#MatteredToMe - March 27, 2020: Quiet Beauty, Grief, and Hope
- Clint Smith's poem "When people say, “we have made it through worse before”" articulates something about the grief and fear and weariness of crisis—and not just this crisis—that is heavy, but the recognition of it feels like a breath.
- These photographs by Abraham Votroba have a quiet beauty to them that is just lovely.
- The breathlessness of David Baker's poem "Checkpoint," how birds and papers and interrogations and nature all run together.
- Cseslaw Milosz's poem "Hope" was on Poetry Daily yesterday. It showed me something new, a new way to think about hope, and I appreciated it for that.
- Finally, Lisel Mueller's poem "Things." At the beginning, the anthropomorphism feels funny, almost ridiculous. And yet that last line says something profound, I think, about why we do it.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I hope some peace finds its way to you today. Tell me, what's mattered to you lately?
Thanks, and take care.
#MatteredToMe - March 20, 2020: Gorge, The Two Princes, Tranquillusionist
Many of you already know this, I imagine, but every Friday that I can manage, I post a little list to Facebook and Twitter of things that I read, watched, listened to, or saw that mattered to me. It's just a small thing I do to help me focus on gratitude, to tell creative people that I cared about their work, and to try to share things that others might enjoy. I've been thinking for a while that it would be nice to include these in my newsletter, and this seems like as good a time to start as any.
So, here are some things that mattered to me recently
- I liked how Dion O'Reilly's poem “Gorge” keeps correcting itself, and how it layers and mixes different kinds of desire. Or maybe they aren't so different.
- I've been listening to Gimlet Media's audio drama The Two Princes this week and it is a fun, funny, and heartwarming queer coming-of-age fantasy adventure. I like it a lot.
- Finally, Helen Zaltzman made a special episode of The Allusionist this week, which is just 10 minutes of her reading words submitted by her listeners that they find soothing. It's such a lovely and gentle bit of generosity from a podcaster I admire. I got pretty emotional listening to it, honestly.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. It's been a little challenging for me to keep up with everything lately, but that's okay. I'm trying my best, and I know you are, too.
Thank you, and take care.
If You're Stuck at Home and Need Something to Listen to
It occurred to me this morning that in the near future—or perhaps already—some people may find themselves stuck at home for an extended period of time, looking for something to do. And that, if that were the case, some podcast recommendations might be welcome. If that sounds useful to you, well, here you go: 36 podcasts that I find bingeable or otherwise suitable for long listens, organized roughly by genre. I'll try to include content notes where appropriate.
Audio Dramas/Audio Fiction:
Most of these are either limited run shows or have defined seasons/arcs that make them very bingeable. A couple are ongoing shows that I still find good for back-to-back listening. In alphabetical order:
- I have been a humongous fan of The Adventure Zone for years now. It's an actual-play RPG show by the McElroy family, and it is both funny and engaging, with delightful characters and excellent storytelling. So far there have been two complete arcs (each arc is a complete and independent story) and a third is ongoing, and there have been several mini-arcs and one-offs. I recommend starting from the beginning. (Content notes: strong language, comic violence)
- Mermaid Palace's audio drama Asking For It is an adaptation of the Goldilocks tale, a story about a young queer woman, music, and the cycle of abuse. Excellent writing and voice acting. (Content notes: intimate partner abuse, drugs, strong language, explicit sexual content)
- The Big Loop is an audio drama anthology, with almost all of the stories told in the first person. Includes both speculative and realist fiction, and really well done. So far, my favorite ep is the SF story "You." (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes)
- George the Poet's show Have You Heard George's Podcast? combines hip hop, spoken word, and audio drama to deliver both insightful musings about creativity and incisive social commentary. Sounds unlike any other show I know of.
- Ross Sutherland's show Imaginary Advice includes experimental audio fiction, poetry, and occasional audio-blog-style episodes. There's a playfulness to the writing and sound design that I love, and it's consistently surprising in the best way.
- LeVar Burton Reads is just what the title says: in every episode, host LeVar Burton reads a hand-picked and excellent short story. There's a heavy emphasis on speculative fiction, and Burton is a master storyteller. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes. See individual episode descriptions for specific notes.)
- In Mija, a young Latina woman from NYC tells her family's story of immigration. It's well done and very immersive, often feeling more like a docuseries than fiction.
- James Kim's MOONFACE is about a young, closeted Korean American man who struggles to communicate with his immigrant mother, because they literally don't speak the same language. It's a beautiful and moving story about identity, queer relationships, friendship, family, and podcasting. (Content notes: strong language, explicit sexual content)
- Murmurs, by BBC Sounds, is a Twilight-Zone-esque anthology show. Each episode is a different horror/SF story about worlds bleeding into each other. The sound design uses glitching and distortion to delightfully eerie effect.
- Kaitlin Prest's audio drama The Shadows is about the arc of a relationship, beginning, middle, and end. I was completely drawn in by the performances, which are viscerally real. Amazing show. (Content notes: strong language, explicit sexual content)
- Tin Can Audio's audio drama The Tower imagines a world in which a seemingly endlessly tall tower exists, and follows one woman's haunting journey as she climbs it. Reminded me of Borges or Ted Chiang. The way that the story is told through a series of phone calls works really well—it's eerie at times, but the conversations between characters are also quite intimate.
- Finally, I'm very proud of my own audio fiction anthology show, LikeWise Fiction, in which I read excellent short stories from many genres, all written by women, nonbinary authors, authors of color, and LGBTQIA+ authors. In the first season I've featured stories by writers including Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Kat Howard, Rachel Lyon, Celeste Ng, JY Yang, and more. I'd love if you had a listen. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language and mature themes, see individual episode descriptions for specific notes)
These are all either limited-run shows or they have discrete seasons that can be listened to like a miniseries. All are strong narrative nonfiction.
- Closer Than They Appear is a 2017 show by Carvell Wallace about race in America, with a mixture of interviews and personal narrative that I found quite compelling.
- Another show by Carvell Wallace is Finding Fred, which is all about Mr. Rogers, both looking at the work he did and asking what we lessons we can take from him to help us live in the often scary world of today.
- The Washington Post's Lillian Cunningham has done three excellent series on American history. The first, from 2016, was Presidential, which looked at each US president from the beginning through today.
- The next of Cunningham's shows was 2018's Constitutional, which is all about the US Constitution and how it came to be what it is.
- And then most recently, Cunningham did Moonrise, an excellent narrative documentary about the space race and moon landing, showing a lot of the darker parts of the story that most of us don't learn about in school.
- Another excellent show about the US Constitution is Radiolab's special series More Perfect, in which each episode is a breakdown and history of one of the amendments.
- For me, the granddaddy of history podcasts is Mike Duncan's The History of Rome, which, over the course of 179 episodes, charts the history of Rome from its pre-republican era through the fall of the Western Empire.
- I also very much enjoy Duncan's current show, Revolutions, which is all about different revolutions throughout history. Each of the show's 10 seasons covers a different revolution, including the English Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, and more. The current (and final) season is covering the Russian Revolution, and it's excellent.
- Finally, Scene On Radio is, in my opinion, a must-listen. Season 2 is about the history of race and racism in the US, season 3 is about the roots of misogyny and toxic masculinity in our society, and the current season is about inequality in America. Informative, engaging, and excellent.
These are all ongoing shows, so they're not necessarily great for bingeing, but they all have great, long-form conversations about books and literature, and are excellent for a long listen. In alphabetical order:
- David Naimon's Between the Covers has long-form interviews with authors across many genres, including literary fiction, SF and fantasy, and poetry. David is an excellent reader and has some of the best questions of any interview I know.
