Trees As Inspiration

Note: Here’s my new “Leading Thoughts” article from TREE Press, the monthly newsletter of TREE Fund. If it inspires you not only to feats of creativity, but feats of generosity as well, you’ve still got 12 days to support my Tour des Trees ride campaign, here.

TREE Fund works hard throughout the year to raise money for tree research and education. Our usual pitch to donors can be generically boiled down to “more scientific knowledge leads to better management of urban forests, which then leads to a whole spectrum of benefits to people.” Because we are focused on practical applications of scientific knowledge, the human benefits we focus on in fundraising also tend to be the most practical, scientific ones, e.g. storm water, erosion and UV radiation mitigation, carbon sequestration, air quality, wind and sound barriers, etc. There are also a lot of economic benefits that we discuss, especially when making appeals to municipal or business leaders: increased property values and retail sales (along with increased tax revenues), attracting skilled workers, reducing property crime, etc.

We probably spend the least amount of time discussing the “soft” benefits of urban forests — inspiring creativity, building sense of community, providing gathering places, etc. — because they seem the furthest removed from the hard scientific research we fund. But on some plane, those “heart string” stories are the ones that motivate and connect people at the most deeply personal levels to the trees in their lives. A personal example: as a young(er) writer, long before I knew that urban forestry existed as a profession (never mind how to spell “arboriculture”), trees moved me deeply enough that I published a poetry chapbook called The Woods. It didn’t make me much money, nor did it win me any acclaim, but it felt good to write and share, as a tangible expression of how resonant and important trees and forests were to me.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched another delightful tree-inspired creative endeavor unfolding: Jimmy Shen, a professional botanic photographer based in east China, connected with me via the TREE Fund website to tell me about his book Ginkgo: The Living Fossil. Jimmy lives and works near the mountain homes of wild and native ginkgo biloba, and has spent decades exploring and capturing their beauty, history, folklore, science, and importance in Chinese and global culture. You can learn more about his work by clicking here – and then maybe reflect for a moment on the myriad intangible ways that your support for tree research and education may, several steps down the line and in unpredictable ways, inspire or empower someone else to create a beautiful, life-affirming work like Jimmy’s.

Click the cover of Jimmy’s book for a teaser of its first 100 pages.

South Side Century: Denied

Pro Tip: You can click the map to support my Tour des Trees ride!

I’m deep into training for this year’s Tour des Trees to benefit TREE Fund, our annual 500+ mile cycling event that raises funds and friends for the organization I lead. Marcia was attending a conference yesterday, so with a full, sunny, solo day at my disposal, I decided to get my first century ride (100+ miles) of the season done. Generally, when I want a longer ride in Chicago, I head south from our home near the Loop, and I try to stay away from the densely crowded Lake Shore trails, the “Hipster Highway” Milwaukee Avenue corridor, and/or various trail systems north of us that are popular with young couples pushing mega-strollers or pulling unpredictable little dogs along on their strings. I can log a lot of miles quickly with far fewer unplanned or unexpected stops when I ride into areas that are less apt to attract hordes of bike share tourists wobbling around taking selfies as they roll.

Of course, my approach to distance training means I log a lot of time and a lot of miles in South Chicago, which many (most?) of my Loop or North Chicago dwelling neighbors  are apt to immediately declare unsafe and unsound, given crime rates and other demographic factors there. (This same concern applies to and is voiced about West Chicago, which I also ride through if I am heading out toward my office in Naperville). That reaction frankly bothers me, a lot, and I really don’t want to be “that guy” who judges huge swaths of his home city as fundamentally bad without ever entering said parts of the city. I’m not stupid, obviously, and I understand risk calculation and have a good sense of self-awareness and self-preservation, so I keep alert to my surroundings, I don’t go into spaces or places where I could be easily isolated, and if my radar gives me a sense of “unsafe,” I move expeditiously onward, and I adapt my route the next time I’m in that neighborhood to avoid the area that made me uncomfortable. But I do that in the Loop and in Streeterville or River North too, or wherever I am. Common sense rules apply, always.

So at any rate, off I rolled yesterday, and as I have done before, I left the Lake Shore trail systems and cut west on Roosevelt north of Museum Campus and then headed south on Halsted, a quick-moving north-south arterial with good bike lanes in both directions. It was a quiet Sunday morning without much traffic, so I was able to get into and mostly through a good chunk of South Chicago pretty quickly. The map at the top of this article shows (most of) my ride for the day. Eagle eyed observers will note, though, that the green start marker (where I live) and the red finish marker (where I ended this route) are not the same place, and therein lies the heart of the day’s story.

