A quick summary of 2020
If you want to know how my 2020 went, consider this: it took me almost four months to finish this review post. A real motivation killer, this pandemic. (Although appendicitis accounts for one month's delay.)
It's nothing new to complain about 2020. I complain about 2020 as much as anyone. But for me those complaints are like talking about the weather. I don't really care, I just want to avoid other topics. For me, 2020 could've been worse.
First, January and February seamlessly continued a pretty good 2019. That was nice.
Second, despite the surreality of the pandemic's first few weeks here, the absurd number of deaths, the crazy attacks on science, the long and depressing year of social distancing -- despite all this, things could've been worse. Nobody I know died or lost their job. I never got sick. Life goes on. Of course, my extraordinary good fortunate is no consolation for those killed or impoverished by this capitalist virus.
But yeah, other than that it's mostly been a down year. Here's how it went for me.
January through March
I came back from winter break to find my favorite plant was dying. Being right next to a cheap window during a brutal cold spell is bad. Now, this is the plant I call Junior, which tells you two things: how pathetic my life is at the best of times, and how upset I was at this plant's decline. Fortunately, after much fretting, I made some cuttings that are doing great now. The original Junior has even started to grow back, having rekindled its tiny ember of life. Good thing he doesn't take after me.
Work was quieter than normal. I worried about a conference I was supposed to present at (because I dislike hurried travel). When COVID cancelled the conference with just a few weeks' notice, I figured myself pretty lucky. Little did I know.
March through May
The semi-national semi-lockdown that began in March 2020 was surreal. It still is, thinking back on it. I wasn't afraid or perplexed, but still there was a full week where I would wake up and wonder if it was all a dream. But the empty streets and empty shelves would remind me that it was all very real.
During this time, I split my work time between the office and home. At the office, we had to work mostly alone, with the team broken into groups that would never have any real world contact. Much of my office time was spent washing my hands and spraying down any surface that a human might conceivably touch. At home, I took to showering and washing my clothes after every foray out, quarantining any food I bought during my much-reduced grocery shopping outings, and generally avoiding contact with others. The smell of bleach and honeysuckle hand soap linger in my memory.
No doubt my hyper-vigilance was a coping method. I figured if everyone did their part, we could crush the pandemic and return to normal in short order. And that's what happened in some countries, but obviously not in most of the West, and certainly not in the U.S.
Working from home was hard and only got harder. I still complain that working from home is like turning your home into a factory, that it robs workers of what little sanctuary their homes once provided. But I understand why some people like it. The old workplace was no paradise, what with its spying bosses and utilitarian, profit-focused design. I guess the grass isn't green anywhere. It's almost like the problem is wage labor itself...
Summer was unremarkable. I walked lots, having a goal -- quickly abandoned -- of reaching 1,000 miles in three months. Didn't reach that, but I walked plenty. In July I started carrying weights in my backpack. It was tough at first but before long I could carry 30-40 extra pounds for 13 miles. Like Spring, summer had its own distinctive scent, this time thanks to lemon eucalyptus bug spray. (Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent is effective and safe. Highly recommended!)
I grew another garden. It was hard to find starts since everyone else had the same idea. I toyed with growing everything from seeds, but a late start meant that I settled on using whatever starts I could find: the desired chard and kale, plus some stuff nobody else wanted (mustard, bok choy). My garden gave me raspberries for the first time ever. Those were more work than expected. Lots of little thorns to avoid and a narrow window of time to harvest the berries; they go moldy if you don't pick them at just the right time. How do bears do it?
Travelled to see family despite the correct admonitions from health experts to stay home. That was a good call. Every member of my immediate family came down with COVID, but only months after I left.
In June I went to a local "black lives matter" protest. This mostly depressed me. Not just because of the people driving up and down the street in loud trucks with Trump flags, but because the Trump flag alone was a sufficient message. They didn't have to say anything else. Just by proclaiming their loyalty to Trump, they said -- and we heard -- that they were against black and minority lives. My inability to make an intervention also rankled me. They didn't invite speakers from the crowd (not that I had thought of anything to say) and I couldn't pass out flyers since I don't have a printer. Frankly, though, I probably would've bit my tongue. It's a small community.
There was time to do some projects: fixing some bad html on a website, replacing low quality album rips, etc. These I finished right before going back to work. What I first took to be a sign of perfectly measured productivity now strikes me as proof of procrastination -- finishing only at the last minute.
Gaming-wise, summer was quiet. I'd play Overwatch with friends or a bit of Red Dead Redemption 2 once or twice a week. It was good that I things to do besides gaming.
September through December
Bah. Work was almost as empty as spring; the promise of "closer to normal" was illusory. Working extended hours for no reason was frustrating. The holidays came and went without notice.
On the plus side, fall was pretty. With little else to do, I got out and enjoyed it (but still not enough).
Resolutions for 2021
Get out of my house more. I've been too much a homebody. Turning my home into a capitalist factory ("working from home") has meant staying at home more, and enjoying my time at home less.
Be healthier. My diet has been okay but there is always a need for more exercise.
