In May of 1999 my father passed away, 73 days after his 58th birthday. Today, December 31, 2021, is 73 days after my 58th birthday. It’s strange to think about. He seemed like such a man to me, and I still feel like such a kid. Maybe my perception of him is belied by the rows upon rows of shelves full of toys he had in the basement. 😄 But I always thought of him as being so solid. I never feel as sure of myself as I thought he was. I wonder now if that was really true, or if that, too, was just my perception. Certainly, he was a constant consumer of information; a seeker of knowledge. Maybe that was a sign that on the in his mind his ideas, ideals, his ways of thinking, could be just as much in flux as mine can be. In retrospect, that seems more likely to me than I would have guessed at the time. Or maybe now that I’ve arrived at “his” age, I’m just disappointed that I’m not as wise as I was expecting to be. As I thought he was. What I do know beyond any doubt is that he lived a life he enjoyed. He loved his family, loved his friends, loved music, and loved to eat. In those respects, I can assure you the apple has not fallen very far from the tree. Sometime this morning I started living on time he never got. Today it feels even more important to appreciate it. Make it a happy new year, everybody.
I think I start roughly every other post on this much-neglected blog by saying I’m going to try to write more. But this time I mean it. I meant it all the other times, too. But this time I really mean it. My plan is to use this space as a kind of open journal. I don’t know exactly what I have to write about, but I’ve made it about as easy as possible by converting to a WordPress format, so I guess time will tell.
So anyway. Since the beginning of this new year also happens to be the beginning of a whole new decade, I thought I’d start off with a roundup of notable stuff in my life from the last ten years. A few of these things have been mentioned or written about in previous posts, but a roundup is a roundup. So here goes.
DEVILS: One of the biggest things Suz and I did in the ’10s was become season ticket holders for the New Jersey Devils. I thought I had pretty much struck gold when Suzy got interested in hockey in 2006. At that time I never would have guessed in a million years we’d (she’d) become avid fans. Ya just never know what life’s gonna bring.
It all started because we bought a partial package (I think it was 12 games) for the 2010-2011 season. We kinda thought we were shittin’ in high cotton even then. But when it came time to renew I asked the agent, just for giggles, how much it would cost for a full season. Of course it was quite a bit more expensive overall, but the per-game price was less than half what we paid for the partials. We thought we might as well give it a try, and ultimately we stuck with it for seven years. Over that time we built friendships with our fellow seatmates (and everyone at Hobby’s Deli), met players, had our photo made in the goal, watched warmups from the penalty box, toured the arena, sat on the bench…. By far the two most exciting times were going all the way to game 6 of the finals in 2011-12 ( Suzy even bought herself a playoff beard), and going to the Devils/Rangers game at Yankee Stadium in January 2014. But narrowing it down to only a few experiences doesn’t do it justice. The whole time was a blast.
TRAVEL: To celebrate my Mom’s and Suzy’s Dad’s 70th birthdays in 2011, we made a big family trip. Suz and I flew to NC, and the following day 10 of us headed out in a convoy to Nashville. We explored and toured the town for 3 days, and then moved the party over to Memphis for 3 more. We saw and did way too many things to recount here, but some of the Nashville highlights included the Country Music Hall of Fame, dinner at the Loveless Cafe, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a Ryman Auditorium tour (basically a religious experience), and of course, the Grand Ol’ Opry.
On Friday afternoon while we were taking a rest before dinner, I read that Sam Bush was going to be a special guest on the bill later that night at the legendary bluegrass venue, The Station Inn. Suzy and I immediately decided we had to be there, and my sister and her husband joined us. An outstanding show, which also introduced us to singer David Peterson and fiddle phenom Michael Cleveland.
Memphis highlights included Graceland (duh), touring Sun Studio (my second religious experience of the trip), and just walking around Beale Street where we spent two consecutive nights listening to Dr. Feelgood Potts.
In 2012 we spent my birthday week in Barcelona. We deliberately kept a leisurely pace, but we still crammed in a lot of sightseeing because we stayed right on La Rambla and almost everything we wanted to see was within easy walking distance. Of course we were thrilled to enjoy so much of Gaudi’s architecture, but Barcelona also happens to be home to a museum and foundation dedicated to my favorite painter, Antoni Tapies. And we were also completely blown away by the Boqueria market.
And we spent nearly a whole day at the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia
We visited friends in Ottawa for a long weekend in September of 2013. We all met at the Newport Folk Festival (more on Newport later), where the four of us stayed for several consecutive years at the same B&B. The Ottawa trip was more to hang out together than to really tour the city, but of course we managed to do some of both.
The last major trip we managed to fit in during the decade was a week in San Francisco and Napa in September of 2015. We met up with friends in both places and had absolutely gorgeous weather the whole time. First time in California for both of us.
