Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 In Review

2023 was difficult. At times, I called it "The Year Everything Broke".

Towards the end of January, the podcast I have been co-hosting went on hiatus. Each of the 3 hosts has had their own issues to deal with this year, and some of those issues escalated to a point where continuing is not possible right now. I miss talking with Michael and Dee, and I hope to get something else going soon. We are all doing the best we can.

This Old Fashioned may have been the best thing about 2023. 
It was certainly the best drink of 2023.

The torrential rains in January showed me that the front of my house was leaking, and likely had been for a while. I had to spend a shockingly large sum replacing all the windows on the front of the house, rebuilding my front steps, and getting the fa├žade refinished. It was messy, noisy work that seemed like it would never end. I still need to get the place repainted, but the crew finally wrapped up in October. I am glad I was able to write the many large checks required to cover the repairs.

I caught COVID for the first time in March. It was not serious enough that I had to be hospitalized, but it was scary and painful. It was also disappointing, particularly given how diligent I had been masking, avoiding groups, getting vaccinated, and taking care of myself. 

On July 2, my friend David Meyers passed away after a long struggle with a brain tumor. I had known David since I was a teenager. He was the very best of what humanity has to offer. If you want to understand something about him as a person, and have a good cry, listen to this podcast

One of my aunts died in September from metastatic breast cancer. She was in her late 70s, had lived a good life, and leaves behind a grieving daughter and two grandchildren. 

Towards the end of this year, I found I needed gum surgery. It was less painful and scary than I expected, but still unpleasant and not recommended. This also triggered a few other health scares that have all resolved positively for now. 

I had to make more minor but expensive repairs to the car, as well. 

The biggest difficulty was dealing with my aging father. For the last decade or so, he has been involved with a partner only a few years older than me. This partner was someone with a drinking problem, substance issues, and an abrasive personality. The combination put me in a state of heightened anxiety any time I was around my father and his partner, waiting for something bad to happen. 

My father consistently chose this person over his friends and family, and they moved from Nevada to Hawaii to Thailand. At least my father was happy and secure, or so I thought. About two years ago, my father had a small stroke in Thailand. He and his partner said everything was fine, but my father then had two car accidents, one serious. When I saw them in late 2021, it was clear everything was not fine. My father was stuttering when he spoke, could now no longer walk without a cane, shuffled his feet, could not navigate steps or curbs without assistance, and fatigued easily. He was also quite obviously depressed.

I encouraged them to return to the USA, and in September of 2022, they did. 

In mid-April of this year, my father called me early in the morning. He said his partner had pushed him down several times, said they weren't going to take care of him anymore, and had told my father to kill himself. I could hear the partner in the background, drunk and screaming. I told my father to call the police and go stay with a friend. 

My father can no longer reliably read, write, or operate a computer. I purchased him a plane ticket and he flew down to Los Angeles to stay with my brother. I joined them a few days later to evaluate what we needed to do. 

My father was practically catatonic from stress, cognitive impairment, and antidepressants. He mostly stared into space when he wasn't struggling to answer our questions or sobbing uncontrollably. We had him sign powers of attorney for medical and legal purposes.

We looked into his finances. My father was once a multi-millionaire, and considered a business wizard by many. He was now quite clearly broke, with his credit card debt exceeding his meager cash sums. His major assets are two properties, jointly owned with the toxic partner. Also, by this time, my father had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from me and my brother. We canceled jointly-held credit cards and cut off the partner's access to my father's accounts.

The three of us agreed it was time for my father to go into assisted living, and he would stay with my brother until a place could be found, probably in Southern California, not too far from my brother.

During this week, his partner had been calling and texting my father, my brother, and me, leaving vile, drunken, barely coherent rants. These calls and texts were happening almost non-stop, so we all blocked the partner.

Plans in place, I flew back to San Francisco. The next morning, I was told the partner had gone on a drunken rampage, smashing up the rental home they had been sharing with my father. Doors had been ripped off hinges, holes punched in walls, artwork, vehicles, and property attacked with golf clubs. The partner was found unresponsive on the floor, covered in blood. They had attempted suicide, and were hospitalized. The partner had not been paying their health insurance bills, however, and once stable, the hospital ejected them.

My brother and I found an assisted living facility for my father in June. My father moved in. The partner eventually stabilized enough that I was able to have the occasional coherent conversation about selling property and untangling lives. In July, I was able to visit the rental house and move some of my father's belongings into storage. At that time, the partner told me they were going to Thailand to check up on the property, set up a bank account, and contemplate moving to Thailand.

