Tiny Blue Isle 2022

We all live on a tiny blue isle
in a ravening crimson sea
that scours our shore
as storm gales roar
from windward side to lee.

We all live on a tiny blue isle
that shudders against the waves
of scarlet brine
and turpentine
leached from sunk slavers’ graves.

We all live on a tiny blue isle,
that’s smaller, day by day,
as marshland sinks
into that pink
foam sloshing ’round the bay.

We all live on a tiny blue isle,
like a berry in currant crème,
a healthy mote
that stays afloat
in a sticky blood-red stream.

We all live on a tiny blue isle
and work one job, with glee:
we fling blue sand
with spade and hand
to fight that damned red sea . . .

I wrote this poem in a depressed rage on November 10, 2016, after seeing a then-current version of the Presidential electoral results map, which looked something like this:

I don’t often get political here on any partisan basis (though I presume my allegiances are clear), since nobody needs yet another voice howling into the Twitiotsphere about that which each of us feels is obvious, creating ever more repetitive echoes in our respective chambers of cognizant isolation. But as I’ve been (mostly) happily following the 2022 midterm election results, I re-read “Tiny Blue Isle” and remain pleased with it as an original take on a tiresome topic, so I am sharing it again today. Take it as you will.

The last time I posted an update of the poem here, Marcia and I had just participated in the dumpster fire that was the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus, which was appalling in the moment, and even more so in hindsight. Never again, America, please?  This time around, from our new home in Arizona, Marcia worked actively on behalf of the Democrats of the Red Rocks in their get-out-the-vote efforts, a much better organized affair with much better results. We have been pleased in recent months that, by the yard sign count metric, our little isolated neighborhood is indeed a Tiny Blue Isle tucked away in the corner of a deep red county. We picked good when selecting this home, for that and so many other reasons.

Yes, we did lose our good incumbent Democratic Congressman to a MAGA candidate, due entirely to 2020 redistricting that shoved large swaths of the old district’s Democrats into other buckets. But that disappointment aside, at the moment, it looks as if five of the six Statewide electoral positions are going to go blue, and the sixth will be filled by a competent and lucid Republican. That’s a pleasing outcome from this little blue mote rising from a blood red sea. And as I assess the national electoral results, I’m pleased to see some new blue peaks emerging from other crimson backwaters, and the blue breakwaters holding against the raging red waves in others.

And with that bit of politics on the table today, we will return to our regular piffle and tripe here on Ye Olde Blog with my next post, whenever that may be. But keep on shoveling, fellow tiny blue islanders. It makes a difference.

40 Years From I-Day

40 years ago today, I stood sweating in a historic courtyard in Annapolis, Maryland, with a freshly shaven head and dressed in itchy new government-issue clothes, raising my right hand, and speaking these words aloud:

I, John Eric Smith, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

~1,400 other young men and women stood there with me, taking their own oaths, as the Class of 1986 began its joint journey on our Induction Day (“I-Day”) at the United States Naval Academy. I had graduated from White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina two weeks earlier, that previous milestone coming just four weeks after my 17th birthday. (I had skipped a grade in elementary school, so was always among the very youngest members of my academic cohorts). My mother and my sister were there to see me take the oath, but my father missed it: he was in Lebanon as the Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit, where he would remain throughout my entire Plebe (Freshman) Year.

My mom, sister and I had driven over to Annapolis that morning from Alexandria, Virginia, where we’d stayed with a family we’d known since I was in third grade, the eldest son of which was going for his own I-Day at the Virginia Military Institute later that same week. The first few hours after we arrived at the Academy were a busy blur, as we were registered, issued uniforms and books and other military sundries, given haircuts, organized into little training groups (I was put in the 23rd Platoon of Hotel Company), and guided to our rooms in “Mother B” (Bancroft Hall, the immense dormitory where all midshipman live). The Academy’s officers and First Class (Senior) Midshipmen tasked with our training were brisk, but polite, and despite the hustle and bustle of the day, a sense of excitement grew, along with a feeling of confidence that, yeah, I can do this.

After the oath, we were given a short time to say goodbye to our families, along with instructions to be in our rooms by a set time soon thereafter. When those instructions were given, it seemed like the time granted to complete those steps would be more than adequate, so I dawdled a bit, giving my teary mother and too-cool teen sister time to fawn over their beloved son and brother before he set off to be a big boy with the other big girls and boys. Then my family left, I stepped back into Bancroft Hall . . . and all hell broke lose.

First off, I thought I had remembered how to get from Tecumseh Court (where the oath had been issued) back to my room on the Fourth Deck (e.g. fifth floor, with the ground as “Deck Zero”) of the Sixth Wing of Mother B, but, jeez, the place was rats’ nest maze, and there were certain stairs we Plebes could use, and some we could not, and all elevators were out of the question. Complicating the journey was the fact that Plebes had specific instructions on how we were to move about Bancroft Hall: we “pinged” (essentially a stiff-legged race-walk) at all times, we could only move down the center of Bancroft Hall’s corridors, and we could only turn corners on silver plates embedded in the floors of those corridors at various key junction points, shouting “Go Navy!” with each pivot and turn.

