Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum

Marcia and I will be traveling to Las Vegas tomorrow for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, where on Thursday, we will give thanks and then eat ourselves into food comas. Katelin and John are handling the cooking this year, so I will not be preparing my most excellent (if I say so myself) Thanksgiving Casserole this time around. But dropping that densely compacted white trash lasagna dish just adds to the consumptively celebratory nature of the family affair, with full-on turkey parts flying and loads of side dishes on decadent display, the better to sate every hunger that has ever been, ever. John’s mother and her husband will also be joining us and adding their family’s traditional holiday dish of home-made buttered egg noodles, which are utterly scrumptious and decadent and drool-worthy. Perfect for the day!

It seems a good time this afternoon, in advance of our trip, to review and re-share our family’s “Thanksgiving Rules of Decorum” for this most gluttonous of gatherings. It’s always good form to govern group gatherings with strict constraints, even among beloved family members. Here’s hoping your own family traditions have their own rules of decorum, and that they result in spectacularly successful holiday results.

1. Gristle may be sucked off bones at the table, but cracking bones to remove the marrow must be done in the kitchen.

2. If there are no pets in the room to blame, all flatulence must be held until such time as a particularly funny joke is told, and the accidental emission adds to the mirth.

3. The tube of cranberry sauce is a decoration, not a food. No touching!

4. You must clear your plate of all objects put upon it before beginning round two. Even stuffed tomatoes.

5. You may only hide unwanted peas within a bread roll if there are enough rolls to ensure that everyone else gets as many as they want. If rolls run out, you must eat your pea filled roll before you leave the table.

6. No matter how you hold the fork, it is wrong. If anyone chooses to notice this fact, you must skip a round and look contrite while others eat.

7. Discussion of bodily functions should be reserved for the pause between main course and desert. Comparisons of bodily functions to objects on the table may result in a fork mishandling penalty and forfeiture of dessert rights.

8. If someone disappears for more than 90 seconds, everyone at the table must loudly inquire as to their whereabouts, and ask at loud volume whether everything is okay in there.

9. No additional butter is required on the Stouffers Mac and Cheese, unless it touches anything green and you need to offset the effect of the vitamins and minerals.

10. You may not take the ham-bone out of the green beans and pass them on without taking at least six beans, and not hiding them in your roll. You may elect to butter them before eating.

I aspire to HEFTYCHONK status on Thanksgiving. (Click to enlarge).

Teasing The Listing

A few weeks back, I wrote an article called My Art Must Stew, in which I discussed the ways in which the (admittedly meaningless) end of the calendar year influences and shapes my obsessive list-making proclivities. The punchline of the piece was that when it comes to albums, my desire to live with my music for some time means that in 30+ years of posting annual “Best Albums” reports, I’ve never picked a “#1 Album of the Year” that came out in October, November or December of any given year. Books and films are definitely different from music in that regard, for me, in that I generally only watch or read them once, so they don’t need to have “legs” in the ways that tunes do.

So as November’s mid-point approaches, I find my annoyingly insistent brain compelling me to begin developing my Best Albums, Best Books and Best Films lists for 2022. On the films and books fronts, there’s still things to come that I expect will place highly in the final reckoning, though I’ve seen and read so much this year, that I do find myself starting to think “Okay, that’s enough, you can stop now.” (But I probably won’t). While those film and book lists remain at least nominally fluid, I think the early drafts of my Best Albums list are likely to reflect the final product pretty closely, at least near the top of the pile, if history is any indicator, which it almost always is.

On a related front, a couple of months before that “art must stew” piece, I wrote another article called Caving to Streaming, which described the processes through which I was finally dragged, kicking and screaming, into using streaming services to access and play my music. Three-plus months into the new paradigm, I will admit that there are benefits to not having to hard-synch and update a physical music-playing device every time I want to acquire or change something, and that the new model allows me to listen to my music in higher fidelity settings than had been the case for me in recent years. It’s also certainly easier to create playlists on the fly via my phone, and we’ve found that having a dozen or so 100-song thematic lists (e.g. Jazz, Gospel, Folk, African Music, New Albums, Sunday Morning Mellow, Friday Highday,  etc.) which we can toggle between quickly has been a nice way to soundtrack our home life. (I’m still using an iPod in the car, because I don’t like letting the car access and control my phone every time I go for a drive as a default setting).

