Sunday, December 31, 2023

Free to Be 2023: 

Free to Be 2023:

Top 9
Travel :: Music :: Cats
The Boy :: The Nonsense :: The Way
Family :: Projects :: Sun and Shade

An epic road trip to New Orleans/Louisville/Memphis
Saw Sun Studios for the first time, visited Graceland, drank bourbon, ate BBQ, Stayed at a haunted hotel that used to be a civil war hospital, communed with ghosts, ate beignets at Café Du Monde, shopped for creepy voodoo shit, and ended with a Mecca-like visit to a Buc-ees truck stop.


NYT Connections
Wordle was fun, but it feels so 2020. All the cool kids in 2023 are playing Connections, where you need to find the thematic ties between different words, ranging from most complex connections to simple groupings. It has been the nightcap to our evenings this year, and every time its time for bed and Penny says "Wanna Connect?" I always say Yes.

This is The Way
If the seventh grader who lives inside me wasn't already happy enough, my wife devoted much of 2023 to creating a Star Wars Mandalorian costume. The Bo-Katan Kryze helmet and jumpsuit were store-bought, but the armor pieces were individually sourced from 3D printers Clever 3D Studio then sanded, hand painted, and distressed over several months.

On top of it all, she's an unbreakable mother bear, a champion of animals in her work at the Humane Society, a frankenplanner pioneer, and continues to drop my jaw with her unwavering support of her friends, her family, and surprising her derpy husband.

PJ Bo Katan

That Boy.
It was a huge year for Henry. He got his drivers' license, got a summer job, got two (TWO!) art pieces accepted into the Pioneer High School Impact arts magazine, was promoted on his high school robotics team, helped us build and move things, keept improving as a drummer, got accepted into every college he applied to (and received scholarships for each school), had his metalworking pieces displayed in a prominent jewelry store as part of youth art month, took some epic senior photos, developed a remarkable personal fashion style that is noticed any time we go anywhere, often closed the garage door, and honestly is an admirable man in a world where a lot of boys his age have chosen to be shitheads.

He still isn't taller than me but damn it if he isn't getting closer every year.

Henry's Senior Photos

Mudroom to Pantry [Phase 1 of 2]
The last big project for the farmhouse before we move in next year was the kitchen. We loved the cabinets but the distance from the countertops to the upper cabinet doors was about 8.5" (so if you had a two-liter of pop on the counter and then opened a cabinet door to get a glass, the bottle would be knocked to the floor). We labored over this decision because Penny's grandfather hand-built the cabinets in the 1930s and so we hemmed and hawed about whether to keep them or not.

We talked to an architect friend of ours and she wisely said "You can keep the cabinets, just move them to another room" which blew our minds. We have a mudroom (traditional farmhouse room off the front porch where the farmhands could come in from the fields and clean up before lunch/dinner) so we decided to move the existing cabinets into the mudroom and transform it into a pantry.

I spent a couple months carefully dismantling the existing cabinets and re-factoring them into the new space. The most incredible thing was that when I pieced together the upper square cabinets, there was a dead space in the middle. We tried to decide whether to put shelving in there, or wall it off somehow, but I found an existing cabinet door that was exactly the right size to cap it off.

I got a butcher block surface and cut it down to the right dimensions, then stained it to match the rest of the cabinets. I think it turned out pretty OK.

More detail can be found here if we are Facebook pals.


Visiting Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament
Every year for the past several years, Penny has gone down to this incredibly accessible tennis tournament where all the pros play and it is within driving distance of our house. The weather was uncooperative in the morning, but the afternoon turned out to be a winner and I got to see Felix Auger-Aliassime, Matteo Berrettini, Andy Murray, Francis Tiafoe, Stan Wawrinka, Ben Shelton, Jessica Pagula, Venus Williams, Coco Gauff, and I only missed Aryna Sabalenka by a day.

On day 2, Penny went back to the tournament and Henry and I explored some weird stores across the river in Kentucky. Highlights: Hail Records & Oddities, a combo death metal record store, occult shop, and taxidermy museum; a bonkers toy store called Earth 2 Kentucky; and an incredible magical supply/bespoke arcana store called Hierophany & Hedge.