Even more dramatically complicating the journey was the fact that those formerly brisk and polite Officers and First Class Midshipmen had suddenly transformed into a pack of howling, raging, frothing-at-the-mouth monsters, seemingly hell-bent on thwarting our progress, questioning our intelligence, scrambling our brains, and crushing our souls. My sense of “I can do this” lasted about three minutes after I stepped back into Mother B, replaced immediately by a deeper sense of “Oh my God, what have I done?!?”

I eventually made it to my room, late I think, and found my new room-mate already there, along with a few sheets of paper on my assigned desk. I flopped down on my bed, ready to take a load off and rest and recover for a bit, but my room-mate (who was a former enlisted man, and who had been given “good gouge” on what was to come) told me that we needed to read those sheets of paper on the desk as quickly as we could, because our little respite was not going to last long. Sigh.

The required reading was a short essay called “A Message to Garcia,” which I later learned was written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899. I started to skim it quickly: some guy named Rowan had to find some guy named Garcia, who was in some jungle somewhere, because President McKinley needed to get him some message, and Rowan didn’t know where Garcia was, but he set out anyway and . . .

. . . BLAAAMM!!!! The door to our room was kicked open, and some howling First Class Midshipman demanded we and our fellow victims assemble into our squads and platoons in the sweltering main corridor of our company area. Like some macroscopic example of Brownian motion, the Plebe members of Hotel Company careened about and ricocheted off each other trying to assemble ourselves into our proper molecular structures, all while pinging, and turning corners on the damned metal plates, and bracing up (e.g. keeping the chin pulled back to the neck as tightly possible), and trying to answer the barrage of questions and demands being fired at us from all sides.

Once assembled, we were interrogated about “A Message to Garcia,” and I was happy to have had my room-mate’s advise and counsel, since most of my company-mates had done what I had planned to do when I got to my room, flopping on the bed and resting, with no idea what anybody was supposed to be talking about. Eventually, I figured out that the message were supposed to learn from “Garcia” was that when given an order, we were just to execute it to the best of our abilities, without pestering our senior officers for information on why were to do what we were told, or how, or when, or where. Or something. It was a bit of a blur.

The rest of I-Day was more of the same. And then we finally slept. Or at least we laid in our beds and tossed and turned in the sweltering Annapolis summer heat, as Bancroft Hall was a vast non-air-conditioned space, and my room on “6-4” was as close to the building’s broiling copper-topped roof as it was possible to be. And then we got up early the next day for some fairly heinous morning calisthenics and sprints and gymnastics called “PEP,” overseen by a ridiculously spry and highly caffeinated septuagenarian named Heinz Lenz, who truly looked and sounded like somebody sent from Central Casting for a “World War II German Prisoner of War Camp Commandant” movie role. And then we marched, and ran, and studied from a little book called “Reef Points,” which contained a massive volume of “rates” (e.g. arcane and detailed Navy factoids) that we were required to spout upon command, and then we got yelled at because we didn’t know our rates, and then we ran, and swam, and marched, and shot things, and sailed things, and climbed things, and crawled under things, and ran, and swam, and studied, and got yelled at, over and over and over again.

(I first saw the gnomic phrase “IHTFP” scrawled on a blackboard somewhere within that first week or so, though it took some time before I discovered that it meant “I Hate This F*cking Place.”)

’86’s Plebe Summer program lasted until Labor Day, with one tiny little reprieve for Parents Weekend, when the howling dervishes got brisk and polite again for a couple of days while outside witnesses were around and about. We had a set deadline to be back to our rooms again after our little break, and, well, I won’t get into the whys, but I didn’t make it back by the appointed time, which was seemingly a heinous hanging-level offense. I’d actually done okay, all things considered, through Plebe Summer’s First Set (the period before Parents Weekend) and had gotten surprisingly decent performance reviews, but that late arrival clearly re-branded me as “Trouble!” By the end of Plebe Summer’s Second Set, I’d dropped down to the bottom ranking in my Company, beginning my long and illustrious career as a Naval Academy “shit screen,” the lowest of the lowest dregs of the Class of 1986, upon which all of the filth eventually settled that better-performing midshipmen were able to evade.

While the end of Plebe Summer seemed like it should have brought some relief and reprieve from our various travails, what it actually meant was that the entire Brigade of Midshipmen returned (dramatically increasing the number of people available to shout at us), and that our academic year started, putting 20+ credit hours of exceedingly difficult college level studies atop the loads of physical and military training that we were already undergoing. And on top of that, my own experience of Plebe Year was even more emotionally challenging that it might have been otherwise or for others, because I got up most every morning to check the newspapers to make sure my father hadn’t been killed or injured or otherwise put in harm’s way as things went south in Lebanon, and he and his fellow Marines were in and around Beirut at a particularly fraught period in that nation’s already and always tumultuous history. It was a lot.

