In a recent newsletter about the movement to dismantle the classics, Andrew Sullivan wrote about Martin Luther King Jr.’s syllabus for a seminar he was teaching at Morehouse College in 1962, which included Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s City of God—a glimpse of what King believed an educated black man at that time should know.
What King grasped, it seems to me, is the core meaning of a liberal education, the faith that ideas can transcend space and time and culture and race. There are few things more thrilling than to enter a whole new world from another era — and to see the resilient ideas, texts, and arguments that have lasted (or not) through the millennia. These ideas are bound up, of course, in the specific context and cultures of the past, and it is important to disentangle the two. But to enter the utterly alien world of the past and discover something intimate and contemporary is one of the great joys of intellectual life.
“I love you at the age you are, and every year you grow / into more the special someone I forever want to know.” — I Love You All Ways by Marianne Richmond
I love that line (from a board book that’s in his regular rotation) because it reminds me not to focus on hitting benchmarks or anticipating his next phase of life. Love every age, every stage, because you’ll never get them back again.
Happy birthday to my tiger-tastic, truck-loving, snow-trekking two year old.
At the very end of Driveways, Brian Dennehy’s elderly Del finds himself recounting a story. He concludes:
You know what I wish? I wish me and Eddie were just leaving Joplin this morning. I wish we could do that whole trip all over again. Maybe we’d be a little more deliberate this time, drive a little slower, take our time. Take a good look at stuff. Really see the country.
This echoed in my mind at the end of Pixar’s Soul, which finds Joe being offered a restart for his life:
JERRY: We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe, but it’s not often we find ourselves inspired. So, we all decided to give you another chance. … So what do you think you’ll do? How are you gonna spend your life?
JOE: I’m not sure. But I do know… I’m going to live every minute of it.
I liked the contrast between these two versions of starting over. Del’s second chance is only imaginary, a nostalgic and bittersweet reverie that won’t come to pass. Joe, on the other hand, has an actual opportunity to restart his life with the benefit of the wisdom he acquired on his journey.
By following the life of Hernando Columbus, the bastard son of Christopher Columbus, the book takes detours that venture beyond the well-worn paths of history that are familiar to most people.
One such detour finds Hernando in Rome on legal business:
As the Sacra Rota was not in session on All Souls’ Day (November 1) 1512, Hernando was free to go to the Apostolic Palace that day to witness the unveiling of Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, as the rest of Rome did (according to an eyewitness) “even before dust that had been raised from taking down the scaffolding had settled.”
He just happened to be in Rome and just happened to have the day off, so he was able to see the debut of one of the most famous artworks in history. Of all the gin joints in all the world…
This kind of thing is one of the many reasons I love reading history. You get to watch people cross paths with other historically significant people, places, or things before they’re historically significant. It’s like being an omniscient time traveler with Ebenezer Scrooge-like observation powers, but untethered from your own life.
Along with all the other lamentable things that happened (or didn’t happen) this year due to COVID-19, I mourn the movies I missed out on seeing on the big screen. The last time I was in a theater was in late February to see LittleWomen, which ended up being my favorite film of 2019.
But I’m also aware that I probably wouldn’t have done much moviegoing this year anyway with a toddler at home. That makes me very grateful for the plenitude of at-home viewing options available to me. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Disney Plus, and library checkouts, I was able to see most of what 2020 had to offer and then some.
My logbook tells me I saw a total of 78 films in 2020, 34 of those being 2020 releases. Here’s what stuck with me the most.
This got a lot of “meh” reviews, but I found it to be a gripping, well-made, and admirably brief thriller, written by and starring Tom Hanks as the Navy commander of a destroyer protecting a convoy of Allied merchant ships in the U-boat-infested waters of the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic. (An unexpected benefit of having to get a new iPhone recently was getting a free one-year trial of Apple TV+, which is the only reason I was able to see it. So shout-out to my first-gen iPhone SE for crapping out!)
A sweet and insightful documentary from Bryce Dallas Howard that celebrates modern fatherhood, with talking heads from her father Ron Howard, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, Will Smith, and other celebrities interwoven with the stories of four everyday men and their parenthood journeys. (Watched on Apple TV+.)
