Back From the California Coast

Marcia and I made it home from our California Coastal trip last night, part one of which was described here. We drove the southerly route this time, from San Clemente to Sedona via San Diego and Phoenix, with hiking stops in Cleveland National Forest and Yuma, Arizona, on the way back. It’s something of an amazing smorgasbord of geology to make that drive: we started at sea level on the Pacific Ocean, climbed up to 6,000+ feet above sea level in the National Forest, then dropped back down below sea level into the Imperial Valley and El Centro, then steadily back up through various desert regions (including spectacular sand dunes right along the border of Mexico), then finally returning to our red rocks region at 4,500 feet above sea level. Lots to see, lots to do, most of it fabulous to look at. Katelin and John came out and joined us in San Clemente for a few days, so that made the trip even better.

We had done a trip last summer that covered the coast and inland regions from The Russian River Valley up to the northern California coast. This time, we covered Los Angeles down to the Mexican border. So with international travel still seeming iffy for us in the near-ish future, we’re already plotting a summer 2022 driving trip that will start in the Los Angeles region and end in the Bay Area, given us a full north-south path through the Golden State. Tacking on earlier trips to Death Valley, Yosemite, and the Lake Tahoe regions, and we’re finding California to be a fantastic vacation resource for us from our home state next door. As we look to our next adventure over that way, I share some snaps from our last trek below. As one does. When one is me. Click on the sunset view uphill from the San Clemente Pier to see the full collection.

Hello 2022: Live from the California Coast

Having bid adieu to 2021 last week, Marcia and I loaded up the family truckster and headed west for California. We spent two days in Palm Springs, and made a day trip over to Joshua Tree National Park (with a swing by the infamous motel where Gram Parsons died) while we were there. Then we drove down to San Clemente for a two-week stay in a lovely AirBnB condo right near that town’s North Beach. We greeted the new year with a quiet evening of Netflix and Chill, nothing notable or special, but that was okay.

We’ve been walking and hiking every day, and have also made some road trips up to Los Angeles (where I, of course, had to visit a list of prominent music-history sites) and San Juan Capistrano, where the swallows are not resident at this time of year. Katelin and John will be flying over from Las Vegas this weekend to join us for a few days, and we’ll be driving back to Sedona after they head home. (Speaking of home, and in exciting family news, they are closing on a new house this morning!) Weather has been lovely for most of our trip, and we’re safely enjoying the change of scenery, actively conscious and mindful of the latest eruptions in the seemingly-endless Anno Virum.

As I always do, I’ve been snapping sites and scenes, and have posted a gallery of our adventures thus far. You can click on the image of me sitting at the highest point in San Clemente to see the full gallery. I’ll likely add a second one when we get home next week. Until then, be safe, be smart, and here’s hoping that 2022 doesn’t bring us anything close to the litany of horrors that 2021 perpetuated upon us all!

2021: Year in Review

With Christmas behind us and a road-trip to California on the horizon this week, it seems like a good day to sit and settle up the scores for 2021 here at my website, as I normally do at this time each year, plus or minus a few days. Unless I get ambitious, or someone I care about deeply passes away soon, this will likely be the final post of the year, for better and/or for worse.

ON THE BLOG:

In 2020, I surprised myself by publishing 147 posts, the most I’d done since the Poem-A-Day Project in 2004. Retiring from full-time work certainly gave me more time to write, as did COVID-driven cancellations of planned travel, and the need to fill socially isolated time in some satisfying and/or productive fashions. Traffic was robust in 2020, too, with other similarly isolated folks seeking to fill their own suddenly-surplus time online, a trend which I explored more fully (and made future forecasts regarding) in my Coronablogus post last month. For 2021, this post is Number 120, marking about a 20% decrease over last year’s rate of production, in terms of actual new entries on the site. But even with that smaller number of entries, the overall site readership trend was positive, as shown below. (Actual numbers are  edited out, as it’s tacky to share them, and the trend line is what matters; the light-blue pipes are total unique page visits, the dark-blue pipes are total unique visitors, so both grew in 2021):

I’ve owned this domain since the mid-1990s, but prior to 2015, I split my writing between a variety of sites with a variety of hosts, so there’s no easily meaningful visual comparison to make from those times. But at bottom line, the last two years have been quite good ones here, from both audience-engagement and writer-productivity standpoints, things that I most certainly would not have predicted in 2019. Of the 120 original posts this year, 57 were part of the second Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists series, which seems to be popular. I was originally thinking I’d carry it on into 2022, but after a few weeks off, I think it has run its course, and I’m going to put it to bed, for now.

