It’s the last day of the year (and the decade). I like to wait until the bitter end before saying anything was “the best” of the year, because you never know when a last-second book or song may pop up and blow the previous favorite to hell.
2019 has been a strange year, both for me personally and for the world at large. Most of the time, our society seems like one big shitstorm, every day trying to out-bullshit the one before. In times likes these, culture and pastimes are increasingly important.
For our mental health’s sake, we need things we enjoy to divert our attention from the noise, most of it not good, that surrounds us. As a society, we need culture to shine a light on the shortcomings and failures, to call us to be better collectively, to show us a more enlightened path.
My favorites from 2019 helped do that for me. Perhaps they can help you, too, as we march forward into a new year.
This Is The End Of Something But It’s Not The End Of You by Adam Gnade
I’ll start with a caveat: Adam Gnade is my favorite living writer, and anytime he publishes anything at all, it is a major event in my life.
This Is The End… is Gnade’s third novel, and while it retains the rough beauty and truth-telling of the previous two (Hymn California and Caveworld), the storytelling is more refined. Basically, what this book is showing is a writer with seemingly limitless talent maturing and coming into full command of his powers.
Equal parts murder mystery, road novel, fictionalized memoir, and cultural critique, This Is The End… follows the life of Gnade protagonist/alter ego James Jackson Bozic from childhood into his early 30s, as he attempts to learn what for him constitutes a truly meaningful life and how to get it. At turns comedic, heartbreaking, and poignant, the story is dripping with the sort of challenges and, at times, absurdity (personal and societal) that people who came of age in the strange time of the late-1990s, 20-aughts, and early 20-teens will immediately recognize.
Gnade’s books are not things you just breeze through in a couple of days. To do so would be to neuter them, to reduce their power, and to discount the truths they contain. I took my time with This Is The End…, but that’s the whole point of reading good books, isn’t it? To challenge yourself and grow your humanity.
Finding writers that pull that off while also giving you gorgeous prose is extremely rare, and Gnade did so in this case with gusto.
When I first heard the band Tool as a teenager, it was eye (or rather, ear)-opening. I was a grunge kid, and bands like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Pearl Jam had been the rulers of my personal airwaves.
Then along comes the album Aenima, and I began to understand just how varied rock music could be. How the loud and the soft played off each other, how a guitar could make a range of noises I didn’t know were possible, how a voice could ricochet between aggressiveness and plaintiveness.
Since then, the band has released three more albums (2001’s Lateralus and 2006’s 10,000 Days being the intermediary two), and each has delivered and re-delivered on that initial experience.
It was a 13-year wait for Fear Inoculum, and while during that time my life has changed immensely, one thing that hasn’t is the band’s, and especially Maynard James Keenan’s voice’s, capacity to immediately transport me outside of my own worries and distractions and into something of an aural meditative state. Even when the music is at its most vigorous and rapacious, it delivers a sense of peace to my harried mind.
Fun fact: I have not gone to see a movie in a theater since August 2011. I’m an anxious person, and it turns out that large, crowded, enclosed spaces make me hyperventilate. Or maybe I’m just lazy.
Anyways, because I don’t go out to the movies, I have to wait for everything to be released digitally. Avoiding spoilers on social media can be a real hassle, but I’ve gotten pretty good at ignoring them for the big films I plan to watch.
The funny thing is, Bumblebee wasn’t one of those films I was anticipating for months. Endgame was, of course, kickass, and worth all of the spoiler-avoidance, but that was sort of to be expected.
Bumblebee was just flat-out fun. The story was fun, the soundtrack was fun, the comedy was fun, the action scenes were fun, and even the “heartwarming” aspects were fun. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, taking a franchise that had gotten a bit stale and sticking its finger into an electrical outlet to revive it.
This is obviously not the height of cinema, nor is it meant to be. And while I hesitated to call it my favorite for fear of looking of low-brow or unserious, 2019 was the kind of year that needed a little capital-F FUN injected into it. And Bumblebee succeeded in doing just that.
A foul-mouthed, whiskey-swigging, super-powered private detective? A total badass of a woman, trying to get out of her own way and face down her personal demons while helping people? Greatest. Idea. Ever.
Aside from the fact that this was the last season of the series thanks to the whole “Disney+ killing Marvel shows on Netflix” thing (RIP to Luke Cage, as well), there is not a single negative thing I could say about this show.
Krysten Ritter was perfect. Eka Darville was perfect. Rachael Taylor was perfect. Carrie-Anne Moss was perfect. The whole damn show was perfect.
My only complaint is that there won’t be any more episodes.
(tie) Chuck McKeever’s Tabs Open and Aaron Reynolds’ Effin’ Birds
I’ll start by saying that these two things could not upon initial inspection be more different. One is a newsletter about life in America and the other is drawings of birds with swear word captions. Thus, it would appear, is the dichotomy of my sensibilities.
McKeever is a friend of mine (we’ve never met in person, but we both wrote for the Ohio State Buckeyes website Land-Grant Holy Land and forged a connection), though even if he wasn’t, I’d wholeheartedly endorse Tabs Open. Blending life experiences, reading, research, humor, and a little Socialism, the newsletter is wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and informative.
Depending on the week, McKeever may tackle climate change, Medicare For All, the desperation, perseverance, and hopefulness inherent in choosing the creative life, or how his life and approach to meaning have changed in the couple of years since completing his hike of Pacific Crest Trail. At its core, Tabs Open is about finding a way to exist in the world in the most ethical and fulfilling way possible, and that’s a damn important message.
