real-world Dining Out Disasters.

So I knew when we moved back to Iowa from Chicago in 2019 that I’d be cooking at home a lot more than I had the prior four years, out of necessity, whether I liked it or not. I will note, to be fair, that the Des Moines dining market had improved a bit while we were away, with a few more quality options emerging and a widespread reduction of the “Closed on Sundays” theocratic nonsense that used to drive me crazy here. Room ambiance remains a chronic problem in Des Moines, with inept service still nipping at its heels in many locations, but at least the trends are moving (a bit) in the right directions, if slowly. But, still: it’s no Chicago. And it never will be, no matter how desperately the market aspires for distinction.

Then, of course, and as is the case in so many narratives penned in 2020, COVID happened. Iowa’s response to the pandemic has been generally poor (our Governor ranks last in the Nation in terms of surveyed reaction to her handling of the virus), but there was a relatively brief time when the restaurants did shut down completely, and even if they hadn’t, we weren’t about to go put ourselves at risk by stepping foot in any of them. So cooking at home moved from a “most of the time” to an “all of the time” paradigm, and you know what? I was (and remain) pretty good with that situation.

Marcia and I have spent less, ate healthier, and had far fewer aggravations alongside our meals together since returning home from Florida in March. I’ve developed a nice roster of entrees that we rotate through, including various Indian, Japanese and Chinese stir-fries and sautes, some choice Mexican-inspired favorites (I’m particularly pleased with my posole and self-developed Mexican Lasagna), pasta, rice and tortilla-based dishes built around non-meat products, pizza, salmon, tuna, shrimp and beef with various sauces, and a nice mix of sides, including Low Cackalacky childhood faves like succotash and black-eyed peas. (We’ve not had any chicken or pork, though, as an active act of protest against the ways that Iowa has treated its meat-packing workers in recent months). I’ve also made and eaten more green salads in the past six months than I did in the six years prior, if not longer. So Dining In is okay with me. It’s a positive adaptation to a negative circumstance.

There are times when we can’t Dine In, though, so we’ve been Dining Out(side) in lieu of Dining Out for those meals. Socially distanced picnics with Katelin and John allowed us to visit and catch up with them during the darkest early days of disease time. When we have traveled out of Des Moines, we have taken to finding restaurants that can manage decent carryout experiences, and then eating them in pleasant outdoors environments. (This is easier when the weather is nice, obviously). We had some stellar outdoor meals during our trip out West last month, in fact, a memorable aspect of a soul-affirming change of scenery.

It has been interesting to see how well (or not) various restaurants have adapted to this changed food-service paradigm. One of our favorite neighborhood restaurants was also one of the first to offer carry-out options, which we were glad to give a try for our Anniversary Dinner in June. They seemed to be doing everything right: online ordering, curb-side pickup, contact-free transactions, etc. But, unfortunately, they missed two important elements: creating and preparing food that would travel well, and paying attention to what the customer ordered. We went with their prix fixe menus, choosing three items each, for a total six total items ordered — four of which ended up being the wrong items, or were wildly inconsistent with the menu descriptions, or were made with poor-quality ingredients. I can’t say I’d count them as a favorite neighborhood restaurant anymore accordingly.

I suspect that the restaurants which survive and thrive through and beyond the pandemic are going to be those who can do a much better job on this front, and who remain willing to continue hewing to such a model even after the virus has run its course and/or we have widespread vaccinations available. Because, honestly, at this point even if you remove fear of infection from the Dining Out experience, I’m not feeling particularly eager to reintroduce those two uncontrollable elements that can so wreck a meal — ambience and service experience — into my dinnertime plans, knowing how many truly enjoyable, healthy, affordable and aggravation-free meals we’ve had during lock-down days.

That may certainly be making lemonade from lemons and/or seeking silver linings behind grey clouds, but I think it’s going to be a near-permanent change to the way that I view the acquisition and consumption of foodstuffs. And I suspect that I am not alone on that front. My only regret in feeling this way comes from empathy with and sympathy for those whose careers will be impacted adversely and permanently by such a change of consumer sea-state in the Dining Out industry. I know that we are fortunate to work in fields that will not require such radical self-reinvention, and to have the means to meet our nutritional needs in a way that is pleasing to and healthy for us.

Our COVID Era philanthropy has been devoted toward food security accordingly. Perhaps you, too, could consider reallocating some of your erstwhile Dining Out dollars in a similar fashion? Well, if you already have all of your Guns N’ Roses CDs properly acquired and sorted, anyway.

While I do the cooking, I do not do the baking. That’s Marcia’s purview, and her banana scones were a most delicious treat. (I am hoping that when she sees this post, she will be inspired to make them again, om nom nom!)

