Finding the Good in 2020:
Top Nine Twenty Twenty:
1. Juggling Responsibilities 2. Porchsleeper Rockdown Before Lockdown 3. WTF WFH
4. Repair Projects 5. Mask It or Casket 6. Stack the Deck
7. Feeline’ Fine 8. Nitty Gritty 9. Freshman Class
I follow the defunct TV show 30 Rock on Facebook and about once a week they post a text post that just says "What a week, huh?" and I swearta god every week it makes me laugh.
This was the most bizarre year of my life and I can only think that it may be similar to when Americans knew Polio was a bad thing but didn't know what caused it. My mom told me tales of a summer in the fifties when she and her sister couldn't play outside because there was something terrible happening to kids but nobody knew what it was. Or maybe it as like like London in WWII when kids couldn't go to school or families couldn't do their usual thing because bombs could rain out of the sky at any time.
This whole year was like the scene in Boogie Nights when they're trying to sell drugs at Alfred Molina's house but he has a weird teenager throwing firecrackers into the air when nobody expects it. All of the sudden, we're in lockdown, but then you can eat in a restaurant, and if your loved one dies in Ohio but needs to be buried in New York maybe you can't go to the funeral, but you can go to casinos, just not the library. You and your immediate family has stayed away from everybody, but your friends on Instagram are going on bachelor party weekends or hanging out with 20 other people on a pontoon boat.
You go to the grocery store in a mask and gloves, leave the (paper) bags on the porch and head straight to the shower, depositing your clothes in a laundry basket for your wife to throw straight into the washing machine, all the time wondering if the lady who asked you to get something from the top shelf just had allergies or what.
Your baby nephew gets bigger but you haven't been able to come within 6 feet of him in 8+ months.
You haven't hugged your mom in what feels like a thousand years.
At the same time, life moves forward, and you ask each other what month it is and do projects and bake things and make things and contribute to the GoFundMe pleas from the places you desperately need to still be open when we get out of this thing.
Your kid gets taller than your wife, then taller than you and is hilarious and whip-smart and (most important of all) kind, and has about the best group of pals you can hope for.
And your wife tracks the CDC site and the WHO site and keeps you informed on what is actually happening, cutting through the (literal) fake news nonsense that contradicts itself, and she plays more tennis than she has since high school (and is really good at it), she works to improve her community and she gets a job at a non-profit where she honest-to-god saves puppies and is respected by her peers.
So some days you feel lost and underwater, and other days you feel as content as you can feel, a little bit guilty for feeling good while waiting for the next bomb to drop or the vaccine to be in hand or waiting for the next firecracker to explode.
Henry and I took it upon ourselves to build a little table for the squirrels in our neighborhood.
Outside dining only.
This Old House
Replaced the water system at the farm, removed old wallpaper and had plaster repaired, washed and stained the deck, planed a tree to replace the monster maple tree that came down last year, cut a path through the back part of the property, started rebuilding and repairing the hand-built wooden window screens, got a dumpster and tossed out a barnsworth of garbage.
After working for a million years at the University, my dad retired and instead of sitting around at home waiting for COVID to be over, he is now sitting at home waiting for COVID to be over and making biscuits. It's about the weirdest year ever to retire, and I'm sorry he missed out on a big retirement party but I'm glad he did it.
Everything Bagel sprinkle
This year I discovered that you can buy a little sprinkle that you can put on your bagel to make it taste like an Everything bagel. I liked that a lot.
Developing Skills in These Unprecedented Times.
Henry is getting good at digital art in Blender (portfolio here) and playing the drums (as well as working in Garage Band and Reaper to compose some of his own works). During lockdown he learned how to solve a Rubick's Cube and how to juggle, as well as making donuts, churros, beignets and how to jump-start a dead car battery (which happened often since we were never driving anywhere). Remote learning is going well for him and it'll be weird for him to actually go to school again.
The only orange menace I have been able to really embrace this year is Gritty,
the Philadelphia Flyers mascot, so when I found out that there was going to be a sriracha and mayonnaise sauce in honor of Gritty himself,
I had to get myself some.
Election Results Day
The political world was an insane shitshow this year but I will always remember the Saturday after the election when I was working out in the yard on a warm November afternoon and I heard honking and hooting and cheering erupt in the streets all around me. I jumped in my car and honked the horn, and then Henry and I masked up and walked uptown, being passed by noisy car and people waving and a real feeling of relief. Somebody pulled their guitar amp out on their balcony and played a heartfelt (if note-imperfect) version of the Star Spangled Banner to the whole city. It felt like something had changed.