Around mile 28, as I was heading back north and east after riding the Major Taylor Trail out to Whistler Woods and beyond, I hit a sharp pavement cut near the intersection of Vincennes and 103rd with my weigh squarely on my rear bike wheel, which immediately popped (likely a spoke pinch) and went flat. No worries, though, I am a well-prepared cyclist and I had both a spare tube and a patch kit with me, since I know that flats happen when you do a lot of city riding on rough pavement. I pulled over under a nice street tree in a grassy area across the street from Holy Zion Missionary Baptist Church, changed my tire, hydrated a bit, and rolled on.

I really like riding and exploring the weird industrial areas around the far southeast of Chicago, and on into northwestern Indiana. There are some gorgeous bodies of water, lots of parks, fishing, pleasant outdoors vistas abounding, though they are often located cheek-to-jowl with factories, or heavy loading facilities, or landfills, or huge high-speed highway systems. I spent a good chunk of the day yesterday in that area, then headed back up along the shoreline toward home. I purposefully rolled into and along the beaches of Calumet Park, Rainbow Beach Park, and the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, and it was just great to bask in the beautiful day there and people watch, as there were tons of folks out enjoying the weather. Calumet Park’s visitors were mostly Hispanic, Rainbow Beach’s were mostly black, and I liked being there with them all, and didn’t feel the least bit out of place as I cruised through and said “howdy” to other riders or folks on the trail, all of whom were just as friendly to me.

Around mile 80, I was pushing north on the Lake Shore Trail, and an annoying chilly headwind off the Lake was blowing in my face, so I decided to cut back across the city to Halsted again, and then take that back north toward home, doing whatever zig-zags I needed to do to push my mileage total over 100. I cut through Hyde Park and Washington Park, and cruised on West 51st under the large conglomeration of rail tracks west of the Dan Ryan Expressway. Just before I emerged into daylight again, though, I hit a pile of glass that was hidden in the shadows, and my back tire went flat again.

More of an annoyance this time than the first time, since it meant I had to patch, rather than just replacing, the tube. So I rolled up close to the intersection of Halsted and 51st, popped off the back tire, pulled the tube out and pumped it up, and heard/saw several punctures, larger than a simple patch would handle, never mind the slivers of glass that I could feel inside the actual tire, without needle-nose pliers to tweeze them out.

So phooey, there I was at Mile 86, and I figured the riding day was done. I turned off my bike computer, saved my ride (hence the different stop/start points in the map), went into the Citgo Station on the corner of 51st and Halsted, got some chips and a soda, chit-chatted with the folks hanging outside of the station, and called to get a cab home that could handle my bike.

All good. No worries. Everything’s still social and sociable, I’m still feeling fine about the multi-culti glory of Chicago and meeting folks where they are, as they are.

The cab dispatcher took my name and location and said she would post the pickup, and that a driver would call my cell phone when they accepted the fare. Still no problems; there was a bus shelter on the corner so I sat down in the shade and waited for my phone to ring. Which it didn’t. So I called the dispatcher again after 20 minutes or so, and she said she was on it, and a driver would call me soon, honest.

As I write this article 24 hours later, I still have not received that call from a driver.

Soooooo . . . cabs don’t readily go deep into the South Side. I guess I knew that. But, hey, I’m a regular Chicago CTA commuter, never afraid to get on a bus, so I decided I’d just catch the Number 8 line up Halsted to somewhere in the West Loop where cabs would be more common, then snag a ride home. I looked at my phone at 3:45 and it told me a bus going my way should be there at my stop at 3:48. Perfect!

Except . . . not. There was no sign of a bus until about 4:10, when I saw one rolling up from the South. I got up so I could quickly get my bike into the transporter rack, except the bus just rolled right past me: “Not in Service” the message board above the driver said.

Hmmm. That’s weird. Was there a service disruption? Weekend hours? Broken bus?  I figured I’d wait for the next scheduled one (30 minutes later) and see what happened.

A few minutes later, though, a large black car pulled up in front of me and the driver rolled down his window. “Oh, cool, the cab’s here,” I thought.

But then the driver stuck his out and said “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “I’ve got a flat bike tire, and I can’t get a cab, so I’m just waiting to catch a bus.”