Stella's Lounge and Veggie Crunch Wraps
On one of our college tours, we found a bar called Stella's Lounge that had a great collection of vintage video games, '80s kitsch on the TV screens and an incredible vegan crunch wrap that Henry adapted and has been making all year. Veggie chorizo, black beans, tomatoes, cheese, ranch dressing, and jalapenos all wrapped up and pan fried.

Oberon Eclipse & Long Drink
Oberon Eclipse, a seasonal addition from Michigan's own Bell's Brewery (hints of coriander!), and the introduction of the Finnish Long Drink were welcome on my taste buds this year.

Frank Ferrante is GROUCHO!
A true bucket list item crossed off.

Frank Ferrante has been keeping the legacy of Groucho Marx alive for decades and I've always threatened to travel to see his long-running one-man show in Chicago,
but never got there. My bestest old comedy buddy Dave alerted me to the fact that he was going to be playing locally so he and I saw the live show.
Or, in the immortal words of the man himself: "I didn't like the play, but then I saw it under adverse conditions - the curtain was up."

Cottage Connectivity
I can't tell if this should fall under good things or bad things. Our family cottage up north has never had a TV, cell phone reception, and certainly not internet connectivity. It is a refuge where in order to have fun, you needed to read a book or listen to records or play cards or just stare at the lake. This year the inevitability of technology has crept in, and we installed wi-fi at the cottage.

Ultimately, this is a good thing. We can check weather, stream from Spotify, contact loved ones in case of wasps nests or severed fingers, but part of me will long for the olden days as soon as I see everybody in the room staring at their phones instead of looking for loons.

Dudes Weekend
Got away for a long weekend with a bunch of pals in the woods.
The final assessment? "Ten Gilligans, no Professors."

Pear butter
Based on my lust for the spread that The Jefferson Market puts on their biscuits,
I got kinda obsessed trying to re-create their savory sweet pear butter at home. Theirs is spicy and buttery
and it’s all I can do to keep myself from licking the little tin cup clean at every visit.

Farmhouse Kitchen Re-Imagining [Phase 2 of 2]
Like I said, the kitchen is in need of an update. We worked with a terrific architect, came up with good designs, found a miraculous contractor who shows up on time and keeps the workspace clean (and no you cannot have his number), and started tearing things apart in this 1880s farmhouse.

The plaster and lath came off of the walls, and revealed all kinds of additional historical mysteries. Long-abandoned doorways were revealed, the underlying structure showed true 1x12 boards (indicating that the original footprint of the oldest part of the house was before 1900), and some studs still had bark on the unfinished side. The walls beneath the plaster were actual tongue-and-groove boards, which would rarely be used for an internal wall, and we found multiple places where old doors or windows were modified or moved to accommodate the needs of the family as it grew.

The highlight was finding an inscription from Penny's great aunt Ida written on one of the studs in July 1900 when she was 17 years old.

The new cabinets are delivered and offgassing, electrical is run (involving another series of wild goose chases in a house where a lot of the original wiring is over 100 years old), and the drywall is hung. Here's to continued forward progress in 2024. Stay tuned.



the record - Boygenius
The combined power of these three terrific singer songwriters overwhelms their impressive individual achievements. Beautiful harmonies, complimentary objectives, and angular approaches, plus some of the most lush production I heard all year.

Weathervanes - Jason Isbell
Every time a new Jason Isbell album comes out, my initial thought is "I like it, but it isn't as good as [previous record]." Then as I spend time with it, I find new nuances and things I look forward to. A turn of a phrase or a particular slide solo, or a certain storyline that I've never heard told in that way before. Simple as a weathervane, the themes and emotions are pure and the performances are top-notch.

Household Name - Momma
My musical sherpa Steve turned me on to these guys (full disclosure: this album came out in 2022). These kids play '90s rock worth their Veruca Salt, and the fact that they name-check the Smashing Pumpkins deep cut "Hummer" in one of their songs certainly didn't hurt.

Valley Of Heart's Delight - Margo Cilker
This brassy folkie released one of my favorite albums a couple years ago, and the follow-up is in the same vein. Heartfelt and loose, almost like if Emmylou covered an entire record of b-sides from The Band.

