Mopping Up: 2014 in Review

So here we are, December 31, 2014, the last day of the final year of my first half-century. How did it go?

I documented my life in 2014 publicly via 55 blog posts here and at Indie Moines — which I shut down in September, considering it to be a successfully-executed endeavor with nothing more to justify it as a standalone writing outlet for me. I quit Facebook in 2014, and became more active on Twitter. I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary in 2014, reaching a milestone where the days I have spent with Marcia in my life are now more numerous than the days I spent without her. I achieved the aggressive budget that I set for my work place, adding revenue, shrinking expenses, and expanding programs, all at the same time. I traveled to Europe, Florida, San Diego, Las Vegas, New York, Massachusetts, Death Valley, Missouri, Minnesota, Chicago, and Wisconsin, among other places, both within and beyond Iowa’s borders. I spent more time with Katelin in 2014 than in any recent year, too, which was delightful.

Big picture-wise, then, it was a pretty good year on a personal front. Great Jorb There, Universe! Much appreciated! But, of course, if you’re a regular reader of my various websites, then odds are that you’re not here for such macro, big picture stuff, but rather for the micro, list-making, obsessive, nerdy, spread-sheet fueled piffle and tripe in which I specialize. So let’s hurry up and get on with discussing that kind of stuff, shall we? Yes! Huttah!

There’s already been a good amount of list-nerding and spreadsheet-geekery going on here throughout 2014, as follows:

Goodness, that’s a lot of nerd stuff — and I didn’t even mention my large multi-attribute utility model designed to identify the best retirement city in America, or my two college basketball ranking models, or the analysis I used to win my second Fantasy Football title this year. Ahem.

Here, finally, are just a few more lists of the sorts of things I like to count, sort, and order as we prepare to greet 2015 on the morrow, hopefully without hangovers. Enjoy!

Favorite Books of 2014:

  • Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  • Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters
  • Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick
  • The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry by Lance Dodes
  • Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies by Lawrence Goldstone
  • The Big Midweek: Life Inside the Fall by Steve Hanley
  • Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany by David Stubbs
  • I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman

Favorite Movies of 2014:

  • Frank
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Snowpiercer
  • Under the Skin
  • Birdman
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Interstellar
  • Bad Words

Favorite Blogs:

  • Fifty-Two Weeks of the Fall (I’m obsessive about Mark E. Smith and The Fall, I’m a big fan of pointlessly-masochistic writing projects, and I appreciate honest music criticism without commercial taint. This website delivered on all accounts from the first to the last day of 2014. Bravo!)
  • Figuring. Shit. Out. (Amy Biancolli may well be one of the best writers I’ve ever read in any format: she’s funny, wise, prolific, thoughtful and candid about experiences that most of us cannot imagine, plus she has excellent taste in music and movies, and knows when to cuss and when not to. What’s not to love?)
  • Reyna Eisenstark (The writer used to blog at a certain newspaper that I don’t mention by name anymore, but I liked her prose and content enough to hold my nose at her surroundings, and just focus on her words, while she was there. In 2014, thankfully, she finally moved to her own page. Hooray!)
  • Cumbrian Sky (I first got hooked on Mars Stu when he began documenting Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s adventures on The Road to Endeavour in 2008. His writing style, sense of wonder, eclectic interests, and passion for astronomy — amateur and professional alike — are all brilliant and inspiring).
  • XKCD (Again. Still. Of course. Duh. Randall Munroe’s live coverage of Philae’s landing on Comet Cherry-Gerry was a high-water mark in the ways that science and entertainment can collide online, and that was just one of dozens of sublime moments this year).

Iowa Film Festival

Oh sure, someone says “Iowa Movies” and you think Field of Dreams (yuck) or The Music Man (snore) or The Bridges of Madison County (barf).  Believe it or not, though, there’s much more to Iowa’s great film heritage, if you know where to look at the discount video store. Here are a collection of classic Iowa film titles for your viewing pleasure, if you need a distraction to while away the days with your family and friends before the Hawkeyes’ big game in the Also-Has-A-Football-Team Bowl:

Days of Wine and Soybeans: Two average Iowans descend into the abyss after a weekend binge sampling spree at the Farmers Market.

Des Moines Alexanderplatz: A small-town petty thief is drawn into the seedy underworld of caucus politics in Iowa, where one plus one equals Romney, until it doesn’t.

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: The parking lot turns fast and furious as gas prices drop below $2.00 per gallon at Kum & Go. Grab a Dutch letter, while you can!

Gone With the Wind: Gritty documentary about Iowa’s turbine energy market after federal subsidies expire. In the end, no one gives a damn.

Hoop Dreams: Fran McCaffery tries to meet his potential as a big-time college coach, despite being severely temperamentally handicapped.

Iowapocalypse Now: Soldiers seek Colonel Ernst up-river after a Tea Party-fueled war on federal subsidies destroys Iowa’s economy.

The King of Comedy: Rupert Pupkin kidnaps a nutty Northwest Iowa Congressman to learn his kooky secrets and becomes a big FOX News star.

Loess Hills Cop: Axel Foley moves from Woodbine to Council Bluffs to solve the mysterious disappearance of his farm’s value.

