Words in the Distance

1. My civic duty as a juror continues. Two weeks down, hopefully one more week to go. I can’t say much more than that here, now, but will advise and report further once the whole thing’s run its course.

2. I’ve written at length over the years here about my love for King Crimson. Related to that: the general consensus is that the recently-concluded Crimson tour is the end of the road for the group as a live entity. Also, general consensus is that their song “Starless” is one of their best and most emblematic songs ever. Marcia and I have seen the current (final?) version of Crimson three times, and “Starless” is one of only a few songs that they played at every show. The official King Crimson website posted an update this week titled “The Last Starless,” a pro-shot video from the last show of the last tour in Japan. It’s outstanding, it seems to affirm that this is the end of the road, and I most heartily recommend it to you:

3. I’m saddened, horrified, annoyed, and appalled by the news associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week, and I wish Vladimir Putin as much karmic ill will as I can muster. But as a trained political scientist, I’ve also been irritated by some of the major media coverage I’ve read about the historical basis for this current invasion, and about the cultural and political relationships between the Russians and the Ukrainians. (Never mind the narrative that finds a majority of members of the modern Republican Party having a higher opinion of Putin than they have of our own President, ugh!) Whenever matters of Russian import emerge online or in conversation, I routinely cite one of the very best books that I’ve ever read on that topic, so today seems to be a good day to share that recommendation again, for Nicholas Riasonovsky’s A History of Russia. The version I have was written before the fall of the Soviet Union, so it’s not a valuable resource in terms of understanding the latest era(s), but it’s utterly brilliant in terms of explaining and documenting the deep, long, potent, and (to American eyes and minds) weird history of the people who “emerged from the Pripet Marshes,” and who first made their mark on a continental scene as a nation known as Kievan Rus. That history certainly does not justify Putin over-turning nearly eight decades’ worth of continental stability, but I think it does explain why he thinks that his current actions make sense through the lens of deep history.

4. Speaking of history, after waiting for a few last images and photo clearances, I uploaded to the publisher’s site the final manuscript and supporting files for the book I’ve been working on for the past year, along with my collaborator, Jim McNeal.  Very satisfying to see it fly away through the ether. We’ll have to review and edit the type-set layout when it’s ready, and I’ll have to prepare an index once the final pagination is complete, but after that, it’s just a matter of meeting production and publishing schedules before it’s ready to land in your hands, should you be interested in it. I will advise further here when I have news. Because of course I will.

5. During my drive home from jury duty yesterday (63 miles from my home per item #2 here, bleh!), my iPod randomizer queued up the songs “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” by Ten Years After, followed by “Hocus Pocus (Reprise)” (Live) by Focus. It occurred to me that I first heard both of those songs when I checked out their source albums (Cricklewood Green and At the Rainbow, respectively) from the lending library at Nassau Community College on Long Island’s Mitchel Field, sometime in the late 1970s. And that got me to thinking what a deeply important resource that was to me between 1976 and 1980, when I was still in middle/high school, but because of my base residency, had access to the college’s stacks and shelves. I first borrowed and read The Gormenghast Trilogy there, along with a variety of other seminal tomes in my intellectual development. I would generally go to the magazine room at least once a week to read the latest Billboard or Rolling Stone editions, getting tuned into what was happening in real time in the music world, beyond what I could readily access via local record stores and trips into New York City at the height of the CBGB era. So many things that still mean so much to me today first crossed my horizons via my many visits to that great lending library. And, therefore, to wrap up this post, I share a “Five Songs You Need to Hear” sequence, celebrating representative cuts from a quintet of albums that all appear of my Top 200 Albums of All Time list, and which I first heard courtesy of the librarians at Nassau Community College.

“50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” by Ten Years After

“Hocus Pocus (Reprise),” by Focus

“Bitches Crystal,” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

“I Just Want to See His Face,” by The Rolling Stones

“African Night Flight,” by David Bowie

Something or Nothing

1. As if all the whithering here wasn’t bad enough in terms of website productivity, my free writing time has been dramatically curtailed after I was seated on a jury earlier this week. I can’t say anything about that situation other than (1) I’m on a jury, and (2) I’m likely to be on a jury until March 4th. So if I’m slower than usual to reply to anything sent my way, here or elsewhere, that’s likely why.

2. Some years back, I wrote a piece here called A Modest Proposal: Halve the Full Grassley. The gist of the narrative was that my then-home State of Iowa had way too many counties (99) given its population and its geographic size, and that since county seats don’t need to be closer than one day’s ride (round trip) by horseback in these our modern times, culling that unruly map would be a great boon to the State. Reader and cartographer Liz Cruz actually took me up on my request to draw a more sensible map, and I shared her brilliant work here. Tragically, Iowa’s elected leaders have not acted on her sound recommendation. I guess that’s understandable, given how busy they’ve been in recent years empowering authoritarians and dehumanizing meat-plant workers and poisoning the drinking water and trying to make people sick in the name of freedoms and liberties and such. That’s hard work, for sure!

Anyway, I bring this up today because, interestingly enough, I now find myself living in the State of Arizona, which has exactly the opposite problem. Among the Lower 48 States (and excluding the District of Columbia), Arizona is the fifth largest state by area and the 14th largest state by population. But we have only 15 counties! That gives us the highest average county area in the Lower 48, by a long-shot, and the third highest average county population (trailing only California and Massachusetts). My jury duty highlights the challenges this creates: I have a 63 mile one-way drive every day to my county seat. Others in other parts of the state likely have even longer drives. My initial reaction to that situation was to say “A-ha! Time for Another Modest Proposal: Double the Full Goldwater!” But then I read about this immodest and immoral proposal, this week, in the real world. Which makes it clear that such county subdivisions in Arizona would be used to advance partisan electoral outcomes via carefully gerrymandering county lines, and that those currently empowered to enact such proposals would do so to advance mostly loathsome (to me) social and political objectives. So I guess in this case, I just conclude “It is what it is,” suck it up, and drive a long way to do county business, thankful that I don’t have to use a horse.