Figure out a direction for my life. A rudderless 2020 has left me feeling pretty low. Is this a mid-life crisis?
My favorite media-ish things I encountered this year
These are media-ish things I enjoyed for the first time in 2020, no matter what year they're from.
Disco Elysium: Coming from me, this is a rare statement: this is too bleak. Or rather, it would been too bleak in March. As it was, I played it in January and February, and found its dreary, worn-out world to be intriguing. Basically a big text adventure with wrapped up as an isometric RPG, a la Planescape: Torment.
Hades: I don't like rogue-likes. I don't like beat 'em ups. I don't like other Supergiant games. But this was my favorite game released in 2020. It is amazing that a person will happily play through the same forty-minute gameplay loop dozens of times. More amazing: fifty hours in, there are still stories and secrets packed into this game's four or five short "levels."
Red Dead Redemption: Beautiful, detailed, vast world that makes you feel like you're actually outside. Compelling characters and a story with some amazing sequences. Lots of subtle Easter eggs. That's the good. The bad? Shallow gameplay. Questionable interface. Most of the world's apparent richness is superficial. Still, this will be one of my favorite games of all time just for the way I experienced it. I started it in April and finished it in November. For the first few months, I rarely felt like playing it more than once a week. It was the ultimate slow burn. And that's a good thing. For seven months, I had a relaxing parallel world I could dip into whenever I needed a break.
Resident Evil 2: As a partisan of the "classic" Resident Evil games, I was prepared to dislike this. Why ditch the original survival horror formula (read action-y adventure with monsters) for all-out action? But that's not at all what this game is. It's true that the liberties taken with the story, scenes, and characters are often for the worse. But the gameplay is about as loyal to the original as you could expect after 20 years. Capcom, please remake the other classic Resident Evils in this style -- even Resident Evil 0 and 1, despite the visually stunning re-releases of recent years.
Whispers of a Machine: All you need to know: it's a point and click adventure game from the developers of Kathy Rain (see my 2018 year in review). Frankly, it's probably a step back from that title, but it's still the adventure game equivalent of comfort food. A good story, a good world, and just the right level of difficulty. Recommended for fans of old school adventure games.
Wide Ocean Big Jacket: this low-budget sixty minute walking simulator rivals Hades for my favorite release of 2020. This brilliantly encapsulates camping. More profoundly, it also reminds me of being a teenager, or being an uncle, or just struggling to fit in. Play it -- as I did -- on a comfortable summer day (not too hot, not too bright). Your summery feelings will be doubled.
The Book of Ebenezer le Page by G.B. Edwards. This one lurked in the recesses of my ebook reader since 2014 or 2015. Before deciding to finally give it a shot, my finger was hovering over the delete button. Deleting it would have been my biggest mistake of 2020. This is a classic slow burn: the elliptical story of a simple man's life. There is wisdom, sadness, humor -- the entire human experience! I will reread this one day, and that is about the best thing I can say about a book.
The Bedeviled by Thomas P. Cullinan. This is pure pulp. It's maybe even an Exorcist ripoff. But god damn, is it a page turner. That doesn't mean it's an over-the-top adrenaline rush. In fact, the horror is subtler, relying on atmosphere and tension, and there is even a possible reading in which the supernatural is all imagined. The pastoral setting reminds me of the later Ceremonies by TED Klein. By the way, the author of this wrote The Beguiled, which was the source material for two excellent movies of the same name.
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. Stephen Graham Jones is one of the best storytellers today. He creates worlds and characters that draw you in, though mostly their circumstances are so unhappy that you'd rather keep some distance. (His short story collection The Ones that Got Away was compelling and depressing in the extreme.) In this novel, several characters are united in a doom worked by a simple misdeed done years earlier. There are settings, scenes, and characters who will stick with me for years to come.
Camouflage by Joe Haldeman. I was hesitant to include this. The characters and story are simple, the book is short, the shape of the ending is obvious from early on, and the sci-fi aspect is pretty basic. Despite this, it's an award winning novel. I think that's because there is an unexpected humanity that reveals itself over the course of the book. In this sense it is reminiscent of Ken Grimwood's excellent Replay. Recommended as a quick, light sci-fi read.
Movies and TV
Into the Night: This has a nonsensical premise: for some reason sunlight now kills, so a plane has to constantly fly into the night. But it's a fun and compelling watch.
Monos: This film is not set in any obvious real-world place or time. The surreality is heightened because the child-soldiers who are the movie's subject rarely encounter adults. It's a grim move but overcome that and appreciate the beautiful imagery.
Roseanne: Growing up, it seems like this was always on in the background. The Conner family felt like an extension of my family in some way. Re-watching it as an adult, it's amazing how much they still feel that way.
They Shall Not Grow Old: A friend recommended this. The first few minutes were standard fare -- old men talking, black and white photos -- and I almost turned it off. But then technological wizardry kicks in, with photos suddenly colorized and video clips transformed to look as if they were recorded on modern cameras. Alone, that's a novelty. But the way the narration works is incredibly effective. Unnamed veterans describe different aspects of the war. There are no narrators, no maps, just words, images, and sounds pictures that bring to life the horror of the First Imperialist World War.