Mean Streets: Johnny Boy has to navigate his way around the tough roads of Clive while the green belt bike path is closed.

My Left Feet: A tragicomedy about Iowa Democrats bumbling to overcome their incredible handicaps during the 2014 elections.

The Postman Always Rings Twice: Cora Smith almost misses her “TV Guide” delivery, but her diligent mail carrier saves the day.

She’s Gotta Have It: Nola Darling goes to the Iowa State Fair to find hot romance, then settles for a red velvet funnel cake on a stick instead.

The Taking of Earlham One Two Three: Ruffians hijack a combine in Madison County and threaten to knock down a silo.

Groundhog Confinement Day: Terry Branstad re-lives the same day as Iowa’s Governor over and over and over and over again until he gets it right.

Back to the Future VI: Marty McFlyover and Doc Browncamplofts drive a souped-up Chevy Tahoe to 1982 (again) to find a new/old governor (again). Again.

Bang the Drum Slowly: Surrealist gem about the Iowa State Cyclone marching band learning victory songs, which they never quite get to play.

Chuck & Terry & Steve & Joni: A comedic romp about a hip GOP foursome’s attempts to embrace truth, candor, and transparency. Hilarity ensues.

The Day the Earth Stood Still: Aliens invade Iowa demanding peace. The state forms several community task forces to evaluate options. Nothing happens.

Driving Mister Terry: Poignant tale about a patient state trooper tasked with transporting the Governor around the state at high speed.

Pigmalion: Henry Piggins turns Eliza Dubuquelittle into a real Iowa lady by teaching her how to castrate and slaughter her own hogs.

Quadrophenia: It’s casino workers vs Alcoa factory-hands in the Battle for Bettendorf, while Jimmy is stranded in Rock Island, reminiscing about Davenport.

The Thirty-Nine Steps: The power’s out at the Des Moines Civic Center. Will theater goers be able to make it back into the Skywalk alive?

Trainspotting: Des Moines young professionals attempt to make it from their lofts to the Court Avenue bars before their path is block by the daily freight train.

The Year of Living Dangerously: Guy Hamilton and Billy Kwan are trapped in the Des Moines Marriott bar without pretzels as the city descends into disarray on caucus day.

Yellow Subaru: Four mop-top musicians take a hallucinatory road trip around Des Moines’ East Village, with a stop at Zombie Burger for a Blue Meanie Martini.

Five Statements, Five Questions IV

Continuing where this, this, and this left off . . .

1. I’ve long been fascinated by the careers of musical brothers John (RIP) and Brian Glascock, who jointly or separately played bass and drums respectively with Mick Taylor, Greg Lake, The Gods and Toe Fat (Uriah Heep precursors), Carmen, Jethro Tull, Chicken Shack, Octopus (a Split Enz precursor), Captain Beyond, the Bee Gees, Iggy Pop and James Williamson, Joan Armatrading, Dolly Parton, and the Motels, among others. Who are some of your obscure/collectible musical heroes?

2. I love watching college sports, but if it were up to me, any college or university that pays its Athletic Director more than it pays it Chief Academic Officer should be required to compensate its student athletes as employees and should have its academic accreditation suspended until it corrects this mission-creep based discrepancy. Do you think the current college athletic model is fair and sustainable?

3. I would be very, very happy to never see another movie based on a comic book character, a board game, a theme park ride, or a toy — and also not to be subjected to previews, commercials, or marketing tie-ins related to such movies while trying to watch other movies based on things like, oh, I dunno, let’s say something crazy like books. Do I just have to stop watching movies?

4. Marcia and I will be traveling to Milwaukee to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and to Chicago to see YES this summer. What bands would you travel for, and how far would you go to see them?

5. The weather forecast in Des Moines today is for 70 degree temperatures, bright sun, and a gentle breeze. Is the Little Ice Age over in your hometown, or do you think this is just another tease?

Farrago

1. I’ve been thinking of ideas for a new writing series, having recently finished another mega-review piece, this time with helpers easing the load a bit. Even with assistance from Wilson and Goat, though, that “Great Out of the Gate” project took a lot of time and energy, which is good, but hard to duplicate on a regular basis. So I’m pondering the idea of a series called “Five by Five Books,” which will provide the structure I like, but force it into manageable pieces that don’t lend themselves to the 25,000-word essays that I’m prone to create if not regulated. Here’s the concept: I will write about books I love on some periodic basis, and will cover five facets about my experience with each book, with each facet being covered in five sentences. The framing facets for each book would be:

  • What it’s about.
  • Who wrote it.
  • When and where I read it.
  • Why I like it.
  • A five sentence sample text.

That appeals to my sense of tidiness and structure. Does it have any appeal to any of you as readers, or am I better off sticking to what you know me for (long-form music stuff) than trying a new trick as a old blog dog?

