Tuesday, December 31, 2019
My best girl, the boy, and I took a trip to London, the city some people call "The Chicago of Europe."
Record stores, Sherlock Holmes museum, pints, London Gin, Sunday Roast, Abbey Road, bangers,
mash, baked beans for breakfast every day, but the real highlight was going to the Wimbledon
Tennis Tournament (a bucket list item for the missus and a real treat all around).
Gypsy Jazz Guitar
This year I decided I wanted to learn how to play Gypsy jazz-style guitar (along the lines of Django Reinhardt). After several months of (nearly) daily practice, I can now fumble myself clumsily through about three songs. Sweet and lowdown.
Civic Theater Gala
This year is the Ann Arbor Civic Theater's 90th year and they hand-selected a fistful of important people (past and present) were hand-selected to receive honors. My old Pop was one of the folks recognized so we got to go to a fancy shindig and associate with theater-types. We felt it was important for Henry to get to see his Gramps be recognized for the hard work he puts into the community and how people in his craft respect him. Especially since... (see next item)
My kid was drafted by the local theater troupe to make props for their youth production of Aladdin.
His maker ability is starting to earn him a reputation. The centerpiece was the magical staff
used by the evil sorcerer Jafar, which looked like a giant golden snake with menacing red eyes.
The lesson he learned was to always bring your glue gun everywhere because the thing you built
will get dropped and break but the show must go on.
Building the Shed at the Cottage
The extended Johnson family assembled this spring and built a shed at our cottage. The shed is super-helpful but the best part was getting the whole family together to build a thing. I'm a big fan of building a thing. Especially with family.
Bell's Double Two Hearted Ale
One thing I really have come to appreciate is a Michigan made craft beer with two hearts in it. I couldn't possibly imagine anything better but then Bells brewery put out their Double Two Hearted India Pale Ale I scoured the area looking for it. I think I may have grabbed the last six-pack stashed behind the counter at the local grocery store but I have no regrets.
All year I pool up my pocket money and visit a showing of my favorite industrial artist www.retech.org
to see if he has built anything that tickles my fancy. He cobbles together electronic/electric
pieces that evoke Blade Runner, Mad Max, Steampunk and a Jawa sand cruiser, but the pieces are
beautifully battered and hand-loved in a way that hits me.
Star Trek Exhibit
The Henry Ford Museum always has great exhibits, but this year they put together a Star Trek retrospective that had science, props, costumes, original production artwork and a ton of cool interactive displays (including a camera booth where you could film your best "KHAAAAAAAANNNNN!" scream a-la the original James T. Kirk.
I am now an uncle again.
Henry Mowing the lawn
Man oh man, when you have a kid some part of you thinks "Someday, I'll be able to put him to work to do all the lousy jobs I don't want to do" and friends, this was the year.
In a year of nerdery, this was so unexpected and wonderful, I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. As a kid, I simply ate up this little indie comic called Elfquest that was printed in black and white (practically by hand) by a husband and wife team who didn't have a huge industry supporting them, but had a unique story and an unwavering vision. This summer my beloved local library brought them in as key members of their annual comics festival and I got to meet them and get some stuff signed and generally bask in their warm wolfpack embrace. It exceeded my hesitant expectations of meeting your heroes and became one of my favorite memories of the year.
In May of 1999 we bought the worst house on the best block we could find.
20 years later we are happy as clams.
We got to see the famed musical Hamilton in Lansing this year (after a failed attempt explained later) and it really lived up to the hype. My kid started listening to the soundtrack a year or so ago and while I was reluctant at first, repeated listens really drove the mastery and innovation of Lin Manuel Miranda's score and execution home. Seeing it performed live brings another level to my appreciation.
We made a spring break pilgrimage to the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo to get our nerd on, shop for comic books and see a panel with Summer Glau from Firefly. I think the boy dug it.
What's up Ypsi Pickle!!?!1
Much like Martin Luther King, I had a dream where Penny and I were hanging out at Frog Island in Ypsilanti. Soul Train (who is/was a local character downtown about 20 years ago) walked into the room all dressed in green velvet with a broad-brimmed green hat and a green feather sticking out of it. In the dream he smiled wide and said "What's up, my niggas?" and my wife stood up and excitedly screamed "WHAT'S UP YPSI PICKLE!!!!" like it was the catchphrase from a sitcom or a hilarious SNL bit that everybody knew. In this dream I remember being so amazed that my wife obviously knew so much about the legend of Ypsi Pickle and also how pumped she was that he was actually there.
