Mengelmoes

1.  So after finishing my short-story project in 2016, and with anticipated travel being less than it was last year, I figured I’d be a better and more regular blogger in 2017 than I had been in recent months/years. But here I am in the second half of February with six trips completed or planning in the first two months of the year, and only one blog post to my name. Oh well. I suppose I can always claim quality in lieu of quantity.

2.  I wrapped up the new short stories with some older ones and submitted them for editing (both content and copy) to a professional colleague and friend from olden Metroland days. He did an excellent job (if you need an editor, holla, and I’ll hook you up), but of course his great and thorough work means that I now have a lot more work to do to address his corrections, suggestions, concerns, and critiques. As it should be, I note. I actually miss having independent review of my writing, since I think that lack of quality and editorial control has reduced the overall experience to be had and accurate information to be gleaned online, witness our current political and journalistic shambles for confirmation. When I am able to get through revisions, I know I will have a much better product in hand. I hope to be able to share it in one form or another before the end of the year. Watch this space.

3.  Two of this trips I’ve taken this year were more fun that work travel often can be, since Marcia accompanied me (or I accompanied her, in one case), and we went to warm weather regions during the depths of Chicago’s wintry season. First up was Arizona, where we spent most of our time in Scottsdale, with a day trip to Tucson. Second was my industry’s Winter Management Conference in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. As is the norm here, I’ve posted some snaps for those who care to see them: Puerto Rico Arizona. For the nerds and the locals, I’ve also updated these galleries: AirplanesChicago Winter.

4. Since I typically do my “Album Of The Year” reports in late November or early December each year, there are invariably albums that come out in the last month of the year, or that I don’t discover until it’s too late, that would have made my list had I waited until the very last minute and listened to all of the things, all of them. At this point, my 2016 list is still looking pretty good to me, with only one glaring miss: Kubla Khan by Golden Suits.  A (mostly) solo project by Fred Nicolaus, whose sublime work with Department of Eagles still wins regular spins hereabouts, Kubla Khan is a delightfully engaging and enjoyable record, blending smart narratives and sweet melodies and creative arrangements into a very pleasing whole. My outsiders’ view of Department of Eagles’ inside workings has been that Nicolaus’ musical partner Daniel Rossen provided more of traditional singer-songwriter touches (largely based on his work with Grizzly Bear and solo), while Nicolaus provided more of the wildcard and arrangement touches. To some extent, I base this view on the fact that I like the slightly-weirder Department of Eagles more than I like the slightly-more-accessible Grizzly Bear, so if Nicolaus is in the former and not in the latter, then he’s likely the difference maker. That may be be so (or may not be), but Nicolaus proves here that he’s got formidable singer-songwriting chops of his own, and I’m glad to be able to hear his voice (literal and figurative) here, after many years of only listening to Rossen and Nicolaus working together. While it probably wouldn’t have challenged David Bowie or Chance the Rapper for the tip-top of my musical pile in 2016, Kubla Khan  is a solid Top Five album of the Year for me, so I regret that I didn’t get to it in time to properly acknowledge it with its peers at the time.

5. I will be riding in my third STIHL Tour des Trees from July 30 to August 5. We will be in the Washington, DC metro area this year, with a stop in Annapolis to see Ye Olde Navy Yard, hooray! The route will be a little over 500 miles this year, with a mix of urban and rural riding. All funds raised by riders (me included) go to support research and education programs to benefit our urban forests and the professionals who care for them. You can support my campaign now, with my deepest gratitude or I can bother you later on in the year with a personal request that’s harder for you to evade. Just saying. Here’s my rider page, and I’d seriously appreciate your support there, all kidding aside. It’s a good event for a good cause with good people. Can’t do better than that, really.

The Iceland Report

We’re happily back home in Chicago again, though it’s colder here today than it was in Iceland, just for the record. Of course, we have a bit more daylight in which to appreciate  the cold, so I suppose that’s a reasonable trade.

I’ve put my usual photo album documenting the trip up at my Flickr site, if you’re interested in giving it a look-see: Icelandic New Year. Also ten quick thoughts, observations, or stray neuron firings, all of which are supported by photographic evidence in the linked Flickr gallery.