That phase lasted until the latter part of May 1983, nine more months of relentless slog and grind, only and finally culminating when the Class of 1986 collectively completed our “Herndon Climb,” which is the  Academy’s historic and annual “No More Plebes” ceremony. Many years later, one of our ’86 classmates, Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, went on to co-author (with Scott Tomasheski) the definitive history of the Herndon Climb, and I wrote more about that at this link, if you’d like some deeper insight on what that event looked like, and what it felt like, and why. And as a teaser, Jim has another book coming out later this year, for which yours truly is actually the co-author: I’ll let you know when and how you can order our Side by Side in Eternity: The Lives Behind Adjacent American Military Graves (McFarland Book, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2022) as soon as it’s available for sale. Because of course I will.

Of the ~1,400 members of the Class of 1986 who took the Oath of Office together 40 years ago, just over 1,000 of us actually graduated on May 21, 1986, the day before my 21st birthday. I was commissioned as a Naval Supply Corps Officer, headed off to Supply School in Athens, Georgia (a truly great time to be there for a music geek!), then was selected to serve in the Naval Reactors Headquarters Directorate in Washington, DC (where I met and married Marcia, a fellow, though higher ranking, Supply Corps Officer), then transitioned to civilian positions with Naval Reactors in Idaho and New York, then finally left Federal service in 1996. It was a good run.

That being said, I’d absolutely be lying if I said that the four years in Annapolis between I-Day and Graduation weren’t absurdly hard, and I’d equally totally be lying if I said that I enjoyed the experience much at all on a day-to-day basis. My Second Class (Junior) year was particularly miserable, since I spent most of it on restriction for a variety of offenses, unable to leave “The Yard” (as we refer to the Naval Academy campus). But, in the end, I got it done, and I often say that I finished the program primarily out of spite, since there were a good number of people in my chain of command who seemed to consider me as unworthy of being at Annapolis, and unworthy to become an alumnus of the Academy. They were probably right, but I did it anyway. Take that.

On the upside, I formed some of the best friendships of my life during those four years by the Severn River. (Looking at you: Junior, Jacket as Fly, Adam, Bob M, Aldo, Matthew, Thomas, Jim M, among others). Also, there’s no question in my mind that I never would have finished college in four years (or maybe ever) without the controls and constraints imposed upon me by the Academy. And the lessons learned at Annapolis in how to take initiative, how to manage time, how to function under stress, how to work efficiently and effectively, how to direct teams, how to be directed as a team member, how to prioritize, and so many other aspects of leadership and management, were truly transformative for me. Those lessons fundamentally shaped everything I did through my government service time, and in the nonprofit, educational, and writing careers that followed. I wasn’t grateful while being taught those lessons, but I’m forever grateful that I learned them.

In an unexpected turn of events in the years that followed our graduation, and because I was a weird web nerd before too many other weird web nerds had emerged, I ended up building the platform for the Class of 1986’s first online community presence in the early 1990s. I did so less out of sense of duty, and more out of a selfish “I wish we had this, and nobody’s doing it, so I will handle it myself” motivation. After serving the class as “Web Drone” (as I dubbed myself) for some years, I then went on to serve as the scribe for ’86’s monthly column in Shipmate, the Naval Academy Alumni Association magazine. And then I became the Class Secretary because of that. And then I got heavily involved in reunion planning because of that. And then, somehow, I was elected ’86’s Class President for a five year term, culminating with our 25th Class Reunion in 2011, and then I served another five-year term as Class Treasurer, I guess just to touch all of the alumni officer positions for our cohort.

I got a lot of joy and satisfaction from those experiences, even though they were a lot of hard work. I also experienced a lot of sadness from those experiences, as we have lost many classmates along the way, some giving their lives in service to their Nation, some who lost their lives as victims of terrorism on September 11th, 2001, some who fell to illness, or in training accidents, or to the bodily travails that ail us as we all get older. In my role as a class officer, I was often tasked with disseminating those sad news items among the class at large, and as there were (and are) fewer and fewer of us, the bonds that bound and bind us seemed to grow tighter, and to mean more, with each of those losses.

During my time in Annapolis, I never would have foreseen myself holding those later leadership roles, nor would anybody else who knew me closely then, and who was sober and non-delusional when questioned on the subject. I also never would have expected that I would put in so much time and money and effort giving back to an institution that had seemed most determined to make me miserable while I was there. But that’s sort of the beauty of the Naval Academy experience: it takes you as come, it fires you hard through a challenging crucible, and it sends you out as you will be, and maybe, hopefully, as you should be. The Academy experience also inculcates in you a desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself, a “link in the chain,” bound together by history, by shared experience, and by a desire to see those who follow undergo the same transformations, and build the same senses of community, that we once experienced together, beginning on I-Day ’82, all those years, all those haircuts, all those miles, all those stories, and all those lives ago . . .

