That Was 2019
The highlights of what I took in and put out
My immune system didn’t do me many favors in 2019. I was sick on five or six separate occasions in the first half of the year, including an obnoxious bout of bronchitis that lasted the entire month of February. Luckily that didn’t stop me from having an adventurous and fulfilling year, and for the first time in my four years at ProPublica, I used every single one of my vacation days.
My first three years at ProPublica were split between bespoke design (for feature stories) and platform-level design (for the broader ProPublica site). Early in 2019, I decided my time would be better spent focusing on just one of those things, and I chose the latter. This neatly coincided with an internal reorganization that put me on our new platform team, and my teammates and I are currently in the process of developing and codifying ProPublica’s brand guidelines and the design system they will inform. There’s nothing to share publicly on that front yet, but I’m looking forward to unveiling the fruits of these efforts in 2020.
2019’s creative efforts are more visible on the personal project side of things, and the year was capped off with an exciting milestone: After 15 Decembers of reading the venerable 24 Ways, I finally contributed an article!
Early in the year, I started taking guitar lessons and learning music theory. I had been playing guitar for nearly 10 years, but it had been long enough since I took it seriously that it was almost like starting over, and this was my first real crack at music theory. The goal I laid out at the beginning of the year was “to have something to show at the end of the year that I’m proud of and that feels commensurate with a sustained and committed effort.” I hoped that would take the form of recorded original music, and I hoped to periodically document my musical education here on my site. The former didn’t pan out and the latter hasn’t yet gotten past two posts, but I still feel good about how much I’ve learned and I have no intention of stopping.
I finally launched Tinnitus Tracker, my live music diary, in February, followed by a three-part series of in-depth blog posts about how it was made. Incremental improvements were made throughout the year, like updates to color and texture, audio embeds on show pages, and the addition of a state map. I have a growing laundry list of other improvements and additions I want to make, most notably an overhaul of the design of the show pages, so expect to see more Tinnitus Tracker design activity in 2020. In the meantime, the site has me writing about music again, which feels really good and has brought about a surprise or two: The most read Tinnitus Tracker post so far is, of all things, an essay about my first (and probably last) Phish show.
I’ve been talking for years about making a tool that takes CSV input and generates semantic HTML tables styled as bar charts. The dream is still alive and now it has a name: Simple Bars. I bought a domain name for it, set up a repo, and made significant progress, but there is still much work to be done. As a fun project to peck at when I need a break from other things, I have yet to focus on it for more than a few days at a time, so there’s still no telling if or when it will see the light of day. But I remain enthusiastic about its purpose.
Events and travel
After a banner conference year in 2018, I only made it to one in 2019: Clarity, two solid days of design systems discussion to fuel my current focus at ProPublica. San Francisco’s stark income inequality makes it a lot more of a bummer to visit than it used to be, but the conference was great. I took copious notes but unfortunately failed to wrangle them into a blog post.
Clarity was part of a cluster of personal and professional events that had me regularly moving through airports and train stations from August into October: the US Air Guitar National Finals in Nashville; my annual sojourn with Leah and her parents in the Berkshires; a pro bono design sprint with the talented and generous folks at Funsize in Austin; the Ottawa International Animation Festival; my cousin Rachel’s wedding in Belvedere (across the bay from San Francisco); and a relaxing vacation with Leah at Yosemite National Park. Earlier in the year, we hit two other national parks: Zion and Red Rock Canyon, on the heels of a conference Leah attended in Las Vegas, which is no less of a hellhole than it was the last time I visited.
Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve been collecting links that I’ve shared on social media or otherwise found noteworthy, publishing monthly roundups with excerpts and commentary. I eventually also made those roundups available as a newsletter. At the end of each year, I did a little analysis of the links’ sources and content to get a sense of what was on my mind throughout the year and who had the most influence over that. It’s a nice collection of time capsules. That habit unfortunately went bust in May of 2019, so I don’t have a complete data set of links to analyze for the year.
