Friday, January 01, 2021

Social Distancing Journal: Wrapping 2020

2020 has reached its end--and none too quickly, as common sentiment might snarkily interject with a hard nudge to the ribs--but if I’m being honest, it was a good year for me personally. Sure, there have been hard times, particularly that point in March when everything was upended and kicked off what has been the homebound status quo for the remainder of the year. The fear and uncertainty I felt then isn’t something I hope to repeat. The stress of the Presidential election and the collective tension in the country, whether that was justifiable anger over civil injustices or the ridiculous resistance to mask-wearing (as if doing so is an affront to individual liberty), wore on me. Overall, though, I feel like I came through 2020 in a better place. For the first time in nearly three years I have regained professional stability, or at least as much as I can presume to have when continuous employment rests with the will of those above me in the organizational hierarchy, and can enjoy the benefits of a “permanent” job. I’ve made new friends who have provided invaluable support through the pandemic. I’ve found new interests that expand my learning. I don’t think there’s any question that I’m happier than I’ve been in quite some time.

I suppose I feel somewhat apologetic for feeling this way, as if it’s indecent to find joy during what is a difficult time for many. Of course, this is a silly way of looking at things, but having been through a lengthy patch when each day brought worries for not knowing what was ahead, I acknowledge that I wasn’t in the mood to hear someone else be appreciative about the positive things they were experiencing. So consider this my disclaimer for recognizing that my lived reality in 2020 is mine alone. I worked hard. I caught some breaks. I got to know some people who have made my life better. The balance of the last twelve months tipped in a positive direction for me, even as I’ve been mostly isolated in my apartment. If there’s hope for others to find in my 2020, perhaps it is that I didn’t see it coming. The lesson for me is that although I will be blindsided by bad news, I can also be caught unsuspecting by blessings too, at least if I’m open to seeing them.


When I started the weekly social distancing entries, I hoped to keep up with them. Then I intended to catch up. And then I was going to summarize up to a certain point, consider them current, and pick up again. Clearly that didn’t happen. I have some partial drafts that maybe I’ll get around to finishing. The more likely outcome is either that I’ll pull out what still seems relevant and tack that up in a backdated post or just leave them alone unseen by anyone but me. Nevertheless, I do feel compelled to put some kind of cap on 2020.

I had in my head that I would make a list of my top things of 2020, something like my friend Donna would do each year when she was regularly blogging. I started out attempting that, but frankly it just seemed like too much work to rack my brain for everything that might flesh out a long, respectable list. But why let the perfect be the enemy of the good or, as far as I’m concerned in this case, the adequate? I could really pour the time into refining this so it somewhat resembles whatever fuzzy, platonic ideal I hold in my brain, but maybe I’m better off just getting this done and having something to show for it.

So what follows are things that helped make 2020 a good year for me. Suffice it to say that things that would be commonly considered as givens--family, health, etc.--don’t need to be stated on something like this. This alphabetical list is for the meaningful and the frivolous. I’ve included these things if I valued them in some way (and remembered). All right, enough table-setting...

-AirPods Pro

I bought these with the intention of renewing a commitment to exercise and making it easier to listen to music or podcasts while doing so. The exercise aspirations mostly fell flat--using shared gym equipment didn’t seem like such a great idea--but this purchase turned out to pay off as a vital tool for video meetings for work and not having the cord in the way when going for walks or doing things around my place.

-Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the Nintendo Switch

This list isn’t just going to be a rundown of consumer acquisitions, but this game and console provided needed relaxation when my stress levels were at or near their highest in the spring. I’m sure my Animal Crossing residents are not pleased that recent months have featured my negligence in maintaining the island. They’ll just have to deal with it. There are only so many hours in the day and way too many things I want to do. I certainly sunk a lot of hours into hanging out in this virtual space when there were fewer demands on my free time. Even as my time with Animal Crossing has dropped off, I’ve continued to use the Switch to play something about every day, even if it’s for shorter sessions. Lately I’ve been hooked on Super Mario Bros. 35 since signing up for Nintendo Switch Online to distract me on Election Day.


I baked a lot in 2020 and mostly for others rather than myself. I can probably thank the unnecessary but useful cookie dough scoop for bringing more consistency to every batch I put in the oven. Chewy molasses cookies and intense chocolate brownies were big hits, although I did whip up other baked goods as the year went along. I know I felt better making something for friends, dropping it in the mail, and anticipating them receiving it. Who knows how much I might be able to keep this up outside of a pandemic, but I’d like to continue putting these care packages together as it was a nice way to stay connected.