Trigger Warning

I rarely post overtly political content here, since our modern media space is already so rife with whatever flavor of partisan zealotry you might want to wallow in, 24/7/365, that I don’t wish to add to the constant fire hose to the face that most of us experience anytime we’re near a computer or a television or a radio or a magazine. That’s a conscious, active choice for me to manage my personal website that way, despite my professional and academic backgrounds in political science and public policy, which ostensibly support me having some informed thoughts on the subject of governance. I mean, I also have some strong and well-formed thoughts on religion and sex, but having been raised properly in a good Southern household, I know those are also not things that should be discussed at the (virtual) dinner table.

That said: like most folks in the country, I’m not really able to crawl into my shell of solitude or to stick my fingers in my ears and make “la la la la la la” noises to drown out the horrible stories about mass shootings that have so dominated our discourse in recent days. Or weeks. Or months. Or years. Or decades. Utter tragedies, all of them. And while it seems like the folks we elect to represent us might want to do something about it, we know that entrenched monetary and political interests are virulently opposed to any efforts to legislate limits and improvements on gun ownership and deployment, often suggesting that the solution to too many shootings is just to inject more guns, more freely brandished, into the national ecosystem.

In the aftermath of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings (and the dozens that have happened between and since them, but weren’t “big enough” to make national news), the usual suspects are working to implement changes to Federal gun policy, and the other usual suspects are working the thwart them. (We know who we’re talking about on each side, right?) As has become standard in these cases, the usual “freedom and liberty” arguments have been passionately made by the guns-guns-and-more-guns team, after the usual “thoughts and prayers” sentiments were expressed, of course. But as national dismay about this state of affairs steadily grows — polling indicates that a sizable majority of Americans seek some changes to the ways in which we can access and deploy high-powered weaponry, be it an increased age for purchase, banning particular weapons, implementing “red flag rules” or universal background checks, etc. — more pro-gun politicians are being pointedly asked by journalists and constituents: “Why can’t  we do something?”

It has been a head-spinning exercise to process their responses. At bottom line: the gun lobby and its clients (political, corporate, community, and individual) argue that we don’t need to do anything about Federal gun laws, because it’s not the guns that are the problem. So the obvious second question is: “Well, why are we having all of these mass killings if it’s not because of the guns?” It’s been a real media hot take in recent weeks to report on the answers given by various elected and aspiring government officials, in terms of who and what they blame for the problem.

After reading a few of those articles, I decided to see if I could make a complete list of the many theories being posited by Team Elephant (if you can find a Democrat making such arguments, please share), so I did a Google search for articles posted in the past two weeks using the search terms “GOP Lawmaker Blames” and “GOP Candidate Blames.”

Here’s what I came up with, on the topic “who or what is to blame for the current epidemic of gun violence,” posited by various Republican legislators or candidates, and presented in alphabetical order:

  • Abortion
  • Black People
  • COVID
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Decline in Moral Values
  • Decline of the “Traditional American Family”
  • Declining Church Attendance
  • Democrats
  • “Drag Queen Advocates”
  • “False Flag” operations by the FBI, CIA and/or White House
  • Fatherlessness
  • Feminism
  • Gangs
  • Gay Marriage
  • Hatred of Veterans
  • Lack of corporal punishment in schools
  • Lack of faith
  • Lack of prayer in schools
  • Legalized marijuana
  • Liberal teachers
  • Mental Illness Epidemic
  • “Mexicans”
  • Open borders
  • Pornography
  • President Obama
  • Public school teachers
  • Rap Music
  • Single mothers
  • Smartphones
  • Snowflakes
  • Social Media
  • Too many doors in buildings
  • Trans People
  • Video Games
  • Wokeness
  • Women in the Workplace

Very few of these targets of blame were explained with any sort of lucid causation or correlation analysis, but were instead seemingly offered simply to distract readers and citizens from exploring any meaningful underlying causes for the tragedies caused by our out-of-control national gun culture.  Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s hard. But, yes, we really do need to do something other than nothing, and soon. Even incremental change matters: if pragmatic public policy could reduce the number of innocent victims of mass and other criminal shootings by just 20% annually, that’s thousands of American lives spared each year from awful, violent ends, never mind the collateral damage victims who don’t die, but are maimed with life-altering injuries. Isn’t that worth something? Isn’t that a good outcome?

I don’t have the answers, of course. And if I did, I don’t have the power to implement them. But one thing I do know is that we must not accept the sorts of bullshit being spewed in the list above, from anybody, ever. Assigning blame to those targets does not fix the problem, and it actually increases the likelihood of additional violence against those people who are being tagged as menaces and dangers, without just cause. Here’s hoping that enough people of all political stripes have had enough of the carnage, and enough of the finger-pointing in random directions, so that reasonable politicians representing reasonable citizens can come together to take steps that demonstrate that we’re not simply sighing a big collective sigh and accepting that this is the way that things must be. They don’t have to be this way. They shouldn’t be this way. They can’t stay this way.