1. We did see the Northern Lights on this trip, and they were impressive, as expected. But we also saw something in the heavens that I didn’t expect, when our Northern Icelandic guide pointed out a pair of “glitský” scuttling across the sky one morning. He translated the word as “glitter cloud,” which was apt, though I now know they are actually called stratospheric or nacreous clouds. Like so many things in the sky, it’s hard to take their pictures, but imagine a line of luminous, rainbow colored UFOs passing overhead, leaving wakes in the blue sky behind them, and you’ll get the general gist.

2. Speaking of our Northern Icelandic guide, his name was Gísli, he was a fantastic companion, and he had the best hyphenated job listing I’ve ever heard: Farmer-Guide-Viking-Opera Singer-Classic Car Collector. Our Southern Icelandic Guide, Arne, was a Photographer-Designer-Guide. Multiple jobs are big in Iceland, which I like, as a Professional CEO-Writer-Critic-Crank-Gadabout.

3. I’ve already written about the New Year’s Eve Fireworks. They still blow my mind. And eardrums. Totally awesome.

4. We got our metal on with a visit to Dimmuborgir. If you have to ask, then you’ll never know. Brutal!!!

5. My favorite tasty thing on the trip was smoked arctic char on buttered lava bread. I ate it at a restaurant near Lake Mývatn that doubled as a cow barn. They also sold an Icelandic chocolate there that has the best brand name I’ve heard in recent memory: OMNOM. My other new taste sensation is a non-alcoholic drink that’s only consumed during the Icelandic Christmas season (which lasts 13 days): it’s a mixture of two independently bottled beverages called Malt og Appelsín. It’s sort of like a combo of beer, chocolate, and orange. Better than it sounds, honest.

6. As I usually do, I visited record shops to score some real local musical flavor of the variety I’m not likely to find easily in the States. I came home with six CD’s ranging from ambient jazz through to extreme pagan metal. Initial favorites after first pass are Önnur Mósebók by Moses Hightower, and Börn Loka by Skálmöld, though there’s not a dud in the bunch I acquired.

7. I don’t watch Game of Thrones, but we visited a cave that Gísli informed us featured heavily in the story line as “the love cave.” We also visited a couple of other scenes from that show, and when we were watching the last Star Trek movie on the plane on the way home, we were informed that several scenes from that were also filmed in Iceland. I guess it’s just the place to go for alien arctic landscapes.

8. Arriving just after the winter solstice, we knew we’d experience limited daylight, but it honestly wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Sunrise was around 11:30, sunset was around 3:30, and the dawn and dusk periods were long, so you actually had a reasonable amount of time to process Vitamin D.

9. During the widely hyped 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky  duel in the World Chess Championship, Fischer stayed at the S-Room Presidential Suite at Hotel Loftleider in Reykjavik. I remember eagerly following those matches as a kid, and playing chess more then than I probably have in any year since. Fast forward 40+ years, and the old Loftleidir has been acquired by Icelandair as part of its country-wide chain of hotels. it is now named Hotel Reykjavik Natura, and we stayed there for the two nights that we were in the capital city. I was rambling about exploring as I do, and I was tickled to come upon a nice little exhibition dedicated to the matches and (more specifically) Fischer. He was something of a tragic case with some noxious beliefs, but Iceland did open its heart to him and provide him sanctuary as a citizen for his final years, and you see a lot of “Bobby Fischer ate here” type recognition around the town. He’s actually buried in a tiny church yard on the south of the island, if you’re a chess nerd and want to make a pilgrimage.

10. When we were in Iceland in 2010, the harbor area was torn up as a new performance art center was under construction. We were pleased to see the final results this trip: Harpa. It’s architecturally striking, and we had a very good meal (fish soup for me, yum!) and saw a nice classical music show on New Year’s Day there. A good way to greet the year, peaceful and quiet after the fireworks carnage of the night before!

2017

Marcia and I greeted 2017 in Reykjavik, watching the Icelanders absolutely lose their collective minds in an orgy of pyrotechnics and bonfires. Never mind some city sponsored “shows” staged by a fireworks company — in Iceland, it’s every man, woman and child for him/herself, with all the explosives you can afford and carry. My ears are still ringing and I still smell like gunpowder as I enjoy the first coffee of 2017. Now that is a celebration. More words and pics to follow when we get home, and I am posting these from my phone so I can’t really attest to their quality, but here’s a tiny taste of what it looked and felt like.