3. I have had an interesting view on my way to jury duty over the past two mornings, with a nearly full moon setting by daylight right over the roadway before me. Phone cameras do terrible jobs of capturing the moon, as most know from frustrated experience, but this is the general gist of the view, as best I could capture it . . . it’s quite mesmerizing in real time . . .

4. And then, what’s this?

The blue binder at the bottom of the pile is the complete manuscript of the book I’ve been writing with a collaborator over the past year. We are awaiting one additional photo, and I expect to be able to upload all of the materials to the publisher this weekend for editing, type-setting and layout. Exciting! The two black folders are two other book length manuscripts that I’ve written over recent years, one short fiction, one a philosophical treatise. Once the current book flies away (and jury duty ends), I’m going to get to work on trying to place those other two pieces with a publisher. If anyone has any good leads on publishing houses or creative representation, you know where to holla, even if I’m slow to respond due to my duly-sworn duties as a law-abiding citizen of my County, State and Nation.

5. I wrote an obituary for Pat Fish (The Jazz Butcher) a couple of months back after his untimely death from cancer. Just after he flew away from us, a tremendous career-spanning compilation of his work called Dr Cholmondely Repents came out, and it was a bittersweet joy to hear so many great singles and B-sides and “seasides” (as he dubbed the deeper cuts) from years long gone. Last week, the Butcher’s final studio efforts were released as a new album called The Highest in the Land. It is also a bittersweet joy, a lovely collection of songs played and sung well by Butch and a crew of long-time collaborators, most notably the great Max Eider. I highly recommend the new studio disc and the career-spanning retrospective for your consideration. There’s brilliance there, by the bucketfuls.

Whither?

(Warning: There is blogging about blogging text ahead, one of the most dire and cliched and tedious tropes across the entire Internet, easily, hands down. Proceed at your own risk).

As I noted in my 2021 and 2020 Year in Review articles, I’ve been quite profligate here at Ye Olde Blogge over the past 24 months, in large part because of Anno Virum lifestyle choices that have found me sitting in front of my computer far more regularly than I had expected to, after I retired from full-time work in late 2019. It was nice to see that my increased attention to this web-space actually resulted in increased traffic flow, so my efforts, such as they were, did seem to entice readers, new and long-standing alike, to visit this place more than they had in prior years. Thanks to you who are reading this accordingly, whether you’re old virtual friends or new ones. I appreciate you. Truly.

I have mentioned recently that I spent most of 2021 working on a book, which will be headed off the publisher next Monday, once my collaborator and I finish up with final photo placements and ancillary documentation of our research. Having finished that big, non-web, project, it would seem that I would, could, and should have more time and energy to dedicate to this website, but as January squeaks into its final week, I find myself a bit befuddled about where I want to go here in 2022, and what I want to write here, and why. For the past few years, I’ve had several ongoing series that have engaged me, and have seemed to work for my readers, too. There were two periodical recurring articles related to my favorite musical artists (see here and here for summaries on those), and before I got going on those, I spent a year working on my Credidero series. I found all of those projects enjoyable. Until I didn’t.

From my original list of favorite artists to be documented in my 2021 series, I still had about ten entries remaining to cover, and expected to address them in 2022. But I find myself not being terribly excited at this point by writing more of those pieces (as much as I love, and apologize to, the artists that I did not get to gush about soon enough), so at this point, I think I’m going to put that series to bed. Having finished the long non-fiction book project, I also find myself not really being engaged by the idea of returning to poetry or short story series (both of which have worked well here in the past), even though I’ll likely have more free time available to me by virtue of not having commitments related to the bigger book project. Weird psychology at work there, as having more time to write whatever I want somehow seems to be making me feel less like writing whatever I want. Go figger.

I suppose I will continue to pump out occasional entries in my ongoing 10,000 Words and With Which I Am Well Pleased series, though neither of those is particularly verbal in terms of actual added-value commentary, so they don’t really count as meaningful writing in any meaningful ways. And beyond that . . . I’m just not sure what 2022 could or should bring here. I might have a lightning-bolt “a-ha” moment at some point soon that will frame some thrilling (?) new series, or I may muddle along waiting for inspiration to hit, just reacting to things has they happen around me. I guess at bottom line, I’m not feeling deeply committed to providing loads of content here for the foreseeable future, with apologies to those who have been getting regular fixes of my piffle and tripe in recent years, as I’ve tried to maintain sanity and fill time during various lock-downs and hunkers associated with the raging pandemic.

Maybe it’s a positive sign that I’m not feeling as deeply committed to writing a lot here, as it could be my subconscious finally accepting that there’s an end in sight to our current virus-dictated cultural malaise. Or maybe it’s a negative sign, in that I just give up, braj, and don’t have it in me to continue providing content to all you other folks who are hunkering in your own bunkers, desperate for entertainment. Or maybe it’s neither of those things, and this is just one of those occasional lulls here that I’ve been through countless times in the past since launching the earliest version of this website around 1995.

We’ll see. I welcome suggestions or feedback, as always, if you’ve missed or want to see something in particular here, as I consider “Whither the Website?” Lest this post feel like a complete navel-gazing waste of time to me, I’m going to turn it into a Five Songs You Need To Hear series entry, with the following five cuts from my catalog all exploring the concept of “whither?” More to follow as the year goes on, but maybe less than what has preceded in years past . . . .