Lavender Days - Caamp
A staple of the local radio station 107.1, every song I heard from this 2022 album resonated with me so I dove in and really loved the whole thing. I honestly don't know if Caamp is a 10-person band or just one guy, but the simple acoustic pop songs he/they put together just hit right.

Secret Stratosphere - William Tyler
My favorite of the New Wave of Cosmic Americana players, Tyler loops and flips guitar lines until they sound like entire choruses or chanting monks, then zooms them all to an outer space desert.

Timothy Monger - Timothy Monger
Good friend and even better songwriter, Tim Monger crafts another Field Notes notebook of Michigan pop-folk with unexpected twists and brave production choices that all pay off. Here's to the Trillium and the Muskellunge! TUEBOR!!!!

Did You Know That There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd - Lana Del Rey
I intitially dismissed Lana Del Rey as another Selena Gomez/Ariana Grande/Demi Lovato-style face-slash-influencer, but in listening to her records, there is a spooky underbelly that reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia -- the soft, sweet face with the burning secret or the smouldering disaproval. Coolly analyzing the buzzing around her and dismissing it with a withering riposte.

The Window - Ratboys
Being part of a band called Porchsleeper who once opened for Slobberbone, I am a big fan of great bands with unconventional names. While Ratboys sounds like they would be a bunch of gutter skatepunks, in reality they are a sweetly boisterous four-piece who lays out Breeders-y indie rock (produced by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla). The highlight is the nearly nine minute epic-ish jam "Flat Earth, WI" which is seriously 90% a blistering guitar solo and then probably the most epic and anthemic codas of the year.

Art Dealers - Low Cut Connie
Saw these guys at The Ark this year, partially because it seemed like a small club for a big rock band like this. Piano-wielding frontman Adam Weiner is one part anthemic Bruce Springsteen and one part coy Michael Hutchence with a healthy dose of Little Richard camp and showmanship sprinkled over top (a well-established high point of the live show is when he dramatically rips open his plain white t-shirt in a Stanley Kowalski-esqe display of tortured masculinity). Still, the power of the songs and the enthusiasm is not to be denied.

The obligatory Playlist:

Live Shows:
Danielle Ponder and Neal Francis at The Ark
Jason Isbell at Temple Theater in Saginaw
Television City and All Over the Shop at the Cadieux Cafe
Built to Spill at Bell's Brewery
Coverboy Performs the Music of George Michael at the Cadieux Cafe
Timothy Monger at The Ark
Kid Koala and Lealani at the Blind Pig
Low Cut Connie at The Ark
Wait Wait Don't Tell Me feat. Bob Seger
Natural Blonde at Neutral Zone
The Darkness at Saint Andrews
Frank Ferrante's GROUCHO
Stone and Sue/Forty Drop Few house concert

Computers and Technology:

Beneath the Rhythm Podcast: Episode 10 | The Review

I was interviewed alongside some other folks who work in online music publishing about the value and power of the album review.

If you like hearing me bloviate about the history and intent of AllMusic as well as me talking about Pat Finnerty's "What Makes This Song Stink" and Pitchfork's review of Jet's second album, my bit starts at around the 40 minute mark.

I also talk about buying things at the newsstand, the concept of employees getting a watch after 40 years working at an insurance agency, and the idea of grumpy people writing a letter to the editor of the newspaper so you can tell that I have my finger on the pulse of digital media in the 21st century.

Other New Podcasts:
Movie blather on The Big Picture and Unspooled.

General blather on Smartless.

Plus longtime favorites The Rewatchables, Hit Parade, Fly on the Wall, Decoder Ring, and How Did This Get Made?

AI in General in 2023

So AI went kinda crazy this year.
The video of "Will Smith Eating Spaghetti" became infamous in March, not just for its subject matter but also for its crude weirdness.

Not long after that came this AI commercial "Pepperoni Hug Spot" which looked massively better (even if it is objectively weirder):

And just last month, my buddy Ryan used AI to make this game show intro "Scam!" using tools to write the script and come up with the imagery.