-Christmas lights

I bought a dwarf Alberta spruce to make my place more festive for the holidays, so of course I needed some lights for the tree. Either I wasn’t paying attention to the length of the first string of LED lights I purchased or I badly miscalculated what the tree could hold. I ended up finding something just right, but I couldn’t let that first string go to waste. I draped them around and over the sliding door to my patio. I won’t be winning any interior design awards for how I decorated, but having the colorful lights shining through the day and night pleases me. I think I’ll keep them in place for awhile. They emit more light than I would have expected, so if I’m watching a movie, it’s been enjoyable to turn off the regular lights and leave those on. In its own way, it can make my place feel a little more like a movie theater.

-Dayton Flyers men’s basketball

To my dismay, the pandemic killed the opportunity to see what kind of historic run my favorite college team might put together in the NCAA Tournament, but I still had so much fun watching the best squad I’ve ever seen play for the university. I knew the 2019-2020 team had something special, so I’m glad I was able to get to a few big games and enjoy the others on television. Unless you root for the dominant teams that win championships on a regular basis, being a sports fan means absorbing a lot of losing. While it hurt for the chance to see the Flyers try to do the unthinkable as a mid-major program get yanked away, the 31 games they played in the 2019-2020 were a blast.

-Emeritus status

Receiving emeritus status at my former place of employment had been in the works for some time, but it was still gratifying for this recognition to come through. While I’m unclear exactly what comes with it, hopefully the honor will be useful to have on my resumé. I think emeritus status is mostly given to those retiring from the university, so I’ve received it at a far younger age than when it is usually bestowed. Nevertheless, as a signal that the departure was on good terms (even if, you know, I would prefer not to have been unemployed) and acknowledgement of my contributions, it has value.

-Fulltime employment

Wait, I thought I wasn’t going to include givens, right? Considering the time it took to secure this, I wouldn’t characterize it as a given. I found out I was losing my longtime job in October 2017, and it ended in May 2018. I started a job as a contractor in October 2019 and was hired on as a fulltime employee with benefits at the end of September 2020. At the start of work-from-home, I definitely worried if enough work would remain to hang on as a contractor. As the volume of work exploded, it became clear that we wouldn’t run out of things to do, although I still had concerns about meeting performance standards with a demanding workload. To wrap up the last quarter of the year with regained stability has been a massive relief.


File under activities I would not have expected to take up. This never would have happened if I weren’t home nearly all the time for the majority of 2020. There I was, though, planting flowers and figuring out how to keep them alive. (Let it be known that I was not always successful.) I expanded to getting a few indoor plants and attempted to grow some herbs and vegetables in pots. The indoor plants have mostly done OK--RIP my first dragon tree, though--while what I tried to grow from seeds produced false positive sprouts from the soil. I have neither the space nor the knowledge to go bigger next year, but as the annuals in my garden have withered and the perennials suffered from damage inflicted by roofers and, I suspect, squirrels digging around them, I’m ready to refresh that little patch again.

-Grandad’s Pizza

While I have preferred spots to get pizza, I will keep an eye out for others to add to the rotation. Food from this place was ordered and delivered to the office when that was still a thing, and I eventually found that one location is relatively nearby that driving to pick it up is convenient. 


I revived my knitting hobby to make some items for friends, whether just because or in a trade for a painting. As with baking, I feel good being able to produce something that I can give away, and the activity itself helps to reduce anxiety. I also think I understand how to do it better or to read the knitting. With one scarf I saw a mistake and, to my vexation, knew that I probably ought to rip out several rows to fix it. Taking an in-progress project off the needle, undoing a bunch of work, and then getting the stitches back onto a needle correctly had me like an action movie star attempting the delicate work of defusing a bomb. But I succeeded! Not that I want to do that sort of thing with any regularity, but repairing the knitting provided a confidence boost. 

-Mardi Gras Homemade Ice Cream

This area has a couple heavy hitters when it comes to ice cream, but this local, independent shop is my preferred spot. (It  is currently closed for the season.) Their international flavors are a big differentiator, and I found myself gravitating to and working my way through them during the summer and fall.

-New friends

New friends echo through a lot of these list items and for good reason. While this isn’t a ranked list, they would come in at a clear #1. They offer help and support at work, and the best of these new friends also check in with me and stay in touch outside of work. Such friendship is always valuable, but for this unusual year in particular, these connections have been really meaningful and provide some normalcy and continuity to daily life. They’ve made me feel lucky, inspired, and deeply grateful. 2020 could have been a difficult year being as isolated as I’ve been, but my new friends did a lot so that I will think of this time with fondness for all they’ve done for me. 


As with gardening, this is not something I would have predicted I would start doing, but a friend suggested participating with this group. I’m certainly no master, nor do I expect to ever reach that level, but I’ve enjoyed doing something creative that always seemed beyond my capability.