#1. “Whither Goest the Waitress,” by The Weasels

#2. “Whither? Hither,” by Shrunken Head

#3. “Whither Thou Goest,” by Les Paul and Mary Ford

#4. “Whither the Starling,” by Walt Kelly and Norman Monath, featuring Mike Stewart

#5. “Whence to Whither,” by Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizon Ensemble

2021: Year in Review

With Christmas behind us and a road-trip to California on the horizon this week, it seems like a good day to sit and settle up the scores for 2021 here at my website, as I normally do at this time each year, plus or minus a few days. Unless I get ambitious, or someone I care about deeply passes away soon, this will likely be the final post of the year, for better and/or for worse.

ON THE BLOG:

In 2020, I surprised myself by publishing 147 posts, the most I’d done since the Poem-A-Day Project in 2004. Retiring from full-time work certainly gave me more time to write, as did COVID-driven cancellations of planned travel, and the need to fill socially isolated time in some satisfying and/or productive fashions. Traffic was robust in 2020, too, with other similarly isolated folks seeking to fill their own suddenly-surplus time online, a trend which I explored more fully (and made future forecasts regarding) in my Coronablogus post last month. For 2021, this post is Number 120, marking about a 20% decrease over last year’s rate of production, in terms of actual new entries on the site. But even with that smaller number of entries, the overall site readership trend was positive, as shown below. (Actual numbers are  edited out, as it’s tacky to share them, and the trend line is what matters; the light-blue pipes are total unique page visits, the dark-blue pipes are total unique visitors, so both grew in 2021):

I’ve owned this domain since the mid-1990s, but prior to 2015, I split my writing between a variety of sites with a variety of hosts, so there’s no easily meaningful visual comparison to make from those times. But at bottom line, the last two years have been quite good ones here, from both audience-engagement and writer-productivity standpoints, things that I most certainly would not have predicted in 2019. Of the 120 original posts this year, 57 were part of the second Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists series, which seems to be popular. I was originally thinking I’d carry it on into 2022, but after a few weeks off, I think it has run its course, and I’m going to put it to bed, for now.

As I report each year, here are the baker’s dozen most-read articles among the 120 new posts here over the past twelve months. It’s probably indicative of the fact that both my readers and I are (mostly) folks of a certain age that obituary-type posts fill such a sizable portion of the most-read roster. Our long-time heroes are leaving us, even as we contemplate our own collective mortality, especially during this, our Anno Virum. On the flip-side, I would note that two of the most life-affirming events for Marcia and I this year (our daughter’s wedding and our adventure in Grand Canyon) also made the Top 13, so it’s good that nice news appeals sometimes as well. Then there’s the odd dichotomy of having had a bit of life-affirmation by returning to our first in-person musical performance since COVID hit us, then seeing one of the artists who sang for us passing away mere weeks later. Both of those reports make the Top 13 below, as do four of the “Favorite Songs” entries. So there’s a bit of everything, tone-wise, which I suppose is just fine and dandy:

And then here are the baker’s dozen posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2021. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on the earliest version of this website. (Note that I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Once again, here’s hoping that people realize that the perennially-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke, and also, once again, it continues to befuddle me, as always, why my 1999 interview with relatively-obscure guitarist Dave Boquist appears on this “most-read” chart almost every year, receiving far more hits, continually, than my many other interviews with many other far more famous artists. Go figger . . .

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

See this earlier post: Best of My Web 2021

TRAVEL:

We will see 2021 off, God willing and the creek don’t rise, from a condo in San Clemente, California, where we’re headed this week for a winter getaway. After years of somewhat absurd levels of travel, 2021 was quite benign for us: we only spent time in six states, as opposed to the 20+ I’ve experienced for much of the past decade. As I looked at my annual travel map, below, (I’ve pre-filled in our trip to San Clemente, with a planned stop at Joshua Tree National Park), it occurred to me (initially) that this was the first year in my entire life where I never spent any time east of the Mississippi River. But then, as I looked closer, I realized that, yeesh, I never even made it east of the Continental Divide in 2021. That’s a pretty profound paradigm shift, given my deep roots in the Carolinas, and our long stints in New York and the Midwest. If I can do so safely, I do intend to visit my mother in South Carolina in early 2022, and Marcia and I are cautiously hopeful that we may be able to consider international travel again later in the year, if we can do so with undue fear for our personal health and safety. I guess if we had to have a limited travel year, we couldn’t have picked a better place to do it from than our new home in Sedona, Arizona, as there’s plenty of stuff to do and see hereabouts, without having to fly or drive far to achieve the full experience.

RECORDINGS:

See these three earlier posts:

BOOKS:

See this earlier post: Best Books of 2021

FILM AND TELEVISION:

See these two earlier posts:

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward into 2022, with a very deep sense of unease about the ways in which our Nation seems to be careening toward institutional racism and fascism and theocracy. It’s truly frightening to see how the will of a determined minority, intent on using every lever of power available to them (legal or otherwise), seemingly takes priority over the desires and wishes and votes of the remaining majority of the population, among which I count myself. Which is so sad, on so many planes, particularly for someone who once proudly served the Nation as a Federal employee and an active duty service member. Here’s hoping that a year from now, I’ll feel better about these things. But I doubt that’s going to be the case, alas, even if I don’t regularly write about such things here, because I don’t feel like I have a lot to add to the narrative, and it’s intellectually depressing to continually wallow in it.

On a brighter note, I’ve mentioned in passing a few times here over the past year that I’ve been hard at work on a book with long-time friend and Naval Academy classmate Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, co-author of The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition, which I reviewed here. Jim and I have a contract with McFarland, a publishing house based in North Carolina, to deliver a complete manuscript by the end of January 2022, with publication hopefully targeted before year’s end. If you’ve ever mucked around with the publishing industry, then you know that “instant gratification” is not in cards on projects like this one.