As I report each year, here are the baker’s dozen most-read articles among the 120 new posts here over the past twelve months. It’s probably indicative of the fact that both my readers and I are (mostly) folks of a certain age that obituary-type posts fill such a sizable portion of the most-read roster. Our long-time heroes are leaving us, even as we contemplate our own collective mortality, especially during this, our Anno Virum. On the flip-side, I would note that two of the most life-affirming events for Marcia and I this year (our daughter’s wedding and our adventure in Grand Canyon) also made the Top 13, so it’s good that nice news appeals sometimes as well. Then there’s the odd dichotomy of having had a bit of life-affirmation by returning to our first in-person musical performance since COVID hit us, then seeing one of the artists who sang for us passing away mere weeks later. Both of those reports make the Top 13 below, as do four of the “Favorite Songs” entries. So there’s a bit of everything, tone-wise, which I suppose is just fine and dandy:

And then here are the baker’s dozen posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2021. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on the earliest version of this website. (Note that I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Once again, here’s hoping that people realize that the perennially-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke, and also, once again, it continues to befuddle me, as always, why my 1999 interview with relatively-obscure guitarist Dave Boquist appears on this “most-read” chart almost every year, receiving far more hits, continually, than my many other interviews with many other far more famous artists. Go figger . . .

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

See this earlier post: Best of My Web 2021

TRAVEL:

We will see 2021 off, God willing and the creek don’t rise, from a condo in San Clemente, California, where we’re headed this week for a winter getaway. After years of somewhat absurd levels of travel, 2021 was quite benign for us: we only spent time in six states, as opposed to the 20+ I’ve experienced for much of the past decade. As I looked at my annual travel map, below, (I’ve pre-filled in our trip to San Clemente, with a planned stop at Joshua Tree National Park), it occurred to me (initially) that this was the first year in my entire life where I never spent any time east of the Mississippi River. But then, as I looked closer, I realized that, yeesh, I never even made it east of the Continental Divide in 2021. That’s a pretty profound paradigm shift, given my deep roots in the Carolinas, and our long stints in New York and the Midwest. If I can do so safely, I do intend to visit my mother in South Carolina in early 2022, and Marcia and I are cautiously hopeful that we may be able to consider international travel again later in the year, if we can do so with undue fear for our personal health and safety. I guess if we had to have a limited travel year, we couldn’t have picked a better place to do it from than our new home in Sedona, Arizona, as there’s plenty of stuff to do and see hereabouts, without having to fly or drive far to achieve the full experience.

RECORDINGS:

See these three earlier posts:

BOOKS:

See this earlier post: Best Books of 2021

FILM AND TELEVISION:

See these two earlier posts:

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward into 2022, with a very deep sense of unease about the ways in which our Nation seems to be careening toward institutional racism and fascism and theocracy. It’s truly frightening to see how the will of a determined minority, intent on using every lever of power available to them (legal or otherwise), seemingly takes priority over the desires and wishes and votes of the remaining majority of the population, among which I count myself. Which is so sad, on so many planes, particularly for someone who once proudly served the Nation as a Federal employee and an active duty service member. Here’s hoping that a year from now, I’ll feel better about these things. But I doubt that’s going to be the case, alas, even if I don’t regularly write about such things here, because I don’t feel like I have a lot to add to the narrative, and it’s intellectually depressing to continually wallow in it.

On a brighter note, I’ve mentioned in passing a few times here over the past year that I’ve been hard at work on a book with long-time friend and Naval Academy classmate Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, co-author of The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition, which I reviewed here. Jim and I have a contract with McFarland, a publishing house based in North Carolina, to deliver a complete manuscript by the end of January 2022, with publication hopefully targeted before year’s end. If you’ve ever mucked around with the publishing industry, then you know that “instant gratification” is not in cards on projects like this one.

