It’s year NINE doing these reviews and, as usual, it’s been a reward going back to previous years to check on my musings, favorites, and photos. Combining this write-up and the “meditations” exercise I’ve done for the same span of time can actually be a fair amount of work, so I really do mean “reward” in the previous sentence.
2021 in some ways is ending similarly to 2020—I’m out near the eastern tip of Long Island while the city feels choked by COVID and there’s questions of what normalcy may ever return or how we adjust to understand the very definition of that word.
And yet we have had vaccines and boosters and things are more understood this year—people around the world are still dying and we are not done with grief by a long shot but some mysteries have evaporated. We have, with some luck, seen family in 2021 and friends and are learning to live within an era of health as a public matter.
And that’s the world. Personally, 2021 was a BIG year and there’s so much to be grateful for what I got to personally experience in the span of it all.
I proposed to Maya just 15 days into 2021. (She said yes).
We waited until she finished her MBA to start wedding planning in earnest but we knew we wanted to move quickly given uncertainties around us. So we did. She finished school in late March and we started looking at venues and paying close attention to COVID restrictions in NYC.
We found a venue that would help us put on an outdoor wedding, though it’d be smaller than we likely would have done in a non-COVID world. That meant we weren’t able to celebrate with everyone we would have liked but given how things went, we made the best of the cards dealt to us.
Fast forward to October (though I’d be remiss not to mention a bachelor party in pulchritudinous Pittsburgh with some great friends) – and we got an absolutely perfect weekend for a wedding. We had the time of our lives celebrating with family and friends – pictures were great, parties were had, and everyone was safe. We talk often of just how perfect it all really went.
We honeymooned shortly after (and after Jesse’s wedding in Atlanta) in the desert near Palm Springs and enjoyed both the luxury of our resort and the out-of-worldness of nearby Joshua Tree.
We got to see both Maya’s and my family several times this year. We welcomed a new addition to Maya’s sister’s family (baby Elie in August). My sister Lindsey went off to college. My sister Sammi moved back into Chicago and started a job at Depaul. I moved jobs at Linkedin (more below) and finished up my first full year of grad school (in Analytics).
In all, lots happened for us. And despite 2021 being still-too-much inside and not enough exploring the playground that is New York City — we were able to get vaccinated and boosted and get back out in the world and that’s worth treasuring even if it wasn’t the year we had hoped for all around.
Travel – Because of the lockdown (and a quick trip to Mexico City in pre-pandemic 2020), 2021 was the first year since (I think0 2012 that I did not leave the country. It was likely 2006 before that. Maya and I talked about going to Greece for our honeymoon but with so many unknowns we couldn’t make it work. Instead, we honeymooned in the Palm Springs area – soaking up the desert sun and hiking through Joshua Tree. Truly amazing – pics down below! Otherwise, we got in some trips to D.C., a few to Chicago (including most of July), and a couple other short trips after we finished getting vaccinated in April.
Writing – In my vows, I wrote that the 600-odd words that made up those vows were worth a million otherwise-written words and I meant it. Those were about the only “creative” writing I did this year — my mind consumed with other things: work, grad school, and planning the wedding. The grad school in particular is so focused on logic and mathematics that it makes it hard to switch to the “other side” of my brain to write. So it goes—I know there will be years of writing ahead, and for now I’m loving the learning I get to do in the world of data and analytics.
Reading – You can see the full list of books I read this year here.
Professional – I switched roles at LinkedIn in September, to our Insights team, working on how we use our data at LinkedIn Learning to tell the story of customer value. So far, it’s a great fit of what I’m learning in grad school (Analytics) and my 10+ years of career experience now (in the Learning & Development space) and it was a goal of mine to move onto this team from 2020. I feel like I was just able to get my feet set in the role in 2021, but really looking forward to some great work and strategic thinking ahead in 2022.
Pearl Jam – None this year, despite PJ playing not-so-far away in New Jersey. Plans are in the works to see Eddie in 2022 if that happens and maybe the full roster next summer.
Favorite New Thing
Solo Biking with Headphones
Likely not the most groundbreaking of “new” things here. Expanding on my favorite thing of last year (biking) – this year I bought a new road bike and set a goal to ride almost double my 2020 miles.
I didn’t get there because of some back issues during the year but I did get in some great rides around NYC with friends (and a very near contender for my favorite thing of both 2020 and 2021 is the NYC sites I’ve gotten to see by biking all over) and a bunch of solo ones around Prospect Park where I felt comfortable enough (a feeling not given on the Brooklyn streets) to put headphones in, cancel noise out, and listen to music or, more likely, a podcast or narrated article.
It’s this last one in particular, audio versions of longform articles (narrated by professionals) that probably fits this “favorite thing of mine”. Taking some laps around the Park (about a 3-3.5 mile loop) while listening to a great article is a great reset, learning opportunity, and breath of fresh air (literally).