We finished the main-line text (about 75,000+ words) last week, and I then had the pleasure of taking the digital version of it to a local print shop, producing the first physical version of the text for compilation and copy-editing purposes. Our skilled editor is hard at work on the manuscript, per the photo below. And here’s hoping that when I do next year’s version of this annual report, I’ll be able to point you toward a purchase site to acquire our book, should you be interested, and that we’ll be (a) past the worst of the pandemic, and (b) not living in a political place that would make the most dystopian fantasist shudder with revulsion.

I don’t know whether I’ll continue in 2022 to churn out the piffle and tripe at recent levels, or whether your collective engagement with the site will continue to grow and expand. (One of the nice things about doing this as a labor of love, and not a labor of commerce, is that the thought of less traffic in the year ahead does not cause me any agita). But regardless of how all of those things turn out, I will forever be grateful to those of you who care enough to continue supporting my creative endeavors, right here and right now, and I wish all of you and all of yours the very best over the days and months and years to come!

So, did you mean “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “Let’s eat Grandma” here?

Best Of My Web 2021

I’ve been online for a long, long, long time, in the relative terms that Internet experience can be measured. This blog’s archives extend back to 1995 (before the word “blog” even existed), and I was romping and stomping about in virtual spaces even earlier than that, like some digital dinosaur hauling its hunky heft through a primordial dial-up ASCII swamp.

With a quarter-century-plus experience in sorting the garbage that spills out of the Interweb’s pipes, I think I’m pretty discerning in plucking the shiniest gems from the stinkiest spew of the online world. And being a community-oriented sort, I’m happy to leverage my online explorations to share a roster of the websites that moved me most over the past year, in the hopes that you might find them engaging and entertaining as well.

Before I get to this year’s roster, though, I do have to note and acknowledge that my long-time, most-favorite website went dark this year, after author Rick Harris died of cancer this past April, way too young, leaving his Thoughts on the Dead website behind as an epic example of how fine writing can build worlds, and communities. Honestly, for as long as I’ve been online (which is a long, long, long time), I’d likely cite his written work, and the community he built, as perhaps the greatest thing that I’ve loved and embraced and endorsed through this, our digital era. He was a true once-in-a-lifetime genius, and I miss him and his writing, a lot. More thoughts (or “Thoughts”) on that, if you missed them when I first posted them, here.

A couple of other long-time favorite sites have either gone dark or sporadic in 2021:

  • Rob Madeo‘s Keyboard Krumbs: At the time that I am compiling this list, Rob’s site seems to be consistently returning a “Nothing To See Here” response to hits from my browsers. That’s happened before, and it may just be a short-term hosting thing, or it may just be a super-good writer deciding that he’s had enough of this online nonsense, and choosing to spend his time and creative energy elsewhere. (I embed a link to his site above, even though it is broken as I do so, in hopes that it will return at some point, either as an archival resource, or as a going concern). As noted years ago in the link from his name above, I hold Rob in very high acclaim as a guy who can say a whole lot with a very small amount of text. I seriously see that as something to which I should and could aspire, but I’m just too damn wordy, so I’m doubtful that I’m going to ever rise to his level of brilliant concision.
  • Mimi Smartypants: Another long-time favorite who has appeared on my “Best of the Web” lists many times over the years. Her site is still live as I type today, but she’s only infrequently posting at this point, such that it’s a thrill whenever one of her new missives arrives. (We got one this week, as it turns out, hooray!).  I have loved her writing for many, many years, but the sense of awe and respect that I feel for her work was amplified dramatically during the four years when we lived in Chicago, when I was a bus and train-riding fool, making her references to those always-interesting modes of transport, and the work and residential neighborhoods they connect, all the more brilliant and real for me. Not to sound like a weirdo stalky guy, but she used to write about L stops and bus routes that I also rode regularly, so it was satisfying on some plane to know that she might have been sitting behind me some days, describing what I was looking at and seeing and smelling better than I ever could have.

I’ll be first in the fan-boy line when and if Rob and Mimi make a big, splashy return to regular web posts, but if that doesn’t happen, then I doff my cap to them both for the years of grins and giggles that they’ve provided me. And having acknowledged Rick and Rob and Mimi as part of a most respectful preamble, I now move on to the ten websites that are live and active as I write this post, and which provided me the greatest quantities of giggles and joy and thoughtful thoughts and entertainment over the past twelve months. I hope you will give them all a look-see and (where appropriate) a follow, as they’re all worthy of your support and engagement.

  • Going Medieval: Dr. Eleanor Janega offers (in her own words) “Medieval History, Pop Culture, Swearing.” I love all of those things, and I adore her site, which brings history to life, while illuminating and (often) eviscerating modern stupidities that are anchored in misunderstandings of the past. Great writing and great fun. My Website of the Year for 2021, for sure.
  • The Haunted Generation: I spend a lot of online time mucking about with folks in the British Isles, but few things make me wish I were English more than this site. The creators deftly explore cultural and media tropes from the years of our shared childhoods, and their work is educational and entertaining in equal measure, especially if you are drawn to the weird.
  • Aphoristic Album Reviews: I love a good music-nerd list, which is an “a-DUH!” statement for anybody who has read this site for more than two weeks. Aphoristic sits sweet in my current reading pantheon as the work of another list-making fiend, whose tastes overlap with mine regularly, so I feel smart being able to meaningfully respond to his great work.
  • Art & Crit by Eric Wayne: In my experience, there are folks I admire as tremendous artists, and there are folks I admire as tremendous art critics, and the Venn Diagram of those two communities has but a tiny over-lapping sliver. As small as that sliver is, Eric Wayne sits within it, a super creator, and a super analyzer of others’ creations. Great reads, always.
  • The Blue Moment: Richard Williams was a long-time writer, editor and/or on-screen personality for Melody Maker, The Times, The Old Grey Whistle Test, and many other music-adjacent outlets, making him one of the most-influential music thinkers to emerge from Britain in the latter part of the 20th Century. His website offers more of the same, gloriously, thankfully.
  • The Fall Online Forum: While the amazing musical group that originally inspired the creation of this site are no more, (see here), the community built to celebrate them (and countless other topics of interest) churns on, and I’m happy to have it as my current “Serial Monogam-E” site of choice for real-time Internet interaction, other social media be damned to hell.
  • Vinyl Distractions: Carl Johnson is a long-time web connection from our Albany days, and I have deeply enjoyed his My Non/Now-Urban Life and Hoxsie! websites over the years. His latest offering is basically an online tribute to his record collection, and, of course, that tickles me to no end, both in terms of what he owns, and how he writes about it.
  • Ramblin’ With Roger: Another friend from Albany days, Roger Owen Green is a super-long-time daily blogger of refined tastes and interests, many of which closely align with my own. Roger also brings his formidable librarian skills to organizing his information, and that’s a noticeably great thing in the mostly mucky mire of poorly-curated online experience.
  • Messy Nessy Chic: One of the most-interesting sites online, and also one of the prettiest. Nessy’s every-Monday “13 Things I Found on the Internet” series is a weekly highlight for me, and her/their articles throughout the week are almost always interesting, educational, and visually sumptuous. A fine creative and commercial aesthetic here, worthy of emulation.
  • Chuck The Writer: Chuck Miller is yet another friend from Albany days, and like Roger above, he is a long-time daily blogger, so you always have something(s) new to read from him, no matter how long you wait between visits. Chuck is also a tremendous champion and advocate for online community-building, and I deeply appreciate his fervor on that front.