We finished the main-line text (about 75,000+ words) last week, and I then had the pleasure of taking the digital version of it to a local print shop, producing the first physical version of the text for compilation and copy-editing purposes. Our skilled editor is hard at work on the manuscript, per the photo below. And here’s hoping that when I do next year’s version of this annual report, I’ll be able to point you toward a purchase site to acquire our book, should you be interested, and that we’ll be (a) past the worst of the pandemic, and (b) not living in a political place that would make the most dystopian fantasist shudder with revulsion.

I don’t know whether I’ll continue in 2022 to churn out the piffle and tripe at recent levels, or whether your collective engagement with the site will continue to grow and expand. (One of the nice things about doing this as a labor of love, and not a labor of commerce, is that the thought of less traffic in the year ahead does not cause me any agita). But regardless of how all of those things turn out, I will forever be grateful to those of you who care enough to continue supporting my creative endeavors, right here and right now, and I wish all of you and all of yours the very best over the days and months and years to come!

So, did you mean “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “Let’s eat Grandma” here?

Be Thankful For What You Got

My mother flew into Flagstaff airport Monday night for her first visit ever to Arizona. Our daughter and son-in-law (and their cats) and my sister and brother-in-law are arriving this afternoon, by car from Las Vegas in the first pairs’ case, by air from Asheville in the latter. I always adjust the family playlist that spins pretty much continually while we’re awake hereabouts before guests arrive (there’s some things we like that we know they don’t like, so I’m respectful on that front), and as I was sitting here at the computer this morning tweaking that list, I decided I’d share ten favorite Songs of Thanks (as I see it) with you here. (Note: Yeah, Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” may be the most definitive Thanksgiving Song ever, but knowing that you likely know that, I acknowledge it here as preamble, and pick other songs to supplement it). I wish you and yours a most happy and healthy holiday weekend, with a boss soundtrack, and if any of these tunes creep from our house to yours as a result of this post, this I’ll be a most happy music nerd indeed. Holla in the comment section if that’s the case!

#10. “Give Thanks,” by The Platters

#9. “Grateful,” by Art Garkunkel

#8. “Thanks,” by The James Gang

#7. “Thanksgiving Prayer,” by Johnny Cash

#6. “Thank You Friends,” by Big Star

#5. “I Thank You,” by ZZ Top

#4. “Gratitude,” by Earth, Wind and Fire

#3. “Now Be Thankful,” by Fairport Convention

#2. “Grateful and Thankful,” by Francis Dunnery

#1. “Be Thankful For What You Got,” by William DeVaughn

Coronablogus

I made my first public, written reference to COVID-19 on this website on March 14, 2020, as the world around us went to shit while Marcia and I were in the middle of a two-week vacation in Florida’s Tampa Bay region. Here’s what I wrote about it then:

While the weather here is lovely, and we’ve gotten lots of great walks in, being away from home as COVID-19 erupts and global markets collapse has been disconcerting, needless to say. Places that should be mobbed are quiet or closed, and public events that we might have considered are mostly cancelled. Which is good and right. We are practicing social distancing ourselves and monitoring the situation as best we can, keeping safe and smart, and listening to the experts, always. We hope that science and a sense of shared social responsibility carry the day(s) here, even as we worry about the volume of stupid that social media and some suspect politicians are already spewing right now.

Boy oh boy, in my worst imaginings, I would not have believed how much more stupid and socially irresponsible things could get on the pandemic front in the weeks and months that followed. Yeesh! But that’s probably a topic for a separate post, ideally one that I will write after the pandemic has run its course in the country. Hopefully before 2030 or so. Fingers crossed.

For the purposes of this post, I note that Marcia and I made it home safely after that trip to Florida (though our flight back was quite uncomfortable, as a woman seated directly in front of us seemed intent on coughing up not one, but both lungs, before we landed in Des Moines), and then, as so, so, so many others did, we went into a quarantine-mode lock-down that lasted for pretty much an entire year, until we received our Moderna vaccines in April and May of 2021. And as so, so, so many others did, we quickly adapted our lifestyles to accommodate the medical realities of the world around us, seeking amusements and entertainments that could be secured at home, or outside in spaces distant from other infectious human animals.

