Gone to California

As has been the case throughout most of the country in recent weeks, it has been super hot in Arizona, even up in our high-ish (4300 feet above sea level) home village. It’s also monsoon time where we live, so that the days and our plans can be suddenly knocked awry by torrential, drenching storms. Knowing in advance that these sorts of weather phenomena were likely in late July and early August, we planned our summer vacation to miss at least a bit of the heat and rain, heading off to California, again.

Last summer, we spent our time on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. The trip before that, we traveled from Sonoma County up the coast through Northern California, Oregon and Washington, making it almost all the way to the Canadian border. So for this trip, we’re filling in the gap in our Pacific coast experiences, starting in Los Angeles, and ending in Marin County, just adjacent to Sonoma. As I type, we’re in Santa Barbara, which has been lovely for the first few days of our travels, sunny with temperatures in the 70s, with cool sea breezes keeping the humidity at bay. From here, we will be traveling to Monterey, then up to Marin County, then into San Francisco for the flight back home. I’ll do the usual trip report with photos for the whole thing when I get back.

Today, I’ll just write about our “bonus” vacation day that got tacked on to the trip at close to the last minute. We had planned to leave Phoenix mid-day Saturday, giving us time to make the drive down from Sedona to the airport (about two hours) without any inordinate effort. But United Airlines had other ideas, and moved our flight to a 6am departure instead, which would require a night in a hotel, since I’m not fond of the high speed drive down I-17 in the dark. We decided to bump our flight to Friday, and to stay at a hotel immediately adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), then get our rental car at the scheduled time on Saturday.

The revised travel all went well (though it was 115F when we got to Phoenix, oof!), and we had a bit of time for a walk and dinner on Friday night. As you can imagine, the pickings that close to a massive international airport were a bit slim if you didn’t want hotel or chain restaurant food, but with a little bit of research, we found what looked like an interesting Greek restaurant a little over a mile away. We ambled over, and were delighted by the quirky little urban gem that we found: Aliki’s Greek Taverna. It was located smack between a car wash and a residential motel, directly below the flight line for arriving planes into LAX. We sat in a little courtyard, were served by the delightfully convivial owner, and had an absolutely dynamite meal: gigantes, dolmades, hummus, pastitsio, and excellently fresh pita. Should your travels leave you with downtime near LAX, we would most heartily recommend paying them a visit.

The next day, being an early riser, I decided to take advantage of our proximity to the eastern ends of LAX’s runways to go get some plane nerd photos and bask in the glorious fumes of aviation fuel in the morning. Then we got our rental car and headed up the Malibu Coast, with a nice lunch stop detour into Ojai. As noted above, I’ll post the “regular” trip photos in an album when I return, but today, I’ll share some of my LAX area shots, somewhat atypical of normal vacation images, sure, but still fun to snap, in their own weird way.

An Appalachian Adventure

Marcia and I spent the last week in the Southeastern high country on a little adventure that included a lot of unusual highlights, along with a deep appreciation for how very lovely and green the southern reaches of the Appalachian Range are. We love where we live on the shoulders of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, but it was sort of “wow” to be reminded of how grand old mixed and deciduous mountain forests look and feel after a long time away from them. It was also refreshing to visit a part of the country where every plant isn’t aggressively trying to poke, stick, scratch, bite or kill you.

We left a week ago Thursday and spent a night in Phoenix, where we visited with Marcia’s nephew and his lovely family, who took us out for an outstanding dinner at Dick’s Hideaway, where we had some absolutely superb Mexican food, in most generous portions. We then flew on non-stop to Atlanta, rented a car, and drove up to Asheville, North Carolina, where my sister and her own lovely family were marking their 20th anniversary of residence. That makes them old school mountain denizens in a city that’s seen huge immigration and growth since the time they arrived. We hung out at their place for a few days, watching the Memorial Day fireworks at the nearby Grove Park Inn from their deck, eating many pounds of boiled peanuts, appreciating brother-in-law Dana’s excellent bonsai collection, and getting an ongoing Wild Kingdom show as the local bears hung around their yard, and dragged their trashcans around their neighborhood. We had to go shoot bottle rockets at them one night to make them go away. That’s some fine redneckery there, yessir.

We had a great dinner on Saturday night at Ukiah, a “Japanese Smokehouse,” which offered a wonderful combination of Carolina and Asian foods and flavors, served small plate style, so you could sample a lot of different things. Which we did. We also visited the outstanding North Carolina Arboretum (more crazy good bonsai there) and the quirky little town of Marshall, on the banks of the French Broad River. We had a great brunch at Star Diner, and then walked over to the little historic island at the heart of the town, which features an abandoned community center decorated with what I would guess are WPA/CCC-era murals, that have aged wonderfully weirdly.