Dr Eleanor Janega’s article from “Going Medieval” which compared/contrasted Modern Influencers and Medieval Damsels was a mind-blowingly fun bit of history writ large, and snarky.

Coronablogus

I made my first public, written reference to COVID-19 on this website on March 14, 2020, as the world around us went to shit while Marcia and I were in the middle of a two-week vacation in Florida’s Tampa Bay region. Here’s what I wrote about it then:

While the weather here is lovely, and we’ve gotten lots of great walks in, being away from home as COVID-19 erupts and global markets collapse has been disconcerting, needless to say. Places that should be mobbed are quiet or closed, and public events that we might have considered are mostly cancelled. Which is good and right. We are practicing social distancing ourselves and monitoring the situation as best we can, keeping safe and smart, and listening to the experts, always. We hope that science and a sense of shared social responsibility carry the day(s) here, even as we worry about the volume of stupid that social media and some suspect politicians are already spewing right now.

Boy oh boy, in my worst imaginings, I would not have believed how much more stupid and socially irresponsible things could get on the pandemic front in the weeks and months that followed. Yeesh! But that’s probably a topic for a separate post, ideally one that I will write after the pandemic has run its course in the country. Hopefully before 2030 or so. Fingers crossed.

For the purposes of this post, I note that Marcia and I made it home safely after that trip to Florida (though our flight back was quite uncomfortable, as a woman seated directly in front of us seemed intent on coughing up not one, but both lungs, before we landed in Des Moines), and then, as so, so, so many others did, we went into a quarantine-mode lock-down that lasted for pretty much an entire year, until we received our Moderna vaccines in April and May of 2021. And as so, so, so many others did, we quickly adapted our lifestyles to accommodate the medical realities of the world around us, seeking amusements and entertainments that could be secured at home, or outside in spaces distant from other infectious human animals.

We resumed cooking most every meal at home, for starters, something we’d not really done since our earliest, poorest days together. We walked five miles or so every day that the weather allowed, dodging various blithering idiots in downtown Des Moines who seemed aggressively intent on getting in people’s faces, their own “freedoms and liberties” clearly trumping (no pun intended)(well, a little pun intended) other people’s desires for healthy self-preservation. We began watching television together every night, something that had been a once or twice a week activity, at most, before then. We began doing ZOOM meetings, with family members, work colleagues, and friends, desperate to have some human contact, even if of a choppy and annoying kind. And, of course, we started doing jigsaw puzzles, because even as counter-cultural and counter-intuitive as I like to be, there’s something to be said for joining the lowing herd in such a slow, methodical, time-killing pursuit.

For the record, we’re still cooking most of our meals at home, still walking five miles a day (though in much nicer surroundings), still watching a movie or TV show together most every night, still doing weekly ZOOM calls with Katelin and John, and still doing jigsaw puzzles. On that last front, we’re currently working on one of the hardest ones we’ve done together, from the excellent Rock Saws collection. It seemed like a good idea when I bought it, but Jeezum Krow, it’s certainly one of those where every piece looks pretty much exactly like every other piece, so it’s been slow going, as you can see:

On a personal front, with me being me, I also turned in early COVID days to writing on this website as a time-consuming project, and I ended up producing and publishing a far larger number of posts in 2020 than I had in all but a couple of years since I first got online in the early 1990s. While my 2021 output is not likely to quite match my 2020 levels, this year will still stand high on the list of my busiest website writing years. 2020 and 2021 are also going to be among my very highest reader traffic years ever, which communicates to me that loads of other folks were looking for diversions as they worked to kill time at home that they had not been planning to spend before the Anno Virum.

I note that I was not, at all, alone on that web writing front, and that it seemed to me that in the early days of the pandemic, there was a tremendous surge in the number of bloggers pooping out regular posts and updates, via rejuvenated websites (like mine) or brand new platforms created by people who suddenly had the time to create them. As I’ve written about several times over the years, I have a “love/hate” relationship with the WordPress platform on which I create things here, but I did find myself using its Reader function more than I ever had before, both to find gems among the plethora of new websites and blogs, and to pimp my own stuff to folks who might be new to the blogosphere, and who might benefit from or enjoy my piffle and tripe.

