Daybook 04mar24

Back home. We traveled all day yesterday, getting in late last night. It was a smooth drive: no calamities or misfortunes otherwise befell us.

I took today off work to catch up on things and generally try to get my life in order, which includes humbly paying for the sins of last week. So: visiting the dentist and spectacle shop to get my sleep apnea mouth appliance and glasses repaired, respectively, and acquiring healthful groceries in a valiant effort to counteract my recent shitty diet.

The Drexel is doing a Sophia Coppola retrospective this month.  Tonight, they’re showing LOST IN TRANSLATION. I may try to catch it, assuming I can summon the energy to leave the house again. (Cannot predict now.) SOMEWHERE, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, and MARIE ANTOINETTE are the other films slated to play. I haven’t any of them on the silver screen; it’d be fun to change that.

WATCHING: Finished season 2 of FARGO. This show is so good.
LISTENING: Marina and the Diamonds’s 2010 album, THE FAMILY JEWELS. “I Am Not a Robot” remains one of my favorite songs. Go on, now — listen to it.

FORECAST: Traveling to Dayton tomorrow to get infused.

Daybook 02mar24

A terrorist network of black cats must have crossed my path on the drive up to Minneapolis, or perhaps I unwittingly drove under a bunch of ladders. I must have done something because since arriving here my luck has been less than stellar. Mouthguard, glasses, and a bracelet — all broken. Then, in the hotel room the first night, I went to sit down in a chair but missed. I fell flat on my ass next to the chair and cracked the back of my skull against the wall. I’ve also managed to hit my head seven times going up the Airbnb’s basement stairs. Will I do it an eighth time? Probably! Thankfully, I’ve always been told I have a thick skull, so there should be no permanent damage.

The celebration of life is today, capping off a long, sad week. The days have all blended together like a chunky stew made with gloom and sorrow, and I couldn’t confidently tell you what I’ve done and when. One thing I am confident about is that I’m ready to sleep in my own bed again.

There have been some lighter moments to punch through the general melancholia. Dinner with some of Jess’s friends. Bookstores, including the very excellent shops Once Upon a Crime and Uncle Hugo’s & Uncle Edgar’s Bookstores. (I love me a themed bookstore, and these were done very well and staffed by lovely people.) I’m sure there have been other fun moments, but… well, see the paragraph above again.

WATCHING: FARGO, season 2
LISTENING: tree.fm
READING: STARLING HOUSE, Alix E. Harrow
FORECAST: Journeying home to Columbus tomorrow.
KIRBY:

This pillow don’t come with us to Minneapolis, but it might be going home with us.

Daybook 27feb24

One of Jess’s closest friends passed away unexpectedly on Saturday, so we are in Minnesota for the week. Jess flew up Sunday morning while Kirby and I drove up, as Kirby would probably explode or something if he went on a plane.

Kirby as a copilot is lacking: he slept most of the trip, has no eyes, and is also a dog. But he made up for it by being a good boy and cute.

Yesterday was spent getting sorted, rescheduling appointments, and figuring out what the shape of the week is going to look like. It’s like planning and executing an impromptu vacation but for the most tragic of reasons, and the destination is Minnesota (don’t @ me, Minnesotans, ’tis merely a jape).

The view from our hotel room yesterday. Don’t be jealous.

#nofilter #justkidding

Today, we moved into an Airbnb that is more Kirby-friendly, though the view is not as picturesque as this alluring urbanscape. I was able to get some work done while we waited for a thing to happen that ended up being pushed to early tomorrow morning.

LAST WATCHED: KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON. My review: Jesus CHRIST was this long.
LISTENING: The JOSIE AND THE PUSSY CATS soundtrack — no better road trip soundtrack has ever existed
LAST READ: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
FORECAST: It’s gonna be a long week.

Food Formulae: Beef and Plantain Bowls with Green Salsa

We made beef and plantain bowls with green salsa last week using a recipe from the fitness coaching app I use, and they were really tasty — but, as far as I can tell, there’s no way to export the recipe or bookmark it to Chrome or anything. So rather than sorting through the ~87,000 photos on my phone to find the screenshots the next time I want to make it, why not record the recipe here? Herewith, I humbly present a new post category on josh bales [dot] net: Food Formulae.

