2018: Year in Review

The shortest day of the year approacheth, by God, and that puts me in a reflective mood, meaning it’s time for my annual trawl through “The Year That Was” to capture the “Most This” and “Fave That” and “Best The Other” for those interested in such reckonings. (If that doesn’t include any of you, well, then at least I’ve given myself a nice summary of the year for future reference, and satisfied the list-making monster that gnaws on my brain stem like Níðhöggr as December 31 draws nigh).

ON THE BLOG:

I posted 41 articles on the blog this year, up from 35 last year, and 27 the year before. A positive trend, though still nothing approaching the 77 posts I wrote back in 2015, and more in years prior. I doubt I’ll ever see those levels of productivity here again, for a variety of reasons, but this seems like a good and satisfying “new normal” level for me at this point. I have a 2019 writing project in mind, so will announce that here via a separate post at some point soon.

The ten most-read articles among those 41 new posts here in 2018 were these:

And then here are the ten posts from prior years (this blog archive goes back to 1995, y’know) that received the most reads in 2018. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on. I mean, why does the transcription of my 1999 chat with relatively obscure Son Volt guitarist Dave Boquist perennially appear on this list, while interviews with much more well-known artists never do? And people do realize that the “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” and “Coffee and Crystal Meth” articles are jokes, right? Hmmm . . .

ON THE WEB:

Outside of my own sandbox, I found 2018 to be a mostly dismaying year online as the constant barrage of shrill electoral and political messaging, all of it requiring my attention RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW . . . and RIGHT NOW AGAIN . . . RIGHT NOW . . . eventually just overwhelmed me by the time we got to the elections. Once I crashed, literally, on that screaming digital beach-head in November, I just decided to put myself on a social media time-out program, and I intend to stick to it in the year ahead. Enough is enough is enough is enough. And enough is what I’ve had, and enough is all I need. Enough.

I need to keep Twitter for work purposes, but I’ve unfollowed everything on my personal account, including some good friends there. I am sorry about that, and hope that we’ll keep in touch elsewhere in other ways. You can still follow me at Twitter if you want to get tweets alerting you when I post something here on the blog, but I won’t be putting any new content there, and will need to find a new outlet for all of those little wordy bon mots, I guess. Similar situation with LinkedIn: I need it for work, my posts here will get cited there for information when they go live, and then that’s it. Read the blog if you want to keep up with what I’m doing, at bottom line, or email me, or call me. I’m always happy to talk. Seriously. Let’s do lunch. My treat!

Back to Twitter for a minute: I should note that I hit the 10,000-tweet mark (after about eight years) right around the time that I bailed on the platform. If we figure that my average tweet was about 200 characters long (I straddled the 140-character and 280-character epochs), and that the average English word is composed of about five letters, then that’s about 400,000 words, or several novels worth of bullshit spewed into the ether between 2010 and 2018.

Oof!!! That’s an awful lot of writing, just done gone, which probably explains why my blog volume dropped so precipitously in recent years. (To my own credit, I saw this coming). While I can’t get those words back, at this point, I definitely don’t want to add any more volume to that rambling stream of unedited piffle and tripe on one of the very same platforms that Russian trolls and their handlers used to wage cyberwar on us all, with terrible, terrible consequences. No mas. I’m out. See ya ’round. Done, done, and gone.

On a macro basis, I think the whole social media era may be drawing to a close for me. I also think that our descendants and their historians will look at how we collectively acted online over the past decade or so with disgusted bemusement as to how freaking stupid we all were in the nascent days of our lives as a digital species. I’m glad to have been an early adopter of lots of these technologies, and I’m equally glad to kick them to the curb when they have exhausted their utility in my life, or when they make me into a dumber, slower, sadder human being. This here internet thing was supposed to be fun, remember? I want to make it more of that, for me, starting right now, if not yesterday.

Also on that web and app front: while I am acutely aware that our Nation’s chief executive is a blithering, blundering, uncultured, unindicted co-conspiring buffoon, and that his enablers in the U.S. Congress, on FAUX News and its ilk, and in State Houses around the country will go down in history as some of the most criminally inept and amoral politicians and media figures ever to serve their citizenry, I do not need to be reminded of what those people are doing more than once or twice a day. Being alerted on a minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour basis about the crooked cabal’s misdeeds and idiocy doesn’t make me any more woke . . . it just makes me more morally exhausted and depressed than I would be otherwise.