I did not get as involved as some quarantuners, but I did spend a bit more time playing guitar and specifically trying to learn the gypsy jazz style of playing as demonstrated by Django Reinhardt.
Haunted Hall prints and ReTech lamps
Every October there is an artist's fair called Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween that offers some really cool art pieces, but this fucking year ruined that. They had an online event and I was still able to find some wonderful rubber-hose/Cuphead style prints from The Black Rabbit Studio and continuing my fascination with the industrial sculptures and lighting designs from ReTech.org.
Sunsets at Glen Arbor
This year we tentatively drove upstate to a condo in Glen Arbor which showed us a series of the most picturesque sunsets I have ever seen. It was fitting.
We took a blacksmithing class at a local farm school. While my arms were tired, it felt good to actually create something.
Thano's Lamplighter Pizza Experiment
I felt the need deep in my bones to re-create Thano's Deep Dish Sicilian pizza that I loved at the Lamplighter so much.
It was a pan-style Sicilian pizza with a thick, buttery, doughy sesame seed crust, a spice-heavy (non-sweet) sauce with thick mozzarella (or maybe a blend?) and sparse, large (not curled-up) pepperoni and onion (long sliced onion pieces, not diced). Maybe the pepperoni was under the cheese? It was cooked and delivered to the table on a thick, silver-colored, rectangular pan and served in eight rectangular slices. So far I've gotten close to nailing it but I have problems with my soggy bottom. I ordered a new pan this week and the quest continues.
20th Work Anniversary at AMGMacrovisionRoviAllMediaNetworkBlinkxRhythmOneNetaktionAllMediaNetwork
20 short years ago I started working as an assistant editor at All Media Guide (after a couple years of scattered freelancing and casual stalking). When Tower Records closed down, I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do. "What jobs are there? What do people do for a job?" I would ask myself (and the only thing I could think of was being a garbage man). At that time, miraculously AMG had outgrown their humble beginnings and moved their offices to my hometown. At the same moment, the internet was becoming a thing and the company was expanding, looking for somebody who would write about bluegrass, folk and acoustic music. Woodstra interviewed me about working at a big record store, and Tom and I talked about the recent Merle Haggard reissues. I didn't think we talked about anything actually business-related, and later I discovered that *was* us talking about business. I stumbled into the weirdest job with the best people and have somehow stayed there* for two decades and through a million different business cards (and parent companies). I honestly have no idea what will happen next, but if I can somehow squeak out another 20 years helping to keep these websites breathing, I'll consider it a career well spent.
Summer Game and Bummer Game
Our local library is literally the best. Each summer they set up a bunch of quests and missions and riddles in town for people to research and discover, and when you get the answer you earn points toward t-shirts or notebooks or other goodies. This year they amazingly invented a way for regular people to create home codes, put them on a map and then when players discovered a home code they could redeem it for points. We took a lot of walks in the neighborhood using the map and getting points.
If that wasn't enough, they saved our sanity in the spring by creating the hilariously-named Bummer Game which was a lite version of the Summer Game just when we needed it most.
Weird stenciled records stapled up around town
At some point during the summer some art weirdo went around our neighborhood and nailed a bunch of hand-painted stenciled LP records up impossbly high on phone poles. Some have come down but many are still there.
Porchsleeper show at Hamtramck Blowout
The 'Sleeper awakened this year for a reunion show at Baker's Streetcar Bar right before the lockdown hit. It is so incredible to remember being in a room pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with a mass of humanity shouting and sweating all in the name of rock and roll. I feel like we played well and am thankful for the memory.
Fatcat No More
Our cat Twix weighed a whopping 23 pounds at the beginning of the year. There is a chart of what obese cats look like and he wasn't even represented on the chart. Through a lot of dilligent measuring of food amounts and regulated feeding schedules he is now down to a lean and mean 15 pounds (a total loss of 8 pounds!). Sometimes I'll hold a pound of ground beef before cooking it and realize "Twix has lost 8 of these. He used to carry around 8 of these exact things and now he is much healthier."
Pumpkin Carving Contest at AADL
Penny and I entered a verrrry spooooky pumpkin carving contest held by our incredible local library and both of us won big prizes!
You can see Penny's scary pumpkin which won Best Classic Jack O'Lantern at 3:25 and my first place winner at 6:10.