- Rachel Zucker's show Commonplace features "conversations with poets (and other people)." Rachel gets to deep and intimate places with her guests, and I'm always impressed by what a close rapport she establishes in her conversations. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
- Maris Kreizman's The Maris Review always feels like two pals having the most interesting conversation, it's great. This one includes a lot of excellent memoir and creative nonfiction, much more than other lit shows I listen to.
- The Poet Salon is interviews with poets, and what I love about it is that it manages to have insightful and profound conversations while also showing how fun poetry can be.
- KUT's This Is Just to Say is another excellent poetry show. The host, Carrie Fountain, is herself one of my favorite poets, and I love how she gets her guests to talk not just about their own work, but also about other poems that they love. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
- VS is hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi, two of my favorite poets. Their interviews are top notch, and I also just love the way their friendship is so evident when they talk to each other in the intros and outros. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
- Courtney Balestier's show WMFA is another favorite of mine. She's talked to a wide variety of writers but with a heavy focus on fiction, and I like how she focuses on craft. I also quite like the minisodes she posts during off weeks, which are short personal monologues on creativity.
- Finally, I wanted to mention my own show, Keep the Channel Open, which is a series of conversations about art and creativity with people working in all different creative fields, including writers, visual artists, podcasters, curators, and more. (Content notes: some episodes include strong language.)
Last, but not least, here are some shows that didn't fit into the other categories but which I love and which I think are great for extended listening. In alphabetical order:
- Helen Zaltzman's podcast The Allusionist is all about language, and what makes it so great is that it is fun. A lot of the episodes are humorous, many are deeply empathetic, all of them are entertaining and informative.
- Maggie Tokuda-Hall's show Drunk Safari is, sadly, no longer in production, but it is still available to listen to! Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilettantes. This show is the very definition of "delightful." (Content notes: strong language)
- Ear Hustle is about daily life inside prison, and what makes it unique is that it's told by and made by residents and former residents of San Quentin prison. It's a really well-made show, and it shares stories that many of us don't hear often enough. (Content notes: some strong language, references to violence.)
- The McElroy Brothers Will Be In Trolls World Tour is a hilarious faux-documentary series that the McElroys made as a way to sort of scam their way into getting cast in the movie. Honestly, it is the reason I am excited to see that movie. (Content notes: strong language [I think?])
- Of course, the McElroys' flagship show is My Brother, My Brother, and Me, "an advice show for the modren [sic] era." (Each episode opens with the disclaimer: "The McElroy Brothers are not experts, and their advice should never be followed.) I reckon many of you already know this one but it consistently makes my day better when I listen to it, so I couldn't not mention it. (Content notes: strong language, crude humor)
- My Friend Chuck, is by comedian McKenzie Goodwin and erotica author Chuck Tingle, and it's one of my new favorite shows. Each week McKenzie reviews one of Chuck's books, they talk about movies and local news, and they prove love is real. It's very funny and deeply decent. (Content notes: sexual content, some strong language)
- Only Here is a show by the San Diego NPR station, KPBS, and it is all about the unique culture of the San Diego-Tijuana border region, the things that happen only here.
Obviously, I do hope that, wherever you are, you and the people you love are staying safe and healthy, and that this crisis passes quickly. In the meantime, I hope this list is useful to you.
In This Post, I Am, Unfortunately, Talking About Electability and Joe Biden
Before I say anything else, let me make something clear: if you like Joe Biden and are happy to be voting for him, I’m not trying to talk you out of it. In fact, I’m not trying to talk you out of voting for him even if you’re not happy to be doing so. I don’t know what you value or how you arrive at your decisions, but I do think those decisions are yours to make. What I am going to do here, though, is talk about why I’m not going to vote for him. If that sounds like something you’d rather not read, for any reason or no reason, that’s fine and there are no hard feelings.
Because the people in my life know that I am politically active, there is a thing that’s been happening to me for the past six months or so, which is that basically any time I go to a family gathering or large social event, people will approach me and ask me who I’m voting for. And, more often than not, those same people then talk to me about Joe Biden.
“You know,” they’ll say, “I don’t really like him that much. In any other election, I’d probably vote for somebody more like who you probably want to vote for, Mike. But we can’t mess around this time. We have to beat Trump, and I really think the only person who can do that is Biden.”
I’m not really sure exactly what kind of a response people are looking for from me when they have this talk with me. Maybe they want to be confirmed in that choice. Maybe they want me to talk them out of it. Maybe they know that I disagree and are trying to convince me. So far, I don’t think any of these conversations have wound up satisfactory for anyone involved.
But I want to talk about this particular form of tactical voting for a little bit, because I honestly do believe that if Joe Biden gets the Democratic nomination, then Trump will be re-elected.
As I understand it, the argument for Biden goes like this (and I’m going to do my best not to misrepresent this perspective): Progressive candidates like Warren and Sanders are too far to the left for most American voters, and they will scare off too many centrists. On the other hand, a centrist candidate like Biden will bring in those centrists, and progressive voters will still show up for him because they know how awful Trump is. Also, Biden has the best chance of bringing back those swing voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and then voted for Trump in 2016.
To understand why I disagree with this reasoning, we have to look at the 2018 midterm elections and the so-called “blue wave.” If there is one lesson we should take away from 2018 it is this: turnout wins elections.
In 2018, the Democratic Party had a net gain of 41 seats in the House of Representatives. That coincided with the highest midterm voter turnout in the previous 104 years. Moreover, even in elections they didn’t win, Democrats made incredible showings in elections in 2017 and 2018 in a number of deeply red districts. These wins and near-wins did not happen because Trump voters in those districts decided in large numbers to change their minds. As far as we can tell, most people who voted for Trump in 2016 are pretty satisfied with him and will likely vote for him again in 2020. No, what drove the blue wave was convincing people who stayed home in 2016 to show up in 2018. That’s an entirely different proposition.
In 2016, about 69 million people voted for Hillary Clinton and about 66 million people voted for Donald Trump. But about 95 million voting-age citizens—about 40%—didn’t vote at all. Of course, when we look at those numbers it might be tempting to lay the blame on the two candidates’ unpopularity—and, according to polling data, Clinton and Trump were the two most unpopular candidates ever recorded. But it must also be noted that voter suppression, disenfranchisement, alienation, and general apathy also played a role in turnout. And we also have to note that turnout rates were about the same in 2004, 2008, and 2012, and were even lower for the previous 30 years’ worth of presidential elections.
Still, the path to a Democratic victory in 2020 is mainly going to come down to not winning back moderate Republicans but at how effective both the Party and the grassroots are at getting people to the polls. Turnout is key in any election, but in order to surmount the Electoral College, voter suppression laws, and active foreign interference, it’s going to take a rise in participation that the United States hasn’t seen in over a century, since the period we now call “the Progressive Era.” Getting that many people to vote is going to be difficult under any circumstances, but I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be more difficult without a candidate that actually excites people.
And here’s the thing: I don’t know anybody who is actually excited about voting for Joe Biden. As you’d expect, given my own political leanings and the activist circles I move in, I know a lot of people who are excited about Sanders and Warren. But I also know a lot of people who are excited about other candidates. I have talked to people who are thrilled about Bloomberg. I know people who talk about how much they like Buttigieg. I know people who are all-in for Yang. I know people who love Klobuchar. And before they dropped out, I heard from a lot of people who were excited for Harris or Booker or Castro or Gillibrand or Inslee. But, so far, every person who has talked to me about why they’re voting for Biden has made a point of talking about how they don’t actually like him, but that they feel they have to vote for him. I don’t think that a candidate that people feel not excitement for but only obligation can drive new voter registrations and get people to show up on Election Day in the numbers that we need. I don’t think that Joe Biden can win.