But there are downsides to the new system too. First and foremost, I continue to worry about the streaming model because I believe it is disadvantageous to the artists who create the music that moves me. I am still paying for some of my music via Bandcamp, just to support said creators. Other nuisances include the fact that my streaming service of choice (Spotify) has some wonky functionality issues, and does not do or allow certain simple things that my prior digital files service (iTunes) did do or allow, primarily with regard to properly randomizing playlists, and keeping track of personal play data that I liked to evaluate and manipulate at year’s end. (There will be no “Most Played Songs” report here this year for the first time in a dozen years, as one unfortunate [for me] outcome of this transition). And having to use voice commands via a set-up that includes a Bose speaker, a Spotify app, an Amazon control device, and an Android phone leads to regular glitchy interactions between unfriendly competing technologies, which often require re-connections or reboots. I’m learning to live within those constraints, but I’ll never like them.

I mention those two older articles in this post today for a reason: I can now use my shareable streaming service to tease my coming-soon hard-copy music lists by creating and posting a playlist here for those readers who are interested in such things. If you’re looking for a taste of what my world sounds like these days, feel free to take the embedded playlist below, which represents my 25 Favorite Songs of 2022, shuffle it to your heart’s content, and get what I think is a solid two hours of utterly sublime songs. Some of these are singles, and will not appear in any form in the Best Albums of 2022 list. Some are on albums that will feature on that list, and on the flip-side, that list will include lots of albums that are not represented at all in this playlist.

That’s why it’s a tease, yeah? You’ll still have to check back later this year for the Full Musical Monty, but I hope you’ll enjoy this mix as much as I am right now. And you’ll get to do so without having to click between a bunch of Youtube videos, as has been the norm in the past for such website projects, so that’s a good thing too, as much as I hate to admit it.

Las Vegas Turnaround: Who Are You?

Marcia and I are just back from quick trip to Las Vegas to visit Katelin and John, and to see The Who live in concert. We had purchased tickets to see Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend and band in Las Vegas way back in May 2020, but, of course, like everything else during the Anno Virum, that didn’t quite go off as planned. Fortunately, we got a better late than never chance to see the show, and it was well worth the wait.

Roger and Pete were backed by their long-running and tight touring band (including drummer Zak Starkey, guitarist Simon Townshend, keyboardists Loren Gold and Emily Marshall, bassist Jon Button and backing vocalist Billy Nicholls), supplemented by a 40-piece symphony orchestra culled from the local Las Vegas musical community, and conducted by Keith Levenson. The group opened with “Overture” from Tommy and, oh my, was it a glorious piece when presented with all of that orchestral heft. (And I say that as a guy who thinks rock band + orchestra = crap, almost always). The Who played a sizable chunk of Tommy, and the climactic moments in “We’re Not Going to Take It” were similarly glorious; I almost got misty-eyed when Roger just nailed the titanic and emotional vocal summits. Then we got a collection of various interesting songs from across their catalog, sans orchestra, then a chunk of Quadrophenia with the strings and horns back onstage with the group; “The Rock,” from Quadrophenia, was just as instrumentally glorious as Tommy‘s “Overture,” both songs demonstrating how Townshend’s compositions are appealing and versatile enough to thrive in varied and various settings.

The full ensemble wrapped the evening up with a no-walk-off closer of “Baba O’Riley,” which was capped by a vibrant live lead fiddle performance in the outro from first violin Katie Jacoby, dueling with Townshend on his axe. In one of his mid-set comments, Pete noted how hard it remains for The Who to play Las Vegas, since their great bassist John Entwistle died here, just down the Strip from where we sat, making it a bittersweet tour stop for them. Daltrey and Townshend made muffled ambivalent noises at set’s end about “who know what will happen, maybe we will see you again someday.” Zak Starkey seemed to be in tears around that point, clinging to Pete, which makes me think that he might know otherwise. If this tour was the swansong for the great, great Who group, then we will get to say that we saw their final moments onstage together.