“I think I should give you a lift out of here right now,” the driver said. “This is not a place where you should be standing for very long. I’m not sure if anyone would target you exactly, but I can tell you that bad things happen on this corner. It’s not a good place for you to stand and wait. Will you accept my ride?”

I realized by this point that I was speaking to an under-cover or off-duty Chicago Police Officer. Since I was planning to meet Marcia for an evening reception and had something of a hard time deadline, I accepted the Officer’s invite in the interest of moving on, tossed my bike in the trunk of his unmarked patrol car, and rolled north with him. He was considerate and somewhat apologetic as we chatted, noting that I looked so obviously out of place in that bus shelter that he knew something was awry, and also noting that he has responded to numerous “incidents” at that corner over the years. Since he presumed I wasn’t choosing to be there, he thought he should offer to help me move on. That’s all. No biggie. Glad to be of service.

He gave me a lift as far as the Halsted Orange Line Stop, where I could catch the El train into the Loop. I thanked him, sincerely, and pushed my bike toward the train station — upon the door of which was a big sign saying “Due to high volume Chicago Pride Day traffic, bikes are not permitted on our trains today. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

Goddammit!

Okay, next plan: I know that cyclists are friendly, helpful folks, as a breed. Whenever I see a bike on the side of the road, I always call out to see if the rider needs help, or a tool, or whatever. It’s just what you do. So I walked back to Halsted and turned North, clacking and clattering along in my bike cleats, hoping some cyclist might take pity upon me as I walked next to the bike lane.

Within five minutes, one did: a guy named Ray, who told me there was a bike shop south on Halsted (behind me now) that was open until 5:00, and that he had just come from there. It was about 4:40 now, so I thanked him and said I didn’t think I could make it there in time and that I’d just keep schlepping on toward home. So he rolled north away from me — but then rolled back a couple of minutes later and said a Southbound bus was coming, and he would ride up and tell it to hold at its next stop for a minute if I could quickly walk my bike up there to meet it.

And Ray did that. And the bus driver waited for me. And I told the bus driver where I was going and he actually made an interim stop so I could get into Blue City Cycles with about five minutes to spare before closing time. And they pulled the glass bits out of my tire, got me a new tube, and had me rolling again within about ten minutes.

I had to start a new ride on my bike computer, though, since I’d closed the old one out. I logged six more miles, bringing my total biked for the day to 92, having lost at least eight miles of measurable road time to bus and squad car rides. Dangit dangit dangit!! That’s like planning a marathon and quitting at mile 25. Doesn’t have the same bragging rights appeal or self-satisfaction elements, at all. Grrr.

Oh well. When it was done, I had a lovely evening with Marcia (it was our 29th wedding anniversary yesterday, which we had celebrated the night before at the sublime Topolombampo) and saw some good friends from Albany who were in town for the conference Marcia was attending. But as I went to bed last night and rode my bus and train to work this morning, I found myself reflecting on four takeaway points about my Denied Century Day:

1. It reminds me how nice and important it is that the Tour des Trees is a supported event; the riding days go quicker when you have friends on the road with you, and our Tour Director, Paul Wood of Black Bear Adventures has a great team behind him, so that in the case of a small incident like mine, or God forbid a bigger one, support is never far away on the route, with multiple vehicles and multiple teams ready to respond to riders when needed, never mind the great snack and lunch stops along the way.

2. It really hammered home for me one of the great social inequity issues in our City in terms of how difficult it is for folks in the South Side to depend on public transit or use cabs to get around, with the corollary factor that this makes it even harder for them to get good jobs outside of their immediate neighborhoods, no matter how much they want them, or how hard they work to secure them. We so take for granted our ubiquitous cabs, buses, trains and other instantly available forms of transit in the “nice” parts of the city. Not everyone in Chicago is that fortunate, though, and that’s both a shame and a structural failure of planning, economics and imagination, in terms of serving all of the city’s citizens, no matter where they live. We all deserve that, right?

3. The day made me more committed, not less, to riding smartly in the South Side. People were good to me. They were kind and pleasant. Nice things happened. I was not afraid. I had some enjoyable conversations and saw some interesting community sites, as I almost always do. I understand and appreciate the police officer stopping to check on me, though I know some folks might take umbrage with his actions or even my acceptance of his ride offer. But I think that our exchange was less indicative of any nefarious underlying racism, and more indicative of the fact that if other riders from “my” part of the city weren’t afraid of riding where I ride, then I wouldn’t have looked so obviously out of place to an officer who works that neighborhood on a daily basis. I hope that some day the area around the Citgo station on 52st and Halsted features more folks who look like me, or look different in different ways, on bikes, on foot, in cabs, whatever. We’ve got all sorts here in Chicago. The more we regularly interact comfortably together in all of our neighborhoods, the better off we’ll all be.