So I am finished with doing that to myself, too. If a website or phone app has a “refresh” button (literal or virtual) on it, then I really don’t want to read it anymore, lest I get stuck, pressing “reload” over and over again, waiting for the next hit of inane and sulfurous nothing to flash up on the glowing screen before me, to nobody’s betterment, ever. For the past month or so, I have chosen to get my political news from three good sources, once or twice a day, at most: I read my long-time web favorite Electoral Vote Dot Com every morning on the train, along with a print copy of the Chicago Sun Times, and then I read The Economist when it arrives in my home mailbox each week. America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or televisions, and we did just fine all that time. Better than we’re doing today, actually, by most metrics.

I want to return to that model in my own news-consuming life, reading professionally edited articles by qualified journalists, researchers and reporters, just a couple of times a day. That’s enough. That’s all I need. Please, Jesus, stop shouting at me beyond that, all of you. Thank you. My new writing project will probably touch on some of these themes more in 2019, so that’s all I’m going to say about that, for now. Watch this space.

On a more positive front online, and outside of the agitating news and social media worlds, Thoughts on the Dead remains my clear favorite and most happily read website, with the ever-prolific Mr TotD continuing to build and manage the best semi-fictional universe EVAR!!! Dive in, the water’s warm, though that might be because somebody’s nephew peed in it, and the pool also might be dosed with acid, so keep your mouth closed while you splash about. Also, the Donate Button may be sentient there, so you should befriend it and curry its favor soon, lest your cell phone ring unexpectedly, and Kim Jong-Un be on the other end. Just saying. It happens more often than one might expect.

My favorite new (to me, not to others) website/blog of the year would be Messy Nessy Chic, an utterly fascinating and well-curated deep dive into amazing art, culture, stories, pictures, and stuff, in all of stuff’s glorious stuffishness. Gorgeous, fascinating, and fun — and Nessy’s ongoing “13 Things I Found On the Internet Today” series is the best recurring catalog of its sort that I’ve seen anywhere online in ages and ages. Every edition’s a gem, filled with literal wonders. My other favorite regular reads online in 2018 are listed in the sensibly named “Regular Reads” column in the right sidebar here, so I commend them to all of you, too, once you’ve had enough here.

TRAVEL:

We greeted 2018 in Key West, Florida, and we will see it out in Paris, France, unless the Yellow Vest protesters burn it down first. I did a lot of professional travel this year, atop some fun family trips, and a really strenuous Tour des Trees in Northeastern Ohio, so my travel itinerary for the year remained almost as busy as 2017 and 2016.

With our move to Des Moines in March, I’ll be making a lot more trips between Iowa and Chicago, but I am planning to limit my work travel to one professional trip per month beyond that, with my board’s blessing. It will be nice to see this spaghetti chart get a little bit less tangled in 2019, even as a good chunk of long-haul travel will remain. (We have Greece and St. Kitts already booked on the 2019 itinerary, along with next year’s Tour des Trees in Kentucky and Tennessee, so those are exciting benchmarks upon which to build other adventures).

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2018 and Best Albums of 2018 Reports, and I updated my Top 200 Favorite Albums list to reflect 2018 listening. After I issued the latter list, The Weasels released their outstanding new album, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, which is certainly a best of the year, and will be getting its own review addendum here at some point soon. You can go buy it now, so you’re prepared.

LIVE PERFORMANCES:

We experienced a lot of performances in a lot of idioms and venues this year, so rather than list a Favorite Opera, or a Favorite Play, or a Favorite Classic Rock Show, here are the 15 live performance events of all stripes that moved me the most this year, in chronological order, and all in Chicago unless otherwise noted; the most amazing and compelling of the bunch was The Joffrey Ballet’s incredible Midsummer Night’s Dream (no, not that one, Shakespeare was not involved here). Wow!!

  • Turandot, January 13, Lyric Opera
  • Blind Date, January 27, Goodman Theater
  • The Antelope Party, February 23, Theater Wit
  • Uriah Heep, March 11, Arcada Theater (St. Charles, Illinois)
  • Faust, March 18, Lyric Opera
  • Women Laughing Alone With Salad, March 31, Theater Wit
  • The Residents, April 17, Old Town School of Folk Music
  • The Doppelganger: A Farce, April 29, Steppenwolf Theatre
  • Midsummer Nights Dream, May 5, Joffrey Ballet, featuring Anna von Hausswolff at Auditorium Theater
  • Jesus Christ Superstar, May 16, Lyric Opera
  • Todd Rundgren and Utopia, May 22, Chicago Theater
  • George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars, July 15, Petrillo Stage, Taste of Chicago
  • First Aid Kit, October 2, Queen Elizabeth Theater (Vancouver, British Columbia)
  • Tom Hanks: “Uncommon Type,” November 2, Harris Theater, Chicago Humanities Festival
  • Familiar, December 16, Steppenwolf Theatre