On Tuesday, we drove over to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was pleased to realize that we were there exactly 40 years after my first visit to that city, when my high school senior class trip took us to the 1982 World’s Fair. Here’s a photo from that long-ago trip, taken on the very long bus ride back from Knoxville. (If the shirt logo seems incongruous, it was a uniform item from my summer job at White Sulphur Springs in Pennsylvania). I suspect it was intentional that whatever was in my hand was cropped out in this view. Also, note one of my chums sleeping in the luggage rack at top right. It was that kind of trip . . .

Most of the structures and buildings from that Worlds Fair are long gone, except for the iconic Sunsphere (it seemed so tall to me in 1982, but now it seems modest and quaint, a Jetsons view of the future) and the Tennessee Amphitheater (nicknamed “Dolly Parton’s Bra” at the time of its unveiling, for somewhat obvious reasons when you see it). As can probably be divined by the previous photo, my high school crew’s behavior at that World’s Fair was, shall we say, problematic, to the point where our high school stopped offering senior class trips for some time after ours. Oops. Sorry, future seniors. If it’s any consolation, I don’t really remember much of what happened, but I know we had fun.

But the real reason we went to Knoxville was not for me to walk down blurry memory lane, but actually to see one of the most iconic artists in my own personal musical development, along with the musical development of countless millions of other people: Sir Paul McCartney. I’ve been on Team Paul in the “Fave Fab” sweepstakes since my earliest days, always a staunch believer in and defender of his brilliance, even through those years/decades when it was hip in critical circles to denigrate him for not being edgy enough, or for featuring his wife in his band, or for not being John, or for whatever contrarian idiocy critics were peddling at the time. But despite that lifetime of love from me, I’d never seen Paul live in concert, until this week. Marcia is also a big fan (I think Paul’s at the top of her “Hall Pass” freebie crush list at this point), so she also got her first experience of basking in the light of his awesomeness.

The show was incredible: 36 songs ranging from the Quarrymen’s first demo up to recent solo works, with loads of Wings and Beatles and even a Hendrix tribute in the mix, running to nearly three hours worth of music. Paul’s live band (he’s been playing with most of these guys for longer than he played with the Beatles and Wings, combined!) is cracker-jack tight and talented, and it’s jaw-dropping to see how hard Paul plays, and how well he sings, and how much energy he exudes, at his or, frankly, anybody else’s age. He’s a true force of nature, and I was thrilled to be at this show. Poignant moments in the set list included Paul playing George Harrison’s “Something” on a ukulele that George had given him, and Paul performing a duet with John Lennon on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” via an isolated vocal and video recording from the legendary Get Back rooftop concert; Paul turned his back to crowd for that one, watching John as he sang. It was powerful.

We headed south the next morning and spent some time exploring Chattanooga, which has done a great job of making the formidable Tennessee River accessible and enjoyable in the heart of its urban core. After another nice meal (are you detecting a theme here?) at Tony’s Pasta Shop, we headed back to Atlanta, checked into our hotel, and set an early morning alarm for our planned nonstop flight back to Phoenix on Thursday morning.

Unfortunately, American Airlines had some other ideas about that. We woke to discover that our flight had been cancelled during the night, and that the only way for us to get home was via a Charlotte connecting flight . . . the next day. Ugh. We made the best of the situation, and took the MARTA train into Atlanta’s Midtown area, where we walked around the spacious and tree-rich Piedmont Park, visited The High Museum of Art (their Howard Finster collection is a highlight), had another exceptional meal at Tabla (saag paneer is one of my go-to dishes at Indian restaurants, so I’ve eaten it all over the world, and I think I’d pick this destination as the source for the best version of it I’ve ever had), and caught what turned out to be a private matinee showing of Alex Garland’s new film, Men. Which was something, shall we say. I’m not quite sure what, but certainly something. (I like weird/ambiguous films, and I like Alex Garland, but after thinking about it for a couple of days, I have to judge this one as a well-made film, but not a particularly good film, in large part for scripting reasons, though the core cast of Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear did do most formidable work with flawed material).

So then, back to the hotel, another early morning wake up, an unplanned and unexpected flight back to North Carolina (both the ATL and CLT airports were utter mob scenes), then onward by air to Phoenix, then the 100-mile drive back to home again, home again, jiggety jig. A nice little adventure, all things considered, and despite the American Airlines annoyances. And, of course, I took my usual photos throughout the week, and you can see my usual album by clicking on the usual sample image below, this one of Paul’s “duet” with John at the concert.