There were loads of “COVID Diary” type blogs in that profusion of new web content, as one would expect, and I have to admit that I assiduously avoided such content, as I didn’t need to wallow in others’ discomfort, when I was perfectly capable of wallowing in my own. But there were also a lot of great new websites covering a variety of non-COVID topics that emerged in the early days of the pandemic, as people who had long had or held ideas for websites finally found themselves with the time and inclination to create and share them, and I probably started following more excellent new websites in 2020 than I had in any prior year, ever.

I was motivated to write this post today by a growing realization that a lot of those early 2020 websites seem to have gone fallow and/or run their courses over the past few months. I suppose this could be a seasonal thing, where people are spending nice weather outdoors instead of clattering away at their computers. Or I suppose this could just a predictable manifestation of the fact that maintaining a blog-styled website over a long period of time can be quite a time suck, especially when writers don’t feel like they’re earning the hits and attention that they want and/or deserve. (Few of us do, for the record). But from a perhaps overly-optimistic standpoint, the dwindling of the COVID-era blogs might also be a leading indicator pointing to the fact that people are finally feeling like they (and we) are coming out of the back end of the virus’ global digestive tract, and that whatever benefits they (and we) got from the connections forged on COVID-era blogs are no longer necessary in the new dawn before us.

I don’t know which of these theories is the most accurate one (they’re not mutually exclusive, so I suppose it could be a combined function of all of them), but they do raise a slightly larger question about the continued role of and place for blogs online. I’m stubborn and patient on that front, and I’ve been doing what I do here for over 25 years now, pandemic or not, and am likely to continue doing so. (For the record, the first time the word “blog” appeared on my website was on September 7, 2000, when I wrote about how pleased I was to have a new word to describe what I had already been doing here for five years at that point). It has been nice to see something of a return to the “traditional” (if something so young can be so described) blog forms over the past 18 months, but also not surprising to see many of them petering out, since there were already plentiful “blogs are dead” communications to be found on the web well before the dawn of COVID.

Back in May of this year, as part of his own COVID-era effort to connect his community, fellow obsessive web-maniac Chuck Miller interviewed me as part of a ZOOM series he was hosting on his own website. It was great fun to catch up with an old friend from The 518 that way, and toward the end of the call, Chuck asked me to share my thoughts on the future of blogs. As I am now watching the COVID-era blog bloom beginning to fade and fall from its branches, that seems to me to be a good question for folks doing what I do here to consider with regard to their own online spaces. I free-wheeled my answer to Chuck’s unexpected question at the time, but since it’s something that I’d thought about before, I do think I hit some good and germane points about the nature of web community in my improvised answer. I transcribed it a few weeks later, and with some edits for style and grammar and accuracy, I reproduce that text below. Note that I have no intentions of giving up my platform in the foreseeable future, even as many others do so, but I do suspect that 2022 may be less busy here than 2020 and 2021 were. We shall see.

Here’s the text of my interview with Chuck, as perhaps a parting shot for the current era of web-living, and maybe as an ideal for living in the post-COVID website world:

In the early 2000s, when blogs were first emerging as a new writing paradigm, the sense was that they were going to change the world for the better, as their existence meant that there would no longer be any biased intermediaries between the public-facing media and the general public, allowing for unique and instant independent response to breaking stories and events, of both important and trivial natures.

And on the one hand, that belief was true, for a while anyway, but on the other hand, professional media outlets do have filters, editors, fact-checkers, things of that nature, (well, at least they’re supposed to, a lot of them don’t anymore, alas), and those things do add value to discourse, if for no other reason than precluding the propagation of lies and errors and propaganda.

When all was said and done, blogs certainly didn’t change the world for the better in many or any ways, and I think the blog realm was the place where a lot of contemporary “comment section” toxicity and anonymous sniping emerged into the realm of common online discourse. I saw that negative change emerge in the early days of blogs, well before it became standard behavior on Facebook or Twitter or other social media sites, so I think many people learned that such horrible behavior generated clicks and interest on the blogosphere, then took that paradigm to other social media platforms.

While the promise that blogging was going to change the world was hyperbolic, I do still think that the narrative over the past five years or so regarding the death of blogs was and remains equally over-stated at the opposite end of the argument. I believe there are enough people out there doing what I do here, on both commercial and non-commercial platforms, who have something interesting to say, and will continue to do so, and will continue to engage readers.

Whether we call our platforms “blogs” or “websites” at this point is kind of immaterial. I personally hardly ever use the word “blog” to define my virtual space anymore. I have a website under my own name that I update regularly, with various narrative elements and recurring features, and that domain is all there is to my personal output. So it’s not like you come to “jericsmith.com” and then get redirected to some separate blog, since the blog is the website in total, and vice versa.

In my case, I like to write, I do so habitually bordering on compulsively, and my website gives me a platform for that, regardless of what I or other people label that platform. I’ve been doing what I do here for so long, in internet terms, that it’s also allowed me to build a community. I have people who I consider to be dear friends who I’ve been writing for and communicating with for over a quarter-century, and I’ve never sat in the same physical space with many or most of them. I think that community-building aspect is quite valuable, and I don’t see it going away.

So I think there will remain, for the foreseeable future, spaces online where folks like me, and the people who read what folks like me write, perhaps also doing similar things on their own websites, will have platforms where such communities can continue to thrive. I’ve abandoned social media because it has become so toxic and shrill, and I know I’m not alone on that front, so I think that these blog-type platforms, whatever you choose to call them, can remain a viable place for community engagement without the hateful vacuity and biases that have come to define most social media sites.

It is what it is, and they are what they are, at bottom line, and I don’t really see any reason or rationale for stopping doing what I’m doing, so long as I get the positive reinforcement that some small cohort of folks find it valuable or interesting or whatever, and so long as I don’t bore myself with my own output.

Where the blog/web magic happens, if you’ve ever wondered or cared . . .