We resumed cooking most every meal at home, for starters, something we’d not really done since our earliest, poorest days together. We walked five miles or so every day that the weather allowed, dodging various blithering idiots in downtown Des Moines who seemed aggressively intent on getting in people’s faces, their own “freedoms and liberties” clearly trumping (no pun intended)(well, a little pun intended) other people’s desires for healthy self-preservation. We began watching television together every night, something that had been a once or twice a week activity, at most, before then. We began doing ZOOM meetings, with family members, work colleagues, and friends, desperate to have some human contact, even if of a choppy and annoying kind. And, of course, we started doing jigsaw puzzles, because even as counter-cultural and counter-intuitive as I like to be, there’s something to be said for joining the lowing herd in such a slow, methodical, time-killing pursuit.

For the record, we’re still cooking most of our meals at home, still walking five miles a day (though in much nicer surroundings), still watching a movie or TV show together most every night, still doing weekly ZOOM calls with Katelin and John, and still doing jigsaw puzzles. On that last front, we’re currently working on one of the hardest ones we’ve done together, from the excellent Rock Saws collection. It seemed like a good idea when I bought it, but Jeezum Krow, it’s certainly one of those where every piece looks pretty much exactly like every other piece, so it’s been slow going, as you can see:

On a personal front, with me being me, I also turned in early COVID days to writing on this website as a time-consuming project, and I ended up producing and publishing a far larger number of posts in 2020 than I had in all but a couple of years since I first got online in the early 1990s. While my 2021 output is not likely to quite match my 2020 levels, this year will still stand high on the list of my busiest website writing years. 2020 and 2021 are also going to be among my very highest reader traffic years ever, which communicates to me that loads of other folks were looking for diversions as they worked to kill time at home that they had not been planning to spend before the Anno Virum.

I note that I was not, at all, alone on that web writing front, and that it seemed to me that in the early days of the pandemic, there was a tremendous surge in the number of bloggers pooping out regular posts and updates, via rejuvenated websites (like mine) or brand new platforms created by people who suddenly had the time to create them. As I’ve written about several times over the years, I have a “love/hate” relationship with the WordPress platform on which I create things here, but I did find myself using its Reader function more than I ever had before, both to find gems among the plethora of new websites and blogs, and to pimp my own stuff to folks who might be new to the blogosphere, and who might benefit from or enjoy my piffle and tripe.

There were loads of “COVID Diary” type blogs in that profusion of new web content, as one would expect, and I have to admit that I assiduously avoided such content, as I didn’t need to wallow in others’ discomfort, when I was perfectly capable of wallowing in my own. But there were also a lot of great new websites covering a variety of non-COVID topics that emerged in the early days of the pandemic, as people who had long had or held ideas for websites finally found themselves with the time and inclination to create and share them, and I probably started following more excellent new websites in 2020 than I had in any prior year, ever.

I was motivated to write this post today by a growing realization that a lot of those early 2020 websites seem to have gone fallow and/or run their courses over the past few months. I suppose this could be a seasonal thing, where people are spending nice weather outdoors instead of clattering away at their computers. Or I suppose this could just a predictable manifestation of the fact that maintaining a blog-styled website over a long period of time can be quite a time suck, especially when writers don’t feel like they’re earning the hits and attention that they want and/or deserve. (Few of us do, for the record). But from a perhaps overly-optimistic standpoint, the dwindling of the COVID-era blogs might also be a leading indicator pointing to the fact that people are finally feeling like they (and we) are coming out of the back end of the virus’ global digestive tract, and that whatever benefits they (and we) got from the connections forged on COVID-era blogs are no longer necessary in the new dawn before us.

I don’t know which of these theories is the most accurate one (they’re not mutually exclusive, so I suppose it could be a combined function of all of them), but they do raise a slightly larger question about the continued role of and place for blogs online. I’m stubborn and patient on that front, and I’ve been doing what I do here for over 25 years now, pandemic or not, and am likely to continue doing so. (For the record, the first time the word “blog” appeared on my website was on September 7, 2000, when I wrote about how pleased I was to have a new word to describe what I had already been doing here for five years at that point). It has been nice to see something of a return to the “traditional” (if something so young can be so described) blog forms over the past 18 months, but also not surprising to see many of them petering out, since there were already plentiful “blogs are dead” communications to be found on the web well before the dawn of COVID.