ART EXHIBITIONS:

I saw every exhibition that opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Cultural Center and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago this year, probably amassing more gallery time in 2018 than in any other year when I didn’t actually work in a museum. I think the Art Institute had a curatorial banner year in 2018, though probably not for the big, splashy, media-friendly exhibitions that most folks would cite. (I was very underwhelmed by their John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age show, for example, having seen a much more compelling collection and interpretation of Sargent’s works at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown many years ago; this one felt very forced and “second city” to both Marcia and I). MCA mostly underwhelmed me this year, I am sad to say, and while the Cultural Center had some great shows in their smaller spaces, programming in their larger galleries also did not live up to the some of the creative thrills they’ve offered me in recent years. With that as macro preamble, then, here are the ten exhibitions that rocked my world the most this year at those three venerable venues. The Art Institute’s Hairy Who? 1966-1969 was unquestionably the best art event I saw this year: I have visited it about a dozen times at this point, and it reveals new wonders each time I walk through its generous galleries. Bravo!

  • Hairy Who? 1966–1969, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Volta Photo: Starring Sanlé Sory and the People of Bobo-Dioulasso in the Small but Musically Mighty Country of Burkina Faso, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Charles White: A Retrospective, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, Chicago Cultural Center
  • Bronzeville Echoes: Faces and Places of Chicago’s African American Music, Chicago Cultural Center
  • de-skinned: duk ju l kim recent work, Chicago Cultural Center
  • Tomma Abts, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Howardena Pindell: What Remains To Be Seen, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
  • Flesh: Ivan Albright, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection, Art Institute of Chicago

BOOKS:

I am embarrassed by how few new books I read in 2018, which is another one of the reasons behind me saying enough when it comes to social media soul-sucking time: tons and tons of words passed through my eyes and into my brain this year, yes, but very few of them added wisdom or produced pleasure. Yucko, I am done with that, and I need to read more books in 2019! Let’s do this!

The best books I read this year were actually released between 2015 and 2017. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy — The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky — marked the finest example of timely and timeless world-building that I think I’ve enjoyed since the original Dune books. These are the right books in the right time when it comes to the ways in which we write about and read the fantastic, and how the fantastic mirrors and reflects real issues in our real world, and the series absolutely deserves the trio of Hugo Awards bestowed upon it, among many other honors. Very enjoyable reading, and I was very happy to have gotten lost for a couple of months in Jemisin’s sublime The Stillness.

The best new fiction releases I read in 2018 were The Cloven (the final book in B.K. Catling’s sprawling Vorhh Trilogy), Suah Bae’s exquisitely surreal Recitation and Sarah Perry’s engaging Gothic Noir Melmoth. I have Richard Powers’ The Overstory queued up next, and I expect to start and enjoy that before the year is up. On the nonfiction front, I liked Jorma Kaukonen’s autobiography Been So Long: My Life and Music, and Joel Selvin’s expose on the post-Jerry days of the Dead, Fare Thee Well because I’m interested in the subjects — but I would not cite either of them as a particularly great example of contemporary rock literature.

And that’s pretty much it for me in terms of books released in 2018. Did I mention that I am embarrassed by this? Well, I am. Goddamn you, Twitter!! Curse you to hell, Russian Trolls!!

FILMS:

We have two good movie theaters within easy walking distance of our condo, not to mention Amazon Prime and Netflix, so we watch a lot of movies every year. At the time of this writing, here are my Top Fifteen Films of 2018, though I note that I have some Oscar Bait movies that I want to see between now and early January (e.g. If Beale Street Could Talk, Can You Ever Forgive Me, Creed II, Vice, Leave No Trace, etc.), plus some sub-Oscar contenders in genres I like (e.g. Suspiria, The Sisters Brothers, etc.) so I’ll be updating this list a bit in the weeks ahead before the dust finally settles on 2018:

  • Annihilation
  • The Death of Stalin
  • Isle of Dogs
  • Sorry to Bother You
  • First Man
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • Never Goin’ Back
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Thoroughbreds
  • A Simple Favor
  • First Reformed
  • Hereditary
  • Green Book
  • The Favourite
  • Roma

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . that’s it, I think. I’ll disclose my planned 2019 writing project here at some point soon, and then Marcia, Katelin and I will spend Christmas together in Chicago, and then Marcia and I will jet off for London and Paris, and then the proverbial wheel will click through one more annual revolution, and instead of looking back at the rut it has left behind us, we will look forward at the path over which it’s going to carry us in the months ahead. Which will go quickly, as they always do once one reaches a certain age (ahem), so vultures willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back here in December 2019, marveling at that which was, and that which is yet to come. See you then?

