Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 In Review

2020 was the year everything broke. It was also a year that showed us how we would deal with the breaking.

As I write this, my house is growing colder: the furnace broke a few days ago. It will be weeks before we can get it replaced. Last month, the hot water heater failed. I have already ordered a new refrigerator, and hope the teenager in the kitchen can hang on for a little longer until its replacement arrives. Nothing lasts forever, not even durable goods like appliances. Fortunately, these have all been the kinds of problems I can solve by writing a check.

If only the problems of the world were addressed so clearly and easily.

The COVID-19 pandemic broke the world this year, killing millions of people and infecting millions more. Most countries responded responsibly, asking for masks, imposing shutdowns, and providing some support for people and businesses.

The United States, under the Trump administration, responded fitfully, inconsistently, and ineffectively. At times it seemed the Federal government was doing everything it could to make things worse -- asking states to bid against each other for PPE, shipping supplies to other countries and then buying them back at inflated prices, failing to lead, spreading chaos and misinformation. It is what we all expect from the Trump administration: a toxic mix of incompetence and malice, and a dearth of support for affected people (while the conversation is always focused on economics and businesses).

And yet, it could have been worse. Most states did the right thing, and most of us have done our part. It hasn't been easy for anyone, and has been particularly hard for some. 

One of my friends sees all of this as a positive sign for combating climate change. She encourages me to focus on how sustained government and personal action went from impossible to possible to something close to normal. Certainly none of us could have imagined governments and our jobs asking everyone to stay home, to not travel by car or plane, and providing some incentives and help for doing it. The positive environmental impact was real. If nothing else, it was good practice for sheltering-in-place from future heat waves and toxic clouds.

I wish I shared her complete optimism. In those same events, I saw signs of how dealing with climate change in any meaningful way is all but impossible. When faced with a threat that could clearly and obviously kill in a matter of weeks, many people refused to accept the simplest of inconveniences: staying home when possible, and wearing a mask when they must go out. 

People weren't just noncompliant, they were aggressively noncompliant, attacking and even murdering people who merely asked them to mask up or leave. There were protests and counter-protests, nearly all driven by the American right (themselves possibly manipulated by their usual masters: plutocrats from this country and propagandists from others), complete with yelling, gun-waving, and threats of violence. If people get that upset about staying home and wearing a mask to protect themselves from illness or death, how will they ever accept "buy a new car, drive it less, and change your life"? I cannot believe they will, at least until their demagogues, the plutocrats, and the rest of the world decide they should. 

Living in California, the realities of climate change became unavoidable in the summer as the state burned. The skies turned orange, ash rained down, and the oppressively hot air became toxic. This was especially bad if you don't have air conditioning at home, and the pandemic lockdown kept you from an office, restaurant, or movie theater. A grim taste of future problems, and one that sent me and others into a dark place for several weeks. 2020 was one of the warmest years on record. It just felt like one thing too many to deal with.

I grew weary of reading about Trump, who was impeached this year. Much of that was due to his behavior: his tantrums and lies, and his policies that were ineffective, cruel, or both. The most tiring thing about Trump was how everyone continued to demand outrage about him and his team. We knew who Trump was months before he was elected. By now, the best thing we could do is plainly and simply call out his behavior for what it was and move on. The constant gasping and shrieking played into his goals and his desire for attention. 

That same restlessness and frustration boiled over repeatedly throughout the year during protests and counter-protests around police brutality. Somewhat predictably, the media has reduced the issue to one side wanting to completely abolish the police and the other side thinking the cops should be more like Judge Dredd. We cannot even dismiss this as caricature, because there were ample think pieces from left and right that said "actually, that's exactly what we need". 

As battered as American democracy was, and despite continued efforts by the GOP to subvert voting and the actual election, it would appear the system is not completely broken yet, and Joe Biden will be president in a few weeks. 