Beef and Plantain Bowls with Green Salsa

503 calories/serving — Protein 37g, Carbs 41g, Fat 23g

Recipe makes 2 servings

Total Prep Time: 30min (10min prep [or 20 minutes if you’re me], 20min cook)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 medium plantain
  • 11 ounces ground beef (93% lean, 7% fat)
  • 4 tablespoons La Victoria Green Chile Salsa Mild or Herdez Salsa Verde Mile
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 cup, chopped onions
  • 2 cups, chopped kale
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • Salt

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a tray with your finest aluminum foil. Peel and slice the plantain into pieces o’ eight. Drizzle with half of the oil, season with salt, and bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown, flipping once.
  2. Meanwhile, add the beef and chopped onion to a pan over medium heat with the remaining oil, cooking until browned and cooked through, crumbling with a spoon.
  3. Season this beefy hodgepodge with salt and chili powder, then add in chopped kale, cooking until wilted, about 2 minutes.
  4. Serve the beefy hodgepodge with plantains. Every good bottom deserves a top, so you will top this badboy with green salsa.

My Favorite Books of 2023

The sun has just about set on 2023, which means it’s time to look back at the books I’ve read this past year.

We’re about to look at some analytics first, so if you don’t give a shit about that and only want to see what my favorite books were, you can skip over this next bit by clicking here.


According to the Reading List, I read 26 books in 2023. Technically, the list shows 27 titles read, but the last two — FAUN by Joe Hill and A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers — are novellas, which I count as half a book each for the purposes of this exercise.

26 books is fairly consistent with the amount I’ve read in the last few years. My average seems to be about one book every two weeks, a pace I am good with given all the other pulls at my time.  Here, have a chart.

As you can see, 2020 was an outlier by quite a bit. (It also illustrates why, when you’re looking at a dataset, it’s helpful to know the median as well as the average.) I chalk such a large number up to it being the early days of the pandemic, when I suddenly had more free time but before depression pulled a Christopher Columbus and colonized my brain. Depression, among many other delightful qualities, affects the ability of the brain to think and focus. 2021 was a bad year, mental health-wise, which is a major reason why I only managed to read 20 books.

I’m happy with having read 26 books this year, and I’ll be happy if I reach that number again in 2024.

Okay — enough with the data analysis. Onward to my favorite books of 2023!


FAVORITE NEW BOOK

(Published in 2023 and that I’ve never read before)

SILVER NITRATE, Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Look at that cover art. Should I ever be so blessed by satan to get a novel published, I would then commit several crimes to have cover art this cool.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia has become one of my favorite writers over the last few years. Not just because she writes great books — which, to be clear, she does — but because she switches up genres and eras with every book. 1970s noir? Check. Jazz Age fantasy involving Mayan gods and a road trip? Also check. Gothic horror on a Mexican estate? You got it. Historical romance reimagining of a classic scifi novel? Check and mate. And those are only the novels of hers that I’ve read so far.

SILVER NITRATE continues this trend: a thriller set in 1990s Mexico City, involving a cursed, lost Mexican horror movie and Nazi occultism. From the back cover:

Montserrat has always been overlooked. She’s a talented sound editor, but she’s left out of the boys’ club running the film industry in ’90s Mexico City. And she’s all but invisible to her best friend, Tristán, a charming if faded soap opera star, though she’s been in love with him since childhood.

Then Tristán discovers his new neighbor is the cult horror director Abel Urueta, and the legendary auteur claims he can change their lives—even if his tale of a Nazi occultist imbuing magic into highly volatile silver nitrate stock sounds like sheer fantasy. The magic film was never finished, which is why, Urueta swears, his career vanished overnight. He is cursed.

Now the director wants Montserrat and Tristán to help him shoot the missing scene and lift the curse . . . but Montserrat soon notices a dark presence following her, and Tristán begins seeing the ghost of his ex-girlfriend. As they work together to unravel the mystery of the film and the obscure occultist who once roamed their city, Montserrat and Tristán may find that sorcerers and magic are not only the stuff of movies.

