Things I Read and Recommend from 2016

Every December writers on the information superhighway (what’s up Clive) write posts with links to the best stuff they read during the year. Those posts are great because they sometimes turn you on to stuff you missed, but also because they remind about how much you enjoyed something you read.

I decided to keep track of good things I read in 2016 and post it in December and that was fine until I asked myself why not post it around the midpoint of the year and then post an update in December. That way stuff from the first half of the year wouldn’t get lost.

This list is not exhaustive of all the great stuff that’s out there. Much of it, most of it, resonates with me personally, which means if you have a similar world view to me then you’ve probably read most of this and will like some of the stuff you missed.

Originally I was going to limit myself to one link per writer but there are some writers, like Laurie Penny, who are so versatile that I discarded my arbitrary limit. Others like Helena Fitzgerald and Matt Zoller Seitz write directly to my soul. Looking through this list now I see that writers like Mo Ryan, Emily Nussbaum and everyone at Vox (especially Caroline, Dylan and Todd) are underrepresented or not represented at all.  I also notice that I have nothing from Annie Lowrey or Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine, which I regret. I’m going to stop now because the list of people I’ve overlooked could go on forever. I endeavor to do better.

I still have a lot of stuff from the first half of the year that I’d plan to read so things will be added. I welcome any suggestions.

The final thing I want to add is that there are countless more great things out there to consume but two things I especially enjoy are Helena Fitzgerald‘s TinyLetter (straight to my soul) and Jonah Keri‘s podcast. I will try to get my TinyLetter off the ground later this year. (Watch this space.)


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My New York

No matter where you live you start to create your own version of that place. The smaller the place, the more in common your version has with that of other residents. I grew up in a city of approximately nine square miles and I knew most of it, with the only differences between my version and those of my friends due to class (I didn’t know the country club) or fortune (I didn’t really know the hospital).

I haven’t lived in my hometown in twenty-five years. My version of my hometown has gotten small. There’s the sandwich place that I first visited more than three decades ago. There my grade school which is no longer a grade school, and my junior high which is the middle school and my high school which is the junior high school. There’s the house where I spent most of my childhood that my parents sold years ago, and the house before that which doesn’t look the way I remember. My first girlfriend lived over there and I never have a reason to drive over there any more, but there’s the church where we met, where I never felt the presence of God. I can’t remember that last time I went in.

New York, my home for most of my adult life, is large enough that its likely that no two people have the same version. My New York is always changing — gaining and losing — acquiring different meanings and memories. Tour my New York and you know me.

My New York grew rapidly after I first arrived, starting with only the blocks between where I lived and worked. Then there were random bars that I forgot about almost immediately. (They were not memorable, and there were blackouts.) Then there was my first Indian restaurant and the ferry to Weehawken and the giant DKNY ad on the side of the building on Houston and so on.

These days I enjoy learning about other New Yorks, how they match up to mine. The pleasure is identifying the overlaps — there is validation when you both agree on a place — but even better is the tip about a new place. Could that become part of your New York? My New York is not complete, nor will it ever be. I’ve become a bit obsessed about finding good coffee shops wherever I go. (Happy Bones on Broome is one of my new favorites.) There are always new restaurants. (Olmstead is the most recent.) And new friends always share their New York and sometimes that becomes part of yours. (Cafe Paulette.)

I am also interested in what I’ve lost. Last year I tried to find the first apartment building I lived in and I thought maybe I found it but then though maybe I was on the wrong block or that the building is gone. There’s a ghost of me somewhere in the east 70s who walks around and I’m not sure I can find him.

The ghosts mean a lot to me. The ghost that used to take this train every day, the ghost who fell in love over there, that heartbroken ghost over there. These ghosts are part of my New York, and we have the decency to pretend not to notice each other when we pass but we know we’re there. And yeah, it’s we because I’m a ghost, too, adding this piece to my New York and leaving a piece of myself and in that moment I’m in the present and also passing myself in the future, eyes turned away and heart turned towards.

Snow Day

I grew up in Vermont, mostly in the 1970s, long enough ago that the winters were longer and green Christmases were rare and the snowbanks were always over my head. Snow days then weren’t days when school was cancelled because that wasn’t very common. There we enough city snow plows and people with pickups with plows on the front looking to make a few extra bucks that snow rarely shut things down. Plus I knew that I had to go to school for 180 days each year, so a cancelled day in the winter only meant one less day of summer vacation.