Three Days of the Condor: one of the few movies of late that I've watched without stopping to pick up the next day. Lovely blue hour cityscapes, lots of intrigue and thrills, a message that criticizes the state, and all set at Christmas.
Trapped, season 2: Just like I said last year about season 1: "A binge-worthy Icelandic cop drama."
Typewriter: Maybe this can be said to be the Indian version of Stranger Things (i.e., mild horror TV with a cast of youngsters). Like American horror, it was over the top, but at least it started out in a subdued, eerie fashion. The characters were very good as well.
When COVID-19 shut everything down, I looked forward to a year of reading and listening to music. Somehow that didn't work out. But a desire to hear voices meant lots of podcasts and YouTube videos, less music.
Fehlfarben - Monarchie und Alltag: I knew of Fehlfarben for a very long time, having found their "Die Internationale," then other songs, on Kazaa as a youngster. 20 years later, I got their debut. It took a while to grow on me but this is good stuff, like a German cross between the Dead Kennedys and Depeche Mode.
Four Tops - Shake Me Wake Me: Great Hits 1964-1973. These guys seem to be one of the underrated bands of the era. "I'm in a Different World" has to be one of the great Motown tracks. That's saying something.
Inquisition - Black Mass for a Mass Grave: another solid record from the band that gave us one of the best black metal records ever (2002's "Invoking the Majestic Throne of Satan"). This one is on the slower, more epic side, but it hits the spot.
Iron Youth - ... Durch das Volk - Mit dem Volk - Für das Volk: Some NS bands are content to hide a little swastika in their logo and sing about Odin. Not these guys. They sample Hitler speeches, whine about the ZOG, and have a photo of German soldiers on the album cover. Once you look past that stupidity, you have a satisfying sound that lands somewhere between black metal and punk. It's pretty catchy and some snippets of the lyrics are agreeable if you ignore the context: "whose flag, whose flag? Not my fucking flag!"
Nova - Veniamo dal cielo: I got this on winter holiday and only had enough time to listen to the first couple minutes. I knew that I wouldn't normally listen to anything like it -- too mechanical, too dense -- but still I was intrigued. Back at home in January, there was a particularly depressing Friday night. I put this on, figuring I wasn't up to anything more than deciding which new albums to keep. I listened to it twice. Then I went to a depressing event, came back, and listened to it twice more. This was pretty much in constant rotation in January and February. There's a martial spirit here that really appeals to me.
Spite Extreme Wing - Non Dvcor, Dvco: SEW did nothing for me when I first heard them a few years ago. But Mirkvid (whose The Burning Night I first heard in fall 2019) gets compared to SEW, so I figured I owed them another chance. At first I was on the fence, but this quickly grew on me. Incidentally, Nova also gets compared to SEW, though I came to the two albums without by separate paths. It was the label "ultra modern black metal" that interested me in Mirkvid; it applies just as well to SEW and Nova.
Stevie Wonder - Fulfillingness' First Finale: the perfect soundtrack for the COVID summer: poppy music and dark lyrics. It took a few listens to grow on me, but when it did, I listened to nothing else for weeks straight.
Wish - Monochrome: brilliant gothic metal (or depressive rock) featuring the guy who did the vocals on The Gathering's early stuff. This really hits the spot: sombre without being too bleak and boring, catchy without being corny.
Yazoo - Upstairs at Eric's: debut album from an early-80s synthpop duo featuring Vince Clarke, founding member of member of Depeche Mode. This, their debut album, is remarkably consistent. It's poppy, it's catchy, but there are some tracks that I would call experimental for lack of a better word. One of the stronger memories I have of the early pandemic is listening to these stranger tracks while going on a twilight walk in mid-April.
Top new songs of 2020
For the last few years, I shared the top 25 songs from Spotify's automatically generated playlist "Your top songs of yyyy." No point in that this year. I barely used Spotify. What's more, its playlist seems inaccurate anyway. So I compiled this list from memory. It's based on all my listening, and not just one particular streaming service (which has never been more than a small part of my listening). These are songs I never heard before 2020.
This list excludes tracks from the albums listed above.
- Deep Purple - Nothing at All
- Hikashu - The Model (Kraftwerk cover)
- Jack Hylton ft. Pat O'Malley - The King's Horses
- Led Zeppelin - No Quarter
- Massacre - Biohazard
- Michael Nyman - The Heart Asks Pleasure First
- Ningen-Isu - Mountain of Needles (this is an English translation of the Japanese title; it's also a cover of Budgie's Breadfan with different lyrics)
- Nunslaughter - Raid the Convent
- Pest - Rest in Morbid Darkness
- Robert Ballard - Branles de village
- Stevie Wonder - Black Man
- Teruo Nakano - Computer Love (Kraftwerk cover)
- The Kingstons - O Willow Waly
- The Vandals - Pirate's Life
- The Yardbirds - Shapes of Things
- Trio - Anna - Letmeinletmeout
- Volcanova - Sushi Sam
- Warpig - Rockstar
- Yaoyotl - Huitzilopochtli Icuic.....
- Yoth Iria - Under His Sway