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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!

Goedjies

1. I accepted my current position as President and Chief Executive Officer of  TREE Fund on July 9, 2015, receiving the offer by phone as Marcia and I were driving back to Des Moines from Chicago during our final pre-move-in trip. I actually started the job on August 24, 2015, so this time last year was a period of high churn, as we closed out one household and opened another. It’s been an eventful year since then, with a lot of unexpected twists and turns and challenges and opportunities along the way. At bottom line, though, I can say that I feel more of a sense of place in Chicago after twelve months than I ever did in Iowa — even though both Marcia and I spend far more time traveling away from our home here than we ever have in prior jobs. As much as we’ve done here over the past year, I still feel that we’ve just scratched the surface of what our home base city has to offer, so I look forward to many more years of exploring it with Marcia and the various family members and guests who come to visit us.

2. Speaking of TREE Fund, and as a reminder for (or invite to) those readers here who are generously inclined to support the causes that I support: in three months, I will be riding my (new!) bike about 600 miles around my native Carolinas to raise funds for urban forestry and arboriculture research as part of the STIHL Tour des Trees. You can help support the good cause (and me!) by donating at my rider page. And if you choose to do so, and you put “Restricted to UARF” in your comment field to me, then we will get a 50% match on top of your gift from Pacific Gas & Electric Company to support utility arboriculture research. Go ahead. Click the link. I’ll stay here and wait for you, while showing you this nice book as inpiration . . .

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3. And also speaking of Chicago, I’d done a couple of photo summaries inline here in the blog during our first six months here, and recently set up an album of my favorite snaps from the second six months, here. I continue to be perpetually pleased and surprised at the vistas and vignettes that the city sets before me. It feels like home, at bottom line. And that feels good!

A Tuscan Treat

Marcia and I returned have just returned from a ten day trip to Italy, booked and built around the “Tuscan Treat” package offered by Back-Roads Touring, a London-based company specializing in small group tours. Here’s the itinerary, and we added an extra night at the front and back ends in Florence. We had done a similar small group tour last year to Spain and Portugal with a different provider, and had a great experience, so came into this trip with high expectations.

I’m delighted to report that the actual experience was even better than what we had hoped for. We had an utterly delightful group of travel companions, all of them from Australia or New Zealand, so it was a wonderful extra cultural exchange bonus to be able to spend time and break bread and experience Tuscany with all of them. Thank you Beth, Alison, Judith, Sue, Bill, Kerrie, Greg, Max, Robin, Karen,Di, Glen and all three Johns for your delightful warmth and companionship and perspective. We enjoyed our time together very much, and hope that our paths will cross again.

Our guide, Luis Cardoso, is a native of Portugal and long-time resident of the United Kingdom, and he was also a wonderful traveling companion and facilitator of group cohesion and spirit, with good humor and great tales and perspective about what we experienced. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” he noted several times, and as a writer and storyteller myself, I couldn’t be more fond of that philosophy. I would be very, very happy to tour with Luis again, so I’ll be monitoring the Back Roads Touring schedule next summer to see what he’s up to, and whether we might be able to go along for the ride. So thanks to you too, Luis: you are a gentleman and a scholar and jolly good guide.

As is often the case on trips like this one, the things that we like the most are unseen and unexpected in advance of the journey. My favorite stops were Pienza, Lucca and Volterra, none of which I’d known anything about before we booked this trip; we saw a wonderful, intimate opera performance in Lucca, had one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in Volterra, and just relaxed and absorbed the beauty of Pienza. We had a great time in Siena learning about their legendary historic Palio, and I have decided to root for the Bruco (Caterpillar) contrade in future runnings of this spectacle. We stayed for a couple of days at a wonderful villa next door (the term is relative) to Sting and Trudie Styler’s place in Chianti, and we visited the Cinque Terre, which my sister cites as her favorite place in the world. I could see why.

As always, I merrily snapped photos along the way, and you can click the sample photo below to see the rest of them. I was going to cull and sort and organize and order and explain them all, but I am actually just enjoying experiencing them as a big bloc of imagery jumbled all together, aptly capturing the overwhelming sensory experience of spending time in this magical, historic, alluring part of the world.

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