Your Turn to Remember

We’re back home in Northern Arizona this weekend after a visit to Marcia’s home city of Minneapolis. We rented a super nice AirBnB right across the street from the hill where Marcia and her friends would sled when she was a kid each winter. Which (because Minnesota) apparently ran from October to May. We had spent a couple of weeks in Minneapolis two summers ago just a bit north of this neighborhood, and it was an absolutely lovely trip. But that was summer, and this was not, and it was made plainly clear to us that 18 months in balmy Arizona has definitely undone 35 years worth of biological adaptation developed from living in frigid Northerly climes. I was cold the whole time, at bottom line.

But that was all okay, as the trip was worth the effort to spend time with Marcia’s extended family, gathered for a celebration of life for her sister Mary Ellen, who died in Phoenix last winter. The celebration was held at Next Chapter Winery in New Prague, Minnesota, owned and operated by members of Mary Ellen’s first husband’s family. It was a wonderful venue, highly worth a visit should you find yourself thereabouts.

Marcia is the youngest of 11 siblings, three of whom have flown away at this point. Seven of the surviving eight were together this weekend (two having traveled from Washington state, one from Texas, and us from Arizona), along with a lot of nieces and nephews, and it’s always lovely to spend time with them all. Here are photos of the five surviving Brom sisters, and seven of the eight surviving Brom siblings, at a great group dinner arranged by Marcia’s sister Carol at Axel’s in Mendota:

We drove several times by the house where Marcia and her siblings were raised, just a few blocks away from our AirBnB. I snapped this shot of their home one morning while out chorin’, and after having had to scrape ice off of the car’s windshield, brrr!

The Brom Family backyard was dominated and shadowed by the Church of the Incarnation, which is where Marcia and I were married in the summer of 1989. Sadly, the church experienced a devastating fire a few months back, but it was good to see construction crews busily working to restore and fully re-open this historic neighborhood hub. For the music nerds who hover about here: this was the hard-scrabble neighborhood that spawned The Replacements, and Marcia had various childhood relationships with the band’s members and their families; the cool “Raised in the City” map of the Mats’ formative years features “Inky” (as the Church and its school were known locally) as key site #17, along with a lot of other neighborhood landmarks.

Since it was too cold and windy and rainy for us to walk outside much (though the Minneapolitans seemed perfectly happy to ramble around in the brisk weather), we rode over to the Mall of America one afternoon to get an indoor walking session in, and also to catch the new Nicolas Cage film, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which was quite the hoot, and highly recommended. I also took advantage of the chill to hunker down under a blanket at the house and get a good deal of reading done, including what I’d consider to be the leading contenders, at this point, for my best novel and best nonfiction books of 2022, thus far. Here are links to those, if you need a couple of good reads:

On our last night in Minneapolis, we had an utterly stellar dinner out at a restaurant just across Lake Harriet from Marcia’s native ‘hood. It was an Argentine-inspired joint called MARTINA, and, again, we highly commend it to you, should you need a fine culinary experience while visiting the Twin Cities. Earlier in the weekend, we’d also had some outstanding carry-out dinners from Boludo (again Argentine-inspired, but this time making pizzas) and Young Man (quirky pan-Asian with a decidedly Upper Midwestern twist), both of them located near the intersection of South 38th and Nicollet, right in the heart of Marcia’s childhood neighborhood.

The day after we arrived home, Marcia went out in the blessedly warm weather for her bi-weekly golf outing, and I went out for my regular sunny-day hike. As often as I’ve scrambled up and around and through the red rocks in our neighborhood, I still spot and explore new “trails” (I use that term lightly, since I’ll follow animal tracks that most folks wouldn’t deign to risk), and that was the case yesterday as well, as I stumbled upon a new-to-me cave, and found a passable route up to the top of a prominent local rock structure with sublime and quiet views of one of the busiest tourist hiking zones in the region.

I end this post with three snaps from that hike. I’m happy that we got to spend time with Marcia’s family in the community that gives them their collective “sense of place,” even though it was a sad event that drew us all together this time. And then, I am just as happy to be back in our new-ish home town, feeling good that we’ve found our own great place at this juncture in our lives, beautiful, culturally-rich, and mostly snow and ice free . . .