Among other things, the links were a testament to how much long-form journalism I was reading, which was good, but for years I lamented the fact that I wasn’t reading as many books as I used to. It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that my link collecting ground to a halt around the same time I finally got back into books in a meaningful way—my rhythms have been disrupted and I haven’t yet figured out how to adjust. So I don’t know if or when the link collections will get back on track, but I hope they eventually do. Until then, the good news is that I read 18 books in 2019 and hope to at least double that in 2020. My site will soon have a books section to track that progress.
Another year with minimal time spent in art galleries and museums. I saw a few new exhibits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but nothing that really stuck with me. I saw a great collection of gorgeous posters from one of my heroes, Alfonse Mucha, at the new Poster House. Like last year, James Turrell’s wonderful work with light provided the most memorable experiences, this time at Mass MoCA. I had seen a number of his installations there before, but this was the first time I got to see the space-limited Perfectly Clear and Hind Sight, both of which were predictably stunning.
I went to 37 shows in 2019, and thanks to Tinnitus Tracker, I documented most of them in one form or another. A few standout performances:
- The Sadies: My second time seeing these Canadian alt-country kings, and they are as thrilling as ever, especially as fuel for my renewed guitar studies.
- Uranium Club: I wasn’t sure I’d ever get a chance to see this band, since they tour quietly and infrequently. When I spotted the listing for their Brooklyn Bazaar show, it felt like a miracle, and the show was pretty much everything I wanted it to be.
- Black Midi: These prodigiously talented youngsters are also a true original.
- Low: I’ve never seen a bad Low show, but this one was especially good, owing partly to a rare performance of their drone masterpiece “Do You Know How to Waltz?” as well as to their lighting designer’s brilliant adaptation to the venue (the beautiful Murmrr Theatre).
- Ensemble Signal: I finally got to see a (free!) live performance of Steve Reich’s landmark “Music for 18 Musicians” and it thankfully transcended the conspicuous consumption sustaining the upscale shopping mall in which it took place.
- Slayer: SLAYER
- The Jesus Lizard: The third time I’ve had tickets to see The Jesus Lizard and the first time I actually made it to the show. They are still incredibly good at what they do.
The records I spent the most time with in 2019 were mostly on the punk side of things, and a good amount of them were bands new to my collection.
Big Bite: Trinity
I was lucky to catch Big Bite opening for the Coathangers back in April, and they stole the show effortlessly. Their droning blend of punk, grunge, and shoegaze doesn’t shine quite as brightly on Trinity as it did on their previous self-titled record, but it comes close, which is more than enough to make it a very worthwhile listen.
Black Midi: Schlagenheim
I was among the nerds who were excitedly following Black Midi around Europe via YouTube before they even issued a single studio recording, and Schlagenheim is a good representation of their astounding talent. Its ambition sometimes exceeds its reach, and the band’s choice of primary vocalist is questionable, but there’s no denying that Black Midi is a fresh and welcome addition to the art rock canon.
Mannequin Pussy: Patience
Patience alternates between furious ragers and lovesick dirges, makes excellent use of unassuming lead guitar, and ends with a hopeful, open heart. For some reason, its songs tend not to stick in my brain, so each listen is a fresh reminder that, oh yeah, I really like this record.
Otoboke Beaver: Itekoma Hits
I’ve been a fan of Otoboke Beaver’s fun, frenetic essence for a few years now, but Itekoma Hits marks the moment when the band’s core characteristics—impressive musicianship, unadulterated lunacy, and irresistible hooks dueling with grating noise—coalesced perfectly for me. It’s easily the best record of the year. Since their day jobs keep them from touring extensively, I considered flying to the UK to see them back in May, and I’m considering it again for their upcoming February tour. It’s hard to imagine them putting on anything but an amazing show.
Uranium Club: The Cosmo Cleaners
The Cosmo Cleaners’ tendency to meander (“Michael’s Soliloquy,” “Interview with the Cosmo Cleaners”) renders it more uneven than previous Uranium Club efforts, but its strongest songs (“Geodesic Son”) are among the finest in the band’s catalog, and the album’s cohesive dedication to Uranium Club’s weird corporate mythology makes even the underwhelming parts feel essential. I’m really curious to see where they go from here.