Somehow, the same weirdo in our neighborhood kept putting up flyers on our light pole.
Someday we'll unmask that rascal.
A Rebuilding Year
After we had some roof work done on the old farmhouse, the ceiling in one of the rooms was cracked and damaged. We engaged with a local contractor (Lussenden Painting if you must know) after being burned by a couple other lousy contractors in the past. They did a bang-up job faster and cheaper than originally quoted and it was nice to have a project go right from start to finish.
After that, we kinda called all-hands-on-deck and did a massive painting project (including ceilings!) over a weekend and really took care of business. Thanks to friends and family for showing up, painting over the old 70s brown, and getting the farm one step closer to being totally done.
Our local library puts on a summer-long event where you can solve puzzles,
go on scavenger hunts, answer riddles and generally indulge in all of your
Sherlock Holmes/DaVinci Code inklings in exchange for arbitrary points that
can be used to get t-shirts or tote bags. The real wizardry is how it forces
me to explore my town, visiting art galleries and historic neighborhoods,
sitting with my son to solve a wordplay riddle or getting a text from my wife
that says "I SAW THE BUS GO BY! IT SAYS ''STAYCATION'" (which was a game code).
-13 degrees block party
Holy shit you guys, it got rill cold last winter. On the coldest day (like -13 degrees) our insane neighbor Piotr decided to throw a block party so we went down there as bundled as we could get and stood by the fire, drinking shots of the coldest vodka you can imagine (your lip froze to the glass) but it built community, that's for sure.
Flannel Lined Jeans
Hey, these are nice.
On my birthday I celebrated by doing something I've always wanted to do:
I ordered a pizza and then tied a slice of the pizza to a bunch of balloons.
Sound & Fury by Sturgill Simpson
This album needed to grow on me, and it needed to be played loud. The whole thing is just a lurching grinding hulk of an album with fat grooves and grumbling sentiments. It feels organic and real, and the songs just ebb and flow into one another seamlessly. The whole album passes by and I want to hear it again.
Girl by Maren Morris
A sunny and sweet collection of tunes following in the same vein as her previous album Hero. Highlights include the empowering title track and the stoned and steamy "Make Out With Me" (which I contend is kind of like a prequel to Dusty Springfield's "Breakfast in Bed" but exactly 50 years later. Both have a swaying late-night/early morning feel with tremolo guitar and a disheveled heroine, sweeping strings and murky Memphis guitar, both clock in at under three minutes. Dusty in Memphis was released in March 1969 and Maren Morris' Girl was released in March 2019).
Cuz I Love You by Lizzo
Have you heard of Lizzo? You might not have heard of her this year. She's really good.
Norman Fucking Rockwell! by Lana Del Rey
I gotta say I never had an opinion about LDR for the past decade, but but the production on this album is really strong. At times it reminds me of Extraordinary Machine-era Fiona Apple with a less insistent vocal delivery but the same underlying intensity.
Ribbons by Bibio
It feels like if Tycho produced a Nick Drake album. Mostly acoustic guitar-based songs peppered with ambient/electronic pastoral sections and the occasional string section movement.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? by Billie Eilish
I kept coming back to this album because I simply could not figure out where she was getting all of these influences and where in the world it was going to go next. Breathy and menacing but also sweet and broken and at the same time empowered and untouchable. Man, this album confuses the hell out of me.
The Highwomen by The Highwomen
The production is a Dave Cobb chef's kiss and it is so great to hear Jason Isbell's slide guitar peeking out underneath everything.
I am such a fanboy of Maren Morris and Amanda Shires, and I think Brandi Carlisle has written some of the most gripping folk songs of the past several years.
And overall the concept is great.
I dunno how much you follow the business and politics of contemporary country music, but a couple of years ago this nonsense happened:
It started when industry publication Country Aircheck featured radio consultant Keith Hill in its lead story, and as part of Hill’s advice to programmers around the country he said, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.” According to Hill, country radio is “a principally male format” and the format’s female fans prefer hearing men blasting out of their speakers. Playing back-to-back women is a bad idea for retaining listeners, he claimed.
“They’re just not the lettuce in our salad,” Hill explained. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”
So to have a group of women in Nashville say "Fuck that" and revive the old supergroup of the Highwaymen but with 10 times the sass and 1000 times the estrogen is exactly what should be happening in 2019.
