That Was 2020
It sure was.
I began last year’s “That Was 2019” post by expressing disappointment in my immune system’s poor performance that year, so let me begin this year’s wrap-up by praising that same immune system’s effectiveness in 2020. More than 1.8 million people died of COVID-19 in 2020, a disproportionately high 340,000 of them Americans, and I didn’t get so much as a head cold. I spent much of the year being grateful for my health and financial stability, mourning the dead, and seething at the president and his death cult, who actively embraced any opportunity to worsen the crisis. Apparently I wasn’t alone: between a majority of Americans expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement (including an estimated 15 million publicly demonstrating at thousands of events) and an unambiguous electoral defeat, 2020 offered a decisive rebuke of Trumpism, though not nearly decisive enough. He may be dragged kicking and screaming from the White House in a few weeks, pardoning all his criminal cronies along the way, but the broader ugliness he embodies and amplifies won’t be quickly or easily subdued. He truly did create a movement, hollow though it may be, and I will never, ever forgive him or the Republican party for it.
In spite of it all, 2020 was a reasonably productive year for me. Our design system work at ProPublica was put on the back burner for awhile for the sake of pivoting to accommodate COVID-19 coverage, but many of my personal goals saw more tangible gains.
As planned, Leah and I celebrated our 15th anniversary by buying a house in Philadelphia and living together in the same city for the first time in 12 years. In the midst of a pandemic, leaving Brooklyn was bittersweet, and social distancing hasn’t made it easy to get to know our new neighbors. But in this age of lockdowns, it sure is nice to be together in a spacious place we can call our own.
One of the aspects of homeownership that most appealed to us was the opportunity to make the place what we want it to be, in ways that were never possible while renting. We’re learning that that’s something of a blessing and a curse, as the house will always be a work in progress. 2020’s social restrictions gave us ample free time to lay the foundation for our customization goals, even if it also meant we couldn’t really enlist much help. So far, the biggest parts have been painting pretty much the entire interior of the house and designing and installing two large sets of wall-mounted bookshelves. And after confining my creative ambitions to the corner of a tiny apartment for 10 years, the ability to furnish and decorate a workspace optimized for my needs, almost entirely from scratch, is exciting, if not a bit intimidating. So far, I’ve had a large custom desk made and found the perfect sleeper sofa.
I hope to write about all of these home improvement projects in more detail in the coming months. For now, suffice it to say that, between the down payment on the house and the wide variety of costs we’ve incurred since, this has been the most expensive year of our lives. Given that same year’s historic spike in unemployment, brought on by a once-in-a-century public health crisis, we have no illusions about how lucky we are.
Between working from home and wanting to limit my exposure, I didn’t get out much in 2020, which means my goal of regular runs and simple workouts didn’t pan out. This sedentary lifestyle can’t be doing me any good, but at least I’m eating better, partly because dining out is a no-go, and partly because I now live with an excellent cook. I managed to get to the doctor for a checkup before the virus got out of control, but plans for some specialist visits (including an embarrassingly long overdue dentist appointment) had to be postponed. Thanks to a frozen shoulder diagnosis and some physical therapy, my shoulder is in much better shape than it was a year ago, though it’s not back to 100%, and I’m not sure it ever will be.
I began redesigning my site in public at the beginning of the year, documenting each step of the process, and it was humming along nicely until COVID hit. The momentum has since slowed to a crawl, but some of the biggest and hairiest unknowns have been conquered (especially with regard to information architecture), and I’m excited about where it’s going, even if I don’t know when it will get there.
Apparently once every 10 years, I find a good guitar teacher, start taking lessons, make some good progress, and then kneecap the whole endeavor by moving to a new city. But I knew the move and the new house would be disruptive, so I’m not surprised that my music studies have fallen off, and thankfully that fall isn’t as disappointing as it might have been. Inspired by the first in what would become a long series of housebound cover songs by Two Minutes to Late Night and friends, I began recording my own covers and posting them on Instagram. The goal has been mainly to keep people’s spirits up during a terrible time, and whether or not I’ve succeeded in that, at nine songs and counting, I’ve had a lot of fun trying.
Instagram’s 60-second time limit led me to reduce these “quarantunes” to snippets, which minimized the pressure and performance anxiety, and recording well-known pop songs generated a steady stream of positive responses, which helped keep me going. In the interest of moving quickly and not getting too precious about it, I initially aimed to keep the audio compositionally simple and the video visually lo-fi, and while the latter ideal held, I’ve had a hard time resisting the challenge of recreating some of the songs’ original arrangements. Since my formal music studies were on pause, deconstructing these songs has been a great way to apply what I’ve learned and discover music theory concepts at work in songs I already know and love. It’s been particularly satisfying to construct and record three- and four-part vocal harmonies.
The recent publication of Hardcore Fanzine: Good and Plenty, 1989–1992 and Scream With Me: The Enduring Legacy of the Misfits led me to pull out my copy of Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ’79–83 and download the scanned catalogs of Trouser Press, Punk Planet, Slash, and others. I’ve been looking at these old punk zines with renewed interest as appropriate aesthetic inspiration for my site redesign, and doing so got me nostalgic for a zine called Zaly some friends and I started over 20 years ago. Over the summer, I got the gang back together to assemble our first new issue in 13 years, and I’m pleased with the result.
For the second year in a row, I did a completely custom design for Robtober, my annual horror movie binge, and with the pandemic in full swing, horrific inspiration was easier to find than ever. In addition to making novel use of various aspects of CSS I hadn’t much used before, I got to work with my friend Jen Mussari, whose hand-lettering skills are second to none. For a horror movie fan like me, Robtober was already a fun tradition, but adding design to the mix has made it even more so. I’ve already got ideas for next year.