Effin’ Birds, on its face, is basically just fart jokes with drawings of birds. But having followed it for quite some time now, I think it goes a lot deeper than that, even if that isn’t the intent. The captions may just seem to be attempts at crude-worded humor, but they actually dig down towards the feelings of absurdity and exasperation of our world-historical moment.
In a time in which Fascism, Capitalism, and Trumpism are running amok, the human race is literally killing the planet with seemingly little remorse or desire to change, and rampant materialism, narcissism, greed, and idiocy have infected the populace, Effin’ Birds cuts right through all the bullshit and calls a spade a spade. In its own way, Reynolds’ work is a master cultural critique.
And it also happens that I have the sense of humor of a adolescent, so it’s just really fucking funny.
So anyways, that’s the little bow I’m tying on 2019. My wish is for 2020 to be a kinder, gentler, more thoughtful time for us all. At least, I think that’s a worthwhile goal for us all to work towards.
I wrote a little thing yesterday, and then as often happens, the subject I wrote about continued to pop up throughout the rest of the day. Call it serendipity or some weird version of confirmation bias, but it happens often.
The topic was the seasons, or more accurately, how four seasons don’t seem like enough, and how living within a rhythm of smaller seasons might make more sense.
It wasn’t long after that I came across a little quote from Brittin Oakman, a poet of sorts on Instagram that I’d never heard of before:
Every season is one of becoming, but not always one of blooming. Be gracious with your ever-evolving self.
That got me thinking about the seasons in terms of slowness, of patience. Of not always having to be racing towards something and just letting life happen, like a flower blooming in the spring or, consequently, dying in the autumn.
Because even dying is a form of becoming.
According to the sekki, we’re in the midst of “Soko,” wherein we experience the first frosts and maple leaves turn yellow. The next small season will commence on November 8th with “Ritto,” which is the start of winter and marked by the ground beginning to freeze.
What a perfect time for slowness, for patience, for allowing life to progress at its own pace for once.
In my scrolling and reading this morning, I came across this piece from Kottke, quoting a Kurt Vonnegut graduation speech given at Fredonia State College, in which the great humanist writer argues that the four seasons we generally recognize aren’t enough.
One sort of optional thing you might do is to realize that there are six seasons instead of four. The poetry of four seasons is all wrong for this part of the planet, and this may explain why we are so depressed so much of the time. I mean, spring doesn’t feel like spring a lot of the time, and November is all wrong for autumn, and so on.
Here is the truth about the seasons: Spring is May and June. What could be springier than May and June? Summer is July and August. Really hot, right? Autumn is September and October. See the pumpkins? Smell those burning leaves? Next comes the season called Locking. November and December aren’t winter. They’re Locking. Next comes winter, January and February. Boy! Are they ever cold!
What comes next? Not spring. ‘Unlocking’ comes next. What else could cruel March and only slightly less cruel April be? March and April are not spring. They’re Unlocking.
This made me recall the twitter account I follow called Small Seasons, which follows the sekki, or 24 seasons used by Japanese and Chinese farmers prior to the Gregorian calendar. Small Seasons even has a widget to put the sekki on your calendar, which I’ve found to be helpful in trying to slow down a little this year.
And you can pair Small Seasons with the teacher and writer Matt Thomas’s blog post from a couple years back about living life more in concert with the seasons.
Fall is a time to write for me as well, but it also means welcoming—rather than fighting against—the shorter days, the football games, the decorative gourds. Productivity writer Nicholas Bate’s seven fall basics are more sleep, more reading, more hiking, more reflection, more soup, more movies, and more night sky. I like those too. The winter will bring with it new things, new adjustments. Hygge not hay rides. Ditto the spring. Come summer, I’ll feel less stress about stopping work early to go to a barbecue or movie because I know, come autumn, I’ll be hunkering down. More and more, I try to live in harmony with the seasons, not the clock. The result has been I’m able to prioritize better.
Prioritizing and finding a more natural rhythm in life are a couple of things I’ve been trying to be better about lately. Given the current hellscape nature and pace of the world, it seems paying a little more attention to that might be helpful to a whole lot of people.
Reflection is natural on a day like today, and while I’ve been running through my normal workday routine and commute thus far this morning, I did take a few moments to try to quiet my mind and take stock of life a little. I’ll do this more intensively this evening, once I’m home from another normal day in the office and a birthday dinner with my favorite people.
And what I’ll find when I do finally get some time to think is that I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be in life. What I’ll ask myself is do I feel like a damn adult yet? Do I feel like I’ve improved, like I’ve made any progress? And the answers will be no. Does anyone ever feel like they’ve grown to that point? Does life ever really get any easier?
I am not as virtuous as I’d like to think. My life isn’t as put together as I try to make it appear. I can be a much better son, brother, uncle, and friend. The divide between who I am and who I desire to be is still rather wide.
But I think acknowledging that chasm between the life you’re actually living and the life you aspire to is the whole point. If it didn’t exist, what would motivate you to get out of bed in the morning? To formulate goals, identify wants, plan for better in the future? It’s the chasm that keeps you going. It’s the chasm that keeps you hopeful.
So as another trip around the sun begins for me, that’s what I’m focusing on. The hope that perhaps this year will be the one where I shrink the chasm, where I come closer to being the person I want and need to be and building the life I envision for myself. It’s all about the hope. That’s what will be keeping me going.
I haven’t written in this space in quite some time. It turns out that professional responsibilities, familial obligations, and staking out time for personal pursuits and self-care don’t leave much time for blogging.
I’m not sure when (or if) I’ll return to blogging here. But please check out my “Who Am I?” page for a quick bio and contact information.