Saturday, December 31, 2022

2022 in Review

2022 was another year in the strange, warped time of the pandemic. Perhaps less bent or blurry than the previous two years, but passed quickly (I can’t believe it’s over already!) and yet at times seemed to drag on forever.

I did not write much on this blog, but I did also start a Substack where I have duplicated a few pieces and hope to add more in the future. I did manage a decent amount of journaling, a few essays, and a pile of songs.

Throughout the year, therapies mental and physical made my weeks easier and are continuing to help me deal with old injuries. I kept up my fitness and general health. I also appreciated the many great conversations I had with friends, mostly over Zoom, and occasionally, rarely, in person. I also continued to co-host the Music, Mindfulness, and Madness podcast, which provided forum and focus for many of the things I have been thinking about.

My singing has continued to improve, with help from May Oskan. I can't sing like I used to, but in some ways, I can sing better now. 

This year, like the last few, has been tough for many people. I had my own losses and problems, but I try not to dwell on them, particularly when I think about the state of the world. The environment is still in trouble. Ukraine is still under attack from Russia. American politics continues its toxic swirl, even if there are signs Trump might actually be somewhere between irrelevant and in trouble. The economy is wobbling as well, and that doesn't bode well for any of us, either.

On the plus side, I managed to not get COVID this year (knock wood), though it seems I did manage to pick up a cold in the last few days. I was creative, made some progress on projects and issues, and had a few moments of genuine bliss and relaxation amidst everything else. 

January ended with the passing of Jon Appleton, one of my musical mentors, and the pandemic continuing to grind on, with Omicron cresting. Lauren Tabak took some nice, spooky photos of me. 

February saw the release of RĂªvenir’s Cure For Loneliness, my goth-rock collaboration with Christy Novack. This is one of the finest things I have released to date.

I also bought some new clothes, which may seem like a strange thing to do at a time when many of us aren't even wearing real pants on a daily basis. Dressing for me during the pandemic has often involved picking up whatever I was wearing yesterday off the floor and putting it on again. But I wanted to have some decent threads for whenever I was heading back out into the world.

But February's highlight was a trip to visit my dear friend Liz in Colorado. This was my first time on a plane since the pandemic started. It definitely caused some anxiety, but the trip was great, despite bitter cold. Nothing beats seeing old friends in person.

March saw me going on my first business trip since leaving PlayStation: Chicago, for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons conference. This was also the first time I got to meet my co-workers in person, and was one of the reasons I bought some new business clothes. I loved every minute of it, except for the part where my feet had forgotten how to wear anything other than my house sneakers, and were blistered and sore by the end of the first of the 5 days of the trip!

I also spent some of my evenings in 2022 staying up late watching old TV shows on streaming services, some comforting nostalgia in dark times. Night Court. Daria. News Radio. Even a few bits of Knight Rider and Hart to Hart. Relics from a distant age, reminding me of how things used to be, for better or worse.

April, I flew to Utah for a company offsite. It was a thrilling experience, made perhaps more dizzying by both the headache-inducing altitude (7000 feet above sea level!) and the fear of COVID. I managed not to get it this trip! On the minus side, I also had some painful dental work done. Boo. Still better than not doing it, I suppose.

May kicked off with another COVID booster shot, which helped Iran and I prepare for a trip to Vancouver to celebrate our anniversary. We saw some friends, ate some tasty food, hiked through a beautiful Canadian park, and managed to find a last-minute testing site so we could be allowed to return to our home country.

If that wasn't enough excitement, we also saw Bauhaus live in San Francisco, where they put on a killer show. I feel fortunate to have seen them yet again.

June brought outdoor meals with friends, in San Francisco restaurants, enjoying the temperate weather, and some repairs to the car. This time, the person who hit it left a note, and paid the full costs of repairs, somewhat restoring my faith in humanity.

I turned 53 in July of this year. I celebrated by getting out of town, up to a favorite spot on the Northern California coast. I closed the month out with a trip back east to visit some old friends and see some family. I was happy to see everyone, and drove past some old haunts. The sweltering and muggy weather reminded me why I moved to California in the first place.