White Reaper: You Deserve Love
White Reaper just keeps getting better. You Deserve Love, their major label debut, finds them in poppier territory than ever, and it really suits them. It’s impossible to sit still while listening to this record, and it’s loaded with Thin Lizzy-style twin guitar leads, which, like, just go head and inject that shit directly into my veins.
I watched 183 films in 2019, substantially more than the year before, making this my biggest movie year ever for the third year in a row. Even if we subtract Robtober and my questionable choice to take in all 25 James Bond movies, it’s a lot—probably too much. I’ve never been a “put on a movie in the background” guy, so all of these films have gotten my full attention, but I’m writing about film less than I used to, and I’m concerned that the result is that everything is less considered and more likely to be forgotten. So I’m going to try to cut back significantly on the amount of films I watch in 2020 and use the time I’m buying back for more reflection, as well as playing music and reading books.
Thankfully 2019’s film quantity included a lot of quality, and the rise of the Criterion Channel from the ashes of Filmstruck had a lot to do with that:
I spent less time in theaters in 2019 than in recent years, but the NYC theaters I favor remain consistent. It’s probably time for me to either cancel my BAM membership or make a more concerted effort to go there (it’s the closest theater to me and does have great programming).
|Nitehawk Prospect Park||4|
|BAM Rose Cinemas||3|
|Angelika Film Center||1|
|UA Court Street||1|
As for the new films on offer in 2019, most of my favorites were a bit outside my wheelhouse in one way or another, which was really nice. Though these films have many virtues, aesthetics and style appear to have been the primary draw for me in most cases.
I might not have been attracted to this Eastern Bloc romance, but I loved the director’s previous film, Ida. And wow, Cold War knocked me over with its gorgeous music and lush cinematography. See my original review.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé
My natural skepticism toward pop music megastars has weathered the poptimism storm, but Homecoming made a Beyoncé believer out of me. I probably won’t take up permanent residence in the Beyhive, but Homecoming is one of the best concert films I’ve ever seen. See my original review.
Marona’s Fantastic Tale
One of a few transcendent animated films about dogs I watched in 2019 (including Plague Dogs and One Hundred and One Dalmations), Marona’s Fantastic Tale delights in the expressive potential of film as a visual medium in a way that I wish happened more often. See my original review.
The Safdie brothers are welcome to stress me out anytime.
Ambitions for 2020
Now is as good a time as any to announce that I expect to leave New York in 2020 and buy a house with Leah in Philadelphia. It’ll be a huge change, and it remains to be seen what new challenges it will introduce and what effect they’ll have on my other goals. Nevertheless, here are those goals.
I got back to a semi-regular running schedule toward the end of 2019, and I hope to maintain that momentum. I like to alternate days of running with days of short, high-intensity workouts, but a shoulder injury has kept those workouts out of reach since June. So one of the first things I need to do in 2020 is actually see a doctor about that injury and get it fixed. I also want to check in with a few specialists and get into a habit of regular dentist and GP checkups. My diet could use some work, too, but I have no concrete plans to address it at the moment.
I plan to stay the course with my guitar lessons and theory study. I’m not sure yet how that will transition to creating original music, but here are a few things I’m going to prioritize:
- Writing regularly about what I’m learning: I don’t want to forget what this learning process was like, nor how much I’ve grown as a result.
- Recording regularly: Recordings are progress documents and they help me hear myself in a way I sometimes can’t when I’m actually playing, highlighting areas that need improvement (like extraneous string noise, the bane of my existence). I want to get in the habit of making at least one recording of whatever I’m currently learning per week. To keep these recordings honest, I’ll allow myself 10 minutes of warmup and a maximum of five takes. Whichever take is the best, that’s the document.
- Returning to song sketches: I had a pretty good thing going for awhile with a Logic template of drums, synth bass, and vibraphone, and my MIDI controller made it fun to experiment in that space. I’ve barely touched it in months and I’m looking forward to getting back to it.
I think 2019’s goal of making an original recording I can be proud of was viable then and is still viable in 2020, so I’m going to keep that as my north star.
I’ve learned a lot since I launched V6 back in September of 2017, and there are enough new things I want to try with my site that it makes sense to start redesigning again. This time I’m going to do it incrementally in public, and the work has already begun: the introductory post for the project was published today!