2020: In Review

General Commentary

Okay, 2020 In Review. How to start? How to organize this year’s post as though it’s just like the ones before it?

This was a tough year, the kind of tough year that I—and the collective we—will remember for decades to come. We rarely get the kind of foresight of meaning, or the knowledge of a fork in the road. But 2020 will likely be that in some way—a given yardstick to measure things from.

I wrote in another reflection exercise that I felt humbled about this year. Humbled by the reminding this year gave that there are many things bigger than us (singularly and the small existence and network that we encounter close enough to be daily)—and that those bigger things will come and go and leave their yield on us in ways we won’t control.

Many, many people have anthologized this year in existence far better than I can, so I won’t dwell too much on the macro-experience of 2020. Instead, I’ll focus on what I have all to myself.

And that thing I have that is unique is these reviews themselves, dating back to 2013. Years from now, I’ll be able to come back to this post and see if I can decipher how 2020’s changes in living may have influenced my categorical favorites below. That and the pictures full of masks, the new gear bought for a home office, and the emails from family and friends setting up Zoom calls instead of times that I’m arriving at O’Hare.

I’m happy, then, to be posting my year in review blogpost now for the 8th straight year and look forward to the next eight from here.

There were some highlights that this year brought that I want to share too: I got to move in with Maya to a wonderful apartment in Brooklyn, friends and family stayed healthy (more important than the real bummer it was not see my family at all in 2020), I was wrong in my February article that Trump had already won the election, I got into grad school, took up new hobbies (see below), and so much more. I’m grateful for all of these things just as I’m grateful for the sun-coming-out-of-the-clouds optimism that 2021 brings and the years beyond—as I and we return to what we call “normal” with a hangover of the months living in the unknown.

Is that all I have to say looking back on these twelve months? Surely not—more words will come as they always do. But I think I’ll leave it there for brevity and get to some 2020 lists & favorites!

Random Categories

Travel – I usually list out all the places I’ve been throughout the year but I’ll skip that this year – I wrote a little about two places I did get to visit near the end of this post.

Writing – Didn’t get a lot of writing done this year other than some sporadic journal and random jots about the year and coping with it all. It was a year that inspired my creative juices in other ways (problem-solving with data, for instance) – though I do have a writing goal for 2021 that I hope to continue. I did manage to publish nine posts on this blog though (prior to this one), so thats something. 

ReadingInstead of listing that my books here which makes for a long post, I put this year (and some previous years’) finished book list on a live page on my blog. I finished 36 books this year, one less than last. See my favorites below!

ProfessionallyThis was my first full year with LinkedIn Learning and I felt more comfortable in my role in enabling customer success. That would be saying enough but we, like most businesses, found ourselves having to adjust in March as the world stayed home to work. Fortunately, our product is made for that transition and our biggest challenge this year (perhaps) was keeping up with the demand and supporting our clients through the changes using our tool. Usage doubled in the span of a few weeks and has remained strong, challenging me to think about value and engagement beyond expectations, and thinking deeply about how professionals learn and grow their skillsets in a new decade.

Pearl Jam – Will have to wait on this one – with the hopes of a 2021 show or two (especially if that means Madison Square Garden).


Favorite New Thing 

(tie) Data Science and Cycling

Couldn’t make a decision between these and since this is my own blog, I don’t have to.

Data Science really took a hold of me this year and I wonder if that interest will be tied to the absolute flood of important public information we got this year that different channels were challenged to visualize for the massers (examples: COVID spread, poll/election returns).

For me it was a bit more personal as I expanded my use of data at my job as well as extra-curricular. I started my first full “class” online in data science (detailed here) after doing some self-learning on SQL. Long story short, the journey continued (see other posts) and applied to a grad school program at Georgia Tech in Analytics…..and I’m starting in January. Read more on that here. 

And on to cycling—my exercise routine for the COVID summer and a great way to see New York City (see more below in the ‘book’ section). Getting a bike this year was probably one of the best purchases I’ve made (even though I’m due for an upgrade on that). It got me moving outdoors as the city had to shut down, but even more than that it allowed me to see so much of Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. I even made trips into Jersey and Westchester.

I’m already looking forward to spring to get back on the bike for long rides through the boroughs, across bridges, and to new neighborhoods and parks in this amazing American city. 

Other favorites: Monarch butterfly hibernation (albeit briefly), public health, SPACs

Favorite Book Read in 2020

The Power Broker by Robert Caro

The behemoth of many a-bookshelf, The Power Broker took me about 10 months to get through (clocks in about 1300 pages, in small type) but the pay off was worth it. No book encapsulates you in a life nor asks you to be the judge of a man the way Caro does when it comes to Robert Moses.

For me, finishing this book—about the man who singularly made the most impact on the geography of New York City (from bridges, to tunnels, to highways, parks and more)—went alongside one of newest hobbies in 2020: cycling. 

And specifically cycling around Brooklyn and the rest of NYC. Seeing the extent of what this city offers is absolutely unimaginable and each ride (when I could go further or somewhere new) offered its own amazement of discovery. And, having finished the Power Broker months before I started cycling, in my mind it comes back to that people who made the decision to shape these very places. Many of those decisions came back to Moses himself, over the span of four or five decades. 

Other landmarks, like Tavern on the Green, the Verrazano bridge, and the BQE – have pages and pages in Caro’s book about the brokerage Moses undertook to get things done, but always those things were done in his way. 

A fascinating read that gets into the nefarious parts of the man and leaves the reader suspended in both awe and frustration constantly.