Whether that’s how it plays out or not, it was a special evening, which also featured a nice opening set from the UK’s Wild Things. Handpicked for the tour by Pete Townshend, they played their first ever show in North America with The Who at Madison Square Garden, so the rock gods have clearly smiled brightly upon them. Here are a few snaps from the show, at the Park MGM’s Dolby Live theater, which was a great space for a concert like this one, with nice sound, good sight-lines, and comfortable, adequately-spaced seating. We old rockers appreciate that. You kids get off of our lawn and out of our aisle space! (As always, you can click on any picture here to see the full-sized image):

We had a great hang with Katelin and John, as always, and we really enjoy visiting them at their new house. While it wasn’t quite warm enough for us to loll about their swimming pool, the hot tub certainly felt good in the late afternoon. There’s always great food to be had when we’re in Las Vegas, and this trip’s highlight on that front was Juan’s Flaming Fajitas, out on the west side of the city where Katelin and John live. High quality food, plentiful portions, excellent service, in a convenient and comfortable in-and-out location. Yumbo!!

Katelin and Marcia had to work on Friday morning, so John and I went out for a hike in the mid-range hills between Las Vegas and the Red Rocks State Park. Nice views, and some quirky observational experiences, e.g. we found many interesting fossils, right at surface level:

While John and I were off-trail taking a “short cut” (as most folks who have hiked with me know, my short cuts aren’t necessarily shorter, time-wise, though my straight-line navigational skills can make for some interesting crossings), we also found a weird, deep hole in the ground, emitting warm, damp air. Some sort of a thermal vent? We’re not sure, though John’s been doing some research to see if he can figure it out. Here’s what it looked like, with John added for scale:

The four of us puttered around Vegas’ Arts District one afternoon, and I appreciated the mural art there. For instance, this:

Katelin, Marcia and I also walked around the Desert Shores neighborhood near Katelin and John’s first Las Vegas house; there was a weird and unexpected congregation of cormorants along one of the lake shores. I think they’re plotting something nefarious:

And we got to meet Frank the Cat’s new best friend, Fish. They are very happy together:

Finally (well, actually firstly, chronologically speaking) we got to experience our first high-elevation blizzard of the year on the way from Sedona to Las Vegas, which I could have done without, but otherwise it was a superb trip. We are headed back over to Las Vegas in a couple of weeks for the Thanksgiving holiday. We expect it to be just as wonderful.

Sedona Biennial

Two years ago this weekend, I snapped this photo . . .

That road just behind the highway signs marks the border between Iowa and Missouri, and as soon as this picture was shot, we drove south across it, leaving Iowa for the last time after a total of six years (over two stints) as residents of the Hawkeye State. We were most ready to be elsewhere at that point, so we took the sunbeams lighting the path ahead, under the glowering skies, to be a fine portent for days and miles to come.

Three days later, I took this photo out the front window of our temporary rental house in uptown Sedona, Arizona:

Within 72 hours of capturing that scene, we put an offer on a lovely house, which was accepted, and we moved into our new digs over Thanksgiving Weekend, 2020. It’s been an amazingly packed and exciting time since then, for sure, and we remain most pleased with our choice of domicile, two years in. That’s not always been the case for us after moves in the past, so that makes us appreciate the current situation even more, knowing from experience how it feels when a new location isn’t as pleasing to us.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve done hikes to local high points that provide nice round senses of closure and capture on those two years. In the Sedona photo above, see that highest peak to the left hand side of the image? That’s Wilson Mountain. I was up at its summit recently, and here’s what it looks like gazing back down from there on that first temporary house, and beyond:

And then a few days ago, after several exploratory attempts over the last couple of years, I finally found a pretty good bushwhacking route from our house up to the eastern flanks of our friendly neighborhood volcano, House Mountain. (I’ve been there before, but always from the longer, more distant western flanks). I was rewarded with a lovely panoramic view of the entirety of our current home community, The Village of Oak Creek. Here’s that scene (as always, with any of these pictures, you can click the image to see them at full size); our house is right against and below the face of the front range of rounded red rocks to the left of the visible central massif:

And to close the two-year reminiscence, here’s what our house in VOC looks like right now, properly bedecked with signs offering our support and encouragement to our local Democratic candidates for office. We hope to take them down in a few weeks with similar smiles on our faces as to their efficacy:

Arches and Zion Whirlwind Tour

Marcia and I did a 1,200-mile long road trip over five days this week to visit two of our Nation’s more spectacular national parks: Arches (near Moab, Utah) and Zion (near Springdale, Utah). Katelin and John drove over from Las Vegas to meet us for the last couple of days at Zion, and we were able to celebrate their first wedding anniversary together, just a little bit after the official date. We had near perfect weather, and while crowds in the parks were larger than we like or are accustomed to, we know they were nowhere near as bad as they could be, so that was fine, in the grand scheme of things.