2. I take convenience stores seriously, as evidenced by bullet number two in this post about things I expected to miss when I left Albany. So it’s with no small sense of import that I am now prepared to report, after two and half years in Iowa, that I have declared Casey’s as the best convenience store chain our region, giving it my official Indie Moines Seal of Approval, with various huttahs and wavings of hands. The chain’s distinctive red-roofed stores have become my desired stops whenever I drive around the state, which is often, and I will often go from town to town to town while on the road to get to the one with a Casey’s on the main drag. I’m also happy to have one about four blocks from my house, for those quick convenience emergencies, like “Oh wow, we don’t have any wine,” or “Gosh, some Twizzlers would be good right now, wouldn’t they?” While Casey’s doesn’t have the awesome ice cream selections that my much-missed Stewart’s offered in Upstate New York, they generally offer surprisingly good pizza, great donuts, good coffee, generous sandwiches, reasonably priced gas (especially if you buy the Iowa-subsidized Ethanol-fortified strain), and sizable beer and wine selections, sometime with large walk-in coolers, even. Plus, I appreciate the fact that there are no embarrassing misspellings in the name of their stores, unlike all the other convenience destinations out here, e.g. Kum n’ Go, QuikTrip, Git n’ Go and their ilk. Literacy matters to me, even when I’m just running out to get some beer and beef jerky, you know? Think of the children.

Salamagundi

1. Marcia and I spent a week out in Las Vegas to celebrate the New Year. It was 60 to 70 degrees and sunny everyday, and we were able to balance the evening debauchery with occasional forays outside for brisk walks and (relatively) smoke free air. So returning home to Iowa just in time for the Polar Vortex Express was a bit of a downer, needless to say, although for the record: we’ve dealt with much, much worse during our years in Idaho and Upper Albania. Highlights of the trip for me included: our hotel (Vdara, a new one with no casino and no smoking, but connected by tunnels and trams to the rest of the strip via The Bellagio and Monte Carlo); seeing Fleetwood Mac play a three-plus hour set to close out their current tour (the boys in the band played hard, and Stevie Nicks sounded orders of magnitude better than she did when we saw them in ’97); and a day trip out to Death Valley, where we filmed the following little video. An (Acapulco) Gold Literary Star if you know what inspired it:

2. Des Moines has a lot of very good restaurants, since sitting at the heart of one of America’s richest agricultural states, the quality of local meat, produce and food preparation can be of exceptional breadth and quality. But there’s one thing that we’ve learned after two-plus years in this market: if you want a decent table at a decent restaurant at a decent hour and a decent price on Friday and Saturday nights, then you either have to be prepared to wait longer for it than we like, or you have to plan in advance and make reservations — though some of the city’s most popular restaurants refuse to even take reservations at peak hours on Friday and Saturday, since they’d rather have you sitting in the bar drinking for an hour while waiting for a table. We have had numerous bad experiences during our time here when we’ve ended up either sitting at crappy tables at marginal restaurants, or having to go to the most expensive restaurants in town, or otherwise settling for an inferior experience just because the Friday and Saturday night supply and demand curves seem all out of whack here, given the number of good restaurants and the population of the market. Personally, I think one of the most significant contributors to this phenomena is the anachronistic policy hereabouts where virtually all restaurants are closed on Sunday, with the exception of places that specialize in brunch. Weekend dinner demand gets smashed down from three nights into two nights of supply as a result, and I think this at least partially creates the bottlenecks that we experience Friday and Saturday evenings. (Of course, it could also just be that Iowans are naturally more patient than we are after nineteen years in New York, so nobody feels inconvenienced by this phenomenon but us). I know that Marcia, Katelin and I would certainly eat out a lot on Sunday nights if given more options, and I seriously doubt that we are alone. How about it, Des Moines restauranteurs? Do we really need to function like a culinary theocracy in the 21st Century?

Ten Statements

Refute, support, disregard, disparage?

1. Blasting a boom box from your bicycle or your golf cart on a quiet bike trail or the peaceful back nine makes you a selfish, contemptible jerk, wholly deserving of scorn, from everyone.

2. Modern American academia’s obsession with and approach to “group work” is absurd, as no “real world” manager will ever randomly pick six people from different departments in the company, not assign leadership within the group, task the members of the group with secretly evaluating the performance of the other members for management, and then expect them to deliver meaningful work product.

3. Living to be 96 years old in order to see Halley’s Comet again is a totally worthwhile aspiration.

4. If you only know the band Modern English for “I Melt With You,” then you are missing some really special stuff: their albums After the Snow and Ricochet Days are exceptional, beginning to end.

5. Just because you fight a giant doesn’t mean you get to win.

6. Abacab was the last great Genesis album release, because it was the last one that sounded played, not programmed.

7. The ideal of “citizen governance” is admirable, but in reality, there are certain skills that are required to fulfill the responsibilities of elective office, and if you lack them, it’s very hard to vote for you, no matter how earnest you are, or how much you love your grandchildren, or how much you like to volunteer at church socials, or how many trivia nights you won while a member of the local young professionals group.

8. Since Breaking Bad ended, Adventure Time is the best show on television, although the one-hour Metalocalypse special this weekend may well match it.

9. If the extraordinary Krautrock band Can were still active in 2013, they might come up with something as awesomely mekkanic as Che Guevara T-Shirt’s “Cop Show.”

10. Revive the dying vine, restore the ruling line . . . then contemplate the whims of fate, until the next decline.