I could be wrong, of course. One person’s anecdotes about the conversations he’s had is not the same thing as reliable data. I live in one of the most reliably Democratic-voting states in the country, and I work with an openly progressive activist organization. So, yes, my experiences may not be representative.
Moreover, it’s also quite possible to look at the 2018 blue wave and come away with the conclusion that centrism works—certainly the majority of the freshman House Democrats are moderates. We can argue about how progressive candidates would have done in any of those districts, but in most cases it would just be speculation. And it may be that beating Trump is enough of an incentive to get historical turnout numbers in 2020, even without a Democratic nominee that people actually like.
Ultimately, each of us is going to do what we think is best. We’re going to make our decisions for our own reasons and on our own terms. I’m certainly not going to tell you who to vote for in the primaries, and if Joe Biden wins the nomination, I will do my best to get out there and get people to vote for him in November.
But what I would like is for each of us to try to look past what we fear and try to figure out what we really want, what we think will actually make this country and the world better. Because I really do believe that voting for what we actually want is not just the idealistic thing to do, it makes good tactical sense, too.
50 Things That Mattered to Me in 2019
Today is the last day of the year, and it has become a bit of a tradition for me to send out my year-end list on this day. Year-end lists are, of course, always at least a little bit controversial, and I do dislike the idea of being exclusive, or of trying to say that one thing is deserving of your attention and another is not. For me, though, making a list like this is really just an opportunity to reflect on my own year, to look back and remember what moved me and think about why. It’s something I find useful, and I appreciate having space to do it out loud. So, here are fifty things that I experienced in 2019 that mattered to me, in roughly chronological order:
- Christina Xiong’s poem “The Cup in the Sink” puts venom and tenderness side-by-side in a way that is so beautiful and so true.
- Helena Fitzgerald’s newsletter Griefbacon has been a favorite of mine for years, and it has sadly come to an end as of today. One of my favorites from this year was from January, when she wrote about Jenny Lewis and the phenomenon of the Sad Hot Girl Singer.
- Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State had in it perhaps the best depiction of the feeling of parenting a toddler that I’ve ever read. I also loved how it engaged with a part of my home state that’s often overlooked (even by me).
- Hannah Stephenson’s poem “SHOO” is about the difference between “nice” and “kind,” and I loved it.
- Esmé Weijun Wang’s essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias was both intense and nuanced, an intimate and affecting look at mental illness unlike anything I’ve read before.
- The late Stanley Plumly’s poem “At Night”, which was published only about a month before his death, is about memory and mortality. It’s profound, I think, and all the more so for its quietness.
- All My Relations is a podcast about Native issues, hosted by Dr. Adrienne Keene and Matika Wilbur. I found the first season interesting and educational, and I’m looking forward to what’s yet to come.
- Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest was some of the best music writing I’ve ever read, giving both historical context and deeply personal reflections on one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the 1990s.
- M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language” is remarkable for how it makes English strange, revealing and inverting the colonial gaze.
- In their essay “Impostor/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing”, Sarah Gailey talked about how impostor syndrome can keep you from recognizing and taking responsibility for the power you have, and how that can be dangerous.
- The poems in Ilya Kaminsky’s book Deaf Republic were kind of terrifying, in the most necessary way.
- I listened to Scene On Radio’s two podcast series Seeing White and MEN, which go deep into racism and misogyny, respectively. If you want to understand the fundamental tensions of our time, these are essential listening.
- This interview between Carmen Maria Machado and Theodore McCombs is one of the wildest things I read all year, and the less I say, the better.
- Literary interview podcasts are a mainstay of my listening, and a new favorite which started this year is The Poet Salon. The conversations are engaging and smart and a lot of fun. If you, like me, are still missing The Poetry Gods, this goes a long way toward filling that hole.
- This episode of The Cut on Tuesdays is about the friendship between Nicole Cliffe and Daniel M. Lavery, and listening to it just made me happy.
- Cathy Ulrich is one of my favorite flash fiction writers. Her story “The Hole in the Center of Everything” has this haunted quality that she does so well.
- Engaging with masculinity was something of a theme for me this year, both in understanding how masculinity can be toxic and in looking for healthy forms of masculinity. One essay that stood out to me was Mark Greene’s “Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendship of Boys?”
- This song (and video) by David Sikabwe was just so adorable.
- When I started reading Rakesh Satyal’s novel No One Can Pronounce My Name, I thought I knew what it was going to be—another harrowing story of immigrant trauma. I turned out to be wrong in the most delightful way. What a wonderful, funny, big-hearted, lovely story it turned out to be.
- Maggie Tokuda-Hall wrote about fertility and violation and baking and control and it was beautiful and heartbreaking and enraging. (CW: sexual violence)
- I liked Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s poem “The moon is showing” because it is about butts, and because of the way it moves from emotion to emotion, from humor to sensuality to shame to transcendance.
- Emma Hunsinger’s New Yorker cartoon “How to Draw a Horse” is so sweet and lovely, gentle to her younger self.
- Jonny Sun, who many of us know for his particularly wonderful Twitter presence or for his book Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, gave a lovely TED talk this year about loneliness and vulnerability and connection.
- Yanyi’s book The Year of Blue Water resists categorization—it’s poetry and it’s essay and it’s both and neither. I appreciated how the book is confident in being wholly itself.
- Sarah Gailey’s novel Magic for Liars is a detective story set in a magical high school, and it is so good.
- One of my favorite literary podcasts, Storyological, had its final episode this year, which I was sad about, but which was also perhaps the best possible conclusion to a show I loved.
- Katie Ford’s poem “Sonnet 31” has this feeling of ambivalence to it, by which I mean not that it is apathetic but rather that it is pulled equally in two directions, and it is that tension in which we live, I think.
- Natalie Eilbert’s poem “Crescent Moons” is about the aftermath of sexual assault, and it is breathtaking in its immediacy and potency.
- I got to see more movies this year than I had gotten to in a while, and probably the one that has stuck with me the most is The Farewell. To me, this film was quintessentially Asian American in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced before, and it was wonderful getting to see it.
- I’ve been enjoying US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s podcast The Slowdown for a while now. Over the summer, she read A. A. Milne’s poem “Spring Morning”, which has this lovely innocence to it, a sense of wonder that I recognized and that I try to hold onto when I’m out in the world.
- In her poem “Litany”, Chloe N. Clark writes “maybe what I want most is to grow / back into exclamations,” which is one of the things I want, too.
- CJ Hauser’s essay “The Crane Wife” is about self-erasure and leaving a bad relationship and finding her way toward herself.
- I think the book that I loved the most this year, the most beautiful book I read, was Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s time-traveling, lesbian, spy-vs-spy, epistolary novel This Is How You Lose the Time War. That description, while accurate, cannot contain how simply gorgeous this story is.
- Sarah Rose Etter’s novel The Book of X is about a woman born with a literal knot in her body. The writing is so physical, and the story is surreal, grotesque, even gross at times. For all that it is a fantastic story, though, it is one that embodies truths about being a woman in the world that resonate deeply.
- Danez Smith’s poem “acknowledgments” has in it the lines “& how many times have you loved me without my asking? / how often have i loved a thing because you loved it? / including me.” It’s one of the poems about love that felt most true and memorable to me this year.
- In her debut essay collection, The Pretty One, my friend Keah Brown discusses disability, pop culture, representation, and her own journey to self-love. I’m so happy that this book is in the world.
- Tommy Pico’s fourth “Teebs” book, Feed is perhaps my favorite of the tetralogy. It has all of the fire, humor, and insight that the previous three have, but it also has certain sweetness to it that complemented the other emotions, rounding it in a way that felt authentic and complete.