On the morning of August 9, 2023. I received a phone call from Thailand. The partner had been found dead in their hotel room. The empty whiskey bottles suggested a drinking binge. It is unclear whether this was another suicide attempt or an accident. Regardless, I had to call the partner's adult children and let them know.

My father was distraught. Despite my uncovering evidence of physical and mental abuse from the partner, my father kept telling me he didn't want to live anymore. After all of the effort put in to getting him safe and taken care of, this was hard to hear. 

The partner's will ultimately named me the executor of the partner's estate and will. Throughout this year, I have been dealing with attorneys in Nevada, Hawaii, and Thailand, trying to make sense of and get control of bank accounts and other assets. It has been like having a second job navigating phone trees, listening to hold music, talking to customer service agents, and sending documents to various addresses. 

There is more to the story, much of it sordid and sad. It is hard for me not to be angry about all of it as well. 

All of these events combined with challenges at work to make this an unsatisfying year at my job. I am not sure how much longer that will go on, but I have some plans for what's next.

The year rounded out with me catching COVID a second time in December. On the plus side, it was a much milder case than March. On the minus side, it meant that I had to spend half of my precious holiday vacation locked in my office, trying not to infect my wife. 

I could go on about current events. I tried not to pay too much attention to the desperation, horror, and ongoing tragedies around the world. It helps keep my own problems in perspective at times, but reading and watching too much just made everything seem worse. American politics, the Middle East, the environment, Russia and Ukraine -- it was a daily barrage of bad news and failure. At times, it seemed the whole world was coming apart.

Despite all of the breaking, there were a few bright spots in 2023.

One is that Emily Hobson and I released an album (Cold Comfort) and a covers EP (You Got All Sad) as Snow Westerns, a slowcore/shoegaze/cowboy alternative rock band. Working on these records was fun and satisfying, and I am proud of the result.

In May of this year, my wife and I went to Spain for two weeks. Attending a friend's daughter's wedding was our pretext, but we added on plenty of extra days in Madrid and Barcelona. The food was fantastic, the weather was gorgeous. I made some good permanent memories. Most notable was that we walked everywhere, not using public transit or cars except for getting to and from our arrival and departure areas. I hope to go back some day.

I had a great birthday break up at Sea Ranch. I wish I could go there more frequently. It is truly my happy place. 

Sid Luscious and The Pants are slowly reactivating. We are training up some new members and starting to sound pretty good. I hope we will be performing in early 2024, but regardless, it feels great to be playing music with a band again.

Part of that is my voice. Post-cancer, I have struggled to sing the way I used to. The treatments left my voice and throat somewhat compromised. I had been doing online voice lessons for a few years, but in 2023, my voice coach stopped doing lessons to return to graduate school. The work we did together seems to have paid off, however, and my singing is better than it has been in a long time.

I was able to use this for some online performances, notably UCSF's Art for Recovery group. I have been a part of this crew for 3 years now, and playing for them occasionally brought me satisfaction throughout the year.

I found solace and joy in seeing friends. I was able to reconnect with several people visiting from out of town, and had many great dinners and meet-ups with my Bay Area gang. No matter how dark, frustrated, or broken I was feeling, these people and shared moments always left me feeling energized and alive. 

And the best thing about the year was my spouse Iran. She took care of me on many levels, and her love and support made everything bearable. 

Thank you all for being here, for being present, for reading and listening. Here's hoping 2024 is better for each and all of us.

2023 Books

I joined a book club this year, which has "forced" me to read at least one book a month. That has prodded me into reading more in general. Here are most of the books I have read in 2023, more or less in order, with a few notes:

I Have Some Questions For You - Rebecca Makkai. Literary fiction mystery about a death at a prep school, but also about society's treatment of women. Great writing. Furious, incendiary, nuanced, thought-provoking. Highly recommended, and one of the best books I have read in a long time. My choice for Book of the Year, 2023.

The Vixen - Francine Prose. Literary fiction about a writer in the post-WW2 era. Great writing. Recommended.

Slouching Towards BethlehemJoan Didion. Didion's classic collection of essays about California and America in the 60s. It's Joan Didion. That makes you say YES! or NO!

No One Left To Come Looking For You - Sam Lipsyte. A noir-ish mystery set in New York's underground music scene in the 90s. Kinda funny, scarily accurate. Breezy. Recommended. I have read a few of Lipsyte's other books (The Ask, Hark) which I also liked.

The Terraformers - Annalee Newitz. Science fiction about some terraformers. Not recommended.