That description barely scratches the surface of this wonderful, deftly-told mystery. One of my favorite bits is a little easter egg that Moreno-Garcia casually drops in the middle (remember, the book is set in 1993 going on 1994) (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler):

Even though each of Moreno-Garcia’s books is wildly different from the others, there are a few common threads: 1) they are historical fiction, 2) they are set in Mexico, and 3) the protagonists are young women from varying socioeconomic backgrounds who all find their power through the course of the narrative. I love this because it gives a white dude like me a glimpse into Mexican culture through a multitude of eras. Combined with Moreno-Garcia’s superb storytelling, this makes every new book from her something to look forward to.

FAVORITE NEW-TO-ME BOOK

(Published before 2023 but I read it for the first time)

THE PRICE OF SALT, or CAROL, Patricia Highsmith

I haven’t stopped thinking about this book since I finished it in January.

THE PRICE OF SALT chronicles the slow-burn romance between two women, Therese and Carol, in the 1950s United States, an era that was, uh, not exactly known for its progressiveness towards such relationships. Therese is a struggling young set designer who works by day in a large department store. It is there she first meets Carol, a customer looking for a Christmas toy for her daughter. They eventually become friends and then lovers. There is a road trip, an unhinged private investigator, and a lot of 1950s gender politics that should be hard to fathom but are still sadly relevant today.

The book was published in 1952. At the time, “lesbian novels” were not so much de rigueur as they were considered a career killer, especially for a well-known suspense writer such as Highsmith. As such, she published THE PRICE OF SALT under a nom de plume. Another byproduct of the era is that the novel’s romance and sex are not depicted outright but instead through subtext. Ironically, this works in the story’s favor by sending an undercurrent of sexual electricity through the interactions between Therese and Carol.

THE PRICE OF SALT was reprinted in 1990, this time under Highsmith’s own name, and retitled CAROL. In the Afterword of that edition, Highsmith shared an observation about one of the things she felt made her novel stand out at the time. It’s the perfect bit to close with.

The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing—alone and miserable and shunned—into a depression equal to hell.

FAVORITE REREAD

(Something I’ve read before and reread in 2023)

The JUMPER Series, Steven Gould

JUMPER is a perfect example of science fiction doing what it does best: asking a straightforward question — “What if I could teleport?” — and extrapolating from there.

Davy Rice is a 16-year-old kid living with a physically and emotionally abusive, alcoholic father. One day, at home and about to take a beating over some mild transgression, Davy closes his eyes but the blow doesn’t come. When he opens his eyes, he is in his local library. This is the first time Davy realizes he teleport — or “jump” as he calls it.

The first half of JUMPER details Davy’s escape from his dad and does all the things a 16-year-old kid would do if he discovered he could teleport (or at least the things I would have done and still would do): burgles a bank vault and sets himself up in a luxurious lifestyle. He also searches for his mom and meets a girl. Then in the middle of the book, the plot makes a sharp left turn that I will not discuss here because spoilers.

One of the things I love about JUMPER, and about Steven Gould’s books in general, and why I return to them again and again, is that Gould does a wonderful job at puzzling through the mechanics, the physics, the limitations of teleportation and solves for them in thoughtful ways that make sense. For example: later in the book, Davy decides to build an impenetrable home in a remote desert that only a jumper could reach. How would he go about getting lumber, furniture, electricity, plumbing, etc. into such a place? Fuck if I know — but Gould does, or at least fakes it well enough, and has Davy address these challenges one by one. And he does it in a way that’s compelling to read; it’s not just some infodump that you have to skip over five pages to get back to the story. That takes skill, gentle reader.

REFLEX is my least favorite of the series and the only one I’d never reread before. It’s still a good book, but upon rereading it I remembered why I’d not done so before, especially since I love the other books in the series so much. One of the two main plot threads involves Davy being imprisoned for pretty much the entire book. It’s interesting, sure, and Gould does a wonderful job of thinking through all the ways one might imprison a teleporter. But being stuck with Davy while he is methodically tortured and subjugated for half a book gets a little bleak, and then just becomes tedious. The other main plot thread involves Millie, Davy’s wife, who can also jump, tracking him down while avoiding the bad guys, and eventually pulling off a rescue. Millie is just as engaging a protagonist as Davy, if not moreso, and it’s ultimately her narrative that makes the book worth reading.