- There has been a lot of good music this year, but the album that I have listened to the most was without question the Steven Universe The Movie soundtrack. Partly this is because it’s music I can listen to with my kids, partly it’s because I like to sing along. But mainly it’s because that show and the movie are just wonderful portrayals of friendship and family, and I love the way it makes me feel.
- In September, Mother Jones published an interview between an anonymous staffer and her mother, about the mother’s abortion. I don’t think abortion is a topic that ever will be an easy topic, and maybe it shouldn’t be. The way this conversation humanizes the discussion is, I think, necessary.
- There is a moment in Lucy Dacus’ cover of "Dancing in the Dark where everything pauses for just a brief second of silence, and it was probably the most transcendent moment of music for me this whole year.
- I got to read an advance copy of Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming novel Real Life, and it is everything that I would have dreamed a Brandon Taylor novel would be. It is a campus novel, a story about what we ask of each other, how we do and don’t see each other. It’s brutal at times, intimate at others, and beautiful throughout.
- One of my favorite narrative podcasts for the past few years has been the McElroys’ role-playing show The Adventure Zone. Their second big series wrapped up this year, and, yes, the finale did make me cry.
- Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s poem “If In Its Advance the Plague Begins to Fiercen” stretches language but the message is still quite clear.
- One of my favorite new podcasts and a consistent source of joy lately has been McKenzie Goodwin and Chuck Tingle’s show My Friend Chuck. It’s funny, generous of spirit, inclusive, and just decent. Just two buckaroos proving love is real.
- Ross Sutherland’s experimental audio fiction podcast Imaginary Advice released its fifth anniversary episode this fall, an audio version of a novelization of the 1995 Jackie Chan film Rumble in the Bronx. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, and it is also truly sublime.
- As I do every year, I attended the Medium Festival of Photography this October. Of all the work I saw at this year’s festival, it was Anna Grevenitis’ series Regard that has stuck with me the most. In this series, Grevenitis makes images in collaboration with her daughter—who has Down syndrome—inverting the gaze and challenging the viewer, exerting control over the image and the perspective.
- What’s Good, Man? is a new podcast by rappers Guante and tony the scribe in which they discuss masculinity, and particularly ways that men can engage with healthier forms of masculinity. We so often hear that men need to have these conversations more often, so it’s nice to see two men doing this work, and doing it well.
- One of the most talked-about new audio dramas in the past few months (at least, that I’ve seen) has been James Kim’s series MOONFACE. The series starts in media res in a sex club, so you will know right away whether or not it’s for you. For me, I thought that it was brilliant in both concept and execution, telling the story of a young gay Korean American man who literally doesn’t speak the same language as his mother, and who is struggling to make something out of his life.
- I’ve mentioned masculinity several times in this list already. Well, one of the people I’ve looked to a lot recently as a role model for a gentler masculinity is Mr. Rogers, and so Carvell Wallace‘s new podcast Finding Fred has been wonderful for me. In this series, Wallace looks at Mr. Rogers’ life and philosophy, and wrestles with how to apply those teachings as an adult in the world today. It’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what I needed to hear.
- Finally, just this week I listened to the full 7-episode run of the audio drama The Tower, which follows a woman’s journey as she climbs a seemingly endless tower. I thought the writing and performances were top-notch, and I found the story haunting. I just love the way podcasts are continuing to grow as a medium, and this is a great example of what’s happening right now.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. If you’re reading this then you got through 2019, and that matters to me, too. I don’t know what 2020 will bring, but I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that our work pays off, that we can find respite and joy, and that we all get what we need. I hope that you—you—get what you need.
53 Things That Mattered to Me in 2018
It’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? But then, it seems like we say that every year nowadays. The last few years it has felt not just that things are awful but that the rate of awfulness has accelerated. It is exactly that feeling that makes it all the more important to me to spend time thinking about the things that were good, the things that mattered. Here are some things that mattered to me this year. Please note, this list only reflects my own limited, incomplete, personal experiences. I didn’t see everything that could be seen this year, and not everything that I saw this year was released this year. These were things that stood out to me in 2018; I’d love to know what stood out to you, especially where our lists differ.
- One of the first things I shared in my weekly round-ups this year was this Steven Universe-inspired ballet piece, with dancer Juliet Doherty. I remember showing it to my dance-obsessed daughter, six years old at the time, and the way her eyes lit up as she watched.
- Amal El-Mohtar’s poem “Thunderstorm in Glasgow, July 25, 2013,” beautifully illustrated by Molly Crabapple. When I first read it, what struck me was how language informs identity. Now, I see too how it shows the separations between people, the barriers and the otherness.
- I read Erin Horáková’s 2017 piece “Kirk Drift” in February, and it did something I would not have expected after a lifetime as a Trekkie: it changed the way I think about Star Trek.
- Natalie Eilbert’s book Indictus was a searing collections of poems about trauma. It was so alive, so kinetic in its language. Troubling, but in a deeply necessary way.
- Everything Devin Kelly writes, whether essay, poem, or story, has at its core this searching, longing, tender quality. He wrote a piece about Goose from Top Gun that was also about his father, and about masculinity, and which I loved.
- L. D. Burnett, a historian and professor, wrote a piece called “Keeper of the Stories,” examining both the struggles of her Dust-Bowl-migrant family, and their complicity in the Japanese American Internment. It’s the kind of honesty in history that I still find to be unfortunately rare, but that I think we desperately need more of.
- 2018 was my year of superhero movies, the year I decided to finally catch up on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. I watched 18 MCU movies this year, and there were a lot that I liked quite a bit, but Black Panther stood out in that crowd for a lot of reasons, not least because it had characters saying things I’ve never heard in a blockbuster before.
- Rivers Solomon’s 2017 debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts was intense and amazing, both an excellent example of a long science fiction tradition and something that pushed the genre in new directions.
- I think I started listening to The Adventure Zone’s “Balance” arc last year, but I finished it in March and it has remained one of my favorite pieces of fantasy I experienced all year. God, I just love those boys.
- Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel Pachinko was both grand in scope and intimate, deeply empathetic, and taught me about a community I knew very little about before: Koreans living in Japan.
- I've read a lot of poems about injustice and our nation's disregard for black lives, but I'm not sure I've read any quite so tender and haunting as those in Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
- It’s been really wonderful reading so much speculative fiction by writers of color this year. One that stood out to me was Elaine Cuyegkeng’s 2017 story “These Constellations Will Be Yours,” about colonialism and forced servitude and revolution.
- Like just about everybody, I loved Paddington 2. Not just because it was a respite from the stress of the world, but because it was unabashedly itself, a children’s movie for children in an era when darkness or sarcasm seem to be more the rule in kids’ entertainment.
- I just adored Hannah Stephenson’s new chapbook Cadence, a collection of poems about new motherhood and all of the wonder and anxiety that comes with the care of a new life.
- Maggie Nelson’s 2015 memoir The Argonauts was by turns vexing, hilarious, troubling, heartbreaking, and throughout so deeply intelligent. Nelson insists on complicating every narrative, every system, every way of being. Perhaps this could be a lonely thing—it is for me, at times—but reading this was so affirming as well.
- Brandy Jensen’s “How to Poach an Egg and Leave a Marriage,” especially for this line: “Chasing the egg around the pot will only remind you of how often you run away from things, only to eventually coincide with yourself. You will wonder if it’s the running or the coinciding that makes you most miserable, and before you know it the eggs will be overdone.”