4. And finally, okay, I will carry multiple bike tubes with me from now on. In decades of riding, I’ve never needed more than one (plus the patch kit) in a single riding day, but now that those odds have finally broken against me, I’ll suck it up and add another one to my kit each day before I ride.

So, all in all, a good day with a good ending and some good lessons learned and some good things to think about.

But, dammmmmmmmnnnn . . . . 92 miles!!! CENTURY DENIED!!!! So close, and yet, no credit, son. Pack it up and try again. Do not pass go. Game over. You lose.

Oh well. I will likely ride three century days on the Tour des Trees itself this year, so if I don’t get any in before then, I’ll have no shortage of them once we make it to Ohio!

Oh No Man, I Haven’t Got The Time Time

A friend of mine died this week, too young, and too soon. He was a music nerd, cultural commentator and technology geek par excellence, and will be missed by many — in both virtual and real world spaces. He was a private soul in his personal life, so I’ll not mention his name here at this sensitive time out of respect for him and his loved ones, but I do want to publicly note his passing, and celebrate his life for those who come here and knew him.

We met in virtual space in early 1993 in the CompuServe RockNet Forum. He later launched and managed a series of online communities and websites under variations of the “Xnet2” moniker that survive to this day, with about ten folks from around the world having been connected in one way or another pretty continuously from ’93 to now. Others have also joined along the way. The community currently resides in a private group on Facebook, so when I left that social media platform, I ceased being actively engaged with them on a regular basis. I had assumed that, as has happened in the past, the group would eventually reconstitute somewhere else so that I could jump back in, but that’s apparently not to be at this point, alas.

My friend and I likely exchanged hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of written words over the years, both within the group and in private. He was always a good sounding board for me, and I tried to be the same for him. We only met in person a few times, relatively early in our relationship, when people were still figuring out what online friendships and virtual social networks were all about, so that “RLCOs” (real life conferences) seemed to be required events to cement those bonds. These days, I think most digital citizens understand those aren’t necessary, even though they’re fun when they happen. We saw Pere Ubu together once with other friends from virtual and real world spaces. That was a very good day.

My friend shared my penchant for seemingly pointless surrealist games, and was willing to create time-consuming silly things just because it was fun to do so. He and I and others in the group romped and stomped in little self-contained worlds in a variety of amusing (to us) ways and places over the years. One example: if you remember my “What Would Don and Walt Do?” page (offering random life tips from Steely Dan lyrics), I hatched the concept, but it was his programming skill that made it actually work. There was also an interactive dungeon. And a tree house. And other similarly goofy things.

We both later wrote and published novels: he inspired a character in mine, and I inspired a character in his. He recorded a great album, and I gladly wrote a press kit for it. He hosted and helped me design and maintain a variety of personal and work websites over the years, including early versions of this one. There was always lots of creative energy in the spaces between us. And some friction, I have to admit, as is to be expected over a 22-year relationship between two strong-willed, highly cerebral, opinionated, and sometimes touchy individuals. I’m glad and thankful that our last communications were positive ones. I just wish that there had been more such missives lately, but with all of the moves in my own life over the past year, I was unfortunately not the best correspondent.

The Xnet2 group that my friend organized and sustained did have a public face at some points in its history. Most people came to that portal via word of mouth from current members. Very occasionally, outsiders would join us cold, if the following “invite” on the ’90s version of the Xnet2 website didn’t scare them away:

This is the XNet2 antiSocial club.

XNet2 is dead. Long live XNet2.

If you’re interested, send an e-mail to [redacted] with “info xnet2” in the body of the message.

If you’re still interested after you do that, send e-mail to [redacted] with “subscribe xnet2” or “subscribe xnet2-digest” in the body of the message.

You’ll get the hairy eyeball from all of us if you do, so make sure you know what you’re doing, please and thanks.

Oh, yeah. It’s a community. Really. We don’t want a whole ton of people moving in. Just you. Maybe.

The SnotNet Collective

If that enticed you enough to investigate further, there was an Xnet2 Charter and an Xnet2 FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) List, both of which were randomly generated in real time from snippets and fragments that members of the group could create and save as the spirit moved us. The FAQ List grew to contain about 1,200 mostly absurd entries before SpamBots overwhelmed it and it was abandoned. I have the full list, and reading through it provides a wonderful remembrance of the creative and fun spirit of the group and the person who built and sustained it.