With Which I Am Well Pleased (Redux)

While our State of residence is opening up prematurely and irresponsibly, Marcia and I are still doing our part to protect ourselves and others through smart adherence to science-based guidance on social distancing and personal protection. So that means we’re spending a lot of time at home, still, even as we have diligently worked through our dire local climate to get good, healthy walks in every day, usually way out in the countryside away from the selfish, oblivious idiots who are bumbling around our neighborhood as though COVID-19 were a thing of the past already. We’re not exactly experiencing the sabbatical year that we had planned for 2020, but we have our health and we have each other and we have a variety of things, both mundane and meaningful, that are filling the hours and satisfying our souls. At the risk of repeating a titular heresy, I revisit my earlier With Which I Am Well Pleased post for a peek at 15 other specific things that have been keeping me entertained over the past month or so. Maybe you’ll be easily amused by them too.

TELEVISION SHOWS

MOVIES

MUSIC

BOOKS

OTHER

Best of the Archives #10: A Lifetime of Good Eats

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

A LIFETIME OF GOOD EATS (2009)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

There’s an old joke about a Southern man’s personal prospects that posits the greatest uncertainty about his health outcomes thusly: Will he have his first heart attack before he loses all of his teeth or not? I come from a long line of big Southern Men, and it was a valid question for a lot them, as dentures and cardiac arrests were certainly real life concerns for most of the old gents in my life, many of whom were indeed done in by clogged arteries and diabetes, before the cigarettes could get them.

I did learn from that, and I watch what I eat and I exercise regularly. I’ve also been blessed with tough teeth that I care for properly, even though (true confession time) I have probably only been to the dentist two or three times since college. On those rare occasions when I do go, the dentist invariably praises my oral hygiene and says everything’s fine. I’m told that different people have different bacterial cultures in their mouths, some that foment the growth of plaque, and some that foster decay and cavities. Neither one of them seems to care for my pie hole. I’ll take that as a blessing.

I had some blood sugar and cholesterol readings some years back that were marginally problematic. I adjusted the necessary lifestyle choices accordingly, and neither one’s much of a concern for me now. I know I don’t eat as much fruit as I should (it’s a grease group thing), but otherwise I’m pretty good about maintaining a high fiber, low fat, low carb diet, without much red meat in it. I don’t obsessively mind my calories, but I’m mindful of portion control, and I rarely indulge in any belt-busting all-you-can-eat buffet style behaviors either.

But, boy oh boy, is that all learned behavior of my adulthood, because I was brought up eating the polar opposite of that, in almost every way. Today’s archival article is a remembrance of those glorious, innocent days when buffets, fried foods, sweet tea, processed meats, and just about every other unhealthy thing imaginable featured heavily in my diet, and the diets of pretty much everybody around me, friends and family alike. It was all bad for us, sure, but it certainly tasted good, and I sure do remember those days fondly and wistfully — most especially my dad’s quixotic quest for the perfect chili dog, which found us buying unhealthy bags-worth of them in most every town we lived in or visited over the years. (Note well that what Southerners call “chili” on a hot dog has no resemblance to the Southwestern food of the same name; it was more of a greasy, chopped meat paste that it was bean-rich bowl food).

This article focuses a lot on diner-style restaurants, and I wrote it while still living in New York’s Capital Region, where those are a big part of the regional culture and cuisine. I tried to find an analogue of that experience when we moved to Des Moines, but never quite succeeded. Drake Diner on the campus of the same name has the chrome exterior and big menus, but it always felt more like a diner-themed college cafeteria than it did a real diner to me. In our current East Village neighborhood, there’s a new place called Clyde’s Fine Diner that advertises a gourmet-caliber diner experience, but that’s just an oxymoron, really. The food at Clyde’s is quite good, mind, and they even have Shrimp and Grits on the menu, but it’s foo-foo, and bears no resemblance to what real Carolina Shrimp and Grits looks and tastes like, while the restaurant interior is in the standard noisy Iowa box-style that I’ve written about, unhappily, here. Diner and hipster dining cultures just don’t align, no matter how hard folks might want them to. Bubba’s in Des Moines has also legitimately good and authentic Carolina-style food, but it’s more of a white linen restaurant than a diner, so that doesn’t count for me either.

While they don’t usually call them diners, once you get out into rural and small town Iowa, you can find a lot of family-owned, non-chain restaurants that are legitimately analogous to the feeding holes of my Southern childhood. While the menu highlights can be dramatically different, there’s fried foods aplenty, and you can easily create a true carbohydrate nightmare meal if you want to. If I had to pick the best of the bunch that I’ve experienced to date in Iowa, it would be Cronk’s Restaurant and Lounge in Denison, which has been around for over eight decades. It’s located on US-30, which is the modern-day remnant of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental automobile roadway. Its hearty food, great prices, convenient location, quick and friendly service, and unassuming interior have likely made it the perfect pause point for millions and millions of travelers over the years, while the locals seemed to love it just as much when I was there.

It’s good to know that places like that still exist. I don’t want to eat like that everyday, but I’m glad I can when the spirit moves me to do so.

Central Lunch was still hanging in there when my sister and I visited Albemarle in 2011 — but the last time I was there a couple of years back, it seemed to have been finally shuttered, alas.