- I thought Franny Choi’s chapbook Death by Sex Machine was so interesting, both formally inventive and thematically resonant. Using artificial intelligence as a metaphor for the otherness of race and gender is just so, so smart.
- The most consistently entertaining and hilarious podcast I started listening to this year was definitely Drunk Safari. As host Maggie Tokuda-Hall puts it: “Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilletantes.”
- Another podcast I started listening to this year was Commonplace, and by far the episode that has most stuck with me was “Inside Commonplace.” Getting the behind-the-scenes conversations about the show, as well as the conversation between host Rachel Zucker and her husband, really showed me a lot about what an interview show can be.
- Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel wasn’t just beautiful and insightful—though it certainly was those things. It was also the single most inspiring book I read all year, the kind that helped me keep going.
- In May, Laura Turner wrote about being pregnant after three miscarriages, about the anxiety of it. It was a beautiful piece, I thought.
- Then in August, she shared her son’s birth story. That was beautiful, too, and made me so happy.
- Probably my favorite album of the year was Lucy Dacus’s Historian. I came back to those songs over and over again, particularly the song “The Shell” and its line “You don't want to be a leader / Doesn't mean you don't know the way.”
- Jerry Takigawa’s “Balancing Culture” photographs, about the Japanese American Internment, won the Curator’s Choice Award from Center Santa Fe this year, which is how I found them. I love them for their strong visual compositions, and for the personal nature of the exploration.
- Kathy Fish’s poem “Collective Nouns for Humans In the Wild” was published in 2017. It’s just as heartbreaking this year.
- Many of the poems in Ada Limón’s The Carrying have a heaviness to them, but there’s a core of resilience in them as well, and Limón passes that feeling along to us, showing us the reasons to keep carrying on, showing us how.
- I’m not going to be able to sum up Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries in just one or two sentences. It has in it trauma and mental illness. It is a Native story. It is about writing your way towards yourself. But it’s more than any or all of that, too.
- One of my absolute favorite podcasts is David Naimon’s Between the Covers, and I was very happy to see his conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin be turned into a book. I particularly enjoyed the introductions David added to introduce each section, which provided context and deepened the experience.
- I’ve been heartened to see a number of pieces this year engaging with complicated topics with a lot of nuance, acknowledging the messiness of the questions involved and the lack of clear, simple answers. One of those was Connie Wang’s “I've Written About Cultural Appropriation For 10 Years. Here's What I Got Wrong.”
- R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries was utterly gorgeous in its prose, and I found it resonant in how it looked at the ways in which we form personal narratives, both how we attempt to invent ourselves and how we see (or fail to see) the others in our lives.
- Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know is without question one of the best and most personally important books I read this year. What an amazingly honest, open, full-hearted story Nicole has given us about adoption, about heritage, about self-understanding, about family, and how families are both made and inherited. I’m just so happy this book exists.
- Kirsten Tradowsky’s “Time Echo” paintings really interested me. I find the finished paintings aesthetically interesting, particularly in their gesture, but I think that the process behind them is what really nails it for me, the way that Tradowsky blurs details mirroring the way memory blurs details.
- I have to admit that I never listened to Superchunk before this year, but What a Time to Be Alive was a great place to start. I’d describe the songs as “defiantly joyful,” I think.
- I often find myself thinking that Fred Rogers’ existence is proof that the world can never be all bad. Watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made me cry a lot, of course.
- Brandon Taylor’s piece about his mother was so moving, so beautiful. I’m so grateful for him.
- Lyz Lenz’s essay “Why Writing Matters In the Age of Despair” was a potent reminder of the necessity of documenting and commenting on these times.
- Innuendo Studio’s video “Lady Eboshi Is Wrong” was really good. It’s about the difference between empathy and agreement, a particularly important distinction right now, I think.
- I really like Mikey Neumann’s Movies With Mikey videos. I think they’re some of the most insightful film criticism out there right now. His video “Get Off the Floor” showed us more of himself, shared his personal story, and that’s something that more and more I’m finding to be admirable and even necessary from cultural commenters.
- Crazy Rich Asians showed me just how much I needed a movie like this, where Asians and Asian Americans get to just be people.
- A story that has stuck with me since I heard it on the podcast The Other Stories is Mary J. Breen’s “Pieces of String Too Short to Be of Any Use.” There’s something about the idea of a story that engages with regret but refuses nostalgia that feels very right to me.
- The movie Eighth Grade was just about the perfect encapsulation of the most awkward part of adolescence. It’s such a strange thing, too, to be able to connect so deeply to both sides of the teen/parent struggle.
- I love how José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal encompasses both fire and tenderness, poems about race and place, but also about love in many forms.
- Gretchen Felker-Martin’s essay “You Called for Me” showed me something new about the classic anime Akira, which I first watched when I wasn’t too much older than my son is now. Teaching him how to process his emotions, how to avoid the isolation that masculinity so often demands of boys and men, is something that’s important to me, and this essay gets at just why it’s important.
- I always love when Noah Cho writes about food, and his “Bad Kimchi” column at Catapult is just great. I particularly loved the first installment, “The Love of Korean Cooking I Share With My White Mother.”
- Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET” grabbed my eye at first for its experimental form, but what made it stick was the potency of its emotion.
- I heard The Heart podcast’s 2017 series “No” when it was rebroadcast on Radiolab in October this year. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything that engaged with the concept of consent in such a concrete way, and I really think that it’s something everybody should listen to.
- KangHee Kim’s “Street Errands” photographs are so weird and just love them so much. I can’t stop thinking about them.
- I don’t know who Noah and PJ are but their first wedding dance just made (and makes) me radiantly happy.
- This Ask Polly column from November about shame and art and treating yourself well and being where you are was just wonderful, I thought.
- I did not expect after the first chapter that I would love Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA fantasy novel In Other Lands but by the end I really, really did.
- Shivanee Ramlochan’s book of poems Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was pretty amazing. Not just for how it blends together the myths and religions and folklore found in Trinidad, but for how it makes something powerful out of traumatic experiences.
- Before last year I really thought I was done with Spider-Man movies. And then after last year I thought that there was no way I’d be able to love a Spider-Man movie more than I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, especially not another origin story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proved me utterly wrong. The climactic scene where Miles Morales takes his leap of faith was breathtaking in every way.
- A while back, maybe two or three years ago, I had this idea to write a story set in a fantasy world but using the conventions and themes of literary fiction. I never wrote it, of course. But reading Kelly Link’s short story collection Get In Trouble, I feel like I don’t have to, because she’s done it so much more brilliantly than I ever could. I don’t understand how these stories do what they do—it just feels like magic. Which is fitting.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. I saw how many people worked so hard this year. I’m hopeful for how that work will bear fruit in the new year.
I've been thinking a lot this morning about guns, of course. I've been thinking about how I have family and friends who are gun owners, who I like a lot and enjoy being around. As far as I know, all of them are what we consider responsible gun owners—my uncle, for example, is an avid hunter, but I never feel any concern taking my kids to his house to visit him and my aunt because I know there is no chance at all that they will find a gun lying around. There are a good number of my gun-owning friends and family who I have no idea what their position on gun control is, because I've never talked to them about it. I would imagine that at least some of them are in favor of common-sense gun regulations. I know for certain that some have, at least in the past, been vocal opponents of gun control.
I don't think any of these people are bad people—on the contrary, many of them are people I respect and enjoy immensely. I'm sure that they all find each new school shooting to be as shocking and horrifying as I do, and for the same reasons. But I guess I don't know how relevant it is what people feel in their hearts. At least, it is and should be less relevant than the consequences of their actions.
The point here is not that gun owners are monsters, but that understanding how we are complicit in things that make us uncomfortable is difficult, even as it is necessary.