Assembled and edited in AfterEffects using video assets made with RunwayML, voiceover made with Audiosonic,
a script produced in part with some prompting to ChatGPT, and stock sound effects compiled from Evanto Elements.

The What Makes This Song Stink series.
This session musician takes apart songs that stink in a very humorous fashion. Shots fired at Train, Kid Rock, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jason Aldean, among others.
The episode about Machine Gun Kelly is a particular favorite.

Also, this year I discovered Cheddar Goblin:


Amongst Our Weapons (Rivers of London, #9) by Ben Aaronovitch
A mysterious death in the silver vaults leads wizard-ish investigator Peter Grant on a merry chase that even leads outside of London where we finally learn more about the freaky secret magical societies in England from WW2.

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai
Henry recommended this book to me. First published in Japan in 1948, the author/main character is sort of a Bukowski-esque sad sack who wants to participate in a society that he really doesn't understand and that, in turn, doesn't understand him. Very cutting and beautiful.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente
September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows—and their magic—to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September's shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland's shadows back.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
When the Eastwood sisters join the suffragists of New Salem in 1893, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement.

The Past is Red by Catherynne M. Valente
Tetley Abednego is the most beloved girl in Garbagetown, but she's the only one who knows it. But Earth is a terrible mess, hope is a fragile thing, and a lot of people are very angry with her. Then Tetley discovers a new friend, a terrible secret, and more to her world than she ever expected.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
A novel of art, time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space.

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros
Very much in the Harry Potter/Hunger Games vein (but decidedly not YA), the main character becomes a reluctant dragon rider and fights for her place in the hierarchy of this fictional world. Definitely predictable in a comforting way, but I found the worldbuilding unique and the tensions to be believable.

Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs
Two estranged half-sisters tasked with guarding their family's library of magical books must work together to unravel a deadly secret at the heart of their collection--a tale of familial loyalty and betrayal, and the pursuit of magic and power.

Full List on Goodreads


Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
The Killer
Stop Making Sense
Blade Runner
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Asteroid City
John Wick: Chapter 4
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Leave the World Behind
Haunted Mansion
Meg 2: The Trench
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Fast X


Cunk on Earth

Welcome to Wrexham
Ted Lasso
The Mandalorian
Cowboy Bebop
The Crown
White Lotus
The Mayfair Witches
Sex Education
The Witcher

Bad Juju:


Brutal Ice Storms in Michigan
A totally weird winter where the temperatures and precipitation combined to just stick to trees and make everything heavy as hell. It sounded very alien outside and we lost a ton of branches on the old-growth trees at the farm.

In a disturbingly Carl Spacklerian move, I got really pissed off at the family of groundhogs digging up the foundations at the farm. We developed a very close relationship with our new friends at Community Pest Solutions, removing (I believe) 5 different groundhogs, but the critters still stalk the grounds.

Book Project Stalled
Over the past couple years I've been working with a bunch of folks to write an oral history of the company where I've worked for over two decades, but this year it kinda ground to a halt. Some of the folks I believed to be on board with the project are suddenly unwilling and it has really slammed the breaks on both my progress and my enthusiasm.

I strongly believe something will come of the book in 2024, even if it is just wrapping up the loose ends and trying to "finish" it to some degree. It is an important and hilarious and interesting story, and I feel it should be told, but without some of the key information, it won't be what it could have been.

Those we lost:
Pee Wee
Piper Laurie
Robbie Robertson
Sinéad O'Connor
Tina Turner
Vivian Trimble from Luscious Jackson
Trugoy the Dove from De La Soul
Tom Verlaine of Television
Van Conner of Screaming Trees
Montana the Dog

Not to mention wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the systematic dismantling of womens health rights, absolute lunatics remaining in power, unfortunate and frustrating family drama that I don't really want to put on the internet, the general buggy-whip state of running an ad-supported website in the modern era, Elroy Musk generally making things worse in the world, Hawaiian and Canadian wildfires, and our furnace died at the same time that our dishwasher stopped working and our well pump became disconnected accidentally.

But I don't like to complain.

2024 has the very real potential to be the most important year in all of our lives. Let's not mess it up.

Drink water.
Enjoy every sandwich.

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