In closing, let me note that if your reaction to this piece is to send me a scathing comment about being a libtard snowflake coastal socialist who wants to repeal your Second Amendment rights, you should really hold your tongue on that point, since none of those descriptors are accurate. I’m patriotic, without having to fly a flag of convenience to prove it. I’ve fired a wide variety of handguns, rifles, and various heavier ordinance pieces over the years, and was well-trained on the proper use and care of them all. I come from a long line of warriors, raised in an Evangelical Southern household. I attended a Federal service academy, served in the military, and worked on in the defense sector as a civilian after my active duty time was done, negotiating deals for some of the most formidable equipment in the Nation’s arsenal, and also supervising the acquisition of the firearms used by the well-trained security inspectors who guarded the sensitive nuclear site where I worked.  And when I no longer needed to do those things to satisfy my professional obligations, and given that I am not part of a well-regulated militia, I’ve not seen fit to own or fire a weapon since that period of my life came to its conclusion.

Shooting guns is just not my idea of fun. Nor is continually reading about my fellow Americans being gunned down when they’re just trying to pursue their own lives, liberty, and happiness. We deserve better. And to get what we deserve, we truly need to identify, vet, and elect better politicians who will smartly pursue policies that hold the social contracts that bind us first and foremost, and not the wishes of the most extremely partisan benefactors who fund their campaigns and shape their agendas. There was a time in our not-so-distant past when electoral offices were typically pursued adjacent to a sense of public service and common good from candidates, who were expected to have a least some modicum of experience related to the jobs of governance. These days, though, it seems ever more of our elected officials are in it for personal financial gain or just because they crave attention. And with no well-formulated beliefs and little professional training for their jobs, they end up just being shills and mouthpieces for whatever lobbyists brought them to the big ball as useful idiot dance partners.

Enough. Really. Just enough.

Another GOP lawmaker noted we need to have high-powered semi-automatic weapons to protect our chickens from raccoons. I guess I’ll buy that when the masked bandits start to show up like this . . .

What Should Be Done

1. Marcia and I have been getting our healthcare insurance coverage for the past 18 months via the COBRA program, which allowed us to receive benefits as part of the last healthcare policy group she’d been a member of at the point when she retired from full-time work. But as our eligibility for that program came to its end, we visited the Federal Healthcare Website to see what our options were for the year(s) to come. We found a very good plan at a very reasonable price with a very nice Federal tax subsidy associated with it, and enrolled in said program accordingly this week. Thank you, President Obama, for that. We appreciate you, always. And we miss you!

2. Bauhaus were a tremendously influential and much appreciated band for me through most of the 1980s, and their successor bands (Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail, and solo projects by members Daniel Ash, David J, and Peter Murphy) kept me rolling in good music for years-to-decades after their original collective creative run petered out. I had read that the original quartet were on tour again this year, but was surprised when they issued a new single (the first new music they’ve released in 14 years) a couple of weeks ago, called “Drink The New Wine:”

The music media have been much impressed by the song’s origins, created via the surrealists’ game trope “exquisite corpse,” in which each of the group’s four members recorded their segments of the song independently, without having heard the other three members’ contributions. The results are shockingly coherent, but, then, that’s the point of the game, in that brilliant collaborative newness may (and in this case, does) emerge from the chaotic creative process behind the work.

But I’ve not seen (m)any members of the critical community recognizing that this is not the first time that Bauhaus have hoed this row, with one of the best songs from one of their best albums (The Sky’s Gone Out, 1982) being titled “Exquisite Corpse,” and being created under the same rubric. Here’s how that one sounded; it’s a personal fave:

Note well that the title of the new song makes it something of a sequel to the title of the earlier song, as they evoke the original surrealist quote penned by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy: “Le cadaver exquisite boar le vin nouveau,” which translates in English to “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.” Bauhaus (the group) also deployed this creative technique on a fairly rare b-side, where they titled the track with the band members’ names and the order in which said members created their contributions to the cut in question:

Always happy when artists I admire and respect return from long hiatuses with works that are challenging, yet anchored in their core creative values. Here’s hoping that Messrs Ash, J, Haskins and Murphy continue to make new music under their Bauhaus imprimatur. It’s a good one. I miss it.

3. We finished watching the first season of Our Flag Means Death last night. I’m all in behind the brilliant Taika Waititi, and will pretty much happily watch anything and everything that he does (except for his Marvel Universe Movies, because I boycott superhero and Marvel Universe Movies as a point of principle, as I think them a tired and sore blight on our modern culture) (but I don’t mind Taika making them, if they fund his original work), but even with that expectation for excellence, this series went in ways and places that I’d not imagined it going, and it was all fantastic. Here’s the trailer, as a tease, and I most emphatically recommend it to you:

I’ve read a lot of reviews and analysis of the series over the past few weeks, but few writers seem to have picked up on something that I knew going in, as a fan of the sorts of “tales of human suffering” books that tell stories like this one: lead character Stede Bonnett (played by Rhys Darby) was a real, historical character, who did indeed serve with the legendary Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) for a period of time. Because my brain is somewhat broken, I found myself playing this musical version of the Blackbeard story on my internal mental jukebox for hours on end, the ear-worm factor in full, florid display:

4. I’ve written at length here over the past 18 months or so about the amazing natural beauty of our home region in Northern Arizona, and its exceptional geological history. I’ve written less often about the human history of the region, but it’s fairly incredible in its own ways. One of the cooler factors about rambling about this part of the country is finding petroglyph sites, where ancient humans left their marks by carving both decorative and utilitarian works of art in the region’s red rocks, often darkened black by microbial growth and aged lichens. I paid a second visit to one of the less known, but visually spectacular, petroglyph sites in our area this week, deeply enjoying these most cool art works, all by my lonesome:

When we’ve read or heard talks about the ancient cultures of our region (most notably the Sinagua People, who left the area en masse around 1400 AD), the writers or park docents do tend to focus heavily on the practical aspects of the places where the Sinagua settlements were developed, but I believe deeply that our ancestors were just as attuned to aesthetic “location, location, location” concerns in their own ways as we are in ours. Yeah, you needed safety and food and shelter and water back then when you decided to pitch camp or develop a settlement, sure, but I’d bet good money that the folks who carved these figures, and others in the area, also sat down at the end of the day, looked out before them, and said “Dang, this sure is a nice spot!” Here’s the view of this site, just before arriving at the rock carvings. Nice spot? Yeah, it is. Definitely.

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:

Words in the Distance

1. My civic duty as a juror continues. Two weeks down, hopefully one more week to go. I can’t say much more than that here, now, but will advise and report further once the whole thing’s run its course.

2. I’ve written at length over the years here about my love for King Crimson. Related to that: the general consensus is that the recently-concluded Crimson tour is the end of the road for the group as a live entity. Also, general consensus is that their song “Starless” is one of their best and most emblematic songs ever. Marcia and I have seen the current (final?) version of Crimson three times, and “Starless” is one of only a few songs that they played at every show. The official King Crimson website posted an update this week titled “The Last Starless,” a pro-shot video from the last show of the last tour in Japan. It’s outstanding, it seems to affirm that this is the end of the road, and I most heartily recommend it to you:

3. I’m saddened, horrified, annoyed, and appalled by the news associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week, and I wish Vladimir Putin as much karmic ill will as I can muster. But as a trained political scientist, I’ve also been irritated by some of the major media coverage I’ve read about the historical basis for this current invasion, and about the cultural and political relationships between the Russians and the Ukrainians. (Never mind the narrative that finds a majority of members of the modern Republican Party having a higher opinion of Putin than they have of our own President, ugh!) Whenever matters of Russian import emerge online or in conversation, I routinely cite one of the very best books that I’ve ever read on that topic, so today seems to be a good day to share that recommendation again, for Nicholas Riasonovsky’s A History of Russia. The version I have was written before the fall of the Soviet Union, so it’s not a valuable resource in terms of understanding the latest era(s), but it’s utterly brilliant in terms of explaining and documenting the deep, long, potent, and (to American eyes and minds) weird history of the people who “emerged from the Pripet Marshes,” and who first made their mark on a continental scene as a nation known as Kievan Rus. That history certainly does not justify Putin over-turning nearly eight decades’ worth of continental stability, but I think it does explain why he thinks that his current actions make sense through the lens of deep history.

4. Speaking of history, after waiting for a few last images and photo clearances, I uploaded to the publisher’s site the final manuscript and supporting files for the book I’ve been working on for the past year, along with my collaborator, Jim McNeal.  Very satisfying to see it fly away through the ether. We’ll have to review and edit the type-set layout when it’s ready, and I’ll have to prepare an index once the final pagination is complete, but after that, it’s just a matter of meeting production and publishing schedules before it’s ready to land in your hands, should you be interested in it. I will advise further here when I have news. Because of course I will.

5. During my drive home from jury duty yesterday (63 miles from my home per item #2 here, bleh!), my iPod randomizer queued up the songs “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” by Ten Years After, followed by “Hocus Pocus (Reprise)” (Live) by Focus. It occurred to me that I first heard both of those songs when I checked out their source albums (Cricklewood Green and At the Rainbow, respectively) from the lending library at Nassau Community College on Long Island’s Mitchel Field, sometime in the late 1970s. And that got me to thinking what a deeply important resource that was to me between 1976 and 1980, when I was still in middle/high school, but because of my base residency, had access to the college’s stacks and shelves. I first borrowed and read The Gormenghast Trilogy there, along with a variety of other seminal tomes in my intellectual development. I would generally go to the magazine room at least once a week to read the latest Billboard or Rolling Stone editions, getting tuned into what was happening in real time in the music world, beyond what I could readily access via local record stores and trips into New York City at the height of the CBGB era. So many things that still mean so much to me today first crossed my horizons via my many visits to that great lending library. And, therefore, to wrap up this post, I share a “Five Songs You Need to Hear” sequence, celebrating representative cuts from a quintet of albums that all appear of my Top 200 Albums of All Time list, and which I first heard courtesy of the librarians at Nassau Community College.