Been Away Too Long

1. My three weeks as a juror at the Yavapai County Superior Court came to an end last week. We, the jury, found the defendant guilty of Second Degree Murder and 20+ related charges of property theft, forgery, credit card fraud, and identity theft. Here’s one of the many news articles I saw about the case once our deliberations concluded. I’d be lying if I said that the process was not onerous (especially given my 60+ mile drive one way to the Court House), but I will admit that it provided an interesting deep dig into a variety of subcultures resident here in Arizona. It also felt right and good to do my own small part as a contributing citizen in our State and Nation at a time when personal and institutional selfishness and anti-government sentiments and actions are running rampant, to our collective detriment. I’ve got a two-year “get out of jury duty free” pass now, and I certainly won’t be clamoring for my next jury stint when that time runs out. But if called, I will serve. Because that’s how I roll.

2. As soon as my jury service was done, Marcia and I headed over to Las Vegas to visit our daughter Katelin and son-in-law John in the new house they bought in January. It was a wonderful visit, including the celebration of Marcia and Katelin’s shared birthday on Tuesday. The house was spectacular, and the work that Katelin and John have done on it over their couple of months of ownership made it even more so. We brought some small decorative items with us in various storage baskets, which we left behind should Katelin and John need them. But then we soon realized that Katelin’s and John’s needs did not matter with regard to the baskets, because the proper owner of the baskets (Lily the Cat) had staked her claim, and would not yield same:

3. This was the first visit we’ve made since Katelin and John moved to Las Vegas where most of the stereotypical entertainment options of the Las Vegas Strip were open and available and (nominally) safe, due to the various COVID restrictions that have been (rightly, correctly) in place there for most of the past two years. So we took advantage of both the outdoor options (which we’ve always done when visiting) and the indoor options (which we’ve not experienced in quite some time) while we were there. Highlights included:

Simply walking the Strip and gawking at the usual nonsense there:

Eating at a variety of great restaurants, most especially our second visit to Sparrow + Wolf, where we had also done Katelin and John’s wedding dinner last year. I cannot speak highly enough about the quality of the dining experience there. Should you visit Las Vegas, it is well worth your while to leave the Strip to dine there. I recommend that you ask your server to curate a meal for your table, as we’ve done both times we were there. Plentiful food, arriving at a proper cadence, interesting varieties and tastes and flavors and aromas, all of the highest quality. It’s world class, at bottom line. We also had lunch on the Strip one day, at The Venetian, one of me and Marcia’s favorite Las Vegas casino areas to ramble and roam:

We then played the KISS Miniature Golf Course at the Rio Casino. It was big, dumb fun, just like the band:

For outdoors fun, we did an exceptional hike at Lovell Canyon, just to the west of Las Vegas in the Spring Mountains. Obviously the tacky Strip elements of Las Vegas are what draw the greatest percentage of tourism traffic, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note just how amazing many of the natural regions around Sin City are, if you’re willing to strap on your boots and do a bit of mudding and scrambling and climbing and rambling:

And finally, we went to see the West Coast Conference Men’s Basketball Championship game, pitting National #1 Gonzaga against National #19 St. Mary’s. The Zags won by 13 points, but for most of the game, before a final scoring explosion, it was much closer than that, and a good example of college hoops played at the highest level. Of course, because we can’t have nice things, we ended up with an absolute idiot sitting and screaming (and drinking and drinking) behind us on behalf of her Gonzaga team, when she wasn’t coughing up various organs due to the smoker’s hack that made her voice even more finger-nails-on-blackboard than it would have been otherwise. The meanness of her spew was really dismaying, especially when directed toward a group of college-aged kids (big kids, yeah, some of them soon to be rich, big kids, but still). I totally get the student bodies at college basketball games engaging in various ritual chants and activities, but I’m always somewhat surprised and mostly appalled when adults, in this case even older than me, feel compelled to yell in a nasty fashion at kids at sporting events in ways that would get them locked up or punched if they did it on the street. She was an awful human being, at bottom line, and she marred what would have been quite a nice evening otherwise. That annoyance aside, we did have good seats, and we got a great view of a great game, even if we all ended up rooting for (losing) St. Mary’s just to spite the human garbage sitting behind us:

4. After the game, we walked over to the adjacent casino (everything in Las Vegas has an adjacent casino) and put bets down on the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Last summer, we had placed pre-season bets on Houston and Michigan State to win the Men’s Basketball Championship. We added new bets for Gonzaga and Southern California. I also turned $35 into $240 on a poker machine. Not a bad night, compared to most of my other casino experiences.

5. A few posts back, I enthused about a new EP from the brilliant Buggy Jive, one of my all-time favorite songwriters and musical artists. Buggy also makes incredibly brilliant videos, and I’m pleased to report that he’s recently added a new one to his catalog with this tune from I Don’t Understand How the World Works:

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!)