In the tradition of previous Cartoon Saloon animated films Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, this is a resplendently illustrated magic-infused folk tale set in 17th-century Ireland with some familiar story elements (rebellious daughter, stern but loving father) embedded with many surprising and delightful turns. (Watched on Apple TV+.)
In the last five years, Pixar has hit the bullseye with only Inside Out, Toy Story 4, and Coco. It’s those films that Soul echoes the most, with its jazz musician protagonist undergoing a metaphysical (and physical) journey rediscovering his own life and purpose. Kids will like its zanier bits, but only adults can fully appreciate the worldview-tilting wonder in this ode to finding meaning in “regular old living.” (Watched on Disney Plus.)
6. First Cow
In 1820s Oregon, two men hatch a scheme to steal milk from the area’s only cow to make and sell biscuits at the local outpost. Sneaks into something very different than what you expect initially. A classic western and American tale of enterprise gone wrong, with a blend of sparseness and depth that only Kelly Reichardt can pull off. (Watched on library Blu-ray, but also available on VOD.)
5. The Assistant
Julia Garner (whom I first discovered in 2012’s Electrick Children) stars as an office assistant of an unseen and unnamed Harvey Weinstein-esque Hollywood producer, whose malignant presence nevertheless follows her as she navigates workplace gaslighting, emotional abuse, and a crisis of conscience. The film’s oppressively hushed tone creates a horror/thriller atmosphere that’s fitting for the psychological menace she has to endure. (Watched on Kanopy.)
While a woman fixes up the house of her recently deceased hoarder sister, her shy son develops a sweet friendship with the elderly neighbor, played by Brian Dennehy in his final role. Really enjoyed seeing Hong Chou in a different light compared to her role as Lady Trieu in HBO’s Watchmen. And Dennehy’s quiet, abiding presence culminates in a touching monologue that captures the ache of end-of-life regret. (Watched on Kanopy.)
3. My Octopus Teacher
I already wrote about this documentary, which captures a freediver’s unexpected encounters with an octopus in a South African kelp forest. It’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer. (Watched on Netflix.)
2. Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed (previously known to me from Nightcrawler) plays a drummer and former addict who suddenly loses his hearing and finds refuge at a community for deaf recovering addicts, led by a deaf Vietnam vet (played by a riveting Paul Raci). His struggle to regain his hearing and old life clashes with new insights, and make this a stunning, humanist portrait of addiction and transformation. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)
1. The Vast of Night
The Twilight Zone meets Super 8 in 1950s New Mexico, where a young switchboard operator and a radio DJ discover a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial audio frequency. Their search for answers around their small desert town alternates between vexing, exhilarating, and downright eerie. No other 2020 movie captured my imagination and attention as much as this debut feature from writer-director Andrew Patterson, who displays an impressive one-two punch of technical prowess and storytelling panache—with a no-name cast and tiny budget to boot. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)
Honorable mentions: One Night in Miami, Downhill, Tigertail, Blow the Man Down, Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, Hamilton: An American Musical, Da 5 Bloods, Boys State, Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Yes God Yes
Haven’t yet seen but want to: Minari, Nomadland, Another Round
Other non-2020 films I enjoyed:
Only Lovers Left Alive Magic Mike Kramer vs. Kramer A Night to Remember Margin Call The Firm A Hidden Life The Last Temptation of Christ Waves
It’s been a tradition on this blog since its inception to do a kind of presidential postmortem for the outgoing commander-in-chief (see Bush and Obama), assessing both the political takeaways and my personal life during their administration. (I planned to publish this on Inauguration Day, but as the actual end date of the Trump administration is now up in the air I figured I’d just let it fly now.)
On the personal front, the Trump years coincided with a very consequential period of my life. I had a baby. I bought a house. Like everyone else I saw my life transformed by a pandemic. For those reasons alone this epoch will remain very memorable.
As for the politics and public happenings, well, I have hitherto not been secretive about my thoughts on the soon-to-be-former president. But as this exercise is meant to take a bird’s-eye view of things, here are four lessons from the Trump presidency.
1. Hypocrisyis cheap
Accusing someone of hypocrisy is very satisfying. The problem is it doesn’t achieve the intended goal of shaming someone into changing their beliefs or behavior. Instead it does the opposite, making the accused feel defensive and therefore much more likely to double down on their beliefs regardless of the facts—and probably just deploy whataboutism, one of many cheap logical fallacies for people who lack any affirmative argument for their own stance.