And I like the fact that they're weirdly rag-tag: A gritty lesbian, an untested songwriter, a free-spirit fiddle player who has been in the shadow of her husband, and practically a teenager who has had her most chart success with an EDM crossover song. It's almost like a focus-group put them together.
I've also come around on the entire genre of pop country over the past couple years. I think Tom Erlewine has a lot to do with it, and the fact that in the workshop at the farm I can pretty much only get one radio station, but overall I used to dismiss it as being dumb, one-note and maudlin/nostalgic and now I embrace the fact that it is simple, warmly predictable and romantic. Songs about loving your family, seeing a girl in a pretty dress in the bar, or putting your feet in the sand while drinking a Solo cup of beer always felt dopey and eye-rolling to me, but almost like reading a pulp detective novel or watching a rerun of an '80s sitcom, it is easy and pleasant and hits the right notes at the right time.
Maren Morris' two albums are sweet little pop gems along the lines of Taylor Swift, but with a more believable/approachable attitude.
There is so much honest emotion in the album too.
Jason and Amanda wrote what might be the first same-sex country love song for Brandi who sings it like she really feels it.
There's a lot of content about what it means to be a woman in this day and age, I think they nailed the concept overall.
The lyrics all over the album are terrific, particularly in "Redesigning Women"
"Rosie the Riveter with renovations"
"Running the world while we're cleaning up the kitchen"
"And when we love someone we take 'em to Heaven/And if the shoe fits, we're gonna buy eleven"
"Some of us are saints and some of us are surgeons"
"Made in God's image, just a better version/And breaking every jello mold"
Man, so great. Just terrific one-liners that sum up the whole attitude.
Goes West by William Tyler
Much like his previous albums, Goes West evokes shimmering desert landscapes and sun-baked open air, but this time it feels less like a bedroom lo-fi project and more like a real full band.
Weather by Tycho
Tycho's previous albums had mostly/all been electronic instrumental affairs, but this album brings in some female vocals reminding me of mid-90s downtempo acts like Olive and Morcheeba at times. Still, the underlying vibe of Tycho's bleeps and bloops are the primary driver making for a perfect late night or early morning chillout record.
Tallies by Tallies
Bright and ringing indie pop with strong nods to The Sundays and Lush, this album has some of the best shimmering wall-of-sound guitar since the early '90s.
Computers and Technology:
If you had told me 20 years ago that there would be a TV channel that let me watch every Star Wars movie and every Simpsons episode ever made, I would have called you a kook.
These look dorky as hell and I don't think they sound all that great but for listening to podcasts I have found them to be super-convenient.
We put together a nice timeline function to look back on the albums from the past 10 years which required
some new technical tomfoolery but I was very proud of how it looked and proud of the team that put it together.
Dolly Parton's America podcast
The guy from Radiolab went on a deep dive exploring not just Dolly's life and music but what it means to be a Southerner and how her mojo expands all around the world. Fascinating, even if you don't like country music.
Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast
A podcast about sound and the weird sounds we hear in movies, in music and in real life.
Hit Parade podcast
Slate's Chris Molanphy digs way deep into the Billboard charts to dig out gems and see patterns in how music evolves.
I've been a fan of Roku for years and when our old box finally became incompatible I opted for the the little stick that goes into the HDMI slot. Recommended.
As Facebook and Twitter have become increasingly infuriating, I have found myself enjoying Reddit as a resource for dumb browsing. Like any wild west community, there is plenty of toxic stuff on there, but I find that since you can tailor your feed to just be the dumb things that interest you, it is freeing in a way.
The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) by Robert Jordan
Giant epic series spanning 14 thousand-page books telling the story of three farm boys who are thrust into becming heroes while channeling elemental magic, talking with wolves and conjuring flaming swords and the original author died halfway through? Sounds perfect.
Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr
God, what a mess/On the ladder of success. Bob Mehr really got a hands-on experience of the fights, achievements, missteps and glory of the Replacements. The book is infuriating (Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson literally burning their per-diem money just for the fuck of it), and sad (man, those Stinson boys had a rough upbringing), but the story explains so much about what makes the band so great, despite their best efforts.
Lies Sleeping (Rivers of London #7) by Ben Aaronovitch
I have eaten up every book in this series about a London copper who just happens to solve crimes by speaking to ghosts and a variety of mythical beings, and this one was particularly memorable since I read it while on our vacation in England. The city and surrounding countryside ends up functioning as its own character in these books, and Aaronovich's ability to describe a location makes the reader really feel like they are transported there.
Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente
Man, this book was like a tall glass of absinthe poured through the gauzy hem of a flapper's dress. Imagine if Heaven, Hell, Limbo and any of Dante's circles were all actually the floors in a mythical hotel -- rooms filled with Bacchanalian never-ending parties and basements of toil and servitude, all paced with the lingo and hep jive speak of the Jazz Age.
Last Argument of Kings (The First Law #3) by Joe Abercrombie
The third and final book in The First Law trilogy did not disappoint. The quietly-simmering barbarian got to unleash his fury AND try to become a hero, the spidery puller of strings attempts to take over the world, and final battles are waged.
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
This oddball book was part Douglas Adams, part Tom Robbins and part Margaret Atwood doing a dystopian fiction story where everyone's place in society is dictated by which colors they can see. But kinda lightweight and funny.
Again, not a lot of TV watched this year, but a handful of things I liked:
I'm a sucker for a good space western.
Star Trek Discovery
A buddy of mine pleaded with me to watch this show to the point where he gave us his CBS All Access password just so we could watch it. It is very different than any other Star Trek series... Darker, grittier, more like a long mystery than a series of stand-alone episodes.
The Repair Shop
Stumbled into this show on Netflix and it is simply lovely. Nice British people bring broken things into an olde workshoppe and then different British people fix them using tools and elbow grease and a little bit of know-how.
Ken Burns Country
Stranger Things 3
Game of Thrones
The Office (the boy has been enjoying them muchly)
(in roughly the order that I liked it.)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Ford v Ferrari
Toy Story 4
Alita: Battle Angel
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Echo in the Canyon
15 years ago this Little Boston Terrier pup rocketed into our lives, with unquenchable energy and inexplicable noises.
We taught her to say “I Love You” and she taught us that any toy with a squeaker in it only had seconds to live.
As she got older she lost her ability to see and hear, but she still smelled.
Daisy was just about the sweetest dog I ever met and our world is worse off without her.
The Current State of Politics in America
November 2020 can't come fast enough. There can't be more of them than us.
While our trip to London was an unequivocal highlight of the year, it got off to a rough start. We secured an Airbnb flat several months ahead of time, but before our trip they canceled the reservation with little warning. We scrambled and found another Airbnb and figured everything was set. We arrived in London after our red eye flight but when we made it to the (second) flat, the plumbing didn't work. There had been a leak and they shut off the water (not before the previous occupants left a dump in each toilet than you very much).
There were assurances and plans to have the plumbing fixed but long story short, it was not going to be fixed for several days. We had to frantically (and half-asleepedly) book another hotel which was too small and only had vacancy for two nights. This required yet another scramble to find a place with all three of us frantically using our phones to try to find a hotel that would work. Finally, not wanting to spend our entire vacation hopping from hotel to hotel every two nights, we bit the bullet and got a room in Waterloo that was more expensive than we wanted but ended up being really nice. To use a local phrase: Sod Off, Airbnb.
Uncle Gary/Aunt Alice/Neighbor Sandy
Three great people left this year. Nothing but fond memories of all of them.
Mark Hollis from Talk Talk and Peter Mayhew from inside Chewbacca died.
Jammin' in Heaven.
Not Hamilton in Chicago/Throwing Away Our Shot
We made a trek to Chicago to surprise Henry with tickets to see Hamilton but the day of the show he got sicker and sicker. We just sat in the hotel room all afternoon while he slept for hours and hours until we finally came to the realization that there was no way we were going to make it to the show. Even if we went he would be miserable so I tried to find any Chicago pals who could take the tickets an hour before curtains. Nobody could do it so I planned to drop the tickets at the front desk to see if any hotel employees wanted them. In the elevator on the way down, I looked at the woman next to me and said "I have three tickets to Hamilton that starts in an hour. Do you want them?" She and two of her gal pals were in town with nothing to do that night so she was over the moon. We stayed in and watched The Meg on the SyFy channel.
During a windstorm out at the farm, a giant maple tree (probably nearly 100 years old) split and fell on one of the outbuildings. It had been struck by lightning at least two other times in the past and finally had to come down. Now that part of the yard looks totally weird every time we see it.
Sometimes you order a box of 24 Diet Dr. Peppers and UPS delivers you
a damp bag with 18 loose Diet Dr. Peppers in it.