Mine beloved and I returned to Vancouver this year after a 28-year hiatus. We’ll be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary in June 2019 in Greece, so there’s one adventure I know you’ll read about here 12 months hence, if not sooner!

2017: Year In Review

We are closing in on the shortest day of the year, and that always puts me in a reflective mood, so how’s about a trawl through 2017 to summarize the year that was, for those interested in such matters. (And if that doesn’t include any of you, well, then at least I’ve given myself a nice summary for future reference. Excelsior!)

ON THE WEB:

I posted 35 thingies (some fiendish) on the blog this year. The number actually surprised me; I would have guessed less. Last year I posted 27 times, though I was working on the short story project, so at least I was producing more long-form stuff than I did this year. In 2015, I posted 77 times. I guess either this blog’s swirling along a slow spiral to oblivion (like most blogs), or this is just the new normal. We’ll see what 2018 brings us. The ten most read new posts here in 2017 were:

The ten old posts that got the most traffic in 2017 were as follows. It’s always fascinating to me which of the 1,000-ish posts that I keep on the blog interest people (or search engines, anyway) the most all these years on . . .

I gave up on Facebook years ago, but I remain active on Twitter. I have learned after a very long time online that accepting or seeking connections just for the sake of doing so is a tool for madness, so I generally ascribe to Dunbar’s Number and try to keep my follows and followers around the 150 level. I am a little high on both fronts right now, so there might be some purging to be done by year’s end. On a political front (while I try not to write about that much here), Tiny Blue Isle is my go-to aggregator for Chicago-oriented progressive stuff. Bonus points for them using my poem as inspiration for their handle. I should also note that a photograph I took during the Chicago Marathon went wildly viral, for all of the wrong/right reasons (depending on whose views you take).

Where I used to regularly read one or more newspapers each morning to get my day started, my train commuting routine now involves three websites, which are almost always refreshed on a daily basis, and which fill the time in a very satisfying fashion as I rumble down the rails from Chicago to Naperville. In the order that I read them each day:

  • The Fall Online Forum: I’ve been a reader here for about 15 years, and an active poster for over a decade. You don’t have to be a fan of legendary English band The Fall to have fun in this forum: it’s high volume, with threads on pretty much everything under the sun, and some things from elsewhere, if you’re willing and able to trawl around a bit. It’s an old school message board, so there’s a nice nostalgia factor in play there, too. (Edit: Literally days after I posted this, the hosting site unilaterally updated the FOF, so now it looks like a typical modern web forum. Phooey!) Recommended, if you need a place to romp and stomp and waste time on the man’s dime. Smart people, passionate and knowledgeable about all sorts of arcana and oddities, and a great place (for me) to get an outside-the-US perspective on what the hell’s going on in the world these days. Plus the time difference between the UK and Chicago means that in the early morning here, I’ve got hours of new posts there to peruse.
  • Thoughts On The Dead: My favorite purveyor of semi-fictionality (have you heard of the concept?) has produced two novels’ worth of utterly stupendous world-building in his ongoing Little Aleppo Chronicles, along with a surrealistic treasure trove of character-based stories, timely satire, and the best writing about everybody’s favorite semi-defunct choogly band to be found in this universe and time stream. And if you nab the time sheath, you might find that it’s the best such writing in any universe or time stream. Try not to commit any felonies if you do that, though, please and thanks. Oh, and Thoughts On The Dead is being considered for an Oscar this year too! Be sure to check out his Christmas List if you visit, and do the right thing, namsain? You don’t want Donate Button to come looking for you.
  • Electoral-Vote Dot Com: I’ve been depending upon (and writing about) this website for my election season news aggregation since 2004, long before some of their more-highly-visible imitators started pilfering their data-driven approach. Normally, after the final counts were tallied in late 2016/early 2017, they would have shut down for a couple of years — but things this year are just so freakin’ weird that they’ve decided to keep rolling with the daily posts, for which I am thankful. There’s lots of political news aggregators out there on the web, and I consider these guys to be the pinnacle of the form. Good data, good sources, no bullshit, solid interpretation. Highly recommended.