Modern Talk

Chuck Miller is a writer friend from Albany, and a fellow maltreated survivor of the Times Union Blog Farm. While I consider myself to be a reasonably prolific keyboard wrangler, Chuck is one of a small number of people (Roger Green being another) who can put me to shame with both the volume and quality of the content offered at their websites. Both of those gents have blogged daily for well over a dozen years, never missing a post, ever. There are few constants in life, but I always appreciate the fact that I can go to their websites any day, every day, and get fresh content, constantly, all of which I enjoy.

Chuck has also always been a great champion of the community-building aspects of online communication, and for years he’s devoted his Saturday posts to highlighting other writers’ work from the preceding week. During the Anno Virum, he added a new feature to his weekly round-up, offering a video interview each Saturday with a selected writer from his blogroll. As it turns out, while I was up in Boise this past weekend, Chuck ran a video of a conversation that he and I had taped a couple of weeks earlier. It was fun to chat with him “work from home” style, having not seen him in person since I left Albany in 2011, though we’ve stayed in touch through our websites since then.

I appreciate being included in Chuck’s roster of interesting community-building talks. If you’d like to hear how it went (or hear what I sound like, if you only know me from virtual spaces), click on the screen cap below for a link to the full video at Chuck’s website. A fine idea on his part, well executed. As are most things that he sets his mind to, as will become amply evident if you forage about at his site for any amount of time!

Thoughts on the Death of Thoughts on the Dead (Without Research)

  • This post has to be written in bullet points. Because of course it does.
  • If you have to ask, you’ll never know . . .
  • Well, unless I explain it to you.
  • Or, unless you were a regular reader of that most special website that today’s post honors, in which case you know the rules, and the requirements, and the structures and meta-structures that made the whole thing work.
  • Suffice to say that me writing this post in bullet points, under the tenets of “without research,” means that you can’t interrupt me, and that I can’t Google things.

But . . .

  • No. I love you, I really do. But no. No. Bullet points are here. And bullet points must be respected. No interruptions.

Yeah, understood. Okay. Carry on.

  • Thanks. Seriously, I do love you. And I wonder where you are, and where you’ll go now. I hope Bold Guy is there too, I think, to keep you company. I suspect you two get along better than we all might appreciate here on the receiving end of your various wisdoms.
  • Say “Yo!” to Precarious for us all, ‘aight? ‘Aight??

I said “Carry on” . . .

  • You did. My bad. Here I go . . .
  • I am a terrible sleeper, due to a combination of psychological and physiological factors, which combined to force me into an arising at 4am, Arizona Time, this morning.
  • I nabbed my phone from my bedside table as I left the bedroom to make myself more comfortable, and as I do at the start of most days, no matter how early, I clicked on my saved link to Thoughts on the Dead.
  • And I saw this terrible, terrible news. Posted by Brother of the Dead (BotD), father of Nephew of the Dead (NotD), both of whom were dearly and publicly loved by my online friend, Thoughts on the Dead (TotD).
  • Who has died. Of a terrible cancer. At the age of 46. Which is too young!
  • I’m reading a book that’s about, in part, the Neolithic Period. TotD might have been an elder statesman/shaman type by making it to the age of 46 in those days.
  • Then again, maybe he would not have been. Our accepted modern understandings of the short life spans of our forebears are not necessarily correct, per this from another of my favorite online resources.
  • In any event, we live in neither Neolithic nor Medieval times, so 46 is too young, in the reality which we all inhabit, more or less.
  • And while TotD clearly did his best to keep his public persona going to the best of his ability without groveling and complaining (much) over the 10 months since his cancer diagnosis, it was pretty clear that he was suffering, and that was a hard thing to read, and hard to know, and hard to accept, and hard to comprehend.
  • And that’s just awful. And terribly, terribly sad.
  • And if I, among many, who knew TotD only through his anonymous online postings feel as sad as I do right now, then it’s beyond comprehension how bad BotD and the rest of his family and their “real world” friends and colleagues must be feeling now.
  • I extend my love and respect and compassion and care toward them all, for what that’s worth. May they find some small peace in the weeks and months and years ahead, and may they find joy in the incredible body of work that TotD left behind for all of us.
  • Because, Holy Moly, what a body of work that was!!
  • He was my favorite living, working writer, right up until the point when he wasn’t.
  • He’s now one of my favorite non-living, non-working writers. There’s a wealth of brilliance to be had among the work he left behind, novel-length and story-length tales that challenge the very best of anything I’ve read by anybody else, ever.
  • That’s not hyperbole. I’ve written about TotD numerous times on this site, sharing such accolades in real time, and not just as memorials. Here’s the list of pages here that reference him, in one way or another.
  • I loved his writing, dearly.
  • And I am something of an arrogant tool when it comes to writing, since I fancy myself as something of a fine writer, too.
  • (That’s a key part of my self-identity and self-worth, so if you disagree, you’ll hurt my feelings by doing so publicly, so why do that, right? Thanks for your restraint.)
  • As a writer, I believe (rightly or wrongly) that I have a fairly finely attuned sense of what makes for good writing, and what makes for bad writing, or “blah” writing, and I can tell you without any doubt or hesitation that TotD was a truly great, once-in-a-generation caliber writer.
  • A genius, on that front. And I do not throw that word around lightly.
  • Which may sound or seem weird, given the premise of his website, where all of his public work (to the best of my knowledge) resided and resides.
  • Here’s how he described what he did. Note that putting a quote box in here is going to break the flow of bullet points, because that’s what WordPress does. That does not mean that you get to interrupt before I return to the bullet points.

But . . .

  • No. I love you. But no.

Right.

  • Right. So here’s how TotD described his enterprise . . .

My thesis is that the Grateful Dead were the Silliest Band in the World. I will attempt to prove this through misquotes, malicious lies, and just plumb crazy talk; everything in these pages is, of course, satire. Except for the stuff about Bobby: Bobby actually thought he was a fucking cowboy. He was also a terrorist, but we’ll get to that. Bob Weir is a fucking prince.