We drove up to Moab on Wednesday, taking the route through the Navajo Nation and past Monument Valley, with a stop at the Edge of Cedars State Park in Blanding, Utah. We generally enjoy the various museums in our region dedicated to native arts, history and culture, and this one was a particularly good one, with some excellent interpretative exhibitions, and an accessible, well-conserved ~1,000-year old kiva from an Ancestral Puebloan community partially excavated on the museum grounds.

After we had checked into our hotel in Moab, we  decided to have a nice pre-dinner ramble along the downtown greenway trail that parallels Mill Creek, and a few minutes into the walk were shocked to see the aftermath of a 100-year flood event that had devastated the low-lying regions of the city last month, unbeknownst to us. Large swaths of the trail were still impassable, so we just altered our amble to the retail district instead, then had the first of two really good meals we experienced during our nights in Moab, at Thai Bella. We rose before sunrise on Thursday to drive into the National Park (they have implemented a timed entry program requiring advance registration, so plan ahead before you visit), and got to pass some of the park’s more prominent vistas with beautiful dawn colors behind them. We hiked about 12 miles over the course of the day, seeing (or often passing through) most of the better-known arches. A good day, capped with our second tasty dinner at Sultan Mediterranean Grill.

On Friday, we drove down to Springdale, Utah, following the same route we had taken when we helped Katelin and John move from Des Moines to Las Vegas. It was much more pleasant this time, when it wasn’t 110ºF out, let me assure you. We had a nice dinner that night (are you detecting a theme?) at Dulivia, then got up early Saturday to catch the shuttle buses into the Scenic Canyon Drive at the heart of the National Park. A sizable chunk of the hiking area I’d hope to visit was closed due to rock falls in 2019 and continuing instability in the area, but we did get in about eight miles worth of trekking, which was beautiful, if a bit congested around the sites that get the most social media hype. We closed the last night of the trip with Katelin and John’s anniversary dinner at Switchback Grill, then after a lazy breakfast together, headed home, completing the big loop part of the trip near Tuba City, Arizona.

We felt like a full day in Arches was sufficient to get the experience of the place, but could definitely use another day or two in Zion at some point, especially if some of the closed trails in the Canyon re-open. Barring that happening, we’d probably focus our next trip on the less-congested, more-isolated flanks of the park east of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, and west along the Kolob Canyons. While I do certainly applaud the use of shuttles to minimize traffic and enhance conservation in the heart of the park, I can’t say I was fond of the experience of having to queue to catch them, nor of having each shuttle disgorging large loads of people with us when we exited, so that it became a race up the trailheads to get away from the less-experienced, and often obnoxiously loud about it, hikers. But that was, all things considered, a minor annoyance in a glorious piece of country.

And not to sound smug or self-satisfied, but this trip also furthers our appreciation of the place where we’ve chosen to make our home, as we’ve got some equally spectacular scenery and hiking opportunities within walking or quick driving distance. We know our home area well enough at this point to be able to partake in the best hikes and bask in the best vistas, often never seeing anybody else en route, because most online resources send most visitors to the same densely-packed photo op sites, which we generally avoid accordingly. Our visits to Arches and Zion also hammered home my sense that hikes and climbs to high, edgy destinations are much better when you’re not having to be constantly vigilant about selfie-shooters falling off cliff faces or knocking others down in their pursuit of the perfect Instagram shot. I’m very comfortable doing high elevation, exposed hikes with small groups of people I trust, but I find it pretty deeply uncomfortable to be in such places with people running along ridge edges in flip flops or clambering out on cantilevered rocks and ledges to get the perfect shot or just generally being oblivious to the safety of those around them, and the care and preservation of the sites attracting their attention. Harrumph.

No surprise, but I snapped a lot of pictures on the trip, as did John and Marcia, and I’ve put a collection together which you can check out, should you care to, by clicking on the photo below of Delicate Arch, one of Utah’s most iconic visual images. Note that no other human beings were put at risk by my photo-making activities, nor were any natural sites despoiled. Those aren’t hard outcomes to achieve, with some self-awareness and care, and some basic respect for the experiences of others.