So in honor and memory of my friend and creative foil, I picked my Top Ten Xnet2 FAQ’s and I share them with you below. He wrote some, I wrote some, other people wrote some, and some we just stole. They make no sense, and yet they make all the sense in the world, depending on the lens through which you view them. Life’s like that, right?

#648 (5/18/2000):

Yes yes yes, it was a very, very interesting episode in Xnet2’s history: a crime drama with both philosophical and psychological overtones. During Japan’s 12th Century, a music critic and a programmer relate conflicting stories to a young woman known as “The Mistress of Light” as the group takes shelter in the Tricycles of Love. The different tales revolve around a trucker who has attacked a couple wandering through the woods, tying the husband up and forcing himself on the wife. The husband was found dead in the forest by the music critic, but what actually happened between these people is inconclusive. The trucker, the wife, the husband (through an Australian medium), and the music critic all present different and irreconcilable versions of the events in question to the authorities. The music critic and programmer are disturbed by the absence of an objective truth, but the young woman seems not to care. The three find an abandoned baby inside the Tricycles of Love, and the young woman steals some of the items left with the child and leaves. The programmer fears for the baby’s safety, but the music critic states he already has several children and offers to care for this one as well. Weird, huh???

#738 (12/14/2000):

Was the fire in a transformer box, the round garbage can looking thing with a couple of insulators and wires leading in and out? Did it drip anything cool on the ground? Did the neighbor’s cats lick it up and turn into Wizard of Oz flying monkeys before they died screaming?

#465 (10/8/1999):

Bambino fui merino, Bambino fui un puta.
Bambino fui asi asi, Bambino fui prosciutto.
Bambino pecorino, Bambino molto gnocchi.
Bambino-bino-bino fui un roll e roll e rochi.
— “Rock and Roll Genoese” by Xtobal Colon, 1492

#1004 (7/6/2004):

Employee X is a 52-year-old accountant and holds an MS in Accounting. He started working in New York City restaurants in 1992 and continues to enjoy the torture of restaurant employment. As a result of his restaurant experience, he is familiar with virtually every aspect of restaurant operations, as well having gained an insight into the minds of its owners, staff, customers and vendors. More importantly, Employee X’s dubious past gave him an inside peek into the brains of the freeloaders, ass-lickers/kickers and ecstasy club kids that have come to define a certain segment of the restaurant industry. Employee X chooses to hide behind a pseudonym out of an overwhelming respect for the Slavic mafia.

#147 (8/8/1998):

Mistuh Whatever is here tonight. He gonna git down tonight brother. He gonna git wid it.

#80 (7/8/1998):

It’s all in your head. We spent years trying to get it all out, but not the merest portion would come forth, no matter how we drilled.

#46 (1/6/1998):

Intuition just bein’ logic you ain’t quite figured out.

# 715 (9/17/2000):

Once upon a time there was this list, see? Almost like a regular internet mailing list, only . . . not. No real subject, no real raison d’etre, if ya know what I mean, just a bunch of folks who kinda sorta knew each other (“friends”) suddenly roped together into a chain gang, or a reality tv show, out in a still-unsettled frontier corner of cyberspace, where the people were a little . . . off, all of em, in their way. “Quirky.” “Eccentric.” A real esprit de corps, tho, if ya get my drift. Possessed of a sense of *PURPOSE*, but no idea [thankst gawd] what that purpose might be. Anyhoo, that list blowed up and reassembled itself a few times, one too many times, and the final blow-up was way nasty. All the folks were sitting in their booths, chowing down on Big Macs and Pronto Pups and soy burgers and sate and parathas, smirkin’ and snarlin’ and sneerin’, when all of a sudden a coupla heads exploded, just like that, squirting hair, teeth and eyeballs, and special sauces of various flavors [no vegemite, tho!] in a zillion directions, all on the plate glass window out by the jungle gym, on the uniform of the manager (whose own head had, not coincidentally, been one of the ones that exploded), on a few particularly surly customers (the Gary Glitter dude, in particular, got blown across the room and wound up in a barrel of peanut saus, and was ejected from the joint looking like a headless tub of goo who’d, uh, had an accident). Some of the folks who were there headed for the hills, some of em re-grouped and moved to Brighton, where they amuse themselves to this day sitting on benches, playing skittles and cribbage, occasionally staging three-legged races and such. And we, many of us, wound up here.