Back in May of this year, as part of his own COVID-era effort to connect his community, fellow obsessive web-maniac Chuck Miller interviewed me as part of a ZOOM series he was hosting on his own website. It was great fun to catch up with an old friend from The 518 that way, and toward the end of the call, Chuck asked me to share my thoughts on the future of blogs. As I am now watching the COVID-era blog bloom beginning to fade and fall from its branches, that seems to me to be a good question for folks doing what I do here to consider with regard to their own online spaces. I free-wheeled my answer to Chuck’s unexpected question at the time, but since it’s something that I’d thought about before, I do think I hit some good and germane points about the nature of web community in my improvised answer. I transcribed it a few weeks later, and with some edits for style and grammar and accuracy, I reproduce that text below. Note that I have no intentions of giving up my platform in the foreseeable future, even as many others do so, but I do suspect that 2022 may be less busy here than 2020 and 2021 were. We shall see.

Here’s the text of my interview with Chuck, as perhaps a parting shot for the current era of web-living, and maybe as an ideal for living in the post-COVID website world:

In the early 2000s, when blogs were first emerging as a new writing paradigm, the sense was that they were going to change the world for the better, as their existence meant that there would no longer be any biased intermediaries between the public-facing media and the general public, allowing for unique and instant independent response to breaking stories and events, of both important and trivial natures.

And on the one hand, that belief was true, for a while anyway, but on the other hand, professional media outlets do have filters, editors, fact-checkers, things of that nature, (well, at least they’re supposed to, a lot of them don’t anymore, alas), and those things do add value to discourse, if for no other reason than precluding the propagation of lies and errors and propaganda.

When all was said and done, blogs certainly didn’t change the world for the better in many or any ways, and I think the blog realm was the place where a lot of contemporary “comment section” toxicity and anonymous sniping emerged into the realm of common online discourse. I saw that negative change emerge in the early days of blogs, well before it became standard behavior on Facebook or Twitter or other social media sites, so I think many people learned that such horrible behavior generated clicks and interest on the blogosphere, then took that paradigm to other social media platforms.

While the promise that blogging was going to change the world was hyperbolic, I do still think that the narrative over the past five years or so regarding the death of blogs was and remains equally over-stated at the opposite end of the argument. I believe there are enough people out there doing what I do here, on both commercial and non-commercial platforms, who have something interesting to say, and will continue to do so, and will continue to engage readers.

Whether we call our platforms “blogs” or “websites” at this point is kind of immaterial. I personally hardly ever use the word “blog” to define my virtual space anymore. I have a website under my own name that I update regularly, with various narrative elements and recurring features, and that domain is all there is to my personal output. So it’s not like you come to “jericsmith.com” and then get redirected to some separate blog, since the blog is the website in total, and vice versa.

In my case, I like to write, I do so habitually bordering on compulsively, and my website gives me a platform for that, regardless of what I or other people label that platform. I’ve been doing what I do here for so long, in internet terms, that it’s also allowed me to build a community. I have people who I consider to be dear friends who I’ve been writing for and communicating with for over a quarter-century, and I’ve never sat in the same physical space with many or most of them. I think that community-building aspect is quite valuable, and I don’t see it going away.

So I think there will remain, for the foreseeable future, spaces online where folks like me, and the people who read what folks like me write, perhaps also doing similar things on their own websites, will have platforms where such communities can continue to thrive. I’ve abandoned social media because it has become so toxic and shrill, and I know I’m not alone on that front, so I think that these blog-type platforms, whatever you choose to call them, can remain a viable place for community engagement without the hateful vacuity and biases that have come to define most social media sites.

It is what it is, and they are what they are, at bottom line, and I don’t really see any reason or rationale for stopping doing what I’m doing, so long as I get the positive reinforcement that some small cohort of folks find it valuable or interesting or whatever, and so long as I don’t bore myself with my own output.

Where the blog/web magic happens, if you’ve ever wondered or cared . . .