TRAVEL

Marcia and I began the year in Reykjavik, watching the citizens of Iceland lose their collective minds in an orgy of fireworks and bonfires. We are going to end 2017 in Key West, with Katelin in tow this time. We were there for New Year’s Eve 2009/2010 as well, and it was a hoot. Here’s hoping that the city is well recovered from its hurricane damage, and that we have a nice warm night for the drag queen drop to marshall us into 2018.

I had tried to travel less for work this year, but it didn’t really quite work out that way, as my annual travel map (including planned holiday travel) indicates:

There were loads of adventures and lots of good work done over the the course of the year, but the particular highlights (beyond Iceland) of 2017 travel included: a family trip to the Netherlands and Belgium (where Katelin got to meet her spirit animal); getting to experience the solar eclipse in the mountains of North Carolina with the extended Smith-Duft families (minus Katelin, alas); a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where I go to see (ZOMFG) The Mothership; and riding the Tour des Trees in and around my old stomping grounds of Washington, DC and Annapolis, where I got to dedicate a Liberty Tree on the grounds of the State Capitol.

Leaving a nicer legacy in Annapolis than I did 30+ years ago. (Me in yellow NAVY cap).

RECORDINGS:

I already published my Best Albums of 2017 (26 years and counting!) and my Most Played Songs of 2017 reports, so probably don’t need to say much more on that front.

FILMS:

We have two good movie theaters within easy walking distance of our apartment, not to mention Amazon Prime and Netflix, so we watched a lot of movies this year. At the time of this writing, here are my Top Ten Films of the Year . . . though I note that I have some Oscar Bait movies to see between now and early January, so this list could change a little bit before the dust settles on the year.

  • Get Out
  • Trainspotting 2
  • mother!
  • The Big Sick
  • A Ghost Story
  • Dunkirk
  • The Disaster Artist
  • The Florida Project
  • Lady Bird
  • The Darkest Hour

Special mention to two epic television experiences that held us bound in front of the screen this year: Amir Bar-Lev’s outstanding Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, and David Lynch/Mark Frost’s thrilling and maddening Twin Peaks: The Return. I’m not sure which story was weirder . . .

BOOKS:

Years ago, I summarized my  general book reading habits thusly: 10% Fiction, 40% Natural Science and History, 40% Music Biography, and 10% Tales of Human Suffering. Nothing too far afield in the mix of this year’s Top Ten Books, even if the percentages change, so I remain adamantly predictable in my tastes. (Note that a few of these books came out toward the end of 2016, but I didn’t read them until this year, so I’m recognizing them now):

  • Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
  • Borne (and The Strange Bird) by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Salt Line by Holly Goddard Jones
  • Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger
  • Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
  • The Erstwhile by Brian Catling
  • The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall of Prog Rock by David Weigel
  • The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis (December 2016)
  • Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith (December 2016)
  • The Gradual by Christopher Priest (December 2016)

I should note that this list is based on traditional print media output, but if we expand the definition of “book” to include serialized fiction online, then we must also add A Book With No Title by Thoughts On The Dead (see above) to the list.

PERFORMANCES:

We also went to a ton of live performances this year, in a variety of genres and idioms. Rather than break them up into different bits, I list my 15 favorites below, chronologically:

  • Too Hot to Handel, Auditorium Theater, January 15
  • Carmen, Lyric Opera, March 3
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Oriental Theater, March 11
  • Adrian Belew Power Trio, Old Town School, April 1
  • Destiny of Desire, Goodman Theater, April 8
  • Jean-Michel Jarre, Auditorium Theater, May 22
  • U2 and The Lumineers, Soldier Field, June 4
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Auditorium Theater, June 16
  • Paradise Blue, TimeLine Theater, July 15
  • Wire and Noveller, Metro, September 16
  • Rigoletto, Lyric Opera, October 14
  • Giselle, Joffrey Ballet/Auditorium Theater, October 29
  • Pere Ubu and Minibeast, Beat Kitchen, November 18
  • King Crimson, Riverside Theater (Milwaukee), November 26
  • In The Next Room, TimeLine Theater/Stage 773, December 9

ART:

As with so many other things, we’re blessed with a plethora of riches right here in our neighborhood: The Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center are both within 10 minute walks of our apartment, so I visit each of them every few weeks, just because they’re my fave indoor places to go, solo or with friends. Here are the ten art happenings in Chicago that most moved me in 2017 (in no particular order), and those two venues feature most heavily, just because I’ve seen everything they offered in both permanent and temporary exhibitions over the past twelve months.

  • Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsia! Soviet Art Put To The Test, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, Museum of Contemporary Art
  • Along The Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Chicago Architecture Biennial, Chicago Cultural Center
  • Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Ben Shahn: If Not Now, When? Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership
  • Provoke: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960–1975, Art Institute of Chicago
  • Jack Kerouac’s On the Road Scroll, American Writer’s Museum
  • Eugene Eda’s Doors for Malcolm X College, Chicago Cultural Center
  • India Modern: The Painting of M.F. Husain, Art Institute of Chicago

And . . . I guess that’s it! Unless something moves me profoundly to write here in the next couple of weeks, it’ll probably be 2018 when I next check in at the blog. ‘ta ’til then from all of us in The Adventure Family . . .

(My) Best Movies Of the 21st Century

The New York Times recently issued a list of “The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far,” which you can read here. Probably unsurprisingly, I don’t agree with much of it. So equally unsurprisingly, I felt I had to make my own list. Because me.

Note that I am being a calendar pedant in framing my choices: the 21st Century began on January 1, 2001, so there are no movies from 2000 here. Had I included the final year of the 20th Century, I likely would have added Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Requiem For a Dream to the list below at the expense of two of the 2001-2016 films.

I also don’t have any 2017 movies on the list. Get Out and Trainspotting 2 are the  best new films I’ve seen this year, but neither has sat with me long enough for me to consider it a serious contender for posterity’s sake.

My first cut at this list had 42 movies on it, so I was glad that I didn’t have to stretch to pad out a list of 25. I took me a while to figure out which 17 to drop, with some tough choices toward the very end, but I feel good about the final list I developed, and share it with you below.

For foreign language films, I’m using the titles that were most commonly used in domestic advertising campaigns, even if they were originally titled in their native languages. The list is is alphabetical order, so I’m not bothering to hierarchically rank them further.

This is all. List away . . .

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Black Swan (2010)

Donnie Darko (2001)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The Fountain (2006)

Frank (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Inside Out (2015)

Let the Right One In (2008)

The Lobster (2015)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Lost in Translation (2003)

Melancholia (2011)

Moonlight (2016)

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Mulholland Drive (2001)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

The Piano Teacher (2002)

The Prestige (2006)

Under the Skin (2013)

Volver (2006)

WALL-E (2008)

The Witch (2015)

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

2016 Year In Review

We’re two days shy of the year’s shortest day, and deep in the heart of the coldest snap of the current winter, so it seems a good time to look back over the past twelve months here at the blog and in the greater personal, professional and cultural world around me.

Counting this one, I published 27 blog posts here in 2016. That’s a big drop off from the 77 posts I published in 2015, but that was a somewhat conscious decision as I decided to focus on my Short Story of the Month project, which I completed successfully earlier this month. The 12 new stories I wrote over the past year were knit together with half a dozen older ones into a single manuscript, and it’s off for copy editing as I type. You writing types: if you’ve got any good leads you’d suggest for placing the manuscript commercially in 2017, I would appreciate an introduction!

Marcia and I opened 2016 in our still new home town of Chicago, watching the inaugural edition of the city’s “Chi-Town Rising” star drop on the river, which was frankly underwhelming. You’ve got too much going for you, Chicago, to try to ape New York City! Let them have their thing, because you’ve got plenty of your own! Seriously! They’re apparently doing it again this year, but we will welcome 2017 in a more exotic locale instead: Reykjavik, Iceland. We loved our summer trip there some years ago, and are excited to see it under the polar twilight with (hopefully) some Northern Lights in play to guide us into a new year together.

Between those two points, we had a crazy travel year. Marcia goes back and forth between Chicago and Des Moines ever other week for work, and I traveled to 26 states this year for my own work with the TREE Fund. (Speaking of, it’s not too late to contribute to our year-end appeal . . . hint hint). Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, here’s the visual representation of my travels in 2016:

cwne26ewgaazm9i-jpg-largeThe arrow pointing southward was to Grand Cayman, which Marcia and I visited together as part of a work trip for me. One of the northerly arrows points to Iceland, as mentioned above, and the other one points to Tuscany, where Marcia and I had a wonderful vacation with many new friends from Australia and New Zealand. I also did about 600 of those miles  on a bicycle through my native Carolinas. Big thanks to R. Jeanette Martin for the photos at that prior link, which are totally worth seeing, even if I’m in them.