#311 (1/16/1999):

They are tuned into fighting and procreation, and as long as you ain’t humping along on your belly going bbrrrrup bbbrrrrup bbbrrrrruuuup they ignore you.

#49 (1/6/1998):

Whatever this is, this is NOT art.

1,000

WordPress tells me that this is the 1,000th post on J. Eric Smith Dot Com. Huttah!

I’m guessing that there aren’t a lot of solo blogs out there that hit this mark — though in reality, I’ve actually been far more prolific with my online writing than the post count here would indicate. This version of the blog compiles and consolidates a lot of earlier sites, and I deleted a lot of things along the way that I didn’t want to carry forward, or that I reserved offline after original publication for other purposes.

Here’s the tale of the tape: I have maintained an active online presence since 1993, launched a personal website in 1995, and blogged regularly since September 2000. The website you’re reading now is the fourth incarnation of my blog. The first served as a repository for over 750 reviews and feature articles I wrote in the ’90s for print clients, before most of them even had their own websites. The second version focused on creative writing projects, including a poem a day published in 2004; several articles went viral during this period, helping me to develop a very strong online brand. The third version provided an archive of professional posts written for commercial and academic purposes.

This current, fourth version of my online home consolidates all of these earlier pieces — professional and personal, entertainment and education, left brain and right brain, humorous and serious — dating back to 1995, and serves as my home for new writing of all flavors. It also incorporates pieces that I wrote for other blogs and websites, often under pseudonyms. I’m not telling you which ones they are and where they originally appeared, though. If you recognize them, a gold star for you. But then: Shhhh!

I’ve made some money on some of these items, and used others of them for professional and academic pursuits that had high return on time investment beyond initial compensation, but this website ultimately reflects the fact that writing is my primary hobby. It’s the thing I do to enjoyably fill spare time, some of which might truthfully be better spent doing other things, but such is the nature of creative compulsion. I enjoy scribbling, and I appreciate having a public forum to do it.

That being said, by being such a diligent, sometimes feverish hobbyist over the years, I have definitely made myself a far better and faster writer at work, and my ability to communicate via the written word is now the cornerstone of my marketability to employers and clients alike. So all things considered, I’m at peace with having freely shared a lot of my work online, minus one unfortunate foray into unpaid writing for a venal and unethical commercial website that ended poorly. We live and we learn.

If you’re new to my site and writing and want to know more, here are the ten posts that WordPress tells me are the most frequently viewed by my site’s visitors, excluding the front page and general information sections:

On Success, And Who Defines It

The Worst Rock Band Ever

Understanding Organizational Development

March of the Mellotrons: The Greatest Classic Prog Rock Album Ever

Top 20 Albums of 2014

Let’s Take It To The Stage: The Greatest Live Album Ever

How To Write A Record Review

Five Common Misconceptions About Nonprofits

I Like The Bee Gees

You Ain’t Got A Dog In That Fight

That’s an interesting (to me) combination of pieces covering a pretty broad spectrum of my writing subjects and styles, and I get why some of them are popular, though not so much with others. So as a supplement to the voice of the people with regard to my writing, here are ten additional pages that I personally would consider as contenders for the best 1.0% of the work archived here — recognizing that creative people are often the worst judges of their own work, and that if asked to recreate this list a year from now, it might look very different:

The Road to Anywhere

The Analog Kid Speaks

Compassionate Grounds

Rock And Roll Is Not Collective

Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

James Joyce Vs Breakfast

The Grease Group

Rulebound Rebellion: An Ethnography Of American Hardcore Music

Jefferson Water

Sweetman

So there’s 20 pieces for you to read or re-read, if you’d like to help me celebrate my 1,000 post milestone here by engaging with the back catalog. There’s also a pull-down menu at the right that allows you to trawl back through the archives to 1995, and the search bar is always an effective way to find what you’re looking for — or to surprise yourself by finding what you weren’t. And if you’ve got a favorite that I’ve not mentioned, let me know. I might have forgotten that it existed, and might enjoy re-reading it again!

Regardless of where you surf on from here today, thanks for reading and playing along all these years. It has been — and remains — fun to have a big online sandbox to play in, and I appreciate you all bringing your buckets and shovels over every now and then.