The Shards - Bret Easton Ellis. Literary fiction-alized account of Ellis' eventful senior year of high school in the early 80s. Shades of Stephen King. If you have never read any of his other books, this is a good place to start, as it effectively covers all the things he does. If you don't like his work, this will not change your mind about him. I am close to his age, and I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for my own lost youth.

Liberation Day - George Saunders. A collection of sci-fi-ish short stories, many of which ran in The New Yorker. If you read The New Yorker, you know this means they are likely depressing, heavy, powerful. Also great writing. Recommended, but it may bum you out. 

The Marvel Universe - Bruce Wagner. Literary fiction. Another of Wagner's scathing, scabrous, acidic takes on Hollywood and contemporary society. I liked it, but I also liked (or at least appreciated) several of his previous books. Definitely not for everyone. I also read Wagner's Dead Stars (2012), which covered similar territory.

The Candy House - Jennifer Egan. Literary fiction about a group of individuals in the near future. A kind of sequel to Egan's breakthrough "A Visit from the Goon Squad". Not as good as "Goon Squad". It was fine. Recommended with reservations.

A Sport and a Pastime - James Salter. Literary fiction from 1967. Full of food, sex, travel, and ennui. Evocative and beautiful. It seems like someone should have made this into a movie.

The Devil’s Playground - Craig Russell. Cinematic mystery set in Golden Age Hollywood. Fun, suspenseful. The sort of book where you want a whole series featuring the protagonist. Recommended. 

Deliver Me From Nowhere - Warren Zanes. Nonfiction about the making of Bruce Springsteen's best album, "Nebraska". A little breathless at times, but if you like the album, worth a read. 

Birnam Wood - Eleanor Catton. Literary fiction about an idealistic environmental group colliding with a billionaire in New Zealand. Starts very slow, ends abruptly. Powerful but also flawed. Recommended with reservations.

Gone to the Wolves - John Wray. Literary fiction/mystery about metalheads in 90s Florida. Recommended (if that sounds good to you).

Sure, I'll Join Your Cult! - Maria Bamford. Bamford's memoir. Funny and sad. If you like her, well worth a read (though you will know much of this already). If you are unfamiliar with her, check out her one of her specials, such as "Weakness is the brand" (Amazon) or "Old Baby" (Netflix).

The Possibilities - Yael Goldstein-Love. Science fiction. A novel about a mother whose child suddenly vanishes, and her journey and discoveries about herself and the world. 

Comedy Sex God - Pete Holmes. Another memoir by another stand-up comedian. Holmes has a somewhat goofy stage persona, but reveals himself to be a deeply spiritual person who has been seeking enlightenment and understanding for much of his life. Like many personal spiritual journey stories, it is by turns inspiring, profound, silly, and sometimes cloying or unrelatable. But his writing made me think about my own life and has led me to revisit some of his favorites, notably the work of Joseph Campbell.

There Is No Antimemetics Division - qntm. Science fiction/horror, set in the SCP Foundation universe. Imaginative and strange. I have been reading some of the SCP stuff for years, and this was an excellent take on some of those ideas.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store - James McBride. An evocative landscape painting of a novel, like looking at one of those big works by Pieter Bruegel The Elder, where you see all these characters in a town with their own stories, lightly connected. Sets a mood and captures a moment rather than focusing on a main character and a story.

Lone Women - Victor LaValle. Historical fiction, set largely in early 20th century Montana. I thought this book was going to be similar to McBride's novel -- an accurate but fictionalized story of personal experience. It was that, but LaValle takes some unexpected and thrilling detours. A bit cartoony at times, but surprising and inventive.

Today Will Be Different - Maria Semple. Comedic literary fiction. Semple has a perspective, style, and attitude that suggests late 20th century New York City. She writes about what people today would call "rich white people problems" with a kind of snark and mostly self-deprecation. While the book initially felt like similar works from "New York-y" authors, Semple pulls it in some interesting and surprising directions.

Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning - Tom Vanderbilt. A non-fiction book that weaves Vanderbilt's efforts and experiences learning new things (music, surfing, jewelry-making, juggling, foreign languages, chess, etc.) with some science and research into human brains and education. Breezy, easy, and a reminder that we should all be learning new things, all the time. 

The Dog of the North - Elizabeth McKenzie. Literary fiction. This book is a story of someone stuck taking care of everyone around them (including older relatives with dementia) while neglecting themselves. Some strange turns, veering close to absurdity. I found it timely, sad, and amusing.

Monica - Daniel Clowes. A graphic novel, in Clowes' distinctive style. Haunting, dark, and disturbing.