Books, art, music, film
Yeah. I had to lump all of these into one section this year, and it is depressingly thin.
I got back into books in a big way in 2019, but 2020 was a different story. Apart from the image-heavy punk books mentioned above, I only really cracked two books this year: my friend Kate Petty’s excellent debut novel True Story, and Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, which I’m currently about a third of the way through.
As for art, music, and film, I don’t know if I realized before 2020 just how much my momentum as a culture vulture depends on things that happen outside my home.
We were able to do one art museum trip this year, to a Philadelphia Museum of Art member preview when it opened back up in September after being closed for months. We saw some good stuff, including a great exhibition of woodcuts, but I sadly don’t recall the specifics. The luxury of the timed-admission visit basically let us have the museum almost to ourselves, which was amazing, but I felt guilty about that privilege and melancholy about why the place was so empty.
I was largely oblivious to what happened in music in 2020. I let Spotify play me new stuff here and there, but nothing stuck. The only record I bought all year was Inlet, a new surprise album from Hum, their first in 22 years. I made it out to six shows before the venues all shut down in mid-March, and somehow when the live music stopped, the new recorded music mostly stopped for me too. I donated to some relief funds here and there to help keep venues, staff, and musicians afloat, but I mostly felt helpless and incomplete. Thankfully, most of my favorite venues seem to still be holding on, but the future is still very uncertain.
Film fared slightly better, though, like new music, I was largely out of the loop on what was going on. After kind of overdoing it in 2019, I wanted to cut down on my movie watching in 2020, and I did (123 movies, down from 183), but part of that had to do with the unavailability of moviegoing, which I desperately miss. I saw just two films in theaters before they closed. Compared to live music, which I think will be a hot commodity when it can happen again, I’m much more concerned for the future of movie theaters, which, from the general public’s perspective (if not that of niche enthusiasts), seem more obsolete than ever. Now that first-run movies are routinely available for home viewing, will theaters see a boom when people can go out again? Or will the theatrical film experience be deemed superfluous?
Under the circumstances, I tended to favor comedy and escapism over more challenging fare this year, at least more than usual. And of course, pretty much all of it happened at home. Here’s how my watching broke down:
Of the few new films I saw, these were my favorites:
- The Invisible Man : Surprisingly well-executed pulp, given real weight by Elisabeth Moss’s palpable trauma. See my original review.
- Lovers Rock : A nearly plotless document of a fictional party in London’s West Indian community in the early ’80s. It resonates particularly well in 2020 because, as my friend Matt put it, “Imagine going to a party.” But the opening scene, in which a young woman sneaks out of her parents’ home to attend said party, keeps sticking with me. In this simple sense, as well as against the uglier backdrop of the UK’s racial politics (which is glimpsed but not dwelled upon), the party is very literally an escape for her, something we all need now more than ever.
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always : The demonization of abortion, and the legislation it spawns, is making scared young women do desperate things, and it’s awful, and if you didn’t know, now you do. The scene from which the title is derived should be required viewing for anyone protesting outside a clinic. Incredible debut performance from Sidney Flanagan.
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire : The last film I saw in a theater, in mid-February, which feels like 1,000 years ago, so it’s hard for me to articulate why I loved it so much. Let’s just say that love stories so rarely rise above shallow, treacly pap that when someone really gets it right, it’s a hell of a thing. There’s also something to be said for an effective appreciation of the emotionally evocative capabilities of art. The final moment is a humdinger. See my original review.
Ambitions for 2021
A competent new president and the increasing availability of vaccines are two big reasons to be hopeful that 2021 will be a better year than the incomparably terrible one that preceded it. We’re still a long way off from resuming a pre-pandemic way of living, but I really hope 2021 eventually lets me hug some friends and family, dance with strangers to loud live music, strike up a conversation with a neighbor in a bar, and shush talkative moviegoers, among other things. I had to spend a lot more money than I’m used to on stuff in 2020, and I hope this year will see a push back toward experiences.
Here are some of the experiences I’ll be making for myself and others, most of which are continuations of things already in progress:
- The house: Plenty to do, but the biggest project at this point is my workspace, which still needs a lot of love. Lighting and decoration are still the biggest question marks.
- Exercise: Gotta get back on that horse. I’m going to start by making a point of getting out of the house every day to walk for at least a mile or so. On top of that, the 7-Minute Workout three times a week. When the weather starts to warm up a bit, I’ll get back to thrice-weekly runs, starting small and building back up to a 5k.
- RobWeychert.com V7: Work on the redesign will probably happen in bursts rather than a steady stream of activity, but I’ll continue to publicly document the process step by step, which has been a great way to interrogate what I’m doing and keep a clear head about it. I still have no idea when it will officially launch, and while I hope it’s sooner than later, I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself.
- Plus Equals: My preoccupation with zines of late has really made me want to get back in the game on an ongoing basis, and I figured out a way to combine that with another creative habit I want to form. So I’m going to take a stab at a quarterly zine exploring algorithmic art with a focus on combinatorics. I’m calling it Plus Equals. I’ve scrapped several other names, so it may change again, but it feels pretty stable at this point. The first issue is slated for February. The hope is that quarterly publication will be frequent enough to sustain momentum and infrequent enough not to dominate my free time and/or become a burden.
I guess that’s it. So long, 2020. No one liked you (except maybe Jeff Bezos), but I really hope we learned some things from you.