Pointing out that Mitch McConnell was a hypocrite for allowing the nomination and vote for a Supreme Court justice in an election year (an election week!) might be true, but so what? Like he cared? Similarly, pointing out Joe Biden’s history of inappropriate sexual behavior and Kamala Harris’s criticism of this before becoming his Vice President are hypocritical to their anti-Trump message was unlikely to sway most like-minded supporters against voting for them.
Perhaps this comes off as pessimistic, but it’s just a realistic understanding of human nature. Politics is people. Accusations of hypocrisy, however tempting, are just not effective for persuading your ideological opponents to help you achieve a political objective.
2. Presidents should tweet more (but better)
Hot take: it’s a good thing Trump used Twitter so actively.
To be clear, I’m not talking about his actual tweets, which were occasionally anodyne but most often downright deranged and completely unbecoming a head of state—so much so they got him rightfully banned from Twitter.
Rather it was the act of tweeting itself that represented a sea change in how to adapt the presidency’s traditional “bully pulpit” to our globalized, tech-infused zeitgeist. Trump wasn’t the first president to use Twitter, but he was the first to weaponize it.
We didn’t have to wait to hear the president’s thoughts filtered through press secretaries and sanitized speeches; we often got it straight from the source, immediately and with vigor. This is a trend outside of politics as well, with celebrities and athletes using the direct nature of social media to cut out meddling middlemen and control their own message as far as they’re able.
The downsides to this change are obvious. It’s not good for anyone—let alone the president—to be Too Online and so easily distracted by, as Spiro Agnew would put it, the “nattering nanobs of negativity” on social media. And when the president uses said bully pulpit to spew insane conspiracy theories, spearhead crusades against opponents (and just as often allies), sling obvious lies, and foment insurrection against his own government (!), it’s easy to see why it’s not worth any of the potential upside.
But with a more salutary person and message behind it, this strategy can benefit more than just a politician’s addled ego. It can show the country and the world that the president is paying attention to what’s happening and intends to use their influence to affect change—hopefully for the better.
Certainly this won’t happen in the Biden administration, as his campaign’s key (and clearly successful) strategy was to remain on the defensive and avoid social media squabbles. But odds are the next president who isn’t a senior citizen will take their tweeting to the next level.
3. Federalism is good
This isn’t something I learned under Trump, but I did appreciate it anew. Federalism is generally defined as the balance of power divided between the federal government and the states. Critics will point to how “states’ rights” has historically been used as a coded justification for perpetuating unjust laws (e.g. slavery, segregation). This is indeed unfortunate for many reasons. But the concept of states’ rights is, on the whole, good, and the proof of this is the 2020 election.
Though I’m sympathetic to arguments against the Electoral College, I think every patriotic American should be grateful our elections are administered and certified by counties and states rather than a centralized national authority. Can you imagine the executive branch being in charge of elections? Especially this executive branch?
When you extend that reasoning to other issues, you can see why it’s valuable for states to act as built-in safeguards against very real autocratic threats against our very fragile democratic system. The reason Trump tried so ardently and pathetically to cudgel Georgia’s Secretary of State into committing voter fraud (to cite one of many documented examples of his malfeasance) is because as president he legally can’t do anything else.
Cheers to federalism!
4. The presidency is broken, but it stillmatters
I wrote early in this term about the position’s inherent brokenness. A lot of what was controversial about Trump’s actions as president happened not only because of his decisions but because the existing infrastructure around him—or rather lack thereof—allowed it. “Norms”, after all, are only useful as guardrails against wrongdoing until someone abnormal or shameless comes along and completely ignores them.
And even then, since Congress only applies its accountability powers selectively and on partisan terms, anti-corruption laws that do exist are rendered moot if those in charge of enforcing them lose their nerve. As such, Americans are very often at the mercy of executive action.
(As fake Abraham Lincoln says in Lincoln: “I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power!”)
Thus the presidency becomes what its occupant makes of it—for good and ill. There were many examples of this during the last four years, but the response to Covid-19 was the perfect synecdoche for all of them. This was an instance where lack of executive action proved severely costly in lives and livelihoods.