This is my first time making blog. If you enjoy what I’ve done, then that’s entirely your decision. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them, along with your choice for #16 Mississippi Half-Step OF ALL TIME.

  • It seems slight, doesn’t it?
  • Nonsensical, even. Soft. Half-baked. Not much depth there. How could this one-skit SNL-caliber concept run for days, much less months, much less years?
  • In any other writer’s hands, I don’t think it could have.
  • But TotD used that modest, humble,  soft launching point to embark upon one of the most astounding bits of world-building that I’ve ever experienced.
  • To cite but one of many examples: The Dead’s on-stage set-ups over the years could often look haphazard and amateurish.
  • That’s a fact.
  • But why was it a fact?
  • TotD created a character named Precarious Lee, who was a Dead roadie, and who took great glee in building the most structurally ridiculous stage plots possible, ideally involving low effort by the crew, disinterest from the band, and high risk to audiences, players, other crew members, the environment, the equipment, and quite possibly Precarious himself.
  • Ha ha ha! There’s a joke! Good for a solid post of chuckles, right?
  • Except . . . in the hands of a master like TotD, Precarious became a character of unexpected depth, with an incredible before- and after-story adjacent to his time with the Dead.
  • Precarious took us out on the Interstitial Highway, which was mind-blowing.
  • Precarious took us to the place where he settled (sort of), which was called Little Aleppo, and which was a neighborhood, in America.
  • And which spawned a book-length series of stories, one of which remains one of my all-time favorite reads ever.
  • Especially when it was rolling out, chapter by chapter, in real time.
  • I read it all on my morning train commute with my coffee, gleeful every day that a new installment arrived.
  • It was like being a Charles Dickens fan in the late 1800s.
  • When it was all done, I named that first Little Aleppo novel My Best Book of the 21st Century.
  • Even if it never saw the printed page. Even if it never made TotD a dime. Even if it never had to claw through the publishing industry’s maw to see to the light of day.
  • It remains brilliant, and you can still click the link above to read it, and then to read the stories that followed it at TotD’s site.
  • I strongly encourage you to do so.
  • So many great tales. So many great characters. Such incredibly refined writing, where words and phrases routinely pop from the page and shine, craftsman-like example of the ways that our language can become sublime, even when discussing the mundane.
  • A lot of it is really funny, as are a lot of other parts of the TotD semi-fictional universe, where real-world personages (living and dead) interact with created characters in ways sweet and sublime and subtle and soaring.
  • (Another Grateful Dead connection in the Little Aleppo stories: the group’s famed Wall of Sound PA/speaker system became sentient, and is now providing sound for an historic movie theater in Little Aleppo).
  • (The Wall is another great character, a fascinating exploration into the ways that an artificial intelligence might interact with the humans who surround it, often to its despair).
  • (But don’t call him WALLY).
  • But deeply integrated with all of the laughs into the weft and woof of the the TotD semi-fictional universe were moments of deep, haunting, soul-moving pathos and compassion and love.
  • And you never knew when a sad story was going to get funny, or when a funny story was going to get sad, and that’s pretty much the way real life happens, and that’s pretty much what made this little escape from real life so very, very magical.
  • There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of TotD’s excellence on such fronts on his website, so if you just head over there and plow through the archives, you will be richly rewarded.
  • (Expert tip: find a subject/topic you particularly enjoy, then use the categories and tags to dig deeper into the story lines associated with said topic).
  • Among that plethora of fine choices, one piece springs to mind today, and I encourage you to go read it.
  • But first: consider what’s happened in Arkansas over the past couple of days with regard to the rights, health and well-being of transgender young people.
  • And then: consider all of the other States in our country that are seriously considering similarly hateful and harmful laws.
  • And then then: read this.
  • That’s extraordinary story-telling. A short piece, that quickly introduces you to places and people who are remarkable and not, in equal measure, and makes you care about them, deeply, quickly, wholly.
  • And there’s a lesson in there, too.
  • You might learn something.
  • Or at least re-consider some other things.
  • And that makes it art, to these eyes, and to this mind.
  • Great art. Fine art. Serious art.
  • With chuckles.
  • I look at the very best things I’ve ever written, and they pale in comparison to that piece, or hundreds of other similar pieces scattered throughout TotD’s canon.
  • Wow, was he good.
  • Wow, will I miss his work.
  • And wow, will I miss him.
  • Even though I never met him.
  • Even though I have no idea what he looked like.
  • Even though I only learned his first name within the past year when Bob Weir outed him on a David Lemieux podcast.
  • Even though I only learned his last name when his brother told us all that he died this morning.
  • He was truly a Ninja Jedi when it came to online stealth and protecting his anonymity, while living fully in the public domain.
  • Hats off on that front. Well played, you.
  • So when I miss him, my brain will miss him as TotD, not as Rick Harris.
  • Though I wish I had had the chance to get to know Rick Harris, too.
  • I think we would have gotten along well.
  • Common interests and suchlike, you know?
  • Because online connections and friendships are real, for reals.
  • Truly.
  • Meaningfully.
  • Deeply.
  • I have met and gotten to know (virtually-speaking) a lot of other folks in the “Comment Section” at TotD’s site over the years.
  • A couple of them have already reached out to me this morning to make sure I knew the news and that I was doing okay with it.
  • I did know.
  • But I’m not doing okay with it.
  • I do look forward to keeping in touch over the months and years ahead with the community that TotD built.
  • Good folks. Funny. Freaky. Fine company.
  • Enthusiasts.
  • Weirdos and squares in equal measure.
  • You decide who fits in which bucket.
  • Or not. We’ll be here all the same.

All of us?

  • Yes, all of us.
  • We love you.
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