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See? While it was my intention to try to do a little bit less traveling this year for work, I just laid out my 2017 schedule with my staff, and at this point it looks like I will be going to Mississippi, Arizona, Puerto Rico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ontario, Maryland (twice), Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida, Colorado, Washington (state), Oregon, Missouri, Texas, Iowa, Connecticut, California, Ohio and Oklahoma during the next twelve months. Plus wherever Marcia and I decide to go for our international summer trip. Personally, I’m lobbying for Malta. So, uh, my 2017 map will probably look like a spaghetti chart too. Hmmm.

Even with all of that travel, I suspect that 2017 will look like more of a typical blogging year for me, so if you have been and intend to remain a faithful follower this site, then (1st) thank you, and (2nd) there might be more things for you to read beyond short stories next year. I’m considering a couple of web-based writing projects that are a little bit more interactive, so will update on that when I decide which one (if any) I want to pursue.

Some other bits and bobs to wrap things up . . .

Music, Theater and Dance: I’ve already done my 25th Annual Best Albums Report, here, and my Annual List Of Most Played Songs, here. On the live front, we saw many plays, concerts and dance performances, and honestly, I’m just really happy to have spent the year experiencing them in the moment and not documenting and making lists of them, and I’m disinclined to go back and do so now to try to recreate them after the fact. Maybe next year, I’ll start keeping a list. Or maybe not. We’ll see. I kinda think my live performance criticizing years may be behind me, y’know?

Books: As posted here multiple times before, my book reading tends to cluster predictably into four primary areas: 10% Fiction, 40% Natural Science and History, 40% Music Biography, and 10% Tales of Human Suffering. Over the past year, my fave reads didn’t stray too far from the norm, although I read more older books than newer books in 2016, so my list of favorite new releases is a bit brief:

  • The Fisherman by John Langan
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
  • The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
  • Not Dead Yet: The Memoir by Phil Collins
  • My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris
  • But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Movies: We have a theater within walking distance of our apartment, so we saw more flicks in first release than we typically have in the past. The best films I saw in 2016 (thus far, recognizing that much of the Oscar Bait is just coming out now) would include:

  • The Witch (My current pick for Best Movie of 2016)
  • The Lobster (A very close second place)
  • Everybody Wants Some!!
  • The Jungle Book
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Sausage Party
  • Hell Or High Water
  • Arrival
  • Manchester By The Sea
  • La La Land
  • Office Christmas Party

Politics: Ennnnnhhhhh . . . . the less said here the better, I think. I’ll leave it to others to write about those matters more regularly and effectively than I do. That said, I did write and publish a poem here in the days after the election called “Tiny Blue Isle,” which explains what it feels like to me to live in Chicago right now. A local colleague liked the concept and approached me about using it for a progressive politics feed on Twitter and (maybe later) as a website, and I agreed to let my friend do so. Follow here for more news on that in the months ahead.

Art: We are blessed with ready and easy proximity to some exceptionally fine museums hereabouts, and three solo exhibitions stand out for me among the dozens we saw in 2016:

  • Mastry by Kerry James Marshall, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
  • Future Present by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, at the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Procession by Norman Lewis, at the Chicago Cultural Center

Websites: Two websites dominated my daily reading in 2016, and I have written about both of them here before:

  • Electoral Vote Dot Com: I’ve been following this website through every Presidential election since 2004, and I think it remains the best real-time aggregator of relevant information, and the best site for thoughtful, objective analysis that I’ve found for comprehending our incomprehensible electoral nightmare process. I wrote about it back in 2012, and my thoughts about it (and its competition) remain unchanged.
  • Thoughts On The Dead: I wrote about this website back in 2015, and my thoughts on this one have changed a bit. At the time, I cited it as one of the few websites that actually made me “laugh out loud” (not LOL) as it did a bit of creative world building around the history of the Grateful Dead. While that element of it remains (e.g. the coverage of the Dead And Company tour with John Mayer was sublime and hilarious), somewhere along the way, the site also evolved to include some truly brilliant fiction (the Roy Head adventures, the Route 77 travelogue, and the Little Aleppo series, among others) and some of the most incredible rock music writing I’ve ever read, anywhere (the recent series on Van Halen and Queen, most especially). The volume of exceedingly high quality work being posted here on a nearly daily basis boggles my mind. Thoughts On The Dead is unquestionably my Website of the Year for 2016, and if I knew who he was in real life, I’d celebrate and hail him by name as my flat-out favorite writer of the past twelve months as well. And I’m done here with this note, so get on over there and just dig in . . . wonders await you, I promise!