We all make choices in our lives. And those choices say something about our priorities and values. I don't think many people would say that they believe that it is acceptable for children to be murdered in their schools. I don't think that many people would say that those children's lives matter less than the right to own a gun. Maybe I'm naive, but I think the number of people who might say such things is so vanishingly small as to be irrelevant. I certainly don't think my gun-owning family and friends would say anything like that.
But I do think that the end result, the function of some of the things I've seen friends say about gun control is the same.
For example, when we say things like "this is a terrible tragedy but there's nothing that we can do about it," this just isn't true. We know that there is a strong correlation both internationally and within the United States between permissive gun laws and increased frequency of gun violence, and, vice versa, we know that US states and foreign countries with more restrictive gun laws have less gun violence. We know that we can make this happen less often. What we mean when we say "there's nothing we can do about it" is really "I am not willing to do the things that can be done about it."
We also say things like "gun control won't end gun violence." And certainly this is true—no law that I've ever seen proposed would end violence, because human beings are inherently prone to violence, and determined people will find ways to circumvent laws. But it's also irrelevant, because mitigating harm is worth doing even if it won't completely end harm. When we say "gun control won't end gun violence," this is in function the same as saying that reducing the number of lives lost to gun violence is less important than maintaining access to guns.
We say things like "if we criminalize guns then only criminals will have guns" or "why should we penalize responsible gun owners?" But this is, essentially, to argue that laws and regulations should not exist at all. We accept regulation in so many aspects of our lives in order to mitigate harm, reduce risks, improve safety, and allow us to live together in something approaching harmony. Why are guns different? What makes gun ownership more essential and less open to regulation than workplace safety or automobile operation or food safety or environmental protection or any number of other areas where people can cause harm to other people, and we have decided not to allow that?
I think the most honest thing I've ever heard a gun control opponent say was "I like my guns and I don't want to have to give them up." And I get that. To be honest, I enjoy shooting and I always have, though I haven't gone to a range since I was a teenager. When you come down to it, we all have trouble prioritizing other people over our own comforts and conveniences. I'm no different. But I think that the most important thing any of us can do is take a good hard look at ourselves and ask ourselves whether the way we are living is harming other people. To ask, "What would I be willing to give up in order to help others, and what wouldn't I be willing to give up?" To understand why we don't want to give up certain things. To ask whether it's worth it.
Nobody wants to think of themselves as part of the problem, and honestly few people will do so. But we all agree that problems exist and that they are mostly brought about by people. It simply can't be the case that it's always someone else's fault, that we are always blameless. If we are ever to solve the problems that exist, then we must be willing to look to ourselves first.
Perhaps we will choose to continue on as we are, accepting that other people will pay for our choices, sometimes with their lives. Maybe we will decide that that is acceptable, that those lives are worth it. Let's at least be clear about it when we make those choices, though.
58 Things That Mattered to Me in 2017
Every Friday—or, at least, as many Fridays as I can manage—I write a list of things that mattered to me over the preceding week, and then I share that list on social media. I started doing this last summer, just as a way of shouting out the people who helped make my life a little better, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing from the beginning. It helps keep me positive and makes me consider a bit more closely the pieces of media and culture that I consume. This year, though, it felt a little more urgent to me to make these lists, a little more defiant, perhaps. It feels a little grandiose to say that these lists were an act of resistance, but if nothing else, 2017 has given me a lot of opportunity to think about what kind of world I’d like to live in, and what I can contribute. It’s a small thing, these lists, but they help me, and I hope that other people find them useful as well.
Over the course of this year, I shared over 200 essays, poems, articles, and bits of pop culture in my weekly round-ups. But there were others that didn’t quite fit, or for which I couldn’t find a link. And, looking back, some have stuck with me more than others. But I wanted to take some time and share some of the things that did stick. It’s not an exhaustive list of everything I read or saw or did in 2017, nor of everything that was good or important. Some of the things were new when I encountered them, some were quite old, but they were all new to me, and perhaps they’ll be new to you as well. In any event, here are 58 things that mattered to me this year, presented in roughly chronological order:
“When I think of wearing a kimono, I think of every way I have failed.” Rowan Hisayo Buchanan wrote that line in her essay “The Woman Scared of Her Own Kimono,” and it summed up a lot about my own relationship to my ancestral culture. I read a lot of essays about diasporic and mixed-race experiences in 2017, but this was one of the first, and one of those that I continued to think of most over the course of the year.
There was a lot on Thundercat’s album Drunk that I liked, but hearing Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins show up in the song “Show You the Way” brought me back to my childhood in the best possible way.
The first time I read Eve Ewing’s poem “to the notebook kid” I thought about it from the perspective of the student she describes, dreaming past the situation he’s in. The second time, I thought about it from the perspective of the teacher who sees that kid, and I thought about the students I worked with way back when. Every time I’ve read it, there’s been something new to it. That’s something, I think.
So much has been written about Moonlight and there were so many memorable things about it. What I think about most is the ache and hunger in Black’s eyes when he looks at Kevin as they talk in the diner.
I loved Moana for a lot of reasons: for the music, for getting to see a Disney story led by a woman of color, for that woman getting to have her own story without reference to a love interest. But, honestly, the thing I love most is hearing my now-three-year-old daughter belting “I am Moana!!!!” at the top of her lungs.
“You May Want to Marry My Husband,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is perhaps the most romantic, tenderest, and most devastating thing I’ve ever read about love.
I like Noah Cho a lot, just as a person, and I have liked having the chance to talk to him and get to know him better this year. His piece “How My Parents Met” was wonderful, full of both warmth and longing.
Alyssa Wong’s short story “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” was nominated for a Hugo this year. The story was fantastic, and also introduced me to her bibliography, something I’m glad about.
“How to Write Iranian-American, or the Last Essay,” by Porochista Khakpour. It’s about the way that the world will take from you, and try to make you into what it needs from you, when you are a marginalized person. I wonder how many people reading this saw themselves in it, and how many saw something entirely new to them.
Levar Burton launched a new podcast this year that people described as “Reading Rainbow for adults.” Levar Burton Reads was that, and it was delightful. It also gave me the spark for what may be my next project, but that’s another story and shall be told another time.
One of the best and most exciting things about podcasts is the possibility of giving you a look into worlds and experiences that might otherwise be inaccessible to you. Or, conversely, the prospect of seeing your own community presented and represented in a way you never have before. For me, Ear Hustle was the former, presenting slices of life from inside San Quentin prison. But I have to imagine that for some other people it must have been the latter as well, not least for the inmates themselves. Anyway, it was really good.
I enjoyed a lot of Devin Gael Kelly’s writing this year, and I’m very much looking forward to his new book of poems, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen. The first piece of his that I read—this year or ever—was his essay “Running Toward My Father,” which was beautiful.
I got to see a lot of acts of protest and resistance this year, both in person and online. The most beautiful was this one.
Another new podcast to me this year was WMFA. I really enjoyed the conversations and the focus on craft. One episode I especially enjoyed was the episode with Hanif Abdurraqib. On a personal note, I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the show’s host, Courtney Balestier, with whom I’m now collaborating on a new project.
My kids and I have been watching Steven Universe together for a while now, and it’s one of my favorite things. The official soundtrack was released over the summer, and it’s become a sing-along staple in our family.
If you’ve listened to my podcast or even just hung around me for any length of time, you’ll know that Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You was life-changing for me. This year she released her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, and it was absolutely a highlight of my reading year.
I’m not sure I can quite articulate why I loved this breakdown of Sammo Hung's movies as much as I did, but I really did.