Mysteries of Chicago (Part One)

It has been about three months since Marcia moved to Chicago, with me following behind her a few weeks later. We then moved from temporary housing into our long-term apartment about a month ago, so we’re starting to feel settled in our work and residence, and are beginning to develop the routines and identify the favorites that make a place feel like home. We’re figuring the City out, and enjoying the experience.

That being said: there are still some things about Chicago that remain mysterious to us. Here are some of the early, obvious ones for us — though I am sure there will be many more to follow. Any help or perspective from long-time Chicagoan to get these things figured out, or are they actually mysterious to the natives too?

  1. Why do the streets in the Loop named after Presidents exclude Jefferson and favor John Quincy Adams’ place in the sequence over that of his father?
  2. Why is eating breakfast out such a big deal here, with people patiently waiting in line well over an hour for a pancake?
  3. Does the Purple Line really exist, and if so, why would anybody get on it?
  4. Why the obsession with caramel and cheese popcorn being mixed together, creating an end product that tastes like Captain Crunch with a yeast infection?
  5. Why do street lane lines appear to have been painted by a drunken random number generating robot?
  6. Why are pizzas made out of pie crust, and why are the toppings all out of order?
  7. Why is the City’s most famous, most trafficked downtown Avenue named after the state on the other side of the Lake? And for that matter, why is the Lake named after that place, too?
  8. Why is the per ounce price for meat at  Chicago Steak Houses similar to that of many precious metals?
  9. How did the Chicago political machine produce Chicago, while the Albany political machine produced Albany?
  10. Bicycles on the sidewalks? Really?
That's just wrong, Chicago.

That’s just wrong, Chicago.

Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

1. Lisbon: First day in Portugal, Marcia and I leave our hotel, heavily jet-lagged, for our first walk together in Iberia. Time to kill before we meet our new travel companions for dinner. Down the hill toward the historic central waterfront market, aimless, following gravity’s pull at each intersection. Turn a corner, and hear a sonic blast warm front of the most extraordinary pulsing rhythmic racket from somewhere unseen, ahead. Follow the noise: primal, pounding, pummeling rhythms of metal and hide, bestial, wild, attractive, audible id. Glimpse a parade line one block away, push through the crowd, turn another corner to confront a movable carnival feast of color and light and noise, winding its way to places unknown, primitive masks evoking ancient gods, rites, passions, dances, magic. We are suddenly part of something. We don’t know what. Mysteries make everything better.

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2. Rural Andalucia (I): Long bus ride into the country from Seville ends with a 30-minute jumble along a bumpy, twisted, dusty dirt road, winding between prickly pear cacti and olive trees, signs telling us this a private hunting preserve for the region’s richest residents. Arrive at a ranch where prize toros are raised for their final moments of public pain and posthumous glory in Spain’s finest bull fighting arenas. Greeted by Matias, an impossibly handsome young matador in training, dressed in traditional chaps, hat, coat, boots, his rock star dreams of arena triumph balanced by his efforts as a law student; he will succeed, one way or another. Pile into a wagon pulled by a tractor, Matias riding alongside on a fine grey horse, carrying a long spear, into the fields where eight choice bulls await their final journey in blissful, aggressive ignorance. Matias runs the bulls. He shows us the field where the cows and calves live, food atop a hill, water miles away in the valley, the long daily trips between the points of comfort keeping the animals healthy and lean. Matias demonstrates the matador’s moves in the ranch’s central show arena, manipulating the cape, frozen in handsome snapshots of equipoise, muscles clinched, a beautiful dancer in all but name. As he poses, Marcia whispers: I can has matador?

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3. Ronda: Ancient Roman mountaintop city atop a vast gorge, overlooking fields, groves, green, lush, history palpable in layers. Whitewashed walls protected long-ago citizens from plague, modern police cars protect today’s residents from parking violations, creating traffic jams as they tow vehicular offenders. Heat as a layer of clothing, worn atop shirts, hung from hats, sun haze and sweat. Leave a euro in a tiny church’s till as we pay our respects to the Holy Mother, and are rewarded with a carry-out prayer in the language of our choosing. Enter the bullfight arena at city center, wind through the shadowy concrete paths that the enraged beasts themselves follow to their final conflicts, past paintings and scrims explaining the rich cultural history of this most savage form of communal entertainment. Emerge from the dark tunnel into the ring itself, the paint of the walls mirroring the sun-yellow color of the sand. At the center, a lone figure stands with the distinctive long instrument of his trade, mere meters from his eternal foe. This is the place! Centuries of heritage unfold before us, as the mighty Caterpillador faces down the terrible Bobcat in all of its fury. Shivers. Heat haze. Herculito’s Final Task.

