Out of nowhere

Obligatory retrospective write-up for 2020

Sometime around May this year, I fell into a few different forms of writer’s block: I stopped being able to write music, I mostly stopped sharing things on social media, and I stopped writing this newsletter. If you are one of the impressive nineteen people who get this post in your email inbox, firstly, thank you; also, you probably didn’t notice (which is obviously fine).

I felt uncomfortable sharing thoughts, music, opinions, really anything at all when so many people around me were suffering. 2020 was, in many ways, the year of loads of people crying out — to be heard, to be helped, to argue, to defend their beliefs and values. Not only did I not want to add to the noise, but I found myself actively resistant to the idea of participating in my largely progressive, highly privilege-driven echo chamber.

I also stopped writing and talking about music after rushing out my last album Full Life in May. I primarily wanted to just get it off my plate. I’m not proud of how it sounds — it’s a lazy production in several regards, and I didn’t care to promote it. So many of my friends needed to figure out new ways to sustain a living and it fell terrible trying to promote my own music as a person with a stable income. I did have things to say; I didn’t feel like asking people to listen.

Thankfully, 2020 is over and we can look forward to a still-painful-but-slightly-more-optimistic 2021 thanks to a number of developments.

I’ve also gotten over myself a bit. I realized only recently that it’s not about adding noise to the echo chamber — instead, it’s about finding something I’m genuinely excited to talk about, and talking about that thing. I think I was depressed for much of the early phase of the pandemic. That kept me in a state devoid of joy and falling into (mostly unhealthy) patterns: complaining, doom-scrolling, doing the basic things that need getting done instead of truly taking care of myself and the few around me.

I’m not sure what specifically caused a turnaround for me — in reality, it was probably a number of things starting or resolving themselves (more on that later). Now I’m pleasantly surprised to be, for the first time in a while, excited and unconcerned about the future. I am aware of the privilege that has led to my own lack of worry about the future — the world around me is still pretty miserable for quite a lot of people — but I’m happy to have my mind in a good place, and from there I hope to maybe lift others a little bit.

I also hope to bring some joy into the world: my wife and I conceived of a baby daughter, and she’s due in March. If I cannot take on the world’s challenges myself, I can at least raise a good human to perpetuate some good in the world after I’m too far gone.

Before moving on, yes: we are having a child during a pandemic. We are also going to be having it in our home, not in a hospital. This was not a decision triggered by the pandemic, but something the pandemic reiterated the value of doing. Home birth is a completely safe and, in my opinion, superior option to hospital-based birth in 2020, and if you don’t agree with me, you should do some light research on the topic and why plenty of doctors prefer it themselves.

A scattershot retelling of what happened

Time both flew by and stopped, as everyone has already felt and reported. So, in a number of ways, a lot changed, but a lot stayed the same. As the year came to an end, I found myself struggling to succinctly answer: what did I actually do this year?

After thinking about it for a few minutes, I found myself amused, because quite a few really big important things did happen, starting with the aforementioned future daughter. People have written on the fact that the pandemic didn’t create, but instead accelerated, a lot of meaningful changes across the world — the shift to remote work and learning, the funding of vaccine development, the political landscape, just to mention a few — and in many ways, the same occurred. For me, remote work was not new, but I really settled into it thanks to a concerted effort across my company to embrace the realities of pandemic/remote life. Almost gone are superfluous, ritualistic meetings; what we now have (mostly) are short intentional calls, bouts of meaningful focus or personal time, and opportunities to simply socialize. Just before the December holidays, my team did a virtual Christmas cookie bake-off.

I learned so much about maintaining and improving a home. I installed some flooring and an entirely new staircase & railing in my house. I also planted a garden, built a garden fence, installed some smart light switches, replaced all the doorknobs in the house with modern-looking ones, learned how to use a zero-turn riding lawnmower, organized the garage a few times, and started installing a drop ceiling in my unfinished basement.

I learned to simply love being home. Home cooking, drinking, relaxing, socializing, all of it. Between food allergies, health & life changes, and the pandemic, Alicia and I gradually grew averse to the limited going-out options we had — and replaced them with suitable alternatives in and around our home, including:

  • Bathing Rosie and trimming her nails in our guest bathtub, a la a dog groomer (the nail trimmers and grooming supplies cost the equivalent of, like, 2 groomer appointments);
  • My wife learning to cut her own and my hair (the professional barber kit we bought cost the equivalent of, like, 3 haircuts);
  • Me learning to make soups, roast vegetables and grill steaks arguably better than any nearby restaurant (if only we had a pizza oven, I’d probably have no reason to eat out ever again);
  • Converting one corner of our kitchen into a cute little breakfast nook resembling the coffee shop I stopped being able to visit;
  • Leaning heavily into the Chemex pour-over coffee lifestyle, and having some of the best coffee I’ve ever had as a result;
  • Converting our never-used dining room into a fun lounge for sitting, talking, drinking cocktails and listening to records; and
  • Turning our bedroom into a day spa, complete with relaxing chaise lounge overlooking our yard, ambient music and self-taught massage techniques.