In “If What I Mean Is Hummingbird, If What I Mean Is Fall Into My Mouth,” Natalie Diaz wrote about language and identity and history and poetry, and it was pretty amazing.
We got my son a Switch for his birthday, though I admit that I was as excited to play with it myself as I was to give it to him. The opening scene of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, when Link walks up to the overlook and the music comes up for the first time, transported me. More than that, though, getting to play through at the same time as my son, and connecting with him over our experiences in the game, was something I’ve been waiting for for a long time.
“The Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu, was such a wonderful story. In looking over this list, it seems that some common themes came up for me this year, in particular family and culture and language. God this was good.
When I talked with Maggie Smith about her book for my podcast this year, she told me about Katherine Fahey’s “crankie” animations, in particular one called “Francis Whitmore’s Wife.” Beautiful and haunting.
Spider-Man: Homecoming was fun, too, and I think it’s safe to say that it was my favorite Spider-Man movie ever. The scene that sticks in my mind the most, though, wasn't fun. It comes toward the end of the movie, when Peter is stuck under a pile of rubble. At first he calls out for someone to help him, but no one is there and he has to find the strength to get out on his own. More than any other Spider-Man movie I can recall, this one really drives home that Peter Parker really is a kid.
I read and talked a lot about food as a cultural touchstone and food as heritage this year (and last year, if memory serves). Dongwon Song’s essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Damn Eyeball” was particularly good on that topic.
“The Story of the DuckTales Theme, History’s Catchiest Single Minute of Music,” by Darryn King, was a great piece of nostalgia for me. And getting to watch the new series (and sing the theme song) with my kids was great.
“A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home,” by Jamila Osman, about home, connection to place, to land, to people, about family, about loss. Such a beautiful piece.
I’m not sure if “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is exactly my favorite of Amal El-Mohtar’s short stories, only because I don’t think I could pick a favorite—I’ve loved every single one I’ve read, each in its own way. But it was the first one I read, and the one that led me to all the others I read this year, so it has a certain exalted position in my mind.
It’s kind of remarkable to me how before last year I’d never read any fiction that resonated with me in terms of Asian-American representation. You can see from this list that this is no longer the case. I first encountered Laura Chow Reeve’s story “1000-Year-Old Ghosts” on Levar Burton Reads, and I just loved the mixture of magic and food and family.
I read the first two books of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy back-to-back, after the second one came out last year. The concluding volume, The Stone Sky, finished the story off in a way that couldn’t have been more perfect, for me anyway.
I started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat last spring, and it carried me through most of the year. I loved (and continue to love) that music dearly, but by the time the show swept through the Tonys I had more or less resigned myself to the idea that I’d never get to see it in person. But, in a total surprise to me, J and ten or so of our family members pooled their resources to get me tickets to see the touring production in Los Angeles, which they gave me for my birthday. We went to see it in September, and I started crying as soon as the house lights dimmed, and kept crying through most of the first act, and then cried again at “Burn” and then all the way through the finale. It was, without exaggeration, the best gift I’ve ever received.
UNC law professor Eric Muller did a limited-run podcast this year called Scapegoat Cities, about the Japanese-American Internment. I found it gratifying that someone would take the time to tell these stories, which are beginning to be lost from living memory. And they were done quite well, too, I thought.
I have gotten pretty down on tech lately, which I suppose is odd for a person who makes his living as an electrical engineer. But there are still ways that technology and scientific endeavors manage to bring a sense of wonder to me, and one time that happened this year was getting to look through these photographs from the Cassini mission.
I love Mallory Ortberg’s writing in a way that makes me vibrate with happiness every time I get to read something new from her. Her Shatner Chatner newsletter (and the subsequent website) brought me so much joy over the course of the year. But for all that, the piece of hers that I loved the most this year was “When Every Bra Size is Wrong.” Because getting the chance to be happy for someone who makes you happy is simply wonderful.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Nicole Chung this year, who edited my first-ever paid essay. The reason I was so excited is in part because of pieces like this: “On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump.” I admire the hell out of her.
Speaking of people I admire, Martha Crawford wrote some amazing personal essays for her blog this year, of which my favorite was definitely “Dancing in the Graveyard,” about dreams, symbols, the collective unconscious, mortality, and Geoffrey Holder.
After the announcement that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel, I went back and read his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, a story that I found haunting and tricky in all of the ways that I love about Ishiguro’s writing. But the thing I think most about Ishiguro’s Nobel is actually not about him at all, but rather a Twitter thread that Kenny Coble posted about what Ishiguro’s work meant to him.
The first line of Tricia Gahagan’s artist statement for her photo series “11:11 Mirroring Consciousness” reads “How often do we pause and pay attention to the messages the world is mirroring back to us?” The photographs themselves made me gasp when I first saw them. The images were so perfect for my aesthetic, but also not something I think I could ever have done.
There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of The Florida Project where Moonee and one of her friends come out from under a tree where they’ve been sheltering from the rain, and step into a green pasture where some cows are placidly chewing. I recognized something in the color and the sudden quiet and calm, a sense of awe and the sublime that I used to feel when I was a kid, but which I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe at the time.
I saw Christina Riley at the Medium Festival this year, where she was participating in the portfolio reviews. It was great catching up with her, and seeing the prototype of the book she’s making of her “Born” series, a series I’ve been watching take shape for some time now, and about which I’m very excited.
Dimas Ilaw wrote about the nightmare happening in the Philippines in his piece “The Shape of the Darkness As It Overtakes Us.” It puts into perspective our own political situation, and shows us what the stakes are. He tells us, too, about both the necessity and limitations of hope, and the value of continuing to make art in such an environment.
Isobel O’Hare’s erasure poems “What We Know About Men” took powerful men’s statements about their alleged sexual harassment and assault, and transformed them into something else. That’s a powerful act, I think, and one I’m heartened by.
The newest podcast I’ve been listening to—and one of my favorites—is Carvell Wallace’s show Closer Than They Appear. In it, Wallace talks to celebrities, family members, old friends, doctors, journalists and others about the state of America. That description makes it sound like any number of other articles and books and podcasts out there, but the way he does it is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, personal and honest and both broad and specific.
Both J and I cried when we watched Coco. Whew, what a beautiful movie.
I’ve only read one of J. Y. Yang’s Tensorate novellas so far: The Black Tides of Heaven. The world-building, the sibling relationship, the presentation of gender, it’s all so fresh and well done, and it has me very excited to read The Red Threads of Fortune, not to mention the ones that are still forthcoming.
I’ve been wrestling with Sofia Samatar’s essay “Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork” for several weeks now. I think there’s an essential truth in there that I’m maybe just not ready for yet, but I think I’ll get there.
There’s a scene in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird in which Sister Sarah Joan, one of the nuns at the Catholic school the title character attends, is talking to Lady Bird about her college application essay. She suggests that Lady Bird must love Sacramento, which Lady Bird finds surprising. She (Lady Bird) replies “I guess I pay attention,” to which Sister Sarah Joan asks, “Are those not the same thing?” I loved the whole movie, but I especially loved that scene.
Just this week, J and I took a short trip up to San Francisco by ourselves, and while we were there we saw Call Me By Your Name. We both loved the movie. The conversation between Elio and his dad (if you’ve seen the movie, you know which one I mean) just destroyed me.
Finally, one of my favorite things in the world is reading to my kids, and this year I’ve gotten to revisit some of my own childhood favorites with them—The Lord of the Rings with my nine-year-old son and The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web with my six-year-old daughter were particularly fun for me (and them). Earlier tonight as I’m writing this, my son and I finished the last Harry Potter novel. It was wonderful.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me. I know that there’s a lot of work to do in 2018, but I feel that we’re up to the task. I’m looking forward to it. Here’s wishing you (and all of us) a safe, happy, and prosperous new year.
