Best of 2019: A Baker’s Dozen

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Well, I don’t want to start out as a buzzkill, but 2019 was in many ways a mean old year, or annus horribilis as the Queen would more politely put it. I started a hashtag at some point, #TCCC, or Total Corruption of Corporate Culture, to capture this trend. It didn’t quite light up Twitter, but it seemed to capture the vibe of 2019. Consider these signs of the apocalypse:

–Late in the year, a trove of internal government documents regarding the war in Afghanistan, now in its 19th year, showed the staggering hubris, incompetence and deceit with which the war has been waged. John Sopko of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, put it simply and brutally: “The American people have been constantly lied to.” We will forgive you if you make a mistake, just don’t lie about it.

–PG&E, the corrupt public utility in California, demonstrated how willful disregard of basic public safety can lead to scores of deaths and billions of dollars in destruction. The reporting on this scandal by Russell Gold, Rebecca Smith and others in the Wall Street Journal this year has been brilliant and depressing. It will take a long time to right this ship.

–Boeing became a member in full standing of the #TCCC club, with the Federal Aviation Administration a member in waiting.

–Goldman Sachs applied for membership in the #TCCC club. A firm of this stature should have known full well that 1MDB, the strategic development fund run by the Malaysian government, was being looted by a gang of kleptocrats. Goldman may soon atone with a $2 billion fine, but its reputation will take a little longer to refurbish.

–Wells Fargo blew up in 2016 in a consumer loan scandal, but it’s still wading in the detritus. Even as it geared up its PR machine about “respecting our employees,” its primary regulator said it has discovered a “massive backlog” of unresolved employee complaints and poor controls around pay in the company’s HR department.

–In the word cloud that is Trump/Russia/Ukraine/Steele/Comey/Burisma we may have seen the final death of the Public Good.

This all begs the question: When will we learn? When will we learn that nothing is a secret anymore? When will we learn that basic safety measures save lives and money? When will we learn that leadership comes with the burden of responsibility, that decency and respect are the glue of a healthy culture, and that truth is not relative, nor just a negotiable currency of political transactions? Even as we continue to scale the heights of human innovation and scientific advances – the first image of a black hole, the rise of quantum computing, and the creation of synthetic DNA were milestones this year – we seem at times genetically incapable of evolving beyond the death grip of avarice, hubris and myopia.

Having said all that, there are many reasons not to despair. A lot, actually. But, to quote Ringo Starr, they don’t come easy. As we’re bombarded with negativity from the media-political complex, the truffles underground may be harder to find and appreciate, but they are there nonetheless. Here are some of our favorites this year.

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“The Overstory,” by Richard Powers. Powers wrote this stunning novel in 2018, but it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, so it made the cut (plus I didn’t read it until this year). This is a hat trick of a book, presenting the world as we know it in a completely new light. Yes, trees think and feel and maybe even talk in “The Overstory,” but what compels us are the concentric rings building around the main characters as they struggle, connect and change, always reaching toward light, like the massive sequoias of the Pacific Northwest. I can’t stop thinking about this book.

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Phish, Charleston, 12/7/19.  Well, of course, Phish would make this list somehow. Cousin Don and I went to see them on their summer tour when they stopped in Charlotte, which was a great show featuring some favorites like “Free,” “Ya Mar,” “Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S,” and “Tweezer.” But at the North Charleston Coliseum in December, they unleashed some chestnuts like “Fluffhead,” “Strange Design,” and “Mr. Completely,” which managed to simultaneously plant our feet on the ground and open our heads to the heavens. We turned to each other at least half a dozen times during the show and mouthed the same question: “WTF is happening?” In a world where the swim lanes of musical creativity are becoming more compressed (literally and figuratively; hello Dynamic Range Compression), Phish continues to delight with pure creativity and imagination. Blaze on, fellas!

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“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” directed by Quentin Tarantino. The most hyped movie of the year also happened to be a sleight-of-hand, understated piece of work – not what we have come to expect from Tarantino. I loved the twisty, history-bending ending, but more than that, I loved the sense of place it created, from the Hollywood Hills to Musso & Frank. This movie had perfect pace, always quietly drawing you around the corner.

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TV. Oh my god, the biggest challenge with TV this year was what to watch and when to find the time to watch it. We enjoyed so many shows this year that they are almost too numerous to mention, but here’s a sampling: “Unbelievable,” “Fleabag,” “Watchmen,” “Succession,” “Barry,” “Russian Doll,” “Killing Eve,” “The Crown,” “How to Become a God in Central Florida,” “Veep,” and, of course, “Jeopardy” (Jeopardy James was super fun to watch on his record run, but the real star was Alex; the game when a contestant got him to cry was a moment of stunning and authentic emotion that very few other shows could ever match).

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“Cuz I Love You,” Lizzo.  She is a true phenomenon. I dare you to crank this big blues vamp up as loud as you comfortably can and not get up and dance. If you don’t, you don’t have a pulse.

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“She,” Harry Styles.  My only awareness of Harry Styles came from sneak-reading gossip columns in the checkout line at the supermarket, then this song came out of nowhere. In this tight little power ballad, he channels the Moody Blues, Childish Gambino and Nick Drake, washes it all in a little psychedelia, and transports you for a few minutes. A guilty pleasure.

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“I Was Real,” 75 Dollar Bill.  I don’t know, in Vice, Tim Scott wrote a piece headlined “75 Dollar Bill Are the Masters of 15-Minute Jams Featuring a Plywood Box Getting Battered With A Mallet,” but they sound like Terry Riley to me. Or at least shadows of Terry Riley. They’re super experimental and this is one of the few songs that’s approachable for me, but this piece comes pleasantly out of left field. It’s a 17-minute drone that builds and builds, crashes on the beach, then slowly recedes back to the ocean of sound from where it came. It is the antithesis of the digital experience and all its immediate gratification and endless choices (hello TikTok!). Its stately palindrome structure is organic and immensely satisfying.

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“Norman F—-g Rockwell,” Lana Del Rey.  Lana has become the new Stevie Nicks in our house. She’s consistently good – a sharp observer, witty, feminine, tough, always leaning in. Lots of people say this record revives a little of the “Laurel Canyon sound,” whatever that is. But it does have some of the vibrancy of Joni Mitchell, some of the clarity of the Byrds, and some of the laid-back vibe of the Pacific Coast Highway. I’ll bet she hosts really fun cocktail parties up there in the hills.

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“Three Chords and the Truth,” Van Morrison.  An old coat, a walk in the woods, a tipple by the fire. In other words, a sorely needed tonic. Thanks Van.

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“Couldn’t See the Point,” music by Chuck Krambuhl, words by Russ Yarrow. Chuck and I both toiled in the oil patch during our careers and are now enjoying some time to spread out. Chuck is in an outfit called Mike’s Garage Band, who have helped raise more than $500,000 over the past several years for nonprofits in the community. He took another step toward sainthood when he allowed me to collaborate on a song by contributing some lyrics. “Couldn’t See the Point” is a song about being awakened from a deep slumber by the power of love, set to music that sounds like a clear mountain stream. Chuck is still polishing it in the studio. As soon as it goes on Spotify I’ll put out a press release.

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The Wedding of the Decade, Jessie Yarrow and Breton Birkhofer.  I was looking forward to the wedding of these two kids, but I was caught off guard by how deeply and emotionally satisfying it was to see them bind together in this San Francisco-infused union. I said all I had to say in this wedding toast. Love you guys!

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The Power of Community.  My guiding light this year, and every year, is my wife. I’ve never known anyone as full of light, strength and intelligence as Kit. During our long and ongoing struggle with ovarian cancer, she has held me up and led me on. But we have not done it alone. We have been embraced by love and support from the community around us, through gestures large and small. In 2019, Kit started a fundraiser on Facebook for the Ovarian Cancer Research Association, which is fighting to get funding for this disease on par with breast, lung, prostate and other cancers. Through the power of this community, our family, and friends on the West Coast and around the country, she raised more than $10,000. Just a month ago, Kit was appointed by OCRA to be a national spokesperson for the organization and begins training later this month. She is fighting, propelled by her personal commitment to prevail, and held aloft by the love and support of family, friends and this wonderful community we call home. We love you all.

22 comments

  1. Russ – beautiful piece, a nice year-ender that, true to its name, is exactly perfect in its blistering criticism and its realistic optimism. Bring on 2020 and let’s fix some things…

  2. Russ: Spot-on, insightful and beautifully
    written as always. Thanks. All the best to you, Kit and the family in 2020. Miss you, pal.

  3. Russ- as always, music is the propellant and the glue— Bravo to you!
    Sending lots of holiday cheer and good wishes to both of you brave hearts.
    Barbara

  4. Russ, I’ve got a lot of reading, listening and watching to do in order to catch up with your 2019 Baker’s Dozen. Love, love that Kit was appointed OCRA spokesperson. You both Rock!
    Jackie

  5. Great article, Russ! Love reading all your interesting insights!
    Congratulations to Kit on her OCRA appointment! She is the perfect choice!
    You are both quite amazing!
    Diane

  6. Russ, keep your words coming….they are magnificent! And, Kit, keep your beautiful light shining. You are an inspiration to everyone!
    Love you both ❤️

  7. OMG. Russ, this is such a brilliant piece. Intelligent, provocative and full of love. Thank you for all the thought you put into this and your willingness to share it. You are a gem. Just like Kit.😘

  8. Happy New Year Russ and Kit! This post is fantastic! And I’m inspired to make a list of things to read watch and listen in 2020.

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