July also saw the sudden passing of Dean Williams, a friend of mine. His tragic death haunted me throughout the rest of 2022, causing me to tear up whenever I saw a photo of him, or heard some of his music. I am still learning how to grieve, and spent a lot of time thinking about him and the many other friends I have lost in years distant and recent.

I have not played live with Sid Luscious and The Pants since the pandemic started, but I have been doing the occasional Zoom performance. In August, one of my friends (and songwriting students) threw a party, and we threw a mini-set together to perform for people. It reminded me how thrilling and terrifying it is to play in front of real people, particularly when you are under-rehearsed!

I also bought a resonator guitar, adding some swampy strum to my arsenal.

September was notable for the passing of Iran's uncle David Sawyer. He had lived a long and full life, with his work making him a titan in the woodworking world. He was deeply and dearly loved by his family and friends.

October had a few highlights as well. I did a guest presentation for Mark Delong's technology seminar at Duke University, and wrote a nice essay about "Technological Rubble" to tee it up. We flew to Vermont for a memorial for Uncle Dave, and I also managed to see two old friends, one expected, one a pleasant surprise.

November had Thanksgiving, and more work on a new music project I will be revealing soon.

And here I am, at the end of December. Aside from the usual end of year appliance failures (this year: garbage disposal!) and medical appointments (everything's...fine?), I have been enjoying some time off from work, reflecting on the year, listening to music, and writing things like this essay.

I also joined a gym, and returned to lifting weights for the first time in almost 3 years. I'm in a very different environment than the old dingy place I used to lift in. It's a lot smaller, but for now, that's just fine. It feels good to use those muscles again, and I treasure the soreness.

Today has been a microcosm of the year. A rush of anxiety (Is this COVID or a cold? Time is running out!), problems (leaks in windows and other places), peace (as I sit in a comfortable chair, listening to quiet music, writing thank-you notes and essays), tasty food (coffee in the morning, bespoke pizza soon for dinner!), the company of my beloved, and some fun and music. I only wish there were more time to enjoy it all. 

But in 4 hours the day, the month, the year will be over. I have some intentions and plans for 2023, but those can wait for now.

Thank you for being here with me. 

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Winter Blues

Here it comes again.

I grew up on the East Coast, in a place where there were real and distinct seasons. Spring was lush and lovely, whether sunny and pleasant or windy and rainy. Summers were swampy, muggy, and hot. Autumn saw the leaves turning colors before blanketing the ground, and by the time October started to roll around, it would get increasingly chilly as the days grew short.

And then Winter would arrive. Cold. Snow, just enough to incapacitate the town, but not enough to be predictable. A few snow days every year. Maybe once every few years you’d get a real blizzard, with drifts piling up several feet high, school closed for a week. 

Back in those days, I thought any darkening of mood was related to being stuck inside, in the pre-internet, pre-videogame days of 3 television networks. Can’t go out and see your friends. Nothing to do. Bored, bored, bored.

I spent my college years in a remote part of New Hampshire, in a place that got so cold and dark in the Winter that the military had a cold regions research center there. The entire school closed for most of December because it was so cold. My first year there it started snowing in October, and it seemed like by November the daylight lasted about 2 hours. When I think of winter there, I think of endless overcast skies, freezing precipitation, and dirty snow on the icy ground. I remember seeing my breath freeze on my jacket collar and being so cold I had to stop in multiple buildings on my walk back to my dorm to warm up.

That was also where I found out about Seasonal Affective Disorder, which sounds like some kind of made-up thing. But it seemed to make sense. After all, why else would I be so sad? Of course, I didn’t need some kind of bright light to stare into. I just needed to toughen up. 

The Winter Blues are real for many of us, usually for more than one reason.

We are our bodies, and what happens to our flesh profoundly affects our brains and our minds. During Winter, we get less daylight. The further north you go, the more extreme the shift. I visited London once in December, and in the depths of winter, the proper day is nearly nine hours shorter than it is in summer. In parts of Finland and other countries, the Sun just stops coming up at all. I don’t know how they survive.

This decrease or lack of sunlight has a profound effect on our well-being. It isn’t just warmth or Vitamin D production. Look at what happens to trees and plants and many other animals. They react strongly to the seasons, dropping leaves, hibernating, relocating. They are compelled. 