This Is It
At about 4:30 this morning, my son wandered into my bedroom and told me that he'd had a bad dream. He said that he had been running away from Voldemort, that Voldemort had been killing everybody around him and he had to get away, and then he woke up. I let him lie down between me and my wife, and within a few seconds he was asleep again.
An hour and a half later, my alarm went off. I rolled over and picked up my phone from where it lay on my nightstand, to be greeted by a whole night's worth of push notifications from different news services. Each new message told a story worse than the last—first a warning about an active shooter, then two dead, then twenty, then fifty. I put the phone down, turned and reached down to where my son lay, still warm and unaware. I put my hand on his back and he stirred. "Time to get up, buddy," I said. He stretched and sat up. I didn't tell him what I'd just read, nor his sisters. I don't think I will. That they don't have to be burdened with such horror is a privilege, of course.
I don't believe in magic. It has nevertheless been years since the last time a nightmare sent my son seeking comfort and reassurance from me or his mother in the middle of the night. That the image which so terrified him was of crowds of people running while a dark figure indiscriminately snuffed out lives all around him is... Well, it's the kind of thing that makes me wonder about coincidences.
The thing that hurts the most about a day like today, like any of these days with which we have all become so unfortunately familiar, is the certain knowledge that the world is like this because that's how people want it to be. Oh, sure, they may profess shock or grief on a day like this one, but still nothing happens, nothing changes. Not when a man stormed into an elementary school and killed twenty children. Not when an avowed racist looking to start a race war entered a church and killed nine people. Not when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 12-year-old on camera.
Is it just guns? No, of course not. White supremacists march openly through the town square and the President makes excuses while well-meaning onlookers wrap themselves in the First Amendment and "tut tut" about campus protests. Houston, Florida, and now Puerto Rico—not to mention all of those other Caribbean islands—are demolished by successive hurricanes, but of course millions of Americans still believe that climate change is a hoax, including the head of the EPA. Closer to my home, a local Congressman is calling for war with North Korea. And city officials twiddled their thumbs for months while a hepatitis outbreak ballooned and claimed lives, only bothering to take action when the deaths made national news. (Meanwhile, of course, the amount of affordable, or even available, housing continues to fall in the area, jagged rocks are still under most of our overpasses, and now the city is clearing the streets without giving the homeless anywhere to go.) Nothing changes.
Let's not pretend that this isn't who we are. This is it. We have the money and the means to make life better, to protect those who need protecting, to save the planet. We know what we need to do, if not to solve our problems then at least to improve them. But we don't, because in our hearts we don't want to. Because whether it's guns or oil or property values or white supremacy, no price is too high to keep things comfortable for those who aren't already suffering. Because having to admit that solutions are available would mean admitting that we're part of the problem. The greatest source of harm in this world isn't greed, it's the inability to tolerate any amount of emotional discomfort.
After my kids left for school this morning, feeling heavy and sliding toward despair at the morning's news, I headed into the bathroom to get cleaned up for work. I noticed a small shape on the wall, about waist level to my three-year-old, a tiny red star no larger than two grains of rice stuck together. And for a brief moment, things didn't seem so bad. There is, as always, yet innocence and beauty and simple joy in the world. No joy is ever quite so pure as that of a toddler with a sticker, and how seductive that feeling is when all is wrong with the world. How I'd love to stay there in that space. Who wouldn't? But that would be giving up, just as surely as would despairing.
I don't have any answers. I never have. I don't know how to make people care. At least, not enough to make them take an honest look in the mirror and change. Do I even care enough? I don't know. I just know that I'm sad and angry and tired as hell.
I close so many letters or lists or threads by saying "I wish you peace." And I do. And I want to say that now. But the truth is that there will be no peace unless we make it, and we can't do that without struggle, without discomfort. I keep thinking that people will get there eventually. I hope we do. Me, too.
This Is Not the Life I Wanted
This is not the life I wanted.
I suppose if I'm being honest, I should say: this is not the life I was promised.
The other evening I was in my living room doing something I can no longer remember—perhaps playing a game on my phone or wading through news updates—when I heard my wife say "You look terrible."
"What?" I said.
She pointed to the video she was watching, one I'd recorded earlier in the day, asking people to call their representatives about one crisis or another. "You look tired," she said. "Haggard. You need to take better care of yourself."
I hadn't really watched the video before, just recorded it and posted it, and then moved on. But she was right. The face in the video looked back at me with bloodshot eyes, heavy-lidded with exhaustion. Somehow, I was surprised. I knew how I felt, but I didn't know it showed so much.
Lately thoughts of exhaustion tumble in my head, crashing and rasping against each other as they turn, but never becoming round or smooth or comfortable. John Lennon's voice drones on, lamenting not having slept a wink—and my mind, too, feels on the blink. And I think again and again, like an old hobbit, "Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread."
I'm being dramatic. I know. But I can feel myself burning out, and I don't know how to stop, or even how to slow down.
It strikes me as unseemly to spend my time (and now yours) on thoughts like these, on simple exhaustion, when I know that other people are suffering more, even dying. That, yes, I am tired, but protesters are being beaten and graves are being desecrated and families are being separated by deportation and somewhere right now, right this instant, someone is trying to make the impossible choice between buying food and paying for cancer treatments. I know this. I know what feels like an ordeal to me does not compare to what other people are going through.
Though, perhaps this, too, is something this Congress, this President, this year is taking from us: the right to even admit that our struggles are struggles. Is that too much? Maybe. I don't know.
When I was young, I had no greater concerns placed on me than to get good grades and be polite, to eventually be "successful" and reflect well on my family. I expected nothing more than to raise my children, save for retirement, and read some good books along the way.
What has it cost me, then, this year? I think about the words not written, the art not created, the hours spent researching and organizing and not playing with my children. I think about the pile of unread books on my nightstand, the months of unedited photographs sitting on memory cards, waiting for a spare moment. I think about the late nights and early mornings. I think about the look on my son's face as I head out the door to another protest instead of sitting down for a family dinner. In one sense, these sacrifices are small. In another, they are pieces of my life being stolen.
I read something once, long enough ago that I cannot remember when or where or by whom, something to the effect that both the magic and tragedy of life is that each of us are going through it for the first time. It means that we each get the opportunity for discovery, and thus the ability to experience wonder. But it means also that time and life are resources which are finite, and unrecoverable.
This isn't the life that I wanted. I never wanted to have to know about legislative calendars and executive appointments. I never wanted to know how lobbying differs from political activity, and what the financial rules are for each. I never thought about which kinds of protests need a permit and which don't, and I didn't want to. But now I do. And having put the time in, I am more aware than ever how much more work is still left to be done, and how few people—still—are available to help. Or even willing to do so. Or, rather, how many would help, how many want to help, but need someone else to show them what to do.
I tell the people who attend our meetings, "Self-care is important. No one person can do everything, and you don't have to. Take care of yourself when you need to. Rest, so that you can come back refreshed." Like a lot of people, of course, I find it easier to say that to others than to live that way. There's simply too much to do, and not enough time to do it, and more piling on every day.
In the end, though, when I am done crying for myself and the life I expected, I come back—as I always have—to the stories of my youth. Perhaps I say to myself, "I wish it need not have happened in my time." But I remember, too, that "so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." I read those words to my son for the first time last summer, not knowing then what they would mean now. I want to have the opportunity to read them to my daughters, too. Am I willing to do what's necessary to give them a chance at a simpler life? I think so. I hope so.
This is not the life that I wanted, but this is the life that I have.
Here we are.
Here we go.