“50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” by Ten Years After

“Hocus Pocus (Reprise),” by Focus

“Bitches Crystal,” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

“I Just Want to See His Face,” by The Rolling Stones

“African Night Flight,” by David Bowie

Something or Nothing

1. As if all the whithering here wasn’t bad enough in terms of website productivity, my free writing time has been dramatically curtailed after I was seated on a jury earlier this week. I can’t say anything about that situation other than (1) I’m on a jury, and (2) I’m likely to be on a jury until March 4th. So if I’m slower than usual to reply to anything sent my way, here or elsewhere, that’s likely why.

2. Some years back, I wrote a piece here called A Modest Proposal: Halve the Full Grassley. The gist of the narrative was that my then-home State of Iowa had way too many counties (99) given its population and its geographic size, and that since county seats don’t need to be closer than one day’s ride (round trip) by horseback in these our modern times, culling that unruly map would be a great boon to the State. Reader and cartographer Liz Cruz actually took me up on my request to draw a more sensible map, and I shared her brilliant work here. Tragically, Iowa’s elected leaders have not acted on her sound recommendation. I guess that’s understandable, given how busy they’ve been in recent years empowering authoritarians and dehumanizing meat-plant workers and poisoning the drinking water and trying to make people sick in the name of freedoms and liberties and such. That’s hard work, for sure!

Anyway, I bring this up today because, interestingly enough, I now find myself living in the State of Arizona, which has exactly the opposite problem. Among the Lower 48 States (and excluding the District of Columbia), Arizona is the fifth largest state by area and the 14th largest state by population. But we have only 15 counties! That gives us the highest average county area in the Lower 48, by a long-shot, and the third highest average county population (trailing only California and Massachusetts). My jury duty highlights the challenges this creates: I have a 63 mile one-way drive every day to my county seat. Others in other parts of the state likely have even longer drives. My initial reaction to that situation was to say “A-ha! Time for Another Modest Proposal: Double the Full Goldwater!” But then I read about this immodest and immoral proposal, this week, in the real world. Which makes it clear that such county subdivisions in Arizona would be used to advance partisan electoral outcomes via carefully gerrymandering county lines, and that those currently empowered to enact such proposals would do so to advance mostly loathsome (to me) social and political objectives. So I guess in this case, I just conclude “It is what it is,” suck it up, and drive a long way to do county business, thankful that I don’t have to use a horse.

3. I have had an interesting view on my way to jury duty over the past two mornings, with a nearly full moon setting by daylight right over the roadway before me. Phone cameras do terrible jobs of capturing the moon, as most know from frustrated experience, but this is the general gist of the view, as best I could capture it . . . it’s quite mesmerizing in real time . . .

4. And then, what’s this?

The blue binder at the bottom of the pile is the complete manuscript of the book I’ve been writing with a collaborator over the past year. We are awaiting one additional photo, and I expect to be able to upload all of the materials to the publisher this weekend for editing, type-setting and layout. Exciting! The two black folders are two other book length manuscripts that I’ve written over recent years, one short fiction, one a philosophical treatise. Once the current book flies away (and jury duty ends), I’m going to get to work on trying to place those other two pieces with a publisher. If anyone has any good leads on publishing houses or creative representation, you know where to holla, even if I’m slow to respond due to my duly-sworn duties as a law-abiding citizen of my County, State and Nation.

5. I wrote an obituary for Pat Fish (The Jazz Butcher) a couple of months back after his untimely death from cancer. Just after he flew away from us, a tremendous career-spanning compilation of his work called Dr Cholmondely Repents came out, and it was a bittersweet joy to hear so many great singles and B-sides and “seasides” (as he dubbed the deeper cuts) from years long gone. Last week, the Butcher’s final studio efforts were released as a new album called The Highest in the Land. It is also a bittersweet joy, a lovely collection of songs played and sung well by Butch and a crew of long-time collaborators, most notably the great Max Eider. I highly recommend the new studio disc and the career-spanning retrospective for your consideration. There’s brilliance there, by the bucketfuls.

Anno Virum: One Year On

A year ago today, Marcia and I were fleeing the Iowa cold and staying in a rental tiny house in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida. The weather was nice, the tiny house was quaint and charming, and it all looked like this, had you been peeking in on us (click the image of our cottage for the photo album of the trip):

In pretty much any year other than 2020, my blog posts for March 14 would have noted this as a nice vacation, and maybe would have detailed some of our hikes, or explorations, or adventures. But March 14, 2020 was not a normal day on a normal trip in a normal year, so what I actually wrote about one year ago today was a bit different from my usual trip reports, and you can read (or re-read) it here if you’re interested: Florida Man (And Woman).