I gave up social media (to the extent possible). This was partially driven by the Trump fatigue mentioned above. I got tired of seeing acquaintances or their friends saying dumb or dangerous things. Over the last 4 years, my feeds have grown angrier and more annoying, with misinformation covering everything and coming from everywhere, while the advertisements have become more targeted and relevant. I finally began to see the mechanism for what it was: an endless cycle of emotional manipulation designed to soften us up for the advertisements. Like TV, except we're doing all the work of making and producing the dramedy, and watching it nonstop. I just don't want any of it taking up space in my brain anymore.

We lost Neal Peart, Eddie Van Halen, Harold Budd, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant, John Fletcher, and many other talented people this year. 

I had my own personal challenges and victories in 2020. I spent the first half of the year looking for a job, teaching a songwriting class online, and writing new music. I struggled with the burdens of pandemic life. I released a new album that I am quite proud of, and have 2 more collaborations close to finished. Productive!

By August, I found a new job and have been enjoying the novelty of the work and the remote work experience. A huge win, particularly when unemployment is rising and the economy crumpling.

2020 was also a year of stasis, of being house-bound, of feeling stuck. I canceled the gym membership I have held for something like 15 years. I left the house a handful of times, mostly for doctor appointments. The boundaries of pandemic life became clear.

The days were largely the same. Get up, drink some coffee. Stare at a screen. Maybe go for a run in the park. Stare at a screen. Putter around the house. Do something to distract myself -- clean, write, read, play a game. Eat dinner. Have a drink. Stare at a screen. Try to sleep. 

I made an effort to talk to friends almost every day, for my own well-being (and perhaps theirs). I am grateful for the connections and they helped me get through the days. As fun as that was, it also underscored how little was going on in our lives. "What's new?" Well, not much. 

Then again, given the kind of "new" 2020 was dishing up -- pandemics, murder hornets, political catastrophe. Here's a great summary in an easy-to-digest form.

I have learned to refrain from statements like "it can't possibly get worse". While I look to 2021 with optimism and hope, the reality is that at least the first half of it is likely to look a lot like 2020. I expect continued pandemic problems, civil unrest, a burning hot summer, and more. I hope you will join me for it!


Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Harold Budd (1936 - 2020)

Harold Budd has died. He was 84 years old.

Mr. Budd was my favorite composer and musician, and made my favorite record. Since discovering his music, I have listened to his work more than any other musician, hearing something by him almost every day.

His music is beautiful and peaceful. It can appear more simple than it actually is, however. Budd was a serious composer, and many of his pieces use compositional techniques not often seen in modern "ambient" music, like mirror canons.

Budd's work is also distinguished by its carefully calibrated emotional sensibility. It isn't cloying or saccharine, the way much new age or ambient can be. Nor does it induce a sense of impending doom or pure minor-key sadness the way "dark ambient" attempts. For me, his work always had the right balance of tranquility and focus, of melancholy and remembrance. 

I have written about his music before, and nearly every album he released ended up in my top picks for that year. While he is somewhat unknown outside of ambient or other specific music circles, you may have heard his music in the recent HBO mini-series I Know This Much Is True, or in movies including "Mysterious Skin" and "White Bird In A Blizzard", collaborating with Robin Guthrie, with whom he had just released a new album last week, on December 4, 2020: Another Flower.

If you have not heard his work, fire up your music subscription service of choice and check out "The Pearl" or "Jane 12-21". 

Budd worked with a number of great musicians including Andy Partridge of XTC, John Foxx of Ultravox, the aforementioned Robin Guthrie (and Cocteau Twins, on "The Moon and The Melodies"), and famously, Brian Eno.

I was fortunate enough to catch Harold Budd in a wonderful live performance in 2018. The concert was magical, dreamlike, and perfect. It was a special moment in an otherwise terrifying and trying year. In a beautiful auditorium inside the Toledo Museum of Art, I and a few dozen (at most!) other fans heard one of his earliest pieces and some of his most recent. At that moment, I felt I could die a happy man. 

Nobody lives forever, and at 84, Harold Budd had a long life and a productive career. Still, I mourn his loss. He was continuing to work and compose his memorable and unique music, and there was every indication he would keep going. He was a guide for how to age gracefully while continuing to compose and work.

2020 is terrible. Thank you for all the music, Mr. Budd.