You Can’t Stop Progress

1. Another week, another need to make a couple of “in memoriam” observations. I guess that comes with getting older, huh? First, I note with deep respect and awe the passing of author and artist Brian Catling, who emerged late in his life as an incredible and prolific novelist, creating a strange and wondrous canon that I devoured in its entirety. His official website (which has not been updated to note his passing as I am typing this) is a treasure trove of weirdness, touching on the host of creative and transgressive activities in which he has engaged for many decades; I recommend giving it a look-see. Closer to home, on this website, I’ve twice written essays about his works, and I link to those pages below, encouraging you to explore his work, if you can, and if you dare:

2. I also note the passing of the amazing jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders this week, at the age of 81. After struggling to find an audience for his work in the early 1960s, Sanders joined John Coltrane’s live group in 1964, and played with that legend until Trane’s death in 1967, crafting an extraordinarily influential and powerful body of work together. Sanders then emerged as a band-leader in his own right, and also as a key collaborator with Alice Coltrane (John’s widow) on a series of albums that shaped the form of what’s come to be known as spiritual jazz. After a long quiet phase, Sanders re-emerged last year with a beautiful, haunting, and critically-acclaimed new album called Promises, which was a collaborative effort featuring electronic artist Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. It will prove to be a most worthy musical epitaph, for sure. My own personal favorite from Pharoah’s catalog sits at the heart of his long collaboration with vocalist Leon Thomas, the 1969 album Karma, and its cornerstone cut, “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” I consider that (long) song to be one of the most incredible works in the history of jazz, an epic suite with a beautiful and accessible melody that’s torn to shreds and rebuilt multiple times over the work’s run, creating senses of tension and relief that feel like life itself feels, glorious and harrowing in equal measure. At its sweetest points, it can move you like the most gracious gospel music ever recorded, then in its hardest breakdowns, it feels as intense and atonal and chaotic as the most abrasive things in my industrial and death metal catalogs. But it all works and flows flawlessly, a piece so much larger than the sum of its parts, truly. In the LP’s original format, “Creator” was split across two sides of the record, so I do appreciate that in our modern digital era, we can get the whole thing as a single track. Do yourself a solid sometime this week: carve out a half-hour of time and crank this jam in your fave listening zone, and feel the world change a little bit, just because you did:

3. We spent three days last week in Prescott, Arizona (our county seat) where Marcia had been selected to serve jury duty. Fortunately, her case was not as long and painful as the one that I got pulled into last year, which ran for nearly three weeks. As I wrote about in item #2 here, Arizona has a very small number of very large counties, meaning that getting to our local seat of power is a long drive. We elected to stay over in Prescott accordingly, and I figured I could get some good hikes in while Marcia was doing her civic duty. Alas, the weather did not cooperate and it rained almost the entire time we were there, meaning I spent a lot of time reading in our hotel room. But I was able to get one decent schlep up onto Thumb Butte during a brief sunny window one day, for a nice view back down over Prescott:

I had another brief window of opportunity to be out and about the next day, so decided (as one does)(when one is weird) to check out a little cemetery nearby that I’d spotted on the map. There’s almost always something interesting to see in any out-of-the-way burial site. This one proved to quite weird indeed, a semi-abandoned (I think) Independent Order of Odd Fellows graveyard that seemed to have peaked in terms of burials between the 1930s and 1970s, but is largely overgrown and disheveled looking now. But, oddly enough (no pun intended) there were interesting clusters of graves that were clearly receiving regular love, attention and visitation, even though none of them were anything close to current or recent burials. The odd vibe was enhanced by the presence of various vehicles tucked away in various corners with various people sitting in them for no obvious reasons, which tends to imply that this location is either a good place to score drugs or a good place for sexual adventuring. Or both. And neither of those propositions were the least bit appealing to me, so I made my rounds, snapped some snaps, and beat a discreet retreat, keeping a cautious eye out as I worked my way back down the muddy trail toward town. Here’s a peek at what it looked like, minus the creepers in their cars:

4. Between the Anno Virum and our moves from the cultural hub of Chicago to the less culturally endowed Des Moines and Sedona, getting to see good live music has mostly become a memory for us, not a current-day regular activity. But we did catch a nice al fresco show this weekend at a block party thrown by one of the regulars in the group with which I hike each Monday. The featured group was called Black Forest Society, and they offered a really engaging collection of original songs from within an interesting voice, guitar, cello, and percussion line-up. Their music is ostensibly folk-based, but it features a lot of open tunings and drones and wordless ululations that give it an interesting cross-cultural vibe evoking both traditional (Asian) Indian and Celtic motifs and moods. I particularly enjoyed their songs that featured 12-string guitar work, some of which reminded me of the late, great Robbie Basho and his yeoman efforts to bring steel-stringed guitars into the classical traditions of Indian music, establishing a western raga system in the process. Toss in the fact that we were sitting outdoors with friends, noshing tasty snacks, surrounded by our wondrous red rocks, and it made for a really lovely Sunday outing; you can click on the photo below to visit Black Forest Society’s website and hear some samples of their music:

5. Speaking of my Monday hiking group, we did another fantastic backwoods trek yesterday, (way) up to four native ruins, two with impressive rock art formations, all of them located on precipitous overhangs with challenging approaches. Click the pic below, at the first ruin we visited, to see the mini-photo-album for this trek:

6. And to close on another happy note, we wished Katelin and John a most happy first anniversary this week, all of us noting that it seems hard to believe that it’s been a year since we traveled to their home in Las Vegas for their wedding. We’re heading out for a little road trip tomorrow up to Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, then over to Zion National Park in the southwestern part of the Beehive State. Katelin and John will be driving over from Vegas to join us while we are in Zion, so we’ll celebrate their anniversary properly in person then. We love them dearly, and are proud of them always.

Nail on the Head

1. My prior post noted the anniversary of a moment of great private mourning for my family, just as the very public mourning for Queen Elizabeth II was beginning. That was a lot of heavy matter spilling out of the Interweb Pipes all at once here, as I don’t enjoy feeling like a ghoul picking over the remains of the dearly departed. That said, I do want to note two other recent passings of personal import to me, then will move on to some less death-centric material.

Firstly, astrophysicist Frank Drake passed away earlier in September. He spent much of his career engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) from a macro hard science standpoint, not from the fringes of the micro bug-eyed men with anal probes standpoint. He was involved in Project Ozma in 1960, which was one of the first technologically sophisticated attempts to discern communications signals from the stars. Dr. Drake later went on to play key roles in developing the Pioneer Plaque, the Voyager Golden Record and the Arecibo Message. But his achievement that resonates most closely for me was his Drake Equation, developed in 1961. Marcia, Katelin and I all have that equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here’s two-thirds of the family collection, freshly inked:

The Drake Equation is a probabilistic calculation designed to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. Here’s an explainer of its various elements. We know a lot more about some of its variables today than we did when Dr. Drake postulated his argument, but for most of the variables related to potential intelligent life forms, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of but one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all. The equation resonates with us as a family in a variety of ways, and has framed a variety of discussions and digressions among us over the years. But at bottom line, I think Marcia summed up what we love about it best, when she noted: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” Amen. Thanks for that, Dr. Drake.

A second memorial nod must be tipped toward the late great jazz-man Ramsey Lewis, who died this week after an incredibly long career as a composer, performer, radio host, educator, and philanthropist. His best known works were recorded around the time that I was born, yet they still sound vibrant and joyful to modern ears, or at least my modern ears anyway. Lewis’ trio was also where the equally late and equally lamented Maurice White cut his performing teeth, before departing to launch Earth, Wind and Fire to massive creative, commercial, and critical acclaim. While we were living in Chicago, we got to catch a special performance by Ramsey as part of the Chicago Jazz Festival, a gig billed as his retirement performance, which turned out to be a passionate, warm, emotional experience of great heft to the creative community in the city where Ramsey spent the vast majority of his life. Here are a pair of Ramsey Lewis’ most beloved performances, offered with immense respect for his life and work:

2. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about respectfully visiting a variety of hard-to-find, hard-to-see native historic sites in and around our area. The group I hike with have since done two more excursions up into the highlands at the northern edge of our local red rocks region, and we did find some interesting ruins, if not any dramatic rock art. For these hikes, for me, the highlights were actually the views from on high. While archaeological assessments of native sites obviously focus on the practical reasons why people would have lived there (e.g. access to food and water, shelter from the elements, safety from other humans, etc.), I do deeply believe that our ancestors also must have shared some version of our own appreciation for “location, location, location,” especially for locations with utterly exquisite views. Here are a pair of snaps from each of those past two hikes. Wouldn’t you have loved to live here too? (Note: at the tip of the central promontory on which I am standing in the second photo, you may just be able to see one of the ruins we visited; I’d wager it was a sentry or guard post, based on the panoramic views of all approach routes from within its confines; you can click either photo to see a larger version).