That was the first day that I wrote at any length on this blog about the COVID pandemic and the ways that it was impacting our lives. During a walk a couple of days ago, Marcia noted that she had recently read a New York Times article in which readers were asked when they realized that COVID was for real, and was going to change their lives, perhaps for a long, long time. If I had to answer that question, I’d certainly refer back to that Tampa Bay trip, and if there was one specific moment for me when my brain went “Whoaaaaaaa . . . . dude . . . . braj . . . . WTF, yo???” about the exploding pandemic, it would have been when the NCAA cancelled the “March Madness” Men’s Basketball Tournament, which happened while we were in Florida. Sports and money are kings in American culture, and the loss of one of the greatest annual events in our national sports economy truly hammered home that this was, no shit, for reals, massive, and scary, and bad. (Yeah, I know, that’s probably a shallow answer, but it’s honest).

Marcia’s answer to the question of “When did you know this was going to be bad?” was a bit different than mine, and took place a few days later. By the time we had to fly back from Tampa to Des Moines, things had clearly taken a turn for the worse, and maybe for the worst. When we boarded and were seating on our flight home, a woman sat down directly in front of us, wearing a mask (which most people were not doing), but just absolutely hacking and heaving and snorting and wheezing and oozing and spewing to beat the band, the whole way home. If she had the virus, then there was no doubt in our minds that we now did, too. So we got home, unpacked, and I masked up and headed off to the grocery store to get a couple of weeks worth of provisions, completely at odds with our normal “go to the store every day, get what you need right now” approach to shopping. I got home, we unpacked my (many bags), and we went into a two-week period of hard quarantine, which was difficult and sad, since Katelin and John lived in the next building over, and we knew we could not, should not, would not see them, until we had some sense that we and they were not actively contagious.

Of all the places in which Marcia and I have shared our home in our 35-ish years together, I would honestly say that our apartment in Des Moines, Iowa, in March 2020 was, without question, the worst possible place we could have lived when things were going to hell in a hand-basket with regard to a global pandemic. The city’s response and the state’s response were beyond terrible (and, for the most part, have remained so for the past year), and we were surrounded with mostly younger folks who on some plane seemed to embrace the “Boomer Remover” view of COVID, and refused to wear masks, and refused to give people space, and refused to stop congregating in our apartment complex’s common spaces. We older folk just had to skulk about and try to avoid and ignore them and their selfish and entitled behavior patterns.

Given that background, simple tasks like taking the trash down to the dumpster each night began to feel like exercises in risk management. It was always hard to make it from our safe haven to the trash bins or the mail boxes or the rental office, and then quickly back home, without encountering some blithering idiot(s) prancing down our hallways, unmasked, oblivious to any responsibility for protecting themselves, or us, in such a communal living situation. No surprise that we had multiple outbreaks in our apartment building, and in Katelin and John’s next-door apartment building in the weeks and months ahead, as Iowa’s leaders did their very damnedest to top the national charts in terms of per capita infections and deaths. I guess the State government should be thankful on some plane that the Dakotas were even more obscene in their disregard for the lives and health of their citizens, so Iowa never managed to get higher than third place on any of the “We Are The Most Irresponsible State in the Nation” metrics and rubrics. But even that bronze award status felt awful when we were living in the middle of it, and that sense of governance irresponsibility played a direct role in our decisions to leave Iowa, and our emotional responses (Very Happy!) when we drove out of it for the last time. Ugh.

And, then, here we are, one year on. More than half-a-million of our fellow citizens are dead, and 30 million country-folks have been confirmed to have been sickened by the virus, with outcomes ranging from the moderate and mild to the catastrophic and life-altering. Tens of millions of other have certainly been sickened, in many cases with likely long-term ramifications, even if they never managed to make it to a doctor’s office or pharmacy to get an actual test result.

Some large portion of those infections and deaths must objectively be attributed to inept and science-denying policy and practice by the prior Presidential administration and State governments which aligned themselves with said idiocy, that lunatic cabal somehow managing to make basic protective steps (e.g. mask-wearing) into Culture War battlegrounds where libs could be pwned, which is what really matters in the end game, right? (A: No. And if you thought “Yes” when presented with that question, then you might need to find another website to read. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out).

It’s been nice(r) over the past couple of months to have a Federal administration that acknowledges fact-based analysis, and values human life and dignity above grift and profiteering and idiot media sensationalism. Marcia and I are hopeful that we will be able to get our vaccines in the next month or so, and that with that step completed, we can finally, gently, slowly, hopefully begin to look toward the “After Times,” when we can shop, and travel, and live without constant fear of infection when we’re in public places. We certainly count ourselves as fortunate in how the past year has impacted us and our families, primarily because we’ve not lost anybody close, even though we’ve had several family members sickened by the virus. That’s getting off easy, and we know it. We grieve for those who were not so lucky. And we truly thank those who have put themselves in harm’s way over the past year to keep so many of us alive, if not exactly safe or healthy.

I’m not quite sure when Post Anno Virum will begin, but I look forward to it, both selfishly and selflessly. It’s been a long year. And a strange and sad one. I don’t think that the “new normal” will ever quite look and feel like the “old normal” did, but I’m ready to experience it, however it manifests, sooner rather than later.

By September 2020, this seemed like a perfectly normal and reasonable look for an out-and-about experience. We adapt, we surely do.