2020 in review

Charles Yu's novel "Interior Chinatown" in front of Christmas treeMore than most years, 2020 has been hard to pin down. It seemed like several small epochs fit into the space of 12 months, as if 2020 were a kind of magical bag with limitless capacity, sort of like the sack Hermione has in one of the late Harry Potters, where she produces shelter, a radio, possibly cookware??? (if memory serves) from a small bag when the trio are on the run.

At the start I was still commuting to Redwood City and spending hours in the car listening to Civil War audiobooks. January and February I made my way through Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction, then The Second Founding, then W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, pulling out of my driveway before 6 am and starting the day with another chapter of armed intimidation, violence, murder, double dealing, and struggle. I would annoy friends and family by sagely opining that everything we were going through was connected to the Civil War, everything in our society reflected a power structure designed around racial disenfranchisement – by violent means if it came to that. Months later came the summer, George Floyd, and reckoning. I felt both glad I’d made this paltry foundation of a reading list and ashamed at how much further I had to go.

Lunar new year and the virus – that was the first holy shit moment, reading about all the travel within China that was going to vector this thing everywhere. In conference rooms at work we remarked how it was surely much worse than the Chinese authorities were telling us. I was sure, with so much air travel across the Pacific, the Bay Area would be hard hit, a scene out Contagion. I’d gotten into the habit of calling my parents on my drive home, once I had made the merge from 101 onto 92 East, often a cluster that could take 40 minutes to complete, plenty of time to sit in traffic and catch up. I remember calling my mom and telling her it wouldn’t be long before it emerged in California. It will look apocalyptic, but we’ll be ok. We’re taking it seriously. Don’t go to church. Don’t go anywhere.

I still went places. My last indoor restaurant meal was in early March, it felt risky and foolish. That night I went to the ballet and sat in a theater, aware of every cough and breath around me. By my daughter’s birthday in mid March we were in lockdown and I worried about being able to get a cake.

Then it was Tiger King, one package of toilet paper per customer, Zoom. Nine months of blur punctuated by an election.

Everything turned out not so bad but also a lot worse. We’ve been working from home. My son had a virtual graduation and then started college a virtual freshman. My daughter’s been thriving in online school, but she’s like that – driven, and a pandemic won’t stop her. We’ve got tons of masks. We see friends on walks or outside on our deck. But more than 300,000 deaths? Full ICUs and refrigerated trucks to hold the bodies? WTAF. I was never particularly rah rah USA, but I never thought I’d see America totally humiliated on something we were set up to lead. Brought low by ignorance, sectarianism, and cynical self-interest. Everything goes back to the Civil War…


Slow. Pointless. A joke. Having learned enough about publishing now, I realize how quixotic it is to still pursue novel writing at this point in life. I look benignly on the shiny new debut novelists and wish them well in their journey through capitalism.

That said, I’m still diligently writing a novel of crime, memory, ghosts, my favorite Northern California coastal spots, oysters, redwoods, murder, teenage lust and betrayal. An “anti-romance” I think I described it to a friend. I’m pretty into it. Hopefully in 2021 I’ll start getting it out for beta readers and see if anyone else is into it too.


Maybe because I did less time in the car this year I feel like I listened to less new music. Some highlights:

  • Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
  • Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, though it took me a few listens
  • Four Tet, especially “Baby”
  • Flo Milli – lol, Ho, why is you here? (the attitude more than anything, which is kind of how I felt about Rico Nasty – need to give a few more listens, though I’m sold on “OHFR”)
  • Noname, indispensable
  • Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist, Alfredo (nice album cover…)
  • I grieved for Pop Smoke, play “Dior” and think about the career he should have had
  • Burna Boy, ready for him to be huge
  • Tons of BROCKHAMPTON earlier in the year
  • Oddly taken with “Cue Synthesizer” by Destroyer
  • Taylor Swift, maybe I should stop underestimating her
  • Roisin Murphy (I played “Incapable” A LOT)

I listened to a lot more oldies than I normally do. I’m working my way through a great playlist Matthew Perpetua created for the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums 2020 Edition. There’s worse things than listening to Rush, “Tom Sawyer” again.


What did I even read this year? I have no idea. But I remember:

  • Alexander Chee on writer’s block in Medium
  • Have One on Me, Rumaan Alam in Esquire
  • Luster by Raven Leilani – the hype is real
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – kept thinking he’d fall off the highwire in this, but nope, stuck the landing
  • Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, can’t wait to see what he does next
  • Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
  • Jean-Patrick Manchette, discovering his wild “atrocity exhibition” type of marxist noir
  • Ross Macdonald, The Zebra Striped Hearse
  • Presidio by Randy Kennedy
  • Detective by Day series by Kellye Garrett


At the beginning of the lockdown, I watched a lot of this – incalculably soothing, ultra-British bridge instructional, “Join Us for Bridge with Shaw Taylor.” So good I may start watching it again, it’s the ultimate sleep aide, brain gym, portal into an alternate universe.

And I couldn’t have made it through the year without:

  • The Last Dance – an absolute gift
  • Call My Agent (Paris!)
  • The NBA finals
  • The Queen’s Gambit
  • Nathan Apodaca’s “Dreams” TikTok
  • And of course, Watchmen

I think the last movie we saw in theaters may have been Cats…?? That should have been a clue right there we were in for rough times.

Happy 2021 all. May the new year bring us more justice, more peace, more fun, and vaccines!

I listened to too much Kanye West and now I feel like crap

Not to self-pity but last week I had to go down to a place I don’t like and sit through stuff I can’t stand. To get through this ordeal I played too much “Yeezus” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” over and over again, top volume, Highway 101. Every time “Power” came on I hit repeat.  “Send It Up” – like five times. Now I’ve got to come down.

Sigh. I know I listen to a ton of rap – usually to help me blast through. It’s become indispensable to my job. Then, afterward, I’m like, wait a minute, I can’t believe I bought into all that Maybach machismo bull. In the real world, I don’t want to be around anything like that attitude. I hope my kids don’t listen to my playlists. Went to a women’s college, write books for children. I drive a Volvo! Only too late, it’s in my head. I’ve got several choice lyrics about Kanye’s anatomy/ego stuck on my inner soundtrack.

Help! I need a musical palate cleanser. Because right now I feel pissed at the world because it’s not mine.

Highlights of 2013

I’m a little behind in wrapping up 2013, but I’m still going to do it! Or at least try to make some notes about what stuck with me, mostly in the cultural realm. In terms of actual life 2013 was an incredible year — all about pushing through and turning corners — but it was very very difficult. I’m so glad it’s behind me.


Cover of DreamwoodGuys, I did it. I finally finished up my book, which got a new name (Dreamwood) and went through copy edits, and now I have galleys. Actual honest-to-God ARCs. All I can say to everyone is thank you. Everyone who has expressed any interest or been supportive, it just means the world. You know what? I had the idea for this book about 10 years ago. It was a tiny little nubbin of an idea and I wrote some stuff down on legal pads and noodled. And then I went through a whole saga. Seriously a saga. But who cares about that now? Because it’s done! Honest! It comes out in June.


I read fewer books than usual this year – about 25 – partly because I was so busy finishing up Dreamwood. Here are a few standouts, kids and adult books all mixed together:

A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul – easily my favorite book read in 2013. Wow.

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan – This book has the most incredible voice. Willow is such an original, wonderful character, and her story had me wishing I could hug her.

Intuition, by C.J. Omololu – Ah, this book is fun. It’s a sequel that takes things to a new level, features one of the best love triangles I’ve read, and has you pondering the gift (or is it curse?) of being able to remember your past lives. I devoured it.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin – more crazy vampire stuff on an epic scale by a really good writer. Increasingly you see lit fiction writers trying to write genre and they usually fail, which makes Justin Cronin all the more remarkable.

Canada, by Richard Ford – I was strangely taken by this. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I found myself thinking I preferred it even to The Sportswriter, even though it’s also ruminative to a fault.


This is the year I got way into Spotify. And I have to say, as a result, I’m listening to tons of music. Part of it is due to my day job, where I put the headphones on and try to laser focus. Here are my two most recent faves from 2013

Pusha T, My Name Is My Name – which was stripped down, minimal like Kanye’s Yeezus only not so overblown and without the lame lyrics (e.g., the infamous sweet and sour sauce line). This album had it all: hard, menacing (“King Push”), confessional storytelling (“Nosetalgia”), even the occasional dream (“Sweet Serenade”).

Deafheaven, Sunbather – Ha. Joke on me. Never thought I would listen to this kind of intense black metal but it’s amazing. It’s really hard to call out particular songs – but “Dreamhouse,” “Sunbather,” and “The Pecan Tree” are especially awesome.


Readers, I’m running out of steam on this blog post. Oh, I have so much to say about movies this year. But sadly not tonight. Before I go to bed here are my three favorites:

American Hustle

Spring Breakers

The Great Beauty

Happy 2014 to one and all!!!

A new source of musical happiness

After some recent purchases of some very hyped but ultimately disappointing music, I’ve found myself in love with music again, excited to be listening and it wasn’t even a purchase. I’m talking about Girl Talk’s All Day, which is a free download from Illegal Art.

The front cover for All Day

I’d listened to Girl Talk’s “Unstoppable” a few years ago after reading about him in Nylon? Paper? (one of those hip one-word magazines that is good for reading once or twice and then for the next ten years you will have a vague sense of recognition as people stagger out of the back rooms of NYC night clubs and into something resembling mainstream success) and it didn’t hook me. Then again, “Unstoppable” was obviously something best listened to while surrounded by thousands of ecstatic sweaty bodies all moving as one, instead of … in my kitchen doing dishes, where most of my music listening is done these days.

But All Day is pure pleasure, an endless mashup wave that puts you in an eternal present where you’re blissed out at what’s flowing over you but still thinking – after all you’ve got to name that tune before the next samples start. The mix of hook-y old favorites plus hip hop old and new is like a pop multivitamin – in one dose all your musical needs are covered.

For instance, I love rap but I find it hard to listen to for long. And I love 80s pop, but it’s bubble gum that quickly loses its flavor. As with any nostalgic genre, you want the hits, the highlights, but all pop hits and highlights are like too many empty calories. Thus the genius of Girl Talk, which darkens and weights the effervescence of familiar tunes by Cyndi Lauper and sweetens the relentlessness of Jay-Z and 50 Cent. Likewise, when encountered in a sea of samples, self-important music like U2’s can be appreciated for the very thing that makes it insufferable on its own – its almost embarrassing sense of conviction. And then there’s the free pass the mash up gives you to listen to stuff that’s exhilirating for a few seconds but would be despair-inducing for a whole song (e.g., Gucci Mane, whose “Making Love to the Money” gives you the general idea of his oeuvre).

Maybe it’s a symptom of my shortening attention span, but many of these songs – coming from all different corners of the pop universe – start to feel as if they’ve reached their ultimate destiny, an apotheosis of sorts, as a Girl Talk sample. Everything that rises must converge, I guess (to see the complexity involved, check out the real-time sample map at mashupbreakdown.com). At 70 minutes or so, All Day is just about too much, and I come off it feeling like I’ve listened to the musical equivalent of a tilt-a-whirl, everything blurring by in a bright happy smear. Nothing to do but stagger off and stand in line to get on again.

Music to write by

I’ve been doing some heavy, painful rewriting of a project that has me full of doubts, so I’m using music a lot as I work on it. But I can’t have just anything on, and even my favorite music will have me going off in the wrong direction. So when I’m stuck and need magic help to get instantly in the mood to write, I turn to one track and one track only. Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa – Silentium. I put it on auto repeat and play this into the ground.

Here, it only took me three hours of crawling around the back end of the wordpress plug-in directory to see if I could put up an audio sample of it on this blog. [audio:http://www.heathermackey.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/03-Pärt_-Tabula-Rasa-2.-Silentium.mp3|titles=03 Pärt_ Tabula Rasa – 2. Silentium]

I think it’s still easily buyable. And now, since I’m a media-uploading fiend, here’s what the cover looks like.

Cover image, Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa, Fratres, Symphony #3

Music and transit – Asilomar

I went to a conference this past weekend at Asilomar, which is on the Monterey Peninsula, moody and rainswept in February. Somewhere south of San Jose, hitting the radio again, I caught the second half of “Add It Up” by the Violent Femmes, and it sounded so exciting and stripped down and full of awkward rage and lust, it catapulted me immediately back to high school when, one day (skipping classes), some friends and I wandered over to the UofA student union and down, I think on the second level where the mailroom was, found the Femmes playing an acoustic set to a crowd of, like, three, looking all misfit, because instead of drums they had what looked like a plastic bucket or a metal pail, and Gano skinny, sweaty, eyes closed, was singing that shocking ohmymymymymyohmymotherrrr.

It was great to hear that song again after years, especially on 101 South, after driving by the exits of my working past – Fashion Island, San Antonio Road, Oregon Expressway – remembering long-gone commutes and carpools and speeding by them.

Later on, going for a run along the ocean view road, past a sandy golf course and exotic flowering succulents, I got the song stuck in my head again, (ohmymymymymyohmymotherrrr, I would love to love you lover). And it was great, running in the rain, skipping out on a part of the conference, being someplace new, and actually, staying up late and hanging out being a little bit high school. Though nothing’s ever like that again.

I’d gotten the idea stuck in my head that some tragedy had befallen the Femmes, something befitting that utter vulnerable rawness of the set I’d seen as a teenager skulking in the university student union. And when I got home and thought about writing this blog post I looked them up, thinking that maybe the guy had committed suicide or something. But no, what I found on Wikipedia was that the singer had sold rights to “Blister in the Sun” to Wendy’s for something to do with hamburgers!

How perfect is that? Somebody’s hallowed past is another person’s hamburger jingle. It reminded me to enjoy my memories but not get too choked up over them. And if I had to be honest, I’ll admit that the other song I had stuck in my head while I went running in Pacific Grove was the cheesy Flo Rida remix of Spin Me Round (You spin my head right round right round, when you go down). Nothing hallowed there – just radio randomness and a long drive in the rain.