Tunes:Fetch the Bolt Cutters - Fiona Apple
This album was surprise-released when we were about a month into COVID-19 lockdown at the moment when we all kinda looked at each other (from a socially-distanced distance) and said "whoooo. OK, we may be in this for a while." The material was worked on and recorded over half a decade in her home studio and is insanely intimate and self-aware, with oddball percussion, hooky melodies, unexpected soundscapes and the occasional dog bark in the background. Apple reveals parts of herself in that way that only Fiona Apple "This world is bullshit" can, recounting (maybe?) half-fictional elements of her relationships, her childhood and how she views the world. This was not only the best album this year but one of the best albums of the decade.
Folklore - Taylor Swift
While I don't think this is the best album of the year, it may be my favorite album of the year. Bridging some kind of line between singer-songwriter folk and indie pop, it feels insular and intimate, like it could only have been recorded on a shoestring in little individual recording studios during the pandemic of our lifetime. It insists and suggests, and her characters intertwine from one song to the next. I think she's a little bit scary like she has the power to put you in the cornfield if you give her too much trouble, and this confidence is balanced with her decades-crafted little girl innocence to offer different layers of discoveries upon repeat listens.
Teamwork - Futurebirds
As gruff around the edges as Drive-By Truckers but sweet and soaring like My Morning Jacket. At times it feels like Flying Burrito Brothers, "Being There"-era Wilco or side 2 of "Exile on Main Street."
Marigold - Pinegrove
Pinegrove released this pleading, urgent album in the vein of Death Cab for Cutie or the Decemberists with an emphasis on soaring anthemic melodies balanced by the lead singer's eyes-closed/heart-forward vocals.
Women in Music, Pt. 3 - Haim
Sparse and California funky, the Haim sisters' harmonies and loose orchestrations feel casual and imploring, and come off as brassy and innocent and comforting.
The Waterfall II - My Morning Jacket
I like it quite a bit. More than Waterfall. I purposefully sat down and listened to it (as opposed to having it on in the background while I was working) and found a number of real gems. The first two songs remind me of low-key Evil Urges/Circuital anthems, "Climbing the Ladder" is a goofy pedal steel disco backbeat with a third chorus that slows down to half tempo(?!?!?) before finding its feet again. "Magic Bullet" is a sneaky dark "Highly Suspicious" or "Holdin' on to Black Metal" with a honking baritone sax section. "Run It" and the last two songs are little back porch strummers that round out the record nicely. Nothing hit me as hard as their mid-period records do, but I have found a lot to like.
Rookie - Rookie
These Chicago rockers have been compared to Cheap Trick, Wilco, Big Star and the Rolling Stones which sounds pretty OK to me. Loose and raw and summery and swaggering and occasionally gleeful, this was my summertime 2020 go-to.
Reunions - Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Another solid offering from Jason Isbell. It didn't hit me as hard as some of his other albums, but each one has been a grower, and there are some quality songs on this one. "Dreamsicle" is particulary evocative of a summer day as a kid.
England is a Garden - Cornershop
'Member these guys? "Brimful of Asha?" "Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow?" This album got a suprising number of spins from me this year. Uncompromisingly upbeat and whirling, it sounds like Tjinder Singh is smiling throughout the entire recording process.
Homegrown - Neil Young
This was a fun archival issue recorded in 1973 but never actually released. It is loose and rambling and played by real people in a room with wood floors and lots of candles and beer.
I also did a Spotify playlist of my fave tunes.
Computers and Technology:
I'm not convinced computers and technology were a help to us this year.
The Rewatchables Podcast
Some of the folks behind Grantland sit around and talk in-depth about their favorite movies. Fun and insightful.
This particular episode of Reply All called "The Case of the Missing Hit"
Do you like to feel good? Do your ears and brain want to go on a ride that takes you places far away from whatever today is? If so, I recommend this episode of Reply All where a guy is convinced he is remembering a song, and the rest of the world thinks he is crazy.
This story has interviews with music producers, an unbelievable/believable story about Doug Morris (the head of Universal Records), homemade recordings of whistled flutes, and bare naked ladies. It really has it all.
Decoder Ring Pop Culture Podcast on Slate
Researched takes on unicorn poop, the mullet, rubber duckies and what Cancel Culture looked like in the 1860s.
Imaginary Worlds podcast
This host has a lot of similar nerdy interests in sci-fi, fantasy, movie making and comics.
This genius takes classic songs and puts his own mediocre flute playing on top of them.
It is even hilariouser than it sounds.
One of my favorite music writers co-hosts this conversation about some of the wildest rivalries in music history. The Gallagher Brothers from Oasis, Fleetwood Mac, the guys from Uncle Tupelo, the members of The Police all get a brighht light shined on their petty squabbles and I am here for it.