3. Closer to home, and while I’m sorting photos, we have fine views from our windows and yard, though not quite as grand as the ones above. We also have an incredible variety of visitors who make their homes in our yard, or at least pass through on a regular basis. I’ve posted a lot of photos of various yard critters here over the past two years, but here are three guests who came to see us since last I posted. Note that the mule deer is reacting to one of the very few yard guests that I don’t like: the mosquitoes that swarm here after the monsoon leaves plentiful pools of water for them to breed in, ugh.

4. I’ve long used arcane titling conventions for posts like this one, which offer a variety of short pieces rather than a single conceptual article. Back in 2017, I tried to recreate the roster of those conventions in a post called So Many Ways To Say Some Stuff. For a variety of reasons, it seemed that after I compiled that list, I didn’t find myself writing many such posts anymore, favoring instead a variety of more series-based articles like Favorite Songs by Favorite Artists, or 10,000 Words, or Best of the Archives, or With Which I Am Well Pleased. By early 2022, I was feeling a bit burnt-out by all of those various series, and by the pace that I’d kept up here throughout the Anno Virum, and by the time being consumed by a not-yet-ready-for-public-announcement writing project away from the web. I whithered a bit on what to do, and have cut back the frequency of posting here since then, but that seemed to open up the window to more compendium posts again, like this one. I only state that publicly here to note that my naming convention for such posts through 2022 has been based on song titles by the great Uriah Heep, and that after fourteen such posts, I think it’s time to move on to a new rubric. I know that virtually no one reading this piffle and tripe will note such arcane conventions, nor necessarily pick up on the new paradigm, but it pleases me to have structure, and to have little tricks and hooks that help me sort the immense volume of stuff here, even if nobody notices but me.

Twenty Years

My father died twenty years ago today, shortly after he was critically injured by an elderly driver who blacked out behind the wheel of his car, leading to a head-on auto accident. Dad died in the same hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, where I had been born some four decades earlier. He was not conscious when I arrived at the hospital, and he never regained consciousness, though my mother and sister and I (plus a close family friend) were there with him when he left the troubles of this world behind and flew away.

In the brief period after the accident while he was still able to communicate with us, Dad watched from his hospital bed while his beloved North Carolina State Wolfpack stomped my own alma mater Navy’s football team by a score of 65 to 19. The last time that we spoke, by phone, we talked about that game, despite his morphine fog. I’m glad he got to see it. The last words he heard from me on that phone call were “I love you.” We’re one of those families that ends pretty much every phone conversation or written communication with those words, because you never know what tomorrow might bring. In this case, tomorrow brought something awful, so having said that was important to me.

We ran this memorial on the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death. Time flies, and it doesn’t ever move backward.

The day after my father’s death, we were all engaged in the sad business associated with funeral arrangements and announcements and such, precisely as the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks were being marked around the country, adding a surreal extra layer of national grief and loss to our own personal mourning experiences. I delivered the eulogy at my Dad’s funeral a couple of days later, having crafted it quickly on his old computer in his old office, reading from a printed hard copy that, alas, I did not save after the service. But I believe I’ve recreated and summarized the gist of my remarks a few times over the years, and they went something like this . . .

Colonel Charles R. Smith, Jr., (July 29, 1939 – September 10, 2002) was born and raised in the small Piedmont mill town of Albemarle, North Carolina. He attended and graduated from North Carolina State University before being commissioned in the United States Marine Corps in 1961. He served on active duty for 28 years, retiring as Chief of Staff at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina, then going on to career in ministry as the station manager and on-air personality for the largest Christian radio station in South Carolina’s Low Country.

My father was a combat veteran of both Vietnam and Lebanon, and was handsomely decorated for his service over the years, earning The Legion of Merit, The Bronze Star (with combat V), The Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), The Navy Commendation Medal (with Silver Star), The Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal (two awards), The National Defense Service Medal, The Vietnam Service Medal (with four stars), The Humanitarian Service Medal, The Vietnam Cross of Gallantry (two awards, with Silver Star and Palm and Frame), The Presidential Unit Commendation (one star), The Combat Action Ribbon (one star), The Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and The Lebanese Order of the Cedar. He’s one of a very small number of non-Lebanese citizens to receive that last honor, granted to him for his peace-making work as Marine liaison to Ambassador Philip Habib, a crucial and meaningful side duty while he was serving as Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut in 1982-83.