COOKING and FOOD: I realized I was interested in cooking when I started trying to recreate my grandmother’s biscuits back in the early ’90s. Then after I began brewing my own beer in ’96, I started experimenting more in all sorts of cooking. But I really got concentrated on it after we moved to New Jersey, when I bought an offset smoker. Learning about rubs, marinades, different prep techniques, and how to tend the fire on long, low-and-slow barbecue cooks really set me off and running in the kitchen. About 4 years ago I retired the offset and made the switch to a kamado cooker; tremendously expensive, but well worth every penny. Unfortunately our work schedules are no longer very conducive to cooking at home, especially during the week. But nothing is better than spending a whole Saturday or Sunday in the kitchen, messing up every pot and pan we own.
Speaking earlier of beer, after going with a couple buddies to several tasting festivals in New York over the course of a few years, in May of 2015 three of us decided to start having our own tastings. Soon more members were joining us and before you know it, we gave birth to the Maplewood Ale and Lager Tasters (M.A.L.T) Club. We take turns hosting (i.e. – providing lunch) each month, everyone brings two 16- or 20-ounce beers to share, and a good time is had by all. Genius!
MUSIC and ARTS: Of course Suzy and I spent an awful lot of time on concerts, art shows, and assorted other entertainment over the last 10 years. Way too much, obviously, to write about it all. Here is a tiny smattering of the highlights.
As I wrote about briefly at the time, in 2011 I was asked to play guitar for a local writer who, taking a stab at something new, started writing songs. Over time she added a piano player, an acoustic bassist, and a drummer. They were some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with; each one of them well above my level. Playing with them was fantastic, and I stayed with it for about 5 years until other things got in the way, as they’ll do.
Easily one of the most impressive artists we discovered over the last 10 years was Jason Isbell. He’s the whole package; great voice, excellent guitar chops, and his songwriting is second to none. We heard the Southeastern album first, and then he just kept getting better and better.
Another big find was Lake Street Dive. Like many people, we learned of them from the concert film Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis. Just a couple seconds into their (one and only) song in that movie, we looked at each other and said, “Who is THIS!?” The next day, I bought every CD they had out at that time. In the years since, we’ve watched them grow from relative obscurity to selling out Madison Square Garden.
Other bands we fell in love with were The Wood Brothers, Gregory Alan Isakov, both of whom we heard first on The Loft channel on SiriusXM radio, and The Low Anthem, who we discovered at the Newport Folk Festival.
There are two albums that particularly stand out for me in this time, as well. Jake Xerxes Fussell’s What In The Natural World and Noam Pikelny’s Universal Favorite. On first listening, I wouldn’t have guessed that either of these records would stick with me like they have. I mean, to be clear, I liked them both a lot right off the bat. But over time, I find that both of them stay right at the front of my mind all the time. I think of one or the other, or both, nearly every day. Universal Favorite, especially, is an absolute gem.
In August of 2015, the Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department in Maplewood brought to town five Tibetan Buddhist monks from Drepung Loseling monastery in India for The Mandala Project. Over the course of a week in the Great Hall of the Woodland community building, the monks created a traditional mandala from colored sand. They worked on it eight hours per day, pouring the sand through long, thin metal funnels to create the image, which represents the cosmos as conceived in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The Hall was open to the public for the duration. After completion, and according to tradition, the sand is swept up and dispersed into a river or stream in a ceremony symbolizing the impermanence of everything in life.
In 2018, the Brooklyn Museum presented the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “David Bowie Is…” and there’s no doubt it was the best museum show I saw in the last 10 years. In fact it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen, ever. And I’m not even an especially big David Bowie fan. Of course he’s been around for my whole life, but even so, it’s astonishing to see, all at once, just how influential he was. There’s essentially no part of western popular culture that he didn’t affect or address in some way. There’s not much more I can say about it except that we spent more than three hours in the show, and if my back and feet would have allowed it, I would have happily stayed three more.
Another major entertainment highlight, also in 2018, was the play Yerma, at the Park Avenue Armory. We bought tickets based on nothing more than the fact that the lead role was played by Billie Piper, who had played one of our favorite characters on the TV show Doctor Who. When I read later that the play is about a woman who wants a child and can’t conceive, I thought, “Oh well, that doesn’t really sound like our kind of thing, but it will be a nice treat to see her in a play.” And it was. It also turned out to be one of the heaviest, most intensely gut-wrenching stories we’ve ever seen. Incredibly powerful. The audience was nearly silent as we left the building.
One more exhibit that stands out in my mind is Laurie Anderson’s Chalkroom, currently showing at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, MA. Laurie Anderson has been one of our favorite artists since the ’80s, and we’ve loved a lot of her work through the years. But this show is a high water mark even for her. It was the first Virtual Reality experience for Suzy and me, and I was completely blown away. It is visually stunning, as I expected, but I was not at all prepared for how real it felt. Amazing experience. I hope the show is still there next time we go to MASS MoCA. I’d love to explore it more.
SOLID SOUND FESTIVAL: Years ago some friends we know from the Newport Folk Festival were telling us that one month before Newport they had gone to Solid Sound, a bi-annual festival in Massachusetts hosted by Wilco. Two years later, in 2015, we decided to meet them there. They were absolutely right; it’s a great festival. Located at MASS MoCA, your ticket includes full weekend admission to the museum in addition to the festival. So, as with Newport, the venue is as much of a draw as the music. Each festival includes two Wilco shows, a Jeff Tweedy show, and a full 3-day lineup of other music. We’re Solid Sound regulars now.