Strong Songs podcast
An academic and musical analysis of the structure, tones, melodies and rhythms of songs from all over the place, from "Tom Sawyer" by Rush to "Hyperballad" by Björk and even "World 1-1" from Super Mario Bros.
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
Quite possibly my favorite author, Stephenson writes incredibly long and in-depth novels about technology, human nature, faith, reality, computers and makes it all somehow personal.
One really interesting concept in the book was where in order to completely obliterate fake news, a guy writes a program that creates millions of comments on everybody's social media account using a library of offensive terms and contradictory descriptions.
So everybody's Twitter/Facebook/Insta/LinkedIn/Snapchat is filled with "Julie is a Slut" "Julie is nice" "Julie tortures animals" "Julie died in Brazil last summer" "Julie loaned me her sweater when I was cold" "Julie is deaf in one ear" ...so much noise and static that nobody knew what to believe and nobody could trust anything so overnight everybody just shut off social media.
Maybe in a way that's where we're heading. Soon 97.4% of posts will be from bots and KPop street teams and it may be for the best.
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks
This is an impossibly cute story about the last days of working a seasonal job at an apple orchard and the lives of the teenagers who are about to go off to join the real world. If you liked the graphic novel Blankets this one is also worth checking out.
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
A wild west re-imagining of the Snow White story (with seven companions, a wicked stepmother and apple magic). This author has a wonderfully vibrant way with language (big fan of her book Speak Easy) and she manages to give this old tale new teeth.
Full list of stuff I read here at Goodreads:
Again, not a lot of TV watched this year, but a handful of things I liked and watched at least part of:
The Umbrella Academy
The Queen's Gambit
I *think* Enola Holmes was the only movie released in 2020 that I saw in 2020. And that was on a television.
We saw and enjoyed Knives Out when we saw in the theater this year. (the only movie we saw in the theater this year)
I also really loved the documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway.
The more interesting movie events happened at home where Henry decided in October that he was ready to watch a scary movie so we watched Alien. He reacted favorably and it kind of ushered in the possibility of a new era of movie watching. More mature films are now in the offering.
He wanted to see a western so we first watched The Magnificent Seven and then watched Kurisawa's Seven Samurai directly afterwards, and had good discussions.
He has been a fan of Anime so I decided he was ready to watch Akira (which he loved).
Over Thanksgiving I spent the long weekend prepping Henry with film noir classics like The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity and discussing the concept of anti-heroes, pulp detective stories and paying cinematic attention to shadows and light.
Afterwards he and I watched Blade Runner (the original American theatrical cut with the hokey detective voiceover just like Double Indemnity) and then he schooled me for an hour about cyberpunk, manga, anime, set design and the concept of a 'lived-in' universe that was ushered in when Star Wars arrived in 1977 (and how that factored into Ridley Scott's Alien and sci-fi up through Firefly).
He made some amazing revelations about how his mom loves sci-fi and his dad loves westerns and now he loves dystopian futures where Asian and western cultures have fused into a techy cyberpunk Akira Magnificent Seven hodge-podge and that's fine by me.
Things That Are Awful:
I mean... (gestures hands wildly in every direction)
The most important and horrible thing I read this year was this Vox article about the current administration and how manurebag mastermind Steve Bannon really perfected the concept of "Flooding The Zone with Shit" (meaning that politicians and media types can choose to publish information, some of which is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading) and nobody seems to care. The story that leads is the story that people (and robots and trolls) recirculate and that is all that matters. It is obnoxious and more harmful than any of us realize.
Eddie Van Halen
Adam Schlesinger (this one really hit me and I wrote a whole jumbled thing about it)
Jerry Jeff Walker
Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Toots Hibbert (Toots and the Maytals)
Olivia DeHavilland (The Adventures of Robin Hood)
Grant Imahara (Mythbusters)
Ian Holm (Lord of the Rings, Alien)
Terry Jones (Monty Python)
Darth Vader AND Boba Fett goddamnit
We had a trip booked to Disney in early April (spoiler alert: It didn't happen) and were planning an epic journey through the U.P. in the summer. I didn't get to hang with my buddies hardly at all.
The well pump broke at the cottage and arranging for it to be fixed from afar while everything was shut down proved challenging.
People I love had a hard time, and places I love have closed and may never re-open.
On the whole, my attitude on Social Media changed quite a bit in 2020.
Drink water, get rest, see you in 2021. I'll probably give you a hug.