IMPULSE is set 15 years or so after REFLEX, and focuses on Millie and Davy’s teenage daughter, Cent. IMPULSE is just as good as JUMPER, and Gould begins to do interesting things with the concept of teleportation and extrapolating what else one might be able to do with the ability, like, say, flying. EXO, book four, takes the extrapolation even further and is essentially JUMPER . . . IN SPAAACE. Gould is working on a fifth JUMPER book and is also contracted for a sixth, so I imagine whenever those come out, I will probably read through the series again. Not because I will need to, but because I’ll want to.


This piece ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be. Next year I think I will break it up into several posts. If you stuck with me ‘til now, then know that I am impressed and you can picture me reenacting that meme of the bearded guy slowly nodding and smiling in approval.

Becoming an Arsonist

The other day, I posted this photo of Satipo from a LEGO Raiders of the Lost Ark set in the group chat, along with a comment:

A decent sliding-into-X-like style joke, no?

In response, my friend wrote:

That’s me coming out of 2023 but I refuse to enter 2024 like that. I’ll still have the torch, but I’ll be the arsonist.

I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot over the last few days. How the attitude conveyed with those few words, so casually typed out, is just . . . so completely at odds with what my attitude and mindset have been since 2020.

I’ve been in survival mode for so long, doing my goddamnedest to avoid defeat, in so many forms, that I’ve forgotten what my goal should be: to win. Because, to be honest, Honestly, I don’t know that what I’ve been doing could even be called “fighting off defeat”. That implies having fight within me, and exercising agency, even if it’s in a defensive capacity. What I’ve been doing feels more like . . . surrender. Resigned to dealing with whatever comes next.

It was an intense realization to arrive at and then sit with. I’m glad it happened, though. I needed it.

So, my intent going into 2024 is to ditch the defeatist attitude, find my joie de vivre again, and win.

Next year, I think I will be the arsonist.

Watching The Planets

We broke our unplanned summer hermithood not just once, but twice this week. On Thursday night we took part in what was billed as the World’s Largest Sound Bath and City-Wide Meditation — an hour of lying on yoga mats and blankets in the grass at Columbus Commons with a thousand other people, as we were bathed in waves of sound coming from an array of instruments. Some folks referred to this as an “ocean of harmony.”

Sound baths are purported to have some therapeutic effects, helping with stress, fatigue, and depression. I’d never heard of a sound bath before Thursday. After experiencing one, I am not fully sold on their curative powers. That said, was it peaceful to lie under a blanket, the sky overhead all big and black pierced only by the occasional star and aircraft running light, while ambient music was blasted at me? Absolutely.

Then on Friday, we went to another symphony, this one of the more traditional variety: Gustav Holst’s THE PLANETS, performed by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

So many people — myself included — think “classical music” and picture these dry, fusty chamber pieces made by long-dead white dudes wearing powdered wigs. You know, music that’s really great to fall asleep to. Well, Holst was a white dude and he has been dead for nearly a century, but, to the best of my knowledge, he never wore a powdered wig, and THE PLANETS has a frisson running through it that is anything but sleep-inducing. You listen to it and understand where generations of sci-fi film composers have drawn at least some inspiration.

“Mars, The Bringer of War” is a banger, thunderous and ferocious, and is easy to love. It’s my favorite suite, but “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity” is a very close second. “Jupiter” feels less like an army is on its way to crush you, see you driven, etc., and more like you’re an adventurer off on some kind of star tr — uh, expedition.

My introduction to THE PLANETS was, of all things, an early episode of THE VENTURE BROS. Henchmen 21 and 24 sing “Mars, The Bringer of War” while they prepare to resume their henching jobs. It’s a funny scene and I was quite taken with “Mars,” so I downloaded a copy of THE PLANETS and gave it a listen. I’ve wanted to see it performed live ever since. I’m happy to report back to Past Josh: it was as cool as we’d always hoped it would be.

A visual tour of the Solar System, created by NASA, played above the orchestra, that followed the music as Holtz took us from planet to planet. It was unexpected but really cool. Photo by Jess.

My Friend, Stephen

In 2018, back in the Before Time, when dinosaurs, not COVID, ruled the earth, and I still worked in an office full-time, I was introduced to this peculiar, older white gentleman. He had a strong Bahstahn accent and bore an uncanny resemblance — in appearance, attitude, and temperament — to BREAKING BAD’s Mike Ehrmantraut. His name was Stephen, and he was hired to lead a department adjacent to mine. After a couple of interactions with him, a few things about Stephen became readily apparent: he was wickedly funny, loved to challenge people to think differently, neither suffered fools nor tolerated bullies, and was fiercely protective of his people. Over time, it would be my great privilege to become one of “Stephen’s people.”

Stephen Flannery died a little over a month ago, unexpectedly, and under circumstances that have made his death even harder to accept than it already would have been otherwise — but those circumstances are not mine to share. It’s been five weeks, and it still feels surreal.

We had a “celebration of life” for Stephen at work last week — a phrase and event Stephen would have professed to loathe, even though, on the inside, he would have been pleased. Over a hundred people from a dozen states attended in person, plus another 150 called in on Teams — each of us showing up to share stories about a man who’d been gone from the organization for six months. That was the kind of figure Stephen was. Nearly everyone there cherished Stephen in some fashion. I say “nearly” because I am certain a few folks secretly turned to make sure Stephen was, in fact, dead. If you knew Stephen, this would make complete sense to you. Someone once described Stephen as the best friend you could ever hope to have — or the worst of enemies. I remember how delighted Stephen was as he related that story to me. Because that was Stephen — a man for whom middle ground did not exist.

Within six months of meeting Stephen, the department in which I worked experienced several sudden upheavals. I made it six months before staying in my position became untenable. That’s when Stephen offered me the opportunity to come work for him in an entirely different part of the organization, one which I knew fuck-all about. I pointed this out and he told me he wasn’t hiring me for my subject matter expertise, he was hiring me because I was a good leader. It was the best career decision I ever made.

Over the next five years, my relationship with Stephen progressed from colleague to mentor, to one of the best leaders — and people — with whom I’ve ever worked. Somewhere along the way, we also became friends.

As I noted earlier, Stephen left the organization in January 2023. This should have been a major bummer, but our small team was strong and Stephen’s successor appeared to be (and was) a good fit. Plus, there was the not-so-subtle hint that Stephen would one day ask me to come work with him again. We actually ended up talking more frequently after his departure than when we worked together, an unexpected but delightful turn of events. We still had weekly 1:1s, but the frequency of our texts increased to multiple times a day: sharing Words With Friends scores, sending profanely funny TikToks back and forth, sharing recommendations and commentary on books and movies, plus the normal, everyday life shit. He would randomly send me books he thought I would like, including the Folio Society editions of JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD mentioned in this post. (I sent him a very nice thank you note and told him not to do it again.) Stephen was a major encourager of my writing, even offering a few months ago to put me up in his house for my own personal writing retreat. I never had the chance to take him up on it.

I’ll close out this ramble by sharing a message Stephen sent me a couple of months back. I have it scribbled down on a post-it note inside my desk.

I never tire of your writing. Check. I so look forward to your writing. Paternally proud. Fraternally envious. Keep inspiring.

Stephen was a lion of a man; a mentor, a devil, and my friend. I miss him.

Paint the Town Pink

Few things bring me greater joy in this life than a reason to dress up in a thematically appropriate outfit. Give me a themed event, the more offbeat or outré, the better, and I will hurl myself at it with reckless sartorial abandon. Doesn’t matter what the theme is, really: post-apocalypse, Jersey Shore, film noir, CRYBABY, Adventurers Society, Tarantinoverse, James Bond/spy, une fête en blanc, space luau, Dolly-Parton-banned-books… the list goes on. And that’s not including Halloween.

So when something like BARBIE comes around, bringing with it the opportunity to dress up and paint the town pink with a few comrades…? Well, let’s just say I show up.

We saw BARBIE at The Neon in Dayton, of course. The magnificent Barbie Box is a creation of local Dayton shop The Stoney Cottage and was conveniently located outside The Neon. This Barbie Box was cooler and more fun than any studio-provided cardboard display could ever dream of being.

After the movie: drinks, dinner, and more drinks at Salar, followed by an impromptu arm-wrestling match and an ill-advised footrace down the middle of Fifth Street (which I’m pretty sure I saw someone filming).

But what about the movie itself? Could it possibly have lived up to all the hype?

Honestly? It’s a work of art.

This isn’t me being hyperbolic or ironic. Writer-director Greta Gerwig took a three-score-old fashion doll and somehow turned it into an intelligent, self-aware, feminist, patriarchy-critiquing, and subversive film that also is both slyly and overtly hilarious, and in general a frankly bonkers piece of cinema. If that ain’t art, I’m not sure what is.

That a big corporation like Mattel, which owns the right to Barbie, allowed Gerwig to make this film, which also lampoons Mattel in the film – Will Ferrell playing Mattel’s CEO is exactly what one would expect out of Will Ferrell — is nothing short of incredible. I wish more corporations would let artists take similar risks with their IP. Sure, there would no doubt be some whiffs, but the hits could be so big. At the very least, we would get interesting films out of it.

I would be shocked if BARBIE didn’t walk away with at least one Oscar nomination for acting – looking at you, Ryan Gosling, for somehow bringing pathos to Ken — and another for Best Screenplay. It’s the perfect populist vehicle to inject some energy into awards season.

By no means is BARBIE not without its flaws. There are a few times where the film calls itself out in a way that, while funny and self-effacing, also feels a bit like the filmmakers are doing it before someone else does. The end of the third act also gets a little too weirdly meta in a way that didn’t fully work for me. Thankfully, the film almost immediately makes up for this in the denouement, with Margot Robbie delivering the final line of dialogue that is both extremely funny and the perfect note on which to end things.

So yes, BARBIE is not a perfect film — but what work of art is?

What BARBIE is, though, is a delightful way to spend two hours in a movie theater, surrounded by your pals and a bunch of other weirdos dressed in pink.

Jenny Lewis in the Land of Cleve

We spent a few days up in Cleveland this week to catch the Jenny Lewis show at the House of Blues and see friends. Got a posh Airbnb from which we could work during the day on Thursday and Friday, then went to see Jenny Lewis on Thursday night followed by a cookout on Friday night.

It was during the early days of the pandemic when I became a diehard Jenny Lewis fan. Her albums THE VOYAGER and ON THE LINE got me through many a day spent driving to and from vet appointments and waiting in my car in vet clinic parking lots and not thinking about dogs dying inside vet clinics. I’m not sure why I connected so hard with her music, then, but I did, and I am grateful for it.

So it’s no small thing when I say that finally seeing Lewis perform live was a sublime experience – one every bit as good as I knew it would be.

Hold tight now – crappy iPhone show photos incoming:

Jenny Lewis and the band playing on stage.
Jenny Lewis on stage singing, in profile, pointing into the distance.

READING: TRUE GRIT, Charles Portis

LAST WATCHED: One of my low-key goals is to watch every film and TV adaptation of John le Carré’s novels. Last night’s viewing was THE RUSSIA HOUSE, a spy film set in Russia during Glasnost, with Sir Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer playing the leads. It was good, if a bit uneven at times, though it was fun seeing Connery in a spy film playing a very non-James-Bond-like character.

LISTENING: Outside of Jenny Lewis, “I Hope Your Husband Dies” by Amigo the Devil has been stuck in my head.

KIRBY: Not caring that drinking this stuff might stunt his growth (it’s a joke, there’s no coffee in that mug (it’s actually vodka) (also a joke)).

Kirby with his snoot buried into a Luke's Cafe coffee mug, trying to lap up the last vestiges of milk.