I spent roughly 2 hours of every day walking and/or playing with my adorable little monster pup Rosie. I also started exercising more, but these 2 hours always fill my Apple Watch activity rings on their own.

I almost entirely weened myself off social networks as forms of entertainment and distractions. I now spend this time listening to music, watching great TV, playing with my dog, cuddling with my pregnant wife and (more recently) writing.

I finally experienced the masterpiece that is The Sopranos, which I put off watching for years inexplicably. I don’t love mob movies, and I assumed this was just another one spread over six seasons, but Jesus Christ was I wrong. The commentary on mental health, American crime, toxic masculinity — in many ways it was ahead of its time and very prescient in 2020. (It’s also wonderful seeing the nuances of Italian American culture I’ve experienced through my wife’s family on screen. My grandmother-in-law is basically Livia Soprano minus the sociopathy).

A job I was admittedly on-the-fence about transformed into one of my favorite jobs of my product management career. I can’t say much about why at this moment, but I’ll have more to share later in 2021.

I started a goddamn podcast. Sure, we only did 5 episodes, but it’s something I can hang my hat on — and we’ll probably bring it back in some form next year (albeit with less direct involvement from me — thanks, future kid).

I found myself communicating with my family more than I have since I moved out of my house at 18. FaceTime chatter with my parents has become a near-weekly occurrence; I am now closer with my sister and her husband than ever before.

I also ate a ridiculous amount of trail mix, which has secretly become my favorite food of 2020. 365 brand Cherry Chocolate Carnival, here’s lookin’ at you.

Lastly, I came into the year thinking about how I can achieve clarity on my values, and, while I didn’t necessarily accomplish the specific things I wanted to complete, I believe my values and priorities are clearer than ever thanks to the events of this year.

  • My family comes first. I don’t think I truly embodied that value until the second half of this year, and with a daughter coming, I won’t compromise this.
  • True balance between professional and personal, and presence within each. Working remotely has made this truly possible where a commute never could; bringing more of my interests into my home has enabled balance in ways I could never have imagined.
  • As a corollary to the last point: location flexibility. This extends beyond just “remote work” and is a value I want to publicly talk about more, as a means of enabling balance and stay closer to one’s values. Sure, many of us are working entirely at home right now — but there is no reason why we can’t make that a wonderful place to be both professionals and loving family members. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to continue working in the same way from a campsite in the woods of New Hampshire or a coffee shop in Berlin. Expect me to write more on this subject this year.
  • Minimalism, appropriately applied. I’ve learned so much this year about what my family does and does not need. This first manifested as, admittedly, an explosion of credit card debt, and I first felt deep anxiety about it. As we worked to get this under control, we made difficult calls about our priorities and what we thought was worth spending money on, and have landed on an approach of what we’re calling “minimal of quality” — we don’t need a lot, but what we need must be very good: organic food & clothing, reliable and purpose-built technology, and the like.
  • Time for and openness to new forms of creativity. Music has always been my go-to-creative outlet, but it need not be the only one. Simply getting thoughts written down — no matter how unformed or crazy — has proven an effective outlet. So is noodling on a potential future product idea.

My favorite music of 2020

A year-end/year-start write-up would not be complete without a shortlist of the music I liked most from the past year.

Haim Women In Music, Part III — What a wonderful collection of songs. This might be my favorite of the year. “Up From A Dream” almost single-handedly got me fascinated with bass guitar tone again, yet also served as a come-to-Jesus that I am not a good mixer/masterer of audio. That song just sounds perfect.

Perfume Genius Set My Heart On Fire Immediately — I admittedly was very late to the party of Perfume Genius, and I’m still not sure whether I like his older stuff, but Jesus this album is warm & inviting. I picked up this album for the first time in mid-December and I’ve had “Describe” stuck in my head pretty much nonstop since then. The density and overwhelming sense of pleasure in that song just gets me every time.

Bad Moves Untenable — I appreciated that there was some good punk rock that came out in 2020, though most of it reflected the anger and depression that most felt in 2020. I found Untenable to a lot of fun in a year otherwise sparse of fun. Best track is the opener “Local Radio” — if you don’t find yourself banging your head and dancing around to it, just give up.

Run The Jewels RTJ4 — I only listened to this a few times but when I did, God, it was a gut punch.

Fiona Apple Fetch The Bolt Cutters — This album is so fun and clever. I’m honestly most disappointed that I can’t blast it in the house because my dog flips out every time she hears Fiona’s dogs audibly barking throughout.

Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts V: Together — I listened to this a lot in 2020. As more and more of my life moved into my home, and a lot of intense realities of the world and our lives came into and out of focus, Together was the calm ambience that helped center me often.

Olafur Arnalds Some Kind of Peace — Second-place for the album that helped center and calm me.

Prince Sign O’ The Times Super Deluxe Edition — Okay, not a new album, but the newly released tracks (plus the original, weirder version of “Strange Relationship”) make this completely interesting as a new collection of its own.

2021

I’m very excited about 2021, but I’m keeping expectations about the world around me pretty low. We’ll still be in a pandemic, it won’t go away, and I’m comfortable with that. On the other hand, I’ll have a daughter to raise, and a set of values I’m more firm on than ever.