A lot of this is done with the Audm App, which could itself be a contender for my “favorite new thing” this year if the app itself weren’t so frustratingly lacking of features. While it’s loaded with dozens of new audio-articles a day, there’s no way to filter, the search barely works, and there’s so few ways to customize it. Luckily, it’s bailed out by hosting the best journalistic writing narrated by amazing voice actors.
Other Favorites: John Wilson, DAOs, mRNA vaccines, James Webb Space Telescope
Favorite Book Read in 2021
The Overstory by Richard Powers
When I told Maya I was embarking on a 612 page book about trees, I did so with a huge smile on my face. What could be better, right?
Alas, the book wasn’t only about trees—it had people in it too. And Powers really delivered on both fronts. An epic tale intertwining a half-dozen characters who share little in common other than a deep rooted (intended) connection with a select species of trees.
Later, their lives take on disparate (but in some cases connecting) paths, including their adult relationship with trees. Some are intense enough to dedicate their lives to their saving, others are more reserved. But no matter, Powers’ characters are deep, complicated, and a joy to read. The first sections of the book – where the author does short story introductions of each character — were some of the best 200 or so pages of reading I’ve done in a long time
Other Favorites: The Hard Crowd (Rachel Kushner), Lincoln Highway (Amor Towles), The Professor and The Madman (Simon Winchester)
Favorite 2021 Movie
Bo Burnham: Inside
A contender for 2021’s Favorite ‘Thing’ and Favorite Album, Bo Burnham’s Inside was the best thing I saw this year — and seeing was both hearing and taking in our lives in a pandemic: shut-in, closed-off, and sometimes quite sad. But in all of that—the limitations brought on by being shut “inside”—there’s an artistic opportunity to play with and Bo outdid the rest.
I’ve really enjoyed Bo’s previous specials (especially this) – but Inside took it maybe fifteen steps further. Part musical, part diary, the special is a vulnerable, confessional Bo wavering between the struggles of pandemic life and the artistic breakthrough that he can muster by having all the time in the world (oh, and the pains of editing in near infinite time). The special will always be tied to COVID and this time in my life, but it’s the piece de resistance of the whole of it. And even beyond that I’ll listen to “That Funny Feeling” AND laugh every time he hits the chorus in the first Bezos song.
Other Favorites: The Velvet Underground, In & Of Itself, Plan B
Favorite 2021 TV Show (new category)
The Beatles: Get Back
This is the first year I’m putting the TV show category in and probably the year I’ve watched the most TV in more than a decade. That’s both with the pandemic keeping us inside as well as grad school shrinking my free time to a more TV-appropriate slot at the end of the night rather than a movie.
But, 2021’s TV watching was pretty good and this was a competitive category for me. All the other favorites below could have been the winner for me but Peter Jackson’s Beatles “documentary about a documentary” was truly something else.
Eight hours with one of my favorite bands would have been enough but what the documentary (or, as Jackson put it “a documentary about a documentary”) really showed is just how their magic worked in the studio, and even in the sort of project planning sessions that ultimately determined their concert on the roof (and not in Libya).
To see the young Beatles (all under 30-years-old) in hours of new footage would have been a gift. But Jackson’s restoration did it in high-def, did a remarkable job of making sure the audio was commiserate with the visuals, and gave enough diversity in the footage to make seven hours pass like nothing. Those clips where Paul is having the eureka moments of ‘Get Back’ and ‘Let It Be’ blew us away, even coming in knowing that he’s one of the greatest songwriters ever to live.
Other favorites: The Great (Season 2), I Think You Should Leave (Season 2), How To With John Wilson (Season 2), Hacks (Season 1)
Favorite 2021 Article
‘What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind’ by Jennifer Senior (The Atlantic)
The hands-down pick for me this year was Jennifer Senior’s study of one family’s grief in losing its 26-year-old in 9/11. The story of Bobby McIlvaine (whom the author knew and the personal connection here strengthens the story) is a tragedy from the start: he was young, on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend, and not even supposed to be in/near the World Trade Center on 9/11. But that’s just the beginning.
The actual story is how the family (and girlfriend) spent the last 20 years in the spin-out from that day, and each takes a substantially different direction. What we get in totality from the article is the diversity of grief, a study in marriage, in relationships, in keepsakes from those who have past – and cameos from Kobe Bryant, Toni Morrison, the 9/11 truther movement, and the author’s search for a quote that may or may not exist.
Other favorites: They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War by Andy Greenberg (Wired), The Hard Crowd by Rachel Kushner (New Yorker), I Had a Chance to Travel Anywhere. Why Did I Pick Spokane? by Jon Mooallem (NYT Magazine), The Girl In The Picture by Nile Cappello (Atavist)
See even more on my Longform list here.