-True/False Film Fest

As shocking as it might sound based on how often I typically go to the movies, I didn’t miss movie theaters despite not being in a public space to see a film after attending this festival in Columbia, Missouri in early March. For that matter, I didn’t watch many movies after this. Maybe it’s because I prematurely ended my theatrical moviegoing in 2020 with a really fun time taking in a well-curated selection over four days. The event happened on the edge of everything changing in public life in 2020, so while there were signs of what was on the horizon, they weren’t fully understood. Hand sanitizer was plentiful at venues while attendance was noticeably lower. I was just glad to have a few days to catch my breath away from work after putting in an intense stretch heavy on overtime and little time off. It remains a good memory that has sustained me through a time when I’ve been less immersed in films.

-UGG men’s ascot slippers

Working from home definitely means dressing for comfort. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have shelled out as much for a pair of slippers, but these met the specifications of what I was looking for. Plus, I figured they would get a lot of use. No regrets.


For the better part of the year I worked a lot of overtime. I also didn’t have a desire to watch a lot and don’t think I had the focus to read. I did have more time for listening to music, although weirdly the amount of that I did diminished later in the year. Who knows why? 


If memory serves, I only finished three books in 2020, so I guess if I’m to name one, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann, 2017) would be it. I enjoyed re-reading Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery And Then There Were None, which I think I last read when I was in junior high. I didn’t care for I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Austin Channing Brown, 2018), a memoir that struck me as axe-grinding more than anything. I’m still working on Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (Erik Larson, 1999).


Ordinarily I’d have a couple hundred new films to sift through to come up with a best of the year list. That is definitely not the case for 2020. While I will still try to cobble together a list for critics group voting and podcast purposes, as of this moment such a list doesn’t exist. What I’m enumerating is at best a rough draft and is loaded up with documentaries seen at True/False.

Boys State (Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, 2020)

City So Real (Steve James, 2020) (festival version)

Collective (Colectiv) (Alexander Nanau, 2019)

Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020)

Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

Mayor (David Osit, 2020)

Soul (Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, 2020)

Tesla (Michael Almereyda, 2020)

The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, 2019)

Two older films new-to-me that stood out:

Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)

Police Story (Ging chaat goo si) (Jackie Chan and Chen Chi-Hwa, 1985)

And one I’d seen before but really enjoyed revisiting:

Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam) (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)


I usually listened to podcasts when going on walks or driving somewhere while music dominated when I listened to anything while working or doing other things. Nearly half this list is dance pop released in 2020. The genre isn’t something that makes up the bulk of my collection, although its appeal has grown on me in recent years. If I were to guess, the big sounds, upbeat tempos, and overall catchiness created the kind of escapist atmosphere I wanted in a year where the physical space I occupied was small. Sorry Radiohead, love your albums, but bleak, futuristic despair wasn’t really what I was in the mood for in music in 2020. I’ll take a closer listen to Taylor Swift’s quarantine albums eventually, but autumnal, introspective music wasn’t really on the menu either. (Ignore what I just said when seeing that Fleet Foxes album listed, though. It is a balm.)

The Scottish indie pop/rock band Belle and Sebastian ranks among my favorites, yet I don’t know that I’d given their seventh studio album, Write About Love, or their three-EP compilation How To Solve Our Human Problems as many listens as their earlier work when they were shrouded in mystery and existed more of a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Maybe I latched onto these two albums because they are more buoyant. As with any band that manages to last--Tigermilk came out in 1996--consistency over time means later work gets taken for granted, so it’s been nice to grow more familiar with Write About Love, a stronger album than I recall it being, and HTSOHP, a listening casualty of the more recent phenomenon of new music having mayfly life spans in the cultural discourse.

David Bowie’s Scary Monsters may be here by virtue of being at the top of my Recently Added from the last time I could get music from iTunes on my computer transferred to my phone. Regardless, I found it highly relistenable. Billy Joel has been a longtime favorite, which probably comes with the territory when you start playing piano in second grade like I did. He’s not someone I’ve listened to a lot in recent years, but it was comforting to return to his music and its pop sensibilities rooted in early rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t recall Turnstiles ranking among my favorites or being as heralded--it isn’t as loaded with radio-dominated hits--so it was a pleasure to rediscover. Sloan’s discography is remarkably consistent, but I kept returning to Navy Blues perhaps because I saw them play it in full for their first set at the A&R Music Bar in early March and because it may have their strongest single collection of songs.

Annie Dark Hearts (2020)

David Bowie Scary Monsters (1980)

Belle and Sebastian How to Solve Our Human Problems (2018) and Write About Love (2010)

Dua Lipa Future Nostalgia (2020)

Fleet Foxes Shore (2020)

Carly Rae Jepsen Dedicated Side B (2020)

Billy Joel Turnstiles (1976)

Kylie MInogue DISCO (2020)

Sloan Navy Blues (1998)


I know 2020 will have a negative connotation for many, but hopefully this explains in some small but long-winded way why it won’t for me and what helped me get through it. May 2021 improve those things that didn’t go well as well as enhancing and expanding the joys from the previous year.