Snow days were those weekends or days during school breaks when a storm dumped so much snow that you could barely make it from the front steps to the sidewalk to the street. Until I was old enough that shoveling became compulsory, a big storm meant my sisters and I put on our snow pants and snowmobile boots and our winter jackets, mittens, hats, scarves, and spent the day in the snow. My father would shovel off the front walk, then the sidewalk, extending left and right to our property line, and if he needed to drive somewhere he cleared the driveway. All that snow had to go somewhere, and somewhere was either on our tiny front lawn or on the strip between the sidewalk and the street. That’s where we dug out caves and tunnels, aware that it could be dangerous — we all knew stories of children who had to be pulled by their exposed legs out of snowbanks — but we did it every year until we were too big, physically or emotionally.

Snow was on the ground for months and we lived with it and everything went on a usual because when you live in a place that has regular adversity you just deal with it and go on. In that way Vermonters are like residents of New York City.

I went to college in Vermont so I don’t remember any days of classes being cancelled due to snow. My main snow memory is of the first really big storm my first year. We all went outside and made snowmen, and snowballs that we threw at residents of the next dorm, and carried on like the kids we thought we no longer were. Then we heard a rumor that the students from East Campus and Redstone Campus were heading to us on Main Campus to have a snowball fight and we started furiously making snowballs and talking about how we were going to be ready.

We heard them before we saw them, heard them well before they appeared at the top of the hill, before they started down the hill  yelling and throwing snowballs and quickly overwhelming us. In our excitement, our hubris, we had forgotten or maybe not known that East Campus had at least twice as many students and Redstone at least three or four times as many and it was never going to be a fight. And it didn’t matter at all. It was great.

In my early working career in the early 90s in New York, I don’t remember any snow days. Maybe there weren’t any because the train always runs and I never lived anywhere that I had to depend on a car or bus. Then I moved to Atlanta for a while and there was at least one snow day in which a dusting shut down traffic on the Connector and brought the city to a stop. I worked with a number of Yankees and we all laughed the next day at the silly southerners and their fear of snow.

These days I’m back in New York and snow days are even rarer, partly because of global warming and partly because technology like laptops and remote access has made it possible to work even when you can’t leave the house (assuming you have WiFi). Plus, I still depend on the subways and, like I said, they rarely stop. And as much as I love the idea of a surprise off day, I don’t want a storm or a blackout or a flood or anything else that brings this place to a standstill. So there aren’t really any more snow days.

Still, the dream lives, the ideal. When I hear the forecast, and then the warnings, I start to get that feeling, that old hope. I start to dream of the perfect snow day, of a warm café where even if you could see out of the steamed windows it wouldn’t matter because the swirling snow has reduced the visibility to zero. There are warm drinks and there’s a good book and ever once in a while you look up and she looks up from her book and you smile at each other and it’s a perfect moment. Maybe one day.

Until then, my snow day is simple. It takes place when I get up and I look out the living room windows. The sun hasn’t risen. The world is white and I can’t see anyone or anything except a lone garbage truck temporarily losing the battle to keep the street clear of snow. I can’t see any footprints and the only sound besides the snowplow is the wind and I’m not thinking about how I’m going to get to work or what I’m going to wear. It’s only a minute, maybe not even a minute. That’s my snow day. For now.

New Year

It is the day that the sun has travelled all the way around the sun, although not to the same spot as the galaxy is also rotating. This makes perfect sense as no two New Years are the same. Some come with hope and some with despair and some feel like ones that preceded it, but of course we have changed and nothing is ever the same.

I try to remember the last new year that I truly welcomed, and I think it was the last one, at least until the day really started. Before anything happens, before you have disappointed anyone, a happy new year feels possible. I’m going to be this and do that and this will be the year that it all works out. And sooner rather than later these thoughts are revealed to be folly.

Arbitrary astronomical events don’t make things happen. Time is useful for marking progress (or lack thereof) but there is no magic. A circuit of the sun won’t change reality. I am not quite exactly the best and the worst of who I’ve been, but the difference is only of degrees, of rotation, of all this coordinated movement that makes progress feel impossible.

And still, there is a small but growing hope inside me. Maybe it’s too many New Years, too many hopes, too much romanticism in my soul, but there is hope. It is there and I can feel it and I can nourish it and I can believe in it. Maybe the galaxy has rotated far enough for this hope to turn into something. Maybe this is the year.