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4. Rural Andalucia (II): Another long bus ride into the country, Luis the driver navigating us safely through impossible straits and passes, no scrapes, no sweat: El Jefe del Autobus! Arrive at a beautiful family-owned vineyard overlooking a lush valley, ancient Ronda on the horizon’s hilltop. Greeted by Moises, one of the brothers who cares for the grapes and olives with which the family makes fine, organic wines and oils. Moises gestures down into the rows of grape vines, pointing out the fragrant lines of rosemary, thyme, tarragon nested within, designed to draw desirable bees and birds to combat the family’s greatest nemesis: the terrible tiny spiders. A palpable tremble as Moises utters that phrase. Shadows cross the sun. Dark birds take flight, croaking in horror. The Terrible Tiny Spiders! Terrible! Tiny! Spiders!!! We cannot see them, but we know they are there, waiting, patient, poised, eternal. Everywhere. Unseen. Always. This is the history of Spain: Ferdinand and Isabella unite their kingdoms to protect their people from Terrible Tiny Spiders; Franco died screaming amidst dreams of Terrible Tiny Spiders; the sultans of the Alhambra trembled within the embraces of their concubines as the Terrible Tiny Spiders swept through their gardens like poisonous smoke; there they are, there, there, crawling beneath the hooves of Guernica’s horses, battling the ants that infest Dali’s paintings, parachuting like Jesus from the spires of La Sagrada Familia, lurking in the corners of La Casa Del Bacalao. Terrible. Tiny. Spiders. We now understand Spain.

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5. Figueres: On the bus again, en route to the Theater Museum that the great Salvador Dali built to preserve his own legacy, in his own way. The skies are grey, mountains on the horizon evoke deja vu, Dali’s landscapes embedded in brain matter, known but not, silent but sensed. A palpable sense of personal pull, approaching the home and tomb of one of the greatest figures in my personal creative landscape, a man, a force, a presence who shaped the way I understand and process the world, how I see beauty, how I admire the muse, how my dream life invades my waking world, how I ask how, and why. Headphones are over my ears as we exit the highway, my iPod set to random play mode. “The Wheel” by Coil begins to play as we approach the museum, another very important touch point for me. Coil, like Dali, have long shaped the way I hear beauty, how I admire the creator, how my waking world invades my dream world, why I ask why, and how. The song begins with a tape recording of a ghost’s voice, a faint vocalization from the great beyond whispers to us from deep within tape hiss, then the drums, then the haunted, haunting lost voice of beautiful John Balance explains the world and all the things in it, and Sleazy is there, too, also calling from the places and spaces we who live have yet to experience, except in dreams. As the bus stops, these words linger: Oh, I was dragged here by an angel. Thank you.

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6. Barcelona: Last night in Spain, rain falling in torrents. Two people, one umbrella, in search of arroz negro, the traditional paella made with squid ink and langustinos. On Gaudi’s Avenue, Sagrada Familia at one end, Hospital of Saint Paul at the other. Slip into a small restaurant, take a table in the corner, order anchovy-stuffed olives, albondigas, arroz negro. A baby at a nearby table cries and can’t be comforted by an attentive mother. Somewhere behind, above, beyond us a strange noise arises, a series of shuffling clicks, or clicking shuffles, disconcerting, like something from a Japanese horror film, or one of the Alien movies. The mother continues to soothe the baby, but it is disconsolate. A large woman with a nearly-shaved head leaves the table near us and goes to the restroom, and she does not return. The clicks shuffle, perhaps in the heating ducts, or maybe just around the corner, where we cannot see the source? Wait! Perhaps the shuffles click from within the restroom! The large woman still does not return. Another man enters the restroom. He, too, is gone for the evening. The arroz negro arrives. We scrape it from its pan, and crack the little arachnids atop it with our teeth, sucking the sweet meat from within the hard carapaces, leaving little piles of claws and legs and tails on a plate between us. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. Now near. Now far. The baby weeps as the mother rocks her gently, trying to eat her own paella with one hand. We finish our meal and request la cuenta, the check. The waiter nods knowingly and walks away. We wait. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. No one emerges from the restroom. The check never comes. We wait. We do not dare use the restroom. What happened to the people inside it? Something scuttles across the room at periphery, just out of sight. Click. Shuffle. Click. Marcia leans across the table and says: The alien should eat the baby first.

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