Ten Years After the 518

In the summer of 1993, Marcia, Katelin (then two years old) and I moved to Latham, New York from Idaho Falls, Idaho, following my work transfer to assume a new position in Schenectady. We chose what turned out to be a wonderful rental townhouse (with the best next-door neighbors ever), thinking we’d be there for a few years, most likely returning to the Washington, DC metro area with my work as a next step; we still owned a house in Alexandria at that point, which we were renting out. Marcia started law school that summer, taking the first steps on her most impressive legal career, and I got busy putting in my usual 60+ hours per week on behalf of my demanding government employer.

A year or so later, and via a personal connection that Marcia made in her legal work with our most cool and esteemed friend F. Lee Harvey Blotto, I landed a freelance writing gig, on top of my day job, with the region’s late lamented alternative newsweekly, Metroland. It made for some interesting dynamics to be a merchant of mass destruction by day, and an arts maven by night, but it did very much satisfy my equally active left and right brains, and the free CDs and concert tickets were certainly a budgetary boon. Some years later, my Federal bosses asked me to move back to Washington, DC (after an aborted move to Pittsburgh with that same program), but by that time Katelin was in kindergarten, Marcia had begun her law career, and I’d forged a niche for myself in the greater Albany arts and cultural community, so it seemed we’d unexpectedly anchored ourselves in Upstate New York. That being the case, we sold our house in Alexandria, and I elected to forego the next step in my government career, transitioning into the nonprofit sector instead, while still holding on to my music-centric freelance work career, which had expanded to include a television show by that time.  After six years in what we had presumed would be a short-term rental home, we purchased a “real” house half-a-mile away, and ended up staying in Albany for another dozen years, me eventually rising to serve as CEO for a couple of regional nonprofits, Marcia eventually becoming a partner in a local law firm.

In November 2011, a variety of opportunities and choices presented themselves, and with Katelin out of the house as a college student at SUNY Geneseo, Marcia and I decided to follow a new work opportunity in her professional sector to Des Moines, Iowa. We stayed there for four years, then moved to Chicago in 2015, then back to Des Moines in 2019, then on to our current home in Sedona, Arizona in 2020. As I was doing some website maintenance today, I realized that this week marks the tenth anniversary of my departure from Albany. (Marcia had left a month earlier, inciting this). The ensuing decade has been a busy one, that has taken us to a lot of places where we did a lot of things, but marking that November 2011 milestone also reminds me of just how important “The 518” (Albany’s sole area code, in pre-cellular days) was to us as a family, and to me as a creative professional. Given my own peripatetic personal history, I actually spent more time living and working in and around New York’s capitol city than I have anywhere else in my life. I still enjoy satisfying long-distance relationships with many dear friends made during that time, and the place still sits tall and proud as a key location in our family’s historic narrative.

Just before I left Albany after ~19 years as a nominally productive local contributor, I published a few posts here about things that I would not miss (even great locations have their downsides, after all) and things that I would miss once I was gone. At the top of the pile on that latter, positive list was Albany’s truly incredible musical community, within which I’d moved and (I like to think) played some small but important promotional roles as a music critic and (later) as the booking agent for a cool little cultural venue. I still keep in touch with more folks from Albany than any other place I’ve ever lived, and I still remain a fervent champion for many of the incredible singers, songwriters, and musicians who I met, befriended, and worked with during that most formative and enjoyable time.

So as I consider the tenth anniversary of our departure from Albany, it seems fitting to mark the moment with a small tribute to some of those amazing musicians and friends from those days. I do so, as I so often do, by sharing a collection of videos below, featuring ten artists and songs that have moved me deeply and continually satisfied my soul, even as the meat which encases said soul has moved hither and yon across the continent over the past decade. I highly encourage you to seek out and support these incredible artists, whether you’ve ever set foot in Albany or not. They’re all worth your attention and respect. Cheers, Albany. You were great, and I miss you!

“Across a Thunderstorm,” by Jed Davis

“Ain’t Going Anywhere,” by Buggy Jive

“Strange Day,” by The Clay People

“No One Called You A Failure,” by Kamikaze Hearts

“Beautiful Brand New,” by Gay Tastee

“Cop Show,” by Che Guevara T-Shirt

“Doubting Thomas,” by The Weasels

“Bleeding,” by One King Down

“Mariah Moriah,” by Jason Martin

“Whatever Makes You Happy,” by Lughead