Katelin, Marcia and I returned Sunday after a week in the (European) Low Countries of The Netherlands and Belgium. Marcia and I had visited Amsterdam and Brussels as part of an earlier trip, but this was Katelin’s first time in that part of the world. We decided to overnight in Amsterdam for the duration of our time there, then to day-trip by train a couple of times to get some additional destinations on the agenda. One day, we used the domestic train lines to visit Den Haag (fave new city), Gouda, and Utrecht. Another day, we took the high speed Thalys line to Antwerp in Belgium. It was a great mix of new and familiar for Marcia and I, and it was wonderful to have a week abroad with Katelin since we haven’t been able to do that often in recent years. Click the picture below to see our photo album for the trip. It was a good one, filled with lots of walks (71.1 miles in six days according to my Fitbit), plentiful museums (ten over the course of the week), and a special bonus moment when Katelin got to meet her favorite/spirit animal up close and personal at Artis, the Royal Zoo in Amsterdam.
1. Marcia and I purchased our first home computer nearly 25 years ago. Since then, I have been very good at maintaining and updating Die Maschinen, I always practice “Safe Surf,” and I am averse to technological change for change’s sake. This means I’ve managed to do everything I’ve ever done on computers at home while only owning three Maschinen. (That number could conceivably have only been two, actually, had not my spawn melted down Das Maschine Nummer Zwei accidentally during those awkward early teen years, enticed by the dangerous computer-eating wonders of the early social web). My current Das Maschine has been running like a champ since 2007, but Microsoft, Mozilla and others have announced that they are ending support and upgrades for its operating system (MS Vista), and I’m not willing to maintain an unsupported system for very long once that goes away. I researched updating the OS, but the economics of doing so didn’t make sense, so I finally succumbed and bought a new Das Maschine (Nummer Vier) last week. It arrived yesterday, and last night I went to break the news to Ol’ Yeller 9000 (Das Maschine Nummer Drei) that it was time for us to take a walk out behind the woodshed to talk about stuff, just the two of us. Things went downhill from there, though . . . negotiations are ongoing . . .
2. I had hoped and planned that 2017 would be a bit less travel-heavy for me than 2016 had been. Looking at my first quarter route map, I’m thinking this may not actually turn out to be the case:
3. My most recent trip was to Washington, DC, and Marcia accompanied me on this one. After my work was done, we stuck around for a couple of extra days, had some nice meals with old friends, and explored the city where we first met 30 years ago. While the iconic buildings and skyline remain mostly unchanged, the evolution of the city below that level was profound. When we lived there, for example, “14th Street and U” would have been the answer to the question: “Where do I get a hooker, a gun, some crack, or all of the above?” Now it’s a gentrifying neighborhood and the next “hot destination,” bridging quirky Adams Morgan and the ever-expanded heart of the downtown Mall area. Another example: I love me some Washington Capitals and Bullets, but I had no idea that their new (to me) arena was in the same general area where I used to go to amazing concerts through the 1980s at the very sketchy and smelly original 930 Club, at 930 F Street NW. We paid a pilgrimage to that site, where I once saw Butthole Surfers, Chuck Brown, Camper Van Beethoven, Fishbone, Black Flag, Root Boy Slim, Bad Brains, The Busboys, Minor Threat, Guadalcanal Diary, E.U., and so many others I can’t even remember anymore, and you know what we found? That we could now buy sweaters. Sigh . . .
4. On our last day in Washington, we decided to make a quick stop in to the new (to us) National Museum of African American History and Culture. There didn’t seem to be any lines, so we strolled up to the entrance as one does at most Smithsonian museums to just amble in, but the gentleman at the door explained that demand was so high that advance tickets were required, and there weren’t likely to be any available for the rest of that day, nor the day following. He offered some helpful tips on how to perhaps score a stray ticket or two, but it didn’t look like it was going to work, so I said “Thank you, sir, I appreciate your help.” As I was walking away, he said “Wait . . . are you a Veteran? You sound like a Veteran.” And I am, of course, as is Marcia, and so we were admitted under the museums Vets’ policy. Good manners and politeness pay off in unexpected ways. We only had an hour to explore, so we actually only got through one of five floors, but it was so amazing and so well curated and so exciting that we will definitely be going back again. The highlight of highlights for me? Turning a corner and seeing this unexpectedly . . .
If you have to ask, you’ll never know, blah blah blah, but if you want to understand the significance of this iconic object, then sit down right now, click the next link, and watch the late Glenn Goins Calling Down The Mothership.
5. We also went to the National Air and Space Museum and normally I’d be falling all over myself to tell you about the rockets and planes I saw there, but even John Glenn’s Friendship 7 pales next to the experience of seeing The Mothership. Other snaps from our trip (including the obligatory cherry blossoms and a visit to the exceptional FDR Monument) are at my Flickr site, which you can reach by clicking the picture of the space nerd below:
6. We were bopping around Washington on Friday as the healthcare vote debacle was unfolding, so it was interesting to see various helicopters and limousines racing back and forth between various key points in the city’s political infrastructure while the GOP did its best to punch itself in the face during its hot pursuit of political malfeasance. We both slept well that night, and let’s leave it at that, since I’m not intending to use my blog as political website, tempting as that may be. Besides, everything that really needs to be said about how things feel today in America is available in an extraordinary new video from Jed Davis and the mighty Hanslick Rebellion, linked below (language warning, NSFW):
I’ve been following Jed’s work since the ’90s, and have written about him many times here over the years. In short: I consider him to be one of America’s greatest songwriters, ever, and he’s got the instrumental chops, design skills, studio acumen, arrangement ear, and live charisma to make it all work in the studio, on the stage, in a box, with a fox, on a train, and even in the rain, in Spain. Get on over to his The Congregation of Vapors page now to discover what you’ve been missing all these years. It’s all genius, all the time, and the cast of characters who appear there with Jed (e.g. Chuck Rainey, Reeves Gabrels, Tony Levin, Anton Fig, Jerry Marotta, Avi Buffalo, Ralph Carney, Tommy Ramone, and many many many more more more) is mind-blowing in the extreme.
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: Airplanes — Chicago 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.
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!
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.
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:
The 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.
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
- 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
nightmareprocess. 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!