Don Williams

I don’t remember a time before being aware of my father’s record collection. That’s not only because the collection predates me, but because I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a record player in the living room or dining room, when my father or my mother weren’t playing something.

My father is a country music fan, and I grew up listening to George Jones and Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette. I sorted through my father’s albums more times than I can remember. There was a lot of Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare. There were a few, pre-Bocephus, Hank Jr’s. There was Sammi Smith and Tanya Tucker.

I remember in kindergarten one day that the teacher asked us to write the names of albums on pieces of paper, and how I had no idea who Peter Frampton or ELO were. I pretended to know what Grease was. I’d heard of the Beatles but I’m not sure if I knew which songs were theirs. Many of my classmates had older siblings, and many of them probably had parents who listened to popular music. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Maybe that was the beginning of the feeling out of step. It’s a feeling that has never quite left me.

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Master of None S2

You’ve had this happen, right? You meet someone and you connect. And when I say connect I mean you see them for the first time and they are already familiar even though there is no possible way that you could have seen them. I don’t know if it’s a chemical level or a psychological level or a karmic level, but you are certain they are meant to be part of your life, and the conversations that follow only support that idea. Somehow it feels like it was meant to be.

Of course there can be complications. Maybe you’re married. Maybe that someone is also married. Maybe you live in different countries or cities or (in New York) different neighborhoods. But you can’t shake it. And to make everything worse — painfully, awesomely worse, that someone feels the same about you.

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I Should Have Been Home Yesterday

I’ll start with the theory that Steven Soderbergh; writer, cinematographer, and editor of the film, and screenwriter Jules Asner, wife of Soderbergh, made choices about what to include and not include in Logan Lucky, that nothing pointless is included. So the opening scene between Jimmy Logan and his daughter Sadie which includes a discussion about Jimmy’s favorite song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, is important. In fact, I think it’s a thesis statement.

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Remembering the Sweet Science

Boxing has always been romanticized. Among the “major” sports in the US, only baseball is clearly more romanticized. Baseball has had more written about it, in service of making baseball seem more cerebral or more connected to its past or more interesting. Full disclosure: I enjoy baseball but talk of green cathedrals and the beauty of the untimed game are not interesting to me unless delivered by Annie Savoy.

Unlike baseball, boxing is a brutal and often corrupt sport. Instead of being run by billionaire franchise owners who value the appearance of fairness and legitimacy in pursuit of exploiting athletes for profit, boxing has no appearance of fairness. Boxing is controlled by promoters who decide the next fight not by a tournament or a set of statistics but instead based on what will generate the most money. (To be fair, there are governing bodies and there are sometimes mini-tournaments to determine who wins vacant titles but the governing bodies only control fringe aspects of fights and those mini-tournaments often feature boxers without the cachet to generate significant pay-per-view revenues.) Outcomes in fights that don’t end in knockouts are determined by three ringside judges who may or may not use factors other than what happened in the ring to calculate their scores. And, of course, fighters may decide to take a dive for various reasons.

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Summer in New York

Yeah, I know, I have some nerve writing about summer in New York when Helena Fitzgerald already wrote brilliantly about it, but if I didn’t write on topics just because Helena got there first then I don’t know what I’d write about.

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The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit

I don’t remember why the alarm was set but it went off one weekend morning. The station, of course, was WNYC and the show that was starting was about Jason Isbell. I’ve since gone back to find that the show was The New Yorker Radio Hour in which John Seabrook talks to Isbell. The first song played is “Cover Me Up.”

A heart on the run keeps its hand on a gun
You can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more
Tried to shoot out the sun

I was hooked. I sat up (figuratively) and tried not to fall back asleep but also not let on to my wife that I was awake and should be getting ready for whatever we had set the alarm.

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The Big Sick

The Big Sick is your standard romcom: Boy meets Girls, Boy Loses Girl By Being Stupid, Boy Eventually Wins Girl Back. [Sorry, SPOILER] There is nothing in this broadest outline of the story that makes it unique, but of course what makes romcoms work are the details. It’s Sally and Harry trying to set each other up and having their prospective dates fall for each other. It’s William’s friends making him see he was an idiot for breaking things off with Anna. It’s Aaron burying the lead and telling Jane that he loves her. In The Big Sick its Kumail’s attempts to keep both himself and his family happy, and the impossibility of trying to anything meaningful halfway.

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