While the biography that can be gleaned from my father’s list of medals and ribbons was an important part of who and what he was, there was obviously more to his life than the details of his military accomplishments. Dad was well educated with a pair of Masters Degrees, and he spent much of his life as an educator, either directly (as a school teacher, later in his life) or indirectly (as a mentor, storyteller, sage, and church elder). He was a man of great, deep faith, who touched countless lives through his ministries. He was also a “foodie” without pretense, who could just as easily appreciate a good chili dog as he could a fine meal at one of the world’s great restaurants. He was a loving husband to my mom, a great dad to my sister and I, and a doting grandfather to my daughter, niece and nephew.

But I think what I miss the most, when all’s said and done, is the fact that he was really quite the goofball much of the time, and was a lot of fun to spend time with. He had an infectious laugh, and loved to tell tall tales and stories; the truth was malleable for him, and did not necessarily have to correspond to reality. (The excellent Tim Burton movie, Big Fish, could have been his biography). He also found humor in all sorts of places where most folks didn’t look for it. I remember one time when my sister and I were young and our Mom was away for some reason, so Dad was left with the responsibility of making dinner for us. He spent a long time in the kitchen that night making a very special dinner for us: A Spam Lamb (for my sister) and a Spam Ram (for me). Both of them were anatomically correct, ahem.

We laughed and laughed and laughed through our dinner, and meat from a can never tasted as good as it did that night. Later, I watched him make his grandchildren laugh just as hard as he did his children, which was lovely, and powerful, and memorable. I will miss that, a lot. I know I’m not alone in that regard.

Groovy Early ’70s Summertime Family Photo, taken in my grandparents’ backyard in Albemarle, North Carolina.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since I first wrote and delivered some version of those words. Some days, it seems like a lifetime ago, since so much has changed since then — but other times, it feels like yesterday, since I remember it all so vividly, down to the tiniest details that usually fade with time. A couple of years after my father died, I was asked to contribute an article for a “summer special” edition of the alternative newsweekly for which I wrote, describing unique or lasting memories of the year’s balmiest season. I think that was the first time that I formally put pen to paper (proverbially speaking) after the funeral to try to capture the experience of time spent with my Dad, and then the experience of the days after, without him. Here’s a link to that article, if you’d like to read it.

We were in Santa Barbara this summer on what would have been my Dad’s 83rd birthday. I got a good beach hot dog in his honor, though my Mom correctly pointed out that it should have had greasy chili sauce and mustard and way too many onions on it to properly replicate his preferences. Urp.

I miss my Dad, at bottom line, all these years on, and I rue the fact that he was not with us in the flesh to share in so many amazing experiences over the past two decades. And, thus, I must make the public service announcement that I offer pretty much anytime I mention my father online: if you know an elderly or infirm driver who is no longer capable of safely operating a motor vehicle, you really need to graciously, yet firmly, facilitate and support that person’s transition to a non-driving state. The man who killed my father walked away with a sprained wrist, while our lives were irrevocably changed, forever, for the worse. You don’t want your own loved ones to be responsible for doing that to somebody else’s family. So take the keys when it’s time to do so, please and thanks.

One final closing memory: I think I inherited a strong penchant for taking dubious shortcuts when driving or hiking or biking from my Dad, as part of both of our penchants for wanting to see how things connect, even if the shortest path between Points A and B is a dirty and dangerous and stupid one. I remember one time when I was a kid, probably of the age shown in that family photo above, and my Dad and I hiked up Morrow Mountain in the Uwharries of Central North Carolina. You could drive to the top of the mountain by car, or walk up along the road, taking advantage of the many switchbacks. Or you could just clamber straight up the steep faces between the switchbacks, although the park rangers probably wouldn’t have much cared for the third choice. So, of course, that was the one we chose. We made it to the top, so all’s well that ends well, but it wasn’t one of our brighter father-son outings together. Oh well . . . I guess if we’d just walked up the road or driven to the top, I wouldn’t have written this sonnet about that day, some 30 years after it happened:

The serpent switchbacks cut the mountain’s side,
each hairpin turn just higher than the last.
Straight up, between the curves, a gravel slide,
where trees were felled by avalanches past.
Both slide and road went to the mountain’s peak,
one paved and winding, one more steep, but straight.
We stood there at the bottom, by the creek,
and chose the rock slide without much debate.
We scrambled up the loose slate, crossed the road,
and climbed the next pile, careful of sharp shale,
bypassing slippery spots where moisture showed,
ignoring man-made paths for nature’s trail.
Exhausted when we finally reached the top,
amazed, on looking back, how steep the drop.