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL: I like to tease my mother that she starts planning Christmas on December 26th each year, but the truth is I know a little something about how she feels. Every year when I go back to work the day after we get home from Newport Folk Festival, I start daydreaming about the next year. I have so many good feelings about the festival that I hardly know what to write. It has become such a part of our lives that I can no longer see it in an objective way. Our first trip there was for the 50th Anniversary in 2009, and with each passing year in the decade since, the festival has come to mean more and more to us. We skipped it once, in 2015, when we went to Solid Sound for the first time. Then when Newport weekend rolled around, we were crushed to have been so short-sighted. We decided then and there that we would never miss it again. The quality of the music is consistently outstanding, the venue –Fort Adams State Park– is gorgeous, and Newport is a great town. But it’s so much more than that. There’s something about that weekend every year that makes you feel like you’re more than just a spectator. You, along with everyone else, become a part of the experience. The shared sense of community and good will is unmatched. (So much so that I started a blog dedicated to fostering that feeling year ’round. Check it out at millionsofsmallthings.com.) The best weekend of the year, every year.
LUTHER: Although we brought him home in 2006, there’s simply no way to look back on the last ten years without writing a little something about Luther. He was the light of our lives for most of that time, and very literally changed Suzy’s life entirely. After a few puppy classes, it became clear that Luther loved “going to school,” and so did Suzy. Within a few years Luther was a Certified Therapy Dog and he and Suzy were visiting hospitals and nursing homes together. Soon after, Suzy was teaching classes and Luther was her demo dog. In just a few short years, Suzy had changed careers completely and become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Even in his old age, Luther would occasionally come out of retirement for a day or two and go to work with Suzy at the behavior clinic to show some younger dog how it’s done. Unfortunately, after a couple bouts with cancer and a few other problems, we lost him in 2018. But, my God, what a life that boy had.
LIFE HAPPENS: Of course not everything in the last decade was happy and fun. I mean, we wound up with Trump in the White House, fergodsakes. I was never overly patriotic to begin with, but my first lesson from this administration is that I care a lot more about my country than I thought. I know this because I’ve never been ashamed to be an American until now. Only now, when everything I believe to be good and just about the U.S. is being shat on by The Powers That Be, do I realize how important it all is to me. On the other hand, however demoralizing and dispiriting it is to find ourselves in this situation, I’ve never felt more proud than I did standing with Suzy and some of our friends on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the first Women’s March. Never happier than to see thousands upon thousands of people show up at airports across the country to stand against the travel bans. There are way too many things to list, but I detest virtually every move Trump has made in office, and I take solace in the fact that he meets with so much resistance. However futile it may seem, it matters. Thanks to Trump, I’ve never been more concerned about other people and my ability to have an effect on them, and I know I’m not alone. I know that eventually this will all be behind us and the future will be better than the present. I don’t know when, and it won’t be soon, but it will come.
Finally, I’ll close out this post by mentioning how we closed out our decade. In the Spring of 2018 I was unceremoniously let go from my job. I can’t precisely say it was a shock, since I knew business was slow, but I wasn’t exactly expecting it, either. Thankfully I have a lot of friends in my industry, an within two and a half weeks I found another job. But it’s in Pennsylvania, so it required us to move. We settled in Hackettstown, NJ, because it was approximately halfway between my new job and Suzy’s workplace.
Then, a little less than a year after we moved, Suzy lost her job, too. If we’d known that was going to happen we’d have most likely moved closer to my work. But we love our house and we’re quite happy in Hackettstown, so we have no regrets. Suzy has gone into business on her own, and our location makes it possible for her to continue to see some of her previous clients. So in the end, it’s all worked out pretty well.
So those were our big points of the decade, bringing us to where we are now.
Happy New Year, everybody, and Happy ’20s!
Heading into the new year (and decade), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to be positive and keep some level of hope in the face of what I believe to be some of the worst times in our history. Then this morning, one of the first things I saw was this tweet from singer/songwriter Moses Sumney:
This comes to me like a punch in the gut. Viscerally disturbing.
While it is certainly not up to me to tell Mr. Sumney how to feel, and in fact I think I understand his despair, I’m compelled to say I could not disagree more. Now is exactly the time for art.
In the current moment we’re bombarded, mostly in real time, with news of every terrible thing that happens across the globe. Fire, flood, famine, war and violence of every kind, not to mention climate change and catastrophes of every other stripe. At the same time, we find ourselves coaxed and cajoled from seemingly all quarters to pick a side, stay within our tribes, be suspicious of others who don’t look and think like we do.
It is precisely during these times of division and strife that the arts have the most power. The act of creation is, intrinsically, a statement that we are better than our worst impulses; that we stand in defiance of destructive forces, indeed in defiance or our mortality; and most importantly, that every one of us shares a common humanity. The arts, perhaps more than anything else in our lives, prove to us time and again that, as Roger Waters has said, “..there is no ‘them.’ There’s only ‘us.'”
There’s never a bad time to create, but the more it feels “insane and futile,” the more important it becomes.