The decreased sunlight causes serotonin to drop in humans, which causes depression. 

Then layer in the (often) miserable weather people can experience during this time. And the lack of exercise that can come from bad weather and lack of sunlight. 

You’re going to get sad, in more ways than one. 

How bad are the winter blues? They’re so bad Western society had to invent Christmas to keep everyone from killing themselves in the depths of Winter. 

“Everybody’s miserable, what are we going to do? I dunno, I guess we should give them something to look forward to. How about we throw a party? Big feast. Gifts. We’ll sing songs. Something.”

Many cultures have some kind of winter holiday, and I am pretty sure this is why. 

So, for me, it's Christmas. If winter’s weather and lack of sunlight weren’t enough, there’s that. 

What is Christmas for you? Perhaps you think of warm, snuggly sweaters, mugs of something hot, sitting around a fire, smiling with your family while you play games and share how happy and loving you are with each other. Good for you. You should probably be in a magazine or on the cover of some Milton Bradley board game. 

That’s not how it was for me, at least not often. I can remember some glorious Christmas mornings as a child, opening presents and maybe getting a toy I wanted. Those were the years before I managed to convince myself that I didn’t want anything, ever, and before I forgot that I ever did once want something, anything for myself. 

I remember the joy and mystery of decorating the Christmas tree, as my mother would produce box after box of strange and beautiful Christmas ornaments from family history. All of which my parents threw away in their divorce. 

I feel the chest-tightening anxiety of trying to think of gifts for each of them. What does a kid with no money get people who have everything? (Pro Tip: It is not the thought that counts)

The holidays have conditioned many of us for sadness, tension, and disappointment. Every year people get trampled as Americans fight each other for some cheap crap they feel obligated to buy for someone else. The fear of failing to get a gift for someone, or worse, the wrong gift. The sheer cost of it all. 

This is a time of year people have heart attacks. Slip and fall on snow and ice. It’s when Grandma finally died. It’s when Uncle Jim killed himself. It’s when you remember your parents and family screaming at each other, or not screaming at each other and silently seething or crying or drinking. Final exams. Colds and flu and snot and coughing and scratchy throats and feeling miserable. Of bitter, stinging cold and suffocating heat from radiators that won’t fucking shut off. Of water seeping into your boots as you step into slush. Of feeling the car slide as you step on the brakes.

That accumulated experience, those expectations, also color our moods. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we feel the chill air, we see the days getting shorter, and our brains tell us “here it comes”. We feel the weight of the winter blues descend on our shoulders like one of those heavy sweaters or a winter coat, and it can be just as itchy and uncomfortable. 

Our modern society uses technology and culture to attempt to power through the winter, to pretend or ignore the physical reality of the days and convince us to at least act like nothing has changed. I think the dissonance between what our bodies and brains feel and what life demands creates its own problems, too.

So what can you do?

There’s a reason rich people travel during winter. They chase the sun, or go somewhere like a ski resort, where Winter is turned into a cartoon or theme park, and can be experienced at will, in a controlled environment. Travel has become unpleasant, difficult, and expensive, particularly in the depths of Winter. That might be one solution, if you can stand or afford it.

You can get one of those anti-SAD lights. My wife uses one in the winter. Do they work? Maybe!

Try to experience as much of the daylight as you can, though. That makes a big difference. Get some exercise. Don’t just hole up and eat. But listen to your body. It wants to sleep, it wants to rest. It wants to eat. Give yourself some of that. Seek a balance. 

If your family situation is stressful, or even just the trip is stressful, opt out. Don’t go. They’ll get over it, and if they don’t, that says more about them than you. Stay home. Or go somewhere that is convenient and fun for you. It is your life.  

Find people you like and spend time with them. That can be just yourself. I spent a few Christmases alone in my late 20s and they were great!

My wife and I started dating around this time of year, and the last two decades have helped both of us overwrite all that bad conditioning. Now, when I think of winter, I think of falling in love and spending the holidays together. Coffee. Relaxing. Christmas Eve dinner at my friend T. Jay’s. A simple Christmas day at home with the two of us. It ain’t so bad. I even look forward to it. 

And remember that just around the corner is the new year, and a chance to reinvent yourself, or at least try, or at least tell yourself that you will try.