Covid-19 really was the perfect opportunity for Donald Trump to shine. He’s very anti-China, very germaphobic, and very enthusiastic about closing borders and keeping out foreigners. Even unpopular leaders in other countries saw their approval ratings rise due to their strong responses to combating the coronavirus, and yet Trump’s cratered and most likely cost him reelection.
It’s important to point out that the economic and medical devastation related to Covid-19 in the United States is not solely Trump’s fault. We know lots of factors contribute, as even other countries that were much more responsive have struggled to contain it. But his indifference, even contempt, toward basic preventative public health measures and the idea of helping anyone who didn’t profess sufficient fealty to him indicated severe myopia at best and destructive nihilism at worst.
This abdication of leadership has contributed to (as of today) over 375,000 American deaths and a record-high 81 million votes against him in 2020. Combine that with all the ways Trump chose to actively wield his executive power for ill—or for his own financial gain—and he becomes the perfect archetype for the kind of person who should never be in any position of power, let alone the presidency.
Grand Old Covfefe
The Trump presidency was bad, but it wasn’t all bad. I largely agree with everything David Frum wrote about the good that came out of this administration. To ignore that is to deny reality, which is something I’ll leave to the “Trump won the election” mob.
Over and over again I have, sadly, been validated. Words from “Your Obedient Servant” from Hamilton come to mind (directed, notably, at another American insurrectionist):
I stand by what I said Every bit of it You stand only for yourself It’s what you do I can’t apologize because it’s true
Trump will soon be gone from his presidential perch. But even then he will remain the summum bonum of the GOP, what was once a functional conservative party but is now, as Andrew Sullivan put it, “a paranoid, delusional personality cult.”
I greatly respect the conservatives and Republicans who have dissented from this delusion, who have seen Trump for what he is and proclaimed such at great cost. These people retain the conscience of the once Grand Old Party, but unfortunately not the control.
In his year-end summary of reading, Seth Godin wrote: “Books are an extraordinary device, transitioning through time and space, moving from person to person and leaving behind insight and connection. I’m grateful every single day for the privilege of being able to read (and to write).”
I read 18 books in 2020. For some people that might be a lot, but for me it’s an all-time low and a continuation of a downward trend since my peak of 80 books in 2016. The global pandemic had something to do with it, as once I started working from home I lost the time I had previously spent reading during my daily commute and lunch break.
But that’s OK. Like Seth I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to read at all, let alone whatever I want. Of what I was able to read this year, here (in alphabetical order) is what stood out.
Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confusedby Melissa Maerz
While I’ve been a fan of Dazed and Confused for a while, I knew next to nothing about its making aside from Richard Linklater’s freewheeling filmmaking style. This book is a good mix of context-setting commentary from the author and contributions from everyone involved with the movie. (The funniest part is everyone dumping on one insufferable actor who thought he was the next Brando.) Rewatched the movie after reading and appreciated it anew.
Every few years, as a new crop of high schoolers graduates, new generations discover Dazed. The fact that it doesn’t really have a plot means it holds up better with repeat viewings. You aren’t watching for the story. You’re watching to hang out with the characters.
Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear
I took the online Jeopardy! test back in March after I started working from home. It… didn’t go well. But that made me appreciate the show and its contestants all the more, along with how televised trivia has managed to remain not only relevant but beloved for so long. This book digs into all of that and more with a combination of concision and panache that Alex Trebek (RIP) would appreciate.
The real Jeopardy! is not the machine. It’s the show, the thirty minutes of pleasant syndicated reassurance that the machine produces five times a week. Jeopardy! isn’t in a chilly California soundstage; it’s in your home, as you yell answers at the TV screen or furrow your brow during a tense Daily Double. … The real Jeopardy! is the illusion of simplicity: Alex Trebek, three contestants, roughly sixty answers and sixty questions. The real Jeopardy! is the magic trick.
The Bear by Andrew Krivak
Set in a dystopian future, this short novel follows a man and his daughter forging a lonely existence in the wilderness. What begins as a rugged, sparse tale soon combines with elements of magical realism, and that’s what really made it sing. Makes me eager to read more Krivak.
The wood you burn to cook your food and keep you warm? The smoke that rises was once a memory. The ashes all that is left of the story.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs’s writing is very influential to me. His blog is a constant source of bemused, no-bullshit commentary about politics, religion, culture, and the life of the mind. His latest book seeks to make the case for “temporal bandwidth”—the idea of widening your understanding of the present by engaging with old books and ideas that provide an “unlikeness” to your own assumptions. This means accepting good things about the past along with its baggage. It’s a short but punchy book, the third in a trilogy (along with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distractionand How to Think) that together puts forth a commendable vision of intellectual engagement.
If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.
Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor
Nestor’s previous book about freediving really spoke to me, so I was eager to see where he went next. His immersion journalism takes him into the surprisingly deep terrain of respiration, especially timely this year given how central breathing is to Covid-19 transmission. Obviously breathing is important to your health, right? But it’s fairly astounding how just breathing deeply through your nose can improve your overall well-being. This book taught me a lot, but mostly it made me more attentive to the aspects of our humanity we often take for granted.
Everything you or I or any other breathing thing has ever put in its mouth, or in its nose, or soaked through its skin, is hand-me-down space dust that’s been around for 13.8 billion years. This wayward matter has been split apart by sunlight, spread through the universe, and come back together again. To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.
Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks
M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and The Village meet Home Alone. Though I read Brooks’s previous book World War Z, it didn’t stick with me nearly as much as this one, which treads similar realistic sci-fi territory.Because the main event is right there in the title, the dramatic tension builds so exquisitely throughout the book. It was one of those stories that delightfully defied prediction, and managed to end on a tantalizing yet satisfying note.
They all want to live “in harmony with nature” before some of them realize, too late, that nature is anything but harmonious.
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson
One of my favorite authors, Johnson nailed it again with this riveting historical epic that weaves together 17th-century seafaring, the surprising culture of pirate ships, the dawn of the multinational corporation, and much more. Johnson’s magic trick is being able to stuff so much fascinating information into a crisp narrative without making it seem stuffed. It really feels like a rewarding reading journey.
Ancient history is always colliding with the present in the most literal sense: our genes, our language, our culture all stamp the present moment with the imprint of the distant past.
Go to Sleep (I Miss You): Cartoons from the Fog of New Parenthood by Lucy Knisley
This laugh-out-loud hilarious cartoon collection is a short, sweet, and stunningly accurate depiction of the small moments and observations new parenthood allows. Though mostly geared toward the experience of mothers, so much of it resonated with me. Really glad to have stumbled upon this at my library’s New Graphic Novels shelf.
Dude, I love you so much… but could you *please* stop discovering the infinite wonder of the world for, like, two minutes?
Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss (review)
The book tells two primary, interweaving stories: how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war; and how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground. I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations. But if you share my interests in librarianship, archives, history, and World War II, you’ll dig this.
The war challenged these librarians, archivists, scholars, and bibliophiles to turn their knowledge of books and records toward new and unpredictable ends. The immediacy and intensity of their experience tested them psychologically and physically. Whether soldier or civilian, American-born or émigré, these people’s lives changed as they engaged in this unusual wartime enterprise. They stepped up to the moment, confronting shifting and perplexing circumstances armed only with vague instructions and few precedents to guide them.
Favorite non-2020 books I enjoyed
Meditations on Hunting by José Ortega y Gasset (review)
The Night Lives On: Thoughts, Theories and Revelations about the Titanic by Walter Lord
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee
He’s rich because all of Bedford Falls is dumping a veritable fortune on his table. He’s also rich—richer, I’d say—because of who is doing the dumping and why they’re doing it.
George had been offered a similar financial windfall earlier in the film when Potter tried to hire him, but he rebuffed it. Had he decided otherwise, he would have gained wealth of a kind, but also a kind of poverty that no amount of money could cure. He wouldn’t have had the same relationships with all the friends and family and townsfolk who filled his house with a different kind of windfall.
George was rich in the end because he remembered. He remembered the barrenness of his ghostly alternate life where he was never born. And he remembered—suddenly, when he wanted to live again—the meaning of all his family and friends and frustrating failures and small victories that had accumulated into something like a wonderful life.
Clarence Odbody (Angel Second Class) gets the last word in the movie with his book inspiration to George: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” Remember these friends, he’s saying, not because they’re currently making you rich, but because they already have.