Favorite 2021 Album
An Overview On Phenomenal Nature (Cassandra Jenkins)
I can’t say for sure that this pick will hold up as a favorite or if the album felt 2021-y enough to warrant dozens of re-listens. Only time will tell.
The album is unlike much else that came my way this year (like those other favorites below) but from the first words and chords it seemed to stick. It’s somewhat spoken word, somewhat jazz, and somewhat indie rock wrapped into one. It feels both warm in her soft voice and utterly cold as she speaks of the water in Norway and the grief she felt at the death of friend and collaborator David Berman.
“Hard Drive’ is the strongest track on the album (see below) but ‘Michelangelo’ kicks it off with a….well, not bang per se, but something like that. I found that Jenkins album, played beginning to end, conjured up just the right space of ambiguity to sit within and that her words were poetic and specific enough to be in the throngs of a great storyteller while also combining my personal experience in empathy.
Other Favorites: Open Door Policy (The Hold Steady, Daddy’s Home (St. Vincent), total serene ep (Gang of Youths)
Favorite 2021 Song
Cassandra Jenkins – ‘Hard Drive’
The jewel of the album, ‘Hard Drive’ takes on real quotations from an oversharing museum security guard, mentions of a faraway inn, and the double meaning of “hard drive” that at first one probably takes to mean the technical noun instead of a difficult journey. Either way, Jenkins, who spends much of the album talk-singing (my favorite), builds an unforgettable tune behind the lyrics on this one.
Form certainly equals function here – the tune itself is kind of a long, slow-mountain-twisting drive itself and when the song wraps, it’s hard to tell whether it was a two or twenty minutes long (preference would have been for the latter).
In a year of not much moving around, the tune gave me the headspace of wide, open places and the roads that get swallowed up the landscape around it — the lives we live in big cities that too can be swallowed, especially when we’re stuck at home and see it only through the windows. This year was a hard drive for many — but there’s a joy in Jenkins’ voice that lifts it all up to an ending in a kind of heavenly place, looking down on us, sharing its wisdom as benevolence.
Other favorites: Gangs of Youth – ‘asleep in the back’ , The Hold Steady – ‘Heavy Covenant; Weather Station – ‘Parking Lot’, Weather Station – ‘Tried to Tell You’, Bleachers ft. Bruce Springsteen – ‘Chinatown’, Bleachers – ‘45’
Favorite 2021 Podcast Episode
In college, I took a course called “history through commodity” where we picked a consumer item and wrote an essay on how its journey was part of a larger historical story. I did mine on the VW Beetle and the emergency of German-friendly buying in the United States by the 1960s.
But one article we read was about the Singer Sewing Machine, one of the most popular consumer items in the early 20th century. This podcast episode, done by Nate Dimeo on his amazing Memory Palace, starts with that machine and its need for a large cabinet made from a certain type of wood. Cue the mass planting of trees, then the decline of the machine’s popularity, an eventual new need for the tree, and on and on the story of history goes. The tree becomes part of a wider history and then by proxy so too do the birds that populate those trees.
And by 2021, those birds—the once-famous Ivory-Billed Woodpecker—are now critically endangered. So goes the story. A “natural history through humanity” kind of story. It’s a short episode (14 minutes) and worth a listen for anyone to think back of just how much our own story influences the natural world—trees, birds, and everything that’s part of that ecosystem.
Other favorites: Daniel Lanois (WTF with Marc Maron), Day X: Part 1 (New York Times), The Daily: Jan 24, 2021* (New York Times), Ramit Sethi (Tim Ferriss Podcast), The Lost Password (Exit Scam)
Favorite 2021 Place Visited
Joshua Tree National Park
So great to be back at a National Park, and what a dream this place was. Literally, it felt like you were exploring some kind of twisted, burnt-up dreamland. From the Joshua Trees themselves—producing a million green sparks praying to some celestial being—to the glow of the Cholla cacti there, everything is a bit peculiar and a whole lot beautiful.
Maya and I honeymooned nearby in Rancho Mirage and got out to Joshua Tree for two full days, getting to explore the desert towns nearby and on the last visit doing a late night stargazing which was amazing in its own right.
Joshua Tree was certainly the most unique landscape we saw this year and though hiking through it gives you miles of much-of-the-same, it’s so out of the ordinary to see what you’re seeing that it really doesn’t get old. Plus getting to see all the trees in their aggregate was something special, and the bright milky way that was visible once the sun went down (we booked a wonderful two hour stargazing “tour”).
Other favorites: Arsenal Bowl (Pittsburgh), The Art Institute of Chicago, Wrigley Field (3x), Greenwood Cemetery