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1. On January 14, I ran my annual “Oscar By The Numbers” model, and the results were so overwhelmingly in favor of one film that I declared it “the most shoo-in of shoo-in winners that I’ve forecast to date,” and noted that “if it doesn’t win the big prize, then this multi-year model is clearly a failure, and I will report it as such, with 2016 being my final year of forecasting.” Unfortunately, the film my model picked was The Revenant, and the winner of the big prize was Spotlight. So consider the model retired, in its current format. I continue to believe that the historic assumptions that underpin the model are sound, but in the era where the number of Best Picture nominees exceeds the number of nominees in each of the other categories, the mathematics get a bit hinky, and the correlations break down. Which happens sometimes. I saw similar impacts on my “Mid-Major At Large” NCAA Tournament forecasting models when the BCS era alignments and the emergence of the non-football version of the Big East emerging. Are they a major without football money? And if they are, are some of the other conferences similarly worth removing from the Mid-Major rosters? In both cases, the data sets I built are large and versatile, so maybe I’ll look for some other correlations and come up with a new variant on Oscar By The Numbers next year. Or maybe not. There might be something new to model, right?

2.  Want to come work with me? I’m currently hiring for two positions at the TREE Fund: a full-time Accounting and Grants Manager position, and a part-time Development Database Administrator. Our offices are located in the Western suburbs of Chicago. We work hard and have fun, and support an awesome community of folks around the world with our research, education and community engagement programs. Making a difference is a good thing. Please share these postings if you know anybody who might like to help us do that.

3. Related to the TREE Fund, our number one community engagement event each year is the STIHL Tour des Trees, a 500+ mile, seven day cycling tour where about 100 folks take to the road to tell our story, educate the public, raise funds, and have a truly wonderful time doing it. I got to ride four days with the team in Florida soon after joining the TREE Fund, and I’m looking forward to riding the full seven days in the Carolinas this October, starting and ending in Charlotte. Our riders come from around the country, and there’s still spaces available for new folks to join us. How about it? If you’re not up for that commitment, you could also contribute by sponsoring me on the ride. Here’s my donor page, if you’d like to help out that way. We’d all appreciate it very much!

4. How Not To Be Slick: Marcia and I were looking for something to watch on television one night earlier this week, and as is often the case, even with a zillion channels, we couldn’t find anything that was mutually pleasing to us both. Her birthday is coming up, and I had ordered a box set of a TV show that we actually both like. Earlier that day, a package had arrived for me, and I had set it aside for the birthday — but being a problem-solving kind of guy, it occurred to me that I could give her that gift early, so we’d have something to do that night. I grandly offered to let her open a birthday gift early, told her what the gift was, went to my desk to get the package, opened it . . . and found two toner cartridges for our printer inside. Insert sad trombone noise and FAIL meme here.

5. I pushed the random word generator button this morning for March’s Short Story of the Month. The four words it gave me were: simple, perverted, bughouse, front. This is going to be a fun one.

Iowa Caucus Day 2016: Resource Guide

Marcia and I moved to Iowa a little over four years ago, at the peak of 2012’s caucus season. Within a month of our arrival, Marcia was interviewed and quoted in an internationally-syndicated Reuters article, after we attended a candidate rally on a whim. So we learned first hand that it’s easy to have your say in public when you live in a small state with a vast media enterprise descending upon you.

Marcia’s quote in the Reuters interview was thoughtful and balanced, but that’s not the norm, frankly, especially in hotly contested races like those unfolding now. A lot of the quotes coming out of Iowa lack balance as voters and campaign flacks attempt to sway others to their cause, and many other quotes coming out of Iowa lack thought because politics is primarily a gut sport in many areas of the State, like football, or deer hunting. Reaction and reflex matter more than deliberation and discourse, especially under the media’s unrelenting kleig lights — which many thoughtful voters are repelled by, even as they draw the most reactive voters into their beams.

By the time I left Iowa, I reached the conclusion that the caucuses are bad for America. That being said, were I still in the State, I would be participating tonight, because I consider voting to be a civic responsibility of all citizens, regardless of how I feel about the process. Marcia (who still works out of Iowa and has maintained residency there) and Katelin (who lives and works there full time) are planning to caucus tonight, so I hope they enjoy the evening and I look forward to hearing about it from them. The media army in Des Moines is largely based in the same building where Katelin works, so she’s getting to really see it all up close and personal. That’s an experience, if nothing else.

I wrote a lot about Iowa while I was there, with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s unique cultural habits and history. One of those articles — Iowa Geography: An Introduction — has recently gotten a bit of renewed online traction after Molly Ball of The Atlantic re-tweeted it a couple of time for her followers.

So in a spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few other articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why:

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon