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…

Writing

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.

Listening

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.

Reading

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

Watching

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!