Other favorites: A Gentleman in Moscow, The Right Stuff, How Not To Be Wrong, House of Leaves

Favorite 2020 Movie

Boys State

2020 was a political year. So there may not have been a better year for this documentary to come out, even if just to remind you that the frustrations of the “game” of politics may be unavoidably natural. Or perhaps you’d come away from this thinking that it’s gotten so pervasive that even wide-eyed youths are using underhanded tactics.

The documentary—which follows a handful of high school boys on a weeklong convention to form a proto-government—is as suspenseful as any election you’ve followed. Along the way it uplifts you, frustrates you, and gives you a glimpse into how the youth (at least in Texas) approaches age-old political issues. And, I think, that would go for wherever you sit along the political spectrum, a feat becoming rarer by the day.

Admittedly, I still have quite a few 2020 movies on my list to see (all of the Small Axe, for instance), so just as the movie slates were pushed back this year so too is my viewing of them. This section may be edited.

Other favorites: The Vast of Night, Palm Springs, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Sound of Metal

Favorite 2020 Article 

The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet (Wired)

Andy Greenberg’s longform article on Marcus Hutchins will make for a terrific coming-of-age-in-the-age-of-hacking movie or book someday (or inspire as much). It has all the hallmarks: a prodigy, a misdirected kid who uses his talents for wrong, and then that same kid who grows up to reverse the wrongs he’s made. It’s as Campbell-ian of a hero’s journey as it gets.

And it’s all true. And told in a way that helps non-tech readers like myself understand why Hutchin’s work (on both the evil and hero side) is so effective. The article is a wild ride of a story, told in a thoughtful and suspenseful way, that ultimately ends with….well, just read it!

Other favorites: Look at my full list of longform article favorites here

Favorite 2020 Album

Local Honey (Brian Fallon)

In a year with album releases from Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, it was never likely to be an eight-song Americana album that became my most listened to album, but that’s the way it was.

Not like Brian Fallon was a longshot, his solo stuff has been on my lists before, and if my list of my favorite songs of the last decade was able to include 2009’s The ‘59 Sound, then Fallon’s main band would have made the list for at least half the songs on that album. 

In Spotify’s review of my year, three of the eight songs on Local Honey are in my top 10, and occupy the first and third spot (the highest songs released in 2020 for that matter), so the album makes sense.

But front to back, this album is a gem. It’s got an easy and laid back sound to it (the first time he’s gone full folk on his albums) and yet the storytelling is full and the lyrics are deep and unique. He’s either a master of his craft or just someone who fits squarely in my tastes, I suspect it’s a bit of both though leaning on that latter. No matter – this one will be listened to for years to come I’m sure. 

Other favorites: Gigaton (Pearl Jam), Saint Cloud (Waxahatchee), Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Fiona Apple), Rough & Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan)

Favorite 2020 Song

Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Kyoto’

Bridgers had her well-deserved big blow up this year and her newest album did not disappoint. This song, in particular, has stuck with me since it came out. It’s catchy, that’s for sure, but I think what I enjoy most (and stays true version to version online now that she’s done) is the sort of meandering story she tells in the lyrics.

It reminds me of a poet, not necessarily in the depth of language, but in the transition from story to abstract to story to emotional reckoning. It has something of a Frank O’Hara quality in that way, particularly the second verse….or for a more apt comparison it reminds me a lot of my favorite song from 2015, Courtney Barnett’s ‘Depreston’. Seems like a pattern!

Not to mention Bridgers re-worked the song in this incredible piano version.

Other favorites: Fiona Apple – ‘I Want You to Love Me’, Brian Fallon – ‘Hard Feelings’, Pearl Jam – ‘Comes Then Goes’, Waxahatchee – ‘Arkadelphia, Waxahatchee – ‘Fire’

Want more music? I made a list of my 100 favorite songs of the last decade at the end of last year. You can check that out here

Favorite 2020 Podcast Episode

The Case of the Missing Hit (Reply All)

I listened to a good deal of podcasts this year — on my metro commute in the mornings before March and then while exercising or playing video games at home. I think next year I’d like to keep a list of my favorite episodes (the way that 2019 introduced the category below of my favorite longform article).

As for this episode, it’s just pure fun. Reply All was hit or miss this year, though still one of my favorite podcasts and the hosts have a unique ability to make some episodes really, really fun. This is one of those—and the effort and length that the host goes to solve this mystery shows why they can’t be putting out this episodes all that often.

Not intrigued to listen to it yet? How about The Guardian calling it potentially the best podcast episode ever? Give it a listen!

Favorite Place Visited 

(tie) Piedra Herrada Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary and Maine

I only really went one new place this year and I’m grateful or even that. In August, Maya and I went to Portland, Maine for a week and day-tripped around the area. Maine was lovely in the summer – some crowds in some places and certainly different because of the pandemic (many restaurants in Portland were closed, for instance, though the breweries had wide open areas to sit outside. 

Maine itself though is the perfect combination of beaches (for the short months anyway) and hills and mountains for hiking and may be one of the few places on the East coast where you can do both so easily in the same day. We took advantage.

And then we added to that with delicious lobster rolls, fresh blueberry pie, and local beers & spirits. 

In February, before the lockdown, after a great bachelor party in Mexico City, I stayed for a few extra days with a friend. My biggest regret from 2019’s months in Mexico City was not getting to see the massive monarch butterfly migration to a town near CDMX in the early winter. So this time I wasn’t going to miss it!

It ended up being one of my favorite travel days in some time. We booked a guided tour and a driver picked us up from Mexico City for a three hour drive (or so) to the sanctuary. Despite being warned we were on the later end of the season (end of Feb.) there were still hundreds of thousands of butterflies up in the trees and swirling around (often times looking for sun). The guide talked through the whole migration pattern and the generations that die off in that journey (just think for a second that the butterflies that make it to Mexico have never been there, likely born somewhere in the middle of the States, so how do they know where to go?).